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Westminster Hall

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2012

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 November 2012

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Economy (North-East)

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

I know that I speak for all my colleagues when I say that we are delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am sure that there will be excellent behaviour from all of us. There is no regional Minister any more and, sadly, as yet no Minister from a north-east constituency in the Government, but we welcome the Minister today.

There are two subjects that I feel passionately about, but I will restrain myself and not talk about those today. First, I do not expect the Minister to announce that she is changing the misguided decision to abolish the regional development agency, splitting the region in half. In fact, it would not be sensible to do so, having gone through two years of reorganisation. I hope that my party learns the lesson that unnecessary reorganisation on the not-invented-here principle is not a good basis for policy.

The second thing that I am not going to talk about is the not misguided but masochistic economic policy that the Government are imposing. The contrast between President Obama’s growth path since May 2010 and our own is striking. Equally, it is a bit much to expect the Minister to contradict the Chancellor of the Exchequer in one of her early outings.

It is ironic that I was accused on BBC Newcastle radio today of coming to Parliament just to take part in a talking shop. I asked what was the point of Parliament if not for talking. Hopefully, there will be some practical outcomes from today’s discussion, and at least some greater understanding.

I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members when I say that we regard the north-east economy as an asset for the UK, not as a problem for the UK. The north-east has a consistent trade surplus that is higher than the UK average, faster growth in exports than the UK average, and we have some great companies, from cars to chemicals. We also have world-class universities. Equally, we do not shy away from highlighting some big problems: income per head and education are lower and unemployment and non-employment are higher. Those are the long-term problems, and there are short-term problems too: construction is flat and business confidence is fragile. I was sent the Lloyds purchasing managers index data for the fourth quarter, showing that it is dipping in that quarter. There are cyclical as well as structural problems.

I do not hide my own interest. I want to look at practical issues. The test of this debate, for me, is whether it makes a difference in South Shields to the unemployed youngster seeking work, the small business seeking finance and the shopkeeper seeking renewal of the town centre. In the 10 or 12 minutes that are available to me, I want to highlight five issues that I think successful regions around the world put at the heart of their economic policy. I want to make some specific points. First, there is not a successful region or city in the world that is not connected to the rest of its nation and the rest of the world. One in seven jobs in the north-east depend on foreign investment, never mind British investment. That puts issues such as transport high up the agenda. Some of my colleagues will speak about transport, especially rail and road. As the Member in whose constituency a large part of the Port of Tyne sits, I know that ports are important. The Port of Tyne need its freight capacity strengthening.

On transport, the figure provided by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association is striking. I am delighted by the Crossrail investment in London—£2,750 per head being spent on Londoners and their transport—but in the north-east the figure is not £1,000, £500 or £50, but £5 per head. I am not saying that the Minister needs to say that that figure should be £2,750, but honestly, £5 per head is not consistent with our needs. We are not asking to be funded on the same level as the capital city, but we do think that that is a problem.

Colleagues will talk about airports. Newcastle airport provides 7,500 jobs and deals with 4.3 million passengers. For anyone watching, we have airport capacity and we can increase that without much argument. A transatlantic route for the north-east would be welcome. People say that a revenue-neutral tweak in air passenger duty would make a difference, relieving congestion in southern airports.

I want to make a different point, which I do not think will be raised elsewhere. We have five great universities with a large number of fantastic foreign students, and historically those students have created businesses in the north-east. Every university vice-chancellor will tell the Minister that the Government’s policy on student visas is barmy. We are keeping out of the country people who want to learn from and contribute to it. We are reducing the number of students who come here from abroad and we are preventing them from staying here to work, not to claim benefits. I am glad to see, from the honesty in the Minister’s face, that she recognises my point. For the record, I will not claim that she has nodded in agreement, but she certainly nodded in recognition of the point. Hon. Members should not take it from me. My reading of Home Office’s own study—I should like the Minister to confirm this in her response—is that the immigration cap for foreign students will cost the British economy £2.4 billion a year. This self-defeating policy has nothing to do with tackling illegal immigration and it is injurious, not just to the so-called golden triangle of the south-east, but to our region.

Secondly, successful regions around the world make the most of their global links and develop their local assets. Every city and region has its own history. We have great traditions. In my constituency, those traditions include shipbuilding and mining, although shipbuilding is almost reduced to a nugatory level. Other hon. Members will talk about that. I want to make a point about how we build on our manufacturing history in respect of energy policy, which is no longer the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, although I am sure that she will say that there is close co-operation with the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The energy revolution is potentially transformative for the north-east, and although it does not just include renewables, they will play a significant part. We have strength from Narec in Blyth, right through the Port of Tyne in South Shields, down to Teesside. The north-east chamber of commerce estimates that that could be worth 40,000 jobs and £6 billion in the next 20 years. However, Government energy policy is a complete mess: it is a pushmi-pullyu or hokey cokey. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) says one thing and the Secretary of State contradicts him.

It is obvious that long-term investment by business needs long-term clarity and certainty from Government. There is fast reaction to clarity from Government. In October 2010, the Government set out an offshore wind strategy and Siemens and others responded quickly with investment, but now they are halting that investment because they do not know what the Government’s game is. The Energy Bill is coming up, so for goodness’ sake let us make it a model of how countries can, on a bipartisan basis, set long-term strategy for business to invest.

People are saying, “Oh well, we have been in recession. We may be going into a triple-dip recession. We can’t afford to go green.” That argument is nonsense. The argument should be that now is precisely the time to go green, but we cannot do so if the private sector does not know what the public sector is doing and if one bit of the public sector does not know what another bit is doing.

Thirdly, people should stop complaining about public spending draining the private economy—the so-called crowding out of private investment. Government policy so far has been framed on the idea that the more public spending there is, the less private spending there is. That is nonsense: we need only think about Britain’s strength in pharmaceuticals. The integrated purchasing power of the national health service is one reason why Britain has a strong pharmaceuticals industry; one has fed off the other.

I think that all hon. Members agree: no one says that there will be as much public money around as there used to be. We argue about the speed of reduction. What we spend needs to have maximum economic impact. It is not just a social policy, but an economic one. I want to make two points in that regard. One is about the benighted regional growth funds. Honestly, it is one thing to cut the funding by two thirds, from the old regional development agencies to the regional growth fund, but on the figures I have—I would like the Minister to confirm this—of the £1.4 billion announced in rounds 1 and 2 of the regional growth fund, the amount that has left the Department’s bank account is £60 million. Not £600 million—nearly half the total figure—but £60 million has reached the companies that won the competition. Thirty companies that won in rounds 1 and 2 have subsequently pulled out because of the delays in Government decision making. Can we have some clarity and determination to get this thing sorted out? We will reach the next election with winners in round 3 still without their money—I do not want to give the Government political advice, but it is deeply worrying for our economy if we cannot get allocated money out of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Secondly, connected to that, public decisions have a big private benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) did an extraordinary job in bringing people together for the Hitachi contract to build 600 or 700 carriages in Newton Aycliffe. That was a massive decision by a Japanese company and a massive vote of confidence in the people of Newton Aycliffe, but we must ensure that the supply chain feeds that investment, and that will not happen by the elixir of market forces alone—there is work to be done. In the same way, Nissan is a massive employer in the north-east, but MPs in Sunderland and elsewhere would say that an important part of the benefit comes from the supply chain, and we must get that right for the Hitachi investment as well.

The fourth area, which I feel strongly about, is that successful regions around the world do not allow significant sections of the population to fall behind the rest. They especially do not allow a large group of young long-term unemployed to become a drain on their own livelihood and on the wider economy. The economic inequality of unemployment is a massive issue for the future of our country. The figures are extraordinary: 270,000 young people have not been in work for more than 18 months, with a further 180,000 not in work for more than six months—450,000 youngsters unemployed for more than six months. In my constituency alone the claimant count is 380 and throughout the north-east it is 12,000, and that count underestimates by 35% the number of those who are not in employment, education or training. If I may explain to the Minister, 35% of 18 to 25-year- olds do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled—they are unemployed and not in education or training, but they do not claim the benefits, so the claimant count underestimates the total.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of young people who have been unemployed for more than 12 months has risen by 750% in the past year alone?

I was not aware of that figure from my hon. Friend’s constituency, but it speaks to the point that I am asking the Minister to address. The Minister’s own party leader has said on behalf of the Government that he wants to abolish long-term youth unemployment. That is excellent, but people who say that they want to abolish long-term youth unemployment have a responsibility to put in place the policies to do so, not least because young people who hear that message from the Government will feel a double betrayal—it is one thing to be long-term unemployed; it is another to be told that the Government will help them out of it, but then do not do so.

I beg the Minister not to read out a script from the Department for Work and Pensions that tells me that 150,000 people are getting a wage subsidy. I promise the hon. Lady that they are not. First, the 150,000 is for a three-year programme; secondly, the level is set at £2,500, which has never in history produced the kind of reaction needed among employers. When the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) tried that in 1995 or 1996, he got a 3% take-up rate on a scheme of the same size, so I beg the Minister not to tell me that the Government will achieve that mass take-up of wage subsidies: they will not. I urge her not to tell me that apprenticeships are the answer: we know that less than 40% of apprenticeships are going to the under-25s, because 60% are jobs for adults relabelled as apprenticeships.

I urge the Minister not to tell me that work experience will make up for the lack of a guaranteed job at the end of nine, 12 or 18 months of unemployment. Although we welcome what the previous Employment Minister told us—that I think 35% of those who had had work experience got a job—he killed the future jobs programme on the grounds that only 50% of people coming out of it were getting a job. We welcome the effect of work experience, but let us not kid ourselves that it is the answer. The Under-Secretary can take away a serious message: certainly in my constituency, and more widely throughout the north-east, we want the power and the funds in our own hands, to suit the welfare-to-work programme to our own needs. The hon. Lady has an honourable history of talking about localism, and this area of welfare policy is a classic. The labour market in my constituency is completely different from the labour market in her constituency, and we cannot rely on a national sausage machine of welfare-to-work programmes. We need local flexibility to tackle the existing problems, especially for young people. The issue is economic, not social.

Finally, I think that all 20 of us in the Chamber agree that the future of our economy in the north-east, and of the British economy, is in innovation. I want to raise one issue about innovation, which is finance and how the financial services sector in Britain needs to be a spur for domestic industry and not only a global blood supply for financial services around the world. It is good that we are the global capital for financial services and I welcome the fact that the City of London is the blood supply for global financial services, but I want it to be the blood supply for the north-east’s businesses that want to invest and innovate. There is a problem.

The British Chambers of Commerce now agree that a British investment bank is the way forward, and it has suggested some interesting ideas. We should be thinking about not one, national, statist investment bank that is the whole answer to all our problems, but about how investment coalitions can be brought together—public and private sectors—at the local and regional levels. The experience of the regional growth fund shows the dangers of expecting one national institution to process the information; we need local engagement in finance for industry. As the banking sector shakes out, we have a big job to do to underpin regulation—we do not want to risk another financial crisis—but we cannot afford to strangle the flow of investment from financial services into businesses. That is the danger that I see at the moment.

I will have got my breath back from my run from the tube by the time I finish, but I will do so on the following note. What is interesting, if we look at the statistics, is that 640 businesses have been created in South Tyneside in the past year. That is quite a striking statistic. A figure I received yesterday is that 1,000 more people are self-employed than was the case two years ago. The sad thing is that that is in spite of Government policy, not because of it.

In the end we cannot mandate job creation and we cannot legislate for businesses to start up or for people to become self-employed, but we can support them. In the five areas that I have set out, we are not looking for handouts; we are looking for support. We are not asking the Minister to contradict the Chancellor’s spending envelope—I do not expect her to do that—but I do expect her to take on board practical, common-sense, innovative ideas that are necessary and that are brought forward with a passion. The Prime Minister last night talked about rebalancing the British economy, but one aspect of rebalancing, which unfortunately he did not talk about, is rebalancing so we get a better regional balance in the country. That is not a new issue—we have had issues of regional imbalance for a long time—but rebalancing the British economy has to mean strengthening the north-east and the northern economies. The interesting point is that such a rebalancing of the British economy can go hand in hand with a transition that is going on in the north-east economy at the moment. We lost our economy in the 1980s, we began rebuilding it in the 2000s and we need to complete the transition now, but if we are going to do so we need the help of Government and not the hindrance.

Order. May I ask everyone who wants to speak to stand and to keep standing, because a lot of you want to catch my eye and we want to ensure that we get this right? Thank you. My aim is to get everyone in. I could ask the Deputy Speaker for a formal sanction to impose a time limit but, given the array of talent before me and the fact that you are all extremely sensible, I am sure that you want to allow everyone else to get in. What I am trying to say is that, basically, it will be no more than four minutes each. If it is more than four minutes, I am afraid someone will lose out. After the next speaker, who will be Ian Swales, has spoken, I will announce the running order, so that you all know where you are going to be. The next three speakers are Ian Swales, Tom Blenkinsop and James Wharton. Please, no more than four minutes each.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing this debate and on bringing his outstanding talents to the issue. As we all do, I see the difficult economic situation in our area, and it was brought home to me even more last year when I appeared on “Newsnight” to explain why the economy of Redcar and Cleveland was rated by the BBC and Experian as the weakest of 324 areas in the country. Middlesbrough and Hartlepool were 323rd and 322nd. Is that really the legacy that Labour wanted after 13 years of complete freedom to deliver their vision?

An entire sub-region was forgotten and neglected, not just in jobs and growth, but in many other ways. It struggled with an education system that was not delivering what employers wanted. It breaks my heart that the outstanding technical training provider, TTE, at South Bank in my constituency has 57 funded engineering training places for 16 to 18-year-olds that have not been taken up. Those opportunities are available in an area of high youth unemployment, but too many young people have left our education system without basic skills or aspiration.

That legacy came after a period of investment and growth from 1987 to 1997. After Margaret Thatcher’s famous walk in the wilderness at Stockton, the Teesside urban development corporation delivered some important projects. There were issues with the corporation, and I am far from being a Thatcherite, but I welcomed the state intervention that brought Teesside retail and leisure park, Hartlepool marina, the Stockton campus of Durham university, Stockton and Middlesbrough riverside developments, the Tees barrage and the Teesdale business park. The list went on, but suddenly it all stopped, and for 13 years very little happened.

The new Labour Government scrapped the urban development corporation and showed their obsession with regionalisation. Teesside became a fiefdom of Tyne and Wear. The regional referendum made no difference, and on it went. Even the ambulance service was moved. Three quarters of a million people were deemed not capable of running their own ambulances. The ludicrous regional fire control project followed, as did ONE. In the north of the region, it was One North East, but in my area it was known as “only Newcastle exists”. Shortly after being elected, I was at a meeting in the north-east discussing the fate of One North East assets. I was asked how that would affect my area, and I replied, “I don’t think there will be a problem; there aren’t any.”

Teesside is a proud and distinctive area, with a unique heritage, unique problems and unique opportunities. As far back as the 1960s, it was described by Redcliffe-Maud as a “functional economic market area.” That is why, with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), I fought for a Tees Valley local enterprise partnership. I am delighted to see how well it is working, and congratulate it on its clarity of purpose, strong local links and powerful advocacy.

Although the north-east is the only UK region with a trade surplus, the Government know that a lot of help is still needed to clear up Labour’s mess. That is why they have done a huge amount since 2010. Enterprise zones throughout the region include three in my constituency alone—at Wilton, Kirkleatham and South Bank. There is a city deal in Newcastle and new offers of deals for Sunderland and Tees valley; ultra-fast broadband for Newcastle; education changes, including the pupil premium; huge growth in apprenticeships, which have doubled in my constituency; investment in rail and buses, enabling Teesport to put modern containers on the rail network; support for innovation with technical innovation centres, including the Centre for Process Innovation in my constituency; chemical and automotive supply chain initiatives; and, above all, the regional growth fund—a total of £284 million and 102 projects in the north-east, with 26,000 direct jobs and 47,000 indirect jobs. That represents the most projects in the country from all three rounds, and one third of the projects in the country from rounds 1 and 2.

I am sorry, but I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s opinion of the regional development agency, which delivered big time for the Tees valley. On the regional growth fund, does he regret, as I do, the Government’s decision not to back our regional airport in the south of the region to create a new hub that would expand industry throughout the Tees valley?

Clearly, the regional growth fund could not support every project, and I will be bidding for an extra round. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South will talk about the airport.

Two thirds of rounds 1 and 2 projects have been approved, and the money has already gone out or is ready to go out. The statistics that the right hon. Member for South Shields gave come from the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am member, and date from about nine months ago. Large parts of the country, including London and the south-east, have received virtually nothing from the regional growth fund. It is a serious regional policy to try to repair our manufacturing sector, which was ravaged during the past 13 years.

The hon. Gentleman is not out of order, but I want to point out that he has spoken for more than four minutes.

I was trying to redress the balance, Mr Hollobone, because I know that many Opposition Members will speak.

There is a huge amount to do, and I hope that the Minister will respond to four issues. Carbon capture and storage could be a game changer for Teesside, not just in energy generation, but in supporting industrial carbon emitters; we have 18 of the top 30 in the UK in Teesside.

Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on what he said about the plight of his constituency’s economy being blamed on Tyne and Wear? His colleagues in local authorities there will greatly regret those sentiments. Frankly, they are misplaced.

I want to correct that impression. I am not blaming the people in Tyne and Wear; I am talking about the balance of the regional development agency’s efforts.

The excellent north-east companies in the Energi Coast consortium have invested £400 million to attract offshore energy generation contracts, and we must ensure that that supply chain happens in the UK. I have lived in the north-east for 34 years, and spent 32 years of those in business, from being on the board of a large global business to running my own small business. I have been here for the past two years. I know what the issues are, and the Government are making an excellent attempt to tackle them. I am optimistic. We have a great region, great people, and not just a great past, but a great future.

I will call the wind-ups at 10.40. The running order of those who were standing will be as follows: Tom Blenkinsop, James Wharton, Ronnie Campbell, Iain Wright, Sharon Hodgson, Helen Goodman, Ian Lavery, Julie Elliott, Alan Campbell, Phil Wilson and Pat Glass.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing this timely and important debate. Only the other day, I told Andy McDonald, the Labour candidate for Middlesbrough, that I was thinking of mentioning skills, employment, youth unemployment, the working neighbourhood fund, welfare changes, One North East, the carbon capture and storage levy and so on, but given the time remaining, I will speak briefly and focus on four main issues.

First, Teesport needs to be fully connected to the rail freight network. Secondly, a high-quality electrified trans-Pennine link to Middlesbrough needs to be in place. Thirdly, the northern rail network needs new rolling stock. Fourthly, the Government should review the proposed high levies on freight, which will indirectly tax industry, and predominantly coke, coal, potash, chemical and steel manufacturers, which are the main primers on Teesside.

Since I was elected, I have battled for improvement and electrification of the rail line to Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough and the surrounding Tees area is the largest UK conurbation with no direct electrified service to London. The nearest railhead is Darlington. Electrification to Thornaby and Middlesbrough would enable commuters and industrialists to be at Teesside plants in under three hours from central London. That is crucial because Durham Tees Valley airport lost its London service some time ago.

Unfortunately, the Government have left Teesside out of the northern hub proposals and concentrated on core trans-Pennine services. As a result, Middlesbrough has been left in the rusty sidings. We know that the Department for Transport is conducting a study on that, but it must engage with industry first and not just perform a desk study. Passengers are crucial, but so is freight.

As well as massive chemical and steel complexes such as Teesside beam mill, which supplies beams for Redcar’s civic improvement scheme, Teesside is home to Teesport. The port covers an area of 200 hectares of land alongside the southern bank of the River Tees. Tees dock is a deep-water facility, some five miles from the sea, and Teesport handles steel, petrochemicals, manufacturing export and import, coal, potash mined from my constituency and retail items. It also handles over 6,000 ships a year, and its facilities include two container quays—one is 965 feet and the other is 1,180 feet—and there are roll-on, roll-off ferry facilities. Teesport handles 56 million tonnes of cargo annually.

We need rail improvement, therefore, to see that as much trade as possible to the midlands, Yorkshire, the north-west and Scotland is kept off the existing road network, which is a crucial point. The key issue is to upgrade the lines from Teesport to the east coast main line at Northallerton and Darlington, so that it can handle more container traffic and allow for piggy-backing of containers to increase capacity.

Given the lack of time, I shall end my speech there, so that other Members can get in.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing this debate on an important issue for hon. Members on both sides of the House.

To respond to a few comments that have been made, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is vital that the supply chain for Hitachi at Newton Aycliffe is kept in the region and that it delivers the sort of growth that is brought to our area by Nissan, which is a Conservative legacy, with so many companies across the north-east benefiting from the work and investment that that brings to the region.

Teeside airport is a key transport hub, particularly for the south of the region. Although it is in need of a little care and attention, its owners have reiterated time and again their dedication to ensuring that it is a success. The airport was unsuccessful in the regional growth fund bid to develop some of its facilities as a freight hub terminal. However, the owners have thankfully confirmed their intention to go ahead with that investment, which will be welcomed by constituents of many hon. Members who are here this morning.

There are many good things about the north-east. As has been said, its exports have been growing faster than the national average rate. It has a positive balance of trade—some £2.58 billion—thanks in no small part to the chemical and process industry on Teesside. Recently, our region has had a lot of good news. The two LEPs, which better represent the region’s different parts—particularly that in the Tees valley—are off to a flying start. The Tees Valley LEP is working closely with the York and North Yorkshire LEP, and it has helped to deliver more than £100 million in regional growth fund money to our region in the last round of funding, with over 70% coming to the south of the region, which is a nice change. I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who is a champion for the south of the area. He fights hard to ensure that our voice is heard and that we get our fair share of the support that we need to be a success.

We have challenges as a region. Unemployment and youth unemployment are too high. However, unemployment has been decreasing this year, and we should all welcome that. The Government are doing lots of things that will benefit us, not least the increase by £1,100 in the personal allowance threshold for income tax, which will put more money in people’s pockets. Some 35,000 people in our region will benefit in April next year, and that money will be spent in our regional economy.

We have heard talk of the need for more control locally of how money is spent and how things are done, and the city deals present an opportunity for parts of our region to bid for that and secure it from the Government. The north-east has a very positive story to tell. There are challenges to overcome and things that need to be addressed, but I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House, despite our political disagreements, we will continue to work together and fight for the best possible deal in the north-east and that we will find common ground through which we can put forward a clear, concise message, both to the Government and to those in political parties who are not currently in government, about what we want and need.

I hope that we can deliver a better future and continue to deliver improvements for all our constituents, and I welcome again the foresight of the right hon. Member for South Shields in calling this important debate at such a key time, as we head towards the autumn statement.

I congratulate my comrade and right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing the debate. It is well overdue, and I am pleased that it is happening today.

What was the north-east in the past, and where did it come from? Those are easy questions. We had thousands of mines and miners digging coal—Blyth port was one of the biggest exporters of coal in Europe—and we had shipbuilding. We built ships galore; there were aircraft carriers and destroyers—you name it, the north-east built it. There was steel, which we lost, of course, but thank God it has come back again in Redcar. We even won the FA cup now and again—we do not win it now, but we used to. That is the north-east; it had character in those days. Everything was built around it, and we have to try and drive forward manufacturing again today. We cannot rely on the boom and bust of the City any more; we have to rely on manufacturing, which we should have been relying on, and we have to focus on growth all the time. The north-east is ready and waiting for that.

My right hon. Friend mentioned Narec, which I looked around on Friday with industrialists. It is absolutely fantastic. A big shed is being built—we were not allowed in it, because they are still working on it—in which blades of 100 metres in size will be tested. At the moment, the biggest blades are 50 metres. The testing centre will be used and the blades will be put offshore—they will not be put in the countryside because people there, in their rose-tinted cottages, will not allow it. They do not want them on the landscape, but of course, we can put them at sea. I know the sea, because it is very shallow out at our end, and thousands of windmills can be put 60 miles off the shore of Blyth. What annoys me, however, is that the blades that we are testing come from Norway, Germany and China; we are not making them.

That brings me to my second point, on the port of Blyth. Last year, we asked the Chancellor to look into an enterprise zone on the River Blyth. He said he would look at it—fair do’s to him—but what did we get? We put in for 101 hectares, to be exact, which was too big, so we put in again for 66 hectares, which the port of Blyth thought would be a bit more reasonable. Even though all the land is there, lo and behold, when all came to all, the port of Blyth got an enterprise zone of 14 hectares from the Government. As far as I am concerned that is not enough, and we need to drive forward wind farms in our areas. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) was arguing the case for some money for the Alcan site, which obviously needs to be developed, as it was a big development area. I think that giving money to Alcan was why the hectares were dropped in Blyth port, but perhaps he can put me right on that point.

We must drive those economic zones forward. We need to know where the Government are coming from and whether they are in favour of wind farms. We do not know the answer to that; as Narec said, we saw what happened last week, when the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) said one thing, while the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Changesaid another. The Government are not putting out the right messages, but we must get this right. We need to know whether or not we have support for wind farms.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing this important debate.

Like my right hon. Friend, I do not want to dwell on the negatives or the structural weaknesses. I want to focus on the huge assets, potential and opportunities that we have. Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), I do not think our best days are behind us. We have massive potential and we should not think of the area as some sort of manufacturing theme park. I agree with the CBI in its report, “The UK’s Growth Landscape”, when it stated that we should stop trying to level our regional disparities and maximise the economic potential in all. As the North East chamber of commerce states:

“The North East economy is not a problem that the UK needs to solve. Rather, it is an asset which it needs to develop further to produce a stronger return for UK plc.”

If modern industrial policy is about considering where we have comparative advantage and helping to maintain, enhance and maximise that competitiveness, the north-east is at the forefront of what a rebalanced national economy should be looking at. We can build on existing strengths, such as advanced manufacturing, higher education, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, automotives, renewables and the low-carbon economy in energy—particularly in offshore wind in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, but also in carbon capture and storage.

I want to ask the Minister three quick questions. First, we have a chronic shortage of engineering skills. There is a real mismatch between the enormous potential we have in our economic area and the huge levels of youth unemployment. What are the Government doing to provide a greater co-ordination between schools, colleges, universities and businesses? As EngineeringUK said in its recent report on the state of engineering in the UK,

“If we don’t address supply issues, such as the numbers of students taking triple GCSE sciences, the numbers of Level 3 engineering apprenticeships, and the numbers of girls studying physics A level and engineering degrees, we risk stalling economic growth.”

That is very true in our region. What is the Minister going to do about it?

My second concern is procurement. I have mentioned before in the House—my hon. Friend picked up on this—the farce in relation to the largest offshore wind farm being created just off the coast of our region. We have fantastic engineering firms and great supply-chain opportunities. We have the steel to provide the fabrics for the turbines. However, most of the contracts are going to firms from Germany and Belgium. No other nation would have that. Given the massive potential that we have, we need an industrial strategy that involves Government working collaboratively with business. How will the Minister deal with the supply-chain and procurement issue?

The third area is co-ordination across Government. This issue is not confined to the north-east, but goes across Whitehall and industrial sectors. Business policy cannot reside solely in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Every Department should be assessing its activities according to the impact that they have on wealth creation and regional and national competiveness, whether it is the Department for Transport for aviation policy and airport capacity, the Department of Energy and Climate Change for opportunities in the energy industry or, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said, the Home Office for visas for skilled workers. The other points with regard to this area are clarity and certainty. If we can have a combination of good long-term thinking to allow businesses the confidence to invest for the long term, the regional potential will be addressed.

Lord Heseltine recommends in his report a national growth strategy created in consultation with the business community and setting out a “progressive vision”—his words—for wealth creation over the long term. Will the Minister say whether that will be implemented?

We have plenty of potential in the north-east, but we need all partners—central and local government, business, education and the private and public sectors—to pull together to realise that potential and achieve a common and compelling strategic vision. It will be truly lamentable if we do not grasp the fantastic and often unparalleled opportunities on offer for our region in 2012. I hope that the Minister will set out how she will ensure that there is a concerted and co-ordinated Government effort to allow us to do that.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing this very important debate. The last time that north-east MPs were gathered in Westminster Hall, we were talking about unemployment, and the scourge of unemployment is the main reason for our collective desire to see a proper economic plan from this Government for our region.

In my constituency, long-term youth unemployment has risen by 271% during the past year. The year before that was even worse: the increase was well over 1,000%. It is an absolute tragedy for the young people who cannot find a job. What chance have they of ever being able to contribute to economic recovery in the north-east if and when jobs do arrive, especially if they are the good-quality, high-tech jobs that we want? How can they get their foot on the jobs ladder when the evidence shows the damage that long-term youth unemployment does to a person’s life chances and even their life expectancy?

Like other hon. Members, though, I want to concentrate on some of the positives. Nissan’s factory in my constituency continues to win new business from its parent company. One in three cars made in the UK is made in my constituency. The north-east is leading the UK in electric vehicle manufacture. As a result of that success story, Nissan’s supply-chain companies, such as Gestamp UK, which I visited a few weeks ago, Calsonic Kansei and Vantec, are flourishing and looking to expand. Other companies large and small, such as Rayovac and Washington Components, which I visited on Friday, are doing very well in creating employment and training opportunities.

All of that is great news, but it is not enough. We cannot rely on a few companies, good as they are, to lead the economic development of an entire region. The north-east has so much potential. We do not want aid; we want investment. All we need is our fair share of help from central Government to get things going, not measly handouts. We certainly deserved more than the 0.03% that we got of the national infrastructure budget. The north-east economy is not a problem that the UK needs to fix. It and its people are a huge asset and, if developed properly, will produce huge returns for UK plc—just ask Nissan.

One particular project that I am keen to see funded is the extension of the metro to Washington, which would open up Tyne and Wear to my constituents looking for work and make the town an even more attractive venue for investment. That would be particularly welcome given that the rate of new business creation in my constituency is half what it is across the region as a whole.

We need what the Secretary of State and latterly the noble Lord Heseltine have described as industrial activism, but what we got from this Government was the abolition of One North East, whose task was exactly that. I know that the North Eastern LEP will do everything that it can to fill the gap that abolishing One North East has left, as will individual councils such as Sunderland, but if they are to achieve the success that we need, they will need the powers and resources to do that. We also need to build houses, not just to provide work and training opportunities for young people, but because we need them.

So far, all we have had from this Government are policies and decisions that will widen the north-south divide, whether that is supporting regional pay or slashing regional development funding. Growing up, I experienced at first hand the unfairness of the north-south divide. That is what drove me into politics, and I do not intend to stand idly by and watch while it devastates—ravages—another generation of north-easterners. We need a one-nation plan for our economy—a plan that will create the jobs that my constituency needs, a plan that will close the divide, a plan for young people and a plan that will ensure that we do not once again spiral into the cycle of deprivation and unemployment that the previous Tory Government created with impunity across the north-east.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing the debate. It is extremely timely because a review of the north-east economy is being carried out; it is being led by the noble Lord Adonis. The northern group of Labour MPs is keen to engage constructively with that review, and we have today published evidence for the review, setting out our perspective.

I know that the Minister is extremely interested in the aims of economic development and that she understands the importance of well-being. That implies an approach that gives investment in human capital, place making and a concern for the distribution of success a significant role alongside the infrastructure, science and investment that my hon. Friends have spoken about.

As hon. Members have said, the north-east is home to some world-beating industries. Consequently, it is the only region in the UK with a continuing export surplus. To grow and develop, it needs a region-wide approach; concentration on those clusters where research and development can be translated into innovation; skills and retraining for adults and young people so that those losing their jobs in the public sector can take advantage of the opportunities that require a different skill set in the private sector; a fair share of the Government’s infrastructure spend; and spending on housing and place making.

But what have this Government delivered? They have delivered massive cuts. The scale of the cuts in the north-east is huge—£2.8 billion and 7% of our gross output. That is three times the level of the cuts in the south-east. New analysis undertaken for us by Oxford Economics shows the knock-on effect to the private sector of a further £l billion loss in output. That totals a 10% drop in the size of the regional economy. That is why the shops in our high streets are closing and why construction firms are closing because they are not doing work on public sector buildings. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken more than £1,000 from every man, woman and child in the region. If the International Monetary Fund is right, the second-round effect is even greater at £3.5 billion. That would mean a staggering 17% fall in the size of the regional economy.

I mention that not to be negative, but to point out to the Minister that we can have the most marvellous supply-side strategy in the world, but if the plug has been pulled out, we will see a small number of centres of excellence in a sea of deprivation, and the overriding objective of raising the quality of life and improving standards for our region will be lost. It is absolutely clear from the economic modelling that trickle-down does not work. Without a change in policy, Oxford Economics projects total job losses of 68,000, with job creation of 46,000, meaning that even ten years hence, we will have a 20,000 deficit in the number of jobs in our region. It imperative that the Minister goes back to the Treasury and points out the importance of a proper public spending settlement on 5 December.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing such an important debate.

There is persistently negative criticism in my Wansbeck constituency because of what we are experiencing. The outlook for employment can only be described as bleak; the area is still reeling from the loss of heavy industry, mainly coal mining. My constituents feel largely ignored by the Government. We rarely see a Government official or Minister anywhere near Wansbeck, and I am quite sure that they do not have a clue where it is. We are rightly concerned that we appear to have been forgotten.

Why have we been forgotten? Why are our economic figures, although similar to those for the main parts of the north-east, unique and quite different from the figures elsewhere in the country? Why are 21 people applying for each job vacancy in the job centre? Why is there a very low number of business start-ups? Why is Wansbeck the constituency with the highest number of bankruptcies in the UK? Why has there been a 33% increase in the number of job seekers since May 2010? We demand answers, and we deserve a lot better.

On a positive note, Bernicia Group and AkzoNobel have relocated to Ashington, which is great news— 600 jobs, new skills, high technologies and proper apprenticeships, not workfare. It is essential. On another positive note, I am absolutely delighted that Northumberland college is creating strong links with local schools and colleges and our excellent universities in the north-east. That can only benefit the people in our region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) mentioned that the area’s economy was largely built on the coal mining industry, and I agree. It has been based on coal, built on coal and has flourished on coal, shipbuilding and other heavy industries, including manufacturing and engineering. There is massive potential in the renewable energy supply chain: marine energy technologies, offshore and onshore wind, and manufacturing the bases and blades. My hon. Friend says that we are bringing in parts by the hundreds and thousands, but it is manufactured across the world, which is unacceptable. We should have inward investment; we should have Government investment, not aid, to provide employment, skills and new technologies for people in our area. I am confident that that is the way forward.

The Energy Bill is crucial. The Government need to ensure that investment policies and the investment market attract energy. We have great belief in the north-east in the future. We do not seek pity or sympathy. We are a region of proud, hard-working individuals and excellent entrepreneurs, with a visionary, vibrant business community that wants the Government to share and match our belief, so that we are better placed to contribute even more than we do now to the UK economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband), who has a neighbouring constituency,on securing such an important debate. I will not comment on many of the things I was going to mention, but will instead associate myself with the comments made by Opposition Members and disassociate myself from the comments of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who described a region that I simply do not recognise.

The positives of our region and Sunderland, part of which I represent, are our manufacturing base and industrious nature. Nissan is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). It is a world leader—the most productive car manufacturing plant in Europe. High-quality engineering companies such as Rolls-Royce are based in my constituency. We do a lot of things well and we need support to build on that, but we also have a low-wage economy, which creates problems with spending power in the regional economy. We have been severely hit by the cuts that the Government have implemented, particularly to in-work benefits, the removal of education maintenance allowance and the increase in tuition fees, which has a direct impact on our young people going on to higher education.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although we are the smallest region in the country, Ofsted clearly shows that we have the smallest number of failing schools and the highest number of good and outstanding schools? Our young people were going to university in much greater numbers, but that has now collapsed as a result of Government policy.

I agree with my hon. Friend.

Low wages are a problem. I congratulate one of the excellent schools in my constituency, Southmoor academy, on recently introducing the living wage for all its staff. We do not need regional pay. In a letter from 60 leading academics to The Times last week, Keith Shaw, a professor of politics at the university of Northumbria, said that the policy could lead to “a spiral of decline”. The Government need to listen.

What do we need to move forward? We need to support manufacturing and improve further on our positive balance of exports to increase the productivity not only of our region but of the country. Infrastructure needs to be improved and, as previously outlined, transport taxes need to be addressed. We need to deal with the skills gap. The Government must look at that seriously and implement some recommendations in the report on apprenticeships that the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills published last week. The report defines the difference between good apprenticeships and in-work training, and particularly identifies high-level apprenticeships that lead to level 4 and level 5 qualifications. I hope that the Government look carefully at the report.

Youth unemployment is one of the biggest problems in the north-east. The Government’s youth contract is simply not working there. Youth unemployment is still rising and long-term youth unemployment is growing every month. We do not want a generation of young people who are simply left behind, as was the case in the 1980s under Prime Minister Thatcher. Our regional economy and our young people do not need that again. The Government must look at the problem.

We need better, simpler support for business, and local enterprise partnerships should be given the power and funding to do their job. The Government have said that the question of whether we get a fourth regional growth fund round is iffy. I would like the money that has already been promised to be delivered. Due to the lack of time, I will end my remarks there.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing this important and timely debate. Yesterday, Tesco announced a new retail outlet in Cobalt business park in my constituency that will provide nine jobs. There were 660 applicants—more that 70 for every vacancy. These are difficult times for the north-east economy.

As has been said, the contraction of the public sector is only just beginning. I am concerned by attitude of some Government Ministers that public is bad and private is all good. The reality is that there is only one north-east economy and the relationship between public and private is complex. John N. Dunn Group, an excellent family company in my constituency, did a lot of work when schools were being built and social housing was being repaired, but such companies are finding it difficult to survive. When money is tight, and it will be tight into the future, it is important that we ensure that companies in our localities achieve maximum benefit. We need to improve the transport infrastructure, which is why I want to bid again for funding to improve both sides of the road in the Tyne tunnel. It is important that the Government do not just put out another press release to say that it will happen, but actually get on with it.

As we have heard today, we have some of the most advanced manufacturing companies in the country, if not the world. One in three cars made in the UK is made in the north-east and 70% of North sea oil and gas platforms are built in the north-east. When Hitachi comes to the region, which it will thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), there will be huge opportunities. We need to follow the approach of the regional development agency, ensure that we support clusters and get the maximum advantage for the supply chain in that situation.

Furthermore, it is important that small and medium-sized enterprises have access to capital. It is not right that half the companies in the north-east do not know anything about the Government’s four big flagship policies in that regard, and less than one in six takes part. When Weigh-Ahead, an excellent company in my constituency, approached a bank administering one of the Government’s schemes, it was told, “Actually, we can’t support you, but if you set up in London, we definitely could support you.” Such regional imbalances must be addressed. The local enterprise partnerships have a key role to play in that regard. I am concerned about our lack of capacity, especially as Lord Heseltine appears to be saying that it is important that we devolve not only resources but decision-making. The Scottish Development Agency still exists, so there are resources on that side of the border. Let us ensure that we have a level playing field.

On the question of capacity, our universities are a crucial part of the regional economy. It is important that our young people do well. North Tyneside has the unenviable reputation of being the area where the number of applications to higher education fell more last year than anywhere else in the country. That decline was the result of the double whammy of the abolition of the education maintenance allowance and the hike in tuition fees. The Government must address that issue quickly.

As has been said, the north-east is not a problem that the UK has to solve but an asset. What we need is a stronger commitment by the Government to a policy that creates the conditions for growth.

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) for securing this debate. In the short time that I have, I want to discuss the lessons that can be learned from the Hitachi deal and the investment that is coming to my constituency. It is the biggest private sector investment in the north-east since Nissan. It will create a £60 million to £80 million factory and 720 jobs, and will produce the Intercity Express Programme. We must remember that the deal was an initiative by the Labour Government, and not this Government. The campaign that we pulled together and that the coalition used showed the north-east at its best, with everyone coming together to ensure that the deal went ahead.

My right hon. Friend said that the Government have a masochistic approach to economics, which is correct. The other problem is the mantra that says, “Public sector bad, private sector good.” What the Hitachi project proved was that when the public and private sectors come together, they can achieve great things. I say to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) that One North East played a great part in bringing Hitachi to the region. The factory is closer to Teesside than it is to Newcastle. I hope that in the not too distant future Teesport will be used to export trains to the rest of Europe.

The other lesson for me is the fact that we are part of Europe, which is one of the reasons that Hitachi came to the UK. It came not just because of the Intercity Express Programme, but because we are part of a market of 300 million-plus people.

I stand corrected. It is a market of not just 60 million in our own country, but 500 million people. On the back of the Intercity Express Programme, Hitachi will bid for work in other countries. It is looking for work in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, so that we will not just deal with trains in our own country but become an exporter of trains.

One North East was instrumental not only in bringing Hitachi to the region, but in securing Sahaviriya Steel Industries funding for the Teesside Cast Products steelworks at Redcar. As a former union official, I was in constant talks with SSI, Don Cook and other companies that were interested in buying the plant.

That is absolutely right. The demise of One North East is a great tragedy for the area, and local enterprise partnerships will be nowhere near as good at attracting business to the region.

I have run out of time, because I want my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) to be able to speak. Essentially, we need the public and private sectors to work together. There is good and bad in both. What we should do is use the good and reform the bad for the benefit of the whole country.

Thanks to the discipline of my colleagues, I find myself with a bit more time. None the less, I will be quick. We have talked a lot today about the strengths of the north-east, but I want to focus on two specific areas. As our geography means that we are not in that golden triangle of south-east England, northern France and Germany, our transport infrastructure is important to our development. We have three and four-lane motorways right the way through this country until we get to the north-east, where the road becomes a two-lane motorway. If we go north of Newcastle, the roads are not even dualled. The issue is incredibly important to investors in the region. The fact that the Government have failed to resolve the issue of congestion at the airports in the south-east has a deleterious effect on airports in the north-east.

The problem with west coast main line is nothing compared with what is coming along for the east coast main line because of our failure to invest. The fact that the Government are only prepared to commit to a Bill for High Speed 2 to Birmingham says a lot about the lack of investment in the north-east. Until we sort out those transport issues, we will have real problems with growth.

The east coast main line is a crucial link to the south-east for the north-east. With the investment going into HS2, a lot of us are worried that the east coast infrastructure will have to last another 30 years without significant investment. This creeping at the edges is a matter of great concern.

I want to concentrate not on the strengths that we currently have but on the strengths of the future. We are the smallest region in the country, and yet, according to Ofsted records, we have proportionately the smallest number of failing schools in the country and the largest number of good and outstanding schools. Our universities are world beaters. They do not just exist in a small enclave as part of a campus. What our universities do in the field of research in partnership with local companies is part of the future of our region. I have worked closely with the school of education at Durham on initial teacher training, which is recognised as a world-beating programme, yet the Government are cutting places in such schools locally. That will not help the growth in investment in the north-east.

The ability to attract foreign students has been mentioned. We get a lot of students from all over the world who come to study, then stay in the region. When they come to Durham in particular, they tend to fall in love with the romance of the city and stay. That is in serious jeopardy now. The money that has been invested by the regional development agency to assist research in our universities has been cut dramatically. We are talking about the skills of our future. As a result of combined Government policy over the education maintenance allowance, tuition fees and cuts in home-to-school and college transport, higher education participation in parts of our region has collapsed by up to 30%, which is devastating for our young people and for the growth of our economy in future.

It is a pleasure, Mr. Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time and I congratulate you on your quite impressive stewardship of such a huge number of Members who wanted to contribute to this debate and who have been able to contribute.

I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing what I agree is an incredibly timely and important debate for us to have, because the UK will prosper only when we fully exploit the resources and strengths of every single part of it. The coalition seems somewhat blinkered to the huge value and potential that exist in the north-east. My hon. Friends and Government Members have conveyed with huge passion the potential that the north-east has, and it has been a very forward-looking, positive and genuine debate. I hope that the Minister will feed back a lot of the suggestions and contributions that have been made today, not only to the Business Secretary but to the Chancellor, whose Department should have been responding to the debate.

My right hon. Friend set out five main areas on which he feels the north-east region needs to focus in order properly to harness its economic and social potential, and I agree with every point that he made. However, I will try to summarise some of the strength of feeling that has been put across by right hon. and hon. Members today, which can be divided into three main ways in which the Government can support regions such as the north-east and get a grip on our economy as a whole, to harness the potential for growth that we have.

The Prime Minister said in his speech last night at the lord mayor’s banquet that he is not afraid to travel the world in pursuit of selling UK plc, and yet his Government are clearly failing to harness and exploit some very obvious opportunities to foster growth, innovation and world-leading industry. Like my right hon. Friend, I will not conduct a post-mortem on the demise of the regional development agencies, in particular the demise of One North East, although I have to say that I do not agree with the sentiments of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who feels that the RDAs are responsible for a lack of economic growth. That is because One North East undoubtedly brought huge economic benefits to the north-east region and secured a huge amount of inward investment and exports, channelling those in and out of the region and creating a surplus balance of trade.

The figures speak for themselves. Around 82% of all the inward investment that came into the north-east in 2009-10 came through the inward investment team based at One North East—£387 of investment in the region for every £1 spent. One North East was a particularly successful RDA with a solid record of success. Following its creation in 1999, the north-east’s economy experienced greater growth than any other region outside London and it still enjoys a positive balance of trade, which I have already mentioned. We invent, make and export things in the north-east, which is something we would like the Prime Minister to celebrate and support on his international trade tours.

What about the future? The times have changed, and we have experienced a financial crisis and a collapse in our banking system. We recognise that reductions needed to be made, but we also lament the wholesale throwing-out of the RDA baby with all the bathwater. Exports and inward investment support is just one area that demonstrates how losing the RDA is a loss to the region. Where Labour in Government saw the huge potential of regions such as the north-east, delivered bespoke business support and saw record economic growth, we now have a generic UK approach based on the Prime Minister’s “sink or swim” model that risks overlooking some major opportunities. The risk is that the Government’s one-size-fits-all approach is letting down the regions, which in turn lets down the UK as a whole.

So who are the economic drivers of the future? The local enterprise partnerships are a collaboration of businesses and local authorities. We are more than two years on from their inception and they are starting to form a view of the way ahead. I will not dwell on how much lost opportunity there has been in that time, but I will dwell for a moment on whether the LEPs themselves have the capacity to drive this agenda forward in the way that it needs to be driven forward. Businesses need to be at the forefront of rebuilding our economy, but do they have the capacity or even the will to drive a regional or national strategy? Local authorities are also at the forefront of rebuilding our economy and they absolutely should be part of driving that agenda, but I know that my own local authority and other authorities up and down the country—well, certainly Labour local authorities at least—are being cut right down to the bone and they will barely have the resources to keep their libraries open, never mind the resources to co-ordinate a regional strategy for growth.

There is no shortage of will, but there is potentially a huge shortage of capacity. That was identified by Lord Heseltine in his review on growth, so I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say on the Government’s intentions to implement any of Lord Heseltine’s recommendations.

The final aspect that I will focus on is the Government and their own approach to economic growth. While dismantling the regional structures and setting people free to pursue growth—where they can locally agree to do so—the Government’s own actions are undermining efforts at every turn. Let us take the new green industries as an example. While other countries are steaming ahead and grasping the massive opportunities and indeed necessities of developing low-carbon technologies, our Government seem to emanate nothing but chaos and confusion, or hokeycokey as my right hon. Friend put it. My hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) also spoke very passionately about the opportunities that the north-east has to drive growth in renewable sectors in areas such as Blyth; I know that the Minister is now fully aware of where Blyth and Ashington are, because I saw her look them up on a map. Offshore wind and other renewable technologies are a huge potential growth sector for regions such as the north-east. We have local subsea expertise in oil and gas, as well as an excellent strategic location to draw companies in.

Having said that, how can investors feel confident? I have heard from investors that they are very hesitant to come forward to make the necessary investment and to commit to delivering as part of the Government’s flagship green deal because their confidence has been undermined following the feed-in tariff subsidy slashing fiasco and the mixed messages that are coming from the Government. I would like to hear the Minister’s view as to whether stability and certainty are seen as priorities for encouraging investment, and I would also like confirmation of what the Government are doing to get a grip and to improve confidence in their strategy among the members of the business community who have the potential to drive growth in this area.

In conclusion, Members have raised a vast array of concerns about the Government’s strategy but they have also put forward many positive suggestions about how the Government can work with regions such as the north-east to boost growth. There is no doubt that, as a region, the north-east faces particular challenges. We have a disturbingly high unemployment rate. We also have falling university applications, which a number of my hon. Friends have highlighted. In the last 12 months, there has been a 19% fall in university applications in my own constituency and hon. Members have also mentioned the very worrying 23% drop in university applications from the north Tyneside area, which is a huge concern in terms of the future skills gap that hon. Members have also highlighted in the debate.

We also have a proximity to Scotland, which is investing significantly more in its growth and investment strategy than the north-east is able to as a region. We even have Alex Salmond attending a dinner in Newcastle this evening—I believe that it is in my own constituency—and his message is that the north-east needs a voice as strong as the one that Scotland has. So here we are, being that voice today. The region has a proud success story to tell, of innovation, manufacturing, exports and world-class education, not to mention the beautiful surroundings and rich natural resources. So the message to the Government today is that the north-east and other regions up and down the country are a ripe resource that the UK can draw on to power this nation back to prosperity. “Better Together” is a slogan that applies not only to our union with Scotland but to the whole of the UK. What we need from this Government is a clear and vocal recognition that there is more to UK plc than the south-east and London, and I hope that the Minister can feed that message back to the Prime Minister today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I echo others in saying that you have chaired our proceedings expertly, making sure that everyone who wanted to contribute has been able to do so. I commend the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) on securing the debate. I am glad he managed to make it here, having run from the tube. There is a great tradition of running in his constituency, which I had the pleasure of running to in 2006 in the great north run.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and other Members for the constructive approach they have taken to the debate. I really appreciate the richness of the experience we have heard about from both sides, and particularly from Members who are, understandably, passionate about their constituencies and about the north-east as a whole. A wide range of subjects have been touched on, including transport, skills, energy policy, investment, employment, education and regional development—the list goes on. I will endeavour to deal with as many points as possible in the time I have, but I hope Members appreciate that I face something of a challenge, in the nine minutes available, in addressing absolutely every point that has been raised. However, I undertake to write to Members if I am unable to cover any questions.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I face a challenge in responding to the debate as it is, and giving way to him would just reduce my ability to respond to the points made by him and his hon. Friends.

No one is under any illusions about the scale of the wider economic challenges we face, but the Government have taken the tough decisions needed to tackle the deficit, and we are working hard to make sure that effective action is taken in our economies, not only internationally, but locally.

Far from being all doom and gloom, however, the debate has also been positive, in that it has focused on the real asset the north-east economy is to the wider UK economy. Many of the stories we have heard today are a real sign that a transformation is under way in the north-east and that many businesses are thriving. Members have touched on the fact that various sectors are moving away from the manufacturing of the past, important though that still is to the north-east; there is now a wide range of sectors, including health care, life sciences, petrochemicals and low-carbon technologies, although the area still has a strong base in things such as motor vehicles and steel. There is also a positive story to tell on export levels in the north-east, which increased to £14 billion in the year to June, up 7.8% on the previous 12 months. Indeed, the north-east is the only English region with a significant positive trade balance. We therefore have fantastic assets in the north-east.

The right hon. Gentleman started with the theme of connectedness, and I quite agree about the importance of infrastructure. I represent a constituency in the west of Scotland, so I recognise the importance of rail infrastructure. I also recognise the important points he made about our connectedness internationally, in terms of the movement of human resources between different countries. Students play an important part in our universities, and many of them, delighted to experience living in the UK, may continue in highly skilled jobs, if they get one after graduating. It is important to recognise that there is no cap on student numbers; while the Government are committed to reducing net migration, we recognise the important role that workers and students can play across countries. On immigration, I would gently tell the right hon. Gentleman that it was his colleague, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who made a point, as Prime Minister, of speaking about protecting British jobs for British workers, so perhaps the attitude in the Labour party could sometimes be changed to reflect a more positive approach towards the benefits that immigration can be bring to the economy.

The right hon. Member for South Shields also touched on the importance of long-term investment in energy policy. I wholeheartedly agree that clarity and certainty are vital; the Government recognise that the private sector will need about £110 billion of investment, and we are committed to making sure, through the energy Bill, that that certainty is provided. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will obviously lead that work, and I appreciate that the Opposition will want to work constructively on a cross-party basis. As the right hon. Gentleman said, these decisions will ultimately span decades, so it is important that one Government do not make a decision that might be changed after a subsequent election if a different colour of Government are elected.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about public spending crowding out private spending and about the false choice that is often presented to us. We can have a debate about that, and I appreciate that there are differences in our parties’ approaches to the cuts that are needed, or otherwise, to tackle the deficit. I did not come into politics to make cuts, and I do not think anybody enjoys making them, but I recognise that tough fiscal discipline is important to make sure that we have the historically low interest rates needed for economic recovery.

I have a lot to get through if I am to answer as many points as possible, so I hope the hon. Lady will understand why I want to continue.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the partnership between the private and public sectors is important. That is why we are developing an industrial strategy to make sure that businesses, investors and the public can have more clarity about the long-term direction. We are planning for the long term, but initially focusing on five areas: sectors, technologies, skills, access to finance and procurement. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) mentioned the Heseltine review, which has made 89 recommendations, to which the Government will respond in due course. However, the industrial strategy and the approach the Government are taking go with grain of the overall approach in the Heseltine review.

The regional growth fund has been able to invest a significant amount as part of the partnership between the private and public sectors. It has invested £2.4 billion, of which £280 million has been offered to projects across the north-east. There was some criticism of the speed with which the money has gone out, but it is obviously important that the Government do due diligence, and I think people would recognise that. It is also important to note that certainty of public funding sometimes means that a project can go ahead once the funding has been allocated, even if the funding does not come until a later phase of the project. In addition, there is the Growing Places fund, which will help to unblock stalled local infrastructure projects. North East LEP has received £25 million from it, and Tees Valley has received £8.5 million. It is also important to remember that, in the north of England, £1 billion of European regional development funds were awarded in the most recent finance round.

The right hon. Gentleman and others raised the important issue of youth unemployment, and we all share the absolute desire to make sure that a generation is not left behind. We know the long-term scarring effect that unemployment has when young people are unemployed. I know the right hon. Gentleman has been in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and I know the work he has been doing on the issue. He makes various critiques of the Government’s approach in the youth contract, but it is important to recognise that, for example, enabling young people to take up work experience placements without losing access to benefits, as happened under the previous Labour Government, means that people can get out of the trap of not having experience and therefore not being able to get job, but not being able to get the experience because they would lose their benefits. That is an important part of the youth contract. Although the right hon. Gentleman is rather dismissive of wage subsidies, they will deliver private sector, lasting jobs, in contrast to the schemes that were in place under the Labour Government.

Of course, not all apprenticeships are for young people, but 51% of them were last year, and they are an important part of the solution to youth unemployment. We are not complacent, and we recognise that there is a lot more to be done. Overall youth unemployment figures are coming down, which is good news, but we are absolutely committed to keeping a very close eye on the issue.

The right hon. Gentleman’s fifth point was about finance for innovation. The Technology Strategy Board, and particularly the new network of Catapults—technology and innovation centres—are a really important part of how we can develop technologies for the future and grow our economy.

A wide range of points were made by other Members; I will not get to them all now, but I have made a note of them, and I will endeavour to write to Members about them. I would, however, like to mention the city deals, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) referred to. Obviously, the Newcastle city deal is excellent news for the city, and it will unlock £1 billion of extra investment and create 13,000 jobs; indeed, wave 2 could have benefits for other parts of the north-east.

I welcome the comments by the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) about the fantastic innovation going on at Narec. I appreciate he is unhappy with the 14 hectares of enterprise zone, but he has campaigned hard to get the enterprise zone, and I am glad that he at least acknowledged that the Treasury listened and granted the request.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) talked about how we can make sure we get engineering skills, and the employee-owner pilots, which are putting funds in the hands of local employers to work out how best to get the skills they need, are an important part of that. I also welcomed the hon. Gentleman’s comments about girls studying science. That is important, and the Inspiring the Future project, which I would encourage Members to become involved in, will help to build on the links between businesses and schools, and indeed the experience that Members of Parliament may be able to bring to schools.

I appreciate that I will not be able to get round to the rest of the points that have been made, but I welcome hon. Members’ contributions.

I thank all those who have taken part in the debate, and I would ask them to leave quickly and quietly if they are not staying for the new debate.

Prime Minister’s Evidence (Leveson Inquiry)

It is a delight to sit under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, not least because it keeps you away from Corby for another few hours.

Why does the issue that I am raising matter? Why should we bother to have a debate at all about the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry? For the simple reason that the inquiry is about to report in the next couple of weeks—perhaps in three weeks. There are many rumours about the precise date. The report will almost undoubtedly be the most significant moment in the fortunes of the British press for several decades.

Following the horrible events at Soham, there was an investigation by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee 10 years ago into what happened with the press and the way that local people were badgered. However, it is only following the News of the World investigations that people have, I think, come to the conclusion that the door of self-regulation’s last-gasp saloon has already been firmly slammed. That is why 42 Conservative Members of Parliament wrote to The Guardian last week suggesting that they will—as long as Lord Justice Leveson does not come up with madcap suggestions—support the kind of ideas that he may come up with.

The report will go to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, but, most importantly, to the Prime Minister. The bona fides of the Prime Minister, who will direct the Government’s decision about what should happen in the light of the report, is essential to our understanding of how we should proceed. The Government will decide whether there should be any statute, which is what many of us would support and whether to present any measure. Consequently, it is vital that we should be able to assess the Prime Minister’s bona fides in relation to the evidence that he gave.

Of course, although it is unconventional in a half-hour debate to take interventions from hon. Members who have not notified the Member leading the debate.

I apologise for not notifying the hon. Gentleman. Will he be apologising to the Prime Minister for the accusations, which were proven false, that he made against him in the House, for which he apologised to the House?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to repeat the comments that I made earlier in the year. I do apologise, and have apologised profoundly to the House, for giving evidence that I had previous notice of as a core participant, which I should not have done—I apologised to the Leveson inquiry as well; I believed it to have been published but it had not been—but there are still discrepancies in the Prime Minister’s account. The Prime Minister’s list of meetings does not include, for instance, the dinner with the Brooks family at their home on 22 May; so, no, the Prime Minister’s list is still not correct. Also, it does not account for the fact that two of the meetings that Rupert Murdoch said happened were withdrawn later in the day in amended evidence. I am sorry; I am not going to apologise to the Prime Minister, because I still think there are profound discrepancies in the evidence that he has provided.

The other reason I think that the matter important is that the Prime Minister cannot in the end run away from the norms of Parliament by evading answering 17 questions of mine and countless questions from other members of the media and the public. I put all those points to him in a letter last night, because I presumed that he would not reply to today’s debate, and that a Minister from one or another Department instead would do so. I want to say to the Prime Minister that it is not right simply to say one will not answer questions. Whether one likes a Member or the tone of the question is neither here nor there. It is a fundamental principle of Parliament that questions must be answered. He does himself no favours, because in this regard silence speaks volumes.

There are things that we already know about the Prime Minister’s evidence. We know that Mrs Brooks and News International gave considerably more material to the Leveson inquiry—texts, and, as I understand it, e-mails as well—that has not yet been produced in public, but will be published before the inquiry is finished. That material relates to three periods: October 2009, May 2011 and June 2011. We also know that some witnesses—there is at least one lawyer in the Chamber who will know well the processes of the Inquiries Act 2005—were served with section 21(2) notices, which meant that they had to provide material. The Prime Minister has still refused to answer even whether he was required to provide any material under section 21(2)—so, for that matter, have the Home Secretary and other Ministers. It is a simple question. Were they asked to provide material under section 21(2) or not?

We also know for an incontrovertible fact now—because Downing street has confirmed it to several newspapers, although not in answers to Parliament—that Downing street has stored four categories of material in relation to evidence for the Leveson inquiry: texts between the Prime Minister and Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch; e-mails between the Prime Minister and those four people; texts between Andy Coulson and News International; and e-mails between Andy Coulson and News International. I simply draw those out separately because the Prime Minister, in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry, did so, too. I simply do not understand why Adam Smith, the special adviser to the then Culture Secretary, was required to provide every e-mail and text to the inquiry, every one of which was made public, while none of the other people involved was required to do so. None of the politicians, so far as I can deduce, but perhaps the Minister will correct me—

Is not the hon. Gentleman’s point that it does not seem that any politician was required to provide information under section 21—including the former Prime Ministers, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Tony Blair?

Yes, so far as I understand it, that is true, but I have no means to ask Tony Blair questions through Parliament—nor, for that matter, the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). Everyone should provide all the material that should be in the public domain. However, only one person is now the Prime Minister, who will make decisions about the future regulation of the press. I do not understand why Adam Smith had to provide all the information that led to his resignation, when the Prime Minister and his special advisers did not have to provide any such material. That suggests to me that there is one rule for those at the top, and another rule for others.

We also know for a fact—because Downing street said so this weekend to The Mail on Sunday—that a civil servant at Downing street and an unnamed lawyer reviewed all the material and decided not to hand it over to the Leveson inquiry. We do not know what criteria were used for deciding whether it should be handed over, or why they decided that nothing—not a single e-mail or text message—was relevant to the inquiry, whether it referred to the BBC or gave further evidence of a much more extensive relationship or of earlier knowledge of what went on at the News of the World than we have been aware of thus far. The only thing that we know is the name of the civil servant—Tristan Pedelty. We do not know the name of the lawyer, or, for that matter, whether the lawyer was paid for by the taxpayer or by the Prime Minister personally. Certainly, all the legal advice provided to former Prime Ministers would have been paid for by them personally.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows about the rules of debate. I have not stopped him so far. He has been perilously close to crossing the line in trying to impugn the personal conduct of the Prime Minister. He has just crossed the line in making an allegation, if I heard him correctly, that it might be that the Prime Minister personally paid for legal advice. If I have misheard that, I would welcome a correction. If I heard him correctly, I ask him to withdraw that remark.

Mr Hollobone, I do not understand why it would be impugning the Prime Minister to suggest that he had paid for legal advice. It is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s office itself has said that it is perfectly legitimate for any Member to pay for their own legal advice. I cannot see why that would be impugning him. I am not intending to impugn him by suggesting that he may have paid for the legal advice. I think you are nodding.

Order. I welcome the clarification from the hon. Gentleman. I just remind him that, as far as “Erskine May” is concerned, expressions that are unparliamentary include those which impute “false or unavowed motives”. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of that. I just point it out, so that he does not cross the line.

I am very grateful, but I think that that chairing is slightly dubious, if you do not mind my saying so, Mr Hollobone, because I have made no imputation. I have not made any imputation at all about the Prime Minister. I have merely suggested that he might have paid for his own legal advice. I think that that is perfectly legitimate.

Order. There is no dubious chairmanship in this Hall today, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting otherwise.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone.

We also know the Prime Minister’s interpretation of what is relevant, because he has already announced it to the Leveson inquiry. He said that he had looked for

“text messages…in relation to the BSkyB bid.”

He went on:

“In relation to my e-mails”—

meaning his e-mails—

“searches are still being carried out.”

That is from his written evidence to the Leveson inquiry. In both those cases, as I understand it, he understood that the only thing that he was looking for was material relevant to the BSkyB bid.

I think that most reasonable people in this country would conclude that any text or e-mail that showed an extensive relationship between the Prime Minister or a member of his staff and members of News International—for instance, around the time of the setting of the licence fee, if it related to the licence fee—was material that should be published and be in the public domain. Any reasonable person would expect that, at a time when decisions were being taken about the future regulation of Ofcom and a new communications Bill was being considered, any communications showing much closer access between the Prime Minister or his office and one set of people in the media market, such as News International—Rebekah Brooks, Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch—is material that should be in the public domain, so that the public could decide whether that is relevant.

Indeed, the Leveson inquiry is not explicitly into the BSkyB takeover bid at all. It is expressly, as the Prime Minister says in his written evidence, into

“the role of the media and its relationship with the public, police and politicians.”

I would therefore have thought that any texts and e-mails between the Prime Minister or his office and the people we are talking about at News International were material to that inquiry, and so should be handed over.

We also know that the relationship between the Prime Minister and Rebekah Brooks was certainly far more than neighbourly. Some people have suggested that, as they were neighbours, they were bound to know each other. In the Rhondda, “neighbours” means those living in the same street; Dean and Churchill, where the two families live, are six and a half miles apart, so that is a different understanding of neighbourliness. In the evidence, Mr Jay asked the Prime Minister:

“did you see her every weekend or most weekends in the period 2008, 2009?”

He replied, “Not every weekend.” “But most weekends?” was the next question, to which the Prime Minister replied:

“In 2008, 2009? I’d have to check. I might be able to go back and check, but I don’t think every weekend. I don’t think most weekends. But it would depend.”

My contention is that if extensive material held by No. 10 Downing street refers to conversations held during that time—2008 and 2009—or held otherwise by the Prime Minister reveals that his answer was not entirely complete when he was speaking to the Leveson inquiry, it is only right and proper that it should be published. In a sense, that is the sole point that I am trying to make.

There is lots that we do not know. The Government have trumpeted their transparency over the past two years. Yet, I note—I hope that the Minister will be able to correct this—that no Ministers’ list of meetings with outside bodies has been available since June this year. The June to September list is not available, but it should normally have been out by now. It is important that that is published before the Leveson inquiry reports. Most people would want to know whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Culture Secretary or other Cabinet Ministers, as well as the Prime Minister, are now having extensive conversations with all the editors and proprietors of newspapers in advance of the Leveson report, so that they can make a fair judgment about the bona fides of the Government’s intentions.

As I have already said to the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), there are discrepancies in the list of meetings that the Prime Minister has thus far advanced. I am also somewhat doubtful about some of the lists of Ministers’ meetings. I merely note that a large number of Ministers only ever record eight meetings with external bodies in three months. Eight meetings in three months would seem to be something of a dereliction of duty. I would have thought it would be eight meetings a day. I have looked at the Minister’s list—it is a very, very thin list.

It is a thin list, I suggest.

Why should all this material be published? That it should is not my word, but that of a civil servant at No. 10 Downing street. The material that is being held—its existence is not now being denied by Downing street—has been described as salacious. I believe that everyone has a right to privacy, which is a fundamental principle, and not everything should always be published: people should be able to retain a degree of privacy. However, when the person is the Prime Minister or a Minister who is making executive decisions about a particular industry, it is important that there is full transparency, so that everybody knows whether they are acting on a clean slate or are parti pris and whether they are doing favours for their friends or are entirely free, open, clear and transparent in making their decisions. As I think the Prime Minister has said many times, the only antiseptic is full transparency.

I believe that this material needs to be published, because it has been described as deeply embarrassing—again, not by me, but by a civil servant in Downing street. I know better than many others that one can get over embarrassment—indeed, extreme embarrassment—in life. The Prime Minister knows that, too: he knows that if this material is just embarrassing, it is neither here nor there. I can only conclude that this material may be incriminating because it suggests that the Prime Minister knew what was going on far sooner than we realise; or because it makes explicit how the Prime Minister and Mrs Brooks were working together; or because it shows No. 10, in the shape of Mr Coulson, in cahoots with News International—I particularly want to know whether the material gathered by No. 10 has been given to the Metropolitan police for its ongoing investigations—or because it details the deal that I believe was secured between the Conservative party and News International or News Corporation before the general election, which led to the BBC having the World Service and S4C rolled into its budget and to its total budget being cut by 16%; or because it shows a consistency and regularity of access and contact that would make most reasonable people in this country question the bona fides of the Prime Minister.

I believe that all this will come out. I put in a freedom of information request on 18 October, and I have to receive a reply by Thursday. I can see no reason why the Government should say no, but they may do so, in which case we will simply have to go through the process of going to the Information Commissioner. I understand that many journalists have also put in identical or similar freedom of information requests. I say to the Prime Minister that however long he puts his fingers in his ears, screams “La, la, la” and refuses to answer questions, in the end this material will come out. The message of the News of the World saga must surely be that the original criminality might be terrible, but the cover-up always does for people in the end. This is not going to go away.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I certainly would not describe it as “dubious”. However, I was interested to learn this morning that you are our secret weapon in Corby, so I will endeavour to keep to time in order to release you on to the people of Corby later today.

This is an opportunity to debate some important issues that have been raised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), not least his assertion that my list of meetings was thin. I take some exception to being accused of having a thin list of meetings. When I became a Minister, and the first set of meetings of Ministers was published, I came top of the list because of the number of meetings I had had—twice as many as some ministerial colleagues. It is, however, always difficult to win in politics. I was proud for a day to have the longest list of ministerial meetings until I read on Twitter that it was clear evidence that I was in hock to corporate interests. That just goes to show.

As the Prime Minister has made clear on many occasions, it was this Government who set up the Leveson inquiry, but it is worth reminding the House that it had all-party support—including that of the Leader of the Opposition, and of the Chairmen of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and the Justice Committee. The whole House has got behind it and is looking forward to the outcome. We should, however, use the opportunity of this important debate to set out in more detail the background to the inquiry, and the powers and procedures of inquiries set up under the Inquiries Act 2005.

Has the Prime Minister provided a single text or e-mail to the Leveson inquiry, and was he asked to provide his evidence under section 21(2)?

Last night, the hon. Gentleman wrote to the Prime Minister, saying, in question No. 6: “You have stated in your written evidence to the inquiry that you have provided all texts related explicitly to the BSkyB takeover but have refused to state whether you have ever provided a single such piece of evidence.” I find that statement completely contradictory. The Prime Minister has made a statement to a judge-led public inquiry, signed a statement of truth, and given evidence on oath, in which he has said that he has provided the evidence to the inquiry, and yet the hon. Gentleman will not accept that.

I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute.

I just want to set out the background to the Leveson inquiry. We cannot fail to be aware of the circumstances under which the inquiry was established. Some 16 months ago, a series of revelations clearly showed that action was required. The driving factors included accusations of illegal forms of news gathering by the press, particularly phone hacking, and allegations of improper relationships between the press and the police. An unhealthy culture in some newsrooms had gone unchecked, until brought to a head by the Milly Dowler hacking revelations, and I know that the country, and every Member of this House, was appalled to hear about those activities.

As the House knows, the Prime Minister was quick to act. Within days he had put in place steps to set up an independent wide-reaching inquiry, headed up by a judge—Lord Justice Leveson—and backed by a panel of experts.

What does my hon. Friend make of the claim by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that he is not in a position to ask the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), about what texts and e-mails he had with Rebekah Brooks and others? It seems ludicrous to make that claim in this place.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. That is, of course, a matter for the hon. Member for Rhondda. One can, of course, ask members of the Government questions in debate and through parliamentary procedures, but with other Members of Parliament for whom we cannot use parliamentary procedures, we can use this thing called the post. It could be the internal post, or it could be Royal Mail. The hon. Gentleman could write to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown) internally in the House of Commons, or he could write to him at his home address, just to check the facts, which I know he is keen to clear up.

I have set out the background to the Leveson inquiry, but I also want to make it absolutely clear for the record that the Government recognise the fundamental importance of free speech, as well as of a vigorous press to support our democratic process. The press plays an essential role in holding the powerful to account. It brings matters of public interest to the fore, informs citizens and enables them to exercise their democratic rights. Whatever steps are proposed, it is vital to maintain a press that is free to conduct that important role in our society but, equally, we all want a regulatory system in which the public can have confidence.

To ensure that the abuses identified and the wider culture could be examined, the Leveson inquiry was given the task of exploring the culture, practice and ethics of the press, particularly in the context of the press’s relationship with the public, the police and politicians. From those investigations, the inquiry will make recommendations for the future of press regulation, and on how future concerns about press behaviour should be dealt with. As the hon. Member for Rhondda made clear, we expect the inquiry to report shortly, but I am unable to give the House a date because that is in the gift of Lord Justice Leveson, as, I remind the hon. Gentleman, is the whole conduct of his inquiry.

On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. It is the convention of these half-hour debates that interventions are taken only by agreement of the person who has tabled the debate. I note that the Minister is choosing to give way to people who did not notify me before the debate that they would be seeking to intervene.

The hon. Gentleman, unusually for him, is muddling some of the parliamentary procedure here. In half-hour debates, if an additional speaker wants to speak they have to seek the permission of both the Member who has tabled the debate and the Minister who is replying. That rule does not apply, however, to interventions, and it is entirely at the discretion of the Member who is on his feet at the time—in this case, the Minister.

Further to that point of order, Mr Hollobone. Is it in order for a Member to accuse you of having dubious chairmanship and of being wrong in your rulings?

I do not know whether that is in order, but it is certainly not appreciated, and it is just wasting the time available to respond to the debate. I would have thought the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would want to hear the Minister’s remarks.

I will give way to my hon. Friend in a minute. I think, Mr Hollobone, that you are absolutely right, if I may say so. I am now running out of time in which to respond to the hon. Gentleman because of his point of order. You will also have noticed, Mr Hollobone, that before he made the point of order I had already agreed to take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Instead of pursuing conspiracy theories, I have noted that the previous Government reportedly held slumber parties at Chequers for News International figures. Does the Minister agree that politicians of all parties were simply too close to the press?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I am not in the business of making allegations against people and trying to cloud the issues on the basis of personal attacks, but it is clear, and this was said by the Prime Minister from the outset, that all politicians should look to themselves and their relationships with the press. I have always found it odd that the Opposition have developed the theme that the Conservative party was somehow too close to the Murdochs. I have been involved in politics for a while, and I remember that for the past 14 years—before 2009—all News International newspapers were slavishly devoted to the Labour party and played a significant role in securing the election of Tony Blair. Indeed, he flew to Tasmania, I seem to remember—

On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. I beg your indulgence. Could you just clarify for me what the terms of this debate are? Are they meant to be the Prime Minister’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry or what we are hearing about at the moment, which has nothing to do with the inquiry or, indeed, with the Prime Minister’s evidence?

The title of the debate is the Prime Minister and the Leveson inquiry. I was listening to the Minister’s remarks and he was talking about the Leveson inquiry, and I have ruled that to be in order.

The hon. Member for Rhondda said from a sedentary position that I was not talking about the inquiry—again questioning your ruling, Mr Hollobone—but I of course was, because I was making the point that the reason we set up the Leveson inquiry—

Sitting suspended.

Charitable Registration

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

I declare an interest, entered on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a partner of a law firm that carries out a modest amount of charity law work, although, as may become patently clear in my speech, I have never specialised in that field. I recently had to take a crash course on charity law, and I apologise for any errors in my understanding of what is a far from simple field.

I am heartily encouraged by the number of Members attending this debate; it is the most I have ever seen in a Westminster Hall debate. In fact, there are so many Members that some are having to sit on the side. Many Members have said that they support my concerns on this matter.

If an organisation wishes to be registered as a charity, it both has to have charitable purposes and be of public benefit. The Charities Act 2006 states that it is not to be presumed that a purpose is for public benefit, so organisations applying to the Charity Commission for registration now have to demonstrate public benefit—something that comprises two elements: whether the nature of the charitable purpose is of benefit to the community, and whether those who may benefit constitute a section of the public. Charities that would previously have been registered without needing to demonstrate public benefit now need to do so.

In a debate in the House on the 2006 Act, the then Minister for the Cabinet Office said:

“The Bill preserves the existing law on the definition and test of public benefit, with one change. Under the existing law, there is the presumption that charities established for the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or the advancement of religion are for the public benefit… The Bill abolishes that presumption.”

The critical phrase is that

“The Bill preserves the existing law on the definition and test of public benefit”.—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 24-25.]

I shall refer to that in a moment.

The Charity Commission has the job of registering charities and applying the public benefit test to those charities that previously would have been exempt. One such charity is the Preston Down Trust of the Plymouth Brethren—a religious charity. In the main, I will confine my speech to public benefit as it relates to religious charities, as opposed to charities that relieve poverty or advance education, both of which have recently been the subject of charity tribunal cases.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on the number of colleagues in attendance. I share her views, and I will quickly speak for the Plymouth Brethren in my patch. Is she aware of the large amount of research on the social and community benefits of moderate religious observance? Is there not a case, therefore, for moving back towards the wider definition of social benefit that we had historically in this country?

Yes, I very much agree. It is an enormous burden for organisations such as the Plymouth Brethren to have to prove public benefit, as I will demonstrate.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way in this important debate. She will know that the Brethren run crusades called “every boys rally” and “every girls rally” that attract tens of thousands of young people into their halls. Those young people benefit from social education, physical training and interaction with their local community. That is a major public benefit, and if the big guy is able to crush the little guy, as the Charity Commission is trying to do, that will destroy the social benefit that that church delivers to the community across the United Kingdom. I commend the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on the Charity Commission’s bizarre decision. When gospel halls across the country apply to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be recognised as a charity, they are recognised as a charity, so the Charity Commission’s dichotomy is bizarre and must be put right.

There are two more dichotomies: there appears to be no challenge to the rating exemption of gospel halls, provided that they have an appropriate notice outside; and, as devolved legislation, charity registration is dealt with differently in Scotland. I understand that the charitable registration of religious organisations in Scotland is not being challenged, so we could have a bizarre situation whereby, for example, a Brethren church in Scotland is registered as a charity and is able to claim tax exemption through the HMRC regulations, but its sister or brother church in England or Wales is not.

Earlier this year, the Charity Commission advised the Preston Down Trust’s solicitors that

“As a matter of law we are not able to satisfy ourselves and conclusively determine that Preston Down Trust is established for exclusively charitable purposes for public benefit and suitable for registration as a charity.”

That came as a complete surprise to the Plymouth Brethren organisation because it has been recognised as having charitable status for more than 50 years.

The Plymouth Brethren Church is a Christian Church that was established in 1828 as a breakaway from the Church of England and has some 16,000 members across the country. The Brethren’s Bible is the same Bible used by the Church of England and other mainstream Christian denominations with nothing added and nothing taken away.

The case is now the subject of an appeal by the Brethren to the charities first-tier tribunal and has been of extreme concern to Plymouth Brethren churches across the country since the Charity Commission refused the Preston Down Trust’s application, which was a sample application that effectively challenged the charitable status of up to 300 other Plymouth Brethren trusts, some of which are in Scotland.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate; there is clearly huge interest among hon. Members. In Reading, we have three gospel halls run by the Brethren that do very good public works. Does my hon. Friend agree that the case goes wider than the Brethren? The Charity Commission could be setting a precedent, which is something that none of us wants. Does she agree that we need to be careful to ensure that there is fairness and that we do not set a precedent that we will regret?

I absolutely agree. Some smaller Christian denominations are seriously concerned. I know who they are, but they do not wish to be named for obvious reasons. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of independent free Churches that potentially also have cause for concern but, incidentally, do not have the resources to appeal, as the Brethren have, to the tribunal.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is always a fighter for justice in the House. My hon. Friend mentioned resources, but is she aware that, to fight the case at the tribunal, the Brethren are having to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds that they could otherwise use for charitable activities?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is all right for the Charity Commission or others to say, “Oh, you don’t have to be legally represented before going to the tribunal,” but the case is of immense importance. Not to have legal representation when, of course, the charity commissioners are legally represented would at least be unwise.

I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Again, on resources, does my hon. Friend share my deep concern about the Charity Commission’s suggestion that assets may be seized from the Church if, after deciding that the Church is not a charity, the Charity Commission deems that those assets were obtained under what it might call the pretence of being a charity?

I am aware of that problem. It demonstrates how complicated the issue is and why it must be fundamentally reviewed.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that this is a test case on religion and the thin end of the wedge, particularly given that the Charity Commission’s letter says that even the Church of England would have to prove public benefit? Does she also share my concerns that the practices of the Catholic Church, in terms of the Eucharist, are very similar to those of the Plymouth Brethren being complained about by the Charity Commission? It is wrong to allow religion to be suppressed in the United Kingdom on any basis.

That is a good point. It is also particularly concerning that in coming to its decision, the Charity Commission has decided not to treat as a precedent a High Court case some 30 years ago: Holmes v. Attorney-General, which held that the Plymouth Brethren’s Kingston Meeting Rooms Trust was a valid charitable trust, despite the Brethren’s well-known “separatist distinctives”; I am not sure that we would use that term now. The Court did so because those who were not members of the Brethren, provided that they came in the proper spirit and not a spirit of levity, were allowed to attend meetings of the Brethren other than Holy Communion and business meetings and furthermore because the Plymouth Brethren publicly attempt to evangelise by conducting campaigns in the streets and open spaces similar to the Salvation Army. Mr Justice Walton concluded in that case, which has held for 30 years, that

“it appears to be quite impossible on the evidence to come to the conclusion that there is a lack of benefit to the public”.

I endorse other Members’ comments. Is my hon. Friend suggesting, in short, that the Charity Commission thinks that it can put itself above the decisions of the High Court? Does she condemn that, as I do?

The Charity Commission’s powers are to apply the law, not to make it. That is the domain of the House and the courts. The Charity Commission is a regulator, not a legislator.

In my constituency, and I suspect in everyone else’s, the Plymouth Brethren meeting hall has received a letter refusing the Brethren charitable status and saying:

“This decision makes it clear that there is no presumption that religion generally, or at any more specific level, is for public benefit, even in the case of Christianity or the Church of England”,

although not in the case of Druids.

The difficulty is that we as a House failed to define public benefit in the Charities Act 2006; it is left to the courts. What will happen is that those who can afford the most expensive silks to argue their case are likely to triumph. Does the hon. Lady think that public benefit is well defined as far as education is concerned? Eton and Harrow have charity status, but schools on inner-city estates do not.

The position regarding public benefit in education was considered thoroughly in connection with the case to which I referred earlier, so I will confine my remarks to the issue of public benefit and religious organisations, which has not been examined or judicially reviewed for some time.

I thank my hon. Friend for taking yet another intervention; I think that there will be a lot of them. Public benefit and its connection to education is hugely important in my constituency. My constituents are surprised by the issue. The greatest impact that the Brethren have had in Montgomeryshire is to take over a school that the local authority had closed. There were four or five pupils. The Brethren stepped in and took over the school, and now it is hugely successful, respected and subscribed to by local people all over. That is a public benefit as worthy of charity status as any that I can think of.

The hon. Lady is being extraordinarily generous; it is characteristic of her good heart and soul, and we all appreciate it. She and I, along with the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), met the new chairman of the Charity Commission in his office last Monday. He sought to reassure us that there is no anti-Christian bias in the Charity Commission, although I suspected that some of us were slightly more convinced than others.

I am as guilty as anyone else for the lack of clarity in the Charities Act 2006. Does the hon. Lady not agree that we must resolve the issue once and for all? She has done a great service today by demonstrating to the House and those outside the depth of concern and, in some cases, the fear that exists, which should inform any future legislative correction of the slightly ill-written 2006 Act.

The hon. Gentleman has put my reasons for securing this debate more eloquently than I could have. It is meant to put on record the level of concern about the issue in this and the other House. There are many questions to be asked, and I hope that at least some of them will be asked today. He is right that some of them relate to the Charity Commission’s powers.

The notable Julian Rivers, professor of jurisprudence at the university of Bristol, has far more experience of the issue than probably anyone in this room. He has raised numerous concerns about the Charity Commission’s decision on the Preston Down Trust, particularly about the extent to which the Charity Commission considers that the abolition of the presumption of public benefit calls into question earlier cases involving religious charities, given that the former Minister said in the House in 2006:

“The Bill preserves the existing law on the definition and test of public benefit”.—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 24.]

There is clearly serious confusion. A much fuller discussion of Julian Rivers’s concerns is contained in his book “The Law of Organised Religions”. He raises several concerns about this area of law that are now far from academic as a result of the Preston Down Trust case.

Like many others, I have many constituents who are worried, not just for the Plymouth Brethren who work and form part of the community in South Derbyshire but for other religions as well. We have a big Catholic group in our area that does a lot of social work and has a big social constituency. I find it interesting that this could be the tipping point. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s reply.

Yes. Professor Rivers says that the law on the registration of religious charities

“is not completely clear and coherent… careful legal analysis and authoritative restatement would be helpful.”

One area of concern and confusion that he highlights is what we mean by the phrase “a section of the public” in relation to religious charities. If an organisation is to pass the test for charitable registration, a section of the public must benefit, but are not members of a denomination—the Methodists, for example—also members of the public? It has been suggested that the Charity Commission is trying to turn the question on its head by thinking of a class as restricted and therefore not consisting of members of the public, rather than as public because it is, on the face of it, open to all. The issue sounds complicated, but it is very important in the Plymouth Brethren case, in which it is clear that openness is a crucial factor in the Charity Commission’s thinking.

Yes, and to ensure that when they need access to justice, they can get it expeditiously and inexpensively.

The net result of the Charity Commission’s decision is that the Plymouth Brethren have had to go to enormous lengths to demonstrate the public benefit of their organisation and charitable activities by shouting about them in a way that they would not ordinarily have done.

I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Lady on raising this important issue. She will agree that the Charity Commission’s decision has caused extreme hurt to members of the Plymouth Brethren, because although there are big religious groups around, the Charity Commission seems to be willing to stamp on what it believes is a smaller group that is easily taken on. There surely is a rightful feeling that the Plymouth Brethren are being discriminated against.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. This organisation is now bearing the brunt of efforts to clarify the law in this area. Is that right? Nicola Evans, a specialist charity lawyer, said recently in evidence to the Public Administration Committee:

“At the moment the process for trying to clarify an area of law seems to rely upon it being done at individual charities’ expense.”

That alone should give us cause for concern.

In denying Preston Down Trusts charitable registration, the Charity Commission’s key concern appeared to be openness; that is, that non-Brethren members of the public might not be able to participate in their services. The Charity Commission questioned whether a notice board identifying the Preston Down Trust’s meeting hall as a public place of worship, with contact details,

“is sufficient to demonstrate meaningful access to participate in public worship.”

I have a copy of this notice board. It does not seem that different from—in fact, it seems to contain more details than—the average Church of England notice board. Pardon me for referring to those; I am simply picking that example because we see them so often. The notice board states:

“Brethren’s meeting room”

and

“place of public religious worship”.

There is a reference to registration and the words,

“For details of gospel preachings and meetings for Bible teaching please phone”

two phone numbers

“or write”

to an address. It also states:

“A Gospel Preaching will be held on Sundays at 5 p.m. and all well-disposed persons are welcome to attend”,

and so forth.

Is not my hon. Friend’s key point that the Plymouth Brethren are not a closed sect, but an organisation that welcomes the public to participate in its activities and an important part of a vibrant community, such as the one in Swindon that I represent?

Absolutely. There is a complete distinction—I am pleased to have the opportunity to clarify it—between the Brethren and closed orders of nuns, for example, which understandably do not have charitable status. The Brethren are different, living and working within local communities.

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way.

There are gospel halls in my constituency. I have found the Brethren to be a welcoming group with a strong sense of community who do good work across their community, as other churches and faith groups do. It would be wrong if Brethren trusts lost their charitable status. Does my hon. Friend agree that that could set a worrying precedent that would be applicable to other churches or faith groups, which could lose their charitable status?

I agree.

With reference to openness, the Plymouth Brethren are sometimes subject to caricature, partly because often we do not know them personally, but they are far more open than people might realise. For example, they have a modern website—Plymouthbrethrenchristianchurch.org —which has a “Contact us” page, enabling any member of the public to find their nearest local Plymouth Brethren church and service times. Hon. Members may be interested to know that I recently attended one of their services in Liverpool and I found nothing out of the ordinary in their Christian teaching at that service.

Some of the Brethren’s practices and the way in which they seek to live out their Christian lives are not necessarily what we would want to adhere to—I would not—but all denominations have their differences. The Brethren’s women wear headscarves in services, but so do women in other Christian denominations, such as the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and men in other religions, such as Sikhism. They do not vote. I do not agree with them on that and we have discussed it. I can certainly say that not one hon. Member here has a vested interest in standing up for them today. They say that scripture says that God sets up and deposes authorities, and that is their principle for not voting. At least they do not vote on principle, rather than because of laziness, but they do engage with and respect the democratic process in many other ways.

I am glad that there are no no-go areas in Congleton for my hon. Friend when canvassing. I congratulate her on her lucid, diligent contribution to this debate. There is asymmetry in the apparatus of the state being used against the Plymouth Brethren. Does she agree that, given that there have been 20 public benefit assessments between 2009 and 2011, until the law is properly clarified to the satisfaction of legislators there should be a moratorium on any further assessments?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. It seems that the chief offence of the Brethren in today’s liberal secular society is their genuine, sincere desire to live by the Bible in a more literal sense than many of us seek to do. Is that so bad, particularly when looking at the good that results? I will come on to that in a moment.

Not for the first time, the hon. Lady is doing great service to this House by raising an important issue. She is touching on a point that she made before, which is that this issue has forced the Brethren to mention things that they would not previously have shouted about. Quiet, unobtrusive service is at the heart of religion and that should be respected. The notion of limited interaction with the wider community has now forced the Brethren, including the Brethren in my constituency, to whom I pay tribute, particularly in Sale and Northenden, who have had to produce a catalogue of the service that they provide to their community. Will the hon. Lady join me in praising their efforts?

I will, indeed. The catalogue that the right hon. Gentleman mentions is a booklet entitled “Public Benefit: the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church”, which contains so much that the Plymouth Brethren demonstrate by way of public benefit that I cannot possibly do it justice in a speech. I shall place a copy in the Library for the record.

The Charity Commission expressed

“concerns about the lack of public access to participation in…Holy Communion.”

Many Christian denominations limit participation in Holy Communion in some way, most notably, I understand, the Roman Catholic church. Other hon. Members may be able to testify to that. Restricting access to Holy Communion should not be a reason for refusing charitable status.

The Charity Commission also commented on the beneficial impact of the Preston Down Trust, saying that it is

“perhaps more limited than other Christian organisations as their adherence limits their engagement with the wider public”.

The point has been well made: that is simply because people do not know about what they have done, because they have not broadcast it, but have modestly gone about their work.

The Charity Commission says that

“the evidence in relation to any beneficial impact on the wider public is perhaps marginal and insufficient to satisfy us as to the benefit of the community.”

I hope that, as a result of the production of the booklet, it reconsiders that view.

I commend the hon. Lady on bringing this issue to the attention of the House. Does she agree that the presence of so many hon. and right hon. Members from across the United Kingdom, and the contributions that have been made—all singing from the same hymn sheet—is an important, powerful signal to the Government and the public that something has to be done, if not by the Charity Commission, then by Government in this House.

Absolutely. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for saying that so plainly.

“Public Benefit” by the Plymouth Brethren church—I will touch on some points for the record, to get them in Hansard—includes support for families, care for young people, disaster relief, visits to prisons, hospitals, donations of substantial funds to many charities, including the British Heart Foundation, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Macmillan nurses, and dozens of others.

Would not my hon. Friend say that that exemplifies the fact that not only are they there for the promotion of religion, but for the promotion of education and the relief of poverty? The work that they do in my constituency and elsewhere, particularly in providing work and jobs for people who might not otherwise have them, should be commended, not opposed or obstructed.

My hon. Friend makes a characteristically astute point and I thank him for it.

I specifically want to mention the Preston Down Trust, because it is the subject of the appeal. I have additional information about its social action in the past two to three months, including the provision of free meals to members of the public, assisting at accidents, collecting for charity and street preaching and the distribution of tracts. It has that in common with all Plymouth Brethren churches. Surely no one can argue that they do not provide public benefit.

On the website, the Brethren say that

“we hold the same faith as every true Christian, we publicly preach the gospel and engage with the broader community through fund-raising and volunteer work. We work and live alongside people from many walks of life and many Brethren own businesses that collectively employ thousands of non-Brethren. Brethren characteristically are caring, active and contributing members of their local community.”

Someone might say, “Well, they would say that, because they are saying it about themselves”, but I assure people that I have spoken with a constituent of mine who describes himself as a lapsed atheist. He is certainly not a Christian, by his own admission, and he works for one of the several Plymouth Brethren businesses in my constituency. His name is Glyn Rushton, he is happy to go on the record and he works with Delta Balustrades, where he is a production manager. He got his job through the jobcentre in 2005 and he has the utmost respect for the Brethren, describing them as model employers:

“I would always view Brethren as a force for good in any area. They are industrious, independent minded people who care about those around them. They set out to solve more problems than they create and rarely feature in crime statistics”.

His point about the positive aspects of the Brethren way of life should not go unnoticed, and I draw attention to page 17 of the booklet to which I referred earlier.

It is important to raise the issue of information circulating on some internet sites that gives a negative portrayal of experiences to do with the Plymouth Brethren. I understand that such matters have not been a cause of the Charity Commission deciding to refuse charitable status. In a letter of 7 June, the commission states:

“We do not have any evidence before us at this time to demonstrate disadvantage which may serve to negate public benefit.”

No one would claim that any organisation is perfect, but if the Charity Commission has any such concerns the proper thing to do is to investigate thoroughly and to substantiate or discount them. At present, however, having checked with the Plymouth Brethren as late as this morning, I understand that that is not an issue in the appeal case of the Preston Down Trust.

I commend the hon. Lady, as others have done, for initiating the debate. She and I served on the Bill Committee that considered the Small Charitable Donations Bill and, in that context, it is clear that the Government have gone to some lengths to make quite elaborate and convoluted provision to take care of the differing set-ups and networks of the Catholic Church and the Church of England, though not much by way of smaller Churches. Does she accept that we Members of Parliament might have an opportunity, when that Bill returns to the Chamber in a couple of weeks, to support an amendment that would clarify that local churches as well as community amateur sports clubs should be included in the working definition of charities and at least come under the definition of community benefit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I remember that aspect of the debate, and certainly that is something that could be considered.

Members have spoken about how many other faith groups are concerned about the legislation. It is interesting, therefore, to look back at the debate in 2006, when the Charities Act was passed in the House. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), now the Leader of the Opposition, said that

“it is right that public benefit must be shown, but…at least for religion, the obligation will not be onerous. We have accepted, and I think others have, too, that making provision for people to attend acts of worship is clearly a public benefit. It is clear in case law, and it will remain part of the charity law of this country. Religions have nothing to fear.”—[Official Report, 26 June 2006; Vol. 448, c. 96.]

It would appear that religious charities now very much have something to fear.

Several commentators have remarked on the issue, and I want to draw attention to some of them, because it is important to demonstrate that concern exists about it among not only a huge swathe of parliamentarians but people in authority outside the House. Last week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said he was “very concerned” and was quoted as saying:

“I do believe we need to hold the Charity Commission to account as much as they hold any religion and social service to account. I believe that Christianity has a huge and great record in terms of serving the community, in terms of education and all kinds of ways.”

Other people have expressed concern. Lord Boateng wrote to me:

“I believe the Charity Commission has exceeded its mandate and needs to be reined in. I believe people of faith have much to fear from this decision and will support all measures brought to Parliament to reverse it.”

A highly respected charity law practitioner, Robert Meakin, has written a book, which I have with me, called, “The Law of Charitable Status: Maintenance and Removal”—quite a triumph to read over the weekend, although I say so myself. His words date back to 2008, although I notice that the copy in the Library was in pristine condition:

“The law of public benefit is confusing and as a result the Commission cannot be confident of its powers to remove charities from the Register… there is a need for greater clarity about the Commission’s powers.”

Interestingly, he also refers to a 1948 House of Lords decision in a famous case, the National Anti-Vivisection Society v. the Inland Revenue Commissioners, in which Lord Simonds stated that

“only a radical change in circumstances, established by sufficient evidence”

should justify holding an object not to be charitable which in earlier ages has been held to possess that virtue. As mentioned, the Plymouth Brethren have been registered as a charity for some 50 years.

Mr Meakin also says that it should be rare for charities to be removed from the register. He says that there is no power in the Charities Act authorising the commission to decide questions of charitable status judicially:

“Its role is to register charities and in doing so it must follow general law but there are so few decisions of the Court and legislation that the Commission is forced into becoming a de facto law-maker”,

rightly pointing out the importance therefore of clarifying the issue. He also mentions the importance of public confidence, in the commission and in the status of charitable registration.

It is interesting that the Charity Commission has not justified the action that it took. More importantly, is it not important for us to pursue the matter now, because who will it be next?

The hon. Gentleman makes a pertinent point.

Mr Meakin wrote about the importance of securing public confidence, and so many questions are now being asked that we must raise the issues broadly, to ensure that we maintain public confidence in charitable status. Many people rely on it when giving to and involving themselves in support for charities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh), former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“I understand that removing charitable status for religious bodies because of supposed lack of public benefit is dangerous territory. Doing so would almost certainly open up a minefield of civil actions in the courts and could quite possibly breach the conditions of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to religious discrimination. In addition to the obvious loss of religious freedom, the cost to the taxpayer of lengthy legal actions is worth taking into consideration beforehand.”

A leading Queen’s counsel and specialist in the field, Hubert Picarda, has given his opinion that the Preston Down Trust

“is a charity and should be registered as such… Where under the old law it has already been determined that a purpose is beneficial there is no necessity to determine…any further point. The requirement is already satisfied.”

He also mentions that, over the years,

“the conventional advancement of religion is intrinsically for the public benefit, has been accepted as such and there is no reason for creative bureaucratic intolerance to replace judicial and settled community tolerance.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the outstanding case that she is making today. May I bring her back to the Charity Commission? I think that it states that nearly 20% of registered charities are there for the advancement of religion and all the good causes that go along with that. It registers hundreds of Christian charities each year. What does she believe is really motivating the Charity Commission in this case? Is it because the Plymouth Brethren are different, a minority group and much easier to suppress as a result?

It would be wrong of me to try to divine what is in the minds of the charity commissioners in that way, but we are perhaps seeing a clash between what we might call a secular liberal society and the traditional society that we have seen in our country up until now, which has respected the role of religions, particularly the Christian Church, over many centuries.

I wish my hon. Friend the best with her speech this afternoon. Does she agree that the Charity Commission has not kept to the general assurances given by Ministers in the previous Government that charities such as the Plymouth Brethren would not be affected by the Charities Act? In effect, the commission is going against Parliament itself.

That is a valid point; indeed, the Christian Institute, which is a non-denominational charity representing 3,800 churches from almost all Christian denominations, is concerned about the issue. It says:

“If the Charity Commission can now find against the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church in the case of Preston Down Trust, this would appear to have grave implications for other Christian churches and groups, the majority of which apply some restrictions on access to sacraments and benefits… We believe the time is ripe for an Attorney General’s reference to properly clarify the law on public benefit with regard to religious charities. Furthermore, we would like to see modifications made to the role and structure of the Charity Commission, to prevent it adjudicating on theological matters, a function which it is ill-suited to discharge.”

Does my hon. Friend, who is a very good woman indeed, agree that the Charity Commission has behaved absolutely disgracefully in this regard? Does she further agree that, rather than waiting for some ministerial diktat, it should admit that it got its decision wrong and overturn it immediately?

One way of resolving this immediate issue would be for the charity commissioners to look at all that is in the public benefit. That alone should be sufficient for them to review the case.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, whose speech I am enjoying immensely—it is extremely good and gets right to the heart of the issue. She has also been very generous in giving way to countless Members. My concern—she has rightly moved on to this issue—is whether every Christian charity up and down the country will have to start preparing books and websites to get information out, so diverting them from the important work that they do. Will they have to do that to protect themselves just in case there is a problem? That would be outrageous.

I entirely agree. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

One option for trying to resolve this issue has not been mentioned: perhaps the case of the Preston Down Trust, which is, after all, a test case, could be referred to the upper tribunal, so that it was heard by a High Court judge of the chancery division and any decision would have appropriate status. That solution could be looked at. We certainly require a serious analysis by legal experts in this field, including an analysis of the case law on public benefit, what it means for religious organisations and how far organisations such as the Charity Commission should stand in judgment over religious groups. All those issues must be considered, and it is not merely an academic exercise, because the rubber has hit the road for the Plymouth Brethren. Who will be next?

I would be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend, who was, I believe, the shadow Minister when the Charities Bill was debated.

I was, and in a way this is a reflection on me because I allowed the relevant parts of the Bill to go through. However, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) backed us up, saying that the provisions would not make any change. There is a grave danger in terms of not only religion, but education and poverty; the trouble is that we may bring charities to a situation where they are no longer charities, and they will lose everything. If it were the Church of England, we would lose our churches—it is as dire as that.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I have read the debate that he mentions, and I give credit to him, because he raised these concerns and he was given assurances, but those concerns are now coming to pass. The implications that he highlights go to the heart of religious freedom in this country—that is how far this issue goes.

The concerns highlighted today are shared by a great number of other Members, who were unable to attend, because they have other commitments, but they have asked me to put on record the fact that they support my concerns. They are my hon. Friends the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), who is now here, for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), for Macclesfield (David Rutley), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Henry Smith) and for Waveney (Peter Aldous), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mark Menzies), for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson). If I have read out the name of anyone who is here, I apologise.

In closing, may I reiterate what I said at the outset: I am not an expert in this field, and I have had to research and come to understand it?

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend. Does she agree that the Charity Commission should have spent a little less time going down the legal route and a little more time talking to people in the community? I have had the privilege of working with the Brethren for more than 20 years in a professional capacity—my family’s firm used to do a lot of their printing—and a lot of the things described as public benefit are real and genuine. If the Charity Commission had got out and talked to people who engage with the Brethren, but who are not part of the Brethren, it would have found that the public benefit spills well into the wider community, as I have seen. Surely, public benefit can be what is set by example, as well as what is practised in a religious sense.

Order. I thought you were applauding me there—[Interruption.] You were. I have five applications to speak. I intend to call the shadow Minister at 3.40 pm, so that gives Members an idea of how long everyone can speak for.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) again on making an absolutely brilliant case. We have already heard the detailed history of that case, and I have just two substantive points to make, because I am conscious of the fact that other Members want to speak.

First, from what I have seen of the Brethren in my constituency, they do work for the public benefit, and their meetings are open to non-Brethren. Secondly, what we need from the Charity Commission is consistency: we cannot have a situation in which some charities are seen as more equal than others.

As hon. Members know, I am not a Christian; I am of the Jewish faith. I do not even have a Brethren gospel hall in my constituency, but, my goodness, I have seen the work the Brethren do, and I wish I had one, I really do. The charitable work they do is quite remarkable, as are the food days, and I have seen that just over the border, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker). We should pay tribute to that.

In their submission to the Public Administration Committee, of which I am a member, the Plymouth Brethren said:

“In accordance with our beliefs…we practise separation. This is based in a moral distinction between right and wrong…It means that Brethren will, as a matter of conscience, mix socially and by association with other Brethren. However, it would be wrong to assume that Brethren do not take their place in the local community…we live as normal members of the community and take an active part in community life.”

As I said, I have seen that. In the Committee, the Brethren made the important point that the High Court confirmed the charitable status of gospel halls in case law in 1981. Because of the problem that the 2006 Act created, as has been described, charities are now bearing the cost of deciding the same question. The reason, as my hon. Friend set out, is the words “public benefit”. On its website, the Charity Commission states that public benefit must be identifiable, balanced against any harm, appropriate to the charity’s aims, and not “unreasonably restricted” in a way that for example might prevent some people from benefiting from the charity’s work. To take the example that I just mentioned, surely giving out hot meals to the hungry passes all the Charity Commission’s public benefit tests. That is what the Brethren do on a regular basis.

As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, he and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton met William Shawcross last week and we have written to him with a list of all the works to which the Brethren are committed. To be fair, Mr Shawcross is a new appointment and I welcome the Minister’s efforts to appoint someone of high calibre and independence. I suspect that when he looks at the matter closely, he will be just as baffled as we are that a small Christian community, which is open to the public and distributes Bibles and hot food to people on the breadline, has had its charitable status revoked. As I mentioned, the Brethren have now had to spend several hundred thousand pounds fighting that discrimination. That is outrageous: it is why I am here today, and why I have worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and have tabled an early-day motion. What happened is completely unjust and cannot be right. Parliamentarians must do something about it.

Secondly, if Charity Commission officials are going to force more religious charities into the tribunal process, we need consistency. For example, there are recent cases of charities that have retained their status despite alleged links to terrorism. A few weeks ago, The Guardian reported that the Al-Muntada trust fund had been accused of passing money to a militant Islamist group in Nigeria. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a rainbow of niche charities, whose public benefit some will struggle to see. For example, as has been mentioned today, the Druid Network exists for “Informing, Inspiring and Facilitating Druidry as a Religion”. Members can make up their own mind about that. I have no problem with charitable status for Druids, but let us have some consistency. Why have the Brethren been singled out from all the religious organisations? What about the “Earth and Space Foundation”, which offers cash to scientists if they research “environmentalism in outer space”? I do not pass judgment on those organisations, but how can their activities be charitable if a community Brethren hall that hands out food to the homeless and does good work, serving the community, is not? The public benefit test must be consistent and the Minister should examine that. Either that, or Parliament should repeal the 2006 Act as has been suggested.

I am going to call a spade a spade. I believe that there is something rotten in the Charity Commission. I cannot understand why the Brethren, good people who do so much in their communities, have been singled out. I believe an inquiry is needed into the role of the Charity Commission to consider how it came to make the decision, and to publish all the e-mails and correspondence —everything that led to the decision, to enable us to understand why the Brethren were singled out. I, like other hon. Members, have received correspondence from Christian groups in my constituency; they express fear about what the Charity Commission is doing. They are worried about a ratcheting effect towards secularisation, and I wonder if a hidden agenda is at work in the Charity Commission.

The commission’s decision also puts the tax status of hundreds of charities in doubt. The Brethen are trying to deal with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the question of how each hall should communicate with its donors—thousands of people making donations with gift aid declarations, and making claims with their self-assessment returns. The charities do not know what to tell them. What has happened is unjust and inconsistent and is creating fear in many churches, not just in Harlow but across the country.

Finally—and I say this as a Jewish person—the Brethren were tragically persecuted by Hitler in the second world war and suffered terribly in Nazi Germany. That is all the more reason, given what they have gone through, why we, as an open, tolerant and decent society, in a country that I am proud to live in, should ensure that the Brethren are treated properly and get the charitable status they deserve.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who made a typically robust and passionate defence, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce).

As has been said, the debate is about more than just an arcane analysis of section 17 of the Charities Act 2006. This is about a battle, about the secularisation of society and about calling a spade a shovel, which is quango activism. The Charity Commission has previous on this, in its class-based and politicised campaign to attack independent schools. The crucial question that we must ask is whether the present situation is what Parliament intended in 2006. Did it intend to undermine, attack and traduce the very salt of the earth, who reach out inclusively to help some of the most marginalised groups in society and get them to change their lives? I would never have voted for a Bill that I thought would do that. At the least, we are right to draw attention to the significant concerns expressed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, that what is happening is the beginning of a process of pushing Christians out of the public square and delegitimising Christian religion in the name of bureaucracy and process. I cannot be part of that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the danger of part of that process might be the calling into question of denominational education—Catholic education and Church of England education—if the Charity Commission is going to stick by the point about the purpose not being simply for the benefit of the followers of the religion or teaching? The large Christian Churches will end up having to explain themselves to those faceless people.

My hon. Friend makes an intelligent point, as did the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who is not in his place. Are we really going to inflict a massive audit process on people who have better things to do: helping the most vulnerable people, in a practical, pragmatic way? There is an issue of fairness as well. Are we to sit by and let an unfashionable minority—a minority that in general people do not understand—be picked off by the apparatus of the state, with such asymmetry? If we are talking about public benefit, is it really a public benefit that my constituents’ taxes are effectively being used to hound people who do good in society? That is not a good use of those taxpayers’ money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow made it clear that the Charity Commission has some serious questions to answer. As I said earlier, it undertook 20 public benefit assessments between 2009 and 2011, and we need at the very least to re-examine what those achieved and what the ultimate agenda is. It is wrong and inappropriate for the state apparatus to be used against the people whose great work in our communities we have all seen.

I will say just two more things, because others want to speak: we must have a moratorium on any more assessments, until we have properly clarified the law with Ministers, if necessary by way of primary legislation, so that we do not have a grey area between Parliament and the pernicious actions of the super-quango that decides it will cast people out and cause them not to be viable in their communities. That is imperative for the House. Also, it is time that the Attorney-General was invited to invoke his powers to sort out the situation in the interim. The issue is not just defending Christianity: it is defending all faith communities, and it is about fairness and equity. If parliamentarians are here for nothing else, we must defend those things.

I thank the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for an excellent deconstruction of the problem, and other hon. Members for taking so many interventions—which makes it rather more difficult to make an original point at this stage.

I just want to say one thing, which I think that there is time for. The hon. Lady and other hon. Members focused on the public benefit test itself and on how perhaps the Plymouth Brethren, who have a school in my constituency and who, I find, are a first-class bunch, could pass it. It seems to me that, in the kindest way, we might be missing the point. We seem to have conferred on a committee of the great and the good the ability to arbitrate on the intrinsic value of any religion and to allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to reward one religion over another and make it easier for it to flourish. That is fundamentally unhealthy in our democracy. As the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Congleton said, that was not the intention in the legislation. I have a sense of what it was intended to do, and there have been one or two allusions to that. This is an unforeseen consequence.

It is a pity the Charity Commission has chosen to take the line that it has, and I agree with some of the more pejorative comments about the commissioners’ direction of travel. It is not for this Chamber in general to propose legislation, but it is fair to say—perhaps the Minister will take this on board—that it looks as though the 2006 legislation, as encapsulated in the Charities Act 2011, was miscast and misdrafted, and that the House should revisit it.

I add my congratulations to those already given to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I intend to speak briefly to highlight the issues and concerns that have been raised with me by members of the local Plymouth Brethren community in my constituency.

There is no school for Plymouth Brethren children in my constituency, and they attend local schools. There is no gospel hall, and I will return to that. The Plymouth Brethren own a significant number of local businesses. They employ 110 people, far from all of whom are members of the Plymouth Brethren. They are open to employing other people, who work for them with enthusiasm and willingly because they are known to be excellent employers.

For several years, I was a resident of King’s Somborne—a village in my constituency with a big community of Plymouth Brethren. They were regularly seen between the two mainstays of village life—the post office and the pub—preaching and sharing the gospel with people passing by. I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they were open and willing to engage with passers-by and wanted to talk to us about their faith. It was always an enlightening experience.

There is no gospel hall in Romsey, and the ruling on the Preston Down Trust suggests that if the Plymouth Brethren achieve the aim of establishing one, which they are actively seeking, they will fall into the same trap and difficulties that the trust experienced. I freely admit that I am not an expert on charity law. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her enormous work on the issue. She has certainly taught herself to be an expert. I recognise a group who seem to have been unfairly treated, and I would argue that they have been treated with suspicion and mistrust by the Charity Commission. That was not the aim in the legislation and in the 21st century is entirely unacceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to debate the matter today, and I hope that we will see some sense. A moratorium has been called for, and I look to the Minister to return some common sense to the argument.

I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate. We do not have a gospel hall in Macclesfield, but we have members of the Plymouth Brethren, who are obviously passionate about their beliefs and concerned about the precedent that they believe is being set, not just for their faith group, but for others throughout the country. I agree wholeheartedly with the views set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) on that precedent. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) share my concern about where to stop? We might start by targeting the Plymouth Brethren, but end up with the Church of England. What does my hon. Friend think of that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where will it stop? I certainly hope that the Minister will be able to answer that question.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on her speech. I want to speak briefly as the Member of Parliament for the Preston Down Trust. It is not in Lancashire, but in Paignton in Devon.

It is right that organisations must demonstrate public benefit, but the key is the clarity with which the Charity Commission interprets public benefit. There are three organisations near Preston Down road, which is where the name of the Preston Down Trust probably came from. One is an evangelical Christian charity, Anode, which gives furniture to people who require it. Another is Preston Baptist church, which offers a place for services and has a cafeteria where people are charged for cakes and tea. In the middle is the Brethren’s gospel hall, where they were giving away food and Bibles a couple of weeks ago. They seemed to be doing exactly the same as the other two organisations, which have charitable status.

Three things are wrong. First, a long-standing religious organisation is being treated differently from similar religious organisations. Secondly, the Charity Commission lacks clarity in its advice. Thirdly, the length of time that the commissioners have taken to reach a conclusion must be considered. I want to ask the Minister two questions and hope to finish within three minutes. First, will he address the definition of public benefit, and do so soon? Secondly, will he ensure that the Charity Commission understands that definition and turns its attention elsewhere?

My hon. Friend is ably representing his constituents in this worthwhile debate, as other right hon. and hon. Members have done. Will he add to his questions to the Charity Commission the puzzlement that I am sure we all have? In the legal curiosity with which it embraced clarification of the law, was it arbitrary or discriminatory to choose to do so in this case and to place the burden of making that case on the Brethren?

Five hundred years ago, a certain monk nailed a certain thesis about his faith to the doors of a cathedral. Today, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), with Lutheresque zeal, has nailed her colours to the mast of this place and made an important statement about how the House is standing up for the little fellow as he looks down the barrel of the gun of the big fellow who is nothing more than a bureaucratic bully with his views on religious faith. I congratulate her on that stance.

The Brethren are the thin end of the wedge. Many hon. Members today have indicated what may be the end—who next? Far be it from me, the Member for North Antrim, a reformed and tight little Prod, to stand up for the needs of the Roman Catholic Church, but I will do so without fear or favour, because if the Brethren Church is first, who is next? The hon. Lady referred to people being unable to take communion in the Roman Catholic Church. It would be hypocrisy for me to attend mass and wrong of me to assume that I could take communion. I would not be allowed to. Will the Roman Catholic Church face being bullied and browbeaten by the Charity Commission? I hope not. I also hope that the Minister is listening, because this is the thin end of the wedge. He must take a stand, and do so now. He must do as the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have done and nail his colours to the mast.

I will not say ditto completely to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), but I join other hon. Members in commending the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on raising this important issue. It is clear from the indications that the Charity Commission has given that this will be an escalating premise if the precedent is allowed to stand, which is why everyone should be worried.

In an intervention, I referred to the Small Charitable Donations Bill, which provides the opportunity to say who should qualify for gift aid on additional schemes. In the Bill Committee, I asked the Economic Secretary whether HMRC, in its conduct of gift aid and the associated scheme under the Bill, would be bound by the Charity Commission’s decisions, or whether it would make its own judgment. He said that HMRC would apply its own understanding of the Charities Act, but I now understand that HMRC is withholding some gift aid payments from Brethren trusts pending the outcome of the tribunal. It seems to me that Members who are rightly putting questions to the Minister today and thundering at the Charity Commission for the adverse implications of what it is doing will have our chance, as parliamentarians, in a couple of weeks’ time. I hope that some of us gathered here can put our heads together and propose an amendment to the Bill that will ensure the concept of community buildings, as provided for in the Bill, is not confined, elaborately and convolutedly, to the Catholic Church or the Church of England, but applies to all Churches.

Like other hon. Members, I think it is terrible that the Brethren have to try and advertise the benefit that they provide to the public. They help the public in my constituency and they are passionately and socially engaged. The emphasis in their living guidance on separation should not be misinterpreted and misrepresented, as the Charity Commission has done. They have never wanted to advertise it—no Pharisees they—and they should not have been driven into this position. As parliamentarians, we have the opportunity to draw a line under this in a couple of weeks.

Is it not the case that we also had chance, as I did, when I was a member of the Select Committee on Public Administration, to question the Charity Commission and others about the implications of the changes in legislation? Assurances were given then that there was no intention of this kind of thing happening. When we scrutinised the matter on the Floor of the House, it was said that there was no intention of such a thing happening. To use another analogy, the Charity Commission is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It has overreached itself, and it needs to get back into line with what Parliament intended and with Select Committee scrutiny. If it cannot do so, we must ensure that we get it back into line.

I fully endorse the point made by the hon. Gentleman. We should remember that the legislative buck stops with us, and we will have the opportunity to draw a parliamentary line under this in a couple of weeks’ time.

I thank Members for their discipline in what has been an amazingly busy debate. I now call the shadow Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) not only on the way in which she presented the debate, but on the way in which she included so many people, giving a lot of hon. Members an opportunity to air their views through speeches and interventions. It has been a good example of how this part of the parliamentary process can work and enable people to express their views.

The 2006 Act was not intended to prevent religious organisations from doing their vital work. That was said by Ministers at the time, as many Members have mentioned. I was not a Member of the House then, but I know that the intention was sincere. It was not simply an attempt to cover up the aim of narrowing down those organisations that could receive the benefits of charitable status. We have to hold to that as the stated intention; it still is the position of the Opposition. It is true that the Act stated that no particular type of charity—not only religious charities, but others too—should have an automatic presumption of public benefit. Until that is changed, that is the view that has been taken.

With respect to my hon. Friend, that is the point: there is a fundamental problem with the legislation. What many people have argued is that there is a flaw with the 2006 Act, so it is not a case of saying, “If a problem arises”. There is a problem and we need to sort it out.

I am not clear whether my hon. Friend is suggesting that this is inherent in the law, that we should take away the provision stating that there should not be any automatic presumption and that people should have to demonstrate public benefit. Mission creep is possible in any charitable organisation. There could be a suggestion that by defining oneself as a religion or any other kind of group, one does not have to demonstrate public benefit. What I am struggling with—after listening to what Members have said today and after being lobbied on the issue—is precisely how the Charity Commission came to its decision. Having said that, it is not for us to second-guess the tribunal. I was taken with the proposal made by the hon. Member for Congleton that in order to get the matter dealt with, perhaps it should be taken to the upper-tier tribunal as swiftly as possible, rather than meandering much more slowly through the process. It was held up by the Charity Commission while waiting for decisions in other cases.

The commission says that it does not see this a test case for all religions, and that it has not embarked on a process of trying to use this as a step towards something else, as people fear. I hope that that is correct. The 2006 Act stated that there was provision for a review of the Act’s workings, and in relation to the question of public benefit. That review has taken place and Lord Hodgson’s report, which was delivered to the Government some five months ago, was inconclusive. It said that there was no need for the definition of public benefit to be reviewed. Perhaps there is now an opportunity for a full debate on that review, and I will be interested to hear what the Minister says on the matter. I do not think that Parliament has had chance to debate that yet, so perhaps we could reopen why the question of why the review decided that the matter did not have to be reconsidered.

It is important that we have good, strong charity law and that the system ensures, as I think Members would agree, that what constitutes public benefit is clear. There are a number of opportunities to consider that, including in response to Lord Hodgson’s review, which is an issue that I hope the Minister will address.

The key issue is that the Charity Commission does not appear to have an evidential basis for saying that the Plymouth Brethren is sui generis—in other words, that it is unique and different from every other organisation doing something similar. That is why there is significant concern in that organisation, as well as worry among other people that they will be next.

Perhaps it will come out more fully in the appeal and in further work that is being done. I have some sympathy with those who say that many other religious organisations, at certain points in their operations, do not allow others to take part. On the face of it, the decision does not seem to quite fit with what people have said the organisation is doing.

I want to avoid getting involved in theological minutiae, but may I tell the hon. Lady that the Roman Catholic Church denies communion to our fellow Catholics on many occasions? There are theological reasons for that. It is not about inclusivity; it is about the sacred nature of the host.

That is indeed clear in the nature of certain religious observances.

We have to move forward on this issue, and it is particularly significant that we have such a lot of interest here. I hope that the Government and the Charity Commission, which I am sure is watching the debate with great interest, will take on board what people have said and the strong feelings that have been expressed today. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, no one in this room could be accused of currying favour in return for votes, as we have been approached by an organisation whose members, for their own reasons, do not vote. However, we are concerned and many hon. Members have shown the depth of their concern for those of their constituents who may not vote for them but who are carrying out important work. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is very well regarded on both sides of the House and by me, and she deserves every one of the compliments that have been showered on her this afternoon. I congratulate her on securing a debate that has mobilised, at my last count, more than 40 Members of Parliament from both sides of the House. That is to be noted by the Government, but also by the Charity Commission.

It is important to unpack the debate, because there are three issues that are linked but need to be discussed separately. The first question is whether the Charity Commission has made a good or bad decision in relation to the Plymouth Brethren. The second is: what are the implications of that decision? That is the “Who’s next? What’s next?” question—the concern about a ripple effect across other religious groups. The third question is whether what we have set up to protect the integrity of the charity system in this country, to protect taxpayers and donors, is fit for purpose in terms of defining public benefit. It seems to me that those are the three issues, and I would like to try to deal with them in the time that I have left.

I have to say up front that I will be forced to pick up a slightly different hymn sheet from the one used by the rest of the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon. It is a little less rousing, but parts of this tune need to be heard. My first point is about the Charity Commission. “Rotten”, “discriminating”, “a bureaucratic bully crushing the little guy”, “a hidden agenda”, “unjust”, “inconsistent”, “arbitrary”, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”—this has been quite a rough day for the members of the Charity Commission. It could be worse—they could be working in the BBC—but that is very tough language and it communicates the strength of feeling in the House on this issue.

However, I have to make an important point about the status of the Charity Commission. We have to remind ourselves that it is a non-ministerial Department. It is not subject to ministerial direction or control. It is an independent registrar and regulator. Its independence is set out in statute, and Ministers and the Government have no power to intervene in Charity Commission decisions.

The Charity Commission seems to be imposing a state dogma of uber-inclusivity on a religious group that has decided to be moderately exclusive. Does my hon. Friend the Minister think that that is very big society and, as the big society Minister, is he not prepared to do something about it? That is why we have elections, is it not?

That was a characteristically well made point, but actually the view that I have, as a Minister, on this individual decision is not relevant, for the reasons that I have just given. I am here to stand up for the commission’s freedom to take the decision, because that is the process that we have set up.

The second point is that, in exercising its functions, the Charity Commission is answerable to the courts. As many other hon. Members said, the Charity Commission’s decision not to register the Preston Down Trust has been appealed to the first-tier tribunal. As that decision is subject to an appeal, there is a limit to what the Charity Commission can say at the moment, and I hope that hon. Members will understand that there is a limit to what I can say in response to the debate, because I do not want, as a Minister, to be accused of trying to influence a tribunal.

If this had reached a point at which an attack was being made on the Church of England or the Catholic Church, would we still be saying that it is not right to question what the Charity Commission is doing and it is answerable only to the courts?

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend back on this side of the Chamber; I was worried for a moment when I saw where he was sitting earlier. I will deal with the specific point that he raises when I deal with the second part of the argument, which is: what are the wider implications of the decision?

I remind hon. Members that before the advent of the Charities Act 2006, it was generally considered that charities for the advancement of education, the advancement of religion and the relief of poverty benefited from a presumption of public benefit. The 2006 Act removed that presumption. The aim was to create a level playing field whereby all charities had to show their public benefit. As has been pointed out, the Act did not seek to define public benefit—we will return to that—but instead continued to rely on its common law meaning. It gave the Charity Commission the job—we should recognise that it is a difficult job—of producing guidance on public benefit, and promoting awareness and understanding of the public benefit requirement. One of the Charity Commission’s functions is to determine whether organisations that apply for registration are charitable in law. It is for organisations applying to show that they are charities, not for the Charity Commission to show that they are not.

Before the advent of the 2006 Act, the Exclusive Brethren were “excepted” charities and were not required to be registered with the Charity Commission. The 2006 Act required certain excepted charities to register with the commission. It is that change that has led to the application to register by the Preston Down Trust. According to the Charity Commission, its decision not to register the trust was based on the content of the application as it was presented. The commission says that it was not able to conclude that the Preston Down Trust was a charity in law based on the material that was presented to it in the application. The commission’s decision was explained in a letter dated 7 June. I can certainly place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House for hon. Members who do not have one.

Can my hon. Friend the Minister comment on whether he thinks that the decision reflected what was the will of the House when the Charities Act was passed in 2006? I would be interested in his view and I believe that he can give it. I checked very carefully with the House of Commons Library before the debate that this issue is not sub judice or subject to those rules and therefore comment can be made on it in this Chamber.

We can all express our opinions, but I genuinely think that in this matter the substantive point that I have to make is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission takes a different view on the evidence presented to it by the Brethren, it is for the tribunal to decide. I think quite genuinely and I say with real sincerity that it would be unhelpful for me to express a personal view as a Minister in that context.

I will move on to the second point. My answer to the first point—was this a good or bad decision?—is that as things stand, unless the Charity Commission changes its mind, it is for the tribunal to decide. A serious concern was raised about a ripple effect from the decision. There were concerns that the Charity Commission is pursuing an anti-Christian agenda. I am satisfied that that is not the case. As a public body, the Charity Commission is bound by equalities duties and by law must not discriminate in its dealings with different religions or faiths. A fact that has not emerged from the debate is that the Charity Commission continues to register hundreds of Christian charities each year, including charities that were previously excepted. That fact has to be reconciled with various statements—some of them quite wild—about the commission discriminating.

I have very little time and I would like to close on the third substantive point: is the process fit for purpose? The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) rightly said that this issue had been reviewed by the Government. We asked Lord Hodgson to review all the regulation and legislation affecting the sector. His preliminary conclusion was that the system that we have at the moment would be difficult to change, because there is a substantial challenge in trying to condense hundreds of years of case law into a rigid, fixed definition of public benefit in this place. His view was that it was better to stay with this flexible system, which can evolve over time and whereby things are determined by case law. We are reviewing that recommendation. This debate has certainly contributed to that. My position is that we will publish an interim report as a response to Hodgson, but we want to hear in particular the evidence from the Public Administration Committee, which has been looking into the issue. However, this debate has been extremely helpful.

I, like most other hon. Members in this Chamber, would like this issue to be resolved speedily. It has dragged on too long. I share hon. Members’ concerns about the cost that that imposes on the Brethren. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the decision, I urge all who are involved to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible.

May I ask those members of the public who are leaving to do so quietly so that we can move on to the next debate?

Alcohol Advertising Regulations

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Dobbin. I had several reasons for requesting the debate. The first relates to the need for appropriate rules to regulate the marketing and promotion of alcoholic products. It is also an opportunity to underline the important contribution that advertising makes to the UK economy and a chance to champion the creative industries. It is useful to have the debate to balance calls from those in some quarters who wish to see tighter regulations or even a complete ban on alcohol advertising.

My interest in the subject comes from a desire to support and champion the growth of the creative industries, and the importance of advertising as part of that. In difficult economic times, we need to recognise and support the value of the creative industries. They are one of our most important sectors and the UK is among the world leaders. Advertising alone contributes £7.8 billion to the UK economy and is the second biggest contributor to the UK’s creative industries, which accounts for 3% of gross domestic product. The UK advertising spend is forecast to grow by almost 4% this year. The value of advertising exports amounts to £1.5 billion-worth of services—nearly 2% of all exports. A large part of that value, over many years, relates to alcohol advertising.

The UK has shown the best innovation in the sector and our original thinking and advertising is admired throughout the world. I hope you will indulge me for a minute or two, Mr Dobbin, to remind you, the Minister and Members present of some of the iconic adverts that have been great successes in the UK, have been sold all over the world and have attracted international spend from product marketers. The Heineken adverts were extremely successful and innovative; a whole series was built around a humorous situation in which someone or something, after failing a task, would drink a glass of beer, which would improve their performance—be it shooting plastic ducks in a fairground or speaking English with a cut-glass accent. It all ended with the slogan that the beer

“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”.

I cannot do anything but intervene. When I was in my early teens, I found that Heineken reached parts that nothing else could reach. The only issue is whether that was exclusive to Heineken.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps he thought,

“I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”

could have been the slogan we use.

The hon. Gentleman is taking us on a merry dance down memory lane, and I am sure that he could keep our attention all afternoon. Some of us all too well remember precisely the same quality in adverts for cigarettes. I remember Terry Thomas and Eric Sykes advertising cigarettes—marvellous. I remember the John Player league and playing cricket sponsored by John Player. Surely, the hon. Gentleman is not saying that the advertising justifies the product regardless of what that product is. Would he honestly make a case today for cigarette advertising with the same passion, fury and determination he brings to alcohol?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that valid point. No, I am absolutely not proposing a repeal of the legislation and regulations, but there has been a reduction in the consumption of alcohol in recent years and advertising needs to reflect that. I shall come on to that point a little later.

As someone who consumed Top Totty that evening, I remember the beverage and the fuss made about its title. I understand that the attention drove the sales of Top Totty much higher than was ever predicted, which only demonstrates that such controversial decisions work against the objectives of those who wish to tighten the restrictions.

You may remember, Mr Dobbin, that before those helpful interventions I was trying to take you and hon. Members through some of the great adverts we remember from yesteryear. The Hofmeister bear is another example. Everyone was encouraged to “follow the bear”. Who could forget the Guinness toucan or the Carling Black Label series? “The Dam Busters” goalkeeper was one of my favourites.