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Westminster Hall

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 September 2014

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

Community Hospitals

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), to the debate and congratulate him on his elevation in the reshuffle before the summer recess. It is a pleasure to speak in such a well attended debate, with so many parliamentary colleagues coming to share my concerns about the future of our community hospitals.

The purpose of this debate is to make the case for the Government’s putting the community back into community hospitals and for recognising that such hospitals should have a central role in coping with the issue of people living longer. Community hospitals are important providers of recovery beds that speed rehabilitation and recovery, which can also help older people in particular to continue to live independently.

I was inspired to seek this debate because people in my community care deeply about the local community hospitals in Dover and Deal. Years of centralisation have taken their toll. My constituents want more locally-based health services provided by their local hospitals.

Dover was deeply concerned to see services axed at its Buckland hospital; wards were closed one by one and a much-loved hospital was decimated over a decade. When I was elected in 2010, plans for a new hospital had been going nowhere for getting on for a decade and the new hospital project was set to be axed altogether. Meanwhile, in Deal, it was agreed in 2006 that out-patient services should be axed and residents were fearful that the hospital would be closed altogether. However, after much hard campaigning, the long-stalled new Dover hospital is being built. It will open in February or March next year and will have out-patient facilities, day surgery, diagnostics and a revamped urgent care centre. The number of journeys that will need to be taken to the big, far away hospitals will fall dramatically. It will make a massive difference.

In Deal, we campaigned hard to safeguard the future of the hospital. A massive survey and a packed public meeting ensured that NHS chiefs pledged not to close the hospital and they will now seek to expand its services. We now hope that out-patient services can be maintained for people who find it hard to travel: the elderly, the partially sighted and people with broken bones.

However, we have not achieved everything that we want. People in Dover want recovery beds to be located at the new hospital. Residents of Deal would like greater community and local general practitioner involvement in the hospital and its services. Both communities would like more locally-based services, to minimise the number of journeys to the large, far away acute hospitals for simple procedures and treatments. These concerns led me to move a ten-minute rule Bill earlier this year and I was delighted that so many parliamentary colleagues supported that.

The issue is not just for Dover and Deal; I have set out the local situation to provide context for the concerns of so many parliamentary colleagues. There are some 400 local and community hospitals throughout the land and there are similar stories to be told about many of them—stories of people battling to defend their hospitals and hospital services against the NHS leviathan and the forces of centralisation.

There is a sense that the tide has begun to turn. After all, a new hospital is being built at Dover, health chiefs have pledged to secure the future for Deal hospital, and there has been a move towards a fairer share of health care for rural and semi-rural communities far from acute hospitals. We have come a long way. Today, I am making the case for going further and asking what more we can do to embrace community hospitals and bring them closer to the heart of the NHS and, in particular, support the role that they play in providing recovery beds and more locally-based services, particularly for an ageing population. We need to put the community back into community hospitals.

We should note an important moment in the history of the NHS, marked by the comments of Simon Stevens, the new chief executive of NHS England, who recently made the case for patients to be treated more often in their own communities, saying that the NHS is currently too focused on

“a steady push towards centralisation”

and that Britain should learn from countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States, which have strengthened community care around small hospitals to meet the needs of local communities.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. In Northern Ireland, of course, we do not have as many community hospitals as there are on the mainland. Ours tend to feed into a main hub and we have out-of-hours services more than community hospitals. However, Mr Stevens, whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, also says that we should consider community hospitals developing as social enterprises. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view on that?

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the direction of my speech. I wholly support it; it is a great idea. Mr Stevens also said:

“A number of other countries have found it possible to run viable local hospitals serving smaller communities than sometimes we think are sustainable in the NHS”

and that

“Most of western Europe has hospitals which are able to serve their local communities, without everything having to be centralised”.

In a speech to the NHS Confederation annual conference in June 2014, he outlined his plans for reform of community health services, reiterating the problems of the ageing population and the increasing number of long-term conditions, such as obesity and dementia, as well as more expansive and expensive treatments and the need for more localised health services to tackle these problems.

Mr Stevens is right. Community hospitals have an important role to play and perform best in respect of intermediate, step-down and step-up recovery beds, particularly for people recovering from an operation who need round-the-clock care, and in respect of helping older people get better and continue to live independently, keeping them out of end-of-life or long-term nursing home care.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on this excellent debate. Does it not surprise him that the acute hospitals are not clamouring to keep the community hospitals, which could free up their beds, allowing patients to go home to their local communities, where they are going to get better, not worse? That, of course, would cost the Government less in the long term.

I agree. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his hard campaigning in his constituency to secure the future of his own community hospitals. I understand that the campaign has met with great success, showing how fortunate his constituents are to have such a diligent, effective Member of Parliament. He is right; community care beds are more cost-effective and reduce the pressure of bed blocking on acute hospitals, meaning that acute hospitals can do more of what they are best at and that community hospitals can do more of what they, in turn, are best at.

Community hospitals are good at creating a friendly, personal and home-like environment, well suited to older people, particularly those who suffer from dementia yet live independently; such people have better health outcomes and a lower rate of readmission following rehabilitation and recovery. Community hospitals can be localised hubs for less complex health care and can have minor injury units, diagnostic provision, clinics for various specialities and even out-patient services and day surgery, and they are more cost-effective, when compared with acute hospitals, in respect of post-acute recovery. It is hard to see why we ever went down the route of centralisation, because it cost us more money and gave us less effective care. The move to putting the community hospital back at the heart of things will be more cost-effective and will give better care and better health outcomes.

I welcome Ministers’ comments in answers to oral and written questions, as well as the comments of Mr Stevens. Ministers have recognised that community hospitals are important in improving patients’ discharge from acute hospitals and in increasing access to treatment in the community. I welcome their acceptance that community hospitals are good bases for respite, palliative and intermediate care, and step-up and step-down care close to home. Community hospitals are also strong resources for people in rural areas, who have to travel long distances to reach general hospitals. Much of what I am saying is in line with the direction of travel of Ministers. I welcome that.

An important aspect of community hospitals is as providers of recovery beds. Study after study has shown that community hospital recovery beds are effective at getting people well, meaning they are less likely to be readmitted to hospital than if they recovered in an acute hospital. Older patients are more likely to enjoy continued independent living, and a friendly home life environment is preferred by patients.

I will cite a few studies and a bit of evidence in support of what I am saying. There was a study in Bradford in 2005, a study in the midlands and the north of England in 2007, research from 2009 into patient-reported experiences and research into intermediate care in Norway in 2007, so there is a significant evidence base. In addition, the NHS Confederation recently used Department of Health evidence to conclude that closer-to-home care produced a fall of 24% in elective admissions, a 14% reduction in bed days, a 21% drop in emergency admissions, a 45% reduction in mortality and a 15% fall in visits to accident and emergency. Those are encouraging figures. Community hospitals are more cost-effective, according to a 2006 research paper published in the British Medical Journal, so there is strong evidence to back up what I have set out.

The case is made in certain quarters that it is somehow easier and possibly cheaper to have intermediate beds in nursing homes. Nursing homes play an important role in long-term care and end-of-life care, but community hospitals are more suitable for recovery, rehabilitation and continued independent living. It is in their interest to get people out, but the nature of nursing homes is that people are not expected to leave very quickly. With an ageing population, community hospitals are particularly well suited to keeping older people healthier and more well. The clinical commissioning group covering Dover and Deal, ably led by the local GP, Darren Cocker, is building on that in creating an integrated care organisation. It sees the local hospitals in Dover and Deal as essential to the success of its vision.

Moving on, let us look at how we can put the community more into community hospitals. Many community hospitals were established and funded, as colleagues will know, through public subscription by locally based community trusts before the NHS came into existence. The trusts managed effectively and the move to nationalisation and centralisation saw those hospitals taken from communities and taken over by the NHS in Whitehall. Many communities want to be given the chance to have a greater say over what happens to their local hospitals. Allowing local communities to own, lease or manage their hospitals would be a clear way to accommodate the concerns many have and enable people to have the greater say they would like to have.

Reforging the strong link that GPs had with their local hospitals is important as well. My local GPs are up for that, and I want to encourage and support them in that move. Communities should also have greater influence over the provision of health care in their areas; that would allow them to give greater priority to the needs of their specific community. I hope that Ministers will take the opportunity to promote community ownership or management of community hospitals.

In conclusion, much progress has been made on community hospitals, but more can be done. They could be embraced and put more closely at the heart of Government health care policy, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps he will take in four key areas. First, what steps will he take to enable communities to have a greater say in running their local community hospitals: to own, to lease, or to manage? How can we have stronger links among GPs, GP-led clinical commissioning groups and community hospitals, as used to happen many years ago and could happen again?

What about the potential for community hospitals to be hubs for the integration of social care and the policy support that might be given for that? Finally, we need to accept that it is not always best just to drop off people at home after acute hospital treatment and that intermediate recovery beds are often a key element in the path to recovery, distinct from nursing homes, which are better suited to longer-term and end-of-life care.

Before I call Mr Jim Shannon, I say to Members that I will call the Front Benchers at 10.40 am. Seven Members have indicated in writing that they want to speak in this debate, and a couple of others have also indicated that they might wish to speak. As would be expected, those who have written in will get priority. The maths is easy: we have 55 minutes and 10 Members wishing to speak.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. The Minister and I have spent a bit of time together in Westminster Hall in the past couple of days, and it is nice to see him in his place. I wish him well. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing this debate, which gives us all an opportunity to participate, and we thank him for that.

I have a deep interest in community hospitals and I therefore look forward to making a contribution. As the Democratic Unionist party spokesperson for health, the issue is of some interest to me. It is not often that we are the second largest party in the Chamber. [Laughter.] With my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and me, we have two Members, which makes us the second largest party. It is a pleasure to speak on this issue. The local hospital in my constituency of Strangford is in Newtownards. It is a community hospital, like Bangor and Downe, which are in neighbouring constituencies, and all those hospitals feed into the major hub of our hospitals, which is the Ulster hospital. I put on record, because I have to, the excellent staff we have at those hospitals. We are very much indebted to their work, the commitment they give beyond their hours and the quality of their experience.

Community hospitals have a big role to play in our society. Without them, the NHS health system would be under even greater pressure. We have one of the best, if not the best health system in the world, but being the best comes with pressures. Due to the nature of our health system, which entitles all UK residents to health care, delays and backlogs can, unfortunately, arise sometimes. In January this year, the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast was forced to declare a major incident due to the large number of patients visiting accident and emergency. Health is a devolved matter, and although our Health Minister at home, Edwin Poots, dealt with the issue extremely well, I am under no illusion that the Belfast hospital was alone in declaring itself under extreme pressure. The nature of the NHS means that that happens sometimes, but community hospitals can come in to address that.

I am always thoroughly impressed by the work of staff in A and E departments, because they are often run off their feet, with many people coming in with a variety of problems, but community hospitals play an important role in easing their work. Often, people have injuries that need to be seen to that are not emergencies, and sometimes people have to look at how best to categorise those issues and which hospital to attend. Some people could see their GP at their local community hospital and use the out-of-hours service, rather than attending A and E departments. That is not meant as a criticism; I am always conscious that people respond in the way they see best, but sometimes we need to take a longer look at how things work. Community hospitals can play a greater role.

One thing that we need to do is raise awareness of community hospitals through this debate and look at how best the community and our constituents can respond. The role of community hospitals is to provide accessible health care and ancillary services to meet the needs of defined local populations, particularly in areas remote from district general hospitals. As an extension of primary care, they enable GPs and the primary health care teams to support patients within their own communities. Rehabilitation is a major role of community hospitals, and many offer a wide range of health promotion, diagnostic, emergency, acute and convalescent services, as well as out-of-hours treatment.

Community hospitals provide an undervalued resource, and those wishing to close such hospitals or downgrade them to no longer being community hospitals have often presented community support as irrational, but it is not irrational in my area. The community hospital in my constituency looks after the Ards peninsula. Travel from Portaferry, Portavogie or Kircubbin to the Ards hospital takes 15 to 20 minutes, but travel to the Ulster hospital would take twice as long, because of the traffic. The community hospital has a significant and important role to play, and we must look outside this place, to see what the issues are for my constituents. In the community hospital, they feel like they are treated as people, rather than numbers. That is not a criticism, but it is a reality.

Figures for Northern Ireland show that the waiting times at A and E are extremely good with just 294 out of 62,193 people waiting longer than 12 hours to be treated or discharged. That figure of 294 must also be addressed, but the numbers show the importance of the role that community hospitals play in treating non-emergency injuries, as well as the large-scale rehabilitation programmes that they offer. Community hospitals provide more convenient services, are less costly for the local population to access and are tailored to the local community’s needs. The hon. Member for Dover referred in his contribution to the significant and important role that community hospitals play in that respect. Furthermore, community hospitals provide a range of safe and appropriate services, often with considerable cost benefit to the NHS—minor injuries units being a prime example.

Doctors can be summoned very rapidly to community hospitals, virtually all of which operate without resident medical staff in a satisfactory way. They have proved that they can do the job to a certain level, which is impressive and eliminates the argument that community hospitals do not provide enough of a service, forcing people to district general hospitals when injured or ill through the night. It is a fact of life that such things happen, but that does not downgrade the importance of the community hospital. It would be good, however, to see all community hospitals offering night-time services. In community hospitals, the patient is under the care of their own GP, who will continue to look after them on discharge. The community nursing teams are also able to retain closer links with the patient at community hospitals, which is vitally important for rehabilitation and is why community hospitals are so successful when it comes to patient recuperation

In conclusion—I am conscious that several other Members want to speak—the benefits of having the same doctors and nurses, who know a patient’s case and can get to know the patient, cannot be underestimated. That is why this debate is so important. I encourage the Minister to raise awareness of community hospitals’ work and to encourage people with minor injuries to use their local community hospital instead of A and E departments at district general hospitals. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover on bringing forward this debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response and to hearing from the third party in the room today when the shadow Minister makes his comments.

May I begin by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and by joining my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) in his warm welcome to our hon. Friend on the Front Bench, who will make his maiden ministerial speech in Westminster Hall? I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover on his choice of subject. As we approach a general election, it is worth remembering that a Member of Parliament actually lost his seat in 2001 because of a perceived lack of commitment to a community hospital, but my hon. Friend’s powerful speech will have consolidated his position in Dover and Deal on health-related matters. Listening to his speech and reading some of the comments made about the NHS, one can understand the concern that district general hospitals and specialist services might sap the life blood out of community hospitals, some of which are fighting to hang on to what they have or even face closure. I want to speak briefly in the debate to show that, so far as North West Hampshire is concerned, the opposite is now happening.

I have no district general hospitals in my constituency—Basingstoke and Winchester are the nearest DGHs and are in next-door constituencies—but I do have the Andover War Memorial hospital in my largest town and what has happened there over the past few years shows what can be done. In 2012, a new trust was formed, amalgamating Basingstoke, Winchester and Andover hospitals and there were fears that Andover, as the smallest, would be squeezed as services were centralised. In fact, the opposite has happened, and I commend what Mary Edwards, the chief executive of the combined trust and Elizabeth Padmore, the chair, have done to bring services to Andover and so reduce the need for people who live in and around the town to drive to the nearest DGH—and most people have to drive as access by public transport is difficult. The process has actually helped the DGHs by reducing pressure on some of their services, not least on car parking, and has made it easier to recruit and retain NHS staff, as not everyone in Andover wants to work in Basingstoke or Winchester.

In Andover, as in other towns, the hospital has always had a strong claim on people’s loyalties, and we have to take note of that. Nowadays, however, one cannot make the case for investment on emotion alone; there has to be a hard-nosed business case to back it up. My hon. Friend drew on some research that underlines the need to invest in community hospitals. The reality is that bigger is better for some procedures, but smaller is better for others, and the position is not static as medical technology develops. A modern health service needs to make intelligent decisions about its assets to get the best value out of them.

After careful analysis of the best way forward by the new trust, we have seen service development in Andover and investment in the fabric, which has capitalised on the skills and commitment of the existing staff, whose energy and professionalism I pay tribute to, and has generated additional investment through, for example, an active league of friends. It has also helped to restore confidence in the NHS decision-making process as local people see the outcomes of the new method of running the NHS. For example, we now have a mobile chemotherapy unit that visits Andover weekly, avoiding a 50-mile round trip to Basingstoke or 30-mile round trip to Winchester, which was done in partnership with Hope for Tomorrow. A new minor injuries unit opened in 2010 and is run by highly skilled nurse practitioners with back-up support from the consultants in emergency medicine at the DGHs. We have a modern out-patients department to replace a building that dates from the era of “Carry on Nurse”. Instead of local folk having to travel to a DGH to see a consultant, consultants from nearly all the specialties now come to Andover. We have a mobile MRI scanner, and operations under local anaesthetic are now also taking place in Andover. The Hampshire hospitals birthing unit has just opened and is run by local midwives and provides ante and post-natal care. More and more local families are choosing a midwife-supported birth, and they can either have the baby at home or in the birthing unit.

The hospital campus is large and has always been used intelligently. The Countess of Brecknock hospice, run independently by a charitable trust, is next to the hospital. More consultants in palliative medicine are now based there and it is developing a hospice-at-home service. Also next to the hospital is a nursing home, funded and run by the county council on land provided by the NHS.

At this point, the cynic might ask what is so remarkable about a large building calling itself a hospital providing services for people who are ill, but that is to miss the point. The NHS must adapt and change if it is to continue to provide a quality service, which means specialisation where necessary and localisation where it is not and investment in both DGHs and community hospitals

I have two requests for the Minister—one general and one specific. First, I endorse the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for an assurance that the Government support the continued provision of more services locally, as is happening in North-West Hampshire, and will encourage the trust to continue with its strategy of providing more services in the town, such as transferring patients who have had critical treatment elsewhere for rehabilitation in the hospital. We are pleased with what we have, but our appetite has been whetted and we want more. I was tempted to say, “Dover Andover again,” but I will not.

Secondly, and more specifically—I do not expect an answer this morning—the ugliest building in Andover is the Andover health centre, which houses a GP practice on the hospital campus owned by the trust. Not only is it ugly, it is past its sell-by date as a place where GPs can practise. Indeed, the trust wants to demolish it next year. The site could be sold for housing, for which there is great need, and could generate a capital receipt for reinvestment in health services. The dialogue between the various agencies of the NHS to relocate the practice, which is the largest in Andover with some 15,000 patients, has gone on for at least four years with no end in sight. It started off with the primary care trust, but now involves NHS England, the clinical commissioning group and the trust. The practice wants to be relocated near the hospital, where land is available, and there are advantages in having GPs next door. We need to resolve the matter before the Care Quality Commission looks too hard at the current building. In conclusion, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to indicate that he will take a personal interest in the matter and use his influence to bring the dialogue to a satisfactory conclusion.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and to speak in a debate instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), because it is such an important subject, in particular in my constituency. It is also a great pleasure to be present for the first performance of the new Minister—I congratulate him on his appointment.

Approximately 10 years ago, our hospital in Stroud was under threat, in essence because the previous Labour Government were obsessed with “big is better”, rather than small and local. The whole town and the wider community rallied together to ensure that their love of their hospital was understood and the fundamental case for keeping it open was made. Today, it is still open—quite right too.

At the same time, the Stroud maternity unit was under threat for much the same reasons. It also received a huge amount of support locally. It, too, is still open—again, quite right too. If I do nothing else, it would be to pledge my total support for those two institutions, as well as the Vale community hospital in Dursley, because it really matters to people that such hospitals—our community hospitals—are protected and allowed to thrive. That is a key priority for me in my constituency.

When I was first elected, it was a great pleasure to dig the first hole for the building of the Vale community hospital. It is now thriving, with 20 beds, and providing an increasing number of valuable services to my constituents.

That is the overall package that we have in the Stroud valleys and vale; it is one that we want to build on, to protect and to hand over to our successors, children and grandchildren in future. It is the core of our health care.

It is great that the reforms that we introduced early on in the Parliament have enabled general practitioners to have more say in community health provision. It is absolutely right that CCGs are able to direct patients more effectively and more easily to local community hospitals. That is certainly happening in my patch, because our local doctors know and understand the value of our community hospitals. The reforms that we introduced to localise decision making, and to put clinicians in charge rather than managers, have made a big difference. We should continue in that direction of travel.

The key word is “signposting”, to ensure that the patient gets to the place where he or she should be, rather than automatically assume that a large, city-based hospital is the place to go. We need to make it clearer that community hospitals are there and should be used as often as possible. It is a matter of signposting. Unless we make that clearer, from time to time we will find ourselves wondering why there are queues in big trust hospitals and, possibly, empty beds in community hospitals. We need to do signposting.

I am listening attentively to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Dare I say, reorganisation in the NHS is not something that I particularly want to address, but is it not common sense for trusts to look again at how best to use what they have, rather than to play with what they have inherited? Community hospitals should be incorporated with the district or acute hospitals to ensure that they all work together in their relative areas to look after the people living in those areas.

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. It is absolutely right that we need a holistic approach to the use of hospitals. Such an approach would be better informed and implemented if more information were available. That is the essence of my point, which will be helped precisely by what he was talking about, which is having more and better relationships between the different types of hospital.

May I say a few words about the investment that the coalition Government have managed to provide for our hospitals? I have already said that the Vale community hospital was built during the early years of my time as Member of Parliament. We have also seen huge improvement in the Stroud maternity unit, with significant investment in access, the entrance area and a complete revamp of corridors and facilities. As a result, it is a very attractive place for expectant mothers to go. The questions are, do we have enough expectant mothers, and do we have enough of them who want to go that particular unit? I am not going to add to the baby count myself, as I have three children already, but those are questions we need to address.

Stroud general hospital can now boast improved diagnostics and excellent out-patient services. That is good for those situations, which we often see, that involve someone needing to go into a hospital, but not necessarily to stay overnight. The recently opened out-patient facility is therefore a good example of valuable and useful investment.

I want to pay tribute to the leagues of friends in Stroud hospital and in Vale community hospital. In particular, I want to single out one individual, David Miller, who has contributed a massive amount to our hospital over many years. He should be recognised as a powerful force for augmenting investment in our hospitals through very good use of locally raised funds.

In essence, I am utterly and absolutely determined to ensure that our hospitals are supported properly—financially, locally and in every other way. Secondly, the key thing is to signpost the patient to the right place and to recognise the powerful role of community hospitals in promoting public health, dealing with care after major operations and enabling out-patient activity to work, all in conjunction with general practitioners across my patch. That is the message that the Government must hear; that is the theme that the Government must pursue; and it is certainly what I will do in the Stroud valleys and vale.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing it, and I entirely concur with the major premise of his speech, as well as that of many of my colleagues’ speeches, that community hospitals should be further developed to promote additional services.

One such excellent community hospital is the Congleton War Memorial hospital in my constituency. Given the high standards it has provided for its local patients, it is well placed to extend its services. The recent patient-led assessment of the care environment rated Congleton War Memorial highly, with no less than 93%. Founded in 1924 by public subscription, it was a memorial to all those who had given their lives in the first world war. The hospital has served the community of Congleton ever since, and it is fitting that I should be able to stand up and praise that excellent local hospital in the centenary year of the start of that war.

I will give a little background. Built in 1924, the hospital was paid for by local people and opened by the King as a memorial to those 243 men from the town who gave their lives in the first world war. When the King opened the hospital, he said:

“The hospital will always be a reminder to generations to come of the prudent and generous instincts of the townspeople of Congleton”.

Indeed, it has been, and still is.

Until the inauguration of the health service in 1948, the hospital was maintained locally, first by an industrial hospital fund, to which every worker in the borough contributed one penny a week, deducted from their pay packets. That is why the hospital remains so close to many people’s hearts, in particular the many elderly people in my constituency. Additionally, it was supported by the proceeds of an annual hospital carnival, private subscriptions and bequests, the proceeds of special efforts, and donations from local fundraising, which continues today.

Its current services range from a minor injuries unit to physiotherapy and phlebotomy. It offers a personal and local service that a larger city or general hospital simply cannot match. It is a high-class facility on the doorstep of the people of Congleton, meaning that those who are less mobile due to age, infirmity or lack of transport can easily access health care facilities without needing to ride in a bus or taxi to the nearest larger hospital, which is in neighbouring Macclesfield.

Although a community hospital, it has a host of facilities and services for out-patients and in-patients. It provides a wide range of local health care for residents and has a specialist intermediate care unit. It gives respite care for people who no longer need the facilities of the larger hospitals in the region, such as Macclesfield district general hospital, so people can recover in a more homely and relaxed environment that is closer to home. That is very much appreciated, particularly by those who have more acute and severe needs. Such a facility is also a boon for visiting families and provides a halfway step between hospital and home. As I have said, the hospital is particularly valued by older constituents.

I want to reassure my constituents that I know of no current plans to reduce or close the services at Congleton War Memorial hospital. Indeed, my purpose in speaking today is to request that consideration be given to extending them. I assure hon. Members that my constituents would rise up in revolt should there ever be a hint of closure or reduction in services at the hospital—and it would not be the first time. In 1962, after a suggestion that the hospital be closed, there was a mass meeting at the town hall, with an overflow of some 2,000 residents. The meeting was presided over by the mayor and it was unanimously resolved to oppose every means by which closure could be attained. A petition was organised and got 24,000 signatures. The plans were well and truly dropped and the hospital has flourished ever since.

Members of my staff extol the importance of the hospital for the people of Congleton and call it an “invaluable asset”. They say that waiting times are short, even for minor injuries—half an hour, if someone is unlucky, which is far better than at an A and E at many larger hospitals. The service is treasured by the people of Congleton, who use it frequently and see its special services as something that should be available as a matter of course. Congleton residents rely on it for its family-friendly outlook. As I have said, its minor injuries unit helps to avoid long waits at A and E and serves the local community; it also potentially reduces waiting times at larger hospitals and takes a load off them by treating less acute injuries.

The value of Congleton War Memorial hospital cannot be overstated. It is beloved by local people and provides a level of personal service that I myself have witnessed when I have had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with the staff there, in fresh and attractive facilities that are maintained to a very high standard.

I hope the Minister will join me in extolling the virtues of important facilities such as those at Congleton War Memorial hospital, and perhaps even visit for himself one day to see, in Congleton, what a model community hospital looks like. It is ideally placed for the extension of the excellent facilities that it provides.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on obtaining this debate, and add my congratulations to the Minister on his appointment.

Every speaker so far has talked about the value of community hospitals. I do not want to repeat what has been said, but I utterly endorse the tributes that have been paid to the dedicated staff who work in those hospitals, the intimate care that they are able to provide to patients—sometimes lacking in very large, more general hospitals—the proximity they have to communities and the fact that patients can be visited by relatives and friends much more easily. All those factors are real strengths that contribute to faster recovery times.

I am afraid that, like every Member, I will talk about my own experience of my local community hospital in Maldon, St Peter’s community hospital, which is greatly loved. Like many, it offers out-patient treatments, has rehabilitation beds and offers therapies. It also has a maternity unit. In my early days as a Member of Parliament I marched down Whitehall with the local protest group in defence of that unit when it was suggested that it might close. I am pleased to say that it did not and is still there; although I cannot personally say that I have contributed to its work, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who I am sure would be here had she not become a Minister, had her first child in the Maldon hospital maternity unit.

Like many community hospitals, however, it is an old building. It was built in 1874 as a workhouse for 450 inmates. Although it has had various refurbishments over the years, it is not really fit for purpose. It is in poor condition, with leaks in the roof, and there is a possibility that it could be declared unsafe. Everybody realises that services cannot continue there for much longer.

For almost all the time that I have been in Parliament, therefore, we have been discussing how best to replace the hospital—whether to rebuild on the existing site or to build a brand new community hospital. Various options have been put forward. At one point we thought we had an agreement, but then it was discovered that nobody could quite work out who owned the land on which the new hospital was to be built, so that agreement fell through.

We now face a serious problem: as the Minister may know, mid-Essex has one of the most severe financial problems of any area in the country. It is largely an historical problem that has come about through the formula for funding allocation and has been compounded by a private finance initiative scheme that is draining money out of the local health budget at our main general hospital in Broomfield. We have to look at more imaginative solutions: it is clear that it is unlikely that the local health service will be able to afford the capital cost of a new hospital and we have had our fingers burnt by PFI once before.

We are looking for a new solution, and one has appeared; I will describe it briefly and invite the Minister to endorse at least the principle behind it. The Maldon district, like many, has a severe housing need—we need a lot of new houses. The district council is preparing a development plan, which is now before the planning inspectorate. The development of new housing offers opportunities and a scheme has been suggested for a housing development that will bring with it a new hospital for the NHS, built by the developers at zero capital cost. Indeed, the scheme offers an even greater potential benefit, as not only will a new hospital probably be cheaper to run than the very old existing hospital, meaning that the revenue costs may be reduced, but it will free up the site of the existing hospital, which will be available to the NHS for potential sale for development and could therefore raise some money. It is potentially a win-win situation: Maldon will get a brand new hospital and the houses that, although they are controversial, there is no doubt we need, and the NHS will have additional resources and a hospital that is more up to date and cheaper to run.

Obviously the scheme still needs a lot of work. There are questions over who will own the new hospital building—whether it ought to remain in the developer’s ownership and be leased to the NHS or be passed to the district council—and it has to go through the planning process. At the moment, we are also wading through the treacle of NHS bureaucracy: dealing with the NHS Property Service, with the CCG, with the Mid Essex hospital trust and with Provide, which used to be called Central Essex Community Services. But everybody who looks at the scheme can see the potential to provide, at zero cost, the new hospital that my constituents so desperately need.

Although the Minister cannot get involved in the detail of the scheme, I hope that he can at least express general support for that kind of imaginative thinking, which will ensure that we have a new community hospital for the future. I also invite him to think about that model, which could well be applicable in many other areas.

Order. Because of Members’ self-discipline, we have some 10 minutes remaining, and two doctors to finish the Back-Bench contributions.

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

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). I cannot remember a more encouraging debate in this House about community hospitals. The success stories we have heard—not just from Dover, but the extraordinary success in Andover outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and those in Vale, Congleton, Maldon and other places—show what community hospitals can achieve.

I was encouraged by what Simon Stevens had to say. He talked about how we should learn from other countries in providing care closer to home, but we do not need to go to other countries. The Health Committee has visited Scandinavia, and in Denmark and Sweden I was shown slides from Brixham community hospital. There we go: we actually have wonderful examples in this country. I pay tribute to the four community hospitals in my constituency: Brixham community hospital, Totnes community hospital, South Hams hospital in Kingsbridge, and finally Dartmouth hospital. They are wonderful services.

I do not want to reiterate the excellent points that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, but community hospitals do not exist in isolation. The debate should consider not just community hospitals, but all the volunteers and services that surround them and enable them to fulfil their role. I talk not just about the wonderful leagues of friends, which work so hard for our communities and in community hospitals, but about the wider networks that help community hospitals to prevent hospital admissions, to facilitate early discharge and to prevent readmission. I will focus on why that is so important.

Simon Stevens has said that the greatest challenge facing the NHS is the rising elderly population and how we care for them. It is good news that we are living longer. That is sometimes presented as if it is gloomy news when it is great news. However, with that comes an increased number of people living with long-term conditions. From our recent Health Committee inquiry, we know that long-term conditions now account for 70% of our entire NHS and social care spending. The number of people aged over 85 will double in the next 20 years. Again, I stress that that is a good thing, but it needs some forward planning.

I ask the Minister how we will ensure that the resources from the better care fund support our community hospitals and the wider webs around them. Last month, Simon Stevens heard an important message when he visited Dartmouth hospital and met with representatives from staff, community volunteers and patients. The message was how frustrating the complications of tendering rounds can be for these volunteer groups. Sometimes those groups spend their time trapped in endless cycles competing for small pots of money. Those funds tend to go to new projects and often do not provide the ongoing funding that well-established, excellent community services provide. Will the Minister look at the mechanisms that sometimes lead to national organisations receiving funding because they can put forward flashier bids, at the expense of excellent local services? Those national bodies might have no local-facing presence.

We need to look at how we can ensure that the arrangements get money to the local services and the right people, and at how to make the processes simpler and less bureaucratic. There is nothing that drives out volunteers quicker than being trapped in endless contracting rounds, rather than doing what they really want to do: provide services to people. I hope the Minister will look at what is happening on the ground in local communities and try to sweep away some of that bureaucracy. That will help our community hospitals to deliver better services.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire said, we need to demonstrate value for money, not just excellent care. I have worked in community hospitals and I know, from patients and colleagues, how important they are to local communities. We know that, but we also have to be able to demonstrate that they are financially viable. That viability often comes from adjusting the way financial drivers in the NHS work. If the Minister wants to help community hospitals, my message to him is to look at what is happening on the ground and make those adjustments happen.

I have concerns about the way consultations about changes to services take place. We need honesty about changes to community hubs. If that means losing beds in community hospitals, we need to be clear about that with communities. Where other arrangements are going to be put in place, such as using nursing home beds rather than community hospital beds, we need to be clear that there is an evidence base that that provides the services people want. We sometimes lose the heart of our community hospitals if we lose their beds. Community hospitals work better if we can retain those step-down, step-up intermediate care beds. That is crucial for communities. If there are to be changes, we need to have honesty during consultations.

Adequate notice also has to be given. This morning I was very concerned to see in an e-mail that Northern, Eastern and Western Devon clinical commissioning group proposes to close some community hospital beds. The detailed consultation will be given to the health and well-being scrutiny panel only the day before. That is not adequate time to scrutinise the plans. Will the Minister ensure that a clear message comes down that, if we want to have local democratic accountability, people must be given adequate time to scrutinise proposals? We must try to avoid terms such as “the direction of travel” in consultations with local communities. People do not know what that means. They want to be clear on what the proposals are and to be given an opportunity to feed back.

Finally, on community ownership, putting the “community” back into community hospitals is important. We need flexibility so that communities that want to take that on can take over from NHS PropCo. That issue, which I would like the Minister to comment on, was raised in a previous debate. I also have a word of caution on social enterprise. I fully support social enterprises but, in some rural communities, a change from NHS terms and conditions of service can place community hospitals under threat if NHS staff do not wish to work there. If people have the choice to work at a hospital where they will have NHS terms and conditions of service or at a hospital where they will not, I can tell the Minister where they will choose to work. That can pose a threat. No one can campaign to keep open a hospital with no nurses. Can the Minister touch on that? If we are going to shift to a social enterprise, we have to be mindful of the impact on future recruitment.

I pay tribute to all the community hospitals in my constituency, their staff and volunteers. They are valued beyond belief by their local communities. I wish them well for the future.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). Having visited his constituency, I know how important community hospitals are for the well-being of his constituents. His commitment is greatly appreciated. I also warmly welcome the Minister to his place. It is wonderful to have a Minister in a Department who has a genuine passion for his subject, and a level of expertise that will be hugely welcomed—no doubt that will be a great threat to the civil service.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), I have served on both sides—as a Member of Parliament with a local community hospital, and as a doctor working in community hospitals. Clevedon hospital has been at the heart of our community in North Somerset for many years. Like many of those who have spoken, we have a league of friends, which over many years has performed heroically raising community funding to support the hospital. Despite that, our hospital is still under threat. We had a perfectly sound plan for a replacement, which we approved and then dropped. It was the subject of an Adjournment debate in the House. I will not repeat what I said then. Our CCG is under pressure from legacy funding issues, and from a funding formula that does not properly reflect issues of rurality or take into account our demographic patterns. The Department needs to look at that but, none the less, we have very good services in our community hospital. We have recently improved and replaced ultrasound facilities, we have increased facilities for ambulatory care and we retained our in-patient beds. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is one of the most crucial issues.

In-patient beds in community hospitals are good for several reasons. They are good for patients. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said, one of the most important things is that families are close by. With increased centralisation of acute hospitals in cities and away from many communities, community hospital beds are valued for enabling people to get close. They can make frequent visits to their relatives, who often are elderly or disabled. We cannot put a price on that social element. Community beds also allow preparation time for patients with complex support needs. All too often, patients leave an acute hospital with nursing or social care needs, and there is not sufficient preparation time before their discharge. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, community hospital beds used on a step-down basis allow proper preparation time, so that that patient gets proper support.

In addition, I believe that community hospital beds are good health economics. There is too big a gap between our increasingly specialised acute services in hospitals and patients’ homes. Because acute beds are expensive, there is often pressure on hospital staff to discharge patients early. We have all come across far too many constituency cases in which patients have been discharged inappropriately early from an acute hospital. The trouble with that in terms of health economics is that it leads to rebound admissions. Patients are sent home too early and it is not possible to prepare appropriate care, or they cannot recover sufficiently, and they end up back in an acute hospital, blocking another acute bed. The system is less efficient than it would be if patient care were put at the centre.

The value of respite care beds has not been raised in the debate. Society depends hugely on carers, who are often the unsung heroes of the health care system. Respite care beds can be invaluable in giving carers a break, so that they can be strong enough to give the care they want to give. We have lost far too many respite care beds. In my constituency, we lost the planned Portishead cottage hospital, which meant fewer beds, and we lost a range of respite care beds at Orchard View. We were always promised that alternatives would be found, and they never materialised. We must understand that if we do not care for the carers and if they become unable voluntarily to carry out those functions, for which they should be given more thanks by the nation, it will cost the NHS a great deal of money.

The issue is not a party one, although I am rather surprised that not a single Labour Back Bencher seems to have a community hospital problem to talk about today. However, there is no doubt that people believe that community hospitals are good for them and their local identity. They are good value for money and good health economics and, above all, good for patients. My hon. Friend the Minister is new to his post, and I want to tell him that community hospitals are what the public undoubtedly want from health care. It is up to the Government to ensure that that is what the public get.

It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on the eloquent case that he made in opening the debate, and I warmly welcome the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect. He will be a huge asset to the Government.

Now that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has been deserted by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), we are on an equal footing. I assure him that he can aspire to be the second party, because I hope very much that in eight months’ time my party will be back in its rightful place as the main one in the House. However, I am sure that that view will not garner full support in the Chamber today.

As many Members have testified, community hospitals play an important role in the communities they serve. They provide rehabilitation and follow-up care, and they can help to move care, diagnostics and minor injury and out-patient services, among others, from acute hospitals back to the community. They provide planned and unplanned acute care and diagnostic services for patients closer to home, and contribute to the local community by providing employment opportunities and support for community-based groups. It is fairly clear that people prefer the more common medical treatments, whether palliative care, minor injury services or maternity care, to be brought nearer to their homes. Those are exactly the services that community hospitals can help to deliver, as we have heard in the debate.

Community hospitals usually have good relationships with their local communities, and many of the speeches this morning attest to that. They are often supported by local fundraising and, indeed, many were opened prior to the creation of the NHS, by public subscription, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) outlined.

We have heard from a number of right hon. and hon. Members today about the great work being done by friends groups. The right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) mentioned those in their areas. I pay tribute to those groups and to the staff and volunteers who work to make things happen in those hospitals. Staff in community hospitals can also build personal relationships with patients and carers as they deliver continuous care from outside the hospital environment, as the hon. Member for Strangford, among others, pointed out. That is an important point that should not be overlooked.

Community hospitals continue to play an important part in health care provision. Their role is valued, and we are right to support it. For the record, Labour continues to be committed to community hospitals when they represent the best solutions for local communities. My constituency is urban and it is served by several large district general hospitals, with not one community hospital, but I acknowledge that other parts of the country have a very different geographical make-up, and that community hospitals are the right way forward for the provision of health care in those communities.

However, the NHS Healthier Together consultation is under way in my area; that is a proposed radical upheaval of hospital care, with fewer and larger specialist hospitals, which will leave some of the smaller district general hospitals to become, effectively, large urban cottage hospitals. It remains to be seen whether that approach will work, but it is at least an option that keeps some hospital care in the community in urban areas. Often full-scale hospital reorganisations do not do that, so perhaps what is happening is a new venture.

Community hospitals can provide a vital step between social care and acute care, and Labour would seek to develop that further. The case made by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) about, particularly, the invaluable role that community hospitals could play in providing extra respite care beds, is one we should take seriously, especially given the new obligations under the Care Act 2014.

Perhaps community hospitals could move into that role more, along with the provision of more GP and dentistry services. There could be much more provision from within the existing bricks and mortar—services could be nearer to where people live, and there could also be support provision, which is particularly relevant for community hospitals that may at present be only marginally viable. That possibility should be explored.

Some concerns remain, however, and I hope that the Minister will be able to offer the House some reassurance today. He will, I hope, be aware of our ongoing concerns about the Government’s structural reforms. I know that the hon. Member for Stroud has come to a different conclusion, but I think that evidence is mounting that some of the reforms have made the co-ordination and delivery of integrated services far more difficult. I suspect the Government now agree with that view, and that they are permitting the emerging integrated care organisations to be exempted from parts of the regulations on competition under section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 for precisely that reason. We believe totally that the future requires the integration of care and health services. Yet I fear that some of the Government’s policies are driving us more towards fragmentation. Let us not be in any doubt: community hospitals have a vital role to play. However, as we have discussed, the approach may not be the right one everywhere.

The Labour party remains committed to community hospitals. The last Labour Government introduced a fund specifically to help them, and I suspect that the Vale community hospital in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stroud, which opened in 2011, was paid for partly from that fund. The fund was not automatically taken up by primary care trusts throughout the country and in some areas there was a different view of the role of community hospitals, but where it was taken up, it has clearly made a huge difference to those communities.

I looked at the Care Quality Commission’s website, and the Vale community hospital has an outstanding reputation. The Labour party made a commitment to community hospitals where they are the right choice for the local community, and that commitment continues. I hope that the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) secures a future for his community hospital because it sounds as though it is really needed in his community.

We are just over a year into the changes introduced by the Health and Social Care Act 2012. I hope that the Minister will take stock of some of those changes and some of the service reconfigurations that are now being proposed in different parts of the country, and reassure us that community hospitals are not being unfairly penalised in the new internal market.

Responsibility for commissioning health care services has moved into the hands of clinical commissioning groups from the former primary care trusts, and there was a worry during deliberation of the Bill that the role of community hospitals might be overlooked. Has the Department assessed whether those fears have come to anything anywhere in the country? The hon. Member for Totnes hit the nail on the head when she referred to the complexity of tendering rounds for funding at the expense of local services. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that.

One obvious consequence of the 2012 Act has been the introduction and rapid expansion of “any qualified provider”, which made it easier for commissioning groups—indeed, it often became necessary—to look outside the NHS to the private sector to provide even more services than ever before.

I am still worried that when trusts are faced with the financial pressures that we have heard about, which arise for a variety of reasons, they often look at the need to remodel clinical services and centralisation, as the hon. Member for Dover said. That takes services away from the community and sometimes from district general hospitals. Sometimes there are sound clinical and financial arguments for that, but it is often financially driven. That will almost certainly have an effect on any extension to the provision of those services in community hospitals.

The concept of whole-person care necessitates patient-centred care closer to where people live, and there may be a huge opportunity for cottage hospitals and other smaller localised health facilities to adapt and to fit comfortably into this model. Clinical commissioning groups and integrated care organisations should look seriously at the possibilities that such facilities provide for the future delivery of joined-up health and social care in a community setting.

The hon. Member for Dover and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Totnes, raised the prospect of community hospitals becoming social enterprises. To me, as a member of the Co-operative party, that is an interesting concept. However, in response to an intervention, the hon. Gentleman referred to the NHS “leviathan”. There are pressures on centralisation, as we have heard, but I am worried that under the 2012 Act cottage hospitals will also have to compete with the leviathan of large corporate private providers. I am worried that “any qualified provider” means that private sector organisations will cherry-pick services and leave cottage hospitals vulnerable to the pressures of centralisation and of losing key local services; such organisations are often better at going through the bidding process, as the hon. Member for Totnes said.

This Government and the next should do all they can to ensure that patients can make real choices about receiving the health care they need close to their homes. We must make the vision of whole-person care a reality. Community hospitals are valued and must have a real role in developing and delivering a more integrated and people-centred health care system. I hope that we all support that, and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): Thank you, Mr Owen. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in my inaugural appearance on the Front Bench on this subject. I thank hon. Members for their kind words of congratulation and welcome on my appointment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing this debate and on his tireless work on this matter and the wider subject of social engagement and community ownership of public resources. I pay tribute to his work in his constituency, particularly on securing the future of the Victoria hospital in Deal.

Several hon. Members who are not here at this well attended debate, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), continue to support their local community hospitals through their constituency and parliamentary work. I extend my thanks to all hon. Members. It is wonderful to see so many of them here today representing their own community hospitals and the wider cause.

We have heard a range of excellent contributions from a distinguished and committed group of hon. Members, including two doctors—the Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox)—and my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

We have heard some important reasons why community hospitals and local health care facilities matter so much, and I will highlight and reinforce them. We have heard strong views about the invaluable role of community hospitals, clinics and local health centres in our communities; about the benefits of community engagement and patient voices in health care that flow from them; about the potential for community hospitals to be hubs of social care, intermediate care and recovery beds; and about the role of community hospitals in easing pressure on expensive clinical and bed space in our acute hospitals. Some colleagues have made the point that big is not always best in health care. We have also heard about the importance of integrating social care and health care, which is a Government priority, as is the role of local centres in facilitating that; the impact of reconfiguration on recruitment; the important role of community hospitals in providing respite care beds; and the strength of patient support and community voice in support of hospitals.

We have heard some important examples of imaginative new thinking in Dover, Maldon, Andover, Congleton and elsewhere, and of the risk of fundraising being channelled to the big, the professional and the remote by excessive bureaucracy and complexity. We also heard an important point about transparency and evidence-based, jargon-free language in consultations, the absence of which militates against the small, voluntary and local community.

I want to start by signalling that all Ministers in the Department of Health acknowledge absolutely the great benefits that community health care, hospitals and health centres provide to our communities. I will speak about the role we foresee them playing and highlight how our NHS reforms are changing the NHS in a way that should help to support more local and community facilities, putting in place specific protection for community hospitals. I will try to address some of the specific points that have been raised, and if time prevents me from doing so, I will write to colleagues to deal with points that they have raised.

We should remind ourselves about what community hospitals are and why they matter so much. They are local hospitals, units or centres providing an appropriate range and format of accessible health care facilities and resources. There are around 300 in England and they are overwhelmingly owned by NHS trusts, foundation trusts and NHS Property Services Ltd. Where they are wholly owned by the NHS and are needed for service delivery, they will remain in NHS ownership and will not be sold for profit. The sustainability of a community hospital is down to the decision making of local NHS commissioners, regardless of who owns the hospital.

Community hospitals can be invaluable assets that make it easier for people to get care and treatment in their community, as we have heard, closer to where they live. They allow large hospitals to discharge patients safely into more appropriate care, freeing up hospital beds for people who need them urgently, and they allow many patients to avoid travelling to large hospitals altogether, providing a wide range of vital services, from minor injury clinics and diagnostic services to intensive rehabilitation.

Therefore, people are often very protective of their local hospital, and with good reason. In many cases, they deliver a range of essential services, as well as providing employment for local people and often space for community groups and associated members of what one might call “the health big society”. It is understandable that community hospitals are fiercely defended and inspire such loyalty, and that support for local facilities is a sign of the growing appetite for the quiet revolution of patient empowerment and health citizenship at the heart of our vision of a 21st-century health service. That is why everything we are doing in central Government is designed to support local clinicians and patients to change and shape their local NHS for the better, making improvements to primary and community services to suit local needs.

As a result of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, PCTs have been abolished and responsibility for commissioning services has, as we know, moved to clinical commissioning groups and local clinicians are now in control. CCGs are free to commission services that they judge provide the best care and outcomes for their patients and free to work out which services are needed and where they should be located to best meet local needs. With strong local patient and clinician input, the CCGs will also be able to decide which providers are in the best position to offer those services. They—and, I am delighted to say, not the Ministers at the Department of Health or officials at NHS England—will determine whether a community hospital remains open and what services it should provide.

With the abolition of PCTs in April 2013, ownership of a significant number of community hospitals changed. Some were transferred to local NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts. Other hospitals went to NHS Property Services, the Department of Health-owned property management company. I know some hon. Members—some not here today—have concerns about some of those transfers, which I want to touch on. I want to make it clear that the conditions applying to those transfers mean the hospitals will not be closed unless commissioners determine that they are no longer fit for purpose. As with all decisions about local patient services, it is absolutely right that those decisions are taken locally, taking account of local views.

Sometimes tough decisions need to be taken. Buildings become tired and inefficient. New and better treatment, diagnostics and technological innovations are transforming the way in which health care is delivered, and, of course, communities grow and evolve. It is understandable that sometimes old infrastructure, though much loved by the community, cannot always keep up with the community’s needs. It is right then that commissioners explore how services can continue to be delivered efficiently and accessibly to patients.

That could mean decommissioning a hospital, in part or wholly, and moving some services even closer to the community. It could mean extra investment to modernise and develop existing community hospital centres, such as the development of the new Buckland hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover. These are tough decisions about meeting the changing health needs of the local community in the decades to come and it is absolutely right that they should be taken locally, driven by what is best for local people.

I am well aware that some hon. Members have been asked by their constituents about promoting community ownership of hospital assets in order to save at-risk or surplus hospital and clinical space, and I emphasise that all NHS property decisions are driven by clinical decision making by the CCG, and not the other way round.

First, under statutory provisions, while a building is needed to deliver NHS services, no NHS organisation will be allowed to sell it off, so there is no question of useful NHS property being transferred outside the NHS. The commissioners decide that, not the providers. At the same time, that means that a community-owned company is unable to own the freehold of operational NHS property.

Secondly, current Government policy is that property that is surplus to the NHS and the wider public sector should normally be sold by auction or competitive tender. In such cases, a community-owned company would have the opportunity to bid for the property along with other interested parties, but there is no guarantee that the community-owned company’s bid would be successful. However, if they were successful, we need to be clear that it would be in circumstances where NHS commissioners would have already decided that the site is no longer required for health service delivery. It would therefore no longer be operated as an NHS community hospital, but that is not to say an alternative community use could be found for the site. I think that is a key point. We will not necessarily be helping our constituents in advocating community ownership where commissioners have taken a decision to decommission services at particular site.

In conclusion, I want to highlight that the Government and Ministers are absolutely committed to greater diversity, choice and local community influence in our modern NHS. We have taken steps to secure the sites of community hospitals and make sure they are used for the benefit of their community where there is an ongoing use for them. However, the lifespan of those hospitals is solely down to the decisions made locally by clinicians and service providers—the people qualified to make those decisions. That is the best thing for the hospitals themselves, and it is certainly the best thing for the communities we serve.

If my hon. Friends or any other hon. Members have raised specific concerns that I have not addressed or highlighted in my earlier comments, please—

Just before the Minister sits down, I accept that decisions will be made locally, but I raise again the specific proposal that I suggested was under consideration, of obtaining a new hospital as a benefit of the development scheme. Although that is to be locally determined, it would help enormously if the Minister could at least smile on it and encourage that kind of thinking. If he would like to write to me once he knows a little more about it, I would be very grateful to him.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for flagging that point up. It was concealed within my list of exciting and imaginative bold thinking, but I did hear him and I would be very interested to pick that up. I invite him to write to me with the details.

The vision at the heart of our NHS reforms is of an NHS freed from the 20th-century model of health care in which health has been something done to the people we serve when government deems it appropriate, with the shape of health driven from the top down, to a model of 21st-century health care in which services are shaped by local priorities and greater freedoms to innovate and differentiate, combining the local, the personal and the voluntary with the general, the central, the specialist and the world-class. Exciting breakthroughs in diagnostics, remote sensing, e-health and telehealth, and in non-invasive new surgical and informatics technologies are driving new models of integrated health and social care. I believe that it is one in which local community-based hospitals, clinics and health centres will play a key role in the next century.

Renewable Energy Development (Beccles)

We move on to the second debate of this morning, on Government actions and planning applications for renewable energy development in the Beccles area—I hope I pronounced that correctly. I call Mr Peter Aldous.

You have indeed pronounced that correctly, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and I am pleased to have secured this debate.

Over the past three years, the Government have made a variety of changes to the planning system and the framework within which planning applications for onshore renewable energy projects are determined. Many of those applications are controversial and it was right that the Government responded to public concern.

The purpose of this debate is to draw attention to two planning applications in the vicinity of Beccles in my constituency. Both have been subject to appeals and raise concerns as to whether the Government’s reforms are working. The first application at Ellough, to the east of the town, is for a 46-hectare solar farm that the Secretary of State recovered for his own decision. He reversed the planning inspector’s decision to approve the scheme and his own decision was overturned in the High Court in June. The second application is to the west, at Barsham, where the Secretary of State declined to recover the appeal which the inspector had approved. That case is now in the High Court.

What causes me particular concern is that the Secretary of State recovered the Ellough case when I had personally received only one representation against the development, but he declined to do so at Barsham when most of the local community was up in arms against it.

In the foreword to the “National Planning Policy Framework”, which underpins much of the new planning regime, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is now the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities but was at the time the Minister responsible for planning, commented that the framework’s purpose was to allow

“people and communities back into planning.”

From the experiences in the Beccles area, it is clear that that objective has not yet been achieved. The system is not working as it should be, and it is important to learn lessons so that it can be improved.

I should point out, Mr Owen, that I have interests in family farms in Suffolk, where a renewable energy project has taken place and where another is being pursued. I am a supporter of renewable energy, which provides an opportunity for the UK to update its ageing energy infrastructure, to produce clean electricity and to move towards a more secure means of supply, which will lead to greater price stability. There is also the opportunity, if properly handled, to create new jobs. That is important in the Waveney area, where offshore wind in particular has the potential to revitalise the local economy.

That said, it is important that developments are carried out in the right places and not imposed on local communities, that applications are determined in a reasonable time scale, that local people have every opportunity to have their say and that applicants know where they stand so that they can build their businesses in a sustainable way with a degree of certainty.

I shall briefly outline the framework that the Government have laid down within which renewable energy applications of less than 50 MW are determined. That is set out in a variety of documents and statements: the “National Planning Policy Framework”, the “UK Renewable Energy Roadmap”, the “Planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy” dated July 2013 and the Secretary of State’s written statements of 10 October 2013 and 9 April 2014, which set out the criteria that will be considered in deciding whether to recover appeals.

I shall highlight five particular points in relation to the framework: first, the primary importance of the local planning authority’s development plan and its policies in determining planning applications, which to me is the most important issue; secondly, the duty on local communities to adopt green energy schemes, but with the understanding that they should not automatically override environmental protections and their planning concerns; thirdly, the need for special consideration to be given to the environment and the landscape of national parks—the Barsham site lies in close proximity to the Norfolk and Suffolk broads; fourthly, the requirement to consider whether unacceptable development can be made acceptable through planning obligations and conditions; and, finally, the extension of the Secretary of State’s ability to recover appeals, so that local communities can have confidence in the appeals process and that their concerns will not be ignored by the “man from the Ministry”. It is those factors that should be given most consideration in determining planning applications.

What happened at Ellough? The officers at Waveney district council recommended the scheme for approval. The planning committee went against that recommendation and refused the application. The developer appealed, and the planning inspector upheld that appeal. The Secretary of State, on recovery, reversed that decision, which the developer challenged in the High Court, where they were successful; the Secretary of State’s decision was quashed and the appeal referred back to him for redetermination.

I shall highlight the issues that have come out of the case. First, Mr Justice Lindblom, in his judgment, emphasised the importance, in deciding whether to approve such a planning application, of having regard to the local planning authority’s development plan and of making decisions in accordance with that. Waveney district council has set down policies as part of its development plan in which it provides guidance and a framework for determining renewable energy planning applications. Unless material considerations indicate otherwise, the decision should be made in accordance with those policies. That is, after all, an important aspect of localism. The judge concluded that a failure to have regard to that requirement was a “fatal flaw” in the Secretary of State’s decision.

It is important for the applicant to engage in pre-application consultations with the planning authority and to tell the local community about their plans and answer its questions. In this case, the developer did that, distributing more than 3,000 leaflets and holding a public exhibition.

It is necessary for the planning authority to consider whether the imposition of planning obligations and conditions could mitigate concerns about the development. That course was also pursued and the scheme was altered, with the removal of an area from the application site, increased buffer planting and a reduction in the height of the panels.

The development is in the Hundred River special landscape area, and the planning officers at Waveney district council considered whether that was a reason to refuse the application. They concluded that mitigating measures could address their concerns and they had it in mind that, unlike the broads, the Hundred River valley is not a nationally designated area. That was the consideration on which they differed from the planning committee. Taking all factors into account, I believe that the officers were right—that theirs and the planning inspector’s decisions were the correct ones and the Secretary of State’s was the wrong one.

What is happening at Barsham? The position there is that the application for a wind turbine with a height of 125 metres was considered by Waveney’s planning committee in March 2013. There was an officer recommendation for refusal, to which the committee that time agreed. The developer appealed. The public inquiry took place last October, and the inspector issued his decision to uphold the appeal this April. Subsequently, the local community has issued a High Court challenge against that decision. That was initially heard in July, and the case was adjourned until 28 and 29 October.

There is considerable local unrest and unhappiness about how matters have unfolded, and I fully sympathise with that. I shall highlight some of the concerns. First, large numbers of people feel that their views, those of their democratically elected representatives and the decision of their local council have been ignored and there has been no attempt to include people and communities in the decision-making process, as was envisaged in the Localism Act 2011 and the national planning policy framework.

The community group HALT, which was set up to represent the views of local people, has 350 supporters. Their concerns have not been listened to—nor have those of Beccles town council, nine parish councils, the district councillor, the county councillor, the leader of the county council and two Members of Parliament: myself and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), whose constituency includes that part of the broads that lies close to the application site. All have made representations to the Secretary of State for the case to be recovered, but they have all been dismissed.

Secondly, the inspector has made the same mistake as the Secretary of State did at Ellough: he has not given Waveney district council’s local planning policies the priority that the legislation requires. In his decision, he criticised those policies at some length. He was wrong to do so, as the policies themselves had been submitted, examined and approved by another inspector before being adopted as the council’s planning policy.

The Broads Authority, the neighbouring planning authority, looked closely at the scheme, applied its own specifically produced seven-step landscape sensitivity study and concluded that the application should be refused. The inspector criticised its approach and applied limited weight to the study, partly on the basis that it had not been formally adopted by the authority, although that had not prevented him from criticising Waveney district council. The study is an excellent piece of work. I believe that in dismissing it, the inspector has misinterpreted his duty with regard to national parks, which is clearly laid down in legislation.

Another concern is that if the development proceeds, it is highly likely that an adjoining airstrip will have to close. It is not right that the planning system is in effect used as a vehicle for stopping activities, whether business or leisure, that have taken place for many years.

The inspector also commented that the proposed wind turbine was no different from the windmills that used to be an important feature of the broads landscape. In doing so, he missed the point. Not only is the proposed turbine much larger in scale than traditional windmills, but it is not intended for the local purpose of harnessing wind and generating energy that is used locally. As an aside, that is still happening in Germany today, where the planning system works better and where 50% of the country’s renewable power capacity is owned by private citizens, with profits remaining in local and often poor rural areas. Such an approach should be pursued in this country, but I digress. That is a debate for another time, with another Minister.

Various aspects of procedure have left the local community cynical, disillusioned and feeling as though the whole system is against them. First, HALT, which was a rule 6 party to the planning inquiry, made a prompt request when the date of the inquiry was announced for it to be changed so that its landscape consultant, who had an unavoidable clashing commitment, could attend to present her evidence. That request was rejected out of hand.

Secondly, it is a concern locally that in the High Court the Secretary of State and the developer are being represented by counsel from the same barristers’ chambers. I am fully aware that it is not unusual for barristers from the same chambers to represent different parties to the dispute, but the fact that that chambers is perceived to have a commercial interest in upholding a decision that, in effect, undermines Government planning policies, particularly with regard to developments in or near national parks, is causing considerable concern locally.

There was considerable upset about the fact that the High Court hearing on 10 July had to be adjourned because neither the Secretary of State nor the developer’s legal teams had put together and presented their evidence properly. That was understandably annoying to the claimants, who had invested considerable time and incurred considerable expense in putting their case together. However, the judge recognised the iniquity of the situation and awarded costs for the day in the claimants’ favour.

I must draw my conclusions together. On paper, the Government’s planning reforms have much to commend them, but they are not being put into practice in the intended manner. I refer back to the foreword written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells for the national planning policy framework. He emphasised the need for planning to be a collective exercise that includes, rather than excludes, people and communities. The experiences from Barsham show that that is not being achieved. If the Barsham decision stands, it will effectively drive a coach and horses through the Government’s planning reforms. It will undermine the importance of local plans, create a precedent for development in close proximity to national parks and disfranchise local communities.

In summary, I have three requests for the Minister, which I hope he will address in his reply. First, at Ellough, the application is in a state of limbo. Although the Secretary of State’s decision has been set aside as being unlawfully made, the planning application remains undetermined. From the applicants’ perspective, the situation makes running their business difficult. I would be grateful if the Minister impressed on the Secretary of State the need for a prompt decision on the matter. Development that is sustainable should go ahead without delay.

Secondly, at Barsham, I urge the Secretary of State to quash the planning inspectorate’s decision and to instigate a fresh planning inquiry, which he should recover for his own determination. In his letter to me of 4 December last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins)—the Minister’s departmental colleague—commented that cases would be recovered only if they raised wider concerns and echoed beyond the local area. I submit that that is the case at Barsham.

Finally, I believe that full details of all renewable energy applications that have been recovered since October 2013 should be made available for Parliament to scrutinise, so that it can judge for itself how the new planning system is working, consider whether the system is achieving its objectives and decide whether reforms are necessary. It is important that the system should function properly, so that local communities and developers know where they stand. The renewable energy industry needs to have confidence in the system so that it can make investment decisions with a degree of certainty. Local communities need to know that they will be given a fair hearing. They need to know that their views will be properly considered and not ridden over roughshod, as I fear has been the case at Barsham.

Bore da, Mr Owen. Good morning. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in our novel, non-Westminster Hall surroundings. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate and thank him for the clear and firm way in which he has expressed the strong views of his constituents on two renewable energy planning cases in the Beccles area: the solar farm case at Ellough—I am glad that he said that word many times, because I wondered how to pronounce it—where the High Court has recently upheld a judicial review against the Secretary of State; and the ongoing wind farm case at Laurels Farm, Shipmeadow in Barsham where the Secretary of State has declined to recover the case, against the strong local feeling that my hon. Friend has described.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that it is difficult for me to talk about the specifics of particular cases, because the quasi-judicial role held by the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers in the planning system makes it inappropriate for me to do so. I will respond in general terms about the planning policy issues that my hon. Friend has raised and try to answer his questions.

In the solar farm case at Ellough, the High Court found that the decision letter was flawed solely because it did not identify whether the development proposal was in accordance with the development plan. The Department successfully defended that challenge on all the other legal grounds argued by the applicant, including the alleged inconsistency with national policy and the suggestion that the Secretary of State had exaggerated the likely harm of the proposal. The case is now back with planning Ministers in the Department for determination, so I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that I cannot discuss the merits of the application. He said that the case was “in limbo.” I hope that it will help him to know that because of the flaw identified in the decision letter, we are not seeking to appeal the High Court judgment.

I think I am right in saying—perhaps the Minister will confirm this—that in his judgment, the judge denied the Secretary of State the right to appeal. Even though only one of the grounds was upheld, to my mind that indicates not a points decision against the Secretary of State, but a knockout.

My hon. Friend has made his point, and his phraseology is on the record. I am sure that the Secretary of State will take notice of how my hon. Friend chooses to describe that decision.

I turn to the coalition Government’s overall approach to renewable energy. We understand the strength of local concerns about the potential impact of the application, individually and cumulatively, on landscapes and local amenity. The coalition Government are committed to increasing the deployment of renewable energy, but that must be balanced with local environmental considerations and the concerns of local communities. The planning policies and practice guidance introduced by the Government address those concerns.

Strong protections are in place nationally for the natural and historic environment. The national planning policy framework is clear that an application for renewable energy development should be approved only if the impact is, or can be made, acceptable to local people. That is obviously a matter of judgment, as is clearly the case here, but we have made it clear that protecting the local natural environment should be properly considered alongside the broader concern to meet the policy objective of addressing climate change and protecting the global environment. There need not be a conflict, but both issues clearly need to be addressed in the decision-making process. Meeting our energy goals should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location, so there certainly is not a blanket policy that such policies will be applied everywhere regardless of local circumstances, which are a crucial determining factor.

We have published new planning guidance to help ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance in the framework itself. That guidance is designed to assist local councils and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual planning applications. Local plans are crucial, and we are determined that communities have an opportunity to influence the decisions that affect them through the vehicle of the local plan. My hon. Friend was not around in the previous Parliament, but I assure him that many debates took place in the actual Westminster Hall Chamber on the issue of top-down targets, whether in housing or renewable energy. Regional spatial strategies were a frequent topic of such debates. We have abolished those strategies and the top-down approach, and we are encouraging local councils to work with their communities to set out in their local plan where renewable energy developments should and should not take place.

Where councils have identified areas suitable for renewable energy developments, they should not feel that they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas if they judge the impact to be unacceptable. The Government’s aim is for every area to have a local plan, consistent with the framework, setting out local people’s views on how they wish their community to develop, against which planning applications will be judged. Those plans therefore have a pivotal place in planning decisions. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined, including on appeal, in accordance with the statutory development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

I appreciate the natural concern in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere about local decisions being challenged on appeal. It is a long-standing feature of our planning system that applicants have the right of appeal, but it is important that local communities have confidence in the appeals process and that the environmental balance expected by the framework is reflected in decisions on renewable energy developments. I understand the frustration that communities feel when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead for a proposal that they and their elected representatives on the planning committee have opposed.

Planning inspectors, of course, do not reach such decisions lightly and—just like local councils, elected members of local councils and planning Ministers—they must take their decisions in accordance with planning law. That means that every case is considered on its individual merits within the context of the local council’s development plan. That is why having an up-to-date local plan is vital. Inspectors should also consider—in planning language—other material considerations, which include national policy and guidance. The new planning guidance is helping to ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance set out in the framework.

My hon. Friend’s second main request is for the Secretary of State to “quash” the Barsham decision. Again, I understand local frustration when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead for a locally opposed proposal. The inspector’s decision, however, is made on behalf of the Secretary of State, and in that sense the decision is final unless it is challenged in the High Court.

My hon. Friend also seeks information on renewable energy appeals that have been recovered since October 2013. Individually, those decisions are put in the public domain as they are made, but I am happy to talk to officials in order to collate that information. He is trying to see the overall picture and pattern, so I will ask officials to collate that information and give it to him. I will also share the information with other colleagues, who I am sure will be interested, by placing the table in the Library of the House.

I appreciate that, in many respects, the Minister has not been involved with these cases, which are a hospital pass for him. I understand why, with a quasi-legal process ongoing, he does not wish to comment on the Barsham case, but can he confirm that the Secretary of State does have the ability at this stage to quash the decision? Will the Secretary of State consider doing so in light of the local opposition to the scheme?

The Secretary of State has a variety of tools at his disposal under planning law, including the ability to recover appeals and make the decision in person, but that decision is still based on advice from officials in accordance with the council’s local plan, the national planning policy framework and existing planning law and casework. The mere fact that it is a recovered appeal does not necessarily mean that the decision my hon. Friend and his constituents want can be made, as the decision still needs to be made in a quasi-judicial environment, but he is right that that power exists. As he says, I am not involved in the intricacies of the case—that is why I am doing this—so I will not answer off the top of my head the question of whether the power exists at this moment in time, given the status of the application. His remarks will appear in Hansard, and if any remaining point needs to be cleared up, I will ensure that he is written to promptly so that he has total satisfaction.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving that undertaking. Will he also confirm that he will take the issues I have raised today to the Secretary of State so that he can make the decision as to whether he will quash the scheme? Going to the High Court costs local people a lot of money.

Yes, I am happy to give that undertaking. The Secretary of State will be made aware of any information that may help him with whatever decision he needs to take, including information from the Hansard report of today’s debate and any correspondence that passes between me and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney.

We need renewable energy to make the United Kingdom more energy secure, to help protect consumers from fossil fuel price fluctuations in a volatile world and to help build an economy with lower carbon emissions. National planning policies are clear that all communities have a responsibility to contribute to the Government’s aspiration of sustainable energy generation. Equally, we have ensured that local councils have the tools they need to ensure that sustainable energy developments are built only where the impact will be acceptable locally. We are encouraging all local councils to get an up-to-date local plan in place as soon as possible—I think that is an issue here—as local plans are the most effective way of managing development in a local area. We always keep national planning policy on renewable energy under review. As a result of this debate, we will take account of the cases that my hon. Friend has drawn to our attention when we review policy in the future.

Sitting suspended.

Adult Learning

[John Robertson in the Chair]

It is a pleasure as ever to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am delighted to have secured this debate on an issue vital to the future of the British economy: skilling up our adult work force. I am particularly pleased to stand here and highlight to the Minister the excellent provision we have in Hackney. I am proud to represent Hackney community college, our local further education college, which really is what it says on the tin. It provides education and training to a community of people, many of whom did not have the chance the first time around. Indeed, some may have arrived in the country without the benefit of skills, education and training in the countries they came from. They are ambitious to achieve, ambitious to learn and ambitious to work, and the college provides great support to them.

I am aware that many other colleagues want to speak, so I will try to keep my opening remarks as brief as is reasonable. I want to talk about funding, in particular for FE, and about apprenticeships and skills. We all know that funding for over-18s has always been complex because the bureaucracy of Government means that, sadly, funding falls between at least two Departments and sometimes more. The Minister has a challenge in that he represents only one section of the funding for adult education. I appreciate that limitation, but I hope that, in his role, he has the clout to bang heads together for the joined-up government that every party strives for. That is particularly important in adult learning, because if the system does not work, learners fall through the gap as well as providers—I will touch on the challenges for providers as well.

Tracking funding and ensuring that the provider and the learner can deliver the contract between them is difficult, because Departments focus on their narrow financial interests rather than the whole experience of the learner or the needs of the employers, which are critical. That was stark in a previous Westminster Hall debate, when we discussed how the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had cut funding for over 18s—we had a different Minister at that time. That debate aroused cross-party concern about both the impact on the viability of education providers and the disproportionate impact on many 18-year-olds. That debate can be seen as a proxy for some of the challenges faced by many other learners across the age ranges.

Funding has also been catastrophically reduced over the years. Between 2009 and 2015 alone, there is a 35% reduction in the adult skills budget—the core budget for FE—and during a similar period, the number of people aged 19 and over participating in Government-funded training, excluding higher education, has dropped from 3.7 million to 3.28 million, so nearly half a million fewer people are getting their learning and training provided.

Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have any plans to introduce more ring-fencing of budgets, or will they allow local colleges and providers to meet local needs? Hackney is an exemplar of the latter: the college embraced the needs of the Olympics, when it provided training for the catering—it has an excellent training section—and is embracing the needs of Tech City, where it is pioneering its apprenticeships, working with employers. That has served the needs of local businesses and therefore, crucially, enhanced the employment prospects of students in the local area. Many other colleges up and down the country can and do provide similarly, but flexibility is important.

The adult skills budget is the main source of funding for FE colleges, but it is not the only source for adult learning. I believe that a strong, effective FE sector is vital to Britain’s future, but those colleges face a slew of funding changes, and I make a plea to the Minister, who is new in his role, to look at that seriously. All Governments have done that, but often during a year or at very short notice funding is withdrawn or drastically changed, and short-term initiatives are given funding designed to bolster a political announcement, which makes it complicated for colleges and providers to deliver and is often detrimental to learners.

There could be many examples of how the system is broken, but I do not have time to go into them all. One example is this: the number of ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—students in Hackney would have reduced by 35% but for the £400,000 paid by the Department for Communities and Local Government. When one Department withdraws funds, another often puts the money in, but that adds to the disjointed picture I have painted and, in a constituency such as Hackney South and Shoreditch, and in a borough such as Hackney, what could be more important than skilling up Britain by ensuring that those basic language skills are in place?

What plans does the Minister’s Department have for the adult skills budget in future years? I highlight in particular the £340 million reallocated from the adult skills budget to the employer ownership skills pilots up to 2015-16. How much has been spent to date, how many individuals have started those training courses, how many have finished them and where can MPs get routine information about how that money is spent? Both the Library and I had great difficulty in finding that, so I hope that, in a spirit of openness and transparency, the Minister points us in the right direction.

We have a shared interest in ensuring that we have the best possible quality of education in FE. We also need to recognise the vital role FE has in working with many adults who have had bad learning experiences in the past, and for whom simply attending class regularly is the first big achievement.

I am a regular visitor to Hackney community college, but I remember not long ago meeting two interesting learners, one of whom was training to be a painter and decorator. He had not enjoyed school and had failed to achieve basic qualifications in English and maths—that happened not in Hackney, but in another borough. He was unable to read. To look like the other commuters, he pretended to read Metro on the tube every day, but he could not read even the headlines. With support from his excellent tutors at the college he learned to read, and in a few months he was reading Metro for real. Such achievements may not be a great leap forward in academic terms, but they were a big achievement for him and, critically, they enabled him to progress in his chosen career rather than be condemned to a limited choice of low wage, unskilled jobs. That is the nub of the issue.

I also met a young woman, who is a mother of a young child, who similarly had not enjoyed maths at school, but, as she was training to be a chef, she could see the point in it. Again, she had support from Hackney tutors to ensure that she could get those necessary basic maths skills. For many, FE is a second chance at education, but, whether a first or second chance, it plays a vital role. Too often, however, it is the Cinderella of education. It needs to be on a more stable footing. Although we all want more money invested in training and education, my bigger plea is for colleges to be given the freedom and stability to make their own sensible decisions.

The Government have made many claims about the increase in the number of apprenticeships created. I would never be critical of the creation of new opportunities for young people, but we need to look at those claims carefully—they should be heavily caveated. The number of apprenticeships for over-24s has increased, while for 16 to 18-year-olds it has decreased in most areas. An added problem is that, in many areas, 16-year-olds are competing with A-level students and A-level students are competing with graduates for those valuable opportunities, so we are seeing inflation of apprenticeship competition. Sought-after apprenticeships require more interviews than a university place: the Rolls-Royce apprenticeship interview process is longer than that for Oxbridge.

We need to get back to the heart of apprenticeships: training on the job, for a job. We also need to ensure progression and opportunity for apprentices. I know that there is genuine desire in the Government to ensure that apprenticeships are a real opportunity, but we all hear bad stories about them not truly delivering. In Hackney, for example, I am approached every few months by yet another provider keen to provide tech apprenticeships in Shoreditch. They always want a base in Shoreditch and most want to go it alone—they do not want to collaborate with existing providers. Employers tell me that they are getting confused and potential apprentices have to shop around. The quality of the education is often unclear and difficult to assess for both the potential apprentices and the employers. I am not saying that there should be one single provider, but we need much more clarity on quality.

Information about apprenticeships should be clearer and quality control needs to be rigorous. Employers such as Optimity in Shoreditch, which has been in the vanguard of the tech apprenticeship set-up, is embracing that initiative. Such employers have a vital role to play—clearly, without employers, the apprenticeships go nowhere —but they need a simple route to working with the right education partner and ensuring that that apprentice gets good quality in both their training and their education. That requires more accountability and monitoring, such as that required of FE colleges. We all want high-quality apprenticeships, so we must be wary of watered down offers.

On the skills deficit, as MP for Shoreditch, which includes the international tech hub that is often called Tech City, I frequently meet business innovators who know what skills they need but cannot recruit people with them locally. Admittedly, the sector is fast-moving, and it is difficult for schools and colleges to keep up with the fast pace of change. For Britain to be successful and competitive—an ambition shared by all parties—we must ensure we have a highly skilled population that can compete with the best from around the world. Tech City is an international hub, not only because it competes internationally, but because it attracts people from all around the world to invest and work. For young people in Hackney to have a chance, we must ensure they are trained, but we must also ensure that adults can train to fulfil employers’ needs now and in future. We must not only equip school leavers, which we are doing effectively in Hackney, but provide opportunities for adults to take high-level skills training.

On the political side, there has been a lot of discussion about the UK Independence party and the sort of people who support it. There is a danger because many people in my constituency have been left behind—particularly men in their 50s who have skills but no paper qualification to prove it, who have never had a driving licence or a passport, who still live at home with their parents, and who cannot provide the paperwork and skills qualifications needed to take on the jobs that they are skilled up to do. I met a 56-year-old who had none of those things. He got training through the Olympics as a security guard and had all the right bits of paper. Although he was unemployed when I met him, he felt confident that he was ahead of the pack. However, there are many people in his position who have been left behind and would benefit from proper skills training.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills equality analysis showed that women students, students from black and minority ethnic background, and those from inner city areas are dropping out disproportionately from higher-level qualifications since loans for higher-level courses were introduced—sadly, Hackney ticks all those boxes. People are increasingly doing shorter, lower-level qualifications. I hope the Minister shares my concerns about the long-term inequality that problem creates. What does the Department intend to do to tackle it and prevent inequality from becoming imbedded in the system?

The number of students on advanced courses dropped by 20% between 2012 and 2013-14—one in five students fewer in only one year—according to research by the Association of Colleges. Are the Government liaising with business sectors to ensure that the future work force is appropriately skilled, and are they assessing the impact of that dramatic drop in numbers on Britain’s competitiveness?

The CBI and many other key business groups have called for the skills deficit to be tackled. I believe passionately that helping workers to retrain is vital. I have given an example from my constituency, and I meet many men and women from up and down the country who have been out of the workplace for a while, perhaps because they had children or a health problem. It does not take long for skills to get out of date, and it would be more cost-effective for the Government to have a strategy for retraining for higher-level jobs, because when people get those jobs they pay more tax.

In Hackney, the cost of rent, child care and housing is so high that many working families are trapped in a cycle of working poverty. As I was preparing to speak today, I received a heartfelt tweet from Sarah, who said:

“I would do anything to go back to some kind of adult learning to better my work skills so I can get a better job and hopefully be able to provide for my family and not be reliant on tax credits.”

Sarah speaks for so many of the forgotten people who work hard but have no realistic chance of skill development because minimum-wage employers often provide little or low-level training and the loan makes it impossible for them to think about higher skills training. There is great poverty in my constituency, but no poverty of ambition. The Government must revisit the impact of loans and assess what can be done to iron out the inequalities in the system.

My final point is about a real concern that I have. For some time I have talked about this issue, but too many people are still being taken off courses by the jobcentre when they are close to completion, even if the course would lead to longer-term, sustainable and better-paid work. The issue particularly affects parents, and usually mothers, whose present on their child’s fifth birthday is to be told that they cannot complete the course they have been doing for a few years because they need to seek employment immediately.

Hackney community college has done great work in negotiating for students, some of whom require only a week or two to complete their course. The cost of an additional couple of months’ benefit is minimal compared with the higher wage those people will earn with a good qualification under their belt. The additional tax they will pay and the fact that they will be less reliant on tax credits and benefits, as Sarah highlighted, will more than pay for it. I know the Minister’s influence does not extend to every part of the Government, but I hope that he, as Minister with responsibility for skills, will take that up with the Department for Work and Pensions. It is not dole for learning, but a sensible approach to skills training. It would be awful to condemn the many single mothers in my constituency to low-level, minimum-wage, low-skill employment for the sake of a few weeks of unemployment benefit, which would be a much bigger investment in their future, the future of their children and the future of Britain.

Order. A number of people wish to speak—I count eight all together. If hon. Members keep their speeches between roughly six or seven minutes, we should get everybody in within a decent amount of time.

I appreciate your calling me now, Mr Robertson. I have a constituent in the House whom I need to meet in the next few minutes, but I hope to return to the debate to hear as much of it as I can. I am grateful to Government Members for allowing me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. There are some issues I wish to raise with the Minister. I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge publicly the excellent Trafford college in my constituency, which I had the great pleasure of visiting during adult learners week earlier this summer. It was a joy to spend time with the adults who were returning to education after many years and to see the enthusiasm with which they were embracing their studies and the obvious reward they felt they were getting from participating in adult learning.

I echo my hon. Friend’s comments on student loans. I wish to ask the Minister what monitoring is being undertaken of the effect of further education loans on older students’ take-up of further education. We know from the trends in higher education that the impact of student loans on younger students has not been as significant as some of us feared, but mature students have significantly fallen away from higher education studies because they find it difficult to take on a debt obligation alongside other financial obligations that they have accrued. What trends has the Minister observed among those over 24 years old, and what further monitoring and adjusting action will the Government undertake if the loans significantly deter adults?

I wish to ask the Minister about funding for HND and HNC qualifications, which are offered in further education colleges such as Trafford. My understanding is that the qualifications are currently funded by the Student Loans Company, but that a Higher Education Funding Council for England weighting is added to fund courses that partly contribute to a degree-level qualification. I have been told that it has been proposed that the funding will switch, and that in future those qualifications will be funded by the FE loan company. Will the additional weighting—the funding supported by HEFCE—be transferred across so those courses continue to be fully funded?

I am sure the Minister will understand that those studies have particular economic importance, given what they encompass. People who take up technically complex subjects can make a significant contribution to our economic situation, and it would be a great shame if funding pressures began to discourage some students from participating.

I support what my hon. Friend said about apprenticeships, and I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s comments on the funding issues. As the Association of Colleges has observed, the current funding arrangements, in which the Skills Funding Agency funds the college and the employer pays an apprenticeship wage, amounts to a pretty significant subsidy for the employer because they get a fully-trained employee without having to contribute to their college training.

I understand that those arrangements are to be replaced by an employer contribution and a tax break for employers. Does that mean that employers will continue to receive a subsidy, and, if so, will it have the same overall effect? If there is to be a change in the funding structure for apprenticeships, what assessment have Ministers made of the likelihood that small and medium-sized enterprises will continue to offer or increasingly offer apprenticeships? SMEs are an important source of apprenticeships for the future, and it has been difficult to get them to engage with apprenticeship programmes. I would be interested to hear from the Minister what assessment has been made of the effect of the funding arrangements on SMEs’ participation.

Vulnerable adults in particular can find FE studies a flexible and environmentally suitable approach to continuing their learning. We have some good, supported training programmes at Trafford, and throughout the country, for younger students with learning disabilities. For example, some good supported internship programmes, organised between local employers and local colleges, run well. Those supported internships are not funded for over-25s, although we know that adults with learning difficulties, for example, will take longer to reach the point at which they are ready to participate fully in education and employment.

Is the Minister prepared to consider whether the effective and successful supported internship model, which works for younger adults, could be extended to older adults in those situations? It is not a quick fix—I am not asking the Minister for an instant answer—but I think that we would all appreciate hearing that he will take an interest in the subject. Those of us who have thoughts and ideas about the issue, including charities that I have worked with, might work with him to see what might be possible in this field.

Finally, let me say a little about the role of employers, particularly in relation to employer ownership of skills, which is a good idea in theory that is proving difficult to make effective in practice. I should be interested to hear how the Minister intends to improve its effectiveness. The uptake is quite low and what is lacking, if I may say so, is a strategic economic context to employer ownership of skills. I particularly commend to the Minister work done by the Greater Manchester chamber of commerce, which analysed all the many major construction projects that we expect in Greater Manchester over the next five to 10 years—High Speed 2, the Metrolink extension, an extension at the airport, new investment in Trafford Park in my constituency, the northern hub and so on—and mapped the job needs that will arise under those projects, right down to individual jobs. The work included identifying how many electricians, scaffolders, painters and decorators each project is likely to need, what level of skills will be associated with those jobs and when they are likely to come on stream.

Clearly, the next step is to start matching all those fantastic data to training and education plans in our FE colleges, schools and universities. However, there is a mechanism missing that might otherwise connect that economic analysis with the education providers, particularly FE colleges. Will the Minister comment on whether he would be interested in exploring that further, as I am sure Greater Manchester chamber of commerce would be keen to do?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important debate. We have some excellent FE provision in my area, but I want to make a few comments about two FE providers in particular and the challenges they face.

North Warwickshire and Hinckley college is the provider of most of the practical and vocational technical education to my constituents. Over the past five or six years—probably since 2009—its budget has, as the hon. Lady mentioned in relation to provision in her constituency, been reducing year on year. To be fair to the organisation, it has coped well and has been positive.

One of the most positive things that the college has done—obviously, it has had to reorganise—is to make a change towards supporting the local economy more, aligning its strategy with that of the local enterprise partnership. That is now paying dividends. It is also now far more engaged with local employers; it is in constant discussion with them, trying to see how the jobs market will be and how it will serve that market in providing skills. That approach has been particularly positive in relation to apprenticeships, which have increased by 78% in my constituency during the past four years, helping us to reduce youth unemployment in my constituency by 40% over the past 12 months.

We must not get away from the fact that, despite the good work done by North Warwickshire and Hinckley college in difficult circumstances, we need to ensure that we fill a growing skills gap, particularly in engineering and other types of manufacturing and the construction industry. If we do not think carefully about how we are going to deal with that, we could leave organisations such as North Warwickshire and Hinckley college unable fully to fulfil the potential of young talent and fill the skills shortage. We should deal with that, rather than go down the route favoured during the last economic upturn—of having many people from other parts of Europe, particularly, and other places abroad, come in and do jobs instead of ensuring that we gave the right training and skills to our people here. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is listening to what I am saying about the support needed by colleges such as North Warwickshire and Hinckley college.

King Edward VI college is a dedicated sixth form provider that has been through the same difficulties in relation to funding changes since 2009, and other circumstances have made things difficult. First, the presumption in favour of outstanding schools also being able to open sixth forms has challenged the offer that it has been able to provide; the previous Government started that and the present Government have, to an extent, carried on with it. That continues to be an issue for this college. There are also issues about inequity to do with VAT rules relating to dedicated sixth form providers, which my hon. Friend the Minister no doubt knows about. The college has also had an issue in relation to changes to funding for providing sixth form courses for 18 to 19-year-olds who perhaps have not had the best start, for whatever reason, or have not achieved as well as they expected.

King Edward VI college has also been badly let down by the Skills Funding Agency, which has not supported its providing part-time adult A-level courses, leaving a gap in my area with virtually no provision for people who want to do part-time A-level study after work.

Despite all the necessary, difficult decisions that have been made to start dealing with the budget deficit left behind by the previous Government, what has been achieved has been positive. However, my argument is based on a warning for the future. We need to be careful about how we approach funding for sixth form and FE colleges, to ensure that we have those skills to take our economy forward, beyond the positive start that this Government have made.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing the debate, and I welcome the Minister to his post. We have entertained one another through two Education Bills, when he was a lowly Parliamentary Private Secretary, so it is good to see him in his elevated position.


We have heard that FE is the Cinderella tier of the education service. Although successive Governments have attempted to put additional funding into the primary and secondary sectors and—perhaps to a lesser extent—into higher education, tertiary or further education has long been underfunded and undervalued. However, all previous neglect pales into insignificance when compared with what we have seen since 2010.

It is becoming clear that the pace and scale of the most recent FE cuts is having a devastating impact on adult learning and the long-term economic future of this country. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has cut spending on the adult skills budget by 35%, with total spending falling from £3 billion in 2009 to £2 billion now.

The Department has, I acknowledge, chosen to protect a number of areas financially, and I welcome that. Community learning, offender learning and financial support for individuals have all been protected, and those who receive benefits or take courses at the lowest qualification levels continue to receive free courses, but I think—perhaps cynically—that that is more about massaging the unemployment figures than it is about improving learning. Funding for apprenticeships has been protected, so that the number of apprenticeships for those aged 24 and above has increased, but arguably it has increased far too quickly and at the expense of good outcomes, quality and younger apprentices. All that is forcing FE colleges to subsidise free training for adult apprenticeships at the expense of younger students. Even with all that, employers are still not prepared to deliver on their responsibilities. The Government have transferred £340 million to the employer ownership of skills pilots up to 2015-16, but so far only 20,000 students have started a training course through those pilots.

We have already heard about FE loans, so I do not intend to say very much more about that, except to bring Members’ attention to the recent research commissioned by the Association of Colleges, which highlights that the number of students on advanced and high-level courses who now require a loan, but did not in the previous year, has declined by 20%. It has gone from 107,200 students in 2012-13 to 84,300 in 2013-14.

In addition to the cuts imposed directly on FE colleges budgets by BIS, the Department for Education has also cut funding for students aged 18 and above. Although that is operational across the educational sector—it affects schools, special schools, sixth forms and so on—the most vulnerable students will be hardest hit, and most of them will be in the FE sector. Students over 18 on courses funded by the Department for Education are most likely, as we heard, to have missed periods of education, or have special educational needs, or be those who just need an additional year; a little more time to get the GCSEs that their peers were able to achieve at school. They are the young people closest to being NEET, and the evidence shows that such students will primarily be in the FE and adult learning sectors. When I questioned the former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), he said that he regretted the decision to cut 18-plus funding, but that it was the best worst option. The former Secretary of State left office with a £1 billion overspend on free schools and academies, but still saw the best worst option as being to cut funding to the most vulnerable students, the people closest to being NEET and the most likely to cost this country dearly over the next 45 to 50 years if we do not get it right for them now.

We have a strong higher education sector in this country, with a strong research base that is recognised internationally, but only 40% of our young people go to university. For the remaining 60%, good quality alternatives to full-time degree study are reducing. We need a rebalance towards technical and vocational education, and that is vital in ensuring the continued and sustainable growth of the economy. The last 50 years have seen a continuous gravitational pull towards academic education, which has accelerated since the conversion of polytechnics to universities. Academic is seen as good and vocational as bad, and anyone with any sense knows that we cannot build a sustainable economic future on that kind of foolishness. We have a skills shortage across the economy, and it is not going to be filled by a couple of city technology colleges and the odd engineering-based free school. We need a sustainable and high quality route to technical and vocational education, and that route is being systematically damaged through unsustainable FE cuts and the march towards the amalgamation of FE colleges.

Adult learning is at the heart of bridging the skills gap, and FE colleges are perfectly placed to deliver in a skills shortage. They are experts in the area. Following years of investment by the previous Government, many have state-of-the-art facilities, are widely respected by local employers and are at the centre of their communities. We need to maintain that, stop cutting the heart out of our adult learning and FE systems and recognise their role in our recovery.

It is a delight to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate. I thought she set the context extremely well. By focusing on one particular aspect of the funding problems faced by Sheffield college, I hope not to take up too much time. I will try to illustrate or further illuminate her narrative by outlining how some of the decisions are forcing counter-productive choices on the college. They are counter-productive for students, for the local economy and for the Government’s objectives in so many areas.

Sheffield college is a strong institution. It is well regarded and well rated by Ofsted. It has strong managerial leadership and a chair of governors who is the chief executive of the local chamber of commerce. The college is focused on the needs of students, the local economy and employers in the area. It addresses those needs through direct provision and by contracting the delivery of some courses out to businesses and, as I will highlight, social enterprises and third sector organisations, which are particularly adept at reaching some of the more vulnerable and harder-to-reach sections of the community.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) illustrated the challenges that many colleges face in addressing funding issues. Like the examples he gave, Sheffield college has been thoughtful, flexible and innovative in trying to address those challenges, but it has lost almost £1.6 million this year from its adult learner responsive funding. One way in which the college has been forced to respond to that substantial loss of funding is by retrenching and ending its contracts with providers that make an important contribution to adult learning.

One particular area that has felt the impact is the teaching of community-based English for speakers of other languages. Learn for Life Enterprise is a social enterprise and one of a number of providers to Sheffield college. I know it well. I have spent time with it and seen its excellent work within the community, giving adult learners the opportunity to gain confidence and English language skills, and through that to begin to engage effectively and productively in the local economy. Not only are the courses under threat, but these enterprises are being put at a tipping point where they might go under. The cuts have an extra leverage—a disproportionate impact—on the role that Learn for Life Enterprise plays. Similarly affected will be the work of the Yemeni Community Association in Sheffield, which engages with its community effectively in one of the most deprived areas of the city, developing those language skills and that confidence and engaging people in the economy.

All that negative impact is being forced on the college through the Skills Funding Agency by a Government who rightly stress the importance of learning and speaking English as an entry route into effective engagement with the economy, as well as its importance for community cohesion and wider integration. I have written to the Skills Funding Agency, asking for the allocation to Sheffield college to be reviewed, to give the college a little more space to continue its important provision or, as a fall-back, for Learn for Life Enterprise and the Yemeni Community Association to secure direct funding. The SFA has simply told me that its hands are tied, because the cuts, devastating as they are, simply reflect the overall 8.5% reduction in the adult skills budget. On direct provision, it said that because the providers are so small, they fall below the level at which they could effectively contract directly. That is a double whammy for this provision. Does the Minister think this is a wise saving? Does limiting opportunities for people to develop their language skills fit in with the Government’s stated intention to get more effective integration and to get more people into work, or does he agree with me that reducing opportunities for people to gain the communication skills and wider skills necessary to engage with the economy is a false economy? Not only is it affecting them as individuals and our local economy, but—for a Government that has cracked on quite a lot about the big society—it is fundamentally undermining third sector organisations, which make a big contribution. I look forward to his response.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important and timely debate, and the way she set out her case so clearly.

Adult learning has long been a passport to fulfilment. It helps raise aspirations and transforms lives. I recognise the magnificent work of all those engaged in adult learning and all the teachers, support staff and managers who help deliver it. They are wonderful people making a real difference to the lives of others, often working in partnership with employers. I have welcomed winners of the Keith Fletcher memorial access awards to Parliament every year since I was elected. It has been a real pleasure to recognise their achievement, and it has been wonderful to welcome access students from North Lindsey college to this place each year as part of their course.

By and large, this and the previous Government’s record on apprenticeships has been positive. There have been many examples of excellent practice in my constituency, including the outstanding Tata apprenticeships and the work that North Lindsey college has done with North Lincolnshire council. The spotlight on apprenticeships has improved the quality of the brand, and that is to be applauded. However, just as we had proper concerns about short Train to Gain courses being branded “apprenticeships”, the time is now right to ask hard questions about how to further improve apprenticeships’ quality, so that they best serve the interests of employers, learners and the state. The number of 24-plus apprenticeships has risen rapidly, largely through Government funding. It is important to be rigorous in asking whether employers are discharging their obligations to these learners simply by paying them the minimum wage. Should employers contribute more to ensure that certain apprenticeships do not end up as a significant Government subsidy for large, profitable companies?

Conversely, the change in funding when an apprentice turns 19 might act as an unhelpful disincentive for small employers to take them on. As a result of 45 local employers writing to me, I visited Side by Side in Hull to hear for myself the very real concerns employers have about the changes the Government are pursuing to route apprenticeship funding through employers. That is not what businesses want. We have an opportunity with a new Minister. I hope he will listen carefully to what employers are saying about putting wholesale funding for apprenticeships through pay-as-you-earn. As the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), has said, this could turn out to be a disaster. Careful evaluation of how the package of support for learners and employers is performing would be highly valuable in informing how to improve further the quality of the apprenticeship product.

The debate is an opportunity to consider how to reshape post-18 learning for the future. We need to develop stronger alternatives to full-time degree study, with clear technical and vocational pathways through FE colleges. The Government could actively consider ideas from the Association of Colleges and National Institute of Adult Continuing Education to create secure adult learning accounts, into which the individual, the employer and the Government could contribute. Such accounts could be put in place for all adult learners, whatever pathway they choose to take, and thereby bring greater parity between academic and vocational routes. Another thing Government could do, which ought to be relatively easy, is to provide secure, three-year budgets for colleges to give greater planning certainty to institutions. That would help colleges to make decisions early and maximise not only the value for every pound they spend, but the interests of their adult learners.

The best FE colleges and training providers have the connections and expertise to bring the world of work and education together in a way that benefits all partners. One of the most challenging areas is in turning round the life chances of the long-term unemployed. I commend the work that North Lindsey college has done with Jobcentre Plus to give unemployed people the skills to succeed and get them into employment. I also echo my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, who urged the Minister to look at the ways the Department for Work and Pensions can work more creatively, to the benefit of local communities, and not apply rules that anyone with any common sense can see act as a barrier to allowing people to develop.

Much has already been said about the immense impact of funding cuts on this sector. I will say a few things about the 17.5% cut in funding for 18-year-olds. I know from personal experience as a former college principal that these students have often struggled to reach the expected level by the age of 18. They can ultimately achieve success, but only with appropriate study support, personal mentoring and so on. These are the highest-risk students and we are now making them the highest-cost students as well. This could create perverse incentives and results.

Let me give a few North Lindsey college examples to illustrate these students’ success. Oliver joined a preparation for employment painting and decorating course last year. He started with no qualifications, a history of behavioural problems and poor school attendance. Ultimately, he achieved qualifications for the first time in his life. He has now opened and is running his own shop. He also wants to continue his education.

Kirsty started at a care home as a volunteer on work experience from Jobcentre Plus. She was initially very shy and negative about education. She suffered from dyslexia and had low self-esteem. She now has qualifications for the first time and is the face of her company, appearing on its website. She has made a promotional video to support future staff.

After little success at school, Lima enrolled on a level 1 caring for children course in 2009. She has since done level 2, level 3 and level 4 courses at the college and is training to be a teacher. Those are the sort of successes FE colleges can deliver.

Here is an opportunity, as the general election approaches, for all political parties to demonstrate that adult learning is at the heart of the opportunity to change our society for the better. Adult learning needs to be properly funded in a stable environment to allow colleges to deliver effectively for their communities, learners and business.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for securing this important debate.

By and large, FE has always been seen as the poorer partner of other forms of education, predominantly because people like me managed to come through it. I managed to get an apprenticeship when I left school; I did not have great A-levels so I was fortunate to get that. It gave me a huge chance to get into engineering and follow through. I certainly hope that many others will now have the same opportunity, because it offers a last chance.

There are currently some serious challenges in Birmingham, such as high levels of unemployment, which, in some of the inner-city areas, are three times the national average. These colleges and further education institutions support unemployed people. People over the age of 19 are still finding it difficult to find employment. We need to look at that. In my constituency, the areas of Lozells and Handsworth have significantly high unemployment. We need to see what we can do to support those people.

We have a good college that is willing to look at that. I share with the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), responsibility for South & City college, which crosses our constituencies. It is doing a tremendous amount of work, particularly with training in its construction, motor vehicle and electrical training centres, and with other vocational training. It is doing an absolutely fantastic job to get some of those people in areas of high unemployment into jobs.

We have good manufacturing companies that need support, but the current arrangement for over-24s needing loans for level 3 courses prevents a lot of people already in employment from training. That is particularly the case for those aged over 24 who have managed to get a job and who, because technology and practices move on, want to progress or maintain themselves in their work. They want to be able to develop in that way and find it difficult when they are presented with the requirement to get further qualifications for which they must take out loans. Those are the most studious ones, because they want to make a difference. I see that in my constituency, where young people have started out from the local jobcentre and have progressed to management. I pay tribute to them, because they are prepared to give their own time for further training.

There are world leaders in advanced manufacturing in my constituency. I appreciate their work, because I am an engineer. Truflo is the world leader in submarine valves and at the moment is probably the only company for hull valves for submarines and surface ships. It does a fantastic job. It was an honour for me to take my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), the shadow Minister for Defence, around the site about 10 days ago; it was fantastic to show off some of the good work being done, and the apprenticeships there. Other companies include TRW—the skeleton that came out of the old Lucas works. It does fantastic work to develop technology, but we need support for the 19-year-olds and the over-24-year-olds, so that that can continue. We want to reduce the current high employment levels.

Dana is another very good and reputable engineering manufacturing company in my constituency and I want to keep it there and bring more advanced manufacturing to the area. McGeoch is just over the road in Ladywood, and I was privileged to visit it with my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Minister. It does a huge amount of fantastic work with ceramics, but it needs to do some development; the obstacles it encounters include getting apprentices to follow through with the huge amount of manufacturing it is doing. It provides components for satellites for NASA. It is fantastic to have that happening in Birmingham.

The EEF apprenticeship centre in the city takes on 300 apprentices from local employers, and some of the companies that I have mentioned use people from there. It has not had a penny of funding; it has done that through contributions from engineering employers in its patch. I should be happy to take the Minister around it, if he wants to come and look at the great work that it is doing. I hope he will take the offer up. As I said before, South & City college is doing a fantastic job in my constituency. Wilmott Dixon also does a lot of work with apprenticeships in construction and housing, such as electrical stuff. It is also now doing training for the installation of solar panels. Again, that is a private scheme that it has taken on without any funding.

I go along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, the shadow spokesman, over the bid for an HS2 maintenance depot in Birmingham. We have the colleges and training places, and I hope that that will be passed on in relation to the bid that he has made, which I fully support.

A key issue is funding for 19-year-olds and those aged 24-plus. One of the key requests from South & City college is for provision for English for speakers of other languages. Demand is currently twice what it is providing. If we are to reduce the unemployment rate of three times the national average in inner city areas, we need an appropriate supply of training, so that the college can make a start with those people. People are eager and knocking on the college’s door, wanting to take part. They are not hanging back. We need to deal with that, to get people into employment. There is a huge amount of interest. Many community and voluntary organisations want to provide support, but they cannot because of funding cuts. I urge the Minister to review the situation and think about how we can start to rejuvenate some of our inner cities.

There are many contributory issues outside the further education debate; if people—particularly young people—are not in employment, that makes work for idle hands. I urge the Minister to think about those things, and about the comments of my hon. Friends, which I think were all valid. Further education is a huge sector, and a fantastic one for people who need its vital support. I urge the Minister to continue to support it, and to fund it properly.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, as it was to hear the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), and all the speeches that have been made. All the hon. Members who have spoken made positive and useful comments and I hope that the Minister will pay attention to them.

The focus so far has been on employment-related learning, but the title of the debate is adult learning, which I think goes beyond that. I had experience of teaching in further education in the 1970s and I know the sheer joy of adults coming back to study—particularly at evening classes—subjects that perhaps they did not have a chance to do at school. They might not have had any academic qualifications, but their eyes would be opened and they would see life with more possibilities because of what they studied at evening class.

In those days, certainly in Luton, we had better provision than now. The colleges and schools in Luton are excellent, but in those days we had a technical college with a language laboratory where people could learn a variety of languages, including even Swedish. We had a further education college with all sorts of engineering courses that people could do for fun, as well as those related to work. There was a range of subjects.

I saw friends transformed by the experience of going to an evening class for a modest fee. They would sign up, having had no real academic experience, and would come out with an A-level. A friend of mine did A-level government and politics and got a grade B, and her life was transformed. She was a single parent and could not afford expensive education, but she did an evening class. Subsequently—it was not directly related—she became, and eventually retired as, a lecturer in further education. That resulted from the leap forward she made by doing an A-level.

As to the transformational effect that adult learning can have, does the hon. Gentleman agree that for many people, particularly in deprived communities on large working-class estates, such opportunities open doors? If they do not get that opportunity, the door is closed for a generation, because in many cases the fathers and grandparents of those people were also unemployed.

That is a valid point. During my time teaching in further education in the 1970s I not only took evening classes but taught day-release students for what was called liberal studies. That is nothing to do with Liberalism with a capital L, of course. I saw young people whose view of the world might be very narrow suddenly opening up to the possibilities. They started to understand politics, believe it or not, and a range of other subjects that I used to talk about in those classes. The experience was enhancing and enriching for them. It made their lives different. They went away thinking, “I have had my eyes opened to new possibilities in life that I never thought I would have.”

Initially, sometimes, there was a bit of hostility, because of resentment at “these clever people coming and talking about subjects I know nothing about”; it took time. I had one experience of a class that insisted at the end of term on dragging me to the pub to buy me a pint, because they enjoyed their time with me so much. I think that was the biggest compliment I was paid. Working-class young men, who were particularly alienated from education, were changed by having a bit of a good experience, and I am glad I made a contribution.

I was for 10 years co-chair of the all-party group on further education, skills and lifelong learning. I emphasise the term “lifelong learning”, which is not just about getting on a course to get a job; it is about one’s whole life. One can go on studying all one’s life—most of us do, in one way or another—but some people need the opportunity to have people who know things talking to them in a friendly way at an evening or day-release class, to open their eyes to the possibilities of the world.

I had those experiences, but something really disappoints me now. Luton has a wonderful sixth-form college, of which I have been a governor for 21 years. I am now the vice-chair of governors, and the college has a brand-new building and superb teachers, but it is unable to put on evening classes because funding for adult education in sixth-form colleges has been cut and it receives statutory funding for 18-year-olds and below only.

The teachers want to teach adults, and adults want to be taught by them. The fabulous building is unused and empty in the evenings, but it should and could be used for education in this conurbation of perhaps a third of a million people. If someone wants to study a European language, for example, they cannot do that in-class in Luton anymore. The possibilities exist, but such areas need specific funding. We cannot just say to sixth-form colleges, “Get on with it. Put on an evening class if you want, but you’ll get no more money.” It would not happen, because teachers need to be paid and perhaps more teachers would be required.

From my experience, teachers enjoy the variety of teaching adults as well as youngsters. Adults often have a positive effect on classes, because—I am trying to be polite about young people—they are more likely to behave themselves and to be positive about education. They can also actually have a maturing effect on younger students, so mixed classes can be a good thing. We are preventing potentially millions of people from studying things that they would like to learn simply because we will not fund non-statutory adult learning.

I hope that when the Labour party forms a Government in a few months’ time, they will hear this message and start to rebuild the kind of evening classes that we used to have when I taught in the 1970s. I hope that millions more people will be able to study not only for work, but also to enrich their lives and to enjoy the simple pleasure of knowing things.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing the debate. She has always been a fighter for her constituency and for Hackney college, and she reminded us this afternoon of why we need to spend more time debating this subject, for which we are grateful.

I want to draw out a couple of remarks from today’s debate and to sharpen the points of some of the questions that my colleagues have asked the Minister, but I will start by discussing the skills crisis that so many businesses up and down the country are now confronting. Report after report has been put before us over the past two or three years, all basically saying the same thing: there is a skills crisis in Britain that is holding back growth, destroying productivity and keeping people trapped in the cost of living crisis that has bedevilled this Parliament. KPMG reports that a third of manufacturers would like to reshore work back to this country, but cannot do so due to a lack of skills. The Migration Advisory Committee, which was set up when my hon. Friend and I were at the Home Office, has now added 100 different roles to the shortage occupation list. As a result, under this Government, we have imported 282,000 workers because their skills could not be found at home. In a recent report, Mike Wright, the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover, said:

“We must double the number of engineering apprentices qualifying at advanced level…by 2020.”

Lord Adonis has said that skills are

“the single biggest impediment to economic growth.”

Report after report says the same thing: we have a skills crisis in Britain that is holding the country back.

The impact on productivity in this country has been devastating. We used to have a phrase for that in public debate—the British disease. A crisis of productivity means that we do not produce as much in this country as the rest of the world produces. Today, the productivity gap is 21% against the G7, meaning that what the rest of the G7 finishes producing on a Thursday night takes us until the end of Friday to complete. There will be no escape from an economy of low wages unless we increase productivity. As the Royal Society puts it:

“Unless we get smarter, we will get poorer.”

As we have heard this afternoon, the problem is not just one of productivity, but one of poverty. Before the summer, we published a big report in Birmingham about child poverty, which has led to a 40% spike in the number of children presenting in A and E units having tried to take their own lives. The majority of children in poverty in Birmingham are in families where people are working. How do we raise family living standards in a great city such as Birmingham? There is only one way: raising productivity and therefore raising skill levels. We have heard this afternoon about a £958 million cut in the adult skills budget. Overall, taking into account other cuts in capital, but also the injection of money in from 24-plus loans, nearly £900 million has been taken out of adult skills over this Parliament. The impact is that fewer adults are enrolling in skills courses.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about the importance and lack of skills and opportunities. The reality is that we are still importing some 15,000 graduate engineers every year to work in an industry that even now is too small. Manufacturing in this country is half the size as a proportion of GDP than that of Germany, and yet we still cannot find enough engineers from among our own people. Something is wrong and I hope he addresses it.

I certainly will.

Money is tight, and I noticed that the former Member for Clacton—I am not sure whether he is still the Minister’s hon. Friend—wrote on his blog earlier this week that public sector net debt has increased and is now £400 billion higher than the debt that the Labour Government left. He said that this Government have now put on more debt in five years than the Labour Government did in 13 years.

We all know that money is tight, but there are three things which the Government could turn their mind to quickly. The first thing must be integration with the Department for Work and Pensions, which means bringing together ESOL budgets in a completely new way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) made clear, the Skills Funding Agency has taken away well over £1 million in ESOL provision that the DWP has had to put back in. It is heartbreaking for us to meet mums who are desperate to go back to work but do not have a strong enough grasp of English. They want to do well by their families, but they cannot. Proposals from Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis radically to devolve skills funding are on the table and would allow us to put together the Work programme and skills budgets in a new way, so that we can skill people up to do the jobs that are available. I represent a constituency a mile away from the expanding Jaguar Land Rover plant in Castle Bromwich, but it has the highest youth unemployment in the country, which is prima facie evidence that the skills system is not working. We should listen to Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis and think radically about how to devolve skills funding so that the DWP and skills budgets can be joined up in a new way.

The second point, as made eloquently in a forensic speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), and underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, is that we must raise our game on skills and radically increase the number of higher apprenticeships. If we want to tilt our economy decisively towards those high-value engineering and science-based industries that are the key to the bigger-knowledge economy, we must increase the number of higher apprenticeships. Just 2% of apprentices go on to study higher level skills, which is appalling and needs to increase. Across the country, however, there is a profound lack of clarity about how the Government’s new proposed money will actually be distributed. That lack of clarity is unacceptable and the Minister will want to work that out quickly.

There is wide support to increase employer ownership of skills as one way of increasing the number of apprenticeships and higher level apprenticeships, but in an economy in which small and medium-sized enterprises are creating jobs three or four times faster than big business, the new funding system must work for SMEs. All over Britain, SMEs are saying that putting in all the money through the tax system will not work. That decision is in the Minister’s red box and I hope he will be able to tell us whether he is planning to go wholesale and introduce the plan in the autumn, as originally proposed, or whether to listen to the voices of 4 million or 5 million small businesses across the country that are asking him to think again.

The third thing that the Minister was left with by his predecessors, as underlined by my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), is the strategic problem with adult skills. Big cuts to further education, a very marketised higher education system and a huge explosion in the private sector college system have unleashed a series of competitive pressures in the further and higher education system. As a result, system collaboration is incredibly difficult. That problem is compounded by a broken bridge between funding for 18-year-olds and funding for those over the age of 24.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe underlined the appalling impact of big cuts in further education funding for those at 18, but between the ages of 18 and 24 there is only 50% funding towards tuition costs and 0% access to the Student Loans Company. That means a broken bridge between the funding system that works up to the age of 18 and the one that then kicks in at the age of 24. There is no clear escalator through the skills system. Some funding for level 4 and above is offered by the Skills Funding Agency, but only for a higher apprenticeship. The problem is that, out of 200 apprenticeship frameworks, only 14 go up to level 4. Furthermore, people need a degree to understand the system. Why is that a problem? It is a problem because, as the OECD cited in its seminal report on skills in England back in 2013:

“the weak articulation between level 4 and 6 programmes and university bachelor programmes is a serious problem”.

There is a broken bridge, and a radical rethink is needed.

On behalf of the Labour party, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), and I have set out a different approach—a “gold standard” route for vocational education, so that we begin to reform the school system, the further education system and the university system. We believe that everyone should be doing some vocational education from the age of 14. We believe that there should be a new gold-standard technical baccalaureate with compulsory English and maths up to the age of 18. We believe that the priority for expanding the higher education system should be the creation of technical degrees, so that people can study while they are still working. We floated the idea over the summer that a new institutional partnership between further education colleges and universities is needed, along the lines of the American community college programme.

Those new technical universities should have partnerships with universities with world-class engineering and science facilities, perhaps as part of new university enterprise zones up and down the country. That could be one of the ways in which we make the decisive shift that was explained by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham. We have got to rebalance our economy, and rebalancing our skills system has got to be part of it.

We have had an impassioned debate. Particularly welcome was the emphasis of my hon. Friends the Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) not only on the sheer economic importance of further and higher education and of adult learning, but on the life-changing power of such investment. This country faces a productivity crisis and a poverty crisis, so we must leave the Chamber hearing the note sounded by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch sounded—she said that there is poverty, but no poverty of ambition—as well as leaving with a determination to do something about it.

The Minister is a thinking member of his party and has a track record of thinking through complicated issues. He is someone with a conscience and he cares profoundly about increasing social mobility in this country. He is blessed by simply having been appointed, with that great mind of his, to one of the most fantastic jobs in the Government. We look forward to his brief and his work with a heightened sense of anticipation. We also look forward to what he has to say to us this afternoon.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure, and an unfamiliar one, for me to be in a Westminster Hall debate—although we are not actually in Westminster Hall—in which I am not facing a crowd of angry Back Benchers from my own party; they are much less gentle in their attacks than Labour party Members have proved to be today. That was my experience as planning Minister, and an uncomfortable one it often was. It is reassuring to find myself in the traditional position of mainly facing criticism, as well as inquiry and constructive suggestion, from the Opposition. I am, however, also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for his contribution.

We have covered a lot of ground today. I want to be clear that almost everyone who has contributed to the debate knows more about the area than I do. I am still myself an adult learner, and a rather slow one at that, so if I do not have the detailed technical grasp to answer all the questions, I apologise. I am happy to have further discussion and correspondence with any Members who feel that I have not adequately answered their questions.

While setting the context, I am afraid—I hope that the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), will forgive me—that I must remind the House of a few awkward truths. Clearly, there has of course been a substantial cut in the adult skills budget; no one is denying that or pretending otherwise. As the author of a notorious note, which I will forbear to repeat the few words of, no one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman the financial environment that we inherited when we came into government. I also suspect that, had his party stayed in government after the election, no one would have been more ferocious than him in making the case for protecting that part of the education system that every child must go through, and which is critical to every education—whether academic, technical, vocational or professional. That is, of course, the schools system. That is what the Government have done. It has been difficult and painful and it has involved sacrifices in other areas, one of which has been in the adult skills budget.

The second awkward truth that we all need to acknowledge is that much of the spending in the adult skills budget—

I want to remind the Minister of another awkward truth: the £1 billion overspend on the academies and free schools budget. The Government had priorities and they made decisions—they chose to put money into new and experimental areas, while making cuts that affected the most vulnerable children in our society.

Let us put to bed the ridiculous shibboleth that somehow free schools are an experiment. Free schools are, basically, new academies; they are exactly the same as academies. Tell the children at free schools that their schools are somehow different or experimental and that the money spent on them, that £1 billion, is not spent on the education of the children of Britain. I think that they would give the hon. Lady the flea in her ear that she so richly deserves—

The other awkward truth is that a lot of the spending from the adult skills budget was, frankly, on a series of qualifications that were a fraud on those who were duped into taking them. A whole bunch of the qualifications that were funded did not prepare people for work, enrich their CVs, enable them to command better jobs or add to the productivity that, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill so rightly said, everyone needs. It was therefore right to do what we did, which was to focus the system of qualifications down and to ensure that the funding goes to produce qualifications that will actually help people.

May I draw the Minister back to the future, rather than to the past? In the autumn statement last year, the Chancellor talked about one of the most important adult qualifications available in this country, which is degree places. He said that degree places would be uncapped and he set out, conservatively, the cost of about £1.9 billion, which was to be financed by selling off student loan debt.

On 20 July the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State, said that he and the Deputy Prime Minister had decided that the sale of student loan debt would not now go ahead. Will the Minister confirm whether the expansion will still go ahead and, if so, where on earth the money will come from?

Needless to say, not being the Minister responsible for higher education and certainly not being my boss, the Secretary of State or indeed the Prime Minister, I can do no such thing. We are talking about the adult skills budget and that is what I will return to.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to focus on the future and I am happy to do that. The position we are in now is not as bleak as some hon. Members have tried to paint it. Yes, we have a dire skills shortage in this country, but I remind hon. Members that all the young people who are not currently equipped to get the jobs that have been created and that hon. Members listed were educated under a Labour Government. All of them went through primary and secondary school under that Labour Government, so if they have left the school system ill-prepared for the jobs of the modern economy, let us share the responsibility for that lack and together work out how to fill the gap.

There is more agreement about the future than there will ever be about the past, and I will come on to the key elements of that. Specific questions were raised, however, and I want to make sure that I address them before I run out of time. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made an interesting speech, in which she specifically challenged me to take up with the DWP the question—[Interruption.] Was it the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)? I am sorry, I cannot remember. I was asked to take up the issue of jobcentres being inflexible about courses and requiring people to leave them. I am aware of the issue broadly but not in detail, and I will be happy to take it up.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), who is no longer in his place, invited me to visit an apprenticeship centre run by the EEF. Will somebody tell him afterwards that I will be happy to do so if I can, as it sounds like an interesting venture?

I am happy to take up any issues that individual hon. Members have with particular colleges and funding situations. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for example, raised some issues about a specific college, and I would be happy to take those up.

Now I come to the actual question from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. She asked about funding of HNDs and HNCs. If I may, I will get back to her with more specific detail on that. She also asked specifically about extending the internship model to older adults. That is an interesting idea, but not one in which I am sufficiently well versed to give a response now. I will be happy to meet her to discuss the issue and see whether we can do more.

Now, to the future, and how we improve the productivity of people in this country so that they can secure the fantastic jobs being created—I hope we will all acknowledge this—in record numbers in this economy, to an extent that no other European country seems to be able to match at the moment. For the Government—we make no apologies for this—the most important policy to ensure that improvement is the policy on apprenticeships. That is why, even with a declining skills budget, we have ensured that the funding of apprenticeships is maintained and have been able to secure a dramatic increase in the number of people taking apprenticeships.

That is not at all to say that we are in any way satisfied with the position we are in. We also recognise, for instance, the very low number of higher apprenticeships as a proportion of the total and want to expand those, but without in any sense diminishing the lower level apprenticeships. Those are often the ones that young people who leave school without qualifications are going to be able to access first; we are not necessarily saying, either, that they should not move on to a higher apprenticeship in due course.

In that case, the Minister will want the maximum value for money from the programme that he is responsible for. A total of £340 million has been earmarked for the employer ownership pilot for apprenticeships, but the latest figures show that only 20,000 new apprenticeships have been provided. That is a unit cost of about £17,000. Will he explain whether he thinks that is value for money and what he is doing to drive up numbers for that programme?

The right hon. Gentleman is too good a numbers man not to recognise the trick he has just played, which is to take the total budget as his denominator and use only the number of starts achieved so far as the figure that he is declaring it against. If he looked at the amount of money that has been drawn down from the pilot, he would see that his denominator is a very much smaller figure and that dividing that three-hundred-and-whatever million by 20,000 does not present an entirely accurate picture.

On that point, £340 million has been allocated and has not been drawn down at the right rate. What is going wrong, what is the Minister doing to check on what is happening and how on earth is the situation being monitored to make sure that it is not just backfilling what employers would do anyway and giving money to businesses without them adding more to adult skills education?

What this Government do not do—we do not believe in it—is just push money out of the door. That is what the previous Government did, which is why we inherited a deficit on the scale that we did. We believe in inviting people to come forward with bids and come up with quite experimental ideas—the scheme is unashamedly a pilot—and then checking whether those ideas are high quality and are adding value, and whether the money is going to be put to good use. If we do not end up spending all of the money mentioned, I will be the first to say that we did not do so because we did not have bids that were good enough and were going to deliver enough impact. That is the responsible way to deal with taxpayers’ money and money borrowed from future taxpayers, not the approach of the previous Government.

To return—it seems rather optimistic now—to areas where we perhaps agree, we need to have more higher apprenticeships. We also agree that although the increase in the number of adults doing apprenticeships is welcome, we should not allow that to be at the cost of 16 to 18-year-olds doing them. We therefore need to ensure that the offer is there and stands for everybody.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and a number of others asked me about the changes in the funding of apprenticeships under the new trailblazer standards. All I can say at this stage is that, first, I am looking at the matter extremely closely, and, secondly, before coming anywhere near politics—before coming into the policy world, let alone to Parliament—I spent 10 years running a business that employed 150 people in the manufacture of paint brushes and rollers. I have lived and breathed—and wept—the experience of running a small business. I am not going to be a Minister who puts burdens on small or medium-sized enterprises that persuade them not to do what we want them to—provide more high-quality, long-term, demanding apprenticeships that improve the skills of the people of Britain.

There were also a lot of questions about adult learning and its funding. It is clear that there have been some very difficult decisions in that area, which have caused difficulties for some institutions and further education colleges, and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, for some of the charities and social enterprises that work with FE colleges. Those decisions have also perhaps interrupted the availability of some provision, as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) so eloquently described. We have had to make sacrifices, and it may be that some are never undone because of the fiscal situation we face as a country and the priorities we have to put in place. But we are going to look at the experience of advanced learner loans and then ask ourselves a series of tough questions about how much further it is right to go to align what is available for adult learners who are not going into universities with what is available for those who do.

We have had one little reassuring set of data. Wild and gloomy predictions were made about the effect of fees and loans on the participation of people from a range of different backgrounds, including poorer ones, in universities. Those predictions have not come about. Similarly, we have no evidence on advanced learner loans of any dramatic effect on or change in the profile of those who participate in adult learning. We will be looking at making sure the opportunities are available. They may need to be funded differently from how they were in the past, but it is right to see whether we can make sure they are available for all in the future. [Interruption.]

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Waste Management Sites (Fires)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak today.

The issue I want to raise is that of fires at waste management sites. This is a problem that literally stinks to high heaven. Fires at waste management sites can have a far-reaching impact, way beyond a 999 call and a few hours’ attendance by the local fire crew and their appliance. They can come with a very hefty financial cost. They often demand a multi-agency response and, worryingly, the resulting fall-out can blight communities.

Today, I want to tell you about a fire at the waste management site in the village of Nantyglo, in my constituency that burned for 10 days in January 2013. A small mountain of waste—more than 200 tonnes worth—caught aflame. The smoke billowing from the fire made the lives of the residents in the nearby streets a misery. It clogged the air, seeped into washing hanging on the line, and filled homes and cars with a noxious smell. One of the neighbours with asthma and emphysema could not go out of the house at all for the whole time of the fire. Such waste sites store everything from plastic containers and solvent-based paints to oily rags and aerosol cans, and the burning of chemicals trapped people in their own home. The resident with respiratory illnesses loves the area and keeps her home clean and tidy, but now she feels that she will have to move out if there is a prospect of future fires. That is not right.

When home for the long weekend, I caught sight of a big smoke cloud over Nantyglo from my kitchen window, and it was held there for 10 days by the many rainclouds above. The air was acrid, and clearly, the matter needed urgent attention.

After trying to understand who was co-ordinating matters, I got stuck in and called a multi-agency meeting to try and take things forward. Everybody eventually pulled together. Natural Resources Wales had stationed a staff member by the site to oversee and co-ordinate. The fire service went back and forth to keep a lid on the still smouldering fire and Public Health Wales set in place air quality measuring kit. It was a very small, enclosed site, but fair do’s, Blaenau Gwent council helped a lot by making available some nearby land to shift hundreds of tonnes of waste on to. That enabled the eventual control of the fire. Months later, the bill for the operation was estimated to reach £70,000. That is just one example of the damage and demands on public services, as well as the insurance industry, that such fires can cause, and it is one of many.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject, as there was a fire lasting six months in a pile of carpet waste in my constituency. He mentioned insurance and cost. In the case of my constituency, the operating firm is in liquidation. Ought there not to be some system of insurance or bonds that ensures that if there is nobody left to pay, there is some money in the bank to deal with the terrible consequences that our constituents have to face?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, not least because I understand that some bits of the insurance sector are pulling out of this industry because the premiums are not covering their costs.

The incident in Nantyglo is, it seems, one of many. A total of 600 fires occurred at waste management sites in England between 2012 and 2013, with 61 additional fires occurring in Wales. Despite waste management sites being monitored and requiring licences, we are getting nearly one fire a day across England and Wales.

While I was putting this speech together, firefighters in Swindon were hoping finally to get on top of a waste site fire that has been burning away for a month. There, 3,000 tonnes of waste have had to be moved so that firefighters can tackle the fire effectively. The bill for the entire operation is expected to be in the region of £400,000, with concerns that it may be the taxpayer who shoulders the burden of that cost.

I wanted to understand the financial impact of these fires fully, so I logged freedom of information requests with fire services up and down the country. I asked how many fires they have dealt with and the cost of dealing with them. It became immediately apparent that there is not a standardised scale for costing these measures. Each service had its own way of categorising such fires, and their cost analysis varied from a few hundred pounds to several thousand.

If we want to tackle this problem in the future, we need an agreed nationwide system, perhaps developed with the National Audit Office, that is transparent, credible and allows regions to share data and better understand the costs of these sorts of fires. The responses from South Wales fire and rescue service and Merseyside fire and rescue service were the most interesting, as their costs were significantly higher than the other services. Merseyside fire and rescue service identified 18 incidents, with single incidents costing, on average, £48,000. South Wales fire and rescue service identified the estimated cost of attending seven calls as £344,000, which is an average cost of £49,000 a fire.

Those numbers were generated using the economic cost of fire reports from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Government. These reports not only look at response costs, but the money needed to repair the damage afterwards and protect against the cost of fires in the future. For instance, the 2006 Welsh report includes property damage, loss of business, injuries and insurance costs in that financial bundle. Indeed, as I mentioned, insurance companies have been pulling out of the sector all year, citing the amount of losses not stacking up with the premiums taken.

I believe that those higher figures give us a more accurate cost of the impact of waste fires. That would mean that in two years, waste management fires in Wales and England—this is just my back-of-an-envelope figure; I am not an econometrician—will have cost the economy approximately £32 million.

What needs to be done to solve the problem? It is clearly a problem for the communities who have to suffer the consequences and it is a problem for our economy, but I am also concerned by the breakdown of those fires. In response to parliamentary questions, the Minister told me that 595 of the fires in England were at private sites compared with just five at local authority sites and that one in every 18 private sites suffered a fire compared with one in 110 local authority-run sites. It is a similar story in Wales, with only three of the 61 fires being at local authority sites.

This is a big industry and it is fairly complex, I know, but it is important to understand whether the two types of site are doing similar work or are subject to the same regulations and standards. How are they monitored? Why are there such good records for publicly organised sites compared with private ones? It would be interesting if the Minister could tell us more.

In addition, looking through the lists of fires supplied by Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency, we see that there are countless instances of fires occurring multiple times in the same location. A quick glance through the 61 entries in the NRW records alone is illuminating. There were three reports for one Port Talbot site in just three weeks. There were three incidents at a Dowlais Top site in Merthyr in five months. If a small number of sites are responsible for a large percentage of fires, action needs to be taken.

My concerns are mirrored by those of the Fire Futures Forum, which attempted to tackle these problems last November. Chaired by the Chief Fire Officers Association, it was a round-table event aimed at understanding the issues that arise from waste management fires. The forum put forward three points that I believe should be looked at seriously by the Minister—I do understand that this is a cross-departmental issue. First, it recognised the need to share good practice across the industry. That was particularly relevant for larger waste management operators guiding small and medium-sized businesses and not only helping to reduce the incidence of fires, but lessening their impact when they do happen. Although private companies could undertake that course of action themselves, regulatory authorities could play a part in helping the sector to deliver good practice throughout the industry.

Secondly, the forum wanted a clampdown on rogue traders. Bad operators need to be identified and action taken accordingly. It suggested that licensing process could be tightened up and a national database of waste management operators and sites established. I wholeheartedly support that point. The bad neighbours who run these sites and blight their local communities need the strongest possible oversight.

Legislation is potentially required to support the work of the Environment Agency in case it needs further powers, and I would be interested in what it has to say about that possibility. We also need a single agency to take responsibility for pulling together all the others for concerted action when fires do occur. We may also need to look at planning for locations of waste management facilities, waste permits, and appropriate advice and guidance on suitable risk-management processes.

This is a big issue, affecting many communities across England and Wales. I expect that the same is also true in Scotland and Northern Ireland—so across the UK. Fires at waste management sites cost public services, the industry and its insurers an arm and a leg. They make everyday life intolerable for residents close to a fire and can badly affect the health of some. However, there is a clear agenda that could help with this issue, so I hope that the Minister will try to answer some of the points that I have made and will agree an action plan that gets a good grip of it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing the debate on reducing fires at waste management sites. I am delighted to see in their places other hon. Members who have concerns in that regard, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who has raised the issue with me on previous occasions and will continue to do so until he is satisfied, as I am sure the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent will. Given the fire at the A. Lewis Waste Paper Collections Ltd site in Nantyglo in his constituency in January 2013, to which he referred, the subject is of understandable concern to his constituents, but it is also a concern to many people in the United Kingdom.

Waste management policy, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, is largely a devolved matter. The Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales, to which he referred in relation to that incident, are responsible for policy and regulation of Welsh waste sites respectively. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain what the Government and others are doing to address this important issue in England. We will return to some of the issues he raised, which are no doubt important across all jurisdictions in the United Kingdom.

The Government recognise that the public and the resource management industry have legitimate concerns about fires at waste management sites. The fires can involve large volumes of waste burning for prolonged periods. They cause unacceptable impacts on people, the environment and local infrastructure. Responding to waste fires places a huge strain on the resources not just of the fire and rescue service and the Environment Agency, but of the police, local authorities, the Health and Safety Executive and public health organisations. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the substantial cost of waste fires. The firefighting costs alone can be substantial, but as he pointed out, the costs range much more widely than that. For example, the cost to the London Fire Brigade of keeping safe just one waste site that has experienced repeated fires has been in the region of £650,000. I agree completely with him that those are unacceptable costs to the public purse. Repeated waste fires also have an impact on the insurance costs for the resource management sector as a whole—there is also an impact on the businesses of those who are following best practice.

When I came into this post last October, there was a long-running fire at the waste site near Berwick-upon-Tweed, and recurring fires at a waste site near Bromley in London. I met the then chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury, in December to stress the importance of early intervention to tackle waste crime and poor performance, which are often contributory factors in waste fires.

The Environment Agency set up a waste fires task and finish group last year to review actions needed to address the risk of fires at the waste sites that it regulates. As part of that work, the agency conducted a screening exercise to identify sites where there was an increased risk of a significant fire and/or sites that posed a significant hazard to people and the environment should a fire break out, so we are looking at risk and likely severity of impact. That screening exercise has identified 80 waste sites in England that would pose a very high risk of impact if a fire were to occur. The agency is taking action to reduce risks at those sites to acceptable levels, and I am seeking regular updates on progress.

The Environment Agency has identified a further 215 medium-risk waste sites. Local Environment Agency teams will prioritise appropriate action to reduce the risk at those sites in the same way as for the initial 80 high-risk sites. Last year, the agency also wrote to more than 7,000 waste operators to remind them of their regulatory obligations to control the risks and impacts of fires at their sites, and issued a technical guidance note setting out appropriate measures and performance standards for preventing waste fires. The agency guidance is endorsed by the Chief Fire Officers Association in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, to get the benefit of that technical expertise across the sector.

The Chief Fire Officers Association brought the waste industry, the enforcing authorities and other stakeholders together in a forum last year, as the hon. Gentleman said, to develop a road map towards ensuring a sustained reduction in fires in waste facilities. One outcome of that forum has been the development by the resource management sector of new draft fire safety management guidance and best practice, to be published later this year, so the suggestion that he rightly makes has been taken forward, and I am pleased that he is adding his support. In fact, his securing of this debate provides renewed impetus and ensures that we keep pushing forward on that work.

The lessons learned document for the fire in my constituency contained, as one of the lessons, this:

“Review the merits of…mandatory insurance”,

meaning that proof of insurance would need to be produced when a permit is issued. That was referred to as something to be determined under the national action plan. Will it be considered in the discussions that my hon. Friend the Minister has described?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. That is one of the areas I have been discussing with the agency. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent raised concerns about the pressure on the insurance industry as a result of the situation. We need to look at all these issues in the round. Certainly that is an issue that we will continue to discuss and address to see whether it would be fruitful to put in some more work in that direction.

The Chief Fire Officers Association has been working closely with the Environment Agency. The organisations are in the process of signing a national memorandum, which will promote the co-operation and data-sharing that the hon. Gentleman is keen to see, and which will set out how local Environment Agency and fire and rescue teams will collaborate and carry out site visits to ensure effective fire prevention.

In many cases, fires at waste sites are linked to poor operator compliance. This week, I have written to waste industry representatives outlining a series of Government and Environment Agency proposals focused on waste crime and tackling poor performance at waste management sites. Those proposals, which were developed in part in response to calls by the industry for more robust enforcement action, include: increased agency intervention at poor-performing sites; a review of the powers for suspending or revoking environmental permits; increased regulatory fees paid by operators of poorly performing sites; greater agency scrutiny of newly permitted sites; and revisions to the systems for assessing operator competence, which is another crucial angle. We have talked about the financial risks, but a thorough assessment of operator competence is important in preparation for the opening of new sites and the entry of new businesses to the sector, because it is a technical matter. We want to see people acting in the sector, creating jobs and making better use of available resources as part of our move towards a circular economy, but we have to ensure that they are technically competent to do so. We also propose to ensure that environmental permits contain minimum standards for the storage of combustible materials. I have invited representatives of the resource industry and the profession to discuss how we and the agency can take our proposals forward, because the Government and the regulator cannot do that alone.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the means of recording and reporting on fires at waste sites. Each local fire and rescue authority provides the Department for Communities and Local Government with information about all incidents that it attends, including fires at waste and recycling sites, through the incident reporting system, which covers England and Wales. The data gathered include details of the area of damage caused by the fire. The Environment Agency separately collects reports from the operators of permitted sites on the scale and nature of any environmental impacts associated with fires. Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency adopt a similar approach to recording fires at permitted sites in Wales and Scotland.

We will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the data collected by the Environment Agency and the fire and rescue authorities are as consistent and robust as possible. I acknowledge that there have been some recent high-profile fires, although Environment Agency figures show that the total number of fires at regulated waste sites over the past 10 years has remained relatively constant at some 250 to 300 a year. Of course, constant is not as good as declining, so we want further progress. That sounds like a lot, but the majority are low-level fires—some of them are caused by electrical faults or equipment failure—that are put out quickly by operatives at the site without the need to call fire and rescue services. However, it is important for those to be recorded and form part of our information dataset.

Environment Agency statistics show that the number of serious or significant fires at waste sites during the past four years has been relatively stable at approximately 15 a year. The Environment Agency regulates more than 8,000 permitted sites that are involved in storing combustible waste. The 12 serious and significant fires that have occurred so far this year represent less than 0.2% of the sites that store combustible waste. We must not be complacent, however, and we must strive to prevent any such incidents from occurring. The waste and resource management sector, the regulators, the fire and rescue services and the Government are taking forward a range of actions to reduce serious waste fires. I welcome the positive and proactive approach that has been taken by all involved.

The hon. Gentleman made a valuable point when he mentioned the dissemination of best practice. The code of best practice and the memorandum of understanding to which I have referred show that the industry, the fire and rescue services and the environmental protection agencies are taking forward such best practice. The new proposals are designed to tackle rogue traders and poor performers who got into the industry without technical expertise, so I am pleased that he raised that. In many cases, the answer is extra investment in enforcement and early intervention to prevent outbreaks of fire, however small, and the most serious ones must be dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman asked about planning and permitting, and we will consider those as part of our review. If the evidence base supports changes to those regimes, we will look at making those changes. He asked questions about local authority-managed sites and private sector sites. Given the answers he received to his parliamentary questions and the terms in which he raised them, I understand why he has drawn attention to the matter. There are a range of facilities, however, and the local authority sites do not necessarily operate with the same materials or deal with the same volumes as other sites do, so it is difficult to draw conclusions from the points he has raised, but that was an interesting contribution to the debate.

As Minister with responsibility for resources management, I will continue to work with the Environment Agency and encourage it to review the effectiveness of its approach to the enforcement of waste controls, and to consider what more can be done to reduce the incidence of serious waste fires.

Owing to the earlier suspension for the Division, the next debate will end no later than 5.12 pm, so there is some extra time available for it.

Public Health England Hub Programme and Porton Down

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Robertson?

I have called this debate on the back of two similar debates in June 2010 and September 2013, several questions in the House, the lobbying of Ministers and meetings with officials over the past four years. Today, I urge the Minister critically to appraise the recommendations that she and her ministerial colleagues have received from the board of Public Health England to move significant elements of the PHE facility at Porton Down to a new site in Essex.

The UK Government have had capabilities at Porton Down for more than a century, which have evolved into a unique asset overseen by PHE. The facility is recognised around the world for its role in responding to some of the gravest threats facing mankind today. Indeed, several of my constituents have been deployed abroad to support the international response to the Ebola crisis, which is widely reported in the media.

However, it is well known that the facilities at Porton Down have been in need of a substantial upgrade to remain fit for purpose. Until 2009, the board of the Health Protection Agency, PHE’s predecessor organisation, felt that its objectives would be best achieved by expanding and redeveloping the existing site at Porton. The PHE board has submitted three different business cases—in June 2010, April 2012 and, after a two-year gap, in 2014 —as it has sought to justify its intention to create a single science hub in Harlow. The PHE board has submitted the outline business case to Ministers, and the preferred option is to collocate its assets on a new campus in Harlow modelled on the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The latest publicly available analysis from Professor George Griffin’s 2012 due diligence report disclosed that the Harlow option would produce a mere 2.6% cost saving for the Treasury compared with redevelopment with Porton, over a 68-year time frame.

I want to use the debate to highlight the risks associated with relocating such a sensitive facility. PHE’s primary mandate is to

“protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing”.

Some of the work done at PHE Porton, especially translational research into taking products from the workbench to commercial markets, arguably does not fit comfortably in that mission statement. Consequently, I am led to believe that the business case does not fully assess the potential of a redeveloped site at Porton to drive growth in the UK life sciences sector. The Government clearly view that sector as important to the UK economy, given that they selected one of our colleagues to become Minister with responsibility for life sciences in the July reshuffle. I emphasise the critical importance of translational research and urge the Minister to be the one who finally unleashes PHE’s full potential at Porton in that area.

Public Health England Porton is on course to generate £65 million in external revenues this year; it receives just £8 million in funding from the Department of Health. PHE Porton is operating in an increasingly competitive global environment where outcomes are harder to achieve, and it is doing so very successfully. Understandably, PHE’s primary mandate is not about seizing commercial opportunities, and the translational research capability at Porton has arguably never been fully realised, and its potential never fully exploited, as a consequence.

One of the key arguments for relocating to Essex is that Harlow is ideally sited between London and Cambridge, which would allow PHE to establish links with companies and research institutions based there. My fear, however, is that that argument is flawed because the team at Porton has never been disadvantaged by its current location. As the useful document from the Porton life sciences group sets out, the team at Porton currently works with more than 250 partners across the world, including more than 130 universities, the US Government, five international health agencies, nine global pharmaceutical companies and more than 60 small and medium-sized enterprises. The list includes more than 30 entities currently based in London or Cambridge.

In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group carried out a comprehensive study of the drivers of research productivity in 420 life science companies. The study found that location was not a key factor and that accumulated research expertise was twice as significant. PHE Porton has some 3,750 years of scientific acumen relating to infectious disease in its ranks. Almost half of those individuals are operating above PhD level. PHE argues that new staff can easily be moved or recruited to Harlow and that it is a desirable place to work, but the fact remains that, when the staff at Porton were last surveyed, just 7%, or one in 14, were inclined and prepared to move.

I find it perplexing that in the modern age, when the Government are increasingly looking beyond geographical borders for commercial opportunities, when digital by default is the preferred option and when the Government are actively seeking to disperse their functions outside the south-east, Ministers could accept a plan that flies in the face of those aspirations. The entire business case is dependent on the premise that an organisation will be more effective if its staff and resources are in one location, but across PHE employees perform a wide range of functions, many of which have little day-to-day operational co-dependency.

The idea that a physical hub will result in “water cooler conversations” leading to improved research outcomes is, at best, highly questionable. The private sector left that mindset and approach long ago in favour of more effective use of technology and flexible working practices. The outline business case also makes the assumption that existing partnerships will be able to continue operating effectively throughout at least a 10-year transition period.

I want to imagine a different scenario in which Porton is finally given the operational freedom to capitalise fully and extend its current external research relationships, as I have consistently suggested in debates in the House over the past four years. Other Departments have recognised the potential of what exists at Porton. On the same day that Public Health England’s board made public its recommendation to move to Harlow, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced an investment of several million pounds to establish a new science park at Porton, which was supported by the local authority, Wiltshire council, and the local enterprise partnership. The science park will be next door to Public Health England and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The Department of Health’s first spin-off company emerged from PHE Porton, and one of the reasons why the science park was conceived was to provide space for similar likely companies in the future.

Imagine if the ambition of the universities of Oxford and Southampton to create a second corridor of excellence to rival Cambridge and London could be fostered. The regional life sciences industry proposed to create a new national centre for translational vaccinology, which the Medical Research Council could not support further because of the uncertainty around PHE at Porton Down. The project is not some blue-sky ambition proposed at the last moment, either. There are signed expressions of interest from two multinational pharmaceutical companies and SMEs across the region. It is not a new project but one that has developed from existing working relationships. The university of Southampton, for example, is involved in more than 30 projects with PHE Porton, such as the one awarded $1.4 million by the US National Institute of Health last month to continue its groundbreaking work on tuberculosis treatments.

I will now discuss PHE Porton’s one geographical partnership that depends on physical location. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is currently located immediately adjacent to PHE, and there is a natural synergy in the work that the two organisations do and the security arrangements that they share. I am told that staff have worked particularly closely in emergencies. They have a close historical connection, their staff share a number of unique competencies and both organisations retain a significant proportion of the UK’s containment level 4 laboratories.

Although I understand that greater collaboration with DSTL has nominally been considered as part of the single science hub programme, I seek reassurance that that option has been fully evaluated, particularly in light of what I know to be the willingness of DSTL’s management to embrace the programme. It has been known since 2008 that there is spare capacity in DSTL’s high containment facilities, as Professor Griffin told the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills. He reported in 2012 that it is important that the relationship is preserved:

“A move to Harlow would not prevent collaboration with DSTL but it would be more difficult, particularly since outside the UK ‘Porton Down’ is perceived as being managed more under common control than it really is and this carries considerable brand value.”

I emphasise that point. When the Prime Minister said that our laboratories had confirmed that there were chemical weapons in Syria, he referred not to DSTL or PHE labs but to our labs at Porton Down. The media reports on samples of Ebola being sent to “our experts at Porton.” Porton has a global reputation built up over several decades, which Harlow will need to work hard even to establish.

Although I fully concede the need to do what is best for the national public health interest as a whole, my concern is that the translational research function and the complex relationships and revenue generation activities that have been built up over many years will be put at serious risk if the outline business case is accepted as is. Given the pace of technological change, the notion of a single science hub might become redundant, too. Earlier this week I met my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), the new Minister with responsibility for life sciences, and he is a great believer in the power of genome sequencing to revolutionise care in the NHS. He will know that the direction of travel undermines the case for physical collaborations as more laboratory-based diagnostic work is replaced by computer-based modelling.

Before approving the plan, I ask the Minister to be sure that the business case contains a rigorous analysis of the issues of transitioning and recruiting teams of world-class scientists and that the security concerns about sensitive work, which we hear nothing about, are not optimistically handled in the business case. Please be sure that the economic value associated with 10-year contracts with the US Government and other external parties will not be seriously jeopardised during an extended, uncertain transitional period in which facilities at both Porton and Harlow will need to co-exist.

Perhaps more importantly, I urge the Minister to recognise that, although translational science may not be core to the entity that is currently Public Health England, it is certainly core to the UK’s life sciences industry. Please be sure that the outline business case demonstrates conclusively that the commercial opportunities for PHE will be significantly improved by relocating to Harlow and that the anticipated gains clearly outweigh the opportunity to create a new world-leading corridor of translational vaccinology in the south-west at Porton.

I stand here today, for the third time in an Adjournment debate since I was elected in 2010, not because I want to articulate a narrow “keep the jobs in my constituency at all costs” argument. My primary concern is that this decision is motivated by a misjudged desire to tidy up different entities within the PHE organisation into a single site, when the day-to-day functional synergies of the different components of PHE are not significant, the advantages of co-location are notional, uncosted and unproven and most of all, sadly, the risks to the life science sector and the international Porton Down brand are so significant that they render the recommendation to proceed with the Harlow option even more questionable.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this important debate. We are in the strange position of being good friends in the House but having completely different perspectives on this issue. I am grateful to him for giving me a couple of minutes to speak. Like him, I have been campaigning on this for the past four years in meetings with Ministers, by speaking in the House and by tabling Commons motions.

The proposed move of Public Health England to Harlow is right for four simple reasons. First, it is right for the organisation itself. The proposed site in Harlow is ideally located on the London to Cambridge science corridor, so Public Health England will be able to benefit from the life sciences and science-based enterprises based around Harlow. The town also has an enterprise zone that specialises in medtech and IT, which will help Public Health England in its vital role of protecting the nation’s security and well-being.

According to the Chrysalis review, the Harlow site

“provides excellent existing buildings as the framework for laboratory, bioinformatics, epidemiology, national microbial culture storage, and office facilities”.

That is because of the closure of the GlaxoSmithKline laboratories and plant.

My hon. Friend talked about transport links, but I stress that we do have good links: we are close to Stansted airport, the M11 and M25 and also have good train links. Transport is not an end in itself, as expertise is needed, but the opportunity to create a scientific corridor with expertise and those transport links in this part of the east of England will provide huge benefits indeed. The board of Public Health England has now formally recommended the relocation of services at Porton Down, Whitechapel and Colindale to Harlow, saying that it would be able to bring together a range of its national functions and improve its efficiency and effectiveness.

Relocation to Harlow would be a great opportunity for Public Health England’s staff. Of course, I empathise with those who do not want to be uprooted, but there are great opportunities in Harlow. We are a sculpture town, with fantastic facilities. We have good quality housing and beautiful countryside. We also have outstanding local schools, such as: Burnt Mill which achieved an 86% GCSE A* to C rate; Harlow college, which according to the Department for Education has for three years in a row been a No. 1 college in England on all statistics; and a brand new Sir Charles Cao university technical college, which has just officially opened—the Prime Minister visited it just before the summer.

The move is right not just for the employees and for Porton Down, but for the taxpayer. We know that Porton Down is coming to the end of its life and something must be done to stop it becoming a health risk. The option of refurbishment was rejected in the business case as representing poor value for money. In fact, Public Health England’s own analysis shows that moving to Harlow would deliver the lowest cost over the 60-year life of the programme. The initial outline business case said that these savings would be in excess of £100 billion.

Finally, yes, as the Harlow MP I argue that the move is right for Harlow as well. Thanks to the enterprise zone and the UTC, the relocation would be a good strategic fit and Harlow council is very supportive of the move. It would also be consistent with the increasingly renowned pathology specialism of the Princess Alexandra hospital. When GSK unfortunately left the town, Harlow lost a lot of jobs. Public Health England’s moving to Harlow would give the town a much needed boost, with an estimated 700 jobs created initially, which would offset the job losses over time.

As I said, the decision is right for Public Health England, for British taxpayers and for Harlow. We have the skills, infrastructure and expertise to make it possible. In essence, it is a no-brainer, which is why, time after time, Public Health England itself has recommended that the move should take place.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate. It is not his first on this subject, but he is right to use his opportunities to highlight such important topics. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for his contribution.

The future of Porton Down is important not only to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, but to the whole country, given its work on a wide range of public health threats—including, as he highlighted, most recently the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. Scientists have been doing invaluable work at Porton Down since the 1950s, but its buildings are more than 60 years old and, based on independent surveys of the estate, they are increasingly unfit for purpose. My hon. Friend agrees that we need to find a solution to that problem to ensure that this vital work is able to continue in top quality facilities.

We all agree it is important that scientists have the benefit of state-of-the-art facilities that reflect the latest technological advancements, including, as my hon. Friend alluded to, the shift from the Petri dish to big data. Public Health England put forward the case that significant benefits would result from not only re-providing the facilities at Porton, but bringing together the range of public health science functions that it manages across disparate sites to create an integrated national science hub. That would enable the UK to punch above its weight on the international stage in preventing, and reducing the burden of, both communicable and non-communicable disease.

As my hon. Friend knows, Public Health England is considering a number of options to meet that challenge and its preferred option is to create a public health science hub based at the former GSK facility, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. To reach that position, it has had to consider a wide range of long and short-listed options and demonstrate which offers the best value for money.

The main focus of those options has been on Porton, Colindale—it is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who represents Colindale, in his place—and Harlow. Public Health England has briefed the local Members, including my hon. Friends, and the local authorities about the three sites affected and considered those views in the option appraisal.

The case submitted by Public Health England is being scrutinised by the Department of Health, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Major Projects Authority. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury that the process will be thorough and robust. Following that process, the business case will require ministerial approval, as he mentioned, and will be published once finalised.

It is not appropriate for me to give further details on the business case until the review has been completed and I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that. As he may be aware, that is to protect commercial confidentiality and the integrity of decision making. It is established practice that outline business case documents are not shared outside the Government before decisions have been made, but the Department and PHE are committed to being open and consultative throughout this process.

When I am being briefed on these issues ahead of debates, my first question is always whether we have had regular and open contact with the Members involved. I am assured that regular contact has been made between PHE and those hon. Members who are rightly concerned for the future of the facilities in their constituencies. We want to ensure transparency on the progress of the process, and at all stages we are providing opportunities to comment on the case, with this debate being the most recent example. That commitment to a consultative process has, for instance, led to all three affected authorities submitting statements about how the science hub would link with the local economy, which have been included in the business case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing the debate. We have focused on the business side, which is very important when we introduce a national hub, but I am concerned that my constituents’ views about what will happen to them and their extended families have not been considered. Many of my constituents who work at Colindale are responsible for elderly family members and children, and they feel that that has not been taken into account. Will the Minister respond to that point?

I would be disappointed if that issue had not been considered. There have already been some meetings with staff, but this is an ongoing process. My understanding is that at the point at which any firm decisions are made there will be an extensive consultation process. I have time set aside to meet with my hon. Friend, who is right to highlight those concerns. We can explore them further and I can respond to any specific concerns. Those valuable members of the scientific community make an enormous contribution in lots of ways to our country and we want to ensure that they and their families are considered carefully in this process.

On the point about the consultation process, I recently received a letter from the Minister responsible for PHE’s neighbours at Porton, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which praised PHE’s open, collaborative approach to discussions about the use of specialist high-containment facilities. That reassures me that a good level of communication is being achieved.

The business case contains a summary of the collaborative work. When my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), outlined the Department of Health’s position in a debate a year ago—also secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury—she said:

“We need to be clear that although PHE and DSTL will continue to collaborate closely, PHE needs dedicated high-containment facilities to ensure that public health work can proceed in the event of the DSTL facilities being fully occupied. This will provide resilience if DSTL’s facilities are closed for any reason.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 1136.]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, issues of national security and our national response capability must be carefully considered before a final decision is made. It is therefore key that Public Health England continues to develop links not only with DSTL, but with all the other agencies involved in the national security response.

Another important consideration that my hon. Friend drew out in his speech is the commercial impact of the chosen solution, which must ensure that PHE can continue to work in partnership with industry to support wider growth in the UK life sciences sector. Like him, I celebrate the important work and development that has taken place in that area in recent years. I reassure my hon. Friend that PHE has undertaken a survey of its current key customers, and only one has said that moving from the Porton site would be important for their future business relationship with PHE.

In Harlow, PHE proposes that the science hub would link with the Harlow enterprise zone and the London-Cambridge corridor, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned. It is one of the key international centres for the life sciences sector and PHE has had discussions with Cambridge university about the opportunities for collaboration based around Harlow.

Even if a decision were made to relocate research functions and staff, PHE has confirmed that it remains fully committed to the recently announced Porton science park, which would involve PHE facilities—consisting of some 300 staff in the development, production and regional laboratories—remaining at Porton. I know PHE has briefed my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury on the work it is doing to maximise the commercial potential of the production facilities at Porton, which he highlighted in his speech. I want to reassure him that his important concern has not been overlooked.

The final decision on the outline business case will be made as soon as possible. My hon. Friend’s wish to have certainty on the case sooner rather than later is entirely reasonable and understandable, but—as he said—it is important that we get this vital decision right. I have listened carefully to his arguments—this is the first opportunity I have had to hear them laid out first hand—and to the important short speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. I will look at the document to which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury referred and ask PHE to respond to it. My hon. Friend is right to champion that renowned facility and his constituency, and I congratulate him on using this further opportunity to highlight his concerns, to which we will give a serious response.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.