Wednesday 3 November 2010
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
Speech Therapy Services (Children)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Crabb.)
Thank you for calling me to speak in this important debate, Mr Streeter. It is important because of the very large number of children in this country who require speech therapy to make the most of their lives. I am delighted that the Minister is able to join us today and apologise for dragging her away from the important work of putting together the Green Paper that we anticipate. I pay tribute to the personal interest she has shown in the matter not only since getting her job in government, but when she was in opposition.
I will not start by reciting the usual litany of depressing statistics associated with speech and language therapy as my opening gambit, which would be a little predictable. Instead, I will start by paying tribute to the work of some of the charities involved and to the previous Government. What we have today is the end result of a process. It started with a charity called I CAN, which ran the campaign, “Make Chatter Matter”, and spent three years building awareness among politicians, such as us, about the importance of speech and language communication. That led to the Bercow review, the better communication action plan—brought forward by the previous Government—the appointment of Jean Gross as communications champion and the designation of 2011 as the year of speech, language and communication.
We are part way along an important journey that was initiated by the previous Government and then taken up by the current Government. That is why it is really important to pay tribute to the fact that a Green Paper is now coming forward. Among all the organisational changes that we are planning in public services, I am delighted that the Government have found space in their schedule for a Green Paper on the important issue of special educational needs. It is a welcome opportunity to entrench greater choice for parents, earlier identification of the needs of those with speech and language difficulties, more tailored support and improved transition services, which I believe are so important.
Clearly, there is still work to be done. There is an organisation in the north-west called speechbubble.co.uk —why they have to add “.co.uk” to everything these days, I do not know—which works in my constituency and many others in the region to encourage better quality speech and language provision. In its survey of SEN co-ordinators, it found that more than half had never heard of the Bercow report and were not even aware of that ongoing process.
Members must forgive me, for I will now embark on a bit of a shopping list of issues that I think still need to be considered in the Green Paper. Given the time available and the number of Members who wish to speak, they will have to forgive me if it turns into something like an episode of “Supermarket Sweep”, rather than a shopping list. I will do my best not to lose coherence.
It is crucially important that I pay tribute to my own speech therapist, Mrs Williams, who saw me for four years, between the ages of five and nine, to help me learn to communicate better. It was only when I was preparing for the debate that I began to think about what she had taught me, as I never really thought about it at the time. She was not teaching me to make a noise or how to speak, but how to communicate and get my message across. There is often a misconception that speech and language therapy is about putting stuff into people’s minds so that they have something to say. There was plenty going on in my mind—far too much, actually—so my mouth could not keep up when I was trying to express it all. She taught me to slow down and not to panic, stammer or trip over myself. Although that is not always ideal within a parliamentary setting, when one might have a six-minute speech limit, it is still a useful lesson today. There is no need to rush. Just because one has things to say, one does not need to get them all out in 30 seconds.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Unfortunately, I will have to leave before the end to attend a meeting, which I apologise for. He rightly paid tribute to the work of his speech and language therapist. Does he agree with me that it is important that all levels of the Government work with the Royal College of Speech and Language when developing their policies in that area so as to maximise the potential benefit they can get from it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree entirely. Our speech and language therapists are a much underused resource, and as time moves on they will be in much more demand. A report shortly to be published by the International Longevity Centre will tell us how, with the growing incidence of Alzheimer’s and the difficulties that adults with communication problems will face, the pressure on speech and language therapists will increase far more.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I congratulate the work of speech therapists. One issue that we have found in Northern Ireland relates to recruitment; perhaps he will comment on it. We find that of the 15 or so young ladies—it is predominantly young women—who start the course in college, only four or five are left trying to finish the course at the end of the year. The therapists do fantastic work, but there is a concern about the provision, and I would be interested to hear his comments on that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for an interesting contribution, which highlights a problem that covers so many areas of medical training: what comes in at the beginning does not always come out at the end. We have to support those who are making a commitment to public service.
It is worth noting that speech and language therapists play an immensely important role across a wide range of areas. In the youth justice system, for example, the offenders are children, although we often do not think of them as such. The work that speech and language therapists do within young offender institutions is vital in reducing reoffending rates and crucial for improving life chances. The Children’s Communication Coalition made an interesting comment in its June 2010 report:
“The true costs of not supporting children with speech, language and communication needs—above and beyond those that are measurable in direct financial terms—are very great indeed. The personal and familial costs of poor educational attainment, descent into criminality and long-term exclusion from the mainstream are hugely significant and potentially corrosive to society at large. Poor educational outcomes often lead to poorly paid jobs or unemployment. In turn, this can lead to a perpetuation of the poverty trap and a vicious cycle of health problems and health inequalities”.
In a sense, that could sum up the entire debate in 30 seconds, and I could just sit down. It covers everything we need to be concerned about.
I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my next point. Speech and language therapists are there not just to help children, but to help the entire children’s work force understand that communication needs to be the golden thread running through everything they do. They need to be equipped to train staff, teachers and others who work with children, as well as the children themselves. I ask the Minister to confirm that she will do all she can to ensure that we recruit more speech and language therapists to meet the unmet needs that are out there.
The better communication action plan made a specific commitment to universal screening as part of the healthy child programme. Many major bodies, including the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, which I suspect has managed to get many supporters to attend the debate, wants to see that occur at age two and five, in advance of the reading assessment. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that that aspect of the action plan is taken into account?
Another important aspect that is often overlooked is that when we discuss children’s speech therapy we often think of those aspects that are what I describe as being high incidence, but low need. In other words, many children face communication difficulties, such as language delay, but their support needs are actually quite low. There is a much smaller group, which has much more complex needs, but the incidence of that need is relatively low. That poses a particular problem in commissioning. I wonder what the Minister’s views are on how we balance those two competing aspects, because where there is low incidence but high need, it is often more of a health intervention, rather than an educational intervention, that is required.
Just this last year, I witnessed what I can only describe as the transformation of a young boy from being unable to communicate to being able to talk quite clearly within a matter of months, so I have seen at first hand the work that can be done. One of our concerns, which is shared by many people who look after young boys and who try to train them, relates to the financial provision. In relation to the comprehensive spending review cuts that have been made and how they will affect provision, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the front-line service of speech therapy should be retained and that people should know that the moneys are there for young people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree entirely. That is why we say continually that the most vulnerable are those that really should be protected, and front-line services will be protected.
Whenever we try to abolish quangos in particular, we can always find one saving grace in every quango that gives us a justification for keeping it. With Becta, which provides educational technical equipment, one of the saving graces was the work that it did in the augmentative and assistive communication sector—AAC for short, to save me a bit of time. Can the Minister confirm whether the funding that was originally to go through Becta to the AAC sector will still go to it to fund not just the specialist provision of AAC equipment, but the leadership roles in the sector? That is another part of the better communication action plan that I hope will be continued throughout the year of speech, learning and communication in 2011. Will she also commit to re-examining the issues of provision in the AAC sector? She may not be aware of the problems facing the ACE—Aiding Communication in Education—centre in Oxford, which faces closure as a result of some of the changes in that charity and the funding of the wider sector.
Will the Minister support the proposals from the communication champion, Jean Gross, for a new AAC commissioning model that reflects the differences between high incidence, low need, and low incidence, higher need, which are crucial to a proper appreciation of the sector’s needs?
I said that I did not want continually to go in for shocking statistics, but let me give just one, which is that 55% of children in the more deprived areas arrive at primary school with some form of language delay. That does not necessarily mean that there is anything going on; it just means that they are delayed in the formation of basic skills. That happens for a range of reasons, but often it can be something as simple as mum and dad not talking to them when they were babies.
Booktrust, a charity of which many hon. Members may be aware, does fantastic work in more deprived areas just by handing out bags of books to young mums to encourage them to read and by saying to young dads, “It’s a good thing to sit down with your young child and read them a story. Don’t just watch the football match. Read “Peppa Pig” or whatever children’s literature you happen to have to hand; it helps your children.”
Can the Minister confirm, in light of the CSR, that the very important funding that Booktrust receives from the Government, which allows it to access £4 of private funding for every £1 of Government funding, will continue in order to help us to deal with that language delay and gap in the most deprived areas? That is just one example of the philosophy of early intervention, which is gradually receiving unanimous, all-party support as a principle. What it means in policy terms often varies greatly, but the principle of early intervention is now accepted by all in the House, I hope. It allows us to escape the departmental silo thinking that has bedevilled public policy formation in this country for far too long.
How does the Minister think that the pupil premium, which both coalition parties advocated pre-election, will benefit children requiring speech and language therapy at the moment? In particular, does she agree on the importance of appropriate diagnosis and that improving the quality of diagnosis might lead to fewer children being diagnosed as having special educational needs? Does she recognise that one goal of speech, language and communication therapy must be to take pupils off the SEN register because their language delay has been dealt with, the gaps have been filled and they are now able to participate fully in society? I ask that because there is a particular problem with stigmatisation.
Even 30 years ago, when I had speech therapy, I was taken out of my primary school and transported down to the village health centre. I was regarded as different—special—because I had to be taken out. That was 30 years ago; one would like to think that things had moved on. Unfortunately, the stigma is still there. I urge the Minister to ensure that more and more services can be delivered in the school setting and do not require the pupil to be stigmatised, or made to look different or special.
Let me explain one way of doing what I have described. At Fleetwood high school, in the constituency of Lancaster and Fleetwood, which neighbours mine, children with special educational needs are dealt with under the same umbrella as those who come under the gifted and talented scheme. There is not such a difference between them as one might think, because very many people with special educational needs, and in particular speech and language needs, are also very gifted and talented young men and women. The two are very often the same group. I urge the Minister to consider how such an approach can reduce stigmatisation.
I warmly welcome the ambition of the forthcoming Green Paper to equip parents to have more choice in and more say over how their children are treated by the “system”. One of the grave frustrations of so many parents whom I meet in my advice surgeries—and, I am sure, those whom other hon. Members meet in their surgeries—is that when they take their children to the office of the relevant public organisation and sit down to have a discussion about their child’s needs, they immediately find that there is a form before the public servant in front of them and they are then forced somehow to adjust their child’s needs to fit the existing boxes on the form. If their child’s needs do not quite fit, there is a problem; they do not quite get the tailored support that they need.
Can the Minister make any suggestions about how we start to change the tick-box culture? I think that this is the most crucial question in public policy at the moment: how do we get away from a situation in which services are designed for people to fit into and move to a situation in which services are designed to fit around the needs of the individual? That is important.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the contribution that he is making. He refers to the Green Paper. Does he share my concern about the risk to the statementing procedures posed by the potential withdrawal of the rights that currently apply under those procedures? An example of the importance to the statementing procedures of speech and language therapy is that 10% of cases at the special educational needs tribunal arise as a result of deficiency in speech and language therapy provision in schools.
That is a very important statistic and I thank my hon. Friend for making his intervention. I hope that it will be borne in mind that we have to get the process of diagnosis right. There is no point in merely diagnosing children with special educational needs as a shortcut to fulfilling some target in a back office somewhere. The system must be designed around the needs of each individual child.
Finally—as I am sure everyone will be pleased to hear—and most importantly, my biggest concern about the Green Paper is the fact that so much of what we shall require will have to come from the Department of Health as well as the Department for Education. My big fear, based on observing 20 years of public policy in this country, is that getting Departments to talk to each other, to sing from the same hymn sheet and to work to the same agenda is perhaps the hardest task in government. It is not enough just to have the smiling, happy faces of two Cabinet Ministers at the bottom of the introduction page of a Government document. There needs to be an alignment of strategic priorities, close partnership working and agreement. Can the Minister confirm what joint working is occurring with the Department of Health and how the plans for NHS reform, academies and special educational needs will coalesce seamlessly? That is the real challenge.
I do not want to go back into the statistics, but so many children are struggling at school through no fault of their own but merely because their needs have either not been identified or not catered for adequately. Too many children are trapped. It is a form of social exclusion that they are not able to participate fully in society. I strongly welcome all that the Minister is doing in this field, and I urge her to continue her work. I look forward to seeing the Green Paper, as I am sure many other people in the sector do, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers to my questions today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate, which is really important to me and to thousands of children and their families across the country.
The ability to communicate effectively is a key life skill. It underpins our ability to learn and to understand, to express our views and knowledge to others, and to understand their views and knowledge in return. Without good communication skills, we are not able to take our place alongside our peers in an increasingly complex world, in which good interpersonal communication skills are now as important—sometimes more so—than good qualifications.
I apologise for stating the obvious: communication is not just about being able to speak properly. It includes receptive language skills, which is the ability to understand and make sense of what is said to us, expressive language skills, which is the ability to speak clearly and make ourselves understood, and higher-order language skills, which is the ability to use and interpret humour, inference, scepticism, irony and other non-direct language.
There are many reasons why a child might fail to develop age-appropriate communication and language. For some children, there might be a link to a neurological or physiological problem, for instance oral dyspraxia, cerebral palsy or autism, but many more of them simply do not have access to the good language and stimulation that they need from an early age, and therefore enter our schools and nurseries with few, if any, information-carrying words.
In many children, communication disorders are complex and largely hidden. The child can speak, albeit with a limited vocabulary. He—it usually is a he—can go on to learn mechanically and by rote. On any crude measure of progress, such as reading age, the child might seem to be making good progress, but careful and specialist assessment by people such as speech therapists can identify that their grasp and understanding of what they have learned by rote is limited. They might appear to read well, but that reading is mechanical, with little or no understanding. As they have limited language and vocabulary, and their reading is mechanical rather than conscious and creative, their language-into-literacy skills do not develop as they should. That is largely why we have so many children failing to get good reading skills and go on to gain good skills in other areas. They do not have the basic understanding that they need to learn more complex concepts. That can lead to frustration in the classroom, and as a result a child can either become withdrawn, which can be misdiagnosed as a learning difficulty, or have tantrums and difficult behaviour, which can be misdiagnosed as a conduct or a behavioural disorder.
There are more than a million children in this country with speech, language and communication needs that are not the result of language neglect, lack of stimulation or other external factors. That means that in the average classroom there can be two or three children with such communication difficulties. Of that group, a large cohort has specific language impairment, meaning that their difficulty is not related to other general issues such as learning difficulties, hearing impairment, autism or cerebral palsy.
A child with a specific language impairment might well be cognitively able, which is a point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. They will struggle, however, to understand the vocabulary used in the average classroom. A significantly greater number of children have speech, language and communication needs that could be classified as caused by language neglect and lack of stimulation in their early years. Those children need early and appropriate intervention. They and their needs cannot be ignored, nor can they be treated as less deserving simply because their needs are, in a sense, acquired rather than organic. Without appropriate intervention, those children will be diagnosed as conduct disordered or delinquent and will go on into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which will cost this country millions and millions of pounds.
We know from very clear evidence what happens to children with speech, language and communication disorders who do not get appropriate intervention and support. Youth offending services identify that 70% of young offenders have an underlying speech, language or communication disorder. The chief inspector of prisons tells us that more than 60% of prisoners have an underlying speech, language or communication disorder, as do a significant proportion of adults accessing our mental health services.
Is it not astonishing that 70% of people in our criminal justice system have a communication disability or disorder? Should not the Government invest in specific speech and language therapy support, particularly for the young people in our criminal justice system, so that they have a chance to get back into proper life?
I absolutely agree, and I can go on from that.
The National Autistic Society has identified that 70% of young people with autism, the vast majority of whom have an underlying language and/or communication disorder even if that is restricted to higher-order language difficulties, also have a mental health difficulty. Shelter tells us that a significant proportion of people classified as homeless have an underlying language and communication disorder. I could go on and on.
However, those issues are not limited to language and communication disorders; they are seen across many areas of children’s health, such as physiotherapy, occupational health and, one of the huge ones for me, child and adolescent mental health services. Review after review has identified that, to address the issues, diagnosis needs to be timely and carefully carried out by specialists—speech and language therapists—and services need to be appropriate to need and easily accessible, a point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. Specialists in education and health need to work in partnership with the child and the family at the centre, not separately, and not, in the case of health, in a clinic far removed from the day-to-day life of the child in the classroom.
Unlike, I suspect, many other Members here, I do not see more and more speech and language therapists as the only answer. Although I want to add my thanks to specialist speech therapists for the incredible work that they do, and although I consider them part of the way forward, they are not the only answer. In my view and experience, early intervention and appropriate provision include four fundamental necessities. The first is better training for all early years education staff—teachers and support staff. Given that we know that in some cases there will be up to five children with a significant speech, language and communication disorder in an early years classroom, it seems reasonable that every such classroom should have within it one adult—a teacher or a specialist support assistant—who has additional experience or qualifications in this area. I was an assistant director of education in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) a number of years ago, and we made that a requirement of our accessibility strategy. As a result, we saw a shift in the language-into-literacy issues—in the communication difficulties that were preventing children from learning to read and to progress in other areas.
Secondly, language development needs to be an integral part of the whole curriculum. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys talked about pulling children out of lessons and classrooms for one-to-one speech therapy sessions. Such sessions are isolated from what is going on in the child’s classroom, lessons and life, and are much less valuable than ensuring that the child is surrounded by a rich and appropriate vocabulary each and every day, and that lessons are planned and delivered to include language development as key steps.
Thirdly, specialist speech and language therapists need to be actively involved in curriculum design and delivery and in-service training for staff in schools. Finally, we need an accountability framework that understands the importance of language development in learning, and holds not only head teachers and governors, but those who commission children’s health services, to account for the training of staff and the outcomes of children with speech and language difficulties. By not intervening in an appropriate, timely and systemic manner we stand aside and allow generations of children to be labelled behaviourally disordered, conduct-disordered or odd and difficult, or as having learning difficulties. That is wrong and unnecessary, and too often it blights the lives of those children and their families.
As the Minister is here, I want to make a further plea to her to consider transferring the funding for children’s heath services to local authorities alongside funding for public health. It will not be sufficient funding, but at least it and the bulk of the responsibility will be in the same place, which will give parents a little more to hang their hats on when arguing for services.
Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys on securing this important debate. I will work positively with anyone, on either side of the Chamber, who highlights these matters and is prepared to work with me to address them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I apologise that I will have to leave before the end of the debate; one of my constituents has organised a big rally in Old Palace yard for park home owners, and I should be standing alongside the banners that will, inevitably, be there.
I officially start by congratulating the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who spoke elegantly and passionately. He brought the debate alive for us this morning. It is a timely debate because we are at a crossroads; we can look back over the excellent work that came out of the Bercow review, but we are at a point where we need to look forward, learn what we can from the past and take some steps forward. I appreciate the fact that the previous Government commissioned the Bercow report, committed resources—never enough, of course, but the resources were considerable—developed an action plan, appointed a communication champion and designated next year as the national year of speech, language and communication. Those were important steps forward.
As the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) pointed out, there is a spectrum of needs, which is why the matter is complex to debate. At one end, there is high need, low incidence, which needs highly specialised skills and technology, some of which comes in very expensive packages, but what an enormous difference it can make to the quality of life of the child and whole family. I want to touch on the whole family throughout the debate because it is important. At the other end of the spectrum, there are issues that we know can be addressed through simple interventions, which I shall touch on.
It is highly significant that speech, language and communication needs feature in statements of special educational needs for 26.5% of mainstream educated children. How significant the problems are is absolutely staggering. Other Members have dwelt on the fact that if there is a communication problem, a behavioural problem often emerges. That is natural; for a three or four-year-old who cannot express themselves, with adults not responding in the way the child wishes, what else do they do? Inevitably, we will have behavioural problems; and that, of course, identifies the necessity of early intervention. Not intervening early means that problems escalate to widespread exclusions at secondary schools and the concerning percentage of young offenders who have speech and language difficulties. Obviously, we must emphasise that it is not a straight one to one causal relationship, but there is a significant link.
I was interested in the comments by Jean Gross because we are concerned about people thinking, “Oh, the child’s just lazy. There are lots of very clever people who didn’t start to speak until three or four. Do we need early intervention?” I passionately believe that we do. A mother came to me with a boy of four. He could not speak and his behaviour was getting out of control. I suggested that the mother went to the GP to ask for a specialist referral, and the GP came back at me and said, “How dare you tell me how to do my job?” I was rather pleased that I stirred that up. When we talk about training the whole work force in these needs, we need to include health workers, health visitors and GPs, as well as those in education.
I want to be brief, so I shall go over the key issues quickly. I recall that the Bercow report said that provision and joint working is patchy across the country. There were 16 pilots announced in 2009 to look at best practice in working together in health and education. I do not know if there has been a chance to evaluate them, but it is important to look at everything that has been initiated and evaluate it as soon as is timely. We have to learn from all of this, but it is difficult to come up with a national framework because the solutions have to be local.
I am concerned about health provision. We have speech therapists and we have teachers trained by specialist speech therapists, which is good but it must not be a substitute—it is an add-on. Too many authorities are using it as a substitute, but it is not. We must have sufficient qualified speech therapists. I cannot get a grip on what the shortage is. As the Minister is aware, I am always asking parliamentary questions about numbers of specialist workers, but I cannot home in on what the shortage is, and we must have a grasp of what the needs are. I can think of fantastic situations in which specialists trained up pre-school workers, for example, in children’s centres to work with children identified as having language delay. That is good for low-level speech and language problems, but we are not getting a grip on the exact size of the work force needed to address the issues, on how it is all pulled together and on where working together comes forth and provides an add-on. Simply saying, “All we’re doing is perfectly satisfactory,” when it is a substitute, is not good enough.
I emphasise the point the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys made about the importance of an individual solution, particularly for a family. A mother who came to see me had six children including five-month-old twins, and one child in the middle had speech and language difficulties. A package was drawn up for her to give an amount of assistance a day. Of course involving parents and carers in the package is important, but, somewhere along the line, the family circumstances have to be taken on board.
Due to time, I shall end there. I endorse all the points made already, and I look to the Minister to focus on getting a grip on how all the services come together to give the best possible start to communication in a child’s life.
I join the tributes to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for his comprehensive and well informed speech. I congratulate him on securing this important debate. We are debating these matters when the economy could be in better shape. The hon. Gentleman and I were at a meeting in a Committee Room of the House of Lords last week, where the organisations of and for people with disabilities, particularly children with learning disabilities, got together to discuss what is happening, what might happen and what the problems might be given the current situation.
Lord Rix, who is my co-chair of the all-party disability group—perhaps I should put that the other way round—made an outstanding speech. The next day, he followed it up by reading a letter to the Minister responsible for disabled people, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller). Being the gentleman that he is, he apologised for the passion that he had shown the night before, although I do not think that he needed to apologise. Like his speech, his letter was profound, and I will quote an important paragraph from it:
“If support is adequately financed and provided for by all schools, children could remain in a setting in the heart of their local community. Placing this responsibility on parents in terms of their child’s education could be an additional burden in their already complex lives, if the right levels of support, information and advice are not adequately provided. This could also potentially lead to parents having to prioritise aspects of their child’s development—i.e. speech and language therapy over in-class support—which could have significant legal ramifications on issues concerning the responsibility of educating children with special educational needs.”
I am glad that Lord Rix made that point; it is repeated again and again.
Some of us—perhaps all of us—received representations this morning from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, to which the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred. In the hope of a reply, questions were put to the Minister that included:
“Will communication competency be seen as critical to the forthcoming Schools Paper and will the Minister consider mainstreaming communication competency as a measurable outcome within the school curriculum?”
Other questions raised may emerge during the debate. That underlines how vital education is to the problems that we are discussing—education, education, education.
In the time available, I would like to refer to the work carried out by the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, Mrs Joan Humble. We were asked by the then Secretary of State for the Department of Children, Schools and Families to set up a review looking at the needs of disabled children and their families. I led that review and inevitably, based on evidence from parents, children, carers and those who work in social services, we had to focus on the importance of funding. If funding was important when things seemed to be affluent, it is much more important today given the financial outlook that we face.
My one regret is not about the findings of the group that I had the privilege to chair. The Department was funded through the allocation of an additional £340 million to look at issues such as early identification, which was one of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass). That included £34 million for Scottish children. My one regret is that, as far as I can see, not a penny reached children with special needs in Scotland. Without any consideration for ring-fencing, the Scottish Government allocated the money to local authorities to spend however they wished. All local authorities decided to keep council tax at the present level. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the priorities that we presented to the Department were taken on board by any local authority.
Given the comprehensive spending review and the issues that follow from that, my regret today is that the same issue might apply not only to education authorities but to health boards. I thought for a time that the problem applied only to Scotland, but when we examined where the money went in England, sadly in Wales and also in Northern Ireland, we saw that it did not go to where it was intended. Vulnerable children found that their needs were not being met, and other issues such as those discussed today, and those raised by Mencap and other bodies, are not being addressed.
Mencap has noted that certificated training in this area is not mandatory, and that few schools have sufficient professional development funding to sponsor staff who are doing certificated or master courses. That is one issue, but there are more. What goes on in the classroom, the environment and the community is hugely important to children with profound and multiple learning disabilities.
In view of the time, I will conclude by saying that we all want to see the problems that have been identified addressed. We want Parliament to be better informed, and we recognise the work of the various Select Committees. Yesterday, during Health questions, I put a question to the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow). I asked whether
“the confidential inquiry and the learning disabilities public health observatory will go beyond March and until the work is concluded”.
The Minister of State replied that
“we had a good debate in Westminster Hall earlier this year on this matter, in which I indicated the Government’s support for those observatories. We believe they play a very important role in our understanding of the issues.”—[Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 750.]
I welcome that, but I wonder whether the Minister will respond specifically to my question, and provide reassurance to those who support the work that is going on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate on an important issue. I will apply the principle that brevity is a virtue and not a vice, and keep my remarks short. First, I would like to put things into context from a Medway perspective. Medway local authority has a good and close relationship with speech and language therapy teams. It has been working collaboratively to develop capacity so that teachers and school staff can address most speech and language needs in school. That frees up time for speech and language therapists to give direct therapy to the children with the most complex needs.
In the current financial climate, where budgets are so closely scrutinised, will the Minister tell us how the Green Paper will address the anomaly of local authorities being responsible for funding speech and language therapy that is diagnosed by health bodies and written in a statement? Will the forthcoming Green Paper provide for a focus of speech and language therapy in early years; for example, through a refocused Sure Start that targets children living in poverty?
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate. Debates that take place in Westminster Hall are often significant. This is one such debate and it deserves a huge audience. It is not only in Parliament that we do not get to debate certain topics that, despite being mainstream, never capture the headlines they deserve.
Sometimes, when we discuss policy, these sorts of issues do not have as high a profile as they should. We are talking about millions of children and adults who cannot communicate effectively. The service that we provide is often a Cinderella service in terms of the demand that it makes of the system, and the way in which the system responds with the money and resources that it receives. Whatever the size of the pot, and we may argue about that, the service does not get its fair share. That is because, for some reason or other, it does not make a loud enough noise, which is why the debate secured by the hon. Gentleman today is vital.
I want to say a couple of things and to raise a particular case that demonstrates some of the problems we have. The project to encourage and help children with their communication, referred to by the hon. Gentleman, is especially important. One of our problems is that sometimes we say, “We need to involve the family,” and of course that is important, but in some of those families the parents cannot communicate particularly well. Their vocabulary is limited.
I do not mean any disrespect to anyone and I am not decrying any particular families; I am making a statement of reality about our social situation. Many of us have experience of what we see in schools, and not just in schools: the limited amount of vocabulary that some children have at two, three, four or five, compared with others of the same age, is frankly astonishing. If we talk to some of the parents—do not get me wrong, they are loving parents, who care and so on—again, we find that the communication stimulus that many of us would recognise in our own homes is not there. Such things are important. I think one problem is the talk of involving the parents, which of course is crucial, when the parents have limited vocabulary to provide in support. We need to develop that.
I do not want to make a political point. We know that we are in difficult times and that there are differences between the parties about spending and so on, but I want to raise a particular case in my constituency, that of Dylan Scothern.
Dylan Scothern is six years old and he is autistic. He cannot communicate. The vocabulary he has now is thanks to the work of his loving parents. His mother, Rachel Scothern, has been at the forefront of the campaign about Dylan that I will come to in a moment. With the help of speech and language therapists, Dylan can communicate with about 20 words. Rachel has put something on Facebook in which they do “The wheels on the truck”—no, I mean, “The wheels on the bus go round and round”—he communicates with it better than I do. He has been brought to that point through the speech and language therapists.
Nottingham Community Health NHS Trust says that its funding for Dylan’s speech and language therapists will now stop because he has reached six years of age. The trust has changed its policy so that only children of five years and under will get speech and language therapy.
As I said, I do not want to make the issue political. I do not care what the budget is for Nottingham Community Health, because I am going back to the point I made before: why is it that such services are always the first that people look to when making savings? That is the importance of the debate secured by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. There are easy hits when it comes to cutting money—often it is youth services, rather than services for pensioners—and here we have an example in health. Again, that is an important point made by the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister, who I know will take the issue forward, needs to talk to her colleagues in the Department of Health, because there is a young child at a school—he is going to school—who is having his speech and language therapy taken away, not because of the actions of her Department but because of the actions of the Department of Health through Nottingham Community Health.
The case simply has to be revisited, and I am using the debate to ask the Minister to do so. I know she will not know about the case—I do not expect her to know all the details, but I will write to her with them—but can she raise it with her Department of Health colleagues, Nottingham Community Health and others with responsibility? Can she say that in the debate all of us recognised the importance of speech and language therapy for some of the most difficult young people in terms of their learning challenges, and that it is simply not acceptable to cut speech and language therapy for an autistic child because he has reached the age of six? Frankly, that is not good enough. The policy needs to be changed and looked at again.
With that, I shall finish, but going back to the point I made at the beginning. Let the debate be a clarion call not just for the case of Dylan and Rachel Scothern, a family who live in my constituency, but to all of those who provide such services, whether through health or education. We need to recognise their importance and understand that, simply because they are not necessarily front-page news all of the time, they are of fundamental and significant importance to countless families and young people up and down this country. If we mean to provide equal opportunities, we should ensure that those people receive those services, which should not be the first port of call for people with difficult budget decisions to make.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on how he introduced the debate. I agree with everything he had to say; indeed, I think that I have agreed with everything that everyone has said thus far, so I will not repeat things.
Just as my hon. Friend waxed lyrical about his experiences at school 30 years ago, with the indulgence of hon. Members I shall talk about my experiences at school 50 years ago. There I was, in a class of 56, in the east end of London, and my teacher, Miss Grey, asked my mother to come up to the school. My mother was worried, thinking her son had been disruptive, but the teacher said, “Do you realise that your son is nicknamed Double Dutch?” Apparently, I could not communicate with anyone—my sister used to interpret what I wanted to say to people. I could not make the sounds “st” or “th”, I had a bad stutter and for three years my mother walked three and a half miles with me to a speech therapist in West Ham lane—I can now hear the violins playing. For three years, it was, literally, “How now brown cow”, which is why I do not have a pure cockney accent. I had old-fashioned braces on my top teeth and on my bottom teeth.
My hon. Friend talked about 30 years ago, but I am talking about 50 years ago and I want to tell the Minister and our Government that all those years ago, in a class of 56 in a challenging part of the country, Miss Grey—to whom, with the speech therapist, I obviously owe everything—could identify me as having those particular problems. Therefore, why is it that in 2010, with all the advances that we rejoice in, I am sitting in the Chamber this morning listening to any number of problems and challenges? I simply want our Government to give children today the same opportunity that I was given all those years ago.
I join other Members in warmly congratulating the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate. He spoke passionately, clearly from unrivalled personal experience and knowledge, about this important area. I agree with the high-quality contributions we have heard from all parts of the Chamber and I hope that the debate sends a powerful message to the Government about the importance of services in this area.
I want to speak in particular about the special value of the ACE—Aiding Communication in Education—centre to which the hon. Gentleman referred and which is based in my constituency, and of ACE North, which is based in Oldham. The centres provide a unique service for parents and professionals, with joint health and education-based approaches, combining whatever it takes to give children with severe communication difficulties access to communication, education and, thereby, independence.
I have seen at first hand the remarkable—often moving—difference the centres make in children’s lives. I took former Labour leader John Smith to the centre once and we were moved almost to tears watching a young girl learning to communicate using assistive technology, opening a world that would otherwise have been closed to her.
The centres provide a level of clinical expertise far beyond what is provided by the statutory services for children with such complex disabilities. Their intervention not only changes lives but saves money in later life. They also save money by preventing cases from reaching tribunals, which may be one of the reasons why some local authorities ask them for assistance.
The centres have a huge loan library of specialist equipment that children and their parents can try before they buy. That saves authorities buying unsuitable, expensive communication devices, which can cost many thousands of pounds and which would, if inappropriately purchased, end up in the school cupboard. The centres also work with the IT sector in a rapidly changing area to develop more effective aids to communication. At the point of use, advice to parents is free and independent, which is a lifeline for families learning to live with and support a child with severe communication difficulties.
The future of the centres and the services they provide is under pressure and under threat, and there are two main reasons for that. One is that the provision of direct funding, which central Government made available through grants and project support, is being shifted to local authorities. We should sound a note of caution to those who, under the mantra of localism, would shift all funding in the direction of local authorities, because highly specialist services can be marginalised and lose out in the process.
The other problem is that although the centres charge local authorities to recoup operation costs, the money is not always forthcoming at the necessary level. Furthermore, charitable donations, which the centres also attract, have decreased considerably due to the tougher competition facing all areas of the third sector in this difficult financial climate.
We therefore face a threat to a vital service. Were that service to go, we would lose something that, since 1984, has given thousands of severely disabled young people a voice and a chance in life. To run down these vital services in the national year of speech, language and communication would clearly be perverse and unacceptable.
I do not want to make a partisan point, but the previous Government showed great leadership on this topic. They set up the Bercow review, and the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families established the communication champion. Does my right hon. Friend, like me, hope that the new Government will show the same energy, dedication and enthusiasm as the previous Government in pursuing change on this important topic?
Yes, I certainly endorse that, although I was not making a party political point, because the shift towards the presumption of local authority funding clearly did not start with the current Administration.
It would be disastrous and a tragedy if we removed the centres, losing their specialist experience and their huge loan library of communication equipment, in a climate where there is technology to help children, but the understanding, guidance and expertise to help them use it is often in desperately short supply. The same is true of the loss of specialist training for teachers and therapists in how to use the technology to support and motivate children in learning and moving towards independence.
The centres therefore face a serious situation, and I ask the Minister for an assurance that central Government sustainability funding for the ACE centres will continue for the full three years, until April 2012. On the centres’ service-level agreements with local authorities, what assurances can she give that councils will have, or will be guided to make available, the resources to ensure that the appropriate assessment and help is available in their area to children who need it? Will she look at providing immediate additional support from the sustainability services fund and the transition fund to ensure the future of the ACE centres? I should also be grateful if she could give an assurance that she will meet representatives of the centres to discuss the way forward so that we can save these valuable services.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to make my first contribution to a Westminster Hall debate as a shadow Minister.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate. I compliment him on his well-informed and impassioned speech. Mrs Williams, his speech therapist, taught him not to rush, but to slow down, and a lot of us—especially me—could benefit from following that advice when making our speeches, even given the time constraints. I am delighted that so many Members are in the Chamber to contribute to this important discussion. They have raised many questions, which I hope that the Minister will answer today.
Many Members will know that I have a personal interest in this topic. I did not have speech therapy myself, but my son required it from the age of two and a half. I have put on record the problems we encountered when we moved around the country, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) mentioned a lot of similar issues when he talked about the case of Dylan. My son’s speech therapy stopped when he was seven, because we had moved from Gateshead to London, and we were told that speech therapy was not given to children over the age of five. Incidentally, when we moved back to Gateshead, local professionals said, “We know he’s 14, but he could really still benefit from speech therapy.” Members can imagine how I reacted to that, when he had missed out on seven years of possible speech therapy because of where I lived.
A lot of Members have spoken, and I want to give some quick tributes. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) gave a very intelligent and thoughtful speech, showing her immense knowledge from a long and successful professional career in the education and SEN sector. She is a true asset to the House, especially on this issue, and the Minister would be wise to pay particular attention to her contributions.
The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) always speaks with good wisdom and great analysis on SEN matters, and that was evident once again today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, and I wish that he could have spoken for longer. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) gave a short, concise, but important contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling gave a very knowledgeable speech, as we would expect, and raised the important case of Dylan in his constituency. I hope that the fact that he has done so will lead to a change in Dylan’s situation. The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) also made excellent contributions.
I regret that I was unable to attend the reception in the Commons a couple of weeks ago to mark the launch of “Hello”, the national year of speech, language and communication, which ties in with this debate, but I look forward to hearing what is planned for 2011. If the Minister can give an assurance that departmental funding for that important initiative will survive the cuts that the Chancellor chose to make, it will signify a commendable commitment to the campaign.
The national year is, of course, one of the 40 recommendations of the Bercow review, an excellent and thorough piece of work, which was welcomed by everyone on both sides of the House. No one was more receptive to those recommendations than the former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). Together with the Health Secretary at the time, he published an action plan and pledged £12 million to ensure that all the Bercow recommendations were put in place.
It is important to pay tribute to that commitment, as well as to the work of Mr Speaker, who will be keeping a keen eye on the debate. I am sure that commitment is shared by the Minister, and the debate gives her a good opportunity to give us an update on what progress has been made since the election on carrying on the good work that has been done.
The Government have, of course, recently consulted on an SEN and disability Green Paper, and I certainly look forward to reading the responses to it and scrutinising the conclusions that the Minister draws from them. One concern that has been raised with me is that work on the Green Paper is going on while the education and health systems are going through fundamental changes. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today that she meets Department of Health Ministers regularly to ensure that when children need support from NHS professionals, as is the case with the children we are discussing, the Government’s reforms will not have a negative impact on the provision of such support.
In that respect, my main concern is that the Green Paper should focus purely on improving services for young people with differing needs and not on reducing the money spent on such improvements. There is real concern in the sector that the results of the comprehensive spending review will force the Minister to do just that. If she could confirm that the funds for statemented children with speech, language and communication difficulties and other needs will be entirely on top of any pupil premium funding that they may attract, I think a lot of people’s fears will be put to rest.
When we include in the equation significant cuts to local government budgets, and the wholesale restructuring of the NHS, which employs the vast majority of the professionals such as Mrs Williams who help children with communication difficulties, we are left with inevitable pressure on funding for supporting those children—unless the Minister can tell us otherwise this morning. I look forward to her speech.
Concerns have also been raised, especially by the National Deaf Children’s Society, that budget cuts to existing Building Schools for the Future projects will mean that new facilities do not meet the standards set for acoustics. I would welcome comments from the Minister on how those effects can be mitigated.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys described in his maiden speech how without speech therapy at an early age he might never have had the ability to be in the Chamber talking to us. He is a great example of early intervention reaping huge dividends. I am sure that if Mrs Williams is watching today she will be enormously proud of her work—and his.
One of the better things to be announced in connection with the CSR was that the Government are to go ahead with Labour’s plan of extending free nursery places to disadvantaged two-year-olds. Although I am slightly dubious about whether enough money has been committed to achieve that, I hope that doing so will present an opportunity for earlier identification of more children with speech, language and communication needs. Earlier intervention is important in tackling the problems that those difficulties can lead to later in the child’s school career. In some deprived areas, as we have already heard, 50% of children begin school with language delay already obvious. As they get older about two thirds of them will have behavioural problems. Because they are often not recognised as having difficulties that may be causing their behaviour, it leads to exclusion and the problems that go with that. It is no surprise, then, that well over half—probably more like two thirds—of young offenders are said to have those difficulties. With early intervention, I am confident that those depressing figures could be reduced, and I shall welcome any measures set out in the Green Paper to that effect.
I believe that the Government are committed to universal screening for two and five-year-olds, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister how that will be implemented. If we are to have early intervention, it will of course require funding for the extra cases that it brings to light. Training all teachers to spot risk factors at all stages of a child’s school life will require yet more funding. Again, I am not sure where all that funding will come from, and I think that pretty much takes my remarks full circle.
I think that hon. Members who have taken part in the debate are in unanimous agreement that action is needed to ensure that children get the right support. I am sure that the Minister shares that view. I realise that much of what constitutes future Government policy on speech and language therapy will rest on the outcome of the consultation for the Green Paper, so she may not be able to give too much away today; but I hope she can offer some reassurance to Members, as well as to the many parents, professionals and their advocates who will have a keen interest in this debate, that providing the best possible facilities and support for children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties, as well as other special educational needs, will be a matter of principle and not of price.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing the debate. I know how committed he is to the issue, and I could not help but hope, as I listened to his speech, that Mrs Williams was beaming with pride, and watching the debate. Similarly I hoped, when my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) was speaking, that Miss Grey could hear his tribute to her help.
Perhaps she is listening from another place—if that is not to misuse parliamentary terminology.
I am hugely grateful to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys for securing the debate, and for speaking so knowledgeably and passionately. I was fortunate enough to attend a round-table meeting that he organised a few weeks ago on speech, language and communication needs. He is aware that I share his ambition. His expertise and the way he has campaigned on the issue since coming into Parliament is something that the sector recognises and is grateful for. The Government are grateful too.
The debate has come at an opportune moment because, as hon. Members will know—and as several hon. Members pointed out—several policy areas are in the process of being changed and developed. Consultation has just closed on the NHS White Paper, and we are drawing together White Papers on schools and on public health. The process in which I am personally involved is the production of a Green Paper on special educational needs and disability. Despite the suggestion that that might be a risk, I hope it may be seen as an opportunity. A key theme raised today was that of getting different services—local authorities, education and health—to work together. If everything is changed at the same time there is a much better chance of making sure that the elements of the new system will work closely together. Perhaps it is flippant of me to say so, but if Liberal Democrats and Conservatives can be got to co-operate in government, it cannot be beyond the wit of man to get health and education to work together.
In the past few months I have engaged in a series of small events and round-table meetings with the sector. I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I treat the debate as part of the Green Paper process. I shall do my best to respond to as many as possible of the issues that have been raised, but I shall not get to everyone. However, I shall pass on to the Department of Health the questions that have been raised, or make sure that they form part of our process of forming the Green Paper.
There were many knowledgeable speeches, including those by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has spoken on the issue over a long period; the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), a new Member, to whom I always enjoy listening, and who speaks passionately on the subject; and the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), who has campaigned on the issue for many years. I was particularly grateful, because those hon. Members have a long-standing interest in what we are debating.
Speech, language and communication skills are the bedrock of learning. If someone cannot communicate their needs, those needs are unlikely to be met. If they cannot explain what they do not understand, their questions are unlikely to be answered. If someone cannot tell another person how they feel, that person cannot help them; and it will probably be a struggle to make friends. Children with speech, language and communication needs can have a lonely childhood and a poor education, and it is no wonder that many go on to develop behavioural difficulties or that they are misdiagnosed.
As many hon. Members have said, the range of problems is huge, from speech delay to intractable and chronic problems that require intensive intervention. Speech, language and communication issues may occur alone or co-exist with other special educational needs or social disadvantage. The hon. Member for North West Durham focused on that overlap with social disadvantage, and I want to touch on it shortly.
Speech therapy and other services, allied to good teaching, are vital for children and young people with the difficulties in question, to help them learn and get the most out of life. There has been significant progress, and the Green Paper will build on the work that the previous Government did, not rip it up and start again. I recognise that, particularly in the matter of speech, language and communication needs, progress was made. I pay tribute to the part that Mr Speaker played in raising the profile of the issue. The Bercow review comprehensively mapped out the challenges in policy, and since then much progress has been made in accomplishing the action plan.
We are of course about to begin the first national year of speech, language and communication, and I congratulate the Communication Trust and the communication champion Jean Gross on their work to promote better information for professionals and parents. Raising awareness of speech, language and communication needs is the theme of the trust’s work and the “Hello” campaign that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) mentioned. If we are to make the best use of the expertise that we have in speech and language therapy, and in other matters, we must get much better at picking up problems earlier and putting in place the right package of support.
Several hon. Members mentioned the fact that more than 60% of young offenders have speech, language and communication difficulties. That is a shocking statistic and a clear reminder, if we should need any more, of the importance of intervening early to prevent problems later.
The Minister spoke about early intervention, which has huge support. However, we are hearing fairly reliable but worrying reports that the much-trumpeted pupil premium will not be paid for children under the age of five. Will the Minister confirm that it will be paid for all children in education from the age of two, and not be restricted to those over the age of five?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the consultation closed just before the comprehensive spending review. We will be making a much more detailed announcement on the pupil premium shortly, but we want to ensure that local authorities know much more about the scheme when they get their settlement.
I was about to speak about some of the issues raised by the hon. Lady in her speech. Early identification is vital for the child and the family; as she said, it will reduce costly interventions later. It is essential that more timely referrals are made to specialist services. That is why I asked Dame Claire Tickell, who is leading a review on the early years foundation stage, to look specifically at how to improve early identification of such problems by the EYFS. She is leading the process at the moment, and she will soon be reporting her findings to the Government.
For the same reason, we have extended the two-year-old offer to significantly more disadvantaged young children. About 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds will benefit from 15 hours of early education a week. That point was raised by a number of Members. Indeed, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said that children often arrive at nursery without the required language skills because they have not been exposed to language in the usual way. Offering high-quality early education is vital in giving those children the chance to pick up those skills.
The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) spoke about Sure Start centres. Many already provide speech and language therapy, but more use of such evidence-based programmes is definitely part of the reform programme that the Government want to institute. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is responsible for public health, recently confirmed the Government’s intention during this Parliament to recruit and train 4,200 health visitors. Health visitors will be key in picking up on speech delay in very young children, ensuring that they are referred to the appropriate services, including Sure Start centres.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend made that point about health visitors. As we know, they carry out a uniform hearing test for very young children. It seems to me and many others that we should be training health visitors to take that sort of approach for speech, language and communication difficulties.
Health visitors are the key to picking up problems in the early years and making appropriate referrals. Some really interesting projects have been undertaken in Manchester, using community-based budgets; they linked health and education, realising that many children who fall behind when they get to nursery school have often missed health checks. Ways of sharing that data are important.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I thank her also for confirming that the Government will not rip up plans introduced by the previous Government to take forward this important agenda. However, some of us are concerned that the new commissioning agenda for the national health service might mean that specialist services for speech and language therapy will not be commissioned by GP consortiums. Will the Minister confirm that special efforts will be made to ensure that GP consortiums are fully aware of this important service and that they continue to make it available?
I shall turn to commissioning in a moment. First, I want to say something about the school work force, a theme that was developed during the debate. It is vital that teachers and other members of the children’s work force have access to information, and that they have the opportunity for professional development in supporting children with special educational needs. Those on the front line are often the first to pick up problems, and they are vital in implementing whatever is suggested by the specialists.
One Member—I noted the point but not who raised it—spoke about the need for speech and language therapy to be well integrated into what happens in school. There are some good examples of that. Indeed, it is the kind of good practice that we want to build on through the Green Paper, with speech and language therapists training teachers to ensure that the therapists’ work continues in the classroom once the specialist help is over. That is vital. Progress has been made in recent years with the development of dedicated resources for teacher trainers and trainees, with specialist professional development for special educational needs co-ordinators and with online training material for school staff on a range of special educational needs, including specific materials on speech, language and communication needs for teachers and other staff.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The shortage of speech and language therapists for many schools means that when the need for specialist help arises it is not necessarily there. Often, only speech and language therapists themselves can deliver the necessary support, rather than the problem being passed on to the teacher every time.
We need a mix; that is why I said that speech and language therapists can often offer good professional advice to teachers, who are then able to do some of that work during the week. The number of speech and language therapists is rising consistently. The question of whether we have enough depends on commissioning, and the way in which those therapists are employed. The White Paper on schools and the special educational needs Green Paper will set out plans for developing the knowledge, understanding and skills of the children’s work force and will specifically address continuing professional development.
A number of Members asked about commissioning. I realise that we need to be much better at integrating the commissioning of services for children with special educational needs, as in many other areas. As I said earlier, I hope that the rapid change experienced in many areas will provide us with the opportunity to do much better. We are creating more diverse school systems with more freedom for schools to innovate; and the NHS White Paper focuses on creating locally based opportunities to improve patient care.
Improving outcomes is exactly what Mr Speaker wanted to achieve for children with such difficulties through his review. The challenge is to design future arrangements that work much better together and that focus specifically on the needs of children and families. I am working closely with colleagues at the Department of Health on all these matters. I am determined to ensure that we are better able to streamline the assessment process.
Only three minutes remain, and people are already arriving for the next debate. I still have five pages of notes, so I shall end up rushing.
The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned a constituent of his, and I will ensure that excerpts from his speech are passed to Ministers at the Department of Health so that the matter is drawn to their attention. Things falling between Departments is exactly what we want to address in the Green Paper.
There are a couple of other points that I shall not manage to answer, but the hon. Member for North West Durham raised the question of the differences in commissioning for high need with low incidence and low need with high incidence. I know that the Department of Health is aware of the communication champion’s views on commissioning, and those views will be taken into account in designing the system.
I shall finish with a few words about the Green Paper.
On that subject, my Department is considering the best way to secure support for children who require augmentative and alternative communication with colleagues in the Department of Health following the spending review. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to give much detail on those commitments, because there is much yet to do.
I have one minute left, which is not enough time to say all that I want about the Green Paper. We have a real resource of knowledge in Parliament, and many Members have a real passion about the subject. The Green Paper is part of a consultation process, so I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will feel able to use their knowledge and expertise and get involved. I shall try to find ways to involve parliamentarians with such expertise; I am well aware of how much experience Members of Parliament have, both personally and in their campaigning role. I look forward to debating these issues again with those who are here today.
I welcome the opportunity to hold this debate. I would like to start by reporting my personal experience of a number of harrowing or complex cases, such as that of Mr Khadum al Sarraj—an Iraqi national married to a British citizen, Shereen Nasser—who was detained at Camp Cropper in Baghdad. He was fortunately released eventually, and is now safe in the UK. There are also the cases of Mr El Mahdy, who is currently detained in a police station in Qatar; Mr Neil Juwaheer, who died in suspicious circumstances in a police cell in Brazil; and Robbie Hughes, who was very badly beaten in an attack in Malia in Crete. I want to dwell on the last two cases at some length.
The death, serious injury or detention of a loved one abroad can be the most traumatic experience anyone is likely to face in a lifetime. It is easy to see why. One is stranded in a foreign country with all the language barriers that brings, the cultural barriers, the different legal systems, often dwindling financial resources and corruption in the legal service of the country or within the police. It is clear why it can be a devastating experience for a family. I would like to consider two cases in some depth.
First, there is the case of Neil Juwaheer. My constituents, the Juwaheers, live in Carshalton, and their son, Neil, died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody in Brazil. The Brazilian tourist police report included a statement that a torn package of drug powder was found in his body—and that caused the death by chemical intoxication—a claim that is disputed by the family and by an autopsy that they had carried out. They allege that their son was in fact restrained in a cruel and barbaric way by strapping him up with antenna wire, and was beaten, and that was what probably caused his death while in detention in Brazil.
I first raised the matter with the Brazil desk of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2007. At that point I raised concerns about the family’s inability to get closure on their son’s death, because the process in Brazil is so slow. I tried to identify what further the FCO might be able to do to support the family. Kim Howells, the then Minister, set out in his response in October 2007 what the FCO had been able to do—the consul had assisted the family when they made a visit to Brazil—and confirmed that the Brazilian police were continuing their investigation, though that would take time. He added that the British Government will only consider intervention if the investigation takes longer than the norm for a Brazilian national. I will shortly come back to that point. Mr Juwaheer was provided with a list of English-speaking lawyers, and it was suggested that he should seek legal advice in Brazil and consider appointing a lawyer, which he then did.
I followed that up with a further letter to the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), in February 2008. I set out again the alleged circumstances of the death, explained that Mr Juwaheer had followed the FCO advice, in getting in touch with and securing the assistance of a lawyer in Brazil. I went on to set out why I thought there were reasons for the FCO to get involved in the case. It was not just a routine case as far as the Brazilian police or judicial system were concerned. I set out the concerns that we had about some aspects of the case. For instance, the head of the Brazilian CID, who was investigating the case, had been suspended, and it was alleged that he had been responsible for the deaths of other people. Two autopsies were deemed inconclusive, although miraculously, later, the alleged package that was supposed to contain drugs materialised after the autopsies had been completed. There were allegations that Mr Juwaheer, when he died, was foaming at the mouth, but that can be a symptom of asthma, not drug abuse. If it was suggested that he had been having a seizure, why was he not sent to hospital, as opposed to being detained at the police station? Why was he inappropriately and tightly wrapped up in antenna wire, leaving severe marks on his body which showed up in the autopsy? The autopsy that the family had carried out suggested that he had been beaten and had died. There was some difference of opinion between the autopsies about whether he died a violent death or from an overdose. Clearly, there were a large number of suspicious circumstances that surrounded this death. Even for the Brazilian police and legal system, this must have been an atypical case.
I again took it up with the FCO and, I am afraid to say, simply got a letter repeating the content of a previous reply, setting out that the FCO could do nothing because the case was being dealt with in the way that the Brazilian legal system would deal with it. I want to come back to the question about the British Government only considering intervention if the investigation takes longer than the norm for a Brazilian national. I do not know whether the Minister, when he replies, will be able to set out what he thinks the norm is in relation to a case involving a Brazilian national. One could argue that if the norm for a Brazilian case was to take 20 years, perhaps the FCO would still feel duty bound to get involved to some extent, because I think we would all want to support intervention in cases where a legal system has either clearly failed or is dragged out to such an extent that it is clear that nobody is going to get justice at the end of the process.
The second case I would like to refer to is that of Robbie Hughes. The matter is subject to a court case in Crete at the moment, so I will be careful what I say. The facts are known of what happened and are widely documented. He was seriously injured during an attack in Malia in Crete. It is alleged that his attackers may have been British tourists. His mother is a constituent of mine and made contact with me while she was out there, after she had flown out to Greece to support him. She encountered all the problems that the Juwaheer family had encountered, in terms of trying to overcome the language barrier, dealing the Greek police, dealing with a hospital environment, of which frankly British tourists need to be aware. If they are going to Greece, they need to make some insurance preparations, because if they end up in a Greek national health service facility they are going to be rather shocked by what they find. Certainly, Maggie Hughes was incredibly shocked by what she found and the level of care that was being provided to her son. As a result of what happened to Robbie, she has set up an organisation called Please Enjoy, Don’t Destroy, and is campaigning on these issues.
In defence of the FCO staff, Maggie Hughes said they were as helpful as possible. However, they were grossly overstretched and had six people who were trying to cover all of the Greek islands. If you imagine what the Greek islands are like in the summer with hundreds of thousands of Brits over there holidaying, six people to cover that area is not sufficient. What that meant was that the FCO was ringing my constituent Maggie Hughes and saying, in effect, “We are aware of a British family; something dreadful has happened to their son or daughter. Would you be willing to make contact with them and help them and provide support?” She did not object to that; she was happy to do it; she had been through that experience. However, one has to question whether it is entirely appropriate for the FCO to call on British residents when they are abroad to seek their support for British citizens who have either been injured or seriously affected by an incident abroad.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate today. Two weeks ago at Prime Minister’s questions, I had the opportunity to raise with the Prime Minister the case of Gary Dunne from my constituency, who was murdered in Spain. The Prime Minister kindly agreed to meet Gary’s parents, Steve and Lesley, who have been campaigning on issues arising from that experience in a very similar fashion to the constituents whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
One aspect of the Dunnes’ experience in Spain was precisely the lack of efficiency in the consular response in dealing with the family following Gary’s murder. So I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and I hope that, when the Minister responds, there will be reference to the need for greater efficiency and speed in dealing with cases such as those described by the hon. Gentleman and that of my former constituent, Gary Dunne.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he confirmed, he is simply seeking to reinforce these points about what support can be given to families. I think that we would agree that the type of support that we are talking about is not the FCO and consular staff getting involved to help someone when they have lost their passport. These are cases in which someone has been murdered or perhaps seriously injured as a result of a car accident, an attack or something else of that nature. So we are talking about a relatively small group of people and not about each and every British citizen who encounters some difficulty while they are abroad.
My involvement with Maggie and Robbie Hughes led to Maggie and me holding a meeting in Parliament at the end of last year. I have a copy of the report that was produced after that meeting, which I will hand to the Minister at the end of this debate. The report just sums up the recommendations we made at the end of that meeting. There should be a copy of the report within the FCO already, because Julian Braithwaite, the director of consular services, attended that meeting, and I am sure that he was sent a copy of the report afterwards. However, I will give the Minister another copy so that he has it to hand in case the first one has been mislaid.
So what do we suggest should be done? First, let me say that I am not the only one making these suggestions, nor is it just the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who just intervened on me, and nor is it just Maggie Hughes and Mrs Juwaheer. Organisations such as Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad and indeed the National Policing Improvement Agency also support the recommendations made in the report. We came up with many of them after that meeting, which was with families who have been affected by either the murder or the involvement in a serious accident of a loved one abroad.
I will outline those recommendations. First, the FCO needs to provide more information about the services that it offers. I am pleased that, following Maggie’s intervention, the FCO website has been improved in terms of the level of information that it provides. Secondly, the FCO needs to provide more help in getting family members to wherever their loved ones are abroad. Occasionally, the family involved will have difficulty in physically getting to the place where the incident occurred.
Thirdly, the FCO should help to report crime to the local police and obtain police reports. That was clearly a big issue for some families who attended the meeting, because the police that they had dealt with were refusing to accept that a crime had been committed. Fourthly, the FCO should intervene if no police action is forthcoming. Fifthly, the FCO should challenge police corruption. Sixthly, the FCO should be able to provide information and assistance in serious cases, and I think that that is perhaps the crunch point. We are talking about the relatively small number of people who experience a real tragedy abroad. Furthermore, I would add to that recommendation in our report that there should be an agreed level of service, clearly setting out what different Departments and agencies are responsible for.
I acknowledge that by restricting this type of support to people involved in the most serious cases there will be other people on the margins who will perhaps feel let down by the FCO, even if the FCO makes the improvements that we suggest. Nevertheless, we have got to be realistic about what is achievable, particularly in the present climate. Therefore, I am afraid that there will be families who will miss out, even though they may feel—perhaps rightly—that their cases were as serious as some of the other cases that we have referred to.
Seventhly, the FCO should provide a translation service, or know where such a service can be secured. Simply providing a list of lawyers or a list of translators is not actually the same as providing access to a legal or translation service. Eighthly, the FCO should strengthen or resurrect a network of honorary consuls able to provide local knowledge to support victims and their families at a time of crisis.
Coincidentally, because our meeting was principally about Greece—that was not our intention, but the families who came had principally experienced some tragedy in Greece—there are a number of recommendations about how the Greek police and authorities should work together with the British police. However, I think that those recommendations are applicable to whichever country we are talking about.
So, the report made a strong recommendation that a victim’s family member should attend any joint meetings between Greek and UK police, or between other Greek and UK authorities, so that the family member can provide some insight about what it actually means to a family when such an incident occurs.
There is one other aspect that is clearly not relevant to the Juwaheer case but is very relevant to what happens in places such as Malia in Crete. It relates to what the FCO can do with tour operators, and I know that the previous Minister in the last Government who I dealt with, Kim Howells, worked hard on this issue. The FCO should work with the tour operators to establish what more they can do to try to ensure that the people who are going abroad to have a happy time actually have a happy time and do not end up very seriously injured as a result of binge drinking. Even now, Maggie Hughes, who has been out to Greece on a regular basis, is still hearing of or even overhearing tour operators or tour reps encouraging people to visit Greece, by saying, “Go there, it’s really cheap and you can get completely blotto for next to nothing.” We need to clamp down on the tour operators and ensure that they understand that they have a real responsibility to tackle binge drinking and certainly should not be promoting it, as some of them still appear to be doing.
Also, there may be more work that tour operators can do in relation to insurance, because even if British people are travelling to EU countries the level of care that they will receive in some hospitals in those countries can be absolutely dire, and if they do not have the right level of insurance they will have a really nasty shock if they turn up at one of those hospitals.
Since we produced that report last year, I know that Victim Support has set up a national homicide service, which was started under the previous Government. That service provides one-to-one support for families who have been affected by murder or manslaughter. I wonder what progress has been made on that initiative, and I also wonder whether it applies to victims of murder or manslaughter abroad and not just to victims of murder or manslaughter in the UK.
Before I conclude, there is another issue that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention. More information needs to be made available about the fact that legal aid is available to UK citizens in EU countries. That legal aid is not always going to be as much as one would like, but it is available and people need to know that it is available because at the moment they do not.
To conclude, I just want to say that it cannot be right that—as the recently departed Brazilian ambassador to the UK, Carlos Augusto Santos-Neves, said—there are 22 British embassy staff in Brazil working on climate change and none of them is helping to support people such as the Juwaheers. Equally, as I said earlier, there are only six British diplomatic staff covering the Greek islands, which meant that my constituent, Maggie Hughes, had to intervene to provide support to other British families.
I know that the FCO is working within a tight budget, but I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some comfort to the Juwaheer family, the Hughes family and the hundreds of other families represented by organisations such as SAMM Abroad that in future the support that such families will receive will be more timely, more effective and more comprehensive at their time of greatest need than many families have experienced in the past.
This is the first time that I have replied to a Westminster Hall debate, or indeed any debate, as a Minister, and it is a pleasure and a privilege for me to do so under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), not only for securing this opportunity to discuss an important topic but for his ongoing vigilance and interest with regard to what is an extremely important matter. It is obviously extremely important for the individuals concerned, but it is also extremely important for us all more generally in policy terms.
I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for holding a meeting in December last year for the victims of crime abroad, which he mentioned in his speech. I take note of both the cases that he specifically raised, as well as the case that was raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). When we are discussing such cases, we should always remember that they involve real people and that they are very harrowing cases that have transformed for ever the lives of the individuals concerned and their immediate families. We do remember that they are not statistics but people whom we want to help.
I have read about and take an interest in the cases of Robert Hughes, who was seriously injured in a life-changing way in an attack in Greece in 2008, and of Neil Juwaheer, who died in police custody in Brazil in 2007. In the latter case, I note that the legal processes following the Brazilian authorities’ investigation into the death continue, and in the former case, that of Robbie Hughes, there is still a court case pending.
We are keen to try to help and be of assistance, because it is the right thing to do, but also because of the reasons given by my hon. Friend. It is particularly difficult and harrowing for people who are involved in such cases, normally completely unexpectedly and in circumstances with which they are not familiar. They may not speak the language, they may be shocked by the medical facilities that are available and they may not understand the legal system. There is a duty on us to try to assist people in harrowing circumstances as much as we possibly can.
So that people can understand the context, I should say that the number of Britons travelling abroad is significant. I visited our consular operation in Bangkok recently. Almost 1 million British visitors go to Thailand every year. Of course, in the vast majority of cases, their time there is incident-free, and they have no dealings with our consular authorities. Many of the cases of those who do have dealings with them are relatively trivial, such as cases involving lost passports, although they still take up consular time and effort. Sometimes the individual concerned may not regard their case as trivial, even though others may when looking at it more objectively.
My Department is keen to try to do as much as it can to prevent people from getting into difficulty in the first place. The case for insurance cover was well made. It is surprising how many British nationals travel abroad without insurance cover. In most cases, of course, they get away with it, but when they do not, they regret it for a long time to come, so we are trying to provide better information on the Foreign Office website. We do specific work when a large number of people go abroad for a particular event; for example, we try to anticipate problems in those circumstances, and we try to educate people better about how they can guard against difficulties abroad.
We have high expectations of our consular staff who operate in countries where circumstances can be difficult, and we want them to be able to assist where they can to obtain relevant information from the country’s authorities. However, it is important to stress what they cannot do, because sometimes the expectation is that consular staff will be multi-purpose police investigators, lawyers and medical staff. That is not a level of service that we are realistically able to achieve.
It is worth sharing briefly with hon. Members what the consular department of the Foreign Office is trying to do at present. A new consular strategy for 2010-13 was launched in June. It sets the direction for consular work for the next three years and has three focal points. The first is on services that only we can provide, and is based on research and consultation with British citizens who have told us what they particularly value. Customer feedback has been obtained, particularly from British nationals who have been affected by the worst incidents or crimes overseas, and it is central to our decision-making processes. We are keen to try to concentrate as much time and resource as possible on the people who need help the most.
We want to invest more in the people who work for us, to ensure that they maintain the highest levels of professionalism. There is compulsory training, including for our honorary consuls, to whom I pay tribute this morning. Many of them do a large amount of work, particularly during seasons that are busy times of the year for British travellers, for virtually no personal financial compensation at all.
We also want to strengthen our global network because, although there are areas that British people travel to in great numbers—my hon. Friend mentioned Greece, and I mentioned Thailand—there are, of course, British citizens in every country of the world who require our assistance. Therefore, we need a global network to try to ensure that we are able to provide assistance wherever it is needed.
I want to say something that goes a bit beyond that. I have the relative advantage of still being a new Minister, so I can look at services with a fairly objective and dispassionate eye. What impresses me about the consular service is the level of professionalism and how comprehensive it is, certainly on a global scale. Few countries would even aspire to replicate what we do to help British nationals who require our assistance in far-flung parts of the world.
However, I think we can do more when people find themselves, not necessarily through any fault of their own, in particularly harrowing and difficult circumstances. This is where I particularly agree with my hon. Friend, who was right to make the point that such cases are relatively few. Millions of British people travel abroad, and hundreds of thousands of them need minor assistance of one kind or another, but the number of people who need help in really difficult circumstances is relatively small. For example, about 50 to 60 British nationals abroad are murdered each year. In the grand scheme of things, that is a relatively small number—roughly one a week, on average. We could look at providing a better and more comprehensive service for people in particularly difficult circumstances.
I had a meeting last month with members of the group that my hon. Friend mentioned, Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad, and discussed with them their experiences and ideas, and I have had several detailed conversations with officials in the Department about how we can provide a service charter that is more comprehensive in terms of the services that British nationals can expect. However, there are some challenges. It is not necessarily quite as straightforward as it might appear on first inspection.
Let me come to that in a moment. I will answer the question.
Challenges include the legal systems in the countries that people visit. I sometimes turn this on its head and ask whether we would expect a foreign national in Britain to receive treatment in the British court system or a British prison that is different from that enjoyed by British nationals, and by and large people say that we would not. That same constraint is imposed on us when British nationals are abroad. There are resource constraints—there always are in Government—and there are some specifics.
For example, let us look at the two cases that my hon. Friend raised. I spoke specifically about what more we can do to help murder victims and their families, but the person in the first case was not murdered. Robert Hughes was seriously injured but not murdered, so he would not fall under that narrow classification. In the second case, the Brazilian authorities do not consider Neil Juwaheer to have been a victim of crime, so under a strict legal classification, he would not come under that category either. There are many cases that are extremely harrowing and difficult. If one were to try to impose narrow criteria, the danger is that we would roll out a service with great fanfare that looks good but then get many specific instances that do not fall within its scope.
I hope that we will provide a more comprehensive service that gives people a clear expectation of the assistance that they can have, and that that assistance is more direct and more hands-on than it has been in the past. I will announce more specific details when I am in a position to do so.
I would be more than grateful to have representations from my hon. Friend and from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, about how, within the budget that the Foreign Office has for consular services, we can focus our resources better so that people who find themselves in great difficulty and harrowing circumstances, and their families, can be confident that they will get the best possible service from our Government.
I am grateful for this opportunity to continue a hugely important debate. The decision taken by the Government today is of historic importance to this country, for two reasons. First, the decision to treble fees for this country’s young people could have a huge impact on participation in higher education. Secondly—this has been covered less, but is as important—the decision to withdraw state funding from a large part of the curriculum, namely arts and humanities subjects such as geography, history and politics, has huge implications for our democracy. We are a liberal democracy committed to the liberal arts, and today’s decision is to abandon that solely to private income. This is an important day, and I will be talking specifically about participation.
I am pleased to see the Minister in his seat. We have had many years of debates on education matters in this House. I know that he is committed, from his perspective, to participation. We understand the subject, but we do not always agree on the means, and I suspect that we will disagree today. However, I remind him that in 2004, he described tuition fees as
“flagrant, appalling and an abuse”. [Official Report, 26 February 2004; Vol. 418, c.503.]
That was his position as he voted against them. Can he really defend tripling fees to £9,000? I am pleased that so many colleagues from across the House have joined me today.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on an important subject. I know that he was in the Chamber this afternoon; does he agree that there is a third historic element to the settlement? Does he recognise the positive impact that proper funding for part-time students will have on the participation of disadvantaged groups in universities?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that decision on record. The last Government, of course, made progress on funding part-time students, but when we set up the Browne review, it was essential that part-time students were given the same arrangements as full-time students, and that has been achieved. That is the silver lining in the Government’s response today. However, it cannot be right that one group of students, of the sort that come from my constituency, should be encouraged to attend part-time courses at newer universities while another group of students, who can afford fees and are not put off by higher education, attend our more elite, select universities. I will go into the detail over the months.
I hope that we can all agree that it is morally right that university education be made available to all those who wish to take advantage of it. I know that that is true. University brought me, a young black man, from the shadows of Broadwater Farm estate in my constituency to the House of Commons. I want the same opportunities for all young people, regardless of their background.
The Labour Government inherited a higher education system that was the preserve of the rich and privileged. It was not a system in which university education was made available to all those who wished to take advantage of it, which is why we created the Office for Fair Access to monitor and analyse admission and participation and ensure that we increased the opportunities available to all students. It is also why, in 2004, we set up the Aimhigher programme, a national comprehensive programme working across constituencies as different as Cumbria, Liverpool and mine to encourage partnerships and access to higher education.
My right hon. Friend correctly said earlier that all those who could benefit from higher education should have access to it, but there is a further point. Society as a whole benefits from a highly educated population. There is obviously an issue about personal fairness, but the bigger issue for us as Members of Parliament is what is right for us as an economy, and what is right for us as an economy is that everyone who can benefit should have access to higher education. That is what gives us growth and makes us a strong country.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is why France, Germany, America and other countries throughout the developed world have a huge commitment to higher education and are increasing funding, not decreasing it. There is a drive to give more of the population the higher-level skills that come from higher education. The Government’s decision is crucial to the future of this country. We commissioned the National Council for Educational Excellence to encourage schools and universities to work better together to raise aspirations and achievement.
We do not say that schools in this country are only about driving young people to get GCSEs or A-levels. It is about outcomes, and one of the most important pathways to a better outcome for individuals and society as a whole is attendance at university. By the year we left office, £580 million was being spent annually on broadening access to higher education and widening its reach to poorer families across this country.
The number of entrants to higher education increased by 44% between 1999 and 2009. Since 2004, participation among the poorest 20% of the country has increased by 32%, compared with a rise of 20% among the richest. Our policies raised aspiration among people who had never before seen the path to university as being for them. Schemes such as Aimhigher broke cycles of poverty and underachievement that had existed in families for many generations. The proportion of university places taken by ethnic minority students increased from 13% in 1994 to a figure broadly proportionate to the size of the young population as a whole. None of those changes happened by chance. They happened because we wanted them to. We put money and a lot of effort into them.
I do not want to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman’s flow, and I endorse what he said about our shared intentions in respect of participation. He will know that on his watch as Minister, the funding for Aimhigher was reduced. Why?
I have no recollection of the proportion of funding for Aimhigher being reduced. The Aimhigher programme sat alongside the funding that we gave universities to both widen participation and increase retention. As I said, that overall pot was about £580 million. That is a significant amount of money, and it made a huge difference. I do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman said.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the student support that we put in place was important as well? As the Browne report said:
“The evidence suggests that improvements to the support for living costs helped to ensure that the changes in fees in 2006 did not have a negative impact on participation.”
Some progress has been made, but not enough. However, does the shadow Minister agree that we are now in unknown territory? The balance is getting out of hand, and the tripling of fees will have a deterrent effect on people from poorer backgrounds, who will feel obliged to choose cheaper courses at different universities.
That is, indeed, the fact. I want to emphasise that the increase in young people going into higher education in my constituency in the past 10 years is not just 5% or 10%; there has been a 100% increase in participation in higher education. That is, of course, to do with the support and the grants that were available, but it is also because of programmes such as Aimhigher Associates. Through such programmes, we encouraged young people, who were often from poorer backgrounds, to leave university for half a day a week and go back into schools to encourage others to go to university. That takes money, funding and priority. Making this issue a priority is in the national interest because of what has been said about growth.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the increased participation of working class and black and minority ethnic students. Does he agree that, regrettably, there was a vestigial sense of a sort of educational apartheid in London, where working-class ethnic minority students tended to be grouped in what were often the weaker universities and middle-class students went to Russell group universities? Will such a steep rise in tuition fees not exacerbate the sense that people from areas such as his and mine think that a certain type of university is not for the likes of them?
My hon. Friend makes a profound point, which I hope to come on to. Such schemes worked, but they required money. Many of us who initiated such schemes hoped that they would make further progress than was achieved. We saw progress, but it was not at the speed and depth we would have liked. My hon. Friend is exactly right: it cannot be considered significant progress. One London university— I am thinking of London Metropolitan—has more students of black descent than the entirety of the Russell group. There was progress, but there is much more to do. We are concerned that today’s announcement will mean things go backwards—in the wrong direction.
I do not doubt the previous Government’s intentions, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman would not doubt the good intentions of the current Government. Does he accept that the current system is unable to meet the challenge of the rising demand for higher education? In particular, does he accept Sir Martin Harris’s report, which mentions the participation rate among the least advantaged 40% of young people and the fact they are not getting into the top Russell group universities? That figure remained flat throughout the period of the Labour Government.
As I said, we were all concerned about the progress in relation to our most selective universities. That is why allowing our most selective universities to raise their fees to £9,000 a year must be counter to the progress that I would hope the hon. Gentleman desires. The Sutton Trust estimates that there are 3,000 missing state school students from Britain’s 12 most selective universities. A further statistic that comes to mind is that only one black Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford university in 2009—one student.
The Government’s claims are hugely important. They claim to be committed to higher education’s role in social mobility. Indeed, we are told that access is hard-wired into the coalition agreement. However, despite that hard-wiring, the Secretary of State has apparently long questioned whether the 50% participation rate is sensible or affordable. It is important that the Minister says something about what he considers will happen to the participation rate. Does he believe that the Government can widen access with an increased tuition fee of £9,000 a year? How will trebling fees encourage the sons and daughters of nurses and dinner ladies to achieve what their parents never had the prospect of doing? If we add to that figure the £8,000 a year maintenance that a student needs to live on, the Government’s plans mean that it will cost £17,000 a year to study for a degree. Will that encourage a nurse on an average of £23,000 a year to send her young son or daughter to university? With costs that are three quarters of their salary, will they not decide that university is what they always believed it to be: not for them?
Does the Minister honestly believe that students from the poorest backgrounds will not be put off by these staggering sums of money? A Sutton Trust opinion poll shows that only 45% of 11 to 16-year-olds who are currently interested in progressing to higher education at current fee levels would be interested if the fees were increased to £7,000. What does that then say about the current figure of £9,000? With institutions now capable of charging variable fees of between £6,000 and £9,000, it is inevitable that some of the most capable students from the poorest families will make choices based on cost or on the perception of cost, rather than because of academic talent.
I am intervening so that we can deal with some of the important questions the right hon. Gentleman raises. In the spirit of fairness that he normally adopts on these occasions, he will want to acknowledge that the statement made today by the Minister for Universities and Science, for the first time links fees to access. The proposals will explicitly link fees to the extra demand on universities in order to widen participation.
I hope that the Minister will explain in his response to the debate the detail of that access. As I listened to the Minister for Universities and Science a few moments ago, there did not appear to be the teeth required to ensure that level of access. I did not hear anything about the programme of effort—the punishment or fine—that we will need to ensure that higher education meets the necessary access levels.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing such a timely and pertinent debate to Westminster Hall. Is he not making the point that students historically have been able to choose their higher education destination based on the course they want to do and where they want to do it? They will now have to look at the course, the where and the price. That radically changes how the market will operate to the detriment of students, and both universities and higher education establishments.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The proposals are a huge departure. The Minister for Universities and Science indicated that there will be different price levels for different subjects and across the family of our universities. We also know that there will be a different state contribution to courses. That is a huge and profound change, which is far bigger than the change made to higher education in 2004.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on this timely debate. On the point he is making, obviously we need to invest in science, but surely we also need to invest in our arts programmes. A number of industries, not least our creative industries, are growing and are part of our future economic development. The future of such industries must be called into question by today’s announcement.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: arts and the creative arts make a huge contribution to our economy and to the new digital creative economy. The decision to withdraw state funding from such courses is bizarre, particularly as it was made alongside the decision to make massive cuts to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Those subjects cut to the heart of what it means to be a democratic country. We all sit in this Chamber as politicians—politicians who draw on the liberal arts and who, I would have thought, expect the state to make some contribution to that area of study. Even in the United States, with its highly developed private higher education system, every state has a state university, as is the case in California, and all those universities make a massive contribution to the liberal arts. The departure that we are making in the UK leaves countries such as France, Germany and the United States making a contribution to that area of study, yet for the poorest students in this country, that will no longer be accessible.
I put on the record my thanks to the many people up and down the country who have worked in the Aimhigher programme. It is a programme that works. Pupils have been able to attend three-day summer schools attached to our universities as a result. I saw a scheme working with students in the Toxteth area of Liverpool; it was really reaching out to those young men, most of whom came from backgrounds like mine and had been raised by lone parents. They really wanted to aspire for the first time because of the huge inspiration that the scheme gave them. Following the decision that was announced today, what is to happen to Aimhigher? We have heard much today about the new access and success fund, but will the Minister confirm whether that fund will equal the £580 million a year that the previous Government invested in widening participation?
The Browne review promises to introduce stringent access agreements, and the Minister for Universities and Science confirmed that today. With universities charging more than £6,000 a year, will the Minister confirm what penalties they will suffer if they do not meet their access agreements? Will those agreements have teeth? I was saddened to hear the Secretary of State for Education being interviewed on the “Today” programme this morning. We did not want to hear that universities will demonstrate that they will use imaginative ways to attract students from poorer backgrounds; we want a lot more than imagination.
The Minister is really attracted to choice for students and to having funds following students to university. He has made great hay of the pupil premium, so why not have a pupil premium in that area of the education system? Why not fund students from poorer backgrounds better to get that buy-in from the higher education sector? Does he not agree that universities need real, hard commitments on access that are statutory and can be challenged? That is important if we are not to see the situation deteriorate.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way a third time—I will not intervene again unless he says something extraordinary or outrageous, but I know that he will not. On the pupil premium, he knows that the biggest challenge in widening access is prior attainment. Unless we have more applications from people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds—as he and I do—we simply will not get the admissions we want. That is about the pupil premium and about supporting people in schools. Surely that is right.
I hope that the Minister appreciates the fact that 494 black students of Caribbean descent received straight As in their A-levels last year. I have already presented him with the evidence about Oxford university. The question for him is this: how will his changes make that situation better? Will they not make it worse?
It is important to note that there are three primary beneficiaries of higher education: the graduate, wider society and, of course, the employer. When we set up the Browne review, we asked it to look specifically at the employer contribution. I was disappointed that Browne spent only 300 words in his entire report on the employer contribution. We heard nothing from the Secretary of State on that subject when he responded to the report, and nothing from the Minister for Universities and Science today. Will the Minister now take the opportunity to explain why he departed from that key element in the basic terms on which we set up the Browne review? Why should we load young people, students and poor middle-class families with the debt, yet not ask employers, who are a beneficiary of our higher education system, to meet part of the cost? Why was that decision ruled out?
Will the Minister make a commitment that by the end of this Parliament, when—we are told—the structural deficit will have been eliminated, he will raise the public contribution to all courses, and lower fees? The changes have been presented to some extent as emergency measures that are necessary because of the deficit. When the legislation comes before the House, as we are told it will in a few weeks’ time, can we expect to see a sunset clause so that we depart from and then return to a system of more equalised contribution? I would like the Minster to say something about that.
On widening participation, I want to hear what the teeth, or the beef, of the programme will be. In particular, will the Minister commit to Aimhigher? I started my speech by saying that the Minister cares passionately about the issue, but I hope he will realise that, on this day of all days, many people beyond the Chamber are looking to this House, and what they want are answers.
Once again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing the debate. I think that we should be very proud of the Labour Government’s record on widening access to higher education. Figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that participation rates among young people increased from about 30% in the mid-1990s to more than 36% by 2009, and the extended opportunities for mature students mean that the figures for participation were well in excess of 40%.
Although differences in participation rates remain, depending on where one lives, Labour did much to increase participation among disadvantaged students. Young people from poorer areas have been substantially more likely to enter higher education since the mid-2000s. In the most disadvantaged areas, there have been substantial and sustained increases in the proportion of young people entering HE. That is because of recent increases in participation rates for young people living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, whether neighbourhood disadvantage is defined by participation rates themselves or by measures of parental education, occupation or income. The proportion of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas who enter HE has increased by around 30% in the past five years, and by more than 50% in the past 15 years, which is truly an extraordinary increase.
The increases in the proportion of young people living in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods who enter HE are also consistent with other statistics, including recent trends in GCSE attainment. Since the mid-2000s, the majority of additional entrants to HE have come from more disadvantaged areas. Most of the ways of measuring the differences between the participation rates of advantaged and disadvantaged neighbourhoods have shown a reduction since then.
That last point is critical, because it means that Labour was starting to narrow the gap in participation rates between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged areas. We should also recognise that the chances for young people to go to university if they came from a more advantaged neighbourhood increased, so that has given us quite a task, which is why we must have strong measures that continue to widen access to HE.
We have to ask ourselves why we want to do that, and I shall put forward a few brief points. Most of us who had the experience of HE, particularly if we came from a low-income background—I am someone who did, and was the first person in my family to go to university—know the transformative effect that going to university had on our life chances. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that that opportunity is available to all young people who are able to, and want to, benefit from it. We should not be sitting in this place putting up barriers that will stop young people being able to go to university.
This country needs to continue to invest in higher level skills. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham made an excellent point about the need for skills across a range of subjects. One of the concerning aspects of today’s proposals is the total withdrawal of state funding for the arts, humanities and social sciences in our universities because of cuts to the teaching budget. We need those higher level skills if we are to compete in the global economy of the future. Why is this country not prepared to invest in our HE system to the same level that other developed—and, indeed, developing—countries are?
I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for securing this debate on a hugely important issue. I speak on breaking down barriers to HE as someone who came from one of those poor backgrounds. Most of my peer group were from an Afro-Caribbean background. The figure given by the right hon. Gentleman of only one candidate from that background going to Oxford or Cambridge is shocking, but is it not the case that the issue is about more than purely finance? If we discuss only money, the debate will be prosaic and we will not do it justice. This may not be the remit or framework for a full debate, but, as someone who has personally seen the disconnect in his peer group, I can say in all sincerity and modesty that most of that peer group were far brighter than me, but they fell away dramatically in those years between 14 and 18. The debate is about more than just money.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but surely the issue is removing all the barriers that prevent young people who want to go to university from being able to do so. Some of the barriers may be cultural, and there are many programmes in place to try to break them down. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham spoke about the Aimhigher programme. I have worked closely with Aimhigher in my constituency because we had a fairly low level of HE participation historically. Aimhigher works alongside schools and groups of young people to encourage them to make the most of their potential.
Of course we have to look at more than the financial situation, but it is important, in so far as it acts as a disincentive. One of the points that Opposition Members were making on the Floor of the House earlier, and are making in this Chamber, is that we are terribly concerned that the proposals to put fees up to between £7,000 and £9,000, with additional borrowing for maintenance, mean that young people will be faced with a debt of about £40,000 when they leave university. That will act as a huge disincentive, and we would like the Government to look at those proposals again. We would like them to take our points seriously.
My final point is about international competition. We know that we need our economy to grow. That is the biggest factor facing this country at present. We have to put more emphasis on economic growth, and to do that, we need more knowledge transfer from our universities. They need to be investing in their local communities, but that will be made much more difficult by the withdrawal of Government funding to universities that was announced today.
I would very much like the Minister to take on board these specific points. Is there some detail about how widening access will continue? What will the Government do to ensure that young people from middle-income backgrounds are not faced with a huge disincentive to going to university because of the level of fees being proposed? What will his Government do to ensure that universities continue to invest in their local economies?
I have indications from four hon. Members that they wish to speak. To get everyone in before the winding-up speeches, could Members take no longer than eight minutes? I have no power to impose a time limit, but consideration for colleagues will allow everyone to get in.
Thank you, Mr Betts. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak under your chairmanship on this important topic, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this important debate. If there were ever any doubt that he cared passionately about the future of higher education, and the future of children from estates such as his, mine and those of other hon. Friends here today, his speech will have proved his passion and commitment—long may it continue.
I wish to discuss what the Government’s plans will mean for many of my constituents. In a Liberal Democrat press release during the election campaign, Nick Clegg said:
“If fees rise to £7,000 a year”—
I apologise, Mr Betts. The Deputy Prime Minister stated:
“If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster.”
I have to say this, Mr Betts: this is one of the few occasions on which I agree with Nick.
Even if most universities charge the minimum of £6,000, it will still be a disaster, and if most of the more prestigious ones charge £9,000, it will be an even bigger disaster. If I were a 16 or 17-year-old working-class girl from Gateshead—not too much of a stretch of the imagination, as I once was—looking at my options for the future, a potential debt of £44,000 would make me think seriously about whether I should go to university, especially if I were the first in my family to do so. It was not a journey that I was ever able to make personally because of cost constraints, and having to go out to work to help support my mam, who was on benefits, and two younger brothers.
If I were desperate to go to university, I would probably have to go to one of my local universities to avoid the extra living expenses, rather than the best university that would accept me based on my ability and grades. That seems to be what the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills intends people from my constituency to do. I would also most likely have to take a significant amount of paid part-time work, reducing the amount of time that I could dedicate to my studies, and consequently my attainment.
Even then, when I had struggled through three years and racked up a debt of £15,000 to £20,000 for the privilege—assuming that I had received some of the grants that the Minister of State outlined—my debt would continue to grow at a rate far above that at which my earnings would be likely to grow. An interest rate of 2.2% plus RPI, which would currently be 6.8%, does not compare favourably with a typical increase in median income of 3% to 4%. By that logic, somebody finishing university this year with £20,000 of debt would see that debt grow by more than £1,300 in a year and would need to find a job paying more than £30,000 just to keep up with paying that off. Today, though, we have heard that someone earning £30,000 could be liable to pay even more interest. That will mean millions of young people never paying off their loans and quite a number of those loans—not just the odd one—probably being written off after the end of the 30-year period. The thought of being 16 or 17 and realising that I would still be paying for my education in my 50s would definitely put me off higher education.
Unfortunately, I am one of those Members of Parliament who are still paying back their student loans, even though I left higher education more than a decade ago. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that no one in government seems to consider the aggregate effect of people having these levels of debt for so long, when house prices are rising, mortgages are hard to obtain and contributions to the pension system will have to be higher? No one seems to look at the fact that the sheer amount that people pay out on their loans every month diminishes their capacity to spend their money on other things, which is detrimental to family life and their prospects.
I certainly agree. We should also remember that some of the young people being burdened with huge debts will be from families that have no other mechanism to support them in making further life choices, such as getting into the housing market, or in paying unexpected bills. Having large elements of their earned income tied up for the next 30 years will be more of an ask for those young people than it will be for young people from a more middle-class background, but that has not been taken into account. For people from some of the backgrounds that we are talking about who might want to strike out and go to university, such factors will have a big detrimental impact on the decision that they take.
Following on from the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), will my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) join me in asking the Minister to comment on the impact of today’s announcement on undergraduates who want to go on to postgraduate education? We heard nothing about that impact in today’s statement, and it would surely be useful to hear whether those from lower-income backgrounds who have heavy loans to pay back will be deterred from going on to postgraduate study.
That is an important part of the debate, but it has not been discussed yet, and I certainly hope that the Minister will refer to it in his closing remarks. Even during my time as an MP, I have seen a change among the people who have applied to work for me as a researcher, with those who apply now having chosen not to do postgraduate qualifications for the reason that my hon. Friend sets out. Degree-level qualifications will therefore probably be the maximum attainment for some children from working-class backgrounds.
I want now to touch on the education maintenance allowance. At the same time as the current changes are being made, the Government are planning to overhaul the EMA system, which has been instrumental in ensuring that talented young people from less well-off backgrounds get the necessary qualifications to apply to university in the first place. There was a debate on this subject in Westminster Hall yesterday, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson). He is a great advocate of the EMA, and I see from Hansard that he put the case for its retention impeccably, so I will not repeat it.
My hon. Friend has plenty of evidence to back up his case. The evaluation of the roll-out of EMA showed that it reduced the level of those not in education, employment or training and encouraged those receiving it to work harder. Indeed, Institute for Fiscal Studies research showed that attainment among recipients has increased by 5% since the introduction of the EMA. If the Government remove something that encourages less well-off children to stay in further education and to aim higher, and they couple that with huge disincentives to apply for higher education, applications from that group will almost certainly drop significantly, particularly to the better universities.
In his intervention, the Minister talked about the importance of encouraging further applications. When I was growing up, I was one of those people whose family encouraged them to go out to work at 16. The EMA, which I argued for in my maiden speech in 2001, has been really important in changing that, but the Government gave us no indication of the implications of scrapping it when they announced the changed regime today.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I always tell people that the EMA would have been the one extra thing that would have given me the confidence to resist the push to go out to work, because I would have had just that little bit of money that was mine.
I note from Hansard that the Minister who answered yesterday’s debate tried to shift the blame for the decision to remove the EMA on to the previous Labour Government, much as I expect the Minister, unfortunately, to do today. The fact is that there are alternatives to those choices that have been made—ones that would have put more of the burden on the people who caused the situation that we are in, rather than on a generation that has had nothing to do with it.
The Minister for Universities and Science is not representing the Government here today, but he is apparently the author of an interesting book called “The Pinch”. I regret to say that I have not had time to read it yet, although perhaps a friend will be watching the debate and get me a copy for Christmas—if they do, I will be sure to pop along to the office of the Universities Minister to request an autograph. In his book, he argues that his generation—it is not quite my generation, because I am not that old—has benefitted from all the things that it is now unwilling to fund for the current generation and the next generation, including subsidised higher education. Does he not think that the Government’s reforms enforce that attitude, which he clearly sees—or saw—as hugely detrimental to young people?
I have a copy of today’s statement by the Universities Minister; he spoke of introducing a progressive system. The only progress that I can see between when he wrote his book and his speech today is a kind of backwards progress, which is, I believe, an oxymoron—a bit like his claim that the Government’s changes are progressive.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing this timely debate.
I represent Liverpool, Wavertree, which has one university, Liverpool Hope, within its borders and two, Liverpool John Moores and Liverpool university, just outside. Many members of Liverpool’s student and academic community live in my constituency. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), I am probably one of the Members who was most recently in the higher education system and I am still paying off my student loan. I was also one of the 500-plus candidates who signed the National Union of Students pledge not to vote for an increase in fees, and I will be upholding that pledge.
I recently met representatives of Aimhigher Greater Merseyside and I heard in great detail about the fabulous work that they continue to do across the region for 35,000 young people. As many of my hon. Friends have said, the goal of the Aimhigher programme is to widen participation in higher education and to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for university.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work of Aimhigher not only on the issues that have been mentioned, but in providing advice and guidance to much younger children, who might never have thought about going to university? I am sure that there are far too many young people in her constituency, just as there are in my constituency of Wigan, whose talent and ability are not matched by their aspirations. Will she join me in urging the Minister to make sure that the invaluable work that Aimhigher does with young people from the ages of 13, 14 and 15 continues?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; she raises some valuable points about the fantastic work that Aimhigher has done not only with young people in further education, but in schools, and I will go on to mention some of the wide range of activities that it is involved in. Most specifically, Aimhigher helps young people from families with no other members who went to university to consider higher education. For many of them just going on to further education is a massive step.
I want to expand on the list of Aimhigher’s activities, because it does so many things. It has made more than 1 million interventions to encourage young people to think about university—an incredible amount of activity. That extends to more than 2,500 schools in the UK, and 300 colleges. We have heard about its summer school, which gives young people a three to five-day taster experience of what it means to go to university. It offers one-day master classes, given by university staff, in all subject areas. It also offers continuing professional development for teachers in school and staff in further education colleges, to make them aware of changes in higher education and the opportunities that are available.
Aimhigher offers impartial workshops on university life, finance, choice and how to make an application—because for many young people filling in the UCAS form is a massive step forward. It also offers bespoke programmes for those with disabilities, and for people who were looked-after children. In Liverpool we try to do a lot of work to help looked-after children to take that step, because so many do not go to university. Aimhigher also offers additional support for vocational learners—especially apprentices, as there is no reason why they should not go on to university if they want to.
I was therefore incredibly alarmed to learn from the Universities Minister a few hours ago, when I asked him about the Aimhigher programme, that responsibility for the activities that it currently pursues will fall to universities. I am incredibly concerned about that, because there is not enough detail, and a massive vacuum will be created during the transition. There will be a £150 million national scholarship fund. I welcome that, but it is only a fraction of the investment that the Labour Government made in the widening of participation—and it assists only the brightest, as we can see from today’s statement, to the exclusion of those who may still be good enough to apply to university, but who will not qualify for a scholarship.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) quoted something that the Deputy Prime Minister said the week before the election, and I want to return to that, because the next line is very pertinent to the debate. He said:
“If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster.”
Then he added:
“If we have learnt one thing from the economic crisis, it is that you can’t build a future on debt.”
Does my hon. Friend think it is ironic that the Deputy Prime Minister, who was so correct when he said that, should now use the excuse of the debt caused by the bankers to transfer the problems of and payments for that debt to the young people of today and tomorrow? It seems completely wrong.
My hon. Friend has made exactly the point I wanted to make, so I thank him.
Many of my constituents talk to me now about the challenges they face because of their current debts, when fees are only a third of those proposed by the new Government. Access to higher education should be about students’ ability, not the ability to pay or willingness to shoulder thousands of pounds of debt. That is my greatest concern.
Will my hon. Friend join me in asking for more clarity from the Minister about what will happen to the widening participation grant that is currently in his Department’s budget? We have had no information about whether it will be increased or decreased, or stay the same. I am sure that universities and students will be attending to this debate, and will want that information too.
I thank my hon. Friend for asking that relevant question. Given the fraction of money that will go from Aimhigher to the national scholarship fund, and the scarcity of detail in the statement about how widening will be funded, I too would be grateful to know what grant there will be.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing the debate. I know how passionately he feels about participation, and was pleased to join him, when he was the Minister for Higher Education, on a visit to Sheffield’s Aimhigher programme. We were both impressed by the excellent work done by the programme team. I congratulate him also on the timeliness of the debate, on a day when we have heard the Government’s proposals for the most fundamental remodelling of our higher education system for 50 years —shifting the responsibility for the funding of universities from the state on to students, and creating a market in which it is clear that a 50% higher fee for the best courses at the best institutions will lead many families, after discussion, to base choices not on a potential student’s ability to learn, but on their ability to repay greater debt.
My hon. Friend is talking about choices, and I want to mention the impact not just on participation but on subject or even career choice. Students in my constituency have said that they must seriously consider courses on the basis of how much they might earn after qualifying, rather than on the basis of interest or the career they want. That is a grave concern and perhaps the Minister might be asked to respond to it.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is a further message within the Government’s announcement, about social sciences, arts and humanities courses. The Government are sending out the message that they are not valued by the country. That will, I am sure, also be a factor in students’ decisions.
We know from talking to constituents, from research and from looking across the Atlantic at the United States model that the Government seem intent on creating, that the cost of courses is a significant disincentive for those who can least afford them. The levels of debt that the Government seem intent on students taking on will be a disincentive, particularly for those on lower—and, indeed, ordinary—incomes, who cannot contemplate such financial risk.
Apart from the impact on participation, the Government’s proposals fail their own test on the funding of the higher education system. I refer hon. Members to the remarks made by Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, who wrote recently in The Guardian:
“The government should be in no doubt about the risks these cuts in funding pose to the world-class standing of our higher education system, and thus to the country’s future economic growth and prosperity. The UK’s competitors face the same deficit reduction challenges as we do, but they have decided to invest in higher education at this crucial time, not cut it.”
I understand the messages that the Government have been sending about the available options, and the way the universities are being forced to accept a way forward that is deeply unpalatable for many of them. Steve Smith went on to point out in the article I quoted that the spending review set the context within which to understand Browne. That is a crucial point. The previous Labour Government set up the Browne review as an independent review of our higher education system, but clearly the steer that was given to Browne on the resources that would be available, and the way they would be allocated, shaped the recommendations and took away any pretence that the final report was the independent review we had sought.
That is a very important point on our position in relation to competitors in the OECD. We have made enormous progress in the funding of higher education over the past 13 years. We did not get to where we needed to be, but we were moving in the right direction. This Government are reversing that direction and taking us backward.
Let me return to the point about the negative message being sent out about arts, humanities and social science courses, and share with Members the views of the vice-chancellor of the university of Sheffield, Professor Keith Burnett. He is an outstanding leader of an outstanding university, and a scientist. He said:
“In the last few days I have been thinking about how I would feel if my subject – Physics – had been identified as fundamentally unimportant to the UK, or at least unworthy of its investment, in the way that many of our colleagues’ subjects have been. I would be gutted….When I see what richness the work of our colleagues…has brought us…Sir Ian Kershaw’s books on Hitler…shed a unique light on how fascism emerged…offered insights and judgement which can’t be ignored. Mike Braddick’s new book on the Civil War…helps us understand how we came to be who we are as a nation…Focusing on a period when fundamental questions were being debated…casts new light on the transition of Britain’s passage from one era to another…One of our most powerful resources as a country, and as a University, is our cultural insight, our deep questioning of our own society and ideas – perhaps we have never needed that analysis more as we consider how best to go forward. In a world of global competition and profound change, we want our children to have more than just bread to live on.”
I turn now to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) made on education maintenance allowances. Fundamentally—the Minister himself acknowledged this—participation in higher education is in many senses determined by people’s experience of the education system in their early years. We know that for many people who aspire to go to university the critical decision is at the age of 16, and that in low-income families with no history of post-16 education there is huge pressure not to be a further drain on the family’s financial resources. I have talked to constituents across Sheffield, and have been left in no doubt that education maintenance allowances have transformed life chances. Last year, almost 7,000 EMAs were awarded across the city. In the comprehensive spending review, the Chancellor talked about replacing
“education maintenance allowances with more targeted support.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 964.]
I suggest that that is a deeply cynical use of language. What could be more targeted than allowances that are assessed according to family income, with the level of payments being determined according to need? The Minister cuts a rather lonely figure today, and I regret that there are not more Members of other parties interested in the debate. I hope that the Minister will address my remarks in his contribution.
I am grateful for the chance to take part in this valuable debate. I congratulate my friend and colleague, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), on obtaining this important debate. My Government had an excellent record in further and higher education, particularly when he was a Minister in that Department.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), I signed a pledge not to vote for an increase in tuition fees, and I had to fight through a crowd of Lib Dems in this House to do so. I had imagined that that same crowd of Lib Dems would be here today; I cannot imagine what has happened to them. As I said, my Government had an excellent record in further and higher education, but I voted against tuition fees in any form or fashion because my view was that society as a whole benefits from education and society as a whole should pay.
It was also my view that I had benefited. As the child of people who left school at 14, I have benefited from an education at one of our better education institutions, nestling as it does in the mists of the fens of East Anglia, and I was not prepared to draw up the ladder behind me to another generation of young people. I also knew that this is where it would all come to. It was all very well for us to introduce tuition fees in a very careful way, hedged about with all sorts of support—very judicious—but I knew that it would end in a Tory-led Government ramping up fees unconscionably, leading to a more divided education system than we have ever seen.
I am afraid that I did not attract the Minister’s attention. I have always been against tuition fees; I have marched through the Lobby against them. It gives me no pleasure to say that I knew it would end up like this, with Tory Ministers such as the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) ramping up fees—[Interruption.] Members will see how I cast my vote in the coming debate.
The point that I wanted to make is that in a world of markets—all of us here, even my good self, believe in markets nowadays—price is an indicator and, as I said earlier, if there is variable pricing, the indicator to students is that the higher-priced universities are not for the likes of them. Over the years, I have counselled many young people in my constituency, including ethnic minority young people, to try to encourage them to go on to higher education. They are held back not because they do not have the qualifications—their teachers bring them to me precisely because they think they are bright enough to benefit—but because their parents and they themselves are worried about leaving home, about the sorts of people that they will meet, and that the environment might be snobbish. And now that we see a gap of perhaps £6,000 or £7,000 between fees, what will those working-class students think?
I was the first in my generation of my family to go to university. I always remember my father, who was a committed and kindly parent, saying when I was in the sixth form, “Girls of your age are out of school.” He was not being cruel; all the black girls of my age that he knew were out of school. I voted against tuition fees in the first place because had someone told my father, who left school at 14 and worked all his life, that not only was I staying on into the sixth form, not only was I going on to university, but I was going to pile up upward of £40,000 debt to go to my chosen university, he would have said, “No. You leave school and you become a nurse like your mother,” not because he was cruel, but because he was looking out for my future. For someone from his kind of background, that level of debt would be more than they would earn in a year, and more than my father in his day would have earned in several years, which would have been completely unthinkable.
I agree with Government Members who said that the issues that face young people from communities such as mine when going forward into further education are not just about money. They are very complex issues, and that is why for many years I have run a programme that is designed to encourage black young children, specifically, in London to raise their achievements. We have conferences and seminars, and we give out awards. There are, of course, hundreds of ethnic minority young people doing very well in school, in spite of everything and, as I am sure my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree, this measure will hit not just people from communities such as mine, but middle England also. In some ways, the people who will be worst off are those who are just in the middle, who are not eligible for the help but cannot afford to contemplate their children going on to pile up £40,000 of debt, not when they will have to think about their pension and their jobs, and interest rates on mortgages are rising. I believe that the introduction in this way of a crude market mechanism into higher education is wrong. I believe that it shows the reality of our invisible Lib Dem colleagues’ commitment to equality and fairness. I look forward to hearing the Minister responding to my colleagues’ points today, but I look forward even more to seeing what the electorate in Southwark, in Hornsey, and in Lib Dem constituencies up and down the country, will say in response to the way in which the Lib Dems have today walked away from signed commitments not to have higher tuition fees.
It is a privilege to join the debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), not least because he has a distinguished record championing the widening participation agenda as a Minister, a point others have touched on. Although I have a slight problem with his constituency, I welcome the opportunity to put on record my appreciation of his record in Government. Given his profound knowledge of the subject, I hesitate to speak so soon after my appointment to this shadow brief.
My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) rightly praised the improvements in access to participation under the Labour Government. Those from the top three social classes are twice as likely to go into higher education as those from the bottom four classes, and 19% of the poorest 20% go into higher education compared with 57% of the richest 20%. As my right hon. and hon. Friends made clear, there has been encouraging progress since 2004. Higher education participation by the poorest 20% is up by some 32% compared with a rise of 4% for those from the richest 20%, which means an extra 33,000 students from the bottom four social classes going into higher education between 2003 and 2008. My right hon. Friend and the previous Government can be proud of that record. As hon. Members have rightly said, we need to do more work in that area, so I share the profound scepticism of all those who have spoken from the Opposition Benches that the package announced today by the Minister for Universities and Science will help the effort to increase access to participation.
The hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), who, sadly, is no longer in the Chamber, intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham. As my right hon. Friend said in his answer, the one bit of good news in the Government’s response to the Browne review was about access to loans and better support for part-time students. There were interventions and speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for Newcastle-under- Lyme (Paul Farrelly), for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). I hope to pick up on some of the points that they made.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) made the perfectly fair point that barriers to widening access to education are not simply about finance, but I hope that when he reflects on his intervention he will recognise that a substantial cut in the teaching grant—of which more shortly—will have a big impact on the effort to increase participation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham referred to the research by the Sutton Trust, which has long championed better access to the oldest universities—Oxford and Cambridge. It will be interesting to hear the reaction of the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning to the work that the Sutton Trust published and the profound concern it raised about the impact of the Browne review on the ability of universities to increase participation.
My right hon. Friend has also championed the future of Aimhigher. In answer to questions that I tabled about its future, the Minister for Universities and Science made it clear that Aimhigher has made a significant difference to access to higher education for those from low-income backgrounds. I hope that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning will give us more detail about the future of the widening participation grant. Does he expect it to go down?
I hope that the Minister will deal with the Opposition’s profound concern about the scale of the cut that universities have to contemplate. It has been largely hidden away and not referenced until today’s statement and debate. It is not the 40% spending review cut that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills owned up to, but the 80% cut in the undergraduate teaching budget that is set to have such a profound impact, and is the prime driver behind the increase in fees that we are set to see.
As I said in response to the statement by the Minister for Universities and Science today, we expect universities to lose millions of pounds over the next four years. I hope that he has the courage to recognise that the universities that have done the most to increase participation are set to see the biggest drop in teaching grant funding. As a result of the cut in the undergraduate teaching budget, the university of Bedfordshire is set to lose more than £25 million; Sheffield Hallam university, which serves the constituency of the Deputy Prime Minister, is set to lose £63 million; Leeds Metropolitan university is set to lose almost £61 million; Manchester Metropolitan university is set to lose £60 million; and Liverpool John Moores university is set to lose more than £48 million. A series of universities are set to lose all their teaching grant funding.
In response to the statement from the Minister for Universities and Science today, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) referenced Trinity Laban, which serves, in part, one of the most deprived communities in London, and is set to lose all of its funding simply because it does not teach science, technology, engineering or maths. There is huge concern in the higher education sector, as I hope the Minister will acknowledge, about how the transition to the new system will work, about the pace of cuts in higher education funding and about the extent to which the income from increased fees will come on stream.
The key question for the Minister is how such a huge cut in the undergraduate teaching budget will help universities to increase participation. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central mentioned that we are one of only two countries in the OECD that is decreasing spending on higher education—we join Romania in that regard. In the US, President Obama wants the highest number of undergraduates in the world to be from the United States by 2020, and he is backing up that commitment with substantial additional investment in higher education and research. France, Germany, our allies in Europe, Australia and our allies in the Commonwealth—all OECD members—are substantially increasing their investment in higher education, because they want to increase and widen participation. They recognise both the importance to their economies of having highly skilled graduates and the social justice argument for ensuring that those from low-income backgrounds can go to university.
Although a huge number of Labour Members are interested in this debate, it is telling that not one Liberal Democrat has turned up to take part. They are skulking away in the corners of the House, no doubt embarrassed by what their party has signed up to. It is extraordinary that back in April the Deputy Prime Minister signed his headline manifesto commitment opposing tuition fees—wanting them abolished—yet he now supports trebling them as part of the package today.
What is the future for the widening participation premium? What will be the impact of much higher fees and loans on mature students? What analysis has the Minister commissioned about the impact of the package announced today on those from low-income backgrounds? What will be the impact on postgraduate teaching, and what will be the impact on people from low-income backgrounds in terms of participation in postgraduate study?
Will the Minister tell the House how the new access agreement that each university will have to sign with the Office for Fair Access will work? Will there be targets in the access agreement? How will they be set? Will the access documents be public, so that universities and those outside the higher education sector can compare like with like? What will be the penalties if universities do not achieve the targets set out in the access agreement? That point was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham.
It a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on securing it. I acknowledge that we both care deeply about this subject, and we have debated it over many years. It was especially fortuitous of him to secure the debate for today. He applied for it and secured it before he knew about the statement that would be made—a remarkable achievement.
I have always listened to the right hon. Gentleman with interest. His journey from Tottenham to this place is one that we all believe more people should be able to take. Like many other hon. Members who have spoken, I was the first person in my family to go to university and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I want that opportunity for more people from working-class backgrounds. Like the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), I believe in what she described as the transformative power of learning, and the way that learning changes lives by changing life chances.
However, let us be frank during the course of our affairs this afternoon. The previous Government knew, just as this Government know, that we have to think again about how we fund such opportunities. That is precisely why the previous Government commissioned the Browne review. I have a series of quotes from Lord Mandelson and others. It would be tedious to read them out, but they state that we need to think afresh about the way that we fund universities and think carefully about the contribution made by graduates. That was why we needed to commission a review that looked at such matters. The terms of reference of the Browne review could hardly have been agreed on had it not been anticipated that the outcome would address such subjects. That is precisely what Lord Browne did.
We have heard from a number of hon. Members about the problem of the disincentive effect of higher fees. We heard about that issue from the hon. Members for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), and the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) mentioned it in his summing up. That stands in contrast to the simultaneous and accurate claims made by hon. Members that since fees were introduced, things have improved in terms of widening access. Rather than being a disincentive, there is little evidence to suggest that people have been put off by fees. As we heard, more people from less-advantaged backgrounds have been going to university since the introduction of fees.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I were veterans of the bloody battles that were fought in the Labour party over a market in higher education. The Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats agreed with us. The key achievement all those years ago was to stop the variability, which would have led to people from poorer backgrounds choosing cheaper universities.
While I am on my feet, I would like to make another point—
This will be very brief, Mr Betts. The price paid for a degree sends a market signal to employers that the higher the price, the more a degree is worth. Therefore, more universities will charge higher fees simply because of the signals that that will send to employers. There will be many effects that have not been researched.
I rather suspect that that depends on the degree. There is much more evidence to suggest that degrees in applied sciences, for example, and some of the practical subjects, tend to increase employment potential, whereas some other degrees do not—we could share that discussion offline, Mr Betts, if we have not got time to share it now. I do not write off those other degrees. My goodness—I am a politics graduate and I ended up in this place. As a social scientist, I do not want to make a case against social sciences, and as someone interested in the arts and humanities, I am not going to make a case against those subjects. None the less, if the hon. Gentleman looks more closely at the evidence, he will find that the issue is more about the type of degree.
Much has been made in the debate about the issue of prior attainment. I want to emphasise and amplify the point that the key problem with widening access is prior attainment. If the number of applications were greater, the number of admissions would be greater too. There is not much evidence to suggest that the admissions system is skewed against people from less well-off backgrounds. Many studies have been done to try to establish that, but such a claim is not evidentially based. The issue is about the number of people who apply to universities from less well-off backgrounds. We have to get the school system right and put people on the starting block in the race for higher learning.
We must get advice and guidance right. All too often, people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not given the right kind of empirical advice about the opportunities available to them. When people are advised properly, equipped with the qualifications necessary for their applications and encouraged to apply to university, we see the widening of participation and the fair access that both I and the right hon. Member for Tottenham would like.
No one would disagree with the need to improve attainment, but I do not think that those issues are necessarily in conflict—I will ask the Minister for his view on that. Over the past few years, if people wanted to get into housing, those who could go to the bank of mum and dad did so. Are we going to see a position where those who have the bank of mum and dad, or perhaps an inheritance from mum and dad or grandparents, will in future be able to make choices about higher education that other people cannot make?
It is more the case that people who get advice and guidance derive the wherewithal that turns their aspirations into reality because of a familiar understanding of opportunity. Research suggests that people tend to get that wherewithal from social networks or familiar experience. That is why my children will benefit from advantages that I did not have because of my understanding of the options that are available for higher study. The issue is not only about money, although money is part of it and I shall come on to that in a few moments.
I will not. I am terribly sorry, but I want to make progress. A lot has been said about Aimhigher. I charged the right hon. Member for Tottenham with the claim that he cut the budget for Aimhigher—that was perhaps a little unfair given that he will not have access to the same figures as when he was a Minister or a Front Bencher. However, I would like to give him the facts and I know he will also want them on the record. In 2007, the budget for Aimhigher was £102 million; by 2009 it had dropped to £81 million, and by time the right hon. Gentleman left office, it had fallen to £78 million. The faith that he and others expressed in Aimhigher was not supported by a financial commitment in the budget over which he presided.
The right hon. Gentleman was not the Minister when funding for Aimhigher was at its highest, but he was when the funding fell. We understand his point.
The quality of achievement at state schools and the prior attainment of students is critical. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the success of black students in getting into Russell group universities. That is a matter of profound concern and something that the Government should look at, particularly in light of the recent research that he and I discussed yesterday. I want to see what we can do to address that issue.
I also wish to speak a little about the point made about arts subjects. It is important to understand that we will continue to support the arts. It was suggested that arts subjects will no longer receive funding, but we will continue to focus the Government subsidy for teaching on that.
I cannot give way; I do not have time. I apologise. We will continue to support the arts through the subsidy for teaching in universities.
I have a couple of other points. First, the increase in support for part-time learning will do more to widen participation than any other single measure. As the right hon. Gentleman and others know, disadvantaged people are disproportionately represented among part-time learners. Raising the income threshold to £21,000 will have a profound effect—
I am grateful to have been allowed this time to debate this issue, which is crucial to my constituency. The A614 is a rural single carriageway road that runs down the spine of Sherwood and is a key stage of many commutes in my constituency, providing essential access to the city of Nottingham. The A614 is, however, an historically dangerous stretch of road. It is the site of frequent incidents. In the past 18 months alone, two horrendous fatal accidents have claimed eight lives.
The people of Sherwood have been lobbying hard for improvements to the road, and I am today calling both for better funding for the local county council to make the necessary improvements and for a look at the wider lessons that can be learned from roads such as the A614.
Let us consider rural roads in general. The Institute of Advanced Motorists states:
“On an average day, nine people die on Britain’s roads; six of them are killed on rural roads.”
It also states:
“Two-thirds of fatal and serious casualties on rural roads happen on 60 or 70 mph speed limit…roads.”
It is also relevant to note that half the casualties in rural Great Britain are injured on dry roads in dry weather and that more are injured in daylight than in the dark. Those figures show that rural road safety as a whole needs to be considered when the House can commit more time to the subject than this debate allows, but the A614 is of particular relevance to Sherwood and its people.
I would like to acknowledge for the record that the county council has done excellent work in bringing down the numbers of accidents and particularly fatalities on the A614, but there are a number of areas in which I believe that the Government could support the county to make further improvements in the A614’s safety record. I shall specify where improvements are necessary.
The A614 attracts the vast majority of its accidents in dry, light conditions, with no other hazards detailed on the accident reports. That begs the question, why is the A614 a consistent source of road incidents? There are several hot spots along the route that warrant improvement. Between 2004 and 2009, there were 11 accidents at the junction with the B6030, locally known as the Rose Cottage junction. The installation of traffic signals at the junction was investigated but not proceeded with, as the necessary funding was not available. Any resident of the village of Edwinstowe who tries to gain access on to that busy road will know the dangers of pulling out. When that is combined with the Center Parcs traffic coming in and out of the same junction, there are enormous delays, which lead people to take risks that they should not. An improved road junction at that site would really assist and lower the number of accidents.
Mickledale lane is a little further south. There have been three accidents there since 2004. Residents of Bilsthorpe, a local village, use the junction to gain access to this busy road. It is an horrendous pull-out. Anyone who has used the junction will know the dangers of pulling out into high-speed traffic.
A little further north is Ollerton roundabout—a source of much congestion and debate in the past. The county council has worked long and hard to try to improve that roundabout. There have been 16 accidents along that stretch of road since 2004, and 13 of the 16 involved vehicles turning into or out of a junction. One occurred at a private driveway near the railway bridge, four occurred on Station road—a rat run for people avoiding the congestion at Ollerton roundabout—and eight were associated with the two service stations south of Ollerton.
Although safety is the clear priority at all times, there are major issues with traffic flow, resulting in major tailbacks. Heavy and slow traffic has its own safety consequence, with several bumps occurring in slow-moving traffic. I must, however, give credit where it is due. After years of inaction, the Conservative county council has finally taken action with a small improvement scheme and is delivering that as we speak. However, I expect that the hold-ups will remain. The issue needs solving.
Gravelly Hollow is the junction by which the residents of Calverton gain access not only to the A614, but to the M1 motorway. Due to lack of funds some time ago, the county council decided to close that road junction completely. Funding was not available to improve it, and it had such an horrendous safety record that it was closed to the residents of Calverton. They are now pushed south to an equally dangerous junction at Ramsdale and turn at an acute angle northbound, taking a great risk.
Inevitably, money must raise its ugly head, but I think that investment from Government through the LTP3—local transport plan—settlement would offer a number of clear benefits. Sherwood has had no firm commitments to transport infrastructure improvements, but an increase in the LTP3 settlement would allow the county council to make the vital improvements that Sherwood needs to improve road safety and traffic flows. As improvements have been made to the road over a number of years, accidents have reduced slightly. If the county can commit to improving the remaining sites, the numbers will inevitably fall further. Investment is a prime means by which the Government can support the localism agenda. With relatively modest investment, the Government could support local improvements and ensure that the county can invest in the right places to save lives.
However, although certain physical improvements to the A614 would benefit Sherwood enormously, it cannot be overlooked that the road attracts the vast majority of its accidents in light, dry conditions in which no other hazards seem relevant. I am haunted by the statistic I read that the biggest killer of teenage girls is their male drivers; they are killed as passengers in those cars.
The accident investigation department at Nottinghamshire county council has looked at the accidents caused on one of the worst stretches of the A614—Lockwell Hill roundabout to Ollerton roundabout. Almost 20% of the accidents there were caused by drivers aged 16 to 25, despite that age group constituting only 12% of licence holders. Indeed, more than half the single vehicle accidents on that stretch of road involved under-25s.
It is not my intention to penalise young drivers, but it is an unavoidable truth that at some level our driver education system is failing and that we are still producing, though clearly by no means exclusively, drivers who pose a risk to themselves, their passengers and other motorists. In recent years, there have been a number of changes in the driving test procedure, including the six penalty point limit on all new drivers, but there are other measures that, rather than punishing new drivers, could support better learning and long-term motoring skills.
The AA has said:
“Learner drivers should be encouraged to gain as much practice as possible before taking their tests.”
It has also said:
“Newly qualified drivers need to gain more experience as learners, particularly to build better hazard perception.”
I share its belief that the best way to facilitate that is to support the addition of learners to the policies of qualified drivers—it is usually a parent—to allow them to learn over a longer and more extensive period of time than is allowed by expensive weekly driving lessons. As things stand, such an arrangement is often prohibitively expensive. The cost of adding a 17-year-old learner driver to the policy for a 1.1-litre Renault Clio ranges from the fairly high figure of £2,500 a year to an incredible £20,500. That was the most expensive quote that we could find on the internet. That is a major financial commitment for any family.
I and various motoring organisations believe that such a premium does not reflect proportionately the risk posed by a supervised learner. Insurance companies must distinguish between the 17-year-old who has just passed his test and is inclined to show off to his friends and the one whose mum is sitting in the passenger seat with a firm eye on the speedometer. The AA has said:
“Government should work with the insurance industry to review the premiums charged to parents wishing to include their learner driver children on their policies so that premiums follow actuarial risk.”
I fully agree.
In one of the grimmest accidents on the A614, the coroner observed that
“it was dark, however the visibility was very good, aided by street lighting…All the road markings were in good condition and clearly visible”,
but the driver was a young man.
The reality is that, while we must ensure that all road safety tools are physically in place—bright lines, proper lighting, adequate junctions—such measures will never completely exclude the occurrence of accidents. Drivers who lack the experience to use the roads will always cause problems.
Furthermore, the key point is that young drivers are not trained on the roads and the conditions most challenging to inexperienced drivers—rural single carriageways, often travelled at night or in the wet. I would like to discuss the idea that such roads and conditions should appear in the driving test or in a reformed approach to driver training that encourages young drivers to get as much experience on as wide a range of roads as possible. Such young drivers have a lower risk of crash involvement in the key early months, as found in Sweden. Advanced driver training has also been suggested by the IAM, as a key component of any approach to reducing crashes—positive encouragement and awareness raising of how extra training can save the driver’s life on a rural road.
For those concerned about learners in an urban context, for whom the countryside is half a lesson away, the reality is that inner-London drivers are less likely to come a cropper on rural roads than are Northampton or Nottingham drivers, and yet it is perfectly possible to get out of those towns for a rural experience. The test could reflect local driving environments and casualty reasons, rather than being a national exam in which instructors all focus on low-speed urban driving, such as reversing around a corner, to pass the test. It is worth noting that hardly any casualties result from anything currently tested by the DSA. While that could be a testament to the success of the test, that is unlikely.
Various post-training schemes exist, including the IAM’s of course, but young drivers have little incentive to partake. I am not proposing graduated licensing, but anything that the Government can do to introduce and encourage continuous development will deliver reduced casualties.
Pass Plus was a start for the UK, but the Austrian system whereby new drivers have to undergo three training events in the first year seems more likely to deliver results—it also appears to go down well with the drivers. The training is not seen as an onerous task but as a normal part of building someone’s skill as a driver—it is certainly worth studying for lessons that we could learn.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister again to look at the A614 and its accident record, but also at the role that young people play when driving on our roads. Anything we can do to encourage those young people to keep themselves, and ourselves, safe would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for the time.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on his tenacity in standing up for his constituents, in particular those concerned with safety on the A614, and, more openly, for the whole issue of driving with safety on our roads. We have answered my hon. Friend’s parliamentary questions and he has already met the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the Minister responsible for local roads. I am answering the debate today purely because of the road safety remit of my ministerial role.
I would like to touch on two aspects of the debate this afternoon: the problems of the A614, and what can be done with the limited funds available. I also pay tribute to the work of the local authority, the police and the other agencies in Nottinghamshire, which have done remarkably well on this stretch of road, in particular along the length of the road, taking 102 deaths in 2005 down to 24 in the first half of this year—24 too many, I fully accept. However, things are difficult in rural areas and, even when conditions are dry, bright and safe, and things are done with the road markings, as the coroner indicated, deaths still, sadly, occur.
In my previous incarnation as a rescue tender driver in the fire and rescue service in Essex, I attended all too many road traffic accidents. They involved young drivers in particular—something I shall come on to again in a moment—and people could suffer serious injuries, on roads that gave no explanation as to why the accident had happened.
The other day I experienced a horrendous accident—on the M62, I believe—in which someone was changing the wheel on their car. For no reason at all, a lorry swerved from the inside lane and completely wiped them out—very sadly, they were both killed. There was no reason. The driver was not drunk or under the influence of drugs and was certainly not exceeding his tacho hours limit, but for some unknown reason we sometimes have such accidents.
We can do a lot with education, in particular on this stretch of the road, perhaps, and not only is work being done as we speak on the Ollerton roundabout, but the local authority is now looking at whether average-speed cameras could be funded along that stretch of the road. I want to reiterate some guidance to do with speed cameras which I will be sending to all local authorities in the UK that come under my remit—there is, of course, a difference between speed cameras and average-speed cameras.
One of the things that the new Government have done in the past six months, with our restricted funding, is to say to the local authorities that, instead of hypothecating money specifically for speed cameras, we will let them make local decisions on local areas. They do not have to use some of the money specifically for speed cameras—they can if they wish—but they can spread the money across myriad road safety features. The old system meant that some of the money had to be spent on speed cameras no matter what, which skewed a lot of decisions.
What will happen now is that, if speed cameras are wanted, the local authorities can use the funding in that way, but we are saying, “Please, look at whether speed cameras are the only option, whether there are better options and whether, in particular places—this road might well be one—average-speed cameras could be used,” if the authorities wish to reduce the speed limit from 60 to 50 mph. They would have to apply to me, as the Minister, to reduce the limit to 50, but if they did I would be minded to do so. However, if we do that, the indication must be that it is enforceable. With the limited resources that the police have—the police are very involved with accidents along the road, there is no point putting in a speed limit that we cannot enforce one way or another.
My theory is that if we had single speed cameras just staggered along a road, on a long stretch of undulating road such as this, if we were not careful, we would have people braking for the speed camera—everyone knows where they are—then speeding up and being away again. That adds to the problem. However, in certain circumstances, in particular on motorways, interestingly enough, but also on dual carriageways, we know that average-speed cameras have worked very well. Putting in average-speed cameras would be a new approach for such a road. There is an expense, of course, but the money is available in the existing budgets for local authorities, if they wish to use it in that way. It is very much their choice.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, when he met my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, indicated that it is not for central Government to tell local authorities the best way to address the situation. We can help; we can give guidance, but it is very much their decision.
That is the point that I am making. If we can find a facility to give Nottinghamshire county council an improved LTP3 settlement, it can find a means by which to solve its local problems at a local level.
While I am on my feet, I am grateful that the Minister has taken the time to come here today, but could he find time in his busy diary to come and have a look at the road? I would be delighted to show him the issues and for him to meet some of the residents who live near those junctions, so that he can experience the dangers that they face.
I would be delighted to respond to that kind invitation. I love that part of the world—I know the Center Parcs to which he referred earlier very well indeed, from when my children were much younger. If it is not me, it will certainly be the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, depending on our programme.
When we come to funding, things are difficult—improved funding means more funding, and my county would like that, the same as Nottinghamshire, but we have to look directly at what can be given and what can be spent. That is where the pressure of hon. Members and their councillors can ensure that the money is spent in the right, most feasible way.
I shall spend a little time on the serious subject of young drivers, particularly boys between the ages of 17 and 25—and in some parts of the country up to the age of 30. I was heavily involved in this matter not only as a Back-Bench Member when I first came to the House but in my previous occupation in Essex fire and rescue service.
It is the most horrendous thing for policemen, ambulance paramedics or firemen to see young lives being wiped out. There are times when there seems to be no logic to such incidents. I have been to many incidents that, to our knowledge, did not involve drink or drugs, and where the road conditions were fine and the vehicles were of a low horsepower.
The vehicle of choice for the young and particularly for boys is the Saxo or the Corsa. Such cars are not built for speed, although attempts may be made to change the baffles in the exhaust pipe to make it sound like a grand prix racing car. Nevertheless, those cars can speed quite well and with the wrong road conditions speed is one of the biggest problems.
We have been in government for only a short time but we are giving careful consideration to the driving test—I shall return to that subject in a moment—and to projects to educate young people so that they understand that they are not immortal. What fascinates me is that many young people who get into such difficulties when driving are intelligent.
I am sure that his family will not mind my mentioning this, because it adds to the debate, but a wonderful young man came to do some work experience for me when I was newly elected to the House in 2005. He had worked hard to become the head boy at the local comprehensive school and was going to one of the top universities, and I hope that his work experience with me added to his curriculum. After taking a morning exam, he drove down one of the country roads in my constituency. The end result was that he put the car into an oak tree. That happened for no apparent reason—apart from adrenalin, excitement, the thrill of driving and, not least perhaps, peer pressure from some of the others in the car. The old-fashioned phrase for that is showing off, but it puts other people’s lives at risk as well as that of the driver.
I passionately believe that we can work with some of the measures introduced by the previous Government, including the six points rule, which is good. However, we must be careful. My hon. Friend touched on insurance, and I note that the fine for not insuring a young person to drive is vastly less than paying the insurance. I assure my hon. Friend that we are working with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that fines act as a deterrent rather than an incentive to remain uninsured.
We are working closely with the insurance companies to make it mandatory for vehicles to be insured. There are millions of vehicles on our roads that are not insured. People say, “Well, it’s sitting outside on the road outside my house. I’m not using it. It’s taxed but doesn’t need to be insured.” It has to be insured, because if someone decides to use it even for an emergency they will not be covered. We are moving fast on that.
I am very keen to have a national framework for educating young drivers on the dangers of driving. When I was on the Back Benches, I went to see a scheme in Cheshire called Drive to Survive. It is an excellent scheme. If my hon. Friend wants, I shall drop him a line telling him about other schemes around the country. The schemes are a bit of shock but have a little compassion; they shock young people, and not only those who have been breaking the law by showing them what they could have done to themselves and to those whom they love dearly. At the end of most courses, someone is there to tell how they lost a loved one, and to talk about sons or daughters who had been maimed or killed at the same age. I pay tribute to Mr Beatty in Scotland and Mr Kerr in England; both are to advise me from personal experience how that campaign works. We may have wonderful, big organisations, but I want people from the grass roots to work with me on how to skill up our young people.
I turn to the changes to the test that were touched on earlier. They are being implemented as we speak. People, and not only young people—this is so true—are trained to pass a test and not to drive. One thing that I have asked during the six months during which I have had the honour of being a Minister is the question, “Is the test fit for purpose?” Are we training people to drive in a fit and safe way so that they can enjoy the road?
That applies not only to cars and HGVs but particularly to motorbikes. Even though we have some of the safest roads in the world, our motorbike death rate is going in the wrong direction. Although we had only a 2% increase last year in motorcycle use, the motorbike death rate has increased by 4%, which is going in exactly the opposite direction of all other motor and cycling deaths. I have therefore announced a review, which is ongoing, of the motorcycle test. As my hon. Friend is aware, our undulating roads are a big problem for motorcyclists as well as car drivers.
The previous Government introduced the two-part test. Part of it was to be taken off-road. That sounds eminently sensible—ish—until one realises that the only way to get to the test centre is for those learner drivers to drive on the road. It can take anything up to two or two and a half hours to reach the test centre. Then comes the off-road test, and we have had some nasty accidents there. Those who fail are sent off home to drive on the roads again. It seems to me that if we are training people to drive on the highways and byways of this country, testing them on the roads is the best way forward.
Other things concern me about the car driving test. My hon. Friend insinuated—it was right and proper for him to do so—that those teaching people to pass the test are doing so in order to get paid and move on to the next test. As a result, they have learned the test routes. I know that my young daughter will not mind me saying this—I know that because I am always doing it, and sometimes in front of her. She passed her test first time. We live in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, and the test centre is at St Albans. She took all her driving lessons in St Albans. On the day of her test the instructor said, “Turn left; then turn right,” and she smiled. She knew the route like the back of her hand. She will admit that that is not the best way to test people, and we are desperate to change that. I have therefore banned the routes being published. New routes will be worked in the test centre areas so that there will be no knowledge of the route; instead, there will be knowledge of how to drive.
Another change has been introduced. Once people have passed the test they are likely to drive on their own. My daughter came home after her test and parked the car. At about half-past 5 she went out of the front door, put the keys in the ignition and sat there for half an hour. Like a good parent, I was staring out of the window so that she could not see me, but eventually I went out to her and said, “What’s the matter, mate?” She was crying. She was petrified. She had never driven a car on her own, yet the law—and I as the Minister—had given her a piece of paper that said, “Off you go. You’re as good as everyone else on the road.” That is not the case. We need to work with the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the AA and other organisations on post-test training, and to ensure that the test itself is fit for purpose.
I thank my hon. Friend again for introducing a subject that I would like to debate more often. People take an interest in their local community and its roads, and are concerned about the deaths and accidents that take place there. It is something that every Back Bencher should do. It is a great honour to stand here as a Minister and listen to someone who understands his constituency so well, who understands its topography and layout and who knows where the problems are.
Of course it is my hon. Friend’s job to ask for more money, but with the limited funds that we have I must ensure that the money is spent on the right projects and that we do not pick on the same ideas each time but look outside the box. That is particularly so for rural roads, where white lining on the edge of the roads is so important. White lining has saved millions of lives—that is an overstatement, but it has certainly saved thousands of lives—since it was introduced in the 1960s. Some of those white lines are now wearing out, but white-lining technology has improved and we now have retro-reflective white lining that absorbs light and throws it straight back at the source rather than onwards. That sort of technology should be used, as it is very cheap. When we go to look at the roads in my hon. Friend’s constituency—I do not know whether it will be me or my colleague—it will be interesting to see whether the white lining was improved at the same time as some of the other works that have been approved. On rural roads, it is very useful.
Finally, I turn to the cost of insurance. As a parent, I put both of my children on my policy, but they were not the main drivers. In many cases, however, children are the main driver, but are not listed as such. That is breaking the law, and it is not fair on the insurance industry.
Rebalancing the UK Economy
Amid the feverish analysis of the size, scope and impact of the Government’s chosen spending cuts, a fresh debate is emerging about a desirable blueprint for Britain’s economic future. Such is the near-universal distaste reserved for financial services, that a determination no longer to rely on their economic contribution seems one of the few certainties in the debate. As a result, rebalancing is the new economic watchword. For sure, the financial crisis has painfully highlighted the UK’s dependence on the City and our collective exposure to the risks taken by the global banking fraternity. My worry, however, is that the phrase is being used—even, I fear, by some Conservative coalition Ministers—for playing to the gallery as part of the general banker-bashing sentiment.
It is superficially convincing to promote attempts to stimulate growth more evenly through the regions, and stepping up our game in the innovation and incubation of companies in the high value-added areas of high- tech manufacturing, engineering, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. I acknowledge my own part in that: I have played a role in ensuring the incubation of those small companies in the City of London. The Corporation of London is to be complimented for finding premises in double-quick time for such companies.
I wholly support the initiatives of the Government, in particular funding the £200 million science park in St Pancras. That is both welcome and highly commendable. However, we should be wary of how the aim of rebalancing is pursued. Unwisely, most of the focus so far has been on how we might shrink the City to reduce its relative importance, rather than providing a positive economic climate in which all other sectors can flourish.
Before we pursue what I believe would be such a dangerous policy any further, I wish to make the case why financial services must remain a central plank in Britain’s bid for continuing relevance in a fast-changing global economy. A strong financial services sector is overwhelmingly beneficial to our nation. It will provide the critical mass to draw business to this country. It offers diversified sources of capital to small business. It makes huge contributions to the Treasury’s coffers, in terms of tax and employment, and it supports a wide range of complementary industries, from law to leisure. It is also one of the very few areas where we might envisage significant growth in the decades to come.
The tens of millions of people who join the ranks of the global middle class annually from India and China have a greater cultural propensity to save, and they will seek expertise in investing their savings for the future. It seems evident to me that the entire drive for the west is directed towards capturing the growth of the developing markets. It is an argument that has been put to me in recent weeks by German industrialists. Here in the UK, we have already secured such an important competitive advantage. It is in the financial services sphere. Why throw that advantage away? Aside from that, there are several reasons for us to believe that the task of rebalancing might well prove trickier than we may wish.
It is time that we changed our attitude towards the City, from one of punishment, which has taken place in the past two or three years in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to hard-headed realism. How we treat our nation’s most valuable economic resource in the years ahead will be a litmus test for international business in determining how serious Britain is in its wish to be dynamic and have an open economy that embraces global talent, promotes aspiration and welcomes business.
I hope that the Minister will consider this: the UK should perhaps, for example, look at the way that the Isle of Man has quite successfully rebalanced its economy through promoting new growth areas but, crucially, in a way that has not undermined or diminished the importance of its own very important financial services sector. The Isle of Man has embarked upon a diversification drive that has built a thriving hub for high-tech manufacturing, including aerospace, which of course has strong links to the north-west of England economy. It has created a propitious environment for world-class e-gaming companies; it has established world-class high-quality aircraft and ship registers and created a diverse and thriving space commerce sector, with many of the world’s leading operators established on the island. Crucially, it has also continued to support—very vocally—and promote its successful financial sector, which is wholly compatible with, and supports, other sectors of its diversified economy. In essence, the Isle of Man Government have not picked winners at the expense of penalising other sectors, but have shown that they can build a balanced and diversified economy, while maintaining a strong and thriving financial services sector.
While the banking crisis was in full swing in 2008, it seemed that almost overnight the financial sector had become a useful scapegoat for all our economic ills. Many of the criticisms levelled at the banking fraternity have been legitimate, in part at least. The failure in that sector of the economy exposed the domestic taxpayer to such mind-boggling sums that it was, in many ways, scandalous, and seemed to confirm suspicions that the wealth created by the City was simply a mirage. Irresponsible risks were taken. Debt instruments certainly became too complex. Money was lent to those who could ill afford the repayments. Incidentally, I fear that one of the difficulties is when policy makers seek out so-called socially useful banking—the genesis of the sub-prime problem that occurred initially in the US and in the UK subsequently from the mid-1990s. Regulators—if not regulations—proved ill equipped at times for their job.
The City’s dominance in the domestic economy in the past two decades had some wide-ranging social consequences. For a large proportion of British people working outside the gilded corridors of the financial services industry, the growth of the City’s power increased the cost of living and reduced, at times, to just a wistful dream any prospect they may have had of getting on the housing ladder, except via colossal personal debt. It could also be argued that the City precipitated a brain drain from other professions and industries, with so many of our brightest and best graduates over the past quarter of a century tempted away by unrivalled starting salaries in the banking sphere.
In some senses, the City’s success has merely masked—until its failure uncovered—some more fundamental problems that had developed in the western economies. Governments had been spending far too much money. As individuals, we had also racked up far too much debt. We found it cheaper and easier to buy cheap goods from abroad, import migrant workers and pay off our own citizens with welfare, rather than confront the difficulties of either finding sufficient employment for blue-collar workers who were losing ground to eastern competition, or tackling the dearth of skills among the indigenous population. I am glad to say that with some of our welfare policies, the Government are definitely going down the right route to try to counter some of those issues.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I do not think that it is inconsistent to have a thriving financial sector and other thriving sectors, including small and medium-sized businesses. Thriving businesses will deal with the problems to which you just alluded, in terms of migration, skills training and so on. A financial sector would welcome further opportunities to invest in its own territory and internationally. The two things go hand in hand.
I would not disagree with my hon. Friend in any way. It is the rhetoric, I think, of some policy makers, both in the present, but particularly in the past, that could have applied something of a barrier to that very ideal goal.
Rather than openly confronting some of those issues post-crisis, the implicit and perhaps all too easy assumption has been that, had the banking sector not collapsed through the profligacy and greed of some its employees and key players, we might have continued as we had before. There is also an assumption that to solve our current problems we need simply to return to what used to be the strength of a couple of generations ago—rebalancing the economy towards making things. The intensity of the rhetoric that has built up around the role of banks in the economy is such that politicians and even bankers themselves have often been unwilling to stand up for the sector.
Alas, that rhetoric has not subsided as time has passed. In fact, it is likely to intensify in the months ahead as the cuts bite and questions are asked about how and why Government money can be found to prop up the banks and pay out what I suspect will be another bumper round of bonuses this year while public sector jobs and services, as well as benefits, face the axe.
In response, Governments approach the financial services sector as something to be outwardly chastened, while they privately recognise its importance to the wider economy and rely on the continued income and jobs that it provides. In public, banks are told to lend to inherently risky start-ups—small businesses and first-time buyers. They are berated for trying to take the collateral that small business owners will often have tied up in their own property. At the same time, however, banks are told—indeed, they are required—to meet stringent new capital requirements. The new £2 billion bank levy is announced with a fanfare and the 50% income tax rate remains in place, yet the Treasury quietly acknowledges that it cannot put further pressure on balance sheets while storms are still gathering in the eurozone, which I think will be one of the big stories in the months ahead.
This is a very interesting and timely debate about financial services. I declare an interest as a former City lawyer. I note with interest that you say financial services include lawyers, accountants and so on. Given that your concern is about publicity, do you agree that sometimes it is what some of the professional services have done themselves that has given rise to those problems? Furthermore, do you agree that, although it is not so much a City phenomenon as one related to smaller firms, the “no win, no fee” approach that law firms have adopted—as I say, it is usually adopted by smaller firms—has not really helped the cause of financial services?
As someone who is also from the “former lawyer” fraternity—I worked for a City law firm and I know that my hon. Friend worked for another City law firm over the years—I agree. There are elements of the ethics of business that concern me; I have never been a wide-eyed supporter of everything that has been done in the context of the City. Equally, it is important to recognise the City’s importance if this country is to get off its knees.
We witness, to an extent, the public baying for more blood after the banks have posted healthy profits, due, of course, to a combination of low interest rates, a lack of competition and a cut in corporation tax, yet the public are bemused when Government restrictions lead to increased bank charges for consumers.
The right answer to the question of how to rebalance the economy is not to shrink the financial services sector. However, the fact remains that we have the largest financial services sector in relation to the rest of the economy of any advanced economy; the financial services sector accounts for something like 27% of our economy. The interesting policy question is whether we want that percentage to increase as a percentage of the whole or whether we want everything in the economy to increase together.
I think that you also raised a point about the public relations problems that banks are suffering at the moment. Of course, banks have made a huge contribution to our economy, but during the last two years they have sucked in something like £150 billion-worth of Government money and they are not really answering the question about how they should restructure themselves. That question has been left to the Bank of England and others—whether through the Glass-Steagall Act, or whatever—to answer. Until the banks do that themselves, they will continue to be criticised over bonuses.
Order. I want to say something to the three hon. Members who have made interventions. It is fine that you made interventions, but on each occasion you have used the word “you” as part of your comments. This is just a small reminder—I did not want to stop you in mid-flow.
It is a credit to you, Mr Betts; it must be the informality of these arrangements that have allowed my colleagues to drop their guard somewhat.
I think that there is a lot in what my hon. Friend just said. As he rightly pointed out, in many ways a huge amount of money has been pumped into the financial services sector, yet there seems to be very little idea of what the global landscape of banking and finance will look like in the future.
The Government have a part to play in the process. We are, after all, majority stakeholders in two of the big four banks—the Lloyds Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland—and we need to utilise that muscle to try to make a case for how the banking world should look in the future.
To some extent, there has been a somewhat confused strategy that has been of no benefit to the Government, the banks or the public. In essence, the risk is that we are now penalising our single most competitive economic sector, while somehow fooling ourselves that a miraculous rebalancing of the economy can occur by default. In truth, the rebalancing will only be threatened by diminution of the financial services sector. Let us not forget why, on the whole, a thriving City makes for a successful Britain.
Since time immemorial, the City of London has enjoyed an international reputation as a bastion of commercial certainty and reliability. It has promoted financial innovation, it has provided an international market for global merchants and in commercial affairs it has rightly been seen as a watchword for justice, neutrality and fairness. Of course, it also has a number of innate advantages that ensure that companies’ loyalty to London runs deeper than just appreciation of its tax regime. Those advantages include, of course, a time zone that lies between those of north America and Asia, which makes the City an excellent base for international company headquarters, and the lifestyle assets of a culture, an excellent educational offering and a population so diverse that all can feel at home.
As a result, London has emerged as the global financial centre. Indeed, so successful has the British financial services sector been that it now contributes more than 10% of Britain’s economic output. We should also remember that although the sector is focused in central London, a significant amount of its activity takes place in a range of regional centres in the UK.
Of course, it is not only banks that benefit from our financial sector but complementary industries such as law, insurance, retail and entertainment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) pointed out. Our top-flight universities, the arts and the charitable sector also gain, the latter two from cultural funds or corporate responsibility grants that are, of course, often provided by the City’s top banks and bankers. The presence of our large financial sector gives London the critical mass to attract the best professionals from across the globe.
Banking bail-outs notwithstanding, the financial services sector contributes massively to the Treasury’s coffers in tax revenues, with an estimated contribution of £61 billion in 2008-09. Of course, it also contributes massively in terms of employment, with more than 1 million people employed directly in financial services across the UK.
The financial services sector also plays a critical role in supporting business, not only in attracting huge inward flows of foreign capital to help to fund our infrastructure but in propping up our companies and providing British companies with access to a diversified source of capital, to enable them to invest and expand.
Even if opposition to City dominance is practical rather than simply ideological, I suspect that it is unlikely any time soon that any other economic sector will be a world-beater in the way that the financial services sector is. I am afraid that the industries in which we are hoping to diversify are ones where competition will be very stiff. For example, the Chinese are as keen to develop their manufacturing capacity when it comes to green technology as we are.
Moreover, we should not assume that people in developing countries will start to spend their savings as the western world weans itself off debt and consumption. Britain is just one of the nations that have been pinning some of their hopes on export-led growth. However, despite a 20% depreciation in the value of the pound, the UK’s trade deficit has continued to widen. Meanwhile, with uncertainty infecting the financial system, British corporations have shown little appetite for expansion any time soon, as they accumulate cash cushions instead of investing.
My hon. Friend will have to forgive me for not giving way; I want to say a few more things and I obviously want to hear what the Minister has to say in response.
I am not convinced that London’s population is sufficiently equipped to deal with significant growth in new industries. Few people outside the capital may realise that, at 9%, London has one of the highest levels of regional unemployment in the UK. With Britain wedded to a model of high welfare and unemployment benefits, those living in the capital need to earn considerably more than the minimum wage to make it worth their while to work. As a corollary, it has of course been far easier in recent years to encourage hard-working migrants to fill the jobs that Londoners have been unwilling or unable to take up themselves. In the capital, a large proportion of the indigenous working-age population are without the skills or inclination to fill jobs of any kind.
Put simply, our financial services sector is a huge asset. With vast numbers of employees in the developing world entering the middle classes each year and earnestly looking for ways to save and invest, it is also one of the few sectors in which we can confidently predict significant growth in the years ahead. A nation of only 60 million people should be grateful to have one absolute world-beating industry that is, in normal times, incredibly lucrative and that feeds a wide range of other sectors.
By all means, we should focus on trying to help build up other sectors if we can, and on reducing the exposure of taxpayers to risk. However, economic diversification will not be an easy option and it should not lead to the neglect or diminution of the City. Indeed, if it leads to that, the task of diversification will become even harder. Global businesses and their highly skilled work forces do not necessarily have any innate loyalty to the UK. They will go where the legal, fiscal, regulatory, physical and social environment works best for them. I fear that the continued rhetoric of hostility towards banks and regulatory uncertainty only serve to deter such businesses. Why stay and put up with ever more grief?
In that respect, more pressing than diversification is the need to make the UK a place of possibilities, enterprise and entrepreneurship. It is not for this or any Government to pick winners and losers, or indeed to prop up losers and penalise winners. The continuing attacks on our financial services sector no longer serve any purpose. I understand the need, just before the election, to play a bit to the gallery—one had to recognise public sentiment—but we are now four and a half years from the next general election. I hope that the Government will have the confidence to make the case for our financial services industry. As long as we get the regulation right, we should not be fearful of confidently articulating the terrific benefits of a robust and expanding financial sector. Let us draw a line under this period of uncertainty and hostility while we still have that fantastic springboard to ensuring the UK’s great relevance in a fast-changing global economy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) on securing this debate. He made some important points that I will address. I think that we all recognise that our financial and professional services industry is world-class and that the UK can rightly be proud of it. It affects every constituency in the country. For example, my constituency has more than 2,000 people who work in financial services and related professions—1,600 of them are in financial services—and Fareham is not the centre of the global financial sector. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the sector contributes to employment in regional centres. Belfast, Birmingham and Bournemouth all host processing centres that support the work of international financial businesses based in London and headquartered overseas.
For centuries, the UK has been at the heart of international finance. Our openness is an asset to our economy that we are keen to maintain. The recent global financial centres index once again ranked London as the most competitive financial capital in the world. We should seek to preserve and enhance that competitiveness, but it is also important that we do not lose sight of the other areas of our economy that make the UK an excellent place to do business.
It is right that we should support investment in areas of our country where it has been absent during the past decade. That is why, as part of the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced the £1.4 billion regional growth fund to tackle the gap that opened during the last Government between the south-east and the rest of the country. The money is designed to lever in long-term investment in the capacity of our transport system, science and green energy across all parts of the UK.
I share the sentiment expressed in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). Many people, including me, have called for a rebalancing of the economy, but we will not achieve that by cutting down the tallest flowers; we need to make others grow taller and faster. I believe that we can have a more diverse economy and be home to the world’s leading financial centre. Indeed, the fact that the UK is home to a global financial centre can help us develop that more diverse economy.
Going back to the roots of the City and its success, the City flourished because it supported trade through insurance of trade finance. It found capital to invest in new enterprise and developed new and innovative ideas to provide security and certainty for businesses and households. It is an important part of the process of restoring confidence in financial services for the City to reconnect with commerce. We need banks to lend to businesses if they are to take advantage of new investment and trading opportunities, but it is not only banks that need to do so. That is an important priority for this Government.
We welcome the work done by the British Bankers Association on that issue, involving commitments to improved data, greater transparency and an army of business mentors to get businesses ready for finance. However, we also need to broaden the sources of finance available beyond banks. We need sources of new equity. Banks will be contributing to a £1.5 billion equity fund to support growth, but we know that there are other sources of capital from equity, such as business angels. Insurers have raised funds to invest in debt for businesses. We need to lever the skills, enterprise and success of London’s global financial centre to help businesses grow.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster referred to the opportunities emerging in the far east and South America. Again, the City has an important role to play, not only by exporting its own services to emerging and growing economies but by supporting other businesses in their attempt to exploit those markets.
However, support for the financial sector cannot be uncritical. As my hon. Friend recognised, there were flaws in City practices in the run-up to the financial crisis, as well as a failure of the regulatory architecture. We need to resolve those issues if we are to provide a stable foundation for the financial services sector to grow. That is why the reforms that we have set out since the formation of the coalition Government in May are rooted in economic and financial stability, not the size of the financial services sector. That is an important distinction to draw. We want a stronger, more stable structure. That will require a reform of regulation, but it is not about the size of the sector.
We have been clear in the reforms that we have introduced that we want more effective supervision and a new structure to tackle emerging threats to financial stability. That is why we are setting up a Financial Policy Committee as part of the Bank of England to consider emerging threats to our financial stability and determine what response is needed to enhance the stability and resilience of the UK financial sector.
It is an important debate, and there is no clear consensus on what structure the banking sector in the UK should have. That is why we decided to set up the Independent Commission on Banking, under the chairmanship of Sir John Vickers, to consider structure as well as competition in financial services. Over the course of the financial crisis, we have seen a significant concentration of financial services and the banking sector—there are fewer banks from overseas operating in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector, and Lloyds has taken control of HBOS—and we want the independent commission to consider that and decide whether structural changes are needed to improve the resilience and strength of the banking sector, and whether we can introduce measures to improve the competitive landscape and provide greater choice for businesses and consumers looking for financial services products, whether they are loans, current accounts, business accounts or other products. We need to consider the structure carefully, which is why we set up the Independent Commission on Banking.
To return to the point about regulation, we recognise that there were flaws in the structure of regulation; that is one reason why we set up the Financial Policy Committee. We also want to examine how the Financial Services Authority operated under its dual mandate to consider prudential supervision and consumer protection. We decided to create two new regulatory bodies to replace the FSA. One is the Prudential Regulation Authority, which will be a subsidiary of the Bank of England and will focus on the strength and resilience of banks and insurance companies particularly; the other is the Consumer Protection and Markets Authority, which will ensure that consumer markets in the UK work effectively to support the long-term aspirations of consumers as well as considering how wholesale markets in the UK work. That is an important aspect of the financial services sector; a great deal of work on that issue is going on at an international or regional level through the EU, and it is important that the UK takes a strong lead in ensuring that those markets are regulated effectively. If we get the regulation of the financial services sector right—if we take steps to improve markets’ transparency, resilience and strength—I believe that it will provide a firm foundation for the continued growth of the sector in the years to come.
On the diversity of the economy, we must recognise that there is more to our economy than financial services. We have strengths in other areas, partly as a consequence of language, time zone and other aspects of the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) referred to the legal system, which is a huge asset for businesses seeking to work here due to the legal certainty that comes from our world-class legal framework. We have a deep and highly skilled talent pool and strengths in pharmaceuticals, construction and business services.
We need all those sectors to grow, but their growth does not mean that we should diminish the size of the financial services sector. A strong financial services sector can help develop the diversity the UK economy needs to demonstrate that we have learned the lessons from the financial crisis. We cannot have an unreformed financial sector, given the scale of the crisis that we have been through. Reform has been introduced to help the sector’s stability and resilience and produce a better outcome for businesses and households.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).