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Westminster Hall

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2013

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 April 2013

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Off-gas Grid Households

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

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. In these very difficult economic times, households up and down the UK are struggling with the cost of living, and of all the bills that darken kitchen tables from Aberdeen to Axminster, energy bills are hitting many the hardest.

Rightly, the Government are taking action to help. Following my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s commitment to bringing down energy bills, Ofgem—the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets—is introducing a package of measures to reduce bills, improve consumer advice and improve regulation, but, however welcome those changes are, their scope extends only as far as the limits of the mains gas grid. Beyond the flicker of the grid lie millions of households that are at risk of being left in darkness as energy reforms come into force. Those households, unable to access gas from the grid, rely on alternative energy sources, including heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, electricity and solid fuels. If we are serious about helping people who are struggling with the cost of energy, we must ensure that there is parity between mains gas and off-grid households.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only that these are rural communities, but that often they are among the most deprived, so it is those who are least able to bear the excessive costs of off-grid gas who have to bear the burden?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will come on to illustrate the scale of the problem that she so rightly raises early in the debate.

All households should enjoy energy prices that are as low as possible, along with the protection afforded by a robust regulatory system. All should have access to comprehensive consumer advice services. It is important to stress that, in talking of households left off the mains gas grid, we are not talking about a handful of remote villages. Millions of people rely on off-grid energy. As a Cornish MP, raised in the duchy, I have always been aware that, for many local households, energy is not simply a matter of flicking a switch for a piped supply. It involves an expensive process of sourcing, purchasing and securing delivery of a private supply of heating oil or LPG or, nowadays, of finding a renewable source of energy. However, it was only on entering Parliament and joining the all-party group on off-gas grid, so ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), that I fully appreciated the scale and geographical extent of off-gas grid energy usage.

Across the UK, 4 million households are off the mains gas grid. Their inhabitants comprise 15% of the population. Those households are not confined to rural areas, as 49% of off-gas grid households are situated in urban areas. The households reliant on off-gas grid energy do not represent a marginal group—an exception to be brushed over—but instead comprise millions of families and individuals living in cities, towns and villages and on farms across the country. What, then, is the state of the off-grid gas energy sector that serves them?

A comprehensive study of the sector was published last month by the all-party group, drawing on evidence from off-grid energy suppliers, off-grid energy customers, consumer groups and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The picture painted by the report is stark. It reveals a sector in desperate need of the sort of changes now being applied to the mains gas grid network.

One thing is particularly clear: off-grid households pay more for energy. Work undertaken by the heating bill comparator Sutherland Tables reveals that a typical three-bedroom house, costing an average of £975 a year to heat on mains gas, would cost more than £1,570 to heat with heating oil and a staggering £2,170 to heat with bulk LPG. Overall, off-grid households pay 60% to 120% more for energy than households connected to the mains gas grid.

Does my hon. Friend also agree that the challenge is not just the amount, but the mechanism for payment, because sometimes direct debit facilities are simply not available and individuals have to pay up front, which inevitably is a much heavier burden on the purse?

That is absolutely right, especially in relation to bulk supplies of oil and gas, for which a single payment can be £600 or £800.

The high prices are compounded by the fact that off-grid households cannot benefit from the range of discounts, such as those associated with dual fuel bills, that on-grid customers enjoy. Similarly, many energy-saving schemes promoted by the Government have, in the words of Citizens Advice when giving evidence to the all-party group,

“not been particularly effective at improving the energy efficiency of off-grid properties.”

Previous schemes, such as the carbon emissions reduction target, have incentivised energy suppliers to provide energy-efficiency improvements to consumers. However, the process used to assess the progress made by different energy suppliers—the system of a point for each household improved—encouraged suppliers to focus on easy-to-improve households. As many off-grid properties were far from easy to improve, having solid, hard-to-insulate walls and being situated in isolated locations, they were accorded a low priority. As a result, many off-grid households missed out.

The all-party group’s report shows that a considerable number of off-grid gas energy consumers believe that the high prices that they have to contend with result from a lack of competition among suppliers. I have been aware of those concerns for some time, and following the winter of 2010-11, when the price of heating oil in my constituency rocketed, I joined others in calling for an Office of Fair Trading inquiry into the off-grid energy market. I am very grateful to the former Energy Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), for listening to the concerns and for asking the OFT to instigate just such an inquiry. However, while the OFT concluded that the off-grid market was working well and gave most off-grid customers a choice of suppliers, the all-party group’s report indicates that the all-clear issued by the OFT may be premature.

Crucially, the OFT analysed the number of suppliers in a given area by postcode. That approach throws up a number of issues. It has been argued that analysis by postcode district is not sufficiently detailed to give an accurate assessment of the number of functioning suppliers for any one address in that district, as postcode districts can cover many square miles and thousands of households. In particular, sparsely populated rural areas, which are most likely to be off-grid, by definition cover a larger expanse. The average rural postcode for England and Wales comprises 55 square miles, compared with 14 square miles for urban areas. That large rural postcode size means that, although a postcode could be served by five different suppliers, each supplier could feasibly serve only one district within it—a district large enough to support one whole company, but that comprises only a small proportion of the postcode area. Consumers living in that district would therefore have a very limited choice of suppler.

In giving evidence to the all-party group, the OFT admitted that its approach overlooked a lack of competition in rural areas, stating that many rural districts

“actually only support a very small number of suppliers, perhaps two or even only one.”

The first-class Cornish charity Community Energy Plus gave further evidence to the all-party group of a lack of competition in very rural areas served by small, local companies, commenting that

“a lot of the companies have an existing customer base and they’re actually unwilling to expand… that results in… a lack of competition”.

It therefore appears that the OFT inquiry may not paint a comprehensive picture of the state of the market and that a lack of competition may well be a further issue affecting off-grid energy consumers.

Does my hon. Friend believe that a comparison might be drawn in rural communities between the broadband challenge and the energy challenge? Both issues are difficult for rural communities. The Government have a rural broadband strategy. Would it not be appropriate for them to adopt a rural energy strategy to look very carefully at this problem?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Parts of rural areas have successfully rolled out super-fast broadband. I must commend the super-fast broadband project in Cornwall; we have very high penetration levels, even in some remote rural areas. She makes a fair point: we need parity across our nation. People living in remote rural areas should not be disadvantaged. As policy makers, we should always consider fairness and parity.

Consumers facing high prices and related competition issues are also bereft of the regulatory protections and consumer support that many on-grid households take for granted. Ofgem has no responsibility in the off-grid energy sector and the OFT can investigate only how well the market is operating. Off-grid energy customers with a complaint against their supplier have only one recourse: their local trading standards team. Support from such teams differs across the UK and is extremely limited in many places. Some moves have been made towards the self-regulation of the off-grid energy sector. The Federation of Petroleum Suppliers, a trade association whose membership delivers 80% of the UK’s heating oil to homes, has a code of conduct that requires members to

“act with integrity and honesty”.

The federation is apparently preparing a more rigorous code, giving further specification on what would constitute a breach of “integrity and honesty”. However robust that code is, the ultimate sanction will remain loss of membership. Given the number of suppliers who successfully trade without belonging to the federation, that sanction does not constitute such a disincentive.

Inadequate regulation is matched by limited support for off-grid customers. On-grid households can access a range of support, including a dedicated team in Consumer Focus, but many off-grid consumers struggle to find expert advice. In the words of Citizens Advice, when giving evidence on consumer advice for off-grid customers to the all-party group:

“A team in DECC… that we knew we could go to, would be nice... we just need a far more coordinated effort, essentially.”

That stakeholder experience of consumer advice matches that of too many off-grid customers. To assess the off-grid energy sector is to assess a range of frustrations faced by off-grid energy consumers, from high prices, possibly caused in part by a lack of competition in the market, to inadequate regulation and a lack of dedicated consumer advice.

What can be done to tackle those issues to ensure that off-grid customers benefit from assistance commensurate with that directed to on-grid households? The all-party group’s report suggests a number of common-sense changes that would make a real difference to off-grid gas consumers. The benefits system could recognise the high prices that off-grid consumers face. Two particular benefits are specifically designed to assist with the cost of energy: the warm home discount and the winter fuel allowance. Citizens Advice and the Energy Saving Trust support proposals to create a higher rate in the warm home discount to reflect high off-grid prices. Last year, the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) promoted a private Member’s Bill that would have enabled off-grid gas consumers to receive their winter fuel allowance in September, rather than December. That simple change would allow older consumers to purchase heating oil at low summer rates, thereby saving an estimated £200 a year.

To help to secure lower prices in the long term, the OFT could be asked to reopen its study into the off-grid energy market, using more localised data. Such a revised study could provide a more definitive answer about the scale of competition issues in the market and suggest possible resolutions should such problems exist. To provide regulatory protection and consumer support to off-gas households, the Government could set up a dedicated team within the new competition and markets authority to regulate the sector and support consumers. Community Energy Plus describes the creation of such a body as

“essential to ensure price parity across the market”.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important matter to the House. The differential in prices across Northern Ireland has been recognised and the regulator is already looking at it. Does she feel that something should be done UK-wide on the regulation of prices? The price, when the stuff comes off the ship in Belfast, is dearer there than in some other parts of the Province. There is something seriously wrong, and the same problem applies across all rural constituencies.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive my ignorance, but I am not fully aware of the devolved powers in relation to the energy market. I did not prepare to cover that in this speech, as I am very much focused on England and Wales, but perhaps the Minister will respond to that point. He probably has far greater knowledge of whether his powers extend to the Province than I do.

Alongside the measures I suggested, support to the green deal and the renewable heat incentive should continue. If implemented correctly over the coming years, both have the potential to assist off-grid gas households. The renewable heat incentive in particular could help off-grid households to install air or ground heat pumps, providing a new, cheaper and more sustainable energy source.

Having campaigned for some years on behalf of off-grid energy consumers living in my constituency, I am assured that Ministers appreciate how important the issue is. I am grateful for all the time that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), an off-grid energy consumer himself, has given and for the help that my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden gave in securing the initial OFT inquiry. I now urge DECC to take that appreciation of the issue one step further, take careful note of the further evidence revealed by the all-party group’s report and consider closely the all-party group’s recommendations, which could help to secure a fairer deal for off-grid customers. It is important to stress that many such customers form part of a group that Ministers are keen to prioritise: households in and at real risk of going into fuel poverty. One OFT statistic is telling: 32% of off-gas grid households in Great Britain are fuel poor, compared with 15% of those on-grid.

The Government are right to do what they can to help households struggling with rising energy bills, but that help will pass millions by if reforms to the mains gas network are not complemented by action on off-grid energy. The 600,000 off-grid households in fuel poverty will continue in fuel poverty, joined, no doubt, by many others, if an unreformed off-grid energy sector is combined with a return to winters like those of 2010 and 2011.

For the Government’s package of measures on energy bills to be fair, it must apply both to on-grid and off-grid households, and to be effective it must help the hundreds of thousands of off-grid households that have fallen into fuel poverty over recent years. For the Energy Bill revolution to be meaningful, it must travel beyond the corridors of Whitehall and to all those beyond the edge of the mains gas grid.

I am pleased to speak in this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and to support the recommendations made by the all-party group on off-gas grid in its excellent report, which sets out the issues and proposes interesting ideas to deal with them.

I do not intend to speak on the general problem of fuel poverty, the details of which should be well known by Members on both sides of the House, but I note the point that the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) made: although only 15% of households in the UK are not on the gas grid, 32% of such households are in fuel poverty, as opposed to 15% of on-grid households. That shows the extent of the problem, particularly, but not exclusively, in rural areas. I have raised the issue of off-grid supplies in all the years I have been in the House. When preparing for the debate, I was tempted simply to say—in the manner of “Blue Peter”—“Here’s one I prepared earlier” and produce an old Hansard. It is slightly depressing to see the same familiar problems that we have talked about for years highlighted in the report.

I have raised the particular issue of winter fuel payments for off-grid pensioners on numerous occasions, to Ministers in both this and the previous Government. I am pleased with the strong recommendation in the new report that calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to reconsider its opposition to my private Member’s Bill. My Bill does not seek to extend winter fuel payments to additional groups, nor does it tread on the contentious issue of means testing that concerns some Members. It is tightly drawn to give some relief to a particularly vulnerable sector: pensioners who are off the gas grid.

As the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth said, all forms of energy have increased in price, but the price of home fuel oil has rocketed in recent years, and there is clear evidence that the cost rises in early autumn and stays high over winter. Even on the website of an oil supplier,, we can read:

“Winter months are typically more expensive than the summer given the rise in demand across Europe, the summer months of June and July will usually provide the lowest rates.”

The graph on the site shows dramatic increases in all areas of the United Kingdom over the winter months. It is important to note that this is not just an issue for the rural highlands and islands of Scotland; it also affects rural Wales and all parts of rural England, including Cornwall.

What the hon. Gentleman says is further evidenced by the experience of one of my constituents, who queried her bill and had it reduced. No other market—including mains gas and electricity—would operate in that way, so is that not evidence that the suppliers are charging over the odds at times?

The market is not clear. I appreciate that there are difficulties in the market. There are some big suppliers, but there are many small ones, and one difficulty is that many suppliers buy on the notoriously volatile spot market. The APPG report highlights another difficulty, which is that people are given a price when they ask for oil, but the price is not guaranteed and can be completely different on delivery. That is no way for someone to run their main home heating supply. The presence of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminds me that this is also an issue in Northern Ireland—I was interrupted before I could mention that.

Figures from Oil Firing Technical Association suggest that a typical rural household could save £170 if they bought heating oil in June 2010 rather than in January 2011, nearly doubling the value of their winter fuel allowance. When I introduced my Bill, the House of Commons Library produced a note that stated:

“The average costs of heating and providing hot water for a typical three bedroom house with LPG have been estimated at around £2,300 per year (based on April 2012 prices with a conventional boiler), heating oil is thought to cost around £1,700 and gas around £1,200.”

It is worth noting that over the past four years, the cost of heating an average home with propane or home fuel oil has increased by £850 and £750 respectively, while gas has increased by only £400, so not only are off-grid homes more expensive to heat but the costs have risen much more sharply than for homes on the gas grid. In short, it costs almost double to heat a home with LPG than a home with access to the mains gas grid. It is also important to note that the main use of LPG and home fuel oil is for heating, so although these homes generally have electricity they still face greater costs.

The traditional response of Government to the problem has been to call for an extension of the mains gas grid, and that point is made in the report, but there are fundamental difficulties, not least because in many rural areas there is simply no gas main and there is no possibility of a gas main ever coming to areas such as the islands and highlands of Scotland, rural Wales and rural Northern Ireland perhaps. Even where there is a gas main, the connection cost can be exorbitant.

I recently came across a case in an urban setting in my constituency. Even though there was a gas main further down the street, my constituent was quoted £6,000 to connect to it. That would be uneconomical for most households, which are struggling to pay their fuel bills. If the Government are serious about the extension of the gas grid, they have to do something about connection costs. In the case of my constituent, it might be that the quoted cost was high because they were the first person in their small area who wanted to connect. People connecting in future might get it cheaper, but it is still uneconomical for the first person, and that issue needs to be tackled.

The problem in many rural areas is exacerbated by the fact that much of the housing is old and of a construction that makes it difficult to install energy-saving measures such as cavity wall insulation. I appreciate that the Minister will say that the energy company obligation is meant to tackle such issues—and I am sure that it will— but there is still a huge problem over all rural areas of the United Kingdom.

Those households receive the same winter fuel allowances as pensioners on the gas grid, but the crucial difference is how the energy is delivered. Those who are on the gas grid will receive their winter fuel bill around the time that the winter fuel allowance is generally paid, and it therefore works well for them. Indeed, in the explanatory notes to the regulations that last amended the benefit, the previous Government stated:

“They are paid in a lump sum each winter to ensure that money is available when fuel bills arrive.”

That, however, is not the case for those who are off the gas grid. They face the difficulty of having to pay for their LPG or home fuel oil up front at the beginning of winter, well before they have the benefit of the winter fuel allowance, and the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth rightly pointed out the cost of a full tank of gas. Many find it difficult to make the payment at that point, and may well not fill up the tank completely, which leaves them having to do so in the depths of winter, which can bring problems of its own, particularly during the severe weather that we have recently experienced.

The Office of Fair Trading produced a report that found that there were many competing suppliers in the market. However, by definition many of them are small suppliers, and although some of the larger players offer greater payment flexibility, many smaller ones are unable to so.

My hon. Friend referred to the difficulty of getting gas supplies in the depths of winter, and that was certainly an issue two winters ago in my constituency. Has he come across any local authorities or other bodies that include gas supply as part of their emergency planning?

I cannot say that I have specifically addressed that issue but, to be fair to the Government, two winters ago, they introduced a regulation to amend drivers’ hours, to enable tanker drivers to deliver during the worst of the winter. In spite of that, in my constituency it was impossible for tankers to get up many of the roads because they were blocked with snow. I had constituents who had no gas over that Christmas. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some suppliers place a meter in the tank, and unless the remote reading shows that the gas is at a certain level they will not deliver because they do not consider it an emergency.

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that was very evident in my constituency during that time. The remote sensing meant that the supplier would not deliver unless the gas got down to a specific volume. Some people, for instance those suffering from cancer, were so afraid that they would be without heat that they were caused considerable anxiety and concern.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. All these issues need to be addressed.

When I debated the issue with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb),in this Chamber, I indicated that some of the larger firms were interested, at least in discussing possible ways to address some of the issues, and I understand that there have been discussions between Ministers. When the Energy Bill was in Committee, the then Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), agreed that the Department for Work and Pensions would be included in such discussions. I understand that a round table is due to take place next month, and I would be interested to hear from the Minister on whether he feels any progress has been made.

Although the price of fuel rises, often substantially, as winter approaches, some suppliers offer a fixed price, but one that is much higher than in summer, and my Bill suggested ways in which we might tackle the problem. Winter fuel allowances are paid as a result of regulations that specify a date by which pensioners must apply, and it is worth noting that once someone is in the system they do not have to apply in subsequent years. Clause 1 simply seeks to vary the regulations by bringing forward the qualifying date for those off the gas grid from late September to late July. Clause 2 seeks to bring forward the payment date to no later than 30 September to allow them to take advantage of buying a complete tank of gas before winter.

It seems to me that the real problem—it is not unique to this Government; to be scrupulously fair, it happened under the previous Labour Government as well, and I discussed it with the then Minister with responsibility for energy—is that the Department simply tells Ministers that such changes are too difficult and too expensive, neither of which bears scrutiny. I have already suggested that, if the Government have real problems with an earlier date, we might keep the September date and simply allow payment to off-gas grid consumers at an earlier date from the second year. That would get round many of the problems, none of which seems to me to be insurmountable.

As we gallop towards Prorogation, I fear that time has run out for my Bill in this Session. I recall, however, that when Ted Heath was Prime Minister, he wanted to bring in the pensioners’ Christmas bonus, but was consistently told by his advisers that it would be too difficult or expensive, so he simply went on television and announced its introduction, and the Department suddenly found a way to do it. Perhaps it is time for similar ministerial militancy from the Minister to tackle the problem. To encourage him, I have tabled a new clause to the Energy Bill that would insert the main provisions of my Bill, and I ask all Members who are interested in the issue to sign it. Let us have another go at the Minister before our constituents have to suffer another winter of massively increasing fuel prices and an inability to get oil because of the weather.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for securing this debate. As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said, it has been oft-repeated. It is none the worse for that, but progress is pitifully slow. I am sure that constituents throughout the UK who are represented by hon. Members across this Chamber must feel that their cause has not been addressed by this Government or, indeed, by previous ones.

I want to raise several issues, on the first of which some progress has been made. My predecessor, Richard Livsey, pressed the Office of Fair Trading to conduct an inquiry into the supply of LPG for many years, but I was the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire when that inquiry was completed and a report made. It gave customers greater flexibility in being able to compare prices from various suppliers. Until then, they had to change the bulk tank when they changed suppliers, and the complexity and expense of doing so meant that changing suppliers was very difficult.

There have been incredibly good examples of communities coming together to form purchaser groups that can negotiate more strongly with suppliers. Certainly, the little community of Llanspyddid in my constituency has achieved that, although again—we have heard this message from hon. Members—the tariffs proposed by suppliers were so complicated that it was difficult for consumers to come to a conclusion and they needed help to evaluate suppliers’ proposals. That is nevertheless a good example of how the consumer can be more powerful in the market, given the right conditions.

I say to the Minister that those people need support to get groups together. A document has been produced on good practice for consumer groups in the energy market, but the Department of Energy and Climate Change could certainly do more to ensure that LPG consumers know that they can have competitive tenders from different suppliers. I often talk to LPG consumers who still do not understand what can be done, and there should certainly be a public information campaign to enable people to benefit more from that.

This topic is very important. In Cornwall, a huge amount of work has certainly been done, with some financial help from the Government, to set up such buyer co-operatives. They have been successful, but there are limits to their success, because of fundamental issues in the market. If there are only one or two suppliers, people can get a discount, but it will be about 10%, and we have heard about the huge disparity between on-grid and off-grid. Such help is welcome and a step in the right direction—of course, 10% is still a decent saving—but it will not really tackle the underlying market issues.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. However we cut the cake, heating a property with LPG is almost twice as expensive as doing so with mains gas. I am sure that consumer groups can achieve a 10% reduction, which is valuable.

My hon. Friend leads me on to say—this point was also made by the hon. Member for Angus—that although off-grid energy consumers often live in very isolated properties, sometimes their communities have never been connected to the gas mains for some reason or another. Certainly in my constituency, old coal-mining communities where there used to be deliveries of free coal to miners or their widows seem to have been left off the mains grid. As I understand it—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will correct me if I am wrong—the number of people off-grid in Northern Ireland is much higher than in the rest of the country. Yet, work is going on there to get more people on to the gas mains, which will give them huge savings on their energy consumption.

Whenever I have tried to inquire about getting communities such as Llangynidr and Abercraf on to the mains supply, the cost—as the hon. Member for Angus said—was so enormous that taking that forward was impossible. There is not just the cost of the infrastructure, but people have to be made to commit to taking mains gas, which is a question not only of putting in a connection, but often of having appliances changed for mains gas. In the old mining communities in my constituency, some people are particularly vulnerable and certainly do not have the spare cash to make that type of investment in their properties. I believe that the Government should have some system for making mains connection more affordable for communities, because at one stroke that would make a great impact on fuel poverty. I am not sure what the arrangements are in Northern Ireland, but I would be pleased, perhaps after this debate, to talk about that with the hon. Member for Strangford.

I do not think that any of us denies that it would be good to get more and more people on to the grid. However, does the hon. Gentleman see any dangers in that for those still left off-grid, with the potential for volatile pricing and many of the problems highlighted in the all-party group’s report?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but there will always be people left off-grid. We will not reach a situation in which everyone is on mains gas. Where there is an opportunity to take a larger step forward in access to the mains supply, we should look at ways to achieve that because, as I have said, it would make a huge difference to fuel poverty in such communities.

To conclude, we are told that the green deal will make a huge difference to the heating efficiency of homes, and I have already seen that in my constituency. None the less, the person who lives in an off-grid property might be at a disadvantage, because the golden rule of the green deal, which is that the savings will be paid for by the reduction in the energy demand, will be harder to meet. It has already been said that off-grid properties tend to be old and difficult to insulate. Will the Minister tell us how the green deal will be made available to people who live in such homes and what will be done to address their needs?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing a debate on this important matter, which affects so many of our constituents. I do not intend to speak for long, Mr Crausby, as the consensual conclusions on this issue coalesce around a recognised need for more and stronger regulation in the market.

The lack of gas connectivity has been raised by my constituents in the rural parts of East Cleveland, especially those living in outlying houses or small ex-farm buildings in and around communities such as Charltons, Margrove Park and Moorsholm. Although I recognise that there are large urban off-grid populations, the lack of mains gas supply is particularly problematic in rural areas. The 2009 English housing survey found that 36% of households in rural England are not covered by the gas grid, compared with 8% of urban households.

Rural poverty has many causes, but the additional costs of energy and fuel faced by rural households are almost certainly a major factor. Fuel poverty is a major issue throughout the country, but it is all the more acute in small settlements in rural areas. Indeed, in 2010, some 24.1% of households in villages, hamlets and isolated dwellings were fuel poor, compared with the then national average of 16.4%, and that figure has increased again, as we have heard in the statistics quoted today.

Particularly high fuel poverty in such communities can be at least partially explained through the lack of gas connectivity. The cost of heating oil is approximately twice that of heating a home by gas, so it is little wonder, though still appalling, that on average, in 2009, the cost to a rural household in ensuring an adequate standard of warmth was £346 more than for an urban household.

Furthermore, a household with oil central heating is almost twice as likely to be fuel poor as one with gas central heating. With such a clear relationship between gas connectivity and fuel poverty, there are significant benefits in trying to increase connectivity. Where that is not practical, the Government should be working to ensure that alternative fuels are as affordable as possible to off-gas grid households, and to concentrate efforts to increase the energy efficiency of rural households.

Although I am aware that the Office of Fair Trading examined the situation faced by off-gas grid households, I am particularly grateful to the all-party parliamentary group on off-gas grid for its work on the matter. Its co-chairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), whose constituency, like mine, has significant rural poverty, and the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) deserve credit in ensuring that the APPG undertook its own comprehensive inquiry in addition to that of the OFT. That inquiry has made several interesting recommendations to which I hope the Government award significant consideration.

Although this is something of a niche issue, there are a significant number of park homes in my constituency, and I am aware of the issues that many of those residents face. I urge the Minister to pay particular attention to the insufficient consumer protection regarding the fuel used by park-home residents, as highlighted as a case study in the APPG’s inquiry, and accordingly to introduce the necessary secondary legislation to rectify the situation.

The APPG’s recommendation that a Minister assumes lead responsibility for the off-gas grid sector is a perfectly reasonable and attainable move. Similarly, it seems entirely logical, at least at first glance, that on and off-grid gas should be covered by the same regulator, and I hope that that suggestion is considered by the Government.

Given the current economic mire and the fact that the potential for grid expansion was last analysed in 2001, I urge the Government to consider reassessing the situation, especially in consideration of the dramatic increases in the price of oil, and to extend mains gas heating to the 500,000 people who currently do not have it despite having a mains gas connection.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on raising this matter, which is very important to my constituents in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to the fact that Northern Ireland has even fewer people on the gas grid, and that is true. It is only in the last few years that many of our constituents have been offered the opportunity to get on the gas grid. Indeed, it was only some 10 or 12 years ago that Newtownards first went on the grid, and that is a major town; it is not even a rural area.

I want to make a few quick comments, because I am conscious of the time. Some 42% of rural households are not connected to mains gas, compared with 8% in urban areas. The hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth and a couple of other hon. Members referred to the unfairness of the situation. The cost of fuel and the number of fuel suppliers play a particularly important role in the countryside. Rural households rely on oil and LPG more heavily to heat their homes, so we clearly have an unfairness and imbalance in supply not just in Northern Ireland, but across the whole United Kingdom—Scotland and Wales and elsewhere. We are probably all aware that some 10% of costs in the home go towards heating. In December 2012, prices were 14% higher than in 2011 and 20% higher than last summer.

In the past year, I have been contacted by many pensioners, because they are the people in the greatest need and who have the greatest difficulties in paying their heating bills. They say they can no longer fill their oil tanks. Some petrol stations say that buying a five gallon drum is cheaper, but it is not; it is dearer. Pensioners in my constituency, in both rural and urban areas, say that the only way that they can address their heating problems is by wearing extra clothes. It would be interesting to find out how many people have died as a result of the cold this winter. I think that the numbers will be quite horrific, but I do not have definite evidence. None the less, I am certainly aware of a great many people of a certain age dying because of the cold.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to talk about the problems caused by the high price of heating oil and LPG. Does he share the concerns expressed by the APPG that the OFT study was inadequate? For example, it said that almost all the highlands and islands had between four and seven suppliers, which is obviously nonsense. Does he think that it was over-optimistic about the number of suppliers, that the market is not working properly and that the OFT study should be carried out again?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and yes I do agree with that. Quite clearly, the figures mentioned were not true, and that applies to many other parts in the United Kingdom as well.

This past winter, pensioners living in rural constituencies have experienced extreme weather conditions and have been unable to provide heating in their homes. The Government must consider introducing a system in which, in extreme conditions, extra payments are made to pensioners.

I will make one other comment, to take matters to a different level. In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth did not refer to this issue, but it is perhaps important that we refer to it. In addressing rural fuel poverty, there needs to be recognition of and support for the role that British farmers and land managers can play in exploiting the huge potential offered by our agriculture to provide renewable energy resources. The Countryside Alliance has long called in its rural manifesto for

“the potential of farming and its by-products as a significant and often existing source of renewable energy to be harnessed not only as a way of mitigating climate change but also of increasing our energy mix and therefore our energy security.”

Cows produce something in great quantities that could be used to provide energy. Why are we not using it in some rural areas? There are ways of using it that the Government must consider fully; it is time that they did so.

In conclusion, there are many methods of addressing the off-grid gas issue; the hon. Member for Angus, who spoke earlier, referred to one method. We cannot provide gas everywhere, but we have to try to provide it in lots of places. I would like gas to be provided in some areas of my constituency where I have been pushing for it to be provided. I would like to see it provided in Ballynahinch; Saintfield in Ballygowan; and in the villages of the Ards peninsula, such as Donaghadee, Millisle, Ballywalter, Greyabbey and Portavogie. Those are areas where gas should be made available, and it is quite possible to do so. There are small groups in all those rural areas that could justify the expense involved, and that process could be replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth on bringing this matter forward; this has been a very important debate at a very important time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate and the all-party group on the off-gas grid on its report. I commend the solutions that the group recommends.

I will not restate many of the statistics that have already been presented this morning, but I will make just a few points. Four million UK households are off the mains gas grid and they use a range of other fuels to heat their homes, including heating oil; gas, as we have heard; mains electricity; and microgeneration. However, they also use solid fuel—coal and wood—and that is a particular issue in constituencies that were previously coal mining areas. Also, there are some rural non-coal-mining areas in my constituency; the point about non-mining areas has already been noted by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams).

We know that the cost of using heating oil is substantially higher than the cost of using mains gas—about half as much again as the cost of using mains gas—and the cost of using LPG is about twice as great. However, in my area there is limited opportunity for consumers to switch their fuel source, an issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Mr Weir). I have heard over a number of years that there are continuing suspicions of what are, in effect, local monopolies, with large companies presenting themselves locally with local names, for example. I do not know if that continues to be a problem, but it certainly has been in the past. There is, therefore, also a difficulty in substituting one supplier for another.

Reference has already been made to the difficulty of adopting some of the solutions that have been recommended by the Government, such as getting better insulation. In my constituency, houses typically are of rubble construction and a large proportion of them are pre-1919. The possibility of insulating those houses more effectively is limited, to say the very least.

Throughout the UK, 42% of rural households are not connected to the mains gas, compared with 8% of households in urban areas, but I think that the percentage of such houses in some parts of rural parts of Wales is much higher. From my experience of living on the Llyn peninsula, which is isolated from the mains in some areas, I know that the percentage is very much higher, which has a specific consequence for those communities, some of which are particularly deprived in the first place.

Rural households rely more heavily on oil and LPG to heat their homes, but there are difficulties in using oil and LPG. I have referred to the problems that I experienced during the particularly hard weather recently. I have a group of pensioners, all of whom depend on LPG and live in an extremely rural area. The lorries carrying the fuel could not get up there. I made inquiries about whether the gas supply was part of emergency planning, and clearly it was not in any real sense, although the local authority acted very promptly, and I might even use the word “heroically”, in getting gas supplies to those people around Christmas time. However, much more attention should be paid to that specific issue.

We have already discussed the fuel poverty that arises from the issue of off-grid gas. We know that fuel poverty leads to ill health. I also looked at the statistics. Cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases, such as asthma, are exacerbated in cold, damp and poorly ventilated homes. Again, that is a particular issue in former coal mining areas, where a number of people still suffer from the effects of their involvement in the coal industry. Also, in my area, similar effects arise from people’s involvement with the slate industry.

I will put before the House a case that I came across last Friday. The accepted definition of fuel poverty is

“a household which spends more than 10 per cent of its income on all fuel use and to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth”,

which is the definition used by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I came across a case last Friday. A gentleman came to see me who was on benefits; I think he gets about £72.40. By the way, he was very precise about the amount of money he gets—down to the penny, almost—because people on very low incomes have to be. Out of his £72.40, he was considering buying two bottles of LPG, which he thought would cost him around £40. Spending that £40 was going to destroy his finances for that particular week, but he was confident that he could manage, because he had been managing in this way for years. I went through his finances with him very briefly and I asked him in passing, “I don’t think you have allowed there for the cost of a TV or a TV licence,” and he said, “Oh, the TV’s gone years ago,” and that was the way he was coping. I must admit that I scarcely watch TV, but this issue is about being able to take part in society in the way that everyone else does.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way, as time is rather short.

You would not want me to wander off the point, Mr Crausby, but may I note that I saw that particular gentleman because he is also going to be paying the bedroom tax at £18.40? I have no idea how he will do that on £72.40, with bedroom tax at £18.40 and buying LPG at £40 a shot. He has no savings, no job and very little possibility of moving.

I will press on to say, very briefly, that households that use oil or LPG as their main source of heating are more likely to use secondary heating than are other homes. In Wales, 85% of heating oil consumers use fuels for secondary heating and most frequently use solid fuel—that is, they use oil, but they also use coal, or some use wood. Only 23% of consumers in Wales with mains gas heating use other fuels for secondary heating, so mains gas is not an answer.

Lastly, I refer to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus and commend it yet again. It would allow pensioners to be given the winter fuel payment earlier in the year. I would like to see that extended to solid fuel. My hon. Friend’s Bill was deliberately restricted in scope to increase its chances of being passed, which I hope it is. Again, I press the Minister and the Government to give it proper consideration.

On 16 January, I asked the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change whether the Government could make winter fuel payments earlier, so that people would get more value, or more “bang for the buck” as it were. Interestingly, the Secretary of State said:

“My Department has been encouraging people in many parts of the country who are off grid to buy early, because they can get much better deals than if they leave it until later.”

That is precisely the point that I was making. He then said:

“Although the extra payments are welcome to those who get them, they are not received by everybody. They do not address the fundamental problem of homes and appliances that waste energy and money.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 950.]

Well, “hear, hear” I say—that is a very fine point—but I would not want the Secretary of State or the Minister to use their not being able to do something fundamental as an excuse to do nothing at all.

Thank you very much, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak. I shall be very brief.

I am secretary of the all-party group on the off-gas grid and I thank everyone who contributed to the group’s report on the issue. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate. I spoke in an intervention about the inadequacies of the OFT report. It is ludicrous to say that almost the entire highlands and islands area has between four and seven suppliers. It is clearly a market that is not working. I hope that the OFT will conduct that study again. I also hope that the Government will take on board the illogicality of the gas grid and the off-gas grid being dealt with by different regulators. Both should be regulated by Ofgem. I hope that the Government will put that reform in place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Crausby.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on securing the debate and on comprehensively discussing the issues arising from the all-party group’s report. I also note the efforts made by the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), as co-chairs of that group, in pulling that work together. It is a good example of the positive work that all-party groups—sometimes denigrated for other reasons—can do. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal is present but unable to take part in the debate, given her elevated status. Her compensation is perhaps that, due to the vagaries involved with recent ministerial changes, she has greater direct interaction with the relevant Minister than was the case before Easter. I am sure she will use that interaction to continue to reiterate to the Minister the concerns expressed this morning by hon. Members from all parties—five parties, from all parts of the UK—demonstrating that the issue arises in many constituencies and in every part of the country. Knowing the Minister’s constituency a little from my youth, he will have constituents in rural parts who are also off-grid.

I welcome the new and latest Minister to his role and wish him well in his new, or partly new, responsibilities. We look forward to debating and discussing with him a range of issues under the remit of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I was going to say that I welcome doing so in the months and years ahead, but about six months ago I said that to his predecessor, so it might be presumptuous to look too far ahead. For the period in which he and I are in these posts, I look forward to dealing with some of the big energy issues.

Off-grid gas and off-grid power are significant issues that are discussed from time to time. I was a member of the Energy Bill Committee. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) mentioned the amendment he tabled to that Bill. There was frustration—not just his, but among members of the Committee from all parties—about the paucity of the response on why the proposals in the amendment could not now be implemented, or even further explored. Given the hon. Gentleman’s previous attempts at introducing that amendment, I hope the Minister will bear that matter in mind before we consider the Bill on Report, as it presents him with an opportunity to make progress on that aspect. I am sure that the hon. Member for Angus is right about the prospects for his private Member’s Bill and I caution him as to the prospects for ministerial militancy, given that the Prime Minister’s remarks on energy tariffs have given the new Minister—and gave his predecessor—a problem to deal with in that regard.

Hon. Members have pointed out that some 4 million UK households are not connected to the mains gas grid. According to the OFT, that is a conservative estimate and the figure may be much higher. I will not repeat the list of communities in the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that are in this situation, but I will say that in Northern Ireland 80% of households are off the grid, largely because natural gas was introduced there only relatively recently. Although there is a different regulatory and market set up in Northern Ireland, we should pay attention to the efforts to get households on to the gas grid, because, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and other hon. Members have made clear previously, this is not just a rural issue; it is an issue in communities that, for some historical reason, have been left off the grid.

The issue is not just one of cost; it also involves the time it takes to get some of those customers access to the grid. I have experienced that in my constituency, which is urban and suburban, but has a number of former coal communities that have not been on the grid for exactly those reasons, although they are close to places that are. The cost and the time it would take are prohibitive. That matter deserves further consideration.

As well as being of concern in Northern Ireland, the issue is significant in Scotland, where 21% of households are off-grid, and in Wales, where the figure is 19%. Hon. Members will be aware that the average dual fuel on-grid bill has risen by more than £300 in about the past three years. For those who are off-grid, that problem is even worse. Consumers using heating oil, LPG or solid fuels pay considerably more to heat their homes than those using mains gas.

We have rightly concentrated on the costs of LPG and heating oil for heating homes, but many of my off-grid constituents, like my hon. Friend’s, depend on electricity to heat their homes. I would like to highlight the benefits of “Switch Together” campaigns to communities that are wholly dependent on electricity, because, although we want to get them on-grid as soon as possible, this helps them in the meantime.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We would want to get more consumers on to the grid, but where they are not on it we have to consider what other things can be done. Perhaps the Minister heard about the power of collective switching this morning on the “Today” programme, in respect of a group of councils. A number of groups of councils, and the Labour party and others, have engaged in collective switching programmes, which can have some impact in helping people to reduce their bills. My hon. Friend is right that the long-term issue is about trying to get more communities—some in her constituency are similar to some in mine, in Lanarkshire—on to the grid.

Hon. Members mentioned the House of Commons Library figure on the typical cost for households using oil for heating and hot water in a typical three-bedroom house, which at the beginning of the year was just under £1,700, compared to about £1,250 for gas. The difference of £450 a year would be difficult to deal with at any time and is particularly difficult given the economic situation that the country and many of our constituents find themselves in.

The volatility of the price of heating oil in particular causes off-grid households huge problems. Hon. Members mentioned the winter of 2010-11, when the price of heating oil increased by 55%. High prices coupled with extreme volatility have resulted in many off-grid households being pushed into fuel poverty. According to Consumer Focus, in Scotland, 59% of those using solid fuel and 56% of those using LPG and bottled gas live in fuel poverty, compared with 24% of those using mains gas. The 24% figure is far too high while 59% is very high and should be a matter of concern.

Measures that the Government could take have been highlighted both in the all-party group’s report and by hon. Members. We have touched on the winter fuel allowance, including the timing of the payments. The hon. Member for Angus commented on that. I hope that, by the time we consider the Energy Bill on Report, the Minister will have looked at the new clause, because it is worthy of more consideration and of action now, given the response that his ministerial colleague gave in Committee. I encourage the Minister to look at that to see whether there is work to be done.

I urge the Minister further to consider regulation of the off-grid sector. As the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth remarked, there is not a specific regulator for off-grid operations and Ofgem’s remit essentially extends only to the on-grid market. The role of the OFT and the Competition Commission is not comprehensive enough to deal with the off-grid market. The Government should give serious consideration to bringing those issues under the umbrella of Ofgem or any successor regulator.

The Minister is aware that his predecessor committed to a cross-party round table on this issue—I think that it will be held next month—and I invite him to confirm that that will still go ahead and that he will be involved. Will he also outline what progress we can expect on that initiative? In addition, will he, on the basis of the discussions he has had, tell us whether suppliers have made any progress on the recommendations outlined in the Consumer Focus report on off-grid gas?

We have heard from the all-party group and Consumer Focus, and we have heard about the OFT report, although it is deficient in some ways, as was highlighted by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid). We have also heard concerns expressed by Members from all parts of the United Kingdom and almost all the parties represented in the House. The Minister, who is in his early days in the job and his new responsibilities, will therefore be particularly aware of the fact that this is a considerable issue. We should not pretend that it was created overnight—I do not think anyone is pretending that—but that does not mean there should not be some impetus behind seeking to address it.

If we can have a better regulated system and consider a range of issues, including winter fuel payments and how consumers with gas connections close to them can be connected to the grid, we can provide some comfort to our constituents and ensure that they get a better deal on their energy costs—I say “our constituents” because the Minister and I will both have constituents who are affected by the issue, as will all Members who have spoken this morning. I hope the Minister will take that thought away with him as he starts his new role.

I join colleagues in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr Crausby, and I thank you for presiding over our proceedings. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) on introducing this debate on off-gas grid households.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) straight away that although we may not agree on everything over the next few months, we can agree on one thing: we both welcome the report recently published by the all-party group, and I am looking carefully at all its recommendations. Such work is a model of how an all-party group can contribute to policy making, and I congratulate those who participated in it.

Let me say very clearly that the coalition Government believe strongly in the importance of domestic consumers having secure and affordable fuel supplies to heat their homes. Like many here today, I remember all too well the issues in past severe winters, including in 2010, which resulted in increased demand for heating oil and weather conditions impacting on the supplies reaching consumers. That is why, under this Government, one of my predecessors, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), asked the Office of Fair Trading to bring forward its study on the off-grid energy market. One of the first actions I took last week was to work with colleagues at the Department for Transport to relax drivers’ hours for LPG deliveries, to ensure that households continue, in this ongoing winter, to receive fuel for heat.

Since winter 2010, my Department has worked with consumer bodies and industry to encourage households to co-ordinate “buy oil early” campaign messages. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has worked with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to provide and promote guidance on setting up or joining consumer buying groups. As has been pointed out today, such groups can be of real benefit in reducing costs for all consumers and can provide environmental benefit through reduced deliveries.

By working with other Departments, we try to ensure that we reach the most vulnerable and provide the assistance that they need. Measures such as the winter fuel payment, the warm home discount and cold weather payments provide real assurance to older and vulnerable people that they can keep warm during the colder winter months, because they know they will receive significant help with their bills. In particular, the Department for Work and Pensions provides winter fuel payments of £200 for households with someone who has reached women’s state pension age and is under 80, and £300 for households with someone aged 80 or over. In addition, we have permanently increased the cold weather payment from £8.50 a week to £25 a week. We also want to provide immediate assistance with energy bills to those in need, and help energy companies find these vulnerable people so they can be offered longer-term support. The warm home discount scheme provides that help.

This four-year scheme was launched in April 2011. It requires energy companies to provide help with their energy bills to about 2 million low-income households a year. It is worth £1.1 billion over four years.

Energy suppliers are required to provide the majority of that support to pensioners on the lowest incomes—a group we know are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of a cold home over winter.

Such elderly people often struggle to understand and complete complicated forms, so most now receive the discount automatically, without having to claim. That is done through an innovative system of limited data matching between Department for Work and Pensions customer records for those on pension credit and the energy companies. One reason we selected electricity bills to receive the discount was so as not to disadvantage those living off the gas grid. This winter alone, more than 1 million pensioners received an automatic £130 discount by 31 December 2012, providing them with the certainty they needed that they could afford to heat their home over the coldest months.

We are also taking action to ensure we have in place the right framework for measuring fuel poverty so that we can continue to target our resources on those who need the most help. Under the current definition, a household is said to be in fuel poverty if it needs to spend more than 10% of its full income after tax on fuel to maintain a satisfactory heating regime. Last year, Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics published the first report of his review into fuel poverty in England, which the Government commissioned to take a fresh look at the issue. He highlighted serious flaws in the way in which fuel poverty is measured, with the current 10% definition painting a misleading picture of trends. Unless we can properly understand the problem, we cannot design effective solutions to address it.

As a result, we made a commitment to develop a revised definition of fuel poverty, and we have consulted on proposals that will allow for a more accurate measurement of the problem. Under the revised definition, a household will be considered to be in fuel poverty if its income is below the poverty line and its energy costs are higher than typical for that household type. Based on our new understanding of the problem, we promised we would look again at all our policies to ensure they effectively support the fuel poor. That will include setting out how we aim to use the low-income, high-energy-cost definition to identify priority sets of households for support through cost-effective measures.

The green deal has been mentioned. It was launched on 28 January, and it is our main energy efficiency initiative. It aims to play a huge role in upgrading buildings. It is therefore an opportunity to help millions of consumers reduce their energy bills. Opening up the energy efficiency market will unlock new choice for consumers and empower small and medium-sized businesses to enter, grow and innovate, creating new opportunities while reducing carbon emissions and energy bills.

The green deal is important, but it is not the end of our ambition on energy efficiency. Our overall mission must be to connect people with the resources to improve efficiency, reduce waste and save money. We want more businesses to see the financial and economic benefits that come with the development of the green economy. We have already seen clear signs of a promising new market gathering momentum. In little more than a month after launch, there were 9,200 green deal assessments. There are 1,000 more in the pipeline, showing genuine interest from consumers. Some householders in older properties, those on benefits or low incomes, and those in properties off the gas grid, about whom I was asked, may also qualify for extra financial assistance from the new energy company obligation. That scheme has started well, with millions of pounds’ worth of contracts already traded on ECO brokerage alone.

The energy company obligation runs alongside the green deal and has the twin objectives of reducing carbon emissions and tackling fuel poverty. It is targeted at those who live in hard-to-treat homes and those who live in low-income and vulnerable households. It is made up of three separate obligations, which together are worth about £1.3 billion per year. We expect ECO to make progress in tackling fuel poverty. Together, the affordable warmth and carbon saving communities obligations should generate investment worth about £500 million a year across England, Scotland and Wales. We estimate that if suppliers deliver the most cost-effective packages of measures, more than 200,000 low-income households could be supported each year through the obligation. I am pleased to confirm that there has already been some ECO delivery on the ground since January. About 7,000 referrals have been made to suppliers to receive a minimum package of assistance in England and Wales. On top of that, almost £100 million of notional bill savings have been traded under the affordable warmth obligation through ECO brokerage, and more than 75,000 tonnes of carbon have been traded under the carbon saving communities obligation.

I want now to discuss the potential for extending the gas grid. As to options for off-gas grid consumers who want to be connected to the grid, Ofgem is responsible for regulating the extension of the grid, and that is a matter for the local gas distribution network. However, for vulnerable consumers, Ofgem operates the fuel-poor network extension scheme, whereby the large gas distribution networks are incentivised through price control arrangements to extend the grid to vulnerable households, recognising that that will reduce their costs. During the next price control period, which will run from April 2013 to 2021, network owners are committed to connecting an additional 80,000 homes in fuel poverty to the gas distribution network. That is in addition to normal customer requests for gas connections, which are expected to exceed 440,000 over the same period. Therefore, overall, there are projected to be more than 500,000 new customers on the gas distribution network. The promotion and operation of those schemes is a matter for the regulator and the network owners, but I shall watch closely how the network owners meet the target of 80,000 new homes.

DECC is promoting alternative low-carbon options for off-grid consumers through renewable heat premium payments, which can help to reduce costs for consumers not connected to the gas grid. Those technologies have the ability to bring down fuel bills for those using heating oil and LPG, though they will not be suitable for all off-grid homes. The renewable heat incentive is a financial support mechanism to encourage the installation of renewable heating technologies to meet our renewable targets. The non-domestic element was launched in 2011 and provides financial support to commercial, industrial, public and not-for-profit and community generators of renewable heat for a 20-year period.

In September, my Department consulted on the extension of the scheme to the domestic sector. For domestic properties, the lead proposal was for a national scheme to be available to homes both on and off the gas grid, but targeted specifically at the off-gas grid sector through the setting of tariff levels. Tariffs would be set to compensate households for the difference in lifetime costs, including up-front, running, barrier and financing costs, between the renewable technology and currently used conventional heating technology, for the median cost off-gas grid installation. On 26 March, we announced an extension to the renewable heat premium payment scheme. That will provide grant support for installations of renewable heat technologies such as heat pumps, biomass boilers and solar thermal, ahead of the launch of the domestic renewable heat incentive next year.

We intend to announce the final details of the domestic scheme and of expansions to the non-domestic incentive this summer, and to open the schemes for payment from spring next year. In the interim period, we have provided the renewable heat premium payment scheme, which provides grants towards the cost of installing renewable heat technologies in domestic properties off the gas grid, and for solar installations on or off the grid. The first phase of that scheme ran from August 2011 to March 2012. More than 5,000 installations were delivered to off-gas grid households. A second phase ran from April 2012 to March 2013; it consisted of another household scheme and a social landlords competition, plus a community scheme for community groups to test the benefits of community level action, such as securing bulk buying discounts through facilitating the installation of renewable heating systems in their areas. We estimate that RHPP2 will deliver about 11,000 installations, of which approximately 9,000 are currently off the gas grid. In total, about 14,000 off-gas grid installations will be delivered under the renewable heat premium payment. We do not intend to stop there. Last month, we announced a further extension to the scheme, which will continue in 2013-14.

Finally, I want to deal with further regulation of the off-gas grid market. I have heard arguments in favour of more regulation. We must decide whether more regulation is necessary in this area; if it were decided that Ofgem should become the regulator, primary legislation would be required, with a transfer of knowledge of the market from the OFT. Ofgem already has powers to apply the Competition Act 1998 concurrently with the OFT, and to investigate and enforce decisions to deal with anti-competitive practices in its designated sector. Its remit is to regulate the monopoly companies that run the electricity and gas networks. There is no natural or structural monopoly for supply and distribution in heating oil or LPG, so regulation by Ofgem seems less appropriate in this sector than it is in others. The supply of heating oil or LPG is not covered by the natural gas and electricity regulatory regime, because the relevant gas and electricity legislation principally addressed the issues of setting up a regulatory regime to ensure that the natural monopolies of the gas pipe network and the electricity transmission and distribution systems were not exploited. Ofgem ensures appropriate regulation of gas and electricity supply, which are licensed activities for reasons that include the need to balance the systems and the relationship with the natural monopoly networks. Those are not issues in heating oil or LPG supply.

The Federation of Petroleum Suppliers is working with the OFT to improve self-regulation of the heating oil sector. It will publish a code of practice for its members this year. It has already worked with consumer groups to encourage the early ordering of heating oil for winter, and it is working with the OFT and consumer bodies to prepare a new code of practice to mandate its members to engage with consumers on a fair and consistent basis all year round. The federation intends that the code should encourage the implementation of best practice and raise standards in the industry, and I understand that it will shortly be published. We will continue to work with the federation, the OFT and consumer bodies to ensure that the code meets its goal.

There is still much more to be done, which is why my predecessor, the former Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), agreed to convene a cross-party discussion on vulnerable consumers in the off-gas grid market. I confirm that I will fulfil that commitment. I look forward to exploring local solutions for heating oil and LPG supplies with members of the House, industry, consumer organisations and local communities. I intend to use the meeting next month to explore in detail further key issues raised in today’s debate, such as what further we can do to identify and support vulnerable off-grid consumers; the merits of regulation or self-regulation of the off-grid markets for heating oil and LPG; and the role that parish councils and local authorities can play in supporting and working with community oil buying groups. The debate has helped to move that work forward and to shape and refine our policy for an important group of consumers. I thank all those who contributed, and repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth for introducing a debate on this important topic.

Pupil Premium

An estimated 3.6 million children in the UK live in poverty according to the Government’s own measure, but recent figures from the Children’s Society have uncovered that 1.2 million of those children who are of school age do not receive free school meals. Notwithstanding the nutritional benefits that children receive from free school meals, the problem is that free school meals are used as a predominant marker for educational attainment. The well known attainment gap at GCSE level is between those who receive free school meals and those who do not—36% of pupils in receipt of free school meals achieved five or more A* to C grades at GCSE, compared with 63% of all other pupils. That is a useful indicator of the inequalities in children’s educational achievement.

That is also why the pupil premium, which is undoubtedly one of the proudest achievements of the coalition and of Liberal Democrats within the coalition, follows those children who receive free school meals. Designed to help pupils who are most in need and to close the attainment gap, the pupil premium is available to children who are currently eligible for free school meals, who have been eligible in any of the past six years or who have been in continuous care for six months. Those criteria are known as “ever 6 FSM.”

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that, although the pupil premium is a great first step, we should be looking for a national funding formula that is fair for every child in this country?

I strongly agree, and I welcome the suggestion from Ministers that they are working towards that objective. I also appreciate that, particularly in the current financial climate, it cannot be achieved overnight, but it would be a great pity if, during the five years in which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats form a Government together, we do not see at least some tangible progress towards that object.

I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that a huge injustice is being done to students who are eligible for free school meals? If they go to school, they get free school meals, but if they go to a further education college, such as mine in Harlow that has 500 poor students who would otherwise be eligible, they are denied free school meals. Is that not something we need to reform urgently?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In a minute or two I will address the reforms that I think are necessary. Happily, the coming of universal credit gives the Government an opportunity to reform the system. Of course, universal credit has great potential for considering household income holistically, and I would like to believe that, at the end of the process, where a student is studying will have less to do with whether they receive free school meals and that their family’s circumstances will have rather more to do with it. I hope there might be a solution to that problem in the pipeline.

There are still significant numbers of children living in poverty who are simply not picked up by the free school meals measure, and therefore they and their schools lose out on the valuable support that the pupil premium could give to them. There are families suffering on cripplingly low wages of just above £16,000—those receiving working tax credits—and there are those for whom the stigma of claiming free school meals is still enough to deter them from doing so, although I do not think the significance of that should be exaggerated.

Receipt of free school meals is simply not an accurate proxy for poverty, so I question the logic of linking pupil premium funding to free school meals. In many constituencies, such as my constituency of North Devon, the link is simply not the way to address the underlying inequalities in children’s attainment relative to their socio-economic background.

Parents who receive income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, support under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 or the guaranteed element of state pension credit are eligible to receive free school meals, as are parents receiving child tax credit so long as they are not also receiving working tax credit and have an annual gross income of no more than £16,190.

In its report “Fair and Square,” the Children’s Society found that some 700,000 children living in poverty are not entitled to receive free school meals, in the majority of cases simply because their parents are working. As six in 10 children in poverty live in working families, there is clearly an urgent need to address the situation of those children who do not happen to qualify for free school meals yet grow up in circumstances just as dire as many who do.

In my constituency of North Devon, an estimated 1,400 children in poverty—47% of whom live below the Government’s own poverty line—are missing out on free school meals not because they are not claiming them but because they are not eligible. North Devon has the 30th-lowest wages of all the mainland British constituencies, and the neighbouring Torridge and West Devon constituency is third in that dire ranking.

Pockets of rural deprivation are commonplace in the south-west. They are less easy to spot in small rural communities isolated from urban centres, and they are exacerbated by the high cost of living. Mothers have come to my advice surgery to tell me that they will not take up offers of employment because doing so would cost them their free school meals, as they would be in low-paid employment and in receipt of working tax credit. It does not seem right that, when the Government are doing everything that they possibly can to incentivise work, hard-working parents in need of help from the state to boost their terribly low incomes are deprived of help to feed their children.

The cash value of free school meals is estimated to be £386 a year for a child in secondary school. One can think how the cost will quickly stack up for mothers with several children who are exempt from free school meals, thanks to their low-paid jobs that entitle them to working tax credit. Barnardo’s has calculated that, for a workless single parent with two children, the cash value of their entitlement to free school meals is worth 5% of their income. That money would otherwise be spent on paying bills, financing the rising cost of living and, in rural areas such as North Devon, paying for high travel costs over some distance to and from work and possibly even school.

In summary, free school meals are a blunt measure that fails accurately to represent the extent of rural poverty in areas with traditionally low wages. All that is problematic enough in itself, but the fact that the Government have chosen to target the pupil premium at children receiving free school meals makes the implications go even further than just the immediate family situation.

Schools in areas with high rates of low-paid employment will receive lower pupil premium entitlements than they need to support children from disadvantaged working families. In Devon, where we already suffer with the six worst-funded schools in the country—this addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley)—that is pushing to the brink the capacity of schools to support disadvantaged children. Surely, distributing pupil premium on that basis is widening the attainment gap between rich and poor. The distribution is certainly widening the funding gap because, if areas such as Devon are getting less pupil premium than the national average when, as the second-poorest county in the country, it would be expected to receive far more than the national average, a bad problem is being made worse, which is a terrible pity when the objectives of the pupil premium are so laudable and so widely supported.

The linkage of the pupil premium to free schools meals presents other problems. I have mentioned the residual, underlying problems of having some of the lowest school funding per child in the country. Every pupil in Devon receives £480 less each year for their education than the national average. In 2012-13, that has meant an annual loss in the county of some £49 million. I am not pretending for one moment that that is unique to Devon, and I am grateful to the F40 school funding group, which comprises some of the 40 lowest funded local authorities, for its work in raising awareness of these issues in political circles and specifically with Ministers. However, when small rural schools with a high proportion of children from low income, rural families are not receiving the pupil premium on the scale that they could reasonably have expected, the consequences are felt even more keenly.

What the pupil premium is spent on is also an important consideration because it has the potential to exacerbate the flaws inherent in its link with free school meals. Schools are rightly given a pretty free rein in how they spend the pupil premium allocation, but if they choose to spend it on individual tuition or personalised support, the gulf between children from poor working families and their contemporaries continues to widen even further.

A report by the Association of School and College Leaders published early this year also highlighted that the pupil premium in its current form represents an all-or-nothing approach to additional funding. The report expressed concern about low income families being ineligible for free school meals and called for greater sophistication in the pupil premium policy. No one doubts the clear benefits of the extra support that the pupil premium offers, but it is wrong for a significant number of children to lose out, while their families struggle to stay afloat financially.

What is the solution? Help may be at hand. The introduction of universal credit means that eligibility for free school meals must be revised. The criteria used to define who receives them will no longer exist and the system will have to change. We do not know whether or how free school meals eligibility will be determined with universal credit, but I hope that Ministers will seize this opportunity to improve both the entitlement to free school meals and distribution of the pupil premium. The Children’s Society estimates that if all families receiving universal credit were entitled to free school meals, registrations would increase to around 2.7 million with about 900,000 more children being eligible for the pupil premium than at present. In this financial year, each pupil premium payment is £900, and spreading the same money among more children would dilute the payment, but surely the rationale should be to extend the benefits of extra support to the maximum number of children who need it.

The Children’s Society has also calculated that, based on the 2014-15 allocation of some £2.45 billion, a rate of £918 for each child receiving the payment could be maintained, and would still be a little higher than this year’s figure. I understand why the Government are keen to see the headline rate of pupil premium rising, but there is no point ramping it up if many children who should receive that help miss out on it. Linking the pupil premium to universal credit would provide a more accurate picture of deprivation, so ensuring the inclusion of low income families and reflecting income relative to household need. That would offer greater sophistication and a more holistic view of family circumstances.

The flaws of basing the pupil premium on free school meals have not toppled out by accident, and many of us saw them coming in advance. When all three political parties started talking about the pupil premium or something akin to it back in 2008, I immediately received a telephone call from Devon county council saying, “For goodness sake, flag up to your colleagues that basing the pupil premium on free school meals will be a complete disaster and it will miss its target.” We are rightly proud that we have introduced the pupil premium, but we must take the opportunity of universal credit to adjust to whom it is targeted.

I hope that I have outlined today the case for change in the distribution of pupil premium. Using free school meals to target the payment excludes some of the children most in need of help. Some 1,400 children in my constituency alone, and many more throughout the country, should not suffer the consequences of this clumsy and inaccurate measure to define poverty. Schools with limited resources in some of the worst-funded areas should not be left to cope with the needs of deprived children who do not happen to meet the eligibility criteria. If left to continue in its current form, it will continue to mask inequalities and worsen the attainment gap. I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to find the best way to envelope free school meals into universal credit and to ensure fairer and more effective distribution of pupil premium to all who need it.

It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) on securing this debate. I discussed the matter with the Minister for Schools yesterday, and my hon. Friend will know that the two of us have ministerial responsibility for the matter, not least because of the importance of the 16-to-19 question, which is a subset to which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) referred.

The nub of the debate is the right eligibility for the pupil premium. There is consensus in the Chamber that it is an unalloyed good policy, and I think there would also be consensus if a member of the Labour party were present. There is a good reason for that. The school meals service extends back to the mid-19th century, and was introduced by charities to ensure that disadvantaged children had the opportunity to eat at least one good meal a day. Since then, provision has been broadened to paid-for and Government-funded meals, but the aim remains of ensuring that families who struggle to afford to pay for school meals are helped to do so, not least because healthy meals and good nourishment make it easier for children to concentrate, and help them to be better behaved and more able to learn.

The key question of how to support free school meals and, through that, how to support and decide on allocations for the pupil premium is critical. The debate comes at a good time, as universal credit is introduced in pilot areas this month and will shortly be in full force. Eligibility for free school meals and therefore the pupil premium is a live issue and the Government have not yet announced exactly how that eligibility will match up, so it is a good time to have this debate.

We know that income matters, but the measure of poverty is important. The relative poverty measures that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon mentioned do not in isolation provide an accurate picture of the experience of poverty in the UK. It is important when talking about eligibility not to compare raw poverty figures with eligibility because every measure of poverty is imperfect. Poverty based on relative poverty—40% of median income—is only one way of measuring it. For example, the latest figures show that 300,000 children moved out of poverty, in large part due to a drop in incomes at the top, not least because of taxation policy. The question of which poverty measures impact on the ground is therefore critical. An important consideration is that such measures need to be attuned enough so that financial allocations can be based on them. As a result, receipt of welfare of benefits has been seen as a more reliable basis for identifying disadvantage, not least because it can be proven easily by parents. Over the years, the list of qualifying benefits for free school meals has increased to ensure that the children who most need free school meals are entitled to them. My hon. Friend mentioned the change to the “ever 6” formula so that those entitled to free school meals during the past six years are eligible for the pupil premium, rather than only those who are currently entitled.

The Minister’s point is that there are many different measures that could be used, and that the relative poverty figure is a percentage of the whole and thus prone to fluctuation from time to time. Nevertheless, can he not see the point made by the Children’s Society that, if the Government have an accepted measure of children living in poverty, it is strange to have free school meals based on measures that are so far apart from it that a significant proportion of those whom the Government deem to be in poverty are not entitled to the meals?

The measure my hon. Friend refers to is one measure of poverty; it is not the measure of poverty. Crucially, however, the link between eligibility for free school meals and poverty is changing with the universal credit, as he said, and I shall come on to that in a second.

My hon. Friend set out what I want to put on record: the link between poverty of income, education or aspiration and the prediction of a child’s future life chances. The issue is important because disadvantage remains strongly associated with poor performance throughout school, a fact that provides the central driving mission of the reforms to education under this Government. We wish to close the attainment gap by improving the quality of education through a range of measures, not least the pupil premium; by improving schools through free schools and academies; and by improving the quality of teachers going into the profession, not only in schools in well-off areas but throughout the country. We in this Chamber agree on that central driver and on the many reforms that are taking place in order to achieve it. The link between free school meal eligibility and underachievement is strong. At every national level of educational attainment, pupils eligible for free school meals are at a lower stage than their peers.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that also applies to sixth-form students in colleges? Three times as many students at colleges are eligible for free school meals as students in maintained sixth forms. If we are serious about levelling the playing field, should we not concentrate our resources on those most in need, in particular those who go to sixth-form colleges?

Order. The Minister earlier referred to the absence of Opposition spokesmen, but I understand that “Erskine May” notes that these debates are personal to the Minister and the Member, so reference to the absence of Front-Bench spokesmen is not appropriate because they could not speak from the Front Bench in any case.

I am terribly sorry. I was referring not to Front-Bench spokespeople but to any Opposition Members. I take your point, however, Mr Crausby.

On colleges, I understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, but we need to be careful about what we wish for, because schools are not funded for the provision of free school meals to those over the age of 16, although they have a legal requirement to deliver them. Colleges have the 16-to-19 bursary fund to support those most in need, which can pay for anything, at the discretion of those colleges that receive it, including meals. A requirement on colleges to provide free meals to students who are eligible for them—in schools, funding is not provided to do that—would fetter the discretion of those administering the funds provided for bursaries. We therefore need to be careful about how we look at this important question.

I understand the point made about the spending on the pupil premium being spread more thinly or, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said, diluting it by extending its reach into younger years. We all understand the importance of early years, which is backed up strongly by the evidence, but we have already increased funding to early years education: 20% of two-year-olds now have a commitment of 15 hours of funded education a week from this September, rising to 40% next September, with the funding increasing to £760 million per annum in 2014-15. We have a responsibility to primary schools not to dilute their agreed funding. I understand the argument, but the question is how best to deliver for early years; our preference is to extend the breadth of the target group reached by the premium in the age ranges covered.

The dilution I was talking about was spreading the premium to a larger number of entitled children, not taking it to a lower age.

In either case, the increase in the funding over the past couple of years has gone not only to broaden the eligibility, for which my hon. Friend is calling, but to increase the rate. A balance has been struck between the two, and the premium now reaches about a quarter of all pupils, compared with 18% in 2011-12. Furthermore, we cannot identify the children concerned unless they have been registered as eligible at some point in the previous six years, hence the introduction of the “ever 6” extension and our work to improve take-up, for example with a new online facility for local authorities to contact the Department to find out about eligibility.

I now turn to the crucial point of the introduction of universal credit. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said, the under-registration rate for free school meals is remarkably low in Devon, at only 3%. I commend those concerned, such as those working in the local authority, for that extremely good rate; in Devon, we have identified only about 300 children eligible for free school meals who do not claim them, which is one of the lowest rates in the country. The question, however, is what we do when we introduce universal credit.

Crucially, universal credit includes low-income working families, which is not currently the case in consideration of free school meals, because those on working tax credit are excluded, although they will be included in universal credit. In order to make work pay, universal credit will ensure that reduction by withdrawal of benefits is done in a way that does not stop work paying. The case of free school meals, put so powerfully by my hon. Friend, matters because we have to look at the marginal withdrawal rate of all state benefits, and the free school meal is a benefit in kind. We will take that important consideration into account.

The universal credit reforms give us the opportunity for such consideration, and it is taking place right now, so my hon. Friend’s speech was extremely timely as well as powerfully put. I will ensure that those examining the matter see the transcript of the debate in Hansard, and I am sure that he will make the point directly to other Ministers as well, including the Minister for Schools. We have to get things right, because the pupil premium is an important policy, and we must ensure that it is fairly distributed and gets to the people who need it most.

Sitting suspended.

AS-levels and A-levels

[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]

I wish to point out that, because of a technical problem, the clocks on the wall are one hour behind, although the clock on my desk is accurate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to raise a matter of great concern in schools, colleges and universities throughout the country. I thank my hon. Friends who have provided so much support for this debate. Some are here today, but others could not make it. I initiated this debate on the proposed changes to AS and A-levels following a letter that I received from the chairman of Hounslow secondary head teachers and signed by all secondary head teachers in my constituency. They are baffled and concerned about the proposed changes announced earlier this year.

I am sure we all want the very best education for the young people of Britain and the highest levels of participation and attainment possible for each child. However, I am greatly concerned that the proposals announced by the Government in January will be a regressive step, with participation and attainment going backwards. Under the proposals, A-levels will be linear and taken over two years, with students sitting exams at the end of the course. AS-levels will apparently remain, but will be redesigned as stand-alone qualifications, with a slightly confused proposal that they could be delivered over one year or two. AS-levels will not contribute to A-level grades.

Head teachers in my constituency of Feltham and Heston at Feltham community college, Lampton school, St Mark’s Catholic school, Rivers academy, Heston community college, Cranford community college and other schools throughout Hounslow have written to me in an unprecedented way with their concerns. They say:

“We are baffled and concerned by the proposal to shift the AS level to a standalone qualification. In its present format, the one year course leading to a more challenging A2 course enables schools to raise standards. A-level students are more seriously motivated in year 12 when they know that they are going to be externally examined at the end of the year. In our view we are going to lose that motivation from students if we have to return to internal exams at the end of year 12.”

My head teachers are not alone. The changes have been opposed by the 24 Russell Group universities and the Association of School and College Leaders, an organisation that represents more than 80% of school heads in public and private schools and which oversees an estimated 90% of A-level entries. ASCL-affiliated organisations include the Girls Schools Association and the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference. In addition, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of Colleges, the Science Council, which is made up of 39 member bodies, and the Labour party have all voiced concerns about the Government’s proposed changes to AS and A-levels.

From my discussions with the education sector, it is clear that concerns about the proposals fall within a range of areas. The first is education. Let us be clear that AS-levels are a success story. According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, the take-up of AS and A-levels has shown an upward trajectory since 2003 with more than 500,000 more AS-level certificates awarded and more than 100,000 more A-level certificates awarded last year.

My schools believe that that stepping-stone approach to building on educational attainment with choice, diversity and flexibility has kept up a love of learning, and for those who may never have expected to do A-levels or to go to university it has opened a door. They have also said to me that, instead of forcing specialisation early, keeping options open and enabling a later choice of A-level subjects has kept many pupils in post-16 education when they might otherwise have opted out.

I am following the hon. Lady’s argument closely. She referred to the increased uptake of AS and A2-levels since 2003. Will she acknowledge that the average cost to the average secondary school roughly doubled over that same period to close to £100,000 just on exam entries?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I will certainly come back to cost, which has been raised as a concern about the changes. There is a suggestion of possible increased costs for schools trying to provide A-levels alongside AS-levels in a way that is not coherent.

I was talking about education reasons. We have seen increased uptake, and anecdotal evidence suggests that a contribution to the increase in A-levels being attained has been made by AS-levels being a stepping stone. Those who choose not to go on to A-levels have an option to leave at the end of the first year with an advanced qualification. It has arguably also increased the uptake of subjects such as maths, which are perceived to be tougher, because of the option to try a subject and see how it develops.

There is a strong argument for social mobility in keeping the current system. Divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is not only a poor education policy, but a poor social policy due to the removal of that stepping stone, which often gives confidence to talented pupils from poorer backgrounds to apply to a more highly selective university, helping to widen participation.

The Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference—the organisation representing leading private schools—has described the proposals as “rushed and incoherent”. The Russell Group of leading research universities said that it was “not convinced” that the change was necessary, and that it would make it harder to identify bright pupils from working-class homes. Even the Conservative Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), has questioned the proposals, suggesting that some young people could be left behind.

Leading universities oppose the Government’s plans because they will reduce confidence among young people who get good results in year 12 but may not have the confidence to go on to apply for the top universities after year 13.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is she aware that a decision has been made in Wales to retain AS-levels as a stepping stone to A-level? The vice-chancellor of Cambridge university wrote to the Welsh Education Minister on 19 March, saying:

“Your intention to retain AS examinations at the end of year 12 in Wales will put strong Welsh applicants in a good position. Year 12 exams have been shown to be a good predictor of Cambridge academic success and are taken very seriously by our selectors.”

I welcome that. Cambridge university has perhaps been one of the most prominent universities to raise concerns vocally at every level. Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge university, said:

“We are worried… that if AS-level disappears, we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade.”

Dr Parks warns:

“We are convinced that a large part of this success derives from the confidence engendered in students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds when they achieve high examination grades at the end of year 12”.

Those concerns are shared across the university sector. The Million+ group of universities said that

“this will create a two tier system”

and Universities UK said that it will affect their “ability to widen participation”.

Even more worrying is the research evidence provided by Cambridge university, which the Secretary of State for Education has chosen to ignore. In a research paper, its general admissions research working party said that AS-level grades were easily the best predictors for degree performance, proving to be a

“sound test verging on excellent”

in every subject except maths. I will return to that.

It is worrying that the Secretary of State has chosen to emasculate an exam that a top Russell Group university says provides it with the best way to judge how well a state school pupil is likely to do at university, at a time when he says he wants more state school pupils to be successful in applying. Therein lies a paradox that I hope we will be able to understand further today.

A further challenge has been put forward by the Government relating to criticisms of structure and quality. I would like to address that. There have been criticisms from the Government that exams do not have rigour. Rightly, concerns have been raised by some universities about particular subjects, such as maths, where first-year studies may well have been modified as a result to cater for the level of understanding that undergraduates are showing. However, I am told that that has been partly due to the selection of modules within the current framework, and nobody has said that it is due to the framework itself. There is no reason why we cannot have, and indeed do have, tougher modules and synoptic assessment at the end of A-levels—at the end of someone’s A2 year—which requires an understanding of earlier levels in order to do the examination. There is a lot of room for improvement if we choose to go down that road, and a wholesale change of the system would not be required.

There is a debate, which the sector has told me it is open to, about a change to the weighting of AS-levels as part of A-levels. The weighting is currently 50% and there is some discussion as to whether that could be, for example, 40/60. With the sector so open and willing to have such a conversation, it is indeed a shame that the Government have not shown willingness to work in partnership and with the expertise of those who teach our children, day in and day out. They are seasoned professionals who are keen to see our young people develop a passion for learning and leave our education system as smart young adults prepared for the world of work.

There is also a great challenge before us on coherence. Education planning needs coherence and some predictability so that standards do not suffer. The Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference called the proposals “rushed and incoherent”. It is concerned that the proposals are being driven by a

“timetable based on electoral politics rather than principles of sound implementation.”

Neil Carberry, the CBI’s director of employment and skills, said:

“Businesses want more rigorous exams but we’re concerned that these changes aren’t being linked up with other reforms… We need a more coherent overall system.”

I have had the question of costs raised with me, and perhaps the Government can respond to these points today. The changes will clearly have a cost on the sector and have hidden costs for schools. It would be helpful to know whether the Government have factored in costs for schools, whether they expect A-levels to get more expensive, and whether they expect the overall costs to be higher if schools are providing AS-levels delivered over one year and two years, and A-levels, and where the demand for that is. If providing 16-to-18 education becomes more expensive, will extra funding be provided?

Schools and colleges have raised concerns about the proposed speed of change. Many organisations have said that they are extremely concerned that the changes are going on in parallel to GCSE changes in such a short time and without any real evidence of the need for change presented. Will the Minister confirm which universities are in favour of the changes and of reducing opportunity and narrowing the range of post-16 study, and will he respond to the challenges raised by the Russell Group and Cambridge university in particular?

There is agreement about the need to change on some fronts. A mature dialogue is taking place on the need to reform, and on that, both the education sector and the Government always have to be in a mindset of continuous improvement. My head teachers write, for example:

“We accept the move for eliminating retakes at A-level.”

Prior to January’s oral statement, Ofqual had announced its decision to remove the January exams from September 2013.

Divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is poor education policy, as it is likely to reduce standards and achievement in education. It will narrow the options available to young people and undermine the value of creative subjects at a time when we should be strengthening them. Head teachers in Feltham and Heston have told me how a proposed return to the study of three A-level subjects in a very linear and constrained way will almost certainly diminish the provision and position of minority subjects, such as languages and music. For many pupils, the opportunity to study four or five subjects at AS-level broadens their learning and provides a challenge that they relish. I heard on Friday in my local area how Hounslow pupils benefit from the breadth of learning different AS-levels, even if they decide against pursuing certain subjects in year 13 or beyond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has said that evidence of what works should be what informs Government education policy. That is sound advice that the Government should listen to. It is beyond the understanding of my head teachers and many professionals why the Government are pushing through a universally unwanted change that will take our education system backwards. There is grave concern that the proposal is based on ministerial opinion and preferences, rather than solid evidence of the need to change.

At a time when we need to ensure that young people get a broad and balanced education to prepare them for the modern world of work, it is worrying that the Secretary of State is planning to narrow the education available to students. Although students currently have the option to take a subject at AS-level that contrasts with their main subjects, the Secretary of State instead wants to shackle pupils to a two-year programme, which would constrain them and their learning at an extremely formative stage of their development.

We know that we must reform our education system, but it must be the right reform. Labour supports reforms to 14-to-19 education that would deliver a curriculum and qualification system that equipped young people with the skills and knowledge to play their part in society and the economy, but these proposals will not achieve that. Labour has commissioned a review of 14-19 education to focus on raising aspirations for those who want to go to university and for the forgotten 50% who do not. Labour plans to introduce a gold-standard technical baccalaureate at age 18. As the Government’s proposed changes stand, they will take our education system backwards, not forwards. The Government’s proposals undermine the value and status of our AS-level and A-level qualifications.

I hope that the Government have the courage and wisdom to listen to the experts who oppose their proposed reforms. If the Government go that way, the changes will come into effect on the same day as their changes to exams at 16. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that for schools? What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on widening participation? Are the Government concerned that a two-tier A-level system will limit aspiration for young people in deprived areas? How will universities assess admissions? The Government claim that AS-levels are not considered, but that is not supported by many universities. What would the Government recommend as future admissions criteria? Would that include GCSEs? However, if they are to be scrapped or reformed, what next?

I close simply by saying that I and my constituents look forward to the Government’s response and to, I hope, a change of direction.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Dobbin. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to take part in this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing it.

As a member of the Education Committee, I have seen the Government’s ill-thought-through and dogmatic reforms hit the brick wall of reality too many times to count, so I am not surprised that we are here again debating a set of proposed reforms that have managed to unite Cambridge university, the CBI and the teaching unions in opposition to them. I do not know whether that is a first, but it is certainly important.

Just a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Education had the good sense to ditch his ill-thought-out proposals to replace GCSEs, after realising that, apart from himself and a few Conservatives who were loyal to him, no one in the world of teaching supported what he was trying to impose on our beleaguered education system. I was pleased that the Education Committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), a Conservative, could collate the evidence and demonstrate to the Secretary of State that he needed to back off.

As an aside, let me say that it would be remiss of me not to place on record my hope that the Committee’s Chairman makes a quick recovery from his skiing injuries and can soon continue his work of scrutinising the Department for Education. I am sure he is watching our proceedings on the internet as I speak, and he will know that our good wishes go to him.

There are several problems with the Government’s proposals. First, the changes will undermine the value and status of the A-level as a qualification, and it is not just me and other Opposition Members saying that. According to Cambridge university, the changes will

“jeopardise over a decade of progress towards fairer access”

to higher education—quite an indictment for any Secretary of State. Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders has been quoted as saying that his organisation is

“not convinced by the case for wholesale reform of this exam, which is a very successful qualification”.

It gets worse for the Secretary of State, with the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference calling the proposals “rushed and incoherent”.

It is worth re-emphasising some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston. My single biggest concern about the reforms relates to the loss of a system in which students can take four or even five subjects, decide which they wish to take to the higher level and ditch the others, while banking the learning they have already done. If that opportunity is taken away, we will deprive the student of choice and bind young people to decisions that they may feel were wrong. That will leave them with the option of completing work that is no longer of any use to them or, in some cases, dropping out and walking away from further education. Surely, no one wants young people to waste their precious time and the resources the state has invested in them.

I do not see how creating a two-tier system for those aged 16 to 19 helps to bring about rigour, which is supposedly the Education Secretary’s guiding mission. The director of admissions at Cambridge university is on record as saying:

“We are worried...if AS-level disappears, we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade… We are convinced that a large part of this success derives from the confidence engendered in students from non-traditional backgrounds when they achieve high examination grades at the end of year 12”.

Those who benefit from the existing system—particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds—tend to be from the lower end of the income scale. It is those students who will be disadvantaged by these reforms—students from deprived areas such as my constituency. I would be interested to hear what assessment has been made of the potential impact of the reforms on widening participation in higher education and whether the Minister is concerned that a two-tier A-level system will limit aspiration for young people in deprived areas.

There is also concern about which organisations will have a role in developing A-levels, with the 1994 Group of universities already feeling excluded. In a briefing note, its director of research says his group wants clarity about the role of the Russell Group in overseeing A-levels in key subjects. He says:

“Many of the leading Universities in these subjects—including some of our members—are not members of the Russell Group, and we believe that in linking excellence with one self-selecting group of Universities, DfE Ministers are perpetuating a false and damaging misperception of the sector.”

I hope the Minister will provide that clarity and confirm that development will be inclusive, rather than exclusive.

Even if these latest ideas were the right ones, there are also concerns about timing. Will the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of the impact of bringing in these reforms side by side with the many other so-called radical reforms that the Secretary of State is imposing on our schools? Glenys Stacey, the head of Ofqual has criticised the plans on the grounds that the Government’s proposed timetable is “challenging”—I think she was trying to be kind in her use of word, and I suspect she may have considered more robust language. However, she did say that introducing changes to A-levels at the same time as changes to GCSEs will

“place a considerable burden on schools”,

and my hon. Friend talked about the need for resources to help schools deal with some of that burden.

Glenys Stacey said the timetable proposed

“means that qualifications need to be in schools and colleges by autumn next year.”

I am not sure whether schools, with all the other reforms being foisted on them by the Government, are in a position to implement a second set of difficult changes in that short time scale.

We have seen before the dangers of the Education Secretary going too far and too fast with his reforms, and I would again urge caution about trying to reinvent the educational wheel. Do the Government intend to turn their back on fair admissions and widening participation? Do they want people from communities such as mine to get the same opportunities for higher education, or do they really want to revert to higher education for those from public schools and the most affluent communities, where young people get a much better start in life than they do in inner city wards such as those in my constituency? I am sure that that is not true, but the Secretary of State must realise that just as he got things badly wrong with his planned reform of GCSEs. He has gone down the wrong road with A-levels. He has failed to listen to what the professional world is saying to him, and it is time for another of his spectacular U-turns before he is caused even more embarrassment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate.

I shall not speak at length—I am sure hon. Members will be pleased. I have concerns about the separation of AS and A-levels, and about the Government’s proposals, but I would refer those issues to the voices of those who know more about those things than I do. I understand that in the recent Government consultation 77% of those who responded were against the proposals. The 24 Russell Group universities, college and school lecturers, and teachers and head teachers are all warning about not only the proposals but the time scale. My concerns are about the changes, but also their implementation in 2015 at the same time as proposed changes to GCSEs and to the school accountability system. That will put pressure not only on exam boards, teachers and colleges, but, most importantly, on young people—the students.

Like other hon. Members, I am concerned about jeopardising fair access and the progress, however limited, that has been made with that, about undermining the progress of the most able students and about risks to the integrity of curriculum development from key stage 2 up to key stages 4 and 5, and beyond. However, in the short remarks that I will make today, I want to draw on the work of the Select Committee on Education. We recently carried out a quite detailed inquiry into what happened with the changes to GCSE English in 2012. I shall not go into the details today, because a report may be published in due course, but I want to take the opportunity to impress on the Minister the importance of learning lessons from what happened.

The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) probably made the most useful contribution to the inquiry when he said that we do our young people no favours when we refuse to listen to the voices of warning. Those voices were crying out to us long before the changes in 2012; we simply did not listen. Because they were not what politicians wanted to hear, they were ignored. We therefore reached the awful situation in which hundreds of thousands of young people did exactly what they were told they needed to do to get the qualifications that were so important to them, but failed to gain what was promised to them.

The proposals have been called rushed and incoherent by those whom the Government should listen to. I accept that there is a need for regular change and reform in the education system—I endorse that view. We need constant reform and change, not least because, whatever we put in place, teachers are very clever and will find a way to game it. The Department must constantly move, change and reform. However, we very often hear the Secretary of State telling us that he believes in the changes. He talks about his belief, and no one can deny that he has conviction; but such important changes should be based not on belief but on evidence, and, so far, whether in the debate or in any of the papers that I have looked at, I have found no sound evidence to serve as a basis for the Secretary of State’s proposals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing this important and timely debate.

Following the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), the issue in question is how we provide a framework to support schools and colleges to get the best for our young people. Everyone would sign up to that aim; the dispute is about how. I want to focus on the Government’s intention to divorce AS-levels from A-levels. Having worked in post-16 education for 30 years, I fear that that would be a very retrograde step and would do lasting damage to the education of students in key stage 5. I am not surprised that, as my hon. Friend said, the Government’s extensive consultation showed that 77% of consultees were against going down that route. The people who were consulted know what they are talking about. Their responses were driven by experience and evidence, rather than dogma and belief.

If the divorce goes ahead, we are likely to return to the worst aspects of A-levels prior to 2000: a much narrower curriculum, where a significant number of students committed to a two-year programme, but came away with nothing. That was a scandal. Since 2000, there has been much progress in the right direction. That does not mean, as my hon. Friend said, that there is no need for continued change and reform; it means that it needs to happen in a framework of stability if we are to get the best for our young people from what those who work in education can provide.

Young people are very fluid in their choices. One of the traditional features of our post-16 education compared with that of some of our most successful global competitors is its narrowness. Asking a young person to focus on just three subjects at A-level means they must specialise early and jettison areas of interest.

I talked yesterday to a teacher whose son, Joseph, went to a state school. Had the current proposals been in place he would have taken English as his AS-level rather than A-level, but he is now studying English at Oxford. That never would have happened if the choices had been narrowed, as is suggested, at the age of 16.

It is difficult for us to understand how young people are at 16, and how much they are exploring their way in the world. That is a good thing, and one of the things that we should do is to provide a framework that helps them to make the right choices. Sometimes, allowing them a little more choice and flexibility—25% more subjects post-16—enables them to choose differently according to their experience. At 17, they are much more mature than at 16. People mature at different rates, too. I am not surprised by the story about someone taking A-level English as the fourth choice—English in that example could be replaced by any subject—and at the end of the period of post-16 study going on to study it, or a subject that it significantly underpins, at university, or indeed going into employment related to it. That is not unusual in my experience of working day in, day out, for 30-odd years, with 16 to 19-year-olds. It has been a familiar story since 2000.

Before 2000, people did not have that flexibility and choice. The curriculum was far less able to get the best out of young people. The dramatic change brought about by Curriculum 2000 allowed youngsters to continue with a broader programme and delay the final specialisation until the end of year 12. That meant that those advising students could encourage them to take more risks—to stick with physics as well as music alongside their maths and geography, keeping their options open longer, or encouraging them to do a modern foreign language for another year. What students would chose to focus on at the end of year 12 was often different from what they might have focused on at the end of year 11. People who have not worked with 16 to 18-year-olds, as I have for many years, might be surprised at how much young people mature in their first year of post-16 education, and how much their focus can change after they have been informed by another year’s study and another year’s consideration of what they intend to do next.

The current system allows students to choose four subjects at AS-level before specialising in three at A-level or taking all four through to full A-levels. There is a significant jump in difficulty from GCSE to A-level, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has indicated, and the AS has assisted students so that they can choose a broader range of subjects before specialising in year 13. Denying students that choice risks denying them the opportunity to discover a particular aptitude or passion for subject areas in which they previously had less confidence and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has indicated, it is liable most negatively to affect students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are most likely to be less confident.

My understanding of the Government’s current plans—and they are fluid, rather like a young person’s—is that although they will allow the content of the AS to be within the A-level initially, they intend, once the change is embedded, that A-levels and AS-levels will have distinct content, as they did pre-2000. If that is the case, it will be uneconomical for AS-levels to be taught and they will wither on the vine, because it will no longer be possible to co-teach them in the same class as A-levels. That is significant, because the pre-2000 history of AS-levels shows they never really got much traction.

The removal of AS as a stepping-stone qualification will almost certainly reduce the uptake of subjects that are regarded as relatively harder at A-level than at GCSE, and I suspect that there will be an impact on languages and mathematics in particular. Without validation at the stepping stone point, less confident students are likely to be discouraged from embarking on the A-level. With validation, there is less risk to the individual, who can always bank an AS at the end of one year and focus on their other three subjects at A-level.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, extremely experienced in and knowledgeable about these matters, but does he know of evidence that suggests that the fourth AS-level tends to be a hard subject rather than one of the subjects that some people would consider to be less hard? Or is it the opposite?

For a start, when we are dealing with young people, we are dealing with a collection of individual choices. In my experience, as someone who has spent a lot of time advising young people and encouraging them to make choices, if they are focusing on three subjects, languages are often vulnerable to not being tried. What turns out to be someone’s fourth subject—the one they drop down to AS—might not have been their fourth subject when they picked it. We can play around with statistics, but what is important is the impact on the young person at the point of choice, when they decide on their post-16 programme. Being able to do four AS-levels and then either take all four through to full A-levels or to bank one, increases the flexibility of choice, minimises risk and encourages people to take subjects that would be beneficial to them—mathematics, for instance.

My hon. Friend knows what he is talking about, and the Association of Colleges backs what he says. In the briefing for this debate the association states that

“the removal of the AS as a stepping-stone may well reduce the take-up of subjects which are regarded as significantly harder at A-level than at GCSE,”

in particular,

“maths and modern languages.”

The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) is nothing if not persistent in asking questions that it is right and proper to ask and to answer, but evidence in this area is complex, as I hope I have illustrated.

When the Secretary of State says that he will divorce AS-levels from A-levels, but will retain AS-levels because he is “keen to preserve” breadth, he demonstrates that he is a master of irony. All the evidence of the past—and of the present—is that that will do exactly the opposite. The change will map on to the narrowing of the curriculum being driven forward by the EBacc in key stage 4, and with the focus on facilitating subjects post-16, it will ensure that the UK moves backwards, to pursue a narrow curriculum prescribed by a nanny-state Government who know best. The Minister shakes his head, but in reality the proposal is about the imposition of a centralised curriculum, compared with the move towards the personalisation of the curriculum over the past few years, which takes the individual forward, within a proper framework, in a direction that drives achievement and progression. It is a personalised curriculum that has been building the success fit for competing in the modern world, and that is what we really need.

Does my hon. Friend agree that a narrowing of opportunity would have an impact on the life chances of many of our young people? It would, I am sure, be unintended, but it would be a consequence of the proposed changes.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and therein lies the real risk. My fear is that we have a series of changes—and divorcing the AS from the A-level is a significant one—that will increase student failure and make the UK less ready to compete globally. We will rue the day if the Government do not think carefully and consider the evidence that is presented to them. For example, David Igoe, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, wrote to the Secretary of State:

“Our curriculum leaders, and the clear majority of teaching professionals and college and school leaders believe that the AS qualification should be retained in its current form. We also believe AS has the support of a very large number of academics and admission tutors”.

Of 780,000 A-level entries, 439,000 were in sixth-form colleges, so such people know what they are talking about.

The Secretary of State rightly sets great store by the needs of the Russell Group universities. They are great universities, of which we are rightly proud, but they hardly struggle to recruit or compete. That is a good thing, but focusing on their needs to the detriment of everyone else’s might not only be flattering—and embarrassing —to them but might be trying to fix a problem that does not exist. Out of more than 300 institutions listed by UCAS, only 24 are Russell Group universities, and all those institutions and their students matter to UK plc.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the meetings that he, I, and others in the Chamber attended, in which we met representatives of some of those universities who did not seem to think that there was a problem that did not exist?

I do not recall their outlining a problem that does exist, and certainly not one that would be solved by the proposal. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston has already mentioned the serious concerns of Cambridge university about the impact of the change.

I thank my hon. Friend for being extremely generous in giving way again. Does he agree that the Secretary of State’s original claim that the university of Cambridge backed his reform plans backfired when a petition was handed in to his Department, signed by 1,600 students and faculty members who were saying no to the proposals and disputing the fact that they had supported him? When students and faculty send the same message, it is a strong message.

My hon. Friend makes the point for me. Indeed, all those students and staff related to the university of Cambridge make the point for her and for themselves. I think that the Minister is listening today, and I hope that it is active listening so that we can get a better outcome for young people.

If my hon. Friend is right that the Secretary of State has claimed that, it is very odd, because Cambridge university, in a letter from Dr Geoff Parks, the director of admissions, wrote to him on 12 July 2010:

“We are worried…if AS-level disappears we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade.”

That was in July 2010.

Cambridge university’s points are very much on the record. I am sure that we are all listening and will want to take them into account as policy is driven forward.

Universities UK has drawn attention to the importance of AS-level grades as criteria in the admissions process, and stated that that is particularly important for the most selective institutions and for courses with a large proportion of applicants with very similar predicted A-level grades, which is a practical reason for AS-levels to remain. It has concerns about the impact on widening participation, both because without AS-level grades an increased emphasis on more subjective measures is likely—such as predicted grades and school references that might disadvantage some applicant groups—and because AS-level grades can boost confidence in candidates from low participation backgrounds. I have certainly seen the impact of grades boosting confidence and aspiration at the end of the first year, so I think that Universities UK is on to something. It also thinks that the removal of AS-levels as a stepping stone towards full A-levels may result in students being less likely to take risks with subjects that are perceived to be hard. It lists sciences, in addition to languages and maths, which I have already mentioned, so it is on the same page as me.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham has said a great deal about the changes to GCSEs and to AS and A-levels coming in at the same time in 2015. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) drew attention to Glenys Stacey’s letter, in which she says that that will be

“challenging for exam boards and for Ofqual.”

It will also be challenging for schools, colleges, teachers and young people themselves. It may well be best for the Government to think about the students taking the new A-level for the first time who, after all, will have done the old GCSE. It is important to see curriculum progression so that one qualification leads to another. Where there is a dislocation in qualifications, there is a real danger that young people will fall through the gaps, and nobody wishes that to happen.

The points about bringing all the changes in at the same time have been well made. I know, from having led a college for many years, that the need to use resources to prepare new courses, teaching methods and the curriculum is a massive ask of institutions. It is an appropriate ask of institutions, but for all that to happen at exactly the same time would mean that the challenge was at its highest. It is what we might wish, but not how we would normally plan future programmes to get the best out project: this is really a project planning issue.

I have mentioned most of the things I wished to mention, but I want to come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, who alluded to the fact that the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) had said that it is important to listen to the siren voices. It is better to listen to them when they are there than to hit the rocks, frankly, and I hope that the Minister and the Government are so listening.

I will close by quoting Toni Pearce, the newly elected president of the National Union of Students. She will be the first NUS president from a further education rather than a higher education background, so I am sure everyone here wants to congratulate her. We will answer want to listen to her voice, because she comes from the sector that is experiencing the post-16 environment. She said that the Secretary of State’s

“proposed AS-Level and A Level reforms are entirely misguided, and would risk greatly undermining fair access to A Levels, to higher education and to other further education qualifications. The idea that the Russell Group which represents a small group of very particular universities should be given particular prominence in determining the make-up of these qualifications is nonsensical, and is opposed even by institutions that they represent. When it comes to these muddled proposals, Michael Gove could really benefit from a re-sit.”

Let us hope that he is re-sitting and listening, and that he does not hit the rocks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate. You pointed out at the beginning that the clock is an hour behind, and it is probably appropriate to our debate on education policy that the clock has been turned back, because that is exactly what is happening in what we are discussing. [Interruption.] I remind the Minister for Schools that the best humour is always recycled.

As someone who sat A-levels, like most people in this room, and who has taught and marked A-levels and set an A-level examination syllabus, I could say a lot of things and make many general points about A-levels and their history. Those points include those made today about the Government’s reforms, such as the speed of change and the political timetable—that was the phrase of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference, I think, not mine—that they are being driven to.

There is the point about not reforming all A-levels at the same time, which is a ludicrous thing to do. The Government should take the time to do it properly and in all subjects, not have a two-tier approach to reform. Ofqual has leavened that a little by introducing a few more subjects, including one of the two subjects that I used to teach at A-level—economics—in which the Minister for Schools has a double first from Cambridge university. They have been added to the list, but nevertheless there is still a two-tier process in the reforms of A-levels, which is ludicrous.

There is the fixation on core subjects, and the lack of focus in the proposals on those not progressing to university. The Government seem to assume that A-levels exist only for the purpose of getting into university, which is of course a parody of the reality. That may be the experience of 100% of Ministers, but not the experience of 100% of youngsters sitting A-levels in the country, to which we might have thought that Ministers would pay some attention.

There is the elbowing out of non-Russell Group universities. It seems to me that the Government are almost trying to create a tier of polytechnics—ironically, since the Conservatives abolished them, they now seem to be absolutely determined to have a first division red-brick and sandstone university sector and a polytechnic sector. Why do they not just rename them polytechnics, if that is the Government’s real intention and what they are about?

There is the silly attitude towards methods of assessment. It is an absolutely daft attitude to think that all the different subjects, knowledge and skills—believe it or not—that are required to pass A-levels can be assessed in final examinations. There is the silly interference with question design by Ministers, which is absolutely ludicrous. Anyone who had taught in a classroom for one minute, even at A-level, would know that there is a wide range of mixed abilities among students taking A-levels. Getting them into the exam so that they can show what they know is also important: as well as supplying stretch to the most able, a way into the examination has to be supplied for many students.

There are also all the resulting timetabling issues—obviously, none of the Ministers has tried to write or put together a timetable—and the proposals are absolutely ludicrous. Everybody in the profession is telling them that, but they are not listening. I could go on and on, but I want to focus on the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), once I have congratulated my hon. Friends the Member for Feltham and Heston, for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for North West Durham (Pat Glass) on their speeches, and congratulated the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who did not venture a speech, but has made some intelligent interjections to help us along in the debate.

I want to focus on the AS-level. It is only fair at the outset to make it clear that we regard the decision to divorce AS-levels from A-levels as one of the least evidence-based, most captious and casually damaging decisions that the Secretary of State for Education has taken so far. It is therefore only fair clearly to signal to everyone here and to the education world that we will not implement it. We will re-couple AS-levels and A-levels in September 2015, after the next general election.

Nobody outside the bunker in Sanctuary buildings thinks that divorcing AS-levels from A-levels is a good idea. I doubt whether even the part-time Minister for Schools—he does not have exams or the curriculum on his list of responsibilities but is here today because the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is away on a foreign trip—thinks that it is a good idea, although he will tell us that it is because he has to perform his role as the Secretary of State’s flexible friend. I cannot really believe that he genuinely thinks that that is the case, but while we have him here, I ask him to listen and to look again at the decision that has been taken.

When the Under-Secretary announced the measure in the House, she tried to give the impression that she had support for the divorce. When I pointed out to her that she did not, she grandstanded, and tried to give the impression that she had the support of the Russell Group universities. Let me remind Members what the group actually said:

“The current AS-level provides a useful indicator of progress, which is invaluable for university admissions. We worry that without these results universities will have to place more emphasis on A-level predicted grades—of which more than half are wrong— school references or older GCSE grades. From our experience these are less reliable and would unduly prejudice disadvantaged students who receive less help when applying to university.”

Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that that is exactly what the 1994 Group and Universities UK have said. As I pointed out to the Under-Secretary at the time, the most trenchant opposition to these proposals came from not the Labour party, the National Union of Teachers or even from the “The Blob”, as the Secretary of State likes to refer to those educationists who study these subjects and spend their time doing research into education matters, but the admissions tutors in the university of Cambridge.

The Minister will be aware that, as long ago as July 2010, Cambridge university’s director of admissions, Geoff Parks, wrote to the Secretary of State, warning him that he could lose many gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that had been made in the past decade. He went on to add that it was no coincidence that

“our utilisation of AS scores as a core component of admissions decisions has been accompanied by a noticeable reduction in the number of complaints we have received from schools and colleges about the fairness of our selection process. The same period has also seen marked improvement in Cambridge examination performance.”

So it is good for students; good for fair access and good for Cambridge university, according to the admissions tutors, but what do they know?

The Minister will also be aware of the research that was undertaken by the Cambridge university general admission research working party, which found that AS-level grades were easily the best predictions for degree performance, proving to be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston said, “sound verging on excellent”, and that was in every subject, bar maths, where the sixth term examination paper was better.

It is not surprising that 40 Cambridge admissions tutors signed a letter to The Daily Telegraph, which was published on 30 January, a week after the announcement was made, calling for the reversal of the decision. In their letter, they said:

“Good results give students from all backgrounds the confidence to compete for a place at highly selective universities, including our own. They reduce reliance upon grade predictions and enable schools to hold the line in the face of pressure to raise predicted grades unrealistically.”

Anyone who has ever taught in a sixth form or college will be aware of the pressure from pupils and parents to raise A-level grade predictions. It is sometimes difficult for teachers to hold the line, which might be why those predictions are not always particularly accurate, as the Government’s own studies have shown. They are particularly inaccurate about those from less affluent backgrounds or ethnic minorities. Heavy pressure is often put on teachers in relation to predicted grades. With the AS-level, there is no argument. There is a public examination, which is externally assessed, marked and a grade awarded.

The admissions tutors finished that letter to The Daily Telegraph by saying:

“If AS levels disappear, university entry will become less fair.”

They were referring to the divorcing of the AS-level from the A-level.

Given that my hon. Friend has stated so clearly the value of this benchmark, can he see any reason for getting rid of it?

Apart from the strange explanations that we get from Ministers about trying to free up some time for people to do other things in year 12, the only reason that I have heard is that it relates to the experience of the Ministers in the Department and that they want to go back to the good old days when four out of five of them were in private school doing their A-levels. Perhaps they think, “It was good enough for me; why shouldn’t it be good enough for everyone else?” If that is what they are doing, they are ignoring the evidence.

I challenge the Minister today as someone who says that he is committed to fairness, who is a Liberal Democrat Minister, who has enjoyed the privilege of a fee-paying education and a Cambridge university education and who claims to be committed to social justice. How can he defend this policy in the light of the clear and thoroughly researched evidence that it will result in university entry becoming less fair?

We must be a little bit careful with this widening participation and access argument. Although it is undeniably true that many more young people have gone to university in the past 10 years, the figures show that the intake of the most selective universities has changed very little by comparison. Of course it is a very good thing that more young people have gone to those universities, but we must not confuse the two things and say that AS-levels have been a force that has made Cambridge university much more open.

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. Cambridge has been the university that has most used AS-levels to bring about widening access. It can show that it has widened access as a result of them in the past 10 years. If he wants to challenge the admissions tutors on the claim that they have successfully widened access through the use of AS-levels, he is free to do so. They are absolutely clear about it and say that if AS-levels disappear, university entry will become less fair. The Minister must answer that point. So far, Ministers have failed to answer it, or to explain why they are persisting with the policy.

In any case, the Government accept that Cambridge is right, and presumably that the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, Universities UK, the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the National Union of Students, the teachers and head teachers associations and we, God forbid, are right about the usefulness of AS-levels. Nevertheless, the Government will proceed with the damaging and unnecessary divorce of AS-levels from A-levels. Like the EBacc certificates, no one supports the move. The Government quite rightly abandoned their proposals on the EBacc. The Minister might well have had an influence on that decision. Who knows? It happened to coincide with his appointment to the Department. As I said earlier, we will not proceed with the divorce of the AS-level from the A-level, and everyone should be aware of that.

We have had people with huge expertise coming to us and saying that this is the wrong thing to do. The only other area where we have seen such an overwhelming objection has been to the proposed changes to GCSEs. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, because the Government ultimately took the right decision in that area.

My hon. Friend is right. The Secretary of State has had to issue a direction to Ofqual in relation to this proposal, because everyone thinks that it is nonsense, and it was confirmed in parliamentary answers to me that he had to issue a direction. On 31 January, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask what assessment Ministers had made of the recent Cambridge university admissions research working party study of AS-level as a predictor, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk, said that she had “reflected on” the study. So, she had reflected on it and she agreed that AS-levels were

“a useful aid for university admissions”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 887W.]

So the Government agree with everybody that AS-levels are a “useful aid” for admissions. They know what the research is, and they have reflected on it.

In the spirit of reflection, I was reflecting myself on the list of organisations that my hon. Friend gave that are opposed to these changes. Does he agree that it is quite staggering and quite concerning that no real evidence has been put forward for this change?

I might have found it staggering some time ago; I am afraid that I no longer find it staggering when the Department for Education proposes major changes for which there is no evidence. However, I should retain my surprise at its happening, because it is staggering when something is introduced simply because the Secretary of State believes—on a whim—that it ought to happen and when there is no evidence that it should happen, despite the fact that I am sure that he has layers and layers of submissions from his civil servants that point out the opposition to the proposals. But he does not listen to his civil servants; I am afraid that he only listens to his odious special advisers on education policy, and that is possibly the reason why the Government are proceeding with this change.

The Minister for Schools has a chance to do what is right, to go to the Secretary of State and to reflect a little himself on these proposals; he should speak to the Secretary of State and try to make him listen to the evidence and see reason. If the Secretary of State will not listen to that evidence or to the Minister, perhaps the only person that he will listen to is himself, because back in 2010 he made it clear to Ofqual that, to quote from Ofqual’s briefing, he wanted A-levels to serve their purpose as

“one of the selection tools used by HE”—

that is, by higher education—

“to identify the most suitable and best students for their courses”.

We know that the AS-level is the best exam tool to serve that purpose; at least, that is what the evidence shows. It should be used more, not less, for that purpose and yet the Secretary of State is determined to discard it. We will not discard it, and he should not discard it.

Before I call the Minister, I inform Members who have just joined us that we will finish this debate at 4.25 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) on securing the debate and on putting her case so clearly and in such a measured way. I am also pleased that we have had useful and helpful contributions from a number of other Members, including members of the Education Committee.

A lot of the contributions have pointed out that some of the proposals that we are discussing are controversial, and clearly they are. We are aware of a lot of the feedback that has come in from different organisations. Sometimes when Governments go out to consultation on particular proposals, they realise that they have made mistakes and they change the proposals. As a number of Members have indicated, we did that on the reforms to GCSEs that we had proposed, but I should say to those Members who have at times today suggested that popularity is the benchmark for introducing policies and the ultimate test that there are many other examples of changes in education and in other Government policy areas where proposals were extremely controversial at the time—I am thinking of key stage 2 national tests, the introduction of Ofsted and sponsored academies—and not welcomed by many in the relevant sector when they were introduced that have proven to be generally very successful and which are now welcomed. The consensus changes.

If we wanted an example of what happens when policy is introduced just on the basis of what is popular with the sector, we have Wales to look at. Wales has introduced, over time, many policies that were extremely popular in the sector, but which have proven, in many cases, to do huge damage to the quality of education in Wales. That is now widely and internationally recognised.

Does the Minister accept that although those controversial reforms that he mentioned, such as the introduction of Ofsted and key stage 2 tests, may have been unpopular with some people working in education, there was nevertheless a body of evidence to support their introduction? Therefore, although they were perhaps controversial, there was huge evidence behind them, and they have subsequently proven the evidence.

That was not said by many of the opponents of those proposals at the time. Actually, many opponents, including to sponsored academies, continue to maintain today that there is no evidence to show the success of those policies, so I do not agree with the hon. Lady that the issue is as simple as that.

If I may, I will make a little progress and then give way to the hon. Lady. I want to ensure that I get my speech under way.

As the key qualification for progression to university and as a key end-of-school qualification in and of its own right, A-levels have to be robust and to be rigorous, as was pointed out earlier. They need to compare well with the best qualifications internationally; they need to help our young people to compete with students from other countries for university places in the UK and abroad; they need to give pupils the best possible preparation for further study, teaching the core knowledge and skills that young people need to make the most of an undergraduate course; and they need to be—as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the shadow Schools Minister, indicated earlier—strong qualifications in their own right, providing test and challenge at the end of the school or college experience.

Our reforms for 16-to-18 education build on the reforms that we are making to the national curriculum, secondary accountability and GCSEs. Our proposals in those areas, which are out for consultation until 1 May, are to publish an average point score measure and a value-added progress measure covering English and mathematics, three of the EBacc subjects and three additional slots for other subjects that can be academic, arts or vocational qualifications. As the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston will know, the progress measure will be part of the floor standard. Those reforms will place a strong focus on English and maths while ensuring that students have a rounded knowledge of sciences, languages, humanities and the arts. There will also be a stronger emphasis on computer science and programming.

Our reforms of A-levels are designed to build on that strong base. We want to give students a better experience of post-16 study, ensuring they are studying for rigorous qualifications that will provide them with the right skills and knowledge to allow them to progress. Students currently start A-levels in September and then they immediately start preparing for examinations in January. They and their teachers have spent too much time thinking about exams and re-sitting them, encouraging in some cases a “learn and forget” approach. A student taking A-level maths would need to sit six exams: three papers for their AS-level, and three for their A2. The old rules allowed multiple re-sitting of those papers, so a student might sit some papers in January, and if they wanted to improve their grades they could re-sit them in June and again the following year, while sitting and then re-sitting their A2 papers. In 2010, 74% of maths A-level students re-sat at least one paper.

During the past few years, too many students in our schools system have spent too long preparing for and taking tests in years 10, 11, 12 and 13. During the past decade, we have been in danger of creating an “exam factory” in our schools, particularly in the last four years of education, rather than creating places of deep learning where teachers and students are given the time and space to develop deep knowledge of subjects, rather than just preparing constantly for public examinations. That is one of the key reasons why the Government are making the changes that we are debating today.

The focus that there has been on exams in every one of those final four years of school education can lead to young people failing to deliver and develop that deep understanding of their subject, and to their failing to make connections between topics. Re-sits have also led to too much teaching time being sacrificed for assessment preparation. Research—hon. Members have said that they are keen on it—from Durham university and Cambridge Assessment suggests that repeated opportunities for students to re-sit exams have also risked a form of grade inflation. This is why our reforms to A-levels are so important. Ofqual announced the first stage of the reforms last autumn by removing the January exam window, which will reduce the number of re-sits, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston said.

The Minister makes some valid points, which I also referred to, about ways in which we might reform, such as reducing re-sits, which may have contributed to grade inflation, but does he not agree that those changes—those improvements—can take place within the current framework and that the de-coupling of AS-levels and A-levels is not required to achieve those improvements?

Some of those changes clearly could take place without the additional measures that we are taking, but we believe, for the reasons that I am giving, and will continue to give, that they would not by themselves go far enough. That is why we announced earlier this year that from 2015 we would return to linear A-levels, with examinations taking place at the end of the two-year course. Linear A-levels will free up time for teachers to focus on what teachers do best, which is providing high-quality teaching, developing their students’ deep understanding and love of a subject, and ensuring, therefore, that the final two years of education are about not simply public examinations and test preparation, but doing what our education system is designed to do, which is educating young people in these key subjects.

I would like to make more progress and then give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Some have claimed that the introduction of linear A-levels will have a negative impact on the social mobility agenda. If that was going to be the case, this Government, and certainly my party, would have no truck with these changes. Creating a more socially mobile society and education system is crucial. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) made extremely well was that, listening to and talking about the criticisms from some in the education system, including from Cambridge university, people would think that we had an ideal system for social mobility today in universities such as Cambridge and Oxford. Actually, the proportion of young people from private schools and selective state schools in those institutions remains, in our view, unacceptably high. That model is not delivering social mobility.

Contrary to the claims I have mentioned, linear A-levels will allow young people to develop greater intellectual maturity through a two-year course. Some students may not have developed the skills that they need to excel in an exam in the first year of their A-level course, particularly those who may have had less support at school and home to develop independent study skills. A two-year course will allow all students progressively to develop the skills they need to be successful at university and to demonstrate their abilities through exams at the end of two years. We will also do more to target high-achieving sixth formers, in terms of the social mobility agenda, to ensure that they are fully aware of the higher education opportunities that should be open to them in all universities, including some of the best in the country. We will ensure that they are supported in exploring those options.

The crucial thing about a strategy for social mobility through the education system is not to think that we can solve the massive injustices in access to our education system through tweaking the admissions process at age 17 or 18. All the international evidence demonstrates that, in an education system with massive gaps between the outcomes for young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, which are already visible at ages five, 11 and 16, as we have had in this country for far too long, reducing those gaps through the measures that we are taking to intervene in weak schools—including policies such as the pupil premium, for example, which will target more money for the education of disadvantaged youngsters—will help us to make a step change in social mobility in this country. Those are far more important than the issues that we have been debating today.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I find his contribution somewhat naive and a little complacent. I am pleased that he recognises that teachers are doing what they do best in helping youngsters learn, but that is what they are doing now. They do not need changes to assist them in that job, which they are doing extremely well.

Will the Minister focus on the key issue that has come up consistently in this debate—hon. Members agree with much of what he has already said—which is the significant detrimental effect of AS-levels being divorced from A-levels, which will result if the Government continue ploughing on with that ill-conceived policy?

I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point directly. May I first say, somewhat gently, that it is naive and complacent to think that the issue that we are discussing—whether universities rely on AS-level grades, predicted grades or GCSE grades—has any central role to play in challenging the massive inequalities of opportunity in our education system today. It is a tiny issue, compared with the huge gaps that are emerging at ages five, 11 and 16. All the evidence, which hon. Members have been urging the Government to use and pay attention to, demonstrates that our social mobility problems are about the inequalities of outcome at those ages, not what is happening with university admissions.

I will make more progress before giving way again to the hon. Lady.

Some critics of the linear A-level have cited a link between the introduction of modular A-levels as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms, which the hon. Member for Cardiff West, the shadow Schools Minister, mentioned earlier, and widening participation in higher education. However, the major increase in HE participation took place in the early 1990s, before the introduction of modular A-levels in 2000. Universities continue to work hard to widen participation and ensure they are opening their doors to students from all backgrounds, and I am confident that they will keep doing so when the new linear A-levels are introduced. Indeed, in many cases they need to do much more to offer those opportunities to young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government intend to work in partnership with some of the universities, particularly those that have poor rates of access, to try to target those youngsters who should be gaining access to some of our best universities, but are not doing so.

Making the A-level linear does, of course, have implications—the hon. Gentleman raised this point earlier—for the current AS qualification. My ministerial colleagues and officials have been talking to and working with school and college leaders and universities to understand precisely the concerns that he set out so clearly to ensure that we can address them.

As we move to fully linear A-levels with exams at the end of the two-year course, the AS-level will remain as a qualification in its own right. It will continue to be available as a stand-alone qualification to be taught over either one year or two years, but the marks from it will obviously no longer count towards the A-level. Longer term, our ambition is to develop a brand new AS qualification that is at the same level of challenge as a full A-level, but for the time being that is for the future.

From 2015, the AS-level will be decoupled as a stand-alone, linear qualification and will remain at the same level of challenge as existing AS qualifications. That means that schools and colleges can decide whether to teach the AS-level over one year or two years. If schools and colleges decide to teach the AS in any given subject in one year, that would give them the opportunity, which I think the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) was seeking—it is a valid concern—to co-teach the AS and the new A-level together, if that meets the needs of the students and if it is a sensible way for those institutions to ensure that they can deliver education for all young people who want to access both A-levels and the AS.

We want to preserve the AS so that students can study a fourth subject in addition to their full A-levels. We know that universities consider the AS a valuable qualification to provide that breadth, which a number of hon. Members mentioned. We also know that some universities use the AS in their admissions processes, although most place more emphasis on GCSE results and predicted A-level grades, as well as looking at a range of other information, including personal statements, academic references and, in some cases, admissions tests and interviews.

I will make this one point before giving way.

Most universities do not use AS results as the main basis for making those decisions. Indeed, in some subjects GCSE results can provide a better prediction of degree results across all universities than AS results. Students who have very good GCSE results from schools where the general pattern is for below-average GCSE attainment also have real potential to progress at university.

If the Minister continues with his proposals, AS-levels will be available for universities to use as evidence in only one subject, instead of all the subjects that the young person is studying. Although we could do with more research, he knows that there is powerful research evidence that suggests that AS-level is in fact the best predictor of how young people will do at university. [Interruption.] He can shake his head, but his own university’s research suggests that AS-levels are the best predictor—far better than GCSEs, and far better even than university admissions tests. I have the research here. I thought he had read it, but obviously he has not.

I repeat the point I have just made: the majority of universities do not use AS-levels as the main basis for making such decisions. Indeed, we know that, in some subjects, GCSE results provide a better prediction of degree results across all universities than AS results.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. He says that most universities do not use AS-level results as the main basis, but that does not mean that most do not use them as a key part of their decision making. Does he not agree that taking away AS-level results at that moment would take away something that is seen as a vital indicator of how well pupils are doing, particularly pupils from state schools or disadvantaged backgrounds?

No, our judgment is that, if we get education right earlier on, which is the critical stage for delivering the social mobility that the hon. Lady and I want, it should be perfectly possible for universities to make such judgments without a loss from the removal of the AS-level. Some universities may have to adjust how they handle admissions. A-levels, however, are not simply mechanisms to help universities to sort students. The most important priority is to develop A-levels that secure the best possible educational outcomes for young people. Earlier, the shadow Minister said that A-levels are not simply to be structured around the needs of university access. They form a far wider purpose than that.

It will continue to be as important as ever that students from all backgrounds have the information they need to make the right choices about higher education based on teachers’ assessments of their progress, as well as formal examination results. School is the best place to monitor students’ progress and to help them understand the attainment they are working at and aiming for.

A-levels must be high quality, and they must change over time to keep up with world standards. Universities, the bodies that once set up examination boards themselves, are not as core a part of the process of qualification development as they once were. A good way for A-levels to keep up with the challenges of the global marketplace in qualifications is to respond to what universities are looking for. Independent learning and critical thinking are vital skills that A-levels must continue to develop.

We believe that losing touch with universities has meant that A-levels have not always been a suitable preparation for those embarking on degrees in some subjects. Indeed, many private schools offer different courses, such as sixth-term examination papers and the Cambridge pre-U, for those purposes. A-level reform is vital to ensure that all students, whether in the state sector or the private sector, have the best possible skills and knowledge to enable them to compete effectively. That is why the Government are giving universities a greater role in the development of A-levels. Awarding organisations will work with universities to determine the content of the new A-levels, and we are delighted that the Russell Group will be part of that. We also welcome contributions from other universities, as a number of hon. Members have indicated. We expect that the first new A-levels will be developed for teaching to begin in September 2015, with the first exams to be sat in 2017. Each year, Ofqual will also lead a post-qualification review process involving the Russell Group.

We can be confident from the way Ofqual has exercised its functions over the past few years that it will give us the independent and impartial advice that we need to make the right decisions and to develop an A-level system that is fit for purpose—not just for university entry, but for educating young people in the critical years of their lives.

Persecution of Christians

I am pleased to have secured this debate on the increasing threat to freedom of religion in certain parts of the world, which is an important issue. Due to time pressure, I apologise in advance for the fact that I may not be able to accept many interventions. These are issues, however, on which I have placed significant emphasis during my time in Parliament not only because I believe passionately in the inherent importance of protecting fundamental human rights but because the evidence demonstrates that those societies that protect and respect fundamental rights tend to fare better in their protection of other human rights.

In preparation for this debate, I have worked closely with Open Doors, an organisation focusing on freedom for persecuted Christian Churches. I also thank Christian Solidarity Worldwide, His Grace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, and others who have circulated briefing materials ahead of today’s debate.

Although my focus is on the persecution of Christians, it is important to acknowledge that Christians are not unique in facing religious persecution. Indeed, I have previously hosted a debate on the persecution of Baha’is in Iran. Nor are Christians the only group affected when they are marginalised in society or excluded from public life. Rather, everyone suffers from the loss of talent and the undermining of the principles of fair treatment, the rule of law and access to justice. The defence of freedom of religious belief, as defined by article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, is important not only for Christians but for everyone.

In Africa, as a result of the growing influence of Islamic extremism in countries not previously associated with persecution, there has been a marked increase in such activity. That has been most notable in Mali, but it is also increasingly evident in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Niger. Persecution manifests itself in many ways, including violent attacks by Islamic extremist groups, radical Muslims infiltrating politics, business and the judiciary to gain influence to be used against other religions, and extremists filling power vacuums in countries in flux, such as Mali.

The hon. Lady has mentioned Open Doors. Does she agree that all Churches in the UK could usefully have copies of its world watchlist of the 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted? The watchlist is informative, helpful and useful for all Churches.

I absolutely agree. The watchlist is a helpful aid for those who are interested in this issue.

I have previously highlighted the persecution of Christians in countries where they are a minority, such as Sudan and Somalia, and persecution is still perpetuated at both state and community level. The current trend, however, is towards increasing civil unrest by Islamic extremists in countries where Christians are a majority, such as Kenya and Uganda. Small, local footholds have been created where radical Muslims do not tolerate anyone with a different belief system or religion. That trend has been most potent in the area of Kenya bordering Somalia. The pattern of infiltration and strategic positioning ultimately makes life impossible for Christian residents. How do the Government and the international community respond to that emerging challenge? What support can be offered to national Governments to combat that threat to freedom?

Although the Arab spring appeared to offer hope for progressive reform in many countries, it has failed to deliver on that promise in many cases. In many countries, the Arab spring has had disastrous consequences for religious freedom and has promoted a major exodus of Christians from the middle east. Already a reality in Iraq, the phenomenon is extending to other nations, most notably Egypt and Syria. Although we are all aware of the wider security and humanitarian crisis in Syria, there is a very real, but less publicly acknowledged threat to Christians. Jihadists have reportedly infiltrated the rebel movement, and tens of thousands of Christians have fled as a result. As one of the Governments involved in both Iraq and Syria, the UK Government must recognise that exodus and work with others in the international community to do all they can to protect people of whatever religion who are suffering persecution in an already desperate situation. What specific consideration have the Government given to that in their wider interventions in those countries?

Is the hon. Lady aware that in Syria there are some 300,000 Christian refugees who refuse to be associated with the Sunni opposition or the Assad regime? In other words, they are in a neutral place. Because they are neutral, as Christians, they do not receive the aid or assistance that they should receive through the Arab nations or the Red Cross. Does she feel that that is an issue for Christians in Syria? They do not get the aid or the financial assistance that they need, because they try to stay neutral because of their Christian beliefs.

I hope that the Minister will be able reflect on that in his response.

The nature of persecution is incredibly variable. In some situations, it will take the form of a “squeeze”, with pressure being applied, while in others it is in the form of “smash”, with recourse to violence. However, either kind represents a denial of article 18 and should be resisted. Recent trends suggest that squeeze pressure, where there is no physical violence, but pressure is applied to prevent Christians from being able to freely express their beliefs, has increasingly become the main form of abuse. It is much harder to identify and document. However, and perhaps as a result, it can be the most pernicious and damaging to individuals and families.

Life in the family sphere suffers, particularly for those who exercise their right to change religion. Hostility from the state or neighbours can place not only the individual but their family under considerable pressure. That social and religious pressure can occasionally lead to pressure from within the family, with divorce and death threats common after conversion. The right to change religion is specifically protected by the wording of article 18. Reports that within the UN there is a reluctance to promote the freedom to change one’s religion as a vital component of freedom of religious belief for fear of a backlash from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference nations are a concern, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that specific matter.

Persecution also impacts on the community sphere, manifesting itself as restrictions on employment or access to resources. There is evidence that Christian villagers have been denied access to water wells in northern Nigeria, for example, purely by reason of their faith. In Kenya, covert persecution of Christians has increased. Speaking of his own experience, one Christian states:

“The area is already very hostile, but now we are also suffering hidden persecution at our work places. Many of our jobs are in danger because of fabricated negative reports from our superiors; our colleagues at work discriminate against and isolate us—just because of our faith.”

Such persecution has affected teachers, who have been placed on forced leave or transferred from the region, while other professionals have lost their job, all on fabricated charges of incompetence. Those newly posted to the area are monitored, and if perceived to be Christians, are then targeted. It is very difficult for the aggrieved party in such circumstances to seek redress, because of the concealed nature of the persecution. Those who do report unfair treatment encounter a marked lack of corroboration for their reports from colleagues, often as a result of fear, leading to the dismissal of their complaints.

I would welcome reassurances from the Minister that, in the face of that more covert and insidious form of persecution, the Foreign Office has engaged with religious groups and national Governments to identify such trends and address their impact. It is important that international pressure focuses on the right to access justice for those who are affected.

Some Governments actively restrict the freedom of Christians to participate in the national sphere through the limitation of access to civil society and public life. As hon. Members will be aware, I have previously highlighted the fact that the state is the primary persecutor of religious minorities in Iran. Article 18 specifically protects the freedom collectively to express faith without interference, but as I have also previously highlighted, it has proved all but impossible to register church buildings and legalise church meetings in Algeria, so that despite the appearance of facilitating religious minorities, the effect in reality is to the contrary.

Such persecution aims not overtly to ban particular beliefs, but to restrict freedom of religion to a person’s private life. Worryingly, President Morsi of Egypt recently said:

“As long as the apostate keeps it to himself...he should not be punished...However, someone who proclaims his apostasy in public, and calls for others to follow suit, is a danger to society...the law and the shari’a intervene.

He gave open expression and Government endorsement to this restrictive practice.

Although the rise of radical Islamist groups has posed a particular threat to Christians, it is not the only threat. The Government in Eritrea, for example, have banned all religious groups other than Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islamic groups, and other Christian believers are persecuted, often with the active co-operation of state- recognised Churches. It is estimated that up to 2,000 Christians in the country are imprisoned for their faith, 31 of whom died in 2012.

Despite the growing prevalence of squeeze persecution in the region, many people still suffer acts of violence and aggression. Between November 2011 and October 2012, Open Doors recorded 1,201 killings of Christians worldwide, of which 791 happened in Nigeria and 161 in Iraq; 2,121 attacks on Christians, mainly in Nigeria, India, Syria, Kenya, Indonesia and Egypt; and, during the same period, 280 churches or other Christian buildings were burned or destroyed. In that context, I want to focus briefly on the plight of Christians in Egypt.

During the Mubarak regime, the differences between Christians and Muslims were often used as part of a divide and conquer strategy. However, since that regime ended, there has been a resurgence of more radical Islamist groups and an increase in their representation in high-ranking Government positions from which they persecute not only Christians, who are the largest religious minority in Egypt, but other minority faith groups such as Baha’is and Jews, as well as Muslim minorities such as Sufis and Shi’ites.

Christian communities face bureaucratic hurdles when trying to build churches; there is no mechanism to allow citizens to change their religion to anything other than Islam; and representation of Christians in state institutions and Government bodies is negligible, and, at the highest levels, absent. Since the uprising and the subsequent political and social unrest, Christians have increasingly witnessed the violation of their freedoms and face intensified threats to their peace and security. These incidents include the burning and attacking of churches, the kidnapping of Christian girls, and attacks on peaceful marches, resulting in the loss of innocent lives.

In one of the most significant incidents, 28 peaceful demonstrators at Maspero were killed in October 2011. Most recently, the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate and the main Christian cathedral in Cairo were attacked by mobs and, disturbingly, the police were seen to do little, if anything, either to stop the violence or to bring those responsible to justice. That incident is disturbing, not only because it is indicative of the rise in violent attacks on Christians, but because it demonstrates the continuing lack of will shown by the authorities to deliver fair and equal treatment under the law, not only to Egypt’s Christians, but to other minority faith groups. If the main cathedral can be attacked with apparent impunity, it prompts the question: what Church or individual is safe?

Having a Coptic church in my constituency, I support absolutely the case that the hon. Lady is making for better protection for Coptic Christians in Egypt. Does she agree that, following the Arab spring, we must urge the Government to do all that they can to urge the new constitutions of those states to respect religious freedom?

I absolutely agree and concur with all that has been said. It is hugely important that those countries are restructured in a way that will increase progressive democracy in those nations.

I am afraid not. I have very little time and I want to make another point.

Attacks on churches are an assault not on an individual faith tradition, but on the rule of law, and, if a line is not held by the Government in addressing that, confidence in the state and its ability to uphold the rule of law in the face of pressure for all Egyptians will eventually be diminished. Statements confirming that the state takes responsibility for safeguarding freedom and security for all of its citizens and that it will investigate incidents are welcome, but what would be more welcome would be action by the security forces and police to intervene during such attacks and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice. The Egyptian state must employ its security apparatus and judiciary in a non-discriminatory manner to protect all Egyptian citizens—Muslims and Christians alike—and preserve their equal rights.

Finally, I would like briefly to reference the 2012 edition of the annual human rights and democracy report recently published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I welcome the open acknowledgement in the report of the growth of violence against religious communities and the affirmation of the right to freedom of belief, including the right to share, change and teach others about one’s faith. I also think that the restatement by the Foreign Secretary that such rights are not merely western constructs but are universal is important and bears repeating.

There is concern, however, that the sections on Somalia and Yemen make no mention of religious freedom, implying that this is not a major human rights concern in those countries, yet in both there is considerable evidence of the persecution of Christians and, in particular, of converts to Christianity. Similarly, the entries on religious freedom for Sudan and Eritrea appear to be weak. Perhaps the Minister will be able to reflect on those matters in his remarks.

In closing, the right to have a faith and to practise that faith, both in private and in community with others, and to change one’s faith and not be disadvantaged or endangered for reason of one’s beliefs, are basic and fundamental human rights that should apply universally. These are also rights that, although established in international law, remain under threat at national or local level. Where religious freedom is diminished, it is often accompanied by a generally unfavourable approach to the protection of other human rights and a lack of adherence to the rule of law and equal access to justice for all citizens, with wider implications for society.

I trust that continued focus on such matters in Parliament, whether through debates like this or through the work of the all-party group, will send out a clear message that religious persecution will not go unseen or unchallenged by the international community and that the cause of religious freedom and freedom of conscience will have a strong international advocate in the UK Government.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing the debate. The large attendance by Members from all parts of the House for a half-hour Adjournment debate shows that her subject not only is objectively important and significant in how we conduct our international policy in this country, but arouses powerful and continuing concern in all the political parties represented in the House. I am grateful to her for the way in which she presented her case and in particular for her generous comments about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s recently published human rights report.

As the hon. Lady said, an increase in persecution is threatening the existence of Christianity in the very region of its birth, with many people feeling that they have no choice but to flee to safe havens elsewhere. As the excellent report from Open Doors made clear, violence, discrimination and systematic persecution threaten Christian communities in Africa, the middle east and certain other countries around the world. The Government share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Lady and in the Open Doors report. We condemn all instances of violence and discrimination against individuals or groups on the grounds of their religion, regardless of the country or faith concerned. As the report rightly emphasised, our condemnation should extend not solely to the more extreme forms of suffering inflicted upon people because of their religion or belief, but to any and all forms of such discrimination.

I assure hon. Members that we are fully committed to promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief in its broadest sense, as defined in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which was alluded to by the hon. Lady. It is worth reminding ourselves of that central passage:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

I assure the hon. Lady and the House that we take those words seriously.

I want to respond directly and clearly to two of the central points in the hon. Lady’s speech. The Government’s position is to condemn laws against so-called apostasy and any Government policies anywhere in the world that punish people for changing their religion or belief voluntarily and freely, because that is at odds with the words of the universal declaration. Also, we accept completely that, when we talk about religious persecution and the human right to the free expression of religion and belief, we are talking about not only the private or domestic sphere but, in our understanding, the freedom to practice that religion openly and to make manifest one’s religious or other belief in the way that one conducts one’s life.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment. He and the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) rightly referred to the universal declaration, but encouraging co-operation and respect for religious rights is also right there as a purpose of the United Nations in article 1 of its charter. Can he tell us what specific steps the Government will be taking at the UN to raise the issue up the international agenda in the way that needs to happen?

We raise the subject repeatedly in the UN, at the Human Rights Council and in opportunities that we get in the General Assembly and from time to time in the Security Council. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have resisted occasional attempts in the UN to return to language about defamation of religions, which used to characterise some of the debate. With the agreement of the March 2011 resolution of the Human Rights Council, we have been able to move on to more productive discussions of the issue; resolution 16/18 is not perfect, because it was a compromise to achieve consensus in the UN council, but it included not only a focus on combating religious intolerance, but key statements about protecting the human rights of minorities and promoting pluralism in society. We also continue to support strongly the work of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and we attach great importance to seeing his mandate renewed during the year.

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) for securing this important debate. The Minister talked about the Government looking to the UN and the Human Rights Council to take certain measures, but the United States has set up the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which looks to set policy by having research done around the world. Will the United Kingdom be setting up a similar body?

When the Government came to office, we set up a committee on human rights to advise the Foreign Secretary. It brings together experts, including people who are committed to various religious faiths. It provides a coherent and not unwieldy system for giving such advice. It has had an impact on the thinking of the Foreign Secretary and of my ministerial colleagues in the FCO, so we are seeking to attain the same goal as the United States but have chosen a slightly different means to go about it.

In my intervention on the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), I referred to the specific case of the 300,000 Christians in Syria. Will the Minister consider contacting the UN refugee agency to put forward our case that those Christians are not receiving the aid that they should receive through the UN or the Red Cross because they are Christians? They want to be neutral in the Syrian conflict and are persecuted as a result.

If I understand the hon. Gentleman rightly, he is saying that the non-governmental organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, are not providing aid as they ought to be on account of the Christian faith of some of the refugees. He is certainly levelling a serious charge. I will look into it and write to him—with copies to the hon. Member for Belfast East and the Library—because I do not want to talk off the top of my head.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) on securing the debate. We have discussed the charter of the United Nations, but will the Minister join me in celebrating the fact that the Commonwealth charter published last year enshrined religious tolerance in articles II and IV? Given the number of Commonwealth countries mentioned by the hon. Lady where issues with religious persecution continue, however, does he agree that there is more to do to ensure that the Commonwealth respects the spirit and the letter of the charter?

I agree completely that there is more to do. As I hope to have time to explain, we seek to do things multilaterally and in our bilateral relationships with various countries.

The hon. Member for Belfast East asked what the FCO was doing in practical terms and how we monitor the trends in religious discrimination. We require our embassies and high commissions around the world to monitor violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief. We are clear that that freedom involves not only the right to hold personal thoughts, but to manifest them individually and collectively. We provide our missions overseas with what in the jargon we call a toolkit—a set of detailed monitoring criteria—to help staff at our embassies and high commissions to analyse in detail the many potential manifestations of discrimination on the grounds of freedom of religion or belief, including discrimination in access to education and employment, or other administrative or legal restrictions on groups, buildings or individuals.

I shall move on from that general point to some of the countries to which the hon. Lady alluded. I apologise to hon. Members that I will not have time to go through them all, but I will write to her about the other countries that she mentioned and will place a copy of the letter in the Library.

The hon. Lady spoke particularly about Egypt for much of her speech. We have been clear that we need to speak up in public comments and private conversations with the Egyptian Government about the importance of religious toleration and mutual respect. When my noble Friend Baroness Warsi visited Cairo in February, she met both Pope Tawadros II, leader of the Coptic Church, and the Sheikh Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmed el-Tayeb, to discuss minorities in Egypt.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), spoke out strongly condemning the violent clashes that took place outside St Mark’s Coptic cathedral on 7 April. He also commented that freedom of religion and belief is a vital component of a democratic society and that the security forces should act effectively to uphold those freedoms to express and practise religious belief. My hon. Friend went to Egypt in January and discussed our concerns about the protection of minorities, including Christians and women, when he met the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice party. When he went to Egypt again in March, he met the Anglican bishop and representatives of both local and international human rights groups there to hear their concerns and to ask what more the UK could do to support their activities.

Most of our aid is directed not Government to Government, but through non-governmental organisations and charities. The Department for International Development, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, has published a set of principles about the partnership that exists between DFID and faith groups both in the United Kingdom and worldwide. That sets out a number of principles for co-operation in delivering aid, sometimes through faith groups that are really close to the people in greatest need in developing countries, and to ensure that aid is distributed in a way that takes no account of religious belief and is not affected by discrimination of the sort the House would condemn.

The hon. Member for Belfast East mentioned Kenya. We recognise that there has been an increase in attacks against churches, but I caution the House that although the conflict in Somalia has of course a religious dimension, it might be argued that what we saw in Kenya was an attack prompted by political concern at the intervention of Kenyan troops in Somalia rather than purely sectarian terrorist attacks. It is not only churches that have been attacked, but many secular locations from bus stations to bars. There has been a spate of grenade and armed attacks in Nairobi suburbs, Mombasa and the north-east province of Garissa. We are working with the Kenyan authorities to respond effectively to those security challenges and the threat of terrorism from extremist groups in Somalia.

In Syria, we are increasing our support to the Syrian National Coalition and other opposition groups that are opposed to extremism. We want to support moderate opposition groups to boost their appeal and effectiveness over extremists. We have encouraged opposition groups, especially the National Coalition, to ensure that their policies for a future Syria are genuinely inclusive and cover the interests of all Syrian minorities, including Christians. John Wilkes, the UK special representative to the Syrian opposition, is in regular touch with the Syrian Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office here.

Nursery Funding

It is a privilege, Mr Dobbin, to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon for what I think is the first time. It is also a privilege to debate the important issue of nursery funding. As all parents, grandparents, foster carers and indeed anyone involved with young children know, child care funding has been a contentious issue for some years. Indeed, over the past few years, the price of child care has risen by more than twice the rate of inflation, despite average earnings falling back to 2003 levels.

As ever, a quick glance at the relevant evidence illustrates the sheer scale of the problems faced by our nurseries, not only in my patch in York, but throughout the country. More than 600,000 children use the 15,000 nurseries in the UK, 80% of which are in the private, voluntary and independent sector, employing more than 200,000 people. However, occupancy in nurseries has fallen to 71% as parents continue to struggle to pay their child care costs. That in turn leaves nurseries struggling to survive as local businesses.

One of the main reasons for the continuing rise in child care costs is nursery providers having to cross-subsidise the Government’s free entitlement funding. They do so by increasing the fees they charge to families outside the free hours and to those not eligible for funding. The Government are the biggest procurer of nursery places, but they are, alas, among the worst culprits when it comes to paying for the places they procure. The National Day Nurseries Association is a charity that represents children’s day nurseries throughout the UK, and recently announced that 84% of nurseries claim that the funding they receive does not cover their operational costs. That is worrying. In fact, the average shortfall for free entitlement hours is around £547 per child per year, which is a substantial amount in total.

It is important to highlight the fact that local nurseries are also local businesses and, like every other business, they need sufficient cash flow at all times to keep going. It is already apparent that the status quo represents a serious problem and is extremely unfair not only for nurseries that are struggling to cover the cost of the so-called free entitlement, but for families who are being forced to pay increased child care prices to subsidise the Government’s free places.

Before I go further, I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber agree that child care is extremely important and offers families, especially women, the opportunity to resume their career after having children, a choice that is welcomed by some and, unfortunately, a necessity for many. Quality child care can make a significant difference to children’s development, instilling many important qualities such as communication among their peers, independence away from their parents, and learning to interact positively.

Sadly however, much of the debate about child care provision focuses on cost, which has had an increasingly negative impact on parents, with many believing that child care is simply too expensive, ruling out the option of returning to work or building a career. Since my election to Parliament in 2010, I have had the privilege of visiting a number of local nurseries in my constituency, such as, to name a few, Little Green Rascals near Elvington, Sunshine Day nursery in Huntington and Tiddlywinks in Osbaldwick. I must also mention an excellent visit to Polly Anna’s nursery in Haxby. Having met, on several occasions, the owner of Polly Anna’s, and having talked at length with the owners of the other three excellent nurseries that I mentioned, it is absolutely clear to me that the tremendous work that is carried out across York’s nurseries—I assume that that is exactly the same across the country—is increasingly under threat as a direct result of funding issues.

The shortfall in funding is due, first, to the free entitlement funding provided by the Government. Free entitlement consists of 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year and is funded through the dedicated schools grant, with an estimated total spend of £1.9 million a year. However, there is great disparity across the country in how much is spent on child care by individual local authorities, and therein lies a big part of the problem. The National Audit Office found that free entitlement varied from £2.78 to £5.18 an hour, with the national average placed at £3.95 by each local authority. My constituency receives only £3.38 an hour from the City of York council. I have had many discussions with the council about that figure, but sadly, to no avail.

With regards to the extension of free entitlement to disadvantaged two-year-olds, the Department for Education announced an average funding rate of £5.09 an hour to try and counteract the disparity, but that has unfortunately only led local authorities that were funding more to immediately reduce their rates in an apparent race to the bottom. I appreciate that local authorities need to be held directly accountable for their decisions, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on local authorities that seek to spend the bare minimum on nursery funding. The sad truth of the matter is that many child care providers receive low levels of funding for every child under the Government’s free entitlement scheme, which results in nurseries running at a loss. Therefore, they have to increase the price of child care outside the free entitlement hours and of child care for those to whom the free entitlement is not applicable to make up for the shortfall. They cannot charge at the moment for any top-up on those 15 free hours to bring it back to break-even levels.

The coalition Government know that something has to be done about that, which is why the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who has responsibility for child care, released her report “More great childcare” on 29 January. The report sets out her plan of action on how the Government will achieve their vision of an exceptional child care market that consistently delivers high-quality early years education—a noble ambition. However, although the report has produced some good ideas on child care funding, it is mainly concerned with reducing bureaucracy, rather than tackling hard financial problems. Changing the staff-to-child ratio is another welcome proposal, and those steps will ultimately result in a more efficient and more respected early years sector. However, I believe that the proposals could go further.

Considering that staff costs, on average, are at least 70% of the running costs of nurseries, there is real concern that any savings that could be made through the staff-to-child ratio will go towards increasing staff pay and training. To my mind, that is completely understandable and the right thing to do. Nurseries must invest in their staff; by doing so, they are investing in their businesses, because the nursery staff are their business. However, that does not solve the problem of child care costs. Currently, only one in three nurseries break even, which is a serious problem that is likely to get worse.

However, laying the blame for such a situation at the door of the coalition Government would be short-sighted. In the past 12 years, the value of free entitlement per hour has increased by approximately 33%, while at the same time, minimum wages have increased by at least double that. With an industry that has such high staff costs, that lack of funding has been keenly felt, so it is my hope that today’s debate will conclude with the Minister proceeding to urge the Government to review their current funding sooner rather than later. In an ideal world, that would enable nurseries to stop increasing the price of child care for those outside the free 15 hours and also to children not eligible for the entitlement.

I appreciate, however, that the Government cannot afford to tackle every issue and reduce the vast deficit simultaneously. I understand the financial situation, the struggles of the Government, and the difficult decisions that they must make. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that ignoring the problem will only result in the price of child care increasing further. It could even be argued that the status quo will adversely affect the wider economy over the longer term. After all, although the Government provide significant public funding in recognition of the value of child care, complicated and inefficient funding mechanisms are often used that result in much of the funding not reaching the providers, and therefore, families are unaware of their entitlement.

On top of that, occupancy in nurseries has fallen to 71%, as parents can no longer afford to keep their children in early years education for long periods of time. If local authorities fail to cough up adequate funding from central Government, there is a real danger that nurseries will continue to suffer from under-occupancy, leading to closures and creating local unemployment. In the two years leading up to September 2011, official figures highlight the fact that more than 700 nurseries have closed. I fear that the Treasury will lose out over the long term if it fails to work with the Minister’s Department to rectify the funding deficit now.

I have discussed the idea of more funding for free entitlement places. However, I have also touched on the possibility of altering the allocation of such funding, which could involve, at little extra cost, the removal of local authorities as the middlemen in the funding entitlement. That is an important point to bear in mind, because nurseries up and down the country understand that the Government cannot just throw money at the sector. We are living in hard economic times. However, as I have previously stated, I believe that the cost of doing nothing will be far greater.

The Government previously introduced reforms to every local authority back in 2011, as it was thought that nursery funding was inconsistent and patchy across the country, with too many children, particularly from disadvantaged families, not accessing any or all of their free nursery hours. Consequently, it was announced that the free entitlement for three and four-year-olds would be extended to 15 hours a week and that it would reach the most vulnerable families who stand to benefit from it most.

There are still several problems, however, when it comes to distributing the free entitlement to the providers. For instance, a lot of fraud and error still exists in the tax credit system, with £265 million being lost from the child care element of working tax credit. Many nurseries are also not informed if parents are in receipt of the child care element of working tax credit, which means that levels of parental debt are increasing, as the designated funding is not passed on. One nursery in my constituency has told me that its level of bad debt has gone up ninefold this year, and sadly for many, that is unsustainable. Consequently, direct funding to the provider could solve a number of problems, and I would be interested in the Minister’s views on that.

Overall, the purpose of today’s debate was to raise the issue of nursery funding with the Minister and hopefully manage to strike a chord. However, I will finish by asking whether the Minister or his colleague will meet me and some local nursery representatives from York to discuss the issue that they face directly. It is important that the Department hears directly from the nurseries that are so affected at the moment—as I say, the purpose of such a meeting would be to discuss the problems surrounding nursery funding. I hope that through this speech I have managed to convince the Minister to review the existing funding system and arrangements from the perspective of the nurseries, in relation to child care and the long-term sustainability of our nurseries, not only in York, but across the country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Dobbin. I apologise for the fact that you have had to listen to me twice on different subjects this afternoon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing a debate on such an important issue. It is of great relevance not only in his constituency, but, as he explained very clearly and ably, throughout the country. He explained concisely and effectively the concerns that providers, including those in his constituency, have about the funding of early education and their determination to ensure that we have a rational funding system that gets adequate amounts of money through to the front line to do the vital job that he referred to.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who leads on child care, is not able to be with us in the debate. She is abroad today. She passes on her apologies to my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer and has indicated to me that she would be happy to meet him to discuss these issues with him and anyone he wants to bring along from his constituency, so I hope he will take up that opportunity directly.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important issues that I should like to deal with directly. Those issues are reflected in many of the recent debates on how to ensure high-quality and affordable child care throughout the country. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to deal with the points that he has raised, which will be of concern to other hon. Members and to many people who rely on this industry and who work in it.

I should like also to outline some of the reforms that we have made and are in the process of making, and the further reforms that we plan for free early years education—some of the other reforms that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has announced recently. It is important to locate the reforms within the broader vision for child care and early years education as a whole, which was championed so effectively by her in the paper entitled “More great childcare”. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer mentioned, the Government published that document in January. It sets out an ambitious vision for child care and early education to ensure that we provide the best start for young children and help those parents who want to go into employment to have the child care that they need in a flexible and affordable way.

The vision is to create a dynamic and thriving child care sector in which the emphasis is firmly on quality and which draws upon international evidence of what works best. “More great childcare” is clear that, to achieve that vision, we need a child care profession that attracts the best possible staff to work in it and to lead it. Those people should have a passion for what they do, but, importantly, they must also be highly trained and highly qualified, which has not always been the case.

We need to give providers the flexibility that they need to deliver the best for children and, by doing so, create more affordable, better-quality early education and care, which will help children and ensure that parents can feel confident about returning to work. Alongside that, we are working with Ofsted, as my hon. Friend will know, to create a system of regulation and inspection that has high expectations of quality and that ensures that the quality improvements that the Government aspire to are delivered on the ground.

We need to free providers from unnecessary bureaucracy and give them more flexibility to focus on what makes a difference in improving the impact of early learning on children, not least those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for whom early intervention is particularly important. We need to improve the effectiveness of those who work every day with young children to build a stronger, more professional work force, giving providers greater flexibility to invest in high-calibre staff, as well as overhauling the existing early years qualifications.

“More great childcare” also explained how the Government propose to reform funding for early education. The high-level objectives are clear: simplification, greater transparency and ensuring that as much funding as possible reaches the front line. The responsibility for distributing early education funding rests, of course, with local authorities, which should know their local child care markets. Most visibly for nurseries, that role means setting hourly rates through the early years single funding formula.

My hon. Friend also highlighted a weakness in the early education funding system—the lack of transparency. Some providers have concerns that local authorities do not always pass on enough of the funding that they receive from Government, but, by extension, they find the funding system hard to understand. In too many cases, they do not know what funding decisions local authorities reach—I am talking about many of the people in their areas. Given how providers are affected by those decisions, that cannot be right, so the Government are changing it through the reforms that we have announced.

Working with a number of provider groups, the Department now publishes financial benchmarking data annually. Those data show simply and clearly the funding decisions taken by local authorities across the country. Importantly, too, the data enable providers to compare decisions across local areas. A system of effective local decision making relies on active local accountability, and we are giving providers the information that they need to exercise that accountability. However, we want to go further, and the recent two-year-olds early education funding allocation shows how that might be possible.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government are expanding early education to two-year-olds from lower-income households. That starts with the most disadvantaged 20% of two-year-olds, which is about 130,000 children—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

The Government are expanding early education to two-year-olds, particularly focusing on lower-income households. That starts with the most disadvantaged 20% of two-year-olds—about 130,000 children—in September this year. From September 2014, it will be extended to 40% of children—260,000 in total. That ambition is matched by significant new investment. National funding to support the initiative will reach £760 million in 2014-15. The Government also allocated £100 million of capital funding to local authorities in November last year to support delivery of the new entitlement. That real opportunity for providers will inject a great deal more money into the child care system.

Funding for two-year-olds is not encumbered by the complexities and historical problems that affect schools more widely and early years funding. The new two-year-olds entitlement has enabled the Government to put into practice their ambitions for transparency and simplicity in early education funding. In November last year, the Government allocated the first £525 million to local authorities for two-year-olds early education in 2013-14. For the first time, the Department was able to publish details of how much every local authority is allocated. It could point to an average national hourly rate that underpinned the allocations. That hourly rate should translate into attractive rates for providers locally. The national average rate of £5.09 per hour compares favourably with the £4.13 that the Daycare Trust found in its 2012 child care costs survey, which providers are charging parents per hour. In fact, £5.09 still compares favourably to the £4.26 per hour in its recently published 2013 survey.

I was interested to hear my hon. Friend say that there was evidence that some local authorities might not be funding properly at the full rate. The Government were clear that they wanted local authorities to pass on the new two-year-olds funding in full at the hourly rate. The Department does not recognise the problem of local authorities not passing on the rate in full, but we will collect data on the hourly rates and publish them as soon as possible, and the point that he made today will reinforce that. It will enable providers and others to see exactly what rates local authorities are funding at and to challenge local authorities where there is a discrepancy between the rates that we are funding at nationally and the rates on the ground. If he has any further evidence on that from his area, we would be delighted to see it.

My hon. Friend explained with great clarity the concern of many nurseries that local authorities hold back too much of the funding allocated by Government. In 2012-13, the latest year for which we have data, local authorities retained centrally £160 million out of total dedicated schools grant spending of £2.1 billion. That masked great variations, however, with many retaining little or nothing. Let me be clear: some central spending by local authorities is important in, and indeed critical to, delivering the Government’s vision of early education transforming the life chances of many children. Central spending is often used to purchase, for example, specialist help for providers working with children with special educational needs or other additional educational needs to help them to access early education. Such spending is frequently welcomed by providers and must continue.

Equally, in the current economic climate, we must ensure that every penny is being used effectively. For 2013-14, we introduced, for the first time, the requirement that local authorities must secure schools forum approval for centrally retained early years spending. That gives power back to local providers, but we want to go further.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are consulting on reforming the local authority role in free early education. In that consultation, the Government propose two reforms to how local authorities retain funding. First, we propose a new definition specifying what authorities can and cannot retain funding for. In “More great childcare”, the Government were clear that the role of local authorities in early education should be refocused on tackling disadvantage to ensure that all children can experience high-quality early education. In other areas, the local authority role should be more limited. For example, the Government want Ofsted to be the sole arbiter of quality in early years, rather than replicating the job that local authorities have done in the past.

Secondly, we are seeking views on percentage limits on how much of their early years budget authorities may retain for those purposes. We will take into account fully the views of providers responding to the consultation.

The Government also want a simple and clear funding offer, so that nurseries know and understand the funding that they receive and bureaucracy is kept to an absolute minimum. We are consulting on proposals to simplify and rationalise the early years single funding formula. From that, I am confident that we will put in place changes to introduce a simpler and less burdensome system of funding. I have already touched on the complexities and historical problems of early education funding for three and four-year-olds. The changes will resolve those problems. I hope that my hon. Friend will take up the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary further to develop the points he made so powerfully today.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.