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Westminster Hall

Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 March 2011

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Private Schools (Access)

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

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea.

Let me begin by welcoming the coalition Government’s work to date on education. I am sure that more freedom for schools, more meaningful accountability, a commitment to driving up teacher quality and new powers for schools to get tough on the blight of poor behaviour will, over time, help to deliver the improvements in pupil attainment across the sector that we all desperately want to see.

The coalition Government are right to be concerned about the educational attainment of the least affluent children in our society and, in that respect, I very much welcome the additional early years provision and the introduction of the pupil premium. Members may not know this, but I was one of the early advocates of the pupil premium and, for some time, convincing my colleagues of its usefulness felt like an uphill task. I was delighted when the pupil premium was adopted, perhaps with a little help from our coalition partners. I strongly suspect that the Minister’s response to my proposals today will be similar to how it felt all those years ago when I started this journey.

This discussion is well worth having; we never know what will happen a couple of years down the line. I propose, as I have in the past, that in order to make the pupil premium successful, we need to do two things. First, we need to direct it at the very poorest children in the education system. Secondly, we need to make it flexible so that it gives those children real choices within the education system.

I fear that our reforms, particularly in relation to the pupil premium and its current structure, will not do enough to bridge this country’s great and growing educational divide between the very rich and the poor. By focusing our attention solely on the state sector, we risk ignoring the fact that some of the very best educational opportunities that this country has to offer in terms of the schools that dominate the top A-level and GCSE results are in schools that are largely reserved for the children of the wealthy and well-connected, and are closed off to a vast majority of the children who live on their doorstep. That is not to say that many middle-class parents do not stretch their household budgets to breaking point to ensure that they get the best educational opportunities for their children.

Although only about half of pupils achieve five good grades at GCSE, and fewer than one in 100 children eligible for free school meals makes it to university, some of the leading private schools routinely send half their pupils to Oxford and Cambridge; Westminster school and St Paul’s girls’ school are good examples. On the rate of low-income attendance at top universities, a recent report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) states:

“The rate of low income attendance at top universities has stagnated at 2 per cent.”

It will therefore come as little surprise that former private school pupils have a disproportionate hold on the leading professions. Social mobility has declined and it has become even harder for the least affluent to make it to the top of the tree.

Despite evidence in a recent report showing that the situation has improved slightly over the past few decades, former private school pupils still account for two thirds of judges, more than 60% of barristers, and more than half of solicitors, chief executive officers and doctors. I also note with a wry smile that the proportion of journalists who attended independent schools has risen in recent years.

If we contrast that with the performance of pupils eligible for free school meals, we see that the difference is very striking. Just 27% of free school meal children get A* to C, including English and maths, at GCSE. That is half the national average, which is already too low. The situation is even worse when evaluated against the English baccalaureate subjects, something the Secretary of State likes to do. The report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is again relevant, because in many respects, low-income students are being mis-sold the new GCSEs and A-levels on the basis that they are equal according to league tables and UCAS points. The evidence shows, however, that universities and employers value core academic subjects, such as mathematics, English, the sciences and English baccalaureate subjects. The result is poor performance, with only 4% of free school meal pupils achieving five A* to C grades in core academic subjects, compared with the 15% national average.

Research shows that a wealthy child attending an independent school is 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge than a child eligible for free school meals, whose chance of winning a place at one of our ancient universities is less than one in 100.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate. Is he as concerned as I am about figures showing that in 2009 just 4% of children on free school meals took chemistry or physics, while fewer than one in five took history and less than 15% studied geography or French?

Yes, that concerns me enormously, and that is why the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is so timely. I hope the Minister will take the issue on board and address it directly later.

I do not say what I have said in order to criticise universities, but I hope that it demonstrates to Members the epic scale of the challenge that we face as a nation. If we are serious about fairness and about unleashing aspiration and opportunity for all, we should take action to make first-rate teaching and the ethos of excellence available to everyone, rich or poor.

Before I give details of what I think should be done to remedy the situation, let me be clear about what I am not calling for and not claiming today. First, I am not making sweeping claims that independent schools are better than state-maintained schools. There are huge variations within the independent sector in terms of standards and pupil attainment. The bottom half of private schools accounted for just 7% of A* A-level grades in the independent sector last year. Moreover, the OECD has argued that on average the difference in attainment between state schools and private schools is largely accounted for by the socio-economic background of the students.

Secondly, as I will explain later, I am not calling for a system-wide educational passport or public subsidy for private schools. Thirdly, I do not wish to re-enter the argument about selection or reintroducing grammar schools. None of the main parties has plans to expand selection in the education system in England, and neither do I. Fourthly and finally, what I shall propose in the next few minutes is not a panacea for improving educational attainment across the whole population of school children, but I stress that it will make an important contribution to social mobility and aspiration in England.

That is not an excuse for ignoring the fact that selective private schools exist and that many of them offer first-rate educational opportunities, with an ethos of excellence. Last summer’s A-level results show that of the top 40 schools in terms of academic A* grades per pupil, three quarters were private schools. Independent school pupils make up 33% of all pupils who get three As at A-level. Despite the fact that the independent sector as a whole educates just 7% of school pupils, students who attended private school still account for more than 45% of places at Oxford and 40% at Cambridge.

Who has the opportunity to attend these schools? The answer is that since the demise of direct grant schools and the assisted places scheme, apart from bursaries and scholarships, admissions are largely restricted to pupils whose families have the ability to pay. Some of the best performing schools in the nation are closed off to a vast majority of the poor children who live on their doorstep.

If we are serious about boosting the life chances of more children from poor homes, and increasing social mobility so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a better chance of making it to the top, something must be done to break down the social apartheid in our schools. I would like the Minister to consider a proposal that could broaden the social base of some of our leading private schools and boost the life chances of many less affluent pupils now, rather than in however many years it takes to dramatically raise teaching quality and tackle issues of poor behaviour across the entire school system.

Specifically, I would like a number of the leading private day schools to consider offering a number of free places to pupils in their surrounding area who are eligible for free school meals. The Government could support them by meeting some of the cost, but by no means all of it. It would be entirely up to the children and their families whether they applied for a place at participating schools. The pupils would have to demonstrate their aptitude and potential through a competitive admissions process. As the Sutton Trust has noted, tests these days are far more sophisticated than the old 11-plus. For example, many independent schools have developed tests around verbal reasoning, which test the child’s aptitude rather than how well they have been tutored or taught at school. My proposal is not an exercise in social engineering, so all those who take the test—rich or poor—should have the same chance of success.

My proposal is completely cost-neutral to the Government and therefore to the taxpayer. All that changes is that the per pupil funding and the pupil premium shift to another school. The remainder of the cost of the fees is met by the independent school itself or its supporters. Many such schools have alumni who are willing to step in. It is interesting to note that the Government will provide £150 million for a national scholarship scheme for disadvantaged young people attending our universities. Those resources are devoted to creating a more balanced intake for our elite universities, which, after all, are independent, selective, fee-charging educational institutions. Will the Minister explain where the difference lies in relation to independent schools?

It is important that the proposal is evidence based, and the evidence suggests that opening up access works. Between 2000 and 2006, the Sutton Trust joined forces with the Girls’ Day School Trust to sponsor an open access scheme at the then fee-paying Belvedere school in Toxteth, a very deprived part of Liverpool. With the support of both organisations, every place at the school was allocated on the basis of merit alone, not ability to pay; the way the scheme operated was almost needs-blind. A five-year evaluation of the Belvedere school scheme was conducted by the Centre for Education and Employment Research. It found that open access could lead to a broader social mix of pupils at some of our very best schools and that it could raise aspiration among pupils to go on to university and improve the exam results achieved by the participating school.

In the first three years of the Belvedere scheme, the school attracted an average of 366 applications for just 65 places, with applications from three quarters of primary schools across the Liverpool area. During the five years of the scheme, entries from middle and lower income postcodes increased considerably. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals over the five years was 32.8%, which is more than double the national average for girls aged 11 to 15 in the maintained secondary sector. Far from the scheme’s threatening academic standards at the school, Belvedere went on to achieve its best ever results in 2005. Some 99% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, compared with an average of 49% across the rest of the local education authority. Survey evidence showed that the school was a happy place, and that 95% of the pupils were hoping to go to university.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the pioneering charity the Sutton Trust, told me that he regards the open access scheme as the most important project that the trust has undertaken. He sought to persuade the previous Government to take up open access and expand it, initially to 12 schools, but ultimately to 100 or more top independent schools. Unfortunately, despite a broad base of support and great willingness from schools in the independent sector, the previous Government failed to take forward the programme.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Charity Commission and its esteemed head, Dame Suzi Leather, would be better off supporting similar initiatives to that pursued by the Sutton Trust in Liverpool, rather than hounding small private schools on the spurious basis that they are not opening their rolls to children across the community?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. My experience of dealing with the independent sector is that, perhaps more than any other sector, it is focused on trying to do all it can to help children from poorer backgrounds. A number of schools have contacted me about the subject during the past few days and they are very keen to get involved, and to do more of this type of work and give more opportunities to poor children. I find it hard to know where the Charity Commission is coming from, when those independent schools are doing such a wonderful job trying to help the life chances of children from poorer families.

Since I wrote an article on the issue that appeared The Daily Telegraph last Friday, I have received an e-mail from John Claughton who is chief master of King Edward’s school, Birmingham. He told me that

“our central purpose at the moment is to extend accessibility: we would love to become needs blind. We certainly have the demand for places from low-income families. We would respond positively to any government initiative to encourage attendance of such pupils in our schools.”

King Edward’s, the former school of the Minister for Universities and Science , already has a hugely impressive record in making places available to less affluent pupils. More than 30% of its pupils get some kind of financial support and more than 15% attend for free. For the coming academic year, the school is offering a quarter of its places for free—30 free places in an intake of 120. Mr Claughton believes that if the Government could meet half the cost of providing more places to free school meals pupils, the school’s alumni would be in there like a shot to support that initiative.

Mr Kevin Fear, the headmaster of Nottingham high school—attended by the Secretary of State for Justice and none other than the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)—wrote to me over the weekend fully endorsing the proposals to expand open access:

“I welcome these proposals to support the most needy in our society to access the great independent day schools. As a school, we already support as many pupils on bursaries as we are able to, but with support of this kind, we would be able to support many more and greatly assist social mobility, particularly in our inner cities.”

Independent schools are already making a strong contribution to the educational success of pupils from poorer homes. Nearly a third of the students admitted to Oxford in 2010 from households with an income below £16,000 had been in the independent sector. The head teachers and organisations I have spoken to believe that the kind of Government support I am advocating would allow them to double the number of bursaries they can offer. The message from the independent sector is clear: schools are keen to do what they can to offer real chances to some of the poorest children in their areas. Only yesterday, private schools belonging to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference created 60 extra bursaries to sponsor sixth-form school pupils from the state sector to study physics, chemistry and languages.

David Levin, chairman of the HMC, has made it clear that he wants private schools to offer even more bursaries, but the difficulty is obviously raising the funds. However, as the schools have indicated to me, Government support would have the added advantage of leveraging and unleashing philanthropic contributions from alumni, business and charitable communities.

As I have already said, what I ask from the Minister is unlikely to be forthcoming today, but we can but try. I am aware that the resources of the Department for Education are extremely tight. We have been left with a very difficult economic inheritance and we have to deal with the situation as it is. I am also aware that any move by the Government to get involved with, let alone support, independent selective schools is fraught with political difficulty. I realise that the Government may be reluctant to reallocate money from the state sector to the independent sector on the basis of a single study, but does the Minister agree that the open access scheme sponsored by the Sutton Trust shows exceptional promise? Does he agree that the idea should be explored further? If he does, how will that initiative be taken forward, and will he ask the Secretary of State to meet a delegation of those interested in pursuing it?

In time, I hope that the Government will take another look at opening access in a number of leading private schools, perhaps beginning with a pilot of up to 12 schools, as envisaged by Sir Peter Lampl. That would give a broader and stronger evidence base from which to evaluate open access policies. At the very least, I hope that the Government will look at what leading independent schools are doing to broaden access, and will do what it can to support them and encourage best practice. Opening up access would send a powerful message that none of the nation’s best educational opportunities is out of reach of children solely on the basis of their family’s resources. What I ask for today is a very small change, but it could have huge implications for social mobility in this country.

Thank you, Dr McCrea, for the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing the debate. I know that he cares passionately about this important subject, in which he is deeply involved, and that he is far more knowledgeable than I would claim to be. I want to take this opportunity to make a short contribution and to discuss my experience of some of the excellent independent schools in my constituency of Stockton South. We have two independent schools: Teesside High, which was founded in 1833 and, until recently, was an all-girls school; and Yarm, which was founded in 1978. It is the experience of Yarm school that I want to relate today.

Yarm school rose from the ashes of Yarm grammar school, which had closed. It was brought about by a group of determined parents, who decided that they wanted alternative educational provision for children from the Cleveland area, as it then was. Much as free schools today will be started in small numbers by dedicated parents and then grow, hopefully, into successful educational institutions, Yarm school started in an old, dilapidated building. Parents and supporters gave up their own time, donated materials, found funds, painted, renovated and taught.

The founding headmaster, Neville Tate—a great man who has made a significant difference to the education of many thousands of children who have passed through the school, and who will do so for many years to come—used to go in at weekends, paint the lines on the rugby pitch and drive the school minibus to the train station. It was a hands-on endeavour, to which many people, who cared passionately about what the school wanted to achieve, contributed.

In the early years, the school found things quite difficult and challenging because, unlike a modern free school, the parents who wanted to send their children there also had to pay. The offer that it put on the table was limited, as it did not have modern classrooms and facilities. All it had was the right attitude, the right atmosphere and a dedication and will to get things done.

That school has now moved. It bought the location across the road and expanded. It has built countless new buildings and offered educational opportunities to countless more children. I should, of course, declare that I had the privilege of going to that school in my constituency when I was younger. Now that the school is expanding and doing very well, it also makes a greater contribution to the local community, and not just in the education of its pupils or the local economy, of which it is a significant feature. It also works with local state schools. It had an excellent partnership with Grangefield school, which is in the southern Stockton part of my constituency, sharing services and working together to ensure that pupils at both schools had better access to facilities and a better quality of education.

Yarm school has a track record of delivering locally, not just for itself, but for others in the community that it serves and represents. It also serves another purpose. It relieves pressure on some of the excellent nearby state schools, which are currently overcrowded and oversubscribed; for example, Egglescliffe school and Conyers school. Egglescliffe school, in particular, which is a superb high-quality secondary school in my constituency, is on a relatively small site that was designed for many fewer children than it currently accommodates. With the growing population of Stockton, it has seen more and more people applying for fewer and fewer available places. It also serves a large and growing housing estate in Ingleby Barwick, which I believe is one of the largest private housing estates in western Europe and has grown exponentially in the past two decades. That housing estate has one secondary school, All Saints, a 600-place Church of England school, which is a very good local secondary school, but not sufficient in size to serve local needs. Hundreds upon hundreds of children are bussed off the estate to nearby Egglescliffe and Conyers every morning. Some also go to Yarm, because they have not been able to secure places at the secondary schools of their choice.

That brings me to the exciting new prospect that is on the horizon for the people of Ingleby Barwick, who are now progressing with their own bid for a free school. I have certainly done what I can to make representations to the Secretary of State to support the bid for a free school in Ingleby Barwick. We will hopefully see a new school in the next few years that will deliver diversity of choice and more school places, so that children from that community can choose which school they wish to apply to and parents which school they want to send their children to. It will also allow local children to go to a school in their own community. That will relieve pressure on other schools in the area, so that they can better manage the facilities that they already have. We want to secure the future of all of the schools in the south of the Stockton borough—the school in Ingleby Barwick itself and Egglescliffe, Conyers and Yarm schools.

That exciting new project is one step in the direction in which we need to go, opening up choice, diversity, access and possibilities in our education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke passionately about how he would like to see access opened, so that those who are not necessarily from the most affluent backgrounds are able to get into those schools that have perhaps been seen as not within their reach in the past. I would like to add my voice to his call that the Government should look to do everything they can to ensure that every child, no matter what their financial or social background, has access to the highest possible quality of education, in the way that they and their parents believe it should be best delivered to suit their individual needs.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and make a small contribution, and to comment on a number of the excellent local schools that serve my constituency. I look forward to what the Minister has to say in response to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. May I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) for securing this excellent debate on a very important subject? His great knowledge, expertise—from his time on the Front Bench, and from his own research—and commitment, especially to social mobility, shines through in his passionate remarks. He is a little more shy than I am at ascribing fault in the existing system. We inherit not only a significant debt—to the extent that we are paying £120 million a year in debt interest as a result of the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the previous Government—but, to be charitable, a mixed picture in terms of educational attainment.

I believe that this is an existential debate—a philosophical debate—about the future of our children’s education. We are debating that age-old struggle between whether we commit ourselves to equality of outcome, which I think is difficult if not impossible, or whether we commit ourselves to strive for equality of opportunity. If we move towards the initiatives that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East has spoken about, we will be paying due regard to a progressive, Conservative tradition that goes back many years. Disraeli would have called it the enervation of the condition of the working classes. I would not be so pompous as to compare myself with Disraeli, but it is about a one nation tradition of saying that whatever the household income or background, whatever one’s parents have done and whatever their attainment, a child has as much right as any other to be educated to the best of their ability, and to achieve the maximum attainment possible.

Where are we now? We have a ghettoised situation in which 7% of children go to independent schools, but, for the other 93% of children, there are mixed results. It so often comes down to where one lives and their household income, because if a parent cannot afford to provide for their children by buying a house and sending them to a good school in a good neighbourhood—this particularly applies in London but also in many other parts of the country, whether Bristol, Manchester or Cambridge—their children will often be confined to schools where attainment is poor, and that is not acceptable.

We are also in a position where, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey, the United Kingdom has slipped since 2000 from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 28th in mathematics, and 4th to 16th in science. Only 15.6% of pupils in England achieve A* to C GCSE grades in English, maths, sciences, a modern or ancient language, history and geography—one in six children.

The previous Labour Government offered some powerful symbols to people. It seems beyond belief that their first priority on being elected in 1997 was the completely unnecessary, gratuitous and spiteful decision to scrap the assisted places scheme for purely ideological reasons. One of the leading lights of that party dedicated himself to destroying grammar schools. I shall not add the epithet that he used. That was what he believed in. To quote Abraham Lincoln:

“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

The decision to destroy the grammar schools was, in fact, a calamity in terms of social mobility, education and political policies.

That set the tone, as did the idea, which has been tested to destruction, that throwing money at a problem is a solution, and that it will of necessity deliver better educational attainment. I do not believe that that is the case. Whether we like it or not, parents choose to send their children to independent schools for a number of reasons, but it is as much as anything else about discipline, ethos, culture and philosophy. Why should children from poorer backgrounds be excluded from the opportunity to partake of that culture, and to achieve what they are capable of achieving?

My constituency is a proud, blue-collar, engineering centre. The city has gone through great change over the past 50 years. Its population was less than 50,000 after the war; it is now 170,000. We have significant pockets of deprivation, but we also have in the immediate travel-to-work area some of the finest independent schools in the country: Stamford, Uppingham, Oundle and, of course, the excellent Peterborough school, headed by Adrian Meadows. We have significant levels of poor attainment and underachievement in the state sector in Peterborough, yet we also have excellent schools with enormously good results of more than 85%—often 90%—attainment of GCSE A* to E.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East is right in saying that, at present, children from families with more modest incomes are precluded from being able to attend such schools. There must be a way for the most gifted children—not necessarily on the basis of academic results or setting, but intelligence and other criteria—to go forward to achieve their potential.

I pay tribute to the Sutton Trust and Sir Peter Lampl, who is passionate about social mobility, which, if I may be partisan again, ossified under the Labour Government over 13 years. The gap between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% grew. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) might not like to hear it, but his party is represented by the noble Lord Mandelson, who said that he was

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Fair enough, but he did not at the same time endeavour to drag up the educational attainment of the people in the bottom 10%.

We really need to think about supporting, with the limited resources that we have, initiatives such as those at the Belvedere school in Liverpool. It is a superb example—in fact, it is the opposite of what normally happens. With the best will in the world, Toxteth, where the school is based, may have been a salubrious neighbourhood many years ago, but it is not now. Middle-class parents would not necessarily have moved to Toxteth so that their children could go to that school. In fact, I imagine that parents from all over Merseyside, Lancashire and even Greater Manchester are sending their children to that school, while children in the poorer neighbourhoods around Scotland Road, Toxteth, West Derby and Walton are excluded from it. With the proposed initiative, those local children in Liverpool could go to their local school and receive an exemplary and superb education into the bargain.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the excellent initiatives being pursued by this Government, and I have no doubt that the Minister would remind me of them if I did that. I agree that the English baccalaureate is an enormously important qualification to be pushing forward into secondary schools. It speaks to a mature debate about a division in society and, in particular, in education, which we have shied away from for too long. I give as an example the well known book written by Melanie Phillips, “All Must Have Prizes”. All must be academic, all must go to university. We have ignored, to our economic disadvantage, the fact that technical and vocational education can be and is just as important.

The economic success of countries such as Sweden, Germany, Italy and France is the result of their taking a mature, long-term approach and disregarding the apartheid between academic, and technical and vocational. This Government understand that and are moving forward by replacing Train to Gain with an apprenticeships programme and saying that engineering and manual trades are as important for growing our economy as the knowledge economy, the environment, tourism, leisure, finance and banking. That is important.

The pupil premium is the right way forward. I had a debate in this place a month or so ago with the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who brings to his role enormous commitment and diligence, and a passion for driving up educational standards in primary and secondary schools. He is the epitome of a square peg in a square hole, and is doing a fantastic job.

However, the pupil premium could be construed as a blunt instrument. There are issues other than free school meals that should inform the review of the dedicated schools grant. In my own constituency—I shall not rehearse the arguments—31% of primary school children do not speak English as their first language. If we ignore such factors, we blind ourselves to their importance in informing the results in primary and secondary schools.

I am delighted with the agreement that £430 per pupil for the pupil premium is a good start, and with the broad consensus across the House, but other factors need to be taken into account. One of them is social deprivation in particular wards and super-output areas. That may need to be looked at in consultation with the Treasury, but I know that dealing with it could be very resource-intensive and that the Department has only limited means.

This debate is about obtaining from the Minister at least an indication that he is receptive to the eloquent arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. The independent sector would then begin to feel that it can use the mechanism of Government support to develop a much more thorough and comprehensive scheme of bursaries and scholarships, and take a much more altruistic and charitable approach. If the Government are supportive, it will introduce outreach programmes and recruit children from poorer families because that will deliver the goods for the school and attract kudos and support. It is a circular argument. To say that we must have nothing to do with the independent sector, and that it is an iron curtain through which we cannot tread is short-sighted and foolhardy. We need more open access policies, such as those at the Bluecoat school.

The best independent schools can impart lessons to the state sector—that works both ways—on tackling ill discipline. They can impart lessons on special educational needs. Some independent schools have a number of children with special educational needs, and provide special help for children on the autism spectrum, with dyspraxia or dyslexia, and so on. They have expertise that they can share with the state sector, and there should be more dialogue.

Freedom and autonomy are the templates for the free schools, and I am delighted that there will be an announcement this week in my constituency that the former Hereward community college will become a free school. I do not often say this, but Peterborough city council has done a fantastic job in pushing the proposals forward, and inviting bids from five extremely good providers in a competitive bid process in an area where attainment at primary and secondary schools has not been good. We look forward to the revolutionary zeal of the free school movement in driving up standards, involving the community, valuing professionals at senior management, teaching and teaching assistant levels, and providing autonomy. We should have more free schools in my constituency.

I conclude by inviting the Minister to respond positively. The issue is not about assisted places two, or about the debate on grammar schools. In some respects, I was on the wrong side of that debate in my party in 2007, because I said that it was better to take a holistic approach to academies, instead of fixating on a relatively small number of grammar schools—there were then 164. I speak as an alumnus of a grammar school—Chatham House grammar school, Ramsgate—the other alumnus of note being our former right hon. Friend and Prime Minister Ted Heath, although he and I did not have closely shared political views.

The issue is about how to enable children from families with modest incomes to achieve their full potential. Today is the beginning of the debate. I know that the Secretary of State is absolutely committed to using education as a catalyst to tackle lack of social mobility, so that we deal with the underlying endemic social problems of welfare dependency, worklessness, and lack of competitiveness in our economy. Education is the most powerful tool for doing that, and I fully commend and welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to starting that debate. I hope that we have a positive response, not only from the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Chesterfield, but from the Minister. I am sure that we will.

It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Dr McCrea. You seem to have controlled the debate very well, despite all the heckling. We have had a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing it, and on his thoughtful contribution. I thank him for taking the time yesterday to notify me in more detail about the subjects that he wanted to cover. That was helpful to my contribution, and I hope that it will add to its quality, at least at some small level. His valuable experience before coming to this place brings to the debate knowledge, passion and well intentioned motives, in his case, towards the Government.

Before commenting on the hon. Gentleman’s points, I want to touch briefly on the other contributions that we have heard today. The hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) spoke about his experience with two local schools in his constituency, and the extent to which access has been opened up. One independent school was set up with, perhaps, similar intentions to the free school model, and it was interesting to hear about that. He referred to the freeing up of spaces in other schools, and to creating the best for every child. The test of any education policy should be whether it delivers for every child and enables every child and every school to improve, or whether it increases educational disparity. That is one of my tests for the proposal of the hon. Member for Reading East.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) gave what may have been a less measured contribution. At least, he warned us that he did not intend to be shy, and he stuck to his word. When describing his contribution as partisan, he was, if anything, understating it. I started to write down the areas I disagreed with, but I filled a full side of A4, so I shall touch on a couple of areas where there was agreement, which may save time.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of discipline. He is of course right that the independent sector takes discipline very seriously, but he does a great disservice to the state school sector if he is suggesting that that is not also the case there. We welcome some of the measures in the Education Bill to clarify the role of teachers and the possibilities for discipline. The Bill contains some welcome moves.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the importance of technical and vocational education, and said that it is as important as academic education. I entirely welcome that sentiment, which I fear is missing from the Government’s move towards the EBacc, but very much drove some of the previous Labour Government’s policies.

I do not intend to cover every area in the hon. Gentleman’s contribution with which I disagreed, but I will touch on a couple. He started by rehashing the financial mismanagement line, completely overlooking, of course, the fact that his party supported the previous Government’s spending plans right up to 2008. He should not rehash that line if he was not speaking out against the policies pursued by his party at that time.

The hon. Gentleman claimed, perhaps rightly, that the policies suggested by the hon. Member for Reading East fit into a progressive Conservative tradition; I think he described it as a one-nation approach. That brought to mind the drama “Cranford”, which the hon. Member for Peterborough may have had the opportunity to watch. In one scene, the lady in charge of the grand manor house was shown as a firm disciple of the idea that the working classes should work in the fields, and that there should be different jobs for different types of people in different environments. She also had a clear idea that she wanted to help the poor by employing them in her fields, but that they should never move beyond that. The idea that on one level we help the poor as a way of assuaging our conscience, while fundamentally nothing is changed, lay behind a lot of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

I have never before been compared to a mid-Victorian matriarch in her mansion. The hon. Gentleman is a passionate and articulate spokesman for his party, but he should not believe its class war rhetoric and propaganda. My party is proud to have been responsible for an enormous amount of progressive social change through Housing Acts and through civic renewal, education and health over many years. He suggests that my point was “You stay in your place while I stay in mine”, but perhaps he is referring to some of his esteemed parliamentary colleagues who had a good grammar school or independent sector education, but chose to kick the ladder away for those who followed.

I do not know whether that was an intervention or a second speech, but I thank the hon. Gentleman either way. Without delving deep into history, he should do his research before he refers to the gap between rich and poor. If he listens to people such as Wilkinson and Pickett, who influence the policies of the Prime Minister, they will tell him that the huge gap between rich and poor occurred under the previous Conservative Government. Policies introduced by the previous Labour Government such as tax credits, attempts to improve the education of people from the lowest demographics, and the reform of the welfare system were designed to close the gap between rich and poor, and they made positive steps towards that.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is what he will be told. He said that the previous Government were supremely relaxed about people getting rich and did not care as much about the bottom 10%, but that disgraceful comment bears no relationship to what actually happened over the past 13 years. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution said much about his values, and the values that have always informed sections of his party. I recognise, however, that there are good motives behind contributions from Conservative Members.

I turn to the more thoughtful contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading East. He spoke first about the academic disparity that still exists in our system, and which has challenged politicians from both parties for a long time. The original academies programme was introduced precisely to combat that disparity, and the previous Government set out specific attainment levels that they expected every school to achieve, with 30% of all pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE as an absolute minimum. That academic disparity lay behind the massive investment in Sure Start, which has been welcomed across the House, and it is why we welcome some of the sentiments behind the early intervention policies pursued by this Government. It is also why the education maintenance allowance was introduced, to assist pupils from more deprived backgrounds to continue their education past age 16.

When Labour came to power, half of all schools failed the basic minimum standard. The figure is now fewer than one in 12, which is one of the ways that the attainment of pupils right across the financial spectrum improved under the previous Government. Of course, that is not the same as saying that we have arrived at some promised land and things are now good enough. Clearly, they are not and I recognise that the contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading East is an attempt to make things better.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the most elite private schools are currently only for the wealthy and the well connected. He hit on a key point in terms of those connections and the idea that, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” which I hope hon. Members across the House would be against. The hon. Gentleman made another key point about Oxbridge entrance, and I would like to hear more about that from the Minister and the Government. As the hon. Gentleman explained, although 50% of children from elite public schools go to Oxbridge, only 2% of those from the most deprived backgrounds do so.

Last Friday a young lady, Charlotte Crossley, came to see me. She qualified for free school meals and came from a home in a deprived part of Chesterfield. Her first secondary school fell well below the national challenge level of 30% of pupils achieving five GCSEs. However, she studied fantastically and got excellent GCSE results. She subsequently went to another state school to do her A-levels, and finally achieved three A*s and one A—a fantastic achievement. At that time, children in her cohort were the first group to achieve a 30% pass rate at GCSE. Charlotte Crossley was an exceptional student, but when she applied to Oxford she was not even given an interview.

Alongside removing the academic disparity between children in secondary schools, pressure must be put on elite institutions. The hon. Member for Reading East explained that the ratio of passing core subjects is 1:4 for children on free school meals against those from elite public schools. The ratio between those two groups in terms of Oxbridge entrance is 1:25. There are two sides to the equation and more pressure needs to be applied.

Selection was mentioned, and the hon. Gentleman claimed that he did not see how a return to the grammar school system would be helpful. Fundamentally, however, his proposal would continue to weaken schools that are left behind. If we cream off the best pupils from the more deprived communities, we perpetuate the idea that to get the best pupils, we must look at the schools they come from. The best schools will already have the highest levels of attainment because of their pupils’ privileged and advantageous backgrounds, but such a proposal would mean that those schools can also cream off the best of the pupils who have not had an advantage due to the financial well-being of their parents. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is not a panacea. He is right; potentially, it is positively unhelpful in terms of social mobility.

The hon. Gentleman also claimed that private schools do more to help poorer pupils. In response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Peterborough, he questioned the effectiveness of what the Charity Commission wanted. It was interesting that in the initial move towards that, two independent schools had to open up the availability of bursaries. It could be argued that if they were already doing everything that the Charity Commission wanted, that would not make any difference to them.

For the reasons that I have given, we do not agree with the proposals that the hon. Member for Reading East has put forward, although we recognise that they are well intentioned. From the Labour party’s point of view, the first thing to say is that we do not wish to interfere with the freedom of independent schools to develop a distinctive curriculum and to manage the day-to-day operation of their schools. However, the standards that all independent schools must meet ensure that pupils are able to learn in a safe and secure environment and to have suitable learning opportunities, which match their age, aptitudes and needs. We will continue to insist on those basic safeguards, which protect pupils’ interests, while recognising the freedoms of independent schools.

We abolished the assisted places scheme. Looking back, I would say that we put unprecedented amounts of investment into education in the state sector. We dramatically improved the standard of the state school estate, by which I mean the quality of buildings. As I have outlined, we also made a dramatic difference to attainment in those schools. The percentage of people going to university from more deprived communities has dramatically increased, far outpacing the increase in access among people from more privileged areas.

Labour has always argued that approaches such as those that we are discussing today represent a narrow ladder of opportunity for a few bright but disadvantaged children, with the side-effect of creaming off the most able pupils from state schools.

The hon. Gentleman has nothing to fear. I thank him for his generosity in giving way again. I am struggling to follow his argument because he uses the traditional Labour argument that if we elevate a small group of children, we “cream off” those children and the rest are subject to very poor educational attainment, yet his party spent an enormous amount of money over 13 years. He seems to be saying that it did not do any good, because those schools, if the best pupils are taken out of them, are still not very good schools, with not very good educational attainment and perhaps not very good staff. Where did the money go? Why are all schools not at an internationally recognised, demonstrably good standard?

Just before the hon. Gentleman intervened, I had said almost entirely the opposite to what he has said about the improvement in school performance under the Labour Government, so it is hard to understand why he thinks that I was saying the opposite of that—perhaps it is my accent.

In relation to the improvement in our schools, I have already referred to the massive improvement in the number of schools in which 30% of pupils get five GCSEs at grades A* to C. The figure has gone from 49% to 88%, so that is one massive step forward. I have also referred to the massive improvement in the number of people from more deprived schools going to university. Therefore, I do not accept at all that people are set up to fail if they go to the wrong school.

However, I do say that the proposals that we are debating today are sticking-plaster. They do not address the fundamental issue of improving the education of every child and every school, but are about creaming off a small number of the most talented pupils. Yes, that will inevitably leave a weaker school behind, albeit at a small level. More important, it will perpetuate the idea that if an organisation wants a talented employee, or a university wants a talented student, it needs to look at the school the person went to. That is what I am saying. It is not to say that the education system that we left behind was not giving our schools value for the massive investment in them.

Just last week I visited Milton Keynes academy, which was one of Labour’s newest academies. The pride that people in that school have in the new school building and the investment that has been made in them was heart-warming. To a school such as that, where I believe more than 70 languages are spoken as a first language and which is working so hard to improve its standards, it is a savage blow when the English baccalaureate is introduced retrospectively and the school is judged and told that it is failing because no one is achieving a standard that the school was not even aware that it was working to.

Today’s debate cannot be taken out of the entire context of education spending. That context includes a dramatic 60% cut in capital funding and the fact that schools that already educate the most deprived pupils are convinced that after the advent of the pupil premium, alongside all the other changes that will be made to their financial systems and budgets, they will end up worse off. That is the context into which this debate has been plunged. To say that we need to give extra money to independent schools to take away the best pupils seems absolutely the wrong priority.

I will conclude by adding a few questions for the Minister. At a time when hundreds of schools have seen their desperately needed capital rebuilding projects scrapped, will he really support a scheme that perpetuates and increases the educational dominance of the elite public schools? What steps are the Government taking to get Oxbridge to be more open-minded about their intake to ensure that the Charlotte Crossleys of tomorrow are not denied those opportunities? Why are so many schools that take a high number of children from poorer backgrounds convinced that they will be worse off in real terms when they receive this year’s budget? Does he think that increasing privilege and the disparity between different educational establishments will assist, in the Prime Minister’s words, every child to have the chances he had?

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. Perhaps in contrast to the last speaker, I shall address the subject of the debate, but before doing so, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), and not only on securing the debate. As anyone who knows him will testify, he is uncompromising in his belief that all children should have access to the best possible education, as well as passionate about speaking up on behalf of the most disadvantaged children. Those are the only motives behind his bringing this subject to the Chamber, and he articulated them typically well in his comments. The sentiments that he expressed are wholly admirable, well founded and respected by hon. Members on both sides of the House. He has great experience and knowledge in this area, and he made a typically well informed speech.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling us what the debate was not going to be about, because we would have needed longer than the time allotted to us to cover all those interesting and often contentious areas. I congratulate him also on something that I had not realised—that he was one of the pioneers of the idea of the pupil premium. He was advocating that in the wilderness for many years and then the rest of us caught up with him. As he said, this discussion is well worth having. The subject perhaps has not been aired as much in this Chamber as it might be. Some of the figures that he cited for the decline in social mobility, which is the real problem behind the whole subject, are very stark and were repeated by a number of hon. Members who spoke after him.

My hon. Friend said he was not overly optimistic about what I might say, but I aim to give him as many grounds for optimism as possible. I do not want to undermine in any way what he is trying to do, and I am more than happy—particularly as I am not one of the Schools Ministers, who I am standing in for—to help facilitate a meeting between my hon. Friend and ministerial colleagues in the Department.

We have had a real glitterati of talent and knowledge, given the contributions from my Back-Bench colleagues. It took my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) some time to declare his interest in what was one of the original free schools, which was in his constituency. I should perhaps call him the child of the free school in Yarm. I do not have to declare an interest, as the 100% product of a state primary school and a state comprehensive school. None the less, my hon. Friend repeated the sentiments and the aim that we all share—that children should have the best possible chances of accessing the best possible education.

I do not agree with the accusation that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was not measured; I thought he was considered and forthright, as one would expect. I certainly would not put him down as a Victorian matriarch, even though he embellished the debate with the quote from Disraeli about the elevation of the condition of the working class. He speaks with great knowledge, given the various social deprivation challenges in his constituency, which are greater than those faced by many hon. Members.

The response to my hon. Friend and to the debate from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) gave us something of a treble whammy. He did not seem to deal with the subject in hand; indeed, I do not think he talked at all about access to private schools for children on free school meals, which is the nub of the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. Instead, his speech gave us a return to deficit denial; indeed, we had deficit denial in the context of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Although the capital programme has nothing to do with the scheme we are debating and is entirely irrelevant, there would be rather more money to go round for schools that are still in a parlous state if money had been spent more efficiently under the BSF programme.

In addition to deficit denial, we had the usual class warrior clap-trap on this subject, which is not about class war, but about giving equality of opportunity to as many children as possible in the education system. I mentioned a treble whammy—we also had social mobility gap denial. Social mobility has never been in a more parlous state. The gap between those who are privileged in terms of finance, education and opportunities and those who are not has widened enormously, and the Government are now trying to pick up the challenges in education after 13 years in which social mobility absolutely ground to a halt.

The Minister said that he would like to see educational equality “as far as possible”—I think that that was his phrase. Perhaps he could explain what he means by that. Will he also confirm that when he was in opposition, he argued against the then Leader of the Opposition—now the Prime Minister—who was saying that the Conservative party should maintain the Labour Government’s level of public spending right up to 2008? Was the Minister arguing against the now Prime Minister at that point?

I am not entirely sure about the relevance of that question. What I do know is that we argued for 13 years in opposition that the Labour Government were spending money like it was going out of fashion. The efficiency of that spending was enormously compromised, as we have seen. Anybody who comes to the Department for Education will throw their hands up in horror at the amount that was wasted. I am afraid that deficit denial will not butter any parsnips in this debate.

Does the Minister not think that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) and the Labour party have a cheek lecturing us about social mobility when, after 14 years of economic growth, they have bequeathed us a situation in which 5.2 million people are on out-of-work benefits and we have the highest number of young unemployed ever, as well as the highest number of young people not in education, employment or training? Is that not the tragic legacy of the previous Labour Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and all Government Members know that.

I want to get on to my substantive comments. Before I do, however, I should say that it was slightly worrying that the hon. Member for Chesterfield started by saying that his party did not want to interfere with independent schools, but then listed a whole area where they had better watch out—I think that that is what he was telling them. The Labour party still cannot stop meddling. It was also rather patronising of him to say so many times that Government Members have well-intentioned motives, even if he did not agree with any of us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East referred to the excellent work of the Sutton Trust, to which I pay tribute, and that is particularly true of its head, Sir Peter Lampl. For more than a decade, the trust’s work to promote social mobility has played an important role in all debates covering the early years, schools and higher education.

It is important to recognise at the outset of any debate about the quality of education that we have many great schools in the state and independent sectors, where the hard work and commitment of superb head teachers and inspirational teachers enable pupils to achieve good qualifications. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that all children have access to the best possible education. The challenge facing us is to ensure that there are more of these great schools so that all children can get the best possible education.

Over the past decade, we have slipped down the international league tables for school performance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said. What makes that so much worse is that we also have one of the most stratified and segregated school systems in the developed world. Studies such as those undertaken by UNICEF and the OECD underline the fact that we have one of the most unequal educational systems in the world, coming near bottom out of 57 countries for educational equity.

The gap in attainment between rich and poor remains persistently stubborn, as my hon. Friend recognised. It opens even before children get to school. We know from Leon Feinstein’s research that the highest early achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds by the age of five. The achievement gap between rich and poor then widens at the beginning of primary school. By the end of key stage 1, a child eligible for free school meals is a third as likely as other pupils to reach the expected level in reading, writing and maths.

The gap then widens further still. A child eligible for free school meals is less than a third as likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including in English and maths, than a child from a less deprived background. By 18, the gap is vast. In the most recent year for which we have data, of 80,000 young people eligible for free school meals, just 40 made it to Oxbridge— less than some independent schools manage in a single year. Our schools should be engines of social mobility, offering a route to liberation from the constraints imposed by accidents of birth and background. At the moment, however, that just is not the case.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, I am a big fan of independent schools; like him, I want the advantages of the independent sector to be available to a great many more of our children. Independent schools have a proven track record of success. Children who attend private schools are three times more likely to achieve three A-grade A-levels than those who attend state-funded schools. The coalition Government believe independent schools have a vital role to play in our education system in ensuring that more children achieve such excellence.

In the past, access to independent schools was provided to disadvantaged pupils. During the 1980s and 1990s, as we have heard, the previous Conservative Government’s assisted places scheme provided means-tested Government-supported places at leading independent schools. In fact, I made my maiden speech on the very Bill that did away with the scheme—the first piece of legislation from the previous Labour Government to do away with something.

The scheme followed the principle that the lower a family’s income, the more support the state should provide. I am pleased to say that the coalition Government are following the same principle today with our pupil premium. As I said, the previous Government phased the assisted place scheme out. That is not to say that no disadvantaged pupils are educated in the independent sector, because they are. Independent schools cater for about 7% of pupils. Of those pupils, more than 160,000—about a third—receive support to help cover the cost of their fees. That support is worth more than £660 million every year.

Around 80% of that support comes as bursaries or scholarships provided by the schools themselves. I welcome that and hope that it continues. Access to an independent education can also be supported by local authorities; for instance, where a vulnerable child is at risk of being taken into care and where it may be in the interests of the child to attend a boarding school, or where support needs to be provided to a child with a special educational need that cannot be met in the state sector. Again, that support is welcome and it is right that it continues. Indeed, independent schools can approach local authorities that can come up with arrangements of their own. In Cheshire, I gather the local authority already buys in places at the boys’ independent grammar, Sandbach school, for example. Many local authorities also place pupils with special educational needs in independent mainstream and special schools. I have already mentioned children in the care system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East specifically mentioned the open access project run by the Sutton Trust to support access to the Belvedere school. It is an impressive project, and I would naturally be fascinated by any proposal that my hon. Friend might put forward that would enable more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to access independent education. However, I regret to say that it is neither practicable nor affordable for the state to fund a similar project today. Instead, our priority must be to improve the state school system and to close the gap between rich and poor for all.

Those were the twin goals of our recent White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, which set out a comprehensive programme of reform, based on evidence of what has worked for nations with the best-performing education systems in the world. While they have taken their own unique approach to education reform, all successful systems share certain common features. They have prioritised plans to improve teacher quality, for example, granted greater autonomy to the front line, made schools more accountable to their communities, modernised curricula and qualifications, and encouraged more professional collaboration.

We are enacting the same kind of whole-system reform here in this country, with both profound structural change and rigorous attention to standards. We have also taken steps to support the education of the most disadvantaged pupils. Our pupil premium, as I mentioned earlier, will see schools receive additional money—starting at £430 per pupil but rising in total from £625 million this year to £2.5 billion per year by 2015—that will provide an incentive for them to take pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, I hope, give them a better education than they are able to access at the moment.

On top of that, we have created a new education endowment fund worth £110 million, which provides a further incentive for schools and local authorities to work together to bring forward innovative projects that will raise attainment of disadvantaged children in under-performing schools. Because nothing matters more than giving more of the poorest children access to the best teaching, we are more than doubling the size of Teach First, so more of the best young graduates are able to teach in more of our most challenging schools, including primary schools. We have appointed Dr Liz Sidwell, herself an inspirational head, to use her experience and knowledge to work with local authorities to identify those schools most in need of support and help them develop plans for their improvement.

Once again, the independent sector has an important role to play. At the heart of our approach to school improvement is a belief that the best way to help schools improve is to encourage other schools with great head teachers and impressive track records to collaborate with them. There are already many examples of successful partnerships between schools in the independent and state sectors. The Independent Schools Council survey showed that more than four in five independent schools are now working with local state schools, to mutual benefit. I am very keen that that continues. Indeed, an independent school has sponsored an academy in my constituency. Beyond the financial and direct assistance given to the academy, there is shared teaching, use of resources and a greater integration between those two sets of pupils, to the benefit of both schools.

One way to build on that is for independent schools to become academy sponsors, as I have said. As outstanding schools in their own right, they can share their expertise and set a clear ethos that together help to transform state schools that are under-performing. More than 30 independent schools are already sponsoring academies, and I hope many more will do so in future, again, as I say, for the mutual benefit of both the independent and maintained sectors.

Another way that independent schools can play a wider role in the school system is by proposing a new free school, and we have already heard examples of that. We have already received applications from independent schools and I hope that others will join them in the months and years ahead.

Let me end by thanking my right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend, rather—once again.

Exactly. I thank my hon. Friend for calling the debate. He is right to draw attention to the vital role that independent schools have to play in supporting the education of disadvantaged children in our country. While I might not have given him the full response he was looking for, I empathise with the intentions and motives behind the points he made. I encourage him to continue pursuing practical ways that we can get more children from maintained sectors integrating better with children from other backgrounds from the private sector. I look forward to continuing to work together, with him and other Ministers, to help all children access the best possible education, which it is their absolute right to want and our duty to provide.

A38 (Amber Valley)

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful to have the chance to raise this issue, which is of great importance to many communities throughout my constituency.

It would help to start by putting the issue in context, in case the Minister is not fully familiar with the stretch of road. The A38 is a dual carriageway, providing a convenient link from the M1 to Derby and on to Birmingham. Despite the efforts of some signposting on the M1, it is an attractive commuter route to Birmingham, especially when faced with the risk of delays on the M1 and M42, the generally suggested route.

Since the road was constructed about 30 or 40 years ago, the level of traffic, especially heavy lorries, using it has grown consistently, exacerbating the noise. There is real concern that the level of traffic will only continue to increase. There are some proposed developments, including one in my constituency that would add a new junction to the road and a new business park. As a result, we would all expect to see an increase, certainly in heavy goods traffic.

Employment and jobs are attracted into my constituency by the great transport links provided by the road, especially to the various industrial parks nearby. That is not something any of us wants to stop. I suspect the strategy for increasing the number of jobs is to build on the attractiveness of the road. However, that leaves us with the problem that a number of people up and down the road are suffering significantly from the level of noise.

It is useful to paint a picture of the geography of Amber Valley. The clue is in the name of the constituency. It is made up of lots of hills and valleys, through which the A38 sweeps. In places the road is higher than the neighbouring houses, and in others the houses look down on the road. Those two situations suffer some of the most significant noise problems.

Various communities up and down that nine-mile stretch of the road are in my constituency. We can start in the south in the small village of Coxbench, working northwards to Rawson Green and various bits of the town of Ripley that are quite close to the road. Moving further north, we come to Swanwick; that, too, abuts the road. The place that perhaps suffers the most significant problem, given the volume of houses, is the town of Alfreton. I have not listed every place that suffers an impact from the road, because my constituency contains so many separate communities.

It will be useful to explain the history of the road. Some places that are affected were there before the road was built. Sadly, when the road was constructed, the present rules and regulations on how close to houses new roads can be built, or on what noise abatement measures should be put in place, were not in force. We ended up with some slightly strange situations where houses are incredibly close to the road.

In various places, the road almost goes over houses, and some unfortunate people in Alfreton live in houses that are almost sandwiched between the A38 and the slip road that joins it at that point. One can only imagine the level of noise suffered by those who live there. I have visited one of those houses, and even with double glazing and with all the doors and windows closed there is a constant burr of noise when the road is busy; when the windows or the back door are open in the summer, the noise is unbelievable. It is not something that any of us would choose. The noise obviously has a major impact on quality of life.

I have tried to stress how significant a problem it is, although I do not doubt that it is a problem for all who live near trunk roads. The problem was recognised by the previous Government, because noise action plans for major roads were signed off by the then Secretary of State almost a year ago, on 15 March 2010. They set out action plans for tackling the problem.

A study has come up with some scary statistics. For instance, 9.7 million people in the country have to live with noise of more than 55 dB from major roads. That figure falls as the level of noise increases; about 74,000 people have to live with noise of more than 75 dB. Having experienced what I suspect was noise of more than 75 dB, I can tell the House that urgent action is needed. The study says that dealing with those locations is the first priority. The details provided by the Highways Agency show that four patches in my constituency fall within those first priority locations—Coxbench, Rawson Green and two stretches in Alfreton.

I have some concerns about exactly how that study was done. I was told that it was a desktop study that mainly considered distances between houses and the road. I do not know whether it took account of the fact that the road towers over houses or that other houses are somewhat higher than the road, but the nature of valleys can cause the noise to echo, resulting in the noise being louder than expected from a distance. Perhaps further work needs to be done to validate whether those sites, too, should be a first priority. I have listened to the noise in some parts of my constituency, and I am surprised that they are not shown as being at the same level as those that are considered to be first priority.

That leads me to the two themes that I hope the Minister will address. First, when can we expect to see action for those who live in first priority locations? Secondly, where will that leave those who are not in those locations? The action plan produced a year ago sets out four potential courses of action for those who live in first priority areas. In simple terms—I am not an expert—they are to erect noise barriers, with which we are all familiar; to install low-noise surfaces; to introduce traffic management measures; and to improve the noise insulation of affected properties. I suspect that on this stretch of the A38, traffic management measures will be a challenge, as it is a long run with no junctions from the M1 to Derby, and it attracts some to drive at high speeds—except at the rush-hour peak, when the traffic tends to back up.

As with all such matters, trying to work out who uses what route at what time and for what purpose is a challenge. The A38 is a major trunk road, and unless there is a problem for those travelling through Amber Valley from Derby to the M1 or vice versa, I suspect that they are unlikely to divert to other routes. People who are making short, local journeys will clearly take a different view, and there are other options for those who might prefer a different route, but it depends where they are going. Most of the noise problems are caused by heavy goods vehicles going at significant speeds, but it is unlikely that HGV drivers would divert from the main road.

I doubt whether traffic abatement measures will help. If we were to say that the solution was to reduce the speed limit to 50 mph, we would hear howls of protest, especially as the Government are apparently talking about raising the speed limit on motorways to 80 mph. If the speed limit on the A38 were reduced, I am not sure how many drivers would observe it, given that many do not observe the existing speed limit.

A low-noise surface would be an attractive solution. It is used in some places, but I understand that funding does not allow the proactive replacement of such a surface; in most cases we have to wait until the existing surface has worn away and needs to be replaced, at which point the change could be made. I wonder whether there is any scope for proactive replacement of that surface where there is a clear problem. That leaves the erection of noise barriers, when effective, or helping people to insulate their houses.

The study suggested four potential outcomes for people in high-priority areas. The first is the implementation of action, with financial resources being immediately available. That sounds like a great scenario. Will the Minister say what financial resources will be immediately available? I am not sure that we in Amber Valley look forward to his answer.

The second is the implementation of action but with no immediately available resources. That may be possible, but what resources does the Minister expect to be available in the short to medium term, and how are we to go about finding them? The problem is caused by the Highways Agency’s trunk road and there is a duty to take some action. It is not a discretionary matter, where people can say, “Yes, we know it’s a problem but it is not our problem.” There is a duty to act.

The third is that action is possible but there is no scope to construct or there are overriding technical problems. The worst potential outcome is that action will not be possible owing to large adverse effects—perhaps environmental matters.

The questions are these: what can be done and when can it be done? It is all about timing. My constituents have known about the problem for many years, and have been waiting for some kind of action. There is an action plan, and I suspect that everyone wants to see progress being made. Will the Minister say when he expects to see these projects being started? I am not sure that I can press him for this level of detail, but when can we expect to see some help in Amber Valley? The action plan implies that some of the action will start from April 2011. Is that still the case, or is there likely to be some delay?

I wish to raise one more matter, as I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.

You are probably wondering why I am intervening on the subject of this road, Dr McCrea. It is because it goes through my constituency as well. There are two points that I should like to bring to the Minister’s attention. First, we have difficulty with the varying speed limits, and it would be easier to have a consistent speed limit for some parts of the A38. Secondly, we need to lower speed limits to deal with the problems of noise. Can the Department for Transport be more flexible and allow our local councils to alter speed limits to suit local needs?

I am grateful for that intervention. I was talking about speed a few minutes ago. Although such a solution would be helpful for my hon. Friend, I struggle to see how practical it is as an option and how likely it is even to be observed.

Before my hon. Friend intervened on me, I was asking about the people who are not in the areas of first priority. What hope do they have of seeing some noise mitigation measures even in the medium term? Will this Parliament only be able to deal with those in the first priority areas, or is there some hope for the next highest band? A significant number of people who are not in the first priority area have to live with noise of more than 60 or even 70 dB. If it is unlikely that we will have any significant amounts of funding from the taxpayer to deal with that, what other options are available? Is it possible to consider match funding? If there is some significant development in the area that will increase traffic, is there a way in which we can raise section 106 contributions to put in noise barriers, even if they are not exactly adjacent to the new development? It is probably not right to rule out any option. If we think creatively, we may be able to improve the quality of life for people who live in these areas.

I hope that the Minister can give me some good news on when we will start seeing some action. At the very least, I hope that he can help my constituents to understand what the timings and processes are before we can resolve this long-standing issue.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for raising the important subject of traffic noise and securing time to allow us to debate the issues. I speak for the Government on 97% of the roads in England—the local roads. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), deals with trunk roads and motorways, so the A38 is one of his roads. Unfortunately, he cannot be here today, so I am standing in for him. I will discuss with him the issues that have been raised today and draw his attention to my hon. Friend’s comments about the road in his constituency.

Nuisance from traffic noise is an issue that the Government recognise. Action is being taken to reduce the problem and real progress continues to be made. The strategic road network provides the backbone for the distribution of goods, services and people within England and beyond, thus providing a valuable contribution to the UK economy.

The network carries a third of all traffic and two thirds of all freight traffic, but represents only 3% of the road network by length in England. With such a concentration of use, combined with the speed of vehicles, noise from motorways and high-speed trunk roads is an understandable concern for those living close to them.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of concerns about traffic noise at sites along the A38 in his constituency. I sympathise with his concerns and I will explain our policy on dealing with traffic noise from roads and what measures the Highways Agency has taken, and will take in the future, to deal with the issues identified by him.

Before 1998, the assessment of noise impacts was carried out only for new roads. Where noise levels have been predicted to be high as a result of the construction of a new or improved road, measures such as noise barriers or earth embankments are normally included in the design of the road as a means of reducing noise to more acceptable levels. Where such measures cannot be provided, either because of high costs or for practical reasons, there are provisions in the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 for the provision of noise insulation at the affected properties. Such measures have, for many years, provided protection against increased road noise for those affected by new roads.

Since 1998, quieter surfacing materials have been installed on new strategic roads as a matter of course. They have also been installed on existing strategic roads when they have required resurfacing to restore them to a safe and serviceable condition. Such materials have provided significant reductions in traffic noise for many in recent years.

The UK has used quieter surfaces from as early as the 1970s, developing the use of porous asphalt, which was known to reduce tyre noise as well as spray in wet conditions. That material has successfully been used for a number of years on some strategic roads, but it is a more costly solution than recently developed materials. Further progress has been achieved in the development of a new generation of quieter surfacing materials, which are cost-effective, reduce the time needed for resurfacing and can be used routinely on motorways and other high-speed trunk roads. To date, 40% of the strategic road network has been resurfaced with these materials, including a section of the southbound A38 between Ripley and Rawson Green.

The Highways Agency regularly reviews ways in which it can maintain the network in the most cost-effective way. It is currently reviewing maintenance strategies for the strategic network in its drive to reduce cost. I will ask the Highways Agency to keep my hon. Friend informed of the outcome of the review, particularly if it has an impact on future maintenance of the A38 in his constituency.

My hon. Friend mentioned resurfacing as one of the possible ways in which to deal with these matters. I am advised that the Highways Agency policy is to install quieter surfaces when a road is due to be resurfaced, but it will not resurface a road solely for noise-abatement purposes. That is deeply frustrating for hon. Members. I have been trying to persuade the Highways Agency to resurface the A27 in my constituency for similar reasons, so I understand the concerns that he and his constituents have. I am advised that there will be not much new surfacing along this particular stretch of road for the next four or five years.

Looking to the future, we will continue to manage road traffic noise levels as a result of the introduction of the environmental noise directive. The directive requires member states to undertake five-yearly cycles of noise mapping and action planning for all major sources of environmental noise, including that from road traffic.

This approach will help us to understand the extent of traffic noise problems alongside our major roads, and to identify where action to reduce road traffic noise needs to be taken, subject to funding being available. Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall responsibility for delivering the directive’s requirements in the UK, the Highways Agency has been working with it for a number of years to deliver its noise mapping and action planning requirements.

The first round of noise mapping results were published in May 2008 by DEFRA. That was followed in March 2010 by the noise action plans, which were designed to identify important areas that sustain impacts from major sources such as road traffic. The action plans require those important areas that contain first priority locations to be investigated initially. My hon. Friend referred to those locations in his constituency. I am advised that there are about 1,500 important areas containing first priority locations along the strategic road network. Two of those are along the A38 within his constituency and, as he is aware—from his meeting with Highways Agency officials on 16 August last year—they are at Rawson Green and Coxbench.

The details provided by the Highways Agency have identified some further locations in Alfreton in addition to the two at Coxbench and Rawson Green. Is that something that is not correct now, or is it something that the Minister needs to check?

The information that I was given by officials is that there are two areas on the A38 within my hon. Friend’s constituency, but as he has put his query on the record, I will ensure that either I or my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead writes to him to clarify that point.

As with all important areas with first priority locations, the agency will investigate the sites at Coxbench and Rawson Green during 2011. Those investigations will identify what measures could be effective at reducing noise levels at the individual locations. As they are not yet complete, I cannot confirm what measures will be identified at the two sites and whether any funding will be available to install them. However, I will ask the Highways Agency to inform my hon. Friend of the outcome of the investigations at these two sites when that information is available. If there is any further information that is available when I or the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, write to him about the points that he has raised in this debate, we will include it in the letter so that he has the most up-to-date information available at that stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned a number of possible solutions. Barriers will obviously be considered as a potential solution, if their use is thought to be appropriate. I must make it clear that I am not promising that barriers will be installed, but they will be considered just as a matter of common sense. Obviously, barriers have a cost and an impact on the countryside, and those factors must be taken into account when considering the use of barriers on any trunk road in the country.

My hon. Friend is probably right to say that the potential for traffic management on the A38 in his constituency is limited, although I note his comment about speed limits. Again, I will pass that back to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) made an intervention about speed limits. The general approach of the Department and indeed of the Government is to move towards having more localism, but obviously speed limits for local roads—the 97% of roads that are within my portfolio—more easily lend themselves to local authority influence than speed limits on trunk roads. However, if a local authority, particularly a highway authority, wants to suggest a speed limit for a motorway or, more likely, a trunk road, there is no reason why that suggestion should not be fed in to the Highways Agency and properly considered at that stage. If there are particular views about the speed limit on the A38, I encourage hon. Members to feed them in to the Highways Agency or to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead.

There was also mention of section 106 agreements. In principle, section 106 agreements can be designed and used to achieve helpful changes to the road network in a particular location, if they are germane to the planning application that has been submitted and agreed to. However, that is really a matter for the local authority—the planning authority—to take forward and to determine what, if any conditions, are appropriate for a section 106 agreement. That is not a process that we would get involved with directly, but if there was a feeling in an area that section 106 money should be used to tackle a trunk road problem, obviously the Highways Agency would want to become involved at that stage, to discuss whether or not that course of action was appropriate for that location.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned the action plan on noise. As he knows, that plan has already been published by DEFRA and, as I have already said, at the start of next month the Highways Agency will begin to consider noise mitigation measures that, in theory, can be installed in 2012-13.

Lastly, the policies that are already in place have led to significant improvements for many residents living close to strategic roads across England. Real differences have been made and we will continue to help those people who are most affected by road traffic noise in the long term, including people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. The “pushback” that we get from constituents is that these action plans are meant to be five-year action plans and what we all want is that, during the five years of these plans, we actually see some action. Is the Minister suggesting that we will start to see some action on some of the 1,500 projects around the country during the life of this Parliament, or is it likely that the funding constraints will mean that there is little chance of these noise hot spots being dealt with during that time? He was not entirely clear about how much resource was immediately available to address these issues.

Dr McCrea, I had actually finished my response to the debate, but I am happy to take a further intervention and respond to it as best I can. My hon. Friend will be aware that the resources that are available at the present time are stretched, because of the appalling inheritance that we received from the last Government. Therefore, we have had to look carefully at where we spend our money. On the other hand, we have legal obligations—for example, the environmental noise directive—and we will seek to discharge them.

If there is any further information that I can add about time scale in the letter that we will send to my hon. Friend—it will come either from myself or from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead—after this debate, we will do that. We will certainly try to include as much information as possible at that time. I hope that that response has been helpful.

Sitting suspended.

Wood Panel Industry

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I do not think that I have had the pleasure of being on a Committee that you have chaired. We go back a long time in this place, so I am delighted to see you here today. I am also very pleased to see both the Minister, with whom I have had conversations on this issue in other parts of the Commons, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who is representing the Opposition.

I am delighted that we have secured the debate, because we are at a crucial juncture for the wood panel industry. It is the UN international year of forests, which presents a good opportunity to review policies that affect our forests and associated industries. Last week’s announcement on the renewable heat incentive was a great blow to Norbord, a panel manufacturer in my constituency and one of seven plants that constitute the UK’s wood panel industry. The industry produces, wholly from UK-sourced wood, two thirds of the UK’s consumption of wood-based panels—chipboard, MDF and oriented strand board. Much of that wood is post-consumer waste wood, with Sonae UK in Merseyside now making chipboard from 98% recycled material. All virgin material is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The industry plays a valuable, if somewhat understated, role in carbon abatement, by locking carbon into the product, often for decades, as is the case with housing.

Norbord plays a vital role in my constituency. It employs more than 250 people directly and is one of the few large private sector employers in the area, offering a valuable apprenticeship scheme in addition to manufacturing. Its campaign to highlight the detrimental impact of large-scale biomass energy is fully supported by the workers at the factory, under their trade union Unite.

Let me be very clear to the Minister from the outset: neither Norbord nor the wood panel industry has any objection to the aims of the RHI. Indeed, the sector accounts for a third of the British industry’s generation of renewable heat. However, that huge contribution is threatened by exclusion from the RHI of the industry’s existing capacity. This is, in many respects, an issue that does not gain the headlines, so I want to put on record the fact that we have support from organisations such as the United Kingdom Forest Products Association, Timcon, Valpak and other wood supply outlets that have fears about some of the issues that I will raise this afternoon.

As the Minister knows full well from meetings with the industry and with the all-party group for the wood panel industry, of which I am chair, biomass is unlike any other major form of renewable energy because of the ongoing fuel costs involved and the potential for serious distortion of the wood market. I appreciate that the Government do not want to support all early adoption of renewable technologies. That is perfectly understandable, but I hope that the Minister recognises that the industry has an important contribution to make to renewable heat. If we do not get some resolution to the current situation, that important contribution will be jeopardised by subsidies to new entrants to the wood market, and by the arbitrary nature of the July 2009 cut-off date for installed installations.

I have to be frank with the Minister. The wood panel industry feels particularly aggrieved by the apparent lack of consideration given by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to its well-evidenced arguments about the impact of subsidised biomass demand on the UK wood market. I would, therefore, like the Minister to tell us why the wood industries are not even mentioned in the RHI impact assessment, despite the submission to his Department of data on timber prices and availability. The four paragraphs devoted to competition assessment make no mention of the wood market, which, as the Minister knows full well, will be the source of most of the biomass feedstock. There appears to be little point in conducting an impact assessment when adverse impacts that are clearly detailed to the Department are, apparently, studiously ignored. If assessments are not objective, who will trust them? I am sure that my all-party group colleagues who are here today can, like me, attest to the clarity of information and evidence that the Wood Panel Industries Federation has produced for the Department’s scrutiny.

I am not sure whether the Minister heard the recent BBC “Today” programme’s coverage of the RHI announcement. It picked up on the sustainability question: will biomass demand prove as unsustainable and environmentally damaging as biofuels? Roger Harrabin, the environmental analyst, raised the important issue of the double-counting of land when assessing potential biomass availability. That relates not just to the UK; it appears to be the case across Europe as well, where the combined biomass demand from EU member states, as declared in their national renewable energy plans, is just short of 1 billion tonnes of wood every year. That would require the total global harvest of wood to increase by a third. Does that sound sustainable?

On the renewables obligation, although the Government’s decision on the RHI is a further crushing blow to the competitiveness of the sector, the core problem remains the unsustainable and flawed support for large-scale electricity from wood. The wood panel industry has long argued that the renewables obligation has had the unintended consequence of distorting the UK wood market. That was not done deliberately, but we now have to deal with it. Several cumulative factors contributed to the distortion. First, demand for UK wood is beginning to outstrip supply; secondly, energy crops have not been planted in significant volumes, despite there having been generous incentives for a decade; and finally, the scale of biomass plants is huge. For example, Port Talbot’s Prenergy plant will burn about 3 million green tonnes of wood per annum, with no guarantees that the material will be exclusively imported. That represents close to a quarter of the biomass available today in the UK. The consequences for the wood-processing industry are extremely serious, and will only be compounded by the introduction of an RHI that does not support the industry’s existing renewable heat generation.

I hope that the Minister will accept that one of the most important myths that has to be confronted is that biomass plants will satisfy their demand from overseas—from imports. That is hugely inaccurate, misleading and irresponsible for three main reasons: first, the global pressure on wood supply; secondly, the differential in price between imported and domestic wood fibre; and thirdly, the fact that biomass plants are not committed to any supply chain when they receive planning permission.

Let me start with global wood supply and demand. Investment in biomass and biofuels is increasing significantly around the world, as the Minister undoubtedly knows. Canada and the US, which are frequently cited as potential sources of fuel for the UK, are seeing more and more biomass plants proposed, as the cost margin between energy generation from oil and from wood decreases. The Government know well how difficult it is to estimate how much wood will be available from abroad in the next 10 or 20 years, yet they are somehow confident that energy companies will be able to secure imports and will, therefore, not impinge too greatly on domestic wood. Many organisations are a great deal more sceptical about the sustainability of such global demand. They include Friends of the Earth, WWF and BirdLife International, to mention but a few. Furthermore, does the building of numerous import-reliant biomass plants not have serious ramifications for UK energy security?

The second factor undermining wood imports is price. As long as domestic wood is significantly cheaper than imported wood, which is currently about double the price, any energy company worth its salt will source as much cheaper UK wood as it can. That is just business. Forth Energy, for example, which is trying to build four large electricity plants close to my constituency in central Scotland, has been more open than most in stating that it intends to burn as much indigenous biomass—that is British wood—as possible.

The consultancy E4tech produced a report for DECC’s renewable energy strategy in 2009 that considered international biomass supply. E4tech concluded that the UK could import significant volumes of woody biomass to supply UK demand, but that import costs would remain high. It predicted that in 2010, all imported material would be more expensive than domestic wood, and would still be more expensive even by 2030. That was true in each of the four scenarios that the report used, from business as usual to high growth.

E4tech produced another report for DECC earlier last year on biomass prices in the UK electricity and heat sectors. On wood chip prices, the report concluded:

“In 2020, imported chips are estimated to be much more expensive…than chips from UK energy crops…hence are unlikely to be used for heating. The UK biomass heating sector is therefore likely to only see the UK energy crop chip prices.”

I hope the Minister will accept that that goes to show that the RHI will only add to pressure on domestic wood supply and drive up prices above levels that the wood panel industry can absorb or pass on to customers. Biomass energy companies will buy wood from established wood markets, such as the market for small roundwood, unless they are specifically encouraged not to do so. Why would they seek out twisted branches, stump and brash when they can outbid existing industries for small roundwood, sawdust and even logs?

The final and crucial factor concerning imports is that biomass plants, once built, can source material from wherever they see fit as long as the wood is certified under a forest management scheme. The fact that many such plants are situated at ports does not mean that they will not buy huge amounts of wood from the UK. As I have explained with the aid of DECC-commissioned reports, there is no prospect of international woody biomass becoming cheaper than domestic wood.

On carbon balance, my fundamental question to the Government is this: what is the best possible environmental outcome for this precious and limited resource? The Government must not simply weigh the carbon balance of energy generation from fossil fuels and wood; they must also consider the environmental benefits of competing uses of wood. It is a well-established fact that wood products are an important carbon sink that can be burned for energy after their useful life.

According to the Forestry Commission’s Biomass Energy Centre, direct CO2 emissions from combustion of wood chips for electricity in a large-scale plant are more than five times as high as emissions from the combustion of hard coal. I acknowledge that life-cycle CO2 emissions from large-scale wood-fired electricity production are considerably less than coal, but there is a considerable and crucial time lag, or carbon debt. It will be between 30 and 40 years before new plantings in coniferous temperate forests can reabsorb the carbon released through combustion. I represent a constituency with large forests—a landscape you will recognise, Mr Weir, as someone from Scotland—so I know that is not a short-term fix. In the short to medium term, new large-scale biomass plants will massively increase carbon emissions. If climate change is to be taken seriously, how can we be comfortable with such a perverse outcome?

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is making a powerful case for which I have a lot of sympathy. A lot of wood ends up in landfill that could be used in biomass facilities, which would be of benefit in reducing carbon.

That chimes with the views of the industry. Some of that wood could easily be used for biomass energy generation, instead of the wood currently used by the wood panel industry and other industries. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. An appropriate comment might be that we must look beyond the trees so that we can see the wood.

The Environment Agency’s 2009 report “Biomass: Carbon sink or carbon sinner?” got to the nub of getting the best environmental outcome from the material. Although I accept that the introduction of a heat incentive is a good step in principle, wood will continue to be consumed in massive quantities for electricity production as long as financial incentives make it attractive. Because wood supply is limited and displacement of the wood panel industry is a realistic outcome, it is vital to compare the carbon emissions of electricity from biomass with those produced by panel board manufacture.

A study by Carbon River submitted to DECC last year demonstrated that CO2 emissions from the wood panel industry equate to 378 kg of CO2 per tonne of timber processed. By comparison, CO2 emissions from the biomass industry consuming domestically sourced timber equate to 1,905 kg of CO2 per tonne of timber processed. The wood panel industry’s annual consumption of timber is between 4 million and 4.5 million tonnes per annum. If it were displaced by the biomass industry, the increase in net CO2 emissions would equate to 1,527 kg of CO2 per tonne of timber processed. That works out at about 6 million tonnes of CO2, or a 1% increase in the UK’s net CO2 emissions each year.

If the UK is to burn 50 million tonnes of timber a year to satisfy its energy requirements, direct CO2 emissions could increase by 95 million tonnes per annum. Will the equivalent capacity of fossil fuel plants be retired to compensate, or will the carbon reduction policy in fact increase our carbon footprint? Large-scale growth of biomass usage for electricity production will not only be detrimental to the wood processing industries, including sawmills; it is also likely to put even greater pressure on land in the UK and abroad that is currently used for farming food crops.

I hope that the Government can accept some responsibility for elements of that powerful challenge. In response to a Channel 4 news exposé of biomass and timber prices last week, the Government stated:

“It is not our intention for our renewable support mechanisms to adversely affect other industries. We believe this can be minimised by increasing the supply of wood and forestry residues available, better management of our waste wood”—

that chimes with the comments of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams)—

“and the increased use of other biomass resources such as food waste and perennial energy crops.”

Frankly, it is not good enough for the Government to say that it is not their intention to affect industry. If they are interfering in the market, which they are, they must make certain that they obey the golden rule: do no harm. Therefore, I respectfully suggest that it is negligent of the Department to omit the industry from its RHI impact assessment.

The Government’s answer to concerns about the sustainability of biomass energy is to cite the proposed sustainability criteria. With regard to wood, those are simply measures of good forest management and in no way provide a picture of sustainable levels of demand and supply, or of the impact that biomass will have on carbon sinks and recycling. The Government say that they will act if distortion occurs, but frankly, any action will be far too late. Distortion is occurring today, and these industries are already at their competitive limits.

No one doubts the complexity of the problem. However, we have to recognise that there is a better way of making decisions about the use of wood. At present, no other country in the European Union encourages wood-fired electricity generation on the scale seen in the UK. Countries with much greater forest cover, such as Germany and Austria, have sensibly instituted minimum efficiency standards that preclude electricity generation from wood alone, thus encouraging the development of high efficiency heating and small-scale combined heat and power. The Minister does not even need to look beyond these islands. You will love this sentence, Mr Weir: we could follow the lead of the Scottish Government, who have expressed a preference for those processes over large-scale electricity from biomass. I am pleased to tip my hat, on this occasion, to the Scottish Government’s lead on the issue.

Despite the introduction of the RHI, the Minister cannot deny that the current incentive regime still makes burning virgin timber for electricity an attractive proposition. The best way to end market distortion and to achieve the best environmental outcomes is to end support for electricity-only generation from wood, and to exclusively support quality CHP, heat generation and energy from treated wood waste. That would ensure high energy efficiencies, protect current and future wood recycling, and reduce landfill. It would also greatly reduce the impact on wood processors, who play a vital role in carbon abatement, through the manufacture and recycling of low-carbon, sustainable construction and furniture materials.

If the Minister recognises the valuable contribution made to the carbon agenda by the panel board industry, will he please comment specifically on how the creation, through a subsidy, of a four to fivefold increase in the demand for limited biomass cannot but distort that market and impact detrimentally on that industry? Finally, does he feel that the loss of the UK’s wood panel industry is acceptable collateral damage for hitting renewable targets? That is what appears to be happening. It would be a sad conclusion, not just because of the jobs and skills that would be lost in a rural industry, but because, perversely, such displacement of wood would actually increase carbon emissions, which is the very thing that I am sure the Minister would not want. I welcome this opportunity to put these issues to the Minister and look forward to the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree for the Opposition, as well as that of the Minister himself.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Weir. I apologise for being late, but I was detained briefly in another meeting.

I will begin by giving some background to the debate. I have 49,000 square hectares of forest in my constituency, which has at least six major forests. I have three times more than anybody else in the House of Commons. I did not vote for the Government’s forestry proposal. I abstained and did so for a number of reasons, not least because I did not think that it was the best way forward for individual forests to be assessed. I also abstained because a significant number of jobs were under threat—one must not diminish the numbers involved. I agree almost entirely with the comments of my friend the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), because the law of unintended consequences may be relevant. We have a significant supplier in the form of Egger, which has more than 400 people involved in the forestry business. A second supplier, SCA Timber, has another 400 people. The third supplier is the Forestry Commission, which, along with others, is associated in a multitude of different ways.

I am talking about the most sparsely populated part of England, and it is hard to think of what else individual people could do to make a living. They have eked out a good, successful niche business, based around the forestry proposals. The difficulty is that the wood, and the approach to it, is what binds those people together. It is the glue that holds the community together. I do not want to overstate this, but it seems that we are approaching a crucial decision on the way forward. To that end, I am surprised that there is no mention of the wood panel industry’s views in the RHI consideration. Will the Minister comment on that when he responds? I fully understand that the RHI has been delayed and accept entirely that there are many difficult problems, but the fact that the views of the wood panel industry have been ignored is important. The impression given is that the wood panel industry will survive with or without RHI. In fact, one could go further and say that that implies that the wood panel industry will survive in the absence of RHI.

I remind all parties involved of the huge amount of capacity involved in wood biomass. The forestry industry believes that one of the core problems is the Department’s optimism about wood biomass supply. I grant that a modicum of extra material could be brought to market, but even the most optimistic estimate of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is an extra 2 million tonnes a year. Last year’s report by John Clegg Consulting categorically states that current wood demand is in balance with wood supply. In other words, the demand and the amount in this country—give or take a little either way—are, effectively, the same.

I apologise, Mr Weir, that I will have to leave shortly, so I will not be able to make a speech. I, too, represent a constituency that has a lot of forestry and a lot of people employed in forest jobs. Eighty per cent. of the forestry estate in England is in private hands, and of that 80%, only 60% is properly managed. If the other 40% were brought into proper management, that would generate more wood fibre and deliver more public good.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point because it is absolutely key. It is often argued in relation to these particular environments that wood capacity will increase—we could market it better, find it better and produce it better—and we can then find the supply we need. Even allowing for the hon. Gentleman’s argument, given the amount that we will have to find, there is a massive disparity between what the Minister will say and the point we are trying to make.

I shall give one example in relation to the Drax argument. The level of wood demand will be approximately 40 million to 50 million tonnes a year if various things go forward, but we must bear it in mind that we are at a level of just over 10 million tonnes, going up to 12 million tonnes on an ongoing basis, so there is a massive disparity. I flag up the point that if Drax gets its way in the next renewables obligation review and the co-firing cap is removed, it could consume a further 10 million tonnes. I hope that that is not the case because it would mean that a standard wood producer—an owner of a supply—would struggle in terms of their contribution and ability to function. The Government have to respond to the industry’s extremely reasonable argument that biomass electricity plants will consume the cheapest and most easily available material—namely, virgin timber from UK forests.

I urge the Government to reform the renewables obligation before it is too late, so that biomass energy is proportionate, sustainable and highly efficient. At the moment, there is a real danger that if someone is involved in this particular product, they will face the issue of overseas supply. I cannot see how we will be able to produce this type of work, and this amount of wood, on an ongoing basis without there being significant overseas supply, with all the environmental factors that are attached to that. The statistics are effectively unarguable. I would welcome the Minister’s views on the matter.

Given that we have a very successful ability to produce good jobs in a competitive economy on an ongoing basis—1,000 people are employed in the industry in my constituency—it is odd that we are trying to pass legislation, which, as my friend the right hon. Member for Stirling explained very eloquently, will cause long-term difficulties. If we do not address the matter, we will end up with problems.

I am delighted that we are holding this debate on the wood panel industry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) on securing time for it. I thank the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for his thoughtful contribution and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) for his thoughtful intervention.

The wood panel industry is represented in my constituency by Kronospan, which is based at Chirk. The factory is a key employer in the area and is one of the largest in north Wales, with around 600 direct jobs on site. Those are highly skilled comparatively well-paid jobs that make a huge difference to the economy of the area. Kronospan worldwide is the number one producer of medium-density fibreboard and particleboard, and it operates in 24 countries. Locally, it is impossible to overestimate the massive economic impact that that company has. It spends in the region of £30 million a year on local suppliers and close to £ l million in rates. I am extremely concerned to hear that support for large-scale wood-fired electricity generation is threatening the very survival of that sustainable and crucial business in my constituency.

Let me make it clear—this point has been previously made by hon. Members—that we recognise that what is happening is an unforeseen consequence and we also recognise the reasoning behind support for what was the fledging biomass industry. It is not our place to be critical of that. However, we recognise the reality of what is happening to the wood panel industry as a consequence of that position. Wood supply and the best use of wood have suffered in policy making because of the way those issues fall between three Departments—DEFRA, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government—and their respective agencies. I know that DEFRA is well aware of both the limits of domestic wood supply and the extreme inefficiency of burning wood purely for electricity. For example, it is worth noting that the Environment Agency’s report, “Biomass: Carbon Sink or Carbon Sinner,” explicitly calls for a

“strong presumption in favour of combined heat and power”

over electricity-only generation. DCLG certainly supports the use of wood products for construction as a low-carbon alternative to other materials, but the policies that will most affect how wood will be used are the most lucrative ones, namely renewable energy. That is partly because DECC is doing its level best to achieve extremely ambitious renewable energy targets.

The industry has long suspected that information sharing between the Forestry Commission and DECC and its predecessors is simply not up to scratch. The commission undoubtedly has a good grasp on the availability of UK wood. However, for a variety of reasons, it does not have an equivalent expertise in forecasting wood demand. It is the wood industry’s belief that DECC’s understanding of wood fibre streams, uses and demands is totally inadequate, considering the impact that the Department’s policies have on the wood market. The renewable heat incentive’s timber coverage is a case in point. The RHI document states:

“We do not expect significant quantities of prime timber to be diverted into energy as a result of the RHI. However, should evidence show that high grade timber is being diverted into heat use, and that turns out to be a perverse outcome from a greenhouse gas lifecycle perspective or causes concerns about deforestation, measures will be introduced to prevent it.”

That is the sum total of the policy’s attention to the largest source of biomass in the UK.

The industry is most interested to know what DECC means by “prime” or “high grade” timber, as the RHI document provides no explanation. We already know that energy companies are seeking long-term contracts for the supply of small round wood, which is the core feedstock for the wood panel industry. The Department seems to be ignoring the fact that that distortion is happening today. Wood pellet plants, such as the one near Inverness, are using high-grade timber in the production of pellets. That trend will only increase with the additional incentive of the RHI. Will the Minister comment on what he deems to be prime timber? What evidence would his Department wish to see to convince it that such an outcome is already a reality? Does a wood panel factory have to close before measures are introduced to prevent that happening? I sincerely hope not. The Minister needs only to look at the experience of German and Austrian wood processors, which have suffered greatly as the result of massive increases in timber prices in 2004 and 2005.

Of course, this debate is also about the crucial issue of jobs, particularly but not exclusively in rural areas. If an overly generous biomass subsidy continues to be given to electricity producers, wood panel manufacturers will simply be priced out of the domestic wood market on which they rely. It will then become uneconomic to produce wood panel boards in the UK. A report on the wood panel industry by Europe Economics produced last year and submitted to DECC estimated that the loss of the industry would risk more than 8,500 full-time equivalent jobs. Taking the Government’s re-absorption rate into consideration, that still means the estimated loss of well over 4,000 jobs. The displacement of the industry by large-scale biomass would also cost nearly £1 billion in lost economic activity across several industries, as calculated using basic input-output measures.

It is extremely significant that six of the seven panel plants we are discussing are in rural areas with moderate to high unemployment rates. We are speaking of rural or semi-rural communities with at most one or two large-scale employers; indeed, many have no such employers, which is why the employment we are discussing is so vital. In some places—Hexham, Ayrshire, Chirk, which is in my constituency, in north Wales, and South Molton, which is in Devon—the plants dominate the economic landscape, and their loss would be devastating for local communities. Whatever one’s political persuasion, and whatever one’s views on the wider macro-economic debate and on what will happen at this point in our economic history, such losses do not bear thinking about.

I recognise that we are not talking about one of the largest industrial sectors, but the Europe Economics report that I cited earlier said that the sawmilling industry would become vulnerable if biomass demand continued to increase and generators looked to buy the whole tree. The Forestry Commission estimates that the sawmilling sector accounts for about 12,000 employees, and the Government would surely be worried about the loss of that employment.

Biomass plants frequently cite green jobs in applications for planning consent. In reality, however, the number of such new jobs is minimal—on a plant-to-plant comparison and per tonne of wood consumed—compared with the number created in the paper and panelboard sectors. On any objective analysis, biomass plants are less green. I am, of course, extremely concerned about the potential loss of a major employer in my constituency, and I trust that the Government will be, too.

The risk to the industry has been recognised right across Europe, with panel companies shutting down production lines or whole factories in Belgium and Germany because of a lack of wood. In 2009, the EU officially recognised the wood panel sector as one of several industrial sectors exposed to carbon leakage—the risk that companies might relocate outside the EU to countries with less onerous environmental regimes, thereby increasing global emissions. How can that recognition by the EU be reconciled with the RHI impact assessment for the panelboard industry?

As all Members present will recognise, the wood panel industry faces an extremely serious situation unless such consequences are foreseen and dealt with.

I apologise for not being present at the commencement of the debate, and no discourtesy was intended. I was participating in a debate on the Floor of the House on fuel prices, an issue that will be of some interest to the wood panel industry and the wider timber industry.

I want to make a brief contribution because others will already have covered a number of points. The issues raised in the debate are of concern to me because I represent an Ayrshire constituency, which borders the constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The Egger plant at Auchinleck is on the border between the two constituencies, although, technically, it is in the constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. I have had the privilege of looking around the plant on a couple of occasions in my capacity as MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, although I will become the former MSP when the Scottish Parliament breaks up for the election in a few days. However, I continue to take a close interest in what happens at the plant and in Government policy on the industry in Scotland and the UK.

As Members will have heard, some very high-quality products are made at the Egger plant. I was certainly amazed, as a consumer of all things DIY at various stages in my life, to see how high-quality chipboard was made, finished and then used to make the doors that we have all seen in new housing developments. However, the important point for me was that this was a high-quality product and created high-quality jobs in my constituency, which has particularly high unemployment and which has suffered for many years because of the loss of the mining industry and other parts of the manufacturing sector. The plant is therefore crucial, and the then Cumnock and Doon Valley district council was quite brave to pursue moves to locate the plant in the area. To be fair, it had to persuade the local community a little that it would be a good thing, and the company certainly worked with the council on that. I should add that the plant’s work force have been retrained and upskilled to keep them up to date with what is required in this modern industry.

I was therefore somewhat disconcerted when I first heard that the supply of the waste wood that was being recycled and used to produce the new items at the plant might dry up if a significant amount were channelled for use in biomass. It seemed slightly perverse, at a time when we are trying to make the best use of recycled products, that there would be more incentive to burn waste wood than to recycle it, reuse it and turn it into something much more useful and productive. Obviously, I hope that we will hear about that from the Minister.

It is also slightly perverse that there seem to be incentives to use all waste wood in biomass. There should be some way of incentivising people to sort it and to strip out the treated wood from the wood that can be reprocessed sensibly. The Scottish Government, for example, support a proposal to ban the production of energy from materials that could otherwise be recycled. That would also reduce landfill. That is a particularly sensible approach. I am not sure whether I should be standing up for the Scottish Government, given that we are about to have elections.

I should just let my hon. Friend know that, in the spirit of solidarity on this issue, I also took the opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Government, and I think you, Mr Weir, were delighted.

With due respect to you, Mr Weir, I suppose we might as well make it a double. Two Labour Members supporting the Scottish Government in one day is surely not something that happens all too often in this place.

The ban is important. In my role as an MSP, I had the opportunity to raise questions about it. I was pleased that the Scottish Government decided to move on the issue and that they have proposed a ban in respect of wood that could be put to a positive use and be suitably recycled and reprocessed. Such a ban will ensure that only wood that is not suitable for processing in any other way goes to landfill.

We have to be a bit more imaginative and adventurous. I hope that we will see a shift when we talk about some of the issues facing the construction industry and some of the challenges facing us at the moment. I hope that we will talk about building our way out of the present difficult economic climate. When we renovate housing or look at new school buildings and other things in our local communities, I hope that we will look all the way through at what we can do to recycle and reuse wood products.

To conclude, if there is any opportunity to use Ayrshire-made products, which are manufactured on my doorstep and which are of the highest quality, I hope, of course, that people will do so—indeed, I am sure they will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I also add my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) for securing the debate and highlighting the challenges that the wood panel companies are facing, particularly Norbord in her constituency.

It is important to recognise the role that wood panel industries play in local communities. The Wood Panel Industries Federation estimates that UK wood panel companies directly employ around 2,300 people and, including indirect jobs, secure around 8,700 full-time jobs.

We have heard representations from hon. Members about the highly skilled jobs that the wood panel industry provides in their constituencies. Many of those are located in small rural communities that depend on the industry, so it is important that the Government take seriously the concerns expressed. Careful consideration needs to be taken of the effect that renewables subsidies are having on the wood industry. The Opposition want to encourage a sustainable energy mix, with renewables playing a significant role. We recognise that biomass will play an important part in our energy future, if we are to reduce our carbon emissions and meet our renewables targets. If produced sustainably and burned efficiently, biomass emits low levels of carbon. However, WPIF and hon. Members today have expressed their concerns about the efficiency of biomass plants. Improving the efficiency of biomass plants and ensuring that we have a sustainable energy mix will be key to ensuring our energy security and meeting our carbon reduction targets.

The Minister will know that, as we are discussing this matter, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) are debating in Committee the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2011, which seeks to amend the sustainability criteria for biomass. The Government have considered several options, from doing nothing to several levels of new obligations in respect of sustainability. If passed, the measure will require all generators of solid biomass or gas over 50 kW to report against greenhouse gas emissions criteria and land use sustainability criteria. One notable exemption would be biomass generators wholly derived from waste. Many people and organisations have been calling for that clarity from Government.

What impact might that development have on the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling? In the 12-week consultation up to October 2010, which solicited 80 responses, were any representations made by the wood panel industry, and what was the gist of those representations? In the same order, the Minister has delayed implementing a requirement for biomass generators over 1 MW to comply with—as opposed to report against—greenhouse gas emissions and land use sustainability criteria, until closer to the intended start date for the requirement in 2013. That is to allow experience from reporting against the EU criteria to be taken into account before amending the renewables obligation. Will the Minister commit to take the intervening time to consult widely again? I stress “widely”, including specifically with the wood panel and associated industries to make sure their voice is heard.

As well as raising questions about how we produce our energy, today’s debate has highlighted serious questions about how the Government are making their decisions. As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the Department for Energy and Climate Change did not consider the effect the renewable heat incentive would have on the wood panel industry in its RHI impact assessment. I hope that the Minister will say why that was the case, especially as the Department took so long to announce the RHI and much of the work had already been done by the previous Government.

It would be helpful to learn from the Minister what meetings he has had with representatives of the wood panel industry, the work force and representatives from Unite. In addition, can he tell us what discussions, if any, DECC Ministers had with their counterparts in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effect of biomass on the wood panel industry?

As most biomass energy is derived from wood, it is only renewable as long as forests are controlled locally and managed in a sensitive way. We saw just a few weeks ago how exercised the public are about protecting our forests and woodland, when the Government tried to sell off our forests to the highest bidders. Even after the Government’s painful U-turn, the public still doubt whether the Government can be trusted with our forests.

The Government parties were keen to talk up their green credentials when they were in opposition, and we heard them today on aspiring to be the greenest Government ever. However, green government is about actually delivering a low-carbon future, not chasing headlines. It is about delivering low-carbon investment, not delaying on the green investment bank and dithering on feed-in tariffs. It is also about protecting our woodlands and green spaces, so that we leave the next generation a greener country than we inherited. It is slightly ironic that, in the UN international year of forests, when we are meant to be doing everything we can to protect against deforestation, the Government were considering selling them off and are still planning to sell off 40,000 hectares of public forests.

The debate has highlighted the clear need for a serious strategy to protect our forests and to do all that we can to increase them. As the report “Combating Climate Change: A Role for UK Forests”, commissioned by the Forestry Commission, shows, if an extra 4% of the UK’s land were planted with new woodland over the next 40 years, it could reduce our national carbon emissions by 10% by 2050.

We have already heard that Port Talbot’s Prenergy plant will burn around 3 million tonnes of wood per year. There are real concerns about where the wood will be sourced from, and the effect it will have on the UK’s wood stocks and the wood panel industry. Will the Minister give us details of the plans the Government have to ensure that wood for large-scale biomass will not lead to a drastic reduction in our woodland? What ongoing review and monitoring will he undertake of the sustainability criteria for timber used for biomass? What further work is he doing in the UK and with the EU on the sustainable use of biomass, to reduce the negative impacts on land use and food production, referred to by hon. Members today?

Will the Minister update us on the Government’s progress in imposing a UK domestic ban on illegally sourced timber imported to the UK? Finally, will he outline what plans the Government have to ensure that we enhance our public forests, in order to help to reduce our carbon emissions?

I would continue, but the debate has raised a great number of questions for the Minister and we are all keen to hear his response.

I am delighted to participate in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) on securing the time. She has a commendable record for keeping the issue at the forefront of debate at Westminster. I had the opportunity to meet her and other colleagues in September for a productive meeting with the all-party group on wood panelling. I met industry representatives on numerous occasions before that, particularly while in Opposition.

A range of important issues has been raised, not only by the hon. Lady but by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is also an articulate champion, not just for his constituency but for this industry in particular. We also heard thoughtful speeches from the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). I have anticipated in my remarks many points made in the debate and I will seek to address those questions raised as best as I can in the time that I have at the end.

I appreciate that very serious issues have been raised, and if I am not able to cover all of them in this time, I will be happy to follow up with more detailed answers. I can assure all hon. Members that I understand their concerns about the wood panel industry. The coalition Government value the significant investment made in the UK wood panel industry, and we certainly acknowledge the important benefits it delivers, including the real carbon benefits of locking carbon into new buildings. It also provides the benefit of offering jobs—skilled, sustainable jobs—right across the UK, often in rural areas where there is no alternative employment. I think it is not unfair to say that there has been an attitude of complacency in the past, and that the voice of this industry has not always been effectively heard. I am determined to listen.

The right hon. Member for Stirling raised the question at the outset of why the RHI impact assessment did not include the impact on the wood panelling industry. I would like to say, up front, that that is a very good point and I do not have a proper answer for her. She is right to raise it and I will pursue that issue as soon as I get back to the Department. I invite her to meet me so that we can go through the data. I can tell her, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who also raised this matter, that in respect of the renewables obligation consultation there was a significant contribution from the wood panel industry, which set out its concerns along the lines that have been highlighted today. We are now working on guidance about what will be considered as waste and excluded from sustainability criteria. I will say more about that in the course of my remarks.

I welcome the Minister’s frankness in admitting that there may have been an omission in terms of the impact assessment. I would be delighted, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of my colleagues, to meet him to see whether we can rebalance that impact assessment in a way that recognises the importance of the issue to the industry.

I look forward to meeting the right hon. Lady and going through those issues in more detail. Before I go into more substantive points about UK policy, may I also just echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and go on record to say that the UK welcomes 2011 as the international year of forests? This is an excellent opportunity to raise public awareness of the importance of forests—although I think that the coalition Government have done quite a good job of doing that already—and in tackling climate change, halting biodiversity loss and preserving the livelihoods of forest-dwelling peoples.

Forests have a dual role in helping us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to tackle climate change. First, forests act as carbon sinks, removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and storing it in plant and soil matter, but forests also contribute by providing wood for energy and renewable materials for construction and manufacturing, and reducing the use of fossil materials. However, deforestation is a very real risk that must be addressed. If the world’s growing demand for bio-energy and renewable materials were to lead to the clearing of forests, particularly primary forests, that would increase total global emissions dangerously and drive forward, rather than tackle, dangerous man-made climate change.

The coalition Government are committed to tackling the drivers of deforestation, in particular the global trade in illegal timber—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. The international year of forests provides a useful platform to highlight our recent achievements in that area, particularly in terms of EU timber regulation. That regulation prohibits the first placing of illegal timber on the EU market, and will send a clear message to producer countries that illegal timber has no place in the UK market. That complements our wider efforts to improve forest governance in developing countries through the EU forest law enforcement, governance and trade action plan.

The international year of forests is also an excellent opportunity to promote the importance of sustainable forest management in building a greener, more equitable and sustainable future. To complement our work on tackling deforestation, the UK is working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and other international partners to promote the role of forests in restoring degraded landscapes. The Forestry Commission is using its programme of educational, community and recreational events throughout 2011 to highlight the international year of forests. I am sure that those activities are going on in many of the constituencies of hon. Members who are present.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree raised the issue of our clear ambition to be the greenest Government ever, which goes right to the heart of the coalition’s programme for Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spelled that out on numerous occasions, but our ambitions go much further than our work to stop deforestation, critical though that is to us. We want to be a global leader in the world-wide transition to a low-carbon economy. We are committed to producing 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, and to reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Renewable energy, and bio-energy in particular, must play a very important role as we decarbonise our economy and seize opportunities to create new businesses, employment and long-term green prosperity in the UK.

Heat and electricity from biomass could provide nearly a third of UK needs from renewables by 2020, meeting approximately 4.5% of our overall energy demand. Bio-energy offers the rare benefit, for a renewable technology, of not being intermittent. It can generate electricity or heat on demand at any time of the day or night. The UK needs the flexibility and security that that supply brings. Moreover, bio-energy can provide significant new business and employment opportunities to the UK. For example, the expansion of biomass use in off-gas-grid areas of the UK will mean a growing order book for specialist boiler manufacturers, demand for new local businesses to provide installation and maintenance, and will create opportunities across the wood fuel supply production and distribution chain. Just last week, we set out a portfolio of major policies that will help us achieve that. Bio-energy will make a significant contribution to our decarbonisation plans, but that must not be at the expense of other jobs. I am very aware of unintended or perverse consequences and hon. Members present are perfectly entitled to raise those issues. We will work harder to look at the consequences for the wood panel industry. Many powerful arguments were made today, not least how it is better to lock up carbon rather than to burn it, and I am mindful of that.

While welcoming future discussion and recognising that issues have been raised, is the Minister in a position to say to us today that he thinks there may be some flexibility in the way in which the RHI is being implemented to the current detriment to the wood panel industry? While discussions with the Minister are wonderful, I would like to push him that wee bit further to see what commitment he can give to us today.

I will develop my theme in my speech, but I think that there is a genuine point of disagreement in our approaches. I agree with the right hon. Lady; there is absolutely no excuse for not publishing the account that we take of the impact on the wood panel industry in the impact assessment, and we will address that. I am sure that there are ways that we can improve measures to mitigate the impact on the wood panel industry, and we are keen to see more wood used in houses. However, the difference between us may lie in the fact that, fundamentally, we believe that the market will respond with more supply, both domestically and globally. This is an immature market—this is a theme that I wish to develop—and the biomass industry in the UK has fallen to a very low level. Historically, we powered the country on biomass. I represent a constituency in East Sussex, the most wooded county in England. I know, just from my own experience, that the vast majority of woodland in that county has fallen into a state of disrepair and is not actively managed. There is significant scope to bring in new supply, both globally and in the UK, and I will come to that in more detail if I may.

Does the Minister not see that there is a real risk of the law of unintended consequences? If he does not address the problem of subsidised biomass and its effect, then the impact on the wood panel business will be significant and severe, and until he says something on that issue, we will struggle.

Let me make a little progress with my speech. I am getting slightly ahead of myself, and I will address those issues in the course of my remarks.

On Thursday, as hon. Members have said, we launched the world’s first incentive for renewable heat. That was an important step forward for an Administration who claim they want to be the greenest Government ever, and a genuine, tangible sign of walking the walk as well as talking the talk, of putting investment—money—where our mouth is.

The scheme will provide long-term support for renewable heat technologies, from ground-source heat pumps to wood-chip boilers. It will help drive a sevenfold increase in renewable heat over the coming decade, which will help shift what currently is a fringe option firmly into the mainstream. We expect the RHI to deliver an additional 57 TWh of renewable heat, bringing the total to 68 TWh by 2020 and saving 44 million tonnes of carbon by that year. It is part of a bigger picture, in that we expect 500,000 jobs to be created by the end of the decade in the renewables industry across heat, electricity and transport. The RHI alone could potentially stimulate billions of pounds of new capital investment.

We are reviewing the incentives for renewable electricity under the renewables obligation. The RO banding review will ensure that the level of support for biomass electricity reflects industry costs. It will also reflect the UK Government’s ambition for large-scale bio-electricity, which is being considered through an evidence-based review of biomass resources and their use, to be published in 2011. Analysis of the best use of biomass will form an integral part of that work. I would certainly welcome further contributions to it from hon. Members and the interests that they represent, because it needs to be evidence-based, and we are genuinely open-minded about it.

As I have just mentioned the RHI, I would like to take the opportunity to address the question of why we have decided that only renewable heat installations installed after 15 July 2009 will be rewarded. The RHI is a mechanism designed deliberately to bring forward sufficient new renewable heat to meet our renewables targets. The design was begun by the previous Government—I have to give them credit—and is not something that we dreamed up. It is not intended to be a retrospective reward mechanism for early adopters or existing users of renewable technologies. The justification for it was to pull in renewable heat technologies and renewable heat users that otherwise would not have moved in this direction.

Moreover, in the context of the current economic climate and the huge deficit that we inherited from the previous Government, it is vital that we maximise the value for money delivered by public expenditure. Existing renewable heat generators have already invested in the new technology without needing or expecting the support of a financial incentive, so while I can see why they could make a case for it, I am afraid that we would not consider extending the RHI to include installations prior to July 2009, as that would not be a prudent use of taxpayers’ money.

If plants ripped out existing equipment to access the subsidy, presumably they would be eligible. Of course, that is not the sort of thing that responsible plants would do, but it demonstrates the inequity of what the Minister is saying.

If it were simply a dodge to try to get around the regulations, they would have great difficulty in proving their case. If they were to upgrade their plant or adopt new technologies in a new installation, that would be a different proposition.

We recognise that mainstreaming bio-energy is not without risk—hon. Members have done a good job of outlining the risks. We acknowledge the critical importance of taking action to ensure that rapid growth in bio-energy does not result in loss of important habitat either at home or internationally, or the release of more carbon than we actually save. Hon. Members raised concerns about that. Biomass can be a low-carbon energy source, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, but that requires it to be grown, harvested, processed and transported sustainably.

We are introducing mandatory sustainability criteria to ensure that the biomass power generation supported by the renewables obligation is genuinely sustainable. From April, generators will be required to report to Ofgem on their performance against a target of 60% greenhouse gas emissions savings compared with fossil fuel use, and on land criteria. Following a transition phase, we intend to make those criteria mandatory from 2013 for all generators of 1 MW capacity and above. We expect that similar standards—again, mandatory sustainability criteria—will be introduced for biomass used for heat under the renewable heat incentive from 2013.

Sustainable forest management is a critical part of biomass sustainability. Therefore, the Government are actively working with stakeholders to develop an approach that will robustly protect not just UK forests but global forests, and enable UK woodlands to come under active management, with the many benefits that that will bring not just to those who use the products but also in terms of biodiversity and recreational benefits for the communities that live around them.

I do not believe that any of us who are participating in this debate have any problems with some of the good things that the Minister has identified, but I would like to draw him back to the fundamental questions posed by the debate. The first is the impact when wood that could be utilised for other purposes is burned in biomass-powered generators, and the second—this was my final question—was about jobs, which the Minister mentioned. Is he willing to recognise that there will be collateral damage to an important rural industry which links into all the forestry management that he has spoken about, in order to get the other elements of his policy through? I do not believe that any of us have any problems with some of the good things that he is talking about, but we need to draw him back to the crucial question and the nub of the debate.

Let us be absolutely clear: the coalition values the jobs in the wood panelling industry, as we value all jobs. It is certainly not our aim—unintended or otherwise—to see those jobs disappear. That neatly brings me on to my next point, which is about the impact of other wood-using industries on wood prices and trends, and competition for a limited resource.

We recognise that the increased use of wood for energy risks negative impacts on other potential users of wood. We understand that the wood panel industry is facing more competition for their raw materials. We also want more wood to be used in the construction of homes. Our analysis shows that the deliveries to wood fuel markets are increasing from a very low base. In 2005, just 100,000 green tonnes of softwood were delivered to fuel markets, accounting for just 1.2% of total softwood deliveries. In 2009, that had increased to only 600,000 green tonnes, less than 7.5% of total softwood deliveries.

In real terms—perhaps this is the most telling point—the price of softwood saw-logs increased by 14% over the five-year period ending in September 2010. I have not done the arithmetic, but I would have thought that the rise was below inflation over that period. I apologise that I do not have more recent statistics. Obviously, this is a dynamic model, and we will continue to inform Members. I do not think anyone could argue that that represents significant inflation in costs. If there were a problem of the magnitude hon. Members have described, it would be reflected in the price, but, clearly, we have not seen that to date. However, I accept that that is clearly something that we will have to watch.

Surely it is unarguable that prices have risen, and it is surely without doubt that the opportunities to proceed on the basis that the Minister is talking about, although entirely laudable, as we all accept, are limited by the amount of wood in this country that can be produced and sold on.

I have one final point, but I will be brief—

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Yes, there has been a rise in wood prices, but my maths tells me—I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong—that it is below the inflation rate. Wood is a commodity like everything else, but a 14% rise over five years is not alone a cause for concern. Over 20 years, the real-terms price of softwood saw-logs has fallen by almost 46%. The lowest value was reached in March 2009, so the pricing indicators do not support his argument.

Price have recovered slightly since March 2009, but the bottom line is that even if prices increase—I anticipate that they will—we are starting from a very low base. In real terms, they are substantially lower now than 20 years ago.

I hope that I highlighted some of the information that DECC has on forward supply of and demand for wood. It is unhelpful to be historic about that when all the analyses show that the demand for wood will outstrip supply.

Another element is that one part of the market—the demand side—is being subsidised when other elements of the market are not. I know that the Minister is a great believer in competition, but surely the Government are putting the wood panel industry in an unfair position when its competitors are being subsidised for the same products.

It must be remembered that timber prices are set by global markets, not solely by national Government energy incentives. According to some sources, international energy markets are already influencing timber prices. There was a forecasted 10% drop in log prices for 2010, but instead they were higher than in 2008, which was probably due to increased demand for wood fuel. I assure the hon. Lady that we are looking at that carefully. In addition, we are very aware that wood fuel is increasingly traded as a global commodity, so UK wood supplies can and will be exported for energy use in other countries if that will deliver a better price, and we may import timber from abroad. Nevertheless, as I stated in my introduction, the value of the wood panel industry in terms of green jobs and the carbon stored in its product is significant, and we are mindful of that. That is why the Government are taking action to reduce those displacement issues.

Our actions fall into three main areas: increasing the use of biomass feedstocks that the wood panel industry has no use for; bringing more wood supplies forward; and diverting more waste from UK landfill. To increase the use of other biomass—for example, food waste and anaerobic digestion—it is important to look beyond just wood when sourcing biomass. Biomass suitable for energy generation may come from a wide range of plant and animal materials, many of which are unsuitable as raw materials for our wood processing industries. They include perennial energy crops, such as Miscanthus grass and short-rotation coppiced willow, which can be grown on lower grade land. Similarly, dry farming residues, such as straw, can be combusted for energy.

The Government support perennial energy crops, so long as they do not displace food crops. The renewables obligation provides additional support for energy crops over other biomass feedstocks. That uplift of half a renewable obligation certificate aims to stimulate interest in energy crops grown by the power generation sector, and to help to develop the fuel supply chain.

Support is also provided directly to farmers through the energy crops scheme, which is part of DEFRA's rural development programme for England. The ECS seeks to remove one of the most significant barriers for prospective energy crop growers—the high initial cost of establishing new plantations. The ECS provides grants that reimburse 50% of planting costs.

Another important area is the use of wet biomass residues, such as food waste, sewage and animal manure, that can be anaerobically digested to produce biogas, which can then be used to produce heat and electricity. The UK produces about 100 million tonnes of wet organic material that is suitable for treatment by AD. That includes up to 20 million tonnes of food waste from households and industry; 90 million tonnes of agriculture by-products, such as manure and slurry; and 1.7 million tonnes of sewage sludge. By diverting those wet organic wastes into energy, we can stop slurry surface water run-off polluting our rivers, reduce pressure on landfill sites, and avoid methane emissions, which are 23 times worse than those of CO2 . The Government are working with the industry to draw up a joint programme to tackle the barriers to the deployment of AD. That will be published in May 2011. We are also looking at the feed-in tariff scheme to see whether the tariff rates are enough to make farm-based AD worthwhile.

What about bringing more wood supplies forward? A further key way to reduce the impact on the UK wood processing industries is to bring new supplies of wood to the UK marketplace. There is a large underused bio-energy resource in the UK. Around 40% of the UK's forest and woodlands, measured by land area, are not currently under an active management plan, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said. When woodland becomes overly mature, leaf cover prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor, and the biodiversity is poor. Sustainable management would allow a wider range of shrubs, birds, trees and bees to thrive, and at the same time bring more UK timber and wood supplies to the market, and generate new business, jobs and opportunities.

The Forestry Commission is developing a wood fuel implementation plan, to be launched later this year. It will set out actions to bring forward an additional 2 million green tonnes of wood from unmanaged forests and other sources by 2020. The commission is also developing a wood fuel woodland improvement grant to assist harvesting and marketing activity. Key features of the new grant are that the wood fuel WIG will offer a 60% contribution to costs, and can support forest roads, access tracks and other related harvesting infrastructure. Further details will be published later this year.

Alongside the development of UK woodlands, developing the biomass import market and securing a healthy share of that for the UK will be essential. We have estimated that a global market of up to 50 million oven-dried tonnes annually will be available to the UK by 2020. I recognise that the wood panel industry is rightly proud of the use it makes of the UK's waste wood. It is estimated that around 4.5 million tonnes of wood waste are generated in the UK every year, of which more than 1 million tonnes, mainly from packaging waste and wooden pallets, are recycled by the panel-manufacturing industry. But we estimate that a considerable quantity is still going to UK landfill.

Wood in landfill is particularly dangerous because it decays and generates methane, so the Government are actively considering how best to make further reductions in the amount of waste going to landfill as part of the review of waste policies, which is due to conclude in the spring. It will look at all aspects of waste policy and delivery in England, including the role of energy from waste. The aim is to ensure that we are on the right path towards a zero waste economy.

In particular, we want to address the priority of moving wood up the waste hierarchy so that it best delivers the right environmental outcome. The waste hierarchy will be legally binding in the UK, so we will seek better to address the potential for diverting treated wood waste, which is not suitable for use in the wood processing industries, from landfill to energy recovery.

In conclusion, the wood panel industry has an important and valuable role to play in the UK's low carbon economy. I have set out today the proactive actions that we are taking to bring new biomass to the UK market, and to ensure that we have the supply to meet demand. We are increasing the use of biomass, other than clean wood, for energy; we are bringing forward more wood supplies; and we are diverting more waste from landfill. But we are open to new ideas. I do not pretend that we have the perfect solution yet, and DECC would very much welcome continuing engagement with the wood panel industry.

I thank all hon. Members who have participated in an important and valuable debate. The agenda will certainly continue beyond today.

Health Care (West Cumbria)

I am pleased to have secured this debate because few things, if anything, are more important to my constituents and the wider population of west Cumbria than the future of the NHS and local health care services.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Before continuing, I ought to declare some interests. I shall be talking about the West Cumberland hospital today. Not only was I born there, but so was my wife and our four children; my nieces and nephews were all born there; and about a year ago it saved my life.

At best, the future provision of health care services in west Cumbria—indeed, in Cumbria in its entirety—is confused. Given the majority of representations that I have received, from ordinary people and medical professionals, at worst it is in crisis. Before the election, and immediately after it, the development of health care services in Cumbria was praised by the Secretary of State for Health and those sympathetic to his views as a model for the rest of the country. I shall return to this aspect in due course, but suffice it to say that the Secretary of State has stopped using Cumbria as an example of best practice; surely even he realises the chaos that is being caused there by the top-down, unwanted and unwarranted reorganisation of the NHS that he is inflicting on us.

First I shall give a brief history. In 2007-08, NHS Cumbria, the primary care trust for the area, undertook a huge public consultation under the closer to home initiative. It was an enormous task; 140,000 people contributed to the consultation, a huge proportion for any consultation, let alone for a county with a total population of just under half a million. It identified the need to redevelop the West Cumberland hospital and to integrate and improve primary care services as part of the closer to home deal.

During a period of record and sustained funding for the NHS, the public reluctantly agreed to a reduction in the number of beds at the West Cumberland hospital. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that beds do not equal services, and I accept that from the outset. Negotiations with the public were incredibly difficult, but the change was accepted with two provisos. First, the reduction in the number of beds would result in more complex surgery and tertiary-level care coming back to Cumbria from the north-east, taking place at the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle; that would reduce travelling times for people in my constituency and west Cumbria and help with family concerns for those requiring tertiary-level services.

Secondly, the reduction would effectively result in the building of a new hospital on the site of the West Cumberland hospital. The hospital would retain its acute status, its consultant-led maternity, paediatric and anaesthesiology services, develop specialisms not available at Carlisle, and develop its teaching function. Crucially, it would be surrounded by a network of refurbished or even entirely rebuilt community hospitals in Millom, Keswick, Cockermouth and Maryport, with a brand-new health centre in Cleator Moor; together, they would be able to deal with an increased level of primary-care needs, to allocate resources better, to sign-post acute care when necessary and, importantly, to provide care closer to home.

After real difficulties, hospital consultants from both hospitals in north Cumbria—the West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven and the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle—began to forge an effective working relationship with local GPs. I brokered many of their meetings, chaired them and tried to help navigate a route towards an integrated provision of local health services in west Cumbria—one that was outcomes driven in the best interests of patients and that would underpin the future professional and economic stability, viability and sustainability of the local NHS. I believe that it was achieved, albeit imperfectly.

Collectively, the local community and primary and acute medical practitioners were developing a model that would best fit Cumbria. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham); he had a huge part to play in those developments. So advanced was the relationship, and so strong was the plan, that we were able to insist that a publicly funded, privately operated clinical assessment and treatment centre was not introduced in the area. We knew that it would destabilise the local NHS. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), then Secretary of State for Health, listened and did as we asked. It seems that times have changed—and significantly for the worse.

A funding package was developed for west Cumbria, through the west Cumbria strategic forum, and the principle of “west Cumbria proofing” was consistently implemented by the previous Government. That funding was meant to provide £100 million for the West Cumberland hospital and up to £80 million for the community health facilities that I mentioned earlier. Do the Government and the Department of Health remain committed to “west Cumbria proofing”, and the memorandum of agreement that underpinned it?

After the election, these moneys were arbitrarily withdrawn, despite the fact that demolition had already begun on the site of the West Cumberland hospital. The events in my constituency on 2 June 2010 caused me to ask the Prime Minister to visit the hospital and to see for himself the extraordinary clinical work being undertaken by the accident and emergency team in the face of quite unprecedented events. I also used the opportunity to lobby for the money that had been taken from us. Eventually, the Department of Health returned £70 million to the project.

Finance is obviously an important part of health care in north Cumbria. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the PFI scheme has been a burden to the area?

I would like to examine our PFI scheme forensically and try to discover why other PFI schemes around the country work so well. What is it about the Carlisle scheme that causes such difficulties for the health economy of our area? However, the burdens that it imposes pale in comparison with the GP fundholding system that we face.

The North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust remains committed to its £20 million investment. However, the abolition of the north-west regional development agency and the instruction from Downing street that incomplete projects were to have RDA funding withdrawn has led to a £10 million shortfall in the new-build budget. Will the Minister please reinstate that missing £10 million? If not, will she and her Department help me to identify money to cover that shortfall from other sources—even, perhaps, not from the Department of Health? Can she help expedite the detailed business case approval for the West Cumberland hospital?

Already £10 million down, the trust and NHS Cumbria have also been instructed to make 4% annual recurring cuts. That would be an incredibly difficult situation for the west Cumbrian health economy at any time, but we have not yet approached the real horror that threatens to hole it below the waterline.

At Prime Minister’s Question Time today, the Prime Minister made a Freudian slip when referring to GP fundholding. The Department of Health prefers to call it GP commissioning, but GP fundholding is the practice that brought hospitals to their knees and that almost bankrupted the NHS in the 1980s and 1990s. That is precisely what GP commissioning is. There is all the difference between GPs commissioning and designing services in an integrated way with their hospital colleagues, and GPs being forced to hold the purse strings for the provision of each hospital service upon which their patients rely.

Will the Minister tell us what limit, if any, will be placed on GPs’ remuneration under the new system? Does she have any fears relating to soaring salaries and the fact that the bond of trust between patient and doctor could become severed as a result? Does she have any concerns with regard to the imbalance now between GPs and their acute colleagues and does she think that that will affect future recruitment and the provision of services within the NHS?

With GP fundholding effectively in place in Cumbria—in shadow form—we are witnessing a massive cut to the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust and to the West Cumberland hospital. Last year, the hospitals trust provided acute hospital services worth some £183 million across its sites. Under GP fundholding, that is being reduced, in the space of one year, to £153 million, which is bound to affect the provision of acute hospital services at the West Cumberland hospital. Does the Minister agree that such a financial hit cannot be absorbed without affecting front-line services?

The shortfall has plunged the trust into chaos. It is now unable, not unreasonably, to meet the foundation trust status qualifying criteria deadline of 2013-14 and that has caused it to seek a merger with another trust or any other willing provider. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us categorically what the Department means by “any other willing provider”. Minutes from meetings of senior consultants across the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, which have been leaked to me, show that those consultants fear that this could result in the closure of the West Cumberland hospital. That would be—as the cuts are—the direct consequence of centrally imposed, top-down Government policy in the NHS.

Will the Minister guarantee that she will not let that happen and that the current level of services will only be added to and not taken away from? Will she agree to arrange a meeting between the Secretary of State, concerned local clinicians and me to hear the case in detail? Will she also grant the trust extra time to meet the foundation trust qualifying deadline so that a merger can be avoided? A merger of trusts is not in the interests of the trust itself or any other trust being asked to take it on. If not, will she guarantee that no other trust or willing service provider will reduce the services provided by the West Cumberland hospital? In short, will she commit today to ensure the delivery of the closer to home programme, which my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington have been consulted on and reached agreement on?

What of our local community hospitals and planned health centre? Will the Minister guarantee that the money for those facilities will be provided by Government, or financially facilitated, very soon, so that these long promised and keenly anticipated investments can take place? What is the status of the programme to rebuild and replace our community hospitals in west Cumbria and provide a new health centre in Cleator Moor? Does the Minister agree that the closer to home initiative will collapse if these facilities are not forthcoming and that a deal will then have been reneged upon? Were that to happen, the sense of betrayal would be profound and the consequences significant.

The West Cumberland hospital was the first new hospital in this country to be built by the NHS after its creation. Right now, it risks becoming the first casualty of what many see as the stealth privatisation of the NHS by a right-wing Government implementing centrally driven health policies that command no democratic mandate or clinical support. As I speak, Bevan will be turning in his grave. I am asking for help, compromise and understanding of the problems facing the future of health service provision in west Cumbria. There is still time to put that right and I hope that the Minister and the Government will see sense.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate. My goodness, it is quite a thing that he, his wife and his four children were all born in the West Cumberland hospital. The hospital also saved his life. Despite our political differences, I am sure that he will join me in saying that whenever we debate the NHS, we always pay tribute to the staff who work in it at every level. We tend to talk about doctors and nurses, but there are many members of staff who ensure the safe delivery of children and who save lives. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to associate himself with those comments.

The hon. Gentleman has been actively involved in campaigning for the redevelopment of West Cumberland hospital, and he is also a strong supporter of community hospitals. He spoke with some passion about his role and his long history in that regard.

The Minister mentioned community hospitals. There is one in my constituency at Cockermouth, and for a considerable period the authorities have been promising to rebuild it. After the terrible flooding in 2009, parts of the hospital are in portakabins. We are desperate for the new hospital. The funding and the planning permission are in place, yet we are still waiting for a decision. Will the Minister please look into that situation—she does not have to do it now—because the people of Cockermouth are desperate to get their new hospital?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It is frustrating for local people when they are waiting for decisions to be made. General elections come along, disrupt things and, sadly, slow down the process even more. I can understand his constituents’ frustration. Later in my remarks, I will address how we can move forward.

The hon. Member for Copeland was right to make the point that local NHS organisations are precious not just for the services that they provide, but for the employment and economic support that they bring to the area. I note, in particular, his work with the west Cumbria strategic forum and the development of the energy coast master plan for west Cumbria. The development of local NHS services plays an important role in that.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that in west Cumbria, as in other parts of the country, the NHS is under tremendous financial pressure. Indeed, he alluded to that. We are where we are; we have inherited a substantial deficit. Both parties acknowledge the fact that we face some serious economic challenges, and we are determined to find £20 billion in efficiency savings so that we can then reinvest in quality care, and the need to do that is real and urgent. Such pressures would have existed whoever was in government. The fact that we have protected NHS budgets is an important step in ensuring that the challenges facing the NHS are slightly less than those facing other areas. None the less, the upshot is that every NHS trust in the country will have to make tough choices to put health care on a sustainable footing, and that is what is happening in west Cumbria.

I understand that the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust has struggled financially for a number of years. Clearly, there are some unresolved issues that people are now keen to sort out. Like the country as a whole, the trust is on a journey to restore balance to its finances, and we need to consider how we get better value for money. When I visit hospitals and trusts, it is interesting to see how substantial amounts of money have been taken out of costs by small changes in the way services are delivered. Although this is a challenge, it is also an opportunity, and I am impressed with the innovation that people are demonstrating.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the trust concluded in February 2011 that it would not be in a financially viable position for achieving independent foundation trust status by the 2014 deadline. It has made the difficult choice to pursue an arrangement with an existing foundation trust, through merger or acquisition, to ensure its ability to deliver high quality services in the future. The trust reached that decision for a number of reasons, including reduced contract income as more health care is provided outside acute settings, historical debts, costs associated with the private finance initiative scheme, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and ongoing requirements to meet cost saving targets.

Having trained as a nurse and worked in the NHS for 25 years, including as a district nurse, I am acutely aware that although our focus is always on acute care the majority of health care is delivered outside acute settings. It is the tension and the co-operation between those two elements of health care that we must now finally get right. The trust must address the issues that I have just mentioned. In particular, it must identify and agree an affordable clinical model that will deliver sustainable high-quality services. It is no good going for short-term gains. We need the process to be sustainable and lasting.

The hon. Gentleman will know that, back in 2007, the NHS in Cumbria set out its plan to reduce unnecessary hospital admissions by looking after people closer to their homes, which is where they want to be. The closer to home programme supported the development of community-based services and the redevelopment of acute facilities to meet local needs. In support of that programme in Cumbria, there is the redevelopment of West Cumberland hospital, which will deliver acute services with support from a wider range of community services.

Following recommendations by the national clinical advisory team last year, I understand that the north Cumbria health economy is now working to develop an affordable clinical strategy, covering primary, secondary and acute hospital services. I understand that the strategy will be published this summer. I suspect that it cannot come soon enough for the hon. Gentleman and many others in the area. In many ways, the strategy will build on the closer to home programme by considering how local health care services can be delivered more affordably, while keeping service quality at the very highest level, which is critical. As part of that process, it is true that the review group is looking at what will happen to acute services at West Cumberland hospital.

During his tour of hospitals in Cumbria last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health acknowledged the importance of West Cumberland hospital to the local people. That view is shared by all of us and it is being taken into account by the Department of Health, the North West strategic health authority and the NHS in Cumbria, which is working on the full business case for the redevelopment of the hospital. That business case will need to reflect the clinical strategy. It is very important that these decisions are driven by clinical need and that they meet the needs of local people.

The Minister talked about the trust’s unique responsibilities. Of course, one of the unique responsibilities that the trust must address is the unique service that west Cumbria provides to this country in the form of the nuclear industry, and the unique challenges that the industry poses for the trust. It is in the interests not only of my constituents but of the whole country that the issue is addressed, and it must be done on a cross-party basis. Would the hon. Lady care to say something about that?

Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right to tie up the facts. As politicians, we tend to use the word “sustainable” in a rather flippant way, but what he has just said is what “sustainability” should be about. It should take account of the changing needs of the area; we should be building services not for the next five years but for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.

Tension between acute services and community services has always existed, as has tension between acute services and specialist services. If I think back to my own time in the NHS 30 or 40 years ago—I am very old and it was a long time ago—I recall that regional centres for neurosurgery were being developed. Specialist services need to be provided in specialist centres. Local people want to know that they can go to their local hospital for the majority of things that are wrong with them. That is important. There needs to be a clinical driver in the process, to ensure that people get the quality of care that they need. However, one also needs to take account of people’s wants and desires, and they want care on their doorstep.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. I recommend that he attends the debate that is happening elsewhere in the House today if he wants a fuller discussion of NHS services. He wanted a number of guarantees from me, so he wanted a number of guarantees from the centre and yet in the same breath he talked about “top-down” and “centrally imposed” diktats. Again, that is one of the key issues, because the centre is never very good at making local decisions. What matters locally is that changes and discussions have the support of clinicians, and ideally are led by clinicians. Those changes and discussions must also have the confidence of local people. That confidence is possibly what has suffered in the past.

The hon. Gentleman talked a little about GP commissioning, GP fundholding and “any other willing provider”. He asked what “any other willing provider” means. I suggest that he goes back to his own party to ask that question, because using “any other willing provider” was at one point its policy. I feel very strongly that the reforms in the NHS will bring decisions about commissioning and getting care right for people absolutely where they should be: with the GPs who know and understand their local communities. It is extremely important that GPs’ inputs and commissioning skills are used to the fullest.

I am told that the national clinical advisory team is reviewing the draft strategy and that a final version will be put to the strategic health authority in the months ahead. In addition, the full business case for West Cumberland hospital, together with the business cases for development of community services, will need to be considered alongside the final clinical strategy. I know that the delay is frustrating, but it is absolutely vital if the decisions are to be made. I or my ministerial colleagues will be very happy to have a meeting with the hon. Member for Copeland. In fact, it might be useful if a meeting was set up with a number of MPs from the area, to thrash out some of the more difficult issues when we have slightly more time to do so.

The process must be clinically led and choices must be made on clinical grounds. The primary care trust must also be satisfied that proposals are properly costed and can deliver sustainable solutions and a sustainable model of care for Cumbria. However, I emphasise that no final decisions have yet been made.

This is an important period in the story of the NHS. An ageing population, rising demand and increasing costs are combining to make it a uniquely challenging time. It is always challenging to deliver health care, with rising expectations and rising demands. That means that all parts of the country must look critically at how they can make the best use of resources to deliver effective health care, in whatever setting it can be most effectively delivered. It also means more care being provided in the home and in the community. I think most people see that development as a positive step, and there must be support for it. The difficulty is that realising cost savings ultimately means changing hospital services as demand changes. However, the NHS actually has a good history and a good record on evolving and changing to meet changes in demand and patient choice.

I quite agree with the Minister, and we understand why there need to be more services in the community. However, the point that I was trying to make in my earlier intervention is that we are desperately in need of a new community hospital in Cockermouth. If we are to have acute services at the West Cumberland hospital, we need up-to-date modern community hospitals that can do the sort of work that she is talking about. Will she at least undertake to look personally into why there is such a delay in the development of the community hospital in Cockermouth?

Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I understand completely his passion on the subject. It is terribly frustrating to wait for something and I will ensure that we come back to him specifically on that point, because the hospital has been delayed for too long.

Our ministerial doors are open, so I urge Members to set up a meeting to thrash out some of the issues that we have discussed today. Obviously, no final decisions have been made yet and we are waiting for reviews to be completed, so that all the relevant information is on the table. However, it is terribly important that local politicians feel confidence in the process, which must always be led by clinical needs, and feel that they can bring the public with them.

It is not an easy time in west Cumbria. Change is not easy and we are in a difficult financial climate. However, change requires proper scrutiny and this debate has been an opportunity for some of that scrutiny. As I have said, change also requires public engagement. I hope—indeed, I am sure—that the hon. Member for Copeland and his colleagues in the area will play their part in making change happen and ensuring that there is public engagement with it.

School Crossing Patrols (Dorset)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am very pleased to have secured this debate, because parents across Dorset are deeply concerned about the county council’s proposals. It is true to say that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and I will be speaking today on behalf of thousands of parents.

I understand that 2011-2020 is the United Nations decade of action for road safety, and that in Great Britain pedestrian injury is the leading cause of accidental death among children. Each year, 5,000 children under 16 are seriously injured or die on Britain’s roads. The incident rate for children peaks between 8 am and 9 am, when they are travelling to school, and again at 3 pm when they are on their way home. Incidents on school journeys account for 14.6% of all five and six-year-old casualties, 21% of all eight to 11-year-old casualties and 23.9% of all 12 to 15-year-old casualties. Although the United Kingdom has the second lowest road death rate in the EU, its child pedestrian death rate is worse than in 10 other EU countries, and eight times higher than in Sweden.

Research by Royal Holloway, university of London shows that children are unable to accurately judge the speed of vehicles travelling at more than 20 miles per hour. The study found that children aged six to 11 suffered from speed illusion, which means that they cannot make a reliable guess at a car’s speed if it is going at more than 20 miles per hour, unlike adults, who accurately judge speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Since 2003, death and injury rates have fallen every year, but road safety groups fear that that trend could end if school crossing patrols were axed.

The Minister will be aware that several authorities, including Dorset, propose changes in their provision of school crossing patrols. Dorset county council proposes to cut 65 jobs and save £200,000 by not paying for lollipop patrols, at least eight of which are in my constituency. Other Dorset councils do not propose to make cuts in the service. Bournemouth council says that it has no plans to cut funding to its 46 crossing patrols, and Poole has no current plans to change its service, which employs 26 people, plus five relief staff to help children to cross the road. Incidentally, neither Poole nor Bournemouth proposes to close any libraries, whereas Dorset proposes to close 20 out of 34.

Of the Dorset county council sites, 55 meet the national criteria for the provision of such crossings. The county council’s total budget is about £273 million, and although the council had a better financial settlement than most other councils, it still has to find £31 million of savings this next financial year. However, the benefits of saving £200,000 in this way are minimal compared with the wider costs placed upon communities.

The council insists that its proposal to stop funding the salaries of school crossing patrol guards does not amount to a withdrawal of the service, as it would retain the management, supervision and training responsibility for it. Schools and communities are being given until March 2012 to explore how they can take over the patrols themselves, and it has been suggested that volunteers could come forward to take over the jobs, or that additional funding streams could be tapped.

I do not consider that the service could be run reliably by volunteers, because of what the job entails: getting up early in the morning in all weathers; an absolute commitment to be there on time morning and afternoon; and sometimes being placed in a dangerous environment with cars not stopping when requested. In recent years, we have rightly been honouring paid lollipop men and women for their sterling service. The job is very different from that of volunteering in a library. The county council acknowledges that parents can, on an ad hoc basis, escort groups of children across the road, that its road safety team can provide guidance on the safest way to do that, but that the parents cannot legally order traffic to stop. So that does not sound like a permanent solution.

Should, and can, schools find the money from their budgets to pay the £3,000 salary per year? The county council in its report says that schools cannot use their devolved budgets to pay the salaries. So as to provide full clarification, will the Minister answer the following questions, or obtain clear answers from his colleagues in the Department for Education? Are there rules that prohibit a school using some of its delegated school funding for the salary of school crossing patrol staff? Is there any school funding apart from parent-teacher association funds that could be legally used for such purposes?

Even if funds legally could be used, it seems immoral that children should have less spent on their education just because their school is located on a busy road. One of the school crossing patrols in my constituency is for a very small village school, which has about 65 or 69 pupils and is on a busy road, and it would be untenable for a small school such as that to find money within its budget. At any rate, there would still be a cut in front-line education services, which surely goes against the principle of maintaining such services.

The other suggestion is that money could be raised through the parent-teacher association. That, I suggest, is not possible for a small school and, as some PTAs are in a better position than others to raise money from parents, it could lead to an inequitable situation, with deprived areas losing their crossings while affluent areas were able to maintain theirs.

Another option is for a parish or town council to fund the crossing. In my constituency two crossings are under threat—a £6,000 bill—and the parish council’s total budget is £30,000, so I really do not think that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would be pleased with the size of the precept that would be necessary. Another parish has three crossings, but is fully committed to supporting an important youth project and hence cannot possibly fund the crossings. The county council’s report says:

“If no funds or volunteers are forthcoming from the local community then as long as the site still meets national criteria it would remain ‘dormant’.”

That is totally unacceptable, and is incompatible with other Government policies. The Education Act 1996 places upon local authorities the obligation to promote sustainable travel to school, and to produce a strategy for developing the sustainable travel and transportation infrastructure. To what extent does the Minister believe that the removal of funding for school crossing patrols conflicts with those obligations?

Dorset county council makes much of the fact that it is parents and carers who are responsible for the safety of their children but, given that in many families both parents work, if the safe crossing point were not there, I believe that there would be a greater incentive for parents to take their children to school by car. The county council, however, says that there is no evidence that more children would be driven to school if the crossings were not staffed. What does the Minister think, and how does he believe that the lack of a safe crossing point will enhance walk to school programmes? In addition, the Government are encouraging single parents to return to work while their children are of school age and that, I suggest, is another conflict of policy.

Dorset county council says that there is no evidence that child pedestrian casualties will increase if school crossing patrol sites are not staffed. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments on the evidence, especially in light of the statistics that I quoted at the beginning of the debate. What obligations, statutory and moral, do local authorities have to provide safe crossings for pedestrians, including, but not limited to, children and adults walking to school? Since Dorset county council is proposing a blanket removal of all its school crossing patrols, and says that if a community solution is not found the crossings will be “dormant”, should there not have been a risk assessment of the 55 patrols that meet the national criteria?

The roads through communities in my constituency are heavily trafficked, which, as the Minister will be aware, is due to the nature of Dorset’s road system. For example, one area that has two patrol crossings on the A351 carries 26,000 vehicles per day at peak season. The county council installed a pelican crossing. In January 2009, it decided that the pelican crossing alone was not safe and retained the patrol crossing person at that point. Has it become more safe since then? Quite the contrary, I would argue.

Lytchett Matravers has a road that is incredibly busy and dangerous for parents and children to cross. In Colehill, three crossing patrols serve five schools. Without a crossing, parents cannot get a child to the middle school and one to a first school on time. The county council recently spent £28,000 on a cycleway and pavement to help to support the walk to school programme, but parents and children reach the end of the pavement and find no safe point to cross the road. Corfe Mullen parish council has vehemently opposed the cut, making the point that children’s safety is paramount.

What additional powers would be needed to ensure that local authorities fund school crossings that are shown to meet the agreed national criteria? I am beginning to conclude that the power should not be discretionary, and I point out that if a few authorities cut school crossing patrols this year, it could become widespread across the country, which would be of great concern.

We are discussing vulnerable children who should be walking and cycling to school where practicable. The cut is small in relation to the county council’s budget, achieves nothing and destroys a lot. I hope that the Minister will respond with some facts and figures that will help to persuade the county council that it should find savings elsewhere.

Forgive my voice, Mr Weir. It is a bit croaky, so I will try to speak up. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate. It is an excellent topic that affects Dorset. My constituency is more rural than hers, and its nature, topography and make-up demand that lollipop men and women should stay. Many of my local schools are stuck in remote communities. We do not have motorways—we have one dual carriageway, and we hope to have a new relief road—and many schools are at the end of cul-de-sacs or rutted roads, often in ill repair, particularly in the winter months. Cars come flying down those roads at night when children are going home and in the morning when they are going to school, during the rush periods when people try to get between their rural homes and their places of work.

I suspect and fear that the move by the county council will have unintended consequences. As my hon. Friend said, tough spending cuts have, of necessity, been imposed on our county councils. To ease constraints, the Government have removed ring-fencing from local authority grants so that councils can set their own priorities. However, it was not expected that councils would downgrade the importance of road safety.

Tackling road child casualties is a stated priority for this Government and is the subject of recent new initiatives. As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said in a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph,

“We would expect that road safety would remain a priority for local communities and that local spending would reflect that”,

yet in Dorset, in order to cut £200,000, a tiny portion of the county council’s huge budget, more than 60 lollipop wardens will go, a decision that was reaffirmed at a full council meeting on 17 February.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government suggest that that role should be taken over by schools, charities and parish councils, but I argue, as she did, that it is not a volunteer role. In the past year, one lollipop person in the United Kingdom was killed, two more were seriously injured and several more were hurt.

The School Crossing Patrol Order 1954 introduced the first lollipop warden to our streets, and the benefits were crystal clear. It was never thought necessary to make their employment compulsory. As a result, local authorities have the power to provide lollipop wardens, but no obligation to do so. I argue that any transport grant made to a council should be conditional on its keeping existing school crossing patrols. Indeed, like my hon. Friend, I believe that local authorities should have a statutory duty to provide this excellent service. Naturally, I understand that such legislation would fly in the face of our Government’s move towards localism, but some things are more important than ideology. Our children’s safety is clearly of paramount importance. In recent years, this country has managed to reduce road casualties. It would be nothing less than a tragedy if that reduction were reversed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate on a subject so important to children, families and schools in Dorset and elsewhere. I assure the House that we take the safety of children, and indeed all road users, very seriously indeed. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) correctly quoted my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), on that matter.

I listened with great interest to the points made by both my colleagues, who were eloquent and persuasive in their arguments. I will start by explaining the legislative background to the school crossing patrol service. The service is provided by local authorities. Legislation gives local authorities the power, but not the duty—my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset was quite right—to appoint school crossing patrols to help children cross the road on their way to and from school. A school crossing patrol officer appointed by an appropriate authority, wearing the approved uniform and displaying the familiar sign has the power to require drivers to stop. It is correct that others acting on an informal basis do not have that power. School crossing patrol officers operating outside those conditions have no legal power to stop traffic.

Local authorities have a general duty under section 39 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to promote road safety. The duty requires them to take such measures as appear appropriate to prevent accidents. It is for them to decide whether those measures should include school crossing patrols. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 introduced a duty on local education authorities to promote sustainable travel to school. If a particular road is considered unsafe for children to cross en route to school, the local authority can address the issue in various ways. School crossing patrols are one of the options available to them.

There are no specific requirements in the rules on school crossing patrols about the funding of the service, and there is nothing in those rules to prevent a school from providing such funding. Schools have considerable freedom in how they spend their delegated budget. Regulations prescribe that they can spend it on anything for the “purposes of the school”. That includes expenditure that will benefit pupils at the school and other maintained schools. We therefore believe that it is legitimate for schools to spend their budgets on school crossing patrols as long as governing bodies are satisfied that it is for the purposes of the school. All those matters are the business of the local authority and not something in which my Department can or should intervene.

I understand my hon. Friends’ concerns about a power as opposed to a duty, but I must advise them that we do not intend to introduce new legislation to place obligations on local authorities to provide specific road safety measures, whether they are school crossing patrols or any other measures. We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide the priorities for their local areas and the best way to improve road safety in those areas. Dorset county council, like other county councils, is democratically elected and answerable for its decisions to its local electorate. If it makes wrong decisions or decisions that appear to be or are interpreted as wrong, the electorate can make that known in how they cast their votes at subsequent county council elections.

The Government continue to provide substantial funding for local transport, including for road safety. It is for local authorities and their communities to decide what resources are used to improve road safety, and to determine their own solutions, tailored to the specific needs and priorities of their communities. Dorset county council has decided to seek to continue providing its school crossing patrols by inviting those who value their service to make some contribution. It has advised us that the changes are not due to take effect until September 2012. The word used was “postponed,” but I wonder whether that means that they really have been postponed or whether that is in line with the council arrangements that have been voted on and that were referred to earlier. In any case, that is the intended start date. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and the hon. Member for South Dorset may be interested to know that I am not aware of any other local authority with no crossing patrols at present.

Although we want decisions to be made locally wherever possible, we accept that national Government still have a crucial role in providing leadership on road safety, delivering better driving standards and testing, enforcement, education, and managing the strategic road infrastructure. We also provide information and guidance to support local delivery. We are preparing the strategic framework for road safety and have held workshops to inform its development. We plan to publish it in the near future. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, will lead that process.

The Department for Transport does much to promote the safety of children in many ways. For example, as well as working to protect children by improving driving standards, we issue advice, guidance and teaching materials so that children can be given the skills to become safe road users when they are out and about. In our most recent campaign, we piloted an innovative new partnership between the Think! child road safety campaign and four football clubs located in regions with higher than average casualties of six to 11-year-olds. The football clubs used Think! materials, prepared by the Department for Transport, in their after-school clubs and in activities in schools and on match days to help children learn how to find safe places to cross the road, which evidence shows is a key factor in helping children stay safe on the roads. The materials are on the Department’s website and we hope that other authorities will use them, too.

We have also made available to all schools our comprehensive set of road safety teaching resources, so that they have good-quality materials that they will want to teach. Think! education is aimed at four to 16-year-olds and covers all aspects of road safety, from car seats for young children to pre-driver attitudes for secondary schools. It includes materials for teachers, pupils and parents and can also be used by out-of-school groups, such as the Cubs and Brownies. The suite of teaching resources is currently being independently evaluated. We have also disseminated the Kerbcraft child pedestrian training scheme, whose evaluation has shown that the scheme is highly effective in delivering a lasting improvement in children’s road-crossing skills and understanding.

We strongly advise parents to encourage their children to take cycle training at about the age of 10 onwards. It provides the opportunity to influence their future travel behaviour by enthusing them and equipping them with the necessary skills. I want to make it plain that the Government are fully committed to supporting sustainable travel, including cycling. We are delighted to support Bikeability training—the cycling proficiency for the 21st century— for the remainder of this Parliament. It is designed to give children and adults the skills and confidence to ride their bikes on today’s roads. In 2011-12, £11 million will be available to local authorities and school sport partnerships to enable 275,000 more children to receive training.

I recently launched the new local sustainable transport fund, which was mentioned in the Department for Transport’s White Paper. The fund makes available £560 million to local authorities to encourage local sustainable travel. I hope that Dorset county council and other highway authorities will submit a bid for the fund. The hon. Members present may want to draw the county council’s attention to it to encourage sustainable travel initiatives in Dorset.

I thank the Minister for drawing attention to that large fund and for the emphasis that the Government are placing on sustainable travel to school. Walking is very important. We are talking about patrol crossings that meet national criteria, so should there not be more leadership from the Government, in the form of conversations with councils, if we are faced with the possibility of those crossings disappearing?

We in the Department for Transport have a view of what would be desirable for each individual local authority to adopt as best practice, and, as I have indicated, we try to make available the materials and information to enable them to reach sensible conclusions about their own practices. Members will be aware, however, that, ultimately, we are encouraging democratically elected bodies to be responsible for their own actions. As a consequence of that, county councils, district councils and unitary authorities will take decisions that, in some cases, are not the ones that the Department would have taken had the matter been centrally controlled. In the era of localism, it is for county councils to be free to innovate. That might drive up performance, but on some occasions it might drive down performance. That is a consequence of localism. It will be more of a patchwork arrangement across the country.

What we can do is make it plain from the centre what we believe best practice is—we are beginning to do that through the methods that I have described—but, ultimately, it is up to Dorset and other county councils to decide whether they want to pay attention to that. Obviously, I hope that Dorset and every other county council in the country takes its road safety responsibilities seriously.

I was asked whether there should be a risk assessment before the matter is decided. I am advised that there is no requirement to carry out a risk assessment before stopping the service. As my hon. Friends know, the service is discretionary, so Dorset county council is not duty bound to produce a risk assessment, although it could, of course, have done so had it wished.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the men and women all over the country who work as school crossing patrol officers—our much-loved lollipop men and women. I am very grateful for the invaluable work that they do. They are important members of the community, performing a difficult job in all weathers to ensure that children get to school as safely as possible. They have a crucial role to play in introducing children to road safety and respect for traffic. Everybody should value their contribution. I know that many have served their community over many years. They have seen the children grow up and then bring their own children to school, and they are remembered with affection by those of us young enough to have benefited from their help.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for introducing this debate. The Department, the Government and I consider the issue of child safety to be very important, and I hope that I have demonstrated that this is an area in which we are active. On the specific matter to which my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for South Dorset have referred, they will appreciate that any decisions are to be made, ultimately, by Dorset county council. However, my hon. Friend was absolutely right to introduce the debate and I am grateful that she has received support from her parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for South Dorset. I believe that she has put together a compelling case, and hope that Dorset county council will reflect very carefully indeed on her remarks and those of the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.