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Westminster Hall

Volume 539: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2012

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 1 February 2012

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Work Capability Assessments

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

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

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the issue of work capability assessments, and I note that the number of right hon. and hon. Members present indicates a degree of interest that merits us having a debate that is often misrepresented. From the outset, I must make two important points. First, I support the principle behind work capability assessments; some Members are against them in principle, but I am not. I agree that those who seek sickness benefit should be assessed to determine their fitness for work. Of all the many constituents who have contacted me on the matter over almost two years, none has disagreed with the principle behind an assessment—that people who can work ought to be helped into work where jobs are available. There are many benefits, which I have seen for myself with constituents who have been able to find work, although they previously thought that they might not work again. Those benefits are not merely economic but relate to health and well-being, and we should not confuse the debate by suggesting otherwise.

To support the principle, however, does not mean ignoring the current chaos of the work capability assessment in practice. Increasingly, over the past 12 months in particular, we have seen a chaotic process, which takes an inordinate amount of time, causes great anxiety for many, takes up huge amounts of public money, especially in the appeals process, and is doing a disservice both to those who want to get back to work and to those who will not be able to work.

The Government, in particular the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), with whom I have discussed the situation in the Chamber and in meetings a number of times, have a habit of deflecting responsibility for how the system operates. Too often, the Minister has a ready excuse for the failings of the work capability assessment. Sometimes, he blames the previous Government, and sometimes he claims that people need to have patience to allow reforms to bed in, but I am not sure that I have ever heard him accept responsibility for the mess that the system is currently in. Part of the reason for that mess is the speed of the roll-out, despite the warnings of the pilot process and the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions.

About 11,000 people a week currently undergo the work capability assessment. Between 40% and 70% of those who appeal their assessment win their appeals, depending on whether they are represented. Is it any wonder that the cost of appeals is on track to reach £60 million for 2011-12, up by £20 million on the previous year? Is it any wonder that the number of tribunal service staff has increased by 30% since January 2010? Is it any wonder that tribunal centres, including the one in my area, in Hamilton, now operate on Saturdays to cope with the huge backlog of appeals? The system may have been put in place before the Minister took office, but by signing off on the nationwide roll-out, which has clogged the system, and by not dealing with the defects, the Government now have ownership of the problems and should be dealing with them.

Professor Malcolm Harrington, in his first review of the work capability assessment, made a number of important recommendations to improve the system. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions welcomed the report and said that he fully endorsed the recommendations. The Minister said:

“We fully endorse Professor Harrington’s recommendations... We believe that the principles of the assessment are right, but that the system which we inherited contained some flaws that risked undermining its effectiveness. We have moved swiftly to put those right.”

Yet in Harrington’s review of the second year, published in November last year, he made it clear that the users of the system, including benefit claimants and the organisations working with them, have seen no difference. The review cited one survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium, which asked 439 welfare rights advisers during the summer of last year whether they had noticed any improvement since the first Harrington review: an incredible 75% reported no change and fewer than 4% saw improvements. That is a damning indictment of the Government’s failure to implement proper change to make the system fairer, not only for those who use it but for the taxpayers who fund it.

One example of the Government’s failure to follow through on its welcome of Harrington’s recommendations relates to the performance of Atos Healthcare. Atos is the multi-billion-pound French IT firm that receives £100 million a year from the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out the work capability assessment. The Atos website, which I am sure the Minister is as familiar with as I am, boasts of global turnover of €8.7 million; Atos employs 78,500 people around the world.

Before my hon. Friend goes into details about why Atos is probably failing as a medical assessment organisation, does he agree that part of the problem begins with the attitude of many of the staff engaged by Atos and their total unprofessionalism?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I have been contacted in the run-up to the debate by a variety of organisations giving me examples, and I have others from my own constituents, of how the process has failed and how it works and does not work. The process does not properly take account of a whole range of issues, from people with fluctuating or mental health conditions down to how people feel and how they are treated when they go into the assessment—for example, the people doing the assessments not making eye contact or asking leading questions to get an answer that is nothing to do with the health conditions.

I became a Member of Parliament in 2010 and, right from the start, people expressed concerns to me about the work capability assessment, which was introduced by the previous Government. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that Atos was hired by that previous Labour Government? Were some of the concerns that he was beginning to talk about exhibited at that stage, or are they only coming to light now?

The hon. Gentleman must know the answer to his question, but I have not suggested that the contract was agreed under the current Government.

I do not know why the hon. Lady says “Ah!” from a sedentary position as though that was some great revelation, because no one has suggested anything else. After the pilots, the Select Committee report highlighted issues that should then have been dealt with, but rather than dealing with them, the Minister decided to roll out the process. That is the root of the problems, such as the huge backlog of appeals, the huge cost to the public purse of dealing with those appeals and the huge anxiety and concern of many people. Many people have worked for a number of years and now find themselves, through no fault of their own, unable to continue in their previous line of work, and they would appreciate help to get into work; many others, frankly, are no longer able to work. The process was rolled out without its problems being addressed first, and given how the system is operating, those concerns are now coming home to roost.

Some of us who were Members before 2010 expressed concern to the previous Government. A serious issue in my constituency is the higher incidence than the national average of mental health problems, and some of those people affected have come to see me. One brave gentleman explained exactly how he had gone through the process, which involved a half-hour interview and a tick-box approach that did not take into account the challenges of mental health. As with many of my constituents with mental health problems, he would really like to work, but that short, sharp, tick-box system is not how to help people. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Such issues were among those identified. My contention is that those problems should have been dealt with before the system was rolled out further, and we are now dealing with the consequences of those decisions.

The Atos half-yearly report for 2011 was very upbeat. It noted that operating margins had increased year on year to €166 million—an 11% increase from the first half of 2010. Its operating margin in the UK in 2011 was a healthy €34 million. The outlook for the second half of 2011 was similarly rosy: Atos expected profits to increase by 6.2%. I say all that not to congratulate Atos and marvel at how successful it has been, but to preface my next remarks.

Recommendation 13 of Professor Harrington’s first review was

“better communication between Decision Makers and Atos healthcare professionals to deal with borderline cases”.

In their initial official response to Harrington’s 2010 review, the Government accepted that recommendation, noting:

“Decision Makers already contact Atos healthcare professionals to discuss individual case issues in some instances… we will ensure this happens more often… Agreed measures will be adopted nationally during 2011.”

In a letter that I received from the DWP dated 1 November 2011, I was advised that good progress had been made on that key Harrington recommendation. The DWP letter claimed that

“Atos Healthcare Professional deployment in Benefit Centres has been trialled and has proven to be an effective way of improving communications to discuss borderline cases.”

However, on 20 December 2011, just over six weeks later, in answer to a written question that I had tabled, the Minister advised that

“at the end of the trial, Atos health care professional capacity pressures meant that the initiative could not be continued. From the start of December, DWP and Atos have agreed the implementation of a telephone helpline so that Decision Makers can speak directly to health care professionals to obtain medical advice in specific cases. This is an interim arrangement until Atos are in a position to reintroduce the deployment of health care professionals in benefit centres.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 1082W.]

That is a hugely significant development. This may have been due to when I tabled the question or when the Minister chose to answer it, but he slipped that answer out just before the Christmas holidays. The fact that Government policy is not being followed by a company in receipt of £100 million of taxpayer funding a year will startle many of my constituents and, I am sure, the constituents of many other right hon. and hon. Members.

I should be grateful to the Minister if he gave me answers to a number of questions. What exactly does the phrase “capacity pressures” mean? Does it mean that Atos cannot recruit the right number of health care professionals to undertake its work? Is it unable to fulfil its contractual obligations because of the amount of work that it has to get through? What discussions has he had with Atos about those capacity pressures? Does he believe that they undermine the ability of Atos to fulfil its responsibilities under the contract? What other services have been withdrawn as a result of capacity pressures in Atos? I am sure that if he is not able to answer, I will find a way of crafting written questions to get the answers from him.

To me, the phrase “capacity pressures” implies an undermining of the way in which the Government sought to deal with these issues, which was by saying that Harrington’s recommendations would be implemented in full. If that is not happening in the instance to which I have referred and perhaps in other instances because of capacity pressures in Atos, is that not a damning indictment of the failure of the system as it is currently set up?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House. No one decries the need for profit, but is it not time that we got away from profit and on to service delivery? Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns about many patients who go through the process of a work capability assessment and particularly those with cancer, whose health deteriorates when they experience more stress? There should be an emphasis on people’s health, rather than on the profit at the end of the year.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He puts his finger on a very important point. I am referring to the anxiety and concern that the process causes people, particularly if they are waiting for an assessment. If they enter the appeal process when they have had an assessment, they could wait up to eight months for an appeal. There is an issue about the whole of that process. Long time scales are involved because of the sheer number of people who are being dealt with—or not being dealt with. At the same time, we should never forget that those individuals are trying to deal with the process, and they are feeling huge anxiety. Particularly if they are already unwell, that could well affect their health. That is an important point.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he, like me, see constituents who are caught in a cycle, in that they get zero points when they go for the work capability assessment, they wait seven months for an appeal, the decision is overturned and they immediately receive another letter asking them to take part in another round of assessments? Does he agree that the stress and anxiety being placed on people with very serious conditions is unacceptable?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will go on to highlight the case of one of my constituents that I do not believe is atypical of the experience of many right hon. and hon. Members’ constituents. They get caught up in a process that seems never to end, and as my hon. Friend says, that does their health no good at all.

Last December, Citizens Advice published a damning report on the work capability assessment. One of its recommendations was that financial sanctions should be imposed on Atos for the number of incorrect assessments that it makes. As we all know, the taxpayer forks out millions of pounds on the appeals process, to clear up the incorrect decisions initially made by Atos. The Minister takes a strong interest in Scottish affairs. He may well have seen Scotland Office questions a couple of weeks ago. His colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, advised me that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland had discussed the issue with Professor Harrington and that they believed it would be addressed. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? What time scale has he in mind for financial penalties? Does he believe that Atos should compensate the taxpayer for its performance—its failure in many cases? I should be grateful to the Minister if he clarified the Government’s position on that issue.

Ninety minutes is not sufficient time to debate fully the myriad issues that surround the work capability assessment. I could easily fill the time myself by highlighting its flaws and asking the Minister questions. I am sure that he will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to do that. I intend to make just a couple more remarks and then to allow other hon. Members to speak.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I am intervening in case he is not about to move on to the issue that I want to raise. There are real problems for people with sensory impairment—a number of charities have come together on this issue—because the whole concept of being in the workplace is to be able to perform any task accurately and swiftly. That is key in the workplace. Does he recognise the pressure that those charities are bringing to bear, in that more emphasis should be placed on the guidance that any activity should be able to be undertaken “safely, reliably and repeatedly”?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is no good having someone go to an assessment if the fact that they can sit in a chair or pick up a box and move it once from one part of a room to another means that they are considered able to carry out a task that they may be asked to do repeatedly or continuously in a potential job. That point has been made by a number of organisations that have contacted me about the work capability assessment in the past few days.

I will put to the Minister a few more questions, to which I hope he will respond. They arise from concerns that have been raised by individuals who have contacted me to pass on their experiences of the work capability assessment. Can the Minister confirm whether Atos approved health care professionals are bound by the Official Secrets Act? If they are not, can he confirm whether there are any legally binding conditions, aside from the normal patient confidentiality rules, that prevent Atos approved health care professionals from discussing their experience of the work capability assessment?

As the first Harrington review pointed out, audio recording of the work capability assessment could drive up the quality of assessments by improving assessor and claimant behaviour. Late last year, the Minister advised that he was considering the outcome of the trial in Newcastle of the audio recording of assessments. Will he update the House on when he expects to reach a conclusion on that and whether he will publish the outcome of the trial to ensure full transparency on the issue? He will be aware of the freedom of information request submitted to his Department. Given that many other organisations routinely record their conversations with members of the public to ensure that they are meeting the necessary standards—those organisations range from banks to train companies; I think that even the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority does it—it should be considered. We need to move on from the trial as quickly as possible. Will the Minister update us on the outcome of the trial?

Individuals who undergo the work capability assessment complete a quality survey to rate the performance of Atos. The survey takes place after the assessment has been completed, but before the claimant is made aware of its findings, which is rather like asking someone for a product evaluation as they leave the shop, before they have had a chance to use the product.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that people have to travel 20 miles from the sizeable town of Llanelli to Carmarthen, a local town, where they then find themselves in a lift that does not reach the correct floor, and has a step that leads to a floor without adequate fire escape facilities? Will he ask the Minister what inspections are made of the premises used by Atos with regard to their accessibility for the vulnerable people who have to use them?

My hon. Friend makes an important and pertinent point that I hope the Minister will address. It is a real concern if some of the facilities used by people undertaking a work capability assessment are in such a state.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this crucial debate. My constituents share the same assessment centre that my hon. Friend’s constituents use in Hamilton, and their experiences suggest that the building is not suitable for carrying out a work capability assessment. It has no disabled access and the car park is 80 yards from the front door. People are only supposed to walk 40 yards, and they feel as if they are being tricked before the assessment takes place.

Another problem is that information is unofficially gathered during the assessments. One of my constituents is deaf, but he was told that he could not possibly be deaf because he heard his name being called in the waiting room. Clearly, while he was waiting he was looking at the door in order to lip-read. Have my hon. Friend’s constituents shared experiences such as those at the Atos centre in Hamilton?

My hon. Friend makes a couple of important points. In some ways, a deaf constituent being told that he is not deaf because he heard his name being called is symptomatic of the attitude held by some of the people who carry out the assessments. I am sure that all hon. Members have heard about such experiences from a number of constituents, and it does the principle of helping people into work a gross disservice.

Although it is important to determine whether Atos staff are polite, courteous and accommodating to individuals undergoing the work capability assessment, the most important issue for my constituents is whether Atos gets its assessment right. I suspect that, if the quality survey were completed after the results of the assessment were known, rather than before, the feedback would be substantially different. Will the Minister undertake to consider that issue further, with a view to obtaining a more realistic overview of the claimant’s experience than that currently recorded in the quality survey?

I will conclude by highlighting the case of a constituent that I think best encapsulates all that is wrong with the current system. The Minister is aware of this case, and he was kind enough to meet me last year to discuss it. Nevertheless, I want to put it on the record because, as I said in response to an intervention, I believe that this example is not atypical of many people’s experiences.

My constituent, who wishes to retain anonymity, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. I am no expert on that condition, and I possess only a rudimentary level of knowledge about the illness. I do know, however, that it is an incurable progressive condition, as I am sure Members are all aware. Like many sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, my constituent has good days and bad days. His condition may deteriorate rapidly, or it may get worse over a long period of time—we do not know. We do know, however, that he will not get better.

Despite his condition, my constituent has undergone two work capability assessments, and on both occasions he was found to be fit for work. On both occasions he appealed the decision and was successful in that appeal. Late last year, however, he was called for yet another assessment. Where is the sense in that? If my constituent has an incurable progressive condition and was found to be unfit for work after his first appeal, why was he called in for a second assessment? If he was found to be unfit for work after the second appeal, why was he called for a third assessment?

I understand the need for the continuous assessment of people with conditions that may improve and mean that the individual in question can return to work, and I accept the principle of regular assessment. Being in receipt of employment and support allowance should not automatically mean that someone is on benefits for life. Nevertheless, common sense must be applied. If an individual is never going to get better, why should we reassess them? It is a waste of my constituent’s time and energy—it takes a considerable amount of energy to get to the assessment and the appeals—and it is a waste of taxpayers’ funds. As we know, the cost to the tribunal service of dealing with appeals is projected to be £60 million this year.

Think of the amount of money that has been spent on that one case. There was the original ESA50 limited capability for work questionnaire, the first assessment and the decision maker’s process after the initial WCA, followed by the first appeal and the necessary post-appeal work that must be carried out by Jobcentre Plus staff. That process was repeated a second—now third—time, and will no doubt be repeated again and again until the Government decide to stop the revolving door of continuous assessment and appeal processes that many people have to undergo. Some people are not going to get better or be any fitter for work after the third assessment than they were after the first or second.

As I have made clear, I believe the work capability assessment to be right in principle but wrong in practice. Although its flaws were clear and highlighted by the pilot process and the Work and Pensions Committee report, the Government went ahead with the nationwide roll-out. I have put a number of questions to the Minister, and I am sure we will hear from many other hon. Members. He should address those questions and not seek to avoid them by laying the blame elsewhere. My constituents, and many people in the country, do not object to an assessment to determine someone’s fitness to work. They do, however, object to a system that seems more concerned with hounding those who cannot work, rather than helping those who want to work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this debate. I have long been concerned with this issue, and it has been raised by the citizens advice bureau in Wigan and by my constituents. The level of accuracy in the work capability assessment reports is staggeringly low. More than one third of local decisions are overturned on appeal, and as my hon. Friend has mentioned, there are long delays to both the initial assessment and the appeal. Worryingly, however, in 60% of decisions overturned on appeal, the claimants scored no points at all in the work capability assessment. In 87% of cases, people were awarded six points or fewer—less than half the number of points required to pass the work capability assessment. We are talking not about margins of error but of assessments that are completely wrong. As more people who previously used reports from medical professionals now have face-to-face interviews, it is more important than ever that such assessments be conducted properly. People must have confidence in the judgment and accuracy of the reports.

One of my constituents came to me last week. He had received his work capability report after a long delay, and the letter consistently referred to an assessment of his leg, claiming that he had no problems. The problem was that all the way through, the letter mentioned the wrong leg. My constituent joked about it and said that he did not have a leg to stand on, but he now needs to appeal that decision with an incorrect report. Confidence in Atos is not high among any of my constituents or the advice agencies to which I speak. I am currently involved in a protracted correspondence with Atos regarding quality standards and how it is mystery shopped. Will the Minister tell the Chamber what mystery shopping takes place, how it happens, and whether there are financial penalties for inaccurate reports? The attitude certainly does not appear to be one of “right first time.” In 2010-11, inquiries about ESA claims and the Atos assessment rose by over 40% in my constituency.

I would like to draw attention to the Citizens Advice report “Right first time?”, which came out in January. There is an in-depth study of cases involving people who had been recruited before they attended the work capability assessment—they had not gone through it, and they were not complaining because it was wrong, so there was no bias. The sample is small because it took quite a lot of in-depth work, and a lot of voluntary advisers helped with it. In all, 37 reports were studied in depth. Sixteen had a serious level of inaccuracy, which meant there were very substantial errors that would have a significant impact on the award of employment and support allowance or disability living allowance. Ten had a medium level of inaccuracy, which meant there were some significant errors that would probably affect the point scoring and potential award of ESA. Only 11 reports had a low level of inaccuracy.

There were five main points of error. There were omissions or incorrect observations. One client, who had really pronounced curvature of the spine and real problems sitting, was marked down as having no problems sitting or standing. There was also incorrect factual recording of medical information. One client said he could not use his left arm at all. He could not dress or shower himself, and his wife helped him. The report said he managed to dress and shower himself, and ESA was refused, but he won on appeal. If the information had been recorded correctly at the first assessment, there would have been no need for that appeal.

Medical evidence has also been inappropriately determined. A client who was registered blind was under a consultant ophthalmologist and had regular sight tests. He said the work capability test was a bit random. The assessor sat there waving cards in front of him at random distances, saying, “Can you see that? What about that one?” That took no account of the fact that the client has regular sight tests with someone who knows him and who is qualified to judge.

Another thing constituents often complain about—this has been mentioned—is the closed questions, the lack of empathy, the incorrect assumptions and the fact that information has not been gathered. Clients who come to me with mental health problems, in particular, say they feel terrorised by the ESA assessment. When they walk into the room, they feel the assumption is that they are trying to cheat the system. Some have said they never want to go for another assessment.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not just the assessment’s inability to assess mental health issues, but the lack of sensitivity that is shown? That causes stress for people who are already under extreme pressure and who are suffering from mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.

I totally agree. I am trying to find out where people go when they are refused ESA as a result of the work capability assessment, and it is quite astonishing that there are no figures. These people do not go on to other benefits, but I cannot find information anywhere about where they do go. Given the experience of my constituents, I believe a lot of people are living off their families because they cannot face going for another assessment.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the work capability assessment is that it makes constituents who receive DLA extremely wary about the move to personal independence payments, because they see the same experience being repeated?

I quite agree. The move to DLA, for which the tests are even more severe, will be a problem for a number of people. The confidence of people who have been through a work capability assessment and who have had to appeal will be at an all-time low when they have to do the same for DLA.

The other issue is that there are inconsistencies in reports. For example, a constituent said he had a hypo attack every week—he was diabetic—but when he received the report, it said he had an attack once a month. The difference meant he did not get enough points for ESA, which he would have done if the report had said he had weekly events of altered state, as opposed to monthly events. He had to appeal that decision.

Although the changes following the independent review were meant to improve the process, the Citizens Advice survey my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned showed that 87% of advisers said the accuracy of Atos reports had not improved. As has been mentioned, there are improvements that might help. The roll-out of audio recording of assessments might help, but what checks will there be on the accuracy of reports? It is no use just recording and keeping assessments if we do not check the accuracy. The summary of the report sent from the health care professional to the claimant might help—if there is sufficient information to help the claimant check the accuracy, if summaries are sent to all claimants and if they are sent in good time.

The Work and Pensions Committee said we need to do more to learn the lessons from the management of the Atos contract and to improve the quality and monitoring of future contracts. There are a number of recommendations in the Citizens Advice report, which I urge the Minister to read. There is deep concern among claimants and advice agencies about the use of face-to-face assessments going ahead for other purposes, such as DLA, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, and personal independence payments.

The clients who went to their citizens advice bureaux are the lucky ones; they got their appeal, they got represented and they got help. Unfortunately, the proposal in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to remove the eligibility of welfare benefits advice for legal aid will mean that the number of advice agencies and individuals able to give such advice will drop, so fewer agencies will be able to help people. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that the work capability assessment system has the confidence of claimants and professionals and that we do get it right first time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for securing the debate and for his tenacity—I think that would be the best word—in pursuing this issue. He has submitted what is probably a record number of parliamentary questions on it, and my constituents and I are grateful for that, because we have seen that someone is taking it seriously and cares passionately about it.

I want to concentrate on a number of issues raised by constituents. They were keen that I should take this opportunity to make representations to the Minister. People often feel that they are on their own and that they are the only ones having particular difficulties. Given what we have heard already, my constituents’ experiences appear to be very similar to those of constituents elsewhere, and I hope the Minister will take account of that.

I want to echo what my hon. Friend said. Neither I nor my constituents have a problem in principle with the notion that someone who is fit and able to work should do so if work is available. Many people with disabilities wish to hold down jobs and they can do so. Other people will require support, adaptations and particular circumstances to enable them to work. The constituents who come to me most frequently about work capability assessments, however, are those with fluctuating and perhaps long-term conditions. They tell me and my caseworker that the work capability assessment report does not accurately reflect their day-to-day experiences. They often say that they feel as if the wrong report has been sent in. They wonder whether people are making generalisations on the basis of their answers to questions.

People with these conditions also make the point that if they are having a good day, they will probably get along to the work capability assessment. However, if they are having one of their bad days, they simply will not be able, in some circumstances, to attend or to cope with the assessment. In addition, people with mental health issues, in particular, tell me that they do not get a fair assessment. They feel that because their condition is apparently invisible the assessor often seems to know little about it.

Of course, there are problems. Chronic but intermittent conditions can mean that claimants sometimes find themselves moved from ESA to jobseeker’s allowance and back to ESA, with all the work capability assessments in between. That leads to real difficulties because people often find themselves with no financial support while DWP processes are under way, with one claim being closed while another is being opened.

The most frequent cause of concern for constituents is apparent inconsistency. In a recent case in my area the maximum 15 points were awarded by the health care professional; that award was overturned by the DWP decision maker. The GP, the hospital consultant and Atos agreed that the person was unfit to work, but the decision maker in the DWP disagreed. In another example from my constituency a man with a progressive and incurable kidney condition, which requires him to undergo surgical operations every six months, was awarded 15 points; but that award was overturned by the decision-maker in the DWP, even though the decision-maker stated in correspondence:

“I am satisfied that the descriptors have been fully justified with clinical findings, observations and extracts taken from the typical day history provided by Mr A. The medical report…was appropriate, complete and covered all the area of incapacity described by Mr A as well as including a comprehensive typical day history and full set of clinical findings.”

We can understand why constituents find it difficult to understand why, when all the medical professionals and, indeed, Atos, appear to agree, someone in the DWP without a medical background apparently can overturn their findings.

I should like the Minister to tell me how many people—and what percentage—he is aware of who, having been awarded that maximum 15 points, have had the award overturned by the DWP decision maker, and how many of those have had appeals upheld. That may be useful for our understanding. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, there is concern about the cost of appeals, and I hope that the Minister will tell us the average cost of an appeal, and how much time is spent processing all the associated paperwork.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. I went to an appeal with someone with ME who scored zero points. She took with her the medical evidence from the experts at the hospital; when the panel looked at it, it was a case of giving it a tick and telling her that of course she was not fit to work. However, those dealing with the form-filling and Atos stage were not prepared to consider it. It seems ludicrous that my constituent must go through the expense and stress of an appeal, and that the expert evidence cannot be considered earlier.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I wanted to give some examples of constituents who have had to appeal. One is a man almost at retirement age who has worked in a manual job since leaving school at 15, who became unfit to work. He requires a tube to be inserted into his gullet so that he can eat and drink. He could not bend forward during the assessment process or when he came to speak to me, because if he did so anything in his stomach would be emptied out; he has no muscular control. Initially he was told that he was fit for work. With our assistance he won his appeal. On the other hand I have another constituent, with a progressively degenerative eye condition, who is registered blind and can just about read a 42 point font, which is fairly large. She lost her appeal. There seem to be different circumstances and different approaches.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. My concern about people who must go to appeal is that they do not get the advice and support they need. People who get it are more likely to succeed in their appeals, but Citizens Advice talks about a threefold increase in impact on its services since the process was introduced. I am sure that many hon. Members have had increased mail in that time.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I do not think that anyone would doubt that there is pressure on advice services. Organisations for individual conditions, such as Parkinson’s UK or the Multiple Sclerosis Society in my area, will talk about their concern that, although they can help so many people, there are others they cannot reach. I know from my case work that more people are coming to me to raise their concerns. They want to be put in touch with advocacy services to help them with appeals; my office cannot take on the job of representing people at every appeal, on account of the numbers involved.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the evidence we have heard today, and our own experiences, the DWP should seriously consider what to do about people with long medical histories of degenerative disease who are continually called in? It seems a complete waste of taxpayers’ money and it is a disgrace that we do that to those people. Will my hon. Friend suggest to the Minister that we might consider some way to exempt such people?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, and I am sure that the Minister is listening. On the point about people with long-term degenerative conditions, another constituent called at my office in great distress, when I happened to be there. The lady could hardly open the door to come in without assistance. She was extremely upset having just had a phone call to tell her she was deemed fit for work. She told me that she had had MS for 20 years. She has poor eyesight, mobility and memory. I was so concerned about her plight that I immediately contacted her GP, who assisted with taking up her case. He subsequently wrote:

“I have today issued Mrs E with a Med 3 for 13 weeks stating she is not fit for work (as she is patently NOT”—

he underlines that—

“fit for work). Like her I have not received any written communication stating that she is fit for work, as I would have expected. She should receive such written confirmation and the way to appeal clearly outlined in that letter. My role is twofold, firstly, to continue to issue a Med 3 (medical statement) and secondly to provide written information for her appeal Tribunal.”

He has done that. I do not think that we can overestimate the stress and worry that that incident has caused my constituent.

The hon. Lady highlights the stress that individuals go through during assessments. Several constituents have visited my surgery to explain how they went through such stress. Does not the assessment have to be fair, both to the individual and to the taxpayer, as has been mentioned? Also, is not the assessment becoming a tick-box exercise with a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take into consideration the fluctuating conditions from which people suffer?

The point about fluctuating conditions is well made. That is exactly the problem. Some people with such conditions, in some circumstances, will be able, with the right support, to hold down employment, but others will not be able to do so, perhaps because of the cycle of their condition or because their mental health is affected. I am concerned that the process in question appears to be a tick-box exercise.

One more example from my case work involved a gentleman who lost a leg and badly damaged the other in a childhood accident. Clearly he suffered as a result of that disability. He was awarded zero points. If the system is to have the confidence of the public and the people being assessed, it must be seen as fair. My constituents tell me that there are so many inconsistencies that they feel that they are not treated fairly, that their individual circumstances are not taken into account, and that the procedure is indeed a tick-box exercise.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution to the debate. The information in question is in the public domain, and part of the problem is that that means people facing the process have no confidence in it. It causes such stress, particularly for people with mental health problems, that it has even driven some to take their own lives. How can that be defended?

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I take such issues seriously. I am very concerned to hear that she is aware of people being driven to such drastic action as taking their own lives. Going by the correspondence and contact that I have with constituents, I can say only that I know just how difficult it is for people, and that many feel they cannot face the appeal process—particularly those who have suffered from a condition for years and who feel that the process is undignified and that they do not get the right help and support, and who perhaps do not know to whom to turn.

I echo everything that my hon. Friend says about the appeals process and the total lack of credibility of Atos. Earlier, she mentioned the systemic problem of DWP officers overruling all of the evidence, even that from Atos. Will the Minister address the fact that many people who are told that they cannot work again are suddenly taken off the support system in the DWP and put on to the other system, thus causing them great problems? They are made to go through rituals of training and work interviews when everyone agrees that they cannot work again. Surely that power should be clearly defined. If someone is told that they cannot work again, DWP officials should not be allowed to overrule that decision.

I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point, which is also one that I raised earlier. As I had concerns about the work capability assessments for people with a range of conditions, I tabled some parliamentary questions in a bid to find out how many people had been assessed in my constituency. I was disappointed to be told that such information could only be provided at a disproportionate cost.

After hearing about the experiences of a number of my constituents, I tabled another parliamentary question to find out how many assessments had been carried out on constituents who had cerebral palsy, osteoporosis, MS, who were registered blind, who had hearing impairments, who were on the autistic spectrum, who were carers themselves and who had learning difficulties or mental health problems. Those are the people who had come to me saying that they had had difficulties with the work capability assessment. Again, I was told that such information was not available at constituency level. I hope that the Minister can respond to that and tell me whether that kind of assessment, analysis and reporting will be available by parliamentary constituency in the future because it is in the interests of transparency and it would enable us to make comparisons across different parts of the country.

Finally, I have a couple of points around the issue of Parkinson’s, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned in his opening remarks. The Parkinson’s Disease Society says that increasing numbers of people with Parkinson’s are being rejected from the support group. Between October 2008 and November 2010, it says that 45% of people with Parkinson’s who had undertaken the work capability assessment were referred to the work-related activity group instead. As an example, the organisation cited the case of one man who was placed in the work-related activity group despite the fact that his tremor was so severe that he could not hold a pen, walk more than a few steps or button up his trousers himself.

The organisation gives examples of people having long waits for appeals and receiving inconsistent or inadequate support in the work-related activity group. It talks about the ESA assessment process impacting disproportionately or inappropriately on other benefits, the worry for carers and the knock-on effect on other statutory services.

The Parkinson’s Disease Society also gives examples of people who are clearly not fit for work being told that they should get work. A 59-year-old man with Parkinson’s says:

“I feel I could work in the right job, with the right support, but none of this has been forthcoming from the job centre, who wished me well but basically said there are no jobs for able-bodied people let alone someone like me. I’m not surprised that only 6% of people in my position get back into work in 12 months. Everything I’ve done to get back into work I've had to off my own bat.”

On the one hand, we have people who say that they want to work and to cope with their condition and feel that they can do so but who are getting no help, and on the other we have those who feel that they are being hounded. That is not the sign of a caring, compassionate and decent system. I hope that the Minister will take account of what Citizens Advice and others have said and that he will not make this a party political issue. There is agreement across all parts of the House that this system is not working in the way that it should. I hope that in his response, the Minister will consider making some changes and give us some hope for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Williams. I am following a very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). In securing this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) has done a great service not just to the House but to the many thousands of people in the country who are affected by the issues. I had a number of points that I wanted to make, but as others still want to contribute, I will restrict my comments to two specific problems with the work capability assessment that arise from my constituency.

My first concern relates to people with sensory impairments. In particular, I want to raise an issue that was brought to my attention by a constituent with a visual impairment. In fact, I raised this case in a parliamentary question with a Minister a few months ago because my constituent was having problems filling in the ESA50 form through the audio systems available to people with visual impairment. After months of difficulties, which I do not have time to go into today, it turns out that my constituent may not have actually needed to go through this process because in November, the DWP changed the criteria by which people are allocated to an ESA support group. I am told that the new rules mean that someone with a hearing or a visual impairment could qualify for a place in a support group, whereas between April and November, the position was that someone had to have both a hearing and a visual impairment to qualify for the support group. That has certainly caused my constituent a great deal of concern. By giving her the wrong guidance, she felt that the DWP had sent her down the wrong road for months.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I will respond to all the detailed questions in my remarks. On this specific point, there have been no changes to the rules around referrals. There were no changes in November. We have updated our guidance, which we do as a matter of routine, but there have been no changes to the formal rules.

I understand what the Minister is saying, but the guidance was updated to reflect some of the difficulties that had been raised. The view of the Royal National Institute of Blind People is that Atos may well have been wrongly assessing people between April and November. That may have been the fault not of Atos, but of the incorrect guidance. Will the Minister tell us how many people were wrongly assessed and why there was a need to issue new guidance? Why was my constituent required to go along a road which she did not need to, given the fact that new guidance was issued?

My second point covers the position of people with mental illness, which has been raised by a number of colleagues in this debate. I refer to a report produced by the Consultation and Advocacy Promotion Service, which is an independent advocacy organisation that operates from Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian. The report describes the experience of people with mental health problems going through the work capability assessment process. Again, if time had been available, I would have gone into great detail. Instead, I will simply report its main conclusions.

The work capability assessment for employment and ESA is not designed to assess accurately the needs of people with mental health conditions. It causes a high level of stress and anxiety in people with mental health conditions and, in some cases, it may even make their condition worse. It does not cater for fluctuating conditions, nor does it accurately record how those conditions affect people’s ability to work. That is an experience that many Members will have heard about in their surgeries. I hope, following the Harrington review, that we will see some improvements in that area.

Finally, we are all experiencing these difficulties because of the way in which the process was hurriedly rolled out across the country. We will face, over the next few months and years, even more dramatic changes to the whole welfare system. If we do not learn from the mistakes that we have made so far, we will find that the problems relating to the work capability assessment process are repeated many times throughout the country. Many more people will suffer. Many more people who could get into work might not be able to because they will not be given the support. Many people who will not be able to get into work will be driven to desperation because of the difficulties that they will face. At the end of day, it will also cost the public purse much more money, which none of us wants to see happening.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are not trying to make political points. It is not a political issue; we raise it because we hear from our constituents in our surgeries throughout the country every week and we want action. Opposition Members would certainly be beating down the door of a Labour Minister if we were in government and there were the same kind of problems. We need action and assurance. We certainly do not need complacency from the Minister and I sincerely hope that we do not get it in his reply today.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for introducing the debate and I thank other hon. Members for the way they have spoken on behalf of their constituents on an issue of genuine national interest. We could all, across parties, cite chapter and verse on the people who come to our surgeries and citizens advice bureaux who have been made desperate by the system’s failings. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made the point that if the same situation occurred under a Labour Administration—the Minister has inherited some of this, but the national roll-out before we have solved the problems is a significant issue—we would say the same thing to a Labour Minister: how do we change this to make it work?

I have not only seen constituents, but have regularly been to appeals and seen Atos do assessments as well. I have seen the process first hand all the way through, not only when the constituent arrives in my office and says, “What is happening? Why is my life being destroyed for months while my benefits are suspended? I’m taken off benefits and then seven months later, my appeal goes through successfully, along with a huge proportion of others.” I have seen the process, and as a former Minister who was previously employed in private industry looking at systems management, I can tell the Minister that this is not working. There is a genuine issue and the process and procedures are not fit for purpose—it is so damn obvious when there is this number of successful appeals.

The underlying principle that the Minister must work with is compassion, and we would support him in that, but the system lacks compassion. It has to be fair to both taxpayers—a point made earlier—and those who are going through the process. There are people who are unable to elucidate their circumstances fully when they fill in a form and who are not going to give 101% when they sit in front of somebody tapping into a computer keyboard without making eye contact. There are doctors who will not spend 15 minutes filling in the long narrative history of a medical condition that would lead to the right decision in the first place. Therefore, when people fill in the form for the first time, the vast majority do not fill it in in the detail needed. It is a tick-box exercise, and people have a lot of fear and misunderstanding over that. They tend to come to us, as MPs, after they have failed and are going in for the interview. We say to them, “Take someone in with you, because at least then they can give you some support and guidance.”

The system must be based on compassion, and at the moment, it is not. I say that because I have seen the Atos procedure and the interview, and interestingly, even though I went into the office in Bridgend to see it, I was not allowed to sit and watch an interview, even if somebody was willing, but I could see the appeals. The staff were very kind and as informative as they could be. I was allowed to watch an abbreviated recording of a mock-up interview, in which we saw minimal eye contact, because there cannot be eye contact when someone is tapping away at a keyboard and asking, “How did you get here today? Oh, so you did that,” and then goes on to the next question and the next. It is completely different from the panel. I was allowed to sit and watch it taking place for three hours, with four people—lay people, someone from a medical background and someone from a legal or judicial background—genuinely dealing with individuals with compassion.

I shall give the Minister an illustration of what should be happening to cut the cost for the taxpayer further downstream. A young chap walked in and sat down looking completely healthy. He was in his early 20s. He had someone with him, as one should have at an appeal. The panel started asking him questions. He looked completely fit. “Do you go out with your friends?” “Yeah, I go out with my friends.” “Do you socialise regularly?” “Yeah, I tend to go out every Friday night.” Based on those kinds of questions and the fact that he could walk a certain distance, that guy had been declared completely fit for work. When a gentleman on the appeal panel asked him where he lived, he replied, “Merthyr.” The panel just happened to know Merthyr. “Where do you go out in Merthyr?” “Town centre.” “When you go out socialising with your friends on a Friday night, where do you go? Do you go to clubs?” “No, we don’t do that. We just mooch around town.” “Where do you go?” “We get off the bus and walk right to the centre of town.” “How far is that?” “From the bus to the town centre is about 50 yards.” “I know Merthyr quite well, so do you then go to the rugby field?” “No, I don’t.” “Why not?” “Because if I walk more then 50 yards, I not only get out of breath, but collapse with the condition I have.” None of that detail comes out in the initial stages. I am not saying that we have to flip the process round completely, but its lack of compassion, tick-box nature, lack of fairness to the taxpayer in allowing costs to escalate down the chain and to the individual, and the concerns over good decision making and managerial process mean that it simply is not working.

My message to the Minister is straightforward. The worst thing in the debate would be for him to go into denial or to say that the system is bedding in or just needs a bit of tweaking. There are fundamental issues with the design of the process, and the number of appeals that are successful when the right information is in place and the sheer superficiality of the initial contact with Atos show that the system is not working. I note the earlier comments about whether Atos follows procedures correctly. Whether the problems are inherited or caused by the new work capability assessment or by the national roll-out, the procedures at the Atos end are simply wholly inadequate.

The Minister could save the taxpayer a lot of money if he got this right. He could save a lot of angst and worry, not only for those with fluctuating conditions, sensory impairment or other needs, but for those who are genuinely trying to be honest and fair about their condition and those who want to work if they are fairly assessed. At the moment there is a terror of going through the process. When people come to my office now, I cannot give them a lot of hope, as an MP, about fairness in the system.

My hon. Friends have mentioned the statistics and the national analysis by Citizens Advice and others. As much as the press loves to scaremonger and paint pictures that vilify some of these people and their “scrounger mentality”—“Get them back into work!”—there are many people who want to get back to work and many others who are being unfairly put through pain and anguish when they should not be, such as those suffering from long-term conditions.

Redesign the system, so that it has compassion and is expert-led at the gateway, and improve communication between the Departments. Do not go into denial. This is not a matter of blame. We do not blame the Minister, but we will if he does not solve the problem, because it is now on his watch. We will applaud him if he can turn this round, because we also want people back in work. The great innovation was to turn the system round to take the emphasis away from incapacity and towards capacity—what can people do? There is cross-party support for that, but the changes must be driven with compassion and fairness all the way through. At the moment, the system is wasteful, inexpert and, in terms of processes and management, shot full of holes. Please make it fit for purpose and we will be here in six months applauding you.

Order. I have no power whatsoever to make it fit for purpose. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks should be directed to the Minister.

I am conscious of the time, Mr Williams, so I will be as brief as I can. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate and I encourage him to try to secure another debate later in the year, because the process is ongoing, will involve more people, and more issues such as those we have heard about today will come forward. The opportunity to bring such matters to the Minister’s attention is important. We are dealing with the human consequences of failures in a bureaucratic, state-driven system—in this case, incapacity benefit. Similarly, many hon. Members have seen the failures of the immigration system, and its human consequences for our constituents and for people around the country.

In my constituency, I have had the experience of the fit for work tests being piloted in the Burnley benefits centre. There has been an extreme improvement through the pilot scheme to where we are now. There is more we can do, but I echo my hon. Friend’s thoughts about waiting for the completion of the process before we pass judgment.

I appreciate that intervention from my hon. Friend.

I would like to place in context some of the concerns we have heard about; first, about being assessed. It is quite natural to expect people to have concerns, as we are making a significant change to people’s lives. In many comments, the issue has not been a generic concern relating to assessment, but a concern about specific types of conditions and cases. Will the Minister confirm that for every 100 assessments, nine people who are found to be fit for work go on to win their appeal? That means there are 91 people who fit into another category.

One fluctuating condition that has not been mentioned is alcoholism, and people who have chronic, long-term alcoholic conditions. One constituent who came to see me had his papers from assessments in the 1990s. Will the Minister provide confirmation on that?

Although it does not relate directly to the debate, part of work capability assessment is that there is then work. In today’s conditions, what can the Minister say will be on his agenda to try to encourage some of these people into work at the end of their assessments? There is much more I would like to say, but because of the time I have to stop there.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate. We have heard some important and telling points.

As we have heard, the previous Labour Government introduced the work capability assessment as part of the change from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. Incapacity benefit did not help people with long-term sickness or disability back into a job. In fact, in 1997, the vast majority of people in receipt of incapacity benefit were simply abandoned; in many cases having been encouraged to move on to that benefit to reduce headline unemployment.

We started, experimentally, with the new deal for disabled people, which was a striking innovation at the time. I am pleased that the Minister has sought to build on the lessons of that programme, and from pathways to work which followed, into the new Work programme, and the ESA was the next step in that process. The WCA was designed to look at applicants’ functionality, and to assess whether each applicant was fit to return to work, fit to undertake work-related activity, or not fit for either.

Atos was contracted in 2005 for seven years. The current Government opted to extend the contract for a further three years in November 2010—the contract now runs until 2015—and will soon need to decide whether to take up the option to continue the contract to 2017. That decision needs to be influenced by the kind of experiences that we have heard about in the debate.

It is clear that the system has been overloaded. There needs to be change for it to function properly, so we support fully the implementation of the first Harrington review and much of the second. We regret that the Government pressed ahead with implementing the Department’s internal review last year, given the widespread consternation about the findings of that review. We were particularly concerned by one aspect of Professor Harrington’s second review, which proposed that some cancer patients, who until then had been exempted from a WCA, should no longer be exempted. Macmillan Cancer Support was concerned that that would put greater stress on cancer patients when they ought to be concentrating on recovery. It was a particularly frustrating development for everyone. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us this morning—if not this morning, then in the debate in the House this afternoon—that there will be something of a climbdown on that point.

I am anxious to ensure that the Minister has the time to answer fully the points that have been put to him, so will shorten my remarks. We have still to hear—apart from the point about cancer patients—about a number of other proposed changes that the two WCA reviews have recommended. What is being done on the new descriptors that cover fluctuating conditions—on which we have heard a good deal in the debate—and mental health conditions? There have been some helpful recommendations on those. When will the results of the pilots on recording assessments be released and responded to by the Government—a point also made in the debate?

It is worrying to hear that capacity pressures are restricting the ability of Atos to implement the Harrington recommendations. There needs to be better communication between Atos health care professionals and decision makers in the Department for Work and Pensions if we are to reduce the number of mistakes made in WCAs and the current, astonishingly high number of successful appeals.

I should like to draw attention to an issue that has not yet been raised and is a practical consequence of the problems and delays in the WCA system. The DWP recently revised its estimates of the number of people receiving ESA who will go into the Work programme, which the Government introduced in June. The forecast of the number of people going into the Work programme has been reduced dramatically, and the bottleneck in the WCA seems to be a major part of the explanation. Will the Minister comment on that? It is one of the key reasons why a number of small voluntary sector providers, which are contracted to the Work programme, are now at risk. Groups with specialist expertise to help people with particular health problems are receiving far fewer referrals—therefore, a far lower income—than they were encouraged by the Government to expect. In some cases, they have had no referrals at all since the Work programme started in June. Some are saying that they will have real trouble staying in business at all.

Problems with the WCA, as we have heard, could turn into a serious loss of capacity in the voluntary sector. People then left with no specialist help available would be in a worse position still. How will the Minister ensure that the WCA is refined? When will he introduce the changes that have been called for by charities and Professor Harrington? What assessment has he made of the capacity of Atos to implement those improvements? Will some of Professor Harrington’s recommendations not be implemented, as has been suggested, because of the capacity pressures in the system?

Ministers have defended their decisions about the welfare system on the basis of the need to save money. However, it is very important, particularly for Ministers in this Department, not only that they are saving money, but that the system that they are responsible to Parliament for is working fairly. All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate are absolutely right to highlight the fact that, with this part of the system, there is a long way to go.

Let me be absolutely clear—particularly in relation to the comments made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), who proposed the debate, and the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—that we are trying to do the right thing. We are trying to identify people with the potential to go back to work and provide them with the help to do so. Sometimes, those people will have a health condition—in the United Kingdom, 7 million people with a health condition are in work—so the number of points that people receive in the work capability assessment does not automatically mean that they do or do not have a health condition. The judgment is all about helping people return to work, perhaps in different roles. Their health condition might prevent them doing what they did before, but that does not mean that there is nothing they can do.

I approach this debate in a non-partisan spirit, but I want to explain the time lines to hon. Members, so that they understand exactly where we are in the process. In June 2010, 18 months ago, prompted partly by a report from Citizens Advice but also by concerns such as those raised by hon. Members, I asked Professor Harrington to take a careful look at a process that was already well under way. Employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment were established in 2008. The work capability assessment had been working since 2008. Statistics on the growth of appeals matched the flow of new claimants into ESA and worked down to some change 18 months ago, but I was unhappy that the process did not seem to be right, so Professor Harrington went away, reported in November 2010—interestingly, the date at the end of the period that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) mentioned when she quoted the Parkinson’s statistics—and made several recommendations to us.

The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) made a point about pilots and roll-outs. Crucially, we did not simply pilot the work capability assessment and then start it. At that time, the questions that we were addressing were whether we could sort out the process and whether we should go ahead and roll out incapacity benefits, which would increase the number of people going through the work capability assessment.

Professor Harrington went away and made his recommendations to us, which we accepted in full and have implemented. He told me, “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.” We set ourselves a goal to put his recommendations in place, improve the quality of the process and address many of the issues to which hon. Members have referred today by the end of last May, when the assessments in the incapacity benefit reassessment were to start alongside the existing process of assessing ESA new claimants. We did that, and we started.

I have heard a lot today about the number of people who have sat through appeals and the number of cases overturned. It is crucial for hon. Members to understand this. I am almost certainly right in saying—I could not swear to being absolutely, 100% right, because there may be a small number of exceptions—that since the Harrington changes were introduced last summer, not a single appeal has been completed. Therefore, all the examples cited today that relate to the appeals process refer to what took place before the Harrington changes to the system that we inherited, which I accept was not doing the job as it should have done. I want everyone to understand that.

As a result of the Harrington changes, we tried to create a more humane, careful and thoughtful system. We have sought to change systems to provide greater protection to those with long-term problems. The right hon. Member for East Ham referred to the internal review that his Government carried out and that we implemented in the belief that it would increase the size of the support group—those who receive long-term unconditional support—and that is what has happened. We believe that the changes that we have introduced will lead to more people receiving long-term support.

One issue that I raised with the Minister was that of people turning up for appointments and being turned away because they were double-booked. My constituents who were part of the pilot scheme travel, on average, three or four hours to get to and from an assessment. To be turned away when they have had to rely to get there on family and friends who have taken time off work is a real problem. The Minister has apologised to one of my constituents, but has the policy of triple-booking appointments been changed?

A situation in which people are treated like that can never be acceptable. Of course, we have an issue with some people not turning up to appointments, and because it is an intensive programme, we do not want a health care professional sitting there without anything to do. Sometimes, we will get it wrong. We will try hard not to, but there is no such thing as a perfect system. That is true of all parts of the system. I openly accept that we will sometimes get it wrong, but we have done everything that we can to create a system that gets it right as often as possible. We have changed the nature of the work capability assessment in the process.

We make a much greater effort to ensure that we have proper medical evidence at each stage of the process from the consultants and specialists working with the people concerned. One reason why so many appeals were successful was that new evidence was emerging only at the appeal stage. We have worked hard to ensure that such evidence comes in much earlier in the process, so if we get it wrong in Jobcentre Plus, we will get new evidence there at a point of reconsideration. That is a crucial change. We are now ensuring that we seek out additional information in Jobcentre Plus before we take the first decision, but we have bolstered the reconsideration process to make it much quicker and more straightforward, so that if we get it wrong the first time, people can get a quick second opinion in Jobcentre Plus. That is crucial to getting the process right.

I will not take interventions, because I have only five minutes and must get through a lot.

We have also tried to make the process more humane. People now get phone calls instead of the generated, standard letters that I regard as impersonal and inhuman. All our measures are part of a process of change that I hope will make a real difference to individuals’ experiences—and it is. Indeed, in his second report, Professor Harrington praises those involved in the process for creating a system that he, as an independent figure, regards as much improved.

As constituency MPs, we will always have people coming to our doors saying, “I am being done wrong by,” because sometimes, in an imperfect system, we will not have got it right. Equally, however, some people will still think that we have done wrong by them, but three years later, when they are back in work, they will say that it was the best thing that ever happened to them.

About a month ago, I sat with a woman in a Work programme centre who said that she had been off work with chronic depression for 13 years. She told me that she had arrived on her first day in the Work programme and said, “I can’t possibly work. This is ridiculous. I don’t know why I am here. I am being traduced.” A month later, she was doing voluntary work in a charity shop, applying for jobs and beginning to say, “Actually, this is good.” We are taking people through a difficult period in their lives.

I said “rubbish” to the final comment made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West not because he is not raising genuine issues—although I hope that I have explained their context—but because the system is not about forcing people into work. It is about finding the right number of people whom we can help into work. The alternative is to leave them on benefits for the rest of their lives, doing nothing. I do not believe that they benefit from that.

I was making the point that, given the lack of confidence in the system, many people feel as though they are being hounded rather than helped. That is the crucial matter that must be addressed in the coming period.

I accept that, but I genuinely hope that hon. Members will take note of what I said about the time lines and the changes that we have introduced. Professor Harrington said of the concerns highlighted in the Citizens Advice report to which hon. Members referred, “This happened before my changes.” I hope that we can send the message that the system is changing and improving and that we are making genuine efforts and will continue to do so. That is why we changed the guidance in November. It is a process of continuous improvement. We want to get it right as far as we possibly can.

I shall try to answer one or two specific questions before I finish. On audio recording, we will offer everyone who wants it the opportunity to have their session recorded. We decided not to implement universal recording because, based on the trial experience, people did not want it. Few people wanted their sessions recorded, and some said that they definitely did not. We decided therefore to offer recording as an option to those who want it. That seems entirely sensible.

Contact between Atos health care professionals and decision makers will be done by telephone. What matters is not the contact between a single person and a block of decision makers, but trying to phone up the decision maker themselves. On capacity issues, as we stand here today, the incapacity benefit reassessment is on time. New claims for ESA have fallen a bit behind, mostly because of the introduction of the personalised statement following Professor Harrington’s report. We discovered in the first few weeks that it took health care professionals much longer to complete the statement than expected, so the number of completed assessments dropped. That has changed. They have caught up again, and we are chasing through to clear the backlog, as we are doing with the appeals backlog that we inherited.

Finally, the right hon. Member for East Ham asked about the Work programme. Incapacity benefit reassessments are progressing according to time. The biggest impact on numbers in the programme has been created by the different mix of people coming through and the bigger support group. I am quite relaxed about having a bigger support group, because if we need to provide long-term unconditional support to a larger group of people than we had expected, it shows that we are making a genuine effort to get it right and are being sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. We want to help them into work, but we want to do it in the right way.

Micro-combined Heat and Power

I have been here before—who can forget my seminal Management of Energy in Buildings Bill, a private Member’s Bill in 2005, which, among other things, tried to promote deemed permission for domestic microgeneration, or my proposed new clauses to the 2008 and 2010 Energy Bills on plans for the development of micro-combined heat and power and passive flue gas recovery schemes? I am afraid that the blank looks of those present seem to answer that question, but I am here to have another go.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his contribution and congratulate him on securing this important debate and commend his expertise. I assure him that he did not receive a blank look from me—he has been a path-breaker on this issue and is leading the way once again.

I thank my right hon. Friend for ruining my opening statement about the incomprehensibility of my previous arguments, but I am grateful to him for his support and cognisance.

I am armed today with substantially better prospects than at any stage hitherto as far as micro-CHP is concerned. What is micro-CHP and why am I so exercised about it? Put simply, it is a rather prosaic technology which, while it will probably not induce conversation at dinner parties, is potentially important for all of us, because most of us possess something that looks remarkably like a micro-CHP unit—namely, a boiler. So this is about boilers.

Members will remember how a previous boiler revolution—in which I was pleased to have had a hand in developing revised building regulations—has probably been responsible for reducing more domestic CO2 emissions than virtually any other measure of recent years. I am talking of the specification in building regulations that condensing boilers should be installed in homes. That measure was implemented in 2005 and changed the face of boiler installation in the UK. Within a year, more than 85% of new boilers installed were condensing. They were 20% more efficient than traditional boilers, saving about 15% of gas consumption as a result.

A micro-CHP boiler goes into a kitchen or on a wall in exactly the same way as a standard boiler. It also heats the house and provides hot water in the same way, but it is powered by a Stirling engine, a Rankine cycle or—this will be the case in the near future—a fuel cell boiler, all of which are efficient and produce electricity alongside their heating duties. A typical domestic installation produces, effortlessly and alongside the normal heating of the household, about 1 kW of electricity, so it might generate 10 kW of electricity over a winter’s day of heating, which is equivalent to the output of a 3 kW solar installation on a sunny day.

Micro-CHP boilers have been promising for some years. The Stirling engine was invented in 1815 and has been promising since then. Indeed, I first visited the site of the then EcoGen boiler plant in Peterborough in 2002 and was told that the product was about two years from market, but it was not, and nor were other micro-CHP plants, and I think that some people have lost a little faith in the products over the years. Now, however, very efficient micro-CHP boilers are on the market. They work well and are coming down in price with larger-scale production. I visited Ceres Power in Surrey during the autumn. It is developing an even more efficient fuel cell boiler and I am confident that it will come to market in the near future. The products are now there and, if we have the imagination, are set for the second boiler revolution.

The simplicity of such a revolution has already been demonstrated. People will have boilers in their homes for the long-term foreseeable future. What is more, about 1.5 million boilers break down or retire and are replaced every year, so it is not difficult to see that, if future building regulations favour micro-CHP boilers as replacements, that would happen not with a great deal of fuss or with many lifestyle magazine articles, but with a further leap forward for domestic energy sustainability, which we will have to work on urgently over the next few years, as the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), is well aware, with the emergence of the green deal and the energy company obligation.

The potential of 1 million boilers installed by 2020 is, on any reckoning, considerable. Not only would that level of installation generate about 20 GW of electricity on a typical winter’s day—which is about equivalent to what we import via interconnectors on any given day—but 1 million householders would save considerable sums on electricity through self-generation, for which there is considerable appetite, as suggested by the upsurge in solar photovoltaic installations. Micro-CHP-generated electricity is eminently compatible with solar PV, because we would generate far greater amounts of electricity at precisely those times of year when solar PV generates least.

The second boiler revolution could act just as dramatically in reducing emissions. Even if those 1 million boilers replace older condensing boilers, rather than non-condensing models, after a 10-year life, they would generate a saving of more than 2 million tonnes of CO2, which is about half the total estimated CO2 savings that the Committee on Climate Change has pencilled in by 2020 for the results of greater efficiency in household appliances. That would be a dramatic contribution to emissions abatement.

The heating and hot water taskforce produced the “Heating and Hot Water Pathways to 2020” report last year. It underlines the potential and relative straightforwardness of the revolutionary path:

“Since it is a boiler replacement the route to market is already well established. With over 1.5 million gas boilers installed in UK homes each year (most of which are replacements) the potential market is huge. Also as a direct boiler replacement there is likely to be less installer and consumer resistance compared with other low carbon technologies.

MicroCHP has been said to have the greatest mass market potential of any emerging low carbon domestic microgeneration solution. Studies have shown that microCHP could displace as much as 90% of existing boiler sales.”

That is the ambition that we could set ourselves.

I have given the sunny uplands vision, which will be generated, possibly, by nothing more than a stroke of a pen on a building regulation during the next few years.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the sunny uplands, is not another of their aspects the fact that a lot of the technology’s development has taken place in this country, so, as well as its environmental benefits, it has industrial and employment benefits? We do not want this to be another industry in which breakthrough developments happen in this country, only for the commercial exploitation to go abroad.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point, although I am slightly worried that he may have broken into my office and looked at my speech, because I am about to address that precise, important point on this clutch of technologies and their developers.

After the sunny uplands, we have to look at the reality, which is somewhat different. The industry has, on few resources, determinedly placed itself in a position in which it can supply reliable boilers over the next few years to the quantity that I have sketched out, and in so doing substantially reduce the cost differential between micro-CHP and conventional boilers. As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the UK industry is a world leader on the technologies.

The UK is a world leader in all sorts of microgeneration. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that SEaB Energy on Southampton university’s science park is generating micro-power in shipping containers? That might not be on the domestic scale of boilers, but it is proof that in the UK we are world leaders at coming up with innovative ideas and working out how we can generate power on a small and sustainable scale.

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. Indeed, the Southampton university science park is the base for leadership of a number of innovations in microtechnology, renewables and wave and tidal power. I am familiar with a number of the developments that are taking place there. It is a good plus for both our constituencies that that science park is producing such good work in the area of microgeneration.

The wider deployment of micro-CHP could, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said, be beneficial for UK jobs. My colleague and next-door parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), has alluded to the fact that micro-CHP is very good for development and technological advances. The problem with our world lead in these technologies is the fact that, in truth, not many boilers have been deployed yet. Indeed, the initial results of the inclusion of micro-CHP boilers with the feed-in tariff programme last year—a pilot of 30,000 micro-CHP boilers was reviewed after the first 12,000 installations—have been less than sweeping, with only about 200 FITs payments taking place so far within that pilot.

However, that has to be set against the background of the very modest FITs payments allowed for micro-CHP: only 10.5p, along with a 3.1p export tariff. The figure of 10.5p is close to the starting marginal cost element considered to be generic for all renewables of 9p. That is the equivalent of support for large wind resources and is way below the 5% or so return on investment that is considered to be the sort of level that will attract investment decisions among householders and small businesses.

Of course, although micro-CHP is energy and climate efficient, it does not qualify for the renewable heat incentive as far as heat production is concerned for the obvious reason that, all other things considered, it is not fuelled by renewable energy. However, of course, it could be supplied in the form of biogas on an off-grid basis. I am not sure whether the Department would, in those circumstances, accept that micro-CHP would qualify both for RHI and FITs, but I imagine that that is a debate for another day. The fact of the matter is that a technology and an industry that can do great things are now waiting. The sector needs the confidence and future intent to enable it to scale up to the levels needed to produce a large intervention in the UK’s boiler landscape at a price that will eventually be at or close to those of more established boiler installations.

In the meantime, the industry needs some assistance in kick-starting—for example, the 30,000 installation pilot limit could be removed, so that there can be investment in a mass rather than a niche future. The allocation of a feed-in tariff of perhaps 15p per kWh would, along with the export tariff, enable a return even on present prices of about 5% to be achieved. I am confident that that allocation would be short-lived, especially if the Minister were to use his powers of persuasion to convince his counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government that a revision of part L of the building regulations in a few years’ time is appropriate. At that point, I imagine that no feed-in tariff support would be needed or necessary.

I hope that the Minister will be able to provide me with some positive encouragement for these very modest proposals in respect of micro-CHP, not least because, if he is not able to do so, I will have to come back and say it all over again. He will therefore have the pleasure of going through all this again—by the way, that is not a threat.

I am concerned that, if no early support and encouragement is given to micro-CHP, someone else will take it off our hands and we will not have the presence, the technical imagination and the investment capacity of the hard-won position our industry is now in. That will have gone or withered and we will be playing catch up. We need that support to come now. We are talking about an extremely modest investment by the Government—perhaps 2% of the FITs budget up to 2015, or far less than that if there is some clever management of the FITs budget. That 2% or less would have a potentially enormous payback for householders and Great Britain plc alike.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) for initiating the debate. He has unrivalled expertise and parliamentary experience in this sector. I am delighted that my name will be linked to his long crusade going back over a decade on behalf of these technologies.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s excitement and belief in this technology. When I was in opposition, I began considering the issue of decentralised energy and its potential to be part of our carbon reduction transformation. This technology has the potential to engage consumers in the energy sector and make them more self-reliant and more conscious of their consumption. It can also provide the opportunity to export. All of those things are good. If we can get micro-CHP right, it can play a far larger role in driving the decentralised energy revolution that we want to see—perhaps even more so than some of the other technologies that are sometimes considered to be more glamorous and are grabbing the headlines. Not every home in Britain can have a solar photovoltaic panel on its roof or be in the right place, but very few homes would not benefit from a micro-CHP.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been frustrated by the lack of progress and the missed deadlines for the introduction of a wide, scalable, consumer-friendly roll-out. When I was retrofitting my home in 2006-07, I was very keen to get one of the new micro-CHP boilers. Among all the other interventions I was making on my house, it was the one piece of kit that I was really keen to get. It took more than a year to do the retrofit. During that time, we were constantly promised that the boiler would be arriving and it never came. In fact, I left the house as I no longer lived there and, in all that time, it never came—despite being tantalisingly close to getting one and having seen the model.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we need the industry to respond. I recognise that there is a clear role for Government leadership. I can understand the reactions of the industry to investing in innovation, research and development to bring micro-CHP boilers to market, not just as an interesting gadget or as an alternative method of delivery, but as an attractive, price-competitive alternative to taking electricity from the grid or installing a conventional boiler.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the condensing boiler revolution is a great unsung part of our success during the past decade at reducing our carbon emissions. I do not have the figures to hand, but I am sure that he is right. That fairly simple intervention of jump-starting or pushing forward an advance in relatively simple technology had a massive impact. As a result of him having reminded me of that, I will go away and think about whether we have that transformational push in our current policy landscape, with its focus on feed-in tariffs and heat tariffs as a means of pulling through with its very expensive 25-year tail. Is that necessarily the universal panacea that we need?

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that we are not committed to providing a feed-in tariff for combined heat and power, because we absolutely are. We are consulting on tariff levels and I will be publishing our proposed levels very shortly—within a matter of days. I will be introducing a new tariff proposal for CHP. Unlike in almost all the other technologies, I will be looking to raise the tariff in those proposals. I do not think that I will be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman’s demand for 15p, but I am considering raising the tariff.

I have to be honest about the tariff. It is difficult, in the current climate, to make the argument for swimming against the tide, when some other technologies are facing substantial tariff reductions. We are constantly demanding that they deliver greater value for money to the consumer. We are putting any form of subsidy under close scrutiny in the light of the impacts on people’s bills. That is warranted in respect of micro-CHP. The role of the feed-in tariff is not to provide a long, indefinite subsidy to particular technologies. If there is never any hope of a particular technology being able to deploy without subsidy in a reasonable time frame, it is hard to make the case for our subsidising that technology rather than others.

If micro-CHP can scale up, that represents potential. However, it is unlike other technologies. The hon. Gentleman is right. There are other policy levers apart from feed-in tariffs, which are a useful signal, and, let us face it, we have that policy tool in our hand now and we should not ignore its potential, but we may need to come back to other policy levers if the feed-in tariff alone does not send a strong enough signal.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s ambition for the mass deployment of CHP. If we can get that technology to gain customer acceptance and if the industry can come forward, his ambition of 1 million boilers by 2020 is something that we should think about. The industry needs to hear that message. I should like to test that ambition to find out whether it is credible and feasible. I do not want to posit another number and see the same level of progress as in the previous decade.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Back in 2002 there was lots of talk about the potential roll-out. The first phase of the feed-in tariff scheme for micro-CHP has been beyond disappointing. The number of boilers is almost non-existent: a fraction. We set the 30,000 limit, worried that there would be a surge of deployment, but there has been 1% of that.

I am mindful that we need to revisit Government support and leadership. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in this Minister, there is someone who is interested in this agenda. That is why I set up the distributed energy contact group, which involves all the key players on combined heat and power and decentralised energy. I want to embed that in policy thinking at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, not just in response to one idea, but building on the success of our microgeneration strategy last week, for example, when we had terrific buy-in from stakeholders throughout the sector. I want to build that now and ensure that decentralised energy is right at the heart of thinking in the Department, which—let us be honest—in the past has tended to gravitate to larger-scale energy solutions. We all know that; it is not a secret.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, under the coalition, we are trying to be more permissive with our ideas in considering the potential of a range of technologies. I am personally committed to driving the decentralised agenda—not just introducing more competition in large-scale generation, but introducing viable consumer models that will work at distributed and microgeneration level.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it will be a challenge to decarbonise heat and electricity in homes. It is a big challenge that we will have to tackle on a number of fronts. There is no silver bullet that will allow us to do that. A lot of attention is on the solar PV industry, which takes a significant amount of subsidy—more than 90% of the feed-in tariff budget. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is an attractive technology. The way that it is going, from being the most expensive technology, is exciting. Rapidly falling costs mean that it could reach grid parity, potentially, even within this Parliament at larger scale and, certainly, for the consumer within the decade, and could be cost-competitive with other large-scale renewables within a year or two. The price falls are exciting. However, it is not the only technology out there.

In respect of the carbon footprint, when retrofitting my home I was as keen as mustard to install solar PV, because apart from a micro-CHP sticking some PV panels on is the other whizzy, exciting thing that can be done. Arup surveyed my house, before the feed-in tariff had come in, and it was made clear to me that that was the least cost-effective thing that I could do if I was serious about reducing the carbon footprint.

There is a clear hierarchy when considering reducing the carbon footprint and improving the efficiency of a home. It has to start with energy efficiency, which is why the green deal will put a big emphasis, and a new push, not just on cavity wall and loft insulation, but on whole-house retrofits, including solid walls, windows, doors and the range of interventions to improve the total envelope of the building. After that, renewable heat must be considered and then microgeneration. It is in that order that we should prioritise subsidy, leadership and interventions.

I am encouraged by the Minister’s positive commitments. Is not another advantage of micro-CHP that it will supply most electricity at the times of peak demand for electricity, which is not always so with alternative technology?

That is a good point. It is on tap, which is the benefit of it.

I am excited by the innovation that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test mentioned. Traditionally, a lot of the CHP boilers have needed a high heat load—a 5:1 ratio in terms of heat and electricity—but some of the new hydrogen models offer almost a 1:1 ratio. I am not the expert on that; the hon. Gentleman is. It would be a much more attractive proposition for people if they could use such a boiler in the summer, when they are not using their heat load except for hot water, or in the winter when only using a marginal heat load because they have taken all steps to insulate their home to a much higher level.

Developments in CHP now mean that, rather than just having a marginal by-product of a large heat load, it can offer an exciting balance between heat, which we hope to reduce demand for by making our homes more energy efficient, and electricity, which we anticipate there will be an increased demand for as we increasingly go towards a more electrified economy, if I can put it like that.

I reassure hon. Members that we will consider support for micro-CHP as part of the comprehensive review of feed-in tariffs, and I will come back with those proposals shortly. But I by no means regard that as the end of the matter. As we encourage take-up and begin to go beyond the pilot stage, we must revisit the scheme to ensure that subsidy is sustainable. Certainly it would not be sustainable to reach a million homes with the sort of level that we are talking about. That is why we have a sensible cap at 30,000 units. But let me be clear, the feed-in tariff would go beyond that 30,000. I think that is meant to signal a limit in terms of a sensible budgetary constraint on being able to subsidise at that higher level that number of units. I certainly anticipate a long-term future for the feed-in tariff for micro-CHP, but I do not rule out other policy interventions being necessary in order to jump-start this particular technology. The microgeneration strategy that we published in June 2011 is also helping us to stimulate the microgeneration industry, developing the solid steps that were taken in previous years, and I commend the work of the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for calling this important debate and look forward to working with him constructively on a cross-party basis where there is a lot of consensus on where we need to travel. We now have to do the difficult work of ensuring that we have sufficient deployment.

Sitting suspended.

Community Sports Facilities

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

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

So often, sport is limited to the last letter of the DCMS—the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—but sport is much more than that. If we are talking Government Departments, sport reaches into issues that concern Ministers of Health, Education, Business, Innovation and Skills, Work and Pensions and the Home Office.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

It is a pleasure to resume the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I was talking about the importance of sport, and how it reaches into all sorts of areas that are covered by Ministers in the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Home Office, and I want to argue that sport, and the way it is managed, is crucial to the Treasury and matters financially to our country. The way that community sport and its facilities have been funded and organised in the past has overlooked the great business and community potential of our nation, and a real opportunity exists.

Seldom has the significance of sport for our country’s well-being been in sharper focus than following the August riots that were carried out by disaffected youth, with the London Olympic games glinting over the horizon. Seldom has the need for a nationwide Olympic sporting legacy of aspiration, effort, achievement, action, consequence and reward, which reaches out to all our communities, been more keenly felt.

The UK is the most obese nation in Europe, and obesity costs the NHS £4 billion a year. Within four years, however, that figure is projected to rise to £6.3 billion. Diabetes is also on the rise. The NHS currently spends £715 million on drugs for diabetes, and by 2025 it has been forecast that 25% of the NHS budget will be spent on diabetes alone. Quite simply, if our NHS is to survive the demands put on it by an ageing population, changing demographics, more expensive treatment and ever-rocketing expectations, our population must change its body mass index and its lifestyle.

Something else is often overlooked. Sport is vital not only because of the calories it burns, but because of the mindset it involves. Crucially, it entails a sense of delayed gratification: if we do not take the easy option now, but do something that initially takes a bit of effort, such as going for a jog instead of having that nice second cup of tea and that slice of cake, that will have benefits later, because we will lose weight and look good in that outfit we want to wear. At the sharp end, it is about what my brilliant former swimming coach Eric Henderson called “no pain, no gain”.

That is important not only for the physical benefits, but for the sense of achievement that comes from making that effort, resisting that cake and reaping the rewards of seeing oneself get fitter and make progress. That starts a virtuous circle of achievement, as we believe and see that we can do something, and that, crucially, is what builds self-esteem. That is where sport is so important for young people, particularly the kind who were involved in the riots over the summer.

I have seen first hand the extraordinary effects that sport can have on young people who are most likely to fall into a lifestyle involving gangs and riots. As the chair of the all-party group on boxing, I have seen how powerful boxing is in turning a kid with all the energy, inclination and anger to riot into a responsible and exemplary role model for other young people. I think of inner-city clubs such as the Riverside youth project in Bristol, which is managed by the amazing Dennis Stinchcombe, and which is sending one of its boxers to the GB team this year. Other sports also have a huge impact, and I will mention them later.

Why does sport work? There is the release of pent-up aggression and energy, the structure and discipline that are often so lacking in young people’s home lives and the respect for role models—often male—which frequently do not exist at home for young people. Crucially, there is also the building of self-discipline, self-respect and self-esteem through a cycle of putting effort in and seeing positive results come out.

My hon. Friend may come to this, but does she agree that where sporting achievement can be measured, so, too, can its positive effect on academic achievement? The one leads to the other, and there is increasing evidence of that. That is another example of how the Government should see these things as an investment, rather than as a cost.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am making it in a rather long-winded way, but he has made it in far fewer words. The cycle of achievement translates into learning how to get good grades at school by putting effort in and getting achievement out. It also helps people with resisting the easier lifestyle choices that are less good for them in exchange for achieving a better physique and physiology later. That concept of delayed gratification is essential to the concept of achievement, and it is essential if our young people are to fulfil their potential. They have to put that effort in to get the rewards and achieve their life potential.

I turn again to what we saw during the riots. What was striking was that so many of the young people and kids who were rioting talked about having nothing to lose. The reason they did that is that they could not really see they had anything to gain; they did not know how to achieve, and they had no traction on the cycle of achievement. They may have had dreams, and we often talk about dreams in relation to things such as aspiration, but dreams are not the same as goals. Those young people may have had dreams about being a famous footballer, being rich or having a glorious, glamorous wife, but dreams are very different from goals, because dreams are dislocated from reality. Those children could see no way—they had no ladder—to access those dreams.

Goals, however, are embedded in reality, together with some way of getting a rung closer to where we want to be, whether we want to be a famous footballer, to be super-rich or to have or be a glamorous wife, or whether we want to be a nurse, to start a business or to pass our maths GCSE. Not one of our Olympians will have become an Olympian by just dreaming about it; they will have worked—oh my goodness, how they will have worked—and they will have gone training when they did not want to. That sense of delayed gratification—putting effort in now for reward later—is what will lead our Olympians to the gold medals that I hope and expect so many of them will win.

Nationally, I hope there will be a facility to allow our Olympians to tell the inspiring story of the effort and hard work it took them to achieve those goals, which are many people’s dreams. It is important for not just young people, but the whole country to see that greatness comes not by accident, but through great determination and hard work. That message speaks to the country as a whole in the difficult times we face.

We have a huge opportunity. One thing sport is so good at is showing young people how to, and that they can, reach their goals. They can put effort in and get a tangible achievement out. That works especially well for young people who do not find the classroom an easy place to be. They might find the authority in the classroom difficult to take, but they might excel in other areas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, that is where sport touches Departments such as the Department for Education. Young people’s results absolutely rocket when they are engaged through sport. Building self-esteem through sport helps in employment. Sport teaches discipline, resilience and other employability skills. We talk about trying to embed all those skills in the curriculum, and there they all are, embedded in sport. In terms of Home Office concerns, sport provides fantastic behaviour management and can prevent young people from becoming future inmates. The social and financial benefit to society cannot really be measured.

The benefits of the self-esteem, individual resilience, teamwork, delayed gratification and discipline instilled by sport go on and on, although Members may be glad to know that I will not. Instead, I want to turn to another great benefit of sport that is often overlooked: the financial and business potential it holds for the community.

In securing community sport for future generations, we face an opportunity and a tremendous challenge, and those centre on our sports facilities. Here is the challenge. The model of community sport is substantially dependent on local authority initial funding and maintenance funding. That has meant too many run-down, off-putting facilities, and it has claimed sporting casualties among facilities. Some years ago in my constituency, despite a massive community campaign, the council misguidedly sold off the much-needed Robin Cousins sports centre and the Shirehampton swimming pool. Now, the community has no proper local sports facilities and a growing population of increasingly bored youth.

More widely, to take football as an example, the latest Football Association survey found that the overwhelming majority of respondents identified poor local community facilities as their biggest problem. A Football Foundation survey found that of the 45,000 local football pitches that exist, 38% did not have changing rooms, 94% had no floodlights, 80% were badly drained and out of use in the winter months, and only 1% had the third-generation artificial pitches that can be used for 90 hours a week, as opposed to just four.

Let me illustrate the point more graphically. In another area of my constituency, Henbury Old Boys football club is struggling to raise funds for much-needed renovations to the clubhouse, facilities and changing rooms. Shirehampton football club is thinking of moving away from its much-loved home ground, which is at the heart of the community, and its clubhouse, which was built by the members themselves, because it cannot progress in the league without floodlights for its pitch, and it cannot get them.

One does not need to be a mathematician to work out what the dilapidation of existing facilities is doing to participation rates.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has tripped across this yet, but I will mention it before we move on. Part of the Places People Play scheme is a sub-£50,000 grant scheme, to which more than 600 clubs have applied. It exists precisely to try to tackle the problems she has itemised. It has been phenomenally popular; in fact, it is the most successful facilities scheme Sport England says it has ever run. My advice to the football club in her area that is struggling with its changing rooms is to make sure it puts in a grant application. The scheme is called Inspired Facilities and it is part of the Places People Play programme run by Sport England. My hon. Friend should encourage the club to put in an application.

I thank the Minister for that, and will certainly do so. I will come on to what the Government have been doing to recognise the issue in question, and the tremendous investment that they have focused towards it.

The Football Foundation’s research from last season shows that where new investment, such as that suggested by the Minister, took place at a community sports facility, participation increased on average by more than 10%. The sad truth is that often, as cuts hit, local authorities sometimes choose to make cuts to their front-line services and sports facilities, or to hike up charges dramatically, shutting out those on low incomes. To go back to what the Minister said, it is welcome and brilliant that the Government have acted so swiftly and strongly to meet the important challenge of investing in community sports facilities. They have pledged enormous, much needed Government investment in those facilities.

Our national lottery reforms have, I believe, brought an additional £135 million for upgrading community sports clubs and facilities. We are linking schools and sports clubs more effectively, helping schools to offer more of their facilities for community use, which is extremely welcome. Schools’ facilities have for so long been shut to the communities that want to use them. The Government are linking up local sports clubs with schools so that the schools can benefit in their turn from the tremendous expertise and dynamism that community sports clubs offer. That has been quite a long time in coming, and it is welcome that the Government have grasped the nettle and linked those two valuable resources.

Additionally, there is a £400 million local sport fund for local authorities, to help with local sports provision, and a further fund of, I believe, about £100 million, for upgrading such facilities as swimming pools. As a former swimmer I have a particular interest in such projects. The achievement is superb, and is a gratifying indication that the Government see sport’s importance and consider it a priority. I am pleased with the investment that they are putting in.

It is vital that that investment does not just build facilities—buildings. If we run facilities as we have always run them we shall get what we have always got: a welcome initial investment and, in the long term, an expensive continuing drain on state funds, which may not always be made available to meet the need. Not only do we need to build and upgrade facilities; we need to build social enterprises. We need to ensure that we build not only facilities but an entire social enterprise model, involving the community, business expertise and smart corporate financial and human capital investment, so that the facilities do not become sponges on precious local authority funding and maintenance grants, but will instead be vibrant centres of the community, using profitable elements of the enterprise to subsidise the loss-making elements that the community needs so much.

The good news is, as colleagues have already told me, that that is already happening. However, it needs to happen more, and it can. Community sports trusts already exist, and the charity the Football Foundation is doing interesting work on providing some kind of model for change. Football is the most popular sport in the country, but 33% of the foundation’s effort in sport goes beyond football; so, for those who are not so into football, it is not just about that. The foundation’s idea works on making an initial investment but also helping to build and support a sustainable hub around a facility, such as a crèche in the club house or better use of bar facilities, including sport on TV, to make a profit that can be pumped into maintaining and improving the facility.

Corporate social responsibility is also an enormous opportunity. Funds cannot be better used than to invest in community sport, but often we also need to think smarter about how we use the expertise of those who work in our large corporates. We should encourage corporates to demonstrate corporate social responsibility by making links so that their staff can mentor and give time to local sports clubs and enterprises. When better than the Olympic year to start something of that kind?

One of the football clubs that I have visited in the Bristol area has been extraordinarily successful in community fundraising, and in building a social enterprise model around the club. One of its secrets is that there was someone on the board whose day job was project management and fundraising. In the face of the decimation by Bristol city council of much-loved sports facilities in Shirehampton, Avonmouth’s National Smelting Co amateur boxing club, run by Garry Cave in his spare time after work, has raised funds to build a new gym to accommodate the ever-increasing number of boxers who want to take part. It did it by pooling the expertise and resources of parents, helpers and supporters. In fewer than two years a brand new and far bigger club was up and running, and well oversubscribed. That is a success story, but it was and is still very tough going, and corporate support would be a massive help.

Such corporate support is already happening. As far as I have been able to see, Barclays has demonstrated good and innovative use of corporate support in its Spaces for Sports investment. What struck me when I visited its facilities was that what I saw was not just about capital investment unleashing participation in sport; it was also about creating and supporting an enterprise for the long term, driven and managed by the community. One of the things said again and again in communities affected by the riots was that facilities owned by the community, with community involvement, escaped the vandalism and damage. That sense of community ownership is massively important.

Money and skills are certainly something we need more of. [Interruption.] I need a drink of water. [Interruption.]

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her remarks, to which I have been listening intently. We find in Northern Ireland that a benefit from sport is its capacity to unite a community that is divided—in our case by sectarianism, but often in Great Britain by ethnic differences and so on. Would the hon. Lady consider the positive effects that sport can have in bringing communities together, particularly where there is a history of conflict, but also in areas where there are gangs or criminality?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman not only for his chivalrous intervention but for the excellent point he made. It is true in Bristol that there are areas with opposing gangs, and it is difficult to bring those groups together, but local sports and the boxing club have managed that against all the odds, and things are being done that many people would say could not happen. I agree that the community cohesion that sport can bring is spectacular.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I tend to cough during the rest of my speech.

Sport not only provides an opportunity for large corporates such as Barclays to hone the effectiveness of their corporate social responsibility; it also, crucially, provides a great opportunity for small business and economic growth. At a time when small building companies are struggling, and we need to get young people into apprenticeships and provide opportunities in the construction industry, what I have outlined is a great way to do it. Small and medium-sized enterprises make up 99.7% of the UK’s construction industry, and up to 11 construction firms go bust every day. The Government have already identified construction programmes as a key way of stimulating the economy, and have focused on house building. That is very well and good, but developing new and upgraded sports facilities also provides many SMEs with a crucial lifeline, so that a range of subcontractors, such as architects, electricians, carpenters and plumbers can survive. For example, a relatively small project in Essex, funded by the Football Foundation with a grant of just over £250,000, which for the foundation is relatively modest, enabled the Lawford juniors football club to get a new changing pavilion. In addition, that project alone employed 35 different subcontractors, three quarters of them local, and two apprentices.

Although times are tough, we face a tremendous opportunity. Sport is already one of the nation’s greatest examples of the big society, with thousands of individuals giving up time to volunteer at local clubs. It is superb that the Government—I pay tribute to the Minister—are investing so robustly to protect and support the Olympic legacy. That is a much needed springboard for sport. However, we still need to rethink sport’s dependency on the state, to safeguard its future. The readiness, skills and need certainly exist to build excellent sporting facilities for future generations that are sustainable, vibrant social enterprises bringing growth to communities, and are assets to, not drains on, strained local authorities.

We need to combine the backing of Government, the expertise and action of charities, such as the Football Foundation, and smart CSR—that is, money and skills—from Britain’s businesses, such as that which I saw from Barclays, with our existing community sport network to safeguard and promote sport into the future. What better year in which to pull all those together than the Olympic year of 2012?

Thank you, Mr Bone, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for making a fantastic speech, especially given that she had the hindrance of a croaky throat. During my time as a lead member for leisure on Swindon borough council, we had great pleasure in visiting the Riverside boxing facility. As someone who is not quite as passionate about boxing as my hon. Friend, I was extremely passionate about the huge difference that it made to very challenging communities. I am thinking particularly of the links that it had with the Navy and the Army. Those links enabled people with real drive and enthusiasm to be identified and given an alternative opportunity in life. That facility should certainly be praised.

I want to cover a couple of subjects. I have spoken in similar debates in Westminster Hall in recent weeks, but I am delighted to see that I have a slightly different audience today, so I can recycle some of the points.

The Centre for Social Justice highlighted in its recently published report the vicious cycle whereby prices rise to raise revenue and that threatens participation levels. That is not an idle threat. Local authorities that are under pressure to balance revenues and expenditure often turn to the services that we are debating and consider hiking up prices. In my local authority, when Labour was last running the council, it decided to increase leisure centre prices year on year. That was a false economy not only because usage went down, but because the revenue that it collected went down. I urge local authorities throughout the country to think carefully before taking a short cut to try to raise revenue.

There are alternatives. We found that as we invested capital in the council leisure facilities, we prioritised invest-to-save schemes. For example, as the Football Foundation has identified, there is a chronic shortage of 3G football pitches. By local authority standards, they are relatively cheap to build, and they generate huge amounts of revenue, which can be used to offset other, loss-making leisure activities. We built three 3G pitches at the back of the Link leisure centre on a four-year payback scheme. That paid itself off after 13 months. As in that example, when councils want to invest in leisure facilities, they should partner them with those few sports activities that are so popular that they can generate sufficient income to help to offset the losses made by others.

Local authorities should do far more on marketing where facilities are not being fully utilised. I will use the example of 3G football pitches again. Until I was elected to Parliament, I used to play football with a group of people every Tuesday night. Every so often, at those peak times, there would be a cancellation. Once the hour arrived and the pitch was not being used, that time was lost for ever. I felt that there were so many groups making regular bookings that the authority should have built up a database. It could then have sent out an e-mail to say, “The Thursday 7 pm club is not coming this week. The first club to reply can take up the space available.” That club could pay half the price, so participation would be increased and the local authority would not be wasting money. It would basically be a case of copying what the airline companies do when they are trying to sell off their last few seats.

We should be much more confident about empowering the respective managers to allow people who turn up to play. I am thinking particularly of younger people. Use of the 3G football pitches normally costs £42 an hour. If one is empty, but a group of teenagers turn up and between them they can cobble together £2.50, we should take that £2.50. An additional benefit is that they would be encouraged to use facilities in a controlled and safe environment.

Councils can play other roles, one of which is facilitating sports clubs to find a home. I set up the very successful Sports Forum, which has got more than 60 different sports clubs in Swindon working together. One challenge that many sports clubs have is finding a home where they can participate in their sport. The best example of that was the Esprit gymnastics club, which was based in an industrial retail park and became so successful that 450 children a week were using the facility. However, all the other tenants of the park complained that there were no car parking spaces left, so the club was told that it needed to find a new home.

The club gallantly searched high and low in Swindon, but no buildings with a sufficiently large roof were available, so the council stepped in and identified a building—Headlands school sports hall. Headlands school was being bulldozed to build an academy a few miles down the road, so the relatively new £4 million sports hall was also set to be bulldozed. To cut a long story short, it was agreed that Esprit gymnastics club would take on that building and pay a commercial rent. It was a not-for-profit business, but it obviously charged the children to take part. The sports hall was a considerably bigger facility, for which it was then able to obtain external funding. Now, on a weekly basis, more than 2,000 children use that facility, which is still standing.

The people to whom I have been referring have sub-let part of the building to the Kirsty Farrow dance academy, which is very successful, and the Leadership martial arts academy, so it is a thriving community facility. They also manage the neighbouring football pitches. The local authority does not run the facility. It is run by volunteers so successfully that I am determined repeatedly to invite my hon. Friend the Minister to visit it to see what a fantastic jewel in the crown it is for Swindon.

Last week, I met people from Swindon Supermarine rugby football club, which is based on the Swindon Supermarine collective site. That includes the football club, the archery club, the bowls club, the diving club and, of course, the rugby club. They want to build additional facilities, including an indoor 3G facility not just for rugby, but for football and other sports. The Rugby Football Union will be supporting that. I am delighted that, following that meeting, Swindon borough council has agreed to offer as much advice as it can ahead of the process of looking to build, putting in bids and going through the planning process. All those different sports clubs will come together and work together, so that that site continues to be something very valuable for my constituency.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing this important debate. At the outset, I declare that I am a parliamentary fellow of Sport England. My intervention is linked to the point about local authorities. Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) agree that it is crucial that excellent local authorities, such as his, work in partnership with organisations such as Sport England? That organisation has launched the £32 million Sportivate programme to get 14 to 25-year-olds playing sport. It is attracting more than 300,000 extra people into playing sport. Local authorities need to work in partnership with excellent organisations such as Sport England to ensure that everyone can play sports.

I thank my hon. Friend. His intervention is very helpful because it ties in perfectly with my next point. To return to the Sports Forum principle, one reason why that is so successful, with the 60 different sports clubs coming together, is that there is a pool of expertise that can draw on national organisations that can come and give presentations. The Sports Forum meets every three months. We are talking about three 30-minute segments. They are advertised in advance. One segment could be, for example, about how Sport England can help, and Sport England will come along and give a presentation.

There is the sharing of best practice. For example, some sports clubs were looking for facilities and some sports clubs had facilities that were under-utilised. They merged to become stronger as a unit. Also, the expertise can be provided to apply for funding, because if ever we need nuclear physicists, it is for filling in funding application forms. We were fortunate in Swindon because we had many people who were very good at that, and they helped other sports groups to apply for funding.

I would extend what I am talking about to local authority leisure centres and sports centres. The Oasis leisure centre—the rather famous band copied the name— wants to have a major redevelopment. It will be, in all senses, a leisure centre, rather than a place for serious sport, which will leave our other major centre, the Link centre, pretty much providing the sports side. I should like the Sports Forum to have a much greater role in running that, because it has expertise in how to deliver sport and because that could help to attract external funding. An example is the new netball facility that was built. The national netball association and local netball clubs are helping to set the programme and ensuring that that is a big success. We must use the skills that sports clubs have.

I want to deal briefly with private finance initiative schools and community facilities. While I was a councillor, there were many shiny, brand-new schools in the new housing estate that I represented. We did not have a huge amount of open space other than inside the large fences of the PFI schools. They charged an absolute fortune and priced many different community groups out of there. It was an absolute, crying shame; we had young people who wanted to turn up and kick a football around, but they could not get access to the open fields. We must be careful of that, especially in built-up areas.

I have been trying to push for more sport in the community on Friday and Saturday nights, using community facilities such as school buildings, local authority sports facilities, parish councils and community centres. We as a nation spend a huge amount of money on youth services and facilities, and although some are good, many are not. It would be far better for the local authority to use the money to commission football or street dance coaches, for example, to work in those facilities. The respective local authority, parish council or school would not charge for the use of those facilities. All that they would have to do is raise a bit of money to go towards the cost of the coaches, and that could come from the youth service budget. Children could be charged 50p a time, so that they have a sense of ownership. In that way, we could get them doing something active and constructive on Friday and Saturday nights. When I go around schools and colleges, the idea is very much supported by young people. Last week, a sports coach UK organisation told me that it was interested in the idea and that it could provide a long list of potential coaches for the different areas. I am sure that many other organisations would get behind such a scheme.

On planning issues, we are right to focus on sports facilities—physical buildings—but often all that we need to do is ensure that there is sufficient open space. I previously represented a new build estate where there was not sufficient accessible, usable open space. Under the technical national definitions, we had lots, but they just happened to be lots of hedges and places where we certainly could not kick a football. We need to be mindful of that.

When I was growing up, we were influenced by whatever was on TV. If it was the Tour de France, out came the bikes. If it was cricket, out came the cricket bats. We played football for the majority of the year and tennis for the three days that we used to last at Wimbledon in those days.

We need to take advantage of the new homes bonus and section 106. Too often, leisure is not at the forefront of getting money to invest in facilities. For the smaller developments in existing residential areas, we should consider using some of the money to provide more accessible, usable open space or traditional sports community facilities. Again, we should consider the opportunity to devolve the ownership and the running of those sports clubs.

We have previously talked about school sport partnerships. I was delighted that the Government extended the time for them to secure a future. The vast majority, or at least the ones that were doing a good job, have been successful in doing that. My only plea concerns the facilities that they then provide activities in. The people involved are often fantastic coaches. They are fantastic at getting support for volunteers, but they are not necessarily business-minded. As not-for-profit businesses, they need some help and training to ensure that they are good at running the books, so that they can continue to do a fantastic job.

I am encouraged by a much of what the Government are doing. This is something that the Government take very seriously. The Minister is well thought of by all the sporting groups that I meet. We must ensure that this matter remains very high on the political radar, both locally and nationally.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing this debate. I will not speak for long, but I will highlight a couple of community facilities in my constituency.

Next week, we will open a new sports centre, with a £6.5 million swimming pool. It is the first leisure centre in the country that is partly heated by innovative technology. It will take energy from the town’s crematorium, thereby reducing the overall CO2 emissions in our borough. Of course, we would be delighted if the Minister wished to pay us a visit.

The centre will lead the way in improving health equalities and increasing participation in Redditch, with targeted projects to help our diverse population. To celebrate the opening of the venue, community games will take place in May and will involve sports clubs and the voluntary sector. There will be activities for eight weeks, culminating in a competition day focusing on Olympic sports and the promotion of volunteering and healthy lifestyle choices.

The special Olympics group is another great community facility. I should perhaps declare an interest here as I have just been appointed its patron. It comprises a group of Olympians with learning disabilities. They take part in all sorts of sports, including athletics, swimming, soccer and badminton. They are a pleasure to watch, and I have seen them compete in many events. They are inspirational young people, and 169 of them have competed in events this year. They are a credit to my town and an example of how community sport and its facilities really work. Without such community sports facilities, our young people would suffer. They make our town a healthier and happier environment. Long may they continue.

I thank you, Mr Bone, for asking me to speak, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this excellent debate. The timing is appropriate because this is the year of the Olympics in London. It is right that we should be focusing on sport. It is right, too, because we need to encourage people to live more healthily. Exercise definitely leads to a healthier lifestyle. My hon. Friend was right to emphasise the importance of exercise.

Let me talk about my own district council of Stroud, which has just reopened its leisure centre to great success. I pay tribute to Councillor Keith Pearson and his team for having the imagination to get on with the job of delivering an outstanding centre with so many improvements on the previous regime. Gone are the days of Mr Brittas and the “Brittas Empire”. Instead, we have an efficiently run organisation with clean facilities. The changing rooms are absolutely excellent and I invite Members to come and see them at any time—preferably to change for some sport. The centre demonstrates that councils can do things properly if they put their minds to it, and Stroud district council has done exactly that.

The centre expects some 25,000 users from the community around Stroud, which is a fairly impressive number. There is also Dursley swimming pool, which has a solar panel system to assist with the heating, so the pool is not just really good for the community but environmentally friendly. Things can be done by Conservative councils, and I applaud that. It is important that we recognise that councils can and should play a role. It is also critical that communities outside the council help in these matters, too.

My son is a footballer; he is a pretty impressive defender. I often go and watch him play at various football clubs across my constituency. It is really great to see so many clubs flourishing and providing decent pitches for people to play on and it is a great tribute to local communities that they allow these facilities to be developed and then support them. The support that local communities give to such clubs is critical.

My hon. Friend is making an important point about local communities and local authorities. Medway has just spent £11 million on the Medway Olympic park in one of its most deprived areas—there is a seven-year life expectancy difference between one part of the constituency and another. Does he agree that it is crucial to get such facilities in deprived areas as well as in affluent ones, so that children with social deprivation issues can use the facilities and improve their health as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am grateful to him for making it, because that is an important point. We must ensure that we reach out to all communities, especially the ones that he has described. We must have healthy people who enjoy their lives, are properly engaged and play a full part in the society that we want to create. That was what my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) was referring to when she spoke about people with disabilities, and it is great that she emphasised that point.

There are communities in my constituency that support people with disabilities in their interest in sport. Most impressively, a huge amount of money was raised for a swimming pool as St Rose’s school, Beeches Green, for people with severe disabilities. That is wonderful; it shows that people care, that they can deliver the right kind of support and that people recognise that absolutely everybody should have opportunities to play sport wherever possible, which is completely right.

There are also threats to sport in my constituency. Stroud rugby club needs a new facility and to upgrade its rooms—in fact, it needs to move. We must help clubs such as that to seize the initiative effectively and ensure that they can deliver the right kind of facilities for the huge number of young people who want to play rugby. The place is full on a Sunday morning. My son is no longer interested in going to the rugby club at weekends—it’s football for him, although he plays rugby at school—but those who go to Stroud rugby club are really enthusiastic, and that is an important stepping stone to more involvement in sport. I am very keen for Stroud rugby club to thrive and I support it in its endeavours.

I went to Gloucester rugby club a few weekends ago to watch a very exciting game between Gloucester and Toulouse—my wife is French, so there were some issues about who was supporting whom. While there, I noticed the sheer involvement of the people watching the match. We must not forget that element when we talk about facilities. It is important to encourage people to go to and support sporting events. They will be watching people they know—members of their families and so forth—which is part of the collective activity of sport and should be promoted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West mentioned corporate support; it is important and we should encourage it. The Government need to find ways to help to lever in the corporate support that is so necessary for many fledgling clubs and for developed clubs that want to move forward or expand their assets or facilities. We should not forget the sports such as skateboarding that we would not necessarily think of as sport, because they also give opportunities to young people to be involved.

The community facilities that we want are essential, and should be encouraged to develop into other services as well, such as social clubs, because that gives them an added dimension and another way to be successful. I have noticed that the clubs in my constituency that have moved on and developed in that way have prospered, and they continue to provide excellent opportunities for young people.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this timely debate. I congratulate the Minister on his strong performance as a Minister since 2010—he has been outstanding. This is obviously an important year for sport. I also congratulate my hon. Friends on their contributions so far, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), who has given me an idea. One of the sporting facilities in my constituency is a top-100 listed golf course, which happens to be next door to the crematorium, so I will encourage my local council to investigate the possibility of recycling heat into the clubhouse.

I would like to talk about how I see sport and how sport benefits the individual, the wider community and the nation as a whole. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West and I share a passionate belief that sport can and does do good and should be encouraged and supported in every possible way. Forgive me, but I would appreciate some indulgence as I take a tour of my constituency. I am proud to do so, specifically on this topic, because it has possibly some of the best community sports facilities in the country. In my experience, the people of Bracknell and the surrounding area are generally quite happy, and I think that those two things are linked.

Bracknell has three sports centres, including an Olympic swimming pool, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West competed in once upon a time. The Coral Reef water sports park is a separate facility that is visited annually by hundreds of thousands of people from the south of England. The Look Out discovery centre on Crown Estate land in Swinley forest, which is used for mountain biking, walking and running, has 250,000 visitors a year. We also have one of only three trampoline centres in the south of England. Lily Hill park houses Bracknell rugby club, and I remember playing there aged 19—not so long ago. I lost the game unfortunately, but was very impressed with the facilities. We also have numerous football clubs. In fact, my first visit to my constituency was to play football for Wycombe district football club at the age of 11, and I lost that game as well. We also have a baseball club, which is a five-time national champion. Those are just the community facilities—state-owned, dare I say. We also have a ski slope, an ice rink and an outward-bound youth challenge network, which are all privately funded and are now profitable going concerns. That is just Bracknell.

In Sandhurst, we have 80 acres of land owned and managed by the local town council. We have football pitches, a very successful cricket club, a skate park, a tennis facility and we have the annual Sandhurst fitness funday, which I attend every year because it tries to improve the health of the community. In Crowthorne, we have the Pinewood centre, which is an old TB hospital with a series of wards—TB hospitals had big wards and were in the middle of nowhere. When it was closed, the local council took it over and each ward now houses a society, including a remarkable gymnastics club. When I visited, the doors had to be opened to allow people to run in to do the vault—the standard of the gymnastics is awe-inspiring. There is a judo club on the same site, which included an Olympian. There are also football teams, and boxing clubs in Crowthorne and Bracknell.

Finchampstead includes Finchampstead memorial park, which has a very successful cricket club. We have a football club that is tied with Reading football club, and there is a netball club. I could go on and on. It is a remarkable series of communities all within my constituency. All the councils and councillors—Iain McCracken is one of the people responsible for the portfolio at Bracknell forest—should be congratulated on their success in maintaining all the facilities over the past few decades.

On the sustainability of sports facilities, I do not think that it is the state’s responsibility to fund all facilities; that is not sustainable and makes no sense. The state has a role as a partner, but charity and private money should also play a part. We cannot go back to an age when it was the council’s responsibility to provide all facilities, because that is nonsense. I am proud of the fact that a large number of facilities in my constituency are a partnership between the community and the council.

The wider point that I would like to make about sport is that it is good for us, and as a doctor, perhaps I can say that more strongly than others can. It makes us healthy, and I still see too many patients who are obese, who drink too much, smoke too much and have lost the drive and desire to get on and to compete in life.

Sport from an early age is important, and I mean competitive sport, not the nonsense about everyone being a winner. Life is tough, and trying to protect children from the realities of how competitive life is, is abusive. I would not describe it as child abuse, but it is abusive, because those children enter the workplace and wonder why they cannot deal with competition. Sport has an important role to play in physical health, but also mental health. We need to get back to believing and understanding that we want winners. To have winners we must have losers, by definition. We need to connect effort with reward. Sport is a way to do that and educate people.

Sport can also benefit communities. As I said earlier, I think I have such remarkable communities in my constituency because sport plays a large part in their life. That is why sport is so important, so integral to a happy environment and to the well-being of each of my constituents.

The Football Foundation is an example of an agency that has money from the Government, premier league and the FA. I am doing a fellowship with the Football Foundation, learning about the industry of football, warts and all. The best part has been coming to understand and see the impact that the Football Foundation is having up and down the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West and I had the pleasure of a tour of facilities around London a few months ago. When one visits the facilities, such as the ones near Wormwood Scrubs—they were in a shocking state and are the responsibility of the council—one realises that the council is under no statutory obligation to provide leisure facilities. I am not going to make a party political point, but at the moment it tends to be Labour councils cutting back and blaming it on Government cuts. The reality is that the way in which those sports facilities are being managed is not sustainable.

The Football Foundation model puts in a proportion of the grant to help and support schemes that have an aspect of sustainability, be it a bar, a crèche or whatever. Thereby the facility is maintained, is successful and popular in the community.

My point might relate only to isolated rural areas such as mine. Does my hon. Friend agree that in many places it is the work of local charities—not the big corporates—and local businesses, volunteers and lottery funds that keep the sporting facilities and infrastructure together?

That is an important intervention. Many times, the local builder or plumbing firm sponsors the football shirts. My hon. Friend is right.

Organisations such as the Football Foundation need to work in partnership with communities and councils, in order to establish much needed sports facilities. I do not know whether anyone here has tried to book a five-a-side football pitch anywhere in the country. It is a woeful situation; it is not possible to get space on those pitches. Why have we not got more of them? The reason at the moment, I think, is that the foundation is struggling to get match funding from councils. Perhaps the Minister might look at making it a statutory requirement for councils to concentrate on leisure facilities. He might say to councils that cutting sports facilities will increase Government expense in the provision of health care services.

On that point, as I mentioned in my speech, local authorities can look at this as an opportunity. My local authority invested through Invest to Save, paid the money off in 13 months and has been making a profit ever since. Because there is such a chronic shortage, 3G football pitches are potentially very profitable.

My hon. Friend is right. To quote the phrase of “instant gratification” used by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, the difficulty is that it is all about the instant—it is about how to cut and balance the books. No long-term perspective is taken. The reality is that if I play football for a year, that is not likely to make an impact on my health when I am 70. This has to happen over a number of decades in order to get the return. A longer perspective on the part of councils and Government needs to be taken.

There has been the woeful selling of school fields. I drove past a school near where I live: we have more flats and more houses and fewer school pitches. It is lamentable, particularly in the year of the Olympics and the European football championships and in a country that is passionate about sport. I have stood on football terraces up and down the country. People are passionate about sport, about their club winning—not competing or taking part but winning. I think we can harness that. The best way to do that is to ensure that there are sustainable facilities.

In conclusion, my constituency is a model of how communities can engage in and support sport, financially and through participation. The well-being of the community is much enhanced in the process. Sport and the provision of community sports facilities can lead to better health, behaviour and community spirit.

It is a pleasure to join the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, for the first time, I believe. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie). She has been a doughty fighter on behalf of sport in general. She has made many contributions both in the Chamber and Westminster Hall on behalf of sport and young people, pointing out the role that sport can play in encouraging participation among young people, challenging some behaviour and turning lives around. I have certainly seen many examples of that in my constituency. I commend her for the work she has done to bring the matter to the attention of the House.

Sport is a very important part of not just our society and culture, but our economy. It contributes in the region of £3.8 billion, according to the British Institute of Sport and Leisure. The health and sport industry makes a major contribution to employment, as well as to the well-being of many of our constituents. It also offers many opportunities for communities to come together. We have heard an enormous number of examples from hon. Members today of not-for-profit organisations where public-spirited people come together to run them and make a major contribution to our local communities.

I am grateful to the Sport and Recreation Alliance for providing figures. One of its reports, under its former guise of the Central Council of Physical Recreation, stated that 26% of volunteering takes place through sport and recreation; and that the economic return of volunteers outnumbers investment in the sector by a ratio of 30:1. There is an argument for sport not just for enjoyment but as a significant contributor to local economies. It also contributes to health, as the hon. Lady said. There are enormous costs to our NHS from obesity and diabetes. As she said, the cost of dealing with illnesses related to the body mass index is currently about £15.8 billion. That is due to rise by 2050 to a staggering £49.9 billion, if current trends are not addressed. It is important to recognise the potential cost to our country and economy of not tackling such issues. It is also important to recognise the value of sport and how it can contribute.

In these economically straitened times, when people’s disposable incomes are stretched, it is also important that we do not exclude people from accessing sport because of cost, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Many people have referred to problems with increasing costs, especially at private finance initiative schools. A PFI school in my constituency is just being completed. Its policy is certainly to open its doors to the local community and groups, but it must also cover the costs of doing so, which creates a problem for local organisations that want to access those facilities.

We must do all we can to ensure that people are not excluded from using the excellent facilities that have been developed in many schools, as that is key to improving accessibility to sport in future. It is important that the Minister has regular discussions with his opposite numbers in the Departments for Education and for Communities and Local Government to ensure that access to sport is maintained. Costs are likely to rise in the current economic situation, but we must not exclude the most disadvantaged people in our communities.

As the Minister knows, many people are disappointed by the cuts to school sport partnerships. He has made it clear that that is not his specific area of responsibility, but I refer him to an answer that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt) gave at Culture, Media and Sport questions. He said:

“Some school sports partnerships did an excellent job but, overall, participation among young people fell under the last Government—it has fallen from 58% to 54% over the last four years”.—[Official Report, 15 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 915.]

I have searched, but I cannot find that figure. If the Minister has the answer now, I shall take it, otherwise he can write to me.

The hon. Gentleman will find the answer in the Active People survey. It refers to people between the ages of 16 and 24, and, I think, relates to a period from 2005 to 2011. I think that the point that my right hon. Friend was making, correctly, was that whatever the successes of the school sport partnerships in schools may have been, they were not tackling the post-school drop-out, which got worse, not better.

I am grateful for that. I suspected that that was the answer. School sport partnerships are for school-age children, not for 14 to 24-year-olds, so the survey did not compare like with like. My concern is that the figure has been used as an example.

I think someone said that “prizes for all” was the previous Government’s policy on encouraging people to participate in sport. Encouraging everyone to experience many different types of sport is in no way contrary to encouraging them to participate in competitive sport. Most people who play sport understand that the first competition they must win is the one against themselves. Whether we are playing in a team, on our own or just training in a leisure centre, we are competing first and foremost against ourselves—everything else is secondary. Encouraging young people to experience that enjoyment and opening them up to as many types of sport as possible through excellent schools facilities is essential if they are to have a lifetime’s association with sport.

On the national planning policy framework and the changes to planning policy guidance 17, what discussions is the Minister involved in to secure a replacement of facilities where there is an application to build on playing fields? PPG17 and the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 required developed playing fields to be replaced. Sport England and other consultees must still be consulted under the new requirements in the NPPF, but there is no guarantee of replacement in the wording. Is the Minister lobbying hard on behalf of sports-lovers everywhere, who want our playing fields to be protected in future, to ensure that the replacement guarantee is retained? It was successful in reducing the number of school playing fields that were lost. It might surprise some Government Members to know that between 1979 and 1997, 10,000 school playing fields were sold.

I shall give the Minister a chance to come back; I am a fair individual. After the 1998 Act—this is available through freedom of information and is on the Department’s website and the website of the Department for Education—was introduced, only 226 school playing fields were lost. A myth has built up that school playing fields have been disappearing at an alarming rate over the past 13 or 14 years. That idea is incorrect and must be put right.

I am afraid that the 10,000 figure is incorrect. When we were in opposition and I was doing the hon. Gentleman’s job, we were always slaughtered with it, so I spent a considerable amount of time looking into it. No figures were collated for the loss of playing fields until 1999, so 10,000 is a guesstimate. I met the Labour special adviser who dreamed up the figure. In the days when Tom Pendry was doing his job, a set of figures was aggregated. They ran that out over years and produced the figure, and it became accepted wisdom. There is no statistical backing for it at all.

I do not have much time left. The 226 figure is an answer to a question to one of the Minister’s colleagues. The 10,000 figure dates from an FOI request in 2009, so I do not know where the former Minister, Tom Pendry, comes into it. Needless to say, even if the figure is out—even, to be generous, by 50%—the difference is staggering. It is essential, therefore, that the Minister lobbies hard to ensure that the replacement requirement is included in the planning framework when it is finally agreed.

I shall move on, because I want to give the Minister a decent run at answering his colleagues’ questions. I have a concern about opening up schools and school clubs under the 14 to 25 strategy announced by the Department and Sport England. Under the policy, by 2017, the Department will have created 6,000 partnerships with local sports clubs. Is the Minister aware that, on average, 4,000 secondary schools across the country already have partnerships with 14 sports organisations? By my reckoning, that totals significantly more than 6,000. Can he explain where the existing partnerships will fit alongside the 6,000 that he intends to create? Will they be new partnerships or will they be in addition to existing ones? What is the future for existing partnerships?

It is ironic that the strategy will be based around schools. I fully support the intention to open up schools. A lot of work has been done on that, as existing partnerships indicate. However, many of the best facilities in which clubs will be set up are in Building Schools for the Future schools. In my constituency, the facilities built as part of that £6.5 billion programme are state of the art. Sadly, some sports clubs will be set up in sub-standard facilities, because not all schools enjoyed BSF, which would have improved, rebuilt or refurbished every secondary school in the country. Alongside that, enormous benefit would have been gained from improved sports facilities. It is worth nothing that, since 2000, in addition to what was going to be spent on BSF, Sport England has invested £1.5 billion in capital investment throughout the country and local authorities have spent up to £650 million on improving sports facilities. Therefore, although the money announced by the Government is welcome, it appears to be woefully inadequate.

My final point is about planning and floodlights. What discussions is the Minister having with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that problems with floodlights do not continue? Modern technology means that they are not as intrusive as they have been in the past, that they do not damage quality of life, and that many of the fears in local communities about them are misconceived. As has been mentioned by some of the Minister’s colleagues, of the about 2,400 3G—third generation—or artificial surfaces in this country, fewer than 2,000 have floodlights. Few grass pitches are floodlit—grass pitches can only be used for up to six hours a week if they are to be maintained to any standard—so it is important that we increase the provision not only of artificial surfaces, but of floodlights. What work is the Department doing in that regard? With that, I had better sit down to give the Minister an opportunity to respond.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Members may not be aware that our Chairman is one of the finest slow left-arm bowlers ever to have represented the Lords and Commons cricket club. It is nice to have a Chair with expertise in the area under discussion, although he is probably the only slow left-arm bowler to have ever represented the club.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing this debate. I also thank her for her work with the all-party boxing group on boxing and as the president of a number of amateur boxing clubs, including some in her own constituency.

This is an important debate at an important time. I am always keen to stress that London 2012 is not the story about sport in this country, but the start of the story. It would be only right to congratulate the England and Wales Cricket Board, which recently secured the 2013 champions trophy for this country. After 2012, we will have the rugby league world cup and the champions trophy in 2013; the Commonwealth games in 2014; the rugby union world cup, the world canoeing championships and the world gymnastics championships in 2015; the world athletics championships in 2017; and the cricket world cup in 2019. There are also bids outstanding. We are, for example, contemplating a bid for a youth Olympics and a series of other smaller competitions. London 2012 is, therefore, very much the start of the story, not the end of it. It is crucial that we use this period to do what so many hon. Members have spoken about, namely to drive an increase in participation in sport.

That will be testing against the current economic backdrop, but the lottery reforms that we implemented in May 2010 have already, according to Camelot’s figures, resulted in an upturn of money, so the amount of money going into sport as a result of the end of the Olympic levy, as well as the lottery reforms and the fact that those changes are driving greater ticket sales, will go up from the £1.3 billion in 2010 to an estimated £1.8 billion. That is an extra £0.5 billion over a six-year period, so the reforms could have a considerable impact.

I suspect that most hon. Members would prefer to hear me respond to the points that they have raised—although that might be a novel theory—than listen to my prepared speech. My hon. Friend spoke movingly and correctly about the beneficial effect of sport on young people’s lives. I agree with her and suspect that everyone else present does, too. Like her, I pay tribute to the Riverside youth club in Bristol, whose work I have heard about, not least from my hon. Friend, as well as other, independent sources.

My hon. Friend made a good point about floodlights, which the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) also touched upon. Floodlights have historically been a difficult issue, because everyone who wants to play sport wants to have sports facilities with floodlights, but everybody who lives near a sports facility with floodlights want them turned off at 10 o’clock at night. The shadow Minister is right that the latest generation of floodlights cause significantly fewer light problems than earlier generations. Bizarrely, the taller the tower on which the lights are put, the less pollution, because everything goes down, whereas with a shorter tower, it spreads out. As part of the Inspired Facilities fund—I had a feeling that this was true, but have just checked it to make sure—sports clubs can apply for floodlights, so provided that they can get planning permission, which is often the sticky bit, they can, in theory, apply to the fund and get floodlights built.

My hon. Friend is also right about the need to reduce the dependency on the state. That is one of the reasons why I have been so keen—against opposition from those involved—to progress with the restructuring of UK Sport and Sport England. Sir Keith Mills, who has looked into this, is clear about the combined commercial opportunity if the success of elite athletes is married to the mass participation strategy—the mass market—for any commercial sponsor. British sport’s ability to drive commercial sponsorship has been poor. Some individual sports have done well, but non-departmental public bodies have not done well in driving sponsorship. The Team 2012 initiative was not a great success. It needs a new start around a different commercial property to make it work.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) talked about local authorities investing in sports hubs. He is right that, if we started with a fresh map, we would undoubtedly build sports hubs, because the whole family could go to them and everyone could participate. The problem is that sport in this country has not grown up in that way. Most towns and cities have their rugby, football, tennis and cricket clubs, and swimming pool, in different places, but he is right that hubs are the way forward. I encourage him to get Sport England involved in discussions. He should probably make an application for his new sports hub to its Iconic Facilities funding stream—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), as Sport England’s parliamentary fellow, will put in a good word for him with the chief executive. I wish him well with that.

Access to school facilities is a nut that we have not cracked over many years in this country. The new sports strategy has a particular funding stream. Members throughout the House will have shared my frustration of driving past schools with unused football pitches on a Saturday morning, while people are queuing around the block to use the local authority facilities. That is sometimes down to insurance and caretakers, but often it is due to lack of will-power. Where schools want to make it work, they can, and where people do not, they do not. The new strategy has £10 million to help people get over the hurdles and I hope that that will start to iron things out.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon is also right about coaches and the impact that they can have. The schemes work very well in some places. Charlton Athletic is a shining example of how a football club can have an influence on a local area. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s own football club in Swindon does something similar. Charlton Athletic draws funding from Kent county council to run precisely the sorts of schemes that he has mentioned. I encourage him to look at that model and then see if he can interest his own county council in funding Swindon or similar sides.

My hon. Friend was on the money once again on the question of business training for not-for-profit organisations. The organisation that he should speak to in that regard is one that has been set up by Keith Mills—that is his second name-check of the afternoon, but he is a marvellous man who does a lot for sport. He has set up a small charity called sported, which exists precisely to give business training to not-for-profit sports organisations—people who are keen to do something about their local sports facility, but who lack the technical expertise to bring it about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) spoke well about her sports facilities in Redditch. I have actually been to some of them in a previous incarnation, before her time in Parliament. Some interesting models are emerging from the Localism Act 2011 in relation to community asset transfer and how it can be used to pass the ownership of sports facilities to the groups that use them. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the Special Olympics, which represents a remarkable movement full of remarkable people. The difficulty for the Special Olympics is that it has a constant battle with the British Paralympic Association about whether those involved are Paralympians or Special Olympians and all the politics that goes alongside that. I am delighted that as a result of the new disability strategy at Sport England, the Special Olympics has got funding for the first time. Some £250,000 of funding will go to Special Olympics Great Britain. I hope that that will encourage those involved in the belief that people are taking them seriously and that they are a valued part of the sporting landscape.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) spoke very well about Stroud rugby club and, indeed, its move. One of the things we did when we were trying to settle the listing debate in 2010 was to recognise that it is up to sports to market their own broadcast rights as they see fit. In passing, we should congratulate the ECB on the renewal of its new contract. By allowing sports to have that freedom, we encourage them to invest a proportion of their proceeds in community sports facilities.

The Rugby Football Union was one of the national governing bodies that signed up—indeed, all of them did—to a commitment to invest 30% of their UK broadcast income in grass-roots facilities. If my hon. Friend is keen to help Stroud rugby club move, it would be well worth his while spending some time with the RFU and Sport England to see if he can get them together to discuss what can be done to help. Again, he made exactly the same point about the need to lever in more corporate money. That is very much at the centre of what we are hoping to do as part of the restructuring of the non-departmental public bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is doing a sports fellowship with the Football Foundation, made me laugh—unintentionally, probably. I spent three quarters of a year at the Royal Military Academy, and the concept of a Sandhurst fitness fun day was absolutely not a part of that particular period of my life. Sheer agony for hours on end seemed to be the key. He spoke very well about the various different sports facilities in his constituency. He is absolutely on the money about the issue with the Football Foundation. It has been a central tenet of the Football Foundation’s existence ever since it was set up to look for match funding from local authorities. I saw the chief executive, Paul Thorogood, two weeks ago. He made the point that finding match funding is becoming, for reasons we would all understand, much more difficult. We will have to work with the Football Foundation to find ways around that.

The Football Foundation is a first-class organisation; it absolutely does what it says on the tin. Every time it builds a new 3G sports facility, the thing is booked out within a month and people cannot get a space. That shows the demand for such facilities. Encouragingly, the latest generation of those pitches is much more multi-sport-use-friendly. As soon as I empty my piggy bank out and can find some more money in it, I will do my utmost to ensure that the Football Foundation gets some more money because it is a good organisation that does a good job.

I agree with the Minister’s comments about the Football Foundation, which is an excellent organisation. It has been able to get more bang for its buck by attracting match funding. Is he suggesting that he will make money available to replace that match funding and that it will not require match funding in the future, because to go down that route means that we will get less for the money?

That is absolutely right. Of course it is important that any part of an area applying for funding should show enthusiasm and commitment by raising a bit of money itself. I am not saying that we will remove that but, without going into the Football Foundation’s finances in any great detail this afternoon, there are two connected problems.

First, the Football Foundation is increasingly finding it difficult, through no fault of its own, to get exactly matched funding from local authorities. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell. Secondly, because it takes longer to gain that funding and the Football Foundation is partially Exchequer funded, it finds it difficult to shift the capital inside the financial year—1 April to 31 March. It does not want to get into a position whereby because it cannot shift the stuff out the door and get the match funding, it has to hand the money back. We are talking about quite a complicated accountancy issue. Suffice it to say, the Football Foundation is a first-class organisation and I am delighted that my hon. Friend is involved with it. We will do what we can to help it as soon as things ease.

On the contribution of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Eltham, he is absolutely right to draw attention to the health benefits of sport, which many other hon. Members also mentioned. It is enormously encouraging that the Department of Health—I thank it for this—now deals with that directly in primary schools through the Change 4 Life sports clubs. It has committed to funding that for the foreseeable future.

I congratulate the Minister on being one of the finest Ministers in the Government. I do not say that because he is a fellow Kent MP or because he is a fellow cricketer; I say it simply on merit. He will be aware that some excellent research carried out by Sport England has shown that if sport participation were to increase by 1 million people weekly, the taxpayer would save £22.5 billion in health associated costs. What are we doing to encourage and get that extra 1 million people playing sport a week?

An extra 1 million people a week would cover the entire population inside a year, would it not? It is a lovely idea, and I thank my hon. Friend both for his kind comments and his obvious enthusiasm, which is undoubted. One of the extraordinary features of community sport in recent years has been that, despite the huge impact of lottery funding, the number of people participating in sport in the community has remained rigidly static or has marginally fallen over a 10-year period.

There are a number of reasons for that and this afternoon is not the time to go into them, but I will mention a couple of factors. The measurement system is very tough and people have to play three separate instances of sport. People who play top league cricket or hockey generally train in the week and play at the weekend, so they fail the measure. The measure uses fixed telephone lines, so we are not convinced that enough young people are being picked up. It is also fair to say that the sport governing bodies who now have responsibility for the matter have not worked out the consumer behaviour changes that are required to make it work. A number of issues are tied up with the participation measure, but getting it shifted is absolutely at the centre of what we are trying to do.

The shadow Minister mentioned the national planning policy framework. He is right. The Government’s objective was clearly to reduce a vast number of planning regulations to a much smaller and more easily manageable document. As a result of that, a number of things have gone out of the window. I have spent a lot of time with sports going through exactly what they need. I have also spent time with both Sport England and the big five. He will be familiar with that term, which relates to football, both codes of rugby, cricket and tennis. We have been to see the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). Formal submissions have been made and informal meetings have been held. We will wait to see the effect of that when the consultation is completed.

The hon. Gentleman talked about partnerships with local sports clubs. The 6,000 figure that is used is the number of new clubs that sport governing bodies themselves think they can set up. That is a figure given to us as a result of statistics collected mainly from the FA, the Rugby Football League, the RFU, the ECB and the Lawn Tennis Association.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman mentioned floodlights. That issue is tied up with the consultations on the NPPF. Someone can apply for floodlights under the Inspired Facilities part of Places People Play. As I say, if I had put my hand up this afternoon and said, “We have absolutely cracked angry residents who don’t like floodlights on their sports facilities,” it would not have been entirely fair. However, he is absolutely right to raise the matter.

Foreign Policy (Soft Power)

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bone? I declare an interest as secretary of the all-party group on the British Council and as a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

The purpose of calling this debate is to focus on the role of soft power in British foreign policy and how it is to be used in defining country strategies. Over the past decade, Governments have become increasingly aware of the importance of soft power. I define that as the power to attract and co-opt alongside the hard power of traditional military and economic means of achieving foreign policy objectives. There is a growing acceptance that soft power is an important component of foreign policy and should be seen as a complement to rather than a substitute for hard power.

I want to talk about how there can be better integration between the different elements of hard and soft power. My impression is that, although different institutions work effectively on their own, they could deliver a lot more if they actively collaborated on a systematic basis in all countries where they operate.

I want to share some examples of Britain’s soft power assets, and then examine the need for the development of a co-ordinated vision for our foreign policy by addressing some of the practical realities and questions that surround putting that into practice. It is important to recognise at the outset that, compared with many countries, Britain has an immensely rich set of soft power institutions, resources and tools. In 2010, we were ranked joint first in the Institution for Government soft power index. In 2011, we were placed second, behind the USA. Soft power institutions, such as the British Council, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Voluntary Service Overseas, the Commonwealth Foundation and the BBC World Service perform a valuable role in developing trusting relationships with overseas countries.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On soft policy and achieving our foreign policy objectives, does he agree that a fundamental part of winning over people’s hearts and minds, as we have seen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Libya, has been the work of the BBC World Service in communicating that we have a lot more that unites us than divides us?

Absolutely. I will come on to speak about the World Service in a moment. All those assets deploy so much of what is great about this country: the English language, arts, education, and the values of civil society and democracy.

I pay tribute to the work—since, I think, 1934—of the British Council. It now works on the ground in more than 100 countries, particularly in strategic areas such as the middle east, north Africa and in emerging economies. It may be helpful to know that last year it provided more than 1.3 million hours of English language teaching, supporting 5 million English teachers across the world. It now uses digital broadcasting to reach 100 million students. In addition, it provides exams and qualifications, and links UK primary and secondary schools, universities and arts bodies with overseas institutions in long-term beneficial partnerships. Despite taking a 26% budget cut in this comprehensive spending review period, it has a clear resolve to continue its core work by continuing to win competitive education and development contracts.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the BBC World Service also makes a massive and effective contribution to the development of the UK’s relationships abroad. It reaches 166 million people every week—through radio, television and the internet—in 27 languages, as well as English. Unlike the state-sponsored media of many of the countries in which it operates, its editorial independence ensures impartiality and objectivity. It is that professionalism and impartiality that generate trust and credibility overseas. The audience of BBC Arabic TV increased by more than 80% in recent months, including an increase in the online audience of 300% during the height of the Egyptian protests—clearly, it is a very powerful tool. Recent changes in funding streams and organisation will allow the World Service to work more closely with the domestic BBC, benefiting both the UK and other countries.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy engages with political parties across the world. That work involves—I have done some of it—training party officials to develop their capacity to create policy, to campaign and to fulfil effectively their function as Government or Opposition parties in emerging democracies. That work builds up democratic institutions and understanding. It also generates long-term trusting relationships between those countries and the UK, and the individuals in those Governments and the UK. All these institutions leave a legacy and impact on the individuals who encounter them and inevitably lead many to develop a natural empathy, respect and affinity for our country.

As I suggested at the outset, given all that these institutions do, there is a need better to co-ordinate their work into an holistic vision for our foreign policy. We have to recognise—this is my experience of being a member of the Defence Committee and working for WFD—that different Departments and institutions naturally have varying perspectives on foreign policy and the status of our relationships with countries across the world. That includes the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, as well as soft power institutions such as the British Council and the BBC World Service. For example, the primary objective of DFID focuses on poverty and long-term development goals, but that might not always align with the immediate demands of a military intervention to secure a strategic objective for British foreign policy.

My hon. Friend talks about the work of DFID, one aspect of which is education and its link to our foreign policy. We gave Pakistan £650 million for education to provide people with opportunity, aspiration and a life away from sectarian violence. That has implications for our own security—the training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan were linked to the terrorist attacks in London in 2005. DFID’s work on soft power foreign policy—giving people hope, opportunity and aspiration through education—provides a diversion from sectarian, ethnic terrorist tendencies.

I am not in any way seeking to criticise any individual player; my core argument this afternoon is about the co-ordination between those contrasting perspectives. When I went to Islamabad last autumn, DFID’s massive contribution was very clear.

Any one of these perspectives—development, diplomacy, military or culture—need not displace the others. Rather than picking one, or one being the lead, the challenge is skilfully to harmonise and develop a single, shared vision for our foreign policy. My experience in Afghanistan—in the DFID compound and then talking to people from the FCO and various military leaders—was that they all had a different perspective. What seemed to be lacking sometimes was a desire to integrate fully different views. If one had a clear development goal, it was very easy to find that goal in conflict with a military objective. Rather than seeing those different views as a barrier, the Government need to work systematically to synthesise those complementary perspectives and refine overall policy definition.

There are some excellent examples of where that already works in practice. The stabilisation unit, which is owned jointly by DFID, the FCO and the MOD, brings together expertise from those Departments with police and military personnel. It despatches task forces to conflict-stricken areas—for example, Afghanistan—to develop political processes, reduce conflict and violence, and provide a basis for future development. It remains unclear why the unit should be taken out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

The challenge to achieve the systematic co-ordination of different departmental perspectives on a large scale is compelling. We must identify different perspectives where they exist across Government. That will mean undertaking the difficult task of recognising where a departmental mindset is preventing co-ordination and collaboration with another Department’s activities, perhaps between the FCO and DFID. No doubt some Departments and organisations will need to make compromises to agree a comprehensive strategy for the greater good of diplomatic and long-term relations in a region or country.

It is also desirable to aim for a closer working relationship between soft power organisations and the Ministry of Defence. As the ongoing work of the British Council in Libya has shown, soft power institutions can build relationships of trust ahead of and after military intervention in a country. If that approach can be developed in respect of future military interventions, it could ease the work of the armed forces, particularly when working alongside civilians. Working with soft power institutions and making use of diverse expertise could aid the MOD in defining viable exit strategies, rather than just asserting that those will exist. The institutions that I have mentioned have a more nuanced understanding of cultural barriers and attitudes of populations on the ground and can probably more reliably estimate what will be achievable by military means.

We need to recognise that Foreign Office diplomats, wonderful though they are, are not the only actors in British diplomacy. Although diplomats achieve much for British trade and political understanding, arm’s length bodies, such as the WFD, working to build civil society and government infrastructures and developing strong relationships with emerging political parties, do much to develop trust and credibility where Britain’s historic ties are less strong or apparent.

Our diplomacy must allow soft power institutions to play a more significant role in maintaining mutually beneficial, positive relationships throughout the world. As I have emphasised, the key challenge is overcoming ingrained departmental mindsets and historic positions to harness the complementary perspectives and resources of an increasing range of diverse institutions, especially arm’s length soft power organisations.

We must put in place effective leadership, accountability and co-ordinating procedures throughout our institutions to enable what I am arguing for to work properly, and to define a sophisticated foreign policy strategy that serves the interests of the UK optimally across the globe. That will mean determined effort from Ministers and senior civil servants to put vested interests aside, and the instincts of the budget holder being left at the door as each Department recognises that others have something meaningful to contribute. It will also mean having difficult but vital discussions about our vision and objectives with individuals who may have a different starting point at the outset.

It is only through a determined approach of that type that the UK can maintain its unique standing in the world and make best use of these enormously powerful resources and assets that our great country possesses.

Thank you, Mr Bone, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this short but important debate. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing it. I agree with his two central arguments: first, we need to ensure that soft power is co-ordinated across the Government and is not just seen in Departments and, secondly, it must be properly integrated with hard power, so that we can bring to bear Britain’s collected and varied assets in an effective, focused way on the problems that we seek to address. Let me expand on that, because although that gets to the nub of it, I have the opportunity to speak at greater length.

The starting point for the Government is that there is a great role for soft power—probably a greater role than in the past—in today’s international landscape. By soft power, we mean a state’s ability to achieve preferred outcomes, not by coercion but by persuasion or attraction, building up networks, engaging with people at all levels to increase trust and respect and being prepared to listen and to show respect in turn.

Soft power is especially important as political and economic power spreads south and west. The countries that have traditionally exercised political leadership in the world over several hundred years are no longer able to ally their political roles with such a big share of the world’s economy. Britain—others are in the same position as us—needs to bring to bear a wider range of assets to try to ensure that our position is understood and sympathised with around the world. We have many advantages in our favour, which I will come to.

I apologise for being late entering this debate.

On the growth of power in the east, does the Minister agree that, although we have an extraordinary historical connection with countries such as India and China, it is clear that we can no longer trade on that historical relationship? As we begin to think about soft power, we cannot think that we necessarily have some cultural competitive advantage any more.

I basically agree. A slightly more complicated answer would be that our historical and cultural connections, which are extensive around the world, can sometimes put us in an advantageous position compared to our competitors, but they sometimes put us in a disadvantaged position.

We should not assume that, just because Britain has a comprehensive range of historical ties with other countries, we are necessarily the preferred partner of choice of the Governments, or the people and companies, in those countries. We should not think that we are able to rest on our historical laurels. We need to ensure that our soft power advantages are continuously updated and are relevant to the interests of the countries with which we engage. Let me run through a few of them, so that hon. Members better understand my point.

It is reckoned by independent observers that four of the top 10 universities in the world are in the United Kingdom. I think that the other six are in the United States. Another way to make that point would be to say that we are the only country apart from the US with universities in the top 10 in the world. At any point, some 400,000 foreign students are studying in this country. That is a huge soft power asset. If people go to Malaysia, for example, as I do, it is striking how many of the political and business elite have studied in British universities and have a depth of understanding of Britain that is greater than would otherwise be so.

We have the second largest number of Nobel laureates—second again to the US. Our museums and art galleries and other cultural assets are envied and admired throughout the world. In respect of more popular culture, it is striking how popular the premier league football fixtures are around the world. They are watched by, I am told, 4.7 billion people in a season. I suppose that a lot of those people will be counted on a repeat basis. Nevertheless, that is an extraordinary amount of total dedication to watching events happening in the UK on television. UK premier league football is watched in more than 200 countries.

In political terms, we are unique—the right use of that word—in being the only country that is a United Nations Security Council permanent member and a member of the European Union and the Commonwealth. We have ties right around the world that are not replicated even by countries that are as significant as the United States of America and China.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned the BBC World Service and the British Council, and I strongly endorse his support for those institutions. The foremost daily newspaper in shaping global opinion is the Financial Times—a British newspaper—and the weekly periodical that is most influential in shaping opinion around the world is The Economist, which is a British magazine. A persuasive case can be made for the BBC being the broadcaster that is most influential in shaping political opinion around the world.

All those different areas of thought leadership are amazing achievements, which we often take for granted. Not even the United States or, for that matter, Germany, France, China or Russia is leading the debate globally in that respect. Despite having less than 1% of the world’s population, not the British Government but media institutions in Britain are at the forefront of shaping opinions around the world.

I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which my hon. Friend mentioned. It is valued by Members throughout the House for its role in promoting elections, civic engagement and the development of political parties around the world.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

On resuming—

Thank you, Sir Roger, for giving me the opportunity to resume my contribution to the debate. Before we broke for the Division, I was talking about Britain’s soft power advantages and gave a number of examples. I was talking about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the significant role that it plays in promoting values that are endorsed with enthusiasm by parties right across the House.

I want to talk about co-ordination across the Government—something that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned in his introductory speech. Departments and publicly funded bodies are facing the challenge of how we can make the most effective use of the money that we have. There is a role for us to identify ways in which we can work even more closely together. We have already undertaken an exercise on how that might work in practice, and we will publish the results later in the year.

We have to tread warily, however. Many of the United Kingdom’s most effective soft power resources are independent of Government control. It is that very independence that makes them valuable—a point that was acknowledged by my hon. Friend in his speech. People who might not wish to talk directly to the British Government will engage with them, so we should not do anything that is perceived as compromising that independence. That does not mean that we should not look for opportunities to work together with our partners as much as possible. I shall give two examples.

First, I was recently in Brazil, where our UK-Brazil season later this year will bring together the Foreign Office, UK Trade & Investment and the British Council, working in tandem with other Departments, commercial organisations and cultural institutions, to promote the UK and to build new dynamic partnerships. Secondly, the Great campaign, launched by the Prime Minister in September, involves the Foreign Office, the British Council, UKTI and VisitBritain. That single campaign brings together all our overseas activity to promote Great Britain under a common banner, to get people from around the world to visit the UK and to do business here. It is expected to deliver 4.6 million extra visitors to the UK, generate tourist spending of £2.3 billion and create almost 60,000 new job opportunities.

The Foreign Office’s work on the Olympics and Paralympics has brought in a wide range of partners, both inside and outside the Government, working together to use the 2012 spotlight to build the reputation and influence of the UK right around the world. They will attract almost 15,000 athletes and will be held before almost 11 million ticket holders and an estimated global audience of 4 billion people. It is a great opportunity for us; they are distinctive events. Together with the royal jubilee this summer, that focus on Britain will be envied by every country around the world—even, I would venture, the United States. The events are important in their own right; they are not public relations events. Nevertheless, we need to be alert to their positive implications for how Britain is perceived globally.

We have been considering how to bring the elements of soft and hard power in a cohesive way into what is sometimes referred to in the jargon as smart power. Military power does not provide the only, or even the best, answer to many of the world’s challenges. Economic and social solutions to intractable problems are at least as important. The building stability overseas strategy, which was launched in July, was the first integrated cross-Government strategy to address conflict issues. Earlier in the debate, we discussed how some of that work had been carried out, and Pakistan was cited as an example of where different Departments and agencies are working together to achieve their departmental objectives, as well as the overall objectives of the United Kingdom Government.

Promoting stability in fragile countries reduces the threat of national and regional conflict. Instability and conflict provide fertile grounds for terrorist and criminal activity, thus preventing economic development and promoting migration. As part of that strategy, we have been working not only with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, but with key international stakeholders including non-governmental organisations and international partners, to improve our ability to anticipate potential conflicts and take fast and effective action to prevent a crisis and to help build robust societies.

Soft power is not an end in itself, but a capability to be used in pursuit of a wide range of foreign policy objectives. To make the most effective use of soft power, we must recognise not only the strengths and weaknesses of our partners, but how we are perceived by our target audiences. We must be prepared to engage carefully and respectfully with those whom we wish to influence, and we must use all the channels available to us. Soft power must also be fully integrated into policy making and delivery.

I believe that soft power will become more important in the years ahead. In terms of expenditure, Britain has the fourth largest military in the world, and we are the world’s sixth or seventh biggest economy, depending on how that is measured. As I have said, we possess key advantages such as our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, and we are leading members of both the European Union and the Commonwealth. Those formal expressions of power remain important in promoting our national interests and foreign policy objectives, although the ways in which countries exercise influence in the world are often becoming more subtle and varied than the exertion of formal power by a Government.

The United Kingdom has many attributes that are admired, such as our education sector, culture, sport and civic society, and that is a huge asset for the country around the world. Where appropriate, the Government are determined to make the most of such attributes, although many of those things are not necessarily led or directed by the UK Government, but are attributes of British society as a whole.

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and again I congratulate my hon. Friend on giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important issue.

Unemployment (Halifax)

I am delighted to have secured this debate, and to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I also thank the Minister who will reply to the debate. Before I get to the heart of the issue, however, I would like to paint a background picture of Halifax and describe the social and economic situation in which we find ourselves today.

I grew up in Halifax and went to school there, and I know the people of Halifax well. It is a great place in which to live and work. No one wants to be out of work, but sadly far too many people are. People do not want handouts but the chance to do a good day’s work for a good day’s wage. People do not want to live in—and I do not want to represent—a town where levels of unemployment might be at 15% or 20%. I requested this debate to place on the record what is happening in Halifax, and say why something needs to be done.

Even if the possibility of 20% unemployment in Halifax sounds a little exaggerated, that is sadly where we could be heading unless something radical is done to get people back into work. In recent times, too many regeneration schemes have been axed and new projects scrapped, and too many policies have made the poor poorer, instead of giving them hope of work.

For many years, jobs in Halifax and Calderdale came from a number of industries that sadly are either no more, or are shadows of their former selves—I am talking about engineering, manufacturing and, going further back, the woollen industries. Over the past two or three decades, we have seen a steady decline in those industries that provided employment to key groups of people in my constituency. Today, the two biggest employers are the Lloyds Banking Group—better known to most local people as either the Halifax building society or HBOS—and Calderdale council. Other key employers include the hospital in Calderdale and the primary care trust, and other public sector employers.

Well-run private companies such as J&C Joel in Sowerby Bridge, Harveys department store, or Iplas recycling group in the heart of Halifax, together with many more small companies, provide much needed employment and are key businesses in my constituency. They are models of how to make a profit, provide employment and maintain a dedicated and motivated work force. Over the years, Halifax has relied on specific sectors to provide employment, but when those sectors declined, a vacuum was created. In Halifax, it has never been enough to rely on private sector jobs to fill the void that is created when public sector jobs are lost. The town needs much more than that, which is why regeneration schemes, investment in new schools and the new hospital, together with a strong public sector and the right macro-economic policies, have helped maintain levels of employment in the town.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. My constituency is also in the Calderdale district, and like her, we are all concerned about unemployment, although I think that the figure of 20% may be a little far-fetched. As MPs, we must do all we can promote the area for business growth, which we know to be the key thing. That is particularly true when 20% of constituents in Halifax and Calder Valley work in manufacturing.

Does the hon. Lady agree that although we are incredibly concerned about unemployment, we must also celebrate success? I highlight the example of JLA in Ripponden, which has spent £1 million; KT Hydraulics has recently spent £2 million, and Decorative Panels has invested £8 million. Boxford has recently moved from the hon. Lady’s constituency to mine, spending £6 million and creating many jobs.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and as I will show later in my speech, I do not intend to talk down Halifax—quite the reverse. I saw the Halifax Courier on Saturday night and read about the new jobs that have been created in Calder Valley. The Halifax Courier is a great source of local knowledge. It talks up Halifax and I have worked with it on many local campaigns, including that to get a direct train service to London, which we accomplished a couple of years ago.

Why have I called this debate today? It is not to make overt party political points, but rather to set out the background and put on the record the current unemployment figures in Halifax which, I am afraid, speak for themselves. I find such figures alarming and wish to seek answers and assurances from the Minister about what can be done. What can be changed, and what initiatives is he planning to ensure that levels of unemployment start to reduce in my constituency?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate; the difficulties that she has expressed are mirrored in many of our constituencies. Does she believe that the onus should be put on apprenticeships and further education colleges to provide proper courses for what industry needs, together with a closer working relationship with organisations such as the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree with his point about apprenticeship schemes. In fact, just last Friday, I visited Goodall Transport in Sowerby Bridge in Halifax. It has been there for quite a few years. It would like more money coming up north, because it sees money directed more to the south of England. Also, it struggles with paying VAT before it gets that VAT into the company. It might invoice someone today and have to pay the VAT at the end of February, but not get the VAT by then. Perhaps the Minister will reply to that.

I hope that the Minister agrees that the current levels of unemployment in the town that I represent are unacceptably high, that the current upward trend in the number of people out of work is alarming and that a worryingly large number of those people are in the key 18 to 24 and 25 to 50 age groups. For example, the number of people out of work aged 24 and under has gone up by more than 25% in the last year, and in the 25 to 49 age group, it is up by more than 15%. The overall employment rate is only 66%. That is an alarmingly low level. I hope that the Minister shares my concerns about those rates. Does he agree that under one in four of the active adult population out of work in Halifax is a damning statistic? Will he outline what initiatives can be taken to improve that situation and put in place job creation measures as a matter of urgency, not just at macro-economic level, but at a micro-economic level that benefits my constituents?

Earlier today, I was looking at the statistics from five years ago. The unemployment level in Halifax has nearly doubled in that period. Despite the stereotyping last week of benefit claimants, they are people who want to work and need to work. The whole social fabric of a town can collapse if unemployment levels get too high. Let me be clear: I think that one person out of work is one too many. Does the Minister share my concerns about the figures that I have mentioned? What policies can he introduce to help to stem the flow of job losses, which is rapidly becoming a torrent?

The current situation is fragile, and the campaign to save jobs in the town’s two biggest employers—Lloyds HBOS and Calderdale council—goes on. The knock-on effects for the town of more job losses at those two big employers would be devastating. As Roger Harvey of Harveys department store regularly says to me, “Many town centre businesses need and rely on these jobs.” The fabric of the town is held together by them, and we need both a strong public sector and a private sector in Halifax to ensure that the town’s economic and social base is held together. With the greatest politeness and respect, I say to the Minister that the Government might be misunderstanding towns such as Halifax if they think that a reliance on private sector jobs will create new jobs or replace the ones that are being lost and being lost at a rapid rate.

In that sense, every effort should be being made to protect all jobs at Lloyds HBOS. The Government own more than 40% of that company. Will the Minister tell me what input he has into the board of Lloyds and what he is doing to protect jobs in Halifax and other constituencies? Will he also tell me how shedding public sector jobs helps towns such as Halifax? Will he do all that he can to compensate for those losses and outline what measures he is taking to ensure that new jobs will be created?

Calderdale council is at the heart of the Halifax and Calderdale economy. The reductions in council budgets are hurting the town. Again, may I gently mention that towns in the home counties and other parts of the country can better absorb public sector job losses? When there is a private sector, or towns have grown up with more service-based industries, new jobs can be created much more easily. In northern towns such as Halifax, which have always had a strong and important public sector, that is much harder to do. I hope that the Government fully realise what makes the economy in places such as my constituency tick and how cutting the public sector, but not giving the private sector the means to create new jobs, leads to a damaging and shocking increase in unemployment.

I do not want to knock everything. There are success stories, such as those that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. I recently visited the Iplas recycling company. The managing director, Howard Waghorn, has visionary and innovative ideas for his company. Likewise, the order book of J&C Joel in Sowerby Bridge continues to expand. However, those are well-run, long-established companies. The new industries and entrepreneurs with innovative ideas needed for the 21st century will not appear in towns such as Halifax simply through the waving of a magic wand and hoping that new jobs are created. I do not want to pretend that everything in Halifax is gloomy. It is not. We need to keep our self-confidence and hope. There are success stories. I am sure, or rather I hope, that the Minister will quote them back to me when he replies.

In essence, I would like the Minister and the Government to recognise the underlying problem that exists in towns such as Halifax, not hide away from it. I hope that the figures that I have cited alarm the Minister as much as they have alarmed me. I would like to hear some answers about what can be done, not excuses for what has not been done. I would like the Minister to assure me that job creation and regeneration schemes will be targeted on Halifax. The initiatives from the Department for Communities and Local Government will help Calderdale council. However, we want not short-term fixes, but long-term solutions. Therefore, I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what his short and long-term plan is for reducing unemployment in Halifax today, before the terrible consequences of further unemployment become a crisis, with people out of work and the whole social fabric of the town ripped apart.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) on securing the debate and on the very measured but passionate way in which she presented her case. I entirely agree with her that one person unemployed is too many and that the rise in unemployment in Halifax and other towns is absolutely a source of concern. She said that something must be done, and I entirely agree. I hope to use the few minutes available to me to set out what the Government are doing to deal with some of the very important points that she raised.

To set the context, for claimants of jobseeker’s allowance, the national average rate is just under 4%. The figure for the hon. Lady’s region, Yorkshire and Humberside, is 4.6%, but the figure for Halifax is 6.4%, so her town is above average in the region, and the region is above average in the country. I therefore take the point that she makes about the particular pressures on her town.

Part of the Government’s strategy is to move away from some of the schemes that unemployed people have faced in the past. The hon. Lady and I will both have met people who were sent on a scheme by the jobcentre and came away from it thinking, “What was the point of that?” It did not help them to get a job, yet the provider of the scheme got paid and went home happy. We want to change that. We want to move, and are moving, towards a system whereby the companies that we pay to help people from unemployment, from incapacity benefit and so on into work get paid only when they deliver.

The whole philosophy behind the Work programme, which is still gearing up across the country and gathering momentum, is that the providers get paid only when they get people into jobs and, specifically, when they get people into sustained jobs. The bulk of the money is end-loaded. They get very little money up front, and if they do not deliver for the people of Halifax, they do not get paid. That is a sea change from the sort of schemes that we have had in the past.

Let me give the hon. Lady a flavour of what is being provided in the west Yorkshire area, within which her constituency falls. In each area, we have two prime providers for the Work programme. They are the main contractors, and we have two because they have to compete against each other to do their best for the people of west Yorkshire. Each year, we look at how each provider has done, and if one is doing a better job than the other, more people are referred to it, so the successful providers that are good at getting people back to work receive more referrals and make more money from that. We do not mind them making money from it, because they are saving the taxpayer money and helping the individuals concerned.

The two main providers in the west Yorkshire area are Best and Ingeus. Best has a series of subcontractors that provide services to the hon. Lady’s constituents. One of the reasons that people get stuck on out-of-work benefits—not just jobseeker’s allowance, but incapacity benefits, employment and support allowance and so on—is that they have physical or mental health issues. Condition Management Partners, a subcontractor in west Yorkshire, helps such people to overcome their mental or physical health issues by providing cognitive behaviour therapy, motivational interviewing techniques and other such therapies. That is a voluntary third sector organisation working with a prime contractor to help people who have barriers to work.

We want to make sure that there is not a core of people in Halifax who have just lost touch with the labour market. The longer such people are out of touch with the labour market, the less chance they have of getting a job. We need to get them back in contact with the labour market. I entirely take on board the hon. Lady’s point that there needs to be jobs for them to go to, and I will say a bit more about that later. We want the people who have been on long-term benefits, particularly incapacity benefit and jobseeker’s allowance, to be effective competitors for those jobs. We know that jobs are being created and that vacancies will exist. There are hundreds of vacancies even now at the hon. Lady’s local jobcentre. We want the people who have been on long-term benefits to be effective participants in the labour market, so that when jobs come up, they can apply for them and get them, thereby breaking out of that cycle of long-term benefit dependency.

Another subcontractor of Best is Forster community college, which is a public sector organisation in the supply chain that provides help for Work programme participants with drug and alcohol issues. It also provides specialist support for ex-offenders and homeless people. For all those people, the danger is that their characteristics are such that they appear less attractive to employers. When private sector, or even public sector, jobs are created, they are always at the back of the queue and then get stuck on benefits. We want to make them as attractive to employers as everybody else so that they do not get stuck on benefits.

The other main provider in the hon. Lady’s region, Ingeus, has a series of subcontractors, including a group called Specialist Health Advisers, which is helping people with the basics such as exercise and healthy eating. The barriers preventing long-term unemployed people from being effective participants in the labour market include having got out of the habit of work, having got out of routines or not looking after themselves. We are trying to tackle many of those issues. Part of our strategy is getting people who are on benefit to be attractive to employers. I entirely take the hon. Lady’s point: unemployment has gone up. None the less, employment is still up compared with 18 months ago. There are more people working than there were 18 months ago. Somebody is getting those jobs, and the challenge is to ensure that help goes to the people of Halifax who are perhaps the furthest from the labour market and who are in most need of support and intervention. We pay extra for that. If somebody is unemployed but could probably get themselves a job, they do not come near the Work programme, but if they have been long-term unemployed or long-term sick, we pay extra money—in excess of £10,000 in some cases—to a provider to get that person into work. We must tackle what I call the supply side. We need to ensure that unemployed people are supported and enabled.

I am sure that the hon. Lady would be the first to say to me that that is not enough. Clearly, there have to be jobs available. She mentioned some successful private enterprises in her constituency. She mentioned an environmentally friendly company. We will shortly be launching the Green investment bank, which will provide money specifically for new enterprises and growth industries. This is not just about London and the south-east; it cannot be. We have a regional growth fund that specifically helps areas that are dependent on the public sector to make the transition to a better balance between public and private. There will always be an important role for the public sector in her area, but there is no reason on earth why, with the right support, Halifax should not have a thriving private sector as well.

Let me give one example of the incentives that we are giving. New businesses outside London and the south-east will be exempted from up to £5,000 of employer national insurance contributions for each of the first 10 employees they hire. That is a concrete and practical thing, which I am sure she will welcome.

We are also using deregulation as a way to help small businesses. I remember that at one point my local party wanted to employ its first employee. I was absolutely horrified by all the paperwork involved and the bureaucracy of running PAYE. There is a real barrier to taking on that first employee. We have said that all small businesses will be exempt from all new regulation for the next three years. Therefore, we are saying to people who start new businesses, “We are on your side. We want to give you support.” We are lowering the rate of corporation tax, with the small firms rate cut to 20%. Again, we are trying to ensure that, where a company makes a profit, it keeps more of it so that it can invest it in the local area.

We contacted the Jobcentre Plus district manager in preparation for the debate. I know that Jobcentre Plus is working very hard. Next week, for example, it is hosting a jobs fair to coincide with national apprenticeships week. I understand that the district manager would be very pleased to meet local MPs on a one-to-one basis. If the hon. Lady is happy to take up that invitation, he will talk through some of the issues that she has raised today that we may not have the chance to cover in as much detail. No one can supply as much local detail as the Jobcentre Plus manager on the ground.

The hon. Lady mentioned young people. I agree that unemployment is devastating for anybody, but at the start of somebody’s working life, it is a particular tragedy. That is why I am pleased with what the Government have been able to do on the apprenticeships front—an issue that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson). My understanding is that, last year in Halifax, there were 1,150 apprenticeship starts. That programme is being expanded and we will update those figures shortly. Many people recognise that the apprenticeship scheme, which is linked to an employer and is about learning and applying skills, is a much better way of dealing with youth unemployment. It gives young people a focus and links to an employer. Although it does not guarantee a job, it makes someone more employable and gives them a reference. I am proud that the Government are doing so much in that regard.

I must admit that I am not an expert on Halifax. I was not aware of the full details of the hon. Lady’s constituency. I should say, however, that normally my right hon. Friend the Employment Minister would be responding to this debate, but with the Welfare Reform Bill going through the House, he has had to be in the main Chamber. I had a look at some of the figures for Halifax, which I am happy to leave with the hon. Lady. I have a chart that shows the number of people who have been on out-of-work incapacity benefits for the last decade in Halifax. What struck me was how the number had not moved. For 10 years, despite the booms and the busts, there was the same number of people—obviously not all of them are the same people but many are—stuck on the list. I entirely take her point that we should not stigmatise or parody the position of people on benefits. Although many people are on benefits through no fault of their own, we have allowed ourselves to get to a situation in Halifax and in many other such towns in which nearly 5,000 people have consistently been on ESA or incapacity benefit for the last 10 years. The question is: are we doing right by those people? Many of them will be in their 50s. If we just left them alone because there are not many jobs, we would be saying, “You can be on incapacity benefit for another 10 years and then you can have a pension, but it won’t be much of a pension because you haven’t been working.” We can do better than that, which is why we are keen to have these Work programme providers incentivised to help the long-term sick and disabled to overcome the barriers to work which get greater the longer people are out of work.

The hon. Lady asked about the Government’s macro strategy. She mentioned public sector job losses. She would accept, I think, that a substantial rebalancing of public spending had to be done. She was not unduly partisan in her remarks, so I will not be in my response, but it is commonly known that substantial public sector savings had to be made.

Given that—this is from memory—roughly two thirds of everything that Government spend is spent on pay, and that is certainly true if we exclude social security benefits, we cannot scale back public sector spending without significantly scaling back public sector employment, particularly if we are going to protect pensions and so on. It can be done partly through pay, as the Government have obviously done, but it will also imply a smaller public sector. It is therefore doubly crucial that we assist towns where the public sector—the local authority, the hospital and others that the hon. Lady mentioned—has been a major employer.

The hon. Lady described what has happened to the private sector and how the wool industry among others is in long-term decline. The public sector will not fill that void. Across Europe, Governments are retrenching, so it would be dishonest for me to say that the public sector will take up the slack. I think that she and I are agreed that the vital thing is to facilitate a vibrant private sector, but I also agree with her that that will not just happen. Part of the solution is about skills and training—I have mentioned apprenticeships—part of it is about unsticking the folk who get stuck on benefits and part of it is about the overall macro-economic position.

To give one example, the hon. Lady mentioned her local department store, which needs people to have spending power in their pockets. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been pressing for a rise in the tax threshold, and the Government are committed to that. Instead of low-paid people paying tax after roughly £6,500, as they did last year, by the end of this Parliament they will not pay tax until after £10,000. That extra £3,500 at a basic rate of 20% is an extra £700 a year in their pockets, and I know that it would be very welcome if we moved faster on that.

People at that level of income tend to spend it. We know that, if we put money into the hands of those on lower and modest incomes, they will spend it. When we faced difficult decisions before Christmas on what to do about benefit levels for the coming year, there was a lot of debate about consumer prices index inflation peaking at 5.2% in the year to September. That very high figure has come down significantly since, so what was the case for using the full 5.2% for jobseeker’s allowance, ESA and all the main benefits, as we did? One of the things that convinced us that it was the right thing to do was the fact that those people would spend that money, thus boosting the local economy, and that decision will have helped the hon. Lady’s constituency, where benefit income is a significant part of income.

We agree with the hon. Lady: something must be done, and it is being done at both the macro and micro level. I hope that she will continue this conversation with her local Jobcentre Plus district manager, who, I am sure, will be pleased to meet her.

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