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Westminster Hall

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2011

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 July 2011

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Dangerous Dogs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I am immensely grateful to Mr Speaker for allowing this debate. We can see from the number of Members present in the Chamber what an important subject this is and how much concern it has caused.

I should declare an interest at the outset as the owner of two adorable cocker spaniels. However, although they are both quite mad, exhibiting all the natural exuberance of the breed, neither has an aggressive bone in its body, and they are dangerous only in their capacity to leap around.

The issue of dangerous dogs affects many rural and urban constituencies and has been raised with me on numerous occasions since last year’s general election. Experiences differ: in one constituency, I have been faced with complaints about dogs being used as weapons and with the problem of dogs exhibiting pack behaviour and attacking farm animals and domestic pets. I will never forget the day when I received in the post a package containing photographs of a Jack Russell terrier that had been ripped to shreds by a larger dog.

Legislation is outdated and ineffective in addressing a problem that evidence indicates is growing. The Dogs Act 1871 is still in force, but it was significantly updated by the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997, which made owning certain types of dogs a criminal offence. Until then, to be responsible for a dangerous dog was only a civil offence. The 1991 Act was a legislative reaction to a series of high-profile attacks by pit bull terriers.

I am not saying that that legislation was wrong, but it has caused heartache for the owners of dogs that have done nothing wrong other than appearing to be of the wrong breed or type. It has certainly not prevented further tragedies—indeed, they have increased—and it has caused police forces and local authorities enormous sums in court cases and kennelling fees. It has been in desperate need of updating for a long time.

Why do I believe that now is an appropriate time to update the legislation? At long last, there is widespread agreement among different organisations about the way forward. Some 20 different bodies, including the National Dog Warden Association, the Police Federation, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Communication Workers Union and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home have now reached a level of agreement about what might be effective.

I agree that it is not the dogs but the owners who are dangerous in many respects, especially people with status dogs who train them to be vicious. Such dogs are known to be vicious, and postal workers and midwives go into homes where such dogs have been trained to be vicious and are attacked. We must do something about that.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which I will certainly address later. The crucial point is that in many cases it is the owners who are dangerous, not the dogs.

Any proposed solution must be practical and in the best interests of both dogs and their owners. Not only dog welfare organisations but professional bodies, trade unions and charities covering wide interest areas have all concluded that the current law on irresponsible dog ownership is simply inadequate. New legislation has been passed in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and consistency across the whole United Kingdom would be helpful. Finally, in an era of austerity, the current legislation places an immense financial burden on hard-pressed bodies, such as local authorities, our police, national health and ambulance services and not to mention animal welfare organisations, which all too often end up picking up the pieces.

Under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, it is a criminal offence for a dog owner or the person in charge of a dog to allow it to be dangerously out of control in a public place. Such a dog is defined as one that has injured someone or that a person has reasonable grounds to believe might do so. The most contentious part of the 1991 Act is section 1, which details the breeds of dog that it is an offence to own or keep. Four types of dog are referred to specifically, including the notorious pit bull terrier, Japanese fighting dogs and Brazilian mastiffs.

The original intention of the 1991 Act was that due to the restraints and conditions placed on owners, such dogs would simply die out, having been destroyed or compulsorily neutered, and that they would all have been eradicated by now. However, that clearly has not been the case. Evidence suggests that their popularity, and hence their number, has risen. The number of bull terriers taken in by Battersea Dogs Home has increased dramatically. I mention Staffordshire bull terriers in particular for reasons that I hope will become clear. In 1996, 380 bull terrier types were received at Battersea. Last year, there were nearly 2,500. Many of those dogs were not pit bulls but Staffies. I appreciate fully the clear difference between a Staffordshire bull terrier and an American pit bull. The Staffie is well known as a bold and fearless dog, but it is also affectionate, particularly with children. By contrast, the pit bull is a breed created by interbreeding terriers and bulldogs specifically for illegal dog fights.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she agree that the trick is to get the balance right so that the law takes action on irresponsible owners of any breed of dog? We need to enact legislation in respect of those owners without penalising responsible dog owners who are prepared to look after their dogs, keep them on a leash and ensure that they do not get out of control.

That is exactly the problem. It is all very well to ban a particular breed, but any dog can be dangerous, whatever the breed. We must consider behaviour and responsible ownership. I am the first to concede that getting that balance right will be difficult. I am sure that that is part of the reason why—

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On that point, before we all rush to enact more legislation and regulation, in many cases the current legislation is not always enforced properly. Before we introduce another Act, we must ensure that local agencies, the police and so on enforce current legislation. In many cases, they do not.

That is valid. My hon. Friend makes a good point. Enforcement is certainly not consistent. However, I am seeking consolidation of the legislation to make it easier to enforce consistently across the country.

As I was saying, the problem is that Staffordshire bull terriers and pit bulls share many visual characteristics. Naturally affectionate Staffies are either mistaken for pit bulls by the authorities, resulting in seizure, kennelling and lengthy legal battles to prove that they are not one of the banned breeds, or—which is much worse, in my view—are deliberately selected for their status dog appearance and then trained to be aggressive, or not trained at all. As all of us who are dog owners know, any pet requires a reasonable level of training and discipline to become a pleasant, well-behaved member of the family.

I contend that much behaviour is learned rather than inherent, and that wrong handling or deliberate training to provoke aggression can turn any dog into a potential problem. The rise of so-called status dogs, which are often linked to antisocial behaviour, cannot necessarily be addressed by breed-specific legislation. The real cause of the problem is the owner’s actions rather than the breed of dog.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this important debate. I pay tribute to Banbridge high school in my constituency, which has taken a great interest in the matter and made it into a project. She has mentioned Northern Ireland. One blight on Northern Ireland is illegal dog fights for gambling and so on. Does she agree that if illegal dog fights are found to be occurring—we need the general public to provide information about them—the full rigour of the law must be brought to bear on the people who hold such fights? Those people train dogs to be vicious, while people who look after their pets properly are penalised.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the problem of illegal dog fighting. He is correct to say there has been a rise in such cases not only in Northern Ireland, but here in the capital, London, in particular. He is right that the full rigour of the law must be brought to bear.

One problem is that, while some dogs may have certain characteristics, it does not mean that they are fighting or status dogs, either by temperament or by upbringing. There is a fundamental problem with the assumption that one breed or type is dangerous and others are not. That misses the point that it is owners, not dogs, who pose the risk, and that a dog’s behaviour will be largely dependent on its upbringing, socialisation and home environment. Ultimately, the law should be targeted at individuals taking responsibility for their dogs, not at dogs for simply being dogs.

There is, however, a significant problem with aggressive and out-of-control dogs. I emphasise that much of the problem stems from irresponsible ownership, but we cannot get away from the fact that eight people have been killed in dog attacks in the past four years. According to the Communication Workers Union, 6,000 postal workers are attacked by dogs every single year. Attacks on farm animals cost in the region of £2.8 million a year, and there have been 74 reported attacks on horses in the past three years. Other dogs are certainly not immune. According to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, there are three attacks a month on guide dogs.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this incredibly popular debate. I have a constituent whose guide dog was attacked by another dog and, when the guide dog was retired, my constituent was refused a replacement on the grounds that there were too many dangerous dogs in the area. Does the hon. Lady agree that we should ask the Government to look at that specific issue?

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. Guide dogs are not simply pets or companions, because they enable the visually impaired to lead a normal life. It is critical that we look at that problem. It is unacceptable that a blind person should be penalised simply because there is a type of aggressive and unpleasant dog in the surrounding area. Statistics for the number of attacks on family pets in public places are not available, because those attacks are too numerous.

I represent a small corner of New Forest national park, which is extremely popular with dog walkers, and I am conscious from both my own experience and the comments of local residents that not all owners who utilise the area to walk their pets have their dogs adequately under control. I am not suggesting that Wellow common is rife with dog attacks—it is not—but incidents involving out-of-control, aggressive dogs do occur, and for every person or other dog involved, it is not only terrifying, but dangerous.

There is also a significant cost, both to individuals and to the public purse, as a consequence of the rising incidence of dog attacks. Every single strategic health authority has experienced an increase in accident and emergency admissions due to dog bites. It is hard to estimate the financial cost accurately, but attempts to do so indicate that, over the past few years, it has been more than £2.5 million a year. In Hampshire, the local police have experienced a clear rise in the number of incidents involving dangerous dogs, and there is increasing anecdotal evidence of status dogs being used in the county instead of firearms or knives. Among the criminally inclined, there is a growing awareness that the potential punishments for having a dangerous dog are far lower than for other weapons.

Tackling the issue is expensive for my local police force. Last year, it spent about £30,000 on kennelling fees, but that is tiny in comparison with the Metropolitan police, which spends £9,000 a day and has budgeted for £10 million to be available for the seizure and kennelling of dogs over the next three years. For every dog seized, there is a human cost. As owners struggle to prove that their family pet is innocent of any crime, families are deprived of its companionship, and the poor animal itself is deprived of its liberty and the chance to have a normal existence. The great irony is that the stress placed on a kennelled dog makes that pet more likely to develop behavioural issues.

This is an important debate. Perhaps the Minister will address this later, but does the hon. Lady have any information about the tests that are available nowadays which show the DNA of a dog’s parents and their breed types in a matter of minutes? We can use technology to accelerate decisions and make sure that dogs that should not be kept in kennels are released back to their families.

My hon. Friend is right. DNA testing to determine the type of dog is much easier now than it was when the legislation was introduced. It is interesting that, in the past week, the Government have acknowledged the dreadful stress placed on dogs in quarantine and have announced a relaxation of those time limits, yet some dogs whose breed type is under question end up kennelled for several years.

In our previous jobs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and I were members of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Assembly and were involved in legislative change in relation to dangerous dogs in Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be helpful for the Minister and his Department to make direct contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to gauge the lessons that we learned about important legislative changes?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Progress towards legislative change has been made not only in Northern Ireland, but in Scotland. Such progress has, sadly, been lacking here.

Any legislation must be evidence based, proportionate and, importantly, best debated and drafted away from the perfectly understandable reaction that is always to the fore when there has been a dreadful attack. I do not seek to undermine the importance of and need for legislation to protect the public from dogs that are a danger, that have been trained and encouraged to be aggressive, and that, in increasing instances, are used as a weapon. That is why I welcome several of the components of Lord Redesdale’s Dog Control Bill, which was introduced in the other place and is currently on Third Reading. It aims to consolidate existing legislation, give greater flexibility and discretion to enforcers and the courts, include a genuine preventive effect, improve public safety and animal welfare and reduce the costs of enforcement.

At present, enforcers have to wait for an incident to occur before they can step in and deal with the animal. As we have heard, there is a lack of consistent enforcement, but if police have a dog of a banned type drawn to their attention, they must act, whether that dog has done anything aggressive or not.

I have agreed entirely with every word my hon. Friend has said until now, but she seems to have slipped back from her argument of a moment ago that it is the deed, not the breed, that matters. She now seems to be saying that it is the breed that matters and that, if the police are aware of a particular breed and that there is DNA evidence or a microchip to prove it, they should step in prior to an incident. Surely the process should be incident-driven, not breed-driven.

With respect to my hon. Friend, that is my exact point. Under the current legislation, if a banned type or breed is drawn to the police’s attention, the police must act, regardless of its behaviour. There is currently no provision for an owner to be able to apply to a court for a seized dog to be returned, and the 1991 Act predicts a dog’s behaviour based on its physical conformation, which, I would contend, is simply wrong.

Indeed, to drift off into the anecdotal, the dog that made me run in the opposite direction fastest during last year’s general election campaign was a golden retriever. That breed is never going to appear on a list of dangerous dogs, but the one that I encountered seemed rather enamoured by the prospect of chewing my leg off. We need to establish in law the principle that it is the deed, not the breed, that determines whether a dog is dangerous or not. That view is widely held, even at the very highest levels of Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has indicated, I used to chair the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a grand place. Whenever we dealt with the issue of legislation, the key point was that it was backed up by adequate resources, so that the police or whoever was responsible for enforcement—it could be another agency, such as a local authority—would be able to enforce it. The most important issue was that the local authority was adequately resourced by central Government. Whatever legislative change the hon. Lady goes for, I urge her to insist that the necessary resources be made available to allow it to take proper effect.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution and hope that the Minister will comment on it later.

I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on the range of possible measures to tackle the problem. The possible solutions include dog control notices, compulsory microchipping, muzzling in public places and, importantly, training for owners. Rather than generalising a type or a breed, those are practical suggestions that directly address the specific behaviour and the ways to ameliorate it.

Failure to comply with a dog control notice could lead to the responsible person becoming liable to a fine and potentially being disqualified from owning or keeping a dog for a prescribed period. This issue has been the subject of numerous written and oral questions, consultation and reviews of existing legislation. The issue is not confined to cities, but I highlight the work of the deputy Mayor of London, the Metropolitan police and many hon. and right hon. Members who represent constituencies in the capital, where there are certainly greater issues than in other parts of the country. Yet still we have unsatisfactory legislation that does not address the rise of the so-called status dog, which has impacted on the police and on their ability to carry out their role. The legislation desperately needs updating.

I urge the Minister to publish the Government’s response to the consultation on dangerous dogs, for which we have been waiting a considerable time. Will he also indicate whether he supports the measures in Lord Redesdale’s Bill, and whether he will consider introducing compulsory microchipping? I am the first to acknowledge that that is a measure of traceability rather than prevention, but it was simply not an option in 1991 when the Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced. Microchipping was first introduced in the UK in about 2000. The procedure is now commonplace and can be carried out by not only vets but registered practitioners, which has brought down the cost. I appreciate that microchipping will inevitably be most prevalent among the law-abiding majority, but it will indelibly link dog to owner and provide an important step forward.

Obviously there will need to be a register that is updated at every change of ownership, but dogs do not change hands that often. The vast majority of owners have dogs for life and, although I understand concerns that a register will be another imposition on responsible citizens, it will also be a way to steadily move towards a situation in which owners are accountable and dogs behaving in an antisocial way are identifiable. If there is no excuse for mistaken identity, enforcement officers will be able to judge the deed not the breed.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend up to now. However, does she not remember the days when we had dog licences? They did not work. The bad guys did not have them; only the good guys had them. Surely what she is proposing is a bureaucratic, interventionist, centralised solution to the issue. If we want to deal with the problem of people who have criminal intent and behave badly, licensing dogs will not achieve that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I disagree with him. This is not about licensing; this is about being able to scientifically identify a dog that has perpetrated some sort of unpleasant deed. Many other types of animals are microchipped and are identifiable from birth. We could easily have registers that trace any transfer of ownership. As I have said and as the Dogs Trust has taught us, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. They rarely change hands, and we simply need to move to a situation whereby we can identify who is responsible for which dog.

As I said at the outset, we are 20 years on from the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Police forces, animal welfare organisations, vets and nurses all believe that that legislation failed to solve the problem. It is high time that that failure was addressed.

Order. It is clear that there is likely to be more demand than supply when it comes to speeches. I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am, so we have about 50 minutes for debate. I do not have any power to stop Members speaking, but I ask people to try to be kind to their colleagues.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this important and timely debate. The vital context for many of her comments is the consensus, to which she referred, around the need to introduce, update and consolidate the laws on dog control. The fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland are legislating makes it important that we follow the lead of the devolved Assemblies and update the legislation.

The hon. Lady set out clearly the case for changing the law. Between 2004 and 2008, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has seen a twelvefold increase in reports of dog-fighting. As she mentioned, more than 6,000 postal workers are injured every year by dogs. The estimated cost to the state of dealing with issues relating to irresponsible dog ownership is £76.8 million, which does not include the costs of dog welfare enforcement. That figure alone indicates the need to update the legislation, prevent and educate in order to reduce the incidence of irresponsible dog ownership, thereby reducing the overall cost.

Some 2,500 adults and 2,200 children were either treated in A and E or admitted to hospital for dog-related incidents in 2006-07, and eight people were killed by dogs in the past four years—six children and two adults. I think we would all agree that that is six children and two adults too many. In addition, some 197 people were seriously injured.

In an age of austerity, we can’t go on like this, to borrow a phrase from the general election. We need to educate, prevent and enforce. Many hon. Members have long been persuaded of the need to act. For me, the starting point was Christmas 2006, when there was a horrendous attack on a postal worker called Paul Coleman in Sheffield. He was dragged to the ground by a dog in a street outside the property at which the dog resided. Paul Coleman suffered horrendous injuries. He needed plastic surgery and skin grafts to his leg to try to repair the damage. I have met him and the scars from that attack are visible to this day. The psychological scars will remain for ever, along with the physical ones.

I accept that it is vital that on the mainland in the United Kingdom there is an essential strengthening of the legislation, and we must get it right. However, that in itself is not the answer. We need to ensure that the legislation is enforced. How does the hon. Lady think that will be done in reality?

I will come on to that later, because it is a very important point.

After the attack I mentioned, the Communication Workers Union—the postal workers’ union—launched its bite-back campaign, which has been incredibly successful in raising the profile of the issue. I think that the Minister acknowledges that. I place on the record today the importance of the work done by the CWU in partnership with the RSPCA. They have played a critical role in bringing us to where we are today. About three years ago, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill based on the bite-back campaign to try to get the law changed. However, before I could get the Bill on the Floor of the House, there was another serious attack involving a postal worker in Cambridge, who nearly lost his arm as a result of a dog escaping from inside the gates of a property. Two Rottweilers dragged him to the ground and, as I say, he nearly lost his arm.

In that case, there was an attempt at prosecution on the grounds that the dog attacked on public property. However, the case was thrown out because the attack happened in an unadopted cul-de-sac. That judgment effectively means that there is very little protection not just on private property, but beyond the boundaries of what most of us would understand to be private property. That case alone highlights and underlines the need not only to consolidate, but to strengthen the law, as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) mentioned a moment ago.

I would like to mention a case in my constituency, where a young child was attacked by a dog on private property. After the child had been taken to hospital and things had calmed down, the parents understandably rang the police and said, “Can you do something?”. They were told, “We can’t act because it’s on private property and therefore it’s a civil matter.” Surely we must do something about such cases.

We must absolutely do something about that. Every single time a child is seriously attacked or killed on private property, usually in the home of a grandmother or a relative, it makes it incumbent on legislators to strengthen the law, so that we can reduce and possibly eliminate such attacks. It is absolutely critical that we act. I am fed up of being asked to go on radio or television to comment on yet another attack on a child on private property, or another attack on a postal worker, a midwife, a health visitor and so on. It goes on and on.

Last year, Labour Members persuaded the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), to initiate the consultation that we are discussing. I place on the record my appreciation of the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who was then Home Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who was at that time a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They were both absolutely instrumental in persuading the then Prime Minister of the need for change. The consultation finished more than a year ago, and since then the case for updating the law has not changed. The health costs of dealing with dog-related injuries have not reduced. In fact, if anything, the case since June last year has strengthened.

What needs to be done? The hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North laid out the case for change very well indeed. We need to prevent. We need dog prevention notices, or dog ASBOs, as they are often called. That may require a range of measures on the part of a dog owner to restrain and control a dog properly, including muzzling in public and keeping a dog on a lead at all times. There are all sorts of measures that could be included in a dog penalty notice to encourage more responsible ownership. I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to repeal section 1 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. It is deed, not breed, and it is the owner, not the dog, that we need to focus on in legislation.

We need to enforce, which is a point that was raised earlier. We need the law to apply to private property, so that enforcement can be initiated. At the moment, it is impossible to do anything at all. We need a range of penalties for irresponsible dog ownership, including disqualification if necessary and/or deprivation of ownership. We need more severe penalties, especially at the extreme end of irresponsible dog control, involving dogs as weapons. We need more consistent and effective enforcement of dog control measures, including, if necessary, more dog wardens and police dog legislation officers. That is the point about the microchip and the reintroduction of a licensing system. That system not only helps with enforcement, but means that we can raise the funds necessary to enforce more consistently across the country; that is the key point. Local authorities will lose 28% of their budgets in the next four years. They need the funds to enforce properly, as do the police.

We need education. We need dedicated budgets for local authorities and trained officers to be made available, not just to enforce new legislation, but to ensure that owners are educated about responsible dog ownership. I met a woman a couple of years ago whose dog attacked her own child on her own property. She was in the house doing a bit of hoovering. The dog attacked her boy in the garden, and she has never reconciled herself to what happened that day. She is now passionate about the need to educate owners about responsible dog ownership.

I think it seems obvious to everyone in the Chamber that nobody should ever leave a dog alone with a child, but people out there do need to be educated on these points—they need that. Education is critical to the success of any legislation. There is public support for updating the legislation: 78% of the public want the law updated and consolidated. I call on the Minister to put on the record today that he will inform the House, before the recess, of his response to the consultation, and that he will recommend that we update and consolidate the legislation.

Finally, the Prime Minister sent a letter to the Communication Workers Union on 30 April 2010, in which he stated that his party’s manifesto pledged support for

“updating the Act in such a way that it provides adequate protection for all and ensures that dog owners are fully responsible for their dogs.”

He went on:

“We support extending dangerous dogs law to cover all places including private property”.

I therefore call on the Minister to fulfil the manifesto commitment, and the commitment made by the Prime Minister last year.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this important debate.

I first raised the issue of dangerous dogs in my maiden speech in the House last year. Having heard a number of horror stories from constituents about out-of-control dogs terrorising parks and open spaces, it was quickly obvious that Ealing and Acton, like the rest of London, has a serious problem. I put on record my support for the approach in the coalition agreement—cracking down on irresponsible owners who use their dogs as weapons—and I hope that we still agree that that is the correct approach. This debate is important, a year on, because we really need to see some action.

There have been some whisperings that an announcement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might be imminent. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s words this morning. It is true that last year’s DEFRA public consultation provided some interesting responses and talking points, as I am sure the recent Home Office consultation on antisocial behaviour will. Yet, in essence, that is part of the problem. The issue of dangerous dogs cuts across several Government Departments. We need a co-ordinated approach to finally get something done.

My Adjournment debate on dangerous dogs, this time last year, touched on that. In my speech, I focused on two measures that I thought might be helpful as a way forward. At the time, the Minister reacted positively. The first measure would be to attach court orders to the sentence of anyone found guilty of a crime involving violence or drug dealing. Those court orders would ban the person from being in control of a dog in a public place for a fixed amount of time. My local police assure me that that would be easily enforceable—they know their local criminals. That would not deal with the problem entirely, but would provide a measure of reassurance to the public. The second idea is to make local authorities attach conditions on dog ownership to tenancy agreements. I am pleased to hear that a number of local authorities are considering that and beginning to apply it. That would go some way towards dealing with dogs that are a nuisance to neighbours, as would a requirement to microchip, which is essential to ensure proper responsibility. I am aware, however, that neither of the measures are necessarily areas that DEFRA could take the lead on. Nevertheless, this is a pressing problem, and we need a common approach across Departments.

The issue filters down to a local level, too. Our local dog warden in Ealing has told me on a number of occasions how frustrating it is that doing something about dangerous dogs is talked about endlessly, but nothing ever actually gets done. Similarly, he cannot understand why each borough attempts to tackle their own problem in their own way, often quite differently. He feels that a common approach is surely needed. We need direction from the top.

The Deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, has been leading the way on the issue for the Mayor of London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North mentioned. His focus on getting tougher sentences for owners of weapon dogs or status dogs—whatever you want to call them—who use their dogs for crime, is entirely right and a good example to follow. I hope that we start to see some action soon. He also wants tougher enforcement against ownership of banned breeds. I take the point that we are talking about deeds rather than breeds. I also suggest that it tends to be dangerous owners who are more of a problem than dangerous dogs. We have to recognise, however, that there are breeds that very much lend themselves to weapon status, and they must be controlled. Kit Malthouse says, rightly, that the whole court process must be speeded up, partly to save the public purse from the costs of kennelling, which costs £2.5 million a year in London alone, but also because it is cruel to keep animals cooped up for weeks on end.

Speaking as a London MP, I am only too aware that our open spaces are especially precious in built-up areas. That is why it is so galling when some thug dominates the space with a weapon dog kitted out with the usual status paraphernalia and spoils everyone’s pleasure. Not so long ago a puppy was ripped to pieces in Walpole park in my constituency, in front of a distraught mother and her son. I also recognise, however, that we need to amend the law to cover private land. The law must be able to intervene when a dog attack takes place on private property, just as it can in a case of domestic abuse. Somebody pointed out the other day that it seems ridiculous that if a postman puts his hand through a letter box and is bitten by a dog, no action can be taken. However, if the owner of the house happened to be standing behind the letterbox and for some reason decided to bite the hand of the postman, that would automatically be an assault—an offence that the police would look into. We need a proper balance. We must protect those workers who need access to private properties and children who are at risk.

The problem will not go away. It is getting worse and we need our Ministers, right across Government, to get together and sort it out before we are all confronted by yet another terrible tragedy.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who saw off a lot of competition to secure this debate, on giving us all the opportunity to have this discussion with the Minister.

I asked about dangerous dogs twice last week in the House, at Home Office questions and in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) has just said, because the issue is cross-departmental, it is more complicated. However, I was grateful for the positive responses from both Ministers on the Treasury Bench. Also, as was referred to earlier, the coalition agreement is positive in that its programme for government states:

“We will promote responsible pet ownership…and will ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.”

On the back of last year’s DEFRA consultation, which received more than 4,000 responses, I and other colleagues hope that the Minister will indicate the Government’s conclusions and the way forward.

I have had, as have many colleagues, various meetings with a number of organisations, most recently with the Dogs Trust, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Association of Chief Police Officers. They all want a Bill. I am grateful to them for their briefings, and the consensus across the piece is that any Bill must consolidate legislation concerning dog control, allow greater flexibility and discretion to enforcers and the courts, include a genuine preventive effect, update some offences, improve public safety and animal welfare and reduce the cost of enforcement, all of which have been referred to by colleagues so far.

As the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, breed-specific legislation is not effective in tackling the real cause of the problem, but should—there is agreement—relate to the owner’s acts and omissions rather than the type of dog. All the groups mentioned also believe that, without the political will to repeal breed-specific legislation, it must be amended to ensure better canine welfare and a clear strategy must be put in place to phase out the breed-specific legislation. The third main pillar of the consensus is that the scope of updated legislation must be extended to cover all places, including private property, to ensure better public safety and animal welfare. It must also provide suitable defences for responsible dog owners—for example, if people are attacked and their dog defends them. I want to focus a few remarks on the third point.

I was e-mailed by two constituents, Mr and Mrs Sprosson of Wapping. They were walking their dog last Friday and were subjected to a vicious attack by a dogo Argentino. Both their dog and Mr Sprosson were seriously injured. It was very much the usual story, with no owner in sight, although one eventually came into the open. My constituents are very unhappy with the response to their 999 calls to both the police and the ambulance—I am pursuing those concerns with the borough police commander and the chief executive of the London ambulance service—but those responses were almost symptomatic of the problem caused by inadequate legislation, which does not give the emergency services clear indications of how they ought to respond. Mrs Sprosson, in her e-mail, concluded:

“It is only a matter of time before this dog attacks again. Judging by its size, strength and alarming aggression it could easily kill a child and very badly damage an adult. What will it take for the police to address this terrible situation? How many more people will it be allowed to damage before they are forced to take action?”

The statistics, quoted by many and in the speeches this morning, are quite clear. We have seen a twelvefold increase in dog fighting between 2004 and 2008, according to figures from the RSPCA; 6,000-plus attacks on postal workers every year, according to the Communication Workers Union; 1,000-plus dogs seized by the Metropolitan police in 2009 and 2010, according to the Mayor of London’s office; and, sadly, as has been referred to, eight people killed and 197 seriously injured in the past four years. All of that is costing the taxpayer money, quite apart from the untold suffering.

I have not mentioned compulsory microchipping for all dogs, which many of us support, although perhaps not the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). That would be a modern, 21st-century solution to registering dogs, tracking owners and ensuring that those responsible are held to account when things go wrong.

In conclusion, there is cross-party, animal welfare, police and public support for a Bill dealing with dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners. The Minister is sympathetic and DEFRA and the Home Office want to make progress. Colleagues in the Chamber are not being over-critical but genuinely trying to be helpful in giving momentum to what Ministers and civil servants want to achieve, which is updating the legislation.

I am grateful to you, Mr Bayley, for allowing me to speak now. I join in the congratulations for my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes).

I will deal with two issues, one of which is to add to the momentum about consolidation, and the other is to touch on the law of unintended consequences. I have been fascinated and to some extent enlightened by the rare outbreak of consensus among all parties—we seldom hear so many hon. Members making the same points for the right reasons in Westminster Hall or the main Chamber—but one issue does concern me. There has been much reference to evidence and statistics that suggest an increase in attacks by dangerous dogs or, indeed, by dogs. Is that a trend with evidence to which the Minister can refer us, or is there simply a greater awareness or reporting of such incidents? Is there perhaps greater enforcement of which we are not aware, because we might not be privy to the statistics, and can the Minister put us right?

Another important point was the reference to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 as amended. If ever there was an example of a piece of legislation that has clearly had no effect, the 1991 Act is surely it. Many of the speeches made today were made then as well, back in 1991, with just as much passion and feeling. Legislation was forthcoming, and those in Parliament at the time presumably felt that they had done the right thing by voting for the legislation; yet, a few years on, here we are, having the same debate and referring to statistics that appear to have got worse rather than better. So I ask the Minister to exercise some caution in thinking that the solution to the problem mentioned by so many Members is simply further legislation. Unless we deal with the problem of enforcement, such legislation will serve only to restrict legitimate dog owners, while not restricting illegitimate ones, which is contrary to what we are all attempting to do.

I want to touch on the six pieces of existing legislation, although I will not go into them all. There are provisions in the Dogs Act 1871, as amended in 1989, for some civil recourse for people such as postmen who might be the victims of vicious dog attacks. I note that no one has highlighted the plight of poor old parliamentary candidates—apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, who touched on the issue—who might also find themselves being attacked on private property.

To satisfy the hon. Gentleman, I put on the record that I was attacked in the general election last year, in precisely the circumstances outlined earlier—the hand through the letter box and the dog on the other side—so I sympathise with the plight of parliamentary candidates in elections.

I do not think that there would be much public sympathy for our plight, but it might be the only area in which we could generate some sympathy for ourselves. That is why I made the point. I accept that such an incident is a civil rather than a criminal matter, so that might need some attention as part of any consolidation process that follows. We must also not overlook the Animal Welfare Act 2006 or the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which do at least provide an opportunity for injunctions forbidding ownership.

As other Members have mentioned, there is therefore quite a lot of legislation, dealing with quite a lot of issues, varying from using dogs as a form of weapon to using dogs in a way that might cause them suffering, let alone the people that they might come into contact with—indeed, there is a power to prevent some people from owning dogs at all. Such provisions already exist, suggesting that instead of new legislation necessarily being the solution, the proper and cross-departmental consolidation of existing legislation might be the way to proceed.

I also want to touch on the law of unintended consequences. There are some grey areas in what constitutes a dangerous dog or activity that might cause alarm and distress to members of the public. Plenty of dog owners have fallen foul of concerned if not mischievous people who are worried that the activity of a dog might be dangerous, although it is not at all. We must protect those whose livelihoods depend on working dogs. There is a distinct line to be drawn between legitimate scrutiny by law enforcement agencies and individuals, and people who may simply be caught up as a consequence of owning a dog responsibly and thoughtfully, but which might seem to an outsider to pose a danger. There have been numerous examples of people who have fallen foul of that distinction.

This debate has shown, if nothing else, that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 did not have the desired effect, nor did the Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997. Clearly, there is much work to be done on the activities of irresponsible dog owners, for which the dog usually gets the blame. One wonders whether some of the measures for dog control notices that have been suggested or are in place would be better applied to the owner instead of the dog. The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North about attitude and education is crucial. I fiercely defend the Minister’s position that the Government are not bossy and that it is not their business to interfere with people’s daily lives, but there is line to be drawn.

With a little knowledge, a lot of progress can be made in persuading, educating and informing people about the difference between irresponsible dog ownership and responsible dog ownership, and that could be easily and cheaply achieved. Consolidation of existing legislation, coupled with other measures, would be a sensible and proportionate way forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this debate. The behaviour of aggressive, violent dogs and their irresponsible owners has been raised with me by constituents time and again. Earlier this year, I was presented with a petition of more than 350 signatures from residents living in the West Pottergate area of the city demanding that local authorities take action. I heard terrible stories from some of those residents about pets that had been mauled to death by loose dogs running freely around their neighbourhood. Patricia McAndrews saw her dog killed by a Staffordshire bull terrier in September, and Patricia Harker lost her kitten to another aggressive dog in the same area.

The residents who came to see me told me of their fears, not only for their pets and their neighbours’ pets, but for children. Horrifyingly, their fears were realised on Friday last week when a 10-year-old child was attacked by two dogs in a park near West Pottergate and sustained injuries to his arms and legs. Those residents are right to call for action and right to call for protection, so that they can enjoy their neighbourhood without fear of what may happen to them or their own loved pets if confronted by a dangerous dog.

As we have heard, the problem is generally with so-called status dogs, which are kept not as pets but as symbols of aggression or, even worse, as weapons. We would not allow young men on the streets waving knives around, but dogs in the wrong hands can be just as dangerous. Many dogs have been deliberately trained by irresponsible owners to be aggressive and violent, and others have been neglected, abused and deprived of the love and attention that other pets receive and develop an aggressive personality as a result. Those owners have no respect for their animal, and instead see them as a means of gaining respect for themselves, but fear does not equate to respect.

One breed that has been abused as a status dog is the Staffordshire bull terrier, but I want to say a few words of support for the Staffie. It gets some dreadful press, partly due to its historic use as a fighting dog, and because it is also associated with many reported incidents, including some of those that I mentioned in Norwich. My brother is the proud owner of a Staffie called Milo—a lovely dog with an affectionate and playful personality. To assume that all Staffies are aggressive is far from the truth, as I have seen for myself. Indeed, the UK Kennel Club describes Staffies as

“Extremely reliable, highly intelligent and affectionate, especially with children.”

The temperament of any animal will always be due in large part to the care and attention that it receives at a young age from its owner. When we talk about dangerous dogs, it would often be more reasonable, as other hon. Members have said, to refer to dangerous owners. Government policy should focus on responsible ownership over and above a breed-specific approach.

Returning to the situation in West Pottergate, I have been asking Norwich city council to introduce a dog control order to require owners to keep their dogs on leads in public in that part of the city. Compelling people to keep dogs on leads raises questions about whether it is fair for responsible owners of harmless dogs to have their liberty constrained, but I do not believe that that argument holds up in areas with an established problem. Many responsible pet owners are terrified of what could happen to their animal, and many would gladly exchange the right to allow their animal to run free in problem areas for greater peace of mind. I will continue to make the case for dog control orders as part of a proportionate response to a real problem, and I hope that there will be no more incidents before the council changes its mind.

The compulsory microchipping of dogs has been mentioned and is endorsed by the RSPCA and others. There is merit in such a policy, and it would certainly be of huge help in tracing stray and lost animals, but in the context of today’s debate, it would also help authorities to identify ownership and accountability of dangerous dogs immediately. However, if a compulsory scheme is introduced, it needs to be done in such a way that it will make a difference. I suspect that responsible dog owners will be queuing up with their pets, and the irresponsible—those whom we are most concerned about in today’s debate—will try to find ways of avoiding the system. Any system must be watertight.

A significant issue is who should bear the burden of cost. It would almost certainly be the owners of the pets, but if the system were not watertight, it would not be fair for responsible owners to shell out £35, while those whom we are most concerned about today fail to do so. The system must be drawn up in such a way that it would minimise the risk of large numbers of dogs being made homeless by owners who would sooner dump their pet than pay for microchipping. That prospect could be minimised by applying the new compulsion at times of change of ownership of the animal, or by exempting groups of owners who find it hardest to pay the charges. Microchipping may have an important role to play, but these issues need to be clearly addressed in any scheme.

This debate is important, and my constituents are eagerly awaiting the Minister’s response. I appreciate the Government’s difficulties in reconciling the rights of responsible pet owners with irresponsible ones. The issues are quite complex, and proposals cannot be rushed. However, many of my constituents are appalled by the dreadful treatment that many dogs receive at the hands of their owners, and horrified by the all-too-real consequences on the safety of the wider community. They are calling out for the Government to help to make our neighbourhoods and areas such as West Pottergate safe for animal lovers, for children and for all who wish to enjoy public spaces without fear of out-of-control dogs. If the Minister can explain how new measures can make all pets safer from both aggressive dogs and abusive owners, he will have the support of animal lovers throughout the country. We must address this issue before more pets and children become victims of aggressive dogs and dangerous dog owners.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this valuable debate. You will be pleased to hear, Mr Bayley, that my comments will be brief. I shall concentrate on the increasing incidences of status dogs—dogs that have been bred and, more importantly, trained to be weapons.

The Government have made inroads in tackling antisocial behaviour and violence on our streets. Knife crime has been vilified, and serious steps are being taken to stem the gang culture and youth violence that fuelled its rise. In place of the knives and offensive weapons that people carry in their pockets, more imaginative ways are springing up for people to look scary, fierce and suitably menacing. Status dogs should be seen for what they are: a violent weapon, a source of fear and something that fuels the rise in crime and antisocial behaviour.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, we do not necessarily need more legislation, but we must ensure that existing legislation is interpreted correctly and is flexible enough to get to the heart of the problem. We need to bring about a culture of more responsible and positive dog ownership.

The rise of the status dog is striking. Between 2004 and 2008, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reported a twelvefold increase in reports of dog-fighting. Over half those cases involved youths fighting with their dogs in the street. A clear connection exists between the breeding and training of such dogs and criminal activity, and dogs are often used as a way of threatening and coercing others. As many of my colleagues have mentioned, attacks on humans have also increased and convictions have doubled over the past decade.

That troubling rise has been confirmed by my experiences and those of my constituents in Gosport. A great number of constituents have contacted me, sometimes in great distress, following attacks on much-loved family pets in public places. Dangerous dogs make the streets less safe for all by supporting and exacerbating violent crime. Current legislation is failing to deal effectively with the use of dangerous dogs as weapons, and ownership of the four breeds prohibited under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has increased. Perversely, the pariah status of such dogs is an attraction for youths involved in violence.

I want to see a more cohesive vision for tackling the use of dogs as weapons. We must recognise that such dogs are part of a wider network of street violence and antisocial behaviour. The most troubling attacks—those linked to gang warfare—must be met with immediate and severe penalties. Furthermore, courts must be enabled to disqualify offenders from dog ownership altogether when the clear intention is for dogs to be used to cause harm.

We must not lose sight, however, of the suffering of the animals. Despite the danger that they pose to the public, in many cases their experience involves severe animal abuse. Through a partnership between the police, councils and animal welfare charities, it is possible to combine effective enforcement with wider educative goals. Dog ownership can have a beneficial and socialising effect on disadvantaged and demonised youths. Pioneering work has been done by organisations such as BARK—Borough Action for Responsible K9s—which seeks to teach responsible animal ownership in deprived and crime-ridden areas.

The beneficial and socialising effects of dog ownership on disadvantaged youths presents a powerful case for thinking imaginatively about future legislation. The straightforward ban on breeds and the reactive enforcement action of the current legislation has proved ineffective in the face of an increasing use of dogs as weapons. Such animals present a serious threat to the public; they are a significant prop for street violence, but in themselves a tragic example of animal abuse. I welcome this debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on proactive steps that could be taken to address the issue of dangerous dogs and the wider culture of gang crime and animal cruelty that perpetuates their use.

I, too, will try to be brief. I congratulate the hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), and for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on their accurate and appropriate comments about this serious issue.

I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to the latest in a long series of cases that have hit the headlines in my constituency. On 7 May, the headline in the local paper stated: “Savage dog went in for the kill”. It recounted the story of an Alsatian cross called Cleo that suffered horrific injuries at the teeth, I suppose, of a husky-type dog in Springfield park in Cheltenham. Her owner was 71-year-old Mr Robbins, who has already had a triple heart bypass. I imagine that he was terrified by the whole incident. It probably posed a threat to his health, and it would certainly have terrified any bystanders, especially parents, who may have imagined what could have happened had it been their child, rather than another animal, that irritated the dog. Mr Robbins said:

“It was a vicious attack and it was horrible to watch…The man was kicking his dog to get him to stop.”

The dog that attacked Cleo was on a lead, but dragged its owner to the ground as it pounced. According to the article,

“Police have not established whether the owner of the other dog could be charged with breaching the dangerous dogs act.”

That may provoke looks of astonishment from the Minister and other hon. Members, but we can draw a few conclusions from that story. First, the dog in question was not one of the four banned breeds—I am not sure when a Japanese Tosa was last seen in Gloucestershire, or whether Gloucestershire constabulary would recognise it if it saw one. Although that part of the legislation should remain—I would not want to be the Minister who removed it and later saw an attack by a dog of that breed—emphasis needs to shift away from breed and towards behaviour.

Secondly, because the attack was on an animal rather than a human, it carries less weight under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and that issue needs to be tackled. Thirdly, the owner tried to control his dog by kicking it which, as we have often noted, suggests that the origin of the dog’s problem lies with the owner. As the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton rightly pointed out, there is no definitive way of identifying a dog’s owner. I know from Cheltenham animal shelter and other places that at times, people have claimed ownership of a dog until they realised that they were at risk of prosecution, at which point they passed the animal to someone else. That also has to be tackled. Universal microchipping is ready to roll. Welfare charities know how to run the system; it takes seconds and costs a few pounds, and if it makes a surplus to enable the provision of more resources for dog control, that would be desirable. The time for universal microchipping has arrived.

We must not, however, wear rose-tinted spectacles when looking at this issue. As well as owner behaviour we must tackle dog behaviour. If a dog is showing extremely aggressive behaviour, as in the case I mentioned in my constituency and other such instances, we need powers to deal with that. The Association of Chief Police Officers, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organisations have pointed out the importance of early intervention. Whether or not that involves control orders—dog ASBOs, as they have been called—we need something to enable properly licensed persons in a local area, including those who work in animal shelters, local authority employers and the police, to exercise professional judgment about whether a dog is dangerous.

One animal I saw at Cheltenham animal shelter was so aggressive that the well-trained staff could approach it only with a humane version of a cattle prod. They were not clear who the owner was, and did not know whether, if someone claimed to be its owner, they would have to release that dog out into the community. The dog that attacked poor Cleo is still at large in Cheltenham. Something is badly wrong if we cannot confiscate a dog when necessary. Even if no attack has taken place on a human being or been documented to the satisfaction of current legislation, if a dog is clearly aggressive in the eyes of professionals, they should have the power to confiscate it. They do not necessarily need to put it down; it could be neutered, trained or re-homed. In extremis, sometimes a dog may need to be put down. Unless such matters are tackled with care and a degree of urgency, I fear that I will read more headlines like the one that I quoted from the Gloucestershire Echo, and I would not want that. I hope that the Minister understands the urgency of the problem.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this debate. I have one minute and 30 seconds for my speech, so I will make one basic point. For me, the issue comes down to basic common sense, and in that respect, dog owners are like parents. I echo the sentiment that the issue is not about dangerous dogs, but dangerous owners.

I am a parent of three children, and in the minute that remains I would like to repeat a brief quote. When I was a candidate, the wisest thing said to me came from an individual in a mosque who recited a saying that I believe is 3,500 years old. It is an Indian Veda; it may be apocryphal, but its essence is as follows: we spend time with children from the age of nought to seven; from seven to 14 we educate them; and from 14 to 21 we love them unconditionally. If dogs are brought up in an environment where they have little engagement with their owners and little emotional input, are we surprised that society has to pick up the pieces? In essence, it is about responsibility.

I will finish by echoing the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If a person chooses to own and look after a dog, they should be legally responsible for the actions of that dog. In agreeing to take the dog into their home, they must ensure that the dog is safe and behaves appropriately wherever it is. That is the essence of the issue. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will cover all the other points about breed and deed, microchipping and so on, but for me, the essence of the issue is the ownership of the dogs.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship again, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing the debate. It has been remarkably well attended and has shown great insight from hon. Members from Northern Ireland, from urban constituencies and from rural constituencies. There has also been great consensus across the Chamber that this problem must be dealt with for the benefit of people throughout the country.

We heard some fine speeches. A particularly fine speech was made by the hon. Lady, who dealt with the issues in a very practical and consensual way. We also heard from the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray). We heard from the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on the impact of the dangerous dogs legislation in rural communities. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) spoke about responsible ownership and the effects that compulsory microchipping would have. The hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) spoke about the ineffectiveness of a reactive approach to the current dangerous dogs strategy.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) spoke about the need for early intervention and addressing the behaviour of the owner. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), in his brief but very cogent remarks, stressed the need for policy makers to address the environment in which dogs are being brought up and stressed responsible dog ownership.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) spoke very cogently about the need to extend the dangerous dogs legislation to private property. She spoke movingly about the impact that the failure to do so has had on her constituents. She also spoke about the need for education on responsible dog ownership. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) has great experience in these matters, having been in the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs and having been involved in launching the consultation. He spoke with great power and authority about the need for an urgent Government response and action on the part of the House to deal with the situation now.

The need for further action is shown by even a cursory analysis of the number of prosecutions and the number of persons found guilty of offences under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 in the past 13 years. In 1998, 764 people were proceeded against under the 1991 Act in England and Wales, yet by 2008, the number had risen to 1,247. In 1998, of those 764 people proceeded against, 406 were found guilty of an offence; that number had risen to 889 by 2008. The problem has become so serious in London that the Metropolitan police set up a status dogs unit in March 2009. They did so because of the serious impact on antisocial behaviour in London.

Department of Health figures show that 565 dog attack victims needed to go to hospital in August 2010. That was up from 538 in June 2010. The problem is one that constituents throughout the country are raising with Members of Parliament, and the Government have to get a grip on it and address it urgently.

I am in the very good position—perhaps even the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) will be satisfied with this—of being the walking embodiment of the West Lothian question this morning, because from 26 February 2011, my constituents have benefited from improvements to the law made by the Scottish Parliament. Of course, the issue is largely devolved. It is instructive to consider what the Scottish Parliament decided to do, having explored the issue for the past 18 months.

The Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010, passed by the Holyrood Parliament last year and enforced from February 2011, did not end the prohibition on the four prohibited breeds. It did not bring in a scheme of compulsory microchipping. Those may be issues on which there would be a difference with England. However, the Act did ensure that the legislation would apply to private property, so that postal workers and other employees, children and other dogs and animals would be protected. It also brought in a system of dog control notices—sometimes referred to as dog ASBOs—which place real responsibilities on the owner, in terms of their conduct. Conditions imposed by a notice can relate to such things as training and neutering of animals. There is a great deal in the Scottish approach that could be taken up by DEFRA. There may be differences, but certainly the direction of travel followed by the Holyrood Parliament and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly commends itself to this House and DEFRA.

The consultation closed last June. Since then, the Government have been informing us that we will hear soon what the response will be. In a written answer in December, the Minister said that we would hear early in the new year. We are now into July, but hon. Members are none the wiser. I hope that when the Minister winds up this debate, he will be able to outline the broad principles of the changes that will be taken up by DEFRA. We can see from this debate that there is consensus across the House. The Government would have support from those on the Opposition Benches for the introduction of a Bill in 2012, after the next Queen’s Speech, to deal with the fact that the 1991 Act does not apply to private property, to deal with the lack of enforcement options available and to allow for compulsory microchipping to be introduced if DEFRA wanted to do that.

What is remarkable about the issue is the degree of consensus in civic society. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Blue Cross, which I visited late last year, Guide Dogs for the Blind, the Kennel Club, Prospect, the Police Federation, the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Unite and, of course, the Communication Workers Union all support the campaign for a change in the law in England.

When we examine the data—what is happening on the ground year by year—we see that the case for change is strong and urgent. As many hon. Members pointed out, 6,000 postal workers are injured every year in dog attacks. Hospital admission statistics show that 2,500 adults and 1,200 children were either treated in accident and emergency departments or admitted to hospital in the 2006-07 financial year alone. As has also been said, most notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse, in the past four years, eight people have been killed and 197 people have been seriously injured in dog-related incidents. This is a serious problem, not just for urban Britain but in rural Britain.

Hon. Members ably set out the case for preventive action. In the public’s response to the consultation launched by DEFRA, 78% of people believed that consolidation of the law and taking proactive and preventive steps were the most important way of improving the law at the moment. Hon. Members also pointed out the need for discretion in the seizure of dogs. In a written answer, the Minister provided stark statistics on the number of animals seized in the past two years. Perhaps DEFRA could consider giving the police greater discretion regarding the necessity of seizure in any legislation.

The case advanced by the public is clear: 88% of the public believe that change is needed. We need to move to an approach that is based less on the breed of the animal and more on the deed of the owner. We need to promote responsible dog ownership. We need to ensure that local authorities and police authorities, which are under great stress because of some of the Government’s public spending policies, have dedicated resources in place to deal with enforcement. The Opposition are prepared to work co-operatively with the Government, and if we move forward together, we can secure reforms that will be in the interests of animal welfare, employee safety and public safety.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to reply to the debate, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I, too, congratulate her on securing it; like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I heard that a number of people wanted to secure a debate on this subject, but fortune favoured my hon. Friend. Clearly, I will not be able to pick up every point that has been made in the debate in the time that remains, but I will try to explore the main issues, as DEFRA is indeed doing.

I start by saying that there is absolutely no difference between the Government’s position and that shared by every Member who has spoken this morning—there is a need for change, and there can be no doubt about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) asked whether there is real evidence that the situation is worsening, and I assure him that there is; indeed, after he spoke, other Members, including the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain), trotted out some statistics. Action must, therefore, be taken. As hon. Members have said, the issue crosses different Departments, which is unfortunate, but they will appreciate that that means that DEFRA has to work closely with other Departments, particularly the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said that she owns a couple of exuberant cocker spaniels, and any of us who owns one or more dogs should, like me, treat that close relationship as a privilege. When a dog actually does something that we tell it to do, because it is properly trained, that is a privilege and a reflection of a close personal relationship—sometimes, it is probably easier than trying to train our children. [Interruption.] I will not repeat the sedentary comment from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). However, such a relationship is a privilege, and all of us who consider ourselves to be responsible dog owners understand that. It is therefore difficult to understand the mentality of people who do not have that relationship, who even go out of their way to create a totally different relationship and who treat their animals with the cruelty that hon. Members have mentioned. In that respect, we are seeing a deterioration, and, tragically, there has been another attack on a child in the past 24 hours. Fortunately, it was not fatal, but we all send our support and sympathy to the family and hope that the child recovers quickly.

We need to respect the principle that we should get these things right and avoid jumping in simply because something must be done. I agree that something must be done, but if we are not careful, we tend to take precipitate action, which is exactly what happened in 1991, when, as we all accept, the Government of the day rushed to introduce the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was not the salvation that people thought it was. We therefore need to get things right and to ensure that any changes have a real impact on reducing instances of irresponsible dog ownership—the issue of the deed, which so many hon. Members have spoken about.

Let me take a minute or two to go through what we have been doing in the past 12 months. In that context, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse gave his successor—namely me—a hospital pass. It must have been one of his last decisions before the general election to launch the consultation—as has been said, the consultation did not finish until well after the election. Since then, we have been analysing the 4,250-odd responses. Clearly, now is not the time to go through all the results, but it is interesting that some of the answers are not what one would have expected. The first question was about whether to extend the 1991 Act to private property, an issue that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) mentioned. Some 63% of respondents said no, and 37% said yes, which is a surprise, but it just shows that there is not great agreement on all the issues, and the same interpretation could apply on other issues.

The Home Office consultation was launched by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who made it clear that the Government expect everyone to have a right to feel safe in their home and neighbourhood. She also made it clear that antisocial behaviour should be a priority for local agencies, including the police, councils and landlords. She was referring to antisocial behaviour across the piece, and much of what we discuss in relation to dogs involves people, too, which is why there is a crossover.

I will not go through all our proposals in the consultation document, because I assume that hon. Members have read it, but the new flexible tools proposed by the Home Office would replace the 18 formal powers currently in use, including those applicable to dogs. Under the proposals, control measures on dangerous and nuisance dogs would be effected largely through the new crime prevention injunctions and community protection orders. The Home Office is analysing the results of its consultation and will publish a summary soon.

In addition, DEFRA is looking at the results of the earlier consultation to see how the Home Office’s actions and ours would meld together to address the very real problem that we face. I assure hon. Members that my noble Friend Lord Henley, who leads on this issue, is discussing it with all the civic organisations that the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned.

I want to refer to the quite proper point about Scotland and Northern Ireland. I assure hon. Members that we are very much aware of the decisions that have been taken there, and we are in close contact with those involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, the provisions have been in place for only a few months, so it is early days in terms of judging whether they will work. However, I assure hon. Members that we are not averse to introducing such measures, if they work.

Several Members discussed dog control notices, which many people see as an example of preventive action, in that they can be used in circumstance where a dog is unruly without actually being dangerous. The Home Secretary’s review, which I have just mentioned, includes the full range of measures currently being used to prevent people from allowing their dogs to be a nuisance or a threat to others. The measures include everything from keeping dogs on the lead to dog fouling and tackling those who allow their dogs to threaten and intimidate. We are working closely with those involved.

For those who use dogs as a weapon, there are already some severe penalties. Although it is an old Act, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 provides that a person guilty of such an offence can face a long prison sentence, including up to life in certain circumstances. There is legislation—it might not be the easiest to use, but I assure my hon. Friends that it exists.

There is also the issue of section 1 of the 1991 Act—the breed-specific legislation—which we discussed. ACPO tells us that without breed-specific legislation and, more specifically, the prohibition on pit bull terriers, there would have been many more attacks. The vast majority of police officers are of the view that pit bull terrier-type dogs are not suitable to be kept as pets, unless they are in strictly controlled conditions. We must also recognise that other breeds—the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Norwich South (Simon Wright) mentioned some—have occasionally attacked people or other animals. That is why section 3 of the 1991 Act applies to all dogs, regardless of breed.

There is also the issue of extending the criminal law to private property. I mentioned the response in the consultation, and I do not want anybody to read anything into that, other than that it is an example of how public consultation does not always produce the answer we expect. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge rightly said, there is currently no criminal liability if the dog itself is not trespassing. Extending the law would allow the police to investigate all dog attacks on private property to establish the facts and see whether a prosecution should be brought. Extending the law in that way might, on the face of it, be an easy thing to do, but we must avoid the law of unintended consequences, which is a frequent problem. Do we really want a home owner to be investigated as a possible offender and to be at risk of prosecution because their dog acted in a way that most people would consider only natural, in that it defended the property on which it was brought up?

I do not have time to answer the many other points that were properly raised. Let me conclude by saying that we are ruling nothing out at this stage. All the measures that have been advocated are under close consideration. I wish that I could give a precise timetable, but I can only repeat that it will be soon. We are working closely with the Home Office to get on top of what we all accept is a serious situation.

Flood Defences

It is a privilege and pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, as my immediate constituency neighbour and someone who is familiar with the problems of flooding in Yorkshire.

I am delighted to have secured this debate on the implications of the potential delays to planned flood defence systems. In the short time available, I want to focus on a technical point and relate it to my constituency, North Yorkshire and Yorkshire and the Humber, areas with which I am familiar. I hope to put to my hon. Friend the Minister a once in a lifetime opportunity. I am sure that there are occasions when he lies awake in the middle of the night wondering what he can do, in what one hopes will be a long ministerial and parliamentary career, to make a difference. I suggest that he has an opportunity here and now to make a difference to a large number of people not only in Pickering, Thirsk and North Yorkshire, but in the rest of the country.

The Minister is familiar with the background to the scheme, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State had the opportunity to visit Pickering and see the work on the “Slowing the Flow” project. The Minister will know that the original £6 million scheme for flood defences at Pickering was rejected by the town and the district civic society, but, eventually, in April 2009—with confirmation in 2010—funding for the Pickering pilot project was announced. It is a unique, pioneering scheme, with Government bodies working closely with communities, where there is not an established pot of money. There are particular difficulties with the course and nature of the river upstream of Pickering, which, as you will be aware, Mr Bayley, is where the beautiful North Yorkshire Moors railway is located. The innovative and pioneering scheme involves creating buffer strips along water courses, digging ditches and blocking moorland drains, as well as planting trees.

The scheme was created with the compliance of the landowner and in partnership with the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Durham university, as an academic partner, the North York Moors national park authority, Natural England and Ryedale district council, primarily driven by Pickering town council and the local floods group. There was extreme shock, surprise and disappointment when in June, at the eleventh hour—the technical aspect of the scheme that I want to discuss was due to start this summer—the scheme was put on hold and effectively cancelled, as the cost was deemed to have undergone a staggering increase from an initial £1.3 million to a total of £3.2 million. That was alleged to be due to the requirements of the 1996 guidance to the Reservoirs Act 1975, which is the focus of my questions to the Minister and of my call for action.

The guidance states that the bunds must be able to withstand a one in 10,000 year flood event. However, one local, who is expert in the matter, has said:

“While I appreciate that more detailed modelling and info was constantly coming to light to influence the res engs decision, the fact remains that the critical factors of bund capacity of 85k m3 and the number and proximity of properties at Newbridge remained constant throughout.”

You almost could not make this up, but I did not appreciate before preparing for the debate that a community is 10 properties. Were there only nine properties at Newbridge, the scheme would proceed apace. There would be no cause for delay or concern about the reservoir. Newbridge has been there for far longer than the proposed scheme.

One option—not my favourite—would involve the compulsory purchase of one of the dwellings or properties at Newbridge. That would be the most regressive and least favoured option, but it shows how daft it is that some of the definitions, such as the number of properties that form a community, lead to perverse decisions. As my constituent goes on to say:

“I just cannot understand an anomaly within effective legislation that allows this.”

That is a reference to the fact that the interpretation of the Reservoirs Act 1975, through the guidance, is either woolly or misleading. Although it appears on the one hand that high-risk criteria are precisely laid down, there appears to be a get-out clause to lower the classification to low risk. My constituent concludes:

“I shudder to think what these obligatory Res Engineers are being paid”—

that is his personal comment, I hasten to add—

“but there is something seriously wrong when their interpretation can vastly alter the design criteria from one month to the next when all the physically present criteria remain constant…unless the application of common sense is overtly permissible.”

I wish to make progress.

I do not want to use the debate to apportion blame. I want to use it in a constructive way to urge the Minister to remove the barriers to this project and to other projects. There are similar difficulties in Thirsk, and the common thread of the flood defence schemes is that part of the project in both Thirsk and Pickering allows a storage bund to be created. However, that is now being defined as a reservoir under the Reservoirs Act 1975. My conclusion is that the projects are being over-engineered with structures that are too complicated, and falling foul of the iniquitous 1996 guidance note to the 1975 Act. Clearly, there is a gap between aspirations for individual projects, such as the Pickering pilot project and the Thirsk flood defence scheme, and the ability of the Environment Agency and others to deliver on such schemes.

The Pickering bund scheme has highlighted a lack of clarity about high risk and lower risk in the 1975 Act, and, therefore, a major disconnect between legislation and guidance. There is little guidance beyond the matter of actual reservoirs. It does not seem sensible to build bunds to withstand a flood of biblical proportions, when communities downstream of 8,000, 10,000 or 14,000 properties are being held back by a community of 10 properties. Those communities downstream, in that eventuality, would already be both evacuated and in any case devastated. I agree with another of my constituents that that massively over-engineered standard is denying Pickering residents protection from repeated and frequent flooding. Will the Minister confirm that the return periods are based on data since the late 1980s? In that case, one in 10,000, or 235 cubic metres per second, can barely be described as an educated guess. On what basis were the figures reached? Pickering starts to flood at 12 cubic metres and seriously floods at 15, but in 2007 there was approximately 29 cubic metres. At 235 cubic metres—the one in 10,000 years risk—the town would be devastated and possibly extinct. The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 contains no specific provisions for bund schemes of this type.

I turn next to the personal liability of reservoir engineers in the event of structural failings. It would be totally impractical to ask the two reservoir engineers to risk their personal liability, as it would result in hugely over-cautious, over-engineered and therefore over-priced structures. Liability needs to be shifted from the individual to a public body such as the Environment Agency—or, in my view, the Environment Agency’s political master, the Minister.

Well over £1 million has been wasted in Pickering, and it has produced nothing. We do not want more feasibility studies, consultants or modelling unless specifically needed for a bund. There is a scheme on the table, which everyone believed would work, and there is a great desire and the practical and political will to make it work.

I shall take this opportunity to put a number of questions to the Minister and to tell him of a number of possible solutions that I have identified. The “Slowing the Flow” project in Pickering has been hampered by the fact that although it is a demonstration project, and although part of it is already under way—I have mentioned the creating of buffer strips, the digging of ditches, the planting of trees and the blocking of moorland drains—I am told that no engineer has yet quantified the volume of water that will be retained. That is staggering, given the work that the Conservative party did in opposition, the fact that the Department recently produced its natural environment White Paper and the work undertaken by a number of water companies.

I wish to make progress.

“Slowing the Flow” was always a demonstration project. Implementation requires a major policy change by the Environment Agency, from highly expensive hard defences to affordable simplicity. We should keep things as simple and unstructured as possible, working with nature as closely as we can. However, that appears to be outside the engineers’ and the agency’s comfort zone. Where is the expertise? Is the answer in the White Paper? Is it already known by the water companies? If it does not exist, it should be developed. Is the Department minded to develop it?

The key to this debate is whether the Minister has the power to vary the 10,000 and 25,000 cubic metre thresholds. I understand that the reservoir guidance notes drafted by the Institution of Civil Engineers and agreed by the Department and the Environment Agency can be varied. Schedule 4 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 amends the Reservoirs Act 1975. New section A1(6) of the 1975 Act states:

“In making regulations under subsection (5) the Minister shall aim to ensure that a structure or area is treated as large under the regulations only if 10,000 or more cubic metres of water might be released as a result of the proximity or communication mentioned in that subsection.”

New section A1(7) of the 1975 Act states:

“The Minister may by order substitute a different volume of water for the volume specified in subsection (3) or (6).”

This is the thrust of my debate. The project could probably go ahead if the Minister were to be bold and use that power of variation. He could also instruct the Environment Agency to replace the dam at Mill lane with an automatic sluice. In the longer-term, he could ask Yorkshire Water to consider storing water underground through enlarged sewer pipes. He could even instruct the Environment Agency to compulsorily purchase one of the 10 properties at Newbridge. I have been reliably informed that the chances of finding extra money or exploring local authority options through the flood defence committee or through development gain are minimal.

This is an individual debate, and I am asking for the Minister’s urgent reply. I urge him to go back to the drawing board to find a similar scheme that can use the £1.3 million already on the table and re-examine the engineers’ judgment that category A status applies to the reservoir and the two bunds upstream. Most urgently, I ask him to waive the reservoir guidance notes by using his ministerial discretion and common sense, for which he is well known.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing this debate. On behalf of her constituents, she has raised the subject through every conceivable parliamentary mechanism, and I entirely understand why. I know that the matter is extremely important to her constituents. My hon. Friend was right to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited Pickering. She saw the project at first hand, and returned to the Department impressed with innovative ideas that involved a variety of mechanisms, particularly those that incorporated the natural environment as a flood alleviation and flood resilience asset. I note the presence of right hon. and hon. Members from other areas that face similar problems. The concept of holding back water is vital to a variety of communities and we want to ensure that our legislation supports common sense and is governed by proportionate rules.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton asked a number of questions, and I shall answer some of them before allowing others to intervene. She has submitted some written questions, and she will receive a reply in the next day or so. Today, she asked a question about the number of people who live below a reservoir risk. I understand that it is not 10 properties; the definition of a community in this instance is considered to be not less than about 10 persons who could be affected by a disastrous breach as a result of the under-provision of spillway capacity. That is the crux of the issue. The independent assessment said that the reservoir would require greater spillway capacity. To me and to other laymen, that does not sound a massive issue, but it increased the cost of the project way beyond what was possible.

Certain questions float around, such as what is a bund, and what is a reservoir? A flood defence bund is an embankment designed to prevent flood-water flowing from a watercourse and flooding adjacent land. The water is held up and then released through a controlled mechanism. We have to be compliant with the Reservoir Act 1975, which my hon. Friend identifies as the villain of the piece.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are reviewing the guidance. I do not know whether she has seen a copy of it, but I have. It is thick and highly technical. She is right that the independent assessors from the Institution of Civil Engineers who make these judgments are singularly liable. Once the asset is built, it will be the Government who are liable through the Environment Agency. At the moment, however, liability for the level of comfort that has to be achieved rests with individuals, so they want to get it right. There is undoubtedly an incentive for them to be precautionary, but the Government have to ensure that, in our desperate desire to see comfort given to communities such as Pickering, we do not rush measures through that in years to come, with the climate changing as we know it is, may pose catastrophic risks for many people.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Given that this was a pilot project of national significance designed to find out what could be achieved through land management to reduce flooding—an issue of concern in many parts of the country, including my constituency—what implications will the shortcomings that the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) rightly identified have for the evaluation of the pilot for other areas?

That is a key point, and I will come on to talk about how we are reviewing the situation, principally in Pickering, and the implications that it will have for other areas.

The Environment Agency is responsible for technical judgments on flow rates and volumes. The Institution of Civil Engineers is the expert, and it is vital that we have such organisations. The Environment Agency has assessed with the panel engineer the volume of water that needs to be stored. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton made a point about powers that I may or may not have to do with variation. Under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, the threshold has been reduced from 25,000 to 10,000 cubic metres. That is the area in which Ministers can apply variation, depending on the circumstances. However, that element of the Act has yet to be formally adopted. When it is, that variation will be in the power of Ministers. Under the current scheme, the Secretary of State and I do not have the power to vary the rates.

I am delighted to be able to help my hon. Friend on that point; someone in the Institution of Civil Engineers has put it to me that that might be suitable for Ministers, but not under the 2010 Act. Its provisions and the reduction in rates caused shockwaves in golf clubs and farms. Those reductions have huge implications for future reservoir building, but that is not the purpose of the debate today. Under the 1998 guidance to the Reservoirs Act 1975, the Minister has the power to make an order proposing the scheme in Pickering. We have to balance removing the risk of river flooding with the slight risk caused by the presence of a reservoir upstream to the communities at Newbridge. He has the power; I urge him to use it before the House rises for the recess.

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes and it is now on the record. My officials and I will look carefully at it. However, that is not the information that I had when preparing for this debate, so I will take that point away and get back to her.

Let us look at the case that my hon. Friend raises, because it is important to understand the history. I apologise to other hon. Members who might wish to intervene, but I have only a few moments left. My hon. Friend called this debate and I want to be able to answer her points. Last September, an independent reservoir engineer was appointed to assess the proposals in the context of the Reservoirs Act 1975. The Act is designed to ensure that public safety is maintained. The engineer acted in accordance with guidance produced by the Institution of Civil Engineers. At that stage, the engineer identified the reservoir as a category A reservoir. That classification means that a breach of what could be an 85,000 cubic metre reservoir could seriously endanger a community—we have already discussed what constitutes a community. As a result, it is only right that the highest standards of public safety apply. At best, a failure would increase the level of flood-water, thus defeating the purpose of the scheme. At worst, a catastrophic failure would result in human tragedy. The engineer agreed necessary design standards that should apply in this case to maintain public safety.

In March, new modelling led the engineer to conclude that a higher design standard was necessary. In May, a second opinion was sought, again from an independent reservoir engineer. The second opinion confirmed that the Institution of Civil Engineers guidance on the 1975 Act had been correctly applied and that a higher standard was needed. That led to a redesign that incorporated the higher design standard of the spillway, to which we referred earlier. Inevitably, that pushed up costs. Despite the significant local investment already on the table, the shortfall in funding amounted to around £2 million. Frustratingly, at that level of cost, the scheme is not cost-beneficial under the Treasury Green Book rules. It is not my view that the guidance is wrong. That said, the case does underline the sense in reviewing the guidance. That is a firm assurance that I can give to my hon. Friend today. A review on highly technical guidance—I have already referred to the complexity of the document—is not a quick fix, and will require broad engagement. In the mean time, I welcome efforts to reassess these proposals.

The reservoir is clearly an important part of the plans for the area. That said, I know that many of the innovative approaches that my hon. Friend has described are continuing in parallel. It may well be that we can fairly quickly achieve a different scheme that complies with the Reservoirs Act 1975 and has a sensible cost frame and a sensible cost-benefit analysis result. All the work going into reviewing the guidance will not affect the implementation of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. If it does, Ministers will have the power to apply other criteria to assess whether, on the balance of risk, it is right that these schemes should go ahead even with the lower threshold.

The reservoir is clearly an important part of the plans for the area, so I genuinely applaud the real openness and innovation. There has been engagement with the local authorities, local landowners and many other partners, and leadership from my hon. Friend.

The Environment Agency and local partners are working hard to reassess the designs and to drive down costs. Other options that were originally put forward are also being discussed. Once consideration is complete—I expect that to be at the end of July—the agency is eager to continue working with local partners to explore what can be done while maintaining public safety.

I am sure that the Minister will listen carefully in this case, as he did when he enabled me to have a flood scheme in Teignmouth, for which I am extremely grateful.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for coming to this debate; not all hon. Members come to debates to give a thumbs up. The difficulty with flood defences is that we only know that they work when issues are not raised because problems have been resolved. I know that the issue is a burden for the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery). There are serious problems affecting communities around the country. We are changing the way in which we approach flood funding.

My point relates to the potential delays. We now have funding from Northumberland county council, as well as the Environment Agency. Will the Minister see whether we can progress the Morpeth flood alleviation scheme as a matter of urgency?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the scheme is being progressed as a matter of urgency, following meetings on the subject, and thanks to the forceful way in which he puts his case—as does my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. There are no national secrets here. There is no impediment other than the need to find a sensible way forward that can be afforded. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, her local authority—and that of the hon. Member for Wansbeck—has put forward some more money to ensure that the scheme can operate. I will go through any proposal that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton brings forward. We will consider all the points that she has made and ensure that the absolute powers of the Minister are understood. If we can make a difference at this stage, prior to the change in the guidance, we will make it, but my understanding is that that will require the implementation of an element of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which we are keen to see taken forward.

My hon. Friend says she wants a result before Parliament rises for the recess; she wants to be able to give her constituents the assurances that they need. I can promise her that I will give every assurance that I am able to give. I will work with officials and local people in her constituency to ensure that we achieve the result that they all want, which is a lifting of the burden of the threat of flooding from their lives.

Sitting suspended.

Employment (North-West)

As always, Mr Bayley, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; I have done so on a number of occasions. I give thanks—spiritual or otherwise—for having been given the opportunity to introduce this debate, which is particularly timely given that we have just had a series of apprenticeship results and some major Government announcements on employment.

As I hope any MP would do, I want to start by singing the praises of my region and saying what it can do about employment. The north-west and its young people benefit from having a diverse, dynamic region with strong areas of sectoral employment. It is strong in manufacturing and in the service and creative industries, many of which are based in my constituency in Blackpool.

These issues are not just of historic importance. We have a proud history of achievement and innovation in industrial apprenticeships, but we also have new developments coming on stream. I particularly want to pay tribute to all the work that is being done to bring the BBC to Media City in Salford, Greater Manchester, thus building on the legacy of Granada Television. Of course, all such developments offer opportunities for young people to get not only skills but jobs in the region. The retention of young people in the region will build and strengthen our potential in the years to come.

Excellent work is being done to attract young people into fulfilling careers by a number of businesses, both large and small. In particular, I want to bring to the attention of Members today the work that is being done at BAE Systems. In my constituency, hundreds of people are directly employed at BAE and a large number of people are employed indirectly by BAE. Of course, the BAE apprenticeship scheme is frequently hailed as one of the best in the sector, because it gives young people real career opportunities that are comparable to those enjoyed by graduates.

In 2009, in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on skills, we conducted a major inquiry into progression through apprenticeships. One of the most vivid pieces of evidence was given by a young apprentice—a young man—who had actually worked for BAE at Warton. He had just completed his course and acquired a very good degree. He spoke before all the current discussion about fees in higher education and made the point that, as a result of being employed by BAE, he had come out of the system with a good degree, which would enhance his career prospects within BAE and without incurring the debt that some of his school contemporaries had incurred.

Of course, in the Blackpool area, we also have the nuclear skills complex, or academy. Again, it would be fair to say that, after a number of years of quiescence, the ability of that academy to take on young people has expanded. That is important to people in Blackpool, because a number of our people have been employed at the Springfields nuclear site.

I pay tribute to the National Apprenticeship Service in the north-west for working tirelessly to encourage businesses to take on apprentices and to encourage young people in the north-west generally to consider the options offered by apprenticeships. In 2009-10, more than 20,000 young people in the north-west started apprenticeships, and more than 500 of them were in Blackpool.

As MPs, we see the importance of apprenticeships most vividly when we go to particularly successful companies in our constituencies. Last week, I had the privilege of visiting a company called Ameon, which is a major construction-based business on the edge of my constituency in Blackpool. I quote from The Blackpool Gazette:

“The firm, which boasts a turnover of more than £20m, has created six new electrical apprenticeships…awarded to teenagers from Blackpool and Manchester”.

While I was at Ameon and talking to its very dynamic managing director, Robin Lawson, I was introduced to two young men who had been employed by Ameon and who had just completed their part-time degrees at the university of Central Lancashire. Again, those young men had gone through that system without incurring debt.

Of course, the north-west also benefits from a vibrant collection of universities, further education colleges, schools and sixth forms, including many in my own area. I pay tribute to the North West Universities Association for its sterling work in establishing the link between schools and universities.

As many north-west MPs know, there are also many excellent schemes that can offer young people opportunities to train and learn on the ground. For example, there are opportunities with some of the local volunteering teams. I found myself working on such an initiative with the Blackpool Circus school—a school that is very appropriate for Blackpool. Those teams help many young people into volunteering and training opportunities. The Get Started unit in Blackpool, which was funded by the local enterprise grant initiative established by the previous Government, has helped many young people in Blackpool into jobs and careers. Many of them work for small businesses or have become sole traders.

Like many local newspapers, my own local newspaper—The Blackpool Gazette—launched a campaign earlier this year to find 100 apprenticeships in 100 days. I was very pleased to attend the launch of that campaign and the newspaper achieved its target.

Those are all good things, but it would not be reasonable if I did not say that there are big problems in the north-west, particularly for young people in the region who are looking for career opportunities. Many local authorities in the north-west were hit with a double whammy in the cuts programme: first, the cuts last year in area-based grants and, secondly, the general comprehensive spending review cuts, which hit the north-west particularly hard. Area-based grants were historically used—certainly in my own local authority—to support youth work schemes and the voluntary sector. As a result of the cuts to those grants, the position is now nigh-on catastrophic.

On top of the cuts to area-based grants, there has been an 80% cut in the teaching grant in higher education and a 25% cut in capital funding for further education over four years. Again, those cuts could put severe pressures on schemes and training opportunities for young people.

The most striking and difficult change has been that in the all-age careers service. The Minister will know that I have paid tribute to him on previous occasions for the work that he has done on that service, so I hope that he will not take amiss what I am about to say; I say it not to him but to the Department for Education as a whole. As a result of removing the potential—not the actuality, but the potential—for face-to-face advice and closing off the vocational route for many people, I believe that there will be severe difficulties.

In Blackpool, as in many other places, the Connexions team has already been halved as a result of the budget reduction caused by the cuts programmes that I have talked about. I will just give some statistics on the effects of those cuts: £2 million was taken out of the budget by the outgoing Conservative administration in Blackpool earlier this year, which was a 50% cut; there was a 46% cut in full-time youth workers; a 48% cut in part-time youth workers; a 59% cut in Connexions posts in schools and colleges; and a 61% cut in posts for people working with young people not in education, employment or training. Of course, none of those cuts is exactly good news for young people and their careers.

In its 2009 report, the all-party group on skills highlighted the importance of quality information, advice and guidance to help young people towards vocational routes. That importance was also recognised in the Department for Children, Schools and Families “Quality, Choice and Aspiration” report, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) was closely associated when he was in government. The Department for Education said in the past that it would, in principle, provide £200 million for careers provision via Connexions funding, but that funding seems to have vanished from the new service.

In June 2011, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) responded to a written parliamentary question that I had submitted. He stated:

“The Department for Education is providing funding through the Early Intervention Grant to support access to impartial careers guidance for young people in the academic year 2011-12.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c.56-57.]

However, the Department’s website says that the early intervention grant is there to fund Sure Start centres, free child care for disadvantaged two-year-olds, short breaks for disabled children and targeted support for families with multiple problems. One is bound to ask just what will be left for careers provision after the money has been divided between all those worthy causes. I hasten to suggest that it is not the loaves and fishes fund, and I do not think that Ministers have yet demonstrated the ability to walk on water, so in both those respects the Department needs to look carefully and rapidly at the negative implications of the current situation.

The axing of the education maintenance allowance will also be a serious blow to young people right across the north-west. I met with young people from my constituency who came down to Westminster to protest against the abolition of the EMA, and they echoed the sentiment that I am sure many of my colleagues throughout the north-west have heard: the allowance was vital in that it gave them the opportunity to stay on in education. A survey that I conducted in local colleges showed that half the respondents felt that losing their EMA would affect their future plans, and I know from meetings with people at Blackpool and the Fylde college and with students in the sixth-form college that the potential the EMA offered was really valued. It remains to be seen whether the replacement that the Government have put in place will be adequate for purpose.

The Government decided not to continue the future jobs fund, despite having indicated before the general election that they might do so, and despite enthusiasm for the scheme. I saw in my constituency how well the scheme worked, with innovative placements such as a group of young people being given apprenticeship roles at Blackpool football club. I am not passing judgment too soon I hope, but it remains to be seen how such proposals will work out via the Work programme. The Government have not yet, it seems, got a handle on how to tackle the growing problems of youth unemployment, particularly in the north-west.

I want to turn to apprenticeships, because despite the positive progress being made—again, I pay tribute to the work being done by all concerned—there remains in the north-west a lack of apprenticeships for young people. The head of the National Apprenticeship Service himself admitted at a recent conference that there remained a chronic lack of apprenticeship places for school and college leavers. However, it is, of course, a question of pull as well as push. There can be apprenticeships—indeed, the Government have increased the number of places—but the question is: how will they be filled?

A City and Guilds survey at the beginning of this year showed that 31% of businesses in the north-west felt that in the current economic climate it was too risky to take on apprentices. That was the highest percentage among the English regions. At a time when the Government have ended the future jobs fund and the previous Government’s guarantees on opportunities for 16 to 24-year-olds, there is a real danger of young people being nudged away from training and from investment in their careers.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Education has been distracted—that is the kindest word to use—over the micro-management of schools and has allowed a crowded and confused marketplace to surface for young people, with academies, free schools, studio schools, university technical colleges and free colleges all jostling in the mix. Is that not a distraction from what should be our clear goal of providing good quality vocational education to those who wish to take it up? How does that haphazard environment fit in with Alison Wolf’s recommendations to the Secretary of State on improving vocational employment? The Government need to strengthen and make clearer their plan to promote apprenticeship take-up, with a much stronger emphasis on work-based learning.

On the use of the voluntary sector, I can cite examples from my own constituency. Volunteer groups are involved with Stanley park. Army cadets play a major part in the organisation of the armed forces and veterans weeks. Fantastic work with disadvantaged young people is being done by the Prince’s Trust and the Lancashire fire and rescue service—again linked with Blackpool football club. All those initiatives provide tasters that offer young people pointers and other outlets for their careers; but ultimately, we have to get right the structures for that process and for that progression to apprenticeships or to whatever career option. University technical colleges might well have a role to play in that, but it is important that we have clarity.

The Association of Colleges just yesterday produced a booklet entitled “Sticks & Carrots: Will Every 16 and 17-Year-Old Stay in Education or Training?” It rightly draws attention to the four things that are key to the policy being best implemented:

“Consistent and sufficient funding…to help Colleges and other education institutions support those who stay in full-time education… Good and appropriate careers advice—


“requires the support of Ofsted and teachers in order to create rigorous standards for Information, Advice and Guidance… The right learning opportunities - We should not assume that all young people wish to stay in ‘academic’ education”.

The final key thing mentioned is financial support and transport, which picks up the point I made a few moments ago.

It is also important to take note of what the report says about the take-up and supply of apprenticeships. It states that the majority of new places have been for adults between the ages of 18 and 24, and that fewer than 5% of 16 and 17-year-olds are apprentices.

We need stronger pathways for work-based learning for young people in the north-west. Much more can be done, and is being done, to promote such work-based training, and I want to refer briefly to the work of the Manufacturing Institute, which is an independent charity founded by north-west manufacturers and universities. The institute’s “Make It” campaign has been working with some 20,000 young people across the north-west, and its partners include Jaguar Land Rover, Siemens, Tetra Pak and James Walker. It aims to give young people in schools and colleges a taster experience, and in the past year, eight enterprise challenge days were sponsored by manufacturing partners and a further three days held in partnership with Education Business Solutions in Manchester high schools.

There are good things going on, but the message needs to go out from the Government to young people in the north-west that vocational education and qualifications are truly valued by them. I am afraid that the hoo-ha around the Secretary of State’s English baccalaureate and the critical comments by Government Members about vocational education have not entirely helped in that respect. The Government need to listen and to get the various agencies to engage with schools more, to give them practical assistance to promote face-to-face encounters and instruction and also some funding, otherwise this will end up like the freedom to dine at the Ritz. The Government need to look thoughtfully at what Wolf says about matching work-based learning to far more partnerships with the voluntary sector and schools.

We need to ensure that teachers understand more clearly what vocational educational routes are out there. Sadly, much of the research and many of the surveys that have been done show that there is still a long way to go in persuading many teachers that a vocational educational route is right for their students. That is especially true in places such as the north-west. We have three types of area challenge. City regions such as Manchester and Liverpool have strong and persistent NEETs levels and skills shortages alongside ambitious regeneration plans. In peripheral seaside and coastal towns such as Blackpool, transients—young people coming into and leaving the town—are key in terms of skills levels. We also have second-level towns and in-between areas, which will not necessarily benefit from the critical mass of jobs and opportunities in the travel-to-work areas. All those areas must have progression and links.

Tony Blair talked about “education, education, education”, but I believe that our watchwords—the Minister has already heard this, so he will have to forgive me—should be “progression, progression, progression”. Our young people in the north-west must be equipped for a working life in which they will change jobs or careers probably four or five times. The situation was not like that for my father, who signed up as an engineering apprentice just before the second world war at the age of 14 with the famous engineering company Crossley and was told by my grandfather that he would have a job for life. Young people will have to be adept at picking up bespoke skills on the job and acquiring the enabling and personal skills that will ease subsequent transfers and take them toward opportunities that include self-employment as well as working for traditional large employers.

To address all that, we need not just proper resources but a proper strategy for progression. So far, the Government have done too little to make those links and enable our young people and their talents to stay in or come back to the north-west. Joined-up pathways to career opportunities will be key to a combination that will enable the north-west’s young people and economy to enjoy the fulfilment, dynamism and achievement to which its history points it.

I am delighted that this debate has been secured, because youth unemployment and the lack of youth opportunities are one of the main reasons why I came into politics. Given that I grew up in Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s, it is understandable that I wanted to change that. It feels a bit like déjà vu at the moment; it reminds me of what happened in the ’70s and ’80s. Sometimes there are defining moments in a life. One such moment for me was 3 July 1981, when I was in Princes park at the top of Devonshire road as the Toxteth riots began. It was 30 years ago this week when the blue sky changed to orange and smoke billowed up into the air.

The riots might have happened in July 1981, but the situation had been festering for some time, perhaps throughout the ’70s. There was much social unrest, as well as complex economic issues and problems with city leaders. People did not feel that they were being heard or given opportunities, although there was a lot of talent in the area. That was a formative experience in my youth, and I desperately wanted to address the issue.

At the time, the Scarman report recognised that the riots represented the result of social problems such as poverty and deprivation, and the Government responded by sending Michael Heseltine to Liverpool to be Minister for Merseyside. He set up the Merseyside taskforce and launched a set of initiatives to begin the regeneration of Liverpool. That is what I am thinking about. We are talking about education and opportunities, but city regeneration is also needed, so that the kids who have learned can take up opportunities. The statistics show that youth unemployment is one of the biggest issues that the coalition Government have been left to tackle. In September 2009, Wirral West had some of the worst unemployment rates in the north-west for 16 to 24-year-olds, ranking seventh—

The hon. Lady mentions regeneration in Merseyside; a lot of people were employed in the housing market renewal programme in Merseyside. Does she regret the loss of that programme?

It is slightly off the subject to talk about a specific housing renewal project, but I will say that infrastructure is key, and we have put £450 million into the Mersey gateway. We have set up enterprise zones in the area, and we are putting money into the Royal Liverpool hospital, which will develop the Merseybio campus to extend the knowledge economy. We are also considering ways to develop Wirral Waters and Liverpool Waters. There are various ways to create regeneration and improve an area.

I jest. I wanted to ask, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) did, about the future jobs fund. It reduced youth unemployment, which was falling as Labour left power. The hon. Lady discussed the scale of the problem, but does she recognise that the future jobs fund was a success, and does she regret the fact that one of this Government’s early decisions was to scrap it?

The future jobs fund had some successes, but 50% of people never ended up in a job. It focused on providing temporary and short-term jobs, which led to false expectations and a lot of upset when jobs did not come to pass. It was also one of the most expensive schemes ever. I do not think that it was a success. It might have been for a small set of people, but it was expensive. Given the timing of its introduction, some might consider it a pre-election stunt. We have to consider schemes that are sustainable. The Work programme, which we are working on now, can get more people into employment.

The statistics in our area show that unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds across the country stands at more than 1 million. The figure for the north-west is 160,000, making it the region with the highest unemployment. Unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds has decreased by 35,000 since the last election. It is a tiny dent, but necessary.

The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) asked about development in Merseyside. I mentioned some of the schemes and the things that we must develop. Merseyside, in its heyday as a maritime port, had a population of 1 million, which dropped to 400,000. We must develop our natural unique selling points. On Merseyside, one of those must be the port. That is why I am delighted that the Minister with responsibility for ports, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has been negotiating with city council leader Joe Anderson. We need a stop-and-start cruise terminal there. We must also work with private enterprise—we are working with Peel Holdings, Cammell Laird and the Stobart Group—to open up the port, with a vision of Merseyside as the port of the north. If we want to achieve our goals on carbon emissions or other issues, surely developing the port is a way forward and an opportunity for the people there.

As well as increasing employment within the area, we need training schemes for the youth of the day. That is why I am delighted that we are investing in and supporting apprenticeships and increasing the number of places, although I agree with the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) that the issue is not just about apprenticeships; it must be about attracting buy-in from businesses, which must understand that they will benefit. We are considering work experience schemes, voluntary work and the Work programme. All those things are key.

There are things that we can do ourselves. I am doing something this Friday in Wirral West. I visit schools every week; I have seen 5,000 schoolchildren since this time last year. One of them said to me, “Esther, it is a hugely changing landscape. Things are getting more complicated. What will happen at universities? Who will fund us? Who will sponsor us?” I am putting on a youth summit in Wirral this Friday. I will bring together a collection of universities and everybody who could sponsor the event, such as the Manufacturing Institute, which has been mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the Institute of Physics, the police and the Army. I will also bring businesses together to see how they can fund young people, and to discuss the paths they could take to become perhaps a legal executive, solicitor or accountant. I will also bring together apprenticeship schemes from the BBC, the Chemical Industries Association, INEOS, Merseytravel and Andrew Collinge. The National Youth Theatre will also be there, as will a head of recruitment, who will speak to young kids who are at school about what employers need.

Having spent the past 10 years looking into and researching the traits and characteristics of people who succeed in business, I know that what we are talking about is not just grades, but character traits and personality types. It is key that pupils at school understand that, so recruitment people will be present to talk about that. In an ever more complicated age in which CVs might all seem the same, those character traits are key.

We are members of different parties, but we all want more people, particularly the youth, in jobs. If people think that there are no opportunities for them and that they have no future, that will have deep, long-term effects on what they will achieve and what they will want to do. I was slightly different from my friends. In 1984, when we were wondering what we were going to do and most jobs were not available, I thought, “Well, if most jobs aren’t available, I can do whatever I want to do, so why not have a go, and go into TV?” Some of my friends did not have that outlook and were somewhat disappointed for many years to come.

As I have said, the issue is about education and the opportunities that we as a Government can provide in the field of learning, and through apprenticeships and the Work programme. Equally, however, it is about regenerating areas so that they have jobs. I have said all that I wanted to say. We need to do something. The scars that have been left on Merseyside for a long time need to be healed, and one key thing would be the development of the port to provide Merseyside with maritime jobs for a long time to come.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey). As she has reminded us, it is the 30th anniversary of the events in Toxteth. In many ways, Liverpool and the rest of Merseyside, in common with the rest of the north-west, have come a very long way in those three decades. However, communities in Liverpool, including in my constituency, are concerned and fearful that the large-scale cuts in public spending will result in a return to those days. I should also like to put on record my appreciation of the hon. Lady’s work in promoting career opportunities. She came to St John Bosco school in my constituency and spoke to the girls there about career opportunities, which was a positive experience for the young people concerned.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing this important debate, which addresses vital issues for constituencies throughout the region and, indeed, other parts of the country. He set out some of the key economic strengths of the north-west region. He spoke about the BBC’s move to Salford and about the impact of the work of both the National Apprenticeship Service in the north-west and the North West Universities Association. He rightly reminded us of the disproportionate and unfair impact that the Government’s decisions on cuts last year have had on constituencies such as his and mine. The combination of the reduction in the area-based grant and the disproportionate impact of the wider cuts has been felt in the voluntary and communities sector and in education, including, as my hon. Friend rightly said, further education.

My hon. Friend spoke about the impact of the cuts to the education maintenance allowance. Like other Members, I have in recent months visited sixth forms and colleges, including Liverpool community college, in my constituency, and young people are concerned that, without EMA, they might not be able to stay in education. I still encourage them—I am sure that all Members do this—to consider education, because of the broader benefits that it brings, but there is concern. My hon. Friend is right to say that the Opposition will closely monitor how the Government’s new and much cheaper scheme to replace EMA operates in practice.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the English baccalaureate and its implications for vocational education. It is a big challenge. Concerns have already been aired about the E-bac—the subjects that are and are not included, the way in which it was introduced, and the retrospective application of a standard that schools did not know about at the time. Those, however, are matters for another day. In today’s debate, I am keen for the Government to give an indication that they will develop a vocational version of the E-bac. It would tell those young people who will not follow a primarily academic path that there is something of equally high status and rigour with a strong vocational component that will recognise their achievement.

My hon. Friend also spoke about apprenticeships. I want to put on record my appreciation of those in Liverpool who provide apprenticeships. When Labour regained control of Liverpool city council just over a year ago, a commitment was made, despite the difficult funding environment, to create new apprenticeships. I am delighted that Joe Anderson’s administration has created 133 apprenticeships. It is striking that, when Liverpool city council advertised those new apprenticeships, there were 1,183 applications. That demonstrates my hon. Friend’s point about the demand for the kind of support that apprenticeships provide.

I want to refer to three different examples—two from Liverpool and one from London. If we are to enhance career opportunities for young people, that will not simply be delivered by the state, be that the Department for Education nationally or local authorities. The social and private sectors will also have an important role to play. In Croxteth in my constituency, the neighbourhood services company, Alt Valley Community Trust, is a model of a social enterprise that works with both the private and public sectors to deliver for local people. Its work has been widely praised and recognised. It runs a hugely successful future jobs fund initiative. I certainly do not concur with the hon. Lady, who described that fund as a pre-election stunt. I invite her to come to Croxteth to see the brilliant work that the communiversity is doing with funding from the future jobs fund. Some 800 beneficiaries have been provided with six-month contracts over almost the past two years. There have been more than 500 work placements as a result of that one social enterprise, which is a communiversity or neighbourhood services company based in Croxteth, one of the most deprived parts of my constituency.

From September, when the future jobs fund will come to an end, the neighbourhood services company in Croxteth will work with others, including local housing associations and the city council, to provide a further 60 apprenticeships. Yes, future careers for young people are about what happens in our schools and the policies of central Government and local authorities, but they are also, importantly, about engaging with social enterprises such as the communiversity in Croxteth.

Liverpool city council, in partnership with Liverpool community college and Liverpool John Moores university, is working on a proposed university technical college in Liverpool. It is an exciting opportunity for Liverpool to create a new college for 14 to 19-year-olds. Some 600 students will probably attend the university technical college, if it gets the go-ahead, which I very much hope it does. Its curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds will be based on traditional GCSEs and A-levels, but with a much more significant technical element for about 40% of the curriculum. It will look at either the traditional or the new strengths in the Merseyside economy. I echo what the hon. Lady has said about the importance of the port. The university technical college will focus on the port and economic activity around it, as well as on environmental technology. That is a model of the way in which the education system can meet some of the new challenges we face, particularly in vocational education, which my hon. Friend has set out so eloquently.

Finally, there is the broader question of careers advice. Frankly, we have never got it right in this country, and we can all tell stories about the advice we got when we were at school or college as teenagers. When the Labour party was in government, we tried to deal with the issue, and I was briefly the Minister with responsibility for the Connexions service when it was first set up. We know from all the evidence that, for all the different initiatives we have had, we have never quite got things right. We have to look at new and innovative solutions.

Cardinal Heenan school in my constituency runs industry days. It invites local people who work in a variety of fields to come and meet its young people face to face to talk about the work they do. The school does that with the year 9s before they choose their GCSE options, and it does it again with the year 11s, who are at a crucial stage in their education. That is the sort of programme that we need to encourage and have more of.

My hon. Friend is giving some good examples of the importance of a good careers service and good practice. Does he agree that the change to providing careers advice remotely is worrying? The loss of face-to-face careers guidance, particularly where personal relationships already exist, is very worrying, and there is concern about the ability to maintain the benefits of such face-to-face guidance.

. I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I echo what he has said and what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South said in his opening remarks: a face-to-face element and direct interaction are crucial. In a sense, my argument is that we need more rather than less of that. Some of that advice will come through traditional careers advice in school, but some needs to be different and innovative, and I will give an example shortly.

We all agree about the importance of good-quality careers advice. Is my hon. Friend as concerned as me about the resources for that advice in schools? As more schools set up independently as academies, the resources available to local authorities to support the schools that remain in their ambit will be reduced, so careers advice may suffer.

Absolutely. It is vital that carers advice is seen as a priority by schools—whatever their status, they have to own this issue—and by central and local government.

I want to give an example of a social enterprise. Future First, which was set up by an inspirational young man called Jake Hayman, looks to change the way in which careers advice is provided. Its key aim is to bring former students back to their old schools to inspire, advise and guide the current pupils. It aims to build an alumni network in each school in the state sector and to work with schools to celebrate the diverse range of talents that have come from them. Future First uses these networks to engage with the current pupils over four years—this is not a one-off event. It leverages that network with a community of businesses. It is currently working in London with businesses such as Google and PricewaterhouseCoopers to provide work experience, internships and industry days.

I know one of the schools Future First works with in north London. William Ellis school in Camden has built a network of 40 former students, including football coaches, doctors, sound technicians, entrepreneurs and architects, providing a careers curriculum for more than 900 students. Through its alumni network, it has created a range of work experience placements, which includes more than 20 work-shadowing opportunities with leading barristers. That is absolutely the right way to go, because it is about promoting social mobility, narrowing gaps in opportunity between the poorest and the richest and giving young people in state schools opportunities that a lot of young people in private schools take for granted.

Future First has commissioned research into the issues it works on. Some 27% of children in state schools said the careers advice they had received was bad or very bad, whereas the figure in private schools was just 6%. Some 39% of young people attending state schools agreed with the statement:

“I don’t know anyone with a career that I'd like to do”,

and the figure rose to 45% among those receiving free school meals. The polling showed that the Future First style of advice was very popular among young people. Future First receives no Government funding and has been set up voluntarily. The schools pay for its services, but at a heavily subsidised rate. Corporate partners provide the bulk of the funding.

I have mentioned that example from London in this debate about the north-west because I am keen to see a similar programme in the north-west, perhaps starting in Liverpool—just to conjure a name off the top of my head. I have spoken today with Future First, which is keen to go to other parts of the country. That is not an alternative to the proper careers advice service my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South spoke about, but on its own the traditional service is not good enough. In particular, it is not addressing the skills gaps and lack of social mobility that Members have identified in the debate. I would be grateful if the Minister responded specifically on how the Government see the Future First programme.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing the debate.

It is a pleasure to take part in a debate with the phrase “north-west” in the title, because there is a bit of a structural issue in this place about the treatment of the English regions vis-à-vis other parts of the country. We hear a great deal about Scotland, and we have Scottish questions. We also have Welsh questions and Northern Irish questions. However, we hear little about the English regions, which is why I am pleased to take part in the debate. In that regard, at least, people on both sides of the Chamber have more in common with the each other than not.

I want to talk first about how London-orientated our economy is. The gross value added of the north-west is approximately 60% of London’s, and no other major economy in western Europe or the US has a similar discrepancy. That is extremely serious for our constituents, because there is an assumption that anything world-class that happens in this country goes back down to London, and we need to do what we can as MPs to fight that. I will talk a little about some of the world-class enterprises that we have in the north-west, which we need to encourage.

I also want to talk about the public spending that Scotland gets vis-à-vis the English regions. Today’s debate is not the place to discuss the Barnett formula, but it is a fact that if my constituency was north of the border, and it had the same demographics and a similar needs profile, it would get about £1,600 a head more in public spending.

A small thing that happened a fortnight ago should give us all food for thought in the north-west. We have talked about the Mersey Gateway project, but another major bridge programme will take place just north of Edinburgh, when the Forth road bridge is replaced. That bridge will not be tolled, but ours will be, and it is increasingly difficult to understand why such discrepancies and differences can continue in the same country and still be defended.

I want to go back to the point about London. I will not make a party political speech, but the fact is that London has got away from the rest of the UK, including the north-west. That has got worse over the past decade. That was principally because of the financial services boom in London, which caused the rather frothy increase in GDP per head there, and we saw the reckoning that occurred. One of the reasons why the situation got worse—again, this is not a party political point, but one for both Front Benchers—is because two years ago, Government capital spending per head in London was three times what it was in the north-west. That level of discrepancy generated private sector jobs, affluence and all that went with it for London. I very much hope that the coalition will do what it can not to let that happen in the future.

Infrastructure is part of how the north-south divide—

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject for debate is a narrow one. We are talking about career opportunities for young people in the north-west, not about the regional or national economy more generally.

My point is that the degree of affluence and gross domestic product that we can generate in the north-west translates to career opportunities. The reason why many of our young people come down to London to make their way is because there are not enough world-class organisations in the north-west. However, I will take your point, Mr Bayley, and move on to the changes in education and career opportunities that have occurred over the past 30 years.

The jobs that our young people need to do, whether or not they are in the north-west, are increasingly technology-based and technology-focused. Companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are all technology companies. Each has generated perhaps as many as 250,000 jobs in their immediate infrastructure. None of them are in the UK, let alone in the north-west. It is important that this country can compete on technology. One of the most striking things that has occurred over the past 30 years is that while we have increased the number of graduates by a factor of five—that applies to the north-west as well—we have fewer people studying engineering than we did 30 years ago. That is not a point for just the previous Government or the Government before that, because it is what has happened in our country. The consequence is that many of our young people cannot compete for high-technology jobs or in the expanding market in high-technology. That is a shocking failure—it is possibly one of the most dramatic failures in education policy in the past. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.

Finally, our economy will continue to be fairly focused on manufacturing. A unit of GDP generated from manufacturing uses more energy than a unit of GDP generated from services. It is important for the north-west economy, and therefore for the prospects of the young people in the north-west, that energy prices are kept competitive. I am interested to hear how the Minister addresses my concern, which is that this country is sleepwalking its way into having higher energy prices than any similar economy in Europe. That will bear down particularly hard on parts of the country where manufacturing, especially process manufacturing, is a significant feature.

I will be brief and not take long at all. Thank you, Mr Bayley, for allowing me to contribute to the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing this important debate. I know from his previous work what a great champion he is for our region, the north-west, and for young people. Before the debate, I read his article on, and it struck me that the points he raises ring true with the experiences in my constituency. We, too, have excellent leading-edge companies, fantastic higher and further education institutions and a population of young people who are as ambitious and aspirational as any of their peers elsewhere in the country.

In West Lancashire, we have leading companies such as Trelleborg CRP, which is at the forefront of marine technology, and the company that was given the job of providing Wembley stadium with a surface that we can all be proud of. We also have social enterprises, for example West Lancashire Community Recycling, which used money from the future jobs fund to support getting people who would otherwise have remained unemployed into work. We have the Construction academy in Skelmersdale, and we need a strong construction sector for people to move into.

This September, a new £42 million further education college will open its doors to students from across West Lancashire and beyond. That college has had £4 million taken away after the Government’s decision to scrap the Northwest Development Agency, which was a vital tool in securing investment in the region. I brought that matter to the attention of the Prime Minister last September. When the £4 million was removed, the college had already been half-built up out of the ground. The furniture had been built and there was absolutely no scope for a redesign. The college was in a desperate position. The Minister made a successful visit to see the building and the condition of the old Skelm college building. Sadly, an offer of £19,000 over three years, which will hardly make an imprint on the £4 million that had been stolen by the Government, was made. I asked the Prime Minister for help—not a hand-out, but a hand-up—for young people, and what have they got? The college, whose building is now built, will see further cuts in education—a 4% cut in overall funding. It has lost two thirds of its entitlement funding and is consulting on 17 job losses. It has also cut courses to try to meet the gap. It can do nothing else about it. At a time when youth unemployment is a severe concern, we should be investing in the education and training of young people and equipping them for work.

I fear for future opportunities for young people. As cuts and redundancies bite, my concern is that young people will be lost in the mayhem. Many north-west MPs lived through the 1980s and early 1990s, witnessing at first hand the scale and depth of economic devastation that was wrought by Conservative Governments. Towns such as Skelmersdale were decimated, with real unemployment levels at about 50%. Families were left without work, and many are still feeling the effects of those policies today. We are in danger of going back to the future if we are not careful. For all the success of the schemes that I have mentioned and many others in West Lancashire, the ability to bring on board the next generation of workers is increasingly limited. The future jobs fund has been scrapped, which will hinder many social enterprises and voluntary organisations. Apprenticeship opportunities are limited, and the young apprenticeship scheme is disappearing.

In education, the support given to families through the education maintenance allowance is vital. When I talk to young people in my constituency, they tell me that £30 a week is the difference between their going to college or not. We have also seen a reduction in entitlement funding, which is vital for further education colleges, providing support to young learners that help them to be job-prepared or prepared for university. Previously, that group received 114 hours of support. In Skelm college, that has been slashed to 30 hours. It is clear from the few examples that I have highlighted that the opportunity for young people to develop the skills, knowledge and experience to make them job-ready and able to access career opportunities is being choked off, especially for those from deprived backgrounds.

My message today is that we cannot afford to have another generation of young people thrown on to the scrap heap. We must address two challenges—ensuring that there are career opportunities for the young people of the north-west in the north-west, and ensuring that the pathways of support that will prepare them to take advantage of those opportunities are available. One without the other is of no use at all. I want to see an economy for the communities such as West Lancashire and the north-west that continues to build on the strengths and expertise that we have within the region and that encourage people to remain there. I once again make a plea to the Minister to do what he can to help Skelm college and young people. We cannot and must not forget or write off our young people.

The generosity of the Opposition spokesman means that there is a little more time for Back Benchers. I call Bill Esterson to speak for a maximum of five minutes.

I add my congratulations to those given to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing a very important debate. Given the good and positive discussions that we had in the Select Committee on Education some weeks ago on similar topics, I am looking forward to the Minister’s response.

I shall pick up the excellent points made by my neighbour in the Chamber today and in the north-west, my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), about rebalancing the economy geographically. It is absolutely crucial that we establish good employment prospects for young people, so that they stay in the region. We should do that through investment in the local economy. The abolition of the regional development agency has created a big problem in achieving that, but there are opportunities.

The port of Liverpool has been mentioned. Although the cruise terminal would be a welcome development, we need to go much further than that and provide opportunities for export through the sorts of hi-tech industry that hon. Members have mentioned. It is absolutely essential that we achieve that for the wider economy and for the future of young people.

The RDA has been mentioned in the previous two contributions. I do not deny that that organisation did a great deal of good in the north-west. However, if an organisation is given £3 billion a year to spend, that is what will happen. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that each job created by the RDA in the north-west, which was one of the better RDAs, cost £60,000? That is an awful lot of money, and we need to consider alternatives.

I am grateful for that intervention, because it ties in with two other issues that I was going to raise: the abolition of the future jobs fund and the phasing out of the young apprenticeship scheme. Both programmes are being phased out because of the high cost of success. The hon. Gentleman is making the same point about the RDA.

It is about not only cost but sustainability. We should not have short six-month schemes, because such programmes must lead to sustainability. It is about cost and sustainability.

Those are closely linked issues. Whether we are talking about the RDA, the young apprenticeship scheme or the future jobs fund, the issue is about finding better ways of running such schemes, rather than just abolishing them and leaving a void that could go on for many years.

In the north-west, there was the particular problem because the recession peaked in 1981, but youth unemployment only peaked four years later in 1985. Unless we deal with these issues now, there will be a repeat of that pattern. There was success. I consider a 50% conversion in relation to the future jobs fund to be a success not a failure. We need to learn the lessons of the past if we are to get it right in the future.

I want briefly to say something about the EMA before I finish. The EMA was crucial to apprenticeships and to colleges. It was a core part of family income. Evidence from Hugh Baird college in Sefton and elsewhere in the north-west shows not only that it was a core part of family income, but that it increased achievement and attainment. It is hard for college principals to identify who absolutely needs it and who will continue to attend without it. Those issues were not considered in the haste to make changes. The sorts of changes that have been made to the EMA, the future jobs fund and the young apprenticeship scheme are, as with so many other areas, too far, too fast. That is my major concern.

I hope that such an approach will not lead to young people of the current generation paying a very steep price, as people of my generation did in the ’80s. Even now, some of those people have never found well-paid jobs or established careers. Their families have paid the price over many years. I hope that the Minister will address those points in his summing up. We are 14 months into this Government. If we do not get it right very quickly, the time will have passed and it will be too late for this generation as well.

I am particularly pleased that we are serving under your chairmanship today, Mr Bayley. For my sins, I was campaign manager for the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election earlier this year. I have fond and vivid memories of driving through the snow on the M62 to deliver the keynote speech for the celebration of achievements at a spectacular and ambitious college called York college. I understand that you are a massive champion of that fantastic further education institution, Mr Bayley, so it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to him not only for being a first-class Member of Parliament on behalf of his constituents, but for his excellent work on the Front Bench in respect of further education colleges and adult skills. He knows how important it is for young people to have opportunities provided to allow them to have fulfilling and rewarding careers and lives and for professionals to have the support and resources to navigate the young people through the options that they face.

We have had a good debate. Hon. Members from all parties have articulated the enormous potential of the north-west. As I was listening to the debate, it struck me that the north-west is very similar in terms of its history and potential to my region of the north-east. We were once the workshop and powerhouse of the world, and we also suffered too much from changes to industry in the latter half of the 20th century. However, our economies have diversified and both areas now have great potential to take advantage of the opportunities in the 21st-century global economy.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South said, the north-west has a strong network of further and higher education institutions. It is also very similar to my area of the north-east in having a positive culture of welcoming apprenticeships. My hon. Friend mentioned world-class apprenticeship schemes in the north-west such as those run by BAE Systems. I should like to mention companies such as MBDA in Bolton. I greatly enjoyed going to that factory when I was a Minister. A few months ago, I welcomed apprentices from the firm to the House with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). The quality of MBDA’s apprenticeship scheme is absolutely first class. I particularly like the way that apprentices visit schools to teach younger pupils about science and engineering. They spark pupils’ interest in the issues, ignite their ambition and encourage mentoring and work experience opportunities. The MBDA apprentices are the very model of professionalism. They are marvellous ambassadors not only for their firm and Bolton, but for young people across the country.

The debate has provided a good opportunity to ask the Government what they have against the young people of this country. In the space of a few short months since coming to office, they have stripped young people of opportunities through the abolition of the future jobs fund, the cancellation of education maintenance allowance, the trebling of tuition fees, the ending of Aimhigher, the cancellation of the youth opportunities fund, the ending of young apprenticeships and the loss of the careers service without any replacement put in place.

Any Government should be judged on their ambition for the future by the way in which they help, support and nurture young people. I am afraid that this Government have been found wanting at best and downright neglectful and damaging to the next generation at worst. It is little wonder that the Education Committee concluded in its recent report on services to young people:

“we comment that the Government’s lack of urgency in articulating a youth policy or strategic vision is regrettable. The Government needs to acknowledge the reality of what is happening to many youth services on the ground and act now.”

We have heard in the debate how the economic certainties that the post-war generation had have gone for ever. People in the north-west in the 1950s and ’60s might have had a very clear form of career road map, as was also the case in my patch. People might have gone into the Ferranti works in Hollinwood, Oldham, or been employed by Crossley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South. Alternatively, they might have worked at the docks in Liverpool or on the railways in Crewe. Those places were the absolute bedrock of the local economy and provided a certainty of long-term employment that is no longer there. My hon. Friend recalled vividly how his father left school at the age of 14 and expected to work in the same place for 30, if not 40, years.

Young people are starting their careers in a much more complex and more challenging world, which has been made even more difficult by the global financial crisis. In an economic downturn, young people will find it especially difficult to secure and maintain employment, because by definition they do not have experience of work. They face that Catch-22 situation—they cannot find work because they have not got experience, but they cannot secure experience because they have not got work. We in the House have to help young people to break that cycle.

In these challenging times, it is more vital than ever that young people have the support, help and tools they need to navigate the various options that they face when trying to secure further education, training or employment. Now, more than ever, we need an effective careers service for young people. That is why the Government’s inept and shambolic attempts to reform the careers service are particularly damaging. The move from Connexions to a national careers service, with schools having a greater responsibility for the provision of such information, advice and guidance, has been botched. I like the Minister very much—I should like to consider him as a friend—but I have to tell him that on this occasion and on this issue he is guilty of being asleep on the job.

I have a series of questions that the Minister needs to address, and he needs to address them urgently. Will he update the House as to where we are on the transition plan? In March, during the consideration in Committee of the Education Bill, I stressed to him the urgency of producing rapidly a comprehensive transition plan for the careers service. We are now at the stage, more than three months after discussing this in Committee, where we still have no real additional information. That is not good enough. School leavers have a matter of days—literally, days—left in education, but no real clarity on what will happen come September. How shambolic is that? Will the Minister get his finger out and do something quickly to prevent those young people, in the north-west and elsewhere, from drifting because of ambiguity, uncertainty and dithering by the Government into a lifetime of low pay, low skills and low expectations?

I understand that the careers summit between the Minister and professionals will take place soon—I think it is on 15 July. I fear that this is far too little far too late, but will the Minister provide further information on the agenda and invitees to the event? Parliamentary questions from me were answered by the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb)—it is unusual to get Education Ministers to answer parliamentary questions, but I will leave it at that—but the answers were spectacularly uninformative. Does the Minister now accept that the summit is happening too late? What does the Minister hope to achieve from the summit and how will practical recommendations and suggestions arising from it be communicated and disseminated to schools and other stakeholders, particularly given the time of the year? The summer holidays will start a matter of hours after the summit.

Face-to-face guidance was mentioned in the debate, and that is a good part of good-quality information, advice and guidance. It worries me that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills states on its website that it will provide:

“free face to face guidance to priority groups”.

Will the Minister confirm or deny that not all pupils will receive face-to-face information, advice and guidance? Will he articulate what the phrase “priority groups” actually means, and what will the criteria be for such groups? Will he reassure me that priority groups will include all children—all children in schools—to let them have the opportunity to have face-to-face guidance on careers to allow them to make meaningful choices and decisions about their future career?

The Minister’s Department’s website states:

“the network of organisations funded by BIS will be able to offer services on the open market to those individuals/organisations which are willing to pay”.

Will the Minister explain that in more detail? In particular, will he rule out the prospect of high-quality information, advice and guidance, including that important point about face-to-face careers advice and guidance being provided to pupils only where parents are willing to pay an additional fee for such a service? Can he rule that out immediately?

Many careers professionals lost their jobs when local authorities dispensed with Connexions at the end of March. The Government talk a good game when they say they wish to trust professionals in education policy but not, evidently, when it comes to careers professionals. How will the Minister ensure that that experience, skills and professionalism will not be lost permanently for young people, when thousands of staff lost their jobs in March?

The Minister is aware, because my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South rightly pointed it out, that funding for careers has been cut severely. My hon. Friend mentioned the pooling of 22 separate funding streams, including that for Connexions, into a single early intervention grant. He made the point, in a great and articulate way, about the additional services that this early intervention grant has to produce. In addition to Connexions and youth services, it is intended to fund Sure Start children’s centres, build capacity for local authorities to extend free early education to disadvantaged two-year-olds, provide short breaks for disabled children, support vulnerable young people to engage in education and training, prevent young people from taking part in risky behaviour such as crime, substance misuse or teenage pregnancy, support young people at risk of mental health problems and help young people who have a learning difficulty or disability. There is simply not the funding in place to have an effective careers service. Can the Minister do something about that, especially when we are thinking that the early intervention grant will be cut by a further 11 per cent next year?

The Government have failed to articulate their vision about how they will help young people develop and prosper in the most difficult economic circumstances for a generation. More damning is that the Government have simply failed young people. We have seen the Secretary of State for Education lose control over his Department, fail to address the real needs that young people and industry require and fail to be on the right side of the argument on the careers service, school capital, school sport and the education maintenance allowance. He has emphasised elitism in education at the expense of excellence for all. As we have heard several times during the debate this afternoon, we now face the appalling prospect of a lost generation failing to achieve its potential and having a poorer quality of life than the previous generation. That is not how it should be. The Minister needs to raise his game and do something to help the young people of the north-west and, indeed, the young people of the entire country.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. It is also a pleasure to respond to this debate, which I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) on securing.

I am going to discuss three things, and I will try to deal with as many of the points that have been raised as possible. First, I want to speak about apprenticeships. Secondly, I want to talk about the careers service, information, advice and guidance, as that is what the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) and other hon. Members focused on in particular. But before I deal with those, the third thing that I want to speak about, which I will deal with first just to create a degree of excitement in my short peroration, is macro-economics.

Macro-economic strategy is critically important to the future that we want for our young people—indeed, for all our people. The Government’s emphasis on dealing with debt is an important pillar in that strategy. In that effort, the recalibration of our perspective on what government does and does not do needs to be taken into account. The silver lining, if I may put it that way, of the very tough comprehensive spending review that we have endured is that we have had to think more critically about the value for money that we get from all the taxpayer funds that we invest.

The second pillar of the macro-economic strategy, which is less often spoken of but is no less central to our ambitions, is to rethink the character of our labour force. We do so against a background, as the hon. Member for Hartlepool said, of greater uncertainty and more rapid change. In order for our economy to succeed, it must be more sustainable. That sustainability will make it better able to endure some of the challenges that we have faced in the past two years when they doubtless happen again, because as you know, Mr Bayley, economies move in cycles. That redrawing of what Britain can be and should be requires us to think about what modern economies look like. Modern economies are more advanced, more high tech and more highly skilled, and they change more rapidly. That dynamism, and indeed that high-tech work force, will be essential if we are going to develop the productivity and competitiveness that we seek, which underpins prosperity.

As Minister, my task is to implement measures that allow us to develop that high-tech, highly skilled work force fit for a high-tech, highly skilled economy. That is why I focused so heavily on apprenticeships when I became a Minister. The hon. Member for Hartlepool—I have two hon. Members shadowing me, because the Opposition know that one would not be enough—is right that the previous Government understood that, too. Indeed, he was a Minister in the previous Government. I do not, for a moment, claim that we have a unique insight into the value of apprenticeships. However, the difference between his Government and ours—where his Government got this wrong and we have got it right—was to make apprenticeships the pivot around which the rest of the skills offer moves. To do that, we transferred money from the Train to Gain budget to the apprenticeship budget, as the previous Government could and should have done. The support that the previous Government gave apprenticeships provided an important foundation, and there was trend growth in apprenticeship numbers—I want to acknowledge that clearly—but we have gone further and faster than they did or perhaps would have done. I say that with as much generosity as I can summon, which is not easy for a party politician, although it is made all the more easy by the two people who shadow me, who are diligent, studious, committed and decent.

Let us look at how the constituencies of Members currently in the Chamber are affected. Since we came to office, there has been a modest but not insignificant increase of 4% in the number of apprenticeships in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blackpool South, and a 13% increase in your constituency, Mr Bayley—all the figures are based on the latest data, which I announced to the House on my birthday only a few days ago. In my Parliamentary Private Secretary’s constituency of Bromsgrove, the increase was 16%, in Wirral West 23%, in West Lancashire 22%, in Warrington South 11%, in Liverpool, West Derby 22%, in Sefton South 27% and—

In South Holland and The Deepings the increase in apprenticeships was 43%—but I did not know that until I came to the Chamber.

The Minister did not mention my constituency because it is called Sefton Central, not Sefton South, but I am grateful for the figure.

I mentioned young apprentices in my speech. The worrying finding in Professor Wolf’s inquiry was that most of the increased number of apprenticeships have gone to 19 to 24-year-olds. The danger is of a gap among the 16 to 18-year-olds who are not able to take up apprenticeships. How does the Minister intend to rectify that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There are particular pressures on 16 to 18-year-olds, and some of those pressures are to do with the perceived and real risks for businesses taking on a young person. That is particularly true for small and medium-sized enterprises—small businesses perceive an associated risk because they have a small base—while the capacity of large organisations to absorb such risk is rather different. Nevertheless, the figures that I announced a week ago of about 114,000 more apprenticeships in total throughout the country, amount to the biggest single boost in apprenticeship numbers ever in our history, and I have no doubt that at the end of the CSR period we will have 500,000 apprentices, which is a previously undreamed-of figure. Also, when I looked closely at the figures, there has been growth for 16 to 18-year-olds, for 19 to 24-year-olds and for 25-plus, which suggests significant latent demand on the part of learners and of employers. We can talk about that at greater length when we have more time, but I suspect that we have further untapped demand, as well as some trend changes in how businesses are interfacing with the skills system and how learners are making choices about the route best suited to them.

The Minister has mentioned macro-economics. Economic growth has been forecast downwards repeatedly and quite dramatically. Will that impact on his target of 500,000 apprenticeships, which is obviously based on demand in the wider economy?

I never have targets; I only have ambitions—it would be vulgar to describe them as targets. The hon. Gentleman is right that, at the next stage of implementation, we need to tie our skills strategy more closely to growth, so next I want to identify those parts of the economy with the biggest growth potential and where skills gaps might inhibit that potential growth. Over the coming weeks and months, I hope to look specifically at the inhibitors to growth in those areas where we can create maximum opportunities for employment, including employment for young people. He is right that, in developing the strategy that I laid out last November, we certainly need to be mindful of growth and, in particular, of sectors and subsectors where there are real skills gaps that are impacting on productivity and competitiveness. For example, I was at Ravensbourne academy today, talking about the creative industries, which have real capacity for growth but also unmet demand, and we need to address that issue of skills. Advanced manufacturing is another such example. We need to look at such challenges, and he is right to raise the issue.

I have spoken about macro-economics and apprenticeships, although I am at risk of becoming an apprenticeship bore. Suffice to say that, for the whole time that I am the Minister, which my hon. Friends throughout the Chamber hope will be for a long time, although that is down to the Prime Minister and not to me, apprenticeships will be the pivot. Shaping the skills system around apprenticeships creates a different dynamic and a different set of expectations, as well as a vocational pathway that is as navigable, progressive, seductive and rigorous as the academic route on which so many of us travelled. We need a longer vocational ladder, which is rigorous and provides opportunity for young people, and which means that those with practical and vocational tastes and talents do not see vocational learning as a cul-de-sac. For too long, people have not seen the route to higher learning in that vocational pathway, which they need to do if they are to make the right choices at the right time that are most likely to allow them to fulfil their potential.

I have said that I will discuss careers advice and guidance; it would be wrong for me not to do so. I will be making a major speech on the subject tomorrow, so the hon. Member for Hartlepool can look forward to that with bated breath. I could say more now but, in fact, I will do more than that, although my officials will shudder: I will deal with all the questions that he asked today in that speech tomorrow—it will require some redrafting, because we did not know what questions he would pose until a few moments ago—but I will ensure that I do, as I owe the hon. Gentleman that.

In summary, however, the hon. Gentleman grossly overstated my few weaknesses and understated my many strengths. I do not mind his doing that, because I like him as he likes me. I believe passionately in advice and guidance, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) has mentioned. She is doing such incredible work: for example, by pulling together the Wirral youth summit, in just a few days’ time, and by doing immense work promoting careers advice and guidance. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) understand the difference for social mobility of ambition and rebalancing advantage in society—as a Tory, I believe in rebalancing and redistributing advantage in society—and the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) feels the same. Therefore, we need to ensure that we give those young people who do not have access to familial networks or similar social networks the best advice, so that they get their chance of glittering prizes as well. That is why we need good advice and guidance.

So we will do three things. First, over the past year, we have done a great deal with the careers profession, which in the coming months—certainly by the autumn—will be in a position to announce an unprecedented degree of co-operation among careers professionals, leading to a new set of professional standards with linked training and accreditation. The national careers service will be founded on the expertise and professionalism of the careers sector, reprofessionalised and emerging from the dark days under the previous regime to a new era of purposeful drive, in which it is valued and its role is central to the work that we will do to foster social mobility. That will be laid out in the autumn—I always said that the national careers service would be up and running next year, not this year. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to look at those proposals, and I think that he will be proud of the work that the Careers Profession Alliance has done following the work of the task force led by Dame Ruth Silver.

Secondly, we will change the statutory duty on schools to ensure that they secure independent professional advice—the Bill is going through the House now—which I expect them to do. For too long provision has been patchy. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby talked about the difference between the independent sector and the state sector, and he is right. Connexions did not do the job—let us be frank. Connexions did some good work, of course, and many people were dedicated to that work, but the structure itself was faulty, because it had to be a jack of all trades rather than a master of careers. We are therefore changing the statutory duty incumbent on schools, and we will deliver a tough statutory arrangement to ensure that schools live up to it.

Finally, we will provide national access to the national careers service through co-location with colleges throughout the country and Jobcentre Plus. We will lay all those proposals before the House, so the hon. Member for Hartlepool can be confident that, in every part of Britain, young people and others will be able to obtain the careers advice and guidance that they need to make the best of themselves—to be their best and to do their best. I will say more tomorrow, but I know that you, Mr Bayley, and others will leave this Chamber with a spring in your step, because you know that the Government are committed to the young people of the north-west and to all the young people of Britain.

Phonographic Performance Ltd

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I want to talk about the licence regime operated by Phonographic Performance Ltd, which governs copyright for musical recordings, and by the associated Performing Rights Society; they issue music licences that cover the copyright for musical and lyrical compositions. Both licences are required by businesses if they want to play music in public places or hold a live performance.

I want to draw attention to the over-complex and expensive licensing regime in this market. The problem has been highlighted by the European Union and the Federation of Small Businesses, and by various businesses and constituents throughout my constituency in Northern Ireland. The regulations impact financially on many small enterprises across Britain and Northern Ireland, which are already over-burdened by Government regulation and red tape. Broadly speaking, as we seek to develop and grow the economy in Northern Ireland, such measures can place an undue strain on businesses that already have narrow profit margins.

The Government have acknowledged that the economy in the north of Ireland needs to be rebalanced, and the proposed steps to devolve corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Executive are encouraging. However, it has been noted that businesses are still subject to around 60 regulations, including licensing arrangements, which cost firms throughout the UK £13 billion. Those regulations may be particularly burdensome for our small and medium-sized businesses, which may not have staff dedicated to compliance issues. It is therefore important that we pay attention to the criticism that such firms have expressed about the licensing arrangements for performance music.

I would like to draw attention to more specific issues within the broader context of the debate. In March 2009, the PRS introduced an exemption rate for businesses with fewer than four employees to cover employees playing music in private that was not audible to the public. Under that arrangement, such companies were to pay £44 a year plus VAT, and that decision has since been upheld by the High Court. Such exemptions are welcome, but unfortunately they are some way short of a classification that would help small and medium-sized enterprises, given that SMEs are classed as organisations with fewer than 50 employees. I want to encourage the Government to examine such exemptions, and to make them more consistent with the definition of a small business.

After 10 years as a Member of Parliament, I have not received one complaint on the subject from an SME in my constituency, and I, too, represent a rural area. Most small businesses are content to pay a small price to enable them to use wonderful music to enhance their businesses. When the hon. Lady is talking about exemptions, is she thinking about the musicians, most of whom survive on less than £16,000 a year? If small businesses with fewer than 50 people were exempt, the impact on musicians would be massive. Does she understand that musicians are struggling, and survive on the scraps that they get from the PRS?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome intervention. I recognise that in another life he was a musician, and is a member of a popular Celtic folk band in Scotland, which has played in Northern Ireland on several occasions. I recognise the musicians’ plight, and that they and the music industry are an integral part of small businesses. I am reflecting on the position of small and medium-sized enterprises in Northern Ireland, where we have a predominantly public sector-led economy, and are trying to grow our economy and encourage small businesses. Any additional taxation or fees simply imperil their financial situation.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a blunt instrument to use the arbitrary definition of small businesses as being those with fewer than 50 people, when radio usage in small companies is often higher than in large companies?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am simply using the definitions proposed by the European Union. I accept his point, but perhaps I could continue my speech.

It is likely that many firms with fewer than four employees are unaware of the exemption, and more should be done to ensure that they are not paying excessive amounts. That brings me to a related issue: the cost of referring a case or complaint to the Copyright Tribunal can be prohibitive. As Consumer Focus highlighted, that is especially likely to be the case for small and medium-sized businesses, and even for a trade association, such as the Federation of Small Businesses. We must be especially aware of such concerns given the relative monopoly held by the collection organisations. Businesses have no alternative within the market.

In contrast with most other European countries and the US, the UK does not provide in law for the regulation of licensing collection bodies, and no authority is charged with their ongoing supervision, except in relation to the ad hoc resolution of complaints through the Copyright Tribunal. Given that somewhat unbalanced field of play, it is important to consider the charges that companies face. With reference to the PPL charges, businesses defined by the European Commission as small enterprises —including, for example, a hair salon with more than four employees and with more than five treatment or stylist chairs—that use a radio, CD player or MP3 player will have to pay PRS £169 and PPL £121 a year. An office or factory with 135 employees will pay PRS £1,142.03, plus VAT, and PPL from £113 depending on square metres. A small café seating up to 30 people will be charged for television, radio and CD. The PRS fee will be £440.72 and the PPL fee will be from £113, depending on square metres.

Set against that, I note that the PPL’s total licence fee income grew 10.7% to £143.5 million from £129.6 million the previous year. It boasts of a revenue growth from public performance of 2%, and claims that that is noteworthy. Its last press release around 8 June stated that

“it was achieved despite...extremely difficult trading conditions for many of the company’s customers and licensees.”

The fact that so many businesses are complaining about the high cost of the licences and the undue strain that it is placing on their finances indicates that there is a more draconian approach to compliance. It is vital—I say this advisedly—that PPL works closely with such businesses, and that the relationship is symbiotic rather than confrontational. Proclaiming their own revenue growth at a time of difficulty for the businesses that purchase their licences is not a step in the right direction.

As well as considering the level of charges, it is important at this stage to consider the sort of businesses that are most likely to be affected by the current arrangements. In my constituency, which is on the east coast of Northern Ireland, a large proportion of the economy revolves around the tourism and hospitality industry. The complexity and cost of requiring two separate licences, combined with an aggressive compliance regime, can put undue pressure on the bars, hotels and restaurants that form the background and backbone of our tourism industry. If those establishments are forced to cease playing music, business will suffer, customers may leave and the public’s exposure to artists’ music will be greatly decreased. As highlighted in a recent report by Consumer Focus, the European Commission commented, in reference to competition, copyright and collective rights management, that

“no other sector operates such complex licensing arrangements.”

Before concluding, I wish to raise an associated and relevant concern that relates specifically to businesses that play radio stations. Although the radio station will have paid a royalty fee for playing the music, the small or medium-sized enterprise effectively has to pay that fee again, which I consider amounts to double taxation. In a similar manner, an hotel may be faced with a double cost for playing music in separate areas. That overly severe and inflexible approach damages small businesses. If those businesses are forced to stop playing music, it will hurt not only the businesses but those artists who, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) pointed out, may live off a small wage and rely on being played on the radio for exposure. In summary, the licensing arrangements, which in some instances comprise many different tariffs, are cumbersome and cost-prohibitive for many owners of small and medium-sized businesses.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady will expand on one aspect of that argument. If music is a necessity and part of the raw material required to provide a service in a café, for example, how does it differ from any other products offered by that café, such as coffee? Does the hon. Lady suggest that the Government should subsidise all other services offered by that business?

If I may, I will say with a degree of temerity that there is a major difference between paying two licence fees, and paying for coffee and other services offered by a café. I am sure that we could elaborate further in the margins of the debate.

The licensing arrangements, combined with what is perceived to be an increasingly draconian compliance regime, is putting businesses under pressure. If we recognise that, we must find a solution that protects our valuable music industry, of which small businesses form an integral part. I urge the Government to take steps to create a simpler and more effective licensing regime. It is vital that licensing requirements and costs do not disproportionately impact on small and medium-sized businesses at a time when many already face a challenging economic climate.

In Northern Ireland, all parties are collectively trying to rebalance the economy and change it from being 77% public sector-led, to a system that puts greater emphasis on the private sector and will provide opportunities for people to develop business ideas. Given the degree of compliance involved in the licensing system, and the fees that are charged in such a cumbersome way, the charges need to be streamlined so that people and businesses can enjoy greater comfort. People should be able to enjoy the music without facing difficult charges. It is vital that the licensing requirements be streamlined and reviewed as a matter of urgency, and on behalf of small to medium-sized enterprises throughout Britain and Northern Ireland, I ask the Minister to take those views on board. I recognise that we have devolved arrangements in Northern Ireland, but the responsibility for licensing lies in London.

It is delightful, Mr Bayley, to speak in successive debates in this Chamber under your benevolent stewardship. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing this debate and on her speech, and in the short time available I will do my best to deal with some of the points she has raised.

I hope that hon. Members will join me in recognising the success of the 45,000 performers and almost 5,000 record companies that are members of Phonographic Performance Ltd. They make a significant contribution to the cultural life and economic wealth of our country. The industry of which they are part—the creative industries—acts as an important ornament to all that we are and all that we do. It is one of the big growth areas in our economy and has the support of the Government. We are working with the creative industries to develop ways in which they can grow still further. Our country is home to the largest national creative sector in Europe, and the creative industries account for 5.6% of gross value added in the UK, and provide around 2 million jobs. They are not merely ornamental but make a difference to the health and well-being of our economy and of communities up and down Britain.

Intellectual property and the copyright system lie at the heart of our creative industries. Many of those industries are small firms—the hon. Lady drew our attention to that once again in her speech. PPL tells us that the vast majority of its members are small and medium-sized enterprises. As she has said, those industries rely on copyright to survive, and it provides them with a legal framework to sustain and protect creative value. Although we are committed to minimising unnecessary burdens on small businesses, we also want to maintain a fair and balanced copyright system in which artists can gain fair rewards for creative works, and licensees can expect access to content via a licensing system that is fair, transparent, and reasonable.

As the hon. Lady has said, PPL plays an important part in that system. Like all collecting societies, it has a valuable role in managing and clearing rights. Its collective licensing activities mean that users do not have to approach every single rights holder for permission, which helps to reduce transaction costs. As a collecting society, PPL is a private commercial organisation that manages the rights of its members. The collecting society functions of PPL and all other collecting societies are not specifically regulated by the Government. PPL acts on the basis of mandates given to it by its members, which it uses to license those rights—the exclusive rights that the international and domestic legal framework gives to copyright owners—for those who want them.

The licensing system in the UK is relatively unregulated compared with other jurisdictions. Our system expects the licensor and the licensee—or their representative body or trade association—to negotiate freely and agree a market rate for the licence. If negotiations break down, the licensee or their representative can refer the matter to the Copyright Tribunal. The collecting society has no corresponding right. That is intended to act as a check on the power of what is effectively a monopoly supplier when dealing with, for example, the kind of small businesses championed by the hon. Lady.

As the hon. Lady will know, Professor Hargreaves has reviewed these matters. In his work, he noted that collecting societies in the UK fulfil a valuable role in licensing markets, but that they are also effectively unregulated natural monopolies. Licensees do not generally enjoy the protections that are available to consumers when dealing with broadly comparable organisations such as utility companies. Professor Hargreaves recommended that collecting societies should be required by law to adopt codes of practice approved by the Intellectual Property Office and UK competition authorities to ensure that they operate in a way that is consistent with the further development of efficient, open markets.

Following that inquiry and review, the Government are considering their response to Hargreaves’s recommendations, which will be made public in the near future. The hon. Lady’s Adjournment debate could not be timelier, because the Government are open-minded about this issue, mindful of the recommendations and anxious to move forward. The constraints within which we work are, of course, international and European obligations. The hon. Lady will be familiar with those, too. None the less, I think that further progress can be made, and I will say a few words about that in the time available to me.

I thank the Minister for his answer and his speech so far. He has referred to the Government response to the investigation and report by Professor Hargreaves. Can he provide an estimated timetable for the Government response? Is it likely to be produced in the next month, the next two to three months or the next six months?

I shall deal with that specific question before I finish speaking. No doubt inspiration will wing its way to me to inform my response—the hon. Lady knows what I mean by that. She has made it clear that there are areas in which we can make improvements, notwithstanding the constraints to which I have referred. Ah! Inspiration may already have reached me, but I want—not tantalisingly, but temptingly—to delay what I say about that for a few moments.

I am very much looking forward to the Minister’s reply to tomorrow’s debate on the Hargreaves recommendations. He knows that nothing in the Hargreaves report suggests or recommends exempting small and medium-sized businesses with fewer than 50 people, so can he now rule that out and ensure that musicians continue to get fair play from the wonderful recorded works that they provide, which enhance so many businesses up and down the country?

We will not exempt small firms. That is the answer to the question. The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, and there is a case for exempting small firms, but the frank answer to his question and the question asked by the hon. Lady is that the UK would almost certainly be in breach of its international and European obligations if it did so. I can be very clear about that.

Let me deal with the hon. Lady’s intervention. Within the next month, she will learn more—because I will insist on it—about the Government’s response and thoughts on how we can take forward the review’s recommendations, where we feel that it is appropriate to do so.

I want to say more about what further progress can be made. First, we need to ensure that people understand the law and understand what not only PPL but all collecting societies from whom they need a licence are doing. We know from the ministerial postbag and from our constituency postbags and surgeries that many small businesses are unaware that they need a licence for the activities that we are discussing. The hon. Lady has made the point clearly. Many businesses question why they need a licence from PPL and PRS for Music to have the radio on in business premises when the broadcaster has already paid for a licence. Many ask why they need a licence at all. Where they do require licences from both PRS for Music and PPL, some businesses query, reasonably enough, why they are not told clearly that they need two licences and why joint licensing is not used to cut costs and the time that they have to spend on that.

PPL tells us that it is doing more to raise awareness among licensees and potential licensees. As a result of this debate, our further consideration and representations made to us from outside this place and within it, we will continue to press PPL to fulfil that commitment. Indeed, as a result of the debate, I will ask Baroness Wilcox, who is the Minister with responsibility for this area, to meet representatives of PPL to talk about how they can make the commitment real and what further steps they will be taking to address some of the questions that I have raised. Trade associations, too, must continue to build on the work that they do to raise awareness among their members. We will certainly involve them in that discussion.

Secondly, where charges are justified, they should be applied in a clear, unambiguous and efficient manner. Those wanting to start new businesses must not be deterred by uncertainties about charges that have no bearing on their core business. Thirdly, inquiries suggest that not all trade associations are aware that they can have a role in negotiating the terms and conditions of the licence for their sector. Some trade associations and licensees are even unaware that they can take a case to the Copyright Tribunal, if they are unhappy with the terms and conditions. They simply do not know their entitlements. The tribunal secretariat is working to raise awareness in those areas. It hosts regular user group meetings, which are aimed at making the tribunal more accessible by familiarising users, especially SMEs, with its procedures and giving them an opportunity to meet the chairman and lay members. The secretariat also hosts regular meetings of collecting societies to discuss, among other things, concerns raised by licensees.

I will also ask Baroness Wilcox to advance our work with trade associations. Of course, we do not exert executive power in that respect, but we will take the work further to ensure that all the steps are accelerated. It seems to me that a seminar might be appropriate. I am thinking of a seminar in which the interested parties are brought together to talk through what further steps might be taken to deal with some of the specific issues relating to small businesses raised by the hon. Lady. Perhaps my ministerial colleague will write to her and other interested hon. Members, addressing the possibility of just such an initiative.

I have heard much in this debate that provides food for thought. We do not take these matters lightly. In relation to charities, PPL has agreed to joint licensing with PRS for Music, which should reduce administrative burdens. The hon. Lady will know about that. We might be able to discuss, at the type of event that I have described, further steps along those lines, because there are community organisations—some of them are very small—that struggle to deal with some of these matters, not least in terms of information and understanding. On that basis, I welcome the agreement that has been reached and encourage exploration of other areas for joint licensing, notwithstanding the point that I made about exemption and the perfectly proper point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

We will reflect carefully on these matters before responding formally to the recommendations of the review. We will continue to work to ensure that the framework is explicable and accessible and that it operates fairly. There is a balance to be struck between the interests of different parties, as I think has been made clear in this brief debate. Those parties have a legitimate expectation that the system will work fairly. The regulation should certainly not be burdensome, and we need to ensure that we have some understanding of the costs of the regulation. When we promote steps that are designed to ensure that a system is operating fairly, we should always do so on the basis of understanding the cost burden that it creates. We also feel—I am sorry; I am using the royal “we”. I also feel that measurement of the function of these agencies is important, so having proper lines of accountability to ensure that what is being done is working as it should be is important.

This has been a useful albeit short debate. As I have said, it is remarkably timely. I hope that I have made reasonable commitments to the hon. Lady as a result of it. She will hear more very soon about our further reflections.

Special Olympics

It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Bayley. I hope that you will be as benevolent to me as you were to the Minister in the previous debate.

Two Saturdays ago, I was in Athens for the opening ceremony of the largest sporting event in the world in 2011, yet I knew full well that few people in the United Kingdom realised that it was happening. The centrepiece of the day was the spectacular opening ceremony of the Special Olympics world summer games. It was a beautiful parade of 7,500 athletes from 185 nations, who were to compete in 22 sports over the following days. As they walked past me, I felt truly humble to be present at such a wonderful occasion.

Over the last two weeks in Greece, people have been celebrating the ability, the talent and the dedication of those athletes with learning difficulties and their coaches. Team GB comprised 214 Britons—157 athletes and 57 coaches. They were out there to win. Make no mistake about it: these are dedicated and seriously talented sportsmen and women. When they returned to the UK yesterday, our athletes brought back many special things with them, including tales of tough competition and inspirational personal achievement, the odd bruise and injury and 187 medals—72 gold, 63 silver and 52 bronze. Great Britain can truly be proud of its Special Olympians. However, we must remember that just to be there, they each had to raise £2,000, and that includes the coaches. They receive no sponsorship, and for a while now they have received no lottery funding.

There are 1.3 million people with learning difficulties in the United Kingdom, so most families are touched by learning difficulties in one shape or form. However, the Special Olympics are largely unknown here, and I hope that this debate will change that, if only in a small way. Indeed, the press coverage given to the Special Olympics world games in Athens over the last two weeks—bar the beautiful and brilliant exception of ITV Central, which covered the games daily on its news broadcasts—was difficult to spot.

Dignity, acceptance and a chance to reach one’s potential are things that all politicians believe are worth promoting for everyone, and for more than four decades the Special Olympics movement has been bringing a simple message to the world: learning-disabled people can and will succeed if they are given the opportunity.

After visiting institutions across the United States for people with what the Americans call intellectual disabilities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a wonderful lady, found herself appalled by their treatment. She believed that, given the same opportunities and experiences as others, they were far more capable than commonly believed. She had a vision that things could be improved through the medium of sport.

Shriver put that vision into action in 1962 by inviting children with intellectual disabilities to Camp Shriver, a summer day-camp in her backyard, where they could explore their capabilities in a variety of sports and physical activities. The Camp Shriver concept—that through sports, people with intellectual disabilities could realise their potential for growth—began to spread. In July 1968, the first international Special Olympic games were held in Chicago, Illinois, and a movement was born. The Special Olympics have grown magnificently across the world, and the last UK summer games were held in the city of Leicester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth).

The hon. Gentleman and I have something in common, inasmuch as we have both been Leicester South by-election candidates, so I know that he is familiar with the city of Leicester. Does he agree not only that the games held there in 2009 were a great success for the city, and hugely beneficial and inspiring for many of the athletes, but that they played a great role in countering what might be described as misunderstandings about disabled athletes? That is something to celebrate.

Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Given the opportunity, I hope that he will come to a Special Olympics event with me and experience again, first hand, exactly how brilliant these athletes are. It is difficult to describe the achievements that these athletes attain. They are doing things that I cannot do. I competed in one of their unified sports two Sundays ago. I was cycling against two learning-disabled athletes; my partner was from Hungary and was the co-sponsor of an event. I came a miserable fourth, and I was trying really hard. They are proper athletes doing a proper job; I certainly would not be able to do what they, with their disabilities, do.

The Special Olympics movement is where learning-disabled athletes celebrate and are celebrated for their accomplishments. It is often the first time that these athletes have truly taken centre stage and been recognised as individuals in their own right. Sport is a central element of the movement, but it is not the only one. In areas as diverse as health care, leadership training, legislative self-advocacy and employment, the Special Olympics take a global leadership role.

Tim Shriver, Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s son and now chief executive officer of the Special Olympics, says:

“Sport teaches us to recognize our similarities over our differences while celebrating the effort to do one’s best in a spirit of respect. And while Special Olympics has had a positive impact on many persons with an intellectual disability, there are many more people that are still hidden, shunned or abused. We look forward to working more closely with the international sports community to broaden the reach of our organizations and bring the joy and goodwill of sport to many more people.”

Through year-round sports training and competition, the Special Olympics empower learning-disabled individuals in more than 180 countries. The games are often the only place where they have the opportunity to participate in their communities and to develop a belief in themselves. Many lead lives of neglect and isolation, hidden away or socially excluded from full participation in schools or society. The Special Olympics transform the athlete and are a gateway to empowerment, competence, acceptance and joy. Better than that, the movement also transforms communities. When people see Special Olympians in action, they see humanity, joy in competition, pride and potential, and they begin to believe in a different sort of world—a world in which everyone is respected and included.

I shall give some examples. In 2009, the Afghanistan world winter games floor hockey team was honoured with congratulations from the highest levels of Government as a tribute to their success. In Romania, children who were once solitary and forgotten now participate in sports training and interact regularly with the community outside their institutions. In the United States, the young girl who was bullied or isolated early in her life is chosen as homecoming queen. In China—I went to the Shanghai Special Olympics summer games four years ago—people who were hidden away in their homes now receive vocational and literacy training at thousands of “sunshine centres” across the provinces.

The Special Olympics movement is also a catalyst for societal change, fostering community building around the globe. It is a leader in diversity and tolerance education, bringing young people with and without intellectual disabilities together in youth and schools outreach programmes. It is a research leader, partnering with Governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector to develop new ways of including people with learning disabilities in all aspects of society. The movement is also the world’s largest public health organisation serving people with learning disabilities, offering free health screening to the world’s most neglected populations. It is the fastest growing grass-roots volunteer movement on the planet, with the potential to improve the quality of life of millions of people.

Why did I ask for this debate? As a fan, I wanted to tell everyone how much I enjoyed watching Great British athletes competing in the Athens games just over 10 days ago. As a spectator, I want to say how fantastic the opening ceremony, and the buzz around the events, was. It was wonderful to watch our athletes competing for their country, and to see the parents’ pride as they watched them. As a consumer, I want to let people know that the sponsors of such events deserve huge praise. Indeed, Coca-Cola should stand up and take a bow; it gave an awful lot of money to the games. As a friend of Tim Shriver, I want to pay proper respect to him and his family, especially his mother, for driving the movement forward so strongly. As a politician, I want to remind my peers how important the inclusion agenda is, and that we do not constantly have to reinvent the wheel. We have a brilliant example of what we should all be aiming for in the Special Olympics movement, and I am proud to be associated with it.

The Minister will know that Sport England is talking to Special Olympics Great Britain about the possibility of funding in the future. I hope that any logjams can be eased. Perhaps the Minister could use his good offices to get a group of people in a room and knock a few heads together to try to free up funding that could improve the lives of thousands of people across the country. It would be much better if Sport England could treat Special Olympics Great Britain as any other national sporting governing body, rather than as an individual sport. Over the years that I have been involved in sport, I have heard numerous gripes from the various sports bodies that have had to deal with Sport England, so I understand that it is a complex beast, but I would like to think that when it comes to disability sports, funding blockages can be removed.

However, I am not here to ask the Minister for more money. I know that he is a fan of the Special Olympics movement, but much as I would love more money from the Government coffers for the movement, that is not the purpose of the debate. The purpose is to celebrate the Special Olympics movement. I suppose that the Minister could possibly help, though; recently, it has been difficult for Special Olympics GB representatives to meet the officials who deal with learning-disabled and inclusion issues in the Department for Education and the Department of Health. It would be helpful if he could use his good offices to set up some meetings. I believe that the movement and the Departments could learn a great deal from each other.

The main thing that I want to hear from the Minister is the Department’s, and his, commitment to the Special Olympics movement across the UK. I want him to say how he can help to raise the profile of the movement here, and hopefully he may give a few words of congratulation to all those who have represented their country so brilliantly in Athens over the past couple of weeks.

I am pleased to be speaking under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) on securing this important debate. I acknowledge, too, the presence and contribution of the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth), who also takes an interest in the subject.

It goes without saying that I am delighted to begin by congratulating all the participants in the 2011 Special Olympics world summer games, which finished on Monday in Athens. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there was an outstanding performance by the Great Britain Special Olympics team, who won 187 medals—72 gold, 63 silver and 52 bronze; it is worth repeating that. It was not in my notes to congratulate Coca-Cola, but I will follow the lead of my hon. Friend and pay tribute to it for sponsoring the Special Olympics and helping to make them such an outstanding success.

We are rightly proud of the team’s fantastic achievement in Athens, and it is clear that every competitor did their best. I will not comment on my hon. Friend’s athletic prowess, but I can guarantee that if I were to compete in a cycle race, I would not finish fourth; I would probably finish last. Some Special Olympians had the chance to visit the Prime Minister at No. 10 before leaving for the games, and I am sure that there was an equally warm welcome for all the competitors, and the people who have supported them in Greece, when they arrived back at Heathrow yesterday.

It is worth spending half an hour of parliamentary time acknowledging the success and work of the competitors. By calling this debate, my hon. Friend will have further boosted the pride of the competitors and their parents, families and friends, and for that alone he must be congratulated. He has been a supporter of the Special Olympics movement for many years, going back to the time when he was an MEP. He knows better than most about the many years of work that have gone into the success of team GB in this year’s Special Olympics.

Special Olympics Great Britain was formed to offer a lifetime of learning through sport. Even though we should celebrate its most recent achievements, it is also right that we recognise the many benefits that the Special Olympics bring to individuals of all ages and ability levels every day, from those with low motor abilities to the most highly skilled athletes. By bringing together coaches and volunteers to provide sports training and competition for children and adults with learning disabilities, regardless of their ability, Special Olympics GB not only reaches out to those who participate, but brings their families, friends and volunteers closer to sport, too.

With such excellent credentials, I can understand why my hon. Friend asks what the Government are doing to support Special Olympics GB, and to help make its good work go further. My Department and this Government support its work and will continue to do so. I will certainly use my good offices to ensure that he gets the meetings that he needs to increase awareness of Special Olympics GB in government, and to get any support that he feels is necessary for this important part of British sport.

As my hon. Friend knows, Sport England’s aim is to grow and sustain participation in grass-roots sport. Central to its work is the £480 million it invests directly through the 46 national governing bodies of sport. Disability provision is woven into the work of the national governing bodies, so part of that investment will contribute to increasing disability participation in sport. The approach is entirely inclusive and looks to offer opportunities for everyone to participate in sport, regardless of their gender, disability or ethnic background. Sports are tailored to meet the specific needs of those groups of people, so they are not separated out from other participants, and that helps to increase accessibility.

To help build capacity and expertise in disability sport, Sport England and the national governing bodies work with the English Federation of Disability Sport. As the umbrella organisation for disability sport, it has responsibility for the promotion and development of sporting opportunities for the 11 million disabled people in England, by providing expertise and advice and by bringing together eight national disability sport organisations recognised by Sport England, one of which is Special Olympics GB.

I was delighted to hear today’s announcement by Sport England—perhaps it was not unrelated to this debate—that it will, for the first time, directly fund disability sports organisations to advise, support and guide other sports bodies as they create opportunities for participation by disabled people.

To complement that core investment, Places People Play is Sport England’s mass participation legacy initiative that will bring the magic of the London games into the heart of local communities, and that includes a specific focus on disability. Furthermore, the school games will offer meaningful competitive sporting opportunities to young people with both physical and learning disabilities at every level.

A lot of work is going on in many places to help get people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, into grass-roots sport. A lot is also going on at the top-end of sport, too. When we won the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic games in London in 2012, UK Sport became clearly focused on achieving performance and medal success. That investment strategy was limited to the Olympic and Paralympic summer sports. However, the International Paralympic Committee General Assembly agreed in November 2009 to include, once again, learning disabled participants in IPC competitions, including the 2012 Paralympics. Four sports were targeted for inclusion in London 2012: athletics, rowing, swimming and table tennis.

This decision is most welcome, and we look forward to seeing our best intellectually disabled athletes competing once again at the very highest level. However, much work remains to be done by the sports themselves before the participation of learning disabled athletes can be guaranteed in London 2012. Indeed, the international governing body for rowing has decided not to take up the opportunity at this time.

UK Sport has set aside funding for learning disabled athletes in athletics, swimming and table tennis, now that that category of athlete has been readmitted to the Paralympics. The funds will be allocated to the sports, following confirmation and the outcome of the classification standards and qualification process by the international federation.

Since that decision, the International Paralympic Committee world swimming championships have taken place in Holland, and they included six events for athletes with an intellectual disability. The Great Britain team included four intellectually disabled athletes, who won four medals including two golds. I can also confirm that a number of intellectually disabled swimmers are already in receipt of public funding through UK Sport’s world class programme to assist them in their preparations for London 2012. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that those are very positive developments.

We fought very hard to get a good settlement for sport in the comprehensive spending review. We did well, and in a highly challenging economic climate, we have been able to go a long way to protect the central funding streams that we believe add genuine value to the sports sector and the people that it serves. However, there will be financial constraints on our ambitions, and we will have to consider creative solutions to difficult problems. For example, our changes to national lottery funding have helped to release more funds for sport of every kind.

It is also important to recognise that there are a number of competing priorities for sport funding. The latest figures on participation show that far too many of us do no sport at all and those of us who do participate do not do enough sport. That is a fundamental problem, and we need to solve it. Of course, we need to take a proportionate approach, but we also need to prioritise, so Special Olympics GB must be considered alongside priorities for disability sport and sport more widely.

That is not to say that there are not opportunities that we should consider. As I indicated earlier and as my hon. Friend called for, my Department can consider having closer collaboration with the Department of Health and the Department for Education. We also need to look closely at the evidence. Sport England’s active people survey measures participation in sport, but a breakdown of disability by type was only included in the survey from October last year. We should be able to examine the evidence more fully by December this year.

When my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport and the Olympics met Karen Wallin, the chief executive of Special Olympics GB, earlier this year they had a very positive discussion. In particular, they covered the lessons that had been learned from the Special Olympics GB national summer games that, as we have heard, were held in Leicester in 2009. My hon. Friend hopes to attend the launch of the report about those games, and I know that he will give the same message that I give here: there is more to do and we will keep working with Special Olympics GB to try to do it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry will also follow developments closely.

In the meantime, once again, I pay tribute to the fantastic performance of the competitors and volunteers in Athens, and I congratulate Special Olympics GB on its excellent work.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.