House of Commons
Wednesday 27 April 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
On 11 February, the Prime Minister and I announced a package of measures, including launching our Contracts Finder website, eliminating burdensome and unnecessary pre-qualification requirements from the procurement process, and introducing new ways to allow small and medium-sized enterprises to challenge contract procedures when they operate in a way that makes life difficult for them. In addition, from the end of April, all Departments will be required to publish a set of specific, targeted actions to increase their business with SMEs.
My hon. Friend makes the point very well. All the measures that we are taking to enable small and medium-sized businesses to participate more fully in Government contracts will, of course, apply to the voluntary and charitable sector as well. Indeed, it is estimated that 35% to 40% of the value of the contracts recently awarded under the Department for Work and Pensions Work programme will go to organisations from the voluntary and charitable sector. We believe that that will be worth in excess of £100 million a year.
I certainly do not want to shame the ones that are doing well. We have found a number of examples of procurement processes that are not meeting the new requirements. For example, Durham police recently issued an invitation to tender for a £50,000 leadership training contract. The pre-qualification questionnaire alone was 38 pages long and contained a request for 163 separate items of information plus a security vetting form. That is unacceptable, because it causes many smaller businesses to lose the will to live, and they simply do not apply.
I am the former owner of a small business supplying products to the public sector. When applying to be added to a new tender list, I was often frustrated by the amount of red tape required. Will the Minister confirm that in future fewer company policies and statements will need to be provided to participate in the tendering process?
We want to strip away all that nonsense. Under the last Government, there were 6,000 pages of guidance for some kinds of procurements. It is not surprising that smaller businesses just did not bother to apply; they knew that they were going to be excluded. There were turnover requirements and requirements for a track record of doing exactly that kind of work. The truth is that that is very bad for small businesses and we want to make things much better.
During a recent meeting, small and medium-sized enterprises in Hastings raised with me the difficulties not just of the paperwork, but of getting the capital requirements in this climate for procurement contracts with the Government. Will the Minister reassure us that that aspect will also be considered, as we try to make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to engage with the Government?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are concerned that the working capital requirements should be proportionate and sensible and that the turnover requirements should be proportionate to the needs of the contract. All ridiculous requirements such as those that existed under the old regime—for example, always requiring three years of audited accounts, which automatically excluded huge numbers of new and innovative businesses—will be swept away.
Does the Minister accept the macro-problem? In south Yorkshire, a large number of private sector enterprises depend in whole or in part on public sector contracts. So much demand is being taken out of the economy, because of the deficit reduction plans, that such businesses face serious challenges. Does he accept that small enterprises face a real problem because of his Government’s macro-economic policy?
I acknowledge that there is a problem—and it is one caused by the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member and supported. They left Britain with the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. I am waiting for the right hon. Gentleman to apologise for that; that would be timely.
In looking at an increased role for small and medium-sized businesses, will the Minister let the House know when his Department will publish the public services reform White Paper? It was commissioned last October to be published early in the new year. January became February, and the Prime Minister said that it was only two weeks away. Two weeks have become more than two months and there is still no sign of the White Paper. Is that the Government’s biggest pause, or have they just given up on public services?
I am thrilled that the right hon. Lady is waiting for the document with such obvious excitement, and I can assure her that it will be well worth waiting for. This Government are committed to breaking up the old public sector monopolies and providing diversity, particularly with the growth of public service mutuals. The document will be published later this summer, and I can promise her that she will be delighted with it.
Big Society Bank
The big society bank will provide finance for the voluntary and community sector through funds to social lenders and investors. It will provide funds only to bodies that are onward lending or investing in the voluntary and community sector, charities and community groups.
I thank the Minister for his response. In the light of that, can he please indicate how the bank will define social enterprise, as currently there is not a legal definition? How will he ensure that all social enterprises have access to funding but that no organisation that exists for private profit has such access?
Social enterprises can take a wide range of different forms, but the common feature is that they do not seek to make a profit for shareholders. I think there is a widely understood definition of voluntary and community sector groups, and the big society bank will be organised in such a way that it can identify those and make sure that the funds that it is providing to social investors and social lenders go only to those groups.
May I commend the intellectual ideas behind the whole concept of the big society? May I also commend to my right hon. Friend an article by Tim Montgomerie that appeared on ConservativeHome earlier this week entitled, “Conservatives can win the poverty debate but not if the Big Society is our message”? Is the big society more accurately described as a label for a collection of policies rather than a policy itself?
I am grateful for that guidance, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the big society is an idea with a very wide application. The big society bank is a fund that will have a very wide application, because we believe it is extremely important that it should be able to foster all sorts of voluntary and community enterprise which, in one way or another, enormously support the alleviation of poverty—the subject of the article to which he refers.
The idea of such a bank to help to develop the centre of civil society is a good one, but effective government requires a mix of big ideas and getting the details right. In this connection, has the Minister seen today’s report by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, which suggests that if the big society bank lends purely on commercial terms, it will be
“failing to support those that it is set up to support”?
What can he say to ensure that the lofty rhetoric of the big society bank does not founder on the rock of inadequate administrative detail?
The hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that the big society bank could not operate as it is intended to operate if it were lending, or investing, on purely commercial terms. It will have what is often described as a double bottom line: it will seek to achieve the highest possible social returns alongside reasonable financial returns. Indeed, part of the point of the big society bank is to show that there is no conflict between achieving high social returns and achieving modest but reasonable financial returns.
I am delighted to assure the hon. Lady that the Cabinet Office receives many representations on the big society from a wide range of individuals and organisations, not least many colleagues on both sides of the House who have accepted our invitation to bring in representatives from their local voluntary and community organisations.
I do not know whether the Minister ever gets representations from voluntary sector organisations that fold. The organisation that I used to work for folded a few weeks ago. Will he admit that that is because the cuts are too deep and too fast, and the transitional fund is too little and too late?
I am obviously sorry to hear about the fate of the organisation that the hon. Lady used to work for. She will know that in reality the sector cannot be immune from the necessary cuts in public expenditure, and I do not think it would have been immune under a Labour Government. The Government have tried to give the sector maximum support through this difficult period. The transition fund—£100 million of taxpayers’ money; serious money in this context—is there to help organisations that are in a hole.
Yesterday, Ed Cox, the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research North, said:
“Our research shows that the Big Society will not be fair to the North without changes to government support for philanthropy and charitable giving. Good will is beginning to wear thin as people in the voluntary and community sector try to deal with budget cuts, and organisations in the North cannot turn to big corporate or high value donors to make up the gap”.
What is the Minister doing to ensure that the big society does not usher in further unfairness and exacerbate the north-south divide?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I refer her to the geographical spread of successful applications to the transition fund, with which we are pleased. She mentioned the need for further incentives for giving in this country. I refer her to what was an extremely helpful Budget in that context, which had a major initiative to encourage giving through inheritance tax and a substantial reform of gift aid to make it easier for smaller charities to receive it on smaller donations. The Government are working extremely hard to make this difficult period of transition as easy as possible for charities.
Public Expenditure Reductions
Unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune from cuts, for reasons that have been explained. That would have been exactly the same under a Labour Government. We are trying to help the sector to manage a difficult transition, while shaping what we believe are significant opportunities for the sector, not least in terms of more public service delivery.
Since the late 1980s, Wallsend people’s centre has helped hundreds of unemployed and disadvantaged people in North Tyneside to gain the necessary skills to get to work. In the past year, it has lost more than £450,000 through cuts to Government grants. Four experienced support workers will now lose their jobs. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the communication he has received from the people’s centre about its plight, to which he has not yet replied?
Again, I am sorry to hear that that organisation is in difficulty. I am more than happy to meet representatives from the community to discuss it. The transition fund has been made available to help organisations in difficulty. I point out to the hon. Lady that many of the funding decisions and cuts are local decisions, and that many councils across the country are taking a positive approach by maintaining or even increasing spending on the local voluntary and community sector.
Cutting charities reduces our ability to help one another and undermines the structures of neighbourliness that form our big society. That is the opinion of the chair of the Charity Commission, who knows about these things. Is not the Government’s big society a big confidence trick?
Absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman has been around enough to know that the size of the deficit means that the sector, which receives almost £13 billion a year of taxpayers’ money, cannot be immune from the reduction in public spending, and that it would not have been immune, as the Opposition have admitted, under the ghastly scenario of a Labour Government. We have to be realistic about that. We are trying to minimise the short-term damage through initiatives such as the transition fund, and to create the building blocks for a better future for the sector, not least through more incentives for giving and more opportunities for it to deliver public services.
Big Society Bank
The first payments will be made in the next few months. The exact timing and amounts will be decided by the Reclaim Fund once it has assessed the amounts that it has received from the banks and the amounts that are likely to be reclaimed from depositors.
We hear constantly from businesses and social enterprises that high street banks are unwilling to back innovative or new ventures. How will the Government ensure that the big society bank is different and that it assesses applications in such a way that it does not exclude start-ups and innovative organisations in favour of only the established players in the social enterprise and charities sector?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that issue. The whole point about the big society bank, as I tried to indicate to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) a moment or two ago, is that it will be entirely different from a commercial bank. It will be set up precisely to achieve social return as much as commercial return. The other vital point is that it will operate through social lenders and investors already in the marketplace, so it should be able to reach out to the smallest community and voluntary groups and not just be restricted to the large groups that also play an important role.
Yes, the estimated amount to be raised from dormant accounts remains at £400 million. The Reclaim Fund will now assess the exact amount that it can release in the first year, and the current estimate is somewhere between £60 million and £100 million. Then there are, of course, the negotiations that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is having with the four main lending banks that were party to the Merlin agreement about another £200 million of funding. Altogether, there should be a considerable amount of funding coming through this year and in following years.
The NESTA report referred to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) stated that the big society bank
“should not expect to achieve commercial returns on all its investments”.
By far the majority of demand for capital is for soft capital and patient capital. Why, after two months of intense talks between the banks and the Treasury, do we still not have an agreement? The banks are saying that they want commercial returns. Will the Minister confirm today that the big society bank will not be about commercial returns for the banks but about genuine support for social and community enterprises?
The right hon. Lady is confusing two levels of lending and investment. There is the question of what the big society bank demands of the investments that it makes, and as I have said, that will be both a social return and a modest financial return, but not the type of commercial return that one might make with a hedge fund or in another such way. Then there is the relationship between the big society bank and the main commercial banks that are party to the Merlin agreement. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General is currently discussing the exact terms on which that investment will be made. It will have to be compatible with social objectives and the social returns that the big society bank is intended to make.
Public Sector Mutuals
In August last year, we launched a pathfinder programme of 21 groups of public sector workers setting up mutuals with the help of mentors. In addition, millions of public sector employees will be given rights to provide public services as mutuals, such as those recently announced in the national health service. That will free up public sector workers to innovate and provide better and more efficient services. We have committed to funding a £10 million support programme to help such new organisations get off the ground. [Interruption.]
Anyone who visits the pathfinder mutuals, talks to the staff—now co-owners—of those organisations and sees the excitement with which they are pursuing their new vocation will give up on the scaremongering. This is a profoundly important movement that should command support from throughout the House.
I have overall responsibility for the work of the Cabinet Office, while the Deputy Prime Minister has specific responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
Last week on the doorstep in Wellingborough, the hot issue was the responsibility of the Cabinet Office for implementing constitutional reform. Why is it that, under the alternative vote, British National party votes and Socialist Workers party votes in my constituency would be counted twice, but Tory votes would be counted only once?
T3. Staff at My Civil Service Pension are concerned that plans to turn the organisation into a mutual are a step towards privatisation. The Minister said in a meeting with union representatives in March that he would not act without the broad consent of the work force. Will he tell us how he has consulted those staff and whether he yet has that consent? (52600)
We are moving down the path of freeing up My Civil Service Pension so that it can administer in the most efficient way civil service pensions to the 1.5 million members who are dependent on them. We are exploring different ways in which that might be configured, but crucially, employees will have a meaningful stake in that entity going forward.
T2. Fifty business leaders have got together to offer free mentoring advice to small and new business start-ups in my constituency. Will the big society Minister meet me to see how we can roll out that initiative beyond north Yorkshire? (52599)
The short answer is yes. More than ever, the country needs to get behind its entrepreneurs. My hon. Friend’s local initiative sounds like an excellent one, and I would be delighted to meet him—[Interruption.]
The Public Bodies Bill is obviously very important—it is an opportunity to improve radically the accountability of decisions and to make significant savings from the vast number of quangos that proliferated under the previous Administration. My hon. Friend will know that the Bill is passing through the Lords, with Third Reading expected on 9 May. Obviously, it is for the House authorities to determine the programming for debate in the House, but we expect the Bill to enter Committee after the Whitsun recess.
T7. A recent survey of charity leaders by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations suggested that charities are not happy, because they feel that the rhetoric that was sold to them before and after the election bears no resemblance to the money that they need to ensure that they deliver the services that are required. Forget about all the waffle, will the Minister tell us exactly how he will fund those charities and how he will ensure that they do things for people? (52604)
There is obviously understandable concern in the sector about the impact of reductions in public expenditure, but in my experience, charities are increasingly alive to the opportunity to deliver more public services—they are delighted by the announcements in the Budget to increase giving and by the progress that the Government have made in setting up the big society bank.
T6. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please update the House on the progress of the national citizen service? Will he join me in congratulating the Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership, which I have met on a number of occasions, on the invaluable work that it is carrying out to pilot and promote the national citizen service? (52603)
The national citizen service provides a fantastic opportunity for young people from different backgrounds to work together to make a positive difference to their communities. I am delighted that we are offering 11,000 places this summer in many locations throughout the country. I am also delighted that that scheme is coming to Lincoln, and that my hon. Friend is taking such an active interest in such positive opportunities for young people in his constituency.
VAT issues are obviously a matter for the Treasury, and I would refer that question to Treasury Ministers. As the hon. Gentleman knows—he is a former Minister—that is a long-standing issue for the sector. He will also be aware of a number of initiatives to look at how we can make the VAT regime more helpful.
My hon. Friend will know that this Government are totally committed to helping to develop the social investment market, so making it easier for social entrepreneurs to access capital. The big society bank is our major player in that area, but we are looking at a range of ideas. He will also be aware that the Charity Commission is reviewing its guidance to foundations, which have a critical role to play in that context.
We will announce details in due course. It would have been easy to go ahead and just flash money around, but there is not much money thanks to the legacy of the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. We need to ensure that the money is husbanded and spent wisely, for example by providing advice for groups of public sector workers, of whom there are very many who want to form mutuals, and by ensuring that the advice is made available to as many as possible.
In his discussions about public sector contracts for small business, will my right hon. Friend talk to the Ministry of Defence about its habit of bundling together contracts for multiple services, which means that an expert calibration firm in my constituency cannot offer the specialised service unless it also offers paperclips and toilet rolls?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and I will take it up. It is exactly how contracts are bundled up and procurements are undertaken that has squeezed out so many really effective small businesses from the Government market. That is exactly what we now want to change.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron from 1st Battalion Scots Guards, who died on Thursday 31 March as a result of injuries he suffered while serving in Afghanistan last April, and Captain Lisa Head from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, who died on Tuesday 19 April. Colour Sergeant Cameron was an inspirational figure to his regiment, providing support to injured colleagues and their families even while he was being treated in hospital for his own injuries. Captain Head demonstrated great bravery in her work making safe improvised explosive devices to protect both her colleagues and the local population. They will not be forgotten, and our wishes and best condolences should be with their families and friends.
I am sure that the whole House will also want to join me in sending our condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of Police Constable Ronan Kerr. Those who murdered him must not be allowed to deter the wishes of the overwhelming majority of people who want a peaceful and shared future for Northern Ireland.
On a happier note, people across the country—and, indeed, the world—are getting excited about the events on Friday, and I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in sending our best wishes to Prince William and Catherine Middleton ahead of their wedding this Friday, and to wish them a long and happy life together.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall hold further such meetings today.
I would like to associate myself with the Prime Minister’s comments and condolences to those people who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I also welcome the Irish Rangers and the Irish Guards back home after their tour of duty in Afghanistan.
On Easter Monday, dissident republicans held a commemorative parade in Londonderry and threw down the gauntlet to all the law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland. The murderous thugs that are dissident republicans threatened to kill Police Service of Northern Ireland officers, both Roman Catholic and Protestant; they threatened the churches, both Protestant and Roman Catholic; they threatened politicians, both Unionists and nationalist; and they threatened Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and MPs in this House. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that this attack on the democratic process will be met forcefully, and that those republican terrorists must be brought to justice?
I can give that assurance. I am sure that everyone in the House and the country would agree that scenes of people dressed in balaclavas in Londonderry are completely unacceptable. We have funded the PSNI appropriately. It is now properly devolved and working well, and I urge it to do everything it can to hunt down these people. Above all, the words that should ring in our ears are those of the mother of PC Ronan Kerr, who said she hoped that this would not prevent more Roman Catholics from joining the PSNI and doing a great job policing Northern Ireland.
Does the Prime Minister recognise that lending to business by banks was down £3.4 billion last month in March, and that the construction industry was down in productive terms by 4.7%? Does he see a connection, and if so, what will he do about it?
My hon. Friend is right about the figures today and that what is happening in the construction industry is disappointing. We need to get Britain building again, which is why we are introducing the new homes bonus. However, what is encouraging in the figures is that the British economy is growing once again, manufacturing is up, exports are up, and we are seeing a rebalancing of the economy so that we are not over-reliant on private consumption. That is good news. We also have an agreement with the banks that they must increase their lending to businesses large and small. That needs to happen.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron and Captain Lisa Head. Both demonstrated enormous courage and bravery, and our thoughts are with their families and friends. I also pay tribute to Police Constable Ronan Kerr, who was senselessly murdered simply for doing his job. We should all be encouraged by the expressions of outrage that we have seen across all communities in Northern Ireland in response to this act.
I also join the Prime Minister in sending best wishes to Prince William and Catherine Middleton on their happy day on Friday. I am sure that I speak for the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and myself when I say that we will all do our best to be suitably attired for the occasion.
On the economy, does the Prime Minister think that it is a mark of success or failure that the economy has flatlined over the last six months?
It is clearly a success that the economy is growing. The figures out this morning show the economy growing in the first quarter of the year. They show manufacturing and exports up, and we have 400,000 more people in work in the private sector than we had a year ago. However, the right hon. Gentleman predicted a double dip. He said that we were going to get two quarters of negative growth, so when he gets to his feet, perhaps it is time to apologise for talking the economy down.
What world is the right hon. Gentleman living in? What extraordinary complacency. His hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) asked what was happening to small business lending. What terrible complacency from this Prime Minister. Six months ago, what did he tell us? He told us that we were out of the danger zone. Since then there has been no growth at all in the British economy. Yesterday the Chancellor was reported to have told the Cabinet that the economy was on track, but it is not even forecast to meet the Office for Budget Responsibility’s figures published last month by the Chancellor. Is it not the case that it is his cuts that are too far and too fast, and that are squeezing living standards, undermining consumer confidence and holding back growth in our economy?
The right hon. Gentleman was desperate for the economy to shrink today. He had written his questions and come to the House; the only problem was that the economy was growing, not shrinking. He and the shadow Chancellor said that there would be a double-dip recession. They had talked the economy down. Now that the economy is growing, why can they not find it in themselves to welcome the growth in the economy? We should be talking up the fact that manufacturing is increasing and we are exporting more, with 390,000 more people in private sector jobs than a year ago. These are welcome developments.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the danger zone. I will tell him what the danger zone is: it is countries such as Portugal, Greece and Ireland, which did not deal with their debts, and as a result have interest rates rocketing and real problems. We have debts, tragically, because of what we inherited and a deficit the same size as Greece’s, but we have interest rates like Germany’s. It is time for the right hon. Gentleman to admit that he was wrong about the deficit and wrong about the economy.
It is not me who is talking down the economy; it is the Prime Minister’s austerity rhetoric that has led to the lowest levels of consumer confidence in history in this country. He has been Prime Minister for a year. He cannot blame the Greeks, he cannot blame the Bank of England, he cannot blame the last Government—he cannot even blame the snow. Why does he not admit that we have had six months of no growth because of his decisions, his Chancellor’s decisions and his Government’s decisions?
The economy has grown by 1.8% over the last year, but let me tell the right hon. Gentleman this. I did a little research, and all the time that he was in the Cabinet, there was not a single quarter when the economy grew more than 0.5%—not one. That is his great record. Let me tell him something about the need to make public spending cuts. We are now in a new financial year—the year in which the Darling plan was going to start the process of cutting the deficit by half. For every £8 that we are proposing to cut this year, Labour would be cutting £7. Have we heard a single sensible proposal for making any cuts, or have we just heard blatant opportunism and talking the economy down? I think we know.
Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the appalling, disgraceful, untruthful and misleading leaflet that is being distributed by the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, which is being chaired by the Electoral Reform Society? The leaflet seeks to diminish Parliament and therefore damage democracy, which, given the content of the leaflet, can be the only objective of the Electoral Reform Society.
What matters, in the week that we have left before we vote in this vital referendum, is that we get back to the real arguments about competing electoral systems. I am very clear that first past the post is simple, fair and effective and that it has worked for our country. I have to say that it is not often that I like to look out on a sea of red badges, but today it looks quite good.
Let me draw a little contrast between what the Health Secretary is delivering here—real-terms increases in health spending—and what is happening in Wales. The Labour-led Administration in Wales are cutting the NHS in real terms. Everyone in Wales needs to know that if they get another Labour-dominated Assembly, they will get cuts in the NHS, whereas in England we will see increases in the NHS because of the magnificent work of my right hon. Friend.
Q3. People have been shocked at the scale and extent of the phone hacking allegations against some of our most popular newspapers. In order to uncover the truth, will the Prime Minister instigate a full judicial inquiry and, in particular, look at the relationship between the Metropolitan police and News International? (52610)
What is absolutely clear is that phone hacking is not only unacceptable but against the law. It is illegal; it is a criminal offence, and I would urge the police and the prosecuting authorities to follow the evidence wherever it leads. That must happen first, and we must not let anything get in the way of criminal investigations.
Will the Prime Minister explain why, if there is a genuine pause in the enactment of the Health and Social Care Bill, the inception of cluster primary care trusts that are preceding the GP consortia, including the Greater Manchester cluster PCT, has been brought forward from 1 June to 3 May? Is not this pause nothing more than window dressing? It is political manoeuvring before next week’s elections.
No, I think the hon. Lady is wrong. This is a genuine exercise in trying to ensure that we get the very best out of these reforms. We are looking specifically at areas such as public accountability, choice and competition, education and training, and the patient involvement aspects of the reforms. Of course we have to go ahead with driving out the bureaucracy and additional costs from the NHS. We inherited from Labour, I think rightly, a £20 billion efficiency programme, and we have got to take that through, but there is a genuine opportunity to make these reforms better still.
Q4. Suffolk is among the worst-served areas of the country for broadband, and the commonly cited final third of premises beyond the reach of commercial broadband deployment is more like a final two thirds in that area. Given that nearly one fifth of all Suffolk premises receive a speed of less than 2 megabytes per second, does the Prime Minister agree that investment in broadband in Suffolk is essential to boost our economic recovery? (52611)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must put this investment in. We are spending, I think, £530 million investing in broadband. Particularly in rural areas, broadband is going to be absolutely vital in driving the creation of the small businesses and growing businesses that will be so important to keep the growth of employment in our country.
Inevitably, when you make changes in public services, it is a challenge taking people with you. But that is the whole point of pausing the reforms and then trying to get them going again with greater support from doctors and nurses. What we are finding is that 90% of the country is covered by GP fundholding practices that want to see these reforms succeed. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that if he wants to make some constructive suggestions, why not have a try?
Dearie me, that wasn’t a very good answer, was it? I asked the Prime Minister why 98.7% of nurses have no confidence in his policy. It is because it is a bad policy, a policy nobody voted for. It is a policy that was not in the Prime Minister’s manifesto, it was not in the Deputy Prime Minister’s manifesto either at the general election, and it was not even in the coalition agreement. Perhaps one of the reasons why nurses have no confidence in his policy is that two years ago, he went to the Royal College of Nursing and said there would be no more pointless, top-down reorganisations.
Next question: why is it that hospital waiting times fell year on year under the last Labour Government, but have risen month on month under this Government?
That is simply not the case. If we look at out-patient waiting times, we find that they fell in the last month, so the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about that, as he usually is. I have had the opportunity to study his representations about the reforms, and I have had a good look at them. He says that we are introducing EU competition policy for the first time; we are not. He says we are allowing GPs to charge; we are not. He says that patients will be left without services; they will not. Why does he not realise that instead of frightening people, he ought to make a constructive contribution.
Another totally hopeless answer! I asked about waiting times. The Department of Health figures are these: waiting times are 20% up for those waiting more than 18 weeks, and A and E waits are at a record level compared to six years ago. One of the reasons why waiting times have gone up is that the right hon. Gentleman is diverting billions of pounds from patient care into this costly reorganisation. Let me make this suggestion: just for once, why does he not listen to the doctors, the patients and the nurses and scrap his reorganisation?
The right hon. Gentleman asks me to listen to doctors, so here is one doctor I am definitely going to listen to. I hope Opposition Members will remember Howard Stoate, who was the Member of Parliament for Dartford. He is no longer an MP because he lost the election—because of the Conservative candidate, I am afraid. He is now a GP—[Interruption.] Calm down, dear. Listen to the doctor. Howard Stoate, GP, says:
“My… discussions with fellow GPs… reveal overwhelming enthusiasm for the”—
[Interruption.] I said calm down. Calm down, dear—and I will say it to the shadow Chancellor, if he likes. [Interruption.]
This is a very brief quote from a Labour MP who is now a GP. He said:
“My… discussions with fellow GPs… reveal overwhelming enthusiasm for the chance to help shape services for the patients they see daily”.
That is what Labour MPs, now acting as GPs, think of the reforms. That is what is happening.
During the recess, a number of European issues have arisen: the Portuguese bail-out, the increase in the European budget and proposals for corporation tax at the European level. Will the Prime Minister re-coin a phrase and simply say to all those matters, “No, no, no”?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the European budget. The idea of a 5% increase at a time when member states are having to make reductions in difficult public spending programmes at home is completely unacceptable, and we will make sure it does not happen.
Q5. On the proposal to build the largest wind farm in England in my constituency with 45 wind turbines 100 metres or more high, just less than a mile away from two big conurbations and on beautiful landscape in the area, can the Prime Minister tell us what influence my constituents will have under the Localism Bill on the planning decision concerning this massive intrusion on the landscape? Will he ask the relevant planning Minister to meet me and a delegation of constituents to discuss it further? (52612)
I am happy to arrange that meeting. I think it important for local people to have a greater say in planning decisions, and that is what we are enabling them to do. However, I also believe that when wind farms go ahead, local people should see a greater benefit in terms of the finance that goes into the area, and our plans will achieve that as well.
In 2007, the Labour Government implemented the Medical Training Application Service, or MTAS. Junior doctors will remember what a disaster it was. That large-scale, disruptive and untested system had disastrous consequences for junior doctors in training. Is the Prime Minister aware that there are concerns that the current proposals to reorganise medical training and work force planning could have similar unforeseen consequences?
I must say to my hon. Friend that she is a lot better at getting them to shut up than I am. I think that she is a future Speaker in the making.
I can absolutely guarantee to my hon. Friend that we will not make the mistake that the last Government made in respect of medical training. They created an utter shambles.
Q6. Eddie Kay from Maghull received excellent treatment when he was in hospital recently, and I am glad to say that he is recovering well. However, while he was in hospital his operation was cancelled four times, and he was also told of bed closures and nursing redundancies on his ward. Does not Mr Kay’s experience show that the Prime Minister was wrong to claim that he would not cut the NHS? (52613)
Of course things go wrong in our national health service, which is one of the reasons why I think that we need to reform and modernise it. The fact is, however, that at the last election only one party said that it would increase the NHS in real terms, and that is exactly what we are doing. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about NHS cuts, he should have words with his colleagues in Wales who are proposing to cut the national health service—not in cash terms, but in real terms—and he should help us to put a stop to that.
Q14. Across the country, 2 million families are on waiting lists for social housing. Nearly 1 million homes lie empty, and the average age of a first-time buyer is 37. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that there is a housing crisis in Britain, and will the Government publish a strategy to tackle it? (52621)
We do acknowledge the very difficult situation that we inherited. House building was at a 60 or 70-year low. We need to introduce ways of ensuring that local communities see more houses built. The old top-down system did not work, but I believe that the new homes bonus and the incentives that we are giving local authorities will mean that extra housing goes ahead.
The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about waiting times. I quoted the figures. Waiting times have been broadly stable over the last couple of years—that is a fact.
The key point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman, who is meant to be a moderniser, is that if he wants to see waiting times come down and stay down, the best answer is a system that involves greater choice, and enables patients to choose where they are treated and establish how quickly they can be treated. The hon. Gentleman used to be a moderniser; there is still time to get on board.
Q15. I am engaged in a consultation with my constituents in east Cheshire on an issue that is of great concern to them: the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. As a parent, does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituents that action needs to be taken to find real solutions to this challenging issue, and to give every child the childhood that it deserves? (52622)
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. As a parent of three little ones, I know that it is incredibly worrying to see what is becoming available in some shops and other places. We are, effectively, asking our children to grow up too early. I think that there is a lot more that we can do, which is why we have asked the chief executive of the Mothers’ Union to conduct an independent review of this vital area. We are looking at a range of specific issues including television, video and other pressures that are put on people, and we expect the report to be published in a few weeks’ time.
Q8. The Prime Minister has described hospices as one of the great successes of the big society, so why, as a result of his Government’s increases in VAT and cuts in gift aid, is Nightingale House hospice in my constituency paying an extra £20,000 to his friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer this year? Will he give it the money back? (52615)
The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that the hospice movement is a fantastic example of the big society and we should see it expand, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has increased gift aid so that more people can give more money more effectively. As the hon. Gentleman is another Welsh Member of Parliament, let me put this point to him: why is he supporting an NHS cut in Wales that will hit not just hospices but hospitals, GPs and community services? That is what is coming out of this Question Time. Labour is cutting the NHS; you cannot trust Labour with our national health service.
Q9. The whole House will be aware that younger women drivers face a massive hike in their insurance premiums next year as a direct result of a European Court judgment. In that context, does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that this judgment has been warmly welcomed by London’s Labour MEP Mary Honeyball, who has indicated that she considers it to be admirable and the price of equality? (52616)
Well, I have to say to my hon. Friend that that shows that some of the loony left is still alive and well in our country. [Interruption.] I think you’ll find it’s over there. Frankly, insurance premiums ought to reflect risk, and my hon. Friend is, as ever, displaying common sense, whereas the European Court did not.
Q10. It is now almost 12 months since the Prime Minister visited the West Cumberland hospital in my constituency in the wake of the shooting atrocities that took place there. It is, I believe, a matter of profound regret to Members on both sides of the House that the Government have chosen to do nothing on gun laws in the intervening period, but while the Prime Minister was at the hospital he also visited the accident and emergency clinicians and other clinical service providers, who are now facing the prospect of their services being removed as a result of GP commissioning. Will he do them and my constituents a favour by removing GP commissioning from the Health and Social Care Bill? (52617)
First, I well remember visiting the hospital in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is a fantastic hospital and it did brilliant work during those incredibly tragic times about which he spoke. I can absolutely reassure him that he does not need to worry about the future of the West Cumberland hospital. I understand that he has met the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), to discuss the concerns, and they are in agreement that issues need to be resolved swiftly. The Department of Health is working closely with the local NHS to produce proposals to redevelop the hospital. That is what is going to happen: investment will be going into the NHS because of the commitments we have made, whereas, sadly, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s party—[Interruption.] Luckily, he is not in Wales, where Labour is cutting the NHS, but I suspect it would do the same in England as well.
Q11. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware that this country lost 1.7 million manufacturing jobs under the last Labour Government. Will he explain what plans the Government have to make sure this decline is reversed? (52618)
We have already seen over the last year an increase in manufacturing output and in manufacturing exports. I was up in Bedford last week at the GM plant, which is massively expanding. It is creating more jobs and bringing £150 million of offshore contracts back into the UK. We are backing that with low tax rates, deregulation and more apprenticeships. This is a Government who are pro-enterprise, pro-jobs and pro-manufacturing and who are going to dig us out of the mess the last lot left.
Q12. Does not the nightmare of Fukushima mean that the planned renaissance of nuclear power will be stillborn? Should not the Prime Minister be planning for a future that will be free of the cost, fear and anxiety of nuclear power, and rich in renewables that are British, that are green, and that are inexhaustible and safe? (52619)
Of course we have to learn the lessons from Fukushima but, as I have said before, that is a different reactor design in a different part of the world with different pressures. The British nuclear industry has a good safety record, but, clearly, it has to go on proving that, and doing so in the light of the new evidence, such as it is, that comes out of Japan. That is what must happen, and the head of the nuclear inspectorate will do exactly that.
The Prime Minister is a vociferous opponent of the alternative vote system and reserves special disdain for the idea that someone might win after coming second in an early round. Will he therefore stand aside in favour of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who beat him to the post in 2005?
Q13. Given that our recovery has, in effect, stalled since he became Prime Minister, does the right hon. Gentleman stand by what he said to this House after his first Budget last June, which was that unemployment will fall “every year” in this Parliament? (52620)
I was quoting the Office for Budget Responsibility, but the fact is that 390,000 more people are in private sector jobs than there were a year ago. I would have thought with the economy growing, with exports up, with manufacturing up and with more people in work, the right hon. Gentleman should be welcoming that, instead of joining the doom-mongers on his Front Bench, who can only talk the economy down.
The service of our armed forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere deserves to be recognised at the highest level and all the time, as the Prime Minister has often said. Why on earth, therefore, have the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards been denied a homecoming parade in Belfast? Will the Prime Minister intervene and talk to colleagues to ensure that this process of recognition for our troops and appreciation by the citizens of Northern Ireland can rightly take place as soon as possible?
First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, because the bravery of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards in Afghanistan has been outstanding and, sadly, both regiments have suffered loss of life during their recent deployments. As I understand it, a number of homecoming events will be taking place across Northern Ireland. We are discussing with Belfast city council and others how we can give recognition to their tremendous bravery. No decision has yet been made and I will make sure he is fully involved in those discussions. It is also worth noting that because they are actually stationed in north Shropshire, they have already had a very successful homecoming parade in Market Drayton, and I am sure that they will have many others besides.
Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Crawley borough council on freezing its council tax this year? Can he say how many other local authorities across the country have frozen their council tax, against the advice of the Labour party, which described that policy as a “gimmick”?
I am pleased to announce that in spite of the fact that Labour dismissed it as a “gimmick” and that the leader of the Labour party said that councils ought to be able to charge more, every single council in the country has given their hard-pressed council tax payers a council tax freeze. We all remember what happened over the last 10 years when council tax doubled. It was the tax of choice of the Labour party, taking money out of people’s pockets. We are freezing that council tax to give people a break, and they deserve it.
Order. We must now move on and we come to the ten-minute rule motion. I ask right hon. and hon. Members leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, extending the same courtesy to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) as they would wish to be extended to them in such circumstances.
Export Credits Guarantee Department (Regulation and Reporting)
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to impose certain requirements on the Export Credits Guarantee Department, including the publication of an audit of all sums owed to the Department, an annual impact assessment and a real-time disclosure policy on all supported projects; to prohibit the support of certain activities by the Department; to provide that debt cancellation by the Department cannot be defined as official development assistance; to prohibit companies from receiving support from the Department for a period of at least five years following a relevant conviction of corruption; to introduce a duty of care provision which must be followed in the Department’s operations to provide access to justice for those affected by supported projects; and for connected purposes.
We are in the midst of an economic crisis caused in part by a lack of transparency and regulation in a system that thrived on excessive risk-taking for short-term profit without regard for the wider implications or the impact on people’s lives. It is now, I hope, widely acknowledged that private enterprise is bound by the same moral codes that bind us all and that activity in all areas of the economy should be both sustainable and accountable. We have obligations to one another and that is true for business as much as it is true for individuals. That is why I seek to introduce this Bill today: to shine a spotlight on a Government Department that uses taxpayers’ money to fund business activities overseas some of which are neither sustainable nor accountable and that have, in the past, caused significant damage to people and the environment.
The Export Credits Guarantee Department falls under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and acts as the UK’s export credits agency. It uses Government money to support private exporters in winning contracts overseas in countries where alternative support is not readily available to those businesses. It spends a huge amount of taxpayers’ money—in 2009-10, it issued guarantees of more than £2 billion—yet it operates entirely in a moral vacuum. Campaigners have unearthed countless astonishing examples of projects that cause significant damage to people and the environment, such as the sale of weapons to General Suharto in Indonesia that were then used to suppress his own people; a power station in India, which was significantly overpriced and now lies dormant because the electricity that it generated was too expensive for the Government to buy; and a hydroelectric dam in Lesotho that was overseen by a chief executive who was later jailed for 18 years for taking £3 million-worth of bribes.
It is worth dwelling on one more example: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in the Caucasus. From the very beginning, non-governmental organisations voiced significant concerns about the project. Its design, they said, violated World Bank and European safeguards on human rights and the environment on more than 170 occasions, yet the ECGD went on to ensure the construction of the pipeline by the BP-led BTC consortium, providing credit totalling £150 million. Part of the deal was a series of “host Government agreements” with the countries involved. Those agreements take precedence over all national laws, except the constitution, and prohibit improvements to human rights or environmental regulation through new laws if they might affect profits. In effect, the deal puts profits above people, sometimes with the most appalling consequences.
As Amnesty International has pointed out, the deal created a “rights-free corridor” and during its construction much of the route was militarised. In all three countries, local people and international investigators were harassed, detained and arrested and there were allegations of torture. The UK Government have since conceded that the consortium broke international rules governing human rights, but it surely cannot be right that we are facilitating such activities not only without ensuring that human rights can be upheld but while human rights are actively being prevented from being upheld.
Those actions potentially put the UK in breach of international law and are certainly at odds with our human rights obligations, but for recipient countries the implications are much worse. If the deal falls through the exporter is paid anyway and, in the short term, the UK taxpayer foots the bill, but in some cases the ECGD goes on to re-designate that fee as a debt owed by the recipient country. An astonishing 95% of developing country debt owed to the UK has been generated by ECGD-backed operations. Those countries could have spent that money on developing their own economies, but instead they are forced to pay for a service that often does little for their people. Sometimes they are paying for damage inflicted on their people and their country.
I have a personal interest in this matter. Before I entered the House, I had the privilege of working with a group of remarkable children who had suffered appalling abuse and poverty overseas. I feel incredibly strongly that as a country we should be doing everything in our power to prevent the harm that is done to them, yet instead, in some cases, we are underwriting it.
The situation appears to be getting worse. The standards the ECGD applies are, in the words of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, “weak and getting weaker.” In 2010, the previous Government removed mandatory screening of child and forced labour for ECGD-backed projects. Between 2009 and 2010, the ECGD backed £21 million-worth of unscreened projects. In comparison, the OECD recently pointed out that all the UK’s major competitors and the vast majority of export credits agencies screen all the projects that they fund. The UK should be leading the way on this most important of issues, but instead we are trailing further and further behind.
Most of what we know about the ECGD comes from campaigners because it is neither transparent nor accountable. There is no legal requirement on it to publish a list of the projects that it supports and it does not reveal which outstanding debts relate to which projects. Indeed, requests for such information have been repeatedly declined. The ECGD has no duty of care at all to people who are affected and there is no grievance mechanism for those who are affected. Lender responsibility is disregarded and all the repercussions are borne by importers, even if there has been no, or limited, benefit to those countries. That is precisely the opposite of social responsibility.
My Bill would require the ECGD to adopt a list of prohibited activities and proactively to publish information on the projects it supports, including impact assessments, consultation and the monitoring and evaluation of projects. It would also prevent companies that have been convicted of corruption from receiving support from the ECGD for five years after the date of conviction. I want to make it clear that I am not attempting to stifle support for British business, which needs and deserves support from the Government now more than ever, but we should be supporting sustainable trade that is of long-term benefit, that safeguards human rights, that protects the environment and that at the very least does not exacerbate poverty.
Currently, the ECGD supports a handful of large companies that operate in just a few sectors. In the past year, for which we have figures, virtually all its support went to one company alone, Airbus, which hardly represents the diversity of the British economy, and that does absolutely nothing for the small and medium-sized businesses that we are all so keen to support. The ECGD could instead support and promote new, green industries and make productive investment that would generate jobs and prosperity. Renewable energy, public transport projects and low or zero-carbon industries should all be considered for support. Instead, we support proportionally more carbon-intensive industries than any other EU country. A credit line of £50 million, which was rightly ring-fenced for renewable energy in 2003, has not been touched to date.
Reform of the ECGD is backed by Members from the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Scottish National parties. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), who is now the Secretary of State with responsibility for the relevant Department, proposed reform of the ECGD just two years ago. There is clear consensus that the most urgent task facing the Government is the recovery of the economy but that can and must be achieved through sustainable and productive investment. We should be promoting the best of British business to the rest of the world and we should be leading the way in our commitment to human rights and the environment.
Question put and agreed to.
That Lisa Nandy, Zac Goldsmith, Roger Williams, Caroline Lucas, Tony Cunningham, Anas Sarwar, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, Sheila Gilmore, Bob Russell, Dr Julian Huppert, Teresa Pearce and Yasmin Qureshi present the Bill.
Lisa Nandy accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 November, and to be printed (Bill 182).
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on a matter relating to ministerial accountability to Members of the House. I recently sent a letter, at the request of a constituent, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose office then notified me that it was being forwarded to the Department for Education for reply. Today, I received a reply from the Department—from the permanent secretary. This is the second time I have received such a letter. The matter about which I wrote was politically controversial, so the permanent secretary has, whether he wished it or not, been drawn into party political controversy by expounding and defending Government policy. This clearly is not satisfactory, Mr Speaker, and I shall be grateful for your guidance on how we should deal with such a situation and prevent its recurrence.
The right hon. Gentleman has been in the House for 40 years—I think he is in his 41st year of service in the House—so he will know that how Ministers respond to questions is principally a matter for them. However, I certainly think the point that he has raised warrants a ministerial response. For my own part, I will stick my neck out and observe that when a Member of Parliament tables a question, the Member of Parliament wants a reply from a Minister, not from an official. It might even be thought a little unwise to respond to the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, in the way that was done, but I am sure the Secretary of State will have something to say about the matter.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for this opportunity, as I am determined at all times to ensure that my Department responds promptly and fully to questions from colleagues across the House, and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is a particularly assiduous correspondent on behalf of his constituents. I have had the opportunity in the past to reply personally.
On some occasions it is appropriate when responding to parliamentary questions and to correspondence to enlist the support of those who do such a good job in the civil service and in arm’s length bodies. It is always a matter for ministerial discretion, but if any Member of the House is unhappy with any reply that they have received, I would be delighted if they would write again to me. In almost every case where a parliamentary question has been answered or parliamentary correspondence has been received, there has been a note from a Minister stressing that if the reply and the information contained therein is unsatisfactory, Ministers would of course be delighted, as I am at any time, to provide further information.
I am also delighted and grateful to you, Mr Speaker, to be able to say that the backlog of correspondence that we inherited has now, thanks to the generous and energetic work of officials in the Department, been cleared. I hope that in the future I will be able to answer all questions from all parts of the House as promptly as Members deserve.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. That closes the matter on the subject of questions and correspondence. I invariably receive personal replies in the form of letters from the Secretary of State, and I have come to look forward to them with eager anticipation.
[15th Allotted Day]
Sure Start Children’s Centres
I beg to move,
That this House believes that improving the life chances of children and young people from all backgrounds should be central to Government policy; recognises that the Sure Start network of 3,600 Children’s Centres, introduced by the previous administration, is crucial in delivering high quality early education and early intervention for children, as well as support, advice and specialist services for parents and carers; notes that the funding to local authorities for the Early Intervention Grant in 2011-12 represents a real terms cut of 22.4 per cent. nationally, compared to the 2010-11 allocations before in-year cuts to area based grants; recognises that, in the context of this cut to early intervention funding, the large, front-loaded cuts to other local authority funding streams, and the removal of the ring-fence around Sure Start funding, Sure Start Children’s Centres will inevitably be put at risk; notes that before the General Election the Prime Minister promised to protect and strengthen Sure Start; and therefore calls on the Government to protect the Sure Start network of Children’s Centres by thinking again about their deep cuts to Sure Start funding, to monitor the evidence and, if local authorities are choosing to disinvest in Sure Start centres, to commit to reinstating the ring-fence for Sure Start funding to ensure that vital and valued services are not lost.
How tempting it might be to continue the discussion that just took place. The record of the Department in answering parliamentary questions and letters is pretty lamentable: 90% of named day PQs are not answered on time. That gives a glimpse of the chaos that reigns in the Secretary of State’s Department. But I note your ruling, Mr Speaker, that the matter is closed for now, so we will turn to Sure Start.
It is not always the case that policies debated and voted on in the House become universally accepted as a good thing in the country at large, but occasionally, between us, we get it right. Every now and again an idea comes along that is right for its time, addresses a real need, makes life better for many people and slowly becomes part of our national fabric. It acquires a broad appeal across the Benches of the House and its longevity becomes secured. Sure Start, it seems, is in that rare category of policies.
Last year, a survey by the Institute for Government considered the most successful policies of the past 30 years. Sure Start was judged to be the fifth most successful, beaten only by the national minimum wage, devolution, privatisation and the Northern Ireland peace process. Such a commendation for a flagship policy of the last Labour Government gives rise to a deep sense of pride among Labour Members today, but we are realists too. We know that other Labour achievements, such as the national health service, the Open university and the national minimum wage, will endure only if we convince all parts of the House that they are right.
It did not go unnoticed just over a year ago when the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, gave this pre-election manifesto statement to the National Childbirth Trust:
“We are strongly committed to Sure Start Children’s Centres and will strengthen this service”—
a clear promise to parents when the Prime Minister sought their votes. We have called this debate today to hold him and his Government to account for it.
This is not our first recent opportunity to discuss Sure Start. Seven weeks ago, the House had an excellent debate about the subject, but back then councils were still setting budgets and making choices. Today, we are in a much better position to make sense of the emerging picture on the ground, and we can judge the oft-repeated claim from the Secretary of State and his Ministers that they have given councils enough funding to keep all Sure Start centres open and, in the words of the Secretary of State at the most recent Education questions in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), that they have given them
“sufficient to guarantee every child a high-quality place.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 697.]
Today, we can test the claim made by Ministers from the Dispatch Box that councils have enough money to do both. Does the claim hold water?
Is the right hon. Gentleman not pleased to know that in Harlow all the Sure Start centres remain open and are as strong as ever? Given that councils throughout the country have £10 billion in reserves, should they not use some of that money to strengthen their Sure Start centres?
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not consider Kent to be a bastion of Labour support, but all the children’s centres in the county are being kept open.
We will judge a week on Thursday whether Kent can return much Labour support, and we look forward to that judgment, but again I pay tribute to those local authorities that in difficult circumstances are doing their best to keep the Sure Start infrastructure intact. They deserve credit for that, because they are making some difficult decisions, and later I will go through some local authorities and list those examples that the House will be interested to hear.
Westminster council is also seeking not to lock the doors of its 12 children’s centres, but it is achieving that by implementing an 18% cut in funding through reduced outreach services and reduced services for child development, and by ensuring that smaller centres no longer provide any help for families seeking employment. How does that fit with the Government’s objective of getting mothers back into employment?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I look over her local authority’s border into Hammersmith and Fulham, where even more worrying steps are being taken, steps that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has skilfully exposed. I will come to those issues later, because there is a real issue about whether, in keeping open a centre, the service to parents in local authorities throughout the country is being destroyed. That is the key issue for the House to consider.
Let me, however, give the Government credit where credit is due—most unlike me, but here we go: they have certainly talked a good game on early intervention. To show just how committed they were to the issue, they commissioned not one but two distinguished Opposition Members to advise them on it, and the Field review—I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) in his place—and the Allen report found common ground.
First, each report sets out a persuasive case for investing public resources heavily in the early years of a child’s life. They argue that doing so will help us to tackle the root causes of poverty and to build true social mobility in Britain. Only that will challenge a society where, in the words of my right hon. Friend,
“at the age of three but certainly by five, the die of life is set for most children.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 320.]
We all must seek to work together to challenge such a world.
Secondly, their recommendations are based on the assumption that the existing 3,600 Sure Start children’s centres throughout the country, one to serve every community, should be the essential infrastructure—indeed, the delivery system—if the vision of high quality early intervention is to become a reality. That is the key question that we need to consider today.
The departmental Select Committee in the previous Parliament found that Sure Start had begun to make an appreciable difference to children’s lives. It stated:
“Parents in Sure Start areas relative to those in non-Sure Start areas reported using more child and family-related services…and their children were socially more competent. These results seem to show that programmes are becoming more effective over time, particularly in their work with the most disadvantaged, and that children are feeling the benefit of longer exposure to the programmes.”
That is a ringing endorsement.
In essence, Sure Start built into the early years universal comprehensive education. Its strength is that it brings together parents, of all backgrounds, who may not have known each other before. Instead of providing only state support, Sure Start, by bringing those people together, helped them to create self-sustaining support networks in the community, through one parent working with another, and in that way it gave all young parents the extra support that they need. That is a fundamental strength of Sure Start, and it must not be lost.
My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that Labour-controlled Tameside council has committed to keeping open all its children’s centres, despite a tough financial settlement, but did not the Conservative spokesperson on children and families let the cat out of the bag on the front page of the Tameside Advertiser this week, when she said that Sure Start should not be a universal provision serving every community?
That absolutely does let the cat out of the bag, and I am about to go through some examples of Conservative spokespeople in local government who do not seem to have read the Prime Minister’s words before the election last year.
I congratulate Tameside council, however, because it has dealt with a disproportionately larger cut to its early intervention grant than other authorities in Greater Manchester—Trafford, to name but one, which Government Front Benchers routinely mention. In Tameside, for every young person aged under 20 years old there has been a £70 per child cut in the early intervention grant.
The council is working in those circumstances to keep the network of Sure Start centres open, and that is why I congratulate Tameside, and I hope my hon. Friend will take my congratulations back to his friends. Owing to all the benefits that I have described, it is not surprising that the Field review concludes:
“Local Authorities should aim to make Children’s Centres a hub of the local community”.
My right hon. Friend describes them as a “targeted universal service”.
Two authoritative reports delivered to the Government advocate the importance of children’s centres, but now we get to the heart of the matter. We will soon discover whether the Government really wanted to hear the views of my esteemed friends on that crucial subject, or whether they were brought in for presentational reasons—as a piece of theatre to send a desirable political message.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, I remember well how about a year ago, during the election campaign, some Labour Members doubted the sincerity of his commitments to Sure Start. I looked back to what he said, however, because I remembered it from the television debates, and on 5 May 2010, on the very eve of the general election, readers of The Independent sent in questions to the then Leader of the Opposition. A questioner asked:
“As a parent who relies heavily on Sure Start centres for the educational and social needs of my child, I would like to know whether these centres will continue to receive funding.”
The Prime Minister replied:
“Yes, we back Sure Start. It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this. He’s the Prime Minister of this country but he’s been scaring people about something that really matters.”
That is what the Prime Minister said last May. In some ways, his anger was reassuring because it looked as if the Government-to-be were genuinely committed. I wonder how the Prime Minister feels today, given that it has turned out that those things that, as he said, “really matter” are under serious threat.
Evidence is emerging of widespread disinvestment by local authorities in Sure Start children’s centres. That seriously challenges the deliverability of the vision set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead.
I am happy to join the cavalcade of other Conservative authorities that have already been mentioned; in West Sussex, no Sure Start centres are closing. Indeed, there is a greater desire to improve the services for early years. Surely that is at odds with what the right hon. Gentleman is saying.
It is a mixed picture. We will get to the bottom of the true picture on the ground as we get into the debate today. If Conservative local authorities are not just keeping the centres open, but protecting the services within them, I will of course recognise that that is what we want and what the Government said they would do. If that is the case, then good. But other Conservative-controlled authorities are not doing that. My question back to the hon. Gentleman is: what are he and his Front-Bench colleagues saying to Conservative authorities that are disinvesting from Sure Start and siphoning the money out? I look forward to an equally fulsome answer on that question.
If the Government accept the vision in the review that they commissioned my right hon. Friend to produce, I put it to the House that it must urgently consider what is happening on the ground and ask the Government to change course to preserve the network of children’s centres and services. As I will show today, children’s centres are closing right here, right now. Highly trained staff are being made redundant. Some children’s centres are keeping the lights on, but no more. That is the reality on the ground that the Prime Minister must urgently confront.
I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to what is going on in Sefton. The council faces 30% cuts in its budget and it has had to review all 19 of its Sure Start centres. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has made that decision, which emphasises my right hon. Friend’s point about the cuts being made by Conservative-run or led authorities. Families in Sefton are clear that they need the entire network. It is essential for people from all the different parts of the community that the network should be maintained. People from different parts of the community need different elements of the service.
My hon. Friend points out that coalition councils are not acting to protect Sure Start. He has come to an important point. The Government will have to decide. When the Prime Minister made promises last May, was he promising to keep Sure Start as a universal service? If he was, he really has to act. If, however, he had decided to let it become a targeted service—available in some communities and not in others, available to some parents and not others—he needs to be honest about that. He needs to say that and it needs to be clear that that is the Government’s policy.
The Government built a clear expectation among parents that they were preserving Sure Start as a universal comprehensive service that would give all children the best start in life. Indeed, at the last Education questions, the Secretary of State said that he would guarantee all children a high-quality place. The Government will have to live up to that promise.
If today the Prime Minister believes as strongly in Sure Start as he appeared to on the eve of polling day, he must act to save it. He must stop the disinvestment in Sure Start by councils and reinstate the Sure Start ring-fence in the next financial year, as our motion suggests, to protect a service that is still very much in the early years itself.
Will the shadow Secretary of State also congratulate Medway, an authority that is retaining its 19 Sure Start centres? It is going beyond that and showing the Government’s commitment to helping and supporting the young ones in their early years. I have a letter from the Department for Education dated 13 March 2011. It says that the Government are giving an additional £275,000 to Medway to increase provision to two-year-olds, three-year-olds and four-year-olds. That shows the commitment from local councils and the Government.
I am not in a position to judge the decisions of Medway council. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the cuts introduced by the coalition since the last election have led to a £40-per-child cut in the early-intervention grant in Medway. If the council is making the best of a bad lot, I say good luck to it; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage other councils to do the same.
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once. I will now make some progress.
There is a dissonance between commitments given from the Dispatch Box by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and the actions of councils on the ground, which are dealing with the reality—the hand of cards—that the Government have given them. How did we get to this position? First, let me examine the issue of national funding to support Sure Start. In his statement to the House on the spending review, the Chancellor said that he had found
“more resources for our schools and for the early years education of our children.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 964.]
On that day, we said that that was a highly questionable statement. But ever since, the Secretary of State and his Ministers have stuck loyally to the line that the Government have given councils enough money to maintain children’s centres and services—that is, until the debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) a couple of weeks ago on estimates day. I do not know what possessed him, but the Secretary of State intervened on a point being made by my hon. Friend and for the first time broke the discipline that Government Front Benchers had been observing so carefully. He said:
“The hon. Lady was kind enough to mention earlier that by her own calculation ring-fencing Sure Start within the current early intervention grant envelope would mean that other services would have to go. How will she protect those other services? Will she raise taxes, cut spending elsewhere or, as she said earlier, simply cross her fingers and hope for the best?”—[Official Report, 2 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 359.]
That is a revealing statement, for implicit in the Secretary of State’s words is the admission that the Government have not given councils enough money in the early intervention grant for everything that they need to pay for to sustain both Sure Start and other crucial services, such as short breaks for disabled children, teenage pregnancy services and the children’s social care work force.
The Secretary of State could not have been clearer—we cannot have both: ring-fence Sure Start, and face cuts to some of those essential services for children. At least we saw a degree of honesty from the Secretary of State, but his problem is that his statement directly contradicted the Prime Minister’s a few weeks earlier; that is not a good career move for a man in his fragile position.
In February, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister claimed the polar opposite of what the Secretary of State said. He said:
“On Sure Start, the budget is going from £2.212 million to £2.297 million. That budget is going up. That is what is happening.”—[Official Report, 9 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 293.]
To be fair to the Secretary of State—and I do not often say this—on this occasion he has a much better grip on the detail than his boss. The £2.212 million referred to by the Prime Minister is the early intervention grant for 2011-12. The Prime Minister conveniently took 2011-12 to be his baseline year—and yes, between 2011-12 and 2012-13 the contribution goes up in cash terms. However, not for the first time at the Dispatch Box, he was playing fast and loose with the figures. The only way to show what has happened to Sure Start and early intervention since the change of Government is to compare 2011-12 with the financial year that has just ended—that is, 2010-11. A departmental ministerial statement dated 13 December 2010 said that in 2011-12 the amount to be allocated through the early intervention grant
“is 10.9% lower than the aggregated 2010-11 funding through the predecessor grants.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 67WS.]
The Prime Minister said that the budget was going up; the Department explicitly says that the budget is going down. That is not acceptable. In fact, it is worse than that because the Department’s calculation leaves out in-year early cuts after the general election to the area-based grant that many local authorities, particularly in more deprived areas, used to receive.
New research from the Library gives us the full picture. Its figures show that the equivalent EIG at the start of 2010-11 was £2.794 million, meaning that this year’s £2.212 million represents a real-terms cut of 22.4%.
The implication of what the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that under a continued Labour Government the cash settlement for all these services would have remained the same, yet in the Labour manifesto there was no promise to ring-fence the Sure Start grant, the Department for Education or the Department for Communities and Local Government. Given that the previous Chancellor intended to make savings across Departments, where does the right hon. Gentleman believe that this money would have come from?
Sure Start was ring-fenced—that was the policy of our Government. The Labour manifesto talks of strengthening early intervention. I am holding the Prime Minister to account for what he said when he was seeking the votes of people in this country. He said, in terms, that he would strengthen Sure Start, so I am saying that we should look at the evidence on the ground. Is Sure Start strengthening or weakening? When I read the hon. Gentleman some of the evidence, I hope that he will make an honest judgment on whether the service is getting better or is under threat.
The research from the Library tells us that in England the average cut in the EIG between 2010-11 and 2011-12 is £50 for every child in this country. Altogether that is absolute proof that the PM, who is undoubtedly a good talker—a PR man—is dangerously cavalier with the facts at the Dispatch Box, as Oxford university recently found to its cost. He said at the election that he would protect Sure Start, but in fact he has cut it, in real terms, by about a quarter. This takes us to the crux of the matter. The Government have not had the guts to be honest about the cuts that they are making to Sure Start. Instead, they have cut the budget, removed the ring fence, and offloaded the problem and the responsibility on to local authorities up and down the country, some of which face invidious choices in cutting essential services for children—child safeguarding and other important services. That is a terrible position for local authorities to be in, be they Conservative, Liberal, Labour or in coalition. Some other councils are cutting way beyond what would have been the ring fence. They are cutting into funds that were given by the Government for the purposes of Sure Start, siphoning them off and spending them elsewhere.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for correcting me.
At the time, the lady of whom I spoke came to Ipswich and told my constituents that children’s centres would be cut in Ipswich. Since the election, every single centre has stayed open and two more have been added. The right hon. Gentleman is a decent man. Will he apologise on her behalf for having misled people, because I have tried to get her to apologise and she has refused to answer my letters?
I will happily look at what is happening on the ground in Ipswich. However, there is an important difference that I point out to the hon. Gentleman. It is possible to keep a children’s centre’s lights on and keep a receptionist and a cleaner, but what is going on inside? Is he satisfied that an appropriate level of service is being provided to support the parents of Ipswich? That is the judgment that he has to make. It is not just a case of whether he can come to the House and say that Ipswich is keeping the lights on—it needs to do more than that. Indeed, his own Government have funded it to do more than that. Suffolk, which is the local authority concerned, has had a huge cut of £40 per child in its area. He has to ask his Front Benchers whether that is acceptable for his constituents.
Let me go around the towns and point out what is happening on the ground. Derby, home to a Tory-Liberal coalition, seems like a good place to start. Surely there, if anywhere, people would implement coalition policy to the letter, would they not? Well, perhaps not, because we find that in Derby six children’s centres are threatened with closure. In a BBC news report on 10 March, Kelly Jennings, daughter of the Tory leader of the council, Harvey Jennings, said:
“I voted for the Conservatives because I thought there was going to be more help for the NHS. Now they are cutting that off and locally they are cutting off the Sure Start centres which single parents like myself rely on.”
We have been very pleased to welcome Kelly into the Labour party because she sees that in these tough times only Labour will be the voice of people and stand up for the services on which people depend. [Interruption.] Conservative Members laugh, so let us look at some Tory authorities. We have heard wonderful praise for many local authorities today; let us look at a few others. Are they working hard, like other authorities, to implement the Prime Minister’s clear pre-election pledges?
In Hammersmith and Fulham, we saw the first use of an interesting tactic that my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) mentioned earlier. Many of its 16 children’s centres were under threat of closure. My hon. Friend went to the council meeting to see it discuss the issue. Then we heard the news that six would become hubs and 10 would remain as spokes. Only when we dig a little deeper do we find that nine of those so-called spokes will receive £25,000 a year. What is that enough to pay for—a receptionist, a caretaker, a bottle of bleach? Is there much more that it would pay for? I do not know, but it could not be very much. At the last Education questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) recalled the hospital without patients in “Yes Minister”. This coalition may be remembered for a more modern equivalent —a children’s centre without any children in it. That could be the Secretary of State’s legacy. I do not know about hubs and spokes, but there are certainly plenty of mirrors and smoke when it comes to presenting the facts about Sure Start.
I hope that my right hon. Friend might have an opportunity to look at what else is happening in Hull, controlled by the Liberal Democrats, which has seen a 32% cut in the children’s budget across the board and a 50% cut in the money going to children’s centres. Of the 20 children’s centres that we had under the Labour Government, 13 have effectively been mothballed by the Liberal Democrats and will have very few services.
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that important point. As she says, the budget for Sure Start in Hull has been cut by 50% from £9 million to £4.5 million. During a previous Opposition day debate on the education maintenance allowance, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and advocated that people should vote Liberal Democrat, particularly in Hull, pointing to some excellent provision that was available. I wonder whether we will hear that again or whether he will revise that advice to the electorate in advance of next Thursday. A 50% cut—can that be what the Prime Minister had in mind when he said he would strengthen Sure Start? This is the decimation of services on the ground.
Let us talk about some more Tory authorities before we get on to the Liberal Democrats. Tory-controlled Barnet is removing funding from eight of its 21 children’s centres, making £6.4 million of savings. Tory-controlled Bromley is closing 13 of its 16 centres. How can there be a service for the whole borough when just three centres are left? Are Ministers really saying that every parent in Bromley can access those centres and their services? I doubt that very much.
In Hampshire, 28 of the 81 children centres are set for closure. However, we should not worry because help is at hand. The right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) has signed a petition against the changes. Thank God for that!
Well, there was a plan to close 28 children’s centres. I was led to believe that the council was considering the plan and consulting on it. I do not know when it had a change of heart. Perhaps it was because of the force of the representations of the right hon. Member for Eastleigh. We will have to find out. I am tempted to ask the Liberal Democrats to relay back to their colleague that rather than sign the petition, it might have been better for him to speak up in Cabinet to oppose the Secretary of State for Education and his cuts to the early intervention grant. Would that not have been a quicker way of resolving the matter, whether or not the local authority has had a last-minute change of heart with the local elections looming?
I do not know what to make of the behaviour of the right hon. Member for Eastleigh. Am I alone in finding his behaviour increasingly strange and Cable-esque? For the past 11 months, he has sat with his Lib Dem colleagues in Cabinet as the Tories have put various questions before them. They were asked, “How about trebling tuition fees and creating a market in higher education?” They said, “Why of course, be our guest, go and do it.” The Secretary of State for Education asked, “How about scrapping EMA?” “Please do,” said the right hon. Member for Eastleigh, “and why not decimate the careers service while you’re at it?” They were asked, “Shall we cut Sure Start?” “Please do,” said the right hon. Member for Eastleigh, “it will give me a good campaign at local level. Please get on and do it.” However, when the Tories ask, “Won’t AV mean we spend a little more on counting machines and the cost of elections?” all of a sudden, there is talk of resignation, legal challenges and Lord knows what. I struggle to understand that response from the right hon. Member for Eastleigh.
Does that synthetic rage not expose once and for all the absolute moral bankruptcy of today’s Liberal Democrats? When the interests of millions of young people were at stake in Cabinet discussions, they sat on their hands, but when their self-interest is challenged because they might not win a vote on a change to the voting system, it is time to bring down the coalition. That tells people everything they need to know about the Liberal Democrats: their politics are flaky, unprincipled and cynical, and their disloyal Ministers are preparing for life beyond the coalition.
There have been increasingly desperate statements from the Deputy Prime Minister. What has he said about Sure Start? At the Lib Dem spring conference he said:
“I cannot tell you how proud I am that not a single Liberal Democrat-led council is closing a single Sure Start children’s centre.”
Liberal Democrat Members have gone quiet. Are any of them prepared to back up that statement today? Stand up now. Does anyone hold to that statement?
You do. So the Liberal Democrats all think that that is a correct representation and stand by it.
Let us consider Kingston upon Hull, where there is a 50% cut in the Sure Start budget. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) says that that is not true. Perhaps somebody has more up-to-date information and will beg to differ. Kingston upon Thames is another interesting and revealing example. Channel 4 FactCheck picked up the suggestion from the Deputy Prime Minister that the Lib Dems were not closing any centres and Cathy Newman went to Kingston upon Thames to look at whether any centres were being closed. Indeed, one was being closed in Hook. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Cornwall says that it is not a Sure Start centre. Well, when Cathy Newman went there, she found a plaque on the door that read, “children’s centre”. How can it not be a children’s centre, I ask the hon. Gentleman? I am struggling with this defence.
I acknowledge that Labour councils, too, are taking difficult decisions. We have heard coalition Ministers target Liverpool and Manchester. Liverpool is losing £90 per young person and Manchester £80. Both are working to keep service reductions to a minimum. Hampshire, by contrast, is losing just £30 per child and plans to close 28 centres. How does that work?
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said about Liverpool. Will he join me in congratulating Labour-led Liverpool city council, which has not closed any children’s centres and is desperately trying to keep them all open? I hope to intervene on the Secretary of State to ask for his support for that.
I do congratulate Labour-led Liverpool city council and its leader, Joe Anderson. Sure Start is clearly close to his heart, as he said when he set the budget. I am delighted that it is working to keep all its centres open.
Perhaps our calling this debate has led some people at local level to have a change of heart. Perhaps it has led to some U-turns at local level, of the kind we have become familiar with from the Government. The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) mentioned Hampshire. [Laughter.] The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) laughs, but only yesterday, Hampshire decided that its centres would remain open, but that the budget would be cut from £17 million to £11 million. [Interruption.] I do not read the Hampshire local press every day. Does the Under-Secretary? The council had a plan to close—
Order. I will say two things. First, it is not necessary for the Under-Secretary to behave like a child to demonstrate his empathy for children. That is not a requirement of the job. Secondly, although I am very much enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s geographical tour of the United Kingdom and always relish his exchanges with the Secretary of State, I am conscious that Back-Bench Members also wish to contribute. I am sure that those on the Front Benches will take account of that and apply a certain self-denying ordinance.
I agree, Mr Speaker, and will bring my remarks to a close.
Liverpool is doing well, despite facing difficult budget cuts of £90 per child. Hampshire is losing just £30 per child and is in a mess at local level, as is clear. These are the real politically motivated cuts. Hampshire is cutting its budget from £17 million to £11 million—a council in a more affluent area siphoning funds out of Sure Start and away from children who are facing the biggest challenges.
The evidence is racking up. Sure Start is being starved and is shrinking. Coalition policy is turning a much-loved, universal service into a patchy postcode lottery, which breaks the Prime Minister’s promise to parents. The ministerial team are making a mess of this successful policy in precisely same way as they mangled EMA and school sport partnerships. The Government say that they accept the Field and Allen recommendations, but the rhetoric does not match the reality. Early intervention services are under intense pressure as councils wrestle with impossible choices. Later this week, Labour will publish a survey of 70 directors of children’s services, which reveals a worrying picture of the quality and coverage of child safeguarding services in the current climate. It is becoming increasingly clear that Sure Start will not survive if the removal of the ring fence continues.
The motion makes the reasonable request for the Government to consider the emerging evidence and change course. We were right about school sport and we were right about EMA. If the Government care about the promises they have made, it is time for another U-turn and the reinstatement of the ring fence. I hope that they will listen, but somehow I doubt that they will. The decisions to shrink Sure Start fit entirely with the direction of Government education policy: at every stage of the education journey, they are making life harder for those who face the biggest challenges. They are breaking the promises that they made. We have heard what is happening to pre-school education, despite the fact that the programme for international student assessment has shown that all the best school systems in the world are based on the most extensive pre-school provision.
On four-to-16 education, the Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box on the day of the spending review and promised more resources for schools, and said that the pupil premium would be “truly additional”. Heads know how hollow those words were, as they have to use a static or falling budget to buy back central support services previously provided for free by the local authority. Most schools are facing 80% cuts in their buildings budgets, as the Secretary of State showers extra money on his free schools.
On 16-to-19 education, the Prime Minister made a personal promise to young people at a further education college to keep the education maintenance allowance, but the Government scrapped it. Even the OECD has recently called on the Government to reinstate it. The effect of scrapping it will be that education and the route to a better life will now be closed off to many young people.
On higher education, holier-than-thou promises from the Government that £9,000 fees would be the exception rather than the norm have proved utterly false, as we will debate later today. Universities such as Cambridge are left to say what the Government will not—that state school pupils will start to drop off and find it harder to gain access.
What is the combined effect of all those misguided education policies? I can almost hear the sound of falling aspiration in my constituency and in former industrial areas where so much was done to lift expectation, and I can tell the Secretary of State that it terrifies me. The Government are breaking their promises to parents and young people, and the effect will be to reinforce disadvantage at every stage of the education journey. Families with a little extra money will probably be able to insulate themselves from the worst of the changes, but the combined effect on the children who have least will be that the odds are stacked even further against them by an old elite, slamming the door in their face and kicking away the ladder.
What about when young people try to move from education into today’s more competitive workplace? The Deputy Prime Minister made a feeble promise to open up work experience and internships, and days later the Prime Minister laughed in his face and reassured his old network that it would be business as usual.
The coalition’s true colours are slowly being revealed, and what we see is the same old ruthless Tories. Promises were made to soften their image—“We will look after the NHS.” “EMA will stay.” “Sure Start will be strengthened”—but they have all been cynically abandoned after less than a year in office. The Government are acting as though they got a mandate last May. They did not, but we have a Liberal Democrat party that is letting them behave as though they did. Last May, the Liberal Democrats sacrificed everything and sold the shop for a referendum on the voting system, a change that they want in their own electoral interests. Now we see how viciously they are prepared to fight to secure that self-interest, while we remember how meekly they sold down the river millions of young people whose votes put them in Parliament.
Children and young people deserve a lot better than this. Labour will stand up for young people and give them all a fair start in life, and we will be their voice in tough times. I commend the motion to the House.
In this post-Easter season, there is cause for all of us to celebrate, because a number of gloomy predictions have been confounded. At the beginning of the football season, some of us might have imagined that the dominant team on Merseyside would be Everton, but in fact, thanks to Kenny Dalglish’s inspired leadership, the reds are five points ahead of the blues. The gloomy obituaries that were being written for that great team have had to be put back.
QPR, as it happens, but I admire Liverpool, and particularly Kenny Dalglish. [Interruption.] We are top of the league, you know.
Another gloomy prediction was made by Labour Members, but it has not come to pass—that of a double-dip recession. That was the mantra at the top of the Labour party, from the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour election co-ordinator, whatever his name is. The news today, however, is that our economy is growing once more—another gloomy prediction confounded.
We also heard a series of gloomy predictions from Labour Members about what would happen to the network of Sure Start children’s centres in this country. We were told by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) that we would see a reduction in the number of children’s centres in Hammersmith and Fulham, but actually, as the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) almost acknowledged, not only are all the existing Sure Start children’s centres being protected but a new one is being built. There is an increase in the number of Sure Start children’s centres in Hammersmith and Fulham.
The right hon. Member for Leigh told us halfway through his speech that Hampshire was going to close all its children’s centres. Sadly, that slur—[Interruption.] It was a slur. That slur on Hampshire county council was very effectively rebutted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage). The council is ensuring that every single children’s centre will remain open. The right hon. Gentleman did not have the grace to acknowledge either that it was a Conservative local authority that was keeping them open or that he had got it wrong. I admire his passion, but he must get his facts right before he comes to the Dispatch Box and attempts to tarnish the good name of an effective local authority that is doing a great job for children and young people.
In a spirit of generosity, I have to say that a great many Labour local authorities are doing a good job and ensuring that Sure Start children’s centres remain open. There are also Liberal Democrat local authorities doing a good job. One of the most disappointing things about the right hon. Gentleman’s speech was his attack on the Liberal Democrats, which I felt was mean-minded and beneath him. I understand that as an election co-ordinator, with just a week to go before he shores up the Labour vote that is collapsing in Scotland and evanescent elsewhere, he has to pick what he thinks is an easy target, but he has picked the wrong target.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, with whom I do not always agree, was right when he said that Liberal Democrat authorities were keeping all their Sure Start children’s centres open. We can look at what is happening in Kingston upon Hull, where all the centres are remaining open and services are being delivered from all of them. The same is true in Kingston upon Thames. The Liberal Democrat councillors in those authorities represent a party that I would not vote for, but they are doing the job a darned sight better than the Labour councillors who used to run Hull when it was the worst local authority in the country according to the Audit Commission. It is now the most improved.
Before we leave this matter, let us get to the bottom of the point about Hampshire. There was clearly a change of heart yesterday—[Interruption.] Will the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), hear me out? If there was a change of heart, the news had not reached me, and I welcome it. However, we must ask, a change of heart to what? The Sure Start budget there is going from £17 million to £11 million, a 35% cut. Is the Secretary of State applauding Hampshire for making a cut on that scale? He has just applauded the local authority and invited me to do the same. Is he saying that such a cut to Sure Start is acceptable and that the local authority should be applauded for cutting the service by more than a third?
The right hon. Gentleman has not misled the House—he never misleads the House—but I am afraid that he has got himself in what we call in Scotland “a bit of a fankle”. He asserted that Hampshire was going to cut children’s centres, and then he was caught short by the facts. I know that he has more respect for the House than to want to put himself in a position of having inaccurate facts in front of him, so all he needs to do, as graciously as is his natural custom, is acknowledge that Hampshire is keeping its children’ centres open and congratulate it on that.
One reason why Hampshire, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kingston upon Hull, Kingston upon Thames and many other Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils, as well as Labour ones, can keep their Sure Start children’s centres open is that there is enough money. I can make that assertion because of the evidence that has been put forward by two of the people who have the best understanding of the early years. Anne Longfield OBE, chief executive of 4Children, has said that the Government are
“continuing to provide adequate funding to keep centres open and councils should resist the temptation to use this money to plug gaps elsewhere.”
Anand Shukla, the acting chief executive of the Daycare Trust, has said:
“The Government has allocated sufficient funding for the existing network of Sure Start Children’s Centres to be maintained”.
The money is there—independent witnesses say so—and well-run local authorities all over the country, represented by councillors of different parties, are maintaining that network. Therefore, every single plank of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument has collapsed beneath him, and I have been on my feet for only six minutes.
What does the Education Secretary say to parents in my constituency, which has the seventh highest child poverty in the country, in the light of Westminster city council’s briefing? The briefing states:
“As you may have heard in the media, central government funding for Sure Start Children’s Centres nationally has been reduced, which means in Westminster we have to save 17% from our Children’s centre budget”,
meaning a saving of £715,000, including roughly £250,000 off early learning and child support, and £400,000 off outreach and family support. Children’s centres will be bricks and mortar without the staff even to ensure that services can be run safely.
The hon. Lady is a highly energetic constituency MP—indeed, I was represented by her for a brief period, and I know how passionately she takes up such causes. However, Westminster, like many other local authorities, is succeeding not just in keeping the Sure Start children’s centre network open, but in providing an enhanced service for children and young people. The question that she and every Opposition Member must address is this: if they believe, as I do, that Sure Start is a valuable service, and that it is a good thing that the Government have set up an early intervention grant, and that we are devoting resources and intellectual energy to the early years, will they support the coalition in the steps that it is taking, or do they have an alternative plan? Do they believe that money should come from other areas of Government expenditure to spend more on any of those services? If they believe that we should spend more than we are spending, can they explain which services they would cut or which taxes they would increase? I am very happy to give way to any right hon. or hon. Member who can enlighten me on Labour’s economic policy, including the hon. Member for Hammersmith.
Let us deal with the figures. If the Secretary of State has come along simply to give incorrect figures, he does not help the debate at all. Hammersmith and Fulham was spending £3.983 million last year; this year it will spend £2.206 million. Most of the nine Sure Start centres will have their budgets cut. Some will receive £19,000 to be satellites—the £19,000 is for the upkeep of the premises, but services will be delivered on-site by another children’s centre. The Secretary of State must stand by his words if he says that that means he is keeping the centres open. However, his stance in this debate and making such assertions does him no credit. He should at least live with the consequences of his actions.
The consequence of the Government’s actions is that we have ensured, as both Anne Longfield and Anand Shukla have pointed out, that there is enough money to maintain that network. In addition, under Conservative leadership, Hammersmith and Fulham has been singularly successful in reducing the council tax burden on its ratepayers, and in diversifying the sources of funding it receives to support education and care for children and young people. It is a superb local authority. Instead of continually talking down the service that is provided by public servants in Hammersmith and Fulham, it would be nice to hear from the hon. Gentleman some sunny, uplifting words, rather than grim predictions of disaster, which as we have just heard, turn out never to be true.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Northamptonshire county council on deciding to go ahead with its plans for 50 children’s centres in the county, and on its support for my proposals to introduce a Northamptonshire parent-infant project in children’s centres, which will provide a parent-infant psychotherapy service for the families most in need who are struggling to bond with their new-born babies?
I am delighted to congratulate Northamptonshire, where not a single children’s centre is closing. It is also the home of the innovative Pen Green children’s centre. More money is coming from central Government to help that council to develop news ways of providing support for children in their earliest years.
I have some sunny words for the Secretary of State. Sure Start Palfrey in my constituency was one of the first in the country to get an “outstanding” rating from Ofsted, which it gained because it did a lot of outreach work, including through a fathers’ club—84 fathers came to one session. However, there are rumours, which the Secretary of State might like to quash, that the staff will be replaced by health visitors, which moves the centre into a medical model rather than an educational model. Will he confirm that those specialist workers will not be replaced by health visitors?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. To be fair to Labour Members, I want to emphasise that Sure Start has been a success in the past, and we hope it will be an even greater success in the future. However, one matter on which it has not been as successful in every part of the country as it should have been is in outreach, particularly to the most disadvantaged. The Government believe that health visitors, as trusted faces of the state, can be one of the most effective ways in which we can increase outreach. We also believe that local authorities that have innovative solutions that succeed in ensuring that children in hard-to-reach communities receive those services should be supported. The coalition Government believe in supporting local authorities that are innovative in their use of resources, which is why we removed the ring fence, created the early intervention grant, and allowed a greater degree of innovation to flourish at local level.
The 50% cut is set out clearly in Hull city council’s budget to children’s centres—it is a fact. The centres cannot provide the service that they provided before that 50% cut. They have abandoned the local authority’s early years service team, and no one is doing early years service planning in that authority. The cut means that services are not the same as they were under the previous Government. Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that.
First, we are entering the financial year in which cuts would have been made if we had stuck to the plan of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling). However, I have heard not a single word from the hon. Lady or anyone else about where those cuts would have been made. Secondly, she and others—I understand that she is electioneering, which is fair enough—said that children’s centres would close, but in fact they have remained open.
Thirdly—I did not want to repeat this but the hon. Lady compels me to do so—the Audit Commission said that Hull was one of worst local authorities in the country when Labour ran it, and it is now the most improved local authority. I know that those three points are uncomfortable for her to deal with as she tramps the streets of the east riding attempting to drum up Labour votes, but they are undeniably true. That is why she is shaking her head—in anger at Labour’s record.
I specifically wanted to address some of the questions on the importance of outreach raised by the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). The broader question is this: what do we want to achieve in the early years? A consistent theme in constructive questions from Opposition Back-Bench Members has been that the bricks and mortar are being preserved—that concession, for which I am grateful, is in stark contrast to the scaremongering that we have heard from Opposition Front Benchers—but what is happening in Sure Start children’s centres? Are we improving the quality of service that is provided to children and young people? That is a tough challenge.
One thing that we are doing—the right hon. Member for Leigh did not refer to this—is increasing resources to ensure that early education and child care are provided not just for three and four-year-olds, which the previous Government introduced. We have already extended the number of hours of free early education and child care from 12.5 to 15 hours for all three and four-year-olds—we implemented that and increased expenditure to do it—but we are also increasing the number of hours for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. The plan under the previous Government was for 30,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds to receive 15 free hours, but we are ensuring that 130,000 do so. That is an investment of up to an additional £300 million in the early years at a time when we have to make uncomfortable budget reductions elsewhere because of the desperate economic mess that we inherited. That is a sign of our determination to do best by the early years. It would only be fitting for the right hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that the interest we are paying on our debt is 39 times the Sure Start budget under the previous Government. If we really cared about our children’s future, would we have saddled them with a debt at that level? Clearly not. I am afraid, however, that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the last Labour Cabinet were happy to spend, spend, spend without any thought to whether future generations would be saddled with an enormous debt. It is to the great credit of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that they were prepared to ensure that a coalition Government took the responsible steps necessary to deal with the dire economic mess, and it is to the discredit, I am afraid, of the current shadow Cabinet that not a single constructive suggestion has come forward for how to deal with the deficit. In just a few days’ time, when people think about how to cast their vote, I hope that they will reflect on which parties are acting responsibly in dealing with the national crisis, and which parties prefer posturing, irresponsibility and the emptiness of eternal opposition.
I believe that money additional to the early intervention grant has been budgeted for to cover the years 2012-13 to 2013-14, and we are currently discussing with the sector how to ensure that the money is spent most effectively. Rather than having a top-down approach to delivering support for children in the early years, we need to work in partnership, not just with local government, where there are many brilliant leaders, but with those in the voluntary and charitable sector who have a huge amount to add.
I mentioned Anand Shukla and Anne Longfield, but I am also very grateful to people such as Bernadette Duffy, who runs the Thomas Coram children’s centre, which has helped the coalition Government to move forward in developing a framework to ensure that children in the foundation years receive the support that they really need. For example, all of them have worked with us on the response to the report by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and the interim report produced by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). In both reports a compelling case was made—this argument was also made eloquently in the first half of the speech by the right hon. Member for Leigh—that investment and the right interventions in the earliest years can have a dramatic effect in closing the opportunity gap that has grown up in this country.
All of us will have been struck by some of the figures released by the coalition Government and analysed by the Financial Times this week that show that social mobility in this country is still not moving in the right direction. In particular, we see evidence in some of our most deprived areas of children who have not reached an acceptable level of child development by the age of five. In those deprived areas, children who are falling behind continue to do so. I want to ensure that as much as possible we have a cross-party approach to dealing with that problem. Again I have to say that steps were taken by the Deputy Prime Minister, in the launch of his social mobility strategy, to outline exactly what we need to do to tackle these problems. All of his suggestions, particularly the emphasis on intervention at every stage in the life cycle and the prioritisation of early years, would seem to commend themselves to people of good will in every party.
I want to make it clear that I welcome some of the steps that the right hon. Gentleman is taking, particularly on two-year-olds, which builds on something that we were talking about. However, I want to ask him a serious question. I am listening carefully to what he is saying, and he is itemising some of the individual things that the Government are dong, but I want to know about the big picture so that I can understand his position on Sure Start. He talked about how Sure Start will develop in the future. A simple question: does he envisage Sure Start as a targeted service or a universal service?
I envisage Sure Start as a universal service. [Interruption.] Second question? It is an interview. I almost feel like I am on “The Andrew Marr Show”—I will come to him in a moment. I believe that Sure Start is a universal service, but it is also important to recognise that there are children in greater need on whom we should target greater resources. The original Sure Start programme started out targeting areas with the greatest need, and subsequently, as it moved to phase 3, it became universal. Even within that, it is an example of what one might call “progressive universalism”. Yes, the service is there for all, and yes we recognise that disadvantages exist, even in some of our apparently wealthier communities. That is why the service should be universal. Nevertheless, we know that there are areas of real deprivation, such as the constituency that the right hon. Gentleman represents, and we need to ensure that our resources and energy are targeted in that area.