Tuesday 11 October 2011
[Mr Martin Caton in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue in the Chamber this morning, and I am grateful to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who had the original idea for this debate, and brings such issues to the House regularly. You will recognise, Mr Caton, that in August we saw some awful scenes of social unrest in this country that we had not seen for a considerable time. Following those riots, much has been said about gangs in our society.
As the MP for Tottenham, it is important to say that although I recognise that gang members were certainly caught up in the violence, the evidence made available to me by local police, the arrest sheets and the issues arising from the riots suggest that it would be wrong to infer that those riots were orchestrated by gangs, or at least that gangs were central to them. The issues are complex and many, and include policing. The riots involved not just people who do not have a stake in society, but those who got swept up in the social unrest and found themselves doing unimaginable things.
We have an opportunity this morning to reflect on gangs and gang membership, how we are tackling the problem, the other crime and violence issues relating to gangs, and some of the underlying causes. The starting point is that gangs are not new. We probably all recall reading “Great Expectations” at school, and recognise that gangs are not a new phenomenon in British cultural life. Indeed, in other periods of hardship, young men in particular have clustered together and caused mayhem and havoc for those around them.
A particular phenomenon has developed in London, and has accelerated over the last decade. Associated with the gang profile are members who are increasingly younger and often teenagers, and a growth in knife crime. The figures for knife crime rose last year, as did those for violent crime among young people, and those of us who represent London seats suspect that we are seeing a rise in knife crime as we speak. Drug-related activity is also associated with gangs.
The issue is of tremendous concern. I am aware of four knife crime victims in the London borough of Haringey in the last two weeks alone. During the summer, one gang member was stabbed twice on two separate occasions in as many months. That is the toxic and worrying nature of the issue. When trying to understand the problem in the context of what success looks like for young people in a constituency such as mine, I usually boil it down to five issues: education, employment, community, aspiration and parenting. I want to touch on those five issues in relation to gangs and why young people in constituencies such as mine are being seduced into gang membership.
Constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) are often described as inner-city constituencies, although I have never liked the phrase because it suggests that it is acceptable to have an inner city when I would like to live in just one city. Some crimes are associated with seats such as ours, but the profile of youth violence throughout London has changed. The face of gang membership is diverse, and seems to be associated as much with the inner city as with suburban London. Parochialism is manifest in gangs, and I constantly find it peculiar to see the turf wars that go on between one gang in the N17 and N15 postcode and another in the N22 postcode in Wood Green.
Many incidents of gun and knife crime relate to conflicts between Tottenham-based gangs and Hackney-based gangs criss-crossing the border between the two boroughs.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In days gone by, she and I have had to discuss attending funerals and memorial services for gang victims because of the sensitivities between those on one side of a street and those on the other side. In the Stamford Hill part of my hon. Friend’s constituency a wonderful young man, Godwin Lawson, who was an aspiring footballer, lost his life when he was brutally stabbed in the street one evening. His family have been so honourable in the tragedy that befell them. I remember walking with my hon. Friend in Stamford Hill where one side of the street was in her constituency, and the other was in mine. It seems that poor Godwin had simply strayed into a different patch, and died as a consequence. My hon. Friend has great experience of that, and we have seen hyper-parochialism develop throughout London.
Hon. Members in the Chamber will have similar experience of the obsession with postcodes. Many young people are worried that when they leave school, particularly secondary school, at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon or travel on the bus to and from school they may cross postcodes and go into other areas. Parents who attend our surgeries say, “I don’t want my daughter or son to go to that school. I have to get to work, so they go to school on their own, and I am worried. They say that there are gang members on that bus, and that because they come from the wrong postcode there will be problems.” The local authority is co-ordinating and staggering school exit times to try to avoid such problems, but there are areas of London where young people who come from different postcodes meet—as one would expect—and things flare up. Gang activity is at the centre of that.
Over the past few years there have been gains in education, particularly secondary education, but all London boroughs have seen an increase in the number of children in care following the cases of baby P and Victoria Climbié. When I visit pupil referral units and look at the issues faced by children in care, I see a pattern that still prevails for young people in such circumstances. I am concerned that pupil referral units and help for children out of school remain, to some extent, a Cinderella service. Frankly, it should be a Rolls-Royce service if we are to support young people when they are at their most fragile, and prevent them from falling into trouble during those initial stages.
I have been clear that the rioting that we saw across London was of a complex nature. One important issue, however, is unemployment, and it falls to national Government to do something about that. The Northumberland Park ward of my constituency has Tottenham Hotspur football club at its centre, but it is also the ward with the highest levels of unemployment in London, with 20% of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. In some communities—I think of the Somali community and parts of the black community—that figure is double, and such unemployment stretches out for months and months. I am from Tottenham which, I remind the House, saw similar levels of unemployment during previous recessions in the 1980s. It is a tragedy that the parents who were unemployed then now have children who are unemployed—whole families who have not seen employment.
The issue is simple. As my mother used to say, “Idle hands make the devil’s work.” We need a firm grip on growth in our economy, and we must look at where jobs are and how we can get them to those families and young people. Most of my constituents who were in employment worked in the public sector—it has always been that way in the borough of Tottenham—but many of those jobs have been cut. Those employed in the private sector often work in retail and the service economy but, as the House will have seen from the latest figures, that sector is shrinking and no one is anticipating a boom Christmas sale period. It is hard for those twenty-somethings to get a foothold in employment and the economy. We have seen a growth in apprenticeships, but it is not clear that we have seen the scale of growth that is necessary, particularly in London and constituencies such as mine.
Despite all that we may learn from American senior police officers, unless they come with a growth strategy in their back pocket it will be pretty hard for my constituents to believe that staying off the street and in meaningful employment is a genuine prospect. One can knock on any door in the Northumberland Park ward and what people say is simple: why are there so many young people on the streets with apparently nothing to do? That is how people get caught up in gangs. As I have said, this is not a new subject; Dickens wrote about it—the Artful Dodger was effectively in a gang. A bit of petty theft here and a bit of small drug running there; that is how people get caught up in criminality, and before they know it they are carrying a knife for protection or, if really serious, a gun. That is the pattern we see.
I agree with everything my right hon. Friend has said about employment, but one aspect of the way that some young people are caught up in gang culture means that if they were offered a decent job tomorrow they would not take it, because they have grown accustomed to easy money and an easy life, and do not know what it means to get up and go to work at 8 o’clock in the morning, as our parents did. I do not want to take away from what he has said, but how to wean a generation away from a semi-criminalised subculture and into the world of work is a complex question.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. That brings me to the other ingredients of the debate—aspiration and community. It is clear that too many young people are losing all contact not only with work, but with what I call character-building activities, such that they can engage in that work. We live in hyper-materialistic, consumer-driven times. That affects us all, but I believe that it can affect the poorest most harshly. Middle-class families can introduce all sorts of things into the home, such as scouts, football or ballet classes, which will ameliorate some of the other possibilities in their children’s lives. That is not the case for many of my constituents, and youth services in the London borough of Haringey have been cut by 75%.
For a parent—I say parent, because it is often a mum struggling on her own—it is a challenge to create aspiration and compete with the drug dealer on the other side of the street who offers a quick way to get easy money, particularly while she is trying to hold down a job. Often, it is not even one job, but two, because we all know that here in London it is virtually impossible for a constituent such as that single mum to earn a living wage with just one job. That returns us to the issue of how to be there for our young people and what it means to be family in London: it is about not only absentee fathers who do not take their responsibilities seriously—something I have raised many times—but how hard life is for those who want to take their responsibilities seriously.
I think of a family who were challenged in court this summer because their 15-year-old daughter was caught looting. The parents did not turn up to court, and the judge said, “Where are the parents and what are they up to? This is typical.” I know the parents; indeed, the family have been known to me for many years. Dad is a minicab driver, and as a consequence works irregular hours to make ends meet. Mum has a small business. They are churchgoers. They are struggling with a large family and doing the best that they can, but they are a classic family working all hours just to make ends meet and are not able to be entirely on top of everything that their young people are doing because of what is required to make a living wage in the London economy.
Hon. Members know me well enough to know that it would be very unusual for me to make excuses for young people who, in the end, have moral choices and choose to pick up a knife and use it, or choose to deal crack cocaine. However, our economy is important. That is why I raise the issue of unemployment. The culture that surrounds our young people is important. That is why I raise the issue of hyper-materialism and how quickly and easily a young boy can get caught up in it. Before we know it, he is off with a gang, even though he has parents who are doing their best.
In the end, we are centred on how we deal with the issue. There are innovations that I want to see in the system. I congratulate the London borough of Waltham Forest—no doubt my good and hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) will draw on this in her contribution—on the development of the Connect model. The measures to which I am referring involve getting around these young people in a co-ordinated way, intelligence sharing across the different stakeholders—the local authority, the health authority, the police, social services, youth services and others—intervening in chaotic families and saying to young people who we know are caught up in crime, violent crime and gang membership, “We will give you a chance if you take the services available to you. We won’t lock you up. If you take that chance, we’ll help you to get out of the gang, but if you don’t take that chance, we will be very heavy-handed through the arm of the law.” I am talking about giving them that possibility and, as a consequence, seeing the numbers fall from the dire and very concerning level in Waltham Forest of just a couple of years ago.
In Haringey, we look forward to applying the Connect model to how we begin to deal with gangs and gang membership in our borough, but we are doing so against a backdrop of a 50% cut in our youth offending service. I recognise that we are living in times of austerity. I do not want to rehearse the debate in the House about cuts, cutting too quickly and all the rest of it, but I do want to say that some services need to be immune to some of what is happening and the youth offending service must be one of them.
Some of the networks that are available and could be used in inner-city and urban areas throughout the UK are, of course, school networks. That is not a cheaper option, but one that should certainly be resourced. I am thinking of school breakfast clubs and post-school clubs, where young people are encouraged to stay on and become involved in activities that are more positive than some of the things to which the right hon. Gentleman has alluded.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If a young person lives on the 15th floor of a tower block on one of my local estates, an after-school club is vital for their mother in seeking employment—if she is tempted to seek employment, who will take care of her child when school finishes? A breakfast club is essential if she has a cleaning job and Dad drives a minicab. In those circumstances, the young person getting to school early and getting a good breakfast is not an add-on; it is essential, but it is not clear that that is happening.
Let us examine the figures. Last year, knife crime rose by 8% in London. In addition, 43% of 11 to 13-year-olds and 50% of 14 to 16-year-olds said that knife crime and street violence were their No. 1 issue. Against that backdrop, we needed a youth offending service. We needed people to get to these young people early and work with them on intervention, prevention and persuasion. The service was developing, not mature, and was, in a sense, fairly new. I am alarmed that in the London borough of Haringey the budget has been cut by 50%.
In addition, some essential co-ordinated activity is not going on in a statutory way. Members of the voluntary sector often get together and debate these things, but it is not clear that there is any statutory obligation at all for the various services to be sat around a table, co-ordinating activities, profiling these young people and sharing intelligence.
Beyond the local authority, the activity that I have described is not happening London-wide. The border between Haringey and Hackney is porous, and the border between Haringey and Waltham Forest is porous. I am talking about co-ordinating intelligence. What is happening with these families? Which older brother went to prison last week? Which father found himself in trouble? Did domestic violence take place last week? It is essential that the various professionals have the ability to talk to one another and therefore know what is happening and or can predict what will happen, but that is not happening across London.
The Minister needs to examine that issue and needs to press the Mayor of London on it. There has been a lot of rhetoric and talk, but not a lot of action. The Mayor ran for office and won the election on the basis that he would reduce knife crime, so all of us must be very concerned that that is not happening. If anything, the problem has accelerated and got worse. Co-ordinated activity is essential. I am not saying that all this can be driven from the top, but it is possible to press for best practice, understand what is happening and see different professionals speaking to one another about those families and young people. That is not happening across London; it needs to happen, and much more purposefully. I hope that the Minister will say something about the youth offending services and teams that have been cut, and about what co-ordinated activity is planned across and beyond boroughs London-wide.
It is also clear to me that we are not sharing best practice and intelligence across the country, because I have been to other cities that are beginning to struggle with gang crime in their communities and they feel behind the curve in relation to some of the things that we have become familiar with in London.
It is important to put it on the record that there have been improvements in some statistics for some areas of serious crime, whether knife crime or gun crime, in recent years, although I accept that there is a tendency now to move in the wrong direction. We all know that just to bandy around statistics is not a sensible route forward. I very much take on board the idea that there needs to be far more co-ordination within London. The right hon. Gentleman referred to his own local authority perhaps being behind the curve compared with the neighbouring authority of Waltham Forest, which has put in place the Connect programme. It is important that, rather than getting into a sterile debate on statistics, which I accept happens on all sides in political discourse in London, we acknowledge that the Mayor and his predecessor have recognised the importance of dealing with gang crime and, in particular, the terrible statistics for knife and gun crime. Whether there is a slight reduction or not, any deaths that take place because of knife or gun crime are terrible tragedies, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point I am making is that, two years ago, the assistant borough commander, the head of the youth service and her representatives, and representatives of social services, health services and schools were sat around the table—routinely, every month—discussing the group of young people who were getting caught up in this situation, and that funds were coming through to support that activity. I am afraid that they told me last week that that has ended. They are engaged—meeting voluntarily, every six weeks—because they are so concerned, but there is no statutory framework for that activity, and neither is there the support and diversion activity that needs to happen.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate from his long experience that what those young people need is diversionary activity and intervention. That requires resources. If he speaks to colleagues in Waltham Forest—my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow might say something about this—he will hear that they are concerned about resources. I think that this is one area in which we can make the plea for resources, because the consequences of under-resourcing will cost us so much more. The co-ordination and resources that must rightly follow, so that those professionals can do their job, are essential.
The right hon. Gentleman is clearly drawing on his extensive experience. To return to the issue of youth offending, is he calling for ring-fenced funding from central Government to go to local authorities, or does he believe that local authorities themselves have a duty to prioritise youth offending funding within their budgets?
I am not calling for prescription; it is not for me to prescribe how this should be done. That must be a matter for the Government. What I am saying is that this is a priority and a real issue in London. Youth services are being cut and reduced across London. It is easy to make the point that the London borough of Haringey, for example, should prioritise youth services at a time when it has to cut £40 million in year from its budget. I am worried, however, that I will be here with colleagues next year and that the figures will have gone in the wrong direction, because we will have been unable to prioritise the service.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, although I do not recognise a picture that suggests that gangs were behind this summer’s rioting and social unrest, it is clear that gang members were part of it. I have spoken to the manager of JD Sports in Tottenham retail centre and to the manager of Comet. I have also looked at some of the video and pictures of complete lawlessness, which ran for more than five or six hours—there were more young people in that shop that night, looting and robbing, than during the day—and I do not want my constituents to get accustomed to such things, because that would be dangerous for any society—those events have to be a one-off. Those charged with intervening in, dispersing and engaging with often chaotic families, as well as those who co-ordinate pupil referral units and ensure that young people in care are properly provided for, who work with families, who think about a living wage and about our economy, and who ask hard questions about where the jobs are in a constituency such as Tottenham, recognise that this is important.
Although I am pleased that the Government have said that they want to prioritise the issue, as a Back Bencher I want to scrutinise how that is done. We should, of course, speak to those from across the pond who have experience in this area, but I have now been the MP for Tottenham for 12 years and, when I began, knife crime and gangs were certainly not a major phenomenon of the capital city. In those days, the caricature was of yardie gangs—I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington will recall reading about them in the papers.
The situation has changed completely and we have a decision to make: are we going to see gangs and that terrible youth violence as a permanent phenomenon of our economy and country, as in parts of downtown America? We are on a cusp. We can either get over the problem with proper, co-ordinated quality effort, or I am afraid that it will be a permanent phenomenon of our modern economy.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on his speech. I will try to be brief. He is right to identify that the riots were, in essence, an example of opportunistic, rather than systematic, gang-related criminality. None the less, it is important that we discuss gangs, not least because we will have an opportunity in 48 hours to discuss, in this same Chamber, the riots in greater detail.
I respect the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution. None of the issues is open to a simplistic analysis or easy solution. It is perhaps the nature of the 24/7 media world in which we live that that expectation always exists. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, there was a sense that we should have some quick and easy solutions, but I think that the lesson is that, much as I accept his call to arms and passionate push for urgency, we also have to be patient. This needs systematic work within our communities to try to make sure that we break down the culture of violence and criminality, as well as the entirety of gang culture.
I am very much a sound money man. I have been a great believer in getting our deficit down and have tried in my own constituency, almost uniformly, not to make the case for more money to be pushed in a particular direction. I am, however, aware of gang culture in my own constituency and in the past few days I have written to the Home Secretary to make the case for moneys that would otherwise be taken away from Westminster city council to be put in its direction. There is a bigger issue of gang culture in the constituency of the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). The terrible shooting that took place on the Mozart estate only a week ago was a classic example of that.
In my constituency, the Churchill Gardens estate is not too far from where we sit this morning and there is increasingly great concern that it has almost a critical mass of would-be gang culture that has the potential to cause great blight to the locality. A lot of it is driven by the postcode war, with gangs from north and south of the river—the Churchill Gardens estate looks out towards Battersea and the south of London. There is real concern that we need to put some resource into prevention rather than cure.
I accept what the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said earlier. One of the greatest difficulties is that the lifestyle has almost become chaotic and that it is difficult to wean people off. I also noticed that she raised her eyebrows when the right hon. Member for Tottenham suggested that gang culture was not an issue in 2000 when he became an MP. It has been a problem, although I think that there is now a critical mass in parts of London that used to feel unaffected by it. One of the interesting things about the riots was how previously quiet suburbs, such as Clapham and Enfield, which were perhaps regarded as leafy suburbs not too far away from some of the gangland areas of south London, Edmonton or Walthamstow, suddenly became subject to some real problems. That is something that we have to bear firmly in mind.
As I have said, this will require patient, time-consuming activity. The St Andrew’s club, of which I am proud, as the local Member of Parliament, to be president, is even closer to us than the Churchill Gardens estate; it is within 500 yards of Parliament. It was the oldest boys’ club and is now a boys and girls’ club. A phenomenal amount of resource was put in to ensure that there were sports clubs and teams. There are also opportunities for dance and music lessons.
The club desperately requires funding. The local authority is not able to give it the funds it has had in recent years. We have tried to build up a trust, so that relatively wealthy people living nearby are able to put in money. It is helpful—not so much in keeping people off the streets, although that is one distinct element of it—and its catchment area goes well beyond the immediate vicinity of Westminster. The clubs that it puts in place go south of the river.
That opportunity for distraction, provided by clubs in particular, is, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham said, something that we middle-class parents can often provide for our children almost as a matter of course, without recognising that for many others costs and more general factors make the opportunity much more limited. I hope that in such areas we can try to wean people off gang culture, although it is extremely difficult. Even if there were a direct economic choice between a job and the attraction of cheap and easy money, compatible with a chaotic lifestyle, it would be difficult to wean many long-standing gang members away. Aspiration is an issue: paucity of aspiration and of expectation.
I want to finish with one other observation. I do not want to play down the importance of the issues. I have a feeling that, although we have not had to worry about gang culture in my constituency, we may go beyond the critical mass in a year or two, if we do not nip things in the bud today. However, we must also recognise there are many unsung, relatively quiet young men and women in our communities, doing a phenomenally good job. They work hard and have developed aspirations. Perhaps it is self-discipline that has brought that about, rather than anything from their family. They are unsung heroes and I hope that they will play their part in improving their communities in years to come. It is important that we should not look on young people as simply problematic. We can be proud of them, while we do our level best to tackle the problems addressed in the debate.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on opening the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) on initiating it. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) would also like to take part, but she cannot be here today.
Lewisham is by and large a safe place to live. People generally get on with one another. Children play in our parks, and I shall walk home from the station tonight without fear. I mention that because my experience of Lewisham is probably different from that of some of my younger constituents, who have seen the lives of friends and family devastated by serious youth violence. My perception of Lewisham is probably different from that of local parents who are worried about the safety of their children. In the past four years, there have been 67 incidents of known gang-related crime in the borough, four of which resulted in someone dying. In the same period, there were 673 instances of gun and knife crime, and 17 people were killed. I do not quote those figures to sensationalise; I do it so that everyone will be clear about the scale of the problem.
In the past few months, since the riots, gangs seem to be back on the Government’s agenda. Whether the subject is a cross-departmental taskforce to look at ways to deal with gang culture, or extensions to gang injunctions, Ministers want to talk about gangs. It is all very well to be interested in gangs now, but with the exception of Brooke Kinsella’s report last year and the announcement in February of some ring-fenced funding to tackle gang, gun and knife crime, the Government have been dangerously slow off the mark in addressing the challenges posed by gangs and gang violence.
Last September, in an Opposition-day debate, I urged the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to look at ways of tackling material that appears on the internet glorifying gang membership and the carrying of knives. Video after video, filmed in a car park in Catford in the heart of my constituency, is put on YouTube. They are often viewed as many as 16,000 times. Young men, or perhaps I should say boys, brandish knives in front of the camera as if they were cigarettes. I wrote to the Minister two days after the debate, providing him with an example of the footage and asking what action the Home Office would take. In November I wrote again, chasing a reply. In January I spoke to him after he appeared before the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, but to date I have not had any response to my inquiries; so when the Government talk tough on gangs and want to find someone and something to blame for the riots, I cannot help but wonder why they did not do more to address the sort of problems that many of us were bringing to their attention long before the riots.
If I am honest, I do not know what the Government can do to tackle the problem of online material such as the videos that I have described, but I fear that, if thousands of young people have viewed that footage and think that it is in some way cool, it would not be at all surprising if some of them also got caught up in thinking that some of the agitators in the riots were pretty cool, too.
The hon. Lady complains that the Government and perhaps the current Mayor of London have not produced the goods, as she would have liked, but it is only fair to mention that, in the past few years, 10,000 knives and guns have been taken off the street, in a widespread amnesty, and we have also ensured that there are an additional 1 million police patrols per year on the streets of London. It is also fair to say that that builds on what happened under Mayor Livingstone, but the trajectory has been in that direction: we have continued some of the important work done in our capital city in the past decade.
The hon. Gentleman acknowledged in his speech that in recent years there has also been an upward trajectory. He urged patience, and I am not sure that patience is possible in this situation, because young people are being killed and maimed on our streets. We need to tackle the situation urgently.
I have spoken about my frustration in trying to get the Government to examine the big issues, and I urge the Minister to update us on the conversations that he has had with companies such as YouTube about how, when the police know such videos are out there, they may perhaps be enabled to get that material taken down.
Having spoken about online manifestations of gangs, I want to turn to some of the wider action that is needed if we are to deal with a problem that blights the lives of too many young people in big cities. Yesterday, I visited XLP, a youth work charity based in my constituency. Its founder, Patrick Regan, is the author of “Fighting Chance: Tackling Britain’s Gang Culture”. I urge the Minister and all hon. Members who are present to read it. It is a powerful and enlightening contribution to the debate about why young people are involved in gangs, what solutions are needed and, indeed, what solutions work. Anyone who reads the book will realise that there is no magic wand to be waved to tackle the problem of gang violence. What is clear is the fact that any gang strategy must address all aspects of the problem. We must seek to understand the reasons behind gang involvement and, equally, why most kids do not get involved. Let us be clear: the vast majority of kids, even on some of the most challenging estates, are not involved.
To put it simply, if we are to tackle the problem of gangs, we must find a way to get those who are now in gangs out of them; we need to help those who are in prison as a result of being in gangs not to return to gangs when they come out; and we must help those who are caught up in gang violence to deal with their anger in different ways. Often, retaliation and reprisals lead to an escalation of violence. How do we stop things getting worse at that stage? Most importantly, we must prevent people from getting involved in the first place.
What should we do? My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham is completely right to talk about jobs. I have said before that young people in my constituency stop me in the street and say, “What are you going to do to help me get a job?” If young people do not have real opportunities, we will not reach a situation where they do not see involvement in gangs as the easy, quick-win solution. However, we need to do other things, such as getting youth-led projects into schools when young people are at the right age, so we can make it clear to them that, if they carry a knife, it could end up injuring them. We need to provide young people with accessible role models, who are in it for the long haul, giving the support and encouragement that may be missing in other parts of a young person’s life. We need to ensure that the one-to-one mentoring and encouragement that a young person in a pupil referral unit might need are available, and can be funded. We need to give confidential support to young people who present themselves at an A and E department with a stab wound, so that they can find a way out of some of the problems. As I have said before, we need to work with those who are in prison to give them a fulfilling life to get away from gangs on their release.
When I spoke to staff at XLP yesterday, I asked them what the Government should do to tackle the problem of gangs. They were clear in their response: jobs, a better balance between enforcement and engagement, and funding of initiatives that have been proven to work. XLP gets £10,000 a year from the Home Office. It has a track record in delivery, going into schools and doing the things that I have talked about. It is changing young people’s lives; it is probably saving their lives.
I say this to the Government: take the millions of pounds that they plan to spend on police and crime commissioners and invest the money in community-led projects that are already tackling gang and knife crime. Young lives are being lost in some of our big cities because of the violence associated with gangs. That has to stop. Talking tough is not going to solve the problem. A proper, thought-out and credible strategy, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, might give us a fighting chance of tackling some of the problems, and I implore the Minister to set out what the Government are going to do.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on opening the debate in a well informed manner, drawing on his constituency experience. He rightly concentrated on what we need to do to stop young people from going into gangs. I would like to focus a little on what measures senior police officers believe should be in place to tackle gangs in which young people are involved. The four measures that have been highlighted by the officers are: sound mechanisms for identifying gangs and gang-related problems; the ability to track gangs; tough enforcement; and the ability to signpost gang members out of gangs.
Regarding sound mechanisms for identifying gangs, there is clearly a role for safe neighbourhood teams on the ground and for grass-root organisations. At a higher level, we will have the national crime agency, which has to play an important role in identifying gangs, particularly when they go from being a gang into organised crime.
On tracking gangs, a number of hon. Members referred to the ongoing multi-agency work, such as safeguarding hubs in London and information-sharing hubs, where different bodies that have responsibility or have contact with gang members can pool their information to ensure that they are monitoring the young people as effectively as possible and bringing positive measures to bear on them. Clearly, there is a need for that information to be cross-borough, as the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) highlighted. Gangs cross borough boundaries, so having an information-sharing hub that is borough-based is not good enough; it needs to cross borough boundaries to work with neighbouring boroughs.
Regarding tough enforcement, there are now gang injunctions, although I have some reservations about the evidence threshold that will be used for them and about the cost, which senior officers have mentioned. That may be because we are at an early stage of using gang injunctions and there is a learning curve that has to be followed. However, I support the fact that gang injunctions have the power to compel young people to undertake certain positive activities, because that is a major plus point and will help with tough enforcement.
On signposting gang members out of gangs, a large range of organisations in the voluntary sector and in government provides activities. I understand that there is a database where such information is held, which may need updating. It includes details of organisations such as Kickz, Cricket for Change and a host of other effective organisations such as Voyage or Horizons, run by the Met Black Police Association. We need to ensure that the information is up to date so that, when a member is identified, the relevant activities can be signposted to them to help them out of their gang environment.
I know that, in such debates, it is easy to fire a long list of questions at a Minister, which he or she, unfortunately, will not have time to respond to at the end of the debate, so I will leave the Minister with just one point, which is about the Cardiff model. The principle behind the Cardiff model is that a hospital would communicate with the local police about where people with gunshot or knife wounds were coming from, to ensure that the police could bear down on a particular pub or estate where the problems were being generated. There is some confusion in London at the moment as to whether hospitals are doing that. I would like the Minister, now, if possible, or in writing, perhaps to the benefit of all hon. Members, to confirm that all hospitals, in London at least, have signed up to the Cardiff model. That model has generated a substantial drop in the number of serious injuries; I think the quoted figure is 40%. We want to see that effective model deployed across London and beyond, so that other parts of the country can experience the same drop in serious injuries.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. The first thing to say is that gangs are not a new problem: many of the issues being debated today have been raised in the past. What has become frightening in recent decades, going back to the 1980s, is that inner-city gangs who once upon a time would have solved their disputes with their fists began to do so with knives and guns.
There is sometimes an assumption that gang culture, knives and guns are all a euphemism for young black criminality, but let me put it on record that there is not a racial issue with gangs. People are often surprised when I say that the knife crime capital of Britain is neither Hackney nor Tottenham, but Glasgow, which has had a knife crime problem since the 1950s. Gangs are about a toxic convergence of collapse of existing economic structures, a hyper-masculine culture, and increasing materialism, which we are seeing in the 21st century. I wanted to nail that because some of the debates that we hear in the media would have us believe that the problem is one for a particular ethnic group.
Although we in the House often talk about gangs as if they were all the same, gang culture is quite complex. For instance, an increasing number of girls are involved in gangs; there are even girl-only gangs. Some gangs are more on the classic Kray and Richardson model, which are relatively organised groups of men in their 20s or older involved in systematic crime. Often, however—this is one of the big issues in areas such as mine—much younger children in their early or mid-teens are involved in gangs, which are entirely chaotic, using firearms because of issues of respect, such as if someone steps on their shoe in a night club. Such gangs are harder to deal with and less amenable to control than the more stable and relatively sophisticated adult gangs. The police have told me that adult gang members despair of teenage gangs because they are so chaotic and cause so much uproar and upheaval.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) said, gangs did not cause the London riots. Clearly, many gang members were involved in the riots and were on the streets of London, but the idea that the riots were a consequence of organised gang activity is almost too easy and stops us from looking at the complexities behind the issue.
My right hon. Friend also mentioned the problem of postcode gangs, which shows how hyper and how calcified gang culture has become in the past 20 years. I remember walking down my road—Middleton road in Dalston, Hackney—and a young man buttonholing me and saying, “What are you people going to do so that there are more facilities for me? Otherwise, there is nothing for me but crime.” I said, “What do you mean? We have just built a brand new swimming pool at the end of Middleton road in London Fields park.” He said, “You don’t understand. The park is in one gang’s territory, and I live at the other end of the road, in another gang’s territory.” That young man genuinely was not able to cross the boundary to go to the end of the road to use the facility. The postcode nature of gangs makes it difficult to work with young people and provide the leisure facilities and youth clubs that they want. We can pump a lot of money into a club, but a lot of young people will not set foot in it because it is in the wrong postcode.
We talk about gangs in an entirely judgmental and negative way, but we must consider what they offer our young people. Unless we understand that, we will not know how to contest the culture. For many young people, the gangs offer a family, a structure and people whom they can look up to. In a completely warped and criminal way, the gangs offer guidance on being a man. We must understand that and the breakdown in the family structure that has happened if we are seriously to engage with the issue of gang culture. Of course we need to spend money on law enforcement, but we must understand that the gangs offer many young people safety and a quasi-family structure, which they do not get anywhere else.
There is also a huge amount of peer group pressure on young men, particularly on young black men, to join gangs. I live in Hackney and have brought up a son in Hackney. It is very difficult for someone to walk down the streets in Hackney if they are not in a gang or do not know what streets to avoid. We cannot underestimate the peer group pressure on perfectly decent young men from decent families to get involved in this semi-criminal activity.
The final incentive for being in a gang is economic. Someone who does not have a job and has no prospect of having one will view a little drug dealing, a little drug running and a little this and that as an economic model.
I want to talk about education, which is not the responsibility of the Minister but relates strongly to the issue of gangs. By and large, young men who are in college doing their AS-levels are not on the streets involved in gangs. There is a direct relationship between educational failure and criminal activity. Years ago, Martin Narey, who is now the head of Barnardo’s, said, “On the day you permanently exclude a child from school, you might as well give them a date and time to turn up at prison.” Until we engage with the long-term issue of educational failure, we will not properly deal with the roots of the gang culture, which is something that I have worked on for many years.
A few weeks ago, I went to my sixth annual awards ceremony for London’s top-achieving black children. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was right when he said that for every one gang member there are thousands of young people in London who are trying hard, trying to get qualifications and trying to move forward. It is important that we do not see all our young people, particularly those in minority ethnic groups, through the prism of gang culture, because there is so much more going on; there are so many young people who are really trying.
Clearly, gangs are a law enforcement issue, and it is appropriate that we will hear from the Home Office Minister and his shadow, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). None the less, gangs are complex. They cover issues of family, breakdown of employment and access to jobs. When I was a child, my father was a sheet metal worker—he left school at 14 in Jamaica. Every day that God sent, he went to work. On Friday, he would come home with a brown wage packet and give pocket money and a bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate to my brother and me. We grew up believing that a real man goes out to work and looks after his family, but the children on my estates have never seen that. Very often, they are in households with no male, let alone a male who gets up every day and goes to work. In the absence of that family structure, the lure of the gang with the apparent easy money, the glamour and the girls is strong.
There are issues of family structure, education and educational failure. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham said, pupil referral units—I do not mean to disrespect the people who work in them—are often little training academies for gangs. There are also issues of law enforcement and of resources. However, we must remember that each and every gang member, however frightening they may be and however abhorrent and criminal the activity they engage in, is someone’s child. There would have been a point in their lives at which, with the right intervention and the right diversion, they could have been put on the right path.
The Minister will talk about the law enforcement issues, but we also need a holistic strategy if we are to save a generation of young men of all colours and all ethnicities from a life of the street and the gangs. We all know that the life of a gang member is often very short. If these young men could see what awaits them, whether it is prison or dying in the road in a pool of blood, the immediate attraction of gangs would not be so apparent. It is for us as politicians and as members of the community to offer holistic strategies on the gang culture.
Thank you, Mr Caton, for allowing me three or four minutes to sum up this matter from the Back Benches. I speak as someone who spent 15 years at the criminal Bar. I was involved in nine different murder trials and prosecuted far too many punch-ups in the pub and knife crimes, in criminal courts up and down the country. I was also a specialist in relation to special educational needs and the special educational needs and disability tribunal. I advised multiple local authorities on the matter of statements.
I may represent 1,150 square miles of beautiful Northumberland countryside, but the east end of Hexham is a complex and difficult area. Sure Start, the Hexham East Number 28 project run by the Hexham community partnership and the Hexham East residents association, and the local police have dramatically turned the area around.
I notice that there is nobody here from Scotland, which is a great shame. Although I do not denigrate the amazing work that has been done by so many in London, there is no question that the essence of gangs derives from Scotland, both in relation to the knife crime that was alluded to by the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the tremendous success in dealing with the issue. I applaud the work of Karen McCluskey who is pioneering the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence, which is based on Operation Ceasefire that was used in Boston. It is a fantastic scheme and should be supported. Sadly, because of illness, I missed the House’s debate on the riots, but the Prime Minister was right to praise and support the work of Karen McCluskey. Thanks to her there has been about a 50% reduction in murder and knife crime in her city. I urge the Minister to support her scheme and use it as a model to be rolled out in other places.
Finally, the vast majority of young men who were involved in the incidents in London and in various other parts of the country had a criminal record or had undergone some sort of custodial treatment, whether in a young offenders institution or in prison. Clearly, one cannot generalise but I must do my best in the minute that is left to me. The three issues that we must address in relation to young offenders institutions and prisons are literacy, which dovetails into education—clearly, the literacy and education of these young men and women is extremely poor—skills, and the revolution around drugs. If we address those issues, as part of the reform of prisons and young offenders institutions, we will be able to grab the people who have slipped through the net at an earlier stage.
I am delighted to be making my first speech as a shadow Home Affairs Minister on the issue of gangs. Like many of the Members here, I have lived and breathed this issue for many years as a resident, an MP and a community activist. In that spirit, let me put it on the record that I am sad that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) cannot be here because I know how strongly and passionately he feels about the matter. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for their contributions. What we are seeing today is a strong commitment from all parts of the House to tackle the issues that are driving gangs in communities across Britain. Clearly, many of us in London are living with these issues on a day-to-day basis, but we recognise, as the hon. Member for Hexham pointed out, that these problems are experienced across the country and as such they deserve a joined-up approach.
With that in mind, my contribution on behalf of the Opposition is a reflection on what is important in terms of the evidence base that we draw on when we have conversations about gangs. I am mindful that the Government have said that they will bring forward a gangs strategy in October. I want to ensure that the lessons that have been very well drawn out in the debate today—about the need for a joined-up approach and for a range of Government Departments and partners at national, local and community levels to be involved—and some of the concerns that we have about the ability of that work to happen, are made clear.
It is important to have two debates on this subject this week. This debate about gangs is different from the debate about riots that will happen later this week. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham pointed out, these issues have existed in our communities for many years. What we saw over the summer was not a reflection of those issues, but it was informed by them. It is important to draw that distinction.
It is also important to have a clear understanding about what gangs are. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington made that point very well. When we talk about “gangs”, sometimes we all think that we are talking about the same thing but actually we are not. I am mindful of the work of Professor John Pitts, who made a number of studies about the nature of gangs in our communities. In fact, he studied my own community in Waltham Forest and he came up with six different typographies of what a gang might be.
It is helpful to think about the difference between the organised and serious crime gangs that we see in the UK—there are estimates that about 30,000 people are serious, hardened criminals who are part of those gangs—and the gangs that we have talked about more today: the gangs of young people who are drawn together in our communities, sometimes involuntarily. Professor Pitts talks about the “reluctant gangster”, the young people who feel they have no option but to be part of a gang in their local community, either to gain protection or to get opportunities that they do not feel they are getting in other parts of their lives. We must understand that we need approaches that tackle both those types of activities, rather than simply having one approach. That is also important given what my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said about recognising that this issue affects not just young men and that increasingly young women are a part of gangs, and also a part of the solution in terms of addressing how we might tackle gangs.
When the Government are looking at gangs, although we may only be starting to understand the nature of gangs in our communities and the variety of gangs that we must address, it is important to remember that a lot of good work has already been undertaken in local communities and indeed at national level. I urge the Minister to draw heavily on the joint thematic report that was produced last year, which I found to be a very useful guide. I think that the hon. Member for Hexham also drew on it, when he talked about the importance of the youth offending teams and the work of the youth offending institutions in tackling gangs. The joint thematic report was a very useful guide to some of the good work that is going on to join up services. It looked at some of the challenges that exist, including what we can do from Whitehall to join up services and to help to co-ordinate action.
The borough of Waltham Forest in my constituency has had a problem with gangs and so has been piloting a range of ways of dealing with gangs. I feel strongly that that work is important, not least because today—purely by coincidence—a young man’s family is coming to visit me in Parliament to meet Louise Casey and to talk about people who are victims of gangs. Eze Amosu was a young man killed by a gang in my community. When we talk about gangs and how we might approach them, it is important that we recognise that young people are primarily the victims of those gangs. It is important to support victims’ families too in the work that we do.
We know the importance of a joined-up model. As I said, Waltham Forest has been one of the areas piloting a range of activities, following on from the Strathclyde model that the hon. Member for Hexham talked about. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was also right to talk about the Cardiff model and how we join up the reporting of what is going on in hospitals. The police are sometimes late to the game in terms of knowing where gangs are and what incidents have occurred. We have seen some real progress in the past couple of years in working together to identify people who have been victims of gang crime and in supporting them to come forward, either to remove them from gangs or to help to bring prosecutions.
What do those lessons teach us? They teach us, not least, the lesson that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham referred to, about the tricky question of resourcing the work to tackle gangs. As I think the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster accepted in his contribution, such work is an investment and joining up those services to get a preventive approach rather than a curative approach is the way forward.
Bearing that in mind, I have some concerns about the future of some of the projects that have worked so far. I am particularly mindful of family intervention projects, which we know are facing cuts. Also, our youth offending teams face cuts. When we are looking at cuts of 20% in our youth offending teams, and indeed at some youth offending teams being cut entirely, as we have seen in Cornwall, many of us have genuine concerns about the nature of the expertise that we may have to draw on in tackling gangs and what might happen to that expertise in the years ahead.
It is also important to look at some of the projects that are peer-led. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East talked strongly about the importance of young people themselves addressing some of the concerns about gangs. We have seen some fantastic work with projects such as Leap that teach conflict prevention in schools. Equally, Citizens UK has promoted safe havens. Young people themselves have identified such places. All of us who know about the “postcode wars” recognise the concerns that many young people have about going from street to street. We are also mindful of the experience that they have in places that can offer them safety. That work is important.
Even if we are aware of individual projects, the challenge is how we draw all these issues together. That is the test that I want to set the Minister today. If the Government are serious about tackling gangs, policing must be more than a deterrent; it must be part of a preventive approach. In that sense, there are some real tests for the work that must be done across Government.
First and foremost, the Minister must challenge his colleagues within the Department for Education about what is happening to our youth services and more generally about what is happening to the role of schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington put it incredibly well when she talked about the importance of schools in these relationships. When we are seeing the unhooking of the relationships between local authorities and schools, we are seeing a challenge to young people’s ability to achieve educational attainment. On a more pragmatic level, safer neighbourhoods partnerships and safer schools partnerships rely on those relationships being in place. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham put it well when he talked about those relationships continuing but on an ad hoc basis. Those relationships are too important for funding and support for them to be unhooked. I hope that the Minister will challenge those within the DFE who are complacent about this issue.
We have already talked about cuts in youth services; some areas are facing cuts of 100%. Without the people who can work at the grass-roots level in our community—to bring the intelligence, and to build relationships between the police and young people—our ability to tackle some of the issues that lead to gang membership will be compromised as well.
On a long-term basis, I hope that the Minister will challenge his colleagues within the Department for Work and Pensions about the issues of unemployment, particularly the cancellation of the future jobs fund. With 50,000 young people in London now out of work, it simply does not make sense to cancel one of the key programmes to help young people who want to get on and make positive choices about the kinds of careers they can have. I hope that the Minister will challenge his colleagues in the DWP accordingly.
Many of us have already talked about the importance of investment in communities and grass-roots projects. I have already touched on the role of youth offending teams and the concerns that we have about the cuts to those teams. However, this process is also about the partnerships that we can build with the voluntary sector and those on the ground in our communities. Many of the youth workers in Walthamstow who I have worked with in the past 18 months have had their funding either scaled back or cut entirely. Clearly, that affects their ability to be out on the streets and to build relationships with our young people to help them to make good choices in their lives. It also affects their ability to work with the police, both when we have events such as we saw over the summer—when we have riots—and in the longer term to build positive relationships.
I also hope that the Minister will challenge the Mayor of London, because one of the central parts of our relationships in London has been the role of the safer neighbourhoods teams and particularly in my area the sergeants who have been able to work on gathering intelligence, and on building relationships with voluntary sector partners and with young people themselves. Clearly, losing 300 sergeants in London will impact on our ability to build those relationships and to work in those ways.
It is not just about the Minister challenging his colleagues in other parts of Government. I also urge him to rethink the proposals on CCTV. The basic ability of the police to monitor where young people are travelling around and where there are gang incidents, and therefore to respond quickly before those incidents escalate and knives or other weapons are drawn, is critical. In my local area, CCTV has played a role in that police activity.
The Government must also consider their approach to antisocial behaviour orders. In Hackney, the police have used ASBOs to great effect to tackle some of the problems around gangs. I know that people have raised concerns about the gang injunctions. I urge the Minister to look again at the evidence on how those measures have been used to deal with some of the issues around gang behaviour.
Above all, the relationship that the police can have with communities is crucial. At a time when we are facing cuts in our policing budget, it is clearly difficult for the police to think in the longer term, yet there has never been a greater need for them to do so. When we are seeing unemployment and poverty rising, the landscape in which the police will be operating will be very difficult. To build those relationships with communities, they need to be able to have the people on the ground. Poverty is not a cause of gangs, it is not an excuse for gangs and it does not explain gangs, but it creates a landscape in which all the work that many of us have talked about today—work that can be the answer to some of the issues about gangs—is harder to do.
I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the concerns that we have expressed that some of the things that are happening in other parts of Government will undermine his ability to address gangs, and that he will act accordingly. I hope that the Government’s gangs strategy in October will be cross-Government, that the police will play their part and therefore that the Minister will champion such approaches. Otherwise, I fear we shall be holding similar debates in the years ahead, with the evidence worsening monthly. All of us who care about our constituencies and our country foresee the consequences.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on initiating the debate and on his thoughtful discussion of the long-term issues with which we must grapple, especially the challenge of gangs.
I welcome the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) to the Front Bench and wish her luck. I look forward to working with her—constructively, I hope—because I do not believe that there needs to be partisan disagreement over some of the issues that we must challenge. Although some Members picked up on particular aspects of the Government’s approach, which I shall deal with. There is more to agree about over the long-term issues—for example, exclusion and the need to tackle it.
Let me put the issue in context. Of the 4,000 people arrested in the disorders, two thirds were under 25, but only one in eight were known from police records to be a gang member. Although I say “only”, that clearly is a large number. However, we must understand that gang membership is a significant part of the problem, but not the only part—it is symptomatic of the wider youth violence that we must tackle. Gang members were often involved in offences at the more serious end of the spectrum—for example, in Birmingham, police officers were fired on by armed gangs.
It is important that we tackle gangs and the emerging problem of gang activity in some cities, but we cannot believe that that is where the problem ends, because the wider issues of offending in the riots must also be tackled. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice announced that three quarters of defendants who appeared in relation to the disorder had previous convictions, and that the average number of offences was 15. A third of those defendants had served prison sentences.
Another lesson we must take from the disorder that goes beyond the issue of gangs is that we have high rates of reoffending, which is no surprise to those who have studied the performance of the criminal justice system for years, and that young people are entering the criminal justice system and finding themselves caught in a cycle of criminality. We must therefore focus on effective reform of the system.
There has been agreement in this short debate that the solution is not enforcement alone, important though it is. Tools are available, including gang injunctions, which we propose to extend to those aged 14 to 17, and effective policing, which will always be a significant component of any response to violence. Opposition Members acknowledged the Prime Minister’s response to the riots, in which he announced a cross-Government programme of work led by the Home Secretary that will tackle gangs and gang violence and report to Parliament by the end of the month. The report will be evidence led, as it should be, and will focus not simply on enforcement, but on the wider issues that have to be addressed. The programme has looked at the evidence of successful interventions from abroad and in Glasgow and Manchester, both of which the Home Secretary visited recently.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham was slightly disparaging about what he described as US advisers—Bill Bratton is giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee this morning—but we must take advice and learn from success in our country and internationally. This week, we are convening an international forum on ending gang violence at which people from Europe and the United States will share the benefit of their experience. The Home Secretary has announced that we propose to set up an ending youth violence team, which will draw on independent advice. More will be said about it in due course.
It is common ground that we must focus on early intervention—the earlier the better. The fact that there is serial reoffending is partial evidence that some of the earliest interventions are either not occurring or not working. I agree with the hon. Member for Walthamstow that we must acknowledge the police’s role in crime prevention as well as in enforcement. Sir Robert Peel’s first principle of policing was to prevent crime and disorder, and it remains true today.
Members rightly drew attention to the importance of effective local partnerships, which we seek to promote. One of the significant features of learning in the past few years has been that effective partnerships between agencies can make a difference in crime prevention and effective interventions. Agencies and local authorities are under a statutory duty to be members of community safety partnerships.
In the little time available, I want to challenge the premise that the solution is money and the fact that we are having to save money means that we cannot find solutions. We have ensured that programmes are targeted on, for example, knife crime, with £18 million worth of initiatives that the Home Secretary announced following Brooke Kinsella’s recommendations on combating knife crime. If money was the solution, there would not be a problem, because there has been record spending on the criminal justice system and public services. We must hold a more hard-headed debate on the effectiveness of interventions, rather than assume that resources will be the whole solution. They cannot be the whole solution, nor can we lay the blame for youth violence on cuts.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) spoke about information sharing and the coalition commitment on hospital information. We intend to ensure that that applies across the country, and I shall write to update him on where we are with that.
Rural Bus Services
I appreciate the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. It is clear that we all understand the importance of bus services to our constituents across the country, especially in rural areas, but the coalition Government’s necessary deficit reduction programme is having a marked effect on the ability to maintain a viable rural transport network.
Almost half of all bus operator revenue comes from public funding, making bus services particularly vulnerable to the pressure on public finances that we inherited from the previous Government after the recent economic crisis. Three main funding streams are available to public transport authorities, all of which were affected by the 2010 comprehensive spending review. Taken alone, those tough financial measures might have been bearable for the rural shire counties and the transport network, and two together would have made life difficult, but the three combined have created a triple whammy that threatens the existence of many subsidised routes in some areas.
The first funding stream is local authority revenue expenditure, which was cut this year by 28%. Local authorities use that pot of money to subsidise some transport routes. Changes were also made to the Department for Transport’s formula for concessionary fare reimbursements. The special grant that accounted for approximately 40% of funding for concessionary travel in Norfolk has been rolled into the formula grant due to the comprehensive spending review. In 2010-11, the funding available to Norfolk districts was £11 million. In 2011-12, the funding attributed through the formula grant was just £7.228 million. The impact is that Norfolk county council’s statutory payment will substantially exceed the allocation, by about £3.5 million. In total, Norfolk is £4.2 million worse off, or £4.4 million on some figures. After negotiations, the county council has done an excellent job of working with bus operators and other transport providers to find another £1.2 million, reducing the gap to just over £3 million.
The funding allocation method from April 2011 uses a standard formula to distribute all funding related to the statutory scheme via the revenue support grant. The formula considers factors such as population density, the number of people over 60 without a car and the proportion of residents on incapacity benefit. Under that formula, Norfolk does not fare well in the funding distribution; it has the second highest shortfall of all county councils for 2011-12. That is on top of figures published yesterday by the BBC showing that public expenditure for the eastern region is the second lowest in the United Kingdom, at £7,300 a head. The north-west receives £9,500, and Scotland receives £10,500. Norfolk suffers for being cast as part of the prosperous eastern region, but figures for the region are skewed by the wealth and prosperity of areas such as Essex and Cambridgeshire. Norfolk has pockets of rural deprivation and, in areas such as Great Yarmouth, severe urban deprivation as well.
My hon. Friend is making a good point. Even relatively affluent regions have pockets of deprivation, particularly rural deprivation, that need to be taken into account. A lot of people who live in more deprived rural environments, particularly older people suffering from fuel poverty, must travel a long way for key services. Is that not a point that he is trying to convey?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His county of Suffolk has a shortfall of about £1 million. Rural areas are hardest hit, because people have the least opportunity to use public transport and the most need for access to it. I will come to that point in a moment.
Another funding stream is the bus service operators’ grant, which has been cut by 20% from 2012. That will have a huge direct impact on bus operators. The Select Committee on Transport report “Bus services after the spending review”, published in August, stated that bus operating revenue in England could be reduced by £200 million to £300 million. The impact of that reduction in rural areas must be understood in context: rural authorities already receive less Government grant per head of population than others. The Rural Services Network report by Local Government Futures found that urban authorities receive an average of £487 per head, compared with £324 in predominantly rural areas.
Councils are also exposed to more general increases in costs. Local transport authorities are exposed to the increased costs of providing the statutory concessionary fare scheme. To make up the shortfall, councils are diverting resources from elsewhere, such as previously available discretionary services. Interestingly, since this debate was granted, public discussion on the issue has widened to include concessionary travel more generally. I have been involved with that debate, as have the press in Norfolk. EDP 24 has covered it superbly and supported the Fair Fares campaign, and the BBC and Anglia TV have covered it as well. I will turn to concessionary travel in a moment.
The Transport Committee’s recent report noted that by June 2011 more than 70% of English local authorities had decided to reduce funding for supported bus services, and that the extent of the reductions varied considerably, although, in general, rural, evening and Sunday bus services were most affected, as is the case in Norfolk.
I can certainly confirm what my hon. Friend says. In Devon, 70 bus routes have been cut or rescheduled. I am concerned that the social necessity justifying the provision of bus services by local government is still subject to considerable interpretation.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend, who represents a constituency that illustrates how difficult the issue has been for rural areas. Norfolk is the third worst hit, but Devon has been the worst hit, with a 42% cut of £4.5 million.
The Campaign for Better Transport figures to be published later this week analyse figures requested from local authorities under freedom of information legislation and indicate that 74% of local authorities across England have decided to cut their bus budgets over the period 2011-12 to 2013-14. In Norfolk, to ensure that the cost of the scheme remains within the available budget, the county council has had to announce that it will discontinue most of the discretionary elements that it previously provided, including travel before 9.30 in the morning, the provision of companion passes, and travel all day, every day, for registered blind pass holders.
Norfolk county council’s need to meet the shortfall in future years puts subsidised routes, predominantly in rural areas, at risk. Campaign for Better Transport figures show that £36 million has already been cut from local authority funding for subsidised bus services, reducing funding across England from 2010-11 to 2011-12. In addition, more than 1,000 subsidised bus services have already been cut in the English regions. Rural communities will be the ones most affected by the loss of those services, as their Sunday or evening buses will disappear, bus frequency will be reduced and routes could disappear.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate; it is telling how many Members have turned up to participate. Does he recognise that the deprivation around former coalfields and the challenge of getting people in those areas to and from employment makes Nottinghamshire a special case?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Nottinghamshire’s funding has fallen by £1.7 million, or about 18%, so it, too, will feel the effect of the changes. He is absolutely right that people in rural areas of all sorts have problems with access to transport, whether they are young people looking for work or older people. Bus services can be their only way of leaving their rural community and accessing an urban area for shopping and everyday needs. That is why things are so difficult for rural areas, particularly in Norfolk. Some villages have low bus usage due to low population, yet buses can be a lifeline for people there who are without access to vehicles. They provide their only mode of transport and access to other areas.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree that we can do more to look at alternative forms of transport and how they can be funded. If he bears with me, I will come to that in a few minutes, but I absolutely agree with the principle of what he says.
In rural areas, public transport is a lifeline. Equally, however, the problem for local authorities and bus companies is that they have to make an economic case; they have to do the best they can with taxpayers’ money to ensure that it is properly invested. As private companies, bus companies also have to look after their financial interests.
My hon. Friend makes some compelling points, and my county of Lincolnshire, which is very rural, also suffers from the circumstances he describes. However, does he agree that bus companies—there are exceptions—too often follow Government or council grants, rather than try to stimulate their own services or provide services based on commercial needs?
On that point, if one is doing statistics, I have the largest constituency represented in the Chamber. I very much support my hon. Friend’s point, but do not the Government need to change the legislation to ensure that local councils control the bus companies, rather than the bus companies being in control? A bus company can drop a route at the drop of a hat, and the local council has no control over the way the company runs that route. That is the origin of the problems we all face.
I thank both my hon. Friends for their interventions. To take them one at a time, I agree that we need to look at more progressive and more flexible options for rural communities, and local authorities need to look at how we drive those forward. There are things the Government can do to encourage that, and I will touch on those in a moment, but we should certainly be nudging people and leading the way in pushing local authorities to look at different options.
There are options in rural areas where a bus route is simply not economically viable for a bus company and where the rural authority might not have the funding to subsidise that route for very low usage. It would be advantageous if people could use a concessionary pass more flexibly, whether in taxis or other forms of community transport. The Government could make such an option available; I will touch on that in a moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is right about creating the flexibility to allow local authorities to push things forward.
The cuts in funding to rural authorities, which already receive less than urban authorities, combined with the additional cost of providing bus services in rural areas, mean that rural residents are at an even greater disadvantage than urban residents. A 2009 Leeds university study on the use of passes showed that—in Lancashire, for example—76% of passengers live in large urban areas. It also highlighted the difference in the use of passes, with 53% of pass holders in urban areas not using their passes during a five-year period, compared with 71% in village areas. That might be because of lack of bus availability in those rural areas or higher car ownership, but it is clear that the bus scheme pushes higher usage in urban areas. The point is that although rural areas might have lower usage, buses are vital to those who use them. If we are not careful, we will create a vicious circle.
The Commission for Rural Communities and others, including the Countryside Alliance, have highlighted the lack of transport as a key to social exclusion in the countryside, which is already particularly prevalent among young, elderly and disabled members of rural communities, and it can only get worse against a background of rising fuel costs.
Does my hon. Friend recognise—perhaps he will implore the Minister to take this on board—that there is rural and there is rural, and we should not generalise too much? The point about social exclusion is far more relevant in isolated rural areas than in reasonably well populated rural areas. In places such as Meirionnydd in north Wales, we are talking about isolation, which is a very different matter, so I hope we can make a distinction between rurality and isolated rurality.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and support his comments. One important issue on which we need to move forward, and one thing I will ask the Minister to work on with colleagues, is flexibility. In the spirit of true localism, we need to ensure that we achieve solutions that are suitable for an area, rather than just one size fits all, because what suits one place will not necessarily be perfect in another.
I appreciate the opportunity to say that some very good rural bus schemes have been set up by villages in my constituency, and I would highlight Broughton. Local communities, which know their areas best and know the demand, need that flexibility and the ability to come together to form solutions that will be responsive to their needs, rather than one-size-fits-all solutions.
I wholeheartedly agree.
Reduced or withdrawn bus services, which are quite likely in areas such as Norfolk, will make people more socially isolated, and make it harder for them to access employment, education and vital services, such as health care and retail facilities. Casework in my constituency shows that some of those issues are already prevalent. Any further loss of, or reduction in, rural bus services can only exacerbate the problem faced by rural communities, which have already been hit by rising fuel costs, increased reliance on cars and increasingly long and frequent car journeys.
We need to look at options for the future. The Government need to encourage and enable local authorities to provide alternative rural transport models. Where necessary, they should provide additional funding to kick-start that process, and there are exciting examples of that innovative approach across the country. Hon. Members have mentioned some, but let me give a few specific examples.
This September, Isle of Wight council joined bus operator Southern Vectis to form a community bus partnership that is the first of its kind in the country. That follows the scrapping of the council-owned Wightbus to save £175,000 a year. Working in conjunction with town and parish councils, voluntary drivers run some rural services. Southern Vectis provides off-peak school minibuses and driver training. The council has also allocated additional funding for community bus services. That arrangement avoids the problem of capital costs, which confronts many other community transport schemes, removing the risk from the voluntary sector. Before any union representatives complain, I should say that the service is not taking jobs away from existing drivers because it is an additional service, which ensures that existing services remain. As a result of that partnership working, Southern Vectis has won this year’s transport operator of the year award. That is a great example of what can be done.
I echo what my hon. Friend says. Will he admit, however, that there are problems that the council must tackle? There is the problem of people from off the island getting free transport on the island. People come into the area—I am sure this is true of most areas—for a holiday or for some other reason, but there is no income, or insufficient income, to the bus companies.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has first-hand experience of that development. Like him, I represent an area that is heavily used by tourists; in fact, it is the second most popular seaside tourist resort in the country. The system means that areas used by tourists can be further adversely affected. That is partly the result of the complicated arrangement in place for funding bus systems. One of the best things the Government have done—I pay credit to them for what they have done so far—is to simplify the system. Some organisations claim that at one point under the previous Government there were 22 different forms of funding for the bus system. We have got that down to three or four, and it would be a great success if the Government simplified things further over the next couple of years and introduced one funding system that was transparent and understandable to everybody and that sat with one Department.
Another new scheme serves rural Northamptonshire with a fleet of new low-floor minibuses. It allows passengers to book a seat by telephone or text or on the internet so that elderly or frail people can be picked up from home, while others are collected at village bus stops at a set time. That is Northamptonshire county council’s excellent response to the need to save millions by reforming subsidised services. It is much better and more cost-effective, and it reacts much more to the needs of the user than a large, heavily subsidised bus going round villages when it is often empty or close to empty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate. He has just touched on a point we should all be aware of. We are in a coalition Government, and there are cuts taking place, which we support. In my experience as a Norfolk MP, however, the crucial thing about the local bus service, rather like the local post office, is that people use it or lose it. I am not here to defend the bus companies, but there is all too often public pressure to maintain a service, but when it is maintained, nobody uses it. We need to look at how these services are publicised and ensure that the public are made aware that it is not in the interests of either the Government or individual bus companies to maintain the kind of services that my hon. Friend mentioned. Such services merely go round and round the rural areas and are lucky if they get two or three people using them.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I fully support what he says. It is important to find a way of ensuring that local authorities can be more flexible in how they work with the bus operators and other forms of community transport, so that they can allow for more cost-effective usage and be more responsive to local needs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his points. A pilot scheme similar to that operated by Translink in Northern Ireland could be considered as an option. It identifies what services are needed through the community; for example, there may be a run on a Tuesday and a Thursday. Elected representatives work with communities, Translink and the bus companies. We are looking for flexibility. Does he agree that having flexibility within bus companies is the type of initiative needed to ensure that rural communities—isolated ones and others—can have the advantage of rural transport?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We certainly need more flexibility in the system. Whether that is purely in relation to bus operators or we have a system that allows for community transport to be authorised, run and organised by local authorities, we need an approach that is more flexible than simply looking at the traditional system of buses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) has mentioned, buses are not necessarily the most cost-effective solution or, indeed, the best answer for users. We need transport that can be used in rural areas by those with concessionary passes. As I was saying, demand-led services are vital if a rural network of transport is to exist. It is perhaps time to start talking about transport in the rural sense, rather then simply focusing on buses, which might not necessarily give the best service and use.
I am delighted that my county council in Norfolk has agreed to provide additional funding to look at and develop exactly that style of service. At the moment, more than 1,700 community transport organisations operate in England alone and offer transport services for people who are unable to access traditional public transport. It is vital that local authorities and organisations are empowered to provide alternative provision for residents.
An additional £10 million funding for community transport in rural areas is very, very welcome. However, the concessionary fares scheme does not apply to most community transport schemes because they operate under section 19 of the Transport Act 1985. Currently, only registered services run by community transport operators under a section 22 permit are eligible for the scheme. I was disappointed that, when I received a reply from the Minister to a recent written question, it indicated that the Government refuse to consider altering the legislation to widen the eligibility further and that they are leaving the matter at the discretion of local authorities. I ask the Government to look at that issue because dealing with it would be a positive step forward that could further encourage, develop and empower local decisions to be made by local councils and bus and other transport operators based on local need. I agree with the Select Committee on Transport’s recommendation made in August this year:
“If the Government genuinely wants to encourage the growth of the community transport sector, it should legislate to permit the use of the concessionary pass on a wider range of community transport services.”
My hon. Friend makes a good point in the sense that the national scheme as it has been structured is effectively a bear trap left for this Government by the previous Government. Such a scheme is difficult to sustain and the issues surrounding it have opened up this debate, so that it has become a discussion about how concessionary passes operate. If we accept that a large contributory factor to the rural bus funding crisis is the increased cost of providing a concessionary fare scheme, we have to consider how that can be reformed.
It is absolutely right—I fully support this—that the coalition agreement insists that the Government will continue to keep the scheme. However, we need to find a way to fund it realistically for the long term. That means allowing councils to have enough flexibility to cover administration costs or offer innovative alternatives, some of which I, and colleagues, have touched on this morning.
Residents in Nottinghamshire, for example, may live close to the border of another county and may want to shop in Derbyshire, visit relatives in Yorkshire or travel to Leicestershire to gain employment. It is important that the scheme has the flexibility to allow such residents to move across county borders, so that they can gain access to relatives, employment or health services.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In Great Yarmouth, residents from Lowestoft and across the Waveney constituency use the James Paget hospital and need transport to get there. However, there is a difference between that and the use of public transport for tourism. Legislation does give some protection in relation to that, but the system is so complicated that it is difficult to differentiate in some cases between tourism use and required local use. Were we to pursue that in the legislation, it might force the Government to become too deeply involved in the detail of a local system’s provision.
We need to consider, or at least discuss, the potential for reform of the system, so that it is targeted on our poorest or most vulnerable pensioners. We also need to discuss whether the concessionary fare pass should be issued at 60 or according to the retirement age. If we do not have reform, concessionary passes could end up being worthless. For many pensioners in rural areas, having a concessionary pass is useful, but only if there is transport to use it on. Some bus operators have already made suggestions, such as having a flat-rate 50p charge. In some areas, concessionary pass holders are already being asked to pay a voluntary fee and a flat-rate charge per journey.
I accept my hon. Friend’s point about the bus operators. Does he not also agree that the onus is on them to look at their services and proactively engage with local communities, particularly in rural areas, to make sure that they are more responsive to local needs? Far too often, certainly in Suffolk, the bus operators are not responsive to local needs. When a service is non-profitable, they cut the service and it is the frail elderly who lose out.
There is an absolute need for operators to be looking locally and for local authorities to work with local communities and put further pressure on those companies. In Great Yarmouth, we have had examples of routes that have been considered for cancellation and, by working with the local authorities and the bus company, we have been able to restore a usable route that services residents. If a route is simply not economically viable, when money is scarce we need to consider alternative forms of transport that can provide the service that local residents need. That might not necessarily be a bus. We are talking about providing the transport service that is needed in a cost-effective way and that allows people to live their lives productively.
When I recently did an interview on BBC Radio Norfolk, I discussed the possibility raised by bus companies of having a 50p flat rate and an admin charge for getting a concessionary pass in the first place, and whether we should change the age of eligibility to retirement age rather than 60. I was pleasantly surprised because, despite expecting a barrage of criticism, we received some very positive responses. One resident said:
“In regard to the recent news of the deficit we are facing with the bus pass I heard you on Radio Norfolk and thought your opinions echoed mine and I am sure many more. I would be more than happy to pay 50p each trip which would more than cover the debt.”
Cornwall county council, for example, has called for legislative changes to allow pass holders to make a small payment for each journey. It has written to all the county’s MPs to ask them to lobby for such a change.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who makes exactly the point that I want to make, on securing the debate. During the summer, in meetings in village halls around my constituency, there was universal support for the idea that some people could contribute a flat fee of 50p or £1. I accept that, for people living in poverty and on mean-tested benefits, that would be too much, but there is strong support for consideration to be given to the introduction of a flat fee. In the spirit of localism, the Minister should enable councils to be pathfinders if they want to do so. In this age of austerity, we are enabling many councils to be pathfinders and to work with residents and stakeholders to find sustainable ways of funding vital public services. What better example and lead could the Government provide than to enable certain local authorities to pilot flat fees where there is overwhelming support from residents?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing what is undoubtedly an important debate. Following on from that point, in the past local authorities put in seed funding to get rural transport services and rural bus services up and running. If they were successful they carried on, on a commercial level. We must give local authorities extra powers to put some of the money from a flat fee back into the service and, working with the community, to ensure full access to services. It is down to local authorities to work with the community, but they need the power to be able to do so.
My hon. Friend’s contribution again highlights the need for flexibility and true localism. My colleagues and I across Norfolk work together on a range of issues. We know that there are vast differences across our county. Even in my constituency of Great Yarmouth, I have areas of dense population and urban areas in Great Yarmouth town itself, as well as sparsely populated rural areas in some villages. Norfolk, from the centre of Norwich to extreme rural areas, is a good example of how needs, desires and requirements differ. Flexibility is needed.
As a fellow Norfolk MP, it seems appropriate to pick up on that point. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue, and the attendance in the Chamber indicates the support that he has. Does he agree that we are witnessing a perfect storm? The combination of our elderly population, the marginality in rural areas and energy prices goes to the heart of how Governments through the ages have under-recognised rural deprivation, as the indices they use tend to under-measure rural deprivation. The last time I looked, I discovered that ethnicity was a major driver for Government measurement of deprivation. Norfolk has a very low incidence of ethnicity and a very high incidence of rural deprivation. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. Does he feel, as I do, a huge public yearning to solve this issue with a bit more flexibility, perhaps with a voucher model in some areas? In general, Government schemes are not very good at delivering what the customer wants. If we empower people by giving them the money that we currently spend, we might find that the public, through the big society model, find their own solutions.
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. To highlight his point about the elderly population, in the next 15 years in Great Yarmouth alone it is estimated that the number of residents of pensionable age will increase by 35%. Given the rural community across Norfolk, that figure highlights how important access to transport is for people of that generation. As I touched on earlier, access is also important for young people in rural areas, where there are issues around deprivation and where we are trying to stimulate and grow the economy and increase youth employment.
A flat-rate charge, which was mentioned, would raise approximately £5 million a year in Norfolk alone. That would safeguard all rural services and the wider network across the county. However, the Department for Transport thus far seems to have adopted quite a negative response to that suggestion. The Department has written to all councils saying that
“requesting voluntary donations to protect a particular route,”
is illegal, and doubts whether they are, in reality, voluntary. The basis of that is that the claim of a threat of removal of a service, without a donation, is tantamount to coercion. There is a very fine line to be drawn.
Other options include making the bus pass liable to an annual fee. A study by Leeds university found that 56% of pass holders did not use it over a five-week period. I have met numerous people recently who have raised the fact that, although they are of an age to have a bus pass and do have one, they never actually use it. The administration cost of issuing passes that are not required, therefore, could be saved. Should the taxpayer provide concessionary passes to those who are still in full-time employment? I made the point earlier about whether the pass is issued at the correct age. I urge the Minister to extend the validity of cards from five years to 10, so that county councils such as Norfolk, whose renewals are due in 2013, do not face the cost of renewing the concessionary passes. For Norfolk county council, that cost is approximately £250,000. That could be better spent on providing rural transport services.
The coalition Government were left with a formal bear trap—a system of transport that is simply not sustainable. The Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport have both had to deal with a complicated and convoluted form of funding that many organisations have struggled to understand fully. I have a request for Norfolk in particular, but for rural areas in general. We appreciate that money is scarce. As much as we would like to call for the money—the £6 million shortfall in Lancashire, and approximately £4 million in Kent, Norfolk, Devon, Hampshire and other counties this year—we appreciate that the Department for Transport, or the Treasury, does not have the ability to wave a magic wand and deliver such a response. Although county councils might not appreciate this, I suspect that if they felt there was some certainty in the years ahead, they would be able to find ways of dealing with the situation in the short term.
There was a feeling in some county councils, such as Norfolk, that there must simply have been a mistake in the funding formula this year, to lead to such variations from previous years. Sorting out funding in the future does not just require a magic wand. It is vital to ensure access for rural areas and to prevent further rural deprivation and poverty. We need to find a better balance of funding. At present, the system is overly beneficial to urban areas and hugely detrimental to rural areas. Will the Minister find a better balance next year to ensure that rural areas, as I and a range of hon. Members have mentioned, are not so adversely affected in the years ahead? With an ageing population in particular, this cannot be tolerated. It will be detrimental to youth employment in rural areas, to economic growth in such areas, to families and to our country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. This is a huge issue in my post bag, as I am sure it is for hon. Members across Norfolk. I agree completely with his point about flexibility. It is not just about the amount of money that we are spending; it is also about how that money is spent. How will flexibility help to deliver more on-demand bus services and better integration with rail services? Two rail services go through the South West Norfolk constituency—the Fen line and the Norwich-Cambridge line. There is an opportunity to integrate those services better with local transport.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. As I said earlier, we need to ask the Department to find ways of allowing local authorities to be more flexible, having a national structure through which local authorities can allow people to use their concessionary pass on other forms of transport. More forms of public transport, more community transport options, allowing local authorities to be more flexible and—I appreciate that I am moving beyond the subject of the debate—even moving beyond focusing only on buses, may go a long way to solve this problem. As we have heard, in some very remote areas of low population, bus usage may not be the most cost-effective way of providing transport. We need to allow local authorities to be able to use funding to allow people to use concessionary travel passes, and have access to other forms of transport that may deliver a better demand-driven service that is also more cost-effective for the taxpayer.
The Eastern Daily Press and the Great Yarmouth Mercury, two excellent bastions of journalism in Norfolk, have been superb in supporting the fair fares campaign, which in just a few days has already garnered more than 2,500 signatures. I call on everybody across Norfolk, who has access to the internet or who can get hold of a copy of either of these excellent newspapers, to join the petition and let us have their support in moving forward to get fairer funding for transport services across Norfolk. I know colleagues have similar views about their own rural areas.
Will the Minister, for next year’s funding round, find more ways to simplify the system? It would be ideal for the system to be planted in one Department in a clear, transparent system that people can understand, to allow concessionary passes to be used beyond the traditional methods, and for local authorities to have more flexibility to provide better, different and more progressive forms of transport that can be more demand-driven and cost-effective for the taxpayer. That would protect rural transport services for the future, and for the use of everybody.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who, in the 17 months that he has been in this Parliament, has put the “great” back into Great Yarmouth.
Rural bus services were an issue before the general election and have continued to be so in my constituency of wonderful South Derbyshire—I have put the “south” into South Derbyshire. The difficulty we find in our rural areas is that we can take a bus out on a Tuesday but we have to wait until Thursday to get the bus back. That is not conducive to family life, I find.
I ask the Minister to take on board many of the points made by my hon. Friend and, in particular, the issues of flexibility and whether we can expand opportunities. Shropshire has brought in community buses to act as feeders to the main bus routes. In one village on my patch, Scropton, we have had round-table meetings with three different commercial bus providers. None of them can make that route work but we could find a way for the county council to put the money into feeder, community transport buses if the section 19 arrangement could be changed to allow for that. Will the Minister be kind enough to look at the pilots around the country, because rural, isolated parts of Derbyshire provide an opportunity for the money to be used better, which is what the coalition Government ought to be all about? The coalition should be about freedom, accessibility and using public money wisely.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and I sincerely hope that the Minister will be able to come up with some excellent answers. I shall stay through to the bitter end of 12.30 to listen to those brilliant answers. If he can sort out the bus issue in Scropton, he would make my life so much happier.
I am pleased to be able to speak on rural bus services. The issue is apposite because on 26 September Northumberland county council issued the report of its bus subsidy working group. I endorse the all-party work, led by Councillor Gordon Castle, to bring together a proper and legitimate way forward for the bus services of Northumberland. The problems of Great Yarmouth presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) are common to us all and endemic in all our counties and constituencies. We have a common will and desire to change the policies of the past, which have seen a gradual decline in bus services, to the detriment of people in rural areas. I hope and pray that the Minister will take on board and progress the excellent suggestions arising from today’s timely and proper debate.
I represent the second largest constituency in this country, and rural bus services are clearly an important factor. Without question, the Hadrian’s wall bus service provided by the Hadrian’s Wall Heritage company and Northumberland county council provides a great service for tourism. Not only rural bus services are at stake, however, and I do not want us to fall into the trap of being champions solely of those suffering from rural fuel poverty and poor rural bus services, because those matters are also common to the market towns and villages in our constituencies. Those areas are not fundamentally rural, but include 5,000 or 3,000-people towns that are absolutely dependent on bus services. All of us could highlight individual areas of rural bus poverty—if that is the proper expression—that we could describe, note and champion, but the little towns and villages also need support. That is what I particularly want to discuss.
I have the great fortune—I express that passionately—to have three particular bus champions in my constituency who regularly fill my postbag. In Prudhoe, I wish to cite Robert Forsyth and Amanda Carr, who promote the cause of buses and are, quite rightly, on the case of bus companies such as the euphemistically named Go North East, which does not seem to go very far or to continue to go very often—it would be well named, if only it fulfilled its name. They champion the desire of local people to have buses that support them in local villages. The Hexham Courant, my local paper, has supported Mrs Carr. Her mother and mother-in-law try to take the children to and pick them up from school using the local bus service but, if it goes, they will not be able to do so, so continuing to work will be impossible and there will be huge difficulties on the way ahead.
My hon. Friend is making some good points. People often think that rural bus services are a bit of a luxury—some have cars sitting in their drives but choose to use bus passes because they have them—but they underestimate the poverty and the number of those struggling on low incomes who use the buses to go to work, school or hospital. In Cornwall, we have only one acute hospital for the whole county, which is more than 100 miles long. CAB Cornwall, the citizens advice bureaux, has done some excellent work showing the cost to society of the lack of affordable access to transport. High numbers of people miss doctor or hospital appointments, which is detrimental not only to personal health but to the whole of society because of the costs of them not accessing such vital services.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a telling point, and I endorse entirely what she said.
Certain organisations are stepping into the breach, and I would like to support the work of Adapt, which has stepped in to provide an essential public service but has gone further than traditional countryside bus provision. It targets those who need the service by operating a dial-a-ride scheme, picking up local residents from their home. The service has proved extremely successful and invaluable to those with young children and to the elderly, who felt that their access to buses was limited under the old, more traditional provision. I totally endorse the dial-a-ride system as the way forward for traditional rural bus services that are failing to provide.
I want to finish with two particular points, which relate to what the Government can do for us, touching first on integration and secondly on the degree of control that Government and local councils have over bus services. I represent a constituency that is entirely in Northumberland, but Durham is below me—it is good to see my neighbour in the Chamber, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass)—Cumbria is to the west, Newcastle is to the east, and the bus services have to integrate. I also have Scotland to the north and, although we do not have an awful lot of bus services to Scotland, there should still be a degree of integration.
The sadness is that there is no integration between individual bus services operating in one county and the next—that must come from the Government giving guidance. We have the bizarre situation of the bus companies literally not talking to each other, let alone planning individual services with each other.
To go further, we rightly have a degree of competition, with bus companies able to provide local bus services, but we can have the bizarre situation of two bus companies competing for the same journey, with the result that neither can make a profit or provide a service and we end up with no bus company in that area. The Government must be able to find some way to enforce a degree of integration when the ultimate contract is awarded to a bus company, so that the parties and partners work together and not against each other.
To reinforce that point, I have an example for the Minister. If I am a concessionary pass holder in Wales, I cannot use my pass in England, but if I am one in England, I can use my pass in Wales—there are one or two exceptions in north Wales and the border counties. That situation displays a ludicrous lack of foresight. If the Minister can square that with the Welsh Assembly, he would be doing an even better job than he is doing at the moment.
I am grateful for the example. We could all provide examples of our bus companies and the respective counties in charge of bus services not working together. There are good examples: we have a partnership in Northumberland with the Newcastle system, which works very well, but it is an isolated example, sadly. I urge that degree of integration. Surely that is localism in its purest form—the degree to which local organisations talk to each other, rather than existing in a silo, which has been the case for so long.
I finish on the point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth. The Local Government Association is in broad terms seeking greater control of bus companies. We have the Government as the ultimate provider, which is passed down to county councils, and the county council then abrogates the responsibility to individual bus companies. The bus company then runs the show. It can stop a service, or do whatever it likes with it. The Government must give guidance to the local authority so that it works with the bus company, and the company does not stop a service just because it does not like it after the contract has been awarded.
Will my hon. Friend consider a problem that applies to the Isle of Wight? I do not accuse Northumberlanders of this, but in some areas—mine is one—there is a bus monopoly. In my constituency there is a complete monopoly, and one bus company covers the whole island. There is no entry, and that should be considered.
The point that my hon. Friend made about the Government communicating with councils is key. Whether on integration or the funding formula, one of the biggest issues for North Yorkshire county council was that it was landed with a £5 million deficit with no communication from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I urge him to press his point, and to press the Minister to bring county councils that have been particularly affected down to London now, to ensure that the next settlement is better organised.
It is hard for me to improve on the last two points. Both hon. Friends made good and telling contributions. Greater localism, which surely brings all parties together, is a way forward. The individual silo system, with individual counties and companies working alone, has existed for far too long. It is for the common good and ultimately that of the Government to bring everyone together, bash their heads together, and get a better system.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) on securing the debate, which is so important to so many of us. As my colleague, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), said, we have exactly the same problems, although there is a border between us. The problem is huge in North West Durham, and in a huge rural area, which many hon. Members here represent.
When I talked to my local authority about the problem, it said that it took a £400 million hit in cuts, with a 28% cut in local transport. It has simply passed that 28% cut across to local bus services and subsidies. I am sure that some hon. Members here will be in a worse situation, but some communities in my constituency have no buses on Sundays, some have none after 6 pm, and some have only one bus a week. Some communities have no buses at all. That has hit the elderly, the disabled and, particularly in my constituency, the young. We have not heard much about young people, but they tell me that my county has cut all home-to-school transport to the absolute legal limit. It has cut all home-to-school transport to faith schools, which has had a massive impact in my constituency, and all home-to-school or home-to-college transport for those aged 16 and above.
I am glad that the hon. Lady raised school transport. Derbyshire county council is holding massive consultation on the issue. Some of my villages are astride roads such as the A50 and the A38, which are major roads, and the thought of 11, 12 and 13-year-olds trying to cross them because they are on a route as the crow flies is bizarre. I thank her for bringing up education transport.
The problem also affects love. Cat Walker came to my surgery a few weeks ago and said that it had taken her four hours to get to see her boyfriend. He lives in Harrogate, she in Skipton. The problem is having a detrimental effect on young people’s love interest.
I was coming to that—not exactly love, but young people’s prospects. They tell me that they are being forced to take courses at local schools and colleges, when that is not the right choice for their future. The problem is having a long-term impact on young people’s relationships and their future, which also has an impact on society generally and the economy.
As with everything, some people are never pleased. I have had constituents at my surgeries with real issues about education, isolation and so on, but I have also had constituents who obtained many signatures complaining that the local bus no longer passes their house and they must walk half a mile to the nearest bus stand. It is difficult to sympathise with them.
There are issues concerning deregulation and monopoly. In parts of my constituency, there is one bus company and it can do what it likes. I had experience of that recently, and had to bully and threaten the chief executive of the local bus company to join me at a village public meeting. The purpose was not to have a go at the company, which I accept must make a profit, but to enable people to make constructive suggestions about how to provide local transport and how to deal with problems of the sort that we have heard about today.
The problem will affect us all, and it is incumbent on us to do something about it. An elderly couple, who are close to me and who had a car, were reasonably well off and things were fine. They moved back to a village in Durham where they had grown up. The gentleman had a bad stroke, but things were still fine because his wife could drive, so they could get about to the shops and to hospital appointments. She was then struck down with macular degeneration and is going blind, so she cannot drive. They are in a dreadful situation. They have a lovely bungalow that they cannot sell because of the economy. They cannot get to the shops, and the bus that used to run within a reasonable distance has now stopped. In a short time, that couple, who reflect many of us and our constituents and whose situation was relatively okay, found themselves in serious difficulties. Whatever the Minister does—whether on flexibility and funding, flexibility and regulation, or flexibility of local transportation—something must be done, and quickly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) on securing the debate. It has been worth while, but we will see how worth while when we hear the Minister’s answers. I will speak briefly to give him as much time as possible to expand on the points that have been raised, particularly the free bus pass, which I shall say more about in a moment.
[Mr Lee Scott in the Chair]
It was a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Caton, and it is now a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Scott. There has been a lightening transformation.
Barrow and Furness is a semi-rural constituency in Cumbria and it has been hit incredibly hard, as have many other rural areas. In my patch so far, we have campaigned for a temporary and partial reprieve for some services, but a great question mark hangs over them, as is the case in many of the areas that have been referred to. I grew up in the red republic of south Yorkshire, as it was then, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) was the firebrand leader of Sheffield city council, and one could go anywhere in south Yorkshire for 10p, or for 2p for juniors such as I was. Back in those days, we did not anticipate Norfolk county council joining the agitation about buses, but that is a sign of our changed times.
There is great consensus on some of the points raised today, and Government Members might wish to see me as someone who said what he really thought. Government Members are polite people who are looking to their future in Parliament. The triple whammy effect was mentioned, and it is being severely felt. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth was polite when he explained that when he looked at the settlement for Norfolk he thought it must have been a mistake. I suggest, however, that it was not an unintentional mistake, that there is clear intent by the Government to impose cuts that the Opposition believe go too far too fast, and that real, lasting damage will be caused to communities.
I am not alone in my criticisms, or in suggesting that some cuts have gone too far and that more funding should be made available. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth mentioned additional funds to kick-start rural initiatives. That is an interesting idea and I wait to hear whether the Minister will take it up and where he will find the money.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support in some parts so far. The key point in my closing remarks concerned looking at the balance of funding, not overall funding. We must deal with our economic deficit, but we must also look at the balance between urban and rural areas.
Part of the problem suffered in rural areas might not have been as severe, or might not even have existed, if the legislation passed by the previous Government in 2000 and updated in 2008—that on quality contracts, effectively franchising agreements—had been used. Those contracts have not been implemented by any local authorities, despite it being agreed that that would be a good move forward. That may be because the previous Government created such a convoluted and complicated system that no one could work their way through it, which highlights my request to find a better way to simplify the system so that some of the quality contracts can proceed. That may be part of the solution and provide the flexibility that many of us are looking for. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will comment on that.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I want to clarify the fact that, according to the House of Commons Library, not a single contract has been implemented thus far. I am not sure what area he is referring to when he says that they have been successful.
My hon. Friend says Tyne and Wear, and I am sure that the Minister, who has inherited this situation, will tell us where the contracts have been a success. There was progress in some areas, but we need to go further. I shall move on to that in a moment.
Some areas have not been mentioned in the debate, but they face severe cuts, and some local authorities, such as Cambridgeshire and Hartlepool, are threatening to withdraw funding from all supported bus services. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) set out some of the problems in her area. Elsewhere in the north, Teesdale faces the prospect of having no buses at all from Christmas. That will be devastating for those affected, who often rely on buses as their only way to get around, be it for work or leisure, or to get the basic essentials. We have heard different perspectives on what the solution should be for such areas, and I ask the Minister to say more about the transport and services that we as a country are prepared to support.
I have been listening very closely to the past eight minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Prior to that, we were having a cross-party debate in which all Members agreed that things could be done. I accept that we are in an age of austerity and that individual councils, whatever their political make-up, have to make big decisions and face difficult problems. Thus far, however, the shadow Minister has solely addressed the lack of funding—which is, of course, a difficult issue—but he has not said what he would do on behalf of the Opposition. That is what I would like to hear, perhaps in relation to comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and other Members.
In that case, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman will be sticking around in the debate.
There is a debate about what kind of transport service we should have. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) before he had to leave about “use it or lose it”, but equally, the point has been made that some rural areas will never experience the mass usage of public transport seen in more urban or built-up areas. We should not say as a country that because some services are not frequently filled to the brim, we should be prepared to remove them. We want greater focus on dial-a-ride schemes such as those mentioned today, and we must find alternatives to running large buses that are never full through rural communities—such a system is not satisfactory on cost grounds because, as the commercial operators of those companies say, the cost per passenger is often sky high. Neither does it satisfy us on environmental grounds, so we must be bold in enabling communities to look at alternatives.
One key area that the Government should explore concerns empowering local authorities and handing greater control to local areas to fund and support the services they want. Funding and support from central Government are critical to that, and the scale of the cuts is having a devastating effect in some areas. There is frustration in many parts of the country, be they rural or urban, about the inability of local authorities to access all the disparate funding streams that go into supporting buses, and at the way that services are contracted. In areas such as Barrow and Furness, some services within the town and elsewhere are commercially viable, while others require support. It is time to look again at how we are forced to contract out those services and cannot mix up the provision and procurement that currently goes to private providers. When the Minister rises to his feet, I would like to hear what he thinks of our idea of integrated transport authorities, and about what can be done to enable swift moves towards that and give local communities more authority.
We need to address the issue of free bus passes. I am fascinated by the idea that that was a bear trap left by the previous Government—the idea is that new Ministers have fallen into it and been trapped—because I am sure that before the election I heard the Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, accusing his Labour opponents of lying when they suggested that there could be a change or a threat to the free bus pass for the over-60s as installed by the Labour Government. Now we see Government Members queuing up to say that it is wrong and should go.
I am sorry to take up more time, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s generosity in giving way.
I want to make it clear that I did not hear a single Member talk about getting rid of concessionary bus passes. We should get that on the record. The bear trap was mentioned particularly with reference to the structure and style of financing for the transport subsidies that go across bus services. The concessionary transport issue requires a wider debate, but not a single Member here made the statement that the hon. Gentleman has just attributed to us.
I say to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members who have stayed to the end of the debate that a free bus pass is a free bus pass and a promise is a promise. There are other areas where promises have clearly been made and immediately broken. If the hon. Gentleman wants to go out to the country and say, “Yes, we did promise that this would remain free to the over-60s, but that is no longer going to be the case. When we accused our opponents of lying when they said that we wanted or were threatening to take away the free bus pass, that was all just a smokescreen and the sort of thing that you say before elections, and actually we were planning to do that all along because it does not make sense,” I will welcome his being honest and doing that. Let us see how he gets on in his constituency.
No, I will not give way again, because I said that I wanted to give the Minister time to reply. I am trying to wrap up my contribution now.
I hope that the Minister will answer all the very well-put points that have been made, many of which were to be in my speech, but which I have not repeated because there is such consensus on some issues across the divide. Will the Minister guarantee that the free bus pass for the over-60s will remain for the lifetime of this Parliament as both parties clearly guaranteed to the British people before the election?
I think the hon. Gentleman means three parties.
Mr Scott, it is good to see you in the Chair, given your transport expertise. We are delighted to have you here. I thank the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), my coalition colleague, for raising the issue of rural bus services and securing time to allow us to debate these important issues. There has been a very good turnout. I welcome that. It is helpful for Members of Parliament to make it clear that they do value bus services and, in particular, rural bus services. The tone of the debate has been positive and constructive. Hon. Members made a number of very good points, which I will try to respond to in the time available.
I know from my own constituency that buses are a lifeline for many people in rural areas, providing access to jobs, schools, health care and social activities. Good bus services contribute to both the Government’s key transport priorities: creating growth and cutting carbon. By providing an attractive alternative to the car, we can not only cut carbon but, at the same time, unclog the congestion that can choke off local economies. That applies particularly to towns.
We are committed to reducing the budget deficit, as has been said and as hon. Members have accepted across the Chamber today. Every sector has to play its part. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), will remember that the Labour party was committed to £44 billion of cuts as well. We must recognise that every sector has to play its part. However, we have a duty to pay particular attention to those who are most reliant on buses, such as the people referred to by the hon. Member for South West Durham—
North West Durham. Well, I am sure that there are some people in south-west Durham with similar issues.
Central to all this is our commitment, as part of the comprehensive spending review, to continue our financial subsidy of bus operators. Bus service operators grant remains untouched for this financial year. Notice of 18 months or thereabouts was given of the changes. The 20% savings are to be introduced from next April. That 20% reduction represents a good deal for bus operators and passengers when compared with reductions to budgets elsewhere. Although it will inevitably have some effect on fares and services, I have been assured by operators that that will be only at the margins. Indeed, after the spending review decision was announced, the industry said that it felt able to absorb the reduction in bus service operators grant without raising fares or cutting services.
With respect, we are not talking about the change to bus service operators grant. That is yet to come. We are talking about the impact of the cuts to local authority budgets. The situation is bad enough, but next year it will get far worse with the change to bus service operators grant.
If I am allowed to make some progress, I will of course address that point. I am trying to structure my response. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth, whose debate it is, referred to these issues: bus service operators grant, local tendered services, support from local authorities and concessionary fares. I will deal with each of those. The point that I am making on the first one is that it is not an issue that should concern hon. Members, because the bus operators themselves have said that the reduction can be absorbed. Therefore, BSOG is not a problem in terms of the services provided.
I am saying what I was told by the Confederation of Passenger Transport. Immediately after the spending review, it indicated that in general terms it felt able to absorb the reduction in BSOG without an effect on services or fares. That is what it said. I am happy to provide the quote if the hon. Gentleman wants to see it.
It should also be recognised that, even in places such as Norfolk, about two thirds of journeys are on commercial services and are therefore unaffected by what local authorities decide in relation to their own budgets.
Let me turn now to concessionary travel and say first very plainly that, even in these times of austerity measures, the coalition Government are firmly committed to protecting the concessionary bus travel scheme. That was made clear in the coalition agreement, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer reconfirmed that commitment in the spending review. The scheme is of huge benefit to about 11.5 million people, allowing free off-peak travel anywhere in England. That generous concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables access to facilities both within and outside their local area and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends. Travel to visit popular tourist destinations can also bring benefits to the wider economy.
The Government are aware of how precious the benefit is to older and disabled people, which is why we are focusing our efforts on assisting local authorities to find efficiencies through reforms to administrative arrangements for the scheme, rather than cutting back on the entitlement. For the avoidance of doubt, the free bus pass is here to stay.
I can say to my hon. Friend to be helpful that a number of well-meaning people who are very committed to bus services have raised similar points to the one that he has raised. Those points have been noted and passed both to the Department for Transport and elsewhere in Government. However, we are clear about the commitment that we have made to the free bus pass, and that is not going to change.
I should at this stage pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth about trying to save money on administration in relation to the bus pass. That is right. We need to consider those types of saving. That is one reason why we were supportive of the idea of moving the administration from districts to counties, which saves considerable costs in the administration of the bus pass.
Only one small change has been made to the entitlement to concessionary fares: the age of eligibility has been increased in line with the changes taking place to the state pension age. That is right, as people are living longer, staying healthy longer and tending to stay in work until later in life. That change started in April 2010, just before the last general election, so local authorities are already making savings as a result. The change will assist with the financial sustainability of the scheme, while reserving the benefits of the bus pass for those with the greater need.
What has not changed at all—this is an important point—is that operators should be reimbursed for concessionary bus travel only on a no better, no worse-off basis. That is in primary legislation introduced by the previous Government. Nothing that this Government have done has changed that at all. Almost a year ago, the Department for Transport published revised guidance to local authorities to support them in determining their arrangements with bus companies, to make sure that they are no better and no worse off. I made that clear in my recent letter to the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), both of whom came to see me to talk about bus services in the county.
In a report published in May, the Competition Commission strongly commended the guidance issued by my Department, since it helps local authorities to take account of the impacts that the concessionary travel scheme can have on commercial pricing policies. The commission says that it hopes that the guidance will be followed to the greatest extent possible. In fact, the majority of local authorities are now using the guidance and should be reaping the financial benefits of taking it on board. I stress, however, that it is entirely a matter for them whether they use the guidance or not. There is no compulsion to do so. The only compulsion is the one that existed in legislation introduced by the previous Government to ensure that bus companies are no better and no worse off from operating the concessionary fares scheme. The guidance can be a useful starting point for negotiation between bus operators and local authorities and, so far this year, more than half of the appeals lodged by operators have been withdrawn—a significant improvement on previous years.
I remind Members that our funding for bus travel does not stop at concessionary travel reimbursement and bus operator subsidy. We have also provided almost £47 million to local transport authorities and bus operators to purchase 542 low-carbon buses across England, through our green bus fund. I would also like to refer to our new £560 million local sustainable transport fund, which this Government have introduced. There have been 39 successful bids in tranche 1, 25 of which have included bus-based elements to help bus travel locally.
Turning to the third element, I recognise that the recent local authority settlement has been challenging. There is no doubt about that. I have heard the argument that the distribution method used at the time does not reflect the particular circumstances facing each local council. That has been brought into sharp relief now that, since April, all funding for the statutory concessionary travel scheme has been provided as part of the settlement from the Department for Communities and Local Government. I should point out, however, that last summer’s consultation by that Department provided an opportunity to influence the final distribution method for the first two years of the spending review period. The overall funding then set was deemed by DCLG to be sufficient to enable local authorities to deliver effective local services, while ensuring that authorities do not set excessive council tax increases. Councils now have another opportunity to make their voices heard. DCLG is consulting on the broad options for a new way of funding local government, based on business rates retention.
The Government are clear that any changes must protect the interests of local taxpayers and the vulnerable, be fair for all councils and encourage growth. Councils that are more deprived—I accept the point that has been made about the definition of deprivation—will continue to receive central Government support. We recognise, however, that it may be possible to improve the way local council spending on concessionary travel reimbursement is treated in allocating local government resources. That is why, following my meeting in April with the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright), and the hon. Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), I wrote to the Minister for Housing and Local Government on 20 July about the way formula grant is calculated, the relative needs formula for concessionary travel, the so-called floor-damping mechanism, and the local government resource review. That is why the consultation considers whether to review the relative needs formulae for concessionary travel when establishing the baseline for local government funding from 2013-14 onwards.
I welcome the review of local government funding formulae. One area of reimbursement that the Minister has not mentioned, and on which I hope he will give an assurance, relates to parts of the country that welcome lots of tourists but are not, at the moment, reimbursed for the cost of honouring concessionary fares. Can he assure us that the review will consider that?
I can give an assurance only that, first, that point was made to me in a meeting with Norfolk MPs, and secondly, that it has been reflected in comments that I have passed on to DCLG. I am happy to share the reply that I received from the Minister for Housing and Local Government. He confirmed that he had received the letter and that, in his view, the new business rate retention system is likely to address Norfolk’s concerns. That was the official response from DCLG and the Minister thinks that that is part of the answer. There is recognition, at least, from DCLG that Members in Norfolk have a legitimate concern about the matter, and it is therefore being factored, I think, into the Department’s thinking.
Let me now turn to reductions in tendered bus services, which in England comprise about 22% of bus services, while the rest are commercially provided. As I have said, the recent local government finance settlement has been challenging, but I am still disappointed that in some areas local councils have responded by taking the axe to local bus services in a rather unimaginative way. This hits particularly hard in rural areas where supported services make up a higher share of the total than in metropolitan areas. I am naturally concerned when I hear that vulnerable people with few other transport choices have lost their only bus service, or that children have reduced public transport access to the school of their choice. It would seem that there is also an impact on people’s love lives and on cats, but perhaps I should keep away from cats.
Some councils, such as Cambridgeshire, have unfortunately taken an almost slash-and-burn approach to bus services, while others, such as East Riding, where the percentage cuts are in single figures, have been much more considerate and careful in their decisions. There is therefore a big difference—this is part of localism—between the responses of individual councils. People are now empowered to ask why their council has made cuts in their area when similar cuts have not been made across the border. I hope that people will start picking up on these differences and challenge their councillors accordingly. That is part of the answer to the point that the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) made about North Yorkshire, because the position in North Yorkshire is very different from that in, for example, East Riding.
I was encouraged to read in a recent press release by Norfolk council that it has been able to make significant savings this year with
“very little disruption to bus services.”
Another example is Dorset, which I understand is making savings of up to £1 million this year through an innovative procurement model. That is something that I am examining to see whether there are lessons that can be rolled out to other councils throughout the country.
I am interested in the point made by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) about feeder services in Shropshire. Section 22 community transport services can qualify for concessionary travel, so it is possible for them to be included in a proper arrangement for a planned bus network.
I am also keen that local authorities make the most efficient use of their resources, whether that means combining adult social care transport with patient and school transport, or providing more flexible forms of public transport in areas where commercial services are not available. In Cheltenham, for example, Gloucestershire county council has replaced a costly subsidised bus service with a route operated by a community transport group, which integrates school transport in the mornings and afternoons with a scheduled timetable open to the public in between. I think that that is the sort of initiative that the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth was suggesting might be applied more widely.
On community transport eligibility, as I have mentioned, section 22 services qualify. Section 19 services do not, because the Department has long held the view that, because they are on-demand services and available only to specific groups of people, it would not be fair to extend concessionary fare eligibility to them. It could also undermine existing tendered or commercial services. They qualify, however, for bus service operators grants, so there is support.
I am conscious of the time, but let me pick up one or two of the points that have been raised. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) made a point about integration across counties. Local authorities have powers to work together with operators of commercial services across boundaries to integrate timetables. That is done in some areas, such as Oxford and Sheffield, so the powers are there and were, in fact, reinforced in the Local Transport Act 2008. It is up to local authorities to use the powers that they have. There are no quality contracts in place at the moment. The legislation exists to allow them to be formed. There are statutory quality partnerships, which is perhaps what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness was discussing. If local authorities want to avail themselves of the powers in the 2008 Act, they can do so. Some of the legislation is slightly complicated. In fact, when I was in opposition, I wanted to go further, in line with some of the comments made by Government Members during today’s debate, but that did not find favour with the previous Government.
The Competition Commission has produced this week its provisional remedies for the bus market. The Department for Transport may need to look at those carefully. Perhaps some solutions will help to address some of the issues that have been raised today. The hon. Member for Hexham talked about more council control, which is what the Competition Commission is suggesting, particularly in terms of multi-operator ticketing.
The hon. Member for South West Norfolk raised the issue of rail-bus integration.
Education System (Dance)
There are few opportunities in the House to debate dance and I am delighted to have secured a debate on such an important topic. I have had a lifelong interest in dance, although only as an audience member. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and I formed the all-party group on dance some years ago, to support the dance industry.
The UK education system is a world leader in defining dance as a subject for study: its history, genres, choreography, aesthetics, politics and relationship to other art forms. In most schools it is taught within physical education, but it is unique because it develops both artistic and physical skills. Dance has an important role to play in getting young people physically active. It appeals to a large number of young people as an activity, including those who do not enjoy competitive sports and who therefore try to avoid PE in schools.
The Youth Sport Trust audit of dance in English schools and the audit carried out by school dance co-ordinators of the schools in their areas show a high number of schools providing dance in England and Wales. Nearly all—90%—of secondary schools provide dance of some form in the curriculum. Even very young children understand the power of dance to express what we think and how we feel. Studies have shown that dance can make a huge difference to a child’s overall performance at school, as well as developing skills to help them to communicate better, work as a team member, analyse further and imagine more. A physical education, school sport and club links scheme survey shows that in England dance is second only to football as the most popular physical activity for young people. The “Dance in Scotland” report published by the Federation of Scottish Theatre in August 2011 states that more people in Scotland dance than play football. That may have something to do with my country’s inability to qualify for international tournaments.
Participation in dance activity in schools is positive, because dance encourages young people to take part in and sustain physical activity—even those of us who do not enjoy competitive sport. That can help to tackle issues of obesity and other health problems. Dance has particular appeal to people who may not readily engage with traditional competitive sports, such as young women and some cultural and ethnic groups. Dance is the most popular PE activity for girls. As most girls stop doing any physical activity after the age of 18, dance offers the greatest chance to engage women in lifelong fitness. Identifying exceptionally talented young dancers at school will help to develop a highly skilled workforce, from diverse backgrounds, supplying the UK’s world-renowned performing arts industry, which contributes more than £3.5 billion annually to the British economy.
The work done in schools is supplemented by dance organisations across the country. Youth Dance England is the national organisation that champions excellence in dance for and with young people. In a recently published report on its performance over the past three years, YDE was shown to have made a remarkable impact on young people’s dance across the country. It worked in a unique way with nine leading dance and arts organisations, based in each region of England, to create the first national network to support the local delivery of dance to young people. That was assessed to be an inexpensive and efficient model, which other art forms were encouraged to adopt. Over three years, with a public investment of £5.5 million—that equated to 58p per school-aged child in England—390,425 young people participated in programmes at national and regional level. I am sorry to be so precise, but the figures are important. There were 1,889 performances and 376,133 people attended them; 15% of English schools took part in U.Dance, a programme to increase the number of dance performances. In comparison, over the same period, investment in music education was £38 per school-aged child.
Most of our dance companies do outreach work in schools. Internationally known organisations such as the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert and many others reach thousands of school children every year, bringing a professional insight to the education system and encouraging, supporting and raising the sights of countless students. For most students, dance is an activity that they will enjoy and benefit from. Others see dance as a career. That used to be difficult, but the Dance and Drama Awards scheme, introduced in 1999, has opened up possibilities for many more young people. Those awards offer annual scholarships to exceptionally talented performing arts students studying at some of the country’s leading providers of vocational training in dance, drama, musical theatre and technical theatre.
DaDAs offer reduced tuition fees and assistance with living expenses for a two or three-year course and are funded by the Government through the Young People’s Learning Agency. The performing arts industry contributes more than £3.5 billion annually to the British economy, and students graduating from DaDA-funded courses comprise a high percentage of all new entrants to the British performing arts industry.
I should perhaps mention that my son is a professional dancer, although he did not qualify for a DaDA. Does my hon. Friend have worries about the longevity and the effect, if DaDAs are not there in the years to come, on people moving into professional dance?
That is a worry, but we welcomed the continuation of the scheme by the Government last year. We know that it is under review, and hope that it will continue. That is one point that I wanted to make. When the scheme was continued, that reinforced the view that investment in dance is money well spent. The quality and depth of talent in the British entertainment industry in every discipline is the envy of the world. The economic benefits are clear, and the reputational benefits to the country are immense. Economic and cultural priorities make it imperative that the cost-effective benefits of DaDAs should be maintained and should remain in line with new funding arrangements for higher and further education, which come into effect in 2012.
Those are the positives, and they are very significant. Dance is an activity that has benefits across a very wide spectrum. For every age group it has health benefits. It encourages people who might otherwise be shy of engaging in exercise or sports to take exercise. It teaches children discipline and how to work in a team. It raises their self-esteem and improves their confidence and motivation. At the top end, professional dancers help to contribute to the growing reputation of the British entertainment industry and its massive contribution to the economy, as well as to our image as a country in the rest of the world. In particular in the London area, but throughout the country, there has been an explosion in the number of musicals: I treat my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton as the world expert on those matters.
However, there are also negatives. Recently, the Minister for Universities and Science made remarks suggesting that dance and other subjects were soft options for university entrance and should not be treated on the same level as other more serious subjects. Those comments echoed remarks made by the Secretary of State for Education in opposition and in government, and they are, to say the least, troubling, particularly to a dance industry that has worked incredibly hard to get to the position it is in today. The view of Ministers is misguided and shows a lack of understanding of the benefits of dance and dance training. It seems to me that behind those comments is a very old-fashioned view of what subjects are suitable for academic study—that there are serious subjects that are worthy of study and support, and others that are seen as soft, easy and not to be taken seriously. I do not think that the Government should put dance in that category—if any discipline should be in it at all.
With the help of Dance UK, the industry body that has been central to much of the progress made in the industry in the past few years, I gathered a range of comments on those ministerial views. Most showed the reaction that might be expected when hard-working professionals feel that the work they do and their students’ aspirations are being undermined or not taken seriously. However, the comments that I think best express the reaction of dance professionals came from Andrea Martin, head of dance at the College of Richard Collyer, Horsham:
“Mr Gove’s comments are essentially insulting to both teachers of A-level dance and the young people who study it. I teach students who are taking four and sometimes five A levels, including subjects such as English, maths, further maths, biology, chemistry, law, history etc. Without exception, I am told by my students that dance is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging, of their subjects. It demands creativity, physical discipline and academic rigour. The multi-faceted nature of the A-level dance course necessitates the development of vital life skills—time management, collaborative working, problem solving and critical thinking. The A2 dance written exam is a two-hour paper requiring students to write three essays using skills of critical analysis, historical contextualisation and knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.”
She asks a valid question:
“A soft option?”
It clearly is not a soft option, and it is important that Ministers pay more attention to dance and try to get some direct hands-on experience.
There is academic content not only in A-level dance, but in higher education training and degree courses in dance. That content does not stop once someone leaves school. If someone goes into professional dance training, there is an academic responsibility. I hope that my hon. Friend thinks that the Minister should take account of that as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Two key elements of dance—we see them not just in performances or the way dance is tutored in school; there are many areas where they are crucial—are discipline and teamwork. The Home Office has been looking at dance as a way to help to reform the behaviour of prisoners, for example. Many children with severe learning difficulties or other problems are going into dance courses. Learning about teamwork and discipline is extremely important.
The Secretary of State and I were educated in the same education system, in Scotland. In fact, the school that he went to is in my constituency. I knew him well before he became the Secretary of State—even before he wrote for The Times. He knows that one strength of that system, and it has been for centuries, is the belief that every child should be given the broadest possible education, covering the humanities, technical subjects and the arts. In the Scottish system, children study a much wider range of subjects, but not to the same depth as in the A-level system in England. That comes later, at university. The aims are to avoid too narrow an education and to produce a more rounded adult. What we all want to see produced by our education system is those rounded citizens: people who have knowledge and skills, rigour and discipline, and the ability to think creatively instilled in them, and who have the flexibility to cope with changes in the modern workplace.
Dance is not a soft option for students. Studying dance can provide a child with substantial personal assets, which will prepare that child for his or her future in a complex world. I hope that the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Minister for Universities and Science will put aside their preconceptions about dance and take the trouble to see for themselves how dance training operates and what it achieves, and the progress that children, including many with difficulties, can make.
I can recommend one local authority that would be worth a visit: the London borough of Havering, where the Conservative-controlled council has initiated a programme of dance across all its schools and is reaping tremendous benefits as a result. That excellent example is worth examining. Ministers will find that dance is not a soft option, but rather a key element in training any child for adulthood.
I am pleased to be able to speak briefly in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing it. He spelled out clearly and powerfully the case for dance, both in the curriculum and in the life of our nation, and how it contributes culturally and economically to the United Kingdom.
In the Scunthorpe area, which I represent, dance has always been popular. There is a long tradition of dance being part of the local community. That is down to the contribution of many people in the community, including local dance schools and dance teachers, such as Kay Travis, who, even now, in her 80s, continues to inspire young people by encouraging them to participate in dance. Having been principal of John Leggett college in Scunthorpe, I concur with the points made by my hon. Friend about the rigour of the dance curriculum at A-level and his quote from the head of dance at the college of Richard Collyer. I saw the cracking work done by Bridget Jacques and Shelley Lee, dance teachers at John Leggett, to bring the best out of the young people who participated in dance. Those young people have gone on to contribute in all walks of life.
It is naïve for certain currents of thought within the Government to believe that dance is in any way a soft option. It is not, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to dispel those myths. Dance is a demanding and challenging subject at GCSE and A-level. As I visited many schools in the past couple of weeks in my constituency, I saw dance being part of the curriculum at primary and secondary levels and the fantastic work that teachers were doing with young people. There are new facilities in schools, such as the Melior community college, built under Building Schools for the Future. Fantastic dance facilities are being used to good value. I was pleased to be at the opening of the new events centre at North Lindsey college in my constituency, when students on the BTEC dance course gave a fantastic presentation to the people there.
I am pleased to support my hon. Friend in the argument that he has made so clearly and cogently today—the argument for dance in the curriculum, for recognising its rigour, and for recognising the contribution that it makes to the UK’s cultural life and economy.
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate. I know that he is a strong advocate for dance and for the promotion of dance for its health and social benefits and educational value. He pointed to the creativity and physical discipline involved in learning to dance, and, for some dancers, teamwork.
Dance is important to the cultural life of a country, and it is enjoyed by performers and audiences alike, be it classical, traditional or contemporary. Dance has something to offer to people of all ages, and if the popularity of “Strictly Come Dancing” is anything to go by, it is never too late to learn to dance. I just wish that my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), or indeed the former Member for Maidstone and The Weald, Ann Widdecombe, were here today; they could certainly contribute to the debate. It is also never too early to start to dance. Young children have a natural instinct for movement to music, and that should be encouraged along their path to adulthood. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North also alluded to that in his opening remarks.
The Government believe that every child should experience a wide variety of high-quality cultural experiences, including dance. In April, we commissioned an independent review of cultural education led by Darren Henley, managing director of Classic FM, who also led the review of music education. Mr Henley will be reporting on how we can realise the ambition of giving high-quality cultural experiences to our children while ensuring the best use of public money. That will include experiences within and outside the school day. I know that the main cultural groups have not only responded to the call for evidence, but taken the opportunity to meet Darren Henley to contribute to the review. His report and our response to it will be published later in the autumn. Dance has an important place in schools and I am confident that that will continue.
Does the Minister accept that by introducing the English Baccalaureate, which introduces a hierarchy of subjects and excludes subjects such as dance and drama, and by cutting quotas for drama teachers for universities such as Durham, the Government are placing dance and drama in a serious situation for the future?
I do not accept that argument. I will come to talk about the English Baccalaureate in a moment. The E-bac has always been kept at a small enough range of important, facilitating subjects to allow scope within the school curriculum timetable for students to take a wider range of subjects, such as vocational ones, music, art and economics.
We know from previous surveys that dance remains the second most popular activity, after football, among young people. However, something that interested me, and probably many other people, was the statistic about Scotland that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. Perhaps it is the prevalence of Scottish dancing that is the key there. It is true also that 97% of all schools provide dancing activity. The popularity of dance is not limited to primary schools, where dance is a compulsory element of the current PE national curriculum; it is also a feature of secondary school education, where it is optional.
As we set out in our White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, we are embarking on a new era of freedom for schools—freedom from unnecessary bureaucracy and from an overly prescriptive national curriculum. The review of the national curriculum was launched in January and is being conducted in two phases. Phase 1 will focus on the overall shape and nature of the new national curriculum and will also consider new programmes of study for English, mathematics, the sciences and physical education. Those subjects will continue to be compulsory in all four key stages. The programmes of study will be finalised in autumn 2012, with first teaching in schools from September 2013.
Central to the Government’s educational philosophy is the view that not all that is good must be centrally mandated or managed. We believe that the new curriculum will allow schools greater freedom to teach beyond what children should be expected to know in core subjects. We are looking to create more room for excellent innovative teaching and curriculum design. We want more time available for teaching in areas such as dance, and the ability to create a broad and balanced school curriculum to meet pupils’ needs.
The hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) raised the issue of the English baccalaureate and her unease that dance is not included within its subjects. Although the English baccalaureate will give pupils the opportunity to study a core of academic subjects, it does not mean that we wish to restrict their choices or opportunities for wider study and the core of subjects is small enough to allow for that. We know that study in other subjects will be just as valuable to pupils, depending on what they go on to do after 16.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. If we go through the English baccalaureate subjects—English, maths, science, one of the two humanities and a modern foreign language—all of them, apart from a modern foreign language and a humanity, are already compulsory to 16. We are talking about two GCSEs: history or geography, and a modern foreign language. Modern foreign languages were compulsory until 2004, and there is a body of opinion that says that they should be made compulsory again. The debate is about history and geography, and there has been a significant decline in those subjects over recent years, which is a cause for concern. None the less, if we add up all those GCSE subjects and add on a humanity, it is still small enough for pupils to study one, two or three more GCSEs beyond those core academic subjects, depending on which combination of those subjects they take. That is right because the Russell group universities and others say that those subjects are the facilitating subjects that keep options open for young people to make decisions about their career choices later in life. International evidence has shown that countries around the world in high-performing jurisdictions are delaying young people from making decisions over career choices. They keep options open for longer so that young people can make the right choices.
Clearly, if the Minister and the people around him feel that that is possible within key stage 4, they have never put together such a timetable. Moving back to dance, is the Minister aware that the highest increase in dance, movement and drama is among disaffected young girls who have a history of non-attendance? Given the Government’s view about the importance of behaviour and attendance, surely there is a good argument for including dance and drama at key stage 4 as a core subject.
The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I do not disagree with anything that she has said. At the moment, about 2.5% of the cohort are taking GCSE dance. I do not see why those figures will not continue, even with the popularity of the E-bac as a concept. I do not believe that the introduction of the new performance measure will have dire consequences for those selecting dance GCSE, any more than it will for those choosing other subjects that are not included in the E-bac combination.
When young people choose their GCSE subjects at key stage 4, it is important that they base their choices on what they need to progress. We recognise the wider benefits that studying subjects such as dance can bring. All pupils should be encouraged to study non-E-bac subjects alongside the core English baccalaureate to benefit from a well-rounded education.
To encourage talented young dancers, I am pleased to say that the Government maintain their support for low-income families through the music and dance scheme. The scheme represents the top of the pyramid for performing arts education and training and is the Government’s main vehicle for funding the training needs of exceptionally talented young dancers and musicians. Although small—the scheme is funded at £29.5 million this year—the scheme, its beneficiaries, its participating organisations and its patrons have a significant impact on the performing arts world. Although we have not made a formal evaluation, we know that MDS-aided pupils go on to become leading members of their profession in ballet and dance companies at home and abroad, some as soloists with international recognition and renown, such as prima ballerinas Darcey Bussell and Lauren Cuthbertson. Royal Ballet School students regularly win major competitions such as young British dancer of the year and the Lausanne international ballet competition in Switzerland.
In September, when I visited White Lodge, the Royal Ballet school, I could see that the standard of our young dancers is world class.
Before the Minister finishes his speech, I would be grateful if he addressed the main thrust of my contribution: why do the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science suggest that the status of a dance A-level will not be the same as other A-levels? Why do they suggest that it should be downgraded and seen as a soft subject when it comes to university admission?
As I have heard the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science say on numerous occasions, it depends what the young person intends to study and what they want to go on to do. The tragedy is that there are young people who wish to go to a university to study a particular subject, but they have the wrong combination of subjects to help them to obtain a place at that university to study that subject. That is what the Minister is seeking to address. He wants to ensure that young people have the right advice on the right combination of subjects. That was alluded to not only by the Minister, but by organisations such as the Sutton Trust, which is concerned that too many able children from poorer backgrounds are choosing the wrong combination of A-levels, thus narrowing their range of options for universities and beyond.
A dance A-level may well be right, and probably is right, for students who wish to take an arts-related subject at university, but it could be wrong for someone who wishes to study a science at university. Two science A-levels and dance may not be the right combination for many universities offering science degrees. There are examples of young people taking the wrong combination to enhance their chances of getting on those competitive courses.
We remain committed to supporting talented young people and adults in accessing specialist dance and drama provision, with national grants also being available for out-of-school-hours training through 21 designated centres for advanced training.
Marine Operations (Weymouth)
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Scott, for calling me to speak. It is a privilege to be here in Westminster Hall under your chairmanship. I also thank the Minister for being here today; it is a privilege and an honour to see him here too.
Last week, the people of South Dorset delivered a petition to No. 10. “Save Our Lifesavers” was signed by 22,000 people, signalling their overwhelming concern about the regrettable decision to close Portland coastguard station. No other subject has galvanised such a reaction in my constituency in recent years. I would be very interested to hear whether the Minister has encountered such commitment from the Solent area, which I believe is the area favoured for the new MOC, or marine operations centre.
South Dorset is bounded on 180° by the ocean. That water forms an indelible part of our history, culture and everyday experience. Fishermen, divers, sailors, mariners, water skiers, day-boaters, cliff-walkers, birdwatchers, rock climbers—we all share that coastline, and as anyone who knows the sea will testify, it must be treated with respect. On land, as the emergency services will confirm, the “golden hour” is critical in the rescue of casualties; in the water, that period is down to seconds.
Our coastguard station is one of the busiest in the country. Currently, it is one of 18 coastguard stations tasked with protecting our waters, but after the Olympics it is due to close, with staff being offered posts at the new MOC, which might be at Solent. That new MOC, supported by nine 24-hour sub-centres, will undertake all the essential tasks of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency around our 11,000 nautical miles of coastline. Does the Minister accept that that will leave huge gaps in our defences?
For South Dorset, the loss of accumulated years of expertise, knowledge and good will is nothing short of catastrophic. However, in the face of a deeply regrettable and seemingly irreversible decision, we are determined to move on. We are nothing if not resilient.
The MCA has stated:
“There is no existing Coastguard facility on the south coast suitable for conversion into a MOC.”
I disagree. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a significant proposal from Weymouth and Portland borough council that the new MOC should be located in South Dorset. He has already seen that submission; indeed, I see that it is on his desk now. In addition, I have handed him a newspaper, which I also see he has with him, that has been lovingly put together by the supporters of the petition, who feel so strongly about the issue.
South Dorset has the infrastructure, the expertise and the will to make that proposal viable and cost-effective. I will start by discussing infrastructure. The MCA proposal refers to the advantages of locating any MOC close to a large existing maritime sector. Weymouth and Portland has one of the largest maritime sectors in the country. As a former naval base, Portland’s deep-water port provides many built-in advantages. It is the closest point in the western channel to the main shipping lanes and is already in constant use as a busy commercial port. It has harbour revision order approval for significant expansion. Plans for further major marine-based operations, including ship repairing and refuelling, and servicing of the proposed giant wind farm off the Isle of Wight, are under way.
Five potential sites are identified in that bid and details of them are attached to the report in the appendices. Three sites are in suitable existing buildings that are available immediately, saving on new build costs. As the Minister knows, the Solent MOC will require an entirely new build and in these austere times I say to him that surely there are savings to be made by locating in an existing building rather than having to build a new facility.
We—South Dorset—have a magnificent former flag officers’ sea-training building, which was specifically designed as a command and control centre. The Minister can see details of that building at appendix 3. It would need only refurbishment. It sits in the harbour, providing easy access to the open sea, berths, and cliffs for training and operations. Other potential MOC sites include the former defence research agency at Southwell business park on Portland, which I know he knows well, and Pullman Court in Dorchester. South Dorset has good roads, twice-hourly rail services to London, four airports within a 90-minute drive and ferry services to the continent. In addition, our recently enhanced broadband and communication links, which are part of South Dorset’s Olympic legacy, can carry the MCA’s new integrated and networked service.
Secondly, we have the expertise. There is a strong local skills base in marine engineering, dating from Portland’s recent history as an operational naval base. A MOC sited in the area would tap into a rich vein of maritime knowledge and experience. The harbour at Portland is already home to the search and rescue helicopter that would enhance any MOC. Also, we already host the full complement of RNLI rescue services: the Severn class offshore lifeboat, the Atlantic inshore lifeboat, rescue craft and beach lifeguards. Furthermore, RNLI headquarters is nearby in Poole.
Portland port has existing relations with the Royal Navy, the Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Marines, special forces, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and many other organisations, and the National Sailing Academy is based in the port at Osprey quay. In addition to the Olympics, which take place next year, Portland holds world-class sailing regattas, which boost the use of our waters.
Thirdly, we have the will. Dorset is dedicated to saving its lifesavers, as the petition and all the love and attention that have gone into the newspaper that the Minister has received demonstrate. Our proposal to site the new MOC in South Dorset has the unqualified backing of all Dorset MPs, including the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin). Bournemouth and Poole unitary authorities, Dorset police, Dorset fire and rescue service, Dorset county council and the Environment Agency all support the proposal too. Weymouth and Portland borough council, the author of the proposal, aims to develop the area as a centre for marine excellence, which is an aim entirely aligned with MCA objectives. In addition, the area can offer more affordable housing than Hampshire, good schools and an enviable quality of life, and the borough council has undertaken to provide dedicated staff to assist with relocation.
I have already mentioned the petition that was given to No. 10 Downing street. The community has spoken loudly and clearly about a cause that is dear to its heart. I believe that the merits of the proposal—the infrastructure, the expertise and the will that already exist in South Dorset—deserve serious consideration and I ask the Minister to assure me that he will consider it. Can he give us any hope that he will do so?
Finally, I want to touch once more on the decision-making process that has brought us to this point. Wherever the southern MOC is sited, we are told that the professional coastguards at Portland will all be offered jobs there. Although that is good news, the ability of those coastguards to report daily on the winds, tides and other conditions that are currently outside their windows will be lost. The coves, caves and cliffs that locals know so intimately will be reduced to a grid reference on a computer screen. Some cynics call that process “rescue by Google” and I fear that it will not be adequate.
On a busy summer’s day, the calls will come in thick and fast. The minutiae involved in every rescue—the sheer volume of detail—could be overwhelming to an operator who is unfamiliar with the area. Inevitably, if delays occur rescues will take longer. I will not stand here and say that lives will be endangered, because I have no proof of that; it would be rash of me to say so. Inevitably, however, if rescues take longer and someone is in the sea, where seconds count, one can see that the consequence of that could be—I stress, could be—that someone who might have been rescued more quickly may possibly die.
We are told that the hardened communications within the operations supercentre will increase resilience and flexibility in a disaster, but are we not in danger of relying too heavily on the miracle of modern technology? We all know that technology breaks down; the NHS supercomputer is an acknowledged failure. The disastrous reorganisation—I know that the Minister is waiting for this line, and he was vociferously opposed—of the fire and rescue service, of which he was a member, which was shelved at a cost of £500 million, uncomfortably mirrors, in my view and that of many others, the plans for the coastguard.
We are responsible for 1,250,000 nautical square miles of water around our coastline, yet we are seriously considering halving the number of stations. Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole Local Resilience Forum is gravely concerned that we are spreading responsibilities too thinly.
As a former soldier, the Minister knows only too well the importance of local co-ordination, and to explain it I shall use a Northern Ireland scenario with which he is familiar. He, like me, served in the Household Division, and knows that a company needs a company headquarters, a battalion a battalion headquarters and a division a divisional headquarters. If the divisional headquarters is cluttered by information from the patrols on the ground—the platoons, of which there are many—communication will be blocked by unnecessary minutiae.
I want to emphasise the importance of local co-ordination, with which the Minister is so familiar, because it is absolutely vital. No officer commanding the regiments that the Minister and I served in would say, “Get rid of company headquarters. We’ll just have battalion headquarters,” because all the intimate detail at company headquarters is not necessarily passed to battalion unless or until it is necessary to call in more reserves or assets to deal with situations on the ground. Local people know their platoons—in this case, local watchkeepers know their area—and they make a difference. We have to accept that we are losing our station, but we urge the Minister to site the new MOC in Weymouth or Portland.
The MCA is a highly respected service that has evolved over 200 years to suit our island needs, so why reinvent the wheel? Technology is not necessarily the answer. I suspect that this has a lot to do with money, but money, or the lack of it, is not always the reason or the solution. The sea is unforgiving—the Minister and I know that, and the watchkeepers and the people who rescue know it—but the electorate will be more so. I most humbly urge the Minister to reopen the consultation and think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. When we entered the House in 2005 neither of us would have dreamt that I would be standing here as the Minister and you would be in the Chair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on initiating the debate. He served gallantly in the Coldstream Guards when I was a humble guardsman in the Grenadiers. I was moved by his question about whether we would get rid of the company headquarters. As a humble guardsman who never commanded a section let alone anything else, I can say yes, we would have done so many a time, because at my level we never understood what was going on.
Let me touch briefly on how we reached the current position, where we are in the consultation process and the decisions we have taken. I pay tribute to the community of South Dorset. I know that part of the world well, having spent most of my holidays as a young child on the beaches of Durdle Door. I dive at Lulworth now, although it is a bit too cold for me as I get older, and South Dorset is still one of the most beautiful parts of this great nation.
The community coming together to fight for what they believe in is what community spirit is all about. In the scrapbook that my hon. Friend gave me—I use “scrapbook” in its traditional sense; I do not mean that it was not a good thing to produce—I see so many press cuttings of rescues and lives being saved, and we are going to enhance and invest in that volunteer part of the coastguard. The RNLI, whose college in Poole I visited recently, does amazing work, all funded by people’s gratitude to the institution. The RNLI covers the whole of the island of Ireland and is the only organisation in the Republic that has “Royal” in its name. I have met three transport Ministers for southern Ireland, and they have paid tribute to the RNLI’s work.
When I inherited this position nearly 16 months ago, there was a set of plans on my desk for a reorganisation of coastguard co-ordination centres. It had been around for years. It was there when the chief coastguard, Mr Rod Johnson, arrived, and he had been in post for nearly two years. I understand why the previous Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) is not here—it is a half-hour debate and I have debated the subject many times with him—but he freely admits that the proposals had been discussed. Members of the coastguard had, believe it or not, been in industrial dispute for years over pay and other issues. Their starting pay of about £13,500 is unacceptable for someone in an emergency service, and that was one of the things we looked at.
I had a choice: start from scratch or say, “We’ll go with a consultation but I promise the public and Members that we will come out with a set of proposals showing that we’ve listened and that the service will be different from the one we went in with.” I think that everyone accepts that the proposals the Secretary of State announced to the House in the summer were radically different, but contained the principle of resilience in the system that had not been present until then. Many people say to me, “Minister, this is just about saving money,” but we are investing huge amounts in the system to address the fact that we have a national emergency service with no national resilience.
When my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset and I served in the armed forces, the one thing we all relied on was resilience. When I was on the borders in Northern Ireland, I would be told on the system, “We will get someone.” I appreciate that there have been problems with communications over the years. When Bowman first came in for the military, there was a lot of concern about resilience, and when I visited an exercise as a new MP, I was told that Bowman stood for “better off with map and Nokia”, but it has developed a lot and I have seen it in use in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
We needed to say to the public, “Let’s be honest with you.” We all have huge respect for the work of the professional staff and volunteers—predominantly they are volunteers—in Her Majesty’s coastguard. I pay tribute also to other lifeboat crews. Many lifeboats, particularly on the south coast, are not RNLI ones, and it would be improper of me to omit them from the praise.
In the responses to the first consultation, people were saying, “We know you’re going to have this new resilience and a new national co-ordination centre, but there will be a massive loss of local knowledge.” However, in the local coastguard stations I visited, some people said, “Save us; don’t look at any modernisation,” but others said, “We think there should be about eight, nine or 10 coastguard stations, not 18.” A good half dozen of the submissions, including from Belfast and Falmouth, were about how we could have a proper national resilient service. So I thought, “If the coastguards are telling me that they accept that 18 isn’t necessarily the way forward, and that eight or nine is, how would it work?” Then it became obvious that a pairing system had been in place within the coastguard for several years, for resilience purposes. Because the coastguard could not have national resilience, it created a pairing system in which one station would cover for another if it was short of staff, if communications went down or in the event of repairs or conversions. When I was at Swansea the other day to meet the coastguard, the station was completely switched off, and Milford Haven covered the whole area.
Bearing in mind that we have only 10 minutes left, we all understand where we are in the history. The issue now is whether the Minister can offer any light on whether he will move the new MOC from the favoured location in Solent to us. Our place has the history and environment to support such a centre. We also have buildings ready to go, which will save much money. That is what my constituents are looking for guidance on.
I apologise, but I was answering the questions that my hon. Friend raised about local knowledge, resilience and so on. I have 10 minutes, and I assure him that I can answer his question.
We decided that we would change to a pairing system in which one of the pairs would be dropped, the two extremities—the Western Isles and Shetland, which were never paired before—would stay in 24-hour operation and we would drop one of the MOC national headquarters, because in the end, I could not condone how much two would have cost. We went to a second consultation on four specific points: whether Swansea or Milford Haven would close, whether Liverpool or Holyhead would close, whether the Western Isles and Shetland should run 24 hours and whether there should be one or two MOCs. That consultation has just finished.
I have listened carefully to the points that my hon. Friend has made—in his position as a Back Bencher, I would do exactly the same—but if I stood here today and said that I was willing to reconsider, I would have to reopen the whole consultation process, because this topic was not part of the consultation. To make that decision, I would have to consider several things. We said in the original consultation that we would like the MOC to be in the Portsmouth-Southampton area, for logical reasons. The MCA has a large footprint in that part of the country, particularly in Gosport at Daedalus and at its own headquarters. From a cost perspective, there was an obvious logic to building a new MOC headquarters on existing Department for Transport facilities, which is why we chose that model.
It would be difficult for me to change my mind in light of what I received from the people of Weymouth and my hon. Friend during the second consultation. I would have to change my decisions after not only the first but the second consultation and then reopen the consultation process on the MOC. I could not do that. It would not be cost-effective given the efficiencies that we need, particularly as we already have a large estate footprint available.
I am happy to be here to represent the Government and say where we are. I hope that I have answered most of my hon. Friend’s questions. Although I understand that he is, rightly, representing his constituents—I am also pleased to see the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) here; as another Minister, he will understand—I cannot give that light at the end of the rainbow and open up the whole process all over again for a further consultation. The reasons why we came to our previous conclusions still exist. All the premises in the Weymouth area to which my hon. Friend refers are premises that we do not own. Other Departments might, but we do not, and we would have to do an analysis.
MCA headquarters are in the area where we propose to build. We might put the MOC within that building so as not to expand our empire, which I am trying desperately to avoid. We may be able to facilitate that. The Daedalus site in Gosport is huge, and the Department for Transport uses little of it; it already operates on a helicopter basis, and we own it.
I know this is difficult. I am the bearer of bad news. As a Minister, I always try to be as positive and helpful as I can with colleagues across the House, but I do not want to give my hon. Friend and his constituents the feeling that it is possible that we might change our minds and reopen the consultation on where the MOC will go, mostly because that was not part of the second consultation in the first place. The decision where to put the MOC was based on the first consultation; the only relevant decision in the second was whether to have one MOC or two.
I know that that will disappoint my hon. Friend and his constituents, but I reiterate that the issue of local knowledge in people who rescue was addressed many years ago in adaptations to the pairing system. Some stations have been down for months while work was being done on them, and the other stations have coped. However, what they could never do, to go back to an earlier point, was be controlled centrally by division or brigade headquarters—or even regimental; the numbers are not huge—and provide the sort of pay, training and promotion prospects that we would all like for anybody working within our constituencies.
Part of this is about money—there is no argument about that; I have had to make considerable savings in the Department—but actually, it is about resilience. The ex-Second Sea Lord is the chief executive. He has served his country all his life. The chief coastguard has been in the coastguard for most of his working life. They would not be sitting with me discussing the plan if we thought that there was a danger. There is a danger in leaving things as they are. We will phase in the changes. We are not going to wake up one morning to find it has all been switched off and closed. We will ensure that the IT and the communications systems in particular work before we phase out.
Understandably, staff members are leaving the MCA at the moment, particularly at the stations earmarked for closure. I cannot blame them. They are quality people; other jobs are becoming available, and they are taking them. However, I cannot recruit new people to those coastguard stations knowing full well that I am going to close them. We will look carefully at manning levels, but some stations might close slightly earlier than predicted, simply because we cannot man them.
I hear the Minister’s argument. Clearly, my constituents and I do not agree, but we are listening to him. It is his decision, and he is saying that there is absolutely no chance. If that is the case in black and white—“Forget it”—it would be useful to hear that. Also, can he give any reassurance that our rescue helicopter on Portland will be there for the foreseeable future and is not under threat?
I cannot say anything about the helicopters because, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, a criminal investigation of the procurement process is ongoing. At the moment, we do not know where our helicopters are likely to be. The Ministry of Defence has decided to withdraw, so it will be a civilian matter run through the Department for Transport and the MCA.
I did not want to be this brutal and straightforward, but I must. Where to put the MCA in the south was not part of the second consultation. That decision has been made. It will be in the Solent area. Although I respect enormously the work done by the community for the second consultation, I am afraid that that matter was not part of the second consultation, and sadly, I am not willing to reopen the consultation.
School Places (Bristol)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a matter of great concern to many of my constituents and to parents across Bristol. I thank the Minister for having a meeting earlier today with all four Bristol MPs, the council cabinet’s lead member on schools, children and young people and the council officer who deals with those issues. It was a useful meeting, although, unfortunately, the Minister did not produce a large cheque at the end of it.
As I explained to the Minister this morning, Bristol faces a crisis in primary school provision: there simply are not enough primary school places. The number of four-year-olds—that is the age at which children start reception class—has increased by 20% in Bristol over the past four years. This year alone, we needed an additional 14 reception classes. Demand is projected to rise steeply over the next couple of years, tailing off a little, but then taking off again. It is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of an additional 3,000 places by 2015.
Bristol has seen the fastest growth in pupil numbers in the country. The council estimates that the percentage change in primary school numbers is three times the rate across England. According to Office for National Statistics projections for population growth between 2008 and 2015, the increase on 2010 levels will be 11 times higher in Bristol than the national average. Judged against its own historical standards and national comparisons, therefore, there has been unprecedented growth in Bristol, and I ask the Minister to consider the city’s special case for urgent funding.
There are a number of reasons for the rapid increase in the primary school-age population. Bristol is a popular place to live for many reasons, including economic and cultural reasons. Immigration is also a factor, although it is not the only cause. This is a city-wide problem, as the Minister will have seen from the map we showed him this morning; it is not a problem just in the inner-city areas, where black and minority ethnic populations are traditionally concentrated.
In areas such as St George, which is in my constituency, the pressure on school places has come about as a result of gradual demographic change, as older people who have lived in these areas all their lives have died or moved to sheltered accommodation, and younger people have moved in because these are cheap places to live. Obviously, those younger people go on to have families.
The recession has meant that parents who might previously have opted for private education can no longer afford it. Equally, improving education standards in Bristol mean that parents might be less likely to opt for private provision or to take their children out of the Bristol local authority area and to schools in north Somerset or south Gloucestershire, which has been a major factor over the years. There have also been major housing developments, and there is an urgent need to build more housing in Bristol, so this problem will not go away.
This year, Bristol city council had to find an additional 250 places to ensure that all reception-age children could start school in September. It has had to resort to adding modular classrooms to already stretched schools. Although those classrooms are an improvement on the Portakabins and huts we might remember from school, they are still not an ideal, permanent solution. One school has had to convert its information and communications technology suite to classroom use, which, again, is not ideal.
The council has had to spend £5.3 million on such temporary solutions. There is no guidance from central Government and no clear view on the way forward to enable the long-term planning we need. Spending money on temporary classrooms, rather than permanent school buildings, is a quick-fix solution, and it might prove to be an inefficient use of scarce resources in the long term.
Some schools, such as May Park in my constituency, have increased from two to four-form entry. Obviously, that does not solve the problem in itself, because the new pupils will move up next year, and so on through the school, creating an additional need for classrooms if each year is to have four forms. Schools such as May Park are doubling in size, which creates additional pressures, because the dining halls and other facilities—particularly the play facilities—are not designed to cope with the numbers. When I visited Air Balloon Hill primary in my constituency last week, I was told that it had to spend £90,000 on a new electricity generator because the addition of a few extra modular classrooms meant that the existing generator was unable to cope with the demand.
The local authority has been quite imaginative, and it has done all it can to put in place temporary quick fixes, but we need more radical and lasting remedies. The task is becoming greater with year-on-year growth in the four-year-old population. By 2015, it is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of 100 additional classes, which is equivalent to 14 one-form entry schools. Depending on housing development and migration patterns, the 3,000-place shortfall could be quite a significant underestimate, and it is suggested that the figure could be as high as 5,300.
The pressing priority is September 2012. The council has 11 months to find 15 additional reception classes. Legally, it must provide those places, but that is not the only reason why failure is not an option. As all the other MPs in Bristol will confirm, parents are coming to us because they simply cannot get their children into a school that they could physically deliver them to in time each morning. I have met parents who have a child in a school at one end of the city and who are being told that their next child, who is starting reception class, has to go to a school several miles away. However, public transport in Bristol is pretty abysmal; we have the worst traffic congestion of any city in the country. Parents tell me that they will have to give up work, particularly if they work shifts and can no longer use breakfast clubs and after-school clubs because there are fewer of them. Parents are also having their child care credits cut, so it is more difficult to fund child care. Physically, parents are not able to be in three places at once; they cannot get to work on time, get one child to school and get another child to a child minder. Parents cannot manage the logistics of getting their children to their schools. Even though the new term has started, some children still do not have a school place to go to.
On a more positive front, the local authority has a strategy to resolve the crisis, as the Minister heard this morning. Its children and young people’s services have been working with the local education partnership and developers. They have detailed plans for rebuilds and have identified potential sites for new schools. The standardised designs can be constructed quickly and efficiently. Importantly, estimates suggest that they offer a 20% reduction in building bulletin guidance. Unfortunately, the stumbling block is a £110 million funding gap.
To give an example that I mentioned to the Minister this morning, Air Balloon Hill primary school has spent £500,000 on working up detailed plans for the major building works it desperately needs if it is to continue as a four-form entry school. The work must start by February next year if the school is to be ready for a four-form entry 2012 reception class, but it needs £4.5 million if that is to happen. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the figures will be looked at in November, so it could be into the new year before the school has any idea whether it will get the additional funding it needs. Obviously, other schools across Bristol will be in the same position and will be seeking similar sums.
Capital funding for 2011-12 has been reduced by 20%, and the budget was necessarily strained by September’s pupil increase, leaving the council in a position where it cannot begin to address next year’s shortage. The Secretary of State announced an extra £500 million in July to fund basic need nationally, but the council needs a degree of certainty about what its share of the money will be and when it will receive it.
The methodology for allocating basic need funding also means that Bristol is unlikely to receive its fair share. The Department judges basic need according to the surplus of all primary school places across the local authority. That will change in the next few years as the increased population moves up through the school, but there is technically a surplus in primary school places in Bristol at the moment because there are spare places—classes of 25 or 26 pupils—in years five and six. However, that does not really help someone with a four-year-old who needs to start school immediately. I urge the Minister not to do this netting off of surplus places against shortfall, but to look at how many pupils we need year on year, because children will otherwise be sitting at home unable to go to school.
Bristol has recently—this September—received funding for a new school, but it is not the school that the city desperately needs. Following concerted campaigning from some parents in one part of the city and the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), Bristol can now claim to have the largest free school in the country. However, it is a secondary school and it does nothing to address need in the city.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, given there is a need for primary school places in the area, obviously there will be a need for more secondary school places in the future and that we have learned the lesson that forward planning goes a long way? Does she also agree that it was most unfortunate that discussions were not progressed more by the city council when it considered having an all-through free school on the St Ursula’s site? That would have been able to attract capital funding from the Department for the primary school places that she is making a good point in saying we need.
The point I am making is that there is a surplus in secondary school provision that is predicted to be in place until 2017. I suggest that the entire movement towards getting a secondary school in Bristol was misguided. The priority should have been solely to focus on the primary school need. I understand that the new free school has a capacity of 150 places and that only 82 children started there this September. The three closest secondary schools—Henbury, Oasis Brightstowe and Orchard—all have a significant surplus of provision. Indeed, the head teacher of Henbury, which already has about 145 spare places, has warned about the impact that the free school will have upon her school.
As I was saying, I do not believe that there was a need for a Bristol free school, particularly a secondary school. We should have focused on primary schools instead. The bizarre thing about what has happened with the Bristol free school is that the preferred site was the former St Ursula site bought by Bristol city council because it represented good value for money for a new primary school. However, it was confirmed last week that Bristol free school will remain on its temporary site on Burghill road, Southmead. It is worth noting that half the parents who supported the Bristol free school during the consultation stated that they would not send their children there if it were located on Burghill road, so not only is there no need for the school, but it may not even have the community support on which free schools are supposed to be based.
The strange thing is that the catchment area of the new free school is based on the St Ursula site that was the preferred location. Some 80% of the school’s places will be unashamedly given to the affluent BS9 community, which is in the top 5% of the most affluent areas in the country. At the same time, access will be restricted for families living directly around the school in the less prosperous area of Southmead. The school is actually outside its own catchment area. There seems to be a strange sense of what the priorities should be. We should be focusing on the need for a primary school instead.
There is now an E-ACT primary academy on the St Ursula site, but it has had to restrict its intake to two forms rather than the preferred three or four-form entry in case the Bristol free school also moved to the site. Bristol free school has diverted much needed resources from Bristol’s existing secondary schools and has enabled the Government to concentrate on the wealthier areas while completely ignoring Bristol’s actual needs.
Does the hon. Lady agree that, given the passionate case she is making for primary school places today, it is a great shame that the Labour Administration and the Building Schools for the Future programme concentrated on secondary schools and completely neglected primary school need? In 2008, it was a Labour council that oversaw a primary review that cut all surplus places in the primary schools. Although I very much welcome her concern for primary school places and for the really upsetting plight of parents in Bristol, does she not agree that it is a great shame that the matter was not sorted out when her party was in council power and in government?
Our party was leading on the council for a very short time, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows. I will not in any way apologise for the Building Schools for the Future programme and the academies programme in Bristol, as they made a phenomenal difference to standards in our secondary schools. She will know that there was a real problem with people taking their children out of schools in Bristol, particularly in years 5 or 6 of primary school, because they did not want them to go to Bristol state schools. We have seen a huge increase in standards in those schools built under Building Schools for the Future. That programme was not about addressing the places issue and the shortage of places; it was about addressing school standards. It is really important that we did that.
The case for investment in Bristol’s primary schools is not only pressing, but urgent. Building works must start within the next few months if we are to have enough classrooms in September. Some schools have been hesitant to commit to additional classes in case that pushes them into debt. We therefore need decisions to be made as soon as possible.
Bristol city council has made several representations to the Department for Education and, as I mentioned, local MPs met with the Minister responsible for schools earlier today. That meeting was originally set up just to discuss the case for extra funding for schools in Bristol West. That is the wrong way to approach the matter. This is a city-wide problem and all four Bristol MPs should be working together to help to resolve it.
It is also unfortunate that the letter from the Liberal Democrat council leader to the Secretary of State making the case for additional funding gives the erroneous impression that the problem is specific to the north of Bristol. As the Minister will have seen from the map that he was shown, the problem is not restricted to any particular area of the city. The issue occurs in pockets across the city and, although it is particularly a problem in the inner city, it affects all four Bristol constituencies.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) is sitting here watching the debate because her post as Deputy Speaker means that she is not allowed to take part. However, she has told me that she has about 30 constituents who were not offered a school place in the local area and that the problem is particularly acute in the Southville and Bedminster wards. As in Bristol East, there are very limited opportunities to expand schools in Bristol South on their current sites, and my right hon. Friend rightly joined us this morning to make the case to the Minister.
There are major shortfalls in the number of primary school places across the city. It is a city-wide problem that needs to be resolved at a city-wide level in the best interests of all families in Bristol, not just a select few. I urge the Minister to work with the local authority to secure immediate and lasting solutions. I look forward to hearing what he has to say today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. I know she is no stranger to the issues surrounding education provision in Bristol, as she has served the community well in local and national politics for a number of years. As she said, earlier today we met with the right hon. Member for Bristol South (Dawn Primarolo) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) to discuss the issues facing Bristol in terms of population increase.
I am aware that the hon. Member for Bristol East has been active, as she has been today, in raising the difficulties faced by schools in her area, especially with respect to her concerns surrounding the establishment of the proposed Bristol free school. I hope that, by now, she has received a response from my noble Friend Lord Hill to the letter regarding the Bristol free school. There is overwhelming demand for a Bristol free school from parents in that area. She is right to point out that it was in the BS9 area that the community campaigned for a new school. That community felt that too many pupils had to leave the local authority to receive a good standard of education. In fact, hundreds of parents attended a recent parents’ evening for the September 2012 year 7 intake, which demonstrates that there is significant demand for the new free school.
The hon. Lady referred to capacity issues. She is right: the reception to year 6 primary population in Bristol is forecast to increase from 27,000 in 2009-10 to around 33,500 by 2014-15. She is also right to point out that, at the moment, there are 3,074 surplus places across 70 schools, 15 of which have more than 25% spare places. However, the council is also projecting a deficit of primary places from 2012-13 based on the May 2010 school capacity figures.
The greatest demand for places is in the east central area of the city, but the surplus places tend to be in schools located in the north and south city boundary areas. That is why the hon. Lady is concerned with the methodology of how capital is allocated to local authorities. She made that point powerfully, with other hon. Members, at the meeting this morning. I also understand, and am sympathetic to, the logistical problems. I think that representatives from the local authority said that 94% of parents in the Bristol area achieve one of their first three primary school choices, but that still leaves 6% who do not. Some parents find themselves having to travel significant distances to secure a primary school place.
The Government are aware of the pressures that many local authorities face in light of population increases and the very tight spending review capital settlement for the Department. We must never forget why we are in this difficult position and why we have to make these difficult decisions. It is, of course, due to the difficult state of the public finances that we inherited. That has made it necessary for our top priority to be to reduce the country’s budget deficit, rather than being able to provide significant additional money for capital funding of school projects. We are now paying £120 million in interest every day of the week. Those interest payments could have been used to rebuild or refurbish 10 schools every day of the year, but we are not in that position.
Despite the difficulties we face, we have still been able to announce that the Department for Education’s capital spending will be £15.9 billion in the four years of the spending review period. We know only too well that there are schools in need of refurbishment that missed out on the previous Government’s unsustainable capital programmes. We appreciate fully that some people will feel that they have been unfairly treated. Even though we have had to take some very difficult decisions on spending, we will still be able to continue putting money into the schools estate at an average of almost £4 billion a year. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that that is still a significant sum. More importantly, we believe that it is affordable in the current financial circumstances.
It is essential that we maintain buildings properly to ensure that health and safety standards are met and to prevent an increasing backlog of decaying buildings. However, by stopping the wasteful Building Schools for the Future project, to which we were not contractually committed, we have been able to allocate £1.4 billion to local authorities to prioritise their local maintenance needs. That includes £195 million of devolved formula capital that has been directly allocated to schools themselves for their own use. In addition—the important point as far as the hon. Lady is concerned—we allocated £800 million of basic need funding for 2011-12, which is twice the previous annual support for new school places in areas of population growth.
As the hon. Lady pointed out in her opening remarks, in July the Secretary of State announced that, in addition to that £800 million in 2011-12, he could announce a further basic need allocation of £500 million to provide extra school places where there was greatest pressure caused by the increasing pupil population. That additional funding has been made available thanks to efficiencies and savings that the Department, working with Partnerships for Schools, has been able to identify in the Building Schools for the Future projects that are continuing. Officials in the Department are working on the allocation methodology for notifying local authorities of their share of that additional £500 million. The intention is to use the 2011 school capacity and forecast information that was submitted to the Department by local authorities in August 2011. By using those data, we can ensure that the additional money is indeed allocated to those in greatest need.
Bristol’s capital allocation of the £800 million is approximately £9.36 million in 2011-12. In addition, in 2011-12 it has received more than £6 million in capital maintenance allocations, as well as £1.1 million in devolved formula capital. Therefore, Bristol is already due to receive £17.1 million of capital this year. Once we have allocated the £500 million, based on the 2011 statistics, other sums should be forthcoming to ensure that there are sufficient school places for primary school pupils, particularly in the Bristol area.
We have been working with stakeholders, including local authorities, to understand better their basic need forecasts and pressures. It is clear that some authorities face greater pressures, as the hon. Lady highlighted.
Does the Minister agree that the key point that the four MPs and the city council tried to get across to him in his office this morning is that, while there are several authorities around the country that face population pressure, Bristol’s pressures are more significant than those for the family of core city authorities and indeed outstrip the population growth of inner London? Of all the family of urban centres in the country, Bristol faces the greatest pressure from demographic change, and therefore has the greatest need and perhaps the greatest call on that extra £500 million of welcome resources.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point; it was made strongly at the meeting this morning and I took it on board. A 20% increase is significantly higher than most others. There are one or two areas—such as Plymouth, I think—that have a higher increase. Nevertheless, looking at the country as a whole, Bristol is significantly high in terms of its population increase in that age group compared to other parts of the country. That will be taken into account when we analyse the 2011 data, which will be used to allocate the £500 million.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East knows, last year the Secretary of State commissioned, from Sebastian James, a full and independent review of the Department’s capital programmes. That review has been published and the Secretary of State has commented on—indeed, has already agreed with—some of its recommendations. The recommendations propose a new approach to the future allocation and use of all available capital funding, including that funding continue to be prioritised to the provision of pupil places and addressing condition needs. The Department is consulting on the proposals made in the James review. In fact, the consultation ends today.
Future capital allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 until 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review. That was raised in this morning’s meeting by the local authority and by the hon. Lady. They want a degree of certainty about future capital allocations. The outcome of that consultation and its conclusions will, I think, steer her and her local authority in that general direction. However, as I have said, the Secretary of State has already indicated that local authorities can expect that the headline amounts of capital available in future years will be broadly in line with those allocated for 2011-12. I hope that that will help her local authority to engage in a planning process to help to eradicate the shortage of places in the Bristol area.
As well as radically reviewing the way capital funding is allocated and spent, the Government are continuing to press forward with their academy and free schools programme. That includes a focus on funding an academy solution for the weakest primary schools in the country. Bristol has a number of open academies. Indeed, I had a very informative visit to Merchants’ academy in July. The introduction of the academies and free schools programme should be viewed as an additional tool in the armoury of local authorities as they seek to eradicate any basic need pressures that they are encountering. By giving those involved in education the chance and the freedom they need to shape the future of our schools, and by opening up the opportunities for others to enter the education sector, we believe that we are offering an education system that will meet the needs of local communities.
The meeting this morning with the hon. Lady and other hon. Members who represent Bristol was very constructive and helpful. Officials will continue to work with local authorities to find a solution to the basic need problems facing Bristol.
Question put and agreed to.