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Westminster Hall

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 February 2013

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Accident and Emergency Provision (North-East)

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

Government targets say that no more than 5% of patients should wait longer than four hours in accident and emergency departments, yet on Monday 14 January, The Northern Echo reported that the North East Ambulance Service

“has admitted that it is struggling to meet demand, after an elderly Parkinson’s Disease sufferer waited 11 hours before being taken to hospital. North-East Ambulance Service (NEAS) NHS Trust bosses said a surge in winter-related call-outs meant it was having to prioritise patients. NEAS has apologised to 84-year-old Eileen Anderson, of Marton, Middlesbrough, after it emerged ambulances are queuing for hours at hospitals across the region before being able to hand over patients.”

Mrs Anderson is a constituent of mine, and although that may be an extreme example of the delays that are occurring, unfortunately, it is not an isolated incident.

Late last year, the health care regulator, the Care Quality Commission, reported that 33% of people spent more than four hours in A and E—that was before this winter—while research shows that the number of people waiting for A and E treatment in England has risen by 47,000. Those waiting times are the worst in almost a decade. Nationally, almost 1 million extra visits to A and E units across England were recorded by the Department of Health in 2010-11, with a doubling of trolley waits—people waiting in A and E for longer than four hours to be admitted—in a single year. A freedom of information request revealed that eight-hour trolley waits almost trebled between 2009 and 2011.

The CQC has warned that 17 hospitals are understaffed and cannot guarantee patients’ safety. The excellent James Cook university hospital, which serves many in my constituency, including Mrs Anderson, has said that delays in admitting patients are being caused by insufficient staff and a lack of available beds. My most recent information is that the hospital is holding weekly meetings with ambulance bosses in an attempt to alleviate delays. The trust should be praised for taking action, but the fact that action is necessary is indicative of a sorry state of affairs.

I have recently had a very unfortunate experience of the NHS involving admissions to A and E. Both my parents have been admitted to A and E over the past two months. Their care has been absolutely excellent—I could not criticise it at all—but staff took the opportunity to tell me that the staffing levels, particularly at weekends, in A and E and on wards is putting life at risk, which is surely a concern to us all.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I will try to extrapolate from during the debate.

Paramedics say that delays prevent them from responding to calls, and fear that such delays could lead to a tragedy. As recently as last week, it was reported that the hospital was the second worst in the north-east for hospital handover delays of longer than two hours. Any hospital handover delay of more than two hours is classified as a serious incident by the NEAS. Of equal concern is the fact that in December, the hospital failed to meet national targets of responding to 75% of the most serious incidents—classified as red incidents—within eight minutes; its result was 69%.

Accident and emergency departments are the foremost example of NHS front-line services. If they appear to be failing, it is hard to deny that something is not right. It is not justifiable to have patients queue in a corridor, as Gladys Herbert had to. She described the situation:

“It’s as plain as the nose on my face there’s not enough beds and not enough staff in the hospital”.

That occurred at James Cook hospital, where there was a queue of up to 10 ambulances at one point. Frankly, that is an appalling risk to patient safety. The Prime Minister has personally promised to protect the NHS, but he is leaving patients such as Mrs Anderson and Mrs Herbert waiting longer in pain and discomfort.

I rise to support my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I entirely support what he is saying, because some weeks ago my own mother lay on a hospital trolley for five hours at James Cook hospital, waiting for admission to a ward. Ambulance staff had to remain with her until she was admitted before they could go on to their next task, which is a complete and utter mismatch of resources. I support my hon. Friend’s comments.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is a sorry state of affairs, and personal experiences, that people from our area are reporting. The warning signs are there, and I believe front-line staff when they say, as has been reported:

“Somebody is going to die somewhere down the line and it could be the most vulnerable, children. Families of sick people arrive at hospitals and expect to find them in a bed, but they are still outside in an ambulance.”

In fact, a tragedy has already taken place. Last year, an ambulance crew brought a patient to the hospital, but he was not officially handed over to A and E staff. Before he could be seen by a nurse or doctor, he went into a fatal cardiac arrest. The patient, who has not been identified, died at James Cook university hospital, having waited for emergency treatment for more than two hours.

The delays are obviously stretching resources all over the place; for example, ambulances from as far away as Lancashire are being brought in to cover other emergencies. I fear that, with changes in NHS provision elsewhere in the north-east and north Yorkshire, James Cook hospital’s resources might become even more stretched. Surgeries’ general reduction in their late opening times for out-of-hours appointments in some areas across the north-east is putting further pressure on regional A and Es. For example, in County Durham, 69 GP surgeries offered late opening appointments in 2011, but in 2012 that was down to 61 surgeries, which is a 7.6% drop. In Newcastle, 33 GP surgeries offered late appointments in 2011, which dropped to 24 surgeries in 2012. In Hartlepool, 15 GP surgeries offered late appointment times in 2011, but that dropped to 10 in 2012, which is a 31.3% decrease. As the Minister will admit, triage is essential, and that is enormously helped by walk-in centres in my constituency, across Middlesbrough and in Redcar, especially as regards less affluent transient populations who are often not on GP registers.

As the Minister knows following the meeting he kindly agreed to have with me and a representative of the trust, urgent care provision in east Cleveland is facing particular problems. The trust claims to be taking steps to resolve the problems, but if the issues are not resolved, I fear that in the interim—and possibly in the longer term—a reduction in urgent care provision in east Cleveland might further increase the demand faced by James Cook hospital’s accident and emergency department, as patients search for alternative treatment. To an extent, we have already seen that with the draw-down in services at Guisborough general hospital’s minor injury unit.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing what is an important debate for many of our constituents. Many of my constituents use James Cook hospital—some by choice, because it is such a good hospital. The hon. Gentleman is talking about the reorganisation of services across the north-east and its impact. We have seen A and Es closing, or being focused in smaller areas to provide specialist care. How would a new hospital at Wynyard impact on future service provision for our constituents?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his input. A hospital at Wynyard would be an excellent provision for the region. It was planned by the previous Labour Government. That was as part of a different financial package and under a different scheme, but it was always in the Labour Government’s plans. It is good that the present Government also want that to happen. However, we are discussing current services, and the impact of the reduction in moneys on James Cook hospital and services in east Cleveland and north Yorkshire, which he will no doubt have read about in the local press.

Changes in provision for A and E departments in north Yorkshire might increase the pressures faced by James Cook hospital. In the neighbouring constituency of Scarborough, the trust has given assurances as to the future of overnight A and E services, but local people feel that there are uncertainties over the future of those services. In Northallerton, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), has been campaigning against cuts to services, particularly maternity services, at the Friarage hospital. In Malton, the minor injuries unit has been closed at weekends. I fear that if services at those hospitals are further reduced, additional demand might be placed on James Cook hospital, despite the fact that it already struggles to cope with demand.

When someone is taken to hospital in an ambulance, most reasonable people would expect them to receive care and treatment very quickly. Although I accept that demand is difficult to predict, I certainly do not expect my constituents to have to wait two and a half hours after been taken to hospital by paramedics. I do not hold nurses or doctors responsible for that; after all, more than 5,000 nurses have been cut across the NHS since May 2010. The situation is more likely to have been caused by the budgetary squeeze and the organisational changes that local NHS trusts find themselves dealing with due to the Government’s cuts and unnecessary NHS reorganisation.

I hope that my examples make it clear that there are serious problems on Teesside and across the region, and that they cannot be allowed to continue. I appreciate that the Minister is monitoring the situation with regard to urgent care staff in other hospitals in my constituency. I would be grateful if, alongside that process, he closely monitored A and E performance at James Cook university hospital. There is a very real danger that the situation could deteriorate. At the moment, the capacity for the hospital’s A and E department is 60,000 patients a year; that is what it was designed for. This year, it expects almost double that figure—105,000 patients. That is a time-bomb waiting to go off, which would have repercussions across the region.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate and I thank all hon. Members who have come to advocate their constituents’ needs. The hon. Gentleman and I met earlier this year to talk through some of the problems and challenges in his local area. We discussed some of the individual cases that he has highlighted today, which we all agree to be unacceptable, in particular the case of one of his constituents who experienced a completely unacceptable 11-hour delay as a result of problems with getting the high-quality care they deserved.

There are several interacting issues: the ambulance service, the local A and E response, and the services provided at local A and Es. One key theme, as the hon. Gentleman and I discussed when we met, and as his speech made apparent, is the need to fundamentally change and improve how the NHS looks after older people. That point was brought home vividly last week by the report on the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. In addition, at the end of last year the Dr Foster hospital guide found that 30% of older people in hospital should not be treated there, and that more community-based support was needed. When we met, the hon. Gentleman rightly stressed the important role that local, smaller health care providers, in Guisborough and East Cleveland and elsewhere, can play in providing better community-based care. When people do not need to be in A and E in the first place, it is better for them to be looked after in their homes and communities, and it also brings financial benefits to the NHS. For older people, being admitted to hospital when they do not need to be there is distressing, and their length of stay tends to be much longer.

The hon. Gentleman threw down this challenge: will the changes being made to the health care system nationally put us in a better place to deal with the long-term challenge? The answer to that is yes, and I will briefly deal with that point before I come on to the local challenges that he has outlined.

Why do we need to change what we are doing in the NHS? I have set out clearly that we must do better, by keeping people well in the community. Before I came to the debate, I was talking, over the river at St Thomas’ hospital, about how we must improve children’s health, better look after children with long-term conditions, ensure that children with asthma and diabetes who do not need to be in hospital are not there in the first place, and provide better community-based care. Such improvements are particularly important for the care of the elderly. From April, we will put 80% of the NHS budget into the community, with clinical leadership through doctors and nurses. That is a strong step in the right direction of focusing on community-based and preventive care. I believe that we should all regard that as a good way forward.

My recent experience reflects what the Minister has said. Older people who stay in hospital for long periods of time come out able to do less for themselves because things are done for them in hospital. When my father came out of hospital after five weeks, he was able to do far less. Will the transfer of funding into the community prevent that from happening? Will it allow people like him to be supported at home so that they do not have to spend long periods of time in hospital and come home with less mobility?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. A prolonged period of bed rest can have a huge impact on an older person’s mobility and their ability to look after themselves. The challenge, as she rightly outlines, is to get more support in the community. Putting the budget in the community is a step towards the provision of more preventive care, more community-based care and more care that keeps people, particularly older people, better supported and looked after in their homes.

The other challenge is to achieve a more joined-up approach between secondary care in an acute hospital—such as James Cook hospital—and care in the community. There is sometimes too much silo working, and we need to break that down and develop a more joined-up approach to care. That might be done, for example, through intermediate care teams that operate out of a hospital, who will help through physiotherapy and occupational therapy. When an older person arrives in A and E, we need immediately to gear up the right support in the short and longer term to enable them to go home more quickly. That is an important part of a more integrated and joined-up approach to ensure that an older person can be effectively supported and looked after at home if that is right for them. It is important that we get that more integrated approach across the whole country.

On local issues, the hon. Gentleman highlighted two-hour handover delays, which are clearly completely unacceptable. In my experience, the fault for handover delays might lie in two areas. First, the triaging system in a hospital might need to be reviewed to ensure that ambulance handovers are dealt with more promptly and quickly. Secondly, a delay in ambulance handover results in ambulance crews and ambulances being pinned down in A and E when they need to be back out on the road elsewhere. I know that the hospital will want to look at that closely.

In relation to having more community-based care, sufficient community-based resources must be available to better support people with day-to-day health care needs in the community, so that they are not forced to pitch up at a hospital’s main A and E department. At our meeting, the hon. Gentleman and I discussed the fact that the opening hours of the urgent care centres at Guisborough and East Cleveland hospitals are now 9 am to 5 pm during the week and 8 am to 8 pm at weekends, which has made it difficult for local people to access local health care service and created pressure on A and E departments. Having spoken to the trust, I am pleased to report that job interviews will be held on, I believe, 25 February for specialist nurse and other posts at those hospitals, with a view to extending the opening hours again in the future.

I make a special plea on that issue. Weardale, in my constituency, is in one of the remotest parts of the country, but 5,000 people live there. Their out-of-hours GP service is at Bishop Auckland hospital, which for some of them is 20 miles away across roads that are among the most remote in the country, and particularly difficult to use in winter. Will the Minister look at that?

Absolutely. Sir Bruce Keogh will be conducting a review of emergency and other urgent care services, in which A and E services will not be lumped into one category but will be considered in a more nuanced way, reflecting the fact that rural communities face particular challenges. The review will consider how out-of-hours care, urgent care and emergency care should be delivered in such areas to take into account the rural nature and the distances that people have to travel. In some cities, there is a lot of A and E provision, but in other, more rural parts of the country where people have to travel further that is not the case. I am pleased that Sir Bruce will take that into account in his review.

Will that review also cover services such as ambulance services? There are real concerns in Weardale, where I am involved in a campaign, that lives will be put at risk if ambulance services are not improved.

It is absolutely right to say that any review of A and E provision, and urgent care provision, must take into account travelling distances and transfer times to hospitals and between hospitals. Those issues will be part of the discussion and the review, although they are not the major thrust of what Sir Bruce is doing. However, a number of hon. Members have arranged to meet my ministerial colleague Earl Howe, who is currently examining several issues related to ambulances, and I am sure that he would also be pleased to see the hon. Lady to talk through some of the local issues in more detail.

Increased pressure on hospital services is not necessarily unusual for this time of year, notwithstanding the fact that it is completely unacceptable for there to be long handover delays or for people not to receive prompt and high-quality treatment. There are winter pressures that occur every year, and the Government will always do all we can—the previous Government did what they could as well—to ensure that the NHS is robustly funded and supported to meet such fluctuations in demand.

The Department of Health conducts daily monitoring of the winter pressures for all acute hospital providers. I am aware that South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has James Cook University hospital as its main acute site—of course, it is also the local hospital that most of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will attend—and the trust, like other organisations, has experienced some additional pressures in recent months. However, under the trust’s own internal criteria, the pressures that it experienced during late December and early January were identified as level three on a scale of one to six, which demonstrates that the trust has been busy. It is important to highlight, however, that it has been coping with those additional pressures, notwithstanding the issues raised in the debate, including the need to upscale the community-based response to prevent patients who would be better looked after in the community from being in an acute hospital setting in the first place.

It is also important to say that we expect all NHS commissioners and providers to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to manage any increases in demand, particularly during the winter. The delays in patient care that have been outlined eloquently by hon. Members are simply unacceptable, be they in A and E departments or in ambulance journeys to hospital. Delays are of concern, and the local NHS trusts and their partners must ensure that they step up their local strategies to cope with unexpected increases in demand.

We always needs to be aware of such seasonal variations in the NHS. That is why the Department of Health has given more than £300 million to the NHS specifically to deal with winter pressures. However, it is for local NHS providers to recognise that that extra investment has been made and to co-ordinate their response with the community, particularly through highly skilled community intermediate care teams, which help to get older people back home from hospital as quickly as possible so that they can be better looked after in their own homes.

The other main concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman was about ambulance performance. Delaying ambulances outside A and E departments, as a result of a temporary mismatch between A and E and hospital capacity and the numbers of elective emergency patients arriving, is simply not acceptable. There is a need for the local ambulance trust and the local hospital to work more constructively together, to ensure that such delays do not happen. That might be about having better triage, or the local ambulance trust might need to put more resources into the front line in the local area.

I also take this opportunity to say that the Government have provided £330 million of additional funding specifically to help the NHS cope with the winter pressures this year, so that patients receive the treatment they deserve. I understand that South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust received more than £1 million from that additional funding, and Middlesbrough primary care trust has received a further £264,000. Investment in social care services will also benefit the broader health system, but that requires the local trust to ensure that it uses the money wisely to address the concerns raised in the debate.

In January, the hon. Gentleman and I had what I thought was a constructive meeting with the trust, and I hope that will be the foundation for him and other local MPs to engage constructively with the trust to encourage a quick solution to the problems that have been outlined. One good thing that came out of the meeting, as the hon. Gentleman already knows, is that there is now an active process going on for the recruitment of specialist nurses to the smaller hospitals—the community hospitals —in the local area. When those nurses are in place, that will be a big step forward; I hope those hospitals will be open for additional hours, which will help to take pressure off acute settings.

In response to growing demand, an overall increase in ambulance activity and longer stays in hospital owing to more complicated medical conditions, I understand that the trust has already taken some specific measures, with £650,000 of investment being put into extra nurses and consultants. To deal with times of acute winter pressure, a bed winter ward will also open. The trust is also now working actively with its partners to redesign patient services, along the lines of the rapid response teams and intermediate care teams that I described earlier, to prevent inappropriate hospital admissions in the first place. In addition, it is exploring the development of a separate paediatric A and E department to create extra space for patients.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have hoped that some of those measures would have been in train earlier, but following our meeting, and after the trust has listened to this debate, I am sure it will be all the more determined to do what it can to put things right in the future. As he knows, through our engagement I am taking an active interest in these issues and I will welcome further discussions if there are more problems in the future, because the delays that have been described today are unacceptable.

The Minister has been very constructive in previous meetings and the response that he has given today has been very constructive as well. On specialist care staff for Guisborough hospital and East Cleveland hospital, he knows from our meeting that the trust has advertised those positions four times already. Would he be willing to meet me again if the fifth attempt also proves unsuccessful?

I have already made the offer, and I do so again now, that I am very happy to meet again. The trust is now taking the issue very seriously and is putting in place robust measures to deal with the concerns raised during this debate and when the hon. Gentleman and I met the trust. I understand that there are 16 applicants for the posts, so a good number of people have applied. I am hopeful that after the interviews on 25 February there will be additional nursing capacity in those local health care settings, to ensure that the scope of the community health care response is improved. Also, I hope that the number of hours that the services are available will be increased, because as the hon. Gentleman knows community health care is about taking pressure off acute A and E services wherever possible, and ensuring that people who can be treated locally are treated locally. That is why those two hospitals—Guisborough hospital and East Cleveland hospital—are such important care settings.

I hope that we are now in a better position, after this debate and through the actions that the trust is already taking—following our meeting earlier in the year—to deal with some of the challenges. I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which has been constructive, and I know that he and I will be meeting again if the situation in his area does not improve.

Thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing the debate.

Sitting suspended.

Collective Ministerial Responsibility

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. The debate is surprisingly topical. Only two hours ago in the Chamber, in response to an urgent question from the Opposition, the Minister responsible for press regulation, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, answered on behalf of not the Government, but the Conservative party, which I thought was rather bizarre. There followed a contribution from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech)—who is not a member of the Government or part of ministerial collective responsibility—who purported to make a statement on behalf of the Liberal Democrat party. Surely the whole purpose of collective ministerial responsibility is to ensure that there is certainty outside about the Government’s view on a particular issue, so that they do not speak with forked tongue.

Although I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who will respond to the debate, I am rather disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here in person, because it was primarily his failure to answer my written questions on how he exercises collective ministerial responsibility that caused me to request the debate.

I started asking questions about the subject in December. I asked the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude)—to whom my question to the Prime Minister was transferred—about the number of occasions on which collective ministerial responsibility had been set aside in this Parliament. I received a non-answer. I then went to ask some questions directly of the Prime Minister, but again my questions were not answered. Some of those non-answers are referred to in the briefing that is available to hon. Members. I will not go through those answers, because they are not answers. I could not understand why the Prime Minister was so reluctant to be accountable to Members of Parliament and put a straight answer to a straight question on how many occasions collective ministerial responsibility had been set aside.

After the set of answers—or non-answers—from the Prime Minister, I asked specific questions about what had happened in relation to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill last month. During consideration of Lords amendments, the Leader of the House of Commons announced that collective ministerial responsibility had been set aside—the first time that we have heard officially that that has happened—and, in answer to my intervention, explained that that was the Prime Minister’s decision. Following that, I asked the Prime Minister on what day he had set aside ministerial responsibility in relation to the Bill and the reasons for that. I have had no answers to those questions; in fact, I have had a deliberate refusal to answer. I cannot understand why, because I thought that the Government were interested in transparency and openness and that they would want to put their answers on the record.

My last stab at trying to get some answers from the Prime Minister was in the form of questions, which were answered on Monday this week. I asked,

“what the arrangements are for informing Ministers of the setting aside of collective ministerial responsibility in respect of votes in the House”

and

“on how many occasions a formal Cabinet decision has been made to set aside collective ministerial responsibility in the last 12 months.”

The answer I received was:

“It has been the practice of successive Governments not to disclose information relating to internal discussions”—

I did not ask about internal discussions, of course—

“information or forums in which decisions are made.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 462W.]

Apparently that is the Government’s policy.

However, that does not fit in well with a report in The Daily Telegraph on 15 January, by Tim Ross, about the “revolt”—as he put it—in the upper Chamber by six of the seven Liberal Democrat Front Benchers, who voted against the coalition Government on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. He wrote:

“Downing Street said Prime Minister David Cameron would seek to overturn the amendment in the Commons, but without an overall…majority the parliamentary arithmetic is against him. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg had formally agreed to suspend the convention of ‘collective responsibility’ which applies to all Cabinet ministers on Government decisions. No. 10 said the decision to suspend ministerial responsibility, agreed before the Lords vote yesterday, was ‘the first time it has happened under this Coalition’.”

In a sense, a No. 10 spokesman was giving answers to my parliamentary questions, which the Prime Minister himself had refused to answer before the House. I find that extraordinary.

The situation was compounded. The article continued:

“Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, witnessed and recorded the agreement between the Tory and Lib Dem leaders yesterday and ruled that the approach was permissible under current rules governing the ministerial code.”

Where does that fit in with the non-answer that I received from the Prime Minister, saying that it is not the practice to disclose information relating to internal discussions, information or forums in which decisions are made?

The article continued:

“‘Having consulted the Cabinet Secretary they (Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg) have recorded their agreement to set aside collective responsibility on this occasion,’ the spokesman said.”

My concerns are, first, to see whether we can get the issue of collective ministerial responsibility out in the open, and secondly, to chide the Government and the Prime Minister—I have to name him, as head of the Government —for not following the policy that he has said he would follow, which is to promote transparency in government.

In a speech the Prime Minister made on 26 May 2009, titled “Fixing broken politics”, he said, under the sub-heading of “Transparency”, that

“there’s one more item on the agenda: transparency. Ask most people where politics happens and they’d paint a picture of tight-knit tribes making important decisions in wood-panelled rooms, speaking a strange language. If we want people to have faith and get involved, we need to defeat this impression by opening politics up—making everything transparent, accessible and human. And the starting point for reform should be a near-total transparency of the political and governing elite, so people can see what is being done in their name.”

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for spelling out his argument. Before the upper House broke ranks, as it were, when some Liberals voted with the Labour party and most Conservatives voted with the Government, was it clear that that would happen? Those of us who just read the newspapers were told that it was a surprise; we were not told that it was planned in advance by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, because the revolt was on primary legislation, whereas the only issue on which the Deputy Prime Minister had given notice that he would lead his troops in the opposite direction to the rest of the coalition was when, in August, he said he would withdraw his support for any Boundary Commission proposals put through the House via a statutory instrument. The revolt must have come as a bit of a surprise, but back in August he was giving public notice that he himself would set aside collective Cabinet responsibility, with or without the Prime Minister’s consent. In light of the information I have set out, it seems as though there was no consent at that stage to set aside collective ministerial responsibility.

Will my hon. Friend express a view in his narrative on whether the principle of collective ministerial responsibility is being applied rather capriciously? I have in mind those Parliamentary Private Secretaries who had to resign their admittedly very junior Government positions because they were in favour of an in/out referendum on Europe, which is now such a mainstream policy that the Opposition are being taunted about whether they, too, subscribe to it. Does he know whether those people have been offered their jobs back and on what definition of collective responsibility they were deprived of them in the first place?

That is a telling point. All I know is that, for one Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Private Secretary who voted against the Government on tuition fees and consequently was forced to resign her position, it was only a few weeks before she was reinstated, and she has subsequently reached ministerial level. That is the rule that seems to apply to minority members of the coalition. As far as those on the Conservative side of the coalition are concerned, I have no information that suggests any Parliamentary Private Secretary who has been forced to resign has subsequently been reinstated, even if their reinstatement would coincide with a change of Government policy.

On the face of it, double standards seem to be operating, which is why transparency on the rules that apply to Parliamentary Private Secretaries is important. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will be rather more forthcoming than the Prime Minister has been so far, because collective ministerial responsibility is a developing subject. We have already heard the Prime Minister, having initially said that he has not made up his mind, publicly say that, in the event of an in/out referendum in the next Parliament, which we all welcome, it would not be possible for members of his Government to vote for us to leave the European Union if he, the Prime Minister, were of the opinion that we should stay in the European Union. Collective ministerial responsibility apparently will not, therefore, be set aside on that very important issue, on which divisions within the Conservative party, and indeed across parties, go very deep.

If the Prime Minister were not to achieve the great repatriation of powers that he expects, and if he were to choose instead to lead the campaign to leave the European Union, would the same provisions for collective responsibility apply?

I do not know, but it is a good question. Unfortunately, the only way to receive an on-the-record response to that question from the Prime Minister is by tabling a parliamentary question. So far, there are no responses to such questions on the record, but perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten my hon. Friend with an answer.

Obviously, a lot of people are saying, “If we are to have a renegotiation, we should wait to see the outcome before deciding whether we wish to leave.” That view is taken, for example, by the Mayor of London, and it seems odd to announce at this stage that in the future, irrespective of how much or how little is clawed back as a result of renegotiation, no one will be allowed to vote against the Government by voting to leave the European Union, without giving up their ministerial position. Of course that is different from when we last had a referendum on the European Union, when it was possible for members of the Government to campaign on either side of the argument.

My hon. Friend referred to Parliamentary Private Secretaries resigning over European votes, even though what they resigned over is now effectively Government policy, but what about casualties of the vote on House of Lords reform? The interpretation of many Conservatives, including me, is that they were not voting against their Government because the coalition agreement simply stated that a committee would be established to bring forward proposals, yet they lost their jobs. Just a few months later, they see Liberal Democrat Ministers walking through the Lobby to vote against coalition policy although there was not a comma between the reform of parliamentary boundaries and the alternative vote referendum.

My hon. Friend makes a good point that demonstrates the inconsistency, and the feeling of unfairness, or even injustice, that it generates among parliamentary colleagues. That is why I hope for clarification on to what extent, if at all, the Government have altered the concept of collective ministerial responsibility. It seems to many, including from a number of comments made by Liberal Democrats, that notwithstanding what is said in the coalition agreement and the guidance for Ministers, there has been a change in the approach to collective ministerial responsibility.

One of the problems is that the Deputy Prime Minister cannot differentiate between collective ministerial responsibility and collective responsibility. He sees everything in terms of coalition, and thinks that Back-Bench Members of either the Conservative party or the Liberal Democrats have responsibility equal to that of members of the coalition Government, which is palpably wrong.

At oral questions yesterday, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he would

“make it a priority to introduce transparency into collective ministerial responsibility, which seems to be being set aside without any proper accountability to the public or the House”.

He replied:

“As the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed before, collective responsibility prevails where there is a collective agreement and a collective decision on which collective responsibility is based. It is not easy, and certainly not possible to enforce collective responsibility in the absence of a collective decision taken first.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 697.]

I think A-level English language students will in due course be asked to interpret that. By muddling up collective ministerial responsibility and collective party political responsibility, the Deputy Prime Minister demonstrates a lack of understanding of the significance and importance of the concept of collective ministerial responsibility; its importance is that it gives certainty to people outside who want to know about Government policy.

The Liberal Democrats have a history of speaking with forked tongue. They often enunciate a different policy for different groups of potential electors, or electors in different parts of the country, because they think no one will check on the inconsistencies between policies. It seems as though their attitude towards speaking with forked tongue is tainting the whole Government.

I worry that a lack of intellectual rigour is being brought to the issue. That goes to the heart of the governance of our country. It is not just an academic topic to be discussed in essays; it bears on how the Government operate, the predictability with which they operate and, most importantly, the information available to people who rely on Government decisions. As I said at the outset, the situation today is that nobody knows the Government’s view on press regulation, because all that we had in response to the urgent question were statements in the House from party spokesmen. The issue will develop further in future, which is why we need proper accountability.

In a debate on 29 January, I asked my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to tell us who had set aside collective responsibility and, if it was the Prime Minister, why. He said:

“My hon. Friend will be aware that the Prime Minister has responsibility for the ministerial code. Indeed, when ministerial collective responsibility is explicitly set aside, it is the Prime Minister who makes that decision”—

the Prime Minister alone, not the Deputy Prime Minister. The Leader of the House continued:

“He is clearly doing it, as the House will understand, in the context of coalition government.” —[Official Report, 29 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 807-8.]

When I asked the Prime Minister about that, all I got was a reference back to what the Leader of the House had said, even though according to the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister is solely responsible, and therefore accountable for the policy.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Cannot the entirety of what he is saying be summed up in one sentence? I speak with some experience from Northern Ireland. When political parties and philosophies in a coalition are diametrically opposed, inevitably we will end up with the problem that he is trying to rationalise.

I submit that we should not necessarily end up with that problem. We know that one of the disadvantages of coalition government is that it leads to indecision, lowest common denominator decision-making and so on, but lowest common denominator decision-making does at least have a lowest common denominator. What we seem to have is a Government who take two parallel decisions at the same time and pick and mix.

That is evidenced further by the answer given yesterday to complaints about the change in the Government’s approach to inheritance tax. The answer, given by the Secretary of State for Health, was that there is an important difference between promises made by the Conservatives while in opposition and pledges made after the coalition agreement:

“That commitment on inheritance tax was a Conservative manifesto commitment. It’s not in the coalition agreement, so there is an important difference”.

It is not in the coalition agreement, but it is not specifically ruled out of the agreement either. Now the coalition and the agreement are being used as excuses for basically ripping up any policy that the Government do not like and replacing it with another. That is creating a lot of confusion among people outside, who are wondering where that leaves manifestos. We vote for parties on the basis of manifestos. If at the next general election a lot of people vote for the Conservative party on the basis that they will get an in/out referendum, and we then find that we do not have an overall majority and enter into some sort of coalition agreement, the manifesto pledge on which we got so many millions of votes will be torn up.

I am afraid that I am surprised that my hon. Friend has taken so long to realise that the creation of the coalition automatically meant the ripping up of the manifestos, except in so far as the manifesto policies were identical to those in the coalition agreement. Wherever they were not, all bets were off. That is what is so undemocratic about coalition politics.

I have a question to put to my hon. Friend. Let us say that our starting point is what was in the coalition agreement, forgetting about the manifestos. What does he think should happen under collective ministerial responsibility if one of the parties to the coalition agreement decides that, after all, it is not going to abide by a particular policy to which it signed up? What sanction would the Prime Minister have, for example, if the Deputy Prime Minister decided to renege? Would he basically sack the entire Liberal Democrat party from the coalition? Can we live in hope of that?

I know that my hon. Friend and I come from a similar position on this issue; neither of us was an enthusiast of the coalition in the first place. I certainly went on record as saying that we would have been much better off having a minority Government untainted by the Liberal Democrats.

To answer my hon. Friend, that is a question for the Prime Minister. He is solely responsible for collective ministerial responsibility. If he had chosen not to set aside collective ministerial responsibility in relation to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, it probably would have been the end of the coalition. He would have ordered the Deputy Prime Minister to resign on the basis that he had breached collective ministerial responsibility, along with all the other Liberal Democrat Ministers who had done so. Then he could either have carried on with a minority Conservative Government and given people such as my hon. Friend the opportunity to join the Government as a Minister. Or, if there had been a subsequent vote of no confidence, we would have had a general election.

However, we cannot carry on like this, gradually eroding the principle of collective ministerial responsibility without anybody being held properly to account. Either the coalition Government stick together on the basis of collective ministerial responsibility or they break asunder, leading to an early general election, which I would certainly favour; that is my personal view. Otherwise, we face two years ahead during which there will be an increasing amount of muddle on these issues. We have only seen the beginning of it so far.

I am delighted that other hon. Members have come along to participate in this debate, as it is important. Although I would have been happy to have a half-hour Adjournment debate, it demonstrates that a much wider audience is interested in the issue, including colleagues from all parties.

We have listened to an interesting analysis of what is going on from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), whose basic underlying thesis seems to be that all the constitutional arrangements that apply in the event of a single-party Government should carry on in exactly the same way in instances of a coalition.

I understand entirely why a very conservative sort of Conservative would believe that business should carry on as usual, because he would have an aversion to change and indeed to novelty. However, I put it to the hon. Gentleman that if he wishes for business to continue as usual, and if he expects things to continue just as they do under a single-party Government, he and his colleagues will simply have to go to the trouble of winning an election first. If they can win an election in their own right, they can by all means implement their manifesto and their doctrines, such as that of collective responsibility, in the traditional way. The fact is that the Conservatives did not win the election in May 2010; nobody won it. We therefore found ourselves going into novel territory and setting up arrangements that we have not seen in the UK since the second world war.

Coalition is different. Everybody is finding their way in this different world. Parliamentary systems, media coverage and party management are all having to take account of it, and the public are having to get used to a different world.

I remind my hon. Friend that the key cause of this discussion is the decision to have a certain number of Members of Parliament. That was agreed by the coalition, and agreed by vote, but then the Deputy Prime Minister announced that he had changed his mind and would not do what he had agreed to do. This was after the coalition was created.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and puts the case from his point of view; I do not criticise him for so doing. Of course, in the coalition agreement, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would support legislation that would provide for a redrawing of the boundaries and the creation of 600 seats. The Liberal Democrats fulfilled that obligation in its entirety a couple of years ago. We did not agree to support any barmy map that happened to emerge as the product of that process. We fulfilled our part of the deal some 18 months ago.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way, as he always does. In a spirit of consensus, may I move away from the particular example to the general point? To form a coalition, there had to be a coalition agreement. Does he acknowledge that a code of ministerial collective responsibility should apply to the contents of that collective agreement? If so, what is it, and why will the Prime Minister not make it public?

It is certainly not for me to speak for the Prime Minister or the Government, because I am no longer a member of the Government. However, my hon. Friend is right: the question is about the nature of the agreement made. At the outset of a five-year term, an attempt is made to agree a coalition agreement that is to run for the five years. Such an agreement was novel territory in UK politics. We had not seen one for a long time. There were pressing economic circumstances in May 2010, as there still are today, and the judgment was made by both sides in the negotiation that speed was of the essence. However, if historians draw any lessons from this experience, they will surely come to the view that we may have something to learn from the experiences typical in continental Europe, where coalitions are negotiated over weeks, or even months.

Agreements reached in a matter of a few short days, however comprehensive they seek to be, cannot by definition possibly take account of every twist or turn that current affairs or political life will take in the five years that follow. There are, of course, “Events, dear boy, events.” Governments will have to take a position on issues that they had not anticipated at the start of a five-year term; that is inevitable. Collective responsibility, in the sense in which we have understood it, can exist only where there is a collective view, a collective agreement and a collective decision between the two parts of the coalition that they will proceed in a certain way. Where something breaks down or has not been anticipated, or something new arises on which the two parties are unable to reach agreement, it is inevitable that we will not be able to apply a traditional doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. We should not fret about that or worry ourselves unduly about it.

Transparency has been mentioned. On the point that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) made with reference to Northern Ireland, when there are two parties in a coalition, the world can see, recognise and understand that there are differences of view because there are different underlying philosophies. That is healthy and transparent. In Labour’s years in office, there was the running soap opera of the view in No. 10 and the view in No. 11 Downing street. I should have thought that the differences of view between the wings of that Government were every bit as large as those within the coalition, but there was no transparency there—nobody could really see or understand the debates. We relied on the columns of Mr Andrew Rawnsley and others, who provided us with a running commentary on what they thought was going on. It is far more transparent when two parties with acknowledged differences are conducting a debate. There will always be occasions when the two parties are not able to reach an agreement. Therefore, inevitably, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility cannot be applied.

My hon. Friend has enunciated a perfectly reasonable proposition, but unfortunately it does not fit in with the express provisions of the ministerial code, which was revised immediately after the general election to take account of the coalition. Why is he enunciating a proposition that is not reflected in the exact words of the ministerial code?

I am not saying that the ministerial code is perfect in every detail—I do not think for one moment that it is—but I am not entirely sure that it is as deficient or inapplicable in the circumstances that I have been describing as the hon. Gentleman suggests. He said that the responsibility is very much at the top, with the Prime Minister carrying the responsibility for the way that the collective ministerial responsibility provision operates. That is quite correct.

During my short spell in government, I was surprised at the extent to which more or less all Government business seemed to be escalated to No. 10 and the Cabinet Office, and seemed to be resolved on the desks of the Prime Minister and, in most cases, the Deputy Prime Minister. If we recall the provisions of the coalition agreement at the outset, they were that documents passing the Prime Minister’s desk were also to pass the desk of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The hon. Gentleman’s assertion that responsibility for setting aside the ministerial code, where it is set aside, lies with the Prime Minister is basically correct. Given the way the Government conduct their business, things seem to end up either in a one-to-one negotiation between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister or in the quad—the quadrilateral meeting that brings into play the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is at the absolute top that the conclusion has to be drawn that agreement cannot be reached on a particular matter.

Effectively, responsibility for setting aside the collective responsibility provision lies with the Prime Minister. He faces a choice. He must decide, in discussion with the Deputy Prime Minister, whether there is a collective view on the subject matter at hand. If there is not, he must conclude whether that is so serious and fatal to the ongoing continuity of the coalition that—this is precisely the choice that the hon. Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), and for Christchurch, hypothesised about—the coalition must be ended, or whether it is just a tiresome irritant that will have to be taken on the chin, with the overriding work of the coalition continuing, regardless. It is always open to the Prime Minister to arrive at that judgment.

I completely understand that some Conservative Back Benchers are not great enthusiasts for the coalition, but I should not have thought that a day when the opinion polls showed Labour at 41% and the Conservatives at 29% was quite the optimal moment to aspire to an early general election.

I urge the hon. Members for Christchurch, and for New Forest East, to have a jolly good look at the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, because it simply is not the case that ending the coalition, and the Government ceasing to be able to hold their own in a vote of confidence, results in a general election; it would have done previously, but, now that the Act has been passed, bringing about a general election is a very different proposition altogether. The removal of the Government requires a simple majority, but the early dissolution of Parliament requires a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons. Numerically, that can be achieved only if, on the same day, the Conservative and Labour parties feel they have an interest in an early general election.

As a mental exercise, I often try to think of the circumstances in which the Conservatives and the Labour party could both, at exactly the same moment, think it was in their interests to have an early election. Even in the entirely improbable situation that the Liberal Democrat vote had seemingly evaporated to nothing, I cannot see why the Conservatives and the Labour party would both think, at the same time, that it was in their interests to have an early election, so I have concluded that an early election is very improbable indeed.

The alternative to a Conservative minority Government is simply a Labour minority Government, which might appeal to the hon. Member for Christchurch as being quite helpful in the long term. However, an early election is simply not on offer with the ease that hon. Members believe it is.

We have a coalition, which brings together two parties. Where they can agree, we have collective responsibility; where they cannot, we have a free vote—that is, in effect, what happens when collective responsibility is set aside. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat Whips might then attempt a whipping operation to get the two parts of the coalition to vote in line with a party view, but, in Government terms, there is simply a free vote, which is what has happened on the occasions that have been cited.

For the sake of clarity, before the hon. Gentleman concludes his fascinating speech, will he explain whether he is really saying that, in a coalition, collective ministerial responsibility applies when both parts of the coalition agree, or in other words, when it is not needed, but not when they disagree, when it is needed?

I believe that it applies in all circumstances other than those where it has been concluded at the top that it does not apply. It clearly applies in the vast majority of cases; the instances where it does not apply are few and far between. It is a matter for ongoing judgment on the part of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister whether these occasional disagreements, which require collective responsibility to be set aside, are of such significance that the coalition’s overall functioning is at stake. I do not believe that anything we have seen to date brings us anywhere near the realm where anyone would rationally conclude that the coalition cannot continue or cannot work, but if such events became increasingly common, the question would arise.

I am sorry that Conservative colleagues interpreted coalition as meaning a situation in which Liberal Democrats were imprisoned as hostages and simply had to do whatever the Conservatives wished them to do. I am afraid that is not what coalition is all about; coalition is about two parties agreeing. The Conservatives did not actually win the election, and would not have been able to form a Government capable of doing very much at all if they had not been able to reach some agreement on key issues with the Liberal Democrats. That is the only way the Government could be formed, and it is the only thing that sustains them in nearly all circumstances now.

Occasionally agreement will break down and the parties will go their separate ways. That is transparent, and it is not unhealthy. The world can have a look at that arrangement and draw its own conclusions. We need to get increasingly familiar with, used to and comfortable with coalition, because I have a suspicion that, during our lifetimes, there will be more coalitions, of whatever colour and stripe—[Hon. Members: “Oh no!”] If those Members behind me who groan at the prospect find it unappealing, they will simply have to go to the trouble of winning a general election in their own right.

Order. I can see two further Members trying to catch my eye. It would be helpful if they could conclude their remarks by 3.40 pm —they may, in any case, have concluded them before then—because I would like to invite the Front Benchers to start speaking then, so that they have 10 minutes each.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey). I particularly note his assurance that the only alternative to a coalition or a minority Conservative Government is a minority Labour Government and that Liberal Democrats will, under no circumstances, seek to establish a rainbow coalition with the Labour party.

I was slightly surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to—“lecture” might be a little strong—explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) the arrangements and percentages needed to call a general election. My hon. Friend succeeded in securing what is still probably the best-attended Adjournment debate—certainly that I have attended—in which he questioned why the percentage required to trigger an early election under the initial coalition agreement was 55%. We owe him great credit and great thanks for the fact that it was changed to two thirds.

In that case, I shall move on.

There are clearly events that were not anticipated in the coalition agreement; we have heard examples of them today, and Lord Justice Leveson’s report is a good one. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I believe that we still need greater clarity on how the mechanisms of government should operate in such circumstances. Today, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was called to answer an urgent question in the main Chamber, and I rushed along, interested to hear what Government policy was on a royal charter. I listened intently, but it was only after 20 minutes that she referred to the fact that she was making a Conservative party announcement. If that was the case, why was she answering for the Government? Clearly, the Speaker will, with respect, have been correct to make his wise decision to allow this urgent question, but I was left in a state of confusion about whether the discussion related to Government policy or to a Conservative party policy that had not yet been discussed, or at least agreed, with the Liberal Democrats.

The same issue arose when, in response to Leveson, the Deputy Prime Minister gave a separate statement immediately after the Prime Minister’s. That struck me as a constitutional innovation. Some people may have mentioned precedents, but they went back decades, if not centuries. I asked the Deputy Prime Minister whether he was speaking for the Government; I was not seeking to be difficult, so I referred to Cabinet responsibility and sought further information about how it was now operating, but I did not get a satisfactory response. As a Back Bencher, I would appreciate clearer guidance, in my interaction with Ministers of whichever party, on whether they are speaking as Ministers or merely as party leaders or party representatives on particular issues.

The coalition agreement is behind a lot of this. It is half incorporated into the ministerial code. Paragraph 1.2 of the code says:

“The Ministerial Code should be read alongside the Coalition agreement and the background of the overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations”.

I have had great problems with that in another context. Our highest Court has ruled that we may deport a certain individual—Abu Qatada—but Ministers refuse to do so, on the basis that the Court in Strasbourg does not wish us to do so. I have been referred by the Attorney- General, among others, to that bit of the ministerial code. I do not quite understand its applicability, to the extent that our own highest Court has interpreted the relevant international law and has said that the individual in question can go. I note that the same sentence refers to the coalition agreement, and how the ministerial code needs to be read alongside it. When there is an apparent breach, issues to do with the ministerial code are raised—of which, clearly, the Prime Minister is the arbiter. I wonder whether we are giving too much semi-constitutional significance to the ministerial code—a significance that it is no more designed to bear than is the coalition agreement.

The coalition agreement is a different thing for the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, because the Liberal Democrats took an admirably democratic and participative approach to it. They had a parliamentary meeting, not just of all their Members of Parliament, but of all their Members of the House of Lords too, and agreed, if not unanimously at least overwhelmingly, the coalition agreement and participation in the coalition with the Conservative party. Liberal Democrats act as though our arrangements were theirs, or as though Conservative Back Benchers had the same commitment—moral commitment, at least—to the agreement, which they present as almost contractual.

However, we of course were not party to that agreement. Four individuals, perhaps with the expectation of ministerial office, and the leader of our party agreed it, but it was not agreed by our parliamentary party. We had one meeting, at which there was arguably agreement, or acquiescence—although not all of us were allowed to speak—on the issue of having a referendum on the alternative vote in exchange for equal boundaries. That was the only discussion that the Conservative parliamentary party had, so the Liberal Democrats should not complain if we seek to hold them to that deal. We gave them the AV referendum and took the risk of a change to the electoral system that would disproportionately benefit their party, and won our argument in public, and the other side of the coin was fair, equal boundaries. Now they have welshed on the deal. That was the only deal into which the Conservative parliamentary party had any input.

Previously, the Liberal Democrats believed in, or spoke quite highly of, parliamentary procedures, the importance of Parliament, and the holding to account of the Executive. However, now that they are in coalition, too often it is a question of a deal between the party heads, or the quad, and there are great problems with that. Quite minor issues are pushed all the way to the top of Government. The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are extremely busy people, as are the two Treasury representatives, and I fear that that approach has led to yet more power being put in the hands of the civil service—Sir Jeremy Heywood has been mentioned—and that the civil service has its own interests.

I first came across an instance of that in the context of policing finance. There was a White Paper in July 2010 called “Policing in the 21st century”, which was sound in many respects. It included the agreement that Liberal Democrats and Conservatives had reached on what to do in policing. It encompassed the directly elected police and crime commissioners that we wanted; but the Liberal Democrats also wanted the police and crime panels, which we agreed to. The White Paper said that if it was not possible to agree on a police precept, the panel, perhaps by a super-majority, could trigger a local referendum. I thought that was an excellent localisation and democratisation of politics, and I was grateful for the Liberal Democrat input.

However, between the publication of the White Paper and Royal Assent to the legislation that emerged, the referendum element was removed and replaced with a weak power for the panel, which was misleadingly described as a veto. The panel can say it does not like the precept once, and as long as the elected PCC comes back and says something slightly different he can just impose it. That is all that the panel can do. My view was that we did not want that; we wanted a democratic local approach that would permit a referendum if there was strong enough feeling, but I was told that that could not happen because the Liberal Democrats would not accept it, and the Deputy Prime Minister insisted that the panel should have much stronger powers and a veto.

I took the trouble to explain that to the Deputy Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and to talk to other Liberal Democrats, to try to get our mutually agreed view reflected in the legislation. However, I failed, and I believe that that was because civil servants exploited the coalition, and a claim that the Liberal Democrats did not want what we all wanted, to keep power in Whitehall, rather than giving it to local areas. The structures of the coalition are significant in explaining that.

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s discussion of the role of the civil service went a little wider than the debate’s terms of reference, which are collective responsibility. He should confine his remarks to those policy areas where there appears to have been a breakdown in collective responsibility.

I will of course follow your ruling, Mr Bayley, for which I thank you.

Two other areas that I want to discuss are Europe and boundaries. As to Europe, the Liberal Democrats had a manifesto commitment to an in/out referendum, and I was disappointed that it was not carried through to the coalition agreement. However, I am delighted that that is now my party’s policy. I am slightly confused about why it is not the Government’s responsibility, given that it is now, at least on the face of it, the policy of both parties.

Similarly, I was delighted to table an amendment and to secure majority support in the House for a cut in the EU budget. I was a little disappointed that the Deputy Prime Minister described it as “completely unrealistic” to expect a cut, not least because he should be subject to collective responsibility on such matters. Apparently it was hopeless for the Prime Minister, or anyone else, to seek such a reduction. We were miles away from other countries on that matter, and it could not be done. Yet yesterday at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, speaking as the Deputy Prime Minister—with, I assume, collective responsibility—he told us that he supported that approach, and that it was because of him we had got the cut. He had spent months going around Europe pushing that extraordinarily tough stance, while publicly saying that he disagreed with it and it was completely unrealistic. Which is it?

If we have collective responsibility, we should have answers to those questions. I know that sometimes a coalition is difficult, and that the circumstances are new, but we should not take the attitude of sweeping away all the dusty old conventions because they do not matter very much; there is a reason for collective responsibility. I do not accept that there was any breach of the coalition agreement until the Deputy Prime Minister decided that he would welsh on it with respect to boundaries. Then his Ministers voted against it. Yet they stayed in the Government, notwithstanding collective responsibility and paragraph 1.2 of the ministerial code. If the Prime Minister has waived that, and the need to refer to the coalition agreement on all things in government, I trust that he has also waived the part about international law, at least where our own highest Court has said that international law is being respected.

What is the situation with respect to boundaries? I was disappointed that several Conservative Back Benchers voted against the Government, and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), for whom I have great respect, was not with us on the issue. His near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), abstained. However, I was astonished that a Conservative Minister abstained: the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), did not vote in that Division. I knew that she was concerned about various issues to do with boundaries, but she is a Minister. Why did not she vote for Government policy?

For the sake of fairness, I point out that I believe some Conservative colleagues who voted against the changes did so not because of the boundaries, as such, but because they did not approve of the reduction in the number of MPs with no corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. In other words, they were concerned that the House of Commons would become less capable of keeping the Executive in check. I think that that was their reasoning.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I make no criticism of Back Benchers who take that view. I voted for the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on precisely that issue. However, I did not consider that occasion to be the point at which to press the issue further.

Ministers have an obligation to support Government measures. As a Back Bencher, I do not have the same level of obligation, although I have a significantly greater desire to do so now that the Government have such a successful policy of cutting the EU budget. At least my party has the policy of holding an in/out referendum. I look forward to being as enthusiastic a supporter as I can be of the Government and what they are trying to do. However, Ministers should vote for Government policy and should not be allowed to abstain. The hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) abstained in a vote on the welfare cap, and then boasted that she did so despite being a Minister, and nothing was done about it.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald was responsible for a positive abstention on the issue of Catholic succession to the Crown. I assumed that was because she is also the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and, as Equalities Minister, she was abstaining because of discrimination against Catholics, but apparently that was not right: it was a mistake. There was also an abstention, however, on the matter of the boundaries, so we had not only the Liberal Democrats voting against Government policy, but a Conservative Minister failing to support it. We need to clarify the position on collective responsibility so that we can all understand it and work with Ministers and our constituents successfully.

Does my hon. Friend not think it ironic that the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) talked about the transparency of the coalition agreement? The most transparent part of that agreement was the deal for a referendum on the alternative vote, in exchange for fairer boundaries. That was the one promise, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said, that the Prime Minister gave to his parliamentary party. If we voted for an AV referendum, that could have affected the Conservative party adversely, reducing our potential to get a majority Government in future. We crawled through the Lobby on the absolute, cast-iron promise in the agreement and from our Prime Minister that it was in return for fairer boundaries.

My hon. Friend said he crawled through the Lobby, but I did not see that, because I abstained. I felt that we had been told by the Deputy Prime Minister that the Labour party had offered him AV without a referendum. When my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) found out that that was not the case, first from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and then from the Deputy Prime Minister, it seemed to me that the deal we had done had been based on something that did not appear to hold water or—

I was trying to find the appropriate parliamentary language. I thank my hon. Friend for “correspond with the facts”, if that is allowable, Mr Bayley.

The Deputy Prime Minister, then only the leader of his party, promised a real referendum on Europe—an in/out referendum—but now he is stopping us from having one. Furthermore, he said that it was absolutely hopeless to try to get a cut in the EU budget—completely unrealistic—and he gave us all a hard time for even trying to do that. Now, when we achieve it, when the Prime Minister gets what Parliament mandated in response to my amendment, he claims the credit.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I was not originally going to speak; I just came to listen to a fascinating debate. The concept of collective responsibility is interesting, but when the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) said he saw a future world in which coalition Government would carry on ad infinitum, for years and years, I found myself losing the will to live slightly. I will explain why.

I am taken aback by the Prime Minister’s decision, of which I was not previously aware; he seems to have said that whether he is in favour of a yes vote or a no vote in the referendum, he will compel Conservative MPs, whether Ministers or not, to campaign in exactly the same way. That is taking collective responsibility to a ridiculous level. At the same time, on many other issues, he is allowing collective responsibility almost to disappear through the floor. That is completely different from the position in the 1975 referendum, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

I am not aware of the Prime Minister saying that. I understood that what he said applied only to Ministers, who will be expected to support the position, while Back Benchers would be able to campaign to leave the EU, even if that were not the Government position.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I misunderstood what the hon. Member for Christchurch said and thought the concept applied to the whole of the Conservative parliamentary party. Even if it applied only to Ministers, the position remains different from 1975. When Harold Wilson called for a referendum on the basis that he had renegotiated Britain’s terms of entry to what was then the Common Market and won a great victory—although it turned out that he had not; we might see a similar set of circumstances in 2017 or 2018—he allowed Ministers to campaign in whatever way they saw fit. I was only 11 years old at the time, but I remember Tony Benn and Michael Foot, for example, campaigning on the no platform, while other members of the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet were campaigning for a yes vote.

As has been mentioned extensively, a number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries were forced to resign over the vote on the in/out referendum a few months ago. I can remember the first rebellion against the Labour Government in 1997, which was on single-parent benefit. We probably all remember that, and it was a particularly scarring experience—I was one of those who voted against the Government. A large number of PPSs and one junior Minister were forced to resign as a result. At the time, Prime Minister Tony Blair got a lot of stick for being a control freak, but I had no problem with that. My view was that people either abide by collective responsibility and back what the Government are doing, or they resign and go on the Back Benches with the rest of us, so that they are free to criticise, but people cannot have it both ways.

Many Ministers, over many years, not only in this Government but in previous ones, have tried to have it both ways. In previous Governments, some have taken the route of giving off-the-record briefings to the press. Certainly when we were in power, that was done an awful lot by certain Cabinet and junior Ministers. That is completely unacceptable, as is, although I am not directly involved, the current idea that Ministers can more or less do what they want and let collective responsibility simply disappear.

I tend to be a less than unqualified fan of coalition government anyway. I am not a fan of proportional representation, although I do not want to go too far into that subject, because you will probably stop me, Mr Bayley. One of the great problems with PR—this has been debated a lot in the main Chamber—is that we would get coalition Governments, and they tend to undermine faith in democracy, because what then happens is deals behind closed doors, with a lack of accountability. After an election and the subsequent negotiations, Ministers emerge and say that they stood for election on this or that issue or policy, but have completely ripped up their manifesto, because they have done a deal with the lot who stood against them.

My view, although this is not directly my business, is that minority Government is a much more honourable way to go about things. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Steady on! Hon. Members might not like what I have to say next. The minority Labour Government of 1976 to 1979 went about things in a more honourable way. There was not a coalition, but there were disadvantages: every vote was on a knife edge, and there were tragic stories. The story of Doc Broughton springs readily to mind: he was extremely ill, but had to be driven to Parliament in an ambulance to take part in votes before being driven back up the M1 to hospital. It would not be the same now, because we do not have all-night sittings, and we sit after 10 o’clock only on rare occasions. That is another issue, of course; I voted against programming and am against it to this day. The circumstances of a minority Government, however, are far more accountable and clear, and they tend to bolster people’s faith in democracy, unlike a coalition Government, in which decisions are made in private.

The Liberal Democrat leader, one year after the formation of the coalition, gave an interview in The Observer. He was asked if he had done the right thing by going into coalition with the Conservatives. “Of course we did,” he said, “The arithmetic would not have allowed a coalition with Labour. What would the alternative have been? A minority Conservative Government, probably followed by an early election and a majority Conservative Government.” I could not have agreed with him more.

The hon. Gentleman was making a comparison with the Labour minority Government of the late 1970s, in which, as he observed, every vote was on a knife edge. Does he not acknowledge the difference? The Conservatives pulled up 20 votes short of the finishing line on this occasion. Every vote would not have been on a knife edge; they simply would not have been able to get anything through.

That would be their problem, not mine. The hon. Gentleman confuses me with someone who would be that bothered. I would be present to hold the Government to account as a Back-Bench MP. Actually, I am here to hold any Government to account as a Back-Bench MP, whether a coalition, Conservative majority or Labour majority Government. One of the most outrageous examples of accountability going out the window in a coalition Government was the time when Hans-Dietrich Genscher swapped sides in Germany in the early 1980s, putting a different Chancellor in power without the need for an election.

As we know, the Lib Dems tend to be inconsistent. Consistency is not their strong suit, as I have experienced in my constituency. Collective responsibility means more than just supporting a collective decision by the Cabinet or a similar body, such as a Cabinet Committee. It means supporting anything that another Minister says; it is as radical as that. The Deputy Prime Minister said that collective responsibility applies when there has been a collective decision—presumably he was talking about the Cabinet—but it does not; it means, and always has meant, that if a Minister is asked about something another Minister, particularly a senior Minister, has said, they support that other Minister. That is completely disintegrating, and we are seeing clear and rapid erosion of ministerial responsibility. In turn, that is undermining public faith in the democratic process, and we must rebuild that faith.

It is a pleasure, Mr Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this debate. Collective Cabinet responsibility is a major concern to perhaps dozens of our constituents. Hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have argued passionately that collective Cabinet responsibility is an important pillar of our constitution and underpins our system of government. The economy, jobs, housing, health care, crime and education may be at the forefront of our constituents’ minds, but it is important to discuss how government is carried out.

In his 2009 speech on fixing our broken politics, the Prime Minster, who was then Leader of the Opposition, promised to end the culture of sofa government. He said:

“we’ll put limits on the number of political advisers, strengthen the ministerial code, protect the independence of the civil service, and ensure that more decisions are made by cabinet as a whole.”

I would welcome an update from the Minister on progress on each of those points.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has said that we must put

“democratic renewal and a willingness to reach out to others beyond our party at the heart of the way we do our politics.”

Labour Members have a one-nation vision for governing this country that will deliver a fairer and more productive economy. The coalition parties do not.

We all understand that although coalition government is not new, it is something of a novelty, and that conventions may need to be tweaked and adjusted. Our system of government has evolved over centuries, and it must continue to evolve. One-party Governments often disagree, so it is no surprise that a Government comprising two parties will disagree regularly. We have heard many examples today, and Leveson is the most obvious. It was the first example of a double statement from the Government since 1932, which was the last time we had a peacetime coalition Government.

The ministerial code states:

“The principle of collective responsibility, save where it is explicitly set aside, requires that Ministers should be able to express their views frankly in the expectation that they can argue freely in private while maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached.”

We have heard that the Cabinet Secretary signed off suspension of collective responsibility for the boundary review and Leveson, but questions remain to be answered—for example, on why the Conservative party yesterday published its ideas for Leveson on a Government website before they were agreed by both parties. The Prime Minister’s inability to answer hon. Members’ questions comes as no surprise to anyone who has sat through Prime Minister’s questions.

Clearly, it is essential to understand the difference between Ministers speaking as Ministers, and Ministers speaking as representatives of their party, if we are to hold the Government to account. Clarity on when Lords and others are speaking for Cabinet Ministers would also be welcome. We know, for example, that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has the noble Lord Oakeshott to make his views known to anyone who will listen. Last year, following the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, the Deputy Prime Minister vowed to have more public rows with the Prime Minister, just to remind people that the Liberal Democrats still have a separate identity. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition said at the time,

“That is an unusual, probably unhealthy, way to conduct any relationship let alone one in a government that is having such a profound impact on people’s lives. I suspect it is a symptom of a having coalition based on political convenience rather than values.”

In his 2009 speech, the Prime Minister said:

“the driving principle of reform should be the redistribution of power—from the powerful to the powerless. That means boosting Parliament’s power to hold the government of the day to account.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, but it is not possible when we are unsure who is speaking as a Minister and when. Sad as it is—we have heard criticisms from coalition Members—setting aside collective responsibility is not the worst scandal of this Government. The worst is their chaotic, ad hoc approach to government in general. That may in some part be due to the nature of coalition, as might be the concerns about the suspension of collective ministerial responsibility, but my argument is that it has more to do with incompetence, from those at No. 10 downwards.

As we have heard, there are precedents for setting aside collective responsibility in the European Community referendum in 1975, and back in the ’30s under the last coalition. However, there is no precedent for the scale of incompetence and incoherence we see from Ministers almost weekly. Ministers have locked themselves in Lobby toilets; they have forgotten to vote, sometimes very conveniently; they have been absent from important votes; they have voted both ways; and Cabinet Ministers have mooted abstaining on their own Bills.

The Liberal Democrats seem happy to put collective responsibility aside when it comes to media reform and boundary reform—that is, when that is in their interests—but there was no such hand-wringing when it came to tuition fees, welfare reform or tax cuts. I do not want to let Conservative Members off the hook; last week, when Liberal Democrat Members faced both ways, one Minister referred on her website to her pride in the Government’s commitment to gay marriage, and then voted against it. The fact that we are having this debate highlights the confusion that seems to be the only constant in how this Government are run. It is no wonder staff in No. 10 wake up and tune in to Radio 4 to find out what the Government are up to.

The most serious implication of the repeated suspension of collective responsibility, official or not, is that it is a sign that senior Ministers cannot work together. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said when winding up yesterday’s infrastructure debate,

“The Olympics showcased Britain for the great country and the one nation that it is, but that was Labour’s legacy. What will be this Government’s legacy? If they are not careful, it will be dither, delay, stifled economic growth and stagnation.”— [Official Report, 12 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 820.]

We know the Business Secretary agrees. It is nearly a year since his letter to the Prime Minister was leaked, in which he said that the Government were missing

“'a compelling vision of where the country is heading”.

People and businesses in this country need certainty and confidence in Government. That is even more important in these tough economic times. In the past year, we have only narrowly averted a triple-dip recession, and Ministers still have no plan B on the economy. I am not convinced that a revised ministerial code will provide that, but we need a strategy and a coherent plan of implementation to get the economy moving. The Minister could start today, if she feels up to it, by setting out the economic vision for the country, which would help us to understand what, collectively, the Government feel they are responsible for.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for securing the debate and all hon. Members for contributing to it so extensively. It will not surprise you, Mr Bayley, to hear that I will decline the offer that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) made at the end of her speech. That subject matter rightly belongs elsewhere, and she would expect me to do you no dishonour by going outside the scope of the debate. I want to address collective ministerial responsibility, as is correct, instead of other extraneous questions.

As I understand it, the central question among the many posed by my hon. Friend was about accountability for collective responsibility. I interpret that to mean that it falls to me today to explain the Government’s doctrine, and to articulate how the Government believe that it ought to be applied.

I shall start with the historical view, in brief. Collective ministerial responsibility has a long-standing place in the British constitution. As far as historians can tell, the doctrine came into being during the reign of George III, who had the perhaps rather dangerous habit of asking Ministers to come and see him individually to give him their views on important matters of state. I do not know whether he did that sitting on a sofa, or whether there were briefings later in the Red Lion. Who would know better than some Members in the Chamber where that style of government ends up, and what happens when senior Ministers cannot agree and go so far as to change their Prime Minister or Head of State without an election, which the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) suggested was a very bad thing indeed? To return to George III, the Cabinet realised that the King’s actions were an attempt to undermine their unity and work out who his supporters were. They therefore agreed that they would tell him exactly the same thing, taking collective responsibility for their decisions.

Clearly, we have moved on a long way since then, in historical terms. Collective ministerial responsibility is about how Ministers behave towards the public and Parliament, rather than towards the Crown. However, the basic point remains the same: Ministers need to be able to have frank discussions and disagreements in private, while maintaining a common purpose once a decision has been taken.

It is to maintain the principle of collective ministerial responsibility that the ministerial code states that the Government will not normally disclose the level at which, or forum where, a decision was taken—my hon. Friend has sought to discuss that matter through parliamentary questions. If the code were not applied, it would be possible to work out which Ministers were present at a meeting. It would also open up debates about which decisions were accorded a higher or lower perceived level of importance than others. That would detract somewhat from the policy quality of issues that might be scrutinised in that way.

Collective ministerial responsibility does not abolish individual responsibility. Each Minister must decide for themselves whether they are happy to remain part of the Government and to support the Government’s decisions. There have been many cases of people feeling no longer able to stand behind the collective conclusion. Famous examples include the noble Lord Heseltine, who, when he was merely Michael Heseltine, famously walked out of Cabinet following the decision on the future of Westland, and the late Robin Cook, who resigned from Cabinet because he did not feel able to take collective responsibility for the decision to go to war in Iraq.

The current version of the ministerial code makes it clear that collective responsibility can be explicitly set aside on occasion. Even before the inclusion of that provision in the code, there was an established practice of doing so on specific issues. Most notably, it has long been the case that collective responsibility does not apply to issues of individual conscience. Most recently, there was a free vote of that kind on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill last week.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain why we were not whipped on the major vote, but were whipped on such things as the business vote?

I would be only too delighted to engage in that discussion with my hon. Friend, but as he knows, I no longer practise the dark arts carried out by what are known as the usual channels. I regret that I would not be able to do that decision justice; nor could I report back to those who make those decisions, if I even tried.

On the ministerial code, it is important to note that there is clear precedent, as has been said several times today, for suspending collective ministerial responsibility on specific issues, when the Government of the day decide that it is appropriate. A notable example, which we have discussed, is Harold Wilson’s decision on whether the UK should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community. He allowed members of his Cabinet to speak and campaign on both sides.

Let me offer the Chamber a few other historical examples. Shortly after the formation of the national Government in 1931, an “agreement to differ” was agreed. The terms of that were published in The Times in January 1932, and in February that year, the Home Secretary began a speech by commenting on the doctrine of collective responsibility:

“The House will have an opportunity…of discussing fully the departure from the doctrine of collective responsibility which is marked by my appearance at this Box this afternoon”—[Official Report, 4 February 1932; Vol. 261, c. 316.]

It is also helpful to note that in 1977, James Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, said:

“I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it does not.”—[Official Report, 16 June 1977; Vol. 933, c. 552.]

That demonstrates that the terms, duration and enforcement of the arrangement are ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister.

It is most important to add that the current Government have decided to set collective responsibility aside on some specific occasions. That is a fact of life in a coalition, and it shows how our constitutional practice can evolve to suit new situations.

The Minister is talking a lot about the history, but can she explain why the Prime Minister was unable to give me a straight answer to my question, asking why he set aside collective ministerial responsibility in respect of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, and on what date that decision was taken? Why could the Prime Minister not let me have a straight answer on that?

I wanted to go on to say, in addressing what I took to be my hon. Friend’s central point—accountability for the decision, when taken, to set aside collective ministerial responsibility—that the key is that Parliament certainly ought to be informed in a way that is appropriate to the instance in hand. I will not comment on whether the Prime Minister did or did not do that for the hon. Gentleman in parliamentary questions, but in the instance of the Lords amendments to the ERA Bill, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons made such a statement to the House, explaining why he was speaking and how it was that collective responsibility had been set aside. I believe that the explanation has been offered in cases where such a departure has been outlined, and I think that that provides the kind of transparency and accountability that we are all seeking in this important area.

In conclusion, I note that the coalition agreement, in so far as it relates to the debate, sets out specific areas where the normal rule is not expected to apply. The citizens whom we all serve have had the chance to observe that in advance, and so hold us to account. Through that, there is no undermining of the coalition’s shared commitment to reducing the deficit and delivering a radical programme of reform that gets Britain back on track, after the catastrophic position in which it was left in 2010.

It has been possible in my short remarks to address only the notion of accountability for such decisions, but I want to finish by saying that it is vital that we are not distracted from our core task in Government at this time, which is to put right the mess that the Labour party made of Britain.

We now come to a half-hour Adjournment debate about engineering as a career choice for young people. It might be a courtesy to all hon. Members who want to listen to this debate if we wait just a minute or two for hon. Members who attended the previous debate to leave the room quietly.

Engineering Careers

Thank you, Mr Bayley. It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship.

Last year, I visited a small business in my constituency known as Autotech. I was incredibly impressed by that business, so much so that I wanted to call this debate today. That was because I was not only impressed by the business, but incredibly concerned about the problems that that growing business faces. We had hoped that its CEO, Andy Robinson, would be able to get here today, but I think that unfortunately his journey has been blighted by the problems on First Capital Connect this afternoon. He will probably arrive during the debate.

Autotech represents what many companies should be striving towards in the UK. It is a small business, specialising in supplying control systems for automated manufacturing and distribution operations. I hope that no hon. Member intervenes to ask me to explain that further, because I left after my visit to the business that afternoon none the wiser about what it actually did. I saw lots of robots, graphics, wires, computers and machines. I know that it has something to do with cars. It is incredibly high tech and very impressive.

What also impressed me was the ethos of the company and the staff. When I say to a member of staff, “How long have you been here?”, and they say, “I’ve been here since the day the company started,” I know that it is a good company. When I said, “What do you think of the boss?”—he was coming around with me—they were all glowing, and not just because he was stood behind my shoulder. It was obviously a company that has very good employment practices, so I was incredibly shocked to discover that it has had to turn down millions of pounds’ worth of business in the past few years. It has had to turn that business down because it relies, obviously, on well trained, highly professional, skilled engineers—that is what its business is about—but its inability to attract people to fill those jobs is preventing the company from growing. It cannot grow any more, even though it wants to. It has the capacity, the location and the orders coming in, but it cannot grow because it cannot get the people it needs to do the jobs. The company not only cannot get the people to do the jobs that are available today, but it has problems getting people to come and train from school, as apprentices, who would enable it to project growth for the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important and timely debate. Is she aware of the ten-minute rule Bill put forward by our hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) in the House today? It addresses very much the issue of getting expertise into schools. Will she comment on the aspect of it that requires the governing bodies of schools to include local employers and particularly engineering employers? We are already seeing that in Worcestershire, with Yamazaki Mazak and Worcester Bosch supporting local schools, and I think that it could be encouraged much more widely.

Yes. I will cover that issue later, but I shall just mention it now. One thing that I did when I was at Autotech was put it in touch with Wootton school in my constituency. Wootton has an application at the moment for a STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—academy. It seemed to me that it would be a perfect match if the school and the business worked together. The business could get involved in the school and take its business opportunities there. A bit like businesses used to do with “milk rounds” at universities years ago, Autotech could do a milk round in the school and try to nab them young and get them more interested in a different form of career. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it would be an ideal solution to get engineers as members of the governing bodies of schools, if only to influence how teachers think about the career prospects for their pupils in the future.

As co-chair of the associate parliamentary manufacturing group, I can tell hon. Members that nearly every meeting I have attended talks about the shortage of skills and particularly the challenge of recruiting high-quality engineers. We often try to intervene too late, when young people have already chosen the subjects that will decide their future. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to focus even more resources on the early years of secondary education and perhaps even on the primary stage to support the sort of initiative that we are discussing?

That is a very good point. I had not thought of going down the age range even further, but obviously that is a point for consideration.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I worked as an engineer myself before coming into Parliament, so I know not only the fulfilling careers that engineering provides, but the importance of inspiring young people into engineering. On that point, I urge the hon. Lady to look at a scheme called Primary Engineer, which was launched in the north-east last Friday—I believe that it exists across the country—and which puts businesses into primary schools, because that is where we really need to start inspiring young people into engineering.

I will certainly take that point on board and feed it back to Andy Robinson.

I am impressed by how Autotech has tackled the problem itself, by setting up its own Autotech academy, its own apprenticeship scheme within the business, its own school within the business. It has been reaching out to schools and advertising the academy as a way to bring young people in and start doing that work—the very things that we are talking about—but it still finds attracting young people incredibly difficult.

Our country has a rich heritage in this area. When I was a girl—I am quite old now—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I am afraid I am. In Liverpool when I was a girl growing up, careers in engineering—electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and civil engineering—were very attractive to people I was at school with. In fact, those were the kinds of career that boys in particular wanted to go into.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this very important issue to the House. Shorts Bombardier in my constituency offers many people great opportunities for apprenticeships in aeronautical engineering and a career for the rest of their lives. That is similar to what happens at the company to which she has referred. One thing that disappoints me is that only one in 10 girls pursue a career in engineering. Does the hon. Lady believe that we could do more to encourage young girls to make the same choice of career?

I was coming to that point. Engineering was a career choice for boys when I was at school. It was not one that girls were ever interested in, but when I was at Autotech, I realised that such a high-tech form of engineering could be quite attractive to girls. There are so many more opportunities open to both genders now. I know that some girls are involved, but I cannot imagine that we would see many girls wanting to get involved—I do not know what form of engineering the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) did—in mechanical engineering. We just do not go into garages and see girls with oily rags.

The figures do indeed bear it out. This is a very important issue, and I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised it. However, I am doing a lot of work in and around south Yorkshire focused particularly on getting more girls and women into engineering. Perhaps I can share at a later date some information with the hon. Lady, but it is generally about both sensitising the girls and getting the companies to look at what they are doing that in the past has put girls off.

It is important to note that my hon. Friend is not too old at all: she cares passionately about apprentices and is a very strong role model. In the north-west yesterday, BAE Systems, whose headquarters for military aviation are in my constituency, announced 70 engineering and business apprentices. I know from working with these young people that they are absolutely top quality, and they are the type of apprenticeships to which my hon. Friend refers.

My hon. Friend informed me earlier today of the opportunities that are available in his constituency. I know his constituency very well indeed and I know what an excellent MP he is, because I read about him in the local paper all the time—he is my mother’s MP. I know what an assiduous MP he is and I thank him for that intervention and letting me know about the jobs in his area.

One of the key arguments of the coalition Government is that the UK is in an international race in which we are competing with countries all over the world. We know how China, Brazil, India, Japan and other such countries are racing ahead of us in terms of what they offer, how they train people and how they get people into engineering from school, at a very young age. The bar is constantly being raised for UK businesses. John Cridland, director general of the CBI, has agreed with that. He pointed out that international competition is constantly raising the bar and that we need to seek a larger share of the global market. He has also said that he is surprised at how many young people lack basic skills, such as literacy and numeracy.

Even though education spending increased from £35.8 billion to £71 billion under the previous Government, the number of teenagers leaving school without basic GCSEs was, unfortunately, problematic and contributed to the skills gap and the gap in other qualities required for employment. People went to university to study media and other courses they saw as attractive, but behind the scenes some universities were setting up remedial centres to teach students basic reading and writing. Even if we manage to incentivise young people and make engineering an attractive option, that will not get over the fact that some of them might not have the basic maths and other skills required.

I applaud what the Secretary of State for Education has done, not only with education reform and academies, but in the rhetoric he has used in education debates. He is imploring schools and society to realise that we need much more rigorous standards in education and much more reform in the basic, core subjects, such as English, maths and science. We need to show young people that they can achieve in science and that it is an attractive subject that they can master.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

For the benefit of Hansard, Mr Robinson has beaten the incompetence of First Capital Connect and—also for the benefit of First Capital Connect, which might see this debate—has now joined us.

Order. May I remind all hon. Members that there is a convention that one does not make reference to people in the Gallery?

I take that on board, Mr Bayley.

When the Division took place, I was speaking not so much about the reforms introduced by the Secretary of State for Education, as his rhetoric and dialogue about the need for courses to be more robust and for students to become more engaged in the core subjects of maths, science and English.

Does the hon. Lady agree that design and technology is one of the subjects at the core of this issue, because without it many students are not prepared for what they face in engineering?

I agree with the hon. Lady that design and technology is an important core subject in the overall context of engineering. As I have said, however, one problem is that, on leaving school, pupils lack the basic skills of numeracy and English that would enable them to achieve in design and technology and other subjects or give them the confidence they require to go into an engineering apprenticeship. They lack the basic core skills that would give them the confidence they need to move into that field. Although I recognise that design and technology is an important subject—one of my daughters did it—others take greater precedence because they are absolutely essential, core key subjects that every student needs to move on to whatever they want to do in life.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for being so generous in taking interventions. She is absolutely right to highlight the importance of engineering, the shortage of female engineers and the essence of good qualifications early on. Does she agree that getting good sciences and maths is absolutely key? Does she recognise the good work being done by EDF Energy and Horizon in raising awareness of those needs, especially for the nuclear power engineering opportunities of the future with some 20,000 jobs at the three new nuclear power stations? Does she also agree that there are some great female role models? For example, the engineer behind the design of the world’s fastest vehicle, with which Squadron Leader Green broke the world record, was a woman. If we got women role models to go round schools, we would have more female engineers among the new ones coming forward.

My hon. Friend makes his points very eloquently, as usual. I fully endorse the point that it would be fantastic if female role models went round schools to promote engineering as a career path for young women. He mentioned bigger companies such as EDF. One problem for Autotech in my constituency is that it does not have the budgets or the reach of so big an organisation as EDF. People in my constituency do not even know that Autotech is there; neither did I until recently. It does not have the advertising and marketing budget to reach out and sell itself to young people, whereas EDF is fortunate enough to be able to do the milk round and offer a global package. I want to focus on the problems faced by small companies that need to grow and are growing, and that are receiving orders that they cannot fulfil because they have not yet reached the dizzy heights of organisations such as EDF, with all the accompanying infrastructure and finance. Autotech is not quite there yet, although it has grown from 200 to 350 employees in a short space of time.

On top of the problems in education, students simply do not see engineering as attractive. They see media studies and many other courses as attractive. In preparation for the debate, I looked at the university courses for which the most people apply through UCAS, and engineering is way down the list.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, to which I am listening with great interest. Does she agree that engineering suffers from an image that is out of date? The image that girls, in particular, have of engineering is being clad in a boiler suit and working with heavy vehicles, engines and oil. Those things would not attract a woman to the industry. We have to change that. Much as I am fascinated by the English education system, in Scotland we have taken an approach called the curriculum for excellence, which brings engineering into schools. It has certainly proven useful.

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, particularly the necessity of disabusing young women of the notion that engineering is about getting their nails dirty, or about carrying an old rag or wearing a boiler suit. Mechanical engineering has moved on from that, and it is now much more about electrical engineering. It is much more sophisticated and high tech. It is much more about the sort of thing that Autotech does, which, as I said, I cannot really explain in any great detail.

I put Autotech in touch with the Wootton Academy Trust in my constituency, which is currently applying to establish a science, technology, engineering and maths academy. As we touched on in the first half of the debate, it would be fantastic to see STEM academies and schools linking up with smaller businesses. As well as the big businesses that such schools will be attracted to because they provide sponsorship and—for want of a better word—the sexy image that goes with engineering, schools would do well to link with smaller businesses. The tendency will be for schools to work with bigger organisations.

Last summer’s Olympics, High Speed 2—although it is not popular with some Members—and Crossrail prove that we can do big engineering projects in this country. There will be a forward market for engineers, hopefully, if we can embrace engineering at the root, in schools and in small businesses. It is a feeding market, because if pupils train in small businesses, they might move up to bigger projects. There will always be a good living to be had in engineering, and there will always be good employers.

One thing that concerns me is that over the next decade, salaries across the world will level out as companies and countries compete with each other on a much more global stage. When young people choose a career and when they go to university or enter apprenticeships, they must keep their eye on what will employ them in the future and what will allow them to earn a living in the marketplace and progress as individuals. That is why organisations such as Autotech need help. We need to do what we can to incentivise schools. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is already working hard in the area, but I hope that the Minister will tell us what the coalition can do to help link schools and small businesses to make engineering a much more attractive option for young people. In particular, I want to know what the coalition can do to help businesses such as Autotech to reach out to young people and let young people know that they are out there and that they offer good career opportunities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to respond to the debate. It is great to see so many Members here from across the House. There has been, I fear, an outbreak of consensus about the need to tackle the problem, and I am very much part of that. There is passion on both sides. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate. I know that we often have debates in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House, but raising awareness and constantly making the arguments that hon. Members have made today is an important part of the solution. I hope that through this debate we are helping to solve Britain’s problem of a shortage of engineers.

In the 10 minutes that I have, I will provide some context and go through some of the things that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is doing to rise to the challenge and answer the shortfall that many Members have eloquently described. Many estimates have been made of the shortage of engineers in the country, and although it is impossible to put a precise figure on that shortage, it is clear that we need more engineers. We need those who are qualified at university level, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and those who are qualified through apprenticeships at technician level.

Over the past few years, steps have been made in the right direction. The number of engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has risen to 60,000 starts in the past year, up from 25,000 starts a decade earlier. This year, the number of applications to university to study engineering is 127,000, which is up 8% on last year alone. The proportion of those applying to university to study computing, which is an important element of engineering, has risen even more sharply. At school, participation at GCSE in maths, physics and the sciences, which are an essential bedrock of engineering, has been rising sharply. The Department for Education, as well as BIS, is playing a big role in ensuring that the building blocks, which for too long have been deteriorating, are in place.

Let me set out the action that we are taking in four areas. First, we are making the whole skills system more focused on the needs of employers. The employer ownership of skills is important to ensure that we provide and support the skills that employers need.

I urge the Minister to consider working closely with schools, colleges and universities in areas where enterprise zones are developing and to focus on apprenticeships, particularly in engineering, in those areas.

That is an important point, and I will look at what more we can do in enterprise zones to add a skills element. The employer ownership strategy is about ensuring that we provide the skills that employers need. We have a conundrum in this country. Although youth unemployment is falling, it is still slightly less than 1 million, which is too high, but, at the same time, we have skills shortages. That tells me that the skills and education system has not worked to match up the supply and demand for skills.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to McLaren in my constituency, which helps to sponsor an annual technology and engineering prize? Indeed, the Prime Minister came the other year to give out the prize to the winning team. Not only glamorous technology companies such as McLaren, but every technology and engineering company should hold open days and become involved in such competitions, to engage young people and, indeed, their teachers to ensure that they are aware of the career options that are on offer and the sort of subjects that need to be studied to pursue those careers.

Absolutely. I pay tribute to what McLaren, and many other companies, are doing. That brings me on to my second point, which is about careers advice. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, or STEMNET, is a network of 25,000 STEM ambassadors who go into schools. Where they go into schools and inspire the pupils, they can be a huge driver, by explaining the exciting things that are going on in modern engineering, and not only to boys but girls. After all, only 7% of those in engineering are female, and so the easiest way to increase the number of engineers is to have more of a balance, because if we are only recruiting—broadly speaking—from half the population, we are clearly missing a very important trick.

Competitions in skills are very important, too. The annual skills show, which was in Birmingham in 2012, is an extravaganza of brilliant exhibitions of high-level skills by highly trained people. There is also an element of competition to show the very best of British skills, as it leads on to the world skills competition. It is absolutely brilliant, and I encourage everybody to go and see it for themselves. Similarly, the Big Bang fair is a competition to drive the excitement of this agenda about engineering through schools.

In addition, the new duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice and guidance to pupils from the age of 12 all the way up to 18 is very important. Ofsted is studying its implementation. It was introduced only last September, and this summer we will have a report from Ofsted on how it is going. So, as I say, the second element is careers advice and getting that right, and engaging with STEMNET in particular to get inspiring people into schools to inspire pupils about engineering.

The third element is reforming the skills system, so that it is more rigorous and more responsive. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire talked about the need for more rigour in the schools system, but we also need to drive up rigour in the vocational qualifications area. We have done that by supporting and recognising only the highest quality vocational qualifications from 14 to 16 in the new accountability structures—they were set out by the Secretary of State for Education last week—but we also need to do that further up the age range.

In addition, we need to ensure that the skills system is responsive to the needs of employers, which brings us back to employer ownership of skills. In the field of apprenticeships, the Richard review very much drove down that track, and I am looking forward to responding to it with enthusiasm, because the vision set out by Doug Richard was a powerful one that argued for apprenticeships to be much closer to what employers need and for employers to be able to start up skills academies and apprenticeship qualifications. Autotech has started a skills academy. However, more broadly—not just in that single example—we need to have more apprenticeships with the qualifications, as well as the content, designed by employers themselves.

I encourage employers to respond to the Richard review and to engage with it, as we try to improve those qualifications. That is already happening in two areas. First, the Royal Academy of Engineering is introducing four new engineering qualifications for students aged 16, which I think will be very important. We hope that they will be high-quality. Secondly, we are introducing the technical baccalaureate at 18, which is an idea that has cross-party support.

Finally, I urge all Members to get involved in apprenticeship week. It starts on 11 March, and it will be a big, national celebration of what apprenticeships have achieved during their 600-year history and what they can achieve if we can reform them to make them better. I end by reiterating that the passion shown by Members of all parties today, and my passion, is a passion to ensure that we solve this problem, which has bedevilled our country for far too long.

Army Career Offices (Wales)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to discuss the vital role that that Army recruitment offices play in Welsh life. One of the main features of many high streets, not only in Wales but all over the country, is the Army recruitment office. Indeed, I can recall many family and friends joining the Army as a result of a visit to one of them. Many people will have joined because they were able to talk face to face with someone who had served in the forces. I have no doubt that such expertise allowed potential recruits to go into forces life with their eyes wide open. However, as recruitment offices close across Wales and beyond, this vital advice could be lost for ever.

The armed forces have a proud history in Wales. The Royal Welsh was created in 2006 by the amalgamation of the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Both of the original regiments trace their history back to the 17th century. The Royal Regiment of Wales became the 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, while the Royal Welch Fusiliers became the 1st Battalion. The 2nd Battalion can boast of having been involved in many of Britain’s most famous battles, including the defiant stand at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu war in 1879, when it was the 24th Regiment of Foot.

Anyone who finds themselves in a town centre on Remembrance Sunday will see young and old come together to honour our war dead. They will know of the very special link between Wales and our armed forces. If further evidence of that link was needed, it came when I was proud to stand with many parliamentary colleagues and former members of the Welsh Cavalry last year, as we successfully battled to save one of the oldest and most distinguished regiments in the British Army from closure. One of the arguments that we used then was that the south Wales valleys have historically been an excellent recruiting ground for the armed forces, and in particular the Welsh Cavalry.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that communities such as those that we represent have always looked upon the armed forces as a clear career path for them and that we should be offering young people—young men and young women—who need the opportunities to go forward in their career this service on our high streets. We should make it easier for them to get a trade, get a career and move on in their lives.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know so many ex-servicemen, veterans and people who have had something to do with the forces, and they all think that it was a wonderful opportunity and that they were given opportunities that they probably would not have had in civilian life.

I went to visit the recruiting office in Carmarthen and was surprised that the soldiers—Welsh soldiers—in that office said, “Actually, we don’t need a high street location any more. What we rely on is people joining through the internet, and what we need is a different facility to the one that we had years ago.” Were they wrong?

If the hon. Gentleman allows me to develop my argument further, I will come to that point as I go through my speech. That is the point of this debate; I could answer him in 30 seconds, but I will go through the whole debate.

With the closure of Army recruitment offices, it is my sincere belief that this vital link between Wales and the armed forces could be broken. Like many right hon. and hon. Members from all parties, I value highly the role that the men and women of the armed forces play in our national life. I worked for my predecessor as the MP for Islwyn—Lord Touhig, who is himself a former Minister with responsibility for veterans—and I well remember how keen he was to press home the message right across the country that joining the forces is not like going to work in Asda, Tesco or Barclays. The brave men and women in the forces risk their lives every day, risking serious injury and death.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—a Conservative Member—who said, and I quote him exactly:

“Joining the Army is not a career you can just research on the internet. You really need to sit down and talk with someone about it”?

Basically, that is a very sound statement and sums up very well how important these recruitment offices are.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has, in a nutshell, summed up the debate—perhaps I should sit down now—and that is the reason why I have secured it. Put simply, the sacrifice is unique and special. In Wales, we value the contribution that the armed forces make to our freedom. Joining the forces is not a decision that we can take lightly, as my hon. Friend has just said. It is a way of life. It will affect family and friends. Therefore, it is vital for those who seek a career in the armed forces to have all the information and advice possible available to them.

When I visited the careers office in Cardiff, my experience was that young people, particularly those from the valleys, see the careers offices in places such as Abergavenny and Pontypridd as opportunities to learn lots of information about the great jump that they will make in joining the armed services.

I thank my parliamentary neighbour; I am pleased that both my parliamentary neighbours have intervened on me. On the flip side, people who are not sure might think that the armed forces are not for them, so careers offices are a good facility to ensure that we recruit exactly the right people. I agree with my hon. Friend.

As I said, the armed forces are not something people sign up to online after half an hour of looking for jobs on Google or any other, job-related website and thinking, “Ah, that’s a good idea.” No, it is much more serious than that. Having a point of reference on the high street is vital. Over the years, Army recruitment offices have served Wales and the UK. Also, for the parents of potential recruits, it can be comforting to know that they will have someone to talk to about the career choice that their son or daughter is about to make. Army recruitment offices are familiar and proud features of our high streets right across Wales and Britain. They are a focal point for any young person considering the armed forces as a career.

The Ministry of Defence recently revealed that seven out of 12 Army careers offices in Wales have closed or will close by the end of next month. We are now without an Army careers office in Pontypridd, Abergavenny, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, Rhyl, Aberystwyth or Bridgend. If we spoke to people in those communities, I am sure that the majority would know where their Army careers office was based. They might walk past it on their way to work, but it was always there. Some of them may even have popped in for a chat about what life in the armed forces is like.

As we move through life, national service becomes a dim and distant memory. Our forces’ footprint is getting smaller all the time. The closures mean that Army life is becoming much more remote. Recruitment offices in south Wales are now consigned only to major areas such as Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. In north Wales, only the offices in Bangor and Wrexham remain open. The thing that I find most disappointing is that the closures were carried out with no formal ministerial announcement and were discovered only following parliamentary questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith).

Does my hon. Friend agree that today could be a great day? The Government once proposed abolishing the post of chief coroner, but thanks to more consideration and wide-scale opposition, they changed their mind. Does my hon. Friend agree that today could be the day when the Minister changes his mind on this matter and that that would be a great day for all concerned?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that it is a sign of weakness for someone to say that they were wrong about something or a flip-flop to say that they have changed their mind. They would have analysed the facts, seen that their decision was wrong and gone about rectifying it. I would like to see more of that from the Government. There is no real worry in saying that they were wrong about something, and often it is a display of strength.

The Government have outsourced Army recruitment to a private firm called Capita. It seems perverse that Capita has secured a contract for recruitment worth £440 million, while the armed forces are shedding staff left, right and centre. Some 20,000 regular troops have been axed. Capita had promised to save the Army hundreds of thousands of pounds in recruitment costs when it won the contract. It also tells us that 80% of recruits will be less than 40 minutes away from an Army recruitment centre. Have its staff ever travelled on a bus in rural Wales or tried to get to Cardiff from the valleys during rush hour? We have seen campaigns to save our high street, yet the Government sit back and allow Capita to close recruitment offices. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that, no sooner have the Government privatised armed forces recruitment, anyone considering a career in the Army has been directed online and lost the face-to-face contact that made careers offices so valuable.

Not only Wales is being affected by the closures; across the UK, 83 out of a total of 156 offices will close, leaving just 73 open. Army careers offices were once the first port of call for young men or women who wanted to find out more about making the unique sacrifice and joining our armed forces.

The Minister will come to the point that I made, so I will deal with just Carmarthen. The fact is that people were not using the careers office. The soldiers who manned it did not think it was worth keeping open, let alone what I said. Furthermore, Army recruitment has been high, not just numerically but in terms of standards. I am not quite sure whether the hon. Gentleman’s point has the grounding that he suggests.

Some hon. Members are known for not speaking with notes, but I have prepared this speech. If the hon. Gentleman waits, I will give him the answer.

I want to touch on how valuable the offices are to recruitment. Taking the example of Pontypridd, 73 people were recruited to the armed forces through that office last year. That office is now closed. In Rhyl, some 72 people were recruited; in Carmarthen, 33 people were recruited; Abergavenny, 28; and Haverfordwest, 34. They are all members of the armed forces who might not be in the Army today had they walked down to their local high street to chat to someone, only to find that the office had been replaced by an empty shop unit and a sign telling them to search online for more information.

The Government are defending the closures by saying that more and more people are looking for information about the forces online. That is not surprising; they have nowhere else to go for information. Furthermore, the assumption is that all young people have the resources to look online. Somehow, all kids these days are thought of as computer whizz kids. We hear all the time from hon. Members who represent more rural parts of the country that their constituents have problems with reliable broadband connection.

In my constituency of Islwyn, the lack of a reliable and speedy broadband service is a problem that I have encountered over and again. Internet connection in parts of Wales is not as reliable as in other parts of the UK. Many households in my constituency choose not to use the internet simply because of the cost. It is all very well saying that young people are active online, but if they are living at home with their parents or grandparents, they may not have internet access. If people have grown up without broadband, they are much less likely to search online for jobs or look up information from a laptop or computer. It is to such people that an Army careers office makes a difference.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a hard-fought campaign to save the Welsh Cavalry last year. What that campaign showed was just how much we value our servicemen and women in Wales. I remember receiving hundreds of letters, e-mails and postcards calling for the Welsh Cavalry to be retained. In the end, it was a bittersweet victory, as we lost some 600 jobs from the historic Royal Welsh Battalion. I seriously hope that the closures are not another sign that the armed forces are being affected by the Government’s cost cutting.

Quite simply, the Army means a lot to people, not only in my constituency but across Wales and the country. We are fiercely proud of our heritage and history, which for ever binds Wales and the armed forces together. I sincerely hope that the closure of Army recruitment offices will have little or no effect on that vital relationship. Many potential recruits, serving personnel and families will look with interest at what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Bayley, not least because you yourself come from a constituency with strong military connections. I am sure that you have some empathy with some of the points that we are debating this afternoon from both sides of the argument.

I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate. I assure him that the Government place a high value on the quality and dedication of Welsh recruits who join our armed forces. I want to pay tribute to members of the armed forces from Wales who have made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting the security of the United Kingdom—a sacrifice that we will never forget.

I am delighted to be joined in the Chamber by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb). I know that he takes a keen interest in the matter, and he has discussed the issue with me before the debate.

The Whips Office, in which I, too, have had the privilege of serving, is a noble estate. Remember our corporate motto: “We are from the Whips Office, and we are here to help.”

Wales and the Welsh people play a large and important part in our armed forces. From a population that represents just under 5% of the total UK population, Wales has consistently provided between 6% and 7% of total recruits to the British Army each year, so it is fair to say that Wales punches above its weight. Additionally, 10 of the 22 local authorities in Wales have already shown their support for the armed forces and veterans by signing up to community covenants, and the remainder are expected to sign up this year. I am sure you would welcome that as much as the rest of the House, Mr Bayley.

We ask a great deal of the men and women who join our armed forces, and we need the right young men and women to join up. Although the regular armed forces are reducing, they are still very much open for business. The Army, for example, continues to require 7,500 new recruits a year, yet over the past decade the Army has missed the recruiting targets necessary to meet its operational requirements. To address that, the Army has entered a partnering arrangement, known as the recruiting partnering project, with Capita, which seeks to improve Army recruiting by exploiting the expertise of the private sector while retaining a strong military interface with potential recruits at key stages. The contract covers the entire recruiting and selection process for both the Regular Army and the Territorial Army and will transform the way the Army recruits officers and soldiers. In doing so—this is an important point to stress—the contract will release more than 1,000 military recruiters back to the front line, where they are needed, and deliver some £300 million in benefits over 10 years.

The recruiting partnering project will also provide a centralised recruiting operation delivered through a five-region structure using 73 Army careers centres, of which 38 are embedded within tri-service armed forces careers offices. The five current selection centres, including the Army Officer Selection Board, will be retained. To co-ordinate all recruiting activities, a national recruiting centre will be set up in the headquarters Army recruiting and training division, which is based in Upavon, Wiltshire. The centre will provide an initial point of telephone and on-line contact for early inquirers and will provide recruiting teams to co-ordinate and control recruiting activity and liaise with regional recruiters. Importantly, the centre will take on back-office administration tasks, such as reference and security checks and arranging medical screenings, thereby removing the burden of much of the administrative activity from front-line military recruiters in the regions, leaving them free to concentrate on face-to-face liaison with potential recruits.

Over the years, the Army has continually reviewed the location of its recruiting offices, and the number of offices has ebbed and flowed to meet the changing demands of the recruiting environment and the needs of the armed forces. However, the approach that is now being introduced marks a major change in our marketing methods. Following extensive consultation with the Army, the number of recruiting offices will reduce by about half to 73, which reflects that times have changed since the hon. Member for Islwyn and I left school and began looking for work. Experience tells us that today’s young people are much more likely to look online for careers guidance and advice using the many electronic devices available to them.

The UK Government have provided the Welsh Government with almost £57 million to help bring broadband to everyone and super-fast speeds to 90% of homes and businesses. The figure is more than double the amount Wales would have received had the measure been a Barnett consequential. Considerable resource has been invested to try to increase broadband capability in Wales.

That is an important point, but a tremendous number of people in Wales are still not connected to the internet. In the Caerphilly borough, for example, 37% of households have no access to the internet, which is a real problem in some of the most deprived communities, and it will not be solved overnight.

I listen to what the hon. Gentleman says, but the programme is due to accelerate in 2013, and we will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government through the Wales Office and Broadband Delivery UK so that sufficient and appropriate measures are in place to ensure the funding is ring-fenced and monitored in order to try to achieve the objective. Further progress is needed, and I hope by referencing those points I have demonstrated that we are determined to make progress where needed.

The alternative ways in which potential recruits may now gain information about joining the Army, coupled with the national recruiting centre, will to some degree reduce the reliance on a high street presence. Capita will introduce a wide selection of contact channels to Army careers centres, including access to digital communication through social media, to meet that need.

Of course, at times there is no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, particularly for a life event as significant as choosing a military career in the service of one’s country, which is why the 73 Army careers centres will be retained. The centres will be spread across the United Kingdom to ensure that more than 90% of the population is within reasonable travelling distance, which is assessed to be less than an hour by car.

The hon. Member for Islwyn asked how we will address particularly rural locations, which is a fair point, but each of the Army’s regional brigades will have its own mobile recruiting unit to provide additional cover for rural locations in situ if there is assessed to be a particular need. So we are not relying purely on modern IT and the fixed Army careers centres. As part of the package there will be mobile teams that can take advice out to potential recruits, rather than asking them to go online or physically go to a centre. I hope he accepts that we have thought about that in some detail.

Army careers centres will be used for walk-ins off the street, for nurturing and supporting personnel as they proceed through the recruiting process and for formal interviews for both Regular Army and Territorial Army candidates.

I hear what the Minister is saying about recruitment via the internet. Blaenau Gwent in the heads of the valleys is a good recruiter for the Army in particular, and it is about an hour’s drive down to Cardiff, depending on the route, I seek assurance that there will be a sustained campaign from the mobile units to ensure that young people in the heads of the valleys get a good chance to join the services.

I believe we will still be able to give people a good chance to join the services, which, after all, is what we want. We will have what one might call modern IT methods for gaining information and registering interest. There will still be fixed Army careers centres where people can go to talk about recruitment face-to-face, and there will also be the mobile teams. Where those mobile teams are deployed will be partly down to the experience of recruiters, but the capability is available to go out to people where we believe that that would benefit both them and the Army. If we did not have that capability, the hon. Gentleman might rightly criticise us for not having it, but the fact is that we have it and we intend to deploy it to good use.

The fixed Army careers centres will be manned by a mix of military and civilian staff, whose combined roles will include visits to education establishments and other local liaison activities. That will allow military personnel to spend most of their time face-to-face with potential recruits, rather than on administrative tasks that can be best managed on a centralised basis. Service personnel will continue to be at the front end of the recruiting process. It is less an outsourcing of recruiting, as some have characterised it, and more of a partnership between the Army and Capita. The Army will still be an integral part of the process.

We have heard during this debate that offices in Abergavenny, Pontypridd, Bridgend, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, Aberystwyth and Rhyl will all be closed by the end of next month. Indeed, some of them have already closed, although not all the closures were due to the recruit partnering project per se. Army careers centres will continue to exist in Bangor, Wrexham, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport to provide guidance and advice as required.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the closures have been managed properly and in accordance with best practice. About 300 civilian staff employed in the old offices across the United Kingdom had the opportunity to transfer to Capita, and many chose to do so. Others chose to apply for the Ministry of Defence’s voluntary early release scheme. Full and proper trade union consultation took place throughout the process. As I know that he has a background as a trade union official, I am happy to assure him, before he asks, that TUPE applied.

Members will know of the Army’s intent to raise the trained strength of the Territorial Army to 30,000 by 2018 as part of the Army 2020 transformation. I have a particular interest in the process as the Minister who will effectively be in charge of it on a day-to-day basis and because I served in the Territorial Army in the 1980s as a young infantry officer. We trained for a different war in those days—really for one scenario, world war three—so I was never mobilised for active service, I was never shot at other than in training and I have no medals, but I have the Queen’s commission on my wall at home, I have worn the uniform and I understand the ethos. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is personally important to me.

The recruit partnering project is key to success, and I assure hon. Members that I have been taking a personal interest in how the Army are gearing up to meet the challenge. I am keen to ensure that all measures are taken to create the right conditions to grow the Army’s reserve. On Monday, I met with the Adjutant-General and his team at Pirbright as well as with senior officials at Capita, including Shaun King, its business director, to be briefed on how the process will operate. I spent some hours going in detail through how it is intended to work, so that we can meet our objectives, including having 30,000 trained members of the Territorial Army by the target date of 2018.

I fully support the reform programme that the Minister is describing. It was good to have him in my constituency at Pirbright for that meeting the other day. It is important not only to get money to the front line but keep it in top-notch training. Can he reassure me that the Army training camp at Pirbright will continue to train young soldiers from across the country?

As my hon. Friend knows, a basing review is under way at the moment; that might underlie part of his question. We hope to make the conclusions of that review available soon, but speaking personally, I was very impressed by what I saw at Pirbright. It is a good facility delivering high-quality training to members of our armed forces, and as the local MP, he has a right to be proud of it.

I recognise the concerns of the hon. Gentleman, but I assure him that although the changes that we are making will deliver efficiencies, they are also appropriate to how society is changing and how young people communicate and access services. I am sure that many young people of Wales will continue to choose a career in the armed forces and will serve with the same bravery and distinction that generations from Wales have shown before them.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.