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Westminster Hall

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 June 2012

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

Free School Meals (Colleges)

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

I am sure that it will be a pleasure serving under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I am pleased to be doing so. I thank hon. Members from all parties who have taken the trouble to attend what I consider an important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) for the enormous amount of work that she has done on this issue, bringing it to public attention.

I hope that we have reached consensus across political parties that action is needed. The issue is simple. Those who are in school and go through to school sixth forms continue to receive free school meals and those who are in free schools or academies from 16 to 19 or in university technology colleges are entitled to free school meals, but those who are in general further education or in sixth-form colleges are not. That is so inequitable, unfair and discriminatory that I know that the Minister will say, “Time to put this right.” As it is unfair and discriminatory, it is unjustifiable. The Minister might say, “Why didn’t you do this before?” Do you know, there are times in life when it is best to put our hands up and say, “We should have done.”? Of course, we introduced the education maintenance allowance. I was Secretary of State when we introduced it and I am proud of it, and I am sorry that it has effectively been abolished.

I was proud of our Government’s taking steps to equalise funding, which the coalition Government are continuing, between those in different forms of 16-to-19 provision. That is welcome. We do not, of course, have a pupil premium for those aged 16 to 19. Had we such a provision, it might be possible to argue that youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds and low-income families would receive additional support, but they do not.

The issue is simple. Is it right that more than 100,000 young people, nationally, should be denied something—because they made a conscious decision or received proper careers advice and took up courses in sixth-form colleges and in further education—that those who continue into school sixth forms get automatically. Clearly, it is neither acceptable nor justifiable.

I hope that, with a smile on his face, the Minister—[Interruption.] I do not know how often he smiles.

I understand that the Minister is smiling now, and I hope that that will yield fruit. I know that the case that will be put over the next 85 minutes by hon. Members from all parties will persuade him.

We have two new sixth-form institutions in my constituency. One, known as Hillsborough college, is part of Sheffield college and the other is a free-standing sixth-form college called Longley Park. Both were established from 2004. Up to that time, my constituency regrettably had the third worst figures in the country for staying on in education post-16. Only Bristol South and Nottingham North were worse. A great deal of work was done by the Further Education Funding Council, which became the Learning and Skills Council, including, for example, research by Sheffield Hallam university on the causes and issues.

We were convinced that youngsters would stay on if there was an accessible institution, with support—the education maintenance allowance—and if their parents could be persuaded that youngsters would be supported in other ways. That worked. Both institutions that I have mentioned are now over-subscribed, contrary to what the cynics thought, and young people’s lives have been transformed. Now the colleges are worried about what is happening to the young people in terms of the careers advice that they receive, because careers advice has been in what might be described generously as an interregnum. I hope that, online or otherwise, advice will be more readily available.

Advice is skewed. Understandably, because it is human nature, schools with sixth forms do their best to persuade youngsters to stay in the school. If they can also say, “And you’ll receive free meals,” where entitlement exists and, “But if you take a different course or even the same one in a college, you will not receive free school meals,” that is bound to have at least some impact on a really disadvantaged family. That brings me to my final point, because I want other hon. Members to emphasise the situation.

I am one of eight children and, unfortunately, felt the embarrassment or shame of having to claim free school meals. Not only should those aged 16 to 18 in further education who qualify get school meals, but there should be a way to pay for those meals that does not single them out: a cashless payment of some sort. In Liverpool, Walton, extrapolating what happens in school, some 24% of those going into FE could be entitled. It is important that we de-stigmatise people on free school meals.

My hon. Friend is right. With the advent of new technology, it is possible to make the system sensitive, non-discriminatory and easy. Institutions with other facilities that are available to disadvantaged youngsters make them available appropriately and sensitively.

I hope that the Minister has the same view as my right hon. Friend.

Some time ago, on a Friday afternoon, I asked a group of 15-year-olds in Birkenhead what they wanted from school. I asked how many of them would have their next proper main meal at their school dinners on Monday. About 40% of that group would wait till Monday for their next main meal. That does not mean that some poor families are not good at budgeting and would not ensure that their children were well fed over the weekend, but it underscores my right hon. Friend’s point that, for many families on low incomes, it is difficult to make ends meet. We give child benefit up to the age of 19, and school dinner costs wipe out that additional sum given to families.

I hope that the Minister will, with a smile on his face—[Interruption.] He is smiling. I cannot believe that it would be impossible for him, looking at the Department’s budget over, say, the past three years, to find a spare £30 million at the end of the year and allocate it to the task that my right hon. Friend has brought to his attention.

I agree. I do not want to want to give away secrets, but there were times between 1997 and 2001, when I had responsibility for education, when I was told by officials that there was no chance of finding the necessary funding for small expenditure and schemes. I am sure that the Minister has found that to be so in the past two years. However, it is amazing, when suggesting taking away things that officials are particularly interested in, how the money suddenly emerges. I recommend that he think about that. The now Lord Heseltine mentions some interesting times when reflecting on his wily ways and getting his own way when he was a Secretary of State. I recommend that the Minister chat with him if he has any problems finding the resource.

Sheffield college, including Hillsborough college, takes on 47% of all the youngsters who had free school meals during their school life. Longley Park and Sheffield colleges between them have more than 1,000 youngsters who would have been entitled to free school meals had they been on a sixth-form course. That is clearly unacceptable, in particular given that Sheffield college has had to set up food banks to help students and that staff bring in food parcels for the youngsters, although, obviously, in a sensitive way behind the scenes. However, that is not a situation that we can countenance in 2012, whatever the deficit or the difficulties of the recession. I rest my case.

I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate. I have huge admiration for him, in particular over his police community support officer reforms, although they are not the subject of the debate. I was sceptical about PCSOs, but now, having seen how they work in my constituency, I realise how successful they are.

I declare an interest: with the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), I chair the all-party parliamentary group for further education, skills and lifelong learning. I have also done a lot of work on apprenticeships since I was elected.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s main argument that there should be a more level playing field. I am a strong supporter of the Association of Colleges and of the college in my own constituency. Harlow college has achieved the best success rates in the country because it does everything that it can to help those from poorer incomes, with apprenticeship programmes for young people leaving care or for single parents returning to work and with its own version of free school meals, even though it has no such obligation and little funds.

I have two main points. First, the landscape of provision is fragmented, and part of the problem is the lack of good information about which pupils at further education colleges are most in need of free school meals. Secondly, we must make the moral case; for example, if the benefit were linked not only to attendance but to hard work and getting good reports from the teacher, it would prove to lower-earning taxpayers who subsidise benefits that the money was being spent wisely and that students were taking responsibility. I will look at each point in turn.

First, the problem is similar to an iceberg, in that we might be seeing only the visible tip. Harlow college in my constituency, for example, estimates that at least 350 of its students are in severe need of free school meals; those are young people who turn up to college hungry every day, and whose education is at significant risk as a result. Harlow college does not get funding directly to help such students, but it has used the new 16-to-18 bursary scheme, which replaced education maintenance allowance, to give some of them a food subsidy of around £1.20 a day, three days a week, through the campus canteen. That is not as generous as free school meals, but the college is doing what it can with a limited budget. Furthermore, in my constituency only one school has a sixth form, so the vast majority of children go to Harlow college.

The college principal, Colin Hindmarch, has no legal obligation to do any of that, and the money he gets is insufficient to provide full meals through the week, but he believes that what he does is necessary to help the poorest students. I admire many things about Harlow college and the principal, but, above all, the belief that everyone can get good results, no matter what start they have had in life, if the college gives support.

The problem, however, is made harder because the college does not know who is likely to be hungry. Eighty secondary schools send pupils there, and most of the schools do not share data on free school meals with the college, which therefore has to guess—in essence—who needs help and who is at risk. The Association of Colleges estimates the cost of extending the right to free meals to college students at around £38 million. As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, much of that money could be found through efficiencies; for example, the free schools budget is running a surplus, so perhaps some of the money could be taken from there.

I want to emphasise what the hon. Gentleman said. The outside world listening to the debate will be shocked, but we get used to saying things and often not appreciating what the words mean. He said that some of the students in his constituency are hungry, and that would be true for many. As in Sheffield, two colleges in my constituency are in the same position—had pupils gone to the sixth form of their school, they would have free school dinners, but they do not get them at the colleges. In this day and age, in a very rich country, we are talking about some of our pupils being hungry. That is the most extraordinary state of affairs, which I hope will be borne in mind by the Minister when he replies. He is presiding over an education system in which some people are hungry.

As so often on social issues, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Those students are doing the right thing—they are going to college because they want to learn—but for them to go to college and not to have the money to feed themselves, through no fault of their own, is socially unjust.

The moral case for free school meals means that we need a fair deal between students and taxpayers, something that is respectful of both sides. We must help the hungry students, to give them the energy to concentrate, but it is also fair to ask them to work hard and to apply themselves, rather than to attend only; that was a problem with EMA. The welfare state fails when it becomes simply a handout—unconditional and too easily abused. At times, that can be deeply corrosive of public confidence, undermining support for helping the most vulnerable in our society. That is why I support reforms such as universal credit, because it is a proper contract. It says that it will always pay to work but also that welfare is conditional on genuine effort to find a job. I urge the Government to embed the same DNA in other entitlements, especially free school meals or alternatives such as the 16-to-18 bursary.

I am not arguing for the nanny state, because we can make a cost-benefit analysis. For example, in 2011 the Food for Life Partnership published academic research showing that a better uptake of free school meals increased school grades and, ultimately, the life chances of young people. Head teacher Seamus O’Donnell, who was involved in the pilot studies, stated:

“After lunchtime we used to have around 10 to 12 call outs for challenging behaviour in an hour. We did a survey two years ago after the pilot, and we were down to four. There was a correlation between improved food provision in school and better behaviour after lunchtime.”

The hon. Gentleman is generous to give way, given that I intend to speak, but I must respond to point out that in countries such as Finland all children, regardless of their background, get a free school meal up to the age of 18, and Finland has one of the highest levels of educational attainment in the world. We are not talking about the nanny state. Is there not a case for ensuring that children are able to learn while in the school environment?

That is where I differ from the hon. Lady. I believe passionately that free school meals should be available for people on lower incomes, especially those who go to FE colleges. As I have argued, we do not have a level playing field, and I do not accept the argument that the majority of taxpayers, who are lower earners, should subsidise school meals for those from wealthier incomes.

In conclusion, we cannot have FE colleges that are only for the wealthy—the problem is that only wealthy students who can afford school meals will be encouraged to go. There is a cost-benefit argument for some form of free school meals, or a subsidised canteen as in Harlow college, so I urge the Government to look at obliging schools to share data with FE colleges on which pupils need free school meals; more financial support for FE colleges, to level the playing field with sixth-form colleges and schools, and topping up the new 16-to-18 bursary scheme; and, finally, embedding the DNA of universal credit in entitlements such as free school meals, to show that it is a contract and not a handout. If lower-earner taxpayers are to make a contribution, it is only fair for students to offer something in return, such as the promise to work hard at their studies.

The Government have the ambition of 100% of young people aged 16 to 18 participating in education and training by 2015. The experience of Harlow college shows that fair provision of free school meals will be absolutely essential to achieving that.

I pay tribute to the eloquence with which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) made the case for free school meals for young people in further education colleges. I remember him saying to me some years ago, before I was an MP, that everything that he did politically was referenced back to whether it would have a positive impact on the lives of people in Parson Cross, which is in his constituency. There is no better tribute to a political career than that. I am pleased to follow him and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) in this debate.

The reforming Liberal Government of 1906 first introduced measures to give power to local councils to provide free school meals to children from poor families. By 1914, more than 158,000 were consuming a free meal once a day, but that was low compared with the number of poor children who needed free meals. The Butler Act—the Education Act 1944—made it an entitlement for pupils to receive a free school meal.

Eligibility for a free meal has traditionally applied to those whose families are in receipt of certain benefits or tax credits, and the latest estimates are that around 1.2 million children are entitled to a free school meal. It is not always about welfare dependency; it is about people on low pay who do not earn enough to feed their children and families. The entitlement developed slowly within the education system over the previous century, but the problem, and the key point, is that much of the older legislation does not apply to further education colleges. That creates an anomaly, of course, because the practical consequence is that young adults studying at FE colleges are not entitled to a free meal, while those studying in a sixth form enjoy the continuation of the benefit they accessed when they were in five-to-16 education.

There are 345 FE colleges in the UK, teaching some 634,000 students, and it is estimated that some 103,000 of those young adults would be entitled to a free meal. Broadly speaking, that is 13% of those attending college. In the two local authorities straddled by my constituency, the figures are stark. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough referred to the figures for Longley Park college, but 870 students—13%—at Sheffield college, which broadly covers the city, would be eligible for free meals. In Barnsley, 622 students—14%—are missing out on a free meal. Interestingly, new institutions such as academies, free schools, and university technical colleges, as my right hon. Friend said, are funded to provide free meals.

The statistics and proportions show that the anomaly disproportionately disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds. In part of my constituency, 73% of school pupils receive free school meals, but some pupils from the same background and perhaps from the same families do not because they attend FE colleges. There are two groups from the same socio-economic background. In Liverpool community college, that equates to 1,000 pupils. Does my hon. Friend agree that colleges are doing what they can, but Government intervention is needed to equalise the way the rules treat two different groups?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Another twist in the inequality embedded in the present situation is that youngsters at college are more likely than school sixth formers to come from poorer backgrounds, with 10.2% of sixth formers eligible for free meals. That means that the discrimination is against the majority of disadvantaged students, and that is the key point.

I am chair of an academy in Birkenhead, and although our figures are not quite as bad as those in Walton, almost 70% of pupils receive free school dinners. The academy does not have a sixth form, because we decided not to at the present time, so pupils must choose either to find a job, which is difficult in Birkenhead and Walton, or to go to the sixth form college or the metropolitan college. What those colleges do is terrific, but pupils do not receive free dinners. If they were in a school with a sixth form, they would not face that stark choice. Previous Governments of both parties encouraged Birkenhead not to have sixth forms, but to concentrate our efforts and expertise on two colleges.

My right hon. Friend is right. In Barnsley, we have only one sixth form, and the college is the main provider. In Sheffield in the past 30 years, most of the sixth forms have been in the south-west in Sheffield Hallam, which is one of the richest constituencies in the north of England. The case is made.

Students who attend college must often travel further to their place of study, which increases the cost of the commute, leaving less money for food. Overall, the truth of the matter is that a substantial proportion of the disadvantaged young are being discriminated against because of their post-16 education choice—when there is a choice—making it harder for them to achieve their goals and to secure their future as adults. It is important to remember that vocational choices are found more often in colleges than in sixth forms.

An objection to extending free meals to college students is that we would have to legislate, but it is the opinion of many who have looked at the matter that including FE colleges in the provision would not require legislation. This is despite Government—I use the word broadly—claiming that colleges are not classed as schools, so the students are not entitled to such provision. It is worth noting that under the Education Act 2011 an academy is not classed as a school. However, parliamentary answers indicate that funding agreements with academies provide the framework within which those institutions operate, and that they require academies to provide free meals to eligible pupils aged up to 18 years, or aged up to 18 before they start their course—I think the rule is up to 19 or 24. That effectively dismisses the Department for Education’s previous statements that only schools can provide free meals.

The Association of Colleges estimates that the cost would be £38 million. To put that into perspective, the Department for Education’s total budget is £56 billion, so the cost is equivalent to 1p for every £14 the Department spends. The cost is small change to the Department, and surely it must be affordable—the case has been made this morning—even in the context of so-called austerity budgeting.

That is particularly the case when considering the cost to the country of not providing free meals to eligible FE students. The Association of Colleges recently stated:

“The lifetime public finance cost of young people not participating in education, employment or training of those aged 16-18 is estimated to be at least £12 billion.”

The majority of those young people would, of course, attend college rather than a sixth form, and would take vocational courses, catch-up courses, literacy courses and so on. Their non-participation in post-16 education rightly worries us all. There is consensus on the need to deal with the problem. It should also be remembered that there is a significant cost if individuals do not participate in further education and therefore do not secure the skills and qualifications needed to gain quality employment.

The Association of Colleges also stated:

“We believe extending the right to free meals for College students aged 16-18 would encourage participation of this age group in education and training, which is especially important as the Government seeks 100% participation.”

Research by Barnardo’s has also found that many young people in FE do not eat at lunchtime; indeed in my constituency, Sheffield college, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, has had to establish a food bank with donations from college staff. On the other hand, Barnsley college uses learner support fund money to provide free meals—it does so independently—to those from families where the income is below £15,000. If there was an FE entitlement to free meals, that learner support fund could be used to help the broader needs of students who previously benefited from education maintenance allowance.

Behind the statistics, however, lie some disturbing and moving stories. John—not his real name—is a 17-year-old student at Sheffield college who lives in a hostel following family difficulties. He asked the college for help when he was struggling to afford to eat and had run out of money, and he received a token for free soup and a roll. He said:

“I found it a bit embarrassing going to collect the soup, and handing over the token. I felt like everyone around me knew my situation.”

John receives £112.50 in income support every two weeks, and he gets £20 education maintenance allowance. He pays £17 fortnightly for his hostel room, and he also has to pay for his food, travel and equipment. He says that he sometimes misses lunch at least once a week to save money.

My view is simple: the cost of implementing a scheme for free meals would be small and a fraction of the cost to the country of doing nothing. The present situation is grossly inequitable and needs reform. No logical argument can justify a situation in which a 16-year-old who is entitled to a free meal will get one if he or she registers at a sixth form, but will lose it if he or she enrols at an FE college.

I look forward to the response from the Minister, who I know is a reasonable man because I have sat on Committees with him—[Interruption.] He is smiling again now. I hope to hear details about when the Government will act to remove this discrimination from our education system. It makes financial sense, it is the fair thing to do, and it will help give youngsters from poor backgrounds a greater incentive to better themselves, thereby helping themselves and the country in the process.

It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) for the opportunity to take part in this important debate. As he rightly notes, it seeks to end an anomaly that penalises some of the most disadvantaged teenagers in our education system, including those in my constituency of Gosport who are committed to furthering their education and their opportunities in life at our great local sixth-form colleges.

St Vincent college provides a diverse education for more than 1,000 16 to 18-year-olds. It has been recognised by Ofsted as the heart of the local community, and it continues to offer a range of practical and innovative courses—such as last year’s successful marine skills course—that seek to attract those not in education, employment or training. As hon. Members may be aware, it also produced this year’s BBC “Apprentice” winner, Ricky Martin—of which it is very proud.

Despite the importance of this local college, however, its students are being served a raw deal because as a number of colleagues have pointed out, they are denied the privilege afforded to their counterparts in school sixth forms throughout the area—the simple right to a free lunch for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I believe that state of affairs persists as an anomaly and not as a deliberate policy. It makes no sense for new academies, university technical colleges and free schools to offer free lunches while pupils at sixth-form colleges are excluded, and such an anomaly needs to be addressed. As the principal of one of my local colleges highlighted, the lack of a good, nutritious lunch can harm concentration, undermine achievement and deter participation among the most disadvantaged students.

The anomaly also flies in the face of the Government’s wider record on education, which reflects the Department for Education’s absolute commitment to improving school provision, widening access, and prolonging participation in education and training. That record speaks for itself, with colleges that have been freed from bureaucracy, more than 1,776 academies open across England, and a 63% increase in apprenticeships in just one year.

I acknowledge the argument put forward by Ministers that sixth-form colleges often operate a more flexible timetable than comparable institutions, yet often that is precisely the reason why they need more support. The Association of Colleges estimates that three times as many students at college would qualify for a free lunch as in a school sixth form. Through their flexibility and diversity of subject provision, sixth-form colleges are clearly succeeding in attracting those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, and it is ludicrous that they are denied the resources to support those students.

Ultimately, it is not necessary to prove that offering free school meals to the most disadvantaged students is fair and right; that has already been established. There is no need to argue about whether a good, nutritious meal helps students in their studies because we already know that is the case. We need only to resolve why those fair and reasonable conclusions are applied to academies, free schools and school sixth forms, but not to colleges. The Government have made a firm commitment to improving educational opportunities for all young people. Addressing the anomaly of free school meals would be a small but crucial step towards delivering that commitment.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this timely and necessary debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who put her finger on it when she said that this is a raw deal. She then spelt out clearly and succinctly why that is the case and why it is not acceptable. It is a long-standing injustice and an issue that I have raised continually since I first came to the House two years ago.

From my 30 years’ experience of working with post-16-year-old students and four years as principal of John Leggott college in Scunthorpe, I know the direct impact that not having access to a college meal in the daytime has on concentration, attendance, retention, achievement and, inevitably, that young person’s progression to other things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) described the case of John, who said that because he did not have access to a free meal—he met the criteria, but he chose to go to a college rather than a school—he skipped lunch from time to time. That will impact directly on his achievement. John is being disadvantaged by the system and that should not be the case.

If the eligibility of students who meet the criteria for free school meals depends on the type of institution that they attend, that is not only morally wrong but potentially piles disadvantage on top of disadvantage. To be fair, however, I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Education realise that the policy is indefensible because of their answers to questions in the House.

On 11 October 2010, I raised this issue, and the Minister—whom I am pleased to see in the Chamber today—stated:

“I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I share his view. We have committed to maintaining spending on free school meals this year. Further announcements will be made after the spending review.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 14.]

There was clearly a little bit of hope that the anomaly was to be addressed.

The spending review came and went, and I raised the issue again. This time the Secretary of State answered my question:

“That is a fair point—”

I think he was busking at that point—

“As the hon. Gentleman will know, many FE colleges simply do not have the facilities to be able to provide free school meals; they do not have the cafeterias or kitchens in place.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 59.]

The Secretary of State was not having one of his better days, because a parliamentary question to the Minister revealed that fewer schools than colleges have catering facilities, yet they continue to serve free school meals and get round that problem. In my consultation with the Association of Colleges, it demonstrated through a survey of its members that that problem of facilities could be easily overcome.

My hon. Friend raises a point about colleges not having the facilities to be able to cook. Does he agree that numerous young people are affected by the situation under discussion? In my constituency, 1,300 young people attend Bolton sixth-form college and 1,272 attend another college in Bolton. They would benefit from free school meals if they were at a school. We are talking about 3,000 pupils being affected.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She makes the point very well. Both the Minister and the Secretary of State know that the situation is not right. That is why, when the Secretary of State was in a corner, he produced an answer that was not up to his usual standard. On examination, it falls apart.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) was the last person to obtain a response from the Secretary of State. He raised the issue in October 2011. The answer had slightly changed by then. That is why I am going through these statements—to see the train of thought in the Department on this issue. At that point, the Secretary of State said:

“I am familiar with that anomaly; it is a situation we inherited from the previous Government. We are seeking to ensure that funding is equalised between colleges and school sixth forms.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2011; Vol. 533, c. 622.]

By that point, it had become an anomaly; the reason for it was that it was there in the past. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, who did a mea culpa at the start of his speech. However, there are reasons why it is more necessary now than ever to deal with the anomaly. It is not acceptable. Students are being disadvantaged.

There are three reasons why the landscape has changed and why dealing with the anomaly is even more urgent. The first is the disappearance of education maintenance allowance. In all my years in education, I have never seen an initiative that has transformed to a greater extent the lives of individual students from disadvantaged backgrounds than education maintenance allowance. It had a direct impact on attendance, retention, achievement and progression. I know that from personal experience and from the analysis done by many organisations, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the AOC. However, the Government, in their wisdom, have chosen to take education maintenance allowance away and replace it with a much less effective bursary system, although I do welcome the bursary system. That change has exposed the disadvantage of not being able to access free meals even more than before. The existence of education maintenance allowance masked that disadvantage during the past 10 years.

The second reason the landscape has changed and there is now greater urgency is the raising of the participation age, which I was reminded of during the contribution from the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). With the raising of the participation age, all students will now progress on beyond 16. Therefore, it is even more urgent that the eligibility for free meals be equalised, because some of the students, or probably most of the students, who would not have progressed beyond 16 in the past will be the very students who should be eligible for free meals.

I come now to the third reason why the landscape is changing. The hon. Member for Gosport talked about the fragmented provision that we now have in the landscape. We have academies, free schools and university technical colleges. Students who go to those institutions can access free school meals. If a new post-16 free school or post-16 academy is set up, it can offer free school meals, but a 16-to-19 sixth-form college or further education college cannot. If I were still a principal of a sixth-form college, perhaps I would have a conversation with my governing body about dissolving as a sixth-form college and re-emerging as a post-16 free school or post-16 academy. Why would that not be a route that I might take? It would enable me to access better resources and provide a more level playing field for the young people of the area that I served.

Those are the three reasons why it is more urgent now to deal with this anomaly; there was still an injustice when my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough was Secretary of State. The three reasons are the disappearance of education maintenance allowance, the forthcoming raising of the participation age and the change in provision—the complete fragmentation—in the landscape of post-16 education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge and the hon. Member for Gosport reminded us that the most disadvantaged young people are those most likely to attend the post-16 colleges that we are discussing. They are also the ones who are most likely to travel further, so they have greater travel costs. They do not have access to free meals, and there is no education maintenance allowance; there is a reduced bursary.

The hon. Gentleman has a distinguished record in education, and in the light of what he has just said, I think that he will understand what I am about to say. Thanet college, which takes many of my constituents’ children, takes students from some of the most deprived wards in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the students whom we are discussing are the most disadvantaged and have to travel the furthest. What no one has mentioned so far is that those young people have pride. They do not like having to go to the college principal to beg for funding that in any event the principal does not have available to give them, so they spend what little money they have on travelling to college and then they go hungry. That cannot be right.

The hon. Gentleman makes his point extremely well. It echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) about the stigma attached to claiming free school meals. However, navigating that territory, as my hon. Friend did and, indeed, I did, as another free-school-meals student in the past, is certainly not as bad as navigating the territory of food bank handouts, which hon. Members have described in the debate.

The hon. Member for Harlow described the situation in his constituency, where the majority of students staying on post-16 go to colleges. The situation is exactly the same in my constituency. More than 400 of my students go on to post-16 education in colleges; it is the main provision locally for post-16 education. If the students in my constituency and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency come from disadvantaged backgrounds, why should they not have the access to free meals that students in other constituencies have? Surely, that is not fair; surely, it is not right.

In Yorkshire and the Humber, 10,700 young people who go to colleges would be eligible but are not receiving free meals. In England, 102,700 young people are in that category; 13% of the students attending colleges in England would be eligible for free meals but are being denied them. The Government are hiding behind an anomaly; that is the language that they are using. I do not think, fellow Members of Parliament, that we can hide any longer behind an anomaly. It is time for action—time for us to do something about it.

I agree with the words of Toni Pearce, National Union of Students vice-president for further education, who said:

“There can be no justification for the basic inequity which says that you can’t get free school meals if you study at a college from the age of 16 to 18, but can if you study at a school sixth form. Eligibility for free meals should clearly be based on need—not on where you choose to study.”

She goes on to support the AOC campaign.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough talked about the hope that there would be cross-party consensus on the issue. We have heard a lot of consensus across the parties in the debate. I had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Education when I first came to this place and, as part of our investigation of 16-to-19 participation, we agreed unanimously, across the three parties represented on that Committee, with the statement that it produced:

“There is no logic in making free school meals available to 16-18 year olds in schools but not in colleges”.

I can add to the cross-party consensus by saying that I think that all politicians, on both sides of the House, would agree that anything that we can do to assist 16 to 18-year-olds in disadvantaged communities—those communities that are particularly affected by socio-economic problems—should be supported in an effort to help them to climb out of the poverty in which many of them live.

I absolutely agree.

Finally, because of my background in sixth-form colleges, I would like to touch briefly on the social mobility agenda. We all agree on social mobility. A report published next week by the Sixth Form Colleges Forum will demonstrate that sixth-form colleges have students more likely to have received free school meals and with lower prior educational attainment than school or academy sixth forms. The report uses UCAS data to show that over 30% of sixth-form college students who progress to higher education were from the least advantaged areas of the UK, compared with 23% of those who progressed from schools. In that context, and when schools and academies already receive more funding per student than sixth-form colleges, it makes little sense to disadvantage further an already disproportionately disadvantaged group.

Several Hon. Members: rose—

Order. Three hon. Members want to speak. I remind Members that I will call the shadow Minister no later than 10.40.

My input will be brief. I pay tribute to all those who have spoken so far, who clearly have great knowledge of this area. I want to add a Liberal Democrat voice to the all-party consensus and speak on behalf of my constituency of Redcar.

We are talking about discrimination and fairness. One thing that has not been mentioned clearly so far is that something of a postcode lottery is going on. In areas such as mine, which happen to have sixth-form colleges as the main form of A-level education, the ineligibility applies to virtually everyone who goes on to study. I recently hosted local sixth-form colleges from across the Tees Valley in Parliament. They feel unfairly targeted, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, and a bit lost between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which of course deals with further education colleges. His point about looking at whether they have the right status was mentioned in the discussion that I had, and free school meals are part of that.

In my area, we have a very good sixth-form college—Prior Pursglove in Guisborough—but the fact that it is in Guisborough means that an awful lot of children from Redcar and other local towns have to spend quite a lot of money to get there, which adds to difficulties if they do not get free school meals. Redcar and Cleveland college in my constituency provides further education, and it estimates that at least 240 of its pupils would qualify for free school meals. It could be double that number, because, as previous speakers have said, it is not always easy to get exact information about where free school meals are not available.

The 16-to-18 bursary helps, but it is very stretched. In deprived areas, such as my constituency, the money does not go far. In fact, the principal of Redcar and Cleveland college, Gary Groom, knowing this debate would happen, said:

“What would not be helpful would be for colleges to be asked to find the cost of free school meals from within the already reduced funds given to support learner hardship, this needs to be additional resource targeted directly at those learners that need it most.”

I support that. Colleges are doing a good job. Travel expenses are the main thing they have to use the money for, and as was said earlier, learners should not have to choose between travelling and eating. My area has a very high proportion of NEETs—people not in education, employment or training—in fact, one of the highest proportions in the country. It would particularly benefit from a change in policy.

In addition to 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in a school setting being a little forgotten, the situation means that people are making life choices based on the availability of free school meals in the various establishments, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) said. There is one small sixth form in my constituency, based around two schools. That sixth form is always full, and I am sure that the availability of free school meals is one reason. People are making choices based on that availability, rather than on what is best for them.

In areas such as my constituency, education is a key route out of poverty. Creating equal opportunities for young people was one of the main reasons why I came into politics. It is only a small part of the jigsaw, but it is an important one. I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a delight to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who has been a pioneer in so many aspects of 14-to-19 education. I am vice-chair of the all-party group on social mobility, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) highlighted, free school meals are a critical part of that issue.

I want to highlight some issues in Hackney that demonstrate the benefits of providing support to 16 to 18-year-olds and its impact on their life chances and those of their families in future. Hackney has seen a huge increase in achievement at 16 and 18. A decade ago, Hackney schools were a byword for low quality, with five A to C achievement well below the national average and some schools failing. We now have a range of outstanding schools, with achievements above the national average. Mossbourne academy is well publicised, but it typically achieves 84% five A to Cs, including maths and English. Those young people come from the estates in the surrounding borough, not wealthy areas. They come from a range of backgrounds, but predominantly poorer ones. Young people entering sixth form now get offers of places at leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

When I was selected for Hackney South and Shoreditch, there was a debate at the time about university fees. I said at my selection meeting, “If only we could have the luxury of debating young people in Hackney going on to university,” because at that point, it was not happening in large numbers at all. We needed to invest earlier, and that investment has now happened. Young people are playing their part. They are ambitious and hard-working. Although there may be poverty in terms of money, there is no poverty of ambition. They need this bit of help; they need this barrier dealt with and they need a level playing field.

We know what a difference a good meal makes; my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) highlighted that point, so I will not go into detail. Magic Breakfast is a charity working in Hackney across primary schools, because we know that many children, for all sorts of difficult reasons—not only poverty, but chaotic family backgrounds—turn up to school hungry in the morning. Those young people are given something as simple as a bagel at breakfast club, or extra support at breaktime for those who do not turn up to breakfast club because their parents do not have the wherewithal to get them there. Teachers and head teachers tell me that that has made a major difference to achievement. We know that argument, so I will not go into it further.

In contrast to the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), Hackney has a range of post-16 provision. We have BSix, which is a sixth-form college; sixth forms in schools and academies; 16 to 19-year-olds studying at Hackney community college, which is our local FE college; and the Boxing academy, which offers 14 to 16-year-olds provision when they are unable to cope in mainstream school. We have embraced the 14-to-19 agenda pioneered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough. Fourteen to 16-year-olds also study at Hackney community college, although they remain on school rolls, so are not affected by the issue.

From September we will be proud to open our first university technical college, on the same campus as Hackney community college, which sponsors it. That brings me to a major anomaly that demonstrates the ridiculous current situation. We will have a university technical college providing places for 14 to 18-year-olds on the same site as Hackney community college providing education equally for 14 to 18-year-olds, but particularly for the 16 to 18-year-olds on its roll. The same site, the same age. Students aged 16 to 18 at the university technical college will qualify for free school meals if they meet the criteria, but on the same campus students of the same age, possibly studying for the same qualification, at Hackney community college will not qualify. How ridiculous is that? As others have said, the Minister is a reasonable man. That situation demonstrates the ridiculousness of the anomaly and why it needs to be resolved.

Our sixth form college, BSix, has 1,500 students, 450 of whom receive bursaries under the bursary scheme. Previously, more than 70% of students received EMA, which was given out in similar numbers across Hackney sixth forms. There are still 568 students on EMA, and most of those will of course require bursary funding in future.

I want to touch on the points made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) about stigma. It is degrading to young people to have to beg someone with whom they have an academic relationship, or the college principal, for help. Someone’s circumstances may change during the year, such as when a parent loses their job, and they must then lay all that personal stuff before someone they want to have a relationship with in the classroom, and beg for money. At that point the bursary fund may have been spent; there may not be money available. The system should not be put in the hands of principals. We had a perfectly good system under EMA, which worked, and I regret that it is gone. The bursary system that replaces it is an acknowledgement by the Government that they made the wrong decision.

Does the hon. Lady think that the answer would be a requirement for schools, and the local education authority, to share with the college those pupils who had free school meals at a previous school?

I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making. If there were a centralised way—I know that the Mayor of London is looking at this—of managing a bursary scheme to make it more like a local EMA, that would at least take out the stigma. There is a benefit in that. I do not think that young people should be told to go to certain places, to share out the number of people receiving free school meals. In Hackney the percentage for free school meal uptake is so high that it would make no difference anyway, but if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that—I may have misunderstood his point—it would be the wrong way round.

At least 1,000 students at BSix alone would be eligible for free school meals for the next academic year, and that provision will need to be taken from the bursary fund. The raw figures show that 89% of the 450 students receiving bursary funds would be eligible for free school meals. To date in this academic year BSix has spent £96,315 on free school meals—nearly £100,000. That is 45% of its bursary budget, which, if it were a school sixth form, it would not have had to spend. That shows that there is a big cost, which is falling hard on young people.

We often talk about facts and figures, but I want to remind hon. Members of the human story. EMA was used by many pupils in Hackney for basic things. Happily, in London, there are certain travel discounts, or free travel, but there were issues about paying for food. One young woman told me that on a Thursday her EMA was used to top up the electricity key. It is as simple as that; it was used to have the lighting and heating working in the house, to enable her to study, and the family to live. The money was not used for luxuries.

I do not have time to go into other human stories, but I want to touch on the point that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made, when he talked about handouts with no strings attached. We need to think about free school meals, EMA and bursaries as they are now as an investment in young people, who will be the taxpayers of the future, paying for the pensions of the future. If we do not invest in them during the two years in question, and get them over the hurdles into further and higher education and better jobs, and skill up our work force, we shall be letting down our country and future taxpayers. About 22% of Hackney residents are under 16 and a third of them are under 24, so I appreciate the important and valuable contribution that young people make. It is a significant issue.

Overall, the Government profess to be in favour of choice. They promote free schools and talk about social mobility. In Hackney we have embraced that diversity of provision, but it is a false choice. If free school meals cost about £450 a year, and are provided in some settings, but not others, how will young people make their choices? Some will be forced to make a choice not, as the hon. Member for North Thanet said, for the right reasons, but simply on financial grounds.

I shall share my time, if I may, with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), so I shall be brief and make two points.

First, I want to address the argument put by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—that if the concession is made we should link it to poorer pupils’ good attendance at college, and their effort. I wonder why he wants to draw that contract so narrowly. It may be, of course, that he is trying to mobilise support on his side, and, if that is so, good luck to him. However, if we believe that we should move to a society where duties beget rights, rather than one where rights may occasionally be accompanied by duties, should taxpayers not put the same requirement on all pupils at school or college? Should we not expect them all, if they turn up with a huge subsidy from us, to do their hard work and attend well, in the hope that they succeed well? There should not be a stigmatising effect, with that contract applying only to poor pupils.

My other point is addressed directly to the Minister, who is very busy—radically changing his speech, I hope. As we have said, many of us represent seats where there are many pupils from poorer backgrounds. Because of the provision of post-16 education, they do not have a choice to go to a sixth form or sixth-form college. They choose whether to continue in education, and, maybe, to become hungry.

I have a question for the Minister. We know he has his answer all written out for him, and we know that he will read it, despite what has been said today. My plea is that he should report this debate to his colleagues and tell them that he finds it intolerable to defend a situation in which some poorer pupils will be hungry during their college days, while they are trying to get further qualifications—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) said, to lift their skills, get better jobs and pay our pensions as a result.

It is pretty scandalous that Foodbank estimates that by the next election it will be feeding 500,000 families who would otherwise be hungry. There is a new situation. Something strange and terrible is happening in our society, which we have yet to get to grips with. In one small way the Minister could do that, as a result of the debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) for initiating it. The Minister could say that he does not want again to defend Government policy that means that some post-16 students are hungry because they are studying.

I was not here at the beginning of the debate, because the Select Committee on Justice sat at 9.15. I want to mention two things.

I was for 10 years a governor of a college of further education, so I have some understanding of some of the issues and challenges faced by the students and young people attending them. I am pleased that my constituency has both Bolton college and Bolton sixth-form college, so there are a high number of students there. As I said earlier, 1,300 young people in the college come from disadvantaged backgrounds and would benefit from free meals, and in the sixth-form college there are 1,272.

The situation in my constituency is similar to that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales); many 16 to 18-year-olds go to a sixth-form college to complete their A-levels or further education. Not many schools cater for that. There are 300,000 people living in the Bolton unitary council area. The geographical area encompasses about 7 or 8 miles. Many students must travel at least 6 or 7 miles daily to attend college, often for vocational courses. Now they must additionally pay the cost of travel, and of course there is no money for free lunches. In many areas, many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are suffering. I urge the Minister and the Government to think about the fact that £38 million to provide free meals for 102,000 students is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. Surely that is an amount that they could find to spend on young people.

The value and necessity of the nutrition from a good meal has already been spoken of. It is fundamental for young people. I urge the Minister to reconsider. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) for giving me the chance to speak, as I have cut into his time. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), and congratulate him on obtaining the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate and on his excellent speech. Indeed, we have heard a number of excellent contributions, which I sincerely hope will have persuaded the Minister of the merits of ending this anomaly.

I am aware that this issue has been around for some time. An amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill in the previous Parliament, which was moved in the other place by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford, would have done what my right hon. Friend is calling for today. In the end, though, the noble Baroness was convinced to withdraw her amendment by my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green, who informed her that the issue was under review. That was back in November 2009, and the review was ongoing when the election was called. I assume that that work was superseded by the new Government’s plans, which culminated in scrapping not only EMA, but the planned roll-out of free school meals to all children living below the poverty line.

The Association of Colleges has recently launched its “No Free Lunch?” campaign, and it has been backed by the National Union of Students. The Association of School and College Leaders feels the same way, and Unison has been campaigning on this matter for some time now. The Children’s Society has also given its backing to the campaign and has tied it in with its “Fair and Square” campaign, which calls on the Government to ensure that all children in poverty, including those in poor working families, can get a free school meal from when they start school until they leave further education. That is something that we would be much closer to now had the Government not scrapped the planned extension of free school meals to households below the poverty line, which was due to begin in September 2010.

It is clear that the Minister’s colleagues on the Education Committee share the belief that this issue needs to be addressed. In their report, “Participation by 16-19 year olds in education and training”, they criticised the Government for their cuts to EMA and said:

“There is no logic in making free school meals available to 16-18 year olds in schools but not in colleges, and, while we recognise that the financial implications would make an early change of policy difficult, we recommend that parity of eligibility should be the medium to long-term aim.”

The Government have acknowledged that, but have not committed to doing anything about it, or even said that they would find it desirable to do so. Perhaps that could all change this morning when the Minister gets to his feet. I think that all Members present hope that he has some good news for us.

As we have heard, it is not as if the young people in colleges who were receiving free school meals in year 11 are automatically entitled to any money from the new bursary fund; the guidance for further education providers posted on the Department’s website last week makes that perfectly clear. The only groups that will be automatically entitled to financial assistance, which at £1,200 a year is only fractionally more than they would have got from EMA, are young people in care, care leavers, or those on income support and disabled young people getting employment and support allowance and disability living allowance. Young people who were previously receiving free school meals will be left to go cap in hand to their colleges for whatever is left from their bursary allocation.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful case. Does she also agree that a postcode lottery is in operation? Some colleges in rural areas or in very large areas will have high travel costs, compared with inner city colleges, where travel costs are lower. Therefore, the amount of money that colleges have available for free meals will be variable, depending on the nature of their area.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Some colleges have to raise funds to help support some of the poorest children, who need money for travel and, if there is anything left, for food.

The Minister may remember that we faced each other in a similar debate in 2010—we do not often do that, so I remember it well. It was on EMA and was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), in partnership with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), whom we welcomed to the shadow education team a couple of weeks ago. In that debate, I spoke about the testimony of a number of young people who had attended a seminar that we had held in Parliament about how much EMA meant to them. Many said that the allowance barely covered their travel and lunch as it was.

A young man called Luke talked about students whom he knew who could not eat before or at college because their money did not go far enough. That is a point that is developed by a young carer quoted in a Barnado’s briefing for this morning’s debate. The young girl is studying four A-levels and dreams of becoming a barrister. She says:

“At college when I don’t eat I get really bored, I can’t focus and I feel faint or really tired.”

As participation rates increase, many more pupils will be in that position. Given what we know about the impact of hunger and poor diets on educational attainment, we can understand what will happen to their studies.

The Government need to do a lot more than just think about this matter. They need to go into colleges and find out for themselves just how many students are going hungry or having to eat cheap rubbish that is not good for them, and then think more about the merits of the argument that is being made today and that has been made by campaigners for the past few years.

If the end of EMA did not add impetus to this debate, the impending rise in the participation age surely does. Labour passed the Education and Skills Act 2008, which increased the minimum age at which young people in England can leave education—from next year, it will be at the end of the academic year in which they turn 17, and it will be up to their 18th birthday from 2015—and that is something that the current Government are committed to driving through.

As a result of those changes, young people will have to stay on full time from 2015 unless they are working for more than 20 hours a week or are on an apprenticeship, but those who choose to do so in a college will be at a distinct disadvantage. As we have heard from a number of hon. Members this morning, the vast majority of students who received free school meals in last year’s year 11 are now studying in non-school settings. According to the Association of Colleges, there are 103,000 such students in colleges, compared with 33,000 in sixth forms. The gulf will only grow wider, particularly given that young people who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to pursue courses in college rather than in sixth forms.

In their response to the Education Committee recommendations, which I cited earlier, the Government stated that they would review this anomaly, in conjunction with 16-to-19 financial support, as the rise in the participation age gets closer. Given that we are about 16 months away from the 2013 academic year and that the Department seems to operate in a chaotic manner under this Government, it is time that they got a move on.

There are issues with some 16-to-19 providers not having the kitchen capacity to prepare meals, which is an argument that the Secretary of State has used for not expanding eligibility. As the Minister will know from a press release that he put out while he was in opposition to try and rubbish the idea of improving nutritional standards in schools, which we were trying to do at the time, some school sites do not have the facilities to prepare meals. In those instances, they get meals brought in from other local schools, or they simply serve cold food. Having no kitchen is not an insurmountable challenge for schools in providing free meals, so I do not see why it would be for colleges. Indeed, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges told the Education Committee that all the members whom he had spoken to about this potential barrier had said

“if that provision was made they would make it available”.

In conclusion, the campaigners for free meal eligibility to be extended to children in non-school FE settings have been making a strong and logical case for a number of years now, but that case has become even stronger since the Government scrapped EMA. There is, of course, a cost associated with doing so. As we have heard, it is just under £40 million a year, according to the Association of Colleges. That is certainly a significant amount, but when we compare it to the amount that the Government cut from financial support for 16 to19-year-olds when they scrapped EMA, it is just 10%. The Government should look at the merits of investing money in free meals, rather than in other areas of expenditure.

I therefore hope that the Minister will now give an assurance to my right hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and for Birkenhead (Mr Field), as well as to others who have spoken this morning, that he will take on board their arguments and put this anomaly to bed, or explain why he thinks that it is fair that large numbers of young people between the ages of 16 and 18 will be at a significant disadvantage to their peers and possibly going hungry by the end of this Parliament.

I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) on securing this important debate. He is a former and distinguished Education Secretary.

As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the origins of a school meals service can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Later in the 19th century and in the early 20th century, a number of provisions for both free and reduced-cost meals were introduced to tackle malnutrition in schoolchildren. During the war years, the school meals service was transformed in policy and scope to become a general service of mid-day dinners that was intended to benefit all children.

The Education Act 1944 placed local education authorities under a statutory duty to provide meals and milk to pupils at schools and county colleges that the authorities maintained. The details were set out in the Provision of Milk and Meals Regulations 1945, but only in relation to maintained schools. Those regulations also made provision for meals to be provided free of charge to pupils at maintained schools who met certain conditions.

The Education Act 1980 gave local authorities the power to provide meals free of charge to pupils at any school maintained by them whose parents were in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement. The 1980 Act was repealed by the Education Act 1996, since when the list of qualifying benefits for free school meals has increased, to ensure that those children who most need free school meals are entitled to them. The current criteria for eligibility are where a child’s parents are on income support; income-based jobseeker’s allowance; an income-related employment and support allowance; support under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999; the guarantee element of state pension credit; or child tax credit, but not working tax credit. The child’s parents must also have an annual income not exceeding £16,190. That has resulted in 19.2% of primary and nursery schoolchildren and 15.9% of secondary schoolchildren qualifying for free school meals.

The introduction of universal credit will simplify the benefits system and mean that we have to change the way that we determine eligibility for free school meals. We have yet to decide what the new criteria will be, but we want to make sure that they are simple and make free school meals available to those families on the lowest incomes.

It might be to desirable to extend free school meals further—for example, to all children. I understand the argument for doing so; I have seen that practice working well in Sweden, where all children receive a free school meal as part of what they receive at school, like the stationery, the heating and the building. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) mentioned Finland. However, extending free school meals, for example, to all pupils whose parents receive the new universal credit, in line with the proposal from the Children’s Society, would cost around £1.6 billion a year. To extend free school meals to all pupils of school age would cost around £2.9 billion a year.

I will come to the issue of colleges in a moment, but I give way to the right hon. Gentleman first.

The Minister must know that none of us was arguing for extension of free school meals to every child. We were much more specific—

The Minister is reading from his script what I feared he would read out. Will he give this gathering in Westminster Hall today an undertaking that when he goes back to his next ministerial meeting he will ask his colleagues if they are happy that he, as their colleague in the Government, should have to stand up and defend a situation where some pupils, because they happen to go to a college rather than a sixth form, may be hungry?

If the right hon. Gentleman will be patient, he will see that although I am reading from a prepared script, I have manuscript changes to that script that I made during the debate. I was listening very carefully to all the arguments that were made.

I will continue. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 moved colleges from local authority control into a more independent further education sector. Current legislation—the Education Act 1996—continues to provide free school meals only to pupils at schools maintained by a local authority. As was mentioned, academies and free schools are required to comply with free school meal legislation via their funding agreement. This provision also extends to students attending school sixth forms, because they are covered by the definitions of “secondary education” and “school”. However, it does not extend to pupils at independent schools, or to pupils aged between 14 and 16 who study at a college instead of a school. Pupils who are registered at a school but who also attend college are still covered and their school must provide free school meals if they meet the eligibility criteria.

As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough has pointed out, free meals do not apply to students at sixth-form or FE colleges. The different legal status and independence of sixth-form and FE colleges bring with them other benefits, which the institutions themselves do not want to lose. That does not mean that we believe that students studying at sixth-form and FE colleges are any different from those attending school sixth forms. I understand and have sympathy with the argument made by Members including the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that vocational courses are more likely to be found in FE colleges than in school sixth forms. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) pointed out, we recognise the anomaly. It is an anomaly, whether or not we put the word in inverted commas, but it is not a new anomaly. Indeed, it is one that previous Governments have not address did—I have to say that it was not addressed by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough when he was Education Secretary between 1997 and 2001.

I will acknowledge that. That was at a time when the Labour Government had just inherited a golden economic legacy—

No, as I am running out of time. As I was about to do, I acknowledge the honesty of the right hon. Gentleman’s hands-up confession.

The Association of Colleges is campaigning for the provision of free meals to be extended to all eligible FE students between 16 and 18. It estimates that it would cost £38 million to do so, although our own estimate is that it would cost significantly more than that. I sympathise with the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and for Redcar (Ian Swales), which they made well in their passionate contributions to the debate. Although the sums that I have just quoted may seem small compared with the overall education budget, in the current fiscal climate it would be genuinely difficult to increase spending by between £35 million and £70 million, however desirable it would be to extend free school meals to students at sixth-form and FE colleges. Of course, we keep the matter under review and I will discuss the arguments that have been made today with my ministerial colleagues. That is the commitment that I give to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field).

In education, the absolute priority of this Government is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthy backgrounds and those from poorer backgrounds, and all our policies are funded with that one aim in mind, whether the policy is about reading, behaviour or tackling underperforming schools. Our priority is to devolve as much of the Department for Education budget to the front line as possible. That is why we have managed to maintain school budgets at flat cash per pupil, despite the very difficult spending review. In addition, schools receive the pupil premium, which is specifically designed to boost attainment—

I will finish this point and, if there is time, I will give way.

As I was saying, the pupil premium is specifically designed to boost the attainment of pupils aged under 16 from low-income families, and free school meals is the only per-pupil indicator of poverty that we can have. That amounts to some £625 million—

I understand that it is for schools; I will come on to the other point. That amounts to some £625 million in 2011-12, £1.25 billion in the following year, and it will rise to £2.5 billion by 2014-15. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge are right that no pupil premium applies to pupils aged between 16 and 19, but for students between 16 and 19 the disadvantage uplift—as it is called—and the additional learning support funding are the equivalent of the pupil premium.

The disadvantage uplift is intended to recognise that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may need extra support to close the attainment gap. The measure is based on the index of multiple deprivation for those living in the 27% most deprived areas, with students from more deprived areas attracting higher rates. In addition, we increased funding for disadvantaged young people and for additional learning support by £150 million in 2011-12, and that total funding is now £750 million a year. But again I must say that to help to tackle the budget deficit, we have had to make some very difficult decisions.

In the remaining time, I just want to point out to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that annual bursaries of some £1,200, which have replaced education maintenance allowance, are being provided to the most vulnerable young people. Taking the example of John, the student at one of her local FE colleges whom she mentioned, if John is 17 and on income support, he qualifies for a bursary of £1,200 a year, which is actually more than he would have received under EMA. The most vulnerable young people, including people in care—

Undercover Policing

It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of the rules governing undercover police infiltrators and informers.

I am sure the House will agree that when it comes to the deployment of undercover police officers, transparency and accountability are of the utmost importance. In recent months, however, a number of cases have come to light that seem to expose serious abuses of any guidelines that we might reasonably assume inform what police officers working undercover can and cannot do. The cases raise important questions about whether such guidelines are ever enforced, whether individuals who breach them are properly held to account, and the extent to which infiltration of campaign groups is a legitimate, or even effective, tactic. Also, I have details of new allegations relating to the behaviour of one undercover officer that I believe require immediate investigation and raise questions about the convictions of two individuals.

Since at least the 1968 protests against the Vietnam war, police chiefs, backed by successive Governments, have used the tactic of infiltration to secure more reliable intelligence about political demonstrations than could be provided by informants. Undercover police officers pose as political activists over several years, to gather reliable intelligence and perhaps disrupt campaigners’ activities. In the early days, such officers were part of a super-secret unit within special branch, called the special demonstration squad; more recently they have been under a second unit, the national public order intelligence unit.

Up to nine undercover officers have been unmasked following the exposure of Mark Kennedy in late 2010. I will say more about his case later, but the officers include Bob Lambert, know by the alias Bob Robinson. That officer pretended to be a committed environmental and animal rights campaigner between 1984 and 1988. By the summer of 1987, he had successfully infiltrated the Animal Liberation Front, a group that operated through a tightly organised underground network of small cells of activists, making it difficult to penetrate. In October 2011, after he was exposed as an undercover officer, Bob Lambert admitted:

“In the 1980s I was deployed as an undercover Met special branch officer to identify and prosecute members of Animal Liberation Front who were then engaged in incendiary device and explosive device campaigns against targets in the vivisection, meat and fur trades.”

Lambert has also admitted that part of his mission was to identify and prosecute specific ALF activists:

“I succeeded in my task and that success included the arrest and imprisonment of Geoff Sheppard and Andrew Clarke.”

The men Lambert referred to were ALF activists who were found guilty of planting incendiary devices in two Debenhams stores. Allegations about exactly what kind of role Lambert might have played in their convictions have come to light only recently.

In July 1987, three branches of Debenhams, in Luton, Romford and Harrow, were targeted by the ALF in co-ordinated, simultaneous incendiary attacks, because the shops sold fur products. Sheppard and Clarke were tried and found guilty, but the culprit who planted the incendiary device in the Harrow store was never caught. Bob Lambert’s exposure as an undercover police officer has prompted Geoff Sheppard to speak out about the Harrow attack. He alleges that Lambert was the one who planted the third device and that he was involved in the ALF’s co-ordinated campaign. Sheppard has made a statement, which I have seen, in which he says:

“Obviously I was not there when he targeted that store because we all headed off in our separate directions but I was lying in bed that night, and the news came over on the World Service that three Debenhams stores had had arson attacks on them and that included the Harrow store as well. So obviously I straightaway knew that Bob had carried out his part of the plan. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Bob Lambert placed the incendiary device at the Debenhams store in Harrow. I specifically remember him giving an explanation to me about how he had been able to place one of the devices in that store, but how he had not been able to place the second device.”

In the same interview, Sheppard says that two months after the three Debenhams stores were set on fire, he and another person were in his flat making four more fire bombs when they were raided by police. Sheppard alleges that the intelligence for the raid was so precise that it is now obvious that it “came from Bob Lambert”. Lambert knew that the pair were going to be there making another set of incendiary devices.

Sheppard was jailed for four years and four months, and Clarke for more than three years. For Lambert, it was a case of job done—in fact, so well had he manipulated the situation that he even visited Sheppard in prison, to give him support before disappearing abroad. Until recently Sheppard had no reason whatever to suspect the man he knew as Bob Robinson—he assumed that Robinson had got away with it, fled the country and built a new life.

It seems that planting the third incendiary device might have been a move designed to bolster Lambert’s credibility and reinforce the impression of a genuine and dedicated activist. He successfully went on to gain the precise intelligence that led to the arrest of Sheppard and Clarke, without anyone suspecting that the tip-off came from him, but is that really the way we want our police officers to behave?

The case raises new questions about the rules governing undercover police infiltrators and informers, particularly when it comes to those officers committing a crime—an area in which the law is especially grey. Police chiefs can authorise undercover officers to participate in criminal acts to gain the trust of the groups they are trying to infiltrate and, in theory, to detect or prevent a more serious crime, but usually they are not allowed to be involved in planning or instigating the crime. As I understand it, the specific law on that is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and that before its enactment, at the time of the Debenhams attacks, the rules were vague. They have not so far been made public.

If Sheppard’s allegations are true, someone must have authorised Lambert to plant incendiary devices at the Harrow store, and presumably that same person may also have given the officer guidance on just how far he needed to go to establish his credibility with the ALF. We simply do not know, and in the absence of any proper framework or rules, the task of holding Lambert to account is very difficult. Even if strict protocols are in place to try to control the actions of undercover officers, who decides what the protocols say, and how can we hold those people to account, given the secrecy that surrounds such activities?

Is not an alternative explanation that there were no protocols in place and that decisions were taken at the discretion of this officer, who was not properly controlled? To the extent that there were protocols, is it not clear that the guidance for undercover officers was coming from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is an entirely unaccountable organisation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The truth is that we simply do not know, and that is the problem. We need clarity, which is what I hope the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice can help us with later.

There is no doubt in my mind that anyone planting an incendiary device in a department store is guilty of a very serious crime and should have charges brought against them. That means absolutely anyone, including, if the evidence is there, Bob Lambert, or, indeed, the people who were supervising him.

Ironically, as we have seen, the use of undercover police infiltrators can make it much more difficult to secure successful convictions. Three Court of Appeal judges have overturned the convictions of 20 environmental protestors, ruling that crucial evidence recorded by an undercover officer, Mark Kennedy, operating under the false name of Mark Stone, was withheld from the original trial. The judges said that they had seen evidence that appeared to show that Kennedy was

“involved in activities that went further than the authorisation he was given”,

and that he was “arguably, an agent provocateur.” The latest allegations concerning Bob Lambert and the planting of incendiary devices prompt us to ask: has another undercover police officer crossed the line into acting as an agent provocateur, and how many other police spies have been encouraging protestors to commit crimes?

Mark Kennedy’s exposure in 2010 has shone a light on how officers behave when they go undercover, and especially on the rules governing whether they are permitted to form intimate relationships with those on whom they are spying. Jon Murphy, Chief Constable of Merseyside and the police chiefs’ spokesman on the issue, claims that that is “grossly unprofessional” and “never acceptable”, yet one undercover police officer, Pete Black, claims that superiors knew officers had developed sexual relationships with protestors to give credibility to their cover stories and help gather evidence.

Eight women who say that they were duped into forming long-term loving relationships with undercover policemen have started a legal action against the police. They have a copy of a letter from a Metropolitan police solicitor that asserts that the forming of personal and other relationships by a “covert human intelligence source” to obtain information is permitted and lawful under RIPA, so either rogue undercover officers have been breaking the rules set by senior officers, or senior officers have misled the public by saying that such relationships are forbidden. We need to know what the truth is, and we need any rules of engagement to be published and open to public and parliamentary scrutiny or challenge.

The eight women allege that the men’s actions constitute a breach of articles 3 and 8 of the European convention on human rights. Article 3 asserts that no one shall be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment, and article 8 grants respect for private and family life, including the right to form relationships without unjustified interference by the state. The women go on to allege that the actions amount to common law tortious acts of deceit, misfeasance in public office and assault.

Bob Lambert is one of the five men named in the legal action, as is Mark Kennedy. The Guardian has also reported that Bob Lambert secretly fathered a child with a political campaigner whom he had been sent to spy on, and later disappeared completely from the life of the child, concealing his true identity from the child’s mother for many years. Lambert has admitted having had a long-term relationship with a second woman to bolster his credibility as a committed campaigner, and he subsequently went on to head the special demonstration squad and mentor other undercover officers who formed deceitful relationships with women.

The police authorities have made virtually no attempt to hold those or other men to account, or to examine whether they have broken any rules on relationships when undercover. The solicitors instructed by the Metropolitan police have taken a totally obstructive approach to the litigation, threatening to strike out the claims as having no foundation. Furthermore, police solicitors argue that cases can be heard only by the investigatory powers tribunal, in secret—a move that would prevent the women, whose privacy was invaded in the most intrusive manner imaginable, from hearing the evidence, such as the extent to which intimate moments were reported back to police chiefs. It seems that the police do not want anyone to be able to challenge their version of events or to scrutinise their actions. To paraphrase one of the women involved, it is incredible that in most circumstances the police need permission to search someone’s house, but if they want to send in an agent who may sleep and live with activists in their homes, that can happen without any apparent oversight.

The rules governing undercover police infiltrators and informers are also remarkably deficient when it comes to giving false evidence in court to protect a secret identity. For example, Jim Boyling, who was exposed last year for infiltrating groups such as Reclaim the Streets using the pseudonym Jim Sutton, concealed his true identity from a court when he was prosecuted alongside a group of protestors for occupying a Government building during a demonstration. It is alleged that from the moment Boyling was arrested, he gave a false name and occupation, maintaining this fiction throughout the entire prosecution, even when he gave evidence to barristers under oath.

Boyling was reported to have been present at sensitive discussions between other activists and their lawyers to decide how they would defend themselves in court, undermining the fundamental right of the activists to hold legally protected consultations with a lawyer and illicitly obtaining details of private discussions. A lawyer representing activists who were charged alongside Jim Boyling has noted:

“This case raises the most fundamental constitutional issues about the limits of acceptable policing, the sanctity of lawyer-client confidentiality, and the integrity of the criminal justice system. At first sight, it seems that the police have wildly overstepped all recognised boundaries.”

Yet Boyling’s actions may well have been authorised. Pete Black, who worked with Boyling in the same covert unit penetrating political campaigns, said that the case was not unique and that, from time to time, prosecutions were allowed to go ahead to build up credibility with the activists being infiltrated.

The Metropolitan commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has defended undercover officers’ use of fake identities in court, claiming that there is no specific law that forbids it. However, I echo the concerns of Lord Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, who said that Hogan-Howe’s defence was “stunning and worrying”. He commented that

“at the very least, the senior officers who are sending these undercover PCs into court to give evidence in this way are putting them at serious risk of straying into perjury.”

Bob Lambert, Mark Kennedy and Jim Boyling, as well as two other officers named in current legal actions against the police, John Barker and Mark Cassidy, have all crossed a line. Similarly, other undercover police officers may well have crossed such a line. The assumption is that they have been authorised and instructed to do so, or at least, if that is not specifically the case, that a blind eye has been turned to some of their actions.

Activists who have been infiltrated have called for one overarching, full public inquiry to examine what has gone on. Lord Macdonald has also called for such an inquiry to consider how we should control undercover operations, but the Government have ignored calls to set one up. Instead, the authorities have set up 12 different inquiries since January 2011, each held in secret and looking at only one small aspect of an undercover operation. Those inquiries have not been particularly thorough and have not resulted in follow-up action. For example, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, ordered an investigation and report on allegations that the Crown Prosecution Service suppressed vital evidence in the case of the Ratcliffe-on-Soar environmental protestors. A key criticism of the CPS in that report is of the

“failures, over many months and at more than one level, by the police and the CPS.”

Nick Paul, the senior CPS lawyer who specialises in cases involving police misconduct, was not even interviewed as part of the investigation, and senior CPS staff have evaded disciplinary action. The CPS shows an ongoing reluctance to investigate past possible miscarriages of justice, and Keir Starmer is among those resisting calls for a more far-reaching inquiry.

The new allegations that I have raised today make the case for a public inquiry even more compelling. So many questions remain unanswered, including whether Bob Lambert planted the third incendiary device and, if he did, who authorised him to do so and why. More widely, the public have a right to know why money is being spent on infiltrating campaign groups, with no apparent external oversight of the decision to infiltrate or of whether the methods used are necessary or proportionate. Why are the rules on such practices open to such abuse? Why are high-ranking police officers and, presumably, politicians sanctioning operations that put police officers at risk and undermine basic human rights?

We need to have faith that police officers are beyond reproach, that robust procedures are in place to deal with any transgressions and that those making decisions about the deployment of police officers are accountable and subject to proper scrutiny. I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to review the various concerns I have raised, and that he can tell us that the Government will agree to set up a far-reaching public inquiry into undercover police infiltrators and informers, which will look back over past practices as well as look forward.

May I say what a surprise, but nevertheless what a great pleasure, it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies? I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing the debate. I am grateful to her for raising some of these issues, because it gives me an opportunity to set out the Government’s response. I recognise that the issues she has raised are serious.

Undercover operations are sometimes necessary to protect the public and to prevent or detect crime. We should commend the difficult and often dangerous job performed by undercover officers. However, in the light of recent cases and concerns, including those raised by the hon. Lady, it is right to ask two principal questions that we must be able to answer with confidence. First, is there a system for ensuring that the use of police undercover deployment is consistent with human rights legislation, particularly the right to privacy and the right to a fair trial? Secondly, is the system working sufficiently well for the particular type of undercover deployment that has led to concerns, or do we need to take action to improve it and ensure that it provides the required assurance?

Before I consider those two fundamental questions, it is important to point out that the deployment of Bob Lambert, a case raised by the hon. Lady, took place in the 1990s, before the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—or RIPA, as it is known—was implemented. RIPA is the legislative framework that enables police and other public authorities using covert human intelligence sources, such as undercover officers, to ensure that they act in compliance with their duties under the Human Rights Act. A “covert human intelligence source” is the label used by the legislation to describe anyone who establishes or maintains a relationship for a covert purpose. That applies to a member of the public who comes forward to volunteer information about someone and who is asked by a public authority to find out more. It applies to a public authority test purchaser who engages the confidence of a supplier to buy illicit goods. It also applies to a member of a law enforcement agency who goes undercover to infiltrate and to pass intelligence back to that agency about an organisation planning disruption or criminal acts.

Will the Minister clarify whether RIPA also applies to ACPO’s responsibility for an undercover officer and its status as a private company? Moreover, did ACPO have any involvement in the Lambert case, or did it become involved only in later operations?

I will clarify that point later, but my understanding is that the accountability lies with chief constables, not ACPO. I am aware of and share my hon. Friend’s concern about ACPO and its status. I hope and believe that it will be addressed, but if there is anything further to say about the matter, I will write to him.

I am thinking in particular of the environmental protests at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, where it emerged that ACPO was responsible for the management of undercover officers. I am delighted that, since then, Ministers have ensured the transfer of the powers involved to the Metropolitan police.

My hon. Friend is correct about the responsible unit, and that important change has enhanced accountability.

RIPA applies to each of the instances that I have mentioned, because the true nature of the relationship, which involves reporting back covertly to a public authority what has been said or done, is hidden from the other person or people being talked to. In every case, RIPA requires that authorisation is given only if it is necessary and proportionate. RIPA sets out who can make a decision to deploy a covert source and for what purpose the deployment might be made. RIPA codes of practice provide practical guidance on how best to apply the regulatory framework and how to observe the human rights principles behind authorisations. External oversight and inspection are provided by the chief surveillance commissioner, and independent right of redress is provided by an investigatory tribunal for anyone who believes that they have been treated unlawfully.

That is the system, which was not in place when Lambert was deployed, but does it work? The published annual reports of the chief surveillance commissioner indicate that, in the main, it does, but that has not always been the case. That was shown graphically by the independent report produced by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary earlier this year on the deployment of undercover police officer Mark Kennedy. It showed that there had been failings in the application of the existing system and safeguards, but it went further by making a number of recommendations for ACPO to strengthen both internal review and external quality assurance of undercover officers deployed against domestic extremism. It also invited the Home Secretary to consider the arrangements for authorising the undercover police operations that present the most significant risks of intrusion. In particular, it proposed raising the internal level of police authorisations for the long-term deployments of undercover police officers under RIPA, and establishing independent, external prior approval by the chief surveillance commissioner for long-term deployments of undercover police officers.

The Home Secretary welcomed the HMIC report, and since its publication the Home Office has been working with the inspectorate, ACPO, the chief surveillance commissioner and others on how best to implement its recommendations.

I am grateful to the Minister for setting out the situation as he sees it, but does RIPA allow undercover police to have sexual relationships with those they are trying to infiltrate? That is one of the points at issue: some say that it does and some say that it does not.

I will try to respond to the hon. Lady’s question before the end of my speech.

One factor is how we target the type of deployment that causes concern, without imposing an unnecessary or burdensome bureaucracy across a much wider field where the regime may be said to be working as Parliament intended. We need to ensure that we do not deter members of the public from coming forward to help the police in what can be difficult work. We also need to make sure that officers charged with sensitive, intrusive and dangerous policing in the community are given the support and protection they require. Above all, we need to avoid the mistakes identified in the HMIC report being made again. Our response, when we make it, will have that uppermost in mind.

On the hon. Lady’s call for a public inquiry, the independent HMIC review looked at the broad issues raised by the Kennedy case, and made clear recommendations as to how the system should be strengthened—a system that was not, in any case, in place when Lambert was deployed. We are considering our precise response to those recommendations. I do not think that it is necessary to conduct a public inquiry.

The hon. Lady raised a number of specific issues, one of which was whether RIPA can be used to authorise a covert human intelligence source to break the law. In a very limited range of circumstances, an authorisation under RIPA part II may render lawful conduct that would otherwise be criminal, if it is incidental to any conduct falling within the Act that the source is authorised to undertake. That depends, however, on the circumstances of each individual case, and consideration should always be given to seeking advice from the legal adviser of the relevant public authority when such activity is contemplated. A covert human intelligence source who acts beyond the limits recognised by the law will be at risk of prosecution, and the need to protect the covert human intelligence source cannot alter that principle.

The RIPA statutory guidance does not explicitly cover the matter of sexual relationships, but it does make it clear that close management and control should be exercised by the undercover officer’s management team. That will be a relevant factor. The absence of such management gave rise to concern in the Kennedy case.

Does the Minister agree that that sort of fudged, grey area means that for women who have had such an experience, and for women and, indeed, men who might have such an experience in the future, this is incredibly unsatisfactory? We simply do not have clear guidelines on whether the action and going that far are legitimate, and that undermines confidence in the system. The Minister has referred to other inquiries that have been conducted, but what has not been conducted is a public, overarching inquiry to consider all the relevant areas.

Moreover, the Minister’s response to the case of Bob Lambert is extraordinarily complacent. Yes, RIPA was not in place at that point, so there can be no criticism that its guidance was not followed, but what is the Minister going to do now, given that the issue is in the public domain and that there could have been serious miscarriages of justice? How will he follow up on that case in particular?

I am happy to pursue the matter further with the hon. Lady, if she likes, but I am not persuaded that it would be appropriate to issue specific statutory guidance under RIPA about sexual relationships. What matters is that there is a general structure and system of proper oversight and control, rather than specific directions on behaviour that may or may not be permitted. Moreover, to ban such actions would provide a ready-made test for the targeted criminal group to find out whether an undercover officer was deployed among them. Specifically forbidding the action would put the issue in the public domain and such groups would know that it could be tested.

The Government are certainly not complacent about the Lambert case. We were keen for an independent, wider review of the deployment of undercover officers by HMIC, which is now independent of the Government and reports to Parliament. We are satisfied that its recommendations will further strengthen the proper system of safeguards for the deployment of undercover officers that did not operate when Lambert was deployed.

Sitting suspended.

Sustainable Communities

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

May I say how pleased I am to have secured the debate and what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir? As you know, the purpose of the debate is to advance the cause for localism still further, which is something the coalition Government are clearly very committed to doing during their period in office.

Of course, the principle of localism is simply that decisions should be taken in the areas that are affected, rather than outside. It is clear from a raft of Government statements—quite apart from the coalition agreement—that there is a commitment variously to turn the world, or at least the Government, upside down, so that local communities can drive decision making. That principle is absolutely correct and should be driven through all Departments, not just the one responding today.

The purpose of the debate is also to advance the cause for sustainable communities, or the sustainability of those communities, particularly in terms of their economic and environmental sustainability. I know that those who wish to speak in the debate will address those points, particularly perhaps in relation to their area.

I take this opportunity to issue a warm welcome to the Minister. He has a clear philosophical commitment to localism and has made much admired statements on the issue so far. We were perhaps on the opposite side of the fence when the first draft of the national planning policy framework came out; there were certainly some robust exchanges. I think that he knew I was taking a critical line towards him and his approach in the Government on the issue. I congratulate him on demonstrating clearly both his capacity and that of the Government genuinely to consult, listen and respond to the issues that were raised. I congratulate him on the outcome of that particular process; his approach was much appreciated.

I will primarily concentrate on the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010. It is worth congratulating the midwives who brought through those measures, as they are occasionally forgotten. I would particularly like to mention the first version of the legislation. My colleague Sue Doughty, the former MP for Guildford, was the first to propose the provisions in the 2001 parliamentary Session. Of course, that was very ably taken up by the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd)—now the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office—with the support of David Drew and Julia Goldsworthy. However, it is the hon. Gentleman’s private Member’s Bill that deserves honourable mention, as that is why we are here today. Following its implementation, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), now the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, introduced the amendment Act in 2010.

As the Minister knows, I have a number of questions to which I would very much appreciate him responding. The first and perhaps most important question, which I have raised on the Floor of the House and in other ways—he is well aware I am going to ask it today—is about the much awaited and anticipated publication of the regulations underpinning the Acts. Following the consultation that the Minister launched in March last year, which was completed in June, there has probably been much discussion and consideration behind the scenes about how the regulations will be introduced.

I have had some assurance that the regulations will be brought forward and that they will reflect the need for local authorities and the Secretary of State to show evidence that they are attempting to reach an agreement rather than simply addressing the issues behind closed doors and coming out with results. It is important to address transparency and to ensure that there is clear evidence of the attempt to try to reach agreement.

There is a limit on the time within which local communities and their supporting local authorities can submit bids to the selector, which is currently the Local Government Association. We hope that that might be drawn a little wider, perhaps to include representatives from parish town councils through the National Association of Local Councils, and Local Works, which is a campaign body supported by a large number of non-governmental organisations and which should be congratulated on its contribution to this important measure. Perhaps it could be involved in the selector process as well.

I very much hope that the Minister will respond to that point later. Given that we have some time for the debate, rather than me waiting in anticipation until the 80th or 90th minute to know what the answer to my question is, the Minister may wish to take the opportunity to intervene now.

Obviously the constraints of the debate mean that I speak at the very end, but given the interest in the topic I can tell my hon. Friend and hon. Members that I have, indeed, today signed the regulations, which will come into force before the summer recess. Each of the points that my hon. Friend has raised will find expression in what I have to say later. He knows that I have been a long-term enthusiast for the measures, and I will obviously set out in more detail the particular responses when I speak later.

I thank the Minister for that intervention. We certainly look forward to his response and to his fleshing out more precisely how the issues will be addressed in the regulations.

As the Minister knows, because I have given him a note in advance, I would also like to probe just how far we can take the matter. I am very ambitious to push localism as hard and fast as we possibly can, within reason. As someone who must declare an interest as chairman of the Grocery Market Action Group, there is one initiative that I have always been very keen to advance. The group is comprised of NGOs, including the National Farmers Union, Friends of the Earth, ActionAid and others, who have been submitting evidence to the Competition Commission’s inquiry into both the practices and role of supermarkets in planning and how they behave within the grocery supply chain. I have taken a great interest in that issue.

The Minister will be aware of one matter that I have always been greatly concerned about. Even after we have effectively addressed the issues of town centre first, needs test or other methods, how can we at least ensure that where communities believe an out-of-town supermarket might have a detrimental impact on a town centre, the planning process can properly scrutinise that and reflect on it? When supermarkets are built and developed, how do we ensure that they do not simply exert an unfair squeeze—a bit like a python—on that town centre? One way that is done, almost with the collusion of Government, is through the business rating system, which never properly reflects the massive advantage for out-of-town supermarkets of free car parking spaces, which enable them to inflict unfair competition—certainly a very uneven playing field—on town centres. I therefore support the case for a supplementary business rate that could be hypothecated to benefit town centres, because the rating system does not properly reflect the impact of such unfair competition.

In recent days in Northern Ireland, the Finance Minister introduced a small business rate relief that is designed to take a similar line to the one advocated by the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the measure is needed right across the United Kingdom so that small, indigenous city centre traders can see that there is some prospect of the level playing field to which he just alluded? Trade has been going to the edge of town and out of town almost relentlessly over the past 20 years.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I congratulate Northern Ireland on a welcome initiative that addresses the problem that I have described. The coalition Government are providing business rate relief to in-town shops and stores. That is clearly welcome, particularly when it benefits smaller, independent stores.

I have a lot of evidence to show that the business rating system does not properly reflect the commercial value of the availability of free parking in out-of-town retail sites. It is right that local communities are encouraged to introduce proposals with the support of their local authorities. Such income—for example, by providing free first-hour or discounted parking for loyal town centre shoppers—would relieve some pressure. In many town centres, certainly in my part of the world, parking charges, which local authorities say they levy to meet the costs of running car parks, have increased significantly.

Secondary, if not primary, legislation will be required. None the less, dialogue between local communities, their supporting local authorities, the selector and the Secretary of State should be encouraged, and a cap lifted on initiatives that local communities should be encouraged to advance. Under a previous round, Exeter made a proposal that was rejected on the grounds that it was beyond the remit of the scheme. However, I urge the Government to encourage that type of initiative.

In my constituency supermarkets have developed in at least two towns, and the local authority demanded huge investment in transport infrastructure, which has completely ruined the town centres and is massively damaging. Far better than insisting on making supermarkets pay for something is to have the money invested in a way that genuinely benefits town centre traders. An element of free parking is a terrific idea, as my hon. Friend says, and I make this intervention to support him.

I am very grateful. The New Economics Foundation report on ghost towns has been a persistent theme and originally provided the stimulus for the 2007 Act. The impact of development, commercial pressures, planning restrictions and the business rating system, which seems to advantage out-of-town retail, was creating and still creates in many parts of the country—including mine—relative ghost towns. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members can identify such areas in their own constituencies and wish to resist them.

It is worth moving away from the conceptual to the practical and to look at ways the 2007 Act can enable local communities to introduce initiatives. I thought to list the kinds of scheme that I hope local communities will feel encouraged to propose for their areas. It is not a restrictive list, but simply a stimulus for other people’s creativity. It includes proposals to require full planning permission before any facility, such as a shop or a pub, is demolished; empower licensing authorities to decide and to set a cap on the number of bookmakers premises, for example, that are allowed to open up in a particular neighbourhood, town or local parade; introduce automatic statutory allotment status for appropriate sites after an agreed period, which, because of the difficulties of managing the limitation on allotments, should apply to both local authority and privately owned sites; create a mechanism, either through legislation or a framework, that legally binds energy suppliers and generators to partner local authorities, or other local partners, to accelerate community-wide renewable energy programmes; establish local appeal boards to determine planning appeals on minor applications; and place a tax on the purchase of plastic bags by retailers to reduce local waste and improve the community’s environment.

I have long argued that we should change the use-class system to differentiate between residential properties and properties that are used only on occasion—properties that are in non-permanent residential use or, in other words, second homes. If it were possible to have a byelaw in one planning locality that enabled such a distinction to be made, that local authority might wish to put a cap on the number of second homes in their area. Because of the impact that that has on the sustainability of communities in areas such as my constituency, there is a strong argument to support such a measure.

The Minister has heard that I am looking in the regulations for things that strengthen, rather than weaken, the 2007 Act, and therefore emphasise transparency and the evidence that the Secretary of State, through the selector, is engaged and trying hard to reach agreement. We need evidence of that. I hope the Minister will say that a time limit will be put on the period within which the Secretary of State has to respond to such proposals. Obviously, there must a commitment to transparency.

Engaging with the National Association of Local Councils and putting parish and town councils in the centre place, where they should be, follows the logic of the Government’s rhetoric. If we are turning the world and the Government upside down, we are saying that, because parish and town councils are closest to the people—more accessible to people on the ground, in their street and in their village, and so on—they are the highest tier of government. I hope that that perception will be reflected in their being given, as far as possible within the sustainable communities concept, enhanced status and access and a role to play. I hope that Local Works will be encouraged to take that role, as well.

I mentioned retail and parking space, and although I do not wish to detain the House too long, I shall expand on that a little, using examples from my area. The impact of out-of-town supermarkets clearly is having a hollowing-out effect on the town centres of Helston and Penzance in my West Cornwall and Isles of Scilly constituency. I recently received a letter from Jason Crow, one of my constituents—I have corresponded with the Minister about it, as well—specifically about Helston, which has four superstores around it, all of which have free parking, at a time when Cornwall council is significantly increasing short-term and long-term parking charges in the town. Mr Crow says that:

“it is as if the shop owners are being deliberately driven out.”

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a dilemma? Although I agree with him on supporting shop owners and keeping them afloat in such areas, does he agree that, given the option, shoppers would sometimes prefer to go to a supermarket? Should our interest be concentrated on the shopper or the shopkeeper?

We should consider the sustainability of the community as well as the convenience of the shopper. Yes, people make their own decision, of their own free will, about which shop to go to and in which location they shop, but a clear impediment to and discouragement of people using town centres is the difficulty and expense of getting into them. That needs to be addressed. It is so much easier to drive into a whacking great car park in an out-of-town retail centre that people say, “I only want to get a few things. We’ll go in there, otherwise I’ll be hours trying to get something from town.” People’s choice about where to shop is not a result of the product or poor service in the town centre; it is a simple matter of having an uneven and unfair playing field. Perhaps there is something that the community and the Government can do to level that playing field, and that is all I am arguing for. Other than that, the town centres are competing in the same commercial space in the same way and one has to take one’s hat off to the supermarkets, because they do a good job at promoting themselves and advancing their cause.

Mr Crow continues:

“I know some would argue it’s retail evolution, with the superstores’ growth grabbing more and more local trade, but we’re also dangerously close in my view to losing the few individual specialist shops remaining, which provide diversity and bring in the tourism.”

That is true in my part of the world, as well. Another of my constituents, Mr Don Briggs, has compared in-town and out-of-town rating. To quote one example of many, he checked the Tesco valuations in Penzance and found that the zone A rate for the Tesco Express, which in the centre of town, is £550 per square metre, but the main rate for the our-of-town Tesco superstore is £210 per square metre. He has compared figures across Cornwall and finds that the story in Penzance is repeated time and again. We end up with an unfair difference—an uneven playing field—between in-town and out-of-town stores. We should address that.

I know that the Minister will say that it is difficult to advance the case today—he is not going to collapse and say, “Let’s go and achieve this as quickly as possible.” However, I believe it has the support of many Members—not all, I acknowledge—in all the parties across Parliament. This is not a party political issue, and it concerns many right hon. and hon. Members. I hope that the Minister will at least keep the door open to advancing the case, so that we can explore ways of evening things out. Finally—I am sorry to have detained hon. Members for so long—I look forward to seeing the regulations, when they are published, and to further promoting sustainable communities.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing it. I agree with his shopping list.

I regard this as a local issue. I served as a local councillor in Ealing for nearly 28 years, so I will be in a better position if I mention some local examples—that is where the future lies in respect of how the changes should come about—and reflect on them.

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 during my time in Parliament and a life-long supporter of the principle of bottom-up political engagement by local communities. Community engagement by Members of Parliament is a critical part of building sustainable communities and is central to everything that I try to do in my constituency. I am particularly proud of the active participation of so many of my constituents and local community organisations in the local community and public affairs.

During the riots of last summer, law-abiding Southall residents protected their places of worship and businesses against lawless thugs, when police resources were stretched to the limit. In Hanwell, the local traders’ association has joined the council-backed social enterprise—Accession—to open a community shop that is providing real work experience in a busy retail environment for adults with learning difficulties. Active citizens are the lifeblood of our country and our communities. The 2007 Act provides a groundbreaking mechanism for local people working together to demand that Government remove barriers to help solve problems at the grass roots. Bottom-up solutions are always much better and potentially more successful than Whitehall, top-down diktats.

Sustainable communities require legal powers, a joined-up approach and financial resources from the Government. I should like to highlight a problem, referred to in the media as “beds in sheds”, that illustrates such needs. The problem of illegal garden outbuildings being used for housing is significant in my constituency of Ealing, Southall and in other constituencies. Many of the outbuildings are poorly constructed, have poor or no utility provision and are dangerous to the occupants. The need to tackle such abuse of vulnerable people by rogue landlords is urgent, but the work is particularly challenging because so many agencies are involved: the council, the police, the fire brigade and the UK Border Agency. They are all trying to resolve the problem, each with their own financial and organisational resources.

Ealing council has allocated £250,000 to strengthening its planning enforcement team and is working with all other agencies to resolve the problem. The lack of legal powers for council enforcement officers to enter such properties without notice is, however, hampering any initiatives, so financial resources are not being used to best effect. The lack of such powers means that rogue landlords are being given 24 hours’ notice of an inspection by local authority enforcement officers and they obviously use that tip-off to remove any evidence of human habitation in outbuildings.

Under the law, if a planning breach is detected and a notice served but the landlord then rectifies the breach, the council cannot prosecute that individual. Even if the council gets a case to court, the fines are so low that they do not act as a deterrent to rogue landlords—they make much more from extortionate rents in a couple of months than paying the fine costs them, so the financial risk is worth taking.

The Government have belatedly given Ealing council and other councils that are tackling such problems necessary but insufficient financial resources and extra legal powers, and a Total Place, multi-agency approach is required to get a proper grip. This is an example of a local solution, on the ground, that could improve many people’s lives, and it is being demanded by my constituents. Localism can work, but it needs resources, a multi-agency approach and legal powers.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to the principles of the 2007 Act and of localism, but I reiterate that devolving power to local communities needs to be accompanied by sufficient resources and a lack of bureaucracy. The delays in the Government responding to previous community proposals under the 2007 Act and the delay in enacting the regulations under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Act 2010 diminish ordinary people’s engagement in improving their communities. That cannot be allowed to happen, and I hope that the application of pressure through this debate will result in the Minister moving things forward rapidly.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, and fantastic to speak in the debate. Thank you for calling me.

A common theme in our debate on sustainable communities appears to be the old Britain. I am surrounded by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) in west Cornwall introduced the debate, so as a representative of Cumbria I would like to speak together with them for the Brythonic peoples of Britain.

There is something a little bizarre about the notion of the sustainable community, which is a horrible combination of double jargon. The very word “sustainable” drags in six different directions. When we talk about sustainable growth, we seem to be talking about environmental projects. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, we seem to be talking about no ongoing financing. When we talk about a sustainable facility, we seem to be talking about no Government investment. When we talk about sustainable infrastructure, such as broadband, we seem to mean something that does not involve volunteers. The worst example, of course, is sustainable farming, in the name of which we see again and again in our communities farmers being paid Government subsidies not to farm, so that a time will come when the sheep have left the hillsides, the subsidy stops and the sustainable farming is neither sustainable nor farming at all.

I shall not discuss the variability in the notion of sustainable community, except to say—moving from the facetious to the serious—why the debate is so important. This is perhaps the most important problem facing Britain today, and it is a problem of trust. When polled, 87% of British people say that politics is broken and 84% say that society is broken. Every single one of us in the Chamber has the experience of sitting down, perhaps at a dinner party, and trying to make polite conversation with the people next to us as it gradually emerges, once they have discovered we are a politician, that they think that we are indeed a liar and a thief. We know the gentle politeness with which, after the first course, they ask, “Is it really true that you have a subsidised bar? Would you mind explaining exactly the nature of your expenses?” Then, as we move on to the dessert course, they ask, “What do you think about all these professional politicians? Don’t you think that people with experience should come back into politics?”

All that is a sign of a big problem, which is the gap between local people, local communities—the ground—and us. It is a problem that we ought to be able to solve, because this is our moment and this is the right country in which to solve it. This is our moment because we have never before in this country had so many educated, confident people able to challenge Government in every way. Britain is also a country with a very strong and deep tradition of local democracy, which we talked about incessantly through the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, however, we find ourselves in a position where France, which we always saw as a hyper-centralised country, is well ahead of us in terms of decentralisation and local government.

How shall we address that? We have begun, but we have not gone far enough or been ambitious enough. The tone of Government is beginning to change: under the banner of things such as the big society, we see individual examples up and down the country of civil servants checking themselves, rethinking and considering ways in which they can respond to local communities. We see it in the construction of the infrastructure for sustainable communities: in rural areas, that means investment in broadband, for example, which allows people in a remote area to continue to operate and to flourish. They can get health and education services, or run businesses down broadband; perhaps more important for our purposes today, they can challenge their representatives and organise themselves down broadband. Thus local communities are allowed a political and democratic voice through technology.

The problem is that we have not gone far enough. Sometimes I think we need to be more decisive and spend more money, to answer the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). We could spend more money in reference to splendid ideas such as, for example, National Citizen Service. That is a great idea to get a lot of young people and volunteers involved, but what have we got after two years? A very good project, but still only a few thousand people. The coalition Government are in power only until 2015, and if we are serious about getting National Citizen Service going, we should be aiming to have 70% or 80% of 16-years-olds going through the scheme by 2015. We should be putting the money behind it.

Sometimes it will be a question of challenging the structures of late capitalism, which is to say we need to challenge the structures of big business, and sometimes even the structures of big charities. An odd phenomenon of the modern world is that we sit in our local areas, and not only are supermarkets rolling into local communities and kicking out small shops, but major national and international charities that have 600 or so people sitting in their donor proposal writing departments in London are rolling into local areas and destroying local volunteer networks.

Solving those problems is not simply a matter of putting a little pressure on a local council or calling an official to account. We have to address the fundamental structures of procurement, the fundamental structures of financing and the structures of law. Again and again, we get caught up in state aid regulations in a way that we do not need to be, with small projects of £17,000 enmeshed in those regulations. We also need to take a different attitude to risk. If we are serious about working with local communities, we have to overcome some of our anxieties about accountability, predictability and transparency, and find ways of taking risk, trusting people and delegating to people.

A small example to illustrate how that is going wrong in my area in Cumbria relates to the bugbear with which I began: broadband. A classic example of local community activity is to be found in Mallerstang, a remote and beautiful valley, where the local community organised itself to get fibreoptic cables to every home. If the community had not done its work, that project would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, but because the local organisers signed up 100% of the people in the area for the service, because they found a way of digging the fibre trenches themselves, and because they negotiated with the supplier, the total cost to the Government will be £17,000. That is a very small amount of money to fire up a whole valley, yet somehow the Government have not yet got the money to the people. The last time I spoke to an official, that official suggested that British Telecom could make a charitable contribution of the money, because it was too complicated to get through the procurement and state aid regulations. As long as those attitudes and blocks remain, such fantastic opportunities for community action will never be realised. If we could use it on a national scale, that type of action could save us hundreds of millions of pounds and bring superfast broadband into communities—but only if the Government are as aggressive and flexible as they need to be.

This is not a question of attitude, of tone or of money; it is a question of the constitution. I pay tribute to the Minister who, above all, has expressed philosophically and consistently why that matters, why the dignity of the citizen matters, and why local communities matter. I think all of us in the Chamber would agree that if we are looking for one big constitutional change in this country, it is not tinkering with what happens here in Parliament, but changing what happens locally.

It is very disappointing that we did not get as many elected mayors as we wanted. Philosophically, the Minister will disagree with the idea of imposing a centralised solution on local communities, but I am beginning to believe that one of the triumphs of the French commune system was Napoleon himself, and that if we truly want local democracy in this country, we need to go for it and to impose locally elected mayors on communities—force communities to be free, and force them to vote for their own local representatives.

When we are not being attacked at ghastly dinner parties, we are often praised in our local areas for being good local constituency MPs. That peculiar paradox—that everyone hates politicians in general, but quite likes their local MP—explains the vacuum at the heart of our constitution and the vacuum of local democracy. If we can address that, if we can get sustainable communities in place, and if we can aggressively address finance, law and procurement in our constitution, we can turn our benighted subjects into citizens.

You will excuse me, Mr Weir, for not standing up. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George). I am not sure whether I should be congratulating him on securing the debate or the Minister on signing the regulations today. If I make it a tie, perhaps both will be kind to me. None the less, it is important that we are having this debate and that, at long last, the regulations are in motion. I hope that the date of their publication—before the summer recess—is firm, as further slippage would be unfortunate.

I reflect on the contribution made by my good friend Sue Doughty in 2002, and all the work that has been done since. Like many other hon. Members, I spent more Fridays in London than I might have chosen to do to get this important legislation through. The number of hon. Members who have been committed to the process is significant.

On the idea of community, we have heard three very impressive speeches today, and I concur with much of what has been said. I have to say that I would not want to force communities to have a mayor, or force anything else on them, but I take on board some of the interesting comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart).

I want to focus my remarks right down at community level. I am sure we all have our experiences from celebrating the jubilee such a short time ago. If ever there was absolute evidence of strong community feeling, we saw it then, whether we attended a street party and the community was along that particular street; whether we attended a party in a park, which attracted people living on several nearby roads; or whether a village or even a small town came together. As well as signing the regulations today, the Minister must be committed to sorting out the time limits as we go through the process. There are many stories about people becoming disenchanted, having put their ideas forward and then having to wait a year or more to see whether they will progress. We should make the most of the enormous impetus that has just been given to community and pulling together, and act now. At the many community events I attended, people were saying, “We should do this again next year.” There was a real feeling that we can move forward and do all sorts of things.

As this debate is about localism, I shall refer to my constituency, which is interesting in that it is diverse but does not have a big town centre: it is composed of small market towns, district shopping centres and villages. There are some interesting aspects: for example, one district shopping centre and its neighbourhood put in a bid for Mary Portas money. I do not know how many local district shopping centres entered the bidding process, but I thought it was an ambitious thing to do, given the number of bids that would be successful. In itself, the bidding process was useful in bringing together ideas from the local community. Some communities will not get their neighbourhood plans off the ground. I think there is a hierarchy of what people might do, which is where the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 comes in, because it may not be a formal neighbourhood plan that takes matters forward, but initiatives under that legislation.

In district shopping centres, there are of course the same issues of use. My local shopping centre has many takeaways. My community obviously enjoys having takeaways or there would not be so many, but they affect the sustainability of the rest of the shopping centre, as do betting shops and some other uses. I feel that we need the hierarchy. I know the Minister is looking at use classes, and I hope that he will tell us today how the Localism Act 2011, “town centre first” policies, aspects of the national planning policy framework and the neighbourhood plans will all pull together as we move forward with the 2007 Act.

I want to make a brief reference to parish councils, of which there are several in my constituency. I have received representations from some parishes, along the lines of, “Why aren’t we getting on with this?” or “Why isn’t it confirmed that we will be part of this process?” I hope that the Minister will answer firmly today. To give a small example—to contrast with the much bigger issue of broadband, which is important—one of my villages wanted to adopt a roundabout and attract sponsorship, so that the roundabout would be attractive. Five years later the villagers have abandoned the attempt, because the county council made it so difficult. It is incredible to me that they were unable to do something so simple—something that towns throughout the country do—but one obstacle after another was put in their way. I am sure that all hon. Members have many such examples.

Let us be truly visionary. Let us have the whole picture of how the 2011 Act will work and how everything will slot into it, and give communities their say and the power to do what they want to do. It might be something as small as adopting a roundabout or gaining the right to put up sign posts without county council interference, or it might involve the bigger issues of true sustainability, improving our quality of life and ensuring that the next generation has a good community to grow up in and develop further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on introducing the debate, and on his persistence, which I regard as entirely responsible for the fact that the Minister has published the regulations today. I am sure there can be no other explanation.

I have always been a warm supporter of the original legislation in all its incarnations, and have done my share of Fridays. I have been lobbied on the subject by my local newsagents and sub-postmasters, and by the New Economics Foundation; and I accept the principle of locally driven initiatives with proper community buy-in. I have done my share of community campaigning, and once owned the domain name nogo2tesco, when my local Tesco wanted to extend its non-food range, appreciably to the detriment of my local town centre. I have been there and got the T-shirt, in a way, and I accept that the idea is good. I recognise, however, that it has been largely killed by the process.

I visited a website—it might have been Local Works, but I apologise if it was not—which offered a diagram explaining how the legislation works. I cannot help thinking that if a diagram is needed to explain legislation, its supporters are in some sense doomed. There are an awful lot of filters to go through before anyone can secure the new power so widely promised in the legislation. By the time people get to the end of the process, they have forgotten why they started; it is so long and convoluted. That reflects central Government nervousness about localism at the time of the legislation. Central Government are always happy to talk the talk, but are more concerned about what might happen if they walk the walk. That is an endemic feature; it is in the DNA of Government, and probably also the civil service which advises them. We talk about community empowerment, which is a bit of a cliché; we talk about powers of general competence, autonomy and localism. We even passed the Localism Act 2011. However, in the end, any power bequeathed to local government is regarded by central Government with slight anxiety.

Offsetting that, at the moment, and hopefully leading central Government down a different track, is another anxiety, which is both complement and antidote. The anxiety is about what we see around us—or think we see: the corrosion of communities and the creation generally of a more anomic, impersonal environment, where the citizens of our land move and have their being. We regret that, and think that things are not as they should be. We also couple it—I am sure that the Minister does—with the belief that something can be done about it, and that that needs to be locally driven, within a proper national framework that provides the appropriate levers.

Generally, we also believe that what happens must be sustainable, although, as the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) said, we are not all clear about what we mean by “sustainable”. Clearly we do not mean something that we think should be sustained—something that, nostalgically, we still want, such as steam engines. I think what we probably mean is that we want something that will work, last and survive. There are people in this land who think that the high street can work, last and survive, despite changes in shopping habits, and that so can the local pub and possibly even the local post office. People want them to survive, because they see them as defining features of the area.

The issue, however, is not what we want but whether we can bring about what we think we want. Are there sufficient ideas around that will produce the outcome that people seem to hanker after, and are powers needed to ensure that we get the result we want? I am not certain that we are particularly clear about either of those questions. I think that we accept that any local power in this country, which is a non-federal state, is given by central Government to local government. I think that the Government are, generally speaking, ruminating on that. I hope that they are not ruminating on the imposition of mayors on communities that may not want them. Frankly, at the dinner parties I go to, people have never expressed an overwhelming demand for that. However, if we consider the Portas review, among other things, we see that the Government’s acceptance of certain proposals is based not on a clear understanding of what to do to revive the high street, but on wanting a variety of projects to proceed, so that it can be seen whether any are successful and worth implementing.

Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on why he thinks people should not have a directly elected mayor?

Probably because there is an element of democracy in my nature, and I think that wherever possible, and all things being equal, people should be asked whether they want things, rather than having them imposed on them.

It is not clear to me that, as a political class, we have clear convictions yet—we may be struggling towards them—about what is possible or desirable and, in the long term, achievable. After all, we are not talking about the collapse of the retail sector. People get their shopping and alcohol, and they have their mail delivered. However, the way people get those things is affected by changes in their habits, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned specialist shops, and I am keen on their establishment, but we must recognise the fact that now a specialist shop means one that is on the internet, thus acquiring a wider clientele than it would ordinarily do where it was originally established.

We are becoming something of a market society, in which we judge everything by price. The battle that I see us having to reach sustainable communities cannot be pitched as one between nostalgia and market brutalism, because market brutalism will win. However, something called a sustainable community can be established, and it can work, deliver and progress. It is along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, but it requires a positive political will, and realistic evidence-based policy to implement it, because if we are to produce the outcomes that many of us want, and avoid some of those that currently happen, we will need Government to engage with the topic further. I am sure that the Minister is only too keen to do that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. The title tempted me to come and listen, but I had not intended to speak, and was not sure what the debate would be about, for very much the same reason given by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—I did not know what “sustainable community” was likely to mean. I had not taken part in the preparation of the regulations, and was not fully aware of where we were on the matter. I think of a sustainable community not as an objective that is ever reached, or even, in a sense, as a noun, but more as a process. I do not think that anywhere is ever reached satisfactorily; if that happened there would be a process of reversing, because there are always tensions at delivery.

I decided to make my contribution quite late on. It was instigated by a couple of comments made by the hon. Member for St Ives, and because I want to talk a little about my personal experiences, which I think are relevant. I started my public life as a member of a community council because I happened to live on the right road. The person who lived in our road stepped down, and as it was automatically assumed that someone from each road had to sit on the community council, I was prevailed on to join.

Then, almost through a series of accidents, I finished up in this Chamber. I had a disagreement with a county councillor over the views of my community, which were being ignored—that is relevant to today’s debate—and I stood against him in the county council and became its chairman. I then became a member of a quango, and as a result of that I became a Member of the National Assembly, although I lost my seat in 2007. That was a great surprise to me and I was hugely disappointed. In 2010 I was elected to the House of Commons, which was an almost equally great surprise because I had not expected that either. Therefore, through a series of accidents I finished up in this debate talking about sustainable communities.

To me, the principle has always been the engagement of people—the citizens—with the bodies that are doing things to them, or, supposedly, for them. The coalition Government have taken a number of initiatives to tackle that general area, whether through the big society, which is an attempt to engage locally, or the Localism Act 2011. Such measures have underpinned the Government, although whether we have been sufficiently successful or strong is an area for debate.

I shall refer to two points that were raised by the hon. Member for St Ives, one of which I agree with—as I said in my intervention—and one of which I do not agree with because of my own experience, although I do not argue with the principle. I also want to comment on onshore wind—I guess one of the reasons I came to the debate was in the hope of a chance to intervene on that point. However, I will not speak excessively about it today.

The first point concerns the impact of large retailers on towns. The two main towns in my constituency got a new supermarket, and as always there was a desire by the local community to take advantage of that and make the supermarkets spend a lot of money to benefit the community. There is, however, a limit on how such money can be spent, and in both instances a huge amount was spent on a road system near the supermarket, but the design was something that would be suitable for a city. In both cases, that has completely destroyed the communities and has the added disbenefit in busy seasons of preventing people from passing through Welshpool or Newtown to get to the west coast. Both systems are absolute disasters.

We want to reach a position where, when local authorities decide on such big applications, any planning gain will be something that the community might want on a long-term basis. I do not know whether that is legally possible, although I think the hon. Member for St Ives may have been looking at the issue. Perhaps some sort of fund could be used to make it easier to park, or it could affect business rates or support the town centre itself. That would be a huge improvement.

I am sorry that I was not present at the beginning of the debate, but I have been following the thrust of the discussion. I have heard much talk about the issues surrounding urban development and sustainable communities, but I have heard nothing about the farming and rural communities. The hon. Gentleman comes from an area that represents both those communities, in particular the farmers. Does he agree that we should recognise the effect on sustainable development of farmers coming together in co-operatives with strength of supply, forcing large supermarkets to give better prices for their products? Does he think that should be a core part of Government policy?

I very much agree. I have been a farmer all my life, and I have been involved in many initiatives designed both to buy and sell produce. The hon. Gentleman’s point is very relevant.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned what he described as planning gain. The problem with planning gain, as opposed to the proposal that I was advancing earlier, is that a one-off planning gain—or planning bribe, as I prefer to describe it—provides a one-off capital sum that will last for only a certain period. The impact of such initiatives needs to be sustainable over time, which is why my proposal seeks to address the problems of upward-only rent reviews and their impact on business rates in towns.

Before the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire resumes his contribution, perhaps he will bear it in mind during his speech and in any interventions that I want to start the winding-up speeches by 3.40 pm.

That is very adequate, Mr Weir; I will not take any more interventions. I felt, however, that the thrust of the way I dealt with the issue was in some agreement with the hon. Member for St Ives. It is a complex way, although I am not quite sure what the legislation allows. I do not, however, think that a one-off investment that is in some way linked with a development is beneficial in the long term. We need much more flexibility.

My second point relates to planning permission for change of use. I admit that I used to be a supporter of that principle, but I chaired a planning committee for seven years; indeed, I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales when the issue was considered by the Committee that I was chairing. The development of such a process, however, becomes so complex that it is almost impossible to operate. In the end, we came to that position. Whenever such a proposal is advocated, we need to think it through. Inevitably a certain percentage of cases would be allowed, and there would be a database, so that when that percentage was crossed, there would be an element of dishonesty.

Finally, I want to say a brief word about onshore wind, although not in the same sense that I have sometimes contributed to that debate. In my constituency—I speak about mid-Wales—there is massive disengagement with the Government. By far the biggest issue that faces us is the development of onshore wind power on a very large scale; we are talking about another 600 turbines, 100 miles of cable, and a 400 kV line all the way into Shropshire. It is a devastating proposal, and if I called a meeting tomorrow, 2,000 people would probably come, just as 2,000 people came to Cardiff with me to demonstrate.

The people of mid-Wales feel that they cannot influence the Government and that no matter what they say or do, the Government have made up their mind and will find a way of getting round them. In one or two recent decisions, the inspector said that the view of local people counted, which was encouraging. However, in a community such as mine—indeed, wider than mine—and in many other parts of rural Britain, this is a very dominating issue. No matter what the Government do to persuade people that they can engage with the process and that the Government care about them, if the project goes forward in my area, people will for ever feel totally disengaged with the Government. They want to feel that they are part of those sustainable UK communities that we saw so brilliantly expressed during the jubilee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing this important debate and on the comprehensive nature of his introduction, which has led to an interesting exchange. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who demonstrated the importance of investing in truly local democracy if we are to tackle acute social problems that include substandard housing or rogue landlords.

I thought that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) was going to treat us to a lecture on sustainable farming. That would have been very interesting, although apparently it will have to wait for another day. Instead, we heard about the importance of decentralisation.

The hon. Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), for Southport (John Pugh) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke about the need actively to enable communities to regenerate and be sustainable, including by regenerating high streets. I want to come to some of those points myself.

For a community to be sustainable, it must have access to facilities such as schools, jobs, shops and green spaces, and, increasingly, access to a low-carbon future. Clearly, however, no two communities are the same. Each faces different problems and has different priorities and circumstances. That is why communities themselves are most often best placed to identify the problems that they face and to work with others to find solutions. I believe that the Government know that. They have talked loudly and frequently about their desire to give more power to local people. In fact, the Prime Minister went so far as to say:

“Our future depends on putting more political responsibility in the hands of local people.”

The Minister will know that the Labour Government legislated for exactly that, with cross-party support, through the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which put greater power in the hands of local communities to encourage economic, social and environmental well-being in their areas. I, too, pay tribute to the many midwives that the Act had. I will not repeat all the names given by the hon. Member for St Ives, but I want to add one—that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Martin Caton), who did a lot of work on the regulations.

We then amended and strengthened the Act in 2010, so it is incredibly disappointing that progress on the Act has stalled, as the regulations that would allow the amended version to be implemented have not, until today, been forthcoming. It would be churlish not to thank the Minister for informing us that the regulations are—finally—on their way, but he will know that there has been growing anger and frustration at the Government’s failure to publish them. There are many written parliamentary question responses, letters and e-mails, dating from before November, promising time and again that the regulations would be published soon, very shortly or within weeks, but I will take him at his word and expect them very soon indeed.

Perhaps the Minister would like to take some time to explain to us why there has been the extraordinary delay in producing the regulations. After all, the consultation finished more than a year ago. Given the huge amount of work that has gone into producing other measures, such as the Localism Act 2011, that apparently are aimed at broadly the same goal, it is hard to understand why the regulations to support the 2007 Act could not have been forthcoming much sooner.

Many people and organisations have been frustrated by the delay. I have been contacted by organisations such as the Campaign for Real Ale, the Public and Commercial Services Union and Local Works and by a number of constituents. They want to know why, if the Government are so pro-localism, they have been so slow to move forward with the Act and put power into the hands of local communities. I therefore look forward to hearing the reasons for that extraordinary delay.

Labour supported the Sustainable Communities Bill in 2007 because it looked set to introduce bottom-up decision making and inspire more people to become involved in shaping the policies that affect them. We want to see that put into operation. Key to the 2007 Act was the compulsion for the relevant local authority and the Secretary of State to try to reach agreement on local people’s proposals. That, Local Works says, is what gives the Act teeth. Without a meaningful definition of reaching agreement, the Act risks becoming a glorified consultation process that might only compound frustration in some communities. Will the Minister give an assurance that, when published, the regulations will include the definition of reaching agreement given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears)—a dialogue in which the final decision is to be taken together?

Will the Minister also give assurances that he will urgently consult on new regulations that will, in line with his speech to the House in March 2011, allow town and parish councils to submit suggestions and proposals under the Act? Along with publishing the regulations, will the Minister write a memorandum of understanding between the Secretary of State and the selector to set a time limit on how long it takes for proposals to be dealt with and to ensure that the selection process is as transparent as possible? I should like to know whether the Minister plans to include Local Works as part of the selector.

Surely, the 2007 Act is one of the best ways to encourage sustainable communities. Does the Minister agree? Beyond that important Act, he and his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government have been busy introducing a raft of other measures that I am sure he hoped would give power to local people, but I have a few concerns.

The national planning policy framework was touted as a way of engaging communities in planning and ensuring that they had a positive say on development in their area. Essential to that are neighbourhood planning forums and the plans that they produce, but a huge number of communities are likely to face significant problems in getting those groups off the ground. The Government have given funding of £20,000 to front-runner forums. I welcome that, but am very concerned about what will happen in the future, especially as we know that the Department itself has estimated that the plans could cost up to £63,000. I am concerned that that runs the risk of affluent communities being able to engage positively in the planning process, while disadvantaged communities cannot.

The 2011 Act is designed to give local communities the power to bid for services or assets, but again it is not clear how they will achieve that or where the resources to enable them to do so will come from. I am worried that the Government are sometimes confusing giving responsibility to communities with devolving power to them. In addition, new duties are being placed on local authorities, while many are seeing their resources from central Government cut massively.

Another key part of sustainability is, of course, the environment. We are in the process of moving to a low-carbon economy, but we will achieve that goal only if all communities have access to renewable and low-carbon energy. This might be outside the Minister’s remit, but it would be useful to hear something about how he thinks all communities will be able to gain access to renewable energy sources and within a reasonable time frame.

The last issue that I want to raise has been mentioned by other hon. Members—the need for regeneration of our high streets. Again, it is important that we welcome the money that has gone into the Portas pilots, but clearly it is not enough and it will not help all communities, including some of the most needy, to regenerate their high streets. Are the Government doing any more thinking on how to ensure that all communities can regenerate their high streets? Finally, how will the Minister ensure that all communities can take full advantage of the 2007 Act once the regulations are published?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. I detect from the excellent speeches that we are a band of believers. It is a pleasure to be able to respond the debate and to speak again on one of the most important Acts of Parliament that we have passed in recent years. As was made clear by the references to the various midwives from all parties and of different vintages of parliamentarian, it very much reflects the view of the whole House of Commons representing our various constituencies. The legislation going on to the statute book was an early marker of the power of leadership for people in constituencies, beyond political parties.

I am delighted that so many Members contributed to the debate. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) here. I know that he was to speak at the funeral of his neighbour and constituent, whom he knew for 50 years. He has attended the debate to represent his constituents, and I am sure that members of his community will greatly respect the obligations that he has to the House. I offer my condolences and, I am sure, those of other Members to the family of his friend and constituent.

The ambitions of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives are completely shared by the Government. The cross-party support for the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 has been striking. If I were to summarise the Act’s contribution, I would say that it established the principle that the right of initiative should not be held in monopoly by people in Westminster and Whitehall—that we should not be the only people who can propose changes to the way things are done, but that that right of initiative should increasingly, and perhaps more normally, come from people in communities, and we as parliamentarians and members of Governments should respond to the initiatives of people in communities.

Our role should be to be the midwives to good ideas that come from local level. It is extraordinary that for so many years—decades—it has been the almost unthinking assumption that ideas have to come from this place and are then visited upon our communities. The notion that Ministers in Whitehall or parliamentarians in Westminster have exclusive access to wisdom and sagacity when it comes to ideas is extraordinary. More than that, as was evident in the contributions today from representatives of almost every part of the United Kingdom, the idea that any place in the UK is in any sense identical to another is for the birds. It is the glory of this House that we represent places that are unique and have their own local character and civic and political traditions—every aspect of community life is reflected.

When people in communities are given the right of initiative, we should of course expect that they will want to do things their own way—differently from one another and from one place to another, and differently from how they have been done in the past. Traditionally, Government and, too often, local government have, first, been frightened of those differences and, secondly, tried to suppress and iron them out. They have tried to impose uniformity across the country, across counties or across districts, as though the differences were regrettable anomalies, rather than a reflection of different requirements and needs that should be positively encouraged.

The principle established in the 2007 Act—that every community in the country should have right of initiative, the right to be heard and the right to address the Government directly and pitch its ideas to them, and that the Government should be under a legal duty to respond—is important not only as a principle, but as the germ of an idea whereby it has an even greater influence on our deliberations across the board. It has been seminal in the Government’s thinking on various reforms, such as the 2011 Act. Section 1 of that Act on the general power of competence reverses completely the old idea that local government exists to do what central Government require of it. That has changed and local government is free to do whatever it wants in pursuit of the service of local people, unless what it proposes is specifically prohibited by central Government. That seems to be the correct default position. The contributions of the debates over many years on the 2007 Act were important in establishing that principle across Government.

On what central Government may or may not prohibit, there is much Government thinking at the moment about making social services entitlements portable across local communities, no matter in which local community someone is resident. How do we manage that tension?

I am not saying that there are no tensions, but rather than start from the position that nothing is possible that was not previously allowed, one should deal with each case and consider whether it may give rise to problems. That is exactly the philosophy and spirit of the 2007 Act. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives offered many suggestions, all of which I accept it is our duty to consider. I hope that they will come through the procedure of the 2007 Act. That is the right approach.

Let me say a little about the process and then I shall respond to some of the points made—I am conscious that I have very little time. I do not accept the admonishment of the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) about the timeliness of the measure for two reasons. First, part of the frustration that many communities experienced during the early days of the 2007 Act was that, having responded to an invitation to submit proposals in October 2008, the previous Government did not respond at all before they left office. We inherited every one of the proposals made under that initial call for evidence. The previous Government took no action whatever and sat on them for nearly two years, but within six months we responded to all the proposals.

More than that, we have swept away the requirement to be forced to consider proposals from communities. We have now established a principle in my Department that any proposal from any member of the public or any community can be pitched to the Government, and we will consider it and it can be tracked in real time via the barrier busting service. There is a website——and since it was launched in December 2010, we have dealt with 258 cases that have come from it. With the regulations, we are talking about back-stop powers for people who are dissatisfied with the Government’s response.

I signed the regulations to bring these measures into effect today. It took a little time because the consultation revealed disagreement between the representatives of local councils and the representatives of community groups, such as Local Works. I was keen that we should not take the lowest common denominator, but seek agreement, which we have been able to do on matters including, for example, the retention of the duty to seek agreement and the establishment of an advisory board to the selector. I fully expect Local Works to be part of that process and group. We have very much strengthened the regulations, and it was absolutely right to do so.

The regulations were signed today and will be formally laid before Parliament within a week—they need to be printed. They will come into force by 26 July 2012. They include a duty on local authorities to consult their communities. There will be a memorandum of understanding between the Secretary of State and the selector to include a time limit during which proposals that have been submitted for consideration will be considered—that is likely to be a maximum of six months, except for special cases. There will be a requirement to be transparent about the processes that are gone through. We will publish simultaneously with the Hansard report of today’s debate the response to the consultation, and a consultation specifically—it is required, unfortunately —to allow parish councils to submit proposals directly. Parish councils already can submit proposals through the barrier busting website, but we will consult on that additional safeguard. I strongly believe that we should allow parish councils, through the principle of subsidiarity, to engage in that process.

I am keen to see many applications. People should not wait to go through the formal process; if they want to pitch directly to the Government, they should. I hope and am confident that following the enactment of the regulations, the rights of every community in the country will be robustly enshrined.

Bilateral Trade (Israel)

I am pleased to raise Government policy on bilateral trade with Israel in this half-hour debate. First, let me draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in which I declare my trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority in September.

The relationship between the UK and Israel has always been strong, and the UK has always been a constructive partner in the peace process. Britain can and should be a force for good in the region. With a balanced approach, we can exert our influence as a strong and impartial mediator with the ability to corral both parties to the table.

Alongside our role in the peace process, Britain should be making the most of investment and trade opportunities with the economic success story that is the modern state of Israel. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has been involved in near-continuous conflict. In 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel’s Arab neighbours vowed to destroy the Jewish state, but, despite being vulnerable on all borders, Israel fought back and prevailed in those wars. The state has also survived several intifadas imposed on it by the Palestinians. The continuous threat of terrorism and suicide bombings has affected life in the country in ways that the UK cannot truly understand. Despite those near-impossible conditions, Israel has developed into an economic and industrial power that is admired the world over.

Israel is a country that is low in natural resources, and, to succeed, it must depend on the inventiveness of its people. Indeed, its people are its greatest asset. Israel has done well not because it has vast mineral wealth, oil or huge natural resources, but because its people are enterprising, extremely innovative and able to apply high technology.

I have had first-hand experience of those qualities, as I spent many years working for HP Indigo with Israeli entrepreneur Benny Landa, who pioneered the invention, development and commercialisation of ink-based electro-photography—digital printing. It was Benny’s vision and determination to bring the printing industry into the 21st century, despite the difficulty of overcoming traditional thinking and aggressive competitors, that were most impressive. The fact that Indigos are still made in Israel and Hewlett-Packard is the country’s second largest employer after Intel is indicative of Israel’s creative and entrepreneurial culture.

My perceptions were further reinforced when on my first visit to the country last year I had the privilege of visiting the world-class Weizmann Institute and meeting some of the professors of science.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the Chamber. Many of us are interested in this subject and are keen to see how we can advance the relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom. One of the areas in which Israel clearly leads the world is medical and pharmaceutical innovations. Does he feel that those advances and opportunities in the medical and pharmaceutical industries should be exchanged, so that we can build up a trade exchange that would advance both Israel and the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I totally agree that we can work more closely with Israel, and later in my speech I will bring in some specific examples of medical advances in Israel and show how they have helped citizens in the United Kingdom.

Meeting some of the professors of science at the Weizmann Institute was most welcome and inspiring. Institutions such as the Weizmann, the Hebrew university of Jerusalem and the Haifa Technion are all rightly considered to stand alongside top institutions throughout the world, especially in the US and the United Kingdom, in academic excellence. The energy and resourcefulness that I witnessed working for Indigo and at Weizmann and among the population in general explain how Israel has converted what was once a land of citrus groves and kibbutzim into a high-tech powerhouse. Israel is now a modern industrial state, producing some of the most advanced and sophisticated technology in the world.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he agree that a distinction must be drawn between trade with the state of Israel and trade with illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, and does he intend to address that aspect of the relationship in his speech?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. The institutions that I have visited are not on any so-called settlements. Israeli settlements occupy roughly 1.5% of Palestinian land. I appreciate the question, but this debate is really on bilateral trade, and to my knowledge, I have never done any trade with those settlements. If I may, I will now carry on with the point of the debate.

The state is a world leader in medical devices. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just referred to medical advancements, devices and electronics. Military electronics, civilian and military aviation, agri-technology, telecommunications, computerised graphics, cellular telephones, microchip, voicemail, and water technology and desalination are just a few areas of Israel’s expertise.

Agricultural technology is playing a pivotal role in efforts to alleviate disease, hunger and poverty throughout the developing world. When asked to explain the $4.5 billion investment in an Israeli company, Warren Buffett replied:

“Some Americans came looking for oil, so they didn’t stay in Israel. We came looking for brains, so we stayed in Israel.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I want to follow up on the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith). I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seriously saying that we should not consider the political climate in Israel when we talk about the important bilateral aid relationship. We need to consider the activities that are taking place in illegally occupied territories. Yes, we need to consider the tremendous innovations that are helping to fight poverty and to create opportunities rightly around the world, but what about the poverty and the killing of opportunity that is taking place in the illegally occupied territories as well as in the west bank and Gaza strip?

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I merely point out that the illegal settlements are a relatively small part—1.5%—of the Palestinian territories. One of the best ways in which we can encourage and influence solutions to these issues throughout the world, especially in Palestine, is through trade. It gives us an opportunity as a nation and as a member of the European Union to speak to both parties about a two-state solution that is right for both parties. The point that I am trying to make is that trade is vital and that Israel can play a role in global economics and technological and scientific development.

On that very point, will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming Israeli high-tech firms partnering with British manufacturers? For example, Eurocraft Enclosures in my constituency of Dudley South has partnered with ECI Telecom to provide the technological internals that are encased in high-quality British engineering. That is providing jobs in my constituency. Does he agree that that is an example of what we need in the future?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. This is about creating wealth and jobs in our country and within Israel. Partnering with such innovative companies in Israel will lead to job security and wealth creation in all our constituencies and in the whole country. In the 21st century, Great Britain has to pay its way in the world. If we look at the growth in the Israeli economy, we can see that Great Britain has a few things to learn.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again and for his graciousness in doing so. Perhaps one of the best ways to build relationships between the Palestinians and the Israelis is to build up economic relationships and the job opportunities that come from those relationships. Does he feel that Britain can perhaps have a greater influence on what takes place in Israel by building those economic and employment opportunities?

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I totally agree with him that the more that we work with nation states and create innovation, jobs and wealth, the more everybody benefits from that creativity and bilateral trade. It benefits all nations.

A little earlier, the hon. Gentleman mentioned some Israeli medical advances. The example of such an advance that I should like to give shows Israeli ingenuity and brain power. In April, I participated in the London marathon. I might not look as though I am fit enough to run the London marathon, but I ran it with my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly); I hasten to add that he beat me, but there we are. A lady called Claire Lomas, a paraplegic British woman, was able to walk the entire route of the 2012 London marathon, thanks to a futuristic Israeli medical device. Her amazing achievement was made possible only because of Argo Medical Technologies’ ReWalk, which is a futuristic Israeli product. ReWalk is the world’s first commercially available upright walking technology for people with lower-limb disabilities. The 44 lb device comprises a brace support suit that integrates motors at the joints, sensors and a computer-based control system, and it has rechargeable batteries. Sophisticated algorithms analyse body movements, and then trigger and maintain gait patterns, as well as stair-climbing and shifting from sitting to standing. ReWalk transforms the lives of paraplegic people.

Claire Lomas was permanently paralysed below her chest as a result of a riding accident in 2007. However, she was determined to participate in the 26.2-mile marathon, even though she could cover no more than 2 miles a day. It took her 16 days to reach the finishing line—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying, it took Claire 16 days to reach the finishing line, accompanied by her husband, Dan Spicer. That is an inspiration to us all.

Aside from the inventiveness of its people, what is it about Israel that makes it such an economic and high-tech success story? A well-established and fully functioning democracy, a western legal system, the full infrastructure of transportation, communication and utilities, and an educated and motivated population make the country attractive to foreign investors and industry. For that reason, virtually all major US high-tech companies have installations in Israel, and companies such as IBM, Intel and Motorola have established plants in the industrial parks that are expanding around the country’s academic institutions.

It is most heartening to see how we in the UK are now taking advantage of the business opportunities provided by Israel. Israel is one of the UK’s key strategic business partners and has become its largest individual trading partner in the near east and north Africa. Over the past 10 years, the value of bilateral trade in both directions has increased by 60%, from £2.3 billion to more than £3.7 billion. In 2011, the value of British exports to Israel reached £1.57 billion, and Israel’s exports to the UK, primarily machinery, diamonds, technology and pharmaceuticals, totalled £2.18 billion. In fact, the Israeli pharmaceuticals company, Teva, is the largest supplier of generic drugs to the NHS. More than 300 Israeli-related firms operate in the UK, of which 34 are listed on the alternative investment market and 11 on the main market of the London stock exchange, and more than 75 major UK companies have offices in Israel.

Israel’s success in integrating into the global market has been facilitated by an enormous number of free trade agreements with the US, Europe and other countries, including Canada and Mexico. In fact, Israel’s approach to free trade is one that we in this country could learn from. UK-Israel business is strongly assisted by the existence of a free trade agreement between the EU and Israel, which provides import duty exemptions for most Israeli-made products arriving in the EU. I urge the detractors who argue that that trade agreement benefits only Israel to reconsider in the light of the bilateral trade figures. It is in the interest of both the UK and Israel to develop bilateral trade, which is hugely significant to the UK’s economy in encouraging growth, employment and the creation of wealth—factors that we all know to be crucial in our economic recovery. To that end, will the Minister give assurances that trade that benefits both countries will not come under threat from pressure by politically motivated groups and organisations?

In addition, are there any plans to develop a bilateral investment treaty between the UK and Israel along the lines of the one between Israel and Germany? A 2011 UK White Paper, “Trade and Investment for Growth” pointed to Israel as a pivotal strategic partner for Britain’s future. The White Paper stated:

“The Government will encourage a stronger partnership between British and Israeli companies to exploit the potential synergies between Israel’s high levels of innovation and British strengths in design, business growth and finance, as well as the UK’s own high technology and scientific strengths.”

I was therefore delighted to learn of the work that our excellent ambassador, Matthew Gould, is doing to build a stronger partnership between Israel and the UK.

As part of that, the UK-Israel technologies hub was launched in October 2011. It is tasked with promoting economic growth and innovation in the UK and Israel by creating lasting partnerships in technology between the two countries. It is also important to note that, since both nations boast active fields of research and development, the UK has been particularly committed to enhancing ties in that area. For that purpose, £10 million will be awarded over the next five years to the Britain-Israel research and academic exchange, whose aim is to bring together British and Israeli scientists on academic research projects. Furthermore, the recently established UK-Israel Life Sciences Council was formed to enhance scientific collaboration. To that end, 19 leading scientists from both countries, including four Nobel prize winners, three Members of the House of Lords and presidents of universities, among others, have come together.

I applaud those initiatives and collaborations in the fields of business, science and academia. What discussions has the Minister had with his Israeli counterpart to increase such co-operation? Israel is a phenomenal source of innovation, with more start-ups per capita than anywhere else in the world. Israeli companies need foreign partners for capital, business and product development, and access to global markets. With market access to Europe, the world’s strongest financial centre, world-class professional and creative services, and complementary strengths in technology emerging from our world-class academic institutions, Britain can and should be a natural partner for Israel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I thank my hon. Friend the Member Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) for securing the debate, how he has raised the subject and his courtesy in sending me an advance copy of his remarks, which I appreciate. I salute his personal interest and commitment to enhancing the UK’s relationship, particularly its commercial relationship, with Israel. He made reference to several high-tech and research developments, some of which I will refer to.

My hon. Friend particularly mentioned the London marathon. He will know, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Chris Kelly), that we share that interest; I have done nine. This year, we saluted the extraordinary courage of Claire Lomas in taking part as she did. It was absolutely proper for my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale to draw attention to the suit and kit she wore and the part played by Israel and its scientists in their development.

I welcome the opportunity to reiterate the importance the Government attach to developing our trade relationship with Israel as part of our overall efforts to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationship. I will cover the issues about settlements that have been raised by other colleagues as part of my response, if I may.

Israel, with its strong economic performance, low inflation and falling unemployment rate, continues to provide a growing export market for UK companies. Israel has an excellent reputation for innovation and invention, and it is a world centre for research and development. I have seen for myself that its reputation is well earned; on my visits to Israel, I have paid particular attention to visiting high-tech and innovative businesses.

Over the past 10 years, the value of bilateral trade between Israel and the UK has flourished in both directions. It has increased by 60%, and it reached a record high of £3.75 billion in 2011. Currently, Israel is the UK’s largest individual trading partner in the near east and north Africa region. It ended 2011 as the UK’s third biggest export market in the middle east. This successful partnership continued to thrive in the first quarter of 2012. UK imports were more than £500,000 from January to March 2012, an increase of 65% on the same period in 2011. The UK exported £439 million of goods from January to March 2012, an increase of 13% on the same period in 2011. I am sure that colleagues will agree that such trade figures are extremely encouraging.

The Government fully agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale that the UK and Israel are natural economic partners. However, our efforts to develop that economic partnership are fully consistent with our strong commitment to an early solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as essential to the long-term security of Israel and the region, and for the economic prosperity of all in the area. Our policy is also fully consistent with our condemnation of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and our efforts, with our European partners, to demonstrate that concern through, for example, steps with regard to settlement produce.

Does it surprise the Minister that the UK and EU guidelines on procurement, as I have been told in answers to parliamentary questions, do not differentiate between products emanating from Israel and those emanating from the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Will he comment on that?

The voluntary guidelines available in the EU and put into effect here enable greater choice for consumers and they are important, but the area is developing in relation to both goods and services. We are constantly considering ways to ensure that choice is available without going down the route of a boycott, which the Government oppose.

There are two things in particular. The first is the importance of clear choice and clear labelling of goods and services. Secondly, we set the issue in the context of what we believe to be most important, which is the negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We do a great deal of work in the occupied territories in relation to business development. We are working to strengthen the Palestinian private sector by sponsoring numerous trade and investment-related meetings in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the UK. We continue to urge Israel to remove the barriers preventing greater trade between Israelis and Palestinians. They are natural trading partners, and greater trade between the two would enhance both. That is why we set the growing and important bilateral trade relationship with Israel in the context of what we believe is still possible and would enhance economic prospects for all.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that confidence is built by people trading. That is a view that we share, which is why we are against boycotts and in favour of trade. We think that enhancement of trade in the region will help the process of negotiating an arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which is why we encourage it, but we do not see that there is any reason for us to slow down the bilateral relationship with Israel. Quite the contrary; we think that a thriving Israel is good news for the region.

Having spent a bit of time on that part of the issue, I return to the meat of the debate as introduced by my hon. Friend. With our full support and encouragement, British companies have a growing presence in Israel. Barclays Capital recently opened a research and development centre in Tel Aviv. Major British companies such as Lloyd’s, GlaxoSmithKline, British Airways and HSBC also continue to have significant interests in Israel.

Equally, Israeli companies have increased their trading presence in the UK. There are now about 300 Israeli firms operating in the UK, providing thousands of jobs. They cover a wide spectrum of sectors, most notably in pharmaceuticals, defence, information and communications technology, mining, food processing and plastics manufacturing.

Despite the excellent trade links that already exist, there is huge potential to build on UK-Israel collaboration. As my hon. Friend made clear, Israel is a powerhouse of innovation and entrepreneurship, leading the way in the fields of digital, life science and technology. There are excellent opportunities for UK companies to pursue agreements with Israeli high-tech companies.

Our partnership in high-tech could become an important contribution to Britain’s economic growth. At present, America remains the Israeli entrepreneur’s first thought for international partners. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said:

“We believe that Britain should be a natural partner for Israel in high tech”,

sentiments echoed by my hon. Friend. I also gave that message to a number of high-tech entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv in January.

We have taken important steps towards achieving that goal. In October 2011, during a visit to Israel, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer launched the UK-Israel tech hub. The creation of this new team at the British embassy in Tel Aviv follows an agreement between our respective Prime Ministers to build a UK-Israel partnership in technology. The hub has already identified key areas and projects in which the UK and Israel offer each other complementary advantages, and it acts to create closer collaboration in those areas.

For example, the hub has focused on delivering Israeli innovation in water technologies to UK utilities, and on building connections between the UK’s leading media and creative industries and leading Israeli new media-tech companies. As part of this, the Government have sent several high-level delegations to explore those opportunities, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science and the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). We have also launched the UK-Israel tech council, a body of senior Government and business individuals dedicated to advancing the partnership.

The high-tech hub team—the first in the world—consists of qualified staff from the business and high-tech sectors, including Digital, Biomed and Cleantech. They will help to find partners for Israeli companies, bring the best of Israeli innovation to British companies, and help each of our economies to exploit the potential of the other.

Last year the embassy in Israel also launched the regenerative medicine initiative within the framework of BIRAX—the Britain-Israel research and academic exchange programme. The £10 million fund, raised mostly from private resources, enables UK and Israeli researchers to apply for joint research grants in the field of regenerative medicine, an area of collaboration recommended by the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council. The first call for proposals was followed by the first UK-Israel regenerative medicine conference, which took place in Israel and had 60 UK participants. Both were a huge success. The proposals are being evaluated and the first eight BIRAX regenerative medicine research programmes will start operating in the forthcoming academic year.

Looking ahead, our next major event to promote UK-Israel bilateral trade will be the UK-Israel business awards dinner on 26 June in London. The dinner, in conjunction with UK-Israel Business, the Israeli embassy and the UK-Israel tech hub, will celebrate our tech partnership. I commend the contribution that UK-Israel Business is making to promote the UK to the Israeli business community as a central destination for global expansion. The dinner will come just after a major tech event that day called “Innovate Israel”, which will aim to reinforce that message and will be the most prolific attempt to date to promote trade relations.

There is also significant potential for new UK-Israeli co-operation in developing oil and gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean—co-operation that could expand to include further partners, such as Cyprus. This is an exciting new opportunity for both countries and offers the prospect both of energy independence and of closer, more co-operative relations across the region.

In conclusion, the UK-Israel trade figures for 2012 so far are extremely promising. Our new initiatives—the tech hub and the tech council—are taking root, and we are establishing new UK and Israel business partnerships. We strongly expect continued growth throughout 2012 and 2013.

It is clear from those endeavours that we greatly value our bilateral trade relationships with Israel. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale that the British Government will continue to develop and strengthen this important relationship, which we set in the context of greater prosperity and greater security in the region as a whole, which will help everyone.

Railways (Kettering)

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to hold this debate and welcome the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), who has responsibility for rail, to listen to what I have to say on behalf of my constituents. First, though, I would like to thank a number of local people. Councillor Mike Tebbutt of Kettering borough council, Councillor Russell Roberts, the leader of the borough council, and County Councillor Chris Groome, the leader of the Kettering rail users group, have all encouraged me and helped me to prepare my remarks today.

The upgrading and electrification of the midland main line would be of immense benefit to Kettering and to the east midlands. The midland main line connects four of England’s largest cities and the Northamptonshire growth area, which is one of the fastest growth areas in the country, with our capital city. Passenger journey numbers have risen from 5.8 million in 1996-97 to 13.2 million now, an increase of 127%, compared with a national increase in rail passenger numbers of 69%. A further 28% rise is expected in the next 10 years, according to the route utilisation strategy.

Due to under-investment in the past 20 years, Midland Mainline trains cannot go at their top speed on any stretch of the track. Most other inter-city lines can go up to 125 mph, but despite the fact that InterCity 125s run on the line, their top speed is mostly limited to 100 mph. Despite having a very good punctuality record, the midland main line is the slowest of any of the inter-city lines. There are three pinch-points that restrict the service—Leicester, Derby and Kettering-Harborough-Wigston—all of which need upgrading before electrification takes place.

Upgrading and electrification will bring higher speeds, which will not only make the service more attractive and have a positive commercial benefit, but increase capacity to meet the increase in passenger numbers. That should generate £450 million of wider economic benefit to the region. For Kettering and neighbouring Corby, it will mean better connections north to Leicester—a route served by only one train an hour off-peak—and the travel time from Kettering to London should be cut by an average of five minutes, and potentially by more than 12 minutes. Travel times from London to Sheffield could be cut by 14 minutes. Upgrading and electrification should enable Midland Mainline to increase its train services from five to six per hour, so Kettering could get three trains per hour, rather than two, and that third train could have a journey time of48 minutes, rather than 62.

A 2011 Arup report shows that the benefits of the project would reduce the annual costs of running the line by £60 million, because electric trains are lighter and more efficient to run; they are also quieter. The project should pay for itself within just 10 years, which is an extremely quick pay-back period for an infrastructure project. In addition, it would cut carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes per year, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 15,000 cars.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his excellent question at Prime Minister’s questions earlier today. He has already mentioned the £450 million of wider economic benefits, but another issue—he may intend to address this—is the impact of the expected increase in freight. I think we all agree on the importance to saving carbon emissions not only of using non-diesel trains, but of getting more freight off the roads and on to the railways. If that is to work, however, it cannot slow down the passenger trains. My hon. Friend has mentioned the three pinch-points. To get a sixth train on the line, there must be a way for freight trains to get by and for the passenger trains to avoid them.

I am most grateful for that very helpful contribution from my hon. Friend who, as always, is serving her constituents so well. I think I am right in saying that Network Rail estimates that freight traffic, particularly through the Leicester pinch-point, is likely to increase by some 50% by 2020. That is yet another reason why, in introducing proposals for electrification, the Department for Transport must concentrate on upgrading those key sections of the track. Electrification on its own will not work; we need to have the upgrading first. Let me put it very simply: if the line is electrified and upgraded later, it will cost extra money because all the new electrical equipment will have to be moved as well. That is why the upgrading is so important.

It is crucial to emphasise that quite an amount of money will have to be spent on the line anyway in the next few years. For example, track and signalling maintenance and renewals expenditure will be ongoing.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about investment. Does he share the concern that I and many people in Sheffield have about the contrast between investment in the midland main line and investment in, for example, the west coast main line? Some £200 million has been spent on a constraint at Milton Keynes, £190 million has been spent at Rugby, £180 million at Nuneaton, and £150 million at Stoke, and work costing £153 million is under way at Stafford.

We are talking about a relatively small cost in relation to the benefits that the hon. Gentleman has argued very strongly would be achieved not only for Kettering, but for Sheffield and many other cities on the line. A commitment to sorting out those three key pinch-points would go a significant way towards remedying the historical under-investment in the midland main line. Does he share my hope that the Minister will give us some reassurance on those points today?

The hon. Gentleman is, as always, correct. I believe I am right in saying that, in recent years, some £12 billion has been spent on the rail network, but only £200 million has been spent on the midland main line. Another figure that comes to mind is that the line has attracted only 2% of the financial investment that has gone into other rail networks. Ours is very much this country’s overlooked line, even though we connect so many places of importance, including the hon. Gentleman’s city, to our capital city. I think the midland main line’s time has now arrived. For what should be relatively little expenditure, major improvements could be made to the line. I think I am also right in saying that, over the next 20 years, some 800,000 extra people are expected to live in the towns and cities along the route, which is the equivalent of having a new city the size of Leeds. Effectively, that new city will generate lots of demand for the rail network, which is why investment needs to take place now, otherwise we will have very real problems in the not-too-distant future.

Moneys have already been committed to do two major jobs: the improvement to the layout of Nottingham station, and gauge improvements for freight between Felixstowe and Birmingham using existing midland main line track. However, the two big bottlenecks that need sorting out are Derby and Leicester. It would be a big mistake to electrify those without sorting out the pinch-points.

The high-speed trains, which do not travel at their top speed, that are used for the Nottingham service are due to be retired in 2019, unless they are upgraded with electric doors and toilet tanks. That gives us an option to upgrade and electrify to Corby and Nottingham as part of a staged programme in control period 5, including the Leicester improvements, while the Government, if they felt under financial pressure, could carry over the extension to Sheffield—the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield)—into control period 6. That might assist the Government to overcome any resource and cash constraints in control period 5.

Higher speeds will not only make the service more attractive and have a positive commercial benefit, but increase capacity. For Kettering and Corby, that will mean better connections north to Leicester—there is only one train an hour off-peak—without the conflict with northern cities, which want faster services in the absence of the investment to make it possible, and serve intermediate stations.

There are key benefits for Kettering in having the pinch-points dealt with and in having the extra train. I cannot go into all the details about all the pinch-points, but perhaps the biggest one is Derby. Derby is very congested, and many trains have to wait outside the station for a platform to become free. However, all the track and signals at Derby are life expired and must be renewed anyway by 2016. This is the perfect opportunity to replace them with a superior layout that has more platforms and greater capacity, and segregates different routes to minimise conflicts and constraints.

Network Rail has designed that improved layout, which would cost an additional £66 million, taking the total cost—renewal and enhancement—to £140 million. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, that is less than the cost of similar schemes on other inter-city routes. The danger is very simple: it would be cheaper not to do the enhancement and simply to replace like-for-like the already inadequate 1960s layout. However, that vividly illustrates the consequences for Kettering of these constraints. One Midland Mainline train each hour that has insufficient time to call at Kettering, because it must pass through those pinch-points at set times, sits in Derby station for 8 minutes because of congestion there. If the constraints were to be eliminated, a future train operator could choose to call at Kettering and still reduce the overall Sheffield to London journey time.

As with the other pinch-points, removing the Derby pinch-point would open up the possibility of a sixth train every hour calling at Kettering. That is the crucial thing for Kettering—the extra sixth train. There are five Midland Mainline trains per standard hour: two to Sheffield, two to Nottingham and one to Corby. They have to cater for the big long-distance flows between the big cities, as well as the flows to intermediate towns such as Kettering, so the calling pattern is inevitably a compromise. A sixth train per hour would allow a different pattern of train services and station stops, and would give the train operator more scope to cater appropriately for both the big cities and the towns. It is not possible to say in advance how a sixth train per hour would be used, because the Government have rightly stated that they will be less prescriptive in the next franchise, after 2014, and will allow the new train operator to decide such things on a commercial basis. However, there is a very strong case for an additional sixth train per hour calling at Kettering, and without that additional sixth train, there is no real prospect of any additional service to and from Kettering.

The benefits to Kettering would be a third train per hour to and from London, with a fast journey time of around 48 minutes. That train service used to exist, but was taken away some years ago. The sixth train per hour would also allow a second train per hour to and from Leicester probably going on to Derby, which would give Kettering vastly improved connections and a half-hour reduction in journey time to Leeds, Yorkshire, the north-east and, Mr Weir, Scotland. Clearly the extra trains would also increase capacity for Kettering, thereby catering for future growth.

Is a sixth train per hour realistic and achievable? Yes. There are six midland main line paths every hour out of St Pancras, so it would be perfectly possible. However, the three pinch-points cause the real problems, which is why they need to be addressed. In fact, a sixth train is already run for a couple of hours per day, essentially at the peak periods, but that that happens only because other conflicting trains—mainly freight trains between the north and London, or east-west passenger trains—have been effectively pushed out of the way for those couple of hours. It is not possible to do that for the whole day. In fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) said, the prospect is that freight will increase over the next 10 to 20 years. That will cause particular problems with east-west traffic at Leicester, on which an additional 30 trains per day will be running by 2019.

It is standard practice to increase the number of trains on inter-city routes to cater for growth. The number of trains running on both the east coast main line and the west coast main line has been increased on many occasions since 2000—effectively, they have doubled in the past 10 years. In complete contrast, it has been 12 years since there has been any increase in the number of trains north of Kettering, although East Midlands Trains did introduce the new Corby-London service in 2008.

The reality is that to cater for the relentless growth of patronage on the midland main line, it will be necessary before long both to lengthen trains and to run a sixth train per hour, and it will be practical to run a sixth train per hour only if the constraints at the three midland main line pinch-points have been properly resolved. Fortunately, other works are already planned at each of the three pinch-points. That presents the perfect opportunity to solve the midland main line problems very cost-effectively.

The upgrading and electrification of the midland main line is a priority for colleagues in all parts of the Chamber. There is a very strong cross-party consensus in favour of the inclusion of the proposals in control period 5 and, if needs must, into control period 6. Political parties on all sides up and down the route, represented by local authorities, rail user groups, rail forums and freight groups, are all behind the scheme. Kettering sits in a very important place on the midland main line and there would be particular benefits to Kettering were the Government to give the go ahead for the proposals. On behalf of my constituents, I hope that the Minister will take on board these points. I am confident that she will do her best to ensure that the right decision is made.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate, and on his very detailed and well-informed analysis. It is also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) in her place. Both my hon. Friends have played a leading role in the campaign for the electrification of the midland main line.

I understand the importance of the issue not only to my hon. Friends’ constituents, but to many communities in the east midlands and south Yorkshire that are served by the midland main line. I am also aware of the wide-ranging coalition of MPs, local authorities, businesses and other stakeholders, many of whom were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, who are all campaigning for improvements to the line and, in particular, electrification. The Government’s response to the campaign will depend on what is affordable within budgets that are constrained by the pressing need to deal with the deficit we inherited from Labour. Despite the deficit, we have already embarked on a major programme of rail improvement that is bigger in scale than anything attempted for 100 years. Improving our transport networks is a key part of our strategy for growth, and rail electrification is playing an important role in those efforts to improve our transport system and to boost our economy.

This is a timely opportunity to consider and debate electrification of the midland main line. Electrification can support our carbon reduction goals, as well as contribute to economic growth and the benefits outlined by my hon. Friend. In the longer term, some electrification schemes can also help us to achieve our goal of cutting the cost of running the railways; it is essential that the cost come down, because that is the only way to see an end to above-inflation fare increases. A more financially sustainable railway will also help us to deliver the sort of improvements called for by my hon. Friend today, and by other hon. Members day in, day out, in this Parliament.

Where the business case is strong and funding is available, the Government support progressive electrification of the rail network. As my hon. Friend said, electric trains are cheaper to run and maintain than their diesel equivalents. They emit less carbon and are quieter and lighter, which saves wear and tear on the track. Our committed programme of electrification includes the great western line to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff, and a significant programme in the north-west, including Liverpool to Manchester and Blackpool to Manchester. In his autumn statement, the Chancellor added the route from Manchester to Leeds and York to our electrification proposals, subject to confirmation of the business case.

The action taken by the coalition on electrification is in marked contrast to the approach of the previous Government. Their 30-year strategy for the railways, published in 2007, paid almost no regard to electrification and set out no sensible plans for it. In their 13 years in power, they managed to electrify less than 10 route miles of track on our network.

The midland main line has received some important investment in recent years. New stations have been built at Corby and East Midlands Parkway. Major station improvements have been delivered at Loughborough, Derby and Sheffield, and St Pancras has been transformed with the arrival of High Speed 1. Further improvements are in the pipeline.

Will the Minister acknowledge, contrary to her previous point, that they were actually achieved under a Labour Government?

I was not saying that the previous Government did not do anything; I am saying that they did almost nothing in relation to electrification.

By 2014, £69 million will have been invested by Network Rail to cut journey times for passengers between London and Sheffield by eight minutes. In the longer term, the second phase of High Speed 2 will slash journey time to the east midlands and Yorkshire. As I have said on a number of occasions, both in the House and outside it, the Government recognise that the business case for the electrification of the midland main line is strong—a point emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and a number of hon. Members. Useful supporting evidence has been provided by the report commissioned by East Midlands Councils and the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive, “The Case for Upgrading and Electrifying the Midland Main Line”.

The report highlights the significant potential economic, environmental and financial benefits that would come with electrification and other improvements, a number of which were outlined by my hon. Friend. He is right to focus on significant passenger growth on the line in recent years. It is important to take on board the points he made about projected population growth, the wider economic benefits that could be generated by improvements to the midland main line, and the potential for running- cost reductions—always an important concern—of electrification. I also note the points he made very strongly about the scope of electrification to provide capacity expansion. It is important for the Government to consider all those matters when making a decision on which schemes can receive funding.

The Government recognise that electrification of the midland main line could help to spread the benefits of high-speed rail, because it would enable through-running of services between the new high-speed network and the midland main line. That is something we will consider as we prepare our response to HS2 Ltd’s advice on phase 2 of the project to complete the Y network to Manchester and Leeds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough rightly highlighted the importance of considering the impact on freight of improvements to the midland main line, and we will do so carefully. We will also consider carefully the proposals for the range of improvements stakeholders are calling for in relation to the midland main line. I acknowledge that there is an aspiration to go beyond electrification and combine it with addressing some of the pinch points referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I note his analysis of the potential that a sixth train per hour might be able to deliver in terms of reconfiguring services and benefiting his constituents.

The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) compared the prospects for the midland main line with the resources spent on the west coast main line. Yes, it is important to consider the relative levels of support for different parts of the country. Network Rail learnt many lessons from the west coast main line. Obviously, that project cost far in excess of what was originally envisaged. We hope that whatever schemes go ahead in future, whether midland main line improvements or others, Network Rail is able to avoid some of the mistakes made in relation to the west coast.

Electrification of the midland main line and a number of other upgrades are included in Network Rail’s initial industry plan, which sets out the rail industry’s view of options for inclusion in the next HLOS—high-level output specification—statement, for delivery in the period between 2014 and 2019. That plan is playing an important role in our deliberations on which projects can be funded in that five-year control period.

Although the case for electrification looks good, it is a major undertaking with a significant price tag. Just electrifying the line is expected to cost more than £530 million. The further upgrades that many campaigners are asking for could add more than £100 million to that figure. The Government already have commitments to improve the rail network in the period up to 2019, amounting to some £5 billion.

I have listened carefully to the Minister. Is she impressed that the annual £60 million saving in running costs means that the electrification would effectively pay back within 10 years, which is almost unheard of for an infrastructure project of that sort?

It is rare for an infrastructure project to pay for itself. Yes, that point will be important for us to consider when we take our decisions. My hon. Friend has made that point clearly and we are aware of it. However, even with the importance placed on transport by the coalition and with the positive business case for improving the midland main line, we will still need to make choices between competing priorities, because, of course, colleagues from throughout the country have priorities in their own areas.

We need to strike a balance between the aspirations of many communities for improved rail services and the need to ensure that the Government’s finances are not overstretched in these difficult times. The scale of what can be delivered to improve the midland main line depends on what is affordable and on a careful, fair assessment of competing priorities elsewhere on the rail network. The points that my hon. Friend made about the running-cost savings that could be delivered by electrification will be at the forefront of our minds when we take our decisions. However, we have not taken those decisions yet. I assure my hon. Friend that we are aware of the strength of the business case and of the support for going ahead with electrification.

Not all the projects that will take place in control period 5 will be expressly mentioned in the HLOS statement that we will publish. Some of the bigger ticket items may be expressly listed, but for projects that are not on such a big scale we are more likely to specify an outcome to be achieved on a route or into a certain city, such as increased capacity or faster journey times, and then it will be left to the industry, overseen by the regulator, to decide how best to deliver those improvements for passengers. Some improvements that campaigners have asked for over and above electrification would be more likely to fall into that category. If they were to go forward in CP5, they would therefore be subject to the industry HLOS process—an assessment by the rail industry and the Office of the Rail Regulator on how best to deliver them. I thought it might be useful to give that procedural clarification of what hon. Members can expect in terms of the type of scheme that would be headlined in the statement and those that might still be delivered during the CP5 period, but would be subject to further work by the rail industry.

Briefly, since the Minister is dealing with procedural aspects, will she give us an update on timing? I have been told that we should expect some announcement in July. Is that still the timetable?

Yes, the announcement will be made some time before the end of July, but we have not set a date.

The case for electrifying the midland main line continues to be made impressively by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and many others. Debates such as this provide important, timely input to the process of deciding which rail improvements can be funded in the five-year period up to 2019. I will ensure that all the points made today are carefully considered when the decisions on the HLOS statement are made.

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