Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2012

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 20 June 2012

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

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

It is delightful to start the day with you in the Chair, Mr Dobbin.

Agriculture is an important industry in my constituency, which is hardly surprising if we consider that Sittingbourne and Sheppey is situated in God’s own county of Kent. Agriculture will have an increasingly strategic importance nationally. Over the next couple of decades, food security will become a major issue as the world’s population increases and demand for food grows in those countries from which we currently import agricultural products. Britain will have to grow more of its own produce if it is to maintain a plentiful supply of affordable food. Britain’s farmers will become increasingly important to our national economy, and their success in feeding a growing population will depend not only on better use of a shrinking amount of available agricultural land but on having a well trained and willing work force to help harvest the crops.

Kent, which as everyone knows is the garden of England, is renowned for its orchards. Horticulture, which is defined as the cultivation of flowers, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants, contributes some £3.1 billion to the UK’s GDP. The employment created by horticulture is crucial to many communities, particularly small communities in rural areas for whom other employment is simply not available. It is ironic, therefore, that farmers in recent years have found it so difficult to recruit local labour and have had to rely on foreign workers.

The vast majority of those workers come into the country on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, SAWS, which is quota based and enables farmers to recruit temporary overseas workers to carry out planting and the harvesting of crops, as well as farm processing and packing. SAWS is an effective scheme controlled by the UK Border Agency and managed by contracted operators. Workers are issued with a work card that gives them permission to work for one employer for a fixed period of up to six months. Those workers must be paid the minimum wage and be provided with accommodation by their employer. The scheme has provided a pool of labour for the horticulture industry for 60 years, and without those workers farmers simply would not be able to survive.

Before 2007 SAWS applied to students from outside the European economic area, but since 2008 the scheme has been restricted to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals, as part of the transitional controls on migration from those countries when they joined the European Union. Those restrictions will be lifted in 2013, and farmers fear that they will have insufficient labour to meet their seasonal demands. One of the reasons why farmers find it difficult to recruit home-grown local workers is the seasonal nature of employment in agriculture and horticulture. The season generally lasts from March to September, with the peak months of employment being April and May. Setting aside the perhaps understandable desire of domestic workers to prefer full-time employment, fewer and fewer local people seem willing to undertake what can sometimes be hard, physical work with early morning starts and long hours.

As a boy growing up in the Medway towns, I remember being taken down to the Sun pier in Chatham by my aunt and cousins to queue up for the lorry to take us for a day’s picking on one of the local farms. I was about nine or 10, but I put in a full day’s work picking fruit, peas or hops—it shows, I know. Those days are long gone, but it would be good to think that we might be able to encourage more young people to spend their summer holidays working in the fields.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an extremely important topic. In my own county of Herefordshire, we have many visitors who are reliant on SAWS. Farmers advertise scrupulously for local, English labour when attempting to fill such jobs, but often without success. Has that also been his experience in Kent?

Very much so, and I will come on to possible ways to overcome that.

Some would argue that people on benefits should be forced to take the place of foreign workers and, on the face of it, that option is attractive. The problem is that forced labour is not productive labour. We can make people pick fruit, but we cannot make them pick it so as to ensure that it is packed in perfect condition. Bruised apples are no good to anyone, and certainly not to farmers and their customers, for whom quality is important.

Other countries, notably Spain, have schemes that allow those on benefits to retain their entitlement while undertaking seasonal work on a daily call basis. The so-called fixed discontinuous contract allows workers to have an indefinite contract with a farmer, while only being called to work if there is suitable work. On days without suitable employment, the worker may claim unemployment benefit, and a tally is kept of the days worked, not worked or taken off sick. That scheme not only provides farmers with access to seasonal workers, but offers those workers a route out of benefits, the opportunity for training and an increase in self-esteem. The Government should consider introducing a similar scheme here in Britain.

Another option, which could have more long-term benefits, is the voluntary employment of properly supervised prisoners to work on farms. Before I am misinterpreted, let me repeat those criteria: prisoners should be volunteers and they should be properly supervised. The Government have said that they want to see all prisoners working and being paid for that work, and such an arrangement would no doubt be a useful tool to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them for release back into society. Giving inmates a skill that could provide them with work opportunities when they leave jail could go a long way towards ensuring that they do not reoffend.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I hope he recognises that we are not talking about unskilled labour. The dexterity and speed with which some of those people can operate machinery and harvest shows great skill, and such skills would enable people to go on to employment later in their lives.

Absolutely right—and training prisoners to become agricultural workers might encourage them to work on the land when they leave prison, which would solve another problem. One of the problems with getting prisoners to work, however, is that unemployed people who are not in prison resent inmates being given jobs that might otherwise go to them. Encouraging prisoners to take jobs that other domestic workers have turned their backs on, such as those jobs in agriculture, would solve that particular problem.

I have spoken to the governor of one of my three local prisons and he was keen to trial such a scheme. Cynics may say that prisoners would not want to work on farms, but until relatively recently Standford Hill open prison on Sheppey, in my constituency, operated a farm that supplied produce to the prison estate. The workers on the farm were, in the main, inmates and they were bitterly disappointed when the previous Government decided to close the farm down.

Even if such schemes were successful, there would still be a need for more labour than the domestic labour force could or would supply. As I said earlier, the present SAWS arrangements finish in 2013, but the Government have not yet made it clear whether they intend to introduce a successor scheme. I urge Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to press the Home Office to deal with the problem as a matter of urgency, bearing in mind that we are already in 2012. Farmers in my constituency are keen to see a replacement for SAWS in place before the end of this year. They want any new scheme not only to recognise the continued need for a certain number of overseas workers, but to maximise the potential use of local labour.

The National Farmers Union has put together a proposal that includes the following criteria, which it believes are critical to the overall architecture of a new SAWS scheme. Any new scheme should be overseen by the Home Office, as SAWS is now, and be managed by licensed operators, again as now, with an annual quota decided by the Home Office and the Migration Advisory Committee. A new scheme should include a robust system for checking arrivals, departures and return to the home country. It should go back to the origins of the original scheme, as a youth work experience programme. It should require operators to continue to recruit from the European Union in preference to non-EU applicants. However, a new scheme should be available to university-level students of agriculture or agriculture-related subjects from any country, with return arrangements with the UK.

To be consistent with Government policy, the new scheme should be contained within tier 5 of the points-based temporary workers and youth mobility system. As such, it could meet the UK’s cultural and international objectives. It should have a specific set of standards that are subject to an accreditation scheme managed by SAWS operators. Permission to work and to remain in the UK should be via a work card or specific visa category, and restricted to the dates on the work card, with a maximum period of six months.

Under the previous SAWS programme, agriculture students were often set assignments to complete during their placement. That should be encouraged under a new scheme. A more robust educational element could include, for example, the provision of English language lessons and on-the-job training. Growers should be encouraged to provide cultural activities in the local area to enable the community and the workers to experience each other’s culture.

In addition, the Government should try to encourage British citizens to work in the agriculture industry. Changing perceptions and improving the career development and progression opportunities in the horticulture sector are an important part of achieving success. The Government should consider adapting the UK benefits system to allow those on benefits not to lose their entitlement while undertaking work on a daily call basis. I am convinced that that would encourage inactive citizens to take on seasonal work.

Understandably, the employment of prisoners and ex-prisoners is a touchy subject, and employers approach it with a certain amount of caution. I believe that an offer of financial support for employers to train and mentor prisoners and ex-prisoners might encourage more widespread take-up under the scheme. Consideration should be given to a summer programme carrying vocational and academic credits in addition to cash pay. Hopefully, that would attract more students to work in the industry.

I turn to two issues of concern to my local farmers that will have an impact on the future prospects of employment in the agriculture industry in my area. First, reforms to the common agricultural policy are being discussed, and farmers are worried about the way in which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seems to be trying to divert funds from pillar 1 direct payments to pillar 2 rural development funding. In particular, the greening component, which represents 30% of the value of direct payments, is conditional on additional environmental action on their land. That includes cultivating a minimum of three crops every year, retaining areas of permanent pasture, and ensuring that 7% of arable land is an environmental focus area.

British farmers believe that such a proposal would put them at a disadvantage because many of them have already adopted additional environmental measures on their farms through agri-environment schemes, and it would be difficult for them to set aside more land to comply with the greening proposal. Farmers believe that greening will reduce their overall competitiveness, making them more rather than less dependent on direct payments. I would welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement of those concerns, and an assurance that they are being addressed.

Finally, my local farmers are worried about the delay in abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which they maintain restricts employers by demanding that they pay full wages for 16-year-olds, and which makes it difficult for agricultural workers to get a mortgage because they do not receive a salary. I would welcome an indication from the Minister of the proposed timetable for scrapping the board.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on his wisdom and prescience in calling for this debate today. I am sure you are aware, Mr Dobbin, that in fact Worcestershire is the garden of England, although the branding needs to catch up a bit. It has a fantastic horticultural industry. Not only are we known for pears—the county emblem includes a pear—but we grow apples, soft fruit, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. You name it, it is grown in Worcestershire, and it is delicious. I invite you, Mr Dobbin, and other hon. Members to the Worcestershire food day that will be held in Westminster Hall on 27 June, which is one week today. I hope that hon. Members will mark their diaries.

Seasonal agricultural work has been raised with me by farmers in my constituency, and this is a good time for the country to be thinking about it. Despite today’s welcome news that employment has risen by 166,000 in the past three months, 2.61 million people in this country are still not working, and according to the International Labour Organisation’s measure, about 1 million of that 2.61 million are young people under the age of 24. Like my hon. Friend, when I was a student, I earned money by picking fruit during the summer holidays. It is hard work and the hours are long, but it is a good source of income for students. Of the 1 million young people who are not working, about 230,000 are in full-time education, but have signed on because they want to find part-time or temporary work.

We certainly have a pool of labour in this country, yet farmers widely acknowledge that they have relied on seasonal agricultural workers, who since 2008 have come in from Bulgaria and Romania, and that they have used the whole quota. Farmers can provide many case studies and much anecdotal evidence showing what a struggle it is for them to source local labour.

For a number of reasons, it would be wise of the Government—the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office—to start planning ahead. The seasonal agricultural workers scheme will run to the end of 2013. By the time the 2014 picking season starts and thereafter, there will have been an incredibly important change in the benefits system in this country: universal credit will have come into force. That will do exactly what my hon. Friend described: it will allow people to take on seasonal or part-time work and, in terms of the impact on their benefits, the first few thousand pounds will be disregarded. They will not run into today’s absurd situation of their housing and council tax benefit being withdrawn pound for pound. The benefits system will have changed when we come to the 2014 season, and that will change other things.

Something else that has changed since 2007-08 when the current scheme was implemented is unemployment throughout Europe. At the moment, 20,000 or 21,000 people come here from Bulgaria and Romania under the scheme. Are we really saying that by 2014 we will be unable to find enough people among the 400 million in Europe to pick the crops on our farms? The Government have a political mandate to reduce immigration from outside the EU and to try to create more employment in this country. I take a different view from that of my hon. Friend. I believe we must now make the most of the changes to the benefits system and the fact that we will be able to reward people for such work without them losing their benefits. We must start now to plan for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme for British workers.

The National Farmers Union, which does a fantastic job in lobbying for its members, suggests that as part of this scheme it should introduce education certifications such as level 1 food hygiene certificates and health and safety or first aid qualifications. These are skilled jobs. I will never forget going to the asparagus packing plant at Birlingham in my constituency and finding that, rather than asparagus being bundled with an elastic band, as found in the supermarkets, a £250,000 laser machine sorted the asparagus into 22 different grades to meet contracts from different supermarkets. These are high-tech businesses that require a level of skill. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to work with providers of the Work programme and some of the sector skills bodies to come up with a package that would allow young people in this country to gain work experience, skills, qualifications and, most important, a lump sum of money to take home to their communities in another part of the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. I, too, remember picking and gathering fruit, although to look at me one might think I ate more than I put into batches. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) mentioned machinery that can perform certain tasks. I find, however, that as well as difficulties with employment, farmers in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom are finding it difficult to get planning permission to diversify and help them to grow their businesses, which would create more employment.

I know that farmers across the country share that experience, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation.

The Department for Work and Pensions agreed with the Minister to meet growers from my constituency. As a result of that meeting, we have set up a working group that will plan ahead with the DWP to see how we as a country can create a seasonal agricultural workers scheme for British workers. I look forward to the day when I can go into a British supermarket and put Worcestershire-grown horticultural items in my basket, knowing that those British fruit and vegetables were picked by British workers and that the money they were paid has stayed within Britain.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Dobbin, and to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing it.

Kent and Worcester may argue about which of them is the garden of England, but Angus is clearly the garden of Scotland, although my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) may wish to dispute that. Angus sits in the middle of the Scottish soft fruit and potato-growing areas, and I say to the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) that the best asparagus is produced at Eassie in my constituency. It is absolutely delicious and in season now.

I defer to the hon. Gentleman on the matter of soft fruit in Scotland, but not on soft fruit in England, or indeed asparagus. As is widely known, the finest asparagus is produced by Chinn’s in the southern part of Herefordshire.

It is obvious that all hon. Members are keen to support agriculture throughout the UK, particularly produce from their own areas.

As I said, Angus sits in the middle of the Scottish soft fruit-producing area, and today I wish to concentrate on the employment problems faced by soft fruit growers. When I was growing up—it seems a long time ago now—it was commonplace during the school holidays to pick raspberries and strawberries, and to pick potatoes during the “tattie holidays”, as they are known in Scotland. It was a good way to make money to see us through other parts of the year.

The humble Comber spud is recognised by and renowned throughout Europe. It is also renowned in Scotland as a superior potato.

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong; there is nothing better than Scottish potatoes. Quite rightly, everybody will promote their local produce and it is part of our job to ensure that people know about the delicacies produced in our own areas.

Let me return to my point about soft fruit. Over the years, things have moved on and industry has, I dare say, become more professional and no longer needs to rely on the work of schoolchildren and others. The focus has moved to the employment of more direct seasonal labour, and the spread of cultivation methods such as polytunnels has expanded the types of fruit grown. As well as strawberries and raspberries, we are increasingly growing blueberries in my area. Traditionally they came from Poland, but they are now being grown in Scotland and other parts of the UK. That has led to changes in industry, as have the increasing demands of major supermarkets. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire mentioned the machinery that is now required to meet the huge demands supermarkets impose on industry, which has to produce good quality uniform produce quickly and to the supermarkets’ requirements. Recent trends include increased use of polytunnels for growing soft fruit, rather than open field production.

Horticulture is a vital part of the Scottish economy, particularly in areas such as mine. In total, the horticultural industry—fruit, vegetables and flower production—contributed some £241 million to the Scottish economy in 2010 and, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said, it contributes more than £3 billion to the UK. Most growers in my area rely to a greater or lesser extent on migrant labour, particularly people from Bulgaria and Romania who come to work in the UK under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. It is a huge pity that the issue of young people—principally those from EU accession states—coming to work in the UK agricultural sector has become completely tangled up with the more general issue of immigration. The vast majority of those who come to work in agriculture are in the country for a short, specific period and intend to return to their home nations at the end of their visa period. Unfortunately, as in many other areas, there is often a serious collision between perception and reality.

Under the current scheme, some 21,250 visas were issued last year for workers to come to the UK for periods of between five weeks and six months. Angus Growers, a co-operative that operates 19 farms in Angus and its surrounding areas, tells me that at the peak of the season it employed 2,000 people, the majority of whom were obtained through SAWS. Angus Growers is concerned that the current scheme is guaranteed only until the end of 2013, and it is worried about whether a replacement will be introduced after that. I appreciate that the Minister is in slightly difficult position because although he is responsible for agriculture, SAWS is run by the UK Border Agency, and I assume therefore that the decision on whether the scheme continues will be taken by the Home Office. Nevertheless, I would be interested to hear his perspective from an agricultural point of view.

Let me stress that the use of seasonal workers should not be seen as an example of growers looking for a source of cheap labour. SAWS is a detailed scheme and the minimum wage has to be paid.

My hon. Friend is making a typically robust and informative contribution. I represent many growers in Perthshire and my farmers report the same range of difficulties and concerns, in particular about SAWS and the fact that the scheme will end in 2013. I hope that we will have a solution.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the mixture of immigration and work. Growers in my constituency try to make the experience for people who come to our country as positive as possible, because they are the tourists and partners of the future. I am sure he agrees that it is unfortunate to get caught up in the idea of immigrant workers as cheap labour. They have a positive contribution to make, and we should encourage them to have a great time while they are in Scotland.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a point that I was about to come to. This is not just about the experience that workers gain when they go to Scotland. They will be great friends of Scotland and the rest of the UK in the future as their states accede to the EU. I know that some on the Conservative Benches may wish that that were not the case, but there you go. What we are debating is not a new phenomenon. Some of us have talked about how we picked fruit and vegetables in our youth, but I remember that when I was at university way back in the 1970s, many of my friends went abroad to do such jobs—for example, picking grapes in France. There has always been an exchange of young people, particularly students, doing seasonal work across Europe. That has contributed to an understanding and friendships across borders in Europe, and we should not lightly throw it away.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire talked getting local people to do this work. Many growers have made great efforts to get local people to do the work. It is not as though they are simply relying on migrant labour. In my area, for example, in conjunction with the local authority, they set up the “berry scheme”, with the aim of providing opportunities for the long-term unemployed. It was not, I have to say, particularly successful, but I agree with the hon. Lady’s argument that we must encourage people to consider horticulture as a career, because it is an important industry.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some of the migration that might have to occur might be people moving for a seasonal period from pockets of high unemployment in this country, rather than his local growers and farmers looking exclusively in the Angus area?

I think there are particular difficulties with that. Under SAWS, the farmer must pay the minimum wage and provide living quarters for the migrant labour. It might be more difficult to do that within the UK because of the structure of the benefits system in the UK, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said. Everything is worth looking at, but we must remember that much of the labour in agriculture is very hard and not everyone who is long-term unemployed would be able to undertake it, although undoubtedly some would.

On that point, I represent a rural constituency that relies heavily on seasonal agricultural labour, but we also have unemployment that is well below the national average. In those circumstances, it is imperative that our farmers are able to recruit the workers they need to keep their businesses going.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The fact remains that whatever the reason, there are difficulties in getting sufficient labour for seasonal work. If growers cannot do so, that could have a devastating effect on the local industry, which, as I said, is an important part of many of our local economies.

I stress—I think the hon. Member for West Worcestershire touched on this point—that it is wrong to regard the horticultural industry as providing work just for seasonal labour. There is a huge infrastructure behind the horticultural industry: there are jobs in administration and marketing, as well as in processing, packing and transporting the fruit, which, because of the nature of the produce, must be done quickly and efficiently. That contributes to many full-time jobs in local economies. Migrant labour underpins full-time jobs for local people. That point must be made strongly. We should not consider this issue in isolation.

I will give an example of what can happen. Earlier this year, daffodil growers in my constituency, who also rely on migrant labour, found that they had a problem. Normally what happens is that the daffodils in England bloom earlier, so daffodils are picked by labour that moves north as the season progresses. However, this year, we had wonderful weather earlier in Scotland when it was less good in England, with the result that the English daffodils were delayed while the Scottish daffodils came out in bloom. The result was that the labour that would normally pick Scottish daffodils in my constituency was not available, as it was still employed in England. It was hard for my daffodil growers to get sufficient labour, with the result that many daffodils spoiled in the field. If we are not careful, that could happen with much of our soft fruit. Growers are very concerned about it happening if they cannot obtain sufficient labour.

The growers and the agricultural industry in general are very much aware of the issues surrounding migrant labour, some of which we have heard about today, but they point out, as I have done, that many of these people come to this country to earn money to continue their studies and to improve their English. As I said, many of them will go back to their home countries having had a good experience and will be friends of Scotland and the rest of the UK for many years to come.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey gave details of the proposal from the NFU for amending SAWS to continue the use of migrant labour while dealing with some of the concerns that have been raised. The proposal is strongly supported by the growers in my constituency. It would return the scheme to its roots and make it a youth experience programme aimed particularly at agricultural students. As the hon. Gentleman said, the original scheme incorporated an educational element in the placement, and reintroducing that not only could benefit growers in the UK, but is likely to assist the development of agriculture in other nations. I will not go into detail about the proposed scheme, as the hon. Gentleman gave the details and I do not want to repeat what he said. However, the NFU believes that it would work, and it seems to me that such a scheme would strike the balance of fairness between the needs of the agricultural industry and the Government’s concerns.

As I said, I realise that the Minister here today is not responsible for SAWS, but I would be interested to hear his views, from an agricultural perspective, on whether the Government are likely to proceed with the renewal of SAWS post-2013, to give some assurance to horticulture that the Government are behind the industry, recognise its problems and will help it to continue to contribute strongly to both the Scottish and the UK economies.

It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship of the debate, Mr Dobbin. I begin by congratulating not only the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate—a very good and wide-ranging one—but my opposite number, the Minister, who I understand has just celebrated 25 years in the House. I offer him my sincere congratulations. I do not think that he will get a telegram from the Queen for serving 25 years, but I understand that he has had a pat on the back from the Prime Minister. It is a tremendous track record, so very well done to him.

I thank the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for securing the debate. It is a good opportunity to discuss quite a wide range of issues that affect agricultural workers and employers. He made a thoughtful and, sometimes, provocative contribution. All the points that he raised are worthy of debate. I know that the Minister will want to respond to the serious points that he raised.

Many hon. Members here today have declared their youthful experience of working in the fields up and down the land. I will include myself among them. With my brother, I used to pick potatoes on the fields of Gower. Tremendous potatoes they are, too—but not in my constituency, so I am advertising another’s. It was back-breaking work. So many hon. Members have declared their great experience of doing that and the skills that they developed that, during the summer recess, we might be able to fill the shortages ourselves if we return to the fields.

Many hon. Members have focused primarily on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Although discussions are ongoing in his Department and others, has he made an estimate of any shortage post 2013? What will he be doing to avoid such a shortage? Some estimate must have been made to deal with the concerns raised by hon. Members about shortages that will occur if we do not have something in place post 2013. Perhaps the Minister can share that with us, unless he anticipates that, because of measures that are under way, there will be no shortages whatever, crops will not lie in the fields and go to waste across various parts of the garden of England or Scotland and production lines will not come to a standstill, as we fail to sort those products for market.

I was pleased to hear of the meeting that was arranged by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) recently. It is good that that has prompted some action. If I understood correctly what she said, the group that has been set up will bring together the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and others, including, I hope, the Minister. Will it be a powerful group chaired by the Minister, or a Minister or senior official? Given its importance to agriculture, I hope that the Minister will do so, although I understand that SAWS is the responsibility of a different Department. Members would welcome the group having a ministerial chair to ensure that it delivers post 2013 and is not left to senior officials, no matter how good they are. I hoped that such a group would be in action, without being prompted by the hon. Lady’s great efforts on behalf of her community, or by the farming unions. The Minister will want to update us on that.

I congratulate James Chapman, the former chairman of the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. As the Minister will know, he lost his arm in a farming accident. When he considered what to do in response, he bravely and admirably decided to campaign on farm safety, which we have not yet touched on today. He was recently awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list, on which we congratulate him. It reminds us how critical farm safety still is and how much more needs to be done to ram home the message about the need to protect not only oneself, but fellow workers in dangerous agricultural settings.

This week marks the first anniversary of the Farm Safety Crusade. I pay tribute to the work of farming unions and insurers who are promoting farm safety against the backdrop, of which we all know, of a year-on-year rise in the number of accidents and fatalities. NFU Mutual has seen year-on-year increases in serious accidents on the farms that it insures. Shocking statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that agriculture now holds the unenviable position of being the UK’s most dangerous industry, with 42 people killed in the year to April 2011. Over a 10-year period, more than 435 people have been killed as a result of agricultural work activities. Tragically, that it almost one person every week.

A great deal of good work is going on to turn that around, from the nationwide Farm Safety Crusade to efforts such as the “farm safe” campaign and the annual “efficiency with safety” competition arranged by Cornish Mutual and Cornwall Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. There are many other sector-led initiatives around the country. What efforts are the Government making in Whitehall and across the regions to turn around the rising tide of fatalities and serious injuries in farming and to reinforce the efforts being made in the field by others?

The Minister recognises the criticality of the issue, so I urge him to ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to focus her mind on it and personally meet the HSE with him to push hard for a solution. I was disappointed to learn in a written answer on 24 November that there had been no recent discussions with the HSE on the safety of agricultural workers because the responsibility fell to another Department. I honestly do not think that that is adequate. I know that the Minister takes the issue very seriously. Will he give an undertaking that he and the Secretary of State will meet the HSE to discuss the problem and see what more can be done? It is not simply something that has happened under the present Government; I have made it clear that agricultural accidents and fatalities have been a rising trend.

The work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is of huge importance.

It is indeed, but as I will not be present on the Front Bench for the next debate, I will take the opportunity to comment. The GLA has been commented on by other hon. Members.

The action that the GLA takes to tackle worker exploitation in the agricultural, horticultural, shellfish and food processing sectors is second to none. Its success has been acknowledged by everyone in the House and in wider reports, including those by the universities of Liverpool and Sheffield, the Wilberforce Institute and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Minister and I debated the issue in February, and it will shortly be debated again in this Chamber, but at that time we were still awaiting the outcome of the red tape challenge, so we were a little in the dark.

On 24 May, the Government announced the outcome of the challenge and the changes that they intend to make to the GLA. The announcement included news that the GLA has taken a risk-based approach and will no longer regulate low-risk sectors. That includes apprenticeships, forestry, land agents and voluntary workers. Automatic compulsory inspections of businesses when they first apply will be abolished. The licensing period will be extended from 12 months to two years for highly compliant businesses. There will be a move to allow shellfish farm businesses with exclusive rights to use the seashore to use their workers to grade and gather shellfish stock, without needing to be licensed as gangmasters. There will be a substitution of administrative fines and penalties for low-level and technical minor offences, which we debated in some detail during the last such debate. Alternatives to prosecution when taking enforcement action against a labour-user who uses an unlicensed gangmaster will be explored. There will be a focus on the gross abuse of workers by unscrupulous gangmasters who commit multiple offences, such as tax evasion and human trafficking.

We welcome the Government’s commitment to the GLA. I say that in spite of the appalling Beechcroft recommendation to abolish it—an opinion reflected in some of the responses to the recommendation. It was an unacceptable and dangerous proposal, and I am glad that the Government have said that they will not accept that or other recommendations in the report. The Minister will agree that the bottom line must be that the most vulnerable workers in our society are not abandoned. What impact assessment did the Government undertake—I am sure that they undertook one—before announcing the changes? What will be the impact on protecting vulnerable workers? Where are the areas of risk in this risk-based approach?

We have had some success in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency, integrating migrant workers into permanent jobs. Examples include Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct. One employs 260 people and the other just over 100 people—coming from nothing. Perhaps we can use good practice in other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly Northern Ireland, as an example of how we might do things better elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman knows the area well, and an advantage of the devolution of administration and powers is that we can, and should, learn lessons about differential applications across the UK. We need to do more within the joint committees that bring the devolved Administrations together and in discussions between Ministers, so that those lessons can be learned. He makes a good point. We should not always try to work from a completely blank sheet of paper, but look at what works well elsewhere.

Will the Minister provide us with the timetable for changes to the GLA? His written statement of 24 May was not clear on the consultation timetable or process. Is he in a position to provide us with that now? Will he confirm that the GLA will have the necessary resources to tackle worker exploitation in the relevant sectors, even under the new approach? We all want the GLA, in its revised form, to be lean, mean and effective, but that requires resourcing, so I seek assurances on that. Will he also provide information on how he intends the GLA to work more collaboratively with other organisations, including the Serious Organised Crime Agency?

I want briefly to talk about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, which I have discussed on several occasions with the Minister and other hon. Members. He knows how strongly I and the Labour party feel on the issue. That strength of feeling is shared by some of the farming unions, such as the Farmers Union of Wales, and by farm workers and the Welsh Government. The AWB protects 152,000 farm workers in England and Wales and has mirror effects on others in the sector. It ensures that people working in the countryside, from apprentices to farm managers, get a fair deal. In its 62-year history, it has provided basic pay and protection for fruit pickers, farm labourers and foresters. That covered wages, but also holidays, sick pay, overtime and bereavement leave.

The Minister will no doubt say—we have had this discussion many times—that many farmers pay well above the agreed wage rates; and I do not disagree. He may also say that there is a national minimum wage—so what is the fuss? However, the AWB does far more than set pay minimums, and when it is gone, the pay and other terms and conditions are threatened. The wages of 42,000 casual workers could drop as soon as those workers finish their next job, once the AWB is gone. It is probable that the wages of the remaining 110,000 will be eroded over time. Ministers have said in the past that farm workers will be protected by the minimum wage, but only 20% cent of farm workers are on grade 1 of the AWB. The rest earn considerably more than the minimum wage. The downward pressure on higher grades in economically difficult times will be high. Children who do summer jobs or part-time jobs currently receive just over £3 per hour, but they are not covered at all by the national minimum wage. They will have no wage protection—unless the Minister wants to correct me on that—when they do holiday work, as has been mentioned, or weekend work, after the board is abolished.

Does the shadow Minister recognise that agriculture has changed dramatically in the past 20 years? A combine harvester costs £250,000 and no farmer will put an unskilled member of staff in charge of machinery of that value. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about laser machinery for measuring asparagus. The salaries that are now attracted in agriculture are far above those provided for under the Agricultural Wages Board. I wonder whether times have moved on and it is no longer necessary.

Time will tell if we abolish the board. However, not only has the Farmers Union of Wales welcomed its retention in Wales—and discussions are ongoing to see how that can take effect if the AWB is abolished in England; it has said it welcomes the clarity that the board gives on a range of conditions for agricultural workers. That is particularly true for small farmers who do not want to get into endless discussions about individual contracts, with different people on different wages for essentially the same job, and consequent disputes. The AWB provides a very good service for an industry that is often fragmented and disparate. The point that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) makes about modern technology and food processing is valid for many parts of the industry, but things are not uniformly like that. That is why the Labour party sees the AWB as providing a safety blanket, to ensure that all workers’ terms and conditions are properly protected.

DEFRA’s own figures suggest that the abolition of the AWB will take £9 million a year out of the rural high street through holiday and sick pay alone—that will be £9 million coming out of the rural economy, because it is not going into people’s pockets in one way or another. That is not an insignificant figure, and it is worthy of further consideration. In the 18 months or so since the Government announced their intention to abolish the AWB, a lot has changed. The economy has gone into a double dip recession. The cost of living has risen dramatically. Food and fuel prices have risen well above inflation. Overall unemployment is up, and youth unemployment is chillingly high at more than 1 million. As we watch developments on the continent unfold day by day, it appears there will be no improvement in people’s circumstances for some time yet. A study commissioned by The Guardian and published this week showed that almost 7 million working-age adults are living in extreme financial stress, from pay cheque to pay cheque, one push from penury, despite being in employment and largely independent of state support. Many of those will be agricultural workers in rural communities.

I ask the Minister to think again. Why, against that backdrop, do the Government insist on pressing ahead with the policy, taking money out of the rural economy and the pockets of rural agricultural workers, and making things harder for people, many of whose wages will fall as a result? Those in rural areas already face significant challenges in housing, transport and access to schools. The abolition of the AWB may prove another difficult hurdle to overcome. However, if the Minister is determined to press ahead, I want to ask some additional questions. We are all awaiting an announcement on when the AWB will be abolished, but we have not had that clarity yet. Yesterday evening, I met with the farmers unions—and some farmers unions, of course, support the abolition. They were asking when there would be clarity and a timetable: when will it happen? When does the Minister intend to lay an order before the House abolishing the AWB? Farmers’ patience is being stretched. In the mean time, can he confirm that negotiations with the AWB for the year ahead have been concluded? Will the pending abolition affect those? Has he asked his Department to reassess the proposals in the light of current economic circumstances? If not, why not?

I recently submitted a freedom of information request to the Minister’s Department for the impact assessment of the abolition of the AWB. It was rejected. No doubt he will explain why, and give the normal Whitehall reasons, but his response implied that the assessment would be published soon, so when will we see it? We want to get behind the detail, to see what the effect will be on rural communities. In the absence of the impact assessment, will the Minister guarantee that, on the abolition of the AWB, children will not be paid below the minimum wage, that the wages of workers in AWB pay bands will not be depressed, that rents on farm cottages will not rapidly escalate to full market value, or tenants be turfed out because they cannot afford them, and that when new recruits are taken on it will not be on inferior terms, creating a two-tier work force for the same jobs?

If the Minister doubts that that might happen, and thinks it is only I who say it, I refer him to the Incomes Data Services report for the Low Pay Commission, “The implications for the National Minimum Wage of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in England and Wales”. What does the change mean for the national minimum wage, where the Government’s defence lies— “Don’t worry, the NMW will take care of this”? The report states:

“Once abolished, many of the provisions of the Order will either be only partially covered by other statutory employment legislation, or not at all. Employment legislation does not make any provision for specific rates of pay linked to skills, specific rates of pay for overtime, a minimum rate of pay for workers of compulsory school age, rights to paid training, standby duty and night allowances, entitlement to paid bereavement leave, a birth or adoption grant”

and so on. It also states that

“abolition removes protection for young workers of compulsory school age”

and that

“the statutory minimum rates for both workers aged 16 to 20 and apprentices will be significantly less under the NMW than they currently are under the Agricultural Wages Order.”

Hon. Members have spoken passionately about the need to enhance skills and training in the agricultural sector, but the report states clearly that the wages of apprentices and those learning their skills will be depressed.

The report states:

“There may also be issues around the accommodation offset, whereby in some cases agricultural workers may be worse off under the NMW rules”,

and it explains why:

“There is no such threshold under the NMW”

for workers’ accommodation. It also states:

“The NMW rules on accommodation offset allow deductions to be made even if the worker could have lived elsewhere. This could mean that agricultural workers who are not currently subject to the accommodation offset…could be subject to it in future.”

It continues:

“On piece work, agricultural piece workers are currently guaranteed to get at least the minimum rate appropriate to their grade.”

That is more favourable than the national minimum wage approach,

“where slower workers can earn less than NMW if a properly assessed ‘fair’ piece rate is applied.”

It is not true to say that the abolition of the AWB is not a problem because the national minimum wage will deal with the issues. There is far more to the AWB’s terms and conditions than that, which is why I am asking the Minister to think again.

I thank the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for raising this important debate, and thank all hon. Members for some very good contributions. We want to see a rural economy that works for all working people. It should be fair across the board, as these are tough times for all those who work in agriculture. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Before I call the Minister, let me say that I did my fair share of potato picking when I was a mere lad in the wonderfully beautiful scenic centre of the agricultural world, the kingdom of Fife.

I can add my experience to the debate, Mr Dobbin. I am probably the one who has most recently done such activities, and I am probably the only one who, as a farm manager a long, long while ago, employed such groups of people, which was not always the easiest personnel management issue that one faced.

One advantage of speaking last in the debate is that I can put to rest the argument about which is the most important constituency in the country for the production of fruit and vegetables. Although I might be prepared to acknowledge other constituencies for fruit, I certainly will not do so for vegetables. Cambridgeshire and my fenland constituency are renowned for the production of high-quality vegetables and salad crops. I know that that is a somewhat light-hearted comment, but it means that for 25 years as a constituency member—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for his personal congratulations on my time in this place—I have been involved in many of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) raised, because I have substantial growers trying to employ large numbers of people to harvest salad and root crops in my constituency. I congratulate him very much on initiating this debate. I knew his main thrust was about SAWS, because he kindly furnished me with a copy of what he was going to say, but I was not surprised when other hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Ogmore, used the opportunity to raise other issues.

In 2011, the total UK agricultural work force—a varied work force that includes farmers, business partners, directors and spouses—numbered around 476,000, of which approximately 177,000 were employed workers. Unlike most industries’ balance between employed and self-employed people, in agriculture only about a third of the total are employed. Like other sectors, agriculture requires a reliable source of labour, but perhaps more than other industries it needs flexibility, to meet the peak seasonal demands of planting, harvesting and cropping. Such work is always there but, as shown by this year’s experience of the daffodil crop, recounted by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), it is subject to the vagaries of the weather. No Government or board can ensure that crops across the country harvest sequentially, which is the ideal for the movement of daffodil pickers from Cornwell to his constituency.

Clearly, we need a constant and ready supply of temporary labour. As every speaker today has said, that used to be provided by students and others. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey will know, large sections of the London population used to move down to Kent or Herefordshire for hop picking. Those days are gone, however, and we have seen the advent of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which has for a long time played a key role in meeting seasonal demands. Traditionally, as my hon. Friend said, SAWS allowed students from universities outside the European Union to work in the UK agricultural industry for periods of up to six months, and provided an opportunity for students not only to develop skills in agriculture but to learn the English language and experience a different culture and way of life. Of course the EU was much smaller in then; as it has expanded, the role of SAWS has changed.

As several hon. Members have said, the Home Office is responsible for the administration of SAWS. Its assessment of a continuing need for the scheme changed in the light of EU enlargement in 2004 whereby many countries that previously sent students under SAWS did not need to continue to do so because there was free movement within Europe. My own sons used to work in the sector and regularly worked alongside large numbers of Poles and people from the Baltic states in particular. [Interruption.] My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), is delighted at the support for Polish workers. In those days of course, the gulf in wealth was such that workers could come to the UK, work for six months and literally go home and buy a house; for them, it was often a major economic contribution to their future life. Obviously, however, once those countries acceded to the EU, the situation changed. The subsequent introduction by the Home Office of the points-based system to manage economic migration closed down low-skilled migration from non-member states.

That brings me to the change made in 2007 by the previous Government to restrict workers from Romania and Bulgaria. Although those countries had acceded to the EU, transition arrangements were put in place. That is consistent with the requirements of the Community preference principle, which states that preference in access to labour markets should be given to EU nationals over workers from third countries. The SAWS quota level for 2012 and 2013 is set at 21,250.

SAWS was due to close at the end of 2011, but following the decision to retain restrictions on labour market access for Bulgarians and Romanians for a further two years, my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration announced at the end of last year that it would continue until 2013. As I hope hon. Members will appreciate, I am very much aware of the desire to know what is to happen after 2013. I can say that DEFRA is working closely with colleagues from the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions on the matter; however, no decision has been taken yet on whether a successor scheme to SAWS will be put in place. We clearly need to look at the evidence—we do not yet have all that in hand—that the sector is unable to meet its seasonal labour needs from the UK and the rest of the EU. In that respect, the Home Office has indicated that it intends to ask the independent Migration Advisory Committee to advise on the case for a future scheme. Obviously, I expect that stakeholders will have the opportunity to provide evidence to the committee.

At this stage, it is important to refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about the UK labour market and to my own experiences as a constituency MP. In the past, major efforts to bring busloads of unemployed people from centres of high unemployment into Cambridgeshire to do this work have been an abject failure. The bus may come full the first day, but the second day it is half-full and the third day there is only one person on it. People just do not stick it. With the changes that are being made under the universal credit arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey mentioned, we all hope to get a lot of the long-term UK unemployed back to work. That is the objective and we hope and believe that the changes should work, but we do not yet know what their precise consequences will be.

The wider context, which several hon. Members referred to, is the issue of overall migration. I share the view expressed by the hon. Members for Angus and for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that there has been some confusion over the role of SAWS. I fully accept that the history of SAWS is that the vast majority of people who come to the UK under SAWS go home when they are supposed to and that the number of people who fail to do so is minimal—in single figures, I believe. Nevertheless, we must ensure that our overall objective to reduce net migration is not undermined.

The key issue will be whether any new scheme, if there is one, can be effectively managed to ensure the departure of participants who come from outside the EU. To prevent confusion, I should emphasise that people from Bulgaria and Romania will have free access under any new scheme. It is not the case that we are stopping them coming to the UK; they will be able to come anyway, even without SAWS. The end of SAWS will not reduce in any way the potential supply of agricultural labour. Those people who are coming to the UK under SAWS will still be able to come. The issue is whether they will then come for other reasons—for example, to seek other employment—as has happened over the years with people who have come from those countries that joined the EU earlier. Obviously the UK is not alone in using migrant labour; many other countries in the world use it, but given the increased scope for labour migration from within the EU since 2004, we must approach the case for more labour migration from outside the EU carefully and soberly.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire discussed whether we should rely on migrant workers to meet the seasonal demands for labour. As she said, the Government are already taking steps to get the long-term unemployed back to work, and agriculture has a role to play in that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey asked about prisoners. Working outside prison, whether in paid or unpaid work, is an important step towards reintegrating those prisoners who are preparing for release back into society. The Government are committed to expanding the number of opportunities for prisoners to volunteer to work in the community or to work in paid employment. As my hon. Friend recognised, the highest priority clearly has to be public protection, and all prisoners working outside a prison are rigorously risk-assessed. My hon. Friend also referred, quite properly, to the National Farmers Union’s policy paper, “A Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) for the Next Decade”, which refers to the employment of prisoners and ex-prisoners. He said that that paper notes there is some caution among employers about employing prisoners and ex-prisoners, and I will not repeat all the points that he rightly made. However, in relation to SAWS, I can assure him that DEFRA is fully aware of the need to ensure that crops are harvested.

As an aside, I should say that one of the very satisfying developments in the past few years has been the reclaiming of the domestic fruit market Domestic producers had lost that market to imports, but now a much higher proportion of fruit consumed in this country is produced here. It would be absolutely tragic if we allowed that trend of increasing domestic production to go into reverse because we were unable to harvest domestic fruit.

My hon. Friend referred to the common agricultural policy, greening and the possible switch between the two pillars of CAP. Let me try to explain the present position, although I will not go into detail because, as hon. Members know, the CAP is so complicated that I could use the next few debates trying to explain it in full.

We are now at the end of the Danish presidency of the EU and in the Agriculture Council on Monday we took stock, with a paper from the presidency about where negotiations and discussions have gone. Under the greening proposals, the European Commission is suggesting that 30% of direct payments should be conditional on achieving an element of greening in pillar one. The British Government’s position is quite clear: we believe that greening is ideally dealt with under pillar two, where it is possible to make more effective targeted payments and achieve better value for money. However, it looks as if greening will be dealt with under pillar one; if so, we will have to accept that. We are therefore in discussion with many other countries about how we can adapt the Commission’s “three-legged stool” to which my hon. Friend referred—the three criteria—to ensure that British farmers, particularly English farmers in stewardship schemes, are not disadvantaged by those criteria.

I have already said, and I emphasise again now, that if people sign up to a stewardship scheme and subsequently find that they are seriously disadvantaged, they will have the option to leave the scheme. I do not want that to happen and we are working very hard to try to ensure that membership of a stewardship scheme is somehow reflected in meeting the criteria of the greening proposals. I cannot prophesy what the outcome will be, but I assure hon. Members that that is the objective. I guess it is an objective shared by all hon. Members that our farmers should not be disadvantaged. The Commission has referred to our farmers as champions of the environment, and that should be reflected in their ability to access payments.

On the widest aspects of the CAP, we want to see better value for money and a reduction in the overall CAP budget. We do not see why the CAP should be immune from the immense pressures facing the whole of the EU—not just the pressures arising from the euro crisis, but the overall pressures on the economies of member states. We believe—it says that in my brief, but I passionately believe it—that the day will dawn when subsidies and direct payments will disappear. I have believed that for a very long while. I want those involved in the CAP to face up to that and to begin to plan for it. It will not happen today or tomorrow, or in the current seven-year time scale, but I believe that it will happen; and not only do most people believe that it will happen eventually, but they want it to happen. For example, most of the younger generation of farmers want it to happen. We should be planning for that day.

What we need to be doing and what we want to see from the CAP is the introduction of measures to encourage the agriculture industry to become far more competitive, market-oriented and innovative. Given the global changes in the food market, those in the industry would consequently be able to achieve their necessary income from that market and from the increasing demand for food from across the globe.

We do not believe that changes to the CAP will have a significant impact on agricultural employment. The Scenar 2020 study prepared for the European Commission suggests that changes in employment are largely being driven by wider developments in the economy and improved efficiency in the sector. According to its own analysis, which was based on there being no reform of the CAP and no further trade liberalisation, the Commission expects a 25% fall in the agricultural work force across the EU by 2020.

To encourage employment rather than subsidise it, we need to make it easier for farm businesses to take on workers, which brings us, inevitably, to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Ogmore about the Agricultural Wages Board. I do not think that the Government have ever said, and I hope that I have never said it, that the minimum wage provisions entirely replaced the wide range of provisions under the Agricultural Wages Board. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman could read into the record a long list of statements made by the board. Self-evidently, the AWB does not want to be abolished, so it is hardly surprising that it said what it has. I have certainly never suggested that all the measures the board provides will be replicated by the minimum wage.

I simply want to put on the record that it was not the Agricultural Wages Board that made those statements. I was reading from an independent report for the Low Pay Commission that was commissioned from the independent consultancy Incomes Data Services, Thomson Reuters. The report runs to about 100 pages, and I read from the conclusions, which are specific and evidence-based.

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his clarification, and I am happy that the record has been corrected.

The key point, however—my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) really touched on it—is that we are talking about modernising an industry, and the fact that only 20% of the work force are on the basic rate makes the case for not needing it, and does not, as the shadow Minister suggested, somehow undermine it. The reality is that the vast majority of people are above the basic rate, and I emphasise that no one already employed in the industry can lose out, because they are protected by their current contracts. Of course some criteria are not included, but there used to be a plethora of such wages boards and councils—largely set up by Labour Governments—and many dealt with bits and bobs such as holiday pay and so on. We need to recognise, however, that in 13 years of the previous Labour Government, in which the hon. Gentleman served, not a single one of them was brought back. If it is so important that workers are covered by all those other arrangements, he needs to explain why the Labour Government did not bring back any of them back.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable. I can tell him that the Government are determined to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. Negotiations with the Welsh Assembly Government are ongoing, as he said, but I cannot tell him exactly when the board will be abolished. We intend to do it, but there are the negotiations and discussions to go through. As said said, the board has concluded the next round, and that will come into play. I am advised that the IDS report to which he referred gave scenarios, but that the Low Pay Commission concluded that it was too early to judge what the full implications of the board’s abolition would be.

I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman used this opportunity to talk about gangmasters, but as my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) is about to open a debate on that topic, I intend to reply to the points the hon. Gentleman raised in my response to that debate. If he wants to stay and listen, I am sure that you, Mr Dobbin, or a successor Chair, will allow that.

I will end by talking about safety, which is of such great importance. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was just being kind or whether he knew about this, but I feel passionately about safety because within a fortnight of joining the agricultural work force at the age of 17, I witnessed a fatal accident in which someone of my age was killed within a few feet of me. That has had a lasting effect on my attitude to farm safety. I was a victim of a considerably less serious accident myself and I still bear the scars, so I take second place to no one in my concern for farm safety.

I am proud that a long time ago I won a Farmers Weekly competition on farm safety—that proves my credibility on the subject. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the industry’s record is horrendous and we should do everything we possibly can to remedy that. I cannot speak for the Secretary of State, but I happily assure the hon. Gentleman that I will speak to the Health and Safety Executive. He should not take from the fact that the meeting to which he referred has not taken place that there is any less enthusiasm or commitment to safety. I cannot repeat often enough that farms are not playgrounds. There is a place for young children—sadly, many of the accidents involve young children—but, in today’s world, that place is not in a farmyard.

The other factor affecting safety is that farming is often a lonely, remote activity, and people who might otherwise be saved die in accidents because of the distance from help or the inability to get help. I am pleased that there are now many technologies whereby people can call for emergency help—a bit like what we might find in sheltered housing, but much more sophisticated. That is good, but none of us can be too intense in our desire to drive down the scale of farm accidents. It is important to note that when I set up Richard Macdonald’s task force, I deliberately placed on it the health and safety representative for agriculture so that we would not be increasing any farm risks. That is hugely important.

I think that I have addressed the various questions—

I thank the Minister for his reassurances about health and safety. I do not doubt his personal commitment, or that he will meet with the Health and Safety Executive.

Is it too early to ask based on the evidence and the Minister’s privileged position of involvement in discussions with ministerial colleagues, whether DEFRA has a preference for something to replace the seasonal agricultural workers scheme post-2013, and whether there is any difference in stance between DEFRA and the Home Office or any other Department? Does the Minister have a preference to replace SAWS with another scheme?

The hon. Gentleman uses his delightful, gentle style to try to tempt me into doing something he knows full well from his own ministerial experience is verboten in ministerial circles—commenting on relationships with other Departments. I have no intention of being dragged into the trap.

As I quite properly said, we do not yet have all the information with which to form a judgment, but that is being worked on. I have described how the Home Office will ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look into the matter. Clearly, we will study the figures and assessments and talk to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office about the future work force, but I will not be tempted into any debate about what other Departments, or indeed my own, are considering.

I understand the Minister’s reluctance, but may I ask when we are likely to see any progress in the ongoing discussions, so that Parliament can also contribute to the debate post-2013? Will it be by the summer, or by the early autumn—September or November? Early autumn could become January.

The hon. Gentleman pushes and pushes, which is remarkable given that I have already taken nearly half an hour to respond to the debate. I cannot give him a timetable. I fully appreciate the concern about the industry. I have had my—I had better be more precise: I have had representations made to me by the industry, by my constituents, and obviously by Members this morning. I fully accept that the industry needs to know where its future work force will come from. We are working with other Departments to try to ensure that, but I am not in a position to make an affirmative statement at this moment.

I hope that I have picked up the majority of the points raised. I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey on securing the debate. I should have also joined in the congratulations to Mr James Chapman, who I know, as the shadow Minster said. He has been a marvellous example of how people can use their own tragedies to help others.

Shadow Minister, I assume that you are waiting for the next debate. I have to explain to you that Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople cannot intervene in a half-hour debate.

Indeed. Thank you very much for that clarification, Mr Dobbin. That is why I raised the matter of gangmasters earlier.

Gangmasters Licensing Authority

Thank you, Mr Dobbin, for the opportunity to speak in this debate.

I want us to pause, and for Members, in their busy lives, to picture waking up in a crowded room—with several other people sleeping nearby and without any space to sit down for breakfast—leaving before dawn in an old, rickety minibus to work a 12-hour day in the cold, windswept fields and fens and, at the end of a hard week, finding that most of their wages have been taken from them in spurious charges. Moreover, if they complain, they risk being thrown out without a job, without a home, and being on the streets with no money, in a foreign land and not speaking the language, a long way from home.

That is not a picture of some foreign country; those difficult-to-imagine working conditions are here in Britain today. Just last month, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that many migrant workers continue to live in a climate of fear, with the reality of poverty and subject to inhuman conditions. Such issues are becoming more important. A report due out shortly by Durham university academics suggests that between 2,000 and 5,000 people experience the worst manifestations of illegal gangmasters in the UK. It is a pressing issue for people who are legally in this country—they are here to work and not for benefits—and that alone should justify there being action.

There is also a wider impact on those living next door to the people I am talking about, in houses in multiple occupation, because antisocial behaviour has a social impact. In my surgery only last Saturday, a constituent came in to complain about someone urinating in the street outside their house. That behaviour arises from the dehumanising and squalid conditions in which those people have to live, and it often manifests itself in the form of large groups of young men, without much money, drinking from shared cans in the street, which can intimidate the local population. Another impact is that many constituents, in all constituencies I think, have expressed concern about the pace and scale of immigration. Legally, Ministers can do little in relation to eastern European migration, which is movement within the European Union. However, I want to highlight the opportunity that the Government now have, through taking action with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, to show that they are tackling some of the worst abuses associated with that migration.

The purpose of this debate is not to criticise the many legal gangmasters, who are an important part of the agricultural labour force. We must distinguish between them and the many illegal gangs associated with the abuses and criminality that blight some of the most vulnerable workers in my constituency and those of many other Members. Having established why the issue matters and why we are having this debate, I want to focus the Minister’s attention on five areas in which action is now required: resource allocation, the introduction of civil penalties, sentencing guidelines, repayment orders and more effective multi-agency working.

I am not saying that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has had a negative impact. Since it was set up, following the tragic Morecambe bay cockle pickers disaster, it has made an improvement. I welcome the Minister’s decision to retain it, but I signal to him that its status at the moment is somewhat in limbo: it has not been adequately resourced to be effective, but nor has it been scrapped and merged with another body.

My hon. Friend and I go back a long way—back to Lancaster days. As everyone knows, I represent Morecambe. Does he agree that any legislative measures to curb red tape should not impede the safety of the cockle pickers and shell fisheries industry? It must always be borne in mind that any future changes should enhance protection powers and not detract from them.

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, and he is right. I will come on to how we can make improvements without their being a bureaucratic imposition on firms. I should point out that I am talking about tackling illegal gangmasters, not the legal ones who already adhere to the rules.

My first point is about resource allocation. At the moment, 12 counties across the eastern spine of the country are covered by only six inspectors from the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. That is equivalent to Cambridgeshire and Norfolk being covered by just one inspector. My right hon. Friend the Minister is my constituency neighbour. He will know, as I do, how much time is taken only by travel; let alone by dealing with translation, illegal gangmasters, intelligence gathering and the many other issues that an inspector has to address. I simply do not think it realistic to expect one inspector to cover 3,500 square miles. I accept and, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I very much recognise the difficulty of asking for more resource. However, I urge my right hon. Friend to look at resource allocation across his Department and agencies to see whether resource could be redeployed from other areas to what is a pressing community need.

The second issue relates to penalties. We need to have new civil penalties, rather than to rely on criminal charges. That is accepted by most of the experts in the field I have spoken to—the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others. I urge the Minister to consider the wider use of civil penalties. Civil fines should be available not only for technical breaches, but for all gangmaster-related offences, and they should apply to both gangmasters and those who are unlicensed. Although criminal powers exist, there have been only 11 prosecutions in two years. It is therefore clear that the difficulty of getting vulnerable workers to give evidence in court and the high threshold for prosecution—the burden of proof required for criminal prosecutions—mean that that is not working as an enforcement tool. There is a problem with the tool that is currently available to the GLA, and I welcome the positive soundings in the Minister’s recent statement.

The fact that the GLA has issued 300 warning notices makes it clear that some issues are not being addressed. I therefore urge the Minister to consider the example of the UK Border Agency, which can impose fines of £10,000 on those employing illegal immigrants, as a model that could be applied to the GLA. If the UKBA can do that, I question why such powers are not place to deal with those who illegally employ agricultural workers. The point is that those committing such crimes are motivated by greed. Therefore, having civil penalties that hit them in the pocket would be far more effective.

In its correspondence with me, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated that

“all our evidence would support beefing up the powers of the GLA. It’s clear that bringing prosecutions is complex and difficult, and that tackling the problem of forced labour cannot solely depend on the existence of the criminal offence. So looking at civil penalties is an entirely appropriate and welcome policy”.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to respond to that. Even when criminal prosecutions are made, the fine imposed by the court is often negligible. In a recent case in Nottingham, both the court and the council urged the provision of sentencing guidelines.

Thirdly, we should have sentencing guidelines to give courts the clarity that they themselves would welcome. Such cases are relatively rare, and it is even more important to have good guidelines, given that there are few criminal prosecutions. Fourthly, I want to flag up the need for repayment orders. One of the deterrents within the regulatory toolkit that could be imposed is to ensure that those who have committed offences have to recompense those deprived of their wages. I return to my original example of people having worked all week in the field, only for them to be deprived of their wages. We need to find a way of ensuring that those who are in future held to account—currently, they are not—are also forced, through repayment orders, to compensate those they have exploited. Those are the financial drivers that would address the exploitation currently taking place.

The fifth and final area I want to flag up to is the need for far more effective multi-agency working. Illegal gangmasters deprive the Exchequer of significant tax revenue through the non-payment of pay-as-you-earn and VAT. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister hold discussions with the Treasury on whether any potential savings made from addressing tax loopholes or the non-payment of tax could be used to help address the resource issue and funding challenge that I have highlighted?

Could my right hon. Friend the Minister provide reassurance that there will be more multi-agency work between the Home Office, police, UKBA and local councils? Houses in multiple occupation need to be registered only if they have three floors, but most of the houses in the fens, as he knows, have two floors, so they are not registered and are falling through the gaps between different agencies. Likewise, where criminality has taken place, it is essential that those responsible be deported.

Finally, it would be useful if we demonstrated the effectiveness of a multi-agency taskforce via an urgent pilot programme. The fens and my constituency of North East Cambridgeshire in particular are well placed to take part in such a programme. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister—as I said, he is my constituency neighbour—and I could discuss over the next few weeks how we could bring together the Home Office, UKBA, the local council and the police to run a pilot programme that shines a light on some of the worst abuses that are taking place in our country and depriving people working in tough jobs in our fields of the wages they are due.

I not only congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) on securing this debate, as is the convention, but thank him, because, as he has rightly said, I have a similar constituency interest to his. Moreover, as good fortune has it, this debate follows on from a relevant debate about agricultural employment. I have spent a lot of time on many of these issues over the years, trying not only to achieve satisfactory terms and conditions for those who work predominantly in the fruit and vegetable industry, but to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of competent people to do that work and that they are all suitably managed. This debate is extraordinarily timely, because it follows on, as my hon. Friend has said, from my statement in March.

I should explain to my hon. Friend that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), raised in the previous debate a number of issues about the GLA, but I flatly refused to answer him, on the basis that I hoped to address the issues in this debate. Otherwise, I am sure that we would all congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his diligence in sitting through another debate, and one to which he is not even allowed to contribute.

As the hon. Gentleman and others rightly said during the previous debate, the GLA has been subject to a number of reviews, including those by the farming regulation taskforce and the forestry regulation taskforce; the ongoing workplace rights compliance and enforcement review; and, of course, the red tape challenge. It is, therefore, fair to say that the GLA’s role and scope have been considered and debated by a wide range of interested parties, which have had the opportunity to present their views via calls for evidence and other mediums.

All that has shown that the GLA is regarded as having brought significant improvements to the treatment of the most vulnerable workers in the area that it regulates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) has said, it originated from an unbelievable tragedy that horrified the whole country. That does not mean that there is not room for improvement or change, or room to make the GLA a much more modern enforcement agency that targets criminal activities, while applying a light touch, using risk assessment, to those who comply fully—I believe them to be in the majority—with the letter and the spirit of the law and regulations. The GLA’s own experience of operating under the terms of the original Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 suggests that there is room for modification.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire and others that this is not about removing protection for vulnerable workers. The GLA is there to provide that protection, and it should concentrate entirely on doing that and on detecting problems and enforcing legislation. I will return to some of those points later. This is about ensuring a framework that safeguards workers’ rights, while reducing unnecessary or onerous demands on business. That is as it should be.

It is important that the GLA continues to be supported by industry—not just by farmers, but by retailers, because they want to maximise the assurance about the proper employment of the people who pick their products. It also needs to be supported by the labour providers—the legal, honest and straightforward gangmasters and others—who need to operate on a level playing field. We do not want them to be undercut by unfair or illegal practices.

One factor that faces the workers—my hon. Friend touched on this—is that they often have no fixed abode, because they are moved as gangs around the country to do the work that needs to be done. They are often located in difficult-to-access settings. My hon. Friend referred to workers—I am not sure whether this was a mistake—as being here legally, but I am afraid that that is not the case. Many of them are not here legally, so they are often undocumented and sometimes unsupervised. They are often low-skilled and, as my hon. Friend said, have little or no working knowledge of English. Moreover, if they have no fixed abode, they are dependent on the gangmaster for the provision of accommodation.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is right that, as with all factors relating to immigration, the issue is multifaceted. There are, of course, people here illegally, which is why we need a multi-agency approach, but that is not happening in my constituency at the moment. That is one of the issues that is driving community tension. Coupled with that, people who are here legally are being stigmatised. Although they have come here within the law and are working, they are not getting the benefits, because they fall within the criminality of illegal gangs. That is what I was trying to highlight.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification. I was trying to make the point that he rightly referred in his opening remarks to some of the social problems from which my constituency and his suffer as a result of migrant workers. Many of them, as I know full well from my own constituency, are not only here perfectly legally, but operating under licensed gangmasters and earning an income that allows them to buy cans of beer that they then consume outside somebody else’s house. They do not always fully understand British culture and ways of life.

I have announced a package of proposed changes to the GLA, including removing from its scope low-risk areas as far as worker abuse is concerned, streamlining the licensing process, and—this was my hon. Friend’s key point—looking at the scope to use civil penalties. He is right that, at present, the GLA board has very few enforcement weapons, other than its ultimate weapon, which is to withdraw the licence. He is right that we need a tier of measures for it to utilise. The proposed changes also include changes to the GLA board’s governance and structure.

During the earlier debate, the hon. Member for Ogmore referred to some of the issues that are being removed from the scope. I nearly responded to him then, but decided to leave it until now. On cultivated shellfish, let me be clear that we are removing the use of directly employed workers so, if anybody who cultivates shellfish lawfully on land for which they hold title directly employs workers, they will not be covered. If they use a gangmaster, they will still be covered. I just wanted to make that clear. Overall, the changes will ensure that the GLA is better able to concentrate on where it really matters.

I am speaking not on behalf of the Opposition, but as someone who chaired the coalition that established the Gangmasters Licensing Authority in the first place.

Thank you, Mr Dobbin. I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I chaired the coalition that brought into being the Gangmasters Licensing Authority—from plough to plate, from the National Farmers Union to the supermarkets—and was one of those who appointed the first chairman of the GLA. Does the Minister accept that the GLA has been a great success, that it is efficient and effective in stamping out modern-day slavery and that it is now tackling the growing scandal of trafficking? Will he give an assurance that there is no question of the GLA’s vital work being compromised or undermined?

There is a slight trap in what the hon. Gentleman asks me, because if I were to say yes to the first part of his question, he would immediately react by saying, “Well, why make any changes?” I cannot agree that everything the GLA has done has been perfect. We do not think that, which is precisely why we have reviewed it and are making changes. However, I can give him the assurance he referred to. That is why we have gone against recommendations, as the hon. Member for Ogmore pointed out in the earlier debate, to get rid of the GLA. We want to protect the most vulnerable workers, but we believe that it is time to refocus the GLA’s work precisely on that, rather than perhaps dissipating some of its efforts on much lower-risk sectors such as forestry, where there is no evidence of it being necessary whatsoever. I can give him that assurance.

Overall, the changes being made will ensure that the GLA is better able to target what we mean by suspected serious and organised crime, and that evidence of worker exploitation leads to successful investigation and prosecution of organised crime. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) mentioned, that includes the increasing problem of trafficking.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire, who I know has had a meeting with the chairman of the GLA—I am conscious that she is observing these proceedings—that the intention to work across multi-agencies is to be enhanced. He talked about a number of illegal gangmasters. I do not know whether they are illegal. He might well be right, but I am not in a position to judge. However, the GLA needs that intelligence, which is why it needs to work with other enforcement bodies—whether in terms of immigration, the UK Border Agency, the police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency or whoever—to put all this together to ensure that they can combat trafficking and illegal activities across the piece.

We will remove an estimated 150 licence holders from the scope of the GLA, which will obviously save some money and bureaucracy. However, I certainly do not believe that that will in any way dampen the GLA’s effectiveness. The GLA will still regulate all licence holders and potential licence holders in the areas for which it is responsible. As I said, it can therefore concentrate on the worst abuses and examples of exploitation. On 1 June, the chief executive of the GLA, Ian Livsey, said on the “Farming Today” programme:

“This is all about risk and resources. People that apply for a licence will actually be checked. The checks that we will do though will be risk based so we’ll be using information that we have ourselves and information from other Government departments. It’s not true that people won’t be being checked when they make an application.”

It is very important to emphasise that.

The issue is not generally those who make an application. As my hon. Friend implied, the issue is often those who do not apply and have not got a licence. We need the criminal intelligence on that. The chair of the GLA, Margaret McKinlay, to whom I have referred, is also clear that there is room to improve the way in which the GLA operates, communicates and manages relations with those it regulates. In that, she has the benefit of positive working with the highly committed staff of the GLA.

It is fair to say that, after six years of the GLA’s existence, there is a much better understanding of the areas where the greatest risks to vulnerable workers lie. Conversely, given the unique features of the workers whom the GLA regulates in the sectors that it covers, we do not support any extension of the GLA’s scope or remit. The issue is not about extending the scope of the GLA either to construction or other sectors; it is about focusing the authority’s activities where its input is most needed to tackle worker abuse and exploitation. We also need to improve its processes, so that those who are compliant are not burdened and we can ensure that it is effectively positioned within the Government’s wider employment law framework.

Given the fact that, over the past two years, there have been just 11 criminal prosecutions and that 300 warning notices have, in essence, had no bite, because no action flows from them, how will we measure the success of the changes that the Minister intends to make? What will be the outcomes? Will success be measured through an increased number of prosecutions? How will we judge success in two years’ time?

I have to be honest with my hon. Friend: there is no precise way of doing that. We could argue that if there are no prosecutions, the GLA is failing. On the other hand, we could say that that is happening because there is no criminality. We cannot make that judgment. The issue is to ensure that the GLA is working as effectively and efficiently as possible and that the leads—the intelligence—that it is getting reduces, over time, any illegal activity. This is obviously a very subjective statement, but the general perception should be that the problems are diminishing.

Very quickly, I want to pick up on a couple of the specific recommendations made by my hon. Friend to which I have not referred. He mentioned the need for sentencing guidelines. I can assure him that I am happy to refer that to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. With that, I will refer the issue of repayment orders as part of the debate over civil penalties. That is a very valid point.

On my hon. Friend’s point about social housing, I must confess that it had not occurred to me that there was an issue surrounding three floors, two floors or, as he rightly said, in many of our constituencies, only one floor. However, I am happy to confirm that I will look into that.

Let me conclude by trying to reassure colleagues that the changes are about focusing the GLA’s resources where they really matter: on tracking down illegality and situations where workers are being abused, exploited or having money unfairly confiscated from them. The changes are about working with other enforcement agencies to ensure that the joint forces are brought together to deal with what we all agree are the unacceptable and sometimes tragic consequences of such illegal action. That is what the GLA is there for, and that is what it will do. The rest of the industry, which is operating perfectly compliantly and responsibly, should have no fears from the GLA, but it will still need to comply with the legislation, as it should. More than anything else, the changes are about improving efficiency. In the light of that, I hope that I have allayed my hon. Friend’s concerns.

Sitting suspended.

Unemployment (North-east)

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, and I hope that your foot is feeling a lot better. May I also take this opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to secure this debate? I have been trying to secure a debate on unemployment in the north-east for some time, because it is the most important and pressing social, political and economic issue facing my constituency and the wider region. I would therefore be grateful, Mrs Brooke, if you passed on my sincere thanks to Mr Speaker.

I welcome the Whip, who will be responding to the debate. I do not doubt the integrity and commitment of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) in any way, shape or form, but it is deeply contemptuous to the people of the north-east for the Department for Work and Pensions not to have deigned to provide a Minister to respond to my concerns and those of my hon. Friends.

The Whip may expect me to unleash a torrent of negativity and pessimism about the situation—notwithstanding what I have just said—and to come with a begging bowl, asking for help and handouts on behalf of a declining and failed region. That is far from the case, because the north-east is far from being a failed region. It is true that we have struggled to adapt to the changing economic and industrial fortunes of the past 30 years or so, particularly in finding a new economic role following the closure of many heavy industries. I have to say that that task was not helped by the Administrations of the 1980s. Indeed, it was made much worse by the decisions they made and the priorities they set.

However, the north-east, the region that was the centrepiece of the workshop of the world in the 19th century, has the capacity, capability and ambition to become one of the major contributors to a modern global economy, and we have the work force to match. If the Government are serious—I hope that they are—about rebalancing the economy in terms of sectors and geography to make us less reliant on a few sectors and on London and the south-east, they have to see the north-east as a growth area and make us a priority.

There are sectors that have the scope to take advantage of Britain’s current competitive advantage and lead the world in the next few years—advanced manufacturing, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, automotives, higher education, renewables and the low-carbon economy, energy and tech companies. If we also think about the firms in the supply chain that will assist those industries, particularly such vital industries as the steel industry and the construction industry, the north-east must have a key role to play.

My constituency enjoys some of the best industrial riverside frontage in the country. It was once home to a thriving shipbuilding industry, and then North sea-related activity. There is now the potential for real jobs and growth in the green industries, building monopiles and other components for wind farms. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time for the Government to clarify their position on support for wind farms, and encourage developers of wind farms to buy their gear in the north-east, rather than from somewhere in Europe?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Just further up the coast in Hartlepool, we have a thriving renewable energy industry with great firms, such as JDR Cable Systems and Heerema Hartlepool, which can supply a lot of offshore wind turbine components. However, investors are crying out for certainty from the Government. They need policy certainty to allow them to invest for the long term. The Government are failing spectacularly on that.

I will certainly give way to my hon. Friend, because I know he has a particular interest in renewable energy in his constituency.

Of course, we have Narec. One of the things that disappointed me was that companies coming to the north-east to look at the Tyne and the port of Blyth—I am sure Hartlepool and the Tees, too—have moved up to Scotland because they were getting more encouragement, more money and more funding. That is no good to us, because we need them to come to the north-east. That policy needs to change.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I mentioned the fantastic facilities and the great companies we have in my constituency. Gamesa, a Spanish wind farm manufacturer, was hoping to relocate to the UK. It looked at Hartlepool, but chose to go to a Scottish port precisely for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend. We need to come to terms with that and ensure that we have a Government who are fighting our corner in the north-east. I am not convinced that we have that at the moment. We do not even have a Minister to respond to the debate. That is deeply worrying and shows contempt for the people of the north-east.

Despite the huge potential in my constituency and the wider north-east, the unemployment situation is bleak. I know that in his response, the Whip will cling to the argument, like a dying man to a life raft, that today’s statistics show that employment in the north-east has increased by 3,000 on the previous quarter, and that unemployment in my constituency is down by 15, month-on-month. That is welcome news, but I would never say, as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change did on a recent visit to Newcastle, that the unemployment rate was not as bad as it could be, or as it seemed. Again, that is deeply insulting to everyone in the north-east who has lost a job and is desperately looking for work. It shows a Government who are grossly out of touch with what the people of the north-east want and need.

Does my hon. Friend think that that is in stark contrast to 2009 and 2010, when, because of the economic stimulus introduced by the Labour Government following the economic crash, employment in the region actually rose by 24,000 in one year?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Some of the measures the previous Labour Government put in place, against the most severe global financial crisis the world has seen for at least a century, did to some extent mitigate the savage effects of unemployment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue of such great importance to the north-east, even if it is of less importance to the Government. Newcastle has seen its unemployment rate go up by approximately 20% in the past year. In addition, its national unemployment ranking has gone up by 30 places. A year ago, it had the 76th highest unemployment rate in the country; now it has the 47th highest. Does that not suggest that the Government’s measures are feeble and are leaving the north-east and Newcastle behind?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I will go on to mention some job losses that her constituency is facing. The region still, and by a considerable margin, has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 11.3%. The figures published today show that unemployment has increased by 8,000 in the past quarter, to 145,000 in the north-east. The number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has increased by 900 on the previous month. In Hartlepool, the number of people unemployed stands at 4,612, a rate of 11.6% and the 30th highest of all the UK constituencies. That jobless figure of 4,612 is more than 10% higher—503 higher—than it was a year ago.

Today’s statistics also show that the number of people who are economically active in the north-east has gone down, from 75.4% to 75.2%, as has the proportion of the adult population in employment, from 66.6% to 66.5%, whereas the national rate for England is 70.8%. On unemployment and economic prospects, the gap between the north-east and the rest of the country is getting wider and should be a huge cause of concern for the Government. From their actions—or rather, the lack of them—and from the priorities we have seen today in their not sending a Minister, I do not get the sense that that is the case at all.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern about the rising level of female worklessness in the north-east? Many women have been forced out of work because of Government cuts and cuts to tax credits. My concern is that the evidence shows that stronger economic growth is associated with higher levels of female employment—growth that we desperately need in the north-east and in the wider economy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has been a strong champion in this regard, both in this House and beforehand, standing up to make sure that women have the rights they require to fulfil a vital economic role. In our region we certainly need female, and part-time, workers.

I want to mention the loss of jobs in recent months. Between June 2010 and December 2011, the latest period for which figures are available, the north-east lost 7,000 manufacturing jobs and 84,000 construction jobs. According to statistics obtained by the TUC, in the north-east nine jobseekers are chasing each job vacancy. In contrast, in Oxfordshire there are just 1.8 jobseekers for every vacancy. It is therefore more than five times more difficult to find work in my constituency than in Oxfordshire. It is not that the people do not want to find employment or are workshy. There are no jobs to fill.

I could mention statistics until I am blue—or red—in the face. Many people will gain some comfort from statistics, large numbers or percentages. However, behind every statistic lies a human story of a person who is made redundant and is worried about how they will pay the bills and put food on the table, or of someone rejected after making their umpteenth job application and fast losing hope and sense of self-worth, or of a parent worried about how their son or daughter will get a job or career without any experience.

My hon. Friend has made some telling points. Is it not important to stress that unemployment, especially among young people, is not an easy option? The unemployment benefit for people under 24—their dole—amounts to £8 a day. Without parental support or friends, they have to feed and clothe themselves and pay their utilities from that sum. It is not an easy option.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the serious issues in south Tyneside. In Jarrow, an extra 200 young people went on to the dole last year. With 15 people chasing every job, there is little or no prospect of their getting one.

My hon. Friend is right. I will come to the terrible issue of youth unemployment in a moment. Let me just mention further unwanted, gloomy news on the jobs front in recent months.

The closure of the Rio Tinto Alcan plant, with the loss of 515 jobs directly and the threat to 3,000 jobs in the supply chain, is a major blow to the economy of south-east Northumberland. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) is in attendance and I have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) today, who wanted to attend, but is hoping to catch Mr Speaker’s eye in the debate on Remploy.

The closure of the BAe factory on Scotswood road in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) brings to an end a century of remarkable industrial innovation on the banks of the Tyne. The factory was started by that astonishing, underrated Victorian entrepreneur, William Armstrong. However, far from looking to the past, the closure undermines the vital links between British military capability and manufacturing and industrial capacity.

The growth in long-term unemployment and youth unemployment is of particular concern. I have mentioned that to hon. Friends. The north-east has far too often been permanently scarred by people being on the dole for many months and years, or by young people leaving school or college unable to find work. That was so in the 1980s, when the closure of the steelworks, shipyards and coal mines left an unwanted and enduring legacy of poor health, lower life expectancy, poverty and family breakdown, making it more difficult for the economy to bounce back into prosperity once the recovery starts.

The longer a person is out of work, the easier it is for them to lose skills and experience, and the more difficult it is to get back into work. That is especially true when more and more people have more recently lost their jobs, and therefore have more recent experience in the job market.

In Hartlepool, the number of people who have been claiming JSA for more than 12 months has risen in the past year by more than 245%. One in four young men under the age of 24 are out of work in Hartlepool. Such figures are not sustainable economically, socially or ethically. I fear that we are repeating the policies and mistakes of the 1980s and that there will, once again, be a lost generation of young people unable to fulfil their massive potential, believing that the only way they can get a proper career is by leaving the north-east altogether.

We have had good news. Only this week a new retailer announced the creation of 150 jobs in Hartlepool, but overall the job situation is gloomy and set to get worse. The Centre for Economics and Business Research forecasts that unemployment in the north-east will rise to 12% this year and to 13% by 2016, largely as a result of further and deeper public sector redundancies.

Government policy is making the unemployment situation in the north-east much worse. The Government’s insistence that public sector redundancies are necessary and that private sector employment will somehow bloom in the face of these cuts is naive and economically ignorant at best, or is cynically and deliberately driven for ideological and political purposes. If Ministers—or Whips—genuinely believe that the public and private sectors are separate and distinct entities, and never the twain shall meet, that shows a profound misunderstanding of how the modern economy works.

My hon. Friend makes a compelling argument. In my area of the north-east, in Teesside and East Cleveland, three areas worry me: cuts in Army, Navy and Royal Air Force troop numbers—mine is a big recruitment area for them—the three-year zenith in the contraction of manufacturing, which affects the north-east more than other regions, and public sector cuts.

As my hon. Friend just mentioned, the Government’s ideological view that there is a private sector and a public sector goes against every piece of economics since Galbraith in the 1960s and undermines any economic recovery that we have desperately fought for.

My hon. Friend is right. I know that he remembers Galbraith in the ’60s.

Some 84,000 jobs have been lost in the construction industry, in part due to stopping the schools building programme, road schemes and social housing, which were all socially and economically necessary, because they boost productivity, efficiency and economic capability in the long term and, in the short term, in the worst and most severe global financial crisis ever, help to provide skills and capacity in the construction sector.

The Government fail to accept the basic economic point that, for every £1 of public money spent on construction activities, almost £3 of private sector money is generated back into the local economy, in terms of jobs, the supply chain and construction.

My hon. Friend has made a compelling argument for a Labour Government. I congratulate him on securing the debate. Does he agree that there is one task that the Government ignore all the time? The only way that we can secure real growth is by the public and private sectors working together in partnership.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who does not get enough recognition for the enormous amount of work that he has done on two fronts: securing the work for Hitachi trains in our area and ensuring that Durham Tees Valley airport can be a catalyst for economic growth and connectivity—a word that I cannot stand—so that we can compete and sell our goods and services and get them to the rest of the world.

I have a certain amount of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He mentioned schools. The Duchess community high school in my constituency was constantly excluded from Labour’s school rebuilding programme. Now, three high schools in Northumberland will be rebuilt under this Government’s programme.

There seems to be no connect between public and private sector and no connect or coherence between Departments. The Department for Communities and Local Government demands local authority cuts of 20%, which is having a profound impact on unemployment, not just directly in terms of council jobs.

Hartlepool borough council cut its bus subsidy, so Stagecoach has stopped operating bus services early in the morning and late at night. People are unable to travel to early shifts or late periods of work in the night-time economy. They are less likely to go out for a meal or to the town hall theatre or the borough hall, or to the pub for a few pints, so there is less economic activity and fewer jobs. The reality is stark: a lack of joined-up thinking in the Government is increasing unemployment in my area. What can the Whip do about it?

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a great disconnect between what Liberal Democrats say at Westminster and what they are saying in the north-east? In the House, they are quite happy to vote with the Conservatives for some of the most drastic cuts that we have seen for generations in the north-east; but in the regions, they are somehow trying to explain to or convince the public that that has nothing to do with them.

I am sure that we will see a “Focus” leaflet in due course saying that everything in the garden is rosy and that the Liberal Democrats are fighting hard. The reality—my hon. Friend is right—is that where they can make a difference by going through the right Division Lobby, they are failing to stand up for the north-east and for the people who need jobs and investment in our area.

The Government’s determination to depress demand before the economy has had a chance to recover from the global financial crisis is wrong. The effects of such a policy are a double-dip recession made in Downing street and an increase in unemployment. The Federation of Small Businesses in the north-east told me that the ability of small business to offer jobs is suffering directly because of falling sales, as the public sector reduces investment, confidence collapses and firms sit on cash. It is clear, as businesses recognise, that the Government’s policies are making matters worse. Does the Whip not understand that? Can he not see that if the Government pursued a more active role on jobs and growth, there would be more people in work, paying taxes, more companies paying corporation tax, a reduced benefits bill and the deficit being paid down faster. By sticking to an economic plan that is not working—that is clear to all and sundry—the Government must borrow £150 billion more than originally anticipated.

We have commented on the position of Liberal Democrat Members from the north-east, but has my hon. Friend noticed that Tory Members from the north-east have not even come to the debate?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that point. I had noticed that the hon. Members for Stockton South (James Wharton) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman) have not bothered to turn up for the debate, which shows the importance that they attach to economic enterprise, growth, jobs and unemployment.

My hon. Friend is one neighbour, but if my Conservative neighbour, the hon. Member for Stockton South, was in his place today, he would point to our enterprise zone and our local enterprise partnership, which have been introduced by the Government. Yet despite their best efforts, unemployment in my constituency is nearly 4,200, up 400 on last year. Does my hon. Friend not lament, as I do, the loss of real investment that we had in the days of One North East?

I should declare an interest: One North East used to employ me—that is one of the reasons why the Government wanted to get rid of the regional development agencies. I absolutely agree that a compelling economic vision helped by an RDA that can set strategic priorities is vital. My hon. Friend mentions the hon. Member for Stockton South who is, as far as I am aware, although I might be corrected, one of the only people in north-east and Cumbria not to have come out against the ludicrous proposal on regional pay, which is what I want to turn to.

The House is considering regional pay this afternoon. At a time of depressed demand, eroding confidence and rising unemployment, it seems economically ludicrous for the Government even to contemplate such a policy. The TUC rightly estimates that regional pay could take £500 million from the north-east’s economy precisely when we want consumer confidence to increase to allow people to start buying things and creating jobs. Does the Whip think that taking £500 million from the north-east will increase the number of businesses and employment?

Instead of continuing with failed economic policies that are increasing unemployment in the north-east, the Government should listen to regional businesses, which are asking for a cut in national insurance contributions to incentivise them to take on extra workers. The Government should consider a temporary cut in VAT to allow confidence to emerge. They should use the power of the Government’s buying position to use procurement to invest in the regional supply chain, to increase the number of apprenticeships and to give a chance to local firms. They should reintroduce the future jobs fund, which helped many hundreds of young people in Hartlepool and throughout the north-east during the worst times of the global financial crisis. Most of all, the Government should be pursuing an active industrial strategy, working with productive businesses to embrace the competitive sectors of the future. They have done that to some extent with Nissan and the automotive industry, by carrying out what the previous Labour Government were doing, but they should step up a gear with the low-carbon economy—as my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley said—chemicals and advanced manufacturing.

If the north-east is given the tools by the Government, it will deliver for its people, its communities, its businesses and the rest of the country. I ask the Whip to help us to unlock the huge potential and end the human, economic and social waste of unemployment in the north-east.

Order. At this stage, I shall not introduce a time limit, but I ask Members to be aware of the number of others who want to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mrs Brooke, and to see you back in the House, almost fighting fit.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the debate and on the 150 new jobs in his constituency announced this week. Unemployment remains my No. 1 priority. The north-east is indeed bottom of the unemployment league and has been for many years, including in 1997 and 2010. With £1 in every £4 of public spending being borrowed, we sadly inherited an economy built on sand. Clearly a lot had to change.

I have hardly started. I will give way in a moment, when I have got further into my speech.

Solutions to the problem have to be bottom-up and top-down. My local council—before an Opposition Member points it out, it is a Labour council—deserves praise for its infrastructure work, adding new seafront work and leisure investment to the huge Environment Agency spend on flood defences, as well as the Government investment in MySpace, which is going on in Redcar. It was good to see the Association of North East Councils visiting Redcar a few weeks ago to see what is happening. However, it is disturbing how many of the construction jobs are not going to local people. I have raised that with the council, because it is important for the north-east to help itself as much as possible and not to have such jobs going to people who travel into the area. My local council is taking a high risk, however, because the Audit Commission says that at the end of the work it will have the highest debts in the country for the size of the council, but at least it is doing something.

I praise the Government for investment in local infrastructure, in the Teesside railway system and, in particular, the recently announced refurbishment of stations, including all six in my constituency. House building is obviously a good option, but in areas such the one I represent the population is static or declining. We need to upgrade our housing stock. That is true throughout the north-east, but as I keep reminding my council, if we do not plan for the overall stock we get market failure. That has already happened in three parts of my constituency: South Bank, Grangetown and West Dormanstown.

We need a lot more focus on enterprise by our councils. I cannot speak for other areas, but my local council of Redcar and Cleveland often proves to be difficult to deal with. We recently lost 200 jobs when a potential new investor simply gave up and went somewhere else. I welcome the new enterprise zones, including three in my constituency, which are already attracting interest. I hope that we will prove to be easy to deal with and get companies into those zones.

These debates always lead to a lament for the RDA at some point, and the hon. Member for Hartlepool has already touched on that. It is interesting to note that, in a sense, RDAs were not a regional policy; they covered the entire country and all got large sums of money. I salute the bravery of the present Government in supporting only projects in hard-pressed areas such as the north-east with the regional growth fund. That is one reason why the north-east is getting a large share of the regional growth fund money.

The hon. Gentleman says because all the RDAs were abolished, the abolition of One North East was not a regional policy. As a member of the Liberal Democratic party, however, does he not agree that his party stated specifically that One North East would be saved, because it was admired by both public and private sectors? Its demise has been regretted ever since its abolition.

That was never party policy, but it was a remark made by the Business Secretary. I think everyone recognises that One North East was the best of the regional development agencies. My point was that giving money to every region will not rebalance the economy. I salute the bravery of our Government in not giving money to regions that do not need help.

A month or two ago, I said in this Chamber that in the two years before the general election, the RDA approved 96 projects, worth £148 million, in which One North East directors had to declare an interest. Of those, only eight projects and £6 million related to the Tees valley. The Tees valley got a poor deal from One North East. Experian assessments place Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland in the weakest 10 economic areas of the country, so I welcome the local enterprise partnership and its work.

The LEP is doing a lot of good work, part of which is defining clusters—we have process industries and automotive clusters, and we are now developing a steel cluster. The welcome news is that Sahaviriya Steel Industries has bought the Redcar steelworks, and is now producing; Tata is still in the area, and opened a new research centre just two weeks ago, which had some Government support; Siemens has its worldwide centre for steel processing development in Stockton; and Teesside university is opening up a new department, so a good cluster is developing there. We also have clusters in green technology, and I welcome new initiatives in renewables, with the industry forming the Energi Coast group—20 companies getting together to exploit the new market jointly—and Narec has been included in the new technology innovation centre for renewables. Clusters attract like-minded companies. Global Marine Systems has just relocated from Essex to Middlesbrough, and last month it hired the Riverside stadium to recruit people.

Manufacturing is having some success in the area. International trade is booming with record exports— the best ever—from the region during the 12 months to March, including 20% growth in exports outside the EU. Jonathan Greenaway, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Newcastle, recently reported those successes and said:

“This is a great time of opportunity for manufacturers, and…UK companies are really rising to the challenge.”

We have some problems with the public sector, to say the least, with job losses and so on. I believe that taxpayers expect efficiency in public services and that they do not see them as job creation exercises, but there has been a worrying trend of relocation of jobs, certainly out of the Tees valley. Under the previous Government, the ambulance service was lost—it still baffles me that an area of 750,000 people is not deemed capable of running its own ambulance service, but that was moved out of the area. We also lost the office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Middlesbrough, and thus 400 jobs. There are other potential problems, such as the Insolvency Service office in Stockton. I urge the Whip to reverse that trend and to move jobs to hard-pressed areas in the north-east such as Teesside.

I note that some agencies are looking at Yorkshire and the north-east as a region. I point out to them that the Tees valley is exactly the midpoint—I measured it this morning—and an ideal location for headquarters. The regions are massive, however: Sheffield in South Yorkshire is as close to Southampton as it is to the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith).

For 13 years, the north-east had a Labour Government—almost all MPs and councils were Labour—but between 1997 and 2010, the number of unemployed people in the region went up by 7,000, and the rate remained approximately the same, despite the unprecedented amount—

The hon. Gentleman is being selective. I was going to say that it is a pleasure to hear him speak, but he seems to be saying that everything in the garden is rosy. In fact, between 2009 and 2010, 24,000 extra jobs were created in the north-east, and over the longer period from 1997, unemployment went down, not up.

I checked the figures with the Library this morning, and 7,000 more people were unemployed in 2010 than in 1997, despite the unprecedented amount of grants and unsustainable borrowing that were pumped into the area.

Big problems remain. Unemployment is way too high, especially in constituencies such as Redcar, and it remains my No. 1 priority. The hon. Member for Hartlepool said that the north-east was once the workshop of Britain. It can be again, and in fact already is to some extent—even today, it is the only region with a positive trade balance—but a lot more can be done. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need a clearer industrial policy. We also need consistency on renewables and public procurement. There are opportunities for further investment in infrastructure—I do not want to steal the thunder of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, because I am sure that he is about to give an example.

I welcome the Government’s attention to the north-east. We have a regular troop of Ministers coming through, and it is good to hear that the Employment Minister will be meeting the Teesside business community on 10 July. I look forward to hearing the response from the Whip today.

The wind-ups will start at 3.40. I remind hon. Members that I have not put a time limit into operation, and it is entirely up to them whether that becomes necessary.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), on securing this debate, whose importance is illustrated by the number of Labour Members who are present. I was going to try to be good and not lampoon—sorry, lambast—the coalition Government, but I cannot allow some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) to pass with no response.

The hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the regional growth fund is an improvement in regional policy is completely incorrect. Any region can apply for funds, not just the most disadvantaged regions. I cannot understand why Easington, with an unemployment rate of 11.3%, is denied an enterprise zone and support from the regional growth fund, when affluent areas such as Oxford, Cambridge and Kent have enterprise zones and their companies are supported by the regional growth fund. Surely if the Government’s policy is to address regional imbalances, that is a good starting point.

The hon. Gentleman would not afford me that courtesy, but in the spirit of debate I will give way to him.

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not giving way. Perhaps I was in full flight, and did not see him seeking to intervene. Does he know how many projects in London and the south-east have been awarded regional growth fund money?

I do not, but I know that in my area I have lobbied hard on behalf of a number of companies that could bring substantial benefits to a hard-pressed area, and we are still waiting for decisions. That aspect of Government policy needs to be addressed.

The other issue that I am worried and upset about is that a Liberal Democrat occupies one of the highest offices of state, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned that Ministers often visit the area. They do not afford me the courtesy of saying when they are coming. When the Secretary of State visited my constituency, I was not advised in advance and I was not in a position to lobby him with bids from my area. However, I have taken that up separately. I will now try to make progress because I know that many hon. Members want to contribute.

I remind hon. Members that unemployment in my region is up by 8,000 to 145,000—a rate of 11.3%, which is higher than the national average. Under the Labour Government, the gap between the economy of the north-east and those of other regions was closing, with private sector business growth and employment. The Member for Redcar quoted some figures. In fact, after 10 years of Labour Government, the unemployment rate in the north-east was 5.7%—Labour came to power in 1997, and in November 2007 to January 2008 it was 5.7%—which was only 0.5% higher than the UK average. Now, though, it is 11.3%, which is 3.3% higher than the national average.

I did want to start on a positive note—[Laughter.] I am sorry about this, Mrs Brooke. I wanted to welcome the invaluable contribution that Nissan has made to our regional economy. Nissan is located in the constituency neighbouring mine to the north, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). Nissan’s presence has some benefits for the supply chain in east Durham. I commend Nissan for its tremendous commitment to our area. It is a shining example of what the north-east is capable of achieving with the right support from local and national Government. As hon. Members will be aware, the two new car models that are to be built will create more than 3,000 jobs across the UK over two years. Some 600 of those will be at Nissan’s Sunderland factory, with the remainder in the supply chain. I do not wish to criticise that success story.

I am looking to the Minister—[Hon. Members: “The Whip.”] Well, I will afford him the courtesy of calling him Minister. Welcome though they are, those new jobs do not come close to countering the job losses in my constituency. Over the past few weeks, I have referred to the haemorrhaging of private sector jobs in east Durham. That should be a real concern—it certainly is for me and all those who are affected. I cannot remember so many job losses in my constituency since the pit closure programmes, which is indicative of the desperate situation faced by many constituencies such as mine.

The Government’s Work programme does nothing to address the fact that unemployment is often focused in communities with the weakest local economies. The problem in the north-east is not so much one of joblessness as one of worklessness. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned the ratio of the number of people out of work and the number of vacancies, which is limited. I refer the Minister to an excellent report on that subject published by Sheffield university, which makes some positive suggestions about what could be done.

The Work programme has been in operation for one year, during which time the number of people in Easington claiming jobseeker’s allowance has risen by 20%. About 1,000 job losses have been announced in the past month, and that will affect my constituency, where 3,195 people are out of work. Companies closing down include Cumbrian Seafoods, JD Sports, Dewhirsts, Reckitt Benckiser and Robertson Timber. Some of those companies—all private sector—are closing as a consequence of the decline in the building and construction industry, but mostly it is a consequence of a reduction in demand.

There is yet another side to the story. Easington has a strong manufacturing tradition, with companies such as NSK, Caterpillar, GT Group, Actem UK and Seaward Electronic. Those companies are looking to the RDA replacement bodies and the Government for signs of support that will enable them to take on more workers. There are some large-scale private sector regeneration projects in the offing, but again we need leadership and support from the Government, because many of those programmes are suffering unjustifiable delays.

I will not embarrass the Government by mentioning the centre of creative excellence that could have created 500 jobs south of Seaham, but I will mention retail developments such as a new Tesco supermarket on the former site of East Durham college. That would create 400 new jobs and a new library—a much needed community facility at a time of spending restraint in the public sector.

Dalton Park phase 2 also offers a glimmer of hope for my constituency. Once the development is complete, it will support more than 100 construction jobs and 450 new retail jobs. It will provide new facilities that will greatly benefit the local community such as a new supermarket, hotel, cinema, and associated leisure facilities. Such planning applications are often controversial, but—incredibly—this one received the unanimous support of the local authority, as well as massive support from the local community and other county MPs, and I am thankful for that support. The development was also passed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. It is a rare phenomenon in that everybody seems to support it, but it is being delayed as the result of an application for a judicial review by Salford Estates, which owns Peterlee town centre. As I understand it, the founder of Salford Estates is a tax exile based in the tax haven of Monaco.

My point is that the communities in the north-east continue to be hit the hardest by Government policies that are driving down demand across the region. The promised private-sector led recovery has simply failed to materialise in our region, and the austerity and cuts agenda is taking money out of our local economies and making any potential recovery harder to realise. A decade of progress made under Labour to reduce the north-south divide is being reversed.

Is my hon. Friend alluding—perhaps not this explicitly—to the fact that problems of entrenched unemployment are very hard and take an awfully long time to fix? The north-east probably knows that better than any other region. The problem is not only worklessness but crime, mental ill health, homelessness and all the other associated problems that we know occur when there are high levels of unemployment.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point much more forcefully and directly than I could, and I completely agree with her.

It is up to this Government to learn lessons from those things that worked in terms of regeneration and growth and saw our region prosper in sectors such as exports over the past decade. I find it quite offensive when members of the governing coalition denigrate Labour’s efforts over the past decade, as if that Government produced no overall success.

I did not intend to quote statistics, but I shall put a couple on the record. Based on gross value added per head, the rate of growth in the north-east went from being the lowest of all regions during the 1990s to the second highest during the past decade. Let me also put to bed another myth propagated by the Tory party which claims that our public sector was squeezing out the private sector. That is just not true. As other hon. Members have indicated, in our view the public and private sectors are not mutually exclusive but mutually supportive. Between 2003 and 2008, private sector employment rose by 9.2% in our region, while at the same time public sector employment grew by only 4.1%. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of businesses in the north-east rose by 18.7%—a huge increase that compares favourably with London’s business growth of about 19.6% over the same period.

May I give one example from my constituency to illustrate the link between public sector investment and private sector job creation? A local electrical company, Alex Scullion Electrical Contractors, carried out a lot of work with contracts to renovate social housing, apply the decent homes standard and build new social housing through labour investment. Now, however, times are difficult because that investment has dried up. That company played an important role in securing private sector jobs and supporting apprentices, and there are clear linkages between money that the Government spend and the creation of jobs in the private sector.

Absolutely. That is a terrific point and there are many similar examples. In my constituency, Carillion was involved in infrastructure projects including Building Schools for the Future and hospital building programmes. I did not mention it earlier but that company has announced 130 redundancies.

There is no doubt that the north-east was hard hit by the global downturn of 2008, but the policies of this Government are entrenching a north-south divide. To quote a Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman:

“The urge to declare our unemployment problem ‘structural’—a supply-side problem of some kind, not solvable by the ‘simplistic Keynesian’ notion of just increasing demand—has been quite something to behold. It’s rapidly entering the category of a zombie idea, which just keeps shambling forward no matter how many times it has been killed.”

The problem is that demand has been depressed. We need to stimulate demand in the economy. Quite simply, communities and areas such as mine throughout the region cannot pull themselves out of the mire without Government support. Targeted support and intervention are what we need.

Order. I propose a time limit on the remaining speeches, initially of five minutes. Each of the first two interventions accepted will stop the clock and give the hon. Member who gives way another minute; but clearly there will be reductions in the time limit if that happens. The Clerk will ring a bell when a Member has one minute left.

I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), who always manages to sound a little more cheerful than some of his colleagues in his constructive contributions. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on introducing this timely and necessary debate. I have a lot of regard for him, but he and his colleagues must face the fact that if they were in power now they would be making substantial public sector cuts. Their own spending plans demonstrate that. We would all be facing the same problem of a shrinking public sector, which has a particular impact in an area with high public sector employment.

The Berwick constituency is a large one, and includes the area around the Lynemouth smelter, whose closure has already been mentioned, as well as what were in my time four working pits. We have lost a lot of jobs in the mining industry. Yet the constituency is 404th for unemployment levels. That still represents more than 1,300 unemployed claimants, but the fact that the constituency has managed not to be among the worst hit owes something to the current stability of agriculture and the associated trades, and also to the fact that we have a large proportion of economically inactive—retired—people. Among the economically active, unemployment is hitting significantly.

We were hit, of course, by the Alcan closure, which had a direct impact on my constituency. Following that I worked a great deal with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the extension of enterprise zones. The area identified was in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), because there are sites around the port of Blyth that are potentially attractive. Getting the enterprise zone extended was part of the strategy. We need the capital allowances that must go with it, and that is partly a decision for the local enterprise partnership. If projects come along that need those capital allowances, and they are not in the original LEP area, I want the LEP to make sure that they go to any good new business that comes into the extended area. If that means that the amounts are used up, we will get some more out of the Treasury; I am confident that we shall be able to do so.

The north-east region is enjoying significant business success—the highest value ever in exports. However, it is heavily dependent on public sector jobs. A good friend of many of us, John Mowbray, who is currently chairman of the chamber of commerce—incidentally, he was recognised in the honours list last week, which we are delighted about; we look forward to congratulating him, probably this evening—said:

“The onus has been placed on the business community to pick up the slack from these cutbacks and while we have had a great deal of success across the private sector in the past 12 months, it is almost impossible to keep pace with the impact of what has been happening across public organisations”.

There is a major task to undertake. If I ask business men in Northumberland what the obstacles are to their creating more jobs—what three things that are somewhere in the grasp of Government, because, obviously, they will mention the international economic situation, which is beyond Government’s control—they will refer to the difficulty in getting capital from banks, the infrastructure problems in our area, and skills shortages.

All Members have had discussions with companies and industrialists, and the issue that comes through to me is lack of demand and consumer confidence. It is not so much the impact of the eurozone, and so on—it is lack of domestic demand. Government policy is exacerbating that.

That is partly true, particularly in retail and parts of the construction industry. It is not true in some of our exporting industries, which are still finding demand and achieving sales in many parts of the world. Clearly, we want to increase demand. What we cannot do is simply pump more and more money—because we do not have it—into the economy.

I want to refer to some of the ways in which we must tackle the three weaknesses I mentioned. One, of course, is bank lending. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has devoted a lot of effort to trying to get banks to lend to small business. However, he has met resistance and difficulty, and the Governor of the Bank of England has announced new measures, which I hope will take us further. The regional growth fund supplements the availability of capital, and I particularly welcome the efforts of the Newcastle Journal to bring together smaller businesses to create a bid to become eligible for the regional growth fund. It was successful the first time round, and I hope it will be a second time. The banks need to lend to small businesses on reasonable terms that recognise the viability of the projects that are being brought forward.

We have a pretty obvious candidate for infrastructure spending, where we can clearly show that there would be a benefit to the economy, and that is investment in the A1. It is seen as a handicap by many businesses when they are trying to attract other businesses into the area. If we think that Scotland and the UK benefit from being in the Union, surely we must link up effectively with Scotland.

Finally, for the development of skills we are very dependent on Northumberland college, which serves my area as well as those of neighbouring MPs. It has had something of a crisis of governance lately and gone through a difficult period. I am glad that the Further Education Minister has shown a willingness to help the college. We need it to expand its activities generally out into the areas that are closer to the homes of young people, who cannot be expected to travel 30 or even 50 miles each way to get further education. The Government are doing practical things—and they need to do more of them—to tackle those problems, which we all agree need to be addressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing an important debate. I welcome the Liberal Democrat Members for north-east constituencies. It is a disgrace that the Conservative Members are not here to speak up for the north-east on the issue.

I want to be quick, and make some general points. In Sedgefield, unemployment has gone up by nearly 25% in the past 12 months. The number of people who have been out of work for six months or more has gone up 100% over the same period. There is something I would like the Government to do; I do not know whether the Whip is also the Whip at the Department for Transport, but areas such as County Durham and Darlington have a big issue with buses. People might wonder what that has to do with unemployment, but it is about getting to work. The cutting of subsidies from public bus services means that I have constituents who cannot get to work, and who must consider packing in their jobs. Secondly, Jobcentre Plus says it has funds set aside to buy bicycles for people, so that they can get to work. A bit of joined-up thinking is required between Departments.

The question of demand in the economy, to grow the private sector, has been touched on in the debate. The average wage in County Durham is £418, whereas the national average is £503. Cuts in benefits—and we know that welfare benefits are going to be reformed—will affect 120,000 households in County Durham. That is half the households in the county. About £150 million will be taken out of the local economy. That is something to bear in mind if we want the private sector to grow.

I want to refer to the same speech that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) quoted, by John Mowbray. I congratulate John, as well, on being made an OBE in the honours list. In the same speech he went on to say that the public sector has been hit incredibly hard by the Government’s austerity purge. We must say that is true.

The way to get the private sector to grow is through the private and public sectors working together. I want to draw hon. Members’ attention to two initiatives in my constituency. One is the Hitachi factory, which will create 500 jobs, with thousands in the supply chain, the vast majority of which will be in the private sector, obviously. However, that would not have come about if it were not for public sector procurement.

The other initiative involves Durham Tees Valley airport. As Tees valley Members of Parliament will know, things have been difficult for the airport in recent years. The number of passengers using it has gone down from just under 1 million to about 200,000. Peel Airports has gone to the regional growth fund in the new round for a grant of some £60 million. It wants to invest over time some £60 million in developing the airport. It wants to develop the freight and logistics side of it, to the south of the airport. That requires the input of some £60 million of taxpayers’ money. That is the public and private sectors working together.

I want to quote from the assessment that Durham Tees Valley airport has pulled together of the impact that the development could have. The impact assessment states:

“Once fully developed and occupied, alongside the current operation of the airport, the whole DTVA site has the potential to support around 3,650 gross FTE jobs, supporting approximately £220m of gross direct GVA for Tees Valley each year…2,420 of these are net FTE jobs and these could be taken by Tees Valley residents.”

That is very good news for the Tees valley. All MPs in the north-east should get together to ensure that the project works.

The final thing that I want to mention is regional pay. As I said, the average wage in County Durham is £418. I ask the Whip this: how low does he think that pay should be in County Durham? I keep asking that question, but I never get an answer. Regional pay will suppress the economy in areas such as the north-east of England. The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and I agree on regional pay; we have both signed early-day motion 55.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing the debate. I would like to pick up on a point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) made about the lending by banks. The Government’s approach is somehow to reduce the size of the public sector and to grow regional businesses, but as has already been said eloquently by many hon. Members, the two are interlinked.

I will give a specific example from my constituency. A company called Ambic is based in Chester-le-Street, on the Stella Gill industrial estate. It is run by a very dynamic and clever individual, David Potter, who is an engineer by trade. The company produces very high-quality furniture for schools. Clearly, with the downturn in the budgets of schools, it has seen demand drop. It had been a profitable business until the downturn in 2009. In the following year, it made a loss. By changing the way in which the business is marketed and run, it has slowly increased its profitability again.

Three years ago, just before the recession, the company moved into a brand-new factory. It took out a loan from the Bank of Scotland/NatWest for the expansion of the business. It has been successful, in that it has employed some 40 people locally, including apprentices; it is run by an individual who is strongly committed to the local community. But, lo and behold, two weeks ago it received a letter from the bank saying that, because it had revalued the property, which it says now is worth not £1.2 million but £750,000, the company’s borrowing rates will now be between 6% and 15%. That means that any profit that it makes will be wiped out overnight.

I have written to the Secretary of State to raise the matter. It is a good example: if someone wants to kill off a business, that is the way to do it. The company owner is quite angry about the situation. Like me and others, he thinks that this is a bank that has received billions of pounds of public money. If he has to, he will just shut up shop, but that will be 40 jobs gone from the local community, which will cost the taxpayer a hell of a lot more and ruin a very successful business. It has never been late in paying for any of its borrowings and, as I said, is committed to the local community.

I ask the Whip to respond to what I have said. I have not had a response yet from the Secretary of State. I have raised the problem with him personally in the Tea Room and asked him to look at it. If it is not sorted out soon, the business will have to close, which will cost the taxpayer more and is not in line with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s argument that we are trying to grow and support local businesses. That is an example of a bank that will cripple and close a very successful local business. That would be a shame not just for the individuals involved, but for Mr Potter, who is committed not just to Chester-le-Street but to the region and to developing a small business and employing local people.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Brooke.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this extremely important debate. I am beginning to think that this Government have adopted a Marxist attitude to the unemployed. They are the reserve army to be marched on to the pitch at a moment that is convenient and off at a moment that is inconvenient. They seem to subscribe to the lump-of-labour theory: this is the lumpen proletariat, there to be used and abused. What that demonstrates is a moral failure and an economic failure.

It is a moral failure because no account is taken of the individuals who are unemployed—the level of unhappiness, the level of stress, the level of anxiety. A young man came to my surgery recently. He used to hold down perfectly good jobs. He has now been unemployed for 12 months. He is being driven crazy—literally crazy. He is suffering from mental illness. He shouts at everybody—he shouts at my staff; he shouts at the jobcentre staff—and who can blame him? He is 30, living at home on £56 a week and the vacancy to worker ratio is 1:9. He does not have a realistic chance of getting a job.

It is an economic failure because we are wasting people and wasting people’s skills. One of the worst things is the constant denigration of unemployed people—not just cutting benefits, but treating unemployed people as though they are workshy. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my constituency, 2,920 people are on jobseeker’s allowance, but the statistics show that there are 6,400 people who want a job. That tells us that there is a huge need and a mismatch.

We have to ask ourselves: who are the people who are unemployed? They are not a great lump. Not only are they individuals, but they fall into particular categories. One thousand of them are young people; they do not have experience, so it is very difficult for them to get jobs that require experience. Five hundred of them are over 50; where are they supposed to gain new skills when we see the increases in tuition fees and the cuts to adult education? There has also been a massive increase in the number of women who are unemployed—up by 25% in the past year.

That has come about because the Government are putting cuts before everything else. When they do that, it leads not just to spin-off problems for the private sector, but to a complete skills mismatch. Someone who has been working in the public sector in a service job cannot simply be shoved into a manufacturing job and the assumption made that they can do it. Of course they are not qualified to do it.

We need a strategic approach from the Government in both skills and finance, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said. When we had a regional development agency, we had not only a strategy, but a source of finance. I think we need some new sources of finance. When we have a Labour Government again, it would be fantastic if we had an RDA that did not just provide grant financing, which is what we had under the previous Government; there should also be some loan financing. Then, small firms like the one described by my hon. Friend could be confident of getting reasonable treatment.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) on securing this important debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) on being hauled in to answer it. Having heard the speeches that my hon. Friends and, indeed, Lib Dem Members have made, I can well understand why the Minister responsible for employment has chosen to leave the country rather than answer the debate.

There has been some effort today to derive optimism from the unemployment figures, but the fact is that according to the figures published today, the claimant count nationally and the number of people who are long-term unemployed have gone up. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) rightly made those particularly important points. The number of people working part-time who want to work full-time is at a record level—it has never been as high as the number announced today. Youth unemployment remains above 1 million, and, as we were reminded, unemployment in the north-east has risen.

There are not many grounds for optimism in today’s figures, except that they are slightly less bad than the figures we have seen in the past few months. I am afraid the picture will not change until the Government’s economic policies change and they think again about the strategy that they have been pursuing, which has choked off demand, crushed confidence and sent us into a double-dip recession. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool set out Labour’s alternative plan, and there is growing recognition—not in the Government yet, but certainly elsewhere—that we need to change course if we are to change the bleak picture of unemployment that we have heard about this afternoon.

In 1999, the unemployment rate in the north-east had risen to more than 10%, but successful initiatives reduced it to 6% in January 2008, before the global financial crisis hit. After the election, we were told by the Government that their policies would renew private sector confidence and that aggressively tackling the deficit would cause a surge in confidence, investments and new jobs. Instead, since the election confidence has collapsed and the number of unemployed in the north-east has risen by almost a quarter to 145,000. The unemployment rate is now 11.3%, including an increase of 0.5% in the past three months alone.

I apologise for not being here for the beginning of the debate, but I was in the meeting with the Dalai Lama, which was an excellent experience.

According to National Audit Office figures, the number of young people in my constituency who have been unemployed for over a year has gone up by 950% since last year. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) looks confused, but the number has gone up from 20 to 210 in a year. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that that shows how damaging the double-dip recession created in Downing street is and why we need action from Ministers to create jobs and growth in the north-east?

Yes, I agree completely. It is long-term youth unemployment that will have the most damaging long-term effects on the economy. We know from the last time we had a lost generation how damaging it is for the life chances of the individuals affected, and now we see it happening again. We need a change of policy and a change of course to avoid the frightening figures on the rate of growth of long-term youth unemployment to which my hon. Friend draws attention.

I imagine that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire will tell us about the Work programme and present it to us as the panacea for the problems. It struck me that the Work programme did not get a mention in either of the speeches from coalition Back Benchers, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). I suspect that that reflects the reality of the Work programme’s impact.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire will not be able to tell us a great deal about the Work programme, because it is a secret. Members who have been to see the Work programme prime providers in the north-east, Avanta and Ingeus, will have found out from them that they are not allowed to provide any data at all on how they are getting on—no data or numbers about their performance. The Minister responsible for employment, who we understand has left the country, imposed a contractual ban on the publication of any data on the Work programme. He said in January, under pressure in the Chamber, that he would lift the ban and would in future allow prime providers to publish some data about their own performance, as of course they all used to do—under the flexible new deal, they published the numbers on how they were doing, because they wanted to compare how they and others were getting on.

Since then, however, the Minister of State has got cold feet, so the ban remains in place. One is bound to ask: what exactly are Ministers trying to hide? Why do they not want anybody to know what is going on in the Work programme? One consequence is that Jobcentre Plus managers do not know what is going on. If one speaks to one’s Jobcentre Plus district manager, one finds that they do not have a clue what is happening in the Work programme. Nobody has told them how many people have got jobs through it. We understand that Ministers want to avoid potentially embarrassing questions being put to them, but the consequence of the ban has been a destruction of the trust on which such initiatives depend, and a reduction in performance.

We have managed to glean very limited data from the providers’ trade association, the Employment Related Services Association, and it is no surprise that the numbers suggest that the Work programme is performing no better than the flexible new deal that went before it. That is after the Government spent more than £60 million buying out all the flexible new deal contracts to introduce it. They had not tried their programme out anywhere; they just launched into it in June last year, with no piloting or testing at all. We have seen a very disappointing performance, which we will eventually get some figures on, but we should have heard about it long before now.

Youth unemployment has been an important feature of the debate. The Government’s answer to the problem has been the youth contract, but that is smaller than the future jobs fund, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool referred, and is dependent on take-up. Given the effect on regions that suffer particularly high unemployment, I again ask the Government to reconsider their decision to put all the funding into a national pot, available on a first-come, first-served basis to those Work programme providers that ask for it. If a Work programme prime provider in an area with relatively low unemployment sees a way of getting a subsidy to push a young person who might have found a job in that area anyway into a subsidised role, it can do so, but that will be done at the expense of young people in areas such as the north-east, for whom the case for support is much stronger. Work programme providers agree. It would make much more sense to ring-fence the available youth contract funding, to ensure that it is used where it is needed, rather than squandered elsewhere.

As we have heard, we need a more active industrial strategy. That is key to reducing the problem of unemployment in the north-east. I very much agree with the tributes paid to One North East, which co-ordinated such an industrial strategy before the election. We see the benefits of it now in the announcements, which hon. Members have mentioned, on the car industry, the progress with electric vehicles and so on. That is all being lost. The RDA was scrapped in favour of the fragmented, piecemeal local enterprise partnership.

It was pleasing to hear the hon. Member for Redcar say something positive about the regional growth fund—a rare event indeed. The NAO pointed out that so far under the regional growth fund, the cost per job is more than it was with the RDAs. The whole point of the changes was supposed to be to save money; it is not working. The regional growth fund is proving to be very expensive. It is ironic that the Government accused the RDAs of being too centralised and bureaucratic, but have replaced them with one fragmented and divided scheme that does not have enough clout and another run from Whitehall, and not run very well at that.

We heard about the proposed move to regional pay bargaining, and will discuss it in on the Floor of the House this afternoon. It will certainly threaten the economy of the north-east. There have been hints of a U-turn here, and the people of the north-east would very much welcome that, if it were to be the outcome.

We need a change of course on economic policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool set out a compelling five-point plan. We need the problems in the Work programme sorted out—frankly, we need some daylight in the Work programme. It has been secretive so far and has had a blanket thrown over it. My fear is that we will not get those changes from the Government; we need a different Government to make the changes required.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) for securing this debate; we do not get enough opportunities in the House to debate regional issues. As a Member of Parliament for Wales, I do get such opportunities when the Welsh Grand Committee meets, which it is doing this afternoon. Unfortunately, other regions of England do not have the same opportunities.

I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman started off on a slightly discordant note, by mentioning the absence of the Minister.

No, it is not a fair point. What the hon. Gentleman did not say was that his Front-Bench team, in a rather cack-handed way, managed to timetable a debate in the main Chamber, requiring a Department of Work and Pensions Minister at exactly the same time as his own important debate this afternoon. If he does not think that the presence of the Employment Minister at the European employment summit this afternoon is critical given everything that is going on in Europe, I do not know what is—perhaps spending time with the Dalai Lama.

How many Ministers are there in the Department for Work and Pensions? What about a Minister from the Treasury or from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills attending this debate?

As the ministerial Whip for the Department, it is entirely appropriate that I respond to this debate, given that the other Ministers are tied up in other debates in the House.

The hon. Gentleman spoke well about the impact of unemployment on families and communities; that was one of the best parts of his speech. Like me, he comes from a part of the country where, historically, unemployment has been a blight on the community. He and I both have the privilege of representing constituencies in which we have grown up, and we understand the issues well. He powerfully explained the negative effect that unemployment has on communities.

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman and all colleagues in the Chamber this afternoon that the ministerial team at the DWP shares a passion and commitment for tackling unemployment. There is absolutely no complacency whatever within the departmental team about this issue. We recognise that unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is one of the biggest challenges that faces the Government.

I apologise for turning up late to this debate. I have been meeting a construction company from my constituency that is considering laying off 200 to 300 members of its work force—something that would be catastrophic. The hon. Gentleman correctly mentions the fact that there is little regional consideration of this whole matter. Therefore, there is no differentiation in approach across England in dealing with it, so while unemployment across England goes down, it goes up in the north-east.

I dispute that. The Government are trying to move away from the one-size-fits-all policies of the previous Administration. We are looking at locally and regionally tailored solutions, where appropriate.

Several hon. Members mentioned today’s labour market figures. I am not as gloomy as the shadow Minister about them. There are reasons for a measure of optimism. Nationally, employment is up by more than 400,000 since 2010. Private sector employment has gone up by 843,000, since 2010, and it has gone up again in the past month. In the past 12 months, in the north-east region, employment overall has gone up by 10,000 and private sector employment has increased by 17,000, which more than offsets the drop in public sector employment. That counters the point that the Opposition made about the drop in public sector employment being a driver of overall unemployment in the north-east region.

Those are encouraging signs, but we recognise that unemployment remains too high. It is true that unemployment in the north-east remains higher than in other parts of the country. Several Members have referred to the fact that it has the highest unemployment figures of all the UK regions.

Long-term unemployment affects only a minority of people, but it is a particular concern because it brings with it the risk of detachment from the labour market and people losing the hope of finding work again or finding that the skills that they had are diminished or outdated.

In the north-east, more than 24,000 people have been claiming unemployment benefits for more than 12 months. That figure is much lower than it was 25 years ago—the hon. Member for Hartlepool referred to the 1980s—but it is still too high, and we are not complacent.

One of the groups that has been hardest hit during the last two years of recession is young people. We have seen encouraging signs recently that youth unemployment might be starting to come down. Excluding unemployed students, it fell by 23,000, to just over 700,000 in the most recent quarter. That still leaves almost 50,000 16 to 24-year-olds unemployed in the north-east, so there is clearly much more to be done.

In April, we announced an additional £1 billion package of support for young people through the youth contract. Very few Opposition Members mentioned the action that is taking place and the fact that, in the past year, some 7,000 young people have benefited from the work experience scheme in the north-east. Nor did they mention the fact that there are 30,000 additional apprenticeships in the north-east, more than 1,000 of which are in the constituency of Hartlepool. It is not surprising that they do not want to talk about it. As Labour Members elsewhere have mentioned, one of the big failings of the previous Labour Administration was that they did not recognise fully the importance of apprenticeships and the link between high-value apprenticeships and upskilling in the economy.

Surely, the hon. Gentleman is aware that the number of apprenticeships increased tenfold under the Labour Government.

In the last 12 months, 67% more apprenticeships were created than in the last year of the previous Labour Government.

I support the Government in their hard work on apprenticeships and report that the number has doubled in my constituency and in many other constituencies in the north-east.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the number of apprenticeships has gone up. The biggest increase is for those over the age of 25. However, the massive increases are not in engineering, where the number has gone up by 29%, but in education and training, which has gone up by 373%, in arts, media and publishing, which has gone up by 134%, and in health, public services and care, which has gone up by 104%. Where we need the growth in high-value jobs, the apprenticeships are not coming through as quickly as they are in other sectors.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to downplay a 29% increase in engineering apprenticeships. More than a third more apprenticeships in engineering have been created, which is quite a success story, and I am grateful to him for highlighting it this afternoon.

We have heard useful contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) who recognised the importance of a sensible regional strategy. He talked about the benefits of the local enterprise partnerships in the north-east and in the Tees valley. He also drew attention to the fact that the north-east has recently achieved record exports. We believe in rebalancing the economy, and we want to see a more balanced export-led recovery. With its record exports, the north-east is well placed to take advantage of that.

Several hon. Members have referred to the excellent John Mowbray, who is the president of the north-east chamber of commerce. Last week, he talked about the importance of the north-east as a potential driver for an export-led recovery. I am really disappointed that Labour Members have not recognised that and are not sharing the ambitious approach of the north-east chambers of commerce. John Mowbray said that what the north-east really needs is a united front. Labour Members have turned up in force this afternoon not to show an ambitious united front or a positive approach—[Interruption.]

Order. May I suggest that Members make a formal intervention, rather than engaging in this rather poor behaviour?

Let me reiterate that the coalition Government have two parties working together to fix the legacy of a broken economy left to us by the Labour party. We are doing it in a way that fully recognises the importance of protecting regions such as the north-east of England, of seeing them reach their potential and of seeing unemployment brought down as quickly as possible.

Health and Safety Executive

Thank you very much, Mrs Brooke, for calling me to speak. I am delighted to have secured this debate on the remit of the Health and Safety Executive, and I am also delighted to see the Minister in her place. She is having a busy afternoon, so I am grateful that she is here in Westminster Hall to respond to the debate.

The Health and Safety Executive is an important organisation in today’s society, stating clearly that its role is

“to prevent people being killed, injured or made ill by work.”

The HSE has a great website where people can look up information by topic or industry, and obtain advice and guidance about health and safety at work. However, there is one huge gap in the HSE’s work, and it relates to driving for work purposes. HSE guidance for work-related road safety points to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which

“requires employers to take appropriate steps to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others who may be affected by their activities when at work. This includes the time when they are driving, or riding at work, whether this is in a company or hired vehicle, or in the employee’s own vehicle.”

However, the HSE has no responsibility for enforcement of the legislation. In October 2008, the Transport Committee’s 11th report of the 2007-08 Session of Parliament stated:

“It is anomalous that the vast majority of work-related deaths are not examined by the Health and Safety Executive, purely because they occur on the roads. The Government should review the role of the Health and Safety Executive with regard to road safety to ensure that it fulfils its unique role in the strategy beyond 2010.”

A Department for Transport booklet signposted on the HSE’s website sets out basic steps that employers should take, but it does not provide the kind of excellent advice that is given for other workplace situations. Deaths and injuries in other workplaces are properly investigated by the HSE, and what is learned is made available to other organisations. That does not happen for work-related deaths and injuries on our roads.

A report by the HSE in March 2012, entitled “Health and safety in road haulage”, does not discuss issues relating to sleep or fatigue, or vehicles on the road. It focuses on manual handling and workshop safety, which, although important issues, are not the key one of work-related deaths on our roads.

In response to a recent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield),the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) provided statistics about the proportion of work-related road deaths and injuries. He said that some of those deaths and injuries involved journeys

“where the journey purpose was known and recorded as ‘part of work’.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 391W.]

He said that 24% of serious injuries and 30% of road deaths in 2010 could be linked to work-related road traffic accidents. As there is no requirement to report work-related deaths, that is likely to be an underestimate. Even using those figures, we are talking about, on average, 11 deaths and 105 serious injuries every week.

Employers have a responsibility to report work-related injuries to the HSE under the Reporting of Injuries, Disease and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—RIDDOR—but that does not include a responsibility to report work-related road traffic accidents. Why are deaths and injuries resulting from those accidents not counted as workplace deaths and injuries? The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health argues that all work-related accidents, even those on public roads, should be included as a reporting requirement under regulations. It has repeatedly called for work-related road traffic accidents to be reportable and to be investigated by the HSE under RIDDOR.

The HSE recorded the number of workplace fatalities in 2010-11 as 171. However, those fatalities exclude fatalities of workers travelling on a public highway—in other words, fatalities in road traffic accidents. The HSE says:

“Such incidents are enforced by the police and reported to the Department for Transport.”

Using DFT statistics, “such incidents” equate to more than 550 work-related road traffic deaths in 2010, which is three times more than all the other deaths at work recorded for the most recent period.

The UK is rightly proud of the work that it has done to reduce deaths at work. The HSE’s website shows the steadily declining incidence of such deaths, which we should all welcome. However, because the fatal accidents being recorded exclude road traffic accidents, a full picture is simply not being provided. We do not know enough about why and how people at work die on the road, or how many members of the public are killed by people who drive for a living.

I became aware of this gap in the HSE’s coverage through an interest in the identification of obstructive sleep apnoea, particularly in lorry drivers. Some years ago, I was contacted by a constituent following the death of his 25-year-old nephew, Toby Tweddell, who was killed in 2006 by a lorry driven by somebody with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea.

Will the hon. Lady join me in congratulating one of my constituents, Carole Upcraft of Orpington, for her tireless and much-needed campaign to alert us to the dangers of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea, and to the need for early identification screening of drivers, particularly heavy goods vehicle drivers? We need to raise awareness of this condition in the haulage industry, and Mrs Upcraft’s campaign is performing a vital public service.

Indeed. I have had the pleasure of meeting the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, Mrs Upcraft. Along with members of others families who have been affected by this condition—such as my constituent, Seb Schmoller, his brother-in-law, Nick Tweddell, who is Toby’s father, and the rest of the Tweddell family, as well as Toby’s fiancée, Jenny—she has been involved in this campaign. These people are all determined that other people should not suffer in the way that they have suffered.

The link between untreated obstructive sleep apnoea and road traffic accidents is well established. Someone with that condition experiences repeated episodes of apnoea, whereby breathing is temporarily suspended because of a narrowing or closure of the airway in the upper throat during sleep. It results in episodes of brief awakening to restore normal breathing, of which the person may or may not be aware. The sustained failure to get proper restful sleep night after night means that the affected person is constantly tired and liable to fall asleep during the day.

Obstructive sleep apnoea affects many people, but despite it being a common, identifiable and treatable condition, knowledge of it among primary care practitioners remains poor, which means that the diagnosis rate is very low. It is estimated that 4% of men and 2% of women have the full syndrome—the symptoms of sleepiness I have described—and that up to 80% of cases may be undiagnosed.

The rate of obstructive sleep apnoea among lorry drivers is significantly higher than it is for the general population. There is a high correlation with being overweight, and the sedentary lifestyle of many who drive for a living increases their risk of developing it. According to medical experts, it is likely that between 10% and 20% of lorry drivers are affected by sleep problems. There are 400,000 large goods vehicle drivers in the UK, which means a minimum estimate of 40,000 affected drivers.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency estimates that 20% of serious road traffic accidents on major roads are caused by sleepy drivers. Clearly, the danger and damage caused by a heavy lorry crashing will be much greater than that caused by a car crashing, making sleep apnoea a significant health and safety at work issue. A 40-tonne lorry travelling at its maximum speed of 58 mph that fails to brake because the driver has fallen asleep, and that hits a queue of stationary vehicles, will crush at least the first car and its occupants. If it collides with the central reservation, it will probably flatten it, before continuing into the opposite carriageway, with all the consequent problems—even disaster—that that will cause. The number of road accidents, with the resulting deaths and serious injuries, can be substantially reduced by increasing the number of drivers who are diagnosed and successfully treated for this condition.

Obstructive sleep apnoea can be relatively easily diagnosed, with most sufferers being easily treated. In just two weeks, the benefits can be felt. Screening drivers within the workplace would be a significant contributor to the health and safety of lorry drivers and other road users. Some companies, such as Allied Bakeries, are taking that approach seriously, promoting awareness of the condition with their drivers and arranging to screen them. Some drivers describe the resulting treatment as life-changing. So far, 3% of approximately 1,000 of Allied Bakeries drivers have been successfully diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea and, following treatment, continue to work in the company.

Continuous positive airway pressure—or CPAP—treatment equipment costs less than three new lorry tyres or one tank of diesel fuel. That is a relatively small price, compared with the £1.5 million that the Department for Transport estimates to be the average cost of a fatal lorry collision, excluding the costs of any long-term health care, loss of income and insurance compensation for death and injury.

The British Lung Foundation is leading a major campaign to raise awareness of obstructive sleep apnoea, to improve diagnosis and treatment. It advises companies that employ drivers to encourage their staff to take part in screening programmes, while providing reassurance that people with sleep apnoea can, and do, continue in their jobs, if treated successfully.

Businesses in the UK sometimes complain that there is a complex regulatory environment—I should perhaps say “often complain”—but few argue with the important work that the Health and Safety Executive undertakes.

I wanted to come in at this point to congratulate the Health and Safety Executive on its investigation, which this week has led to fines for a manufacturing firm in Derbyshire, where two teenagers from my constituency nearly lost their lives at work.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That situation will be properly investigated and whatever was wrong put right, which is exactly what the Health and Safety Executive does, and does extraordinarily well. That is something of which we should all be proud.

Many of our major companies take great pride, not just in reducing accidents to a minimum but in seeking to carry out their business without any accidents at all. That is not just good for their employees but saves on business costs, making sense for everyone. Unfortunately, that approach does not extend sufficiently to those who employ drivers for a living. Astonishingly, when I first wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the matter, he replied that obstructive sleep apnoea in lorry drivers was not a health and safety issue. When I wrote again, he replied in more detail:

“medical fitness to drive is a matter on which the DVLA rightly takes the lead...HSE generally maintains that meeting DVLA requirements will satisfy the test of what is reasonable”.

I do not accept that meeting Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency requirements is enough to meet the Health and Safety Executive’s aim of requiring employers to take steps to reduce risks to as low a level as is reasonably practicable. In addition to the work that the DVLA and the police do on road safety, the Health and Safety Executive has an important role to play in influencing more employers and trade union safety representatives not only to be aware of the dangers of undiagnosed sleep apnoea, but actively to encourage screening.

I suspect that the Minister will tell me that the police, the DVLA, the Department for Transport and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency adequately ensure enforcement of the legislation, but I do not accept that. Given the cost of driving accidents, in lives and money, I ask the Minister to take this matter to her Department and look at it again.

Currently, employers have the legal responsibility, and I will continue—with, I am sure, Members such as the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson)—to press more companies voluntarily to adopt the approach of Allied Bakeries, but the Government can make a positive change and ensure that the Health and Safety Executive’s expertise is brought to bear.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. Does she feel perhaps that the findings of the report that she has presented today should be made known to the devolved Administrations, for example the Northern Ireland Assembly, where the matter is a devolved one? The findings of the report would be important for those Administrations, so that they could also bring, or enable, legislative change, to prevent such tragedies.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Nowadays, lorry drivers increasingly drive not just in their own countries but abroad, and we know that the European Union has been considering this matter. It is absolutely right that the devolved Assemblies should consider the issue in their Parliaments and ensure that they, too, address it.

Before I allow the Minister to respond, I want to make my fundamental point, which is that the Health and Safety Executive is a great body, which does a good job. It could do so much more in addressing the nearly two thirds of fatalities at work that happen not in the areas that the executive currently covers, but on the road.

My strong representation is that although other organisations, the police, the DVLA and the Department for Transport consider certain aspects of the matter, no one is doing the kind of proper forensic investigation of such accidents that would mean that information could be fed back into guidance and really begin to make a difference. The consequences of lorries crashing into people are horrific, as our constituents would testify, and I would like the Government seriously to consider the matter. I do not expect the Minister to wave her magic wand today, but I urge her to go back to her Department and have a good look at this.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, for what I think is the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for introducing such a thoughtful debate today and commend her on her incredible work on road safety, which is something that I, too, have a passion about, so I hope that we can work on it together. I particularly commend her on her work on raising awareness of obstructive sleep apnoea, the effects that it can have on drivers and the tragic impact of accidents that result from tiredness. I have listened carefully to the points that she has made. We all know that any loss of life in a road accident is a tragedy, and the Government are committed to making transport safer.

There were 1,850 deaths on the roads in 2010, and 22,660 people were seriously injured. Although that is the lowest number of deaths since records began, each death or injury on the road, or at work, is a waste of human life and many of them are preventable. The hon. Lady is right to say that some 25% to 30% of road fatalities in 2010 were in accidents that involved someone at work.

Many medical conditions can already lead to the suspension of a driving licence, including obstructive sleep apnoea and changes in eyesight. Such suspensions are revoked only when it can be demonstrated that the treatment of the condition makes it safe to do so. Failure to report a medical condition to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is a criminal offence, and other restrictions include limitations on the hours that a heavy goods vehicle driver is allowed to work and the regime for monitoring tachographs to ensure compliance. Such measures have contributed to the reductions in deaths and injuries on the roads.

The Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 is key, as it places duties on both the employer and the employee to ensure that members of the public are not exposed to risks that can cause death or injury as a result of work. As the hon. Lady rightly says, health and safety at work are important, and the Health and Safety Executive has an extremely wide remit, with the potential for involvement in a broad range of issues; it is absolutely sensible, therefore, to draw up some pragmatic boundaries for its operations.

The HSE takes action when workers or members of the public are put at risk, except when more specific regulations already exist. For example, it would not normally act in cases of clinical or medical negligence, or aircraft incidents, for which there are other more directly relevant regulators or legislation. The situation is the same on the roads, where the Road Traffic Act 1991 applies and the police have primacy.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

To take up where I left off, alongside the police, a number of agencies also have an interest, including the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency—VOSA—and the DVLA, each of which has a clearly defined role.

The DVLA rightly takes the lead on medical fitness. It issues driving licences based on assurances from drivers that they are fit to drive. People with vision problems or any other medical condition therefore need to consider whether changes to their condition impact on their ability to drive, and they must report any such changes to the DVLA. Indeed, as I am sure the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley knows, one of those notifiable conditions is OSA. For drivers of heavy goods vehicles and passenger service vehicles, the law is more stringent. They must cease driving on diagnosis, and they cannot resume driving until the DVLA has received confirmation from a specialist that their condition is controlled.

As hon. Members would expect, the Government want to look at how we can prevent accidents. We always need to do more to prevent them and to ensure that employers and employees take their responsibilities seriously. The HSE, with the Department for Transport, produces guidance to help companies whose staff drive to work. That guidance, “Driving at Work: Managing work-related road safety”, spells out the need for employers to be satisfied that their drivers are fit and healthy, so that they drive safely and do not put others at risk.

The HSE also established the road distribution action group, which was a partnership between employers’ groups, trade unions and regulators, whose aim was to improve health and safety at work and to reduce accidents and ill health in the road haulage and distribution industry. The group produced guidance for the distribution industry on managing driver fatigue.

The Freight Transport Association also produces a monthly update on health and safety issues, which regularly includes information on driver fatigue, and the Driving for Better Business website provides advice on road safety issues.

Most cases of OSA go undiagnosed, so we need to consider that one of the most effective and realistic ways to reduce road accidents that result from the condition is to encourage all drivers not to drive when tired. I am sure that the same signs, electronic or otherwise, are put up on the motorways in the hon. Lady’s area as in mine. The Department for Transport issues such advice through its “Think!” campaign on fatigue, which was given a national award by Brake, the road safety charity. I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen the campaign on motorways such as the M3, which goes through my constituency.

I of course welcome anything that draws people’s attention to the issue, but the problem with obstructive sleep apnoea is that people who have it feel tired all the time and often do not know the reason why. They do not therefore think that that message is as applicable to them as it is to someone who has had a long day or who was up late the previous night. It is an important message, but it is not sufficient.

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. That is why there is a clear responsibility on employers and employees to think more generally about their health. That is as it should be, because we have to remember that drivers can experience a broad range of health conditions that could affect their capabilities. They might, for example, suffer from diabetes, heart conditions or migraines, to name but a few. Drivers and employers need to think broadly about health issues, including sleep apnoea, on a continuing basis. An individual process for each condition might not be manageable, but we have to make sure that employers and employees think about health issues. It is also important that they keep track of innovations in relation to our understanding of different conditions and how they can affect people, particularly in the workplace.

Given the broad range of health issues involved, it is difficult to set out a definite requirement for each one. We have to remember personal responsibility and the fact that the legal and moral obligation of all drivers to drive safely and to report any health condition to their employer exists in law. OSA is treatable when identified, and we need to ensure—the hon. Lady is doing an extremely good job on this—that employers are aware of the condition and that they have processes in place to monitor all sorts of health conditions, including OSA, in employees who drive as part of their work.

By calling for this debate, the hon. Lady has shown what Members of Parliament can do to highlight and underline such issues and to ensure that not only Ministers, but other organisations and employers keep abreast of what they should take into consideration with regard to the health of employees. I will use this debate as an opportunity to discuss the issue with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who sends his apologies for not being able to attend, because he is on Government business in Europe.

I will also bring the hon. Lady’s good work to the attention of the FTA, the DFT and the road distribution action group. I want to ensure that important groups take on board the importance of monitoring the scale of road accidents at work and to press home the importance of continuing to work to make our roads as safe as possible.

Sitting suspended.

Hospitals (Sussex)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

I am grateful that Mr Speaker has given me an opportunity to address an important local issue—the proposed reconfiguration of my local Sussex NHS trust, the East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust. A number of reconfigurations have already taken place in Sussex, such as the transfer in March of in-patient elderly care and orthopaedics in the Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust from Southlands hospital to Worthing hospital. It appears that the latest direction of travel for Southlands is to become a day surgery and out-patients-only hospital, with which I expect few local residents would agree.

Let me give the Minister the details of the proposed changes to my local trust and hospital, Eastbourne district general hospital. Four or five years ago, the trust board wished to downgrade maternity at the DGH while maintaining consultant-led maternity at our sister hospital in the trust, Conquest hospital in Hastings. There was a substantial campaign against the proposals in which all parties were involved, and eventually the matter was referred to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel for consideration. It found against the proposals, and the trust-proposed strategy was sent to the then Secretary of State for a decision. I am glad to say that he backed the IRP and our campaign to retain consultant-led maternity on both sites.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, there was a number of reasons why the IRP found against the trust, but essentially the main reason was the poor road link between Hastings and Eastbourne, which would have meant a blue-light ambulance potentially taking upwards of 50 minutes to travel from hospital to hospital. From a patient safety perspective—for example, for a mother facing a complicated birth—that was considered far too long. Hon. Members can imagine my surprise to find out a few weeks ago that the new trust board is recommending a similar change—to be precise, that there should be a consultant-led maternity unit on one site and a midwifery-led unit on the other site. For the record, the road links between the DGH and the Conquest are even worse than they were five years ago, when the IRP found in our favour.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The story elsewhere in Sussex has been similar. A decade ago, we lost maternity services from Crawley hospital, which was a very retrograde step. Mothers now have to travel long distances and a difficult journey to East Surrey hospital for maternity services. The proximity argument is important.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention, not least because he demonstrates that if the proposed downgrades go through, the backlog will be even worse. Patients coming from his constituency would have an even longer wait, which an expectant mum with a complicated birth cannot afford.

Along with maternity, the proposed clinical changes recommend significant further reductions to trauma and orthopaedics, general surgery, stroke, emergency care, acute medicine, cardiology, paediatrics and child health provision. I am no medical expert, but even I can see that if some of the proposals are carried through, they will lead to a substantial downgrade of core services at Eastbourne district general hospital. We are talking about a possible downgrading of a much loved hospital in one of the fastest growing towns in the south-east, where the fastest growing age group is the 25 to 45s. I am simply not prepared to stand idly by and allow that to happen. The people of Eastbourne and the surrounding area are not prepared to do so, and none of the local political parties is prepared to accept the proposals.

On that note, I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who is here supporting me in this debate, as he has done throughout the past few years. He was very heavily involved five years ago, when we won the last campaign. I also acknowledge the support I have received from the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). They send their apologies for not being here, but they are very supportive of what we are trying to achieve. The local business community and the voluntary sector are also not prepared to stand by while our hospital’s core services face such a proposed downgrade. We will all fight the proposals vigorously and tenaciously. I cannot emphasise that strongly enough to the Minister.

Why are we so determined to fight? Let me flesh out just a little of what we believe the consequences will be if the proposed clinical strategy goes ahead. The first issue is travel distance. The travel time between Conquest and the DGH is 50 minutes. Even when the planned Bexhill-Hastings bypass is built, in however many years’ time, that journey time will be reduced by only five-and-a-half minutes. That is still way outside the guidance from the Royal College of Midwives on mothers giving birth safely. The IRP and the Secretary of State agreed with us on that five years or so ago.

Secondly, although I wholly accept that very specialised procedures—for instance, children’s cardiac surgery or even specialist oncology and cancer—are better in the fewer, larger specialist expert centres, the vast majority of Sussex patients also need good-quality local care for simple conditions. Why would the Department of Health encourage care closer to home and then sanction the massive movement of patients, which would be an inevitable consequence of some of the proposed changes?

Thirdly, there will continue to be two hospitals admitting medical emergencies, as there are too many patients to move them all into one giant hospital. The reality is that it is often difficult to make a diagnosis for elderly people, but the proposals mean that one unit will have a surgeon on call and one will not. An elderly person admitted to a hospital with no surgeon who proves to have a burst appendix or to be bleeding internally will have to travel from the DGH to Conquest. That simply cannot be safe.

Fourthly, both hospitals fix fractured bones, but under the proposed strategy, if someone has a fracture, they will have to travel. The number of elderly and frail patients with hip fractures having to travel will increase exponentially. It will take longer for them to get an operation, and the inherent delay will lead to worse outcomes. In addition, there is likely to be a longer waiting period to sort out social services, and the individual patient will have to be sent home from a greater distance. Surely that cannot be better for the patient. In fact, pretty much anyone with a broken arm, leg or hip that needs fixing will have to travel further. The service will not be better quality, Minister; it will just be slower.

Let us take a look at the nearby trusts that will, apparently, take up the slack. This is patently absurd. Brighton more often than not has huge waits, and Pembury is full, so that is no answer. In stroke care, elderly patients will be moved, making it doubly hard for their similarly-aged husbands and wives to visit. Is that good practice for the patient? I do not think so. There is more, but I am that sure the Minister gets my drift. If he does not, let me draw his attention to the contents of a very important letter that was leaked to me a couple of weeks ago—I am happy to share the contents of the letter with him afterwards.

The letter was sent to the trust board from the consultant advisory committee that represents the most senior clinicians at Eastbourne district general hospital, following a meeting that 63 consultants attended. I quote:

“The main body of Consultant Opinion expressed little or no confidence in significant elements of the strategy… Concerns repeatedly expressed (by the Consultants) were that proposals would not advance the desire for improved access and quality of care for patients in East Sussex”.

These are direct quotes. The letter continues:

“There was frustration that clinical input from the majority of CAC members into the strategy has not been taken into account. Furthermore, concern was expressed that although Management has described the strategy as clinically led, this has been by a few invited individuals and the majority Consultant opinion expressing concerns regarding many aspects of the strategy has not been adequately expressed… the clinical strategy as explained and understood by the CAC does not deliver clear benefits to patients and therefore cannot be supported in its current form”.

The CAC letter further states:

“our local population rightly expects key services should be maintained at both sites and that these include stroke care, orthopaedics and trauma, general surgery and other core services. The strong recommendation of the CAC was that both sites should be developed to improve quality of care, training issues and access for local patients”.

I shall conclude my speech, because I am very keen to listen to the Minister’s response. Time precludes me from going into detail about the cross-party “Save the DGH” campaign group, which has been working together for years. It succeeded five years ago and has come back together stronger than ever. Time precludes me from talking about the fantastic work that has been done by our chair, Liz Waike, the strong determination in my constituency to protect core services at the DGH, and the important support provided by our local paper, the Eastbourne Herald.

I also do not have enough time to talk about the details of the utter financial shambles. The trust has been under successive managements since it was merged with the Conquest more than 10 years ago. I am well aware that, like me, the Minister has a business background. The financial inefficiency of the trust for many years has been mind-blowing. I would be happy to give the right hon. Gentleman more details at another time.

Time precludes me from giving details of the severe morale challenges felt by community nurses, who face reductions while at the same time being told ad nauseum that they must keep people in the community, so as not to take up expensive hospital beds. Time precludes me from telling the Minister of the sheer frustration that my constituents and I feel as we have to fight a similar battle around maternity all over again, despite the IRP’s clear conclusions five years or so ago.

Time precludes me from presenting details of how, if necessary, we should seriously consider de-merging the trust and setting Eastbourne DGH up as a separate foundation trust. We have been doing this work for many months now, as we suspected that proposals to downgrade DGH core services from the current trust board were in the pipeline. I have even had a number of key people in the DGH campaign visit an equivalent sized trust in Yeovil in the west country. We came back from that visit with some very useful data and plans for if we were to de-merge.

As time is an issue, I will finish with a direct quote from our mutual friend and colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who wrote in a letter that I received yesterday:

“The Government has said that, in future, all service changes must be led by clinicians and patients”.

The clinicians, as I have already reported, have profound concerns. I can assure the Minister of State that patients—former and future, from Eastbourne, Willingdon, Lewes and beyond—also have profound concerns about the proposed clinical strategy currently presented by East Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust managers.

I ask the Minister to take on board our concerns, to do what is necessary to address them, and to ensure that our hospital, Eastbourne DGH, is continues to perform as a fully functioning district general hospital for many years to come. Eastbourne is a growing town—in many ways, we are bucking the economic trend—and I am working closely with business and the council. We are rolling up our sleeves up in this difficult economic climate. I have already mentioned that the fastest-growing demographic in my constituency is the 25-to-45 age group. I need a proper hospital for Eastbourne. I need a district general hospital for the long term. I would welcome any comments that the Minister has to make.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on securing the debate on an issue that I know is of considerable concern to him and his constituents, and to other hon. Members attending today.

Before I address the issues raised, I would first like to pay tribute to all those who work in the national health service in Eastbourne, whose dedication, determination and commitment provide first class care to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of other hon. Members. I know the hon. Gentleman is committed to ensuring that his constituents have access to high quality health care whenever and wherever they need it. I also appreciate that when any changes to local services are mooted, people can become anxious and feelings can run high.

As lifestyles, society and medicine change, the NHS must continually adapt. The NHS has always had to respond to patients’ changing expectations and to advances in medical technology. Reconfiguration is about modernising the facilities and the delivery of care to improve patient outcomes, to develop services closer to home, and, most importantly, to save lives. The Government are very clear that the reconfiguration of front-line health services is a matter for the local NHS. Services should be tailored to meet the needs of local people and to provide them with the best possible outcomes. That is why we are putting patients, carers and local communities at the heart of the NHS, placing decision making as close as possible to individual patients by devolving power to professionals and providers, and liberating them from top-down control.

Those principles are further enshrined in the four tests introduced in 2010 by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Local reconfiguration plans must demonstrate: support from GP commissioners; strengthened public and patient engagement; clarity on the clinical evidence base; and support for patient choice. Our reforms allow strategic decisions to be taken at the most appropriate level. We are enabling clinical commissioners to make the changes that will deliver real improvements in health outcomes, and we will provide incentives to providers to deliver higher quality and more efficient services.

We are also aware that the reconfiguration of services works best when there is a partnership approach between the NHS, local government and the public. That is why we are strengthening local partnership arrangements, under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, through health and wellbeing boards. They will provide a forum where commissioners, local authorities and the local HealthWatch can discuss and plan the future shape of services to meet the health requirements of the local health economy.

NHS Sussex and local clinical commissioning groups, such as the commissioners of East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, have been working with NHS South of England, with support from the National Clinical Advisory Team, to ensure that there is full and proper scrutiny of the proposals to reconfigure some services. That has included assessing the readiness of the local NHS to go out to formal consultation, including reviewing the case for change and understanding whether the four tests, as laid down by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, for service change have been met.

The services under consideration for reconfiguration at the trust’s two acute sites at Eastbourne District General hospital and the Conquest hospital, Hastings are: orthopaedics, higher risk and emergency surgery only; general surgery, higher risk and emergency surgery only; and stroke, hyper-acute and acute only. Those are the only services being consulted on under the proposals. The local NHS agrees that hyper-acute and acute stroke services, all emergency and higher risk elective general surgical procedures, and all emergency and higher risk elective orthopaedic procedures can no longer be provided at both of the trust’s acute hospital sites. I understand that the proposed changes were approved on 30 May by the two local clinical commissioning groups—Hastings and Rother; and Eastbourne, Hailsham and Seaford. NHS South of England strategic health authority formally reviewed those proposals and assured itself that the Secretary of State’s four tests have been met and will continue to be met. The trust will now look to launch a 14-week public consultation exercise, which it anticipates will commence on 25 June, or shortly thereafter.

The hon. Gentleman raised concerns about maternity services, and I will seek to reassure him. For the sake of clarity, the current proposed consultation will not include maternity services. I understand that maternity services will be included in a separate programme known as Sussex Together, which is still being developed. That will look at maternity services across the county as a whole. The proposals are focused on enabling the local NHS to deliver directly clinically safe and sustainable services for patients, now and into the future. I am sure the hon. Gentleman agrees that this is something we all want and expect from the NHS.

A great deal of work is taking place to develop a local clinical strategy, one that will ensure the future sustainability of health services in the county and the best possible outcomes for local patients. The clinical strategy centres on eight areas of care, described by the trust as primary access points, covering 80% of service delivery. They are: acute medicine; cardiology; emergency care—A and E; general surgery; maternity; musculoskeletal, trauma and orthopaedics; paediatrics and child health; and stroke. For each one, a report on current challenges, the case for change and the proposed option has been produced.

With those plans, the local NHS in Sussex wants to achieve greater integration across health and social care services, to provide more care within communities, together with, where appropriate, shorter stays in hospital and better support when patients leave hospital, to provide care that continues to meet national clinical standards and best practice, to improve patient access to clinical experts at the earliest appropriate opportunity and to deliver the best outcomes for local patients.

I appreciate what the Minister says. I share his belief that the broader we go on the consultation, the better it will be. I support the health and wellbeing boards, introduced under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, because they are a good idea and will have some clout under the legislation. Does he agree that as the ESHT goes through the consultation, our new health and wellbeing board should be part of that consultation?

Yes. Anyone and anybody should contribute to the consultation on any proposed reconfiguration. A key role of the health and wellbeing boards, particularly when fully established and operating in their own right, rather than in their shadow form at the moment, will be to ensure that the interests of the local health economy and patients are met. I would be surprised if the health and wellbeing boards did not show an interest in any reconfiguration, whether affecting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency or elsewhere. I am sure that they would form a view about any proposals.

The plans have been developed by local clinicians, including input from local clinical commissioning groups, with involvement from patient representatives, local people and other stakeholders, taking into consideration national best practice. Local clinical commissioning groups are also working alongside NHS Sussex to lead work on assuring the plans. The local NHS says that it believes that the majority of the changes required can be achieved by redesigning services and introducing greater integration and productivity within and between services. The proposed changes should enable the trust to deliver best practice, such as early access to senior clinicians, dedicated units, with specialist support staff and facilities, and improved multi-disciplinary teams.

Under the preferred options, surgery and orthopaedic services would be provided from the same site to support trauma unit designation. However, stroke services would not necessarily have to be on the same site as those services.

As I have said, reconfiguration is a matter for the NHS locally. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it would be inappropriate for Ministers to intervene in local due process, because the ethos of NHS reform is to put an end to the constant interference and micromanagement of the day-to-day running of the health service by Ministers like me or civil servants in the Department of Health in Whitehall. The nub of our reforms is that decisions on local issues—the local provision of health care—should and must be determined locally within the local health economy.

I appreciate where the Minister is coming from. Again, I genuinely and profoundly agree with him. That is why it is so significant that the majority of senior clinicians, as well as the public, are singing broadly from the same hymn sheet. The significance of the changes in the Health and Social Care Act 2012 is, as our colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Health says, that they must be led by clinicians and patients. That is why I made the point in my speech. I am gratified that the Minister has reiterated that.

Let me mention something that will be of some comfort to the hon. Gentleman when the proposals get to the appropriate part of the process. The local authority health overview and scrutiny committee, which comprises democratically elected members of the council, has powers to refer a service reconfiguration to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State if it is not satisfied that the proposals are in the interest of the health service in the area and in line with the content of the consultation or the time that has been allowed for it and that the consultation has been conducted appropriately.

As this consultation has not yet even begun, the HOSC has obviously not yet had the opportunity to make any such decision on whether it has been conducted appropriately. I therefore encourage the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and other interested parties who may be affected by the proposals to engage fully in the consultation when it commences to ensure that their views are fully taken into consideration.

If a decision flowing from the consultation does not find favour with the overview and scrutiny committee, it will be open to that committee to write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to express its concern and dissatisfaction with the process, the decisions taken and the conclusions reached and to request that he refer it to the independent reconfiguration panel. That is a number of stages down the road, because we have not yet even commenced the consultation.

I urge the hon. Gentleman and every other interested party in East Sussex and even further afield if they might be affected by this reconfiguration to engage fully in the process, so that their views and concerns and their ideas of the best way to provide local health services are met.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.