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Westminster Hall

Volume 576: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2014

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 February 2014

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

Educational Attainment (Disadvantaged Pupils)

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

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

There is in this country a large gap in educational attainment between children from richer homes and those from poorer homes as measured by eligibility for free school meals. As the Minister has said on a number of occasions, closing that gap is a moral imperative. I am proud of the Government’s commitment on that front, and of the fact that every time Ministers discuss raising standards in education the issue is always both increasing overall attainment and closing the gap between rich and poor. There have been many initiatives on that matter, and I am sure that there will be more, but probably the biggest change of all is how the pupil premium structurally funds schools. That has at least three effects. First, it ensures that schools in disadvantaged areas are better resourced; secondly, it funds specific programmes and interventions; and thirdly, it makes pupils who are eligible for free school meals more attractive—as it were—to schools.

The key problem is that opportunity in Britain is still not evenly spread. Much continues to depend on the type of family and income bracket that someone is born into. Of course, today we are discussing the fact that opportunity also has much to do with where someone is born. There are several aspects to that, and I am going to touch on three. First is the straightforward fact that there is variation in attainment for disadvantaged children both within and between regions, and that seems to happen differentially for primary and secondary phases. Secondly, there is the perhaps counterintuitive problem of being born poor into a relatively wealthy area. Thirdly, there is my main focus: outperformance at the top end and the increasing exceptionalism of London.

I will talk first about the overall variation within and between regions, although we must be careful when we talk about regions because, in a sense, they are not really anything—they are just administrative constructs; geographical niceties. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some sort of regional pattern. If we look at the proportion of children who get five or more GCSEs at grade C or above, including English and maths, we see that there is significant variation between regions. That variation is more marked, however, in children eligible for free school meals. On both counts—children overall and disadvantaged children—London tops the table. Versus the rest, it is ahead by 3% overall and by 16% for disadvantaged children specifically.

There are also variations between individual areas within regions. In a number of local authorities, more than 55% of children eligible for free school meals achieve five or more GCSEs at grade C or above: Newham, Redbridge, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Westminster, and Kensington and Chelsea. At the other end of the scale, in 14 authorities, fewer than 25% of children achieve that benchmark. Those areas are liberally scattered throughout the country—north, south, east and west. The important point is that all the top performers are in London and the poorest performers are all over the place.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for missing the start of his speech. Our challenge in North Yorkshire is that the overall performance of schools is good, but only 33.9% of children eligible for free school meals achieve five GCSEs at grade C or above.

Indeed; there are issues of that nature—a wide variation—throughout the country. Sometimes it makes sense to look at this issue at the regional level—for my hon. Friend, that would be Yorkshire and the Humber—and in other cases it makes sense to look at individual local authorities. Sometimes we must actually drill down lower still.

In general and on average, if a child lives in a richer area they are more likely to go to a school judged good or outstanding by Ofsted than if they live in a poorer area. Ofsted’s report last year, “Unseen children”, highlights that point well. The report shows that the gap between the proportion of schools judged good or outstanding for leadership and management in the poorest parts relative to the wealthiest parts is biggest for primary schools in the south-east and east midlands, and biggest for secondary schools in Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-east. It is interesting that the report highlights how different areas have the biggest gap for primary and secondary schools. The area with the starkest difference is probably the north-east, which has the biggest gap of all between the proportion of secondary schools judged good or outstanding for leadership and management, whereas for primary schools it is the top performer in the entire country. The blended average of those two gaps ends up being quite good.

Another problem is the fact that within otherwise wealthy areas there is a danger that poorer children can be overlooked. I said at the start of my speech that it is counterintuitive in many ways, but it seems to be true—at least to an extent—at both school and area level, that a child from a disadvantaged background is best off being in a place where there are either hardly any other children in that category or loads of them. They are worse off if they are somewhere in the middle range.

Ofsted has just started publishing regional-level reports, and of the south-east it said that

“the poor performance of small numbers of pupils entitled to free school meals is lost in the midst of otherwise strong performance by 16-year-olds.”

Of course, there are exceptions, and I was delighted to note that one of the schools singled out in that report as doing particularly well in that regard was Bohunt school in my constituency, which the Secretary of State visited a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, there is a problem in the south-east overall with children eligible for free school meals. The report says that

“pupils eligible for free school meals in the South East attain at levels below the national figure for similar pupils in every single local authority in the region.”

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I realise that education is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland, but he is painting an image mirrored across all regions of the United Kingdom. North and west Belfast are the worst areas we have in Northern Ireland for numbers of children eligible for free school meals, perhaps because of the troubles. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that every child, whatever their background, deserves a proper education?

The hon. Gentleman is of course quite right. He will understand that I cannot comment in detail on the figures for Belfast, but I agree with his sentiment. In fact, one could argue that the worse off and more difficult a child’s background, the greater the moral imperative for politicians to ensure that a good school is made available.

A number of questions arise on within-school underperformance. How should the pupil premium be used? If a school has relatively small numbers of disadvantaged children, what is the best way to use pupil premium moneys to benefit them? We know that, in general, whole school improvement programmes tend to disproportionately benefit the better off—although they may be beneficial overall, they are less likely to be beneficial in closing the gap. When a school has smaller numbers of disadvantaged children, specific, targeted interventions become quite difficult. Interventions are presumably not targeted at pupils because they are entitled to free school meals—that would be both difficult and rather divisive, and not something we would want.

Therein lies the problem. Schools are entitled to a pupil premium for children receiving free school meals. Therefore, there is a problem in some poorer neighbourhoods. Because of housing tenure and type, lots of youngsters who are not entitled to the pupil premium or free school meals but who are still in relatively low-income and deprived households live cheek by jowl with kids who do generate the pupil premium, and they often have as many educational problems as the youngsters entitled to funding.

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. There are a number of aspects to what he says. One is that free school meals entitlement is by definition a cliff-edge measure—children are either entitled or they are not—so, as he points out, crossing that line does not actually change whether a child is advantaged rather than disadvantaged. There can be a disconnect. Being on free school meals is not an indication per se that a pupil will not do well at school. The converse of what he says is that, as we know, lots of children entitled to free school meals do stunningly well at school.

On that point, I am a member of the Select Committee on Education. We visited the Netherlands last year, where the system considers the prior educational attainment of the parents in determining whether a child should attract additional funding in school. That is not perfect, any more than free school meals, but it seems to have some inherent sense behind it, because it is about the richness of the cultural experience of the child’s home life as well as the richness of the education that they get in school.

I will return to the educational attainment of parents when I discuss London specifically. The hon. Gentleman touches on something that I was about to mention. Entitlement to free schools and other measures of disadvantage are often correlated with certain clear indicators that children are less likely to do well at school, particularly those involving the home learning environment—whether there are books at home and so on.

Clearly, at system level, it makes sense to use the gap between free school meal recipients and others to chart our progress. Although entitlement to free school meals is not a perfect measure, it is the best we have in terms of accuracy. However, now that we have the new progress measure, which tracks the progress of each attainment group at entry and as they go through school, I wonder whether, particularly in secondary school, it would make more sense to use that as the primary measure in closing the gap, so that when students arrive at secondary school, whatever their prior attainment, we ensure that all schools are stretching all children to the best of their abilities.

I have numerous questions about between-school and between-area underperformance. The most obvious is how to get the best leaders and leadership support into the places where they are needed most, and how to incentivise great teachers into the areas that need them most. As I mentioned earlier, there is a vexing pattern. Certain areas are good either at primary or secondary, but not both simultaneously. Sorry; I should not say that they are not good, but hon. Members know what I mean. The proportion of schools judged good or outstanding is in primary or secondary, but not both.

I am pleased that this gives me an opportunity to say that within the south-east, Hampshire is an exception. I pay tribute to John Coughlan and his team. Hampshire is rated relatively well in both primary and secondary education. Overall, if all regions could reach their own internal benchmark—in other words, whether they are outstanding at the primary or secondary level, if they could get the other phase of education up to the same level—that would mean many thousands more pupils were attending a good or outstanding school.

Turning to London, I have already mentioned the gap at GCSE level between London and the rest of the country, and how London outperforms considerably when it comes to poorer children. In fact, it starts a lot earlier than GCSEs, and the effect persists a long time after age 16. It seems that in London, even before school begins, poorer children outperform children in the rest of the country at the early years foundation stage, to the extent that one can talk about a three-year-old outperforming. They pull away as they progress to infant and junior school, and by the time they reach age 15 and 16, they are almost 50% more likely than children outside London to get five or more good GCSEs, they are twice as likely as disadvantaged children elsewhere to go to university and, depending on which numbers one looks at, they are perhaps up to four times as likely to end up going to a Russell Group university, although the numbers are still small—one in 25 rather than one in 100.

Why is that? There was a thing called the London challenge. Whenever the outperformance of London comes up, the most obvious thing to say is, “London does well because of the London challenge.” Is that true? I have absolutely no doubt that the London challenge has been beneficial, and it is also true that there is a fuzzy boundary around it. In the period from about 2000 until now, many initiatives have either happened first in London before spreading elsewhere or been specific to London. They may or may not have been merchandised as part of the London challenge, but in a broader sense it could be said that they were.

But—it is an important “but”—there are a number of reasons to believe that the London challenge is not the sole or primary cause of London’s educational outperformance. The first and most important reason is that the year in which London’s GCSE performance caught up with the rest of the country was 2003, the year when the London challenge started. By definition, all the kids who did their GCSEs in 2003 had spent their entire life not in the London challenge. Politically, 2003 was a good year to start a programme focused on making London better, because from there everything was going up. The second reason is that after the initial London challenge, when it was extended to Greater Manchester and the black country, it did not translate as well. There were some improvements in performance, but not nearly on the same scale as in London.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the starting date for the London challenge, but the London challenge came on the back of other initiatives instigated by the previous Government, such as excellence in cities. Those programmes also occurred in other parts of the country, but they were not followed by the London challenge.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I acknowledged that there were a number of initiatives before 2003, and others that were not necessarily branded as the London challenge, but could more broadly be said to have been part of it. He is right that a number of things were done elsewhere, but the simple fact is that after all of that, and with the ability to copy from London anything that anyone would want to copy, we still have a 16 percentage point gap in GCSE performance among disadvantaged pupils between those who happen to have been born in London and those who happen to have been born in the rest of the country.

I am in the awkward position of trying to avoid questions to prompt the Minister that he will no doubt be asked at tomorrow’s meeting as well. Can I plant something for the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) to consider as he goes through his analysis of the situation? Where does a national strategy as a remedy fit in with the general direction of travel towards greater autonomy within schools?

There is always a balance. I suppose it partly depends on one’s political tradition, where one comes from and what one tends to think works. We could say that the London challenge had a bit of both. On one hand, one area, Greater London, was doing its own thing, and within that, there was plenty of innovation in individual schools, which were encouraged to innovate, but on the other, it had system-wide leadership. There is always a tension and a balance.

The third reason to doubt that the London challenge was the sole or primary cause of the improvements is that the difference between children on free school meals and others was so marked, and the London challenge was not solely about children on free school meals or poorer children. The fourth reason is that it seems that London’s poorer pupils may already be ahead before school has even begun. There are so many other things that are different about London that we owe it to ourselves to at least examine them and consider what role they may have played.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet covered one factor that I am convinced has an impact. The Greater London area employment market is such that it is much easier to have achievable employment ambition and aspiration than it is in other parts of the country. In areas such as the north-east, where unemployment has continued to rise and youth unemployment is still growing, ambition and aspiration are difficult for many, because they do not see light at the end of the tunnel.

Can we hold that point? I will come back to it a wee bit later.

If the difference is not the London challenge alone—I totally acknowledge the beneficial effects of many of the programmes within it—is it simply more money? Of course, whenever we mention London’s outperformance, people say, “Oh, they get more money.” Yes, London schools get more money, but when we adjust that for deprivation, we discover that the difference is not quite as big as it at first appeared. In other words, when comparing the high number of free school meals in London with those in the rest of the country, the funding premium is not quite as large, although costs are higher in London, which is why there has historically been higher funding.

If we were to say it is just about having more money, we would have to say what more money has bought. Since I started working on this subject, people have told me that class sizes in London are smaller, but they are not. Bizarrely, they are slightly bigger than in the rest of the country, except at key stage 3. There is not a higher proportion of teaching assistants. Teachers are paid more, as are people in lots of occupations and professions in London, because of London weighting, but the difference in pay for the average London teacher versus the average teacher elsewhere is less than advertised. According to the ads, someone can earn up to 25% more as a newly qualified teacher in London, but the actual difference in take-home pay is on average smaller, because London teachers are younger and further down the pay scales.

What is different? I shall come to some of the things that the hon. Member for Gateshead mentioned. First, all sorts of things about the city are different compared with other parts of the country. The employment market is different, as he rightly says, which manifests itself in different ways. There are differential rates of unemployment, and youth unemployment in London remains concerning. In addition, there is the visibility of opportunities. If someone is travelling on buses and underground trains, they will be interacting with all the adverts, the people and all the rest of it. There is the cultural capital of the city—the museums and art galleries—and the pull factor of more university places. There are more university places per head of population in London than in other cities, and most people travel only a short distance from home to go to university. Everything is nearer. That helps with school choice—children go across local authority boundaries to go to school—and it helps schools wishing to co-operate with one another.

I have read the report by the hon. Gentleman’s all-party group on social mobility. It is a fascinating, interesting and detailed piece of work, and I congratulate him on it. However, all the factors that he has mentioned have not changed in the past 15 years. London is no further away from anywhere else than it was 15 years ago. I presume he will go on to explain what he thinks has changed.

The shadow Minister is such a nice man. He has read “Capital Mobility”, the report by the all-party group. I did not realise he had also read the sheet of paper in front of me, which states that many of those things were also true when London was the problem child of British education, before it became the poster child. Although such factors are relevant, we cannot ascribe the difference in London performance specifically to them.

The population make-up of London is one massive change and a massive difference. London is diverse on a scale unknown in the rest of the United Kingdom—indeed, unknown in most of the rest of the world. London’s state secondary schools are now 32% white British by ethnic origin, and the statistic for kids just starting secondary school is extraordinary: 48% do not have English as their mother tongue. An even more surprising statistic is that children with English as an additional language come very close in performance by GCSEs to children who have English as their mother tongue, and in London they beat them—in GCSEs in London, children who do not speak English as their mother tongue very slightly outperform those who do. That raises difficult questions.

I do not want to pre-empt tomorrow’s Committee meeting, at which, sadly, I will not be able to join my Opposition compadres, but I know the Minister will be appearing before the Committee to talk about the performance of white working class pupils. It is true that all ethnic groups do better in London than they do outside—spectacularly so in the case of children of Pakistani origin. There is a 14% gap between the performance of pupils of Pakistani origin in London versus the rest of the country.

There are other relevant differences in London, some of which might be driven by differences and diversity in ethnicity and religion, such as larger families and older, better educated mothers. Surprisingly, it is estimated that parents in London are slightly more likely to be married than parents outside London. It is slightly odd that we can only estimate that, but that is another question altogether. There are more families with a parent at home. There is less use of formal child care, slightly lower participation in free school provision, and slightly more use of tutors. One would normally associate such things with lower educational attainment, particularly in terms of early years participation, which again raises important, difficult and challenging questions.

What is different and what might we be able to have an impact on, given that we cannot have much impact on the composition of the population? London teachers are more diverse, more likely to have been educated abroad, more likely to be full time, and, before somebody says it, a bit less likely to have qualified teacher status—given the sorts of numbers we are talking about, I do not think that that is particularly relevant.

Teachers are also a little less likely to be on upper pay scales or the advanced skill scale and more likely to be on the main pay scales. Within the London challenge, there were various recruitment initiatives, which included addressing housing problems. One of those initiatives was Teach First. Opinions vary and sometimes teachers get wound up if we bang on too much about Teach First, but Teach First teachers can have a positive, disruptive impact as they come into schools, observe existing teachers, bring ideas of their own, swap things around and so on. Some 48% of Teach First teachers are still in London, and I think there is an opportunity to spread that scheme more widely.

There was a big focus on leadership in the London challenge. It was about supporting leaders in schools and ensuring that they were paid properly. As an aside, primary schools in London are on average a lot bigger than primary schools outside, and I wonder whether that means it is possible to afford more by way of leadership. Alongside that support and remuneration was intense scrutiny and what people close to the London challenge operation would describe as verging on ruthlessness to ensure that schools were being run absolutely as well as they could be. That was all facilitated by an intense use of data and what are called families of schools, whereby someone could compare their school to others in similar circumstances, so they could see what was really possible.

London also over-indexed greatly on sponsored academies. Compared with the rest of the country, London is much more likely to have sponsored academies. That relatively small number of schools had a disproportionately larger impact on the overall performance of London as a whole, because the results tended to go from very low to very good.

Where does all that leave us? I should like to put a number of things to the Minister. I do not pretend for a moment to have all the answers, or even most of them, but some things are obvious challenges. First, on attracting the best teachers, we know that most people stay in their home region. That puts a premium on marketing intensely the teaching profession to high performers within the areas and regions where they are most needed, at school-leaver level and university graduate level.

Secondly, there has to be a big opportunity for Teach First outside London. That is happening, or starting to happen, already. There is now a focus on Bournemouth, which is welcome. We need to bear in mind why 48% of Teach First teachers were in London. One reason is that the programme started there. Another is that, of course, young people like to move to London; that cannot be changed very much. Another big factor is the network effect: knowing that other new graduates are doing the same programme in schools relatively nearby and so having social and support networks. Some co-ordinated, geographically-focused expansion of Teach First would be smart.

There are always questions in some schools about what the pupil premium can be used for. What is the Minister’s attitude to schools in heavily disadvantaged areas using it to pay teachers more, to attract the best? Alongside attracting the best teachers, there is also the matter of getting top leadership to the areas where it is needed most. In that regard, I look to the growth of initiatives such as Future Leaders. I wonder whether the incentives are enough. Can those be looked at, to ensure that they are sufficient and that they persuade people to go where they are most needed?

I turn to geographical patterns. There can sometimes be an over-supply of national education leaders in areas away from schools where their support would be most beneficial. I wonder whether it is possible to improve that situation by using technology, for example.

On attracting talent, does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as the Government’s coming up with initiatives, we need to encourage schools and local authorities to cast the net wider? Again, coming back to North Yorkshire, it is a challenge to get local authority education department leaders or heads from outside the region. We need to get the schools and council to work harder to achieve that.

My hon. Friend is right. An intense marketing effort, leaving no stone unturned in the search for talent, is absolutely essential.

Having mentioned people, let me speak more broadly. We need to be impatient on behalf of the places where the academies revolution has not happened. In London, we have seen what it can do. There needs, through whatever means, to be a lot more push on that issue in parts of the country where the change has not happened.

There are some specifics from the London challenge. Are we using data enough outside London—particularly in identifying families of schools, so that each school can compare itself with others? Although the term “sub-regional strategies” always gives me a bit of a rash, I wonder about the role of system-wide leadership. When I am talking to teachers and head teachers about the London challenge, they always talk about the person who led it and his assistant and immediate team. I wonder about the balance that must be struck between individual school autonomy, which I am a great supporter of, and having a sense of shared ownership and system leadership.

I started by commending the Government’s twin approach to education, in respect of raising overall attainment and narrowing the gap. It is right that we do both; it is no good equalising performance around some sort of acceptable average. A lot has been done, but the gap is still wide. There is much more to do in our quest for the combination of social justice and economic efficiency which is social mobility or opportunity for all.

There is a lot going for us in that quest. We have unprecedented amounts of data at our fingertips as well as international benchmarking and case studies. Schools have been set free to innovate, and we have the Early Intervention Foundation and the Education Endowment Foundation. There is certainly the political will from the Minister and his colleagues. However, quite a lot of questions remain. As I said, I certainly do not have all the answers and I am concerned that some of the answers do not yet exist. However, we need to keep asking questions, including about how one area of the country can learn from another. That is the focus of this debate, which I hope will play a small but useful role in that quest.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this debate. I am delighted that he continues his interest in education, although I suspect he still laments his retirement from the Education Committee. We probably agree about more things than we disagree about, and there are probably more things that unite us than divide us.

We have already heard about the importance of education. It is undeniably important, whether as a route into work, if work exists, as a means of attaining personal potential, as a mode to better understanding of the world we live in or simply as a quench for a thirst for knowledge. It is—or at least should be—a powerful tool for young people of all ages, driving social mobility and providing the foundations on which our country’s future sits.

It is crucial that we do everything in our power to ensure that our young people have unrestricted access to education of the highest quality, to safeguard the notion of equality of opportunity. Sadly, that opportunity still depends on where people were born, to whom they were born, their ethnicity, their level of affluence, what the local offer is and, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said, what their parents’ prior attainment was.

In its recent report, the all-party group on social mobility recognised a series of seven key truths on social mobility, related to education and the associated opportunities and policy challenges. Although countless factors impact on social mobility, the report identifies quality of teaching as

“the most important controllable factor”.

We are aware that the education systems we would deem to be the most successful are those that promote success at all levels for all students. We also appreciate that levels of ability are not uniform across schools, let alone across entire regions. We recognise the challenges that that issue brings; the hon. Member for East Hampshire outlined it in considerable detail. Some degree of variation in outcomes is to be expected. However, the Ofsted report of 2012-13 identified the north-east and the Yorkshire and the Humber region as having an “unacceptably large variation” in performance. I will probably be a bit parochial or regional here.

Although the primary sector in the north-east is among the best in the country, Yorkshire and the Humber has one of the highest proportions nationally of primary schools rated as being less than good. In secondary education, more than 90% of pupils in York attend a secondary school that is good or outstanding, while in Barnsley, only 40 or so miles away, that falls to just 20%.

In analysing such issues in Yorkshire, does the hon. Gentleman feel that councils of whatever political hue have been coasting for too many years and need to get real about what they have to do, to get the performance of their schools up, and markedly?

I do agree that there are examples of local authorities across the country that have not been doing the job of driving up standards that we would have hoped for. That varies throughout the country. However, in local authority areas there are still excellent schools, whether they have converted to academy status or they remain as local authority schools. It is the ones that are not doing well that the local authorities and others need to turn their attentions to.

Across the country, there are nine local authority areas, predominantly in London, where every secondary school student attends a good or outstanding institution. Yet in 13 local authority areas a majority of secondary students attend a school that is not good or outstanding. Although there are areas of high performance across the regions, they are unfortunately far from the norm.

Ofsted’s report puts it bluntly, saying that secondary schools in the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber are among the worst in the country. That is not an observation I relish, as a north-east Member of Parliament, but it is one that we cannot afford to hide from. Those results are symptomatic of an education system that is failing many of our young people, but it is not all about the system; there is something else.

As has already been said, the Education Committee is currently examining the underachievement of white working-class children, many of whom come from impoverished working and non-working families living in areas where jobs are hard to come by and, as is the case in north-east England, regions where unemployment continues to go up. We are looking for answers to that underachievement, and we want to understand the variation across the country. Perhaps the answer is back in early years, as Governments appear to have agreed over the years.

The previous Labour Government did much for early years provision. I witnessed that in the north-east region, where they did more than ever to give children a better chance at the start of their education. However, we are still not reaching the children we need to reach, and the loss of provision is a serious concern. It is not wholly surprising that young people in the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber are less likely to attain results above the national level in the key indicator of five good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, than young people from almost anywhere else in the country.

As I said, we have successes in the north-east. The Secretary of State for Education, in his evidence to the Education Committee last month, talked about Sunderland, Gateshead and other pockets across the region where there have been improvements. In my own backyard, the North Shore academy in my constituency has improved considerably in the past few years. The school was developed under Labour and delivered under the current Government.

Poverty is a strong and powerful player. The north-east has the highest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals outside London, and the gap in attainment between those eligible for free school meals and those who are not is wider than the national average in primary schools. Worse still, the gap widens by the time pupils leave secondary school.

Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills may be right to assert that children in England now have the best chance they have ever had of attending a good school, but that broad remark fails to acknowledge the dramatic regional variations that are turning education into that most horrible of clichés, a postcode lottery. Indeed, Her Majesty’s chief inspector accepted as much when he described our school system as

“a tale of two nations.”

He said that the system is

“divided into lucky and unlucky children.”

“Luck” is not a word I work with, but that is what he said. He talked of an

“educational lottery that consigns some children to substandard schools and favours others”.

Her Majesty’s chief inspector is clearly right to state that too many children in our country are unlucky, but too many children from similar backgrounds and with similar abilities end up with widely different prospects because the quality of their education is not consistently good—in other words, because they grew up in different regions and attended different schools with different opportunities.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead outlined, the north-south divide means that people in the south can aspire to tremendous things, but there is not so much aspiration in the north and other regions. That is not fair. We must develop a system that minimises regional and local variations and restores fairness to our education system, ensuring that it delivers the skills and knowledge that the young people of today will need to succeed tomorrow.

We must deliver not only to some young people but to all young people. A crucial element of attaining that goal is to ensure that our teachers—their teachers—are fully equipped to do the job. The path to educational attainment, a path that every parent wants their children to follow, is guided by teachers. Nobody, apart from family, is more important in children’s lives. It is clear to me that the key to securing improved attainment for all, irrespective of the geographical fortune of social circumstance, lies in ensuring that teachers are trained to the highest standards to allow the cycle of progress to continue.

Outlining the importance of teachers is crucial to this debate because, for too many youngsters, the school day is an oasis of calm in an otherwise chaotic life. It is all too sad that we are asking teachers to put right an awful lot that is wrong for our youngsters.

We certainly do, and I have seen some tremendous examples in my constituency and across the Stockton borough of teachers picking up a lot of education. Young children are arriving in nursery school still not knowing how to use a knife and fork, how to interact properly with children or even how to have a proper conversation. We rely on teachers tremendously, which is all the more reason why outreach through children’s centres and other organisations is so vital to helping parents and the wider family to help children to develop.

We need good teachers at all levels and in every neighbourhood, each equipped to deliver a modern education based on an up-to-date understanding of developments in teaching practice, specific subject knowledge and the latest educational tools and technology. The previous Labour Government responded to the challenge of failing education with huge investment in early years and across the primary and secondary sectors. The London challenge delivered great results, but that achievement was not reflected everywhere despite unprecedented resources in our schools.

The current Government are seeing some positive results from the pupil premium, but again the success is far from universal. I have no doubt that the social factors that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead describes, as well as the quality of education, have to be addressed to build the desire to learn and the desire of all parents to have high expectations of their children so that they do well in a society that offers equal opportunity for good-quality jobs and careers that can ensure they have a life to enjoy, rather than simply an existence.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this debate, which has been excellent so far, and on his thoughtful and, as ever, intelligent contribution. I once again congratulate him on the report, which I have read and is worthy of reading. I have also read his blog, which is a little more partisan, but I will forgive him. One has to take such things into account. Heaven forfend that we should be partisan.

I visited Bohunt school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last year before the Secretary of State for Education’s visit, and it is an excellent school that has a healthy disregard for Government initiatives, including, I hasten to add, the current Government’s initiatives such as the EBacc. The school has a progressive approach to the curriculum, which I am glad the hon. Gentleman supports. Perhaps that is why it is such a good school.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) on his extremely thoughtful contribution. I look forward to following the proceedings of tomorrow’s Education Committee, before which the Minister will make one of his glittering appearances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North said that Ofsted has talked about young people being lucky or unlucky, which triggered a thought, if the Chamber will indulge me, about my own background. I feel extremely lucky, because both my parents left school at 14, which was not unusual for the working class in my parents’ era. My father was an immigrant from the west of Ireland, although that part of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom when he was born, and my mother was the daughter and sister of coal miners in the south Wales valleys. They both left school at 14, but I feel lucky because they both cared about education and thought that it was an extremely important opportunity. My father was taken out of school by his father to go on to the farm at a time when his teacher wanted him to stay on to get more education, so I feel lucky generationally.

Like many in this Chamber, I had some inspirational teachers, but I went to a school from which no one had ever been to Oxford or Cambridge. It was hoped that I might get into university, so when I did my summer job, which my father secured for me—patronage is everywhere—at Llanwern steelworks and phoned up to get my A-level results, it was much to my surprise that I had done so well. I went back to take the sandwiches from the canteen to the gang, and one of the men with whom I was working said, “You ought to go to Oxford.” That was the first time anyone had ever said that to me. I had completed my A-levels and my schooling and was working at Llanwern steelworks, and he was the first person who had ever suggested to me that going to Oxford might be possible.

I feel passionately about this subject, as do many colleagues. I welcome the commitment from Members from all parts of the House to trying to ensure that people can fulfil their potential, and that poverty of aspiration is overcome as much as the problems resulting from the economic consequences of poverty. Not that I was from a poor background, I hasten to add; my parents were fortunate enough to be in employment for pretty much all their working lives.

The subject is extremely important. In a sense, the debate is about regional disparities, rather than class or ethnicity, although those factors obviously play into it a great deal, as the hon. Member for East Hampshire said. Those disparities also play into the Select Committee’s report and its inquiry into the performance of white working-class boys. It is worth considering for a moment why white working-class boys are not doing as well as they should in our education system. Perhaps it is a misnomer to talk about white working-class boys in this context, because it is often as much about the parents’ background and their low educational attainment as it is about income. It is also about worklessness and such factors within families.

The hon. Gentleman talked about how the migrant factor plays into this issue, particularly in London. Perhaps many such families look at the school system with fresh eyes and high hopes compared with parents who had a bad experience of the school system. They might have gone through in a low set and absorbed a feeling that school was not valuable to them or that they were not valued by school. They might then have transmitted that on to their children, which would be a factor. I think we can all agree that parents’ behaviours and attitudes matter in this debate. One thing we should consider is how we best influence parents and the role that the Government can have in raising parents’ aspirations and encouraging good parenting on education. We have to consider policy on parents and not just policy within the four walls of the school.

The issue of geography, which is essentially what the debate is about, and the issue in relation to London have been raised, and I will come back to them later.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will come on to this, but it is a bit like we are casting the fly into the river; we keep coming near to this thing that bites for the fly, but then it disappears again, and that thing is the quality of teaching. We have heard about aspirations, parental involvement and career advice and so on, but we know about those and we keep coming back to them. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) spoke about the quality of leadership and management and the Ofsted reports about certain schools in certain areas, and we keep coming back to this idea of how we get the very best teachers into the most difficult schools. How do we deal with that conundrum when someone is deciding where they want to teach or where they want to be a head teacher?

I will come on to that. I was about to say that one of the key challenges is on how we motivate people to go into areas that are struggling with recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers. How do we spread out excellent teachers to ensure that they are available to schools across the country? I will come back to that later.

The previous Government had policies on this issue and made narrowing the gap a priority, as this Government have. There is evidence that the previous Government were successful in narrowing the gap. The Institute for Public Policy Research report “A Long Division” contains some helpful information that illustrates that the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students narrowed between 2003 and 2011. We have to monitor the gap closely to ensure that it does not widen once again. The report shows that schools play a part in that, as does excellent teaching. Having good and outstanding schools is an important and necessary method of ensuring that we close the gap, although it is not sufficient in itself. We need to think more broadly about policies.

Many hon. Members will be familiar with the Sutton Trust report, “The Reading Gap”, from July 2013. It showed that boys aged 15 from disadvantaged backgrounds are some two and a half years behind their counterparts from the most advantaged backgrounds. That shows the problem of the attainment gap. Similarly, a Sutton Trust report from September 2011 highlighted the point that the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) just made, namely the importance of high quality teaching. The executive summary of that report said:

“The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds: over a school year, these pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, for poor pupils the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning.”

That shows the significance of raising teaching standards and ensuring that they stay high.

Teacher morale matters. I said that in a recent debate in the House, although the Minister was unable to attend on that occasion. Digging down into the detail of the programme for international student assessment report and the OECD reports, they clearly show that in systems where teacher morale is high and teachers feel valued—it is not necessarily where they are the best paid—pupils perform better. The Sutton Trust has shown that it is particularly important for disadvantaged pupils that we have high performing teachers. Will the Minister commit to publishing the data collected during the 2013 teacher workload survey? I and others have asked the Secretary of State to publish that on many occasions. We need to know what happens, because teacher morale matters to pupil outcomes, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

In terms of the earlier discussion on the challenge in London, does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is a Hawthorne effect in London? Teaching in London is seen to be special and teachers are held in high esteem compared with many other parts of the country, where the teaching profession feels undervalued.

That might well be a factor. There have been many initiatives in London and a real attempt to attract good quality graduates into the profession through a number of different routes, including Teach First, as the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned in his remarks. I have not seen data to show that the public regard teachers more highly in London than in other parts of the country, but that might be a factor.

Returning to the point I was making, on 13 January—I have asked this question subsequently, too—I asked the Minister

“when he intends to publish the findings of the most recent Teacher Workload Survey.”

Bear in mind that the survey was undertaken in March 2013, almost 12 months ago. The Minister’s answer was:

“Officials are currently analysing the data collected during the 2013 Teacher Workload Survey.”—[Official Report, 13 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 360W.]

Now, when one asks a parliamentary question, one never expects an answer—certainly not from the Department for Education. The relevant word in my question was “when”, but there was no reference in the answer to when the Minister intends to publish the report—not even to “shortly”, “soon” or other civil service terms. Nor was there any reference to “in the autumn”—a term that usually extends to 31 December.

The shadow Minister seems to be alluding to the suggestion that the report contains some sort of smoking gun that teachers are overworked or unhappy. Would it not be better to focus on what teachers need to do, which is to improve markedly, and on having a massive step change in our educational performance? Worrying about what happened last year or whether teachers are feeling a bit stressed is not the goal. We need to get our PISA rankings up, and that should be the priority.

I do not know whether the report contains a smoking gun; I have no idea what it contains. It cannot contain a smoking gun, because the gun has not been fired, despite us waiting a year to hear what the survey says. If the hon. Gentleman would care to read in detail the OECD reports on the PISA rankings, he will see that they make the point that teacher morale matters, and that it is a key component of ensuring that our system produces good quality outcomes and, therefore, a component of raising our performance in the PISA tables.

As a member of the Select Committee on Education, I would find it useful if the Department published the findings of the teacher workload survey. It would be useful for everyone in the field to see what those findings are.

Also, instead of focusing on PISA rankings, it is much more important for us to focus on educational outcomes for children. That will have a knock-on effect on PISA rankings, but the matter is about educational outcomes for individual children.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct.

I appreciate that the civil service’s work load may be great. I understand that in the most recent survey of civil servants in the Department, many of them expressed concern about how they are being treated. However, a year is a reasonable period, after a survey has been completed, to publish it. In this day and age, the Department does not need to analyse the data; it should just publish them. Others, including the Education Committee, the hon. Member for East Hampshire, who is thorough in his research, as we have seen today, and many others in the blogosphere so loved by the Secretary of State for Education, will tell us what they conclude the survey to say. Will the Minister commit today to publish the survey, in the interest of letting us know what is happening with teachers; whether the Government are getting it right in doing what they said they wanted to do in their White Paper a few years ago, which is to give proper status to the importance of teaching; and whether the work force are well motivated by the Government’s policies? I hope that he will tell us in his conclusion when he will publish the report, with the emphasis on “when”.

The London factor was mentioned a lot in this debate. There is considerable evidence of the impact of the London challenge. I accept what the hon. Member for East Hampshire said in his remarks—that that is not the only factor we should consider regarding the performance of London’s schools, which have outperformed schools in other parts of the country and are the most improved schools in the country—but the London challenge is undoubtedly an important part of the London factor.

An Ofsted report published in 2010 found the London challenge to be a great success. The report attributed that to a number of factors:

“Clear, consistent leadership…Improvement programmes which matched strategies to the needs of individual schools…Strategic deployment of support from the London Leadership Strategy…Successful heads mentoring head teachers in target schools…Sensitive matching of partners under the leadership of LC advisers…Support, ‘without strings attached and without conflicts of interest’, from local authorities…external consultants or teaching schools aimed at raising the quality of teaching and learning…Collaboration between schools and grouping schools in families…Continuing development programmes for teachers…Teachers being committed to all London children not just those in their own school…The development of robust tracking systems to monitor children’s progress.”

Those kinds of factors are the ones we should be seeking to replicate across the country. I have a concern—I put it no more strongly than that, in this more academic forum this morning—that elements of the Government’s approach to education policy are militating against the ability to achieve the 10 key factors that were identified in the Ofsted report.

Just out of interest—this is not meant to be a political challenge—regarding all the things the hon. Gentleman mentioned that could be replicated, the Labour Government tried to do that in 2008 in the black country and in Manchester. I am interested in his analysis of why there was no read-across.

I think there was some read-across, particularly in Manchester, where it worked better than elsewhere. I do not think the policy was given enough time. This Government were wrong to abandon that approach when they came in, in favour of a wholesale structural and cultural revolution, rather than looking at those key factors and attempting more effectively to replicate them. The system has been endangered by wholesale atomisation—the creation of this kind of Govian archipelago of schools across the country that are not well connected.

What the London challenge tells us—I sense sometimes that the Schools Minister may have some sympathy with this point—is that, while autonomy at school level is important, it should be provided within a collaborative system and a culture of collaboration, with highly qualified and well motivated professionals working together in the interests of all the children in that particular area. That was the lesson from the Ofsted report, which should be returned to and should become our mantra in trying to improve schools across the country. We should not simply rely on the idea that changing the sign at the front of the school and introducing academies and free schools will solve all our problems. It will not, and any intelligent analysis will show that.

We accept that we now have a variety of different types of schools, but let us re-introduce into the system the values of the London challenge that have been shown to be valuable in raising standards. That is not to say that everything from London is replicable across the country, due to many of the factors mentioned by the hon. Member for East Hampshire, but it is clear that they are key features of the London challenge that worked, and features of school systems in other parts of the world that show them to be a success.

I am conscious of time and I want to leave the Minister with time to respond, so I will briefly say a few more things. We have not heard much today about the importance of early years. I am not going to speak extensively about what the previous Government did on that; it has already been mentioned by other colleagues. We welcome and support—in fact, we proposed this—the extension of early years to two-year-olds. However, we need to do much more on that, and we need to have a much better offer for parents, particularly in relation to child care. We have already proposed a primary child care guarantee and extending free child care for three and four-year-olds from 15 hours to 24 hours per week. The Government ought to consider those proposals.

The pupil premium has been mentioned. Let us be clear: it was not really a premium, in the sense that it did not constitute any extra money in the system. When in opposition, the Schools Minister had said that there would be additional money—

The Minister may challenge the figures if he likes. The premium constituted no real increase in the schools budget. I know that the Minister is an economist, so if he wants to challenge what I say, he can, but it is a fact. When is a premium not a premium? When it is a pupil premium. Nevertheless we welcome the focus on the most deprived children, and we need to talk more about how best to use what is in effect a ring-fenced part of the school budget to close the gap. There is no silver bullet for that, or for overcoming regional differences identified by the hon. Member for East Hampshire, but the factors I have mentioned are important, and teaching quality is essential. The Government are getting that wrong with their message about unqualified teachers, and we think all teachers should be willing to become qualified so that the profession can be valued, so that they are up to date with the best pedagogical methods, and so that they understand child development properly. Strengthening parents’ role is vital and we need to think about how best to do that.

We have not talked much about the social and emotional aspects of learning, but those are important for children, and especially those from deprived backgrounds. We need to give more careful consideration to approaches such as mindfulness for improving the attentiveness and emotional well-being of children in school. Those are important factors in a good education.

The Select Committee recently went to Peterborough and met a gaggle of primary school heads. They said that because of the state in which some youngsters were coming to school they were using pupil premium money to feed them.

Children often come to school with more than just the books in their schoolbags—they come with their home issues; and sometimes, unfortunately, they come with little in their bellies. I am a former teacher and it is difficult to teach them if they are hungry, or if they are distressed or perturbed because of something that has happened at home. We need to focus on more rounded issues to do with the child in education, if we are to close the gap.

The shadow Education Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), has made a big contribution to the debate recently, which I welcome, with reference to the importance of character and resilience, and schools’ role in helping to develop those qualities in young people. Those are the bedrock of educational attainment, and will contribute to closing the gap.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I want to start in the traditional way by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate and choosing such an important issue—not just for education policy, but for the challenges the country faces. I congratulate him, too, on setting out the case in such a thoughtful, measured way. He built it strongly on recent work on educational disadvantage by the all-party group on social mobility, which he chairs, and highlighted some of the challenges that any Government will face in the coming years in dealing with low attainment and the unacceptable gap in outturns between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.[Official Report, 3 March 2014, Vol. 576, c. 12MC.]

I thank other hon. Members who spoke. There were good speeches from the hon. Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns). I should put the hon. Member for Cardiff West out of his misery before he intervenes on me to ask about the teacher workload survey, which he has become obsessed about. I have fantastic news for him, which will make his day: it will be published, not just shortly, but on 4 March. In the very near future he will be able to see all the information and get all the answers he wants.

I certainly do not intend to get into trouble by falling into the hon. Gentleman’s trap and giving out information that has not yet been approved. It would be an affront to Parliament.

We have had a good debate and talked about the challenge of raising attainment and closing the gap. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire talked in some detail about the pupil premium. Among the achievements of the coalition Government that is one of the policies I am proudest of. The pupil premium will rise next year to the full amount of funding that we said, at the beginning of the Parliament, we would allocate to it—£2.5 billion. That means an uplift, for each disadvantaged young person who receives it, of £1,300 in primary education and £935 in secondary education. That makes, and will in future make, a massive difference to the schools with the additional funding.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Cardiff West suggested, that is on top of the existing cash protection per pupil. It is happening at a time of austerity in the public sector, which would have been necessary whichever party was in power, and when we have been deliberately controlling the cost of schools by keeping down their biggest cost—teachers’ salaries. That has not been popular with teachers, but it has enabled us to contain costs while putting in additional money. Hon. Members will be aware from visiting schools that the ones that receive a lot of pupil premium money, because they have many children who qualify for it, notice the difference even in the present tough times. In Redcar, for instance, where the local economy has never properly recovered from the recession of the 1980s, I have visited schools where 80% or 90% of the young people are entitled to the pupil premium, which enables teachers and head teachers to transform their opportunities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) alluded earlier to children on the margins, particularly the children of the working poor, who are just below the threshold to qualify for the pupil premium. Are there plans to address that, particularly for areas such as the north-east, where the attainment gap is wider?

That is an important point. Some of the ways in which we now allocate funding for disadvantage go beyond the pupil premium. They include area-based methods and prior attainment, a factor that many local authorities use. It is not only through the pupil premium that we channel money into schools. However, I am serious when I say that we are keeping under review the question of whether in future we should have a different way of targeting money at disadvantage. The hon. Member for Gateshead raised the question of free school meals targeting, and whether that is sufficient. It is worth keeping other options in mind for the future beyond the current Parliament. I was interested in his comments about the Netherlands experience of targeting money towards children whose parents do not have strong educational qualifications. We should not assume that we have the perfect method for allocating disadvantage funding at the moment, and should seek constantly to build on what we do and improve it.

The performance of disadvantaged pupils has improved across the country since the coalition Government came to power in 2010, and it improved before that. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals who achieve the expected standard in maths at the end of primary school has risen from 66% to 74% since 2010, and the gap between those children and their peers has narrowed by 4 percentage points. The picture is similar at key stage 4. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals achieving at least five A* to C grade GCSEs, including English and maths, has risen from 31% in 2010 to 38% in 2013. The gap between those youngsters on free school meals and the rest of the pupil population has narrowed. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire pointed out, however, the performance of disadvantaged pupils is different throughout the United Kingdom and throughout England.

Does the Minister agree that one should not be complacent about such things? In England last year, the GCSE attainment gap widened in 72 out of 152 local authority areas. In 66 areas, it was larger than it was two years previously. In England as a whole, the gap was 26.7% last year, up from 26.4% in 2011-12, which means we should not be complacent.

We certainly should not be complacent at all. We have a huge amount of progress to make in reducing the gap. In the previous year, 2012, there was a particularly large reduction in the gap at secondary level, so I am not surprised to see some push back against that in 2013. The trend is still clearly downwards, but there is a long way to go and I would like a much more rapid pace of progress than we have had in recent years.

A number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, pointed out that progress in London has been more impressive over the past decade or so, as was said in the all-party group’s report, “Capital Mobility”, which was published at the end of last year. Disadvantaged young people in London are now more than 10 percentage points more likely to achieve five A* to C grades including English and maths than those in the next highest-performing region. The gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers is narrowest in London.

We need to ask, as my hon. Friend did, what the important factors in London are. He was able to put aside some factors that do not appear to be explanatory and to identify others that are significant, such as aspiration among young people in London being higher, for which there is some evidence. There is also a different ethnic mix in London, compared with much of the rest of the country, with a greater proportion of London pupils from high-performing ethnic groups such as Chinese, Indian and Korean. There is also important and impressive performance by many ethnically Pakistani and Bangladeshi children, who perform better than white children in London, but worse than white children outside London.

As is well known, London schools are better funded, but we need to be careful about drawing easy conclusions from that. Part of the headline difference simply relates to area cost. London also has above-average unemployment and deprivation, so it might be expected to attract higher levels of funding on average. As my hon. Friend pointed out, however, London has less experienced teachers and larger, rather than smaller, class sizes, although it has more sponsored academies, which have been making impressive progress under this Government and the previous Labour Government in raising attainment and narrowing the gaps.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Teach First. It is true that around half of Teach First graduates are in London. That is a hugely disproportionate share, but it reflects the fact that the programme started in London and that, to some extent, it is easier to find young people who after university want to be located in our biggest cities. I am delighted that Teach First not only has doubled in size since 2010 to become the country’s largest graduate recruiter, but will from next year be present in every single region of the country. I hope that will ensure that we get effective teachers teaching in schools throughout the country and not only in our largest cities.

It is worth pointing out, as a number of hon. Members have, that Teach First will only ever provide a minority of teachers in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East invited us to think about what more could be done to develop the talents of the rest of the teaching work force. After all, we have around a third of a million teachers, and we need to ensure that we attend to all of them and focus not simply on the Teach First programme, important though that is.

We need to look at ways to get teachers to some of the most challenging schools and we need to allow schools to use the pupil premium in whatever ways are effective, including paying to attract better teachers to the more challenging schools. We know, however, that some people will not move around the country, for family and other reasons, and we have to be able to recruit good teachers throughout the country, in every single area and region. We cannot assume that teachers can be moved around.

In some local authorities, our schools are not doing well. For example, in England as a whole, just under 80% of schools are now good or outstanding, which is the highest figure since Ofsted began, but in 13 local authorities fewer than half of all secondary pupils are in such schools. None of those authorities is in London. They are clustered in Yorkshire and the Humber, in places such as Bradford, Doncaster, East Riding and Barnsley; and in the north-west, in places such as St Helens, Blackpool, Salford and Tameside.

In 14 local authorities, the attainment of free school meal pupils at key stage 4 is more than 10 percentage points below the national average for such pupils. In places such as Barnsley and Portsmouth, performance is appalling: only 22% and 23% respectively of children eligible for the pupil premium achieved five good GCSEs including English and maths, which is only just over half the national figure. Achievement for that group of pupils declined in 2013 in both places. In 12 local authorities, attainment at the end of key stage 4 for pupils eligible for free school meals was lower in 2013 than in 2010. That, too, is completely unacceptable.

Ofsted is addressing regional underperformance through its regional inspection arrangements, with focused inspections of local authorities and groups of schools. It is carrying out inspections not only of schools, but of school improvement functions. I welcome the chief inspector’s plans to ask challenging questions of local authorities and others about their contribution to school improvement. After each such inspection, the Department looks carefully at Ofsted’s conclusions. Where the chief inspector is unhappy with a response, we will take action as necessary.

In the case of the Isle of Wight, we issued a direction under the Education Act 1996, which required the local authority to enter into a strategic partnership with Hampshire to tackle its weakness in school improvement. We will not hesitate to intervene again where local authorities fail in their Ofsted inspections on school improvement and where they fail to improve swiftly or to rise to the challenge.

We are keen to see local authorities and sponsor groups on the front foot, taking the initiative, rather than waiting to be challenged by Ofsted or the Department. We are heartened to see initiatives breaking out in many parts of the country to lead improvement in schools, such as “By schools for schools” in Greater Manchester.

We are targeting schools and local authorities where the attainment of disadvantaged pupils is unacceptably low. I recently wrote to 214 schools—115 primary and 99 secondary—with the poorest value-added progress among disadvantaged pupils. I will shortly be writing to the schools, local authorities, dioceses and academy sponsors so that they may provide additional challenge.

A number of Members mentioned the importance in a system of autonomous schools of having more school-to-school support to ensure that we spread best practice. That is extremely important and something that the Department takes seriously. Teaching school alliances and peer support networks can be effective in raising standards. Currently, 345 teaching schools cover around 4,800 other schools. In September, the Secretary of State announced an expansion to reach a total of 600 alliances by 2016. I have seen for myself—in Redditch, for example—the importance of such arrangements and what the alliances can do for work on school improvement.

We also need more national leaders of education in those parts of the country in which they are in short supply, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire mentioned. We need a programme to support our best leaders and deputy leaders taking up posts in parts of the country in which there are large gaps and weaknesses in educational attainment. That will not necessarily suit everyone, because many people have family and other commitments to keep them in particular places. Many are willing to move, however—people with high aspirations, who might have already improved their schools and be willing to attempt it elsewhere in the country. From September 2015, the talented leaders programme announced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will start by matching 100 head teachers with underperforming schools in areas that struggle to attract and develop outstanding school leaders. In these ways, we hope to spread the improvement that we have seen in areas such as London to the whole country.

Post Office Closure (Sutton)

It is great to have the opportunity to raise this matter in Westminster Hall this morning, and to debate the issue with the Minister. I look forward to his response to the issues I want to bring on behalf of constituents and business interests in my constituency.

There is a proposal to close two Crown post offices in Sutton and create one replacement Crown post office. The Crown post office in the St Nicholas shopping centre is to close. That is in Sutton high street—I will say more about the geography of my constituency and the town in a minute. Under the proposals, its business will be transferred to another post office, on Grove road, outside the main commercial district of Sutton town centre.

I will start by giving some geographical context. Sutton town centre is on an old coaching route out of London towards Brighton. That might not seem immediately relevant until I mention that the sites of the old coaching inns at the top and bottom of the town—the Angel inn and the Cock inn—are at the bottom and top of a hill. In just under 1 km, the climb from the bottom of my town centre to its top covers 25 metres, so it is quite a haul to get from bottom to the top of that hill. That is one of the challenges of how town centres have been constructed over the years.

The climb is an issue that comes up in my mailbag and it leads to people not always choosing to shop in Sutton. The proposals will result in the Crown post office in the St Nicholas centre, which is at the heart of the town, being closed, and the next nearest being at the top of the hill. That will be an inconvenience. It is vexing many of my constituents, although it is not the only reason why they feel vexed by the proposals.

The coaching inns have gone, and so have the coaches, and today we have a Crown post office at the top of the town and one in the middle of the town. At the moment, the proposals seem to amount to the Post Office placing its own convenience ahead of that of the public. The closure of the post office in the middle of the town will cause the maximum inconvenience to the maximum number of customers of the Post Office’s services.

I have a number of objections to the proposals, as do the London borough of Sutton local authority and many other interested parties. The first, as I have said, is the geography and topography of the area, which is an important consideration, particularly for some of the people who use the services. Sutton has a stable and settled population, and around the town centre there is a large elderly population. Those people are being told that they must now climb to the top of the hill to use the remaining post office in Grove road. I should stress that Grove road is part of Sutton’s one-way system, which allows the high street—the main commercial district of the town—to be a pedestrian-only area. Grove road is a wide, busy, fast road and marks an important break between the retail heart of the town and the outer parts of the area.

I have received expressions of support and of concern about the proposals, not only from residents but from local businesses. Sutton town centre has a business improvement district, called Successful Sutton—a really good initiative taken by the town’s business leaders, who have taken the opportunity to use resources to invest in their own future. As part of Successful Sutton, there was a pre-Christmas offer to shoppers that introduced a complimentary customer buggy, similar to the sort of buggies used at airports, to transport people up and down the hill I just mentioned. The director of Successful Sutton, Ross Feeney, has told me that when the users of the service were surveyed ahead of its proposed winding down after Christmas, many said that one of their principal concerns, and one reason that they would like the service to be retained, was the threatened closure of the post office in the St Nicholas centre.

It was not only customers who were concerned. Successful Sutton has also told me that, as the leader of local businesses in the town centre, it is concerned, and many of its members have expressed concern as well, for a number of reasons. When I met Successful Sutton’s representatives to discuss the closure, they were particularly concerned about the impact it would have on cash businesses in the town, which need to be able to bank their money at the end of the day. The convenience of having a post office in the heart of the retail district was important to those businesses, for safety and security and their ability to carry on with business operations.

Another concern raised was that traders want easy access to parcel services. As the proposals would close a post office in a major shopping mall, a further issue is the loss of footfall and potential loss of trade. Post offices are often important anchors in such facilities. The impact is not just on the general public but on the business community and the town itself.

I referred earlier to the Post Office putting its own convenience ahead of the public’s, and I hope the Minister will be able to help by getting some information from the Post Office and possibly Royal Mail. The Grove road Crown post office is leased from Royal Mail, on what I understand are very favourable terms—part of the reason why the Post Office wishes to consolidate activity at that site. However, the site is a valuable piece of real estate. Although at present there is nothing, to my knowledge, in the development pipeline, its location next to Sutton railway station must make it a candidate for consideration by Royal Mail as to whether best use is being made of the site in the long run. The future of that site is a real question, as is the impact there would be on provision of Crown post office services if the site were to be disposed of and redeveloped in future.

I turn to the St Nicholas centre post office itself. My understanding is that the Post Office walked away from negotiations about renewing that site’s lease despite the flexible approach being adopted by the owners of the St Nicholas centre. I hope that the Minister will pursue with the Post Office the issue of whether those negotiations might be reopened.

Sutton faces an unwelcome consultation about the loss of its post office. I think that there is a case for keeping both Crown post offices; I know that is what my constituents would prefer, but I am sure that I am going to be told the economic costs of doing so and just how expensive Crown post offices are. However, if there is to be a merger, the Post Office must put the needs of its customers first. Maintaining a Crown post office in the heart of the retail centre of the town should be the minimum the Post Office seeks to do.

My requests to the Minister are as follows. Will he assure me that customers will be put first, and in the event of a merger the best location for the post office will be the Post Office’s priority? Secondly, will he press the Post Office to re-engage with the owners of the St Nicholas centre and to discuss options with Sutton council and with me? Thirdly, will he clarify the safeguards and guarantees that are in place already or could be put in place should the Grove road Crown post office become the candidate for the new merged and expanded Crown post office, so that, down the line, my constituents do not face the prospect of a redevelopment leading to another search for an alternative location for a Crown post office?

Those are the issues I want to put to the Minister today. They are causes of concern for my local authority, the local business community, local residents and local traders. I hope that he will be able to give us some indication of how the Post Office can engage constructively with those issues and I look forward to his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton, and to respond to this debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to discuss post office provision in Sutton and more broadly. I acknowledge the role he has played and the reasonable tone he has adopted in tackling the tricky issue of the best future for the Post Office and its customers in Sutton.

We all recognise the Post Office’s vital role in our communities throughout the country. Communities are worried whenever changes are proposed to the post office network, not least because, as well as being shops, they are a vital hub of the local community. That is one reason why we made a commitment to provide almost £2 billion in the years to 2018 to protect the post office network, to ensure service provision in communities and to put the network on a long-term footing. As I am sure my right hon. Friend expects, that will be the basis of my response today.

We are acting now to the tune of almost £2 billion and are committed to ensuring that the post office network is sustainable in the long term. That is particularly important following the closure programmes in 2003 and 2008, which saw 5,500 post offices close permanently under the previous Government. This Government’s extra spending on the post office network to secure its future has achieved the most stable network in more than two decades.

The closure programme impacted on many constituencies, including Sutton, and we must take account of later changes within the context of 5,500 post offices having closed over the last decade or so. Some local sub-post offices in Sutton closed in the last decade, and I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that our long-term spending to secure a sustainable future for the network is the right broad approach. We are ensuring that a minimum network size of 11,500 branches is maintained and investing in those branches to ensure that they are high quality, attractive and more financially sustainable.

The Minister is right to talk about the loss of sub-post offices in my constituency and many others. A map of Sutton and Cheam shows large gaps in the network, with inconvenience for people who need access to a post office. One has been closed for a long time, but was never formally closed. I hope we will hear good news about that one reopening.

I cannot give my right hon. Friend good news on that today, but I am sure that his point will be noted. We all care about post offices because they are critical to hundreds and thousands of small businesses and the many millions of customers who use them daily for the diverse range of services on offer in the branches. I agree that local people of all ages and backgrounds regularly use post offices for mail and access to finance. The Post Office is living through a period of technological change and it is vital in a world of new technology, and to a positive and sustainable future, that it can provide those services while allowing post offices to remain a hub for local communities.

I turn to the proposals for the Sutton Crown post office. The post office network is diverse and of the existing 11,800 branches only around 360—the Crown branches— are directly owned and operated by the Post Office. The rest are operated by independent business people—sub-postmasters—who play a key role. The 360 Crown branches represent only a small proportion of the total number of branches, but they are important to the network as a whole because they tend to be larger and to earn the greatest revenue. However, they also have the highest costs, and they have been responsible for a significant proportion of the Post Office’s losses in recent years. Bringing the Post Office into a sustainable long-term position involves trying to ensure that we get a grip on those losses.

Last year, the 360 Crown post offices lost a total of £37 million throughout the country. Those losses are not sustainable, which is why the Post Office is working hard to tackle them. Probably the best way of doing so is through increasing revenue, which is a mark of a rejuvenated post office network. In a similar vein, costs must be reduced, and that includes the Post Office working with its employees and stakeholders to introduce new technologies.

We are investing about £70 million in 300 branches to make them more attractive to customers and to identify savings in property costs. We are making a short-term investment to ensure that costs are brought under control and revenue is increased to ensure that the Crown post offices come into balance. Those activities will deliver considerable benefits, but expanding revenue alone is not enough, so the Post Office is exploring the possibility of franchising about 70 Crown post offices and merging around six Crown branches. That brings me to Sutton.

We must make the post office network sustainable for the long term. The Post Office is considering merging two branches in Sutton, which are less than half a mile apart. As my right hon. Friend said, the consultation is still open. The situation is unusual because normally there is only one Crown post office for any given area. Due to the Post Office’s franchising and merging activity and the imminent expiry of the lease on the High street Crown post office, it is reviewing the configuration of the Crown post offices in the area.

Merging the high street and Grove road branches will bring the benefit of more investment in the single Crown post office that will remain under the proposal that is out for consultation, so there would be advantages for customers as well as the obvious challenges that my right hon. Friend highlights. The merged branch will have considerable investment, and it will be refurbished and modernised with a brighter environment. It will have new technologies, an additional counter and a private consultation room. It will offer a wider range of services than are currently available at the high street branch, including an external cash machine and identity services, allowing customers to apply for passports and driving licences more easily.

The high street Crown post office costs around £2 to operate for every £1 of revenue that it brings in. The Grove road Crown post office costs £1.50 to operate for every £1 of revenue that it generates. I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand that those costs are not sustainable. If the two branches are merged, the Post office will not only make its business more efficient but will protect services for the long term and make the branch sustainable, which is vital for local communities, customers and small businesses.

I understand that the Post Office considered several options before proposing the merger and it was decided that the current proposal offers the maximum benefits, so it is out for consultation. My right hon. Friend asked about negotiations with the landlords of the high street premises. The Post Office has obviously approached the current landlords but has not been able to negotiate a renewal rent that is better value for money than the current proposal to retain Grove road. Those conversations have taken place, but I cannot say whether there is more to be done. Discussions have taken place, but were not concluded successfully. Under the plan, customers will continue to have access to Grove road’s large Crown post office, which will be improved, but the merger also plans to eliminate the losses incurred in the branches, making them more sustainable and the whole post office system in Sutton more financially viable for the long term.

Having said all that, no decision has been taken. As my right hon. Friend is aware, a consultation is out. I am encouraged by the open dialogue taking place between the Post Office and the council to see whether alternative options can be considered. All the issues, including the topography and customer convenience, will be taken into account in the consultation. I urge any interested parties to submit their views to the Post Office as part of the process and ensure that the community’s concerns and points are considered appropriately.

I want to ask the Minister about one other thing—he might not be able to help with it today, but perhaps through his officials he could come back to me. I am talking about the status of the Grove road post office and guarantees about its future, given that it is such a prime site for future development.

I shall certainly get back to my right hon. Friend with the position on longer-term guarantees about Grove road, should that be the option that goes forward after consultation on the proposal. Discussions with the council will be exploring a range of options, including the council identifying potential alternatives for a post office close to the town centre, taking on board considerations about negotiations on the high street site and the location of the Grove road site. Discussions with the council about an alternative location are part of the ongoing consultation.

I urge the council to continue to work with the Post Office to try and address local concerns, while providing a sustainable, long-term financial future for post office services. I know that Post Office management remain open to discussing all those options with the council and trying to find a solution, in response to the consultation, that is best not only for the Post Office, but for the Post Office’s customers, who are a vital part of the Post Office, too.

To sum up, I fully appreciate the concerns of not only my right hon. Friend but his constituents about the proposed changes. I hope that I have been able to set out some of the thinking behind why the consultation has been proposed in this way and also given some assurances that the consultation is ongoing and that all options are being considered. The reasonable approach being taken by my right hon. Friend, the council and Post Office management is right. Everybody understands that the losses in the Crown network were unsustainable. Given that finance is available to put together an option that can be sustainable over the long term, it is important that the process is gone through, but I am glad that it is open and consultative. The consultation closes in early April, so anybody wanting to submit a view has just over a month to put their points to the Post Office. I will ensure, and can provide reassurance, that the Post Office is listening to all points and options that are put on the table.

In closing, I hope that my right hon. Friend recognises not only the understanding of the vital role that post offices play in communities, but that this genuine consultation is about trying to find the best, financially secure, long-term solution to having a post office in the middle of Sutton—whether through the proposal on the table now or through other options being considered with the council. Although some changes are likely, I hope that, in the longer term, they will bring benefits to his constituents and reassure them that they will have a sustainable post office network to serve them in the way we all know and understand is so vital to our local communities.

Sitting suspended.

Land Registry

[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

I am pleased to have secured this important debate and thank the Minister for attending. I will declare an interest at the top and state that the Land Registry has its largest facility in the UK in my constituency of Swansea East. That provides a substantial number of jobs and plays an important role in the socio-economic life of Swansea East and the surrounding areas.

On 23 January, the Minister announced plans to launch a consultation on ending the Land Registry’s status as a trading fund. The consultation exercise proposed two things: first, that Her Majesty’s Land Registry be separated into an office of the chief land registrar and a service delivery arm; and secondly that the service delivery arm be transferred out of the civil service and become a company, either a Government-owned company—a GovCo—or a private or quasi-private company.

Currently, the Land Registry, as a trading fund, is entirely self-funding and therefore no drain on the Government purse. Furthermore, year on year the service makes a surplus, which is passed on to the public by way of reduced costs for usage of the service and by way of providing the Treasury with significant income.

The Public and Commercial Services Union suggests, and I agree, that only by keeping the Land Registry’s trading fund status can the service maintain its necessary independence, impartiality and accountability. I also believe that the status of the organisation as it stands offers best value in providing a land registration service to the public. Given the success of the current service, not to include in the consultation a proposal to retain the current trading fund status seems ludicrous. It is certainly not a good business move and shows a distinct lack of forward thinking by the Land Registry executives.

Let me give some background. The Land Registry has been a non-ministerial Department since 1862. It was established as an Executive agency of the Lord Chancellor in July 1990 and as a trading fund in April 1993. The main aims and functions of Her Majesty’s Land Registry are set out in the framework document of 2008. As with other non-ministerial Departments, the Land Registry’s functions have always been entirely statutory. It has no prerogative powers. The Land Registry’s main statutory functions are to keep a register of title to freehold and leasehold land throughout England and Wales, and to provide the statutory service of registering, on a daily basis, the many thousands of new titles and dealings with land. That includes registering mortgages, changes of ownership and many other legal interests.

There are many challenges for the future. I repeat that the Land Registry’s managerial dilemma appears to be what sort of company the Land Registry should become—a GovCo or a private enterprise—but where is the evidence that changing from a trading fund to any sort of company would meet the Department’s objectives? None has been provided. The current system is tried, tested, evaluated and proven; and as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I have been approached by a number of companies in my constituency, including Norfolk Information Ltd, trading as the Property Search Group, Index Property Information and AW Searches, which is also trading as the Property Search Group. They all say that the changes being proposed are important and that a much longer consultation period is needed, particularly when we are talking about small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which are expanding. As the Minister correctly keeps reminding us, SMEs are the lifeblood of our economy.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come to the importance of SMEs, the role that they have in the process and how we must protect their interests.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the eloquence with which she is advancing her case. Is she aware that the proposal has cast a big shadow of uncertainty and job insecurity over the staff of the organisation, some of whom work in my constituency, which is nearby, and that when Tesco recently advertised for staff to open a local store in nearby Briton Ferry, 15 posts attracted 600 applicants? These are communities of very high unemployment, and job insecurity is therefore a big problem in the area.

It is. I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. The Land Registry jobs are quality, well paid and well respected posts, and it is very important that we retain them in a mixed economy and give job opportunities and a way forward to people from all sorts of backgrounds. I am very loth to lose one job, of any type or description, from my constituency when, as he has just pointed out, they are all very important.

Have the Government failed to notice that the Land Registry has a customer satisfaction rating of 98%—a rating that many large-scale, international and well known organisations would love to have—that it operates at no cost to the taxpayer and that it made £98.8 million last year for the Treasury? That was used to reduce fees and to invest back into our everyday lives. Why is the Minister not standing up and congratulating that organisation on its effectiveness rather than swinging the sword of Damocles over its head?

The service users—every person in the UK who owns property—need a reliable, low-cost and secure land registration service that also guards against the ever-increasing crime of property fraud. Nothing in the current proposal provides any evidence that moving to a commercial model will improve the existing service, so I ask again: why mend what is not broken? The talk is rhetorical.

My hon. Friend is, as has been said, making an excellent speech. On behalf of my constituents who work in the Birkenhead office, does she agree that her point—if it isn’t broke, why are we fixing it?—is apposite, and that, at a time of high levels of insecurity, especially in parts of the country such as the north-west, the proposal adds insult to injury for people such as my constituents who have worked incredibly hard for the satisfaction scores she mentions?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, the proposal beggars belief and causes me concern. It causes me even greater concern when I consider that that is how hard work and loyalty are repaid. We hear much about the training of staff and the investment in staff and training, but now we are considering losing an excellently trained and efficient work force, and at what cost? That is of great concern. It is of even greater concern that we could even think about moving these people out of a job that is doing such great and good things for us as a society.

No comparisons have been made to show how a company would achieve more than the organisation does with the current trading fund status. No information is being offered as to how the supposed benefits of change, said to be agility, alignment and capability, will be achieved or even what those mean. The Government claim that a change in status from a trading fund would allow

“greater flexibilities to operate around pay, recruitment and possibly provide other services”.

I suggest that there is ample scope in the current model to accommodate all of those.

The Minister has declined to provide vital information to Parliament, as demonstrated in his responses to written parliamentary questions on 13 February on the Land Registry’s business strategy and new plans for service delivery. I crave your patience now, Mr Walker, because I would like to quote directly two of the responses. The first states:

“The way in which Land Registry’s services are delivered will likely change as the business pursues a digital, efficiency and modernisation agenda through its Business Strategy. This will continue irrespective of the outcome of the consultation—including if the status quo is maintained.”

He continues on the theme of service delivery, stating: “The target operating model”, which is the Land Registry service delivery plan,

“includes initial operational planning based on the number of LR business delivery assumptions. The consultation reflects a broader and different range of issues, as it considers and seeks views on a range of Land Registry commercial models. Some parts of the TOM will be affected by the consultation’s outcome. Therefore, it would be misleading to provide further details.”—[Official Report, 13 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 773-774W.]

The Minister cannot have it both ways. If, as he claims, the proposed changes to service delivery will continue irrespective of the outcome of the consultation, he can hardly refuse to reveal those changes on the basis that they would be misleading.

The PCS has provided me with its formal consultation response, which demonstrates that part of the rationale for moving from a trading fund to a company is tied to “speeding up” new methods of service delivery. That new service delivery, which is part of the Government’s digital by default agenda, appears to be a plan to remove the vast majority of the service provision of land registration from the Land Registry and move it to the customers—conveyancers and solicitors. Those solicitors and conveyancers will have to self-serve and they, not the Land Registry, will have to register legal interests in dealing with land on behalf of the public. If that is what is planned, where is the evidence that solicitors and conveyancers have been consulted?

The Government purport to be a friend of small businesses, but what evidence is there that small and medium-sized high street firms can make those changes and become self-servers in land registration for the public without incurring massive costs in IT equipment and increased staffing? If the Government put an end to the current low-cost, efficient public service of land registration and make solicitors and conveyancers undertake that work, how will that change be reflected in the prices paid by the public? How will such momentous changes fit in with the aim of making the system less vulnerable to increasing property fraud? We need answers to those questions.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General once accused the previous Labour Government of losing control of IT procurement and locking out small, innovative and efficient IT firms from supplying services to Government. The current Government claim they have changed all that and that they support procurement from SMEs in the form of the Government Digital Service. Why, therefore, has the Land Registry board, which includes non-executive directors from the shareholder executive—part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—said that it wants the “unfettered” agility to avoid the Government’s alleged preference for using SMEs for procurement? How is that consistent with being a friend of small businesses?

I said at the beginning of the debate that land registration involves the granting of title to land and the guarantee of legal interests that it registers on a daily basis. Those are fundamental to every home owner in England and Wales and an essential part of the UK economy, and there is much potential to expand. The Land Registry’s reputation is its greatest asset. As a public service, the trust that has always been placed in it assures the public that it is independent and has authentic credentials of honesty. It is entirely focused on its service to users and not distracted by profits, outside interests or political interference. Given that it provides the state guarantee of title, it must surely remain entirely free from commercial influence.

The case against changing the Land Registry into a company, whether a GovCo or a privately financed company, is that doing so would create a body with unclear commercial status, which would lose the necessary independence from commercial influence. The proposed funding changes might easily negate the current controls—statutory and Treasury—on surpluses, which serve as checks and balances on trading funds and control what surpluses can be retained. Those all feed into the argument that there are disadvantages to shifting the delivery of land registration to a commercial profit model.

In conclusion, I emphasise that plans to make the Land Registry a commercial enterprise are unclear. We are not yet sure whether such an enterprise would be fit for purpose, because we do not know what the aims are. The proposal is uncosted, so we do not know whether any savings would result. It is untested, so we do not know whether it would work. We know, however, that the current Land Registry trading fund model is self-funding, profitable, reliable and trusted, tested, secure and in a good position for development. Once again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) on her speech, and I would like to put on the record that she will be a loss to the House when she leaves at the general election. She is a diligent and hard-working Member.

Almost four years ago, I stood on the other side of the Chamber opposite the then Justice Minister Michael Wills, who represented North Swindon. During that debate, I argued against the changes to the Land Registry estate that had been mooted by the previous Labour Government. Those changes were driven by the Lyons review of 2004, which focused on capital, land and buildings, and rental values.

I opposed the proposal because the methodology used was flawed, and it was very much a top-line, cost-saving exercise rather than one about efficiency and effectiveness. It did not take into account the great professionalism, esprit de corps and commitment of my constituents, some 210 of whom work in the Land Registry in Peterborough. I seek, as always, to protect the interests of my constituents; those are good-quality, white-collar jobs in Peterborough.

There is a difference between those proposals and the current ones, however. I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). There should be a consultation, but the Government should consider extending it because the proposals will have implications for many small and medium-sized enterprises involved in conveyancing and other property-related activities. If there is inherent merit in the Government’s case, I do not think that it will be damaged by extending the consultation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that outside London and the south-east the housing market is still quite fragile, so any change in that local authority-based arrangement may lead to a great deal of uncertainty? That is another reason why the consultation period might easily be extended a bit.

I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I largely agree with him. However, it would be remiss of the Government not to look at different models for the delivery of necessary public services. In some important public service activities, even the previous Government looked at substantial changes in governance. That is the distinction between the proposals enunciated by the previous Government between 2008 and 2010—as hon. Members will have concluded, they resulted in the saving of the Peterborough Land Registry office and others across the country—and the current proposals, which are much more about governance.

For the record, 10 constituents have written to or e-mailed me about the matter, which is substantially fewer than contacted me about the debate four years ago. I make no comment on that; I merely highlight it for comparison. I support a proper debate on the delivery of such an important service, but I have no ideological opposition to the splitting of functions, whereby a GovCo might carry out practical land registration functions separately from the office of the chief land registrar, which is much more policy-based.

I agree that there must be a new business model, not least because we must always be mindful of the fact that our first priority as constituency MPs is to protect our constituents’ job opportunities, as the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) says, particularly in areas with high unemployment. However, we also have a wider responsibility to other stakeholders, including the taxpayer and businesses that rely on the Land Registry being efficient and delivering a good service. It is an important tripartite approach.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Like him, I have had regular contact from constituents on this issue. North Yorkshire Legal Services Ltd, based in York and run by one of my constituents, has written to me on a number of occasions. It is deeply concerned about how the proposals that my hon. Friend has set out will affect the market. The potential consequences could be devastating for my constituent’s business. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to understand any wider implications before rushing into such decisions?

That is a typically astute point from my hon. Friend. He anticipates some of the comments I will make later.

The Land Registry is almost totemic: it is a trusted, strong brand and the people who work there are professional and committed to the public service ethos. There is a general commitment in the Conservative party—indeed, across the House—to good governance and the aspiration to the proper ownership of land, owner-occupation and property ownership in general. The Land Registry is at the heart of that and, as the hon. Member for Swansea East said earlier, it has been in existence, governed by statute, for more than 150 years.

GroundSure Ltd, a company in Brighton and Hove, is very concerned about the impact of changes to the Land Registry on smaller businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that we really should take such businesses into account?

Yes, indeed.

I would be remiss and rather churlish if I did not compliment the work of the PCS union. Members do not often hear me saying that, but it has done a good job on the research it has sent to Members and entered into a good, fact-based debate, which is as it should be. Members will no doubt be aware of the very good PCS document “The future of our Land Registry”. It might also be appropriate to mention the contribution of Mr John Manthorpe, the former chief land registrar who also prepared interesting information, both for me in 2010 and now for other Members and others.

However, to a certain extent we have moved on, even since 2010. The provision of services is now online much more than even four years ago. The digitisation of the core facilities and services of the Land Registry is developing at a significant rate. We must take that on board as an important factor that informs the debate.

This is not necessarily a party political point, but we also need to remember that all public services are and should be much more customer-focused than they ever were before. The integrity and reputation of the Land Registry must, of course, be of uppermost concern. To a certain extent, I am reserving judgment on the proposed changes. I would like to look in detail at any future primary legislation that governs the operation of the Land Registry. Although it may not be fashionable, I think that there must be a degree of ministerial accountability for the activities of the Land Registry—the Minister can take that as my direct consultation response. It is too important an operation and piece of our national life to be disregarded. There should be some form of—circuitous, if necessary—direct or indirect accountability to Ministers and certainly to Parliament.

I am also slightly concerned about the potential of offshoring. I do not buy the concept that delivering a public service in a different way is necessarily a bad thing, in and of itself. Ultimately, the issue is what is good for the taxpayers, the work force and the wider community. Nevertheless, when considering an important function such as the Land Registry, offshoring slightly worries me. I would like the Minister to reassure me on that point.

There must also be a strong business case for the different model—the GovCo. They probably will not want to do so today, but in future the Government may want to say that the proposed changes are a signpost to a future privatisation. That does not scare me particularly and in principle I am not against it, but there must be a robust, demonstrable, fact-based business case in the preparation of the target operating model going forward.

As my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said earlier, there must also be very thorough analysis and scrutiny of not just the benefits but the costs of any new model. It is important that we look at the costs of, say, moving over to e-conveyancing, or of the development of new IT. That is important, and I am sure that the Minister will want to reassure me on that point.

I will not be much longer, Mr Walker, because I know others wish to speak. As the hon. Member for Swansea East said, we are discussing a self-financing organisation that currently costs the taxpayer nothing. The proposition I would put to the hon. Lady is that if we could replicate the professionalism and efficiency of the present Land Registry and also make a profit for the taxpayer, we would be duty bound to look into that.

I would like to make a few other brief points. We must have an open and transparent procurement process for things such as IT. I am sure that the Minister is mindful of that. We should not have any sweetheart deals if we are looking into new IT procurement. If people transfer over, we must also ensure that the Government are mindful of TUPE in relation to the terms and conditions of people who have given a great deal of their professional life and commitment to public service in their local area.

I want to see more details of the GovCo and would want greater clarity in any future regulations or primary legislation. I believe that there should be flexibility and autonomy for the new company, if it so develops. That could well be the right thing for the taxpayer, for the work force and for business. As I say, however, I currently reserve my judgment. Let us extend the consultation and have a proper debate based on facts. We have a duty to all stakeholders and I expect the Government to rise to the challenge and robustly put their case for any future changes. I look after the interests of my constituents in Peterborough, who come first, last and always for me. I hope that the Government are mindful of the individual circumstances resulting from any large-scale changes to people’s jobs and opportunities.

Order. Four colleagues have risen to speak, and there are just over 40 minutes until winding up. That is about 10 minutes each if Members wish to take that long.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Walker. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson)—my father represented that seat, so I understand some of the specific constituency issues he has mentioned. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) managed to secure this debate.

The hon. Member for Peterborough is absolutely right that there was a period under the previous Government during which a number of us who were involved with land registries in our constituencies had meetings with the then Minister, Michael Wills, to express our concerns. The economy was then in a downturn and the Land Registry was finding things quite difficult financially, for a whole range of reasons, but the position has now changed, as has the potential trading position. As the hon. Member for Peterborough pointed out, there is potentially now scope for money to go back into the Treasury, because the Land Registry is a successful enterprise.

The proposal suggests splitting away the Land Registry policy arm—comprising around 30 staff—and having a commercial delivery arm. The options for the latter are set out: a GovCo, a joint venture partnership or contracting out. All those could lead us down the route to eventual privatisation, which is a major concern for all of us.

At the moment, we do not have clarity—indeed, there is quite a lot of confusion out there. It is partly due to the compressed nature of the consultation, but there are also issues involving Ministers’ approval for the Land Registry board to go ahead with a target operating model, which could lead to a significant rationalisation or downsizing of the organisation. However, we do not know what is in the TOM, as it is not public. It is difficult for people to make a submission to a consultation when the ground rules are not properly known and available. We could be saying that we want to do X, when in fact, according to suggestions and proposals in the TOM, Y would be a far more sensible route. The information is not available for people to respond intelligently to the consultation.

A number of organisations have mentioned the length of time available, which is not adequate as more and more small businesses come out of the woodwork. I have had a couple more letters today, on the back of the 90 that I have already received. I take the point made about differences in response, but more than 90 people have got in touch with me, and I am encouraging them all to feed into the consultation. From my perspective, this is all rather back to front. I know that the Minister’s colleagues felt a few weeks ago, rather perversely, that it would be misleading to provide any more detail. Does he take a different view?

Let us look at the implications of drastic change. Is the Minister aware that a decision to remove posts from cities such as Plymouth will pose problems? Plymouth is still heavily dependent on the public sector. The Government have the view that if they remove public sector jobs, they will be backfilled by the private sector, but a recent Centre for Cities report flagged up the fact that Plymouth is probably in a slightly different situation. Our peripherality makes it difficult for us to attract new business, and our issues with transport in recent weeks—the south-west has effectively been cut off—do not send out the message to private sector businesses, “Come and set up in Plymouth.”

Some 650 jobs sit in our Land Registry; there is a slight difference—about 50 full-time equivalents—between the figures provided on the ground to me and the figures in a parliamentary answer. Those jobs are well paid. They contribute to our economy significantly. More importantly, we have about 100 highly skilled IT people there. Plymouth has no capacity to soak up those people if they are not employed at the Land Registry. That would be a loss to the city, so I hope that the full socio-economic impact of any change, downsizing or moving of offices around the country would be seriously considered.

One option is a GovCo, which would require people to be imported to fill capability gaps. Is it the Minister’s intention to offer enhanced salaries, terms and conditions, as the Ministry of Defence has done? If so, I assume that she is aware of the huge mess that the GoCo has left in its wake. The Treasury is still baulking at offering the MOD freedoms and flexibilities. The union PCS says in one of its briefing notes that it assumes that the ability to vary pay will depend on the model chosen. At the moment, the Government’s own model, chosen by the MOD, is running up against the buffers. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister has the Treasury’s go-ahead to offer enhanced terms and conditions to people in a GovCo in this circumstance.

What is the Minister’s view on the experience of the Forensic Science Service, which has pursued a similar option? Can he confirm that the assumed benefits of being commercially competitive did not in fact materialise? Why does he feel that the Land Registry is different?

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. What does she think the motivation might be for pursuing that line of approach? If the Land Registry were making a loss, performing poorly or not providing customer satisfaction, perhaps we could understand. Why does she think the Government are intent on following this particular course?

That is a good question. As the hon. Member for Peterborough said, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? We need to understand from the Minister exactly what the benefits of fixing it will be, or whether it is purely ideologically driven, leading in the long term to privatisation.

In Plymouth, the registry’s computing centre has been recognised as an award-winning success. There has been very little turnover of specialist staff, all of whom have an experienced Land Registry background, and unlike other Government computing centres in London, it does not constantly lose staff to the private sector. It is not an exaggeration to say that the registry’s successful computerisation of the land register, its fast online inquiry services and the development of online lodgement succeeded where others in Government, dependent on major outsourcing to private IT companies, have failed. We must look at what we do well, nurture it and learn from it.

Like other Members, I have been lobbied by organisations such as the Local Land Charges Institute and those involved in independent land searches. All have serious issues with the proposals, not least because of the target operating model and the fact that it has not been made public. I would welcome the Minister’s view on whether the options proposed will fragment the local land charging function, as those organisations feel it will. The LLCI feel that it will result in a poorer service to the property-buying public. Clearly, there are a range of views on the subject, but the property-buying public are stuck in the middle, and nothing that we have heard—either fact or rumour—inspires confidence in the process being undertaken by the Government and the board.

Members of the Property Codes Compliance Board feel that the proposed changes will negatively affect those involved in the house-buying process and affect the market and small and medium-sized businesses, as we have heard from hon. Members. Their view is that SMEs will be disproportionately affected by what they see as Government transferring current activity into a private-sector monopoly. They also express their concern about the accuracy of the impact assessment.

There are complaints all round about the consultation, involving its accuracy, the timing, the process, the questions and the fact that a significant part of the picture has not been painted for those responding. I have not received a single representation from any organisation or individual in favour of the proposals. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) for securing this timely debate and making such a powerful case in support of keeping the Land Registry much as it is. Like many hon. Members here, I am concerned by the Government’s recent statement on the future of the Land Registry because of its potential impact on a national level; my primary concern, of course, relates to my constituency.

There is a large Land Registry office in Durham. Many local people are concerned about the possible consequences of the proposed changes announced in the consultation, should they go ahead. Significantly, they are concerned, as am I, about the potential impact on jobs in Durham. Durham has had a Land Registry for nearly 50 years. It has been the only one in the region since the closure of the office at York several years ago.

The Durham office is reported to be worth £10 million a year to the local economy. I hardly need remind the Minister that Durham’s economy has gone through a difficult period and is not yet fully experiencing what the Government are referring to as an economic upturn. Perhaps that is about to happen, but at the moment, things are still pretty depressed locally, leading to additional concern about what will happen to the Land Registry and the jobs that go with it if the proposals go through.

The Land Registry office in Durham provides many good-quality jobs that we desperately need locally, and I do not want that to be diminished in any way by potential privatisation. More than 400 highly skilled staff work at the Durham office. They provide a valuable national service that returns considerable value for money to the taxpayer. It is a strong brand and very much trusted by the people who have to use Land Registry services. It is vital that we should scrutinise the Government’s proposals and any impact that they could have. However, that is quite difficult because of the lack of information from the Government in the public domain.

In its consultation paper, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills proposes that the Land Registry be replaced by both a small Government body and a new company, which would carry out the current service delivery functions. There would be a new role of regulation and a maintained role of fee setting for a newly created Office of the Chief Land Registrar, which would sit within Government and be accountable to a Minister. It would set only the fees of the statutory functions, not the commercial services it might provide. That is one of the key aspects of the proposals that is creating a lot of nervousness in the sector.

The Government suggest three options for this new service delivery company: 100% owned by Government; jointly owned by Government and a private sector company; and 100% owned by Government, but day-to-day operations would be the responsibility of a private sector company on the Government’s behalf, which I think means outsourcing. Critically, what is not on the list is the Land Registry staying as it is.

Significantly, the Government consultation describes the above models as being considered for the “transition phase”. We are not sure exactly what that means, but I suspect it means a transition phase on the way to a future privatisation. If it does not mean that, the Minister will have to clarify the situation and be clear about what the transition phase means.

In addition, the Government’s consultation does not address the issue of why the changes are being proposed; it merely focuses on how they will be done. As other hon. Members have mentioned, there is no rationale as to why the changes are necessary. Several organisations, ranging from the PCS to the independent Law Society, have raised concerns regarding the consultation. The Law Society highlights the statement in the consultation that

“beyond the transformation phase, Government will review the ownership and control of the service delivery company in line with the policy on asset ownership”.

Importantly, this policy includes assessing options for moving assets to the private sector

“where there is no longer a strong policy reason for continued public ownership or where there is potential for an asset to operate more sensibly and efficiently in the private sector”.

As has been said, that potentially leaves the door open for complete privatisation after the transition period. Again, there is no information available to us about what the Government mean by

“more sensibly and efficiently in the private sector”.

I find the proposed changes to be remarkable, particularly given both the lack of evidence offered by the Government in support of their proposals and given that the Land Registry currently operates under a trading fund model, and in 2012-13 made a surplus of £98.8 million. Equally remarkable is the fact that, despite such considerable changes being proposed, my local Land Registry has refused to meet me to discuss the issues. I find that truly extraordinary.

In all my years as a Member of Parliament, I have never had an employing body refuse to meet me to discuss what are real concerns for many of my constituents. I was so shocked that I wrote to the Minister in January and pointed out to him that I thought this was an extraordinary course of action being taken by my local Land Registry. I asked him to intervene so that I would be able to attend a meeting to get more information and to raise concerns on behalf of my constituents.

I found the Minister’s response in February even more extraordinary. I will read out what the letter said:

“Some parts of the”—

target operating model—

“may be influenced by the outcome of the Government consultation as the future structure of Land Registry will necessarily affect business planning—and I understand that is why Land Registry does not think a meeting with you to discuss potential impacts on staff at the current time would be productive.”

In other words, it does not want to share its true thinking, or it does not want it to be obvious that there is very little evidence behind the proposals, or it does not want to be clear and open and honest and transparent, as it should be, about what the true impact of the proposed changes will be on my constituents. I think that is extremely bad practice. The Minister should have intervened and ensured that I got a meeting to represent my constituents. I would like to hear a further response from him today to see whether he has reflected further on this issue and come to a different conclusion.

I am very disturbed by what my hon. Friend has said. Many of the staff at the Land Registry in her constituency live in my constituency, which is the former constituency of the Minister. I hope that he listens carefully to her remarks and has something positive to add.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has made an excellent point. It is very wrong for any employing body not to be prepared to meet a Member of Parliament, who will obviously raise issues on behalf of their constituents.

The Law Society has stated:

“No detailed evidence is provided to explain how any change to the current model could bring about increased efficiencies or effectiveness to an organisation that currently makes a significant profit.”

The Minister needs to provide evidence to support his proposals, and to address the following issues. If the move to more digital services leads to some job cuts through voluntary redundancy, can the Minister assure me that the Land Registry will continue to have a presence in the north-east, particularly in Durham? Can he explain why the delivery of land registration by a company that would permit

“greater flexibilities to operate around pay, recruitment and possibly provide other services”

would make the Land Registry’s business strategy more achievable? Will the taxpayer be getting value for money from the privatisation? I do not trust this Government to get it right, given their appalling track record on undervaluing Royal Mail. What if the same situation arises again?

In addition, there may be long-term costs to the state and users of the service, which could undermine any sale price. If there are going to be new costs or restrictions on what information businesses, individuals and public sector agencies can access in relation to land programmes, how will that be monitored? No details have been provided as to the precise nature of how any of the options might operate, making it, as we have said many times, difficult to assess accurately the extent to which any new model will work better than the existing one.

I finish with one further question to the Minister. The Land Registry in this country—I wonder whether he is aware of this—has been giving advice to many other countries about how to set up land registry services. We are seen as a model of best practice around the world. I implore him to think very carefully before he severely disrupts a model that has been shown to work so well.

I shall be brief, because it is important that everyone should have a say. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) gave a marvellous exposition of the arguments. She should rethink her decision to stand down. The contributions that she has made in the House have always been based on sound common sense, and so was her speech today.

I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group and want to express the view that is coming back from PCS members. The PCS represents 3,000 staff in the Land Registry, and there is a drop-in briefing from half-past 10 to 12 tomorrow in Room W1; those who want to know what PCS members are concerned about should come. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) said that he has had only 10 letters this time. He need not worry: we will sort that out for him. There is real anxiety among the professional, highly competent, dedicated and committed staff.

In debates under the previous Government we argued that of course it is open to any Government to review the administration of a service, but that they should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If a service provides high standards of professionalism, brings income to Government—which is unusual for any Government service—and is respected not just in this country but throughout the world, the last thing to do is destabilise it with rushed or hurried reform. To give the previous Government their due, they carried out an exercise, and exhaustive consultation was carried out over a long period, with staff, the relevant small and medium-sized enterprises, and professional groups. They reached the conclusion that moving to a trading operation was the best way forward.

We expected that there would then be a long period of stability. The last thing that is needed is a continuous round of reform and change, which destabilises an organisation. A professional with a family, whose job is threatened every four years will look for another profession or line of work, and I fear that that is what will happen. The professionals at the Land Registry will look elsewhere, because of the insecurity of their situation, and we shall lose the bedrock of expertise as a result of continual attempts at change—and why?

Everyone has asked the same question; what is the motivation? The service operates effectively, on every premise. It has 98% satisfaction rates. I would love that rating, for myself as an MP, and for any organisation, whether commercial, public or private. Even in the most difficult circumstances, in the trough of recession, the Land Registry still brought money to the Treasury, covering its costs and making a contribution. There was a short period of deficit, but that was overcome as soon as the economy began to lift. The Land Registry has won the respect of every professional body, and there is now an alliance: I am the chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, which is in that alliance with the Law Society and the other groups that are coming forward. That shows the breadth of the support. Yet again, however, an attempt is being made at destabilisation.

What is the motivation? We know what it is. As to the hedging of bets about the various consultation options, I am sorry, but there is one option that the Government want to pursue. It was in the report obtained by the PCS in a freedom of information request: the 2012 KPMG report, which said that the GovCo was the best way forward, to make it possible to move on to full privatisation. My concern is that that is the Government’s motivation; an attempt is being made at full privatisation, which will result in the siphoning off of the profitable areas of the service, job cuts, and the undermining of workers’ conditions of employment. The result of that will be to undermine their professionalism as well. The Government need to come clean about their long-term objectives, because, if they do not, the suspicions will remain. I should rather that they would publicly state that those are their intentions now—to follow the KPMG recommendations for full privatisation. At least then we could have an honest debate. At the moment I do not think that the debate is honest, and as a result suspicion is building. Suspicion leads to lack of confidence in the organisation and further destabilisation.

My hon. Friend makes a passionate plea on behalf of those who are worried about the future of the Land Registry. A concern expressed in response to the consultation is that it will become less accountable to the public. Does not the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) heighten our fears about the Land Registry’s future and its responsiveness to MPs’ and the public’s concerns?

The reason the suspicion of privatisation is so clear in the minds of PCS members is that they cannot get access to information about the Government’s real plans—and nor can Members. When an organisation refuses to have a meeting with a Member of Parliament, just for some dialogue and discussion about their constituency concerns, it undermines the principles of parliamentary democracy. It is a disgrace. I do not know of any other Government organisation that has refused to meet Members, including bodies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, where there are confidentiality issues. That refusal builds on people’s suspicions that the Government are not coming clean.

There is also suspicion about the point raised by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham)—the short consultation period. Why is it so rushed? Why push it through so rapidly, other than to get to full privatisation before the next general election? That is unacceptable. Everyone is now asking the Government to stand back and carry out a full consultation with staff and the professional bodies that have expressed an interest; and to take into account something that has repeatedly been said—the fact that the staff in question are usually in locations where there is high unemployment and high need.

A range of examples about the impact on local economies came out of the previous consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) mentioned the figure of £10 million. I think that the calculations about Wales made it something like £15 million the last time around. The impact is substantial. It is not acceptable to take a leap into the dark with respect to the organisation and the ramifications for towns and areas. Undertaking a consultation in such a way, in a rush and with the information not fully available to all the interested parties, is not good governance.

I urge the Government to stand back and think again. There are many other places where they can look for major reform, and there are areas worthy of examination, or whose long-term futures need to be discussed, in which Ministers can busy themselves: the Land Registry is not one of them. Why are 150 years of public service about to be thrown out? I think it is because of an ideological commitment to privatisation. I cannot think of any other reason. Any other Department would want to keep the Land Registry in-house because it is such a successful organisation. Any other Minister would be proud to represent such a successful area of work. Privatisation must be the motivation, and that is why PCS members are so anxious. I urge Members to come along to tomorrow’s drop-in meeting to meet the professionals and let them explain what they do, as well as the implications of the threat to their services and their own plans for making the Land Registry even more successful as a public service.

Thank you, Mr Walker. I shall try to be brief and not repeat too much of what has been said by my hon. Friends and, indeed, coalition Members. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) on today’s excellent exposé, and on all the work that she has done. We shall all miss her genuine feeling for the community, and the way she expresses that here.

I shall come straight to the point and talk about the Government-owned company being part-way to privatisation. That is what is on the agenda, and we should stop beating about the bush, and say it plainly. Privatising the Land Registry would be nothing short of daylight robbery. It would rob the taxpayer of millions of pounds. The Land Registry currently brings in close to £100 million a year. It makes a profit and does a good job. Why on earth would anyone want to hive it off to the public sector? It is madness to steal that money from the public purse. What would happen afterwards? We would stuff it into the pockets of private contractors; and what would they do? They want to maximise profits, so they would put up prices, and hike the fees for the customer. Of course, who is to say that this Government would not be wilfully incompetent and sell off the Land Registry at a bargain basement price, just as they did with the Royal Mail, depriving the public purse of the true value of this asset?

We are facing loss of income, potential privatisation and potential hikes in fees—and a monopoly—if we go down the route of a Government-owned company. Part of the argument for privatisation is always that competition will be a good thing and that prices can be driven down, but this is an invaluable asset, looking after the land assets of the country, and it is a monopoly. What would we have if that were put into private hands? There would be profiteering, just as we see with some energy companies, which have managed to make six into one—a monopoly.

It makes no sense to privatise the Land Registry, and that is before we come to the issue of trust. Currently, it has a customer satisfaction rating of 98%. Hon. Members have said that everybody would be overjoyed if their organisation had that rating. People can trust the Land Registry precisely because it is a public body. They know it is impartial. How can we possibly say we are surprised when there are bank scandals and when people whose job is to make money try to make money in all sorts of ways? Exactly the same situation would arise if the Land Registry were privatised. There would be conflicts of interest. Would we be surprised, then, if shilly-shallying were going on or there was a lack of integrity and, potentially, corruption, if people want to use such a strong word? People want there to be the utmost integrity in land transactions, but feel that the door would be left open for precisely the type of behaviour I have mentioned if it were put in private hands.

There is another issue: data protection. I am advised by the PCS that there would be nothing in law to prevent a private company from selling on personal data to buyers who wanted the information. I think we have all had a gutsful of this, with information here and there, and people’s details being sold on. The last thing people want is yet another source of data leaking out into places unnecessarily. I feel strongly that these are good reasons why we would not want the Land Registry to be privatised.

Of course, to maximise profits, private companies would look to reduce labour costs, worsen terms and conditions and make jobs more insecure. It would be harder to attract high-quality staff and there would be a greater turnover of staff, leading to loss of expertise and low morale. I make no apology for wanting to protect quality job opportunities: I do not want to see a race to the bottom. But much more than that, I do not want a poorer service. High turnover of staff, loss of morale and lack of expertise would result in a much poorer service. That is without even talking about whisking the jobs off to some far-flung place, as hon. Members have mentioned.

The point of moving some public sector jobs was precisely to offer quality job opportunities in a range of locations, where perhaps there had not been such opportunities because some main industries had closed down. What do we find in those areas? These are prestigious jobs that people want and that they try to keep for a long time, because by comparison with local rates they are good jobs. As has been mentioned, in some areas of the country where the economy has heated up, the top-quality people are being lost. That control would be lost if the Land Registry were privatised, because there would be no choice about where the jobs were; they would be put into the private sector and could go where they like.

Swansea has the largest Land Registry office. Many of my constituents work there and they have expertise. It does not take them three or four glances at a Welsh word to write it; they can write, type, speak it and say it on the telephone. They do not have to think twice about dealing with complex Welsh place names, even Llanfair-pwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. [Interruption.] I would say it again if there were time. It is essential that we keep these jobs in the public sector and do not go down the private sector route.

There is a wider role for the Land Registry. Surely, we value our land. Land is key to development and crucial to our economy. We have heard a lot about shortages of land for housing and about not being able to get planning and about land banking. If we are going to have a more strategic view and to have any opportunity to use the Land Registry in a much broader sense, again, we want to keep it firmly in the public sector.

Finally, on the consultation, why on earth are we going down this route? As has been said, past changes are just about beginning to bed in, but here we are going through some sort of phoney consultation all over again. I say “phoney” because there seems to be an agenda behind it and because we do not have the information available. There is a lack of clarity and insufficient information. We do not know why we are having this consultation.

We should strongly resist any attempt whatever to hive off the Land Registry into a Government-owned company, which would pave the way for privatisation. Privatisation would mean selling it off at a low price, as was done with the Royal Mail, ripping the public off with higher fees, leading to poorer terms and conditions for the work force and, ultimately, no doubt, some great scandal in future, which we could avoid by avoiding going down that path now.

Mr Bellingham, you have four minutes, but if you spoke for three minutes I am sure the Minister would be grateful.

Of course, Mr Walker. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.

This has been an interesting and important debate. It was brought to my attention by a number of constituents whose companies I mentioned at the start of this debate, when I intervened on the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James). I spent quite a lot of time in the first part of this Parliament, when I was on Her Majesty’s Government’s payroll, going to developing countries. Quite often, I would ask them what more the Department for International Development could do to help in terms of capacity building and improving the standard of government. Time and again, we were told that they really respected our Land Registry and that they wanted help embedding expertise, knowledge and capacity in that area. Obviously, if there is no fit-for-purpose Land Registry system, it will be difficult to have a proper market in property.

I respect the Minister’s intent in all this, but it is incredibly important that we get it right when he finishes the process. I am concerned about a number of points. At the moment, there is no question but that public confidence in the organisation is high. As a number of colleagues have said, the public respect this organisation and have confidence in it. The chief land registrar—the chief executive—has said that the new strategy is all

“around customer needs”

and that the organisation needs to focus on

“our customer needs…to improve our service delivery”.

However, he must be careful, as must the Minister, not to take away home owners’ confidence.

Let me say just a word about this organisation, which is making substantial sums for the Treasury. I do not have any difficulty with privatisation, but I am concerned about an organisation that is successful and making money, remitting a dividend to the Treasury. If that continues, it is good for Government finances and for the Budget deficit. I accept that, if this organisation was privatised at a premium, it would perhaps help pay down the Government national debt by a small amount, but the Minister should also think about the recurring income to the Treasury from the organisation in its current place in the public sector. That is not to say that I rule out any changes in future.

I am concerned about the need for proper consultation. In addition to the names of the companies I mentioned earlier, I shall quote an e-mail from a constituent, who says that 12 months ago he invested in a new property information franchise, which he operates from his home, employing himself and his wife. He says:

“Due to the success of our business, only last week we took office space in Hunstanton”—

a small town in my constituency—

“and employed two local people (both out of work) to keep up with demand”.

He is looking to expand and hopes to take on another four. Over the next few months he may have increased numbers further. He continues:

“These types of jobs are rare in this area and there will be no shortage of local candidates of all ages.”

He wants to build his SME up, but says:

“Needless to say, until we know exactly where Land Registry is going with its plans I am reluctant to push on with my plans”.

I hope that the Minister will meet these SMEs, which are the lifeblood of our constituencies. Will he also ensure that he has a meeting with the Council of Property Search Organisations? If he has already met CoPSO, will he update us on exactly what it said? I hope that he will take on board the strong points that have come out of this debate and, above all else, allow further time for the consultation.

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I remember with fond affection the Committee on the Education Act 2011. My mother sends her regards.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) on securing this excellent and sensible debate. I reiterate what others have said by saying that I will be sorry to see her go. She will be a huge loss to the House. She has served her constituents diligently, and it has been an absolute pleasure to work with her.

The recording of land and property ownership is vital and has to be done with integrity, impartiality, professionalism and consistency, which has been provided by the Land Registry since 1862. The Land Registry serves a population of more than 55 million, and as its annual report stated last year, it

“facilitates one of the most active property and mortgage markets in the world”.

More than 23.5 million titles are recorded by the Land Registry, which is an essential part of the home buying market. Any changes to the service must be made with clarity and purpose and must be backed up with empirical evidence, and it is clear from today’s debate that the Government have not provided that clarity.

I have a series of questions for the Minister based on three themes: the consultation, the process and the impact on staff. The Minister published a written ministerial statement announcing the consultation on 23 January 2014. The consultation, as we have heard, is to last eight weeks until 20 March 2014. Cabinet Office advice on consultations issued in November 2013 said that consultation periods should be decided on a case-by-case basis but that:

“For a new and contentious policy, 12 weeks or more may still be appropriate.”

Employees of the Land Registry and the millions of people like us who rely on the integrity of the data held by the organisation will find the Government’s proposals new and contentious.

I hope the Minister saw the letter in The Times last week by Ms Hilary Mobbs of Leeds, which stated:

“The consultation has not been widely advertised and the (very short) consultation period ends in March.”

The hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) made a pertinent intervention reflecting the concerns of businesses in his area. Will the Minister respond to Ms Mobbs and explain why only eight weeks was decided upon? What sort of wide-scale communication campaign was put in place to alert stakeholders, including many members of the public, of the proposed changes?

On the consultation document, it appears that the Government are fairly agnostic on which option to choose, but there is some doubt about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) asked the Government to come clean on whether the GovCo is the preferred option for ultimately getting to privatisation. What is the Minister’s preferred option? In the interest of greater scrutiny and transparency, will he publish the KPMG report, as has been asked? If he does not have a preferred option, how on earth does he know how the perceived benefits of greater flexibility to deliver, greater focus on service delivery and more flexibility on pay, recruitment and the provision of other services will be achieved? How will the outcome of the short consultation affect the Government’s thinking? If there is overwhelming support from stakeholders for maintaining the status quo, will the Minister pledge to ensure that that will be the Government’s policy? What happens after the consultation? There will be a period of Government consideration, and then presumably, if necessary, legislative changes will be outlined. Does the Minister anticipate that something will be in the Gracious Speech before the next Session? Does he ultimately think that legislation will have to be enacted before the next general election?

The big theme of today’s debate is what problem the consultation is trying to solve. As we have heard time and again, the Land Registry does not seem to be a failing and inefficient organisation—quite the reverse. If the Minister thinks otherwise, perhaps he will say so. It is required by statute that income from fees charged to customers covers all the Land Registry’s expenditure. There is no burden on the taxpayer whatever, and there is no need for a call on moneys from the House.

The annual report states that the previous chief executive left the organisation

“in a healthy financial position with improving staff morale and a signed-off Business Strategy.”

The Land Registry, as we have heard, achieved a surplus of £98.8 million, showing that the organisation is on top of weeding out inefficiencies. Cost per unit is £23.36, which is significantly better than the key performance target of £28.41. The return on capital employed was a hugely impressive 23.4%. Many good private sector organisations would kill for such a return on capital employed. Net assets approach £0.5 billion and the cash-flow position at year end is positive, with £472 million cash in the bank. This year, the Land Registry paid a dividend back to the Treasury of £26 million. Under no possible criterion could the Government claim that there is a need for private sector financial rigour to be injected into the organisation. The Land Registry is well run and the financial metrics are sound.

As we have heard time and again, the Land Registry has 98% customer satisfaction and, to quote the annual report again, enjoyed

“target-beating performance in terms of the quality and speed of our registrations.”

In such circumstances, I do not understand what the Government are doing. That is especially pertinent when paragraph 37 of the consultation document explicitly states:

“The proposals outlined in this document would have a very limited impact on customers”.

If that is the case, why on earth do it? Is it really to ensure that the Land Registry is fit for purpose in the digital age, with a central focus on digitising land registration services? If that is the case, why cannot it be done under the present statutory arrangements? The Land Registry seems to be diversifying its business model and being more innovative. Why is a change in corporate and statutory status necessary? Given the high level of customer satisfaction, will the Minister say how he anticipates fees will move in the next few years? Does he anticipate that fees will increase and, if so, to what extent?

The consultation document states that there is scope for additional services and refers to amending the Land Registration Act 2002. Will the Minister provide more detail? What other services does he anticipate and what services would he like the new entity to provide? There is talk in the consultation document of

“greater access to a richer data set.”

What does that mean? It is vital that customers have faith in the integrity of registering land. To quote Ms Mobbs from Leeds again:

“One could envisage a situation, as has arisen with our power providers, whereby the registered title to all properties would be in the hands of an overseas company or one with its own commercial interests in the property market. This concerns me.”

I can understand Ms Mobbs’s concern. What will the Minister do to address that concern? Will a vertically integrated business model, whereby a company provides the full range of property services to the customer, whether conveyancing, land registry or otherwise, be acceptable to the Government? Would the Minister be concerned if, say, Zoopla owned the company? What about a bank? What will the Government do to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening? How will data protection be safeguarded? There is no clarity whatever on that in the consultation documentation.

Finally, I want to address the Land Registry’s staff. More than 4,000 people spread across the country provide a prompt, professional and efficient service. We have heard a number of hon. Members talk about the great work that their constituents do for the Land Registry. I have constituents from Hartlepool who work for the Land Registry in Durham. What will happen to those staff? The consultation document states that

“we expect that the majority of staff would transfer to the service delivery company and would cease to be civil servants.”

There is a lot of ambiguity in that short sentence. What does the Minister mean by “majority of staff”? Does he mean that all current staff who want a job will have a job, whether it is in the new service delivery company or in the proposed office of the chief land registrar? If so, what about location? Would my constituents who travel to Durham be required to travel to Swansea if they want to keep their job in the new organisation? Will the Minister provide clarity? Does it mean that there will be rationalisation of both work force and locations? What is the TUPE situation? Can the Minister make any comment on pension entitlements for current staff?

The Government have poor form on such things, whether one considers the botched change in respect of the GoCo for the defence procurement function—that change was very similar to that proposed for the Land Registry—or the Royal Mail privatisation, which short-changed the taxpayer. The Government are in danger of making the same mistakes again. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, regardless of the organisation’s performance and given the absence of evidence, the process is merely a means of privatisation. I ask the Minister to exert caution, provide more evidence before making a decision and consult widely—that has currently been eluded—before embarking on such important yet irreversible changes.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) on securing this debate on an important subject. I am also sorry that she is leaving us at the next election. I am sure that she is not considering retirement, and I wish her well in whatever form of public politics she continues to pursue. I thank all hon. Members who have participated in the debate. I will try to reply to a number of their points, but if I may, as there were a number of questions—not least those fired at me by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright)—I will reply by letter to some in the interests of time.

A well-functioning property market is critical to the UK economy. Ensuring that the market functions properly has long been one of the Land Registry’s main tasks. It recently celebrated a landmark 150th year and continues to be a cornerstone of property ownership in England and Wales. It undertakes a range of functions and responsibilities that are critical to the property market operating effectively. In the past, successive Governments have been at pains to ensure that land registration procedures keep pace with a dynamic and rapidly-changing property market. As we look to the future, it is important that the Land Registry is able to modernise successfully and move into the digital age. The Land Registry already provides a number of services through digital channels, but it is looking to become a leader in digitising land and property services, and in the management and reuse of land and property data.

Accordingly, its ambitious new business strategy is focused on a number of areas: the digitisation and re-engineering of its core registration services, which should reduce processing times, risk of error and the costs of those services; playing a wider role in the land and property market, including being able to take on other adjacent registers; and maximising the reuse of property data for the benefit of the wider economy. Reduced processing times, errors and costs, and wider services and better access to public sector data, will all bring significant benefits for customers and make it easier to register land in England and Wales.

The strategy also reflects our broader digital, efficiency and modernisation aims and as such is a key priority. The experience of other countries in modernising their property services makes a compelling case for us to realise those benefits at an early stage. A number of other countries and states have already successfully digitised their land registries, so it is important that England and Wales do not fall behind where there are useful lessons that could be learned.

Before I turn to the commercial models, I will say something about local land charges. The Land Registry is looking to become the sole registering authority for local land charges, a job that is currently undertaken separately by each of the 348 local authorities. The benefit of the Land Registry providing a single central solution is that it would result in cheaper, quicker and more standardised services, so avoiding the current postcode lottery.

Commercial models dominated the debate. The hon. Member for Swansea East fairly asked: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” I will reply directly to that. Of course, the Land Registry is profitable, but we have a responsibility to review continually whether the business can drive further benefits to its customers and the wider market by driving digital by default services, which could deliver lower-cost services and reduce processing time.

The proposal in the consultation to introduce a new service delivery company is aimed at supporting the business in delivering its business strategy in the best way possible. We have been working with the business to consider whether the current model is fit for purpose or whether there may be benefits in considering alternative commercial models. Following that, there should be a number of benefits through a greater focus on service delivery, greater operational flexibility and a more clearly defined relationship with Government. Central to any change in the commercial model is the guiding principle that we must continue to protect the integrity of the registry in such a way that its role in underpinning the property market by giving confidence to buyers, sellers and lenders is not compromised.

I am sure the Minister would like to reassure us on the comments made by the then Lord Chancellor at the time of the feasibility study in 2011. He said that

“the registry’s state guarantee of title to land and property is essential, and that it must be retained in any arrangements that we make.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 151.]

Indeed. The proposal being considered in the document is to introduce a new Land Registry service company that would have responsibility for the performance of the service delivery functions. There would be a separate office of the chief land registrar retained within Government primarily to perform the regulatory and fee-setting functions. It is also envisaged that the indemnity arrangements will continue to be state-backed. The new company, if we choose to go down that particular road, could focus on delivery. Its ability to carry out additional activities would no longer be narrowly constrained by legislation. It would be outside the civil service and would have greater flexibility on pay and recruitment.

I emphasise that no decision has yet been taken about the ownership of such a new company, should we move forward with the proposal to create it following the consultation. A number of models are being considered, but the oversight that will be retained by the office of the chief land registrar would ensure that Land Registry companies and the integrity of the register would be protected irrespective of ownership. Models being considered include a wholly owned Government company, a joint venture and a contracting-out model. It is Government policy to assess options for moving assets to the private sector where there is no longer a strong policy reason for continued public ownership or where there is potential for an asset to operate more sensibly and efficiently in the private sector.

I was asked what the transition period means—it means the digital transformation phase. During that phase, we see benefits in partnering with the private sector, whether the status quo is maintained or whether there is a change in model, as considered by the consultation. The form of that partnership with the private sector would be different under each scenario. Looking internationally, a range of commercial models have been adopted to deliver the digitisation of land registration, but in each case there has been partnership with the private sector to bring in the capacity and capability needed.

I was asked about data protection. I confirm that the data protection procedures that currently apply would apply to any new service delivery company, to ensure that personal information is not mishandled. I was asked about the KPMG report, which was prepared in March 2011. Many parts of it are no longer relevant, but I understand that a redacted version of the report has been supplied to one of the unions under a freedom of information request.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) asked me specifically about conveyancing self-service. I make clear to him that the current customers of the Land Registry will have their views sought before any new or revised services are launched. They would certainly be consulted again before any such services were mandated by the Land Registry. I hope that that reassurance will be of use to him.

I was asked about meetings with MPs. I say to the hon. Members for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) that I do not think it is satisfactory that the meeting was refused. I am asking the management of Land Registry to look at that again to see whether, as we come to the close of the consultation period, those meetings can now be organised with the hon. Member for Darlington and her colleagues. I hope that it offers some comfort to her that my former constituents are still at the forefront of my mind.

Local Television Stations

It is a delight to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

The plans to introduce local television throughout the United Kingdom had cross-party support. The Minister had previously concluded that legislation on local television came as a result of “all-party support”. He said that, in his opinion, it was one of the Government’s “more popular policies”. Given the lack of competition for that dubious honour, I am not exactly sure how wonderful an accolade that is, but nevertheless.

Wales, rightly, has a reputation for the quality of its contribution to the television industry. We are proud to be associated with genuine screen legends such as Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen and, more recently, Rob Brydon, an ex-Porthcawl comprehensive school pupil—the school is in my constituency—and Ruth Jones, from the popular “Gavin and Stacey” programme.

Those individuals have not just left Wales and gone to develop their careers outside Wales; they have come back to Wales and invested in developing the ability of Welsh people to get into television, theatre and film. For example, Ruth Jones has set up Tidy Productions, which specialises in comedy and comedy drama set and always filmed in Wales. New investment is coming all the time.

Television companies are recognising the benefits that Wales can bring to their work. Pinewood Studios announced in 2012 that it would move the bulk of its studio facilities to Cardiff. It has brought the largest indoor film studio in Europe to Swansea, where top dramas such as “Da Vinci’s Demons” are filmed. Wales is also the home of some of the BBC’s most successful programmes recently, such as “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock”, which were filmed and made in Wales.

Wales has become the home to innovative production companies and companies developing local talent and skills. It’s My Shout Productions, headed by ex-Porthcawl drama teacher Roger Burnell, seeks out and showcases emerging talent and skills. The company produces around 30 short films a year for Welsh television and has won several awards. It also has a training programme to pair young people with professionals in their chosen area of interest, so that their skills can be developed. All that shows how Bridgend and Wales as a whole have contributed to our television industry

From the start, Welsh Members of Parliament have recognised that the introduction of local television services would bring us new opportunities, which we were eager to embrace. The introduction of local television in Wales moved relatively quickly. Made Productions was given a 12-year licence as the first local TV station to be based in Cardiff, called Made in Cardiff. As part of its agreement with Ofcom, it will provide a wide range of programming, focusing on local news, sport, traffic, community affairs and local entertainment.

Welsh MPs recognised the opportunities to showcase our skills and talent. From the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to the engineering department at Bridgend college, there were opportunities to be grasped. We recognised the wide range of employment opportunities for our constituents that the new and emerging talent, production and TV opportunity offered. The creative industries are not just for performers or just about actors or musicians; they bring work for writers, caterers, handling crew, set designers, movers, drivers, electricians, scaffolders and costume designers, as well as lawyers, salespeople, web designers and economists. All would have opportunities for work, thanks to Made in Cardiff coming to Wales.

Unfortunately, as the process moved forward, it became clear that the situation in Wales—as opposed to England and Northern Ireland—was not as positive as we had hoped. It is particularly disheartening that Made in Cardiff will be allocated channel 26 on Freeview, compared with its counterparts in England and Northern Ireland, which will be allocated channel 8.

Channel numbers have a direct impact on viewing figures—the lower the number, the more likely a viewer will turn to that channel. The majority of all viewings on Freeview take place on the first 10 channels. England and Northern Ireland have been included within the first 10, so will the Minister tell us why Wales is being disadvantaged by being allocated a channel that few viewers will ever explore?

As recently as two weeks ago, the Minister reaffirmed his personal commitment to maintaining the prominence of our public service broadcasters. Both the Secretary of State and her predecessor have regularly spoken about the importance of such broadcasters. Therefore, why are public service broadcasters in Wales and Scotland being treated in this way, with services in England and Northern Ireland given a higher priority on Freeview?

The Minister has previously admitted that the criterion for public service broadcasting—appropriate prominence —is “a relatively vague term”. He said that it was important that we update the regulations. Will he tell us when that will be done, and why it was not done before the roll-out of local television?

The Minister also claimed that the presence of S4C in the Welsh television market is “an idiosyncratic situation”, a description I am not sure S4C or indeed the people of Wales feel particularly flattered by. Is the Minister claiming that the existence of S4C means that, while local television in England and Northern Ireland will be able to occupy the channel 8 slot, local television in Wales must be satisfied with channel 26? S4C does not operate in Scotland, so why is Scottish local TV also going to be placed at 26? The argument about S4C simply does not make sense to me.

The Minister has said that we should be grateful to be at channel 26, as when the plans were originally tabled, it was the intention that local television in Wales should be allocated channel 45, and that 26 is a huge improvement. While it is undeniable that going from channel 45, which most viewers would never find, to channel 26 is better than nothing, that will still place the channel below shopping and music channels. If the local television station is placed below those sorts of programming, will anyone ever find local television in Wales? Does the Minister feel that that will bring appropriate prominence? If channel 26 is good enough for Wales and Scotland, why is it not good enough for England and Northern Ireland?

I associate myself with the points being made by my hon. Friend and wish to add to them. One of the problems for local television is the marketing of a new and important service. Some of the first 10 channels in Wales—such as ITV2 at channel 6 on Freeview, BBC3 at channel 7 or ITV3 at channel 10—have lots of opportunities for cross-marketing, such as by ITV1 or other ITV services, whereas local television does not have such opportunities. That is why it is crucial for local television not to have to spend lots of money on marketing because it is on an obscure channel lower down on the dial.

My hon. Friend made a point that I intend to come on to, but one that I hope the Minister is listening to, because this matters a great deal to us in Wales.

Wales has experienced a double injustice. Services in Scotland will also suffer from being placed on channel 26, but they will join England and Northern Ireland on Sky channel 117, while Wales has been given channel 134. That is a double reduction in prominence for Wales compared with the other nations. Will the Minister explain why? Why is Wales being singled out in that way?

The reduction in viewers will severely harm the income that local television services will receive and use to make and develop programmes, taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). Made Television will be forced to allocate more of its resources to market its position on channel 26, because that is so low down the list, and that will result in reduced programme output and employment opportunities—the absolute opposite of what the Minister was trying to achieve and which we in Wales were desperate to be provided.

The responsibility for channel allocation on Freeview lies with Ofcom. Clearly, it does not have the powers to force any type of change to the position that Made in Cardiff will be placed in on Freeview. The Minister has previously spoken of his desire to update the regulations. Is he consulting with Ofcom and will he grant it the necessary powers?

The previous debate in Westminster Hall left us with a guarantee that the Minister would go away and keep us updated on a consultation to grant Ofcom those powers. He expected the consultation to take about three months, but he gave no indication of when it was likely to begin. Since then, while he has been working on the issue, has a date been set? If not, will he explain why we are still waiting for a consultation to begin?

The Made in Cardiff channel launches this summer. Unless a consultation is about to start in the next few days, no decision will be made in time for the company to do the marketing necessary before the launch of its new channel. The argument is not esoteric, but about basic business, and it could demonstrate a greater chance of success for Made in Cardiff. It is important for the Minister to address the matter as soon as possible.

This is the second Westminster Hall debate on local television in two months. The channel in Cardiff, and the one in Glasgow to which the previous debate referred, launch in the summer. How can we allow that launch to take place with the channels at a lower level on the electronic programme guide than in England and Northern Ireland? Why are the two devolved Administrations in Wales and Scotland being dealt with in a totally different manner?

Prominence on the EPG has been used to ensure that local services in England and Northern Ireland will be given the spot that they deserve, without detriment to Channel 4. The Minister also places a lot of importance on the prominence of public service broadcasters. Can we therefore agree today that action will be taken to ensure that Wales does not get a worse deal than the rest of the UK? Any consultation needed by the Minister in order to make changes to the regulations affecting Ofcom, so that it can address greater prominence for Made in Cardiff, should begin, so that the three-month period indentified for the consultation can be completed and a decision made before the marketing for Made in Cardiff starts.

I hope that the Minister understands that for us in Wales the matter is of grave importance. We have a huge reservoir of talent and we want the opportunities for people, in particular young people, to find work in the creative industries across a wide spectrum of job and skills. I hope that the Minister has some positive news for us today.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. It is one of those moments to realise that someone I came into the House with is now of such august importance that he is chairing a Westminster Hall debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) for initiating the debate. She started with her glass half full, but by the end her glass was half empty. I hope to refill her glass, or at least to persuade her to take a slightly different perspective to the one suggested by the tone she took later in her speech. I join her in paying tribute to the many Welsh stars mentioned in her opening remarks, in particular Michael Sheen, Rob Brydon and Ruth Jones. I thank her for noticing the fact that Pinewood Studios last week signed a deal to develop in Cardiff.

It is also probably worth noting that one of the reasons for such a renaissance in television production is this Government’s decision to continue the film tax credit and to extend it to high-end television drama and animation. There has been a real renaissance in the animation industry even over the past six months since the tax credit was introduced. We hope to have some news shortly on our application to the European Commission for a tax credit for the video games industry. The Chancellor has also announced proposals to extend a tax credit to the visual effects industry, as well as to regional and touring theatres. There is therefore good news for the creative industries, which the statistics show are flourishing, and Wales—south Wales in particular—is one of the hotbeds of their development. In saying such things, I am echoing the hon. Member for Bridgend, who was setting the context for local television not only in Wales, but throughout the country.

The last time we debated local television was in connection with its prominence in Scotland, when I generously said that I regard it as a cross-party issue. I hope that I am not considered churlish, however, in pointing out that the genesis of the policy emerged under the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), who is now the Secretary of State for Health. His passion in opposition was to introduce local television, and his energy and drive as Secretary of State saw it come about. We are on the verge of realising his vision, albeit with support from all parties.

Last year, I went up to Grimsby to visit Estuary TV, one of the first local television stations to start broadcasting. It is working in partnership with local media and local universities. Local television therefore has the enormous opportunity to provide not only the chance of yet another media outlet for us, but so many community organisations with the kind of media coverage that they need and deserve. The local television companies also have the opportunity to forge strong partnerships with many of those community organisations.

The hon. Lady rightly referred to Made Television, which will be running the Cardiff local television service. It will serve a wide area stretching to her constituency. I gather that it is due to launch as early as this summer. Along with Bay TV, it was awarded the Mold and Swansea licences by Ofcom in January. It has set out a range of plans to develop a wide range of compelling programming, with local services broadening the choice for viewers.

That is just the tip of the iceberg: over the next three months we will see the start out of the roll-out of local TV in earnest. As well as Estuary TV, which I have already mentioned, London Live will launch shortly, as will Mustard TV in Norwich and Notts TV in Nottinghamshire. We hope that the majority of the 19 phase 1 channels will be on air by autumn.

Significant public money is being invested in the launch of local television services. In 2011, as part of the most recent licence fee settlement, which runs until March 2017, the Government made £40 million available, £25 million of which has been allocated to the development of the local TV transmission network. That work is being undertaken by Comux, which was awarded the local TV multiplex licence by Ofcom in January 2013. The remaining £15 million has been allocated for the purchase by the BBC of the local TV content that will be generated. Detailed arrangements for the distribution of that funding have now been agreed with the BBC executive. That investment will give local TV the best possible chance of establishing itself against the ever- increasing choice that viewers have, whether watching on traditional linear channels or watching catch-up and downloadable content available on other platforms.

So far, I hope that everybody’s glass remains firmly half full. The creative industries are thriving, and are supported by generous and ever-growing tax credits brought in by this Government. They will be supported by the vision of the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey, for the introduction of local television for the first time in the UK.

At this point, however, the glass becomes half empty, as we debate the prominence of local television, particularly in Wales. In her speech, the hon. Lady tried to give the impression that I was somehow saying that Wales should be duly grateful for what we are giving it. I certainly would not seek to give the impression that I thought that S4C was somehow an idiosyncrasy. What I meant was that S4C is a unique channel for Wales. It represents something like £100 million of annual investment in Welsh language programming, much of which is of an extraordinarily high quality and is exported around the world. However, that leads to difficulties in trying to find an appropriate slot for local television.

When initial bids were being sought for licences, the slot was at channel 41. As a Government, we are keen to see local television succeed, and we want to see it move up the EPG rankings where possible. As slots have become available I am delighted that local television has moved up the rankings and that Scottish and Welsh local television channels have moved from channel 41 up to channel 26. But there is a debate going on about this matter—the hon. Lady is aware of the recent debate led by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) on 18 December.

It is anomalous for local TV to have a different channel slot in different parts of the UK. It means that local television is less prominent in Wales and Scotland, and causes problems for local television in developing promotional activities collectively around a single channel number. But local television was not coming into a greenfield site. We need to balance the needs of important services that already exist in Wales and Scotland and currently occupy the channel 8 slot. There is also the importance of certainty in the EPG regime for commercial broadcasters so that they can maintain their levels of investment in programming.

We made it clear in our strategy paper “Connectivity, Content and Consumers”, which we published last summer, that it is important that public service content should have prominence on TV platforms, in order to achieve our wider broadcasting objectives, but the Communications Act 2003 makes it clear that Ofcom rather than Government should determine the appropriate level of prominence. The Government’s role is to determine which PSB channels should be included in the prominence regime, and local TV was duly designated to be included in 2011.

Ofcom’s code of practice on EPGs, which was produced as a result of the 2003 Act, requires EPG providers to comply with three general principles. One is that Ofcom will

“have regard to the interests of citizens and the expectations of consumers in considering whether a particular approach to listing public service channels constitutes appropriate prominence”.

That system has hitherto broadly worked well, but it is important to recognise that it is not for Government or Ofcom to require a channel to have a specific slot on an EPG, but for the EPG providers to draw up a fair policy on how to use free slots.

The problem is that, as the Minister has quite rightly said, this idea is the Government’s baby—although it has had support from all parties—and he is rather neglecting its birth in Wales and Scotland. In the past, he has promised a consultation on the matter, and in a recent answer to a written question from me, his Department said that the consultation was due to start “shortly”, but it was due to start shortly before Christmas. Before he concludes his remarks, will he tell us exactly when the consultation will begin and whether in his view the channels should ultimately be in the top 10 on Freeview at the very least?

I will conclude my point and then come on to when we are planning to publish the consultation.

It is important to stress that the situation is different in England and Northern Ireland, because the channel 8 slot used there for local television is used by BBC Alba in Scotland and by Channel 4 in Wales since the usual slot for Channel 4 is occupied by S4C in Wales. That is why the channel 8 slot is not available for local television services in Scotland and Wales. When we originally put together the policy on local television, the slot available was channel 45, so there have been significant changes.

I hate to give a response to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) that he will almost certainly regard as inadequate, but I will have to answer in the same way as I have answered him before, which is that we are due to publish the consultation shortly. We have it drafted and have had discussions with Ofcom to clarify exactly what powers it currently has so that we can make it crystal clear in the consultation what powers we seek to change. The consultation will go for Whitehall clearance shortly, so we are on the verge of publishing it. I hope that will be in the next few weeks.

I will be brief. Will the Minister tell us whether that “shortly” will be short enough to let Made TV hang back from putting out publicity on which slot the channel will have, in the possibility that it will have an opportunity to move up to another slot before its launch in the summer? That is the dilemma being faced at the moment.

It is important to emphasise that those people who have bid for local television licences—and we welcome the people who bid and who have been awarded the licences and will run those pioneering services—have gone into the process with their eyes open. They knew what the slot was when we began the consultation. They have seen the slot change as we have encouraged Freeview to push local television up the rankings when slots became available. The hon. Lady will have worked out that if we publish a consultation in March, there will be a period of consultation and then decisions about making changes will have to be taken. There is no way I can offer any kind of guarantee to Made TV or any other local television provider that changes will happen rapidly enough to move its slot up. It is, in any event, a consultation, and I cannot prejudge its outcome. I am sorry to disappoint her.

To return to my earlier theme, we should look at local television from the perspective of the glass being half full. It is a fantastic innovation that has brilliant cross-party support. We are going to see pioneers and innovators take to the airwaves over the next six months. I hope that the next debate we have on the matter will be celebrating the successful launch of a first for the UK broadcasting ecology.

Council Tax Banding

I congratulate the Minister on his impeccable timing. I welcome this opportunity to set out my concerns about council tax banding. The topic may not fill the whole half hour, but it is too wide to explore in an oral question.

Sherwood is seeing an enormous amount of development, with new houses being built throughout the constituency. The new occupants are keen to see which band their house falls into when the local authority sends its council tax bill. They are usually fairly content with the band they are given, as long as it is consistent with those of their neighbours.

Council tax bandings are obviously subjective and are decided by the valuation office. Most people accept that they must pay council tax and accept the band they are put into, but when one of their neighbours in a similar or larger house is given a lower banding, that causes enormous frustration. That is happening to a great extent on a new estate in Hucknall in my constituency. Will the Minister tell us how the valuation office reaches its decisions and how we can obtain more consistency in the bandings so that my constituents understand the valuation office’s decisions?

There have been several successful and unsuccessful applications for changes to council tax bandings for properties on the housing estate just off Papplewick lane in Hucknall. Perhaps you will indulge me, Mr Walker, by allowing me to talk through some examples from my constituents. I have been contacted by Mr Paul Wennington of 11 Falcon way, Mr and Mrs Paine of 7 Falcon way and Mr Gary King of 8 Hobben crescent on the same estate.

Mr King’s case is particularly interesting because of several references to the locality of his property near social housing and whether that should or should not have an impact on the banding of a property. Mr King has come to a conclusion about that and there is a strong argument, which I will come back to, about social housing and its relevance. In the evidence, the valuation office was clear. It said that the listing officer’s representative contended that band E was correct for Mr King’s dwelling because it was in line

“with the established tone of value/band for such properties based on its size on the appeal property’s estate and the adjoining development built by Bellway Homes which also had social housing in the locality.”

There is nothing too controversial about that. The listing officer’s representative then said that in view of the evidence he

“considered that the tone for properties of the appeal property size supported band E notwithstanding the proximity of the social housing and asked the panel to dismiss the appeal”.

At that point the valuation office was clear that social housing in the locality of Mr King’s property did not have an effect on its value and the band it should be in.

Reference was later made to other properties on Peregrine road, where an appeal was allowed. The panel noted:

“Regarding the appeal property’s specific position on the estate…the views from the front of the property looked directly down Falcon Way and overlooked the social housing, which was only several houses away. The panel was of the opinion that this view disadvantaged the appeal property more than those which did not overlook it in a similar way. The panel also noted that all access to and from the social housing was past the appeal property”.

There seems to be some inconsistency: in one appeal, social housing next to someone’s property was considered to lower the value to band E, but on another occasion it was not. I am not here to discuss whether social housing in proximity to a property should or should not reduce council tax; there is an argument for saying that the landlord is irrelevant. What is relevant is how tenants conduct themselves, and I am sure that many owner-occupiers in very expensive properties could be considered to be antisocial neighbours. I am not sure whether having an antisocial neighbour is a consideration in deciding what band a property is in.

I am asking for clear guidance to the valuation office on the bands. I am aware that banding was set in 1991 and that it is difficult to compare various bands, but my constituent has gone to the trouble of researching properties with similar values back in 1991 in the Hucknall area and most of them come out with an average value of around £70,000, which instead of putting them in band E puts them nearer the top end of band C. One can imagine the frustration when my constituent’s bill and those of several of his neighbours arrived showing that their properties were in band E, particularly when some of his neighbours appealed against that decision and had their appeal granted, dropping to band D when other neighbours’ appeals were rejected and they were told that their banding would remain where it was.

When developers propose new properties, they come up with a plan and allocate names to the types of properties. A three-bedroom detached house will be given a style name and a value. A four-bedroom house will be given another style name and value. On the same estate, the developer built properties identical in every way, shape and form, including the design, type of bricks and type of tiles, yet some have been put into a different council tax band.

In summary, I want to draw the attention of the Department for Communities and Local Government to the frustration that my constituents feel at the council tax banding that the valuation office is implementing. If the Minister can do anything to give it more support and guidance so that its approach to banding is more consistent, that would be greatly appreciated. If that guidance were forthcoming, perhaps some of my constituents could re-appeal the decisions against their banding on a more level playing field.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for securing the debate, as it provides an opportunity to discuss the council tax banding system and the processes of the Valuation Office Agency. My hon. Friend has, as always, fought hard in his speech to ensure that he gets the best result for the residents of Sherwood. I know that he does that on a daily basis across the House, lobbying myself and other Ministers. He is right to do so.

I want to be clear: I am keen that the council tax banding process is seen to be open, fair and transparent, and that council tax payers are clearly able to see and know their rights if they want to challenge those bands. It goes without saying that a person’s council tax bill should be based on the correct council tax band for their property. None of us could possibly want to argue against that.

I want to reiterate the Government’s position that we do not plan at the moment to make any changes to the banding system; I appreciate that that is not the point my hon. Friend was making. We are looking to do nothing of the sort, either by adding more bands or splitting them, but I appreciate that there has been a lot of talk about that. We are aware of media reports calling for extra bands to cover higher-value properties. Just a couple of weeks ago in the Chamber, Labour refused to rule out adding more bands and increasing council tax.

We have no plans to introduce anything such as a mansion tax or anything else, and we have made it abundantly clear that there will be no general revaluation during the lifetime of this Parliament, because that would be costly and increase council tax bills. We have seen how that worked in Wales in 2005, when four times as many people moved up the bands as down. Wholesale revaluation is simply not the answer; it just causes more problems.

Like the Minister, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing the debate. I am delighted that the Minister is ruling out any further council tax bands. Our hard-pressed council tax payers are paying quite enough as it is.

This debate is timely; in my constituency of Woking, we have a number of new developments—by the way, I thank the Minister for ensuring that some of the new homes bonus money is going to local authorities rather than to local enterprise partnerships. The debate is timely and important. Thousands of houses are coming on stream in Woking and there must be an absolutely transparent process that works, so that people are allocated to the right band and those bands are of equivalence to the other properties in my constituency.

My hon. Friend makes a valid and fair point, particularly regarding transparency. It would be useful for me to set out how the system works, how bands are assigned—which will help deal with the direct point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood—and what the taxpayer can do to challenge their banding.

In England, the main role of the Valuation Office Agency—or the VOA, as we all know it—is to provide the valuations and property advice required to support taxation and benefits. There are eight bands—A to H—and every single one of the 23 million properties in England that are subject to council tax is assigned one of those bands by the VOA. They are based on the open market value as of 1 April 1991, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

Each band has a range of values. For example, band D is for properties valued between £68,001 and £88,000 in 1991. That highlights that a property could have its value changed and still not change bands. It could be valued at £87,999 and be in band D, then it could be reassessed and revalued, and considered to be worth £70,000—more than a 10% change—but still stay in the same council tax band. That could be one reason why residents can see no change in band despite a review on value, but I shall come back to that.

The common valuation date of 1991 means that all properties, including newly built properties, are valued on a fair and consistent basis. That applies equally to all homes, regardless of general fluctuations in the property market since then. The banding system provides a link between the value of a dwelling and the level of council tax. Homes will vary according to a range of factors; some are obvious and some not so. If we think about the value of a property that any one of us may own, its age and size will all have an effect on the value, as might the level of modernisation and improvement. That can again lead to a variation in valuation between two properties that, at first glance, may look very similar— or, indeed, the same.

The VOA looks at the property details for a property, and then looks at sales that took place on or around the valuation date of 1991. Sales from around that time on comparable properties are the strongest indicator of value. As the bands cover a range of values, many different types and styles of property can fall in the same band. Equally, fairly similar properties can fall into different bands, depending on their value in 1991. For example, if the band level is £68,001, the property could be in a different band for the sake of being £10 or £15 apart in value, in theory.

When council tax was introduced in 1993, the Government of the day did not want to discourage people from improving their properties for fear of incurring additional council tax liability. Council tax is not, and should not be, a tax on home improvement or extensions, but such changes are taken into account when a property is sold. That is intentional and there are no plans to change it.

I am grateful for the Minister’s time and for his explanation. I hope that he recognises that I am talking about brand new properties on the same housing estate, built to the same set of drawings, using the same bricks and the same tiles—they are identical apart from the fact that they are 100 yards apart—that are in a different band. That is what is causing the frustration.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point and I will turn to that specifically in a moment. Having said that, in various parts of the country, literally being a few yards apart on opposite sides of the road can make a difference in valuation, even for the same properties. I appreciate that that can be frustrating for residents, but it can have an impact—it is about the valuation. It is important to be clear about how the system works, as that will feed through to give a better understanding, enabling me to give a clearer answer to where we are and what my hon. Friend’s residents can do.

As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, there can be inconsistencies. Taxpayers can at times find themselves living in properties, new or old, that seem identical or even smaller than a neighbour’s that is in a lower band. The property has a different band level because improvements have been made to it, or there are changes that are not clear at first. Even if it is only because it is on the other side of the road, there can be a difference in valuation.

It is clear from my hon. Friend’s comments that he has called today’s debate because there is a specific issue around new-build properties for his constituents, who find themselves in a situation in which the bandings are different for similar or, as he outlined, effectively identical properties nearby. I can understand why that would be frustrating not only for them, but for him in his work to represent them.

If council tax payers believe that their band is incorrect, they can contact the VOA with their concerns—I appreciate that there is an issue with that, which I shall come to—and the VOA will review a property’s banding and amend it if the evidence suggests it is incorrect. While I am here on the record—this is not so much for my hon. Friend’s benefit—I want to be clear that council tax bandings can be challenged in two ways. First, the council tax payer has formal challenge rights in the first six months of either becoming the taxpayer of a property, or against a change made by the VOA, or where a material reduction in the value of the property or locality has happened since council tax was introduced.

When council tax payers do not have those formal rights, taxpayers can have their band reviewed by the VOA for free, if there is something to suggest that the banding might not be right. The VOA uses its statutory duty to maintain fair and accurate bandings as the means to provide a free banding review service, which applies to all occupiers, whether or not they have proposals rights.

I make that point clear because I know that some agencies out there—an increasing number of companies acting as agents—are promising council tax payers that they can get their bands reduced. I want to be clear: although some of those are charging up-front fees, I am keen for taxpayers to know that they can approach the VOA directly to challenge their banding. Full details are on the VOA’s website.

There is also the ability to have the case appealed to the valuation tribunal when the taxpayer and the VOA cannot agree. It seems to me, from the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, that that is where the crux of the issue in his area may lie. The valuation tribunal is independent from the VOA and will hear evidence from both sides before making a final decision. That can then be appealed to the High Court on a question of law, but that does not necessarily help the residents.

I say to my hon. Friend that after listening to what he said, he has outlined a potentially apparent inconsistency in the valuation tribunal decisions, rather than in relation to the VOA. I would like to invite him to come and see me, and I will arrange for him to have a meeting on behalf of his residents to look at that specific issue.

If there is an inconsistency, we want to make sure that that is driven out; if there is not, we want the residents to have a good understanding of why they have been banded differently. It may be for some of the reasons that I outlined in the past few minutes, about differences that are not necessarily apparent at first between properties. If there is an inconsistency, we can make sure we drive to the bottom of that and deal with it for my hon. Friend’s residents. I have also written to all billing authorities to remind them of their statutory duty to include the VOA contact details on council tax bills.

This is a complex system. It can be daunting and frustrating, as we have heard this afternoon. However, it is also very important. That is why I am so determined that we will ensure that it is as open and transparent as possible and why I very much welcome today’s debate and look forward to my hon. Friend coming and having a conversation with us about the specifics of his case.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.