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Westminster Hall

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 October 2011

[Mr David Amess in the Chair]

Business Rates (North-East)

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

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate on an issue that will have a big impact on the north-east, as is evident from the number of my fellow north-east MPs who are present. The whole country is being affected by the difficulties in the economy, but it is fair to say that the north-east is suffering. Economic growth is stalling and unemployment rising. In the period from May to July of this year, the north-east had the highest unemployment level in the country at 11.3%.

Unfortunately, that is not altogether a new experience for our region. For decades, the north-east was undermined and overlooked as a place of economic growth. In the 1980s in my constituency of Sunderland Central, we saw the shipyards that had defined our city and been a source of pride for generations, employing entire families, almost disappear from the banks of the River Wear. At its peak, ours was the biggest shipbuilding town in the world. When it came to our efforts in world war two, we produced more than a quarter of the nation’s total tonnage of merchant and naval ships. However, in 1988, British Shipbuilders shut up shop. That was followed five years later by the closure, by a Tory Government, of our last coal mine, putting many thousands of people on the dole.

The economic history and future of the north-east is one of manufacturing and production. We are intensely proud of that. Sunderland is now world-famous for building cars. I applied for the debate as a result of the submission by the Association of North East Councils of its response to the consultation on the review of local government finance. That laid out a clear case of concerns about the Government’s proposals. It is worth mentioning that the response had cross-party support from across the region.

Despite our rich heritage, the north-east has not been able to keep up with the economic growth of other regions in our country, and we are still rebalancing our economy after the decline of our traditional industries. That is why the formula grant has been crucial to councils across the region, allowing them to provide the services needed for their residents, while trying to address growth in their areas. For Sunderland city council, the gap between the formula grant that it receives from the Government and the amount in business rates that the city collects is £60 million. In Durham, the figure is £80 million, and across the north-east there is a shortfall of about £400 million. Business rates make up more than 80% of the Government grant to councils, so this really is a critical issue.

No one is arguing that the formula grant could not be improved, but what the Government propose with the localisation of business rates has the potential to make things worse. I am thinking particularly of the lack of information about top-ups and tariffs. The Minister has said that the formula grant method is incomprehensible, far too complex and lacking in transparency and that councils are left at the whim of the formula setter in Whitehall. I agree that the formula grant system is not perfect and it is certainly complicated. However, it does attempt to be fair, redistributing centrally pooled funds to councils according to their needs.

Under localisation of business rates, the system will change completely. The proposed system takes no account of councils’ ability to raise council tax, no account of differing abilities to generate business, no account of future needs and no account of a council’s ability to service the needs of its residents.

Let us examine the differences in council tax yields. In the north-east, most authorities have more than 50% of their properties in council tax band A, compared with Surrey, where the figure is just 2%. In Sunderland, only 9% of the housing is in band D, compared with Surrey, where the figure is 75%. People can see the unequalness in the ability of local authorities to raise revenue. In real terms, that means that an area such as South Tyneside can raise £427 per person, whereas Kensington and Chelsea can raise £795 per person—a huge difference. The system of equalisation under the formula grant worked so that the actual difference was just £3 per person. That enabled local authorities to provide the services needed by their residents, regardless of the economic base of their area. It is a question of fairness, equality and need. If the Government are serious about making the proposed system fair, they need to deal with that issue.

Deprivation levels in the north-east are high: 33% of our population live in the 20% most deprived areas in the country; Sunderland has 34 neighbourhoods in the 10% most deprived areas nationally. That level of deprivation leads to a much greater demand on the services provided by local authorities. I am referring to more people receiving the home care service, more looked-after children and supported adults, more children on free school meals—the list is endless. As the ANEC report states, any system has to ensure that it does not create a spiral of decline in poorer areas, with an impact on health and social care.

The north-east has an ageing population. It is expected that by 2030, 23% of the population will be over 65, leading to an even greater pull on resources. It is right that any new system should take that into account. At the moment, I cannot see how the Government’s proposals will do that. I hope that the Government’s plans for top-ups and tariffs, of which we have yet to see the details, will fully respond to that situation. The gap between the north and south of England is already stark; I am concerned that with these plans, it will only grow larger.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Does she agree that the Government’s proposals would result in exactly what happened in America in the 1980s? Cities such as New Orleans and Detroit became derelict, with anyone who could move out of them doing so to obtain the services that they needed. What the Government propose would create derelict cities in the north.

There is a real danger that that could happen, which is why it is important that this debate highlights the issues for our region. The situation that my hon. Friend describes is the last thing we need. I cannot believe that is the Government’s intention, but it is the danger in the system that they propose.

I, too, welcome the debate that the hon. Lady has introduced. Is there not also a problem for areas that have greater difficulty in attracting new business, which is liable to pay high business rates? It may go to city centres, but is much less likely to go, for example, to Northumberland, which at the same time faces the potential loss of its biggest single industrial business rate payer—the large aluminium smelter at Lynemouth.

I agree. The problems in the north-east are not just in the cities and urban areas. The rural areas of Northumberland and County Durham are as badly affected, but I think that is why the ANEC report has cross-party support. We have Liberals and Tories in government in the north-east, and of course Labour. I think that the reason for the cross-party support is that everyone understands the very difficult economic situation that our region faces.

I want to put in a word for the south, because the south-west is equally deprived. There is a view that we live in a land of cream teas and lots of strawberries, but where I am in Teignbridge, we have the twelfth-highest share of small business rate relief. Some 40% of properties get that relief, so if the proposal pooled actual receipts rather than calculating by rateable value, we would lose out. I share the hon. Lady’s concern that for rural areas, such as mine, thought should be given to how money can be brought back to communities that need it, but I support the concept of pooling.

Other parts of the country are in similar situations; the issue for the north-east is that the entire region is struggling.

The system the Government propose favours the growth of retail space and distribution centres, rather than small and medium-sized businesses and, most crucially in the north-east, manufacturing. Practically, that means that a hectare of land used for retail in the north-east will yield £1 million, compared with £200,000 for manufacturing. It feels as if my region is being punished for manufacturing things. We must remember that manufacturing needs to be at the heart of any national strategy for long-term economic growth. The sector contributes £7.5 billion to the north-east economy per year. We export more than we import, which is helping to rebalance the economy in these difficult financial times. Business rates may value retail and commercial sites the most, but they just do not reflect the way our region’s economy is made up, and with so many people out of work, increasing the number of shops is not the answer and would not be sustainable.

I would be interested to hear more from the Minister about the proposals for introducing mechanisms to overcome economic shocks, which are particularly relevant to the north-east, as we have already suffered from them.

Yorkshire, particularly South Yorkshire, will also suffer quite badly under these proposals. Is it not important that any Government legislation makes clear the need for rebalancing by means of top-ups and tariffs, as areas such as ours diverge from richer, more prosperous areas? It should also give a clear indication of when that rebalancing would take place.

Absolutely. Again, that is why it is important to have this debate and to give the Government the opportunity to hear concerns from formerly heavily industrialised areas as we move forward and try to grow.

In the north-east, councils rely on a small number of larger businesses to generate business rates, but that arrangement can be volatile and vulnerable to shocks, as we have seen in shipbuilding, coal mining, textiles and, more recently, steel making. We need an effective mechanism to manage economic risks and provide protection for areas of poor growth. I support the Government’s view that some of the proceeds of the levy and the set-aside should be used to protect against volatilities.

The Government must recognise that some places have greater economic potential than others. A council’s ability to generate business rates is mainly the result of location, location, location, combined with some effort and a lot of luck. The Government must therefore take account of the issues I have outlined. In particular, they must take longer to consider the wider and unforeseen consequences of their proposals, put in place a regular review of the new system, create a mechanism to protect against volatilities and, most important of all, make sure the system is fair, equitable and based on need.

I think I just caught my hon. Friend before she reached her conclusion, so I am very grateful to her for giving way. She talked about the system being fair and equitable. We both represent the city of Sunderland, which will lose £60 million, as she highlighted. Does she think it fair or equitable that, according to what I have read, the City of Westminster will be able to keep all of the £1 billion it currently raises? How is that fair and equitable?

That is exactly the point. As currently proposed, the system is not fair and equitable, although we do not have the details. However, the Minister is listening to the debate, and we have an opportunity to highlight the real issues, as well as how unfair and unjust the Government’s proposed system will be if they do not introduce mechanisms to readjust it in more affluent and poorer areas. As the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, it is not just the north-east that suffers; we can find the problem in pockets right around the country. The question is how we get the balance right. We all want to promote growth—we are not opposed to promoting growth—but we must allow regions to do so sensibly, and we must support them so that they can provide the services their communities need.

I thank the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for introducing the debate. I feel that I am gatecrashing a tad, but I will not take too long. However, we have many things in common, which I hope to bring out.

I have spoken at length with Councillor Janet Battye, who is vice-chair of Local Government Yorkshire and Humber, and there are real concerns about the proposals. The deadline for submissions is 27 October, so there is still time, and the important point about having the debate now is that it might encourage people to make submissions before the deadline.

There are two overall concerns, which I will detail. First, in terms of those with buoyant business rate bases, the concern is that this will be a case of “to those who have, more will be given”, with the proposals simply sucking in additional investment. As areas get more proceeds from business growth, they will invest them, which will result in more proceeds, which will result in more growth, and so on. There is also a concern about the historic and fundamentally important link between funding levels and the overall assessment of local needs. If that link breaks down, it will be to the detriment of many authorities that serve deprived communities.

As to the details, I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, and I realised many years ago that the way to kill off a conversation at a party is to start talking about local government finance. None the less, the issue is crucial to millions of people.

There is a danger that the proposals are being rushed a bit, especially at a time when local authorities—especially many in the north—face huge reductions in their tax base and income, particularly as a result of front-loading. It is also difficult to look at the long-term repercussions of the proposals when local authorities face problems with the amount of Government grant they will receive for council tax.

The second point—perhaps it should have been the first point, because it was raised before the Localism Bill was considered in depth—relates to having a fundamental review of the relationship between central and local government. Such a review should come first; then we should have the structure, followed by the financing of local government. However, we have not really had a serious debate about the sort of relationship we want between central and local government.

There is also the false belief that business rates are the same as economic growth, but that is not necessarily the case. It is certainly not the case that there is a link between business rates and needs in an area. We are in the process—I think we are all signed up to this—of rebalancing the economy in many ways. Hopefully, the economy is being rebalanced from the south to the north, but we are also looking at different sectors in industry, at the type of growth we are likely to encourage and at whether it is likely to be in accordance with our stated rebalancing policy. SMEs and manufacturing have been mentioned, and we lost 15,000 manufacturing jobs in Bradford between 1998 and 2008. We desperately need those jobs back, but will the proposals incentivise the creation of manufacturing jobs, or will we take the more easy route of retail growth?

There is also the issue of the redistribution of wealth that might take place. About £3 billion more in business rates will be generated by 2014.

On that point, one advantage of being a little older is that we have been around before and seen things before. We should remember where the formula grant system came from. Margaret Thatcher introduced it because local authorities—largely Labour ones—in cities were increasing their business rates, and businesses called for the formula grant system. The Government need to think about that because, although we need the detail of the proposed system, they are in danger of being seen as anti-business over this issue.

The details are crucial, and that is why there is a need to take things slowly and not rush. At times trust between central and local government is tested to the limit. We need an established, agreed and fair starting point. At the same time that there are dampening effects on local government finance and a less than accurate assessment of spending pressures on local authorities, we are talking about a base of 2012-13. Many authorities have taken a real smack in the front-loading of the local government settlement and, if the base were 2010-11, that would paint a totally different picture of an area’s needs. That issue has been raised by the Association of North East Councils. We also need regular review, because things change rapidly, certainly in the economy. We need to review the baseline, and five years is too long. I would argue for the resets to be on a shorter time scale.

The point that I was making was about the possible transfer or redistribution of wealth, because £3 billion in additional business rates will be generated by 2014, but that will be happening at the same time that local authority budgets will go down. There may be a transfer of wealth to those areas that initially prosper well from business rate growth, from authorities that have large reductions in their revenue grant.

To add to that point, it has been calculated that Sheffield and Barnsley would have to get significantly more growth in their business base and, under the new system, would have to grow at least at the national average, just to stand still. Does not that make the case for thinking again, and making sure that we get things right?

Absolutely. That is the overall point. I have perhaps spoken too long, as I know other hon. Members want to get into the debate, but that point, more than any other, is the crucial one that we agree on. The issue is serious. The principle is good: we are signed up for the localism agenda. There may be good pressure to achieve growth, and many authorities will rise to that challenge, but the devil is in the detail, and in this instance the details are billions of pounds. There is a need to tread slowly and carefully.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate, which I think we all agree is vital to the economic future of the north-east.

The Government’s proposals on business rates discriminate against the north in favour of the south, against smaller authorities with less potential for growth in favour of larger, more metropolitan areas with a wider economic and tax base, against deprived areas with greater social and economic problems, in favour of their more affluent counterparts, and against manufacturing industry in favour of retailing. If the proposed changes to the redistribution of business rates were to take place while everything else in local government finance remained equal, they could at best be given serious consideration. However, we all know that the proposals are made in the context of the most radical, disruptive and damaging changes to local government finance for more than a generation.

I shall concentrate on the borough of Hartlepool and the impact of the proposals there. For the two financial years 2011-12 and 2012-13, Hartlepool borough council’s cuts amount, in terms of the total expenditure slashed by central Government, to some 20%, or an annual change of £10 million. Put another way, the cuts to local government finance in Hartlepool mean a reduction in spending of some £150 for every man, woman and child in the borough, as opposed to a national average reduction of some £50. On top of that, if the business rates redistribution system were to be changed, the borough of Hartlepool could lose upwards of £13 million every year. That is the difference between the amount of business rates collected locally—£27 million—and the £40 million that is redistributed back to the town from the Treasury through the national business rates system. I think we would all agree that such a proposal could not be maintained in any sustainable way for Hartlepool.

With the proposed tariffs and top-ups, is not that exactly the sort of situation that should not arise? Hartlepool would receive a benefit, added to the business rates that it collects, to top it up to the relevant level, starting at a base point to maintain its funding level in the year of the introduction of business rate retention.

Those last few words are the key phrase. It is what will happen after 2013 that I worry about. There will be potentially very damaging consequences for the north-east economy, and for the services that local government provides to the most deprived communities in our areas, about which we are most concerned.

A further difficulty in Hartlepool is the specific nature of the tax base. It is difficult to raise revenue locally. Forty-three per cent. of council tax is raised locally, as opposed to similar areas which could raise as much as 80% or 90% locally. Three quarters of properties in Hartlepool fall within council tax bands A and B. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central mentioned a figure of 9% for properties in band D. In Hartlepool that figure is 7%, so on top of the proposed changes in business rates, the borough’s ability to raise taxes locally is limited, and the Government are doing nothing to address that. The way they are stripping demand out of the local economy through cuts is making things worse.

I mentioned earlier that Hartlepool collected £27 million in business rates. The Hartlepool economy—my hon. Friend touched on this question with respect to the wider north-east economy—depends on a small number of business rate payers. Ten businesses contribute £11 million, or nearly 40% of the annual business rate revenue collected in Hartlepool. One business alone contributes 15%, or £4 million, of the rates collected. If one of those businesses were to relocate or cease trading, the effect on the finances of Hartlepool would be catastrophic. The Minister must appreciate that it would be impossible to regain such revenue for many years in the event of such a large business leaving. What will the Government do to mitigate that risk?

In his statement to the House on 18 July, the Secretary of State said at column 672 in response to a question from me that Hartlepool would not be worse off as a result of the proposals. Following the intervention from the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), I think it is fair to say that that will be true until 2013-14, but what happens afterwards? It is important for the council’s planning that it be given more details, so will the Minister provide more information on such matters as the basis for setting the baseline; setting the initial tariff and subsequent top-ups; whether such top-ups will be uprated through RPI, CPI or some other measure; and the frequency of resets within the system, to allow councils to plan?

The policy of the Government, certainly when it comes to tackling public finances, and particularly with regard to the relationship between central and local government finance, is to target higher grant cuts on those local authorities with relatively greater dependence on grants and with more deep-rooted social and economic problems. The proposals on business rates make such problems even worse and target the north-east and authorities such as Hartlepool particularly severely. I hope that the Minister will think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate.

It is not unusual, as a Conservative Member for a constituency in the north-east, to feel a little outnumbered, and today the odds are perhaps slightly on the side of the Opposition, as far as weight of contribution is concerned—although perhaps not quality; we shall find out about that.

The way we fund local authorities is very centralised and has been for some time. The OECD says that we have less funding autonomy for local government than France, Germany, Spain, the United States and Japan. That is not sustainable, and successive Governments have considered, and commissioned reports about, ways to move funding, to give local authorities more responsibility over what happens in their area, to allow them to benefit from success, and to transfer responsibility, so that local democracy can be more effective in holding to account the representatives who run an authority. More than half our local authority funding, on average, comes from central Government grant—money redistributed through the Treasury.

What the Government appear to be trying to do is to reverse that trend. We have seen in areas other than funding, such as localism legislation, that councils are going to have a general power of competence. Local authorities will be empowered to do things that are in the interest of the communities that they represent. In doing that, there is a need to reform funding and the way in which local authorities receive their funding, so that they will have autonomy, freedom and the local accountability that comes with such autonomy and freedom. I am prepared to believe—giving credit to the Government—that that is the foundation for the proposals on business rate retention.

Local authorities collect about £19 billion in business rates annually. That goes to the Treasury, which redistributes it. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) pointed out, some authorities get more back than they put in. That is quite right, because there is a discrepancy in the ability of different local authorities to raise rates from the existing infrastructure in their areas. The challenge for Government is to find a fair way of tying future growth and so incentivising councils to promote growth in their authority area without unduly disadvantaging areas that will find it more difficult to do so.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the Government’s policy at the moment is slightly counter-intuitive, given that the Tees valley local enterprise partnership has a manufacturing-led sector growth policy? If manufacturing per hectare brings in only a fifth compared with retail, does he not think that the new policy could hinder the sector growth policies of business-side LEPs?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I will touch on that later in my brief comments. We are consulting on how the policy would work, and there is a challenge for the Government to ensure that the areas that promote a manufacturing base as the driver for economic growth are not disadvantaged. It is a valid point, but we must not jump the gun and assume that it will be a problem, because we do not yet know what the framework will be—it is a matter for consultation.

There are weaknesses with the current system, such as accountability, which I have touched on, and a weakness in the freedom of local authorities to respond, because they are so dependent on central Government grants. We have seen, over many years, the problems of the central Government grant funding system, which include its complexity and how it often plays out in ways that cannot be easily predicted and are not necessarily to local benefit. There is also a problem regarding the incentive that it gives to some local authorities and councils, which may perceive that they can get more benefit for their area by lobbying central Government for more support than by focusing on promoting growth and improving their area.

What are the Government doing? The first and most important point, which some hon. Members, to give them their due, have touched on this morning already, is that there is a consultation, which is an opportunity to feed in, talk about and outline proposals, and to ensure that the concerns of local authorities in places such as the north-east, where there is a genuine fear that they may be disproportionately disadvantaged by any move towards local retention of business rates, are properly taken into account.

It is well known that the Tory mayor of North Tyneside always supports Government policies. However, on this occasion, she supports the Association of North East Councils’ criticism of the consultation. Does that not show something?

The excellent Conservative mayor of North Tyneside, Linda Arkley, who is doing a superb job and is no doubt looking forward to her re-election by popular acclaim next year, has raised some concerns as part of the consultation process on behalf of the people whom she represents. I do not accept that it is a criticism of the consultation; it is feeding into the consultation in the hope of influencing the result in a way that will benefit the people whom she represents. The good mayor that she is, she is doing the right thing. I am delighted that the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) has given me the opportunity to raise that point.

Another important point, apart from the consultation, is that there should be no effect on what businesses pay. When the policy is introduced, we will not see business rates rising. Levels will be set, as I discussed briefly in an exchange with the hon. Member for Hartlepool, to ensure that the funding that councils receive at the point at which the policy is introduced is kept level. No council should initially be disadvantaged by the introduction of the policy. [Hon. Members: “Initially.”] I fully accept that. It will then be a responsibility for local authorities to engage—within a framework that we must all see as fair and to which we must contribute to ensure that it is fair, so that the rules do not disadvantage any area—with that new system, grow their local economy as best as they can and reap the benefit.

What are the Government going to do? They will set a baseline, tariffs and top-ups. Tariffs and top-ups will mean that wealthy areas—we have heard of some of the wealthy areas that take a lot of money in from business rates—will see some of that money taken away from them and redistributed, often to councils such as those that many of us here today represent in the north-east. The top-ups will be the benefits that some of our authorities receive.

There will be a levy for disproportionate benefit, so if a council sees a huge rise in its business rates that is disproportionate to the benefit that that council should receive, that will be redistributed again in some way.

The hon. Gentleman should accept that we should be specific. The Government’s proposal is to take back not the disproportionate benefit, but a share of the disproportionate benefit, which is an entirely different thing.

That is a fair point. As part of incentivising growth, it is important that local authorities are able to keep some benefit. Residents who have a large industrial complex built in their back yard may feel entitled to a share of the income that that brings to the Exchequer. There will be a levy that will allow for a redistribution of disproportionate benefit and for a safety net. For example, one of the questions raised by hon. Members was, what if a large industry disappears or if a large manufacturer or retail site closes down in the north-east? What about that potentially catastrophic effect? There is already in the consultation a potential mechanism for addressing that through the levy, which will create a pot of money that councils that find themselves disadvantaged will be able to tap into. We look forward to hearing from the Government how they will administer that and what their proposals for that are.

There will also be five-year revaluations to ensure that the system is seen to be and remains fair. Hon. Members have raised concerns about the frequency of revaluation, and the Government should look at those. The Government should also consider the balance between providing an incentive and ensuring adequate funding, and more frequent revaluation could form part of that formula. We have discussed the difference between the business rates brought in by retail and manufacturing. Again, that is a fair observation and should form part of the consultation, and I hope the Government will pay attention to that. We have also discussed dependency on small numbers of large businesses; I have just touched on that in my comments. I would like to see more detail of how a levy for disproportionate benefit will help those areas when a large industry or business closes down and potentially impacts local government finances.

Overall, however, the Government are pushing power back down to people, empowering local authorities and communities to take control of and responsibility for the areas in which they live, and incentivising councils to create and foster growth. That should be welcome in the north-east, where we need to see greater private sector growth. I hope that we can have a constructive engagement with the consultation to deliver the best for our region, not simply to score political points, which may appear on Tyne Tees later this evening—one never knows.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. May I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) for securing this important and timely debate? It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward)—clearly the north-east has just got bigger—and the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who, if I have interpreted his speech correctly, has just taken personal responsibility for the success or failure of Government policy in the north-east.

If we are talking about what the hon. Gentleman has not done, he has not shared the information that, of all the councils in the north-east, only Stockton council stands to gain from the proposal—some £4 million.

Whatever argument there is for localising business rates, concern has been expressed on both sides of the Chamber today about the impact that the policy might have on the north-east. We welcome the opportunity to play a constructive part in the consultation and the wider debate.

Why should the north-east have cause for nervousness? I am reminded of the comments of the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, on the eve of the general election. He said that when the changes and cuts in public spending are made, it will be the north-east that can expect to be hit hardest out of any region. That is why local authorities in the north-east are united across the parties under the banner of the Association of North East Councils in the information that they are providing to the consultation. I believe that that is also why the wider business community shares those concerns.

I want to address the concerns not from a political point-scoring perspective, but in the context of what the Government say they are trying to achieve for the region. Under this change, my local authority, North Tyneside, stands to lose £19 million, which is half as much again as the level of cuts that are necessary because of local government funding changes. The region as a whole stands to lose a third of a billion pounds. Compare that with an area such as Westminster that generates £1.8 billion in business rates each year. The fundamental question is how local economies in the north-east can compete with areas that have a large business rate tax base and the resources to invest not only in attracting future jobs, but in continuing to provide local services. The Government’s own local growth strategy aims to rebalance the United Kingdom’s economy, but if we are not careful, this proposal will have the opposite effect. London and the south-east are not the only areas that stand to do well. Scotland will continue to have Scottish Enterprise, which will attract businesses and jobs. The north-east is losing its development agency and its regional growth fund is proving ineffective.

My hon. Friend is making a good case. Middlesbrough stands to lose £27.5 million a year as a result of these changes and Redcar and Cleveland borough council stands to lose £18 million a year. Is my hon. Friend also aware that the unemployment rate in Middlesbrough is 14.3% and it is 12.4% in Redcar and Cleveland? Many of the issues outlined by the Government in the consultation are counterintuitive to their own growth agenda, especially in an export-led manufacturing recovery.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a better argument than me. His point is precisely the one that I am trying to make. If we are not careful, the results will be counterintuitive to what the Government say they want to achieve. We all want to see economic growth in the north-east. It is not only good for the region but the best way in which to cut the deficit. The Government want to see economic growth, but I am not sure whether they know how to achieve it. The north-east has a good record of growing small and micro-sized businesses, yet those are the very businesses that do not generate high levels of business rate income, at least in the short term.

The Government also say that they want to see the growth of manufacturing. Again, we all want to see that. The north-east has a proud manufacturing tradition, but it cannot make a living in a modern world on tradition alone. The manufacturing sector is still an important part of the north-east economy, but the most recent report from the north-east chambers of commerce expresses concern about the weakness of manufacturing in the area. Again, as we have already heard, manufacturing tends to generate less business rate income than large retail businesses. Therefore, if a local authority is looking to regenerate an area to increase its business rate and to create jobs in an area, would it be better to have a retail or a manufacturing development?

If we are to see a more level playing field with regard to public spending, we should do what was done in the past and bring infrastructure project investment to the north-east. We are told that the Government are considering bringing forward infrastructure spending to get growth started. Certainly, investment over and above the return of business rates will be necessary if we are to unlock the potential of the north-east economy. Take for example the next stage of the improvement of the A19 at the junction of the Silverlink roundabout. The previous Transport Secretary had a very strange view of cost-benefit analysis. In his new role, such a view would equate to him requiring soldiers to pay for half of their tanks and sailors to pay for half of their ships. If the Government are looking to grow businesses that then pay business rates and to rebalance the economy at the same time, it really will require a joined-up approach. They must be careful about the impact of this particular policy.

If these changes go ahead, can the Government assure us that councils will be given time to adjust? How large will the safety net be? Will there be a long-term approach to adjustment? If not, the situation for councils will deteriorate year upon year. Will any adjustment mechanism take into account inflation, which is high and rising? Above all, will the new system be fair? Will it have a national element? The localisation of business rates in the north-east is important, but so too is the localisation of business rates across the country as a whole. If we do not have a national element, the system will not be redistributive in any way.

What would be indefensible is for richer areas in a region or council to have to subsidise poorer areas. We need to see richer areas of the country subsidising areas that require support. Will the new system be fair? Despite the improvements of the past decade, we have higher than average levels of deprivation. Child poverty and the calls on the health services are high and we have an ageing population. This is not special pleading, but a request to the Government to give the north-east a fair deal. Without a careful examination of their proposals to ensure that they are fair, the north-east will be in for an even more difficult time than we imagined.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this important debate.

As an accountant for ICI in the mid-1980s, I remember signing cheques for more than £6 million for local authority rates and the furore in 1988 when the then Conservative Government decided to centralise business rates, take money from the industrialised north and move it to the leafy south—as it was portrayed at the time. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that we are now having this debate about taking money from the deindustrialised north and again moving it to the leafy south. Although I speak for the Government I also speak very strongly for my constituency and as a member of the north-east community of MPs; both of those come ahead of my party or Government loyalty on this issue.

My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) share the distinction of being the two constituencies on the Government side of the House with the worst unemployment rates, so it is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber. My constituency also shares a lot of characteristics with Sunderland, Hartlepool and a number of the other areas that have already been mentioned.

We have not spoken about the views of business. Some 66% of businesses have spoken in favour of the move, and only 20% against. It is important that we listen to them as part of the consultation. Businesses want to be part of their local communities. They want their success to be shared in the local community. Most of them do not want to see any benefits being siphoned off to Whitehall. Apart from Malta, we have the most centralised tax system in Europe, so some move towards localisation of tax raising is surely sensible.

I do not know how many hon. Members are friends of the complex formula grant system. Only last weekend, I joked in a speech that I thought that my hon. Friend the Minister was probably the only person who really understood the full detail of the formula. Of course most north-east councils are not happy with the current formula grant system. It is too complicated and too subject to the whim of Whitehall. I do not know who its friends are, but I would not mourn its passing.

There seems to be a lot of misreporting or misunderstanding of the scheme the Government propose. As I understand it, no one will be worse off in the first year, although some speakers today have suggested that they will be. Both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have said that the starting point will be equalisation, top-ups and tariffs, so in the first year of launch all councils will be in the same position. Obviously what happens after the first year is a concern. We have talked about industries dying and being born. I think that the Government have spoken about what they will do in those circumstances but we need more detail, as previous speakers have said. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

The proposals include provision for a full 10-year review of where the system has got to, but nobody seems to be recognising that. Hopefully, the Minister will give us more detail about the review.

There is nothing to stop councils pooling resources or using other arrangements, if they feel that they want to share the benefits or issues in their area. We should all welcome the freedom that local councils will have. Nobody has spoken about the effect on local councils of the new Government scheme; I hope that the Minister will do so. From the way people have been speaking so far in the debate, there seems to be an assumption that every council is unitary, but I have had a letter from the Cleveland Local Councils Association asking what the effect of the new scheme will be on its members. Our parish, town and district councils are not clear about how the new scheme will work for them. As I say, I hope the Minister will address that point too.

Some interesting points have been made in the debate, but the overwhelming feeling of the speakers so far has been pessimism. That is one of our problems in the north-east; we are generally seen to be pessimistic.

The pessimism among Labour MPs that the hon. Gentleman is probably referring to might be born from, for example, the Government’s programme on the regional growth fund. We have waited six months for funding. It will be welcome funding, for example for a potash mine in my constituency, but it still has not arrived. That type of practical example might lead to pessimism.

The local enterprise partnerships are doing a good job, certainly in our area, and with the regional growth fund there is a simple due diligence process going on. There is a project starting in my constituency right now, with holes being dug in the ground this week. That project has attracted £7 million of regional growth fund money. The time lag has simply been to ensure that the schemes that will be supported are the right ones.

I want to pick up on the point about manufacturing versus retail. Clearly, it is a fallacious comparison, because manufacturing takes up more space than retail. Right now, a manufacturer in my constituency wants another acre of land to add to the acre that they already have. There is no retailer asking for another acre of land, so the basis for saying, “It’s all about retail, not manufacturing”, does not stand up at all.

I am optimistic, because we have enormous potential in the north-east. The other night, I went to the launch of Energi Coast, when 19 companies involved in the offshore renewable energy industry came together to launch joint marketing. They are all talking about a boom time, like the start of the North sea oil industry.

Nevertheless, I worry about the proposals. We need a lot more detail, but we also need a can-do attitude. I say that to my local council all the time, because it often does not have a can-do attitude when it comes to new business. Sharing the benefits of business growth is in all our interests.

The Front-Bench responses to the debate are due to start at 10.40 am. I think that there are just two hon. Members left who wish to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Amess.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing this debate, which is on a very important issue. We can tell that from the number of hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall.

For me, the point about the proposal in the consultation is what it will actually do for economic growth in the north-east of England, where manufacturing, for example, is worth £7.5 billion. I think it is the only region in England that actually exports more manufacturing goods than it imports. We have Hitachi coming to Newton Aycliffe in my constituency, which will create 500 jobs in a train-building facility and thousands of jobs in the supply chain.

I am concerned that in the future local authorities will have to generate more money from business rates because of cuts in other rates. For example, County Durham will lose £125 million in grants over the next four years, including £64 million this year. That money must be made up from somewhere. Under this proposal, however, we also know that the county could lose up to £80 million, but its annual budget is only £300 million. At the moment, leisure centres are closing and in many areas we are now able to provide only statutory services to local communities; we are no longer able to provide discretionary services.

The big thing for me is that the Association of North East Councils has said:

“Business Rates are not a suitable measure of economic growth. Rewarding growth in Business Rates income gives disproportionate benefit to the encouragement of growth in retail space and large distribution centres, rather than encouraging growth in small businesses (whose Business Rates attract substantial levels of relief), technology businesses that do not require much physical space, and manufacturing.”

In the future, local authorities might not pursue major manufacturers to come to the area, as they have done in the case of Hitachi, but instead they might pursue major distribution centres and major retail providers, because they cover more space.

I have some figures for retail sites. They can generate more than £1 million per hectare in business rates, but manufacturers can only generate £250,000 per hectare. However, what we get with manufacturing is high-value jobs. With Hitachi, it is not just the 500 jobs that are being directly created but the thousands of jobs that will be created in the supply chain. In my area, I want young people to have high-value jobs, providing a future for our local communities, and I am not sure whether the Government’s proposals will achieve that aim.

I want to mention E.ON’s plans for my constituency. E.ON wants to build the largest wind farm in the country, with 45 wind turbines. It will cover 7.5 square miles, which is 5% of my Sedgefield constituency, but it will generate less than £1 million in business rates. There will be no jobs; there will be reindustrialisation of the landscape without any jobs and less than £1 million in business rates will be generated.

I am really worried, not because I do not think that Durham county council and other authorities in the region will not want manufacturing industry to come to the area, but given the cuts that they are already struggling with, the incentive for them will be to look for big retailers and distribution centres rather than the manufacturers of the future. If we want to rebalance the economy and bring in lots of private sector jobs, we have to look at the quality of the jobs that we are creating. I need more businesses on the science park at NETPark—the North East Technology Park—such as Kromek, which is creating major jobs for the area and actually saving jobs at Thorn Lighting, because of the quality of the people who work for Thorn Lighting.

The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) accused Labour MPs of being unduly pessimistic. However, from my constituency’s perspective, in an area such as Gateshead we have actually been very can-do and built things such as the Metro centre and the Team Valley trading estate, which employs more than 20,000 people. We also have a £150 million development in Gateshead town centre at the moment, but my council is still very pessimistic about what will come from this set of proposals. Why would that be?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a person, I am optimistic. I know what we did with Hitachi, to attract it to the north-east of England. We brought the Government—struggling—to the table on that project. When the north-east of England stands together, we achieve great things.

We have to look at the location of the north-east of England. It is a long way from here. My constituency is 263 miles away, according to the sat-nav in the car. To the north, we have Scotland, which has its own regional development agency. The regional development agency for the north-east of England is being done away with. The regional growth fund is offering only a third of the money that we used to receive under the previous Government. To the south of us, there is a burgeoning economy. The number of distressed businesses has gone up by 20% in the north-east, but the number in the south-east has actually fallen by 6%. We ask the Government to look at these proposals and take into consideration the great concerns that we have about our area.

I keep mentioning Hitachi because I am proud of what we have achieved, but Hitachi has said that it came to England and the UK not only because it is a great place but because it is in Europe. We are part of Europe and should remain so.

Finally, I want to ask a few questions of the Minister. Will the readjustments be over five years, or is he thinking of reducing that time scale? What guarantees are being offered to manufacturing. Under the proposals, will incentives come to areas? Will any grants take inflation into consideration, as was mentioned? Will that be the consumer prices index, the retail prices index or another measure of inflation?

Thank you, Mr Amess, for calling me to speak this morning on a subject that has far-reaching implications for my constituency and the north-east as a whole. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate.

The Government’s ambition to “incentivise” councils to boost local economic growth by linking it to a meaningful increase in funding for local services is laudable in its aims. However, I feel strongly that their proposals will have a raft of unintended consequences which will have a damaging effect on the north-east and other less developed areas of the country, such as Yorkshire. They will not encourage strong, sustainable growth in local areas but rather undermine the manufacturing companies that are so vital to the north-east’s economy. There is no doubt in my mind that the Association of North East Councils is correct when it says that wealthy areas could grow stronger and poorer areas weaker if business rates are localised as proposed. The 12 councils warn that wealthy parts of London and the south-east, led by Westminster and the City of London, could have resources reallocated to them while poorer areas lose out. The new system must take account of local needs, including cost pressures resulting from deprivation.

The current system recognises the systemic inequalities in Britain, providing different councils with different levels of resource to meet different needs and ensuring that the service needs of the poorest areas are met. That is fundamental, as there is substantially greater need in the north-east in terms of pressures on local services and the smaller commercial and business areas. One example is children’s services. Proportionately, several times more children are on free school meals in my Stockton North constituency than in the affluent areas of the south-east, so our local authority’s costs are proportionately much higher on children’s services alone. Some may claim the Stockton borough will benefit marginally—it would only be marginally—from the changes, but any small benefit will be dwarfed by the total loss across the north-east. This is about the north-east region and not about individual authorities—it is about a regional, shared economy.

Despite the diversification of the region’s economy and considerable action over the 13 years of Labour Government on health and poverty, the region sadly still has the largest percentage of its population—around 33%—living in some of the most deprived areas of England. The proposals will make it much worse. If the Government’s proposals were applied to the 2011-12 or 2012-13 grant settlements for the north-east, it would result in grant losses above the national average in percentage terms and substantially above average reductions in cash grant. That significant reduction means that councils would inevitably have to make deeper cuts in their budgets, thereby putting greater pressure on the delivery of the most essential local services.

The Government should realise that not only do different areas of the country face different levels of need and dependency on public services, but they have different business and economic structures. The north-east is very proud of its manufacturing sector, which currently, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) pointed out, contributes £7.5 billion to the regional economy. However, the sole focus on business rates as a means on incentivising local business growth will hugely undermine that sector.

Business rates from retail or commercial developments are significantly higher, as others have pointed out, than from manufacturing and, under current proposals, it is likely that manufacturing developments will be seen as less attractive propositions, despite the wider economic benefits such as exports, supply chain industries, jobs and skills, compared with retail developments which have the capability to secure greater levels of business income.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that his area of Stockton has unlimited potential for more and more retail development, which would thereby stop manufacturing investment, which seems to be his proposition?

One of the things that I have fought for over the years is to restrict the growth of retail outside our town centre, which, as with so many town centres throughout the country, is suffering. We will not get anything extra for the empty properties sitting in our high streets; I want to see them filled up with new businesses and contributing to our economy.

There seems to be a contradiction between the Tory-led Government’s rhetoric and their actions. When the Tory leader first became Prime Minister, he claimed that he wanted to give manufacturing “another chance” and sang the praises of small businesses by saying that they were the “lifeblood” of the economy. During the general election campaign, he—not then Prime Minister—told the north-east media that the region would be safe in his hands. Sadly, he has failed to keep any promise in that direction, delivering less investment, a laughable growth fund that has yet to achieve any single thing of note, enterprise zones without any real, up-front, hard cash to support them and a banking sector that ignores his pleas for loans to businesses. Now his proposals for business rates fail our north-east region.

I also have strong reservations, as does my local Stockton borough council, about the lack of a clear mechanism for adjusting to changes in the needs of local authorities. I was encouraged that the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who has now left his place, agreed that that is a major issue. Under the present formula grant system, needs are adjusted every year through changes in data and every three years by considering changes to the actual formulae. To move to a much more infrequent reassessment of need in the proposed rates retention scheme would be a worrying move, particularly in such uncertain economic times. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Government forecasts of business rate yield are realistic, and that updated estimates are based on adjustments arising from continuing economic indicators.

I started with how the Government want to incentivise local authorities, but it is important to emphasise that the notion that local authorities in the north-east do not promote economic growth in their area because they do not benefit from increased business rates is fundamentally flawed and, I would go so far as to say, deeply insulting. People in the north-east are working extremely hard to develop, to grow our local economies and to create jobs. Local authorities, including those in the north-east, have embarked on economic development in their area for countless years because they will attract jobs and benefit their area. The Government reforms are not only likely to hinder the prospect of a strong business sector in the north-east but very likely to worsen public services when they are needed most. That “survival of the fittest” model is simply the wrong policy, with the north-east again paying the price.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate. She is a powerful advocate for her region, as are my other hon. Friends who have spoken today. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), who is a former Local Government Minister, highlighted the problems that might occur after 2013. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) highlighted the need for infrastructure to unlock potential in the north-east. My hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) highlighted the work that has already been done to attract manufacturing industry to the region. However, what is clear from the debate, in all parts of the Chamber, is a deep suspicion of the Government’s motives. The Government document consulting on the localisation of business rates contains some ringing phrases, and “No more will proud cities be forced to come to the national government with a begging bowl” has been one comment. That sounds good and, to be fair to the Government, it has some history: lots of investigations into local government finance have suggested more control and more autonomy for local councils. So why are we so suspicious?

In the first place, the Government have form, do they not? In their Localism Bill, we saw all the fine phrases about devolving power to local authorities and more autonomy, yet the Bill contains 100 new powers for the Secretary of State. Their local government finance settlement manages to centralise power and devolve blame. Now they are trying it again. The whole local government resource review is based on a wrong premise. It says clearly that

“local authorities can be reluctant to allow commercial development and promote economic growth.”

I say to the Minister: name one. I know of no local authority, especially in the north-east, that is not desperate to attract jobs and growth.

The reason why our economy is not growing is not local authorities; it is this Government’s policies, which have made it flatline and stifled growth. What is more, the Government do not have a plan for growth. In fact, they are proud of not having one; they tell us there is no plan B. We are back to the ’80s and our old friend TINA—“There is no alternative”. Local authorities did not cause that recession, and they did not cause this one.

We will scrutinise the Government’s plans carefully. We support measures that stimulate growth but, as with all this Government’s policies, the devil is in the detail, and the detail is often well hidden. The Government propose to set the baseline using the 2012-13 formula grant. It must come within the expenditure controls set out in the 2010 spending review, but that spending review is inherently unfair to many local authorities. It began by making in-year cuts to specific grants in 2010, which mostly targeted the most deprived local authority areas, and over the next two years, it will make spending cuts in the most deprived authorities. Newcastle city council has produced a heat map showing where the cuts will fall: the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire, part of the midlands and inner-London boroughs. Funnily enough, most of those places overwhelmingly vote Labour. I am sure that that is entirely coincidental.

By 2012-13, the cumulative cuts in per capita spending will be £183 in Hartlepool and South Tyneside, £156 in Middlesbrough and £144 in Newcastle—I could go on—although the national average is £47 and the average in the south-east is £31. The Government are starting from a position of unfairness before introducing their top-ups and tariffs. They say they will include equalisation, but no system can be fair unless it starts from a fair base.

Moreover, the Government will give no assurance that local authorities will not lose out after the first year. The Deputy Prime Minister told the Local Government Association:

“The new system will start on a level playing field. Where you progress from there is up to you.”

Life is simple for Liberal Democrats, is it not? Both those sentences are wrong. We will not start with a level playing field, and it is not entirely up to local authorities how they will progress, as hon. Friends have mentioned. Some local authorities already have a large business rate base. Westminster has been mentioned. If it got all its business rates back, it would be £1 billion better off. By comparison, Hartlepool receives £13 million more than it collects. That is equivalent to 18 more supermarkets, which I doubt Hartlepool could sustain. Newcastle would be £39 million short, or the cost of 16 airports.

Even that is not the whole story. We know that councils that already have a large business rate base find it easier to attract more investment. Westminster, with its multi-million pound national and international company base, finds it easier to bring in investment than Consett does. Cambridge, which has a fine high-tech hub centred on the university, is much more likely to attract more such firms than a council starting from scratch. The worry is that, if the Government get it wrong—to be honest, their record so far is not encouraging—they could increase the gap between north and south. Tony Travers of the London School of Economics said to The Times:

“The risk is that northern authorities will find it impossible to attract businesses as fast as councils in the south. If that happens, the gap between the south and north will widen”.

The Government say they will deal with that using a levy on disproportionate gains. Let us be clear that they are discussing recouping not the whole disproportionate gain but only a share of it, and that the review contains no definition of “disproportionate” or any clarity about how the levy will work. They say that it could be 1p in the pound. In that case, local authorities with a high tax base will generate much more revenue from the same amount of growth than those with a lower tax base. The levy could work similarly, but place local authorities in bands. In that case, we will face the problem of a huge disparity between local authorities at the top of one band and those at the bottom of the next. The Government say that the levy could also involve an individual rate for each local authority. They could change the ratio of business rate growth to revenue growth. Would that not be returning to the central control that the Government say they want to avoid?

The Government want the power to reset the system. It is obvious that resetting will be necessary. Hon. Friends have asked for clarity on that. The Government say that they might reset the system based on a completely new assessment of need rather than on formula grant. If I were still serving on a local authority, a shiver would go down my spine at that. This Government have shown no capacity to assess need properly in any of their decisions on local government finance. The system is open to yet more political manipulation and interference.

The other point, as hon. Friends have mentioned, is whether business rate growth is a proper test of economic growth. The Government’s proposals would make large retail developments much more attractive to local authorities than manufacturing, because they generate higher income. There would be no similar incentive to develop manufacturing or to support small businesses, despite the wider benefits to the community. We need such businesses. We need the skills that they generate, the exports that they develop and the effect that they have on the supply chain, just as we need the innovation that comes from small, high-tech companies, yet the proposals carry a risk that local authorities in the north-east and elsewhere could lose out by supporting the growth that the country needs. As hon. Members have said, retail in the region will generate between £800,000 and £1 million per hectare, while manufacturing and small businesses will generate between £100,000 and £200,000. I say to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) that it has nothing to do with the space that businesses occupy. We are talking about returns per hectare.

Regional growth often depends on national policies. Northumberland, for example, has a sparse population, a huge national park and poor infrastructure. In order to grow, it needs huge national investment in infrastructure, yet we have heard nothing from the Government about how they propose to make that necessary investment, nor have they told us how they will manage risk in the system. Most importantly, we have heard nothing about need, or about the services that local authorities must provide for the elderly, children and families in distress. The huge question that the Government are ignoring is this: if a local authority’s future income is linked to business rates, what will happen if a big business fails and the anticipated level of growth is not reached?

We will support a sensible review of local government finance, but as usual this Government are going too far, too fast. They have a system that begins with unfairness, that is progressing through muddle, and that has the potential to lead to a postcode lottery in services. They have to think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate. I think that this is the second time that she and I have found ourselves discussing matters of importance to the north-east in this Chamber. The proposed reforms are important, not just for local authorities in the north-east but, as some Members have noted, for areas throughout the country. There are implications beyond the north-east.

I thought that there was general agreement and consensus that this country has the most centralised and complex local government finance system in the world, with the possible exception of Malta, which has a much simpler governance structure in any case. In all my time in local government—I served on three different local authorities in the north-west of England—I never liked the decisions of any Government on local government finance. I have seen a series of disastrous mistakes, resulting in more power and responsibility being taken away from local authorities and their being subjected to choices—sometimes arbitrary and, clearly on many occasions, not taking account of local services—made in Westminster and Whitehall.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Communities and Local Government Minister and one of those who has delivered so many arbitrary decisions to people like me.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is my successor at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Does he think that, with tariffs, top-ups, resets and redistribution, the system that he has to implement will be less complex than the current system?

Yes, most certainly. It will be transparent. I think that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, knows that the formula system, which was made even more convoluted during his period in office, has clearly passed its sell-by date. It is impenetrable, even to chief finance officers of local authorities, not to mention voters on the street.

In the time remaining, I will explain some of our proposed scheme’s features and talk about the consultation process. The aim of the proposals is to change the dynamic from a centrally controlled system to a locally controlled system. That is the purpose of the reform.

The Government do not let local authorities set the business rate and they dictate the council tax through freezing, so where is this great accountability and devolution of power to our elected councillors when it comes to finance?

I do not want to go too far astray, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the referendum proposal in the Localism Bill, which will change who is accountable to the local electorate for excessive council tax rises, is a huge transfer of control from Whitehall to local communities over the council tax income-raising power of councils. The transfer of business rate distribution from a formula determined by central Government to one that gives local councils a real incentive to build their own income base is a fundamental change in both of the aspects that have been mentioned. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, would like to go much further than that, but let us be clear: these are significant steps.

The consultation was published on 18 July and was backed up by the publication of eight technical papers on 19 August. They included an interactive, electronic paper that allows councils to feed in different parameters of the consultation so that they can establish what the outcome would be for their local authority. I can only suppose that local finance officers in the constituencies of certain Members who have spoken during the debate have not shared that information with them, because there is a clear gap between the worst possible case constructed by that interactive model and the worst case presented in this debate.

I want to make it clear that the baseline will be based on the formula grant that would have been received by a local authority had there been no reform of the system, and that it will be neither better nor worse than that. We made that clear in the consultation. That baseline will not get lost in the future, so local authorities in the north-east will have it as their fixed point for the future. Once we get beyond the period of the comprehensive spending review, growth beyond that baseline will be theirs to have.

The Minister is short of time, so I am grateful to him for allowing me to intervene. Will he clarify whether Sunderland will not be worse off by £60 million, but that we will retain our current funding level, upon which we can grow?

That is exactly what I said and it was clear in the consultation document from the very beginning. I am sure that the former Minister, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), had his tongue in his cheek when he said that he thought that Hartlepool faced a drop of £13 million. That is not the case. If the figure for Hartlepool is £40 million—which is the figure that he quoted—that is the baseline from which all further development for Hartlepool will be taken.

The Minister is being generous in taking interventions. Will he confirm that the only promise from the Government is that local authorities will not lose out in the first year that the scheme comes into operation? There is no guarantee after that first year.

The hon. Lady misunderstands what the Government have said. The baseline is fixed permanently in the system. The losses and gains come from changes in the business rate income that an authority might receive. I point out to Members who represent constituencies in the north-east that, over the five years from 2006, the total business rate income in England rose by 5% per year—not 5% overall, but per year—and by 5.1% in the north-east. In other words, the rise in business rates in the north-east during that five-year period was greater than that in England as a whole. Furthermore, a rise of 5% per year is significantly higher than RPI, CPI or, indeed, any rise in formula grant that any of those authorities gained. This is not a zero-sum reform. Beyond the CSR period, there is every prospect that the north-east will do well out of this system of having an increasing flow of business rates.

A number of points have been made about whether or not this is an incentivising system. If, during that five-year period, the north-east was able to secure an annual rise of 5.1% in its business rate income without any incentive, it seems to me that, even if the incentive effect turns out to be quite weak, it is likely to be better than that, than RPI and than the increase in formula grant, which the previous Government, in their munificence, decided was appropriate for north-east authorities. It is important that we nail some of the misunderstandings that have arisen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) made the point that the regional growth fund is active and effective. Fourteen companies in the north-east have had support, and that will provide more than 5,200 direct jobs and 8,300 indirect jobs.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has announced a £500 million growing places fund for infrastructure in England, for which local authorities in the north-east will be eligible. I am sure that the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) will make sure that his local authority makes a suitable proposal to deal with the roundabout on the A19 that he mentioned.

The consultation is still—

Sex and Relationship Education

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Amess. I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important issue of what is being taught in our primary schools about sex and relationships. There is no doubt that children need to be taught about sex and how to be responsible and safe, as we try to tackle issues such as teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. However, experiences in my constituency, as well as organisations’ campaigns such as “Too much, too young”, have highlighted material being used that is completely inappropriate and that sends out totally the wrong message.

At the moment, schools often ask their local authorities to recommend material, but there is no process for sourcing age-appropriate material; instead, material that may be completely inappropriate is provided by unlicensed suppliers for use in primary schools. At a time when there is widespread concern about the sexualisation of childhood, using sexually explicit and inappropriate materials in primary school classrooms can only make things worse.

The aim of holding this debate is, first, to call on the Government to make sure that material taught in primary schools is appropriate, not sexually explicit and not exploitative of our young children. Secondly, I would like to ensure that school governors are required to be actively aware of what kind of material is being used in their schools and to take a sensible and responsible view on the matter. Thirdly, and most importantly, I want parents to be able genuinely to have their say and to be made actively aware of what kind of sex education is being taught to their children. I want there to be a system whereby parents take a decision on whether to allow their children to be taught sex education and have to opt into the lessons, rather than having to opt out as is the currently the case.

Before I am accused of putting too great a burden on hard-working parents, let us not forget that all of us with school-age children—I have three of my own—are expected to sign up proactively to music lessons and school trips. Therefore why should we not have to proactively sign up to one of the most important learning experiences of a child’s early life?

Notwithstanding the hon. Lady’s point about the opt-out for parents, does she think that all primary schools should teach sex and relationship education?

It should be for the schools, the parents and the governors to make that decision as is appropriate for their school. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Moving on, at the moment, parents can only choose to opt out of SRE, and I have been given several examples in my constituency alone of instances where parents have been made to feel extremely uncomfortable for deciding that they do not want their children to attend SRE lessons.

I am a huge fan of our Government’s localism agenda and I want to make it clear that I am not trying to change the way decision-making for SRE is delegated to schools and parents. It is entirely right that we should trust our local communities to run local services and to make the correct decisions. I also absolutely do not advocate censorship and do not want central Government dictating to every school what is appropriate. However, guidance should be given to aid local authorities, school governors and parents in finding the right material to use in SRE in our primary schools.

So what is the best form of guidance? We already have the perfect template that we can follow and implement with minimal distraction or disturbance: that of the British Board of Film Classification. That organisation does an excellent job of classifying films, videos and DVDs, and it has done so since it was set up in 1912. The BBFC gives guidance on what is suitable for certain ages in cinemas and for home viewing. It is important to note that rather than being a body of censorship, the main job of the BBFC is to guide and classify films. Statutory powers on film remain with local councils, which may overrule any of the BBFC’s decisions. Local councils can pass films the BBFC rejects, ban films it has passed and even waive cuts, institute new ones or alter categories for films exhibited under their own licensing jurisdiction.

The BBFC bases its classifications on three main qualifications. First, it considers whether the material is lawful. Secondly, it considers whether the availability of the material at the age group concerned is clearly unacceptable to broad public opinion. It is on that basis, for example, that the BBFC intervenes in respect of bad language. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it considers whether the material either on its own or in combination with other content of a similar nature may cause any harm at the category—in other words, the age—concerned. That includes not only any harm that may result from the behaviour of potential viewers, but any moral harm that may be caused by, for example, desensitising a potential viewer to the effects of violence, degrading a potential viewer’s sense of empathy, encouraging a dehumanised view of others, suppressing pro-social attitudes, encouraging anti-social attitudes, reinforcing unhealthy fantasies, or eroding a sense of moral responsibility.

Those criteria are all directly taken from the BBFC’s categorisation of its own activities. Regarding children, harm may also include retarding social and moral development, distorting a viewer’s sense of right and wrong, and limiting their capacity for compassion. All of those things are taken into account in the BBFC classifications and I would like those criteria to be applied to the material being used in our primary schools to teach SRE. The BBFC, with its 99 years of experience, should be asked to implement such measures.

So why do I think that that is necessary? Currently, schools are teaching SRE to young children with the best of intentions. However, it has been brought to my attention by numerous people in different organisations that some of the material being taught to children as young as five is completely inappropriate. I have seen cartoons of two people engaged in sexual activity with the caption:

“here are some ways mummies and daddies fit together”.

Other images depict two cartoon characters locked in an intimate embrace accompanied by a vivid explanation, using sexual terminology, of the act of intercourse. As well as cartoons, I have been shown a video of two people engaged in intercourse with a child’s voice over the top saying, “It looks like they’re having fun.” I have also been shown leaflets given out to primary school children that give graphic definitions of orgasms, masturbation and prostitution. That is the kind of material being taught to children as young as five and there are accounts of the traumatic experiences of those children, who have been put off having boyfriends and been left thinking, “Do grown-ups really do this? It looks absolutely horrific.”

I am listening very carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. Has she come across some of the very good materials being used in the classroom that concentrate not on the biology of sex, but on relationships, children being kept safe, appropriate touching and things like that? For a five-year-old, that is much more important than the obsession some people have with the biology of sex.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady on that point. Of course, there is some excellent material. As I said, schools are teaching SRE with the very best of intentions. The problem is that there is no licensing regime and no sense of appropriateness of the material. A wide-range of material is used, with varying amounts of intervention and careful analysis by schools, parents and governors.

My hon. Friend says, on the one hand, that she wants to see a national licensing system and, on the other hand, that she thinks schools should be able to decide for themselves. Are those two positions compatible?

I think that they are. I am not talking about a national licensing regime; I am simply talking about material that is used in schools being rated as age appropriate by the BBFC. By the same token, I do not know if my hon. Friend has any children, but if he does and he wanted them to watch 18-rated videos when they were only 12, that would be down to him as a parent. However, he would take such action with the clear understanding that the BBFC does not consider that to be appropriate for his children. Likewise, I will not show my seven-year-old videos that are above the relevant classification. I take the advice of the BBFC and only show my children things that are deemed to be age appropriate for them. My point is that there is no such guidance where SRE is concerned. At the moment, it is left to county councils, schools, governors and parents to make that decision. Parents and governors are often very busy and do not look at the material that is being shown to their children, and some of it is extraordinarily inappropriate.

I apologise for missing the beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech; she may well have already answered this question. What discussions has the hon. Lady had with the BBFC about whether it would want to take on this additional work?

I confess that I have not spoken to the BBFC. If the BBFC’s responsibility for rating a particular type of output was changed, I am certain that, as a licensing authority, it would be happy to do that. In a previous parliamentary inquiry on internet porn, the BBFC talked about what it could do to help in relation to inappropriate websites. It would be willing if it was asked, appropriately resourced and paid, so I do not consider that that is an issue. However, the hon. Lady makes a fair point that I will take up with the BBFC if the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) is minded to respond in a positive way.

I, and many parents who have contacted me, find that such material, shown to children as young as five, completely inappropriate. What should we be talking about in SRE lessons?

The hon. Lady has cited specific material that she has seen. Will she tell us how prevalent the use of that material is, who produced it and what schools it is used in?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not citing schools, because some are in my constituency and, as I have said several times, schools are teaching SRE with the best of intentions. There is no intention to harm, but I have talked to head teachers in my constituency who have said that they feel that the guidance they have been given is lacking, and that they would have appreciated more instruction on what is age appropriate in this very sensitive area.

Headmasters raised a separate issue, which is that many teachers find it extremely difficult to go through this type of material with very young children. They find it easier to provide something that, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, is often produced by television stations. For example, Channel 4 has provided some sex and relationship education, as has the BBC. However, such material is not licensed, so it is left to the discretion of schools, which feel ill-equipped to make the decision, as to what is appropriate for a seven-year-old. The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that, unless one happens to have a seven-year-old, which I do, one cannot really project oneself into a seven-year-old’s shoes very easily and decide what is appropriate for them. It would be far more helpful to have guidance from an organisation such as the BBFC, which has been providing guidance for 99 years.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree with me that the starting point ought to be about training teachers? I would not want my grandchildren to have sex and relationship education given by people who were not qualified to do so. Training teachers has to be the starting point. It would then follow that the best packages of education would be chosen.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is a significant concern for some schools. They lack confidence in knowing for sure what material is appropriate for each age group. I do not need to explain to the Chamber that that varies with age. What one might show a 13-year-old is vastly different from what one might show a seven-year-old. This is what I am trying to get at—the specific point about age-appropriate material. From the contact I have had, that is a big concern for schools and parents.

My experience is that in the best schools head teachers buy in experts who know what is age-appropriate and bring in the relevant materials. Is that the hon. Lady’s experience? I saw a very good Catholic school in south London use such expertise not long ago. That would fit with the Government’s agenda around schools buying in services and getting the best expertise they need.

The hon. Lady makes another good point. That could certainly be one way of addressing the problem. However, I still advocate an easy and uniformly good way of dealing with the issue, which is to have some sort of classification of material from which all schools can benefit. As we know, some schools are more engaged with this issue than others. Some head teachers are more knowledgeable than others, and some governing bodies are more proactive than others. We need a level playing field, so that all schools have access to good advice without having to go out and seek the experts. Schools have said to me that access to experts is simply not there. When they talk to their county council about what to do on this subject, it often has no real advice for them, other than to point them in the direction of unlicensed material.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. It is an excellent idea for outside bodies to come into primary and secondary schools. In Northern Ireland, we have an organisation called Love for Life, which is approved by the health service and the education board to go into schools to teach children about relationships. However, it does not go into primary schools to deal with the explicit details to which she has alluded. Bringing in an outside body is one way of doing it, as I am sure she will agree.

I agree that that has some merit and is worth consideration. Equally, there is a counter argument that for very young children in primary schools, it is a fundamental principle to have one teacher for almost every subject. When introducing such an enormous topic as sex and relationship education to very young children, there is a case for sticking with the teacher pupils know and are often very fond of. To bring in an outside expert, no matter how sensitive and well informed, could be counter-productive in primary schools.

What should we be talking about in schools? We are talking today about sex and relationship education. I agree completely that, when we deal with the issue of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, our schoolchildren have to be aware of those issues and how to prevent them. Sex education is vital. However, relationship education is equally, if not more, important, particularly at a young age. Nowhere in the material that I have seen has there been any emphasis on building relationships. We should be teaching children primarily about relationships. We should be teaching them about emotions and responsibility. Our children need to understand that as well as fun, happiness and contentment, sex and relationships can evoke other feelings, such as jealousy, sadness and guilt. Our children need to understand that sex is almost always better when you are in love, or when you are in a committed relationship. Unfortunately, a lot of what is being taught at the moment does not address those issues.

Finally, I want to consider who needs to have a say in what our children are being taught. I am concerned about the number of constituents who have said to me that they had no idea what was being taught to their children, and that when they found out they were horrified. I have three children. I allowed them to go to their RSE lessons and I have no idea what they were taught. I put my hand up to being a busy mum who was invited in one morning, on a work day, to watch what the children would be watching and who did not take the school up on the opportunity. The expectation that all parents have is that school knows best—it knows what it is doing, is best placed to do this, and that that is great as it gets me out of that extraordinarily awkward conversation.

Many parents have told me that they were completely horrified when they finally found out what their children were being taught. I believe that schools are acting with the best of honourable intentions, and I am not about to lay the blame at head teachers’ doors. Parents must share the responsibility, and there must, therefore, be better communication with them. They need proactively to know what their children are being taught on such a sensitive issue. Only parents can decide whether their child is ready to be taught about this subject. All of us who are parents and grandparents know that children mature at very different ages, and something that one seven-year-old finds funny and entertaining and is mature enough to deal with might not be appropriate for another.

Parents often simply trust schools and assume that they know best. That is no bad thing, but we must help schools to make the best decisions. Teachers and governors must make the decisions about whether material is appropriate, just as parents must be aware of what their children are being taught. We have the assumption that if parents are uncomfortable with the material they can opt out of SRE lessons for their children, but there should be the assumption that parents opt in, particularly for primary school children. Parents have to opt in to music lessons, school trips and even school lunches; no one assumes that they can take a child rock climbing or to a music concert without explicit consent.

I am concerned that a child living in an abnormal situation, with abuse taking place, will not know what a normal situation or normal touching is. If we have an opt-in, is there not a danger that such a child will have a prolonged life of misery?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but the problem with it is that we are saying that to catch the small minority for whom sex education might make a difference to what is going on at home we must inflict potentially inappropriate SRE on all children. I have quite a degree of knowledge of, and have had a great deal to do with, such situations through my nine-year chairmanship of the Oxford Parent Infant Project, a charity that has helped families in potentially extremely dangerous situations for many years. Simply forcing these children to have sex and relationship education at school will not make the difference—turning them into whistleblowers or giving them the ability to stop what is going on at home—and the harm done by inappropriate material could outweigh that potential. We should not inflict that type of material on all our children for the sake of, what I consider to be, a vain hope.

I want to see all material used in sex and relationship education in primary schools licensed and given some kind of classification, and school governors and teachers deciding what is appropriate to teach on the basis of that guidance, and I want parents to be given the appropriate information and the final say on whether and when their child should opt in to SRE.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts, first on whether a classification system that used the BBFC’s certificates could be implemented for SRE material in primary schools, to ensure that the material was suitable and conveyed the right message and had a guide to what age it was suitable for. Secondly, I would like to hear his comments on a commitment to provide clear guidance to schools that would ensure that not just sex but relationship education was properly taught, including the discussion of emotions and consequences, and of the benefits of love and committed relationships. Thirdly, I would like to hear his comments on a requirement that governors and teachers work together to decide what material is appropriate, and on having a cast-iron guarantee that parents will be properly informed of the full facts about what their children are taught, and be allowed to make the final decision on whether it is the right time for their children to opt in to SRE, rather than their having to opt out. I look forward to his response.

I have listened to the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) with interest, and feel that the ideas of a licensing regime and of parents opting in to sex and relationship education ought to be discussed. However, I am not convinced that that is the way to go on this important subject, and I am concerned about examples being cited of inappropriate information or resources being given to very young children. I have yet to be given explicit details of the schools, areas, teachers and materials involved, but I am open-minded, and if that evidence is available I would like to see it. Many comments are made, but where is the evidence that this is a problem in schools? I am concerned that we are not looking at the actual evidence. We should trust our teachers; our teaching profession is better educated and better resourced than it has ever been, and in most of our schools, most of the time, really good work is going on, especially in primaries. Teachers, on the whole, do their best, and use appropriate resources.

In the previous Parliament, there was an opportunity to make personal, social and health education compulsory in all primary and secondary schools, which would have ensured that the subject was given proper consideration and that resources followed. PSHE teachers could have been expected to be properly trained and have the necessary resources to deliver that part of the curriculum. In the last few months of the previous Government, I was the Minister trying to take the measure through Parliament and I was disappointed because we ended up with the Conservative party refusing to back what was a very sensible proposal. There was a specific issue with sex education, but, as the hon. Lady mentioned, there is the opportunity for parents to opt out. A parent can withdraw a child up to the age of 18, and the Government must consider the legal anomaly that that creates, because at 16 a young person can have lawful sexual relations. I hope that the Minister comments on that when he deals with the hon. Lady’s suggestion of opting in, because there is a knock-on effect.

On a point of clarification, I am looking for an opt-in in primary schools, for children up to the age of 11, and I share the hon. Lady’s concern about an opt-out up to the age of 18.

I am pleased to hear that because this whole area needs to be considered carefully. I am disappointed that the Government have so far turned their face away from addressing the important issue of teaching to produce rounded individuals, rather than narrowly focusing on the academic side. Our schools play an important part in educating children in the issues they will face as they become adults. I accept that the hon. Lady is dealing with primary schools in this debate.

I concur with the hon. Lady. I supported her in her desire to strengthen our PSHE, and during that time I found it bizarre that the teaching of the mechanics of sex was compulsory in the science curriculum but that the teaching of sex and relationships, which must be taken together, might not happen. Does she share my concern?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has long championed PSHE and children being given the information they need to make safe and good choices.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: young people are taught the mechanics of sex under the science curriculum, but important issues such as relationships, confidence and saying no are not dealt with. In debates in the previous Parliament, the Minister, who is a decent and honourable man, took a close interest in this area. I hope he will say whether the Government are minded to include this in their review of the national curriculum.

In the good schools I have visited, parents and governors are very much involved in this issue. Parents can look at material and see what goes on in PSHE classes, and we should build on that rather than thinking about an alternative licensing regime.

On access to information and a classification, the Sex Education Forum’s website is accessible to teachers, parents and governors. It sets clear criteria on relationships and the appropriateness of material, including whether it is age-appropriate. Does my hon. Friend recommend that people visit the site as a starting point?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that that resource is well used by the teaching profession, and if people are struggling it is one of the websites people can visit.

I visited a Catholic school in south London. Its head teacher was fully engaged with parents, and as a Catholic school it has to ensure that particular sensitivities are addressed. He reassured parents and governors that what was happening in the school was good and fine and that the children were benefiting from it. PSHE is taught throughout the school. Children in the class I visited were given different items of clothing, and an expert who had been brought in was discussing which bits of clothing people would wear. It was fun, interesting and educational, but it had a serious point because they were discussing parts of the body and what clothing was used to cover them. It was age-appropriate and it allowed children to name parts of the body without embarrassment—without sniggering and laughing. The lesson was well organised, and the Catholic church and that school should be congratulated on their approach to SRE and PSHE.

The Department of Education might consider spreading that practice around other schools, but it is important that we begin in primary schools by talking to children about the key issues of relationships, keeping them safe and giving them the confidence to make wise choices. I agree with the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire about inappropriate materials not being used, although I am a little unsure about whether that happens. Most schools do their best and use appropriate material. Teenagers tell us that they wish they had received information much earlier about being confident about their bodies, about relationships and about what is acceptable. A survey recently conducted by one of the big charities showed that a high number of young women were in violent and verbally abusive relationships. I am greatly concerned that we are not giving our young women the confidence to say, “I am a valued human being and I won’t put up with this behaviour.”

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady: we cannot teach the mechanics of sex without teaching the relationship that goes with it. She gives an example of what happens if children are led to think that sex is fun and everyone does it without their being told that there are inappropriate sexual contacts; that they can end up feeling used, dirty and awful about themselves; and that somebody can deliberately put them in that position.

I think we can agree on that point.

The Government’s national curriculum review of primary education should consider whether this subject should be formally included in the curriculum. I do not want to pre-judge the Minister, but I suspect he will say that it will not be. The vast majority of people accept that giving good information to primary school children can help to deal with problems in secondary school. The rate of teenage pregnancy in my constituency is still too high and there are too many young people in inappropriate relationships. Let us start to deal with this issue early and let us get it right for our young people.

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, following our many deliberations on the Committee that considered the Localism Bill.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate. Although I am not a parent, I am an uncle to two children and a godfather to two more. I think we all agree that good parenting is about protecting childhood and preparing children for the future. I should like to explain what that future might be as some young people grow up.

Last year, young people—who form just 12% of the population—accounted for half of all sexually transmitted infections in the UK. Twenty-five per cent. of sexually active 15 to 24-year-olds test positive for chlamydia; 75% of 16 to 24-year-olds report not using condoms when they have sex; in 1990 the proportion of women who reported first intercourse before the age of 16 was about 10%, but 10 years later the figure had doubled to 20%. The equivalent figures for men were 20% and 27%. Teenage pregnancy in the UK has been reducing in recent years, but we still have by far the highest levels in Europe.

Far from trying to move away from teaching sex and relationships, the Government should be doing a lot more to embed this, if Members will excuse the pun, in the curriculum. We talk a lot about the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—but there is a fourth R that is equally important if we are to create happy and confident young people: relationships.

We know that good SRE gives children confidence. It teaches them about their body—how it changes as they grow up—and it gives them the self-awareness and confidence to start to combat some of the sexualised imagery and body fascism prevalent in so much of our media today. It helps to safeguard them by equipping them with the skills to negotiate safe sex and decent relationships—to understand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) said, when their relationship would not be considered normal and, at an extreme, when it might be considered abusive. It also helps them later, through biology lessons and other parts of the secondary school curriculum, to understand how to negotiate the kind of safe sex that will help to stop them from becoming one of the statistics we have all read about. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire that SRE must be appropriate and sensitively delivered and that we must ensure that schools do not use inappropriate material, but I cannot agree with the “Too much, too young” campaign, whose tips on actions for parents at the back of its campaign material include seven ways of monitoring their child’s SRE, but do not include one positive way of talking to children about relationships and the consequences of unprotected sex.

That is quite ironic. Mr Amess, you may remember that The Specials had a number one record in 1980 called “Too Much Too Young”. I will not sing it, but it ends with the following lyrics:

“Ain’t you heard of contraception

D’you really wanna programme of sterilisation

Take control of the population boom

It’s in your living room

Keep a generation gap

Try wearing a cap.”

In the 1980s, when teenage pregnancies were rising significantly, that political song of the time said to a generation that relationship counselling and education needs to be embedded much further into the curriculum.

On a point of information, what do those song lyrics say about relationship education? Absolutely nothing, surely. That is a complete trivialisation and part of the problem, not part of the solution. There is no relationship guidance in those lyrics.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. I am trying to make the point that the consequence of not embedding relationship guidance at primary school level leads to the consequences of teenage pregnancies and the rise in sexually transmitted infections that so damage our society. We have to make this a continuous process, which is why I agree with Opposition Members who asked the Government to put the programme on a statutory basis.

It is a shame that debates such as this perpetuate some myths. The first is that sexual relationship education does not work. It does work, when it is established, properly resourced, appropriate and embedded in the curriculum. The second is that it leads to young people engaging in more sexual activity. All the evidence is to the contrary. Continuous, proper sexual relationship education actually helps people better negotiate the point at which they want to take part in sexual activities.

We have the notion, mentioned by my hon. Friend, that parents are excluded from the process, that somehow they do not have the opportunity to monitor and consider what their children are exposed to. Most surveys suggest that eight out of 10 parents think that their children should be receiving sexual relationship education. I think 0.04% choose to opt out at the moment.

I have to make the point again. I do not want to show one-upmanship—having three kids to my hon. Friend’s none—but the fact is that most parents now work. Therefore, when the school invites them in on a Monday morning to come to see what the children are to be taught—when they have an important meeting with their boss—the tendency is to think that school knows best and to let it go ahead. I agree with my hon. Friend in principle that parents have the chance, but in reality life gets in the way. That is why it is important to ask parents to engage and not just, by default, go along with whatever is being taught.

Again, I think my hon. Friend is trying to find disagreement where there may be none. As I said earlier, I think the materials should be appropriate and they need to be monitored. I like her suggestion of a classification system. However, I do not like her suggestion that parents could opt out of something that is so important and such a fundamental part of being a fully functioning human being in the 21st century.

We are exploring a very important point. As the mother of two daughters—one of whom went on to teach in primary school and was responsible for sex education—I think it is important that we can trust our teachers to understand what is going on in the classroom and what the children can cope with. As a busy parent, I did not get to the Monday morning meetings either; I trusted my daughters’ teachers. Now we have access to the worldwide web, and there are very good sites to which parents could be pointed by the school, saying, “This is what we intend to teach your children. If you cannot come along, look at the internet.” A vast number of parents—certainly the working ones—would have access to a computer and be able to do that.

The hon. Lady makes an eloquent point. The explosion and proliferation of modern technology make such supervisory duties much easier for all of us. In future, perhaps she will be able to do so in the Chamber from her iPad.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the research papers with which we have been presented include an article from The Times Educational Supplement of 13 May 2011, which makes it clear that almost six in 10 parents do not think that sex education should be taught to children at school?

There are occasions when hon. Members have to say, “On that point I have to disagree.” Why would one not teach geology? Should parents be given an opt-out from geology or from history? If we are to create happy, confident, rounded citizens, we need to be embedding sexual relationship education from the earliest possible age. Of course, we need to do so in an appropriate way; it must be suitably delivered, well resourced and properly monitored. However, we must move away from the “No sex, please, we’re British” attitude, which has so damaged individuals and segments of our society. We need to demystify sex and relationship education. We need to see it as a spectrum and I think we need to move it on to a statutory basis. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that. Rather than the three Rs, we should think of a fourth R: relationship and sex education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Amess.

I start in the unusual situation of agreeing with everything said by the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on calling the debate, which is crucial and timely. It is right to discuss the matter now while the Government are reviewing the PSHE curriculum.

I also speak in the capacity of chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, which has long campaigned for mandatory sex and relationship education at primary and secondary level. Its members are drawn from all political parties and we are extremely concerned about the rising levels of HIV infection in the UK, and the subsequent impact on public health. It is predicted that in 2012, the number of people in the UK who are HIV-positive will hit 100,000, a quarter of whom are unaware of their status. New HIV diagnoses in young people have risen by 48% in the past decade. That is horrendous.

My generation just missed the extremely successful Tombstone campaign in 1986. When I speak to my friends about HIV, it is not at the top of their list of priorities; they do not think it can affect them. The Minister recently told the Lords Select Committee on HIV and AIDS in the UK:

“When you have a survey that says one in four children are not taught about HIV, which is a deadly disease which can be simply avoided and simply caught, a lack of knowledge in this area is unforgiveable in our school system.”

A basic knowledge of HIV is essential to all our young people. HIV sadly remains a highly stigmatised condition, with the National AIDS Trust finding that one in three people diagnosed with HIV have experienced HIV-related discrimination. Research has shown a strong association between poor understanding of HIV and stigmatising attitudes. Good, comprehensive sex and relationship education would help to improve understanding of HIV, dispel myths and thus reduce stigma.

Lord Fowler’s recent Committee in the House of Lords reported that current policies to tackle HIV in the UK are “woefully inadequate”. One in four young people did not learn about HIV at school, which was condemned by the Minister. Young people simply are not learning the facts about HIV and AIDS, and that has to change if we are to make any headway in reversing the number of new infections.

I shall move on to the “Too much, too young” report, already mentioned. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire is a known supporter of the report, which she launched earlier this year. Unfortunately, many of its claims are at best alarmist, if not simply false. The campaign suggested that children as young as five are being shown explicit cartoons and taught about sexual pleasure. If we look at the small print in the report, which I have with me, it is clear that the majority of that imagery is actually suggested for older children. I have found no evidence that younger children have seen such material. The sexual health charities that I have spoken to, including the National Aids Trust, the Family Planning Association, Brook and the Terrence Higgins Trust, are not aware of any school where that has taken place. Furthermore, they would never endorse that type of teaching.

All schools currently have the right to decide which resources to use when teaching children about sex and relationships, and have the right to consult parents and governors to decide which materials should be used. The suggestion that the materials that have been referred to are used as a matter of course, or that sex education campaigners would like materials to be imposed on schools is misleading and misrepresents the excellent work that many of those organisations do in campaigning for comprehensive, high-quality and age-appropriate sex and relationship education for all children.

We might like to live in a time when children did not grow up so quickly and their “innocence” was preserved until a later stage in life, but unfortunately that era, if it ever existed, is long gone. Children are curious about sexual relationships. We cannot and should not shield them from all the influences of the modern world. If they want information, they will find it from another source: teen magazines, the internet and gossiping friends in the playground.

In a survey by UNICEF and the Terrence Higgins Trust, three quarters of young people said that they used the internet to obtain information about sexual health. That risks children receiving inaccurate information. My fear about the suggestion by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire of opt-in sex and relationship education is that many children would miss out. They would not receive sex and relationship education at home; indeed, they might be in a damaging and abusive situation at home.

I have no interest in promoting specific sexual behaviour or introducing concepts to children before they are ready to hear about them. Children are naturally inquisitive and will ask when they are ready to be taught. Primary school sex and relationship education is essential for laying the foundations to ensure that, when old enough, young people receive good sex and relationship education that gives them the information they need to make the right decisions to protect their health and well-being. Given that we have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in western Europe—it is falling, but slowly—it is clear that we are not getting that right, so I welcome the current Government review.

I want to raise a point about homophobia and the positive role that sex and relationship education at an early stage can play in tackling homophobic bullying, which has never been more prevalent in our schools than it is today. A recent YouGov poll found that nine in 10 secondary school teachers and 40% of primary school teachers have witnessed children being subjected to homophobic bullying in their schools. In addition, 75% of primary school teachers have reported hearing the word “gay” shouted as an insult in the school playground. Such words are used commonly by children, without comprehension of their true meaning, as a form of abuse. If children are not taught from a young age about the different possibilities of relationships and about the normality of same-sex relationships, it is not surprising that they grow up with those prejudices. To become active, appropriately behaved citizens, children must learn at that age about the possibilities of different relationships.

As pupils generally start puberty at the later stages of primary school, it is important that schools have an open and intelligent approach to same-sex issues. Basic HIV education should be taught in an environment where same-sex relationships are normalised, not stigmatised or off-limits.

In a recent report by Stonewall, a London primary school teacher is quoted as saying that

“the younger it is addressed…the more receptive the children are to believing that other ways of life are acceptable. You don’t have to shove it in their faces, just teach them that some people have other ways of life and it is just as normal as the ways of life they are familiar with.”

There is an age below which children have no concept whatever of sex, so I cannot agree with the hon. Lady. A four or five-year old has no concept of what on earth sex is about. Until children are pre-pubescent at the very least, they cannot get their heads around it, so to talk to them about different sorts of sexual relationship would be entirely pointless and probably quite frightening.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but her earlier remarks showed how strongly she feels about the importance of relationship education and how sex and relationship education should be paired together. I suggest that homosexual relationships are separate from sex education and sex.

We must also bear it in mind that there is an increasing number of single-sex families of all types. The children of those families will be in school and therefore it makes sense to talk positively about relationships in that context.

I just want to clear this up. I am saying that people should absolutely talk about relationships, but not sexual relationships, because below a certain age there is simply no point. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is a need to talk about relationships, but there is no need to talk with very young children about sex.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I am not clear about the difference she is getting at between relationships of another sort and sexual relationships. My understanding from what she said earlier is that she is happy for people to talk about heterosexual relationships. I am happy to take another intervention to clarify the issue.

I thank the hon. Lady for her patience in giving way. I am specifically talking about very young children. For them, the focus needs to be on the relationship, not the sexual act. That is where a lot of the material being shown to children now is simply inappropriate, because they really do not get it. There is a point below which a child is not old enough to conceptualise what the act of sex means. I agree with the hon. Lady that it is entirely appropriate to teach that sometimes men love other men, but it is not appropriate to teach what sometimes men do with other men, for example. That is where I am drawing the line. I am saying that the relationship side can be separate from the sexual side at a very young age.

I thank the hon. Lady for that explanation. I am talking about relationships. I suggest that no images of sex between a man and a woman, between two men or between two women should be shown to very young children, of four or five. However, I do think that it is appropriate to teach young children about relationships, including same-sex relationships.

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Without wishing to continue the love-in, I agree absolutely with everything that the hon. Lady is saying. As I said earlier, I have a four-year-old nephew who, from what he has said to me, is aware or beginning to become aware of sex as well as relationships. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to deal with the world in which we live, not the world in which we would like to live?

I entirely agree. I have had similar experiences with the young children in my family. I have stories about comments on sex and relationships that they have made, even at the ages of three and four, that it would not be appropriate to tell here. They are inquisitive and they have that knowledge. They watch television and hear people speaking. They see people around them who are in relationships that might be different from what they see at home, and they should be taught that that is okay and why it exists.

I have been looking this morning at the UN convention on the rights of the child. Article 29 refers to the following:

“The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin”.

That is one of the rights of the child, and I believe that good relationship education is part of it and will prepare young people for a normal life.

Children must also be prepared to deal with their own sexuality. The high levels of self-harm among homosexual teenagers have been well documented. Again, high-quality and age-appropriate sex and relationship education will help to tackle that heartbreaking problem.

Let us be clear: sex education is not about the sexualisation of children, nor is it intended to promote promiscuity or a certain kind of lifestyle above another. Taught well, sex education is about teaching children the facts of life and how to handle their personal relationships.

The challenge we face is that SRE is patchy and inadequate. An Ofsted report in 2010 said that the quality of PSHE is poor in a quarter of schools and that teachers lack the knowledge and skills to teach pupils the subject effectively. My experience of sex education, which was not so long ago, involved an expert visiting my school and telling the 14-year-old girls in my class that they should not let boys touch them from the neck down. That was the message in its entirety, and I do not believe it was entirely adequate.

There is strong support from parents for teaching SRE in schools. A poll run by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2009—I am sorry these are the most recent figures I could get—showed that eight in 10 parents thought their children should receive SRE lessons, while only 0.04% had withdrawn their children from SRE. To conclude, we need high-quality, age-appropriate and mandatory SRE in all primary and secondary schools throughout the United Kingdom.

Order. Two Back Benchers are indicating that they want to take part in the debate. I intend to call the two Front-Bench spokesmen at 12.10. If people are restrained in their contributions, it may be possible to get the remaining Back Benchers into the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for raising this important issue. I congratulate her on an excellent speech on a subject that is of great concern to parents in my constituency and across the country. I welcome her positive contribution and her constructive ideas, as well as the fact that she has expressed concerns about some of the educational materials in primary school classrooms.

The debate is about how, when, where and what sex and relationship education should be promoted in primary schools. Crucially, it is also about involving parents in deciding content. Equally, it is about promoting the outcome I think we all want: a generation of young people who fulfil their potential in all areas of life, including personal relationships.

Although “Sex and Relationship Education Guidance”, which was published in 2000, gives schools guidance on working with parents, such work is not a requirement. The guidance says:

“Schools should always work in partnership with parents, consulting them regularly on the content of sex and relationship education programmes.”

In practice, that does not appear to happen, and there is no legal requirement for schools to enter dialogue with parents. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) queried whether graphic content of the type that has been described was causing parents concern, but a group of parents came to see me in my surgery because they were concerned about the content of the sex education materials that it was proposed to use in a primary school; I think they were based on some of the media productions mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. The parents felt there was no appropriate route for them to register their serious concerns about the content of those educational materials, so they had to come to see me about them. The opt-in requirement my hon. Friend proposes for parents would ensure that there was such a route.

My hon. Friend’s positive contribution is welcome. The previous Government should perhaps have considered rating the content that could be used in this sensitive and delicate subject. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) said, the evidence shows that this country should be far from proud of its levels of sexually transmitted disease, teenage pregnancy and relationship breakdown, and one cause among others for those things may be the lack of parental involvement in our sex education content.

We should be moving towards an environment where, as my hon. Friend said, parents make a more active choice regarding the material they believe is fit for purpose for their child, and where they can actively opt into the curriculum. If they participate in that way, it might improve the dialogue between themselves and their children, which might be a better way forward for our society.

I appreciate the point the hon. Lady is trying to make about parents being more involved in making these decisions in schools, but does she not agree that the children of parents who do not opt into SRE if they are given the option will be at serious risk of receiving no SRE at all?

If we have a satisfactory procedure, such as that proposed by my hon. Friend, schools and the responsible teachers hon. Members have described should ensure that that does not happen.

Let me add another suggestion to those that have been made. To aid parents and schools, the Government could create a website where varied sex and relationship tools and programmes could be explained. That would offer schools, governors and, above all, parents a diverse range of options. The recently launched ParentPort website is a model of how we could move forward and engage parents and others who are concerned about content. The website was recently launched by the Prime Minister as a result of the Bailey review and is aimed at helping parents to navigate the regulatory media and broadcasting framework. I was struck by the fact that within a few days of its launch about three weeks ago, 10,000 people had registered concerns. That shows the desire of many—I am sure many parents were among those who registered concerns—to have a say over such issues.

I am glad the Conservative-led coalition Government are taking their localism agenda forward. For it to be a success, an informed citizenry is required, and that is as true in respect of relationship and sex education tools as it is of any other area.

I thank the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for bringing this issue before us, and I totally support her point of view. We live in an age of high teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and multiple partners. No man is judge of how people live their lives as adults, but there must be safeguards in place to protect the innocence of children and to keep them as children for an appropriate time.

I questioned two mothers about their children’s education in primary school. One was a married mother of three, who also had a grandchild, and the other was a single mother of two, who had one child in primary school. Both told me the same thing: “Teach my daughter what is appropriate touching and what is not. Do not teach my daughter about sex when she is not even old enough to stay up past 9 o’clock.” No matter what their religious background, most parents agree that primary school is much too soon to be teaching these things.

When my three boys were young, they played with their G. I. Joes—I think that was the thing at the time—and little girls played with their Barbie dolls to encourage their imagination. Now children are told that that is babyish and that they should be playing on computers and hanging about with their friends. We now have six to seven-year-old girls wanting to wear padded underwear, wearing full faces of make-up to school and wearing high heels that harm their backs, all to look like their favourite TV stars.

As we know, Primark announced it was to stop selling padded bikini tops for children as young as seven, after criticism from the general public and politicians. The company, which was criticised for its £4 bikini sets, apologised to customers and said it would donate any profits to child welfare organisations. Penny Nicholls of the Children’s Society said:

“There is a big distinction between children dressing up for fun and retailers producing items of clothing that target children and encourage premature sexualisation.”

There is a clear difference, and I want to develop that point.

Last week, I attended a Prayer for Parliament and the Nation meeting in the House, as did other Members here. We were given a presentation about sex education at primary school level. It was very graphic, very physical and very technical. I am not a prude by any means, but I felt uneasy sitting watching it, and I suspect many others in the Room would probably feel uneasy, too. Thirty to 40 people were present at the meeting, and they gave examples of how their children had come home from school and told them that they could not get their heads round the sexual act; they were fearful. Let me just say, therefore, that it would be wrong to take sex education out of the hands of parents, schools’ boards of governors and teachers without the agreement of parents.

In Northern Ireland we have an organisation called Love for Life, which my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) mentioned. It talks about not the technical details but emotional relationships; and that is what we must try to do. Love for Life in Northern Ireland has been able to affect 30,000 people in their school education. That is an example of what can happen. I urge hon. Members fully to support what the hon. Lady proposes.

We have had a good-natured, interesting and informative debate. I am the father of a 17-year-old daughter, so I think about the issues in question as a parent, as well as a politician. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate. She raised some interesting new ideas, including using the British Board of Film Classification to put a kind of health warning on to materials that could be used in schools for sex and relationships education. Departmental guidance about such education is clear; the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) read some of it out, and I wonder whether we need to nationalise—that in effect is the proposal—the classification of materials for use in schools. That seems to be the opposite of localism.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said she knew of schools in her constituency that use inappropriate materials, and she went on to cite the materials, but did not say who produced them or name the schools where they were being used. There is a problem in the debate, which reminds me of the debate going on when I was a teacher in the 1980s about the teaching of homosexuality in schools, and the encouragement of children to engage in homosexuality. It was often said that that went on all over the place, and that homosexual lifestyles were being encouraged. With no evidence, the Government of the day turned that into legislation—section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I talked with a young male teacher who was gay, and he lived in fear of revealing his sexuality because of such legislation. If we are to have this debate, let us cite the evidence, and make that evidence clear. If inappropriate things are happening and inappropriate materials are being used for young children, that should be stopped. We can all agree about that.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that I said that I have the evidence but was not prepared to mention specific schools in the Chamber. He will know that the relationship between schools and parents is delicate. I can provide evidence, but will not do it on the record, for good reasons. He is being mischievous in suggesting that no evidence exists, simply because I am not prepared to have it mentioned in Hansard.

My view is that the hon. Lady should put it in the public domain. If she thinks that inappropriate practices are going on in our schools, wherever they are in the country—my or her constituency, or anywhere else—and that children are being exposed to materials that could damage them, that is an important matter, of public concern, which should be in the public record. I am sorry to disagree with her, but that is how it should be.

The hon. Lady also suggested that parents should be able to exercise an opt-in with respect to sex and relationship education. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) has pointed out that there is an opt-out, which extends to the age of 18, which is an anomaly. My hon. Friend, who was an able and successful Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, tried to address that anomaly, by reducing the age to 15—although she did not quite get the relevant measure passed at the end of that Parliament—so that children could have the opportunity of a year of sex and relationship education before reaching the age of consent and what was at that time the school-leaving age. That seemed to me to be an entirely sensible proposal, but it was lost in the wash-up, as my hon. Friend pointed out, along with the proposal to make sex and relationship education a compulsory part of the primary curriculum.

An opt-in system would be inappropriate. The opt-out is available, and it provides parents with the necessary protection if they are concerned about what their children are being taught. Some argue that there should be no opt-out, and I think that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) was arguing that, but I do not agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North said that we need to source the evidence if we are to make accusations about the material being used in schools. If there is an accusation of widespread use of inappropriate materials for sex and relationship education we should know about it. She also pointed out the danger that, if there is insufficient sex and relationship education, young women will not be taught sufficiently to be confident about themselves and their ability to take control of their relationships, whether sexual or other personal relationships. I would add—and I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree—that it is important for young men to be taught about appropriate behaviour. When I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, we heard a lot of evidence from charities about the effect of the more widespread availability, in the age of the internet, of hardcore pornography, and its influence on the practices of young men, and their expectations of young women in a sexual relationship. If young men see that material in their daily lives they need to be taught that that is not necessarily how a relationship should develop. That is where sex and relationship education in school can be important—in helping young people to develop healthy, good relationships.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the national opinion poll, which showed that six out of 10 parents are concerned about any sex education in primary school? Those 60% of the ladies and gentlemen who were questioned suggested that sex education should start at 13. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that they too have an opinion, which needs to be taken on board?

I do accept that they have an opinion. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman clarified the statistic, because when he spoke earlier he did not mention that it related to primary education. I am afraid that it all depends, in such situations, on how the question is asked. I think most people would understand the appropriateness of teaching children about relationships, which is what we are talking about, at an appropriate level at primary school. I know that the Minister was not very keen when the previous Government introduced social and emotional aspects of learning, but it had a huge impact on improving relationships between children. When parents are given an explanation of what is in mind, and of the scare stories and unsubstantiated scaremongering about sex and relationship education, they will change their mind.

I pay tribute to other hon. Members on their speeches. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay made some important points and gave some important statistics about sexually transmitted diseases and the prevalence of sexual activity among young people. It was not necessarily wise of him to quote The Specials. I could tell him the whole lyric, which I know by heart, and it is not necessarily entirely helpful to his case, but I thank him. My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) told us about her role as the chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, and she too mentioned the importance of evidence in discussing the topic. She told us that the inspectorate has said that SRE is patchy and inadequate. That is not good enough, and we need to do something about it. There were also good contributions from the hon. Members for Congleton and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The hon. Gentleman said that we should teach what is appropriate, and went on to talk about the sexualisation of young people. Sex and relationship education can help to counter such sexualisation of young people by teaching them what is or is not appropriate, and about the relevant issues. He should reconsider the issue and see the opportunity to counter the sexualisation of children.

The Opposition are disappointed that in the review of personal, social, health and economic education, the Government have made a U-turn. When we criticised the Conservatives in the wash-up for forcing the then Government and the Liberal Democrats, who supported them, to drop the sex and relationship education issue, they criticised the then Secretary of State for suggesting that they were not in favour of extending sex and relationship education. However, it turns out that they have ruled out in their review any change to the law on sex and relationship education. That is highly disappointing. There is plenty of evidence, certainly from the recent Brook study, of young people’s ignorance about sex and relationships. There is also plenty of evidence from the inspectorate about why we should do something about it.

I have praised the Minister, and I praise him again, for tackling head on homophobic bullying in schools, as we tried to do, and for being the second Minister from the Department, after me, to address the Schools Out conference. He should show the same kind of vision when it comes to sex and relationship education.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing a debate on such an important and sensitive issue. Today’s debate has highlighted a wide range of views on the subject, and genuinely reflects the divergent views on the issue among the public and parents.

I fully understand the concerns of some parents, particularly those with children of primary school age, who do not want their children exposed to materials that they feel are harmful and show images that are simply too explicit for the child’s age. Parents want to protect their children and preserve their children’s innocence. I know that a number of hon. Members share those concerns. My hon. Friend is right when she says that we must ensure that any materials used in schools are properly scrutinised to make sure that they are suitable for young children and do not add to the sexualisation of children instead of protecting them from it, a point that was also made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

We want all young people to have high-quality personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education. SRE is not compulsory in primary schools and we have no plans to make it so.

Although we are currently conducting a review of PSHE—I thank the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) for her welcome for that review—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has said clearly that its remit does not include making PSHE as a whole a statutory requirement. There will be no change to current sex education legislation or to the parental right of withdrawal from SRE. We believe that the current statutory arrangements strike the right balance and reflect the range of public views on a sensitive issue.

Will the Government consider tabling amendments to the law on the issue of the age of 18 and the opt-out up to that age?

No. We have made it clear that we do not intend to change legislation on the matter. When children are in full-time education, the rights of parents are important in how their children are brought up.

The review of PSHE fits within the schools White Paper strategy of devolving power and responsibility to schools and of trusting professionals. The vast majority of primary schools provide SRE, and it must be done in a way that provides the right teaching at the right time.

In developing policy, we have looked at the evidence available. In 2010, Ofsted published a report on PSHE, which found that some aspects of SRE were less well taught, particularly relationships. More positively, it found that in about two thirds of the primary schools visited, teachers used a range of resources effectively, including computers and story books, to enable pupils to discuss issues without embarrassment. Previous inspection evidence reported by Ofsted in 2007 showed that schools judged as being particularly effective providers of SRE had developed successful and constructive links with a range of support services, which could advise young people on a variety of issues and respond to their needs.

Many schools draw on expert help, as was alluded to in the debate, for aspects of PSHE in which they do not have expertise, inviting professionals such as school nurses to give sex education lessons, or external organisations that use drama to explore sensitive issues. Research from Sheffield Hallam university found that school nurses were involved in the teaching of SRE in 45% of primary schools that taught it, and other external organisations were involved in 22% of schools. That research looked into different aspects of PSHE in primary and secondary schools, including SRE.

The researchers conducted a nationally representative survey with more than 900 primary schools and around 600 secondary schools. The study looked at which aspects of PSHE were taught and how frequently. In primary schools, more than 50% taught all elements of PSHE and 40% taught some elements. More than three quarters taught emotional health and well-being every week. Other aspects, such as diet and safety, were taught at least once a term by two thirds of primary schools. Three quarters taught SRE once a year or less often, with similar coverage on personal finance, enterprise and drugs education.

The study also examined aspects of PSHE in depth with nine primary schools. It found that the schools most valued official sources of support for planning or for signposting other resources. Teachers valued resources that were easy to use, enjoyable and engaging for pupils, which responded to pupils’ needs and were relevant to the context of the lessons. One of the key aims of the PSHE review is to identify the support that teachers need to provide high-quality teaching. The use of resources and expert support for schools are critical in that regard.

I am aware of the Christian Institute’s booklet, “Too much, too young”, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. It raises the question of which teaching materials are appropriate for school children. A search of a number of the local authority websites cited in the booklet did not reveal any that had a list of SRE resources recommended for primary schools, although some had an intranet that could not be accessed externally by officials.

Local authorities tell schools about available resources in a number of ways, which may include directing them to websites where SRE resources are listed. The Sex Education Forum website has a list of resources, which includes some of those cited by the Christian Institute booklet. The Sex Education Forum website clearly advises professionals to make their own choices about which resources to use and does not endorse the resources on the list. The website also provides a list of questions to help teachers choose and use a resource.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that unless one happens to have a seven-year-old who has exactly the same mental capacity as every other seven-year-old, one cannot decide what is absolutely right for all seven-year-olds in a class? It is extremely difficult for an adult to decide what might terrify a seven-year-old, particularly as children are not all the same. Does my hon. Friend agree that some form of uniformity, by making better classification, would be extraordinarily helpful in decision making?

I will come to that and the other points made by my hon. Friend in a moment.

The questions on the website include the following. Is the resource consistent with the values set out in the school’s SRE policy? Is it appropriate for the age, ability and maturity of the children? Have parents been consulted? Will the resource be used in its entirety or will it be more appropriate to adapt it and select from it?

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) asked whether such material was being used in schools, so I will talk to the Sex Education Forum and to my hon. Friend about the materials, how their content is decided and how they are used in schools. I think the SEF, with its wide range of member organisations, including those representing children and youth, faith groups, health, parenting and families, should have a perspective on such matters. I also want to explore how the range of resources available influences practice in schools, and I will talk to the makers of BBC Active and Channel 4’s “Living and Growing” resources to understand how such resources are selected for particular age groups and how parents are involved.

My hon. Friend and others raised entirely legitimate concerns in the debate, and we must ensure that parents are listened to. There are safeguards in place to protect children from inappropriate materials. First, governing bodies have a statutory responsibility to ensure that schools have a policy on sex education, which, as a minimum, should give information about how sex education will be provided, any sensitive issues that will be covered and who will provide it. Secondly, local authorities, school governing bodies and head teachers must have regard to the Secretary of State’s statutory, “Sex and Relationships Education Guidance”. Paragraph 1.8 states:

“Materials used in schools must be in accordance with…the law. Inappropriate images should not be used nor should explicit material not directly related to explanation. Schools should ensure that pupils are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate, having regard to the age and cultural background of the pupils concerned. Governors and head teachers should discuss with parents and take on board concerns raised, both on materials which are offered to schools and on sensitive material to be used in the classroom.”

My hon. Friend also proposed the licensing of materials, potentially by the British Board of Film Classification. I can readily understand her wish for materials—

Community Groups (Lottery Funding)

It is a pleasure to have this 30-minute debate with you in the Chair, Mr Howarth.

I want to talk about one of the most deprived communities in my constituency and about problems in the distribution of lottery funding in general. I also want to talk about delays in using the lottery funding that could and should be helping that community but has not been doing so.

The constituency of Worsley and Eccles South is in the west of the city of Salford and it contains the ward of Little Hulton. Salford is the 18th most deprived local authority in the country, and Little Hulton is one of the most deprived wards in Salford.

Many issues need to be addressed in the area, including low levels of qualification and high levels of worklessness and child poverty. The ward also has higher than average numbers of people with limiting long-term illness, which leads to higher caring work loads for unpaid family carers. An area such as Little Hulton needs support to address such issues and to build the capacity of its community groups.

Historically, my constituency has not benefited much from lottery grants. We are ranked 624th of 650 constituencies in the award of grants for community arts and sports groups. Indeed, since 1995, lottery distributors have allocated only £6 million of funding and 262 grants to Worsley and Eccles South. By comparison, the Cities of London and Westminster constituency has benefited from £914 million and 2,231 grants, which is more than 150 times as much lottery funding to more than nine times as many groups. I notice that the Minister’s Faversham and Mid Kent constituency has also benefited from at least £15 million of funding. I am sure he would agree that there is probably not as much need in Faversham and Mid Kent as there is in my Salford constituency.

This disparity in funding is unacceptable. On a number of occasions, I raised with the Big Lottery Fund my concern about how few grants were being made to community groups in my constituency. Some redress of that grossly unfair distribution was promised in July 2010 with the announcement that Little Hulton ward was to benefit from £1 million of Big Lottery funding due to its having been “previously overlooked” by the lottery. I was pleased about that, but I was somewhat concerned to hear that it might be some time before the community in Little Hulton actually started to benefit from the funding being allocated to it.

At the time of the announcement, it was said that a charitable trust would be set up. The BBC news item said:

“It is expected that the charitable trust responsible for the lottery money will be in place by October and that projects will begin to receive funding from June 2011.”

It is now nearly the end of October 2011, 15 months after the announcement of the funding for Little Hulton, yet not one penny of the lottery money has gone to the local community.

There are plenty of ways that the funding could be used to good effect, and there are people with excellent knowledge of the area who could help to suggest them. The council has a competent neighbourhood team, headed by the excellent Vincent Nash, which has a really good grasp of the issues and opportunities in the area. Indeed the announcement of the grant to Little Hulton said that the neighbourhood team,

“played an important part in ensuring Little Hulton received the money, conducting a two hour tour for representatives from the Big Lottery Fund and explaining to them what some of the key challenges are in the area.”

There is also an outreach and engagement forum, which is a network of agencies in the area. It includes community representatives who live in the area, represent local people and understand local issues. They come from different residents associations, and I have worked with them on a number of local issues. Also included is Sylvia Phillips, the chair of the community committee covering Little Hulton.

Sylvia is a life-long resident of Little Hulton and she has substantial knowledge of local issues. At the announcement of the Big Lottery funding, she was bubbling with ideas. She said:

“One of the things we feel we’d like to do is have some sort of community resource in the centre of Little Hulton, so it’s accessible to all the residents. Maybe we could have it for the old and the young, like a recording studio on one side and then there could also be a meeting room where the older people could meet...we have a good park which could be used for lots of things and the community spirit in Little Hulton is alive and kicking.”

I should like to report that some of those ideas had been examined for feasibility over the past 15 months but I cannot. The 15 months have been characterised by false starts and by long periods when nothing appeared to be happening.

In August 2010, the neighbourhood management team met lottery representatives to see how they could support them in getting local people involved. It was six months later, in February 2011, that a Salford-based voluntary organisation was appointed as the lead organisation. An initial meeting was held. Twenty residents, the neighbourhood team and other partner organisations gave their views on what the trust’s development funding should be used for. Sylvia Phillips tells me that she knocked on people’s doors to get them to come along to that meeting. Months then elapsed with nothing happening. The residents who came to the meeting used to stop Sylvia in the street to ask her what was happening, but she was unable to tell them.

The allocation of £1 million to a deprived area that has missed out on funding should be good news, but all we have seen for 15 months is false starts and lack of progress. The Big Lottery has been unable to get a scheme going effectively, which could be because the area does not have an established infrastructure of voluntary and community organisations. Existing structures and individuals were ignored by the Big Lottery, which seemed to be looking for further community networks that do not exist in Little Hulton. The structures that exist are centred on the local council, the Churches and the schools. Salford council has established ways of reaching out to the community and engaging local residents.

I shall list the issues that I believe have caused the delays and false starts: ignoring existing structures and key individuals; searching for a lead organisation to establish the trust—that caused at least nine months of the delay; and appointing staff from outside the area rather than recruiting a paid staff member to work in the area. I have seven years’ experience of the constituency and I, along with people from outside Salford, have had a lot to learn about how to work with local people. In September, a Manchester-based organisation was put forward as the lead agency and a Leeds-based consultant was appointed as the representative for the Big Local Trust in Little Hulton. What we have seen even over the past few weeks is a lack of understanding by people who come from outside the area. I do not blame them for that; it is difficult being brought into an area for the first time. It was not a brilliant start. The newly appointed people scheduled meetings for the residents in a different area of Salford. That appeared to be for the convenience of the organisers, but it confused people. There was suspicion that it meant that the funding was to be used over a wider area.

I understand the need for consultation in establishing a charitable trust such as this, but the consultation has been repetitive. A sizeable group came together in February to give their ideas and input. None the less, the agenda for the meeting in October included “involving community organisations.” As I said, we do not have a vast network of community organisations.

The appointed consultant sent me a report before this debate. He said that

“community associations in the area will be approached and involved in the next phase of consultation and community visioning work.”

Clearly, he is adopting a particular approach to community development that ignores the context he is in. I do not know who briefed him but such an approach will not work. At a recent meeting with residents, he suggested that they go on away-days. The residents are frustrated. They have contributed a lot to this process and they do not want to go on away-days. In fact, being taken out of their own ward made them feel as though they were on an away-day.

However, I can report some better news. The view of Sylvia Phillips and other local representatives prevailed at that meeting. They conveyed some understanding of what would work in an area such as Little Hulton. They had their own sensible ideas, including holding meetings in Little Hulton itself and not in other venues. They suggested that consultation should be done at existing community events, such as the upcoming bonfire night. They also suggested using an empty shop in the district shopping centre as a way to make better contact with local people. As I heard about these things, it seemed to me that much of the process is about basic good practice in community development. If people coming from outside the area do not understand the local context, they must listen and learn from local residents.

Even at this point, 15 months into the process, and even with the recent developments in the scheme, the focus is still on the seemingly small item of how to bid for and spend £30,000, which is a small amount of development funding, and on how to get consultation going again. It really is time that the scheme got past that stage and that residents started to see their ideas being taken more seriously. Although the £1 million has been sitting about, inflation is at 5% and the £1 million allocated to Little Hulton has already eroded in value. If we go too many months down the road, it will be worth less than the £1 million that it was worth last year.

Little Hulton is an area where unemployment, including youth unemployment, and child poverty are getting worse. We had riots in Salford this summer, although I probably do not need to remind people of that.

I understand that the Big Lottery Fund is independent, but the Government give them directions, and I believe that the Cabinet Office is currently consulting on changing those directions. In fact, I hope that the problems that the Big Local Trust has had in getting started in Little Hulton—problems that I am reporting today—can serve to inform the consultation.

The Big Lottery Fund’s mission states:

“We are committed to bringing real improvements to communities and the lives of people most in need.”

It also says that the Big Lottery Fund will “give money” to neighbourhoods that have failed to access cash and will let them

“decide where and how it can be put to best use.”

I must say that that is not what we have seen with the Big Lottery Fund’s work in Little Hulton during the last 15 months. In a flurry of criticism earlier this year, the Big Lottery Fund was criticised for spending a reported £71 million each year on its own running costs and wages for its 988 staff. The high staff salary levels were justified by the Big Lottery Fund, which said they reflected the fact that their employees were graduates who did not do “routine clerical jobs” but jobs that require

“skill and judgement, managing 26,000 ongoing projects.”

Again, I must say that we have not seen much of that “skill and judgement” being exercised in the last 15 months in relation to our scheme in Little Hulton.

I hope that this report of a local situation—I admit that it is very local—is useful in showing what can go wrong. It provokes some questions about how the Big Lottery Fund is running its Big Local Trust scheme.

I have a few remaining points to make and I also have a question to put to the Minister. I believe that a better way to establish a Big Local Trust scheme in an area such as Little Hulton is to start by utilising all the existing structures in the area, including the neighbourhood management team and the Churches. I have not talked about the contribution that the ministers of our local Churches make, but it is substantial; they do a lot of work in the community. Other existing structures and representatives include ward councillors, local residents and even the local MP. I have not been consulted and nor have the local ward councillors. I would be happy to meet representatives of the Big Lottery Fund to ensure that the fund is finally going to start working effectively on the scheme in Little Hulton.

Some of the approaches used for community capacity building that I have described today, such as talk of “community visioning”, may not be the way to start that work in a community such as Little Hulton. They are more suitable for areas with an established voluntary sector and where individuals are more used to going on away-days and using all those training development techniques. I do not decry those methods. In the right place, they can be very useful, but people in Little Hulton are impatient to see something get off the ground.

Does the Minister agree that a distributor such as the Big Lottery Fund, which has nearly 1,000 staff and running costs of £71 million, should understand how to establish a project to distribute funds of just £1 million in an area with fairly minimal community capacity? Also, can the Big Lottery Fund look at what has happened in Little Hulton and learn some lessons that it can apply in other deprived communities?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), both on securing this debate and on the way that she has put her case across. Having said that, I must say at the outset that I owe her two apologies. First, I am not the Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport who has been responsible for the national lottery. That is the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and I am afraid that he is away at a European meeting today. Secondly and probably even more fundamentally, because it took the DCMS some time to make contact with the hon. Lady’s office and establish the precise points that she wanted to raise, we are no longer even the Department that she needs to answer her questions. As she knows, the responsibility for BIG—the Big Lottery Fund—has now transferred to the Cabinet Office. So she really wants the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who is now responsible for BIG.

Needless to say, I have a wonderfully drafted speech, but it answers very few of the hon. Lady’s questions. The best thing that I can do is to give her an undertaking that I will write to the chair of BIG. She can either write me a letter that I will send on to him, or I am very happy to get officials in my Department to write to him and ensure that the questions that she has put today are taken on board and that something is done about them.

At the end of her speech, the hon. Lady asked me if I thought that what has happened in her area was an acceptable way to operate. The honest answer is, “No, I don’t think it is.” I am not an expert on the exact administrative charges that apply to BIG. However, when BIG was administered by DCMS, as part of the comprehensive spending review we set all our non-departmental public bodies—including the two that I am responsible for directly, which are UK Sport and Sport England—a target of bringing their administrative costs down to 5% of their spend. I would be very surprised if BIG was allowed to be an exception to that at any stage in the future.

I absolutely share the hon. Lady’s analysis of what has gone wrong here. It is very likely that the lottery distributor looked to an existing pattern—a form of working—that, for the reasons she has perfectly outlined, simply does not exist in Little Hulton. Therefore, having promised this money, it was imperative for BIG to find some other way to deliver it, because there is nothing more frustrating and draining for community groups than to be offered the opportunity to bid for a pot of money such as this one, which, as the hon. Lady correctly said, could and should be very profitably used in the local community—indeed, that is exactly what the national lottery was set up to do and it is why ticket sales have increased year on year, as they have done—and then the promise not to be delivered on over a protracted period of time. I am absolutely with her on all of that.

In fact, we did not even have to bid for this money. The important thing about this element of BIG funding is that it is meant to redress the imbalance. Clearly there is a big imbalance to be redressed, whereby the constituency of Cities of London and Westminster has received £914 million of lottery funding and my constituency has received only £6 million, which is a very small amount.

What has happened in Little Hulton is an absolute indication that we do not have a community infrastructure, whereby groups are ready, able and full of the sort of people who can put bids in. There is a sort of double disappointment, that this is a scheme like the previous scheme, Fair Share, to try to redress that imbalance a little bit, but what happened is that a series of new barriers were erected. The right thing to do would have been for BIG to send someone in with some experience of community development in an area such as Little Hulton—there are people up and down the country who have that experience—and they could have tried to work with local people to develop their agenda.

Having looked at this project in Little Hulton, it seems crazy for BIG to have a scheme to distribute money in areas that have failed to bid for lottery money but then to look for a bidding organisation in those areas. That is the point, really. There will be 50 of these projects and the Big Local Trust really needs to have a different path that, as the Minister says, helps those projects to get started in areas where there is no community infrastructure. Instead, people could use councils, churches, schools and those sorts of bodies.

I can only say to the hon. Lady that I agree with her absolutely. As she correctly said, the problem points to the fact that much of the infrastructure that would normally be needed to apply for lottery grants is simply not present. Therefore, if money is to be delivered effectively—no one wants to see money promised but not translated into projects on the ground—alternative delivery mechanisms to the normal ones will be needed. I suspect, without wishing to over-egg the pudding, she will find that that is the case not only for the areas for which BIG is responsible but for sports, arts and heritage, which are the three other beneficiaries of lottery funding, falling outside the allocation to BIG.

I can give the hon. Lady some small words of comfort: the problem is probably better understood than it was 10 years ago or at the start of the lottery in 1994, and a pattern can now be clearly established. All the national lottery distributors are aware of that. I spent an hour before I came to respond to the debate talking to Sport England about community sports grants, in connection with London 2012 and the inspired and iconic facilities, specifically concentrating on how we might get more of that money into areas where it is needed. We talked about the riots and about how we might increase the capacity for people to play sport, not only by putting in coaches and officials but by doing something about the facilities. The process has been lengthy but, slowly, some understanding has come about.

I want to mention StreetGames—I am sure the Minister knows it—which, in my experience, has a wonderful model for going into deprived communities and getting projects off the ground. Perhaps BIG needs to be talking to StreetGames about how it does things.

Let me immediately give the hon. Lady some comfort. It would probably be invidious of me not to name them all, but in our meeting we were talking about three organisations in that regard and StreetGames was one. When the party conference was in Manchester a few years back, I went to see a number of its projects, and I have seen it sponsor things here. Absolutely, StreetGames is that sort of provider organisation. I suspect that the problem she is facing with the Big Lottery Fund is that BIG has not recognised that other local organisations such as StreetGames in the voluntary and community area could deliver the sort of improvements for which she is looking.

I could test everyone’s time in the period before lunch by reading through my speech but, given what the hon. Lady has said this morning, I am not sure that it will add greatly to the nation’s sum of knowledge. By far the best thing that I can do to help her and her community is to give an undertaking. If she is prepared to write a letter to me, I will write on her behalf to the chairman of the Big Lottery Fund, telling him that I have given her an undertaking that he will meet her. We will arrange a meeting with him at which she can take up the issues directly. We might then achieve what we all want to see, which is that her community gets the money promised to it—which it clearly needs—as quickly and as efficiently as possible, commensurate with the need to account for the money correctly.

Sitting suspended.

Fire and Rescue Centres (North-West)

I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to discuss the future of Cumbria’s fire and rescue control centre. The proposal to close the control room and regionalise it in Warrington is of deep concern to my constituents in south Cumbria. It is a threat to public safety and a waste of public money.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and to see the Minister in his place. After our discussions about Cumbria county council’s botched single-status project, he might think that this is the latest in a long line of concerns over which he has no direct jurisdiction that I have brought to him. To add to his consternation, I am here in part to praise his actions and those of the coalition Government in this matter.

The previous Government proposed a centralised series of regional control centres for fire and rescue services, which would have led to a programme of forced closures and amalgamations of fire control centres, but after the coalition formed in May 2010, the new Government called off the project after a Public Accounts Committee report labelled it an expensive white elephant. That wise decision by the Government was welcomed in Westmorland and throughout Cumbria, and it should have been the end of the matter.

Sadly, however, Cumbria county council decided to ignore the Government’s sensible conclusions and proceed with the project anyway, planning to close the excellent control room in Cockermouth and keep faith instead with the white elephant in Warrington. The county council proposes in 2014 to merge all north-west fire and rescue service control centres into a single control room in Warrington, although the plans have received a severe setback after the announcement that the Merseyside services would be withdrawing from the project.

Merseyside’s decision does two things. First, it undermines even further the viability of the regional model and plays havoc with the project’s finances. Secondly, it provides an entirely sensible alternative model. Merseyside has chosen instead to pursue a merger within the county with the control rooms of other Merseyside emergency services. Merseyside has recognised, as must we, that there is a financial imperative. It is completely necessary to make efficiency savings in a time of financial crisis, but Merseyside, unlike Cumbria, has demonstrated a bit of lateral thinking by choosing an option that saves money and keeps the service securely within the area, protecting public safety.

Although many are concentrating on the proposal to set up the regionalised centre in Warrington in 2014, we must remember that the closure of the Cockermouth control room will come much sooner, in June next summer. The county council plans pre-emptively to close its control centre in Cockermouth and outsource its work to the Cheshire fire authority. From next summer, 999 calls from Cumbria for fire and rescue emergency support will be answered in Winsford, more than 100 miles from most places in Cumbria—that is, if we are lucky. The Cheshire service, like many other authorities, has a resilience partner, its neighbouring service in north Wales. However, as hon. Members might be aware, the Welsh services plan to co-operate in a single service, meaning that Cheshire is looking for a new resilience partner. The favourites at the moment are Humberside and Buckinghamshire. That is where Cumbrians can expect their emergency calls to be answered by next summer, unless the county council changes its mind.

That is desperately worrying for all of us who believe that there are extremely good reasons for having a local control centre. I have no doubt that the people and technology in Winsford, Warrington, Wycombe or wherever Cumbria’s 999 calls might be answered will be excellent. I am in no way suggesting otherwise. However, it is also the case that the team at the Cockermouth centre are outstanding professionals who have shown immense dedication to our county week in, week out, particularly recently, when they have made an amazing difference by responding to catastrophic floods in 2009, the Grayrigg tragedy in 2007 and various other tragedies and near-tragedies off Cumbria’s coast, especially in Morecambe bay. It is peculiar for Cumbria county council to say thank you to those who have played a huge part in saving lives by outsourcing their jobs and moving their entire operation to the other end of the region.

The main reason why we must resist centralisation is that it will damage public safety. In more than 90% of cases, the regionalised system will provide an excellent response to people in emergency situations. Capable call handlers with a modern mapping system will scramble the right team to the right address swiftly and with the right result. However, some occasions seriously require local knowledge. For example, there are two Staveleys in my constituency and two Troutbecks and a Troutbeck Bridge in the county of Cumbria. Finsthwaite, where I was on Saturday, has three houses in the same postcode called Rose Cottage. A person sitting in Warrington or wherever, taking a panic-stricken call from someone in one of those places who cannot give an exact postcode or grid reference, will not know to ask critical supplementary questions such as “Which Staveley?” or “Is that the Rose Cottage by the church?” Such questions could save a life.

Even the best systems can only pinpoint a grid reference based on the nearest mobile phone mast when someone is out of range, which means that a grid reference given to the fire crew could be up to 18 miles away from the address where the emergency is taking place. I am not sure whether you have visited the Lake district recently, Mr Howarth, but getting a mobile phone signal is not always simple. Having a human being at the other end of the line who knows that there are two Staveleys 20 or so miles apart will save lives. There is no training like on-the-job training. Working in a control room where 100% of work relates to Cumbrian emergencies provides call handlers with the expertise needed to ensure a safe, specific and speedy response.

If Cumbria were to follow Merseyside’s lead and consider creating efficiencies by consolidating the control rooms of Cumbria’s emergency services, it could improve safety by exposing call handlers to the full range of Cumbria’s communities and to the geographical uniqueness of a county teeming with mountains, lakes and mountain passes, some of which are misnamed, being impassable. Meeting the needs of people in distress in our county involves understanding the county, the nature of road communications and the time distances as well as mileages involved.

This week, we started the inquest into the tragic death of Mrs Margaret Masson, who died in the Grayrigg derailment in February 2007. The emergency services’ response to that tragedy was instant, and one reason was that the Cumbria-based control room staff knew the nature of the area and, crucially, that it was right, for instance, to call out volunteer mountain rescue teams, which had the kit and the expertise to respond the most quickly. That is why the mountain rescue teams got there first. Would a call handler in Warrington have pictured the scene in their mind’s eye and have had enough experience of our area to know automatically that it was a job not just for the professionals of the fire service but for the expert volunteers of mountain rescue? I am not sure, but I am sure that that quick response, based on the call handlers’ local knowledge, prevented a worse tragedy and saved lives.

I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), on securing this debate. He makes some strong points. Does he agree that part of the problem is the impossible position in which local authorities such as Cumbria county council have been put by the scale of the reductions that they are being forced to make across the piece? They are being forced to consider efficiencies such as the £300,000 saving that the proposals will generate.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Without doubt, all local authorities face huge pressure, because of the pressure on public finances. I simply make the case that the situation in Merseyside is no harder than that in Cumbria, and Merseyside has thought of an intelligent way through it. I am sure that all involved are not jumping for joy at having to make a difficult decision—merging control rooms is never easy—but, even at the hardest of times, whoever is to blame, it is possible to think laterally and to try to ensure that the service in the county is protected. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but that does not let Cumbria off the hook, given Merseyside’s rather more intelligent response.

Having spoken to members of the Fire Brigades Union in Cumbria and to other fire and rescue staff, I know that they strongly oppose the proposals, because, as I am sure we all know, it is the firefighters themselves who rely more than anybody else on the accuracy and professionalism of the Cumbrian-based call handlers to get them to the right place, with the right information and at the right time. They know that a control centre 100 miles away, however fantastic and professional it will be, cannot be as reliable or responsible as a centre committed to Cumbria, focused on our county and understanding its quirks.

This is a rare opportunity for me to be critical of the coalition—the Labour-Conservative coalition in Carlisle that runs Cumbria county council. I will qualify that, however, by saying that I am proud to represent a county where six MPs—only two of us are present—from all three parties work closely together, not just on this issue but on others. I know that my colleagues share my deep concern on the issue, even if we might not always come to exactly the same conclusions. I think that there is exasperation across the county—including all three parties and, more importantly, in the community—about the county council’s decision to resist all attempts to get it to rethink.

The recent decision of the Merseyside authority to turn its back on this wasteful project seems to have been ignored. Only a fortnight ago, the county council’s own overview and scrutiny committee, chaired by Jo Stephenson, the county councillor for Windermere, discussed the project, objected to it, for the reasons that I have outlined—the objections came from all three parties—and strongly recommended that the cabinet of the county council think again. The cabinet responded in less than 24 hours, without any time to consider the committee’s recommendations, and obstinately proclaimed that it was not for turning. I am sure that the Minister will understand our extreme frustration. There are intelligent, safer and more efficient alternatives, yet the county has so far refused to countenance them.

As someone who believes that decisions such as this should be taken at a local level—not least because it means that voters know exactly who to blame at the next local election—I do not want the Minister to intervene and override the county council. He could not, even if he wanted to, and even if he could, he absolutely should not, in the interests of democracy and localism. I would, however, like him to help us all the same.

The Government rightly withdrew their backing for the national programme of regionalised control centres. The logic behind that decision was right. I would be immensely grateful if, as a result of this debate, the Minister wrote to the leader of Cumbria county council to explain why he feels—indeed, why this Government feel—that such a move is inefficient, wasteful and a threat to public safety. If it wants to ignore his advice, as well as that of many of the county’s MPs and the vast majority of Cumbria’s citizens, it can do so, but it will, of course, face consequences. An intervention by the Minister would do no harm and would be very welcome, especially given that all I am asking him to do is restate what he said about this flawed proposal last year.

We are not saying no to any reform or restructuring, but we want the county to use its imagination and value the unique nature of our county. It is a county where fire and rescue means a lot more even than our excellent fire brigade—it means mountain rescue, such as the teams in Kendal, Ambleside and the Langdales, and inshore rescue, such as the bay search and rescue team in Flookburgh. Ours is a county in which understanding all that is essential in responding to people in acute distress. By all means, let us look at how we can consolidate our emergency control centres in Cumbria, but do not go down a route of regionalisation that will cost more money and could easily cost lives.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate. I appreciate that the subject is important for his constituents. Indeed, the whole issue of fire control centres is one of real importance.

It is worth setting the issue in its full context. My hon. Friend has rightly referred to the failure of the previous Government’s fire control project, and to the incompetence, inefficiency and waste highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. I have seldom seen a more ringing condemnation of a Government policy than that given to the project that was embarked upon by the now Lord Prescott as part of an enforced regionalisation agenda. There is common ground between my hon. Friend and me in that regard. It is clear that lessons needed to be learned.

My hon. Friend is right to say that, when the coalition Government—by which I mean the Westminster coalition Government—came into office, we discovered that the project was already running 19 months late and experiencing problems. That was the situation that confronted me when I became Minister with responsibility for the fire service in May 2010. As my hon. Friend has rightly said, the NAO report, which was published on 1 July 2011, and the PAC report, which was published on 14 September 2011, highlights a litany of failings. That catalogue of problems led to the project wasting some £469 million of taxpayers’ money on an over-ambitious, over-complex and essentially imposed solution for fire control rooms that, frankly, was not proportionate to the risk faced and that failed the fire services themselves.

Two key failings were identified. The first was the lack of any consultation or involvement with the fire and rescue services at the beginning, which was highlighted by both reports, particularly that of the PAC. It was a top-down, imposed solution, and originally part of a broader regionalisation agenda that was killed off by a referendum in the north-east. The project under discussion was the last bit left hanging around. Secondly, the principal failure related to incompetence in the procurement of the IT—the software and the computer works. Part of the overall scheme involved the procurement of the nine regional control centres, and it is ironic that that was the one bit of the scheme that was actually delivered on time and pretty much to budget—the centres were there, but the properly working kit to put in them was not. That was why this Government took the view that we should negotiate with the suppliers, and we eventually concluded that a pass had been reached whereby we could not guarantee sensibly the delivery of the scheme to time, to budget or to the proper specification. Ultimately, therefore, we terminated the contract.

Will the Minister put on record how much public money was wasted by that decision to terminate the project part way through?

Although the matter was subject to commercial confidentiality, the hon. Gentleman should be made aware that damages were paid to the Government by the suppliers of the scheme, so we in fact recouped some money as a result of our actions.

The figure has been put in the public domain at about £22 million. The Government respected that confidentiality agreement, but since the figure is now in the public domain, I will not shirk from it. The Government got some money back. I say to the hon. Gentleman that his Government poured £469 million down the drain before we could prevent it from happening, so I do not accept any criticisms whatsoever of the decision to terminate the contract.

What we now have to do, sensibly, is find a solution that deals with the ongoing needs of the fire service for their control centres—that will vary from place to place—and that finds uses, as far as practically possible, for the nine control rooms that are left and in which a certain amount of public money has been invested. To that end—this is the background to the decision that Cumbria has taken—we determined that we would not go down the route of imposing a centralised solution. That is what went wrong before and is where I have common ground with, for example, the Fire Brigades Union, which is also very critical of that scheme.

We have decided that decisions on improving the efficiency and resilience of local control room systems are best made at a local level because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale fairly says, that is where the risks are best understood. In addition, if it is practical to do so, we want to make good use of the buildings that are available. Frankly, it is preferable that fire and rescue services should take them over because they are purpose built for that service, but if they do not do so, other emergency services could also be appropriate users. We have said that we will not force fire authorities down such a route and that it is a matter for them to decide. If there is no fire and rescue or emergency service use for a particular centre, we will consider other uses to try to minimise the damage incurred to the public purse by past failings.

To that end, in July this year, I announced an £83 million scheme to build the national resilience that we all want to encourage through locally determined solutions and collaboration and innovation. Every fire and rescue authority—in Cumbria we are talking about the county council and in other places about stand-alone or combined fire authorities, for example, Greater Manchester and Merseyside—can apply for up to £1.8 million to improve the resilience and efficiency of their fire and rescue control services. The funding will cover the installation of improved communication equipment to give the enhanced voice and data services that are a priority for the sector. We consulted widely with the sector before introducing the scheme and the people we spoke to said that the ability for fire and rescue services to talk to each other—the transfer of voice and data, so that they can mobilise across boundaries and so on—was a key priority. We have therefore concentrated on that.

Fire and rescue services can either apply for the funding individually or collaborate by pooling their funding and providing further enhancements across a group of fire authorities. That is a decision that four of the authorities in the north-west have decided to take. As has been rightly observed by my hon. Friend, that area is not the same as the old north-west region because Merseyside has decided it does not want to be part of it. The scheme is not steered by the Government: it is a collaboration of sovereign authorities coming together to decide that they want to go down that route. Those authorities have been advised by their chief fire officers, who are their principal professional advisers.

Cumbria will be able to use its pot, either jointly or alone. As well as enhanced voice and data services, some of the things we want the funding to be used for include common standards to underpin collaboration and interoperability, and the facilitation of improved overload and fallback arrangements. My hon. Friend referred to the catastrophic floods in Cumbria. There are circumstances in which an individual control room can become heavily weighed down with the burden of such matters and it is sensible to have some resilience not necessarily physically in the same area. In fact, there are occasionally some advantages in having what is called a remote buddy system, whereby one control centre is able to rely on the support of another that is not affected by the same physical events. All those things can be in the mix. The Chief Fire Officers Association has indicated that it intends to apply for funding under our scheme to disseminate that sort of good practice.

Of course, my hon. Friend is right: the Merseyside fire authority decided that a north-west consortium was not an option that it wished to pursue. That is entirely its right and it will therefore pursue its own arrangements. However, I understand that the chief fire officers of the remaining authorities—Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria—have indicated that they are keen to proceed. That is the professional judgment that the chief officers have made, which I respect and do not seek to second-guess. They are also accountable to the elected members of their fire authorities, which in the case of Cumbria is the county council. As my hon. Friend indicates, the county council must ultimately make a decision on the matter. I will not second-guess its decision because it is on the ground and the decision is a local matter. What it is doing is not out of line with decisions being taken elsewhere in the country as a number of collaborative arrangements of one kind or another are taking place.

My Department is determined to be supportive and work with consortia where that is what people on the ground want. Where people think that a stand-alone solution is appropriate, again, they can bid to enhance on that basis. Inevitably, there are local concerns when such changes are made, but it is worth saying that whatever arrangements any fire authority makes with its control room, that does not alter the fact that it is the local fire crews on the ground who will be responding to the emergency calls, wherever they are directed from. Their local knowledge remains available. I just observe that the arrangements for a collaborative approach going beyond one county are not unique to the fire service. It is fair to say that the North West Ambulance Service mobilises on a much more regionalised basis from a control room in Preston. So the fire authority is not going out on a limb in that regard.

The Minister makes some very good points. I thank him for mentioning that matter because it takes us down the road of where we might end up if we have a regionalised fire control room. Since the North West Ambulance Service went to a regionalised system based in an urban area, at least initially the number of times the volunteer first responder unit in Cumbria and north Lancashire was scrambled by the call handler dropped significantly. The urban-based call handlers did not have experience relating to first responders. The analogy I would make is with the mountain rescue teams. If somebody—wonderful as they may be—has no direct experience of the quirks of living in a rural area, those volunteer services will not be scrambled when they could save a life.

With respect to my hon. Friend, I would not go down the route of saying that that is automatically the case, because much depends on the briefing and the knowledge of the people in the control centre. At the moment, within the large county of Cumbria, calls are taken at a county-wide level. That is not as local as doing something at a fire station level, which we know would not be practical. Frankly, the appropriate level is a matter of professional judgment. It is also fair to say that a number of other fire authorities have similar arrangements. Suffolk and Cambridge, which cover a very large geographical area, are due to merge their control rooms. I have not seen evidence to suggest that that would pose an enhanced risk.

The key thing is that there is proper input from the fire authorities. The north-west consortium is being overseen by a project board and has very straightforward governance arrangements. The project board is led by a chief fire officer—a professional—as project director and there are senior representatives from each of the fire services in the consortium area on the board. Ultimately, they have reported to their authority. The decision has been scrutinised through the county council’s scrutiny procedure and the cabinet has concluded that that is the route it wishes to go down.

The Minister pointed out earlier that the Government kyboshed the previous Government’s regionalised programme for two reasons, one of which was the lack of consultation. The consultation across Cumbria has been absolutely appalling. The Minister talked about the overview and scrutiny committee. It considered the proposals and rejected them, and the cabinet ignored that. Will he make a comment on the failure of consultation in that respect?

The Government do not run those consultations centrally; it is for the county council to use its processes. I say again that the county council was advised by its chief fire officer. Often support for collaborative arrangements comes from professional fire offices, who frequently take the view that a modern and viable control centre can work well.

We are talking about a matter for local decision, which is why, with every respect to my hon. Friend, I will not be tempted down the route of telling the county council how to run its business. I have made it very clear already that we thought a centrally imposed solution was wrong, but that a locally developed solution—whatever it may be; it will vary from place to place—is the right one.


It is a pleasure to see you chairing the debate, Mr Howarth. I secured the debate because I want to talk about how we treat behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, and, in particular, about the increasing use of drugs to treat those problems.

I have been tabling questions on this issue for some months. I am sure that it is a complete coincidence that this morning, just a few hours before the debate, the Government announced an extra £32 million for children’s mental health therapy, including talking therapies. That news will be welcomed by parents and professionals, because it is important—a point that I want to stress—to have a range of treatments available for young children who suffer from this condition. Will the Minister confirm whether that is new money, or whether it is part of the wider £400 million announcement, made in February, on mental health? If it genuinely represents extra resources for mental health therapy for children, that is of course welcome. I also welcome its happy coincidence with this debate today.

My main focus is on the use of drugs to treat ADHD and similar conditions. The main drug that we usually talk about in this field is Ritalin. Ritalin is a brand name for methylphenidate hydrochloride, and it is this whole family of drugs that I want to talk about. I want to set out the trend of increasing use of these psychotropic drugs to treat ADHD, and the growth in their use for very young children—sometimes in breach of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines. I want to spell out why many in the field believe that this trend is likely to continue. Finally, I will issue a plea to the Minister to carry out a proper, comprehensive review of the use of these drugs involving professionals from the medical, psychology and teaching fields, as well as the families of those who have been prescribed the drugs.

Had the young Mozart been on Ritalin and the young Beethoven been on anti-depressants, we would probably never have heard of them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that trying to drug children into conformity and uniformity is the enemy of creativity?

My hon. Friend makes an eloquent point. I do not take the view that the drugs cannot work. I am not qualified to say that, but there are serious questions to be asked about the growth in their use.

The increasing use of these drugs has not just happened in the period since last year’s general election. I am not here to make a party political point. This has been going on for many years and is part of an international picture, so it is not the responsibility of a single party or a single set of politicians. Some professionals and parents believe that these kinds of drugs can be effective and have a role to play where ADHD is correctly identified, although it is also true that some psychologists believe that there is significant over-identification and diagnosis of ADHD in children. The real question is whether the drugs are considered alongside other appropriate treatments, and are used as a first option, or only after alternatives have been properly explored and considered. Let us look at the trend in the number of prescriptions in England in recent years.

A written answer in July showed that between 1997 and 2009 there was a more than sixfold increase in the number of prescriptions for methylphenidate to the point where, in 2009, 610,000 prescriptions were issued. The number had almost doubled in five years. There is no doubt that there is an increasing reliance on these drugs to treat behavioural problems in children. Methylphenidate is not always used on its own. It can often be combined with other drugs, so that the child ends up taking a cocktail of powerful drugs to control their behaviour in different ways during the course of the day.

What lies behind this trend towards the medicalisation of child behaviour problems? Why are we prescribing more and more drugs to treat such problems? Do we really believe that there has been a sixfold increase in the occurrence of ADHD and similar disorders in recent years, or are these drugs being used to treat behavioural patterns that were dealt with in different ways by parents and teachers in the past? Is the increasing labelling and categorisation of behavioural problems increasing the tendency to treat children with drugs?

Sue Morris, director of professional training and educational psychology at the university of Birmingham, recently said:

“It’s not uncommon for the diagnosis of ADHD to be based on parental reports - without observation of the child in a home or school environment. The prescription of drugs certainly shouldn’t be the first step in treating the disorder. Sometimes drugs are being used in the absence of talking therapy and psychological assistance, and that is wrong.”

There is clear guidance from NICE on the use of these drugs:

“Drug treatment should only be initiated by an appropriately qualified healthcare professional with expertise in ADHD and should be based on a comprehensive assessment and diagnosis.”

NICE also makes it clear that methylphenidate

“is not currently licensed for use in children less than 6 years old”.

NICE makes it clear that it should be discontinued if there is no response after one month, and that treatment should be suspended periodically to assess the patient’s condition. What evidence does the Minister have that this guidance is being adhered to? Are these drugs always used as part of a comprehensive assessment and diagnosis? Are they used as the first option, or only after alternatives are considered? Are they given only to children aged six and over? Are children routinely taken off them after one month if they are not effective? Is their use periodically suspended to assess the patient’s condition?

I suspect that the Minister does not know the answers to many of these questions. In fact, when it comes to the number of children under the age of six being prescribed the drugs, I know that he does not know because the Department of Health has already told me. That is not a reflection on him personally, but it exposes a gap in our knowledge that must be filled. Why is it, despite the clear guidance from the Department of Health about the appropriate age for use of these drugs, that the Department does not know how many children under the age of six are being prescribed the drugs?

Evidence from the Association of Educational Psychologists suggests an increase in the use of methylphenidate for very young children. An informal survey of their members in the west midlands suggests that more than 100 children under the age of six in that region alone are on some form of psycho-stimulant medication. As we do not ask for someone’s age when a prescription is written, the Department of Health has told me that it cannot say whether its own guidance is being adhered to. I am sure the Minister would agree that that is an unsatisfactory situation. We have clear guidance from the Government, but no clear knowledge about whether that guidance is being breached on a regular basis. That is not an acceptable situation and the Government must establish a clear picture of what is going on.

I am not asking the Minister to ask the age of every person issued with a prescription, but it would be possible, through a proper survey of practitioners, to establish how much prescribing involves very young children. Will the Minister commit today to carrying out a proper research survey of professionals in the field to establish the degree to which the guidance from NICE is being adhered to and to establishing a clearer picture, particularly with regard to the use of these drugs by children under the age of six?

The question of age is not only about the youngest children. The sharp increase in the use of these drugs in recent years means that we now have a generation of teenagers who have taken psychotropic drugs for years. What happens when they reach adulthood? What are the long-term effects and what is the appropriate alternative treatment for people trying to come off these drugs after a number of years? In its review, NICE concluded:

“Given that ADHD is a chronic condition which may require long-term treatment, there is a need for further data on long-term outcomes of drug treatments.”

There is significant regional variation in prescribing patterns, with the BBC reporting a few years ago that the highest prescribing area prescribed 23 times more than the lowest. I can understand that in any health system in which people are asked to use their judgment prescribing patterns will not be uniform, but 23 times more is a very large difference, and there is similar variation abroad. In the United States, for example, the closer someone lives to the east coast the more likely they are to be diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed these kinds of drugs.

An important feature of the growth in the use of methylphenidate to treat behavioural disorders is the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition”—DSM-IV. The manual breaks down and categorises various psychological and behavioural disorders and has significant international influence. In 2013 it will be replaced by DSM-V.

Some people believe that such publications exacerbate a trend towards the over-medicalisation of behavioural problems. The British Psychological Society, for example, has expressed serious concerns about DSM-V. Its response to the impending introduction of the fifth edition states:

“The Society is concerned that clients and the general public are negatively affected by the continued and continuous medicalisation of their natural and normal responses to their experiences; responses which undoubtedly have distressing consequences which demand helping responses, but which do not reflect illnesses so much as normal individual variation.”

It goes on:

“Diagnostic systems such as these therefore fall short of the criteria for legitimate medical diagnoses. They certainly identify troubling or troubled people, but do not meet the criteria for categorisation demanded for a field of science or medicine”.

What is the Department of Health’s response to those serious concerns? How does the Department intend to work with the professions on the introduction of DSM-V, and does the Minister share the concerns of the Association of Educational Psychologists and the British Psychological Society that it might exacerbate the trend towards the medicalisation of behavioural problems?

It is for all those reasons—the growth in the number of prescriptions, the evidence that they are being given to very young children, the wide regional variations in their use, and the lack of firm data and evidence about the long-term effects of combining these drugs with others—that the Association of Educational Psychologists has called for a review of the use of the drugs. The review should involve paediatricians, child psychiatrists, GPs, teachers, parents and other relevant voices. We must get to the bottom of what lies behind the increased use of the drugs, and establish whether we are dealing with childhood behavioural problems as best we can.

The association’s call for a review is a call I echo today, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that the Government will undertake such a review, before the introduction of DSM-V in 2013. I hope also that he will be open-minded about my questions. I welcome the money for children’s mental health therapy that has been announced today, but it does not mean that we should ignore the questions raised in this debate. If recent trends of growth in the use of the drugs were to continue, we could end up with more than 1 million prescriptions for them, each year in England. Would the Minister be comfortable with such an outcome?

Having highlighted the growth in the use of the drugs and raised concerns about their being taken by very young children in particular, I am essentially asking the Minister to do two things. First, will he commit his Department to carry out a proper research project into the use of the drugs, including the age of the children receiving them? Secondly, in the light of the huge growth in prescriptions, will the Government carry out a proper review of practice in the field, as called for by the Association of Educational Psychologists, before the new guidance comes into effect in 2013? Those requests are moderate and measured, and I look forward to a positive response.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) for securing this debate and for allowing me to address a simple question to the Minister.

Like my right hon. Friend, I am not qualified to say whether people should be on treatments or not, but I am struck by the increasing number of children in Birkenhead who are given what a group of teachers has referred to as “medical coshes” to keep them quiet. In some instances the drugs are no doubt necessary, and they work, but along with my right hon. Friend I question the growth in the number of prescriptions.

Will the Minister work with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to consider the moral hazard of someone ensuring that their child is on Ritalin so that the prescription gives them access to disability benefits? Clearly, that was never the Government’s intention, but we now have a system in which, if someone can prove that their child is ill, and keep them ill, the likelihood of the child being passported on to disability benefits increases. I know that this is not in the Minister’s sphere of influence, but in his response to my right hon. Friend’s most detailed points will he tell us whether he will co-ordinate with the relevant Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions to look at the moral hazard of someone proving their child needs to be on Ritalin to increase their chances of getting disability living allowance for that child?

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) on introducing a particularly interesting and sensitive subject. He made his points very fairly and very well. In passing, I should, I suppose, declare an interest because a member of my family has for a number of years been on Ritalin and, contrary to the observations of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), the benefits to that person’s education have been immense—the decision was taken on clinical advice, not on the advice of parents.

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has welcomed the announcement by the Minister with responsibility for social care, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), of £32 million to help with children’s mental health. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether that was new money. It comes from within the £400 million that was identified by the Treasury in the spending review last year.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) asked about the link between disability allowance, and other entitlements, and children on Ritalin. The entitlement is based not on having a specific health condition diagnosis or treatment, but on what help is needed with personal care as a result of the disability. Nevertheless, I will certainly draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whose Department will hopefully get back to him.

Let me set out some of the background to this issue. According to NICE, between 3% and 9% of school-aged children and young people in the UK meet the broad criteria for mild to moderate attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and between 1% and 2% suffer from severe ADHD. Methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin, and similar drugs are used to treat a range of mental health conditions, including ADHD. The NICE guidelines, published in 2008, recommend that medication should always form part of a holistic package of care, which might include talking therapies. I fully appreciate the concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East about the increase in the number of prescriptions for Ritalin and similar drugs. We need better to understand the reason for that. It is always wrong for doctors to prescribe medication inappropriately, and medication should not be the sole response to an individual’s condition.

I fully appreciate the concerns of those worried about the growth in prescriptions for Ritalin. We do, however, need to acknowledge the fact that too many young people and their families are not getting the support they need. The NICE clinical guidelines on ADHD said, at the time of their publication in 2008, that a minority—fewer than 50%—of all individuals who should be receiving medication and/or specialist care were in receipt of such care. If left untreated, mental health problems can lead to low attainment in school, antisocial behaviour, drink and drug misuse, worklessness and even criminality in adult life. Getting things right for children and their families—through a broad range of support to promote good mental health from the start of life, through the school years and into adulthood—can make a real difference to young lives.

The costs of doing nothing are simply too great. Across hospital and primary care, the prescribing of drugs for ADHD increased by around 12.5% between 2007 and 2010, the latest four years for which data are available, and by around 6% in 2010 alone. Prescribing in primary care alone increased by 22% in that four-year period, reflecting a significant shift in prescribing activity from a hospital setting and into primary care. Looking back further, one sees that prescribing in primary care has tripled in the past 10 years. Some variation in the prescribing of ADHD drugs around the country must be expected in the light of the distribution of specialist services, which might be more likely both to diagnose children with ADHD and to support GPs in taking responsibility from hospital teams for repeat prescriptions; the different local patterns of prescribing across primary care and specialist settings; and demographic factors, such as deprivation, which might be correlated with ADHD.

We do not, however, have good-quality data on the number of children and young people assessed with ADHD, against which prescribing patterns could be compared. If we had, it would be possible to gain a true measure of variations in clinical practice. Prescribing data are not routinely collected by age, but we do need better to understand the position. In the shorter term, we are investigating whether further helpful information can be derived from prescribing research databases. As a result, the data we do have must be interpreted with care and in the context of all the evidence that suggests under-diagnosis and under-treatment of this distressing behavioural disorder.

The point about age is important. The NICE guidelines on children under six could not be clearer. The Minister acknowledges that the Government do not know—I will leave aside whether that is a good state of affairs—how many children are prescribed these drugs. His Department has a research budget, so, rather than trawling other research projects, why can it not commit to research to find out from professionals how many children under six have been prescribed such drugs?

The right hon. Gentleman anticipates my remarks on the NICE guidelines, and I hope that once he has heard them the situation will be clearer.

The 2008 NICE clinical guidelines on the treatment of ADHD are clear that medication is an appropriate treatment for severe ADHD, but that it should be initiated only by a specialist and should form part of a holistic care package that may include talking therapies. The guidelines do not recommend drug treatment for pre-school children, and health care professionals are expected to take the guidelines fully into account when exercising their clinical judgment. They do, however, have the right to prescribe the drugs if they feel it is clinically justified and in keeping with specialist consensus, given the individual circumstances of the child and in consultation with the parent or guardian. Such prescribing can include so-called off licence prescriptions, which means a prescription of medication outside its licensed age indications.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked the Department of Health to conduct a review of the prescription of drugs for the treatment of ADHD, working with families, teachers, medical and mental health professionals. It is, however, for NICE, as an independent organisation, and not for the Department of Health, to review the evidence and to provide national clinical guidance. Between 30 August and 12 September, NICE consulted stakeholders on whether to update its 2008 clinical guidelines. The review is a thorough assessment of the ways in which evidence on ADHD, including pharmacological treatments, has since developed. It will announce a final decision on its review shortly.

In June 2007, the UK led a European review of the risks and benefits of Ritalin and sought advice from independent scientific advisory groups on the available evidence. As a result of that review, the prescribing guidance for patients has been updated to ensure that it contains clear, comprehensive information about the effects of Ritalin and the importance of monitoring children and adolescents throughout their treatment. The safety of Ritalin remains under close review. In addition, the findings of research continue to inform the field and a number of bodies may commission such research, including the National Institute for Health Research. The Government are committed to improving mental health outcomes and have laid down important principles for the future in the strategy, “No health without mental health”, published earlier this year.

The emotional well-being and mental health of children and young people are vital to them as individuals, to their families and to wider society. A principle of the Government's mental health outcomes strategy is the importance of prevention and early evidence-based intervention. Half of those with lifelong mental health problems first experience symptoms before the age of 14, and three quarters of them before their mid-20s. Indeed, today, the Minister with responsibility for social care, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, has announced £32 million of funding to improve access to psychological therapies for children and young people over the next four years.

Psychological therapies can in some cases form part of the holistic package of care that NICE recommended for children and young people with ADHD. It is important that a range of clinicians—paediatricians and GPs as well as child and adolescent mental health service professionals—are well informed on the diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems in children and young people. I am pleased to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the chief medical officer and the NHS medical director plan to write to clinicians to remind them of the full range of NICE guidelines on conditions—including ADHD—that affect children's mental health. They will highlight the opportunities to support rigorous use of evidence-based treatment through the improving access to psychological therapies programme. High-quality, evidence-based treatment is central to our programme to transform mental health services for children.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to DSM-V. This point goes much wider than ADHD alone and touches on the appropriateness of diagnostic categories that are the subject of international professional consensus through the American Psychiatric Association and through the World Health Organisation. The Association of Educational Psychologists and other concerned professional organisations might wish to make their representations on this issue through the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organisation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what the Government’s response would be, but it is not the responsibility of the Department of Health to respond. The professional bodies respond and reach a broad, scientific consensus on the way forward.

I fully appreciate the concerns of those worried by the increasing number of prescriptions for Ritalin and similar drugs. We are investigating whether further helpful information can be derived from prescribing research databases. It is of course for NICE, not the Department, to review the broader evidence and to consider the case for updating the existing clinical guidelines. That is what it has been doing and we await its conclusion. Furthermore, the NICE clinical guidelines on ADHD state that drug treatment for children and young people with ADHD

“should always form part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes psychological, behavioural and educational advice and interventions.”

The NICE guidelines do not replace the clinical judgment needed to treat individual cases, but health care professionals are expected to consider fully the guidelines alongside professional consensus when exercising their clinical judgment.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(11)).