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Westminster Hall

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2011

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 8 March 2011

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Young Offenders

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and it is a great honour to speak about this important issue. This debate is informed by my visit during recess week to Barton Moss secure children’s home and Hindley young offenders institution. I pay full tribute to their work and to the obvious dedication and humanity of all the staff whom I met in both institutions. The Prison Reform Trust has also been invaluable in helping me think through what I intend to say.

It is fair to say that in few areas of public policy is the research more voluminous, more detailed or more comprehensive than in youth justice. There is always one more report to be read, one more document to be studied in detail or one more set of figures. I welcome the fact that the coalition Government and the Opposition have stressed their commitment to the principle of early intervention during the foundation years from nought to five, but I am concerned that a cohort of young people out there are already on the conveyor belt to crime, as it has been termed.

In preparing for this debate, I was pleased to reread the pamphlet issued in 2002 by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) that first set out the idea of a conveyor belt to crime. I was working in the Conservative research department when it was published, and it is a useful reminder that those were not the wilderness years we often felt them to be at the time. The pamphlet indicated to me that the conveyor belt does not stop at age five but runs right through to age 17.

Although much good work is being done on early intervention and preventing children from stepping on to the conveyor belt to crime, we must recognise that there is a significant policy challenge in what is almost a lost generation—those aged between four and 17 who may already be on that conveyor belt and who have already missed the benefits of Sure Start, family nurse partnerships and other initiatives. It was stressed to me at Barton Moss secure children’s home that the four to 10 age group is particularly important for policy makers to grapple with. We concentrate on the foundation years and the 15 to 18 age group, but a great deal does not always happen in between. I urge Government and think tanks to address the four to 10 age group.

Whenever we discuss criminal justice, we must ask big questions. What is the criminal justice system for? What is the relative balance between punishment and rehabilitation? Crucially, where is the victim in all this? Although it is tempting to embark on a great philosophical exploration of criminal justice, I will focus on a slightly narrower field of play, starting from shorter sentences.

I was struck when one of the professionals whom I met the week before last said to me, “Well, if they are in for eight weeks, at least we can sort out their teeth.” That might seem a slightly odd thing to say—surely the purpose of incarceration is not to address issues of oral hygiene—but the point is much more fundamental. Many of the people who enter the youth justice system have had chaotic lifestyles; many have never seen a dentist or engaged with health services; and many have dropped out of the education system. Even a short sentence can offer a brief opportunity to address some of those underlying problems.

It might be argued that many in the youth justice system have experienced a perfect storm. According to the Prison Reform Trust, 76% of those in the criminal justice system have an absent father, 51% come from deprived households, 39% have appeared on the child protection register, 28% have witnessed domestic violence, 14% have a parent with a physical, mental health or learning disability, 48% have been excluded from school, 31% engage in substance use, 20% engage in self-harm, 17% have a formal mental health diagnosis and 11% have attempted suicide.

I read out that litany not merely to emphasise the relative disadvantage faced by those in the youth justice system but to make a more fundamental and frightening point. The structure of our youth justice system seems to make it more likely that the most troubled in our society will be given custodial sentences, because their needs are thought to be far too complex to be dealt with in the community.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that some young people suffering from Asperger’s syndrome do not necessarily get the treatment and diagnosis that they need, but are simply put down as mischievous, badly behaved troublemakers?

My hon. Friend anticipates much of my speech. We certainly lack a fundamental ability to assess the needs of young offenders when they enter the youth justice system and determine how best to address those needs. They therefore end up in the secure estate without having been assessed properly, because the tools are not present in the system, which is a great worry that I shall discuss later. The conveyor belt appears to be constructed almost to minimise effective exit points before reaching the secure estate. That should be of great concern, because disadvantaged children face particular problems in both the courts and custody.

It goes without saying that reoffending by juvenile offenders is extremely high. Some 75% of those released from custody and 68% of those given community sentences or other disposals in the community reoffend within a year. Why is that? Undoubtedly, some of them commit crimes and are bad people, but for a significant number, the ineffective screening process and lack of appropriate tools for identifying behavioural and communication difficulties almost set them up to fail.

I welcome, for example, the Minister’s proposed amendments to the Bail Act 1976, which would remove the option of remand for young people who were unlikely to receive a custodial sentence, but I would also welcome an assurance from him that the alternatives will adequately protect vulnerable children. When I visited Barton Moss secure children’s home, I was struck by the fact that many children are remanded there on bail for their own protection and welfare, even though they might not end up receiving a custodial sentence. There must be no presumption against a custodial remand.

Equally, when offenders reach the youth court, they find disadvantage once again. Little is done to screen young offenders for mental illness, learning disability or speech, language and communication difficulties. It is no use imposing a disposal of any sort if the young person cannot comprehend the punishment or interpret what is occurring to them in what can be a very off-putting setting. I admit that I have never visited a youth court, but I can imagine the feelings of a nervous child entering that formal situation, uncertain of the process and of what is occurring.

I welcome the previous Government’s introduction of a witness intermediary scheme to help witnesses with speech and language problems or communication difficulties better to present their case in court, but I must ask why such assistance is not also afforded to defendants suffering from similar problems. Does a child’s impairment increase the possibility of custody, because it makes it more likely that they will fail to comply with a youth rehabilitation order, or because there is a lack of an appropriate youth justice programme that might enable compliance? If so, it is a damning indictment of the system. Is it really the aim of our society that eloquent children should be more able to plead for one last chance?

When children get to custody, they have what is called the Asset form, which is the primary document for interpreting children’s needs. Those forms are critical to the development of appropriate care and sentence plans, but they are structurally flawed, because they fail to identify speech, language and communication difficulties. They impair identification of individual problems and make it harder to address those difficulties during the time in custody, however short or long it may be. The inadequacy of Asset means under-reporting of those problems, and I believe that they are taken insufficiently seriously within public policy circles.

We should recognise that, thanks to Lord Bradley’s report, improvements have been made to the way in which mental health is addressed, but the situation is by no means perfect. Indeed, it is a success only relative to the absolute failure in terms of other needs. The consequences of that failure in screening and appropriate identification are severe. As I have said, we are setting young offenders up to fail, which manifests itself in the rapid increase in the numbers of young offenders who are returned to remand for breach of conditions. For example, someone might be given what is still called an ASBO—an antisocial behaviour order—and told that they cannot enter a particular road. However, their grandmother might live on the other side of that road and, if they cross it to see her and somebody spots them and reports them for it, that is a breach. It might get them sent back to a young offenders institution, but it seems to me to be a technical breach. It might even be that the young person cannot comprehend that to get to their grandmother’s house, they would be breaching an ASBO in the first place. If they do not receive appropriate care and an appropriate sentence plan, and if they have a basic lack of understanding of the process in which they are engaged and are incapable of engaging with the interventions provided for them, we are setting them up to fail.

The story is the same when they get to custody. Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, has said:

“Prisons can offer a short window of opportunity for the majority of young people who end up in custody…That is an opportunity that must not be wasted.”

I am concerned that it is being wasted in some instances. For example, it is critical that children who might have dropped out of the education system and have not acquired the basic skills of literacy and numeracy are re-equipped with them, if they are to fulfil a purposeful life once they are released. However, it is clear from written answers provided to me by the Minister that the number of such young people achieving literacy qualifications dropped from 2,104 in 2006-07 to just 1,350 in 2009-10. Similarly, the number completing numeracy courses dropped from 2,680 in 2006-07 to 1,813 in 2009-10. I doubt that that is simply because of a decrease in the numbers in those institutions. There is clearly something more structural going on, and I would welcome some more information on why it might be occurring.

The hon. Gentleman is making a good contribution. On his last point, does he recognise—I say this as a former Minister with responsibility for skills and training in prisons—that, although many young people are making progress in our prisons, we were not able to introduce schemes such as Building Schools for the Future in prison greatly to improve facilities? Does he also agree that it is important for young people on short sentences that their integration back into, usually, further education in the community happens in a real way?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that contribution, which raises a wider point about who owns the child when they progress through the criminal justice system. One of my concerns is that when someone transfers from their home local authority to the secure estate, their home council effectively washes its hands of them. When they have gone through pupil referral units—or educational diversity, as we call it in Blackpool—and then find themselves in a young offenders institution, it is almost like starting again. They are then released and, yet again, they start again when they are returned to their local authority. Again, there is a lack of cohesion.

I should also like to deal with the issue of the prison escort records of young offenders at young offenders institutions. I have been informed in a letter from the Ministry of Justice that the initial assessment of a prisoner’s language skills is made by the custody manager who completes the escort record, but there has been no national review of the quality or accuracy of those reception language assessments. There is no obvious evidence of the use of a tool that is approved by the professional bodies.

I do not believe that in custodial settings we have enough speech and language therapists. Speech and language intervention at Red Bank secure children’s home reduces the need for physical restraints from two to three times a day to just two times a week, but only 15% of youth offending teams have access to speech and language therapy. I am particularly concerned that the changes to prison health care and the re-assignment to the Department of Health risk worsening prison health care. I am concerned that a primary care trust in which a young offenders institution is located now has to take responsibility for all the young offenders in that institution. It is causing problems in relation to securing funding for the health care within that institution. Will the Minister comment on that and explain why the change has occurred and how he hopes to protect those in young offenders institutions who are in need of specialist health provision that PCTs now appear reluctant to fund?

We need to provide more exits in the community from the so-called conveyor belt. As I have said, I welcome the fact that we are trying to avoid the use of remand. I support the concept of local authorities bearing more of the burden of responsibility for the cost of youth justice in their community—a child from Blackpool does not cease to be a child from Blackpool when he is in Hindley young offenders institution—which was an idea raised by the recent Green Paper. Payment by results is another frequently cited intervention, but I am not sure that it is fully understood yet. I would welcome some reassurance that the schemes on offer are not merely a case of helping the low-hanging fruit first to demonstrate that the process works, but are focusing on those who are hardest to help.

Lord Bradley’s review, which I mentioned earlier, recommended that all youth offending teams have a suitable, qualified mental health worker with responsibility for making appropriate referrals. Child and adolescent mental health services are a particularly malfunctioning part of our health care system. The likelihood of CAMHS taking on a 15 to 17-year-old who presents for the first time with mental health problems is, I am afraid, pretty close to zero. Their view is that they will have to wait to be dealt with by the adult mental health care system. Structurally, that cannot be what is intended by any Government of any political persuasion. A child and adolescent mental health service has the word “adolescent” in it, which surely applies to the 15 to 17 age group.

I should also like to focus on the issue of transitional services for children entering adulthood, a period for which, in my view, there is no real age limit, because young people develop into adults at different ages. The issue will be covered in the forthcoming special educational needs Green Paper, but I hope that, just as early intervention was the public policy fad—if I may call it that—of the past decade, the transition phase will become the fad of the coming decade. It has been sorely neglected, which has had a damaging impact on the quality of public policy in this country.

We also have to consider the impact of arrangements for the release of young offenders. It is not acceptable to just hand them a travel warrant and £46.75 upon their release. I have suggested to the Minister that we increase that sum, because it is not enough. When I market-tested that with the professionals I met, it was not supported as much as I thought it might be. The point was made that, if we give them more money, cash in hand, we cannot control what they spend it on. Those professionals would far rather focus on handing out vouchers to meet the specific needs that those young offenders will face in their first 48 hours or so, rather than a cash payout.

The hon. Gentleman is making a thoughtful contribution. Does he agree that one of the most useful things that can be given to young offenders when they leave an institution is somewhere to live, and that ensuring that they have secure accommodation is one of the best ways of ensuring that they do no reoffend?

That is perhaps an example of our target culture. We measure the number of young offenders on release who have accommodation available to them, but we do not measure the quality or sustainability of that accommodation. There could be an address to go to, but that might be someone’s sofa. For the purposes of ticking the box, that sofa is regarded as a long-term solution, and I do not believe that it always is.

I would like to touch briefly on the issue of doli incapax, which is the pretentious term for considering the age of criminal responsibility. This is something to which I have given a great deal of thought, because most in the criminal justice system focus on the need to raise the age of criminal responsibility to the age of 14. I have thought closely about this. There is clearly a humanitarian instinct lying at the root of that proposal. My concern is that what we are actually discussing is nomenclature, rather than outcomes. I realised at Barton Moss that many of the children it looks after in that setting—that secure setting behind a locked gate—are not there because they have entered the youth justice system. They are there because their councils have put them there for welfare reasons. If the age of criminal responsibility is 12, and we allow councils’ welfare departments to look after those children, the end result might be no different. I have a severe concern that, by leaving that to a council’s social services welfare department, we will lose the many safeguards that are in the criminal justice system to ensure that the law is adhered to. As we all know, in tragic case after tragic case, social services are becoming more risk-averse in how they treat young people. That well-meaning recommendation might well have perverse consequences and I would argue strongly against it.

It is true that we should celebrate every small progress that is made by a child. Merely attending two consecutive appointments can be a triumph for some. We have to stress, however, that the youth justice system is never the place to try to address all of society’s ills, as tempting as that might be. The youth justice system is perhaps a place that can be used to catch up and to address that which has been overlooked, but we have to start, as a nation, to accept that more must be done in the community. I realise that the Minister is shifting the Youth Justice Board back in-house. I would welcome an assurance from him that youth justice will remain the responsibility of a separate unit, within the Ministry of Justice, dedicated solely to the under-18s. The Youth Justice Board has issued many useful reports that have underlined the inadequacies of various stages of the youth justice process, and it would be a great shame to lose that independent voice. It is still important that, whoever we are and whatever our organisation, we still speak truth unto power. I hope that the civil servants responsible for youth justice do not recoil from speaking truth unto the Minister, where that is required.

Equally, if all exit points from the conveyor belt to crime, which I keep referring to, are bottlenecked around the secure estate, that risks still being a dumping ground for all the children whose problems cannot really be accommodated within society at the moment. In my view, they should be accommodated within society. We should be able to cope with those who have complexity of need. It is a damning indictment of this country that, to address those problems, we have to send children to a secure estate, lock them away from society, and say that society does not want to have to deal with those problems.

I have been appalled by some of the populism I have heard in political debate about criminal justice in this House. It deeply disappoints me. The dignity of the individual is compromised by many of the conditions in the youth justice system. The victim, as well, fails to receive satisfaction. Satisfaction is the crucial word, because punishment has two elements: retribution and satisfaction. Retribution comes in the form of incarceration, which is a deprivation of liberty and freedom. That is where the victim receives recompense for the crimes done to them. Satisfaction, however, is just as important, because satisfaction is where there is recompense for the wider community whose laws have been offended. The key part of satisfaction is that we reduce the likelihood of reoffending—when a young person leaves the youth justice system, they are less likely to reoffend, and more likely to have a purposeful life in the community whose laws they offended in the first place.

If our youth justice system makes it more likely that the most vulnerable receive the harshest punishments, we, as a nation, must examine our consciences. Community solutions, at the appropriate moment, are the way forward. Equally, I recognise that to be done properly, those solutions must be intensive, with the costs up front. They are expensive, and I recognise that, but as the Audit Commission report in 2004 made clear, if only one in 10 of those who went into the youth justice system was catered for properly, the savings for the public purse could be as much as £100 million. We are back to the old argument that early intervention saves money, which requires ambition on the part of Ministers and the bravery to take decisions where the costs are up front, but the benefits are long term. I urge the Minister to continue on his well-meaning path towards trying to improve the youth justice system.

I am grateful, Mr Streeter, for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on a very good and effective summary of the state of youth justice.

I would like to associate myself with a number of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, particularly in relation to the important role that now has to be played by local authorities on this issue. I, too, visited a young offenders institution just a few weeks ago: Feltham in west London. It was my fourth visit to Feltham in the 10 years that I have been the Member of Parliament for Tottenham. I visit constituents there from time to time. That keeps me in touch with them and in touch with some of the most challenging youngsters in my community. Reflecting with prison officers and chaplains, some of whom I have got to know, it is clear that the cohort of young offenders from Tottenham and other areas of north London are now in Feltham for more serious crimes than they were on my previous visit a few years ago, and on my visits before that. The nature of violent crime in particular, and what young people are being sentenced for, is deeply worrying, and is reflected in newspaper headlines about knife crime and other crimes.

The hon. Gentleman touched on some concerns that are really important if we are to address this issue. What happens when a young person leaves an institution such as Feltham? Reflecting on my experience as the Minister with responsibility for skills—and, therefore, offender learning in prison—for two years in the previous Labour Government, I am clear that we were able to improve education in prisons. If serving a sentence of more than six months in our prisons, a prisoner will now take not just level 1 and level 2 numeracy and literacy, but training, hopefully, in a trade that can be taken beyond prison. That is the case now. Lots of young men, in particular, are leaving prison and graduating with certificates to show the skills that they have acquired.

I would like to stress two points. We have not been able to renew and improve education facilities in our prison stock in the way that must be expected in the 21st century. There are jobs and opportunities out there, but if prisons, in partnership with industry, cannot provide the latest technology and training for those young people, whether in respect of construction or cabling for the information technology industry, the skills that they come out with will be virtually worthless when they compete with young people who have not been held at Her Majesty’s pleasure. That is something that we need to address.

A drive to ensure that industry works in partnership with our prisons to renew facilities and to support the provision of facilities in young offenders institutions is necessary. We did not see the kind of private finance initiatives or public-private partnerships that might assist in improving the situation in prisons in the last period. I hope that it is something that we can get to, so that young people receive the kind of training that I saw in Sweden and Finland, which, frankly, have far better results with their young offenders than we do.

Just a few years ago, my Government were able to begin pilots in what we called test bed regions, and I hope that the Minister might be able to comment on their success or progress. They were meant in part to deal with the other problem that is manifest in the system. I feel sorry for the Minister. I worked closely with justice and prisons Ministers in my period, and I know that many of the issues that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised lie beyond the door of the justice system, and beyond the door of a skills Minister dealing with education in prisons. If a young person exits but does not quickly get suitable housing, which is very much in the domain of the local authority, that is a disaster, because he will probably end up with the same crew that he was hanging out with before he went inside. If he exits and has to wait two or three weeks to access benefits, that is a bigger disaster. Guess what he will do to find money and resources in the interim period because, frankly, colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have not been able sufficiently to integrate their systems so that he can quickly get the support that he needs, get on to jobseeker’s allowance and move forward.

Integration with further education and the role of the probation service are also fundamental. It is clear that the public imagination of what probation and probation services should mean is nothing akin to what is happening. A great deal needs to happen to ensure that a responsible adult is alongside the young person when they exit the young offenders institution. That is clearly the role of the probation service, which needs proper resources but also must be subject to proper expectations and accountable to the public. It must work alongside young offenders to ensure that they can continue to develop the skills they acquired in prison when they exit, particularly if they had a short sentence. There must be integration of the course that they were doing in prison with courses at the local further education college. In Britain, there are still too many young people falling through the cracks. They are not able to continue their education or training and access the necessary job.

We need a step change in the attitudes of industry and business to young people who, if they do not succeed in work, will cost the state millions in recidivism. I am afraid that the attitude of employers to employing young people who have a criminal record is still less than positive or wholesome. It is our civic duty to ensure that if someone makes a mistake, they are able to correct it.

I end with the story of a young man who came to see me in my surgery on Friday last week. He saw me in 2003, having committed some crimes in 2001. He had changed his life and wanted to join the Territorial Army. I contacted the TA at that point, but it said, “Sorry. We want to see more sustained progress in this young man’s life before we will take him on.” It is now 2011, and he has come back with his Criminal Records Bureau record showing no criminal activity, and with references from some of his employers over the last period. He has turned his life around and still wants to join the TA, and it is my sincere hope that it will look favourably on him. We need both public and private sector employers to take that kind of attitude to young people.

I am deeply concerned that the kind of cuts that we are seeing in provision for young people could lead to a serious explosion in crime among this important cohort. I say that fully cognisant of the importance of Tottenham and constituencies such as mine in respect of such issues in the past. Cuts to youth services and to provision such as after-school clubs for young people can have a detrimental effect down the road. I represent a constituency where many young people do not have access to gardens. They may live on the 15th floor of a tall tower block and share a bedroom with four, five or six brothers and sisters. They need youth services. They need the state in loco parentis after school and at the weekends. Without that, they are literally on the streets, in front of the television or on the internet.

Working women in my constituency do not get home at 3 o’clock to pick up their children. They are often single mums who need activities after school and at the weekend to keep their kids occupied until they can pick them up after they finish work at half-past 5 or 6 o’clock. Cuts in this area can have a huge and detrimental effect, so I hope that when we speak about youth justice, we recognise that it cuts across nearly every policy area, and that we must do better in Britain in the coming period.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate. As I said in an intervention, he has made a thoughtful and meticulously researched contribution—indeed, possibly even a liberal with a small l contribution. His emphasis on early intervention and ensuring that there is proper assessment of learning and communication difficulties among young offenders was a strong point.

I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who made a strong contribution based on his experience as a Minister. I did not disagree with anything that he said, including his last point about the impact of cuts on youth services. We must be cautious about that, because of the potential for significant negative knock-on effects.

I apologise to you, Mr Streeter, and to others, because I must leave early to sit on a Statutory Instrument Committee that is looking at licensing hours in relation to the royal wedding. Clearly, we hope that more people will not join the criminal justice system as a result of extended licensing hours and their drinking longer and harder than they might otherwise have done.

The backdrop to what we are discussing must surely be, to some extent, public perceptions of young people. Members may be familiar with a YouGov poll commissioned by Barnardo’s that was conducted at the end of 2008. It found that nearly half the adults regarded children as increasingly dangerous to each other and to their elders, while 43% feel that

“something has to be done”

to protect society from children and young people. It is a sad indictment against not young people but adults, society and, perhaps, the media that we have arrived at a point where the perception of young people is as negative as that.

The poll goes on to state:

“The British public overestimates, by a factor of four, the amount of crime committed by young people.”

I wonder to what extent that perception affects sentencing policy. If people think that young people are committing four times as much crime as they actually commit, that may be reflected in the sentences that are handed out.

That is the perception, but, interestingly, the number of children in custody has fallen by one third since 2002, from 3,175 to just more than 2,000. That goes against the perceptions that that poll revealed, and may explain to some extent the fall to which the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred in terms of young people accessing services. Fewer children are going into the custody system.

That is the backdrop, and I shall now address the issue. A couple of months ago, I organised a sentencing round table. I invited many of the organisations involved in youth justice to come and suggest how to enhance the proposals in the Green Paper and to propose additional measures. They stressed the importance of the emphasis on diversion, discretion and judgment in what happens with children who go into the youth custody system. As an aside to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, I hope that he will stick to his humanitarian instincts and consider why an age of criminal responsibility of 14 might be the appropriate course of action. Indeed, at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference on Saturday, I shall open a debate on a motion that proposes precisely that.

The organisations had concerns about whether the Green Paper focused enough on custody of young people, and there was a lot of enthusiasm about what is happening to youth custody in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that, and confirm whether the Government are considering that as a way forward. Northern Ireland has far fewer children in the prison estate.

The organisations also focused on the need to address learning difficulties and mental disorders, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said. He rightly drew on the briefing of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists—at least, I am drawing on it—and referred to the asset system, which is the tool designed to assess young people. The concern, as the hon. Gentleman has said, is that it is not designed to identify learning difficulties or communication disabilities. I have a specific question for the Minister. Can that system be looked at to ensure that it is adjusted so that it can do precisely that? As he has said, it is a significant issue. Current evidence shows that 60% of young offenders have such severe communication disabilities that they cannot access prison education programmes. I agree with the right hon. Member for Tottenham that good, strong educational programmes in prisons are key, but they could go further in allowing offenders to obtain qualifications.

When I visited the prison in the Minister’s constituency, the point was made that it is all very well an offender achieving an NVQ level 1, but they need to go further if they are to be competitive in the job market when they come out. Appropriate courses must be available. That prison—Highdown—has a gym, where prisoners like to go, and perhaps they should be able to achieve some qualifications in gym work that they could use when they come out.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham was right to say that employers need to do more, and I am sure that he will be familiar with National Grid’s scheme, which is fantastically successful. It trains prisoners, and its experience is that on release, because they take up a guaranteed job at the end of the training, they are less likely than the general population to offend. That is a real success story, and I wish other employers would emulate it.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that National Grid’s scheme works because the young offenders have often had day release or been out on tagging. Some of the public storm in the tabloids about young people leaving institutions must stop if such schemes are to work.

That is a significant point, but unfortunately, there is an element of risk. The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister, so he will know that there may be occasions when something happens on day release, but overall the impact is positive. The Government must be willing to accept that there will be some risk, and that there may be some negative publicity if something regrettable happens, but the overall contribution of such schemes is positive, which is what must be borne in mind.

Other matters that were raised at the round table include transition, which is significant. When young people go from the youth estate into the adult estate, it is a huge leap, and that transition must be much smoother. That applies not just to 17-year-olds going into the prison estate, but to 18 to 21-year-olds, because many of them are not able to go into the normal adult estate without additional support.

An issue concerning young adults to which the Minister may wish to respond is that the law is being disregarded and they are mixed up in adult prisons. The law is clear, but I understand that it is not being applied. Another significant point that was made at the round table is the need for early intervention and early investment.

I have some additional proposals that I hope the Minister will consider. The police should be allowed discretion in how they tackle youth offending, perhaps adopting a problem-solving approach rather than unnecessarily arresting young people when they admit responsibility. It should be recognised that the criminal courts are not necessarily the most effective environment in which to deal with children, particularly those under 14 when, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has said, they often do not have the slightest idea what they are going through in the court system, because it is too complex and completely opaque to them.

We must decriminalise children when they should be treated as victims, such as child prostitutes, and we should protect young people who are criminalised for victimless crimes. I am thinking specifically of consensual sexual acts between those under 16. On restorative justice, I hope that the Minister will respond on the Northern Ireland proposals.

As hon. Members have stressed, it is important to give local authorities responsibility for custody costs, so that there is a clear and strong incentive for them to invest in youth services, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham has said, if they can see a clear correlation, which I am sure that there is, between investment in youth services and a reduction in the number of young offenders going into custody with all the charges and costs associated with that.

This debate has been positive with well thought-through contributions, and I hope that the Minister will respond in kind; I am sure that he will.

I welcome the debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing it. The contributions so far have been valuable, and I pay tribute to the previous speakers. I hope that my contribution is as informative and as reasoned as those I have heard. I start by saying that I believe in prison and young offender institutions. I believe that they should be about punishment, but also about rehabilitation, and that applies to children and adults. Many people in the adult penal system are subject to drug and alcohol problems, as well as mental health and education problems.

I want to focus on one area. It has been touched on by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake): the ability of young people to engage in education programmes while in young offender institutions. Communication disability is prevalent in the youth justice system. We have heard evidence that more than 60% of young offenders have severe communication disabilities and cannot access prison education programmes. Only 5% of those offenders are identified as having a communication disability before entering a young offenders institution. A substantial proportion of children with communication disability experience social and behavioural problems in school, and those difficulties become entrenched over time as they cannot access the curriculum and become increasingly frustrated. Over a third of those children later develop mental health problems. Evidence also shows a strong correlation between poor education skills, particularly literacy skills, and criminal or offending behaviour. Young offenders with communication disability have a higher rate of reoffending once in the criminal justice pathway.

What do we find when we look at some of the money spent on prison education programmes? As has been mentioned, offender treatment programmes are largely language based. Some young people, however, cannot benefit from prison education programmes because their communication disability prevents them from accessing language-based interventions. Money invested in prison education schemes is therefore wasted and would be better spent providing specialist speech and language therapy services to enable that group of young offenders to learn the communication skills needed to contribute positively in society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys mentioned the Asset form, which I believe should be revised. The current assessment tool is not designed to identify learning difficulties or communication disability. Moreover, it is verbally mediated and therefore inaccessible to most young offenders with a communication disability. The tool fails to identify children and young people with learning difficulties or communication disability. Subsequently, the resources needed to support young offenders with those difficulties are not provided.

What do we find when we look at speech and language therapy services provided in youth justice institutions? Access to rehabilitation and treatment programmes is the key to reducing reoffending—something we all seek. Due to the link between communication disability and subsequent behavioural problems, speech and language therapy intervention with young people reduces the risk of them developing behavioural problems and subsequent offending behaviour. Speech and language therapy intervention allows the offenders to access education and a wider range of rehabilitation programmes, and subsequently they are empowered to change their offending behaviour.

At Her Majesty’s young offender institution at Hindley in Wigan, 97% of the offenders reported an increase in confidence when they were able to access education, and they felt more comfortable asking for help following intervention by a speech and language therapist. Prison staff reported a decrease of 87% in the number of young offenders who received behavioural warnings following speech and language therapy intervention.

Given that communication disability is now recognised as a significant contributory factor towards reoffending, what steps will the Government take to support that group of vulnerable young people? The Asset form is a verbally based assessment that has been shown to be inaccessible for children and young people with learning or communication disabilities. Given that more than 60% of young offenders have communication disabilities, what steps will the Minister ask the Youth Justice Board to take to revise the Asset form? The Youth Justice Board and the Government recently confirmed the need to support young offenders with communication disability. Is the Minister aware that speech and language therapists are being removed from young offenders institutions such as Her Majesty’s young offender institution at Hindley?

Finally, I am sure the Minister has seen the recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, which accepted that 70% of young offenders have communication difficulties and that the current assessment does not give sufficient weight to those issues and problems. The Committee recommended that an explicit assessment of communication difficulties be carried out where difficulties are identified, and that speech and language therapy be considered as part of the sentence programme. That brings me to my original point: I believe in prison and the penal system, but I also believe in the rehabilitation of offenders. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this debate and on an outstanding analysis of the current issues. All hon. Members who have spoken have taken that lead, and I am pleased to see a growing consensus that youth criminality is a result of multiple vulnerabilities and failures in the individual and in society. I share the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) that if the cuts to youth justice funding that we anticipate go ahead on the scale that is promised, we risk not addressing those failures. I will return to that point.

The previous Labour Government had a properly funded, multi-agency approach to youth offending. It included youth offending teams, which have been a real success story; the Youth Justice Board, which uses an evidence-based approach to disseminating best practice; the introduction of alternative disposal orders; and the recognition that intervening early is far better than trying to manage a child who has already become embroiled in criminality.

As a result, the youth justice system of today is radically different from that of the past. During the previous Parliament, the Government’s approach to prevention saw a significant drop in the number of first-time young offenders, from 170,040 in 2005 to 61,387 in our last year in government. Recent statistics show that the number of offences committed by young offenders dropped from 301,860 in 2005 to 198,449 last year—a drop of 35%. In the past two years alone, the under-18 prison population has dropped from 2,932 to 2,045—a drop of 30%. Those remarkable figures are possible only because of the good work of the Youth Justice Board, of YOTs around the country and of those third sector and social enterprise front-line providers that have given so many options and provided valuable data to inform an evidence-driven approach to drive down youth offending. We all want better outcomes for our young people.

Some years ago, I worked as a criminal barrister and represented young offenders. It was clear to me then, as now, that many young offenders are themselves profoundly vulnerable, a point which was made well by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. That is true not only in respect of their immaturity or youth, but because many are disadvantaged socially and educationally and suffer a wide range of impairments and emotional difficulties. Mental health issues are three times as prevalent among children in the youth justice system than in the general population.

Studies over the past few years show that between 40% and 50% of children in the youth justice system have emotional or mental health issues. A study of youth offenders found that 23% had an IQ under 70, and 36% an IQ under 80. As has been mentioned, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists found that 60% of children in the criminal justice system have a communication disability, and of that group, half have poor or very poor communication skills.

Some of those indicators are a result of deprivation, while others are clinical issues that need to be dealt with through appropriate interventions. They are not just drivers of offending or reoffending. The inability to deal with a complex and highly verbal youth justice system has driven many young people to act out, self-harm or worse. There may be a declining number of the most serious incidents and cases of self-harm that lead to death in custody, but each incident is a tragedy and, where it is preventable, we have a duty to act.

Hon. Members have mentioned some of the tools used to identify vulnerabilities found in young people in the criminal justice system. Asset, the Youth Justice Board’s tool for classifying young people and identifying vulnerabilities, has been rightly identified as lacking a suitable mechanism for isolating speech and language deficits. I am pleased, therefore, that when giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in January, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, John Drew, confirmed that a complete review of Asset is being undertaken to find a way to integrate speech and language components. In 2009, the previous Government commissioned a review of the entire YOT assessment, planning and supervision framework, which has been at work since January 2010.

Reviewing Asset is not the only way in which communication impairment should be taken into account. Two weeks ago, I was in Milton Keynes at the Oakhill secure training centre. Among others, I met Diz Minnitt, the speech and language portfolio holder for the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers and operational manager for the Milton Keynes youth offending team. They are at the forefront of the use of speech and language therapists, and they have an exceptional practice, focusing on prevention. They have halved the number of first-time entrants to the system in the past five years, and they have reduced the need for custodial disposals, far outstripping the national and regional rates of reduction.

There is a great deal of argument about what drives down crime, but I am firmly of the view that dealing with difficulties such as speech and language problems, so that young people can fully engage with deterrence and offender management programmes, is a big component of driving down first-time offending and reoffending. But here we come to the problem—future funding. We know that the Ministry of Justice faces one of the biggest cuts of any Department—23%—but I saw in Children & Young People Now magazine today that John Drew has said that the Youth Justice Board is preparing to distribute 29% less in Government funding to YOTs compared with last year. He is quoted as saying:

“There are a couple of YOTs saying it is going to be exceptionally difficult to maintain a basic YOT…Inevitably it will mean fewer resources on the ground to discharge a range of responses.”

He concludes that

“it will be really difficult to have as much success as we have enjoyed over the last two to three years”.

It is not just YOTs that are affected. Kamini Gadhok, chief executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, has said:

“News of cuts being made to speech and language therapy services in YOIs”—

young offenders institutions—

“is a deeply disturbing and regressive policy. Communication is an essential skill that is vital for the rehabilitation of offenders.

The delivery of speech and language therapy has been shown to reduce reoffending rates by as much as 50 per cent, which in turn reduces costs to the taxpayer.”

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys may confirm from his visit to Hindley what I believe is the case there—that the only full-time speech and language therapist post is being scrapped, which is a retrogressive step. The Minister needs to deal with that point when he responds for the Government. We have some excellent schemes throughout the country, but they are under threat. What will the Government do to ensure that they are at least preserved, if not enhanced, over the next few years?

The third sector, social enterprises, YOTs and the secure estate are all under pressure from sharply declining central and local revenues. If there is a massive contraction of youth justice funding, it may lead to a decline in the system’s efficacy, a rise in crime and the failure of schemes that, if fully funded, would probably have succeeded. If a scheme can reduce first-time offending, reduce reoffending, reduce the prison population and reduce our expenditure, should we really be reducing that scheme? That is the lesson from the report published today by the community or custody inquiry, although it does not deal exclusively with youth justice. A very high-powered panel concludes that some of the existing innovative schemes for intensive community punishments as alternatives to custody may be at risk, let alone the expansion in such schemes that the Government wish to see.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber agree that we do not want more children slipping through the net and being condemned to spiral down within the criminal justice system. Those who have been involved with youth justice for some time will know that we have been here before. I shall quote a passage from Hansard from 18 years ago, almost to the day. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who as Home Secretary was responsible for youth justice then as he is again now as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, was defending himself against an attack by the then hon. Member for Sedgefield, the shadow Home Secretary. Following that, the then hon. Member for Lewisham, East read to him a letter written by a youth worker in Lewisham:

“‘I find it at least ironic and at worst callously indifferent to hear members of the Government and Ministers bemoaning the lack of social responsibility among young people and expressing concerns about juvenile crime, when the consequence of their policies on local government spending is that something as worth while as the Young Lewisham project is forced to close.’”—[Official Report, 2 March 1993; Vol. 220, c. 148.]

I fear that many more letters like that will be written because of the cuts, not just in MOJ funding but in local government funding and in other areas. Although the aims of the justice Green Paper are commendable in many respects, ruthless spending cuts will lead to a diminution of capacity and systemic failures and undermine the very sensible case that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and other right hon. and hon. Members have advocated today. I fear that if those cuts are combined with the cuts referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham in Sure Start, youth clubs and the education maintenance allowance, our most vulnerable young people face a bleak future.

Every hon. Member who has spoken since my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) introduced the debate has referred to the quality of his contribution, and I would put myself at the head of that list. In examining a number of concerns in the youth justice area, he has taken a machine gun to all the targets and blasted them away. Even though I have more time to reply to the debate than I would normally expect, there simply is not enough time to reply to all the issues that he has raised. Many of them merit significant debate in themselves. However, I will do my best.

I shall start by immediately addressing the point about funding made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) on behalf of the Opposition. I am of course concerned about the possible impact of funding cuts. Every Minister who is responsible for service provision of one sort or another will be concerned about the impact of the expenditure cuts that they have to deliver. I am not alone in that, but if there is one source from whom we will not take a lecture, it is those who presented us with the hideous problem of getting the overall fiscal balance of our country right so that we can get ourselves out of the appalling economic mess that we are in.

That said, I take seriously the cautions that are being offered. In the situation that we are in, we have to think about new ways of delivering services that focus much more effectively on the output that the public services deliver. We are coming out of an era in which those at the centre have been privileged to dictate very carefully, through targets and performance measurements, how people in the public services deliver those services. Now, we need to turn to those people and draw on their expertise and professionalism to deliver the services more efficiently, and they will know that better than anyone else.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys paid tribute to the people whom he saw working in the institutions that he visited, and I shall join him by paying tribute to all the people who operate in the youth justice area for the quality of the work that they do. We know the value of that work. My hon. Friend, in concluding his remarks, drew attention to the report by the National Audit Office that said that the cost to the economy of offending by young people in 1999 amounted to £10 billion. Intervening early in the lives of children at risk and their families, before that behaviour becomes entrenched, can present our best chance to break the cycle of crime.

Youth justice is, of course, a key part of the justice system. The object of the youth justice system is to turn off, or at least turn down, the pipeline into the adult justice system and spare many potential victims of crime. Of course, the logic extends itself. My hon. Friend referred to the work done in 2002 by our right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who is now the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, in relation to the conveyor belt to crime.

Frankly, early intervention is just a blinding glimpse of common sense. In the debate, there has been a focus on concentrating on four to 10-year-olds rather than teenagers. In paying tribute to the people who work in the youth justice system, we need to acknowledge that turning round a socially excluded, angry and hostile teenager is difficult and, of course, expensive. Those who do such work are doing great work. How much better would it be, however, to do that work with not only four to 10-year-olds, but children who are born in circumstances in which the predictors make it all too clear that a horrifying percentage may end up socially excluded and on their way into the youth justice system? I fully acknowledge that communication issues sit at the heart of much of that, and I will return to that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys analysed many of the problems with the youth justice system, so let me give a short introduction to the issues. Despite the increased investment in youth justice under the previous Government, there is still a lack of public trust in the system. Members of the public remain concerned about becoming victims of crime. Fewer than half of them have confidence in the ability of the justice system to deal effectively with young people, in particular. Reoffending rates among young offenders who are released from custody are horrifyingly high, with 75% being reconvicted within one year. Tragically, things are not much better for those sentenced to the higher-end community sentences, who have a 68% reoffending rate. Those figures are the worst for any age group in the justice system.

Too little is done to ensure that young people who offend pay their victims and communities back for the harm they have caused, whether directly or indirectly. The system does not incentivise agencies to invest in preventing offending and reoffending or in early intervention. Indeed, the system is set up in such a way that local agencies financially benefit when a young person is taken into custody. All the wrong incentives are in place, and we must address that.

My hon. Friend spoke about secure accommodation. Such accommodation will remain the most appropriate place to deal with a small proportion of young offenders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) said, there remains a need for custody. There will also still be occasions when remand to custody is appropriate for a young person.

However, it is a rather depressing state of affairs when people in the justice system are taking decisions to remand someone on bail when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, the issue is the person’s social circumstances. It would surely be better if we moved to a system where the local authority’s social services department dealt with such things. If someone needs to be taken into custody in a secure children’s home for their own protection, the judgment should be reached through the social services system, not the agencies of the justice system.

There are occasions when custodial remand is used inappropriately because of a lack of alternative accommodation. Some 58% of young people remanded in custody are acquitted or receive a community sentence. Some of the funding spent on unnecessary remand could be better used to develop local solutions, which would be more cost-effective in the long term and allow young people to be diverted from a potentially unnecessary period in custody.

We have published our intention to introduce a single remand order for all under-18s. That would simplify the system and make local authorities—gradually and with support—responsible for the full cost of youth remand. That will reverse the current perverse incentive, which benefits local authorities when one of their young people is placed in custody. We also intend to amend the Bail Act 1976 to remove the option of remanding young people who would be unlikely to receive a custodial sentence.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, commented on assessment in the youth justice system. It is important to note that it is not the intention for youth justice assessments to be capable of assessing every possible aspect of young people’s lives. Rather, it is intended that they should provide a baseline and then trigger additional or specialist assessment where required. That means that we are working to ensure that changes are based on the principle of screening for, and alignment with, other assessments, rather than of replacing them. It is also right for professional discretion to sit at the centre of assessment arrangements, so there needs to be the flexibility in the system for that.

I would not say anything as strong as that Asset is inappropriate, but it is outdated and in need of review, and I welcome the support for such a review from the hon. Member for Hammersmith. The clear feedback from practitioners is that although Asset has a lot of good content, the form’s format and associated processes do not make best use of it. On that basis, the Youth Justice Board is looking at the assessment process in the youth justice system and developing a business case for changes to the Asset framework. We accept that more could be done to facilitate high-quality identification and analysis of difficulties in the areas of mental illness, learning disability, speech, language and communication. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon made clear, the assessment of communication difficulties is important.

The proposals for the future framework look to improve identification through a discrete section for gathering information about needs in such areas that is not dependent on the link with offending behaviour. In particular, that includes a specific section on speech and language, which are not covered in the current version of Asset. It is also the intention to improve intervention planning by bringing all activities associated with addressing individual young people’s behaviour into one plan and making referrals to other services more accurate and easier to generate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to the assessment made by custody officers escorting young offenders. I should make it clear that, under the current system, the young offender team sends assessment information to the Youth Justice Board placements department in advance. The department then sends the assessment electronically to the youth offender institution before the young person arrives, so the assessment should be ready and waiting there.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the relationship between youth offending teams and child and adolescent mental health services. Youth offending teams are multi-agency teams and must include a health partner. Primary care trusts have a statutory duty to provide health input to youth offending teams. The future commissioning structure is now being developed, and my officials are working closely with the Department of Health to ensure that there are appropriate arrangements to support an effective relationship between youth offending teams and child and adolescent mental health services and wider health services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) raised the extremely important issue of communication difficulties. Young people with speech, language and communication needs are over-represented in the youth justice system. We are working to facilitate the early detection of such needs in young people and to equip staff to communicate more effectively with those with speech and language needs. Providers of education in custody have been trained to use the hidden disabilities questionnaire, which identifies a range of learning difficulties, allowing education providers to refer learners to the appropriate support and for further assessments, if necessary.

An anecdote that has been reported to me provides a good illustration of why such provisions are required. A youth offending team worker told of a young person who, when asked in court whether he felt any remorse for his offence, said, “No.” It was only in the taxi on the way back that he asked the youth offending team worker what remorse meant. Plainly, that is not acceptable, and one can well identify what might have happened to that young person’s sentence as a consequence.

We have worked with the Communication Trust to develop “Sentence Trouble”, a guide to help youth justice workers communicate more effectively with young people with communication needs. Some 30,000 copies of the booklet have been distributed across the sector to all youth offending teams, young offenders institutions, secure children’s homes and secure training centres, as well as pupil referral units, magistrates, police, special schools, Connexions services, primary care trusts and speech and language therapists. The booklet is supported by a training programme and a website that features a forum for staff to share information, useful links and resources.

On the education of young offenders, local authorities with Prison Service young offenders institutions in their area are now responsible for securing suitable education and training for young people in custody. Primary legislation on education applies to young people in custody, which means that they have the same entitlement to education as their peers in the community. I am pleased to announce something that may help to answer some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, which is that we shall continue to fund the education support service in the next financial year in Prison Service young offenders institutions. The education support service has an important role in the education of young people, developing the links between Connexions and Jobcentre Plus and helping to give support for resettlement, in the form of referrals, national insurance queries and benefit and debt advice. It also helps to support young people applying for financial assistance for education, and offers information, advice and guidance on careers, helping them to develop their interests and skills, and, hopefully, identifying possible career opportunities.

It is of course the local authority where the young person normally resides that now has a responsibility to promote the fulfilment of the learning potential of the young person while they are in custody, and to share information about the young person’s education and any special needs they may have. By placing more responsibility on local authorities, the legislation aims to ensure greater continuity of learning for young people between custody and community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) both raised concerns about the number of young people in custody and the rate of provision of literacy and numeracy courses, which appears to be declining. All young people who enter custody who are able to participate are referred to learning and skills provision funded by the Offenders Learning and Skills Service. Of course, all too many young people have other issues, such as substance misuse, that they need to deal with before they can participate meaningfully in learning. Perhaps it is not quite so helpful to look at the number of young people who are learning, while the number of young people in custody continues to fall. Given the significant fall in the number of young people in custody, the numbers do not necessarily read across.

A critical issue is resettlement and making the links so that when people have been in custody they make the transition to the community effectively. Every year hundreds of young people leave custody to create a new life in the community and each faces the challenge of staying out of trouble and integrating back into society. Many of those vulnerable young people have no home, school or job waiting for them. Without the right support, many will reoffend, creating an unproductive and expensive situation for them and wider society. The aim of resettlement is to provide housing, education, training and mentoring for young people to reduce reoffending. That is of course an area in which, frankly, we have not done particularly well.

To address our capability shortage in that respect we need a radical new way of thinking. I hope that payment by results will be the vehicle by which we shall deliver such a step change in service delivery. It is a way in which we can free up professionals, and involve a wider range of partners from the private and voluntary sectors in taking innovative approaches to dealing with offenders. We want agencies to be driven by results, not burdened by targets. That is why we are committed in the coalition agreement to introducing payment by results. We are considering a number of options for how we might do that in the youth sphere. Perhaps it is in resettlement more than in any other area that we can raise our game by incentivising people to do what will work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised the issue of discharge grants and discussed the giving of the resettlement grant of £46.75. Of course, young offenders do not receive that grant, which is for adults. It is an instructive point. My hon. Friend said that there was concern about the raising of the amount. In contrast to the adult system, all under-18s are subject to sentence planning, and they have an allocated case manager in the community. The detention and training order is an integrated custody and community sentence. The youth offending team has the lead responsibility for sentence planning. That means that the young person’s accommodation and employment needs should be identified early in the sentence, and coherent plans for the day of release should be put in place. Those could include immediate access to supported accommodation, and should mean that financial support would be targeted and more flexible than the one-size-fits-all grant for the over-18s.

Properly, resettlement has become a prominent focus for attempts to tackle youth crime, but it has long been recognised that there is inadequate strategic direction, and poor performance. The use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and other forms of temporary accommodation, as well as a lack of resources and expertise nationwide, are frequently linked to reoffending. I hope that payment by results will bring about an improvement. Meanwhile, however, the Youth Justice Board last year set up a new resettlement programme with the aim of addressing numerous resettlement issues together. A key focus of the programme is the establishment of two regional resettlement consortia, around the Hindley young offenders institution in the north-west and the Ashfield young offenders institution in the south-west.

The aim is to bring together senior members from the secure estate, the youth offending teams, voluntary services and local authorities—particularly children’s services and housing—to take a strategic approach to developing flexible, co-ordinated resettlement services. Strengthening the links in the system through partnerships that work across agency and local authority boundaries not only tackles re-offending, but has additional advantages in addressing issues of child welfare, safeguarding and community safety. The proposals in our Green Paper are intended fundamentally to change the incentive structure in relation to resettlement. We want local authorities to take full responsibility for ensuring that young people who leave custody do not return there, and to incentivise more of the kind of work that I have outlined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised the issue of the age of criminal responsibility and I am pleased that he supported the Government’s position, which is to leave it at the age of 10. Our coalition colleague the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington did not take quite that view, and having praised my hon. Friend for an admirably liberal speech disagreed with him about that. The Government believe that children aged 10 are able to distinguish between bad behaviour and serious wrongdoing. It is entirely appropriate to hold them to account for their actions if they commit an offence, and it is important to ensure that communities know that a young person who offends will be dealt with appropriately. We have no plans to change the age of criminal responsibility. We accept, however, that prosecution is not always the most appropriate response to youth offending. Much of youth crime is addressed using out-of-court disposals and robust intervention to prevent reoffending. Indeed, we are now seriously considering widening the delivery of restorative justice and giving the police their own restorative justice interventions for the lower level of offences, which could be recorded for their own purposes. That is in addition to making sure that people both make restoration and receive punishment—the two are not alternatives—in the rest of the criminal justice system.

I am conscious that I have received advice on many issues on which, sadly, I do not have time to respond to my hon. Friend. I very much welcome his speech and the issues he has drawn to our attention in the debate. The policy area in question is very important, and relies on co-operation between a significant number of authorities, to drive down the number of people coming into the youth justice system, and make sure that fewer people leave that system to go into the adult one. We can learn a significant amount from work that was done previously—from the way youth offending teams were set up and the way they make such co-operation and co-ordination systematic. That is the challenge that I enjoy. I am delighted to have hon. Friends who take such an intelligent interest in the issue.

Armed Forces (Pensions and Benefits)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, given the importance of the topic before us.

I have to say at the outset that I am not an expert on the subject, but there are plenty of people who are, both here in Westminster Hall and watching proceedings on television. I shall attempt to set out the case against the proposed changes to pensions and benefits on behalf of the bravest of the brave—this country’s armed forces personnel.

I shall put my personal interest into context. I am not one of those courageous parliamentarians who have served our country in the armed forces, but my brother was in the Army for 12 years or so, and I learned a lot from him about what it was like to be in the services. I also have friends in the regulars and the Territorials, and they are never slow to tell of their exploits. However, I have some first-hand experience.

In early 1983, a few short months after the cessation of hostilities with Argentina, I worked in the Falkland Islands as bricklayer repairing the Port Stanley infrastructure that was damaged during the conflict. While there, I lived cheek by jowl with military personnel from all our forces. During my seven-month stint there, I gained a certain understanding of the conditions that they had lived through day by day, and of the sacrifices that they had made on our behalf. I am therefore delighted to have secured this timely debate.

The changes that the Government are set to push through will shortly take effect. However, there is still time for Ministers to rethink, and for fairness and common sense to prevail. As we speak, nearly 10,000 soldiers are risking life and limb in Afghanistan; and tens of thousands more are engaged in service and heavy combat training elsewhere. They have no direct voice, and they are too busy protecting our country’s interests, so we must speak for them here.

Let me make clear what today’s debate is about. Under their cuts agenda, the Government intend to link public sector pensions and benefits to the consumer prices index rather than the retail prices index. Because CPI is an historically lower measure, pensions will increase by less year on year. Crucially, the change is intended to be permanent. It will apply across the board, with no exceptions. Essentially, it amounts to a cynical plan to reduce pensions indefinitely. That is bad news for all public sector employees and the source of ongoing challenge and debate, but it is particularly bad news for our armed forces. I shall explain why that is so, suggest why society has a moral obligation to make a separate case for armed forces pensions and explain how the impact of the planned changes might be at least mitigated, if not avoided entirely.

I start by pointing out that this is not a marginal matter, because it has major ramifications for many. The armed forces pensions community totals 1 million serving and formerly serving personnel—a huge number of lives—and I remind the Chamber that the quality of those lives is at stake. When discussing money matters, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that although we are talking about pounds and pence, we are also talking about real lives.

I think particularly of my constituent Craig Lunberg, who in the course of serving his country admirably was blinded by insurgents in Afghanistan. Craig is an inspiration to others; he is not bitter about the injuries that he received, and is philosophical about his life. However, Craig and his family need and deserve all the financial support that they can get. It is not charity; it is their due. We owe it to Craig and all the others who serve and who have served to look after them, remembering that their sacrifices were for us.

The number crunching has been done, and there is no disputing the impact that the planned changes will have on military personnel and their dependants, which will be immediate and profound. Widely published projections show that if the change goes ahead, recipients will feel the pinch from the get-go. In the coming financial year, military pensions will go up by 3.1%, rather than 4.6%. Severely injured discharged soldiers, who will not work again, will lose £120 of pension next year. Compensation for specified minor injuries will be £110 lower, and a widow with children will be £94 worse off.

Such amounts may seem trifling to independently wealthy Ministers—mere short change—but those reductions will be felt by those struggling to survive on state handouts. Only when we extrapolate the reductions, compounded over longer periods, do we see the full gravity of the changes. The long-term forecasts put paid to any suggestion that we are talking buttons. Military personnel are set to lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in benefits and pensions over their lifetimes. A double amputee corporal, disabled at the age of 28, will have lost £587,000 by the age of 70. A 40-year-old squadron leader will be £319,000 worse off by the age of 85. A 34-year-old widow of a staff sergeant will miss up to £750,000 during her lifetime.

I ask the House to note the ages cited in those examples. They are significant. For reasons that I shall deal with later, military personnel become reliant on pensions and benefits far earlier than others. We cannot get away from the fact that they are set to be disproportionately and adversely hit.

This is an important debate; indeed, we debated the armed forces in the House last week. We understand that the country has economic problems, but we should remember that we have a covenant on pensions or whatever and that our troops are laying their lives on the line for their country. It is soul destroying, whenever we debate their finances, to hear that their morale is suffering. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to strike a balance? We understand that the economy is important, but our armed forces are laying their lives on the line and we need to balance the two.

The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall pick up some specific matters a little later, but the main thrust is that there is undoubtedly a moral case to answer. The maths is one thing, but a principle is at stake.

The main problem is that the Government obstinately refuse to distinguish between military and civilian employees—indeed, they make a virtue of it. In November, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said:

“It is not possible to treat the armed forces differently from other public servants”.

That glib explanation was both pompous and dismissive. It is very convenient for the Government to fall back on their default position of, “We’re all in this together,” to imply that they are being firm but fair in treating all public sector workers equally. I remind colleagues that the coalition Government have been quick to criticise one-size-fits-all measures, when it suits. Their rationale on military pensions is as fallacious as it is dangerous, because military service is unique.

In the recent debate, to which the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has referred, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) listed some of the ways in which a career in the armed forces is different from any other. They are worth repeating, because they demonstrate the utter absurdity of suggesting that soldiers, airmen and marines should be regarded and treated the same as other public servants:

“Service personnel, as many of us know, can be required to work unlimited hours in excessively dangerous conditions with no prospect of overtime or a bonus; they can be imprisoned for failing to show up; living conditions can, understandably, be very tough;”—

I have experienced that myself—

“they are often separated from family and loved ones for many months at a time; they can be compelled to return even after they have retired; they forgo several political freedoms and contractual rights that others rightly enjoy; and…they are at risk of being killed or horribly maimed as a direct result and an unavoidable consequence of their service. Often their pension is the only serious, tangible financial compensation available to them”.—[Official Report, 10 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 61.]

It is ironic that in the very next room, the Chief of the Defence Staff is briefing MPs on this very subject. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that his concerns will manifest themselves in a reduction in the ability of the armed forces to recruit in what could be some pretty testing times coming up?

I will answer that question personally rather than as a representative of my party. As I have said, I am not an expert on this issue. However, having spoken to some senior officers in my local Army garrison only last month, I believe that it will have a detrimental impact on recruitment and retention in the armed forces. It is also about the morale of our troops, and I will touch on that subject a little later.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate and I declare my interest as a service pensioner. He underscores the importance of pensions and is right to do so. Will he note that pensions were perhaps the first manifestation of the military covenant since the Romans granted a pension to people settled in Britain after about 20 years’ service, so they have a very long history?

I will touch on the Government’s position on the military covenant and what was said in the House a few weeks ago a little later in my contribution.

Military employees accept that many of their personal life choices will be determined, and often restricted, by duty to the military. Premature death and injury are occupational hazards and have lifelong and life-changing consequences that impact on entire families. Typically, armed forces employees have shorter careers; they retire at an average age of 40, which is much earlier than their civilian counterparts. For obvious reasons, many military widows and widowers are younger than the non-military average and thus more likely to be left to raise children alone. Injured or disabled retirees are frequently unable to work on civvy street following their discharge. For veterans, the quality of post-service support—medical, remedial and professional—remains patchy to say the least. Show me any other civilian public servant subject to this particular package of terms and conditions, and I will buy into the Government’s logic.

There is another way in which armed forces pensions and benefits differ from other public sector pensions. Yes, they are occupational pensions, but, as the Forces Pension Society has pointed out, they are also essentially a form of compensation for the unavoidable early cessation of a career. It is important, therefore, to consider why people join the armed forces. Individual motivations vary, but they include a yearning for travel and adventure, a desire for a structured career, an eagerness to acquire skills in a particular field and a desire simply to serve our country. None the less, let us not forget that a disproportionate number of young military personnel—men in particular—come from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we know, significant numbers are drawn from the care system. Let us not pretend that they are in it for the money. High-ranking staff may eventually find themselves comfortably off, but the vast majority of military personnel merely eke out a bog-standard living. For that, they sacrifice a great deal, particularly in the way of family life. For that, they risk permanent injury or death in the course of their duties. The theory is that as a nation, we acknowledge and value that, and that we guarantee that forces’ employees and their families will be looked after in return. In that respect, joining the armed forces is an act of faith. To change the terms and conditions of service—to move the goal posts—is to undermine that faith.

All the evidence suggests that serving troops already feel betrayed, disillusioned and frustrated. In a Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago, a British soldier serving in Afghanistan said:

“The British Army has no voice at grass-roots level. We have no union. There will be no strikes. No riots. Certainly no fire extinguishers thrown off buildings. We are just an easy target”.

There is the rub. In recent months, we have seen students protest, public sector workers strike and various interest groups demonstrate and engage in direct action. I suspect, and I say this with no relish, that we will see more and more people take to the streets as the Government’s excessive austerity measures kick in. Military personnel cannot do that. In the absence of civilian workers’ rights, they are particularly vulnerable and impotent in the face of damaging policy changes and cuts. Small wonder that they feel so beleaguered.

In January, Vice-Admiral Sir Michael Moore said:

“I have never seen a government erode the morale of the Armed Forces so quickly”.

What a terrible and shameful indictment. The Tory-led coalition’s attitude towards the military is shaping up to be, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, perverse. Some would argue that blue-blooded conservatism has traditionally been a friend of the military. Sure enough, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to

“ensure that our armed forces, their families and veterans are properly taken care of.”

The commitment appears to have started and stopped with the rhetoric. The Prime Minister is never slow to spot a good PR opportunity and he is slick when it comes to lavishing praise on our troops. For all his new-found hawkish instincts, he and his slash-happy Government stooges seem hellbent on making military service as unattractive and insecure as possible. It is under-resourced, under-equipped and undervalued with little regard to meeting current and future military needs.

The defence budget has been slashed and major projects have been cancelled or abruptly abandoned, frequently at ridiculous cost to the taxpayer. Around 17,000 armed forces posts are to go over the next few years, 11,000 of which will go through redundancy. A range of other issues, including the unequal treatment of military widows, disadvantageous changes to income tax relief on pension contributions and the proposed cuts to educational allowances for armed forces families only compound matters by adding to the cumulative effect. Those changes all seem incredibly short-sighted and it is difficult to see how any of them will do anything other than damage recruitment and recruitment levels, which I have been told are already at crisis point.

It is equally difficult not to suspect that the pensions indexation switch is something more opportunistic and ideologically driven than a mere fiscal measure. There has been no suggestion on the part of the Government that they consider the current pension and benefit arrangements to be overly generous, so that leaves the deficit reduction agenda as the only possible explanation for the cuts. Let us examine that explanation, because the problem with it is that it does not explain or justify the decision to change the index link permanently. That decision will have long-term impacts that will be felt long after the economy has recovered.

By way of an aside, it was mentioned earlier that my colleagues and I are urging the Government to enshrine the military covenant in law, but we must not let that campaign blur our vision or distract from the specific issues that we are discussing today. Let us consider the dry and self-explanatory observation of the Forces Pension Society to the Armed Forces Bill Committee:

“We note the commonly aired reference to the Covenant but we do not see a coherent and comprehensive set of actions which would make the Covenant come alive; it avoids any mention of pensions.”

When all is said and done, the most powerful argument in favour of abandoning this callous indexation plan for the armed forces’ pensions and benefits is basic—it is a moral one. It is about doing the right thing by those who have done the right thing by us. In return for the immense courage, patriotism and self-sacrifice shown by UK armed service personnel and their dependants, we have an obligation to provide them with the highest levels of support and reward, during and after service. If that involves discriminating in their favour, so be it.

As I hope I have illustrated, to renege on the deal made when service personnel signed on the dotted line would be to betray an implicit trust. Those serving will feel let-down and bitter, and who can blame them? And potential recruits will think twice before giving so much for so little in return.

I purposely paint a bleak picture, but as yet none of these changes is a fait accompli. There is still time for the Government to see sense. My own party has a number of ideas about how the deficit reduction dilemma might be resolved without so brutally hurting armed forces’ employees. In our view, the ideal solution is entirely to decouple armed forces pension and benefit schemes from other such schemes in the public sector. However, we recognise that that is not a practicable or realistic option at the current time. The best way forward would be to make the indexation switch a temporary one that could be reversed in 2014-15, or at least once the Budget deficit has been pared down.

Others favour an alternative time limit measure, something along the lines of maintaining the current RPI link for the armed forces personnel or their widowed spouses until they turn 55, when the link would come into line with the rest of the public sector. Such measures, and variations on them, are all quite feasible but none of them is perfect, and they will not please all the people all the time. However, they represent carefully considered compromises, which the grown-up coalition Government profess to be big on, and they would go some way to alleviating the short to medium-term pain.

In addressing the Minister, I urge the Government to consider those measures carefully. I also remind the Government that this is a cross-cutting issue, which requires joined-up thinking. Defence, Treasury and Work and Pensions Ministers must all think again.

I have a final salutary point to make. Thomas Southerne was an Irish dramatist of the 17th century. In 1685, he served in the army of James II, which fought against the Monmouth rebellion. Southerne knew what it was to be a soldier. In later life, he reportedly said:

“Dost thou know the fate of soldiers? They are but ambition’s tools, to cut a way to her unlawful ends. And when they are worn, hacked, hewn with constant service, thrown aside, to rust in peace and rot in hospitals.”

I am sure that everyone will agree that the part about “unlawful ends” is open to debate, but some modern military adventures spring to mind on hearing that quote. Southerne’s bitter closing observations make uncomfortable reading. Do we want to entertain the notion that, 300 years on and at the dawn of the 21st century, we hold our armed forces in no better esteem?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on securing this important debate. As he mentioned, we have had a number of opportunities recently to debate these issues, including armed forces pensions and the military covenant. It is very important that we continue to debate them, because we have not yet received a satisfactory response from the Government Front-Bench team. Today we have a different Minister before us. Thus far, I have discussed these issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), who is the Minister with responsibility for veterans. I am hopeful that we might hear something from the Minister who is here today that pleases us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has already mentioned a quote from the Forces Pension Society, but it is one that merits repeating. The chairman of the society, Sir Michael Moore, recently said:

“I have never seen a Government erode the morale of the armed forces so quickly.”

That is quite a strong statement and the reasons for it stem from the wide-ranging promises made by the coalition partners to our service personnel, ahead of last year’s election and since coming into office. Their record of delivery has spectacularly failed to live up to their rhetoric.

In opposition, the Conservatives declared that the military covenant was “shattered” and they promised to rebuild it. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made clear pledges to our armed forces, such as improving service housing, setting minimum standards for family welfare and maximising rest and recuperation leave. In government, they have so far offered very little to address those issues. Indeed, it is worse than that, because the measures that we are seeing now will roll back the military covenant. Accommodation has been identified as an area in which to make savings; tours of duty will be reviewed and there has been no guarantee that they will not be lengthened; and the Government have confirmed that armed forces personnel will be cut by 11,000.

The Prime Minister could not have made a clearer pledge than the one that he made to sailors on the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal just last summer:

“Whether it’s the schools you send your children to, whether it’s the healthcare that you expect, whether it’s the fact there should be a decent military ward for anyone who gets injured...I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.”

However, nine months later, the Government have failed to enshrine a military covenant in law, or at the very least propose doing so in the Armed Forces Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. Instead, they have already changed their policy, as outlined to all MPs in a recent letter from the Royal British Legion.

As far as the armed forces are concerned, the Government’s time in office has been marked by broken promises and empty rhetoric. However, it is more serious than that. The actions of the Government are undermining the unwritten contract between the nation and our services in honour of the brave work that they do. In the process, as Sir Michael Moore said, the Government

“erode the morale of the armed forces”.

There is no better example of that than the impact of the Government’s planned pensions changes on the armed forces. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has outlined, the Government’s plans permanently to link public sector pension rises to CPI rather than to the usually higher measure of RPI will disproportionately affect members of the armed forces. I know that the Minister with responsibility for veterans does not accept that because he told me so in the Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, and I do not know whether the Minister for the Armed Forces will take a different approach today.

The hon. Lady puts forward an interesting case. Will she therefore commit any incoming Labour Government in 2015 to the measure that she appears to be articulating, namely, that the change will be temporary and, if so, how will that feature in the budget she intends to set? The armed forces will not be alone; others will say that they should be dealt with in a similar way.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that we proposed a much fairer, time-limited approach, and that would be a better way forward.

If the Minister will not listen to me, perhaps he will heed the concerns of the Forces Pension Society, which delivered a letter to No. 10 in December to explain to the Prime Minister the disproportionate impact of the pension changes on the armed forces. Many members of the armed forces leave the military by the time they are 40, or earlier perhaps, if they are injured, so their pensions start to pay out much earlier compared to those of other public sector workers, and the changes will result in their losing hundreds of thousands of pounds over their lifetimes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton said, we are not talking about small amounts of money—these are very significant amounts. For example, a corporal who lost both legs in a bomb blast—a horrific and serious injury—would miss out on about £500,000 in pension and benefit-related payment, a figure that is very difficult to justify. War widows, who disproportionately rely on their pension schemes, will also lose out enormously. According to figures from the Forces Pension Society, a 34-year-old wife of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan would be almost £750,000 worse off. Again, that is very difficult to get one’s head around, and to justify.

There can be only two possible reasons for the changes. The Government might think that armed forces pensions are too generous, but I have not heard them saying that, so I can assume only that it must be about deficit reduction, which is indeed the argument that has been put forward. I am afraid, however, that that argument does not add up either because the impact of the change from RPI to CPI uprating will be felt long after the Government’s intention to pay down the deficit is achieved.

I mentioned a constituent of mine, Craig Lunberg, who fought for his country and was blinded and severely injured, but is getting on with life. Why should he have to pay for the bankers’ excesses? My hon. Friend might wish to speculate on that.

I agree with my hon. Friend that his constituent should not have to pay for the bankers’ excesses. I am not sure whether the Minister believes that, and perhaps he will address the point.

Although the figures demonstrate that the impact of the changes will be felt long after the deficit has been paid down—thus far paying down the deficit seems to be the only argument for change—the Government are determined to reduce the support given to forces members and their dependants every year from now on, even when the economy has returned to growth, as they predict it will. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) made the point very well that it is important to balance the needs of our economy with the unique debt that we owe our armed forces.

People will find it very hard to understand why men and women serving in Afghanistan now will receive poorer pensions, and why war widows will have their entitlements hit, year on year. Service personnel in Afghanistan were told, last November I think, by the Secretary of State that they would not be made redundant, but they have now been told that they have been included in the pool of people being considered. That is a very worrying U-turn by the Government. Our armed forces do very dangerous and difficult work in conflict zones all over the globe, and it places great strain on loved ones when their husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters spend many months at a time away from home. Dependants, the majority of whom are women, often make huge sacrifices to support those on the front line, and we owe them just as big a debt of gratitude as we do those in combat, particularly today, on international women’s day. The most important thing that we can do to go some way to repaying that debt is to ensure that service personnel and their families are looked after during and after their time in the forces, especially if their service is cut short because of injury or death.

Our military men and women deserve the best treatment for the work they do. They are not demanding special treatment on pensions; they just want to be treated fairly. By making pension changes that will hit members of the armed forces this hard, and for the rest of their lives, the Government are clearly not treating them fairly. Ministers must look again at the policy, and if they believe that it is part of their deficit reduction plan they should consider a time-limited measure during the period of deficit reduction and spending restraint. That would be a much fairer approach. There cannot be a logical reason why the bravest British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan should see their pensions reduced for the rest of their lives, and why war widows, who have had the person most special to them taken away, should have the support on which they so depend taken away.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) asked whether the changes will lead to a recruitment problem. Service families have recently told me that the changes are leading to their seriously considering leaving the armed forces. I am also told that people in the armed forces are talking about their exit strategy—not our exit strategy from Afghanistan, but their own personal exit strategy from the armed forces—because of the severity of the changes.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton has noted, a Ministry of Defence spokesperson, when challenged in November on the unique nature of military service, said:

“It is not possible to treat the armed forces differently from other pubic servants.”

I am happy to remind that spokesperson of the unique nature of military service. My hon. Friend has covered some of these points, but they are so important that I will make them again, and I hope that that spokesperson listens. Service personnel are required to work unlimited hours in dangerous conditions, with no prospect of overtime, and can be imprisoned for failing to show up. Their living conditions can be very tough, and they are often separated from family and loved ones for many months at a time. They can be compelled to return, even after retiring. They forgo several political freedoms and contractual rights that other people rightly enjoy, and they are at risk of being killed or horribly maimed as a direct result and an unavoidable consequence of their service. Their pension is a serious and tangible financial compensation for those things, and the Government must bear that in mind.

The Government must be held to greater account for their approach to the armed forces, particularly on pensions. They have reversed their promise to write the military covenant into legislation, when recognising the covenant and enshrining it in law is more important than ever. Instead of writing the covenant into law, it is proposed that the Secretary of State will report annually to Parliament on the effect that membership of the armed forces has on service people, with specific reference only to health care, education and housing. Of course, those issues are vital to service personnel, their families and veterans, but there are many other issues that affect their daily lives, particularly since the election of the Government.

With the Armed Forces Bill Committee, I visited a garrison a couple of weeks ago and met several soldiers and their families. The concerns they raised were about cuts to allowances, cuts to pensions and the difficulties faced by service family members seeking employment. We have seen no movement from the Government on the issue of honouring their pledge to enshrine the military covenant in law. The Minister said on Radio 4 in February that they were defining the covenant in law. He might wish to take the opportunity to correct his remarks. Even his own team has not said that it will be defined in law—it continues to insist that it will be enshrined in law. In fact, neither is true. However, if the Government will not honour their pledge, at the very least, they must broaden the scope of the annual report on the covenant. We have proposed, through a series of amendments in Committee, that the terms of the covenant report should be expanded to include issues such as mental health care, employment and training and, crucially, pensions and benefits. It would be bizarre if the Secretary of State was required to come to Parliament and produce a report that did not reflect his or her direct responsibilities.

The coalition has so far rejected that proposal but I urge it again—particularly in the light of the letter from Chris Simpkins, director general of the Royal British Legion, to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire—to ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise closely the current and future Governments’ approach to the much wider range of issues facing our service personnel.

The chair of the RAF Families Federation told the Armed Forces Bill Committee recently:

“At the moment, there is a real feeling within the armed forces that they are being battered from all sides.”

It is easy to understand that view when one considers the Government’s pension changes, their plans to make thousands of service personnel redundant and the litany of broken promises that simply do not match the rhetoric that we heard before the election. We can add to that the Government’s decision to scrap major reforms to the system of inquests on military deaths, which has been described as a betrayal by forces families.

Today’s debate is an opportunity to highlight the unfair impact that the Government's pension changes will have on our brave servicemen and women, and again to call on Ministers to rethink their approach. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. It is also another opportunity to hold the Government to account for their general approach to our armed forces. In their nine months in office they have failed to live up to their pre-election rhetoric, and their actions—including the impact of the changes to pensions—have seriously damaged the sacred bond of trust between the nation and the armed forces who bravely defend our freedoms.

I commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) on initiating this debate on the effect on the armed forces of Government changes to pensions and benefits, and I acknowledge that the subject is profoundly important to many people.

Our armed forces are deployed to most demanding areas of conflict and we have a duty, not only as a Government but as a nation, to support and look after them, to care for the injured and the bereaved. That is common ground for all hon. Members. As the House knows, the priority for the Government is to bring the national finances under control by reducing the deficit, which inevitably means reducing public expenditure. That means that we have to take difficult and sometimes very unpalatable decisions in all areas of spending, including defence. Because of the priority we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction relative to almost all other Departments.

However, in the comprehensive spending review and the strategic defence and security review, we have still had to take difficult decisions that have repercussions for some members of the armed forces and their families. I repeat that many of those decisions have been unpalatable. Nobody in the coalition came into politics to make cuts to the armed forces or to eliminate capabilities in our military power, but that is what we have had to do.

I am coming to that. We have to acknowledge three things. First, the scale of the deficit is so enormous that £1 in every £4 of public expenditure is being borrowed, and the interest alone on the debt this year is greater than the entire defence budget, including the proportion being paid by the Treasury for operations in Afghanistan. That is how immense the overall deficit black hole is. That is compounded in the area of defence by the situation we inherited, where the defence budget was lagging behind the defence forward programme over the 10-year planning period by £38 billion. That is the gap between the programme that we inherited and the existing budget, set at a flat real basis, for the 10-year planning period. That is over and on top of the general deficit picture that we inherited. There is the general picture and the specific defence picture.

The third element, which I do not think was acknowledged adequately by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, is that before there ever was an economic downturn, before the banking crisis hit, before the deficit became part of the political currency, there was already a problem with public service pensions, which the previous Government had acknowledged and was beginning to address, and which was going to require pretty drastic action sooner or later, irrespective of the nation’s finances plunging as they did. Before any of that started, there was already a serious problem with the affordability of public service pensions. We have to acknowledge all three factors as the backcloth to the decisions that have subsequently been taken.

Will the Minister give an example of a time in the previous Parliament when either his or the Conservative party called for less defence spending?

Certainly not. We would have liked to have seen more defence spending. We would still like to see that now. The fact is that defence figures, for obvious security reasons, are not exposed to the same degree of parliamentary scrutiny as those of other Departments, and with the long lead time of many defence items, commitments stretch further into the future than they do in many other Departments. Although we were aware from Bernard Gray’s report on procurement that there were some pretty serious financial difficulties inside the Ministry of Defence, it was not until we got in and saw the full scale of it that we realised how drastic the defence budget’s problems were.

I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I understand the argument that we had in the main Chamber about deficit reduction. It is not possible to throw the old line that we are deficit deniers—I am stating publicly that I understand the rationale—because if that were the case, a proposal that was time-bound until the deficit was pared down would have got some support across the Chamber. However, that is not what is being proposed. As I mentioned, it is necessary to take cognisance of the fact that, because our forces personnel and their widows draw pensions at a much earlier age, the proposed changes are compounding the problem. It is not comparing apples with apples; it is not even comparing Cox’s with Cox’s. A completely different set of comparators must be used, because armed forces pensions are drawn at such an early age.

The hon. Gentleman is making two different points, and I shall address each in turn. The question of the deficit must be boiled down into the structural deficit and the cyclical deficit. If all the measures that we are taking during this Parliament to eliminate the structural deficit are reversed at some point in the future, the country will simply return to square one. This Government are attempting to address the cyclical deficit through economic growth over a period, but we must eliminate the structural deficit. The structural deficit is not a temporary phenomenon. It existed before the banking crisis. It is perfectly true that the banking crisis blew the lid off it and put the entire global economy into turmoil, but the fact is that the UK was in a serious deficit situation before the banking crisis hit. That is why measures taken now to address the deficit cannot be viewed as temporary. If we start reversing prior decisions when the cycle improves and the cyclical deficit is also eliminated, we will simply return to square one.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point is a fair one. On average, people leave the military and begin drawing pensions from the age of about 40. I am sceptical about some of the figures that he and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Gemma Doyle) quoted, and I need to examine them in depth to see how on earth they were arrived at, but the general point that the pension is drawn from an earlier age is valid. However, in the vast majority of cases, people who draw a military pension from the age of about 40 do not then live on it exclusively for the rest of their days. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) acknowledged that he receives a service pension, but that has not prevented him from going on to do other things. Of course, some will not have further opportunities, but for the vast majority of people who leave the services at about 40, the service pension augments what they can earn in other walks of life for a long period. It is not really comparable with an old age pension in the sense that I think the hon. Gentleman meant.

It is strange that the Minister mentions the difference between the structural and cyclical deficits. If the change is being made to address the structural deficit, that existed a long time before the banking crisis, as he rightly said, but I do not remember any dissident voices from the Tory and Liberal Democrat Benches at the time saying that we should reduce armed forces pensions. Why the change? If it was known well before the banking crisis, why was it not in either party’s manifesto?

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that we are having to take measures now to eliminate the deficit that we would not have taken or needed to take if the deficit had not grown over seven or eight years in the first place. Nobody in Government is saying that the precise measures that we are taking now are those that got the country into deficit, but the fact is that between 2001 and the banking crisis, we ran a budget deficit, some of it during a boom period in which traditional Keynesian economics should have dictated that we run a budget surplus.

The Government are now being forced to take drastic measures to address the structural deficit, not on the logic that these are the specific issues that built up the structural deficit, but because we must deal in the art of the possible. None of us came into politics to cut armed forces numbers or delete military capability, but we are driven to do so now by the scale of the budget deficit. It is simply not fair to say that nobody said anything. Throughout the period, my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable) said that both personal debt and debt in the state’s coffers were mounting to the point of unsustainability and would sooner or later go pop. I do not claim to have been a soothsayer myself, but to say that nobody said it is simply inaccurate and untrue.

I apologise for not being here earlier, Mr Streeter. I was at the Health and Social Care Bill Committee. I noticed in the paper that the Army Families Federation, which represents soldiers and their families,

“said that it had received 2,000 complaints in the past five days about the impact of cuts from people who feel that pensions and pay changes are a sign that the offer they laid down their lives for has been reneged on”.

I understand the Government’s position clearly in relation to the Budget, but in the middle of it all are the families and those serving on the front whose benefits and pensions are being reduced. That is the clear issue for many of us in this Chamber.

[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

It is a serious issue—I do not deny that for one minute—but I think that what the hon. Gentleman refers to was an online survey run by the Army Families Federation that had 2,000 participants in its first five days. Of course there is a lot of concern and anxiety about the measures; I do not deny that for a minute. It is understandable. Some of the changes that we have had to make to the allowances package, which is what I think the survey was specifically about, are unpopular and will require lifestyle adjustments, but they are a necessary part of the Department’s contribution to the overall Government effort to reduce the deficit and bring the defence budget into some sort of balance.

The strategic defence and security review set out a requirement to reduce expenditure on service and civil service allowances, amounting to £300 million a year. Allowances are designed to support service personnel in particular circumstances, not to supplement income. It is entirely right that the package of allowances is reviewed from time to time to ensure that it fits the needs and circumstances of today’s armed forces fairly and affordably. There is no getting away from the fact that the measures will have an impact on individuals; I acknowledge that. However, to minimise the effects, we have concentrated on ensuring where we can that no group is disproportionately affected by changes. We have also sought to mitigate the effects by phasing in some of the changes over two years.

Operational allowances have not been affected by any of those changes. The House will be aware that we have doubled the operational allowance, backdated to 6 May last year. We have also changed the policy governing rest and recuperation for service personnel deployed on operations. Personnel deploying for six months will remain eligible for 14 days’ R and R, and personnel who lose out on that, whether as a result of operations or of disruptions to the air bridge, will be guaranteed additional post-operational leave in lieu as compensation. An appropriate set of allowances is a vital part of our support to personnel, and it will remain so. We believe that the changes announced in January by my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and Veterans, struck the right balance between the need for savings and the need to get the package right.

The emergency Budget in June announced that from this April, the indexation of benefits, tax credits and the state second pension will be based on CPI rather than RPI. The change looks forward to the future. Future increases in the value of deferred pensions—all pensions in payment—will be based on CPI. Public service pensions will continue to be index-linked, which will continue to protect individual pensions against increases in the cost of living. The change is not a reduction of accrued rights, but we accept that, in the long term, CPI tends to increase at a lower rate than RPI. That is not always true—a year ago, RPI was negative and CPI positive—but I think that everybody accepts that, over the long term, CPI increases more slowly.

We have to link pensions to the appropriate target measure. CPI is the target measure used by the Bank of England, the headline measure of inflation in the UK, and the international standard measure. It uses a methodology that takes better account of consumer behaviour in response to price increases. The Government believe that it is the right index to use for uprating additional state pensions, public and private pensions and social security benefits, and that it is a more appropriate measure.

It is in the nature of public sector pension schemes that individual schemes cannot be seen in isolation. Much as I would wish, as the Armed Forces Minister, to see the armed forces pension schemes as utterly individual, the fact of the matter is that other workers in other areas of public service could not and should not be expected to see that. We cannot change one scheme without it at the very least having implications for others, and we cannot treat armed forces pension schemes inconsistently. The armed forces are part of the society they serve. Service pensioners do not live in a different world where prices move in different ways and the economy operates in a different fashion.

Can the Minister inform me of what the envisaged savings will be—specifically for armed forces benefits and pensions—over the next few years as a result of the change from RPI to CPI?

No, we cannot forecast that at this stage. The Treasury has taken the decision across the public service, and it remains to be seen exactly what that will realise over time. It has based its policy on actuarial assessments that conclude that, over a longer period, there will be a significant saving to the public purse.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Lord Hutton is in the final stages of a structural review of public service pension provision and will publish his findings this week. In his interim report, Lord Hutton noted that the most effective way to make short-term savings was to increase member contributions, but he did not recommend that in the case of the armed forces.

We recognise that there can be anomalies and do what we can to iron them out. It was unfair that, under the 1975 armed forces pension scheme, a service person who held acting rank and exercised the responsibilities of that rank, but who died as a result of service before a certain period had elapsed, did not have that higher rank reflected in his pension. We have, therefore, changed the rules. Every soldier, sailor or airman can be assured that, if they die for reasons related to service while holding acting rank, their dependants will receive payments that reflect that rank.

I have reflected upon the Minister’s answer, and it seems that the Government do not know what the total savings of this policy will be. Surely there is a ballpark figure somewhere that can be used to say that the policy will address some of the structural deficit that he identified earlier.

The hon. Gentleman is right—there are such figures, but they are held by the Treasury and have been determined by the Treasury actuaries. They have not been worked out by each Department for itself. The Treasury’s policy is to address the entire situation of public service pensions, which—I will say it again—were a serious problem in terms of their affordability long before the financial crisis or the downturn occurred. The hon. Gentleman will remember that, during the previous Parliament, the previous Government ran themselves into hot water with some of the public service unions due to the reforms they began to make to public service pensions.

Moving indexation from RPI to CPI is one of the ways that this current Government have identified of reducing the scale of the measures that Lord Hutton will have to recommend in terms of varying either contributions or benefits for public service pensions. I have no idea what Lord Hutton will recommend later this week, but I am certain that, on top of that, some reforms will be proposed that will be unpopular and unpleasant. However, they will be less severe than they would have had to be, because of the Treasury’s switch from RPI to CPI. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that there are such figures, but they are not held at an individual departmental level. He might want to address his question to the Chancellor.

Let me be clear about the challenges we face and why we are considering the issues under discussion. The fact of the matter is that we inherited a record national debt and a huge black hole in the defence budget. We cannot run away from those harsh realities. Tough decisions have to be made, and we are facing up to that challenge. We accept that some of the changes will be difficult and that support for the armed forces remains very high throughout the country. We ask them to do things to keep us safe, and deny them the right to choose what assignments we set them. We will do all we can to support them, properly equip them, compensate them when they are injured and honour them when they die. We owe them nothing less.

Sitting suspended.

University Admission

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this subject this afternoon, particularly under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne. I am very pleased indeed that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science has taken the trouble to come to reply to the debate. I am sure that those of us who are present very much appreciate that.

I begin with a tribute to my right hon. Friend who has a long-standing, deep and passionate commitment to extending opportunity and to maintaining excellence in our universities. We are fortunate to have him serving as a Minister in this Government. However, serious questions must be asked about the Government’s guidance, which bears the name of my right hon. Friend, although I think it has come from the bowels of the Government. It has been issued to the director of fair access for him to pass on and to put pressure on universities.

The Office for Fair Access has an interesting background. It is a quango that was set up by the previous Labour Government, and it has a Labour-appointed chairman. I understand from what the director said on the “Today” programme that it will be given additional funding and take on additional staff. No doubt that will raise a cheer in one or two other quarters, certainly in the world of quangos, as an example of a quango that can survive and prosper even under present conditions.

I participated in the Standing Committee that considered the previous Government’s Higher Education Bill six or seven years ago. Memory may play tricks over such a period, but I remember the rationale that was advanced by the Labour Government for the creation of the Office for Fair Access. My memory may be playing tricks on me, but Conservative Members opposed its establishment and voted against the Bill. We opposed OFFA in principle and did not believe that it should be set up. It may be not just that my memory is playing tricks and I may have been under a misapprehension—perhaps we opposed it because we thought that it did not go far enough. I do not know, but it is certainly going much further now—this is the important point—than the Labour Government wanted. It is going even slightly further than some Labour Back Benchers urged. The then Labour Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), was robust in opposing some of the suggestions from his own Back Benchers because he thought that they were going too far. That is another quarter in which some cheer will be raised by the guidance that has been issued by this Government.

The guidance goes much further than the previous Government intended because it puts far more pressure, particularly financial pressure, on universities with the link between approval for charging higher fees, fee income and admissions, and it is clearly intended to go much further. OFFA’s original scheme was that agreement for universities to charge higher fees—the increase under the previous Government was from £1,100 to £3,000—was made dependent on universities undertaking activities to promote applications to university, but stopping short of specifying admission outcomes.

The coalition Government now want to go a great deal further. The guidance is quite detailed and very prescriptive in what it requires of universities, and just the introduction—it gives the flavour of the guidance—says:

“Through this letter, we want to encourage you and the higher education sector to focus more sharply on the outcomes of outreach and other access activities rather than the inputs and processes. In particular, the Government believes that progress over the past few years in securing fair access to the most selective universities has been inadequate, and that much more determined action now needs to be taken.”

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but may I first say that I am happy to give way to any hon. Member who wants to intervene?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I am following his argument with interest. Does he agree that the arrangements, critical though he was of them, that the Labour Government put in place have had an impact? For example, Oxford university’s first access agreement with OFFA resulted in increased applications from students in state schools to the extent that they rose from 6,000 to 7,624, an increase of 27%. That exhortation has had an effect.

I welcome a greater number of applications from all sectors to our most prestigious universities, and the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention was timely. I pay tribute to the work of the universities, including Oxford and Cambridge universities. In debates such as this, attention often focuses on those two universities, as it has in speeches by the Minister and others in the Government.

Oxford and Cambridge universities do a tremendous amount of outreach activities, certainly far more than 20 or 30 years ago. They devote a lot of effort to that. One unfairness of the approach now being taken is that the more outreach universities do, the more they are told they are not doing enough. They seem never to be able to please their bureaucratic master in the form of the Office for Fair Access. The Minister looks puzzled, but it was in his letter, which I quoted, that the Government said that progress over the past few years has been inadequate.

The power of what the hon. Gentleman is saying is important, but I passionately disagree with nearly everything he has said. Does he acknowledge that the central difference between now and previously is the level of the fee income? Will he reflect on the fact that although more young people from poorer backgrounds are at university, the number of those who make it to the most selective universities remains largely flat, despite young people from state schools getting better grades? We must understand the effectiveness of much of that outreach work.

The right hon. Gentleman raises many points, and I will try to deal with some of them as I go along. I would like to see as many applications as possible to a wide range of institutions. The students who apply to universities must be selected on merit, and the pressure that the Government are applying cuts across that principle.

I have only half an hour, but if I have time at the end I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that in addition to quotas smacking of social engineering and lacking clear justification through evidence, they could harm the long-term economic interests of this country, which would adversely affect everyone? The answer is not quotas, but ensuring that standards in the state education system are brought up to the level that allows those within it to compete on merit, not by quotas.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I was coming to. It answers in part the point raised by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). There is a question of raising standards in some quarters of the state system, and also of raising aspirations among pupils, critically by their teachers. The universities have been playing their part, but there must be a limit at some point to how much we expect universities to do in reaching into schools and raising aspirations. Teachers have day-to-day contact with pupils, and there is a responsibility on them in some quarters to raise aspirations.

The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) referred to grades. Is it not also the case that there are severe question marks about the grades that pupils are being given in the appropriate examinations before they get into university? If the grades are not up to scratch, that is effectively a back door to the social engineering to which my hon. Friend referred.

One of the crosses that the Government may have to bear as a result of that guidance is a great deal of scrutiny of grades, and comparisons between the grades that people from certain schools received, and which universities they successfully applied to. I have a lot of confidence in university admissions tutors and their approach to the job, particularly in the most selective universities.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important subject. In August last year, the Minister told the Daily Mail:

“Admissions policies are for universities, not for Ministers”

Does my hon. Friend agree?

That happily brings me to my next point. I imagine that the Minister will say, in his fair way, exactly what he said to the Daily Mail a few months ago. I am sure he will be anxious to reassure us that the Government intend universities to be free to continue to make judgments and admissions based on individual merit. However, in light of the guidance given to universities by the Office for Fair Access, I am afraid I will not able to place as much confidence in the Minister’s reassurance as I would like, and it would be stretching my credulity to accept it at face value. In the long directive from the Office for Fair Access, the word “merit” appears only once after 25 paragraphs of detailed instructions to universities, backed by the threat of financial pressure. It uses the words

“so long as individuals are considered on their merits and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence based.”

That is the only place I can find the word “merit”, and it appears in much the same place as one would expect to find the legal small print in an advertising brochure.

As my hon. Friend may know, I voted against the trebling of tuition fees. I did that as someone who has been to one of the top universities on a maximum grant. When I applied to that university, I was looking not for privileged treatment in the admission exam, but for fair treatment, and for the ability to afford the course if I were fortunate enough to be successful. We were told that trebling fees would not put off people from poorer backgrounds from applying. We are now told that for people from poorer backgrounds to apply, we must socially engineer the people who get in. The narrative seems to have changed and it now contradicts what was said before. Instead of people getting in on merit, they are getting in on considerations of social position.

My hon. Friend’s point will be widely shared and many people have come to the same conclusion. There is always a problem with such attempts to compensate. Even though bursaries are rightly awarded to people from lower-income families, there will always be a family on lower-middle income, or in straitened circumstances, who remain just above the level at which bursaries are awarded. They are called the “squeezed middle”. When the previous Government introduced fees at a much lower level, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice raised that issue as a particular problem with the fee system, and it is a matter to which we must devote some research. We all want students to be encouraged to go to the university of their choice and not to be discouraged by their financial circumstances.

Will the right hon. Gentleman contain himself because I have a number of questions to put to the Minister? I hope there will be other chances to debate this matter.

I have some questions arising from letters that I have received from my constituents and independent schools in my constituency. Is it not the case that universities are being put under tremendous financial pressure to come into line with the outcomes that central Government wish to bring about through the Office for Fair Access, irrespective of the principle of merit? As advocated by the Government, the principle of merit is a face saver, but the reality is that the financial pressure on universities puts them in an invidious position. Universities are told the outcomes they are expected to achieve, and financial pressure is put on them because they will not be able to charge the fees they wish if they do not achieve those outcomes. That cuts right across the principle of merit, which, much as Ministers may talk about it, cannot be sustained in light of the detailed guidance provided.

Will the Minister explain why the first access performance indicator relates to

“the percentage of students admitted from state schools or colleges”?

Given that a clear majority of pupils, including those who apply to the most prestigious universities, come from state schools, how does that equate to disadvantage? The headmaster of an independent school in my constituency wrote to me about the Government guidelines:

“The principle of widening access to university is an excellent one. But I know you will share my concern that disadvantage should not be equated with education in the state sector. Any lack of social mobility in the UK has causes that start even at the pre-school level: attempts to fix them at the point of university entrance are dangerous, misguided and unfair. Independent schools have large numbers of disadvantaged pupils receiving financial support: they do not deserve to be discriminated against.”

Ministers seem particularly interested in admission to Oxford and Cambridge, and although there are many other good universities, they choose to focus particularly on those. Is it the Government’s case that a lower proportion of independent school students who are admitted to Oxford and Cambridge go on to obtain a first-class degree than students from other backgrounds? That would appear to be the gist of the Government’s justification. Will the Minister supply evidence of a difference in degree performance between state sector and independent sector school students at Oxford and Cambridge? Even if the Government are able to provide such evidence—it will be interesting to see whether they can—surely that would be a matter for Oxford and Cambridge to take into account, and to exercise their judgment independently, without pressure from the Government.

A number of hon. Members may wish to ask questions of the Minister. To conclude, let me say that we all share—certainly in the Conservative party—the objectives of promoting excellence and spreading opportunity. However, in light of some of the interventions I have received, the Minister must explain how the Government’s plans for influencing university admissions will help raise standards in schools where standards need to be raised, and how they will help to raise aspiration. Should the Government not focus on improving standards in schools, establishing a positive ethos and, above all, raising expectations? I believe that is happening in the Education Bill, but the guidelines hardly seem like a vote of confidence for that. Would that not be a better course to take, and rather more in line with our traditional principles and ways of thinking, than the route taken in the guidelines, which are bureaucratic, complex and impose considerable burdens on universities? Above all, as I have said, the guidelines put significant financial pressure on universities. That cuts across the principle of admission on merit and sits uneasily with the Government’s creditable objectives of abolishing top-down targets and promoting localism and decentralised decision making. We must devote more time to this matter as there is a lot of interest in the debate from all parties. I hope that the Minister will begin, in his very fair manner, to give some indication of the Government’s thinking on this issue, and tell us what evidence lies behind it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) for securing the opportunity to debate this important issue. As he was so generous in what he said about me personally, let me reciprocate. I understand his personal commitment to what he rightly described as the principle of merit—meritocracy. I would argue that equality of opportunity, rather than equality of outcome, is a key principle that the Conservative party believes in and that is probably shared by all parties.

The question is about how we apply the principle of merit and ensure meritocracy. The argument that we in government have gone though is as follows. First, we would all accept that, when going to university, merit involves some assessment of potential, not just what has already been achieved academically. Let us put ourselves in the position of an admissions tutor at one of the universities that my hon. Friend mentions. Let us say that two 18-year-olds present themselves. One has had an incredibly tough upbringing and been to a rather mediocre school with low educational standards, the other has had every advantage in life and benefited from high-quality schooling, but they have the same A-level grades. We would probably all intuitively reach a judgment about who had the higher underlying intellectual merit.

We might go further and say that the student who had lower grades but who came from the tougher background might have higher potential than the other student. That is our starting point. I see that requests for interventions are already piling in. I will accept brief interventions.

My right hon. Friend is, as always, extremely kind. I say to him that as someone who was in that position—someone who came from a poor household—I was prepared to be judged on the marks that I got, even though people in competition with me went through, shall we say, more advantaged educational processes, because once we start monkeying around with the grades and saying that the person with the higher marks should not get the place, we are in very dangerous and subjective territory indeed.

I hope to show my hon. Friend that it is not subjective, but absolutely it has to be about merit. I am not aware of any major higher education system in the world that says that the sole criterion for getting in is the exam marks that a person has already achieved. I would be interested to know whether my hon. Friend even believes that our own universities have ever solely used exam marks already achieved, rather than considering merit by including some assessment of potential.

I see that a lot of Members want to intervene. There are nine minutes to go. I shall give way to the former Minister.

I just want to confirm what the Minister said. Entrance to university in this country has always been based on attainment and achievement, potential, and aptitude to perform. There is lots of academic evidence that children from poorer backgrounds who get to universities do better than those from independent schools.

My right hon. Friend is being generous. Is that not the point? No one could disagree with equality of opportunity. We are trying to assess potential. However, it is not for the Government to assess potential; it is for the universities to assess potential. That is the key point, and something that I think the Minister is missing.

I agree that it is for universities to assess potential. Let me take hon. Members through the next stages of the argument. There is a disagreement of principle. I am surprised that people could imagine that our universities have ever simply gone on academic marks already achieved. My understanding of how they have always operated is that they have tried to assess potential, and an understanding of merit does indeed involve consideration of the aptitude for future academic accomplishment. The question is how that should be done. Historically it has happened, but it has been done on a discretionary basis. We all have a picture in our mind of the elderly Oxbridge don sucking at his pipe as the interview candidates come through and assessing who might be best able to benefit from such an education, making an assessment that goes beyond simply the marks that they have already achieved.

However, it is very hard to operate a system on the basis of the personal discretion of the don or academic in a world in which, first, we are dealing with mass higher education; secondly, it is very important that those judgments be transparent and not be capricious, because otherwise they could be on the basis of personal bias; and thirdly, those judgments should be legally defensible. That is why it is very important that we have objective evidence.

Let me now turn to the legitimate challenge from my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere: do we have any evidence? I shall cite two papers that try to get to the heart of the issue by assessing the relative chances of people getting a good degree when they go to university. There have been two recent studies, and experts will be able to assess their rigour. There has been a study of Oxford and a separate study in Bristol. Both examined the likelihood of getting a good degree, measured as a 2:1 or a first. We could apply what I would regard as a defensible, meritocratic criterion: we will accept students on the basis that they will have an equal chance of getting a 2:1 or a first. The studies found that students who came from schools where there had been particularly high academic standards got higher A-level grades relative to their chances of getting a 2:1 or a first than prospective students from other backgrounds.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will accept that, if we are to apply the principle of merit, one reasonable way of doing so would be to accept students on the basis that we are considering potential, based on an equal chance of getting a 2:1 or a first. Otherwise we would not be applying the principle of merit. We would be selecting students because they had good A-levels, rather than on the basis of their academic merit.

My right hon. Friend was kind enough to supply me with a copy of a speech that he had already made in which he referred to that evidence. He drew certain conclusions from it, which he has just referred to. The three authors of the report were called Ogg, Zimdars and Heath. Has my right hon. Friend read the whole report?

I confess—it may be a rather sad confession—that I have read the whole paper. Of course, there will be continuing dispute about its content, but I have read it. The question is, having gone this far—

I will give way, but we have only four minutes left and I want to respond to another challenge; I am getting behind on the challenges.

How does my right hon. Friend square what he has said with the conclusion of the report, to which he did not choose to refer? The authors of the report said that there was a slight difference between state and independent schools and it ought to be taken into account. However, it already was taken into account by academics in the admissions process. The report says that

“according to earlier research using the OAS data set, the selectors at Oxford in fact appear to already discount the GCSE grades of private school students…One might therefore be tempted to suggest that the selectors at Oxford have done their job of getting the best students to Oxford fairly well.”

The authors go on to say that there is no evidence of under-performance by private school students.

The crucial thing is that what universities have said they expect of us, quite reasonably, is a framework for their decisions that is—I shall quote our letter to OFFA—“fair, transparent and evidence-based”. Let me turn, in the few minutes left, to the crucial issue about universities. I value the autonomy of universities. We are not telling universities whom to select. We operate within a legal framework that goes back to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, which makes it absolutely clear that it is not for Ministers and the Government to determine the admission of students. What we are trying to do is, quite simply, ask universities to choose and set out for themselves the criteria that they will use to ensure that we are not wasting talent in this country because there are children whose underlying abilities are being hidden by bad education.

Of course we hope that in the long run our school reforms will mean that that problem disappears, but as a Conservative I have to deal with the world as it is, and teaching standards in secondary schools diverge. I hope that when teaching standards in all secondary schools are the same, these types of exercise will not be necessary, but while teaching standards in secondary schools diverge, the assessment of potential cannot be based simply on the points that someone has achieved in their A-levels or elsewhere. Universities have to be able to exercise that judgment. They ask, quite rightly, for a framework from us, and we make demands of them. We agree that the criteria should be fair, transparent and evidence based. There will not be quotas. There will not be a specific requirement on a university to select people on a specific basis.

However, universities will have to show what they are doing to broaden access so that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are clearly under-performing when it comes to getting to our most selective universities, have a fair opportunity to go there. Otherwise, we will not be delivering meritocracy. We will be rewarding the people with the best A-level grades; we will not be choosing the best and brightest to go to our research-intensive universities. That is morally wrong; it is not the principle of meritocracy and it is economically wasteful.

We can no longer rely on the old discretionary procedures, because they would be too capricious and they would be subject, rightly, to legal challenge. We have to have mechanisms, put forward by universities, that are fair, transparent and evidence based. Universities tell us that they understand that and welcome the fact that we are providing guidance and that they will not have to impose quotas. They will ultimately be deciding, on a case-by-case basis, on the merits of the individual person. However, that judgment must be based on assessment of potential, and assessment of potential can no longer be done on the basis of personal whim and discretion. They have to have something that is defensible to all of us as fair, transparent and evidence based. That is what our letter to OFFA is about. I believe that it passes the tests that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has set out. It is consistent with the principle of merit; indeed, it is necessary to deliver the principle of merit. It does not intervene in the individual admissions decisions of universities and it is evidence based.

I look forward to continuing these exchanges with my hon. Friend, because I fully understand his passionate commitment to equality of opportunity. That is a principle in which all in our party believe.

Voluntary Sector (Nottingham)

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne?

The voluntary sector in Nottingham is doing a huge amount for our city and its citizens. It provides services, support and advocacy to a wide range of groups, including some of the most vulnerable in society, as well as raising awareness, campaigning and fundraising. It also offers thousands of volunteering opportunities, which are important in strengthening our civil society and sense of community, but which also provide vital experience and skills to people seeking to move into paid work. Finally, of course, it provides employment to many people who are committed to making Nottingham a better place to live.

There are 678 registered charities in Nottingham. Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service, the local support organisation for the voluntary and community sector, has more than 1,000 local groups on its database, including charities, community groups and social enterprises. I am grateful to have the opportunity today to pay tribute to the fantastic work that the voluntary sector carries out in Nottingham, but I also want to express the hope that action can be taken to protect the sector before it is too late. I must tell hon. Members that Nottingham’s voluntary sector faces a crisis brought on by the Government’s spending cuts and the particularly severe reduction in funding for our local authority.

In its response to the city council’s budget consultation, the NCVS has stated that

“we believe that direct support to the sector from the council in 2010/11 totalled approximately £47.5 million. This is testament to both the strength of our local voluntary sector and the spirit of partnership working developed over many years by the Council”.

It is clear that Nottingham is already doing what the Government say they want local councils to do by using specialist providers in the community and voluntary sector to provide services to local people.

Over the past week, Delia Monk, the local government correspondent for our local paper, the Nottingham Post, has revealed the impact that spending cuts are having on the many different groups that make up the sector. The paper has done the community a great service by bringing the crisis to public attention and explaining how and why it should matter to us all.

Local groups face this funding crisis because of Government decisions to cut local authority funding too far and too fast. The Government claim that Nottingham’s spending power will be reduced by 8.4% in 2011-12, but the actual figure is 16.5%. That masks even deeper cuts to needs-based grants, which have now been rolled up into the total settlement. Those cuts include the scrapping of the working neighbourhoods fund and the future jobs fund and the 48% reduction in Nottingham’s allocation for Supporting People.

No, I am sorry, but my time is very limited.

The evidence for those cuts has been set out in an exchange of correspondence between the leader of the council and Ministers. NCVS anticipates that £47.5 million of council funding for the voluntary sector last year could shrink to about £29.5 million this year, which is a 38% drop. That reduction includes the loss of £7.5 million from the working neighbourhoods fund and £3.5 million from the future jobs fund, £7.6 million of cuts to Supporting People funding, cuts to commissioned services and likely reductions in grant aid and in-kind support.

Although cuts to local authority funding are the biggest worry for local groups, they come alongside big changes to the way groups can access alternative funding. Those changes include, for example, the introduction of charges and direct payments for social care and the upheaval in the health service, which is also a commissioner of services. Some groups will also be hit by the Government’s 60% cut in funding for asylum advice and the decision to end entirely funding for advice to people with refugee status. Refugee Action has been forced to leave Nottingham and to offer only outreach from its Leicester office. Legal aid cuts will also prevent Nottingham’s advice agencies from responding effectively to increasing local need.

Last Tuesday, the Nottingham Post reported that 40 services in the city and the county are at risk of closure.

I am sorry, but I have said that my time is very limited.

By this morning, that list had grown to include 35 services that are due to close, 16 that are at serious risk of closure and 12 that will be reduced. Those include services for children, such as play sessions and toy libraries, help and support for teenage parents, services for the mentally ill and their carers, a handy person scheme for the elderly and projects supporting women and children suffering domestic abuse. The support service for those who are homeless, or who could become homeless without adequate support, is particularly hard hit.

In the time available, I cannot possibly set out the full range of support services that will be lost as a result of this Tory-led Government’s choices, or describe individuals and families and the ways they will be affected, so I intend to focus on three issues: how the reductions in Supporting People will impact on not only service users, but the wider community, and how they will cost us all more than they save; how opportunities for volunteers and volunteering will be undermined rather than enhanced; and how employment and the local economy will suffer.

The previous Government introduced Supporting People funding to provide housing-related support, such as services to support homeless people and services to help individuals with learning disabilities or mental health issues to live independently in their own homes and to participate in the community. An independent evaluation by Capgemini for the Government in 2009 estimated that national expenditure of £1.6 billion generated net savings of £3.4 billion by avoiding the need for more costly acute services. I know from my own casework that the lack of proper support for vulnerable people—for example, those with mental health issues or substance misuse problems—can lead to difficulties with neighbours, require intervention by the local housing office, police and health services, and ultimately threaten people’s tenancies.

Framework is a homelessness charity based in my city, which provides housing, support, training, care and resettlement services. It often works with those groups that are most marginalised and stigmatised, including ex-offenders, people with a history of alcohol or substance misuse, and Gypsies and Travellers. In addition to being a direct provider of services, Framework heads a number of consortia of smaller specialist organisations that fulfil contracts commissioned by the city council.

Of the £22.3 million the city council spent on Supporting People services last year, approximately £7.5 million was spent through Framework contracts. In 2011-12, that figure is due to fall to approximately £3.5 million, resulting in the complete loss of 10 services and reductions in a further two. The 10 to be closed include specialist floating—that is, home-visiting—services for people with problems related to the use of illegal substances and alcohol. Such services have helped more than 500 service users in the past year. Other services to be closed include floating support for teenage parents, which supported 128 young people in 2010-1, a 16-bed hostel and five supported move-on flats for young people with complex needs. Without such support services, people with real needs face the prospect of getting into difficulty with their rent and housing, not looking after themselves or their home properly, becoming isolated and possibly placing a much greater burden on local services. Such people do not have a strong voice and do not always enjoy widespread public support.

We should be concerned about these cuts, because we are compassionate and care about social justice, but even on a more practical level, they are short-sighted in the extreme. It will cost us all more to deal with problems when they become urgent, when they could have been avoided through less expensive preventive measures. That is the principle behind the early intervention work pioneered by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for which our city is rightly recognised. There will also be non-financial costs because of the distress caused to service users, their families, their neighbours and people in their local community. Many of us remember the sight of rough sleepers on our city streets, and none of us wants to return to those days, yet the Government’s actions make that a real risk.

The Government claim that the national Supporting People budget has not been significantly reduced, but it has certainly been redistributed away from areas of high need. Nottingham is the 13th most deprived local authority in the country and is suffering the 21st largest reductions in formula grant funding, whereas Windsor and Maidenhead, which ranks 323rd in terms of deprivation, has seen its spending cut by just over 1%.

In Nottingham, the council has sought to cushion the impact on the voluntary sector by not passing on the impact of the full cuts—almost £10 million in 2011-12—to Supporting People. With the reductions already being made to other parts of council services, the ability to protect the sector is limited, and it is inevitable that front-line services will be affected now and in the years to come.

The second area that I want to highlight is the impact on volunteering. Given that the Government have said that a key objective of the so-called big society is

“encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society”,

it seems incomprehensible that they are making cuts that undermine the very organisations that provide those opportunities.

It is normal to ask in advance of the commencement of a debate whether it would be okay to intervene. I am afraid that the hon. Lady did not do that, and I am short of time, so I will not. I am sorry.

Nottingham volunteer centre supports groups to recruit and retain volunteers, as well as helping potential volunteers to find suitable placements. In the past year, the centre matched about 2,500 people with volunteering opportunities in the city. A recent survey also found that volunteers in Nottingham gave more than 1 million hours of their time free, to support local people. If the volunteers were paid for their work, it would cost more than £14 million. In less than four weeks, all funding to support volunteering in Nottingham will end. The volunteer centre is affected by the scrapping of the working neighbourhoods fund and the national youth volunteering programme, vinvolved—eight members of staff are losing their jobs. The Government plan a new national citizen service for young people, but, as far as we are aware, none of those projects will take place in Nottingham, and the valuable expertise and infrastructure that has been built up in the city will soon disappear completely.

In Nottingham, more than half the volunteer centre’s service users were aged 25 or under, and when I visited the project recently I was impressed by the commitment and skills of the staff. Last year, 16% of the people supported by the V project were classed as not in education, employment or training. At a time of record youth unemployment, when one in five young people is unable to find work, it seems both cruel and foolish to cut off that vital link to skills, training and confidence for the most disadvantaged groups. That is best summed up in the words of a young woman who at first doubted her ability to make a worthwhile contribution through volunteering.

“I doubted myself…who was I kidding to think I could do something so mature like help at a hospice. I called Charmaine at Vinvolved to tell her that I didn’t think could do it. She was brilliant…she reassured me....I’m so glad I called her as I was ready to give up....3 months have passed and I’m still volunteering. My confidence has grown loads.... I really feel like I am making a difference.”

With 40% of the centre’s users out of work at the time they come in to volunteer, not only will the loss of the service reduce the opportunities available for people to retrain and improve their skills and employability, at a time when demand for the service is expected to rise, but it will deprive dozens of organisations of potential volunteers. Unfortunately, as local community and voluntary sector groups are unsure of the future of their own services, they are also losing the capacity to recruit and train volunteers. In most cases having fewer paid staff will mean fewer volunteers, not more.

That brings me to the third point that I want to highlight, which is that the cuts will lead to a significant reduction in employment. Nottingham city Unison, the local union branch that represents many voluntary sector staff in the city, reports that more than 1,000 members have been placed at risk of redundancy. Others face proposals to make significant cuts to their terms and conditions in a sector where pay is not generally high. NCVS-commissioned research from 2010 indicated that voluntary organisations benefit the local community by employing local people, so the job cuts and pay cuts will affect the spending power of hundreds of families in Nottingham. Coupled with job losses in local government, the police, the health service and the construction industry, following the Government’s decision to cancel investment in new school buildings and better social housing, they will further undermine the ability of our local economy to recover from the recession.

I could say so much more. On the 100th anniversary of international women’s day it is particularly saddening to read of the loss of services for women, such as the closure of Noelle House, the only gender-specific homelessness service in the city, and the loss of courses for teenage parents run by Platform 51, formerly the Young Women’s Christian Association, which were funded by the local primary care trust. The Women’s Voluntary Action Network is so concerned that it has appealed to the Minister for Women and Equalities to intervene. Black and minority ethnic communities will also feel the effect of the Tory-led Government’s decisions. Tuntum housing association reports cuts of 80% in its Supporting People funding, which will remove all the assistance it provides for vulnerable young people, primarily from BME backgrounds, and particularly young women.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the cuts were inevitable and that what I have described is the legacy of a Labour Government who left the national coffers empty, but people in Nottingham are not gullible. They understand that the money spent on British schools, hospitals and police officers did not cause the recession that was felt in Ireland, France, Greece and the USA. They know that we had to borrow money to bail out the banks and that tax receipts plummeted, making the deficit inevitable. They also know that the decision to cut the deficit as deep and fast as the Government are doing is a political choice. My concern is that that political choice will have devastating effects in the city I represent, and that those bearing the brunt are the very people who are least able to withstand it, including the poor, the old, the young, the disabled, the mentally ill and the homeless.

The Minister will doubtless say that that is the fault of Nottingham city council, but not a single Communities and Local Government Minister would meet representatives of the council or the city’s voluntary sector when they came down to Westminster last Monday to voice their concerns about the unfair settlement imposed on our city.

Perhaps the Minister will also say that the council should cut backroom functions and make efficiency savings. Well, it is already doing those things, cutting corporate services by 20%. It has already reduced the chief executive’s pay.

The debate in our local press has brought the work of the voluntary and community sector, which often goes unnoticed, to the public attention. I hope I have been able to highlight some of the work under threat. It has also raised questions and concerns among the people whom we serve, and now I want to put those questions before the Minister. How can it be fair for councils that serve the most disadvantaged communities to suffer the deepest cuts? How can we expect people to take responsibility for themselves, while at the same time cutting away the support they need to do so? What good is talking about a big society while removing the infrastructure that it needs? Nottingham people want answers, and I hope that the Minister has them ready.

I just want to point out that in half-hour debates the Chair’s practice is to call the Member who obtained the debate, and the Minister. The Chair will call other Members to speak only if the Member in charge and the Minister indicate in advance that they are content. Whether Members accept interventions or not is a matter for them.

Thank you, Ms Osborne. [Interruption.] There is a sort of chuntering noise somewhere in the Chamber. I do not know whether it is the microphone. Perhaps it is picking up some interference.

I thought it might be the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I will give way if I can just speak for a couple of minutes. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will allow me—

This is not very becoming of the hon. Lady. Some might say that she is plucky in the way she is disrupting the proceedings, but others might say she has quite a lot of brass neck. [Interruption.] We are talking about a subject that is incredibly serious, and there should be all-party consensus on the matter, given that we are not talking about hanging baskets, coffee mornings or other such elements of the voluntary sector; we are talking about homelessness and people who may well find they have nowhere to reside, if their current accommodation closes.

Without getting into too much detail about the grant formula settlement, the simple point that I want to make in my couple of minutes is that homelessness charities and hostels are the things that most people will feel particularly strongly about. They are, after all, the last resort for many of the people who are in greatest need. They provide specialist support and acute help for people with mental difficulties, drug and alcohol problems and learning disabilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned the charity Framework and some of its hostels. In my constituency I am particularly concerned about the closure of the Handel Street centre, which specialises in dealing with drug and alcohol problems. The new Albion hostel with 21 flats is potentially under threat. My hon. Friend mentioned the Noelle House closure. There is also Acorn Lodge in St Ann’s, which is run by the Salvation Army, for homeless people over 55.

The consequences are obvious in terms of rough sleeping and potential disorder, but it is the ill health issues that worry me most, such as the knock-on effects on accident and emergency, bed-blocking and so forth. We are expected to believe in the big society, but I wonder whether it is realistic to expect private philanthropy to fill the void in what has been the historical support for these services. That is my concern. I urge the Minister to reconsider the quick withdrawal of this grant support given that there is no alternative plan.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Over the years, Nottingham city council has spent excessive money not only on political advisers for the Labour group, but on promotional publicity, foreign jaunts and the like. It is unfortunate that the Labour-run city council did not use that money—taxpayers’ money—on the very services that he now is so keen to protect.

I had a feeling that the hon. Lady would want to make a political point. As predicted, some would say that she has a brass neck intervening on that point, given that it distracts from the primary issues that we face. There will always be examples of lower levels of expenditure on which local councillors will disagree, but given the sums involved—it is in multi-millions of pounds—it is not credible for the hon. Lady to say that that is the driver for the withdrawal of some of those services.

The hon. Lady disagrees—she has her point of view—but we have to do more to help the homeless in Nottingham and in my constituency.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this debate. She started by paying an extremely sincere tribute to her local voluntary community sector and her local paper. I began to lose respect for her speech, however, when she failed to recognise the difficulties faced not only by the Government, but by those trying to govern local authority areas.

The situation is horrendously difficult for everyone. The hon. Lady spoke of political choices, but I did not go into politics to make spending cuts, and I doubt whether the people on Nottingham city council did so either. The cuts were forced on us by the shambles that resulted from the previous Administration’s stewardship of our public finances, but she showed no recognition of that. I leave to one side whatever happened in the past to the administration of the various Nottinghamshire councils.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene, given the short time that he has left. Is he aware that Nottingham city council has compensated two previous chief executives that it could not get on with, has sent an executive to the south of France on jollies and has hired a cherry picker to remove conkers from a tree? Would it have been better to spend that money on the voluntary sector rather than wasting it like that?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, which brings me to my next point. However difficult this environment may be, it boils down to local choices, and local choice is often dictated by decisions taken in the past.

Those are local choices, but it is clear to me that the picture is very different around the country, with some local authorities—perhaps they were better run in the past, with a greater eye for efficiency and spending on what is really valuable—being in a position to minimise reductions to the voluntary and community sector. Indeed, places such as Reading and Wiltshire have increased investment, or are engaging in a process with that sector that is more transparent, more up-front and more engaged. There is a mixed picture across the country.

I know from personal contact with representatives of Nottinghamshire’s voluntary community sector that there are problems on the ground. I wrote to every Member of Parliament offering to meet members of the local voluntary community sector, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) took up my invitation. I met representatives of the sector there, and they directly expressed their concerns to me, which were principally about how the county council had managed the process of engagement.

In the little time that remains, I shall try to set out our stall and say what the Government are trying to do to help in this incredibly difficult situation. Clear messages have been sent to local authorities on the best way of behaving in this situation. The Prime Minister gave a clear steer, asking councils to cut their cost bases and make their own efficiencies before starting to think of making what might seem to be easy cuts to the voluntary sector. That is what my local authority has done, and many others are doing so, too.

That approach is clearly not happening across the piece, however, which is why I am delighted that my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government have gone further. They are urging local authorities to be much more transparent about their spending on the voluntary and community sector, so that the people whom we represent can see what is being done in their names and exactly what choices are being made—for instance, decisions on county hall salaries compared with cuts for the local voluntary and community sector. The public have a right to know what is being done in their name.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is most unfortunate that of all the local authorities in England, it is Nottingham that still refuses to publish expenditure of more than £500. One wonders what is the problem—what has Nottingham got to hide?

That is certainly the question in my mind and in the mind of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We, in Parliament, know the power of transparency—we know that it gives real power to citizens. In this instance, the public have the right to know how their money is being spent and what choices are being made. We are trying to help by sending a strong steer to local authorities and allowing the public to make up their mind about local decisions.

We have set aside £100 million of taxpayers’ money—a significant sum—as a transition fund to help voluntary sector organisations. Many are finding themselves terribly exposed to cuts of grant or in contracts, and need some help to get out of the hole—as long as they have a plan to do so. We continue to invest on behalf of the taxpayer in that sector. My Department has a budget of £470 million, and we structure what we do around three questions.

First, we ask what we are doing to make it easier to run voluntary community sector organisations. That involves cutting red tape to make it easier for those who have the incredibly difficult job of running small charities or civil society organisations. We continue to invest in the infrastructure that exists to support the sector. We want to make it much more effective.

Secondly, we ask what we can do to get more resources—both time and money—into the sector. We published a Green Paper on giving, which will become a White Paper. We are well on track to deliver a big society bank, which will make it much easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital, and we are coming up with new programmes such as the National Citizen Service, which I hope will be available in Nottinghamshire before too long. We are about to commission next year’s pilots, with 30,000 places. I urge the hon. Member for Nottingham South to engage with it when it arrives, as it will be an enormously positive opportunity for local young people, and a fantastically good process of connecting them and giving them the power to make a contribution to community.

Last but not least, we ask ourselves the question, “What can we do to make it easier for charities, social enterprises and voluntary organisations to deliver public services?” The sector delivers about 2% of contract value, but we would like it to do much more. We are working towards publishing a White Paper on public service reform, which will specifically address what should be done to open up the public service markets to more competition. Under it, charities and social enterprises will have the opportunity to deliver more public services, with some of the real value being in supporting those people mentioned so eloquently by the hon. Member for Nottingham South. In my experience, with some of the really difficult things—getting the long-term unemployed back into work or keeping people out of jail or off drugs—really valuable work is being done by quite small community organisations or social enterprises. We want to level the playing field to make it much easier for such organisations to deliver public services.

I shall not give way, as this is my last minute and the hon. Lady spoke for a long time.

None of this is easy, but we are actively trying to help the sector and local authorities through the difficult process of managing this transition. We want to minimise the damage in the short term, and maximise the opportunities for the voluntary and community sector so as to unlock the potential that is out there for improving more lives.

Eco-island Strategy (Isle of Wight)

I am glad to be speaking today about eco-island. A group of environmentalists saw the opportunity to make the Isle of Wight the first truly sustainable region in Britain. As this issue clearly transcends departmental responsibilities, I understand that the Minister may not have all the information at his fingertips. In terms of being able to demonstrate sustainability, the island is almost perfect. It is a microcosm of the mainland, with a manageably sized population and a well-defined border. It is the perfect place in which to bring to reality a vision of living in balance with the land.

The Isle of Wight has great natural beauty, but it is not Utopia; it is faced with many challenges. It is dependent on the mainland for much of its food, power, water and fuel. To become truly self-sustaining, fundamental changes, both physical and social, must be made. To attain the eco-island vision, the energy equation must be addressed.

At present, the island is almost entirely dependent on the coal and oil-fired power stations on the mainland. Eco-island would introduce a whole new raft of technologies to change that. The Isle of Wight needs 575 GW-hours of electricity to become self-sufficient. Much of that could be achieved with a mix of solar voltaic panels on the roofs of social and private housing; solar thermal addressing some of the hot water and heating needs; wind, tidal and geothermal power; and energy recovered from waste recycling. The feed-in tariff designed for small installations supports the roll-out of photovoltaic technologies on a domestic scale. Solar farms on agricultural land may not be the best solution, but panels in business parks, and even awnings over car parks, could provide a significant amount of energy.

The feed-in tariff is currently under review. I am sure that the Department of Energy and Climate Change recognises that such schemes can successfully promote renewable energy across a broad range of properties. I hope that that will be taken into account when decisions are made about the future of the feed-in tariff and other schemes that are designed to promote renewable energy.

A number of other positive initiatives are on the horizon. The renewable heat incentive should be implemented as set out in consultation papers. It could make a massive difference to the number of installations of ground and air-source heat pumps, combined heat and power plants fuelled by biomass, and solar thermal systems. Currently, eco-island plans need certainty about the level of the RHI to encourage enough individual householders to take up the scheme. Will the Minister give an indication whether the RHI is likely to be introduced at the planned levels?

The Isle of Wight is blessed with more sunshine than almost anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It has a superb natural environment and could harvest a vast amount of energy direct from the sun. For workable plans to be put in place, the Government must maintain their commitment to renewable energy generation. Eco-island has already gained a good deal of interest and support.

With the support of the local council, the chambers of commerce, tourism and local businesses, the Eco-Island Partnership, a community interest company, has been formed. The partnership is led by David Green, who is personally so committed to sustainable living that he has turned his own home into a show home for renewable technologies.

The new partnership will act as a conduit and funding vehicle for the roll-out of new green technologies. A number of strategic projects and initiatives are already in the pipeline, including the installation of solar panels, free of charge, on social housing. While the panels are generating, the tenant will get a contribution to their energy needs. The feed-in tariff payments will cover the financial investment and generate funds to invest in other green community projects on the island.

A key area for long-term investment is helping people and businesses to reduce energy use. Energy conservation projects, in tandem with renewable energy generation, will make the eco-island goal of carbon neutrality easier to achieve quickly and economically. The focus will be on making existing housing less power-hungry both to improve living standards and to cut energy bills.

Eco-island is not just about solving the energy equation. As part of the vision, other challenges will be addressed. Electric cars and bikes will be introduced, thereby reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Public transport will be promoted. The use of water will be cut, thus reducing the island’s dependence on supplies from the mainland. Local produce will be collected from farmers via a local food hub to supply shops, hotels and restaurants that are keen to “buy local”. The Eco-Island Partnership is also engaged in discussions about acting as a vehicle to manage a whole-island waste solution. It seeks to cut landfill to zero, generate heat and power as by-products and stop waste being transported off the island.

Chale is one of the least populous parishes on the island, but it has 70 social houses and flats. Some of those ideas have already been piloted with the Chale community project, which received welcome support from DECC last year. Solar panels and effective insulation were retro-fitted in 1960s houses. All windows were replaced, and air-source heat-pumps installed with new wet-radiator systems and tanks. That led to carbon savings of about 50% and reduced energy costs to tenants by up to 30%. Some 1,500 further installations are now planned by the housing associations themselves working with the Eco-Island Partnership. That project proves that DECC funding, properly directed, can, as intended, produce a ripple effect, increasing the renewable energy infrastructure.

There are even bigger challenges. As more energy is produced, the balance of the grid will slowly shift. The Eco-Island Partnership will install “smart meters” to assist in managing peak supply and demand. The technology will gather and monitor data and shape demand, fitting it more closely with the availability of renewable energy. Until they are used to the system, people will receive messages telling them when solar panels are active or wind turbines are turning in their area. Put simply, when renewable energy is being generated, they will be reminded to put their washing on. Ultimately, homes may be semi-automated, with smart meters activating appliances when renewable energy is available.

The Eco-Island Partnership has started that work and the Isle of Wight is the perfect place in which to roll out the technology. The benefits will be measurable and quantifiable, but it is undoubtedly a difficult technical challenge. Can help be made available, in the form of knowledge and technical expertise, to ensure that the right technical solution is found for the island? The benefit of that will be that once the right technology is in place and thoroughly trialled, the solution can be promoted throughout the rest of the UK.

Part of the eco-island plan is to launch the greenback card, which will promote the benefits of renewable energy and offer discounts to members of the community. The card is designed to deliver significant savings to the average island family throughout the year. The Eco-Island Partnership will work towards improving the quality of life, increasing the island’s sustainability and reducing the cost of living for eco-islanders, all at the same time.

There are also plans to create an eco-centre visitor attraction on the island, which would be used to demonstrate renewable energy technologies, showcase the science of new builds and engage people in the process of becoming more sustainable. Activities will be related to growing, managing woodland, arable farming and livestock. All the materials used would be local and the technology would be capable of being updated. Approaches have already been made to schools with a view to their using such a resource to support the curriculum. The centre could also provide a valuable focus to support the development of eco-tourism on the island from the British isles and from further afield. Why not provide people with a showcase of how sustainability can work and of what a future sustainable society might look like? I would be grateful if Government officials explored with David Green of the partnership whether any support might be available for this education work.

Representatives of the Eco-Island Partnership are talking to major companies about possible employee volunteering schemes, in the hope of attracting top talent to help it with its work. BT and a number of other companies have agreed to help. A training scheme could be developed with the Isle of Wight college, which would offer all the necessary building industry qualifications and train up to 30 young people a year for jobs in the renewable energy sector. Those young people could work as apprentices as renewable technologies are installed.

Green businesses will be attracted to the island. Eco-technology companies will enjoy a business incubator environment and they will be at the centre of sustainable technology development. In time, the partnership hopes to act as an “eco-dragons den” for new business ideas, offering start-up loans and pump-priming new initiatives and opportunities on the island.

I would be grateful if the Minister indicated his support for these efforts to encourage eco-businesses. The partnership would like to receive help from DECC or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to identify where assistance is available for green business start-ups and employment training. Much of the funding for these plans will come from the private sector. The Eco-Island Partnership can provide a vehicle for individuals and investment companies to invest in ethical green community projects and it can act as a “one-stop shop” for a variety of investment projects. The partnership is also working to establish a dedicated eco-island equity fund, which would allow investors to contribute directly to its work.

When viewed as a whole, eco-island looks like the big society in action. When the big society bank comes into existence, I hope that the Minister will make representations to ensure that such schemes can apply for support from it. The Eco-Island Partnership regards the eco-island vision as being in tune with the big society ideas and localism.

The Eco-Island Partnership is representative of a community that is trying to take some of its destiny back into its own hands, by seeking to address the big issues and the realities that the community will face, as well as working towards a better quality of life for local business people, residents and visitors to the island. The partnership is also trying to convey that message of sustainability to the rest of the UK and to places further afield. The eco-island vision for the Isle of Wight is ambitious but it is grounded in reality. The projects that the partnership is engaged in are large and challenging, but they address the problems that we face as a nation while remaining focused at the level of the island itself.

The people behind eco-island are resourceful, pragmatic and highly motivated. They care passionately about the island. They view the various energy and environmental challenges as opportunities to find solutions that will benefit the eco-island community and ultimately—hopefully—the nation as a whole. The eco-island team would welcome the opportunity to have discussions with Ministers and officials to explain the eco-island strategy in more detail and to explore ways to develop the concept in line with Government aims.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) on securing this debate and I also congratulate his constituents on what is really a remarkable project. It is great to hear about this ambitious plan, which has the potential to be an exemplar for sustainable development in action.

Just last week, my Department announced our plans for mainstreaming sustainable development across Government. The plans aim to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of everything that we do, from the way that we make our policies to how we operate our estates and procure our services. Our “greening Government” commitments were announced at the same time and they set out challenging goals for Departments to achieve in reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions and in the steps that must be taken to address adaptation to climate change and sustainable construction. The Government need to show that we can get our house in order, to inspire others to do the same. The eco-island strategy is a good example of a community recognising the need to do more to secure a sustainable future.

I realise that many of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised are perhaps more relevant to my colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. However, I am here today and I can assure him that DEFRA and DECC are two Departments that are joined at the hip, and we are working closely together on our sustainable policies and on our greening of Government. There is a considerable overlap between the two Departments and I will try to address the points that he has raised.

My colleagues in DECC recently announced their carbon plan, which is a cross-Government action plan on climate change backed by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. It sets out strict deadlines and actions for Whitehall. The new carbon plan sets out what must happen and by what date if the Government are to live up to our green ambitions, by meeting our tough domestic carbon targets and encouraging greater action internationally. The plan is focused on the jobs and economic opportunities of the low-carbon economy, and on policies that will help to insulate Britain from future energy price shocks. It precisely addresses the points that my hon. Friend has outlined about the impressive eco-island scheme.

The carbon plan is published in draft today, with the Government inviting the public and organisations to give their views on its contents. A final version will be published in the autumn. I hope that the people involved in the eco-island project on the Isle of Wight will have a chance to see the plan. We can learn from what they are already doing.

My hon. Friend talked about green jobs. We must recognise the importance of that issue. We know that it has been a huge issue on the Isle of Wight and received considerable publicity not long ago. It is great to see that there is a determination among those who are in business or in local government on the island to try to ensure that the island becomes a hub of green-growth jobs, and they are being led by my hon. Friend.

At least 1,000 green deal apprentices could receive Government funding towards their training, which might be an opportunity for the Isle of Wight. The apprentice scheme is part of our plans to reduce carbon emissions and to insulate the UK’s homes and businesses against rising energy prices. That is an important announcement that might be of interest to people on the Isle of Wight.

Regarding green skills, my colleagues in DECC continue to work with the sector skills councils and the National Apprenticeship Service to ensure that the provision of skills matches demand. NAS and the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board are working together to increase the number of apprentices within the engineering-construction sector, to meet the future demand that will be created by major energy projects. There is great potential for synergy between the eco-island strategy and what we are doing in Government.

The opportunities offered by a move to a low-carbon economy are huge. In 2008-09, the global market for low-carbon goods and services was worth £3.2 trillion and it is forecast to grow by about 4% in the next five years. There are major opportunities for businesses to use energy more efficiently. They could save £3.3 billion per annum on energy bills through cost-effective measures. It has been interesting to hear how businesses on the Isle of Wight are embracing some of the technologies that promote energy efficiency. The market size of the UK low-carbon environmental goods and services sector rose to £112 billion in 2008-09, which represented an increase of 4.3% on revised figures for the previous year. The sector is the largest in the world.

My hon. Friend asked about the renewable heat incentive. The Government are committed to a massive expansion in renewable energy, of which supporting renewable heat is an integral part. We remain committed to the ambition to move from 1% to 12% of all heat generated being from a renewable source by 2020. The renewable heat incentive represents an investment of more than £860 million over the spending review period, and it will drive a more than tenfold increase in renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting the industry from the fringes to the mainstream. In the next day or two, we hope to publish measures to support renewable heat, within the budget agreed at the spending review.

Finally, on my hon. Friend’s points, I was particularly interested to hear him talk about Chale. The scheme there is remarkable and, with the support of organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it appears to be bringing an entire off-grid rural community out of fuel poverty with an integrated approach to reducing carbon. That is really impressive. Additional funding is provided by the social landlord, to ensure that the properties are upgraded to the decent homes standard, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation supports the project management and behaviour change elements of the scheme. The entire village will benefit from the social improvements, and a number of photovoltaic installations throughout the estate will feed a community-managed funding initiative to ensure that the project continues to support improvements in the village for years to come. I commend the people involved on their enlightened approach, from which we can all learn for our constituencies elsewhere around the country.

The cross-Government adapting to climate change programme, based in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, supports local authorities in preparing adaptation strategies, including through the nine English climate change partnerships, the UK climate impacts programme and work undertaken with the Local Government Group. The adapting to climate change programme is also undertaking the UK’s first climate change risk assessment, which is due to report in January 2012, and which will inform the development of the Government’s first statutory national programme of action to prepare the country for climate change. Local authorities will need to play a key role in delivering on that important agenda, and it seems that the Isle of Wight is way ahead of the curve.

The Localism Bill will radically reform the planning system to give local people new rights to shape the development of the communities in which they live, including through neighbourhood plans. During this year, the Government will consult on a national planning policy framework, which will set out in a single, concise document our broad economic, environmental and social priorities, and how those priorities relate to each other. We are seeking, therefore, to do at a national level much of what the Isle of Wight is doing locally. The reforms will ensure that the majority of planning decisions are made at the local level, with the minimum of interference from Whitehall, empowering local authorities to achieve sustainable growth alongside environmental improvements and an improved quality of life for communities. The vision that my hon. Friend has described is precisely that which we seek to encourage, and I hope that the people involved will feel appreciated and valued for what they have done thus far, and for what they will do in the future.

We are also taking sustainable travel seriously. In January, the Department for Transport announced the introduction of a new local sustainable transport fund, providing £560 million for sustainable travel schemes. The January 2011 White Paper “Creating Growth, Cutting Carbon: Making Sustainable Local Transport Happen” sets out the importance of sustainable transport systems such as those in the eco-island strategy. The benefits from improved public transport and from encouraging modal shift away from car use to walking and cycling are clear, and these types of scheme often offer the best value for money. The Government understand the problems that councils have in maintaining their road network, and in February the Department for Transport announced, following the recent severe weather, that extra funding of more than £100 million would be given to councils for the repair of potholes.

The coalition also believes in work towards a zero-waste economy, and my hon. Friend touched on that. To ensure that we have the right policies to achieve that aim, the Government are conducting a thorough review of all aspects of waste policy and delivery in England, and the preliminary findings will be published in May 2011.

We recognise the benefits that the marketing of regional and local food can bring to producers and consumers alike. Shoppers increasingly want to know how the food they buy has been produced, and what its provenance is, and the established tourism industry in the Isle of Wight is ideally suited—I cannot think of anywhere better—to benefit from this Government’s determination to expand local food networks and identify key brands. Despite the evidence not being conclusive, we all know that local food is better for the environment. When production, processing and distribution systems are similar, choosing produce that has travelled a shorter distance can result in lower transport emissions. That must be one of the most obvious comments ever made in the House, but the opportunity for communities such as the Isle of Wight to benefit from such a strategy is enormous.

Finally, I shall mention the natural environment White Paper, which is a major piece of work being carried out by DEFRA, offering both large and small communities a vision of how we want to manage our natural environment, and how we value it and will continue to value it. I commend that important work, which will be published in a few weeks’ time.

I have spoken about several issues, which are linked by the fact that they all highlight the importance of sustainable development. Sustainable development covers everything we do, and is reflected in our recognition that decisions should not be taken in isolation. I look forward to hearing more about the progress on the eco-island strategy. I commend the people involved in it, and I commend my hon. Friend both for raising the topic in the House and for his leadership in the area.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.