Wednesday 14 December 2011
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
Zoos (Regional Economic Development)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)
Good morning, Mr Bone. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on zoos and aquariums, I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the economic growth potential of the magnificent zoological institutions and live wildlife sites in all regions throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland. That potential extends to aquariums and wildlife and safari parks, and is evolving rapidly, opening up to all forms of imaginative partnership, a fact that is not always self-evident to Government.
I therefore thank the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), for attending this important debate on the future beneficial role of the widespread community of zoological organisations and the important part that they play in society, especially for our economy and future growth. I will make one specific request to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at the culmination of my speech. My fundamental contention is that, especially given the current focus on economic growth and rebalancing our economy, UK zoos, in their relations with Government, have been categorised for too long exclusively within the brackets of tourism, leisure and the environment. I argue that such sites should extend beyond those brackets and into a more holistic economic development arena.
A recent outline economic impact study on the sector carried out for the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums—the national association that looks after the interests of zoos throughout the British Isles—using the most conservative formula available, showed an annual contribution of £645 million to our tax base and the stimulation of 11,000 lasting jobs. I will deal with the study in more detail shortly, but I strongly suggest that with proper encouragement, aquariums, zoos and similar wildlife sites can become even more dynamic engines to help our economy in many ways. They can boost local employment, drive long-term tourism growth, enhance a positive image of regional culture and leisure that encourages inward investment, champion environmental technology, assist in the internationalisation of our economy and the mindset of our population and promote and protect native wildlife and our overall UK tourism landscape, as well as providing the more exotic biodiversity with which zoos are traditionally associated. They can also act as community hubs and focuses, supporting volunteering, community activities, hobbies and special interest groups of all kinds.
A glance at any region’s blueprint for economic growth and environmental responsibility will reveal few desired outputs that cannot be delivered by the sufficiently imaginative development of a zoo. I am especially taken by the unexploited potential of our great zoological institutions to act as shop windows championing cutting-edge research carried out by the UK’s leading research universities. I am aware that moves are being made to partner zoos and aquarium sites with specific cutting-edge research programmes at neighbouring universities, and I am struck by the fact that the science and technology areas involved go far beyond the easily anticipated disciplines of zoology and biology.
The National Zoological Society of Wales, for instance, is developing ideas in partnership with the universities of Glyndwr and Bangor. The National Marine Aquarium is linked closely to Plymouth university in terms of marine science and regional economic growth acceleration. Edinburgh zoo, which has been in the news recently due to the arrival of the pandas, already has a successful alliance with Scottish universities, particularly St Andrews in respect of primatology. Twycross zoo in Leicestershire is exploring potential with Nottingham in a variety of areas, including veterinary science and animal health.
I foresee a compelling future in which zoos and similar wildlife sites are assisted in taking the excellence of our universities’ research and training and placing it firmly in the public arena, in the path both of those who initially pay for it and those who ultimately benefit from the shared affluence produced. The zoo sector’s traditional departmental relationship has been with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and has involved regulation on health and safety and animal welfare, as well as the zoo community’s role in conservation. That is a highly valued dialogue, and I am not suggesting that it be downgraded in any way. Equally, the work of the zoo community maps on to that of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in terms of tourism and cultural and heritage identities.
Last summer, having spent all year based in London for most of the week, I decided to have a family holiday in London, in order to bring my family to London zoo. Does that not demonstrate the economic importance of organisations such as zoos?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, which emphasises the point that I am making. Zoos are the heart of everything in our country. People love to go to zoos and see the animals. However, it is not just about tourism. These days, it is about a wide range of things. It is important to ensure that the public understand that zoos are about more than just animals; they are about conservation and tourism. This debate focuses particularly on how zoos help to strengthen our economy in certain regions of the country.
To return to the point that I was making, zoos involve more than one Department: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in terms of tourism and cultural and heritage identities; the Department for Education, in respect of education and the family dynamic; the Department for Communities and Local Government, in respect of zoos’ powerful role in promoting community values and as a hub for volunteering; the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in terms of their championship of environmentally sustainable buildings and the ultimate aim of a zero-carbon society; and the Department for International Development, as massively attended public sites connecting the UK electorate and taxpayers with the realities of populations in developing countries who live alongside and interact with the animal kingdom.
In championing this debate, it is my firm and overriding ambition that a practical dialogue should ensue between officials in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or BIAZA, the zoo sector’s official representative body. The public goods presented by safari parks, zoos, aquariums and all wildlife institutions are almost too numerous, but in these difficult times, surely a wealth-creating agenda in the context of environmental responsibility should be our priority.
Does the hon. Gentleman know what is being done to market our zoos and wildlife parks? I speak particularly of those that are not so high-profile, such as Penclacwydd in my constituency, where the emphasis is on pond dipping. It has the most fantastic array of pond life and a wild bird collection. Such attractions do not, perhaps, have the same appeal as a large safari park. Does he feel that enough is being done to promote and market the whole range of wildlife parks?
I agree that not enough is being done. That is why I called this debate: to talk not about the welfare of animals, which is normally the topic of debate when zoos are mentioned, but about the promotion of zoos as part of our economic regeneration. I have never had the privilege of visiting the zoo in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Maybe I will visit it at a future date. I look forward to doing so.
In addition to strategic partnership with research universities, there is much further evidence that zoos and zoo projects are net generators of prosperity, with the potential to do a lot more. First, let me point briefly outside the zoo world to Cornwall’s Eden project. Based on the appeal of the living world and predicated on an environmental ethos, the site attracts large numbers of paying visitors. As a model, it is very close to our great zoological sites. Surely, no one could doubt that the Eden project has made a huge contribution to Cornwall’s overall economy and society in an organic place-making sense that embraces and extends far beyond tourism and leisure. Indeed, it is striking that of the millennium capital projects, the Eden project and BIAZA member, The Deep—a submarium—have been some of the greatest successes, demonstrating their self-sustainability and viability. Clearly, large numbers of the UK public are prepared to pay to visit sites where they can imaginatively re-engage with nature and the living world. In doing so, they also guarantee their very financial continuity in a virtuous economic circle.
Secondly, BIAZA’s initial economic impact analysis, which scopes the overall sector, reveals a current economic contribution to the UK of £645 million a year. That was calculated at the most modest level possible and is thrown into relief by the figure of $8.4 billion arrived at by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The study’s results also unveil the far greater potential for such sites if they are given sufficient encouragement and focus. It also underlines that the 11,000 jobs generated, both directly and indirectly, are permanent or at least long lasting—not vulnerable to international outsourcing, as so many other sectors are today. Jobs in tourism are, after all, by definition rooted to a specific place.
Thirdly, I refer to the confidence of, and major investment from, the recent regional development agencies and the devolved Administrations in specific zoo sites and projects lying in their respective regions. One might mention zoos in Edinburgh, Bristol, Chester, Wales, Twycross and Paignton, the leading aquariums in Hull and Plymouth, and other sites in this context. It shows that in all such quarters, authorities have already accepted the economic development logic of zoo and aquarium sites.
Fourthly, such organisations support, improve and communicate a certain fundamental quality of life, a clear and positive sense of place and a celebration of locality. Their development helps to retain and attract knowledgeable, skilled graduates and high-earning professionals. Employers and inward investment will follow the people. Many leading zoos and wildlife sites are non-profit charities, and almost all are to some degree mission, rather than profit led, adopting a social enterprise ethos and reinvesting all or much of their annual surplus in wildlife conservation, education, science, the community and other public goods. Thus the prosperity generated by zoo activity largely tends to remain of local benefit, rather than be shipped off by multinational interests.
In addition to the traditional identity of such sites, they can also act as cultural organisations. The National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth is a key partner in cultural and social events such as the “blue mile” and a recently initiated international marine festival. The cultural role of wildlife venues also expresses itself in architecture and local community heritage based in native species and the much-loved landscapes of Britain. Capitalising on large numbers of visitors concentrated at a single venue, such sites can function as tourism hubs and dynamic promoters of the overall landscape, wildlife and heritage of the UK that extends to both domestic and foreign visitors. They are socially embracing institutions that in all sorts of ways provide a positive impact on a large audience.
Finally, such sites are financially stable organisations. They are not holding out a begging bowl for revenue, but offering attractive platforms for partnership and investment. Indeed, the zoo industry has seen strong, long-term growth for more than 20 years. The fundamental zoo proposition has withstood the challenge of changing fashion and competitive technology for 150 years. It is embedded in our British way of life; it is part of our British tradition and it is here to stay. Nobody claims that this relatively small sector of UK enterprise can perform at the massive economic level of, let us say, aerospace, biotech, manufacturing or other industrial powerhouses of the economy. Such an assertion is not plausible.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Before he elaborates on the niche that zoos and aquariums fit into, does he agree that the sector offers our children and young people—primary or post-primary—an opportunity to expand their horizons that the other sectors he outlined cannot offer in terms of scale and access throughout the year?
I agree entirely. Zoos provide a wonderful opportunity for young people to learn about wildlife and the animal kingdom, conservation and the environment. They are accessible and good value, given what a family gets from the cost of visiting a zoo or a site.
We have spent a lot of time on zoos, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that people have exactly the same experience in aquariums? An aquarium in Maryport in my constituency specialises in fish from the Solway firth and is a huge educational attraction.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I have mentioned aquariums; BIAZA, of course, covers both zoos and aquariums. It promotes all wildlife sites, whether safari parks, zoos or aquariums, or any other institution that promotes the conservation of animals and education about the animal kingdom.
Niche activity can, in its own framework and at its own level, be encouraged to raise radically its economic and fiscal contribution to the UK. Surely, there is a subtler point: the zoo site may not be the largest employer or the chief economic driver within a given constituency or region, but it is often one of the most visible and certainly the best loved. The celebration and the development of a city’s aquarium, such as in Plymouth or Hull, or of a safari park—Knowsley for Merseyside, Woburn for Bedfordshire or Blair Drummond for Stirling and central Scotland—is subtly, but profoundly, linked to a generally enhanced sense of confidence, enterprise and aspiration, national and international attention, and resurgence for the surrounding socio-economic fabric as a whole. To quote a particular example, only two years ago, the citizens of Hampshire voted Marwell Wildlife
“that thing of which we are most proud”.
It was the foremost aspect of living in Hampshire that residents chose to celebrate.
In closing, I look to colleagues on both sides of the House to offer their perspectives and perhaps to refer to individual zoos or wildlife institutions in their constituencies. I request that the Minister and his officials now enter into dialogue with representatives of BIAZA to work towards a mutually agreed policy statement on the wealth-creating identity and unused potential of zoos across the UK and to discuss how Government can encourage and nurture their further potential for the greater good of our economy.
Order. It might be useful for Members to know that I intend to start the wind-up speeches at 10.40 am. There is a great deal of interest in Mr Rosindell’s debate, so could Members keep their comments reasonably short? I call David Tredinnick.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Bone, for allowing me to speak first after my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). The debate is well supported this morning, perhaps because of his efforts. He has already mentioned twice the famous Twycross zoo in my constituency. I would like to discuss the twin aspects of developing economic activity in respect of zoos: what they are doing at home and, in the case of Twycross, what they are doing abroad.
In my area, we feel strongly about my zoo. I claim Twycross as a zoo of my own because I have represented the area for many years and know the zoo’s founders and staff, whom I have tried to support for a long time. Twycross receives 400,000 visitors a year and has nearly 1,000 animals—500 mammals, 220 birds and 135 reptiles. It has the widest range of animals in captivity in the area, but they are not in cages. We also have the best laid out area, which consists of 40 acres where elephants, giraffes, lions and leopards can roam around outside.
If we are to develop economic activity in the zoo industry, we must ensure that there are open spaces and that zoos meet the modern requirements that people expect. They do not want to see all animals in cages. I congratulate Molly Badham, Nathalie Evans and Suzanne Boardman and her team on managing to take things forward, so that we have a new paradigm in zoos. We are talking about economic activity at home and what is happening abroad. If someone wants to have a successful business as a zoo, they need to be very forward thinking. I submit that that is exactly what Twycross has done. I shall cite three or four projects in which it has engaged that have increased visitor numbers and set a very fine example.
The first is the Borneo longhouse project, which is part of four projects where the public are immersed in animal activity. Rather than just looking through the window, the public are part of the experience. That first experience was opened by Liz Hurley in 2005. I was very lucky to be there and she did a fantastic job of drawing publicity to the zoo. The longhouse has not only simulated rain and steam, but simulated thunder and lightening. It is a very exciting place to be, and of course zoos must be exciting if we are to attract younger people and prevent zoos withering on the vine, like our public houses; that is a very sad thing. We must have exciting venues for people to visit. I can assure hon. Members that coming back through the bat cave is exciting because one can see the bats, although some people might not like bats that much.
The second very exciting development at Twycross that I would like to mention is the amazing snow leopard outdoor park, which is a massive outside cage that is about two cricket pitches long. Visitors in the extensive visitors’ centre, where people can buy a range of animal souvenirs, can see snow leopards out on the rocks. That has been a fantastic draw for people and the experience has been combined with what I was going to call corporate entertainment, but it is done in a slightly different way. People can book the venue to have lunch, dinner and receptions while watching the snow leopards and the birds in the wetland wader bird enclosure that is next door. That 40 acres is a dynamic, exciting, forward-looking area, where animals can roam and people can enjoy them and go around on a little train if they want to.
The project has brought great success to Twycross. In fairness, I should mention that it has received top British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums awards this year for best educational project, significant advances in husbandry and welfare, best new zoo enclosure and best research project for entamoeba histolytica—I will send my notes to Hansard. That award was for maintaining animal welfare and dealing with that tricky bug.
There is greater economic activity at home at Twycross, but what is it doing abroad? Twycross takes the lead in conservation abroad. It does conservation in situ at home in terms of trying to protect endangered species, and it currently has 67 species of animal in the European endangered species programmes or European studbooks. That is significant because, in the past, zoos have been under attack by people who do not like animals in cages. As I have said, Twycross is a very open area. There is open access and it is forward looking. Also, if we do not have organisations such as Twycross zoo, we will not have some of those species.
We are all worried about endangered species, and I absolutely applaud what Twycross has done to protect specific endangered species abroad such as the gibbon that lives on the Vietnamese-Chinese border that was discovered by Fauna and Flora International scientists some years ago. Only 150 such gibbons remain in the wild, but Twycross has an outreach programme to support them. It has a gibbon conservation centre and a community-based range of patrols. That is an example of what Tywcross has done abroad.
Twycross is doing something else abroad. In areas where it is helping animals, it is encouraging and assisting local people to develop skills that will prevent deforestation, for example, by explaining the benefits of fuel-efficient stoves to reduce the amount of fuel wood collected from the forest. It is also helping local people to grow feed plantations to reduce the free grazing of livestock, which denudes the landscape and threatens the lives of the animals. In addition to the ecological research to which I have referred, it is also planting new tress to help supply sustainable firewood for the future.
I shall not speak for any longer because I do not want to be selfish and take up time. As I said, I am grateful to you, Mr Bone, for allowing me to speak first after my hon. Friend the Member for Romford. I will sum up by saying this. Some two-thirds of a billion pounds is annually put into our tax base by zoos across the UK and, at the last count, there were 11,000 lasting jobs in the sector, including those created by the 400,000 visitors at Twycross in Leicestershire. Some 28 million people a year—one third of our entire population—had some connection with zoos last year. Surely, that is enough for my hon. Friend the Minister to take this issue very seriously indeed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on bringing the matter to the House. I spoke to him yesterday about it and I am keen to contribute in support. The key issue is the regional economic development aspect that is included in the title of the debate. The zoo sector has created jobs. I should like to focus on two locations in my constituency, because they have experienced economic growth as a result of aquariums and wildfowl centres. The wording of the debate title is clearly the key to the matter, because economic development comes off the back of the jobs that are created. We have an opportunity to get ourselves out of these difficult times. I feel that the sector could be used to the betterment of my constituency.
Others may disagree, but I represent what I consider to be the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom, Strangford. I say that for a number of reasons—not only because I live there, but because every morning I wake up and look out over Strangford lough, which is recognised as an area of outstanding natural beauty and as a Ramsar site as well. People all over the world are aware of the area and, for that reason, I am pleased to be here to talk about it.
Ards borough council—wearing a hat that I had for some 26 years; I resigned from it only a year and a half ago—was part of the area’s economic development. The council and its development officer—along with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Down district council, which also has a part of Strangford lough is within its area—recognised the good news that there was an opportunity for economic development, which would create jobs and financial stability.
The hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) is not in his place, but Exploris in Portaferry is part of the group that he spoke about earlier. It is an aquarium in the south of my constituency that attracts approximately 200,000 visitors a year. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned educational advantages and the hon. Member for Romford responded to his question. Exploris focuses on education and is an attraction for schools, which keep coming back, and the format changes every couple of years to keep it new and fresh. The seals in Strangford lough have been the key to promoting the aquarium—they are the stars of Exploris. About three years ago there was an outbreak of seal flu. There was a concern that a lot of the seals would die, but the seal population is back and attracts many people to the area. Exploris can grow: private enterprise is keen to be involved and Government money will be spent. Arlene Foster, the Minister with responsibility for tourism policy in the Northern Ireland Assembly, is working with councils to bring further economic development and growth.
Our second jewel in the crown is Castle Espie. At least one hon. Member in the Chamber is aware of Castle Espie. The gentleman who was originally responsible for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust harvested, from a shooting point of view, wildfowl in Strangford lough and further afield—something that I have done, too. Although Castle Espie provides an opportunity to shoot geese and ducks, its wildlife centre also has a clear responsibility as a conservation area. People can visit the area and enjoy seeing ducks, geese and waders. Strangford lough is one of the areas in Europe and the United Kingdom that is visited by Brent geese. They come in large numbers, which continue to grow. Perhaps the Government will have to consider whether Brent geese stay on the protected list or become a quarry species, but that is for the future. More than 100,000 people visit Castle Espie every year. There has been substantial expenditure to attract new visitors, and to make the convention centre more attractive to people from outside the local area. For a nice exciting day, it is clearly a place to visit.
There is an economic benefit from tourism, and there is more to come. It is a growth industry on which we need to focus, and that is why I am pleased to speak in the debate. The two local councils have created 400 jobs off the back of tourism in our area. I believe that tourism can and will provide more. Castle Espie has been upgraded, and Exploris has seen substantial financial commitment. It is wonderful to have those two attractions, along with the Mount Stewart estate in the centre of the Ards peninsula. Mount Stewart is not a zoo, an aquarium or a wildlife centre, but another attraction. I encourage hon. Members, if they have not booked their holiday for next year, to do so now: Strangford lough and the Strangford constituency would be the place to come to, with Mount Stewart in the centre, Exploris down at the southern toe, Castle Espie on the other side and much, much more. They will not be disappointed. Jobs have come off the back of tourism, with potential for economic growth. We can do more.
As my hon. Friend is issuing invitations to visit Northern Ireland, may I urge people, and urge him to urge his constituents, to come up the road to Belfast? Not only are we investing £100 million in the new Titanic signature project for 2012—a massive investment in one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions—but Belfast zoo is one of the UK’s leading zoos. It will, for many years, continue to attract tens of thousands of visitors from across Northern Ireland. He is right to focus on the massive tourist boost of having a zoo in the region that we represent.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and fully support what he is talking about. In Northern Ireland, we are very fortunate to live in much more pleasant times. We have a democratic process that is moving forward, and we have partnership government. It may not be ideal in every sense, but it is certainly the way forward. We have an opportunity for growth, part of which is tourism, as he says.
I am very pleased to be here today to speak in this debate. I encourage hon. Members to consider their holiday destination for next year. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry and I will be able to supply tea and biscuits. We are pleased to speak to this matter, and we thank the hon. Member for Romford for securing the debate.
I welcome this debate and the opportunity to discuss the role that zoos play in our regional economies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for his work in securing the debate. In my maiden speech last year, I laid claim to represent more penguins than any other hon. Member. I am proud to able to add to that list, and I must, obviously, mention Scotland’s new arrivals. While I am not the only hon. Member here today to represent exotic species, I am very proud to be the only hon. Member with two giant pandas as constituents: Tian Tian and Yang Guang, or Sweetie and Sunshine. They arrived last week and I understand that they are settling well into their new home. I hope to be able to visit them in the coming weeks. I am pleased that Scottish Enterprise has wasted no time in commissioning a report to help to understand the pandas’ potential impact on tourism, and the economic impact at local and national level. I await its findings with great interest.
Today’s zoos are much more than entertainment; they are centres of conservation, education and research. Yes, zoos continue to draw huge numbers of tourists, and so add directly to a region’s economy through tourist revenues, supply-chain jobs and roles in the service industries. However, their ability to deliver wider and more dramatic results has been somewhat curtailed by a failure to recognise them as businesses, centres of innovation and hubs linking cutting-edge scientific research, education, technology and commercialism. I hope that today’s debate marks a step change in that respect. With our focus on growth and rebalancing the economy, it is essential to capitalise on all areas to drive future development and sustainability.
Edinburgh zoo, in my constituency, is home to more than 1,000 rare and endangered animals. It is also one of Europe’s leading research centres for conservation and education, working collectively with many other zoos and conservation agencies in co-ordinated programmes. The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has also worked for recognition by the university of Edinburgh as an accredited research associate, and has signed a memorandum of understanding with seven major Scottish universities to ensure co-operation in research. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford said, the UK’s zoological institutions are uniquely positioned to act as shop windows, championing the cutting-edge research being undertaken in our universities. He mentioned excellent examples in Wales, Plymouth and Edinburgh.
In Edinburgh, pairing with St Andrews is producing excellent output in primatology. The work is not just in biology, but is pushing boundaries and discoveries in chemistry, physics, engineering, maths, design and aesthetics. Interestingly, the Budongo trail, an excellent facility hosting the chimps, also has corporate rooms available for conferences, overlooking the chimp enclosure. It is perhaps arguable who is more bemused by what they see: the chimps or the conference participants. Such research work should not be shut away in our universities and research laboratories, but shared and celebrated with the public and visitors from overseas. It seems clear that, in that way, our zoos and similar institutions can and should act as a hub, translating primary research and scientific excellence into something of commercial and educational value. In Edinburgh, that education extends not only to school visits but to the excellent summer school run for 15 and 16-year-olds from throughout Scotland. Another example of local engagement is seen in this year’s 175th birthday celebrations for Bristol zoo, where sculptures of gorillas by local artists were placed on a mass public art trail for 10 weeks this summer.
As my hon. Friend said, zoos and aquariums contribute £645 million each year to the economy. A recent American report suggests that zoos have been doing better since 2008, as people increasingly look for affordable entertainment. With appropriate support and encouragement, however, such sites can become even more dynamic engines for regional growth and development, boosting local jobs, driving long-term tourism growth, championing environmental technology and enhancing regional leisure opportunities, thereby encouraging inward investment. The sector itself recognises that it has more to offer, if only its unique position were recognised by others, Government in particular. To quote Dr Miranda Stevenson, director of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums:
“Zoos and aquariums have a great deal of potential which is not being exploited by the government. They are not only a significant tourist attraction, but are of great conservational, educational and economic value in terms of local economic development and wealth generation.”
She added that a recently produced BIAZA report was
“the first step towards establishing the value of zoos to the wider economic and social good.”
The mention of social good is interesting and I want to touch on that briefly.
In no other sector are visitors so equally spread across ethnic group, age, socio-economic background and level of education. The tradition of a family day out at the zoo blithely transcends social and economic barriers, and includes nearly every child at a formative point in their education. The BIAZA report showed that in 2010, 25 million people, more than a third of the UK population, visited one of its zoos or aquariums over the year; more than 1.2 million of them on an educational visit. That is not unique to the UK. A report on Australian zoos found that more Australians visited zoos each year than any other form of cultural entertainment, apart from watching films. Yet the chance to use zoos, safari parks and the like as a place to deliver key messages on education and opportunity is often overlooked. The UK is not alone in that respect. The same Australian report concludes that
“the contributions that governments make to the zoos sector is very low compared to the way in which society values zoos.”
I hope that today’s debate will mark the beginning of a new era for the UK’s zoos, recognising them as institutions that can help us to grow economies and address skills gaps. As such, I hope that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will open practical and frank discussions with BIAZA.
I shall be as brief as possible, given that many other colleagues want to speak in this important and popular debate.
When people ask me where my constituency is, I often say that I am the Member for Whipsnade zoo, because it is easily the best known institution in my constituency. Although I represent three towns and 14 villages including many wonderful historic houses, thriving businesses, wonderful churches and so on, the best known part of my constituency is Whipsnade zoo, which has around 0.5 million visitors a year. In common with other Members, I cannot resist giving a little plug while I am on my feet, even though it is not the main focus of our debate.
Whipsnade is the United Kingdom’s largest zoo, with 600 acres and 2,500 animals—I must say that to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). People can walk or drive around it, or take the safari bus or steam engine. A range of attractions include cheetah rock, the lions of the Serengeti—including reference to the Selous game reserve, the largest in the world—and the rhinos of Nepal, or someone can be in with the limas or in the chimpnasium. Daily shows include the “Sealion Splash”, where people who get too close are liable to get quite wet, but it is good fun, and the “Peckish Penguins”. So I can tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) that Bedfordshire, as well as Edinburgh, has penguins. In Bedfordshire we also have not only Whipsnade but, close by, Woburn, with its wonderful safari parks. Bedfordshire is certainly doing its bit for zoos and for tourism in our area.
The Minister will be interested to know that in spite of our difficult times, I am told by David Field, the excellent director of Whipsnade, that visits to the zoo are on the increase and that the number of visitors has been the highest in the past 37 years of the zoo being open. That is excellent news because zoos, as many Members have said this morning, are not only wonderful institutions, where we learn about conservation and protecting our wonderful threatened animals around the world, but thriving businesses. In the summer, Whipsnade can employ up to 300 people directly, and there are many other jobs associated with such a major tourist attraction.
As far as Whipsnade specifically is concerned, it could do even better and contribute more to our local and national economies if there were improved public transport. Unlike some other zoos, which are in the middle of towns, Whipsnade is quite isolated; it is in the beautiful Bedfordshire countryside, high up in the Chiltern hills outside Dunstable. If we had better bus links, perhaps even a direct bus from Luton station, we could get more visitors, contributing even more to the local economy. Forty thousand school children went round Whipsnade last year—a significant part of their education.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a gap between when visitors come as children and when they return to bring their own children or grandchildren? How does he suggest that we might deal with that gap in the middle—the teenage years, the early 20s and so on—when we do not seem to be drawing in the people we would like to be getting in?
One way would be an innovative membership scheme, with repeat visits at reduced prices, so that people go regularly to their local zoo. The hon. Lady is absolutely right; we do not want zoos to be places where people go once every couple of years, but places they visit regularly, without those huge gaps. Pricing schemes that are a little easier on the pocket could be one way of dealing with what she rightly suggests.
Some of the representatives of zoos who are attending the debate have put it to me that it is not as easy for zoos to apply for lottery grants or heritage funds as it is for other organisations such as museums. Perhaps the Minister will kindly agree to look at that. We realise that money is tight, but the thrust of the debate, excellently started by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), is that zoos are looking for dialogue with the Government and the Minister’s Department. They are having a positive effect on inward investment, creating more jobs and helping to get the economic growth that we need. The Minister is committed to leaving no stone unturned to promote economic growth in this country, so I am sure that he will want to see the zoo and aquarium sector playing the fullest possible part in the important job that he is undertaking for us.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing the debate.
I have always been interested in the subject, mainly because I remember as a child watching “Animal Magic” with Johnny Morris, who did those wonderful voices. I was also brought up on “The Lion and Albert”; Members might remember that on a family visit to the zoo Albert was eaten by the lion, because at Blackpool the waves were “fiddlin’ and small” and it was not at all a nice place to have ended up.
I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate because, as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, I host the national aquarium, which is the largest in the country. It plays a major part in the regional economy, as well as contributing to the national economy. Last year, it received around 264,000 visitors, of whom 30,000 were schoolchildren. It employs between 72 and 75 people, some of whom work part-time, who make a significant contribution to the local economy. It had a turnover of around £2.5 million, and received a grant of £500,000 from the regional development agency for capital activity.
I was a candidate in Plymouth for a very long time—more than 10 years—and during the 2001 general election, when the countryside was closed due to foot and mouth disease, the aquarium in Plymouth became a major attraction because people could not go out to the countryside. I have been told that if it is raining in the morning, the local community knows that it will be inundated with people visiting the aquarium because they will not go to the beaches or into the countryside.
The aquarium plays a significant role as a major tourist attraction but, more importantly, it works closely with Plymouth university, which is one of the principal marine science engineering universities in the country. It is helpful that it is part of a cluster of activity, which is why Plymouth is one of the principal global leaders in maritime research. The aquarium moulds its exhibits and education programmes, and drives conservation projects very well and in a big way. It is run as a business, not as an organisation that receives Government handouts, and it ensures that it uses natural resources and encourages its suppliers and customers to act ethically. It is part of an industry that attracts paying graduates from all round the world, so it is an international organisation.
Next year, we will commemorate the death of Captain Scott of the Antarctic. Many people will know that if he were still alive today he would be my constituent. I regularly come across people who tell me that their grandparents used to steal apples from his garden—they could not do that now, as it has been built on. Plymouth will receive an enormous amount of attention because of Captain Scott’s death, and I hope that the aquarium will recognise that.
Another place that will ensure that Captain Scott’s death is commemorated is the Natural History museum, which will run a major exhibition from January to October. Next year will see an increase in the number of people wanting to go to the aquarium in Plymouth because there will be enormous publicity. In the last few weeks, we have watched David Attenborough’s “Frozen Plant”, and that too will be a major boost for the aquarium.
Without further ado, I thank you, Mr Bone, for allowing me to speak, and I wish everyone the best of luck and a very happy Christmas.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for giving me the opportunity to speak on behalf of the 7,000 animals from 400 species that live in my constituency at Chester zoo. It is Britain’s most popular zoo, and generates 1.4 million visits a year. It is regularly rated one of the top 15 zoos in the world.
Since its establishment in 1934, Chester zoo and the North of England Zoological Society has always been a charity and a members’ organisation, and has always had a social enterprise ethos. Because of that, Chester zoo has for more than 75 years been a big society success story. Today, it generates some £13.5 million in visitor revenue, and employs some 300 core staff year round, and 160 seasonal staff during the summer. It is a high-quality employer that brings good, long-lasting jobs to our local economy.
Like many zoos—we heard about Twycross—Chester is a leader in conservation, both at home and abroad. In the UK, it is responsible for breeding many native species and reintroducing them back into the environment, including sand lizards, dormice and harvest mice. It is also a centre of international excellence for breeding programmes with other zoos to provide an insurance policy so that many endangered species have a large enough population to ensure genetic stability. We are looking forward to the opening within the next couple of weeks of a £250,000 giant otter breeding centre, which will include underwater viewing areas with tunnels allowing people to pop up among the giant otters. It will include a breeding programme for giant otters, which are an endangered species from south America.
Chester zoo is involved in more than 150 field projects in 50 countries. It directly runs 10 major field programmes throughout the world, involving elephants, black rhinos, jaguars, the realm of the red ape, and a Nigerian project. Through conservation and research grants from the North of England Zoological Society, it funds more than 60 field projects around the world word, including projects on cheetahs and komodo dragons.
Like many zoos throughout the world, much of the Chester zoo’s international work is based in the far east, south Asia and south America, which are some of the fastest growing economies in the world. We have brands and zoos that are doing good work in those countries, and we should use their good name and their facilities to ensure that we sell Britain and British companies to those fast-growing countries to enable and support our economic growth. We have heard about research and educational facilities offered by zoos, and Chester zoo does all that.
I turn to what Chester zoo wants to do in future. It has huge ambitions. For the past two years, it has been drawing up a £225 million natural vision project, which hopes to transform the zoo over 12 years into one of the world’s largest and greatest animal and visitor experiences. The idea is to develop a series of themed zones, and to expand the size of the zoo by one third to make it one of the largest in Europe. As part of that proposal, it is planning to safeguard some 500 jobs, and to create 660 new jobs in the zoo and the local economy. The total cost will be £225 million, with the first phase costing some £90 million.
Planning approval was granted in November last year, but there are difficulties because the zoo was promised £40 million from the Northwest Development Agency, and that money is no longer available. It is now looking for alternative sources, and trying to rearrange its plans to ensure that it can deliver as much as possible through its own resources. It is being successful in that. Over the next couple of years, it is hoping to use its own resources to open an islands exhibit, which will focus on Madagascar, Mauritius, Sumatra and other south-east Asian islands. It will feature an Indonesian show house, boat rides, and underwater viewing of animals. It will house Sumatran orang-utans, tigers, komodo dragons, fruit bats and crocodiles. Part of the proposal is to build a 150-bed themed hotel within one of the themed zones.
The zoo’s idea in developing the natural vision project is to ensure that visitors will not have just a one-day experience, but stay the night in Chester, go to restaurants, and spend money in the local economy. We have noted that the zoo attracts a huge number of visitors, but many of them are day visitors. They catch a train or drive to Chester, visit the zoo and then go home again. We want to try to ensure that people come and stay the night. If they spend several days in Chester, they can visit not only the zoo but the other attractions that Chester has to offer. They might also visit Liverpool or north Wales in the wider sub-region. Chester zoo sees itself as an engine for growth locally. With its large, high-profile projects planned for the future, it can deliver real economic benefits.
The North of England Zoological Society at Chester zoo has huge ambitions, which is down to the work of the zoo’s director general, Mark Pilgrim, and Barbara Smith, the managing director. If the Minister is interested in seeing the good work that zoos do in the local economy and the good work that is planned for the future, Chester and the zoo will be happy to welcome him.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for giving us an opportunity to talk about places and things that we are passionate about: economic activity in our areas, tourism, and, in my particular case, the subject of learning outside the classroom, which has been mentioned by other speakers.
I will mention two examples of progressive zoos as opposed to zoos in the more traditional sense in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. We have heard about the conservation and education benefits, so I will not repeat those points. My two examples are perfect illustrations of those. However, we have not touched on the areas of job creation and job sustainability. In the two examples that I will refer to, there are jobs in marketing, finance, IT, animal husbandry, catering and retail, and jobs in the wider community in the secondary industries that rely on our progressive zoos. It is not just about tending animals and teaching kids about the wider world. There is a vibrant, important and sustainable job market in and around progressive zoos, even in small pockets of west Wales such as those I am lucky enough to represent.
My two simple examples include Folly Farm, tucked away in the village of Begelly in west Wales. I remember it as a farm by the road in 1988 where someone could call in and watch the Williams family milking their cows. A few years later, we had 400,000 visitors going through that establishment. It is renowned throughout Wales and the rest of the UK, and it is known further afield as a centre of excellence as a progressive zoo. It is now Wales’s largest paid-for tourist attraction. It has 60 employees—160 when it is at full speed in the summer months—and it is not too far down the road from the other classic example, which is the Manor House wildlife park run by Anna Ryder Richardson and her family.
I used the Folly Farm example to highlight economic benefits; I will use Manor House to highlight educational benefits. One or two colleagues know of my interest in learning outside the classroom. My point, which I hope the Minister will take on board, is that there is increasing evidence that learning outside the classroom brings profound economic benefits further down the line. These establishments take kids of varying abilities from all sorts of backgrounds and enable them to learn things in a different set-up from the traditional classroom scenario. The effects of this on the children and their teachers are fantastic. Some children are not particularly brilliant at classroom activity, but find that when they are in the company of animals or experts and other visitors in the zoo, it brings something out in them that a traditional education has not been able to discover. It improves their knowledge of food sourcing and nature, and their physical fitness and self-confidence in many different ways, and it makes them more rounded individuals. It means that they are more likely to be economically productive when they grow up rather than a drain on the nation. We must not underestimate the value that zoos offer. I hope that the Minister will see that the benefits amount to more than what is on the tin when we read about the zoo in our local paper or on a website. The contribution that zoos can make through the education system, which has an economic benefit, must not be understated.
I will mention the three things that we would like. We want recognition, which I am sure is forthcoming, of the sustainable economic activity, both primary and secondary, that the establishments provide, especially in more isolated rural areas. We want recognition of the value of learning outside the classroom, not as an alternative to a traditional education or as an alternative entertainment to which children can be subjected, but as something that brings real long-term economic value locally and nationally. We also want it recognised that, for some strange reason, zoos do not seem to be attributed the same value as museums or sports and science centres when it comes to funding from either national or local government. Their contribution and potential are obvious at every level, so it is strange that, for some reason, zoos get a second-class deal when it comes to potential funding.
The debate has been very worth while. I suspect we will hear more. I hope that we do, because history has shown that zoos are an active and positive element of economic growth, which we refer to in so many other areas.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) not only on securing the debate, but on his very hard work on the all-party group.
Like many hon. Members, I am keen to contribute because I have in my constituency not just a zoo and an aquarium but an entire safari park. I am delighted to see the director of wildlife, who has come to see this debate, in the visitors gallery. We have been hearing about zoos making a local impact, but I can confidently say that a whole safari park does a huge amount more. Having an institution and tourist attraction like the West Midland safari park is important, because it adds to a comprehensive mix of local tourist attractions. Alongside the safari park is the Severn Valley railway, one of the biggest heritage railways in Europe and also an important tourist draw. Between them, they complement a tourist day out that comprises a visit to the Wyre Forest and to towns such as Stourport-on-Severn and Bewdley with their amazing riverside characters.
The tourist offering is significant to the local economy. As we know, one of the fastest ways of drawing in economic activity is through the tourism industry. It is estimated that these local attractions, which form part of the west midlands key attractions group, bring in many millions of pounds of economic benefit locally and some 750,000 visitors to Wyre Forest every year. West Midland safari park is more than just a tourist attraction. As a seasonal employer, it provides 250 extra jobs for school leavers every year. It seems there are few people in Wyre Forest who have not worked at the safari park at some point to gain early job experience. Indeed, the current leader of Wyre Forest district council was a ride operator in the amusement park.
An organisation like the WMSP has a huge amount more to offer. The safari park makes a massive contribution to animal research in a number of ways, from allowing researchers access to study animal behaviour and collecting physiological measurements, to supplying them with biological samples and animal records. The park also collaborates in projects initiated by endangered species breeding programmes, and with other zoological parks, national and international conservation bodies and university staff. In a measure to help educational projects, the park spends six months of the year hosting students from local universities who collect data for MSc and BSc dissertations on focal topics chosen by the WMSP. The park also encourages applications from professional researchers and postgraduate students who are involved in projects that are in line with their research missions.
The safari park hosts many rare and endangered animals. However, it is the economic commitment that the safari park makes to the local economy that I am most in awe of. When the main house of the estate, Spring Grove house, burnt down a few years ago, the managers of the park received an insurance payout. They took that money and tripled it to create an incredibly impressive local venue that in itself draws much economic activity. The managers also created the single biggest seated venue in Worcestershire with a tented function facility that can seat more than 400 people.
Finally, but most impressively, there are plans to create a 250-bed conference venue that takes advantage of the “Out of Africa” theme that only a safari park can offer. This will be the biggest conference centre in Worcestershire and will add to the incredible array of offerings that Worcestershire can make. The economic impact of the WMSP is incredibly important. I visit it frequently with my young family. It is a truly wonderful experience. To my constituency, it is an important local economic driver. It is an opportunity for school leavers to get work experience and a centre of excellence for research.
In conclusion, I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a constituent. He used to live in Karen in the suburbs of Nairobi. He told me that, despite living in Kenya for 15 years, it was only when he moved to Kidderminster that he could have a sundowner gin and tonic in his garden and listen to the lions roaring in the distance.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship Mr Bone, and I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who has added to his well-justified reputation as a champion of animal welfare in the House by presenting a cogent and compelling case for the economic role of zoos and aquariums. His case has been echoed by the wide and extraordinarily positive range of contributions that have come not only from my colleagues in the Opposition, but from across the Chamber, and included a cameo appearance by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). He reminded me of his previous involvement with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, not least with Knowsley zoo. We heard about an array of places: the east midlands, Cumbria, Wales, Northern Ireland, Whipsnade, Plymouth, Chester, and West Midlands safari park—I beg the forgiveness of hon. Members if I have left any out.
Together with the obvious promotions and the pride that hon. Members have shown for zoos and aquariums in their constituencies has been an underlying economic theme. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford because he put his finger on many of the issues concerning the blueprint for economic growth. Zoos can be used for outreach into other disciplines and can forge links with universities or research and development bodies. Perhaps the Minister will pass that message to his hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, because research in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—involves not only higher education but further education and will be a key area in the future.
The hon. Member for Romford mentioned all the Departments that are involved with zoos, and I warm to that theme. Before becoming a Front-Bench spokesman, I spent 13 years working with Members from all parties to promote the seaside and coastal towns, and the Government need to work across silos to encourage and support such places. We have the same issue with zoos, and I warmly support and endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the practical dialogue that is needed between officials from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and zoo organisations. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively on that point.
The hon. Gentleman described the Eden project as one of the most successful of its kind, and he put his finger on the fact that zoos often provide a point of entry to much broader economic activity, not only for tourism but in terms of educational and environmental activity. Hon. Members may smile initially at that point, but it is a central role for BIS and other Departments, especially in the context of grants and their close involvement with the Department for Communities and Local Government.
All hon. Members in the debate have their own personal anecdotes and background. I am a native Mancunian, and my fondest memories of the late-lamented Belle Vue zoo are not so much about the animals—although I am sure that they made an impression—as about the walk-through concrete whale that was a central feature of the zoo. It stimulated me at a precocious age to set up a bring-and-buy stall outside my parents’ house in aid of the World Wildlife Fund. As a reward for my efforts, I received an enamel panda badge, which goes to show that then, just as now, pandas were an iconic symbol.
It is clear that zoos play a crucial role in the local economy. According to statistics from Visit England, in 2010, zoos made up a quarter of the top 20 fee-charging visitor attractions in the UK, with well over 6 million visitors. As hon. Members have noted, that was recognised by the regional development agencies, some of which played a key role in boosting tourism in the regions and promoting zoos as part of an overall tourism programme. Sadly, however, the Government’s hasty abolition of RDAs led to some funding not going through, as with Chester zoo, and perhaps more subtly, it removed some of the expertise and internal, informal architecture that brought together further education, higher education and entrepreneurs to seek investment for new projects. If zoos and aquariums cannot find other local mechanisms to replace that investment, they will miss out. James Ramsbotham of the North East chamber of commerce recently said that One North East had done a particularly good job of promoting the north-east as a tourist destination, and as I know from my experiences in Blackpool, tourism initiatives are a key spur for economic growth.
Other hon. Members have mentioned their local zoos, so I will mention Blackpool zoo. It has a proud lineage and used to be owned by the council, although since 2007 it has been operated by Parques Reunidos, one of the largest operators in Europe. It, too, has a weird and wonderful collection of attractions such as the giraffe heights, wallaby walkabout and the dinosaur safari—the dinosaurs are not living, of course, but the safari exists. It also has Maisie, who in 2010 became the first western lowlands gorilla—an endangered species—to be born in the zoo. Such zoos work as a point of entry to other attractions in the town such as Stanley park, an iconic park from the 1920s and 1930s that has undergone major renovation in recent years and is adjacent to the zoo. Visitors to Blackpool are brought from the seaside and into the country and to Fylde, and that shows how points of entry can be used.
The Library has risen to the occasion, as always, and provided a brief for the debate. It mentions Chester zoo, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), and cites an interesting quotation from Charlie Seward, the director of regeneration at Cheshire West and Chester council:
“There is a real push in the city… We are seen as not keeping pace with the competition…from big cities such as Manchester and Leeds. We need to be putting in our own investment.”
That is a good example of how second-tier towns and cities are demanding the ability to utilise initiatives such as zoos.
A spokesman from Paignton zoo stated that it had been able
“to access grants through the South West Regional Development Agency and from Europe. Crocodile Swamp was part-financed by the European Regional Development Fund.”
If the Government do not get a move on over the European regional development fund, they might find themselves in a crocodile swamp of their own—that is a discussion for the Minister and I to hold on another occasion.
We need new local mechanisms to take forward initiatives such as zoos. That is why the recent Centre for Cities report argued that local enterprise partnerships were at a crucial stage and that the Government need to act fast to make further resources available. A start has been made with the recent announcement on cities the other week. I have always thought of the Minister of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), not as “disgusted” but as endlessly positive and energetic. If he were an animal, fictional or otherwise, he would be Tigger. He bounced up and down and talked about the importance of cities, but in this context, second-tier towns and cities, the seaside and rural and suburban areas adjacent to our large regional cities are also important. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) recently called on the Government to hold a full impact assessment into the replacement of RDA funding and those groups that might have been left out, such as zoos and aquariums. It is welcome that Visit England has been allocated £20 million under the second round of the regional growth fund, and in his official discussions I urge the Minister to highlight the role that zoos can play.
Where will we be in 10 or 15 years’ time? People will not be buying masses of plasma TVs for Aunt Agatha’s 80th birthday; they will be buying her a trip to the zoo or another experience. We are in a world where we will be buying experiences, and zoos are very well placed for economic activity in that area, so I ask the Minister to go out and be a friend to the warthog, the wallaby, the ring-tailed lemur and possibly even the slothful panda, although given the extent of its consumption, I am sure that it would not fit with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s lean-and-mean economy today. Does the Minister realise that—to adapt the traditional Hollywood film adage—“There’s gold in them thar zoos.”?
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) not only on securing the debate, but on setting out the broad issues, which a number of hon. Members have also highlighted. I am not sure about the animal analogy and I shall spare colleagues by not taking it further. Let me simply say that I have never been good with reptiles, which is why, thankfully, I do not have to spend too much time with the tabloids.
Let me refer to some of the excellent remarks made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend rightly highlighted the heritage of the institutions. Incidentally, given the time left to me, I will use the phrase “zoos and aquariums” as shorthand; hon. Members whose constituencies contain safari parks and other attractions should not feel left out. My hon. Friend raised economic and tourism issues, which I will come to, but he also highlighted something that other hon. Members mentioned, which is that the first practical contact children have with the natural world is often through the local zoo, safari park or aquarium. It is right to highlight that social role. All of us can respond to that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) spoke of the excellent work of Twycross zoo. I am familiar with Twycross; I have met the senior managers there. My hon. Friend highlighted, as several other hon. Members did, the international role that zoos and aquariums can play. I am talking not just about what we do in this country, but about reaching back to some of the countries from which the relevant species originated, so that we think about a sustainable future more holistically. That is an eminently sensible and good point.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to what are clearly the delights of his constituency and how those local natural attractions have created some 400 jobs as part of the broader tourism industry. If we take that together with a stay-over not in Belfast zoo but certainly nearby, I think we have our Easter trip sorted out, for which I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) appears to have added pandas to his penguin constituents—it looks as though his next constituency surgery will be much more interesting. He made the important point that zoos are businesses. That is part of this debate. Whether they are profit-making or charitable and therefore social enterprises, I certainly recognise that they are enterprises—businesses. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford. The whole of Whitehall—my Department included—needs to recognise that and engage in a cross-Whitehall dialogue.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is, as he rightly pointed out, the hon. Member for Whipsnade zoo, among other things, made the point by saying that he identified with that zoo—that safari park. That goes to the heart of the way in which people regard their area. It is something that they take pride in. He made this very good point: the fact that visitor numbers are rising shows that the public clearly value these institutions in their communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) referred to the excellent national aquarium. I shall come to that. He referred in particular to links between universities and zoos. That point was well made.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) raised a question with regard to the plans for Chester zoo. I understand the challenges and the ambitions, which are super to hear about. They involve not just the current otter breeding centre, but also the 10 overseas centres. My remarks in a moment will focus on the regional growth fund, of which there are two further rounds. The management may want to have a look at that to enhance the planned private sector investment.
We heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). The point about outside learning is right. It is important to understand that this is not necessarily just about an academic subject; it is about the experience gained through the learning process. Clearly, my hon. Friend has two excellent examples in his constituency.
Last but by no means least, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) raised the excellent work at the West Midland safari park. It does not relate just to the conservation of endangered species; there are wider research projects. He ended with the marvellous image of someone enjoying a stiff gin while the sun sets over Kidderminster—a very good way to focus on the issue.
In the five minutes left for the debate, I want to focus on the economic and social benefits and make a couple of points about tourism, and refer to the engagement with Government and industry and to the wider issues that zoos, aquariums and other institutions face. The report by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which examines the economic issues, makes significant statements that the debate has touched on. For example, when we consider indirect and induced effects, we see that these institutions provide some £645 million in terms of value in our economy. They are significant visitor attractions; the spending by tourists on-site of some £246 million is enhanced by additional spending of some £198 million in the surrounding area. That goes back to points made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber about how an attraction can be a focal point for wider economic opportunity.
The question is how we can ensure that, as part of tourism, these institutions are able to benefit. In March, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who is responsible for tourism and heritage, set out a clear policy for tourism. It is about ensuring that the visitor economy, which is worth some £52 billion to the economy as a whole, is enhanced. It is about recognising the role that can be played not just in urban areas but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire pointed out, in rural communities—a very important addition.
This is an area where there are real opportunities for growth, but we want to ensure that the sector is both more productive and more competitive. Our domestic tourism industry offers good growth potential because at the moment this country sees fewer staycations—in plain English, that means people wanting to holiday at home rather than go abroad. A lower proportion of our population holiday at home than go abroad. I was looking at the number of zoos and aquariums in the list of top paid-for attractions in England, and interestingly it appears that three of the top 10 English paid-for attractions are indeed zoos and aquariums. A couple have been mentioned today. The three attractions are Chester zoo of course, London zoo and Flamingo Land theme park and zoo. Together, they secured 3.5 million visitors last year. That is more than Stonehenge and—dare I say it?—more than the Houses of Parliament, so clearly we have something to learn in this institution from the zoo industry. I will sweep gently over whether the inhabitants here are more or less interesting than those in zoos and aquariums. I will not go into that area, because I know that you want to ensure that I do not stray too far, Mr Bone.
It is important that we consider the wider issues. That means that there is a case for considering, as requested by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, how the industry and Government can work more closely together, beyond just tourism. I stress the opportunities that exist in relation to the national funding streams. Yes, the RDAs have gone, but we have an opportunity with the £2.4 billion RGF programme, which has two further rounds to come. Some of the plans for the institutions that we have heard about today could well be proposals for those funds. In that regard, I encourage in particular my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester: it is something that can work.
The role of local enterprise partnerships will be fundamental. Also relevant are the growing places fund and the enterprise zones. We are discussing areas where the existing institutions and future ones can play a role. Ministerial colleagues in both the Department for Communities and Local Government and my Department will want to encourage that.
Several hon. Members mentioned skills and science. These institutions are pivotal in that context.
I am in the last minute of my speech, so I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me; I must respond to this point. Science and skills are very important. Biology, zoology and veterinary science are crucial. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, the national marine aquarium is a classic example of what can be achieved. These are fine institutions. They deserve to be looked at and engaged with by the Government as a whole, across Whitehall—I include my Department. The roles that they can play in relation to tourism, science, skills and, of course, conservation mean that they continue to deserve the Government’s full support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am pleased to be able to raise the issue of Government policy towards Israel in a quick, half-hour debate. Before I do, however, let me draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where I declare a trip I made to Israel about a year ago.
This is an important issue. The relationship between the UK and Israel has always been strong, and the UK has always been a constructive partner. At times, it has been willing to inform the Israeli Government of the need to move faster towards an accommodation with the Palestinians. At the same time, there has always been a relationship of respect and trust between the two Governments, and that has been clear not only in politics, but, very impressively, in business. The business relationship between the UK and Israel is extremely heartening, and it was most encouraging, on my visit to Israel in February, to see how the Israeli business community saw the UK as a good partner in terms of development.
It is interesting that despite the fact that the Israeli state has been extremely effective at developing the Hebrew language and culture—we in Wales have tried to follow it in reviving our own language and culture—the English language remains an important binding issue for the business community. Traditionally, Israel has perhaps looked towards the United States, but under our current ambassador, there is a developing business link between Israel and the UK. We therefore have a strong relationship with Israel, and we have been able to be a critical friend. That is a good position.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this issue. Do some of those who, quite understandably, want to criticise particular Israeli Government policies not sometimes need reminding that there is no criticism they make that will not be heard in Israel’s vibrant democracy? It is much easier to work with a country that has as vibrant a democracy as Israel, even if we have criticisms of its policies.
I am grateful for that intervention from my right hon. Friend, who is a Liberal. When my colleagues and I were in Israel, one of the things we found quite amusing was that we, as MPs, occasionally complained about the fact that we had a coalition between two parties in Westminster. Obviously, Israeli politicians said they would be absolutely delighted if they could have a coalition between just two parties. Israel’s proportional representation system means that it has a vibrant political system, in which criticism of Government actions happens regularly.
I was delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman refer, I believe, to a poem by Saunders Lewis, in which he urges Wales to follow the example of Israel, particularly in terms of reviving its language—it is a poem of great optimism. However, does he not agree that there is a world of difference between the Israel of Yitzhak Rabin and the Israel of Netanyahu?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I will come to that issue in due course, because I want to talk about the attitudes of the world press and of other Governments towards the current Israeli Prime Minister. I think his actions do not justify the way he is often attacked and portrayed badly in the media.
Let me turn, however, to our Government’s policy towards Israel. In a conflict situation, there is no doubt that the use of language is extremely important. In that respect, I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) here. When we discuss such issues, language is important. I can vouch for the fact that the hon. Gentleman and I have disagreed on numerous occasions, but I know for a fact that there is not a racist bone in his body. However, a few weeks ago, because of a possibly inappropriate use of language, he found himself in difficulties. The use of language is therefore important.
That is why I requested this debate. The Foreign Secretary recently made a statement on issues in the middle east and north Africa, in which he gave his usual robust explanation of the Government’s position. What that statement perhaps revealed, however, was an imbalance in the use of language. There was almost an implication that the lack of movement on the peace process was the fault of the Israeli Government, and the Israeli Government alone. When we have such debates, it is important that there is a degree of balance, but I think there was a lack of balance in the statement, given the expectation that any move would have to come from the Israeli Government.
It is worth quoting the Foreign Secretary’s words:
“For Israel, the only means of averting unilateral applications to the UN is a return to negotiations. A demonstration of political will and leadership is needed from both sides to break the current impasse”—
I welcome that comment, but the Foreign Secretary continues:
“This includes the Israeli Government being prepared to make a more decisive offer than any they have been willing to make in the past.”—[Official Report, 9 November 2011; Vol. 290, c. 535.]
That indicates a degree of criticism of the Israeli Government by the UK Government, and we have to ask whether that criticism is fair and balanced.
It is clear that peace will be achieved only through negotiation. We know that to be the case, and every Member in this debating Chamber would agree that peace will be achieved only if both parties come to the table and discuss how to create the two-state solution we all want and that we all know is the only way forward for peace in the region. However, it is important to state that if we are to have negotiations, both parties need to engage, and the problem with the statement was that it indicated that the process had stalled because of the lack of an offer from the Israeli Government. To an extent, that ignores history. Perhaps we should ignore history more in the middle east, but the truth is that we need to understand that the Israeli state has made numerous efforts over the past 10 or 12 years to make a clear and generous offer. As yet, there has not been a response from the Palestinians.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech. He is quite right to say that Israel has made many such offers. In 1979, for example, it made its offer to Egypt, and the agreement between the two countries has been very successful. In 1994, it made a similar offer to Jordan, which has also been very successful. In 2005, it made what many consider a huge sacrifice by removing itself from Gaza. History has shown that the Palestinian side did not accept that in the spirit the Israeli Government intended.
I am grateful for that intervention; indeed, I suspect I can now throw away two pages of my speech. The Camp David accords of 2000 were a major offer for peace by Israel. I think I am right in saying that if the offer had been accepted, something like 97% of the land in the west bank and Gaza would have been available to create a viable Palestinian state. Indeed, in that regard, the highlight of my visit to Israel and the west bank was my visit to Ramallah, which was not the third-world enclave I had been told to expect, but a vibrant city that was growing and clearly prospering. It was perhaps not growing to the extent it should have been, but it was growing by 10% per annum, and I am sure the Chancellor would be delighted to swap.
The point I raised about the Camp David accords is extremely important, because the offer of 97% of the land in return for peace stalled on Israel’s demand that the Palestinian Authority included in the agreement a statement that the agreement would end the conflict. When the British Government say that Israel has to make a generous offer, we in the UK must be very aware of its demand for an end to the conflict. After 30 years of waste and loss of life in Northern Ireland, we managed to bring all the parties, including the British Government, to the negotiating table, and a key element was the demand that the republican movement in the north of Ireland accepted that there was an end to the war. In terms of creating trust, it is imperative that both parties feel that the negotiation will finish the conflict, and that the option of going back to the conflict is not allowed.
The Camp David accords failed on Israel’s claim that the Palestinian Authority would have to agree that there was an end to conflict, and it is extremely disappointing that that did not happen. In addition, of course, the Israeli Government took the decision to move out of Gaza in 2005. Time and again we are told that the crisis and problems in the middle east—
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Northern Ireland situation. Clearly, there had to be an understanding from all parties on both sides of the community that violence does not work. Perhaps there was an understanding, after 30 years of campaign and conflict; perhaps people realised that the gun, the bullet and the bomb do not work. That is a key aspect of what is happening. Is there a realisation among the Palestinians—perhaps there is among the Israelis—that that should happen?
The Palestinians have a just cause and the Palestinian Authority have responsible and respectable leadership, but is there not a large problem in the shape of Hamas, which my hon. Friend has mentioned? Would he welcome hearing from our right hon. Friend the Minister whether there has been any movement at all from Hamas on recognising the state of Israel, giving up terrorism and abiding by its international commitments?
That is, indeed, one of the questions I was going to put, but now that my hon. Friend has made the point I am sure that the Minister will respond to it.
The 2005 decision to pull out of Gaza was met not with a break in hostilities but, rather, with continued attacks on Israel from Gaza. The situation in Gaza is a crisis and is unacceptable, but it is also unacceptable that a state such as Israel faces attacks from land from which it has withdrawn. It is important to point out, when the issue of settlement is discussed, that the Israeli leadership expended significant political capital in pulling out of Gaza. The decision to uproot settlers from Gaza was right, but we should not underestimate the political capital that the Israeli Government lost in making it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for obtaining this important debate. It is important that we have balanced debate on the peace talks. Does he agree that a strong Prime Minister goes into negotiations defending the national interest with clear red lines and that that is the secret to good negotiation? Asking one side to give up all its bargaining chips, such as settlements, in advance of negotiations, is clearly nonsense.
I tend to agree. I thought for a second, when I heard about a strong leader and red lines, that we were back in the Democratic Unionist party debate on Europe; so, yes, I agree entirely.
In addition to what happened in 2005, another offer was made in 2008, which would have resulted in 93% of the land mass of the west bank and Gaza being available for a viable Palestinian state, including a land link between them, which is critical. Again, that was rejected by the Palestinian Authority. I am not here to demonise the Palestinian Authority, but they must be partners for peace, and I have given three examples from the past decade when a partner for peace was not there.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that one of the key things for lasting peace is business, working together? If we could get the two states to work together in business, there is nothing that the Israelis would like more. Hamas and terrorists filled a vacuum in Gaza. However, I visited Ramallah and the new Palestinian city of Rawabi, and there is a fantastic opportunity for two peoples to come together—the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis, working together in peace and harmony through business and international development.
I agree entirely. That emerging city is indeed a testament to the development of the west bank. I agree that the prosperity and viability of the west bank is crucial to any move towards peace.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is subject to regular criticism, which ignores three important points. The first is that peace in the middle east has always come from the initiatives of the right in Israeli politics. That might not be something that some hon. Members in this Chamber would appreciate, but, in truth, the 1979 agreement with Egypt was the result of the efforts of Prime Minister Begin, and the 1994 agreement with Jordan that has been mentioned came from the leadership of the right. It is important to bear in mind that if the right in Israeli politics is moving towards peace, that offers the opportunity for a unified approach.
In the same way, comments about the Prime Minister of Israel ignore his words. Time and again he has made it clear that he is ready to negotiate anywhere, with anyone. I am not here to defend him; I am trying to offer some balance. In a speech in 2009, he said clearly:
“I appeal to the leaders of the Arab countries and say: Let us talk about peace. Let us make peace. I am willing to meet at any time, at any place”.
He followed those comments in 2011:
“Let’s meet here today in the United Nations. We have to stop negotiating about the negotiations. Let’s just get on with it. Let’s negotiate peace.”
Those are not the words, in my view, of a Prime Minister who is unwilling to talk about peace.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, because, like him, I was extremely concerned about the words of the Foreign Secretary, where the emphasis seemed to be very much on Israel. I want to add another quotation from Mr Netanyahu:
“Israel will not be the last state to welcome a Palestinian state into the United Nations. We will be the first.”
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the point that Netanyahu is expending considerable political capital on the issue. Far from being the ogre and pariah that he is made out to be, he has committed himself time and again to peace and negotiations.
Again, the record, but, unfortunately, not necessarily the media in this country, would support that view.
More important than words are actions, and in 2009-10 there was a freeze on all settlement activity. For a right-wing politician in Israel that is a brave move. The 10-month freeze was met with nine months of no activity by the Palestinians—another missed opportunity.
We all condemn the incessant use of rockets by Hezbollah and Hamas, but is there not another danger, given what is happening in Tehran, with the explosions, assassination of scientists and cyber-attacks, that we are in a perilous situation that could lead to war? I believe that the hand of other countries can be seen in what is happening in Tehran, and that is likely to provoke it into a shooting war.
I am sure that all Members of the House agree that the situation in Iran is dangerous and are concerned about that regime having access to nuclear weapons. Again, negotiation would be a much better option than direct action, and I am sure all hon. Members would agree on that too.
The final point that I wanted to make about the Prime Minister of Israel is that in September 2011 he fully accepted the Quartet initiative, which was the basis on which negotiations could restart. Again the response of the Palestinian Authority has been to obstruct the process and provide the Quartet with evidence without consultation with Israel. The whole point of the Quartet initiative was to ensure that proposals would go forward in tandem with Israel and the Palestinians. That did not happen. Time and again Israel has made generous offers, which have been rejected. That is not to say that it should not continue to make generous offers. It is simply to say that the exhortations to Israel to make the next move ignore the reality of the past 10 years.
The context of the statement to the House was the near euphoria in this country about the changes in many parts of the Arab world, which have been welcomed on both sides of the House. We welcome changes and moves towards democracy in Egypt. There has been a brave effort in Syria to deal with a regime that has been, to say the least, unkind to its people. There is successful democracy in Tunisia, and we all welcome those changes. However, it is crucial to put them in the context of how they appear to someone living in an Israeli state where the borders suddenly look extremely vulnerable for perhaps the first time in 30 years. Israel’s land border with Egypt has been a solid part of its security for the past 30 years, but suddenly there is a question as to where it is going. Syria has never been a friend of Israel, and no one in the Chamber would claim that it was; however, the border between them has been stable for a generation. Discontent is clearly being shown in Jordan, and that border too has been a successful part of the peace process in Israel. Israel seems to be threatened by change on all sides. Finally, the malign influence of the Iranian regime is present in both southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip. That, again, is part of the context that was missing from the statement.
I have three or four questions, and I would appreciate it if the Minister could respond to them. First, why did the statement ignore the efforts made by Israel over the past 10 years? That is a reasonable question. Secondly, why did the statement almost fully argue that the expectation was that Israel should make the next move? Israel certainly has to make a move, but to say that the onus is entirely on Israel’s shoulders was questionable. Thirdly, why was no equal and corresponding demand made of the Palestinian Authority to show a degree of flexibility? Finally, why did the statement ignore the context? As I said, although we welcome the changes, we must acknowledge that they look threatening to a state of 7 million people surrounded by potentially hostile neighbours.
The Israeli Government have shown a willingness to engage. I believe that the only way forward is a two-state solution, which will happen only through negotiation. The British Government, with our experience in Northern Ireland, can contribute positively to that debate, but the debate needs a balanced approach and balanced language.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing this debate. The attendance of a large number of my right hon. and hon. Friends and hon. Members from other parties at this 30-minute debate indicates the importance that the House attaches to both the bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Israel and to the wider issues concerning the middle east peace process, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy alluded in his opening speech.
I want to make it clear at the start that the Government see Israel as a key ally and friend of the UK. That does not mean that we agree on everything—we do not hesitate to express our disagreements with Israel where we feel that to be necessary, and successive Israeli Governments have done exactly the same with successive Governments here in London. We enjoy a close and productive relationship with the Israeli Government, and that very relationship allows us to have the candid discussions that are often necessary between friends.
As a number of hon. Members have said, the potential for collaboration between the United Kingdom and Israel is enormous. Our partnership in the high-tech industry could become one of the drivers of Britain’s economic growth. There is a long way to go before we get to that point—America still remains the first thought for an Israeli entrepreneur thinking about international co-operation—but we need to change that mindset, and we have taken some important steps this year towards that goal.
First, in October, during a visit to Israel, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched a Britain-Israel high-tech hub. It is a new team, based in our embassy in Tel Aviv, tasked with promoting the high-tech partnership, with staff drawn entirely from the high-tech sector. Its job will be to help find partners for Israeli companies, bring the best of Israeli innovation to British companies and help our two economies to exploit each other’s potential.
Secondly, also in October, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science went to Israel, too, with a high-powered delegation from our digital industries. We intend to continue the exchange of delegations from across the high-tech sector in the coming year.
Finally, regarding political initiatives, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have agreed to launch a UK-Israel high-tech council. It will meet twice a year, once in the UK and once in Israel, to make sure that our strategy is right.
I could point to other examples of increased co-operation between our two countries. For example, in science and innovation, a major conference on regenerative medicine took place in November. Another example is education, where we are planning a campaign to ensure that the United Kingdom resumes its place as the destination of choice for Israeli students. A third example is cultural co-operation, where the work of the British Council and bilateral exchanges between Israel and the United Kingdom are helping to bring about a greater understanding of the culture of our two countries.
The political editor of The Daily Telegraph has alleged that a meeting that took place in February this year between the previous Defence Secretary, Adam Werritty and others was attended by Mossad. As the report that we have on the matter decided that that was a private meeting, is it not time that we looked at the policy followed by Mr Adam Werritty as possibly something that would lead to a conflict with Iran and had a legitimate report into the Adam Werritty-former Defence Secretary affair, because the only enforcer of the ministerial code is Philip Mawer—
I think that it was an ingenious attempt by the hon. Gentleman to import some completely irrelevant material into a debate about an important subject. There has been a full report by the Cabinet Secretary and numerous parliamentary questions from the hon. Gentleman and others. I do not propose to go beyond the responses provided in those documents this morning. I shall move on to the middle east peace process, which was the subject of a large part of the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy.
I have five minutes to speak, and I want to try to reply to what has been said. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.
The events in the Arab world this year reinforce the urgent need to make progress on the middle east peace process. We are clear that a solution cannot be imposed from outside. We believe that both parties—I emphasise that—need to redouble their efforts to break the impasse and resume negotiations on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the window to such a solution closes. Neither side can afford to let the opportunity for peace slip further from its grasp. A successful outcome will require good will and a willingness to compromise from both sides.
To respond to an intervention by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), if Hamas is to be regarded as a player in the peace process, it needs to show that it is genuine about making concrete progress towards accepting the Quartet conditions, which will form the basis of any enduring peaceful settlement.
We have been clear in our call for negotiations on a two-state solution without delay and without preconditions, based on the timetable set out in the Quartet statement of 23 September. In our view, the parameters for a Palestinian state are those affirmed by the European Union as a whole—borders based on 1967 lines, with equivalent land swaps; a just, fair and realistic solution for refugees; and agreement on Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.
It is clear from what I have said about land swaps that we expect—I think that both parties do—the final status of settlements to be addressed in negotiations. I believe that Israel’s announcement last month that it would accelerate the construction of a further 2,000 settlement housing units was wrong and deeply counter-productive. That was the eighth announcement of settlement expansion in six months, and there have been further such announcements since.
Settlements not only are illegal under international law and in direct contravention of Israel’s road map commitments, but more practically, represent an attempt to create facts on the ground, which will make a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, even harder to achieve. We have called on Israel to reverse its plans to accelerate settlement construction, and we are clear that we believe that all settlement activity, including in east Jerusalem, should cease immediately.
We were concerned by the Israeli Government’s decision to withhold tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, which we believe was provocative and against Israel’s own interests, because it had direct implications for the Palestinian Authority’s ability to maintain effective security in the west bank. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear our view on 3 November, and we welcome the fact that Israel has subsequently released the funds. We urge the Israeli Government to maintain a predictable and regular transfer of such revenues.
I do not propose to go into detail about our approach to the Palestinian application to the United Nations; the Foreign Secretary has spoken about that before. There is no time to waste in making progress towards peace. Successful negotiations are the best way to give the Israeli people the long-term security that they yearn for and deserve, and the Palestinian people the state to which they are entitled. Doing nothing is not an option, and the Government remain committed to working with the Palestinians, the Israeli Government and other international partners to make progress towards a negotiated agreement. We will continue to develop our bilateral partnership with Israel, while not ceasing in our efforts to support both parties in finding a long-term and sustainable solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has dragged on for too long.
[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, possibly for the first time. Forgive me if I am wrong.
This debate on dyslexia was initiated following a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, which raised three particular concerns: first, the changes to the examination access arrangements issued by the Joint Council for Qualifications; secondly, the Green Paper—I will not read out its title—of which we are aware; and thirdly, the continued need to include in initial teacher training the teaching of children with dyslexia.
I am pleased to lead the debate. Dyslexia is an important subject and is of concern to millions of our fellow citizens and constituents. Astonishingly, one in 10 of the population experiences dyslexia to some degree. The condition stays with people for life. Some people can accommodate it to an extent on occasions; others find that more difficult. Like colour blindness, it is a condition that is hidden and sometimes not even recognised. I am sure we all have friends, relatives and certainly many constituents who are dyslexic. The lives of millions of adults have been affected by dyslexia.
Even now, many people live with their dyslexia unrecognised, particularly those of my generation. I suspect I am the oldest person in the room. In my day, it was a strange word; nobody in my experience knew the word dyslexia. There were no doubt children in classes when I was at school who were constantly punished and treated rather cruelly sometimes because they could not spell or read. There was no understanding that they had an inherent difficulty or disability.
Dyslexia affects people across the ability range; it is not limited to people with learning difficulties. Many famous and celebrated people suffer from dyslexia, and it can affect people who are highly intelligent. I give as an example one of my relatives. He failed the 11-plus, essentially because he was dyslexic, yet he finished up studying physics at Imperial college later in life. He is clearly a man of considerable intelligence who could not pass the 11-plus because he was dyslexic. Our concern today is that teachers often lack the skills to identify and support dyslexic children, who need to be diagnosed and given extra support.
As a member of the all-party group, I was pleased when my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in the previous Parliament and now shadow Chancellor, commissioned a report on education and dyslexia, which became the Rose review. Rose recommended that initial teacher training should include dyslexia and special learning difficulties. However, currently there is no mandatory level of dyslexia training that must be provided in initial teacher training courses.
It is of great concern that little action has so far been taken to implement fully the recommendations of the Rose report. Indeed, the situation is worse, in that thousands of academically gifted teenagers with conditions such as dyslexia have lost the right to extra and other help in A-level and GCSE papers, under a crackdown by exam bodies introduced by the Joint Council for Qualifications.
Has my hon. Friend read the report of the Science and Technology Committee on literacy interventions from two years ago? If he has not, I will quickly read two quotes from it:
“The Rose report’s definition of dyslexia is exceedingly broad and says that dyslexia is a continuum with no clear cut-off points. The definition is so broad and blurred at the edges that it is difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.
The Government’s focus on dyslexia, from a policy perspective, was led by pressure from the dyslexia lobby rather than the evidence, which is clear that educational interventions are the same for all poor readers, whether they have been diagnosed with dyslexia or not.”
Will my hon. Friend take a look at that report? I am sure it would help him in his work on the Committee.
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. We are aware that there is an enormously broad spectrum, from slight spelling difficulties to almost an inability to read. At the same time, there is a definite difference between those who have a degree of dyslexia and those who just have difficulty learning to read, perhaps because they are educationally challenged. Clearly, we need rigorous teaching of reading. In a completely separate context, I am strongly in favour of more rigour in the way we teach young people to read and to learn mathematics and other subjects. I take note of what my hon. Friend said. No doubt the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) will also respond to his points.
The JCQ rules clearly discriminate in that the measurement scores they use affect some youngsters and not others; some are excluded from help and others get help, because of an arbitrary decision by the JCQ on what their needs are. Complaints have been made about that by parents and teachers across the country, including Helen Wright, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, who said that a number of sixth-formers, without being given extra time for exams or other help, would
“definitely fail, and unfairly so”.
There are those who will suffer from the application of the rules who would otherwise do better. I hope the Minister will respond and give further consideration to the question of the arbitrary cut-off point.
Many thousands of children across the whole ability range are not getting the help they need, and are not even being diagnosed, because of the lack of specific training for teachers. There are no doubt some who, even today, do not recognise dyslexia, thinking it is just about youngsters who are not very good at reading, and do not recognise it as a specific and identifiable problem for some people. The problems experienced by those youngsters are distressing for them but they are also damaging to the economy and society as a whole. Clearly if youngsters are becoming disillusioned with education because of their dyslexia difficulties they drop out of school, education or training or have difficulty with apprenticeships and so on. That is damaging not just to their lives but to the economy and society in general. Help for dyslexics to succeed in education at whatever level is a matter, therefore, for national concern and Government action. The Rose review should be implemented in full and the JCQ rules withdrawn.
Although I am not dyslexic, I have taken a particular interest in the phenomenon. I know that it is not easily overcome, but a variety of coping strategies can be enormously beneficial. The academically gifted can perhaps apply those more readily, but there are millions for whom it is more of a struggle. I was recently approached by a group of Labour councillors from Thanet, not because I am their Member of Parliament, but because I happen to be a Labour member of the all-party group on dyslexia. They gave me some interesting statistics from their area. They are concerned that youngsters from the most deprived areas of the constituency were not getting the help they needed and were falling further behind, exaggerating the educational gulf between their achievement levels and others, even those who might have dyslexia. They want the Rose recommendations implemented as a matter of urgency to address those problems.
The Rose review proposed among other things the training of 4,000 specialist teachers in dyslexia over a two-year period. That is quite a tall order, but that is what he recommended. If we are going to approach and attack the problem seriously, we need to follow that recommendation. Other recommendations were to boost early identification from year 1 and effective intervention for pupils with dyslexic difficulties, to make provision for dyslexia-awareness training for existing teachers, to put more special educational needs training into initial teacher training courses and to acknowledge the need for specialist teachers and one-to-one interventions for severely dyslexic pupils. The review also recommended that schools build a positive dialogue with parents and provide them with relevant information, and provide support for children with dyslexia on transfer to secondary school, and that there should be continuing helpline advice for parents and teachers.
Dyslexic children have just as much right as any other child to be educated by teachers who understand them and their condition. We have made enormous progress in recognising dyslexia since the dark days of my childhood, but we must now demand the necessary support and resources for our dyslexic children, and only the Government can provide them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I fear that the vote in the House has caused disruption for many people who intended to be in this debate, but what we lack in quantity we will make up for between us in quality.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) for securing this timely debate. As he said, I was at the meeting of the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties at which he resolved to apply for this debate. His success in doing so gives us a great opportunity to take forward the discussion we were having in that meeting, along with the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), the noble Lords Addington and Clement-Jones and representatives from the main dyslexia organisations. We will continue that debate here today, and I hope we will receive responses from the Minister to some of our concerns.
I want to record my thanks to the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, Dyslexia Action, the British Dyslexia Association and Patoss for not just the excellent briefings they provided in advance of the debate but for the work they do day in and day out to unlock the world of words for dyslexic people, particularly children and young adults. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North gave an excellent speech, which drew on the many concerns that those organisations have raised with us about the current direction of travel in the education system—concerns shared by anyone with an interest in helping young people with special educational needs get the most from life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) commented on the thinking that dyslexia, rather than being a disability, is to do with a very wide reading ability spectrum, along which most of society would fall. He knows that I disagree with him on that point. There is a huge amount of evidence that proves that dyslexia is a very real and significant disability, especially at the extreme end of the spectrum where it goes way beyond a problem with learning to read and affects memory and organisational ability.
I am sure that we have all come across friends and relatives who have slight spelling disabilities, particularly with unusual names and foreign words. At that end of the spectrum, we are not talking about an inability to read. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that there is a difference between those of us who fairly quickly pick up names and foreign words and those who do not, and that is, I believe, the thin end of the dyslexia wedge.
I agree. My son is severely dyslexic, and it affects not just his spelling and writing capability. Dyslexics are often much slower in learning to speak, and when my son was younger the condition affected his speech. He was three before he first said a word that was understandable to others—I could understand his grunts and moans a bit earlier. He has very bad memory problems and organisational ability; dyslexia really does affect a large part of his life. My daughter has been a bad speller most of her life—she is 16 now and her spelling is getting a bit better—but in no way would I say that she has dyslexia as I know it. They do say, however, that the condition runs in families, so she might fall somewhere on the spectrum if she was ever tested.
I follow the people who do not take my hon. Friend’s view, such as Diane McGuiness and other academics who gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, but I was not trying to make the point that there is no complete scientific agreement that dyslexia exists. I was saying that having carefully considered the definition and how it was applied, the Committee came to the conclusion, which I will repeat, that the
“definition is so broad and blurred at the edges that it is difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.”
The Committee was concerned that because of the use of the term, people who had difficulties learning to read and who were not diagnosed were being discriminated against.
Obviously, I am not an expert in the diagnosis of dyslexia, but there are people who are, and when they do the various tests what comes out is something called a spiky chart. Where there is a huge disparity between performance in non-verbal reasoning and other tests of intelligence on the one hand and reading and writing ability on the other, it becomes very obvious that someone is dyslexic. If someone has not very good reading skills but equally does not have high levels of intelligence, they have a flatter profile. Perhaps at the lower edge of the spectrum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North has said—this is getting into a very technical conversation—diagnosis might be difficult and there might be blurred edges, but as we progress along the spectrum I do not think that the edges are blurred. Again, however, I am not an expert.
My hon. Friend touched on dyslexia being an inherited characteristic, and I am sure that we all know families in which a parent is dyslexic and one or more of their children is. Two male friends of mine who are graduates have three children each, and dyslexia has affected only one child in each family, with that child having a serious spelling disability. All six children went to university and graduated.
The chair of our all-party group, the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, is dyslexic, and I believe that his two sons are also. Yes, it is a trait that runs in families, and that is recognised.
Most Members here today know of my personal interest in this issue, as a mother of a severely dyslexic son. My son was unfortunately not diagnosed or helped anywhere near soon enough. The Minister also knows very well most of the concerns that have been raised today, because we have already had debates on the matter and have been in correspondence recently. I thank her for her comprehensive response to my first letter, and I look forward to her response to my reply, which she might preview today.
I wrote that first letter because I had started to see how various changes in education policy could, when taken together, start to put children with certain special educational needs at a disadvantage, and I used dyslexia to illustrate my point because that was the SEN I had personal experience of and knew best—I could see how the changes would have affected my son if he had been coming up to the start of key stage 4 now. I have no doubt that the potential effect is not desired at all by the Minister or her officials, and that it is one of those unintended consequences that we sometimes do not see unless we are looking at something from the outside, or until the effect has begun to manifest itself in statistics.
There are a number of issues on which I will touch briefly. My hon. Friend has mentioned many of them already. It is best in most narratives to start at the beginning, and in this case the beginning is initial teacher training. Without teachers in our classrooms who can spot the signs of dyslexia and teach in a way that does not alienate dyslexic children, we will continue to fail those children. I know from bitter experience that many teachers have a woefully inadequate knowledge of dyslexia. It was not until my son was nine that he came across a teacher who could spot what I now understand were glaringly obvious signs, and even then, that was probably because her own son had dyslexia as well, as I later found out. Too many children in their early years of school life are going through the motions without being noticed and supported. Like other communication difficulties, that can manifest itself in significant problems further down the line such as rebellious behaviour, depression or, as we find in our prisons and young offender institutions, criminality, which often starts as youth disorder.
The answer, in one word, is training. I understand that a module on dyslexia that has the backing of the sector has been prepared and is ready for incorporation in initial teacher training, but the Minister also indicated in her letter to me that the Department has commissioned new materials on specific learning difficulties, which will be available online in the spring. Will those materials form a mandatory part of the initial teacher training course, and will she consider the sector’s calls to incorporate the existing module from 2005 as a minimum requirement? She might be aware that the British Dyslexia Association has an online petition calling for the 2005 module to be used for teacher training; I think the BDA is seeking 100,000 signatures.
My hon. Friend mentioned people in prison and people with personal difficulties in life. I am sure that she, like me, has come across youngsters with behavioural problems at school that can be traced back to self-esteem problems due to difficulties with spelling, which in their case is dyslexia. That stress can be relieved early on by saying, “You have a condition that we can help you to cope with. It is not something you should be ashamed of or behave badly over; it is something that we can help with and that many other people experience.” If we can convey that to young people, we can probably avoid a lot of the problems in life that many of them suffer.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Early identification is vital. The earlier we can identify all special educational needs, not just dyslexia, the better, but we find that speech, language and communication disorders such as dyslexia often have the biggest effect on children’s self-esteem, and can often lead to problems such as youth disorder further down the line. The number of people in prison with speech, language and communication difficulties and dyslexia is anywhere from 60% to 80%. The noble Lord Ramsbotham is knowledgeable about the issue and speaks about it a lot. Much of the problem could be failure to diagnose special educational needs in our schools. We must ensure that children with a label get the right label, whether it involves dyslexia, behavioural problems, autism or whatever, rather than “naughty”, “lazy” or “disruptive”.
To refer to my childhood, which was a long time ago, teachers regularly used to beat us on the back of the hand with rulers in those days. I was not beaten, because I was not dyslexic and was good at sums, but lots of my classmates were, simply because they had those sorts of problem.
That is a world we never want to go back to. Thankfully, that does not happen in our classrooms now, but what happens is that codes of conduct are given out. I saw it with my own son. He did not write down enough work from the board, so he came home with various punishments. The code of conduct was writing out the school rules. I got off the train from London one evening and walked into the house at 11 o’clock to find him still at the kitchen table writing out his punishment, the school rules. The punishment was given because the teacher thought he had not done enough work.
My son was 14 and had started at a new secondary school when we moved. I insisted that all the teachers at least knew that he was dyslexic. I was not asking for special treatment, just that they knew he was severely dyslexic and was statemented. I was assured that they would all be told. As I walked in and saw the punishment, I thought, “Either this is a very evil teacher, or he doesn’t realise my son is severely dyslexic.” I wrote a note to the teacher saying, “This is as far as my son got. I am stopping this punishment now. He is not going to do any more of these punishments. They must be proportionate to his ability.” It was like a child who came last in a sprint being forced to run a marathon. That was the equivalent of the punishment that he had been given.
A note came back the next day: “Very sorry, Mrs Hodgson, we had no idea your child was dyslexic.” That was unbelievable on many levels. The school was supposed to have told all his teachers that he had dyslexia, and it was obvious to anybody who knows anything about the condition that my son is dyslexic. That had not been picked up in him—a child in a new school. What if he had not been diagnosed in a previous school? At any stage in a child’s journey through school, teachers should be able to diagnose such disorders.
I know that we have plenty of time, but I will go back to the substance of my speech. The latest issue to present itself is the phonics screening that will now be required during children’s first years at school. I was more than a little annoyed to see in a departmental press release over the weekend that the Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), referred to the fact that one in 10 11-year-olds could read no better than a seven-year-old as evidence that his favoured phonics scheme is needed, without mentioning that one in 10 11-year-olds have dyslexia.
Strangely, the same press release did not mention that two thirds of teachers who took part in the pilot disagreed that the check accurately assessed the decoding ability of pupils with special educational needs. That is why there are so many concerns about complete reliance on phonics as both a measure of ability and a teaching method. It is also crucial that children who fail the phonics test, as a dyslexic child almost certainly will, are not made to feel as though they have failed—although the test can be good, from the point of view that it identifies them. Appropriate remedial action, including testing for dyslexia, should be taken in a timely manner.
That brings me to the Government’s plans for the future of SEN provision, and the ability of those who will be expected to deliver it to do so. The Minister knows that I welcomed the Green Paper as a means of opening debate on SEN provision, and that I look forward to seeing the results of the consultation, as I know we all do. However, the concern throughout the sector is that young people with non-medical problems such as dyslexia might not warrant support when school action and school action plus are abolished, as very few dyslexic children are currently statemented. I sincerely hope that that will not be the case. I will welcome any assurance that the Minister can give us.
We then come to how support will be provided if a dyslexic pupil is deemed to need it. Local authority budgets are being stretched to breaking point right now. The proliferation of the academies and free schools desired by the Secretary of State will mean that few funds will be held centrally with which to sustain shared support services. I know that I have asked the Minister this before, but I hope that she will guarantee today that support for dyslexic students will not get worse before it gets better due to the austerity programme being imposed on local authorities, and that when the new system is fully up and running, the money will be there to back it.
I move to the end of students’ time in school. The Minister will know that I have concerns about the key stage 4 curriculum and examinations. I will not labour the point about the E-bac, but needless to say, it has been installed as the gold standard set of qualifications, despite the fact that it will exclude almost all young people with dyslexia, as they are usually not taught foreign languages, whether modern or ancient, for obvious reasons. On assessment, Ofqual confirmed in a press release today that it is implementing the changes to GCSEs that the Government told it to make—scrapping modular examinations, which allow students to break up their learning into more manageable chunks and sit exams as they go along, when the subject is fresh in their minds. Instead, from next year students will be required to learn for two years—a bit like when we sat our O-levels—and commit all of that learning to paper in one go. That intensity will pose a challenge for many children with SEN, but especially dyslexics, given the memory problems I mentioned.
The support that young people with dyslexia need to be able even to sit their exams, let alone do well in them, is also under threat. The Minister will, I hope, have seen my latest letter to her in which I drew her attention to an article by Jack Grimston in The Sunday Times on 20 November. He reports the concerns that school teachers have over the changes that the Joint Council for Qualifications has made to eligibility for access arrangements in examinations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North highlighted.
The changes will prevent bright pupils with dyslexia from getting extra time or a reader and a scribe in exams to mitigate their limited reading and writing abilities, which gives them a level playing field with their non-dyslexic peers. That will have a detrimental effect on the qualifications that they will be able to achieve. There are many bright pupils with dyslexia, as we have heard today, some of whom go on to doctorates in physics. They say that Einstein was dyslexic, and I could list many other examples.
In a timed exam, the most intelligent young person is only ever as good as their ability to read the questions set and transfer the answers from their minds to the paper, which is why the most severely dyslexic pupil is given a reader and a scribe. In making the changes, the JCQ is limiting what intelligent dyslexics can achieve, and from my conversations with the sector, it appears to have done so without any consultation. I urge the Minister to look into the matter and intervene where necessary to ensure that such young people are not held back by their disability.
Finally, I understand from today’s Ofqual announcement that once the exams have been sat, dyslexics will be at a disadvantage yet again during marking, because the proportion of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in certain subjects is being increased following interventions from the Secretary of State. Even if a dyslexic pupil gets a reader and a scribe, whose spelling is the examiner marking?
I am sorry to intervene once again on my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. The points she raises suggest that dyslexic pupils should be identified and the fact that a pupil is dyslexic recorded on the examination paper, so that allowances are made. I heard only today of a young woman who is highly intelligent in conversation and can come top of her class in most things, but has difficulty with writing due to her dyslexia. Every time she is tested orally, she does brilliantly, but when she is tested in writing, she has more difficulty.
I hope that the Minister will take up those other concerns with the JCQ and that compensations can be made in marking. We do not ask for favourable treatment for dyslexics, but for their disability to be recognised and accommodations made, so that there is a level playing field.
I have not set out to make political points today because the debate has been well informed and constructive, and I know that supporting young people with dyslexia is important to Members on both sides of both Houses. I sincerely hope that the Minister will commit to returning with her officials to look at the specific concerns raised today, and that she will take any necessary steps to mitigate, or indeed undo, the impact of what are the, I hope, unintended consequences that the various reforms and changes may have on the education and life chances of the estimated 750,000 young people in our schools and colleges who have dyslexia.
Thank you, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this important debate. I have a ten-minute rule Bill, which is barely alive, on special educational needs, with particular focus on dyslexia and pragmatic language disorders. I thank both Front-Bench spokeswomen for allowing me to say a few words. I apologise for being late; I have been in a Committee.
My Bill was motivated by the enormous amount of casework in my constituency. There are very sad cases of extremely large numbers of children who have low to medium educational needs that are not being met by the local authority. I was dealing with about 30 cases, including a young lad with a very mild disability; he has had no assessment yet, so no one really knows what his needs are. He is supposed to be taking his GCSE options next year, but he has never been to a secondary school because a suitable place is not on offer. People do not understand what his issues are and there is no funding for a travel grant, which might open up some options for him. There are large numbers of extreme cases.
My Bill suggests that, common to all the cases I am dealing with, a wider burden of proof for parents to be able to demonstrate that their child has SEN would be extremely helpful. The old statement route catered for people with medium to high need, but did not help to provide leverage for parents whose children had lesser needs. In one case, a young girl with a reading age four years below her age was not considered to be significantly falling behind. If parents have paid for, or got a charity to make, an independent assessment from a qualified assessor, that should be enough to require the local authority to take action.
Teacher training has been mentioned, but training for those in local education authorities is also important. Part of our frustration in getting cases resolved was due to people not understanding what CReSTeD—Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils—accreditation was, or what the different levels meant for a particular individual. We were not really dealing with educationalists, which was partly due to staffing problems at the local education authority, so I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). Training should be extended to the LEA.
The local education authority should already be required to publish what provision is available in its area, but many do not, yet such a requirement would help parents tremendously. When the LEA has decided that a need will be catered for under school action plus, it should send the parents a quality letter, not simply one that tells them that the need will be covered in school action plus, so they should not worry. They should get detailed information about what that will mean for their child week by week.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her ten-minute rule Bill. I hope that it moves to the next stage and influences Government. She said that she wanted detailed letters from the local authority, which not only say, “Your child is falling behind and has a problem”, but identify the problem. There is sometimes an overlap between dyslexia, dyspraxia, low academic ability and other conditions that can confuse the diagnosis, but the local education authority should be able to define dyslexia when it writes the letters.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Getting an assessment to start with is a battle for parents, and then they must have confidence in it and in the remedial action that should be taken. Many parents I have been dealing with have not had satisfaction on any of those fronts.
I would be grateful if the Minister could say more about the statutory responsibilities of the Department for Education and the discussions she may have had with the Department of Health. We need to strengthen the tools available to parents and other advocates for these children. My constituents certainly believe that they pay their taxes to ensure that the education system we provide gives every child the education they need to reach their full potential.
One of my final points relates to costs. Where we have not been able to get a school place for some of the children in my constituency, we have actually funded placements for them, and I should like to place on record my thanks to a number of London livery companies and local Rotarians for providing funds to allow that to happen. In just one year, the girl I mentioned at the start, who was four years behind her expected reading age, has caught up. She is a bright girl, and having been given the proper, full-time dyslexia teaching that she needed, she is now doing really well.
An argument that is often thrown back at us is that providing all the top-notch SEN provision that children need costs too much and that the state cannot possibly afford it, but that is a bit of a myth. The placement that we have funded for the child I mentioned cost less than the provision that the local authority would have had to put in place in the school that it chose for her. It is possible to do these things, and they will often save the state money not only initially, but, as has been mentioned, in the long term, given all the problems and issues that people have if they do not get the help that they need.
The hon. Lady is making some important points, and she makes a good point about spending money wisely. Research has been done—I do not have it in front of me, but that is not necessary to make my point—showing that an hour with a specialist dyslexia teacher is worth more than 50 hours with a well-meaning teaching assistant who is not able to give the specific support that a child needs. I might have the ratio wrong, but it is in that realm.
That is absolutely right.
To carry on using the example of the girl I mentioned—I have said this to the Minister before—the problem was not so much that the local authority could not be bothered to find her a suitable place as that the restrictions on how it could use its funding meant that it could not fund some of the obvious solutions. Will the Minister therefore say something about how she might reform the rules governing how local authorities and schools can spend particular pots of money, to ensure that we use that money in the best and most sensible way to meet people’s educational needs, whether they have dyslexia, a pragmatic language disorder or autism? We must ensure that we get every child who needs this provision the help that they need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Weir. It is a Wednesday afternoon; I am here in a debate that you are chairing; and I am very pleased to see you.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing the debate. It was good to see other Members come into the Chamber, although a bit late, because I was anxious that we would not have so many Members contributing. This issue interests Members right across the House, and I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in the all-party group, whose input and advice I have very much welcomed.
I listened with interest to the rather technical debate between the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). None us is a qualified educational psychologist, and it has certainly been an awfully long time since I did any neurophysiology. The Government take their advice from the best and latest scientific advice available. The Rose report tried to get away from the debate about the exact nature and cause of the difficulties that people face—something that was often distracting for many students—and instead tried to focus on solving the individual child’s problems, whatever they might be, as they present in the classroom. With that in mind, I will not get involved in the detail of that debate, because it might be better if it took place somewhere else between expert educational psychologists. Instead, I will deal rather more with service provision.
Dyslexia affects a significant number of pupils. From the school census, we know that 78,000 pupils receive support for a specific learning difficulty, including dyslexia and dyspraxia. They receive that support through school action plus or a statement of SEN educational needs. About 11% of all pupils receive such support. Many others will be supported as part of a personalised approach to teaching in the classroom, as a number of hon. Members mentioned. That will perhaps involve additional help from teachers or teaching assistants.
Dyslexia primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word spelling and reading, and it can occur across the range of pupils’ intellectual abilities. We know from parents and pupils that they are often frustrated with the assumptions made about what they can achieve, and the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, referred to the case of her son. Sometimes that can lead to incredible frustration and a stymieing of aspiration in individual students.
For far too long, there has been a real attainment gap between students with dyslexia and their peers. The proportion of pupils with a specific learning difficulty gaining the expected qualifications has more than doubled since 2006, but the gap remains far too large. In 2010, fewer than one in six such pupils, or just under 15%, achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, compared with more than half of pupils as whole. The Government are determined to see that change and to improve overall outcomes for pupils with SEN or a disability. Support for pupils with SEN is provided within a statutory framework that has, unfortunately, remained largely unchanged for three decades.
One of the first things that I did when I became a Minister was to begin a review of special educational needs. In March this year, I published our Green Paper, “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability”, which sets out plans fundamentally to reform the special educational needs system. It was a response to a set of core problems that undermined the achievement of too many children and young people, and those problems have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). The problems include parents having to battle through a confusing and adversarial system to get the support their child needs; SEN statements not joining provision up, with education, health and care often ending up being provided disparately, and families having to go between the three different providers to negotiate their own package of support; children falling between the gaps in services or having to undergo multiple assessments; and paperwork and bureaucracy adding to delays, rather than providing the support that is needed.
The Minister is talking about delays. A number of members of my family have been schoolteachers, and getting statements has often been an enormous difficulty. Sometimes, it has taken up to a year before a child who clearly needed to be statemented actually was statemented. The suspicion is that local authorities are trying to delay things to save money. I hope the Minister will take that into account.
One thing that we suggested in the Green Paper was speeding up the process, but this is also a question of trying to make clear what the thresholds should be, and I will say a little more about that later.
The other thing that informed the Government’s work on the Green Paper was Ofsted’s report, which showed that too many children are being over-identified as having SEN. In other words, the wrong children are often labelled as having SEN, and we need to ensure that we put in place the right support for children at the right time.
At the heart of the Government’s vision for the reforms is a desire to support better life outcomes for young people, to increase parents’ confidence in the system and to transfer powers to the front line and local communities, as we are trying to do across all areas of policy. To achieve those changes, we are introducing a new approach to identifying SEN to challenge the culture of low expectations. There will be a new, single early-years setting and school-based category of SEN.
I heard the concerns of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, who was worried that it might lead to some young people not getting the support they need, but I should stress that, of course, school action at the moment brings with it no extra funds. School action plus money is provided to schools on the basis of other proxy indicators, rather than the number of children actually in the relevant category in previous years, so it should make no difference to the resources that are allocated. However, it will make it easier for schools to decide how to deal with the young people that they focus on. Many of them say that the existing categories are somewhat bureaucratic. Ofsted has made the point that some children are labelled as having special education needs when really they are just falling behind. That is a rather different debate from the one about specific learning difficulties.
We are looking for reassurance that when the reason for children falling behind is an underlying special educational need, rather than there being no specific reason, they will still be identified by some marker. They might not need the education, health and care plan, and all that it brings, but the marker would have been school action or school action plus. Will there still be some mechanism to identify those children?
I suppose the reason for giving the relevant marker to children who fall behind might be to try to find out whether there is an underlying reason.
When Ofsted reported, a rather heated debate took place between teaching unions and Ofsted, and it shed a lot of heat but not light. Many accusations were thrown from both sides about motives. I do not think that teachers label a child as having special educational needs to get round league tables or for similar reasons. It is human nature, when a problem is seen, to label it. Unfortunately, that labelling was often not followed by action. It is all very well to label a child, but it is purposeless to do so if no action follows. The child then carries a label with them, irrespective of whether it is helpful, and does not get the support needed to enable them to progress. We are trying to get away from the focus on labelling, and instead to adopt an approach in which those concerned look at the child in front of them, and ask what they need. Some of that approach, to be fair, is about good teaching practice, which will deal with many needs.
The hon. Lady is right about dealing with individual children. Boys need more pressure and rigour in school, when they are young, than girls do. Girls tend to be more conscientious and are now succeeding in education. In every field and at every level they now beat boys. I agree that we need to consider teaching quality as well, so that youngsters do not fall behind because they are more interested in playing on the computer, or doing something not to do with their studies. Rigour in education is right for all youngsters. However, we also need to take account of those with specific difficulties.
All sorts of young people fall behind. The fact that so many young people born in the summer are in the school action category is particularly good evidence that we do not at the moment necessarily label the right children. Other children who may have specific needs go through school without being identified. That is not good enough, because such children do not get the support they need.
The Green Paper made some radical proposals to change the system. As several Members, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth North, said, we have just finished a consultation and will respond to it in the new year. The rest of what I say now on the matter will pick up on what we have already said, rather than announcing what we will do. Hon. Members will have to wait a few weeks, until we have finished crunching through the detail of the consultation. We had an enormous number of responses from parents, charities and teachers. That is very helpful detail and we need to work through it.
As I said during my introduction, many pupils with dyslexia receive most of their support in the classroom through high-quality, personalised teaching. We know from the independent review led by Sir Jim Rose that the early identification of problems and the right teaching support are critical to helping dyslexic pupils achieve. Alongside the special educational needs reforms we are also working with schools to support teachers to identify and respond to pupils with dyslexia. Difficulty with phonics and the ability to identify and manipulate the sound of words is central to the challenges that dyslexic pupils face. It is also a critical element for all children learning to read.
We are introducing a new phonics screening check for children in year 1, which should pick up children struggling with early literacy because of dyslexia. I think that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West slightly misunderstood some things about the statement at the weekend by my colleague the schools Minister. When he highlighted the fact that inadequate numbers of young people were passing the screening test at the relevant stage, he was trying to make the point that phonics, as a system for teaching reading, had not properly embedded in teaching at the earliest stages of schooling. He was not labelling half of children as failing. He was recognising how much further we need to go to embed the practice clearly in the way teachers teach the youngest children to read, from the beginning. We know that phonics is particularly helpful for identifying difficulties in children who have dyslexia.
The Minister has been speaking an enormous amount of sense, recognising that teaching children to read is one of the most important things that the state does. I think she has recognised that Jim Rose recommended in his report that systematic phonics should be at the heart of good Government strategy for teaching children to read. When the Select Committee on Science and Technology considered the scientific basis for the Government’s policy, we found from the written and oral evidence that there was still, in the wave 3 reading recovery programme, a continuing practice of word memorisation and the use of whole language theory. That does exactly the opposite of what the Minister has been saying about recognising phonics and the transferability of the sound and the letter. Has she had a look at what is happening in wave 3 reading recovery?
I certainly looked at the reading recovery programme, Every Child a Reader, most of which is based around phonics. There are some other, more flexible, practices. We must recognise that although the evidence suggests that systematic phonics is absolutely the most effective way to teach children to read, some children for various reasons will not respond to that system, and it is important to have some flexibility at the margins to pick up the children who have fallen through the net. However, almost all the programme is still based around systematic phonics.
I agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend about phonics for those who do not have the disabilities in question. Two generations of teachers have almost been forbidden phonics in schools. Even in the past year I have come across a teacher working in London who was forbidden to make any reference to phonics in school. We still have a serious problem.
To support the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics we are making £3,000 of match funding available to all schools with key stage 1 pupils, for phonics materials and training. I hope that that sort of systematic, structured approach to teaching phonics will help, because we know that it supports pupils’ approach to learning to read, particularly for those who are dyslexic.
I want to make some wider comments about support for teachers and work force development, which goes to the heart of our programme on SEN. It begins with the new standards for qualified teacher status, which include a continued focus on meeting the needs of all children, including those with special educational needs or who are disabled. Similarly, as part of the national scholarship programme for teachers, we have a clear focus on supporting teachers to improve and extend their knowledge and expertise when working with pupils with special educational needs and disability, including specific impairments.
It is anticipated that around 50% of those scholarships will be available to support SEND. We have provided funding for up to 9,000 special educational needs co-ordinators to complete the mandatory higher level SENCO award by the end of 2011-12. The Teaching Schools network, which will allow schools to support each other and drive up the quality of teaching, will help to improve the quality of support for pupils with special educational needs or a disability. Of the first 121 designated schools, 113 have been judged as outstanding for the quality of learning and progress of pupils with special educational needs. The new Teaching Schools initiative has real potential to radically improve the quality of peer-to-peer mentoring and support for teachers in relation to SEN.
On support, one of the other problems that I encountered in Portsmouth was that, where a child had not got a school place and the parents were trying to do their best to teach them at home, they received no support, because if they admitted to the local authority that they were teaching the child at home, they were instantly crossed off the waiting list for a school place. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any views about how such training and support could be extended to provide parents whose children are at home waiting for a school place with the support and help that they need to ensure that they are not missing out.
I cannot comment on a specific case, but perhaps if the hon. Lady drops me a note about the matter, I will have a look at it. In the Green Paper, we indicated that local authorities need to provide support to families who are home schooling a child. They are often doing so because they have been unable to get the support that they need in mainstream settings or perhaps because their local special school did not provide them with the support that they wanted.
I want to say something about Achievement for All because it goes to the heart of some of the issues that we have been discussing about the need for someone to look at the child in front of them and have high aspirations, rather than necessarily think about the labels. The Achievement for All programme has been running in around 450 schools for the past two years, and the evaluation has demonstrated some dramatic results. Under the programme, children made greater progress in English and mathematics than other children with SEND across the country, and they also often exceeded the progress of children without SEND, so there has been a really dramatic improvement.
The independent evaluation, which was carried out by the university of Manchester, demonstrated that pupil attendance significantly improved. That picks up some of the other points that we were discussing a moment ago about additional needs sometimes being confused with SEN. Often the issue is just about getting young people to attend school. For children taking part in the Achievement for All programme, there was an average increase in attendance of just over 10%. The evaluation also found significant improvements in behaviour, including less bullying, stronger relationships between schools and parents and a greater awareness and focus on SEND.
Some of the points that the hon. Member for Portsmouth North discussed in relation to her Bill—parental engagement and the need to communicate better with parents—go partly at the heart of this. One of the key facets of the Achievement for All programme is parental engagement and enabling teachers to feel confident about having a conversation with parents about the progress of their child. The Government are investing £14 million to roll out the programme across the country, so that more children can benefit. The programme is being delivered by a newly formed charity, Achievement for All 3As, chaired by Brian Lamb and supported by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Schools can now see for themselves the evidence that the programme works, and we want more schools to come forward and sign up.
The evaluation highlighted some important lessons in how to improve the outcomes for pupils with SEND. Perhaps most crucially, there needs to be strong leadership from the head teacher and senior leadership team, rather than simply relying on a SENCO to provide leadership within a school, although that is important. Achievement for All 3As is currently engaged with 41 local authorities and 598 schools. We hope and estimate that, overall, 1,000 schools will have signed up to the programme by April next year.
I want to turn to some of the specific concerns, particularly on the Joint Council for Qualifications guidance, expressed by hon. Members. I understand that there has been significant concern following recent coverage about apparent changes to the availability of reasonable adjustments for dyslexic pupils. It is, of course, absolutely vital for the fairness of an exam system that reasonable adjustments are made where needed. We have therefore been in touch with the JCQ about the changes, and it maintains that there has been no change to the circumstances in which a student is entitled to extra time for an exam. What has changed is the type of evidence that is acceptable to demonstrate that such extra time is needed.
The most recent edition of the relevant guidance confirms that a school or college must consider and maintain on record the evidence that the student has been assessed as having a below-average standardised score in an assessment of processing, reading or writing speed. I emphasise that the previous guidance similarly required evidence of low standardised scores using assessments of processing speed, reading or writing. I am afraid that we are picking up differences in practice, not differences in the guidance. Such difficulties have always been the basis on which extra time can be awarded to dyslexic pupils, and difficulties in phonological awareness—understanding and decoding the sounds of words and verbal processing—were two of the characteristics of dyslexia identified by Sir Jim Rose.
I understand that Dyslexia Action has written directly to the JCQ to set out its concerns. It is right that the JCQ and Ofqual, as the independent body overseeing the examinations system, should respond to those and determine whether any further clarification of the arrangements is required. I understand that they will be meeting with dyslexia charities and experts in the new year to explore those differences further. Ofqual has assured me that pupils already granted extra time will remain entitled to it on the basis of their existing assessment. I hope that hon. Members will be reassured on that point.
There is no change in the criteria; there is a change in the evidence that has to be provided. What we are picking up on is how schools interpreted the previous guidance, not necessarily the actual guidance that was being provided. That raises some issues about how schools were interpreting the guidance and the freedom that they thought that it gave them. In fact, the guidance is the same, but slightly more rigorous evidence is being asked for to demonstrate that schools have met the guidance, and they are being asked to hold that on record. The best thing is for Ofqual and the JCQ to meet dyslexia charities in the new year, as they will do, along with other experts in the area. They should make those points to the JCQ and Ofqual at that stage.
The hon. Lady spoke briefly about the changes to spelling, punctuation and grammar in some GCSEs that were announced this afternoon. Hon. Members may be aware that that was likely to happen and that we would be restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in some key subjects that have extended pieces of writing. During Ofqual’s consultation on the proposals, it heard concerns from dyslexia organisations about the potential impact on pupils with special educational needs, particularly dyslexia. I understand that it will be considering that as it decides how to roll out and implement the proposal.
However, during the consultation, there was also widespread support for ensuring accuracy within the qualifications. People expect those with high grades in GCSEs to be able to write accurately. The need to include an assessment of accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar is key to restoring confidence in GCSEs as rigorous and valued qualifications. Ofqual has set the level at 5% of total marks for the GCSE, so that the assessment of subject knowledge is not affected disproportionately. There will be the possibility of partial marks. It is not an all-or-nothing assessment and students will be able to achieve some or all of the marks depending on the extent of accuracy and how well they have conveyed meaning. In practice, there will be no blanket effect on the grades achieved by individuals, and the credibility of the exam and the grades achieved will be increased for all. Such changes, alongside some of the reforms to special educational needs provision, will give a real incentive to teach all pupils those core skills and prevent pupils with special educational needs from being sidelined or aspirations being lowered.
I recently chaired a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for social science and policy, at which we considered and had academic presentations on social mobility. A major factor in poor social mobility is the gulf in the use of language and education. Is the Minister saying that for the great mass of pupils, we will ensure that the standard at which they are able to use the language formally will be targeted and improved, or just that we will have a race to the top where the middle class will again have the advantage?
I agreed with the hon. Gentleman’s first point. The second point seemed to bear no resemblance to the first. To raise aspirations for all is a good thing. To say that it is possible to achieve, regardless of background, is really important. To believe in social mobility and have it at the heart of educational policy, we have to have high aspirations for every child.
To clarify, if one just gives marks for punctuation, grammar and syntax, certain people from certain backgrounds will have an even greater advantage over people from other backgrounds. The gulf in our society will widen unless extra effort is put in to ensure that everyone has a rigorous education in these methods.
I really do not accept that point at all. It is simply not good enough to say that, because someone is from a certain background, they will not be able to learn how to spell or use language correctly. That is exactly at the heart of what we are trying to break. I have to say that, as an employer, I meet lots of graduates who do not have dyslexia who have not learnt how to use accurate punctuation and spelling. Unfortunately, it is a continuous frustration, and I sometimes wonder whether I am the best-paid proofreader in the country, given the amount of time I spend correcting grammar and punctuation in the documents that leave the Department—I probably should not say that in Hansard.
I agree entirely. The Minister’s experience and mine are the same, but those who had the rigorous experience that I had at school have an advantage over those who did not, even though they might have been equal in ability in every other way. I appreciate that we are off the subject of dyslexia now. We are running out of time; but it is important to say that, if we are to have a society that is less divided, we must ensure that we provide education for those who do not have natural advantages.
If we are to have a society that is less divided, we must ensure that all children, regardless of their background, are given the same benefits of that sound education. Putting those marks, even 5%, back into qualifications will create an incentive to ensure that all children have that grounding. That is really important.
Ofqual will consider and take into account the concerns of dyslexic charities when it decides on implementation. The issue of reasonable adjustments continues to remain.
I should like to conclude now. I thought that we would not have many speakers. In fact, I seem to have prattled on for so long—[Interruption.] Are there 17 minutes left? I thought that we finished at 3.45 pm. I have been racing to the end and thought that I only had two minutes. In fact, we have loads of time. I might still conclude anyway, or I will not have any voice left.
I am very grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that I have been able to allay some concerns. Dyslexia charities will no doubt make the points that they made to the hon. Members who came to this debate to Ofqual and JCQ in the new year, but I want to leave hon. Members with the assurance that we are absolutely committed to reforming the support for children with special educational needs and disability. We will say much more in the new year, in response to the consultation. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their constructive input on this matter.
Although I am happy to have secured this debate, I am extremely unhappy that I felt compelled to apply for it. I had hoped that justice would have been done by now, and that Farepak customers and agents would have received at least some of their money back. However, five years from Farepak’s collapse, customers have not received a penny of the compensation due to them, and have not seen justice done. Those responsible have not been held to account. To add insult to injury, on the fifth anniversary of Farepak’s collapse, we have learned that not only has none of the £5.53 million compensation been paid, but the administrators, BDO, have admitted that the cost to date of winding up the company comes in at £8.2 million, which is far more than the compensation owed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He makes an incredibly valid point. The people involved had modest incomes, and could least afford to lose that money. They ended up paying twice for Christmas, or borrowing money. The whole matter was a scandal, and we are still no clearer about when it will be resolved. Farepak victims were ripped off twice: once when the company collapsed, and secondly by an establishment that has not protected them.
The history of Farepak’s collapse is well documented, and has been the subject of debates in the House, often initiated by Anne Snelgrove, the former Member for Swindon South, whom I applaud for her unstinting work in standing up for Farepak customers and employees. As this is only a half-hour debate, I will not rehearse the history, except to say that Farepak went bust on 13 October 2006, and the result was that the Christmas savings of around 120,000 people, in total about £38 million, were apparently lost. The money seemed to have been siphoned off to help to combat the debts of the parent company, European Home Retail but as my hon. Friend said, Farepak continued to collect money even when it knew that it had problems.
My inspiration for the debate is my constituent Deborah Harvey, who was a Farepak agent. The word tenacious does not come anywhere near doing her justice. Deb was an agent in Alway in Newport, and encouraged eight friends to spread the cost of Christmas by saving with Farepak with her. Like many agents, she was not motivated by self-interest; she was driven by wanting to see justice for the friends who saved with her because they knew her. They are owed a total of £2,100, and if they ever recoup any money, they will probably receive just £315.
My constituent, Jean McLardy, has given me a Farepak customer payment card that belonged to her mother, who has passed away. It looks identical to those of credit union savings schemes, and it is clear that the people who put money away every week thought it was in a savings club.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She made her incredibly valuable point very well. She has done sterling work on the Farepak issue over the years, and I commend her for that.
My Farepak savers in Alway will probably receive a total of about £315. I acknowledge the organisers of the unfairpak website who keep the campaign going and are a source of information for Farepak victims in a sometimes unclear process.
Where are we, five years on? Have the directors of Farepak been brought to book? No. The Government, through the Insolvency Service, have finally applied to the courts to disqualify Sir Clive Thompson and eight other directors associated with the collapse of Farepak. Does the Minister not believe that the length of time that the directors have had to appeal while still holding office is incredible when innocent victims wait and wait? Perhaps he will tell us how long the Government expect the case to last? As a Farepak agent told me the other day, if she had stolen something, she would have to pay for what she had done wrong, and it would not take five years.
Let us be honest. If someone broke into a house and stole such an amount of money, they would find themselves in prison. They would be jailed, never mind paying compensation, or justice. They would find themselves in prison, and that is where they should be.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which was well made. Many victims have called for Sir Clive Thompson to have his knighthood removed if he loses the case, and perhaps the Minister will also address that point.
A survey posted on Twitter and the Farepak victims committee Facebook page reveals what Farepak victims think: 95% of the respondents thought that the liquidators had taken too long, and should have finished by now; 79% did not think that there are enough regulations to protect consumers from anything like the Farepak collapse happening again and 95% thought that all Christmas savings schemes should be tightly regulated. Many Farepak customers are upset about how the administrators, BDO, have handled the liquidation process. BDO struck an agreement with some of the ex-directors of Farepak to pay a total of £4 million in compensation, which is about 15p per pound owed. Not only are Farepak victims angry, as they should be, at receiving only 15p in the pound, they find it deeply unfair that as part of the deal the directors accept no liability for Farepak going bust. Will the Minister say whether that is common practice?
I am aware that some agents and customers received some money back in 2009 under a court order. That was a repayment to customers who had made payments as the company collapsed and which Farepak tried to put into trust accounts. Customers received some compensation from a response fund just after the company went bust, but as yet no customer has received any money via the administrators. BDO will argue that the reason is that it is still chasing, and that it is standard practice for administrators not to pay out any dividend until all avenues have been exhausted. However, as widely reported in the news last month, BDO has so far cost in excess of £8.2 million, which includes, for example, £50,000 for public relations work. That is an eye-watering sum, especially when BDO has managed to obtain only £5.5 million back for the victims. So far, the process hardly seems fair.
I understand that there is a possibility that ex-customers could receive less than 15p in the pound. If the administrators fail to recoup any more money from ongoing operations, they will take their costs from the moneys already recouped. I accept that the ongoing actions, if successful, could result in ex-customers receiving more money, but either way the administrators will accrue more and more costs, making customers even more resentful.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does she agree that some of the practices that she describes are at best ethically questionable and, looking at them more strategically in terms of how victims have been affected, downright wrong?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree that the matter is downright wrong, and I hope that the Government will act.
I would like the Minister to say whether he believes that the insolvency process is fit for purpose in dealing with the aftermath of cases such as Farepak. Should there not be a limit on how much administrators can demand—perhaps a percentage of the total amount accrued? I have spoken to Farepak victims and agents, and the process is incomprehensible from the outside. Victims need to know what is going on, and why it is taking so long.
I am pleased that the hon. Lady secured this debate and that she raised the point about transparency, because there are real concerns about creditors’ representation, and precisely what is going on with BDO. There is a dearth of information, and it is not good enough to rely on civil proceedings as a cloak to prevent victims from being told what is going on.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Although my constituent has been incredibly tenacious, from her point of view it has been very difficult to get any information out of the administrators, apart from messages posted on the website.
The average amount of time taken for a liquidation process to finish is about two and a half years, so we can completely understand the sheer anger, frustration and, frankly, scepticism of the ex-customers of Farepak over the administrator BDO and its motives. Could this ever happen again? Following the collapse of Farepak, the Christmas Prepayment Association was set up. On the face of it, the guidelines issued by the CPA seem to remedy many of the issues that arose. However, the association has a major flaw: it is self-regulating. Conceivably, a Christmas hamper company could be set up tomorrow and not be required to follow the CPA guidelines. This is surely not acceptable, given what has happened.
The hon. Lady has come to the fundamental point. Five years ago, a loophole was identified. Because of the nature of the business, unbeknown to all the clients and customers who took part in it, it is not in law a financial service. Why is that loophole still there five long years on?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He goes precisely to the crux of the issue: self-regulation is simply not acceptable. We need statutory guidance. We must compel companies to protect their customers’ money. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will do that? If not, can he explain the reasons why, especially as just today we have seen that banks are to be compelled to display prominent signs telling customers that their savings are protected up to £85,000. What should we do in this case?
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems highlighted is that the victims have been treated as unsecured creditors, so they are right at the bottom of the pile? The Office of Fair Trading report, which was published in December 2006 after Farepak collapsed, highlighted the problems with prepayments for funerals, holidays and mail order, but this case goes way beyond that. Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to look at the scale of the problem?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There are a whole range of prepayment schemes. She mentioned prepayment for funerals, which is a huge issue that I shall address later.
Farepak customers were on modest incomes, and in October 2006 their Christmas was destroyed. All their carefully saved money disappeared overnight. These are people who did the right thing. They planned how they were going to pay for Christmas, they worked hard all year round, they made their monthly payments and Christmas was going to be sorted. They are predominantly women managing household finances to provide for their families. They were doing what we ask people to do. When Farepak went bust, Christmas was ruined for many. They were on modest incomes and could not get money out of the bank to cover the loss.
The Government owe it to Farepak victims to do the right thing. Farepak is a special case and the Government should step in and help. We did it for Equitable Life victims; quite rightly, the Government are stepping in to the tune of £500 million for them this year. Farepak victims are owed around £38 million. In the same way as we did with the banks, we should send the right signal to savers on modest incomes that their money is safe in the event of bankruptcy.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. It is important that people are very careful about putting their money in schemes of this kind after the experience of Farepak. Before putting in their money, they should look for firm guarantees such as the banks must now have. Money is precious when it is from a hard-earned small income.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Obviously, that is where the CPA and self-regulation come in. Many of the Farepak victims that I have spoken to saved with friends because they trusted them. We must address the whole issue in the industry.
Despite all that has happened to her and her friends, the priority of my constituent, Mrs Deborah Harvey, is to ensure that the situation never happens again. On behalf of her and many others, I say to the Minister that Farepak victims want justice, adequate compensation, enhanced regulation for all firms engaged in prepayment schemes, and key figures in Farepak to be held accountable for what they did. That is how we shall ensure that decent people doing the right thing never again lose out in that way.
It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, Mr Weir, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for bringing the matter to our attention. It is a matter of profound concern to the people involved. I think I reflect the Government’s perspective in adding my view that this was completely unacceptable. Many vulnerable people were associated with it and it has taken far too long to sort out. The steps taken to try to resolve it were far slower than both the people detrimentally affected and any reasonable observer might have anticipated, so I am extremely sympathetic to the case that the hon. Lady has made and to the circumstances of the people who were so badly affected. It is understandable that questions of the kind that she has posed are raised when so many people are affected. The insolvency is particularly sad, coming around a savings scheme—a club, if you like—that was tied to Christmas, as we now approach Christmas some years later. This is a poignant subject, and the emotions evident in the contributions made so far reflect the character of the matter with which we are dealing.
Does the Minister accept that what makes the situation even worse—it is bad enough that it is Christmas and so on—is that the agents who were taking the money week after week were taking it from friends? The responsibility and the guilt that they feel, because they have let down their friends, are enormous.
Yes, that is true. It is a good point. The hon. Gentleman made that point in an earlier intervention in a different form, and he is right. We think of the victims as the people whose money was contributed and lost, but the wider effect of the kind he described is also very sad, because people were acting in good faith, unaware of the likely consequences of the role that they played until it was too late to do anything about it. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the communal effect that it had on communities that are often tight-knit and where trust matters. This is a poignant matter that understandably stimulates heartfelt sentiments. I will try to deal factually with the circumstances, but it is hard to do that in the context, about which we feel deeply.
The matter started before we came to office, but it is not a partisan matter. Governments need to express a view and take appropriate action. The case began under the previous Government and, of course, because it has not yet been satisfactorily drawn to a conclusion in terms of the money received by the people concerned, it continues under this Government. However, neither Government could have intervened in the conduct of a particular insolvency, as that remains subject, as hon. Members will know, to the overall supervision of the court. Nevertheless, I can give some background as to where the Government stand at the moment.
On the issue that was raised about the directors, concern was rightly expressed about their position and their living up to their responsibilities. They are the people who controlled the company. The investigation that took place was complex. As the hon. Member for Newport East mentioned, it resulted in an application by the Business Secretary, in the High Court of Justice on 26 January this year, for disqualification orders to be made against the directors. It was made in the public interest on the ground that the conduct of each director makes him or her unfit to be concerned in the management of a company. It is, of course, a legal application. None the less, the fact that we made it reflects the Government’s view that this is a matter of profound concern. The individuals must be held responsible. As a result, opportunities to serve in a similar or indeed any business capacity should be limited. To say more about that at this stage would probably be improper, but the message that I have broadcast makes clear my views and those of the Government.
That is a fair question, but since the matter is now part of a legal process it is difficult for me to give a definitive answer. It would not, however, be unreasonable for my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who is the Minister responsible for such matters, to respond directly to the hon. Lady, and I will ask him to do just that. I am not the Minister responsible for this particular matter, although I am happy to act as a conduit to the person who is. On such occasions when I am standing in for a Minister, it is my habit to make it clear to them that they have a responsibility to hon. Members and to the Chamber. I am more than happy to pass on the fact that I would like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, in so far as he can, to answer that question.
In the spirit of that constructive approach, may I ask the Minister the question posited by the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) about the criminal aspect of this case? Was a proper investigation ever carried out by the Serious Fraud Office or the Crown Prosecution Service into allegations of fraudulent trading? It certainly seems to me, and to many others, that that should have been looked into at the time. If it was not looked into, why was that?
I will try to deal in my remarks with some of the actions that were taken, and if I do not cover that point I will come back to my hon. Friend on the matter. I would like to make some progress to describe what actions have been taken, although I am mindful of that intervention and do not seek to avoid it. I will try to deal with it during my remarks, but if I cannot, I will subsequently reply to my hon. Friend directly.
It is great that the Minister has shown such sympathy for the victims of this injustice. Such schemes take place up and down the valleys in south Wales, and many members of my family have participated in them in the past. I would like to press the Minister on the matter of alleged fraud. Will he let us know what he is going to say on the matter sooner rather than later, so that we can quiz him further? People are very angry.
When I have made some progress, if I have not satisfactorily covered that matter I give a commitment that either I or the Minister responsible will respond properly and as far as we can within the legal constraints that I have set out. I am aware of the hon. Members who have participated in this debate, and of those who have a particular interest in the area. I am not avoiding the issue; it is a fair question and I will ensure that it gets a fair answer from the Government. I am not in the business of avoiding difficult subjects, particularly ones such as this that unite the whole House in its view of what is and is not appropriate.
In the short time that we have available for this important debate, let me make some progress so that I can deal with some of the points raised. I want to set out the steps that we have taken to avoid such things happening in the future. As the hon. Member for Newport East said, the main companies in the hamper industry, through the Christmas Prepayment Association, introduced new safeguards for consumers’ money in the form of independently controlled, ring-fenced trust accounts. I know that the hon. Lady is doubtful about the self-regulation of the industry, but however imperfect, those safeguards represent significant progress for an industry that has, quite frankly, faced something of a shake-out following the Farepak affair. Relatively few businesses are now involved in that industry, and their coming together in the way that I have described represents significant progress.
There are various other Christmas saving accounts, such as clubs run by supermarkets, large retailers, local shops, social clubs, pubs and workplaces, and risks are always associated with any business of that kind. They are bigger and certainly more widespread than the principal companies that most of us know about. Local schemes exist throughout the country, and have done so throughout my lifetime if not considerably before. I remember my mother being part of a small, local Christmas saving club when I was a child, and it is hard to regulate every such arrangement. None the less, the Office of Fair Trading has produced a leaflet entitled “Save Xmas”—I am sorry it is not “Save Christmas”—which is a quick guide to paying for Christmas. The leaflet lists various schemes and indicates whether there is any protection should they go bust. It is important that people who put their money into such schemes know where they stand at the outset, because that has not always been the case in the past.
The Money Advice Service provides advice on its website about what protection is offered for various ways of saving money, and in addition, the Office of Fair Trading’s consumer codes approval scheme, which aims to safeguard consumer interests and raise standards in markets, lists the protection of prepayments as one of its criteria. The OFT has approved 10 codes so far, and we are currently consulting on how consumer codes will operate in future, in light of proposals for institutional reform for those bodies that are currently responsible for consumer and competition policy. Those measures should help savers to avoid losing prepaid moneys in future.
On the issue of insolvency, it is clearly a matter of regret that more money is not available for distribution, and I understand the concerns mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport East, and others, about the expenses incurred in dealing with liquidation—I think she described the figure as “eye watering,” and I do not disagree. Farepak is clearly no ordinary insolvency because it is so complex. It was complex from the start and involved an exceptionally large number of customers and agents—more than 116,000—and the identities of many of those were initially unknown. Considerable work was therefore involved in identifying creditors and substantiating their claims.
The creditors’ committee, which represents those who have lost money, has received regular detailed reports on the progress of the liquidation and approved the actions of the liquidators. I understand that the liquidators have undertaken various investigations in order to increase asset realisations, including action that resulted in £4 million being recovered from the directors of the company. I also understand that the liquidators are currently working to bring proceedings against third parties, with the intention of increasing the pot of money available to creditors. Given the nature of such an action, the liquidators say that it is not possible to determine when moneys will be paid to creditors. As a result of this debate, however, I will make further inquiries, and ask the Minister responsible to report back to hon. Members about the anticipated time scale, in so far as he reasonably can.
The liquidators point out that the work they have undertaken over the years has resulted in the possible amount payable to creditors increasing from 5p to 15p in the pound. I accept that 15p may not be perceived as sufficient, but as the hon. Lady knows, it has substantially increased from the original estimate. The liquidators have also stressed that the creditors’ committee can, at any time, instruct them to stop their activities and pay creditors from the funds already secured. They have also indicated that due to the sheer number of creditors, the process of paying a dividend will be very expensive. They therefore want to ensure that as far as possible, all money that can be recovered is received before a payment to creditors is made. The aim is to get the amount returned per pound to the highest possible level before we start the process of paying the creditors. Otherwise, we will add to the administrative costs associated with the process, and the balance between what that costs and the benefit people receive will be even further out of kilter.
I do, however, believe that the figure of £8.2 million, in contrast with the current dividend prospect of £5.5 million, causes considerable concern. I know that the hon. Lady shares my concern about the level of fees, and she will know that the Government have considered the issue and what should be done in the future. I hope that what I have said today will provide some assurance that I, and other Ministers, believe that we cannot leave the situation as it is in terms of how such matters are handled.
In April 2010 new provisions came into force for insolvencies commencing after that date, giving creditors additional powers to obtain information about the fees and expenses charged by insolvency practitioners. The percentage of creditors required to bring a challenge in court was reduced from 25% to 10%, and the issue of fees charged by insolvency practitioners was considered by the OFT in a report published in June 2010.
Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, the Minister with responsibility for issues of insolvency, issued a consultation on a set of proposed reforms to the regulation of insolvency practitioners, including how practitioners deal with complaints. Our aim is to ensure transparency and accountability and to improve confidence in the insolvency process.
This has been a useful discussion on an important subject. I have had little time to sum up the debate, but I take this issue seriously, just as the Government take seriously the whole business of dealing with insolvency. We will take steps to ensure that the process is fair, reasonable and timely, and I will ask my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton to come back to Members on any specific points that I have not had the chance to cover, and make the position clear.
I have watched many of my former patients die as a result of alcohol; there is nothing like witnessing the end of the journey to focus one’s attention on the need to prevent people from becoming harmful drinkers in the first place. We are witnessing an unprecedented rise in hospital admissions and deaths from alcohol-related liver disease. Alcohol is directly responsible for more than 6,500 deaths and more than 1 million hospital admissions a year. It is the single largest cause of mortality in young people, accounting for one in four deaths among 15 to 24-year-olds—far more than die as a result of knife crime. There are now 1.6 million dependent drinkers in England alone.
However, the point about alcohol is that it does not just affect the drinkers themselves; it has a devastating effect on their families, especially children, and on entire communities. There are 705,000 children living with a parent who is a dependent drinker. Parental alcohol abuse is a factor in half of child protection cases.
The full costs are hard to quantify, but the bill runs to at least £20 billion a year.
The hon. Lady will know that I chaired the Select Committee on Health in the previous Parliament. We conducted an inquiry into alcohol, and it was the first time in many decades that a Select Committee had done that. We took evidence that the cost to the NHS could be as high as £55 billion a year. The situation is similar to that with tobacco: in the end, no one really knows the cost of the use of these products.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right. The study to which he refers took into account the reduced quality of life years associated with alcohol, which are extremely difficult to quantify.
In three years’ time, the Government will be judged not just on the economy, but on other tangible markers, such as violent crime, the prison population, health inequalities—even markers such as teenage pregnancy. It is hard to think of a social marker that is not affected by alcohol.
However, there are other compelling reasons for taking action. At a time of squeezed police budgets and when the NHS needs to find efficiency savings of £20 billion, we should not be pouring that money down the drain because of the problems that this country has with alcohol. About half the offenders in some prisons are jailed for an offence in which alcohol played a significant role. The relationship between crime and alcohol is not linear, but the positive association between violent crime and alcohol is compelling. There is a wealth of evidence to link alcohol price increases and reduced rates of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, motor vehicle theft and domestic violence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. In terms of alcohol price increases having the effect that she has just outlined, does she agree that one easy, fast and effective route that the Government could take to stop underpriced and low-priced alcohol being sold would be to go ahead with duty stamping on beer and wine to ensure that alcohol is sold at the right price and, equally, to save the Government up to £1 billion a year of revenue that is currently lost through the tax being avoided?
That is one of the options. I would like to outline an alternative, but I certainly thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Numerous studies around the world have shown public health benefits as a result of price increases and taxation policies, so is it not time for some evidence-based politics? The trouble is that there is no single, simple solution. We know that there are other factors in addition to price: availability, our drinking culture and marketing. Those are all key factors, but today’s debate is about taxation, so I will focus entirely on price, not because the others do not matter, but because they are not within the remit of the Treasury.
It is worth pointing out that most health experts feel that changing pricing is the most effective way of achieving results. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the letter in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph signed by 19 organisations. I know that the Treasury is aware of the costs to our economy of dependent drinkers and binge drinking, so I will not ask my hon. Friend to respond in detail on those points. As disposable incomes have fallen, so too has the overall consumption of alcohol, but that comes on the back of decades of steady increases. Alcohol remains about 44% more affordable than it was in 1980.
In 2010, a total of 48.4 billion units of alcohol were sold in the UK. Of those, 31.8 billion units—about two thirds; the great and increasing majority—were sold by the off-trade. The widening gap between the price of on-licence and off-licence alcohol is becoming far more significant and is fuelling the rise in home drinking. Harms are not going down as we might expect as a result of the small fall in overall consumption, because of the low-price deals that are still very widely available in supermarkets, garages and convenience stores pretty much around the clock.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. The north-east has one of the worst rates of liver disease: we have seen an increase of 400% since 2002. I accept entirely the point that she makes about robust regulation in terms of minimum pricing, but does she accept that the local supermarkets in our individual constituencies can make a specific difference on the pricing and availability of alcohol and the way in which it is presented to our constituents?
I absolutely agree. Most of the alcohol-related carnage is caused by young binge drinkers and by heavy or dependent drinkers, so the issue is not only about the availability of alcohol in outlets throughout the country. The harm is not going down, because those groups are the ones that are most attracted by the low-price deals.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I declare an interest as chairman of the all-party beer group. I agree with her about the need for the Government to take action. Does she agree with me on this point? Twenty years ago, the price in a supermarket and the price in a pub were much the same at about 75p a pint. Today, a pint costs £3.10, £3.20 or £3.30 in a pub, whereas in a supermarket it remains at about 70p or 80p. That has encouraged people to drink more and more at home and discouraged them from drinking in a safe, supervised environment such as the community pub that is at the heart of many of our towns and villages.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I have to declare an interest. I worked behind the bar in one of my local pubs on a recent Friday evening, celebrating British beer week. I am also a member of the all-party beer group. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths). In a pub, we have a safe environment; we have a landlord who is licensed. That encourages responsible drinking. The pub I worked in—the Wills O’Nats in Meltham—was a family environment. Young people were there, drinking soft drinks until early in the evening. Does my hon. Friend agree that any taxation put in place by the Government should not just be about revenue streams, but should encourage responsible drinking in the community pub environment?
I absolutely agree. The point is that in the UK harmful drinkers buy 15 times more alcohol than moderate drinkers, yet they pay 40% less per unit. Those are the groups that are most influenced by pricing. That is why I agree with my hon. Friends that the problem does not come from pubs.
I did have a prop for the debate. Last weekend, my researcher was able to access 2 litres of own-brand cider from Asda for £1.48, which worked out at just 18p a unit. With a four-pack of bitter for 68p, the price was just 17p a unit. I particularly objected to the labelling. It said, “Asda Smart Price”. I put it to hon. Members that there is nothing smart about charging 68p for four units of alcohol. That would send a woman well over the safe limit for a single day for just 68p.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. It is significant that Asda is the supermarket she cited, because it is seen as the one supermarket that has so far taken a lead in trying to get to the bottom of two-for-one offers and the like. If Asda is still behaving as badly as that, what can we expect from the others?
Asda has acquired a veneer of respectability by signing up to the new responsibility deal, but I would ask whether it is killing its customers with such pricing. Asda has liked to boast of its responsible approach in removing low-price offers from its foyers, but I put it to Asda that those who conduct proxy sales on behalf of teenage binge drinkers have no trouble in locating the cider at the back of the store. It is the ultra-low pricing that is causing the carnage.
I recognise that the Government are trying to introduce a floor price for alcohol that will include duty and VAT. The trouble is that the policy will not go far enough to solve the problem, as it will still allow white cider to be sold at below 10p a unit. It will establish the principle of minimum pricing without the prospect of delivering any meaningful results. Will the Minister set out what responses she has received from public health experts on that point? All the public health advice that I have seen is entirely pessimistic. The Daily Telegraph pointed out today that the policy will catch only one in 4,000 of the drinks currently being sold and will do nothing to save lives.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it was this Government who introduced, for the first time, a ban on below-cost selling? That was an important line in the sand—the first time that a Government have said that selling booze too cheaply is a bad thing. The question now is how cheaply?
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the current tax system seems to encourage people to drink ever stronger and stronger drinks? The tax system encourages the strength of wine to increase dramatically, and the drink of choice of young people is now vodka.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We need to show what minimum pricing means in practice if we set a reasonable price. If we set a minimum price of around 45p a unit, as the Scottish Government are planning to do, in a Bill introduced at the end of October, it would mean that a bottle of whisky containing 28 units could not be sold below £12.60, a bottle of wine containing 10 units could not cost less than £4.50, and a pint of beer with two units could not cost less than 90p. Such prices would not suck all the fun from a night out; in fact, they would not raise the price of alcohol in the on-trade at all.
May I make a little progress? The case against a minimum price of between 45p and 50p a unit may hang on the loss of income to the Treasury. Alcohol duty raised £9.5 billion in 2010-11, which is equivalent to 1.7% of total Government revenue. There is a certain illogicality in the bands set by the European Union, so to a certain extent, as my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) said, there is great encouragement towards higher strength products.
The amount received by the Treasury is the same whether a product is sold in a pub or a supermarket. VAT is levied on top, but there are no specific data on where and on what products it is levied. Will the Minister set out estimates of the loss of income that would arise from the introduction of a minimum unit price of between 45p and 50p? Will she also set that against the benefits in estimated savings to the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice that would result from a reduction in alcohol-related harms?
The Department of Health leads on alcohol policy. It has stated repeatedly that it does not wish to disadvantage moderate drinkers on a low income. However, it has failed to point out that harmful drinking disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, and is a significant contributor to health inequality. A report on the Department’s behalf from September 2011, titled “Narrowing the health inequalities gap”, makes it quite clear that if it were not for alcohol-related deaths, and if we had had an effective policy, the objective to narrow the overall life expectancy gaps for the spearhead local authority areas—the most deprived areas in our country—
“would…certainly have been achieved for males; and would be well on the way to being achieved for females.”
The evidence is not just that low-income groups suffer the most health harms, but that they suffer the most harms as a result of violence in their communities.
If we look at the evidence from some shopping basket data published in a university of Sheffield study, we can see that for
“a 50p minimum price, a harmful drinker will spend on average an extra £163 per year whilst the equivalent spending increase for a moderate drinker is £12.”
In other words, the published data state that such a policy will not penalise low-income moderate drinkers.
The deprived spearhead communities have the most to gain from an effective alcohol policy. A minimum or floor price can be set that is not regressive and is affordable for anyone who is not drinking at hazardous levels. As one of my correspondents pointed out:
“If you can’t afford 50p per unit it is a good sign that you are drinking too much.”
The charge is often made that without an increase in duty the profits will go to the drinks industry and retailers, not the Treasury. I can understand that, but if we can introduce windfall taxes on energy companies, why not have windfall taxes on supermarkets that profit from windfall gains? With more than 31 billion units sold in the off-trade, why not even consider a health levy on unopened bottles, perhaps of between 5p and 10p a unit, targeting just the off-trade? That would be more than enough to allow for decent treatment programmes. Evidence shows that for every pound we invest in such programmes, we save £5 in wider benefits to the economy because of reduced harms.
I could not agree more.
Finally—I know that other Members would like to come in—there are those who argue that a minimum price is illegal under EU law. If so, why are the Scottish Government so confident that it is not? I draw the Minister’s attention to a reply given by Mr Dalli on behalf of the European Commission to a question put by an MEP on that point. The bones of the reply are that
“the Commission fully shares with the Honourable Member the conviction that there are strong public health reasons for the EU to tackle alcohol-related harm including minimum pricing measures.”
Will the Minister set out today whether there have been discussions with the Scottish Executive on the matter? Will she also comment on what steps the Treasury will take to tackle supermarkets’ plans to undermine Scotland’s decisive action to tackle the carnage caused by alcohol? Tesco recently e-mailed Scottish customers to reassure them that they will still be able to access cut-price deals after the Act is in force, as the products will be delivered from across the border. Will the Minister join me in condemning that e-mail from Tesco?
Yesterday, the Select Committee on Health returned from a visit to Carlisle, and it is clear that the city is expecting an increase in cross-border sales. It would prefer to see us use an evidence-based policy to protect the north-west, which has suffered from the devastating impact of alcohol. There have been many calls for effective minimum pricing and numerous models show the amount of lives and money saved, so I do not want to go over them in detail, other than to point out again that a 50p minimum price could save nearly 10,000 lives a year.
We have shown that Britain is prepared to stand our ground in the EU when it comes to the City of London. Now is the time to put the lives of our young people ahead of the theoretical risk of a legal challenge. A precedent exists in the loi Evin, which the French introduced to protect children from the effects of alcohol marketing in France. It has been challenged repeatedly by the industry in the EU’s courts, but it was upheld on the grounds of the health benefits. I fully agree with that.
I agree with the hon. Lady regarding unit pricing, as did the Select Committee. One issue that caught my ear in her presentation is that of spirits. For 10 years, I have sat in Budget speeches in the House of Commons Chamber, when everyone cheered when the duty on spirits never went up. Then a £6 bottle of vodka became the choice for binge drinking. That is one of the lessons that the Treasury should learn.
I could not agree more. Pricing plays, and has played, a role in the massive increase in the drinking of vodka, particularly by young women.
There are other ways of levelling the playing field, if the Treasury wants more income after minimum pricing. I know that the Minister is aware of the paper written by Dr Nick Sheron in which he argued that we could vary VAT between the on and off-trades to achieve minimum pricing, without damaging our pubs. I accept that the Treasury is convinced that that would be illegal under EU law. That is just another example of the completely illogical rules by which alcohol duty is set from across the channel, and is a prime example of the intrusive and frustrating way so much of our legislation is controlled by the EU.
I finish by asking the Minister not to commit to a floor price that will be meaningless. Will she assure the House that she will meet her Scottish counterparts to discuss why they are convinced that it is legal to introduce a realistic minimum price for alcohol? Can she assure me that the Government will look at the consistent and evidence-based advice from health experts on minimum pricing, and at least ensure that supermarkets south of the border do not undermine what is happening in Scotland? Can she also assure me that the Treasury recognises that alcohol is not an ordinary commodity, but a psychoactive, teratogenic carcinogen, which also happens to be addictive?
I finish with a story from one of my constituents, who spoke to me after trying to stop a drunken lout urinating on a semi-conscious vulnerable woman in the street. Is that the picture of Britain that we want to send to the rest of the world in our Olympic year? It really is the picture that other people are starting to have of Britain, and it is completely preventable. We just need bold action from the Government. Otherwise, we are abandoning another generation of young people. There is no such thing as a free lunch and equally no such thing as a cheap drink. We are all cross-subsidising cheap deals in supermarkets by paying extra for our groceries and other products. There is no such thing as a cheap drink: we are all paying a heavy price.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on securing the debate. I recognise that, as a general practitioner, she can draw on direct experience on dealing with the adverse effects of alcohol on health. I also acknowledge her reference to the contribution in The Daily Telegraph today from other professionals in the field.
I can assure all hon. Members who have spoken—it is a pleasure to hear so many—that not only GPs have such concerns about the effect of alcohol on the welfare and well-being of society; that concern is shared by the Government. It is clear that alcohol abuse causes serious harm to health and leads to considerable costs to the NHS and that many towns and cities are affected by alcohol-related violence and crime, as my hon. Friend has said. Like her, of course I abhor behaviour such as that in the example on which she finished her speech.
For all those reasons, the coalition Government are committed to tackling problem drinking across a range of fronts. I shall set out a few points on which action has already been taken. I shall try to do so quickly, to get on to minimum unit pricing, as my hon. Friend has requested. I will begin by trying to tackle a couple of points made by other hon. Members. Irresponsible drinkers, rather than responsible drinkers in pubs and other places of safety, are the problem.
I shall try to tackle a couple of the specific questions. If I do not do get there in time, I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I write to her on a couple of points. With regard to measures that the Government have already taken, I hope that they will demonstrate and reassure her that the Government are committed to an evidence-based approach. I specifically reassure her of that today. It is, of course, a subject on which data speak clearly. It is a complex subject that requires much analysis of evidence.
I shall start that process with what the Government have done. My hon. Friend will know that the Treasury published the review of alcohol taxation in November 2010, which among other things identified a problem with so-called super-strength lagers, about which others have spoken today. The Government confirmed in the 2011 Budget that action would be taken to discourage consumption of those drinks, introducing two new additional duties, which should help. There are also targeted approaches on other types of drink—for example, a minimum juice content for products that qualify as cider. I note my hon. Friend’s point about ciders.
I am aware of that specific point, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and his colleagues will be even more aware of that tonight at the all-party parliamentary beer group’s Christmas party, if I have that correct. If he will forgive me, I will focus on minimum unit pricing in this debate, to deal with points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes. I shall briefly note that she raised the wider impacts of alcohol. Of course, it is not just the duty system that is important. I direct her to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which I hope will help with the late-night economy. To make an important point, I direct her to a forthcoming paper from the Department of Health, which, with the Home Office, is responsible for this area, that will consider the wider social and health impacts of alcohol. I have no doubt that she will look at that in some detail.
A simple question: when assessing taxation in the alcohol strategy document, working with the Department of Health, will there be a difference in the views on taxing supermarket sales compared with the pubs that we all cherish and that are so affected by this?
If my hon. Friend will allow me to come to that, I shall attempt now briefly to answer a number of the questions asked. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes explained, the Scottish Government have recently introduced a Bill that seeks to bring in a 45p per unit minimum price. She asked why this Government believe that that would be incompatible with EU law, when the Scottish Government do not. If I may quote the specific point: we believe that it could be incompatible with article 34 of the treaty of the functioning of the European Union. I should be delighted to go into more detail on that if she required. That is the position.
I should like to deal with the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). No one wishes to hit pubs unnecessarily. I take the examples about the behaviour of supermarkets that have been given. Like hon. Members, I am wary of those. If an indirect tax were introduced, it would be difficult to distinguish between points of sale. I am happy to come back to hon. Members in more detail on why that is difficult, but it is not as straightforward as saying that we want to hit supermarkets and not pubs; it is about how to set up an indirect tax.
On that note, as hon. Members will have heard in other debates, it is difficult to find ways to vary VAT on similar products. Again, I am happy to come back with more detail on that if required. On price distortion and perhaps distasteful practices at the border, the UK Government will look into that closely. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes asked whether we will discuss matters with the Scottish Government. We will be watching the situation extremely closely in the service of seeing what works and what we can assess among these complex policy and legal issues.
I will go briefly to a couple of other questions that my hon. Friend asked me: have we received representations from public health representatives on the duty plus VAT measure? I regard that measure as a starting point, as a first step. She rightly notes that it introduces a principle and a starting point. Treasury officials are very closely involved in discussing such matters with the Department of Health and, as I have already mentioned, the Home Office, which is also responsible in part for alcohol. I hope that reassures her.
We have mentioned supermarkets. I shall briefly turn to whether a windfall profit tax could be introduced as a method of trying to tackle some of the harms. First, this is about evidence. It is questionable whether windfall profits are likely to arise, and therefore whether there would be something to tax, as a viable approach. That question rests on carefully analysing the evidence, policy and legal issues and what is possible.
Finally, I hope that I have set out that the Government have taken some action and made some starting points. The Government are keen to hear evidence on the matter and will observe carefully what is going on in Scotland and elsewhere.
Question put and agreed to.