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Westminster Hall

Volume 574: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2014

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 28 January 2014

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Education Funding for 18-year-olds

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Williams. I am very glad to have secured this debate on a subject that affects not only the excellent Trafford college, which serves my constituency, but further education and sixth-form colleges right across the country, as is demonstrated by the presence of so many colleagues.

On 10 December last year, without any prior notice or consultation and before any impact assessment had been published, the national director for young people at the Education Funding Agency announced a 17.5% cut in funding per full-time student aged 18 at the start of the academic year 2014-15, as part of a strategy to achieve the savings required in the 2015-16 spending review period. The cut, which it is estimated will affect 100,000 students and save £150 million, means that the funding per student would be reduced from £4,000 to £3,300, at an average cost to FE colleges of £600,000 per college, although some will suffer much greater cuts—in some cases, in excess of £1 million. Sixth-form colleges will also be hit, many of which have already suffered substantial funding cuts; some face the loss of as much as a third of their funding over the lifetime of this Parliament.

I hope that my hon. Friend realises that the student opportunity fund will also be cut. That will badly affect Coventry university, which will receive a cut of £790,000. The figure for Warwickshire college is £361,000, and for North Warwickshire and Hinckley college it is £162,000. Effectively, Coventry and those Warwickshire colleges will have a cut—so much for helping young people to find jobs and acquire skills. What does she think about that?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the wider context of the cuts faced, both by the FE sector and by this particular age group.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. While we are focusing on the impacts on sixth-form colleges, does she agree that this is not a double but a triple whammy, because sixth-form colleges are facing the VAT problem, in that they have to pay VAT whereas other schools do not? In a sense, it is a really unlevel playing field. Colleges such as Brighton, Hove and Sussex sixth-form college and Varndean college in my constituency simply cannot understand why there are double standards, particularly when we add in the fact that academies are being set up and getting funded for sixth-form, and sixth-form colleges are not.

The hon. Lady is right. The issue of the uneven playing field in relation to VAT charging was raised in this Chamber shortly before Christmas by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and many other hon. Members have repeatedly brought the matter to the Government’s attention.

Ministers have argued that the cut announced just before Christmas is justifiable because they want to focus spending on 16 and 17-year-olds, and because 18-year-old students would already have received two years of post-16 full-time study. Perhaps Ministers believe that the affected students are undertaking a repeat year of study in order to resit their A-levels and upgrade their results, but that is not the case at all. As has been pointed out by the Association of Colleges, the 157 Group and others, the students most affected are most likely to be those on vocational courses.

Those students may have achieved good GCSE results at school but may have had no opportunity to undertake vocational study at key stage 4. If they wish to pursue a technical route, they cannot begin level 2 vocational studies until they enter college post-16. Colleges report a reluctance among, and lack of incentive for, schools to co-operate with them to provide early vocational training to students aged 14 and 15, and it seems particularly unfair that such students should be penalised.

However, it is perhaps even more concerning that many of the students who will be affected are likely to be those whose school experience was the least successful. For such students, full-time study undertaken at college offers a vital second chance. These are the students who may have found the school environment difficult, but who flourish in a college setting. They may have had their education disrupted by health problems or difficult family circumstances. Some will have started out their studies in a school sixth form but will have left after the first year, having failed to attain good AS grades —often as a result of the poor information, advice and career guidance offered in the school.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and for securing this very important debate. Does she agree that there is also an issue with the number of schools not providing information about the existence of FE colleges and sixth-form colleges? There needs to be a much better link, with schools encouraging people to look at apprenticeships and other opportunities.

I very much support what the hon. Gentleman says. This is a matter of the incentives and funding arrangements, and it is about having a level playing field for all educational institutions, something that I know other hon. Members will wish to allude to in the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and apologise for the fact that I will not stay until the very end. A lot of emphasis has been put on the impact assessment. Sheffield college and Sheffield’s Longley Park sixth-form college, in my constituency, are somewhat bewildered as to who could possibly have undertaken an impact assessment that so grievously missed the point about what the cut will do to young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Does she agree that it would be possible to avoid the cut if new institutions and small sixth-form developments that have not recruited to the level for which they were funded had that money properly clawed back in a timely fashion? That would be better than hitting the most disadvantaged students.

I very much agree, both with the concerns that my right hon. Friend raises about the impact assessment, and with his comment about potential alternative sources of funding that would allow us to avoid the need to introduce this cut. On his comments about which students will be most affected, an analysis of the situation at Trafford college, which serves my constituents, bears out his concerns. Ministers know that level 3 is the standard that employers increasingly look for, and it is the standard that we should expect students to achieve as a minimum. It is worrying that the majority of students at Trafford who will be affected are studying vocational courses at level 3. The majority had low attainment at age 16 and, contrary to the suggestion in the Government’s impact assessment, the majority come from the borough’s most disadvantaged wards.

I have looked carefully at the breakdown of the courses that students at Trafford college are taking. They include English, maths, biology, chemistry, and vocational courses in plumbing, training as an electrician, vehicle maintenance and cabin crew training—a testament to the important relationship that the college has forged with nearby Manchester airport. Those courses could not be more pertinent or relevant to the career prospects of young people, so it comes as no surprise that college principals have expressed concern that a cut in funding, which will have the effect of reducing access to such courses, increases the risk of these young people becoming NEETs—not in education, employment or training.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Her experience in Trafford is exactly the experience that is being fed back to me by the principals of Cornwall college, which has campuses in Newquay and St Austell, and Truro and Penwith college. They say that very vulnerable people, whom we should be helping the most to get that second chance in education, are likely to be affected. Does she not find it surprising, as I do, that although the Government’s impact assessment suggests that disadvantaged people will be affected by the cut, we are moving ahead with it anyway?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that the impact assessment, which paints a rather puzzling picture, does not appear to support the decision that the Government have taken. It certainly attempts to paint a rosier view than the one that college principals and sixth-form college heads have painted. The Government’s somewhat thin assessment pays no attention to wider issues, such as the implications for bursary funding, and it pre-empts the outcome of the Cabinet Office review of provision for 16 to 25-year-olds.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing a debate on this very important issue. She has talked about what college principals are saying. Let me quote what the principal of Newham sixth-form college has said, describing those affected:

“These are ambitious and aspirational students who have stuck with their commitment to education. They are doing the right thing…How were they to know that the system would decide that they don’t deserve to be funded for 3 years of further education at the same rate as those students who only need 2 years?”

Is not it a very arbitrary and damaging cut that has been introduced?

It is indeed a damaging and arbitrary cut. Little attention seems to have been paid to the educational life chances of these students and why they need this additional year of full-time education at age 18.

There are also, it is fair to say, a number of flaws in the methodology used in the Government’s impact assessment. It compares 18-year-old students with all 16 to 18-year-olds, not with 16 and 17-year-olds, which means that the distinct circumstances and backgrounds of 18-year-old students and their particular needs and characteristics are obscured. It fails to do a comparison with students in school sixth forms, and so underplays the disproportionately diverse backgrounds of FE and sixth-form college students. It ignores 18-year-olds studying for between 450 and 539 hours, and it makes no mention of the disparity between the funding for five to 15-year-olds, and the funding for 16 to 18-year-olds, which the Association of Colleges has pointed out already stands at 22%.

Even so, as the hon. Member for Cornwall—I forget the exact constituency—[Interruption.] It is not all of Cornwall. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) pointed out, the impact assessment does acknowledge that there is a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students. A disproportionate number of black and ethnic minority students are affected. It also recognises that the majority of students affected are undertaking vocational courses of study.

The impact assessment recognises that five out of six students affected are in FE colleges. That means in practice that the effect of the policy overall is a 5% funding cut for FE colleges, compared with a 1% cut for schools. It is likely that, in colleges, the effect will be felt not just by 18-year-old students, but by all 16 to 18-year-old students, because they are often taught together as a single group.

The impact on colleges is compounded by the lagging in their funding, which was highlighted when the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee on Education on 18 December 2013. That lag means that the effect of the introduction of a cut in August 2014 is that the funding received for students who have already started two-year courses will be at a rate lower than had been anticipated and budgeted for in their second year. That means that colleges are having to rethink fundamentally their budgets and business plans for next year, and their future admissions policies. I was encouraged by the fact that the Secretary of State recognised that point when it was raised with him at the meeting of the Select Committee and agreed to give it further consideration, including the possibility of delaying the cut until September 2015. I very much hope that this Minister will be able to update us today on what further thought has been given to that.

In conclusion, there are real concerns about the impact of the cut both on institutions, especially further education colleges and sixth-form colleges, and on the students they teach. The policy appears to run counter to all the Government’s ambitions to increase social mobility, to invest in vocational education, to increase the employability of young people at risk of becoming NEET, and to level the funding playing field for colleges and schools.

Of course everyone understands the scale of the challenge, given the financial settlement in the spending review 2015-16, but as has been pointed out, other spending choices could have been made. As the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), pointed out on 18 December, colleges are losing out, while free schools and academies are being funded for what he graphically described as “phantom students”, often in areas where there is already plenty of provision.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association points out that nine free schools for 16 to 19-year-olds established since 2011 will educate just 1,557 students when they have recruited fully in line with their plans—if they manage to do so—compared with an average of 1,687 students per single sixth-form college, so the investment in free schools certainly does not look like an efficient use of funds at a time when spending for this age group is under such pressure.

Against that background, the choice to cut funding for vocational training, and to cut funding that is more likely to reach students from less advantaged backgrounds—the very group that the system has repeatedly failed—seems at best ill informed and at worst simply perverse. That approach is likely to have a far-reaching impact on the life chances and prospects of the very group of young people for whom we should want to do most. I very much hope that Ministers will take a step back for further reflection and rethink their approach, given the widespread concerns, and I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to those concerns.

Order. At least 10 hon. Members have written in to say that they want to contribute to the debate. The Chairman of Ways and Means has therefore authorised me to impose a time limit on speeches, which will be five minutes. I appeal to hon. Members to keep interventions—and the answers—short.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on calling the debate. I was minded to attend it only after I visited my local college last Friday. I come from an area that is not ethnically mixed or socially diverse—it is not socially deprived anyway; it is fairly socially diverse—but people at the college reminded me that there was an issue in all parts of the country and for all colleges.

Most students and, I guess, most people in this room have followed a fairly orthodox path in education: attending school from 11 to 16, staying on to 18 or going into further education, and subsequently going to university or into employment. That is a fairly characteristic profile. Most people, when they look back at their own educational history, will see that they have that characteristic profile, but some people find themselves at the age of 18 still in FE. These are to some extent the exceptions, rather than the rule, and a decision has in effect been made to fund them less, so colleges will provides less for them, opportunities will diminish for them, and courses specifically for them will decrease. We have to ask ourselves, as the hon. Lady did, who these people are who are less fundable.

I have read the pack prepared by the Library for the debate and I am fairly clear on some things. These people are certainly not the disabled, for whom special provision is made. They are not those without qualifications in English and maths, because they will not be affected. They are disproportionately from the black and ethnic group, and that seems to be agreed both by the colleges and by the Department for Education. There is some dispute between the Department and the colleges about whether they are disproportionately from socially deprived areas, because I understand that the impact assessment from the Department says that they are not. They are certainly not repeat grade hunters, as the hon. Lady made clear; they are not people just looking to enhance an already good educational career. They are not eternal students—people wanting to do courses just for the sake of it. They are people who are there for a specific purpose.

We are talking about people who are likely to have had a slightly unorthodox educational career. They are likely to be people who have made mistakes, either in course choice or in their adolescent life, as many people do. They are likely to be people who have encountered social or emotional problems during their education. I notice that the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who will speak later, has tabled several questions along those lines, asking what happens to children who, through no fault of their own, have lost out on a year or two because of illness. During my A-level years, I had a year out because of illness.

Those who will be affected are disproportionately likely to be on vocational courses, and they are more likely to suffer as a result of not completing their course. The cost of not funding those students is potentially considerable, and the risks are appreciable. The Government will respond that savings must be made somewhere, and that it is not fair to criticise the Government without suggesting other ways in which savings might be made. I agree with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston that an audit of the academy and free schools programme would realise significant funds that could be used to defray those costs, because, frankly, money is being squandered in that area. The Government can do some good by making that move, and they can reduce the risk.

I do not want to take up too much of hon. Members’ time, but Martin Doel on behalf of the Association of Colleges has summed up the situation rather well:

“We all understand the financial constraints on the public purse”,

as indeed we do,

“but this funding cut is ill-targeted, under-researched”—

that is undoubtedly true—

“and full of unintended consequences”.

I believe the Minister will have some difficulty explaining why that is not true.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on obtaining this important debate. I want to start by asking the Minister a question that sixth-form colleges have raised with me—how he thinks colleges should respond to the cut. Now that full-time students aged 18 will be funded by some £700 a year less than other students, it is not clear whether he thinks that colleges should continue to support those students in their third year with the same quality of education despite not having the money to do so, or whether he wants colleges to offer such students only two years of education. It is important to have a clear answer to that question on the record.

I want to focus on a few matters to do with Southampton. Two consequences of the policy have not been made clear by the Government. Although the Government have said that they will try to protect the base budget, colleges do not teach the students in question separately, so the effect will be felt across the college. The decision will concentrate the cuts on a subset of colleges, particularly those in areas with a higher than average level of deprivation and areas of historically weaker school performance, which will throw up more able students who require a third year to reach level 3 or A-level. The decision will target colleges in relatively small areas, because a concentration of students from more deprived backgrounds with weaker prior school attainment will not be offset by a wider catchment area of students who do not suffer such disadvantages.

That, in a nutshell, is the position that Southampton faces. There are two sixth-form colleges and City college, which is the FE college. They all perform well on inspections and completion rates, but they have a disproportionate number of students with weaker prior school attainment and higher levels of deprivation. The principals estimate that the cut across the three colleges is approximately £500,000. In City college, of the 246 18-year olds, 78% have not yet achieved a C at GCSE English or maths, so they have yet to achieve the basic level of attainment that we are all aiming for; 44% are from disadvantaged postcodes; and 44% are taking level 3 courses. At Richard Taunton sixth-form college there are 212 18-year-olds, of whom 46% come from priority neighbourhoods. Of those third-year students, 49% took a level 2 course before progressing to level 3, 28% are on bursaries to support their attendance and 24% speak English as a second language.

I want the Minister not only to clarify the aim of the policy but to understand how his decision targets institutions such as those in Southampton. In the impact statement, the estimate of the impact on sixth-form colleges is 1.2%. I can only say that some sixth-form colleges must be barely affected, because the effect is nothing like that for the sixth-form colleges that my constituents attend.

I have had an e-mail from the principal of the sixth-form college in my constituency, who says that the cut to that institution is 17.5%, which will affect 120 students. The college will lose £85,000 of funding that had already been committed, so it will be hit incredibly hard. I agree with my right hon. Friend; I just do not know where that figure comes from.

The attendance at this debate suggests that many hon. and right hon. Members across the House simply do not understand the logic behind the Government’s decision, and their lack of awareness of the impact on individual institutions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate. I draw attention to a declaration of interest: I am an advisory governor of Eastleigh college in the neighbouring constituency to mine.

Hampshire has a fine tradition of sixth-form colleges. Some of the best in the country can be found in our fine county, including Peter Symonds college, which I attended. However, my constituency has no sixth-form provision whatsoever in the state sector, which means that virtually every 16 to 19-year-old is sent elsewhere. The colleges that they attend have different specialisms and are of very different sizes. Some focus on vocational training and others are highly academic. They cater for different types of students from different backgrounds, some of whom have excelled at GCSE and some of whom have not.

I want to mention some of those colleges, not as an exercise in name checking my favourite college principals but to highlight the variety of experience. Some are huge, including Peter Symonds college, Barton Peveril sixth-form college and Brockenhurst college, all of which cater for well over 3,000 students. Others are much smaller. It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), who mentioned Richard Taunton college, which is less than half the size of some of the bigger colleges in the area. Brockenhurst has a particular specialism in special educational needs, and when I visited last year I was particularly impressed with its dedication to those who faced different learning challenges. Sparsholt college, one of the country’s leading land-based colleges, provides a significant focus on vocational qualifications. It has emphasised that it has only 44 18-year-old A-level students, but it has 358 18-year-olds on vocational courses.

Why might students need an additional year at college, and what would be the financial impact on colleges? I will not revisit the VAT issue, but the Minister is well aware of it. There are many reasons why a young person might not achieve the results to which they aspire at GCSE, at A-level or in a vocational course. We all remember the problems with GCSE English last year, which in Hampshire particularly affected boys, and I recall how the colleges I have mentioned really stepped up to the plate and met those challenges. They compromised, put on additional classes and held resits of English GCSE. How much less flexible might they have been if they had thought that a fiscal penalty would result from their keeping those young people for another year?

What of Brockenhurst, which has a phenomenal track record of helping those with physical disabilities and special educational needs? Why should it receive less funding for a third year of study for a student who has overcome physical problems, as a result of which they need an extra year of study? Surely, we want to encourage young people to stay in education to achieve their maximum potential and we do not want to give colleges a reason to say no.

I am the mother of a 15-year-old, so I have been completing college application forms recently. I was struck by the additional information form that was required by the outstanding college in Hampshire, which asked for any additional reasons why a student might not complete their study, and I wonder how much more rigorous such forms will become. Two years ago I visited April House, a specialist eating disorder unit in the constituency of my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen. I emphasise that although eating disorders can affect anybody, they particularly strike 17-year-old girls who are high achievers academically. Three of the girls I met were at the same sixth-form college, but their studies had been disrupted—forced to a temporary halt—by their condition. It was not their fault, it was not the college’s fault and it certainly was not their parents’ fault, but all three girls had been negatively affected. Nevertheless, they were hoping to go back to college. I do not want colleges to have an excuse to say no to that type of student—to see illness as a reason not to accept them back on to their course because they can foresee a negative fiscal impact in having them back.

There are some great colleges that do a brilliant job of getting teenagers back on the road to education. I cite in particular Richard Taunton college, and we have heard the figures from the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen: 212 of 1,159 full-time students are 18, and 30% of them have come from other colleges. I always used to say to students, “You’re a long time old. Education is critical, but getting it wrong, admitting that you have made a mistake, making the necessary changes and moving on is all part of the learning process.” I will be a lot more reluctant to say that to them now.

I have 20 seconds, but I wanted to touch on the subject of summer-born babies, who we know are statistically likely to perform less well than their older classmates. That is measureable through GCSEs, A-levels and university admissions. What about those teenagers who, just through a freak of their date of birth, might require resits to achieve the required grade?

I shall finish with the thought that we must also think about those who come to the UK late, whose parents get divorced, who are bereaved or who have been sick.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate, and I am happy to follow some excellent Back-Bench speeches. The policy we are debating will stop people getting the second chances that they need. If they do not have such chances, their life opportunities will be restricted, but it will also be bad for us and for the economy.

We all proclaim how much we support apprenticeships and welcome measures that are taken to boost them. Often, however, we know that far too few apprenticeship schemes reach the hardest-to-reach young people; the ones who, for good or ill, have been passed over by education up to and sometimes over the age of 16. Education has not given them the start in adult life that they would want. As well as being bad for young people, that is bad for the economy. It actually costs us as taxpayers in the long run, as well as the Government. That cost will not be taken away simply by cutting housing benefit for young people at some point down the line.

We also need those young people. The level and number of apprenticeships is often most advanced in the larger companies. They have the cushion of size—the human resources departments and the rest of it—to cope. For small companies, taking on apprentices can seem complicated and daunting. They are not sure what is at the end of it. That is why they need the confidence that they can go forward with young—sometimes not so young—people who are job-ready, or at least ready to be upskilled. That is where further education comes into the picture to provide the necessary education, training and aspiration, which are precisely what the policy is going to hit.

Of those in further education, 71% of those over 18 are studying vocationally based courses. Two thirds of the young people affected are disadvantaged in some way and require additional support. As other Members have said, we may be talking about black and minority ethnic students, or those with lower attainment at 16. At Bournville college in my constituency, 68% of those affected are likely to be disadvantaged in some way, including by previous poor attainment, deprivation, disability and learning difficulties. What impact will that have on the young—sometimes not so young—people who need support so that they have life chances? Who will provide job-ready or training-ready people for the firms that need them?

A lot of what I and other Members have said about post-18 education sounds like we are talking about people who are just over 18, going into their 20s. I have said several times that they are sometimes not so young—people who need chances later in life will also be hit. Look at the numbers of people we are talking about in my constituency. In December 2009, there were 100 people aged 24 and under who had been claiming benefits for more than 12 months. In December 2013, there were 240. That has more than doubled. There is a persistent problem of long-term unemployment among young people. If we look at the equivalent figures for people over the age of 24, there were 360 in December 2009 and 785 in December 2013. If we are to do something about increasing the chances for young people hit by persistent, long-term unemployment—even if there is a dip in unemployment overall—the policy we are debating will take us in the opposite direction from achieving that.

I know that the Minister will say that hard choices have to made, and they do, but we cannot simply do the sums and trade off chances up to 16, at 16 to 18 and post-18. We can do the sums in a different way. Let us start factoring in the cost to us, to taxpayers and to the young people themselves if they do not get life chances because their education is cut in an arbitrary, ill-targeted way. That is what the Government are doing with this policy. I plead with the Minister to think about it again. He will see that the objections do not come just from the Opposition; they come from the Government Benches as well. I really hope that he will rethink on this issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate.

My concern is that the funding cut will disproportionately affect those towns where further education and sixth-form colleges are playing a major role in the education of 18-year-olds. That is the situation in Lowestoft in my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for listening to the concerns that have been raised with him in recent weeks. In this instance, I am concerned that although the Government have carried out an impact assessment of their decision, they have failed to highlight the fact that the impact of the policy is concentrated in specific locations where it will hit certain—often vulnerable—communities hard.

There are four reasons why I believe that the proposed cuts will hit Lowestoft particularly hard. First, schools in Suffolk are not currently doing as well as they should be. Lowestoft college and Lowestoft sixth-form college are doing important work to address the situation, which often involves students staying on in education or training for an extra year. As a fellow Suffolk MP, the Minister will be familiar with the need to raise standards and levels of achievement in schools across the county. A variety of measures have been put in place, by both the Government and the local education authority, to address challenges and raise standards, but they will take some time to come to fruition. In the meantime, the two colleges are playing an extremely important role which should not be undermined.

A high proportion of the students who have become disengaged while at school either need to resit GCSEs or are following a vocational course. Lowestoft college advises that only some of its students follow the traditional course of completing GCSEs at 16, doing two years at A-level and then going to university. Instead, many pursue a variety of different paths that may include, for instance, a year at level 2 followed by two years at level 3. As a result, 25% of the 16 to 18-year-old students are aged 18 at the start of each academic year. That brings me to my second point: all post-16 mainstream education in Lowestoft is provided in the two colleges and there are no other schools or colleges where students can take A-levels. That is because four years ago, when the schools moved from a three-tier to a two-tier education system, it was decided to discontinue the individual sixth forms in each high school and replace them with a single sixth-form college—a centre of excellence. That was a good idea, and it is working, but the reduction in funding could undermine much of the good work.

My third point is that in Lowestoft there is a higher than average percentage of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds living in deprived areas. Research by the Association of Colleges shows that 18-year-old learners are more likely to live in deprived areas than 16 or 17-year-old learners. There is a real worry that disadvantaged students will be hit the hardest as they are the ones who take longer to finish courses. That could have a negative knock-on effect on the number of NEETs.

I declare a personal interest. I never went to university; I attended a vocational college course. Kirklees college in Huddersfield is transforming young people’s lives under the inspirational leadership of Peter McCann. My hon. Friend has rightly highlighted what colleges give post-18 learners and the challenges that they face: in my area, for example, there are pupils who have recently moved to this country, who have behavioural difficulties, who have been in care, who are pregnant or for whom English is not their first language. Will he join me in asking the Minister to reconsider the funding reduction?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I will indeed join him in asking the Minister to reconsider the funding reduction.

Finally, it should be pointed out that larger colleges with larger budgets are better placed to handle reductions in funding; they may have more room to manoeuvre and put in place their own mitigating measures. Lowestoft college and Lowestoft sixth-form college are relatively small. Although they are performing extremely well in challenging circumstances, they are not as well placed as larger establishments to withstand the impact of such income reductions.

I will try to be brief. My hon. Friend is quite correct that there will be a significant funding impact for many sixth-form colleges and further education providers. Could another impact be that such institutions, including for example the excellent King Edward VI college in Nuneaton and North Warwickshire and Hinckley college, are disincentivised from taking students at age 18?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It is one of a number of issues that I do not believe the impact assessment addressed.

It should also be noted that the late announcement of the decision has made it difficult for colleges to make contingency arrangements. I am grateful to the Minister for listening. For the reasons that I have outlined, I believe that the measure hits Lowestoft particularly hard. As I look around the Chamber, I realise that there are numerous such communities all over the country. In Lowestoft, we have two colleges that are playing a vital role in difficult circumstances, raising educational standards and providing young people with the skills that they need to take up a variety of opportunities. The two colleges need the resources to carry on with that excellent work, and the proposal both handicaps them and penalises 18-year-olds living in Lowestoft, where there are no school sixth-form colleges for them to attend.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this important debate and other colleagues for laying out some of the challenges. I will make my comments brief.

There are two issues here: the cut itself, and the unfairness of it—not just the £700 per student, but the impact on individual institutions and the manner of its introduction, which has not been particularly mentioned and which I will discuss in a moment. The Government’s own impact assessments says that the measure will hit further education colleges disproportionately, much worse than schools. I quote from the impact assessment:

“Fewer than one in five of 16 to 18-year-olds funded by the EFA are aged 18 at the start of the academic year, although clearly this will vary by institution”,

which is one way of glossing over the issue.

As has been highlighted, the measure clearly hits vocational students much worse than academic students, due to the need to stay longer on vocational courses. Critically, it hits London worse than other regions, including Hackney community college in my constituency, which has imaginatively gone with the flow of many funding changes over the years but is once again being penalised for doing excellent work with 18-year-olds. Only last week I visited the college, meeting three students who had had difficulty achieving at GCSE level but had found at the college—one was becoming a chef, one went into painting and decorating and another was on a fashion course—vocations that worked for them and gave them the opportunity to achieve and secure jobs. However, they were over 18.

Areas with high numbers of black and minority ethnic pupils and disadvantaged students are particularly hit, which is a double whammy for Hackney South and Shoreditch and other disadvantaged areas. I take the Government at their word about their desire for greater social mobility—I represent an area where that is an important issue—yet I say to the Minister that I cannot see how the measure will help social mobility. It is disadvantaged students who need a second chance sometimes, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), or who often just choose a different path of study that does not fit within the traditional tramlines for 16 to 18-year-olds. In further education environments, particularly Hackney community college, classes are very mixed, so it is not abnormal for 17 and 18-year-olds and much older pupils to be there. Sometimes students in a class range from mid-teens to late adulthood, as the painter and decorator to whom I talked last week highlighted, so 18-year-olds will often be in a class among other people.

I said that I would discuss the manner of the announcement. It was made very late, at the end of last year, with little, if any, discussion and no time for colleges to prepare. Colleges plan their academic studies ahead. Suddenly shifting course at such short notice is challenging. They will have made commitments to teachers and lecturers and tried to secure students through recruitment routes. Although they can often adapt at short notice, it is ridiculous and not very sensible for a major education sector—one that is within the Minister’s purview—to have to cobble things together in that way. It is not as though it were a great surprise that the Government are trying to manage the budget in this way and by taking such measures, so a little bit of forethought would have been a good thing.

By hitting colleges as it does, the measure goes against the policy intent and last year’s moves to equalise school and college funding. Can the Minister clarify one particular point? If a child is 18 years old on 1 or 2 September—old for their cohort, but within the normal cohort—will their funding be cut? I imagine not, but it would be good if he were explicit about it. I also point out that as others have said, this debate is well attended for Westminster Hall. MPs from around the country and from all parties have come. We are not bleating; we are raising a serious concern.

I know that the Minister is a thoughtful man, so I am sure that he is listening, but I am sure that he will also listen to the Secretary of State for Education who, when challenged by the Chair of the Select Committee on Education to push for even a one-year intervention to smooth things over, said:

“Let me have a look at that. It is a very fair-minded and generous suggestion”.

I appeal to the Minister to be fair-minded and generous, to follow the lead of his Cabinet colleague and to take a different approach. One alternative to a smoothing budget might be a flat-rate reduction across 16-to-18 funding, which would halve the effect on London colleges and be a fairer spread, allowing colleges to plan better. We recognise the challenge in funding, but this way is the wrong way.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this excellent debate, Mr Williams. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing it. There is clearly passion about the issue throughout the House.

The further education and sixth-form sector has been neglected and under-supported for many decades. It has not had the rightful support that it needs, which is a great shame, because it does extremely well with the resources that it has. We have heard that education for 16 to 18-year-olds gets about 22% less funding than for pupils up to 16, which seems problematic. We in Cambridge are hit particularly hard, because our county gets the lowest funding in the country for all schools, followed by poor funding afterwards. That is a separate issue and not for the Minister, but I hope the Government will correct the long-standing anomaly that pupils in Cambridgeshire get £600 less each per year than the English average. That does not seem fair to me.

My constituency is served by three excellent institutions, all of them for some reason right on the boundary; some are just inside, some just outside. They are Long Road sixth-form college, Hills Road sixth-form college and Cambridge Regional college, and they do extremely well. Hills Road sixth-form college has a national reputation for leading the way in the sector. If one looks at entry into Oxbridge, which I do not think is the only way to measure success, its performance is right up there; it gets more pupils in than anywhere other than Eton and Westminster, and it is a state-funded sixth-form college. That is what we should be aspiring to in state-sector education throughout the country.

However, the Government changes, of which the measure we are discussing is one, will make it hard for those colleges to provide the four A-levels that they have often provided and that are often provided in the private sector. They are worried about whether the example that they have set for so many years will continue, or whether that excellent exemplar of what the state can provide will be lost. They have huge problems.

Hereford sixth-form college is another outstanding performer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government could—it would be much appreciated by everybody if they could—consider how much VAT such schools can reclaim?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I was going to say that next. I have debated this matter in the House, as have many other hon. Members. One big problem is that the general education sector does not have to pay VAT, but the sixth-form sector does. If equal money is given at the beginning but one sector has to pay VAT and the others do not, that is a huge problem. A sixth-form college’s VAT load is typically £300,000. If the Minister could fix the problem with the Treasury, that would be solved. Cambridge Regional college pays £1 million in VAT. That is a huge difference and there should be a much easier way to solve the problem.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it adds insult to injury that because the Office for National Statistics classifies free schools and academies as public, they have a much more favourable VAT situation than sixth-form colleges, which have, because of an anomaly, been beset with this problem? That ought to be sorted out now.

I agree. It is perverse to say that a free school or academy is more public than a sixth-form college or a regional college; it simply does not make sense and must be changed.

Long Road sixth-form college has its own problems. It has one of the lowest levels of funding of any sixth-form college; it has £480 per pupil per year less than the average. If it got average funding it would have an extra £940,000 and there would not be such a problem. It does not get protection, because it was not one of the high-funded sixth-form colleges, and it gets hit by another £70,000 or so, and pupils will miss out as a result. It was also hit years ago, because the Learning and Skills Council told it to put together a bid for new buildings that it desperately needed, but the calculations were done wrong and there was no money available, and it is stuck with poor buildings. Yet despite that it is in the top 10% of value added in the entire sector.

All three institutions do well and they would be delighted if the Minister visited—it is not a long distance—to look at what they are doing and at the problems they face. They do a great job, but this is the straw that can break the camel’s back, because it is not something that they can do much about.

Long Road sixth-form college does not have a way of changing its curriculum offer to students who are already enrolled in level 2 courses at the moment; it will not have the opportunity to take on a new system. It would be completely wrong to say, at the end of somebody’s level 2 year, “Sorry, you can’t do the course you signed up for. You can only do a 12-unit applied qualification: two A-levels rather than three.” That simply cannot be done; that would not be reasonable.

No, I am afraid I will not. I have given way twice already.

The speed of the proposal is a problem. It is not helpful, either, because the non-qualification elements that the Government talk about are things that we should want to see and should not want to take away—employability skills, work experience, skill building and personal and social development. An investment now will save a huge amount of money over the lifetime of those pupils. Let us not cut the support there.

These institutions do a phenomenal job. Cambridge Regional college has responded actively to the Government’s drive for apprentices; it has just had its 10,000th apprentice and 4,000 are studying now. That is a huge increase. Such institutions throughout the country do their best to deliver education and social mobility on a fairly limited budget. Let us not have these small but incredibly damaging cuts—and they should certainly not be announced so late. I urge the Minister to listen to what all hon. Members have said and to think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate. The attendance demonstrates how important this debate is inside this building and—more importantly—outside.

The fact is that students at colleges are 22% less funded per student than in the 5 to 16 sector, so this sector is already under serious pressure, financially. Frankly, the Government are cutting this sector because they have chosen to protect 5 to 16-year-old funding and they have nowhere else to go to cut the funding further. However, at the same time there are political choices, because the Government have created nine new 16 to 19 free schools at a cost of £62 million. The answer to my written question shows that students in those schools are funded at £5,500 per student, compared with £4,000 per student in other colleges.

No. I have to allow other hon. Members to get in.

Political choices are being made, which is why these colleges, and these youngsters, are being hit again.

Essentially, post-16 there are two types of institution: widening participation institutions, which include further education colleges and about half of sixth-form colleges, and selective institutions, including most schools and some sixth-form colleges. Essentially, the measure will hit widening participation colleges, which take a gamble, or work to invest, in students who are highest-risk in respect of Ofsted outcomes and in terms of needing the most work in them while they are there; and now they are the highest-risk in terms of cash. Hon. Members are right to say that the result will be perverse outcomes, in terms of behaviours of people in various areas.

Three types of students are affected: first, those who have not achieved their five A* to C grades at the end of compulsory education, coming to 16, and need an extra year to do their intermediate level, before going on; secondly, those who change course during their level 3 provision, often for good reasons, and take three years to do their level 3; and thirdly, students who have to take a year out to care for somebody or to have a baby, or for other crises that happen. These are the hardest students to support and they are the biggest risk, and now they bring in the least money. So the measure is damaging in that regard. It also contradicts the Government’s framework. To raise the participation age, for example, there should be rewards, not penalties, for taking these students forward. There is a desire to close the achievement gap and these are the very students to whom that applies. There is a desire to invest in vocational education and the Government’s own impact assessment demonstrates that this is hitting vocational education worst of all. Everybody recognises that the forgotten 50% need further investment and these students are the forgotten 50% who need it, to be able to deliver.

There is a danger. Let me quote Paul Wilson, principal at Regent college, who said that, in the area of Leicester in which his inclusive college operates, his is the institution in the partnership that is delivering for these students. If there are disincentives for him to do that, he might start to say, “Thank you, goodbye” to these students, and then where do they go? We will have a rising issue with people not in education, employment and training at 17 and 18, as well as beforehand.

It is really dreadful. I know, from my experience as a college principal, that schools would at the end of the first year send students with Ds at AS-levels to us, up the road, because they no longer wanted to deal with them, because they were too high-risk. This means that other students will be too high-risk. There is a danger that we will let down a generation—this forgotten 50%—yet again. There will be an impact on colleges, such as John Leggott college and North Lindsey college, which do an excellent job for students in my constituency.

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), I shall put the case for both of us regarding the situation around the country and, because it is appropriate and we are the representatives, speak for Worthing college, which is, in effect, a sixth-form college for our town and district, and for Northbrook college, our further education college.

More than 600 students will be affected and the amount of money involved is more than £400,000. I do not want to play the numbers game, because some places will be affected more and others less. The question for the Minister is to what extent this is all compatible with the aims he set out in the skills funding statement 2012-15, which he made 13 months ago, in which he spelt out the four achievements he was after.

One issue facing the Government—the proposal having been announced in December and the impact statement produced on 13 January—is to what extent the Minister and his Departments are able to engage with the Treasury and talk not just about the still photograph of how it affects people now, but about the moving picture he can expect as other education reform changes bring forth their fruit.

For example, a significant number of students have had the extra year to get the qualification in maths and English now required for BTEC courses. I expect that more 16-year-old students in schools, academies and colleges will get the maths and English qualification, so fewer people will need support later on. That will help to cut some of the other costs to the education and training system.

We must also face transition issues. Colleges will on average lose 2% to 3% in-year. Their funding from September is based on decisions that they and the students took a year previously, so there is no way of escaping from that or adjusting the intakes. I do not argue, in any case, that intakes should be adjusted. The colleges are there to help people who will benefit. To go back to the analysis, I take the view that about 10% to 20% of people in their teens should be able to get out of the school and college system a year early, and about 10% to 20% could take an extra year at least. I do not think that we are all so normal and should be treated like racehorses, whose birthday gives the year cohort in which they will work. We need more flexibility.

I should declare that when I was at university my parents were not judged sufficiently well off to be able to pay anything for my maintenance, let alone my fees, and I am grateful to the taxpayers who kept me going. We should be asking how we can achieve a system in which those who fail or who have been hindered or slowed, for some reason, in their progress can get full support at college. There is a question whether people get to college at all: Worthing college was built 40 years ago for 600 students and there are now about 2,000, which is a sign of growth not just in population but participation. Northbrook college has done remarkably good things during its development and, with the use of initiative, has rebuilt its premises at relatively low cost to public funds.

I do not want to repeat the points made by Lynne Sedgmore, the executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, published in The Times Educational Supplement on 23 January; people will have read those. I urge the Minister to talk to MPs, consult heads of colleges and tell the Treasury that we need permission for a transition process, and that we should give up the idea that someone aged 19 who is in college needs less support or a shorter course. Those people are there at 19 for a reason, which is that the college can give them what they should have been able to get at 16 or 17.

My final comment is about the impact assessment. I believe that if a comparison had been made between 18-year-olds and 16 and 17-year-olds, there would have been far larger differences than from comparing 18-year-olds with 16, 17 and 18-year-olds; the Office for National Statistics should have prevented the Department from doing that sort of thing.

I intend that the winding-up speeches should begin at 10.40. If hon. Members who want to speak will confine themselves to just under four minutes apiece, they will all get in.

The proposal to cut further education funding for 18-year-olds disproportionately will have a major impact on disadvantaged young people in Croydon North. I spent some time last week at Croydon college so that I could better understand the impact of the decision, and was alarmed to learn that the college believes that it will be the worst-hit general further education institution in the country if the cuts are imposed as the Government intend.

Many incorrect assumptions underlie the Government’s decision. The assumption that 18-year-olds require fewer taught hours is simply wrong. At Croydon college, as at many other FE colleges, students with a range of ages are taught together, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) described. Eighteen-year-olds cannot be separated out from their classmates and put on to different programmes with fewer hours’ teaching time, so the cuts will affect students of all ages—something that the Government have said they want to avoid. Further, 18-year-old students are often the ones with the most risk of not being in education, employment or training, as a result of failure to achieve in education at an earlier age. They are often returning to make up for past failure and they need additional support, not less, to achieve. The Government have often stated that they want to reduce the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training. Yet the proposal will have the opposite effect.

Croydon North has a higher rate of unemployment than any neighbouring constituency and high levels of poverty and disadvantage. Many of my younger constituents attend Croydon college, trying to better themselves and make themselves more employable, but the cuts are particularly acute for the college. Nationally, 22% of learners in the 16 to 18 group are aged 18, but at Croydon college the figure is 35%; students in that age group are more likely than 16 or 17-year-olds to be from deprived backgrounds or minority ethnic groups, and are the least likely to have achieved level 2 by the time they enter college.

The financial impact on Croydon college will be upwards of £511,000. That is a higher percentage of the college’s total budget than elsewhere because of the higher proportion of students that will be affected. The college informs me that that is the highest percentage reduction in funding for any college in the sector. Given the level of deprivation that many of the students live with, and how hard they are trying to turn their fortunes around, cuts on that scale are a bitter blow that will severely damage our community as a whole. The cut, which comes without consultation, runs contrary to the Government’s policy on raising the participation age and supporting young people to stay longer in education and training, to develop the higher-level skills that the economy needs. That is vital if we want to improve our competitiveness globally.

The young people affected are not, as the Secretary of State imagines, in need only of a short period of study to resit their A-levels. They may, for instance, need a longer programme of study to improve their maths and English so that they can secure a traineeship or make themselves employable. I urge the Minister to reconsider the proposal and to minimise the impact on the most disadvantaged young people by adopting a different funding formula that recognises the needs and aspirations of young people from the most deprived communities, instead of cutting their future off at the knees.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for obtaining an important debate. I confess that I was unaware of the impact of the cuts to funding for 18-year-olds until it was brought to my attention by the principal of Hopwood Hall college in Rochdale, who wrote pointing out that the effect on students in our town will be hugely damaging. Hopwood Hall does a fantastic job, providing young people with vocational skills and enabling them to achieve their educational and employment goals. It also runs an excellent trainer restaurant, where I have eaten—the Riverside restaurant. It is an excellent venue with great food. There is a catering department, which provided the cake for my relatively recent wedding; the hair and beauty salon at the college also provided support—[Interruption]not for me, but for my wife; I clearly did not require those services.

I am extremely concerned that the good work done by colleges such as Hopwood Hall will be undermined by the cuts. I am told that it is expected that more than 400 students will be hit by the changes, and the college stands to lose some £400,000 in teacher funds. We all know that inequality in society is partly caused by inequality in education, and the funding cut will serve only to widen that inequality. As Derek O’Toole, the college’s excellent principal, has said:

“The majority of learners affected in Greater Manchester will be those from disadvantaged wards.”

That is the reality of the policy. I understand that there are strong financial constraints on the Government, but there must be a fairer way to allocate the funding, so that the deep implications of the policy do not adversely affect communities such as Rochdale.

I have one or two blunt points to make. I am particularly concerned about the Department’s impact assessment, which is clearly faulty, as other hon. Members have pointed out. I find it shocking that the Government contradict their own principles. The proposal seems to undermine completely their goal of reducing the inequality gap. By limiting the potential of students such as those who attend Hopwood Hall college, the Government do more harm than good.

On a personal note, I left school at 16 and I know how important it is for young people to get support to equip them for the world of work. That support was not there for me when I left school in the 1980s, and it was a struggle for me to get the skills and training I needed. We should be determined not to leave students in places such as Rochdale in the same position. We need to support colleges, not cut their funding.

It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this important debate, and I welcome the contributions from throughout the Chamber. We are united in our concern about the impact that the decision that the Minister and the Department made just before Christmas will have on 18-year-olds, given the drastic cut in funding for further education colleges. Colleagues from across the Chamber and I want to hear from the Minister, so I will not go through the speeches of individual Members, but I want to pick up some of their points.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston highlighted, the funding cut from £4,000 to £3,300 per 18-year-old student will have a massive impact on more than 150,000 young people, particularly in FE colleges. I represent a London constituency and have received representation from the FE college that I attended. There will be a disproportionate impact in London because of the high number of young people who continue their post-16 education in FE colleges and the high number of ethnic minority students. The Government’s belated impact assessment also highlights the disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups, white people from disadvantaged backgrounds and many other vulnerable students. Those points were well made by hon. Members, including my hon. Friends.

There is particular concern about the consultation process. We are all deeply worried about lack of consultation and the irresponsible and reckless way in which the decision was made. The Minister should know better than to leave FE colleges, which work hard to support millions of young adults with varied life circumstances, high and dry and having to deal with a set of decisions that will cause disruption. I appeal to the Minister to listen to my hon. Friends, and his many hon. Friends, who said that the decision must be rethought. At the very least, we need some breathing room for FE colleges so that there is no disruption in the system, which many, including the Association of Colleges, have said is likely.

There is deep and genuine concern that there will be a disproportionate effect on young people who desperately need a second chance. Almost all hon. Members highlighted that. For various reasons and in various circumstances, as the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) eloquently highlighted, young people, including young women who are high achievers, may suffer crises—bereavement is an example—and may need an additional year. It is unbelievable that the Government are so short-sighted that such circumstances are not taken into account, because those young people may end up with the other 900,000 who are not in education, employment or training. Surely we should not increase the number of people in that category. Surely the Minister wants young people to stay in the education system and take vocational courses, so that they can service our economy, which needs the technical skills and high-quality apprenticeship schemes that FE colleges are increasingly delivering.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) told us that his local students rose to the occasion and serviced his wedding preparations. We are direct beneficiaries of educating young people, and many of us who attended FE colleges recognise the significant contribution that they make to the life chances of people from a variety of backgrounds.

The principal of Brockenhurst college in my constituency has made similar points about people who have gone on to serve the nation—for example, in the police and armed forces. Does the hon. Lady have a policy on the point that was made so clearly by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) about the differentiated VAT regimes for sixth-form colleges and other schools? If so, what is that policy, and will she urge it on the Minister?

The issue has been discussed; my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned it, and hon. Members have raised concerns about it. The question today is for the Government, and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) should focus on getting a response from them. We will certainly look at the issues and at how we respond when we form a Government. There are deep concerns about the issue, and we need to look at how to ensure parity across providers. He should focus his question at the Minister. Too often, the Government throw questions back at the Opposition as though we were still in government. The Government are in their final year and they should take responsibility for issues, particularly today. Perhaps the Minister will respond to the question.

I want to highlight the issue of the education maintenance allowance, which played a big role in reducing the number of young people not in education, employment or training. Reducing the allowance will risk adding to the number of people in that category, which surely cannot be acceptable for anyone, including the Government.

I conclude by reiterating points that colleagues in all parts of the Chamber have mentioned: the disproportionate impact on those who need a second chance; the pressures on the FE sector at a time when it already faces drastic changes and cuts; and the fact that the FE sector often takes risks with students whom other institutions are not prepared to take, as hon. Friends have said.

The Government’s decision and their belated impact assessment, which acknowledges the disproportionate impact on ethnic minority groups, suggest that the Minister is, at best, indifferent to the impact on some groups. Considering the high number of black Caribbean boys and white working-class boys who are affected, it is shocking that the Minister is not taking the issue seriously. I hope that he will do so today, because we cannot tolerate the creation of greater inequality and social immobility. The Government’s policy is damaging for young people in general and particularly those who need a second chance, and it is damaging for our economy, our society and our ambition of promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility. It is a complete contradiction of the Government’s rhetoric. I hope that the Minister will think again and consider the issues that hon. Members have raised.

It is a great pleasure, Mr Williams, to respond, under your chairmanship, to a forthright debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the context and some of the issues surrounding our decision, which was not an easy one to take. Many of the points raised were not quite accurate, so I hope to provide some reassurance on them, and on how we will deal with the impact on individual colleges, not least because several hon. Members raised the concerns of colleges that are particularly hard hit; I am looking at the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed). At the moment, we are confirming with colleges the individual allocations.

Before we get to the meat of the debate, let me say that the process for making the decision was completely in line with the process for making such funding decisions under this Government and the previous Government. Say that following the overall allocation in a spending round, it becomes clear that savings have to be made in the Department for Education, outside the ring fence for education for 5 to 16-year-olds; the overall funding policy for the following academic year should be set out before Christmas, in December, in a letter from the Education Funding Agency. That is the normal way of doing things. Someone implied a criticism of the EFA, but there should be absolutely no criticism of the EFA over this, because such decisions rightly rest with Ministers. In February, normally, we come up with the allocations for individual colleges. That is the process we are going through: we are looking at the impact on colleges. We have estimates of those impacts, but we need confirmation from each college. That is the normal process, followed by the previous Government as well as this one. There has not been a problem in the process, but we can go into the individual decisions.

First, earlier information about a cut would have been helpful and welcomed by colleges. Secondly, although the process described by the Minister is accurate, for the first time that I can remember, a decision will affect people already enrolled on courses. If they are on a two-year course, the cut will impact on them and, because of the lagged funding, that is particularly difficult.

I will certainly respond to that point. The irony for those already in education who are affected by this decision is that the funding is being returned to the 2012-13 level that it was at when they enrolled. An important piece of context has not yet been mentioned: the decision, which regrettably had to be made because of pressures on the public finances, changes funding for 18-year-olds back to the 2012-13 level. I understand and appreciate the pressures on the budgets of FE colleges, but in 2012-13, pupils were funded for 450 hours, and we raised that to 540 hours—an increase of 16 and two thirds per cent.—and we are now debating a cut of 17.5%, which is of almost exactly the same order of magnitude. The discussion about the impact on colleges and the conversations with college principals need to happen in the context of the fact that this changes the funding rate per pupil for 18-year-olds back to 2012-13 levels, which was only last year.

I accept that the Government have done a lot of good work in the FE sector. The Minister says that further discussions will take place with specific colleges. For the record, MidKent college, which will lose £800,000 and have 1,000 students affected, is being told that it will get a cut of 3.4%, and yet there are high levels of deprivation in that area. Will the Minister have discussions with the college to see how things can be taken further?

I will absolutely ensure that that happens. In fact, I will ensure that such discussions take place with all colleges. It is important, however, to set out why we took the decision we did.

We were faced with a cut across Government to make savings to reach our goals on reducing the budget deficit. I need not stress the wider argument about the necessity of reducing the deficit, but life would be easier for a Minister and throughout our country if we did not have a budget deficit of £100 billion, and if we had not had an even bigger deficit three years ago. We all know who is responsible for that. There is tension on the Opposition Benches between those who recognise and acknowledge the need to deal with the problems left by the Labour Government and the others. Not least, I recognise the reasonable approach taken, and the suggestion of alternatives, by the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk); that is in contrast simply to complaining about things and saying, “Aren’t we in a terrible mess?” It is difficult being a Minister when there is no money left, but we all know whose fault that is. I will not stress that any more.

I care about the individual impact on colleges. For example, I would be delighted to visit Cambridge—I think I have a campaigning visit in the diary. According to our figures, which we are in the middle of confirming with colleges, as a result of the decision, Long Road sixth-form college will have a reduction in funding of 0.7% and Hills Road college of 0.2%. Those figures are to be confirmed with the institutions, but that is the scale in those instances. The impact assessment sets out the effect for types of colleges.

The reason for our decision is partly that it is in tune with other things that we are trying to do, not least raise the participation age. Many people have talked about NEETs, and I bow to no one in my support for FE colleges and their work in reducing the number of NEETs, but the biggest impact comes from the level of education at the age of 16, and from those who are in FE at 16 and 17 and whom we have to keep there. We are raising the participation age up to 18 years, with cross-party agreement, and are insisting that everyone stays in some form of education up to that age. We are focusing the funding on that.

The reasons underpinning the funding decision, therefore, are the decision to return funding for 18-year-olds to last year’s levels; our raising of the participation age; the need to do so much work to ensure that people stay in education at 16 and 17; and the fact that on average—this is not the case for everyone—18-year-olds spend less time on their education, even when it is full-time education. Furthermore, as the impact assessment says—this ought to be recognised in the debate—those who are 18 in education are no more likely to be disadvantaged than anyone else.

I had an exchange with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) earlier. Given that there will be this extra emphasis on people up to the age of 18, is it at least the Government’s aspiration to get rid of the value added tax anomaly?

I am well versed in the VAT issue and recognise the argument. Removing the VAT anomaly would cost £150 million, which is the same amount that we have had to save through the measure we are debating, so I am afraid that I simply have to plead having no money to deal with it. All I will say is that I fully acknowledge the argument.

A sixth-form or FE college has a private sector designation from the Office for National Statistics that leads to the VAT charge, but it also gives the college much more power over borrowing. On the one hand, a sixth-form or FE college has much more power to manage its finances, but on the other hand, it has to pay VAT. I note that in the past couple of years, there have been two new sixth-form colleges. Yes, there have been new 16-to-19 free schools, but there have also been new sixth-form colleges, so some people have taken the decision, even though they know that they will have to pay VAT, to go down the sixth-form college route, because they get extra flexibility in managing their finances. I completely acknowledge the VAT issue, but there is a flip side to the argument, which is why some people go for paying the VAT, even though they might not need to do so.

The Minister is explaining himself extremely well, but there is a bit I do not get. Why did he make the commitment to colleges that they could have 540 hours, which they then budgeted for, only to take it away, leaving them with a problem?

My life would certainly have been easier had the decisions been taken together, and had that not happened. I am simply putting that forward as an explanation of the context we need to think about when considering the size and scale of the cuts.

We are looking at the individual implications. I am happy to ensure that the EFA and my team talk to any college that is concerned. We need to recognise, however, that the reason for the decision was that savings had to be made across Government. There is also a policy explanation: there is the fit with other things on which there is consensus across the House. I am not looking for adulation over this policy decision; I am looking to explain myself as well as I can. I am happy to talk to colleagues and colleges further, because my goal is to support colleges and education to the best of my ability.

UK Bill of Rights

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

A Bill of Rights is not a modern invention. Indeed, next year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which was agreed not too far away from here and is the root of so much that then followed. The need to enshrine our basic rights against arbitrary executive power is just as necessary and just as resisted as it was all those centuries ago. It was not until after the English civil war that, in 1689, the expression “Bill of Rights” was first used, in an important statute passed to define the role of the Crown. One hundred years later, it was used not for a separate list but as the beating heart of the constitution of the United States. These days, the expression is used to refer to a document that has some degree of constitutional status and that declares the fundamental rights of all people by virtue of their common humanity. A Bill of Rights is the human engine of our democratic settlements, without which our constitutions, written or not, are just hollow organisational charts.

Those rights are described in different ways: basic, fundamental, inalienable, inherent or natural rights, the rights of man or, in a limited context, constitutional rights. We know that the expression “human rights” was probably first used in Tom Paine’s translation of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. If I may, I will wish Thomas Paine a happy 277th birthday for tomorrow. He was England’s greatest political philosopher and democratic export, and I dedicate this debate to him.

The United Kingdom added to that rich vein in the 1940s by gifting to the rest of Europe its convention on human rights, to enshrine the inalienable rights that Tom Paine first put into words in 1791. That convention was written by British lawyers and British politicians, and has been adopted by 43 countries and over 800 million people. The United Kingdom then ratified the convention in 1951 and with the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, the European convention on human rights was repatriated into UK law, allowing UK citizens to seek redress in UK courts for human rights offences covered by the ECHR.

Of course, that is not the end of the story. As someone involved in this field on the Front Bench in the early 1990s, I can personally testify that the intention was to build on the ECHR and move forward to a British Bill of Rights. However, the Executive power of today is just as anxious as King John to avoid constraint and definition of its power. Our failure to put in place that fundamental of democracy, a separation of powers, means that the Executive have a control of Parliament that even Charles I could only have dreamed about. The Government who should be held to account by citizens are the very body who authorise the rights of those citizens. That contradiction presents its own danger. As Professor Robert Blackburn wisely said:

“The truth is that governments of all persuasions have a vested interest in moulding our constitutional arrangements in a manner that suits their own political, financial, and administrative convenience...Nothing is more dangerous than corrosions of liberty dressed up as constitutional safeguards.”

None the less, in March 2011 the Government established a Commission on a Bill of Rights that would

“investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in UK law, and protects and extend our liberties.”

Sadly, the commission was unable to agree on a way forward. That has allowed the short-termist nature of our daily media and daily politics to wash over and, to some degree, trivialise the rights agenda.

Today, I want to rebalance that, to look past the immediate squabbles and restate why our rights are important, and why we would want to continue to have them written down and ensure that they remain so in future. Anthony Lester, as always, finds the right words. He says that

“the Human Rights Act gives necessary protection to the civil and political rights of everyone, and not only unpopular or vulnerable minorities—the right to life, and freedom from torture or other ill-treatment, to liberty without arbitrary arrest or detention; to freedom of speech, assembly and association, fair trials by independent and impartial courts respecting the presumption of innocence, to personal privacy, home and private property, to education, and to equal treatment without unfair discrimination”.

It takes politicians of very low quality indeed to turn such soaring principles into language that fails to excite voters, although we might have managed that somehow.

In 2002, the results of a Public Agenda national opinion poll in the United States showed that 67% of those interviewed felt that it was “absolutely essential” for ordinary Americans to have a detailed knowledge of their constitutional rights and freedoms, and 90% agreed that, after the 9/11 attacks,

“it’s more important than ever to know what our Constitution stands for”.

The report concluded that although the actual text of the constitution might be imperfectly captured in people’s heads,

“its principles and values are alive and well in their hearts.”

In America, citizens have a clear and steadfast understanding of where their rights originate—their Bill of Rights within a written constitution.

What about Britain? What would a poll of that nature look like here in the UK today? Would there be a wide consensus that a UK Bill of Rights would provide a baseline of common values to which the public could refer? A survey quoted by King’s college, London, in “Codifying—or not codifying—the United Kingdom constitution: The existing constitution”, a report written for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I am honoured to be the Chair, seems to support the notion that increasingly British public opinion is in favour of a UK Bill of Rights. It showed that most people agreed strongly or slightly with the view that

“Britain needs a Bill of Rights to protect the liberty of the individual”.

The figure rose from 71% in 2000 to 80% in 2010, so there is evidently a high and rising level of support for the idea of a Bill of Rights.

There is still work to be done, however, and there are issues that still need to be explored. We need to take the word out, past the fog of media short-termism and the excuse making and opportunism around particular aspects of rights in general. We need to assess, for example, whether our rights could be better articulated—perhaps the Minister will have something to say on that issue—as they are currently spread far and wide, in a host of different places.

We could learn from the United States. It is well known that Americans’ sense of civic duty goes hand in hand with being American. It is so much easier to fulfil that civic duty when someone has a clear sense of what is expected of them—of what they belong to and of who they are. Here in the United Kingdom, many of our responsibilities and duties already exist in statute or are woven into our social and moral fabric, and into common practice. A UK Bill of Rights—an extension of the Human Rights Act—would reflect their burgeoning importance in our democracy.

Bills of Rights are not just legal and constitutional documents; they provide ownership and promote citizenship. We are a society in constant flux, and a Bill of Rights would help to form a common bond across our increasingly mobile and diverse society by emphasising our togetherness, what unites us and our shared political values. As part of a post-Scottish referendum settlement, a Bill of Rights could be an important unifying force across all the nations of our Union. I believe that a Bill of Rights would also help to reinvigorate our democracy. A Bill of Rights would have a symbolic and iconic role, much like the one across the Atlantic. Endowing citizens with human rights as their birthright not only protects the rights of individuals, important though that is, but has the symbolic role of highlighting the fundamental principles of a democracy and signifying what a country such as ours stands for.

As well as returning rights to individuals, a Bill of Rights would be part of Government returning our democracy to those individuals. Again, as Thomas Paine said in “Rights of Man,”

“a government without a constitution is a power without right.”

Codifying our rights would help the British political system to be founded not on judicial archaeology by insiders but on a legitimate, open and transparent basis understandable to all. The history of Executive resistance to external rules and definitions shows the fragility of human rights law. We have human rights law at the moment, but we need to look after it, let alone extend it. History also shows the importance of entrenching democratic principles not with the passing whim of whomever happens to form a Government but in an enduring and overarching written settlement of our democracy—a written constitution.

I ask the Minister to join me and many others in restarting this debate. A UK Bill of Rights is the next step forward in securing the constitutional thinking that Magna Carta prompted nearly 800 years ago. Magna Carta should not be a relic, barely used, encased and on display; it should encourage further evolution, growth and strength within our democracy. We may go looking for a British Bill of Rights and yet find our soul and our liberty.

Bore da, Mr Williams. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) for bringing a UK Bill of Rights back on to our agenda. He and I have often worked together, and he is greatly respected across the House not just personally but for his chairing of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I am pleased that he has secured this debate. He might expect me to say that, as I am a human rights lawyer by training—I did a traineeship and worked for a while at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg dealing with human rights applications from this country. I am delighted to have the privilege of responding to this debate, which is home territory for me. The one thing I had not realised is that tomorrow is the anniversary of Thomas Paine’s birth, so I join the hon. Gentleman in recognising the timeliness of today’s debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will no doubt celebrate tomorrow, because that is where Thomas Paine did his writing.

On 15 June 2015, we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and plans are in hand for great celebrations, and so they should be. Magna Carta was the first general statement of rights in England, and three clauses remain in force. Clause 1 confirms the liberties of the Church of England and of all freemen of the realm. Clause 9 confirms the liberties of the City of London and other cities, towns and ports. And Clause 29 reads:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised”—

which means unlawfully dispossessed—

“of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

That principle drives the hon. Member for Nottingham North, and it should drive us all in a country in which we do not have a codified constitution. We have written documents, but they are not put together in one place.

When people talk about the Bill of Rights, the one that most comes to mind—the hon. Gentleman referred to this—is the Bill of Rights enacted in 1689 after William and Mary were invited to take the throne after the end of the reign of James II. Of that legislation, the declaration of right remains. It is the only formal Bill of Rights that this country has ever had, but the key elements are as relevant today as they were then: that Parliament should be frequently summoned and that there should be free elections; that Members and peers should be able to speak and act freely in Parliament; that no army should be raised in peacetime and that no taxes be levied without the authority of Parliament; that laws should not be dispensed with or suspended without the consent of Parliament; and that

“excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”.

We do not have laws in this country with a constitutional status above other laws, and Parliament is free to repeal any legislation that it wants to repeal, but if one looks back across the sweep of history, Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights are the two laws that people regard as the bedrock of our democratic country’s civilisation today.

When preparing for this debate, I not only considered the recent Commission on a Bill of Rights, which I will address in a second, but looked at which other countries have Bills of Rights. I was surprised to discover that fewer countries than I expected have something called a Bill of Rights, although many have written constitutions. Obviously, Thomas Paine translated from the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which was part of the French constitution. In addition to the UK’s Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments of the US constitution are called the Bill of Rights. The 1922 constitution of the Irish Free State adopted a Bill of Rights. Canada passed a Bill of Rights in 1960, although that was updated with something called a charter of rights and freedoms. New Zealand passed a Bill of Rights Act in 1990, and the new South African constitution of 1996 contains a Bill of Rights. In terms of specific provisions, those are the common law traditions.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman did not forget to say what we are talking about. I am often frustrated when people debate Bills of Rights or human rights and do not say what those rights are. He cited some of the rights, but I will state the convention rights that, at the moment, are the nearest we have to a Bill of Rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 allows people to exercise those rights in our courts, and I think they matter hugely to the people of Nottingham, Southwark, Hampshire, east London and elsewhere, and we should get the message out loud and clear. We do not do enough to ensure that people understand that they have the following rights: the right to life and the abolition of the death penalty; the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; prohibition of slavery and forced labour; the right to liberty and security of the person; the right to a fair trial; prohibition of punishment without law; the right to respect for private and family life; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to freedom of expression; the right to freedom of assembly and association; the right for men and women to marry and found a family; the right to peaceful enjoyment of personal property; the right to education; the right to free elections; and the prohibition of discrimination. There is no citizen or resident of this country who would not sign up to those rights. Between us we clearly have not done enough to get out the message on what we are talking about. There is often huge criticism of human rights, yet if people are reminded of what those rights are about, they say, “We want some of that, please.”

At the last general election, the two parties now in government made different manifesto commitments on human rights. The Conservative party manifesto stated:

“To protect our freedoms from state encroachment and encourage greater social responsibility, we will replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights.”

The Liberal Democrat manifesto stated:

“We will…ensure that everyone has the same protections under the law by protecting the Human Rights Act.”

When the coalition was formed, there had to be a negotiation and as the hon. Member for Nottingham North rightly alluded to, we agreed in the coalition agreement to deal with it. The coalition agreement is clear:

“We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”—

I stress that point—

“ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.”

That was an attempt to reconcile two different proposals for how we move forward from two different parties, but I think it was a perfectly proper next step. I repeat the thanks to the commission for the work it started and has completed, and for the report it has given to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. It has made a significant contribution to the debate and I refer those who are interested to the commission’s report, “A UK Bill of Rights? The Choice Before Us” which was published just over a year ago, in December 2012, and is available. It is worth a read.

The commission did about a year and a half of work to produce its final report. It was thoughtful and detailed, and I remind the Chamber of its key conclusions. A majority of the commission concluded that there is a strong argument in favour of a UK Bill of Rights. However, that was on the basis that any such Bill would need to incorporate and build on all the UK’s existing obligations under the European convention on human rights and that it would provide no less protection than is currently contained in the Human Rights Act and the devolution settlements. That was in line with the terms of reference that the commission was given.

The majority of the commission saw the lack of public ownership of the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights as the most compelling reason in favour of a new Bill of Rights. That was exactly one of the themes in the speech made by the hon. Gentleman; the public do not seem to own the constitutional settlement in our country and do not understand that it is theirs and for them. It should be for the people, not for the Government. Some of those in the majority favouring a Bill of Rights felt that a Bill could usefully define the scope of some rights more clearly and adjust the balance of those rights.

Two commissioners dissented from the majority view. They concluded that neither the commission’s two consultations nor the commission’s own deliberations had identified any real shortcomings, either in the Human Rights Act or in the way in which it is applied by the courts. They also pointed to an overall lack of public support for a Bill of Rights in the responses received to the two consultations that the commission held. They were concerned that any move to a UK Bill of Rights would lessen the rights protection that is currently available. They were also concerned that developing such a Bill of Rights would be the first step on the road to the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European convention on human rights.

With two dissenters, but a much larger majority, the commission could not reach agreement on all its conclusions, and therefore, it put back to the Government issues and places that they should consider for future action. All commissioners agreed that any debate on a UK Bill of Rights had to be fully alive to the sensitive issues of devolution—you will appreciate that as a Plaid Chairman, Mr Williams, as I do very clearly, as someone with Welsh, Scottish and English blood—and the current state of devolution settlements, particularly with the referendum in Scotland later this year, means that we should wait until we know what the outcome of that is. Starting to talk about UK Bills of Rights when we do not know the future of the UK would be unwise. Of course, the Government are fully committed to encouraging people in Scotland to vote in favour of staying in the United Kingdom and I add my small voice to that plea.

Human rights are intricately woven into the existing devolution settlements. Debates are ongoing, including in Northern Ireland, where there has been a huge debate on human rights issues, and in Wales and Scotland, so doing anything now would not be appropriate. We are not far from being on the other side of the referendum decision, and therefore, the hon. Gentleman’s request that we put the issue back on the agenda is perfectly timely. We have the revolution—sorry, devolution, or independence referendum in September. We might have a revolution some time, but that is not in my brief and is not planned anywhere, as far as I know. We then have the Magna Carta celebrations next year, so the debate is timely, and I am grateful that it is, as it were, the trailer for that.

It is also important to note that the commission’s findings revealed wide differences of opinion in different parts of the UK. Many respondents from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland argued that there was little or no call for a UK Bill of Rights. The commission’s final report says:

“As a matter purely of practicality all of us believe that, while we would not want to see an inhibition on further discussion…it would be essential to await the outcome of the referendum”—

in Scotland—

“before moving towards final decisions on the creation of a UK Bill of Rights for the obvious reason that it will only be after the referendum that the future composition of the UK will be known.”

The Government have publicly acknowledged the diligent way in which the commission discharged its terms of reference. They have thanked it and I repeat those thanks. The Government have publicly acknowledged that they agree with the conclusion that the time is not right to proceed with a Bill of Rights or changes to the current legislative framework for human rights, for the reasons set out by the commission.

We have agreed, in the context of the coalition agreement, that the obligations under the European convention on human rights will continue to be enshrined in British law. Whatever the different party views and individual views, that is the position agreed across Government and it will not change during this Parliament. Although political parties have expressed views on policy directions that they may want to consider in the future, the coalition agreement does not set out any plans for major changes to the human rights framework before the election. That may be disappointing, but it gives the hon. Gentleman, his party, his Committee, my party and other parties the opportunity to warm up the debate. I can trail the fact that at our party conference in York next month we will be debating these very issues, and I am sure that the Conservative party will be doing so soon, because a document is apparently in preparation. The Labour party will certainly have the matter on its agenda too. Therefore it will not go away and nor should it. I hope that as a result we have the opportunity to reach the British public with these issues.

Let me end by turning to a little-remarked aspect of the commission’s terms of reference. The commission was invited to

“consider ways to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties”

arising from the European convention. In chapter 10 of its final report, it noted that few respondents to its consultations had made submissions on that aspect of its terms of reference. As for discharging that part of its remit, the commission noted that its major contribution was the publication of its report. It hoped that putting the report before the public would get the debate going and encourage people to respond. The report sets out in some detail the background and history of our human rights framework, to promote an understanding of the context for the current human rights debate.

However, the commission also noted with disappointment —I echo this loudly—that the issues in the debate

“are often conveyed in polemical and sometimes inaccurate terms.”

I believe that that is unarguable. Colleagues will all have read much—bad things and possibly some good things—about human rights, but media reporting is often blighted by myths. I call on the public to look not at the headlines in the tabloid press about what human rights mean, but at the judgments of the courts, the articles of the convention and the contents of this debate. I hope that our debate has helped to make people look at the real issues and the real benefit of human rights and not the froth and the politics. Misleading and mischievous headlines serve only to obscure the good that human rights protection can do.

Human rights are not about bowing down to frivolous demands. They are about common-sense decisions affecting people’s rights when coming into contact with the power of the state. I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that we need to strengthen the power of the citizen and the power of the legislature against the Executive, and the Government share that view too.

If we can look beyond the sometimes skewed perceptions, we see that the Human Rights Act is a measured piece of legislation when understood and used properly. It can be a force for good. It brought a lady suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who had been moved to a care home far from her family back closer to them, so that they could continue to visit and care for her. It was instrumental in returning a young man with autism and severe learning difficulties to his father after their local authority decided to keep him in respite care for a year against his father’s wishes.

Those are the issues that matter and that motivate the hon. Gentleman, me and other Ministers in the Government, so I am grateful that he has brought the debate to the forefront of our minds. I hope that I have conveyed how important the Government believe it is that human rights remain a foundation stone in our legislative framework. I do not think, and the Government do not think, that we should take any steps that lessen existing protections or that move us from the Government’s agreed position, set out in the coalition agreement,

“that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law”.

This is not the end of the development that started with Magna Carta and continued through the Bill of Rights. The hon. Gentleman must, with his Committee, continue to press the issue. I will do so inside Government and I hope that Government will continue to uphold these rights and ensure that we are seen as the country in the world that stands for them most clearly and where they can be exercised most specifically by the public.

That is the Government’s case in response to the hon. Gentleman’s very timely debate. Diolch yn fawr, Mr Williams.

Sitting suspended.

First Capital Connect (Hertford Loop)

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time, Dr McCrea. I am delighted to see so many colleagues here. I think that we have all linked up on the First Capital Connect line, which shows how integrated we are, and how integrated we would like our transport to be.

Many of us in this place often focus, understandably, on the important political policy shifts that often divide us, despite the fact that sometimes we have common goals and desired outcomes. Those political policy shifts understandably dominate the political agenda, and of course have a significant impact on our constituents, but although they may capture our imaginations and dominate most of our time, this debate is, I suggest, on one of the most pressing issues facing hard-working constituents who commute to work.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that a typical commuter from Gordon Hill in my constituency to Moorgate will spend approximately 230 hours a year on a First Capital Connect train, if all runs well.

If the trains are not running well, as is often the case, they will spend another 230 hours waiting for the train to arrive.

My hon. Friend anticipates me neatly. That 230 hours a year is equivalent to about 10 days—or, if we are more realistic, 20 daylight days—which, over a working life of 40 years, is a year spent on a train. A commuter from my constituency will pay £1,560 annually for the privilege. Is it any wonder that our constituents rightly consider it a major issue? After all, it is a question not of how much of their time is spent travelling to and from work, but of their quality of life. If the daily commute does not go well, it can affect the whole working day—our punctuality, our reputation at work and, let us face it, our mood and our whole working environment for the day.

The odds are not good of having a pleasant experience, even if punctuality is not an issue. At average peak times, commuters on most suburban lines face tired rolling stock with precarious heating systems or, in summer, carriages that feel like mobile greenhouses. They have a one in three, possibly a one in four, chance of getting a seat, yet they pay the same fare as their luckier neighbours. Often, to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), my constituents are undertaking only the first part of a two-part journey, as they will then embark on the tube.

That year of our lives spent commuting is probably, in reality, more like two, which is why the quality and reliability of our franchise operators, and Network Rail’s maintenance of, and investment in, infrastructure, is one of the big issues facing my constituents. That is reflected to me on Twitter and Facebook in characteristically blunt terms.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the brief put out by First Capital Connect, which is almost beyond parody. It includes 10 tweets from customers congratulating the rail service on its wonderful performance. I know that FCC has many fabulous staff members—Sue and Jim in the ticket office in Cuffley are two of the most fabulous public servants I know of—but frankly, my inbox for the past six months has been full of complaint after complaint about service that has been substandard too often, for too long.

My hon. Friend’s point would be well backed up if we added up the number of tweets that are, shall we say, less generous. In fairness—I will come to this later—FCC does at least try to confront some of the issues raised on Twitter during some peak times.

Let me set out for the Minister what the problem is, the responses from FCC and Network Rail, and my analysis and that of some of my constituents. I will not be able to cover all the issues, but I know that colleagues will mention problems common to all of us, and certainly to my constituents. I will conclude by sharing views on how the future franchise should secure commitments from operators, and why public satisfaction should be a consideration when awarding or extending franchises—a measure for which my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) was an early champion.

For clarity, what is the Hertford loop? It is a line that leaves the east coast main line at Langley South junction, just south of Stevenage—why it is called the Langley junction baffles me—and passes through the stations of Watton-at-Stone and Hertford North, represented here by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk); Cuffley, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne; Crews Hill, Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase in my constituency; and Grange Park, Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Bowes Park in the constituency of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). However, what is most significant in this debate and draws wider interest, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, is the fact that the Hertford loop is also a diversion route for the main line when necessary. Thereby hangs a tale.

Turning to the operational shortcomings, my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, and I have had considerable representations from constituents served by FCC; he will, I am sure, speak for his constituents and their experiences further down the line. There has been a severe and sudden drop in service levels, most noticeably since late August 2013. The situation remains unchanged. In particular, the pre- and post-Christmas periods proved utterly unacceptable. At that point, I pressed FCC for a meeting to represent my constituents’ views and to try to learn what plans were afoot to mitigate the operational failings. Unfortunately, it took until 6 January to get a meeting with FCC, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage and for Enfield, Southgate. I am pleased to say that Network Rail also attended.

My hon. Friend is making a strong case for his constituents. I understand from FCC that during the three-month period leading up to Christmas, on 83% of occasions, it did not meet its target for punctuality. He is someone with great experience in business. What would happen to him if he did not meet his core business target on 83% of occasions?

I would have faced the prospect of going out of business. My hon. Friend touches on accountability, which I will discuss. One cannot miss targets of such gravity and expect no consequences. In the case of business, it is quite likely that those consequences would be lasting and permanent.

After the meeting with FCC, the level of service degenerated to a point when on a particularly wet and windy day, constituents were faced with a choice between walking to Enfield Town station or, as some let me know, returning home to grab bicycles to get to work, because the prospect of the FCC service getting them there was nil. The Minister might appreciate the situation better if I record the fact that between 2 December and 21 December 2013, the following peak-time issues arose.

On 2 December, there was an 85-minute delay between Enfield Chase and Essex Road as a result of signalling problems. On 5 and 6 December—two consecutive days—tracks contaminated by leaves, which I accept is a serious problem, and signalling faults left the track unusable for considerable amounts of time during peak hours while FCC tried to clean the tracks. On 12 December, there were no trains whatever during the morning rush hour due to a power supply problem. The very next day, 13 December, urgent track repairs at Finsbury Park caused evening peak-time delays and cancellations, followed by late arrivals on 16 December.

On the very next day, 17 December, signal failure on the east coast main line resulted in diversions through the Hertford loop, resulting in cancelled trains for my constituents, period. That is when they resorted to bicycles. On 21 December, staff shortages meant that there were cancellations and delays, because with the Christmas holidays approaching, there was insufficient cover available to maintain the train service.

The passenger headline surveys show one story, but if we dig into the responses on commuter services in the Passenger Focus survey, they show that for punctuality and reliability the figure once peaked at 80% and then reached a new low of 58%, with a rise in autumn 2013 to 68%—still a one in three failure rate.

On top of all that, there is evidence of poor communication with passengers at a time when information is the most valuable currency to a commuter. One constituent summed up what many felt when he wrote to FCC after abandoning any attempts to get to central London:

“Another FCC communications disaster

I have just returned home after an abortive attempt to travel by train from Gordon Hill to central London. Apparently a signal failure had disrupted services, but why, oh why”,

he pleaded to First Capital Connect,

“is no information forthcoming? What I want to know is: why, in this age of technology, do the computerised departure boards on the platform state that trains are ‘on time’ when it is patently not the case?”

Can hon. Members think of anything more irritating as people are going to work? My constituent continues:

“Station staff have to resort to bits of paper sellotaped to the Oyster card reader to let people know that there are delays.

Why”,

he pleaded,

“do announcements over the public address system stating that the signal failure is ‘now fixed’ give no indication of when there might be a train?

Why was the booking office clerk, who was as frustrated as the would-be passengers, unable to obtain any service information despite numerous ’phone calls to the operations dept?”

One of the great frustrations at Cuffley is that the train timetable board will say that the train is delayed by two minutes, four minutes, six minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, back to 10 minutes, and then up to 14 minutes, and finally it will say that it is cancelled. It is absolute nonsense if the company cannot even indicate to passengers when their train will arrive, and how late it will be.

My hon. Friend strikes the right tone and makes a good point. Even in dire circumstances, passengers accept that things go wrong, but not knowing what is happening and what can be expected drives the frustration that they feel. Is it any wonder that the Passenger Focus survey reports said that only 43% were happy with how the company dealt with delays? That, incidentally, was an increase from a new low the previous year of 33%. It is not acceptable. Tragically—that is overstating it; poignantly, perhaps—the gentleman who wrote that e-mail of complaint is still waiting for a reply.

I hope that the record will show that the patience and good humour of my constituents was tested beyond all reasonable limits. As a regular commuter, I share their frustration, but I have the privilege of being able to come to the House to express that deep sense of frustration to both First Capital Connect and Network Rail on their behalf. I also promised many of them that I would share their experience with Ministers at the highest possible level.

What do these fare-paying passengers want? Above all, they want a service operator that is fit for purpose, that represents reliability and safety. Passengers do understand that problems arise and that sometimes delays and even cancellations are unavoidable, but delays and cancellations at this level and over a long and sustained period rightly prompt the question: are FCC and its parent company fit for purpose and deserving of a new franchise?

In fairness to FCC, in its letter to me of 24 January, it acknowledges the following:

“Over the past year the performance has dropped significantly and is far below what we aim to achieve for our customers on this route.”

FCC rightly points to the combined responsibility for the service failures between FCC and Network Rail, citing a split of 23% and 64% respectively. Other operators on the route are responsible for the remainder of the delays.

I am sure that my constituents will be pleased to learn the following:

“Major programmes of track, power supply, signalling and overhead line works are underway”

to address the majority of problems. In addition, extensive vegetation removal is taking place near the tracks to mitigate the effects of leaf falls and prevent them bringing the system to a halt again. However, passengers feel that there is a distinct lack of accountability to passengers for FCC. It accepts that it is accountable to passengers, but in its letter to me, it confuses accountability with communication of service difficulties, citing its Twitter service as an example of accountability. It is true that passengers are quick to let FCC know what they think of the service on social media, and in fairness I pay tribute to FCC’s Twitter team, who always seem responsive and provide information when they have it, but that is no replacement for accountability.

I am a free marketeer. I believe that my record will bear testimony to that and will stand scrutiny. I believe that choice lies at the heart of successful free market principles. My constituents’ belief that there is a lack of accountability for First Capital Connect’s service is underpinned by the lack of real choice in how to get to work, and their lack of real influence over, or say in, who should be awarded the franchise. Is it not time to introduce an obligation for passenger satisfaction to be included in any new franchise agreements, so that the passenger experience becomes a priority and not an afterthought?

I raised this issue in a debate back in 2011, and the then Transport Minister said that it was under consideration, so it would be interesting if this Minister was able to give us an update on what has happened in those two years.

I am hopeful that that is exactly the sort of point that we will be able to explore with the Minister in this debate.

Is it not fair that, as in any commercial arrangement, if standards fall during the lifetime of what will ultimately be a very long franchise, passenger power should allow a review of the franchise, with the possibility of notice being given if service levels fall to a predetermined unacceptable level? I have signed many contracts in a lifetime of business and I know fundamentally that all those contracts will survive only if we maintain the right level of service for the customer for whom we are fulfilling the contract. The length of a contract should never be seen as an opportunity to have a blank cheque, but the only way to ensure that is to introduce greater accountability.

In all this, where is the voice of the customer? The voice of the customer does not seem to register significantly on the train operator’s radar. That is why we are here today acting on behalf of—giving voice to—the customer.

My hon. Friend has been very generous. When a train is delayed at Cuffley, customers can fill out forms and get their money back. I think that is nonsense, because people are busy. What should happen is that if people have a season ticket or a monthly travelcard, when they renew it at the end of the month or the end of the year, they should receive a discount for the following month or the following year—perhaps a 5% or 10% discount. That is true accountability and recognition that the rail company is a service provider to our constituents.

My hon. Friend again makes a point brilliantly and superbly. Let us face it: technology should not bar that. I have often seen, much to my surprise, a refund on my Oyster card. I am often not sure why the Mayor of London is being so generous in giving me that money back, but I have seen it. It is a technology transfer; it works. With thousands of commuters travelling every day, the introduction of a system like that would, for the first time, truly represent the value of the considerable buying power that these passengers should have. It is interesting to note that on every pound spent by the fare-paying passenger, FCC sees a net return of 3%—a 3% net profit. That would not be unreasonable if service standards were maintained at the highest level. Fares have increased substantially, but customers are not benefiting from real choice. Let us at least give them real influence.

The question of accountability is not only one for FCC and its customers. What of the relationship between FCC and Network Rail, from which FCC purchases track access? That accounts for 48p in every pound that the customer spends. Network Rail does not have accountability to passengers, but it acts as a supplier to rail operating companies such as FCC. What compensation do operators receive from Network Rail for service failure, and if such an arrangement exists, what are the criteria for receiving such compensation, and how is it accounted for? If such an arrangement does not exist, surely it should. Without such a system, I suggest that there is no accountability—perhaps not even commercial accountability—between the provider and the customer. Why should not compensation be passed down to passengers through the excellent system that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has advocated?

Today has been about not politics but fairness to long-suffering commuters. The previous Government had a record of failing to invest in our local rail infrastructure, and we are having to catch up quickly. The patience of my constituents is being sorely tested, and notwithstanding the work that is taking place, I see no immediate relief to the problems that my constituents face this winter and spring. Will the Minister impress on FCC and Network Rail that the service must improve, and quickly? Will he respond to the idea, set out earlier in this Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, that new franchise agreements should include passenger satisfaction, so that passenger experience might finally become the priority?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) on securing this valuable debate on a subject that is incredibly important to our constituents.

The Hertford loop line effectively starts at Stevenage, a station with 4.2 million passenger movements a year on a line running through prime commuter belt. To put that in context, Leeds station has some 4 million passenger movements a year. We are talking about incredibly busy stations, and lines that deal with millions of people. My hon. Friend spoke of a day on which his constituents were forced to get on their bikes, which meant that tens of thousands of people had no way of getting to work.

Two train operating companies serve Stevenage: First Capital Connect and East Coast. Stevenage is the junction between the east coast main line and FCC services. One of the worst moments for a passenger is when they are told that they are being diverted via the Hertford loop line, because it adds 25 minutes to the journey. Everybody’s heart sinks, because they know that there will be a queue of East Coast trains in front of the FCC trains. In addition to the delay caused by the diversion, all those trains will arrive at Finsbury Park and King’s Cross at exactly the same time. This morning, for instance, there was a problem at Hitchin—the points failed, I believe—and I was delayed for about 35 minutes. When we got to King’s Cross, we all sat outside the station as East Coast trains came firing in and took all the berths. After passengers have been delayed for more than 30 minutes, they are entitled to receive compensation, and my constituents often wonder whether there is a conspiracy to give the long-distance trains priority so that the operating companies do not have to pay passengers large amounts of money.

Perhaps I can add to the sense of misery. My constituents stand in Hertford station and watch the trains that my hon. Friend is talking about sail past while their local trains have been cancelled. I understand the misery, and I would like to top it, if I may.

My hon. Friend is welcome to top the misery, because in the most recent Eureka timetable, I was lucky enough to secure an extra 58 East Coast train stops for Stevenage station, so my constituents are often the ones sailing past his. It is also interesting to see how my constituents use the Hertford loop. We often get a fast train at Stevenage, so that we do not have to go on the Hertford loop line, and then we change at Finsbury Park and continue on the Hertford loop line to Liverpool Street. My constituents often get off the train at Finsbury Park only to be told that there are problems, so they have to wait for the next east coast main line or FCC main line service to take them to King’s Cross, where they take the tube to Liverpool Street. That adds a huge amount of time, frustration, anger, bicycles—you name it—to my constituents’ journeys.

There is a real lack of communication. My hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) have said that some station staff do an amazing job of keeping constituents informed, but sometimes things simply collapse. When my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I attended a meeting with National Rail and FCC, I raised the issue of ticket inspectors. The fastest journey from Stevenage to King’s Cross takes 26 minutes, so a delay of 35 or 40 minutes is considerable.

The situation can often be terribly unfair on staff. For example, on the third day of delays to services, station staff still have to face angry commuters and bear the full brunt of their anger and frustration in as good a humour as possible. The higher-ups—the suits —remain squirreled away in the train company’s headquarters, rather than coming out to meet their disappointed customers. We need to see greater leadership from the directors of the company; they must not leave it to the poor staff to bear the brunt of commuters’ frustrations.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and my hon. Friends and I made the same point in the meeting that I have just mentioned. I was pleased that both companies apologised for the service that our constituents received and tried to explain some of the reasons for it. In fairness to FCC staff, many of them do a very good job. I understand that during the recent delays, some of the higher-ups went out to stations—they could not get to work either—and tried to placate customers. We need to see more of that. I often tweet about how good some of the FCC staff are on my journey to work.

One thing that particularly irritates my constituents is when their train is delayed and they ask the ticket inspector what is causing the delay, but the inspector—or payment protection officer, as they are called—does not know. That poor member of staff may get grief along the 12 carriages of the train as he checks tickets. That creates dysfunctionality and reduces the quality of the passenger experience a great deal. FCC needs to do a lot more work on getting information down to staff, to ensure that those on the front line can communicate with passengers.

I commute to Parliament every day, so I use the FCC service at all hours of the day. On a Monday evening, I am often using it at half-past 11, and if I see bus replacement services I begin to cry, because I know that that will add about two hours to my journey home. These issues affect a huge variety of people, including shift workers.

I do not want to be left out of this. I, too, travel in from Cuffley, which is down the line from Stevenage, and I share my hon. Friend’s frustration. Before we are too mean to our rail provider, however, let us remember that Network Rail is responsible for many of the delays. I do not think that Network Rail has been entirely up front in its communications with my constituents. I endorse the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) that Network Rail should pay some compensation to our rail companies, so that they in turn can compensate our constituents.

I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne and for Enfield North. I believe that Network Rail is responsible for about 67% of the delays on the line, while other train operating companies are responsible for some 9%, and FCC about 24%. That is right—they add up to 100%. It is important that Network Rail takes a huge amount of the responsibility.

I know about repayments from my own experience. I buy what is called a carnet that allows travel from Stevenage to King’s Cross via a variety of routes. I could be reimbursed for my journey today, but I will be perfectly honest: I cannot be bothered to fill in the paperwork on a daily basis. I know that thousands of people in Stevenage will not even bother to try to reclaim the cost for today from their season ticket, because it is pointless. It is a waste of a huge amount of energy and time; it would cost more than it is worth. Repayments should be automatic. During some of the worst of the winter storms, First Capital Connect said that tickets would be valid for use the following day. That was a great improvement for some in my constituency, but not for the majority who have season tickets.

The railway system is broken. The previous Government did not invest and co-ordinate in the way we would have hoped, but some problems that we have seen on the line are actually the result of new investment. We understand that one huge delay was the result of a new signalling system being installed and the circuit breaker burning out. The company is trying to improve the signalling system, which must be fully replaced in 18 months, but the amalgamation of the two systems is causing great problems. I raise that issue because the whole line is 40 years old and must be replaced completely in the next five years. One can imagine the horror felt by MPs and constituents who live along the line at the thought of what is coming down the track towards us, or possibly not coming down the track at all. There are huge concerns.

When I met Network Rail and First Capital Connect with my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate, and for Enfield North, we asked them what the root causes of the problems were. What really depressed the three of us was the simple fact that there did not seem to be a root cause. There was a variety of problems, one after the other. As they fixed one, they moved on to another. I do not want to bore Members too much, but on the Hertford loop line, they use class 313 carriages, which are old-fashioned London Underground and Overground carriages. As a result, the Hertford loop line is turned off of an evening. One morning, when they tried to turn the electricity on the line back on, it did not work. Perhaps someone had not paid the energy bill. No service was available on the line.

I would like to move on to some of the positives regarding First Capital Connect, because I feel that it is getting a bit of a kicking from Members, even though a lot of the problems—at least two thirds—are the responsibility of Network Rail and are due to how it integrates with First Capital Connect. During the First Capital Connect franchise, more trains have been stopping at Stevenage, so we have gained thousands more seats, many of which I have secured over my past two or three years as an MP. We have had huge improvements to bicycle racks, which have almost doubled in number. That is a big issue in Stevenage. We are the only town in the country with an integrated cycle network. Tens of thousands of us cycle everywhere in town. We have had the platforms resurfaced and we now have 12-carriage trains stopping at the town; the station is secure and we have better waiting rooms; and both the signage and the customer information system have improved.

In another transport debate earlier in this Parliament, I was very pleased to secure more than £578,000 from the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), so if the current Minister is listening, there are a number of things that I would like. That money is being used to upgrade the goods lifts to fully automated passenger lifts. The station has 4.2 million passenger movements, but it was built in the ’60s—we still do not have fully automated passenger lifts, and it is 2014. Thankfully, the work on that is now ongoing. First Capital Connect is doing a good job—its mobility teams help passengers with mobility difficulties up and down the stairs—but the lifts will be a lifeline for the disabled and the most vulnerable in our community. The station is also being refurbished, and bits of it will, I hope, open in the next few months.

There has been a huge range of improvements, but one of the main concerns of my constituents remains the simple fact that we pay only for our journeys. No matter how long the journey takes, the ticket does not entitle us to a seat on the train. It just entitles us to go from Stevenage to London, or to Hertford, Watton-at-Stone, Cuffley or Enfield. We pay for the journey only. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North said, it feels like there are very few ways in which constituents and passengers can get their points heard by the train operating companies because the franchises last for so long. The debate is opportune because the franchise is due for renewal in September this year. Like my hon. Friend, I would dearly love to see a Minister introduce to the franchise a passenger satisfaction obligation to ensure that passengers’ voices are heard, so that if there are problems, they can take direct action.

I am the chairman and co-founder of the Stevenage and Knebworth rail user group, which is why I know so much about class 365 and 313 carriages. I must add that that is not through choice, but because I have had to learn about what happens in our area. Only a week or so ago, First Capital Connect put 40 newly refurbished class 365 trains on our line. The trains are cleaner and have improved. There is a balance between the passenger experience and what happens going forward.

I am pleased to hear about the investment in carriages, but I feel it is worth making the point that the 313s that we use on the Hertford loop are not being replaced. It seems like we will always have to use them. We have tired rolling stock, so although I am pleased for my hon. Friend, I hope that he spares a thought for others.

I do spare a thought for my hon. Friend’s constituents. Many of my constituents travel to Hertford and use those carriages when they get to Finsbury Park and other places. The point I was trying to make is that there has been some progress. I think that First Capital Connect is doing a relatively sound job.

I promise that this will be my final intervention. As my hon. Friend knows, First Capital Connect is full of civilised, approachable people. That is why I am so disappointed that it has tolerated a failing train service for too long. Its people are better than that. I hope that this debate is a call to arms to our rail company to up its game and deliver to its potential.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Since just before Christmas, the service has become intolerable. Although it improves on some days, on others it does not. I would like First Capital Connect to see the meetings that we have had and this debate as a means of moving forward, getting to grips with Network Rail and delivering on some of the improvements that it has told Members it will deliver. The way to move the issue forward is to insert into the franchise a passenger satisfaction obligation. That would allow us all to hold train operating companies and Network Rail to account.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). He is a champion of both his constituents and commuters, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois). Enfield Chase, Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Bowes Park stations are all in my constituency. This debate is of particular concern to my constituents who, like me, travel along that line. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North said, our constituents spend thousands of pounds a year for, essentially, a poor service, although there are some exceptions.

I am not sure whether any of my constituents are present—I noticed that some members of the public arrived late—but if any of them had tried to attend this debate, they would have struggled to get here on time had they taken the trains at 11.3 am and 11.31 am. They would have been greeted by the news that there were delays of between 14 and 18 minutes at Enfield. They would have heard not only about delays, but that the train was no longer going to call at Enfield Chase, Grange Park, Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Bowes Park, owing to an earlier broken down train. Sadly, that is typical. There are not only delays, but complete cancellations. People’s travel plans are thrown into disarray by the fact that no trains will be stopping at certain times. Commuters in particular must get to work on time. When they pay out thousands of pounds, they have a basic expectation that they will reach their destination in a reasonable time. That does not happen too often.

Sadly, my constituents have had to get used to tolerating the intolerable in many ways—to the overcrowding and overheating of carriages, as well as the delays. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North carefully outlined, the past three months have been totally unacceptable. Passengers have been left literally stranded. They have had to take a bike or find some way to get a bus—when it arrives—to take them to tube stations. That is not straightforward; it is not a good, easy, efficient transfer. First Capital Connect must take much more immediate action to deal with problems when there is a good reason for things going wrong—for example, for reasons of safety.

We heard on Monday, sadly, that somebody had fallen on the line. Such things happen, and then there are delays. It is important that ameliorative action takes place, not least to give people proper transfers, so that they do not have to wait and find ways themselves—through getting a bike or by doing something else—to get a better service.

First Capital Connect, as we have heard, said in a letter that it is ultimately accountable to our constituents. Is it really? It hides behind saying that it is responsible for only about a quarter, or 24%, of delays—yes, some responsibility and accountability lies with Network Rail, particularly, and others—and it hides behind its specific contractual responsibility, saying that it is not responsible for overall performance. I say to the Minister that we must be able to do better than that when we consider the franchise agreement. It cannot simply compartmentalise its responsibilities and rely on its specific contractual delays, as it were.

The figure of 24% that I referred to covers the whole of the Great Northern line. We are not aware of the figure for the Hertford loop line; it may be much higher than that.

That is a very good point, and it has already been said that there are particular problems on the Hertford loop line. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to look at properly ingraining customer satisfaction in the franchise agreement.

First Capital Connect also relies on the national passenger survey, saying, on the question of how train companies deal with delays—again, this is across the line and not only for the Hertford loop; the figure for that may well be very different—“There is a 43% satisfaction rate; you should be pleased with that.” It boasts that there has been a 10% improvement on the previous year, and that the figure is 5% greater than the average for London and the south-east. I hope the Minister realises that those rates are not acceptable. Whether or not they are the average, and whether or not there has been a 10% improvement, our constituents, who pay thousands of pounds, have to put up with what the majority of passengers say is unsatisfactory. That is not acceptable.

When the franchise agreement is agreed, our expectations must be so much higher. In the private sector and elsewhere, that satisfaction rate would not be accepted. Those sectors would have to bring about serious changes to provide a better service, and we must see that happen. The Which? survey in 2013, based on historical data, found that First Capital Connect had the worst customer ratings of all operators. There is a long way to go to ensure proper customer satisfaction and confidence.

As I and others have said, statistics for the past three months show that 83% of trains did not meet their punctuality targets. First Capital Connect’s core business is to get passengers—our constituents—to their destination on time, and it is failing at that great rate. It talks about issues of accountability, but it is not truly accountable for failing to deliver that core part of its contract. We need to see how we can ensure that it does better. It is not good enough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North mentioned, to say, “We have improved the Twitter service; we have 50,000 followers.” I could refer to Facebook groups; some parody the name First Capital Connect, which suggests that a whole group of people on social media have different views.

There is an infrastructure issue and a recognition that Network Rail has a lot to answer for, and indeed there is now increased investment in the line. Reference has been made to the trains and tracks being 40 years old—looking at the ages of Members present today, I think we all recognise that when one gets to 40 and beyond, there are issues—and there are problems with leaves, storms and winds, and even when new circuits get burned out. The reality is that progress has been made. There has also been progress from First Capital Connect, with additional trains coming through at peak hours, and that has all been welcome. However, now is an opportune time to ensure that First Capital Connect, or whoever takes over, does a better job.

As First Capital Connect states, decisions about future rolling stock will be made as part of the franchising process. This is a really important opportunity for us to make it crystal clear to the Minister that getting future investment soon is key to delivering a better service to our long-suffering constituents. They are long-suffering, not least because a lot of maintenance has been going on. Every Sunday, ever since I can remember, Winchmore Hill and services to Moorgate have been shut down, with a replacement bus service—a big coach trundling along our roads. People have seen that there is investment, but they are impatient to see it result in actual service improvements. They are also impatient for the franchise agreement to deliver what we are all talking about, which is true and proper accountability, meaning an improved service and improved performance.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) not only on securing this timely debate, but on raising issues affecting hon. Members and hon. Friends from along the whole line. Clearly, the significance of the fact that every Member on the entire Hertford loop is present will be understood by the Minister.

Ever since last September, commuters using both Hertford North and Bayford stations have endured what can only be described as a third-rate service from First Capital Connect. Admittedly, during the same period, Greater Anglia has hardly covered itself in glory, but those on the Hertford loop have suffered the most. As we have heard, for more than four months, there have not simply been occasional problems, but daily delays and frequent cancellations. When customer information has been provided, as my hon. Friend accurately described, it has been inconsistent, confusing and very often wrong, leading to our constituents not getting to work, or not getting home.

We accept that last autumn the weather was appalling. I understand, as do my constituents, that the type of problems one has in a storm can be very destructive for a rail service, but we do not understand why First Capital Connect’s service was hit far worse and for far longer than the service on comparable lines; nor do we understand why, three or four months later, the problems have persisted through Christmas and into the new year, and apparently will go on for weeks to come. Many of my commuters have had to file claims for compensation—three to four a week at the moment—for the lengthy delays that they are enduring on almost every journey. Three to four claims a week is an appalling indictment of what is meant to be a service.

When things go wrong, what I discover from my constituents’ complaints is that, very often, however well-intentioned and genuinely motivated and hard-working the front-line staff are—which they are—the company’s contingency plans singularly fail to get people where they need to be, whether that is London for work or back home at Hertford or Bayford. As somebody put it to me, “We often feel with this service that we are simply being abandoned.” That demonstrates the strength of feeling on the issue.

I have to say to the Chamber and to my hon. Friends that this autumn’s problems are not unusual for the line. In 2009 and 2010, passengers from my constituency went through month after month of delays and cancellations. We were told, first of all, that it was because of the lack of drivers; that seemed to persist for several months. We then had my favourite, which was “the wrong kind of snow”—a novel explanation that the communications department would clearly have been proud of. We then had signalling failure at a certain point—it was never quite clear where that was, but it was always at some stage along the line. What it meant in reality was that for almost 12 consecutive months, we had a service that was, frankly, lamentable.

Much has rightly been made of punctuality and service. I looked at where the company lies among its competitors; that would be grounds for a reasonable judgment. The official statistics showed that in the year 2012-13—after the problems I have just described, when apparently things were settled—it achieved just 82.8% punctuality, when the industry average was up to 88%. One might reasonably assume that it would try to improve its game the following year and get ahead of that, but not at all. In fact, the following year it fell from that point down to 76%, which was among the worst in the entire rail sector.

What I described as a third-rate service is not new on this line. My constituents have endured it for years. One only has to look at the different passenger satisfaction surveys, rightly mentioned by my hon. Friends, to see where the root of the problem is. When one looks at surveys on punctuality, value for money, or overall satisfaction, time and again, First Capital Connect is rooted at the bottom of the list.

The point about passenger power and its inclusion in the franchise process is powerful. The Minister takes these matters seriously, and I know that he will want to talk about that today, and consider it when the franchise is let in the autumn.

First Capital Connect of course relies on Network Rail and has cited it as a regular cause of its failure. It is true that the state of the 40-year-old infrastructure on the loop is—let us be polite—below par. The condition of the tracks and other infrastructure has been the cause of many delays. There are frustrating comparisons to be made, because commuters are told that their line needs repairs, but other lines to the west, east and north have been repaired and are back in service. They wait day after day for their line to be repaired. I will try to find out in the next few weeks from Network Rail why the rail lines and other infrastructure on the Hertford loop continually fail. That is a particular issue in comparison with the main line. Does Network Rail not maintain the loop to the same standard as the main line? If not, why not? That raises an interesting safety question for the Minister.

Another area of concern for my constituents has been raised by several hon. Members. I hear many complaints not just about delays and cancellations, but about the state of the rolling stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) pointed out that the carriages in question go back to the 1970s. I am not as expert on carriage numbers as he is; I bow to his knowledge on that. The carriages can only be described—again, I am using the sort of polite language that seems not to appear in the social media—as not fit for purpose. They are ageing and increasingly dilapidated. They boil in the summer and are unheated in the winter.

Clearly, my hon. Friend has aged better than the carriages, he said carefully, tiptoeing away. The carriages seem to be in need of replacement; I shall take things no further than that, given the age comparison that has been alluded to.

In 2011 there was some hope among the passengers on the loop in my constituency that First Capital Connect could be replaced as the franchise neared its end. However, the contract was renewed, and we were told that that was necessary to allow Thameslink investment to proceed. I want to make it clear that I agree about the need for that investment, but we on the Hertford loop do not benefit from it—either from the main line improvement or the new rolling stock. Those to our west and to the north will benefit, certainly, but those on the loop will not.

That underscores a theme that has emerged in the debate—a wider concern about the Hertford loop and the way in which the rail sector and policy makers regard it. All too often, it seems that the service on the Hertford loop is just an afterthought for the railway sector. Thus, when there are problems on the main line, inter-city trains are redirected along the loop and our local trains are cancelled. If there is congestion, the Hertford service is told to wait. As to rolling stock, we find that it is provided for the main line but not for us.

Commuters in my constituency feel that they have been neglected by the rail service for which they pay: by First Capital Connect, certainly by Network Rail, and by a national strategy that seems routinely to put inter-city and long-distance passengers’ needs ahead of theirs. We understand the need for balance, but commuters find it difficult to accept its being continually tilted against them. That is why I want to tell the Minister that we are not satisfied with First Capital Connect’s service; I could not support the extension of its franchise without radical changes, and I am doubtful that those can be achieved.

We are not happy with Network Rail’s performance, either. The Minister will know, because he studies such matters closely, how bad the service delays on the loop have been. I want his assurance, if he can give it today, that he will challenge Network Rail’s senior management on the issue. I intend to do so, but the Minister will know how important it is for them to hear it from him. Lastly, it is very important that he should explain that passengers on the loop should not be treated as secondary to those who travel on the main line.

In particular—this is perhaps the most tangible thing from the point of view of my constituents—a vital principle in future franchise negotiations should be the sharing of new rolling stock for the benefit of all passengers on the main line and the loop. There are different ways to do that. It would not mean that everyone would get an equal share, but all passengers should feel that they benefit from the changes in part, and are not excluded simply because they are served by only part of the franchisee’s overall business. That is an important principle, which can and should be knitted into the franchise arrangements for the coming period, in the autumn and afterwards. I should like the Minister’s response to it, and I hope he will support it. I look forward to his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) on securing this important debate. Many of the concerns that he raised—overcrowded, uncomfortable trains, frequent cancellations and inadequate customer services—will be familiar to commuters throughout the country, but there are clearly particular challenges on the Hertford loop line. I listened carefully to the examples that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members gave of recent disruption on the line. Passengers undoubtedly expect better, and it is clear that action by Network Rail and First Capital Connect is needed.

Network Rail is responsible for maintaining and improving the line, but train operators also have an important role in managing disruption, providing public information and passing compensation on to passengers. Today’s debate has raised concerns over how well that relationship functions. Several hon. Members have highlighted the vital importance of the way in which operators deal with delays, especially when infrastructure leads to unavoidable disruption. The disruption on the line has affected passengers acutely, because by London standards people in the borough of Enfield are unusually dependent on national rail services. The unacceptable performances of recent months have thrown the quality of those services into sharp focus, and we can all understand commuters’ anger at the frequent disruption, especially against a backdrop of rising fares.

Regulated fares have risen by 20% since the election, and there have been much higher rises in some unregulated fares, but commuters on the First Capital Connect franchise have had to endure some of the worst punctuality figures in the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, passengers report some of the lowest satisfaction rates. Between 8 December and 4 January just 74% of trains on the Great Northern routes arrived on time. The hon. Member for Enfield North highlighted periods of even lower punctuality. That is not to underestimate the challenges that Network Rail and operators face in running busy London commuter services, or the pressures on the local infrastructure and the rolling stock, some of which, as has been mentioned, is decades old; but as hon. Members have made clear today, passengers have, over the past three months in particular, had to endure an unacceptable standard of service.

Given the level of investment that is due to go into the part of the commuter network in question, it is easy to understand why the Government have opted for a management-style contract for the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. However, that means that Ministers must take a greater degree of responsibility. Perhaps the Minister will outline how he expects that new approach to contracting to work in practice. How will the reclassification of Network Rail affect things? Will the reclassification make it possible to get more co-ordination between the infrastructure manager and passenger operators with a management-style contract? There are opportunities to deliver more frequent or otherwise improved timetables as part of the new franchise; that will be made possible by the infrastructure improvements.

A peculiar feature of the line is the southbound destination: most services terminate at Moorgate during the week, but there are exceptions, such as evening and very early trains, which are diverted to King’s Cross.

I hope that the Minister acknowledges that there are issues that will not be resolved by the franchising process, including the rolling stock used on the line. The hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) mentioned the class 313s, which are among the oldest trains still in regular commercial use. If they are still in use when the new contract ends in 2021, some of those units will be 45 years old. I understand that there are particular challenges, as trains on that route have to operate with both overhead and third rail electrification systems, but even in the light of that restraint we need to know what the Department is planning for the future. What assessment has the Minister made of the long-term viability of these trains?

It would also be good to have the Minister’s comments on the record about the long-term management of the lines. The West Anglia lines, including the route to Enfield Town, mentioned earlier, are due to transfer from the Greater Anglia franchise next year. I am sure that passengers hope that London Overground will deliver the same benefits it brought to other areas that were previously managed by Silverlink, namely investment in the trains, improvements to stations and increased staff presence. That approach has resulted in much improved passenger satisfaction, delivered integration with other Transport for London services and increased revenue.

The Campaign for Better Transport has said that passenger services have

“improved significantly since the previous arrangements”

and station standards have

“sharply improved…from the Silverlink days.”

Even the most significant customer service improvement in recent years—the introduction of Oyster cards on suburban rail routes—was driven by Transport for London, although rail operators have been the main beneficiary of the additional revenue that has been generated.

Transport for London previously expressed an interest in running the Hertford loop line, which in theory could happen when the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise expires in 2021. Given the success of London Overground, any such proposals deserve to be taken seriously. What discussions has the Minister had with TfL on the possibility of any future devolution of the Hertford loop line, either in whole or in part? Although that is a long-term question, which will surely be revisited, the point it underlines is that there are alternative models for operating services, which we should consider.

As the Member for Hertford and Stortford, I caution the hon. Lady slightly. I wonder whether she is aware that there is a danger that services could be improved for those within the M25, with money being spent on carriages there, not for my constituents. Does she agree that, where improvements are made and provision is offered, all the passengers along that line should benefit, not just some?

I agree that that danger could present itself, if there is devolution of only part of the route. It is important that we understand whether the Minister is considering devolution and, if so, how protection would be put in place in respect of such issues. I understand why the hon. Gentleman expresses concerns on behalf of his constituents.

The Hertford loop is a branch of the east coast main line. Of course, hon. Members’ constituents have the option of catching a direct train to Stevenage, unless they are already there, where they can change on to InterCity East Coast services. As a key transport artery, we have to look at the east coast main line’s inter-city services and how they relate to First Capital Connect’s commuter provision, just as we look at improvements to the Hertford loop in the context of the wider Thameslink programme. In recent years, the quality gap between inter-city and commuter services on the east coast main line has widened, but instead of concentrating on bringing the local trains up to standard, the Government are committed to abolishing the successful long-distance operator.

East Coast has gone from strength to strength since the last private operator failed in 2009. Record passenger satisfaction and punctuality ratings have been achieved and all profits are reinvested in the service. However, if the Government’s privatisation goes ahead, that money would be split with shareholders instead. By the time the Government expect the new franchise to start, almost £1 billion will have been returned to the Treasury in premium payments.

This year, East Coast has raised fares by an average of 1.2%, a real-terms cut, at a time when commuters across the country are having to budget for fare rises of more than double the rate of inflation. This decision was a welcome relief for passengers up and down the line, including those who change on to East Coast services from north London and Hertfordshire, but it underlined the absurdity of the Government’s drive towards privatisation, which seems born out of a desire to end this successful alternative to franchising before the election. It certainly does not seem to relate to the passenger power that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford wants.

It is nonsense that the current successful operator has been barred from bidding for ideological reasons, but Eurostar East Coast, which is ultimately owned by the French and British Governments, has been shortlisted. The refranchising budget runs to £6 million. In the light of today’s discussions, it is disgraceful that Ministers are wasting Government time and taxpayers’ money on this unneeded, unwanted and wasteful privatisation, instead of getting to grips with the cost of living crisis and addressing problems on routes such as the Hertford loop.

Is the hon. Lady considering taking other services back into the public sector when the franchises run out, should her party win the next election?

The Minister is aware that we are committed to maintaining East Coast as a public sector comparator, if we are in a position to do that, if he has not already privatised it. Certainly, given the amount of taxpayer and fare-payer money going into our rail system, we are right to be open-minded about considering possible rail reform, in the interests of passengers and taxpayers.

Investment in the Hertford loop line must lead to improved services in the short term and long-term strategic questions need to be dealt with, including about the trains used on the line. I urge the Minister to concentrate on securing those improvements, on this line and on other commuter lines, instead of pursuing a costly and wasteful privatisation that will not benefit passengers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and congratulate him on securing this debate on an important subject, not only for his constituents in north London, but for rail passengers throughout the country.

I have to say that I feel rather guilty, because although I travel down from Yorkshire as a weekly commuter I suspect that I have had fewer problems in the past year than some commuters from north London, and further afield, experienced during just one week before Christmas. Although some of that could be down to the St Jude’s storm and other inclement weather, and the need to clear tracks of fallen trees before services could resume, I appreciate that the service has, on many occasions, fallen below the standard that people would expect. I am very much in the picture, having heard a number of contributions on this subject. I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who deals with rail franchise policy, is also in the picture, and that Network Rail and First Capital Connect are aware of what has been said during this debate.

It is clear that if we are to continue the strong growth in rail travel over recent years, passengers must be confident that the service that they receive is reliable, quick and comfortable. That is why this Government have invested billions of pounds in railway infrastructure improvements during this Parliament and have set out their plans to continue doing so in the years to come.

My hon. Friend mentioned specifically the services provided by First Capital Connect in his constituency. As one would expect, the Department monitors rail performance closely. I should like to spend a moment providing a little more detail on some of the recent performance trends. I will also explain some of the issues involved, but I stress that it is not my job to make excuses on behalf of the operator; my job is to understand why things go wrong and what can be done to alleviate problems.

The key headline indicator for rail performance is the public performance measure, which measures the percentage of services that arrive on time. Data from the start of the financial year up to 4 January, the most recent period for which data are available, show a total PPM score for the Great Northern route, of which the Hertford loop is a part, of 85.16%. That is 6.07 percentage points short of the target agreed by the operator and Network Rail. My hon. Friend has already alluded to the inconvenience that that has caused to his constituents and to other passengers on the line. Only about a fifth of the total delay minutes over the year to date are attributable to a fault of the train operator. Some three quarters of all such delays were the responsibility of Network Rail, with the remainder being attributable to the knock-on effect of actions by other operators on the network.

My officials regularly discuss performance with First Capital Connect, and I am reassured that a number of key measures are in hand to ensure that the situation improves over the coming months. The two main causes of delays within the operator’s control are issues with drivers and issues with the train fleet. On the former, regular passengers will be aware that there have been some isolated cancellations due to train crew. Passengers will naturally be frustrated by those cancellations, which have occurred for a number of reasons. Passengers should, however, also note that First Capital Connect has been steadily recruiting and training new drivers across a number of key routes. The latest cohort of drivers will be out on the network, ready to drive trains, from this month. That rolling programme of recruitment and training will continue for the remainder of the franchise and beyond.

The level of delays on the First Capital Connect network due to fleet-related problems has also been increasing, despite expected improvements over the course of this year. We have challenged First Capital Connect on that matter, too, and we are aware that First Capital Connect has considered ways to improve its response to incidents, thereby reducing the level of delays that result from problems with the train fleet.

I have mentioned that the majority of delays on the Great Northern route over the year to date have been attributed to Network Rail. Such delays, however, include significant and, to a large extent, unavoidable delays due to the severe weather over recent months. The St Jude’s day storm, for example, caused widespread disruption, as did severe weather just before Christmas and since. In such severe weather it is inevitable that some disruption will occur. On a number of occasions, Network Rail has been forced to order the suspension of rail services until full route inspections have taken place, which has caused major disruptions.

The Minister is right to point to the weather, which played a significant part, but I remind him that the incidents raised today are also related to infrastructure. There have been signal failures and power failures with Network Rail, as well as operating issues with First Capital Connect.

I am well aware of those issues, and the weather was only one part of it. Coupled with the other problems to which my hon. Friend alludes, weather was probably in some cases the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused annoyance and anger among passengers. When we have such weather situations, safety must remain the highest priority, and it is in no small part due to Network Rail’s performance on safety that the UK now has one of the safest, if not the safest, railways in Europe.

Will the Minister respond to the point made so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk)? Why did our line seem to perform so much worse as a result of the storms? Yes, storms happened across the line, but the Hertford loop seemed to come off worst.

I was involved in conference calls following the St Jude’s day storm, and the main issue was fallen trees. A decision was taken that, before services could commence, proving trains would be put through the routes so that large numbers of commuters were not stranded, possibly with trains backed up on the line behind a number of fallen trees. Where the embankments or the margins of a rail line are wooded, there are likely to be more fallen trees on the line. That was a particular problem north of London and in the south-east during the St Jude’s day storm. From a safety perspective, the right decision was taken. I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Transport stating that, before trains carrying commuters could use a line, proving trains ran to ensure that the lines were clear so that the trains could reach their destination.

On the Hertford loop, the safety issue was not so much fallen trees as compacted leaves. The equipment necessary to unpack those leaves took a long time to get down the lines. The delays getting to us to ensure the safety of the line was a particular operational issue, and I understand that that problem has been repeated over the years. As we see continued poor weather coming down the line, as it were, we need to ensure that the problem is not repeated.

I am aware that “leaves on the line” has become a standing joke, but it is no joke for those affected. I will ensure that Network Rail considers its strategy for ensuring that such situations can be addressed.

I realise that the Minister cannot chase every element of every line, but there is a clear differential in the standard to which the loop is administered by Network Rail. It would be helpful if he could confirm that he will take that point away, challenge Network Rail’s management and come back to us in writing in due course on the standard to which the Hertford loop is kept. Is that standard directly comparable to the main line? If so, why have we found our delays to be longer? There is a clear difference either in the way Network Rail responds to the loop or in the standard of the loop in the first place.

Network Rail’s performance on the route has not been a glorious success. In fact, it has been among the worst in the country, and it is vital that Network Rail’s performance improves. It has been highlighted, for example, that vegetation management has been an issue on the Great Northern route. Although “leaves on the line” has become the stuff of satire, the fact is that autumn brings significant challenges for train operators, particularly in respect of the adhesion between train and track, which in some cases results in increased journey times and knock-on delays for passengers.

Perhaps we could move forward with the franchises. Will the Minister consider publishing delays and timetables separately for the Great Northern route so that we can see how the delays on the Hertford loop compare with delays on the main line? There is a suspicion among hon. Members that the main line gets cleared first.

I will see whether that information is available. If my hon. Friend tables a written question, he will probably get an answer more quickly than if he writes me a letter. Written questions seem to be an effective way to get officials to work as quickly as they can.

We have already told First Capital Connect that it must continue to challenge Network Rail to improve its performance on the line, and we are seeing some positive signs, including better plans for clearing trackside vegetation and for reducing minor defects in overhead line equipment. Network Rail has also started a programme of measures to reduce fatalities at stations. I welcome the programme, and I am aware that Network Rail has looked in some depth at how those tragic incidents can be reduced. Not only are fatalities still a significant cause of delays on the network, but of course each and every incident is a tragedy for the families of those involved.

First Capital Connect’s franchise agreement, as with all franchise agreements, contains benchmark measures. It should be stressed that although passengers have seen some significant delays, particularly in the recent extreme weather, the operator’s overall performance is well within its contractual requirements, which are measured as moving annual averages. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, and we will be quick to act in the event of any breach of the operator’s contract.

What discussions has the Minister had with First Capital Connect on how it deals with delays? The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said that delays are often unavoidable, such as in periods of inclement weather, but it is how the operator deals with those delays and informs passengers of the cause and of how long the delay will last that causes the most inconvenience and upset.

The hon. Lady is right. One of the problems, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), is with the information provided to passengers. We have discussed inaccurate information on the live update boards with First Capital Connect, and my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and for Enfield North, who also mentioned the problem, may be interested to know that First Capital Connect is already considering the implementation of a live countdown system at a number of stations. Although I cannot promise that the system will be installed at every station for the time being, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

This month Passenger Focus, the statutory representative body for rail passengers, published the autumn results of its national passenger survey, which contained some positive signals for First Capital Connect passengers, so it is not all bad news. For example, First Capital Connect showed an annual 10% increase in satisfaction with the way it deals with delays and a 5% increase in satisfaction with the helpfulness of staff. Good results were also seen in improvements to the train and station environment; passengers report that trains and stations are cleaner and better maintained.

The heart of the problem is that, notwithstanding the fact that the operator improved by 10% from a very low, appalling 33% to 43%, if the data are not available and there is no scope within the contract to drill down to key lines and commuter routes, the chances are that a franchise operator will always hit his target, but there will always be a poor relation, and in this case that is our constituents.

I am not saying that everything in the garden is beautiful. I am saying that there are a few more blooms around this year than in the past. The pressure is now on First Capital Connect to improve performance on punctuality and reliability, in which the survey showed an annual decline.

As my hon. Friend will know, we are planning to re-let the franchise in September, and the Department is currently assessing bids from several operators and looking at their plans for the future. I am sure he will understand that I cannot say more about the details of those bids at the moment, but I assure him that the new franchise will contain a regime of financial penalties and rewards to improve passenger satisfaction.

The extent to which bidders meet or exceed the Department’s requirement to improve the quality of services and to increase customer satisfaction will form an important part of the evaluation of bids, as my hon. Friend suggested. The winning bidder will be required to publish a regular customer report, setting out how it is engaging with passengers and taking account of their views, and how it is meeting its commitments and targets. It will also have to monitor and publish its performance against a new passenger experience metric, which combines a national passenger survey of satisfaction run by Passenger Focus, an independent body, and an objective assessment of service quality. We will, of course, make further announcements in due course.

If my hon. Friend is interested, extensive information on the new TSGN franchise is available publicly on the gov.uk website and includes the draft franchise agreement and the invitation to tender. Between them, those two documents set out the Department’s detailed expectations of all bidders hoping to be the next operator of train services in my hon. Friend’s constituency. In particular, they provide a full explanation of how the operator will be challenged to improve services throughout the entire spectrum of passenger experience, and detail how it will be rewarded if it exceeds passenger expectations, or held to account if it falls short. They also explain how the operator will be measured against the targets, including by reference to the national passenger survey independently undertaken by Passenger Focus.

On compensation for passengers, Network Rail pays compensation under schedule 8 of its track access agreement to train operating companies for unscheduled delays. A proportion of that will find its way to passengers via delay repayment refunds, but I accept that it is sometimes a hassle to fill in the paperwork and get the refund.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North praising some of First Capital Connect’s front-line staff. I hope that passengers will take advantage of its facility to nominate staff who go an extra mile for passengers.

I want to take the Minister back to the new franchise, which is a management-style contract. How will he ensure, or what action has he taken to ensure, that there is better integration between Network Rail and the successful operator under the new contract? I am thinking of experience elsewhere, such as the alliance with South West Trains.

There is often criticism of such franchises and questions are asked about what incentive there is for the operators to provide a decent quality of service as they do not keep the revenue. We are very mindful of that.

The winning bidder’s performance in key areas will be subject to a performance regime with financial incentives and penalties used to drive the quality of service, protect passengers’ interests and, therefore, increase revenue. The winning bidder will focus on reducing delays, cancellations and short trains and improving customers’ experience of the railways in the franchise area, not just on minimising costs.

The Minister is being generous in giving way and I am conscious of time. Will he tell us now or write to us later to say whether Network Rail pays compensation to operators if it has let them down, and should there be scope to pass that on to passengers?

I will write to my hon. Friend about that. When a train breaks down, for example, it may cause delays for other services. It is not always Network Rail’s fault when such a problem happens.

Questions were asked about rolling stock, some of which is 37 years old. Decisions on the rolling stock in the new TSGN franchise are for the bidders, and we do not intend to mandate them. However, the strict service standards that operators will be held to should help to drive up services for passengers. We will be interested to see the bids that come forward.

Will that mean that all passengers should benefit? Is that the expectation of Ministers, even if it will not be the same degree of benefit? And will it mean that no classification—for example, those on the Hertford loop—will be excluded from enjoying new carriages when that is happening on the main line? That is an important principle that Ministers can establish.

The decisions on rolling stock are a matter for the bidders, but I am sure that when the Government look at the bids, the points that have been made in this debate will be at the forefront of their mind when considering the quality of service and ensuring best value for taxpayers.

In conclusion, we are aware of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North has raised, and I assure him that we will maintain pressure on the operator and Network Rail to improve their performance on this important commuter route. There are signs of improvement, notwithstanding the recent severe weather problems, and we will watch the situation closely to ensure that those improvements are built on in the existing franchise and the next. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.

Kings Science Academy (Bradford)

It is good to be here before you, Dr McCrea, and the Minister. I initiated this debate and I was lucky to secure it, so it is only fair that I should be able to say what its focus is. It is important to say that because it is not about free schools and academies in general. We have had such debates, so it is not for or against such schools, but about one particular school: Kings science academy. I am not interested in what has been done in the last year or so to improve things at the school or the achievement of pupils, the quality of teaching, the behaviour of pupils, or the leadership and management. I am passionately interested in all those things because I care about Bradford, but that is not what this debate is about.

I am interested in what seems to be the collusion between the so-called benefactor, Alan Lewis, the currently suspended principal, and the Department for Education. I am interested in the DFE’s role in allowing a rich Tory vice-chair to become even richer to the tune of millions of pounds of public money, and how it allowed an inexperienced young man to become principal of the school and to remain in control long after the DFE knew he had admitted that fraud had occurred in his school. How could that be?

I would like the Minister to prove me wrong in what I believe has occurred and the preferential, favourable treatment received by Mr Lewis by ending the speculation and making public the options, analysis and appraisals of nine alternative sites. If they were available, we could see whether there was a rigorous process in place.

I also want to see the evidence that the near £300,000 per year rent is not far in excess of what Mr Lewis could reasonably have expected to get from the partially tenanted and largely derelict site—I have given the Minister three photographs from before it was developed, and I can give more. What evidence is there that Mr Lewis has not made excessive profits from the school that now stands on that site? The Minister has the pictures before him. I believe that the school was only ever going to be built on that particular site—neither the principal nor, certainly, Alan Lewis would have been interested had it been anywhere else. Prove me wrong, please, but the DFE failed in its duty to ensure that a fair and robust options appraisal took place, and I have evidence to suggest that it did not take place.

As for the personal involvement of Mr Lewis in the running of the school, there is this big debate about “was he or wasn’t he” chair of the governors. How on earth can the DFE have mistakenly believed that a vice-chair of the Conservative party was chairman of governors at a free school for 12 months? How can the Department have been confused about that? I had a letter from Mr Lewis as recently as December 2013, signed by himself, in which he states:

“I was never chair of the governing body of the academy.”

Yet I have a copy of an e-mail to the Department, which has been amended by Mr Lewis to show him as chair of the governing body and not simply as someone involved in some way in the school.

I also have evidence that Mr Lewis was involved in the financial management of the school. In the same letter from him, however, he states that

“at no time have I ever had responsibility for the financial management of the academy.”

Yet I have a letter from the DFE in which the financial arrangements of the school have Mr Lewis not only as one of many involved, but as the person who should receive financial reports. He was the key individual who was receiving the reports, even though, to repeat his own words:

“at no time have I ever had responsibility for the financial management of the academy.”

The e-mail clearly shows, set out as an action point, that the monthly financial reports were to be given directly to him.

The truth is that Mr Lewis was personally and heavily involved in the school, right from the very beginning, but he now wants to distance himself from any involvement during a period in which he knows that fraud took place. Moreover, at the same time, negotiations were taking place about the rent for the property that he owned.

A second point, on the principal, involves the internal audit investigation team report endorsing the findings of the earlier Education Funding Agency report and of the report by the accountants, Crowe Clark Whitehill, in August 2012. Will the Minister please tell me whether the CCW report was seen by the DFE? I have to tell him that I think it was, but I want some evidence that it was and for when it was seen. The IAIT report states that the principal admitted that fabrication of invoices had taken place, so even if the DFE did not see the CCW report in August of 2012, at the very least it must have known about it from the audit team at the beginning of 2013. The DFE knew about the fraud, which had been admitted by the principal, but it took no action whatever to remove him from the school.

The Secretary of State said to me during a recent exchange in the main Chamber that

“Mr Lewis is receiving for the property an appropriately guaranteed market rent—less than he was receiving for it beforehand.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 16.]

One of the architects involved in preparing the free school bid has said to me that he finds that statement is a

“very difficult to believe” Statement.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

We need clear evidence, because we are now receiving at best evasive responses to the questions that many of us have been asking. At worst, hiding behind the ongoing police inquiry, we have received no response whatever. To be honest, the evasiveness of some of the responses has been disrespectful to Members of this House. We need answers—all the speculation can then disappear.

We know how serious things were in the school, and that the audit reports identify not only the fraud, but all the nepotism and other financial irregularities that were taking place. I repeat that all of that was known by the DFE, but no action was taken at all. We are not talking about a young and inexperienced man, but about a dishonest and disreputable character, and yet, with all that information, the DFE was content to let the principal remain in place.

I hope that the Minister can prove me wrong, because I have a number of serious allegations about the DFE itself. If I am right, the independence of the civil service must be in doubt. Will the Minister please put to bed some of the suspicion about the DFE by helping us? The Department has failed in its public duty to expose what it knew to be malpractice and criminal activity—it held information back and covered up the situation. We cannot have the freedom extended to free schools including freedom from public accountability.

On the reporting of an admitted crime to the police, I am still not satisfied. We have asked oodles of questions, but I am still not satisfied that the DFE acted as it should have. There will always be suspicion of a cover-up until the Minister carries out a full investigation into what happened.

The first phase of the launch of the Kings school was praised by the Prime Minister and described in the press as closest to David Cameron’s vision of what a free school should be. We know the background, but when the whole scandal broke, the DFE said that it was for the school itself to decide whether the issue was a disciplinary one. How on earth can an organisation highlighted in an audit report as responsible be the organisation responsible for looking at itself and dealing with its own disciplinary issues? It beggars belief. A Government audit uncovers misconduct so serious that it needs to be passed to the police for criminal investigation, and yet the DFE feels that it is for the school itself to decide whether the issue is a disciplinary one.

When at last the Department decided that matters could not be contained within the school, it finally referred it to Action Fraud. We are asked to believe that Action Fraud botched up the recording of the fraud on 25 April. Even if we believed that to be true, we know that the DFE then did nothing about ensuring that a crime was investigated until 5 September, when it sent an exploratory e-mail to ask what was going on.

On 5 September, the DFE knew that its April report had been erroneously recorded as an information report. It was told by Action Fraud:

“If more information related to your report becomes available your report will be re-assessed to determine its viability for investigation.”

The Department knew that on 5 September, but did nothing. Why was the audit report not sent directly to the police at that time?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the work he has been doing on this case, which has affected the credibility of some of the free schools in Bradford—notwithstanding the fact that there are some good ones. We had to get the information about when the police were informed from the police themselves, not from the DFE. We were asking questions, either written questions or questions on the Floor of the House, to try to get answers, yet answers we got none—except when we contacted the police.

When we asked the police in e-mails what they had received, they said that they had received nothing. Despite what the DFE said, they did not receive the reports.

As for the questions we have been asking, there are simply too many discrepancies between the answers to parliamentary questions and the other evidence available to us. The Department made its original report on 25 April 2013: that is when the matter was reported—so we are told—to Action Fraud. Let us not forget that that is eight months after the CCW report. If the DFE had seen that report at that point, why was it not made public?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, but I congratulate him more on the excellent forensic speech that he is making. The more he speaks, the more I am bound to ask whether he agrees that it is already obvious that the nub of this question is that Alan Lewis is a very senior member of the Conservative party, and so for party political reasons the Secretary of State for Education simply could not come clean on this matter with the people of Bradford and with the Members of this House.

That is an excellent point. We have to ask why. There must have been a justification for the cover-up. It can be one of only two things. It is either because free schools are such a flagship policy for the Conservative party that it could not afford the embarrassment or because of Alan Lewis’s involvement and his association with the Tory party. If there are any other reasons, I cannot think of them.

I will make the point again about deception—I cannot use any other word, really. As I said, the Department’s original report was made on 25 April 2013, a long time after it knew about the matter. We are told that Action Fraud inadvertently logged the report as an information-only report, and subsequently apologised for that error. But how did that occur? If, as the Department claimed, information on fabricated invoices was submitted to the National Fraud Investigation Bureau, how could that be? Unless there was just a passing reference in a short telephone call, it is hard to believe that the correct message could not have got through. How could it have been logged as an information-only report if the audit report had been made available? In that case, the reaction could have been nothing other than a decision that the matter required a criminal investigation and needed to be dealt with quickly.

The Minister must be interested to learn the answer to those questions himself. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Department said:

“Action Fraud notified the Department on 1 November”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 98W.]

Action Fraud notified the Department of its mistake in classifying the report on 1 November, but—as we know thanks to a freedom of information request by John Roberts—on 5 September the Department had received a communication from Action Fraud saying:

“Thank you for your email to Action Fraud concerning your Information Report.”

That was received seven weeks before the Department says it was notified that the report had been wrongly classified as an information-only report. In those seven weeks, it did nothing.

In a parliamentary answer, the Department said that it had contacted Action Fraud on 5 September and

“in response Action Fraud stated that the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau had assessed the case but determined that there was not enough information to progress the case further.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 229W.]

End of story, it seems—the police had looked at the matter and there was nothing to do. But the truth is that the e-mail from Action Fraud to the Department on 5 September told the DFE not only that the report had been wrongly classified as an information-only report, but that more information would lead to the report being

“re-assessed to determine its viability for investigation.”

Even if we believe that it was through some error back in April that the report was inadvertently misclassified, on 5 September the Department was told not only that it was a report that could lead to an investigation—something it claimed subsequently to have been told on 1 November—but that if it gave additional information the matter could be turned into a crime investigation.

Of the three parties to this situation I have mentioned, who do I blame most? Is it a businessman who wants to make a lot of money and sees a quick opportunity provided by a political party with which he is closely associated? Is it a young man who is, I think, idealistic but is also egotistical, and is led on by politicians and senior civil servants to believe that for him the normal rules of integrity, honesty and propriety simply do not have to apply? Or is it the Department for Education, which became a Government agent of change and forgot that the basic rules of public accountability and scrutiny in the spending of millions of pounds of public money must always take precedence over the desire to support its political masters?

The real surprise is not that, eventually and thankfully, we have been made aware of what has happened via the whistleblowers, but that there were not more whistleblowers earlier—people within the Department, who were looking at what was going on and saying, “This is just not right.” That is the real problem. I have been to the Department recently and seen the whole floor that has been taken over by the academies and free school organisation within the DFE. The massive shift that has taken place has also, I believe, brought about a cultural change in the Department. The policy has become such an important driver and part of the Government’s strategy that anything goes.

The big unanswered question is, if the Department could behave in this way once, with this particular school, how many other academies and free schools has it supported in a similar manner? Unfortunately, unless we get some answers we will have to wait until another whistleblower comes forward to find out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) for securing this debate and for his persistence in ensuring that this important issue is debated properly in the House and scrutinised properly. I say that not just out of the courtesy that is normal on these occasions; it is quite right that he should ask questions about a serious issue that deserves to be looked at seriously.

I will take my hon. Friend’s hint and will not, as sometimes happens on these occasions, fill the first 75% of my speech with general comments. I will come very quickly to a lot of the matters he raised and will try to address them as far as I can. But since he mentioned some issues about the accountability of free schools, I will briefly say a couple of things on that matter, before going through each of the points that he made.

Most free schools are popular with parents and are delivering strong discipline and teaching across the country. As they are brand-new schools there is, quite rightly, greater contact and oversight with open free schools than with other academies—until their first successful Ofsted inspection, at least. After that, they are subject to the same monitoring arrangements as other academies.

The Minister has already started to give answers in the way I expected. I am talking about Kings—I am not interested in any other free school or any other academy. I want to know about what happened in that school and what will be done about it.

I am trying to address that. I am going to speak briefly, and then I will come straight to my hon. Friend’s points. He mentioned free school accountability in his speech, and it is right to say something on that, briefly and without taking up precious time. I promise him that I will address the issues that he raised.

The approach I was outlining means that in term 1, visits are arranged by the education adviser and the Education Funding Agency. In year 2, the first Ofsted section 5 report becomes available. All free schools provide budget forecasts, financial management and governance self-assessments and externally audited financial statements.

I will now turn, in the time that we have, to the matters raised by my hon. Friend that are specific to the case of the Kings science academy. He said he feared that I would hide behind—I think those were his words—the fact that there is a criminal investigation. There are some things that I cannot touch on in this speech because they are subject to a criminal investigation, and we all understand the constraints that that imposes on us all. Subject to that, however, I will try to be as open as I can.

The Kings science academy opened in September 2011. The Education Funding Agency had already planned a full financial management and governance review at the academy which would look at aspects such as financial and other internal controls, when it received allegations about practices at the school in October 2012, some of which related to possible financial irregularity. Those allegations were included in the EFA’s financial management and governance review, as my hon. Friend is aware. The EFA carried out its financial management and governance review in December 2012. It looked in detail at all aspects of governance, including the chair’s position, financial controls and conflicts of interest. Following the usual procedures, the EFA sent the draft report, showing the inadequacy of the financial management and controls, to the academy in January 2013 so that the academy could correct any inaccuracies. Thereafter, the EFA sent the final report in February 2013, which confirmed the assessment of “inadequate” and requested the academy’s response to the findings and recommendations in the report.

The findings of the EFA’s review led to a further investigation, as my hon. Friend knows, by the Department’s internal audit investigations team. The Department’s investigators began their on-site work at Kings science academy on 24 January 2013. The investigation team sent its report to Kings science academy at the beginning of April to allow for the correction of any inadequacies. John Bowers became the new acting chair of the academy in March 2013, and he tightened control by, among other things, assuming the important role of accounting officer for the academy in April of that year. The EFA also received the academy’s improvement plans at the beginning of April in response to the findings of the financial management and evaluation report. Both the EFA and the Department’s investigation team continued contact with Mr Bowers to monitor progress in responding to both reports. We remain grateful to the new chair for the real efforts that he has made to address some of the issues that are now public.

In line with our zero tolerance of fraud in all schools—free schools, academies and maintained schools—we reported the evidence of possible fraud to Action Fraud at the earliest opportunity on 25 April 2013. I will return to cover that aspect of the case, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, in more detail in a second. Because both the financial management and governance review and the investigation found serious failings in financial management, the Secretary of State issued a warning notice in May 2013 requiring the full recovery of relevant funds and confirmation that Kings science academy would respond to the findings in both reports.

In June 2013, the EFA confirmed that Kings science academy’s new finance policy provided a firm basis for establishing proper internal controls at the school, and we wrote to the academy in July 2013 recognising the progress it had made and confirming that the report of the internal audit investigation team would be published. That is in line with our policy to publish investigation reports, which is clearly set out in the “Academies Financial Handbook”. We had planned to wait before publishing the investigation report until the disciplinary processes had been completed, but we decided that it was right to publish when the investigation report was leaked in the media.

I understand all that. A report had been produced by the audit team in January, which was finally published a little after that, so a report was available in which the principal of the school admitted that fraud had taken place. Does the Minister think it was right that the principal was allowed to continue to go in to work each day?

I will come directly to that point in a moment. The EFA’s financial management and governance report and the Secretary of State’s warning notice have also now been published. We insisted that Kings science academy address identified failings urgently. While its internal evidence gathering continued, we confirmed the repayment sum at £76,933. We also sought confirmation that the disciplinary process was being taken forward. It is right that the relevant funding is being recovered from the academy in full, as it always will be if an academy or free school is unable to demonstrate that funding has been used for its intended purpose.

We believe that the Kings science academy, under the leadership of Mr Bowers, is making steady progress to address the weaknesses found in financial management and governance. That increased confidence is not just a result of the monitoring visits carried out by the EFA. We have evidence from KSA’s externally audited accounts for 2012-13, which were received on time, unqualified, and report the auditor’s comments on improvements in financial control and governance.

Let me turn now to the reporting of evidence to the police. The administrative error made by Action Fraud, which wrongly categorised the Department’s evidence in April as an information report rather than a crime, is deeply regrettable, as my hon. Friend made clear. Significantly, Action Fraud has apologised for the error. We do not believe that there is any fault with the way in which the report was made by the Department.

I will not give way, because I have so much to cover. I hope the hon. Gentleman will excuse me.

Before April 2013, any evidence of fraud found by the Department would have been reported to the relevant police authority. Action Fraud was established from April 2013 and since then has been the correct organisation with which to engage. The KSA situation was the first occasion on which the Department had needed to contact Action Fraud, so it made a further check with West Yorkshire police on the same day—25 April—to confirm that the report had been made in the right way. I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East that if there had been an attempt at a cover-up, it is unlikely that that check would have taken place.

In September, we made a further check with Action Fraud, which told us that the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau had assessed the case and decided not to take it forward. At the time, it seemed clear to us that the information regarding an alleged fraud had been correctly provided; it had been assessed and the case was not going to be progressed further. We know now that the case should have been passed by Action Fraud to West Yorkshire police for investigation, but the decision to investigate lies with the police, not the Department for Education.

I am sure my hon. Friend shares my wish to ensure that such a problem does not happen again. The Department’s internal audit and investigation team has now met Action Fraud and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to review and refine the processes for reporting fraud in future. We have tightened the procedures through which any future reports will be made. We will use Action Fraud’s online system. We will retain our own copy of the report we make and follow up within five working days if we have had no response from Action Fraud or contact the police.

As my hon. Friend knows, the police made an arrest in connection with the case on 9 January this year. Kings science academy wrote to parents on 10 January to confirm that the arrested man was Mr Raza, the principal, and that he would not be returning to the school, at least until the investigation was completed and finalised. Beyond that, it is not appropriate to comment. The parameters of the investigation are, quite rightly, for West Yorkshire police to determine. Until such time as the investigations are concluded and a determination regarding the case is reached, it would not be appropriate to release further information on that matter.

I shall now turn to the matter of Alan Lewis’s role at Kings science academy. On 27 September 2011, the academy told the Department that Mr Lewis would be chair of governors from 1 October 2011. The Department was informed on 24 October 2012 that Mr Lewis was not the chair and that Dr Asim Suleman would be chair of governors from 25 October 2012. We learned in December 2012 that there had been no chair of governors in place between October 2011 and October 2012. That was clearly a completely unsatisfactory position and totally unacceptable. Not to have a properly constituted governing body is a demonstrable failure to comply with the funding agreement. It is one of the issues identified in the EFA’s review, and one that the academy quickly addressed.

Alan Lewis’s other connection is that his company, Hartley Investment Trust Ltd, leases the site to the school, as my hon. Friend indicated. The site was secured for Kings science academy at £295,960 per annum, after an independent valuation. Due to the related party involvement, Treasury approval was sought and provided before final decisions were taken. If any hon. Members have any points to make about the police investigation, they should make them as soon as possible to the police.

Tyne River (Pollution)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. This debate is important to my constituency and to the constituencies that neighbour mine on the River Tyne. The issues that I intend to raise have far-reaching consequences for public policy, as I hope to demonstrate. Essentially, I want to raise two questions: should we continue with the long-running efforts of central and local government to clean up the River Tyne, and should the burden of paying for that be shared between central and local government? Ideally, of course, the polluter should be made to pay. However, if that is not a practical way forward, that does not relieve those of us in public life of the obligation to find a solution to the problems.

Until recently, these were not particularly controversial questions. The statutory responsibility lies with local authorities. Government recognised the exceptional nature of these issues, the financial consequences and the broader public interest in remediation, and therefore made a financial contribution towards the costs. Newcastle city council, under both Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations, deserves credit for the way the local authority has proactively worked to remediate contaminated sites within the city boundaries. Alongside that, it has developed an imaginative and very successful public-private partnership to bring new employers to the north banks of the Tyne.

So successful has the local authority been, working in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its predecessor Departments, that there is only one significant cause for concern remaining in the city. To have got to this position is no mean achievement. The remedial work already completed includes two significant antimony sites.

The outstanding problem is the old Thomas Ness tar works site—the subject of today’s debate. The Thomas Ness tar works was a going concern from 1920 to 1981. Its function, as the name suggests, was to produce coal tar. As a young official of the General and Municipal Workers Union, I played a small part, back in 1981, in negotiating the redundancy terms for the work force when it closed. Following closure, the factory was demolished and some remedial work was carried out to the site. However, it was still contaminated, and it quickly became clear that the contaminants were leaching into the river. Underneath the site, the sand and gravel are also heavily contaminated with tars and oils. To this day, the site causes significant water pollution in the adjacent River Tyne, as well as posing a risk to human health, with reports of serious headaches being suffered by members of the public who use the nearby foreshore in the Walker country park after only 10 minutes in the area.

In 1984, the then Tyne and Wear county council sponsored an intervention aimed at dealing with part of the problem, but the Tyne and Wear scheme could not have dealt with the underlying problem of coal tar seeping underground on the site and then dispersing. It was designed to catch the tar nearer the surface and divert it through a trench into a containment tank. That was only partly effective and in any event could not have stopped the seepage into the river.

Newcastle city council made a more thorough attempt at remediation in the late 1990s. Essentially, the city council’s scheme was a pumped treatment scheme involving pumps in wells along the site’s frontage facing the river. I should say at this point, for those who are not familiar with the area, that the site is on the riverbank, and therefore natural seepage from it would be downhill towards the river. The tar clogged up the pumps, wrecking the scheme.

Government Departments worked closely with Tyne and Wear county council and the city council in a constructive way to try to solve the problem. That is all I am asking for today. In a notice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs dated December 2013, the Under-Secretary, Lord De Mauley, wrote to all local authorities in England. His opening sentence was:

“I am writing to update you on the future of DEFRA funding of the Contaminated Land Capital Grants Scheme”.

The letter is not really an update, however; it is a retreat from financial responsibility for these matters.

DEFRA had issued revised guidance to local authorities in April 2012 obliging them to focus their attention on the highest-risk sites, while allowing them to dismiss lower-risk ones. Let nobody be in any doubt: the site under discussion is a high-risk site. The key issue, of course, is the Government’s financial contribution to solving the problem. The DEFRA contaminated land grants budget has gone from £17.5 million in 2009-10 to £2 million in 2013-14. An increase of £500,000 is budgeted for each year after that until 2017, when the budget head will be abolished.

Depressingly, the Minister will probably say that the council should pay for the whole thing using money provided by the Government through the revenue support grant, but the revenue support grant for north-east local authorities is not adequate to meet their day-to-day statutory functions, let alone carry extra ones without any remedial action-specific grant-aid from central Government. That, of course, would lead us into a much wider debate. I hope that the Minister will engage constructively with the issue, rather than trying to hand the whole thing over, unfunded, to the local authority.

Newcastle city council has a proposed way forward for containing the contamination on site. It has presented the scheme to the Environment Agency, which assessed and approved the proposed scheme. The Environment Agency’s reply to the council is blunt and honest, and the Environment Agency deserves credit for setting out the situation in clear terms. It states:

“We currently have insufficient funds within the Capital Works Programme to be able to support this project as well as other projects with higher priority scores”.

You cannot get clearer than that, Dr McCrea.

The question for all of us involved in public life is whether we leave things as they are or try to find a constructive way forward that would at least contain the problem. Let there be no misunderstanding: my preferred solution would be to eradicate it altogether. If that is not realistic, however, the very least we can do is to try to protect the river from further contamination and contain the problem on site. That, as I understand it, is essentially the local authority’s proposal.

So much work has been done and so much effort has been put in to improve the condition of the Tyne that it seems disproportionate to walk away from the problem now. We are very close to restoring the River Tyne to its pre-industrial quality. Central Government have played an important part in getting us to where we are now, and they should help us to finish the job. We need a comprehensive plan for the river as a whole, including the upper reaches of the north and south Tyne. We need a latter-day Tyne improvement commission to bring public authorities and private sector interests together, to set a clear programme of remediation for the whole river right the way to its upper reaches, to drive the work programme forward and to remain vigilant on any emerging causes of pollution. That would have to be paid for. No local authority in the north-east is in any position to make a significant financial contribution to the project, nor is it reasonable to try to pass the cost on to private sector interests, which are, after all, not responsible for the pollution. There is a necessary role here for Government.

I accept that the problem is not unique to the Tyne, and that the Minister will be faced with similar issues in other parts of the country. I would like to explore with him constructive ways of taking the issue forward and hope that he, or one of his colleagues, is open to a meeting at which we can explore the matter further.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing the debate. I was interested to hear about his long-standing connection with the plant, and his negotiation of the redundancy deal for former workers.

As the right hon. Gentleman explained, land contamination is a complex area. The issue of the St Anthony’s former tar works and the pollution of the River Tyne shows that. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency are aware of the site and the agency has been in regular contact for several years with Newcastle city council, which owns the site and is designated the “appropriate person” under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. We continue to offer advice and guidance.

I acknowledge the council’s work to deal with the site. DEFRA recognises that it initiated work in 2000 to try to prevent the flow of hydrocarbons into the river. Unfortunately, that system failed shortly after installation. Following that, further investigation was funded through the contaminated land capital grants scheme at a cost of £240,000, and that led to the site being determined under the legislation in 2007. The council was successful in securing further funding of £189,000, resulting in a detailed design for remediation of the site. DEFRA has therefore already provided more than £400,000 in capital funding to support the council in dealing with the site.

As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, however, the budget for the grants scheme has undergone significant cuts in line with the economic downturn, and since 2010 no further funding could be made available for the site following the assessment and prioritisation of all applications for funding. Other bids, such as those to do with landfill gas entering residential properties, would be considered a higher priority, given the greater risk to public health on the measures that we use to assess such projects. Vapour monitoring at St Anthony’s established that there was no health risk to users of the walkway on the river bank, and there is currently no evidence that the site is causing a breach of the status of the Tyne estuary for the purposes of the water framework directive.

The phasing out of the grant scheme is regrettable, but it reflects a necessary change of approach following a review of departmental priorities and expenditure. DEFRA and the Environment Agency are not immune from the necessary funding constraints that all Departments are under. Government can continue to support only those projects that are considered to be the highest priority, and absolute emergency cases, until the scheme ends in 2017.

I want to explain how contaminated land is dealt with in England, and the additional work that has been undertaken by DEFRA to support local authorities so that they can direct resources to the highest-priority sites. The contaminated land regime, as set out in part IIA of the 1990 Act, provides a risk-based approach to the identification and remediation of land where contamination poses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.

Responsibility for identifying such contaminated land is a local authority obligation under part IIA, and, since 2000, financial support has been and will continue to be provided through the revenue support grant provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government. That is exactly the answer that the right hon. Gentleman predicted. The revenue support grant is not ring-fenced, and it is up to local authorities to decide where to allocate the money according to their individual priorities.

Changes made to the part IIA statutory guidance in April 2012 have resulted in a more stringent, risk-based approach to identifying and remediating contaminated land, meaning that more resources can be directed to those sites most in need. It is a simple fact that with far fewer resources, we must prioritise where spending goes first.

We are now in the final stages of DEFRA-funded research to develop new screening levels that will screen out low-risk land from the need for further investigation, thus saving money for local authorities. Once published, the screening values will sit alongside DEFRA research published in 2012 on the normal background concentrations of contaminants to help inform decisions. Case studies are also being published from the work of the contaminated land national experts panel, which is a free resource available to support local authorities that face the more difficult, borderline decisions so that they can understand what would or would not be required. It is important to note that the environmental permitting regime for current activities, particularly on redeveloping sites where there is potential to cause contamination, ensures that no new part IIA contaminated sites should be being created.

There has been a broader analysis of the health impacts. DEFRA-funded research on the current state of scientific knowledge on the health effects of contaminated land found little direct evidence of serious health effects from the types and levels of land contamination found in England today. We are not complacent, however. Such effects cannot be ruled out in all cases because it is sometimes difficult to prove causality, and there are reasons to be concerned that some sites might pose significant risks from longer-term exposure. We therefore take a precautionary approach to the identification and remediation of contaminated land, which is reflected in the development of the new screening levels for contaminants in soil.

The right hon. Gentleman stated that, in this era of lower public spending, we have to consider how to put right historical contamination. An estimated 90% of contaminated land in England and Wales is cleaned up through the planning system under the national planning policy framework, which has played an important part in making the planning system less complex and easier to understand, thereby encouraging sustainable development and the effective use of brownfield land where appropriate. The key for many sites is to redevelop them and, as part of that redevelopment, to have an agreement with the developer that they will put right the contamination, as they have the proceeds of the redevelopment to invest.

I am open to exploring with the Minister any practical way forward that will address the problem, and I know that he proposes that idea constructively, but I cannot see it working with the site in question. The difficulty would be in finding some way either to prevent the tar from leaching into the river, or to clear the tar off the site altogether. The capital cost of a protective measure, let alone a complete clearance, is likely to be several million pounds, which must be far more than any possible planning gain that could be made on the site.

I am not sure. One estimate I heard is that it would cost somewhere between £1.2 million and £1.5 million to put the site right. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and he understands the site better than I do, as he is the constituency MP. There are possibilities in many instances. Local authorities across the country hold toxic assets that are something of a liability. We have many such sites in Cornwall. I grew up in a mining area, and we have our share of arsenic and contaminated land. Deals can often be reached in which the local authority effectively gives the land to a developer in return for the developer putting right the contamination. I have seen that work in my part of the country—the opposite end of the country from his constituency—where we also have contamination caused by tin mining. We need to explore such things, otherwise we go full circle and come back to the question of whether using public money is justified. We have introduced a new screening process for prioritising sites that are a direct threat to health in residential areas, and we have been frank and honest that we cannot justify the expenditure at this stage. I hope it will be possible to explore the approach I have outlined.

Also, land remediation relief will support developers. The Government are encouraging a market-based approach to dealing with contaminated land, as much as possible. One financial incentive that the Government have provided to encourage the redevelopment of contaminated land is land remediation relief, which allows companies to claim back corporation tax on 150% of the costs of dealing with contaminated land, and which is intended to influence developers’ decisions positively by increasing the profitability of redevelopment projects. The Treasury estimates that the value of land remediation relief is around £30 million per annum, suggesting that the private sector is spending approximately £100 million on land remediation relief-compliant voluntary remediation each year.

The Government are also trying to encourage local authorities, LEPs and enterprise zones to find solutions to toxic sites that have not so far been suitable for redevelopment. Furthermore, DEFRA is working with the Environment Agency and the Coal Authority to address water pollution from abandoned metal mines. DEFRA has agreed to a modest and targeted approach, initiating one to two new remediation schemes each year, subject to funding. I appreciate that that particular fund is of little use in relation to the former tar works at St Anthony’s, but it is nevertheless indicative of the fact that we continue to do what we can on the issue with the resources we have.

I mentioned earlier that emergency cases will still be funded. As part of the announcement on the future of the grants scheme, my noble Friend Lord de Mauley made it clear that, subject to capital funding allocations, a contingency fund of £500,000 each year will continue to be available until the scheme ends in 2017. DEFRA is working with the Environment Agency to agree how the contingency fund will be administered; that will enable the fulfilment of ongoing projects as far as possible, and provide funding in case of emergencies. An announcement on that will be made soon, and will include details of the qualifying criteria for such cases.

To conclude, DEFRA will review the impact of the changes to the grants scheme for local authorities 12 months after the changes are introduced in April 2014. In addition, it has commissioned a new state of contaminated land survey, which will collect information on part IIA regulatory activity, the apportioning of liability, and the funding mechanisms used for dealing with contaminated land. The report will be produced by the Environment Agency before the end of 2014 and will provide information that can be used when reviewing the impact of the changes to the grants scheme.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman again for bringing this debate before the House. I am sorry that I have not been able to give him any more reassurance than the Environment Agency has, but I hope that he will appreciate the difficult constraints that we face and the need for us to prioritise our spending.

Dr McCrea, like me, you represent a constituency with a rich industrial heritage that no doubt has similar problems, albeit perhaps not exactly of the nature we have been discussing. I am very disappointed by what the Minister has said. He has, however, offered one constructive suggestion, which I note would not cost the Government any money. Nevertheless, it is a constructive suggestion and I will take it up with the local authority and others locally.

I agree with the Minister that the possibility of a commercial way forward for the site is worth exploring. The figures he cited are the same as my own—a cost of roughly £1.2 million to £2 million for the council’s preferred scheme to try to contain the tars and prevent them from leaching into the river, but it would contain them on site. I do not know how commercially attractive that would be to a developer. My preferred option would be a one-off capital clearance of the whole site to clear it up completely and bring it back to a more pristine standard, certainly than it has known since 1920. However, my suspicion is that that would cost more money.

I rather thought that the Minister would turn me down on the money, and that he would refer to the Department for Communities and Local Government grant arrangements—

Order. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the Minister might like to say a few words in response, but it is an intervention; there can be no further speeches. Does the Minister want to respond?

My final sentence—there may be a few commas and semicolons—is this: will the Minister, or another Minister from the Department, agree to meet me to have a continuing dialogue on a way forward for the site, with a view to finding a conclusion?

I omitted to deal with that point, which the right hon. Gentleman raised. I am more than happy to go back and raise that point with Lord De Mauley. He is responsible for the matter because it is in his portfolio, even though I handle it in the Commons, and I am sure that he will be willing to meet and discuss it further. I have been as honest and frank as I can with the right hon. Gentleman about the constraints that we have. As I have said, a large sum of money is required to put the site right. We have made it clear that we have only about £500,000 a year for the whole country, so he can appreciate that it would overwhelm us. I will nevertheless take that point back and ask Lord De Mauley if he will have a meeting.

I thank the Minister and the right hon. Gentleman for the debate. It was less contentious than some of the debates that we have had today, but it was no less important.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.