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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
19 January 2011
Volume 521

House of Commons

Wednesday 19 January 2011

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

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I have a short statement to make on progress towards the establishment of an informal liaison group for the House of Commons and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

The purpose of the group will be to provide a forum in which Members of Parliament and members of the board and officials of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority can, on a consultative basis, raise matters of interest or concern.

Following consultation with the parties in recent weeks, I have invited nine Members of the House to represent the House of Commons on this liaison group. They are the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), and the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Warrington North (Helen Jones), for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker).

Members who wish to raise matters should be in touch directly with members of the liaison group.

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society

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1. What recent progress the big society ministerial group has made in its work. [34280]

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The Government have an ambitious agenda for the big society. We want to decentralise power and put it in the hands of local communities. We want to open up public services to small and medium-sized enterprises, voluntary organisations and mutuals, and support the growth of civil society organisations.

The ministerial group, which is co-chaired by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and myself, is helping to drive forward this agenda and has already contributed to progressing our vanguard areas, the renewed compact, the right to provide for mutuals, and our giving Green Paper.

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Hyndburn citizens advice bureau has seen a 50% cut in its funding and four job losses, and I think that it is a similar tale at Rossendale citizens advice bureau. I am waiting for its job losses, but it is expecting a 50% cut. The Minister should be mindful that his Government might leave the legacy of a little society. What warm words would he have for Rossendale and Hyndburn citizens advice bureaux?

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We urgently hope that local authorities, as they deal with the financial consequences of the budget deficit that the Labour Government left behind—when the Government were spending £4 for every £3 in revenue, having to borrow £1 out of every £4—will ensure that a disproportionate burden of those reductions does not fall on the voluntary sector. That is a matter he should take up with the local council.

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Have Ministers considered how to avoid duplication in the work of existing volunteer bureaux, often supported by local councils, and the new community organisers who are being recruited by the Government?

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I would expect community organisers to work closely with those organisations and to ensure that there is no duplication of effort. These community organisers, many of whom already exist and do great work in communities, will not carry any kind of bureaucracy or organisational structure with them. Their job is to put people together, give support to organisations and make connections where they are not already being made.

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This morning, figures showed that youth unemployment has rocketed up, and this afternoon we expect the Government to confirm that they will cancel the education maintenance allowance. Without work and without study, surely we need our youth charities more than ever before, yet the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services says that three quarters are now cutting projects. Just what have the Government got against young people, and why is there such a narrow place for young people in the Government’s vision of the big society?

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I am pretty reluctant to take lectures on this from the right hon. Gentleman, because he will know, as a prominent member of the last Government, that when his Government left office there were many more young people out of work than when they took office.

Charity Collections

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2. What steps he is taking to prevent fraudulent charity collections. [34281]

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Stealing from charities is a repulsive crime, but a growing problem, with suspected links to organised crime. It is estimated that up to £50 million a year is lost to bogus collections, which deprive charities of vital income and damage public trust and confidence in them. We are determined to take robust action against people who carry out such crimes.

Last week the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for civil society, and apologises for not being able to be here today, chaired a very positive meeting with charities, their collection partners, and the licensing and enforcement agencies to consider ways to tackle the issue. We want to review the licensing legislation and put much greater emphasis on the co-ordination of enforcement action to combat these criminals.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. What assurances can he give the House that in our efforts to clamp down on fraudulent collectors we do not create an overly burdensome system that makes it harder for volunteers, on whom many of the charities in my constituency and across the country rely, to give up their time?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Charities Act 2006 is due to be reviewed, in the ordinary course of events, later this year, which we will do. It seems to us that the current laws are outdated; they date from many years ago, from a different world. They are not particularly effective at preventing fraudulent collections, yet they can already be very burdensome on legitimate charities. We want to reverse that to make the law easier for legitimate charities but more effective in controlling fraudulent collections.

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In taking that important matter forward, what consultation does the Minister propose to have with the devolved Administrations so that best practice might be adopted in tackling that serious issue?

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I am confident that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, who has responsibility for civil society and is taking the initiative forward, will want to collaborate closely with the devolved Administrations in just the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

National Citizen Service

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3. What proportion of the budget of the national citizen service he expects to be spent in the 50% least disadvantaged areas of the country. [34282]

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Analysis by Cabinet Office officials shows that NCS pilots are taking place in more than 190 locations across England and that places are evenly distributed among the most and the least deprived areas of England. Just under half of the places are in the 50% least deprived areas and just over half are located in the 50% most deprived areas. The key criterion for selecting pilot providers was the quality of proposals, including their plans to attract a wide cross-section of 16-year-olds and to support disadvantaged young people to take part. The bidders themselves nominated areas where they wanted to deliver the 2011 pilots as part of the competitive commissioning that was completed in November.

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I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the research published by the university of Strathclyde, since it was the Conservative party that commissioned it, which highlights the danger that the proposed NCS would in fact benefit more middle-class and well-off young people, rather than those in disadvantaged areas. What account is he taking of that research and how is he changing the programmes to deal with it?

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The essence of that programme is that it is designed to bring together young people from a genuine mix of backgrounds. It is not designed particularly to help disadvantaged young people. It will benefit all young people and help to create a much more cohesive society by bringing together people from all backgrounds at an important and formative stage in their lives, during the rites of passage to adulthood. The social mix is an absolutely crucial ingredient of the programme.

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Is it not true that the national citizen service requires that the voluntary sector has adequate capacity to deliver additional volunteering, which is contrary to the unequivocal statement made at the last Cabinet Office questions by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), that the sector would expand? Will the Minister now admit that that statement was untrue. The latest figures for the voluntary sector show a decline of 13,000 jobs in a single quarter. Does he agree that the House was misled and that the statement—

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Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman meant to say “inadvertently misled”.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The House was inadvertently misled, even though the facts show what actually happened. Finally, would the Minister say that the job losses are a clear disaster for his big society aspirations?

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The hon. Gentleman asked in particular about the capacity of the voluntary sector in relation to the national citizen service. I can tell him that the number of interested providers massively outweighed the number of places that we were able to fund. There is huge interest in the voluntary sector in taking part in the programme. The point that my right hon. Friend the Minister was making was that our approach to public service reform will open up areas of public service delivery to the voluntary and charitable sector and to social enterprise in a way that has not been done before, for all the talk from the previous Government, and the opportunities going forward will be considerable. My right hon. Friend made the point, as we all have, that there will be a tough time immediately, and we have some steps in place to try to help over that period, but the opportunities down the track are considerable.

Behavioural Insight Team

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4. What progress his Department’s behavioural insight team has made in its work. [34283]

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I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the behavioural insight team is now well established. It is beginning with work on three areas: improving the nation’s health; empowering consumers and encouraging people to give money; and protecting our environment.

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“Nudge” author, Richard Thaler, has said that he believes that groups of friends can reduce their alcohol consumption by ordering from a bar tab rather than buying rounds of drinks. What savings from the national tab is the Minister making by applying behavioural economics at the heart of Government instead of creating yet more legislation?

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I am glad that my hon. Friend asks that extremely interesting and important question. Of course, there has to be legislation about some things, but legislation has strict limits. The Opposition should be well aware of that, as they wasted £1.1 billion on ID card legislation—a totally ineffective example of authoritarianism. They also proposed to engage in bin taxes, and the evidence is now very clear: those measures would have increased fly-tipping and burning at home and have had counter-productive effects. The comparison with the RecycleBank initiative that Windsor and Maidenhead council and others are taking up, which nudges people into successfully recycling, is very striking. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that we can do—[Interruption.]

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Order. May I just very gently say to the right hon. Gentleman, whose mellifluous tones I always enjoy—

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Nudge him!

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Yes, I shall try to nudge him. What we want is an answer, not an essay.

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Has the insight team considered an independent think tank’s judgment that the Government’s health reforms are like trying to resuscitate a corpse, which has not been done successfully since the time of Lazarus? How will the Government’s reforms help the nation when they are imposing chaos on the health service?

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I do not think that the national health service is anything like a corpse at all; it is a living, breathing body that does a fantastic amount of good for our nation, and we are trying to improve it. The behavioural insight team has, as a matter of fact, been involved with the Department of Health—I was hearing about it just this morning—in thinking through ways in which we can nudge improvements in the health service, too, and try to make it more effective without imposing additional regulation on it.

Big Society

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5. What recent discussions he has had with the civil society organisations on the implementation of the big society initiative. [34284]

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All Cabinet Office Ministers meet civil society organisations regularly. I was present recently with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), the Prime Minister and other members of the Government at a round-table meeting with a cross section of voluntary and community groups and their representatives. We had extremely fruitful conversations about the new opportunities opening up for the sector and the way in which we can encourage those.

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Yesterday, my local Tory council announced that 22 well-regarded voluntary organisations would be evicted from their home in Palingswick house, which they have been in for 25 years, to provide a site for a free school run by the self-publicist Toby Young, most of whose pupils will come from outside the borough. Will the right hon. Gentleman extend his deliberations and come to Hammersmith to sort out the broken big society there?

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I have of course heard about the Palingswick house events, but it is hugely in the interests of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that there should be a free school there, as it will improve education standards, I have no doubt. That is of course entirely a matter for the local council, not for the Government, because we believe in localism, but I understand that the council intends to find other ways to house the voluntary and community groups that are involved, and I am sure that it will do so with his help.

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May I draw your attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Mr Speaker, and ask the Minister what the likely timetable will be for local voluntary organisations to access the big society bank?

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My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in financing voluntary and community groups, and the big society bank will make a difference to that area. The bank is a quite a complicated proposition, and we have to organise it and find the funding for it, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is at work on that at the moment. Although we hope to be able to progress it at a reasonable rate, I certainly do not want to give my hon. Friend the impression that it will happen overnight, but I anticipate it being up and running in the not too distant future.

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What reassurance has the Minister given civil society organisations that the big society agenda is being driven not by marketisation principles and the desire to see the voluntary and community sectors bid for public sector contracts simply to reduce costs, but by the desire to enable genuine community empowerment?

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If the Speaker will permit a little essay, I would say two things in response to the hon. Lady’s important question. First, this is not all about money, in any dimension. The Localism Bill that we are bringing before the House has a huge effect on building social capital, and it does it by empowering people to make decisions about really important things such as their neighbourhood planning. That has nothing to do with saving money and everything to do with building social capital and empowering people.

Secondly, I fear that the hon. Lady shares the error that many of her colleagues have exhibited in thinking that the issue is one of services versus money. We are actually trying to find ways of getting more for less, and we believe that the innovation, enterprise, intelligence and social capital in the voluntary sector will enable us to do that.

Public Bodies

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6. What savings have been achieved under the Government's programme of rationalisation and abolition of public bodies to date. [34285]

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect on public expenditure of his proposals for non-departmental public bodies. [34286]

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The proposals for reform that I set out in the House last October are the most major change to the public bodies landscape that any Government have made in a generation. They will make a significant contribution to reducing the baseline of Government spending as part of the coalition Government’s deficit reduction plan.

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While “The King’s Speech” is rightly being feted all around the world, the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are abolishing the organisations here in Britain that helped to make that film happen, as part of what even the Conservative-dominated Public Administration Committee has described as a “botched” bonfire of the quangos. Given that he cannot even say how much, if anything, this is going to cost, is it not typical of what the Government are doing in so many areas—ill considered, ill thought through, rushed and damaging?

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Just to be clear, the purpose of these reforms is to increase accountability. The Government will not simply create incontinently new independent bodies in order to avoid Ministers having to make and defend uncomfortable decisions. Ministers should be prepared to make those decisions and defend them themselves—that is what democratic accountability is about, and that is the primary aim. However, we will save money. The changes to the public body landscape planned and announced by the previous Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was such a distinguished ornament, were much more minor than the changes that we are undertaking. That Government claimed that those changes would save £500 million a year; our changes are much more radical and will save a great deal more.[Official Report, 2 February 2011, Vol. 522, c. 10MC.]

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I will tell the Minister what the real effects of his proposals are going to be, according to the Public Accounts Committee. There will be no savings. In my constituency, between his actions on Consumer Focus and the Scottish National party’s actions on Waterwatch Scotland, we have a shambles of job losses, reduced protection and no gains. Is the Minister going to be a man, step up to the plate and do the right thing, or continually try to defy gravity?

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It would be quite interesting to know which of our plans for reforming quangos the hon. Gentleman disagrees with. His own party had in its manifesto a commitment to cut the number of quangos. It had such plans when it was in government, but sadly, as with so much else, it did not give effect to them. We will save money, but much more importantly, we will increase accountability, which is what this is really all about.

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Public expenditure by quangos includes expenditure on lobbying, which is an abuse of public money. Will Ministers ban quango lobbying?

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The code for public bodies already purports to make it impossible for quangos to employ lobbyists from outside in order to lobby the Government. However, that code has not been effective, and considerable amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent by public bodies, frequently in order to lobby the Government for them to spend more taxpayers’ money. We will make absolutely certain that the code is watertight and that that becomes impossible.

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One of the list of quangos to be dealt with in the Public Bodies Bill is S4C. There is genuine anxiety in Wales about the future of S4C. Although there is a debate to be had about funding, can the Minister at least assure the House of S4C’s continued existence?

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There is no question mark at all over the continued existence of S4C, which plays a valuable part in the life of the Principality. I will convey my hon. Friend’s concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. However, S4C appears in the Public Bodies Bill in the schedule to do with funding arrangements, and that has nothing to do with its continued existence. [Interruption.]

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Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber, and far too much noise.

Social Enterprises

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8. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the social enterprise sector of reductions in Government expenditure. [34287]

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9. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the social enterprise sector of reductions in Government expenditure. [34288]

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11. What assessment he has made of the likely effects on the social enterprise sector of reductions in Government expenditure. [34291]

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There is no doubt that the cuts that we have had to make as a result of the huge deficits that were piled up in government by the colleagues of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) have made and, in the immediate future, will make life difficult for some voluntary and community sector bodies, contrary to the way in which I was misrepresented by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). However, we have put in place measures that will vastly increase the opportunities for voluntary and community bodies to participate in public service delivery and earn money by doing so, and we have established a £100 million transition fund.

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Will the Minister explain to the House what discussions he has had with his Treasury colleagues about extending and reforming community interest tax relief, which many social enterprises want to happen? That might be a way to enable social enterprises to flourish, despite the reductions that are contemplated.

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Tax relief is, of course, an issue for the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Budget time, and I would not dream of trampling on his front lawn. The hon. Lady should recognise two important facts. First, charities already receive about £3 billion in tax relief, including a VAT exemption for trading activities for their main purposes and gift aid. Secondly, we are reluctant to create an unlevel playing field between social enterprises that are not charities and the private sector, because we want to ensure that there is a fair contest between the two and that social enterprises are fully involved in competing for public service delivery.

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I take note of the Minister’s reply. In opposition, he said that the creation of a social investment bank was a priority, and last July the Government said that such a bank would be making loans by this April. We now know that that will not happen until the end of 2011. Is he frustrated by the Government’s dithering?

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It is certainly true that we would like that to happen as fast as possible. We would have been much assisted in that if the previous Administration had not spent three years talking about it without setting up anything and without allocating any money to it. We have made arrangements for the bank to have some money. We hope to get more into it and to set it up in the very near future.

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Given what has been said by my two colleagues and the Minister, will he explain more fully what immediate help the Government will give to the voluntary sector to help it create more social enterprises?

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I hope that the hon. Lady has already gathered that we are trying to do two things. The first is to provide immediate assistance to voluntary and community groups that have had a tough time because of the spending review. The transition fund of £100 million is open. We are waiting for the bids to be completed, and they will then be judged and money will be handed out. Secondly, we are opening a wide terrain of public service delivery functions that can be carried out by voluntary and community groups, resulting in a huge potential for them to earn.

National Citizen Service

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10. What steps he is taking to ensure that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds participate in the national citizen service. [34290]

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One of the main aims of the national citizen service is to create a more cohesive society by mixing participants from different social backgrounds. To ensure that that happens, organisations bidding to deliver national citizen service pilots this summer were scrutinised on their plans for supporting the broadest possible range of young people to participate. A number of the organisations that were successful in bidding to run the pilots have a strong track record in working with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and we will closely monitor the success of the pilots in working with those young people.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Given that education maintenance allowance is being scrapped and that the Connexions service in my constituency faces huge cuts, how can disadvantaged young people in Houghton and Sunderland South be confident that they will benefit from the national citizen service?

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The hon. Lady will be glad to know that a number of NCS pilots are taking place in and around her constituency. The Prince’s Trust is running a pilot in collaboration with local partners, including Sunderland football club, and Catch22 is running pilots in Sunderland and Washington. I hope that she will engage directly with those organisations to ensure that the widest possible range of participants is attracted to those pilots.

Big Society

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12. What assessment he has made of the effects on the big society initiative of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review; and if he will make a statement. [34292]

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The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished head teacher in Scotland, I believe, and if his question relates to the effects in Scotland, he should of course address it to Scottish Ministers, as we do not have responsibility in that field.

For England, £470 million a year has been allocated to the Office for Civil Society, a considerable amount in light of the spending review. We have also allocated £100 million to the transition fund, and as I have mentioned repeatedly, there are huge new opportunities for voluntary bodies.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he reassure me that ultimate responsibility for providing a safety net for the most vulnerable people in society still rests with the state?

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Of course responsibility for ensuring that people are cured, taught and protected from criminals rests with the Government and the state. The question is how that responsibility is best fulfilled. In our view, there are some areas in which things should be done by innovative and enterprising voluntary and community groups, rather than being delivered directly by public authorities.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 January. [34265]

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This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

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The NHS is facing massive reorganisation, while at the same time seeking the greatest savings in its 62-year history. Respected professional medical bodies warn about the risks to public service of giving private companies the easy pickings. Before pursuing that gamble will the Prime Minister reflect carefully, informed by clinicians and the coalition programme that we agreed last May?

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We will listen very carefully to the professionals, but the reason for making modernisation of the NHS such a priority is simply that this country now has European levels of health spending but does not have European levels of success in our health service. Of course, what we want is a level playing field for other organisations to come into the NHS. What we will not have is what we had from Labour, which was a rigged market.

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Does the Prime Minister think it is a sign of success or failure that unemployment is rising and employment is falling?

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Of course every increase in unemployment is a matter of huge concern, and that is why we are launching the biggest back-to-work programme that this country has ever seen, the Work programme.

There are some very disappointing figures today, particularly on youth unemployment, and I am sure we will talk about that in a moment, but there are some mixed pictures. The claimant count has gone down for the third month in a row, the number of vacancies is up and the average of the independent forecasts published today sees growth revised upwards. The biggest task for this Government, and frankly for this country, is to get to grips with the long-term structural problem of youth unemployment, which has been going up for years in our country and went up by 40% under Labour.

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After that complacency, when 50,000 people have lost their job, it is no wonder they rumbled the Prime Minister in Oldham. The truth is that he is cutting too far and too fast, and British people are paying the price.

The Prime Minister mentioned youth unemployment. It is at its highest since 1992, yet he is abolishing the future jobs fund and the new programme does not even come into force until the middle of the year. After these figures, why does he not change his mind, reinstate the future jobs fund and help create an extra 100,000 jobs this year?

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First, I think it is a good idea to listen to the answer before reading out the next question. Let me deal specifically with the future jobs fund. We looked very carefully at it and found that it was expensive, badly targeted and did not work. We now have the figures for the future jobs fund. It was five times more expensive than some other employment programmes, it lasted for six months and, within one month, 50% of those taking part were back on benefits. Hardly any of the jobs under the future jobs fund were in the private sector. The scheme in Birmingham, for instance, had just 2% of its jobs in the private sector. Far too many were make-work jobs in the public sector, and they were not solving the problem.

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This week, a parents’ campaign group in Battersea moved a big step closer to starting a new free school. Their campaign is supported by Wandsworth council and enjoyed cross-party support before the general election. I hope that my right hon. Friend will join me not only in wishing the new Bolingbroke academy well but in saying to the unions and other people running a campaign of vilification against those parents that it is time to back off.

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My hon. Friend speaks for many in supporting the opening up of our education system and saying to academies and free schools, “You are welcome to come in and provide a great education for free to children and parents in our country.” I have to say that it is a very big choice for the Labour party whether it sticks with the programme of reform and opening up education, or whether it sides with the trade unions.

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Q2. Leaked figures that I have managed to get hold of show—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Calm down. The leaked figures show that police forces in Wales must cut their numbers by 1,600 police officers and staff. The South Wales police force told me this morning that in that one force 688 officers are going to have to disappear. The Prime Minister said on 2 May last year that he would outlaw any front-line cuts. Why is he backing down on his promise? [34266]

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I find that the best way of calming down is by reading the hon. Gentleman’s poetry—I find that very instructive. All police forces are facing a difficult financial settlement. I accept that. The context for all this is the vast budget deficit that we were left and the huge mess that we have to clear up. I have the figures for the South Wales police force. Next year, it must find a 5% cut. That will take it back not to some figure of the 1980s, but to the spending it had in 2007-08. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has said that it is quite possible to make those sorts of reductions—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman asks a question, he should have the manners to listen to the answer. The fact is that HMIC said that it is possible to achieve those reductions while not losing front-line officers. That is what needs to be delivered.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s social security reform programme is the first serious attempt since Beveridge to get back to the principle that—to coin a phrase—we should be offering people a hand up and not a handout?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. This is a very bold and radical reform that basically will mean that every single person who is on welfare will always be better off in work or always better off doing more hours of work. Even the Opposition would accept that so many reforms have simply moved the poverty trap up the income scale. We should always make it worth while for people to work harder or to work more, and that is what our reforms will do.

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Q3. Fuel prices in Northern Ireland currently average 135p per litre and rising, forcing many motorists to go into the Republic of Ireland to fill their vehicles, which is a major loss to the British Exchequer. Because of the land border, will the Prime Minister consider introducing in Northern Ireland a rural rebate scheme similar to that in Scotland? [34267]

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I understand the cross-border problem that the hon. Gentleman raises and that fuel smuggling between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been a real problem. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury would have heard him ask for the expansion of the scheme that was in the Budget. Obviously, we are looking hard at how we can help families and motorists with their fuel and motoring bills. However, I would say this: everyone should remember that the last four increases in fuel duty were all put through in the last Labour Budget.

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I know that, like me, the Prime Minister is a fan of the teaching of British history in schools. Does he think that when the political history of the past 13 years is written, it will advise pupils to borrow, borrow and borrow through the boom, or will it advise them to learn from Labour’s mistakes?

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I hope we can get into the curriculum the idea that we should fix the roof while the sun is shining. What we heard at the weekend from the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) was interesting: he has now had nine months to digest Labour’s mistakes, and he has come up with the answer that they did not spend too much and they did not borrow too much, and his message to the British people is, “Vote for me and we’d do it all over again.”

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Can the Prime Minister guarantee that under his NHS plans hospital waiting times will not rise?

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We want waiting times and waiting lists to come down. [Interruption.] The whole aim of these NHS reforms is to make sure we get the value for the money we put in. [Interruption.] I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman this: it is clear now that Labour—[Interruption.]

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Order. I apologise for interrupting the Prime Minister. A 10-year-old constituent of mine came to observe Prime Minister’s questions last week, and asked me afterwards, “Why do so many people shout their heads off?” It is rude and it should not happen.

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I would love to know what your answer was, Mr Speaker.

The point is this: we are putting the money in—£10.6 billion extra during this Parliament; money that, by the way, the Labour party does not support—but we want to get value for that money because, frankly, today we do not have the right outcomes for cancer and for heart disease. We want to do better. Is the right hon. Gentleman in favour of reform, or is he going to oppose it all?

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I notice that the Prime Minister did not answer the question. Patients want to know something quite simple: how long will they have to wait for treatment? They all remember waiting for years under the last Conservative Government, and they know that we now have the shortest waiting times in history because of what the Labour Government did. If the Prime Minister thinks his reforms are so good, why cannot he give us a simple guarantee that waiting times will not rise?

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Waiting times will rise if we stop putting the money into the NHS. The right hon. Gentleman’s shadow Chancellor is not here today, but this is what he said about our plan to increase NHS spending by more than inflation every year: “There is no logic” or rationale to it. That is the answer: we get investment in the NHS from this coalition Government, but we would get cuts from the Labour party.

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The Prime Minister cannot make a guarantee because he has abolished the guarantees. He has abolished the guarantees that Labour brought in, such as the 18-week waiting list guarantee. He is taking the “national” out of the national health service. Patients are worried, and doctors and nurses say his reforms are extremely risky and potentially disastrous. Why is he so arrogant as to think he is right and all the people who say he is wrong are wrong?

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First, the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong: the waiting time points he made are written into the NHS constitution and will stay under this Government. So, first of all, he is wrong. The second point is that we will not be able to get waiting times down and improve our public health in this country unless we cut bureaucracy in the NHS. That is what this is about. We are spending £1.4 billion—a one-off—to save £1.7 billion every year. That will save £5 billion by the end of this Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman opposes the reforms, where will that money come from?

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The Prime Minister has obviously not noticed that people are not convinced by his reforms. Even the GP sitting on his own Benches said this is like tossing a hand grenade into the NHS. Is not the truth that, just like on every other issue, we get broken promises from this Prime Minister? He is breaking his promise on no top-down reorganisation of the NHS; he is breaking his promise on a real-terms rise in NHS funding; he is breaking his promise for 3,000 more midwives; and he is breaking his promise to put patients first. It is the same old story: you can’t trust the Tories on the NHS.

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It is the same old feeble pre-scripted lines. The right hon. Gentleman practises them every week; I am sure they sound fantastic when they are spoken before the bathroom mirror. The facts are these: this Government are putting the money into the NHS, but the Opposition do not support that; this Government are cutting the bureaucracy in the NHS, but they do not support that; and this Government are reforming the NHS so that we get the best in Europe, but they do not support that. So this is the right hon. Gentleman’s policy: no to the money, keep the bureaucracy, do not reform the NHS. I would go back to the blank sheet of paper.

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Prime Minister, our Government say that we want to help disabled people back to work. Two years ago, my constituent, Mr Robert Oxley, a father of four, had a serious motorcycle accident, which resulted in one leg being amputated and the other leg no longer functioning. A year later, he recovered and his firm gave him back his job, which he has been able to continue for a year through disability living allowance and Motability. Regrettably, those in charge, including callous cretins on the tribunal, have taken away his DLA and took away his Motability car on Monday, and he is now out of work—or he will be. May I ask the Prime Minister where in that story the words “fairness” and “all in it together” feature?

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I am very happy to take up the hon. Gentleman’s case. We have all seen cases in our constituencies where tribunals have come to conclusions that completely fly in the face of common sense. I am very happy to take up that case, have a look at it and see what can be done. We should do what we can to help disabled people, particularly with the mobility needs that they have. Having filled out those forms myself, I know just how soul destroying and complicated it can be and how much we need to help people who cannot get around to make sure that they do.

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Q4. The Prime Minister will be aware that my constituents in inner-city Manchester have some of the worst health and, brutally, die younger than people in other parts of the country. If he will not give a guarantee about waiting lists nationally, will he make a solemn and binding pledge to my constituents that at least in the inner cities waiting lists will not go up, either in number or in time? [34268]

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The pledge I would make is this. As the hon. Gentleman has just revealed, we have health inequalities in our country that are as bad as those in Victorian times. Let us be frank: we have those after a decade of increased money going into the NHS and we are not getting it right. That is the reason for carrying out these reforms. If we just stay where we are, as seems now to be the policy of the Labour party, we will lag behind on cancer, we will lag behind on heart disease and his constituents will die younger than mine because we do not have a fair system. Let us reform it and sort it out.

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Did my right hon. Friend tell the Prime Minister of France last week that Britain will never permit fiscal control of its economy by the European Union?

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The short answer is yes.

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Q5. The Prime Minister has repeated his claim that the Government are putting more money into the NHS, yet the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust has been told that it must make cuts of 16% over the next four years. Why? [34269]

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Let me remind the hon. Lady that her own shadow Chancellor said that there is “no logic”—[Interruption.] This is an answer. He said that there is “no logic” or rationale to our policy of real-terms increases in the NHS. What we are cutting in the NHS is the bureaucracy of the NHS. Since 2002, under Labour, the primary care trusts and the strategic health authorities increased their spending on themselves—on their bureaucracy—by 120%. We can go on spending this money and not put it into patient care and better public health, but I think that that is wrong. That is why we are making these changes.

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Q6. Severe disruptions to train services in the winter of 2009 led to David Quarmby carrying out an urgent service and severe weather audit. This winter saw massive disruption to services, with Network Rail leaving trains stranded south of the river, causing a 75% cut in peak services over Christmas for my constituents. What steps are the Government going to take to shake up Network Rail and bring about a radical improvement to our train services? [34270]

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has commissioned an independent audit of how transport operations performed during the worst weather in December. We have to look at some particular issues, such as the frozen third rail that affected so many services. She is right to call to account Network Rail and the train operators. We want to make sure that they improve the service that they provide and the way in which they communicate with the public when things are not going right.

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Q7. Does the Prime Minister see the conflict of interest in private health care companies, which stand to benefit most from his health care reforms, donating £750,000 to the Conservative party? Is that what he means by “We are all in it together”? [34271]

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Let me tell the hon. Gentleman the big difference between the health reforms that we are proposing and what the Labour Government did. The Labour Government rigged the market in favour of a few hand-picked independent private sector suppliers. That is what they did; what we are saying is that there should be a level playing field. Before the hon. Gentleman complains about it, he should have a look at his own party’s manifesto—and I quote it almost directly— which said that the private sector should be allowed into the NHS alongside the NHS. Those are the words from the Labour manifesto, written by his right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband).

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Will Tony Blair’s correspondence with George Bush be published before Mr Blair’s next appearance in front of the Iraq inquiry?

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My hon. Friend will know that there is a long-standing convention, quite rightly, that a serving Prime Minister does not and cannot order the release of papers that refer to a previous Prime Minister. That is why the Cabinet Secretary will be looking at this issue, which is a matter for him. Anyone unhappy with the conclusions is clearly able to write to Tony Blair to make their views known. For my own part, I hope this inquiry can be as open and clear as possible so that we get to the bottom of the very important issues it is looking at.

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Q8. As the Prime Minister will be aware, I spent most of my working life in schools and colleges, so I have overwhelming evidence of the benefits of the education maintenance allowance. It brings benefits to teenagers from modest backgrounds in terms of their employability skills and in raising their achievement. May I urge the Prime Minister to go back to the position when he pledged to support EMA, so that we can support our economy as we move forward? [34272]

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the problem is that we want more people to stay on in school, but we have to look at the working of the current system. The Labour Government commissioned research and found that 90% of those on EMA would have attended school in any event. We also have to look at the context in which EMA was introduced into this country. Let me cite what the hon. Gentleman’s parliamentary colleague, the former Prime Minister said at the time:

“We will fund this major advance in educational opportunity from savings that we have made from our success in reducing… debt.”—[Official Report, 15 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 29.]

Is it any surprise that we are having to look at these spending programmes and work out how to get better value for money to clear up the mess we have been left?

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Q9. My constituents in Corby and East Northamptonshire are still suffering today from the disastrous top-down housing targets imposed by the Labour Government. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Localism Bill will restore planning power to local people in Corby and east Northamptonshire? [34273]

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I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The failure of top-down housing targets was that they not only created huge unease around the country but did not result in the building of very many houses, as house building fell to such a low level. Our more local version will make sure that where councils go ahead and build houses, they will benefit from doing so.

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While we all welcome the comparative calm during the referendum in southern Sudan, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that hundreds of thousands of southerners are seeking to move back home from the north? Will he ensure that they have the maximum protection as well as the maximum of humanitarian aid?

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I think the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight what a relative success the process has been so far, given some of the warnings made about the dangers of the referendum and the process being followed. Part of the reason for that—I pay tribute to previous Governments as well—is that the countries that care about the Sudan and want this to work well have put in a huge amount of effort. I include my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who chaired the key meeting on the subject at the United Nations. I will certainly listen to what was said, and we should make sure that the movement of people is carried out in the best way possible.

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Q10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as part of the NHS reforms we must tackle straight away the fact that senior management in both NHS trusts and primary care trusts are being rewarded for failure by being promoted or given large pay-offs and that it should stop now? [34274]

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. There have been too many occasions on which a manager in the NHS has failed in one PCT or strategic health authority and gone on and failed in another. One answer to this issue is the greater transparency that we are bringing to all such arrangements so that people can see how much they are paid, what the results are and how successful they were before they go on and land another well-paid job.

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The Government announced this week that they will not extend to Northern Ireland the UK rules on political party donations at this time. Will the Prime Minister clarify what was the greatest driver for that decision? Was it the security concerns or the lobbying of local parties that simply do not want to be exposed to transparency?

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I will look carefully at what the hon. Lady says. The security situation in Northern Ireland is a very difficult and sensitive one at the moment and the Government are giving it a huge amount of time and attention to try to help the devolved authorities in everything they are doing to combat the terrorist threat, but in terms of the specific question she asks perhaps I can write to her and give her a considered response.

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Q11. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there have been some pretty disgraceful delaying and filibustering tactics at the other end of the corridor in an attempt to delay the introduction of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Will he assure the House that the Government will make no concessions to those who filibuster? [34275]

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My hon. Friend is entirely right: we should not make concessions to a bunch, mainly of former MPs, who are supposed to be supporting the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), who wants the AV referendum to take place. I have to ask him how, if he is so in favour of the referendum and thinks it so important and so wants to stand on a platform, he has lost control of his party?

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Q12. Owens Road Services, a haulier from south Wales working in Blaenau Gwent, has a fleet of 270 lorries. Last year, it bought nearly 11 million litres of fuel, paying more than £6 million in fuel duty, and it has shouldered a 14% increase in fuel bills in the past year. What is the Prime Minister going to do about high fuel bills? [34276]

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Let me make two points to the hon. Gentleman. First, there is the point that the fuel duty increases were all part of the previous Labour Government’s Budget. [Interruption.] It is no good hon. Members shaking their heads; they all supported the Budget and voted for it at the time. However, there is another answer, which is that we should look at Britain’s hauliers and see how we can help them with a discount for those that are British-based. We are looking into that and at what can be done, because for many years British hauliers have been disadvantaged against their continental counterparts and we would like to put that right.

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Does the Prime Minister agree that what has happened in Burnley with the closure of our accident and emergency unit and the transfer of a children’s ward to Blackburn will not happen when people power takes over, with our GPs, to change the national health service?

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The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Under the previous Government and the previous arrangements, hospital closures and decisions were driven by bureaucrats in Whitehall, strategic health authorities and PCTs, and they did not depend on decisions that patients and GPs were making about the structure of health services in this country. That is the big change we are making. In future, the success of hospitals and health centres will depend on the choices that people make with their GP; that is the big change and it will drive a better health service.

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Q13. The north-east illegal moneylending team has a record of catching loan sharks and setting up credit unions in Easterside, Middlesbrough to encourage saving and safe lending. Worryingly, after all that hard work, the Department for Communities and Local Government website has signposted vulnerable people to loan companies offering rates of up to 2,689% APR. In the light of that, will the Prime Minister please meet me to review his decision on the closure of that team? [34277]

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I am very happy to arrange a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the DCLG to discuss this issue. I think there is unity across the House that we should try to encourage credit unions and try to get people out of the hands of loan sharks. That is our policy and that is what we want to do, so I shall happily arrange that meeting.

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Q14. I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments earlier about the Localism Bill. Can he confirm that its provisions will apply to applications for onshore wind farms such as those on the Dengie peninsula in my constituency? One of them has already been described as harmful to the local environment, and it is deeply unpopular with the local community. [34278]

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I can give my hon. Friend a positive answer. The Localism Bill addresses that issue. As well as doing that, it is important that where local communities are affected by things such as onshore wind, they should make sure that they benefit from those developments. The Localism Bill brings a whole new approach that will much better settle this difficult debate than what has been done until now.

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Q15. Today, there is an order before Parliament to proscribe the TTP—Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan—the Pakistan Taliban. Just one week into the term of office of the Prime Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the right hon. Gentleman demanded to know why my right hon. Friend had not proscribed Hizb ut-Tahrir. Just eight months into the Prime Minister’s term of office, can he explain to the House why he has not fulfilled his manifesto commitment? [34279]

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We could put it another way round: why did the last Government have 13 years, yet the Pakistani Taliban were never banned? It has taken us eight months to do what they failed to do in 12 years.

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rose—

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Order. We now have a statement. I ask right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, so that we can hear the Minister.

Sustainable Transport

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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement to accompany the publication today of the coalition Government’s White Paper on local transport, and the simultaneous publication of bidding guidance to accompany our new local sustainable transport fund. Both documents are available to colleagues in the Vote Office and have been placed in the Library of the House.

This Government’s vision is for a transport system that helps create growth in the economy, and tackles climate change by cutting our carbon emissions. The launch of the White Paper, and the associated local sustainable transport fund, represents a significant step towards meeting those two key Government objectives.

In both the Budget and the spending review, the Chancellor pledged to make the tough choices that will allow us to maintain investment in new and existing infrastructure to support a growing economy, while eliminating the structural deficit over the lifetime of the Parliament. The spending review reflected transport’s vital role in this. I am pleased that we were able to secure significant investment to allow us to go ahead with important transport initiatives. The investment we have committed to in rail, low-carbon vehicles and public and sustainable transport reflects the determination to secure growth while cutting carbon.

In the medium term, our transport decarbonisation strategy centres on the progressive electrification of the passenger car fleet, supported by policies to increase generation capacity and decarbonise the grid. By also prioritising spending on key rail projects such as high-speed rail and rail electrification, we will be providing travellers with attractive new options instead of the plane and the car.

In the immediate term, addressing shorter, local trips offers huge potential in helping to grow the economy and tackle climate change. Shorter trips are important— two thirds of all journeys are less than five miles. Walking, cycling and public transport are all real, greener alternatives for such trips. What is more, we know that people who travel to the shops on foot, by bicycle or by public transport can spend more per head than those who travel by car, and research shows that improvements to the public realm can increase turnover in the high street by 5% to 15%. Increased sustainable travel also helps tackle congestion, which is a drag on business causing excess delays in urban areas at a cost of around £11 billion per annum.

Let us not forget the further benefits that follow a shift to more sustainable transport—benefits to the air we breathe and to our levels of fitness, and the money in our pockets as well. Investment in sustainable transport helps make our towns and cities healthier and more attractive places to live, work and shop.

The White Paper sets out how we can encourage the uptake of more sustainable modes at local level, and the unprecedented £560 million we have allocated in our new local sustainable transport fund will support that. Our commitment to helping local authorities with this vital agenda is reaffirmed by the amount of money we are making available. The local sustainable transport fund forms part of a wider picture of more streamlined and simplified funding for local authorities. That will give local authorities more power and flexibility to meet local transport needs.

Across Government, we have demonstrated our commitment to ending top-down decision making and the tendency in Whitehall to develop one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore the specific needs and behaviour patterns of local communities. The Government have already taken significant steps to hand back power to local communities, including replacing regional development agencies with local enterprise partnerships, giving communities a much greater say over planning decisions and ending the top-down imposition of housing targets. Today’s White Paper is about extending the decentralisation of power to local transport and putting into context what that means for local authorities.

We are particularly keen to receive bids for the local sustainable transport fund from local authorities that are in partnership with the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector, and that have the support of local businesses. We believe that by encouraging bids in this way, we will be able to capture innovative solutions to local transport needs in all areas—rural and urban. An example I often cite is the Cuckmere community bus in my constituency. Individual residents in Cuckmere valley have come together to run regular and frequent bus services that take people in rural areas to their nearest towns. The services are provided entirely by volunteers. Wheels to Work schemes provide transport to people who are unable to access training, employment or education due to a lack of suitable public or private transport. The schemes can therefore particularly benefit people living in isolated rural communities, and they can play an important role in helping people to come off benefits and regain their independence. Those real examples are happening right now, and we want to enable similar stories to unfold in other areas across the country.

In addition, we recognise that some initiatives benefit from a single national approach. They include the provision of £11 million of funding for Bikeability cycle training next year to allow 275,000 10 to 11-year-olds to benefit from on-road cycle training. There is a commitment to support Bikeability for the duration of the Parliament, which will allow as many children as possible to undertake high-quality cycle training.

We will also improve end-to-end journeys by encouraging transport operators, and those involved in promoting cycling and car clubs or sharing, to work together to provide better information and integrate tickets and timetables. We are delivering with operators and public sector bodies the infrastructure to enable most local public transport journeys to be undertaken using smart ticketing by December 2014. We will work with the transport industry to support the development of e-purses and other technology related to smart ticketing, and we will support the infrastructure to make that happen. The way in which transport investment decisions are made will be reviewed to ensure that the carbon implications are fully recognised. Responsibility for local roads classification will be transferred to local authorities to give them the flexibility to determine the status of their roads. We will also be setting out in a strategic framework for road safety by spring 2011 how to ensure that Britain’s roads remain the world’s safest. Traffic signs policy will be modernised to provide more flexibility and reduced costs and bureaucracy for local authorities to enable them to develop innovative traffic management solutions.

We want to build a transport system that is an engine for economic growth, and also one that is greener—one that creates growth and cuts carbon. By improving the links that move goods and people around, by encouraging people to travel sustainably, and by targeting investment in new projects that promote green growth, we can help to build the balanced, dynamic low-carbon economy that is essential for our future prosperity. The White Paper and the associated local sustainable transport fund demonstrate our commitment to taking that agenda forward, and I commend them to the House.

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I thank the Minister for forwarding me a copy of his statement earlier today. However, I am afraid that he has given us nothing more than a re-heated and re-packaged announcement to cover his embarrassment at the devastating impact that the speed and scale of his Government’s cuts is having on local transport throughout the country. Despite all his warm words about the importance of local transport, this Tory-led Government, of whom he is a hostage, are decimating bus services, putting rail travel out of the price range of many and crippling local government’s ability to deliver vital local transport improvements.

The hon. Gentleman talks of his “new” £560 million local sustainable transport fund, yet he knows full well that the fund, which he announced in the comprehensive spending review, is a sticking plaster over the gaping hole left by his massive 28% cut to local government transport spending. Will he confirm that while he is front-loading the cuts, he is providing only £30 million of capital spending and £50 million of revenue spending for the next financial year, which in effect means that local government transport was cut by £309 million this year, and he is giving back £80 million next year? It is no wonder that he told The Daily Telegraph:

“I don’t like George Osborne very much”.

For all the Under-Secretary’s good intentions and personal commitment to sustainable transport, is he not operating with one hand tied behind his back—doubtless tied there by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? Now we know who he was talking about when he told The Daily Telegraph:

“I mean, there are Tories who are quite good and there are Tories who are, you know, beyond the pale, and, you know, you have to just deal with the cards you’ve got”.

The truth is that the Under-Secretary has had a bad hand to play—a Budget settlement that will mean a significant reversal of the improvements in sustainable local transport schemes that were made during Labour’s period in office.

Does the Under-Secretary have any idea about what is actually happening to public transport around the country as a result of his policies? Does he realise that the 20% cut to the bus service operator grant, combined with changes to the concessionary fares scheme, is having a devastating impact on local bus services? With fuel prices at record levels, does he understand the impact of cutting the fuel cost subsidy on enabling bus operators to sustain unprofitable services?

Has the hon. Gentleman seen today’s reports that councils throughout the country are withdrawing services? Half the subsidised services are being axed in Somerset; more than 70 rural services are being scrapped or reduced in Durham; nearly 30 services are threatened in North Yorkshire; and 60 are being reviewed in Suffolk, while Kent has warned that all unprofitable routes will be axed. Does he have any idea of the social consequences of those cuts?

Has the Under-Secretary seen this week’s report from the Association of Colleges, which shows that 94% of colleges believe that the combination of scrapping education maintenance allowance and cutting local transport means that students will be unable to get to college and therefore unable to complete their courses? It is all well and good the Government’s telling people to get on the bus to find work, but they have to be able to afford to do that, and the buses have to be there. The impact of the cuts will be especially felt by those who are out of work and looking for a job, two thirds of whom do not have a driving licence or access to a car.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that all his good intentions are undermined when he prices people off the roads and off local public transport? Is he aware that his Department’s figures show that, without the bus service operator grant, there could be a 6.5% increase in fares and consequently a 6.7% fall in bus usage? He should be aware of it, because he signed off the parliamentary answer that gave the figures.

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that, by hiking rail fares by more than 30% across the spending review period, he is driving people off the railways and back on to the roads? [Interruption.] Instead of whispering in the Under-Secretary’s ear, the Secretary of State could have delivered the statement himself . Before the election, the Under-Secretary was going around the country, promising to cut rail fares. Now he is overseeing record increases. Does he understand that people will find his claims about investment in rail hollow at best when he has scaled back the planned electrification, cut the number of new carriages, and delayed the completion of major vital schemes, such as Thameslink and Crossrail? Does he accept that the consequence of hiking the costs of using public transport will force people back on to the roads, where they will be hit again by rising fuel prices, thanks to the increase in VAT on fuel to 20%? He is adding to the pressures faced by families who are already feeling the squeeze.

The Tory-led Government, of whom the Under-Secretary appears to be a frustrated and reluctant member, are reducing the amount of funding for local government transport schemes by more than a quarter. They claim to be green, to care about sustainability, to want to support public transport and to believe in localism, yet they give back with one hand to local communities today a fraction of what they have already taken away with the other. For all the warm words today and everything positive in the White Paper, we are seeing the localising not of transport decisions but of the blame for the Government’s cuts to local transport.

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I am afraid that the hon. Lady was her usual churlish self. There was not a single practical suggestion on how we might improve sustainable transport, and not a single admission that the deficit has caused any of the problems with which we are dealing. If I may say so, having had plenty of experience in opposition, the skill of opposition is not to oppose everything indiscriminately, 100%; it is about making positive suggestions as well as identifying problems. I am afraid that she has to learn a bit about opposition, as well as about other matters, perhaps, to do with how her party operates. She ought to be taking fewer lessons from Tom Baldwin about what language to use, and should concentrate more on transport matters, rather than on spin, as still happens with the Opposition, it seems.

The fact of the matter is that £560 million is a very substantial sum to invest in this area. We did so because we were interested in creating growth and cutting carbon—two matters that appear to be of little interest to the hon. Lady, judging by her peroration. I looked at the figures for sustainable transport grants for 2010-11—money spent in the Labour Government’s last year on cycling, school travel, smart ticketing and so on. It came to £120 million for that year. Next year, 2012, we will spend £140 million on the local sustainable transport fund, and that will rise to £180 million by 2014-15.

I point out that the previous Government’s spending was characterised by wasting money on reports, tick-box exercises and setting targets that were never met. For example, £150 million was spent on the travelling to school initiative, and the final evaluation report, which I shall publish next week, shows it to be very poor value for money indeed, in terms of changing behaviour in any shape or form. Our approach is different: set a clear vision to empower local authorities, and provide them with the funds to get on with the job that they need to do.

As for the matters that the hon. Lady actually raised, if I can discern any in her diatribe, the bus service operators grant, to which she referred, is not being cut this year; it will be reduced from the following year, and the reduction is less than the average reduction in revenue budgets across Government. She will know that the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents most bus companies, said that it thought, by and large, that the reduction could be absorbed without fares having to rise. She also pays no attention to the fact that the vast majority of bus services are commercially driven, so what councils have or do not have is irrelevant to the majority of the bus network in this country.

The hon. Lady paid no attention to the very good initiatives taking place, some of which I referred to in my statement. An example is the Wheels to Work initiative, which is busy giving people the opportunity to get back into work on a lower-carbon means of transport, helping the economy to grow, helping people out of unemployment, and helping to reduce carbon emissions at the same time.

I am very sorry that the hon. Lady chose to be so negative when the proposals were put forward, because if she listens to some of her party’s Back Benchers, she might find that there are matters in the statement that are welcomed by Members in all sections of the House.

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rose

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Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that there is a heavily subscribed Opposition day debate to follow, and there is therefore a premium on time, so brevity from Back Bencher and Front Bencher alike is essential if large numbers of colleagues are not to be disappointed.

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I welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly the details of the local sustainable transport fund. Three Holme Valley councillors wrote to him last week, telling him that First Bus has recently cut local bus services in Holme Valley, leaving many people without much-needed rural bus transport. Will he meet those councillors, some local people and me to see how the announcement today can help to give them the services that they need in their local area?

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I am grateful for that positive intervention from my hon. Friend, who recognises that working together—working with other Members of Parliament and with local councils—can help. Of course, I would be happy to meet him and his councillors.

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I welcome the emphasis on sustainable local transport, but could the Minister explain how local needs will be met, as the fund partially replaces major cuts in local transport funding, where decisions are made locally, with centralised decision making in a competitive system?

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The Government are entitled to set high-level strategy targets to help create growth and cut carbon, but beyond that we are making powers available to local councils to a greater extent than hitherto. For example, the Department for Transport operated 26 funding streams for transport under the previous Government; that has been reduced to four. In respect of the local sustainable transport fund, to which the hon. Lady refers, I can assure her that the assessment process will be very light touch, with a view to getting local authorities’ money out there as soon as possible to help with their plans. Provided that they can demonstrate that they will create growth and cut carbon, we will be happy with what they put forward.

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I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in congratulating British companies such as Transport Design International, which designs cheap, green, popular, ultra-light trams. Does he, like me, regret that most of its designs are currently going overseas, and hope that some of the very welcome funds that he has announced today could be used to support innovative ultra-light tram systems at local level?

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As my hon. Friend knows, the Government support light rail. In the spending review we announced extensions to the schemes in Nottingham and the Midland Metro. We are always open to ideas that will benefit people by providing extra public transport and which reduce carbon emissions. With my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for rail, we are discussing, for example, issues related to tram-trains. We are keen to take that agenda forward.

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In Newcastle, bus transport is an essential and valued part of our economic infrastructure, but in the evening many services stop, leaving the vulnerable, particularly women, unable to use public transport at night and forcing many to use cars, which is unsustainable. The White Paper and the cuts to the subsidy for bus transport do nothing to address the issue. The Minister spoke about volunteers. Can he outline how he expects volunteers to play a role in giving Newcastle evening bus transport?

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The hon. Lady raises a valid point about safety on buses and the accessibility of those bus services in the evening. Depending on the ingenuity of the local city council and others, it is perfectly possible that measures could be taken to improve that. For example, end-to-end journeys, joined-up transport, through-ticketing and the safety of bus stations could all, in theory, be eligible for grants under the fund, so I encourage her to talk to her local council and see whether she can come up with a scheme for submission.

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Yesterday, I visited Menorah primary school in my constituency. Its green travel plan is being hampered by the lack of electric charging points. Can the Minister confirm that the local council could bid for transport fund moneys to introduce the infrastructure that would allow an expansion of electric charging points?

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We are open to bids and we have no preconceptions about what those bids would include. Providing that they demonstrate that they create growth and cut carbon, we are open to suggestions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, under this Government the Secretary of State has been personally involved in moving on plug-in places. We see that as a key element of the future of transport in our country.

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Public transport in this country remains more expensive than almost anywhere else in Europe, yet the service that people get is one of the worst. What would the Minister tell my constituents in Brighton, Pavilion who struggle daily with poor, expensive and crowded rail services?

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I am familiar with Brighton, as the hon. Lady knows. I would say that the public transport system in her constituency is extremely good. Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company is one of the best bus companies in the country, and Southern has invested recently in new rolling stock and is one of the better train companies. The frequency of services will be further enhanced by the Thameslink programme and the Government are committed to 2,100 new railway carriages, so people in Brighton and on the south coast can have confidence that the public transport system is serving them well.

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I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. It is timely for my constituency, as Milton Keynes council is consulting on local transport needs and priorities in the coming years. To ensure that that consultation is properly aligned with the new fund, will he say a little more about its time scale and the greater flexibility that local authorities will have?

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The guidance for the bidding process has also been released today and is available to Members in the Vote Office. Essentially, there are two bidding rounds for smaller scale projects of up to £5 million and another bidding round for larger projects of up to £50 million. The objective is to make them as quick and as easy as possible, subject to securing value for money and making sure that the money can be released as a consequence of that. The shorter projects will be progressed more quickly than the larger projects, but the time scale has been made available as part of the guidance.

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I was interested to hear in the statement about the funding for Bikeability, but members of British Cycling, like me, will want to know whether the Minister will take this opportunity to update the out-of-date transport regulations that are hampering the growth of the sport on the road.

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I am happy to say that the Government are fully committed to cycling. It features in the coalition agreement and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed the reference to £11 million for Bikeability this year and a further guarantee for the rest of the Parliament, for example. In respect of the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises about racing on the road, I am happy to tell him that I had a meeting earlier this week with officials and key interested parties, and we are close to moving that forward to a satisfactory solution.

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As the Minister knows, cycle and bus usage tends not to follow local government boundaries. Will the guidance in the scheme encourage cross-border bids, such as to turn the A380 between Newton Abbot and Torquay into a cycle-bus expressway once the Kingskerswell bypass has been built?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on managing to introduce his proposed bypass into the question. The answer to the question about the guidance is yes, it expressly allows councils to work together across boundaries. Indeed, it encourages them to do so.

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Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss with his Liberal Democrat colleagues on Bristol city council the contribution that the Severn Beach railway line makes towards the sustainable local transport system? May I urge him to do all he can to work with them to ensure the survival of the Severn Beach line?

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I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that I shall be in Bristol tomorrow, so I will have an opportunity to take that forward then.

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Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. I welcome the focus on and the new funding for sustainable local transport that the Minister described. There is a particular issue of transport for people in rural areas, such as mine in Herefordshire. Will the Minister meet a delegation from Herefordshire to discuss this important local issue?

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My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I shall be happy to meet a delegation. We are conscious of the need to recognise the importance of rural areas. That is why the White Paper today and the associated guidance gives indications to rural counties in particular how they might be successful in the bidding process.

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Order. I am grateful to the House, but I have probably had enough birthday wishes. I am very thankful.

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I welcome the Government’s commitment to the reduction in carbon emissions. That is good news. In better weather conditions it would be more attractive to walk or to use a bicycle. The Minister outlined a number of incentives to draw people away from cars and encourage them to use alternative transport, but at a time when fuel prices are coming to their highest level and transport charges are rising and are set to rise again, is there not a balance to be struck between the carrot and the stick approach? Can he tell us how he proposes to get people out of cars and on to alternative transport?

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I should make it plain that the local transport White Paper relates to England only, but it is reasonable to draw attention to that matter. One of the ways that we encourage use of public transport is making it more attractive by making it safer and more convenient. We are doing a lot of work, for example, on through-ticketing and on smart ticketing, as all the evidence suggests that if people have confidence that they can leave their front door and arrive at their destination without worrying about the last two miles, they are more likely to use public transport for the majority of the journey. A great deal of work is being done on that. Making public transport attractive is a key to achieving modal shift.

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I call Richard Harrington.

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What an excellent way for you to remember this special day, Mr Speaker, by calling me to ask a question.

I commend the Minister for the statement. In my constituency, we have two schemes that are before the Department. As far as I can see, they are entirely compatible with creating growth and cutting carbon through their benefits to the local economy and taking people off the roads. Those are the Croxley rail link project and the Watford junction project. May we have a decision on them as soon as possible? I hope that my hon. Friend will be favourably inclined to grant them.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on managing to link that to the statement. I can assure him that the matters to which he refers are under active consideration. A timetable has been published and we will shortly be able to give him and others in the House detailed information about the decisions to be taken.

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Has the Minister had time to look at the Blyth and Tyne rail link that runs through my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)? The line is used principally by Alcan and for coal. It is a shame that it is not used for transport in our area of south-east Northumberland. Will the Minister look into that?

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We are always happy to look at potential public transport improvements. I am not familiar with that line myself, but my right hon. Friend the Minister of State who has responsibility for rail is sitting next to me and has carefully noted the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

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Penblwydd hapus, Mr. Speaker.

I am sure that when the Minister visits Bristol tomorrow he will receive a warm welcome from people from all parties. If he is travelling by train to Bristol Temple Meads, he may be disturbed by the cost of the bus service into the city. Does he agree that to address the huge potential for shorter journeys that he mentions in his statement we need seriously to address the cost of a single bus journey from a main railway station?

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I absolutely agree with that. From memory, the train company that operates in Bristol is the same one that operates the bus service, and it is in the commercial interests of FirstGroup to ensure that the bus is attractively priced to encourage a through journey by rail and bus, rather than encouraging people to drive the whole way, which may be the consequence of that particular pricing policy.

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One issue that neither the Government nor the Mayor of London’s office can continue to ignore is the daily congestion at the Blackwall tunnel and the need for a third crossing to relieve that congestion. If there is the slightest incident, the whole of east London and south-east London comes to a standstill. Will the Minister ensure that in every future discussion between the Mayor’s office and his Department, that issue is on the agenda, because we cannot continue with this logjam in our capital city?

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I understand that additional capacity is being considered by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that London falls outside the White Paper’s remit.

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May I join the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) in recommending the expressway along Kingskerswell for a bus and cycle route? I welcome the local sustainable transport fund. Will the Minister meet a delegation from Littlehempston and Totnes, to consider not just how funding is crucial in advancing cycling schemes, but also some of the unnecessary roadblocks that such schemes come up against?

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It is often the roadblocks, as my hon. Friend puts it, the pinch points, that cause disruption to the transport system, congestion and unnecessary carbon emissions. It is certainly important to deal with such issues, and the fund that I am announcing today is well designed to do that. Of course, I will be happy to meet her and her colleagues.

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Will the Minister be a little more specific and say in what way his policy will improve bus services in Greater Manchester and make them more responsive to my constituents’ needs?

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This is not a top-down approach. We are setting high-level targets for local authorities to create growth and cut carbon, and we are leaving it to them to come up with the solutions that fit their patch. The answer for Manchester will be very different from the answer for Bristol, so it is not for me or other Ministers to say what is best for Manchester. Our job is to set the vision and to provide the money and let local councils get on with it. If Manchester wants to come up with something that helps bus services in that way, it is welcome to do so.

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I, too, welcome the statement. One of the key elements to encouraging economic growth in York is cutting traffic congestion, and the Minister recently visited York to look at the park and ride sites across the city. Will he outline in further detail how the new fund will encourage such projects?

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It certainly can encourage such projects. As I said in my previous answer, it is up to the local council to come up with a scheme that meets those objectives. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will pursue those objectives, which seem quite sensible, with the local council, and suggest that it submits a bid.

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As the Minister will know, three times as much money is spent on public transport in the south as in the north. Will this programme do anything to redress that balance?

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Obviously, the population of the south is different from that in the north, which is one factor in question. We are keen to ensure that we achieve the two targets of creating growth and cutting carbon, and we also recognise that there are particular areas where unemployment is a problem, which we are keen to help as far as possible, so we will bear those factors in mind when bids come in. We certainly want to see a reasonable balance to the money that is distributed.

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My hon. Friend has already agreed to visit the High Peak to discuss the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass—a visit that we are all looking forward to with great anticipation. While in the High Peak, will he meet officials from our local authorities to discuss the best way in which they can take advantage of the new local sustainable transport fund?

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I fear that my diary is filling up, but yes, I will be happy to do so.

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I welcome the commitment to continue funding cycle training for young people, but one of the things that puts families and children off cycling is the lack of cycle routes, both on-road and off-road, that are properly safeguarded. Will the Minister consider prioritising that from central funding to ensure that the training leads to actual cycling?

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It is certainly true that in this country 43% of people have a bicycle and only 2% of journeys are made by bike, which suggests that there are bars to people cycling which they wish to overcome, having bought the bicycle in the first place. People often feel safer off-road than they do on-road, so the creation of cycle paths can be particularly useful. I am thinking of safe routes to school in particular, and I hope that local authorities will want to consider such schemes when submitting bids to the Department. As well as the money for Bikeability for this year, in 2011-12 we are also providing £30 million from the centre for links to schools, for bike club, bike it, and walking to school initiatives.

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What impact, if any, does today’s announcement have on the development of small-scale rail extensions, such as the Burscough curves? We have hoped for very little and got very little.

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The fund is not designed to reinstate railway schemes, because they are of a size and nature that it could not sustain. As I said earlier, we are keen to see what we can do to improve and enhance the rail network, where it makes commercial sense to do so. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has noted the point made.

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School traffic enhances peak-time congestion during term time. The United States seems to run a successful yellow school bus scheme. Why cannot we have something similar here?

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I am advised that the Secretary of State’s constituency has a yellow bus scheme, which perhaps he has been helpful in introducing. The school run is certainly one of the major reasons for congestion and delays in the morning, and it is an important point to look at. That could in theory be something that the fund that I have announced today could address, but I am not against having a further look at the yellow bus scheme on a national basis—although these matters are best decided locally, as my hon. Friend would accept.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent statement, which contains many good things. Issues such as local powers over signage, for which I have campaigned for many years, the funding for Bikeability and a real valuation of carbon are much to be welcomed. Will he do any more to encourage councils to really make it easier for people to cycle to work, either by providing infrastructure, or by providing extra information such as the CycleStreets website set up by my constituents.

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We are doing more to make information on cycle routes available on the Transport Direct journey planner. That is now being rolled out across the country, giving information on a progressive basis, to make that available to people who want to cycle safely and are not necessarily familiar with the routes. It is plain from the guidance that one way of cutting carbon and creating growth is to invest in cycling, so I hope that local councils will bear that in mind when submitting bids.

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Thamesdown Transport bus company in my constituency runs an excellent service, but does the Minister agree that local bus companies need to do more localised, estate by estate marketing, to explain the benefits and services on offer?

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I certainly agree that some bus companies are better at drumming up business for themselves than others. We have some excellent bus companies around the country, including the one I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company. Other bus companies do not do so well, but frankly, they are missing a trick in not capitalising on the market that is there for them.

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The local Little Red Bus company provides vital community bus services across North Yorkshire. May I press the Minister a little further on how the fund will be targeted on the most rural areas of our country?

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It is up to local councils to decide which bids they submit and what is included in those bids. The pattern of bus services varies considerably across the country, and I believe that I am right in saying that North Yorkshire has been subject to some cuts which have not been undertaken elsewhere, which suggests that the council has made that decision itself. We have also recently amended the Department’s guidance on concessionary fares to reflect the importance of rural routes and long-distance routes in rural areas, and that should help bus companies as well.

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I welcome the Minister’s statement. London’s future depends very much on sustainable low-carbon travel. Back on the subject of bikes, although I realise that is a devolved matter, there is much to be learned from the Mayor of London’s popular cycle hire scheme, and I hope that the Minister is working with that team to make sure those lessons can be passed on to other towns and cities that might want to go down a similar path.

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I very much welcome the innovation in London with the cycle hire scheme. Being based in a capital city, that scheme now has some traction and coverage elsewhere in the country, and I very much hope that other towns and cities will feel that it is worth emulating.

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I sincerely hope that in due course the coalition Government will be able to reinstate some of the tram and light railway schemes that were axed by the previous utopian Labour Government, and perhaps add a few new ones. They are quite commonplace on the continent. I welcome the Minister’s statement, particularly the coalition Government’s commitment to support Bikeability cycle training for the duration of this Parliament. With that in mind, would he like to come to cycle town Colchester to see how cycling is being promoted?

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I shall be happy to attend the event in Colchester to which the hon. Gentleman refers after I have been to Mottram and Tintwistle and everywhere else I am going in the High Peak area in the near future. On light rail, we have already committed to enhancements and extensions to the tram light rail system in the Midland Metro area and in Nottingham, despite the difficult financial situation that we inherited from the party now in opposition. My hon. Friend will also be interested to know that I have initiated a review of light rail costs, which is one of the first things I did upon my appointment, and it is due to report soon. The objective is to get the costs of light rail down so that we can have more light rail in future.

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I must thank the Minister and all colleagues, whose succinctness enabled everyone who wanted to take part to have the chance to do so.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We are just about to start an extremely important debate on the scrapping of education maintenance allowances. By my calculation, five Members will now be unable to take part in that debate because we have just had a statement that could perfectly well have been made yesterday. Have you been notified by the Minister’s office why it was necessary to have the statement on an Opposition day, and do you not agree that it is highly desirable that statements should not be made on those days unless absolutely necessary?

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The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s challenge is no. It is, of course, for the Government to decide whether and when to put on a statement, but my answer stands. I hope that is helpful to the House.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Some of the brightest and best potential teachers risk being lost to our schools because universities do not know whether they will have places for them. In short, that is because universities that train future teachers do not know how many places for teacher training they will have, five months after the Teacher Development Agency should have told them. Is there anything you can do to end the confusion between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education on that issue, perhaps by securing a written statement on the matter?

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The matter can of course be raised at business questions tomorrow. The Government will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. If any clarification is required, that is a matter for the Government. My concern now is to protect Opposition time.

BILL PRESENTED

Health and Social Care Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Secretary Lansley, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Vince Cable, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander, Mr Simon Burns and Paul Burstow, presented a Bill to establish and make provision about a National Health Service Commissioning Board and commissioning consortia and to make other provision about the National Health Service in England; to make provision about public health in the United Kingdom; to make provision about regulating health and adult social care services; to make provision about public involvement in health and social care matters, scrutiny of health matters by local authorities and co-operation between local authorities and commissioners of health care services; to make provision about regulating health and social care workers; to establish and make provision about a National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; to establish and make provision about a Health and Social Care Information Centre and to make other provision about information relating to health or social care matters; to abolish certain public bodies involved in health or social care; to make other provision about health care; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 132) with explanatory notes (Bill 132-EN).

Consumer Protection (Postal Marketing)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision relating to the regulation of postal marketing; and for connected purposes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise such an important but sometimes under-reported matter. Every day, criminals worldwide send millions of unsolicited, mass-marketed letters to UK residents. As defined by the Office of Fair Trading, a mass-marketed scam is:

“A misleading or deceptive business practice where you receive an unsolicited or uninvited contact and false promises are made to con you out of your money”.

Although I appreciate that many such contacts might arrive by e-mail or telephone, I wish to focus today on those that use Royal Mail to deliver their message to potential victims. Consumers losing money in that way is a significant problem in the UK. Those activities are often targeted specifically at vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers, such as the elderly and those already in debt, and those individuals can suffer disproportionate levels of harm as a result. Although anyone can fall for a scam, the elderly and vulnerable are more likely to be targeted and to become repeat victims.

Members might be aware of the Nigerian 419 scam, which involves a letter asking the recipients to help in removing a substantial sum of money from Africa using their bank account, for which they will receive a smaller amount in return for their assistance. Inevitably, the money never arrives and the recipient will find that their bank account has been used fraudulently and, in some cases, that their identity has been stolen and cloned. That is one of the most popular and recognisable scams, but others involve fake lotteries, even clairvoyants and fictitious prize draws. After replying to the first “taster” letter, the victim’s details will be sold to other criminal networks and the deluge of mailings will begin.

Across the UK, postal workers deliver more than 100 pieces of mail every day to some victims, but there is no comprehensive system in place to report such activity. Nearly half of the UK adult population has been targeted in that way, and while it is easy for us to advise them to delete the e-mail, hang up the telephone or simply tear up the mailing, more than 3 million adults—6.5% of the UK population—will be taken in, losing a total of £3.5 billion every year. Should one have the misfortune to become a victim once, it will only get worse. Chronic victims have their names added to a so-called “suckers” list and will find the number of mailings increase exponentially as their details are sold on again and again.

We should not underestimate the effect that such mailings have. Scam mail is designed to shut down the normal thought process and dazzle the mind. Chronic victims can focus only on the fictitious prize, not on the money that they are sending to claim it. Many will not understand modern technology and how it allows mass mail to be easily produced, despite looking like important and personally addressed correspondence. They might fall out with their families, who are desperate to help their relatives stop what can become an addiction but cannot make them understand that sending yet more money will not make a fictitious prize appear. It is also worth noting that the Mailing Preference Service can help only if victims themselves come to understand that there is a problem and register with it. One of the biggest difficulties is in helping the victim realise that the offers are not genuine.

Scam mail should not be confused with perfectly legitimate direct marketing. Indeed, I seek to assure Members that I have no desire to prevent either legitimate businesses from communicating with potential customers, or Members from using direct mail to communicate with constituents. It is a complex area, because in seeking to afford greater protection to vulnerable constituents I do not wish to advocate measures that are excessive and cross the line between consumer protection and civil liberty.

Currently the principal protection comes from the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Fraud Act 2006. The former contains both criminal offences and the option to take injunctive action using the Enterprise Act 2002. Both can be used with a degree of success to deal with scams originating in the UK, but normally only once they are in full operation and vulnerable people have already suffered. Those originating in the European Union can be tackled using cross-border injunctive action procedures under the 2002 Act, but that is time-consuming, costly and rarely used. When scams originate from a country outside the EU, it is down to the authorities in that country to take action against the perpetrators. The level of co-operation will obviously vary from country to country and is fraught with difficulty. I have met Hampshire trading standards, which has been proactive in tackling the problem—[Interruption.]

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Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady. It is only courteous to allow the hon. Lady to be heard with a degree of quiet and respect.

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Hampshire trading standards has made some constructive suggestions on the changes that it thinks would be possible. The police are also well aware of how and where scam mail enters the country, but they are currently unable to stop it. As I have mentioned, those who know best how to identify victims are postal workers. Many know their rounds and residents extremely well and can quickly identify when patterns of mass-marketed mail deliveries change and increase. Consequently, Hampshire trading standards is asking for measures to be introduced to enable the police, customs officers or the National Fraud Authority to identify and intercept scam mail when it enters the country, and to allow Royal Mail to disclose the details of potential victims to their local trading standards service, so that support can be offered to those financially abused and vulnerable people. One significant difficulty faced by Royal Mail is that passing on consumer details contravenes the Data Protection Act 1998. As I mentioned earlier, there might also be a conflict with human rights legislation, but even though it is a difficult process, it does not mean that we should not try.

The proposal to allow the police or other enforcement officers to intercept mail is a very difficult one, requiring changes to both the Postal Services Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Under current law, the police need to apply to the Secretary of State for a warrant under RIPA and the Police Act 1997 in order to intercept and open a postal packet lawfully in the course of its transmission.

I do not suggest for one moment that there should be a blanket power to intercept mail without a warrant, but such mail is easy to identify, the same victims are being targeted hundreds and hundreds of times over and it ought not to be impossible to introduce appropriate safeguards against breaches of human rights, controlled using the RIPA authorisation process at a sufficiently high level, while ensuring that the tests of necessity and proportionality are satisfied.

There is some disagreement between trading standards authorities and the Royal Mail about whether the disclosure of victims’ details is permitted under section 29 of the 1998 Act. There is no disagreement about whether postal workers are best placed to identify the victims. Indeed, they want to help. It might be appropriate, therefore, to introduce an amendment to the Postal Services Act to provide a legal gateway for the release of such information.

In a trial in Hampshire, the Royal Mail has worked closely with Hampshire trading standards to identify potential victims and to introduce a card that postmen and women can put through the doors of those whom they believe are being targeted, encouraging them to contact trading standards and to seek assistance. Of 44 cards delivered, however, only five victims came forward, suggesting that many people are not being given the support to tackle the problem that they face.

When I visited trading standards, I heard horrendous tales of victims’ houses, stuffed full of scam mail, with many thousands of pieces of paper stacked up in their living rooms; relatives in despair because they could not help their loved ones understand that the offers and promises were not genuine; and examples of Hampshire residents having lost more than £100,000.

This is a timely proposal. Next month is the Office of Fair Trading’s scam awareness month, which seeks to highlight and tackle the extent of that fraudulent activity. This proposal represents a proportionate approach and recognises the need to support the victims of such activities, who have suffered considerable financial loss and distress. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Caroline Nokes, Lorraine Fullbrook, Simon Hart, Caroline Dinenage, Simon Kirby, Justin Tomlinson, Andrew Bingham, Nick de Bois, Jack Lopresti, Rebecca Harris and Mike Weatherley present the Bill.

Caroline Nokes accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 June, and to be printed (Bill 134).

Opposition Day

[9th allotted day]

Education Maintenance Allowance

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I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

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I beg to move,

That this House believes that disadvantaged young people should gain greater access to further and higher education; recognises the valuable role that the education maintenance allowance (EMA) has played in supporting young people from less well-off backgrounds to participate and succeed in education; further recognises how EMA has supported choice for students in post-16 education, allowing them to travel to the best institution for their studies, which is of particular importance in rural areas; further notes that EMA is used by the majority of recipients to fund travel to college, as well as books and equipment, and allows recipients to focus on their studies rather than taking a part-time job; notes that EMA has been retained in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; further notes research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies stating that EMA costs are completely offset by its benefits in raising participation; further notes the inquiry into educational access announced by the Education Select Committee; and calls on the Government to rethink its decision on EMA, retaining practical support to improve access to, interest in and participation in further and higher education.

Over the past decade, we have debated the funding of higher education on many occasions. Today, we rightly focus on an equally, if not more, important prior question: whether hundreds of thousands of young people from less well-off backgrounds are to stay in education long enough to have a realistic dream of going to university.

To know what is at risk, we must look at how far we have come. Twenty-five years ago, the staying-on rate in England was 47%; throughout Merseyside, where I left school in 1986, the figure was even lower; and today it is 82%. Those figures tell an incredible story of human and social progress from the mid-1980s to today. A deep-rooted culture in some communities whereby employment at 16 years old was the norm, not education, has begun to be broken.

Students and families who in the past might well have felt that education was not for the likes of them now see it as a viable route, and in the past 10 years the education maintenance allowance has played an important part in that progress. It has sent out an empowering message of hope—that we can dare to dream, whoever we are and wherever we come from. It was one of the best policies of our Government, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) who brought it in.

Sustaining that progress must be worked at; instead, it is about to be thrown into reverse. In the real world, the debate about tuition fees is already changing views on university, but for the least well-off the full impact becomes clear only when it is set alongside the abolition of EMA. To those young people, it feels as though we have a Government who are stacking the odds against them—a Government who talked about social mobility in their early days but have now launched an all-out attack on the aspirations of those facing the biggest obstacles in life. They see a Government who are kicking away the ladder of opportunity. Today, the House has an opportunity to change that message and to make Ministers change course.

Before we get into the detail, however, I want the House to focus on the 650,000 young people who receive EMA. They have a strong sense that many Members do not have any idea what their lives are like.

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Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that every single one of those 650,000 recipients should receive exactly the same amount of money that they currently receive, or does he believe that there is any scope for saving and better targeting?

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The right hon. Gentleman used to believe in EMA, because he stood right where I am standing now and told the House that he would keep it—no, that he would build on it. So it is pretty desperate—

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Answer the question.

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I shall come to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but a little more humility might serve him well during the course of this debate.

Those young people feel that Members here—

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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I shall not give way; I am sorry. Those young people feel that Members, and indeed that the right hon. Gentleman, have no real idea of what their lives are like.

Some 80% of recipients come from homes where the household income is less than £20,800 a year, and many live difficult lives. Many are part of larger families and go without the basics during the average week, because they know that anything they take off their parents deprives younger brothers or sisters. Many others are young carers who face some of the toughest circumstances imaginable—like the one whom I met, caring for both parents, at Lambeth college—and try desperately to keep their own hopes alive of a better future while supporting loved ones on meagre resources. Some are young parents who might have missed out on an education and want a second chance, like the young mum from Gateshead who came to our hearing here in Westminster. Some have special needs and disabilities, like Daniel in my constituency, who is on the autistic spectrum. I helped him to find appropriate supported accommodation when he was in his early teenage years, and his grandmother told me at the weekend that EMA had been a vital part of his transition from residential care to mainstream college—vital in helping him to learn the everyday skills of managing his life.

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The right hon. Gentleman says that there are 650,000 or so EMA claimants, but he must also know that only about 12% of those people—66,000—say that they would not go into A-level education if they did not have it. EMA costs £564 million. Does he not think there are better and less expensive ways of targeting money on the kids who really need the help? [Interruption.]

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Order. Members are in a very excitable state today. I know that the matter arouses great passions, but we must have some semblance of decorum in the debate. I also remind colleagues that interventions should be brief.

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The hon. Gentleman is talking about 78,000 young lives—those of the people the Government say would not stay in education were there to be no EMA.

Let me come to the heart of the Government’s misunderstanding of this issue. They talk only about participation, but for the others—the Secretary of State does not seem to understand this—EMA provides the chance to fulfil themselves in education because it means that they can devote themselves to their studies.

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The right hon. Gentleman is building a very powerful case for the defence and protection of EMA. Will he take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish National party Government in Scotland on retaining EMA and ensuring that we are fulfilling our pledge to the most vulnerable and poorest students in Scotland?

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My knowledge of Scottish politics is okay, but I think I am right in telling the hon. Gentleman that it was the Labour Administration who brought in the education maintenance allowance in Scotland, so I warn him off that subject.

I have detailed the lives of some of the young people I have met in recent weeks who are receiving EMA because it is important that the House focus its mind on those young people before we get much further into the debate. I want to clear up one myth at the beginning. EMA is overwhelmingly used to provide the basics to support education—travel, books, equipment and food.

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Is my right hon. Friend aware that Lib Dem-Tory run Warrington borough council recently passed a motion asking the Government to think again on tuition fees and EMA? In their letter to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Liberal leader and the Tory deputy leader said that the removal of EMA would cause real hardship. If the Government’s own allies do not support them, how can they go ahead with this?

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I am aware of that, as I represent a neighbouring authority area. It shows that some Liberal Democrats at local level have more guts than some of their colleagues in this place, because they are prepared to say what is right and what is wrong and to stand up for the young people in their area who they know will have their dreams shattered if this help is taken away from them.

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Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is entirely possible that an alternative, more targeted approach to providing support for young people might provide a better solution while still meeting the needs of deficit reduction?

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The Government talk of an alternative scheme, but it is a tenth of the size of EMA, which they have closed to new applicants. They have never made a statement to Parliament or set out any details of that alternative scheme. It has taken Labour Members to bring those Ministers here to account for themselves this afternoon, and that is quite disgraceful. We do not have an alternative to judge EMA against, and EMA is a scheme that works.

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rose

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rose

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rose

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I will make further progress before giving way.

EMA is one of the few practical policies that has directly supported social mobility and equality of opportunity, so today I will set out a comprehensive case for its retention—the educational case, the social case, the economic case and the democratic case. The Government wanted to close down EMA quietly. They have closed the scheme to new applicants. They have not begun to replace it, as their amendment claims. We have called this debate because EMA has worked and is worth fighting for.

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Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the enhanced learner support fund, which is the Government’s proposed replacement for EMA, will help many of the hard cases with which he illustrated the earlier part of his speech? Some 90% of students are telling us that they do not need EMA and will continue with their studies without it. If he does not accept that figure, what would he accept as the dead-weight figure?

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The hon. Lady has just shown how hopelessly out of touch Government Members are. Is she telling me that nine out of 10 young people in her constituency who get EMA are saying they do not need it? If so, she has been speaking to some very different young people—although I am glad that she has at least been speaking to them, unlike those on her Front Bench. She needs to answer this question. The Government are proposing a scheme that is a tenth—

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Answer the question.

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I am about to do that. The Government are proposing a scheme that is a tenth of the size of the previous one, so a fair assumption is that it will help one in 10 of the people who are getting help today. How is that compatible with the full participation in education of all 16 to 18-year-olds, to which the Government amendment refers?

I have never set my face against changes or savings to the EMA scheme. I proposed a change last year—that of giving young people between 16 and 18 the choice of unlimited free travel or EMA. Today I say this to the Secretary of State: I am prepared to discuss changes while keeping the principle of a national weekly payment scheme to support young people in education, but I am not prepared to see a successful scheme, which brings a huge range of social benefits, dismantled and replaced with a residual scheme a fraction of the size. He will have to work very hard to convince us that a scheme a tenth of the size will, in the words of his amendment, improve

“access to, enthusiasm for and participation in further and higher education.”

How can it possibly do that?

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I met students at Dudley college, 78% of whom receive EMA. More than 90% of them told me that they would be unable to continue their education if EMA was withdrawn. They are not using it for luxuries but for their books, bus fare and lunch. In particular, those on vocational courses who are studying construction, catering, hairdressing and so on need to buy uniforms and equipment. That is what they are spending it on, and if it is withdrawn they will not be able to continue their education.

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My hon. Friend represents a constituency with one of the highest take-up rates of EMA in the country, and he is absolutely right. Some of the sneering comments about recipients of EMA show a complete failure to understand what their lives are like and underestimate the determination of those young people to make a success of themselves and to get skills that will stand them in good stead throughout the rest of their lives.

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rose

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rose—

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rose

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I will give way in a moment.

The Government’s answer is, “We are raising the school leaving age to 18.” What kind of answer is that? Do they really think they can simply mandate that young people will have to stay on and then provide no practical support to make it work? Perhaps that is why the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education said yesterday that he thought the removal of EMA would be damaging. The Government have a lot of convincing to do as regards senior voices on their own side of the House.

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Will my right hon. Friend take on board what the Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government have done in keeping the £30 higher level because they recognise just how important it is for younger people?

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As I said, 80% of people get the £30 higher level. I also said that I am not opposed to talking to the Secretary of State about changes. However, if he is to fulfil his goal of keeping young people in education, he will have to talk about a scheme on a much bigger scale than he is proposing, and he will have to do that today.

Let me set out, first, the educational case for EMA. EMA has had a positive impact on participation in post-16 education: that is accepted by all. The Government’s figures suggest that EMA makes all the difference for 78,000 young people. However, as we enter 2011, the financial outlook for many families is changing for the worse. Calculations about the affordability of staying on will have to be redone when the loss of EMA is set alongside changes to other benefits and wages. New research released yesterday by the University and College Lecturers Union suggested that seven in 10 EMA recipients will drop out of education if EMA is taken away.

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I regret the removal of EMA and the necessity to remove it, which was caused by an orgy of overspending by the Administration of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a part. A diet of cold, hard decisions now has to be taken by Ministers, and I have some sympathy with them. Choices have to be made, such as between providing nursery education for two-year-olds in the poorest areas or retaining EMA. The right hon. Gentleman accepts that there can be changes to EMA. Is there any reason why a slimmed-down version, such as that proposed by the Government, with constructive input from all sides, cannot deliver for the most needy and minimise the negative impacts?

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The hon. Gentleman is having it both ways. He started by saying that he regrets the removal of EMA, before going on to make his attack. I will make two points to him. First, he said that EMA was essentially unaffordable. Why then does the Institute for Fiscal Studies say that the costs of EMA are “completely offset” by the wider benefits that it brings? He might want to reflect on that point.

Secondly, why did the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State promise young people that they would keep EMA? More than that, why did the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), stand at the Dispatch Box after the general election and say that EMA would be retained? Why did they do that if it is now such a bad idea? Will he answer that?

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On that particular point, following our joint interview yesterday, I looked up the Prime Minister’s interview on Cameron Direct. He expressed some concerns and talked about the mixed messages that he had received from students on EMA. He said that the Conservative party had no plans to remove EMA. That is not a matter of pure semantics. There was no promise, and the right hon. Gentleman should not put out an untruth about the Prime Minister on this subject.

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We will leave those kinds of points to Back Benchers; we do not expect them from the Chair of the Select Committee.

The fundamental point that the Government are missing is that participation is only part—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) does not have to put his hand up—he can just stand up. Participation is only part of the story; EMA helps students to succeed once they arrive at college. It stands to reason that young people do better if they can afford the books or equipment that support the course. As many young people have told me, EMA means that they do not have to take a part-time job, so they can focus all their energy and attention on their studies. College after college reports that EMA improves attendance, helps people to stay the course, reduces the drop-out rate and, in the end, brings a higher rate of achievement.

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The infamous Cameron Direct meeting that has been raised took place in Hammersmith on 6 January last year. Sadly, I was not at the meeting because I was handing out leaflets outside, but this morning I spoke to the person who asked the relevant question. The Prime Minister said:

“We’ve looked at Educational Maintenance Allowances…no we don’t have any plans to get rid of them.”

Where does my right hon. Friend think the Government now stand with their credibility on this issue?

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I think that it is very difficult. The Government’s access to education adviser, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), and I were at an open meeting last week in the Commons. A young woman from Cornwall said that she had been at a meeting where the Prime Minister had made a personal commitment that he would keep education maintenance allowance. The Government have some very hard questions to ask themselves this week. Now that the voters of Oldham have told them what they think about broken promises, the Government need to reflect on whether they will carry on in such an arrogant and high-handed manner, thinking it fine to say one thing to young people before the election and change the script afterwards. I am afraid that they will lose those young people for the rest of their lives if they do not change course.

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I will give way to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley).

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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that it is entirely unacceptable that the Government still have not done a full equality impact assessment of this policy? If they had, they might be rather less cavalier about the devastating implications of scrapping EMA.

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The hon. Lady makes a point of such importance that it must be addressed by the Secretary of State. In going about his business, he is wiping away important initiatives that work and are providing real opportunity for young people, with no assessment of the damage that the policies will do and no real understanding of how they might set back social mobility and equality in our country. The Government seem to have dispensed with some of the norms of government that we took seriously, such as equality impact assessments and consultations on the major changes to educational provision. Instead, they promised to keep EMA, and then simply pull the plug when it suits them. It is not good enough.

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I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Education maintenance allowance was piloted in Stoke-on-Trent and other cities, because we needed to give additional help to students, such as those who have come down from Burslem and Tunstall today to make the point that they need that additional money. Our staying-on rates have improved from 56.3% to 80.5%. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State how it can be that people who currently receive EMA will not get that money, when people in the areas of deprivation that we represent need it for their travel costs and everything else? If they do not get it, they will not be in higher education, they will not get jobs, and there will be no solution to youth unemployment.

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My hon. Friend brings me back to the point that I was making: EMA is not just about participation, as the Government say, but about helping people to make the best of themselves when they are in education and bringing out their full potential. The Government’s one-sided argument about a 90% dead-weight cost fails to acknowledge that it helps young people with one of the biggest challenges in life—to shine academically. It is very hard to put a value on that. It might open doors that would otherwise have remained closed.

Crucially, EMA supports the important principle of student choice for all in post-16 education. It means that the best sixth-form colleges, which are often some distance away, particularly in rural areas, are within the reach of young people. In most places, they do not get help with travel and transport costs, so EMA means that the doors of those fantastic institutions are opened to young people from ordinary working-class backgrounds.

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It is kind of the right hon. Gentleman to give way, I am sure. I listened carefully to the powerful case studies of people he has met over recent weeks. I am concerned, however, that he might be out of touch with some of his constituents, and that he does not fully understand the needs of those with complex needs. Is he seriously arguing that a capped payment of £30 a week will fully meet the needs of the people he described? In that case, why does he not support a discretionary learner support fund that would allow individual schools to tailor provision to the needs of their students? Why is he so scared of that?

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Order. We must have shorter interventions, because many Members want to speak.

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All I can say is that I do not think the hon. Gentleman was listening. I said that EMA makes life possible, and makes the calculations that young people have to do to stay in education that bit more doable. Is he seriously arguing that taking it from those young people will help them to make a success of their lives and circumstances? I find that hard to believe.

The vast majority of EMA is spent on travel, as a survey for the Association of Colleges confirmed this week. It states that

“94% of Colleges believe that the abolition of the EMA will affect students’ ability to travel to and from College.”

The survey also suggests that some students may be at risk of not being able to follow the college course of their choice due to the cost or availability of transport. That goes to the heart of student choice in education. If students do not have the ability to travel, they cannot get on to the courses that they want to study. The Secretary of State needs to come up with a convincing answer to that.

I want the Secretary of State also to think about the effect of the change on the aspirations of young people who are still in secondary school. I want him to reflect on what a young woman from my constituency told me this week—that her 15-year-old brother had already given up at school because, without EMA, he could not see any way that he would be able to go to Wigan and Leigh college to study the motor engineering course that he had planned to do. Is there not a real risk that taking the lifeline of EMA away from young people will lower the aspirations of children in secondary school? Better participation, attendance, retention and results, supporting choice and keeping hope alive for all kids—surely it all adds up to a compelling educational case for keeping EMA.

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I give way to the hon. Lady.

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Is not the No. 1 factor in education teacher quality, which the right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned? The UK has one of the worst records of having qualified teachers for low-income pupils. Why did his Government not do anything about that when they were in power?

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We did plenty of things to improve the quality of teaching, including through Teach First. I spoke about giving all young people the chance to get into the best sixth-form colleges in the country, so that they can access good teaching. Would the hon. Lady care to explain how, under her party’s plans, those young people will carry on being able to benefit from the very best teaching and get the best opportunities in life? I do not think she can do so.

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EMA was being piloted when my right hon. Friend and I joined the House, and it has been a real achievement in the 10 years since. Some 1,700 students at Newcastle-under-Lyme college benefit from it, and it has raised staying-on rates. Where is the fairness in removing that income from those students and their households? Is it not the case that the impact of that will be felt not in the likes of Surrey Heath but in Bermondsey, Sheffield, Leigh, Manchester, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent?

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It will be felt keenly in such places. Combined with the trebling of tuition fees, my worry is that it will have a depressing effect on the aspirations of young people in the former industrial and inner-city communities that we worked so hard to lift during our time in government. That is why today’s debate goes to the heart of why I and many of my hon. Friends came into politics. We care passionately about people’s opportunities in those areas, and we are not prepared to see the ladder kicked away from under young people in the way that the Government propose.

The evidence that I have given on the educational benefits of EMA demolishes the claim that it has no benefit to society beyond persuading 10% of students to stay on. Until recently, I was at a loss to understand how Ministers could make that one-sided argument and use such selective facts to back up their decision, but maybe I have stumbled on the answer. Last week, I came across a parliamentary question answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), asking how many further education and sixth-form colleges the Secretary of State had visited since he was appointed in May. I shall share with the House the revealing answer:

“The Secretary of State has made no such visits since this date.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 342W.]

The Secretary of State was quick to get to his feet a little earlier, and I trust that he will rise again now to correct what surely must have been an inaccurate answer.

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I certainly will. All those who saw me at Farnborough sixth-form college, when I had the privilege of opening the John Guy building, will know of my great commitment to that superb college, at which so many of my students are educated.

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Either that is a school sixth form or the answer that the Secretary of State’s Department issued was wrong, but it is an appalling state of affairs if he has barely ever managed to take himself along to a sixth-form college to speak to the staff and students who will be affected. [Interruption.] Yes, he has been to one in his own constituency but no one else’s. That is very helpful of him. I might remind him that he is responsible for everyone’s constituents. At a stroke he is axing a £500 million scheme, which will have a profound effect on 650,000 young lives and on the viability of 230 FE colleges and 95 sixth-form colleges, for which he has policy responsibility, without so much as troubling himself to go along and hear at first hand what the decision will mean.

The Secretary of State needs to climb down from his ivory tower once in a while and get out in the real world. How many students has he met who will be directly affected by the changes? Has he met any? I am not sure whether he is nodding, but if he had met some I am absolutely sure that, if nothing else, he would long since have asked his Ministers to stop implying that those high-achieving and talented young people can be described as “dead weight”.

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Through my right hon. Friend, may I issue an invitation to the Secretary of State to come with me to City of Westminster college? Its principal has written to me to say that 1,500 of his students will lose their EMA, which in his experience has transformed attendance and achievement at the college.

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I will do so, but I cannot answer for the Secretary of State. I have been to sixth-form colleges in London, and that brings me to my case about social mobility. If he visits a sixth-form college while he is in the job, may I suggest that he could do worse than visit the one that my hon. Friend mentions, or indeed Newham sixth-form college, which I visited yesterday? If he does, he might meet the young man who told me about the practical effect of losing EMA. He feels that he will have to lower his ambitions in the universities to which he applies, because he thinks his exam grades will undoubtedly suffer.

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The Chairman of the Education Committee cements the impression that the Conservatives have not really thought about what it is like to be a young person in the circumstances that I have described. It is hard to put a value on the self-confidence and peace of mind that financial security gives a young person. It creates the conditions for their academic potential to be realised.

The Secretary of State talks frequently about social mobility under the Labour Government, citing the number of young people on free school meals gaining a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Time and again, he has used that figure selectively to paint a misleading picture of Labour’s record, and I wish to set the matter straight.

First, I politely point out to the Secretary of State that Oxbridge is not the be-all and end-all. If he examines the university system as a whole, which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) has taken the trouble to do, he will see that between 2005 and 2007 the number of young people on free school meals gaining a place at university increased by 18%, double the rate of increase for all young people. Does the Secretary of State recognise those figures and, if so, does he accept that EMA has played an important role in securing that social progress? Does he further accept that the proportion of children on free school meals who stayed on in full-time education at 16 increased from 60% in 2005 to 70% in 2009? That is why more are applying to, and getting into, universities.

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Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many children eligible for free school meals made it into Oxford and Cambridge in the last year for which we have figures, and in the year before that, and whether he considers it to be a triumph of social mobility or an indictment of his Government’s record?

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Is the Secretary of State worried about anything else, or is that it? The figure is 40, which came down from 44. It did go down, but I have just told him that if he looks at all universities, he will see that the rate of increase in successful applications from children on free school meals was double the rate in the rest of the population. Is he not proud of that fact, and why does he talk only about Oxbridge? If his real passion in life is helping young people on free school meals to gain places at Oxford and Cambridge—as mine is, by the way, as somebody who took that route many years ago—can he tell the House how on earth scrapping EMA is more likely to make that happen? Precisely how does he imagine those kids on free school meals will get to Oxford and Cambridge when there is no EMA?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes his case with his usual passion and makes some important points about empowering student choice. He says that the Government are going too far in reducing the scheme by 90%, but acknowledges that some savings can be made. In these difficult times, what would be a safe reduction in the budget?

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I said that I am prepared to sit down and talk about making savings as long as we maintain the principle of a national scheme that supports the kids who most need support. I made the same offer on school sports. I will have that discussion, but I am saying to the Secretary of State do not just dismantle the whole scheme and lose all the benefits that come with it. If we had been asked to make a reduction in EMA commensurate with the rest of public spending, we would have struggled to argue against it, but that is not what the Government propose. The hon. Gentleman stood alongside the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State at the last election promising young people that they would keep EMA. They are the ones with the questions to answer.

The truth is that the Secretary of State cannot will the ends without the means. That will not happen. However talented those young people are, they cannot live off thin air. They cannot have a part-time job and walk miles to college and still get straight A’s. I wonder whether he has much idea of what their lives are like. In 2003, he wrote an article in The Times that acquires a new significance in the light of this debate. He wrote that

“anyone put off from attending a good university by fear of that debt doesn’t deserve to be at any university in the first place.”

Those are difficult sentiments for an Education Secretary to be associated with, as are these, which appear in the same article:

“Some people will, apparently, be put off applying to our elite institutions by the prospect of taking on a debt of this size. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is all to the good.”

How genuine is his commitment to those people who want to get in to Oxbridge?

I have worries about the Secretary of State’s elitist instincts, but I read in The Times last week another interesting piece—from Mrs Gove—which contains insights from home that raise further questions about whether he is living in the same world as the rest of us—[Interruption.] He should listen to this. She says:

“Like all angst-ridden working mothers, I live in terror of upsetting my cleaner.”

Angst-ridden mums in Leigh talk of little else. I sympathise with Mrs Gove’s predicament, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State could pass on a bit of advice to all the wives of his Cabinet colleagues who fret about the same curses of modern living. May I respectfully suggest that the best way to stay on the right side of the cleaner might be not to clean the oven oneself, but to press one’s other half not to remove the cleaner’s kids’ EMA?

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May I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further on exactly what percentage reduction he would make to EMA? He said he is open to reducing it, but by what percentage?

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I said that I would make a reduction commensurate with the overall reduction in spending. I would be prepared to sit down and say, “Can we make the EMA scheme work for young people at that level?”, but the Government are not proposing that. They are proposing a scheme that is a tenth of the size of the current one. If the Secretary of State is making offers and rethinking, and if he has been ordered into yet another U-turn by the Prime Minister, I am prepared to talk about it, but the onus is on Government Members to tell us the details of what they are offering.

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In answer to my previous question, the right hon. Gentleman spoke of preserving a national scheme, but he has made the powerful point that different students face different costs. Does he agree that if a sufficient pot of money is available, decisions are better made by individual schools that know their pupils’ circumstances, rather than through a national standard scheme?

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My brother is the vice-principal of a sixth-form college, and I have asked him that question. He says that it would be an impossible task for his college to decide between one student and another. Colleges want to help students, but they would have to make those decisions with an inadequate fund that covers only a tenth of the amount that it currently covers. The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion would mean passing on an impossible problem, but I welcome the spirit of his remarks. He will notice that I have deliberately moved a broad motion that invites the support of all hon. Members who want the Government to think again. It sounds as if he is one of them.

Let us not throw out everything about EMA that is a success, and that brings me to the economic case for keeping it. In short, EMA is good not just for the individuals who receive it, but for all of us in building a higher-skilled and more prosperous society, in which the costs of social failure are lower. Yesterday, the chief executive of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers called on the Government to rethink their decision. He said:

“Tough decisions have to be made, but the UK economy will increasingly need skilled engineers and technicians over the next few years. Our long-term economic health depends on making the right decisions now.”

Haroon Chowdry of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that even taking into account a dead-weight cost of 88%, the costs of EMA are “completely offset”. He said:

“The initial outlay of the EMA policy is likely to be more than recouped by the increase in productivity that we expect to result from the 16- and 17-year-olds staying on in education for longer”.

Has the Secretary of State made an economic impact assessment of his policy alongside an equality impact assessment? I have not seen one. Has he assessed how EMA helps to build a skilled work force that benefits us all? If we take that support away, we lose not just those skills—taxpayers must also face the higher costs of social failure as young people drop out of education. Has he made an assessment of that?

On the Government’s own figures, around 78,000 are unlikely to be able to stay in further education without EMA. We cannot know for sure whether all those young people will end up unemployed if they lose EMA, but given today’s figures showing record youth unemployment, it does not look good for them. Will not the Government have to provide support for them in some other form—perhaps a less constructive form—when they have reduced hope for the future?

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In view of my right hon. Friend’s point about improved qualifications, will he note the figures that East Berkshire college has provided to me? It has a number of students on EMA. I have worked out that its figures on improved retention would mean that 45 or 50 young people in the town that I represent would be unlikely to complete their course if they did not have EMA.

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My hon. Friend is exactly right—that is borne out by the experience of many colleges around the country. Some of those young people are at risk of ending up in the benefits system. Will not the Secretary of State’s policy lead to an increase in 16 to 17-year-olds seeking to claim jobseeker’s allowance in exceptional circumstances, or certainly to an increase in the numbers claiming JSA at 18? We know that every young person not in education, employment or training costs more than £55,000, according to research for the Audit Commission. The IFS has said that EMA successfully reduced the number of NEETs. Will it not therefore cost more to get rid of EMA?

Those costs will add up on many levels. As Paul Gregg at Bristol university has found, youth unemployment imposes a “wage scar” that can last for decades. He suggests that scrapping EMA fails to take account of other benefits, such as lower crime. That adds to the fears that through a combination of the Government’s policies, they are taking hope away from a whole generation.

I have set out the education case, the social mobility case and the economic case for keeping EMA, so let us now deal with the democratic case. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State made personal promises to young people to keep EMA. Failing to honour them will do great damage to young people’s trust in Parliament and politics. From this Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State said:

“We are entirely in favour not only of the existence of the EMA but of the provisions in the Bill to secure an extension to it.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 669.]

Weeks before the general election, he said:

“Ed Balls keeps saying we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won’t.”

On the back of these statements, does the Secretary of State not accept that young people embarking on a two-year course in September 2010 had a reasonable expectation that they would receive EMA support for the duration of their course, and that they could not have expected that the rug might be pulled from under them?

Beyond that, do the Government have a democratic mandate for this change? This time it is not the yellow Tories, but the real Tories who have broken their promises to young people. However, did any of the people who voted Lib Dem in May vote to curtail the life chances of the least well-off in this way? Unsurprisingly, the Government’s amendment shifts the ground on to deficit reduction, but if that is now the Government’s main argument why did the schools Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, say to the House in a holding answer dated 7 June:

“The Government are committed to retaining the education maintenance allowance”?—[Official Report, 14 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 307W.]

What changed after June? Did the full costs of the risky, unwanted reorganisation of the NHS become known, or did the Prime Minister choose his marriage tax break—costed before the election at £550 million, which is almost the same amount as EMA—as a priority above EMA? This confirms the growing impression that this is a shambolic ministerial team that changes its argument and does not know what it is doing.

The House may be forgiven for feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. This is a rushed decision with no warning, no consultation with those most affected, no evidence to support the decision, a growing backlash as the implications sink in, and a desperate rearguard action to justify it with dodgy statistics. If this is starting to sound familiar, it is because we have been here before with, for instance, Building Schools for the Future, school sport partnerships, and Bookstart. The fingerprints of this repeat offender are all over the scene of the crime. My question today to Liberal Democrat Members is this: how much longer are they prepared to carry the can in their constituencies for the disastrous decisions of this Secretary of State?

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The right hon. Gentleman knows that I respect both his passion and his commitment on this issue, and he also knows that there is concern on both sides of the House about the policy to get rid of EMA without an adequate replacement. I repeat now what I have said privately, however: I will work with him, as I am working with the Secretary of State, to make sure, as far as I can, that the successor scheme achieves the objectives that are expressed in both the Opposition motion and the Government amendment. If together we can do that, then together we will improve the reputation of this House and politics in this country.

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I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s intentions on this issue, but what he has just said will not be good enough for young people listening to this debate whose lives will be directly affected by the loss of EMA. A vague promise to work with the Secretary of State, with an unspecified amount of money to produce an unspecified result, is not going to do the job for them. The Lib Dems have to decide whether they want to keep the benefits of this successful scheme. Do they want the same numbers of young people in their constituencies to enter further education, or are they prepared to take a risk on this Secretary of State and this Tory-led Government?

Today’s debate provides the House with an opportunity to change the message that this Government are sending out to young people. They feel bewildered and angry that they have been singled out to bear the brunt of deficit reduction, and do not understand why they in particular are to face higher costs than generations before. In Newham, they ask why they are paying with their life chances for the mistakes of others a few miles away in the City of London. In Leigh, they cannot understand why the Government want to turn the clock back to an education system based on social class, with places at university going only to those with money and connections. Today, we can show that we are listening to them. We can make a stand for equality of opportunity in education, and stop these moves towards a more elitist education system. We can call a halt to this all-out attack on the aspirations of those who have least, and keep hope alive for the hundreds of thousands of young people who will be cut adrift if the Government get their way. We can tell all young people that we value them, and stop a Government who are gambling with their life chances. I commend this motion to the House.

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rose

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Order. Before I call the Secretary of State, let me say that many Members wish to speak, and if we have fewer interventions, we will get through contributions more quickly.

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I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

“believes in full participation in education and training for young people up to the age of 18 and considers that support must be in place to allow those who face the greatest barriers to participation to access this opportunity; notes that the previous Government left this country with one of the largest budget deficits in the world and that savings have had to be made in order to avoid burdening future generations; further notes that the Government has increased funding for deprivation within the 16 to 19 budget and has already begun to replace the current education maintenance allowance system with more targeted support for those who face genuine barriers, including travel; and commits the Government to working with young people, schools and colleges and others outside and inside Parliament on arrangements for supporting students in further education and on improving access to, enthusiasm for and participation in further and higher education.”

It is always a pleasure to debate education with the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). In previous Opposition day debates and on other platforms, I have always been impressed by the passion and commitment he brings to the aspirations of extending opportunity and advancing social mobility, and I believe he is right to focus in particular on what we can do better to support children in the 16 to 18 age range, whom we want to succeed in the examinations they take, and to whom we want to extend broader opportunities. In that respect, I welcome both the opportunity this debate provides and the wealth of interest it has provoked.

I may also say that it was uncharacteristic of the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection, to make a personal comment about a member of my family in the course of his speech. I am sure that, on reflection, he will recognise that it was inappropriate and beneath him, and that he will withdraw it.

I also recognise, however, that the right hon. Gentleman was motivated in bringing forward this debate by his passion to increase social mobility. I also recognise that his bringing this passion to bear allows us all to consider what the right policies are for generating a greater degree of social mobility and for making opportunity more equal in our society.

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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Not yet.

Let us consider policies on vocational education. One concern I have is that in a debate about staying on in education, the right hon. Gentleman made no mention of specific proposals to improve vocational education. I therefore have this question: does he back or oppose the policies we are putting in place? Does he back or oppose the additional investment that is going into university technical colleges? If he backs that, it is welcome, and shows that he recognises that action is being taken. If he opposes it, however, he will have to answer for saying no to reform. Does he back or oppose the expansion in the number of studio schools, specifically targeting disadvantaged young people who need a special type of education in order to encourage them to stay on? Does he back or oppose the growth in apprenticeships—the 75,000 additional apprenticeships that we are providing? All of these questions are to do with decisions about investments in improving education and the life chances of the very poorest, and we do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is in favour or against.

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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In a few seconds.

This is not just about improving vocational education. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I believe in aspiration. I believe that other young people born into circumstances similar to our own, whose parents never went to university, should have the chance to go to university. That is why we are putting in place policies to improve academic education. Again, however, we do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman supports or opposes the investment we are putting in to improve it. Does he support or oppose our reading check at the age of six, to make sure every child is decoding fluently, and will be literate by the time they leave primary school? Is he in favour of that, or against? Does he oppose or support our position on GCSEs? Does he believe it is right or wrong to get rid of modules in order to make them more rigorous? Does he back or oppose the English baccalaureate? Does he believe it is right to encourage more students—[Interruption.] There is only one answer that he and some—some, I stress—Opposition Members have to the question of how to increase aspiration, and it is represented by three letters: EMA. It is important that we remove barriers and that we have the right support, but in respect of social mobility it is also important that we have a coherent and inclusive widespread education policy. From the Opposition, on all these areas we have either mulish silence or reactionary opposition.

Is the right hon. Gentleman for or against our drive to ensure that more students get good GCSEs in English, mathematics, sciences, languages, modern history and geography? I could not tell last week. At the beginning of last week he was against, in the middle of last week he was almost in favour, and towards the end of last week Labour MPs were telling me that it was now their party’s position to support our English baccalaureate.

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rose

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Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me which of these policies he supports or opposes.

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The one thing that I can tell the Secretary of State is that 1,700 students in Newcastle-under-Lyme will be affected by the withdrawal of EMA. This is his policy, so can he tell the House how many students in Surrey Heath will be affected?

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Overall, 45% of students are eligible for EMA. The proportion is smaller in Surrey Heath than in Newcastle-under-Lyme, but of course the number of students who will receive enhanced support depends on the new improved provision that we hope to bring in.

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Ten youngsters from City and Islington college have come to Westminster to listen to this debate on EMA and they would very much like to have 10 minutes with the Secretary of State. I warn him that they are articulate, clever and very persuasive—but may I ask him to give them 10 minutes this afternoon?

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If the hon. Lady will join us, I would be delighted to talk to them at any time. Perhaps I should visit their college so that rather more than 10 of them can have a word with me.

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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No, thank you. It would be a pleasure to spend time with the hon. Lady and her constituents. I know how many of them in London schools are passionately committed to greater equality.

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rose—

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I will give way to the right hon. Lady and then I will try to make some progress.

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The Secretary of State has said time and time again that he supports breaking down the barriers and that he supports aspiration. Is he aware that Salford had the lowest staying-on rate in the whole of Britain before the introduction of EMA, but within months of its introduction the number of young people staying on at 16, not just to go to university but to get the vocational qualifications they need to have the chance of a decent future, increased by 10%? I am at a loss to know why he thinks that abolishing EMA will give young people in Salford the same opportunities as they have had for the past few years. I cannot believe that the Secretary of State is setting out on a deliberate path to limit the aspiration and social mobility of young people in Salford.

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The right hon. Lady knows that I am a fan of her and her policies. [Interruption.] It is a pity that more of them are not adopted by the Labour party now. However, she will also be aware that a number of things have helped to improve the staying-on rate and ensured that children have more opportunities. Central to that is ensuring that the right offer is in place in terms of the nature of qualifications, and that we improve both vocational and academic learning, as well as teacher quality. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) said, policies to improve teacher quality were not mentioned in the speech made by the right hon. Member for Leigh, which lasted for nearly an hour. He did not make it clear, at any point, whether he backed or opposed our investment in expanding Teach First.

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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Not yet. That was a choice and it costs, so does the right hon. Gentleman support it? We do not know. Does he back our expansion of Future Leaders? That is an investment, it costs, and we chose. Does he back it? Our expansion in the number of national and local leaders of education costs, and we invested, so does he back it or oppose it? On all those policies, we hear silence. On policies to tackle underperformance, we are extending academy freedoms to 400 new schools. Does he support that extension of opportunity? Does he support, or would he reverse, our policies to get stronger schools to help weaker schools? Does he support, or would he reverse, our policy on getting the schools commissioner back in place to turn failing schools around? Those are all policies being introduced by this coalition Government to extend social mobility and opportunity, but on every one the right hon. Gentleman is silent. He has only one policy: to spend money that we do not have.

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The right hon. Gentleman visited Westminster academy, in my constituency, which was established by the previous Government and which introduced and piloted Teach First. Some 80% of sixth-formers at that school receive EMA, but how many will receive a version of EMA when he withdraws 90% of it?

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I did have the great pleasure of visiting Westminster academy, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so again later this month. I hope that the hon. Lady will join me then, when we will have a seminar on how we can extend school autonomy and freedom in order to drive up standards for the poorest. The number of children who will receive support, which may be enhanced support in some cases, depends precisely on their circumstances. The point was made in research commissioned by the previous Government—not by us—that the current arrangements for EMA are poorly targeted. Some who need more support do not receive it, and some who receive support should not be receiving the amount that they do.

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rose

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I wish to make some progress, because I wish to discuss one big factor that is referred to in our amendment and lies behind our position, but which the right hon. Member for Leigh completely ignored: the elephant in the room is the dire economic situation that we inherited from his Government. I know that various Labour Members—not all, because some of them are reasonable—will say, “EMA, EMA”, as though they were on the benches at Goodison Park—[Interruption.]or anywhere else. But any policy involves a choice, the choice is dependent on the money, and the question is: where is the money coming from?

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rose

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I shall not give way at this stage, because every Labour Member needs to be reminded of the mess that the Labour party landed this country in. I am not going to be put off, deflected or diverted from spelling out these facts. They are the facts that determine every decision that a responsible coalition Government have to take. Seven days after this coalition Government were formed, the International Monetary Fund said that this country had the largest deficit of any G20 country. Why was that? Labour Members say that it was because of the financial crisis, but the truth is that we entered that crisis with the largest structural deficit of any country in the G7. The fault for that debt and deficit lies—

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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No, not yet. The fault for that debt and deficit lies with the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The OECD said that in 2000, thanks to Conservative policies, the UK had one of the best structural fiscal positions in the world, but by 2007 we had one of the worst in the G7. Why were we in such a weak position? It was because Labour had doubled our debt. In 1997 our national debt was £351 billion, whereas in 2010, by the time the Labour Government had left office, it was £893 billion. You cannot spend money that you do not have. The truth was revealed in a statement secreted in a Treasury desk by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne). In a note to the succeeding Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he said “There’s no money.” Not a single member of the Labour party has yet had the courage to accept that truth, and to atone and apologise for it.

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rose

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I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will.

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The Secretary of State is talking about things that have been written down. Does he also accept that this is also about values? Will he therefore clarify for the House whether he wishes to apologise for the remarks, to which my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State referred, that he made in his article in The Times about the attitude to debt and the consequences for people going to university?

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That article in The Times was actually in favour of the previous Government’s efforts to improve access to university. Unlike many Labour Members, I supported what Tony Blair was doing on university tuition fees; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman did. But never mind that, because the truth is that no Labour Member has atoned or apologised for the huge economic mess in which we have been landed. This is appropriate, because the motion stands in the name of the right hon. Member for Leigh, and he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when the ship was steered towards the rocks, so he cannot point the finger at anyone else—

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Will the Secretary of State give way?

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Not yet. Between June 2007 and January 2008 Northern Rock collapsed, the international banking crisis began and the global recession started. All of that happened while the right hon. Gentleman was at the Treasury.

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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Not yet. That may just be coincidence, but what was deliberate was that instead of getting control of public expenditure—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) does not like being reminded of what happened under her Government and on her watch, but as long as I have breath in my body I will remind the people of this country of the devastating mess that the Labour party made of the economy. It is rank hypocrisy—

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rose

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Sit down. It is rank hypocrisy—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman voted for it; we all know the role he played.

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Order. The Secretary of State is getting very excited. Members are trying to intervene, but I will decide when they have stood on their feet too long. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would like to carry on putting his points across to the Chamber.

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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Yes, I am passionate about this. Why should young people be saddled with the economic mess left by that lot? That lot then come back here to say that we are taking opportunity away, knocking the ladder away and increasing youth unemployment, but who created this mess? It was the guilty men and women on the Opposition Front Bench. When the right hon. Member for Leigh was Chief Secretary to the Treasury—

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Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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No.

When the right hon. Gentleman was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in the first three months—we should remember that the economy was growing at the time—he borrowed an additional £7 billion, and in the next three months he borrowed an additional £21 billion. For every hour that he was Chief Secretary, our debt rose by £5 million—and as I said, the economy was growing at that time. Perhaps he will now take the opportunity to defend his impressive stewardship of this nation’s finances during those seven magical months.

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I was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who produced the spending review that was described by the Prime Minister as “tough” in 2007. If the right hon. Gentleman is so clear about all those “facts” that he is setting out for the House, why did he promise in March 2010 to keep the education maintenance allowance?