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Westminster Hall

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 3 May 2011

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 May 2011

[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]

English for Speakers of Other Languages

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate, but I would rather that the need for such a debate had not arisen. Last November, the Government published a document that was somewhat euphemistically entitled “Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth”. Alongside various changes to the funding of further education and training in the UK, Ministers announced that from 1 August this year, many people who currently qualify for free courses in English for speakers of other languages will have to pay a significant amount towards their studies. From August, anyone who receives council tax benefit, housing benefit, income support, working tax credit or pension credit will be expected to contribute £2.91 per hour to the cost of their ESOL course. Anyone who is dependent on someone who receives what the Department for Work and Pensions has defined as “inactive benefits” will also be expected to pay.

The sum of £2.91 per hour may not sound like a lot of money, but it amounts to a minimum of £1,300 in tuition fees for a full-time course. Although as a point of principle I tend to agree that those who can pay should pay, the Government are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think that those currently on such courses, or those who most need them, will be able to pay—they will not. If someone’s husband has a job on the minimum wage and works full time but still earns less than £12,000 per year, will they really be able to pay £1,000 for an English language course? It will not happen.

I cannot help but think that the proposed changes to the way ESOL is funded are woefully short-sighted. Set alongside the Prime Minister’s repeated pronouncements on immigration and the need for everyone to speak the language of their new home, they are nothing short of hypocritical. I called this debate to give the Minister an opportunity to explain the rationale behind the changes and to question him on the impact they will have, to ask him to reconsider the crude distinction that has been made between those on active and inactive benefits, and to urge him, at the very least, to delay the changes by a year to allow those involved in the provision of ESOL to work with the Government to find a way forward.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes are another example of this Government’s attack on women? Figures from the Association of Colleges suggest that about 77% of those affected by the changes will be women who, in a two-parent household, will not be in receipt of the benefits required.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and believe that the changes will have a hugely disproportionate effect on women and on members of black and ethnic minority communities across the country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that acquiring English language skills is important both for women’s access to the labour market, and because women mediate so many of the social services for families such as medical appointments, dealing with schools and so on?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will come on to those matters later in my contribution.

One reason I requested this debate is because a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting a group of ESOL students at the Granville Park education centre in my constituency. About 25 women sat in a classroom in Lewisham and asked me whether their individual circumstances mean that they will have to pay for their courses this September. They wanted to know why the Government are making changes to the funding of ESOL courses, how much money will be saved, and why the Government are taking away the one thing that offers them a lifeline out of poverty and the chance of a better life. They wanted to know whether the Government are pushing through the changes simply because they think that they can get away with it. The people affected by the changes, such as those women, are some of the least likely to be able to mount a campaign against them. Suffice it to say, I struggled to answer their questions.

The ESOL students I met in Lewisham come from all over the world. Some are eastern European, some African, some Asian and some from the middle east. Some have come to this country recently, and others have been here for many years. Most are not in receipt of active benefits and do not receive jobseeker’s allowance or employment support allowance. Many of those people have husbands in relatively low paid jobs, and many are in receipt of tax credits. Most have children in local schools and told me that they want to improve their English in order to get a job. Without exception, all of them told me that they want to speak better English so as to get on in life and be able to speak to their doctor, their neighbours and their children’s school teacher.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I wonder whether her experience has been similar to mine. Priory Park in my constituency has written to me to say that out of 42 students in the three classes run by that centre, only one receives benefits that will qualify them for such support in the future.

That has certainly been my experience in Lewisham, and research by the Association of Colleges shows that a significant number of people who study ESOL courses are in receipt of inactive benefits.

I was talking about the sorts of people whom we find in English language classes across the country. Some people in the UK may ask how it is that those who cannot speak English are living in the United Kingdom. I have some sympathy with such a sentiment, although I wonder how many Brits living abroad make little effort to learn the local language. More seriously, the circumstances that led to some people—refugees in particular—coming to this country in the first place did not mean that they could say, “Hang on a minute, let me brush up on my English language skills.” Like it or not, there are people in this country, many of whom are British citizens, who have poor language skills.

When the Prime Minister tells us how vital it is that all migrants speak the language of their new home, I agree with him. When he says that practical things can make a big difference to community cohesion, I agree with him again. When he says that the presence in neighbourhoods of significant numbers of people who cannot speak the same language as those already living in the area can cause discomfort and disjointedness, I agree with him for a third time. Why on earth, therefore, are the Prime Minster’s colleagues, including the Minister present today, making it harder for people to learn English? It is completely nonsensical. Many other countries make language training compulsory for new arrivals, but we are in the unique position of running the risk of making it harder to learn English.

The situation that I described of the ESOL class in Lewisham is replicated in towns and cities up and down the country. A recent survey carried out by the Association of Colleges found that at least 90,000 ESOL students are on inactive benefits—that is 90,000 people who currently have access to free language tuition but will not if they start their course in September. According to the survey, 74% of those people are women. The AOC’s survey also found that over half of ESOL students receive inactive benefits—income support, working tax credits or housing benefit—but that only 14% receive the so-called active benefits of jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance. Did the Minister realise that when he published his skills strategy last November, and did he realise that roughly two thirds of ESOL students on inactive benefits are women? I know that he has promised an equality impact assessment of the changes to ESOL funding, as distinct from the broader assessment carried out by the skills for sustainable growth strategy, but where is it? Will he update us on when that assessment will be published?

One of the most perverse things that strikes me about the changes to the way that ESOL is funded is that we could end up in a situation where money has been allocated to colleges and other providers for courses such as ESOL, but they will not be able to use it. There is a serious risk that Government funding will just sit in bank accounts during the coming academic year because the students who should be on those courses simply will not be able to pay their half of the course fees.

The Government seem to have acknowledged that that could be a problem in the most recent guidance note published by the Skills Funding Agency. Paragraph 53 of guidance note 7 states:

“The Agency recognises that new rules on learner eligibility and fee remission mean that many colleges and training organisations will have to make significant shifts in their provision in order to earn the allocation they have received for 2011/12. Given the scale of the challenge, the Agency will consider some transitional flexibility, to support colleges and training organisations making that change.”

Paragraph 54 states:

“At the end of the year, if the Agency is satisfied that a transition plan has been successfully implemented during 2011/12, the Agency will agree a manual adjustment to the final claim, to reduce the amount of funding that would otherwise be subject to clawback.”

Will the Minister explain whether that means that colleges that cannot spend their adult education budget on ESOL courses next year because the students simply will not be coming through their doors can keep the money that they would otherwise have spent?

Does my hon. Friend share the concern expressed to me by Trafford college that some colleges may be forced to close classes, so even for those people who can fund themselves to attend college classes, those classes may cease to exist?

I agree that college governors throughout the country are making decisions at this time about how they will fund courses next year and whether to keep staff on or put them on notice of redundancy, so there is a real danger that the ability to provide the courses will simply dry up.

I spoke about the possibility of funds just sitting in bank accounts this year, unable to be used, as the students will not be coming through the door because they would not be able to pay their half of the course fees. I ask myself and the Minister whether that is a good use of public funds in such straitened economic times or whether it is an admission that the Department had not really understood the significance of the changes that it included when it published its strategy document last November. What happens in a year’s time, when money has not been spent and budgets are being set for the subsequent year? Does the Minister recognise that reduced spend by colleges and training providers will be a reflection not of demand for English language courses, but of students’ inability to pay?

There is an additional point. If courses cease because of cuts, students who have already made some progress but who cannot afford the fees in the coming year will not be able to study. I know from my appalling French that if people do not focus on the study of a new language and maintain their learning, they go backwards.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Later in my speech, I have some testimony from Lewisham college students who make precisely that point—that to improve and, indeed, to make the best progress possible, there needs to be continuity of learning.

I was talking about the latest guidance note from the Skills Funding Agency. While I am on that subject, I would like to ask the Minister a few more questions. In particular, why is the Department treating ESOL differently from other basic skills training and foundation learning? In paragraph 47 of the latest Skills Funding Agency note, the Government state that where a learner has an entitlement to a level 2 qualification, entry or level 1 aims will be fully funded to facilitate progression. However, the note also states that skills for life, including ESOL, are exempt from that provision. Will the Minister tell me why? Simply saying, as guidance note 7 does, that guidance note 6 deals with that is not an answer to my question.

It is remarkable that colleges and training providers may not be able to spend money that has been allocated to address basic skills because of the new co-financing requirements that the Government are introducing. That just does not make sense.

I will turn now to some of the wider arguments about why investment in ESOL courses is so important. In the last few days, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has estimated that eastern European immigration has added £4.9 billon to the UK’s gross domestic product. Surely having more people able to speak the language and able to work is a good thing. The alternative is more dependence on the state and a greater outlay on benefits. That is before we start to think about the knock-on effects of poor language ability on the public purse.

In April, a series of freedom of information requests to London hospitals showed that in the three years from 2007 to 2010, £15 million was spent by seven different hospitals on interpreters and translators. We know that other parts of the public sector, whether councils or the Courts Service, have similarly high bills. Again, I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a Minister. This time, it is the Minister for Immigration, who is quoted in connection with that story as saying:

“This illustrates very starkly why we need to do more to ensure that those people who are settled in this country can speak basic English.”

Will the Minister responsible for skills tell me what discussions he has had with the Minister for Immigration about the impact of his changes to ESOL? Has he told the Minister for Immigration that his Department’s changes will result in fewer people being able to speak basic English? It is not just the NHS that is affected.

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful case with which most of us would agree. Given the financial constraints that the Government find themselves under because of the general economic situation, will she accept that for every pound that she would like to be restored to the budget for ESOL, a pound should be taken away from translation along the lines that she has suggested?

This issue is so important and has such knock-on effects that investment in English language courses is fundamental. That is why I have called for the debate today.

I was making some points about the wider societal importance of English language skills and had spoken about the NHS. Let us think now about schools and what happens to many children who grow up without English as their mother tongue. They go to primary schools and hundreds of teachers throughout the country do a sterling job in improving their language skills and helping them to integrate with their classmates. Then they go home, where perhaps they revert to speaking the language of their mother and father. Is it not much better for those children to be able to hear both their parents speaking English—perhaps not all the time, but at least so that they can see and hear that their parents can speak the language? Is it not much better for their parents to be able to understand the letter from school, to be able to speak to the teachers and to be able to contribute to the wider school community?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the very powerful case that she has made. Like me, she represents an area in south-east London with a very large number of relatively poor migrants and she will know the number of occasions on which in our surgeries we are confronted with constituents who bring a child to translate for them. Her point is very powerful: in the interests of community cohesion, it must be right to encourage those families to speak English at home and not just to depend on their children to translate for them.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. Like him, I have had that experience at my surgeries.

We are coming to the nub of the debate now. Time and again, people at the top of the Government have talked tough on immigration and community cohesion. It is often a simplistic narrative that runs the danger of inflaming tensions rather than dealing with them. However, its simplicity, even if it is problematic in many ways, demonstrates how critical language skills are to building a shared sense of what it means to be British, what it means to live together in our towns and cities and how we might all be able to develop respect and tolerance for someone else’s way of life.

That is why, on 30 March, I stood up in the Chamber and asked the Prime Minister to reconsider the Government’s plans for ESOL, given his desire to see everyone speaking English. His response was illuminating. He said:

“We will have to take some difficult decisions over student numbers, and the priority should be to ensure that our universities can go on attracting the best and the brightest from around the world...That is why we have said that there should be a post-study work route. However, it does mean that we should be tough, particularly on those colleges that are not highly regarded. The fact is that over the last year, about 90,000 students were coming to colleges that did not have proper regard at all.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 342.]

I could not quite believe what I heard. I was so incensed as I sat there that I am surprised that I did not get a “Calm down, dear.”

I appreciate that answers to unasked questions are a common occurrence in politics, but I am afraid that the ignorance the Prime Minister’s reply demonstrated was in another league altogether. I was not talking about international students coming to the UK to learn English, about bogus colleges or about 90,000 students coming to study at institutions with no “proper regard”. I actually had to watch the clip of our exchange again on Democracy Live because I thought I must have been so vague and ambiguous that the Prime Minister could not possibly have understood me, but, no, I was relatively clear, and the Prime Minister did not know what I was talking about.

I was talking about the thousands of people who are settled in the UK and who need to be able to speak our language. I was talking about the mums in Lewisham, Sheffield and Liverpool who are desperate to learn English. There may not be many such mums in Witney, but if the Prime Minister is going to insist on giving us lectures on immigration and community cohesion, he should at least have a basic grasp of the things that can make a difference to communities such as the one I represent, and ESOL is one of those things.

Before I close, I want to refer to some of the stories of Lewisham college’s ESOL students, all of whom have contacted me about the proposed changes. Solange Makaba is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has lived in the UK for 11 years. She says:

“I heard on the news yesterday that the government is going to change everything about studies in this country and I feel disappointed and depressed about it.”

Speaking of when she first came to this country, she says:

“I didn’t know where to start and I was unable to do anything because I had a problem with my English. It was too hard at the beginning, but when I found an ESOL class, it helped me a lot. Now I am able to do something because I improved my English.”

I have another e-mail, from Nanthankumary Sivakumar, and the Minister should already be familiar with these comments, as the e-mail was copied to both of us on 10 February. Nanthankumary says:

“I am writing to you because I feel worried about the proposed cuts to ESOL English classes. I came to England in 2005, when I couldn’t speak English and no one could help. First my life was hard. Then my husband found work. After that my children joined a school. It was very difficult for me because I couldn’t understand English at my children’s school and GP. I couldn’t answer important phone calls during that period. I thought about going back to France. Then I found an English class at Lewisham College. I couldn’t speak very well but I could manage everything. If I had to pay for my course I wouldn’t have improved so quickly”—

my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) touched on that—

“and I wouldn’t be able to help my children. I am worried that after the cuts people will not be able to access education.”

There is also the story of Maryam Zeinolabedini, whose e-mail the Minister was also copied in on. Maryam says:

“I am writing to tell you that I am very worried about the proposed cuts to ESOL courses…When I came to England, I couldn’t speak English. I was living in Nottingham and one day I was very sick. I went to hospital and nobody could help me. I was very upset and for 4 hours I waited for an interpreter.”

After that, she decided to learn English. She says:

“I went to college and English classes. I was very happy because I got a part time job in a factory and in the afternoon I went to college and discussed with my classmates and teacher and improved my English. If I had to pay for my ESOL course I couldn’t come to college and would feel very unhappy and couldn’t communicate with people.”

Finally, there is Percy Tabaoda, who says:

“I am writing to you because I’m so worried about the proposed Government cuts to ESOL and the effects they’ll have on the most vulnerable people and their families. I come from Peru and I’ve been living in this country for more than 10 years. I’m a British citizen now but in my experience as an immigrant I’ll tell you that what helped me gain confidence and integrate into the society was courses like ESOL. I believe the government will be making a big mistake if they proceed with the cuts because it is not a solution to the problems the country is facing.”

I repeat: the changes are not a solution to the problems the country is facing—Percy hits the nail on the head. The danger, of course, is that the proposed changes to ESOL will not only not be a solution, but will make some of the problems in our country much worse. I implore Ministers to look again at their proposed change. They should look hard at the impact assessment when their civil servants put it in front of them. They should look again at the Prime Minister’s speeches and ask themselves whether they really think their changes will result in more people being able to speak basic English.

I have not come here to score political points, but because the Government did not do their homework before announcing the changes to ESOL last November. I want to give the last word to another constituent, Nick Linford, who is a further education funding consultant and the managing director of Learning and skills—events, consultancy and training, or Lsect. I must thank Nick for his help and advice over the bank holiday weekend when I was preparing this speech. He sums up the current situation better than I ever could when he says:

“The change to inactive benefit policy will impact on tens of thousands of English language learners, something it is clear the Government did not properly consider when they announced the policy…in November 2010. It is an unintended consequence and a rethink whilst embarrassing is more than worth it…as aside from the impact on communities and people’s lives, it would avoid tens of millions in funding going unspent.”

In referring to unintended consequences, Nick gives the Government the benefit of the doubt, and the debate gives the Government an opportunity to show that he is right to so.

Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at about 10.35 am. At least 10 hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. If hon. Members do the maths, they will work out that they have about three minutes each. I have no power to curtail speeches, and I had, in fact, been allowing for the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) to take rather longer. However, the length of time for which Members speak is not in my gift, but in the gift of others present.

Six or seven months before the election, I attended a session on phonics at a school where I was a governor. The session was also attended by 50 parents—48 women and two men. I am not suggesting that all those who attended were poor at English, but the parents of only 10% of the school’s children—there are nearly 700 children at the school and its nursery—were born in this country, so Members will appreciate the difficulties that the children have at times with the lack of English in their homes.

When Kate and Will looked at their contribution to reducing the deficit, I am sure that they carried out a cost-benefit analysis and decided that their wedding was worth while, because of the tourism and the extra hotel rooms that would be booked. In the case of ESOL provision, too, we really need to look rigorously at the cost-benefit analysis. We are not talking about people who are fluent in Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati, or in the languages of Slovakia and Lithuania. Very often, although not so much in the case of eastern Europeans, we are talking about people who have never developed language skills, even in their mother tongue, and ESOL lessons are the first time that they learn not only English, but how to develop language skills.

One of the most powerful arguments used against the education maintenance allowance, which I did not agree with, was the infamous dead-weight argument that 90% of people would go to college or stay on even without EMA. However, surely that argument does not apply to the situation that we are discussing. Clearly, the majority of people who benefit from ESOL provision would not be able fully to fund it themselves. At Bradford college, 46% of ESOL students who are currently fully funded would not receive full funding, and they would not be able to access ESOL provision.

We have a social contract. I did not sign the pledge on free higher education, which has been a massive subsidy to the middle and upper classes for years, and I welcome the fact that those people will now have to contribute to the cost of their higher education. However, there is a social contract for those up to 18, and all parties agree that we should provide free education up to the statutory leaving age. We have reached that agreement, because we realise that young people need to develop basic knowledge and skills, including language skills, to make the best of themselves when they leave full-time education. Why do we not extend that free aspect? Why does that social contract not extend to those who do not have English, whatever their age? Whether people are 19 or 90, if they do not have the skills to enable them to be fully functioning members of society, why do we not extend that social contract to them, as we do to those under 18? The argument that is made is that that is a matter of equality. We do not fund, apart from those on active benefits, those who are over 19, so why should we provide ESOL for those over 19? However, the lesson that I have learned over many years in my community is that if unequal people are treated equally, inequality is reinforced. If one does not favour those who are over 19 but who lack the basic skills to be part of a functioning society, one is disadvantaging and reinforcing the inequality that already exists.

Bradford college, one of the largest providers of ESOL in the country, has considered the impact on the local community. Those on low incomes are likely to remain on low incomes, as they will lose out on the opportunity to develop their language skills and to improve their employment prospects.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, with this approach, the Government are creating an environment of social alienation, which can be so damaging to multicultural communities such as mine?

That approach is damaging to my community, as well. I believe that that is a fundamental consideration that needs to be taken on board. Bradford college has also said:

“The college currently makes an excellent contribution to Bradford’s widening participation, social mobility and social cohesion agendas. The ESOL team is a significant force in meeting these agendas.”

Coming from Bradford, I know the cost of not having social cohesion, which is a cost that we cannot afford. We need to do all that we can, which includes fully funding ESOL provision for all those who require it. In answer to the question whether, pound for pound, provision should be for translators or for ESOL, it should be both—maybe we could fund that from the royal family.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. I will do my best to be brief to allow other colleagues to contribute.

I wish to refer to two aspects of the impact of Government policies on my constituency. The first has been expressed in correspondence from Michael Farley, principal of Tower Hamlets college, who tells me that at the college there are 2,000 adult students on ESOL training, only 20% of whom are on active benefits. He also expects a 24% cut in ESOL funding generally. He asked me to raise three specific points with the Minister. My hon. Friend has already referred to two such points, and maybe to all three.

The first point concerns when the Minister will publish the specific equality impact assessment on the ESOL changes, which will be appreciated as soon as possible. Secondly, there has been a request to delay any changes by at least a year to allow a working group to be convened by the Association of Colleges, the Refugee Council, the University and College Union and others to try to plot a consensus and way forward. Thirdly, there has been a request to consider a sliding scale of fees depending on circumstances, which would replace the current models with colleges having flexibility to decide how they support the provision. Tower Hamlets college is a huge educational institution in my constituency, and it provides education to people from the next-door constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). Michael Farley’s advice has been taken by both of us, and we are keen to hear the Minister’s response.

The second aspect of the impact was clear from a visit that I made to the Bromley by Bow centre in my constituency, one of the premier social entrepreneurial centres in the UK, where I met 100 ESOL students, 95 of whom were women and 85 of whom were not on active benefits and therefore will not be entitled to future support. Seeking work is obviously an important criterion, but many of those people are not looking for work and are therefore not entitled to benefits. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East has said, the ability to communicate with their children and teachers in English is very important, and the ability to present adequately to doctors—to describe signs and symptoms and be able to understand the advice and medication—is critical.

It is most important that people integrate into UK society, which is a fundamental ambition of all political parties. With these policies, we are preventing that from taking place. Those critical aspects of life are not addressed by the coalition’s proposals. The ESOL students at the Bromley by Bow centre asked me to raise those points with the Minister and to seek his response to them. I am pleased to have the chance to do that, and I thank my hon. Friend for providing the opportunity. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those important points, which I will send to my constituents.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. She spoke in a heartfelt way, although some hyperbolic concerns have been expressed by some of her colleagues.

I want to offer my input as a Government Member with an inner-London seat. I share the concerns that have been expressed about the unintended consequences at the margins of some of the proposals, and I will be listening to the Minister with interest. Westminster Kingsway college in my constituency does a tremendous job not only for my constituents but for other central London authorities.

As the Minister shadowed his role in opposition for some years, he fully understands elements of the skills gap. He is passionate about what he is trying to achieve in what has been the Cinderella area of further education for many years. We will see some tremendous advantages from some of the deep-seated work that he has done in the area. He recognises the importance of English language skills, and I hope that he will work through all the unintended consequences of the financial implications. I expect that he will say more on that point.

We are living in difficult financial straits. In the exchange that I had earlier with the hon. Member for Lewisham East, I was sincere in saying that there has been a tremendous amount of waste in translation services not only in our hospitals but in local authorities. Conservative local authorities have been equally big offenders, with huge amounts of money spent on translating masses of literature into umpteen languages. I have seen that both in Westminster and in the next-door authority of Kensington and Chelsea, where I was a councillor for eight years. I made these points time and again during the late 1990s about the amount of money being spent in rather more clement economic weather—I was not trying to be flippant and we have got to think about that. Is there a way in which we can make distinct savings and ring-fence money saved on translation services to be put into ESOL?

In the 10 years in which I have been an MP in inner London, I have always stood up for English language courses. I have always said, whenever I have been lobbied—particularly by the large Bangladeshi and Chinese communities in my constituency—about courses in their home language, that I do not believe it right for public money to be spent in that area. However, where there is a need—there clearly is—for English language skills in those communities, we should do all that we can. I accept we are living in a very different economic environment and that money is tight.

I take on board what the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) had to say. This issue transcends further education; it is an issue of community cohesion, and we must take it extremely seriously. If that means the Minister knocking some heads together in the Home Office to ensure that we can parcel elements of this budget, it would be a sensible way forward.

I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the heartfelt concerns expressed today. I accept that we are in such a difficult financial state that we have to make some difficult decisions and that this is one of them. However, I hope that we can look at community cohesion in a much broader way, and I also hope that the Minister will work with other Ministers.

I look forward to hearing other contributions to the debate. I hope that we can all work together, and that it is not a matter of making hyperbolic claims about the Government being somewhat racist or sexist. We all recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made, and I hope that we can work together in the interests of community cohesion and of making life better for many millions of immigrants who are committed to this country. Many of them were equally committed to the events on the streets of London last Friday. It was great to see many coloured faces of people who recognise that the royal family represents all their interests in a way that no political party can purport to do.

On a number of occasions, I have presented certificates to ESOL graduates in my constituency. York college, which provides the majority of the courses, does an essential job.

English is one of our great national assets. It is the international language for business, science, politics and the internet. It gives our country an enormous economic advantage. It is a mistake to think of immigration as a one-way flow. Millions who came to our country helped us to create the economic boom of the noughties. They came from eastern and central Europe and from many other parts of the world, and many of them returned to their countries speaking English, which helps to give us the enormous global economic advantage of making ours the pre-eminent international language.

The Government are right to use the teaching of English for speakers of other languages as a way to help people get paid work, but they are wrong to suppose that it is only Jobcentre Plus that provides a route from benefits into work. College courses are effective, and they reach people that Jobcentre Plus does not reach and enable them to find work. The Government are also wrong to assume that paid work is the only way for people to contribute to society. What about voluntary work? The big society will fail if it does not involve immigrants and speakers of other languages. The Prime Minister is right to say that immigrants have a duty to integrate; they should not be excluded from the big society, but unless they are given the opportunity to learn our language, they will be.

The Association of Colleges has made some useful suggestions, and I hope that the Minister will consider them carefully and take them on board. It suggests a sliding scale of fees rather than students getting the course for free or having to pay the full rate. It also suggests that for many of those with basic skills needs, the learning of English is a means to an end, because without the ability to communicate in our language, they will not gain the necessary basic numeracy and literacy skills.

I know that time is short, so my final point is this. I know that the Minister has taken a huge interest in promoting apprenticeships during his time in Parliament, both in opposition and in government. He will know that black and minority ethnic people are enormously under-represented on apprenticeship schemes. If the Government cut back on giving people from other countries who do not speak English the opportunity to learn our language, that huge racial disadvantage will never be overcome.

I apologise, Mr Gale, because I will not be able to stay for the whole debate; I have to attend the Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee at 10.30 am.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. I am grateful to the Minister for engaging in correspondence with me on the problem as it affects my central Manchester constituency. My constituency also contains a diverse and successful multicultural community, so I strongly support everything said this morning about the impact on individuals and families and on the implications for strengthening communities and community cohesion.

I wish to raise a couple of specific points, as time is so short. First, will the Minister amplify what he said in his letter of 13 April about the way in which colleges are to be encouraged to identify and draw in people from vulnerable backgrounds and communities? What processes will be put in place to make that happen? What guidance will be made available to colleges to support them in making those decisions? What auditing or monitoring will be put in place subsequently to ensure that it is indeed the most vulnerable learners who have access to those courses?

Secondly, ESOL funding is to continue for people making steps back into employment through jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Whether those people are routed through Jobcentre Plus or Work programme providers, how will the Minister ensure that there is sufficient funding for colleges to sustain that provision and enable access to those courses? As I have said, it is a big concern for Trafford college in my constituency that classes may have to close. ESOL funding has always been patchy and stop-go, and it is difficult to rely on it. What assurances can the Minister give that there will be certainty of funding, even for those who now or under a future regime will remain entitled?

Thirdly, what attention is being to given to ensuring that ESOL provision is sufficiently resourced to meet the needs of people not only to learn English but to learn it in a way that allows them to apply it through their roles in the community and on their journeys towards employment? That applies whether or not they are on active benefits. Many women in my community in Trafford are not on active benefits, but it is none the less likely that at some point they will want to move into paid employment. They are certainly actively engaged in their communities.

The best way to reach those women is in the settings where they already go, and for English language teaching to be set in the context of the activities that they already undertake in the community—in Sure Start centres, in caring for their children, in medical centres and talking to their doctors, in improving their children’s health and well-being and in the context of the kind of jobs that they might be interested in doing in future, such as caring, catering or clerical roles. I would be grateful if the Minister were to say something about making ESOL courses useful and relevant to people’s life courses, whether in or out of work, and about resourcing and supporting them.

I am sorry that I cannot be here to hear the Minister’s response, but I undertake to read his comments in the Official Report, particularly as I am meeting the principal of my further education college in Trafford later this week to discuss this important matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. Indeed, the number of Members present shows how essential it is.

As time is short and many have spoken on the matters about which I would have liked to speak, I simply support the ideas that have been expressed and recognise the feelings in their constituencies. As a person who had little knowledge of English 42 years ago, I know that without the opportunity to learn the language in this country I probably would have been working on the factory floor. In today’s circumstances, I would probably not even have had the chance to work.

Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college in my constituency is one of the largest providers of ESOL courses in the UK, with almost 3,000 students at its five campuses. More than 2,000 of the students are women, many of whom will now be denied the chance to improve their English, their job prospects and their children’s chances of fully integrating into society. The college told me that it was concerned that the high proportion of women who will be affected will have a severe impact on families and on the next generation. They said this change will stop English being spoken at home, which means that the fluency of the younger generation will continue to be affected, thus ensuring that the literacy and language problems already present in our schools will be perpetuated, affecting educational standards.

The college also spoke to me of its dismay that women in particular will now be denied the chance to learn. It said:

“it seems to have been forgotten that many of these students have escaped serious repression in their own countries. The women in particular are also frequently fighting their husbands to have the freedom to study. The real issue, therefore, is that they have come to this country to find their voice, and in return we are locking them into silence.”

My hon. Friend rightly concentrates, as have others, on the effect on students, but Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college—the largest provider of ESOL in his constituency and mine—will suffer badly because ESOL courses give people access to other courses enabling them to gain further qualifications. The college will lose £5 million, and its successful future will be jeopardised by these changes, which are very short-sighted.

I agree with my hon. Friend. The colleges and campuses are in both of our constituencies, and I am aware of his point.

The students at West London college felt so strongly about the changes that they organised an ESOL day of action, which I, and probably many other Members in their own constituencies, attended. The students are worried that their voices are not being heard by the Government. Now is the time to stop and listen to those who will have to live with these changes. The Prime Minister wanted the Government to go further in helping those who come to the UK to learn English, and we must ensure that that wish is fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will take note of the views that are being expressed not just by me but by many of my colleagues who have experienced similar calls from their constituents. He must ensure that people have the opportunities and resources to integrate into our society and to improve their working opportunities so that they, too, can contribute to the future of this country.

I apologise that I will have to rush away early from this debate to attend a statutory instrument Committee at 10.30. I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on the fine way in which she has presented her case today. She said everything that needed to be said, but we all want to add a little of our own experience.

Many of the students of the Granville Park education centre, which my hon. Friend visited, are constituents of mine, and Lewisham college is in my constituency. Its excellent principal, Maxine Room, has made representations on the subject to both my hon. Friends and me.

If the Minister were to say that the Labour Government started this process of targeting benefits, I would say to him that when we targeted, we wanted to be absolutely sure that these were people who were resident in this country and who had the right to be here and to be on benefits. There is a difference between what his Government propose and what we did in 2007. We said, “If you are here and entitled as a member of our society, we want you to be able to learn English.” It is this change to active benefits that excludes so many women. Women are often not even required to sign for active benefits. They are legitimately claiming inactive benefits. Many women who are single parents have young children in their care and cannot possibly put themselves forward for an active benefit, but they are playing a real part in society. It is this matter of community cohesion that must concern us.

I have been appalled by the idea of very young children having to explain to doctors their mothers’ gynaecological conditions. Some women have no hope of getting medical help without such assistance from their child.

I remember a group of Somali mothers who came together because of their great concern that their children were not in school. Some 17 Somali youngsters were identified who were not in school and not known to the education authorities. The mothers did not know how to get their children into school. If we want community cohesion, we do not want to see children, who were never schooled in the original countries from which they and their mothers fled because of appalling violence, not being given the opportunity to be in school in this country.

I urge the Minister to look at the equality assessment objectively when it comes in. Opposition Members and, I think, Government Members, believe that that will demonstrate that this measure is against everything the Government have ever said they want to achieve in terms of community cohesion and it is certainly discriminatory against women. He must find the scope to act if he has the evidence. This issue must be grasped because we are punishing those who have often suffered already, those who have come here to make a better life for themselves, and those who just want to live a normal life but cannot access that life or integrate. Time prevents me from reading out some of the many letters that I have received on this matter. None the less, the Minister will see that he needs to change his mind. I am sorry that I cannot be here to hear him promise to do that, but I hope very much that he will.

In view of the time, I will severely curtail my points. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on this timely debate and I welcome the comments from Government Members on the need to work together in resolving the issue. I tabled an early-day motion on the issue, which drew support from parties across the House. There is the potential for us to address the concerns that have been raised this morning.

I will not read out all the testimonies that I received in response to my early-day motion. A number of students from Sheffield college talked about wanting to improve their lives, to find a job, to help their children, and to be able to talk to their doctor. One said, “I don’t need an interpreter any more. I feel more confident. I can join in with things. I won’t keep myself so far from society.” Is not that what we all want to see?

Of the testimonies I received, almost all of them were from women. That is not surprising. As has already been said, 74% of ESOL students on inactive benefits—those who will be affected by the Government’s proposals—are women. Six months on from the original proposals being published by the Department, the equality impact assessment has yet to be produced. Only last week, the Minister, in response to a written question that I tabled, said:

“There is no specific date currently planned for publication of the assessment.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 487W.]

That is simply not acceptable because there is a date for implementation of the proposals. There is a real danger that we will find ourselves in a position—as the Government have on other policies—in which we implement changes before we consider the evidence. I join my hon. Friend in urging a delay in implementation.

Although, regrettably, I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate, I would like an assurance from the Minister today that he will consider our remarks and that we will receive the equality impact assessment and have the opportunity to consider it before the Government proceed with their proposals. That delay will give us the time to consider the helpful proposals that have been made by the Association of Colleges and others. My own early-day motion simply asks the Government to modify their proposals to alleviate the devastating impact that they will have on many people, and on women in particular.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) brilliantly summed up the main points. I just want to add a few remarks about what is happening in my area. I have been contacted by Uxbridge college, which delivers ESOL classes from the Hayes campus. The principal, Laraine Smith, has contacted me, as has the ESOL lecturer Rubina Kause. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), is one of the most multicultural in the country and has a 100-year history of migration. When ESOL was introduced, we found that it significantly contributed to overcoming divisions and isolation and maintaining a cohesive community.

I attend the award ceremonies for ESOL classes in my area. There is a 100% attendance record for such classes, and they are mainly attended by women. When I ask them what their motivation is, they say that it is about supporting their children in education and wanting to engage in the wider community. In my area, 80% of students are not on the benefits appropriate to enable them to maintain their attendance at these classes.

The main concern expressed by the colleges is that individuals will be driven back into isolation, which will result in a divided community in the future. Uxbridge college in my constituency has already lost its capital grant for reconstruction. It has lost grants that have supported ESOL classes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall said, its concern is that there will now be further instability that will threaten the courses that it offers in the long term.

I urge the Minister to pause again. We await the outcome of the equality impact assessment, but I invite him today to visit a number of colleges. I am happy for him to visit classes in my own area and to meet representatives of the University and College Union and some of its lecturers to talk through the long-term implications for our communities of the threat to these courses. I cannot overestimate the seriousness of the cuts to these courses for the wider community.

I, too, want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) for initiating this debate. I also want to thank the Minister. Along with representatives of the Refugee Council and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, I had a meeting with him about this policy. At the end of that meeting, I felt a bit optimistic. I feel slightly foolish about that now; I thought that the Minister had got the point.

That point has been emphasised in speeches today. It is that this policy will affect women in an unfair way and that the women who will be affected are the mothers of children whose future is here in Britain. I do not think that we have heard enough about their children. For a child to succeed in school, the input of their parents is critical and mums who can read in English with their children make a major contribution to their children’s learning.

In my constituency, the evidence is that five times as many women as men are affected by this policy and that it is mums for whom the difference is greatest, because it is mums who quite often find it difficult to get out of their homes. That is not only because they do not have the necessary resources but because there are “gatekeepers” in their family who will not allow them out, except to something safe such as an ESOL class. It is a very liberating experience for mothers to attend such a class.

I urge the Minister to raid not only the translation budgets, which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) has already referred to, but the interpretation budgets. In our police stations and health service in Slough, we spend a huge amount on Language Line. If we could ensure that patients and criminals alike could speak English, less money would need to be spent on Language Line. The Minister needs to invest to save that money.

The Minister wrote to me after our meeting and said:

“We have therefore prioritised Government investment in training for unemployed people actively seeking work.”

He is being too short-term in his thinking. The people who we are talking about today will be able to work in future, but right now they are not able to seek work actively. Unless we invest in them at this point, they will never be able to seek work actively, because one of the things that I have discovered through speaking to many ESOL teachers is that getting people early, before they have learned to get by with pidgin English, is the key to their achieving success in learning English.

I urge the Minister not only to scoop money out of the interpretation budgets for the Home Office and the NHS and use it to reduce the need for interpretation, but to invest in community provision of ESOL. That provision involves family learning, ESOL with reading and ESOL with basic skills. If he could offer that kind of provision, it would provide some of the things that we need for the mums who I am talking about.

There is another thing that the Minister could do. In his letter to me, he referred to “flexibilities” for colleges. If there were more flexibility for colleges, the risk that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East referred to—of colleges having money that they cannot spend—would be reduced. In my constituency, for example, the percentage of students who will receive fee remission in the council-run courses will fall from 82% at present to 6% under the Minister’s proposals. If he gave complete flexibility to colleges and other providers about how they used the money that he gave them, I think that they would use that flexibility well.

Unless the Minister has community-based ESOL education for free or at affordable prices for the mums I have mentioned, we will create a generation of children who, although they were born in Britain, will speak pidgin English and will not be able to use their learning as well as they ought to. Unless he invests in addressing that problem, we will lose another generation of workers.

I want to make two points, briefly. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) has already said, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college is one of the largest colleges in the country and it is the largest provider of ESOL in the country; it has almost 3,000 ESOL students. Of the college’s total number of students, 84% are of non-white British heritage, and for 70% English is not their mother tongue. Among the students, there are 100 nationalities and 70 languages are spoken. Of those taking ESOL courses, 65% are on inactive benefits and 77% are women.

Those statistics show that ESOL is fundamental to the life and success of that college and the surrounding community. This measure is not simply “another cut”; it is destroying the basis for education for thousands of people in my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies in west London—and, of course, over a wider area.

My second point is that this policy is not only about education; it is exactly to do with what the Prime Minister has said about British values, culture and traditions. In my constituency, we had an ESOL day on 24 March, when the students at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college came together to celebrate their own history and culture, as well as what ESOL had given them. They showed great enthusiasm, producing a magazine written in English in which they not only showed off their skills but said what ESOL meant to them. I will read out one excerpt from that magazine, from Mohammed Conde, who is from Guinea:

“If you don’t speak English, that means no life for you. How do you expect to live in this country if you’re not able to speak English? There are many things you have to understand about the country. For example, the laws, the history, the culture and the lifestyle, and all this only happens when you start speaking English.”

That could have been the Prime Minister speaking.

If the Minister will not listen to Mohammed Conde and the other students at the college, perhaps he will listen to the Prime Minister and look not only for people to succeed economically in this country but for a more cohesive society as a consequence of preserving ESOL for students who simply will not be able to afford the amount—up to £1,200—that they will have to pay in the future. That will destroy our colleges and the future of many young people and adults in my community and others.

I will be very brief because of the short time we have left.

I think that the Minister has been in touch with or visited City and Islington college in my constituency. Consequently, he will be well aware of the excellent work that the college does on ESOL training, the good-quality teaching that it provides and the knock-on benefits for the entire community.

During his visit, he will also have heard from the students there—and no doubt from many other students around the country—that it is not only the college-based teaching that is valuable and important but the community-based teaching and the grant support for small community groups to learn English as a second language. That is because many people, particularly women, feel extremely isolated. For them, the concept and prospect of going to a college is quite daunting, whereas a fairly small teaching group in a community centre or a similarly appropriate location can be just as effective as teaching in a college.

Any analysis of what we are doing in this country about teaching English as a second language would show that the relatively small amount spent on it has enormous beneficial effects in later life for the children of ESOL students and for the economy and the community as a whole.

In Australia, any newly arrived migrant who does not speak English receives—as of right—up to 500 hours of English teaching, to enable them to participate fully in Australian society. That is extremely valuable. The community in north London that I am very proud to represent has dozens of different languages, possibly even 100. The multicultural concept and the associated quality of life is hugely valuable. However, there is a thirst among those people to be able to contribute to society. If we do not teach those people English, or give them the opportunity to learn English, in a college or elsewhere in a community, where will they learn it? English is not spoken in their homes, as nobody there has had the chance to learn it other than through the children. As a result, we end up with the embarrassing consequences of small children translating for their parents, as other Members have already pointed out, or we end up with children underachieving in school because their parents are unable to support and assist them. Those children underachieve and their parents are unable to access work.

We should educate the parents, particularly the mother, to speak English. The knock-on effects of doing that are enormous—for the achievements of the children in school and for the participation in society of both parents in every way, including gaining access to work and jobs. We would get back the money spent a dozenfold, in increased taxation and increased income for the community as a whole. It is a win-win situation as a result of a relatively small investment.

My plea to the Minister is that he fight his corner within Government spending requirements, that he understand both the value of English as a second language to the learners and its benefit to our entire community, and that he recognise the dedicated commitment of ESOL teachers in colleges and communities up and down the country. They not only teach English as a second language but do so much to bring the people they teach into the ambit of community life, so that they understand what it is like to live in this country and understand the rights, responsibilities and opportunities that they have. Cutting back on that is not sensible, fair or reasonable, and will simply be counter-productive in the long run. Give people a chance to communicate, participate and be part of our society; give them the chance to learn English as a second language.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on the comprehensive and passionate way in which she has put her case—and, indeed, the case of so many Members on both sides of the Chamber today. She conveyed with great passion and conviction her points about the particular impact on women, which were echoed by so many, and about whether the Minister had realised that two thirds of ESOL students were women. She also made points about the practicalities of the co-funding, about why the Departments are treating ESOL differently from various other Skills Funding Agency funding streams, and about economic activity.

My hon. Friend’s passion and conviction have been shared by the other contributors. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) urged the Minister to look at the cost-benefit analysis of ESOL and focused, very importantly, on economic inequality. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) talked about listening to what the Association of Colleges has said about sliding scales of fees. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) reminded us that the issue is broader than just further education and used, I think, the phrase “knocking heads” with the Home Office—that is a challenge for the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) made the very important point that the big society will fail if it does not include new entrants, and that ESOL is very important in that process. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) urged the Minister to look at the design of the ESOL programme, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) made the point that many women come to England to find a voice and that we are in danger, with the legislative changes, of locking them into silence.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) made some very important points about the role of single parents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said that the importance of the equality impact assessment was still not recognised by the Government, even at this late stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about how ESOL overcomes division and isolation, and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a very important point about the future of Britain—about mothers and children—and said that the issue is part of lifelong learning, about which I know the Minister is passionate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) talked about how ESOL was fundamental to the life and success of FE colleges, and I shall say a little more about that shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made another important point about community-based, as well as college-based, teaching. In my own constituency of Blackpool South, many of the groups that we want to meet simply will not or cannot go to colleges, so that point is very important.

The Minister has had a cornucopia of advice and fervour today, and I think that he will recognise all the points made. ESOL courses play a key role in helping people who have arrived in the UK to learn and develop English and to integrate into our society. The Minister will know, because of his own portfolio, that that is important in equipping them to contribute to the communities in which they live, not just through their integration, but also through their skills, their taxes and their economic activities.

As we have heard several times today, no less a person than the Prime Minister has banged on about the issue in recent speeches and has rightly identified the understanding of English as a key element. Yet paradoxically, at the very time when he is being so fervent with the rhetoric, the impact of some of his Ministers’ decisions will make the job much harder. Their decision to remove ESOL funding for learners on inactive benefits—in other words, not on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance—will hit many people on low incomes. They are precisely the sort of people that ESOL courses would help, by improving their language skills and, in turn, helping them in the job market and to feel further integrated into our society, rather than being stuck on the perimeter. It is worth remembering that, alongside these changes, the £4.3 million learner support fund that gave colleges the discretion to help with fees has been scrapped, as has the funding uplift that gave ESOL courses 20% more than courses in other subjects.

I am afraid that, as with so many other policies, the Department seems to have rushed in and then stopped to ask the questions later. It is very much like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: sentence first, trial later. Only now, after the policy has been announced, a matter of months from the changes coming into force, has the Department commissioned a specific equality impact assessment.

I urge the Minister to listen to everything that has been said today and to make that assessment a real basis for real change. How could his Department sign off on changes as fundamental as these without a proper assessment of how they could affect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, and exacerbate the gender bias in progression and employment? I hope that he already has his officials working on a plan to counteract some of those anticipated problems.

The changes to ESOL funding are, however, only the tip of a large iceberg. The restriction of fee remission to only those on active benefits is being applied across the board by the Skills Funding Agency as part of the harsh funding settlement that the Minister’s Department was dealt by last year’s comprehensive spending review, and Lsect—a learning and skills analysis company—estimates that the move could affect up to 25% of the adult provision currently funded by the SFA. That works out at some 300,000 learners.

Last year’s Government skills strategy was called “Skills for Sustainable Growth”, but what exactly is sustainable in cutting back on support that would enable low-income earners to take courses to improve their skills and job prospects? Those are surely vital aspects of building a balanced and sustainable economy. Someone working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage, for example, who has an annual income of £9,050 and receives working tax credits, will no longer qualify for full fee remission, thanks to the changes being brought in by the Government. I believe that the policies will nudge people away from, rather than towards, work, and that they point to a fundamental and potentially fatal disconnect between the Government’s policies on skills and welfare.

It is clear from discussions that I have had with many of the key stakeholder groups, who were not consulted on the potential impact of ESOL change, that they are driven by the waste as well as the unfairness. I attended and spoke at a meeting in this House at the end of March, at which the University and College Union, the Association of Colleges, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Refugee Council and a number of individuals eloquently expressed their frustration with the Government on this issue. I urge the Minister to take on board not just what he can do in his own Department, but what he can and needs to do with the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, to prod them into rowing back from this ill-advised course of action.

The ESOL learning cuts could be, as others have said today, another blow to FE colleges, which have already had to cope with a 25% cut in their resource grant over the CSR period and the possible disastrous drop in enrolment thanks to the abolition of the education maintenance allowance. The cutting of ESOL funding could put college courses at risk, and in turn jeopardise lecturers’ positions, and that is reflected in a recent UCU-Unison survey that shows that 60 of the colleges surveyed were already planning to cut courses over the next year.

The Minister is, as others have been, fond of referring to FE as moving away from being a Cinderella sector. However, he knows—because he and I were in Birmingham at the Association of Colleges conference, where it came up time and again from the floor—that many of the colleges that right hon. and hon. Members here represent are very worried about the story’s ending. The confusion that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has caused over ESOL sums up the muddled thinking and lack of joined-up thinking across the Departments, with sweeping changes being made before their impact has been considered.

The Prime Minister has talked the talk on promoting cohesion and integration, but the Minister’s Department is failing to walk the walk. The issues being thrown up in ESOL provision will replicate themselves as general FE colleges across the country suffer the implications. The consequences will be serious for those who want to gain the skills to improve their career prospects and move on with their lives.

The issue is about the big society and moving forward. I urge the Minister to listen to what has been said today, delay the introduction of the policies, consider alternatives and convene the group that has been discussed. As I said, the Prime Minister has been eloquent on the subject. On 2 February, in response to a question on ESOL from one of his own Back Benchers, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), he said:

“I completely agree, and the fact is that in too many cases”,

learning English

“is not happening. The previous Government did make some progress…I think we need to go further.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 856.]

Are the cuts the sort of going further that we need? I think not. The Minister is rightly fond of literary quotations. I remind him of the words of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The General”, about Tommies on the western front:

“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack…

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”

If the Minister does not wish himself or his Prime Minister to be associated with such an outcome, he needs to think, persuade and act fast.

I am delighted to speak in this debate secured by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who represents her constituency, which I know extremely well, with a passion and commitment. I thank other hon. Members for contributing to this debate. Both the tone and the spirit of their contributions have been helpful. I put it on record that in opposition and, more especially, in government, I have always informed what I have said and done by listening to the views of others, and I am happy to do so again today. In the short time available to me, I hope to be able to give some illustration of that willingness to listen.

Let us be clear about the context in which the decisions are being made. I have two points to make about that. One was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). We are debating in difficult times for Government finances and public spending. The strategy that we published last November, which has been mentioned, set out changes that, although positive in my view, occur in the context of spending reductions, not just in the area of English for speakers of other languages but in many other areas. We have had to consider closely how to get maximum cost-effectiveness. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber expects ESOL to be exempt from such scrutiny. It was absolutely right to consider it alongside other spending commitments to decide how we could ensure value for money.

The second contextual point is that the changes are part of a strategy. I will not plead guilty to the charge that they were not thought through. We planned our skills strategy during five years in opposition, and the document that I published was the result of a careful rethink of how we fund and manage skills in this country. At the heart of that rethink is the question of who pays for what. What contribution should individuals make, what contribution should the state make and what contribution should business make? That question has been ducked for too long. It has informed the debate on skills for as long as I have been involved in it, but it has been posed and never previously answered. We are moving towards giving some clear answer.

The context is one of difficulty and the need for a fresh range of ideas and fresh thinking. However, it is also absolutely right that changes should be made on the basis of fairness. I am strongly committed to some of the principles articulated in this debate, such as social justice, social cohesion and social mobility. They are the cornerstone of my political views and should inform what we do in respect of policy. [Interruption.] I will not give way. I am terribly sorry. There have been a lot of contributions, and I want to make as much progress as I can. I apologise because I normally would.

I have five points to make in the time available to me, and in making them I will try to reflect the comments made during this debate and our consideration of these matters in correspondence and meetings. The first, which is a point of disagreement with some of the comments made, is that I take Trevor Phillips’s view of multiculturalism, to be blunt. I think that there is a choice to be made in framing a society with people who started in many different places. Either we build a society around integration or we allow the co-existence of subcultures, with the potential risk, as Phillips said, of ghettoisation. In that spirit, it is important that we develop strong bonds that unite us so that the things that unite us are more important than those that divide us. Language seems central to that. Indeed, I agree that language is an absolutely crucial element in creating such social cohesion. The issue is how to fund the acquisition of those necessary language skills.

That brings me to the second point. If English language skills are critical to the kind of integration that I seek and that the Prime Minister has advocated so powerfully, how do we go about funding the acquisition of those skills? When I first considered ESOL, it was clear to me that, for example, many people who came here temporarily as migrant workers were being trained in English free of charge. As Alan Tuckett mentioned in his Guardian article on the subject last week, some firms have advertised abroad, saying, “Come to England to work and you will be taught English free by the Government.” That seemed entirely unsustainable to me. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to subsidise highly profitable companies that recruit abroad to train their staff in English. It is not acceptable, and it must end.

Other people who came here used ESOL as a way to acquire language skills that helped them socially or culturally, or because they wanted to travel further. I remember going to a college and meeting someone from another European country, whom I asked, “Why are you learning ESOL here?” He said, “So I can travel around the world. You can’t travel around the world if you don’t have English.” That also seemed to me fundamentally unacceptable.

My third point is a point of absolute agreement with the arguments made by the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Lewisham East. It is important, where women and families are fundamentally affected by the absence of good English skills, that we consider how to help and support them. The fourth point is that it is also vital, where the absence of English is an impediment to employment and the economic activity that is central to people’s social and civic engagement, that we should also help. That is why I have decided to support people on active benefits.

The fifth point is that it was I who decided that a further impact assessment should be done. An impact assessment done at the time of the skills strategy determined that there would be no disproportionate effect on particular groups, but I felt that we should go further and consider the particular effect of this policy. That assessment will inform how the policy develops.

I will ensure that it is published in good time—certainly before the summer recess—so that we have a chance to consider it in detail, informed by debates such as this one. The assessment will, of course, consider issues such as family learning and the effect of the changes on children, mothers and women. In addition, we will consider closely how our support for adult community learning can assist the wider cultural agenda. I have defended adult community learning clearly and strongly—people will know that the £210 million budget remains intact, even following the comprehensive spending review. We will also consider how colleges can use their flexibility to address the kinds of particular concern in their neighbourhood that have been raised today.

In summary, yes, we needed to re-consider ESOL, as we have needed to consider all spending priorities; yes, we needed to eliminate some of the waste; yes, I will ensure that the review is completed properly and informs policy. We will then determine how we move forward, inspired by some of the comments made today.

I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated in this debate on their exemplary conduct. It has been most helpful.

Childhood Obesity

Thank you, Mr Gale, for the opportunity to introduce this debate on childhood obesity, which is, unfortunately, an issue that I understand far too well. Childhood obesity is a significant issue in my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth, which is part of the Hounslow borough—13.9% of children in reception are at risk of being obese, with the figure rising to 24.6% by year 6, or age 10—so I have a personal interest in finding out as much as I can about the issue and what we can do to address it.

I believe that there are two strong reasons why childhood obesity requires Government focus. First, the issue concerns children, who may not, therefore, be directly responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. We must, therefore, do all that we can to support and help them. Secondly, the potential long-term implications on the health of these children is serious, as is the cost to the state of their medical care, so it is our duty to do all that we can to address the issue.

This debate is timely, because there have been several recent developments on the issue. When I switched on the news this morning, there was a story about overweight people in middle age having a greater chance of dementia. On the children’s side, the Greater London authority has commissioned a report on childhood obesity in London, which looks in detail at the causes of childhood obesity and the effectiveness of intervention programmes. The London assembly has published a report on childhood obesity in London, “Tipping the scales”, which considers the role that the Mayor of London could play and puts the cost of treating childhood obesity in the capital at £7.1 million per annum. The current generation of obese children will cost the London economy £110.8 million a year if they grow up to be overweight adults. The Government recently launched their responsibility deal as part of the strategy for public health in England. They are also working on the paper on obesity, which will be published later this year. It would be good to hear from the Minister about any progress on that.

In today’s debate, I want to review the scale of the issue, talk about some of the possible causes of childhood obesity and look to the future to discuss what actions we can take. First, how significant is childhood obesity in the UK? The headline figures on childhood obesity in this country are alarming—29.8% of children aged two to 15 are either overweight or obese, which is almost one in three children. On current trends, two thirds of children will be overweight or obese by 2050. Breaking down the figures on childhood obesity throughout the UK shows that there is a particular problem in urban areas, especially London. Data for 2009-10 show that in London 11.6% of children aged four to five, and 21.8% of children aged 10 to 11, are at risk of being obese. I have already mentioned the figures for my area in London.

The figures are a significant worry for the future health of our nation as a whole, because evidence suggests that overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Obesity is a disease with, potentially, very serious health implications, including, in the short term, breathlessness, feeling tired, and back and joint pains, and, in the longer term, hypertension, cardiovascular disease—mainly heart disease and stroke—type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, especially osteoarthritis, and some cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer. There are also psychological issues of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, depression and feeling isolated, which restrict a person’s potential ability to earn. Obesity is also associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability in adulthood. The long-term costs for the UK of this level of childhood obesity are vast. The 2007 Foresight report on obesity predicted that the NHS costs associated with overweight people and obesity will double to £10 billion per year by 2050, and that the wider costs to society and business will reach £50 billion per year by 2050.

Secondly, why is there an issue? Before we can decide how best to tackle childhood obesity, we need to understand more about what causes it. As one doctor once put to me, at its most basic level the formula behind obesity is simple—we put on weight when we take in more calories than we burn off through day-to-day living and physical exercise. However, we need to dig deeper than that to find out what is causing the problem, because, clearly, a number of factors are at play.

We are talking about children, so perhaps the biggest single factor is parental influence. Weight Concern reports that children with two overweight parents are 70% more likely to be overweight themselves. GPs to whom I have spoken in my area are often the first point of contact for parents on the issue, and they feel that, often, parents do not accept that their children are overweight. Given that perhaps more than a quarter of other children in the class are also overweight, they may feel that their child is normal. They may also feel that the suggestion that their child is overweight is a direct criticism of their parenting skills, and they are reluctant to accept that.

I am not a parent myself, but I have discussed this issue with friends and constituents who are. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a lack of knowledge and information that is easy to understand. Often, parents simply do not realise the number of calories that they are feeding to their children. For example, I am pretty sure that no parent would allow their child to sit and eat five spoonfuls of sugar, but some think nothing of giving them fizzy drinks containing the same quantity. Ask a parent how many calories there are in a bowl of chocolate-flavoured cereal and what percentage of a child’s recommended intake of sugar that represents, and I would wager that most would probably not know the answer.

When I speak to parents about the issue, a common story emerges. Many start off with the best of intentions, breastfeeding their babies for weeks or months under the regular guidance of health visitors. Perhaps they then move on to religiously preparing pureed vegetables and home-cooked meals that they bag up and put in the freezer for their babies and toddlers. Gradually, however, as the years progress and as the influence of peers, TV and the media grows, as well as that of, critically, the children themselves, who become more demanding and fussy about what they eat, it is too easy to slip into bad habits from which it is very difficult to get them back.

I am not saying all this to give parents a hard time—far from it. What I am saying is that those who feed our children and organise their activities—typically parents and schools for the most part—are so critical to this issue and need to be supported in any way we can. Jamie Oliver and many others in the school environment have worked hard to make progress in improving the quality of the meals that are provided to children when they are at school, and they should be commended for that work.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many factors at play, and I want to touch on another key one. Deprivation has been shown to play a significant part in levels of obesity, with children from the poorest backgrounds being much more likely to be obese. When families are struggling financially, they are more likely to be attracted to cheap, high fat, energy dense and poor foods, many of which are marketed with “buy one, get one free” deals.

The 2007 Foresight report on obesity highlighted the full range of factors that it believed were behind the trend towards obesity and made the point that there are lots to consider. However, to summarise the causes, the issue is about parents who have been overweight themselves, those who live in an urban area and those who come from a lower-income household.

Thirdly, what can be done in the future? Given that so many different factors influence childhood obesity, this is clearly not just a health issue, although I am pleased that a Health Minister is responding to the debate. The issue is also affected by planning, housing, transport, education, business and other things. Therefore, although the model we are aiming for is spearheaded by the Department of Health, it must be integrated across all areas. The Government have already taken important steps. Public health funding has been ring-fenced to ensure that sufficient focus is given to the matter and, in March, the responsibility deal was launched.

In the White Paper, “Healthy lives, healthy people: our strategy for public health in England,” the Government stressed that localism is key. A partnership approach will be encouraged between the Government, local authorities, health representatives, education, business and the voluntary sector. In addition to putting in place the right environment for change with that partnership approach and by integrating policies across Departments, we need to tackle the problem head-on by making nationally recognised programmes available to address childhood obesity.

I am a fellow of MEND, which is a social enterprise that has evolved from a 20-year partnership between Great Ormond Street hospital and the University College London institute of child health. MEND is the child-weight management partner of more than 100 primary care trusts and 15 local authorities in England. MEND stands for Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it, which sums up the approach that it takes to covering each of those important elements. At a recent parliamentary event for MEND, I met a young boy called Charlie and his mother, who had been through the MEND programme. Over 10 weeks, the whole family learned about portion sizes and how to read and understand food labels. They set goals as a family and took part in fun physical activities. Charlie told me that taking part in the MEND programme has not only helped him to lose weight, but given him new confidence. He now enjoys taking part in many school activities. The changes put in place have made a real difference to the whole family, including to Charlie’s sister. He now looks forward to going out shopping with her and her friends to buy new clothes, when previously he absolutely dreaded doing so.

Like many other programmes across the country, MEND builds in a number of best practices to ensure success. The programme is about working with the whole family to ensure that changes are made to the weekly shop and family activities. It focuses on nutrition and physical activity, and it aims to start young. One school in my constituency, Hounslow Manor, works with children from reception to achieve the greatest possible long-term impact. The programme also aims to deliver in a community-based way to reduce the stigma around the programme and build the real support networks that can make a difference.

In the GLA intelligence unit report published this month, MEND was evaluated as a cost-effective approach to obesity intervention. Other cost-effective programmes in the UK include the local exercise action pilots, which focus on increasing physical activity. Other such programmes include one to reduce television viewing in the US and the regulation of television advertising of high-fat, high-sugar products at certain times, which was introduced in Australia. I would like research to be directed at how we can extend the online elements of programmes that are provided to children. Children enjoy learning in an online, gaming-style environment, and it would be good to see how that could be used in obesity programmes to build up such an approach.

I am thoroughly enjoying the hon. Lady’s contribution. I have stayed here from the previous debate just to listen to what she has to say and because I have a personal interest in the issue. Does she agree that getting children involved in cooking enables a child to explore foods that they might otherwise not try? That enables a family to experience better, more wholesome home-cooked food, rather than the processed rubbish that is thrust at them from television screens every day.

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and absolutely agree with her. The issue is about the whole family, including children, understanding what goes into food. If they understand more about that and participate and get involved in it, they will have a better understanding and knowledge of what it is all about.

How should we start to deal with the issue? I want to consider a couple of things that are happening and that might have an impact. The first is the move from a primary care trust-based model to GP commissioning consortia, and the other is the upcoming London Olympics. As we move towards GP commissioning, we need to consider the impact on the obesity service provision. Currently, providers such as MEND have suggested that decision makers in the new model will require clear information and guidance in the commissioning process for weight management programmes. They have also suggested that the commissioning process itself could be simplified and redesigned to ensure that it focuses on clear and consistent information and measured outcomes. The commissioning model will help in pulling together best practice. That is certainly the case in the Great West commissioning consortium, of which Hounslow is a part. It is already starting to focus on some of the public health issues that need to be addressed.

The 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics will soon be taking place. Those events provide us with a fantastic opportunity not only in London, but elsewhere around the country to build on the legacy that will be left. What better Olympic legacy could we have than a whole generation of children who appreciate the benefits and enjoyment that come from regular participation in sport? The Mayor of London is working hard to encourage schools in London to participate in his Get Set programme, which involves school children taking part in a host of sporting and cultural activities related to the games. A majority of my schools have signed up to that. We need to make sure that other such programmes are happening across the country and that the influence of the Olympics lasts well beyond the event itself.

As part of the obesity paper, the Government will also no doubt want to consider the approach they should take on the use of legislation in the food and drinks industry. In its recent report, “Stepping up to the plate—industry in action on public health”, the Food and Drink Federation offers its view on the progress the industry is making, particularly in the areas of reducing salt, fat and energy in popular products and in improving food labelling and marketing. There is more that the food and drink industry can do in that area—for example, having clearer labelling, so that people know exactly what they are eating.

In conclusion, nearly one in three children in the UK is overweight or obese, and much more can be done to give them a better quality of life. We need to protect the long-term health of children and avoid unnecessary short and long-term financial burdens on the NHS. There needs to be a broad integrated and co-ordinated approach across Departments. We need to raise awareness about planning permission for fast food outlets very near schools and to ensure that we share best practice and measure outcomes from all the obesity intervention programmes. We want to use the London 2012 Olympics as a starting block to encourage more young people into sport and to engage in physical activity as much as possible. We need to integrate ideas, such as encouraging schools to grow food, into the curriculum and to support and encourage parents to restrict television and do more things outdoors. We also need to encourage eateries to sell healthy options and have better labelling, so that people know what they are eating. In addition, we need to encourage more exercise. I have signed up for the Race for Life that will take place this month in Battersea, so I will be running my 5 km for charity as well as for my health.

I came into politics to help to make a difference to my constituency and the country as a whole. I feel very strongly that by improving health outcomes on childhood obesity we can definitely make a real difference to many people.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) for her excellent speech. I would also like to echo the comments my hon. Friend made with regard to the MEND programme. I met a child from my constituency who had taken part in the programme and it had made a real difference. As Members of Parliament, we should be extremely supportive of the MEND programme.

I am interested in this debate for a variety of reasons. I am the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on heart disease. Heart disease runs in my family and I have always had an eye on trying to be as active and as healthy as can be reasonably expected. I am also a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary leisure group. I am a big, unashamed sports enthusiast, because sport can play an extremely important and positive role in encouraging an active and healthy lifestyle. My hon. Friend set out the picture, but I just want to concentrate on three areas that have a significant impact on child obesity levels: planning issues, food and organised sport.

On planning issues, prior to becoming the MP for North Swindon I was a councillor for 10 years. I represented a new build housing estate that had many good things and many poor things. One of the biggest challenges was the huge differences that hampered a child’s ability to run around: back gardens are now a third of the size they were in the 1960s; front gardens all too often simply do not exist, with cars literally driving right in front of the front door, and we then wonder why children do not have the opportunity to run around; and there is a lack of accessible, useable open space. I was for ever being told that the ward I represented had a huge amount of open space, but I could not see that. All I could see was concrete, and I wondered what was going on. I did a little bit of digging and it transpired that open spaces included hedges and heritage sites, neither of which are suitable for jumpers for goalposts. We do not need premier league-standard open spaces for kids to run around. When I was growing up, the bit of open space in the middle of my estate was almost vertical. That was handy, however, as some of my friends were more technically gifted than me and some of my other friends, so we had the advantage of kicking downhill all day long.

I was the lead member for leisure on Swindon borough council for four years and a lot of the focus in tackling child obesity was on organised sport through leisure centres. The most significant opportunity for children to be active, however, is through open spaces where they are unsupervised, can put down jumpers for goalposts and follow the latest TV trends. If Wimbledon is on TV, out come the tennis rackets; with the Tour de France, out come the bikes; with the Ashes, out come the cricket bats; and football, in my case, was played for the majority of the year. I welcome the fact that in my constituency the council invested £6 million, working in conjunction with the national lottery fund, in the Lydiard park facility, and that we have fantastic parks such as Coate Water and Mouldon Hill right on the doorstep. On a sunny day, and we have been blessed in the past month or so, one can see thousands of families coming out and kids being able to run around.

Another interesting observation was that on Friday, following the fantastic royal wedding, I went to visit a number of royal wedding parties where communities had reclaimed the streets as open spaces. While parents sat around toasting the happy occasion, the children ran around and were extremely active, and I was touched by that. That shows the importance of having those open, accessible community spaces.

I echo the comments my hon. Friend made about food labelling. It is essential that parents, and children themselves, can make informed decisions. I am not one of those food zealots who says that we should never eat junk food, or unhealthy food. It is all part of a balance. I charged around as a youngster and was then sometimes fuelled by food that was deemed to be not particularly healthy, but it is about striking a balance. We need to see clear, uniform food labelling. I am a big supporter of the traffic light system. We have it here in our parliamentary restaurants and that makes a difference to my choice of food. On this occasion, the EU is dragging its feet. I encourage the Government to continue to put pressure on to ensure that all retailers use a uniform and clear system. I know that they are doing so. I welcome the Government’s public health responsibility deal, which has seen retailers such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC committed to reducing trans fats. That is the big secret killer and we need to do so much to remove trans fats, reduce salt and display calories—all coming together as part of the informed decisions.

Hon. Members have already talked about cookery skills. I am a big advocate of basic cookery skills. I would go as far as to say that it should be a compulsory element of the national curriculum. I am a big supporter of the Let’s Get Cooking campaign, which is in its fourth year of a five-year £20 million programme funded by the national lottery. It encourages schools to take up cookery. I visited Haydonleigh primary school, in my constituency, a few weeks ago. Not only were the children taking part in a cookery session, the parents and grandparents were also coming in and getting involved so that, when they went home, it was not just a one-off, two-hour cookery session, but something that would become part of their home life. Echoing the point about allotments that was raised earlier, the school had its own allotment, and was using the fruit and vegetables that were grown in the school. Wherever possible, schools should be allowed to do that full cycle. Basic cookery skills are essential for later life. It was not so long ago that I left university, where the idea of cookery for the vast majority of my colleagues involved the ping of the microwave and a three-minute wait. We certainly need to do something about that.

Finally, and probably what I am most passionate about, is organised sport. Not so many months ago, we had a debate on the school sport partnership and I was openly critical of the proposed changes. I am delighted that the Government changed their position, because where school sport partnerships work well, they can help maximise sporting opportunities. One frustration with the debate at the time was that, despite approximately £170 million a year being invested in SSP, we had not seen a massive increase in competitive sport activity. The reason for that is that children are sports-gifted, generally, because their parents have encouraged them at a young age and, by and large, whether a school is offering that sport or not, they will have joined a sports club and carried on. The SSP, however, was about the other children—those children who would otherwise just sit in front of the TV, not taking part. The advantage of the SSP was that it offered a menu of different sporting activities and there was always something for everybody to capture their imagination. I have spent many happy times touring schools and sporting groups to see what different sport captures them. A lot of people will no doubt bash television today, but television often inspires children, whether through traditional sport or through programmes such as “Pineapple Dance Studios”—suddenly, there will be huge swathes of children dancing around in a dance hall. Yes, it is not a competitive sport as such, but it is extremely active.

The SSP in my constituency saw the number of schools taking part in two hours a week rise from 33 to 68 —a fantastic result. The changes have allowed the SSPs nine months to secure continued funding from schools. Where there are good SSPs, they will be successful. Where some of the SSPs were not so good, those schools are now free to commission their own sports coaches. That is essential because there are a limited number of teachers with confidence, particularly in primary schools, to offer that wide range. A number of teachers said to me that they needed help. Another welcome Government measure that would indirectly improve the situation is fast-tracking the troops to teachers programme, because often troops are up for outdoor active lifestyles. They will be able to come in and get the kids engaged in something that is healthy and active.

I am also a fan of working with local sports groups. If children are given a taster session, they make sure that they then have an opportunity to continue. In my constituency, we set up a successful sports forum with the active involvement of about 60 different sports groups. They share best practice and help secure extra funding, but they also link in with programmes such as the SSP, going directly to the schools and saying, “Why don’t you try this and we can then get you involved?”

I have enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s contribution very much. I was involved in the culture sector when I was in local government, and in the Local Government Association, and I recognise many of his arguments. Does he agree with me that the biggest problem we have, following on from our schools sports intervention, is that when children leave school there is no exit strategy for young people to enable them to continue in the sports that they played? I played badminton for my school up until the age of 16. By the age of 16 I stopped and there was no local club, or link with my school and a local club, for me to continue my activity. That is where we fall down.

I thank the hon. Lady for that useful contribution. She is right. A lot of what we are doing is putting in the building blocks for a long-term future to tackle health issues. Organisations, such as the sports forum, can talk to people of all ages and ask people to engage. Local authorities and sports groups have a role in that. One of the best things that I saw was Swindon borough council’s Challenge Swindon campaign, which brought together offices, pubs and sports groups and got them all involved in different sports. It aimed to get people to try something and then continue to do it.

We face a number of other challenges. The lack of volunteers is always a challenge, particularly in sport. A huge number of sports groups would like to be able to do something, but there are not sufficient parents with the time to be able to do that—a particular problem for organised sport.

Private finance initiative schools are another challenge: when I was a councillor, the majority of schools in my area were PFI schools. We had a high-density development and a wonderful piece of open space, but a fence and a set of high hire charges blocked children from utilising what was their school until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Sports clubs came to me on a number of occasions saying that they simply could not afford to use the facilities, which could not be opened because there was not enough flexibility. It was a crying shame that they were left unused.

An issue that I have brought into other debates is the cost of insurance for transporting children. As we push things such as the school Olympics or outdoor active learning, insuring a teacher to take a minibus can cost more than £1,000. I have urged the Government to create a national insurance scheme for teachers and sports clubs using minibuses.

We must not forget the Olympics and the Olympics legacy, about which we had a debate in the main Chamber last week. It is all about the legacy. We will have an enjoyable Olympics, when we are bound to win some medals, but the key will be the lasting legacy. That is why I was so supportive of the principle of school sport partnerships. A big advert for a whole variety of sports that different children will have never thought of trying will be on the television, and the ones we do particularly well in will inspire children to go and re-create them. We must ensure that we do all that we can. Going back to the point about insurance, if we want the school Olympics to work, we need to be able to get children from one school to another in order to compete.

My slightly more radical proposal is to do with how leisure and youth services work in local authorities. In the old days, leisure was very much about competitive sport, with the traditional youth service organising youth activities. The two would never meet in the middle. Times have now changed massively.

I remember that on a Friday night the leisure centre would put on an ice-skating disco for the teenagers—again, not technically a sport, but 600 teenagers building up a head of steam and racing around chasing after the person they thought particularly attractive was a sporting activity. It was absolutely fantastic. Under my radical proposal, the youth service with its mobile buses would have been better off pitching up at that facility, to offer advice, advocacy and support to those who wanted it, and letting leisure be the attraction to bring people in. Likewise with the point made about the Pineapple dance studios and the street dance, often the biggest challenge is to get young girls active, but hundreds of children want to do dance and cheerleading.

Youth and leisure services should sit around the same table, pooling their funds and facilities—the leisure centres often have the better facilities—and working together. They would then be on hand. My hon. Friend mentioned the Get Set programme, and I have written to all the schools in my constituency, encouraging them to do as much as they can.

In conclusion, we need to learn three lessons. First, it is important to have balance in an active and healthy lifestyle. We can sometimes be a bit too zealous in saying, “You should not watch TV. You should not play computer games.” When I was growing up, as soon as the sun was shining, I was charging around outside. I would not have dreamed of watching TV or playing computer games. However, in the evening, that is what I did. That is a fine balance to have.

Secondly, we should allow people to make informed decisions through clear labelling and to do things for themselves. To do that, they need the skills, which is why I am such a fan of the cookery lessons.

Finally, everything should be fun. Children like fun things. Give them the open spaces—as I said, it does not matter if the open spaces are vertical, because children are creative and will come up with their own way of dealing with such things. However, let us at least give them the opportunity to have a better lifestyle.

Several hon. Members rose

Order. I expect the occupant of the Chair will wish to call the Front Benchers at five past 12, at the latest, and three hon. Members are waiting to speak. Hon. Members should bear that in mind when speaking.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing and opening the debate. She showed an incredible level of expertise and was thoughtful in her remarks. We have had our own discussions about food, and I look forward to having many more in future.

I confess that I was hesitant about speaking in the debate today. It is difficult to talk about obesity, including childhood obesity—and we have a serious problem in Harlow—in a way that does not upset people. When I have spoken about it in the past, I have had many letters and e-mails from anguished individuals and residents. Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead today because the issue is so important and must be dealt with.

Some take the view that the only way to solve obesity is by encouraging people to go on a diet. I do not take that view. Dieting is essential, but obesity problems are very much about parenting, education and health. One of the best books that I have read about food—I read it almost in one sitting—was called “The Hungry Years” by William Leith. The author talks about his addiction to food, describing food almost as a drug. He went on the Atkins diet but, although he addressed that addiction, he went on to another—from memory, drugs. It was only when he dealt with the reasons for his compulsive behaviour that he ultimately managed to lose weight. It is a very important book.

I know how difficult diets are, having had to be on diets as a child because of my walking. As hon. Members understand, diets sometimes feel like walking up a hill with a boulder, like Sisyphus in the Greek myth: as soon as we get to the top, we see the boulder roll down, and we have to start again.

As well as having obesity and childhood obesity problems, Harlow has some important sporting organisations for young people. I want to talk about them; they are very much part of the big society. We have the Harlow athletics club, the Harlow gymnastics club and the football club Kickz, as well as strong candidates for the Olympics and Paralympics such as James Huckle and Anne Strike. We have probably the finest sports Leisurezone in the country, run by a non-profit making trust, which is another example of the big society. However, we still have the problem of obesity.

As my hon. Friend set out, Harlow is not alone in having such problems. Over the past 13 years, the United Kingdom has seen an unprecedented rise in obesity, especially in childhood obesity. The proportion of children aged two to 10 who were overweight or obese increased from 22% in 1995 to 28% in 2003. If the number of obese children continues to rise, such children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents do.

My constituency of Harlow has significant challenges of its own. Sadly, by the time that Harlow children finish primary school, one in three is overweight; and one in five has the most challenging weight problems and is considered obese. Harlow has the highest such figures for any of the 12 district councils in Essex. I mention that not to criticise anyone—I am proud of my constituency and residents, and I do not want to cause offence—but because such problems cannot be swept under the carpet.

Clearly, some of the obesity problem is down to parenting, but it is also down to the McDonald’s culture that we live in. We do not even have to get out of the car these days; stopping off for fast food is so much easier than going to the supermarket and having to cook ingredients from scratch. I have a confession to make: I happen to love McDonald’s. As for most people, it is a treat, providing value for money and affordable meals. It has made progress, with the preparation of chicken salads and so on. The problem is when people eat there regularly, as if it were an extension of their kitchen.

The second reason for the obesity problems is the big retailers and food companies. At an all-party group meeting with Kellogg’s, I asked why all its cereals have so much sugar—cornflakes, or whatever they might be. The people from Kellogg’s said that some of the company’s cereals did not have so much sugar, and that it has non-sugar brands. However, we never see those non-sugar brands advertised or displayed prominently. As with everyone else, I go to the supermarket, but I would not have a clue about what a non-sugar cereal from Kellogg’s is, and yet I would know about its cornflakes and the rest, because those are the ones advertised.

Schools have made a lot of progress with their meals, following the media campaigns of recent years. Jamie Oliver, who has been mentioned, was successful partly because he was not the man or woman from Whitehall, although there is always the risk of bureaucracy when we deal with such things. I have a short anecdote on that subject. I visited a school in my constituency that wanted to give fresh fruit to its children every day. Instead of being able to buy it from the greengrocer down the road, the school had to order it through a centralised fruit planning system set up by the bureaucracy. A fruit co-ordinator was needed, to count the number of pieces of fruit, and how much was eaten and left. That shows the ludicrousness of what happens when big government gets in the way.

Why does Harlow have a unique problem? There are many reasons for general obesity, but they do not explain the specific problems in my constituency. The truth is that the tale in Harlow is of two towns. In many ways, it is an ambitious and enterprising place, with a culture of hard work. We have more than 2,500 private businesses, which makes us one of the most entrepreneurial towns in Essex, but according to the latest comprehensive study in 2007, Harlow also has housing estates with pockets of some of the worst deprivation and poverty not just in the region, but in England as a whole. That impacts on everything: homelessness, unemployment, literacy and numeracy, family breakdown, crime, and of course health. Obesity is just one symptom of the broken society, but is that because of poverty, or educational poverty?

When it comes to solutions for obesity, it is fair to say that big or grand Government diet schemes do not work. Television adverts a few years ago urged us to eat fruit and said that it was wrong to have a bottle of wine with dinner. Many parts of the UK are still awash with NHS adverts covering the landscape with the same advice. In 2009, the Food Standards Agency—a quango that survived the bonfire—announced a scheme to encourage restaurants to give calorie counts beside each dish. The Department of Health has told us that we are all eating too much saturated fat, but despite all those worthy initiatives and their cost for taxpayers, obesity has gone up and up.

I am a Conservative because I believe in choice, freedom and the right of individuals to make their own decisions. Big state or “nanny-knows-best” programmes usually cost a lot, and do not achieve what they are intended to achieve, however noble they are. One thing that sticks in my mind about the Jamie Oliver success is that parents came to the school and tried to thrust fried Mars bars through the gate. The reason was partly lack of education, but also resentment at being told what to do by the big state. They were the parents, and they wanted to decide what to do with their own children.

People are not chess pieces to move around a board. We cannot design a Government scheme that will magically repair people’s lives, but I accept that we must not abandon people. The solutions must come from the communities and neighbourhoods that we live in. That is an old idea, but it has been given fresh impetus by the big society reforms.

We have some remarkable sporting groups in Harlow, which are very popular. They are run by volunteers and social entrepreneurs, who know how to stretch a few hundred pounds to have the greatest impact with as little bureaucracy as possible. Such big society groups need more support. If we diverted just 1% of the sin taxes on cigarettes—around £209 million a year, based on 2010 figures—and if the same were applied to alcopops, excessively fatty foods and high-sugar products aimed at children, and that money was then funnelled into the big society bank, the Big Lottery Fund or local funds and ring-fenced specifically for smaller grass-roots charities, that would really make a difference. It would transform childhood obesity. That incentive could work in many ways. Supermarket vouchers that are currently used for school equipment could also fund sports charities in the community.

Community support officers on the Berecroft estate in Harlow have a regular Saturday football game with local children, and organise it with the Berecroft residents association. All they need is a few hundred pounds to connect their floodlights to mains electricity. Small amounts of money can make a huge difference, and millions of pounds are not always needed, because small community groups are best at fighting obesity. Another example is Harlow gymnastic club. It has many members, and the cost of joining is very small. It has changed the lives of countless young people and those with significant health problems, but it struggles to access funding because it is not part of any grand Government diet scheme.

I have often said that, if the big society, or even the big-boned society, is to work, we must build the little society. That is why I urge the Minister to focus on sustainable funding for smaller, grass-roots charities, as well as national organisations.

I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on her contribution to the debate, which is important. The problem has reached such a level that we cannot ignore the emerging evidence. I am pleased that we have extended the debate beyond eating to education, diet, labelling and aspiration. I shall dwell a little on my area of interest—physical activity—as other hon. Members have done.

Another issue that has emerged in our debate is the problem of being overweight, in addition to the more technical issue of obesity. Exhibit A is a document from the NHS highlighting the number of overweight children in the four-to-five and 10-to-11 age groups between 2006 and 2009. I shall not go through all the figures, but they show that the problem has risen consistently in the overweight and obese categories. Exhibit B is a helpful response to my parliamentary question to the Minister. It highlights the fact that Government spending on obesity rose from £9 million in 2008-09 to the £36.8 million that is projected for 2010-11. If ever there was an example of the necessity of re-examining the ratio of expenditure to results, that is surely it.

I want to dwell a little on my debate in this Chamber in December 2010 on outdoor learning. It was directed at the Department for Education. Today’s debate, thanks to my hon. Friend, highlights the fact that obesity is probably an issue for every Department, not least the Treasury. A point that I tried to make in the earlier debate was that evidence, not just opinion, is emerging of genuine behavioural improvement in children who are exposed to outdoor learning, which is outdoor education as distinct from outdoor entertainment, which I fear is what some people think it is.

There are encouraging signs regarding school exclusions and the behaviour of children in school when they are exposed to outdoor learning, and there are considerable health benefits, as hon. Members have said, particularly in food sourcing and preparation. Underpinning all that is the critical evidence that I suspect is more relevant now than it has ever been that a massive national saving can be made from investing in the project to reduce obesity, instead of seeing it simply as an expense that we cannot currently afford.

I tried to raise a distressing point during the debate back in December. There is enthusiasm for engaging in outdoor learning, and 86% of children and parents want it, but at the same time 76% of teachers are turning down the opportunity to undertake outdoor learning because of concerns about health and safety risks associated with such trips. However, the evidence shows that there are very few health and safety risks; in fact, risk is low, and the return for teacher, pupil and parent is very high.

I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). He talked about the balance to be struck between being libertarian and adopting a hands-off approach to the problem, as well as the seriousness of the situation and what it requires us to do. I want to suggest some scenarios to the Minister, although not necessarily with a view to her coming up with the answers now or requiring her to state on the record what the Government propose. The examples come from my own experience as a parent of two young children aged 11 and nine, very much in the category that is most susceptible to the habits of the 21st century.

If we are serious about this issue, are we content that in April last year alone, 53 million new computer games were launched on to the open market? Are we satisfied by the fact that access to junk food has never been higher than it is this decade? Are we aware how commonplace advertisements for junk food are on children’s television? Are we satisfied by the fact that one incentive to go to a fast food outlet is that of receiving free toys with a meal? My children would be appalled if they heard me say that because one of the greatest incentives for them is what comes with the meal that they get through the car window in a drive-through—I am trying hard to not mention any brand names.

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Are we aware of the extent to which children, particularly those under sixth-form age, go to the local chippy for lunch when they are at school, rather than eating something healthier? Do we know what is in the school lunch boxes that are provided with great care and attention by parents who often have considerable financial difficulties or other stresses?

In healthy schools where a lot of the kids will eat meat and two veg as part of their daily diet, those who bring a packed lunch do not have access to that good food. Let me put in a little plug for Pembrokeshire county council. It has a fantastic school dinner service—I think it is so good that it should be compulsory—and it is free. Are we as a nation satisfied with the propensity of supersize options, where one pays an extra 50p and receives 50% more food? Under current circumstances, and given the statistics that underpin the debate, is that a satisfactory situation?

Finally, is it not a little disingenuous that some of our major sporting events are sponsored by crisp makers and chocolate manufacturers? Is that not like having the Silk Cut London marathon? Are we not turning a blind eye to what such sponsorship means and how it legitimises in the eyes of children not particularly healthy foodstuffs, simply because they are attached to a major sporting event? I do not have the answers to those questions although perhaps other hon. Members will. I am not sure, however, that we can continue to turn away completely from the reality of the problem that is emerging.

The great achievement of this debate—I hope hon. Members will continue to raise other points—is that we are eventually recognising the social, cultural and economic cost to the nation of obesity and overweight children. As other hon. Members have said, the issue crosses all Departments. It is not about “curing” children—not the most appropriate expression—but about early intervention and prevention. I suggest to the Minister, just as I suggested to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) in the debate last December, that it is not about what we as a nation can afford to do, but about whether we can afford not to address the situation. Evidence clearly shows the damage done by obesity, not only to the prospects of our children, but to those of the nation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing this crucial debate, and my other hon. Friends who have spoken.

I was in the Mall on Friday for what everybody agreed was a most wonderful royal wedding. However, my heart sank when I saw a very large, hugely overweight man hanging on to a railing for dear life and panting. He may have had a problem caused by steroids or something else, but it is most likely that he was obese. I thought how unhappy he must be with his life—my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) touched on the issue of happiness. One point we must get across to people who are obese is that they can be much happier if they overcome obesity.

My hon. Friends have made many points, but I want to touch on three issues. First, I want to look at the Change4Life programme and the changes that the Minister proposes to make. Secondly, I would like to say something about the impact of high-energy drinks that contain a lot of sugar and caffeine. Thirdly, I will speak about sizes of portions and clothes.

I will start by referring to the October 2007 Government report, “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices”, on what the human body is designed to do. It points out, with classic understatement, that our biological system is,

“not well adapted to a changing world, where the pace of technological progress and lifestyle change has outstripped that of human evolution.”

Many years ago in this Chamber—the old Grand Committee Room—I listened to a debate one evening, instigated by the food and health forum, that I have never forgotten. The speaker was a professor of nutrition and he said, “Look, in a nutshell, if you want to stay healthy, remember that we have not really evolved since the stone age; we are essentially stone-age people in the 20th century.” He said that if we want to be healthy, we should live like stone-age people. We should walk most of the time and run occasionally, eat berries and vegetables in season, catch fish when possible, and eat meat rarely. I was struck by that speech. Generally, our health problems arrive when we deviate from that simple model.

Last week, The Daily Telegraph looked at the problem of obesity as it affects parents. It pointed out that British men are among the fattest in Europe and that according to the World Health Organisation, we do less exercise as a nation than almost every other country in the world. In another article, I read that the World Health Organisation believes that in the regions of Europe, the east Mediterranean and the Americas, over 50% of women are overweight.

We have an enormous problem. All my hon. Friends have drawn on statistics. We tend to follow what happens in America, so we should be aware of what is happening in that country, where the problem is greater—obesity rates are 36% among women and 32% among men. The number of obese men in England has doubled since 1993, and the number of obese women has risen by half.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) referred eloquently to issues in his constituency, but in my constituency we do not have the problems that affect many others. For example, the prevalence of obesity among reception-age children in the east midlands is just under 10%, and for year six children by region it is 18%. In Hinckley and Bosworth, the figures are smaller at just over 7% and under 16% respectively. Those are still enormous figures, however, and we must put that in the context of my original point about happiness. How many of those children are very unhappy with their lives?

The Minister inherited the Change4Life programme from the previous Government and I hope she will say a few things about the changes that she proposes to make. As I understand it, the funding for that programme is to change and she will be looking for contributions from the food industry. That may be a good thing, but I would like reassurances that the food industry will not be driving the agenda. I know that she has already said that we will not legislate further to bring in a range of new standards, but I think the quid pro quo is that we must know that the food industry will be very supportive of measures that do exactly what has been suggested and ensure that we see a reduction in sugar. There is far too much sugar in cereal, for example. I suggest to my hon. Friends that if they really want a cereal that is sugar-free, they should make it themselves; it is not difficult. I look to the Minister for support on that issue.

My next point relates to high-energy drinks. I have not heard a word about high-energy drinks this morning; I think that that is a forgotten area. Children and adults are consuming drinks that have two or three times the recommended caffeine level and a very high sugar content. If people have far too much caffeine, they get behavioural disorders. It is very bad for them. It increases their heart rate, and there have been instances of children going to hospital in such circumstances. It is extremely dangerous.

I recommend that the Minister look at the research conducted by Johns Hopkins university, which concluded that energy drinks should be labelled with highly visible health warnings aimed at young people. I will not quote from the study extensively, but it based its recommendations on research that discovered that certain drinks contained as much as 14 times more caffeine than the average can of cola. That is the same as drinking seven cups of coffee.

While we are on the subject of coffee, is it not extraordinary that we are now being invited by coffee shops to drink half-pint mugs of coffee? Have we taken leave of our senses? Have we all gone mad? If I stop for a cup of coffee with a friend, I often order the smallest cup of coffee and split it into two mugs because it is too much. In the 19th century, coffee cups were tiny. That is another issue that we must address.

Drinking half a pint of coffee would be one thing. Is not the problem with coffee shops that often people are also drinking coffee with cream, sugar and additives? Sometimes with these half-pint cups of coffee, people would get fewer calories in an ordinary meal.

I absolutely agree. What is going on in coffee shops is a debate in itself, but coffee used to be taken in very small quantities. It was not intended that we should have so much caffeine in our system.

My last point is about size—the size of portions and the sizing of clothes. I was very touched when, on the day we came back from the recess last week, one of our colleagues came into the Chamber and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and one or two others were saying how slim and how wonderful he looked—he had better be nameless because I did not talk to him about the fact that I might refer to him in this debate. He said, “Yes, I’ve lost a lot of weight,” and I think that it was my hon. Friend who said, “How did you do it?” He said, “I’m eating half as much food as I used to eat.” He is eating half as much food—it is not rocket science.

How about suggesting to people that sometimes they do not need to eat as much food? For those who have a faith, may I remind them that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins? This wonderful stone-age body that we have knows when it has had enough food. The problem is that we override the system too much. We are not taught moderation. Instead of trying to eat smaller portions, we tend to overeat and eat very large meals. We are not helped by the restaurant industry and the food industry, which are constantly trying to pile our plates higher and higher, with triple or quadruple deckers and vast portions. The same applies to children’s food. That is a problem.

On the sizes of clothes, I have some reliable research from someone well known to me. In the mid-1970s, a lady weighing 7 stone with a 24-inch waist would buy a skirt in a size 10; in 2011, the same person, whose waist has increased by three quarters of an inch, buys a size 8 or 6 because the size 10 is far too large. The industry has created a completely new range of sizes to accommodate the population. The largest size used to be size 18; it is now 20 to 22. People who are buying a particular size, thinking that they are a certain weight, are actually much larger than they think they are. That is very unsatisfactory.

Some of my hon. Friends touched on sport. Sport is fantastic; it is so important, and we have the Olympics coming to this country next year. Obese children do not play much sport. They cannot because they cannot get on the pitch—they are too big—so they miss on that wonderful opportunity. With the Olympics round the corner, surely this is the best time to take every possible measure and all steps in the Minister’s power to reduce obesity among children.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on calling this very important debate. I also congratulate you, Ms Dorries. I am sure that you have chaired many debates, but this is the first time that I have spoken under your distinguished chairmanship.

When we discuss childhood obesity, we should be clear that we are talking not about how children look but about how they feel, because one of the problems with debates about body size is that they can have an element of judgmentalism, which makes the issue more difficult and emotional for people. I think that we can all agree, as a Chamber, that everyone’s child is loveable and everyone’s child is beautiful. We do not want to get into being judgmental about body size, because the other side of the coin from childhood obesity is childhood eating disorders—particularly among girls, but also, increasingly, among boys.

I want to touch on the introductory remarks made by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth about the origins of childhood obesity. She talked about parenting. I do not disagree with anything that she said, but let us stand back and realise that we live in a world that has changed since the days when Nye Bevan set up the national health service. At that time, fewer than one in 10 households had a television and fewer than a third owned a car. Nowadays, 98% of households have at least one television, if not two or three, and 19.5 million households own a car.

When the NHS was set up, the only form of processed food available was spam. Now, there is an infinite variety of processed food; it is possible to eat it three times a day, with all the problems of trans fats, added sugar and so on that that involves. It is also the case that when the NHS was set up, many more people did manual labour. We are looking at a world that has changed. It is not just that people are making different personal choices; they live in a much less mobile, much less active, much more sedentary world.

When I was a child, I was not as sporty as some of the Government Members present, but in the summer holidays I would have my breakfast and then go out and play all day. Children played out all day. Their parents did not worry about where they were; they just knew that they were playing out. Children played down back alleys and in other people’s gardens. We might or might not come home for lunch, but we came home for tea. I am a parent myself—my son is now 19—and I would not have dreamt of letting him play out on the streets of London. Whereas parents 30 or 40 years ago thought nothing of letting their children play out unsupervised, nowadays parents feel much happier if their children are at home watching television or playing a computer game. They think that they are being good parents and they are certainly less fearful parents.

When I was a child, children routinely walked to school. Now, I see children driven to school over much shorter distances than I used to cover when I walked to school. Again, those parents think that they are being good parents. Perhaps my family was not as grand as those of some hon. Members, but when I was a child, we always sat down for a family meal together. We waited for my father to come home from work and we all sat down and ate as a family. There was not the snacking that my son routinely did when he was at home. Our world is very different from Nye Bevan’s.

Even over the past 20 or 30 years, however, the world has changed. People’s notions of what it means to be a good parent have been attenuated, certainly in big cities, although things may be different in Shropshire and more rural areas. In big cities, people think being a good parent means having their child safely at home. They think it means that their child is never hungry and that there is always food in the fridge to feed them. They think it means that they must feed their child the most heavily advertised and expensive products. The issue is not, therefore, just one of individual choices; we live in a changing society with changing ideas about parenthood.

Altogether, this is a more sedentary and materialistic society. As Members have said, even if children are active at school, that activity will stop when they leave. That is particularly true of girls. There are also the attractions of television. When I was a child, there was no daytime television, so children could not sit at home in the daytime watching television. We were out in the garden, on the swing or up the park; we were chasing people up and down, shouting at our brother and doing all the things that helped us work off the calories bit by bit.

We live in a changed world, which is part of the reason why we have seen a gradual increase in children leading more sedentary lifestyles, eating more processed food and snacking on processed food between meals. When I was a child, the only form of fast food was fish and chips or food from a Wimpy bar. I remember begging my father to take me to a Wimpy bar, which I thought was the height of sophistication and glamour. There was no question of children routinely stopping off at some fast-food shop on the way home from school or having fast food between meals; we lived in a very different world.

What can the Government do in a world that has changed and become commodified—one in which the average British child recognises nearly 400 brand names? We have touched on a number of issues that I am interested to hear the Minister talk about. In particular, there is the issue of what happens in school. As we have heard, one important thing is that children can learn to cook in school and can be taught about good nutrition. There is also the issue of the sort of school meals that are made available. There was some resistance to Jamie Oliver-type school meals, particularly when they were introduced at secondary school level, but introducing children to healthy food at primary school will set up habits that see them through life.

There is also the issue of food labelling. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about traffic-light labelling, which is the easiest for mothers in places such as Hackney to understand. Mothers there are not going to read a label or to try to do the sums to work out how many calories there are in a packet of food if there are 60 calories per 100 grams. However, a traffic-light label in red, yellow and green is easy for them to understand.

I will be interested to hear the Minister explain how the commissioning model of health care in public health will engage with these issues. I am particularly interested to hear what she says about the extent to which Change4Life is working with the food industry. As one Member said, we might as well have the Silk Cut marathon, but I have an open mind and I am waiting to hear what the Minister has to say.

Childhood obesity is about how our children feel, not how they look. If somebody was a little chubby when I was a child, people used to say, “Oh, she’ll grow out of it,” but 70% of obese children stay obese well into adult life, with all the outcomes we are so familiar with in terms of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and blood pressure.

The striking thing about child obesity in 2011 is the extent to which it is a problem of poverty in the United Kingdom and the United States. Historically, it and the gout that went with it were problems that rich people had. Increasingly, however, heroes in popular culture in America and elsewhere are strikingly obese, which never used to be the case. Obesity is a problem of poverty; it is about a lack of information and a lack of access to a healthy diet.

We have heard about the increase in the numbers and about the real danger that significant numbers of today’s children will live shorter lives than their parents and spend their lives in poor health. We as a political class, and the Government, cannot simply leave childhood obesity as a matter of parental or children’s choice. Of course, choice is a big issue, but we have to set out a policy framework, whether it relates to schools, labelling or schemes such as Change4Life.

We have to set out a policy framework that makes things easier for parents, who are under more pressure than ever from commodification and materialism, and who are more frightened than ever about simply letting their children out to play. We have to set out a policy framework that makes it easier for parents, including Members of the House, to make the right decisions and to determine not only how their children look now, but how their health will be in years to come.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries? I have not had the pleasure before. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing the debate. I thank her and other Members for their contributions. I noticed that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) stayed on from the previous debate because she was so riveted by my hon. Friend’s contribution. It is good to see that, because we perhaps do not see it as much as we would like in this Chamber.

My hon. Friend eloquently highlighted not only the scale of the problem and its costs in her constituency, but the individual consequences and the health impact. She was absolutely right, however, to say that this is not just a health issue, and if we need to get one thing across today, it is that. The Prime Minister set up a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Public Health because we need sign-up from all Departments. This is everybody’s business; it is about local government, education, transport and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and it requires action on every level.

I was not in the country for the royal wedding on Friday, sadly, because I was attending a World Health Organisation conference in Moscow on non-communicable diseases. Along with smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise, obesity is one of the major issues facing the world, and it was interesting to hear some of the interesting ideas that are coming forward.

There is no doubt that tackling the problem of obesity, particularly in children, is key. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was right to raise the associations between obesity and deprivation. Obesity was, and still is in some developing countries, a problem for wealthier people, but we are now seeing a switch, with obesity now being associated with deprivation.

My hon. Friend and other Members mentioned MEND. She also mentioned the importance of the Olympic legacy and food labelling, and I will deal with those points in my remarks.

As Members are aware, the Government published their public health White Paper last year. It set out the scale of the public health challenge ahead of us and the Government’s approach to improving health and well-being.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington mentioned parenting, which involves some really complex issues. There is the issue of what constitutes a good parent. Am I not a good parent if my fridge is not full? The hon. Lady rightly touched on that. Am I not a good parent if I do not make my children clean their plate at every meal? My generation was brought up on the idea that what children do not eat one day, they have cold in their sandwiches for tea the next day. We need to approach such attitudes.

The White Paper signalled the Government’s commitment to addressing the current trend. This is not about just the governmental costs, but the social costs and the burden of disease. The latest figures show that 61% of adults and 28% of children aged between two and 10 in England are overweight or obese. Those figures are enormous. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth mentioned the publication of a report by the London assembly. We know that in her area nearly a quarter of children in year 6 are obese—one quarter, one out of every four children, is obese. The risks of being overweight include the increase of a range of diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

An analysis by the National Heart Forum has predicted that, by 2050, the number of people getting diabetes because of their weight will nearly double, and that those with heart disease caused by obesity will rise by 44%. Obese and overweight people place a significant burden on the NHS and the direct costs are estimated to be £4.2 billion. However, the indirect costs are massive, such as the impact of early death on families, poverty due to not being able to work, and so on.

The White Paper sets out our vision and general approach. There are three underlying principles. First is individual responsibility: we want to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) commented on an anecdote about losing weight by eating less. That is old-fashioned and simple, but a message that we need to get across. It is about individual responsibility.

The second principle is working together, to which I have referred. That is about the problem being everybody’s business—every part of society, focusing on developing partnerships across the board, with third sector organisations, social enterprises and business. Everybody has a role to play. The third aspect is the role of local communities, about which we heard a lot from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who talked about local initiatives and what can be done at that level.

We will publish before the summer a document on obesity, which will set out how we will tackle the matter in the new public health and NHS systems, and the role of key partners. The Department has recently held two events with key organisations involved in reducing obesity, to help develop the document. We will also consider comments from the consultation exercise on proposals for a public health outcomes framework, which has just come to an end. That framework includes two possible indicators relating to adults and children, to measure progress relating to obesity.

Experts from the Foresight team described the UK as having an “obesogenic environment”. That is probably right in many ways. There are a number of factors that drive people towards overweight and obesity. As I have said, it is clear that too many people eat too much and exercise too little, and are storing up big health problems. We all need to play our part. It is for local and central Government, business and other partners to make it easier for people, and remove the sort of barriers—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon—which include irritating matters such as insuring minibuses to get people to sporting events.

The Government cannot compel people to eat less food. We can encourage people and make it easier for them to make better choices. There is already a lot of action under way to do that. Many products in the UK voluntarily provide front-of-pack nutrition labelling, which provides more information. The regulations surrounding front-of-pack labelling are an EU competence. The EU is not dragging its feet, but it is incredibly complicated to get all member states to sign.

We would like to see as light a regulatory burden as possible, to allow different member states to have different front-of-pack labels, because, as a number of hon. Members have said, all systems—guideline daily allowances are one example, traffic lights another—have upsides and downsides. Some can be difficult to understand and some can be misleading. We have all seen claims on the front of packets indicating low fat, but the sugar content is another problem staring one in the face. Indicating calories is attractive to some people but is a problem for those with an eating disorder and are underweight. We need maximum flexibility. Discussions are very active in the EU at the moment and we will start to see some suggestions coming forward.

The Change4Life programme is encouraging people to make simple changes: eating more fruit and vegetables, cutting down on fatty and sugary food and being more active. The national child measurement programme, started under the previous Government, provides feedback to parents about the weight status of their children, enabling them to take action where necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned clothes sizing, which indicates that being fatter has become the norm. The child measurement programme is an important part of giving information to parents.

The Department has also been working with the Association of Convenience Stores to increase the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in convenience stores across the country. That initiative has been expanding incredibly quickly. I recently had the pleasure of visiting a scheme. This development is particularly important for areas of high deprivation; convenience stores are often the first port of call for many to do their shopping. Some participating stores have seen a dramatic 47% increase in sales of fruit and vegetables.

As part of the public health responsibility deal, a number of organisations have made a series of pledges, which will provide better information to consumers about food. Let me make it clear that the Government are the only people to decide Government policy. However, the responsibility deal currently involves 180 organisations and businesses, and there are 19 collective pledges available online, which I urge hon. Members to view. The idea is to capitalise on the reach of many of these organisations—both businesses and voluntary bodies—so that we can tap into the unrealised potential of a wide range of resources that can promote healthier lifestyles and give people information.

Calorie labelling in out-of-home venues is intended to give information and has been quite successful. We have talked about the half-pint latte and a muffin. It is dramatic and astounding to discover that one has probably had the daily allowance just in a snack on the way to work.

We talked about physical activity. We are currently reviewing the chief medical officer’s guidelines, and are looking at evidence in relation to the health benefits of physical activity. There is also an important psychological benefit, because it makes one consider how one feels and what one is eating and doing, and to be more conscious of overall general physical and mental health.

While much of the focus is on preventing problems from arising, we are also working to meet the needs of those at most risk of becoming obese, including those who are already overweight. Weight management providers will continue to play a role in tackling obesity. In future, the move of public health into local councils is going to be an important and significant step.

I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon who mentioned playing in the street and street parties. Interestingly, when I was in Moscow last week, the Minister of Health for Columbia talked about a scheme they have there. On Sundays they close certain streets so that everybody can play in them. That is an outstanding idea. Before constituents e-mail to complain about their streets closing, I should say that I accept it would not work everywhere. It could, however, work in some places.

We have heard today of the huge opportunity for local action; we cannot work in silos any more. Government cannot tackle obesity alone and we want to work with the widest range of providers. Government can and must do their part, but we rely on the compliance of the public as individuals. We have to facilitate and help more people to want to lose weight and stay at a healthy weight. The truth is that no single solution will make a difference; the issue is about using all the ideas raised in this debate to turn round the supertanker. There is a tendency to refer to an epidemic, to suggest that it is something that happens to us. We are like—

Budget (Coventry)

This is the first time, Ms Dorries, that I have been involved in a debate chaired by you; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.

Coventry has had a long and significant economic history, which continues to shape and influence the performance of the local economy and could provide the foundation for its growth. The steady waning of coal mining after the second world war, together with the more rapid decline of our motor industry in the 1970s and 1980s, hit Coventry particularly hard. Coventry’s economic output is now 8.5% lower than the national average, and for Nuneaton and Bedworth it is now 35% below the average, yet Warwick performs 17% better than the national average.

Since the millennium, Coventry has benefited from significant redevelopment and regeneration, and the public sector has been crucial in that process. Coventry has a particularly youthful age profile, and scores well above average in measures of economic adaptability. Rates of growth were increasing before the recession, which suggests that the structural change is largely complete. The city holds many competitive advantages for research and development, engineering and niche manufacturing. However, unemployment is a growing worry. The latest figures from the House of Commons Library reveal that Coventry has 10,324 unemployed job seekers, and things are likely to get worse as the year progresses.

Coventry is famous for making cars, but it is public sector workers who drive much of the local economy. As we know, Becta and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are being abolished. It may have seemed the easy option to get rid of these education quangos, but they employ a combined total of close to 800 people. Many are former teachers. The relocation of the QCDA cost the Government more than £44 million, and it came at a personal cost to many of the staff who relocated from London.

We cannot ignore the strain on the private sector. Friends Life, formerly Friends Provident, recently announced that it plans to close its offices in Coventry by the end of the first half of 2012. There are 428 jobs at stake, and staff will be badly affected. That brings total job losses in Coventry to around 3,000.

I turn to the scale of the grant reductions that Coventry faces. Because of the cuts, the city council is being forced by the Tory-led Government to cut as many as 500 posts over the next 18 months. The amount of money that the council spends in the local economy will also be dramatically reduced. That, too, will have an impact on council staff. The front-loading of cuts means that staff losses will be required in the early stages of the spending cuts. That will affect families throughout Coventry. The overall impact is that Coventry city council is expected to lose about £45 million over the next few years.

The cuts will have an impact on the economy of the west midlands. They will have a significant knock-on impact on local businesses and employment in the region. We can see what is happening in other sectors as the cuts and reforms begin to bite. For example, cuts of more than 20% to the West Midlands police equate to 2,500 jobs.

There are two parts to the Department for Communities and Local Government cuts for Coventry council. It will lose formula grant of more than £19 million, and specific grants in excess of £17 million. The city council will not be able to continue providing services at the same level. Because of the latter cuts, there will be far fewer grants and they will have a lower overall value. It is a matter of great concern that many grant streams will end.

The vulnerable people of Coventry will be hit a number of times by the Government’s deficit reduction plan. Pensioners were dealt a blow by Government when the winter fuel payment was slashed by up to £100. How can those who are disabled or who live in care homes take part in the Government’s big society once the mobility component of the disability living allowance has been removed? Has the Minister considered the effects of reduced local government budgets on the cost per placement of patients on independent care providers such as Southern Cross? Notwithstanding the burden on the NHS, local hospitals will be expected to deliver far-reaching reforms to patient care as their budget decreases and demand increases. How can the Minister justify removing the provision of face-to-face legal advice for the poorer residents of Coventry in favour of a cheaper phone line?

I am deeply concerned about local provisions for our young people. Building Schools for the Future is to be abolished. That will result in a loss of £300 million to the local economy in construction, which can be added to the cuts in the council’s budget We await the James review—it has been a long time coming—but that is of no comfort to schools that are in desperate need of repair. From this year, the Connexions careers service will operate on a budget that is more than 70% smaller than in April 2010. The service gives young people the skills and confidence to get into the workplace. Its downsizing will doubtless contribute to the high youth unemployment that the region has experienced.

The coalition Government admit that Sure Start will suffer real-terms cuts. Ministers refuse to deny that this will result in the closure of Sure Start centres. However, Sure Start centres in Coventry will lose nearly £600,000, which will be a great blow to young families. Services for young people face other financial pressures. Coventry’s children, learning and young people’s department has announced a further £1.2 million loss because of the ending of the 5% standards fund.

Crucial retention funds that the council had relied upon will not be continued in the next financial year. The largest proportion of JSA claimants in Coventry are aged between 18 and 24. Given what I said about the Coventry’s youthful profile, there is no reason why our young people should not be given the opportunities that they need as it will strengthen Coventry’s regeneration.

All these changes will have an irreversible effect on the economic growth of the region. The leader of Coventry city council estimates that up to £25 million will be taken out of the local economy. The public and private sectors will not be able to invest in the regeneration of the region and its infrastructure.

There is an urgent need to address infrastructure issues. We need an increase in train travel between Coventry and Nuneaton, and Coventry and Leamington. The go-ahead for a new station at the Ricoh arena is vital to Coventry’s economy. Equally, we are waiting for the Friargate development to go ahead; again, it could have a big impact in revitalising the city centre. Revitalising the city will obviously create jobs.

I raise the question of what I fear is the impending sale of the strategically important land at Ansty. If a developer gets hold of that land, the possibility is that it will sit on it, waiting for the maximum return. That will probably be through housing rather than what it was meant for, which was job creation in the high-tech manufacturing sector.

My right hon. Friend anticipates me, as I was just coming on to that.

The abolition of RDA funding means that there is little to lever in private sector investment for large-scale redevelopment projects. Although the prospect of 10,000 jobs in the enterprise zone is welcome, questions arise on the implications for other employment sites such as those at Ansty and Browns lane. In answer to my right hon. Friend, I am sure that he will remember, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), that we lobbied hard to get the Ansty site as a technological centre, and the city and the west midlands invested a lot of money in it—if my memory serves me correctly, the investment for the infrastructure was somewhere in the region of £5.9 million. It is vital that the Minister clears up the future of that site. A lot of taxpayers’ money has been invested in it and some companies are operating from it at the moment. How does the development of that site square up with the proposal to create 10,000 jobs at Coventry airport? Although my hon. Friends and I do not deny that such jobs are needed, we need the issue to be sorted out one way or another. The public in Coventry want to know why some of those jobs cannot be located on the Ansty site. My right hon. Friend, therefore, raises a vital point, which is of interest to a lot of people, particularly those in Coventry.

My next point relates to the impact of the Localism Bill. Local people seek assurances from Government that there will be no fire sale of employment sites in need of overhaul, such as the Ansty and Browns lane sites, to help address the deficit. I have dealt with the Ansty site, but of equal importance is the Browns lane site, which was once a manufacturing site for Jaguar in Coventry—let me just say in passing that my hon. Friends and I are glad to see that Jaguar is reinvesting in the west midlands and in Coventry.

The Localism Bill also applies to the Coventry airport site, which is a proposed enterprise zone. Some major environmental issues will arise from the development of that site and the Severn Trent site. People will be testing the Localism Bill to see whether the public will have a major say in any development initiatives. Many people in Coventry are worried about the use of greenbelt land for example. We will soon find out whether the Government mean what they say about localism.

The Government need to address the balance of housing and employment. The highest rates of unemployment are generally found in the neighbourhoods that were based around the mining and manufacturing industries of the past. That highlights the key role that places can play in creating and sustaining unemployment. Areas housing large numbers of unemployed, low-skilled and vulnerable residents cannot generally attract business investment.

I will finish here because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West wants to speak and we obviously want to give the Minister time to answer our points.

We are very grateful to you, Ms Dorries, for your chairmanship of this important debate on the present economic situation in Coventry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate and I thank Mr Speaker for granting it.

I should like to develop a few of the points made by my hon. Friend. I want to draw the Government’s attention to them as they contribute to the highly unsatisfactory situation regarding jobs and the prospects for jobs in Coventry at the moment.

My first point relates to the review of the schools building programme. The situation in Coventry is particularly bad. All building was stopped and none was allowed to go forward. Even two schemes in my own constituency—Woodlands school and President Kennedy school—that were on the point of signature were refused. The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) is aware that at present the main building of Woodlands school is propped up by scaffolding, and has been for the past two years. What family is likely to want their child to go to a school that is propped up by scaffolding and might collapse at any minute? That scheme should have been given the go-ahead because the school is not fit for present-day purposes. I know that such buildings are the subject of the current capital review that is going on. We are approaching the end of the first year of this coalition Government and the situation is no longer satisfactory.

Similarly, development at the President Kennedy school, which was on the brink of getting the go-ahead, was suddenly stopped. Again, it is a totally unsatisfactory situation. There are a number of other such schools. My hon. Friend mentioned others in his own constituency and in Coventry North East. The matter must be brought to head in the near future.

My hon. Friend mentioned the regional fund, which has been slashed by 70% in Coventry. Such a cut will have a major impact on the level of activity and on the number of schemes that can be carried out with Government support. Many projects could go ahead if we had quicker and easier funding for them.

Let me draw the Minister’s attention to transport. Not so long ago, we had a debate in this Chamber with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) in which we tried to thrash out alternatives to the massive High Speed 2 programme. Some £18 billion would need to be spent on the London to Birmingham route. What needs to be done urgently and would hugely contribute to employment activity in the Birmingham and Coventry area is simple four-tracking, which has to be done on the London to Birmingham route. Such a scheme is supported by Centro and local experts who say that it could make a huge contribution not just to employment but to the development of the region by bringing in activity and easing transport between Coventry and Birmingham, which is a very congested area of the west midlands. That scheme is not going ahead now because it has been earmarked to be done in five years’ time—if we are lucky—as part of an £18 billion build. It could be done under a rail package 2 proposal, which has been put up by the same consultants who are doing the HS2 work for the Government, at a fraction of the cost. With many areas under blight, many Conservative MPs in the south-east share our view that we should invest in the areas through which the rail already travels.

Similarly, there is the issue of the Knuckle project, which is the rail link between Coventry and the Ricoh stadium. It goes further north to Nuneaton and further south from Coventry. Again, it is local and regional and could get the go-ahead. We know that it has not been killed by the present Government; it is still there and is still a possibility. The project is estimated at about £18 million, which is chickenfeed compared with the scale of the investments that we are considering in other areas.

The schools schemes and the rail programme could be given the go-ahead and they would make a tremendous difference to the blight that we otherwise face in Coventry.

The last time we went through a similarly bad period was in the early 1980s. The car industry and the machine tool industry collapsed. Virtually all the mechanical engineering sectors that were located in Coventry collapsed. There was nothing much left at the end of that period and we still have not recovered. Although investment and development continued to take place in the country, much of it bypassed Coventry. We face the same problem again and it will affect those sectors that came in to replace manufacturing, notably the public sector. Becta and the QCDA have been closed. The council is announcing huge cuts. The whole public sector that came in to replace manufacturing—not much else came in apart from transport and delivery—is now facing the same sort of cuts at a time of severe recession and once again, Coventry will be pushed down.

I realise that time is limited and I will not go on any more. I have listed a number of specific projects that could be undertaken in the context of what the Government have available now for regional development. I urge the Minister, who has no direct responsibility for any of the projects, to push her colleagues who are responsible at least to consider them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what must be the first time Mr Dorries.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on tabling and securing an important debate. It is important not only for Coventry itself but more broadly. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) who spoke, as did the hon. Member for Coventry South, with great passion about the challenges facing Coventry. In the time available to me, I will try to address a number of wide-ranging points that the hon. Members made.

The hon. Member for Coventry South is right to make the points that he did, in the sense that there is not going to be one thing that helps to regenerate and grow the Coventry economy, and create jobs. We need a broader strategy in place to ensure that we are successful in helping Coventry. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the main backdrop to the policies that the Government are pursuing is the huge budget deficit that we inherited, which we must tackle. In his speech, he talked about young people; the worst thing that we could do for young people is to pass on to them that debt of the money that our generation has spent, so that they can pay it off. We have an obligation to get our finances back in order so that young people do not face that additional challenge as they enter the economy.

We need to tackle the deficit. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have also got to increase economic growth and rebalance the economy across all regions of the UK. I think that he would recognise, as many of us do, that too much of the last economic boom, which took place roughly between 2000 and 2007, was enjoyed by London and the south-east, and not enough of it was enjoyed by cities and regions outside the south-east. We must ensure that, as we generate and create the right ingredients for the next period of growth in our economy, that growth is enjoyed by precisely those communities that can benefit most from it, in terms of jobs, skills and opportunities.

The key aspect at the last Budget was not only economic growth itself but ensuring that we had some plans to stimulate that growth. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we made a series of proposals at the last Budget to create a model for more sustainable and more balanced growth, including in Coventry and more broadly in the west midlands.

As hon. Members have made clear, Coventry faces some difficult challenges, but it remains a significant contributor to the regional economy in the west midlands. As has also been mentioned, during the last 20 years Coventry has rebalanced its economy somewhat by moving towards more high-tech manufacturing and business services. The reforms set out in the plan for growth, and indeed in the broader Budget, will give businesses and individuals in the region, including in Coventry, a real boost. Those reforms include cutting corporation tax from this month, so that it will be 23% by 2014; increasing the personal allowance by £630 next year, following the increase of £1,000 last month, which will take 25,000 people in the west midlands out of tax altogether; and, of course, building on the success of the manufacturing technology centre in Coventry and in other cities, by creating high-value manufacturing technology innovation centres. They will be the first of an elite network of centres that will enable businesses to access state-of-the-art equipment and technical skills.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a further opportunity for Coventry—one that I am sure is already being investigated in the city—is the enterprise zones policy. The west midlands already has two of the enterprise zones that were announced at the Budget. He will be aware of the zone in Birmingham and Solihull, created by the local enterprise partnership, and of the zone in the black country. During the coming months, I hope that Coventry itself will submit a proposal to become part of an enterprise zone.

Can the Minister talk to her colleagues in other Departments about one issue that I do not think her Department—the Treasury—actually handles? That issue is the future of Ansty. A list of sites has been published. In particular, we are talking about Advantage West Midlands, which is the regional development agency. On that list of sites, Ansty is not mentioned, so we do not know what is happening with it. That is one of the points that I made in my speech. A lot of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the site and a lot of effort has been put in by myself and my colleagues to get it developed. We and the public want to know what exactly will happen to it. I do not expect the Minister to answer me directly today, but perhaps she could go away and consider that matter.

One of the things that the hon. Gentleman has been able to do very effectively in his speech is to raise a number of issues—such as transport and infrastructure, which I will come on to shortly—that are not necessarily a concern of the Treasury, but that doubtless have been recognised by the Departments concerned. I will ensure that I pass back his specific comments about the Ansty site to my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and I will write to him in more detail about that specific site.

As I was saying, enterprise zones are another opportunity to bring some genuine benefits to the hon. Gentleman’s area. In his speech on the Budget debate and again today, he has expressed the hope that Coventry will benefit from inclusion in an enterprise zone in the future. I welcome his enthusiasm for the enterprise zone policy. Of course, the Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership is welcome to bid to be part of the second tranche of 10 enterprise zones. Regarding timelines, I have no doubt that his local LEP will be working on its proposal already. We expect to take some decisions within Government in the summer about where the next tranche of enterprise zones will be. We do not intend to spend a long time making those decisions. We are aware of the urgent need to get on with this policy, because we believe that it can make a real difference.

The Government have also established the regional growth fund, which is worth £1.4 billion overall, to help to grow a private sector-led economy in England. Of course, Coventry will benefit directly from the first round of awards from that fund, with Jaguar Land Rover having won support for a project to undertake design engineering for a new small common vehicle platform that will be developed in part in its Whitley centre.

There have been other signals that the private sector sees Coventry as being “open for business” and that it has real confidence in the future of the city. Only last week, it was announced that the overhaul of Coventry airport will go ahead, creating new infrastructure and business opportunities in a £250 million development.

The second round of the regional growth fund, in which we are aiming to allocate the remaining £950 million of funding available, is now open for bidding. The second round closes on 1 July and I look forward to seeing many more exciting proposals, including from businesses in Coventry.

Hon. Members have raised concerns about local government funding. As I have already made clear, the last Government left an appalling financial mess behind them and we have a moral obligation to ensure that we pay down our debts as quickly as possible. Tough decisions have been necessary across all areas of public spending. Local government, which makes up a quarter of all public expenditure, has its part to play in that process.

The Government have delivered a challenging but fair settlement for local government to ensure that the most vulnerable communities are protected. Although financial settlements have been tight, local authorities will still receive £29 billion in grant next year. It is also worth noting that formula grant in Coventry will be nearly £500 in 2011-12, which is more than twice what it will be in west Oxfordshire, precisely reflecting the higher levels of need in Coventry. I know that Coventry council is getting on with calculating how it will make the savings that it needs to make. In fact, its deputy leader, Councillor George Duggins, has said that the council was in a “good position” compared with other councils, because it has taken early action.

There is no doubt that these are difficult decisions to make and of course they should be made at the local level by local authorities, to ensure that the priorities of local people, including those of people in Coventry, are reflected in those decisions. Ultimately, however, there is no doubt that the worst thing that we could do is to ignore the huge deficit that our country faces and the need to tackle it.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the issue of infrastructure in his speech and I want to refer to it briefly. During the spending review period, the Government will actually spend slightly more on infrastructure than the last Government had planned to spend. Of course, investment across the board has already been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, but I have no doubt that the points that have been made today about the regional transport infrastructure in the west midlands, including rail, will also be taken on board by him. Hon. Members are right to point out that high-speed rail is a strategic project that can bring benefits not only to the west midlands but nationally. However, there is still the need to ensure that we get investment in the existing track. Of course, that existing track has a clear role to play in the coming months and years, by helping Coventry and other areas to regenerate their economy.

Finally, I will mention the Building Schools for the Future programme. I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman set out about that programme—they are concerns that I face in my own constituency. It says everything about the BSF programme that a Government who were in power for 13 years could come to the end of their term and still have existing schools in the sort of state that the hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the hon. Member for Coventry North West, described.

However, I have no doubt that such considerations are being taken into account by the James review and I assure both hon. Gentlemen that, as we go through the coming years, we want to ensure that parts of the country outside the south-east, such as Coventry, benefit to the maximum from the next period of economic growth.

Larch Disease

It is very nice to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is nice to see the Minister with responsibility for agriculture here.

There is an insidious disease hitting the south-west that, if swept under the carpet, could decimate some of our most treasured ancient woodland, and cost many of the green jobs in the forestry sector that are vital to the rural economy and to the maintenance of our environment. Phytophthora ramorum is a fungus-like pathogen that is causing extensive damage and mortality to plants and trees. In particular, it has infected commercial softwoods such as Japanese larch in the south-west of England and south Wales. It was unknowingly spread by plant movements of ornamental rhododendrons to gardens across the UK.

In 2000, Forestry Commission scientists found similarities between a pathogen that had been causing leaf blotch and dieback in rhododendrons in nurseries in Germany since the early 1990s, and a pathogen in California—and subsequently in Oregon—that had caused the death of more than 1 million oak trees since its symptoms were identified in the US in 1994, gaining it the name, “sudden oak death.” In Japanese larch, the symptoms are that shoots and foliage can be affected and are visible as wilted, withered shoot tips with blackened needles, with the infected shoots shedding their needles prematurely. Trees with branch dieback may have numerous cankers on their branches and upper trunk that can bleed resin.

It is now known that Japanese larch, when actively growing in spring and summer, can produce very high quantities of disease-carrying spores, at much higher levels than those produced by rhododendrons, and they can be spread across significant distances in moist air. In August 2009, the pathogen was found to have infected Japanese larch trees at sites in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, which was an unexpected change in its behaviour. More recently, in March 2011, the disease was found in the European larch in woodlands near Lostwithiel in Cornwall. The fact that this lethal pathogen has now proved capable of infecting yet another species is a worrying development and a setback in tackling the disease, but given the similarities between the two species, experts were not surprised.

Regarding the threat to the industry, as of January 2011 some 138 statutory plant notices had been issued in the UK requiring trees to be felled due to infections on some 2,200 hectares. An estimated 1,745 hectares in the south-west are affected by the disease. That is a grave threat to our woodlands and to the 2,220 people who are employed in primary production and processing. The 15,000 green jobs in the south-west supported by the forestry sector are under threat.

Japanese and European larch, the primary victims of the disease in the south-west, are extensively used in the manufacture of garden furniture, fencing and pallets, and their value to the south-west’s economy has been estimated at £47 million. Wood prices have been hit, with landowners estimating that the disease outbreak has seen larch prices fall by 35%. Over-supply, the cost of bio-security measures and the need for the diseased timber to be handled carefully only at licensed mills has also affected profitability.

Current actions by the Food and Environment Research Agency include a strategy to control and contain the disease, reducing levels of the infective spores in the environment by felling infected plantings of the principal host—Japanese larch—as rapidly as possible. FERA is also continuing its programme of clearing infected rhododendrons from woodland and other sites. There is also an aerial survey programme in the south-west, Wales and western Britain, where the climate favours the disease, to identify possible sites of infected larch, which is then followed by contact with owners, site visits to check symptoms and laboratory testing to confirm the presence or otherwise of the disease. When the disease is confirmed, there is a programme of clearance on both private and publicly owned sites and the development of a package of short-term help for private woodland owners affected by the disease, which includes a licence system to enable the movement and processing of timber from affected larch.

Other actions include continued scientific research better to understand the disease and the overall risks to our trees, woods and forests, including the potential impacts on the UK forestry sector and its associated industries; a further survey of rhododendrons by FERA, followed up with funded rhododendron clearance agreements when appropriate; and, very importantly, encouraging owners to check their woodland, especially larch plantings, for signs of the disease and to report suspicious symptoms promptly. Owners have a legal obligation under plant health legislation to notify the authorities if they suspect that the disease is present.

Regarding the effect on the forestry industry and the Confederation of Forest Industries, felling diseased larch has accelerated the loss of productive softwood forest, and the area of such forestry is already in decline, with new planting falling to match ongoing losses. A report by South West Woodland Renaissance, a coalition of 35 sawmillers and woodland owners, warned:

“The forecast total softwood availability from the current potential productive growing stock is forecast to decrease”

by up to 50%. The loss of larch trees has caused the acceleration of lost softwood forestry, undermining local green jobs and damaging efforts to reduce carbon emissions and develop a low-carbon economy.

I turn to the felling of diseased larch and replanting. Many landowners are concerned about the considerable cost of clearing woodland of infected trees, and also that the lack of support for woodland creation is inadequate and the resource is diminishing, especially with the value of larch trees going down due to so many of the trees having to be cut down because of the disease. There is a huge disparity in the current grant system, with the grant rates providing a higher contribution to the cost per hectare of planting broadleaves than softwood, and providing no grant at all for replanting softwood in protected ancient woodlands.

May I back that up by talking about the experience of my constituent, Mr Rob White, who has lost 20 hectares of his Japanese larch under a compulsory felling notice? He is on a planted ancient woodland site and only 50% to 70% of his replanting costs would be covered—even if he planted wholly broadleaf species—and he is seriously considering the extent to which he will replant. He would, of course, like to use his common sense and replant a range of species; he has talked to me about replanting Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, which are relatively disease-resistant, and he would also like to mix in some broadleaf species. Does my hon. Friend feel that we should trust our constituents to use their common sense in that regard?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to use our common sense and bring a mixture of trees back into these ancient woodlands, which have suffered from the destructive larch disease. From my farming background, I know that the greater the spread of varieties of tree, the lower the chance of spreading the larch disease that might still be there. I am sure that the Minister heard exactly what my hon. Friend said, and it will be interesting to see whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can come up with a solution whereby we can get the forests replanted, especially the very valuable ancient woodland.

I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall; his concerns are shared by many of us. In Northern Ireland, for example, some 200 hectares of trees are under the same threat. Does he agree that trees are perceived as the lungs of the earth and that if they die, it will affect the environment as well? They are important. Does he agree that we need a co-ordinated plan that takes in not only parts of southern England but other regions such as Northern Ireland, where there has been a severe outbreak? It is clear from the evidence that the disease has jumped species.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right. It is said that such diseases often breed better in the south-west of England due to the climate, but it is amazing how, over the years, they gradually move north. Is the disease present in Northern Ireland at the moment?

The evidence from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is clear. The disease is present in 200 hectares across nine woodlands and 4 hectares of private woodland. It is a disaster for the woodland in Northern Ireland, and it is prevalent in the Republic of Ireland as well.

There are a lot of larch trees in Scotland as well. We must be concerned about the disease, which is why I am glad to have the opportunity to debate it with the Minister so that we can put the case to him. The case has been made for Northern Ireland and the south-west of England, and I will carry on. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The industry believes that a flat-rate supplement will maintain the present imbalance of incentives, exacerbate the softwood differential and push up the cost of dealing with the disease. The Confederation of Forest Industries believes that the proposed grant system will increase the cost to the taxpayer by £1,500 a hectare. To retain a successful forestry sector in the south-west, urgent action is needed to create a more balanced grant system to allow forest owners more choice in replanting; my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made that point. We must also listen closely to people who own and manage forests.

The Clinton Devon Estates are close to my constituency, and they have assessed what is happening with the disease. Before the involvement of His Royal Highness Prince Charles in February 2011—I understand that the Secretary of State was present at a meeting with the Clinton Devon Estates—the growing belief in the industry was that the plant health threat was poorly understood within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that the issue was under-resourced and at significant risk of being compounded by a lack of timely action and resource.

The Clinton Devon Estates now believe that the situation is being turned around. Experts and practitioners across the field are pulling together an action plan that highlights the following: understanding and minimising plant disease threats and mitigating their risks; managing pests and diseases and mitigating their impact; a robust review of the UK’s plant import controls to learn how we inflicted the disease on ourselves, which we hope will delay future disease threats; continued resourcing of relevant Forestry Commission activities, specifically aerial monitoring and diagnostic and research work undertaken at the FC research station at Alice Holt, to provide rapid diagnostic support to field teams and resource to engage proactively with woodland owners; and adequate resourcing of rhododendron removal from the wider environment.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, many parts of the south-west have a huge number of rhododendrons. Natural England leads on the issue within DEFRA and has requested additional resources. To date, there has been no response, although I understand that the Minister is probably not entirely flush with money.

The disease needs to be treated like foot and mouth, and the equivalent of a national war room should be set up to give focus and momentum to efforts to address the threat. Unlike foot and mouth, larch disease does not represent an obvious issue to society. Therefore, it is important to keep the pressure on so that proper resources are allocated to addressing it. The proposed support measures for replanting infected woodland should be equitable to commercial softwood species and native broad-leaf planting. Significant productive areas within the south-west risk being lost, which would have a direct negative impact on the wood processing sector.

Some 11.5% of Devon, or some 77,000 acres of land, is woodland, enjoyed by all who visit it. However, a Forestry Commission survey found that 60% of Devon’s woodlands are under-managed. That is a key issue that should be addressed. I am happy that the Minister could be here for this debate, and I ask him to take these matters forward. As I said, not everybody realises what is happening to our forests as a result of larch disease, and we need to tackle it quickly. We have many rhododendrons in the west country that could spread the disease. I will be interested to hear what solutions he has.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House. I am happy to confirm that when I took responsibility as the forestry Minister almost a year ago and was apprised of the issue, I quickly realised its importance and the potential severity of its impact on the UK’s forests. It is right that a year on, we should be having a debate, albeit a short one, about Phytophthora ramorum, particularly in the south-west.

As my hon. Friend said, the disease was first identified in rhododendrons in this country in about 2002. It was not until 2009 that it appeared to jump species into the Japanese larch. It has appeared in other species—in Ireland it has been found in Sitka spruce—but apparently, in all such instances, the individual tree has been surrounded by highly infected rhododendron, which shows the impact of the spores. Touch wood—perhaps that is an unfortunate phrase—there is no sign that the disease is openly jumping to other species, but that is clearly the big worry.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the matter does not affect only state forests. The vast majority of England’s forests, 80%, are not state-owned, so private forests have a serious role to play. I am sure that he will pass on my thanks to those in his constituency for how private landowners have joined the Forestry Commission and the Food and Environment Research Agency to combat the threat of Phytophthora ramorum.

My hon. Friend asked what we are doing in the widest context. I will try to address that first. DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Bob Watson, is advising us on the issues, opportunities and priorities for new research, working with others to ensure that outputs have maximum impact on what we can do and working with the Forestry Commission, FERA and the wider scientific community to develop further our strategic approach to existing and emerging plant pests and diseases, which are not unique to this country. There is an international perspective as well.

That work is setting out an agenda wider than Phytophthora ramorum to minimise the risk of new threats entering the UK, to enable us to understand more about the threats that we face, to work with society to make it more aware of threats, pathways and the risks of bringing in infection and to identify positive actions that those who manage our trees, woodlands and forests can take to improve their resilience. In addition, Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission, is, like every other public body, going through its own spending review. It has decided, rightly, to reprioritise its research work. As part of that, programmes such as biosecurity will be increased and the budget maintained.

As my hon. Friend has said, Phytophthora ramorum is not unique to this country. We do not know exactly how it came in, but it is believed to have probably come from some infected plant importation. It exists in 15 European Union member states and, as he has pointed out, the United States. In the UK, it was initially in rhododendron and the whole of that species, and it then jumped into Japanese larch. It is not so much that this is a disease of the south-west, but it appears to be a disease of larch, which is a particularly common species in the south-west—particularly Japanese larch—for the commercial reasons to which my hon. Friend has referred. Larch is an important forestry species in the south-west and in parts of Wales and the rest of England. The disease has, as my hon. Friend has said, also been found in European larch in Cornwall. I have asked whether that indicates that European larch is any more resistant, but we just do not know. It is probably because there are far more Japanese larch than European larch in the south-west.

On the Government’s strategy, whether it relates to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Forestry Commission, to deal with Phytophthora ramorum, our overall strategy on the fungal pathogen, which is the disease under discussion, is to reduce the pathogen inoculum—in other words, the spores that are produced—to an epidemiologically insignificant level by removing sporulating host plants from high-risk areas. The aim is to reduce the risk of significant tree death and other impacts. In plain English, our policy is to cut them down as quickly as possible. The point is that, while the tree is alive and standing in the wind, the fungus is sporulating and the spores spread considerably. The sooner the tree is cut down and dies, the less risk. Although the tree being on the ground and dead does not remove all risk, it dramatically reduces it. That is the fundamental objective—cut them down as soon as possible.

I should say that the timber from such trees is perfectly okay. The timber itself does not carry any disease. The bark and any foliage, however, are more risky. Bark can be burnt and used for incineration for power generation and heat and so on, but it cannot be used for mulch purposes, because of the risk that it contains disease. Small trees and useless stuff are left on the ground, because it is not cost-effective to remove them for the small risk. Once they are on the ground, the risk is much lower. That is the layman’s approach to what is happening, which is important.

Biosecurity precautions are important. Have their been any discussions with other regions in the United Kingdom and Great Britain—in other words, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—where there have also been outbreaks, so that there is a co-ordinated plan to address the issue across the whole of the United Kingdom?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we are talking to bodies not only throughout the United Kingdom, but beyond. As I have said, 15 EU member states have Phytophthora ramorum. Clearly, it would be pointless for everybody to enter into their own, unique research programmes, so we are working closely with all of them on research into the disease and, as he has indicated, on biosecurity.

I have responded to my hon. Friend about our practical solutions to reduce the incidence of sporulation of the fungus, to reduce the risk of further infection. It is a massive challenge and he is right to identify the need to find out more. The Forestry Commission and FERA, together with other organisations, such as the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society and Natural England, are delivering a five-year, £25 million programme in England and Wales against Phytophthora ramorum. This partnership is working together to implement the measures necessary to achieve the programme’s objectives. Some of those measures are obvious and my hon. Friend has referred to them. They include the use of aerial surveillance of more than 50,000 sq km to detect symptomatic trees and to monitor progress with felling. That aerial surveillance started again a couple of weeks ago, because larch, unlike most conifers, is deciduous and we do not know when it will come into leaf until it does.

The measures also include additional funding for woodland owners to use the services of qualified agents to arrange the felling and removal of infected timber, and there has been a moratorium on felling asymptomatic larch in winter. The Forestry Commission also has statutory powers to deal with the disease, and they require the felling of infected trees on up to 2,000 hectares of private land and the public forest estate. We are also issuing licences that allow the timber processing industry to transport infected timber and utilise it in an approved manner. My hon. Friend has rightly referred to the sad fact that that has led to a reduction in the value of larch timber. I gather that it has picked up again to about 75% of its price before the disease’s outbreak, but I recognise fully that it is an issue.

That brings me to our assistance with the restocking of infected sites, which includes enhanced rates of grant aid and advice on alternative species to larch. This relates to the point that both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made about planting on ancient woodland sites, a number of which have been infected. We will announce shortly the new rates of grants, so I cannot use this as an opportunity to speculate on what they may be, but I can say to both my hon. Friends that we are aware of the challenges of dealing with planted ancient woodland sites. On the one hand, there is the desire for an economic return, which is why larch was there in the first place, but, on the other hand, there is considerable pressure to return them to their ancient woodland origins by using, primarily, broadleaf trees. We are trying to work out a grant system that recognises that challenge.

The Forestry Commission and FERA have regular meetings with industry associations to alert them to the various threats of the pathogens. There have been a number of reports in the media about the disease, which is helpful, and the commission maintains a series of web pages. We have talked about the problem of a number of diseases, pathogens and pests that have found their way into the UK in recent years. There is little doubt that, with increased trade, transport and, possibly, climate change, we face a higher level of challenge from those various, newly arrived organisms. We recognise that many of them may have been introduced through the international trade in plants, and we are committed to finding ways of preventing entry through that route, which brings us back to biosecurity.

A review of the European Union’s plant health regime is well under way and a number of recommendations have been made and are being considered by both the Government and industry stakeholders. A number of improvements are likely to be implemented in 2013-14. However, our import controls can be targeted only at plants and plant products that are known to pose a risk. Owing to international law, we cannot put a blanket control on all plants and trees.

It is worth mentioning that the level of infection of Phytophthora ramorum in nurseries and garden centres has been reduced significantly. Last year, only 0.16% of inspections resulted in any positive findings, which is a reduction of more than 3% since 2003. It is clearly going in the right direction. However, we may—I hate to say this, but I think it is the reality—have to learn to live with some pests and diseases, which means that we have to learn to manage them and keep them under control rather than eliminate them entirely. It will require a co-ordinated approach from our forest owners and managers, as well as our scientists, forestry experts and policy makers. It may require any of a range of different approaches, but we have to put biosecurity at the centre.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the Government and I take this disease extremely seriously. I am pleased that he has used the opportunity of a short debate to talk about it, describe it and challenge the Government about it. We appreciate its importance. If he or anybody he knows feels that the Government are not taking it sufficiently seriously, or has any other suggestions, I would be interested to hear from them. I am grateful to him and hope that I have been able to reassure him about the seriousness that we attach to the issue.

Medical Students

It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise some key issues about the funding of medical students. Aspects of the upheaval in higher education funding are, of course, important both for the recruitment of doctors and the availability of opportunities to study for the medical profession. They are of particular concern in my constituency, which is home to 1,000 undergraduates and 1,300 postgraduates in medical sciences. I am grateful for the briefing that I have received on the matter from the British Medical Association and the Oxford university medical sciences division, as well as for the concerns that constituents have raised with me on these issues.

At a time when higher education as a whole faces the challenges and dangers of the 80% cut in university teaching support and the trebling of fees, concerns about the costs of and access to medical education are all the greater. The length and intensity of medical courses both add to the cost to students and limit their opportunity to supplement their income through paid work.

The BMA estimates that, under the present system, medical students graduate with some £37,000 of student debt. With all universities charging or set to charge £9,000 for medical studies under the new regime, the BMA estimates that that figure will go up to around £70,000. That does not count overdrafts, credit cards, professional loans or family borrowing. We do not need to exaggerate the impact of prospective debt on students’ choices to be concerned that debts of £70,000 or more might be a barrier to able people from poor—or, indeed, middling—backgrounds who are considering entering the medical profession.

My concern is about the funding position facing all medical students. However, on the challenge facing us on widening participation, there is likely to be a triple impact on entry to medical studies. The A-level admission grades are understandably particularly demanding and poorer students from schools serving poorer areas are less likely to achieve them, which clearly demands further action within the school system. The requirement of medical work experience is also likely to be harder to fulfil for school students from financially hard-pressed families or, indeed, from families with no connections to the medical profession. At the same time, the prospective length and costs of study are considerably higher and it seems plausible that those are also having an impact on the relatively low rates of admission to medical studies from poorer socio-economic groups.

Statistics on admissions show that the wider challenge of opening up access to higher education is certainly compounded in the case of medical studies. The BMA equal opportunities committee report published in October 2009 includes a review of UCAS data. It states:

“The proportion of acceptances to medical school coming from socio-economic class I (31%) was almost twice that of acceptances to all other degrees from class I (16 %). Just 15% of students accepted into medical school came from the four poorer socio-economic classes (grades IV to VII) compared with 24% of students accepted to all degrees.”

The BMA has also said:

“The percentage of students from lower income families is slowly improving across the higher education sector but the rate remains stagnant in medicine.”

In the light of all that and the Government’s stated commitment to widen access to higher education, I would like to ask the Minister what the Government’s specific proposals are to widen the pool of talent entering medicine and whether the Government, in bringing forward the higher education White Paper, will look at the likely special factors at work in relation to medicine? I have listed some of those.

Will the Government also consider the advice and support given to able students in school, the necessity and operation of the work experience requirement and the £75 cost of the UK clinical aptitude test used as part of the selection process? That test gives an early signal to students from poor backgrounds that studying medicine is an expensive undertaking.

An important part of overall support for medical students is the provision of bursaries. As the Minister will be aware, the future shape of those has been uncertain for some time. The previous Government consulted on options for change in 2009, and last month the present Government set out new options for reforming the system.

As I represent the other half of the Oxford university seat, the right hon. Gentleman will know that I share many of his concerns. In the light of his valid concerns about equal representation among medical students, does he agree that now is the crucial time to decide about the NHS bursary scheme, given that many students are deciding which courses to apply for?

I am grateful to have the support of my colleague. I might describe her constituency as covering the other third of Oxford university. Her support on that point is very welcome. I was about to say that people are already asking what the situation will be, and obviously the sooner they can have certainty, the better.

The BMA has joined other bodies in consulting on the issue, and I understand there is some expectation that agreement will be reached. However, one big outstanding question is whether the new proposed bursary arrangements will cover tuition fees in the same way as they are covered now, with the Department of Health paying the fees for years 5 and 6 of an undergraduate course. If the bursary does not cover fees—it seems extraordinary that Ministers have not yet made the Government’s position on that clear—medical students would obviously face still higher costs and debt.

As my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), whose constituency represents the other third of Oxford university, says, mounting urgency on that matter arises because would-be applicants worry about how the arrangements will work for 2012-13. I press the Minister to give an undertaking that tuition fees for medical students will be covered at least as well as they are now.

The other point that needs to be made is that many of these courses are for six years, not just five. We need to take into account the cost of living expenses and the fact that many medical students have to take out commercial loans in addition to student loans, which makes the matter especially significant. I declare an interest as the mother of a medical student on a six-year course.

The hon. Lady will know all about the matter. That was a very well made point. I will come to the subject of commercial loans later.

I also want to press the Minister on the position of graduate-entry medical students. That is an even more important route of entry than the 10% of total numbers that they represent suggests. The BMA has pointed out to me that its 2009-10 medical student finance survey shows that a higher proportion of students from poorer socio-economic groups enter medicine through graduate-entry courses than do so through undergraduate courses. Oxford university medical sciences division has pointed out to me that the best graduate-entry students are extremely strong and do exceptionally well. That route into medicine is important both for excellence and widening access.

The pharmaceutical and medical sectors of industry have clearly made many financial commitments to a number of universities across the whole of the United Kingdom, including at Queen’s university, Belfast. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the pharmaceutical and medical industry could do more to help poorer students with tuition fees?

A number already do, and of course we are grateful to those who give support directly, or through foundations and trusts. If more could be given, that would be very welcome. As the hon. Gentleman says, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK, the contribution that spin-offs make to our economy, as well as the direct benefits of investment in medicine, is enormous. Those who benefit from that in profit should put extra back.

The point that I was making about graduate-entry medical students is that they are not eligible for loans to cover tuition fees and have to find first year fee costs out of their own pocket or from other sources of help, some from specific university bursaries. If graduate-entry students had to raise £9,000 for their first, and maybe subsequent, year fees, on top of the debts that they would have already accumulated as undergraduate students, that might be prohibitively expensive and inflict real damage on the quality and social range of graduate-entry medical students. What assurances can the Minister give on graduate-entry student funding? Will there be additional help for first year fees in light of the increase? Will tuition fees for subsequent years be supported by the Department of Health at the new, higher rate?

Another concern, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, regards graduate-entry students who may no longer have access to some of the loans for professional development that have been made available by commercial lenders. The BMA has cited the recent decision by banks such as NatWest to withdraw those loans, which were obviously hugely important for graduate students who were ineligible for tuition fee support. Will the Minister make representations directly to the banks and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who might usefully underline that this is an especially important area for us all to be in it together in doing what we can for graduate medical entry?

All in all, there are big challenges facing prospective medical students. Yes, demand for the courses is high, and it is good for patients, science and the economy that so many of the brightest want to study medicine, but we cannot be complacent. It is vital that people from all backgrounds are encouraged and helped to fulfil their potential in medicine when they have something good to offer.

I would like to thank and praise the work of access officers, at Oxford university and elsewhere, who are working hard to reach out to schools and students who have not in the past thought of Oxford, and to raise aspirations and challenge prejudice. A very good example is the university of Oxford’s UNIQ summer school—it is unique, I think, but it is called UNIQ too—which is a programme of free residential courses in July and August for year 12 students from UK state schools and colleges.

The summer schools are targeted at academically talented students whose school or college has little or no history of making successful applications to Oxford. Participants follow a week-long academic course designed and taught by Oxford lecturers and tutors, as well as taking part in social activities and meeting up with alumni of the university and current students.

In its first year, 69% of UNIQ summer school students went on to apply to Oxford and 27% were given conditional offers by the university. I understand that the medical strand of that initiative has attracted a lot of state school applicants, and that the conversion rate to application and the offer of an undergraduate place in medicine is very good. That shows what can be done. Let us, through the funding arrangements for medical students, make the job of those promoting access arrangements easier, not harder.

This country can be very proud of the quality of education, training and research in medicine, and the scale of achievement in my constituency is awesome. We all want to see the most able people, regardless of background, working in the profession. Criteria for admission and the judgment of would-be students’ potential must, as with the assessment of their progress and qualifications, be matters for the medical schools and universities, not the Government. The Government have a clear responsibility to act and open up opportunities to ensure that there is the right advice and support, to raise school standards and aspirations, to remove barriers and to fund medical students fairly. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on whether and how the Government intend to set about that.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing this debate on what I know is an area of great importance. He is right to say that it is about recruitment, skills and the development of the profession. I would also like to thank him for his praise of access officers at Oxford, and for highlighting the summer school. It is important to see universities doing what they can to ensure that participation is widened, and that people who might not have felt able to apply to such universities as Oxford, or who might not have felt that they had the necessary skills, are given the greatest opportunity to do so. It is good to hear the right hon. Gentleman raise the point that this is something that schools have to take on board. We often discuss the issue of universities widening participation, but we also want to ensure that our schools prepare young people, and have the skills to prepare young people, to apply to all universities. Young people should not feel as though they are excluded from any opportunity.

There is no doubt that training for medical students in this country is some of the best in the world, and we want to keep it that way. That means that funding must be at a level that allows for the best training. The consultation paper “Liberating the NHS: developing the healthcare workforce” sets out our proposals for a new framework for education and training, and the right hon. Gentleman raised particular issues that I will come back to in more detail. The proposals would see health care providers take the lead. They would plan and develop their own work force, and take on many of the responsibilities that were previously held by the strategic health authorities. A new statutory body, health education England, would provide national leadership for education and training, with a strong clinical focus from top to bottom. The proposals for health education England have been widely applauded—it is very important to have that leadership in education and in that strong clinical focus. We now have an opportunity to review and reshape our work force and what it is designed to do, so that it can respond to the challenges of the future while still providing excellent care. We sometimes lag behind, trying to solve the problems of tomorrow with the solutions of yesterday.

For patients, of course, but also for staff and students, there must be a secure, diverse work force that has full access to education, training and opportunities to progress. That must be transparent, so that we can see how it is working and help ensure that we all get value for money, students included. The Government have consulted to see how that can happen. We have involved a wide range of people, because the new framework is about giving some of the power to those people. The central pillar is the transfer of greater responsibility to health care providers, escaping the one-size-fits-all approach that has been too prevalent in the past. Those providers will need to work together to co-ordinate the development of their local work force, so that it is tailor-made for the individual pressures of individual areas, which vary widely. That means building strong partnerships with universities and colleges to put the skills of educators to the best possible use and strengthening those relationships, which I do not think have been strong enough. There has been a general recognition among health care providers that those relationships have not been strong enough in the past.

I know that those involved with both the medical profession, including the BMA, and the education sector, want to ensure that medical education is protected and improved. They also want to know that the role of the postgraduate medical and dental deaneries, which currently form part of the strategic health authorities, will continue, so that medical students and trainees continue to be well-supported. Medicine, like many other professions, does not end at the end of training—continuing professional development is an important part of it.

Will the Minister come on to the specific questions that I asked about bursaries, both for undergraduates and those on postgraduate entry?

I am happy to—so that the right hon. Gentleman does not feel I am ducking his questions, I will deal with them once I have finished with the deaneries.

We want to retain and build on the important functions of deaneries as we build the new framework for education and training. We know how important that is, because any transition not only makes the participants feel nervous but is a significant operation for any Government. The transition is when we can let the baby slip out with the bath water.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of bursaries in particular, but I have to disappoint him, in that I cannot make an announcement today. We are acutely aware how long awaited it is. No one could be more frustrated than me with the slowness of government at times, but it is important that we get it right. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes also raised the issue of some of the indirect costs of training, to do with the length of the course. We will be making announcements soon but, as I said, it is important that we get it right and that we involve other Departments.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked if I would make representations via the Treasury to other organisations about supporting training schemes. It is important that we continue to do that—perhaps we do not see enough of that in this country. At this point, I should mention that Julie Moore, the chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is leading some of the work we are doing with the NHS Future Forum, as part of the ongoing listening exercise on the health reforms. Julie will continue the debate started in the consultation, so there will be further opportunity for input. I urge him and the other Members present to get involved, to ensure that their views and the particular issues faced by medical students are taken on board.

Our responsibility is held jointly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, so the right hon. Gentleman should ensure that any comments made today also go as directly to it. The two Departments are working closely together, so that the specifics of medical education can be recognised.

I wanted the assurance that, as part of the Department of Health’s collaborative work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the long-awaited higher education White Paper, which it would have been better to have had before the fees increase rather than after, will address the specific position, challenges and opportunities of medical students.

Very much so. To some extent, the health of the nation rests on the skills of the professions that deal with the consequences of poor health. Medical students and doctors are part of that, so it is important that we get the system right. We need to maintain a competitive edge if we are to continue to produce medical graduates of the highest calibre. We shall not fail in our duty to make representations to other Departments, although working together is not always as easy for government as it sounds. However, we have made significant progress, and I think our words are being heard loud and clear.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, universities will be able to charge a basic threshold of £6,000 a year for courses, and up to £9,000 a year for some, but subject to much tougher conditions on widening participation and fair access, which he mentioned in particular. There are still many such challenges, not only for universities but for our education system and at a wider societal level, if we are truly to get participation as wide as it can be. We need to look at all sorts of other drivers in the system directing young people to their choices.

We are shifting the balance of contributions from taxpayers to graduates, who benefit most from higher earnings over the course of their working lives. It is important to recognise that, after medical students have gone through the system and become consultants, they are probably among the top few percent of wage earners in this country. Contribution from them, therefore, is important. For poorer students, who might feel that the burden is too high, there is a balance or tipping point at which active participation in a fees scheme becomes a barrier. We have done a lot of work to ensure that that is not the case, and we continue to do so.

Many of the subjects associated with medicine cost more to teach, and we want a system in which anyone with the ability can access university and study such courses without being put off by the cost. That is why we will continue to provide additional funding for science, technology, engineering and medical courses.

The NHS bursary, which is in recognition of the length of time it takes to study medicine, will continue, helping students with their tuition fees and supporting those from low to middle-income families—sometimes, the middle-income families get squeezed in the middle. We have undertaken a review of the bursary, and will make some announcements shortly. In the review, we considered the views of the British Medical Association, which played an active part, ensuring that the perspective of medical students was considered.

In addition to the NHS bursary, last year an additional £890 million were invested by the NHS to provide clinical placements to medical students, ensuring that NHS providers continue to deliver high-quality clinical placements, which are an important part of such training.

The central investment in 2011-12 is £4.9 billion, a 2% increase on 2012-13. It is important that the funding mechanisms provide the right incentives and allow funding to be transparent, to drive quality and to be value for money, supporting a level playing field between providers. Any bursary schemes included should be easy to use and to access—sometimes, the mechanisms by which one can get support are only available to those at the top end of the IQ scale, because they are so complicated. Such complexity can be another significant barrier.

Current funding for clinical education and training is based on local agreements between strategic health authorities and providers. It can result in inequities in the funding of similar placements in different parts of the country. To resolve that, we have been working with others to develop proposals for a tariff-based approach to clinical education and training funding. Such tariffs would enable a national approach to funding all undergraduate clinical placements, including placements for medical students, as well as postgraduate medical training programmes. That will support a much more level playing field between providers. The variation in current funding arrangements means that the introduction of tariffs would have a bigger impact on some providers than others.

Will the proposed tariff take account of the extra cost of living in certain places—obviously London but also places such as Oxford?

We are looking at that issue at the moment. We have received about 500 consultation responses, so I am sure that it will be highlighted—it is something we need to look at. The other important thing we are looking at is proposed levies on private health care providers. Certainly, when I trained as a nurse—many years ago—that was an issue, and it remains so today.

The tariff ought to mean a more even and equitable system throughout the country. We will continue to work with SHAs and providers, and we will consider all the views expressed, to build understanding of what the tariffs will do and of how to manage the transition.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise the importance of medical education and of continuing medical education. The new arrangements will take on board many of the issues he has raised, to ensure that we have a health care work force fit for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.