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Westminster Hall

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2012

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 24 April 2012

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

School Funding

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. There is a very strong representation from the south-west here today, including the Chair, and we welcome that.

School funding is an issue that has bedevilled the country, particularly for those of us who represent underfunded areas. In many ways, the problem of school funding reminds me irresistibly of the late 19th-century question of Schleswig-Holstein, about which Lord Palmerston says:

“Only three people…have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

Although I would not suggest for a moment that the Minister responsible for schools and the Secretary of State for Education are the only two people who really know about school funding, it is fair to say that I certainly got lost early on in the quagmire of the local authority central spend equivalent grant—or LACSEG, which sounds very similar to some medicine that I once took for Barrett’s oesophagus.

None the less, the issue is clear to us all. There are many schools across the country, including all those in my constituency, whose pupils effectively lose out significantly in terms of the amount of money spent on them per year relative to pupils in the large metropolitan areas. In fact, there are some 2.5 million pupils in the F40 areas, which are the poorest-funded local authorities in England. Therefore, on average, £5,000 less per child is spent on children’s education in my county of Gloucestershire and other counties represented here today.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem is exacerbated by the rural nature of constituencies in the south-west? Certainly, in Devon, that makes the problem of underfunding even more acute.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and speaks powerfully for children in rural areas. Of course, there can also be a problem for those in urban areas within a rural county. In my case, one of the reasons why some of us in Gloucester feel so passionately about the issue is that we are a relatively poor city and a relatively rich county. I am sure that other hon. Members have similar situations, and I am happy to take interventions from them on that point.

I cannot resist an invitation like that. Swindon has a similar demographic to that of Gloucester. We are in a relatively rich part of the world and have historically been underfunded. We are doing our best with the resources that we are given, but the option set out by the F40 campaign—an extra £99 million—would be a good interim way to deal with an historic problem that Governments of all parties have wrestled.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that relates perhaps to a later stage of the argument that I will develop. I agree with him absolutely that although, as the saying goes, size—or, in this case, money—is not everything, it does go a long way towards improving the opportunities for children in our constituencies. As we all know, above all else, the Government are concerned with aspiration and providing equal opportunities for children across the country.

Would it not be a travesty if areas of social deprivation lose out on the school funding formula when the Government’s ethos is to encourage young people into education and perhaps to go on from that to vocational studies?

The hon. Gentleman is implying that my argument is to beggar my neighbour, to give pupils in Gloucester a better chance. He is right in saying that a charge to the lowest common denominator to achieve equality is not necessarily what we are looking for, and that is not what I intend to propose. However, perhaps we will come on to the specifics of that in a moment.

Broadly, we have already established a degree of consensus in the debate—and I suspect across the House—that the principle of equal funding for every child in the country is one that we would all happily sign up to. The Secretary of State for Education has made it clear that that is his principle as well. Of course, the Government have, in a sense, made deprivation much easier to deal with by introducing the pupil premium, which hugely helps those children who come from very deprived backgrounds and who therefore deserve additional money being spent on them to give them the same opportunities as those children from more stable family backgrounds. We all agree on the principle, but what can be done about it? Given the length of time that the issue has been with us—some 20 years or more—and, I regret to say, the previous Government’s complete failure to tackle the problem, it falls upon the coalition Government to deal with it.

During the various debates that have already taken place in the House since the Government came to power, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has perfectly summarised the issue. He has said:

“The current system is not only ludicrously bureaucratic, it is also unfair as schools in different parts of the country are not funded on a rational basis. Moreover, the sheer complexity of the system gives schools less incentive to respond to the needs of local parents by expanding or establishing new provision.”

With the exception of not alluding to the Schleswig-Holstein issue, he could not have put it better, and I do not suppose that any hon. Member here today would disagree with him. How do the Government therefore propose to create a fairer system that will enable those authorities in which our constituencies lie to be reassured that the Government can right the wrong that has been with us for more than 20 years?

Of course, I should say that the Government first launched a consultation. At the announcement of the consultation, Lord Hill determined that it would address the disparities and inequalities within our school system. The consultation was the first step towards ensuring fair funding. None the less, the Department for Education has been unable to find the additional money that would have provided the top-up to all those areas in the F40 group. That would have provided us with the simple one-stop solution of equal funding for all pupils across the land. In times of extremely constrained finance, it is not surprising—no one in our constituencies could conceivably blame the Government for this—that the additional significant amount of money needed to solve the problem in one go has not been found.

However, there has been good news in terms of a significant reduction in the factors that local authorities can consider when constructing school formula. The number of factors that need to be considered have dropped from 37 to 10, which will slightly reduce the complexity of the education funding formula, to which I alluded earlier, and make it easier for schools to understand the rationale behind their budgets. The consultation also arrived at a much greater delegation of funding to schools and will ensure that local authorities can no longer top-slice school budgets. Above all, given that 75% of the secondary schools in Gloucestershire are now academies, the consultation provided for academies to be funded using exactly the same formula as maintained schools, because there had been a year’s lag under the system inherited from the previous Government. That single change will make a significant difference to the academies in my constituency of Gloucester and elsewhere.

It is a bit like watching Martin Luther King in his prime. Is it not right that my hon. Friend has a dream, not only for all schools to be equal, but for the Schools Minister to give us the first step, the first indication and the first rung on the ladder to an equal and fair funding for all the schools we represent?

Yes, apart from an alarming analogy with Martin Luther. [Hon. Members: “King.”] Martin Luther King—even more puzzling. Martin Luther was of course responsible for the great saying, “Who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long,” but I do not think that that was the object of my hon. Friend’s attempt to introduce him into the debate. However, my hon. Friend’s fundamental point—that we are looking for an early gesture from the Government to reassure our constituents that they do not just have warm sounds, but an initial step towards resolving the funding problem—is absolutely right, and one that I think all hon. Members endorse.

There are budgetary challenges to finding a solution, but the F40 group has submitted various suggestions for interim funding proposals that would improve the situation considerably. It has put forward four options to make steps towards equality, not all of which are hugely expensive. It is not for me to ask for a specific amount of money or a specific formula for the Government to start the ball rolling, but I urge the Government to look closely at the F40 group’s proposals in the hope that one of them is attractive and affordable, and, above all, can be introduced for the academic year 2014-15—before the funding settlement of the next Government.

My main wish is for the Minister to take from the debate the thought that not only are the Government able to agree with the principle and the direction of travel, but they can make the first steps to implement financial change to show that this long, 20-year inequality will finally be tackled.

My hon. Friend has mentioned timing on three occasions. Is that not one of the crucial points? Given that we have had that inequality for 20 years and that we have a very strained economic environment, it is vital that we resolve this problem as soon as possible and in the best way possible.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, the difficulty is in the words, “as soon as possible” and “the best way possible”. Neither he nor I have control of the finances, but I think we both agree strongly that this is our opportunity to lobby the Minister and for him to reflect the strength of our conviction to the Treasury in the hope that additional moneys can be found as soon as possible.

This is happening because for more than 20 years civil servants have recognised that there will be winners and losers. As a group, we, and my hon. Friend in particular, must impress on the Minister that the most important thing is to get on with it now and have no further delay. There have always been winners and losers, and the F40 group are the losers every single time. We need to ensure that we level things out very quickly, because it has been 20-odd years.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about winners and losers. Personally, I am not trying to advocate taking money away from deprived areas in large metropolitan cities. They have benefited from generous settlements in the past 20 years, which is absolutely right, but this is not necessarily the moment to rob Paul to pay Peter. I am looking for additional funding from the Treasury to the Department for Education in a formula that allows gradual progress over a period to resolve this inequality of funding.

The Secretary of State sent a letter to a number of us, in which he commented on the consultation:

“Support for reform was widespread but responses also suggested this model would need careful planning. Getting the components and implementation of a fair national funding formula right is critical and we need to manage transition carefully”.

I think that we all agree with him. We would like him to move on as quickly as possible, rather than delaying until the next Parliament—the issue on which I will close my speech. This situation is not of the Secretary of State’s making. This is a 20-year legacy problem that could and should have been tackled by the previous Government. God knows, they had long enough to consider it carefully. None the less, the issue of fairness echoes powerfully for all of those involved in education in our constituencies, which is why so many of us are here today to engage with the Minister, who has once again kindly picked up the cudgel. I am sure he will respond with his usual positive and encouraging noises, but we are looking for more than just noises. We encourage him to take the message back to the Treasury that the strength of feeling is strong.

Before I call the next speaker, perhaps those who intend to speak will remain standing for a moment. There are six hon. Members, so there is no necessity to impose a formal time limit. Perhaps those who intend to speak can be aware that we have approximately an hour before the Front Benchers reply to the debate. I was going to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

Let me be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on a superb introduction to this important issue, which has drawn a large number of hon. Members to the Chamber. It would have been nice to see a few hon. Members from Her Majesty’s Opposition, but they seem to be somewhat absent. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the sensitive way in which he has raised this important issue.

We all have a duty to speak up for our constituents. Central Bedfordshire council is in the unique position of having a local authority on one side of it, Luton, which is generally poorer than central Bedfordshire, and a local authority on the other side of it, Buckinghamshire, which is richer. Both authorities receive more money per child than central Bedfordshire. I put it to the Minister that it is very hard, as a Bedfordshire MP, to explain to my constituents why the authorities on either side, one of which is poorer and one of which is richer, receive more money. It makes an eloquent case for why the formula has no logic or rationale.

I am intrigued by the disparity and lack of clarity in Bedfordshire. Three years ago, Cheshire county split into two unitary authorities—east and west. Cheshire East, which includes Macclesfield and Congleton, receives £10 million a year less than Cheshire West. The reason for the disparity is not clear at all, which highlights my hon. Friend’s point. The formula needs clarity and transparency, as well as fairness.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for illustrating a problem similar to the one in the bottom part of Bedfordshire. That adds to my argument.

Each child in central Bedfordshire receives £4,658, compared with a child in Luton who receives £5,315 and a child in Buckinghamshire who receives £4,814. A child in Luton gets £657 more and a child in wealthier Buckinghamshire, our neighbour, gets £156 more. Every political party across the spectrum in central Bedfordshire is unhappy about that. The leader of Central Bedfordshire council wrote to the Secretary of State on 25 January to express the views of the whole council on this matter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate.

If my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) would like another example, Leicestershire is the lowest-funded local authority per pupil head in the country. One disparity between the county and neighbouring Leicester city—I am sure that hon. Members have examples of a city next door to a county—is that pupils in Leicester get £900 per head more than pupils in Leicestershire. Yet books and teachers’ salaries do not cost any more in the city than in the county.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate.

The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) made about teachers’ salaries is vital, because those constitute, as all hon. Members who have been school governors know, the vast majority of a school’s budget. I am not in favour of differential salaries throughout the country. We need standard salaries. It is all the more important that schools funding should be fair, per head, because those basic costs should be the same throughout the country.

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking with passion and for further illustrating the point, which all hon. Members are making.

Some hon. Members have already mentioned that relatively wealthy areas often have significant pockets of deprivation. That is true in my constituency. There is deprivation in Houghton Regis, for example. The indices of multiple deprivation in some wards in that town are not dissimilar to those in much higher-funded Luton next door. The formula fails poorer children in wealthier areas. We need to look at that to see whether the formula could drill down and give additional funding for poorer children in slightly wealthier areas.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the pupil premium has been a great advance for poorer children, but in many counties there is quite a low level of unemployment and poorer constituents often do not qualify for free school meals and miss out, and are not being helped by the differential funding that he rightly condemns.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for adding that important point to the debate.

This Government made an impressive start on this issue by publishing “School funding reform: next steps towards a fairer system” a few weeks ago. I am grateful to the Minister and his colleagues at the Department for recognising the problem and setting out a route map for dealing with this issue. Having looked through the document, I understand that it will look to vary funding between different areas to try to deal with some of the discrepancies by up to 1.5% variance from the minimum funding guarantee per year. That will apply in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. That is an important start for which we are all grateful.

It is worth putting on the record that this Government came into office inheriting a complete economic shambles. We are still having to borrow £120 billion just to pay for public expenditure this year and we are honouring our commitments on increasing funding to the NHS and on international development. Notwithstanding that, Ministers in the Department have maintained cash budgets for schools, which is no mean achievement. That should go on the record in this debate. Many hon. Members know that the only way to deal with this issue, and the unfairness that many of us are rightly raising, is to get the economy growing and get real economic growth. In a time of rising budgets, I believe that by doing so we will be able to make significant progress towards dealing with these inequalities. I should welcome some reassurance from the Minister that that will happen as the economy grows.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on leading the charge on this matter. I am not from the south-west and have no real knowledge of Schleswig-Holstein. Warrington is one of the lowest funded of the F40. Periodically, I visit primary and other schools, as we all do, most recently Broomfields in Appleton. Over and over, governors take me to one side, show me spreadsheets and say, “Why does this school in another part of the country, which has the same characteristics as our school, have so much extra money? Can you explain to me, as our MP, why an incoming Government with a Front Bench bristling with talent, energy and reforming zeal, can acknowledge the problem and understand it has to be fixed, yet does not seem to have the appetite to have a go at it?”

Warrington is not a wealthy place. It has wards that are among the most deprived in the country. Over the weekend I looked at many spreadsheets—I congratulate the Department on the volume of spreadsheets on its website—and noticed that there is a 50% discrepancy between the funding level of Warrington and Westminster, where I live during the week. Is Westminster that much worse off than Warrington? Are the deprivation indices that much more difficult? I do not think so.

In preparing for this debate I read a lot of papers on websites and various materials that are around. A lot of words have been written about how difficult it all is, but none of the analyses attempt to justify the status quo. I have seen no serious attempt to say that where we are now is the right place. None of the hon. Members who will speak or have spoken already are asking for a national funding formula to be put in place and implemented immediately. We are asking for a start to be made.

I recognise—perhaps the Minister will address this in his remarks—that it could take 10, 15 or 20 years to fix this in its entirety, but that is all the more reason at least to make a start. That is what I find most difficult to explain to my constituents. I have a suggestion for the Front-Bench spokesman.

Does my hon. Friend agree that even a modest increase in the budgets of low-funded local education authorities would make a significant difference to the education that could be offered to children?

Picking up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough, Leicestershire is the lowest-funded area in the country. Coalville, the most deprived town in Leicestershire, is in my constituency. Even in the centre of Coalville there is below average take-up for free school meals, so we will not benefit from the pupil premium to the extent that the Government might expect. There are a lot of proud people out there and they are reluctant to take up free school meals because a great stigma is attached to them.

I agree. Clearly, every hon. Member has places in their constituencies that are deeply deprived and lose out in this regard.

It is said that it is difficult to put in place a national formula, but I do not think it is. An exercise to decide the inputs to the national formula, indices of deprivation, London weighting and historical issues could take place over a long period. Several things could be done, and I find it difficult to understand why they have not been, because there is a precedent in a national formula for health funding. The way in which all our primary care trusts are funded is driven by the ACRA formula—called after the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation—which appears to work reasonably well. A characteristic of the ACRA formula is that it gives different numbers and numbers that one might not want to adjust to immediately because they are too far up or down in the next year. The Department of Health deals with that with what it calls a direction of travel adjustment—adjustment to the correct number takes place over a number of years. I see no difficulty in the education community doing something similar because, as I said, no one is asking for the problem to be fixed quickly. We want to know that there is a direction of travel and that over the next decade, say, it will be sorted out.

Finally, I very much support our policy and what we are doing with academies and free schools. For me and for people in my constituency on the wrong end of the formula, however, the funding issue is more potent. It is disappointing that our Front Bench is on the same side as the teaching unions, which should give Ministers pause for thought. We are asking not for the problem to be fixed now but for a start to be made.

It is good to see such a well subscribed debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am mindful that Worcestershire’s lowly place near the bottom of the league tables for school funding is only one above that of Wiltshire so, although as Chair you can make a limited contribution to the content of the debate, it is appropriate for you to be presiding over it.

I declare an interest as an unpaid member of the executive of F40, a cross-party group that campaigns on behalf of Wiltshire, Worcestershire and the other authorities that are among the lowest funded in the country. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing today’s debate. He and I have worked closely together on a number of issues, representing as we do two of England’s finest cathedral and rugby-playing cities. It is always a pleasure to hear him speak eloquently and wittily for the interests of his constituents and schools, interests on which Gloucester, Worcester and, it appears, Warrington are fully united.

I am pleased to speak before a Minister who understands such a complex and difficult area of policy extremely well. He has a firm grasp of the issues facing our schools and has given a great deal of time to colleagues and to campaign groups, for which I thank him. He has previously expressed the clear and unequivocal view that the current system of school funding is flawed and that reform is necessary. Indeed, before I express my pleas and concerns, it is important to recognise that there was much to be warmly welcomed in the Government announcement of 26 March, “Next steps towards a fairer system”. The Secretary of State, in his foreword to the paper, said:

“The current system is opaque, inconsistent and unfair with huge differences between areas.”

I could not agree more. He promised a new national funding formula after the next spending review—the right answer on the wrong timetable in my opinion, but nevertheless the right answer.

The Secretary of State also announced moves to simplify significantly local funding formulae and to create much greater transparency—I welcome the latter in particular, because transparency might be the key to breaking down the vast disparities and lack of consistency in the current system. If Ministers mean school governors to have more notice of their funding arrangements in future, I strongly welcome such a move, which has been called for by pretty much every school governor I have ever met. If, too, we will see the per pupil funding that is actually received school by school and area by area—rarely possible to date—I welcome it all the more. Ministers could be providing the decisive weapon to expose once and for all the disparities of the system; organisations such as F40 will use it to the best of their abilities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work co-ordinating Members in the F40 group, of which I am one. I highlight again the anomalous funding position of the adjacent large unitary authorities of Cheshire East and of Cheshire West and Chester. Cheshire East runs from Poynton near Stockport in Greater Manchester in the north right down to Audlem, near Shropshire, in the south; within that range, we have severe pockets of deprivation. Meeting with head teachers, I have the sense that not only do they see the funding as unfair but they feel the injustice. Is it not right that we address the issue as a matter of justice, and that we do so expeditiously?

Absolutely, I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. That injustice would be made all the more clear if there were greater transparency on school-by-school funding.

There have also been some moves to protect special needs funding and to simplify arrangements for early years provision, all of which we welcome. The Government set out plans to end disparities within local authority areas but, with a perhaps understandable concern to limit turbulence, they have so far resisted dealing with disparities between authorities until 2015. There is much to praise, therefore, but that last point is a profound mistake.

The biggest and most obvious flaws in the current funding system, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, are the yawning gaps left in per pupil funding between neighbouring authorities. There is a gap of £1,088 between annual per pupil funding in Worcestershire and neighbouring Birmingham; my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) mentioned the gap of almost £900 between Leicester and Leicestershire, the lowest funded authority; and there is the stunning gap of nearly £5,000 between the lowest and the highest authorities. We have often discussed such disparities before, and I accept that there are many historic and political reasons for them, but the Minister has accepted the point that no firm formula underpins them any longer. The successive layers of government priorities that created those gaps have ossified over the years, and the gaps have grown ever wider as spending has grown, creating an unfair and indeed unjustifiable system.

It is extremely welcome that the Government have recognised the problem, and the previous Government suggested that they were beginning to do so, but it is not enough to recognise a problem—the challenge is to correct it. When the previous Labour Government opened a consultation on funding reform but proposed no preventive action, I and many others present would have accused them of dithering. Now that my own coalition Government, whose education reforms I support strongly and whose pupil premium I have praised, are proposing no action until after the next spending review, I cannot do otherwise with them. To accept the need for fundamental reform but to postpone any move towards it is similar to a dentist recognising the cause of a toothache making a patient’s life unbearable and then offering to deal with it in three years’ time. If such a case came to our surgeries as MPs, we would react with outrage. On behalf of all the teachers, head teachers, parents and—above all—pupils in our schools, we must demand swifter action now.

The question is not about a system that rewards the neediest areas and gives least to the best off. If that were the case, the City of London would hardly be the best funded authority in the country, nor Kensington and Chelsea in the top 10. Since the introduction of the pupil premium, many F40 authorities have received a good chunk of pupil premium funding, despite the factors mentioned by my hon. Friends, showing that there are significant levels of deprivation in many F40 areas. In my own urban constituency, I have wards that are among the most deprived in the entire country. However, the low level of underlying funding, before the allocation of the pupil premium, means that many head teachers in those wards tell me that they need the extra money to break even—to keep their schools afloat—and that they cannot spend the money on what it was intended for, to improve the chances of the most deprived.

My hon. Friend and neighbour might be interested to hear about my recent discussions with some schools in Wyre Forest. Usually, a school expects to pay somewhere between 80% and 85% of its budget on staffing. Now, because of the very low funding formula, we see typical schools in such lower funded areas spending nearer 90% or even more than 90% of the budget on staffing—an intolerable situation for their head teachers to manage.

Absolutely right. My hon. Friend from Worcestershire points out that the extra money from the pupil premium is sometimes needed to support such costs and it is not necessarily reaching the target at which it is aimed.

We all recognise that it is impossible to correct the problem overnight. Ministers have said that their consultation threw up widespread support for reform but also much concern about turbulence. Interestingly, the teaching unions came out strongly in favour of postponing the issue; in doing so, they might have been representing many of their members, but they were certainly failing to represent the interests of those members in F40 areas whom we meet day in, day out.

The many MPs I have spoken to and the volunteers who make up the F40 executive recognise the need to avoid setting one part of the country against another in a scrap for funding. We also recognise that it is incredibly difficult to change the system radically when spending is under extreme constraint. We can idly wish that the previous Government had been quicker to act and more determined to deliver, but what is done is done; the opportunity to correct the glaring inequalities in the system during the days of ready money has now been lost forever. In the tough conditions of today, however, the need for fairer funding is all the greater. Worcestershire school leaders tell me that they understand the need for constraint and, like other public servants, they are straining every sinew to deliver more with less, but they are harder pressed to do so when there is an open and acknowledged injustice in how they are funded. In Worcestershire, we have schools within a few miles of the boundary with Birmingham that must deliver lessons on a budget hundreds of pounds per pupil lower, that must compete for teachers with a much better funded authority down the road and that are now being asked to accept the same constraints as that neighbouring authority, having missed out on many of the benefits of easier times. It would be neither fair nor reasonable to make no move in the lifetime of this Government to right such wrongs.

I am grateful that, within days of his March announcement, the Secretary of State met the Chairman of F40 and some of its local authority members to hear their concerns. Neither he nor the Minister would have been surprised at the profound disappointment they expressed at the decision to postpone until 2015 the move to a new formula. At that meeting, it was agreed that further representations would be accepted from the group on changes that would not hurt the funding of other authorities, but would mark a first step, however small, towards greater fairness. F40 has since sent in its suggestions, which I strongly support.

We have heard about Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, and I want to introduce Mark Twain to the debate. He wrote:

“The secret of getting ahead is to get started”.

F40 has suggested some options for getting started. It looked at the cost of bringing the lowest-funded authorities up to the level of Lincolnshire, which is the 41st worst-funded authority, and found that that would cost almost £300 million. It considered giving each of the lowest-funded authorities a small flat cash bonus to help, but found that the difference would be too small, and the process would simply rearrange the league table, pushing some authorities outside the F40 down the tables. Under its preferred option, it has proposed making the shift towards Lincolnshire levels of funding, but doing so proportionately, taking each of the lowest 40 one third of the way towards that level. That modest suggestion has the advantage of giving most help to those who need it most, while not altering the fundamental balance of funding.

F40 has suggested that Ministers should seek the £99 million cost directly from the Treasury. I think all hon. Members here would support the Department for Education in applying for that. However, knowing the harsh constraints on public spending that are Labour’s unfortunate legacy, will the Minister consider whether any of it can be found from other sources within the education budget? The sum of £99 million is less than the set- up costs of the new Education Funding Agency, and a very small amount relative to the £1.25 billion earmarked for the pupil premium next year, or the £2.5 billion that it is set to reach by 2015. It could make a major contribution to the work of that vital premium, ensuring it had its intended effect in the areas that it currently has difficulty reaching.

The sum of £99 million is a tiny amount compared with the £36.5 billion paid out under the dedicated schools grant to local authorities and schools around England. If that £99 million were taken equally from all those authorities better funded than Lincolnshire, it would equate to just 0.4% of their DSG funding, and cost no single authority more than £4 million. I hasten to add that that is not what F40 nor I propose, because we prefer no authorities to lose out in the quest for fairer funding, but such a change would be a small step towards a fairer system at a cost that would enable them to stay well within their minimum funding guarantee that no school lose more than 1.5%. At the end of the day, it is up to Ministers to decide the best way of meeting the challenge. We are here today to urge them to do so.

I shall illustrate how the problem has developed. During the first year of the Labour Government, when my predecessor in Worcester used his maiden speech to promise fairer funding as a result of the abolition of assisted places, the gap between Worcestershire and the national average stood at £230 per pupil, and was £380 between us and our neighbours in Birmingham. By the end of that Labour Government, the gap with the national average had risen to £371 per pupil, and with Birmingham it had doubled to £760.

The coalition agreement focused on fairness, but it is disappointing to record that under the coalition Government the unfair gap has widened further. In the current financial year, it stands at £482 per pupil against the national average, and £1,088 against Birmingham, almost three times the gap in 1997. For too long the system has been working against us. For too long we have faced an ever-widening gap. The Government have been brave to recognise the flaws in the system, and right to recognise the need for fundamental reform. However, as Benjamin Franklin said:

“Well done is better than well said."

Today, we are asking for a down payment on reform, a firm signal that the changes that we all agree are needed will be delivered, and a first step towards delivering them. The last Government failed completely to deliver on the issue. The present Government not only can, but must deliver. I urge the Minister to respond positively to the urgent representations from F40 to set much-needed change in motion, and to deliver a real improvement to schools in Worcestershire and across all the areas that have hitherto been left behind. We must not just talk the talk on fairer funding; we must walk the walk. As Shakespeare said: “Action is eloquence”. The Government have displayed great eloquence in dealing with the issue. Now is the time for action.

It is a great pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate. It is not the first we have had in Westminster Hall on this matter. We have had a debate on Worcestershire, and the Minister is well aware of my views, so I will not speak at length.

A good education is the right of every child in this country. I was educated in the state system, as were both my children. Every child deserves the best education we can provide, and the state should provide it. Imagine my shock when I moved to Redditch 12 years ago to find that my children were in a postcode lottery for education funding. We had arrived from Wales where funding per head was far more than in Redditch. I have campaigned for those 12 years to rectify the situation, and I thought that when we finally got the Conservative-led coalition we would see the end of that disgraceful situation. I am disappointed that again the children of Redditch will have to wait at least three years before they get a fair deal.

Will the Minister explain directly to all the children, teachers and parents in Redditch just why they are worth less than those who live 7 miles up the road in Birmingham? As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) said, funding per child in Redditch is £1,000 less than in Birmingham.

In neighbouring Wyre Forest I share the same problem as my hon. Friend. Does she accept that it is a tribute to the teachers in our constituencies of Redditch and Wyre Forest in Worcestershire that they choose to work in those financially constrained conditions when they could take the easy option and move 8 miles up the road to Birmingham where they would received 45% more money? They choose to look after our students and pupils, and we should pay tribute to them for that.

I certainly pay tribute to those teachers, and I will come to that. I used to be chair of the governors of a first school in Redditch, and if it had received the same funding as Birmingham, it would have had £400,000 more. One of my first jobs then was to appoint a new head at Vaynor first school. She came from a school in Birmingham, and was shocked at the funding level. She did not stay long.

I know that fairer funding is on the agenda, and I am grateful for that. I acknowledge that we have inherited the worst deficit from the previous Government, but that should motivate the present Government to address the structural deficiencies in the system now, and not continue to the next Parliament with an unjust system that jeopardises the future of young people in Redditch. I look forward very much to hearing the Minister’s response.

I want to take the Minister and all hon. Members here in their minds to a road in my constituency—Soundwell road. The east side of the road is in King’s Chase ward in South Gloucestershire council, and is one of the 10% most deprived wards according to the lower layer super output area indices. To the west is the city of Bristol, which includes wards in that local authority, such as Clifton and Stoke Bishop, which are in the top 10% of local super output areas. Yet funding for a pupil on one side of Soundwell road in South Gloucestershire council is £4,487, but for a pupil on the other side of the road it is £5,469. That differential is £982. As hon. Members have said, the differential is growing. Three years ago it was only £468.

Who are the Government, and who are we to suggest that a pupil in leafy, wealthier areas such as Stoke Bishop and Clifton are worth nearly £1,000 more than pupils in areas such as Cadbury Heath and Kingswood, which are within the bottom 5% of lower layer super output areas? Such areas and indices of multiple deprivation have been brought up because they are important. We are formulating funding on a local authority basis, but we now have the data and ability to differentiate between individual pupils in a way that we could not 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. We have the tools to go beyond even free school meals. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) said, although the Government’s proposals for a pupil premium are fantastic, free school meals are an inexact science.

There is an issue with our welfare reforms because many pupils who receive free school meals have parents on benefits. Understandably, that will probably decline as our welfare reforms progress. We have the data, and the ability to ensure, for the first time, that we differentiate genuinely deprived areas. We do not want anyone to miss out, and we don’t want an attack on deprived areas. We have the ability to pinpoint deprived areas, even within postcodes. I am sure that, although it may be difficult, the Department can do so, and I encourage it to do so. In places such as the Soundwell road—all hon. Members will know of similar roads between local authorities where there is a differential—we have the equivalent of an educational Berlin wall. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, I say to the Minister, “Tear down that wall!”

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. I want to pay tribute to the 35 schools in my constituency, all of which aim for the highest standards, not just academically but in extra-curricular activities. I thank the staff for everything that they do in keeping those standards high, and ensuring an enriching and fulfilling education for the children in my constituency.

Funding in South East Cornwall is a big issue. For 2012-13, the pupil premium grant was just under £4,700 per pupil, which is half of that allocated to a child in the City of London. We are, therefore, no better off than a lot of the other areas about which we have heard today. Cornwall comes 134th out of 151 local authorities, and in South East Cornwall the guaranteed unit of funding does not even begin to help the schools in the way that was intended. The Department for Education states:

“As the GUFs are based on previous spending levels, which will have reflected previous allocations, differences will roughly reflect the level of educational disadvantage in each area, area costs, and sparsity (i.e. the fact that very small rural primary schools are more expensive to run).”

I believe, as many hon. Members have said, that we should be spreading the money more equally to assist all children in the same way, regardless of where they live.

The pupil premium is a fantastic innovation of which the Government can be proud—at least they are taking steps to try to address the balance. In 2011-12, 10,700 pupils in Cornwall’s state-funded schools, including academies, qualified for the pupil premium, with total funding of just over £5 million. For 2012-13, the provisional figures are 16,000 pupils—24.6%—and £9.5 million.

Many of the schools in South East Cornwall that I have visited say that the pupil premium rules contain an anomaly, on which several hon. Members have touched. The pupil premium is based on the number of people who are registered for free school meals, but many parents are reluctant to claim such assistance for reasons that range from pride—we see a lot of that in rural farming communities—to simply being unaware of their entitlement. Surely, information is available to the Government that would enable them to identify those who are receiving financial assistance and are therefore entitled to free school meals. Rather than leaving it up to parents to register, it would make common sense for the pupil premium to be based on figures that are already held, and that would ensure that the superb schools in my constituency receive the right funding. Will the Minister consider such a move?

It is a great pleasure and privilege to speak in this debate that was so ably secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). We know that this is a debate about schools because everybody has started quoting famous names. By my account, we have had Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, and Reagan snuck in at the end. I prefer to take the Minister back to the ancient Chinese proverb of Lao Tzu who—as our eminent Education Minister will know—was the founder of Taoism and said that the longest journey begins with a single step. Is not the essence of this debate that we are all seeking that first step? It is not a large step; it could be a short step.

Since my hon. Friend introduced Lao Tzu, he will no doubt also be aware of the more recent Chinese philosopher and statesman Deng Xiaoping’s great remark, “Yi bu yi bu”—one step at a time. Does my hon. Friend think that that is appropriate for the way in which we might resolve the issue of fair funding for schools?

I do, and I will reply with words from Sun Tzu who, when he talked about the art of war, said, “Know your enemy.” That is interesting given that there is no enemy present today, but does not the absence of Opposition Members—save for the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), who will no doubt act robustly in defending the 13 years during which we all endured a funding gap—speak volumes?

I will move on from the happy badinage in which I and my hon. Friend have been engaged to say that like other hon. Members, I represent schools in Northumberland that look enviously at counties and cities that have a greater degree of funding. To put it simply, no change is not an option. As has happened to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), school governors and head teachers have drawn me to one side and whispered surreptitiously in my ear, “Do you really understand how badly off we are compared with X, Y or Z?” To be frank, they are correct in that analysis of the deficiencies in the present funding system, and significant issues need to be addressed.

We all accept the fair point raised earlier about the fact that there is a financial deficit and restrictions apply, meaning that progress is slow. However, when I go to areas of social deprivation in my constituency—of which there are a significant number—I see schools that survive only because of head teachers and governors who go so far beyond the extra mile that I shake my head in wonder.

I remember going to Prudhoe Castle first school where the head explained how she bought things out of her own pocket because the budget would not cover many of the basics, including essentials such as pencils. I was taken round that school by the head girl who said, “We really would like the lighting to be improved, because at times we cannot see the blackboard.” On a day when I welcome St Joseph’s school to the House of Commons, it is significant that everybody—quite rightly—has made the strong and eloquent point that we are gravely indebted, particularly in schools where there is less funding, to the unbelievable work and unstinting commitment of our head teachers, governors, teachers and staff who work in those schools. I pay tribute to the many members of staff whom I have had the opportunity to meet, but with more than 40 schools in my constituency I have not been able to meet every one of them thus far.

I will conclude my remarks because it is important that we hear from the shadow Minister and the Minister. However, I echo everything that has been said and believe that we should be spending the money more equally. I endorse the great support for the pupil premium, and eagerly await the Minister indicating how far the first step will be.

It is a pleasure to respond to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and on the erudite way in which he introduced his argument. When discussing an issue of local government finance, by law it is necessary to invoke the Schleswig-Holstein question, which he wisely did. When looking at education funding and the many complex questions about welfare expenditure and the formulae for allocating funding to local authorities, it is right to reflect on the complexity and difficulty of such issues, which the Government are discovering to their cost.

I understand that many hon. Members today made sincere and heartfelt arguments in defence of their own local communities and about some of the funding discrepancies that occur between local authority areas, reflecting the differences in local authority funding formulae broadly, not just in education, and some of the discrepancies that occur between individual schools in their local communities. A common thread seemed to be an argument for additional spending on education. That is absolutely fine, but it does not quite fit with some of the concern expressed about the record of the Labour Government and the deficit. The fact is that we saw a dramatic increase in investment in education and in schools during those years and we are now seeing a squeeze on schools funding within which some of these difficult issues need to be played out.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Gloucester said, that this is a long-standing issue. It goes back far longer than 20 years. The entire problem of discrepancy that we are grappling with reflects the fact that the education funding formula has a historical root. Allocation to schools and to local authorities was based on an incremental change in existing historical patterns. Then there were changes, many of which were introduced by the Labour Government, to make that system more progressive through the various specific grants that were introduced and to achieve particular ends and outcomes in education through those specific grants. The aim was also to begin the process—it was begun—to try to deal with some of the funding discrepancies through such means as the dedicated schools grant.

Therefore, it would not be fair to say that the Labour Government were not engaged in finding ways of dealing with some of the inexplicable and difficult variations in funding. The then Opposition spokesperson, Baroness Buscombe, reflected that fact when the dedicated schools grant was introduced, saying:

“We welcome the principal policy behind the regulations, the new ring-fenced dedicated schools grant, the multi-year budgets and the rationalisation of standards grants.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 February 2006; Vol. 678, c. 1340.]

Progress was being made.

However, there are tensions in relation to what hon. Members want. All of us wanting to see fairer and more progressive funding need to recognise that there are tensions between those two objectives. It is sometimes difficult to be more progressive and invest money in education outcomes that deal with some of the disadvantages that children have in schools and at the same time have a more equal funding formula that flattens some of the discrepancies to allow schools to have similar levels of funding.

Three times now the hon. Lady has used the word “progressive”. Can she explain to us how it is more progressive that Warrington, which has a substantially lower income per head than Westminster, has 50% less funding for its schools? That does not seem progressive to me.

There are several answers to that. As a Member of Parliament for Westminster, I was anxious that we should not be drawn too far into our own local experiences. I just point out that the last time I looked, which was a year ago, my local authority had the ninth-highest entitlement to free school dinners—the imperfect but accepted measure of deprivation for funding purposes—in the entire country. The school deprivation is significantly greater than the deprivation of the local authority area as a whole. One of the other difficulties that we must face is that school populations are not necessarily the same as resident populations. That is another area of tension that must be dealt with. I am completely at one with those who say that not all the discrepancies can be explained, but some are more easily explicable than others.

Can the shadow Minister confirm that she, like every other hon. Member who has spoken in the debate, supports the principle that every pupil in the country should receive the same basic funding?

The issue is more difficult than that. The core of the debate, which I want to come on to, is this. There need to be—the dedicated schools grant was taking us in this direction—some basic building blocks of education funding. The issue then is that although we do not have unlimited money—we did not have unlimited money even in the more generously funded years—we must also recognise that we need to address not just the deprivation element, but things such as special educational needs funding, which is a very difficult issue as well. It is very difficult to achieve what the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve without significant additional funding and without some of the consequences that none of the hon. Members who have so far spoken has been willing to deal with.

The hon. Lady mentioned the pupil premium entitlement. Did she mean entitlement or did she actually mean people who are claiming free school meals?

I was about to come to the issue of free school meals. Of course it is difficult to accommodate, as an indicator of deprivation, any element that involves a degree of take-up. All Governments have had to and will continue to grapple with that. Some changes in local government allocations in the funding formulae, which have factored in the index of multiple deprivation and the take-up of tax credits, have proved to be even more difficult, because that variation is even more challenging. Obviously, if we could come up with a deprivation funding formula without dealing with take-up, that would be better. If we could find a way of doing that, I could understand why people would want to do so.

To return to my point, there is a tension between fair funding and progressive funding that we have not managed to resolve. There is also a tension between the core desire to see all schools and all pupils have a basic funding allocation to which a progressive element—a pupil premium or whatever people want to call it—is a relatively small top-up, and the historical desire for local authorities to have a say and for local democracy to be an element in deciding how funding is allocated. In another context, the Conservative party would argue that case quite strongly. One reason why it proved to be such a challenge, not just under the Labour Government but before that, was that local authorities were receiving funding for schools but not passing all that funding on to schools or were making their own decisions about how to share out the grant. Accusations can be levelled at all political parties, in different ways, because of what was done, but of course some of that is intrinsic to local democracy. If we take it out of the equation completely, that throws up other and very difficult questions.

We recognise that school funding is extremely complex, that there is a case for further reform and that that reform is of course far harder to achieve when funding is as tight as it is now. We are seeing the squeeze on school budgets. Even with the pupil premium, funding will fall. At the time of the 2010 spending review, the Department for Education said that total funding for the schools budget would be increased by 0.1% in real terms in each of the following four years. However, subsequent higher projections of economy-wide inflation have changed the real-terms calculation. They indicate, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a real-terms cut over the whole period of about 1% and a small real-terms increase in only one year. Of course, that is at a time when pupil numbers are expected to increase. That gives us an indication of the broader context in which some of these demands have arisen.

To make the position even more complicated for the Government, there is an absolute shambles going on because the Department for Work and Pensions has failed to work out a system whereby the new universal credit can accommodate a proper indicator for school dinners. It is struggling to find a way of doing that. That means that the way of calculating the deprivation indicator is moving even further away from what the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) is saying should be the case. We are, at the moment, at a complete loss to know how the deprivation factor will be properly assessed when it comes to future funding. Both those things—the squeeze on funding and the inability to calculate a future pupil premium, because of the free school meal entitlement shambles—undermine the Government’s case that the problem is so desperate that an immediate solution must be found.

Following the Government’s consultation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies brought out an absolutely damning critique of the Government’s thinking. The report exposes the rather arrogant belief, which we see in so many other areas of public policy, that the problems can be sorted now that we have a Conservative Government, and that the previous Government had, by definition, got everything wrong. When it looked at the small print, however, it found that things were much more difficult.

The report, which I encourage all Members to look at, shows that: the Government’s plans would lead to a large funding transfer from secondary schools to primary schools; the average gains and losses could be 10% or more; one in six schools would face budget losses of 10% or more; there would be huge numbers of winners and losers; and, even over a transitional period lasting six years, some schools would incur annual cash losses of up to 5%. The Secretary of State has therefore started to row back from his enthusiasm for seeing early movement on finding a response.

I am sure the IFS’s list of problems, which the hon. Lady has just read out, is correct, but does that not demonstrate the size of the problem that must be fixed? The fact those problems will exist if we move to a fair formula demonstrates how much inequity there is at the moment. However, will the hon. Lady clarify the Opposition’s position on introducing a new funding formula? Would they like us to carry on as we are doing, or would they prefer to see a new formula developed, albeit over time?

As I thought I made clear in my opening remarks, I completely understand that there are arguments about similar schools with similar characteristics receiving different grant funding because of an historical pattern. I am merely pointing out that that was difficult to tackle when we had a generous funding framework, because of the impact on schools and the numbers of winners and losers. If it had been easy to tackle those issues, and there had not been large numbers of winners and losers, much greater progress would have been made, and some of the winners and losers would have been secondary schools in Conservative Members’ constituencies. Now, however, we are in a time of public spending constraint, so most of the challenges are far greater and could be far more damaging for schools, including some in the constituencies represented by Members here, who have made a powerful case, in principle, for having a fairer formula. My critique relates to the fact that the Government are rushing in and saying, “This can all be solved. The previous Government made a complete shambles. We’ll be able to oblige you with a solution,” when they cannot, of course, offer one or answer many of the questions that have been asked.

I want to finish by asking the Minister a few questions. How many winners and losers will there be as a result of the “Next steps” proposals and the Government’s decision to dictate to local areas how they organise their funding? Do the Government propose any modelling or pilots to test their proposals? In the light of what head teachers, collectively, want, why are the Government restricting local formulae to 10 centrally chosen criteria? Why will they not allow some flexibility to reflect differences in local circumstances?

What is the cost of using the Education Funding Agency to administer the budgets of increasing numbers of academies? Can academy chains gather all the funding and distribute it as they see fit, including holding back money for central services? If that is the case, does the Minister propose any restrictions? Is he taking any steps to monitor salaries in academy chains? Obviously, top pay will impact on the money spent on pupils.

How will the introduction of universal credit affect the Department’s thinking on free school meals and the pupil premium? The Department acknowledged it will cause “turbulence”. What exactly did that mean? Is free school funding per pupil per actual pupil or per notional pupil? Finally, will the Minister confirm that, as a result of the Government’s botched efforts, there will be no major overhaul of school funding during this Parliament?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing a debate on a topic of great importance to us all; indeed, I met him and other colleagues on 12 March to discuss it.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. Gloucestershire is ranked 136th out of 151 authorities for funding allocations per pupil. In 2011-12, funding per pupil was £4,661, compared with the national average of £5,082. My hon. Friend’s opening remarks and the whole debate reflect concerns across the sector about the school funding system.

My hon. Friend is the Martin Luther of school funding reform; indeed, I found a letter from the F40 chair, Councillor Ivan Ould, nailed to the door of the Department for Education. It listed four options or grievances, and we will respond to it in due course. I should, however, point out that option 3 would cost £99 million, which is not an insubstantial sum, given the current financial climate.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the passion, commitment and perseverance he has shown in campaigning for a fairer funding system and formula. He has raised these issues on countless occasions, including when I visited Tredworth junior school, Finlay community school and Gloucester academy in his constituency last July. I also pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who has provided the leadership and steering for the F40 campaign in Parliament.

I wholeheartedly agree with hon. Members that the current system for funding schools is in desperate need of reform. It is based on an assessment of need that dates back to at least 2005-06, if not further, so it has not kept pace with changing demographics and the needs of pupils across the country. It is also too complex and opaque, so head teachers and governing bodies are often unable to understand how their budgets have been calculated.

It is not right that schools with very similar circumstances can receive vastly different funding for no clearly identifiable reason. We have found that funding between similar secondary schools can vary by £1,800 per pupil. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said, the neighbouring areas of Luton, which is poorer than central Bedfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, which is richer, receive more funding per pupil than central Bedfordshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) made a similar point, when she said that Leicestershire, which received the lowest amount in the country, received £900 less per pupil than the city of Leicester. That seems unfair.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) said, there is a 50% discrepancy in funding between Warrington and Westminster local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) said that Redditch receives £1,000 per pupil less than Birmingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) noted that one side of the Sandwell road in his constituency receives £4,487 per pupil, while the other receives £5,469 per pupil. I have never been compared to Mr Gorbachev, but I accept the challenge to tear down these walls and end these absurd inequities.

The Government remain committed to reforming the funding system so that it is fair, transparent and reflects the needs of pupils across the country. On 26 March, the Secretary of State for Education announced our intention to introduce a new national funding formula during the next spending period. I am sympathetic to my hon. Friends’ wish to see us move faster and address the system’s inequities much sooner. However, in reforming a system that is so entrenched, we need to proceed with caution, and it is important that we introduce full-scale reform at a pace that schools can manage. At a time of economic uncertainty, stability is crucial.

Our priority must be to ensure that schools are able to focus on delivering high educational standards and are not side-tracked by destabilising shifts to their funding. Attempting to introduce any dramatic change to the funding system at a time when we are, by necessity, addressing the budget deficit could cause problems in those schools where there might otherwise be significant changes in their funding.

We will move towards introducing a new funding system, but at a pace that gives us sufficient time to agree the construct of a new formula and that allows schools enough time to adjust to changes in their funding arrangements. Since last spring, we have consulted widely on how to create a funding system that is fair and logical and that distributes extra funding towards the pupils who need it most. The Department for Education has had a number of conversations with key groups, including schools, local authorities, unions and academies, to consider how we can move towards a fairer funding system.

The announcement made by the Secretary of State for Education on 26 March not only reaffirmed our commitment to introducing a new national funding formula during the next spending round, but set out detailed funding arrangements from next year. The funding arrangements from 2013-14 will make the local funding system simpler and more transparent for schools, early years provision and high-need pupils. Under the new arrangements, education provision will be funded on a much clearer, more comparable basis than under the current system. Head teachers, parents and governors will be able to see precisely how their budgets have been calculated, and why.

The first step—we have heard a lot today about first steps, in various languages—to simplifying local funding will be to work on the basis that as many services and as much funding as possible will be devolved to schools. I firmly believe that schools are best placed to decide how to meet the needs of their pupils and to target funding effectively.

Just to clarify, I think that we all welcome the announcements made by the Education Secretary on 26 March, which will, as the Minister says, simplify things considerably; but does the Minister see that as a first step, which can be improved during this Parliament?

It is certainly a first step, and an important one that should not be underestimated; but the national funding formula, to which we want to move in the longer term, will commence in the next spending review, not the present one.

Our approach of simplifying local administration and the local formula and of maximum delegation to schools will give head teachers, principals and governors much more control over how funding is spent.

The second step on our journey is to reduce the number of factors that local authorities can use to distribute funding to schools. At present, they can use 37 factors when deciding how to allocate funding—a point that the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) raised. Each of those 37 factors can be interpreted widely and applied in different ways. That has resulted in long and complex local formulae, with huge variations across the country. We are reducing the number of factors that local authorities can use from 37 to 10.

The 10 remaining factors are clearly defined and help to ensure that funding is used to support the attainment of pupils. They are a basic per-pupil entitlement; a deprivation element; an element for looked-after children; low-cost, high-incidence special educational needs; English as an additional language for the first three years after the pupil enters the system; a lump sum, and we are consulting on whether to set a maximum cap of between £100,000 and £150,000; split sites; rates; and private finance initiative contracts. Also, for the five local authorities some but not all of whose schools are within the London fringe area, we will allow some flexibility to reflect higher salary costs in those areas. No longer will local authorities fund schools based on historic factors that we consider less important, such as the number of trees, or the number of ditches surrounding the property. It is right that, at a time of austerity, funding should be focused on supporting pupils to achieve. Each local authority will be required to publish details of its formula on a simple, clear and consistent pro-forma.

To strengthen local decision-making, the third step will be to make some changes to the schools forum arrangements. We will make improvements to their composition and operation, so that their business is more transparent and decisions better reflect the views of education providers. For example, we expect that schools forums should operate similarly to other council committees. Meetings should be held in public and decisions should be publicised.

An issue has arisen in the local authority in Swindon, where decisions on the allocation of moneys relating to the pupil premium have caused consternation, as some schools are entitled to more premium than others. I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about more transparency in schools forums.

In 2013, those issues will be made public, so if some schools forums are redistributing the pupil premium in a way that was not intended, it will become clear and apparent.

Are the 10 factors, which the Minister has read out, that are to be used within a local authority to achieve a fair allocation potentially the basis for a national funding formula by which the money would get to the local authorities in the first place, which is the nub of the problem?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. Those are the very issues on which we are consulting, in moving to a national formula. We must move away from the phenomenally complicated formulae that currently apply in allocating funds to local authorities.

To ensure that we are better placed to introduce a national funding formula over the coming years, we are also making changes that will substantially improve how local authorities are funded. They will continue to be allocated amounts for each pupil through the dedicated schools grant based on previous funding levels. The difference will be that that grant will be allocated in three notional blocks: for schools, early years and high-needs pupils. The notional blocks will not be ring-fenced, so local authorities will continue to have flexibility over how they spend their money. That approach will benefit pupils and schools from all sectors and phases.

We will use the October census, rather than the January census as we do now, to calculate budgets for the schools block. Therefore, mainstream maintained schools will receive their budgets earlier, giving them more time to plan. The separate high-needs block will help to secure a more transparent and sustainable approach to funding pupils with high needs. Schools and other providers will be expected to contribute to the costs of a pupil with high needs, up to a clearly defined threshold. Any cost above that threshold will need to be met from the high-needs block. That will ensure that funding for high-needs pupils is funded in an equivalent way, whatever type of institution they attend, and it will improve consistency when young people move from one part of the country to another. The early years block will continue to be funded on the basis of the January census, but that funding will be adjusted to reflect actual numbers by the end of the financial year, to take into account the fact that young children join the school system at different points in the year. It will ensure that local authorities have greater certainty about funding for early years children.

We are aware that we need to reform the administration of the local authority central spend equivalent grant, which is very dear to the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, so that there is greater comparability and transparency. We are exploring a new Department for Education grant that would substitute an element of the formula grant that is currently paid by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The new grant would cover relevant central educational services and be paid on a national basis, per pupil, to local authorities and academies. That, combined with the maximum devolution of funding to schools, would replace the need for LACSEG. Making the local system simpler and more transparent will mean that, when we come to address the national system, there will be far less complexity for us to untangle. This is the start of the process for which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South calls.

I am aware of the concerns covered in the opening remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, including those about small schools, which were also discussed by other hon. Members during the debate. We have considered the additional needs of small rural schools in developing the new funding arrangements. As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) pointed out, very small schools are very expensive. We have built enough flexibility into the proposed system to allow local authorities and schools forums to support successful small schools—for example, through the lump sum that I referred to earlier.

In the remaining period of the spending review, schools are being funded at flat cash per pupil, in addition to which schools receive £600 per pupil eligible for free school meals. However, to support our proposed changes and to protect all schools, including small schools, from significant locally decided fluctuations in their budgets, we will continue to operate a minimum funding guarantee of minus 1.5% per pupil for 2013-14 and 2014-15. Therefore, in most circumstances, schools across the country can be assured that, over the next two years, their budgets will not be reduced by more than 1.5% per pupil each year.

Our analysis has shown that those measures will protect the majority of small schools. However, we are consulting on the issues and listening to all the sector’s concerns. Formal decisions on protection for small schools and, indeed, other areas of reform will be announced in the summer.

Uganda (Human Rights)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue, which is of great importance to many people both inside and outside my constituency. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank hon. Members who have taken the time to participate in the debate.

Let me set the scene. Picture with me a quiet village on the Ugandan plains at night. There are lots of shacks, and the peaceful silence is interrupted only by the odd bleating of an animal. The children are asleep; all is at rest. The silence is suddenly destroyed by the noise of trucks, shouts and guns being fired. Families are literally dragged out of their homes. Children watch as their fathers are shot and their mothers are taken.

A little boy is pulled from his brother to stand in front of a man who points a gun at his head and tells him to shoot his mother. If he does not shoot her, he and his brother will be shot. He looks into his mother’s eyes as she slowly nods her head urging him to do it. He pulls the trigger, turns to his captor who says, “You are on my side now. You are my comrade in arms. You are a soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army.” All that little boy knows is that he has killed his own mother. All that he believes is that he is evil and worthless, and all that he hopes for is that he never comes back to this place. Some people say that such events happen only in the movies and that it is not real life, but the fact is it is real life for far too many in Uganda.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It is not only real life for children now, but it has been real life for people in Uganda for 25 years. Some 1.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, 20,000 children have been abducted to become soldiers or sold as sex slaves. They are used as cart horses, force-marched and kept hungry for days. Other children are used as target practice. Babies are slaughtered for cannibalism and villages are abandoned. Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter and hope that in this debate we can highlight the atrocities right across this country and beyond because action must be taken to stop this.

I thank the hon. Lady for her words. She is well known in this House for her compassion and interest in many countries across the world where abuse takes place on a regular basis. In my comments, I will probably touch on some of her points.

In some areas, what I have outlined is still life and something must be done to change it. Some 20,000 children from Uganda have been kidnapped by the LRA for use as child soldiers and slaves. That is 20,000 childhoods stolen, 20,000 hearts broken, 20,000 children ripped from their mother’s arms and forced, as in my example, into terrible situations, and 20,000 reasons for us, as Members of Parliament, to stand here today and ensure that everything possible is done to make a difference to those lives.

The Lord’s Resistance Army, or the Lord’s Resistance Movement, is a so-called militant Christian group. There is certainly nothing Christian about its activities. It operates in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic and is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual slavery and forcing children to participate in hostilities—all grievous charges. Initially, the LRA was an out-growth and a continuation of a larger armed resistance movement waged by some of the Acholi people against the central Ugandan Government whom they felt marginalised them at the expense of southern Ugandan ethnic groups. The group is led by Joseph Kony, who proclaims himself to be the spokesperson of God and a spirit medium.

Since 1987, Kony is believed to have recruited between 60,000 and 100,000 child soldiers and displaced about 2 million people throughout central Africa. The LRA is one of the foreign organisations that the United States Government has designated as terrorist, and its leadership is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On 23 March, the African Union announced its intentions to send 5,000 soldiers to join the hunt for the rebel leader, Joseph Kony, and to neutralise him—its words—while isolating the scattered LRA groups, which are responsible for 2,600 civilian killings since 2008. This international task force was to include soldiers from Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those are countries in which Kony’s reign of terror has been felt over a great many years.

Before that announcement, the hunt for Kony was primarily carried out by troops from Uganda. The soldiers began their search in South Sudan on 24 March, and that search will last until Kony is caught. Over the weekend, hundreds of people turned out for a rally in Northern Ireland to highlight the atrocities in Uganda and to call for tough action, ever mindful of the fact that the African Union’s 5,000-strong army has pledged to catch him.

The Americans have laid their cards on the table and are supportive of this hunt. In his response, will the Minister tell us how we are supporting the capture of this evil man and his army? There is also the issue of his dynasty. This is a man who is rumoured to have 88 wives and 46 children—he has been a busy man—and his ideals are certain to be carried on. We must do all that we can to ensure that there is no succession in this case.

The ravages of war have left the country literally dying and in great need of help. The conflict in the north of the country between the Ugandan People’s Defence Force and the LRA has decimated the economy, retarded the development of affected areas and led to hundreds of thousands of gross human rights violations. Those violations have centred on the poor emergency provision for internally displaced persons fleeing their homes to avoid the LRA. It has been estimated that 2 million Ugandans had to flee their homes. Many ended up in refugee camps, rife with disease and starvation—almost a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Disease has spread further through Uganda due to the number of people who are passing through these camps. Many are suffering in rural areas. A simple shot or course of antibiotics could almost instantly end the pain and stop the spread of disease. Will the Minister tell us what medical help has been given directly to Uganda?

Does my hon. Friend agree that while we cannot even begin to understand this travesty or the human pain that exists within the country, there has also been a radical growth not only in murder—pastors have been killed and children have been forced to shoot their mothers—but in human trafficking and we need to do something radical about it. As the United Kingdom pays a lot of funding to these countries, surely something can be done.

Yes, human trafficking is a massive issue. My hon. Friend is well known for supporting and championing that issue. Northern Ireland had its first human trafficking conviction yesterday. Hopefully, that will be the first of many such convictions in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom as well.

In the six years since the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement, many displaced persons have returned to their homes and a rehabilitation and redevelopment programme is under way. However, standards of living are nowhere near what we in the western world would deem to be acceptable. I know that it is unfair to draw a comparison between the western world and Uganda, but in fact the conditions in Uganda remain closer to shocking than to any semblance of acceptability. If we think of the worst standard of living and then go beyond that, that is what it is like in some places in Uganda.

What is Uganda like now in terms of its Government? The President of Uganda is Yoweri Kaguta Museveni; I say that with my Ulster Scots accent. He is both Head of State and Head of Government. The President appoints a vice-president, who is currently Edward Ssekandi, and a Prime Minister, who is currently Amama Mbabazi, and they aid him in governing the country. The Parliament is formed by the national assembly, which has 332 members, of whom 104 are nominated by interest groups, including women and the army, so there is some representation for other groups in the country. The remaining members are elected for five-year terms in general elections.

Uganda is rated by Transparency International among the countries that it perceives as being “very corrupt”. Transparency International has a scale measuring corruption ranging from zero, which means “most corrupt”, to 10, which means “clean”. Uganda has a rating of 2.4, so it is right up there when it comes to human abuse and the violation of rights.

Under Idi Amin in the 1970s, Christians suffered restrictions and even intense persecution. The current Ugandan Government does not officially restrict religious freedom any longer. However, religious oppression still occurs in individual cases.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that, although the human rights situation in Uganda improved after Idi Amin, since Museveni’s so-called re-election a few years ago things have got decidedly worse? In Uganda, there have been a lot of arrests, restrictions on the press and abuse of human rights on a general scale that is getting worse by the day.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will speak about some of the human rights abuses in Uganda shortly, but they are at a worse level now than they have ever been in the past. Idi Amin was ousted, but at the end of the day what took his place was not necessarily for the betterment of the Ugandan people, and the hon. Lady has very clearly said that.

As I was saying, religious oppression occurs in individual cases, especially against Christians from a Muslim background. Where such Christians are threatened, the Ugandan state does not always seem able to protect them effectively prior to an attack or to provide them with justice following an attack. I will give three examples to illustrate that point. I know of these examples because of the Open Doors charity, which is a group that works on behalf of persecuted Christians right across the world.

The first example is that of Bishop Umar Mulinde, who was an Islamic teacher before his conversion to Christianity. Since then, he has often criticised Islam and has had to rely on police protection while preaching at large Christian gatherings throughout Uganda. Because of the threats he received, he and his family had to relocate within Kampala, the capital city. On 24 December 2011—Christmas eve—he was attacked by Islamic extremists outside his Gospel Life church in Kampala. The attackers were able to pour acid down his back and on to his face, leaving him with severe facial burns. The acid blinded one eye, which doctors had to remove, and threatened the sight in his other eye. His attackers were able to contact him after the incident to say:

“We are happy that the acid has disfigured your face, and also disappointed because our intention was to kill you.”

The second example is also important. It is that of Hassan, a former sheikh and a former member of a violent Islamic group. In 2007, he started exploring Christianity and was warned by his associates not to

“make such a mistake again—we are ready to help you. If you continue with this move, then we will destroy you.”

He reported the threats to the police in the sub-county of Insanje, in the Wakiso district. In response, his associates sent other threatening letters. He became a Christian in June 2011 and received more death threats, which forced him to flee to Kenya. He returned to Uganda in September 2011 and received further death threats. He reported those threats to the police in Chengera, who told him that they would investigate. However, in October 2011 he heard of a plan to kill him and he again fled Uganda. He is now in hiding in Kenya again, and his movements are severely restricted following yet more threats to kill him.

The third example is that of a 13-year-old girl from the Kasese district. She was placed under house arrest for converting to Christianity. Her father threatened to slaughter her publicly with a knife for converting, before locking her up instead. For six months, he kept her in a room with no sunlight. She survived only on the food and water that her little brother managed to smuggle to her under the door. When she was rescued, she weighed less than 44 lb and had many medical complications. In fairness, the local police acted quickly when they were made aware of the case and arrested her father. However, they released him without charge soon afterwards. Again, where is the law of the land in Uganda when people, such as that young girl, need it most?

What support is being given by Britain to deal with cases such as those? Perhaps the Minister, in his response to the debate, can indicate whether Britain has had any direct contact with the Ugandan Government, particularly regarding these types of cases. I understand that we cannot police Uganda, but surely we can guarantee that any help and support that is given by Britain is going to the right people. I know that the needs of Uganda are great and I also know that there are Members in Westminster Hall today who have visited the country. I have not visited Uganda itself, but I have visited nearby countries. A good foundation is needed in Uganda and the open protection of Christians is required to show that persecution in any form will not be tolerated, that religious freedom is a protected freedom and that all people should be able to live in peace and practise their faith as they strive together to rebuild Uganda.

Amnesty International has said:

“The Uganda government and various public authorities have in recent years resorted to illegitimate restrictions on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in response to some of the critical voices on a number of governance issues. In particular, journalists, civil society activists, opposition political leaders and their supporters risk arbitrary arrest, intimidation, threats and politically-motivated criminal charges for expressing views”.

That echoes the point that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) made in her earlier intervention.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous in doing so. I wanted to share the experience that I had while visiting Uganda in 2009 to mark international women’s day. I was appalled to read recently that Amnesty International have reported that Ingrid Turinawe has been arrested. I met Ingrid on my 2009 visit. She was an officer of the opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, and a leading women’s campaigner. It is appalling to think that she has been arrested for nothing other than organising assemblies and trying to exercise her right to protest.

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is absolutely scandalous that that should happen. We live in a democratic society where we exercise our democratic rights and the people who vote for us do so as well, and examples such as that of democratic rights being restricted, blatantly wrong imprisonment and so on, are issues that I wholeheartedly want to highlight today, and hopefully our Government can get some response from the Ugandan authorities about such cases.

Amnesty International has also said:

“The measures taken by the authorities violate Uganda’s international and domestic human rights obligations”—

I share that view and the hon. Lady has also made that point—

“and have culminated in widespread official intolerance of criticism of some of the government’s policies and practices and a crackdown on political dissent.”

We cannot accept that, we cannot let it happen and we have to highlight it today.

A recent report by Amnesty International also highlights its concerns about official repression of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as well as the failure to hold to account the perpetrators of human rights violations committed against political activists, journalists and civil society activists. Those perpetrators are not being held to account and they should be. The report focuses on the general clampdown on the right to freedom of expression, in particular press freedom, between 2007 and 2011, and on the official intolerance of peaceful public protests regarding rising costs of living in April and May 2011. The official response to those protests involved the widespread use of excessive force, including lethal force on many occasions, to quell protests. It also involved the arrest, the ill-treatment and the levelling of criminal charges against opposition leaders and their supporters; the imposition of restrictions on the media; and attempts to block public use of social networking internet sites.

A proposal by the President in May 2011 to amend the Ugandan constitution to remove the right to bail for persons arrested for involvement in demonstrations and other vaguely defined “crimes” points to increasing repression of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. That proposal also illustrates that what we have today in Uganda is a repressive system of Government that is taking away the basic rights of Ugandan citizens. Of course, Ugandan officials deny that there are undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly, and they contend that various Government actions are justified. However, international human rights law places clear limits on the restrictions that may be imposed on the exercise of those rights. A number of proposed laws in Uganda contain provisions that, if enacted, would result in impermissible restrictions on the exercise of those rights, which I believe would breach Uganda’s obligations under international law. So, Uganda is stepping outside the rules and regulations of international law. Perhaps the Minister can give us some idea of how this Government—our Government and my Government—are working to ensure that we address these issues.

Some cynics will say that we have enough difficulties in our own nation without borrowing trouble from others. I have even heard some people say that we should not give other countries financial aid when we are reducing the deficit, and that we should not become embroiled in political situations. I say clearly that we have to help other countries. This Government have led the way and have increased their portion of financial aid. I say well done to them for what they are doing. Christian Aid is one of the organisations that has lobbied us all. I fully and totally support the Government.

On the point about aid, I agree with my hon. Friend: this United Kingdom has led the way in helping countries that are deprived in many ways. Does he agree that there needs to be some way of controlling the aid? The LRA is moving into villages and removing food, clothes and water. People are being left to die from starvation and thirst. There needs to be some way of putting pressure on the Ugandan Government to control the aid and make sure it gets to those who need it.

I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable contribution. Indeed, the questions we ask in the Chamber often address how to get aid, food and resources to the people who need it most, and how to do that without some of it being siphoned off at different places. That happens in many countries, where people whose activities are criminal siphon off some of the aid that we send through. The Government have led the way in championing financial assistance and aid to other countries. I welcome and support that, as I think everyone in the House does.

Although I consider the needs of my community and work together with others to see that those needs are met, I also understand from history that when we stand back and wash our hands of events, as Chamberlain did in the second world war, it does not mean peace and it certainly does not absent someone from evil or wrongdoing. We cannot live untouched by the suffering of those around us, and today is an opportunity to highlight the suffering of those in Uganda. I recently had the opportunity to visit Kenya with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was somewhat shocked to see what I had only ever seen depicted in films: absolute poverty. The standard of living there is something that, in our worst dreams or figurations, we will never completely grasp.

When I read about the atrocities, I understood that there was something that this Government and this people could do. Some might ask why we bother. Why do we have such debates in Westminster Hall or highlight such issues in the main Chamber? It is quite simple: evil triumphs when good people do nothing. That terminology is often used, but it is true. I have always loved history and there is a poem that I want to read out because everyone here will be familiar with it right away. What it refers to certainly will not be said about me, about many others in this Chamber or about this great House—this mother of Parliaments—that we have the privilege to serve in. I also hope it will not be said about this great nation, of which I am a member. The poem refers to Nazi Germany in the second world war. It states:

“ First they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,”—

they are being persecuted in Uganda—

“and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

I do not believe for one second that the same circumstances that have happened in Uganda will happen to me, but will there come a time when we need help and support as a nation? Almost certainly. We all need each other. We can only hope that if and when such a time arises there are those who will speak for us. This House is the spokesperson today for those in Uganda who are suffering tremendous persecution.

A constituent recently sent me a letter, which touched me greatly, regarding the plight of those in Uganda. The letter was comprehensive, detailed and clear about what was required of me, and of all MPs. At the end of the letter was something that caused me to pause:

“Mr Shannon, I am not a charity worker, I am not a political activist, I’m a sixteen year old politics students who would like to politely ask you to forward my concerns”.

Some people will say that a 16-year-old is a child, but he is a young man who wants to do what he can to see change, and wants his MP to do likewise. We cannot do any less today.

In conclusion, we must speak out for those in Uganda who cannot speak for themselves. We must support our words with deeds. We must ensure that we help the people of Uganda in a practical and, I have to say, prayerful way. I pray for them every day. The Department has received many queries from MPs and Lords who are seeking to ensure that adequate action and help is effected. I seek assurance from the Minister that we will not wash our hands, but get them dirty and do our bit for Ugandans who are being oppressed: the 20,000 young children; the 2 million people who have been displaced; the hundreds of thousands who have been conscripted into the army; the Christians, with their civil and religious rights, who are being persecuted by militant Muslims; members of civil rights organisations; members of unions in opposition and in government; and women in government, whose rights have been violated. We can make a difference and we are dedicated to their plight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, particularly as you are my parliamentary neighbour, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate and on the sincere way in which he put his case. He is gaining a great reputation in the House for the way that he handles things. He is entirely right to raise the issue of the Lord’s Resistance Army. My understanding is that, through military activity, the LRA has largely been driven out of north-east Uganda, which is more peaceful today than it has been for many years.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Mr Kony, the leader of the LRA, is indicted for war crimes and is still perpetrating atrocities in the countries in which he operates—South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The United Nations has operations in those countries, particularly in the DRC, but it does not have the resources to go after Mr Kony properly, and he is committing some of the worst human rights atrocities in the world. I hope that the UK will devote more attention to the matter.

Would it be right to say that we should not only devote more attention to the matter, but work in partnership with other nations who want to see it resolved? That is how we can be most effective.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is entirely right. We do not have the resources to send troops in directly, but through the UN, we can help to bolster operations, perhaps in the DRC, so that we can put greater efforts into trying to capture a man who is, I repeat, an indicted war criminal. He is highly mobile and never sleeps in the same place, so capturing him requires considerable resources, particularly helicopters, so that our troops can keep ahead of the game and catch up with him.

As the hon. Member for Strangford said, in recent weeks and months, we have seen a rapid descent and some of the most appalling abuses of human rights under the regime of the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni. The police and security forces now regularly use lethal force, especially during political demonstrations, and I should like to address the crackdown on opponents of the Museveni Government. Ever since his so-called re-election in May 2011, there has been a wave of opposition demonstrations, many of which have ended up in violence. Opposition politicians, their supporters and journalists all too often face harassment, beatings and arrest.

The leader of Uganda’s main opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, Dr Kizza Besigye—a reasonable man whom I have met on a number of occasions—was recently attacked at an FDC rally, where police and military personnel surrounded him and cut him off from his supporters. They crushed his car screen and prevented him from leaving the scene.

Ever since the advent of the first multi-party elections in 2006, the Museveni Government have done whatever they can to prevent any opposition from playing on a level playing field. Before those elections, Dr Besigye was arrested on trumped up charges of treason and rape in an effort to prevent him from standing. On the occasions that I have met him, he has had to get special permission to leave the country, because he is still subject to those trumped up charges.

In another, more recent, incident, which I discussed with the Minister for Africa, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), Dr Besigye was leading a small demonstration by Activists for Change—the so-called A4C—outside a Government building, when a rock thrown from within that building hit a plain-clothes policeman, who subsequently, and unfortunately, died. The Minister for Africa told me these facts, so I know them to be correct. It seems reasonably clear that this was nothing whatsoever to do with Dr Besigye or any of his followers, yet scores of people were arrested, along with Dr Besigye, who was subsequently charged with unlawful assembly and placed under house arrest for a time.

The Ugandan Government declared on 4 April 2012 that A4C was an “unlawful society”, ahead of a planned demonstration on 5 April. The Ugandan Attorney-General, Peter Nyombi, also declared that, should members of A4C attempt to form a new group, that would also be banned—something that transpired after the members of A4C formed the new group called “For God and My Country”. The same Attorney-General said:

“If the old pressure group members are the same office bearers, the group remains illegal.”

Police and security forces continue to harass and disturb events and rallies organised by opposition supporters. At a recent meeting of the International Democrat Union’s Africa branch in Kampala, delegates—international delegates coming into Uganda—were harassed by the police force, which forced the Fairway hotel to cancel the IDU’s booking and attempted to force the Grand Imperial hotel to deny the IDU space.

Last week, several people, including a 12-year-old girl, were injured and shops closed in a one-hour battle between police and supporters of Dr Besigye, as the police attempted to stop him from accessing the Nakasero market simply to have his lunch.

Only yesterday, several women were arrested as they protested at the brutal manner in which the opposition FDC Women’s League leader, Ingrid Turinawe, was arrested last Friday. My hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) has already mentioned that incident, but it bears repetition. Ms Turinawe was assaulted on Friday as the police blocked a rally called by the opposition in Nansana, outside Kampala. Ugandan television footage clearly shows that, as several officers tried to pull her out of her vehicle, she was sexually assaulted and she is heard shouting out in pain. This is all part of a downward trend in the ability of political opposition in Uganda to fulfil its basic rights and to protest peacefully.

Worryingly, a proposed Public Order Management Bill, which is before the Ugandan Parliament, could further limit freedom of expression for demonstrators, if passed in its current form. Under the Bill, public meetings will be prohibited in certain circumstances. It will prohibit public meetings that are aimed at discussing Government policies and affairs of management. For journalists, the Bill will limit their role of seeking, receiving and imparting information, which is a vital aspect of freedom of expression and democracy. Journalists, along with political demonstrators, are also increasingly coming under attack by police and security forces.

The Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda documented 107 cases of attacks on journalists in 2011, compared to 58 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. That demonstrates a worrying trend.

My hon. Friend mentions a number of repressive measures currently before the Parliament of Uganda. Is he aware of another Bill, which is being introduced in this session, that seeks to institutionalise further discrimination against the gay and lesbian minority and reintroduce the proposals current 18 months ago to implement the death penalty for having same-sex relationships? Is he as appalled as I am about that? Does he call on the Government to review aid strategy in the light of all the human rights abuses that we are hearing about this morning?

My hon. Friend does the House a service in bringing attention to such matters. When the highly discriminatory measures that she mentions—I totally deplore them—came before the previous Ugandan Parliament, they were subject to a lot of international criticism. If they are to be persisted with, which it seems that they are, I hope that Britain will join further international protests to try to prevent them from happening. The proposals are highly discriminatory.

Journalists in Uganda have been subject to shootings, attacks, arrest and detention. They have been prevented from accessing news scenes and their equipment has been taken away. Such actions are in violation of international human rights law and must be deplored. The UK has a particular responsibility in respect of Uganda and a deep-seated interest in the events taking place. As a member of the Commonwealth, we have a long and shared history with that country. Through the Department for International Development, we will spend an average of £98 million per year in Uganda until 2015.

As the country has many natural resources—in particular, emerging finds of oil— Uganda has transformed from a failed state to a fast-growing economy. The abuses of human rights taking place, however, are simply unacceptable. The Minister with responsibility for African affairs is fully aware of events on the ground in Uganda—he visited the country recently, when he met with President Museveni and Dr Besigye—so I hope that he takes note of what has been said today.

Through the African Union and the Commonwealth, pressure must be applied to the Ugandan Government to uphold their responsibilities to their people. As a country, Uganda has huge potential. It must, however, take action to rectify the seriously deteriorating human rights situation that has developed and that has accelerated since the recent election. I am always hesitant about criticising people who cannot answer for themselves, but my perception is that in the past Ministers and Foreign Office representatives on the ground in Kampala have been far too timid in their meetings with President Museveni in protesting about human rights abuses and, in particular, the right of the opposition to carry out their normal democratic functions. I sincerely hope that I am wrong, and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that that is not the case.

I urge the UK Government to continue to support the rights and freedoms of all Ugandans and their efforts to persuade the Ugandan authorities to respect people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to the peaceful exercise of the freedoms of speech and of assembly that we expect in any civilised, modern, democratic state. Furthermore, the UK Government must encourage the Ugandan Government to ensure that the actions of the police and the security forces should be proportionate to the events that actually take place on the ground.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) in the debate. I was in Uganda for the 2010 elections, and to see the deterioration in the atmosphere in Uganda and the violent acts taking place at the moment was horrific.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing today’s debate. His speech touched on the effect of “Kony 2012”, which was astonishing, mobilising people throughout the world. While there has been some criticism of the film, the intention was clearly to simplify the issue and to communicate it to the masses, which it certainly did. Young people took to the streets in cities throughout the world during the weekend to show solidarity with the victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the great lakes region.

Although the LRA has now been driven from Uganda, it is still active in the regions. Tragically, as the hon. Gentleman stated, tens of thousands of people in Uganda are still suffering from the aftermath of Joseph Kony’s terror spree. Families are displaced from their homes and villages. Men, women and children are living with the shame of being raped under Kony’s command, while others have to cope every day with the disabilities forced on them after being mutilated by the LRA. Joseph Kony remains a wanted and indicted war criminal, and I hope that the attention that has shone on him through the campaign will lead ultimately to his capture.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the many non-governmental organisations that are working in the area to rehabilitate former child soldiers who were captured by the LRA. Voluntary Service Overseas is working with young people in north Uganda to empower them with skills to develop their own businesses. One of those young people is Betty, and a synopsis of her story will provide a good example of the tens of thousands of children that VSO is helping.

Betty was abducted aged just 15 and immediately married to an older man who was a lieutenant in the LRA. She was forced to kill people with an axe. She once tried to escape with a group of other women, but when they were caught, she was beaten with 100 strokes and still has health complications as a result of that attack. When she did finally escape, she discovered that she was HIV positive and had to return to her village with two children as a result of her marriage. She said that she felt stigmatised and was no longer accepted in her village, and she was left on her own to look after her children. With the support of VSO, Betty and other women and children like her have been able to set up their own businesses. Betty now has her own bakery in Gulu in northern Uganda. Help is getting to the area, but I ask the Government to do what they can to support such ventures and help the rehabilitation of victims of that war.

I wish to touch on another subject that has been briefly mentioned today and concerns human rights, which is the situation of homosexuals in Uganda and the abuse and vilification of that community. Last year, shortly after I returned from Uganda, the first man to live openly as a homosexual in Uganda paid the ultimate price—his life—for standing up for the courage of his convictions. His name was David Kato, and he was the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda. His brutal murder in his own home shocked people throughout the world, including many Members present in the Chamber today.

As chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, I have been privileged to work with David’s successor, Frank Mugisha, who I am pleased to say was recently awarded the Robert F. Kennedy human rights award. He is respected in the United States and in this country for his work in Uganda, and he is currently risking his life to lead the fight against the anti-homosexuality Bill that is going through the Ugandan Parliament at the moment. As we know, that Bill could introduce the death penalty for homosexuals in Uganda. Not only would that be a retrograde step for human rights, but it could be severely damaging for public health in Uganda, given the HIV epidemic that still has hold of the country.

Criminalising a section of the population that is highly at risk of contracting HIV and denying people access to basic services, health care and education about the epidemic undermines individual human rights and could pose a devastating threat to public health in a country where more than 1 million people have been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Such a situation would be further undermined by the Bill on HIV and AIDS control and prevention that threatens not only the confidentiality of clients, but efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.

To make progress against the HIV epidemic we must encourage Uganda to take a pragmatic, public-health orientated approach, much like the one I saw when visiting Kenya, Uganda’s neighbour. There, even though homosexuality remains an offence, reaching out to homosexuals and educating them about the risk of HIV and how to protect themselves is seen as a public health matter and beyond that legislation. What works is to respect human rights, including the human rights of men who have sex with men, to enable to them to get access to HIV prevention and education services.

One of the most challenging aspects of the issue is that myths surrounding homosexuals and their activities are propagated by outsiders in Uganda. They have helped to perpetuate myths associating homosexuality with paedophilia, and politicised an issue that had previously remained underground for many years. When I was in Uganda, I saw publications such as Rolling Stone, which was allowed to out homosexual men in Kampala, leading to horrific violent attacks against them. However, outsiders can make a positive difference, too, and I welcome the strong line that the UK Government have so far taken with countries that impose harsher penalties for men who have sex with men. International pressure played a huge role in the withdrawal of the anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda last year, and I hope that that will continue.

The issue is a difficult and controversial one to raise. Talking so openly about sex and relationships can be difficult in our own culture and society, never mind in Uganda, but it is imperative that we frame the concerns in the context of human rights abuses, rather than solely talking about gay rights. The things that have happened are human rights abuses. As I have said, I am privileged enough to have visited the beautiful country of Uganda several times, and it is close to my heart. Like many countries, Uganda has a huge diversity of cultures, peoples, attitudes and beliefs. We cannot assume that the intolerance and hatred that are propagated in some sections of the press are reflected in the whole of society in Uganda. As Frank Mugisha has said:

“Still, I continue to hope. There are encouraging times when my fellow activists and I meet people face to face and they realise we aren’t the child-molesting monsters depicted in the media. They realise we are human, we are Ugandan, just like them.”

The right to marry is far from the minds of homosexuals in Uganda. All they are asking for at the moment is the freedom to live their lives without fear and discrimination—or possibly, even, the freedom to live at all. The message that I have from activists for homosexual rights in Uganda is that they do not want our country to withdraw aid from theirs. As they told me, they need to eat, too, and they need health care, too. What they want is for us to use our influence and discuss human rights for everyone in Uganda, as we are doing today. I hope that the Government will continue to use their influence in Uganda to stress that message at the highest level.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

I, too, had the pleasure of visiting Uganda—first in 2006, with Oxfam, and then again in 2007, when I was one of the guinea pigs for the Voluntary Service Overseas parliamentary scheme, in which MPs are sent to work on short-term placements in the summer. I spent a few weeks at VSO head office in Kampala, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) that it is a beautiful country, with very friendly people. I very much enjoyed my visits there, although on my first one, with Oxfam, I was taken up to Kitgum, to the camps for internally displaced people who had been driven from their villages by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

It was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and it was certainly one of the most tragic sights I had seen—people living in huge camps. I think at that time about 1.8 million people had been displaced from their villages. They were in their mud huts, surviving on one meal a day. I always remember the sight of a young boy, who was probably about 11 or 12, and who was wearing a three-piece suit that had obviously been donated to a charity in a place such as the UK. It was 10 sizes too big for him, the trousers were all rucked up, and he had a little waistcoat. He was wearing it in the baking sun, but was obviously proud of his suit.

When I was there, there was talk of the peace talks beginning to make some progress. There were talks in Juba. However, it was several years later before people who had spent nearly two decades in the camps were able to return to their villages. It is important that the Kony 2012 campaign has drawn attention to the atrocities that have been perpetuated by the LRA, but it is somewhat ironic that it has come to international attention—and that so many celebrities have become aware of it and are drawing it to greater public attention—at a time when the LRA is no longer operational in Uganda and people have been able to return to their villages.

It is clear that the LRA has no popular support in Uganda and no clear political agenda. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, virtually all Christians would be absolutely appalled at Joseph Kony’s claim to be inspired by the ten commandments and that he is acting through some sort of Christian imperative. The UK leads on the LRA at the UN Security Council, and Lord Howell said recently in the other place that

“the UK Government remains very actively involved. We continue to work with international partners to disband the LRA and to bring to justice Joseph Kony and the other LRA leaders who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 March 2012; Vol. 736, c.GC199.]

I am not quite sure what that entails. I appreciate that the Minister may be in difficulties and that if operations are under way, he would not want to reveal them to us. However, it is not clear to me whether there are active attempts to track down Kony and bring him to justice, or whether it is a question of containment and of trying to prevent him inflicting more atrocities.

One thing that struck me when I was in Uganda is that the Acholi people have a concept of reconciliation that involves a ceremony. I cannot remember the details, but it is something to do with drinking something from a tree. When I spoke to people there, they were very keen to implement that and forgive people who had been abducted by the LRA and had committed atrocities, even if it came down to killing or raping people of their own tribe. That is their culture of forgiveness and they wanted those people back in their villages. Surely that process should not extend to the likes of Joseph Kony and the leaders of the LRA. It is incredibly important that he is brought to justice.

Does the hon. Lady share the concern of many people—including myself and many in this House and outside it—who are fearful that Joseph Kony could be going underground? In other words, he could hide for a certain period of time when there are 5,000 soldiers trying to find him and, at some time in the future if he is not caught, he could come out of the woodwork again and resume his violent activities and brutalisation of the people.

I do, indeed. I remember when I was in Uganda that Kony’s deputy, Vincent—his surname escapes me—was phoning in on Bush radio and taking part in talk shows. It seemed rather strange that although technically they were in hiding, in some ways they were quite visible. Yet, no one had managed to track them down and arrest them. We know that the LRA has been seen in the DRC and in South Sudan, and there is a real fear that it could be regrouping or that atrocities are being carried out in those areas, too.

The UN has also expressed concerns about acts carried out by the Uganda People’s Defence Force. There have been allegations of rape, torture and use of lethal force, especially during political demonstrations. Opposition politicians, their supporters and some journalists have faced harassment, beatings, and arrest. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) listed in some detail the pressure that Opposition politicians have been put under. The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) mentioned—I think she was talking about the same incident—that, in January 2011, the police arrested 35 female activists from the inter-party co-operation coalition, who were protesting against the Electoral Commission of Uganda and accusing it of partiality.

There have also been reports—for example, by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women—that violence against women and girls in Uganda remains widespread. There is an inordinately high prevalence of sexual offences and although it is promising to note that Uganda has ratified the protocol to the African charter on the rights of women in Africa, much more needs to be done.

On press freedom, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for The Cotswolds, last year, Uganda dropped 43 places to 139th position out of 170 countries in the world assessed by Reporters Without Borders. Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda documented 107 cases of attacks on journalists in 2011, up from 58 in 2010 and 38 in 2009. Those incidents include shootings, physical attacks, unlawful arrest and detention, incarceration, denying the media access to news scenes, confiscation of equipment, defective and trumped-up charges and verbal threats. According to Amnesty International, at the end of 2011 up to 30 Ugandan journalists were facing criminal charges for activities that were a legitimate exercise of their right to freedom of expression.

[Katy Clark in the Chair]

Since the general elections in February 2011, a blanket ban has been in place against all forms of public assembly. I understand that President Museveni has been pressing Parliament to approve constitutional amendments that would curtail bail rights for people facing certain charges, including participation in protests. The proposed constitutional law would allow judges to deny bail for at least six months to people arrested for treason, terrorism, rape, economic sabotage and rioting.

It is the case that 56% of Uganda’s prisoners—more than 17,000 people—have not been convicted of a crime and are locked up awaiting resolution of their case, sometimes for years. According to Human Rights Watch, conditions in the prisons are appalling. Limited use of bail and inadequate legal representation contribute to the delays.

In the time left to me, I want to return to the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts—the anti-homosexuality laws. I am quite surprised: when this debate on human rights in Uganda was first called, I thought that the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights would be at the top of the agenda, because it has achieved much coverage lately. I hope that when the hon. Member for Strangford quotes, “When they came for the communists”, “When they came for the trade unionists” and “When they came for the Jews”, he also includes in that list “When they came for the homosexuals”.

When I visited Uganda in 2007, the issue had just begun to raise its head. That was because LGBT activists had started campaigning for their rights to be recognised. I was shocked on one occasion when I was walking down the road to see a billboard for a newspaper saying something like “Homos arrested in march”. I had no idea that such language was still used. What was often said to me then was, “If only they’d keep it to themselves, they wouldn’t be bringing this attention on themselves and would be able to just carry on quietly.” That language has been used since time immemorial to stop people asserting their rights against discrimination and persecution.

As was mentioned, the Ugandan tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone published in 2010 the full names, addresses and photographs of 100 prominent and allegedly gay Ugandans, accompanied by a call for their execution. The headline was “Hang Them”. One of those on the list was leading gay rights activist David Kato, who was beaten to death in January 2011. He was murdered shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine that had published his name and photograph, identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. There was a suggestion that he had been robbed by someone, but most people do not give that allegation much credence.

Then there is the anti-homosexuality Bill currently before the Ugandan Parliament. The Ugandan penal code already prohibits consensual sex between individuals of the same sex. However, the Bill goes much further. It originally called for the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts, but now calls for life imprisonment. However, it still introduces the death penalty for the offence of “aggravated homosexuality”, which is defined as an HIV-positive man having intercourse with a man who is HIV-negative. It also punishes those who do not report within 24 hours violations of the Bill’s provisions. That applies to people who do not accuse others of being involved in homosexual activity if they believe that they have been. The Bill also criminalises the “promotion” of homosexuality.

The Bill has been widely criticised by human rights organisations and Uganda’s diplomatic partners. President Obama called the Bill “odious”. Thankfully, President Museveni publicly distanced himself from the Bill when it was brought before the Parliament in 2010 and 2011.

I was in Ghana recently with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and ended up spending a day with a group of Ugandan MPs, who raised the subject with me. They said, “Whenever we see anyone from your country, all they want to talk about is our anti-homosexuality Bill.” It was disturbing that only one of the group was opposed to the Bill. All the others were supportive in varying degrees, and presented the old idea of predatory homosexuals preying on children as a child protection issue. They said that they did not care what people got up to in private, and that promotion was the real problem, but when I pressed them and asked why they were not just banning promotion, and why they were trying to impose life imprisonment—quite a few supported the death penalty—for consensual acts, they could not answer. That shows that there is still a long way to go.

Although the conversation was polite, it put us in a slightly difficult position. As one MP said, we took religion to them, and encouraged them to believe in certain things. We had a debate about whether it was a human rights issue, or a matter of religious belief, and whether that outweighs other people’s human rights. As they said, we told them that homosexuality was wrong when proselytising Christianity, but we are now saying that they must believe something else that we tell them. The colonialist agenda of trying to impose western values on them became quite an issue.

I have had similar conversations with Ugandan politicians. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to ensure that we are not seen as promoting a view or way of life on Ugandan people, but that the issue is human rights abuse? We need countries throughout the world to exert the sort of pressure that the UK Government are exerting. We must work with other Governments to ensure that we are not seen as an old colonial power imposing a belief on Ugandan people.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was in Jordan recently, and was talking to a couple of women political activists from the Islamic Action Front, which is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. We got on to issues such as gay rights, and alcohol consumption. Parts of Jordan are tourist destinations and women wear bikinis on beaches, and so on. We could not claim that wearing a bikini on a beach is a fundamental human right, but with gay rights there may be certain values, and we should not accept that people’s cultural or religious beliefs allow them to persecute or discriminate against people because of their sexuality.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s speech so far, and I have listened carefully. The thrust of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who introduced the debate, was the persecution of Christians in Uganda. I am interested to hear what the two Front-Bench spokesmen say about the representations about Christians. The hon. Lady has not placed much emphasis on that so far.

Uganda is quite a strongly Christian country. I have worked with organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Barnabas Trust and so on that have campaigned on the persecution of Christians in other countries. I had not had representations about persecution of Christians in Uganda until the hon. Gentleman spoke. I appreciate that there is a particular issue for people who have converted from Islam. They may have particular problems, and obviously their security should be protected because their right to practise whatever religion they choose is important, but that right cannot extend to supporting discrimination or persecution of people whose sexuality is different. It is important to flag that up in this debate.

I know that the Minister wants to spend some time responding to the debate, so I will finish. There are concerns about the HIV/AIDS prevention and control Bill, which was retabled in the Ugandan parliament in February 2012. It calls for mandatory HIV testing, and forced disclosure of HIV status in certain cases. I appreciate what a devastating impact the AIDS epidemic has had in Uganda and many other sub-Saharan African countries. When I was there, I saw the work of public education campaigns, and particularly those targeting older men who single out under-age girls because they think they will not be HIV-positive. I appreciate that the country wants to do more to tackle the AIDS problem, but forced disclosure and mandatory reporting and testing are likely to violate human rights on a number of grounds, so they are a matter for concern and vigilance. The Bill has also been criticised by gay rights activists because it excludes homosexuals from prevention programmes.

Finally, I return to UK financial assistance to Uganda. At one point, we withdrew some direct budget support to the Ugandan Government because of concerns about the 2006 elections. We enter dangerous waters when we introduce an element of conditionality into aid—the debate in the past has always been about economic conditionality, such as linking support to water privatisation programmes—but we should require certain standards from the countries to which we offer aid. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts that it would be a dereliction of our duty to the people of Uganda if we withdrew aid, but it is important that any aid we give the country is accompanied by strong messages and, where appropriate, criticism of Uganda’s human rights record. We should use aid not as a strong-arm tactic, but as leverage to get across our points to the Ugandan Government.

This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and it is a privilege to do so. I am grateful for the opportunity to conclude this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising this topic. He contributes to many debates on foreign affairs, and he always does so with great passion and authority.

I congratulate everybody else who has participated in what has been a very consensual debate, even though it has been full of strong feelings. It has also been full of important insights from Members on both sides of the Chamber, many of whom drew on their own direct observations. The passion communicated in all their speeches will be heard way beyond the walls of this room, including by many people in Uganda, whether or not they are in government.

Given that I have a little longer than is sometimes the case in such debates, let me, for the benefit of hon. Members, lay out in greater detail the British Government’s position on the wide range of subjects that have been raised. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the atrocities carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I assure hon. Members that we remain active in working with international partners to disband the LRA and to bring Joseph Kony to justice. Apprehending him will not be straightforward. About 300 remaining LRA fighters operate across remote and hostile terrain in a region the UN estimates is comparable in size to the United Kingdom. However, concerted international effort will overcome those obstacles and see Joseph Kony held to account and the LRA cease to exist. That is, very strongly, our objective.

I do not want to steal the thunder of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), but he asked what help the Government can give the 5,000 members of the African Union army in pursuing Joseph Kony. He mentioned helicopter support. Are the Government considering that? If not, could it be considered?

I do not have information specifically about the use of helicopters, but I was starting to explain what we are doing to try to bring the LRA’s activities to a conclusion.

The LRA, as many Members will know, was forced out of Uganda in 2006 and does not now pose a security threat to the country. It still operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Supporting those countries in efforts finally to rid central Africa of the scourge of the LRA remains our Government’s priority. Our efforts to do so have been set out by the Minister of State with responsibility for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), in correspondence that he has sent to all Members of the House of Commons.

In our role as UN Security Council lead on LRA issues, the UK secured the UN Security Council presidential statement of November 2011, which tasked the UN to deliver a regional strategy to combat the LRA. We have pressed the UN to make this strategy coherent, co-ordinated and results-focused and then to deliver on it swiftly.

Furthermore, we have ensured the specific inclusion of LRA issues in mandates of UN peacekeeping and political missions across the region. We have also pressed for robust language on civilian protection in these mandates and for better co-ordination and intelligence-sharing between peacekeeping operations.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UK offers vital financial support to the UN peacekeeping force, providing important protection to civilians from armed groups, including the LRA. We also support the UN’s disarmament and demobilisation efforts that are reintegrating remaining LRA combatants back into communities.

In Uganda, the Department for International Development is halfway through a £100 million programme committed to supporting development in northern Uganda as it recovers from two decades of conflict and from the terrible legacy left by the LRA. Through this programme we work with the Ugandan Government’s peace, recovery and development plan for the north, which has allowed the vast majority of Ugandans displaced by the LRA’s activities to return home. In terms of institutional endeavour, financial support and practical assistance, I hope Members will be reassured that the United Kingdom is taking the pre-eminent role in the world.

I had not intended to focus part of my speech on the LRA, but I do know a bit about it. The problem is that Joseph Kony is highly mobile. He never sleeps in the same place twice. He goes into a village and terrorises the villagers. What those forces require are helicopters to keep ahead of him and clever intelligence to find out where he has been and where he is going. Those two things have been lacking so far, which is why he has been able to get away with what he has.

I am grateful for that additional insight from my hon. Friend. Let me bring his observations to the direct attention of the Minister for Africa and, if it is necessary, of the Ministry of Defence, so that we can consider how we can more effectively assist in the ways in which he describes. I do not wish to go down the path of operational detail in this speech because I am ill-equipped to do so, but we all share the same objective of providing practical assistance wherever we can.

Like many countries in East Africa, Uganda has a turbulent history. We are all aware of the horrors the country suffered during the era of Idi Amin and the conflict that followed. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, Uganda remains staggeringly poor. As people who know the country well know, after decades of political turbulence and violence there is a lot to be depressed about.

It is also true to say that over two decades Uganda has developed from a one-party state to an emerging multi-party democracy with a strengthened Parliament. It has a largely independent judiciary. There is a budding, if fragile, culture of political debate, and its media is able to criticise the Government. There has been progress on gender equality—women play an active role in politics and Uganda has a system that actively encourages the election of female MPs. There is also growing freedom of religion, and faith groups are able to express themselves freely. As a predominantly Christian country, the church is politically active and plays an important role in society.

As the Minister has clearly outlined, there is religious freedom. But hon. Members have been saying that there are many examples of Christians being persecuted and the police and the Government of the land have not backed those people up. That is our point. Although I appreciate the Minister’s contribution, I want to underline that matter, because it is important that we do not let it pass.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for further underlining that important point. I say unequivocally that the Government—I am sure that I speak for hon. Members from all parties—deplore discrimination against Christians on the basis that the hon. Gentleman describes and always look to support the freedom of all citizens to practise whatever faith they hold true to themselves, as we do in this country. We will make further representations to reflect the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has brought vividly to our attention this afternoon.

Although I do not wish to make an overly flattering portrait of the situation in Uganda, we feel that there has been some genuine progress in terms of civil liberties and the wider debate in Uganda. It is important that Uganda has responded positively to the United Nations’ universal periodic review of the country, which was published in October 2011 and assessed the human rights concerns in the country. We are assured that the Ugandan Government are taking steps to create a national action plan for the implementation of universal periodic review recommendations on tackling human rights concerns, which were raised in that report. We will work with Uganda to do what we can to make sure that those honourable intentions bear fruit.

However, Uganda still needs to address a number of serious human rights issues to ensure that it makes further progress. Many of those issues were raised in our debate. The UK remains concerned about developments in the country that pose a threat to freedom of expression. In April and May 2011 there was heavy-handed suppression of opposition protests. Since then the authorities in Uganda have imposed further restrictions on freedom of assembly for protestors.

The Ugandan Parliament is currently considering legislation that aims to regulate public demonstrations. There are rules and regulations in all countries, including our own, but it is important that the right balance is struck between maintaining law and order and allowing freedom of assembly. The Minister for Africa raised our concerns about this issue with President Museveni when he visited Uganda in February. We will continue to raise concerns where we feel that that balance is not being correctly struck.

I am concerned that the perception of my hon. Friend or the Foreign Office and what is happening on the ground in Uganda seem to be at variance. Since the lure of having held the Commonwealth games and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, Museveni has been given greater free reign to carry out human rights abuses, which seem to have got significantly worse since the election. I should not like the Minister’s perception—what he said in his speech—and what is happening on the ground to be ignored. I hope that he will bear that in mind.

I certainly will. I confess that I do not speak from first-hand experience on these matters. I am not the Minister for Africa—he is in Africa, which is why I am replying to this debate—but I want to ensure that the Foreign Office’s understanding of the situation is entirely in accord with the reality, as perceived by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). We will take his advice seriously and I will ensure that it is understood and scrutinised properly by the African department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

This is particularly important. As I understand it, DFID has committed £100 million to post-conflict development in northern Uganda over the current five-year period. Building legitimacy, improving the capacity of local government to deliver services, supporting government, civil society and communities to engage peacefully and reconciliation are all important post-conflict work but, as we have heard today, conflict is still happening. There is still abuse and oppression, and I ask the Minister to discuss with his counterpart for Africa the £100 million dedicated to post-conflict work while so much trouble is still occurring.

We do not always get a clean break between conflict and the absence of conflict. The assessment of DFID and the Foreign Office is that progress is sufficient for us to make a difference with the types of programmes described by my hon. Friend. I understand her concerns, and in the time available I will address some of that issue and others, if I may continue my speech.

Laws against and repression of homosexuals were rightly mentioned at length by the hon. Members for Bristol East and for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) and others. For the avoidance of doubt, I will spell out the British Government’s clear position. The United Kingdom is strongly committed to upholding the rights and freedoms of people of all sexual orientations. The Prime Minister made the United Kingdom’s opposition to the criminalisation of homosexuality clear at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 2011. In Kampala, the United Kingdom continues to lobby strongly against the proposals in the Bill and is working closely with civil society groups campaigning against them. The Minister for Africa expressed our concerns to the President when they met in February, and the Minister for Equalities, who arrives in Kampala this evening, will underscore the United Kingdom’s opposition to the proposals when she meets the Ugandan Government. We are doing all that we can to give formal force to the views that were rightly strongly expressed by Members during the debate.

On the nature of the assistance that we provide to Uganda, to return to the previous intervention, UK aid is aimed at reducing poverty and at helping the most vulnerable people. Often those at greatest risk of human rights abuses in developing countries need our help the most. We do not attach conditionality to our aid for that very reason. We do, however, hold full and frank discussions with recipient countries about issues of concern, including human rights, as we have done with the Ugandan Government on the importance that we attach to equality and non-discrimination. We hold those Governments that receive aid through direct budgetary support to account, to ensure that that represents the best way of getting results and value for money for the United Kingdom taxpayer. If we cannot give aid directly to Governments, because we are not sufficiently confident about how that aid is being spent, we find other routes to help people whom we assess need our assistance because of the straitened circumstances in which they live.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on the £100 million available in aid, is it possible to review how to enable the benefits from Uganda’s oil reserves to filter down to those at the lower levels—in poverty—in those discussions that Ministers will be having with the Ugandan Government? That is a moral issue as well, but can the Minister introduce it into discussions with the Ugandan Government?

That may be a more appropriate matter for the Minister for Africa to discuss than for the Minister for Equalities, but I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representation, I shall communicate it and we shall see if it can contribute to any such discussions.

Women in Uganda continue to face a number of very serious threats, including high levels of domestic violence and the continuing traditional practice of female genital mutilation. Again, there has been some progress. Uganda has agreed to ratify the optional protocol to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Uganda passed the Domestic Violence Act 2010 and the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2009, which are significant steps for protecting the rights of women. The task is for those good intentions to be implemented. Through the Department for International Development, the UK supports civil society initiatives to promote knowledge and implementation of the legislation, and protection centres for victims. This week, our Minister for Equalities will visit those projects and lobby the Ugandan Government to ensure they implement its legislation to protect women from violence. This is a topical issue, which is being afforded attention by the Government at ministerial level this very week.

The Ugandan human rights commission’s 2010 report noted a high number of complaints about the use of torture. The UK condemns unreservedly the use of torture. However, there have been some recent improvements. Uganda has signed up to the optional protocol to the UN convention against torture. As Uganda reported at its universal periodic review, 36 police officers have been charged in court for torture-related offences. The UK continues to support Ugandan non-governmental organisations in their efforts to bring forward a private Member’s Bill aimed at enshrining the convention in domestic legislation and ensuring that those who torture are individually liable for their acts. We understand that the Ugandan Government support the Bill, and we look forward to it passing into law and being implemented. We also support civil society efforts against the death penalty and will continue to lobby for the Ugandan Government to abolish it entirely.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for raising this subject. He participates in almost every debate that I take part in as a Minister, which is to his great credit. His passion and interest in foreign policy issues, and the sincerity with which he contributes, shines through. He has given us a welcome opportunity to discuss Uganda and the wide range of concerns that exist regarding freedom of religious practice, intolerance and the persecution of gays, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the abuse of women. I hope that some of the encouraging signs demonstrate progress. The British Government will try to give maximum effect to that progress and will contribute in whatever way that is most useful. We are committed to having a strong and fruitful relationship with Uganda. I hope that that was demonstrated when I talked about the Minister for Africa’s direct interest and this week’s visit by the Minister for Equalities. Uganda is important to us. It has experienced turmoil and strife, and we want to ensure that the views expressed in the debate contribute to creating a much more prosperous, successful and peaceful Uganda.

Association of Chief Police Officers

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I am pleased to have secured this debate. Police officers do fantastic work on the streets of our constituencies, but of late there have been many instances of the police themselves being under investigation. For example, there are allegations that the police have been too cosy in their relationship with journalists, and in my part of the country, North Yorkshire, the outgoing chief constable has been found guilty of gross misconduct after an investigation that cost taxpayers £300,000. There are also investigations into Cleveland police.

Our police leaders should be beyond reproach, but the example set by the leadership, the Association of Chief Police Officers, leaves much to be desired. We all agree on the need for a co-ordinated approach to policing in this country, and that cannot be run county by county. However, the organisation that provides such leadership needs to be professional and clean, but ACPO is riddled with conflicts of interest and poor governance. I want to examine the way that ACPO operates and what it has been up to in recent years, and shine a spotlight on the organisation as the Government consider its future.

ACPO was incorporated as a private limited company in 1997, and it is that status that causes such tension and concern. The organisation is primarily funded by the taxpayer, and it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds from the Home Office and police authority budgets around the country. Millions more come via special projects that ACPO undertakes on national policing issues, and its staff are entitled to generous civil service pensions. Despite receiving large amounts of taxpayers’ money as a private company, ACPO was initially not open to the scrutiny of freedom of information legislation. Last year, ACPO was subjected to FOI legislation for the first time, although that does not appear to have opened up the organisation as the Government hoped. ACPO is being dragged, kicking and screaming, towards transparency.

Last month, via a freedom of information request, Rob Waugh of the Yorkshire Post found that hundreds of thousands of pounds were being paid in contracts to consultants who were often former senior police officers. More worryingly, he discovered that in many cases those consultants were employed without any of the procurement processes and controls that ACPO tells individual police forces to follow. Most of the payments were made through personal service companies.

According to the Yorkshire Post, more than £800,000 was paid to 10 consultants, largely over the past three years, from ACPO’s central office. The payments include over £190,000 for the services of a former chief constable of Essex at a rate of around £1,000 a day, with payments made through a consultancy company. One former detective superintendent received over £200,000 through his company, and a former assistant chief constable in Cumbria was paid £180,000. ACPO has its own guidelines that require three quotes for expenses over £1,000, and tendering for amounts of £50,000. Alarmingly however, the Yorkshire Post was unable to find any evidence that those rules were followed in any of those cases. In the case of Linda van den Hende, paperwork was present for a 12-month period, although she worked for four years.

ACPO is an organisation charged with ensuring best practice for the police service of our country, and it is funded largely by taxpayers’ money. There is, however, form in this area. Last year, the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that £30,000 had been paid to the deputy chief constable of North Yorkshire police, without any auditing to find out how it had been spent. Graham Maxwell leads North Yorkshire police and he has been found guilty of gross misconduct. He is also the finance lead on ACPO.

ACPO seems to feel that the Freedom of Information Act should be only partially applied, and it has published details only of those consultants employed at its head office. I took up the case in a letter to Sir Hugh Orde who chairs ACPO, and I asked for copies of contracts and details of the procurement processes for every consultant engaged by the organisation over the past three years. He responded by saying that he would set up a review that will be led by ACPO’s head of professional standards, overseen by ACPO’s council, and monitored by Transparency International UK. So Sir Hugh will not respond directly to a request by an elected Member of Parliament. He has tasked the person and board who should surely have been looking at the matters in question on an ongoing basis, and they will be checked and supervised by an organisation the bulk of whose work is advising corrupt Governments.

I urge the Minister to support my call for ACPO to release details of every consultant engaged over the past three years in each of its business areas, with details of how those payments were calculated and what procurement processes were used. I also ask for his support in referring the matters to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which has thus far been vague with me about whether it will check the tax situation pertaining to the arrangements in question. Will the Minister confirm how much the civil service pensions of ACPO staff currently cost the taxpayer?

As ACPO is a private company, it has also been able to engage in commercial activities. It is impossible to get a picture of what it gets up to commercially, because the set-up has no central source of information. For the most part, the publication of limited accounts has been permitted, as the concerns in question are small businesses. Two companies that have spun off from ACPO are ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd and Road Safety Support Ltd. Those are both not-for-profit companies, which are limited by guarantee. Both appear not to use confidential data held by police forces, but much of their business is obtained because of their close links with ACPO and their links to former senior police officers.

For example, ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd is entirely owned by ACPO and its registered office for the last company accounts was the same as ACPO’s. Its directors, as listed in the last available return from Companies House, include an assistant chief constable from Northamptonshire, the former chief constable of Lincolnshire police, the current ACPO chief executive, a former Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner, a former Sussex police officer and a former assistant chief constable of Strathclyde police. Just like the consultancies that have been dished out by ACPO, using public money, to former senior police chiefs, those companies seem to provide tasty directorships for senior police officers. In one case it appears that a chief constable was a director on a company while still in his role as chief of police.

ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd is funded through partnership with companies whose products meet technical standards identified by the company. In return, the licensed company is able to utilise the Secured by Design logo and, on those products which meet the technical standard, the title “Police Preferred Specification” can be used. By offering “Police Preferred Specification” as a slogan, the line is blurred, with many people who buy products with that slogan expecting approval to come from taxpayer-funded police services, rather than from a private company that is given permission by ACPO to use the name.

Road Safety Support Ltd was formed in 2007. It provides training to speed camera operators and advice and information on camera placement. In the last set of accounts from Companies House it had three directors, one of whom is the recently retired former chief constable of South Yorkshire police. He, for some time, was also the representative for ACPO on road policing. Curiously, the same three directors are also directors of another company, NDORS Ltd, which is registered at the same address as Road Safety Support Ltd. That company runs speed awareness courses—presumably for those who have been caught by cameras, which may have been placed on advice from Road Safety Support Ltd.

In those companies, which all make use of their close links to the police, directorships and jobs are provided for former senior police officers who have left forces across the country, and the crossovers in what are, supposedly, separate limited companies, are clear to see. As police chiefs collected gold plated pensions, they were able to top up those already huge pensions with either a consultancy with ACPO or a directorship with one of its spin-off companies. I am today writing to Sir Hugh Orde to ask for a list of every individual who has been a director at an ACPO-related company over the past three years and whether they were also working in any capacity with ACPO or with a police force at the time. I want to know what projects they were working on and how much they were paid. I have also asked Sir Hugh for copies of the full accounts of every ACPO-related company and not just the redacted small company version that appears at Companies House.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vagueness and the secrecy that he identifies only lead to suspicion? Therefore, it is vital that our police service is beyond reproach.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My experience in my constituency is of excellent policing. What I am trying to get at in this debate is that some of the things at the top appear to be not beyond reproach.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and the Yorkshire Post on its investigative work. It is clearly important that transparency is brought to bear on all of the matters that he has raised. What implications does he think that all of this has for the future status of ACPO, bearing in mind the importance of combining independence, accountability and freedom from political interference?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am just about to get there. I would like the Minister’s support in getting all of the information on these ACPO companies.

I too congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is clear that some significant concerns about transparency have been raised here. Is my hon. Friend able to say something about ACPO perhaps giving some reassurance to the victims of crime whom it has failed through its conduct? My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She has done some fantastic work with victims in this area. The lack of consideration of both victims and the people whom the police chiefs serve has been the cause of many of the issues I have raised today.

I would like some additional thoughts from the Minister on these companies. For example, what will happen to them when, inevitably, ACPO changes or is wound up? These companies have traded on the taxpayer’s name. Going back to my hon. Friend’s remarks about victims, if there is some benefit from selling these companies, perhaps it could go to the victims. I would be grateful to the Minister if he could tell us how we ensure that the taxpayer fully benefits from the wind-up of these companies.

Towards the end of last year, the Home Secretary told the House in a written statement that a new police professional body was to be created to develop policing as a single profession, representing the entire service and acting only in the public interest. It also envisaged the setting up of a chief constable’s council to enable senior officers to assess and discuss critical operational issues. I understand that ACPO is resisting that development and the idea of becoming part of a broader professional body because it wants to maintain some form of chiefs’ club. As the Home Affairs Committee recently stated, all levels of the police family should be represented in the new professional organisation. Many of the problems at ACPO seem to have come from an arrogance, a lack of challenge from the lower ranks and a belief that command and control means that the chiefs are accountable to no one.

My message to ACPO is that I and a number of colleagues will relentlessly pursue what it has been doing. It will all come out in the end, so get it out now and respond quickly to our questions. What does the Minister see as the timetable for the future of the organisation and what discussions have the Government had with the president of ACPO to ensure a smooth transition to the new body? Can he confirm that the Government are pushing ahead with a new all-level professional body for the police? What measures are the Government taking to ensure that the new body is fully transparent and accountable? The role of this country’s most senior police officers is vital in protecting our country and our constituents, but I urge the Minister and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to reject point blank any idea that ACPO should be retained or revived. Of course there should be a strong professional body for the whole of the police service, and of course there should not be a special cosy club for police chiefs.

Many people involved in ACPO have, at best, been negligent or, at worst, corrupt in how they have managed the resources and opportunities they were granted. I have seen that locally in North Yorkshire, and we have seen it nationally. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) found similar issues with the National Police Improvement Agency. The Government’s policing reforms are right, but they should be even bolder. ACPO should be wound up as quickly as possible, and such gold-plated, dodgy clubs for any leaders of public organisations should be consigned to the past.

I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Clark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) on raising a number of significant and important questions relating to the Association of Chief Police Officers to which I will respond.

My hon. Friend has made a number of criticisms about the leadership of the police service in England and Wales, but I welcome his positive statement about the work of front-line officers. We must be clear that police officers and staff throughout the country have our support in their fantastic work in keeping us all safe day in, day out.

In the context of some of the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, I am aware that Sir Hugh Orde, president of ACPO, has written to my hon. Friend about the issues he has raised, and I am satisfied that ACPO has taken and is taking those criticisms seriously. That was demonstrated by the decision of the ACPO cabinet earlier this month to conduct a review of spending on consultants within ACPO. As its president outlined in his letter to my hon. Friend, that review will also look at how financial controls have been applied over the last three years. The whole process will be subject to external scrutiny by Transparency International, and the results will be made public.

A review is the right course of action, and it is appropriate to allow it to proceed and its report to be published before commenting further on the details. I agree that every organisation that receives money must be open and transparent about how that money is spent. Sir Hugh Orde stated that clearly to my hon. Friend in his response to him, and I note that he has agreed to meet my hon. Friend to discuss any further issues in detail.

My hon. Friend highlighted a significant point about ACPO’s independence. It is a private company limited by guarantee. It is not owned or controlled by the Home Office, and is operationally independent. The discussion of ACPO’s future role and funding must be framed in the light of the wider work taking place on police reform. As part of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s intention, which is laid out in the White Paper, “Policing in the 21st century”, the Government have embarked on the most radical programme of reform to policing in 50 years. We are currently developing the bodies necessary to support and reinforce those reforms. That work will help to deal with many of the concerns raised today regarding accountability and transparency within policing in England and Wales. We are grateful that ACPO agrees that change is necessary and for the constructive way in which its presidential team are engaging with the Home Office regarding the future of ACPO.

In August 2010, the Home Secretary asked Peter Neyroud to carry out a fundamental review of the delivery of leadership and training functions in policing. In response to the review, the Government announced their intention to create a new police professional body, which presents a unique opportunity further to professionalise policing and increase public accountability. As part of that work, the National Policing Improvement Agency will be phased out by the end of this year.

The Home Secretary has acknowledged a continued need for chief constables to come together for discussion on key operational issues and also when it is in the public interest for them to do so. Indeed, we are clear that chief officers will continue to play a vital role, both within the professional body and as part of a chiefs council, which will work with the new professional body. Together, those two bodies will equip the service with the skills that it needs to deliver effective crime fighting in a changing, leaner and more accountable environment. We are currently working with ACPO and key partners to consider the precise remit of the chiefs council, its relationship with the new body and the transition of ACPO functions. The Government have agreed to continue to fund ACPO’s grant-aid during the 2012-13 financial year while those discussions take place.

Is it the Government’s intention that the two bodies to which the Minister refers will take on all ACPO’s present responsibilities, or will certain areas—perhaps co-ordination on counter-terrorism or serious crime—be the responsibility of a separate body?

It is precisely those issues that are the subject of the detailed discussions between the Government and ACPO. We will come forward in due course with further details of the police professional body and its precise functions. That will be the right time for the Government to set out in detail proposals for the police professional body, but it may help the right hon. Gentleman if I say this. As the Government have made clear, the challenge for the police service is to reduce crime to make communities feel safer. At the same time, forces must deliver significant savings to meet the challenges set by the spending review. Tackling those two challenges together will require transformational change; it cannot be done by relying on the existing structures at national level in policing. They require a fresh way of thinking. In particular, they require the development of a professional model for policing. At the heart of that model is the creation of the police professional body.

The new body will safeguard the public and fight crime by ensuring professionalism in policing. It will develop skills and leadership, facilitating the drive to reduce bureaucracy, and will have greater public accountability. The professional body will speak for the whole of policing and will directly support police officers at all ranks and civilian policing professionals. It will set and improve standards of professionalism in the police service and will take responsibility for specialist police disciplines. Work is under way on the detailed design of the new body.

The role of the professional body must be understood within the wider policing landscape and, in particular, the transformation in accountability that the introduction of police and crime commissioners will bring. It will need to reflect that shift in how it is constituted, in what it delivers and in how it delivers that. Its most important role will be to act in the public interest.

Key to that, and reflecting the move towards greater accountability, will be the way in which the professional body is structured. It will be chaired by someone independent of the police service, and its board will have an equal balance of police service and non-police service representatives, including police and crime commissioners. It will be open and transparent. In taking its work forwards, it will need to take into account public need in setting and inculcating standards among officers and staff. It will also need to take into consideration the cost of any changes it recommends to develop professionalism. That will form a crucial part of its ability to enhance the British model of policing by consent.

Many criticisms have been made today of the accountability and transparency of decision making by senior police officers. There are, however, clear examples of where the police have responded impressively to the need for change. This is one public service whose leaders generally recognise the difficult economic times and understand the benefits that reform can bring. Greater Manchester police, for example, have saved £62 million a year from their support functions, releasing 348 police officers from those roles so that they can get back to front-line work. Surrey police have carried out a significant restructuring, which has allowed them to commit to increasing constable numbers by up to 200 over the next four years.

Some forces are going even further, moving beyond restructuring and outsourcing, to building strategic relationships with the private sector. This is not about privatisation; policing will remain a public service. However, by harnessing private sector innovation, skills and economies of scale, forces can transform how they work and improve the service they provide to the public.

As well as saving money, our reforms are about making policing better. We are rebuilding the link between the police and the public. In November, the first elections for police and crime commissioners will take place. Elected by local people, commissioners will have the democratic mandate to set their local police force budget, and they will respond to local people’s concerns by setting the force’s priorities.

The direction of police reform provides a clear basis for the way in which the police professional body will operate. The police service is becoming more open, more transparent and more accountable to the public, and it is right and proper that that is the case.

In “Policing in the 21st Century”, we said that we expect chief police officers to continue to play a key role in advising the Government, police and crime commissioners and the police service on strategy and best practice. We will also expect chief constables to play a leading role in driving value for money and to have the capability to drive out costs in their forces.

ACPO is operationally independent of the Home Office, so it is a matter for the company directors to determine its future. ACPO has played a valuable role since it was established in 1948, providing a means for chief constables to come together to agree a common way of working in the absence of any federal policing structures. I re-emphasise that the Government fully appreciate the contribution that chief officers continue to make at a national and local level, particularly those chiefs who are directly supporting the substantial reform agenda. We look forward to building on all that ACPO has achieved.

The Government’s agenda for police reform is strong and coherent, and will free the police to fight crime at a national and local level, deliver better value for taxpayers and give the public a stronger voice.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.

Staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission are experts in their field and are deeply concerned about the attack on equalities represented by the proposed 62% budget cut and 72% staffing cut by 2015 from the original levels in 2007. They and their trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union and Unite—believe that those cuts amount to the closure of the EHRC as we know it and its transformation into little more than a think-tank.

The eminent QC, Sir Bob Hepple, states in a recent article for the Industrial Law Journal that the Commission’s

“ability to use effectively even its restricted powers will be compromised by severe cuts in its annual budget”.

The EHRC is an independent statutory body established by Parliament under the Equality Act 2006. As a regulator, the commission is responsible for enforcing equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status and encouraging compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998. Its powers include promoting understanding and encouraging good practice in relation to human rights, monitoring the law and providing legal assistance, providing information and advice, conducting inquiries and judicial reviews, providing a conciliation service, and grant making powers. In addition, European directives contain requirements for an equality body within member states.

Let me turn for a few moments to the Scottish dimension, given the very different political, legal and economic landscape. The proposed cuts would threaten high-profile work in Scotland, such as the disability harassment inquiry, the human trafficking inquiry, guidance to public bodies on their obligations under equality law and the EHRC hosting of Independent Living in Scotland.

The Scottish helpline deals with more than 5,000 calls per annum, the largest proportion of which are from Scots who have been subjected to disability discrimination. The Scottish helpline also provides a UK-wide service. The nature of the advice is highly technical. No other organisation with equivalent experience and knowledge can fill the gap and provide a similar quality of service.

The fact the commission is losing its funding function is already leaving a gap in the finances of well respected organisations such as the Govan Law Centre, the Glasgow Disability Alliance, the Equality Network and the Central Scotland Racial Equality Council—to name just a handful. What impact will the 62% budget cut have? The work force will be cut by more than half; legal enforcement capabilities will be reduced; the helpline will close by September 2012; and current provision in Scotland and Wales will end.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an organisation that is of great importance to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Does she share my concern that there has been absolutely no planning or any sign of planning about how a service will be offered to vulnerable people who are suffering discrimination in Scotland that understands the specific context of Scotland in terms of devolution? The Secretary of State for Scotland has failed to meet the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland, and the last time that he met the organisation was in July 2010.

I very much share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am very disappointed to hear that the Secretary of State for Scotland has not met anyone about this important issue.

Regional offices will be shut or reduced. For example, the Bristol and Nottingham offices have already been shut for about a year, and further offices planned for closure are Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bangor, Guildford, Cambridge and Leeds, and the offices in Manchester, London, Glasgow and Cardiff are to shrink. In addition, grant functions will end—some ended in March 2012 and the rest will end March 2013.

I want to go into more detail about the cuts and pose some questions to the Minister. The EHRC helpline currently provides direct advice to callers, and staff can refer cases for consideration for legal support by the commission. Of the more than 70,000 calls received every year by the helpline, despite the fact that it has never been properly advertised, the majority group calling for advice is disabled people. The helpline will be closed and replaced by September 2012 with a referral service signposting callers to potential sources of help. The outsourced referral line will not have the conciliation powers or legal assistance powers that the commission has under the Equality Act 2006.

A recent Guardian article by David Hencke on 3 April reported that the jobs agency at the centre of a fraud inquiry, A4e, is the preferred bidder for the EHRC helpline service. The Government Equalities Office has informed staff that the preferred bidder said that it will not keep any provision in Scotland or Wales.

More than 30% of staff who currently work for the helpline are disabled, some 20% are from black and minority ethnic communities and 20% are carers. Given the impossibility of relocating for many, particularly in Scotland and Wales where provision will end, and high likelihood of workers opting for redundancy, the expertise of those highly experienced advisers will be lost.

My hon. Friend may be aware that helpline workers in Scotland were advised last year that their contract with EHRC would terminate at the end of March. However, they have now been advised that they are requested to work until the end of June, because as yet no provider has been identified and an award of contracts has not been made. Does she agree that this is an utterly chaotic way to conduct a Government agency?

Yes; that is typical of how staff have been treated in the agency.

The chances of a smooth transition to the referral line and retention of expertise, as the Government claim, are therefore negligible. Given the one third of operators who are disabled, one fifth from BME communities and one fifth who are carers, what equality impact assessment has been made of the changes to the helpline provision? Why the delay with the announcement of the new helpline provider? The announcement was supposed to be made in mid-February, but it is now rumoured to have been pushed back to the middle of May.

The closure of regional offices will exacerbate the problems of advice deserts, where no other advisory services exist, and the commission will lose its vital link to the public and vital access to crucial evidence of emerging issues. Instead of remaining regionally focused, teams have been reassigned to undertake national support work. The loss of those offices and the intelligence-gathering work that they do at grass-roots level, which my hon. Friend mentioned, will have a significant impact on the understanding of equality and human rights across Great Britain.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. Does she agree that in these days of cuts, which we are now shaping up to, there is a danger that we are preventing some people from taking advantage of legal guidance and legal aid? As I suspect that she is aware, we should consider one section of the community in particular: ladies should get legal aid and advice at the time of their life when they need it most.

I could not agree more, and I hope to mention that later.

What research has been done to ascertain the impact of the closure of regional offices on the problem of advice deserts and gathering evidence on emerging local issues?

Legal grants—projects providing specialist legal advice and representation in equality and human rights—ended on 31 March, and strategic grants providing guidance, advice and advocacy services, infrastructure development, capacity building and good relations will end in March 2013. Many disability and race groups have benefited from the EHRC grants programme, as they did before the EHRC’s creation. A grant received by a local equality body from the EHRC could, and often did, lead to additional sources of revenue from other funders, such as the lottery, charities and local authorities.

The warnings by experts such as Race on the Agenda in 2007 that the local BME infrastructure would suffer significant funding reductions have been realised, not because of the EHRC’s creation, but because of Government cuts to the EHRC grants programme. The Government have argued that the grants function, among other services, should close because they claim grants have little impact and the service function has not been well managed. Although there is an ongoing complaint about the Government’s statement in this regard, it is perhaps most telling to note that the experts and stakeholders also challenge the Government’s assertion. A survey of providers by the Discrimination Law Association indicated that, without EHRC grants, advice organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres would not be able to sustain their services and that some might have to close down completely. My question to the Minister is, from whom have the Government and/or EHRC received protestations about the withdrawal of the grants programme?

The EHRC’s mediation services have ended. Contrary to the Government’s claims that legal aid will take up the shortfall, once the legal aid reforms are implemented, the only legal aid available for discrimination cases will be for goods, facilities and services cases, which are in the minority and are complex and involve large sums. Employment cases will not be eligible for any legal aid support.

I want to turn now to the loss of independence and United Nations “A” status. In 2009, the commission became one of just 70 United Nations “A” status accredited national human rights institutions. The EHRC is Britain’s first accredited NHRI. The “A” status confers special rights and entitlements to work with the UN Human Rights Council. To determine this status, the UN reviewed the work and structure of the commission at the time and found it to be compliant with the Paris principles. Key Paris principles are that the NHRI must be independent of government and not be subject to financial control that might affect its independence. The commission must also have adequate funding to conduct its activities. The loss of independence, lack of financial control and lack of funding due to 62% cuts mean that this status is in jeopardy.

The commission recently published its framework agreement with the Home Office, which includes details of spending controls and an obligation on the commission to provide a business case for approval to the Home Office’s director of communications for all projects with an element of spend on advertising and marketing. If the project is spending more than £100,000, the business case, once approved by the HO director of communication, should go to the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities. Once HO Ministers have approved it, the EHRC must complete the Cabinet Office’s exemption template and submit the case for approval to the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group and the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

The agreement also states that the Home Office should receive near final versions of external EHRC communications 48 hours before issue. I do not know whether that is independence. Many MPs will be surprised that the framework agreement dictates how the commission interacts with Parliament and yet states categorically that the commission must be politically neutral and abide by the Cabinet Office’s rules on lobbying for non-departmental public bodies.

The commission is also instructed to issue guidance to staff, outlining when and how briefings for Parliament are developed, the style of briefings and how briefings should be internally cleared. Does the Minister believe that the framework agreement complies with the Paris principles, particularly relating to independence? Has he assessed the impact of the proposed budget cut to £26 million by the end of this year on the commission’s independence?

The current restructuring at the EHRC repeats many of the mistakes identified in the Public Accounts Committee report of 2010. The report highlighted the problem of staff with valuable skills leaving through an early exit scheme and went on to recommend that the Treasury and the Cabinet Office should ensure that they provide clear guidelines on the need to consider the retention of key skills when devising early exit schemes.

According to an answer to a parliamentary question, the EHRC spent £500,000 a month at one stage on consultancy fees and expenses for interim staff who are leading the work on reforming the commission. That is neither an acceptable use of public money, nor is it in the interests of the taxpayer. These major changes are occurring as questions about the commission’s new chair go unanswered. What assurances can the Minister give that the commission will not lose more skilled and experienced staff through more early exit schemes and that it will not replace staff already lost with costly consultants in the future? Can he say whether the Treasury and the Cabinet Office have produced the guidelines recommended by the PAC to ensure the retention of skilled staff, and has the commission followed that guidance? When will its next chair be announced?

Key stakeholders who responded to the Government consultation on the future of the EHRC, which was called “Building a fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission”, made clear the need to maintain the EHRC’s funding and remit. However, the Government have so far refused to publish the results of the consultation in detail, despite freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions and an official letter to the Home Secretary from the general secretary of the TUC. So I have another question for the Minister. I am asking lots of questions, but that is because there are lots of questions to be answered. Will he publish the responses to the Government consultation on the future of the EHRC and, given the Home Office’s report on its own website that the majority of respondents opposed the changes to the EHRC, will the Minister halt further cuts?

There are many reasons for the EHRC to be proud of its achievements in its first two years. In fact, those achievements are too numerous to mention all of them in the time that I have available today. To mention just a couple of them, the EHRC has ensured protection against discrimination in employment for 6 million carers and exposed exploitation of migrant workers in the meat-processing sector.

There are still many equality challenges facing Britain today that require the presence of an effective EHRC. The annual reports of the Tribunals Service show a substantial increase in the number of claims lodged in employment tribunals since 2008-09. In addition, there are planned cuts to legal aid worth £350 million, and there will be a £1.166 billion reduction in grants to local government. At the same time, confidence in the voluntary sector is at an all-time low, and a voluntary sector in crisis cannot fill the vacuum left by funding cuts to local government grants, legal aid and the EHRC. A Government who take equality seriously would be committed to a future-proofed EHRC.

However, I acknowledge—as do many of the EHRC’s natural allies—that it has not all been plain sailing for the EHRC. Its first three sets of accounts were qualified by the National Audit Office, and obvious tensions between staff, senior management and the commissioners have no doubt had an impact on the EHRC’s ability to achieve its goals. The Government have sought to attack and undermine the work of the EHRC, particularly because of financial management issues. However, responsibility for those issues does not lie with those who work on the helpline, the grants team and the mediation service, or in regional offices. Any such issues should be sorted out, but they should not be used as an excuse to cut essential services to those who are in need and to those who are suffering discrimination.

As I have already said, despite concerns about the EHRC’s performance, non-governmental organisations, unions and others still want to see an effective, robust and independent EHRC, and I agree with them as the chair of the all-party group on equalities. Those bodies want a future in which an outward-looking, integrated and well-resourced commission that is in touch with the grass-roots concerns and needs of ordinary people provides much-needed enforcement powers, advice and support to the people of Britain, as they face the dire economic challenges brought about by this Government’s policies.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate, and on her commitment to equality. I apologise for the fact that the Minister for Equalities is unable to be in Westminster Hall this afternoon to respond directly to the debate.

I know of the hard work done by the hon. Member in chairing the all-party group on equalities, and how rigorous that group is in its approach to equality and fairness. Although we may have differences in relation to a number of the issues that she has raised today, the Government welcome the group’s rigour because we are unequivocal in our commitment to equal treatment and equality of opportunity. That is why we have taken a number of significant steps since we were elected to tackle the barriers to equal opportunities and social mobility. Although there will be differences between us this afternoon, I think that there is common recognition of these important issues.

However, on our own the Government will only ever make limited progress. If we are to stamp out prejudice and give everyone the chance to achieve their potential, we need concerted action by individuals, businesses and voluntary organisations across our communities. We also need a strong and effective equality body and national human rights institution to monitor our progress, make recommendations about how we can do better and ensure the law is working as intended.

Although I recognise the EHRC has struggled with a number of issues over the past few years, I pay tribute to several of its ordinary members of staff. However, the commission has struggled with its remit and to demonstrate that it is delivering value for money. As the hon. Lady highlighted, its first three sets of accounts were qualified, attracting criticism from the Public Accounts Committee. Its helpline and grants programmes were found to be poorly administered and poorly targeted. Its conciliation service was not cost-effective, costing almost £5,000 per case—almost 10 times more than those of other mediation providers.

I share the Minister’s disappointment that the Minister for Equalities is not here. She sat with me in the Committee that considered what became the Equality Act 2010. No matter what the previous Government wanted to do, she wanted to go further—how things have changed. However, will the Minister confirm the costs I mentioned, as well as the costs the Government have paid for consultancies?

We will no doubt come on to consultancy. One challenge the commission has faced relates to its use of interim staff, which has caused it some real issues. Over 2009-10, it spent almost £9 million—almost a third of its total pay bill—on an average of just 85 interim staff, or just 16% of its total work force for that year. There is nothing fair about that for the taxpayer.

That is why our Government-wide review of non-departmental public bodies concluded in October 2010 that the EHRC should be retained, but substantially reformed. At the same time, we announced in the spending review that we would more than halve its budget, from £55 million to £26.8 million. I know those cuts are a source of significant concern for the hon. Lady, but she will recognise, although perhaps not agree, that the Government have had to deal with real challenges as a result of the budget deficit left by the previous Government. Difficult decisions and reforms are needed to reduce that deficit.

Moreover, it is clear that even after the budget cuts, the EHRC remains well funded compared with similar bodies in other countries. As an arm’s length body, it is for the EHRC to decide how to manage the budget reductions. The location of the EHRC’s offices and the number of staff it employs at them are operational matters for the board and the management to decide after consultation with staff. If the EHRC is to deliver maximum value for taxpayers’ money, however, it must focus on its core remit—the areas where it alone can add value.

Does the Minister think it is for the EHRC to decide completely to withdraw a service from Scotland and Wales? Surely, that is something the Government should be interested in.

The hon. Lady will be aware of the statutory functions imposed on the EHRC, as well as the duties it has in relation to devolution as a consequence, and it has underlined that it will continue to engage with local partners. Decisions on the deployment and location of staff are obviously operational matters for the EHRC, but it has specific legislative responsibilities in relation to the devolved nations, such as the requirement to have specific decision-making committees for Scotland and Wales. It remains committed to working with local stakeholders.

The hon. Lady will know that in March 2011 we set out detailed proposals to reform the EHRC to achieve the focus on its core remit by clarifying its remit; stopping non-core activities and, where appropriate, making alternative provision where those activities can be done better or more cost-effectively by alternative providers; and strengthening its governance and systems to provide greater transparency, accountability and value for money. We received almost 1,000 responses to the consultation. While I recognise that she is impatient for the Government’s response, it is right that we take the time to consider the views expressed before announcing a way forward, and we hope to respond to the consultation shortly. A number of non-legislative reforms are, however, already under way.

I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns about the closure of the EHRC’s helpline and the ending of its grants programmes, and I will respond to them directly. I can reassure her that people will be able to receive expert advice and support on discrimination, which is tailored to their individual circumstances, from the new equality advisory and support service that we are commissioning. She challenged me on whether there is a preferred bidder. No, there is not a preferred bidder. The procurement process for a new equality advisory and support service is continuing and no preferred bidder has been selected. The intention is that the process should be completed in May, with the new service becoming operational in September.

Central Government funding for legal advice on discrimination will continue to be available through legal aid to ensure that limited public funds are targeted on those who need it most—the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. On conciliation, the Ministry of Justice website provides information on, and links to, good quality, accessible and effective mediation for individuals in England and Wales. In addition, a means-tested service for those who cannot afford the fees is available through LawWorks. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that similar provision is also available in Scotland.

We have sought to impose tighter financial controls and to stop waste. The operational independence of the EHRC—a publicly funded body—should not be a justification for financial indiscipline. In March, a new framework document clarifying the relationship between the EHRC and the Government was agreed between the Home Office and the EHRC board. The new framework document makes it clear that the EHRC will comply with Government-wide rules on managing public money, and with public expenditure controls, where they do not interfere with the EHRC’s ability to perform its statutory functions. In addition to establishing tighter financial controls, the new framework document sets out how the EHRC and Government will work together to increase the EHRC’s transparency to Parliament and the public about how it operates.

There have been signs of progress following action by the Government. The EHRC has reduced its dependence on interim staff and now has fewer than 20 in post. It plans to have no interim staff by 1 April 2013. It is moving swiftly to deliver significant reductions to the cost of its corporate support functions through agreeing arrangements to share back-office services with other organisations. It has set out plans to rationalise its accommodation in the next 12 months, including moving out of its expensive central London offices, which will result in further savings of more than £3 million a year. In November last year, there was a significant sign of progress when its first satisfactory set of accounts were laid before Parliament.

On the telephone helpline, the hon. Lady asked whether there had been an equality impact assessment. An equality policy statement was published by the Home Office in December, and the new service will provide a better service for people from disadvantaged groups than the helpline it is replacing. We want the EHRC to become a valued and respected national institution. To do so, it must focus on the areas in which it alone can add value, and it must be able to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money. We will respond to the consultation shortly. We will also appoint a new chair shortly. I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will support our plans.[Official Report, 10 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 1MC.]

Local Authorities (Procurement)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Clark.

The Government, I am delighted to say, are committed to a localism agenda, which I fully support and welcome. A key element of the agenda involves freeing up local government so that more decisions are made locally, ensuring that central Government funding is less prescriptive. Even now, we remain a highly centralised country and more needs to be done to give greater freedom and more power to local authorities, giving them the ability to make decisions on local matters. With greater powers comes increased responsibility, and local authorities will have to rise to the challenge that the Government are offering them, which I believe they can do. Whether or not we think that they can rise to the occasion, we must realise the important role of local government in our country. We national politicians and national Government often underestimate the influence and importance of local government.

As well as acknowledging that power needs to be decentralised, the Government have recognised that the regions and large cities of the country can and should be economic drivers. They can boost economic activity and bring prosperity and jobs to their own city or locality. That concept not only applies to the large urban centres, but can be of equal significance to the smaller cities such as Carlisle and the smaller towns such as Stevenage. Even smaller towns and regions throughout Britain can also play a role. It is therefore clear, certainly to me, that local government has an extremely important role in ensuring the economic success of our country, and not only in the success of its own local economy.

Part of that role is the recognition by councils that they are significant purchasers of goods and services. To some extent, they can influence the success or otherwise of local businesses. In the UK, government spends in the region of £220 billion each year procuring goods and services; £42 billion of that is spent by local authorities alone—almost 20% of the national procurement spend. It is therefore abundantly clear that such procurement is of significant importance to local communities as well as to local economies. When a local authority purchases goods and services from local businesses, it is spending money in its own community, which benefits the local economy and local people.

Take the example of a local business providing a service or a variety of goods to an authority. The business will employ local people to deliver the service or to provide the goods to the authority; those local people employed by the business will, in turn, spend their wages in the same local economy, feeding directly into the general economic activity of the area. Such a virtuous cycle can have enormous benefits to a particular town or city, especially the smaller ones. Again, good examples are my own city of Carlisle and somewhere such as Stevenage. By the same token, procurement of services outside an area might save the council some money in the short term, but could easily have a detrimental effect on the local economy in the long term.

Before raising a number of issues with the Minister, I accept that proper procedures have to be in place and that appropriate rules need to be applied to any procurement policy. I also acknowledge and accept that any procurement policy of an authority has to take into account European law and other international agreements, as well as our own domestic law and, in particular, competition policy. The size and value of the procurement is also a key issue.

Does my hon. Friend accept that European Union directives on public procurement are often gold-plated by local authorities and act as a barrier to the ability of local companies to provide services for those authorities?

Yes, I do accept that. It probably happens at the national level as well. National Government should look at the issue and encourage local government to follow what could be their example if they watered down some of the policies coming out of Europe.

Clearly and rightly, an authority that wants to make a substantial purchase of goods or services must follow strict procedures, but there can and should be flexibility, particularly for smaller purchases of goods and services by local authorities. I accept that there must be clear procedures in place for smaller procurement contracts, that there must be openness and transparency, and that there must be no opportunity for inappropriate contracts. However, there are opportunities for local authorities through their procurement policies to help to support and to develop their local economy by procuring from local businesses and thereby benefiting the wider local community.

On procurement, surely we will cut off our nose to spite our face in many cases. The whole idea is to drive the economy locally for local companies, but many of those companies miss out because of the very point that the hon. Gentleman has raised about European legislation.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Local economies and local businesses are the way to drive our economy. They are a key player, and we underestimate their importance. We must take into account the European dimension, and if that frustrates local businesses, we must try to do something about it.

I have taken the opportunity to look at Government advice on procurement policy, and the key point is that procurement must be value for money, normally through competition. I accept that that is generally the correct approach, and will often be the one that authorities will follow, but how we interpret the definition of “value for money” is a much wider issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) successfully navigated through Parliament the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. It requires local authorities, when they enter into procurement contracts, to give greater consideration to economic, social and/or environmental well-being during the pre-procurement stage. That is hugely welcome, and it is extremely important that councils are made fully aware of the Act’s provisions, and the potential benefits for their areas.

I firmly believe that it is incumbent on councils to take into consideration the impact that their procurement can have on their local economy, and the success or otherwise of local businesses, especially small ones. Local government procurement can be beneficial in giving local businesses the ability to grow and expand. That creates jobs, skills and investment in areas throughout the country, particularly those that are badly in need of investment. However, a negative effect can be created as easily, and can go beyond having a direct impact on a local business. It can spread into the wider community, lowering employment, and preventing money from being recycled through the local economy, leading to less money being invested in businesses in that area. It is clear how local government procurement has the ability to create a much less vibrant and successful local economy very quickly.

I want to be parochial for a moment. In 2010, the university of Cumbria produced a paper entitled “The Impact of Local Authority Procurement on Local Economies, The Case of Cumbria”. It found that increasing pressures on local authorities to be efficient and effective in their use of public resources may contradict the need to support local communities, particularly during a period of economic downturn. The findings suggested that many small and medium-sized enterprises throughout Cumbria relied on local authority contracts for business stability. Those interviewed throughout the county confirmed that when a more formal approach to public procurement is taken, coupled with a more defined definition of “value for money”, SMEs become more vulnerable.

To its credit, Cumbria county council's procurement strategy aims to increase the proportion of suppliers based in the county from 60% in 2010 to 65% in 2012. Collectively, the Cumbrian authorities have an annual procurement spend in excess of £300 million, more than half of which is spent locally. That sort of money can have a profound effect on any local economy, so I want to ensure that local authorities have the appropriate power and tools to ensure that they can promote and support local business through their individual procurement policies. I therefore ask the Minister to consider three key issues.

First, does he believe that the power of general competence for local authorities, which was granted by the Government in recent legislation, gives them sufficient additional powers to introduce or pursue a procurement policy that can examine the wider effects of their current policy beyond best practice? Secondly, to what extent does the Minister feel that the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, is on the radar of local authorities; and how widely is it being used across the country? Finally, what measures does the Minister intend to pursue to help with the issue and to ensure that local authorities have policies that truly benefit their own locality?

I want Carlisle to have a vibrant, local economy, creating jobs and prosperity for local people.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, and the circumstances that he outlines as affecting his part of Cumbria are replicated in my constituency, in northern Lincolnshire. Does he agree that the important thing about encouraging and supporting local businesses is that they transmit skills to the younger generation and help with youth unemployment? Only last week I was at a business that had taken on apprentices, and that must surely be an important part of any local economy.

I completely agree. If the contracts from the local authority are with local businesses, those businesses clearly have an incentive to invest and create jobs, apprenticeships and opportunities for future generations.

I believe that local decisions that affect local communities should be made by local people, away from central Government. If local authorities were to adopt a more flexible but robust procurement policy, local economies throughout the country would reap enormous benefits. It would also be beneficial to the national economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for securing such an important debate.

The Minister is aware that more than £70 billion a year is spent by local government on the procurement of local goods and services, and even a small saving would make a huge financial difference. The Local Government Association is promoting the use of procurement hubs, which can save councils millions of pounds, and it should be congratulated on trying to develop tools to help councils come together to form those groups and deliver better value for money. It also promotes greater innovation: a subject close to my heart is that of using technology to promote jobs and growth. I commend the development of e-auctions in particular. Those are electronic reverse tenders, in which potential suppliers compete online in real time to win a contract. Case studies show a 15% to 30% saving.

My constituency of Stevenage is in the county of Hertfordshire and the 10 district councils have joined up with the county council to create Supply Hertfordshire, our own procurement hub. That has expanded to include the local NHS, the probation trust, Hertfordshire police, some housing associations and a range of other organisations.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I have been talking about local authorities, but he seems to be pursuing the line not only that local authorities have a role to play, but that other public bodies, such as the NHS and police, can be equally significant in their procurement policies and in effective local economies.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. In a county such as Hertfordshire, when the police, probation service and NHS are brought in, the amount of money that the Government are handing over to be delivered locally runs into billions of pounds.

Supply Hertfordshire’s ambition is to become the focal point for supplying to the public sector in Hertfordshire. That is an inspiring ambition and it has my full support. However, I am keen to ask the Minister what support the Government can give to help turn that ambition into reality and provide jobs and growth for my local economy. I am patron of an organisation called biz4Biz, which is a collection of local businesses. In Stevenage it is considered to be the voice of the small business community. It is involved in a range of projects, but we are all keen to understand why it is difficult for small companies, including many with multi-million pound turnovers, to get access to public sector contracts locally. I have been approached by businesses from all over the country that are concerned they are missing out on huge opportunities locally that would boost jobs and local economic growth because they cannot navigate the labyrinth of public sector procurement locally. Some companies have informed me that they have missed out on tenders a number of times, with very little feedback. As a result they can no longer afford the time and cost to their company of attempting another tender.

Other companies have been told that EU public procurement rules prevent them from even applying in the first place. I know that those EU rules are gold-plated locally at the expense of local companies, but that leads to a loss of opportunity, particularly for the younger members of our community trying to get their first job and first step on the road to a career. We can change that and we can make a difference. The Government are giving local people more powers under the Localism Act 2011, but we must go further.

Will the Minister consider asking local authorities to sign up to the principle that they, like the Government, should aspire to give 25% of their contracts to small businesses? In the case of local government, it would have to aspire to give 25% of its contracts to small businesses in the locality. Will he go further and urge local authorities to publish all successful tenders on their website, so that companies that do not succeed can benchmark their own bid against that of the successful bidder? They could then learn from their mistakes or possibly even challenge the local authority to have another look into it under the powers contained in the Localism Act.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Clark. My congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) for their contributions. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle on securing the debate.

I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased, but not surprised, to hear that the Government are as keen as my hon. Friends to ensure that local government spends its money as effectively as possible. It is interesting that several different figures for that have been mentioned: my brief says that the figure is £62 billion a year. Whatever the amount is, it is certainly an awful lot of money and, clearly, there is significant scope for it to be spent better. That can help to save taxpayers’ money, reduce the overall deficit we face and, in many cases, lead to local authorities commissioning better and more appropriate front-line services.

I agree with my hon. Friends that local government has a good record. Indeed, if one were to speak to local government representatives, they would be quick to point to various studies that suggest that their value for money is, on the whole, better than central Government’s value for money. I do not want to convey the wrong impression in my contribution by suggesting anything different.

I want to use the available time to set out what the Government are doing to help the sector build on its procurement practices and to refer hon. Members to the parliamentary answer that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), made, in which he set out a table showing the procurement expenditure in the last financial year for each local authority in England. He also set out the steps that the Government and the Department are taking. However, we are very much talking about a project led by the Local Government Association in England to develop a package of work to take forward the agenda.

Overall, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, the Government are aiming to put councils and communities back in control of their own destinies through the devolution of power and control over budgets to councils. Local authorities are therefore increasingly responsible for taking their own procurement decisions, subject to the requirements of best value legislation and the EU and UK regulatory framework.

There is no doubt that difficulties are faced by local contractors seeking to win contracts. In particular, smaller contractors may find that they are squeezed out, as has been mentioned. In fact, the EU procurement rules are not nearly as severe or draconian as is often suggested. Nevertheless, they are a constraint.

Value-for-money pressures can be balanced legitimately and legally by social value and environmental value. It is entirely right, legitimate and proper for those seeking tenders to set out such requirements in the tender process. Local authorities can therefore use the procurement rules to promote local enterprise, and the Local Government Association’s guidance “Buying into communities” is designed to help local authorities do that within the EU procurement rules. It helps councillors and officers in authorities to see how other authorities have utilised the rules to get the outcomes they want from their public spending. I therefore commend it to hon. Members, and I invite them to make sure that their local authorities are fully aware of the advice and support it offers.

Good procurement practice by authorities can help to promote opportunities for local small and medium-sized enterprises, helping them to bid for all or a part of a contract and to develop local skills. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage about the work Hertfordshire is doing, and we heard about Cumbria from my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.

Essex county council has recently done work highlighting how its golden triangle of procurement has utilised savings of £120 million per year and created about 200 apprenticeships. The Federation of Small Businesses has acknowledged that that has improved access to council contracts. It is clear that SMEs are a key ingredient in strong local economic growth, and public procurement is just one way in which an authority can help those in their area to grow. That said, it is a surprise and a disappointment that local firms still regularly mention obstacles such as pre-qualification questionnaires and duplicate tenders, as well as the difficulty of discussing forward work with local authorities and, therefore, of planning a sensible work stream and a sensible bidding strategy.

Recently, therefore, the Cabinet Office has announced a series of actions it will take to help SMEs get a greater percentage of contracts. One pledge involves reducing or removing the necessity for pre-qualification questionnaires, particularly where they are for work below £100,000. There is no sensible reason why an SME bidder would have to fill out multiple questionnaires several times over to compete for procurements, and such things do not give the impression that councils welcome SMEs’ business and trade. Aside from pointing out that such PQQs are unnecessary below £100,000, the Cabinet Office has produced its own model, four-page PQQ, which can be used instead of the often far too elaborate examples used by tenderers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage drew attention to the electronic tendering that takes place in Hertfordshire. He also mentioned the biz4Biz scheme. That is another area where local authorities can play a helpful part in supporting local small businesses. My local authority, Stockport, organises business-to-business fairs in the town hall, where large local enterprises are put in touch with small ones, and trade links are established. That is not about spending public money; it is about the council accepting that it has a role and some responsibility for ensuring that large companies in the area—or small companies for that matter—look first to the local providers of services before they look further afield.

The Local Government Association is working with the Federation of Small Businesses and with individual authorities to highlight exactly how procurement can be simplified and access broadened. There is, therefore, a lot of good practice and quite a lot of good understanding. Sometimes, procurement officers and councillors say that they cannot do such things because of EU rules or this or that piece of legislation, but quite a lot of what is said in those circumstances is purely and simply mythology.

That brings me to the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle raised about whether the new provision in the Localism Act to give every local authority a general power of competence allows them to deliver a better performance on procurement. The answer to that is a straightforward yes. The general power of competence allows any local authority to do anything that an individual can do, which gives them a great deal of flexibility. Of course, they must obey the law and have regard to reasonableness. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we could not have a wild west contracting situation. It is absolutely right and proper that due process should be followed, but within that councils have a great deal of discretion about how they proceed.

My hon. Friend asked whether local authorities were sufficiently aware of the legislation of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White). Perhaps the fact that he has had to bring the matter to this Chamber today suggests that they are not. I am sure that he and I will want to contribute to a process of increasing awareness. Moreover, let me draw his attention to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in notifying councils about some of the opportunities that exist in their partnerships with the voluntary and community sector. Again, that underlines the point that they should be taking into account not just short-term, straightforward cost savings but the wider social and environmental impact of their decisions.

Beyond Cumbria, the north-west procurement portal is a good example of how the region is helping businesses to identify contracts more easily. At a quick look, there are numerous opportunities there, broken down by council areas and sub-regions, and the portal links to other portals around the country. Of course that is producing results in many places.

Through the efforts that have been made with the north-west portal, it has been possible for the 10 authorities in the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, including mine, Stockport, to establish that they spend jointly £2.5 billion a year, that £300 million of that spend is different authorities spending with common suppliers, and that they are redirecting what they do such that 56% of their spend is now with providers based within the 10 local authorities and 69% of what they spend is spent with companies within the north-west. I am sure that there is further to go for many local authorities, but that gives an indication of what can be achieved when local authorities put their heads together and work at it hard.

My hon. Friend’s third question was whether I would be forcing local authorities to do things—

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