Tuesday 26 October 2010
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Mental Health (Infants)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(James Duddridge .)
On the face of it, infant mental health might appear to be a bit of a narrow topic, but I want to explain why the mental health of infants in fact makes a huge difference to the whole fate of our society. Human babies are unique in the animal kingdom in terms of the extent of their underdevelopment at birth. What other animal cannot walk until it is one year old or fend for itself until it is at least two years old? Physical underdevelopment is only a tiny part of the matter; the human brain is only partially formed when a baby is born. The billions of neurones in the brain are largely undifferentiated at birth and parts of the brain are simply not there. A human baby’s earliest experiences will literally hard-wire their brain and have a lifelong impact on their mental and emotional health.
I want to set the scene by giving a couple of fictitious examples that are common in 21st-century Britain. I shall then explain how those situations might affect the babies concerned. First, let us consider the case of a fictitious 15-year-old called Sarah who lives with her mum, stepfather and three half-brothers in social housing. Her stepfather abuses her and she has told her mum, but she does not believe her or does not want to believe her. Sarah feels unloved and unsupported and, when she is 15, she meets a boy at school and gets pregnant. She applies for a council house as a single mum and gets it—so far, so good. Sarah is really looking forward to the birth of her son because, at last, she will have somebody to love her. The trouble is, when Jack is born, he does not seem to love her at all. He just screams, messes his nappy and eats. After a few weeks of doing her best, Sarah cannot stand it any longer. She leaves Jack screaming in his cot and goes out for the evening. She gets back late and rather drunk, and Jack is still screaming in his cot. Sarah loses her temper, kicks his cot and screams at him to shut up and leave her alone. We can imagine how things carry on for Sarah and Jack. She is an unloved child herself and Jack pays the price.
Let us consider another fictitious story that is just as common. Liz and John are successful lawyers in their 30s who are well off and enjoying life. They leave it quite late to have a baby and end up using in vitro fertilisation to help them conceive. Luckily, Liz becomes pregnant quite quickly with twins, but the joy stops there. She feels sidelined in her career and resentful of her husband because he is fine and she is not. The babies are born prematurely and are whisked off to incubators for several weeks. When Liz finally takes the babies home, it takes a long time for her to realise that they are truly hers. She is one of the three in 10 women who suffer post-natal depression. She looks after the twins as best she can, but more than a year passes before she can truly say that she loves them.
I am sure that most of us in this room have heard of such cases. Stories of poor bonding or, to use the more technical term, insecure attachment are all too common in the western world. However, what is not so well understood is the impact on the baby’s brain development of a key carer—usually the mum—being unable to meet the baby’s needs. So what is meant by the term “having your needs met”? When a baby cries, they do not know that they are too hot, too cold, bored, tired or hungry. All they know is that something is wrong. So they cry and rely on an adult carer to soothe their feelings. Many of us will remember long nights spent walking up and down the landing, joggling a baby and saying, “Go to sleep, go to sleep.” That is what loving adults do for their babies.
This is not about giving parents a guilt trip. We all feel guilty at times about the things we wished we had done, the times we shouted at our babies or the times we left them to cry because we could not take any more and so on. This is about being a good enough parent. That does not always mean being there the instant the baby cries every single time, but being there enough for the baby to realise that generally the world is a good place and that generally adults are kind. The baby who learns about the world as a good place will retain that sense almost as an instinct for life. The baby’s brain will be hard-wired to expect a certain reaction from other human beings and that baby’s mental health will be secure throughout the child’s life. Such an individual will be more robust than a baby whose needs are not met. However, for the small but significant minority of babies who are neglected or abused, there are two critical impacts on the development of the brain.
A baby cannot regulate their own feelings at all. If their needs are not met, they will simply scream louder and louder. If nobody comes, eventually they will take refuge in sleep. So the first impact is that a baby left continually to scream will experience raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Excessive amounts of cortisol can do permanent damage to the baby’s immune system. Evidence suggests that a baby left to scream throughout babyhood will have a higher tolerance to their own stress, and that violent criminals have a very high tolerance to their own stress levels, which they developed back in babyhood. Inevitably, if someone has a high tolerance to stress, they need to indulge in high risk-taking behaviour even to feel the same level of excitement that we might get from an exciting hand of bridge. There are real issues surrounding leaving babies to scream incessantly.
The second and most amazing impact on the baby who is neglected or abused concerns the social part of the brain—the frontal cortex—which starts to develop only at around six months. The peak period for development of that part of the brain is at six to 18 months old. Growth is stimulated by the relationship between the baby and the carer, for example, through things such as peekaboo games, hugging, looking into each other’s eyes and saying, “I love you. You’re gorgeous.” Such activities between a loving parent and a baby all play a very strong role in the development of the social, empathetic part of a baby’s brain.
If a baby does not receive any attention—I am sure we all remember the Romanian orphans who were left in cots to hug themselves, and did not speak to anyone or have any emotional or physical contact whatsoever—that social part of the brain may never grow. There can actually be a long-term brain damage impact on the baby, the child and later the adult. That has profound implications for society. A human being without a properly developed social brain finds it extremely difficult to empathise with other human beings. In particular, if a baby has what is known as disorganised attachment—where one or both parents are frightening or chaotic—they cannot form a secure bond precisely because the person who is so frightening and chaotic is also the person whom the baby should be turning to for comfort. The baby’s brain is confused and they experience disorganised attachment, which leads to very significant problems for that baby.
If we look into the babyhood of children who brutalise other children, of violent criminals or of paedophiles, we can often see plenty of evidence that sociopaths are not born; rather they are made by their earliest experiences when they are less than two years old. Evidence shows that more than 80% of long-term prison inmates have attachment problems that stem from babyhood. It is believed that up to two thirds of future chronic criminals can be predicted by behaviour seen at the age of two. A study conducted in New Zealand showed that a child who exhibits substantial antisocial behaviour when they are aged seven has a twenty-twofold increased chance of criminality by the age of 26.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She makes a very important point about the correlation between people in prison and the problems she has outlined. Is she also aware that a very large number—I think it is some 75%—of our young inmates have some form of speech, language or communication difficulty that, no doubt, at least partly results from the circumstances of their upbringing and the early years that she is talking about?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, with which I completely agree. There is no doubt that all sorts of developmental issues are affected by the earliest relationship, including communication. Why does poor attachment arise? Often, it is the result of parents’ unhappy lives. A mother who was not attached as a baby to her own mother will often struggle to form a secure bond with her baby, as might a woman who suffers from post-natal depression.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Given the examples that she has cited, which clearly are drawn from all sorts of backgrounds, be they deprived or affluent, as in the case she mentioned of post-natal depression, does she agree that keeping the universal service within Sure Start is vital?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come on to my thoughts on Sure Start later, but I believe that public funds need to be focused on the small but significant minority of families whose lives are chaotic and where the outcomes for the children without support can be truly disastrous, not only for them and their families, but for the whole of society.
A woman who suffers from post-natal depression might struggle to form a bond with her baby, as can parents with drug, domestic abuse or unemployment problems. Poor attachment is no respecter of class or wealth and crosses all boundaries. Sadly, the cycle of misery is often passed down through generations, as a woman who did not bond with her mother when a baby can then fail to bond with her own baby.
I stress again that this is not about making parents stay at home or carry their babies around 24/7. Attachment means building a bond with a baby so that they instinctively learn how to be part of a caring relationship. Where both parents work, or where there is a single parent or adoptive parents, attachment can be very secure. The point is that the less caring attention a baby receives from a familiar adult, the greater the risk of insecure attachment. A caring nursery worker could become an attachment figure for a baby, as could a nanny, a child minder and, of course, members of extended families. Where a baby’s home life is disturbed due to divorce, death, domestic abuse, drugs or even post-natal depression, it can be a positive experience for that baby’s quality of life to be in a sensitive and caring child-care environment where a loving key worker can become an attachment figure. Where a baby’s home life is happy and there is a strong bond with the rest of the family, a caring child-care environment is not harmful and can even add to the baby’s quality of attachment.
Where a baby’s home life is disturbed, however, putting it into an insensitive child-care environment can be a disaster. It is common sense that a baby can take only so much stress, change and disorder. If you pile up that stress and disorder, the baby will instinctively resort to the basic strategies of fight or flight, which all animals have, including humans. That translates, in baby terms, into either very passive behaviour, or aggressive crying.
A nursery might measure the contentedness of its baby room by how little crying there is, but ironically, a baby that has given up on having her needs met will sometimes withdraw, not making a sound and appearing very passive. Far from being a good sign, passivity can be an indicator of a future life that is inclined towards depression, a victim mentality or even self-harm. On the other hand, a baby who cries noisily and often could just be a fighter who has instinctively learnt that getting attention requires a huge amount of noise and aggression. Violent criminals have been shown to have a high tolerance to their own stress hormones, which means that they resort to high risk-taking behaviour in order to experience what are, to most of us, only normal levels of stress. Those two examples merely show that one cannot easily judge how contented and secure a baby is by the amount of crying they do. In fact, the quality of attachment experienced by a baby is hard to measure, even for an experienced professional.
Shockingly, research shows that 40% of children in Britain are not securely attached by the age of one. Of course, that does not mean that they will all go on to have behavioural or relationship problems, because other life events will also play a key part, but it does mean that they will be less robust in their emotional make-up to meet the challenges and disappointments of life. They may also struggle as parents later in life to form strong attachments to their own babies, thus perpetuating the cycle of misery through generations.
I draw some conclusions from that. Poor attachment may well lie behind the UNICEF report that shows that British children are the unhappiest of those in the 21 countries in the developed world. Poor attachment might also account for our high teenage pregnancy rate, as mums who are themselves children are looking for love, and for our high divorce rate, with many adults being unable to form long-lasting relationships. Some of the statistics issued by the Office for National Statistics over the past decade show that almost 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression and that 95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder. All those facts point to the devastating consequences of poor early relationships.
Human misery is only one feature of insecure early attachment; there is also the vast financial impact on the public purse of dealing with its consequences. The charity, Railway Children, estimates that up to 100,000 children are at risk on the streets in the UK every year. Each looked-after child costs the taxpayer £347 a day, or £126,000 a year. Each adult prison inmate costs the taxpayer £112 a day, or £40,000 a year. Each person in acute psychiatric in-patient care costs the taxpayer £225 a day, or £82,000 a year. No assessment is available for how much of that expense is the direct consequence of poor attachment, but in the terrible case of baby Peter, I remember asking myself what mother could allow her boyfriend literally to torture her baby, unless she simply had no bond with him? What would have become of him had he lived to grow up with his appalling babyhood experiences?
Therefore, what can we do to promote better infant mental health? The astonishing thing is that if we tackle insecure attachment early enough, ideally before the baby is one, it can be turned around quickly, to the huge benefit of baby and carer, and to the public purse. I was chairman for nine years, and remain a trustee, of the Oxford Parent Infant Project, which is an Oxfordshire-wide charity providing specialist psychotherapeutic support for families struggling to bond with their babies. OXPIP has worked successfully with Oxfordshire social services, health visitors and GPs for 12 years. Highly trained parent-infant psychotherapists work with a carer, usually the mum, but sometimes the dad, grandparents or foster parents, to improve the quality of their relationship with the baby. It sounds incredibly simple, but it has dramatic consequences for the baby’s lifelong mental health
The average cost of OXPIP-style intervention is £75 a week for each family, and in many cases 10 visits are enough to make a significant improvement in the quality of attachment and to set the family on a positive path. In other cases, families receive support for up to a year or more, at a cost of around £4,000. In a small number of cases, OXPIP provides expert evidence to the family courts when a baby is deemed to be at risk. OXPIP receives self-referrals from desperate parents and also sees clients referred by health visitors, GPs and social services. There is no doubt that it saves lives, and a fortune. The cost of helping a family for a year in that way is around £4,000, whereas keeping a child in care for a year costs £126,000.
I will finish with a specific call to action for the Government. I know that so much good work is being done already through the Centre for Social Justice and the review that the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) is carrying out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. I pay tribute in particular to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and the hon. Member for Nottingham North for their commitment to helping children have a better future. There is plenty more than can be done, costing little to the public purse but giving huge benefit to human happiness and the health of our society.
First, I would like the Government to reconsider the 15 hours of educational help for each disadvantaged two-year-old. Instead of money being spent on preparing the toddler for school, it should go to supporting the parent-baby relationship before the baby’s first birthday if the home life is chaotic or frightening. Helping parents to support their baby is the best route to helping the most disadvantaged children in our society.
Secondly, I applaud the Government’s decision to provide 4,200 new health visitors. They do such valuable work for families, but they receive little training in the critical importance of secure early attachment. I urge the Government to require every health visitor and social worker to be trained to understand and spot families at risk. OXPIP provides such training, and it is highly valued by the recipients.
Thirdly, there needs to be an opportunity for onward referral to specialists in parent-infant psychotherapy when a health visitor identifies a real need. I recognise that the budget to do this kind of work is not available right now, but I urge the Government to consider a pilot scheme, perhaps as a result of the review that the hon. Member for Nottingham North is doing, and proactively to seek the evidence that would prove the value of early years intervention.
I am hoping to establish a pilot parent-infant service in my constituency of South Northamptonshire, and I am confident that other pilots could be established and evaluated in children’s centres around the country at a low price to the public purse. In fact, the director of children’s services in Northamptonshire told me that, in a previous role, he was able to balance his children’s services budget by focusing on early prevention. He was able to save on the budget for looked-after children and bring the cost of the entire service down by prevention. The impact on the public purse as well as on the human happiness of children is key.
Fourthly, where a baby spends more than a few hours a day in a child care environment, there should be protocols in the nursery that ensure that the attachment needs of the baby are addressed. They could include a far greater focus on the key worker relationship, so that one adult carer does all the intimate activities with the baby such as nappy changing, feeding, and morning and evening handover to the parents. There are plenty of opportunities to maximise the sensitivity of the child care environment to support the attachment needs of the baby.
Some nurseries and many child minders and nannies make the baby’s emotional well-being a high priority. Some of them recognise the importance of what they do; for others, it is instinctive. One research establishment—again, in my county of Northamptonshire, the Penn Green nursery in Corby—is specifically researching the impact on the very young of life in a sensitive nursery. Such research could be used to develop protocols for all nurseries.
Fifthly, training in early attachment for child care workers is critical. The turnover of staff in nurseries is high, and often the staff are young and inexperienced. All those factors contribute to a greater risk of insensitive care in child care settings.
Sixthly, in the small percentage of cases where the family’s life is chaotic, frightening and violent, and there are child abuse concerns, adoption should be swift, ideally before the baby’s first birthday. I urge the Government to look again at the adoption legislation with a view to putting a greater focus on the attachment needs of the baby. Foster adopter arrangements, where foster parents may adopt the baby if things do not work out with the birth parents, offer much less risk to the baby in cases of doubt. The baby is able to form a bond with the foster parents, who may become the adoptive parents, and the birth parents until such time as a decision is taken in the baby’s best interests. Research shows that the approach has been successful for the baby because the adults bear the risks rather than the baby.
By coincidence, the first time I spoke in the Palace of Westminster about infant mental health was in 2002, on the day that the Victoria Climbié report was issued. Today, almost nine years later, I am speaking on the day that a baby Peter report is coming out. Please, do not let it take another nine years for some real action to prevent the next appalling tragedy. Prevention is not just kinder: in these times of austerity, it is also much cheaper than cure.
I wish to make a brief contribution to this debate. We are all the product of many complex factors, and therefore we always have to keep an eye on the whole situation. Having said that, I have had a long-term interest in attachment theory. This shows my age: I still have the original John Bowlby book, which was part of my set reading, on my bookshelf. It became a little unpopular because the women’s libbers of the 1970s were not too keen on the emphasis on mother staying at home, but it is interesting that attachment theory has come to the fore again. We see it in a much wider context, and we understand the point about primary and also secondary attachments. I would like to make a few points to the Minister.
Parts of what we are saying are so obvious when one starts playing with a baby, as the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) said. The Worldwide Alternatives to Violence Trust showed me a presentation of an adult ignoring a baby—it almost seemed cruel—and one saw how the baby switched off entirely, and how totally different the situation was when someone engaged with the baby. However unscientific that might seem, all my instincts say that we really must take that on board.
From that follows the importance of early intervention. I applaud the coalition Government for setting up the review. There has been a great deal of work showing right across the board that if we invest huge sums of money in early intervention, we will save in the long run, but the decision was a brave one. It is important to have a formalised review and to plan how we go about early intervention.
I would like to focus on the whole-family approach because, as I said earlier, there are always so many complex factors that affect the life of a child. One might focus on parent or carer relationships with the child, but adult social services issues need to be addressed at the same time. A concern that I have expressed many times in speeches is that if we put the focus on children by splitting children’s services away from adult social services, in some authorities—this is not the case in all authorities by any means—the whole-family approach can be lost. It is vital that we have back-up services to deal with the parent-child situation. Indeed, there could be information from adult social services, such as information that there was an addiction of some kind among the adults. There is a lot of wraparound there.
The figure of 40% of children not being securely attached is striking and makes one think. I have heard of the excellent work carried out by OXPIP, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on that.
I wish to touch on situations where we have not picked up on problems—we have many of them to deal with at present—and on fostering and adoption. Throughout the many Committees on children’s legislation that I have served on, I have been concerned that not enough attention has been given to delivering mental health services. In the last Children and Young Persons Bill, which dealt with looked-after children, I failed to get an amendment accepted on Report. We achieved a requirement for a mental health assessment of children who were to be fostered—that was important—but I could not get an amendment accepted that would have ensured that the necessary health care would follow. I was told that it was an education Bill, and we were talking about health money.
How can we bring all the services together for the child and the family? When we are picking up the pieces later on in life—at the point of fostering, when psychotherapy might be vital—how will we get funding if we are approaching the matter from within children’s services? How will that all come together? In a recent case, problems began to escalate at school when the child of dedicated adoptive parents got to about 12. He felt totally bereft of support. It is interesting that any damage that happened early on may not manifest itself in an unmanageable way until quite a long way into the child’s life. We need to be aware of that. Although we have moved on tremendously—I am proud to have played a part in the previous Government’s legislation to tackle the situation of looked-after children—parents with adopted children need a lot of support. Legislation says that they should have immediate support, but they might need it quite a bit further down the line.
Looking at Sue Gerhardt’s work, the one hopeful thing is that damage can be undone. It is obviously easier to tackle it early on, but with a lot of work, we can make things better for the children and young people who deserve our support so greatly.
All hon. Members will be concerned about the amount of resources in children’s and adults’ mental health services. I should be grateful if the Minister could assure us that these vital services will be protected. We could stray into all sorts of areas in which children need support from their local child and adolescent mental health services; children with autism, for example, face long waiting lists. Parents of children with autism often say that they are talking to somebody in CAMHS who does not understand their needs fully. We need to give better support generally, across the board, and in particular, we need to do our utmost to improve CAMHS.
It is a privilege to talk in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It is a tribute to your unswerving party loyalty over the years that you have got to your position.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on starting an important and significant debate. I think we would all agree that the human infant, as she has analysed, has definite needs that go beyond the basic biological necessities of food, water and shelter. The human infant requires emotional support and, as the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) have argued, an element of attachment—a mother or mother substitute—in the early stages to bond or imprint with. This is essential for wholesome psychological development.
The evidence for a child’s emotional needs is strong. I am aware of an experiment conducted with primates, in which a young rhesus monkey was separated from its mother but given two alternative “wire” mothers—wire constructions. One was surrounded with soft cloth and the other had milk attached to it. The monkey’s behaviour was interesting. It went to one mother for feeding, but after being fed it needed some comfort and went to the other mother and cuddled up close against it, requiring some tactile contact that was not strictly necessary in terms of its biological survival, but clearly deeply emotionally necessary. Some horrific but illuminating experiments have been done in this field. One recalls the behavioural psychologist, Watson, who endeavoured to bring up his child without any tactile direct contact but provided him with all the necessary immediate needs.
It is obvious that we have a raft of emotional needs over and above our ordinary biological needs. The lack of such contact—and the evidence about this lack—is always fairly apparent, showing itself in infants in rocking behaviour, attention-seeking, unresponsiveness and slow development. We also believe that we have discovered, in addition to these obvious symptoms of emotional deprivation and abuse, other effects that we would not have picked up without the benefit of modern science. For example, it has been argued that hormonal effects lead in turn to neurological effects, some of which are long term. Heightened aggression, for example, is suggested to be an outcome of poor attachment, and other social handicaps may ensue. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire mentioned that psychopathy can be a consequence of severe lack of attachment.
The exact causal link between all these factors is not as clear as we would like to believe. In particular, ways of treating infants and neurological and behavioural outcomes are matters for debate. The evidence is complex and can be oversimplified; it has been contested in some areas and can be interpreted speculatively. We do not know enough about the effects of cortisol to be totally sure in this respect. We do not want to go down the Watson behavioural route to sort this matter out, conducting horrible, elaborate experiments on infants to find out what bottom-line evidence we ought to rely on.
We must recognise that the emotional deprivation and abuse endured by people in infancy is also overlaid in time by subsequent social and cultural differences. That slightly clouds the picture as well, and makes it rather more difficult to establish the clear causal links that the hon. Lady implied existed. If people believe in free will, there is an element of individual mediation at the end of the day. Despite all this, it is not difficult to spot when a child is turning out underdeveloped, unhappy and antisocial. Even if we disagree, according to our different values, about what constitutes a truly well-adjusted child, we certainly know when we have a severely maladjusted child on our hands. It is impossible to dismiss the role of first experiences in constructing those outcomes—that has been established for some time.
It is easier to identify failure than absolute success. After all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole suggested, none of us does a perfect job of bringing up our children. All children—all of us—are brought up by amateurs. People do not get a set of children to practise on first until they get good at it. One recalls a quote from Philip Larkin, which I will not use here because it contains unparliamentary language, about the effects of parents on one’s general well-being. But it is still true that some people mismanage the process far more than others, even if none of us succeeds in getting it totally right. I recall Jack Dee’s remark, questioning the point of having children, because they only grow up to be teenagers and slag you off at parties. There is an element of truth in that.
There is a social policy issue concerning how we reduce incompetence, especially the worst sorts of incompetence that lead to the catastrophic effects that the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire mentioned. It is important that we find out what the state can do to encourage success, given that most parents appreciate some guidance, having never done the job before, and crucial that we find out what the state needs to do to avoid catastrophic failure—as in the case of baby P and other cases we could specify—or general failure, if that is what is happening.
The hon. Lady suggested that there is a general failure in society and quoted UNICEF statistics. She suggested that, collectively as a society—as a social group—we have something to learn. In a sense, that is what the debate on child care in the first two or three years in life has been about. There has been strenuous and long-standing debate about the conflict between the role of the mother as breadwinner and home-maker; about whether the social gains of early interaction in a nursery or child care environment are offset by emotional security; about whether encouragement to return to work is encouragement to short-change one’s child; and about whether the high percentage of nursery and child-minded children in our society correlate in an interesting way with levels of general child happiness. I will pass over that debate and leave it to hon. Members around me who are more expert than me, but I want to make two observations.
It is hard to generalise in this matter. I have two grandchildren. One took to everyone in the family very early and is very social, at home with other children, confident and assured, and I had a close relationship with the child from an early age. The other granddaughter has only just convinced herself that I am not an ogre. For the first few months of her life, she clung to her mother in a way that the first child did not. Not all children are the same, and not all homes are the same, so the consequences of keeping children at home with mum differ depending on whether the mother is middle-class and has lots of books and blocks and things, or is a heroin addict.
I do not want to embroil myself in a matter in which I have no expertise—whether the recommended techniques for dealing with babies in the early stages are correct. I do not want to get into the routine versus emotional spontaneity debate, about which there is plenty of literature that is scoured by many young mums as they take their first steps. However, the fame of experts in that field is usually in direct proportion to their tendency to challenge common sense. Books do not sell if they suggest something that is part of motherhood and apple pie, and has been well understood for years.
My fundamental point is that parenting is an art, albeit a rough art, that in some homes goes disastrously and persistently wrong. I had a chilling experience recently on a train. A young child of perhaps three or younger was being controlled by what seemed to be her grandmother. The child responded by producing expletives, which would have been a disgrace even in a football ground. The grandmother responded by saying things such as, “Please stop that because the man doesn’t like it.” The child showed the classic symptoms of one who has been brought up in the wrong environment with the wrong cues and has been given the wrong sort of discipline. It struck me as a disastrous way of carrying on.
When one witnesses such incidents, which are repeated in many places, and recognises the terrible consequences for the individual and their emotional stability, and the huge collateral damage for society, one starts seriously to think about what society can do to support parenting in general and to support such parents who, for whatever reason—it may not be their fault—are not making a good fist of it. Should good parenting be taught in children’s centres? I certainly believe so. Do we need more health visitors? I certainly believe that we do. Do we need to build the skills of often damaged people? I certainly believe that we do.
One hugely overlooked dimension is that we simply do not do enough in schools to inculcate good parenting, or do what we can to get across to young people who are coming up to being parents how parenting sometimes works and sometimes does not.
My hon. Friend is making some important points. Does he share my vision that it should be considered normal to have parenting classes, and not a reflection on someone’s inability to do something? If someone has a perpetual headache, they go to their doctor, and if they have a perpetual difficulty with a baby or toddler, it should be the norm for them to seek assistance. My ideal is to reach the cultural perspective that seeking help is the thing to do. We would then be able to move forward.
Yes, that is an important and valuable suggestion. I am trying to say that we should take pre-emptive action to encourage people to think about parenting and what goes wrong at a time when parents are thinking about all the other important issues of life. There is a lot of good practice on such subjects in personal, social and health education in schools, but the people who are pointed in that direction and encouraged to treat that area of the curriculum seriously tend to be not the most academically high-flying, and tend to be female. There tends to be an exemption for people who have better things to do, but there can be few better things to do than to teach generations to come how better to bring up their children. That can only add value to society as a whole, and happiness to people’s life.
One may waffle on about academies and put money into the pupil premium, but the biggest indicator and determinant of success in the education system and therefore in life is a strong, supportive home in which good parenting is attempted. We are inclined to pay lip service to that and do not spend sufficient time on it. We tend to spend more time thinking about other things such the bias with which history is taught.
On the importance of a supportive family for education outcomes, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lot of talk about intervening at all levels and all ages, but a supportive family either develops very early or not at all? That is why I focus on the under-twos. That is the point when lifelong good relationships can be set up between family and baby. It is much more difficult to put things right with later intervention.
I thoroughly agree, and that bears out the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole about the family approach. The arrival of children often puts a strain on relationships and finances, and creates a series of difficulties for couples, which may have severe ramifications. I have attended Home Start events in my constituency at which mothers testified to the initial difficulties and isolation when they became mothers, and the support that they needed. In the past, that might have been provided in the neighbourhood or by an extended family, but is no longer there for many people, who need to be able to plug into facilities and groups—charitable, voluntary, social enterprise and so on—for help with their difficult job. Society must ensure that that help exists because we all recognise the importance of parenting.
One reason for the restraint in our support for teaching parenting is the liberal angst about being too prescriptive in our society, but we must get over that. We must prioritise parenting and invest in it. We must insist on its being taught in schools, and we must assess secondary schools on how well they do that, not only with girls but with boys. Every child in every school is likely to become a parent at some time. Some will do that well and some will do it badly, but unfortunately some will begin without the faintest inkling of what to do and without the experience of a good example, or even the awareness that getting it right matters.
None of us can ultimately escape the inevitable guilt that parents feel about not having been a better parent, but we must not let people go out into the world without knowing what they should do or, worse, not caring whether they do it well or badly. The fundamental point made by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire was that early years and early months are crucial determinants of someone’s fundamental personality. Freud also made that point, and even said that how someone is born matters. I must declare an interest. I was born easily and during a good summer, and I was a contented baby, which is probably why I became a Liberal Democrat.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on the great passion, and knowledge of the subject, that she has shown us all today, and on securing this debate. I pass on my best wishes to OXPIP—the Oxford Parent Infant Project—for its good work. I hope that it will continue to go from strength to strength. I am today also speaking as a mother of three, and as the former chair of the all-party group on maternity. I have listened with great interest to the debate and to the thoughtful contributions from the hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), and for Southport (Dr Pugh). At times, I thought that I must have strayed into the House of Lords, given the level of expertise that we have heard.
I do not agree with some of the points raised. I do not agree that all parents are amateurs; I believe that the vast majority of parents are experts, but only in their own children. Of course, there are some catastrophic failures, but I believe nevertheless that it is important for parents to develop confidence in their ability to look after their child. I remember beginning parenting with an understanding that I needed to love the child, but with little further understanding. I still remember holding a copy of a book by Penelope Leach in one hand, the baby in the other hand, and looking up how to hold the baby. One struggles on, and that did not make me any less of a mother. I learned quickly on the job and was committed to it. I quickly became an expert, to such an extent that I remember showing off to my mother because my baby did not have a bald patch on the back of his head. My mother pointed out that that was because I had never put him down. Perhaps that was my own version of the application of the attachment theory.
The importance of the attachment between parents—or an adult—and a child in the first two years of life has been greatly highlighted by child psychotherapists. Those years are when the prefrontal cortex develops, which brings awareness of our emotions and those of the people around us. The infant mind is not born, but builds like a muscle over the first two years in response to parental attention and attachment. That theory has been around for some time. Attachment is considered to be a bond that develops from a child’s need for safety, security and protection. Positive attachment experiences stimulate feel-good chemicals and help build pathways in the brain that support the development of higher-level functioning and help with things such as attention, memory and impulse control. Missing attachment can give a sense of insecurity, suppress neural development and stimulate stress hormones in the brain. The weight of research has been brought to the attention of policy makers and the public by people such as Sue Gerhardt, who founded OXPIP, and who has built consensus for the view that we must focus on intervening earlier than we had thought.
The importance of early intervention was recognised by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in its report, “Early intervention: Securing good outcomes for all children and young people”, which made a strong case for expanding early intervention policies. According to the Prime Minister, the new Government will be the most family-friendly ever, so perhaps expectations are high that increased support will be available to new parents. Unfortunately, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, families with children seem to be the biggest losers in the comprehensive spending review.
The fierce debate about the long-term detrimental effects, or not, of day care has been fuelled by superficial and irresponsible reporting in the media. The question is whether the day care is good day care. What plans do the Government have to ensure that day care remains of a high quality, so that those parents who choose to put their child into day care do so in a way that benefits the child and assists in their development?
As highlighted today, maternal depression is an important issue. Under the previous Government, there was the introduction and great expansion of psychological therapies. Do the Government have any plans to target new mothers who have post-natal depression? There is also the problem of parents and substance misuse.
Another policy issue that has been raised is that of health visitors. I welcome the Government’s announcement that the number of health visitors will increase by 4,200. They will give support and encouragement to new parents, which, from my own memories, is invaluable. When will those new health visitors be in place? Will they receive specific training in mental health, and if so, what sort of training? Where will the funding come from? I understand that it is likely to come from Sure Start, and although the Government have said that Sure Start is safe in cash terms, if a large amount of money is taken out to pay for health visitors, how much will Sure Start be short?
Sure Start has an important role in bringing together cross-disciplinary services and providing an atmosphere of trust. In areas such as my constituency of Islington, Sure Start services are interesting because we have the very rich living next door to the very poor. If the Government’s new policy is to target Sure Start services on the poor, the concern is that there could be some form of stigma attached to getting involved in Sure Start.
Alison Ruddock, the head of Islington’s early years programme, fears that Government plans could set such services back 20 years in a borough such as mine, which ranks as the sixth most deprived in the country, despite there also being great wealth in it. She says:
“The fact that we have a mixed population is hugely to our advantage…We haven’t got rich centres and sink centres. So the most disadvantaged children are shoulder to shoulder with the most advantaged. If you have a service for poor children, it’s very difficult to prevent that from becoming a poor service.”
If one says to a parent, “There’s a stay-and-play centre on your estate; it’s really fun, why don’t you come?”, they will often say yes. However, if one says, “Let’s sit down and fill in a massive form, and you can tell me all your problems,” the parent is likely to say no. The problem will be the effectiveness of Sure Start, which over the past few years, as far as we are aware, has given huge support to parents.
Action for Children estimates that for every £1 of public money spent on Sure Start, we save £4.60 in the long term. Ofsted only began inspecting Sure Start in April, and it may be too early to judge matters technically. However, in our heart of hearts we know that Sure Start has been a good policy lever. If it is to be changed, we must be confident that it will not be undermined. I understand that there will be early intervention grants. Can the Minister provide any further details about those? I am sure that she has heard concerns from councils that that might not be enough, and that early intervention projects might close, as opposed to expanding.
I would also like to highlight the issue of GPs. Although health visitors are important for new mothers, GPs are important, too. However, up to half of GPs have no formal training in paediatrics and child care, despite a quarter of their patients being children. In many terrible tragedies, some of which have been mentioned today, we see an involvement of GPs that has simply not been up to the mark. I echo the question from the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole about whether the Minister can provide an assurance that funding for child and adolescent mental health services will not be cut. If the Government go ahead with the proposed abolition of primary care trusts, will they have the policy handles to ensure that such vital services are not cut?
I conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire on raising this issue. The quality of the debate this morning has been high, and it is a great shame that there are not more people in the Chamber to contribute to it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, which I have not done before. I start by echoing the comments by the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry): it is a shame that more people do not listen to some of these debates. This debate has been of a high quality and is particularly poignant in that the serious case review on baby Peter is published today. Perhaps somewhere out there a member of the press will pick up on it, and realise that hon. Members across the House from all political parties are working together, to a large extent outside party political lines, to ensure that we get this issue right for families.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate on a subject that is almost fundamental to everything else that we do. I am aware that she has maintained an active interest in infant mental health for a number of years as the former chairman and trustee of the Oxford Parent Infant Project. Its work was rightly recognised earlier this year when it was one of five winners of a national award from the Centre for Social Justice. I congratulate it on that; it is good to see its invaluable work recognised in that way.
My hon. Friend described with some clarity the significant impact of early parenting, the huge challenges that exist for some families, and the problems that ensue from poor parenting that falls short of the therapeutic, loving and securing attachment that children so desperately need. She mentioned the UNICEF report that cited us as the lowest of 25 industrialised countries. It is shocking that we are at the bottom of that table for the well-being and mental health of our children. She highlighted the fact that there is not one best route to get this right. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr Pugh) also talked about it. A huge variety of support is needed if we are not to lose people in the gaps. It is vital that we approach the matter from a multifaceted direction.
Early years intervention is being actively examined by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). We are working closely together. I have been hugely impressed by the work that we have achieved to date and the work that is ongoing. There is no doubt that we will not achieve what we want if we come at the issue from different silos of Government Departments. My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire is right to cite the growing evidence for what interventions work and to refer to fostering, looked-after children, adoption and a number of other issues on which I can assure her that I am working and will continue to work with other Departments.
There is increasing evidence about the importance of early life and warm parenting. An infant’s early experiences have a long-lasting impact on their future health, relationships and happiness. There are also important intergenerational effects. Warm, positive parenting and a strong bond between a mother and baby, as well as the father, lay the foundation for health and happiness throughout life.
I am a mother of four children, aged from 26 to 14. I feel like getting out my 26-year-old from a cupboard and saying, “This is one I prepared earlier,” to demonstrate to those who are struggling through the teenage years with their children that it does all turn out right in the end. However, parenting, from whatever background we come, is a challenge. I found it challenging. Even though we might not be in quite the situation that other parents are—we might be better resourced; we might have more money and be in better housing—all of us, in our lives as parents, have had a taste of the tensions and stresses that people feel, and can only imagine what things might be like if we did not have adequate housing and were living with three children in a one-bedroom flat.
The Government are determined to ensure that all families have the right support at the start of life. Health visitors are central to that by providing advice and support through pregnancy, after birth and through the pre-school years, supporting healthy child development and promoting parent-child attachment and positive parenting models. It was a pleasure for me to talk at the health visitors conference last week and re-emphasise our support for health visitors. We want more people in the profession and more people back in the profession to ensure that we have that universal visiting service. That is why, as my hon. Friend will be aware and as hon. Members mentioned, we are investing in 4,200 new health visitors by the end of this Parliament. That is an ambitious target, but we will do everything, pull out all the stops, to ensure that we achieve it. In last week’s spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed that the money is there to recruit and train those health visitors.
We also have the healthy child programme to provide the opportunity for health professionals to identify where additional parenting support is needed. Leading and delivering the healthy child programme, health visitors are well placed to identify those families, give them extra support and help them to access more specialised services. We have seen quite a significant decline in the number of health visitors, from just over 13,000 in 2004 to just over 10,000 in 2010, at a time when the birth rate is increasing, and we need to turn that round. The message must go out loud and clear to health visitors: “We want you, we need you and parents and the future generation need you.”
The chief nursing officer is working with the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association to define what makes a modern health visitor. The hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Islington South and Finsbury mentioned training and whether there is adequate training on things such as mental health issues. It is extremely important that we get that right. The service model that has been built makes clear the value of health visitors and the contribution that they make to better family and community health. Next year we shall move on to a national recruitment drive for health visitors, and we are working on better training options for returners and new recruits, so that a bit more flexibility can be built in to attract people into the profession.
I want to say a few words about family-nurse partnerships for the more vulnerable. The family-nurse partnership is a preventive, intensive programme for first-time teenage parents and their babies, whose outcomes are not good and fall well below those for other parents. Specially trained nurses work with girls from early in pregnancy until their children are two, giving them support to help them to adopt healthier lifestyles, provide good care for their babies and plan their future life goals. Following the spending review, we shall be extending the family-nurse partnership programme, so alongside the support that health visitors will offer for all families, there will be increased access to the highly targeted, highly specialised support that the most vulnerable families need. We shall set out our plans for that shortly.
The outcomes from family-nurse partnerships are very significant. Over the past 30 years, the evidence in the US has shown that family-nurse partnership children have better health development and better educational achievement and are less likely to be abused, neglected or involved in crime. Cost savings are also substantial. Early evidence in the UK is very promising. Family-nurse partnerships successfully engage disadvantaged young parents, including fathers; 87% of those offered a family-nurse partnership take up that offer, so they are significant.
There are many examples of mental health services for infants being improved. A number of regions have set up perinatal and infant mental health networks to encourage partnership working and the sharing of good practice. Volunteers from the charity Home-Start do valuable work in increasing the confidence and independence of families by visiting families in their own homes to offer support, friendship and practical assistance and by reassuring parents that their child care problems are not unusual or unique. My goodness, I could have done with someone from Home-Start myself. We believe that we are the only person going through what can feel like a rather traumatic experience. Those volunteers also encourage parents’ strengths and emotional well-being for the ultimate benefit of their children and try to get the fun back into family life.
I declare an interest in the point that I am about to make. Along with many other voluntary groups, organisations such as Home-Start are very concerned about their funding. I am a patron of my local Home-Start, and already there has been a cut. I ask the Minister to do everything that she can to support the vital work by the voluntary sector, because, as we all know, it can get into places that the statutory services cannot.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She took the words out of my mouth: I, too, must declare an interest as a patron of my local Home-Start. The important message to councils is that when funding is tight, they should think about what works, and as is always the case with the voluntary sector, £1 of taxpayers’ money buys significantly more than £1-worth of care and services. Councils need to think imaginatively about how they spend their money and how they get good value for money. That often involves looking to organisations such as Home-Start. It can be extraordinarily short-sighted to cut back on such schemes at a time when they offer much better value for money than can be had almost anywhere else.
There is no doubt that the need for early intervention has been recognised by us all. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out in her speech the huge variety of reasons why we end up in life where we do. I, too, must admit to having been a mother of the Penelope Leach generation, holding baby in one hand and my Penelope Leach book in the other and trying to look up what exactly parents do at 4 o’clock in the morning when their child will not go to sleep. Having been a chairman of the Hackney and Islington branch of the National Childbirth Trust, I must also admit to having been influenced by the likes of Sheila Kitzinger and Susie Orbach, who added to my knowledge base. Some of Susie Orbach’s words might still haunt me now, as my daughter approaches the age of 17 and I wonder what sort of effect I have had on her.
The hon. Lady emphasised the point about the nonsense of seeing, say, the fostering of looked-after children through the eyes of one Department. Clearly, that is nonsense—we have to look at it across the board.
I can give the assurance that mental health remains a priority. The Department is working closely with stakeholders to put together a mental health strategy—a child and adolescent mental health services stakeholder event was held earlier this year—and the mental health strategy will take a life course approach. I am determined, and I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), who has responsibility in the Department, is determined that we have a mental health outcomes framework that sits alongside physical health outcomes. For too long we have concentrated on physical health, to the detriment of mental health.
The hon. Member for Southport went into some detail about the research, especially the problems with causality and, probably, the need for Governments to take account of continuing research that emerges, to see if we can better define why we are as we are. He is right that we do not do enough to talk about and inculcate parenting in school life and in the upbringing of our children. He is also right to highlight that one of the biggest determinants of educational outcomes is within the family.
In 2008, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—to whom my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire paid tribute—published “Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens”, which devoted a chapter to the importance of nought to three-year-olds and parental early intervention.
In July this year, the hon. Gentleman was asked by the Government to conduct an independent review of early intervention delivery. The review will focus on three key things: the identification of early intervention best practice, which goes back to the point about research; how we spread best practice, so we do not see the rather patchy outlook that we have at the moment; and new ways to fund early intervention in the future. What is impressive, and what we have seen again this morning, is the cross-party approach that has been adopted.
The Government have a role to play, but we all know that the first place that people turn to for help and advice is often their family and friends. We should not forget that. So, it is the individuals and organisations rooted in the community that can often have the greatest influence and impact, including local community groups, the voluntary sector and Sure Start centres.
Health visitors, as public health professionals working with families, are uniquely placed to bring people together across local communities to drive change on the problems that families face. As the health-visiting work force grows, there will be more opportunity for them to develop that wider role. We will provide support through a new training programme for health visitors, to be launched next year, to refresh and extend their community health skills.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury raised a number of issues. I hope that I have got them all down. I would like to touch on them before I conclude. We need to remember in so much of what we do that the issue is not necessarily about the quantity of money but how we spend it. We have an imperative to spend it more wisely than ever before, but the quality of what we get out of it is what matters, not necessarily the sum that goes in.
The hon. Lady rightly mentioned the importance of day care and the need for it to be of a high quality. It is not about whether parents stay at home or work, nor is it about making value judgments on how people live their lives. It is about providing a framework in which parents and children can thrive. Sure Start health visitors and the need for good-quality mental health awareness and intervention are crucial, and increasingly so. If one in four of us suffers from a mental health problem, we are looking at similar statistics among parents. The hon. Lady is right that universality is important—on stigma and access.
I must also point out that massive forms have been a feature of past Governments. They are always a feature of anyone trying to be a gatekeeper to scarce resources and are rarely effective. The Government are determined to banish them. The hon. Lady also mentioned early intervention grants. I can assure her that I met to discuss the matter with the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central, only yesterday. We are looking at it.
I have responsibility for public health, so I sit on a number of committees—a very large number—which is useful. I am in a group on families which the Prime Minister set up and a number of inter-ministerial groups, including the Cabinet Social Justice Committee. The same theme runs through all those areas—we have got to get this right, we have got to get the money focused in the right areas and we have got to get the money focused on areas giving us good outcomes.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire for securing the debate. She made a number of important points about the mental health of infants. I hope that the NHS White Paper gives us a chance to refocus on achieving better results for them. The public health White Paper, which will be published later this year, will build on that. We also need an outcomes framework that will be a central driver of improvement, ensuring that the NHS treats the person as a whole—holistically—and not the disease.
Meeting parents’ needs effectively depends on good local partnerships. Groups such as the Oxford Parent Infant Project are a good example of that. I am keen on a strong dialogue with the voluntary sector. Indeed, the White Paper is all about opening the door to such organisations. By working together in that way, we can do much better for the mental health of our infants, families and communities. We have a duty to secure the future generation of parents.
Coalfield Communities (Regeneration)
It is a pleasure to take part in my first Westminster Hall debate under your stewardship, Mr Bone. I proposed the debate quite simply because no other issue is as important to me or the more than 75,000 people I represent. When the pits were closed, Wigan was devastated by not only the job losses, but the unprecedented collapse of a way of life, which pulled the borough’s economic base from under it. The scars of that legacy remain to this day.
As a new Member, I am acutely aware that many colleagues have fought for many years to provide hope for communities such as mine across the country. I pay particular tribute to the work of my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton), my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and, of course, the former Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone. It is perhaps a tribute to the strength of feeling in the House that so many hon. Members are here today. When I was granted this debate, my office was flooded with e-mails from colleagues across the House, who said, “I’ve no idea who you are, but I’m glad you’re taking an interest in this.” On a serious note, that shows how many of us care passionately about this issue.
I hope that the Minister will take note of the concern not only in this place, but among councils, businesses and community groups, which will be watching developments closely and waiting for his response to the Clapham report. In light of the strength of feeling, I would be grateful for a commitment from him that hon. Members will be the first to hear the Government’s response to the report. I would also be grateful for a commitment today that he will make an oral statement to the House when a decision is reached.
We are of one mind that the coal fields remain unique in terms of the deliberate destruction of the industry that underpinned them, the scale of job losses and the associated economic devastation. They were also unique in their reliance on a single industry to provide not only jobs, but housing and the social life that underpinned communities.
At its height, my town of Wigan had more than 1,000 pit shafts within five miles of the town centre. Although I am proud of that legacy, the health legacies remain in Wigan to this day. People in my constituency get sick earlier and die younger. There are great disparities in life expectancy between different communities in my constituency. Too many people are still in low-paid work and are therefore extremely vulnerable at this difficult economic time.
Thanks to the work of my local council, we have not suffered the high levels of youth unemployment that many of my colleagues have experienced in their areas, but too many remarkable young people have expectations of life and of what they can achieve that are far too low given their talent and ability. With the package of measures announced in the Budget and the spending review, such as the abolition of the future jobs fund, I am concerned that those young people will be more vulnerable than ever. At a time such as this, it is more important than ever that we continue the work that we started in late ’90s to support communities such as mine; otherwise, we will condemn another generation to the waste of the ’80s and ’90s.
The Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the coalfields regeneration programme were more than just an initiative; they were a covenant between a Government and a series of communities that had been left to suffer so much. In making that offer, the Government were telling people, “We will support you because you deserve our support.” The trust and the programme have played a really important role in the progress made in Wigan and elsewhere. The gap between Wigan and elsewhere has narrowed over the past decade, and the same is true in other areas. Lives and communities have literally been transformed.
The trust understands the unique challenges and the social character of ex-coal field communities. As a result, I have seen for myself how it does things that other public agencies simply cannot do. In Wigan, for example, I have seen how it has boosted skills and confidence, enabling people to have the basic confidence they need to reintegrate into society and find employment.
Thanks to a relatively small level of investment, more people in my constituency can use the internet; more people have been helped to set up small businesses—something that they never would have conceived they could do several years ago; and more people are running self-sustaining sports and swimming clubs, which bring huge value to the community. It gives me great pleasure to remind hon. Members how much better at sport Wiganers are than most others. However, I am also delighted that the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and Wigan council have recognised how important sport is to our community, and that programmes that have helped to rebuild confidence and combat social isolation have been built around the sport that acts like a social glue in the community.
My constituency is similar to those of other hon. Members present for the debate, in that we have the twin challenges of inner-city deprivation and rural isolation. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is uniquely placed to understand how to tackle those two factors. I am delighted that the Government have placed on record, in their initial response to the Clapham report, their understanding of the importance of a localised approach, and of local authorities in delivering the programme. Mick Clapham is clear in his view that there is still significant work to do and that there have been some limitations to the approach that has been taken thus far. It is important to recognise that and to look closely at his recommendations.
In discussing the issue with my hon. Friends in the past months I have found a strong recognition of the fact that at the outset, the previous Government were not fully aware of how long it takes to restore a community, socially, economically and physically, when it has suffered such unprecedented devastation. However, the review makes it clear that the unique character of the coalfields remains and that there is an important continuing role for the trust and the programme. I know that the Minister understands that, because he said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne on 19 July that there were
“no plans to dismantle the programme.”—[Official Report, 19 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 151.]
I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is still his view. I would also be grateful if he told us when he will make a decision regarding both the programme and the trust, and when an official response will be made to the Clapham report. He will be aware that local authorities such as mine are having to make difficult decisions about their budgets in the light of the spending review, which has cut funding to local authorities by up to a third. Certainty about the programme is obviously of the utmost urgency to those authorities, so I should be grateful if the Minister shed some light on the matter.
I know how many colleagues want to speak this morning, and I want to end on this note: the Budget and the spending review have hit my constituency disproportionately hard. I have been flooded with letters from young people who are desperately concerned about their future, because of the demise of the future jobs fund, restrictions on the education maintenance allowance and proposals to raise tuition fees. I have been contacted by older people who lost their jobs and homes the last time the Conservatives were in government, and who do not think they can survive it again. I have also been contacted by many people who work for or run small businesses, who are desperately concerned about who will lend to them and support them now the regional development agencies have been abolished. Continuing to provide support to communities such as mine is both a duty and a lifeline. I know that the Minister is a reasonable man and I hope that today he will give the people I represent hope for the future.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Bone. I am sure that you will keep us all in order and make sure that there will be an opportunity to press the case for every single coalfield community that is represented here, and that the Minister will have ample time to reply; then perhaps we can go away with a little hope in our hearts that the coalition Government are really listening to what coalfield communities need.
I shall try to be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on raising the issue, and giving us the opportunity to have the debate. She made the point that no one really understood how long it would take to put the life back into our scarred coalfield communities. Sometimes in this place it feels as if we are doing things for our children, but it is actually for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The coalfield community programme that the previous Government set up took a long time to establish. A lot of work was done through English Partnerships, and the then Deputy Prime Minister made sure that there was a programme that could bring the former coalfields back to life. It took a long time, and when it was finally set up and we had the wonderful work of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and the coalfield community programme bringing investment to our areas, and funding was secured, it made a difference.
Really, however, that was just the very beginning, and parts of the former coalfield communities, such as my own in north Staffordshire, were very slow off the mark, for all kinds of good reasons. We did not have the capacity to make the applications in the first place to the coalfield programme. Consequently a lot of work had to be done to encourage residents’ associations and local partners to make applications. I thank the Coalfields Regeneration Trust for the work that was done towards the end of the programme. However, in Stoke-on-Trent we are only just beginning to reap the benefits of the coalfield programme, and much work is undone in relation to grants to local organisations and partners. For that reason I want the programme to be continued so that priority is given to the worst-scarred areas.
The other side of the coin is that, as well as the grant made by the CRT, a huge amount of money was provided from what was originally English Partnerships and then through the Homes and Communities Agency. I want briefly to mention the work that is already going on in the north Staffordshire coalfield, on the Chatterley Whitfield site. Chatterley Whitfield was a Victorian colliery and the first in the country to produce more than 1 million tonnes of coal a year. It was part of the industrial revolution. However, since the pit closed there has been little replacement work in the area. With the help of the coalfield programme we have a long-term vision for restoring the site. I am pleased to say that with the help of £15 million I opened, only this Saturday, the land remediation that has resulted in a huge countryside park for local people.
The next important step is investment in job creation on that site. I fail to see how that money can be made available without a targeted approach to former coalfield communities such as mine. Yes, what happens must be recognised as part of the local enterprise partnerships, which the Government will, I hope, agree for areas such as my constituency, but I believe that the continuation of the funding for coalfield areas is so important that we must not lose sight of it. I hope that we are sending the Government a clear message that we want the Minister to sit down with all MPs who represent the areas in question, to make sure that the funding that was put in place can, despite everything, continue in a meaningful way.
I do not know whether I am unique among Conservative Members in this regard, but I still have a working coal mine in my constituency, at Thoresby. It is a very efficient coal mine. Welbeck, which was just outside my constituency, has just been lost. I think that Sherwood lost more coal mines than most other constituencies. There were nine active coal mines, if one goes back 20 years, and eight of those have disappeared, which left the constituency with enormous challenges in certain places. I wanted to take the opportunity to tell hon. Members how we dealt with that—to talk about some of the good things that were done, and some of the poor things—and to say how the Coalfields Regeneration Trust assisted in some areas, but did not work in others. Unless a person lives in a constituency with those challenges, they will not comprehend how big they are. We need, across the parties, to ensure that that message gets across.
One way in which we went wrong was in concentrating on physically restoring some of those areas. Frankly, we spent a lot of money on grass seed and trees, and on renovating spoil tips and pitheads, instead of concentrating on generating jobs. Fundamentally, this is about jobs. If young men leave secondary school and do not have jobs to go to, it has an enormous social impact, and it happens because we have not concentrated enough on generating sufficient employment in such areas.
I point to several mistakes that were made in Sherwood. The Ollerton energy village was an industrial area designed to create employment, but it turned out to be a large industrial development that was successful only in relocating jobs from one part of my constituency to another. It did not generate a single new job for my constituents; all it did was move those jobs around the county. We need to think much more strategically about the type of employment that we generate.
We have also rebuilt village halls, scout huts and other such things, which are fantastic for the community. However, if a son says to his father, “Dad, I want to go to Cubs and to Scouts, and to go to the Scout camp,” the father cannot facilitate that unless he has a job. However, if the father was well employed and his son said, “Dad, can you help us raise some money to rebuild the Scout hut?”, he would be in a much better position.
I compare the two ends of my constituency, and the villages of Ollerton and Calverton. Calverton is much closer to Nottingham city centre; it has good public links, and young people are able to get from the village to their employment. The hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) referred to inspiration and aspiration. Fundamental to the debate is how we give young people leaving school the aspiration and inspiration to go for full-time employment.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for initiating this debate. I support the recommendations of the coalfields regeneration review, particularly on the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Wales, Scotland and England.
Blaenau Gwent is a coalfield area. Many members of my family have worked in the pits. My grandfather was a miner, as were three uncles on my mum’s side. Blaenau Gwent has come on by leaps and bounds in recent years. We have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Our coal tips have been regenerated to wonderful effect. Tredegar, my home town, has a wonderful leisure area in Bryn Bach park; it has a lake and there is camping and golfing.
Former miners and their families have been retrained, including members of my family, and have gone on to get good jobs. In recent times, there have been wonderful community art initiatives, including the Six Bells memorial, which commemorates those who died in the mining disaster of 1960. However, much more needs to be done, particularly at the old steelworks in Ebbw Vale, which requires further investment. Plans are in hand for a new learning campus, a new theatre, housing and a hospital, named after Nye Bevan, on old industrial land. However, unemployment is still at 10%, and many people still die too early.
Much more needs to be done. Coalfield areas such as Blaenau Gwent need much more investment for the future. The Government must help us with that work.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing this debate at a very important time; we are in the aftermath of the comprehensive spending review, and the future of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust is under review.
I represent the seat of Easington, which comprises a series of small villages and two large towns. As with Sherwood, mining was the principal industry there. We lost all our coal mines 20 years ago. The town of Seaham, where I live, had 3,500 working miners, and unless one lives in that kind of environment, it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the pit closures. The communities that constitute Easington were formed around the coal mines, which were sunk at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.
The communities that I represent owe their existence to the mining industry, which sustained Britain’s economic wealth, powered the country through two world wars, and created the energy with which the industrialisation of Britain took place. Easington and the Durham coalfields provided the coal that powered the nation; in the aftermath of the pit closure programme, I believe that the nation owes Easington and the other coalfield communities a debt of honour.
However, in our community, as in so many other proud coalmining communities, that mining legacy has been wiped away by a determined adversary. The communities that developed around the pits witnessed, and experienced at first hand, how easily the employment and social welfare that characterised our coal mining communities could be wiped away; furthermore, they witnessed the fact that support for a new economic foundation would not be supported by the Government.
No single industry could step in to replace coal mining, and support for the diversification of the local economy—vital in areas such as mine—was not forthcoming for many years. The unique challenges for former coal mining communities are as important today as they should have been at the time of the mass closure of the coal mines. It is essential to recognise the need for Government support in the transition from a wholly dominant economic sector to a local economy that is more diverse and that supports small businesses and large, new industries.
Building a modern infrastructure and laying the foundations for new industries, particularly new green industries, as well as supporting social and community development and the growth of small businesses and entrepreneurship, will bring about prosperity. Deprived areas, such as east Durham, which I represent, still desperately need an awful lot of work. The unique character and the various complexities of the challenges faced by coalfield communities require a unique and multifaceted response from the Government. The previous Government recognised that fact through their distinctive coalfield regeneration programmes. I echo the sentiments expressed by others today, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan, in paying tribute to the excellent work done by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust.
The public sector is one of the largest employers in my community and many other coal mining communities, and is the provider of key services for people in them, but it is again under attack. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan referred to the loss of the future jobs fund and the impact that that would have. She also spoke of the impact of cuts in local government budgets. Many of the lifelines given to my region by the last Government are being taken away. We have lost our Minister for the North East, who did an excellent job in attracting investment to Easington and other constituencies in the north-east. We have also lost the Government office for the north-east and our regional development agency, One NorthEast.
Although the review of coalfields regeneration found that the state of coalfield areas was improved when compared to a decade ago, it outlined the continuing need for social change. I hope that the Government understand the key challenges. Coalfield areas suffer due to the ill health of older generations—ill health caused by former working conditions. The situation is exacerbated by the ill health of the younger generations due to poor employment opportunities and the low expectations that result from their marginalisation in the active labour market. The Government must not set their sights on penalising the older generation, who, not unexpectedly, are suffering from disabilities. It would be eminently more sensible to put Government support into creating opportunities for work; that could prevent the next generation from falling into a cycle of economic inactivity, and eventual disability and incapacity.
I briefly want to outline some of the specific benefits that the CRT has brought to my constituency, including the support that it has provided to particular projects. In the small village of Murton, the Murton Welfare Association manages the Murton Miners Welfare Institute and Recreation Ground charity. It maintains the sports fields, cricket pitches and pavilion at the welfare park on behalf of several local sporting clubs. Examples such as that illustrate how our mining heritage, which was typified by the scenes depicted on the miners’ banners, is still interwoven into every aspect of our community life. Although such associations are strong in volunteers, they require financial support that would previously have been provided by contributions from working miners at the pit point.
As hon. Members may be aware, the people of east Durham suffer from poor diet, which often manifests itself in ill health later in life. The Food Chain North East community interest company, which is supported by CRT, is a CIC that seeks to increase access to affordable, high-quality fresh foodstuffs, and make them available to disadvantaged individuals in communities in the north-east, particularly in Easington. The company works with a wide range of community groups, public-sector bodies and other agencies to encourage healthy eating, and it also contributes to the national healthy living agenda. It sources healthy, fresh food and then distributes it to local community venues, households and some workplaces with the support of more than 100 volunteers.
East Durham Community Transport offers an employment lifeline through its “bigger wheels” project. It provides vital, low-cost transport for youth and community groups, charities and other non-profit-making voluntary organisations and statutory bodies. The CRT grant has allowed the group to purchase a new 24-seat wheelchair-accessible coach. East Durham Community Transport also provides a low-cost and very innovative car hire scheme that allows unemployed people who have no transport to take up jobs further away in the Teesside and Tyne and Wear conurbations. Without targeted support from the CRT, such services would have no other means to provide assistance to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Britain.
I am aware that the Minister had some positive words to say on Michael Clapham’s report, and I hope that he will today outline how he intends to back up those words to ensure continuing provision for our hard-pressed coalfield communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing today’s much-needed debate. I extend my thanks and the thanks of my community to Michael Clapham, Peter McNestry and the trustees of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust for the excellent work that they have carried out over a number of years. My constituency of Wansbeck is located in the south-east of Northumberland. It is the very heart of the Great Northern coalfield. Indeed, it was the engine room of the great industrial revolution. My constituency offices are sited only 100 yards away from the largest coal mining village in the world—the largest pit in the world is only 100 yards away.
A competition seems to be developing in this debate over who has the most pits and who had the most miners in their constituency. The pit next to my office had 5,000 people working there at one time. I do not think that there is anybody in this Chamber who can beat that. I notice, Mr Bone, that no one wishes to intervene on that comment. Seriously, we are affectionately known as coal town across the world. We had 30 to 40 large mines in my constituency alone. Sadly, the thousands of jobs that were provided by the mining industry have never been replaced, and parts of Wansbeck have never fully recovered from the devastating effect of those job losses.
This week, the announcement in the comprehensive spending review that 490,000 public sector jobs are to go, and all that that brings with it, including the knock-on effect on the private sector, is quite frightening. I am well aware that there are several strands to the regeneration of the coalfields, but I intend to focus on the role of the CRT. I speak today as someone who participated in the coalfield regeneration review consultation process and as, probably, the last working miner who will come into Parliament. I am sure that comrades across the Floor will suggest that “working” might not be the appropriate word to use, but I contest that.
I support the important work of the CRT and recognise its significant contribution to the communities throughout my constituency and beyond. There is no doubt that the CRT has done an excellent job both in Wansbeck and throughout the north-east. To date, it has made grants of more than £31 million to 1,000 groups in the coalfield communities of the north-east. In Wansbeck, the projects benefit people of all ages and from all sections of our community. The CRT grant was used by the citizens advice bureau to take on new staff to provide advice on financial matters, which is extremely important. CRT funding was used to convert a former garage into a 110-place child care centre, and the Cambois rowing club used the funds to build an extension to the boathouse, which enables it to provide rowing opportunities for all ages and for all sections of the community. The flagship Hirst welfare centre in Ashington used the funding to develop its centre in one of the most deprived wards in Northumberland.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that at a time when major cuts are foreseen in the public sector and when a number of the organisations that he mentions will be cut back, there is room for a focused organisation such as the CRT in Scotland, Wales and England? This is a time when it will be needed more than ever.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s comments. The projects that I have just mentioned, and there are a few more to come, are all waiting with bated breath to see whether they will be able to continue in the future. They are organisations that can only live and breathe in the communities if they receive funding from bodies such as the CRT. Everyone in those organisations is extremely concerned about their future. That is why it is imperative that we have this debate and hopefully get a commitment from the Minister.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Bone, and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing this debate. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) agree that one of the reasons why the problems have lasted so long in the mining industry is that the previous Tory Government had a view that it was not their role to intervene in the social impacts of the closure programme? If they had, our regions would be much further down the line than they are now. Our worry now is that we have been here before, and if the support is cut, we will go backwards.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is why we must, at all costs, ensure that there is a commitment to the CRT, and that help gets into the mining communities. We have not, in any way, shape or form, overcome the problems from 25 years ago. Some of the communities are still absolutely devastated by the impact of the closure of the coal industry. The health and crime rates are compounded by the fact that the industry was closed. Overnight, some communities were shut off from the rest of the world.
At the Hirst welfare centre, we have a healthy living centre, a gym, an IT suite, a community café, a toy library, a crèche facility, youth activities, photography, salsa dancing and training activities. We also have something that is pretty unique in the mining communities—a class for belly dancing. There are not many miners or miners’ wives who have ever been interested in belly dancing and I would love to see some of my Labour colleagues taking up such a class. I have not done it myself yet, but people tell me that it is very good.
That is not correct. I am trying to outline what the CRT has provided in terms of grant assistance for people within the community. There are other organisations for the creation of jobs, and finances should be readily available for those organisations. For example, there is One NorthEast, but its total closure has just been announced. Those are the organisations that should be looking to present job opportunities in these communities. What I am outlining this morning is what the CRT has done in the communities to help people to regain their self-esteem, as was the case when people in those communities, including their fathers and mothers, all had employment, but now these communities have very little employment. So there is a huge difference. I really do not see the CRT’s role as creating employment in the communities; its role is quite distinct from that. It has a huge role to play, without having to create jobs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is precisely the point of the CRT; that it understands that when a community has been so hugely devastated—not only economically and physically, but socially—the types of activities that he is outlining are precisely the route into employment, because they give people the social integration, the confidence and the skills that they need to seek employment and to make a success of themselves, particularly those people who go on to become entrepreneurs and set up their own businesses?
Yes, of course; that is exactly right. It is about encouraging people to participate in life once again; they are reborn. They actually understand what it is like to mix with other people once again and to be part of a community again. I think that that is the essential role of the CRT, whether it be in rowing, in swimming or in belly dancing. I know that I joked about belly dancing, but it is a fact that it is important. The CRT has a whole mix of roles within the community. That is what the CRT is desperately needed for.
The north-east was once a major industrial region and it has a former mining population of more than 650,000; that is more than a quarter of the region’s entire population. Those figures show the hugely important contribution made by mining communities in the north-east, and the size and the importance of the task that was undertaken when the previous Labour Government quite rightly embarked on their coalfield regeneration programme.
However, despite the excellent work of the CRT, there is still a lot more to do. In the deprivation profiles, the former Northumberland and Durham coalfields are listed as having significant deprivation across most domains. That is the issue: the deprivation situation in the former coalfield areas.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. Does he not feel simply annoyed when the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), who was probably waving his Order Paper last week, talks about job creation, when last week we were told that the Business Link in Seaham in county Durham is sacking 115 people? Those people are part of an organisation of 400 people who, within the last three years, have created 15,000 jobs. That is the truth of what we are seeing. The hon. Gentleman should not denigrate what is happening with the CRT; the CRT is trying to fill a gap while other organisations are being attacked by the present Government in the same way that the collieries were attacked 25 and 30 years ago.
Yes. Just on that point, I must say that one of the worst things that I have ever experienced in my life as a trade union representative and a representative of the Labour and trade union movement was the announcement last week that up to 490,000 jobs were to go in huge cuts across the whole of the country, and at the same time we had people in the House of Commons—people who were elected to be responsible people—waving their Order Papers jubilantly, as if something tremendous had happened. It was an absolute disgrace and I would like that placed on the record.
I will wind up my speech by saying that the employment situation in coalfield areas such as mine looks likely to deteriorate even further as the coalition threatens to axe the jobs that I have just mentioned. Since the demise of the coal industry in the north-east, particularly in my constituency of Wansbeck, we have become dependent on the public sector for employment. It is clear that central Government need to maintain and build upon the support that has already been provided for coalfield areas such as Wansbeck. I recognise that the CRT has a huge knowledge of the coalfields and of our communities. Consequently, it should have an important role to play in the ongoing regeneration of our communities.
In conclusion, I must just cite one or two statistics: 67% of women employed in my constituency are employed in the public sector; 53% of the people in Morpeth, a large town in my constituency, are employed in the public sector; and in total 47% of all the people employed in my constituency are employed in the public sector. We are an area of high unemployment; we are a low-wage economy; we have high teenage pregnancy levels, and we have high crime levels. We have everything associated with poverty, because of the closure of the coal mining industry. And I tell you now, Mr Bone, that I am petrified for the future of my community. However, the CRT can play a major role in trying to assist the people whom I represent in my community, and it is essential that the Government continue to fund the CRT, so that it can help people such as my constituents in Wansbeck.
Order. At least five Members are trying to catch my eye and we will begin the winding-up speeches at 12.10 pm. It is helpful to the Chair if Members submit their names to speak in advance, and they are more likely to be called early in a debate if they do so.
I want to say a few words about the comprehensive spending review and its likely impact on the south Wales coalfield. To begin with, however, I want to refer to some of the key features of the central south Wales coalfield.
First, like many other coalfield areas in the UK, there is a relatively large public sector in my area. Local authorities, the health service and the Welsh Assembly Government are all big and major employers in my area. Secondly, following the decline of the coal industry, we have seen a diversification of the economy. Nevertheless, there are still very low wages and a low skills base in my area, and that is common throughout the region.
Thirdly, we have a relatively small private sector, and what private sector there is remains closely linked to the public sector and dependent for many contracts on that sector—we cannot differentiate between the private and public sector in any meaningful way in south Wales.
Fourthly, again like many other coalfield areas in Britain, there is a legacy of ill health in my constituency. If we look at the heads of the south Wales valleys in particular, we see a very high concentration of incapacity benefit claimants. That is a clear legacy of heavy industry. Since the demise of the coal industry, much of that welfare dependency has become intergenerational and there is a whole range of complex social issues to be considered.
Within that context, my Caerphilly constituency is right at the heart of the south Wales coalfield. Just to the north of Cardiff, it is a constituency where the coal industry was at one time by far the most dominant employer. Relatively recently, however, it has been hit by the closure of two of the largest collieries, Bedwas and Penallta, in the wake of the 1984-85 miners strike. Today the local authority is by far the biggest employer in the Caerphilly borough. Caerphilly borough council employs no fewer than 8,000 people; as I say, it is by far the biggest employer in my constituency.
As well as people being employed in the local public sector, people are of course prepared to travel. Travel-to-work patterns in the area give the lie to the recent comment by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that people are not prepared to travel. The facts clearly belie that statement. I am aware of constituents of mine who travel to Newport to work in the public sector: in the passport office—sadly, it is due to close—the patent office and elsewhere. They travel to Cardiff to work in the Welsh Assembly Government offices, the tax office, the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions and Companies House. Many people from Caerphilly travel over the mountain and down into Cardiff.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent statement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions reveals on his part—and, I fear, on that of many Conservative Members—a deep misunderstanding of the endemic nature of unemployment and incapacity in areas such as my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine? It is fundamentally insulting to the people of those communities and implies that they are workshy, when the reality, as he describes, has to do with the communities’ industrial heritage.
My hon. Friend is spot on. The recent comments by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions show a lack of understanding of contemporary south Wales, the history of its coalfield and the true determination of its people. Clearly, where there are jobs, people are prepared to travel to them. That is a fact.
In communities in the south Wales coalfield, including in my constituency, the CSR will have a truly devastating impact on the public sector. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates, for example, that Wales as a whole will lose 52,000 jobs in the private and public sectors as a direct result. Services will be hit, the most vulnerable will suffer and benefit recipients will lose out hugely. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the CSR will hit the less well-off the hardest, which I am sure is correct, and that the places where the pain is greatest will be geographically concentrated. I suggest that places such as south Wales will be far harder hit than, for instance, the south-east of England.
My hon. Friend can hear that I am croaking at the moment. Does he agree that the figures for disability in the whole UK show that some of the highest percentages of disabled benefit recipients are in the south Wales valleys, which many of us here represent? Does he also agree that the new tests imposed by the Government in their mad rush to cut benefits will be distressing for people who used to work in heavy industry, such as coal miners, if they are expected once again to undergo medical tests that are already proven not to work well? We have asked the Government to delay those tests until they have a better system in place. Does he agree with that?
Yes, certainly. I am sure that all of us from coalfield areas are aware of increasing numbers of constituents coming to our surgeries and offices to express concern about how things will pan out over the next few years. My right hon. Friend has articulately put her finger on a concern felt by many people in places such as south Wales.
The crucial point I want to address is this. The Government, particularly the Chancellor, have belatedly accepted that job losses in the public sector will be significant, but they also say they believe that the private sector will grow quickly and soak up those who lose their jobs in the public sector. I suggest that that is not the case. In areas such as south Wales, there are many key factors, which I identified earlier, that will work against private sector growth. For example, the public and private sectors are interdependent, as the Federation of Small Businesses recognises.
A number of announcements were made just before the comprehensive spending review. For example, it was announced that the Severn barrage will not be constructed. If it had been, it would have been a huge boost for the private sector economy in south Wales. The defence training college has been shelved, and effectively ended. That would have been not a public sector but a private finance initiative, and would have created an estimated 5,000 new jobs in south Wales, but it has been scrapped. We also hear—again—that it is unlikely that the south Wales railway line will be electrified, which would have proved a huge stimulus to the south Wales economy and a job-creating initiative.
We do not have a strong entrepreneurial culture in south Wales. That is not to suggest that people themselves are not entrepreneurial, but historically, creativity has not been directed into the private sector. That is beginning to change, but it is a long-term process that will only come to fruition many years hence.
It is also worth pointing out that as a result of the policies pursued by the last Labour Government, private companies have not shed as many people as was widely anticipated. Many workers now work part-time or are still on the books but not taking up their full cash entitlements. It is therefore more likely that those people will be reactivated, rather than that large numbers will come off the dole queue and go directly into the private sector. Due to those factors, it is pretty clear that areas such as south Wales will not experience a great boost for the private sector; quite the opposite. It is likely that we will lose jobs in the private as well as the public sector.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way once more. He might be interested to know that yesterday, on behalf of the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), I met a group of 20 or so US companies, many of which have invested in this country, some of them in south Wales. I explored with them their belief in their ability to hire new people and invest in the current climate. The clear message that I heard from them was that, in their view, there is no capacity right now to take on the people who will be laid off in the public sector. They are worried that the impact of the CSR will strip demand from the economy, and they are not in a position to hire the people who will be thrown on the scrap heap.
That is a useful intervention and it underlines my point. It is a myth that the private sector in areas such as south Wales will undergo a great burgeoning; that simply will not happen. It is depressing to recognise, but that is the reality. We must be honest with ourselves and our constituents so they realise that if this Government stay in power and do not change their policies, at least for the next few years, the immediate future will be bleak indeed. To conclude, I hope that the Government will listen and accept objective reality, because many people are concerned that an ideological fixation drives this Government’s policies, irrespective of public opinion.
The insult by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was directed specifically at my community. It was born of ignorance. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are seeing a repeat of the lack of a strategy for transition, as a number of Members have discussed, in an attempt to deliver on the rhetoric surrounding the big society? The role of coalfields regeneration is not and never has been to act as a substitute for the state; it is to supplement and support the state’s activities, thereby building the good society, consistent with Labour’s ethical socialism, and not some big society, which is, frankly, a meaningless slogan without a transition plan.
I agree completely. We have heard a lot about the so-called big society, but I am reminded of what former Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher said: there is no society, only individuals. That is what we are seeing in practice. There is an emphasis on individualism without the recognition that we need a strong, coherent society with a strong public sector and third sector—as well as a strong private sector—for individuals truly to fulfil their potential. For us to continue the transition that has started to take shape over the past few years, there needs to be a continuation of the policies introduced under the previous Labour Government, rather than a dramatic hiatus like the one currently taking place. I therefore urge the Government to think again about the policies they are pursuing and to recognise the impact they will have on individuals and communities in our poor, hard-pressed coalfield communities. If they do that, I hope to goodness they will realise that they need to readopt the sort of policies we have seen during the past 13 years.
In view of the time and the fact that other hon. Members want to speak, I shall keep my remarks brief. I should refer to the fact I am a trustee of the Barony ‘A’ Frame Trust in Ayrshire, which received funding from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust. I will make some brief remarks about the importance of the CRT in Scotland. We have already heard some good examples of work that has been undertaken in other areas and I do not intend to go through the whole list of valuable projects across Scotland, but I shall just mention briefly a few of note.
The Barony ‘A’ Frame Trust is symbolic in my area. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) talked about some of the things that are not useful because they do not create jobs, but it is important to remember that we sometimes have had to re-create communities that were absolutely devastated by what happened when the pits shut. In areas such as mine in Ayrshire, everyone has that mining heritage and it is important that we never ever forget the contribution that the miners and their families made in a range of ways to communities across Scotland.
Does my hon. Friend accept that when we talk about travel to work—a point was made about that in relation to how people can get employment—it is much easier for people in Midlothian, where 56% of the population work in Edinburgh, than for people in places such as Ayrshire, where there are no major cities or towns around?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The opportunities for people in the more rural coalfield areas in Scotland are difficult, which is why it is important to have schemes such as the coalfield community transport scheme in my area, which involves a fleet of yellow buses. That scheme not only enables people to get to leisure activities but, importantly, allows them to participate in things such as the east Ayrshire community planning partnership or some of the health initiatives taking place in the area. That transport scheme enables local people to go along to such initiatives and be represented, which is absolutely vital.
It is also important to stress that the CRT in Scotland tried to align its priorities with those of the Government. I do not happen to agree with all the priorities of the Scottish National party Government in Scotland—no surprises there—but some of the initiatives that are being taken forward are very important and the CRT has sought to deal with that. It has also sought to engage with the private sector, which has been important—for example, through the midnight leagues, where there have been partnerships with HBOS, Thompsons solicitors and BSkyB. A whole range of things have been taken forward to try to ensure that capacity is built in the local community.
We have heard much today about how the CRT can enable local communities to be involved, but it can also offer match funding, which is important to enable organisations to draw down money from other areas. The CRT has also played a vital role in keeping the needs of coalfield communities alive and on the agenda, as has the Industrial Communities Alliance. That organisation has recently been re-launched in a Scottish context.
We have heard hon. Members say that it is not enough simply to invest money in a patchwork manner; we have to change the policy approach. We have consistently heard about how outcomes for young people in education and health are not as good. That means that central Government have to change how they do things. Under the previous Government, we saw much of that actually happening. In conclusion, I leave the Minister with this question. What can he do to ensure that in every Department across government, the impact of policies is assessed against how we can improve the life outcomes and chances for people in the coalfield community areas? I hope that he will make some reference to that in his winding-up speech.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate, which is dear to my heart. I thought it might be useful to mention some of my personal experience of receiving CRT grants in a previous job at a citizens advice bureau, where we received one of the first grants in the early 1990s. We received £50,000 to provide money advice to people in the community of St Helens and Wigan near my constituency of Makerfield. That money enabled us to demonstrate that the need existed, which we had not been able to do before. It also enabled us eventually to create nine jobs for people as money advisers and secure £500,000 of funding for that valuable work.
In 2008, together with four other citizens advice bureaux and credit unions in Wigan and Makerfield, we received a grant of £250,000. With that money, we dealt with £6 million of debt; but, more importantly, we set up a project with the credit unions to help people who have got jobs to budget. Within the first six months of someone starting a job, budgeting is vital. Studies have shown that people who are assisted with budgeting stay in work and keep their jobs.
In fact, money problems are probably the most prevalent reason for people leaving a job in the first six months because, once someone gets a job, their creditors come back to haunt them. The credit unions provided loans, budgeting advice and set people up for the future. A grant of £250,000 helped at least 350 people in my community—not to mention people in Cumbria and St Helens. I stress to the Minister that it is very important to continue providing such small grants as they sustain the voluntary sector, promote partnerships and help people in the community through the hard times that I am sure are ahead.
I did not intend to speak in the debate but, to be honest, it has gripped me. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate because the subject is vital to communities, particularly those in the north of England and in Wales and Scotland.
I would like to criticise something that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) said about environmental improvements and not creating jobs. In communities that have the scars of the coalfields within them, environmental improvements are important because they have a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of a community. It is vital that those environmental improvements continue.
Over the years, my constituency of Gateshead—a new constituency, but an old name—has had many collieries within it, but none have closed in the past 30 years or so. The history of mining in Gateshead goes back much before that. Indeed, the founder of the mining union in Durham, Thomas Hepburn, is buried just outside the fringe of my constituency, but still within the borough of Gateshead, at Heworth colliery. He was a real hero in the locality and I am very proud still to be chair of governors at the Thomas Hepburn community school in Gateshead, which is close to the site of the old Heworth colliery and not far away from the old Wardley colliery.
In fact, the angel of the north in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) is built on an old pit head. We are very much a mining area. Some 300 different mine workings cover the borough of Gateshead. I was joking before with my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) that, over the years, his colleagues and union friends have done something deliberate against my community: they have continued to undermine it over the centuries. That is literally true.
I am very pleased to speak on behalf of the CRT and the work that it does. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) about the need for infrastructure development and continuing investment in our economy. I also agree that it is sad that the Government have seen fit to close down the regional development agency, One North East.
A sad fact of life is that it takes many decades for former mining areas to recover from the necessary scars upon which the wealth and sustainability of our nation have been built. Without the continuing support that organisations such as CRT bring to those communities, we are effectively saying to mining communities up and down the country, “Thank you for your endeavour, thank you for powering the industrial revolution, and thank you for keeping the lights on and industry going during two world wars. Now will the last one to leave please turn the lights out.”
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
I will speak briefly to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing the debate and to Mick Clapham, who was a colleague in this place for many years. If there was ever anyone who fought for the mining community, it was him. In every aspect of their lives, Mick Clapham came through. If anyone deserved to be a Minister, it was him, so it was a disgrace that the last Labour Government did not make him a Minister. His work has been excellent. The focus of his review is on England, of course, but I hope that the Government will ask him, either through the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, to continue his work and produce similar reviews for those regions. That would be very useful, as many of the problems in my region are precisely the same, although there are some differences.
I have represented a coal mining community for the past 26 years. Having been elected in the middle of a miners’ strike, I have seen over the years how the community goes through suffering and regeneration, mainly due to their force of character. My community kept its pit for 10 years after Mrs Thatcher wanted to close it down, because we fought for it. It was difficult at times, but the Tower colliery in my constituency, which she and the last Conservative Government said was uneconomic, proved that they were wrong. Not only was it economic, but it sold coal to countries that the previous coal board failed to sell to. That is an example of the resilience of a mining community. They were ready to stand up and fight for the future of a pit that the Conservative Government wanted to close.
The Minister, who has been in the House for some time, knows the arguments about the many problems that remain in those constituencies, which the review has highlighted. Over the past 10 years, under the Labour Government, unemployment in Cynon Valley has been cut by 50%, which is a considerable achievement. I do not want those people to be thrown on the scrap heap yet again. I appeal to him to ensure that the CRT continues, that it is given the Government’s full backing and that Mick Clapham is thanked again for his excellent work over the years. I hope that he will be able to carry out a similar review in Wales and Scotland.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate. I want to make a few brief comments about my constituency, which is the working home of Michael Clapham. I first worked with him back in 1978, when we worked together for the Yorkshire miners union. Many of the problems that colleagues have outlined today also affect Barnsley, which lost 19,000 jobs when the coalfields were closed in the 1990s. We should remember that there was an instant loss of jobs in those communities over a very short period when the coalfields closed.
The CRT was never designed to replace jobs on anything near the scale of those losses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) pointed out. It gave small-scale grants to kick-start credit unions and fund citizens advice bureaux. It was never designed to replace jobs, especially on the scale at which we lost them in the 1990s. With those job losses came other losses, such as the management courses run through the National Coal Board and British Coal, which enabled young people to graduate through colleges and improve their employment prospects. In addition to education, there was the social side, as the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation ran sports and social welfare programmes. That was all lost over a short space of time. It was practically impossible to replace those jobs. No Government since have managed to replace the jobs that were lost in those communities on such a scale.
I have been present when some of those awards have been made in my constituency, such as the Dorothy Hyman stadium, which provided an Olympic-standard running track for local athletes, some of whom have gone on to compete in the Olympic games. There is also riding for the disabled, which would otherwise not be funded because the money is not available in the community. There is the Disabled Information Advice Line, which enables one or two key workers to provide a service to the local community.
Sadly, we are again facing such job losses as a result of the comprehensive spending review. We must remember that in Wales, the north-east, south Yorkshire and perhaps in Nottinghamshire, coal was the dominant industry, to the exclusion of other industries. Private industry did not want to compete for the labour force that was already employed in mining, where there were lots of jobs, career structures and so on. The private sector, as a result, did not come into the region, other than in Coventry, where there was the motor vehicle industry alongside the coal industry. We did not have that luxury in south Yorkshire, in Durham or, to some extent, in Nottinghamshire. When we lost the coal mining industry, there was nothing to fall back on, and nothing else has come into the area to replace those jobs.
That explains our reliance on the public sector. The CSR announced 490,000 job losses in the public sector, and obviously the impact will be felt far more in coalfield communities than in other areas. We cannot escape that. That makes the CSR all the worse for our area. It is essential that the CRT programme, small though it is, be retained and, if possible, expanded. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) suggested, further research should be done on the benefits that the trust has brought, because in my area they are worth while and must be retained.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate, which has been excellent—I counted 16 Members who have spoken. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Mr Illsley) in congratulating Michael Clapham on the work he has done.
In the last Parliament, my constituency contained many former coalfield wards. The last remaining winding gear in Lancashire is in Astley, and it is a strong and visible reminder of our area’s mining heritage. Following boundary changes, I no longer represent the former coalfield areas in Wigan borough, but I still have the ward of Little Hulton, which is a former coalfield ward and still has open-cast coal mining at the adjacent Cutacre site.
The Labour Government set up the CRT in 1999. The coalfields task force had noted that coalfield areas had
“a unique combination of concentrated joblessness, physical isolation, poor infrastructure and severe health problems.”
I saw those same problems on the Higher Folds estates in my former constituency. Higher Folds is in some ways typical of those areas. It is an isolated estate accessible via a single road, and it is remote from commercial centres such as Leigh and Tyldesley. Part of the estate was ranked within the 5% most disadvantaged communities in the country. For many years, its 3,000 residents suffered from high levels of worklessness, low educational achievement and low incomes. The closure of the pits had left that community with few jobs and poor infrastructure. In fact, the CRT singled out Higher Folds as an area where extra funding and support was needed.
The trust found many barriers to local people gaining employment, ranging from a lack of affordable child care to low confidence and skill levels in jobseekers, which are important factors. Its work included setting up a youth project on the estate and a plan to reduce worklessness from more than 30% to less than 20%. The trust plans to improve the community centre and put it at the heart of the community, and to develop new activities, including more child care.
The trust praised the sense of pride and community spirit that it found on Higher Folds, but community spirit is not enough. Without funding and support to get projects off the ground, the community could have achieved little change. One group that developed because of early support and funding was the Agape family support group. It was able to recruit more volunteers due to a grant from the trust, and to use the refurbished community centre. In 2006, one of the group’s co-ordinators stated:
“The group can’t exist without funding as we need to subsidise our costs for the services we provide. The CRT grant has provided funding to cover our running costs…and now that the new centre is open we are hoping to build up a busy programme and a growing band of volunteers to help out.”
That group now runs a pre-school group for the estate, and the community centre has a Sure Start children’s centre, so we have tackled the child care problem which was one of the barriers to local people getting work.
Community support and activism are vital for regeneration, but does the Minister recognise that they are no substitute for adequate levels of funding and support from the Government via organisations such as the CRT? Does he agree that, without adequate funding, we will not continue to see the work to remove barriers to employment that is needed on estates such as Higher Folds? The progress that has been made in many coalfield communities could be derailed. Can he tell us how that level of support can be achieved in the context of the reductions to budgets for his Department and local authorities over the coming months and years?
The Clapham review of coalfields regeneration found a marked improvement in the state of the coalfields today compared with a decade ago, but found that there is a long way to go. As we have heard in this debate, pressing challenges remain. Coalfield areas have greater overall and employment deprivation than average. They tend to be more isolated, they have fewer businesses than the national average, they have 25% fewer jobs per resident than non-coalfield areas, and they have more young people not in education, training or employment than the national average. As many Members have said, coalfield areas have a higher than average mortality rate, with the health of the older generations affected by their former work, and that of younger people affected by poor employment opportunities and low expectations.
The Clapham review called for local authorities to be given a more active role in the regeneration of our former coalfield areas and in dealing with those difficult and challenging issues. In welcoming the report, the Minister for Housing and Local Government said that it was crucial that former mining areas continue to get the support they need, and that there is more to be done to help former mining communities where there are ingrained social and economic problems. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said, he also said that local authorities working with local people know best what the particular needs are in each area.
However, there is a danger that local authorities will be asked to take on responsibility for programmes without adequate funding to make a real difference. Michael Clapham’s report said that the Government should not leave it to local authorities to make up for reductions in Government programmes, and that coalfield regeneration funding should remain additional to local authority allocations. In the context of cuts of 28% in local authority budgets over the next four years, that is all the more important.
Does the Minister agree with the Clapham review’s recommendation that coalfield regeneration funding must remain additional to other funding, and that local authorities should not be left to make up for cuts to the three national coalfield regeneration programmes? Indeed, will he commit now to an oral statement from the Government when they respond to the Clapham review?
Last week, the Government announced the most severe cuts to public spending since before the second world war. The cuts will lead to almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, and PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that a further 500,000 jobs will be lost from the private sector. That loss of employment will not be spread evenly but will hit some communities harder than others. We heard today from many Members how they fear the cuts will hit their constituencies. Indeed, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research said that many city regions outside the south-east of England were likely to suffer disproportionately from public spending cuts because public sector jobs are a greater proportion of the employment in those areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) gave statistics to show that that is the case in his constituency.
Furthermore, the most vulnerable groups in our communities are likely to suffer the most from the cuts. Figures from the TUC show that the poorest one tenth of households are set to lose income and services equivalent to 20.3% of their household income by 2013, compared with just 1.5% for the richest one tenth of households. As I said earlier, it is former coalfield areas such as the Higher Folds estate that contain the poorest one tenth of households.
The Clapham report states that after the collapse of the collieries in the 1980s, despite the best efforts of central Government working with local authorities and communities,
“it became clear that more substantial intervention would be required to turn these communities around.”
As we heard in many speeches today, the coalfields regeneration programmes have had success because of central Government funding and partnership working between local authorities and local community organisations. The Government are putting that at risk because cuts to local authority budgets are likely to impact on both partnership working and the survival of local voluntary and community organisations. Given the scale and speed of the expected new job losses, we will find that many communities left reeling from the cuts will need active intervention to recover.
The Government must develop a plan for recovery in our local communities that involves more than saying to CBI members, “Over to you to create new jobs.” The private sector does not have a track record since the 1980s of moving into isolated coalfield areas and intervening to create businesses and jobs there. It took support, funding and partnerships to make improvements, as it will in the future.
We await the Government’s response to the Clapham review and their explanation of how regeneration programmes in coalfield areas can continue to tackle the many challenges outlined in this debate. We urge the Minister to confirm that those important announcements will be made, as they should be, in an oral statement to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, as it was to serve under Mr Bone before you. It is good to have a debate that is so well supported by Members who have passion for, and knowledge about, a subject. Twenty Members were present, and the vast majority of them contributed. I know that it is not the form to say such things, but I was delighted that Michael Clapham was able to be present throughout to listen to the debate. I want to say how much the Government appreciate the work that he did on his report, which was commissioned by the former Government and which we have been happy to receive.
I also want to thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the matter, and for her reasoned presentation of the case. She is a new Member, but I am sure that she will quickly become established as a champion of Wigan, the miners and the mining community that she represents.
The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) asked me to undertake to give an oral statement. Such matters are not at all at my pay grade, but I shall ensure that the point is passed on. We do not in any way underestimate the importance of ensuring that the House is well informed about progress on the subject.
I want as far as possible not to get drawn into the broader macro-economic issues, because that would not be a good use of our time at this point, but I would not want the case to go by default. As a result of the spending pattern that this Government inherited from the previous Government, we have, during this debate, borrowed another £24 million, and will borrow an extra £150 billion by the end of the year. That is the background to the position in which we find ourselves, and which, of course, underpins the more local concerns of many who have spoken in the debate.
On 19 July, I was happy to respond to an Adjournment debate on precisely this topic. I say to the hon. Member for Wigan, whom I do not think was able to attend July’s debate, that the Government, now as then, remain supportive of the continuing need for land-based remediation, strongly support the important community-led regeneration projects, and remain committed to helping people and communities to work together to tackle local problems and support local enterprise, particularly in the former coalfields.
That previous debate centred around, or at least took very much into consideration, the report of the Public Accounts Committee. I say this very gently, because I am extremely supportive of the points that hon. Members have made, but there have been problems delivering the programme. It is a little bit like the young man at the casino who sends a text message saying, “System working well. Send more money.” We have heard that the output has not been the jobs that are needed, and we need to look hard at that. From that point of view, the review of coalfields regeneration by Michael Clapham is an outstandingly useful contribution to forming our view about what should happen next.
I have met Michael Clapham and other members of the all-party coalfield communities group since July’s debate. We agreed to meet again in January next year, because then, knowing the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, we would be in a position to consider Michael Clapham’s report and the allocation of departmental funding. I hope that we can proceed on that timetable.
I do not want to use up my time by rehearsing the report’s contents, but it clearly identifies problems on the ground and issues to do with delivery and contains some recommendations for the way ahead. Hon. Members have mentioned different parts of the report.
A great deal has been said in this debate, including by me, about the difficulties with funding from local authorities, and about the possible loss of voluntary organisations. We heard about the impact in Makerfield of the work of the citizens advice bureaux. Given the timetable that the Minister mentioned, will he say whether a watching brief can be kept to ensure that we do not, in the period till January, lose any of the vital voluntary and community organisations that underpin and hold together the work in coalfield communities?
I would not want the January meeting to be regarded as the earliest time at which it is possible for us to make an announcement. I take account of what the hon. Lady says. I would share her concerns if delay in making an announcement led to problems that could otherwise be avoided. I hope that I may, in my last 30 seconds, add something that will help her in at least one respect.
The Government welcome the Clapham report and agree that, often, local authorities working with local people know best what the particular needs are in their area. This Government’s strong, consistent message is that it is the people in a locality or neighbourhood who most often appreciate what the problems are and what the potential solutions might be, rather than people located more remotely, particularly in Whitehall.
The Government are keen to drive forward coalfields regeneration. We believe that a bottom-up, community-focused approach should be central to the next phase of coalfields regeneration. We are carefully considering the recommendations and hope to respond formally in November. As agreed, the full published report is already on the Department for Communities and Local Government website. For some reason, there was serious concern in July that we would keep it secret. We have no intention of doing that.
Hon. Members know that the spending review has been challenging. Over the next four years, DCLG’s overall resource will reduce by 33%, with capital spending reduced by 74%. Alongside this, we are devolving more than £7.6 billion directly to local government to set its own priorities. We are giving more flexibility to local government. We are delivering 150,000 new affordable homes and protecting the Supporting People programme, importing an extra £1 billion into it from the NHS. We are investing £1.7 billion in regeneration and local economic development over the next four years.
One or two hon. Members mentioned young people’s capacity and ambition, and opportunities for them. The introduction of the pupil premium will be a significant step forward that will help young people in communities such as the ones that we are talking about.
My concern, which I raised earlier, is that the coalfields programme is about more than the Coalfields Regeneration Trust; it is about the national coalfield programme per se, including the part delivered by the Homes and Communities Agency. Given what the Minister has just said about the pupil premium being used to help people in deprived areas to get more, is he considering cross-cutting these issues so that coalfield communities, which suffer worse and have most deprivation, can be prioritised in respect of funding from the education and DCLG budgets, and all the budgets that will be working towards creating jobs? If jobs are not created in coalfield communities, we will have no hope whatsoever for the future.
I shall correct one detail: the pupil premium is intended to support disadvantaged children, whatever community they live in, rather than disadvantaged communities. In her main point, the hon. Lady describes exactly what the Government are doing. We are working hard to have community-based budgeting that draws together funding from all the different public sources and allows priorities to be set locally to deliver what is needed, without the necessity for everybody to operate in silos. I hope that the hon. Lady will see the benefits of that. We have established 16 pilot areas for this year and will be rolling that process forward rapidly over the next couple of years.
We have increased the regional growth fund from the original £1 billion that was announced to £1.4 billion, and have extended the life of the fund from two years to three years. I hope that that gives some comfort to those who are concerned about the issue.
On the regional development agencies, two bids have been presented to the Government for local enterprise partnerships for the north-east. Announcements will be made in due course. There could have been only one local enterprise partnership covering the whole north-east, had those involved wished to do that. On the future of coalfields regeneration, I provided assurances during the debate in July that we had no plans to dismantle the programme. The Minister for Housing and Local Government has already said, in response to the report on the review of coalfields regeneration, that it is crucial that former mining areas continue to get the support that they need.
We intend to provide the support needed to enable the contractually committed, physical regeneration projects in the Homes and Communities Agency national coalfields programme to come to fruition. However, the settlement has been challenging. Difficult choices still need to be made about the way ahead. We will consider the case for the continuation of dedicated funding for coalfield areas in light of the Clapham report, and we intend to make an announcement on that in the next month.
I will pass the right hon. Lady’s request on to the relevant person. However, DCLG deals only with England, so it is not within my competence to decide that.
I thank all hon. Members for the enthusiasm and passion with which they have brought this cause to my attention and the Government. I hope that we will be able to give them some satisfaction in the near future.
I am delighted to have secured this short debate on Natural England. It is a timely debate, because we are in the final week of October when spirits walk and ghouls are said to come alive. I do not wish to terrify hon. Members; on the contrary, I want to put backbone into the Government’s efforts to take the frightening, supernatural bits from the subject of this debate. There is nothing natural about Natural England. From the word go it was a cumbersome creature, cobbled together in haste after the foot and mouth disease crisis—a natural marriage of convenience between well-established organisations such as the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Commission and Natural England. Dr Frankenstein would have been proud of it.
Bodies that have been stitched together in a hurry tend to fall to pieces. With Natural England one does not have to look far to find the evidence. It attracts hostile headlines and real anger among many rural communities, including mine. Natural England has become the ultimate Hallowe’en monster. My hon. Friend the Minister will require a lot more than a pumpkin and a candle to show who is in charge of this lot.
Natural England now operates in a way that is deliberately designed to send shivers up the spine. Five years ago that zombie was let loose and allowed to take control of many sensitive environmental issues. Since then, it has trampled all over common sense. Natural England cares more about weeds than the welfare of country folk. It believes that butterflies and bats come before real live people. It is a feared organisation because it has been given enormous power without any proper control or accountability. I shall give three examples.
First, on Exmoor, which has been in the news this morning, there is an ancient stretch of common land at Withypool. Local farmers have spent generations learning to understand it and to look after it, but Natural England thinks it knows better. It always thinks it knows better, and it often has the last laugh, because the wretched quango also holds the purse strings. Did you know, Mr Dobbin, that Natural England is in charge of distributing around £400 million a year in European agriculture grants? At Withypool, the zombie is trying to blackmail my constituents. Natural England wants more cattle to graze on the common, and has put on the frighteners. To obtain higher level environmental stewardship scheme money, farmers have had to do precisely what Natural England wants. It wants 48 cows to graze a bit of land that would barely support half that number. For generations, Withypool common has been known as a sheep common, and in 1950, there were more than 2,000 sheep on the hill. What has Natural England got against sheep? Keeping sheep is about the only way for a young person to start in hill farming in my patch.
Why does Natural England not leave such decisions to farmers? It wants to dictate the precise dimensions for fence posts, which is bureaucracy gone mad. The purpose of the stewardship scheme is beyond question. We all want our precious land to be properly protected for future generations, but Natural England should not be allowed to roll into places such as Withypool and force farmers to adopt entirely pointless rules. It has become a Stalinist organisation, and uses scare tactics and threats to get its way.
My second example has a happier ending, but is also an object lesson about blinkered bullying. Natural England decided that it wanted to protect a supposedly rare species of butterfly on Grabbist hill, which overlooks Minehead. Do not get me wrong, Mr Dobbin. I like butterflies, as do the people of Minehead and the town council, but the whole town council began to see red when Natural England turned up and started throwing its weight around. It wanted the council to put up 9 miles of fencing and to put cows all over the area to churn it up. People in open-toed sandals and overdue haircuts arrived with a long list of absurd demands. The council took one look and told them, politely, to pack their butterfly nets and back off. Goose-stepping quangos in open-toed sandals do not win friends in my neck of the woods, nor will they ever.
That raises the question: what on earth is Natural England for? This is what it says it is for:
“We provide practical advice, grounded in science, on how best to safeguard England’s natural wealth for the benefit of everyone.”
The trouble is that it does not just provide practical advice. It has got it into its head that it is in charge. It even makes policies and tries to implement them, but I thought that that was the Government’s role. Natural England has a complete manifesto with 24 policy documents on everything, including access to the countryside, biotechnology, common agricultural policy reform, ports, transport, housing, wave power and wind energy. The list goes on, but I will not bore hon. Members.
Natural England is extremely partial to wind turbines. Dr Helen Phillips, Natural England's chief executive, believes that we should plonk them in our national parks. This is what she said:
“We have to move from knee-jerk nimbyism to an informed consensus that there are landscapes where sustainable renewable energy infrastructure is desirable and should be encouraged”.
I must apologise on behalf of all quango bosses, who suffer from a common problem. They are utterly unable to speak intelligible English, partly because most of them are detached from the real world. In Dr Helen Phillips’s case that may also be because she is Welsh. I have nothing against the Welsh—I am a Scot—but after all these years, Dr Phillips has been playing Myfanwy to her favourite character from the valleys—Dai, Boyo Dai, Boyo Dai Versity. This year, 2010, is the year of Boyo Dai Versity, and everything that Dr Phillips and her quango do must be approved by Boyo's exacting standards. Her word is law, and what he says matters. I am sure, Mr Dobbin, that you were wondering how I would get round to this, but she has the only say in the village.
Biodiversity is a slippery word. In the dictionary it translates as “life on earth”. None of us objects to that, but some scientists have reinterpreted the word. It has become a religion, a cause and an excuse for changing anything and everything in the name of preserving life. Dr Phillips has allowed it to mean whatever she wants it to mean. That is what can happen when quangos are let out. They lose a sense of proportion. In addition—if I dare say this in this world of austerity—they are paid over the odds. Dr Phillips receives £144,000 a year, and six of her senior management team receive more than £80,000 a year. They have offices all over the country and around 2,000 staff to boss about. No wonder they have fooled themselves into thinking that they rule the world. Natural England has become far too big for Dr Phillips’s elegant, stiletto-heeled boots.
I promised the Chamber three examples of Natural England's muddle-headed actions. The third is all about flooding. Some of my constituency is on very low-lying land, which sometimes fills with water. Over the centuries, Somerset has learned to live with the problem and has discovered how to tame some of the incoming tides. But Natural England and its partner in crime, the Environment Agency, have a different agenda. They want to give a bit of my constituency back to the sea. Their argument goes like this: if it already floods, it is time to let it drown. Is that their policy? I do not know.
Our old friend Boyo Dai Versity must have been whispering in Dr Helen Phillips’s ear again. Natural England would like the tide on the south side of Steart point in my constituency, at the mouth of the river Parrett, to come in once and for all. It dreams of a brand new habitat for feathered friends such as the buff-breasted sandpiper and the long-billed dowitcher. But the project is not completely green. Natural England would have to spend £28 million of our money—our money—digging out that habitat. That is the sort of money that this nation should not and must not afford. Unfortunately, it is the sort of silly money that Natural England regards as chicken feed.
Natural England has a reputation for operating like the mediaeval church. It threatens damnation and doom if things are not done in precisely its way. Two years ago, Natural England came up with a plan to wipe out six villages, hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of farmland in Norfolk. It wanted to allow the sea to breach 15 miles of the Norfolk coast and to flood low-lying land to create a new bay. That would have destroyed the villages of Eccles, Sea Palling, Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham. That was just to satisfy a misinterpretation of the meaning of that wretched word biodiversity. No wonder Natural England is unpopular. In fact, the bosses were unpopular more or less from the day that they started.
An internal survey conducted one year after Natural England was formed condemned senior management for a lack of leadership. It is an organisation in which low morale has become the norm and where employees feel insecure and few seem to have any pride in what they do. That is hardly surprising because often what they do is upset people for no good reason.
Take fluffy rabbits. Cuddly? Yes, and they breed like crazy. They gobble their way through crops if they are not kept under control—as a farmer, my hon. Friend the Minister will know that more than most. Natural England has enraged landowners and farmers by helping to scrap legislation. Under the Agriculture Act 1947 and the Pests Act 1954, all landowners had a duty to keep down rabbit numbers on their property to protect crops, and rightly so. If their neighbour failed to do that, aggrieved farmers could apply to Natural England for a notice ordering a bunny hunt. Great. Natural England decided to get rid of that rule and, as one can imagine, rural organisations were furious. Who is in charge of that? Dr Phillips and her great friend, Mr Boyo Dai Versity, are now regarded as loony bunny huggers. That is not a great accolade.
Last year, the Public Accounts Committee produced a damning report on Natural England’s management of sites of special scientific interest, and it was found guilty of using outdated information and keeping incomplete records. The Committee criticised the organisation for failing to take enforcement action and highlighted financial mismanagement. If those were one-off isolated cases, perhaps we could forgive them, but attacks on Natural England come from all quarters and are still coming.
Did Natural England—I say this advisedly—tell lies when Lyme bay was declared out of bounds for fishing? The marine protected areas fishing coalition believes that it did and that Natural England may have twisted the facts and used false science to justify its actions. That is a serious charge to lay against any organisation where a lot of the senior managers are trained scientists. However, something has been done about the situation. In future—I thank the Minister—Natural England will play no role in the design, implementation or enforcement of marine conservation zones. The fishing coalition also identified the real problem with Natural England, which is that sometimes it advises the Government, and sometimes it pretends that it is the Government.
As the election approached and the prospect of a new Government loomed, there were signs that Natural England was beginning to get the message. It was a bit late, but better late than never. Dr Phillips came up with a super-duper idea that she thought was new, original and ground-breaking thinking. Why not open Natural England’s books and let its partners, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the national parks, tell her what was going wrong? In other words, Dr Phillips decided to listen. Hallelujah! It was not a particularly original idea, but I must commend her for doing so. However, I wonder whether it was necessary to hire a firm of expensive consultants to arrange all the meetings. All they did was sit together in a room and discuss how to co-operate. Apparently, it was the first time that they had ever done so.
It never occurred to Natural England to talk openly to its partners, and it came as a surprise to learn what its partners actually thought. It should have been an obvious thing to do, but it required an element of fear to get everybody around the same table. Natural England was scared of what a new Government might do—rightly so with my hon. Friend as the Minister. It decided to do what it should have done years ago and talked. It was simple. Natural England had been living in a bubble for far too long and it had begun to trust its own propaganda. It thought that it could walk on water like a former Prime Minister, but it cannot and should not. If it tried, I sincerely hope that the Minister would try and prevent it. Significant change is long overdue. We cannot afford another wasteful duplication of different agencies. We should not tolerate inefficiency, never mind pomposity. It is certainly not Natural England’s job to preach—that is ours.
If Natural England is serious about getting its house in order, it must do certain things. First, it must dramatically reduce back-office costs. Secondly, it must work more closely and openly with all other partners and bodies. Thirdly, it must prove to the Government, hon. Members and the public that its thinking has changed. Fourthly, it must stop doing things that the Government do not need—let the Government govern, not Natural England. Above all, it must stop making policy and lobbying. That is not its job. It must carry out the policy of Government, not make it.
On 30 November, the chairman of Natural England is due to make a keynote speech about the future of land management at a special conference of the Royal Agricultural Society—the Minister may be there. I sincerely hope that by then the chairman will know what he is meant to be talking about, but I am afraid that we must ask: what if he does not know?
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about Natural England, and it is appropriate for us to have this debate a week after the public spending review. I welcome and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on obtaining this short debate; it has allowed him to practise his rhetoric, to which we are all well accustomed.
I would like to go back to the origins of Natural England and emphasise that its setting-up had full cross-party support. Unsurprisingly, I was Opposition spokesperson at the time, and I can recall the debates on the legislation in Committee. We did not support all the fine detail of the provisions, but the overall idea of setting up the body received cross-party support. The idea was to bring together a number of activities that were synonymous and complementary to a degree, and that carried a risk of duplication.
Let me elaborate a little on the role of Natural England. It is the Government’s statutory adviser on landscape, biodiversity and the natural environment. Previously, that function was largely carried out by English Nature. Natural England will continue to carry out a range of important functions that support and contribute to all three key priorities outlined in the structural reform plan published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July. Those are: to support British farming and encourage sustainable food production; to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life; and to support a strong and sustainable green economy that is resilient to climate change.
Natural England’s role in delivering for DEFRA on the landscape, biodiversity and the natural environment includes, as my hon. Friend has said, managing the stewardship and green farming schemes that come under the rural development programme for England. It also includes reducing the decline of biodiversity and managing the licensing of protected species across England; designating national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty; and notifying sites of special scientific interest, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend.
The Government’s response to the Public Accounts Committee report, to which my hon. Friend referred, stated clearly that a fair criticism had been made at the time, but that the world had moved on. Natural England had addressed those issues, and by the end of March 2009 it had successfully completed the programme to develop conservation objectives for all SSSIs. Criticism was fair at the time, but it is now out of date.
Natural England also works for the Government in making recommendations to DEFRA on the designation of sites, such as special areas of conservation under the EU habitats directive, and special protection areas under the EU birds directive. It acts as a statutory consultee to competent authorities that are considering proposals for plans, projects or other developments that might affect biodiversity. It provides conservation advice on the selection of marine protected areas, and monitors progress towards the achievement of conservation objectives for those designated sites, thereby contributing to the development of proposals for marine conservation zones.
Natural England is required to work with farmers and land managers. One of the points on which the then Opposition challenged the Government during the stages of the Bill to set up Natural England was ensuring that the organisation worked with those who relied on the land for their living. The Government of the day did not really accept that, and I remember that some amendments we proposed were rejected. Nevertheless, we feel strongly that Natural England must work with farmers, land managers, business, industry, planners, developers and everybody involved in improving the environment. That is a bit of the history.
Let me now bring hon. Members up to speed with where we are under the new coalition Government. We are working with Natural England to implement a radical and comprehensive package of measures to transform it—I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome that—into a much leaner, more efficient delivery body, focused strongly on our ambitions for the natural environment. Significant changes across the organisation will create a new delivery model that is more effective and cost-efficient in delivering on those objectives. For a start, as my hon. Friend requested, Natural England will dramatically reduce its back-office costs, while keeping to a minimum any reduction in delivery. It will work much more closely with the other arm’s length bodies to eliminate any duplication in work.
My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned a significant reduction in backroom costs. The total staff costs for this year for Natural England are £96,460,000. Can he give an assurance that there will be a dramatic reduction in that figure?
Yes, I can. I cannot put a precise figure on it, because we are still working through the implications of last week’s announcement for all our arm’s length bodies, but we have made no secret of the fact that all of them will have to carry their fair share of the 33% reduction in DEFRA administration costs, which applies right across the DEFRA family. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.
Natural England will be required to work much more closely with arm’s length bodies to eliminate any duplication in work and to focus the collective resources available on delivering on the priorities. One matter on which we are working hard is ensuring that Natural England works much more closely not just with arm’s length bodies, but with the many non-governmental organisations in the field of conservation and biodiversity, many of which have very competent advisers on the ground with the credibility and experience to work closely with farmers and land managers. We want Natural England to involve them much more in delivery. We also want to see the demonstrable culture change to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referred, and innovative ways of working that embrace the Government’s objectives of localism, the big society and improved customer focus.
Natural England is considering the options for improving the management of our national nature reserves in a way that is more consistent with our big society ambitions while ensuring continued environmental protection, and the options for sharing sponsorship of areas of outstanding natural beauty with DEFRA, cementing the accountability with Ministers—an issue to which my hon. Friend also referred.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we have made it clear that there must be an end to any policy-making and lobbying activities. We cannot have the situation that we had in the last Parliament, in which Natural England was lobbying for amendments to legislation using taxpayers’ money. That will stop.
We are working with Natural England to minimise any impact on the Government’s natural environment objectives. Despite the pressures on public expenditure, Natural England will become much more effective in contributing to the biodiversity objectives, not only through its own functions but because it needs better to engage with and support the important contributions made by civil society bodies, local communities, businesses, farmers and so on.
As a result, Natural England is considering a number of ideas to involve civil society partners in all aspects of its work—delivery on nature reserves, volunteering, access and ensuring continued environmental protection. It is committed to developing a much stronger focus on integrating the engagement of civil society in the delivery of Natural England’s duties and on looking for further opportunities. It already has a number of partnerships with big society organisations—for instance, in its work to co-ordinate the input of those bodies into the England biodiversity group on behalf of DEFRA—and it needs to do more.
My hon. Friend rightly paid attention to environmental stewardship. That plays a pivotal role in delivering on DEFRA’s priority of enhancing the environment and biodiversity to improve the quality of life. Last week’s spending announcement made that clear, with an increase in the money available for higher-level stewardship schemes. DEFRA and Natural England are already working with farming and environmental partners to improve the effectiveness of stewardship, including through such initiatives as the campaign for the farmed environment. That was launched under the previous Government, partly as a result of pressure from the then Opposition, because we made it clear that we would not support an increase in statutory set-aside; we wanted a voluntary approach. That is working very successfully, but more effort needs to be made. There is considerable scope for more work with various outside partners and, again, we are making that clear to Natural England.
Higher-level stewardship funding, which delivers significant benefits for biodiversity—everyone recognises that it is the most effective scheme—will increase by 83%, compared with this year, by 2013-14. I have to accept that the rate of growth is slightly slower than would otherwise have been the case. Nevertheless, it is growth, which should be welcomed.
Entry-level stewardship remains open to all farmers, but our aim must be to seek improvements wherever we can. We aim to improve the targeting and focus of entry-level stewardship agreements, because we want better outcomes and to concentrate a little of the effort on achieving specific outcomes. That will provide a large-scale uplift in their environmental value. Of course, we must take account of the Government response to the Lawton report as we do all this.
I am well aware of the criticisms of Natural England. My hon. Friend made a number of them. He has made them in the past, as have many others. Indeed, I have made them myself in the past, and will continue to do so if I do not believe that it is achieving its objectives. However, against the targets set by the previous Government, it has performed well. We can argue about whether the targets were right, but it did achieve what it was told to do. However, there is no doubt in my mind that under the previous Government and the previous leadership, Natural England allowed itself to expand and develop into areas that it should not have got into. My hon. Friend referred to the present chairman of Natural England, Poul Christensen, whom I believe is very cognisant of the fact that it needs to look again at what it is doing and to be reined back to its key functions. I am quite confident that he will do that.
Whatever Natural England has achieved, it cannot go on working in the same way because of all the pressures to which I have referred, and the concern about its direction. It must maximise its effectiveness against the background of a reducing budget—a fact to which I referred. Therefore, although we have decided that Natural England should be retained as a public body, neither the public nor Natural England should be complacent or rest on their laurels. It must be substantially reformed through a structural process and through cultural change to become a much more efficient and customer-focused organisation with clarified accountabilities.
By the time we publish next year’s White Paper on the natural environment—probably in April or thereabouts—which will be an important step forward in the coalition’s commitment to the environment, Natural England will be in a much better position and will have a better arrangement with which to deliver on the objectives that we set out in the White Paper. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to put on the record how we see Natural England developing over the next few months and the way in which it will continue to play a vital but, we hope, more focused and targeted role in delivering on the Government’s objectives.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Dobbin. Every year, an astonishing 250,000 people in the UK are reported missing to the police, and two thirds of those are under the age of 18. Occasionally, the country can be overwhelmed by public anxiety when faced with awful child abduction cases, such as that of Madeleine McCann, but we remain unaware of the vast majority of cases. I shall talk today about some of the key aspects of the missing persons phenomenon and the problems that families face when their loved ones go missing. I shall also highlight the current risk of closure to both the UK Missing Persons Bureau and the charity Missing People—two agencies that work hand in hand to help missing people and the devastated families they leave behind.
First, let us consider the scale of the challenge. Three quarters of the disappearances reported to the police are resolved in two days, but a significant minority—about 20,000—last longer than a week and 2,500 last in excess of a year. Adults are more likely to remain missing for longer periods than young people, and the National Policing Improvement Agency recently revealed that about 940 bodies found in the UK over the past 50 years remain unidentified. In the region of 10 new cases of unidentified bodies are registered with the Missing Persons Bureau each month.
About 100,000 children aged under 16 run away each year, and 20% will be at high risk of being hurt or harmed. They might sleep rough or stay with someone they have just met. Research suggests that they are at serious risk, exposed to violence, criminality, substance abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking. Other missing people are adults fleeing dysfunctional relationships or experiencing problems at work, or who have become detached from their families through drug and alcohol use and mental health problems. A smaller proportion of disappearances—still a significant number—result from a person going missing unintentionally. Examples include dementia sufferers becoming lost, or people having accidents or becoming victims of abduction and serious crime.
It is estimated that more than 1,000 missing people, including about 50 children, are found dead each year. These include people who take their own lives, who have an accident, who become lost and die of exposure, and who are victims of crime. The problem is far more widespread than most people would ever imagine.
As a local MP and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, I was interested in a recent exercise by Greater Manchester police. They tweeted every incident in which they were involved for 24 hours. In that short space of time, there were 127 calls relating to missing people, including five relating to missing children in my constituency of Stockport alone. That is a lot of people and a lot of anguish. The cases in my area included a 10-year-old boy, two 14-year-olds and one 15-year-old.
Families of missing people can suffer severe emotional problems, as well as significant financial, legal and practical difficulties. At the moment, the police, the Missing Persons Bureau and Missing People work closely together, dovetailing effectively to protect runaways and the devastated families left behind. Yet, as it stands, the very core of the front-line missing persons services is under threat. We face the prospect that, with a single blow, the entire national investment into missing persons could be ended.
As I speak, the closure of the National Policing Improvement Agency places the existence of the Missing Persons Bureau, which is the only UK agency focused exclusively on missing people, under the threat of total closure. The bureau alone possesses the national records for unidentified bodies and helps the police with missing persons investigations up and down the country. It is the UK national and international point of contact for all missing persons and unidentified body cases.
Also, the charity Missing People—which works closely with the police and the bureau, providing a unique service supporting families—is facing the total withdrawal from 1 April of its core Government funding of £500,000, made up of £150,000 from the Department for Education for a runaway helpline and £350,000 from the NPIA. Such a withdrawal will inevitably place the charity, which already works incredibly hard to raise 75% of its funding, at risk.
I want to argue that, instead of removing the missing persons infrastructure, we must maintain investment and underpin it with new legislation which supports existing services and does much-needed filling in of gaps. Britain lags behind the United States, and other European nations, regarding legislation. We simply do not have legislation to protect missing children and adults. At present, if someone’s house is burgled they are automatically offered emotional, practical and legal support; however, if their child goes missing they may get nothing, although they are surely a victim.
To illustrate the scale of the problem and the damage that might be done if we remove the missing persons support provided by the bureau and Missing People, I want to outline the work they do in providing support to families. Each month, the bureau supports an average of 500 cases and conducts some 100 cross-matched searches, while receiving 800 records of missing people. At present, the remains of 940 people have still to be identified; yet that important cross-matching work might cease if non-crime-related services are cut. The vast majority of those bodies represent a devastated family waiting for closure and answers. The matching must continue, so that families no longer have to wait for years for news of their relatives, only to find that they were buried in an unmarked grave or were on the coroner’s slab all along.
Last year, the charity Missing People took 114,000 desperate calls for help. In the past six months alone it has produced 275 of its iconic poster appeals to help bring some of those missing back home. In the same period it provided emotional support for more than 900 families—a service unique to Missing People. It was able to give some of those families the answers they were so desperate for, and to help close almost 340 missing persons cases. Sadly, nearly 1,000 cases are still open. It also provides ground-breaking research. The latest research, to be published shortly, highlights a frightening link between younger men being reported missing after a night out and their bodies later being found in water. We must ensure that young men are educated about that link, so that further deaths can be avoided.
The charity works with the police to provide valuable help in linking unidentified bodies to missing people. Fred and Rosemary West were convicted for killing at least 10 women and children. While the police worked tirelessly to identify the victims, at least half had not been reported missing. Only through the vital help of the then National Missing Persons Helpline—now called Missing People—were three of those anonymous victims finally indentified and their families able to lay them to rest. That is a further striking example of the fundamental importance of joint working between statutory and voluntary agencies.
We have come a long way since the West murders: there has been the 2005 Association of Chief Police Officers guidance on missing persons investigations, to help standardise best practice; the development of better computer systems in most constabularies across the country; and an increase in public awareness of the services provided by the charity Missing People. Despite that great progress, much work still needs to be done. By removing the missing persons infrastructure that our public and voluntary sectors have worked so hard to build up, we would not only deprive those whom it serves but also send a signal to perpetrators of evil crimes that we will not stand up to protect the most vulnerable.
The Government should take a number of steps: first, the vital one of developing a national missing persons database. I understand that a computer system already exists that could do the job, and that is inexpensive and in use by 24 police forces. If there was one system, one log of missing children and adult cases, and one location for the facts and faces of the missing, data-sharing would not be a problem or require expensive solutions.
There should be procedures for recording information and sharing it between the police, children’s services, care homes, Ofsted and the voluntary sector. The information could be used to analyse patterns of running away from home or local authority care. I would also like to see the police working with local authorities to ensure that preventive and intensive support services are available in every area of the country to young people who run away. Currently, only 10% of local authorities have access to young-runaway services. There are only two emergency beds in the whole of the UK, and one in three police forces reports that young people have to stay overnight in police cells because there is no emergency accommodation. The work is currently carried out through local authority data collection for national indicator 71, which is now unfortunately being scrapped.
We need fresh statutory legislation, so that local authorities record how many children and young people are missing in their locality, and to ensure that a return interview is carried out. The police must also have a key role in working with local safeguarding children’s boards to develop a set of multi-agency protocols and procedures for when a child goes missing.
I would also like the Government to consider a Green Paper on missing persons in order to protect missing adults and children. The first steps were set out in work by the Home Office, initiated by the missing persons taskforce, which I hope the Minister can confirm will continue. This need not be an added expense; indeed, in the spirit of the big society, we could use the Green Paper to explore using Missing People staff and volunteers further to support police and families. The charity believes that there is enormous potential to increase the role of individuals and organisations in the local community in resolving cases, safeguarding missing people, preventing disappearances and supporting families. Indeed, Missing People has already made substantial progress in creating networks of organisations to resolve cases more expeditiously, improving outcomes for missing people and their families and delivering cost savings at a local level.
We should require the Missing Persons Bureau to match every single body against every outstanding missing persons case. We should examine legislative opportunities to introduce a requirement in law—this happens for victims of crime—to ensure that every missing person’s family is signposted to Missing People’s free emotional, practical and legal support. We must use legislation to catch up with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations, who have already legislated for the presumption of death. In England and Wales, we have no guidance in cases where a missing person is presumed dead.
My wife was a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross and saw slavers moving people in chains or ropes across south Sudan towards the Arabian peninsula. Does Missing People have any evidence that any of our children are being shipped abroad to become slaves?
I am not sure about that, but I think that Missing People will respond directly to the hon. Gentleman on that very good point. The events we are debating do not happen simply within national boundaries, but go further.
We should make it a duty for a coroner to co-operate with police inquiries into missing people and to provide DNA evidence. Coroners are currently not required to co-operate with missing persons investigations and in some cases fail to provide information that could lead to a body’s being matched with an outstanding missing persons inquiry. I would also like the updated ACPO guidance on the investigation, management and recording of missing persons incidents to be published.
Our banks and insurance companies should have codes of practice to safeguard the families of missing people, who face the prospect of legal battles to safeguard their relative’s estate and, for example, to continue paying a mortgage on a property owned by the missing person.
It is vital that the Government protect the budget for missing persons. Ministers announced a 7% cut to local authority budgets, including a 50% reduction in funding for services for children in care by 2012. Police funding will also be cut. There are few services to support young people who run away, and there is no statutory obligation on, or centralised funding for, local authorities to provide services. Nationally, projects were experiencing reduced funding even before the latest spending cuts.
For the families of the disappeared, every day is a painful place of hope and despair, as they hope for news, but worry that not everything is being done to find their loves ones. We must send them the signal that they will not be forgotten.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing a debate on such an important and sensitive issue. In Medway, in Kent, 65 people were reported as missing, but that number was reduced to 15 through the excellent work of Kent police in partnership with the local authority in Medway.
Time is of the essence, so I will make my points brief. My first point relates to the community policing and case tracking system used first to report that a person is missing. Somebody who has been dealing with these issues for 30 years says of the system:
“I must stress that there are, in my opinion, far too many inconsistencies, duplication, multiple recording, and unnecessary recording, in the data, to rely on the result for any serious statistical purposes, which for a system, which is essentially a management tool, not a bona fide investigative tool, is staggering.”
I ask the Minister to review the system, which is used by a number of constabularies and local authorities around the country.
My second point relates to the hon. Lady’s point about having a national investigation system. Some would say that such a system should be aligned or compatible with murder investigation principles to meet the issue of investigation. At the moment, different constabularies use different systems, so having a national investigation system, as the hon. Lady suggested, would be a key point.
Finally, there is prevention. Local authorities, education services and housing and welfare services should intervene earlier to ensure that those who might go missing get support in the very beginning.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this Adjournment debate on the important subject of missing persons. I should also congratulate her on her appointment as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. I know that she takes a close personal interest in this significant issue, and I very much welcome her contribution and the way in which she approached and highlighted it.
When we talk about missing persons, I am struck by the broader context. In many ways, that context was reflected in today’s contributions. The debate may be linked, for example, to child sexual exploitation and honour-based violence. I very much appreciate that wider context and why we need to focus on dealing with this issue in a serious and measured way. I therefore thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I also thank her and other hon. Members for their contributions. They have taken a measured and considered approach to the issue.
Sadly, missing persons constitute an area of public protection that has, in many ways, not always been regarded as the priority that it should be; in some contexts, it has been regarded as more of a niche subject. However, as my initial comments highlighted, the Government take the issue very seriously, and the same is true of our responsibility to ensure that the response to missing persons is as effective as possible.
The hon. Lady’s remarks were very interesting. Listening to the debate, I was further convinced that greater co-operation and collaboration between all the agencies involved will place us on a more solid platform and help to deliver improved services not only for those who go missing, but for the families and friends who are left behind. The hon. Lady spoke powerfully of the impact that someone’s disappearance has on family and friends, who wonder what has happened to their loved one.
The previous Government looked at the issue, and that resulted in the missing persons task force, which the hon. Lady mentioned. The task force studied the landscape, exposed some of the shortcomings and made 22 recommendations in the appendix to its report, which it published earlier this year. One of my earliest tasks as Home Office Minister with responsibility for missing persons was to examine the task force report with a view to understanding where we are on the missing persons problem and to consider what could be done to improve the response. I was pleased to agree early action to ensure dissemination of existing good practice to police forces, to improve information sharing and to ensure police compliance on the code of practice.
We are in the process of taking that work forward. On good practice, I was pleased to see an ACPO toolkit launched on the police online knowledge area system just over a month ago. POLKA is a useful resource for police forces engaged in missing persons investigations. It includes toolkits governing good practice in identifying found people and a forensic examination toolkit. There are plans imminently to go live with a similar toolkit for forces on parental and familial child abductions. It is however clear to me that more can and should be done to improve the response and equally that real improvements can be achieved if existing structures, agencies and resources work better and more effectively together to ensure that those who go missing and their families are properly supported. I have asked my officials to conduct a review of the full set of task force recommendations by the end of the year to consider what, if any, further action we can take on this important issue, considering the changing landscape, and the way in which certain issues have moved on since the publication of the report.
More generally, it is my firm belief that in the meantime, there is some tangible work that can be done now to create the conditions needed for the kind of close engagement we think necessary.
A lady called Mrs Nicki Durbin, of Hollesley in my constituency, wrote to me about the importance of the issue, in connection with her son, Luke Durbin, who disappeared four years ago. I hear what the Minister says about guidelines, and similar things, but how, in the present stricken times, will he prioritise ensuring that the issue of missing persons does not drop off our police forces’ priority list?
I think that I can give my hon. Friend that assurance on the basis of the action that I have already taken, including the focus being brought to bear by examining the task force recommendations and ensuring that the issue is seen as important for Government. Work has already started, for example, to develop the role of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in relation to missing and abducted children. The centre has already brought its expertise to bear in the relevant area this year through, among other things, a cold case review and work to incorporate missing children elements into existing public and child safety training programmes. I believe that CEOP will bring a great deal of expertise in child protection to the table. I want it to build on its extensive experience of responding to incidents in which children and young people have been vulnerable to abuse.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing to the attention of the House the issue of the future of the statutory and voluntary agencies. Missing children aside, I note from the debate the understandable concern and anxiety among some hon. Members about the future of the National Policing Improvement Agency Missing Persons Bureau. However, let me be clear that no decisions have yet been made on the future of the bureau, either about funding or where functions may sit in the future.
Hon. Members will of course be aware that we launched a policing consultation in the summer, which, among other things, sought views on our plan to create a national crime agency. The consultation has now closed and we will be publishing a summary of the responses and the Government’s position soon. As part of that, work is continuing to determine the exact nature of the role of the NCA and indeed where the respective activities might sit within the new landscape—including those of CEOP and the Missing Persons Bureau, although at this stage no final decisions have been taken.
I note, too, the concerns raised about central Government funding to the Missing People charity. I understand the difficulties that it will cause, but I cannot today make commitments to resources, which as we all know are currently scarce; but I can give a commitment to listen to concerns and look for any opportunities to support the charity in other ways. I met representatives of Missing People in the summer and look forward to meeting them again to discuss the matter further.
I want to refer briefly to the excellent work of Missing People in support of one of my constituents, Dr Alan Smith, whose brother disappeared more than 22 years ago. Missing People did not exist when that happened, but since it has been established it has done excellent work and I urge the Minister to find ways to ensure that its good work can continue, particularly in relation to legal advice. My constituent found that few solicitors he turned to had any idea what advice to give.
I certainly recognise the contribution made by Missing People to the action plan, and the support that it has given. That is why I was keen to have a meeting soon after my appointment. I look forward to discussing some of the issues shortly.
I want to deal with some of the specific points made by the hon. Lady, although I am conscious that time is pressing. If I cannot get through them all in the time available, I shall write to her on any outstanding issues. She raised the matter of support to families when a loved one goes missing. I too feel that nothing could be more important than the need to trace the missing person, but in turn, it is just as critical that families who are left in limbo when their close relatives go missing for the long term should be supported, and that they should know where to turn for help. Ensuring that the families of the missing, and the missing themselves, receive the support they require and deserve is vital to our overall efforts at addressing the problem. Of course, we can never hope to prevent people from going missing if they are determined to do so, but we can ensure that proper mechanisms are put in place to provide the support that is needed.
As with all aspects of public protection, when people go missing, close collaboration between police forces and indeed between police and statutory and voluntary agencies is surely crucial to making an effective response, and ultimately a successful outcome and the resolution of cases, possible. However, those things take time to achieve, as organisations get used to working together towards a common goal. That approach also means a change of mindset and the will to improve, and I am determined that the Government should do what they can to facilitate that.
Ipswich was the place where Luke Durbin went missing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) mentioned. It was also the place where there were, sadly, serial murders of sex workers a few years ago. A critical point arising from the experience of trying to deal with the prostitution trade there is that very small local charities were instrumental in helping to clear up that terrible situation. Many of those concerned were themselves missing people. I want to impress on the Minister the role of very small local charities, many of which are suffering from tendering arrangements in Ipswich.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the valuable and important role of charities and the voluntary sector. They are part of the landscape and the innovative and important work that is done. I appreciate that serious point.
As to body matching, a number of good examples of successful cross-matching already carried out by the bureau prove that the system works fairly well, but there is clearly always room to improve the way those cases are handled, and we will reflect on that further in relation to future work.
The matter of a single database and Compact was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and we need to recognise that the Missing Persons Bureau and the charity Missing People both use a database of missing and found people, including bodies and body parts, called Hermes, which has undergone different modifications at different times in its different locations, resulting in a different complexion for essentially the same system. I am keen that some work should be done to determine the merits of a single database and that there should be better exchange of information on a regular basis between organisations. That should also include an examination of the future shape of Compact, the missing persons case management system, which is already in use in 22 police forces.
With regard to coroners, DNA evidence and a duty to co-operate, coroners already seek to establish the identity of unknown bodies that come into their custody, and that process includes DNA testing. Where a deceased person cannot be identified, the body must be disposed of by the responsible local authority in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, either by burial or cremation. Most coroners already co-operate fully with the police when they have a body in their custody that they cannot identify, and they are likely to respond positively to any local or national strategy, with associated protocols, that may be established. As part of planned changes to the coroner system, announced in a written statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), on 14 October at column 37WS, the Ministry of Justice will be taking forward work to establish improved guidance to coroners on the procedures that they follow in relation to every aspect of post-mortem and related examinations.
I do not pretend that there is not more to do, but I hope that my comments go some way to answering the questions posed by hon. Members and reassuring them that the Government are committed to the issue of missing persons and missing persons services. Early assistance to police forces is already in place through the toolkits, the role of CEOP in relation to missing children is being developed, and future activities by the Missing Persons Bureau are being considered in the light of the policing consultation. There is clearly more work to be done, but I look forward to updating and working with the key agencies to deliver improvements to this important area of safeguarding over the coming months.
I am pleased, Mr Dobbin, to address this subject under your chairmanship. It is a serious one for my constituents, and my focus today is on localism.
I appreciate the Minister making time to respond to the debate. I hope that he will clarify Government policy on incineration and say how it relates to empowering local communities to make decisions about their areas. I am delighted to see that he is to respond to the debate; he successfully held the same position in opposition for a number of years. I am particularly pleased that he visited Middlewich in my constituency when he was shadow Minister responsible for agriculture—I last raised this question with him then—so he knows the town of which I shall be speaking.
I hope that my contribution will be followed by one from my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Lorraine Fullbrook). An incinerator has been installed in her constituency, and I hope that what she says will serve to show what can happen to towns once an incinerator has been built.
I am holding a file 2 inches thick, which is full of correspondence from my constituents. They do not want an incinerator 500 metres from Middlewich town. I have received no letters of support for an incinerator there—not one. Most of the letters in this folder are individually written, including one from a seven-year-old boy who lives near where the planned incinerator would be built.
The local council refused planning permission for the incinerator earlier this year. Its decision is now being appealed. The final say lies with the Secretary of State, who will have to make a decision in the near future, so I understand that details of this case cannot be discussed by the Minister today. However, I believe that we should discuss the principles.
I hope that the Minister will agree that a local community should be able to decide on its identity. Middlewich is a friendly, small market town with a population of approximately 13,000, and it has tremendous community spirit. It has a rich past as a Roman settlement, and it is a former salt-mining community. It has a good selection of independent shops, pubs and cafés. The Trent and Mersey canal goes right through the town. The strong local community has worked hard to develop a vibrant tourist industry, including an annual boat and folk festival that attracts some 20,000 visitors.
Community life in Middlewich involves the whole community, as well as churches, schools and local organisations. For example, the British Legion and the rotary club, among others, will soon hold a weekend-long charity beer festival. Only two weeks ago, it seemed that the whole town had dressed up in period costume for a world war two event. The community of Middlewich remains strong in its ability to attract visitors, and it is a pleasant place to live, work and bring up a family.
Constituents have told me that more than 7,000 people signed a petition against the planned incinerator. That is more than half of the Middlewich population. I understand that no fewer than 3,300 letters of objection were sent to the council about the original planning application. When the planning committee refused the application earlier this year, hundreds of people from the Middlewich area attended at the civic hall. There was standing room only. I was glad to witness the fact that it was the unanimous decision of local councillors on the Cheshire East planning committee to reject the planning application.
In addition to the overwhelming desire of local people not to see the plan proceed, there are many other reasons why it was right that the planning application should have been rejected. The site is inappropriate. It is not identified as a preferred site in the Cheshire replacement waste local plan. At a public inquiry, only six sites in Cheshire were deemed suitable for thermal treatment, and Middlewich is not one of them. I understand that the nearest resident lives approximately 150 metres from the proposed site. As one resident has written, the site
“is too close to the town, schools, residential areas and farmland.”
Middlewich people work hard to make the town pleasant for visitors and residents, including through the various festivals that take place throughout the year, with people putting up bunting and flags and making their town attractive. All that would be dwarfed by the proposed construction of this enormous incinerator, which would have a smoke stack almost as tall as a football field is long. It would dominate the town and the surrounding countryside.
Traffic flow into and out of Middlewich is already bad. To feed the hunger of the planned incinerator, waste would have to be imported to the local area to be burned. That would affect local roads by increasing the already great congestion. The traffic flow through Middlewich is already heavy at daily peak times, and long tailbacks occur.
I am informed that the applicant’s estimate of the number of trips that would be generated if the incinerator was built is another 156 or so two-way movements of heavy vehicles along the A54 each day. However, as the source of the waste processed has not yet been fully identified—most of it, if not all, will come from outside Middlewich—any definitive statement by the applicant about the impact of traffic must be unsound. One thing is for sure: it would considerably exacerbate already serious daily traffic problems. Hon. Members may recall film footage of the traffic gridlock that occurred last winter during the severe bad weather; then, lorries had to travel through and to Middlewich for additional salt from the nearby British Salt depot.
Building an incinerator near Middlewich town centre would also be detrimental to employment. Far from the new development being a positive contribution to increased local employment, the plans could prove highly unfavourable to local employment prospects. The planned plant might create up to 50 jobs, but it could jeopardise many more. Future employers could be deterred from locating their premises in the vicinity of a waste incinerator for a variety of reasons. That applies particularly to the retail, food, leisure and service sectors.
Such community matters are not the only important factors, however; just as important are the principles of environmental safety and sustainability. Cheshire has a cluster of planned incinerators. Two are still to be determined; one is at Lostock in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am a fellow Cheshire Member, and, as we all know, Cheshire is God’s own county.
Four proposed incinerators surround my constituency. They are at Weston Point, Ince Marshes, Lostock and Middlewich. I wonder how we are going to feed them. At the height of production, the Weston Point incinerator will produce only 20% of the power required by INEOS Chlor, and that waste will come from Manchester. For some reason, although that incinerator is located on Merseyside, most of the Merseyside waste will not go to that incinerator but will have to go over the water to Ince Marshes in Cheshire. I am concerned about the logistics of that. I am also worried about viability. If Merseyside’s and Manchester’s waste are accounted for, where will the other incinerators get their waste from?
I have met with campaign groups such as the Cheshire Anti Incinerator Network and the Halton Action Group Against the Incinerator, as well as the applicants, Brunner Mond and INEOS Chlor, which are excellent local employers and part of the rich industrial heritage of the area. I have also met officials from the Environment Agency. From those discussions, it is clear that the most significant impact on the local communities will be the increase in traffic as the plants draw in waste from Cheshire and beyond.
My hon. Friend makes my points for me. If the four planned incinerators in Cheshire go ahead, there will be over-provision. There is no need for a further facility at Middlewich. That was confirmed in the original planning refusal, which stated that there would be an over-provision of waste facilities. It undermines the sustainability principle, which is that waste should be disposed of at an appropriate nearby location and should not be transported long distances.
My constituents are also concerned about the environmental and health implications of multiple incinerators in relatively close proximity to one another. Until a better scientific understanding is gained and the public can be reassured about such implications, my constituents feel that the precautionary principle should be applied.
I do not want to go into the details of the incineration in Middlewich, but it is important to understand why we incinerate or combust. This country continues to put more waste into landfill than any other country in Europe, which is a disgrace. There is a large landfill tip in Warrington that causes as much distress for residents as incinerators—I prefer to call them combined heat and power plants. Of course it is wrong to put such things in the wrong place, and we should be cognisant of local planning considerations. We also need to understand that landfill is, environmentally, the worst of all options, and it cannot be right that we continue to have more landfill than any other country in Europe.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, that is why the Middlewich residents are so offended; in November 2007, approval was given for a new landfill site, which is to be positioned less than half a mile away from the proposed new incinerator.
Let me touch on a further problem relating to the Government’s climate change and energy policy. Even if one recognises that waste management needs to be properly framed within a national strategy, there is a good argument to say that the planned incinerator in my constituency would fall foul of important efficiency criteria in the EU waste framework directive of 2008. I am not always fond of the EU, but the directive highlights the importance of efficiency in incineration for the purposes of creating energy and heat. It requires that incinerators be labelled as “recovering” energy from waste only if they have a burn and energy creation efficiency of some 65%. If they do not reach that criterion, they are to be considered a disposal facility. In other words, they would be on a par with landfills.
I am reliably informed that the normal efficiency of incinerators in the UK is about 25%, and that the efficiency of the one in Middlewich, according to the company that wants to build it, would be, at best, 26%. It is interesting to note that one of the original reasons for refusing the initial application was that the applicant had not shown that it had made adequate provision for
“means of grid connection for the recovery and export of energy for the facility.”
Let us not delude ourselves: in the waste hierarchy, a low efficiency rating is on a par with landfill. That is not sustainable and should not be considered environmentally friendly. The Sustainable Development Commission has recommended that only high-efficiency energy from waste plants—namely energy from plants that produce a 65% return on burning waste—should receive Government support, and I agree with it.
Furthermore, the principle that the Government are promoting, whereby local communities should decide how best to deal with their own waste, does not seem to apply either to the process of appealing to the national level, or to the logic of the use of large-scale imported incineration. In reference to an application made by Covanta in the Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the Prime Minister recently said that it is right that
“decisions should be made locally. We want to make sure that all the latest technology for alternatives to incineration is considered, so that we can make sure that we are using the best ways to achieve a green approach.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 851.]
There is clearly consensus on this issue in the coalition.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:
“We support modern energy generation from waste where local communities want it and where it makes good environmental sense.”——[Official Report, 1 July 2010; Vol. 512, c. 977.]
I emphasise the words
“where local communities want it”.
That is the principle to which we should adhere. Local people should decide about such matters. We can talk about national policies, but there is one overriding factor that distant decision-makers ignore at their peril: the people of Middlewich do not want the incinerator, and Middlewich is their home.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this very important debate on a subject that is exercising the mind of many of my constituents in Selby and Ainsty, and constituents from across the whole of North Yorkshire. Let me take this opportunity to remind my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) that there is only one county that can be called “God’s own”, and that is Yorkshire.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced that as part of the comprehensive spending review, it reviewed the amount of private finance initiative grant that the Government need to put into local government-funded waste-treatment infrastructure. It concluded that some projects will not go ahead. However, thousands of concerned North Yorkshire residents will be disappointed that the North Yorkshire and city of York waste PFI project at Allerton Park is one of the 11 projects that will retain its provisional allocation of PFI credits. Will the Minister be kind enough to let me know why the Allerton Park project is one of those schemes to escape the CSR axe and on what grounds the decisions on what scheme to keep or scrap were made? Furthermore, will the Minister tell me and my concerned constituents, thousands of whom have signed a petition against the proposal, whether he believes that North Yorkshire county council is using public money wisely by signing up the public purse to a 25 to 30-year PFI project, with an initial cost to the taxpayer of £65 million, especially during such straitened times?
Let me add my concerns to the debate about Allerton Park. The financial case for the proposal at Allerton Park is deeply flawed. The proposed incinerator will require 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, yet the household waste generated across North Yorkshire will not reach that level. That means that the incinerator will have to take commercial waste; there is nothing wrong with that, but it means that the risk will be with the local taxpayer, and the gain will be with the incinerator operators.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many local residents and I believe that the PFI project is flawed because it relies on forecasts of increasing waste volumes, low recycling and rising landfill tax over the next 25 to 30 years. To the best of my knowledge, the Minister’s Department does not know what the level of landfill tax is likely to be in five years’ time, let alone in 25 years’ time. North Yorkshire’s figures potentially overestimate domestic waste volumes and underestimate increases in recycling. The result is that the intended incinerator capacity is likely to be almost twice the necessary amount, so the project cost savings may very well not be realised, and that potentially means a bad deal for taxpayers.
I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said about what happens after a waste site is built. I experienced such problems when I was a parliamentary candidate for Lancashire before the boundary changes. The Farington waste site was built in my constituency, which is now the Ribble Valley constituency. The cross-party South Ribble council unanimously voted the application down, but the Lancashire county council voted it through. The aftermath has been horrific. This is a massive waste site, which in some cases runs 18 metres from the ends of people’s gardens. It has devastated the local wildlife and their habitats, and it has added one extra lorry movement every two minutes past long-established residential areas. It is taking rubbish from all over Lancashire, and is in danger of making South Ribble the dustbin of Lancashire. Simply put, this waste site has devastated people’s lives. Those who voted for it to be built next to residential properties should hang their heads in shame.
Thank you, Mr Dobbin, and good afternoon to you.
I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing a debate on an issue that is important not only for her constituency but, as has been shown, for a number of my hon. Friends, whom I think have differing views about the issue of incinerators. However, it is a big issue and last week’s comprehensive spending review announcements obviously impact on it.
My hon. Friend is probably aware that, despite her kind words at the beginning, this issue is not part of my portfolio. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), is at a Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg. Therefore, responding to this debate falls to me, but I will pass on to him the detail of what my hon. Friend has said.
Before I get into specifics, I want to make a few points that I hope will calm some concerns, even if they are not necessarily exactly what my hon. Friends want to hear. First, I want to give some facts about waste incinerators. We appreciate that there are huge concerns about incinerators, including their effect on air quality, the natural environment and the health of communities in the vicinity. My hon. Friend referred to the proximity of residences to incinerators in her area.
However, I must emphasize that all modern waste incinerators are subject to extremely stringent pollution controls. They have to comply with the waste incineration directive, which sets strict emission limits for pollutants. As my hon. Friend knows, the Environment Agency must grant the necessary permits for an incinerator to operate if a facility is not compliant with that directive. In other words, such a facility would have to get a permit, and I understand that the permit for the proposed Middlewich incinerator has not yet been granted; in fact, the Environment Agency is still considering the application. All of that means that emissions from waste incinerators are probably more heavily regulated than emissions from coal, gas and other forms of power generation from combustion.
I also need to make it clear that studies have failed to establish any convincing link between the emissions from incinerators and adverse effects on public health. Only last year, the Health Protection Agency reviewed the existing evidence and concluded that any effect on people’s health from incinerator emissions is likely be so small as to be undetectable. The agency also affirmed that adverse health effects from modern, well-regulated waste incinerators do not pose a significant threat to public health.
I hear what the Minister says about the level of pollution from incinerators, which is correct and broadly in accordance with reports produced, inter alia, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on this subject. However, it is not true of landfill sites, which sometimes cover many hundreds of acres and are regulated to a much worse standard, creating a much more significant public health issue. This is not a plea for incinerators to be built in the wrong place—the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton are very valid—but we need to understand that we are not comparing incineration with recycling but with landfill, and that is not acceptable either.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is extremely important that we understand what we call the “hierarchy of waste disposal”.
As my hon. Friends know, this Government are determined to be a green Government, and part of that involves moving towards a zero-waste economy. That does not mean having absolutely no waste—of course, that is nonsensical—but that resources are fully valued, and we recognise that one person’s waste may be another person’s raw material.
We are moving closer to zero landfill, and incidentally, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that the landfill tax is £48 a tonne at the moment and will rise by £8 a tonne for the next four years. So we do know what landfill tax will be in 2015, although I grant that we do not know what it will be in 25 years’ time. Nevertheless, that point might be a little helpful.
We are carrying out a thorough review of waste policy, which we will publish next spring. I cannot pre-empt the findings, but recovery of energy from some waste through incineration and other technologies such as anaerobic digestion is extremely important. That process has a role to play as we move towards the zero-waste economy that I have talked about.
At one extreme of that zero-waste economy is precisely the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) referred to: getting rid of landfill. We cannot go on dumping material in the ground. Not only is it bad in all the ways he described; leaving waste as a legacy for the generations to come, who would have to dig it up, is a pretty impolite thing to do.
So we have a hierarchy of waste disposal, and the preferred option is obviously to prevent waste being created. The next most preferable options are reuse, recycling and recovery—either of the waste itself or energy from it. Landfill must be the very last resort and hopefully, it will be eliminated altogether. Clearly, that hierarchy can change for different individual waste types if it makes environmental sense. However, wherever possible we must set our face against landfill.
In other countries, such as Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, recycling and the use of energy from waste operate in co-existence. In the Netherlands, recycling rates are around 65%, with 33% of energy coming from waste. The figures are similar in Scandinavia.
The waste hierarchy will shortly become UK law through the revised waste framework directive, under which we will have legal targets to meet. The Climate Change Act 2008 sets new targets for carbon budgets, and waste cannot be excepted from that process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton concentrated on local issues and it is entirely right that she did so. However, before I turn to them I cannot stress too much the fact that we can recover energy from waste not only through incineration but through other technologies. Nevertheless, incineration is a proven way of getting energy from waste, although nobody should pretend that it is some sort of “silver bullet”.
My hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) raised the issue of the Allerton Park project. I am afraid that I cannot answer all their questions, but I will happily write to them about the details of that project or ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to do so. However, I point out that, as we said last week, we will publish the methodology through which the 11 remaining sites with projects were left in the private finance initiative allocation, and through which the others were taken out. I therefore think we will be able to answer most of my hon. Friends’ concerns about the Allerton Park project.
I turn to the issue of the community. Of course, this Government make great play of the importance of decentralisation. It is an absolute commitment and we want to implement it as much as and wherever we possibly can. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton recognised in her speech, I cannot comment on the particulars of the Middlewich application, which will go to a planning appeal and ultimately, because it is affected by Government policy, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Nevertheless, the question of communities having their say and—if I understood my hon. Friend correctly—the planning authority’s rejecting the application unanimously are important issues that will have to be taken into account in the inquiry.
We want to ensure that where such applications are made, there is a proper, informed and vigorous debate within the local community, so that it can make the right choices. I fully understand that there is a great deal of public concern about this issue. Concern about incinerators is probably exceeded only by concern about the proposed siting of a Travellers’ camp next to people’s homes—and that might be a marginal difference.
It is important that I stress what I said earlier: that there are no public health issues related to having an incinerator in the vicinity. There may be other planning matters, and that is why I cannot comment on detailed planning issues, but we need to have these debates based on the facts. The fact is that all communities produce waste, and responsibility must be taken for dealing with all that waste in a way that best balances the needs of the community and the environment, while allowing those best placed to take such decisions to take them in as balanced and informed a way as possible, with as little red tape as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on securing this debate and on opening up what is an emotive and important issue for many local communities. I should have made it clear—although I think she is already well aware of this—that the PFI decisions made last week do not affect the Middlewich application because, as I understand it, it is not a PFI application so that aspect does not come into it. Nevertheless, I am sure that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will take note of what has been said today and will ensure that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is aware of all the facts when he makes his final decision, which will be based purely on the planning issues. As I have said, we are determined to be the greenest Government ever, which means that we must find a satisfactory alternative to landfill.
Question put and agreed to.