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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
16 October 2012
Volume 551

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 October 2012

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

Agricultural Wages Board

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

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My apologies for being late. I call Mr Jamie Reed to speak.

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Thank you, Mr Caton, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time. I am very grateful to have been granted a debate on this important issue, the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board.

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On a point of order, Mr Caton. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. Just for the convenience of the House, I think that it is important to note that I have released a written ministerial statement on this subject today, opening a consultation. That being the case, and given that the statement cannot be released until 9.30 am and hon. Members will obviously be in Westminster Hall today and unable to get to the Library to see a copy, I have arranged for them to have a copy of the written ministerial statement. I can provide further copies if other Members have need of one.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Caton. I also apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) so early in his speech. I welcome the fact that the Minister has made that statement at the beginning of proceedings today; I am literally reading the written ministerial statement as we begin, having just been handed it by him. It is welcome; we have been waiting for it for some time. However, welcome as it is, I want to ask the Minister a question. The announcement on the consultation is the fundamental part of today’s written ministerial statement, but when was that announcement originally due to be made?

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We were planning to make that announcement today; it is coincidental that this debate was called for today. However, that being the case, I thought that it was very important that all Members had full possession of the facts, rather than debating in the dark, as it were.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Caton. I will not delay proceedings any more than I need to. I apologise again for interrupting my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland. My understanding is that the announcement on this consultation was first talked about last spring, running into the summer, under the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice). So, welcome as the announcement is on whatever date we are today—

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Order. I am afraid that that point is not about the statement, and therefore it is not a point of order. I call Jamie Reed.

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Such excitement so early on. I think that it can only be the new working hours unsettling us all. However, there will be ample time to discuss all the issues that Members wish to raise.

The Agricultural Wages Board, in one form or another, has provided good wages, good working conditions and good lives to farm workers since 1924. Before I continue, I must thank the Minister for providing early sight of the written ministerial statement today, before we began proceedings. I appreciate that courtesy.

I want to touch on three issues in my speech today. First, the AWB allows farmers to focus on farming. They do not have to be employment specialists and they have no need to negotiate with their work force over pay and conditions. Secondly, the AWB is the most effective way of ensuring that regional part-time, young and even full-time employees in the farming industry are not exploited. Without the protection of the board, they will be vulnerable to lower pay and worse conditions. Thirdly and finally, the AWB is so much more than a body for setting wages and conditions. On one level, it ensures that a shepherd has the funds to look after their most valuable asset, which of course is sheepdogs; that tenant farmers have secure homes to live in; that farm workers have good overtime and night work rates, fair stand-by allowances and sick pay; and that agricultural workers of all types are provided with suitable bereavement leave and holiday entitlements.

The Government’s planned abolition of the AWB puts all of that at risk. I welcome the appointment of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) to his new post of farming Minister. I hope that he can bring an appreciation of the farming industry and its workers to this Government. In my view, that appreciation has been significantly lacking for too long.

This is not the first time that the Tories have attempted to abolish the AWB. Baroness Thatcher attempted to abolish it, but she changed her mind when she realised that it was a vital organisation for farmers and farm workers. Sadly and in some ways inexplicably, when I look at the Minister, this Government are proposing to abolish an organisation that even Margaret did not want to abolish.

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I remind my hon. Friend that the very arguments that I suspect many people in Westminster Hall today will be deploying in defence of the AWB are the same arguments that persuaded Margaret Thatcher not to abolish it, and that were made by her own Back Benchers at the time.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is absolutely the case that there was overwhelming opposition to the proposal of the then Thatcher Government to abolish the AWB. Thankfully, the arguments against abolishing the AWB were listened to then, and common sense prevailed. Sadly, like much of what this Government are trying to achieve, whether that is the dismantling of the NHS or the destruction of local government, the abolition of the AWB is unfinished Thatcherite business, as my hon. Friend has just implied.

In a report for the Low Pay Commission in December 2011, Incomes Data Services argued that

“the agricultural sector is distinct from other sectors in that it is comprised of small employment units but with the additional feature of seasonal or casual workers”.

The AWB may indeed be an anomaly in our economy, but the agricultural sector is so different from other sectors of our economy that it is a necessary anomaly. Small farmers, who make up the majority of the industry, do not have the time, the expertise or, frankly, the funds to negotiate with their workers time and time again in what is an increasingly pressurised working environment.

The standards of pay and conditions set by the AWB enable farmers to focus on running their businesses and producing the products that we all need—increasingly so, as this year’s poor harvest demonstrates in many ways. In abolishing the AWB, the Government are not freeing farms from unnecessary bureaucracy. Instead, they are making the lives of small farmers more difficult and creating an even more bureaucratic working environment than the one that currently exists. That is the last thing that small farmers could possibly need. Instead of having to deal only with the AWB, in the future farmers will need to work with myriad different organisations, each one governing a different area of employment regulation and each, in turn, exposing every small farm business to new and different liabilities and complexities.

In their report calling for the retention of the AWB, the Welsh Government correctly noted that if the board is abolished

“pay bargaining would become instantly fragmented”.

It is important to note that, although the leadership of the National Farmers Union backs the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, it might not, on this occasion, be speaking for every small farmer in England, or Britain—it is certainly not speaking for those in Wales. I greatly respect the NFU and its leadership, and have very good relationships with NFU leaders in my constituency who, for the most part, skilfully, adeptly and effectively represent their members’ interests, but I think that they have got it wrong on this one.

The farming union of Wales, the young farmers of Wales and many small farmers across the UK want to retain the Agricultural Wages Board. The Government claim to be on the side of farmers, but on this issue they are making farmers’ lives much more difficult, making their businesses much harder to run, and doing the exact opposite of what the Government should be doing—at all times but particularly in these straitened times—which is supporting our nation’s farmers and making it easier for their businesses to survive and grow.

The situation profoundly affects my constituency and my home county. Across the north of England there are 28,180 agricultural workers, with 12,260 in the north-west, 3,300 in Cumbria—my home county—and almost 600 in my constituency. Copeland is the constituency that is most dependent on public spending in England. It is also the English constituency that is hardest to reach from Westminster—yes, there is a link—and more than 50% of the local economy is based on public spending.

Throughout my time in this House, I have sought to rebalance my local economy through the growth of our local private sector, but it is difficult to do that, and is becoming more so. At a time when the majority of public spending cuts are yet to bite—perhaps the Minister could tell us if he supports the additional £10 billion cuts that the Chancellor has announced—and when the budgets and services of local authorities in my area are being decimated, the removal of a body that helps small businesses to do business and maintains minimum workplace standards and minimal rates of pay surely cannot be right. This is a detached policy, from an increasingly detached Government.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. On what is likely to be lost, there is also the unique problem that agricultural workers are exceptionally isolated in terms of their negotiating and bargaining power. On the abolition, and the consultation that has been announced today, does the hon. Gentleman not share my disappointment? We should not be obsessed with organisational structure—I am not going to die in a ditch defending the existence of the Agricultural Wages Board—but the board provides protections, and without it the only safety net that agricultural workers will be left with is the national minimum wage. A whole strand of negotiations is available through the existing regulations.

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I completely share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. I must point out that I did my best for his economy over the summer when I holidayed in his area, but I am afraid that I did not write to him to let him know of my visit and I hope that that is forgivable. His points are absolutely correct.

In the written ministerial statement published this morning, it is claimed that the abolition of the AWB will help to achieve

“the Government’s objective of harmonising and simplifying employment law, and removing regulatory burdens from businesses”.

It goes on to say that it will

“contribute significantly to the Government’s programme of public body reform and support the Government’s growth agenda”,

but I think that the effect will be almost the opposite of what is intended. It is incredible and inexplicable that the analysis that is so simple and obvious for people who live in rural communities has not been brought to bear on what the Government aim to achieve.

Some 38% of all agricultural workers in England are seasonal or part-time employees—in Wales the figure is 56%—and statutory protections are woefully lacking. It is due only to the Agricultural Wages Board that seasonal and part-time farm workers enjoy the same rights as full-time workers. Without the board, young employees will have no set rates of pay, which will open them up to lower pay. Without the board, seasonal workers will not have secure contracts, which will open them up to exploitation. How often do we see stories of exploitation? Even now that we have the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, we still see egregious examples of exploitation in the agricultural industry and others around the country. How much easier are we about to make it for future incidents to occur?

Without the Agricultural Wages Board, part-time workers will not be guaranteed rest breaks, which will open them up to worsening conditions. In abolishing the board, the Government are giving bad employers the opportunity to cut pay and worsen conditions in a race to the bottom, and in whose interests is that? In the Low Pay Commission’s 2012 report, it was noted that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board could lead to an increase in rural poverty. Rural areas such as the eastern coast—my own constituency and across Cumbria—parts of Wales and rural areas of the south coast are already among the most deprived in the country. With the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, the Government—this Tory-led Government—are doing what most people already feared they would do: making life harder for the poorest.

I know that the Government and the National Farmers Union will say that farmers are not planning to reduce wages and conditions, and I have always rejected—and always will—the lazy, ignorant stereotyping of many in this House when it comes to understanding farmers and farming, but if this year’s dairy crisis has proved anything it is that farmers will continue to face downward pressures on farm-gate prices. Pay and conditions can be a soft target, even for the best farmers, when faced with rising cost pressures, such as the ones we saw this summer. The proposed abolition is bad for farmers—it will make their lives more difficult—and it is bad for employees, as it will make their jobs, pay and working conditions much less secure.

In addition, the AWB ensures housing for 30% of farm workers, provides bereavement payments and leave, ensures that new parents get child payments, gives suitable rest breaks for hard-working farm employees and provides a host of other employment benefits that as a result of abolition will be lost or greatly reduced. In his conference speech only last week, the Prime Minister said that his Government would always support those who worked hard. There are few people who work harder than farm employees; they work long hours, and many of them do literally back-breaking labour day in, day out, all of it to make products we all need and enjoy each and every day of our lives. Yet it appears that the Government insist on making their lives more difficult, reducing their protections and changing the agricultural industry from one often characterised by good working relationships to one in which wage negotiations are fragmented, and jobs, pay and conditions are no longer secure. After abolition, farmers who have for generations lived in secure homes will face possible eviction, and hard-working people will lose payments that make their lives just a little easier, as the economy gets worse and worse.

The Government’s decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board has not been followed by the Scottish or Northern Irish Governments, and the Welsh Government want to retain the board in Wales. Once again, it appears that this Government are pursuing a path of action with which very few people agree, and even fewer want to see. Even the NFU cannot claim to be speaking for every small farmer. Indeed, evidence suggests that only the biggest of farmers agree with the action; smaller farmers and farm workers do not want to see the AWB abolished. The board must be retained; it is not in the interests of farm employees, of farmers, of the agricultural industry, or of rural communities and economies to abolish it.

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On my point about an obsession with organisational structure, I generally agree with the broad thrust of the Government’s approach, which is to abolish or amalgamate as many quangos as possible. We should always be bearing down on the proliferation of Government agencies and quangos. The important regulations and the six grades that are available, and the other protections for agricultural workers, could be transferred from the AWB to an existing body such as the Low Pay Commission. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should perhaps not be obsessed with the board itself but look at ways in which the regulations could be overseen or protected by an existing Government agency?

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Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I understand the point he tries to make. The issue, however, is whether the abolition meets the Government’s own criteria? Does it pass the Government’s own test, and will it cost more to undertake the functions that the hon. Gentleman outlines within other bodies than to retain the Agricultural Wages Board? Let us see the evidence—that is my request to the Government.

Finally, and in a way leading on from that intervention, in the event of abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, what checks will the Government introduce to ensure that wage levels and working conditions do not collapse? How will the checks be undertaken, and how will they be paid for? Will the Government undertake an economic impact assessment of how the abolition will affect each English region, particularly those that depend heavily on public spending? If so, will the Minister undertake to publish such an assessment, and if not, can he tell us why not? I look forward to his reply.

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I am surprised you called me so early, Mr Caton. I expected to wait a bit.

We are in the American election season, and listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) reminded me of what Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter in 1980: “There you go again.” The one thing I have learned since coming to the House is that the Government seem to think that there are simplistic solutions to complex problems. With the most complex problems, it sounds nice to say, “We are cutting red tape by getting rid of the Agricultural Wages Board.” But the problem seems much more complex than that.

I have read this morning’s written ministerial statement, which states that with the introduction of the minimum wage, the Agricultural Wages Board is now obsolete. Again, that is a bit simplistic considering what the Agricultural Wages Board does. Twenty per cent of people are only 2p above the minimum wage. If the Agricultural Wages Board and the setting of wages are abolished, wages might be driven down, rather than up. That means people in the countryside, including farm workers, would be earning less.

I also worry because many of the 12,000 agricultural workers in Wales are of school age, working through their summer holidays. As my hon. Friend says, they are seasonal. They are not entitled to the minimum wage. What is going to happen to them? Are they going to be exploited from an early age?

The other thing I am deeply concerned about is that farmers have it hard. Let us be straight about that. Farming is not easy. It is tough out there. We cannot give farmers the further burden of having to negotiate with staff individually on things such as dog allowances for shepherds, which will go with abolition, and statutory sick pay. I fear that not only are those farmers too small to negotiate, but that this is another extra burden that they do not need. There could be different employment rights in different regions. In some places there might be a good level of statutory sick pay; in others there might not. Some people might have more rights than others.

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I want to pick up on the points raised by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on the transfer of the AWB’s functions to some other organisation. The Low Pay Commission observed, on the abolition of the AWB:

“The level of sick pay will be significantly less than provided for under the Order.”

Unless the Minister stands up and says that all the functions will be transferred to some other organisation to retain the protections, we have failed to do what the hon. Member for St Ives said, which is to protect agricultural workers.

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That is interesting. My hon. Friend will know of Hazel Spencer’s letter to the shadow ministerial team for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

“I have been in horticulture for nearly 25 years, working for the same nursery since 1987. During this time, as you can imagine, I have seen many changes. The work is sometimes hard, sometimes repetitive and often carried out in less-than-pleasant conditions.

I initially started as part-time staff, at a time when we had very little right to sick pay, holiday pay and certainly no Bank Holiday pay. Over the years and mainly due to the negotiations carried out by the AWB on behalf of us ordinary workers, conditions within our industry have improved. We have received wages in alignment with those recommended by the AWB: SSP has been supplemented by Agricultural Workers Sick Pay, to bring it in line with a weekly wage during illness, and we received a tax allowance towards providing suitable clothing to cope with the conditions of our workplace.

Basically, what sustains most of the people who work in this industry is the fact that we are earning a fair day’s pay for what we do.”

My concern is that we are asking small farmers to become employment specialists of some sort. Are they going to go to solicitors? Are they going to make mistakes? Are we going to see more people before tribunals? Those are real concerns that the Minister has to address.

If I might be mischievous for a moment, I draw attention to an early-day motion signed by the Minister in 2000 that called for the then Labour Government to

“retain the Agricultural Wages Board as it is currently constituted.”

Does he still think that should be the case?

Ultimately, everyone in the Farmers Union of Wales is opposed to the abolition of the AWB. They are concerned that the removal of the AWB will leave farmers exposed when having to negotiate pay and conditions. The AWB is a very good model that could be used by employers and unions across the board. The model has worked since 1924, and the Attlee Government established the AWB in 1945. Again, as often with the current Government, all we see is a drive for cuts in mythical red tape.

I say this whenever we talk about employees’ rights: happy workers are the best workers. The real issue that has to be addressed in society, whether in the countryside or in the urban world of banking and finance, is fear of job insecurity, which is the thing most people worry about. When employment rights are taken away, people are less secure, less productive and do not perform as they should.

I know we are going through a consultation process, but if the Government do not put something in place, we will start to drive wages to the bottom. Yes, as the written ministerial statement highlights, farming has massive opportunities because of the growing world population, but those opportunities will only be fulfilled with productive workers.

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The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) and the hon. Gentleman have both quoted the farming unions. The hon. Gentleman has particularly emphasised the difficulties that abolition of the AWB might cause small farmers. My impression is that although, without question, the National Farmers Union is phenomenally good and very effective, one of its weaknesses is that it is primarily a large farmers’ union. I do not think that small farmers necessarily have their voices represented through the NFU as effectively as possible. If I had heard from farmers that the AWB needs to be abolished because it constrains them from being more progressive in their treatment of workers, I might have considered that a stronger case for the abolition of the regulations and the AWB.

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As we heard from the Minister this morning, it is important that small farmers are involved in the ongoing consultation. My concern is still for the small farmer. If he or she gets into bother with employment law and finds themselves in front of a tribunal simply because they do not know the law—they have done nothing wrong—or something like that, it would be an extra burden that they do not need. They also do not need the extra burden of negotiating things such as SSP, which we have talked about, wages and certain allowances. Those people do not need further burdens.

We have already heard from the Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that they do not want to burden employers further, but all I can see is the driving down of wages and the burdening of employers. The AWB takes away that burden, and I hope the Minister sees the sense of my argument: first, we do not want to drive down wages; and, secondly, we do not want small farmers to face further burdens by being tied up with red tape. If the small farmer has to negotiate and is concerned about employment rights, first, they are not going to employ more people and, secondly, they might exit the business altogether, which would be a tragedy.

I hope the Minister will say something about what will be put in place to ensure that wages stay at the higher standard, rather than falling. What is he going to do? If the Government go ahead with the abolition of the AWB, what support will be available for small farmers on things such as employment rights?

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There is one other part of the AWB jigsaw puzzle that has not been mentioned yet. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of upland farmers in his area; many small farmers use the provisions of the AWB when they tender their services to other farms. The AWB provides set agreements and set rates without individual negotiation; everyone knows the code and the agreement. Without the AWB there will be many individual, complex and time-consuming negotiations and a lot of additional bureaucracy. That is why we want to preserve the functions of the AWB.

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Quite simply, a lot of my farmers will not bother with it. The practice will end because they will not be interested in getting down to the nitty-gritty of the code. There is a code in place.

I wonder what the Minister’s thoughts were when he signed that EDM 12 years ago, and what has changed. There is no argument for abolishing the AWB as it stands: it works for farmers and for workers, too. When he responds to the debate, I hope he will tell us what was going through his mind when he signed the EDM all those years ago, and what has changed significantly in the past 12 years to make him change his mind. I look forward to that.

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It is not often that I speak on an issue that is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. It is not often, either, that I disagree with my Labour colleagues, and I have spoken to them to make them aware of that.

I wish to make a few comments. I will reflect on the position in Northern Ireland, as that may bring something to the debate that other hon. Members are unable to provide because they do not represent a Northern Ireland constituency.

I hail from a strong agricultural constituency. Agriculture is a major employer, with additional employment coming from processing the food that the land produces. There are some excellent companies that farm the land, produce and package the product, and sell it on to the United Kingdom and Europe. Mash Direct, which employs approximately 100 people, and Willowbrook Foods, which employs 260 people, are just two examples.

The debate is about an issue close to my heart. I have spoken to many farmers in my constituency and it is clear what must be done for the benefit of all. The Agricultural Wages Board is an independent body that sets agricultural wages. It was established after world war two to encourage people to stay and work locally. In the area I represent, we are fortunate that people have done just that for many years. As the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) illustrated very clearly, agricultural work is hard. Many workers started when they were 16 and are now in their 50s and early 60s. The pains that come from picking vegetables take their toll, but those people enjoy their work. They currently have a good agricultural wage, and I believe that in my constituency they are happy with the process.

The AWB is no longer necessary. As we cry out for Europe to cut red tape and get rid of useless and costly quangos, it is time we started doing so on our own front. The Government have put forward a proposal on which my party is very clear. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, my party led the campaign to abolish the AWB. Michelle O’Neill, the Minister with responsibility for agriculture, has deferred to that as that is how the Assembly works. Even though the majority of people can ask for something, the nature of partnership Government means that the Minister has some say about what happens.

A DUP Assembly colleague of mine recently stated that Northern Ireland should follow the proposals at Westminster:

“It is fairly obvious that the AWB is now nothing more than yet another level of unnecessary, expensive bureaucracy. The finances ploughed into the AWB by the Dept would be far better invested in delivering frontline services to farmers. Reducing bureaucracy and freeing up resources and money for real and beneficial change is what is needed especially at a time when farmers are being financially disadvantaged”.

The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) made that point as well. The situation in my constituency is the same as it is in Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom—many farmers are finding it very tight when it comes to trying to make ends meet. As a representative for the rural constituency of Strangford with my ear to the ground, I have a heart for ensuring that farming remains a viable option in Northern Ireland, and I have pursued that as an elected representative over many years as a councillor and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland. Farming is the biggest single employer in my constituency. It must also be highlighted that only 20% of the work force are on the basic rate, which means that the other 80% are in the higher brackets already. Those people are protected by their contracts, and that issue also needs to be taken into consideration.

I drive an eight-year-old jeep that costs as much to keep running as it would cost to buy a new one. If my young son wanted to take it for a spin I would be protective, as we would be for any of our children. That is my nature. I was recently informed that a new tractor costs in the region of £75,000. I would certainly want to ensure that skilled workers were in charge of a tractor, not simply someone on minimum wage. Farmers have assured me that this is their view. It is horses for courses, if I can use that terminology, Mr Caton. Those who have the skills and abilities will do different jobs on the farm. Those who do not have the skills to drive the tractor, or whatever it may be, will do the manual labour, but I agree that they deserve a minimum wage.

Farmers will pay for experience, and taking away the AWB does not mean that wages will drop and people will lose their protection. Farmers must be free to set their wages in a competitive manner and ensure the survival of their farms at a time when many farmers are only able to take the minimum wage themselves. A great many farmers in my area are taking a wage that is equal to that of their agricultural workers, because of necessity and because the banks are on their back. These are hard times for farmers and we have to be very careful about what we do. They farm the land because they love it. The land is the blood in their veins, and it is clear that they will always seek to do their best to get the best from their farms. That will only come through having skilled workers who know what they are doing and who are worth their weight in gold.

I am not alone in agreeing about the abolition of the AWB. In fact, the Ulster Farmers’ Union—hon. Members have spoken about the National Farmers Union; this is the branch in Northern Ireland—has recently questioned the need for the AWB in Northern Ireland, following Michelle O’Neill’s decision to retain its structure in Northern Ireland. That is her decision at this moment in time, to be deferred but also to be looked at again. The UFU is clear in its belief that the AWB is

“an unnecessary and unwanted quango which is costing local tax payers money and is serving”—

with respect—

“no useful purpose.”

That comes from a union whose sole role is to represent farmers and ensure that their voice is heard. I stand as that voice for the UFU. Its spokesperson Robert McCloy, chairman of the employers representatives on the AWB, said:

“We have repeatedly called for the AWB in Northern Ireland to be abolished. The AWB is an additional layer of bureaucracy on top of existing employment laws which are already in place to protect workers. The National Minimum Wage covers the minimum rate of pay, holiday entitlement, sick pay and rest breaks and this, together with the Working Time Directive and a plethora of other employment laws now provide significant protection for employees”.

That is what the people I represent tell me through the UFU and farmers who give their workers good wages. I am aware that the UFU is continuing to lobby for the removal of the AWB in Northern Ireland to save farms throughout the Province and I stand in agreement with them. I understand the fear that workers might have, but I agree with the spokesperson from DEFRA who recently said:

“Agricultural wages laws are more than 60 years out of date, difficult to understand and entirely out of step with modern work practices. Changing them would free numerous small farmers from unnecessary burdens while keeping farm workers, like all other workers across the economy, well protected by national minimum wage legislation.”

To back up that statement, I use the example of those who work on farms, growing the vegetables, potatoes and arable crops and then processing them in factories to sell on. We have many people who come from other parts of Europe to work in the fields and the factories. We have young boys and young girls who leave school at 16 and go straight into this work, which they have been doing for many years. They are protected by the farmers who employ them.

In conclusion, it is unclear to me why farmers should be the only private sector employers who have wage rates set by anything other than the minimum wage structure. It is past time that this ancient body was removed to let farmers pay the wage they determine, as any other business does. I support fully the abolition of the AWB in England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, my party has already stated its opinion. I hope that the Department will follow suit. It is not often that I disagree with my colleagues. I look upon them as friends, because we vote together on many things. On this issue, however, I am sorry that I cannot agree with them.

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I was not intending to speak in the debate until I noticed today’s statement on the Order Paper, but now I want to make a couple of quick points.

I often agree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), so I will reciprocate by disagreeing with him in this debate. In Scotland, this area is devolved and a few years ago the Scottish National party—I am not surprised that no one from the SNP is present—sought to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board in Scotland. John Swinney, the Finance Minister, was pushing that. When the Scottish Government looked at the evidence and were responding to the issues, however, they realised that it was not the sensible thing to do. Given that, I now have a sense of déjà vu, as I do from one of my previous lives: 14 years ago I was an adviser in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, just after the minimum wage was introduced, and there was an internal debate about whether the AWB should therefore continue. Again, after going through the evidence and looking at all the issues, it was concluded that it should.

The written ministerial statement talks about something being outdated, but what is outdated is the continual campaign to undermine the terms and conditions of people working in the agricultural sector. We are coming back to that. Unless spectacular new evidence is available, the case for the AWB in England is as strong as the case was for the AWB in Scotland a few years ago or throughout Britain pre-devolution, back in the 1980s and before.

I should have declared an interest in the sense that my father started his working life as a farm labourer in a part of Kent and he benefited from the AWB. It has a big impact on huge numbers of people throughout the UK—in this context, throughout England, in all regions.

I cannot see any new evidence that will change the position established each time that the AWB has come up for review. I understand that some people in Whitehall every now and again push the case for abolition—it has happened a number of times—but the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) and others have made this morning are absolutely right.

It is a shame that the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is no longer present. For the most recent reshuffle, part of the discussion among the Liberal Democrats was about recalibrating where they had Ministers in the coalition. They quite rightly saw that rural and environmental issues were important, so it is good that the Minister is in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, even if that means that the Liberal Democrats do not have Ministers in other Departments. Before there was a Liberal Democrat Minister, however, the hon. Member for St Ives spoke for his party on DEFRA issues, and less than a year ago he was arguing in correspondence—presumably to one of his constituents—against the idea that the national minimum wage is sufficient protection for people working in the rural economy:

“It would therefore be wrong in my view to conclude that National Minimum Wage legislation is sufficient to maintain these protections for agricultural workers. As already noted, a minority of agricultural workers are on grade 1 pay; the vast majority are on grade 2 and above, and as such on wages higher than the National Minimum Wage.”

A little more than a year ago, the hon. Gentleman made another point which he repeated in an intervention earlier in today’s debate:

“Rural workers are exceptionally isolated and in an exceptional position that I think justifies exceptional protections.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 270.]

That is absolutely correct.

Unless great new evidence suggests that such protections can be maintained through some body other than the AWB, the desire to abolish it—as originally legislated, with a whole load of other bodies—for the sake of what will probably work out at some £250,000 or just over will end up as a false economy, particularly for the many people who work in farms throughout Britain and especially, in this context, in England. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland made it clear that the AWB is relied on by labourers for their wages; however, because of the often difficult nature of agriculture and farming, farmers, too, effectively contract out their services to others. Those are vital points. Any examination of the evidence suggests that pushing again for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is more outdated than the idea that it is an outdated institution.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) for securing and introducing the debate. He opened with such an erudite analysis of why the AWB and its functions have been so important over a long period and continue to be important, not least against the backdrop of declining economic activity throughout the country and in rural areas. The issue is indeed to do with the protections afforded not only on pay but on conditions, such as bereavement and all the things mentioned by my hon. Friends. It is also to do with ensuring that we have a good supply of keen, enthusiastic and well-skilled people coming into the industry in future. I shall return to such points because I do not agree with what was said in the written ministerial statement, although we thoroughly welcome it, and I appreciate the courtesy of receiving it before the debate started.

As I looked through the statement, I noted:

“The functions of the Agricultural Wages Committees are now largely redundant”.

I shall return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a good contribution, but the points made by my hon. Friends make it clear that it is far from a settled issue that such functions are redundant. I will go through some of those arguments in detail.

I ask the Government and the new Minister in post, who has this opportunity, to think again about the abolition of the AWB. I ask him to do so because it is not without precedent for this Government to think again. Uniquely, it would be the first time that the Government have thought again in October. In every other month, we have had thinking again and U-turns, so the Minister could make a bit of history today by being the first Minister, although new in post, to think again in the month of October.

DEFRA has done much thinking again on many countryside and coastal issues. We have had U-turns on proposals to destroy buzzards’ nests to protect pheasant shoots, on pasty taxes—thanks to nationwide outrage led by the good people of Cornwall and the south-west—and on the great forestry sell-off of 285,000 hectares of state-owned woodland. We have had a partial U-turn on proposals to close coastguard centres and, unfortunately, a U-turn the wrong way on circus animals, dropping the previous commitment to a ban down to a commitment to new licensing conditions.

I do not want to be exhaustive, but my argument to the Minister is that he could think again because doing so is not unprecedented. We have had tax U-turns on caravans, video games and charitable donations, and other policy U-turns—some welcome, some not—on housing benefit, the mobility parts of the disability living allowance, financial inclusion fund debt advisers, the chief coroner, the military covenant, softer sentencing discounts, strike fighters, Ofsted inspections, school sports, rape anonymity and free school milk. I am dizzy from thinking about the number of U-turns.

In November last year, given opposition to the Government’s proposals, there was a U-turn on the decision to scrap the Youth Justice Board as part of the bonfire of the quangos. Suddenly, that bonfire had one less log on it. I ask the Minister to leave the fire burning brightly without the little log of the AWB as well—it will crackle nicely without it. The Minister can—independently, with independence of mind, new in his ministerial position—make his mark, a welcome mark, by performing one little pirouette of a U-turn on the AWB, a graceful and elegant pirouette. We would applaud his skill and his general loveliness. Other U-turns have been clunky and begrudging. Let the Minister, new to the role, manoeuvre artfully and delicately about-face.

I am not asking the Minister to do something that he does not want to do. In his heart of hearts, he is on the side of farm labourers and smaller farmers, and he has many in his constituency. Does he know how many agricultural workers in his constituency may be affected by the proposals to abolish the AWB? Of course he does. According to Library statistics, there are 1,020. Does he know that that puts him into the elite club of constituencies in the UK with more than 1,000 agricultural workers, many of them low paid and subject to the provisions and protections that we have talked about today? Of course he knows that. The figures are even starker when comparing the number of agricultural workers with the overall population in areas such as the south-west, where there are nearly 23,500 agricultural workers. His constituency might be hit hardest by abolition of the AWB, which may affect 152,000 workers in England and Wales.

I am convinced that the Minister wants a U-turn for his constituents, small farmers and farm workers. Before he attempts that pirouette, I will helpfully warm him up by reminding him why the AWB is so important. This is not, as he may later want to persuade us, just a matter of minimum pay. That would wilfully misconstrue the nature and purpose of the AWB, which is so much more. The Agricultural Wages Board involves

“representatives of farmers and agricultural workers together with independents, negotiating legally enforceable minimum wages and conditions which are significantly superior to those set by the National Minimum Wage and Working Time Regulations”.

The quote continues:

“the Agricultural Wages Board also sets a series of rates of pay to reflect the varying qualifications and experience of farm workers, thus providing a visible career structure for recruits going into agricultural work and is used as a benchmark for other rural employment… average earnings in rural areas are considerably lower than in urban areas… any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class, exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion”.

I could not agree more. Those fine words are from early-day motion 892 in 1999-2000, to which the Minister was a signatory. What, I wonder, has changed since then?

During our early and youthful days in Parliament, we all had foolish fancies—we would not be human if we had not—and we would prefer not to be reminded about some of them. However, we also had strong and unwavering beliefs, and I know that the Minister has such beliefs, to which he stays constant. We deviate from such principles at our mortal peril. The Minister should stay true to his course and abide by the pledge he rightly made in that early-day motion. It was not a foolish fancy; it was his principles in writing. He said that the AWB provides a

“visible career structure…a benchmark for other rural employment”

and that abolition would result in “social deprivation” and “social exclusion”.

The Minister was right then, and we are right now, so he should return to the right side of the argument. The AWB streamlines and simplifies decision making for small farmers, so avoiding the time-wasting and complexities of drawn-out negotiations with individual farm workers one by one. Its abolition will increase bureaucracy for small farmers. Furthermore, as was said earlier, some small farmers market their own skills to others in a straightforward way with pay and conditions set and agreed by the AWB. They do not have to hammer out deals at each and every turn. I thought that the Government wanted to make things easier for businesses, especially small businesses, in which case they should keep the AWB.

The Minister may, as his predecessor did, pray in aid the National Farmers Union, for which I, like other hon. Members here, have a great deal of time. It does a sterling job in trying to synthesise a wide variety of views on a wide variety of issues. The manager of a large agri-industrial concern farming 10,000 or 20,000 acres may have slightly different motivations and needs than those of a small upland hill farmer on a couple of hundred acres. I declare an interest because 40% of my constituency is upland hill farmland, and I have family who are upland hill farmers. However, I am not speaking just for them; I am speaking for young farmers.

The Welsh Assembly Government had a cracking debate last week that was supported not just by the Farmers Union of Wales, but by young farmers of Wales who are worried that abolition of the AWB will hamper their access into the industry. Through this debate, I ask the NFU whether it is really saying that none of its farmers, not even tenant farmers, smaller farmers and those who want entry to farming want the AWB to be retained?

I will not go through all the reasons why the AWB is so important. They have been brilliantly articulated by my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland, for Islwyn (Chris Evans), and for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), and have been made in previous debates by me and others.

I turn briefly to some of the messages from the Low Pay Commission. Its factual observation is that minimum rates will not cover pay for skilled workers. There is no statutory minimum wage for workers under the age of 16, and there is concern about the overtime premium, the night premium and the on-call allowance. It notes that holiday entitlement will be reduced if the AWB is abolished and that sick pay will be significantly less. It also notes that the number of days of bereavement leave will not be specified and that there will be no statutory right for such time off to be paid. Rest breaks will be less favourable for adult workers, and so on. There will be no statutory entitlement to a birth and adoption grant. Piece rates will be lower. At the moment, they are at least the minimum hourly rate of pay applicable to the grade. What is a fair rate, if it is not what is currently being paid under the AWB?

Northern Ireland and Scotland will retain AWBs. The hon. Member for Strangford said that he has his ear to the ground. I say with conviviality and friendliness that the problem of having an ear to the ground means hearing lots of different things. I have my ear to the ground in different places throughout the UK, and farmers have told me that they treasure retention of the AWB and/or its functions. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) is not in his place, but he made a valid observation: if not the AWB, what? The Minister should answer that, because the issue is not just the minimum wage aspect, but the protection of a broad range of functions.

I say in all honesty that most farmers are absolutely well-intentioned towards their employees. Most want to do the right thing, and they want skilled people in the industry. They want to ensure good rewards, because they realise that farm labouring is back-breaking work. It has the highest mortality rate of any industrial sector in the UK, and sickness levels are high, so workers need protection. The hon. Member for Strangford says that he has his ear to the ground, but he opposes the position in Northern Ireland, so if not the AWB, what will protect those workers?

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We have heard about having an ear to the ground and hearing many stories, but my responses on this issue have been clear. The AWB is unnecessary and does not provide the support that it should to workers. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that farmers are interested in their workers and want to do the best for them, which they do. I tried to reflect, in my contribution, that that is what the people are saying, and that is what the majority of elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly are saying. Unfortunately, although the majority of people want the AWB removed, under the partnership Government, the Minister can overrule us. That does not reflect the opinion of all those in Northern Ireland, which is the point I am trying to make.

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I fully appreciate that point.

In all debates on this matter, I have striven, in my position as a shadow Minister, to speak not only for England, but for other parts of the UK in which what is happening with the AWB is mirrored or contradicted. I want to ask the Minister how negotiations are going with Wales. How are they progressing, or not progressing? The Welsh Assembly Government, the Farmers Union of Wales, the young farmers of Wales, Unite the Union, GMB and others have lined up alongside individual farmers to demand the retention of the AWB’s functions in Wales. To that effect, an excellent debate, which I mentioned earlier, was held last week, spearheaded by Mick Antoniw, the Assembly Member for Pontypridd, who is a brilliant advocate for all workers, including agricultural workers. The only dissenting voice in the whole of that debate was not a Liberal Democrat or a Plaid Cymru Member; it was a Conservative, who had been sent out as a token to speak against the retention of the AWB’s functions in Wales.

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Will my hon. Friend venture to suggest why no Conservative Member is present for the debate this morning?

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I genuinely cannot. We have heard the hon. Member for St Ives and the Minister will speak for the Government. The contribution made by the hon. Member for Strangford is welcome, as we should be having that sort of debate, but the complete absence of any Conservative voice strikes me as staggering. Even if Conservative Members wanted to argue against our position, they should come and do so. However, perhaps low-paid agricultural workers somehow disappear below the radar. When we have had debates in Westminster Hall on the common agricultural policy, these Benches have been full of Members from all parties. Here, we are speaking about low-paid agricultural workers, but in the absence of any Conservatives to defend themselves, I will hold back my comments.

Will the Minister update us directly on discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government? I ask him because rumours have been circulating all summer that the discussions are in deadlock and have been like that for some time, and that DEFRA was perhaps attempting to refuse to respect the current constitutional settlement for Wales. Worse still, it has been suggested that the UK Government—the Government of whom he is a Minister—will try to undermine the Welsh Assembly by seeking to circumvent the constitutional settlement and the need for consent, and that they would try to devise a way to avoid the necessity of full and frank engagement with democratically elected Welsh Government Ministers.

This is a technical matter of legislative competence, but it is also a matter of respect for the Welsh Government and for the people of Wales. Let me explain to the Minister why I firmly believe that that must be the case. The proposal to abolish the AWB is made under section 1 of the Public Bodies Act 2011. Section 9 of that Act requires the consent of the National Assembly for Wales when exercising the power under section 1 on any matter that would fall within the legislative competence of the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Government can therefore choose to retain an agricultural wages board for Wales if they consider that such a decision would benefit the agricultural industry in Wales, in accordance with their devolved responsibilities under schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. That screams out to me that the Welsh Assembly Government must be a full party to this process and that there should be no attempt to find some parliamentary procedure or back-corridor operation to circumvent full and frank discussion on the impact of the AWB’s abolition in Wales.

The view of Wales—the Welsh people and the Welsh farming community—is clear, and it needs to be debated and voted on. The Welsh Government must have their consent sought. That final point is vital in terms of respect for the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly for Wales, and with it, I close my remarks. I hope that the Minister will assure us that what I have described is not happening and that the wider functions of the Agricultural Wages Board, beyond simply low-pay protection, will be protected in whatever thoughts and proposals he brings forward.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I express my genuine gratitude to the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed); as it turns out, it is useful and timely to be having this debate today.

From the start, I should say that I entirely understand hon. Members’ concerns. It would be odd if I did not, and that is not just because of what the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) described as my general loveliness. I have represented, grown up and lived in one of the most rural parts of the country for a long time. I know that this issue is not only totemic for a lot of people but important to get right for a lot of people who work in agriculture.

Before coming to the more detailed points of my speech, I want to say first that I have introduced the consultation today because I am convinced that the proposals are in the interests of people who work in the agricultural industry. We simply cannot look at agriculture today through the eyes of somebody in 1948, or indeed, of someone 20 years ago. Agriculture has changed massively, and for the better, in many respects. It is a highly skilled industry in which people have to adapt to new ways of working all the time. I genuinely believe that the present set-up, which is unique in this particular area of employment, is grounded in times when agriculture and social conditions were very different. Most important, employment law was very different too, which we have to keep reminding ourselves. As a House, we have made huge changes to employment law over recent years, which has transformed the landscape in which we approach such discussions.

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I acknowledge the Minister’s good intentions in speaking for his constituents and the farming community, and I accept that employment law has changed. However, we are currently faced with new proposals for changing employment law, including watered-down versions of the Beecroft proposals on hiring and firing, under which people can buy shares in companies in exchange for giving away their employment rights. Does it not worry the Minister, as a Liberal Democrat, that the employment rights that have been put in place over the last 20 years are now being denuded at the same time that we look to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board?

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The hon. Gentleman will not tempt me into commenting on other Departments’ areas of responsibility. I am dealing with what falls within my ministerial responsibilities, and as I have indicated to hon. Members, we gave a commitment to consult on the board’s future. The written ministerial statement that I have issued today, and made sure that Members had before them, informs the House of the launch of the public consultation on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales, as well as the related 15 regional agricultural wages committees and 16 regional agricultural dwelling house advisory committees in England. The hon. Member for Ogmore picked up on the fact that my written ministerial statement describes the agricultural wages committees as “now largely redundant”. It does so because they are now largely redundant. I hope that he will look carefully at exactly what they do.

The point that underlies all this is that, in the absence of the Agricultural Wages Board, agricultural workers will be protected by the national minimum wage and working time regulations. I accept entirely what hon. Members have said—that that is not the sum total of the Agricultural Wages Board regime. It is not simply a safety net underneath the least well-paid workers. I shall come on to the other aspects, but that is certainly an important part of why it was set up in the first place. It was set up at a time when people working in rural areas were the least well-paid of the least well-paid and had very few protections. It was right, at the time, to give that protection. The question is whether it is still right to have that arrangement in this unique sector of employment when in other areas it has been abolished.

The hon. Member for Copeland talked about Baroness Thatcher’s Government removing a raft of wages boards, and that is correct—they did remove them—but surely he is not suggesting that that was necessarily a bad thing. I am not trying to reduce this debate to the absurd, because I know that there are genuine and important issues, but did he think that the Aerated Waters Wages Council, the Coffin Furniture and Cerement-making Wages Council, the Flax and Hemp Wages Council or the Ostrich and Fancy Feather and the Artificial Flower Wages Council really had a place in the 1990s?

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rose

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He did?

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In the same way that the Minister wisely refuses to speak outside the vires of his Department, he cannot tempt me to say anything good about Baroness Thatcher’s Government.

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In that case, I shall not tempt the hon. Gentleman further down that road, but the reason why I raised those other, perhaps flippant cases—I do not think that anyone would seriously suggest that those councils were relevant now—is that other wages councils that were abolished at the time had an effect on industries that would certainly be described as current industries and that are not entirely dissimilar to agriculture. I am thinking of the Licensed Non-residential Establishment Wages Council, the Licensed Residential Establishment and Licensed Restaurant Wages Council and the Hairdressing Undertakings Wages Council. Those were dealing with business that was often carried out by small enterprises, where many of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have advanced today would have applied and where I do not think that a disbenefit from the abolition has been apparent in terms of comparative performance with other areas of industry. It is important that we recognise that.

We are now engaging in a consultation that will allow stakeholders and interested parties the opportunity to make their views known on the future of the Agricultural Wages Board before we make a final decision. I want to make it clear—because I genuinely think that this is the case—that the aim of the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board is to secure the prosperity of the agricultural industry for the future by encouraging growth and employment. I think that it will do that. I think that it will benefit all those who work in the industry, both employers and workers, as well as the wider rural economy.

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Will the Minister give a guarantee that this is not a fait accompli and that if the consultation comes back with the view that the Agricultural Wages Board should be saved, the Government will follow that, rather than just proceeding with the plans for abolition anyway?

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The job of Ministers when responding to a consultation is to listen to all the voices that are raised, to try to understand the points that are put forward and then to make a decision on whether to introduce appropriate legislation. It is then for the House to decide whether it supports that legislation, so let us be clear about the process. It cannot have come as any great surprise that we were going to go ahead with the consultation. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ogmore chided me gently for not having brought it forward earlier. I say to him that I would have brought it forward slightly earlier if there had not been a recess, but we are now ready to consult and ready to listen.

An impact assessment of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board has been published as part of the consultation package. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to consider it carefully and to comment on the document and provide their own evidence on the likely impact for both individuals and the industry as a whole. The impact assessment suggests that abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board could lead to increased employment, which would have potential ripple-effect benefits for the wider rural economy.

Let me deal with some of the specific issues that were raised. A lot of hon. Members were understandably concerned that the proposal might mean workers losing their existing rights. Of course, that is not the case. Anyone in permanent employment will be protected by their contract. They will have exactly the same rights after the day on which the legislation is passed as they had before. They do not lose any of their contractual rights and the employer loses none of their contractual obligations simply by the passage of the measure. Of course, it would apply to new entrants and new contracts being negotiated, but it would not apply to anyone who was already in employment. It is very important that people understand that. Let us also recognise that permanent workers constitute about two thirds of agricultural workers, so for the vast majority of workers, there will be no change in terms and conditions as a result of the board’s abolition.

For new contracts, yes, I accept that there may be an impact. That is reflected in the estimates in the impact assessment. However, it is difficult to assess what that impact will be until we see it in action. My feeling is that there is a high level of competition for skilled workers in some sectors of the agricultural industry, and it is important that people attract workers who have both the necessary certification and the necessary skills, given that they are operating, as one hon. Member said, incredibly expensive bits of machinery, let alone dealing with livestock, which requires husbandry skills. It is important that people attract and retain the best workers. Therefore, I am clear that we shall not see a drift towards the national minimum wage in contracts in the agricultural industry. In addition, new entrants to the industry will have exactly the same levels of employment protection as workers in all other sectors of the economy.

In fact, there are potentially some direct benefits from abolition of the rigid structures of the Agricultural Wages Board, let alone the bureaucracy, in terms of what is permitted under contract. One example involves annual salaries. It is extraordinary that at the moment it is difficult to provide an annual salary basis for a contract under the rather rigid systems in place. In today’s employment market and particularly because I am optimistic about agriculture—we have a growing sector and there is huge potential in agriculture—farmers need to offer attractive remuneration packages that are competitive with those in other rural sectors if they want to retain skilled and well-qualified staff. I would be very surprised if employers did not recognise that they had to pay appropriately for skills and experience. That is already reflected, of course, in the banding in the Agricultural Wages Board system. The majority are paid above agricultural minimum wage rates. In 2010, about half of workers were paid more than 10p above the agricultural minimum wage. I do not see any reason why that should change in the absence of the board.

Of course, there are other protections as well. The gangmasters licensing legislation is both relevant and important in this debate. The hon. Member for Copeland talked about the Agricultural Wages Board specifically providing protection for migrant and seasonal workers, but he will find that it is the Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002 that provide such protection—passed by a Government that he, of course, supported. I recall supporting those regulations too. They will continue to provide protection, and it is important to know that that is the case.

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I thank the Minister for reminding us of that fantastic piece of legislation. Will he comment on the future of piece-rate workers should the ABW be abolished?

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I am not sure I recognise that abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will necessarily affect those workers. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue and we will look at it closely in the consultation. Let us look at it in more depth and when we come forward with legislation, we will consider whether we need to look at it further.

We know that the agricultural work force are an ageing population, and that is not sustainable in the long run. I want to attract young people into farming, agriculture and horticulture. There are signs that more people are taking up courses at agricultural colleges, which is a good thing. We want to attract and retain new entrants—young workers—and to do that, farms must offer wages and conditions competitive with other sectors.

The hon. Member for Ogmore made an important point: most farmers and farming employers are good employers and want to do the best for their workers. Let us get away from the slightly Dickensian view that the only purpose of an employer is to grind down the workers. That is not the case and not the relationship that he and I see every day when we talk to people in farm businesses and those engaged in the sector.

What will happen to advice for farmers if the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished? The NFU has already indicated that it intends to provide economic indicators, which I hope will help.

I am not sure that I entirely accept the point about contractors, which I think was made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex). People subcontract their work in lots of other businesses and industries without experiencing the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman anticipates. It has been said that such arrangements will simply stop. I do not believe that is the case, because I do not believe that agriculture works that way. People will find an appropriate level for such employment, as they do in the building industry and other industries where plant and specialist skills are often needed by contractors on a wider front. We will find ways of accomplishing the same objective without the bureaucracy involved.

I stress that we will specifically instruct the Low Pay Commission to include the agricultural sector in its range of indicators. If we go ahead with abolition, it will watch closely to ensure that we do not see a detriment at the lowest end of workers’ pay and conditions.

The board is the last remaining wages council. Does it serve a useful purpose? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, with his knowledge of what happens in Northern Ireland, that it does not. I have looked carefully at the issue, and provided that we have other protections, which we do, across all sectors, it is difficult to argue that there should be a lone system for the agricultural sector providing separate minimum employment terms and conditions.

The regime is overly complicated at the moment. Its provisions are wide-ranging and restrictive, hampering the ability of the industry to offer modem, flexible employment packages. It effectively dissuades employers from offering annual salaries, which is disadvantageous for workers as it hinders long-term financial planning. It is a one-size-fits-all approach that imposes a rigid structure on a diverse and diverging industry.

If we lose the Agricultural Wages Board and the agricultural minimum wage regime, farmers will be able to agree terms and conditions with workers that fit particular circumstances and take account of the specific requirements of the farming sector. It would make it easier for farm businesses to employ workers, encourage longer-term employment, boost growth and create job opportunities. It would also simplify employment law.

An issue that has not been raised in the debate is the confusion for farm businesses around whether activities fall within the national minimum wage regime or the agricultural minimum wage regime. For example, livestock and poultry rearing would normally be considered agricultural activities and covered by the agricultural wages order, but that is not necessarily the case for slaughtering operations. In farm packing businesses, the agricultural wages order covers the packing of produce grown on the farm, but not the packing of bought-in produce. There are strange anomalies at the boundaries of what is and is not covered.

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Before time runs out, I should like to say that I have not met a small farmer—certainly not in Wales—who has been confused by the current functioning of the AWB.

Will the Minister address a point of real significance? Under Section (9)(7) of the Public Bodies Act 2011 consent is required from the Welsh Assembly Government. Alun Davies, the Agricultural Minister, made a brief statement on social media this morning:

“Welsh Govt are determined to maintain the AWB structures in Wales. We have not consented to any abolition in Wales”.

I ask the Minister directly: will he commit now not to abolish the AWB and the functions of the AWB in Wales without the consent of Welsh Ministers?

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I work closely with Welsh Ministers and I am always happy to do so. I share information with them; for instance, before the event, I shared the fact that we were bringing forward the written ministerial statement and the consultation process. I had the advantage of meeting Alun Davies only yesterday to discuss the matter, and I will continue to discuss with him and the Welsh Assembly Government what they have in mind. I will not go into the constitutional issues, because they are outside the scope of today’s debate.

It is clear that the matter is not a devolved one at the moment. The hon. Member for Ogmore looks askance—agriculture is devolved, but wage control is not. However, that does not stop us having a perfectly sensible dialogue with Welsh colleagues on the subject or stop them having a dialogue with the Wales Office on the constitutional issues. He says that we are obliged to use the 2011 Act, but we are not. There is a range of different legislative processes that we could use. He was firmly against the Act, so it would be strange if he now insisted that it is the only way that we can reform public bodies.

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rose

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We are running out of time. I will continue dialogue with the Welsh Government to find a way forward. I am clear that it is perfectly proper for us to consult as we are doing on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. We shall listen to the responses, including those from the Welsh, and will take appropriate action when it comes to legislation.

I again thank the hon. Member for Copeland for initiating the debate. We will return to the subject. I hope that hon. Members will take advantage of the opportunity to express their views in the consultation, as many outside the House will. It is a serious issue and I want to get it right for the prosperity of all who work in the agricultural industry, with a view to reducing unnecessary regulation, without reducing necessary protections.

Scottish Separation (BBC)

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. Yesterday was an historic day for Scotland, as we heard that we will possibly have to make our biggest decision in 300 years —it is certainly the biggest decision of our lifetimes. As we finally begin to move past the processed arguments, we must now be sure that we have the substantial, honest and transparent debate that Scotland deserves.

As the independence debate continues, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, has been making all sorts of assertions about what a post-independent Scotland would look like: the Queen would remain as Head of State; we would keep the pound sterling; the Bank of England would be Scotland’s lender of last resort; we would automatically have a seat on the Monetary Policy Committee; and we would remain a member of the EU under the current terms. Even last night, one of Mr Salmond’s closest allies was saying that the Scots would remain part of the United Kingdom and still be British. All those are assertions, not facts. It is the usual claim that all the things that we like will stay the same, and all the things that we do not like will not happen any more. However, that is not the case with the BBC. Alex Salmond says that he has a plan. He intends to break up the BBC and establish a separate licence fee-funded public service broadcaster in Scotland. He wants to model the Scottish broadcasting corporation, or the SBC, on the Irish RTE model. Scots viewers, he asserts, will see no change. He says that we will still have the same access to the existing BBC output: BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, CBBC, CBeebies, which I understand is the Minister’s favourite channel, Radios 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, the iPlayer, some of the best nature programmes ever produced, fantastic sporting coverage, as we had with the Olympics, and news packages from BBC journalists around the world.

On news coverage, the BBC is a trusted source across Britain and the world. In Scotland, we have always been internationalists and we take a keen and impassioned interest in what is happening across the world—whether the US elections, the middle east conflict, famine in Africa, or international disasters such as the tsunami or events in Haiti. Coverage of such events requires significant sums of investment, and Scots would be all the poorer for the loss of access to that trusted information.

The BBC remains the single most trusted source of information across the UK, and we should value its impartiality. The claim is that we could keep all the current breadth and quality of output of the BBC, as well as increasing investment in locally created content. The First Minister asserts that he will do all that on the licence fee income from Scots viewers. Let us look at the facts. There are 2.2 million licences in Scotland. If everyone paid the full amount, that would be approximately £320 million, but the real figure is less. By the time we take out the collection costs and discounts, such as those for the over-75s, the real figure is closer to £300 million, as opposed to the UK-wide BBC budget for all platforms of around £3.5 billion. It is fantasy to suggest that the current range of TV, radio, website and iPlayer content will be available to viewers in an independent Scotland.

What programmes are under threat and would not be available in a separate Scotland after the break-up of the BBC? There will be no “Strictly Come Dancing”, “Frozen Planet”, “Holby City”, “Match of the Day”, “Doctor Who”, “News at 10” or “Question Time”. I will not read out the entire list as it is endless.

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I have been with my hon. Friend all the way through his speech until he mentioned “Strictly Come Dancing”. I know that I hold a minority view, but he would be in danger of convincing me of the opposite case if they were to get rid of “Strictly Come Dancing”. Seriously, “The Culture Show” is a good example of a BBC programme that is made in Scotland for the whole UK. In the past couple of years, it has been noticeable how it better reflects the whole UK. Is not the real future of the BBC to be much more British, rather than London-centric?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that. He implied that he was not being serious when he made the point about “Strictly Come Dancing”, but he did look rather serious. In a moment, I will reveal the figures that illustrate how popular the programme is in Scotland. Even though I do not watch it, I am sure that many others do. He also makes an important point about “The Culture Show”. We are proud of the fact that the British Broadcasting Corporation celebrates the history of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and we would like to see that strength continued and not put under threat by the Scottish National party’s proposals.

It is also asserted that licence fee income will be used to support Scotland’s media and creative industries to a greater extent than is the case now. That means more spent on programmes such as “River City” and still all the UK content.

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My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am asking him to give way and not to dance. Let me unpack that bit about the BBC’s input in Scotland. As a public sector broadcaster, the BBC supports independent production companies. Has he had any indication of what the impact will be on that? BBC shows that are produced in Scotland, which inject money and skills into the Scottish economy, can only be supported by that national level.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. Scotland’s creative industries support more than 60,000 jobs and contribute £5 billion to the Scottish economy. Across the whole UK, 43% of all commissions for independent television producers come from the BBC. In Scotland, the network commissions are the main source of revenues for independent production companies, and that will be put under threat by these proposals.

In Scotland, we are used to the SNP making things up as it goes along, but from this evidence it is not even good at that anymore. It is inconceivable that the quality, quantity and breadth of output could be maintained with just 10% of the current available resource. In the First Minister’s speech to the Edinburgh international festival in August, he laid out his plans for the SBC. He gave the example of Denmark and Norway. Let us compare their licence fee rates. For Denmark, it is £264.27; Norway is £277.94; and the UK is £145.50. That is 40p per day across all formats. Radio costs 6p per day for all programmes and all channels. TV costs 24p per day for all channels and all programmes.

The SBC proposals include commercials and a higher licence fee. Some might ask whether there is any evidence of interest from Scottish viewers in the programmes that I set out earlier. I am happy to set the record straight. The figures show that Scots take a keen interest in UK output. Despite the dislike of “Strictly Come Dancing” expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), some 910,000 people in Scotland watch the programme every week. That is 39% of the audience share in Scotland. Some 750,000 people watched “Frozen Planet”, which is 28% of the audience share. “Match of the Day” English premiership highlights pull in 262,000 viewers, compared with 186,000 for “Sportscene” highlights. Perhaps that is because the Rangers fans are not able to watch their great team in the premiership, which is a source of great pain for me personally. However, we should not worry because the First Minister told Jeremy Paxman in an interview recently that SBC will purchase from the BBC the likes of “Newsnight”. In that very statement, he actually makes the case for the BBC—we Scots already purchase “Newsnight”, and every other TV and radio programme, and it is called the licence fee. Why on earth would we want to break up the BBC then spend money buying the exact same programmes back again? Is that just because it is called the British Broadcasting Corporation?

Sadly, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is not in the Chamber today. In fact, there is not a single SNP representative present. Perhaps they are too busy thinking about 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote or about how to gerrymander the Electoral Commission proposals. What they should be doing is engaging in the debate about the future of the country.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, the SNP’s broadcasting spokesperson, exposed the true face of the Yes Scotland’s positivity when he said in March this year that the BBC is the institutional enemy of the party’s drive for separation. “Institutional enemy” are his words, not mine.

The hon. Gentleman went on to claim that the SBC would spend £75 million a year importing popular UK programmes, which viewers could then view for free in Scotland. However, the ability to purchase is yet another assertion, not a fact. It is another statement rooted in myth, not in reality.

Setting aside my concerns about any Minister—especially Alex Salmond—dictating the schedule of a broadcaster, he will simply not have the funding to do so. When he makes the assertion on “Newsnight” that we would purchase output from the rest of the BBC, he does so on the basis that the funding would be available to do that and that an independent, free-from-Government-control broadcaster would choose to do so. Both assertions are false.

It is also ridiculous and fanciful to make the claim that nothing would change. Let us examine the claim that the SBC would be able to use the money that it had to purchase programmes. Is there any indication of what it would cost to provide, say, the current package of sports or news for Scottish viewers? This year alone, the BBC will spend £479 million on sport, so we would have no British Open or Grand National and—I can see the SNP breaking out in a cold sweat at the mention of the word—no Olympics in Scotland, and certainly no red button coverage.

The BBC will spend £390 million on news, so there would be no coverage of the US elections or the Arab spring. It will spend £116 million on children’s programmes, so no CBBC, no CBeebies and—I understand of particular relevance to the Minister— no “Nina and the Neurons”. The BBC will spend £336 million on factual programmes, so no “Frozen Planet” and no David Attenborough in Scotland.

The Scottish Broadcasting Corporation’s budget would be, at best, £300 million. The BBC spend on sport is £479 million a year; on news, it is £390 million a year; children’s programmes, £116 million a year; and factual programmes, £336 million a year. So, after spending on buying the BBC programmes that it wants, the claim is that that would leave at least £100 million to produce quality programmes in Scotland. That is roughly equivalent to a single HBO mini-series: a series of “Game of Thrones” costs $60 million to make; “John Adams” cost $100 million; and “The Pacific” cost $200 million. Even then, that is one hour on one night a week. What about the other 167 hours that the SBC would need to fill? That exposes the quality gap of the proposals.

The impact also spreads to the BBC website and the iPlayer. Internet users in the Republic of Ireland, France, Germany and the US do not have access to the website output and iPlayer that the Scots do, for one simple reason: they are not part of the United Kingdom. So Scots would have no access to the existing output: no radio, no iPlayer. Scots would have access to the international iPlayer, but when we compare the two, a quick glance shows what is missing. Also, the international iPlayer has a subscription fee—an additional cost to Scots. Of course, there is no mention of that in the separatists’ proposals.

Web content would be geo-blocked, as it is in every other foreign country, but there would also be other losers from the SNP proposition: Scotland’s creative industries. There are 100 TV production companies based in Scotland, and 15,000 people are employed in the industry. “Waterloo Road” alone, a fantastic production for the BBC, represents a £10 million a year investment and 200 jobs.

Let us consider the current spend in Scotland: it has 8.4% of the population, 8.7% of total licences, and the SNP’s Scottish Broadcasting Commission recommended 8.6% of spend should be local. However, 9% of BBC TV production spend is now in Scotland. High-profile productions such as “Question Time” and “The Culture Show” already happen in Scotland. Scotland has a proud record in the cultural and creative sector, fantastic festivals and world renowned actors. I must mention the tremendous regeneration in my constituency in Glasgow on the Clyde. The BBC capital investment in its Pacific quay headquarters is approaching £200 million. That is a real success story for Scotland, but it is all at risk from the SNP’s plans.

Not only Scots would lose out; the rest of the UK would lose out, too. There is a licence fee freeze until 2016. On top of that pressure on BBC income, losing Scottish licence fee income would mean an off-the-top cut of almost 10% in BBC income. That risks decimating the organisation. The position put forward by the SNP is not only not credible, but downright misleading.

In summary, the proposals mean a higher licence fee; loss of the iPlayer; more adverts; fewer popular programmes; and fewer channels. It is yet another gulf between the rhetoric of the SNP and the reality of what their proposals mean for Scottish viewers, producers and the wider creative industry. Instead, what we need in Scotland is to look beyond the narrow constitutional debate and to continuing to use the collective strength of the United Kingdom and the BBC to support the industry, attract investment, create jobs and wealth, invest in both our present and future talents, and develop the quality programmes that we can enjoy here in Britain and also export around the world.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I am grateful for the chance to respond to this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) on securing it and on making such an eloquent speech setting out his concerns about the future of the BBC and the potential impact of an independent Scotland. His speech was so good that I am tempted to simply sit down, because he covered a range of issues so comprehensively. I have noted his deep commitment to the unity of the BBC and the importance of national public service broadcasting, as well as to the Union itself. I also thank the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for their contributions.

It might be helpful if I remind the House of the Government’s very clear position on the wider question of the Union. We believe that Scotland is stronger in the UK and the UK is stronger with Scotland in it. The United Kingdom is one of the most successful and longest standing political, social and economic unions in history. Our economy, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central indicated, is stronger as a result of the ties that bind the UK. Its size and diversity drive its success and provide protection during periods such as the financial and eurozone crises.

The close ties and history of the nations of the United Kingdom mean that we can project significant influence and face global challenges together, as well as providing services, benefits and protections across the whole of the United Kingdom’s population. The Government are not making any plans for independence. We are absolutely confident that, in any referendum, the Scottish people will continue to support being part of the United Kingdom.

It is the current Scottish Government who are proposing independence, but in the matter of broadcasting, along with the many other issues set, they have not set out what independence would look like and what it would mean for Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman’s speech so eloquently made clear. I confirm not only that the UK Government are not thinking about independence, because we are confident that the Union will remain, but that I and other Ministers with responsibilities in this area have not had any discussions with the BBC Trust about the devolution of broadcasting.

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Any company in the run-up to a big decision will take a risk assessment about what the consequences of the decision could be for that company or business. Has that been done for the BBC or is it likely to happen in the coming two years?

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As far as I am aware—I will expand on this later—the BBC has not said what the position would be for BBC Scotland and other services in the case of independence. I understand it does not want to comment, because it wants to remain impartial throughout the debate. However, I can speak for myself and the Government and say that we have not had any discussions with the BBC Trust about the devolution of broadcasting or the outcome of a referendum on Scottish independence. Let me also be absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to keeping broadcasting as a national responsibility—a reserved matter—and not devolving it.

We have not undertaken any analysis of the potential impact on the BBC of independence for Scotland. However, there is no evidence to suggest that independence for Scotland would benefit licence fee payers. There were and still are very good reasons why broadcasting as a whole was not devolved in the devolution settlements. To pick up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, essentially the country as a whole benefits from pooling the licence fee, as well as from the advertising revenue and subscription fees that go to fund the excellent broadcasting output of this country. Pooling the licence fee allows major investment to be made in a range of programmes that we can all enjoy, whether they are made in Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland.

As a country, we share immense pride in the BBC for the quality and independence of its output, which is respected and admired globally. The hon. Gentleman referred to it in his speech, but there could not be a better example of that output than the BBC’s coverage of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Sorry—I should say that Channel 4 covered the Paralympics. However, the BBC’s coverage of the London Olympics delivered the biggest national television event since current measuring systems began, with 90% of the UK population tuning in for at least 15 minutes. There is a greater net benefit to the nation and all our constituent parts in having broadcasting remain a reserved matter.

It is also important to take this opportunity to note the excellent service provided by the BBC to Scottish viewers; the hon. Gentleman referred to it in his speech. Equally, we should celebrate the high-quality productions that BBC Scotland provides to the whole BBC network, for the enjoyment of viewers the length and breadth of the British Isles. Viewers and listeners in Scotland benefit from a range of high-quality services. Both BBC1 and BBC2 provide opt-outs for Scottish programming as well as the usual network offer. BBC Alba provides a Gaelic language service. BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Gaelic radio provide services in both languages throughout Scotland, as well as employment in rural Scotland. There is no question but that a significant proportion of the licence fee is already being used specifically to serve Scotland through those services.

It is also worth noting the major investment that the BBC made in Scottish broadcasting when it opened the state of the art Pacific Quay broadcasting centre in 2007; the hon. Gentleman referred to the centre, which is in his constituency. I was lucky to visit Pacific Quay earlier this year and it was an incredibly impressive outfit. It is a significant employer in Scotland, providing jobs for about 1,250 people, and as the hon. Gentleman noted, I was lucky enough to pick up two signed photographs of Nina from “Nina and the Neurons” for my two children.

Such facilities have helped to make sure that BBC Scotland has been responsible over the years for some of the most enjoyed original content available to viewers throughout the UK, from children’s classics such as “Balamory” and the aforementioned “Nina and the Neurons” to acclaimed comedies such as “Mrs Brown’s Boys” and the new series of the very popular “Waterloo Road”, which was also mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Through Audience Council Scotland and the BBC Trustee for Scotland, Bill Matthews, I am pleased to say that the BBC Trust takes very seriously its role to ensure that the voice of Scottish listeners and viewers is heard and is at the heart of decision making in the BBC, and also looks at how well the BBC is performing for audiences in Scotland.

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The Minister is quite rightly pointing out the fantastic benefits that Scotland receives from the BBC, in terms of representing and promoting its culture, as well as being the trusted resource that it is. How would he respond directly to the comments by the SNP broadcasting spokesperson that the BBC is the institutional enemy in Scotland?

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I have not heard those remarks or seen the context in which they were made, but as I have made clear in my remarks, I think that the BBC is as loved in Scotland as it is in other parts of the UK. The viewing figures that the hon. Gentleman referred to indicate how popular its programmes are in Scotland, and the key policies that I have just rehearsed—in terms of the Audience Council Scotland and a specific trustee for Scotland—show that the BBC takes extremely seriously the matter of ensuring that its output in Scotland appeals to Scottish viewers and listeners. Furthermore, the fact that it has such a significant base in Scotland, with such significant levels of employment, tells all of us that the BBC is a friend of Scotland and that the Scottish people are admirers of the BBC.

As I said earlier, all that underlines why the Government actively encourage broadcasters, as indeed the previous Government did, to undertake production in all parts of the UK. The principle of having a geographically broad production base is enshrined in the Communications Act 2003, which imposes quotas to encourage licensed broadcasters to undertake television production outside the traditional base of London. The whole country benefits from the policy; it is good for viewers, it is good for local economies and it is good for our cultural diversity. Much of the country’s best television comes from the nations and regions, because pooling our talents and resources means that we get the best outcome.

The SNP specifically raised establishing a new public service broadcasting channel for Scotland and separating BBC Scotland from the rest of the BBC. I am sure it will come as no surprise to hon. Members that we see absolutely no basis for supporting those proposals. As I have already said, the Government are satisfied with the existing level of public provision and funding for broadcasting in Scotland. Not only does the BBC provide a wide range of services but STV provides it with keen competition for public service broadcasting within Scotland. Scottish licence fee payers are not, as the First Minister claims, disadvantaged by the UK-wide public service broadcasting system. In fact, like licence fee payers throughout the UK they benefit from it, in terms of investment, choice, quality and diversity. Our new proposals for local television will also benefit Scotland, with decisions imminent on the awarding of licences for local TV stations in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Let me also talk about the BBC’s independent status, because that is very important in this debate. We remain fully committed to an independent BBC that forms the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country. Nothing we do will undermine that position, and the current licence fee settlement is grounded on that premise. This approach has ensured that the BBC remains a national asset of extraordinary importance and continues to bring great benefits to our country’s culture, to its democracy and, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, to our creative industries, which thrive in Scotland with many successful independent production companies.

The fundamental reason for our commitment to the independence of the BBC is the benefit that it brings to the whole of the United Kingdom. The independent status of the BBC supports the important principle of freedom of expression, which in turn supports a healthy and well-informed democracy. Any potential for political interference in the BBC’s day-to-day operations or output would dilute the corporation’s freedom of expression, with the outcome that the BBC’s contribution to the quality of life in this country would not be as great.

Crucially for this debate, political interference would impair the transparent and open discussion about our shared future that the BBC provides so effectively and intends to continue providing. The BBC is now entering a new era under the direction of its new director-general and I congratulate the BBC Trust on his appointment. I look forward to hearing what his vision for the BBC will be as we move forward.

Let me reiterate the key points that I wanted to make this morning. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central on securing this very important debate and on setting out so eloquently his position, which I suspect is the position of his party. The BBC quite rightly remains independent from Government and politicians. The BBC remains a broadcaster for the whole of the UK; and we as a Government believe, as the previous Government did, that it is important not to devolve broadcasting matters, so that we continue to provide a broadcasting system for the whole of the UK. The BBC continues to invest significant sums in basing itself in Scotland, making programmes in Scotland and providing specific output for the viewers and listeners of Scotland. Long may that remain the case.

Sitting suspended.

Sentencing (Female Offenders)

[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

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I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this debate to the House today.

One of the starkest examples of how politically correct this country has become is the issue of women in the justice system and, more specifically for this debate, women in prisons and in courts. About 5% of the prison population at any one time in recent history has been female. The other 95% has been male, yet much time, effort, concentration and brow-beating has taken place over the very small number of women in prison. There are countless groups and organisations calling for the number to be reduced. Far too many politicians—male as well as female—are willing to trot out politically correct nonsense on the subject, repeating facts that do not bear any scrutiny at all, and there are far too many calls for something to be done about a problem that, by anybody’s standards, is hard to see exists based on the actual evidence.

Let us imagine that the male population in prison represented just 5% of the total and that women made up the remaining 95%. Would there be an outcry on behalf of the men at the expense of the women? Of course not. There is absolutely no chance on earth that that would happen, so why is there all this concern over 5% of the prison population? How can normally thoughtful, intelligent people have taken such leave of their senses over the issue? The answer is simple. It is all about being politically correct, and not many people in public life like to challenge it, but I do, Mrs Osborne, and today I want to take the opportunity to scotch some myths about all types of sentencing for women. I want to bust five particular myths.

There is an old political maxim that if someone tells a lie often enough, people will believe that it is true. I can only conclude that has happened in this case. I heard the lie that women are more likely to be sent to prison than men and that they are treated much more harshly by the courts, and I was taken in by it. I presumed it was true, because I had heard it so often, and I thought it was an absolute outrage. I was so outraged by the inequality in sentencing that I decided to do some research into it. As many people know, I spend a lot of time researching matters to do with prisons, sentencing and justice, and I wanted to get to the bottom of why women were being treated so badly.

Imagine my surprise when, having looked at all the evidence, I found it was not the case that women are treated more harshly by the courts. The unequivocal evidence is that the courts treat women far more favourably than men when it comes to sentencing. I want to expose five myths today.

The first myth is simple: women are very likely to be sent to prison and are more likely than men to be given a custodial sentence. That is simply untrue. Everyone I have spoken to who is involved with the justice system confirms anecdotally that it is not the case, but let us not just take their word for it. Let us look at the facts. I asked the Library to provide evidence that more women than men were being sent to prison, as I had been told. Not only did it not provide that information, but it confirmed that the exact opposite is true. The Library stated:

“The published statistics show that a higher proportion of men are given a sentence of immediate custody than women, irrespective of age of offender (juveniles, young adults or adult) and type of court (magistrates or Crown). This has been the case in each year between 1999 and 2009...For each offence group, a higher proportion of males are sentenced to custody than females...In 2009 58% of male offenders who entered a guilty plea for an indictable offence were given an immediate custodial sentence compared to only 34% of women.”

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Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether the information he received from the Library also looked at statistics by type of offence?

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Absolutely. It looked at every category of offence. For every single category, women are less likely than men to be sent to prison.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I hope that at the end of it we will not be peddling myths, but facts. Will he comment on the fact that although 70% of men are in prison for a non-violent offence, 81% of women are, which suggests that although some statistics may favour women, that one most certainly does not.

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It does not mean that at all. The figures that the hon. Lady quotes, which groups are fond of quoting, show the exact opposite of what they think the figures show. They show that women are treated more favourably by the courts. If she will let me continue with the speech, that will become evident to her, I hope. If she still has queries towards the end, and if the figures do not make sense, I will happily give way to her again. I am sure that the figures will make perfect sense, even to the hon. Lady. I will continue with the quote from the Library:

“In 2009 58% of male offenders who entered a guilty plea for an indictable offence were given an immediate custodial sentence compared to 34% of women. For each offence group a higher proportion of males pleading guilty were sentenced to immediate custody than females.”

The Ministry of Justice’s publication, “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System”, published in November 2010—it is produced to ensure there is no sex discrimination in the system—states:

“Of sentenced first-time offenders (7,320 females and 25,936 males), a greater percentage of males were sentenced to immediate custody than females (29% compared with 17%), which has been the case in each year since 2005.”

People have had a briefing from the Prison Reform Trust, which tries to persuade them that women with no previous convictions are more likely to be sent to prison than men, but that is categorically not the case, as the Ministry of Justice’s own publication makes abundantly clear.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman for providing us with an opportunity to help him understand the issue. Women convicted of a first offence—the same offence as a man—are more likely to receive a custodial sentence. I do not think he has the figures for that.

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No, they are not. That is the whole point. For every category of offence, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women. According to the Ministry of Justice’s own publication, of first-time offenders, men are much more likely—not just slightly—to be sent to prison. That is a fact.

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May I explain again? I am talking about the first offence and the same offence. The hon. Gentleman has figures for first-time offending overall and for different categories of offence. However, if we take the same offence for men and for women—the first conviction—women are more likely to get a custodial sentence.

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No, they are not. For the benefit of the hon. Lady, I have every single category of offence. I have figures for the likelihood of men and women being sent to prison for exactly the same offence. What she is saying is simply not the case.

The Home Office undertook statistical research some years ago to try to ascertain the best comparison for similar situations. Home Office Research Study 170, “Understanding the sentencing of women”, edited by Carol Hedderman and Loraine Gelsthorpe, looked at 13,000 cases and concluded:

“Women shoplifters were less likely than comparable males to receive a prison sentence...among repeat offenders women were less likely to receive a custodial sentence. Women first offenders were significantly less likely than equivalent men to receive a prison sentence for a drug offence”.

The Ministry of Justice publication I mentioned earlier also covers the issue of pre-sentence reports and their recommendations for sentences in the courts. It says:

“In 2009, a lower proportion of women who had a pre-sentence report that recommended immediate custody went on to receive this sentence than men (83% compared with 90% for males). For all other sentence options recommended in pre-sentence reports (Suspended Sentence Order, all community sentences or fines), a higher proportion of males received custodial sentences than females.”

Even probation officers, and we all know how soft on sentencing they are, recommend a higher number of custodial sentences than are actually given, and women again are on the receiving end of that particular benefit.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am not sure, however, that I agree with the entire thrust of what he is saying. What he is driving at, and the argument behind his thesis, is that women are being treated more preferentially, but would he accept at the very least that one of the reasons why women should be treated more preferentially is that, as mothers, they are in the position of having to look after those who might, if their mothers are not present to support them, lapse into the criminal justice system? I am sure that that is one thing with which he would wish to agree.

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I will come to the issue of women looking after children. As it happens, a large number of mothers who are sent to prison are no longer looking after their children when they are sent to prison. None the less, my hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. There may well be good reasons for women to be treated more favourably in the criminal justice system in the courts than men. That is a perfectly legitimate argument to follow. If people want to use the facts to prove that women are treated more favourably than men and then actually give reasons why that should be the case, I am perfectly content for them to do so. What I cannot allow to happen is for the myth to perpetuate that women are treated more harshly in the sentencing regime than men, because that palpably is not the case. If we can start having a debate along the lines that my hon. Friend suggests, I would be perfectly happy, but we are a long way from even getting to that particular point.

In addition to the undeniable evidence that women are less likely to be sent to prison than men is the fact that their average sentence length is shorter than that of men, too. Again, I refer to the Ministry of Justice’s own published figures of November 2010. “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System”:

“In 2009, women given an immediate custodial sentence for indictable offences received shorter average sentence lengths than men (11.0 months compared to 17.0 months for males).”

That is not a minor difference. The figures show that the average male prison sentence is over 50% more than the average female prison sentence. That is something that those who allege to be so keen on equality should think about.

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It is important to understand some of the factors behind those figures. For example, a substantially higher proportion of women in prison are first-time offenders—29% compared with 12% of men. Naturally, therefore, we would expect the sentencing for first-time offenders to be set at a lower level than for those with a pattern of offending behaviour. I am not suggesting that that explains all the difference in the figures, but it is important that the hon. Gentleman gives us the full analysis and not just the headlines.

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It is equally important that the hon. Lady listens to what I am saying rather than wrapping herself in her brief from the Prison Reform Trust. We have all heard it once but I will repeat it for her benefit. The Ministry of Justice’s own publication, “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System” says:

“Of sentenced first-time offenders (7,320 females and 25,936 males), a greater percentage of males were sentenced to immediate custody than females (29% compared with 17%), which has been the case in each year since 2005.”

To suggest that more female first-time offenders are more likely to be sent to prison than men is not the case. The hon. Lady says that a higher proportion of women in prison are first-time offenders, but that is because they are less likely to be sent to prison unless they commit particularly serious offences and leave the courts no option but to send them to prison. It is a complete distortion of the facts, and the Ministry of Justice publication makes that perfectly clear.

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Will my hon. Friend clarify whether all those statistics take into account the type and gravity of offence, previous offending history and all relevant mitigating factors, which sentencers are required to consider? It would be an unjust system if they failed to do that.

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Yes, they do. I will happily supply the Minister with the relevant information from the House of Commons Library, which goes to show, beyond all doubt—I am sure that she trusts the figures from her own Department—that for every single category of offence, for all ages and in all types of court, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women. There is not one blip anywhere. For every single offence, for every age and in every type of court, women are less likely to be sent to prison than men.

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The point raised by the Minister is important. Surely these other factors that have to be taken into account on sentencing would not affect the statistics, because they would be taken into account whether it was male or female. In fact, one assumes that they would be taken into account for both sexes, so they will not affect the statistics.

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My hon. Friend makes a good point and he is right. Not only are women less likely to be sent to prison than men, and more likely to be sentenced to a lesser term than their male counterparts, but they are also more likely to serve less of the sentence they are given in prison. In its offender management statistics, the Ministry of Justice says:

“Those discharged from determinate sentences in the quarter ending December 2011 had served 53 per cent of their sentence in custody (including time on remand). On average, males served a greater proportion of their sentence in custody – 53 per cent compared to 48 per cent for females in the quarter ending December 2011. This gender difference is consistent over time, and partly reflects the higher proportion of females who are released on Home Detention Curfew”.

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To what extent are family circumstances, especially circumstances of children, taken into account in sentencing? Every year, 18,000 children see their mothers go to prison and only 5% of those children stay in their homes during that sentence. There are also statistics to suggest that a third of women in prison are lone parents, and it is more likely that their children will lose their homes or be placed in care as a consequence of their mothers’ custody.

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The hon. Lady is right. That is a fact that is given in the courts, which is why women are less likely to be sent to prison than men. That was a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) made earlier. Let me emphasise my point with a case from earlier this year. Rebecca Bernard, who had 51 previous convictions for crimes including violence and threatening behaviour, led an all-girl gang that brought terror to her town. She has been the subject of two antisocial behaviour orders for making the lives of her elderly neighbours a misery. When this 23-year-old attacked two innocent men in a night club with a champagne bottle, it was thought that a custodial sentence was inevitable. However, she walked free from court after a judge decided that she was a good mother to her three young children. Bernard had smashed a bottle over one victim’s head and then stabbed the other in the arm with its jagged neck. A court heard that she had launched the attack because she believed wrongly that the men were laughing at her. Quite clearly, those factors are taken into account by the courts, which explains why someone such as Bernard, who clearly should have been sent to prison, and who, if she had been a male, would definitely have been sent to prison, was not sent to prison. That is the explanation. I am perfectly content for the hon. Lady to say that that should be the case, but at least let us argue from the facts, because then we will be acknowledging that men are more likely to be sent to prison than women.

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I understand the basis on which my hon. Friend is making his case. Will he address the nature of the sentence for female offenders and the degree to which they are required to work, take literacy lessons and address drug and alcohol addiction as part of the offending management programme?

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No, I will not, because that is a debate for another day. These are all important issues, but this particular debate is about the sentencing of female offenders, and I am concentrating on the likelihood of people being sent to prison. If my hon. Friend was listening carefully at the start of the debate, he would know that the myth that I am currently exposing is that women are more likely to be sent to prison than men. As the figures that I have just quoted show, that is palpably not the case. I will go through other myths as we go through the debate, but there may not be time to go through every aspect of the criminal justice system at the moment.

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It is important to clarify something. Regarding mitigation, does my hon. Friend not accept that there may be some factors that are more relevant to women than to men and hence the difference—for example domestic violence, self-harm, mental ill-health and caring responsibilities?

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I will come on to some of those points later. However, as the Minister will know from her Department’s own figures, quite a lot of victims of domestic violence are men. In fact, for certain ages—I think that it is between 20 and 30—there are more male victims of domestic violence than female victims. The point is that all the things that apply—

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indicated dissent.

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The Minister shakes her head. I know that she has not been in her post for long, but I advise her to go and look at the figures from the Ministry of Justice on domestic violence for different age ranges, because they were the figures that the MOJ quoted to me in a parliamentary answer about three or four years ago. They may well have changed, but I urge her at least to go and look at them before she shakes her head.

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I secured a 90-minute debate on domestic violence here in Westminster Hall just before the recess, which a number of Members contributed to. I completely agree that there are many men who are victims of domestic violence. However, a number of studies have shown that as many as half of all the women in jail at the moment—I think that is the figure—have been victims of domestic violence and almost a third of all female prisoners have been victims of sexual abuse, so those factors are very relevant. I do not want to get into a statistical argument with my hon. Friend, but I hope that this debate will broaden to discuss some of the other challenges faced by female prisoners and some of the factors that must be taken into account in sentencing.

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I am elated, because we now appear to have a consensus in Westminster Hall, which is an acceptance at last that men are more likely than women to be sent to prison. What we are now hearing from a variety of people are reasons why that should be the case. Those reasons may well be true—that is a debate for another day—but at least we are getting to the nub of the purpose of this particular debate that I have secured, which was to show that men are more likely than women to be sent to prison.

I will come on to discuss the women who are in prison and perhaps my hon. Friend might like to explain which of the women in prison he would like to see released; perhaps other Members could do the same. However, that is the second myth; I will just finish off on the first myth that I am discussing.

All other MOJ figures confirm that men are treated more harshly by the courts than women, and that there is quite a disparity. In the past few years for which the figures are published, women had 50% more chance than men of being released from prison early on home detention curfew. So it is perfectly clear that on the likelihood of being sent to prison, on the length of sentence being handed out and on the proportion of sentence served, women are treated more favourably than men, and that applies to all ages and all categories of offences, in Crown courts and magistrates courts. At least we have made that particular point clear.

The second myth that I want to discuss, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) may well be interested in hearing about it, is that most women are in prison for petty or non-violent offences, and are serving short sentences. Many campaigners say that far too many women are in prison and should not be there; that instead, they should be serving their sentences in the community.

We can take a snapshot of the sentenced female prison population at a moment in time. The last figures that I have are for June 2010. Let us just look at the detail of all these “poor women” who are serving prison sentences and who—apparently—should be out and about. Which of these women prisoners do those who advocate reducing the female prison sentence want to let out? Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, was quoted in The Guardian in 2007 as saying that

“For women who offend, prison simply doesn’t work. It is time to end the use of traditional prisons for women.”

Perhaps she might explain which of these particular women she would like to see out and about, and not serving a prison sentence. Maybe it is the 211 women serving sentences for murder; maybe it is the 135 women in prison for manslaughter or attempted homicide; maybe it is the 352 women convicted of wounding; maybe it is the 142 women convicted of serious assault or other violence against the person; maybe it is the 58 women imprisoned for cruelty to children; it could be the 83 women who are in for rape, gross indecency with children or other sexual offences; maybe it is the 272 women who are in for violent robbery, or the 151 women who are in for burglary; or maybe it is the 398 female drug dealers who should not be in prison. The total of those figures is about 1,800, which is a figure often bandied around as the target for women offenders in prison. Maybe people would say, “Those people should be in prison; it is the others who shouldn’t be in prison.” As I have indicated, there are some people who say that no women should be in prison at all, but that argument is just so ridiculous that I hope nobody here is in favour of it.

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that prison serves a number of purposes. One is the protection of the public. Another, though, is of course to rehabilitate offenders and prevent reoffending. It is pretty clear that prison is not doing a very good job at those things—for all sorts of reasons—both for women and for men. And the protection of the public could be better achieved through dedicated secure units for women rather than putting them into a system that is predominantly designed for a male lifestyle and male behaviours, and therefore incarcerates them in masculine-led regimes.

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These women are in women’s prisons, which are not “masculine regimes”. They are in female prisons, for goodness’ sake.

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Everybody accepts that those women are in women’s prisons, but at the same time we cannot ignore a statistic that says that upwards of 70% of offenders—male or female—reoffend. Therefore, does my hon. Friend accept that we have to look at a different approach, not only to sentencing male offenders—both Governments in the last five to 10 years have tried to do that—but to sentencing and dealing with female offenders.

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My hon. Friend might be right if it was not the case that according to the MOJ—so I am sure it is true—the longer people spend in prison the less likely they are to reoffend, and quite markedly. The high rates of reoffending that he mentions only relate to people who spend short periods of time in prison. The longer people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. The figures are something like this: for those sentenced for up to 12 months, 61% of people reoffend; for one to two years, the figure goes down to about 47%; for two to four years, it is about 37%; and for more than four years, it is down to about 17%. So the longer that people spend in prison, the less likely they are to reoffend. If my hon. Friend and other people are suggesting that—

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Hold on, hold on. If my hon. Friend and other people are suggesting that the 5,442 women who are sent to prison each year for up to six months should not be in prison, presumably they must also be saying that the 51,588 males who are sent to prison each year for less than six months also should not be in prison.

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indicated dissent.

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The hon. Lady may well send me a copy of her election address at the general election. If she would like to go round her constituency emblazoning the message that those who are sentenced to up to a year in prison—that is 70,000 people each year—should not be sent to prison, I will look forward to her issuing a leaflet to that effect. If she will not do that, I may well do it for her.

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, I represent a Manchester constituency where we have been piloting intensive alternatives to custody. In other words, those people who would otherwise meet the custody threshold and receive a short prison sentence of less than six months are diverted to community penalties. I must tell him that not only is that approach producing lower reoffending rates but it is very popular in Manchester, so he should not make a simplistic assumption that my constituents are not prepared to look at the deeper arguments about when custody works.

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I will make an offer to the hon. Lady today: I am happy to go to Manchester and debate sentencing with her, any time that she wants to fix up a debate, and we will see what the majority of her constituents think. I think that the point that she makes is nonsense, but if she wants to argue it, that is perfectly fair. However, the point is that those things apply to men more than women, so this argument that this is all about women is complete nonsense. All of these issues relate to men just as much as they do to women.

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All of us in this House would agree that those who are convicted of serious offences should go to prison. That is not in dispute, and neither is the desire to make prison more effective at rehabilitation. The statistics that my hon. Friend has produced show that longer sentences produce a lower likelihood of reoffending. Does he not accept, therefore, the overwhelming logic that if short sentences do not stop reoffending, short sentences are not necessarily working?

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We are getting slightly off the point, but I will respond to my hon. Friend’s intervention. The statistics do not suggest that. They suggest two things. The first is that people should perhaps have longer sentences, for which the reoffending rate is lower, not that they should have no sentences at all. The high reoffending rate for short sentences is an argument for longer sentences, not for no sentences.

The second point is that, in the main, someone has to have committed many offences to get to prison. If someone goes to court with more than 100 previous convictions they are more likely not to be sent to prison than to be sent there. People have community sentence after community sentence, and the only reason they go to prison is that those community sentences have not worked—they have not prevented them from reoffending. The reoffending rate for that cohort of people in prison, therefore, is lower than for those people when they were on community sentences.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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I am very conscious of time, Mrs Osborne. I will give way one last time, otherwise no one will have spoken in the debate, bar me.

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I understand. My hon. Friend has been very reasonable. Clearly, he has worked extremely hard on collating the statistics. I wonder, however, whether he has actually visited a female prison, or some of the alternatives to custody, one of which was referred to by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green).

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I have indeed. I have visited the intensive alternatives to custody in my part of the world and have visited 12 UK prisons, including Holloway and a women’s prison up in Yorkshire—so I have visited two women’s prisons in the UK. I have also visited prisons in Denmark and the USA, to see what they do. If my hon. Friend was trying to suggest that I did not know what I was talking about, I hope that I have made her aware that I have some experience in this field.

Interestingly, no one has, as yet, managed to tell me which of those people I listed should not be in prison. Perhaps we have a consensus that they should be in prison. If people want to limit the debate to the 1,800 women I have mentioned, let us continue to consider which of them should be let out. Perhaps it is the 91 arsonists, the 24 people convicted of violent disorder, or the 45 serving time for kidnapping and blackmail. Perhaps it is the 192 people who are in for serious fraud and forgery, the 320 who have been convicted of importing drugs that end up being sold onto our streets, or the 111 serving time for other serious drug offences. If we do not want to let all of them out, we appear to be running out of options. Perhaps people will tell us which of those women they think should not be in prison.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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I will be delighted to hear from the shadow Minister which of them the Labour party does not believe should be in prison.

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The Labour party believes, and I think we have the agreement of the Minister—who is from the hon. Gentleman’s own party—on this, that it is not about letting people out of prison, but about preventing them from going there in the first place. We want to see interventions that work and are properly resourced earlier on in people’s criminal careers, to prevent them from having to go to prison. That is the point we are trying to make.

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With respect, that is not the point that people are making, because it applies equally to men as to women. In debates and in questions we hear all this thing about women being treated more harshly than men. It is no good talking about these things, because they apply equally to men and women. No one, as yet, has been able to identify where women are treated more harshly in the criminal justice system, and that is the whole point of my debate.

Perhaps we are coming down to the other numbers. Perhaps it is the two dozen who are in for perjury—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

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No one has yet been able to tell us which of those people should not be in prison, so I presume that we can conclude only that all of them should be in prison. Therefore, we do not really have a problem.

I want to decouple one other thing. The number of women who receive short sentences in any one year is a completely different figure from the female prison population at any one time. Looking at recent figures as an example, just under 16% of female prisoners are serving sentences of less than six months, which is clearly a minority. If that is not classed as a short sentence, a further 6% are in prison for up to one year, so 22% of female prisoners are in custody for up to 12 months, which covers all cases heard in magistrates courts and some cases heard in Crown courts. All other female offenders are serving sentences of more than one year, which means their offences were so serious that they had to be dealt with by a Crown court. Those women, 78% of the total female prison population, are not serving short sentences for not-so-serious offences, as people would have us believe, but are serving much longer sentences for the most serious crimes. The figure of 78% of the female prison population comprises 34% serving between one and four years, 28% serving sentences of four years to life and 11% serving indeterminate sentences. A further 5% of offenders are in prison because after previously being released, they have either reoffended or breached their licence conditions. That is the second myth: women are imprisoned for short sentences and not very serious offences.

The third myth is that women are often remanded in custody but then are not sentenced to custody. I have heard the misuse of many statistics over the issue of remand and female offenders, so I want to introduce the House to the facts. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that women are more likely than men to get bail. The figures are in “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System” of November 2010:

“In 2009 80% of females were bailed, compared with 62% of males; 20% were remanded in custody compared with 38% of males. The percentage remanded for both males and females is at a five-year low.”

Those figures yet again back up the fact that more men than women are sentenced to custody. The document goes on:

“Of those remanded in custody, 66% of females were then sentenced to immediate custody in comparison with 75% of males.”

When people complain about women being more likely to be remanded in custody and then not sent to prison, it is solely due to women being treated more favourably when they are sentenced. It is not that they are more harshly treated when the decision is made to remand them in custody or give them bail. The figures are perfectly clear—it is yet another deliberate myth.

The fourth myth is that prison separates mothers from their children, which unfairly punishes them. It is said that 17,000 children are separated from their mothers and that 60% of women in custody have children under the age of 18. It is also suggested that about 700 of more than 4,000 women are in prisons more than 100 miles away from their children. Let us take that in stages. First, it is not the system that separates any mother from her children. It is that individual’s actions in breaking the law that have led to prison and that is almost certainly 100% their fault and their responsibility alone. As we already know from the evidence, they are less likely than men to go to prison. In addition, recently updated sentencing guidelines also incorporate consideration of the effect that custody would have on others, when the defendant is the primary carer for another. That again is likely to benefit further more women than men when they are sentenced.

If we are so concerned about the children of women offenders, what about the estimated 180,000 children who are separated from their fathers who are in prison? In this age of equality, what about that much higher figure? Should we not be more, or at least equally, outraged about that? If not, why not? Some women may be further away from their children than others in prison, but let us turn to the main point about all those women who are allegedly being so unfairly dragged away from their poor children by over-harsh magistrates and judges. That is another big myth.

My understanding is that a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Justice has helpfully confirmed recently that two thirds of the mothers sent to prison who have children were not even looking after them at the time. She apparently said of the women being sent to prison:

“Two-thirds of them didn’t have their kids living with them when they went to prison.”

Why on earth is there such a huge outcry about separating mothers from their children, when most of the mothers in prison were not being mothers to their children anyway?

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman; he marshals his argument well. He makes good use of statistics up to a point. However, on this I must differ. Only 5% of children with a mother in custody are able to stay in their own home. That is not the case for men. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that? What is the effect? We know that people who have parents in custody are much more likely to commit offences in future. We are trying desperately hard to break that pattern of offending, so it seems an obvious step to try to keep those relationships alive. We know that, especially with women, that is one of the single most important factors in preventing their reoffending.

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My point is that men are parents as well as women. The problems that the hon. Lady articulates apply to men as well as women. The argument goes that this is all about women; it is not all about women. Let us not focus just on the very small proportion of women who are in prison. Let us also think about all the men, too. The whole point of the debate is to make people aware that where there are issues they apply equally to men, and that some of the issues are not even issues at all because the facts do not back them up.

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On mother and baby units, it is not, with the greatest respect, all about the mother. The principal criterion for entering a mother and baby unit is that it must be in the best interests of the child. That is the most important criterion. Does my hon. Friend not accept that?

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The point is that 66% of women sent to prison who have children are not actually looking after their children when they are sent to prison. That is the point I am making, so I am not entirely sure why we are all pulling our hair out about people who are not even looking after their children. Those children have probably either been put into care or are being looked after by other family members, probably because the mother is considered unfit to look after the children. Why should the courts treat her less harshly when the children have already been removed from her? It is a completely spurious argument.

When it comes to the minority who are looking after their children, we should not assume that they are all fantastic mothers and role models for their children. Many will be persistent offenders with chaotic lifestyles. Some will end up dragging their children into their criminal lifestyles and some will scar their children for life along the way. We presume it is in the children’s best interest to stay with those mothers. It may not be in the best interest of the child for the mother to be released. It may be in their best interests for their mother to go to prison in some cases.

Others will have committed very serious offences. The same official from the Ministry of Justice said recently of women offenders:

“They can be very damaged and also very damaging.”

That is absolutely right. Sarah Salmon of Action for Prisoners’ Families said:

“For some families the mother going into prison is a relief because she has been causing merry hell.”

That is another worthy point we should consider. Let us, finally, not forget those who are in prison for being cruel to their children—for abusing their own children.

The final myth is that women are generally treated more harshly than men in the justice system. It is clear that women are less likely than men to be sent to prison. Therefore, we need to look at other court disposals to see if they are then treated more harshly than men in other areas. If they are not being sent to prison as frequently as men they are presumably being sentenced at the next level down—a community order. They are not. The Ministry of Justice’s figures yet again show that men are more likely than women to receive a community order: 10% of women sentenced are given a community order compared with 16% of men. The Ministry of Justice goes on to confirm that

“these patterns were broadly consistent in each of the last five years”.

Women are less likely than men to go to prison and less likely to be given a community order. That is not all. Of those who are given a community order the ones given to men are likely to be much harsher. The Ministry of Justice says:

“The average length of all community sentences for men was longer than for women…For women receiving a community order, the largest proportion had one requirement, whereas the largest proportion of men had two requirements.”

I do not want to veer into the realms of domestic violence that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle tried to go down; that is a debate for another day. However, one thing worth noting about sentencing is that despite all the evidence that shows women as the perpetrators of domestic violence in far more cases than some would like us to think, the community requirement imposed on those who commit an offence in a domestic setting is imposed only on men and cannot be handed down to women. As usual, this shows that the whole issue of equality works only one way, even when we are dealing with exactly the same offence.

Given the more severe sentences for men at the higher end of the sentencing spectrum, it is unsurprising that women are more likely to receive low levels of punishment at courts. It is a fact that a higher proportion of female defendants receive fines. All of that shows that throughout the court sentencing regime men are on average treated more severely than women.

Before I conclude there is another interesting statistic that is worth sharing. There is even an imbalance in the number of women reaching court compared with men, as more females than men were issued with pre-court sanctions. That has been consistently the case in recent years according to the Ministry of Justice. That is the evidence.

All the hysteria surrounding women in the justice system is completely without foundation, yet people want to be seen to be doing something about the so-called problem. We have the Together Women project, women-only groups for community sentences, a criminal justice women’s strategy unit, women’s centres, a proposal for women-only courts and, just the other day in Manchester, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) proposed a women’s justice board. That is all on top of the Corston report, which looked at the whole issue of female offenders and came up with even more suggestions.

Looking at the evidence, there appears to be sex discrimination in the sentencing of offenders, but the people being discriminated against are men not women. Women cannot have it both ways. They cannot expect to be treated equally in everything in society except when it comes to being sentenced by the courts for the crimes that they commit. People may want to argue that it is reasonable for women to be given lighter sentences than men, and that it is right that fewer women are sent to prison than men. That is an argument for another day, but at least when we have these debates about sentencing for men and women let us stick to the facts as they are and not what we would like them to be. Men are treated more harshly by the courts than women. If we can at least have debates that flow from that, based on the facts, we will have made a good start today.

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It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing it. It is useful for debates to be formed on the basis of fact, and I think that we will all go away and have another look at some of the statistics. However, I do not think that we will all necessarily jump to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman.

I take exception to the charge of inappropriate political correctness and hysteria on my part and on the part of the Minister. We are trying to devise a criminal justice system that is sensible, just, effective and helps to reduce reoffending and the number of victims. I think that that is something that we all share, and we are trying to do it within a very tight budget. In the past, I have agreed with the hon. Member for Shipley on issues such as indeterminate sentencing. It is slightly rich for him then to say that we are all getting a bit woolly-headed and soft. We are not; we are trying to deal with these issues sensibly.

If we take a look at what we know about women in the criminal justice system, the first thing that we see is that there are far fewer of them than there are male offenders. As the hon. Gentleman said, women make up only 5% of the prison population. However, being a minority has meant that in the past they have not been served as appropriately as the male population. For example, as well as committing less crime, the female population tends to commit different types of offences. Importantly, they are less likely to commit violent crime. Conversely, we know that they are more likely than their male counterparts to be given a custodial sentence for their first offence. We will all go away and frantically try to check that out. Their most common offence appears to be theft, particularly shoplifting. Once there, women experience prison differently from men. Despite inhabiting only 5% of our cell spaces, female offenders account for nearly 50% of all incidents of self-harm that happen inside prison walls. The majority of women in prison are serving short sentences of six months or less. Once out, the majority of them reoffend and are back within one year. Clearly, something is not working.

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I can only conclude that the hon. Lady did not listen to what I said. The fact is, at any point in time, 78% of women in prison are serving a sentence of over one year. It is simply not true to say that the majority of women in prison today are serving a short sentence—they are not.

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The majority of women who are sentenced serve less than six months. It goes without saying that serious and violent offenders, whether men or women, should be punished and imprisoned to protect the public. However, it needs to be said that the majority of women, viewed by sentences, have committed minor, non-violent offences. We are aware that our new Secretary of State for Justice is keen to tell us that prison works, but when 62% of women who serve a short custodial sentence get out and quickly reoffend, it is a sure sign that something is not working. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like all classes of offender to serve longer sentences, but I am curious to know where the budget will come from.

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There are plenty of areas from which the extra resources for the prison budget could come. A starter would be the £19 billion that we give to the European Union. Perhaps the recent vast increase in overseas aid—the money that we give to India—would be a good place to start, actually to have some prison places in this country.

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I really should have thought before I said that; I should have predicted that answer. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman raising that point with the leader of his party.

In 2007, the Labour Government published the Corston report, which was commissioned precisely to consider this cohort of offenders. Irritating though it is to the hon. Gentleman, we still believe that specific things can be done for this group of offenders to reduce their reoffending that are not currently taking place, and they are different from those interventions that may be successful for male offenders.

More than 50% of the women in prison report that they have experienced domestic abuse. One in three of them have suffered sexual abuse, and a quarter of the women in prison were in care as children. They are disproportionately more likely to suffer from serious mental health problems than either male offenders or the wider population. Some 37% of women sent to prison say they have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, and 74% left school before they were 16. Drugs and substance misuse are also disproportionately a factor in women’s offending before entering custody—75% of women had used illegal drugs. I have already mentioned the appallingly high amount of self-harm that occurs in this population.

Baroness Corston was led to describe these women as “troubled” rather than simply “troublesome”, although they certainly can be troublesome. A short prison sentence, mandated on top of an already chaotic life, does little to address the root causes of offending. The problems that were there before a female offender entered the gates will be there when she leaves them, only then there might be more. Some 30% of women lose their accommodation while in custody. Many of them had inadequate housing or were homeless before arrest, and they are not the only ones at risk of losing their homes due to imprisonment.

Nearly 18,000 children are separated from their mothers every year by a prison sentence. Female offenders are often the primary or sole carer in a family—this is where they differ from male offenders. Some 66% of women in prison have dependent children under the age of 18. Only 5% of children with a mother in custody are able to stay in their own homes while their mum is inside. The burden often falls on extended family members or on the care system. We cannot afford inappropriately to sentence female offenders who do not pose a serious risk to the public. It costs children their family and their homes. It makes it harder for women, who are often vulnerable or victims in their own right, to get their lives back on track. It condemns communities to have offenders returned to their streets without any meaningful preventative work done; and on top of it all, it simply costs too much.

The Prison Reform Trust, which I know the hon. Member for Shipley holds in very high regard, reports that it costs an average £49,000 per year to hold a woman in prison. The Independent, which I am also sure that the hon. Gentleman reads very carefully, recently ran an article about a woman who had been sent to prison for stealing a lasagne. The ex-governor of Styal women’s prison tells a story of a woman who was given a custodial sentence for stealing a sandwich when she was hungry. In a women’s centre in Manchester earlier this month, I talked to a woman who had been made homeless due to domestic abuse and had been sent to prison after committing petty theft to survive—she had stolen a sandwich.

I reiterate that of course there are crimes where a custodial sentence is the most appropriate punishment for an offender, female or not. However, a disproportionate or ineffective custodial sentence, as is clearly suggested by current reoffending rates, is an awful lot to pay for a solution that solves very little.

Baroness Corston made a series of recommendations about changes that needed to be made to the content and provision of women’s sentences. Her report was greeted with strong support by all parties, including the two—or the one—that now sit opposite me.

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Is the hon. Lady claiming that someone was sent to prison for stealing a sandwich as a first offence? Is that really what she is claiming? If so, I find that very hard to believe. If people are sent to prison for what she considers to be minor offences, I can guarantee that men are more likely to be sent to prison for those offences because, for every category of crime, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women. This applies equally to men—it is not only women.

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Of course, that is true. If something positive can come out of this debate, it might be a sense that in raising issues concerning women we are not solely concerned about women offenders. What is true, however, is that we could have much more success with that group of offenders if they were dealt with slightly differently. Given that we have such a problem with reoffending, it makes perfect sense to break offenders down into groups to be dealt with and with whom we could first have some success.

The Labour Government accepted almost all of Corston’s 43 recommendations, and a lot of good progress was made. Five years on, some of the achievements that we should be most proud of are the end to mandatory strip searching and the targeted investment in community and diversion services for women. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) who, according to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), argued ferociously for change and did not stop until she got her way—a fine example of the effectiveness of a women’s justice champion, a role that has, sadly, been conspicuous by its absence in the first two years of this Government.

Progress, I am disappointed to report, has stalled. I have already noted that the current Secretary of State for Justice did not find time to make women a priority in his conference speech, although, to be fair to him, he is simply following the example set by a Government who did not include a single mention of female offenders in a Bill with the size and scope of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The Secretary of State has made much of his desire to be tough on crime and, even more perhaps, of his fractious relationship with community sentencing. This is not about being hard or soft, however, but about what works, and smart community interventions are the most effective way to sentence and rehabilitate the majority of women who enter the criminal justice system. Such reform is tough on crime, as it reduces it. When I asked staff and service users at the Pankhurst women’s centre in Manchester what needed to change, they answered that politicians needed to grow a backbone—they were actually a lot less polite, but I think we know what they meant.

In opposition, Labour has continued our commitment to such reform—this month my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) announced plans to set up a women’s justice board. Reducing the number of women in prison, he argued, should be a priority for any Government. The Secretary of State for Justice is not known for his desire to reduce the prison population, but if our criminal justice system is to be sensible and effective and provide value for money, it may be time for the Government to think outside the gates.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on securing this important debate, and I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the steps that justice agencies are taking to address women’s offending. Before doing so, I want to set out two important parts of the wider context on female offenders: to explain how our current sentencing framework deals with gender and to show how important it is to look carefully at the evidence on how women are sentenced by the courts.

To begin with, therefore, it is important to be clear about how our sentencing framework is gender-neutral: everyone is absolutely equal before the law. The same criminal offences and maximum penalties apply to every case, regardless of the offender’s gender. Alongside that, however, we also need to remember that every offender who is brought before the courts is unique. A long-standing principle of our justice system is that courts should consider the full circumstances, not only of the offence but of the offender, when sentencing. A sentencing framework that did not allow courts to take into account individual circumstances would not be a just one.

In many cases, an offender’s personal characteristics, such as previous convictions, failure to comply with earlier court orders or abusing a position of trust, can all be treated as aggravating factors when sentencing. Other personal characteristics, however, may provide mitigation. Previous good character, age, physical or mental health and caring responsibilities are all factors that courts can take into account when deciding the appropriate sentence.

All such factors may apply to both male and female offenders. For example, that an offender is a primary carer for dependent relatives is the important fact for the court, not whether the offender is the mother or the father. Probation pre-sentence reports give courts the detailed assessments that they need to make informed judgments about the factors that they should take into account.

I should make it clear that courts need to weigh mitigating factors against the others circumstances. For example, although it is recognised that parental imprisonment can have considerable effect on the lives of children, caring responsibilities will not necessarily mean that an offender will be spared prison. The overriding aim of the courts will always be to impose a sentence that reflects the seriousness of the offence and that is proportionate to the culpability of the offender and the harm caused.

We need to bear in mind all such issues when looking at the sentences imposed on male and female offenders. Differences in the type and severity of sentence given to men and women may be attributable to a wide range of factors, such as the type and gravity of offence committed and the individual’s previous offending history.

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Is the Minister therefore conceding—the main purpose of my debate—that for each category of offence men are more likely to be sent to prison than women? She did not say so explicitly, but she was about to give reasons for that being the case.

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No, I do not accept that at all. What I have just said is that the sentencing framework and guidelines are gender-neutral: everyone is absolutely equal before the law. That is exactly what I said.

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I will give the Minister one more chance, because I do not want her to mislead the House inadvertently. She can use her Ministry of Justice figures for the answer. Does she accept that, for each category of offence, men are more likely to be sent to prison than women? We can take all the reasons why that may be the case and we can put in all the mitigating factors, but will she confirm for the benefit of the House, as the Minister in this Department, that for each category of offence men are more likely to be sent to prison than women? The reasons are irrelevant; it is only the facts that we want at this stage.

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We could go round in circles, but I shall repeat myself: the sentencing framework and guidelines are gender-neutral and everyone is equal before the law. The sentencer has an obligation to take into consideration all factors relating to the offence and to the offender. In our judicial system, if the sentencer failed to do so, we would have an unjust system.

We need to be careful when interpreting the statistics, many of which have been cited by my hon. Friend today. At a high level, for example, the figures show that 10% of male offenders and 3% of female offenders were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011. The average custodial sentence length for males was longer than for females, at 15 months and 10 months, respectively. Equally, however, proportionally more males than females received sentences in 2011 for serious offences such as violent crime, sexual crime and robbery. There were also differences in the severity of offences committed within the groups. For example, 343 offenders were sentenced in 2011 for murder, but only 23 were female offenders.

The available statistics on aggravating factors suggest that a similar proportion of males and females sentenced to short custodial sentences are persistent offenders. In June 2011, around half of both men and women serving sentences of six months or less in prison had 15 or more previous convictions.

A number of mitigating factors are particularly associated with women offenders, including the high prevalence of mental health needs and child care responsibilities. Prisoner surveys tell us that more than a quarter of female prisoners reported having been treated for a mental health problem in the year before custody, compared with 16% of male prisoners.

Women are also more likely than male offenders to have child care responsibilities, and 60% of mothers with children under the age of 18 lived with those children prior to imprisonment, compared with around 45% of fathers. So there is a nuanced story behind the statistics, which reflects the fact that every offender, whether male or female, is a unique individual. Whether offenders are punished in custody or in the community, the Government are committed to ensuring that both men and women who offend are successfully rehabilitated.

For those offenders who are best dealt with out of court, we are piloting mental health and substance misuse liaison and diversion services in police custody and at courts by 2014. We are also developing intensive treatment options in the community for offenders with drug or mental health problems, including four women-only services in Wirral, Bristol, Birmingham and Tyneside.

In prisons, we are piloting drug recovery wings for short-sentence, drug and alcohol-dependent prisoners at three women’s prisons: HMPs New Hall, Askham Grange and Styal. We are also ensuring that courts have the right mix of punitive and rehabilitative requirements available when sentencing female offenders to community sentences. The National Offender Management Service is providing £3.78 million in this financial year to fund 31 women’s community services that can be used as part of, or in conjunction with community sentences. To protect the provision of services for women in these times of financial challenge, that funding will be embedded within the baseline for future probation trust settlements with a requirement that it results in enhanced services for women.

We have issued gender-specific standards in all areas of the prison regime, including training for staff working with women offenders in prisons, now extended to services provided in the outside community, and new search arrangements, ending routine full searches of women prisoners.

Seven mother and baby units in England and Wales provide an overall total capacity of 77 places for mothers, with capacity for up to 84 places for babies to allow for twins. Mother and baby units provide a calm and friendly place within prison for babies to live with their mothers. They enable the mother and child relationship to develop, thereby safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare.

In closing, I thank the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman), as well as the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), for contributing to the debate. We can continue to improve how we tackle offending together only if we continue to address the wide range of factors associated with offending, whether the offenders are male or female. I welcome the constructive and knowledgeable contributions from all hon. Members this afternoon, as they have highlighted how important it is to continue to focus on responding to the specific circumstances of women offenders.

Tonbridge Hospital/Edenbridge Hospital

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

My constituents are most fortunate in that they have within my constituency geographical boundary not one community hospital, but two. We have the Edenbridge and District War Memorial hospital, and Tonbridge Cottage hospital. Both were founded between the two world wars with the outpouring of philanthropic and generous donations in remembrance particularly of those who suffered terrible injuries on such a huge scale during the first world war.

Of all the public assets in Edenbridge and Tonbridge, those two hospitals are the most highly prized by the two communities. The support for Edenbridge and Tonbridge community hospitals is far reaching and profound. In the forefront of that support are their two leagues of friends. Edenbridge Hospital’s League of Friends, chaired by Mrs Jo Naismith, and Tonbridge Hospital’s League of Friends, chaired by Dr David Goodridge, voluntarily and in an unceasing and dedicated way provide outstanding support to the two hospitals. I stress particularly the quality of the care and treatment provided at the two hospitals, and I pay tribute to the NHS nursing staff and doctors, and all the others who work in them for the quality of provision for local patients.

I want to raise two issues. First is the proposed transfer of the assets of both hospitals in April 2013 in accordance with the Government’s policy of relieving the former primary care trusts of their property assets. The Government’s policy in this area is seriously misguided. It is a major failure and misconception of policy to divide those property assets into the sheep and the goats with property from some community hospitals being transferred to mainstream NHS providers when that of other hospitals—the goats—is being transferred to NHS Property Services Ltd.

Despite all the soothing words and honeyed letters that I have received from Ministers about the issue—I am grateful to the Minister for the letter she wrote to me yesterday, which I received this morning—I am in no doubt whatever from the statements by the previous Secretary of State for Health that the main reason for the creation of NHS Property Services Ltd is to set up a vehicle inside the Department of Health that will count among its main objectives asset realisation, or asset stripping as some might say. To make the point clearly, it is necessary only to go back to the former Secretary of State’s original written statement in which he outlined the objectives of NHS Property Services Ltd, which included to

“deliver value for money property services; cut costs of administering the estate by consolidating the management of over 150 estates; deliver and develop cost-effective property solutions for community health services; and dispose of property surplus to NHS requirements.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 19WS.]

It is quite clear, therefore, that NHS Property Services is an asset realisation and disposal company being set up within the NHS.

I also find some of the criteria used by Ministers for whether community hospital assets go to NHS providers or to NHS Property Services Ltd seriously flawed. For example, why should a community hospital, simply because it shares parts of its property with another NHS trust, as is the case with Tonbridge Cottage hospital, automatically be sentenced to going to NHS Property Services Ltd? I see absolutely no justification or rationality for that criterion.

My anxieties about the policy were, if anything, increased when my hon. Friend the Minister gave the following reply in a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston):

“NHS Property Services Ltd will own and manage buildings that are needed by the NHS. However, it will also be able to release savings from its properties that are declared surplus to NHS requirements.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 485.]

Therefore, many other MPs may be in a similar position to me: will I wake up one morning, as will my constituents in the Tonbridge and Edenbridge area, and find that Tonbridge Cottage hospital or Edenbridge and District War Memorial hospital have been declared “surplus to NHS requirements”? That is a worrying and apparent possibility, and I hope that the Minister will be able to relieve me of my anxiety on that score. I appreciate that she cannot give any assurances beyond the lifetime of the present Government, but will she give a categorical, unequivocal, unqualified assurance in Hansard, in black and white, that during the lifetime of the present Government, neither of those hospitals will be declared surplus to requirements?

My other criticism of the whole policy is the lack of proper consultation. General statements have been made, but we as constituency MPs are deeply concerned about the specifics. So far, there has been no consultation with MPs, local councillors or local people on the specific intentions of the Government about the property assets of individual community hospitals. Here we are today, with less than six months to go before April 2013, and I, local councillors, leagues of friends, and local people have not received any official information about whether the two hospitals will belong to NHS providers or go off to NHS Property Services Ltd. As far as I am concerned, that lack of consultation with the public and their elected representatives is unacceptable. I hope that in her reply the Minister will convey this request to the Secretary of State, urging him to ensure that before final ministerial decisions are taken on whether individual hospitals go to NHS providers or to NHS Property Services Ltd, the public and their representatives are consulted, so that they can express a view on the Government’s proposals.

The second issue that I want to raise is equally serious: the failure of the West Kent primary care trust to discharge its statutory consultation obligations when it put into effect a major change of use recently at Tonbridge Cottage hospital. I stress that I am not here to debate the merits or otherwise of the change of use; I have come to discuss the legality or otherwise of the process that was followed, and whether there was a breach of statutory consultation obligations.

However, in brief, and by way of background, the change of use has arisen because the West Kent primary care trust had to find a home for the stroke rehabilitation unit that was at the Kent and Sussex hospital when the hospital was closed relatively recently. The unit was not incorporated in the main buildings of the hospital; it was in temporary buildings—so-called pods—placed on the car parking area of the Kent and Sussex hospital. The West Kent primary care trust had the option of moving those pods, which clearly had been working perfectly satisfactorily and to NHS standards, lock, stock and barrel, and putting them in the car parking area, which has recently been expanded, at Tonbridge Cottage hospital. Instead, it took the easy option, deciding to shut down half the community beds at Tonbridge Cottage hospital and move the stroke rehabilitation unit there. That process, which involved a major change of use at the hospital, was carried out with no statutory consultation whatsoever.

I make it clear to the Minister that I am perfectly happy, as are the Friends of Tonbridge Cottage hospital, to have stroke rehabilitation at the hospital. However, we are profoundly unhappy that instead of its being an additional facility at Tonbridge Cottage hospital, the change was achieved at the expense of cutting in half the number of very valuable community beds there. That has now left Tonbridge Cottage hospital with the smallest number of community beds in Kent, among all the community hospitals there; I have the figures from the West Kent PCT. Notwithstanding the fact that Tonbridge Cottage hospital is the one and only community hospital serving the entirety of Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and the surrounding areas, it now has the smallest number of community beds in Kent.

I have to make it clear that the policy runs directly contrary to the stated policy of the Government. The Minister, in her reply of 6 September said

“this Government support improvements in community hospitals across the country. That is because we know that community hospitals make it easier for people to get care and treatment closer to where they live.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2012; Vol. 549, c. 483.]

The action taken by West Kent primary care trust has made it significantly more difficult for people in the Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and Southborough area to get care and treatment closer to where they live.

I come now to the statutory requirements. I raised them originally in my letter of 17 June 2011 to the former Secretary of State for Health. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), in his reply of 18 July, set out very clearly the two statutory obligations falling on NHS trusts to consult. He referred me to sections 242 and 244 of the National Health Service Act 2006. The key provision in section 242 is subsection (2):

“Each body to which this section applies must make arrangements with a view to securing, as respects health services for which it is responsible, that persons to whom those services are being or may be provided are, directly or through representatives, involved in and consulted on—

(a) the planning of the provision of those services,

(b) the development and consideration of proposals for changes in the way those services are provided, and

(c) decisions to be made by that body affecting the operation of those services.”

In my view, the breach of that statutory consultation obligation by West Kent primary care trust is absolutely clear. There was no consultation, directly or through representatives, in the Tonbridge area about those significant changes. It seems to me entirely clear that section 242 was not complied with.

Even more stark is the failure of West Kent primary care trust to comply with its obligations under section 244. That is the section of the 2006 Act that places on NHS trusts a statutory duty to consult local authority overview and scrutiny committees—in this case, the overview and scrutiny committee of Kent county council. The key document in this respect is “Overview and Scrutiny of Health—Guidance”, which was published by the Department of Health in July 2003 and which is now statutory guidance, as the former Secretary of State made clear to me. The key paragraph is 10.4.1, which states:

“Where an NHS trust plans to vary or develop services locally, it will need to discuss the proposal with the overview and scrutiny committee to determine whether the proposal is substantial. If the outcome of those discussions is that it is a substantial development or variation, the trust must consult the overview and scrutiny committee.”

I therefore asked the leader of Kent county council, County Councillor Paul Carter, if the council’s overview and scrutiny committee had been consulted on whether the change was substantial. In his letter to me of 18 September 2012, he replied that

“there was no formal consultation on the specific decision relating to stroke rehabilitation beds at Tonbridge Cottage Hospital…Nor was the issue specifically brought to the attention of the Committee. Therefore the Committee has not been in a position to determine whether the proposal was substantial.”

That, I suggest, is starkly clear evidence of a breach of the statutory consultation obligation.

I do not expect the Minister, in her reply to this debate, to give an instant response to and judgment on the legal case that I have advanced for there having been a breach of statutory consultation obligations. It would be unreasonable of me to expect that when I have only just presented the evidence, but I do request that in the light of what I have said in the debate, she consults the Secretary of State, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will take his own legal advice. I wish to hear in writing—I hope from the Secretary of State himself, following the legal advice that he has received—whether he agrees that West Kent primary care trust failed to discharge its statutory consultation obligations in bringing about a substantial change of use at Tonbridge Cottage hospital.

I hope that if the Secretary of State comes to the same view as I have done that there has been such a breach and that therefore the change of use process was unlawful, he will tell me what action he believes is appropriate. I hope that he will tell me what action he would see fit to take in relation to the individuals in the former West Kent primary care trust who were responsible for non-compliance with statutory duties. I hope most of all that the Secretary of State will take this action: I hope that he will issue a direction to the successor body to West Kent primary care trust, NHS Kent and Medway, and that that direction will instruct NHS Kent and Medway to carry out—admittedly belatedly—the statutory consultation on the change of use at Tonbridge Cottage hospital that has occurred.

If the consultation takes place, as I earnestly hope it will, it will give me, the Friends of Tonbridge Cottage hospital and, most important of all, the people of the entire Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Southborough and surrounding area the opportunity to make it clear to the NHS and to the Secretary of State that although we welcome the stroke rehabilitation facility at Tonbridge Cottage hospital, we want the half of our community beds that have been removed to be restored for the benefit of the people of the local community.

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First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing the debate and on the many questions that he has raised. As the clock is against me, I shall deal at the beginning of my response to his speech with some of the issues that he has specifically asked me to deal with.

It strikes me that these matters should and could have been dealt with locally. As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, one of the Government’s aims has been to ensure that national politicians do not get involved in the stuff of sorting out the NHS locally. He raises concerns about his local PCT and calls into question procedures undertaken by it. He says that decisions that it has made should have been referred to the overview and scrutiny committee. I do not know whether that is right or wrong. What I do know is that it is incumbent on local politicians to raise such matters, as they do the length and breadth of England. It may be that the horse has bolted from the stable and it is too late, but I think that I can say with some certainty that it is not the role of the Secretary of State for Health to seek legal opinion on whether the PCT has acted lawfully.

With respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I suggest that those are local matters, to be determined locally, and it is for the league of friends, himself, councillors and other concerned people to look into the legality of the decisions that have been made and the processes that have been chosen. It is for the local NHS and local politicians to deal with that. It is not the role of Whitehall and Ministers to get involved in the stuff of local NHS decisions and those processes.

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The league of friends and I have pursued these issues in detail over a considerable period with the local PCT. Does the Minister not agree that under primary legislation, the Secretary of State ultimately has a responsibility for addressing issues of NHS trusts’ compliance with statute?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. I will look further into the matter. I cannot give a definitive answer, but in my experience such matters are invariably taken up by local politicians, often led by their local Member of Parliament, who go to the overview and scrutiny committee of the county council to urge upon it all the reviews and challenges that he has sought and raised in this debate. I will, however, look into this further, and if he will forgive me, I will come back to him probably by way of a letter or a meeting between the two of us. May I move on to the future of his community hospitals?

I am reliably informed that there are no plans whatsoever to close either of the two hospitals. I will get through as much of my speech as I can in the time available—I will be guided by you, Mrs Osborne, but I think I have to sit down at half-past 4. I make it absolutely clear again that the future of hospitals is not determined by national Government, but is in effect determined by the local commissioning process. From what I am told, there is no reason to fear for the future of either the Tonbridge Cottage hospital or the Edenbridge and District War Memorial hospital, because the services that they provide will be commissioned by the local clinical commissioning group. They are doing a grand job now, so there is no reason to think that they will not continue to do a grand job, and therefore their services will continue to be commissioned.

Many Members have great affection for their community hospitals, and rightly so. As my right hon. Friend alluded to, they provide a wide range of vital services, from minor injury clinics to intensive rehabilitation. They inspire much love and respect in their communities. They are fiercely defended and rightly inspire loyalty.

My right hon. Friend and the local league of friends have raised the issue of the beds at Tonbridge hospital. I am not the PCT’s mouthpiece, but as he will appreciate, inquiries are made and I am supplied with information. I am assured that the 12 community beds in question were designated as general rehabilitation beds. They were then redesignated as stroke rehabilitation beds and are now housed in the new £400,000 purpose-built stroke unit, which opened at the hospital in September 2011. The PCT then created 12 additional general rehabilitation beds across west Kent, to replace the 12 community beds that had been redesignated. Of those 12, two, as he mentioned, are at Tonbridge hospital. We do not agree that there was a loss of beds, because 12 of the beds became stroke rehabilitation beds. I take the point that there were 12 community beds previously and now there are two community beds, but we should not forget that there are an additional 12 stoke rehabilitation beds.

It was the opinion of the PCT at the time that there was no real change in the use of the beds at Tonbridge hospital, because their primary function had been rehabilitation. The 12 community beds were designated for rehabilitation, and the 12 stroke beds are obviously for rehabilitation, too. The hospital has gained two extra beds for community rehabilitation that were designated specifically for older people. The PCT therefore considered that there was no real service change, so it did not deem formal consultation necessary or appropriate.

The Government have pledged that in future all service changes must be led by clinicians and patients, not driven from the top down. That principle has been at the heart of our reforms for the NHS. To that end, we have outlined and strengthened the criteria that we expect decisions on NHS service changes to meet: they must focus on improving patient outcomes, consider patient choice, have support from GP commissioners and be based on sound clinical evidence.

Everything that we do in central Government is designed to support local clinicians and patients changing the local NHS for the better and to ensure that improvements are made to primary and community services. As a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, primary care trusts will be abolished from April 2013 and responsibility for commissioning services will move to clinical commissioning groups, so local doctors, clinicians and experts are in control. I see no reason why they would not commission services from those two excellent community hospitals.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the community hospital estate and its future. The 2012 Act requires new ownership arrangements for current PCT estates. In August last year, the Department of Health announced that NHS providers would have the opportunity to acquire parts of the estate. Therefore, providers, such as community foundation trusts, NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts, will be able to take over those parts of the PCT estate that are used for clinical services. That of course includes the community hospital estate. We have put safeguards in place, so that providers cannot just dispose of newly acquired land and make a quick profit. I hope that that satisfies him.

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Before the Minister concludes, will she respond to my request that before Ministers take a final decision on whether individual hospital properties go to NHS providers or NHS Property Services Ltd, they consult on the proposed final destination of the properties, so that local people have an opportunity to express a view?

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I cannot give that undertaking. The point is well made; I will take it back to the Department and ensure that the Secretary of State is aware of it. Many such decisions will be taken locally. My right hon. Friend and the league of friends should continue to make all the representations that they have already made, and I know that they will do so.

The safeguards have been put in place. As my right hon. Friend knows, where any former estate becomes surplus to NHS requirements, 50% of any financial gain made by the provider must be paid back to the Secretary of State for Health and will go straight to front-line NHS services. Based on what I have been told and what I have seen in the 2012 Act, I am of the view that if a community hospital—if this is what occurs—is transferred to NHS Property Services Ltd, it will not in some way be deemed surplus to requirements by NHS Property Services Ltd.

The two hospitals that my right hon. Friend rightly champions would only ever become surplus to requirements if the CCG stopped commissioning their services. I am told that that is extremely unlikely to happen. He should have no fear at all that NHS Property Services Ltd will sit and looking at its assets and simply decide to sell things off for a quick buck. The hospitals’ future is secure. I thank him for securing the debate and for the points that he has made. I have not answered them all, but I will, in either a meeting or a letter.

Remploy

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Osborne, for what I believe is the first time—I hope that it is not the last time—and it is a pleasure to have secured this debate on behalf of the more than 1,421 people at Remploy factories across the country whose jobs have gone, or will be at risk by the end of the year, in particular the staff who have worked so hard in the Springburn factory in my Glasgow constituency.

Stage 1 of the Department for Work and Pensions process is set to lead to the closure of up to 30 factories by the end of the year, with decisions still due on Barrow, Bridgend, Bristol, Chesterfield, Poole, Croespenmaen and Springburn, as well as on the Cook with Care business. A further 18 factories are under threat of closure by 2015. With as many as 6 million people across the country trapped in joblessness or under-employment because they are unable to find full-time work, and with the Office for Budget Responsibility reporting this morning that the Chancellor’s austerity measures may have stripped even more demand out of the economy than even it expected in June 2010, sustaining good-quality, full-time jobs in manufacturing, particularly for disabled workers, must be a priority for any Government.

In my constituency, 19 people are chasing every vacancy advertised in local Jobcentres Plus, but the situation is even worse for people with a disability. According to the labour force survey, the employment rate gap between disabled and non-disabled people has narrowed slightly over the past decade, by about 5.8%, but it still stands at a staggering 29.9%, in 2012. Only 46.3% of disabled people are in employment, compared with 76.2% of non-disabled people, and disabled individuals are twice as likely as the rest of the work force to need full-time rather than part-time jobs. Without alternative jobs for disabled people to go to, the effect of closing Remploy factories will be to consign those people to a greater likelihood of a future of long-term unemployment, and a greater chance of ending up in poverty, when what they want and deserve is the opportunity to work.

When the Government began the process of factory sales and closures, they relied on the figure that each job supported by Remploy involved a taxpayer subsidy of £25,000 a year, and the Sayce report came up with a figure of a £22,700 annual subsidy per job. The methodology, however, which is based on dividing the total Government subsidy for each scheme by the number of employees, has been queried as a crude measure of the cost per employment place, by the fact-checking organisation Full Fact, among others. It does not account for the different infrastructure costs and asset values that each model is likely to accrue and, similarly, the Government cannot provide data on whether those whose jobs are at risk at Remploy would necessarily find work under the Access to Work programme.

Members are already encountering testimony from constituents who have been laid off by Remploy that shows that the measures promised by the Minister’s predecessor to support them back into work have simply not yet appeared on the ground. Sacked workers with severe learning difficulties are turning up at Jobcentres Plus without a clue about what to do or what the future will hold. Surely disabled workers who have offered years, and in some cases decades, of service, deserve better than that. Should not a Government with a proper moral compass be moving more quickly to end the appalling scandal of sacked workers being given emergency tax codes and suffering the indignity of paying more than half of their final pay packets out in tax, at a time when the Government are cutting taxes for the super-rich?

Like many Members with Remploy factories in their areas, or with constituents employed in a nearby factory, I have been working with the management, the work force and excellent local GMB and Unite trade union officials to reach a settlement that will ensure a durable future for the factory. In the tendering process, the priority has to be to guarantee the viability of the job of every disabled person working for Remploy. I remain hopeful that the strength of the record of the skilled work force in Springburn, in productivity and innovation, will ensure that, once the due diligence stage is completed by Remploy Ltd, the factory will have the opportunity for long-term growth under new ownership.

The local factory in my constituency specialises in the assembly and manufacture of high-quality wheelchairs for use by NHS patients. Once the issue of ownership is settled, there is much that this Government and the Scottish Government can do to help grow the business for the future by better use of procurement processes, within the rules set by the European Union, to ensure that through the application of article 19 of the EU public procurement directive, supported employment workplaces can properly compete for public sector contracts. The Scottish Government could be more creative and proactive in their use of procurement processes within the NHS in Scotland and other public agencies to generate more contracts and more work for the Remploy factory in Springburn.

The UK Government could undertake a similar process to boost demand in supported employment workplaces elsewhere in the UK.

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My hon. Friend has been working incredibly hard on behalf of his constituents in Springburn, and we have been speaking a tremendous amount about this matter because both our factories—his in Springburn and mine in Chesterfield —are under the Remploy Healthcare banner. We agree entirely about the role of Government, but does he also agree that there needs to be a real collective working together by the management, the Government and the trade unions to ensure that the work force, who are under tremendous stress at the moment, feel empowered and involved in this process and have an understanding about what the long-term future might hold? Recent events have been incredibly stressful for those people, and have led to difficult working circumstances for them.

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There has been an impression of a lack of transparency about the way in which this tendering process has operated, which means that lessons could be learned for stage 2 for the other factories that are under threat.

I am aware that the Minister cannot provide guarantees that there will not be any compulsory redundancies, but I hope that she will be able to assure us that the Government will strive to ensure that as many as possible of the disabled workers at Remploy Springburn and the other factories involved in the current tendering process keep their jobs under any new ownership.

Will the Minister also provide a guarantee that TUPE regulations will apply to any sale of the Springburn Remploy factory and any of the others involved in the current tendering round and in any future round of tendering for those factories potentially involved in stage 2?

The right to a fair and stable pension matters greatly, especially to disabled people with higher living costs. Will the Minister guarantee that the current accrued pension entitlements up to the point of transfer will be honoured by any new owners of Springburn Remploy and the other factories in the current tendering round? Will she further outline what minimum criteria for future pension entitlements of current staff and of any new staff in the future the Government will insist on from future Remploy factory owners, mutualisations, leases, or employee buy-outs if the fair deal for staff pensions policy is not to apply to this tendering process?

There are some serious questions to answer about the conduct of this tendering process. Given the shambles that we have seen elsewhere in government over railway franchising, is the Minister content that this process has been conducted in a procedurally and legally watertight manner? Is she sure that there are no grounds for disappointed bidders to challenge the way in which this has been conducted? Will there be a full external audit of the process that both the public and the Members of this House can have confidence in? Is she satisfied that the 90-day consultation is anywhere near adequate? The Sayce report makes it clear that a consultation period of no less than six months is required to help bidders or employee-led buy-outs put together proper business plans to save factories. Why, for example, did the Minister’s predecessor not provide me with any information on the Springburn factory’s profitability, despite repeated requests in writing, whereas she was happy to comment on the financial position of other factories in her original statement? What lesson have the Government learned about providing additional support for management-led or employee-led mutualised ownership of Remploy factories beyond that which her predecessor was prepared to offer earlier this year? Will greater consideration be given to leasing factories to local authorities, other public agencies or even the devolved Administrations, if that might help save jobs or reopen factories, as is hoped in Wrexham?

Households with a disabled person are more likely to live in poverty than those without a disabled person. The hundreds of disabled people who work for Remploy deserve more certainty about their future than the Government have been able to provide to date. The critical thing is not only the ownership of the factories and finding jobs for those Remploy workers who have already, tragically, been laid off after the Government’s wilful refusal to listen and protect proper rights at work for Remploy staff. It is also the procurement procedures that public bodies apply to ensure that supported employment workplaces get a fairer deal for the future. That is the challenge for the Government and their devolved counterparts elsewhere in the UK.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter before the House. In Northern Ireland we have an organisation called Accept Care, which is similar to Remploy. Accept Care is partially funded by the Northern Ireland Assembly and creates jobs for disabled people, gives them the training they need and, afterwards, employs them. Does he feel that perhaps the Government need to spend a wee bit now to help those people find jobs and make those businesses profitable?

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Absolutely. My hon. Friend has illustrated that the Government have not done enough to learn lessons from other jurisdictions that have had more progressive policies on care for the disabled and support for disabled workers than, sadly, this Administration have followed in recent months.

If we are truly to build a society that values the disabled, it is critical that we do more to protect the right to the dignity of a good job for those able to work and provide proper lifelong skills and training and a decent standard of living for all. That is no less than my constituents who work in Remploy Springburn and those who work in the other Remploy factories across the country deserve, and it is the Government’s duty to deliver.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North-East (Mr Bain) on bringing this important debate before the House. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne.

I have met the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who are present on various occasions—if we did not meet in person, we have spoken on the phone—about their Remploy sites. Everything he says is correct, but I want to consider everything in its entirety, because we all want the best support for Remploy staff, not only now but in the future.

We have to be open and honest about why we have this case for change, which is about sustainable work and sustainable jobs. We have to consider all disabled people of working age, which at the moment is 6.9 million people, 2,200 of whom work in Remploy factories. A fifth of the £320 million supports those in Remploy factories. Those are the finances.

However, we are also considering sustainable employment, what disabled people and disabled organisations want and what Liz Sayce’s report says. Many people want to work in mainstream employment. They want to look at different ways of engaging and moving forward. We have taken all that into account, and also looked at the losses that were being accrued year on year—£70 million. I appreciate that four years ago a £555 million package was put in over five years for a modernisation plan. However, targets were not met. They were not realistic and they did not allow the factories to continue, because they required an increase in public sales of 130%, and that just did not work.

I know that 28 factories were closed in 2008. We hoped that that could be the end and that the others would move forward, but that has not happened. As an additional way of mitigating the risk of redundancies to employees, Remploy was looking at how to put a commercial process in place. That process had to work with the Remploy staff; it had to work as a proper business model, work with Government and work with everybody whom it would touch. That is what we were trying to do, so the commercial process for stage 1 was open and transparent. It was published on the Remploy website on 20 March. That process was developed using expert advice on its design and structure and it took into account the need to ensure that employees and employee-led groups had an opportunity to take part actively and develop robust bids. The process has taken in excess of five months, and it continues.

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I am grateful to the Minister for twice giving me the opportunity to meet her and discuss the process in detail. The latest meeting was yesterday. One concern that I did not raise with her is the persistent belief, at least among the staff of Remploy, that the best factories will be cherry-picked by the management. When I raised the issue with her predecessor in the House, I was assured that there would be independent oversight of the whole process. First, who is conducting the independent oversight of the process, and, secondly, will a report of their findings be made public?

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Recognising the need to ensure proposals were robustly addressed, an independent panel was set up to provide independent assurance to the assessment process, and the panel is playing an active part in what went on. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with further clarification on that, but that was one of the key facts.

There was also encouragement of employees and employee-led groups to take advantage of a £10,000 support fund for expert advice, and also a time-limited tapered wage subsidy of £6,400 to successful bids to keep on disabled members of staff. That came about because of Remploy and the Department’s responses and the various people who came forward to look at that.

On the factories that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) mentioned—Chesterfield and Springburn —discussions are going forward. Information was put on the Remploy website in September. Nothing has been finalised yet. It is going through due diligence at the moment, but it is in best and final offer stage and getting all the support it needs. We are still waiting on facts.

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To return to the process, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) asked whether the Minister was satisfied that there was no threat of legal recourse from disappointed bidders and that the process was robust. I want to clarify whether the Minister is satisfied that the process was robust and that she is happy to take responsibility for it going forward, and that, as far as she is concerned, we are not going to come back to a west coast main line situation in which everyone says, “It was not my fault”. As long as she is happy and the process is robust, she can take responsibility for it.

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I have held numerous meetings on the matter. I have asked the very same questions that the hon. Gentleman has asked. I have felt reassured by the answers I have been given. Remploy announced and published the commercial process on 20 March and the company has been following that process. We are aware that some people and some bidders may be disappointed, but we are content that the commercial process has been followed. So I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman suitable comfort about what is going on.

A substantial package of help and support for employees has been put in place. An extra £8 million has gone into that package. People will get their own personal caseworker, who will give them tailor-made support and help them to move forward.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East asked several questions. One was about the emergency tax code. That was brought to my attention last month and immediately my team and I worked with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to get it sorted so that the Remploy staff and their caseworkers knew what would happen and they would have their money back as soon as possible, so special measures were put in place absolutely immediately. I also checked that the staff would have money and would not be short. They would all have had their redundancy pay packages, so they would have money to live on—it would be fine—but this was put through as a special concession.

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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) on securing this very important debate on a subject about which I have received many representations from constituents and others. On the issue of support for the work force and for those who are losing their jobs, will the Minister confirm how many people from Remploy who have lost their jobs have found alternative employment to date?

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So far to date, 35 staff immediately found work. But we are content that with the support, the packages and the monitoring that we are hoping to provide for everyone, we will get that number up as soon as possible.

I actually got figures that I again hope will put the hon. Gentleman’s mind at ease. In Scotland, there were 111 people—that does not seem quite right. I apologise; I will look again. I will go back to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East and say that in his constituency a total of 14,600 people are disabled, and 43 of them work at the Remploy site. However, in the last year, under the Remploy employment services, 534 people had got into work. So, if we look at those figures, we can see that incredible support has gone in there to help find work for people similar to the staff working in Remploy.

I will continue with the Springburn site. Remploy communicated via its website in September that it had selected a preferred bidder for the site and that that preferred bidder is now entering a period of due diligence, which will hopefully end in Remploy’s successful exit from the business. A final decision on Springburn will be made as soon as the commercial due diligence process is complete, which we understand will be some time at the end of October.

Going forward, for Springburn and Chesterfield to secure future health care business as part of the commercial process, the Scottish Government would have the opportunity, under their devolved powers, to support medical contracts and help to secure the continuing viability of those sites. Again, that is possibly something that hon. Members can work on together.

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The Minister mentioned the Scottish Government. Have the UK Government had any consultation with the Scottish Government on this issue?

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We have indeed, and I will be in Edinburgh on Monday. We will have continued dialogue on that subject. I also hope to meet the factory workers in Edinburgh and while I am there I would like to see as many staff as possible—those who do not have their job now and those who do. There is an open invitation for people to come and meet me, and I will be in the factory.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North East also raised the issue of TUPE. Any purchaser of a Remploy site will have to offer a pension scheme in which transferring employees can accrue future rights. If TUPE regulations apply to a transfer, purchasers will have to match employees’ contributions up to 6% of pensionable pay, in line with pension legislation. We understand that for the Springburn site TUPE regulations will apply to the transfer.

I hope that I have answered as many questions as possible.

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The hon. Lady answered my question about whether there was independent oversight, but not my question about whether a report on that oversight would be published.

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I will find out and let the hon. Gentleman know. If there is, he will be the first to know.

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Inspiration.

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Absolutely. It is not just inspiration, but the support of a good team. The independent panel has considered the comments of Scottish and Welsh representatives. I think a report will be coming out on that. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) and I met yesterday, and I hope that he now has a meeting with the CEO of Remploy. Straight away, I asked what we could do in the Aberdeen factory. All the points he raised with me about the assets, the factory and site ownership were dealt with this morning. I do not have the answers, but we are on to that. My phone lines are open. I am always here. If anybody wants to know anything more, I will be available to answer their questions.

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As I said earlier, we have something similar in Northern Ireland. Do the Government intend at least to seek it out and see how it works? The finance comes from the Northern Ireland Assembly and it does the same thing that Remploy does in England and Wales. A new Accept Care is opening in the north-east too, in Darlington, so some things are happening that could benefit us all.

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I will take advice from wherever it comes and that could possibly play a part in stage 2. I do not know how it could possibly go backwards and affect stage 1, but I will listen and consider what can be done for stage 2.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.