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Westminster Hall

Volume 556: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2013

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 January 2013

[John Robertson in the Chair]

Personal, Social, Health and Financial Education

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

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

The schools White Paper “The Importance of Teaching” announced a review to determine how to support schools to improve the quality of teaching in personal, social, health and economic education, PSHE, including giving teachers the flexibility to use their judgment on how best to deliver it. In launching the review, the then Minister with responsibility for schools, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), said that Ofsted had reported some weaknesses in the schools visited. Although PSHE was judged to be good to outstanding in three quarters of the schools, the report noted that pupils needed more knowledge and better understanding in education on relationships, drugs and alcohol, and mental and emotional health.

From her experience as a member of the Health Committee, will my hon. Friend say something about the role that PSHE might play in ensuring that young people in this country are as healthy as possible?

That is an important point, and I will come on to it. The PSHE Association has argued for the following key education themes to be included: health, relationships, careers and the world of work and personal finance. The consultation on the Government’s review finished on 30 November 2011. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect to see a revised programme of study for PSHE? On 9 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) received an answer to a question on drugs education telling her:

“Revised draft programmes of study…will be sent out for consultation in due course and consultation responses received will be taken into account before final programmes of study are published later this year.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 341W.]

May we have more clarity on dates for those revised draft programmes?

I would like to focus mainly on relationship education, which is a key issue in my constituency and for Salford as a local authority, because teenage pregnancy rates are a continuing concern for us. The latest published statistics show that the teenage conception rate in Salford is 57 conceptions per 1,000 young women. That is higher than the north-west region, which has a conception rate of 40 per 1,000, and considerably higher than England and Wales, which have a rate of 35 per 1,000. The latest figure for Salford is the highest in Greater Manchester and, depressingly, it is more than three points higher than the previous year’s figure. That is a clear issue for Salford, because it goes against the national trend. In Salford, the teenage conception rate has declined by only 3% since 1998, while in the north-west the rate reduced by 11% and in England and Wales the reduction was almost 16%. What that means in human terms, which is the most important thing, is that since 1998, between 215 and 250 young women under 18 in Salford have become pregnant in any one year, and 130 to 185 babies are born to mothers in that young age group in any year.

When action to reduce teenage pregnancy rates in Salford seemed to have stalled in 2007, the council’s children’s services scrutiny committee commissioned an inquiry into the extent and effectiveness of relationship education in our schools and colleges. The inquiry report commented:

“Teenage pregnancy is a serious social problem. Having children at a young age can damage young women’s health and well-being and severely limit their education and career prospects. While individual young people can be competent parents, all the evidence shows that children born to teenagers are much more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes in later life.”

The inquiry sent a survey questionnaire to all schools and colleges in Salford. It found that where the teaching of PSHE was not seen as a priority, the delivery of relationship education was not as effective.

I apologise for the fact that I cannot stay for the whole debate, but I am very pleased that it is taking place. Does my hon. Friend agree that an important factor to consider is the quality of teacher training? One reason why teaching may not be good in schools, or why the subject may not be given priority, is that teachers do not feel confident about talking about relationships, including, of course, same-sex relationships.

Indeed, and that is my next point. The Salford inquiry found that schools were patchy in the take-up of their role in relationship education. In responses to the survey, schools cited “more training for staff” as a key improvement area, but the inquiry found that some schools, even in areas that were hotspots for teenage conception, were unable or unwilling to release teachers for the continuing professional development PSHE course. Another important point is that very few school governors had taken up the responsibility to oversee the delivery of relationship education in their school, and very few had taken on the available training. My hon. Friend is quite right.

The inquiry concluded that direction from Government was needed to make relationship education

“a consistent and compulsory part of the national curriculum.”

The inquiry in Salford was a valuable piece of work, but the situation in relationship education has sadly not improved since. The proposed clauses in Labour’s Children and Families Bill that would have made PSHE, including one year of relationship education, compulsory were lost in the legislation “wash-up” process before the 2010 general election, because Conservative Front Benchers and the usual channels were unable to agree to those provisions.

Funding sources that we used to fund work on teenage pregnancy have not been replaced. The 2007 inquiry report makes quite sad reading, because it envisaged the council being able to continue funding teenage pregnancy projects once grant funding ceased, with schools in teenage conception hotspots also providing matched funding. However, Salford city council has been the subject of budget cuts amounting to £90 million over three years since 2010, so extra funding for teenage pregnancy projects seems a forlorn hope.

That matters because we know that nationally the infant mortality rate for babies born to teenage mothers is 60% higher than for babies born to older mothers; children of teenage mothers are generally at increased risk of poverty, low educational attainment, poor housing and poor health, and they have lower rates of economic activity in their adult lives; and teenage mothers are less likely to finish their education and more likely to bring up their children alone and in poverty. We also know—this is why we are so concerned—that rates of teenage pregnancy are highest among deprived communities, so the negative consequences of teenage pregnancy are disproportionately concentrated among those who are already disadvantaged. Those are all powerful reasons for action.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful case for the importance of a mandatory element of PSHE teaching in our schools. Does she agree that PSHE teaching should be broader, incorporating matters such as gender equality and challenging gender stereotypes, which have an impact on young women’s aspirations? Does she also agree that it should be statutory for PSHE teaching to address violence against women?

I will come on to that in a moment, but if relationship education is done well it can cover many aspects. Domestic violence is a very important aspect, because not only do the communities I have mentioned experience poverty and disadvantage, but frequently in families in those communities, very young children see violence.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. In addition to issues such as gender equality, domestic violence and teenage pregnancy, which are all significant, does she agree that one of our significant problems is how to engender in all our young people—not just our girls—a sense of self-confidence and security in themselves? Does she agree that that should be a critical component of any good relationship education?

Indeed, and although I am talking about teenage conception affecting girls and young women, the involvement of boys and young men is important too. Beyond the serious issue that I have mentioned of teenage pregnancy, there are new concerns about how young people can be protected from adults who want to groom them for sex or adults who abuse and assault young people, as in the horrific allegations made against Jimmy Savile. Relationship education can equip children with the knowledge and the skills to understand what constitutes inappropriate behaviour from an adult, it can help children to resist pressure from adults who want to harm them, and it can inform children about how to get help and support when they need it.

The National Children’s Bureau feels that PSHE is key to safeguarding children. The PSHE Association says that

“the most important safeguard against grooming and abuse is that young people are equipped to understand what is appropriate and what is not and to develop strategies to stop that abuse.”

The association feels that PSHE is an ideal forum to explore these issues. Equipping children to understand if they are at risk or if they have already been a victim of such exploitation is a primary line of defence against such behaviour. Of course, these issues cannot be dealt with in an ad hoc way, and the importance of training has already been highlighted. This sort of education needs to provided through regular timetabled sessions, delivered by trained staff.

Evidence also points to the important role that PSHE can play in ending or reducing bullying in schools, and this includes work with young carers. In Salford, we are fortunate to have an excellent young carers project. It works in a number of our schools to identify and support young carers, and to develop awareness of the role of children and young people who are carers. Recently, Salford Young Carers has worked with the Lowry theatre to produce a DVD for schools to build awareness of the issues faced by young carers in school. It is entitled, “I am not different, I just do different things”, and I can get lots of copies, so if anyone here is interested in seeing it, I am very willing to make it available.

In addition to what happens in schools in planned PSHE lessons, may I ask the hon. Lady to reflect on the importance of popular media, such as the radio and magazines that young people have? I would also suggest that people can learn a lot from the way we reduced drink-driving among young people. That was achieved not only by formal lessons at school but by giving people strategies to allow them to avoid drink-driving.

Of course, we must remember that every week between 6,000 and 7,000 people—not just teenagers—contribute to a conception that ends in a termination. Most of those terminations are avoidable if people just use the language that, at the time, prevents them from doing something that will have consequences that they do not really want.

Indeed. That is the confidence we want to build up.

I was talking about Salford Young Carers and the fabulous DVD that it has produced, so let me get back to the treatment of young carers in schools. The DVD shows the type of caring tasks that young carers take on, how caring affects their performance at school and how it means they cannot take part in activities that other young people have time to engage in. We are fortunate in Salford to have that work being done in our schools, but of course the project is limited by resource constraints. Surprisingly, the project’s staff have also encountered barriers, including a school saying, “We don’t have any young carers,” which most of us will understand is highly unlikely. A dismissive attitude to young carers is also unfair, because many of them are likely to be shouldering practical, emotional and financial responsibilities that are normally taken on only by adults.

Clearly young carers need to be identified and then supported. On 7 September 2012, I introduced a private Member’s Bill in the House, the Social Care (Local Sufficiency) and Identification of Carers Bill; there are a couple of supporters of that Bill here today. On identification, my Bill contained a provision that a local authority must ensure that both the authority itself and the schools within its control have in place a policy that both identifies young carers and makes arrangements to support pupils who are young carers. I commend that provision in my Bill to the Minister, who might just have been in her new role at the time that I introduced the Bill. It is crucial that schools and local authorities across the country do more to identify and support young carers.

I have talked briefly about personal, social, health and economic education and what it could enable schools to provide. As I have just touched on, it could enable support to be provided for young carers and the understanding of their caring role, which often entails taking on practical, emotional and financial responsibilities. It could help action to prevent or reduce bullying in schools. It could help to safeguard children against grooming for sex and attention from or assaults by paedophiles. As I mentioned in the main part of my speech, it could equip girls and young women with the knowledge and skills to avoid unwanted teenage conception. It could give all young people the information and values to enable them to have safe and fulfilling relationships. All those things are beneficial outcomes and very strong reasons to put personal, social, health and economic education on a statutory footing within the national curriculum.

There have been other calls from MPs for elements of the PSHE curriculum to be made compulsory, and I think that there are MPs here today who may talk about those elements. There has been a call for statutory financial literacy education from the all-party group on financial education for young people. A cross-party group of MPs has called for for relationship education to be made statutory—that relates to the subject of teenage pregnancies. There has also been a call, which I am sure we will hear about, for compulsory lessons on body image by the all-party group on body image, as well as a call for a commitment to provide effective drugs education from the Home Affairs Committee in its report, “Drugs: Breaking the Cycle”.

Failing to make important subjects compulsory within the curriculum will mean that some schools’ delivery of education on those vital subjects will be patchy at best, or non-existent at worst. It is time that all our pupils benefited from PSHE subjects being taught as effectively as possible.

There are quite a few Members standing who have not forwarded their names. If we have time, we will try to get more people in, but I have a list of Members who submitted their names and they must be given the opportunity to speak first. Having said that, if the Members who are called to speak could look at the time they are taking to speak, that would be most helpful.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this debate and on the work that she has done on the subject for some time. I am pleased to see so many hon. Members in Westminster Hall today to discuss this subject. In fact, I am surprised that there are so many Members here. Sometimes, I come to Westminster Hall and limited numbers of Members are present for a debate, so it is very encouraging that so many Members are here at this point in the morning to discuss this subject.

I should perhaps explain my initial connection with this topic: both my parents are teachers. In fact, my mother was responsible for PSHE in the secondary school that I attended, so if there are any failings in my skills in dealing with life, I suppose that I will probably have to take them up with her on two levels, and take the pain of that. However, it gave me a commitment to explain how important PSHE is. My mother dealt with Cornwall county council in those days, talking about the importance of the PSHE element in the curriculum. In fact, when she started dealing with the subject it was actually called “personal, social and moral education”, which perhaps gives an idea of what the subject was like in the early part of the ’80s; there was a slightly different twist to it.

The hon. Lady has focused on relationship education as something that is crucial, and it is very important to me, too. I remember that when I first stood for Parliament I was at the hustings—it was one of that type of “churches together” hustings—and a question came up about sex on television and whether it was a bad thing. Being a politician, I turned the question into something important to me, which is talking about relationships. I said that what I found far more insidious is that all that young people hear all the time, from soap operas and so on, is about relationships failing. Let us be honest—it is done that way because it is a story and that is what soap operas are about. There are very few examples of relationships that actually make it and that work and are successful. That is perhaps a sadder issue. The mechanics of sex being on television are such that the cues that young people pick up—they also pick them up from wider society, celebrity magazines and so on—are all about how relationships are exciting things to start and exciting things to end, and sometimes it is the work of keeping them going that is far more difficult to deal with.

As the hon. Lady said, there are many campaigns for elements or aspects of the curriculum that could come under PSHE; hon. Members have argued strongly for their inclusion in PSHE. However, it is also important that we do not take those elements and put them in some sort of silo and say that this is something that we tuck into a corner of the curriculum and forget about. Those elements must also inform what goes on in education as a whole.

Is not the point about the situation now that PSHE is precisely tucked into a silo of science? The only part that pupils are required to learn about in school is sexually transmitted infections and how to have sex, and that is a kind of advertising manual rather than a proper sex and relationship education that might enable, for instance, girls to have so much self-worth that they want to delay their first sexual experience and that might bring boys into the equation, so that they understand that sex is not only a recreation but might also be part of a strong and fulfilling relationship.

Absolutely. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, although boys, too, might well want to delay their first sexual experience, rather than just girls. I think that we sometimes get caught up in a “boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus” view, and there is a difference in the way that we deal with the two. In fact, I think that a lot of the issues, concerns and disquiet that young people might have about some of these issues will be shared by both boys and girls.

Of course, as the hon. Lady said they are also issues about drug and alcohol abuse, as well as strategies for managing and dealing with exposure to drugs and alcohol. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) made a point about how campaigns, such as those on drink-driving, have been successful in the past. General issues of mental health and well-being are incredibly important, too. As the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) said, sometimes some of these things are incredibly important to young people in their development but difficult for them to express and engage with. They carry those feelings around with them day to day, but they find it difficult to confront them. In extreme cases, that can lead to self-harm or suicide. In other cases, it can undermine academic performance, social interaction and all sorts of other things, so it is crucial that the issue is explored.

We need to look at strategies for bringing relationship education out of its silo, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) agreed. Save the Children’s Families and Schools Together programme takes relationship education out of the classroom and deals with building relationships in families as well. We talk about early intervention, and the earliest intervention would be to get to people and give them the skills in parenting and dealing with their own emotional growth before they become parents. However, some people have already been through education, and it failed to provide such things. We need to look at schools as a way to engage with such people to give them skills as parents, to reinforce all the good things that they do and to share that experience. Save the Children’s programme is a successful way to do that.

Relationship education must be taught effectively, and the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South was right to mention the questions that have been raised about that. As the coalition Government consider the information that they have received through consultation and how they might advance relationship education, I hope that they will focus on that. They have set out their determination to increase the quality of the teaching available, and this important issue must not be dealt with simply as something that teachers pick up to fill their timetable; it must be something people have the skills to deliver effectively.

Teaching should be reinforced through interaction across the curriculum. The hon. Member for Rhondda talked about the science connection, and other hon. Members have talked about their determination to see more done on financial literacy and financial education, so there are tie-ups with maths, business and so on. By reinforcing such messages across the curriculum, we can make them much more powerful, and we can use the skills of teachers in other disciplines to ensure that those messages are worked on and delivered effectively. As I say, we can also use schools as a way to reach out into families and reinforce what goes on in them.

The coalition Government have not tackled this issue by moving on a prescriptive curriculum or by micro-managing what goes on in the classroom. However, it is important to Members on both sides that the issue is pursued and that the Government have a grasp on it to make sure that we deliver it effectively. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the debate in that spirit.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this important debate. She clearly set out why PSHE is so important. I am pleased to contribute to the debate, because I have a long-standing interest in the issue.

As a Minister in the previous Government, I took through the provisions to introduce PSHE as a statutory part of the national curriculum. It was hugely disappointing that, although the Liberal Democrats supported the Labour Government, the Conservative party declined to support the proposals introduced in 2010 and scuppered them in the wash-up, so preventing them from becoming law. It was striking that the Conservative party failed to engage with the overwhelming evidence that high-quality PSHE needed to be taught, and taught by well-qualified, well-trained teachers, and that it needed to be given sufficient time in the curriculum. The Conservative party also failed to understand that most parents wanted relationship and sex education taught in schools. Young people themselves say that they want it taught, and that includes not just the practicalities of which bit of the anatomy goes where.

As we have heard, when the Government came into power, they published the schools White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, announcing the review of PSHE. The consultation was launched on 21 January 2011 and ended on 30 November 2011. We have been waiting 14 months to hear something from Ministers about their review, so last November I decided to ask them what was going on. I tabled a question asking the Secretary of State for Education

“on what date his Department’s review of personal, social health and education stopped receiving submissions; and when he plans to publish the results of that review.”

The Minister who is here today said:

“The public consultation phase of the internal review of…PSHE…ended in November 2011. The review will take account of the outcomes of the ongoing national curriculum review and we will publish conclusions in due course.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 369W.]

I wondered why it had taken the Department for Education so long to deal with the issue. What has been happening in the Department since November 2011? Perhaps Ministers wanted to listen further to expert groups in the field to fully understand and appreciate all the compelling evidence about PSHE. Perhaps Ministers have been having extensive meetings and further evidence-gathering sessions, so that they can give us the evidence-based policy decision making that they keep telling us they are so keen on.

I therefore thought that I would ask a few more questions. I asked the Secretary of State

“which groups he has met with to discuss relationship education in the latest period for which figures are available; and which groups he intends to meet for discussions on relationship education in the next 12 months.”

The Minister responded that the Secretary of State had met the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes)

“to discuss sex and relationship education on 8 February 2011. The Secretary of State has no such meetings planned in the next 12 months.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 69W.]

I was a bit worried by that.

I simply wanted to say, just so that the hon. Lady is clear, that the four of us requested the meeting, as opposed to being invited in.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State agreed to meet that small group of Conservative Members of Parliament and that there was a least one female Member of Parliament present, because the rest were all white men. There has been no mention of any other groups being invited in to meet a Minister. I thought the PSHE Association, the Churches, End Violence Against Women or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children might have been invited in to meet the Secretary of State, but no. A group of experts on violence against women and girls has been trying for some time to get a meeting with the Department to discuss the issue. Would the Minister agree to meet them to hear what they have to say on the role of PSHE in combating domestic violence?

My hon. Friend is making an important point. One thing that I think that she will agree is most concerning is the alarmingly large number of young boys and young girls who think that it is acceptable for a boy to hit a girl or to force her to have sex when she says she does not want to.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes the point very well.

Although Ministers have met none of the groups I thought they might have, extensive evaluations might have been going on of the education programmes available on PSHE. I therefore asked the Secretary of State another question:

“what lifeskills educational programmes (a) he and (b) his Department has evaluated.”

In response, the Minister said:

“This Department is in the process of assessing the strength of the evaluation of Botvin Life Skills Training Programme. Once completed, the assessment will be added to the Department’s open-access database of evaluations of programmes aimed at improving outcomes for young people.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 585W.]

There was therefore a little glimmer of hope, but there was no mention of one of the most successful, biggest and best-informed education programmes developed in the UK, the Good Behaviour Game. I therefore asked another question:

“what representations his Department has received on the effectiveness of the Good Behaviour Game as a lifeskills programme; and if he will commission a review of the effectiveness of the programme within the English curriculum.”

It is worth noting that, at first, the Department thought the Good Behaviour Game was about discipline and not that it was a life-skills programme. It worried me that it did not seem to know the difference. In response, the Minister said:

“The Department has not received any representations in respect of the effectiveness of the Good Behaviour Game as a lifeskills programme. The Government has no plans to commission a review of the effectiveness of this programme.”—[Official Report, 7 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 81W.]

The Department is obviously not spending a great deal of time looking at or evaluating educational life-skills programmes, so perhaps it is focusing on the individual components of PSHE. I therefore thought I would ask some questions about relationship education. I asked the Secretary of State

“what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of relationship education”—

this goes to the point that was just raised—

“in…combating violence against women and girls and…changing attitudes towards domestic violence; what evidence on these issues has been presented to his Department in the last five years; what plans he has to review any such evidence; and if he will make a statement.”

This answer was a little better. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), said:

“There is some evidence, such as Taylor et al 2010, showing that schools-based programmes can improve awareness, attitudes and knowledge of gender violence and harassment prevention. Relationship education can be provided by schools as part of…PSHE…It is for schools to determine what they teach on these issues”.—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 586W.]

The Minister went on to say that the Department was part of a cross-Government committee that looks at violence against women and girls and that it was “responsible for some actions”—he was not very specific—to deal with the issue. It therefore seems rather depressing that the Department accepts that relationship education can be effective in combating violence against women, but it seems to have no plans as to how that should be promoted.

What is the Department saying about alcohol? I asked the Secretary of State

“what assessment he has made of the role of alcohol education within the curriculum; what representations his Department has received on the nature and effectiveness of alcohol education; whether he plans to review such evidence; and what steps he intends to take to improve the quality and prevalence of alcohol education in schools.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 527W.]

The answer, which is quite shocking, is that the Department

“has not conducted a specific assessment of alcohol education within the curriculum.”

The answer continues:

“From April 2013 a new two-year contract will be in place to deliver information and advice to practitioners, including teachers, in the field of drug and alcohol education. It will build on the best of national and international practice”—

I do not know how the Department will do that, because it does not seem to evaluate anything—

“and ensure commissioners and practitioners understand the evidence-base and use programmes known to be effective.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 528W.]

Will the Minister tell us how that will happen and how it will fit with the drugs education forum? Its role was to bring together good practice from agencies, and it did that for the modest sum of £69,000, which was cut by the Government when they came into power and then hastily reinstated when they realised what a good job it did.

I turn to the PSHE review and drugs education—perhaps things will be better in relation to drugs. Again, I asked the Secretary of State what

“assessment he has made of the role of drugs education within the curriculum; what representations his Department has received on the nature and effectiveness of drugs education; whether he plans to review such evidence”.

The Minister replied:

“Pupils are currently taught about the negative physiological effects of drugs as part of the statutory National Curriculum Programmes of Study for science, and may also receive wider drugs education as part of non-statutory Personal, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 341W.]

It is disappointing that the Government do not seem to understand the importance of comprehensive drugs education in our schools. Drugs has cross-departmental reach, and I thought, perhaps naively, that much work was going on at that level. From another parliamentary question, however, I discovered that Education Ministers have attended the inter-ministerial group on drugs only four times out of 12. I also obtained the agendas for those meetings and, shockingly, drugs education has never been on the group’s agenda.

Was my hon. Friend able to ascertain through parliamentary questions whether the 66% failure to attend those meetings was down to authorised or unauthorised absences by Education Ministers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point that the Minister will perhaps address.

I am conscious that I have taken up quite a lot of time, but I am concerned that the Government, who have set up a review, seem to have failed to conduct it properly. Although I am sure that all hon. Members recognise the importance of PSHE and life skills, the Government need some lessons in how to govern effectively and how to review evidence and to make decisions based on that evidence.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this important debate. I share many of her concerns and views, particularly her points about teenage pregnancies and the health outcomes for both mother and baby. With those in mind, I set up a cross-party inquiry into unplanned pregnancies at the end of last year, which was supported by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), who is present. We decided to look at whether we could establish the consequences of the level of teenage pregnancies in this country.

As a reminder, Britain has the highest level of teenage pregnancies in western Europe and is second only to America in the western world. It is five times the rate of the Netherlands and twice the rate of Germany and France. I pay tribute to the previous Government for the enormous effort that they put into the teenage pregnancy strategy from 1999 to 2010. They set out to reduce the level of teenage pregnancies by 50% and reduced the conception rate by 25%. It was a great achievement, but it was obviously not enough, and we remain at the top of this sin league of teenage pregnancies, with the accompanying bad health outcomes.

In the inquiry, we set out to examine the possible causes of teenage pregnancies and what recommendations we could make to the Government.

We looked at the figures for under-19s. In fact, the figure for under-16s is extremely low. We mainly examined the figures for those aged 16 to 19.

We had a genuinely open mind towards our inquiry. It was public, with several groups giving evidence. We thought that one of the causes might be access to contraception, but we found that relationship education was absolutely the key missing part. Let us not forget the men. Let us not think, perhaps like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), that the issue is more about men than women or women than men. The issue is about society.

Or both, as was just helpfully said.

We must include the whole of society in this important social problem. We found that sex education is pretty good. The young people that we spoke to know about contraception and how to get pregnant, but they do not know why not to get pregnant or about the emotional confidence they need.

There is some confusion around sex education. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is right that sex education is compulsory as part of biology. It is compulsory for schools to have a sex and relationship education strategy, but it is not compulsory for them actually to teach it. It is compulsory to have some elements of HIV and sexually transmitted infections within PSHE education, but the crucial aspect of relationship education is apparently not included.

There is a particular problem here. I made a lengthy report into teenage pregnancy a few years ago, as it is one of the major causes of poverty in my constituency. One problem is that because the legal requirement focuses on sexually transmitted infections, much of sex education in this country focuses on the use of condoms only. Condoms are notoriously ill-used when one is blotto at 11.30 pm on a Friday and that is one reason why we have a much higher rate of teenage pregnancies in this country, whereas other countries that teach the double-Dutch method of using two forms of contraception are far more successful.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. There is the Pearl index, which I am sure he knows about, which assesses the effectiveness of contraception. In the age group that we examined, condoms have an effectiveness rate of something like 70% to 80%; so perhaps another reason why there should be some form of relationship education is that, as we know, drink unfortunately plays a large part in whether young people will use the right form of contraception.

We took evidence from various groups as part of our inquiry. One of the most telling statements was from a gentleman from Brook, who said that aspiration is the best form of contraception. The whole context of aspiration and where children want to go with their lives is important and should be included in PSHE.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We took some interesting evidence from Simon Blake of Brook, whose participation was helpful. That point about aspiration and ambition was echoed by the group of young people from the Respond Academy—a youth group from Hastings led by JC McFee—that the hon. Lady and I interviewed in the evidence session. They said that they need some form of guidance and relationship education. They need the reasons not to get pregnant, and they need help with forming relationships.

Certain people object to that, and their objections are on two fronts. First, they say that if relationship education is entered into, at some point a judgment will be made. They ask, “Is it right for the Government to be involved in judgments about when, or whether, young people should have sex?” We must respond by saying, “Of course it is right. We are the adults. Every mother and father knows that we need to help our young people in making such decisions.” No one wants young people having sex before they are ready for it. They need help and emotional guidance, and we must address that need. That objection is one that we just need to take on.

The second objection is, “Is it for schools to do this? Is it not for the families?” I have received some such objections, and my response is, “We have to deal with the world in which we find ourselves.” Of course we would prefer it if parents were able to give the education to their children, but in a world in which young people are saying, “We need help and guidance,” it is incumbent on us as the Government to say to them, “We need to respond to that.” If young people are not getting the help and guidance from their families, we must ensure that they get it from some other place, and that could be in schools.

My hon. Friend makes a critically important point. Does she agree, however, that even in the ideal situation in which parents are willing to give such support to their children, and are also capable of doing so, that might not be what the children want? I am the mother of a 14-year-old girl who would rather receive impartial advice from a teacher than get such support from only me.

I agree, and I think that my hon. Friend’s 14-year-old daughter is fortunate in having a mother who is able to enter into some such discussions with her. We were particularly concerned about the young people who said, “I don’t have family support at all.” Children who are vulnerable, including those who have been in care, are the ones who are saying to us most loudly, “We have no family support. In that absence, who is going to help us? There is a gap in our lives.”

A question that does come up, though, is whether this should be dictated from the centre or whether, as well as encouraging parents to have the discussions, we allow governing bodies to make choices. The situation might differ from school to school, with different communities and different principles.

That is certainly something that the Government and the Department should consider. Different schools have different ethoses and different values—some are Church schools, for example—and it is perfectly reasonable for schools with different attitudes, values and religions to have different approaches. My plea, however, is that they have an approach, and in too many cases they simply do not. We must ensure, therefore, that, as has been said, teachers have the proper training to give the good relationship guidance that is so important.

As it is looking less and less likely that there will be enough time for me to speak, I just want to say that one of the problems with the workload agreement, which the previous Government introduced for very good reasons, is that in many schools PSHE lessons are not delivered by trained teachers but by teaching assistants.

I understand that training in citizenship, which is a compulsory part of PSHE, is popular with teachers and is receiving proper training attention from them.

Briefly, as I want to give other Members a chance to speak, I want to say that there are many ways in which the Department could approach this matter. Citizenship is already a compulsory part of PSHE. What greater gift for our young people, and how better to make them the best citizens we can, than to make them emotionally secure and confident young men and women, able to develop their own relationships? If we do not do that, we let our young people down.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on bringing this matter to the Chamber. I want to concentrate on a couple of health education issues in particular. I spoke to the hon. Lady before the debate and mentioned some of my concerns about sex education, and I want to speak about sex education in primary schools.

I well remember being taught, or given—taught is perhaps too strong a word—the essentials in secondary school by a teacher. We were all uncertain about what was going on, but at 14 we were old enough to understand and have an appropriate attitude. I look at my granddaughter who has started nursery school and will start primary school in September, and I am aware that some people are suggesting that sex education should be introduced at primary school level, to five-year-olds. That is unrealistic and unfair, and it destroys innocence.

The Christian Institute says that material for children as young as five has been slammed by a leading academic. When I first heard that I wondered if it was true, and I was concerned that there was an attitude that sex education at primary school should be suggested as part of the thesis. Professor Brenda Almond of the Christian Institute says that most five-year-olds have no interest in matters to do with sex and

“wouldn’t even recognise the word”.

I believe that that is the case, and that many people in this Chamber would echo that opinion. Professor Almond also refers to a “worrying new investigation”, conducted by the Christian Institute. Commenting on sexual education material, she warns about

“comic-book-style pictures of different sexual positions”,

and activities, and explanations of the differences between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Her conclusion was clear:

“For five-year-olds! So much for an age of innocence”,

and I would say that too. To introduce sex education at primary school level to children of that age would be ludicrous and very unwise.

I have a lot of sympathy with the way in which the hon. Gentleman is framing his argument, but does he not agree that no one is proposing that we should start to teach the biological sexual elements of relationships to five-year olds? All relationship education should be completely age-appropriate, so a five-year-old would learn about friendships and loyalty—

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. Obviously, we have different opinions. I am clear about what I have stated and about the evidence that I have, which shows that there is an inclination among some teachers and from some education authorities to introduce such education at this early age. That is wrong, unfair, unwise and unrealistic, and the evidence that has been presented to me and of which I am aware backs that up. I would not want to see my granddaughter, or anyone’s granddaughter, being introduced to such material.

Professor Almond has clearly pointed out the emotional damage that graphic sex education could be doing to many children, destroying the simplicity of childhood, and I would reiterate that point. We are all aware that children grow up at different speeds and in different ways, and the role of the parent is important, as many Members have mentioned. Sometimes parents abdicate their responsibility, but parents who want to be part of the process should be. In many cases, it is the parents who best know how the matters should be addressed, and their opinion should be very much part of that. Ministers certainly need to take on board parents’ opinions.

I believe that sex education needs to be taken out of primary schools altogether and the responsibility handed back to the parents. We all have different opinions about that, but in this House I have the right to express my opinion, and I do so, making it very clear—as you know, Mr Robertson. My opinion is based on the opinions of my constituents, and I represent my constituents to the best of my ability, in this House and elsewhere, ensuring that their opinions are well stated.

It is also my opinion that how a family unit is made up should not be taught at school as a one size fits all, but neither should it be that anything goes, while at home mum might have a different opinion. Religious beliefs must also be taken into account in the teaching, and I fear that schools are being asked by some bodies to take too much on and are in danger of usurping the parental role. The Government must take that into account in the review of sex education for younger children.

I will conclude, because I am conscious of the five minutes and that other people want to speak. I make my point again, very clearly: in primary schools, there should be no sex education; in secondary schools there should.

Thank you, Mr Robertson, for ensuring that, once again, my prediction did not come true.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles—[Interruption.]. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley)—it is all the wrong the side of the Pennines for me—on securing this debate on an important subject. I declare something of an interest, having previously been a secondary school teacher and having delivered PSHE and, indeed, the more general pastoral care that comes with being a form tutor.

I first came across PSHE when I was a pupil in the 1980s, when it was introduced as PSD, as I think we called it in my school. The problem from the start with PSD was that people did not really know what it was. I remember that it was delivered by my form tutor, who used to say that PSD was a waste of time for all of us and that it was an opportunity for us to catch up on homework and for him to carry on doing his paintings—he was an art teacher, so that was acceptable. We were not delivered a great deal, apart from photocopied sheets on various subjects that took about five minutes out of a half-hour or 45-minute lesson.

PSHE has had an image problem from the start; indeed, there is still a problem today. I chaired last year’s inquiry by the all-party group on financial education for young people, and we took evidence from young people themselves. We invited them into an evidence session, and one of the questions I asked was, “What is your perception of PSHE?” to which one of the kids—sorry, that is a very local way of describing young people—described PSHE as a bit of a doss. That is still the perception in some schools, because it is delivered variously across the country.

There are some good and some bad examples. Part of that comes down to schools being under competing pressures. A challenging school might be so busy trying to work its way up the league tables and to address all the other problems that come with teaching in a challenging environment that, sometimes, things such as PSHE fall by the wayside and are not a particular priority because they are not examined. Unless something is examined or contributes to a school’s performance in the league table, focus naturally goes elsewhere.

I do not particularly remember the PSHE element of my postgraduate certificate in education, so I concur with some of the points about teacher training.

I noted the speech of my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who made a couple of political points, and I will respond with a couple of political points. First, due to the workload agreement, PSHE was hived off to teaching assistants. At one school I taught at in her constituency, PSHE was hived off to cover supervisors.

Secondly, teaching and learning responsibility was added in to the pay scale, meaning that teachers received extra salary for teaching and learning responsibilities, not pastoral responsibilities. In many schools, pastoral responsibilities were removed altogether from classroom teachers. Teachers lost their form classes and no longer had a registration group, which meant they no longer taught PSHE. So PSHE and the pastoral side ended up being delivered by people who were not qualified or trained teachers. I have some pretty bad examples of that because, to protect my classroom, I used to sit in on a PSHE lesson delivered by a teaching assistant while I did my planning. I have some horror stories, which I will not go into today, of how that was delivered.

We must recognise that the pastoral side of being a teacher is much more than just delivering PSHE. We also need to understand that many of the issues that we are addressing today will come out at other times in the school curriculum; they will come out just because a schoolteacher is there and is around school. Kids come in to speak to teachers at the end of the day. We also need to understand that, beyond PSHE, schools take on board many other projects. We used to have a whole-day “Prison! Me! No Way!” programme to which the whole school was committed. Similarly, we had our own teenage pregnancy programme.

I have only a minute left, and perhaps not even that, but I want to make two pitches. First, this is an important debate and there is a position in the curriculum for such teaching. One of the all-party group’s proposals was to make financial education cross-curricular, linking with maths, and we could do that with other areas of the PSHE curriculum. That would increase the value of PSHE in schools by helping to support other parts of the curriculum. We produced a list of recommendations on financial education and met the Minister to discuss them.

Secondly, a constituent of mine, Susan Eastwood, produced a book on employability skills, which she wants to see delivered in schools because she feels many schools are failing to deliver them. I will end there, despite having a great deal more to say.

As parents, we want our children to be educated not only to achieve academic qualifications and skills but to make good choices in their personal relationships and lives.

Recent scandals, including the Rochdale and Jimmy Savile cases, have horrified people, but behind those scandals, and in other similar cases, we see the same picture. We find that sexual predators felt free to operate, partly because of institutional and cultural attitudes, whether in the BBC, the Church or agencies that were supposed to be protecting children, while children were left feeling powerless to complain. To meet that challenge we need a big cultural change in this country to protect the children of the future. One of the ways we can help to do that is with good compulsory PSHE in schools. The knowledge that PSHE gives children will help to prevent further Rochdale and Jimmy Savile scandals.

As well as giving children the knowledge to make better choices about their personal lives, PSHE gives them the knowledge to protect themselves against inappropriate relationships, whether from their peers or adults, and the confidence to speak out. Quite rightly, cases such as those of Rochdale and Jimmy Savile have led to strong public revulsion that such things happened to our children, and there is a public mood to ensure that we do all we can to stop it happening again. We must not miss this moment by downgrading PSHE in schools. I support the calls for PSHE to be made a compulsory part of the curriculum.

Schools have a critical role in keeping children safe by talking to them about issues such as sexual consent, sexual coercion and exploitation, and how to shape healthy relationships and respect for each other, as well as alerting children to signs of when they are being sexually groomed. The focus needs to be on both boys and girls. Boys need to be supported to form positive and respectful attitudes to girls, especially to counter the widespread availability of pornography—a point stressed by the recent cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancies.

Compulsory sex and relationship education in schools would give more children the confidence to speak out and reject inappropriate relationships—not only grooming by older men for sexual exploitation, but sexually coercive relationships with their peers. The issue of what constitutes sexual consent is important. Many boys watch pornographic sites in which there is often a violent element to sexual relationships, and it is not clear that they understand the nature of consent.

I pointed out in a recent Commons debate that one third of all 16 to 18-year-old girls have experienced groping or unwanted sexual touching in schools. In 2009, a Home Office opinion poll on violence against women revealed that one in five people think it is acceptable in certain circumstances for a man to hit or slap his female partner in public in response to her being dressed in sexy or revealing clothing.

I know the Government have indicated that they do not want to make PSHE statutory, but the problem with not doing so is that our children are subject to a random postcode lottery. Schools in some areas, like my own in Stockport, are delivering high-quality PSHE and sex and relationship education, but others, sadly, are not. Such education should be available to all children in all schools.

It is now a year since the PSHE consultation closed, and the ongoing uncertainty, alongside the Government’s commitment to drive through the English baccalaureate, holds massive risks for the teaching of PSHE in schools. Evidence is emerging that important subjects that are not part of the baccalaureate are being squeezed out of the curriculum, which is worrying. A 2011 survey of 2,500 teachers by the NASUWT revealed that 43% of schools had axed or severely reduced provision of some subject areas as a result of the new baccalaureate. A reduction in the provision of art, music, religious education, citizenship and drama was reported, with an 11% decline reported in planned PSHE provision.

The proposed cut to PSHE provision could not come at a worse time, and not only for keeping our children safe, which is my main concern. We need a more holistic approach to education. Of course it is right that children achieve academic qualifications such as the English baccalaureate, but they also need to be given the knowledge to meet the challenges of an increasingly complex, global and risky world. We need to prepare children for the realities they will face. Most importantly, we need to give them the knowledge to keep themselves safe and healthy.

What is the value of a child getting a top English baccalaureate if he or she cannot recognise when they are being sexually groomed or bullied and are unable confidently to make good personal relationships? PSHE helps young people to cope with that world and will increase their confidence in being able to deal with it. Constructive and important work is already being done in many schools. The more information that children and young people receive in schools to prepare them for the world that they face, the better, but it is not being done everywhere, and it should be. The situation must not be allowed to get worse because of the move to a new baccalaureate that squeezes out all but core subjects.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this debate. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on body image, I will speak briefly on some of the issues that we encountered during an inquiry that started in November 2011, and I will focus on why we have called for compulsory teaching on body image as part of personal, social, health and economic education. I was not surprised to hear references to financial education; in fact, I am a little surprised that other members of all-party groups have not made more pitches explaining why the groups in which they are involved have a particular role to play in PSHE. I will focus on some of the findings of our inquiry and the role of body image as a building block for encouraging young people to develop the self-confidence and self-worth that enables them to establish and sustain relationships that help them go on to become healthy, happy and secure adults.

We took evidence from a range of experts and from young people. One thing that surprised me was evidence that children as young as five had a sense of their body image and how they might appear different from others. Just because they are different does not mean that they have less value or worth, and trying to instil that in very young children is an important part of PSHE. That is evidence in support of discussing body image with children of primary age. Sadly, one piece of evidence that we took was that children can develop a negative self-image from their own parents. It is evidence that we need an independent forum away from the home, where children can discuss such issues and learn to talk about them with confidence and a sense of security.

We certainly took evidence that when it comes to PSHE teaching on body image, quality teaching is necessary. It is difficult for somebody who does not feel confident themselves to teach confidence to young people. I endorse the calls for good training. It is important that our teachers are given the teaching tools and support that they need to convey that message in the classroom, and it is important that they be evaluated. Evidence was given that PSHE taught in the wrong way can do more harm than good. We need quality, evaluated teaching.

I am painfully aware that PSHE is a crowded space. It is not given a large slot in the timetable, but we have heard in this debate about drug abuse, alcohol misuse and sexual relationships; I am here to talk about body image, and there is also financial education. That is a massive range of subjects, but all of them lead to our young people going out into the world as happy, healthy, rounded individuals, which is critical.

I endorse to an extent the calls by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is no longer in her place, for flexibility within schools. I have done a significant amount of work on eating disorders, and I know from my constituency that I can talk about eating disorders at one school where it is a problem, yet in one of the other secondary schools in my constituency, there is far more focus on obesity and lack of physical activity. Education must be adaptable to schools’ particular circumstances. Good teachers, head teachers and governing bodies could have the ability to adapt.

This might sound a little controversial coming from my party, but I endorse the comment about sending out children with more than exam passes. It is critical that in addition to being able to read, write and do arithmetic, our children are sent out into the world as rounded individuals. I have said it before: we need them to be healthy—

Does my hon. Friend agree that the world is much more complicated now? We have talked about sexual education, although we have not really talked about financial education. There are so many pressures on children leaving school that they should have a better-rounded education. It is not all about certificates and exams.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says. It is not just about exams; it is about more than that, and we fail our children if we do not send them out into the world as happy, confident individuals.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this debate. Teenage pregnancy is one of the biggest and most complex issues that Members from all parties want to address. The figures for this country rose dramatically during the Thatcher years and then fell somewhat, although not as far as we wanted, under Labour Governments. The fact remains, as has been said, that our figures are five times higher than in the Netherlands, three times higher than in France and twice as high as in Germany. The single biggest policy difference between those countries and ours in relation to young people is the quality of sex and relationship education. I believe that we in this country have made things worse by insisting that children must learn about sexually transmitted infections and the physical, biological aspects of how to have sex, rather than placing those in the wider context of self-development and issues of growing up as a young person.

Teenage pregnancy matters because many teenage mums go on to be the mums of teenage mums. Indeed, many girls who have babies when they are under 16 end up having another baby before they are 20. Many of the daughters of mums who gave birth at age 18 or 19 end up giving birth at the age of 15 or 16. I have met girls from my constituency who have given birth at the age of 14 or 15. While that continues, nobody can say to me that we as a country are serving those children well.

Motherhood becomes a career for some young girls because they do not have enough self-worth or believe that they are valued at home or at school, and they think that a baby might provide them with unconditional love. I do not believe some of the mythology about girls getting pregnant so as to have flats; there is simply no evidence for it. The vast majority of teenage mums live with their parents or other family members. However, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown, there is evidence that girls choose motherhood almost as a career in self-worth. That is what we need to address.

It is true that sex and relationship education, as all Members have said, is patchy in both England and Wales. Not only the Ofsted reports on England but the Estyn reports on Wales have said exactly the same things: large numbers of schools have a policy but do not implement it, or have teachers who are theoretically meant to be engaging in sex and relationship education but feel that they are not up to the job or are not doing a very good job. Numerous children who respond in surveys say, “I wish we’d had better sex and relationship education. I know how to do it, but I don’t know how to not do it.” Again, I think that we are failing them. That is partly because all too often, we start far too late. Girls get to their first period without realising what is happening to their bodies. What will that do to their sense of self-worth as they grow up? Often, parents are far too terrified to talk about such issues with their children, or children are far too terrified—[Interruption.] I would certainly be terrified of having sex education from the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) if she were my mother. Children are often terrified of addressing the issues with their parents.

The value of good sex and relationship education, if it starts early enough and instils a sense of self-worth, is that it almost certainly leads young people to have less risky sex, to take fewer risks in their lives and, if they do take risks, to do so knowingly. Most importantly, it probably delays their first sexual encounter. If we could change all that, we could probably change the pattern of poverty in this country. The map of teenage pregnancy is the map of poverty. It means that poverty in this country is more handed down from generation to generation than wealth. That is why I want to change things.

I also hope that we might be able to do something about homophobic bullying in schools. Diversity Role Models, a charity of which my partner is a trustee, does a great job of trying to stop it, which is important because a young gay boy is six times more likely to commit suicide than anybody else.

Finally, such education must be mandatorily, statutorily, compulsorily provided across the whole country; otherwise, schools will not invest, local education authorities will not ensure that the quality of the teaching is good enough and we will fail our children. I say that not only to this Minister, who has responsibility for England—I hope that she will reply expressly to this issue—but to my colleague in Wales, because I believe that we need to do exactly the same in Wales as in England.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this important debate. She told us about teenage pregnancy in Salford and reminded us that a move to make PSHE statutory before the last election was blocked by the Conservative party during the wash-up. That was a shame. Perhaps Back-Bench Members from whom we have heard today could exert some pressure to reverse that position.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said that there were not many positive images of long-term relationships on television. I used to be a fan of “Coronation Street” and always thought that Jack and Vera Duckworth or Hilda and Stan Ogden were wonderful role models. I do not have enough time to watch any soap operas these days, so I am not sure what is going on. I think it has got much more sensationalist since my day.

Yes, I had heard. But those were long-term successful relationships.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) highlighted the Government’s lack of activity and, in doing so, highlighted the great deal of activity that she has put into this subject. I will say more about that later.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)—the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, no less—spoke with great passion and conviction, as always, on this subject. I congratulate her on the cross-party work that she has done on this subject, which she has got across recently in the media. She said that teenage pregnancy under 16 was low. I know, from the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South in Salford, that figures for teenagers above 16 range from a low of 216 to 250, whereas for the under-16s it ranges from 37 to 51. It can be as high as 20% in some areas. Although I take the hon. Lady’s point, I would not describe it as very low: 20% is a worryingly high proportion.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke with conviction, although perhaps his view is not shared by the majority of hon. Members present. Age-appropriateness is the issue here. I think all of us can agree that sex and relationships education should be delivered in that way. I appeal to him for clear evidence and actual, practical examples of where he thinks abuse of this provision is taking place, because it is important that this debate happens in the light of evidence.

In the 1980s, ill-conceived media coverage and ill-conceived views expressed about what was being taught to children led to section 28. I was a teacher at that time and a colleague, who was a gay man, had to keep his sexuality hidden because of the consequences of section 28, which was based on unsubstantiated rumours that what was being taught in our schools was promoting homosexuality.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about age-appropriateness, but does he agree that it is appropriate that the value judgments of many people in the regions of the United Kingdom, particularly parents, about how children should receive sex education should also be borne in mind?

I agree that it is a devolved matter and should be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly, although I hold to my remarks about age-appropriate education.

The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) brought his experience as a teacher into the debate. He said that he was a pupil when PSHE was first introduced. At that time, I was a teacher. Some may find that hard to believe, but it is true. He also mentioned that his art teacher did not take it seriously. Art teachers are probably an endangered species these days. However, the hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of pastoral care. Hon. Members should not forget that teaching and learning responsibilities were rewarded with extra money and that was the first time in many years that pastoral care had ever been there, and that points were available on the teachers’ scale for it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) spoke with expertise. I congratulate her on her long-running campaign on safeguarding. Her points about the nature of consent, and the importance of teaching that to boys, were well made, as were the points made by the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), whom I did not find terrifying, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) did. I found the hon. Lady’s remarks about body image persuasive. She made a good point about parents sometimes reinforcing body image issues. It is important that children have another source from which to gain confidence to combat that. I agree strongly with her remarks about education being more than just examination passes.

My nearish neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, made points about teenage pregnancy that he has been making for many years, campaigning on the issue. He made an important point about unconditional love.

One general observation about the debate is that lots of hon. Members are reluctant, sometimes, to call for things to be made statutory and compulsory. I am, too. But there has to be a transmission mechanism for things to happen. I am afraid that despite the Government’s simply saying, “It would be quite nice if it does happen,” it does not work that way. Over time, we will find out—provided that this is one accountability measure that the Government do not change to hide the impact of their policies—that PSHE will not get better unless there is a serious attempt to get schools to do it. Only statutory provision will make a real difference.

As hon. Members have said, the Department for Education carried out a review on PSHE, a response to which we await with bated breath. The consultation finished on 20 November 2011, not 2012. Any young person with a good sex and relationships education will be able to tell hon. Members that the typical gestation period for a human being is nine months. However, the gestation period of this consultation most resembles that of the elephant, which is 20 months, and we are fast approaching that point. We are eager with anticipation—I was going to say “pregnant,” but I will not—to see when this will come about.

Will the Minister tell us directly when she will deliver the Government’s promised position? When she does, I should not like her to do that in the way in which she answered parliamentary questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North, which was the equivalent of what Lloyd George called the perfect parliamentary answer. He was once driving in north Wales and stopped to ask directions of a Welsh farmer, asking, “Where am I?” The farmer answered, “You’re in your car.” Lloyd George said that was the perfect parliamentary answer, because it was short, accurate and told him nothing he did not know already. The answers given by the Minister and her ministerial colleagues did that in respect of my hon. Friend’s questions, by saying, “some time later this year”. It is clear that the Government are hugely conflicted about PSHE. Essentially, the Secretary of State appears to think that it is all a waste of time, but he cannot bring himself to say that in those terms or authorise his Ministers to do so.

It is important to teach children essential skills, such as how to work in a team, what to do about their body changing and their body image, and how to develop good social, employability and financial skills and good relationships. It is symptomatic of the Government’s attitude that, at first, the Minister—she raised this matter in Business questions a few weeks ago—refused to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North and representatives from the PSHE community.

I give the Minister, who is a relatively new Member and Minister, a piece of advice. At first she will sit in her office, as all hon. Members who have been through this process have done, surrounded by civil servants, radiant with lawful power, feeling pleased with herself. However, she should not ignore requests from parliamentary colleagues of whatever political party, but agree to meet them, where it is a reasonable request on a subject that is within her ambit. If she allows civil servants to erect a wall of steel around her and gets trapped in her Department, she will regret it. She should read and answer parliamentary correspondence and attempt to give full answers to parliamentary questions that will inform the House and Ministers. There are good reasons to do that. First, doing that will make her a better Minister. Secondly, it is right that she welcomes scrutiny in our parliamentary democracy. Thirdly, Back Benchers have the tools at their disposal to make her life a misery if she does not follow those practices. I can see that her civil servants are listening, and they should listen carefully. She should agree to reasonable meetings and answer questions and correspondence promptly. The Department has a poor record on that.

It is not just policy makers and stakeholders who are joining the call for more robust PSHE. A new report called “A new conversation with parents” by Pearson and Family Lives, has shown that parents also want this to happen. It is clear that the knowledge that comes along with PSHE does not need to be cut or ignored. The Government should not have the cavalier attitude that they appear to have. Let us have a clear and unequivocal statement from the Minister on why we have heard nothing from her and her colleagues on the subject over such a lengthy period and why the Government, in not responding, are undermining good-quality PSHE in our schools.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing the debate and I congratulate so many Members on their contributions. The number of Members who have turned up and spoken with such passion demonstrates the issue’s importance to Members of Parliament. I may not be able to give them all the answers that they were looking for this morning, but I hope to set out the Government position. We have had some interesting comments about the details of situations in their constituencies, and I assure them that I will take into account what they have said today and feed it into the Government review. As the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) knows, I am holding a series of meetings on the subject.

The Government believe that all young people should have access to a high-quality, rounded education in personal, social, health and economic issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) asked about sex education as a requirement, and the current statutory guidance makes it clear that this involves teaching about relationships and parenthood and teaching girls and boys. That is the requirement for schools in teaching sex education, so it is already set out and on the statute books. The guidance for sex and relationship education also provides for pupils to be taught about how the law is applied.

There have been some interesting comments about susceptibility to domestic violence and violence against women and girls, and that is part of the current statutory guidance. Hon. Members alluded to the Home Office-led, cross-Government violence against women and girls group, which continues to draw attention to the issue. The Minister who sits on that group is the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who represents the Department. Our position, therefore, is that guidance to schools on sex and relationship education covers those matters and applies the relevant laws.

Hon. Members have pointed out, with a number of comments on the time scale, that the Government review of PSHE education has been extended. Our issue is to make it work with our review of the national curriculum, for which hon. Members will not have to wait much longer. Those two elements need to work together. Our fundamental belief is that the national curriculum should give schools more flexibility to teach in a way that is suited to their pupils and to how the school operates. As I have mentioned, we have statutory sex education, but we believe in more local autonomy in how things are achieved, so that they are done in the best possible way.

Does the Minister believe that such flexibility should be extended so far as to allow that education to be patchy or non-existent? That is the lesson from the many hon. Members who have spoken. We have said in all our contributions that we do not want such education to be non-existent, pathetic or patchy in our schools, in my authority or any other. Does flexibility go that far? If it does, we have an issue.

No. We want schools to offer a rounded education, but we believe the best way to do that is to allow more decision making by head teachers, rather than by Whitehall.

I want to respond to some of the points made on financial education and to explain how it works with our national curriculum review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned, we are incorporating more financial education into the mathematics curriculum, such as understanding money, compound interest rates, loan repayments and applying percentages or ratios. That is a practical reason why the PSHE review has to interface properly with the national curriculum one. We are opening up the new published national curriculum for review, so I hope that Members will be able to comment on how it relates to what they have asked for in the PSHE curriculum.

Drugs education was also mentioned by hon. Members. Our focus is to ensure that schools and local commissioners understand which programmes have a genuinely positive effect. To support that, we have asked the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions to develop an open-access database of evaluations of programmes and interventions that have robust evidence of impact outcomes for young people, including on substance misuse. I can provide a link to the information in place.

I have outlined how I think that more teachers should be empowered to decide the content of the wider school curriculum. International evidence shows that giving schools more autonomy results in them being able to make better decisions on the ground. The same applies to teacher training, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South. We are clear that teachers should be free to access high-quality resources and training, such as that provided by the British Heart Foundation on life-saving skills. It is a two-way process, with professionals in schools in regular dialogue with outside bodies, as well as the Government, rather than one with edicts issued from Whitehall about how exactly subjects should be taught.

I accept what the Minister says about empowering schools to adapt things to local circumstances; but clearly, head teachers and governing bodies act within a framework of accountability, including league tables and so on. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) pointed out, those academic scores are a focus for schools—in particular, for schools in challenging areas—whereas dealing with some of the issues that young people face could unlock their potential and help them in their academic lives. As well as looking at the curriculum, can the Government do something to incentivise good teaching, by rewarding it in how schools are judged?

We are currently reviewing the accountability system and will shortly have some proposals, as well as having the PSHE review, so such things are under consideration. I am meeting organisations and hon. Members from all parts of the House about those various elements.

That is the second time that the Minister has mentioned meetings, and she is talking about meeting Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), however, made the point that the Minister is not meeting organisations such as the PSHE Association, which clearly has a vital role, or many other organisations. Furthermore, she is not meeting Opposition Members. Will she start to throw open her meetings to a much wider group, such as those who are interested today? Will she meet more groups and Members from all parts of the House?

I have met both Government and Opposition Members on matters pertaining to PSHE, and I have met various organisations. As hon. Members have alluded to, quite a few organisations deal with the various issues across PSHE, and I am certainly willing to engage with Members—I am keen to do that, and I have already had a series of meetings. I am also happy to respond to a parliamentary question or to write to the hon. Lady about which organisations and Members I have met. Perhaps she was referring to the previous Minister—I am not sure.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for raising body image, which is another important issue. Giving schools more autonomy will enable them to teach what is relevant to them. She mentioned that different aspects of the body image issue might be important in different parts of her constituency. Again, that demonstrates the need for more local decision making within a framework set out by the Government. That is what we are working on in the PSHE review, to follow our release of the national curriculum review. I am happy to engage with hon. Members on that.

I thank everyone for their contributions to today’s debate, which has been extremely helpful in informing my views, as a relatively new Minister, on important issues for Members of Parliament from in all parts of the House.

Local Government Procurement

As ever, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to have been granted this debate.

Local government procurement is becoming increasingly important, particularly in places such as my constituency, and I will refer to some of the work that is being done to support local businesses in my constituency during these harsh economic times, especially with the help of Tameside metropolitan borough council in its Tameside Works First initiative. It is also important nationally because almost £62 billion a year is spent through local government procurement, and that amount looks set to increase rapidly as spending cuts force councils to outsource even more services. Clearly, the way in which that money is spent can have a huge impact on the local economy, jobs and training, so we must ensure that we get it right. We must also ensure that, as well as working to obtain best value for money, councils do not overlook important benefits that could be secured through better procurement, particularly added benefits to the local economy.

A study by the Federation of Small Businesses shows that of every £1 spent in the local economy, 83p goes back into that economy. Social Enterprise UK asks:

“If £1 is spent on delivery of services, can that same £1 be used to also produce a wider benefit to the community?”

That is an interesting point, because investing in our local communities must almost certainly have a wider social benefit and positive effect on the same local area.

As ever, it is a pleasure to share with my hon. Friend the responsibility of representing Tameside in Parliament. He is always pressing its case. We know from experience in Tameside what a difference local councils can make. Does he agree that the Government’s attitude to local government funding and to local councils borders on contempt? The way we are going, we will soon lose any lever we have in managing our local economies through local authorities and helping to improve our constituents’ lives.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, because the impact of the local government settlement on a council such as Tameside has been nothing short of devastating. Projections show that coming years will be very difficult for Tameside and other boroughs if things do not improve substantially. That will involve not just the council’s own budget, but the wider local economy. The amount of money being taken out of areas like Tameside will have a devastating impact on the communities we represent.

I want to highlight some of the good work being done in my constituency. The importance of local procurement to support small and medium-sized enterprises is well known. Research in 2005 by the New Economics Foundation with Northumberland county council suggested that for every £1 of direct spending in the local economy, the total value, including indirect spend, equates to £1.76. At the start of the economic downturn, Tameside metropolitan borough council, one of two councils covering my constituency, introduced the Tameside Works First initiative to give more support to local companies and to help to boost the local economy. It was spearheaded by Councillor Keiran Quinn, then the cabinet member for economic development and now the executive leader of the council, precisely to provide support to local companies. Under that programme, specific capital projects and programmes were designated to be supplied locally when possible. At the same time, partner organisations were encouraged to sign up to a local procurement charter, committing themselves also to support a local supply chain.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Ours are neighbouring seats and we share some cross-constituency issues. Does he agree that, to help small local businesses, it is important to remove many parts of the bureaucratic process, such as pre-qualification questionnaires? Small businesses tell me that they must complete these big questionnaires, often for small orders.

I agree that a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy is often tied up with some contracts. Tameside council has tried to enable small local businesses, no doubt including businesses in the High Peak area, to access council contracts.

The hon. Gentleman will know that council structures in Northern Ireland are different from those on the mainland. Councils in my area have recently clustered together to help with the financial package for small businesses, procurement and bin collections and so on. Does he see any benefit in that?

I absolutely do see benefit in that type of clustering arrangement. We in Greater Manchester had the first statutory combined authority, covering all 10 metropolitan boroughs that make up the county of Greater Manchester. They are now working together on a statutory footing, including on some procurement issues, and providing huge savings for those local authorities. That sort of best practice could be rolled out across the United Kingdom.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he aware that, for some time, Scotland has had joint procurement under the Scotland Excel initiative, which is delivering sizeable savings for councils throughout Scotland and allowing local businesses to piggy-back on contracts?

My hon. Friend reiterates the point that joint working and joint procurement models can bring huge savings to the public purse and immense benefits for the local economy, whether in Scotland, Greater Manchester, Derbyshire, Cumbria, or Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He kindly mentioned Cumbria, where the central challenge in local procurement is how to support small local charities against big national providers. The procurement rules seem to make it difficult for small local Cumbrian charities, and even Carers UK and Mencap, to retain contracts that they have performed well for 20 years. They are being swept aside by huge national giants. Does the hon. Gentleman have any lessons from Greater Manchester on how to deal with procurement for local charities?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In his constituency and mine, excellent work is being done by not-for-profit organisations and charities to provide key public services. Given a level playing field, they can compete and often provide better services than the big players, but one problem with local government contracts has been that the big players can sweep up those contracts. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point and ensure that local councils can prioritise local charities and organisations to provide those services. There is often an added benefit in keeping them within an organisation that operates in the locality, because it keeps skills and some spending local.

During the first year of the Tameside Works First initiative, a total of £12 million of capital funding was invested in the local economy. In the second year, more than £13 million was invested in local companies via the Building Schools for the Future programme alone; that was delivered through its investment partner, Carillion. In line with most of local government across the country, particularly in metropolitan areas, since the 2010 spending review, the council’s capital programme has been vastly reduced. Continued austerity measures and Government proposals to localise business rates make it even more important that local companies receive the support they need to survive and grow, if we are to increase personal and economic resilience in places such as Tameside.

Let me put that into context. A total of £151.9 million was spent by Tameside council with external contractors in 2011-12, of which £35.3 million, or 23%, was spent with Tameside-based companies, and a further £27.6 million was spent via Carillion, which also uses local companies in its supply chain as part of the Tameside Works First initiative. As a result, the council’s spend on Tameside contractors has increased hugely, by almost 50% over the past three years, from £20.1 million in 2009-10, when the Tameside Works First initiative started. In addition to sums spent with external contractors, £9.5 million was spent in the local economy via Tameside council’s own direct services. All those combined are considerable amounts of money to keep in the local economy to support local businesses and jobs.

According to 2011-12 billing data, in that year alone Tameside council processed transactions with 12,000 external contractors, of which 5,593—almost half—were based in Tameside. Some £35.3 million was spent with those companies across 55,713 individual transactions, equating to an average transaction value of £634; the largest individual transaction value was just over £1 million. A total of 3,100 local suppliers received payments of up to £60,000, which requires either three quotes of up to £20,000, or three tenders between £20,000 and £60,000 before the contracts can be let. Many of those were smaller contracts, directly let to local companies. I think, for example, of the new park railings at Granada park in Denton: not only does the park look very smart, but that fairly small contract was a lifeline for the Denton blacksmiths, Anvil Masters, a few years back, because it helped the company to keep its head above water. We must not lose sight of the importance of those small contracts. We would do well to look at the very good work being done by the Tameside metropolitan borough council to see how a local council can actively support its community through very tough economic times.

In the short time left, I will focus on Stockport metropolitan borough council, which is the other council that I represent in my Denton and Reddish constituency, with Reddish North and Reddish South wards being in Stockport, of course. Sadly, the council has not been quite as proactive as Tameside in supporting the local economy. Stockport introduced an initiative called Stockport Boost. The frustrating thing for me is that the initiative seems gimmicky in nature, giving the appearance of helping local businesses and the local economy while actually doing very little. It speaks volumes that Stockport council won the local authority PR team of the year award in 2011 for the Stockport Boost campaign, which

“looked at ways to tackle the recession, providing businesses and residents with advice and support on how to cope during the year ahead.”

That is very laudable, and advice and support are fine, but on inspection it appears that Stockport council does not have a specific policy for prioritising local provision. In a recent response to a Labour party survey, the council said simply that it seeks to

“strive to look beyond the price of each tender at what the collective benefit to our economy and the environment would be.”

Warm words, but perhaps the council could learn a few lessons from the Tameside part of my constituency.

Of course, given the way in which the Stockport Liberal Democrats run the council, it is hardly a surprise that the council won the local authority PR team of the year, with little else to credit it with. It still has not identified £5.3 million of additional cuts that need to be included in the budget that will be set in the first week of March. Overall, from 2010-11 to 2015-16, the estimate is that nearly £80 million of budget reductions will need to be found in Stockport, but the council’s approach is entirely about keeping its head in the sand when it comes to local finance.

Clearly, taking £80 million out of a local economy will be hugely damaging, and I am almost certain that it will be my constituents in the Reddish area who will feel the swing of the axe the hardest, because the Liberal Democrat council has past form in choosing to focus many of its cuts on those areas of Stockport in which it has absolutely no political representation. It is worrying to me that by not supporting local communities, there is an inherent unfairness and a higher impact on more socially deprived areas such as Reddish and other communities, particularly in the north of Stockport.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once more. Does he agree that it is essential to encourage local businesses to register with their councils’ procurement departments at the earliest possible opportunity, so that up-and-coming contracts can be flagged up to them, prior to other tenders being submitted?

I agree absolutely.

Returning to the national picture, I would like to ask the Minister a number of questions, particularly on the wider issues that we have discussed today. The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 was intended to support local areas, but the Government do not seem to be supporting it as much as we would expect them to. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that councils are aware of that legislation and that they know how it could benefit them and their local economies?

European legislation has proven to be an issue, with many councils citing it as an obstacle preventing them from undertaking their preferred procurement policies. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has repeatedly spoken of that problem since the Government came into office, but has not done much about it. What steps are being taken to ensure that EU procurement law does not prevent local authorities from procuring in the best way for their area and their local objectives?

Some of the most innovative councils, such as Birmingham and Newcastle, have written social clauses into the majority of contracts to ensure that suppliers contribute towards meeting objectives such as reducing youth unemployment, taking on apprentices, or providing jobs for the long-term unemployed. Sadly, however, the Government are not taking enough action to support that approach. In his document, “50 ways to save”, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government suggests that councils do more to bring down the price of goods and services, combine back-office procurement functions and cut down on procurement fraud. I know that those ideas have largely gone down like a damp squib in local government. Nowhere does it mention the savings that can be made by taking a strategic approach to procurement that supports the local economy and local jobs, thus necessitating less spending in the future.

I commend to the Minister the good work of Labour-controlled Tameside council, which is using its sadly diminishing spending power to support local businesses, local jobs and the local economy in these tough times. I urge him to give serious consideration to the points I have made. Local government, even in these cash-strapped times, has a key role to play in economic support. I also urge him to take action on the wider obstacles to local government pursuing a more directed procurement policy. I look forward to his response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate. He is right; local authorities can be market shapers and are uniquely placed to support local jobs and business growth in their areas. They understand their local economies. They have links to local businesses and can work with both public sector and private sector partners to create the conditions for growth. Councils with planning powers can shape their local market, driving regeneration and growth. That will be increasingly important and advantageous for them with the new business rates retention scheme.

I will explain where I have a difference of opinion. We must ensure that we procure efficiently and effectively, and councils can decide to use the money locally as part of driving growth, but procurement is not about engineering their areas. Procurement should be about good procurement. I will come to that specifically in a moment. We have to trust councils, as part of localism, to get on with it and not be tempted, as central Government, to fix it for them or to direct them too far on how they spend money locally.

Councils are almost always one of the largest spenders and employers in their local economies. Local government as a whole holds assets worth more than £230 billion and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, last year spent about £60 billion on directly procuring goods and services. That is a substantial amount of money. Many local residents will take the view in relation to that £60 billion spend—this would be the same for any business—that if we can save just a couple of per cent, councils will be able to spend more money on front-line services. They must ensure that they use that money efficiently and effectively for local residents.

By making life easier for small local businesses to bid for and win council contracts, which the hon. Gentleman touched on, and by being cleverer about how they use their spending power, local authorities throughout the country can do more to stimulate local growth. The Government have taken significant steps to support councils to embrace their role as supporters of the local economy. We have introduced a number of reforms to free town halls from Whitehall bureaucracy and give them the tools to help with the difficult challenge of driving growth. We have done that by providing strong positive financial incentives for local authorities and communities to support and encourage local housing and business growth—for example, by allowing them to keep a share of business rates.

We have supported local enterprise partnerships. We have allocated £730 million to them to support local development. There is substantial planning reform to ensure that planning policy supports growth. We are providing greater financial flexibility locally, so that there is greater scope to support local economic growth. We are providing £1.4 billion of direct support through the regional growth fund. We have agreed city deals and announced Portas pilots to revive local high streets.

We are also taking a number of steps to support local authorities directly in using their spending power to support and boost local economies. For example, we have established the contracts finder portal and created simplified pre-qualification questionnaires, which are free for use by local authorities. Those make it easier and cheaper for small and medium-sized firms and the voluntary and community sectors to bid for public sector opportunities.

We have also taken steps to deal with the recognised commissioning skills deficit in local government. The commissioning academy will provide development on commissioning skills for up to 2,000 public sector employees over the next three years. That will be supplemented by the establishment of an online home for public sector commissioning expertise and learning, so providing all local authority officers with access to free learning materials on commissioning.

Clearly, central Government cannot deliver better hands-on local procurement. What we can do is create the right conditions by eliminating unnecessary red tape, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said, and by removing barriers to local innovation. It is for local authorities themselves to take the initiative in their local areas. The general power of competence in the Localism Act 2011 gives them far more power than they have ever had before to do just that. I look forward to more and more local authorities taking advantage of the opportunities that that general power gives them.

There are some very good examples out there. I want to touch on a few, including the local council of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. There are some very good examples specifically at Tameside metropolitan borough council, which has been particularly proactive in stimulating local procurement with Meet the Buyer events and initiatives such as the Tameside Business Family and Tameside Works First.

Hon. Members touched on Manchester more generally. The north-west procurement portal and supplier training events are also excellent examples of pooling procurement expertise and making it simpler for SMEs and local businesses to tender for public sector contracts. The result has been a widespread shift to more local procurement spending across the entire north-west. As hon. Members will know, Manchester city council has shifted 10% of its current spending from non-local suppliers to local suppliers, so generating many millions of pounds for the local economy.

Eleven local authorities and 11 other Hertfordshire-based public sector organisations have grouped together using the collective brand Supply Hertfordshire. A web portal advertises all contract opportunities for member organisations. That includes regular e-mail notification for suppliers.

Does the Minister agree that collaborative procurement offers not only savings, but greater opportunities to provide such information as contract monitoring?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Working together produces an awful lot of benefits; he is right about that. They include spreading best practice and being able to buy in a larger critical mass and therefore get a better purchase price.

There are many good examples out there. I have mentioned what Hertfordshire is doing with small and medium-sized businesses. Waveney district council has simplified its tender documents to encourage third sector organisations, as well as small businesses, to tender for contract opportunities. Its objective is to reduce the maximum time for suppliers to complete a tender response to one hour. That kind of practice makes life much easier for businesses that do not have the capacity to take on some of the larger tender documents that we have seen in the past. We need to make contract opportunities more accessible in such ways.

I again thank the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish for initiating the debate to give us all a chance, through the record of Hansard, to highlight to local authorities that want to take notice of what they could be doing. Their members can look at what other authorities are doing and challenge their officers to go further and faster on this journey.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister touch on the question raised about Cumbria and, indeed, the local charity question more widely? What could local authorities do to help procurement in relation to local charities against national charities?

My hon. Friend tempts me into allowing central Government to dictate to a local authority what it should be doing—we get criticised for that—but I will say to him that authorities have the general power of competence. They can look around at some of the very good work that I have just touched on, at Waveney, Hertfordshire and Tameside, and see how to simplify the process. That will ensure that a local charity does not have the problem that such charities have had in the past, when I was in local government, of having to say, “We can’t bid for this. We haven’t got the staffing levels, because it takes days to understand these forms, fill them in and negotiate.” The forms for these contracts should be simple and straightforward. Any of us should be able to read and understand them and take part in the process. Local authorities still have some way to go with that. That leads me on to my next point.

I am listening to the Minister’s speech, and he seems genuinely to be an enthusiast for the role that local authorities can play in shaping their local economies. Is he in any way concerned that the financial situation that local government faces, which is a fact—this is not the time to debate whether it is right or wrong—is limiting their ability to do that and is to the detriment of getting this country back towards growth and jobs for everyone, which is what we all want?

No, I do not agree with that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned cuts earlier. The Labour party has announced £52 billion of cuts in the Department for Community and Local Government budget and has not itemised any of them. We have to be realistic about that. Actually, the situation should drive local authorities to want to do better with procurement, to free up money to use on services rather than procurement.

Councils can now do many things to improve procurement, and many authorities need to go much further. They can consider abolishing requirements to complete a pre-qualification questionnaire for contracts below the EU threshold. They can publish all their tenders and contracts online, build up a supplier network and engage with suppliers in the way some already do. They can stop gold-plating on equalities. Equality impact assessments are not and never have been a legal requirement. Officers can use their judgment to pay due regard to equality without resorting to time-consuming, bureaucratic, tick-box exercises. Breaking up contracts into smaller bite-sized chunks or using subcontracting can open up procurement.

Local authorities have a key role in supporting their local economies through procurement. Councils can take steps to use their spending power to support economic growth, but procurement processes need not be complex. All councils can simplify them, as I have outlined, and make future contract opportunities easier for small businesses. Making those changes will also save councils money by reducing unnecessary red tape and bolstering business rate returns. There is an in-built incentive for local authorities to do that now. Some councils have grasped that and made great strides to help local businesses to bid effectively for contracts, but the majority have a long way yet to go. They owe it to local taxpayers to rise to that challenge.

Sitting suspended.

Local Government Standards Regime

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

As a local borough councillor myself, I am very interested to know what Mr Bob Neill is going to say about the operation of the new local government standards regime.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I am delighted to see you in the Chair, not least because you were a borough councillor in my constituency before you moved to your current constituency. Most of us have had direct personal experience of local government over a number of years.

I sought a debate on this subject because the coalition agreement set out clearly the Government’s intention to remove what, by common consent, I think, had become regarded as a top-heavy and excessive standards regime. It was debated at some length when the Localism Act 2011 went through Parliament—a process in which I had a certain personal involvement, if I might put it that way.

The Government’s intention was crystal clear: although transparency in councillors’ dealings and behaviour is rightly important, and should always remain so, and although it is important that every council has in place a code on members’ conduct that is cognisant of the Nolan principles of public life, there should be flexibility within those parameters, with a view to councillors no longer being subject to the degree of inhibition that, intentionally or unintentionally, had grown up under the old regime through a mixture of the operation of the then standards regime and what many regarded as a gold-plating of the interpretation of the common law on matters such as predetermination. That was the objective; Parliament’s intention in removing those inhibitions from councillors was crystal clear. It was in the interests of greater democratic involvement at local level and greater transparency. In fact, by and large the objective was uncontroversial on both sides of the House. We had disagreements over some details and means, but the objective was broadly supported.

My remarks today are not partisan. I want to put before the House certain concerns, which have come to my attention over the past few months, about how in some places the regime operates in a way that does not always reflect the intentions the House expressed when the Act and subsequent secondary legislation went through. Those concerns arise from local authorities of all political complexions; this is not a political issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate on an issue that deserves far more attention. He is bringing his great expertise to bear, so may I ask for his view on one of the many instances of heavy-handed interpretation of the rules that have arisen in my constituency? Councillors have been advised that if they attend a meeting held to protest about plans for redevelopment of the city centre in Hitchin, they may be deemed to have fettered their discretion, even if they announce when attending that meeting that they will not allow it to do so. Could he confirm that is absolutely not the intention of the legislation?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that case, which I have also come across. When I was the Minister responsible for signing off the regulations and the code, it was absolutely not the Government’s intention that the code should be construed in that way. With respect to whoever gave the advice, it is frankly nonsense to interpret the legislation in that manner.

My right hon. Friend highlights one of my principal concerns, of which the House needs to be aware: the varying quality of interpretation of the code from one authority to another. He gives an example of a situation that most people with common sense would regard as nonsense. Rather than supporting local democracy, such cases undermine it. I am grateful to him for raising it, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can restate the Government’s clear view that they do not intend the code to lead to that form of inhibition.

My right hon. Friend’s case parallels an instance I came across involving a councillor who was coming up for election. The big issue in their ward was whether a golf course in that ward might be subject to development. All the candidates were effectively advised that should they be elected, if they had turned up to a residents’ meeting to consider that concern, they would be regarded as having predetermined any application that subsequently came before the council. It was the green lungs of that community—it was the big issue. People wanted to know where those standing for election from all parties stood on it, but the monitoring officer was giving advice inhibiting them from doing so. That was never the intention of a proper standards regime.

Exactly the same advice seems to have been given in my right hon. Friend’s example, and it is worth dwelling on it, because I see that the councillor went back to say, robustly, “I’ve got my own legal advice, and it comes nowhere near that construction.” We seem to be getting into a very dangerous state of affairs, where monitoring officers, perhaps through an abundance of caution—I put that charitably—come up with an interpretation of the law that clearly inhibits councillors from expressing a view. My right hon. Friend is right that the councillor was making it clear that they would go along, perhaps as an observer, and say, “I have come with an open mind.” The monitoring officer came back and said, “Even if going as an observer, you will be taken to have predetermined the issue,” because the title of the meeting started “Hitchin against” or “Save Hitchin from”. Such stretching of the rules and the interpretation of the common law concept of bias brings the regime into disrepute.

I hope that this debate gives an opportunity for the Government to restate what has always been our contention: proportionate standards do not require that degree of micro-management. It does no service to councillors of any political persuasion in any community. That is one of a number of examples we have found in this field, and I was going to take the opportunity to deal with some of them today. Equally, there have been examples of real success under the new regime, and it is right and proper to recognise that.

Wiltshire, a big unitary authority, has adopted a regime that is accurately described as strong on transparency but light-touch on participation and voting. That is a sensible approach; provided council members have stated what their position is, there should be no fall back to the old idea that they must automatically be excluded from consideration if they have declared any potential interest on the record. Wiltshire has made the regime work well. Other authorities seem to have adopted a much more prescriptive and old-fashioned approach, which gets in the way of council members representing their constituents. We all know that this is a long-running problem, and it was clearly the intention of this House and Parliament as a whole to rectify it. Perhaps the difficulty is that, in some cases, the mindset of some, but not all, monitoring officers has not changed to reflect the localism agenda.

For localism to succeed, as we all wish it to, it requires two things; first, political will on the part of elected members to carry out the mandate their voters gave them; and secondly, intelligent and informed co-operation from their officers—not obstructing council members from carrying out that political will, but assisting them to do so. Sadly, we have seen the growth of a risk-averse culture in monitoring standards and the way in which councils transact important areas of business. That risk-averseness needs to be addressed.

It is sometimes difficult for an individual councillor—perhaps newly elected to a small authority or a back bencher in a large authority—to stand up, as my right hon. Friend’s constituent did, and say that they have access to advice that frankly brings the monitoring officer’s view into question. It is therefore all the more important that we make it clear that that sort of gold-plating is needless and unhelpful. There have been many such examples around the country, and I am happy for hon. Members to raise others during this debate, because I know that they are important and pressing.

The problem relates not only to an overly restrictive approach to the interaction of the code and predetermination, but to the approach taken towards councillors who do their public duty. That duty may sometimes involve saying controversial things about the operation of the authority itself, but it is wrong—as it has been in some of the cases that I have seen—if, in effect, that is used to gag a member from speaking out. I will happily give a few examples.

The first example was raised by Lord Tyler in the other place during the passage of the Localism Act. A member of Cotswold district council who had acted as a whistleblower found himself the subject of a complaint. Ultimately, the complaint was dismissed, but it was a trying and difficult process for that member. Members often find themselves alone, and as Lord Tyler put it—describing exactly the vice that we sought to avoid—councils have

“catered for—even encouraged—persecution of whistleblowers”.

That is strong language to use. I do not know whether the word he used is appropriate, but that is sometimes the effect. Of that case, Lord Tyler said that

“one assiduous councillor, doing precisely what electors expect of him, has been proved right in identifying potentially illegal activity”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 September 2011; Vol. 730, c. 830.]

Instead of the whistleblower being encouraged or supported to bring information into the open, it seems that the Standards Board regime was used to bring a complaint against him, albeit the allegation was ultimately ruled to be unfounded. That is exactly the type of behaviour that we intended to end, but unfortunately that has not happened in all councils. I have already given the example of Wiltshire council adopting a proportionate and sensible approach, but there are examples of members having to fight very hard against the mindset of officers who want to retain, in effect, the whole of the old system, with the exception of the Standards Board for England regime, which has obviously gone.

A cabinet member of a district council in the home counties told me that they had been put under considerable pressure by officers to adopt a code that, in effect, simply transplanted the old regime and put it in place without any changes. It happens that that cabinet member is married to a senior partner in one of the leading local government law firms in this county, so they were able to go back to the monitoring officer and say robustly, “What you are advising me goes well beyond what is necessary. We are not obliged to rewrite all the old rules on predetermination and bring that into our code,” but how many members would have been in a position to challenge the officer’s advice, just as the constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) did? That is a serious issue.

There is a serious question about the way in which monitoring officers sometimes operate. That job seems to have grown. Many monitoring officers—those in my local authority, for example—are excellent; they do a thoroughly good and professional job and it would be wrong to say otherwise. In other instances, however, the role is either amalgamated with other functions or, frankly, does not always seem to be held by somebody with any considerable degree of legal expertise, which is not satisfactory.

I have some examples from councils across the country. One councillor said that they suspect many monitoring officers are still attempting to control elected members—these are the member’s words, not mine—and to frighten them into leaving the chamber on the very flimsy grounds of having interests to declare; and whenever important issues come up for debate, the councillor has found that a paper entitled “Monitoring officer guidance” is included with the agenda, and this tries to direct the members with veiled threats. Whether it is intended in that way, I do not know, but, inadvertently, heavy-handed guidance can certainly have the effect of inhibiting members who are confronted with it. It seems bizarre that every item of any significance should require monitoring officer guidance. That takes the regime well beyond the monitoring officer’s real and proper role, which is to ensure that the council acts lawfully and intra vires, and appropriately to police whatever the code is.

It is worth looking at another county. South Norfolk district council adopted the very light-touch code that was issued, when I was still a Minister, by the Department for Communities and Local Government. That has worked well and entirely satisfactorily. Norfolk county council has adopted an extremely complex code, which is, in effect, the old-fashioned one by another name. We now have the bizarre situation of the leader of the county council being subject to a complaint from the district council leader about what is essentially a dispute between county and district about the site of an incinerator. I do not make any comments on the merits of that dispute one way or the other, but the idea that a legitimate political debate should find itself up in front of the Standards Board is to use the old thinking and procedures, which it was the Government intention to remove.

Other councils have seen even more striking and worrying examples, and I particularly want to refer to the London borough of Tower Hamlets. That authority has a directly elected mayor. He is an independent, but it is well known that he has close connections with the Respect party. The mayor is supported by sufficient independent members to ensure that he has the blocking third to get the necessary budgets and mayoral policies through. However, throughout his time, there has been a history of vexatious complaints against members of the opposition Conservative and Labour parties—Labour is actually the largest party—made by members of the mayor’s cabinet. Councillors appointed by the mayor to his cabinet have made complaints particularly against the leaders of the Labour and Conservative groups. Sometimes the complaints have not come to fruition; in other circumstances, they have. That causes real concern.

The monitoring officer of Tower Hamlets, Isabella Freeman, is also the assistant chief executive for legal services, and the monitoring officer is also the person who advises the mayor. There is now a situation in which the monitoring officer, who advises the mayor and polices the regime, regularly investigates complaints by a member of the mayor’s cabinet. On the other hand, complaints against members of the group who support the mayor have not been taken forward for investigation, which inevitably raises concerns as to who monitors the monitoring officers in such cases. In that case, the monitoring officer is herself in dispute with her employer—the authority—and there is apparently an industrial tribunal case ongoing, but the monitoring officer still sits in and carries out her functions, even though they involve councillors who may be witnesses to those proceedings.

Tower Hamlets has reached the extraordinary stage of members from several parties passing a motion to have certain disciplinary steps taken in relation to the monitoring officer. We might have thought that the monitoring officer would have withdrawn from the meeting at that point; instead, she insisted on remaining, and noted what was said by every member, which hardly gives the impression of an unbiased, open and transparent approach. Freedom of information requests in relation to only two of the complaints have revealed that some £6,000 of public money was spent on investigating a complaint against the leader of the Conservative group and that some £12,000 was spent in relation to a complaint alleged against the leader of the Labour group. No such complaints have been taken forward in the same way against the group that supports the mayor.

That may be a particularly egregious example. At the same time, however, members raised complaints with the monitoring officer about a highly partisan publication, East End Life, which is the subject of great controversy, and the monitoring officer responded that everything that the mayor had put in that publication was in order. The same monitoring officer gave advice that the mayor was not obliged to answer certain questions from members in the council in relation to the exercise of his functions because that might infringe his human rights. That, frankly, brings the standards regime, which we all want properly and proportionately exercised, into serious disrepute. That is not in anyone’s interests.

The matter that has arisen in relation to Tower Hamlets seems, on the face of it, to be frankly scandalous. It involves one important case that comes back to the whistleblower point. An opposition councillor raised an issue concerning an applicant for a senior post in the council, and it was demonstrated that that applicant’s CV was inaccurate in an important and material respect. The applicant had been obliged to resign from a previous employment, and that was not placed on their CV. That achieved a degree of national and regional publicity, not surprisingly.

The result was a complaint by the same member of the mayor’s cabinet, who was a frequent source of the complaints, against that member. That was investigated and the member set out in considerable detail their side of the matter. The hearing took place within weeks of the abolition of the Standards Board regime, and the member was not present. The upshot—I have to be careful what I say—was that within days of the regime being swept away, rightly, by the will of Parliament, the standards committee, which, I understand, consisted predominantly of members who supported the mayor, referred the matter to the first-tier tribunal, where it remains. The purported view of that seems to be that in relation to a complaint that was some two and a half to three years old—never mind its the merits—there was a desire, frankly, to invoke suspension of a leading critic of the mayor. That was why it was being taken to the first-tier tribunal, which refused to entertain it. Now, I gather, there may be attempts to appeal that.

That sort of abuse of the system brings local government into disrepute. It is right to have that on the public record, because that is not how the system is intended to be used. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government’s intention has been that, as of 1 July, the ability to suspend or disqualify a member should not be exercised in the standards regime, but that instead such a power is exercisable when the criminal offence of failing to disclose a pecuniary interest, which came into force on the same day, is committed. The case that I mentioned had nothing to do with a pecuniary interest of any kind; a councillor was doing what many people would regard as their duty by pointing out something that might have been seriously misleading in relation to an important and sensitive public appointment.

The fact that that member should have hanging over their head the prospect of defending themselves in legal proceedings before a first-tier tribunal—brought, of course, at public expense—when it is known, and was known when the decision was taken, that the power to suspend was going to be removed, is an abuse of the system. I hope that we can make it clear and restate that it was never Parliament’s intention that the transitional provisions that were brought into place when the Standards Board regime was abolished should be used in that way. That, too, is an important example of where we need to look more closely at how things work.

I want to refer to one or two other examples that illustrate the issues that need to be addressed, and again, there should be political consensus between us on this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden referred to the case that occurred with his constituent councillor and what was said in relation to the campaign group, and that is not the only case I have come across. I am aware of a council that resolved that councillors should not meet developers, full stop. It seems to me that that kind of blanket interpretation of the rules goes well beyond anything that Parliament intended. We all know that development applications have to be treated with great care and sensitivity, and it is important to ensure that proper process and probity are observed in all such instances, but the idea of such a blanket prohibition seems to me to be fundamentally wrong.

I apologise for being late, Mr Hollobone. My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and raising some important issues, which occur right across the country. As for councillors’ involvement with local government, when I ask my constituents whether they have spoken to their local councillor, they say that they have but that the councillor cannot say anything—I suspect that many of my colleagues hear the same thing—either because the rules have been misunderstood, or because, in some cases, an anxious or over-zealous monitoring officer has put the fear of God into councillors. Clearly, there is a big misunderstanding in such areas, which should be cleaned up as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and in a number of instances right across the piece, we have come across precisely that fear of God being put into members, many of whom are voluntary public servants, sometimes in quite small district or parish councils, where they do not necessarily have access to independent advice. A forceful expression of opinion, however questionable, by the monitoring officer can often understandably intimidate, whatever the intention. We need to deal with exactly that issue.

One of the things that we specifically did in the Localism Act 2011—again, it was not, of itself, a matter of controversy in the House—was to clarify the law in relation to predetermination. There is no doubt that the common-law rule had been seriously gold-plated in the advice that monitoring officers were giving, to the extent that, essentially, people were being told, “You really cannot say anything about this planning application, otherwise you will be taken to have predetermined it.” That is wrong, and it is not what the case law ever was, but that is how it was interpreted in all too many cases.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that, because the fact that advice to that effect continues to be given demonstrates, despite the will of Parliament and despite the guidance clearly set out by my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department, that that message is not always being taken on board by some monitoring officers. That is in danger of undermining the potentially good work that is being done by the legislation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden quoted from the example of his councillor constituent, and I will read out the detail of the advice, because it also touches on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax). It is worth reading it out to give you the whole flavour. It was headed “Members’ information note”, and it provides

“Guidance on pre-determination regarding public meeting ‘to oppose an extension to the Simons contract to redevelop the centre of Hitchin’”.

That is all well and good, and it is an understandable matter of public concern. Under the heading “Summary of advice,” the document states:

“Attendance at a public meeting that has a clear purpose of opposing a particular course of action or proposal, and which includes at item 3 on the agenda a “vote”, is very likely to be regarded as evidence of pre-determination of the matter. Either attending the meeting as an ‘observer or listener’ and/or declaring at the start of the meeting that one is approaching the matter with an ‘open-mind’, could still lead to perceptions and allegations of bias and pre-determination, due to the current stated purpose the meeting.”

The member went back on that advice and, as I say, rightly went along to the meeting.

Frankly, that advice was nonsense. If that sort of advice is being given, the sooner that it stops being given the better, because it is not legally sound and does not accurately reflect section 25 of the Act, which says:

“A decision-maker is not to be taken to have had, or to have appeared to have had, a closed mind when making the decision just because…the decision-maker had previously done anything that directly or indirectly indicated what view the decision-maker took, or…might take, in relation to a matter”.

Simply turning up as an observer is certainly doing something, but it could hardly be regarded on any sensible interpretation of the statute as being an act that would tend to predetermine a councillor in relation to a decision.

Basically, bad legal advice is being given to members, and it undermines the proper purpose of the standards, which is to ensure probity, decency and honesty in the conduct of our affairs. When there is nonsense advice of that kind—if I may put it that strongly—it makes it harder to enforce the system in the important cases where a proper red line has to be drawn in relation to members’ conduct. I am afraid that the example that I have just given is one of a number that seem to exist.

Another issue that has concerned me considerably is the attitude of officers towards members at times. Again, I do not want to say that that attitude exists in all cases. In my experience, the majority of officers work sympathetically and constructively with their members. However, a district councillor in Surrey has written in strong terms. Again, it relates to a planning application and let us remember that one of the reasons that we got rid of the previous standards regime was that a vast number of the complaints—something like 60%-plus—turned out to be essentially vexatious. I think that only about 28% of the complaints ever got taken forward properly and many of those related to things such as disputes on the parish council or the fact that someone was aggrieved that a planning application went a particular way; they were related to things that really had no foundation.

In the case in Surrey, there was a controversial planning application and clearly the member had expressed a view; I do not know which way they went, or did not go, and perhaps it does not matter for the purposes of this debate. Nevertheless, it caused the aggrieved applicant to make a complaint to the Standards Board. Essentially, what happened was that an investigator was appointed by the monitoring officer; the investigator questioned the councillor for 10 and a half hours in two meetings, as well as e-mailing the councillor a large number of questions; and on the second occasion, there were another 56 questions, almost as though everything that was being said by the complainant was being taken as read, without any attempt to apply any discretion about the merits of the case and whether it actually warranted that level of investigation.

The matter then dragged on for a number of months, the councillor rightly involved her MP and her conclusion was:

“The sword of Damocles is hanging above us and if someone says something the public don’t like, the sword will fall.”

It has never been the intention of Parliament that that should be the case or that any councillor should feel that way, regardless of their party and their views. The councillor in Surrey says that she has been a member for 16 years, having been returned about four times by her electorate, and for a member of that experience to feel like that indicates that something has gone wrong with the way in which the regime is being applied. The sad comment from the councillor is that:

“The Council were extremely bad with me throughout the entire investigation. They did not help or support. In fact the very opposite. The then CE—”

that is, the then chief executive—

“could not have been less kind or caring and made things worse.”

In fairness, she also says that the current chief executive adopted a different approach, and it is right to say that as well. However, the fact that an experienced councillor has to write in those terms indicates that there is a problem, and reinforces the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset that public servants are feeling inhibited from doing the right thing by their communities.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way, and again I must say that his speech is quite excellent. I want to raise another issue with him that I have certainly found in my constituency—again, I suspect that colleagues have also found it in their own constituencies—regarding planning applications.

Planning really is the most contentious area. In my experience both as an MP and as a former journalist—I was a journalist for some 17 years, sitting in on these planning committees—many of the councillors had not even been to the sites that they were considering, because they claimed that they were not allowed to go to them. Yes, there is a drawing that shows what is intended, but that does not show what is around, the buildings nearby, the proximity of perhaps an ancient monument—I do not know, whatever is around the site—so councillors get a completely false perspective and potentially often make the wrong decisions. Is there anything that we can do to stop that happening and perhaps introduce more common sense?

What we can do to help my hon. Friend in that regard is to promulgate the good practice and what is perfectly permissible. I know from my time as a member of a planning committee that it was perfectly standard practice in many authorities, and it should be perfectly open anywhere, for site visits to take place. It is probably best that members of the committee and the officers go together. That is what is usually and sensibly done, so that they all go in a group, and because the officer is present, there can be no suggestion of improper contact between the members of the committee and—let us say—the applicant or an objector. That can be sensibly done; many authorities do it; and those authorities that do not do it, and think that it cannot be done, should be told that it can and should be done.

Frankly, most of us would hope that with the new approach to empowering members, officers would look for ways to say, “Yes, we will enable a site visit to take place if members wish it, with the proper safeguards in place to make sure that there can be no accusation of impropriety.” It happens in many places, but the fact that it is not generally known that it happens is perhaps a real concern, as my hon. Friend suggests. Perhaps it is something that the Government need to think about doing, perhaps working with the Local Government Association and the local government community in general to ensure that that sensible good practice is rolled out.

It is interesting that my hon. Friend raises the issue of planning, because it comes back to the point about members being told not to meet developers. One of the few things on which I agreed with the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone—there was not much on which we agreed, as hon. Members will know—was that he had a very sensible and proportionate approach to dealing with planning applications that came before him. By their very nature, they were very often strategic applications, potentially involving large sums of money and important social impacts.

When he was Mayor, Ken Livingstone met applicants under those circumstances, he did so with an officer present and everything was properly minuted. Although I have accused the former Mayor of various things over the years, nobody would ever have questioned the total integrity with which that process took place, and indeed it continues under his successor, Mayor Johnson. It was a sensible and proportionate thing to do; Mayor Livingstone was right to do it and Mayor Johnson has been right to continue doing it. However, if they had listened to the sort of advice that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset referred to earlier—the advice given to his colleagues, or that we have seen in some of the documents that I have referred to—they would not have done it and those meetings would not have taken place.

Actually, very often the involvement of members in planning applications can be constructive, provided that it is done with total probity. There are plenty of examples of how the engagement of the ward members has enabled a scheme to be refined or adjusted in such a way that what was potentially unpalatable to a community can be made palatable, and actually the application can be improved by the involvement of the local members. Consequently, such involvement is not only something that should not be obstructed but something that ought to be positively encouraged as a matter of good practice. So I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point about planning.

The other issue that seems to have arisen recently, and that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with when he responds to the debate, relates to pecuniary interests. I was rather surprised to see advice that is being given to a number of councillors, that they should be regarded as having pecuniary interests in effect because they are council tax payers. Again, that advice is all set out in legal documents, which I could happily quote, but if that advice is not nonsense then I do not know what is. Once more, I must say with a sense of frustration that that sort of advice or idea is exactly what I spent two and a bit years of my life as a Minister trying to get rid of, and I feel that perhaps I have failed and that perhaps it is my fault, because I did not make that message clear enough. I hope that that is not the case, but what I have described today is happening in a number of local authorities. In addition, I regret to say that when I looked at some of the e-mails that I have received on this subject, I see that such practice seems to be based on a view taken collectively by a number of monitoring officers.

Like most professions, monitoring officers are not without their collective bodies. They are worthy people; I met some of them on a number of occasions when I was a Minister. However, that does not mean that they always get these ideas right, and the idea that simply because someone pays council tax they should be regarded as having a pecuniary interest is another idea that I hope the Minister will make clear today was never the intention of Parliament. Hopefully, this debate will give us an opportunity to send out a message—to officers that such advice is wrong, and to members that they should not feel constrained by such advice. The idea that someone would have to get a dispensation for every member of a council in effect, so that they could vote on the council tax in their area, is a nonsensical interpretation.

Reluctantly, I have to point out the situation in Wiltshire. A local Labour councillor contacted me saying they had received an e-mail from the ethical governance officer. It said that the current legislation referred to councillors having

“a disclosable pecuniary interest in any matter to be considered”.

The reference to “any matter” was essentially used to justify people not voting on anything, which is utterly absurd. When I responded to the councillor, I said that common sense was required, and I do not think that my advice and input were welcome. However, it is ludicrous that the legislation has been interpreted in such an unhelpful way.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a sad irony that Wiltshire, having got the structure right and achieved a sensible, light-touch, proportionate structure, seems none the less to have been giving out advice on a specific point that is clearly wide of the mark. That issue needs to be raised with monitoring officers generally.

The mobile phone is a marvellous bit of kit: as my hon. Friend was talking, the leader of the Conservative group on Purbeck district council raised the same point with me. I asked him whether there were any points he wanted to raise, and he said that,

“under new rules we have to declare an interest to set the council tax.”

Funnily enough, that is the very point that my hon. Friend has just raised, and the comment I have read out reinforces it.

I am immensely grateful for my hon. Friend’s presence, because he has allowed us to have a debate in real time, which is extremely useful. His point highlights the issue and takes well into double figures the number of instances I have come across of such advice being given out. As everybody in the room knows, that advice is clearly wrong.

That raises questions about the quality of advice monitoring officers sometimes give. We all know it is important to have a monitoring officer—something that goes back to the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. However, some of the mission creep that has come into the monitoring officer’s role raises questions. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on what the Government see as the proportionate and appropriate use of monitoring officers to ensure probity without creating an industry via the back door. One complaint about the previous standards regime was that whatever its intentions, which were good, it created an industry that was expensive for the public purse and that had the effect—probably unintentionally, but this was the reality—of being something of an inhibitor of open public debate. The whole objective subsequently has been to put an end to that.

All too often, there seems to have been pressure on members simply to recast the old regime but give it a localist badge. An extremely restrictive interpretation of the legislation, which goes well beyond case law or statute, persists all too frequently. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset has given clear examples in relation to planning matters and the key issue of council tax. District monitoring officers also sometimes give such advice to parish councils in their area. Whatever the intention, if that advice lands on a parish councillor, who might have just a part-time clerk or something of that kind, it will be extremely intimidatory. I have had a number of e-mails from members across the country saying, “I’m wondering whether it’s worth standing for my parish council again.”

In a number of instances, the provisions on spouses’ or civil partners’ pecuniary interests have been misinterpreted. Initially, a flurry of advice seemed to suggest that council members would have to give the name and details of their spouse or civil partner. The Department sent out a letter—I may have written it myself—to all council leaders making it clear that that was not the case, and that the interests of the spouse or civil partner are regarded as the member’s interests. Therefore, if a member’s wife or partner owned a relevant property that should be declared, it was declared, but under the member’s name; it was not necessary to give details about their wife or civil partner. The fact that misleading advice was given, and still seems to be given, indicates that the message might not have been fully taken on board. Under certain circumstances, such advice could deter worthwhile and valuable candidates from coming forward for election. That is disproportionate, and it is important that we get a sense of proportion back into these matters.

That brings me back to the quality of the monitoring officer and what their proper role should be. There is flexibility at the local level, and that should of course be the case. However, one councillor who has raised serious concerns with me states at the end of his e-mail that he was one of the first monitoring officers to be appointed under the 1989 Act—he had obviously retired and, having been a local government officer, decided he had not had enough, so he became a member instead, which is absolutely admirable. He said that, when he was a monitoring officer, he had done about one and a half hours’ work a week as part of his other responsibilities. However, he said that the role in his district council had mushroomed and was becoming a full-time job, which was never the intention in a proportionate scheme. Obviously, the work load and the demands in a big authority will be greater, but all too often it seems to me and to many members who have contacted me that there has been an exponential growth in the monitoring officer role, which sometimes leads to advice that is not accurate or focused and to an attitude that can be intrusive. That is important, and I hope the Minister can give us some idea of the Government’s thinking on making sure that there is clarity on the issue, and that councils do not feel the need to over-engineer a solution.

I also hope the Minister will be able to comment, in so far as one can where matters are potentially sub judice, about the extremely concerning situation in Tower Hamlets, where there does not seem to be the independence and transparency that one would wish for in the operation and governance of the council and in the monitoring officer’s role within that. There is a risk of members being worn down by serial complaints against them that are not filtered out at an early stage.

Let me give just two more Tower Hamlets examples to conclude. One involves a complaint—I am glad to say that nothing came of it in the end, but it still took time and investigation—from Councillor Alibor Choudhury, the cabinet member for resources, who is a regular complainant, against the leader of the Conservative group, Councillor Golds. An interim chief executive had been appointed. In the council meeting, speeches were made welcoming that officer to their post. During the debate, Councillor Golds referred to the fact that he was looking forward to appointing a proper chief executive in due course. That was the subject of a complaint, on the basis that it showed disrespect to the acting chief executive, as well as bias. The acting chief executive actually wrote saying, “It does no such thing. I didn’t feel in the least bit offended by that.” It was pretty clear that Councillor Golds was referring to a substantive appointment being made in due course, which everybody would wish to see. The fact that the issue was dragged through the standards regime in Tower Hamlets suggests that not just old mindsets but questionable mindsets were being applied.

A further complaint was then raised—interestingly, three complaints were all made within about a month of each other, and the same cabinet member was a party in each case. In this case, the allegation related to the matter that is now working its way through the first-tier tribunal. A third complaint was then made, this time about a member’s suggestion—it was made by the same leader of the Conservative group, as it happens—that a ward be renamed. It is a sensitive issue locally whether the ward is called Spitalfields and Banglatown or Spitalfields, but the fact that it should trigger a complaint of racism is well beyond anything the provisions were intended to do. The complaint was ultimately taken no further, but a great deal of public money went into dealing with it. Any proportionate system of monitoring would surely have weeded it out at an early stage. As I say, the same council spent £18,000 investigating the two opposition party leaders. At the same time, the monitoring officer declined to investigate complaints against members of the party supporting the mayor.

All those cases raise a specific matter in relation to Tower Hamlets. However, they also raise a specific, important point, which I hope the Minister will be able to clarify, about the use, or perhaps abuse, of the transitional provisions, which were intended essentially to enable members who might be involved in an outstanding complaint to clear their names by going to the first-tier tribunal. I do not know how many such instances, if any, we have on record of attempts to use the transitional provision in that rather extraordinary way, but it is clearly not what Parliament intended.

I hope that I have done enough to give a flavour of the areas of concern that I want to set before the House. I do that not in any spirit of criticism of the Government, because they have been doing the right thing and there was, broadly, a measure of consensus in the House about wanting to ensure that we have proper standards. Making sure that our public affairs at a local level are conducted honestly and transparently, having good quality candidates from all backgrounds coming forward for election, and enabling voters to believe that their members can do and say things that make a difference are critical to the health of local democracy. All of that was clearly the Government’s intention when we carried out the reforms and it was clearly Parliament’s intention when the new arrangements were put in place.

I hope that we will be able to use this debate to reinforce and clarify the message that the new regime is about empowering members, not inhibiting them, and that advice to the contrary is incorrect and should no longer be given out. The Department should use its good offices, working with the Local Government Association and the local government world generally, to ensure that members are not subject to the kind of unintended and inaccurate pressure that undermines our shared objectives.

It is a great pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on securing the debate. He and I have often clashed across the Dispatch Box, but no one doubts his commitment to or interest in local government, in which he served with distinction for several years. I am sure that that experience is sadly missed at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The hon. Gentleman raised some important issues this afternoon about how we maintain appropriate standards of conduct in local authorities without imposing a burdensome and costly regime that encourages frivolous complaints. We have seen that in local government—we occasionally see it in the House—and it is something that I deprecate, because it brings politics into disrepute. Dealing with serious wrongdoing is one thing, but making frivolous and politically motivated complaints is something else entirely.

The hon. Gentleman hit on several important issues about the operation of the current regime that are worth considering. He is absolutely right that the best safeguard against wrongdoing is transparency. If people know a member’s interests—just as in this House—and can then judge their vote accordingly, that is the best safeguard against anything going wrong. The hon. Gentleman is also right that members in local government are often given bad advice, and it is particularly difficult for those who are new or who do not have a legal background to challenge it. Part of the problem exists particularly in the planning system, where officers, especially monitoring officers, get frightened of big development firms and their lawyers. They sometimes seek to protect councillors from the effects of that, but they often go the wrong way about it. A firm in my constituency that wants to carry out a development that I oppose is, I think, working up attempts to try to intimidate me. I am not intimidatable. It is a waste of time. However, some councillors do find themselves in that position because of poor quality interpretation of the law.

We ought to say clearly that no standards regime should prevent an elected representative from talking to those who elect them or, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, from talking to developers in an appropriate setting where an officer is present to minute what is said; and yet that often happens. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned complaints being made against whistleblowers, which is extraordinary and, again, not what the standards system was ever intended for. Although it is fair to say that none of us is nostalgic for the old regime, which he rightly said became an industry in its own right, we need to ensure that the current regime operates properly and that people are giving proper advice.

The hon. Gentleman discussed Tower Hamlets and the particular difficulty that arises when a monitoring officer wears two hats. If the Minister is able to comment on that, I am interested to hear what he says, because it is clear that the situation there is not conducive to good local government and to delivering the best service to those who elect us. The issue of monitoring officers going over the top on trivial complaints was also mentioned. I am not for one minute saying that they all do that, but the hon. Gentleman gave one example of a member being subjected to 10 and a half hours of questioning over something small and trivial. That is ridiculous. Any system must be proportionate.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right about wrong advice being given on the declaration of pecuniary interests. My local authority’s members have been told that if they are council tax payers, or if their spouse is a council tax payer, as it is their name on the bill they must all declare an interest when they set the budget, and then apply for an exemption. He is also right that it is not only in big authorities that that happens. My husband is the leader of Culcheth and Glazebury parish council. I try not to let it go to his head but, following a swing to Labour in our village, it is now a Labour-controlled parish council. Its members have been told that, before they set the parish precept, anyone who is a council tax payer or is the spouse or partner of a council tax payer must declare an interest and ask for an exemption. Of course they have an interest; they live within the parish. It is a parish council. People who are elected either come from within the parish or very near to it. Those are the rules. When people elect them, they know that. No one is suggesting that parish councils around the country are abusing their right to set the parish precept because they happen to pay it. Quite frankly, it is getting ludicrous and we need to look at how we can give councils proper advice and work with the Local Government Association to ensure that they get that advice.

I have one or two queries for the Minister about how the system is working in other ways at the moment. He will remember that the Government’s original proposal was not to have a requirement for local councils to maintain a code of conduct. Following amendments in the other place, common sense prevailed and local authorities were required to maintain a code of conduct based on the principles of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Councils can now decide for themselves whether they want to amend or replace the existing code. It has not been mentioned, but how they fulfil the duty imposed on them by the Localism Act 2011 of promoting and maintaining standards is important. Work needs to be done to ensure that all councillors, particularly new ones, are familiar with what is required of them, are adequately trained and take a sensible view of such things.

The 2011 Act also provided, as the hon. Gentleman said, for the registration of members’ interests and for the appointment of an independent person to advise the council before it considers an allegation against a member. Will the Minister tell us how that is proceeding? Quite often—we have done it in this House—we believe that we must get an independent person in to advise on this, that and the other. It is as if there is a pool of people out there just waiting to jump in and do that. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether he is aware of any problems with councils finding people to undertake the role, which is, after all, purely advisory.

Before the regime came into operation last June, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, with which we are all familiar, expressed concern that a large number of local authorities were unprepared for the new system. The committee said that nearly half of those who had replied to its inquiries had yet to adopt a new code, and that four fifths had yet to appoint this mythical independent person that we are all to find from somewhere. I wonder whether that lack of preparation on the ground has in fact led to some of the problems that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst outlined. Will the Minister update us? How many authorities, if any, still do not have a code of conduct in place? How many have yet to appoint an independent person to advise them on complaints? If there are any such authorities, will the Minister tell us what his Department is doing to ensure that the law is observed in that respect, and what advice it is giving to councils?

The Committee on Standards in Public Life also—wrongly, I think, in this case—had concerns about the robustness of the new arrangements, and argued that the codes needed to be supported by independent scrutiny. I am not convinced by that argument, because I believe that as long as complaints and any decisions about them are dealt with openly and are open to public scrutiny, that is all we need. Such committees as this tend to overlook the fact that members are ultimately accountable at the ballot box for their conduct. There is the famous Hillary Clinton quote about Bill: “If you don’t like it, don’t vote for him,” and it is as simple as that. Unfortunately, most of us do not have the charisma of ex-President Clinton, and we have to rely on other things to get us re-elected.

It is important that members of the public understand the new regime and that steps are taken to inform them of how complaints are dealt with. I know, and I think that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst knows from his constituency, that there is often great confusion among members of the public about how to make a complaint against a councillor. It is members of the public that we are trying to cater for here; we are not dealing with cross-party allegations. A number of people have recently written to me because they are upset about a particular planning decision, in the belief that I can deal with complaints against local councillors and can somehow impose my will on them. I have had to explain that there is a separate electoral mandate for councillors, and that complaints against them are dealt with differently. If the scheme is to work well, we need to address that confusion.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life made an important point, which relates to what the hon. Gentleman said earlier about the need for guidance and training on the new system, and about the application of appropriate penalties if the system is breached. Will the Minister tell us how the need for training is being dealt with in local authorities, for those involved in the new standards regime? Does he know how many local authorities have provided such training for their members—not their monitoring officers—and does he have an indication of how well that is going?

I want also to mention sanctions. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rightly said, the 2011 Act makes it an offence for a member without reasonable excuse to fail to register or declare a pecuniary interest. That can be dealt with by a magistrates court and, in the most serious cases, a £5,000 level 5 fine can be imposed upon conviction. I do not believe that most of us would have a problem with that in really serious cases, but we all know that most cases are not like that, dealing, as they do, with less serious breaches of the code of conduct. Since suspension is not an option, is the Minister convinced that local authorities have enough sanctions available to them to deal with breaches of the code? If a member of the public makes a complaint and the complaint is upheld, that person needs to be satisfied that the complaint is being taken seriously and dealt with appropriately, and I am interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that.

I was recently told of an independent member of a local authority who refused to sign the code of conduct. The legal advice given to the authority was that it had no way of making the person sign. The argument was that if he did not sign he was not bound by it. It is different with political parties, because they can impose on their members the necessity of signing the code—someone cannot be a member of the group until they do that. This is an interesting case, and if the Minister cannot tell me today how it should be dealt with, perhaps he would be kind enough to write to me, in order that the case might be resolved.

I accept that it is very early days, because the new system has been in operation for only six months or so, but although none of us wants to encourage frivolous or politically motivated claims that are not based on fact, it is important that the public have faith in the system and believe that their complaints will be properly dealt with. The vast majority of councillors, of all parties I think, simply want to do a good job for their local community, and they give up a lot of time and contribute a lot of effort. They too, therefore, need the protection of an appropriate standards regime and the assurance that breaches of the code of conduct will be dealt with. That is right for the public, but it is right also for the vast majority of councillors in this country who are honest and hard-working. Will the Minister undertake to consider over the coming year how the system is working, look into the problems that I and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst have mentioned, and report back to the House if action is needed?

We cannot take issues such as this lightly, and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has made that clear today. Local councils are an important part of our democratic structure. They can, and often do, produce enormous benefits for their local communities, and they deal with serious and important matters—things that affect people’s social and economic well-being—but it is precisely because of their importance that we need to ensure that the standards regime works properly, maintains public confidence and is not abused, and that councillors get the right advice to enable them to comply with what is required of them. That is extremely important, and I hope that the Minister is able to assure us on those issues when he replies.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for providing this opportunity to have what is, in the light of what is going on, a hugely important debate. The debate is also timely because the Localism Act 2011 received Royal Assent more than a year ago—I enjoyed several months on the Public Bill Committee with my hon. Friend, as Minister, taking the legislation through—and just over six months ago, on 1 July last year, the new standards regime came fully on stream.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the central part he played in doing what I think most people in local government—perhaps not monitoring officers—will for ever be grateful for: abolishing the old Standards Board regime, thereby fulfilling an important coalition agreement commitment, and overseeing the establishment of a new regime, which should be opening the way for councils to put in place their own new localist standards arrangements. I will be clear with the House on this: I am a fan of old-fashioned democracy and I believe there is a strong case to be made, as it was in the debates on the 2011 Act, that the most effective sanction for wrong behaviour is found in transparency, particularly through to the ballot box. We need to bear that in mind when we consider what the Standards Board regime, which we are moving away from, was at risk of becoming.

Every council should aim to have a simple process that ensures high standards of conduct from all members without imposing bureaucratic burdens or providing a platform for vexatious and politically motivated complaints that not only waste taxpayers’ money but, as the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) mentioned, damage the very fabric of both local democracy and democracy generally. That was the case with the old regime. As a councillor for a decade or so, I saw that regime develop. Since coming to the House and taking my current office, I have found it worrying that, despite the change in regime, monitoring officers are expanding and developing as an industry, and changing the regime seems only to have brought that industry further in-house, rather than getting rid of it.

The essence of the new regime is that, within a simple broad framework, the design of a council’s standards arrangements is put into its members’ hands. I stress that there is no detailed central prescription about conduct. Given what is happening, there is a temptation for us to start getting involved centrally, but I am wary of doing that because it would be a move away from local accountability. It is for individual councils to decide how best to promote and maintain high standards of conduct.

I will have a look the case and come back to the hon. Lady, but my instinctive response to the councillor who refused to sign a code of conduct is that if the council has adopted the code of conduct, it is, de facto, the council’s code of conduct. I am not sure why it is necessary for every member to sign the code of conduct for it to take force. It is the council’s code of conduct.

There is no central prescription for the process a council might follow. Beyond certain clear, basic, national rules—for example, that certain pecuniary interests must be disclosed, which I will return to, because I have seen far too many farcical cases of the type raised today—it is for each council to decide its own arrangements, to decide its code of conduct, to decide how to deal with allegations that that code has been breached and to decide how personal interests should be handled. That approach puts members in the driving seat and recognises the commitment of members across local government to serving their communities, to acting consistently in the interests of those they represent and to ensuring local taxpayers’ money is well spent.

The new regime recognises the central importance and value of members’ roles, which must be a priority, and their knowing what is right for their community and authority. Rightly, under the regime members can take ownership of all their council’s standards arrangements and be satisfied that the arrangements are proportionate and appropriate to the circumstances of their authority.

The first six months of the new arrangements have seen councils and their members take a wide range of approaches in responding to the opportunities provided by our new standards regime. The Government have taken a number of steps to help members make the most of those opportunities. To assist councils, in April 2012 my Department circulated an illustrative text of a simple and straightforward code of conduct, as envisaged by the new regime. In June, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst wrote to local authorities about simple arrangements for handling misconduct allegations. We followed that in August with a plain English guide to openness and transparency on personal interests.

All those measures graphically illustrate how simple and straightforward, yet wholly effective, standards arrangements can be adopted by councils under our new regime. It is therefore disappointing and, to an extent, worrying to hear that some local authorities have developed both a code and model arrangements for handling misconduct complaints that appear to be essentially a continuation at local level of the old Standards Board regime, and in some cases go further than the old regime. I have heard about too many cases of that in the past few months.

We have heard examples today, and I will respond to a few specific points. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) described a situation that simply should not be happening. The Localism Act makes it clear that a member can go to meetings, and even campaign on an issue, and still take part in the formal decision-taking process, provided they approach that decision with an open mind, as I am sure members do. There is no basis in law for a monitoring officer to give the type of advice about which we have heard.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He says that a councillor may campaign, as long as he or she maintains a neutral state of mind, but if someone is campaigning, they are clearly campaigning either for or against something. For clarification, is the Minister saying that councillors can campaign for something? If councillors state that they are for or against something at a council meeting, they might be accused of not having a clear mind. Does he follow my argument? I may have misunderstood him.

Bear in mind that that is a decision for the individual member, as it is when we declare an interest in the House. Councillors must decide whether, at the point of a decision, they have an open mind, having heard all the evidence. If someone has been campaigning heavily against something, they may come to a meeting, hear all the evidence both for and against and then make a judgment about whether they have an open mind on the evidence. That is a matter for them. The key point is that the advice being given to councillors that they cannot do that is wrong. They can do it and, actually, that is how we represent our residents. That was one of the problems with the old regime.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, since 1 July 2012, when the new regime came into force, councils have had no power to suspend a member—absolutely none. A member convicted by a court for failing to disclose a disclosable pecuniary interest may be disqualified for up to five years by the court in its sentence. In addition, the law remains that any person sentenced to three months or more in prison is disqualified from holding the office of councillor for five years.

I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. Were there to be any growth in litigation based on an erroneous interpretation of the transitional provisions, would he consider what steps the Department and the Government might take to assist the courts in ensuring that a tribunal has access to the correct interpretation before coming to a decision?

I will address the transitional arrangements in a moment, but, yes, we do have to consider that.

The advice in the Wiltshire case makes little sense. The advice refers to a pecuniary interest in any matter, but it focuses on the word “any,” which is completely the wrong end of the stick, to use a colloquial phrase. The advice fails to define a disclosable pecuniary interest, which is the key point. The simple fact is that one cannot identify a disclosable pecuniary interest that relates to the setting of council tax. A beneficial interest in land is probably the nearest to that, but that interest is clearly not materially affected by the setting of council tax.

I have learned something today, and I am hugely impressed: I have never before heard of an “ethical governance officer,” which is a fantastic new title. I am sure the title will be cropping up across the country, no doubt with people asking for pay rises. One of the things of which I have seen far too much, particularly in parish councils, is organisations advising that, in setting precepts, all members have to declare a pecuniary interest, which implies that every councillor has such an interest, be they district councillors, county councillors or unitary councillors. Indeed, it could be argued that that goes all the way to us when we set the Budget. That is farcical. That is not what the guidance sets out. We must make it clear to parish councillors that that is bad advice. It is wrong. That was not the intention.

Another example I have heard is how councils feel the need, under the transitional arrangements, to continue to investigate a complaint under the old regime, whatever its merits. That is absolutely not what the transitional arrangements require. Briefly, if a council considers a complaint unworthy of investigation and the resources that that would entail, it can bin the complaint. I stress again that that is a decision for the council—the members. Neither the monitoring officer nor any other officer has the power to make a decision and force or tell councillors to do something. The decision is in the hands of the democratically elected councillors.

Why is all this happening? Why is there an attraction to continue a Standards Board-type regime—a regime that was widely loathed in local government and ill served citizens, taxpayers and councillors? As I hope I have stressed clearly, our new regime puts members firmly in the driving seat when it comes to deciding what a council’s standards arrangements should be. They are for local councils to decide. In that role, it is right that members look to their officers for advice, as that is what officers are for, but I have to say that much of the advice being given to members is far from satisfactory. There are some very good monitoring officers out there, but far too much poor advice is being given, leading members to feel that they are being bullied by officers.

What I have seen often shows that, for whatever reason, officers have simply failed to grasp what the reform is about. It is about having arrangements that maintain high standards while avoiding bureaucratic burdens and doing away with all the petty, vexatious complaints that bedevilled the operation of the old regime. Whether because of excessive caution, bureaucrats’ love of bureaucracy for its own sake, or a misplaced belief that they and not members should be in the driving seat on standards, officers often advise that something more or less akin to the old Standards Board regime should be continued.

One of the most worrying examples is the Public Law Partnership that provides legal advice to a number of councils, including Essex county council and, I believe, Brentwood borough council, where I was once a member. The partnership has prepared a model code and model arrangements for handling misconduct complaints that seem essentially to be a form of the old Standards Board regime. I see no need for a local authority to adopt a code of conduct based on such a model, or to put in place complaint-handling arrangements based upon the Standards Board regime. I see no need for a heavy, bureaucratic, gold-plated approach that has no place in the new localist standards arrangements, which should be driven by and for members.

I send a clear message to council leaders and members that where they receive such advice, they should simply tell their officers to think again. They must challenge their officers to get it right. They should tell the officers that what they are saying is wholly out of step with the new regime and its aims as approved by Parliament, and instruct them to come forward with something different—something that is proportionate and that meets the needs of members under the new regime.

I know that members are trying to do the right thing and want to make the right decisions, and that the officers giving advice sound well informed and very much in control. It is easy for members to believe, “We must do this.” I hope that today I have sent a clear message to councillors that the power is in their hands; they should exercise it and challenge their officers to come up with a light-touch scheme and approach. I know that leaders and members have the strength and capacity to do that. They should do it now, if they have not done so already. They should get on with it, using the comments made by all Members in this debate, including me, to challenge their officers. My message to monitoring officers and others who give that advice is to be professional and proportionate and to cut out the gold-plating. Let us see some common sense.

I have heard of law firms offering advice—at a price rather than pro bono, I imagine—on the standards regime and how to operate it. It is, of course, for councils to decide what advice they need. Again, I suggest that members should consider carefully whether they need outside, paid legal advice when they have their own officers. I find it hard to envisage circumstances in which seeking such advice can be genuinely justified. The new standards regime is about empowering councillors to deliver high standards of conduct; it is not about creating a new legal industry, whatever attractions that might have for some. My message to council members is at the very least to consider matters very carefully before deciding that it is necessary to involve a legal firm in the conduct of their council’s standards arrangements.

Monitoring officers are there to provide professional advice, not to decide what is to happen or judge whether a member has a disclosable pecuniary interest. I hope that I have made that clear. It is the responsibility of the member concerned to make that judgment. Members need to have confidence in the expertise, professionalism and independence of their officers and to trust that they do not have an agenda or aim that might put their advice into a particular context. Again, I encourage members to challenge their officers appropriately and robustly.

The public expect high standards of conduct from local authority members, and the vast majority of local authority members conduct themselves in an entirely appropriate manner. Across our country, they work fantastically hard for their communities. There is simply no point in a local authority needlessly imposing a burden of bureaucracy on itself. Councils now have the opportunity to free themselves of the Standards Board regime and make a fresh start free of complicated codes of conduct and resource-intensive arrangements for complaint handling. This opportunity is too important to miss, and I hope that they will take advantage of it, guided particularly by the comments made in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst again on securing the debate, which is welcome and, I hope, helpful for local authorities and councillors across this country.

I thank all Members who have taken part in this most interesting debate, and I congratulate Mr Neill on securing it. I am afraid that we will have to contain our anticipation of hearing Mr Bellingham until the Minister arrives at 4 o’clock.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

King’s Lynn Incinerator

Although there is overwhelming consensus in favour of diverting waste from landfill, support for incineration is rapidly diminishing around the world. Increasingly, it is seen as yesterday’s technology—old technology that is going out of fashion. In spite of that, Norfolk county council has opted for incineration to sort out Norfolk’s waste, in the face of massive public opposition, which I will come back to in a moment, and the opposition of the local borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk and all of Norfolk’s MPs.

In March 2011, the county council awarded a contract to Cory Wheelabrator to build a huge 268,000-tonne plant at Saddlebow, near King’s Lynn in my constituency. In spite of opposition from so many quarters, the council tried to give itself permission at a planning committee in June 2012. I am pleased, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a holding notice and called in the application, for which I and Norfolk’s other MPs are grateful. The hearing before Norfolk county council’s planning committee was a total farce, and no one received a fair hearing. I am confident that at the public inquiry, though, we will be treated with great respect; I have every confidence in the inspector.

The Saddlebow site, which is to the west of King’s Lynn, is totally unsuitable for a county-wide facility. If we are to put such a facility in Norfolk, we should not put it in the far west of the county, not least because of the number of vehicle movements necessary along already stretched roads. Furthermore, the site is upwind of Norfolk’s third largest community—I will come back to the health risks—and of the internationally renowned Wash, famous for its shellfishery and as a breeding ground for many other species. It is upwind of numerous sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty, including Roydon common and the Dersingham bog on the Sandringham estate. It is also on a floodplain so, frankly, the county council could not have picked a more unsuitable site.

The figures in the contract signed by Norfolk county council with Cory Wheelabrator are huge, amounting to £596.9 million over 25 years. I understand that the runner-up was AmeyCespa, which had a bid total £46 million more favourable than Cory Wheelabrator’s. Norfolk county council must explain why it went for the more expensive solution. We must see some transparency and the evaluation results made public. Furthermore, why did it switch to Cory Wheelabrator at the last moment? The council also negotiated a £20 million penalty clause and an agreement to pay Cory Wheelabrator’s legal fees beyond a figure of £100,000, which I find staggering. The contract surely represents an abject and total failure by the county council to protect Norfolk’s hard-pressed council tax payers. As my colleagues are aware, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued private finance initiative waste credits about a year ago. At the time, our view was that those waste credits were not a good use of money and that DEFRA’s own criteria, which demand a broad public consensus, were not met. The contract, however, was signed, and the PFI credits signed off.

Palm Paper has a large paper-mill near the proposed site and, at the time of the planning application, Cory Wheelabrator claimed that it was in detailed, advanced and ongoing negotiations with the mill for the offtake of heat. That claim was repeated in DEFRA’s waste infrastructure delivery programme report that was issued in October 2011. The WIDP report is the transactor monthly report, which is more of a technical document, and one was published the other day—again, there was talk of links with Palm Paper and the offtake of heat. Palm Paper, however, has denied that talks were taking place or that they were at an advanced stage, so we need to know what was going on. What was happening? Can the county council and Cory Wheelabrator clarify things?

What do the public think of all this? During the consultation process I chaired some public meetings, and both sides of the argument were made vehemently and strongly. Nearly 2,000 people voted, having attended those meetings, and 99% voted against the incinerator. The borough council then carried out a borough-wide referendum covering all my constituency and most of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). It was run by King’s Lynn and West Norfolk borough council under Electoral Commission rules, and the result was remarkable—65,516 people voted no on a turnout of 61.3%, so a total of 92.68% voted no. Compared with the recent police and crime commissioner elections, when the turnout was around 12%, that must be one of the most decisive, if not the most decisive result in British electoral history.

Neither Norfolk county council nor Cory Wheelabrator took part in the referendum. They could have done, but they refused to do so on so-called legal grounds. They could have accepted the result and looked for a compromise, or at least held discussions, but they did not. Cory Wheelabrator’s advisers, PPS, an independent communications consultancy, said in a document at the time that,

“we need to suggest that our absence from the referendum undermines the moral value of it and that it carries no legal value in any event,”

That was cynical and shabby.

I congratulate and commend my hon. Friend on his work in standing up for his constituents, which is the cornerstone of our democracy. Does he agree that whatever the whys and wherefores of the issue—some of the arguments are complex—localism often requires difficult and tough decisions from the locality, but democracy is ill served if, at any level of government, consultation takes place but its findings are ignored, particularly when they are as overwhelming as in this case? When difficult decisions require leadership, they should be done without consultation that is ignored.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s excellent support. My hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me about the Government’s planning policy and said, “Our policy is to put power into the hands of local communities to shape the plans and places where they live.” Does the Minister agree that it is wrong for any council, particularly a strategic tier council, to ride roughshod over local people when they have made their views so crystal clear?

I want to say a word or two about incineration. Is it efficient, does it encourage recycling and how green is it? First, it has low energy efficiency. It produces more CO2 than oil and gas, and even coal. On the plus side, it generates electricity, but in doing so the process of combustion creates new waste streams and new hazards. I will elaborate on that in a moment. Incineration now flies in the face of the whole philosophy championed in DEFRA’s 2011 waste review, which referred to “reduction, reuse and recycling”. Recycling crowds out the three R’s.

Norfolk’s current recycling rate is a pitiful 38%, one of the lowest in the country. The county council’s figures show that it will increase to 55.4% by 2020, which is still a very low rate. I suggest that incineration discourages recycling. The revolution that is taking place is about educating people, and encouraging young people and the older generation—people like my mother who had never recycled anything, but now separates her waste and follows the recycling rules. There is a recycling revolution.

Norfolk county council committed itself under the contract to supply 170,000 tonnes of waste to the incinerator. The beast will need feeding, and the council has a choice of either keeping recycling rates low, or importing waste from around the whole region, or perhaps both, which would be the worst of all worlds. A disincentive to recycle is built into incineration, which is why in the DEFRA waste hierarchy incineration is falling down the list. The whole world is turning way from incineration, including the EU and the US.

The Massachusetts state government’s waste master plan 2010-20 refers to “A Pathway to Zero Waste”, and calls

“for keeping the state’s current moratorium on new incinerators; expanding reuse, recycling and composting; ensuring greater producer responsibility for materials; and promoting recycling businesses and jobs.”

It continues:

“on a per-ton basis, recycling sustains 10 times the number of jobs that burning does.”

That is a strong argument, and it is going on around the world.

Is incineration safe and healthy? Although the filters remove most of the larger particles, those under 10 microns are not filtered out. Those nano or microparticles escape into the atmosphere and can be blown on the wind for up to 15 miles. Even if industry removed the nanoparticles down to 2.5 microns, some would still escape, and they contain CO2 obviously, nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead and dioxins. An additional problem is that a significant percentage of the waste from the incineration process is left behind as toxic fly ash that must be treated and dealt with. There is an issue with that because the site is in a flood zone.

Many of those chemicals are both toxic and biocumulative, so they may have an impact on people’s health if they are subjected to them over a prolonged period. Many of the studies are only just reaching conclusions and producing results. The situation is evolving, and the lead-in time is often long and slow. However, a recent report from the British Society for Ecological Medicine is headed, “The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators” second edition, June 2008, and the authors are Dr Jeremy Thompson and Dr Honor Anthony. They focus on people such as the very young and the very old who might have a pre-existing respiratory condition, and say that some of the dioxins, particularly PAHs—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—may have an effect on people with pre-existing conditions. They say that

“it has been estimated that these increase the lung cancer risk by 7.8 times”,

which I find very, very worrying.

What does that mean? It means that if the incinerator is located upwind of King’s Lynn, it could have an impact on people’s health. We do not know for sure, but I suggest that on the precautionary principle alone, one would not put it in the proposed location. Furthermore, substances such as mercury and lead do not biodegrade. They remain in ecosystems and they can have a long-term impact on food chains through a build-up, for example, in farming, horticulture and shellfish. We would be mad to locate the facility upwind of a population centre and upwind of very valuable agriculture and horticulture. All I say to the county council is, have a look at the potential damage. Look at the precautionary principle, and do not put a blight on our homes, on our habitats, and on my constituency and those of my hon. Friends nearby. I have a vision of west Norfolk attracting new waves of dynamic IT and life science businesses, but all that could be put at risk by the project.

I want to talk about the company itself, because Cory Wheelabrator is a partnership between Cory Environmental Ltd, which is a well-known, well-established UK company, and Wheelabrator Technologies, which is a subsidiary of the US credit company Waste Management Inc., or WMX Technologies. The parent company in America has a truly awful record of performance. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I have a long list of examples of where it has either been heavily fined or severely reprimanded. Most recently, Wheelabrator Technologies, which operates three waste incinerators in Massachusetts, agreed to pay a staggering $7.5 million sum to settle a state lawsuit. The alleged violations included emitting ash through holes in the plant’s roof and walls; failure to properly treat and dispose of ash; and dumping waste water in the surrounding wetlands.

Another payout, again in 2011, was $77,500, in agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment to resolve violations of the state’s air pollution control laws in two separate incidents, both of which stemmed from a failure to control mercury emissions released from its south Baltimore incinerator. If we go back further, there are other examples—I have a long list, and I will quote two more. In 1991, the sheriff of Ventura county, California, issued a report describing 225 different criminal and civil actions over 13 years against WMI and subsidiaries. That, again, is a staggering figure. In 1992, a report in San Diego found that

“the company’s history requires extreme caution by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors or any other governmental entity contemplating any contractual or business relationship with Waste Management.”

It also stated that

“it is clear that Waste Management engages in practices designed to gain undue influence over government officials.”

I would also like to mention one other event, from 1996, when WMX was found guilty of cheating, fraud, misrepresentation, greed and other crimes in respect of hazardous waste. A federal judge ordered an award of damages of $76 million, plus punitive damages of $15 million. Among other things, the judge said:

“What is troubling about this case is that fraud, misrepresentation and dishonesty apparently became part of the operating culture of the Defendant corporation.”

The company has serious questions to answer. I ask Cory Environmental Ltd whether it has carried out full due diligence. I also ask the Environment Agency whether it looked at Wheelabrator’s associated companies’ and parent companies’ records in America. Surely that would have some influence on the decision about whether it is a fit and proper company to be doing business in Norfolk, and furthermore, is this really a company that Norfolk’s council tax payers should be funding?

If there were no alternatives to incineration, I would be saying that perhaps we have to go along with it as the only solution available, but it is not the only solution available. Earlier, I mentioned the three R’s, the recycling revolution that is taking place that all of us want to encourage, and the change in culture across families and communities regarding people who want not only to recycle, but to add value to waste. A number of exciting technologies are now emerging, and one in particular involves anaerobic digestion plus plastics extrusion and manufacturing.

There is a company called Material Works, with which the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has signed a memorandum of understanding and a conditional contract to treat all of its 30,000 tonnes of waste. The company’s process entails, first of all, methane extraction from anaerobic digestion, and then adding fibres and digesters from the anaerobic digestion into an extrusion process, adding plastics and polymers, and ending up with a substance called Omnicite, from which plastic products such as fencing, pallets and roofing material can be manufactured. There is a conditional contract and a pilot plant is about to be opened. If it works, and there is a very strong chance that it will, given what has been proved on the continent, Norfolk county council’s waste strategy would be in complete tatters, because it would be losing out on a key waste management partner in the waste partnership, because if the waste is not obtained from west Norfolk, I do not see how the strategy could survive.

My approach—I want to make this clear to the Minister—is constructive and pragmatic. As I say, if there were no alternative to incineration, I would not be questioning the plant so vehemently, but I believe that there are cheaper, better, more modern and more exciting alternatives that would command public support. I have lived in Norfolk all my life, bar four years, and I have spent all that time in west Norfolk, which has a truly remarkable environment. We have some world-class habitats, world-class biodiversity, and an amazing tourism industry. We have some really impressive light industry and IT companies. We have a great deal going for us, with a growing community and a great historic town, in King’s Lynn. We have some of the best farming in the country and a horticultural industry that is second to none. We have a shellfish industry in the Wash that is also incredibly important and a number of SSSIs and areas of outstanding beauty. We have a community that is very proud of itself, and what concerns me a great deal is that there could be a blight on this community, and the impact would be very significant. It would be an absolute scandal if all those things I have spoken of were put at risk.

What I am saying to the Norfolk county council is, please think again. I know it has the penalty clause and that it has made commitments. I know that civil servants, officials and councillors, having made their mind up, do not like to change track, because they see it a sign of weakness. What I am saying is, why not sit down and talk to local MPs—talk to all of Norfolk’s MPs—and to the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, and look for an alternative solution that could command public support? There is an opportunity to do that, and would that not be far better than slugging it out in a public inquiry at huge public expense? There is a better way to go, and I urge it on Norfolk county council and on Cory Wheelabrator.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) on securing this debate on a subject that is of such importance to his constituents. I am always in awe of him, particularly when he arrives here at the head of an army of men and women from Norfolk who have turned out, in numbers that any of us in this place would envy in an election, in support of the cause for which he argues so eloquently.

I know my hon. Friend will understand that with the application having been called in by the Secretary of State, which he was keen to see happen, it is now not possible for me to discuss the details of the application, for fear of prejudicing that process of inquiry and call-in. However, it may be helpful if I set out briefly the general national policy background for waste policy against which the decision will be made and talk a little how about the process of public inquiry will work, so that his constituents can understand how they can engage and ensure that their opinions are taken into account in that process.

My hon. Friend recognised, and indeed saluted, the Government’s commitment to a zero-waste economy. In preparing for this debate, I came across a phrase that I thought was horrific: the waste hierarchy. When we dig behind the phrase, however, we discover a very intelligent and simple concept, which is that the first priority should be to reduce our use of any material; the second priority, if we cannot reduce our use of the material, should be to reuse it; the third priority, if we cannot reduce our use of it or reuse it, should be to recycle it; if we cannot do any of those things, we should think about energy recovery from burning it; and only as the last resort should we consider disposing of it. My hon. Friend is right to point out that energy recovery comes way down the list. To the extent that it is possible to push stuff higher up, into one of the other categories of reduction, reuse or recycling, that is better.

The Government require every area to have a plan for waste management. I recognise that Norfolk county council has such a plan and congratulate the council on that, because that is the key basis for the decisions it makes. As a Government who genuinely would like to see as many local decisions as possible, we would prefer local authorities to make decisions on waste, as on other matters, for themselves, having put in place the right policies through a plan on which they have consulted widely with local people. Our default position therefore is that we would prefer a local authority in Norfolk to take this decision. Sometimes, however, issues are so controversial or their impact will be so widespread that the Secretary of State has the right to call in the decisions. To be clear, the criteria suggest that if an application might conflict with a national policy on an important matter, have a long-term impact on economic growth, have significant effects beyond the immediate locality, or give rise to substantial controversy, there is a case for the Secretary of State to call it in to make the decision at national level.

After my hon. Friend and all the other Norfolk MPs, plus others—a total of 20 MPs, I believe—and many other people suggested that the Secretary of State should call in the application, the Secretary of State took the decision to do so. What we now start on is the process of public inquiry by an inspector. Let me briefly set out how that will work.

I am indebted to the Minister for making those important points. On the point about Norfolk’s waste strategy, does he agree with me that it would be much better if Norfolk county council had got the full support of all the districts, including Norwich city council and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk borough council, for incineration? Those other councils support the waste strategy in broad terms, but not incineration specifically, so there is a glaring fault in the waste strategy.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it would be preferable to have that support. We do need to recognise—this is not unique to incineration—that certain facilities that are required in every area of the country will never be popular among their neighbours. This facility may well be one of them, but what is absolutely the case is that there needs to be a thorough process to gain an understanding of the answers to the following questions. Is this is the right facility? Is it the right technology? Is it a necessary facility? Is it of the right scale and, critically, is it in the right place? Is the operator, as my hon. Friend has asked, a fit and proper operator? All those questions will be explored—should be explored—by the county council in putting together its plans and will be explored, to the extent that they are planning issues, in the planning inquiry.

The timetable for the public inquiry procedure is designed to enable the application to proceed quickly and fairly. I understand that the inquiry will commence on 26 February and it is envisaged that it will run until 19 April. My hon. Friend has made clear the extent and the strength of local feeling in his constituency and beyond its borders about the application. He has set out some compelling arguments about the particular facility and the people running it, as well as the alternatives that he and his constituents believe could do the job that is required for Norfolk’s waste, without bringing the impact on communities that he so fears. That public inquiry will give him and the people he represents so capably every opportunity to develop those views, to put their arguments and to have them tested by a planning inspector. That is what will inform a decision that the Secretary of State will ultimately make. I cannot promise my hon. Friend, of course, that the decision will be one that he will welcome, but I can promise him that the process of arriving at that decision will be thorough and open and will give his constituents and him every opportunity to make their case.

Payroll Companies

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this debate to go ahead. It essentially comes down to a simple issue—the division between people who are employed and people who are self-employed. That division traditionally was quite firm; there was a definite line between the two, but in recent years it has become blurred. Certain disreputable employers have had a very strong interest in blurring that line, on the basis that they can divest themselves of responsibilities if they transfer their work force into self-employment. For instance, they do not have to pay employers’ national insurance, holiday pay, sick pay and redundancy pay. They do not have to pay into a pension scheme. Also, the workers are relieved of many if not all of the rights that people have at work.

What we have seen in the recent past—this is a comparatively recent development—is the advent of what are now called payroll companies. Those companies will say to employers, “You give us the responsibility for your payroll and the responsibility for the relationship with the work force, and we will make sure that you don’t have to pay tax, national insurance”—and all the other things that I have mentioned. In some cases, they also say, “Do a deal with us and we’ll get Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs off your back for good.” I will say more about that later.

Payroll companies seem to be active in all industries, and trade unions and other bodies have long raised objections to their activities. However, the building union UCATT—the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—recently commissioned a report by Jamie Elliott, a freelance investigative journalist, which has brought some extremely interesting and worrying developments to light. To launch the investigation, UCATT set up a fake building company called Fairbrother Builders. Jamie Elliott then approached a number of payroll companies. The biggest of these was Hudson Contract.

I should point out that the report makes it very clear that the majority of the payroll companies agreed to help to shift workers from being employed to what I would regard as bogus self-employment. Some did not, but the majority did. The biggest one, and the biggest one in the country, is called Hudson Contract. It made no attempt to conceal what it wanted to offer. It wrote in an introductory letter to Fairbrother Builders:

“We can save you money, 20% of your labour costs, by reclassifying PAYE staff, paying them through CIS.”

For hon. Members who do not know what the CIS is, it is the self-employed scheme in the construction industry; it stands for Construction Industry Scheme. The letter continued:

“Self Employed operatives, paid under CIS deduction through Hudson are not entitled to holiday pay, redundancy or notice. We are helping companies to move their PAYE labour over to CIS…Last year this saved our clients over £25M in Employers NIC, placing tax and employment law liabilities with us.”

That seems pretty disreputable to me, but what then happens, if the employer decides to go down the route of using a payroll company to transfer the work force into self-employment, is that the work force are asked to sign a contract with the payroll company. That is often sweetened slightly by a small rise in pay, but that will never compensate for all the other benefits and rights at work that in the meantime have been lost. It is particularly the pension rights that spring to mind, because pensions are so crucial in all industries, but particularly in the construction industry.

Once the contract is signed, the former employee no longer has a relationship with the original company but only with the payroll company. But of course on the ground, in the workplace, the payroll company has absolutely nothing to do with the direction of operations —in this case, in construction. The client company—by that I mean the building firm—issues directions and engages with the work force, who in all practical ways remain employed but technically are not. That is a perverse situation. The contract used by Hudson states that the worker

“has no contract of any type whatsoever with the client”


“he neither has nor shall make any contractual claim of any type against the client”.

Yet the contract also makes it clear that the new relationship between the freelance operative—I am using its words—and the client has little to do with the way that work is agreed on the ground. In practice, it has nothing to do with the way the work is carried out and agreed on the ground. The contract continues:

“The terms upon which that labour shall be supplied shall be negotiated directly between the freelance operative and the client...upon the conclusion of those negotiations, Hudson will step into the shoes of the client and contract with the freelance operative on the terms negotiated.”

Reading that, I have just noticed that Hudson do not know the difference between a verb and a noun, but that is by the by.

The Hudson website also makes very bold claims as to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs:

“Say goodbye to HMRC status issues and employment tribunal challenges.”

It is a bold statement, but to a large extent, Hudson is justified in making that claim. HMRC challenged Hudson in 2007—when I say challenge, I mean a legal challenge—and took the case to the High Court. HMRC argued that, despite what the contract stated, there was an implied relationship between the construction company and the freelance operative because of the reality of the relationship between the company and the operative, which is denied by the contract and the services offered by Hudson and other such companies. It makes perfect sense; there is an employer, which employs people to do a certain job, and that job and that relationship do not change, and yet people are told, “You are now self-employed. Despite the fact that you work for the same people and despite the fact that you do the same job, you are now technically self-employed.”

Incredibly, the High Court rejected the argument, and on top of that rejection, the past three years have seen the number of employer compliance reviews conducted by HMRC fall dramatically. The cumulative effect is that firms in all industries, not only construction—this has spread to other industries as well—have little to fear from Government agencies, because HMRC is powerless to do anything.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing an important debate for all Members’ constituents affected by the worrying trend of payroll companies in many sectors. Does he agree that it is about time the Government looked at the practice, certainly to benefit the workers who are losing out, but also because it affects workers’ confidence to spend money and therefore the wider economy? That is why the Government need to look at this in detail.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He makes an important point. Creating economic uncertainty—and there is enough of that about anyway—and payroll companies spreading it around by making people self-employed so that they do not have rights at work or confidence in the future, is hardly an incentive to spend money. If people are not spending money, there will be even less economic confidence or confidence in other areas.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on developing some interesting arguments about this largely unknown and certainly unexplored and ignored issue. May I pay tribute to my union, UCATT, which I joined as a young teenager in 1979? Members will say that that year does not sound right, but—

Yes, child labour.

I pay tribute to the work that UCATT has carried out in bringing the issue to the attention of a much wider audience. Can my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) say why, at a time when Liverpool city council, for example, is having 52% of its discretionary budget cut—up to £300 million—the Government are turning a blind eye to payroll companies, which are avoiding paying up to £2 billion into Treasury coffers?

I thank my hon. Friend. He makes a good point. The council that largely covers my constituency, Waltham Forest, faces some savage cuts, while we see billions—it is billions, by the way—disappearing down the Swanee, because HMRC is powerless to stop it. HMRC itself is facing cuts and has been for quite some time. It will face more and more cuts; its staff numbers are being reduced, so it is unable to police this behaviour.

I should point out that not all payroll companies behave as Hudson does. When Jamie Elliott began his report, he found companies that said, “We are not going to help you do this. This is inappropriate. We think that you are engaging in bogus self-employment, so we will not help you.” The majority, however, did not say that. The majority said, “Yes, we are more than happy to help you transfer people to”—using my words—“bogus self-employment.”

I have mentioned the more respectable payroll firms, but at the dodgy end of the market things can be even worse. There are cases of workers turning up for work and being told, “Although you have not signed or agreed anything, you are now self-employed. You are not employed by the company.” They are transferred without their knowledge. That may technically be illegal, but under the current circumstances and in such an uncertain industry as construction, many employees will not be keen to complain about an employer, which clearly does not think that much of them if they want to transfer them to being self-employed.

I have described a fairly straightforward sort of scam— I use the word advisedly—but another scam is the use of umbrella companies, which is rather more complicated. Workers remain employed, but by an umbrella company, which is in turn set up by the payroll company. The cost saving is made by a tax dodge that allows tax relief on employees’ travel and subsistence to be used to pay employers’ national insurance. Since employers’ NI runs at 13.8%, we are talking about a considerable saving. That is the incentive that payroll companies have to set up the umbrella companies that allow the dodge to take place.

A final example of the sorts of practice being engaged in is the use of offshore status. For example, International Subcontracting Solutions Ltd employs 24,000 supply teachers across the UK. Because it is based in the Channel Islands and is a payroll company, ISS is not liable to pay employers’ NI, although it does technically employ the teachers. At the same time, the recruitment agencies in the UK that actually find the jobs for the teachers are also not liable to pay employers’ NI. On all the fronts I describe, the Treasury is losing out in a big way—to the tune of billions of pounds.

My final point is in line with the intervention that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) made. The Elliott report puts the amount of money lost to the Treasury at £1.9 billion, but that only covers construction. It is an estimate, but it is pretty accurate. There have been no detailed reports, which is why I have concentrated on the Elliott report, but from what I can gather, such practices are spreading to other industries. I have received e-mails describing how they are spreading into the hospitality, catering and retail industries.

If we take all those industries together, my suspicion is that billions of pounds are being lost to the Treasury at a time when we are seeing savage cuts to public services left, right and centre. Every Member can cite cuts to services in their constituencies and local authorities used by the people who they represent, and yet all this money seems to be disappearing down the Swanee.

Thousands, certainly tens of thousands, and possibly millions of workers in the long term, will be deprived of basic rights at work, their holiday and sick pay, and their pension and redundancy entitlements. That will do only one thing: fuel a lack of confidence in the economic future of this country.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way just before he concludes his remarks. He has made a powerful speech. It is important to remember that self-employment and freelancing are good, but we are looking to tackle bogus self-employment. Is it incumbent on the Government to launch a full inquiry, through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, into this, not only for the sake of the employees and the Treasury, but because of issues in the construction sector such as blacklisting? People who work in the construction sector deserve an awful lot more from this Government. They deserve a full investigation of all the facts around their employment and future.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It would be a sensible solution for the Department to conduct an inquiry into the various tax dodges, particularly in construction, but in other industries as well; into blacklisting and all those slightly shadowy practices, some of which are straightforwardly illegal, some of which verge on illegality and some of which are straightforwardly legal; and into how it affects people and business and economic confidence.

Apart from the impact on employees, such an inquiry might cover how much damage is being done to small and medium-sized enterprises in the construction industry, which are suffering seriously during this recession only because they treat their employees fairly and are undermined by such people.

That is a very good point. I have met many employers, including in my constituency—I represent two boroughs, Redbridge and Waltham Forest, because it crosses borough boundaries—who have told me exactly that: “We are a legitimate employer. We want to do our best by our employees. We want to protect them. We want to give them decent wages, holiday pay, sick pay, pension entitlements and all that. Sadly, however, we are being undercut by people who are frankly cowboys.”

It would be an excellent idea for BIS, perhaps under the leadership of the Minister, to look into such practices and see exactly what is going on. Those practices are not often brought into public light, partly because people who suffer under them are very nervous about reporting them. People have come to my surgery, as they probably have done to those of many other hon. Members, to tell me about such practices, but as soon as I ask them whether they will go on the record, they say, “Well, no. I can’t go on the record, because I will never work again, at least not in the industry”—for instance, construction—“as I will effectively be blacklisted.”

In conclusion, the two elements—the loss of money to the Treasury, which is very significant, and the loss of rights and pay, the resulting loss of economic confidence and the basic unfairness of some of the practices—should be brought to light and be ended, which is why I am interested to hear the Minister’s response.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) for securing and introducing this debate, and for outlining the range of issues about which he and his colleagues are concerned. Towards the end of his speech, he rightly spoke about how it can be a challenge for people who are worried or vulnerable within the employment market to speak up on things that are not right. That is one reason why it is important that they can bring such matters in confidence to their Member of Parliament, so that MPs can take the opportunity to raise issues in the House and question Ministers through such vehicles as Westminster Hall debates. It is right and fitting that he has done so today.

It is worth putting on the record that the problem we are discussing is not the existing model for payroll companies per se. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) pointed out, there is a range of different employment statuses and ways of working. We enjoy having the kind of labour market that has flexibility, which has many benefits for our economy. At the same time, however, that does not mean that we should not be concerned when vulnerable people are subject to practices that should not be going on.

It is worth noting that, even in the investigation that was carried out, not all the companies approached acted in any way improperly, as has been mentioned. Many payroll companies provide a valuable role, not least in small and medium-sized enterprises up and down the land that may not be able to have their own full human resources departments. Outsourcing that service can be essential, but of course we want to ensure that that service is not being used as a front for tax avoidance or to deny people rights to which they should absolutely have access.

The practice that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead described, from that investigation, of a company basically wanting to shift people from PAYE to self-employment, without changing anything else about their work, management structures and so on is absolutely unacceptable. He is right to highlight that that type of behaviour is fake self-employment. HMRC has powers to investigate and clamp down, and those companies will then be liable for tax and national insurance contributions and issues such as holiday pay, when an individual was effectively an employee rather than self-employed. The company, not the individual worker, would be liable for those costs.

I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I am shocked to learn was a teenager in the late 1970s—some appalling kind of child labour must have been going on.

I was exploited at a young age. If money is demonstrably not being collected by HM Treasury, has the Minister queried why? Why is a blind eye being turned to the construction sector? Is that perhaps because the casualisation of our industry that results from payroll companies’ practices is a price worth paying?

I do not agree, and I do not accept that a blind eye is being turned, because HMRC is able to investigate. One of the concerns that has been mentioned is the reduction in the number of investigations opened. I can understand why, at first glance, those figures are of concern, but it is worth bearing in mind the context. Basically, there is much greater use of intermediaries and employment businesses in the recruitment of people into the industry, so the smaller number of cases opened by HMRC does not necessarily reflect a smaller number of individuals covered. A case may be opened now that would have involved many individual cases some years ago, and therefore I do not draw the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman.

It is important that HMRC investigates, because none of us wants to see tax avoidance. We may disagree on the figures and estimates. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead suggested that the figure was £1.9 billion. The Government’s estimate—it is based on the previous Labour Government’s estimate, which is very much in line—is about £350 million a year. We therefore disagree on the scale, but whether it is £1.9 billion or £350 million, we can all agree that tax avoidance is not welcome or acceptable if the practice is deliberate and people are actually employed rather than self-employed. The Government are, of course, taking significant steps to clamp down on tax avoidance.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the worrying issue of companies suddenly trying to transfer to self-employed status people who had previously had full employee status. Of course, as he acknowledged, that would be illegal, because companies cannot unilaterally change employment contracts.

It is worth recognising that more can be done to improve the information available to individuals about their rights. The Government website, which is a good source of information, is being revamped under the banner. We in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will look at the information about different employment statuses that we provide through that website and at how best to get across that information. In doing so, we will consider some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised in his speech.

There is also the pay and work rights helpline, which is a free service. It is confidential, which is important, given the fear that vulnerable employees might sometimes face. There is somewhere that is free for them to go for advice in confidence. The number is 0800 917 2368, which I encourage MPs to be aware of and to pass it on their constituents.

We have a flexible labour market in this country, which is valuable in itself. The challenge is to distinguish between false and genuine self-employment. Of course, not everyone who is self-employed and works in the construction industry is falsely self-employed; it is an entirely legitimate path for individuals to choose. Equally, we should not assume that everyone who works in that way in the construction industry is in some way cheating the system.

We have a range of different employment statuses—employee, worker, fixed term, part time, temporary—and it is right for employees and companies to be able to choose between those options, so that they can find the approach that works best for them. It would not be helpful to suggest that any type of employment status is better than the others, because people value different elements. Flexibility is often appreciated in both directions, as is the extra control that workers often have on how they undertake their contracted work, rather than being directed as an employee would be.

I do not think that anyone is suggesting that every self-employed person is dodgy or that they are going through an organisation that is in some way dodgy. Like many people, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and I were self-employed in the construction industry. The issue here is about the practices that are demonstrably called into question by the report that was referred to earlier. If nothing else, will the Minister agree to meet the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and perhaps other unions to discuss the matter in detail?

The debate today gives us an opportunity to discuss a range of related issues and for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look at what it can do. HMRC plays a significant role in the matter, so it would be worth engaging with Treasury Ministers. I will undertake to contact my counterparts in the Treasury after the debate to express the concerns that have been raised, particularly those in the UCATT report. I will make sure that they have a copy of that report and are aware of the issues. Anyone who likes can report any concerns about tax evasion directly to HMRC. The authors of the report and, indeed, hon. Members may want to do so on 0845 915 3296.

The resourcing of HMRC was mentioned, and we are investing more than £900 million in HMRC to tackle tax evasion, criminality, unpaid tax debt and avoidance. We announced on 3 December an additional £77 million by the end of 2014-15 to expand the anti-avoidance and evasion activity, because it is important. Some issues have been mentioned today not only in the construction sector but through false self-employment, which we recognise is a problem. More widely, there have been well publicised cases of tax avoidance, and we want to ensure that they are dealt with.

It is estimated that some 300,000 people are falsely registered as self-employed. I do not know whether that figure is correct. Perhaps the Minister has the correct figure. If she does not, will she write to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) with her Department’s estimate of the number of people who are falsely registered?

I do not have the estimate of the number of people who are falsely registered, but the Government’s estimate of the cost of false self-employment in this area is £350 million. I will certainly see whether HMRC has additional estimates of the number of people who are falsely registered. I would be surprised if it were as high as 380,000, given HMRC’s estimate of the cost. I will endeavour to find out and to write to the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead.

The construction industry scheme was mentioned, and it has an important role to play in tackling tax evasion. We do not want to fall into the trap of thinking that many people are trying not to pay tax. Most people pay what is due and pay it on time, and that is as true in the construction sector as anywhere else. We are aware, however, that because of the flexible contracts in construction, where itinerant labour is often used, there can be challenges. That is why the construction industry scheme was set up, so that a deduction or withholding payment of 20% can be made from the payments to a subcontractor if their track record indicates that that is necessary. The scheme secures £3.2 billion a year that might otherwise be at risk. In cases of genuine self-employment, at the end of the year appropriate reports and returns are sent in and a refund is paid.

Does the Minister not realise that the reason why the Government have to deal with this problem is that workers in the construction industry are, given the state of the industry, simply glad to be in a job, so they will not raise concerns themselves? It is important that the Government take hold of the issues and deal with them on behalf of the workers. Workers fear for their jobs at the moment, which is why they are not bringing forward concerns themselves.

I recognise that at a time when unemployment is certainly higher than we would like—thank goodness, it is starting to come down, but we all want it to be much lower—that has a knock-on effect on the confidence of people in the labour market to challenge behaviour. That is why the Government, and, I would argue, hon. Members, have an important role to play in ensuring that people have information about their rights. Helplines offer free and confidential advice. Employers’ responsibilities are often highlighted, and public pressure can be applied, particularly to large household name companies, to ensure that good practice is followed.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).