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Westminster Hall

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 February 2011

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

School Governance

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

It is a pleasure to introduce a debate, which I believe is timely, on school governance. School administration faces radical reform. More schools are becoming academies, maintained schools face the prospect of changes in local authority control and free schools are on the agenda. In my opinion, the role of governors and governing bodies has never been more important. Apart from reforms resulting from changes made by successive Governments over the past 30 years, the system has not really changed for many more years than that.

The current system can best be described as committee-based. It involves volunteers coming together at various times during the school year. Gatherings of the full governing body, which is normally about 20 people, are often less well attended, and the committee structure is designed around the various disciplines that school leadership teams feel should be addressed.

I am happy to say that the model is not prescriptive. Each school has the freedom to set its own committee structure. For example, Ridgeway school at Wroughton in my constituency, where I served as governor for four years until the end of 2009, had what can best be described as a typical committee structure. We had a committee to deal with the curriculum, a committee to deal with student matters and a committee to deal with finance and premises—the traditional division of work. However, despite the excellent work done by school governors, despite the fact that more than 300,000 admirable volunteers serve as school governors, and despite what they do to support head teachers, staff and the wider community, I believe that more can be done to improve the effectiveness of their work.

I am not the only one to say that. Head teachers and governors whom I know and respect, along with national organisations, are making similar representations to the Government. I am delighted that, under the White Paper process, the Government are committed to reviewing the efficiency of governing bodies and to working with organisations and schools to improve things. I welcome that, and today’s debate gives the Minister the opportunity to put some more flesh on the bones of that valuable commitment.

I say that the debate is timely because, under the previous Government, and despite a promising start, two years were lost during which there was much debate and discussion about the role of governing bodies. The former schools Minister, now Lord Knight, started that valuable work in 2008, but it was not until the eve of the general election that a report was published. I welcomed that report; it contained much that was positive, and I am sure that the Government will bear it very much in mind when building upon it.

I pay tribute to the work of governors, and particularly to the chairs of governing bodies. They are entrusted with huge responsibility, and it is all done voluntarily. With good practice, they work closely with head teachers and senior leadership teams. They are regularly in and out of their schools, and they help set the school strategy. However, like it or not, I increasingly feel that governing bodies have split into two tiers. The inner tier of governors has the time and wherewithal to become involved in the strategic management of the school; the outer tier does much of the monitoring work: going to the school, meeting the teachers, getting to know the link subjects and following things up excellently, but I believe that we now have a spilt between those two roles.

Those two roles are the essential tasks of a governing body. They help set the strategy, aims and objectives, policies and outcomes of a school, and they monitor and evaluate progress in achieving those things. I am not talking about the crossover between operational work and strategy. I readily accept that governors do not and cannot have a role in the day-to-day management of the school. That would trespass on the province of the professionals employed to do that job—I am sure that the professionals would echo that. However, if the role of governors is to become more pivotal, more work has to be done to focus their energy, talent and time on the two tasks that I have set out.

Time is a valuable commodity. It is given freely by governors. I hate to think of them spending their time at long and unproductive meetings, feeling that nothing much has been achieved. I do not say that that is universally the case, but I would be telling an untruth if I said that there were not times during my service as a governor in various schools when I came away from rather long meetings feeling frustrated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. Between us, we represent the two halves of Swindon, so I am sure that we must often have spoken to the same people. Indeed, one governor to whom I have spoken supports what my hon. Friend says. I sum it up by saying that they are money-rich but time-poor in middle England. That is one of the biggest challenges, given that we presume that some schools would be awash with potential school governors. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has heard that from other governors.

My hon. Friend is right to mention middle England. Like me, he represents a seat with a wide spectrum of social indices. We have schools in leafy suburbs, schools in challenging areas and schools with a large percentage of black and minority ethnics. Time is a precious commodity wherever one lives, but energy is even more precious. It is incumbent on policy makers to lead the debate when it comes to focusing the valuable talents and energies of our school governors.

I mentioned earlier the frustrations that I felt about long and unproductive meetings, but those frustrations are often shared by head teachers. They spend a lot of time having to prepare long documents that are then read out to the governors. With the best will in the world, head teachers do not always have the time to do the important early pre-meeting circulation that can improve accountability. It is rather like a half-baked cake; it has good content, but it has not set in a way that makes it digestible. I am sorry to say that that experience is repeated throughout the country.

I do not criticise the entire system, nor do I criticise volunteering. I am entirely in favour of the system, but we must maintain the important principle at its heart. With a little adjustment here and there, and a little imagination, we could get it right. We should fit the system around the talents of the governors rather than trying to fit the governors into a rather tired and stale system. That is the essential point that I wish to make today.

I am fascinated by the idea of the half-baked cake, and where we are going with particular parts of it. May I raise the matter of special educational needs? My hon. Friend knows that I have experience in that field, and I am curious to know his view on it, and the interaction between what the headmaster and the governors are doing, on an ongoing basis.

My hon. Friend has a long history as a lawyer in dealing with SEN tribunal cases. He will know that my last role in my last school was to be the SEN link governor. Therein lies the essence of the dilemma often faced by governors. I was working with a dedicated and talented SENCO—a special educational needs co-ordinator—with years of experience. She would come to me with issues that sometimes strayed into operational areas. As the SEN link governor in a mainstream school, I felt that I had a duty to raise her concerns and to ensure that the issues of SEN and of those students who had statements or who were on a school action plan or school action plus were put centre stage of key strategic decisions.

One of the issues facing us was that the SENCO was not part of the senior leadership team. There was a champion for special needs—an assistant deputy head teacher who was a talented and able person—but it would have improved things if the SENCO had been part of the senior leadership team. That ties in with some of the suggestions made by the National Governors Association, which takes the view that there is no need for a SEN link governor because that work falls under operational matters. I hesitated when I read those observations, because making such a move is all very well, but unless the SENCO is at the heart of the leadership team, a link governor is necessary to represent the interests of not just the special needs staff, but the children with special needs and their parents.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for his comments. It is important that we get down to detail when we consider that sometimes troubling division between setting strategy and operational matters. The same can be said about looked-after children. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who sadly cannot be with us today, is campaigning assiduously to ensure that the needs of looked-after children in mainstream schools are properly represented. He is championing the cause for a link governor for those children. I make exactly the same observation as I have with SEN. The matter can be dealt with if there is proper representation for looked-after children in the senior leadership team, with the deputy head teacher ensuring that their voice is heard and that their interests are taken into account.

I have talked about autonomy and the gradual decline in the role of local authorities, which places quite a significant role on governors. Many schools in my local area are considering academy status. Some have formally applied for it and others are considering it. Some schools are thinking about federation, which is a huge opportunity to enhance the strategic approach taken by the governing bodies. Moreover, it is an opportunity to enhance that division of work between strategy and monitoring.

With devolution of power to schools goes devolution of power within schools. That means that learning departments—whether English, maths or modern foreign languages—will have link governors to liaise with governors whose strategic role is to monitor the progress that each department is making. Many schools, including my own governing body, have such a system in place, but whether it is working as well as it could is another matter. If we accept the role of volunteers, we have to acknowledge that volunteers’ time will depend on the nature of their other commitments. That is why it is vital that we understand the principle of matching the talent to the available roles.

Some governors have particular expertise in procedures to do with exclusions and complaints, particularly those made by parents. An increasingly important part of the role of governors is dealing with complaints. The Government are doing all they can to simplify and rationalise the exclusion system. I know that they quite rightly view exclusions as a last resort. It is the last option for a head teacher, who will use it as their ultimate sanction when dealing with a particular issue in the school, and that is the right approach. However, it means that more emphasis will be placed on pre-exclusion work, and the role of governors in that regard will become more and more important.

In respect of exclusions, does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that we will be doing less work on a long-term basis on exclusion procedures because they will be simplified as we move forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was putting it in a slightly more roundabout way. Although there will be less work on formal exclusion procedures, there will be a growth in other types of intervention, most notably in parental complaints. I know that every governing body will have a policy on complaints, but they must be assiduous in ensuring that those policies are comprehensive and understandable to the parents themselves.

I have used that example of special work as a way of engaging people in the community who have a talent, a training or an understanding of such principles but who may not have the time to commit to regular committee meetings. Although I do not want to see visitors coming into the school with no knowledge of the environment, people with specialist knowledge have an important role to play. If they get the training to deal with specific procedures, they can help out schools with particular challenges. One example is the big issue of finance that faces school governing bodies and head teachers. There is no doubt that the most onerous part of the duties of academies, free schools and maintained schools will be the maintenance of their budgets. It is already a big challenge for many schools. Some schools are getting it right; others are finding it more difficult. I am not casting aspersions on individual schools; I am simply stating a reality. Having spoken to many teachers and head teachers over the years, it is my understanding that they are always receptive and open to the sort of input that people with specialist financial training can provide. Although the Government are doing all they can to simplify financial structures, make financial information easier to understand and remove some of the labyrinthine documents that I have had to view over recent years in the context of SEN funding, I can see a key role for people with financial expertise in not just the strategic running of a school but in assisting head teachers and finance officers with the management of budgets.

Talking to school governors in my North Swindon constituency, I have found that many are attracted to the role because they are keen to get involved in operational issues, which they obviously cannot do. As governors who are either interested in or have the necessary skills to deal with the finance side are in chronically short supply, they often get put on to those committees and that drives them away. One of the biggest challenges is attracting people with the right skills, not necessarily parents, to come in and take that very important role in schools.

My hon. Friend has hit on a central issue in the debate on school governance—the balance between the need to have skills and the need to be representative of the wider community. The two are not mutually exclusive. Imaginative governing bodies—there are plenty out there—are striking that balance at the moment. Professionally skilled people who live in the local community, perhaps trained accountants, lawyers or doctors, can become partnership governors—if it is a foundation school—community governors or a representative of their local authority. We then balance them out with the parent governors, who play an important part in governing bodies. Indeed, some play a huge role in running their schools, which is welcome, but more can be done to engage the wider parental community. Loads of parents are out there who, because of their work and family commitments, do not have that precious commodity of time. However, if they were on a database of supporters, or friends, of the school, they would, I am sure, give what time they had on specific projects, such as enhancing the appearance of the school. They can be given something to match their own talents to enhance the life of the school. What better way of cementing the role of the school in the community than creating this wider support base?

Of course, with that support base comes the obvious imperative, which I know sensible governing bodies are addressing, of working with parent teacher associations and organisations that exist alongside them to help raise funds for various school projects. There needs to be a lot more constructive thought about how we involve the wider community in our schools. With the end of the centralised role of local authorities, that imperative for schools to look outwards as well as inwards has never been more important.

It is said that every governing body is only as good as its clerk. Again, all of us in this room and others elsewhere will have known some experienced and hard-working governing body clerks. We must not forget those clerks in this process. If there is to be the type of change that I envisage, they will need support, training and help to tackle what might become an increasing burden of work for them. The chair of the governing body should never be in a position where he or she is left, if you like, to do it alone. Succession management is a vital part of a functioning and effective governing body, and again more work needs to be done, if not to formalise best practice then to encourage it among governing bodies that might have had a chair for some considerable period and therefore need that change to continue in a successful vein.

The key points that I want to reiterate before retaking my seat are: respecting the difference between establishing strategy and operational management, a difference that has always been at the heart of the principle of school governance; understanding the different roles involved in the establishment of strategy and the monitoring of results, and trying to create a system that reflects the talents required for those different roles; and involving the wider community in the work of governing bodies in a way that not only fits in with people’s demanding lifestyles but that can do so much to enhance the life of our schools, and, importantly, encouraging everyone to move away from the idea that one or two meetings a term will cut the ice when it comes to modern school governance. There are so many better and more imaginative ways to do the job, and I am sure that my colleagues in Westminster Hall today will give more examples of that as the debate proceeds, hopefully stimulating an important and useful part of the process of change.

I apologise in advance if I have to leave the debate early, Mr Dobbin. I have been appointed—joy of joys—to a Delegated Legislation Committee that begins at 10.30 am, so I mean no discourtesy if I have to leave the Chamber before that time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this debate. I know that he has a huge interest in school governance, and I agree with much of what he has said. I want to make a couple of observations based on my own time as a school governor. I have been a governor at the same school for the past 10 years, and before that I served on the governing bodies of two secondary schools. I serve as a local education authority governor in a school that I attended as a child and that is in the area where I was a councillor. Consequently, I felt that my role as a LEA governor was to be a link between the community and the school.

I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments about the work that governors and governing bodies do in general. Very often, governing bodies are full of dedicated individuals who have the best interests of the school and their wider community at heart. As we change the education system in this country, however, the time has come to question whether we are necessarily doing things correctly. I have a couple of observations about some of the flaws in how governing bodies work at the moment.

My hon. Friend has discussed schools accessing the wider community, members of which might have particular skills in finance, law and such like. However, that is not a scenario for all school catchment areas, particularly if the school is in a deprived area, where some of those skills might not be available—it is sometimes a challenge to attract people to be governors in such schools.

One way of tackling that problem, which my hon. Friend has touched on, is to set up a federation of schools, whether it involves a better performing school pooling and federating with a poorer performing school, or whether it involves a cluster of schools pooling and federating, such as a secondary school and its feeder primary schools. I say that because if there is a gentle criticism to be made of governing bodies—I make it very gently, because nobody here wants to attack or insult the work of people who are giving their time for free—it is that sometimes the governing body sees its role as being to support the head teacher in the decisions that they make. Often, governing bodies lack the robust challenge and scrutiny role that they are actually there to fulfil, and I have seen that myself as a governor. Frankly, that sometimes happens because governing bodies are full of educationists. I say that as a former teacher who still serves as a school governor, but I have sat on governing bodies where the people who have fulfilled the parental governors’ roles might well be parents of children at the school, but very often they also work in the LEA or are teachers themselves. The question whether we get the wide representation on governing bodies that we desire is sometimes open to debate.

When I was a councillor in Hull, one thing that my local authority looked at was using the children’s trust model as a way of changing the governance arrangements within the city. The idea was to bring together the primary schools and possibly one or two secondary schools through the children’s trust, to try to get some of the more strategic thinking that has to be done within schools fed through that process. I supported that model, and I hope that we can build on it. Indeed, it is a model that becomes more important as we move towards the academy structure and increasing numbers of free schools.

The situation has changed in schools. At one time, head teachers saw themselves as looking after their particular parish, as it were—it was almost as if their responsibilities stopped outside the school gates and, perhaps quite reasonably, they focused on what went on within their own schools. However, that has changed, and secondary schools are much better at engaging with their feeder primary schools, and primary schools are much better at working with one another. There are initiatives that have helped that process along the way. One of those is school sports partnerships, which have brought together schools that would previously not have communicated with each other. Perhaps it is time to consider whether the current structure works and whether we should put a greater emphasis on schools’ governing bodies to get their schools either to federate or to work more collaboratively with other schools in their area, so that we can introduce strategic thinking into the system and, perhaps, a more robust way of challenging of things.

I am making only a mild criticism of governing bodies, because, as I have already said, people who serve as governors tend to be incredibly hard-working, and I would not wish to besmirch them in any way. Nevertheless, we must accept that they do not necessarily always challenge things robustly. It can be hard to challenge things. If a motivated parent becomes a parent governor, their reason for doing so is often that they want to support the school, and it is a natural conclusion that supporting the school involves supporting the head teacher in the decisions that they take.

Another criticism concerns the links between the LEA and governing bodies. LEA governors often work in the LEA or as teachers themselves, and they sometimes serve as community governors or parent governors. However, governing bodies can sometimes become a little too LEA-centric. I have sat at many governing body meetings where we considered a paper from the LEA that included a recommendation. In such cases, people around the table often conclude that, because the recommendation has come from the LEA, they should, of course, approve it. Their reasoning is, “Why would the LEA suggest it if it was anything other than in the interests of the school?” That process is sometimes reinforced by clerking services being brought in from the LEA, which further builds the link between the governing body and the LEA. In one sense, that link is important, but there needs to be a clear separation of power.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon has touched very eloquently—much better than I could have done—on the roles that particular governors play. Those roles have changed in my time as a governor, and more governors seem to engage with the school. When I was a local councillor and a school governor at the same time, I always saw my role as providing a community link, but other governors were determined to get involved in the school and spend some time in it. For example, if they were the foundation link governor, they spent some time with the foundation stage teachers, or if they were the literacy governor they spent some time talking to the literacy co-ordinator. That situation has improved, but it is still open to debate whether it has improved scrutiny.

My hon. Friend is giving a good overview of the different assets provided by particular governors. Does he see an ongoing role for a pastoral support programme, and would that help us to go forward? It used to be in the programme, but it is not currently included.

That is absolutely vital. When we had a debate on disadvantaged children, I pointed out that in some ways pastoral care has been sidelined in recent years. Pastoral care is more important than ever, particularly where behaviour is concerned, and we all agree that we want to reduce the amount of exclusion.

I am straying a little from the topic, but I point out to the Minister that one of the biggest sadnesses of the changes in recent years is that classroom teachers, particularly in secondary schools, have often had their pastoral roles taken away and handed to other people in the school—albeit those people are often very capable—including learning mentors and teaching assistants. I have always believed that classroom teachers are not just educators but part-time social workers, occasionally parents and sometimes, depending on the class, just childminders. We have a multiplicity of roles as classroom teachers, and we have been losing our role in pastoral care. Hopefully, the Minister has heard my pleas on that issue.

I have identified some of the problems that I see at the moment, which I am good at, but I am not quite so good at identifying the solutions, which is why I do not hold ministerial office—that is a job for Ministers. The time has come, however, to question whether school governance arrangements work as they should, and if I had a solution, it would be, as I have said, to encourage federation.

My hon. Friend has made an exceptionally thoughtful contribution based on his experience in the teaching environment. Does he see federating schools as adding to governors’ time commitments, or will that approach reduce them because the work load is spread out?

That is a difficult question. In some respects, federating would lessen the burden, because some people who join governing bodies want to take on that strategic role regarding the direction of the school but do not necessarily want to be engaged in the nitty-gritty. I have sat on governing bodies where it has been about who can outdo the others and who has been in the school the most, but that does not mean that that person has necessarily been the most effective governor. There is a role for both kinds of governor, which might be achieved through federation. You can have governors who give their expertise to the strategic direction of education in a particular area, and you can have others who play the community role or a much more involved role in a particular school. That is something that we need to look at.

I will not speak for much longer, because I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute. I associate myself with many of the thoughtful comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon, who has a great deal of experience in this area. I am sorry that I will not be here to listen to the Minister, but I will, of course, read his speech in Hansard tomorrow.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members when making interventions not to use “you” to refer to other Members. Please use “hon. Friend” or “hon. Member”.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) has secured this debate, and that I am able to add to it.

I welcome the Government’s plans to allow and encourage more schools to become independent of local authorities, but it has to be acknowledged that the role of governing bodies will therefore become more pivotal in the school system. With the increased freedom, there need to be clear guidelines, a coherent line of accountability and, should it be necessary, clear sanctions that can be imposed. Such clarity will add to the smooth running of a school, and to decisive action should there be a dispute.

I have personal knowledge of this matter, and am here today not just to seek clarity from the Minister but to share experiences—experiences that we could all learn from and which could shape future school governance policy and accountability. I am proud to boast of exceptional schools and teachers right across the board in my constituency, and of a strong tradition of grammar schools, faith schools and specialist colleges. I was, therefore, greatly dismayed when a dispute began between the governors and head teacher at Calday Grange grammar, one of the best schools on the Wirral, with more than 360 years’ experience and history. Over a year later, the matter is still not resolved. The school is without a permanent head teacher, which a school needs; parents and pupils are unhappy—rightly so—as well as confused by the whole affair; loyalties are split; and Ofsted has downgraded the school’s performance from outstanding to good. There have been parent demonstrations, newspaper coverage and a Facebook campaign to try to resolve the festering situation. In fact, in the local Wirral newspaper only yesterday there was yet another article on the ongoing dispute, about a survey that exposed that two thirds of parents quizzed did not believe that the governors were managing the school well.

I have a series of questions for the Minister, which I hope will be of use. What plans do the Government have to ensure that disputes between a head teacher and a board of governors are resolved amicably, quickly and for the benefit of the whole school? In this particular school, the head teacher became ill, creating further complications and a greater impasse. How would the Minister seek to resolve such a situation? When governors and head teachers have disputes, is there not a need for the utmost transparency, including fully informing teachers and parents? As more schools are freed from the direct control of local authorities, do we not require a better balance of powers and responsibilities, and in a dispute should parents perhaps not have the ultimate say? Under what circumstances could a board of governors be dissolved and a new one created? What would be deemed to constitute a fundamental breach of governors’ duties and obligations to a school? When would a school be deemed to be failing, allowing for intervention by the Secretary of State or parents? The meaning of “failing” appears to be vague, especially when dealing with a large and outstanding school, such as Calday Grange grammar, which might take many months to reach that criterion. Perhaps a drop in standards of certain kinds might constitute a failing.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to invite the Minister to the Wirral, to meet the staff and parents of Calday Grange grammar.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for raising this subject for debate. The issue has been thought through well, and it is important in a week when we are trying to reassess education, bring a degree of change and bring things forward in a difficult field.

I know that many hon. Members are school governors; I confess that I have “failed” in that—I think that is the technical term. Some people would regard that as a deficiency in my background, but I regard it as an asset in some respects. I have spent the best part of 15 years attempting to advise school governors and head teachers, and have represented them on a special educational needs tribunal. When things got particularly feisty, I also represented the state and the individuals in a judicial review.

My last client, in spring of last year, was the then Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). I was co-defending with him in an action on this exact point: how school governors’ role is being affected and how people are coming in and saying, “You’re doing this wrong. How are you going to take it forward?” The way forward is vital, and I hope I can give the benefit of some wisdom regarding why changes should be made, how they might be made and what the context is in Hexham.

Hexham has four secondary schools, at Haydon Bridge, Ponteland, Hexham and Prudhoe. The constituency is vast, spanning more than 1,100 square miles. Haydon Bridge has probably the largest catchment area in that part of England; it is the size of the area within the M25, and is a huge superstructure that has to be taken in. It is one of the few secondary schools with a large number of boarders, because many students have too far to come every day. All those schools are struggling in different ways with a lack of investment. They are well supported by their governors and well led, particularly by school governors and head teachers, but attempting to introduce change is a struggle.

I lack experience as a governor, but I hope that my time at the Bar has helped me, as I fought for and against local education authorities, appeared on behalf of people who were suing LEAs and addressed various individual concerns. I could talk for a considerable period about the extent to which I have been involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon—apart from his interesting analogy involving cake-baking, which I particularly enjoyed—asserted that the role and influence of school governors will take on new significance in the running of our schools. As we speak, heads and teachers are using academy or federation status to take their schools forward by reducing class sizes, improving the take-up of modern languages, targeting resources on the poorest and pioneering new disciplinary techniques. Surely it is now governors’ responsibility to help newly liberated heads use their responsibilities and freedoms to best effect.

I do not want to be overly party political, but I have spent more than 13 years watching changes to school freedoms and responsibilities come before the courts to be decided. The legacy is a national curriculum—designed by ideologues and policed to a certain extent by bureaucrats—that has demoralised and demotivated our teachers and downplayed the vital role of knowledge. I applaud entirely what the Secretary of State is doing. Radical change was needed. The reforms to schools will put us where we need to be, which is unambiguously on the side of teachers as guardians of the best that has been thought and written, and who introduce each new generation to our precious intellectual heritage.

The head teachers of Hexham are nervous about applying for academy status. They have elected to watch the process during the original year, and perhaps for one more year, but I am hopeful that things will progress in the next couple of years and that they will go down the federation route. They are already integrated to a large extent: an art teacher might teach in one school and then go to another school for two days. They have opportunities. They are excited about the possibility of long-term change, but without changes to buildings as well, they will struggle.

This is not the time to discuss Building Schools for the Future, but the Secretary of State discovered the state of schools in Northumberland recently when he visited the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). One school was all but falling down. Two schools in my constituency, Prudhoe and Queen Elizabeth high school, are struggling. Those are long-term problems that the Secretary of State—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) put it beautifully—will have to deal with as we go ahead.

Turning back to school governance, governors’ main responsibilities are providing a strategic view, acting as a critical friend and ensuring accountability. I see those as interwoven in all their activities. I was pleased to hear, when I asked about the pastoral support programme, that someone with a lot more experience of being a governor than me sees it as something that used to exist in the system, but was phased out. We must do the best that we can. Most governors have a direct interest in a school’s success. Almost all are the type of person who is forced to get involved, and most either attended the school themselves or have children who attend it.

However, it is important during the reform process that we examine the model for school governance. We must consider how the governors’ role might change as responsibility and power are decentralised from Whitehall and given to head teachers. It is a seminal change to take the large amount of power now in Whitehall and give it back to individual teachers. Teachers are excited. The ones I speak to are excited about the opportunity to take greater control.

The role of governors in holding heads to account will also take on a whole new meaning and level of responsibility. The process of examining their role is made easier by the fact that most are eager to know how they can be better at what they do. If the role of governor is to become much more crucial to a school’s success, as I think it is, it is wise to consider who governors are and how schools attract them to the position. I endorse a huge amount of what my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said about taking governors on board and making ongoing use of them.

We cannot have top-quality schools without top-quality teachers, but that also requires top-quality school governors. We must continue to try to attract the best people to those roles. Must a governor always have attended the school in question, or have a child there? I do not consider that necessary, although it helps tremendously; sometimes, outside people are a good thing.

In these times, many people who might be interested in becoming more involved in the running of schools are put off by assumptions about why they want to. We must also be careful about whom we prevent from going into schools. There are ways to restrict governors’ ability to get involved or commit to the extent to which they would like. School governors will often be new, and we will need the most competent individuals.

I finish by mentioning a couple of points relating to my specialism. Special educational needs provision has been under review for a considerable time. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and other Members know what they are talking about when it comes to such issues; there are about five who know the issue well. We must retain SEN provision, but we can reform it. The amount of time devoted to SEN can be improved and be more focused. When the Minister winds up, I urge him to consider that SEN should be very much at the top of his agenda. If we fail the children who go into SEN, they will not be in as good a position as they could have been. The reality, therefore, is that the big society has a huge role to play in schools—or, should I say, that schools have the potential to play a huge role in the big society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing an important debate. I recall how passionate and knowledgeable he was about special educational needs during our deliberations on the Academies Bill on the Floor of the House last summer. Indeed, he mentioned during that debate—as he has today—the role of the governing body in securing suitable provision. He has demonstrated that passion and knowledge again this morning and I thank him for it.

I also pay tribute to the high quality contributions from the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who drew upon his considerable knowledge of teaching and governance, and the hon. Members for Wirral West (Esther McVey) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman).

This has been a high quality debate and it gives us the opportunity to do several things. First, it enables us to thank governors throughout the country for their work in our education system. Secondly, I would like to build on some of the comments that have been made and ask the Minister with responsibility for schools about his vision for governors, governance and governing bodies as his Department radically alters education policy in our country.

As the hon. Member for South Swindon has said, there are more than 300,000 school governors at work today. Governors are one of the largest groups of volunteers and one of the best examples of civic engagement in this country. This quiet army of hundreds of thousands of people play an unheralded, and often unsung, but nevertheless critical, role in providing the best possible environment for children to grow and learn. At their best, governing bodies set the ethos and strategic direction of a school, appoint a great head teacher and a high calibre senior management team to drive through that strategy and provide support, and challenge and scrutinise the leadership team, holding it to account on behalf of parents and the local community. They have a big responsibility in our education system.

As we have heard, there is a clear relationship between governance and the performance of a school. Good governance improves the quality of leadership and management in schools, as well as that of teaching and pupils’ achievements. Conversely, where there is poor or unsatisfactory governance, and where the relationship between the governing body and the head teacher has broken down—as the hon. Member for Wirral West expressed so vividly—pupil potential goes unfulfilled. Given the importance, therefore, that school governance plays in educational success, I am surprised that this Government have said so little about it.

In an education White Paper of nearly 100 pages, I counted only four small paragraphs on school governors, and one highlighted how the governing body could decide on the time of the school day. The publication of the White Paper was accompanied by a document, “The Case for Change”, which provided a rationale for education reform, but did not mention the role of the governing body.

The recently published Education Bill has 79 clauses and 17 schedules, but I could find only two small clauses on the role of the governing body. Given the vital role that school governors play, I hope that the Minister will give a definitive reassurance that professional, passionate and high quality governors are an essential and valued part of our school system. I also hope that he will give the Chamber an explanation of why, in the first few months of the new Government, governors and school governance have been largely overlooked or ignored by his Department. I have several questions about specific parts of governance and the role that governors and governing bodies can play, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some answers.

On size, when the Government mention governing bodies, they invariably state that a smaller governing body is more effective. The White Paper notes:

“Smaller governing bodies with the right skills are able to be more decisive, supporting the head teacher and championing high standards.”

That may well be the case, but the Government do not provide any evidence to substantiate that assertion. Why would smaller governing bodies necessarily be better? Where is the evidence? How does the Minister reconcile that view with last year’s advice from the ministerial working group on school governance—I think that the hon. Member for South Swindon cited this—that 14 members can be the optimum size of a governing body? Surely the effectiveness of a governing body is more complex than sheer size, and takes into account matters such as turnover of governors, blend of skills, participation and work load. If the Government’s direction of travel is to reduce the size of governing bodies, what will be done to retain corporate memory and expertise? It would be much more difficult to do that if a governing body with five members, as opposed to one with 15, lost a member.

The hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned the importance of retaining and obtaining skills such as finance, personnel and so on. How will a school with a much smaller governing body be able to obtain all that much-needed expertise, which includes marketing and strategic planning? I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response.

The vehicle to reduce the size of governing bodies is the Education Bill, which was published last week and is due to have its Second Reading next week. I imagine that the Minister and I will have lots of discussions about many issues in the Bill, but I should like to draw his attention at this stage to one clause in particular. Clause 37 refers to the constitution of governing bodies in maintained schools in England, and it will amend section 19 of the Education Act 2002. This change ensures that governing bodies will consist predominantly of parent governors and the head teacher of the school.

I have a number of questions about that. First, how is this approach reconciled with the sentiments expressed by the White Paper? It notes:

“Many of the most successful schools have smaller governing bodies”—

we have already established that that is what the Government think—

“with individuals drawn from a wide range of people rooted in the community, such as parents, businesses, local government and the voluntary sector.”

That point was expressed eloquently by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole, who has left to attend a Delegated Legislation Committee. What precisely is the clause designed to do to help encourage a diverse range of potential governors to come forward? Given that the ministerial working group on school governance concluded that governing bodies already have the flexibility to determine the best size for their school and for them, what does the clause actually do? What does it propose that the 2002 Act prevents?

The White Paper also states that from early 2012 the Government will allow all schools to adopt a flexible model of school governance, while ensuring that governing bodies have a minimum of two parent governors. Will the Minister further outline how he anticipates that to be undertaken? How will governing bodies do it? What will be the role of the head teacher? Will he or she outline to the governing body what they believe will be required, or will such a role be retained by the governing body? How will the process work?

Recruitment and retention are important and have already been touched upon. I think that the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole has already mentioned this, but some 11% of governor posts are vacant, and they are, disproportionately, in disadvantaged or inner-city areas. We have heard that schools with more vacancies on the governing body tend to perform more poorly due to the lack of challenge, scrutiny and support for the school’s leadership team. What proactive steps is the Minister taking to ensure that vacancies on governing bodies, particularly in areas of deprivation, are filled?

The hon. Members for Hexham and for Brigg and Goole mentioned the importance of retaining and attracting good governors to governing bodies. Given the demands of modern life, what are the Government doing to recruit good potential governors? As the Government’s focus on governance moves towards parent governors, does the Minister accept that the problems of recruitment and succession planning will increase because parent governors will inevitably leave after four or five years as their children move through the school? Parent governors might lose interest in being a proactive member of the governing body and leave that body. What does the Minister anticipate will happen about succession planning?

Common barriers to participation in school governance include lack of time, family or work commitments, lack of publicity and awareness of the opportunities for involvement, and a reluctance by some governing bodies to take on a governor who is not previously known to them. Will the Minister let hon. Members know what steps he is taking to remove those barriers as far as possible? Another important point mentioned in today’s debate is that of having a federation of schools. Are the Government actively looking at having a federation of governing bodies, whereby a single governing body can play a strategic role for a number of schools? If the Government agree with that approach, what additional initial support and assistance can they provide to allow that to happen?

That brings me to an important point that creates a bit of a paradox in the Government’s education policy—the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole was good at hinting at this during his comments. Education policy is moving towards a position whereby schools stand alone and are independent of the local authority. The move is arguably—although I would dispute this to some extent—away from Whitehall. I think that the Education Bill will centralise matters between schools and the Secretary of State in a way that we have never seen before. However, how can we reconcile a situation in which schools stand alone with the fact that the previous Labour Government, through the former Department for Children, Schools and Families, moved towards collaboration and partnership, with the local authority helping to provide a strategic overview? The local authorities were not running schools, but they were providing strategic direction in an area. What steps will the Government take to ensure that that collaboration and partnership at a school governance level can be maintained, if not enhanced?

I would also like to ask about training and induction. It is very arduous to become a school governor, particularly a good and effective one. What are the Government doing to ensure that individual governors and collective governing bodies identify any weaknesses and help plug those gaps, either with additional training, additional recruitment to the governing body or focused training? Does the Minister agree with the concept of mandatory training for governing bodies? The hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned the important role of the chair of a governing body. What additional support can be provided to enable the chair to perform his or her duty to the best of his or her abilities? He also mentioned the vital but often overlooked need to have a high calibre, knowledgeable and experienced clerk to the governing body. What steps will the Government take to ensure that that is also very much a key part of school governance?

When I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, I was concerned about the role of information, advice and guidance, and the importance of interaction between schools and the outside community, particularly with business. The governing body can, through the high calibre business men and women who are active on it, provide that good interaction. Particularly with regards to information, advice and guidance, governors can come into a school and provide real life stories based upon their personal experiences of inspiration and motivation. They can tell students how hard work can help people succeed and achieve their ambition. Given the changes to the information, advice and guidance provision, what further steps can the Minister take to ensure that that interaction between schools, the governing body and outside business works effectively?

Finally, I shall talk about the role of the head teacher in the governing body. May I press the Minister on whether he believes that automatic inclusion of the head on the governing body as a full member can constitute a conflict of interest? I think that everyone would agree that heads should attend governing body meetings and have a right to speak, be challenged and scrutinise. However, does that important role of supporting the head teacher while at the same time challenging mean that good governance should lead us to make the head a non-voting member who does not participate in decision making? In a similar vein, will the Minister confirm that, as indicated by his White Paper and the provisions of the Education Bill, the Government do not necessary agree with the concept of staff governors?

In the past few months, the Government have spoken a lot about their vision for education and how teachers, head teachers, parents and others can play their part in fulfilling student potential and ambition. The fact that they have not highlighted the essential role of the governor is a glaring omission and a further example of weakness in their education policy. However, given the high calibre of today’s debate, I hope that the Minister will rectify that now and highlight more fully than he has in the past how governors and school governance can play an essential role in the education system of our country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this important debate on school governance. I know that the subject is close to his heart because he served as a school governor for four years prior to his election to the House. I join the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) in pointing out the high quality of the debate and of the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Wirral West (Esther McVey).

There are some 300,000 school governors, which makes them one of the largest volunteer forces in the country. School governors work in their spare time to promote school improvement and to support head teachers and teachers in their work. They are an important part of the big society agenda and play a vital civic role. In the words of my hon. Friends the Members for South Swindon and for Wirral West, they play a pivotal role in our schools system. Every one of the 300,000 school governors deserves our thanks for their work and time and, more importantly, for taking on such important responsibilities. We all know how difficult it is to find people locally to take on such responsibilities. It is easy to get volunteers, but there is often a poor show of hands when it comes to taking on responsibilities. We owe a huge debt of thanks to those who are prepared to take on such a role.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole is right to question whether we are doing things in the right way. Our White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Hartlepool, was published in November and sets out the coalition Government’s intention to increase freedom and autonomy for schools and to remove unnecessary duties and burdens. It also states that we should allow schools to choose for themselves how best to develop, whether by acquiring academy status, by becoming multi-school trusts and federations—again, those were referred to by the hon. Gentleman—or by continued development as a maintained school. All that is to be underpinned by clear accountability and strong and effective governance.

As we work through our programme of reform, those freedoms need to be extended to school governors, so that they are given the flexibilities, support and recognition they deserve. We know that the quality of school governance has a significant impact on how well schools perform. Good governance and leadership at school level are key drivers in achieving better educational outcomes. Academies provide examples of smaller, high-powered governing bodies that have demonstrated rapid improvements in standards. The arrangements for academy governance allow for greater flexibility in the number and category of governors than in maintained schools, while ensuring that essential groups, such as parents, are always represented. They are charities, so it would not be appropriate or right for us to prescribe the exact composition and size of their governing body. That flexibility is a popular concept and there are many differing governance arrangements in converting schools. They are now able to constitute their governing body to suit their school and local needs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon will recall, maintained school governing bodies, which include foundation schools, are constituted under the stakeholder model. That model prescribes representation from groups with an interest in the school: for example, parents, staff—including the head teacher—the community, the local authority and the foundation or trust, where schools have one. The model goes on to prescribe the representation from each group.

We want to make it easier for schools to adopt governance models that work for them and which clearly hold the school to account. That is why the Education Bill, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education last Wednesday, includes provision to free up the constitution of maintained school governing bodies. We are legislating to provide that governing bodies will mirror the academies model and be required to have at least two elected parent governors and the head teacher, unless the head teacher chooses not to take up his position as a governor. Then, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool mentioned, they should be able to attend the governing body as the head teacher, but not as a full member of the governing body.

The church or foundation will still be able to appoint the majority of the governing body in voluntary aided and foundation schools. Other governors, such as authority governors, community governors, staff governors, partnership governors and associate members will be appointed at the discretion of the governing body, and in numbers determined by them. Academy governing bodies have built-in safeguards to prevent particular categories of governor from dominating the governing body; for example, staff governors cannot exceed one third of the total membership, and charity law prevents those connected with local authorities from having more than 20% of the membership. We will consider the effect of such restrictions in maintained schools, but we want to move to a less prescriptive model overall.

I apologise to the Minister if he is coming on to this point, but will he respond to an issue raised about the constitution of the governing body? The hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) made important points about how to identify failure in school governance and what will constitute failure. What will be the mechanisms by which a local authority or some other body—perhaps the Secretary of State—can determine change within the governing body?

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to the detailed questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West shortly.

We do not intend to prescribe any particular model, which is the overarching policy direction, as we believe that governing bodies are best placed to determine what will work best for them locally. It is important to point out that the changes will be permissive rather than mandatory, and that there is no intention to force any change on governing bodies. We will therefore encourage governing bodies to recruit more governors on a skills basis and carry out skills audits to inform that task. Those were also the conclusions of the working group on governance referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and the hon. Member for Hartlepool. Its report recommended clear accountability and felt that size was not the key issue for a governing body; a more important issue for the report was the skills of the governing body. It recommended that governing bodies should be free to recruit by relaxing the stakeholder model, which is precisely what the Government are introducing in the Education Bill.

We know that volunteers from a business background bring a valuable range of skills from the workplace to governing bodies, and are more likely to take on important responsibilities such as chairing committees or, indeed, chairing the governing body. To that end, we will continue to support the School Governors’ One-Stop Shop to recruit and place governor volunteers from the business world in schools with vacancies. That has been very successful: by the end of December it had recruited nearly 11,000 governors and placed them on to governing bodies with vacancies. In addition, the Education and Employers Taskforce is working with CEOs of large businesses to develop partnerships between schools, colleges and employers. It encourages senior business leaders to visit schools, and encourages staff with the right skills and experience to become school governors. In fact, I recently joined Sir Terry Leahy in a school in Hertfordshire during the “visit our schools and colleges” week.

Research tells us that where governing bodies are effective, they take a strategic role, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon pointed out, in guiding and supporting the school’s work and challenging further improvement. They should not get drawn into the day-to-day management that is rightly the province of the head teacher and senior leadership team. In the White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, we set out a series of 10 key questions for governors to ask to assist them in setting their schools’ strategic direction and holding them to account, such as, “How are we going to raise standards? Have we got the right staff and the right development and reward arrangements? Do we have a sound financial strategy to get good value for money, and robust procurement and financial systems? Does the curriculum provide for and stretch all pupils?” My hon. Friend is right to say that the committee-based decision-making structure is appropriate for our governing bodies. Governing bodies already have the freedom to bring people with particular expertise on to committees as associate members, and they can commission work from people outside the governing bodies.

My hon. Friend referred to the issue of complaints, on which I want briefly to touch. Parents should be able to send their child to school confident that they are receiving the highest possible standard of education. Any problems should be dealt with by professionals in an appropriate and timely manner. There must be mechanisms in place for parents to express their concerns, secure in the knowledge that they will be dealt with quickly, effectively and fairly by all involved. Since September 2003, all schools have been required to have a complaints procedure, and that procedure has to be published. Generally, schools follow a three-part complaints procedure: investigation of a complaint by a staff member; investigation by the head teacher, or by the chair of the governors if it is about the head teacher; and a meeting of a panel of governors where the complaint has still not been resolved. Governing bodies must act in the interests of the children in their school and must rigorously ensure that those who serve on complaints panels conduct a fair and unprejudiced investigation. Challenge is part of the governor’s role, and a pattern of complaints can inform them of incipient problems in the school’s operation, in the same way that correspondence with an MP can alert us to an impending big political issue concerning how our country is run.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole brought out in his speech, in recent years schools have increasingly chosen to collaborate with other schools to achieve more for children and young people. Partnerships have taken a variety of forms, including local area clusters, as well as more formalised arrangements involving shared governance through federation, shared trusts and shared leadership, with heads taking responsibility for leading more than one school. The benefits of those partnerships are clear in extending the breadth and quality of provision; responding better to pupils’ wider needs; widening the impact of the strongest school leaders, teachers and governors; widening opportunities for collaborative professional development; and delivering greater value for money. There is not a single, best collaborative model; instead, schools can consider a variety of models and adapt them to suit local needs and circumstances.

On that point and my earlier remarks about a move away from partnership and collaboration in the school family towards schools going it alone, how does the Minister reconcile his comments with the provisions in the Education Bill, most notably clauses 30 and 31, where the duty to co-operate with the local authority and the duty to have regard to the children and young people’s plan are abolished?

Legislation is not necessary to require people to co-operate. The best co-operation is engaged in because professionals feel it is the best approach for their school. We need to move away—the Government are moving away—from that tick-box, prescriptive and centralised approach to such issues. We believe that the best partnerships and collaborative arrangements are those that head teachers and governing bodies enter into voluntarily because they know they are in the best interests of their school. We do not want a school to feel bound to find a partner—in a behaviour partnership, for example—simply to fulfil a statutory requirement and to ensure that it has a box ticked when the Ofsted inspection comes.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is always talking about collaboration between professional peers in our school system as a key to school improvement, which is why we are tripling the number of national and local leaders in education. Peer-to-peer mentoring is the key. Professionals working together and spreading best practice is the better way to ensure improvement in our school system, rather than a series of prescriptive statutory requirements for schools and bodies to enter into partnerships with other bodies.

I turn to the general context surrounding the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West raised about Calday Grange grammar school. She asked about resolving disputes between head teachers and the governors. All governing bodies have grievance procedures which they must follow to resolve complaints. She then asked how the situation can be resolved if the head teacher is ill, which is the case in this instance. The governing body is the employer, and it has to follow grievance procedures in cases of challenge over employment law. It needs to allow the head teacher to present his case, but he cannot do that, of course, if he is ill. That does not provide a solution but presents the legal framework around the current position.

My hon. Friend asked whether parents should be kept fully informed about what is happening during a dispute. Unfortunately, that is not always possible due to the need for confidentiality in some disputes. She asked whether parents should be allowed to decide the way forward. The answer to that is no, unfortunately. Parental views are represented on the governing body, but the governing body itself is responsible for the school. Of course, a responsible governing body should take parents’ views into account and expedite the resolution of matters, particularly when they are of enormous concern to the parents.

My hon. Friend asked when a governing body can be removed. There are three circumstances in which that can happen: when Ofsted has put the school in special measures; when Ofsted has found that the school requires significant improvement; or when the local authority has issued a warning notice and the governing body has failed to comply with it, or failed to comply satisfactorily. I know that she is concerned about the issue. Lord Hill of Oareford and I have corresponded with the governing body and the local authority about the matter, and we would be happy to discuss it with her further, if she would find that helpful.

In conclusion, I want to take the opportunity once again to pay tribute to our school governors, who are the unsung heroes and heroines of our education system. We should thank them for their work, and I am pleased to do that. I am sure that the increased freedom and autonomy for governing bodies, allied with our reduction of burdens and bureaucracy, will make a huge difference to their work as they seek to raise standards in schools, and will enable better deployment of their time and expertise.

Sitting suspended.

Maternity Services

I wanted to have today’s debate on maternity services for three reasons. One is the confidential inquiry into intrapartum-related death, conducted by the Perinatal Institute in Birmingham in October 2010. Incidentally, its director is one of my constituents, which, of course, adds to the quality of the report.

Secondly, I vividly remember an article in The Sun during the election campaign in 2010, in which the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) clearly promised 3,000 extra midwives. The third reason is last night’s debate on the Government’s health reforms. The three are unfortunately related.

I will begin with the report. An enormous amount of good work is being done in maternity services and provision, and the Birmingham women’s hospital in my constituency provides excellent care. The west midlands should not feel that it is being singled out. It was simply the first area that took a good, honest look at what is happening and, therefore, has produced figures from which the rest of the country can learn. The west midlands is an area of huge diversity, both in income and ethnic background. Roughly speaking, it has 70,000 deliveries a year, which account for 10% of live births in England and Wales. It also has about 10% of babies who die from intrapartum-related causes—that is, events surrounding labour and child birth.

In 2006, the chief medical officer highlighted the fact that one of his areas of particular concern was intrapartum-related death. In a national report in the 1990s, that was continually highlighted as requiring more attention, but the figures did not show any particular improvement. For that reason, the Perinatal Institute decided to look at that area. We know that in politics to be described as “brave” sometimes means “foolhardy”. However, in this case the institute was brave to look at the figures honestly. It looked at 25 cases that caused concern. The full report is available on the institute’s website. It found that of those 25 cases, in four there was substandard care and different management would have made no difference to the outcome.

As another west midlands MP—the Heart of England trust covers my constituency—I wonder whether the hon. Lady has noticed any problems with care of parents after neonatal death. I have the charity Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society, SANDS, in my constituency—as I expect she has—and it is most concerned about the quality of care for parents following the death of a baby.

I have come across SANDS. The Heart of England trust did some work, which I will consider later, whereby it looked at midwives’ case load and found it to be far higher than required. Incidents are spread across an area and each of us probably sees only one or two cases occasionally. The real problem comes when we look across the city and the west midlands. We should pay tribute to SANDS and its work and to the bereavement nurses it has now put in hospitals. They are in east Birmingham and in my patch. However, that is not good enough.

Coming back to the 25 cases, in four cases of substandard care, different management would not have made a difference. In five cases, it might have made a difference to the outcome, but in 16 cases, different management would reasonably have been expected to make a difference to the outcome. In other words, 84% of the deaths were considered potentially avoidable. The overall conclusion that the report reached looking at the west midlands was that many deaths were avoidable and need to be avoided. That is why we need to discuss this report and decide what to do about that.

This is not a particular west midlands problem; it is just that the west midlands has been the first to take an honest look.

I raised the issue of the Perinatal Institute in Birmingham in a debate I led on maternity and midwifery on 2 May 2007. I spoke to Professor Jason Gadosi before and after that debate. What he said then, nearly four years ago, was precisely what he appears to be saying now: there has been a failure fully to monitor and interrogate what went on and to draw conclusions that might better inform the improved care, and avoid the perinatal mortality levels that still exist.

That leads me to my next point. We have clearly not come up with systems in the NHS that allow us to learn properly from mistakes when things go wrong. I fully accept that we have the NHS Litigation Authority, and that the NHS insures itself. We try to deal with negligence effectively and efficiently. However, there is still a mentality of institutions, when something goes wrong, closing in on themselves. I wonder whether we should look at the way the aviation industry deals with accidents. Fault is not allocated; the facts are looked at, and the real outcome is what to do as a result of the problem. Rather than understanding the errors that have gone further and further, we should consider what is to be done as a result.

Going through newspaper cuttings, I found one over Christmas about Good Hope hospital. There was a very unfortunate incident when a lady who had miscarried was left for four hours in sight of other patients. She complained to the hospital, which simply apologised and said it hoped to do better. Hoping to do better simply has not done us any good, if that experience is anything to go by.

It is not clear to me who has responsibility for this matter. In the current structure we have PCTs and strategic health authorities, where at least theoretically we could allocate responsibility. In the new NHS, who will do that? I will return to that point.

We need national maternity data sets that are much more standardised and allow us to make us comparisons across the country. That is not a question of money. Given that we are told that the NHS is one area that is ring-fenced, there is much we can do within existing provision.

I now come to the promise that the right hon. Member for Witney made during the election campaign. We all know what happens during elections; not keeping election promises is not particularly new. However, let us look at what he said in January 2010. Maternity and childbirth is an immensely emotive subject. It is not an illness; it is one of the most joyful events in life. In the majority of cases, a healthy baby is born and we try to keep the medics out of the process as much as possible. When politicians go into election campaigns and talk about maternity services—particularly when they do so in The Sun—it is a pretty toxic mix. The right hon. Member for Witney went to a maternity unit and said:

“Having a baby might be the most natural thing in the world.”

Fine, I agree with him. He continued:

“Every parent wants…to give birth in a relaxed local setting, where they get the personal attention they need. So, why isn’t that happening? It’s because after a decade of constant reorganisation, Labour are giving us bigger and bigger baby factories where mums can feel neglected and midwives are stretched to breaking point.”

The hon. Lady surely understands that after 13 years, the previous Administration had still not managed to achieve some of its long-term goals and aspirations. She almost indicates that the promises made by the Prime Minister should have been met seven or eight months into a new Administration. Given the state of the public finances, she must acknowledge that it will not be as easy to deliver on those promises as quickly as she—or I—would like.

I am sure the Minister will be grateful for that helpful intervention. However, have we not been told that the NHS is ring-fenced? That is how I understand it. Therefore, the financial argument really does not hold.

I would like to analyse what the Prime Minister said a little more. He went on:

“It doesn’t have to be like this…First, we’re going to create new maternity networks…Second, we are going to make our midwives’ lives a lot easier. They are crucial to making a mum’s experience of birth as good as it can possibly be, but today they are overworked and demoralised. So we will increase the number of midwives by 3,000. This is the maternity care parents want: more local and more personal. And under a Conservative Government, it is what they’ll get.”

As the Prime Minister said, the aspiration should be for more local and more personalised services. However, in my local hospital at Solihull, the full maternity service has unfortunately been downgraded as a fait accompli, and instead of 2,700 births a year, we are led to expect only 300. Does the hon. Lady agree that that hardly offers the choice, localism and personal service that we should seek to achieve anywhere in the country?

I will respond to that point before returning to my favourite subject of the Prime Minister’s promises. The hon. Lady is right: there is always a huge tension between local and more centralised delivery. My first Adjournment debate in this Chamber as a junior Minister was about the closure of the William Courtauld maternity unit in Braintree in Essex. It had about 300 deliveries, and there was always a tension about whether services should be offered there or in Colchester. We need both. However, when campaigning to keep local maternity units, we should note that the Royal College of Nursing looked at changes in maternity care. It stated that, apart from the rise in numbers, there are more older mothers with higher rates of complications, and there is a higher rate of multiple births and more obese women who are less fit for pregnancy. More women survive serious childhood illness and go on to have children, and they need extra care during pregnancy and childbirth. There are also increasing rates of intervention.

Therefore, apart from social and ethnic diversity, some births are becoming increasingly complicated. If the hon. Lady were to go to the Birmingham women’s hospital, where women who have had heart transplants give birth, she would see that a safe delivery might require not only the expertise of the women’s hospital, but that of the Queen Elizabeth hospital next door. There is always a natural tension between localism and the best care. The real answer is that we need both.

The hon. Lady makes a balanced case. However, the previous Government also promised thousands more midwives and failed to deliver on that. Is there is a general cross-party agreement that the choice of a home birth should be available, where that is a precautionary safe option and as far as it is possible to predict what is likely to happen during birth? Under such circumstances, two midwives are needed on site. In the “baby factories” that were mentioned earlier, the efficiencies that can be achieved are greater. If more home births are to be serviced and supported, even more midwives will be required.

They will indeed. I may risk alienating my own party a little here. Home birth is one of those nice, idyllic and romantic ideas, but, frankly, when I had my children I would rather have had a small cottage hospital with a safe delivery, where I left for home after 24 hours, knowing that if I needed care it was on hand. Home births are probably not as romantic as people think they are.

Let us return to whether the Prime Minister meant what he said. He spoke of an increase in the number of midwives of 3,000. When the Royal College of Nursing challenged the Government, an unnamed Conservative spokesman said:

“There must of course be enough midwives to meet the demands arising from the number of births. The commitment to 3,000 midwives made in Opposition was dependent on the birth rate increasing as it has done in the recent past. It was not in the coalition agreement because predictions now suggest the birth rate will be stable over the next few years.”

Let us analyse the words

“enough midwives to meet the demands”.

We all agree with that. However, if one looks at the planning tool, Birthrate Plus, which estimates how many midwives are needed, and calculates the number nationwide, when that promise was made, according to that tool, there was already a shortage of 4,765 midwives. Even the promise of 3,000 fell short and far more midwives were needed.

The spokesman said that the commitment made in opposition depended on the birth rate increasing. However, nothing was said about that in the article in The Sun. Furthermore, if we look at the only figures that were available at the time the promise was made, they did not suggest any such thing—indeed, they suggested the opposite. The promise is not in the coalition agreement, but the newest figures were not available until long after that agreement. Therefore, there is no proper excuse. It is not about money, and the birth rates that were predicted were not happening. The figures were not available, and I would like to hear why that promise was not in the coalition agreement. It does not stack up.

I can conclude only that when the Prime Minister made that statement, he did not mean it. It is callous to do such things. Maternity and childbirth are sensitive issues, and if something specific is promised during an election campaign, that promise should be kept. I shall return to maternity networks later.

I am not alone in this view—I am not making it up. In November last year, the country’s leading midwife, Cathy Warwick, accused the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary of risking the safety of mothers and babies by backtracking on their pledges to hire more NHS midwives. She said that she was

“extremely disappointed...Both coalition parties supported a commitment to more midwives, now they have apparently changed their minds, and yet the economic situation was well-known before the election.”

Not only was the economic situation well known, but NHS funding is ring-fenced. The money argument does not stack up. She went on to say that she had encountered a “deafening silence” from the Government when she asked whether they intended to honour the pledge. That is a broken promise.

Let us look at where we should go from here. If the record shows that figures on maternity have not improved for 20 years, we need to make some progress. There is a strong association between deprivation and stillbirth as well as infant mortality. The index of multiple deprivation for the west midlands between 1997 and 2007 gives an overall score of 29.9. In Sutton Four Oaks—Sutton Coldfield, the royal borough, still has not quite come to terms with being part of Birmingham—the score was 10.5. Washwood Heath, which I think has the highest unemployment in the country, has a score of 65.1. In my constituency, the area of Bartley Green has a score of 40.3, while in Harborne it is 24.7. However, after the slight boundary reviews that remove the Welsh House Farm estate from Harborne, I expect that figure to be higher. There is a real link between deprivation and stillbirths and infant mortality. Those areas need far greater numbers of midwives to deal with the case load.

That highlights the fact that reducing perinatal and infant mortality is part of public health. That cannot be addressed just at GP level, and it requires a far wider view. As we still do not have national standards for collecting data, we are not even able to say to pregnant women how well the service is doing. That is why the Prime Minister’s promises matter. If we want to create the big society, and if we are all in this together, we need to strengthen commissioning, which needs to go far wider than the current structure. The current commissioning is weak, and from what I heard last night, it will only weaken further. We do not even know how well we are doing, and we are now talking about GP-led commissioning—leaving it to the professionals.

In yesterday’s edition of The Times, the Prime Minister said, “The NHS will sicken unless we modernise”. For the moment, I will leave the use of English—“the NHS will sicken”—to others to comment on. The Prime Minister goes on to say that he wants to debunk five myths. He says:

“The fifth and final myth is the most important: the suggestion that patient care will suffer. The opposite is true. Our changes draw on some simple logic: that professionals, not managers or politicians, are best placed to understand the needs of patients. Couple that professional freedom for doctors and nurses with choice and transparency for the patient, and you get a mix that will expose poor performance and drive standards up.”

Will it really? What if the professionals are not doing a proper job? If we do not have the nationwide data that allow us to tell them whether they are doing a good job, it is not only the professionals who are not aware of whether they are doing a good job by comparison. The patient will not know that, either, and they will take the care that they get. How many of us have had feedback relating to hospitals in which the hospital’s performance was based on whether people thought that the food was any good? Although that is important, it tells us little about clinical standards. I am sure that the parents of those babies who died where better care would have made a difference would not have been aware of that, because what are the comparisons?

I do not want us to repeat yesterday’s debate on the Health and Social Care Bill. I took part in that debate, and my position on that Bill is reasonably well known. However, on the substance of the case that the hon. Lady is advancing, I fear that if we are going to be trading promises made by the previous Government on maternity care that were not delivered and similar promises made by a party leader that may or may not be delivered, we will not get what I hoped that we would get from this debate, which is a recognition that midwifery is under-resourced and that we should all be working together to acknowledge that we are putting a lot at risk. That includes the fact that we have high levels of litigation. If the bill of £1.4 billion that was apparently expended last year in meeting the costs of litigation in obstetrics were brought down, one could invest in the very services where such high levels of litigation arise.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why I have said that one of the things that we need to move to is much more serious consideration of no-fault investigations where something has gone wrong.

I return to the point that areas of higher deprivation that have high infant mortality rates require much higher numbers of midwives than areas of lower deprivation. There is no getting away from that. I am rather sad that the Perinatal Institute’s report on community midwives is not ready for publication yet, but I will not be surprised if it finds that the case load of the majority of community midwives is too high and that they regularly work more hours than they are contracted to do. There are no national standards on the accepted case load for a midwife, but professional opinion is that the figure is about 110. The Heart of Birmingham Teaching primary care trust has found that case loads are about 150.

The question is what the right figure is in areas of deprivation. Strictly speaking, Bellevue is in the Edgbaston constituency, but it borders Ladywood. A two-year study there looked at case loads of 60 to 70. The sample was too small, but there is a link between deprivation and infant mortality, and deprived areas therefore require higher levels of midwife input than other areas, which cannot be picked up by GP commissioning. In the case of the west midlands, it certainly requires a Birmingham-wide view, if not a west midlands-wide approach to commissioning, because it is a public health function as much as anything else.

The hon. Lady is being extremely patient in allowing me to intervene. I want to support the point that she is making. The anecdotal information that I have been picking up from midwives is that a high number are, at the pinnacle of their career, retiring as a result of stress, because of the pressure placed on them. There are unreasonable expectations of them in the case load that they are expected to undertake. Those are some of the best people, who are able to contribute the most to their local community and to the health service, yet we are losing them from the service as a result of poor staff management and the fact that they are expected to work under tremendous stress.

Indeed. If we look at the findings of the work force assessment conducted by the Royal College of Midwives, we see that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The issue is not only that we are short of midwives, but that many midwives leave early or are coming up to retirement, which is really worrying. There is no doubt that we need to strengthen the work force.

I want to bring all the strands together. We are told that the new health service will give the patient the say, and we are trusting the professionals to know better than the politicians and the managers. My argument is that, in some areas, the professionals themselves clearly do not know how well they are doing, and it is about time that they did—when they find out, they need to put in place mechanisms to put things right. Unless we have standardised maternity data that allow us to make comparisons across the country, the professionals, even if they are willing to do so, will not be able to respond.

The third point is that patient choice sounds really good, but in some areas of deprivation—we have them in Birmingham—the question of choice is something from fantasy land. People just want decent services. To say to them that they are driving up choice is an absolutely ridiculous aspiration. Even if all the other things were to happen, midwives on the ground are so utterly overworked that they would have very little time to drive forward the improvements that would be made.

I can see that the Prime Minister’s vision of the new NHS will work perfectly well in Sutton Coldfield and in parts of Solihull, but not all of it. However, it will not work well in our big cities, where we need far stronger, coherent commissioning. I have four questions that I want the Minister to answer. First, the report from the west midlands is exceedingly important. What steps will she take to ensure not only that there is data gathering but that the lessons will continue to be learned not only in the west midlands, but throughout the rest of the country? I am referring to standardised data gathering and standardised analysis, so that we can get a true picture of how well the service is doing and so that we reach a position in which, when we ask how well we are doing, the professionals can answer that.

On my second question, I am fully aware that it takes x years to train nurses, midwives, doctors and consultants, and we have to start down the path of training them at some stage. Will the Minister therefore tell us whether the promise of 3,000 midwives was contingent on birth rates? If it was, can we say that it is no longer on the table? If it is on the table, what steps are being taken to start training and recruiting those midwives, on top of retaining the current ones?

My third question is about the Prime Minister’s second promise in the article in The Sun, which related to maternity networks. What are they? Where are they? Will the Minister spell that out precisely? She looks rather surprised, but when I expressed my surprise about these new maternity networks and wondered exactly what they were, the professionals came to me and said, “It would be really helpful if the Minister could spell out during the debate precisely what these networks are and where they are.” If I am being accused of ignorance, I plead that I am not alone in my ignorance.

My final question is the one that ultimately troubles me most. We are breaking up the units in the health service and moving down to GP commissioning—I have to say that I have far less faith in the universal wisdom of GPs, as opposed to other medical professionals—so how will everything hang together? There are pretty good GP groups in south Birmingham, and they will probably make the new arrangements work, as will some of the groups in other parts. However, in the areas with the highest deprivation and need, where people will be least able to exercise choice or make their demands known, I simply cannot see GP commissioning delivering for people on the ground.

Whose responsibility will it be to ensure equity in maternity care across regions? At one stage, there were thoughts that maternity commissioning should still be a national service, like the specialist commissioning services, but I gather that that is no longer the case. A fair number of MPs from Birmingham and the west midlands are present, so will the Minister explain which body will ensure in those areas that the findings in the Perinatal Institute’s report and the consequent actions are brought together and rolled out so that we receive better care?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing the debate. Maternity services are an extremely emotive issue. When my daughter, Alexis, was born at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, it was the most emotional day of my life. As a non-smoker, I smoked two packets of cigarettes that day.

I pay tribute to the hospital’s staff, whom I found extraordinarily professional, hard-working and dedicated. However, there has been a lack of funding for maternity services in Shropshire hospitals over the past 13 years. The hon. Lady talked about broken promises, and I want to highlight my concerns about the huge inequality in funding for maternity services around the United Kingdom. I sometimes go to Birmingham and I see the hospitals there, and there are huge differences between the quality of the buildings, equipment and resources in Birmingham and the quality of those in Shrewsbury and rural shire counties.

The Royal Shrewsbury hospital covers not only Shrewsbury and the whole of Shropshire, but the whole of mid-Wales, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) will have the chance to explain the benefits of the maternity services for his constituents. The population of Shropshire and mid-Wales is not that much smaller than the population of Birmingham. Yes, the populations of those areas, even when combined, are smaller than that of Birmingham, but not by much. However, we have only two hospitals to cover our whole area. I am not sure how many hospitals there are in Birmingham. The hon. Lady said that there was a hospital for women’s services in Birmingham. My goodness, I wish we could have a hospital dedicated to women’s services covering my county and the whole of mid-Wales. I will find out how many hospitals there are in Birmingham, but I want to stress that my county lacks facilities.

As a result of the debate, I am also going to research the outcomes in Shropshire and mid-Wales versus those in Birmingham and to look at the resources that both receive. From all the league tables I have seen, many of the outcomes in maternity services are better in Shropshire than they are in Birmingham. Why is Shropshire so far ahead of Birmingham in the league table when it gets a fraction of the resources? The hon. Lady seemed to imply that greater resources needed to be provided, but I would say that we need to learn from Shropshire how it manages to provide such excellent maternity services when it receives such limited funding compared with Birmingham. When I have done that research, I will send it to the Minister.

During the 13 years of the previous Labour Administration—I briefed the Minister on this last night—there was a chronic lack of funding. I am not embarrassed to say that I think the previous Government deliberately targeted inner-city Labour areas with investment and deliberately stripped it from rural counties, which are predominantly Tory. That was done in a political way to put investment into Labour heartlands, and although the hon. Lady won her seat because she is an assiduous and hard-working MP, many other Labour MPs were re-elected because of that direct channelling of resources into Labour inner-city areas at the expense of rural shire counties.

As a result of that chronic lack of funding for Shropshire, a consultation is under way on proposals for a mass reconfiguration of maternity services. That will see in-patient children’s services and consultant maternity services move from Shrewsbury to Telford. My constituents expressed extreme concern about that at a public meeting on Sunday, as they have over the past few weeks. In the six years that I have been an MP, I have never received as many e-mails, telephone calls and letters from concerned parents, clinicians and GPs as I have over these reconfiguration proposals—there is a lot of concern.

I should stress that I expect any proposals put forward by local hospitals and primary care trusts robustly to meet the stringent tests set out by the Secretary of State for Health in relation to support from GP commissioners, public and patient engagement, clinical evidence and patient choice. If those stringent criteria are not met, I very much hope and expect my local council’s overview and scrutiny committee to refer the proposals to the Secretary of State, in anticipation of their being reviewed by an independent reconfiguration panel.

Today, I will write personally to all the GPs in Shropshire to find out their views about the reconfiguration proposals for maternity services, rather than being told by the PCT or the chief executive that GPs are in favour of them. If they are against the plans, I will share that information with the Minister, and I hope she will support me in challenging them.

Yesterday, I had a meeting with the deputy general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, Louise Silverton, who has promised to help me get the Royal College of Midwives involved. I will also write to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to find out its views. I have spoken to the Minister, who has kindly agreed to meet me and a delegation of concerned constituents so that we can raise these issues with her.

I do not want to speak for too long, because I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire will get a chance to speak. I would not wish a reconfiguration of maternity services on my worst enemy. It is turning my hair grey and I am extremely upset about it. I am cognisant of the views of my constituents and I want to stress that they are very concerned at the prospect of Shrewsbury losing maternity services. People expect maternity services to be ever closer to them, not further away. Our services cover the largest landlocked county in the United Kingdom, with a vast rural expanse, as well as the whole population of mid-Wales, and we hope and expect that maternity services will stay in Shrewsbury and not be moved to the extreme east of the county, to Telford.

I do not want to intrude on concerns about reconfiguration in Shropshire. However, on the basis of yesterday’s debate, the Government’s intentions and the principle of “No decision about me, without me”—as well as the intention, at least, under the proposed Government health reforms, that many decisions will in future be made by communities working through their health and well-being boards with the GP commissioning consortia, and with the political support of the Government—presumably the community and GPs in Shropshire have a greater say in the present culture than they might have in the past. I should have thought that my hon. Friend might be reassured by that and would not necessarily need to get Ministers involved in the dispute.

Yes, I concur with a lot of what my hon. Friend has said. However, I listen to members of the public, because I am directly accountable to them as their Member of Parliament, and often my voting and other decisions are affected by them. There is a bond of accountability between each one of us and our constituents. Unfortunately, chief executives and managers of trusts and PCTs do not necessarily have that bond of accountability. They are here one minute and gone the next. That is the problem. Many of my constituents are trying to engage in the consultation process and put questions directly to the PCT and chief executive, but they are not getting answers. I should like the Minister to be aware of that. If the Government are putting forward public and patient engagement as a stringent criterion of whether a reconfiguration of service should go ahead, it is important that the Secretary of State should have confidence that that aspect of the process has been fully and robustly carried out. My understanding is that the only method of referral is by the council’s local overview and scrutiny committee, but if the council is not minded to do it, what can local people who still have concerns do?

I have been approached about extraordinarily emotive cases, involving women who have major issues to do with maternity and paediatric services. They are very emotional about the prospect of those services being moved away from their community. I want them to be heard.

An important thing we have learned in the past 15 to 20 years is that when it comes to extremely complex and difficult clinical cases, a hospital must perform a particular function a minimum number of times if it is to be at its clinical best. Some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will end up in Birmingham. He questions why Birmingham has received investment, but it is because we provide national centres of excellence. Some of the mothers from his area will come to the women’s hospital because their case is so complex that only the women’s hospital can deal with it. There can be only two or three centres in the country able to provide that clinical excellence. There is always that tension between the local and the centralised.

The hon. Gentleman is unhappy about the reconfiguration, but does he have an objective assessment of how good, clinically, his area’s maternity services are? He may feel good about them, but does he have a professional assessment of whether they could be better?

That is a very good question. The chief executive of the trust and the PCT and many others believe that there must be a reconfiguration and specialisation at both hospitals. The argument is that without it, we shall lose services, which will go out of the county. We shall not get our NHS trust foundation status and services will be moved out even further away. That is the gun being pointed at my head—not to rock the boat too much on this issue, because there is the possibility of services moving away. I understand that. I feel that the maternity services at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital are good. When my daughter was born there I found the services tremendous. Speaking emotionally, obviously I want them to stay in Shrewsbury. I understand that we must have the reconfiguration debate and that the professionals and clinicians must make the decision, and that is why I shall write to local GPs and consultants to gauge their views. I shall keep the Minister informed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston on raising an important issue, and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Thank you, Mr Dobbin. Clearly there are one or two procedures of the House that I am not yet wholly familiar with, and one of them is rising to speak in Westminster Hall. I will not forget that again, because I would have been quite miffed not to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. I am very grateful and shall always remember with fond memories my experience of speaking while you are in the Chair.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on the timely raising of a hugely important issue. She asked important questions. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s response as, I am sure, are other hon. Members.

I can reassure the hon. Lady on one point, because my wife and I had four children—well, my wife had them—and they were all born at home. That was because of the added reassurance it gave my wife. Clearly, had there been any difficulties there would have been a transfer to hospital. The births were not at our home, but our in-laws’ home, which was very near the hospital—we wanted some reassurance.

The context in which I want to speak is cross-border services. It is relevant for several services, including maternity. My constituency is in Wales and health is a devolved issue. The commissioning of maternity services is clearly a matter for the Assembly Government, but because there is no district general hospital in my constituency or, indeed, anywhere in Powys, consultancy-led maternity service provision is in Shropshire. I therefore have a particular interest in the changes taking place over the border there.

The debate is timely because of the consultation document, “Keeping it in the County”, which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned. The local trusts are having to respond to pressure—not just financial pressure, although that is clearly an issue. There are two district general hospitals in Shropshire and the population is not really sufficient, given all the other considerations, to support them both. In addition there are the implications of the working time directive, and the specialisation that now exists among consultants. There is the added difficulty of accessing consultants from overseas, and there is greater expense in delivering specialist services at two hospitals. We have almost reached the stage of it being difficult to reassure everyone that services at these hospitals are clinically safe.

I support the principle of reconfiguration, the three most important aspects of which are consultant maternity and obstetric services, paediatric services, and trauma A and E. Those cover three highly contentious and emotional matters, and people have strong opinions on them. Today, I shall refer to consultancy-led maternity services.

My concern is that the proposals were prepared without sufficient consideration for mid-Wales. They were prepared in the context of Shropshire, and that is a huge problem. I was a member of the National Assembly for eight years. I accept that Wales is devolved, and I am most supportive of a strong and effective Assembly, but we do not want a barrier growing between Wales and England, rather like a Berlin wall along the line of Offa’s dyke. When it comes to specialist services, we remain dependent on England, particularly for consultancy-led maternity services.

The proposals suggest that consultant obstetric services will be moved from the Royal Shrewsbury hospital to the Princess Royal hospital in Telford. As my hon. Friend, the assiduous and hard-working Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, pointed out, that is causing huge concern—and not only in Shropshire but in mid-Wales. There will be three public meetings over the next three weeks. I expect hundreds to come along, and the main issue will be the provision of maternity services.

The Royal Shrewsbury hospital is just over the border from mid-Wales. All the traditional pathways from there have been to the Royal Shrewsbury. We are used to it, and it is relatively close. Nevertheless, mothers from many parts of my constituency have to travel for an hour to get to the Shrewsbury hospital, but if consultant obstetric services are moved from Shrewsbury to Telford, we are talking about another half an hour. That is causing massive concern.

I support the principle of reconfiguring the two hospitals in Shropshire. The general principle is that instead of having two district general hospitals struggling to survive in the current environment, we have one hospital that is in effect on two sites. That probably is sensible, and I would support it. However, I want the proposals to take account of the whole catchment area of the Shropshire hospitals. Devolution should not rule out mid-Wales from those discussions, as it depends on hospital services in Shropshire. That principle is particularly important to my constituency.

I shall express my view at the public meetings. I want the proposals to be changed. In a sense, it is selfish to argue the case for our constituencies, but we inevitably do so. I do not want services to be moved to Telford. If we were satisfied that that was the only answer, we would reluctantly accept it. As it is, all my constituents will rise up and say that they are not satisfied. They believe that the decision is based on convenience and political balance in order to attract support, and that this is not being done in the best interests of all who live in the catchment area of those hospitals.

I want to make three points about the provision of maternity services. The first is about the provision of extra midwives, the second is on the question of Sure Start and the third is about health visitors.

It seems to me that maternity and antenatal services are provided not only at birth; they are also post-natal services, and new mothers rely upon them strongly. I had two babies under a Conservative Government and one under a Labour Government. At none of those births did I believe that there was sufficient investment in maternity services. That situation continues.

During the last three years of the previous Labour Government there was a massive increase in investment in maternity services, and a new strategy was put in place. Unfortunately—perhaps fortunately—that coincided with a great increase in the birth rate. There was increased investment in maternity services; for example, the number of midwives rose in 2007 by 624, in 2008 by 571 and in 2009 by 787. However, that coincided with one of the largest rises in the birth rate. Being able to keep up with the increase was a problem.

We passed the baton on to this Government. They must build on our achievements and not let us down. We need to continue working on maternity services. Through an article in The Sun, the public heard loud and clear that the Prime Minister was promising 3,000 extra midwives. The fact of the matter is that 3,000 extra midwives would in any event not make up for the shortfall in their number. Even if the Government were to provide 3,000 extra midwives, we would still need at least another 1,700. The problem is that, having made that pledge and promise, the Government seem to be going back on it.

A spokesman gave this pledge on behalf of the Government:

“There must of course be enough midwives to meet the demands arising from the number of births.”

The Royal College of Midwives agrees; it calculated the national England-wide shortage of midwives in 2009 to be 4,756. If, as the nameless Conservative spokesman says, we should have enough midwives to meet demand, we need more than 3,000. The spokesman then said:

“The commitment to 3,000 midwives made in Opposition was dependent on the birth rate increasing as it has done in the recent past.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) asked—she put it so beautifully—what was his starting point? What did he mean? The whole piece was written in the present tense. Midwives are stretched to breaking point. They are overworked and demoralised, but the increase in the number of midwives was contingent on a continuing rise in the number of births.

The spokesman’s next excuse was this:

“It was not in the coalition agreement because predictions now suggest the birth rate will be stable over the next few years.”

The veracity of that statement does not stand up to proper analysis. There has not been a prediction since the Prime Minister made his pledge, so we do not know what the difference would be. If improvements are made, we need to continue to build on them. I suggest that the Government are letting everyone down.

I have some figures on the future of the midwifery work force. The Department of Health document “Midwifery 2020: Delivering expectations” states:

“The midwifery workforce across the UK is ageing with 40%-45% of the midwifery workforce reaching the current retirement age in the next ten years.”

In other words, even if we stand still, we will undermine midwifery as a result of the fall in the work force.

I respectfully agree with my hon. Friend. In a moment, I shall be speaking about another part of the work force, health visitors. They suffer exactly the same problem. The majority of the work force is over 55. It is important to retain such valuable and experienced people—they are mostly women—but we cannot increase their number if we continue to lose existing staff at the current rate.

According to the Library, the number of births in the UK was projected to fall in 2009-10, in 2010-11 and in 2011-12. If the Prime Minister’s pledge was based on the latest birth projections, perhaps he expects to cut the number of midwives. That is clearly nonsense. We need to consider what is needed and ensure that it is fulfilled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston made a devastating analysis of the difficulties that will be caused by the changes the Government propose. How can we make forward projections and how are we to manage the national health service if we give NHS commissioning to doctors? They will simply consider the needs of the local area and not our national needs.

In passing, may I briefly touch on the important issue of Sure Start? During the election, the Prime Minister claimed that Labour was scaremongering when we said that there would be difficulties in relation to Sure Start. He said:

“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this.”

The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), then the shadow Minister for the family, said:

“It’s unforgiveable that Labour has used the tactics of creating fear and anxiety amongst families and Sure Start staff”.

[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]

The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), has said:

“Sure Start is at the heart of our vision for early intervention”

If that is true, why did the charities 4Children and the Daycare Trust find out that 250 centres, which serve 60,000 families, are certain either to close or be earmarked for closure? There are 3,578 children’s centres in England, 3,100 of which have been told that their budgets will be cut this year. About 2,000 services will be cutting their services as a result. The findings are based on responses from almost 1,000 Sure Start managers to a questionnaire sent out by 4Children and the Daycare Trust.

It is hugely important for a new mother to be able to find a friend, get guidance and go to a children’s centre. Nevertheless, centres offering such services are being cut. The other friend that mothers need is the health visitor. Again, when the Prime Minister was in opposition, he made a big thing about increasing the number of health visitors:

“The substantial increase in the number of health visitors will mean that families get more support—from properly trained professionals. Health visitors will be able to spend time with families, have the opportunity to spot parenting issues, and build the trusted relationships needed to help with them. For instance, if they feel a mother is not bonding with her baby, and recognise the cause as post-natal depression, they might gently recommend that she visit her GP, or steer her towards a local counsellor.”

He was absolutely right; no one can disagree with that. However, when I met London health visitors from the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association earlier this year, they told me that there was a huge problem in recruiting new health visitors. They were losing a lot of older, experienced staff through early retirement. Nearly a third of health visitors in London are over 55 and they have dangerous work loads. In some cases, there are more than 1,000 children per five health visitors. That is four times higher than Lord Laming—the writer of the Baby P and the Victoria Climbié reports—recommended. His recommendation is for health visitors to have a quarter of their current work load.

In an area such as London, which is very demanding, current work loads are dangerous. We need more health visitors. The Government recognise that a health visitor should have no more than 250 children under five and no more than 100 in highly vulnerable areas, as was recommended by Lord Laming and the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association. Will the Government consider that recommendation when they look again at how many health visitors are needed?

When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), whether the Government would take responsibility for recruiting and training the extra 4,200 health visitors promised, the answer I received was odd. She said that she will learn from the decisions on the case loads and they will be “locally determined”. In the same answer, she says that the Department is shortly to publish plans to

“conduct a demographic and geographical analysis to establish location and population need and match with trainees and training places; and ensure positive correlation between work force growth and population need.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 460W.]

On the one hand, the Government say they will look nationally and decide what the need is, and on the other they say that it will be left to localities to decide. We really cannot have it both ways. What we have is a lack of health visitors.

The hon. Lady talks about the need for more health visitors and staff and maternity services. If there were a Labour Government, the NHS would not be ring-fenced and there would be cuts in the NHS budget. Only our party has promised to ring-fence the NHS budget. How can she promise additional services when there would have been cuts in the NHS budget under Labour?

Although the Government have said that, in principle, there is a ring fence to the NHS budget, a closer analysis will show that that is not true. The real position is that there is double-counting of over £2 billion—

The hon. Lady is welcome to intervene if she wants to get into an analysis. The Government’s promise of a ring fence and a year-on-year increase in the NHS budget is one that does not stand up to scrutiny. There is double-counting going on. Currently, given the increased demand, we must have 4% efficiency savings each year in the NHS. In fact, we will see cuts. It is simply not right for the Government to continue to say that the NHS budget is ring-fenced, that the NHS is safe with them and that services will not be cut. The reality is that the NHS is going through a very difficult time, and, on top of that, this Government are putting it through an absolutely needless reorganisation, which means that we will not get a national steer on things such as maternity services.

Simply giving commissioning to GPs will not help. It has been a matter of policy for years that we keep pregnant women away from doctors if we can, because they are not ill. We pass their care into the hands of the midwives, and hopefully everything will be fine. If a doctor is needed, bring the doctor in. Essentially, women go to a GP to find out that they are pregnant. They then go to a midwife and the midwife looks after them. That has always been the case. GPs do not have an understanding of midwifery or services for pregnant women. The difficulty is that such services will be sidelined and that is not fair on women. That argument was made to the Government when the point was being made that midwifery and post-natal services should be commissioned nationally. I do not know why the Government have changed their mind about that, and it is one of the questions I want to ask the Minister.

The NHS is going through great economic trauma. It is used to having a year-on-year increase in budget. Now, its budget will be cut year on year at the same time as the service is being reorganised. Will we have proper tactical decisions on midwives, community nurses and all those things on which mothers rely, or will we simply allow such services to be given to GPs—at a time when a cold wind is blowing through the national health service?

I think I have got through most of my questions to the Minister. I have just a few more. How will she drive improvements in maternity services? Before the election, the Prime Minister talked about maternity networks. What levers does he have that will make them a reality? Why did the Government ignore the representations of professional bodies such as the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in relation to commissioning? Furthermore, why has the Prime Minister handed over commissioning to GPs and maternity services? Will the Minister give us an assessment of the involvement of midwives in GP pathfinder consortia?

May I say what a pleasure it is to be under your chairmanship, Mr Gale? I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on securing this debate. She was right to emphasise the good work that goes on in our maternity services and to praise the staff for the care that they give to women and their families. Pregnancy is an exciting, but sometimes bewildering, time for us all. I have had four children in four different hospitals in four different parts of the country. As is the case for many women, the care that I received had a significant impact not only on me but on the care that I was able to give my children at the time.

The hon. Lady raised three issues. She referred to the excellent work of Professor Gardosi, an article from The Sun—much reference has been made to The Sun—and the debate yesterday on the health Bill. The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who is no longer in her place, also mentioned the excellent work of the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Society. Let me also take the opportunity to praise that organisation for its work in this difficult area. It would be an honour for me to be at the opening of the Forget-Me-Not suite at the Royal Surrey county hospital in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) made an important intervention. As he said, the birth rate rose by 19% between 2001 and 2009, and the midwifery work force rose by only 9% in that period. Listening to Opposition Members this morning, one wonders where the Government have been for the past 13 years. In that period, significant amounts of money were going into the NHS. So, as my hon. Friend asked, what exactly did the previous Government do in that time?

I want to mention some of the other points that my hon. Friend made. His dedicated service to his constituents is legendary and this morning he spoke with his usual passion. He has already raised his concerns about reconfigurations of services and I know that he will listen to what GPs, midwives and, most importantly, women and their families have to say about those reconfigurations. I know that he will use every tool at his disposal to ensure that his constituents’ views are heard loud and clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) also reiterated his concerns about reconfigurations. I must say, Mr Gale, that he should relax about parliamentary procedures, which confuse even the most experienced Members at times. As a new Member, you often feel that it is just you who is confused. But fear not—people who have been in the House for 20 years or more can also get confused by procedure.

I was very heartened to hear of my hon. Friend’s positive tale of his wife’s four home births. Clearly, they were successful and happy experiences, which were doubtless helped enormously by the excellent support of a midwife on the spot. He rightly raised the difficult issue of cross-border care and it is critical that we get that care right. Arbitrary lines do not wash with the public, and I am sure that people will listen to his contributions on this subject when the reconfigurations are considered. The first duty of maternity services is to provide safe, high quality care for mothers and babies. Women should rightly expect to receive consistently excellent maternity services, no matter what time of day they have their baby or where they are treated.

I did not have any home births, but I am very aware—this is slightly contrary to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston—of what an important choice having a home birth is for many women. Personally, I am a little more nervous. I quite enjoyed my stay in hospital after each of my babies arrived; I put that down to the fact that I always feel the need to do housework if I am at home, so a hospital stay gave me a few days off. However, having a home birth is an important choice and I know that many women gain enormously from the opportunity to have a baby in their own home, and our aims reflect that. We have made provision of maternity services that are focused on improving outcomes for women and for their babies, along with improving women’s experience of care, an absolute priority for the NHS. The Government set out our long-term vision for the future of health care in our White Paper and there was an extensive debate in the House on many of those issues yesterday.

By focusing on health outcomes and delivering maternity services through provider networks, we want to deliver high quality maternity services. Networks will bring together all the maternity services that a mother might need, linking local hospitals, GPs, charities, secondary and tertiary services, and, indeed, community groups, so that they can share information, expertise and services. Commissioners and providers will drive that process forward. Maternity networks will extend choice for women by encouraging providers to work together, offering expectant mothers and their families a broader choice of maternity services and allowing women to move seamlessly between the services that they want or need.

I am trying to understand these networks. How many will there be? I am concerned about the fragmentation of maternity services. Will there be one network in the west midlands, or will Birmingham have one network? Will there be 25 networks? How big are the networks?

The important thing for central Government, and it is what we are doing, is to move away from being centrally very prescriptive. If I were to guess, I would say that networks will be on a regional level, but their size will depend on various things. Delivering maternity services in Birmingham is very different from delivering maternity services in Cornwall. We need a network that can offer all the services that women and their families need while not being too big and thus unresponsive to local need.

This issue is quite important. When we created primary care trusts, there was a kind of vision that they would each serve a population of around 250,000. That was a framework, but there were still some very small PCTs. Are we looking at a maternity network that would serve a million people, as in Birmingham, or a network that would serve 3.6 million people, as in the west midlands as a whole?

The hon. Lady is already falling into difficulties. She wants central Government to prescribe what works on the ground. If one looks at the proposals for GP pathfinder consortia, one sees that the proposed consortia vary in size enormously. That is because local people on the ground know what size of consortium will work for them. We will see more details emerging as the health Bill goes through Parliament and as the consortia get going. What matters is to be locally responsive. The hon. Lady mentioned accountability; having the right accountabilities in the system is important. What also matters is using the commissioners in particular to drive up quality.

Our focus on public health is also critical to maternal outcomes. Healthier women have healthier babies and for the first time we will ring-fence public health money. The hon. Lady was right to mention inequalities. Increased rates of stillbirth are associated with deprivation. I must say that, despite the previous Government having what was doubtless the best will in the world, during the 13 years that they were in power, health inequalities widened. I do not think that that was because they were utterly incompetent; it was partly because it is extremely difficult to do something about inequalities. However, I believe that our focus on public health and our ring-fencing of public health money will have a significant impact.

Does the Minister agree that, although choice is very important, in a constituency such as mine, which is in the east end of London, public health issues, such as nutrition, access to advice and quite low-tech care during pregnancy are just as important to good maternal health outcomes? Underweight babies are one of the big problems in my constituency. They often have poor educational outcomes later, and cost the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds, because they have to be put in incubators and so on. That problem is to do with the sort of advice that those young mothers receive and it is a public health issue.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; I think that we broadly agree on this issue. That is why we are focusing on public health. Preparation for pregnancy and having a healthy baby starts long before a woman gets pregnant. The education and support that women receive, the social networks that they are part of and improving the public’s health all matter. Nothing could be more important than improving the outcomes for women and, indeed, their babies.

Choice is important and it is also important that women can make informed choices; choices must be well informed to improve the outcomes for women and their babies. Furthermore, it is important that women have access to maternity services at an early stage in their pregnancy. In fact, ensuring such access is probably one of the most fundamental characteristics of high quality maternity care, which is why we have included the 12-week early access indicator as one of the measures for quality in the NHS operating framework for 2011-12.

Of course, it is also important that there are appropriate numbers of trained maternity professionals to provide the maternity service. The number of clinicians needed by mothers depends on several factors, ranging from the mother’s medical circumstances, to the complexity of the pregnancy, to wider societal factors, which can have a considerable impact.

Looking at the bigger picture, the birth rate must be considered when we are planning maternity services. Although the number of births in England has been rising since 2001, as I mentioned earlier, the birth rate peaked in 2008 and fell, by just less than 1%, in 2009 to about 671,000 live births. We are determined that staffing rates should be calculated purely on how many staff are needed to provide safe, quality care. We are considering ways to improve midwife retention and recruitment, and the planned number of midwives in training in 2010-11 is at a record level of about 2,500. Therefore we expect a sustained increase in the number of new midwives who will be available for maternity services during the next few years.

Complete and absolute focus on staffing numbers is totally ridiculous. If the birth rate shot up, 3,000 extra midwives would not be enough. Ensuring that the maternity work force has an effective skills mix is also an important consideration. I was recently in an extremely busy maternity unit, and the midwife there made it clear that what they needed was not more midwives but more support staff. Doubtless in other units there will be support workers in place, but not enough midwives. We want to focus on using the whole maternity team, including obstetricians, anaesthetists and support workers. It is not just the number of qualified midwives that is important, but their experience, and one issue that we need to address is attrition. A newly qualified midwife does not have the experience, nor perhaps the skills, to lead the team in a way that a midwife who has been in practice for 10 years or so can.

Although I agree with what the Minister says, surely the difficulty she has is that the Prime Minister promised us 3,000 more midwives. Although I accept that we need experienced staff to ensure that midwives are trained up properly—the same applies to a number of different skills—the Prime Minister promised us the 3,000, so is it right that the Government are rowing back on that promise?

There is no rowing back. We have always made it clear that the number of midwives will be in proportion to the birth rate. In fairness to the previous Government, they made concerted attempts, although much too late, to increase the number of midwives in training, and, as I have said, we have 2,500-odd in training now. We will continue to ensure that we have the right staff mix and the right number of midwives to ensure that women have safe births.

On that very point, I would be very happy for the Minister to write to me, stating that the Prime Minister himself said that that promise of 3,000 was contingent on the birth rate.

I will happily discuss that further with the hon. Lady if she would like me to.

Significant progress has been made, and what matters is that the number of midwives that we have in place—the skills mix—provides good, safe outcomes for women and their babies. The NHS commissioning board will provide commissioning guidance and we are, of course, keen for it to support GP commissioning consortia in their commissioning of services. The Government will specify outcome indicators that demonstrate high quality and improving care, but it would not be appropriate for us to dictate models of care or how resources, including staff, are used. Instead, we will look for local leadership, from health and well-being boards for example, which will develop the joint strategic needs assessments and health and well-being strategies to inform commissioning, ensuring that trends in the birth rate and the growth in the number of more complex cases are taken into account by the local service. The complexity of a case is becoming more important than ever in determining the care and the number of staff needed to deliver babies safely, and its consideration will allow individual maternity services to adapt to the different pressures faced in different communities.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston rightly made important points about the deaths of the 25 babies in the west midlands between April 2008 and March 2009, and said that the report sadly states that 84% of those deaths were potentially avoidable. That is totally unacceptable, and I must admit that it comes as a shock to me, as it probably did to the hon. Lady, that we are still not good at using serious untoward incidents, and indeed the deaths of children and babies, to learn and to improve our practice. I met Professor Jason Gardosi, director of the west midlands Perinatal Institute and author of the report, to discuss the issue in more detail, and we have a lot of work to do to ensure that we learn from such tragic incidents. When I talk to women who have lost babies, they say that, more than anything, they want this not to happen again and lessons to be learnt from their experience.

The report outlines steps that could improve the safety of services, and we are looking at a number of ways in which they can be addressed. The NHS in the west midlands now has clear plans for improving standards of care and reducing preventable deaths, and it is important that those plans are implemented, including the urgent introduction of a system whereby maternity units and commissioners can learn from and respond effectively to adverse incidents, and a standardised regional perinatal death reporting system across all its maternity units. Interestingly, as a result of that, the west midlands in many ways now leads the way in this field.

Nationally, the National Patient Safety Agency has launched an intrapartum toolkit, which is valuable in helping maternity units improve safety. Sharing best practice is terribly important and we do not do it enough in the NHS. I hope that the new outcomes framework will act as a catalyst for driving up quality across all NHS services by measuring what is important: clinical outcomes. Such outcomes make a real difference to people’s experiences of services and to their health and well-being, and can sometimes save the lives of mothers and babies.

It would be unfair to say that there have been no improvements in the past few years; there have been improvements in antenatal care. The Care Quality Commission survey of women’s experiences of maternity services published in December 2010 found that 92% of women rated their maternity care as good or better. We should be proud of that, but it is the 8% sitting on the edge and those babies who die that are completely unacceptable, and we need to do much more.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston talked eloquently about the association between deprivation and poor outcomes, and rightly said that commissioning is weak. She described Professor Gardosi’s report as damning, but the previous Government presided over the years covered by the study. What exactly did her Government do? Where were they? Why were inequalities in health not reduced? What happened to the health visitor numbers? Why is commissioning so weak? It is the weakness of commissioners that has failed to drive up standards, and the hon. Lady spells out exactly the case for changing commissioning.

The report was the result of the chief medical officer’s concerns from the early ’90s onwards. What concerned the CMO was that, although we reduced inequality, this particular area was not addressed, going back to well before the Labour Government.

I appreciate that, but for the past 13 years the hon. Lady’s party has been in government. In many ways, she could not have made a better case for changing commissioning. It is not very sexy to talk about it, but the weakness of commissioning is what has been at fault in many ways. It is what has failed to drive up the quality of services and achieve the outcomes that we want. The Health and Social Care Bill gives us the chance to refocus the NHS on what is important to its users and the staff providing the services, and to achieve the results that are important to them.

I assure hon. Members that I will continue to work on maternity services, and I remind the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that it is simplistic in the extreme to say that this is just a numbers game. As far as health visitors are concerned, her Government presided over this dramatic loss in the health-visiting work force. We have promised to increase the number of health visitors to 4,200, and that vital work force will work with midwives and other professionals across the board to ensure a universal visiting service and targeted help for the most vulnerable.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston put across the exact case for why the changes to commissioning are so important, why our pledge to increase the number of health visitors is vital, why we need to create the maternity networks and why ring-fencing public health money is so important. Crucially, they are important because we are determined to improve the health outcomes of mothers and their babies.

Pensioner Poverty

In our country, we have growing life expectancy, but pensioner poverty will become an increasing problem for us all. There are no reality shows on hospital geriatric wards. A dribbling one-year-old is cute, but a dribbling 91-year-old is not. One has their life in front of them, and for the other it is in the past. However, socially, each life is equally important.

We now have a population of 61 million. Nearly one third of us are pensioners. Of those, 1.8 million live in poverty. Statistically, when I walk down the street in my constituency, every 10th pensioner whom I see lives in poverty. Poverty is difficult to define, and I will not try to do so—it is a quagmire. To me, poverty involves not having enough food, clothing, warmth, shelter, care or contact with other people. Loneliness is a killer. How many of us have known of someone who just fell off the perch when their husband or wife died?

When I was canvassing for my seat—I am one of the youngest Members in the new intake eight months ago—I knocked on a door in my constituency and an old lady came to the door. It was a very respectable house. She said, “Would you like a cup of tea?” I said, “That would be lovely.” I went through to the kitchen and sat down, and she made a cup of tea for me. I said, “Are you alone?” She said, “Yes, I’ve been alone for 10 years.” I said, “I’m sorry. Your husband died?” She said, “Yes. It’s very lonely.” I said, “Well, thank goodness you’ve got a dog.” I have a dog; they are great fun and good companions. She said, “I haven’t got a dog.” I said, “Well, you’ve got dog food on the sideboard.” She said, “Do you know, it makes a passable stew.” That was in a respectable house. Our society has hidden poverty as well.

Often, pensioners face a stark choice between heating and eating. I am shocked that between 20,000 and 25,000 pensioners a year in this country are said to die from hypothermia. In my constituency, I am told, an average of 30 old people die of cold each winter, which is shocking. For each one who dies, eight are admitted to hospital, 32 must seek out-patient treatment and 30 see care workers.

Obviously, people on low incomes are most at risk. All of us here expect to heat our homes to a temperature of 21° C, which is the norm. One can go as far down as 18° C, but below that we start losing old people. I saw one figure saying that at 17° C, 8,000 more people die. I cannot believe it, but that is the figure that I was given by Age Concern. The mean average temperature last winter was 3.4° C. Hypothermia in old people starts at 5° C, so home heating is essential.

The state pension is about £97 a week for a single person or £162 for a married couple. No one can live on that, and we all know it. It is vital to keep the winter fuel allowance, bus passes, eye tests, free prescriptions and free television licences for pensioners. They are good measures, and it is absolutely right that any Government should keep them.

I think of people who, perhaps like the old lady I met, tried all their life to save for their old age. But interest rates are low now, so nest eggs yield no interest, and pensioners must bite into their capital. It is infrequently mentioned in the media that the elderly suffer most from low interest rates. Some 28% of all pensioners have less than £1,500 in savings, 4% do not even have a bank account and 26% of female pensioners have no savings whatever—for men, that figure is 28%. What happens when those people have a crisis—when their boiler breaks or something crucial to their lifestyle goes wrong? They panic, and they then become good bait for loan sharks. I suspect some of them just give up and say, “That’s it.”

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 39% of pensioners fail to claim their benefits. That amounts to between £3.1 billion and £5.4 billion a year unclaimed. In statistical terms, that accounts for 700,000 of the 1.8 million pensioners in poverty. Of course, many, like my mother and the parents of other people in this Chamber, are proud and dignified. They do not want to be a burden on anyone, and they spent their entire lives saving so as not to be. God bless them for it, but those benefits are a right, not charity. We are only giving back to pensioners what they contributed to our society, but the problem is trying to convince them of it.

My constituency, which is part of Bromley, is served by Age Concern Bromley. The lady who runs it, Maureen Falloon, has helped pensioners to claim £900,000 in the past year, which is vital. We should be encouraging such outreach services, where charities get involved with vulnerable people and help them out.

The old need to be cared for. There are 2.8 million carers in our country who get no money whatever for caring. Some 5% of those are over 85 years of age. Of course people want to stay in their homes. My mother did; all our parents do. It is natural. They do not want to go somewhere strange. We must try to help them stay in their homes, which, by the way, is cheaper than putting them in a home.

Old age can be lonely. Some 12% of pensioners say that they feel trapped inside their homes, and 6% say that they leave their homes only once a week. Other societies have what used to be called—I do not know whether they still are—extended families. Extended families ensure that the old are looked after and have a place in society. We seem to have lost that, which is a shame, because it is a part of the big society, too.

Unlimited funds would help, but the Minister and I know very well that we do not have them. There are 1.4 million people in our country over 85 years of age. In 10 years’ time, according to The Spectator—it is in the press, so it must be true—there will be 2.5 million, which is a time bomb.

I will conclude with three thoughts. We need to get the 700,000 people who do not claim their benefits to do so, because if they do, they will be lifted out of the poverty trap. The Minister will know about the claim form for attendance allowance and its instructions. One of my staff spent two days—a whole weekend—and two bottles of wine filling out the form, which is actually half the size it was. We have to make it simpler, not only for those who are trying to claim individually, but for those who help them. The Minister is running an automatic credits payment scheme. It is a trial that has been ongoing since last year and will conclude at the end of this year. It is fantastic that, fundamentally, the Ministry, the Government and the system will identify people at risk and give them back their money, for which they have worked all their lives, look after them and make sure that they do not freeze to death or have to eat dog food.

My second thought relates to fixed income bonds, which used to be called granny bonds. When someone has saved all their life and they are trying their best not to be a burden on anyone—not just the state, but their family—they might at least have some guarantee of income. If we were to give a guaranteed rate of return for savings, at least those people who need it would know how much money they could plan on getting without trying to take out their savings.

Thirdly, it should be relatively easy to target potential pensioners as they approach retirement. Surely Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs knows what people’s tax band is likely to be in retirement. Surely all our wonderful computer systems can spew out exactly what has happened and why we should target them. When that happens, they will need advice. The lady in the house with the dog food needed someone to help her. Perhaps she should downsize. I know that it is difficult for her, but somehow someone has to get in there and help her. A charity such as Age Concern Bromley could, through someone such as Maureen Falloon, talk to pensioners in that sort of situation, convince them of their entitlements and help them fill in forms such as that for attendance allowance.

Remember that some people in our society cannot read—they are illiterate. I speak as an ex-Army officer who had to deal with such people as they joined the Army. Surely it would be a moral and proper use of taxpayers’ money to spend some of our resources on helping people via a grant of some kind to a local charity that could offer assistance. The way a society looks after its vulnerable is a very good measure of its civilization.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on raising a serious and important issue, and on explaining its depth and breadth. On pensioner poverty, we talk too often about incomes and measuring the statistics, and therefore lose sight of its human side. No matter how immersed we get in the statistics or how much progress we may think has been made, we should all still be shocked by the example that my hon. Friend has given. The experience of the pensioner whom he visited is totally unacceptable. Notwithstanding anything I might say in the time available to me, one person in such a situation is, clearly, one too many.

My hon. Friend raised a broad spectrum of issues and I will respond to a number of his key themes. On fuel poverty, I want to talk about the support we aim to give and some of our new initiatives. I will also address the issue of non-take-up of benefit, which as he rightly says is one of the most significant causes of pensioner poverty. He raised the issue of investment returns, granny bonds, interest and so on during oral questions a few weeks ago. I am pleased that he has followed up on that and I will give him a bit more information on it. Finally, I will talk about some of the broader issues he raised—income, material deprivation, loneliness and so on—and the steps the Government can take to identify those problems and act on them. I will try to run through all those things.

On fuel poverty, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is a pretty basic need to be able to keep warm enough and healthy, particularly in such a bitterly cold winter. One of the very first decisions we had to take as a Government was, as he rightly says, to continue the winter fuel payment when there was some speculation that it might go or be cut in some other way. We also made a decision on the cold weather payments, which are specific, £25-a-week payments for when the temperature is below zero for a week. They were temporarily raised to £25, and the budget plans we inherited would have reduced them this winter to £8.50 a week. We took the view that when temperatures are below freezing spending money on relatively low-income pensioners, disabled people and families with young children was a priority. My hon. Friend rightly says that money is tight, but that was a priority for us. Instead of cutting it to £8.50, we held the rate at £25, and those who are eligible in his constituency will have received three payments of £25—a total of £75—towards the extra costs of heating in this bitterly cold winter. I think that he and I can be proud of that decision.

Obviously, that is a short-term situation and, ideally, we have to ask why we in Britain have what is known in the jargon as “excess winter deaths.” Why is a cold winter killing people in Britain when, essentially, it does not in Scandinavia, which is a much colder region? It does not get the spikes that we do in the winter, but one of the fundamental reasons is the poor standard of our existing and new housing stock. Even the houses that we are now building are often not good enough. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is leading on those issues and it is requiring the energy companies, as part of their carbon reduction commitments—the carbon emissions reduction target scheme—to target the most vulnerable households. The idea is that the energy companies will pay for things such as home insulation, loft insulation, cavity walls, draft-proofing and so on because, yes, we need to make sure that pensioners can afford their heating bills, but it would be far better if we could make sure, through a properly insulated home, that those heating bills were not so large in the first place. If we can make sure that more elderly people have cosy homes, they will be able to afford to heat them and everybody will gain. We are requiring the energy companies to do more on that front.

We also experimented—this is an interesting point in relation to take-up—with the energy rebate scheme earlier this year. The electricity companies made payments to pensioners based on data-matching between the data held by the Department for Work and Pensions and the energy companies’ customer data. We brought the two together, identified people on the guarantee credit element of the pension credit and simply credited them with £80 on their electricity bills. The previous Government initiated the scheme and we did it as an experiment earlier this year. We targeted those aged over 70, so the elderly and the vulnerable got £80 credit on their electricity accounts. It was a one-year pilot and most of the delivery costs were paid by energy suppliers, and I sense that it was pretty successful. I had a few letters about people who were not sure why they did not qualify when their name was on the bill, and we had a few teething problems. However, overwhelmingly, that scheme put cash in the pockets of people living in vulnerable households. That has worked well, so we are now proposing something called a warm home discount scheme that will build on that success. We propose that energy suppliers should again pay a rebate to vulnerable pensioners, who have been identified through data-matching. That scheme was a useful precedent and we want to build on it.

However, crucially, that brings me on the second point: take-up. Of course, eligibility for the scheme I mentioned is dependent on the person concerned getting pension credit. As my hon. Friend rightly says, too many people who are eligible do not get the money. I absolutely endorse his comment that the payment is not charity; it is a right. People have paid their taxes and their national insurance and they are entitled to the money. I would not want any pensioner to feel that claiming money that the law says they are entitled to is anything other than a right. I am grateful to him for how he expressed that. As he rightly says, one of the things we are looking at—I view this as a two-stage process—is getting people to claim what is there now and simplifying the claims process. The second step, which I will come on to, is to reduce the reliance on means-testing and use more of the benefits and pensions that we know people will get. We should regard means-testing as a safety net, a residual part of the system, rather than a mainstream part of the process, as it is now.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, we are running a pilot scheme. We are trying to use the data we already hold to indentify the people who are eligible but not claiming. I sense that that will be more difficult than we might think. Eligibility for pension credit depends not just on one’s own income but on one’s spouse’s. It also depends on the whole household’s housing costs, and on all its savings in different accounts with different institutions. One of the problems we have in Government is bringing all that together. On my hon. Friend’s point about identifying people approaching pension age who might be about to become poor, the pilot will tell us how far we can draw together the disparate information that different bits of Government hold. People might have three different pensions from three different providers, and, two years before pension age, might not have even crystallised the pot into a pension. We therefore do not yet know how big the pension will be.

Perhaps those who work for charities could be used as additional social workers to help those people and give information back to Government. We would all win by doing that.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for stressing the valuable contribution of charities, such as Age Concern Bromley. Many other charities that do their work in people’s front rooms have a crucial part to play. The Pension, Disability and Carers Service is a local service that works with local authorities and does home visits. It goes into people’s front rooms and does similar sorts of work. Such work is very valuable, but I want to be as systematic as I can, so that we can catch the folk who fall through the net.

Absolutely. That work is a very valuable complement to the process. I want to ensure that the Government are as systematic as we can be, so that we can get as much money automatically to people as we can. As I said, we have been running a pilot scheme and have identified a sample of 2,000 people who, on the face of it, appear to be entitled to pension credit and are not claiming it. We have made payments to those people of what we think they should get. We have contacted them and said, “The money that’s arriving in your bank account is what we think you could get as pension credit. Would you like to make a claim?” As my hon. Friend says, that has been going on and we are closing the study in the middle of March. We are hoping to learn from that how far we can use the information we have to ensure that people get what they are entitled to. We will certainly be reporting back to the House on that.

What we have to do—and what the Government are doing—is to ensure that the money people definitely do claim is better. Let me give an example. The state pension, which has virtually 100% take-up, is worth having. My hon. Friend will know that, after 30 years of the link with earnings being broken, we restored the earnings link this year. Over the lifetime of their retirement, a typical pensioner retiring this year can expect to get an extra £15,000 in state pension compared with the old price link. That money is guaranteed and we know they will claim it. My goal for the longer term is to try to rebalance the system, so that we do not have, as he rightly says, a wholly inadequate basic pension—someone cannot live on £97 a week—and a mass means-testing system that results in many people failing to claim. There will always be a need for a safety net and a catch-all, but I would rather ensure that the pension is at a decent level. Restoring the earnings link is the first step towards that, but I hope we can go further.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of investment income and set out a very important context. In fact, many pensioners, particularly poorer pensioners, have next to no investment income. He quoted some figures. Regarding the poorest fifth of single pensioners, who are living on £136 a week, just £4 of that is coming from investment income. So even if I could magically double interest rates, I would be giving them an extra £4 a week. That clearly matters for those who have structured their finances to depend on interest income. I will say a word about that in a moment. However, for us as a Government, getting pensions, pension credit and so on right will have a substantial effect.

My hon. Friend is right: falling interest rates are an issue. He mentioned the granny bond or, as I gather it used to be called, the pensioner guaranteed income bond. That bond was withdrawn by National Savings and Investments in 2008, when it was paying an interest rate of 3.9%. That was a few years ago. Obviously, when there is a base rate of 0.5%, one might think that savings rates had plummeted so far there would be nothing like that out there. I have done a bit of research and, for example, today on the market 3% interest rates are available for a one-year bond, and for three-year bonds 4% interest rates are available.

However, people do not necessarily know about that. When I responded to my hon. Friend in the House a little while ago and mentioned the issue of shopping around, we discussed the fact that, if someone has access to the internet, dealing with such issues is straightforward. Moneymadeclear and so on are good websites. However, the Consumer Financial Education Body also offers a helpline that people can ring up. If someone is not sure whether they are getting the best interest rate and they want to know what is available, they can ring the helpline number. I shall read that number into the record: 0300 500 5000. People can simply phone that number and say, “I’ve got this amount of savings. What sort of options do I have?” As I mentioned, with savings rates of 4% or more and increased limits on individual savings accounts available, decent rates are out there. However, too many people are trapped in receiving very poor interest rates. Let me give an example. I noticed this morning that a high street building society is offering what it calls an e-savings plus account that pays 0.1% interest, and a high street bank is offering what it calls a premier saving account, also offering 0.1%.

That is exactly where people who work for charities that go into people’s homes can help. If they have such things in their quiver, they can say, “Let’s have a look at your savings and see if we can get you a better return.” That does not cost them anything.

Indeed. I certainly would not downplay the role of face-to-face conversations. I fully accept that many older and more vulnerable people will not have internet access. We need alternatives, such as charities or visitors going into people’s homes and talking about savings rates and giving phone numbers of the sort I have mentioned. That is all part of getting the message across that people who have suffered a big fall in their savings rate need not necessarily face such a situation. There are options out there for them.

In the final few minutes of my speech, I shall talk about the broader issues that my hon. Friend raised. He mentioned carers and social care. As he will know, the Department of Health has an independent care commission headed by Andrew Dilnot, which is due to report in the summer. Although that commission’s formal consultation process finished on Saturday, I am sure it would very much welcome my hon. Friend’s input if he has further comments to make about the role of older carers, whom he mentioned. The Government are seeking to ensure that those who are doing full-time care of, for example, 50 hours a week or more can get far more respite. Perhaps 1 million people are in that category. He also raised the issue of claim forms. I entirely agree: there is always a lot more to be done. I should stress that people can ring a free phone number—0800 882200—and can claim over the telephone. As he rightly says, that might help people who cannot read or deal with the forms. It is great if those people have someone do the form for them or with them. We also try to enable people to complete the form over the phone if that is more helpful to them.

Finally, my hon. Friend properly raised the much wider issues of pensioner poverty. It is not just about income; it is about loneliness and what happens if the cooker breaks and so on. When we publish the figures on households with a below average income—the poverty figures—I am keen for our Department not simply to publish table after table about income, but for it to look much more broadly at deprivation. I have a list of the things we are studying and publishing figures on: for example, whether someone can replace a cooker, take a holiday away from home or go out socially at least once a month. As he rightly says, loneliness, isolation and financial insecurity are important facets.

I am about to conclude as there are only a few seconds left.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising a vital issue and I look forward to having an ongoing conversation with him. Like him, I congratulate the voluntary sector and our front-line staff on their work. They are bringing these messages to vulnerable people, whom we are determined to help.

Policing (Telford)

It is good to see you officiating in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Gale.

I begin by paying tribute to the officers, community support officers and civilian staff who work so hard in my constituency. I have always felt that being a serving police officer or CSO is one of the toughest jobs in our community. When they go to work, they know that they might place themselves in harm’s way, on a daily basis, to uphold the law and protect local people. May I say to those people that we are grateful for their work and the commitment that they show?

We have an establishment figure of 290 police officers and 49 CSOs in the Telford and Wrekin area. Those officers are backed up by civilian staff. In many police stations today, the person we meet, who will help us and point us in the right direction as we go up to the front desk, is often a civilian member of staff. The support they give front-line officers and CSOs is very important. Approximately 20% of the officers who work in Telford are in CID and specialist teams, 20% work in local policing teams and 60% of officers and CSOs work in the response unit. We saw a significant rise in police numbers in the previous decade, and the introduction from scratch of CSOs, who provide a valuable visible presence in the community and have proved to be a successful addition to the strength of divisions across West Mercia. I remember that when CSOs were brought in, people were somewhat sceptical, but they have worked very well in Telford. We often see CSOs paired up with police officers so that they can work jointly and provide cover for each other. They are often seen in our local centres, such as Dawley, Madeley and Oakengates, and provide a valuable, uniformed presence in those areas. People value them and the numbers have risen significantly in recent years. A range of partners, not just mainstream Home Office funding from the police authority, is involved in funding CSOs. Other partners are contributing to provide CSOs in our area. For example, we have seen partnerships with parish councils, which helped provide sponsorship for vehicles and individual CSOs.

The local policing teams serving my constituency operate out of Donnington, Malinsgate and Madeley police stations, and their ethos revolves around four key themes: access, influence, intervention and answers. It is their job to be the direct link and connection with communities in our area. This initiative was one of the best undertaken in policing during the lifetime of the Labour Government. It ensures that people can identify their local police officers and CSOs and engage with them directly.

In Telford, we also have the Partners and Communities Together process, which enables local people to engage with the police and other agencies to identify and tackle issues in their community. I have attended some PACT meetings. They are large meetings: they are often packed—different spelling—and very positive. Local police officers come and talk about policing priorities, and the community can say to police officers and CSOs, “Actually, in the next few weeks we need you to focus on this area or this particular type of crime in our community, because it is particularly troubling us.” Those meetings are very positive and provide a link back to the public. The public get frustrated sometimes when they see that police officers are active, but do not receive any feedback on results or actions that have been taken. This is, therefore, a two-way process—a dialogue between the community and agencies that are attempting to tackle crime in our community. I regularly meet officers in Telford, both at Malinsgate and out on the patch. In a recent meeting with Superintendent Gary Higgins, he said that, in relation to Telford, in 30 years in the police force, he had

“never worked anywhere with such a positive can-do attitude”.

I am pleased to say that crime has been falling in the Telford and Wrekin area in recent years. The overall number of crimes fell from 13,655 in 2006 to 11,444 in 2010. There have been falls in all types of crime, notably violent crime and antisocial behaviour. That is good progress, but every single figure in those statistics relates to a victim, and we need to do more to drive down crime and crime levels in our town.

Local policing teams are contributing to success and alongside this we have some excellent partnerships involving organisations such as Telford and Wrekin council, Wrekin housing trust, local parish councils and wider community groups. One particularly interesting initiative is focused on antisocial behaviour, where West Mercia is the Association of Chief Police Officers lead. We have a co-ordinated antisocial behaviour team that encompasses staff from the police and local authority, in partnership with agencies such as the Wrekin housing trust. That ensures that people who are repeatedly targeted by antisocial behaviour get a tailored response, and we also have an antisocial behaviour vehicle that can be sent to incidents. That activity is then integrated with the work of the local policing teams and fed back through the PACT process, confidentially of course. It allows resources to be targeted effectively.

Antisocial behaviour is a blight on communities. It is a significant problem in urban areas such as Telford. It disproportionately affects different people in communities. When one person feels that they have been affected by antisocial behaviour, their perception of antisocial behaviour may be different from someone else’s. For example, if a gang of young people is kicking a ball against the wall outside an elderly person’s house or bungalow, that may be perceived as a big antisocial behaviour problem for the individual resident. You or I, Mr Gale, might find that perfectly tolerable to an extent, but an older person might feel significantly intimidated. The antisocial behaviour team can consider who is being repeatedly affected by antisocial behaviour and how it impacts on their life.

Alongside this type of work, the police in Telford and Wrekin have also been engaged in work that attacks organised crime networks. Telford is no different from any other town—organised criminals are active in our area. I receive briefings from senior officers on this activity and, although their work is often unseen by the public, I can inform the House that the effort and commitment shown by officers to those investigations is outstanding.

Crime has been falling and a range of local initiatives are producing results. I am, however, concerned about two key issues. First, police funding will be cut by 20% in the next four years and the Government are taking a big risk with public safety. The cuts could undermine the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour that we have been successfully waging in towns such as Telford. Helped by record numbers of police officers, crime fell by 43% under the Labour Government and the chance of being a victim of crime was at a 30-year low. However, the Government’s reckless cuts to policing and crime prevention will put all that at risk.

The cuts are front-loaded. They will be larger for the first two years of this Parliament, making it even harder to make long-term efficiency savings and putting more pressure on police forces to cut officer numbers. In West Mercia, which covers Telford, that will mean a cut of £20.6 million between 2010-11 and 2012-13. That will inevitably lead to pressure on front-line police and CSO numbers in areas such as Telford. Home Office statistics, which were revealed last week, show that in West Mercia there are nearly 150 fewer officers than there were a year ago. The force has announced significant job losses already, and I fear that there are more to come in the next four years. The fall in numbers was for the period before the Government’s 20% cut to police funding was announced, and I fear that it is only the thin end of the wedge.

In West Mercia there is a recruitment freeze, which means that, as people leave the service, they are not replaced. Very often, longer-serving officers leave, for obvious reasons, and they have often progressed up the ranks. Under normal circumstances, they would be replaced by officers from the front line, and new recruits would come in. That clearly cannot happen, so posts in specialist teams are left unfilled and force capacity is weakened, or the front-line force capacity is weakened if posts are filled through promotion. There is a Catch-22 problem with the recruitment freeze: we can see pressure on the front line but also on specialist teams.

Another concern to officers, particularly across West Mercia—I have spoken to officers in Telford about this—is regulation A19, which requires that officers retire after 30 years’ service. West Mercia is not implementing A19 at present, but, like several other forces, it will be looking at it. The real problem is that the force would lose officers with great experience if it were implemented.

It is not just me who is concerned about these issues—the police themselves are. Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said on Sky News on 20 October 2010:

“So we know forces have a recruitment freeze on officers, we churn about 5,000 officers a year so we’re probably talking losing, by the end of this time, 20,000 officers and that’s going to have a big impact. Let’s have no doubt about that, that’s going to have a big impact and that doesn’t include staff officers that we lose as well. So this is a tough day for policing.”

He was talking about the broad arrangements around the settlement.

Rob Garnham, chair of the Association of Police Authorities, said on 13 December 2010:

“There is a risk that the positive momentum of the last few years on crime reduction and public confidence will be interrupted, at a time when communities are likely to be looking more towards the police for help when other public services are scaling back. The police service may find itself squeezed from several directions at once”.

That is interesting stuff, is it not? During the election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister said that we would have 3,000 extra police officers on the streets. That was clearly a campaign commitment. The Prime Minister said that he would send back to their Department any Minister who proposed front-line cuts to services so that they could think again. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say this morning. During the general election, my Conservative opponent said that the West Mercia police in Telford were “underfunded”. I do not know what he would think if he saw the figures today.

The second issue I want to discuss is directly elected police and crime commissioners. At the same time as we are looking at police cuts, the Government are committed to subjecting the police to an unwanted organisational upheaval, in which police authorities would be replaced by directly elected police and crime commissioners. It is estimated that that will cost more than £100 million.

In the nearly 10 years that I have been the MP for Telford, I have never met anyone in my constituency, neither a member of the public nor a party activist from any party, who suggested that that would be a good course of action. The fact is that we have a well-respected police authority model, which involves people from all parts of West Mercia—we do not want an American-style elected police commissioner.

There is a real danger that the position will be politicised, at huge cost to taxpayers. The Minister should take the money put aside for the project and give it to police forces such as West Mercia to spend on front-line services. The cash could come directly to Telford to be spent on front-line policing and on supporting police officers and CSOs. I urge her to go back to the Department and think again about the police commissioner idea. She should allocate the resources that have been ring-fenced for it to police authorities, and put them on the front line in towns such as Telford.

In closing, I once again pay tribute to the public servants in and out of uniform who serve our community as part of the police force in Telford. We ask them to do much on our behalf, and it is our duty to support them in doing their duty.

It is a pleasure to stand before you this afternoon, Mr Gale. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on obtaining this debate, and I join him in paying tribute to the excellent and innovative work done by the police and other agencies in Telford. As he said, together with Telford and Wrekin council, they have set up a joint unit to improve action on the antisocial behaviour that can blight people’s lives. West Mercia is the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on antisocial behaviour, and one of the eight forces chosen to take part in a new trial to improve the police response to complaints about such behaviour. A pilot is taking place in Telford, and a risk-assessment tool that identifies high-risk and vulnerable callers has been developed and is already being used. Such work makes a crucial difference to the safety of communities and the quality of people’s lives.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about key issues. If I may, I would like to start with police and crime commissioners. He and I differ on the impact of the Government’s proposals to introduce them. He said that the proposal would lead to politicisation of the police, whereas I believe that it provides an opportunity to open them up to democratic accountability. Police authorities are responsible for holding the police to account, but the introduction of elected commissioners will put power directly in the hands of the public.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the cost of the exercise, but the commissioners will cost no more than police authorities did. Moreover, I am not sure whether he is aware that in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) proposed an amendment and then voted for having directly elected chairs of crime and community panels, which would involve an equivalent cost. For the election, £50 million has been especially allocated—it will not come out of the allocation for the police grant. The cost would be the same whether it were for an elected police and crime commissioner or an elected chair of an authority. Overall, the exercise would involve the same cost.

Commissioners will take over most of the functions of police authorities, and they will provide democratic accountability and be a visible and active force for community engagement. Meanwhile, they themselves will be held to account by police and crime panels for the execution of their duties. The panels will be made up of locally elected councillors and some independent and lay members. They will be able to veto a commissioner’s proposed precept by a three quarters majority and veto any candidate whom a commissioner proposes for chief constable by the same majority.

The public will also be given opportunities to scrutinise the performance of their police and crime commissioners directly through enhanced local crime information, including, from today, street-level crime maps. I am sure the hon. Member for Telford would agree that that will open up police information and crime statistics to the public, who will know what is happening in their street and area, and be able to hold not just police commissioners but their local police to account. He discussed the importance of local people being able to hold their local police, local ward panels and so on to account for what is happening on their streets.

The running costs and day-to-day expenditure of police and crime commissioners will be less than 1% of the total costs of policing. As I said, we expect them to cost no more than the current system of police authorities. However, what will be different is the value that the public get for that money. Police and crime commissioners will need to demonstrate value for money to local people or they will not be re-elected. The additional cost is the £50 million over four years for elections, but, as I said, that is the same as would result from the suggestion of the hon. Member for Gedling for directly elected chairs of panels.

The hon. Member for Telford spoke about value for money, police numbers and the importance of local policing. The core challenge for the police is not just to reduce costs but to do so while maintaining and, indeed, improving public services. The police are very “can do”, and I am constantly impressed by the determination of police officers and staff to do just that. After the provisional funding settlement was announced in December, the chair of West Mercia’s police authority said:

“Even after the planned cuts we will still be spending more than £200 million per annum on policing services. That is still a substantial sum and, given the strong position that has been built up over the last 10 years, we aim to do all we can to maintain an excellent police service into the foreseeable future.”

The Government’s priority is to ensure that the police service retains and enhances its ability to protect and serve the public. That is done by improving efficiency, driving out waste and increasing productivity.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was at Home Office oral questions last week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) noted that there is a healthy appetite for more policemen on the beat—visible policing—with which I am sure we all agree. The chief constable of Gloucestershire has reorganised his force and increased the number of officers on the beat from 563 to 661—increasing his front-line ability to carry out visible policing—by looking at his back and middle offices. We know that there is much that chief constables and police authorities can do to improve services: improving deployment, getting officers out on the streets and smarter policing.

Only 11% of policing is visible at any one time. That has to be our focus: smarter policing, where we deploy police, and what they are doing when they are out on the streets. The broad strategy to improve value for money in the police service is about improving front-line services. I am sure we agree on the function that the police service performs in our communities, which is absolutely vital. The Government’s priority is to ensure a better police service, retaining and enhancing its ability to protect and serve.

Despite a rapid expansion of the work force, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that only 11% of officers are visible and available to the public. The Government are cutting bureaucracy so that the police are crime fighters, not form writers. The Telford and Wrekin section of West Mercia police’s website explains:

“Over the next year and beyond, our aim is to work smarter, operate using streamlined processes and focus all of our efforts on serving and protecting the public of Telford and Wrekin in the best and most effective way.”

The primary responsibility for improving value for money is local, but the Government will ensure real leadership where national organisation is required, which will enhance policing at the local level and enable it to function better. Transparency of data and comparative data are key to enabling and driving change. Data on costs and services accessible to the public reinforce behaviours that drive value for money.

On pay and conditions of service, the Government have asked Tom Winsor to review the remuneration and conditions of service of police officers and staff, and to make recommendations that are fair to, and reasonable for, both the taxpayer and police and staff officers. Procurement and IT will have a concerted and nationally led approach. There will be a step change in collaboration between forces, providing the right support for forces and helping the police service to organise, so that it gains maximum benefit from working with the private sector. We estimate a potential £2.2 billion saving, which outstrips the £2.1 billion real reduction in grant.

The Government are taking a direct interest in ensuring that savings are realised. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice now chairs a high-level working group, with representation from chief constables and police authorities, to identify the right change programmes and agree that they should be taken forward. We all recognise that it is no longer business as usual. The time for talking about IT convergence, collective procurement, collaboration, sharing and outsourcing services is over. We cannot afford any longer not to do those things.

I think we would all agree that the savings the Minister is talking about, through collaboration and working with other forces, are important. In fact, West Mercia is looking to work more with Warwickshire police. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the establishment police and community support officer figures for Telford will not decrease over the next five years—front-line police and CSOs?

That is a matter for the local chief constable—to organise the West Mercia police force as he can best deploy them, to the best of their ability. It is within local command to decree what the deployment must be. The Government’s loud and clear message is that deployment should be to the front line for visible policing, by making back office and middle office savings. The front line should be protected and the Prime Minister would be very cross with those police forces that did not strive to make the effort and succeed—as Gloucestershire has done—in putting police on the front line.

There is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, as shown by the examples of other cities and countries, such as New York and Northern Ireland, and as shown in England and Wales during certain periods. We have all talked about the numbers. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister, when talking about the Liberal Democrat manifesto, putting 3,000 extra bobbies on the beat. In the event, many of the successes—where police numbers have fallen and crime has fallen—have been due to technological advances such as better burglar alarms and car safety. There is not a direct and absolute correlation between those two things.

I want to touch briefly on the issues the hon. Gentleman raised concerning antisocial behaviour. The Government would agree with him that antisocial behaviour blights lives and the public expect us to fight it. It is crime, however it is labelled. We know the damage that such behaviour can do to communities. It can be more disruptive than other types of crime, because it so often targets those least able to look after themselves. As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are planning to reform the toolkit for dealing with antisocial behaviour. Our aim is to reduce the bureaucracy, delay and costs that hamper the police and their local partners. We will be consulting shortly on new measures and proposals.

A trial for handling antisocial behaviour complaints was launched in eight police force areas, including West Mercia, on 4 January. That change in the way that forces respond to calls, involving IT improvements, uses new systems to log complaints. The trial aims to put into action the recommendations of HMIC’s report on the police response to antisocial behaviour. The police and Telford council have already introduced an innovative joint ASB team. They are using and helping to develop the risk-assessment tool that identifies high-risk and vulnerable antisocial behaviour callers. The trials are being supported by the Home Office, ACPO, HMIC, social landlords, and crime and nuisance groups, which illustrates the point the hon. Gentleman made about the importance of partnership working.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the police and all the agencies and individuals who work with them in Telford and across the country. They perform an immensely valuable service in often difficult circumstances, and the Government are committed to doing everything we can to support them. We recognise the challenges caused by the unprecedented budget deficit, but we have every confidence that front-line services can be protected. We will provide real national leadership, with the National Crime Agency, in giving the police the powers they need and in helping to cut unnecessary costs and bureaucracy where a central role is needed. Our reforms will make them freer to develop local responses to local problems, without being hampered by unnecessary targets and regulations imposed from Whitehall.

I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure we have the same aims in policing the safety of our communities and giving everyone the confidence to go about their daily business without fear.

Order. We will now move to the debate on funding for schools in Worcestershire. Before that debate commences, I notice that, quite properly, there are a number of Members from Worcestershire present. It seems appropriate to remind Members that while any Member may at any time seek to intervene on a speech, if anyone wishes to make a speech during a half-hour Adjournment debate, that has to be with the consent of the Member in charge and the Minister, and the Chair must be notified first.

Schools Funding (Worcestershire)

I begin by saying what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gale. I seek leave from you to allow my colleagues to speak.

Order. I am slightly distracted and I apologise to the hon. Lady. Any hon. Member who seeks to speak must have the permission of the hon. Member in charge of the debate and the consent of the Minister. I trust that the speeches have been cleared with the Minister as well.

Yes, they have.

At the outset, I declare an interest as chair of governors at Vaynor first school in my constituency. I want to speak for a few minutes and then invite my two Worcestershire colleagues, Mr Robin Walker and Mr Mark Garnier, to speak. Like me, they have a keen interest in this debate.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again. We shall get started in a minute, and fortunately we still have a full half-hour. I remind her that she must refer to hon. Members by their constituencies and not by their names.

Fairer funding in Worcestershire has been a long-running crusade of mine, ever since I came to the county in 2000, when we moved from Wrexham in north Wales to Redditch. At the time, both my children were happily and successfully educated in the state sector in Wales, so it came as quite a shock when we realised that their education in Worcestershire did not seem to carry the same monetary value as it did in Wales. By that, I mean there was obviously something of a funding gap between what was provided to every child in Wales and what was provided to children in Worcestershire, which was far lower. Perhaps the Minister will shed some light on that issue.

I became a governor at Vaynor first school in Redditch, where the situation was worse than I thought. The school provided a good education to our children, but without many of the necessary resources. Added to that was the competition that we faced with neighbouring authorities to attract extra staff. That was due to our lack of funds and available means compared with other schools.

Worcestershire has constantly been near the bottom of the league tables, and in 2008-09 the average funding per pupil per year in Worcestershire was £3,729 compared with £4,066 nationally. This year, it is £4,028 compared with £4,388 nationally. While £300 does not seem to make a great deal difference in this day and age, it is a significant amount when applied to each individual pupil across Worcestershire.

Locally, things are worse. As the Minister may know, Redditch is on the outskirts of Birmingham, and currently schools in Birmingham are allocated at least £700 more per pupil than Redditch. Although I understand that there are intervening factors, £700 is a huge amount of money per pupil when one considers what sports equipment, after-school clubs, arts, science or reading materials could be provided for each child.

For a school such as Vaynor first school, which has 403 pupils, the funding disparity means that about £285,000 more would go to a similar school in Birmingham. Furthermore, with our current budget of just more than £1 million, we can see just how unfair the funding gap is. Cumulatively, that money could allow the school to provide one-to-one teaching for struggling students or provide extra resources.

Of course, Redditch will benefit from the Government’s pupil premium initiative, which I welcome with open arms. I am pleased to see that the most disadvantaged pupils will receive an extra helping hand. That is especially important in Redditch where there are some deprived areas. I wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary of State for Education when he said:

“Schools should be engines of social mobility.”

We have a duty to ensure that the school system in the UK nurtures and provides for our young people to give them the best possible chances from an early age. Today, I have written to all head teachers in Redditch, asking them to contact parents to ensure that those children who are entitled to free school meals are aware of the help available.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is so important to the future of children in Worcestershire. Does she agree that free school meals are not a good measure of deprivation in Worcestershire, particularly where rural schools no longer offer a dining room and therefore cannot offer free school meals?

I totally agree. We have to start somewhere, and perhaps as this Parliament progresses we will think of a fairer way of dividing the available money.

Redditch has the added problem of having been “red-flagged” by the Audit Commission on health and education issues. That is another factor for Redditch to deal with, in addition to those that I have already mentioned. The Government need to take a variety of factors into account when allocating funding, and I urge the Minister to recognise that. Some areas have slipped through the net, where funding is concerned. Although I understand that money is not the be-all and end-all, it goes a long way in sorting out some key issues.

I also realise that the solutions cannot all be provided by central Government, and neither should they be. My constituency staff in Redditch and I help out by mentoring young people from a local secondary school, which is the same school that both my children attended. We help those pupils to discuss any problems that they may have, encourage them to achieve their aspirations and offer them reassurance.

In conclusion, I am passionate about education, and I want to ensure that young people who attend school in Redditch—and indeed across the UK—get the best education that can be provided. We all know that children get only one chance, and we should help them to achieve the best they can. Although the Government are making significant improvements to our school system, we still have some way to go, mainly by ensuring that funding for schools is allocated in a fair and just way for the benefit of every child rather than according to the political jostling of central Government.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) on securing this vital debate, and on the passionate way in which she has argued her case. The minutiae of funding formulae do not make for glamorous debates, and in discussing such technical matters it is only too easy to lose the wood for the trees. It is vital to remember that the heart of this issue is a concept that is so simple but yet so central to the coalition Government—fairness.

Like my hon. Friend, I was elected with a clear mandate to campaign for fairer funding, and I am passionate about securing that aim. I have been lucky to learn from people who have far greater knowledge of such matters and who for many years have made it their main aim to achieve fairer funding—the F40 group. If, in the next few minutes, I delve into the dark byways of the funding system, I make no apology, but I ask hon. Members to bear in mind that I do so in a quest for fairness.

When I received our county council’s briefing on the impact of this year’s changes to school funding, I immediately reached for a cold towel to put over my head. The complexities of having one grant mainstreamed and another top-sliced—here a top-up, there a minimum funding guarantee—would be enough to put off all but the most dedicated funding nerd. There is nothing transparent about our current system. At last, with the help of that cold towel and some expert tuition, I was able to make some sense of the numbers.

The Government said that they have provided flat funding. That may be the case across the country, although even that is a challenge with inflation as it is. Unfortunately, in Worcestershire the mainstreaming of grants appears to have seen some reductions. Before the introduction of the pupil premium, we will see a fall of approximately £1.2 million in cash terms from last year to this. A table of per pupil funding by authority has been compiled by F40, based on the guaranteed unit of funding and cash numbers. Disappointingly, it still shows that Worcestershire is among the 10 worst-funded authorities in the country on both counts.

However, all is not lost. As my hon. Friend has noted, that small fall is more than made up for by the pupil premium. The estimated £3 million increase from that means that Worcestershire is a net winner from the Government’s changes. There is no doubt that the pupil premium marks a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Underlying the guaranteed unit of funding figures, there is no perfect formula produced by the finest minds in the Department for Education, and no work of genius compiled to meet the needs of every school in every part of the country. Instead, we have a mess—a hotch-potch of historical errors and corrections—and an unfairness, which is based on an injustice, which is based on a mistake.

The underlying formula has not changed. Instead, the so-called dedicated schools grant has ossified—it is tweaked from time to time, but every year the underlying mistakes are repeated and magnified. Each year, as the Labour party spent the golden legacy that it inherited, money was fired off on a flawed formula that is widely understood to favour big cities over rural counties. That formula targets deprivation on the broadest levels, but misses it in the many pockets where it truly exists. It fails to reflect activity in schools, which hurts places such as Worcestershire the most, due to their very diversity.

Worse still, the constant use of spend-plus has magnified those effects. I do not need to repeat my hon. Friend’s arguments, but I can set out the picture in Worcester, where a number of wards are in the top 5% for deprivation in the country. They are wards served by schools such as Gorse Hill primary, where I used to help with reading, and secondary schools, including the outstanding Christopher Whitehead language college, which caters for the Dines Green estate. Between them, Bishop Perowne college and Tudor Grange academy look after Tolladine and Warndon.

Those are all fine schools, and in the past their good performance has been used as a reason why they did not need fairer funding. Now, in a time of austerity, the same case cannot be made. Those schools will benefit from the pupil premium, but that does not undo the legacy of decades in which the formula worked against them.

As the Government White Paper accepts, and as the Leader of the House confirmed last week,

“the system of school funding is unfair and needs reform.”—[Official Report, 27 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 457.]

Who am I to argue with the Leader of the House?

I welcome the steps that Ministers have already taken. I was pleased when my noble Friend Lord Hill met me with the leadership of F40 to discuss the broad case for reform. I am delighted with the impact of the pupil premium and look forward to the benefits that it will bring to schools that have waited too long for their due. I urge the Government to deliver on their commitment as soon as humanly possible to develop a clear, transparent and fair national funding formula based on pupils’ needs.

In the audience for the debate today are pupils from Bishop Perowne college, a very fine school in my constituency. In their interests, in the interests of Worcestershire and in the interests of fairness, I commend this cause to my hon. Friend the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who has worked incredibly hard on behalf of all of us in Worcestershire, on getting into the nitty-gritty and the nuts and bolts of the funding formula. It is very useful to have someone taking the lead on our behalf, although I stress that that in no way diminishes our enthusiasm to sort out this problem.

The issue of fairer funding for Worcestershire schools is ongoing, and much of what I am about to say will, to an extent, be repeating the arguments, but it helps to put the issue into context. I visited one of my local secondary schools just last Friday and met the members of the student council. Those pupils are still reeling at the prospect of university fees, but it was helpful and, I believe, productive to sit down with them, to discuss the arguments and to try to sort out some of the misunderstandings that have been promulgated in the debate.

People at the school were also very worried about the education maintenance allowance. During the meeting, the head teacher told me that some 45% of pupils at Stourport high school receive the EMA. Some may argue that that proves that it is poorly targeted, but I choose to look at it differently and to use it to illustrate the fact that Worcestershire has hidden pockets of financial need. That evidence of financial need illustrates the point that Worcestershire is not the wealthy rural idyll that some believe it to be. It is not the affluent area that the appallingly low per pupil educational grant suggests; it is, in fact, an area that needs more investment in its education system.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that my constituency is in educational limbo as we wait to see whether there will be a capital grant to help the 11 schools whose rebuilding has been cancelled as a result of the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme. He will know that I am keen to secure the £125 million needed to complete those schools. As we have had a previous debate on the issue, I will not rehearse the arguments here a second time, aside from giving the Minister the most respectful but firmest of nudges, if I may, to ensure that Wyre Forest is looked at favourably when the money is handed out.

In the meantime, it is vital that the Minster takes on board the fact that another school in Kidderminster, Baxter college, draws its pupils, in part, from a ward that is rated in the bottom 10 in terms of indices of social deprivation across England, yet it receives about £3 million a year less than an equivalent school in Tower Hamlets. Of course, I realise that there are specific issues regarding the cost of being in central London, but the social issues do not justify such a massive discrepancy.

It is vital for us in Wyre Forest that we have investment in our schools locally, and the topic of this debate is the per pupil funding. If we continue being so unfair to Worcestershire’s pupils, we will continue to lock some places into permanent under-achievement. I have got to know many of the teachers and heads in Wyre Forest, and I am staggered by the incredible job that they do in, in some cases, extremely difficult circumstances. However, we cannot rely solely on their continued good will and tireless work. It is vital that we support our teachers by giving them the resources that they need and deserve. Knowing that the Minister will be keen to help on this issue, I repeat how important it is that we see our capital funding in place, for reasons that we discussed in this Chamber in a previous debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) on securing today’s debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss school funding issues in Worcestershire with her and my other hon. Friends. I recognise her concern about the level of school funding in Worcestershire. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) said, I think that this is a glamorous subject to debate, and I am delighted to be doing so.

Worcestershire is one of the lowest funded authorities in the country. In funding allocations per pupil, Worcestershire is ranked 142nd out of 151 authorities, receiving, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch said, £4,028 per pupil compared with an average of £4,398. To put that in context, in neighbouring Birmingham, the figure is £4,790, which is £762 more per pupil, and in Tower Hamlets it is £6,792—a staggering £2,764 more per pupil per year.

I know that my hon. Friend’s concern is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, who tabled an early-day motion last June calling for a fairer funding system for schools and raised the issue in the House at business questions last week. I also know that the F40 group, which represents many of the lower funded local authorities in England and of which Worcestershire is a member, has met my noble Friend Lord Hill and raised those issues with him. I know that all these concerns are also shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin).

The reason for the situation is the unfair and illogical funding system that we inherited from the previous Administration and that we are committed to reviewing. Indeed, we are doing so, as my hon. Friends will be pleased to know, with some of the finest minds in the Department for Education, who are sitting behind me—not directly behind me, but behind my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), although he also has a fine mind and will, I am sure, contribute to the debate.

To be fair to the previous Government, they had been reviewing the system as well. The method of distributing school funding is based on a formula created in 2003. That was subsumed into the dedicated schools grant using the spend plus method, which took the funding spent by local authorities in the financial year 2005-06 and moved it forward by uplifting it by a set percentage each year for every authority and adding funding for ministerial priorities. That means that the inequalities in the system that existed in 2005-06 have been amplified by the percentage increases in subsequent years. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, the grant has ossified and it repeats and amplifies the unfairness. The effect is that schools facing similar challenges can receive vastly different funding. Two schools with the same needs should receive the same funding; it should not depend on an historical allocation made for a different set or a different generation of children.

Therefore, in our White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, we said that we would consult on developing and introducing a clear, transparent and fairer national funding formula based on the needs of pupils. We recognise that not all schools are the same and that their funding should reflect the needs and characteristics of their pupils. Worcestershire, for instance, receives funding for sparsity of nearly £2.5 million a year. However, the system no longer reflects needs adequately, depending more on what schools received in the past than on the characteristics and needs of pupils in their schools now. We want all schools to be funded transparently, so that schools and parents can see why there are differences.

We are already working with partners—such as the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, teacher and governor associations, and the Independent Academies Association—to develop options for the future funding of schools, with the aim of consulting in late spring. No doubt my hon. Friends will contribute to that consultation process. It is likely to cover the merits of a national funding formula, transitional arrangements and the factors that should be included in such a formula.

I know that my hon. Friends will be disappointed that we have not been able to go further in our first year. We inherited a perilous economic state from the previous Administration, and the Government have made it clear that deficit reduction and continuing to ensure economic recovery are the most urgent issues facing Britain. Our budget deficit in the last financial year was £156 billion—the highest among the G20 countries. The interest on the accumulated Government debt to date is £42.7 billion a year, which is significantly more than the total schools budget. Unless we take serious measures to tackle the deficit, we will face a higher cost of borrowing as capital markets demand greater compensation for the heightened risk. Ultimately, without the action that the Government are taking, we would now face an economic crisis.

As with other public services and Government spending, we have had to make difficult decisions about funding for schools. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest will understand that, given that we do debate the difficult issues that he raised in his remarks. We have had to make very difficult decisions in relation to the spending review period. In reaching those decisions, we needed to balance taking urgent action to manage the public finances with protecting the most vulnerable and recognising that education faces particular pressures.

I am pleased that we are protecting funding in the system at flat cash per pupil, before adding the new pupil premium. Flat cash per pupil means that as pupil numbers go up, the overall budget increases in line with those numbers. The pupil premium is in addition to that and will be worth £2.5 billion by 2014-15.

In that context, I hope that my hon. Friends will see this as a good settlement for schools, in the circumstances. As ever, the budget for each individual school will vary; it will depend on each school’s particular circumstances and the decisions made by local authorities and school forums about how best to allocate funds.

Will the Minister address my point about free school meals in rural constituencies, where many schools no longer offer a dining room?

Yes, I am happy to respond to my hon. Friend’s question. I recognise the concerns about using free school meals as a measure, but they are the only available method that can correlate deprivation at pupil level, rather than at postcode or area level, so they are the most accurate reflection of deprivation. There is quite a lot of academic evidence that free school meals accurately reflect the levels of deprivation in an area. However, we will continue to look at the issue, and we might in future include a measure of, for instance, whether pupils ever qualified for free school meals during a period of, say, six or three years. In that way, those who qualify for free school meals for just one year, then no longer qualify, will be eligible for the pupil premium.

The other thing that is happening as a consequence of policy on free school meals is that local authorities are pressing schools and parents to apply for free school meals, which they might not have done in the past. That will have a double benefit, in that more pupils will qualify for the pupil premium, as well as being able to have a meal at school.

The flat-cash settlement means, of course, that it will take time to move to the fairer funding system that I have been talking about. However, funding reform will be introduced in such a way as to minimise disruption and ensure that schools’ resources are not subject to sudden and dramatic change.

Our priority for 2011-12 is the introduction of the pupil premium. I have said before, and make no apology for repeating, that closing the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds is central to our education policy, and that was reflected in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch.

Does the Minister agree that a key issue in closing the attainment gap is early intervention to give people the best chances and the best start in their education? Another issue that needs to be prioritised, therefore, is the early intervention grant. Disappointingly, however, it is likely to go down in Worcestershire over the next couple of years. Will the Minister look into that to see how we can concentrate resources in the right places to prioritise early intervention as the Government address these issues?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why we have allocated £2.2 billion to the early intervention grant. It is vital to intervene early to catch problems before they become more systemic in a child’s life. My hon. Friend is right, and I will look into the issues he raises to ensure that there is not some undue unfairness in the allocation of the grant in Worcestershire. I will write to him shortly.

Although the exact amount of the pupil premium will depend on the number of children known to be eligible for free school meals, as recorded in the January 2011 census, which is not yet finalised, the numbers recorded in 2010 give an indication of the numbers for Worcestershire. On that basis, schools in my hon. Friends’ local education authority area will receive about £3.8 million of additional funding from April 2011 to help them tackle deprivation.

The pupil premium will be worth £625 million in 2011-12 and build to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. That is significant spending to help the most disadvantaged children in society. To ensure that the premium is introduced as smoothly as possible, we have made the indicator for next year known eligibility for free school meals, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned. In future, we aim to include those who have previously been eligible for free school meals so that not only the value of the premium but the number of children eligible for it will rise year on year. Overall funding for the pupil premium will rise from £625 million this year to £2.5 billion in three years’ time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch will appreciate that I am unable to pre-empt the findings of the funding review, and I know that she will be disappointed about that. However, I hope that she and my hon. Friends will take in good faith a commitment from me carefully to study the issues that they have raised in the context of the school funding review and in our consultation later this year.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.