House of Commons
Monday 2 March 2015
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Academies: Exam Results
1. How many academies have reported a decline in exam results in the last year. 
This year’s key stage 4 results are the first since crucial reforms to our qualification and accountability systems, which were designed to raise the bar for our children, came into force. Overall, the proportion of pupils achieving A* to C grades including English and maths in state schools fell across all types of school. There has been a 71% increase in the number of pupils taking the key academic subjects that will prepare them better for life in modern Britain.
That was a bit of a non-answer. If an academy is successful, parents are happy and so am I, but what if an academy is getting bad results and is on the way down? What powers are there for local people to enable them to have any influence whatsoever on the future of that academy?
I do not think that saying that 71% of pupils are taking the more academic subjects most highly valued by employers and universities could be described as a non-answer. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that as the local Member of Parliament he will be working closely with the regional schools commissioner, the head teacher, the teachers and the governors of that school. What we all want at the end of the day is the best possible education for our young people.
I was able to see for myself at Kennington Church of England junior academy on Friday the benefits of academy status in improving a school that has had serious weaknesses in the past. Does the Secretary of State agree that academy status increasingly benefits not just secondary schools but primary schools?
I agree very much with my right hon. Friend. He will want to know that the first wave of sponsored primary academies, which opened in September 2012, has seen the proportion of pupils achieving levels 4 and above in reading, writing and maths increase by 9 percentage points, double the rate of improvement in local authority-maintained schools over the same period.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the Grace academy in Coventry. She facilitated a meeting with one of her Ministers and we are grateful for that, but she will understand—and I hope will therefore follow it up closely herself—that the proof of the pudding will be in the effective action taken to deal with the situation. We have no indication that it is improving and the career prospects of 1,000 young children are being put at risk.
I was pleased to facilitate the hon. Gentleman’s meeting with the Minister in question, one of my excellent team of Ministers. We will of course always maintain a close watch over all academies and their results. He might like to know that secondary converter academies perform well above average, with 64% of pupils achieving five or more good GCSEs in 2014 compared with 54% in local authority schools.
Late last week, it was announced that Pendle primary academy in Brierfield has been rated as good with outstanding features and outstanding behaviour by Ofsted, a big turnaround for a school deemed to be in need of major improvement just two years ago, before it became an academy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the principal, Mrs Burnside, all the staff and the outstanding Nelson and Colne college, which sponsors Pendle primary academy?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is an absolute pleasure to congratulate the head teacher, Mrs Burnside, and all the staff, governors and pupils on their hard work in achieving those spectacular results. I greatly enjoyed my recent visit to schools in Pendle.
Care Costs: Disabled Children
2. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the cost of child care on the household disposable income of parents with disabled children. 
This Government have introduced the biggest reforms to special educational needs and disabilities provisions in 30 years, reforms that enjoy cross-party support. Every disabled child, like all other three and four-year-olds, is entitled to a free 15 hours of early education, and the situation is the same for disadvantaged two-year-olds. In addition, when tax-free child care is introduced, parents of disabled children will get double the allowance of other families at £4,000. The disabled child element of universal credit is £4,300, on top of all the other benefits parents of disabled children receive.
The cross-party parliamentary inquiry into child care for disabled children found that 92% of parents with disabled children reported difficulties in finding suitable child care for their children. As child care costs overall continue to rise, particularly for disabled children, that figure can only continue to grow. What is the Minister doing to ensure sufficient places for disabled children?
On the cost of child care in general, let me point out that the Labour party left us with the highest child care costs in the OECD; they went up by 50% when it was in government. This Government have been helping parents with the cost of child care, particular parents with disabled children, whom the hon. Lady mentioned. Local authorities have a legal duty to secure sufficient child care for working parents in their area. As far as free entitlement is concerned, local authorities that set the rate they pay for free entitlement can pay for additional hours, on an hourly basis and tailored to individual children, from the dedicated schools grant.
The Minister’s words to parents of children with disabilities are just that. Can he explain the reality of the situation for families who have a child with a disability when the proportion of local authorities reporting that they have sufficient places for children with disabilities has fallen by seven points in just one year to only a fifth? That is the reality for parents of children with disabilities. Can he please explain what happened last year?
Of course the cost of child care for children with disabilities is high, because the ratios are higher. They often need one-to-one care, and sometimes more. When children have really complex needs, staff need additional training in order to provide that care. The reason tax-free child care has been doubled to £4,000 from the £2,000 for every other family is to give parents the additional financial power they will need to provide more child care. It has also been extended from age 12, so the parent of a disabled child can now access tax-free child care until their child is 17. That also applies to specialist care regulated by the Care Quality Commission.
3. If she will undertake a reassessment of the merits of grammar schools. 
The law prohibits the establishment of new grammar schools, but we fully support the right of all good schools to expand, and that applies to grammar schools too. What is most important is that all children have access to a good local school, and we are committed to delivering that through our academies and free schools programmes.
Does the Minister have much sympathy with the argument that academically selective schools in the state sector can enhance social mobility?
I know that the hon. Gentleman’s party says that it has a clear policy on grammar schools—that is a relief, because at least it has a clear policy on something. Does he agree with his party’s leader, who said that the party was not going to publish its manifesto until as late as practically possible? May I suggest 8 May?
Why is the Secretary of State pursuing a policy that is attacking grammar schools with large sixth forms, which are being underfunded for their A-level provision?
I am well aware of that issue, which has been raised in a Westminster Hall debate in recent weeks. We fully support sixth forms and want to see them continue, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the economic condition in which her party left this country.
How can the Secretary of State be so sure that expanding grammar schools will enhance opportunities for our most deprived young people and not just perpetuate and reinforce existing social privileges?
The hon. Lady might have misheard my answer to a previous question. This Government are in favour of expanding all good schools. I think that she will want to recognise that we have 1 million more children in good or outstanding schools as a result of this Government’s education policies.
13. May I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement on extending grammar school provision in Kent? Does she agree that grammar schools are an important part of the diversity in our education system that gives parents the best possible choice of the kind of school that suits their children? 
I agree with my hon. Friend that parents being able to make the right choice for their child is exactly what we want to see, because they know their child best. I should make it clear that the Department is currently considering the proposals that have been put to us by a school in Kent, and I expect to reach a decision in due course.
Property Data Survey
4. If her Department will publish a ranking of the property data survey programme of participant schools. 
Through the priority school building programme 2, we have used the property data survey to allocate £2 billion to rebuild and refurbish buildings in the worst conditions at 277 schools across the country. We have no plans to publish a ranking of surveyed schools.
The previous Secretary of State said that Calder high school was one of the worst he had seen in England. Similarly, when the Prime Minister came to Todmorden, he pledged money for the rebuilding of Todmorden high school. Despite those assurances, so far neither school has received any money. Will the Minister pledge to do as was initially intended and make transparent the priority listings of all schools surveyed under the property data survey programme so that we can see how robust they are?
I know that my hon. Friend is a champion of the schools in his constituency, including the two that he mentions. In addition to the priority school building programme phase 2 funding, we recently announced £4.2 billion of funding for the improvement and maintenance of school buildings over the next three years, and his local authority is able to draw down on those moneys allocated to its area for the schools that he mentions. On the ranking of schools, we have no plans to publish a ranking list of surveyed schools, which could be misleading without taking into account other information supplied by schools and local authorities with their PSBP 2 bids.
Teacher Work Loads
5. What recent discussions she has had with teachers associations and unions on teacher work loads. 
The Secretary of State and I engaged with teachers associations and unions in the discussions about teacher work loads, most recently through the work load challenge. I welcome their contribution to the debate, including through the programme of talks at the Department for Education.
The Government’s own figures show that the average primary teacher is working 60 hours a week. Teachers in Bristol tell me that their work load is at an unsustainable level and that the accountability system in particular has reached absurd levels and demonstrates a profound lack of trust in teachers. Teachers are too often unsung heroes, under-appreciated and overworked. When is the Minister going to let them just get on and do their job?
The work load burden on teachers, which has been present for some time in this country, including under the Labour Government, is precisely the reason that we established the work load challenge. The hon. Lady will have seen the comprehensive and detailed plan that we published, which we believe will help over time to drive down the unnecessary work load of teachers.
As a former teacher, may I say that teacher work load really matters? The 10% increase that was shown up in the work load survey, which the Minister published only after being hounded for some considerable time by the Opposition, is contributing to low morale and to a looming teacher training and recruitment crisis. The response from the Government that he mentioned has been roundly rejected by teachers, thousands of whom have taken the trouble to tell Ministers of the negative impact of Government policy on teacher work loads. Do we not need a new beginning for teachers, with a Government who take seriously the impact that work load pressures are having on teacher morale and on children’s learning?
I would gently make two points. First, let us look back at some of what has been said by the teacher unions about the Government’s response. The National Association of Head Teachers said that it believes that
“the proposals for better planning and greater notice of changes are a step in the right direction. They could do a great deal to improve the quality of education”.
Secondly, I do not think the Labour party is in any position to give any lectures about Government communications with teachers. After all, the hon. Gentleman’s boss, the shadow Secretary of State, was recently contacted by one parent teacher group to ask about Labour policy and he replied with eight words:
“Stop moaning. Read the speeches. Do some work.”
That was the Labour party’s response—hardly constructive engagement.
6. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the number of pupils taking up STEM subjects. 
9. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the number of pupils taking up STEM subjects. 
Record numbers of students are taking mathematics and the sciences at A-level—15% more students took physics in 2014 than in 2010. Maths is now the single most popular A-level, with an increase of 13% since 2010, but more needs to be done. We need even more young people to take these subjects at A-level. That is why we are supporting the Your Life campaign headed by Edwina Dunn of Dunnhumby, which aims to increase the numbers taking maths and physics A-level by 50% over the next three years.
When I visit engineering companies in Redditch, I find that one of their main issues is attracting apprenticeships or graduates, especially women. Does my hon. Friend agree that along with the take-up of STEM subjects, we need to encourage students to see that careers in engineering are a great choice for all?
Indeed. We want all young people to have the right careers advice so that they take informed decisions about their future and so that they are aware of all the options available—including, as my hon. Friend said, apprenticeships—and of the advantages that studying maths and the sciences to A-level can bring.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating students from the William Allitt school in my constituency, who have been shortlisted as finalists in the national science and engineering competition, The Big Bang UK young scientists and engineers fair at Birmingham NEC from 11 to 14 March? This is the UK’s biggest celebration of technology, engineering and maths for young people.
I am pleased to add my congratulations to students from the William Allitt school. The national science and engineering competition, which receives £350,000 of funding from the Government, is an excellent example of a positive initiative that helps to promote and to recognise achievement in STEM subjects. I wish my hon. Friend’s constituents every success in the final stage of the competition, and I look forward to attending the Big Bang fair next week.
Recent research found that more than a third of schools in Newcastle do not offer triple science at GCSE. Newcastle has a thriving digital and information and communications technology hub, and a history of fantastic scientific achievement such as the recent mitochondrial breakthrough. What is the Minister doing to make sure that every pupil in Newcastle can access triple science if they have the talent to do so?
I share the hon. Lady’s desire that every school should offer three separate sciences at GCSE; that is very important. That is why the EBacc is such an important measure. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we have seen a 70% increase in the numbers taking those core academic subjects, which are vital to keeping opportunities open for young people.
The Minister says that he wants more young people to be taking maths and science subjects, but does he acknowledge that there is a chronic shortage of teachers applying for STEM subjects? Why has that happened, and what action are the Government taking to reverse this serious problem for young people and for the wider economy?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That is why the Prime Minister recently announced a new £67 million package of measures over the next five years to increase the skills and subject knowledge of 15,000 existing maths and physics teachers and to recruit an additional 2,500 teachers over the course of the next Parliament. As the hon. Gentleman will know, bursaries of up to £25,000 are available to trainee teachers with high degrees in maths and physics. As he will also know, some 17% of teacher trainees now hold a first-class degree and 73% of current trainee teachers hold a 2:1 degree or higher.
The excellent new curriculums for computing and for design and technology can do much to inspire young people to take up STEM subjects, but further to the Minister’s last answer, can he reassure me that we recruit enough teachers to teach these important subjects?
I can provide my hon. Friend with that reassurance. We are offering generous bursaries, including in computer science, to attract the highest quality graduates into teaching.
7. What assessment she has made of which of her Department’s policies since May 2010 has been most successful in achieving its original objectives. 
There have been many outstanding achievements during this Parliament, but I particularly highlight our reforms to raise standards in schools as a key success. This has led to more children than ever before—as I said, almost 1 million pupils—attending a school rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.
We currently have the fastest expanding economy in the western world, which is obviously extremely welcome, but the improvement in standards in our schools has come about because of recruitment of the best possible graduates into the profession. What more can the Government do to ensure that these graduates come into our schools, particularly those in rural and coastal areas?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We now need to see excellent teaching right the way across the system in every school. Every child’s life chances are only as good as the quality of teaching they receive. That is why the Prime Minister recently announced that our manifesto would include a national teaching service to encourage more good teachers to enter the profession and to be represented in all schools right across the country.
Any reputable organisation evaluating its success employs external consultants or impartial people, or at least consults its consumers. When I go round schools in this country, as I do very regularly, I find a devastated landscape. Does the Secretary of State agree? I find unaccountable schools, a top-down culture, a restricted curriculum, and a very low regard for this Secretary of State.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his most charming remarks, but no, I completely disagree about the landscape that he finds. I find excellent schools up and down the country; brilliant, highly qualified teachers working incredibly hard; rigorous academic standards; and a tough but worthy new curriculum that is introducing subjects such as coding and computing, as we have heard. Now our task is to make sure that excellence is spread right the way across the country.
School sport partnerships were scrapped very early on in 2010 and have been replaced with various measures, which I am very pleased to welcome. May I have an assurance that something has now been set, that it will continue and that we can build back to where we were with the excellent partnerships?
The introduction of the sport premium means that we have given substantial funds directly to heads and teachers to spend in their school. The number of sports and the amount of time that pupils are spending on physical activity are going up each week. The Prime Minister has made a commitment to keep that funding until 2020. On a school visit last week, I saw that a fantastic co-ordinator was being employed to get all the young people moving.
In 2010 the Conservative party manifesto promised to
“close the attainment gap between the richest and poorest”,
so can the Secretary of State tell the House whether, over the past two years, since the roll-out of coalition policy, the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their better-off classmates has narrowed or widened?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman, without equivocation, that it has narrowed. The 2014 key stage 4 results show that the gap between disadvantaged and other pupils has narrowed by almost 4% since 2012.
Oh dear, it is yet another reprimand for the Secretary of State from the UK Statistics Authority, because the attainment gap is widening on her watch. According to Teach First,
“things are getting worse for poorer children, instead of better.”
When it comes to education, at the end of this Parliament this Government have failed. There are more unqualified teachers, failing free schools, chaos and confusion in the school system, falling youth apprenticeships, a teacher recruitment crisis, class sizes rocketing and too many pupils taught in schools that are not judged good. Is that not the reason that, come 8 May, we will have a Labour Government ready to clean up this mess, invest in and reform our schools, and offer every child an outstanding education?
It might have helped if the hon. Gentleman could have said any of that with a straight face, but he could not because he knows it is all utter drivel. We see fewer unqualified teachers, more children educated in schools rated good by Ofsted and the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children falling. As we saw with the Labour party’s tuition fee policy announcement last week, Labour’s education policies are a farce, like scenes from “Nuns on the Run”.
Troops to Teachers Programme
8. What assessment she has made of the potential benefits to pupils of the expansion of the Troops to Teachers programme. 
Service leavers have a wealth of skills and experiences that are transferable to classrooms, including teamwork, leadership—[Interruption.]
Order. There is very discordant noise in the Chamber. A very respected Minister, Mr Timpson, is endeavouring to answer a question and I think pupils in the average classroom around the country would behave rather better. I remind the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), in all gentleness and charity, that he is something of an elder statesman in this House and we look to him to set an example to other colleagues.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Anyone would imagine that there is an election on the horizon.
There are 84 trainees on the Troops to Teachers scheme and the expansion of the programme allows even more talented service leavers to make an important contribution to our children’s education.
My Gosport constituency has very strong links to the armed forces, particularly in Navy engineering. Does my hon. Friend agree that schemes such as Troops for Training can only help to spread expertise to students in my area?
I absolutely agree. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently visited Bristol to see for herself the latest cohort being trained, and she was hugely impressed by both their calibre and their commitment. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), I strongly encourage schools in Gosport and elsewhere to contact the university of Brighton to secure a trainee for this September and benefit from the next tranche of Troops to Teachers.
10. What steps she is taking to encourage pupils to study modern languages. 
The new curriculum requires all maintained primary schools to teach a foreign language to pupils from the age of seven. The number of entries for a modern language GCSE has increased by 20% since 2010 due to the introduction of the English baccalaureate performance measure, a major step towards remedying the enormous damage to foreign language teaching in schools caused by the previous Labour Government’s 2004 decision about the curriculum.
“Ya khochu govorit’ svobodno po-russki”, possibly means “I want to speak Russian fluently.” For somebody of my age, it is an ambition I might hope to reach before I die, but youngsters tend to be more adept at learning foreign languages. Could we do more to encourage even more youngsters to learn Russian, Arabic and Mandarin not only to open doors in their minds, but to make their worth even more attractive in the employment market?
Spasibo, Mr Speaker. The number taking Russian GCSE has increased from 1,500 in 2010-11 to about 2,000 in 2013-14. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of languages for the economy, and for learning about other cultures. According to a report by the CBI published in 2014, 65% of businesses say they value foreign language skills, most importantly for building relations with overseas customers.
On the subject of businesses and foreign languages, what work is the Minister doing to get companies more closely involved with secondary schools to make learning foreign languages relevant, and to put the business application and the real-life experience together?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. The careers and enterprise company recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is doing precisely that—inspiring schools and young people to engage with business in considering their future careers. The importance of that has been shown by other surveys. The Economist this week points to a 2012 British Chambers of Commerce survey of 8,000 British companies, reporting that 96% of them had no foreign language speakers. In a country like Britain—an international trading nation—that is a disgrace and something we are working hard to remedy.
Are not our horizons still too limited? With the advent of IT and refinements in distance learning, should not any child in any school be able to learn any language?
I agree with my hon. Friend that that should be possible, and we are doing everything we can to encourage more young people to study a foreign language. The problem is that a decision was taken by the previous Labour Government in 2004 to remove the compulsory nature of taking languages to GCSE, and that has had a devastating effect on the numbers doing so. We have reversed that trend.
11. If she will take steps to promote the establishment of more sixth-form colleges. 
We have supported the creation of new sixth-form schools, such as Exeter Mathematics school, the London Academy of Excellence in Newham and Sir Isaac Newton sixth-form school in Norwich, but we do not currently plan to promote the establishment of more sixth-form colleges.
The Minister will have seen the statistics showing that sixth-form colleges outperform other providers of 16-to-18 education on every measure of academic success and in value for money. Does he not therefore agree that an intelligent Government would seek actively to establish many more sixth-form colleges, instead of allowing their numbers to reduce?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s support for and admiration of the work of sixth-form colleges, which are generally fantastic institutions producing great results, but I disagree with him on this obsession with particular forms and structures. I agree with him that schools that are dedicated to teaching 16 to 19-year-olds in sixth forms do very well, which is why we have supported the creation of so many sixth-form schools, but whether they are schools or colleges is a second-order issue.
I can assure my hon. Friend that in the Sixth Form college in Farnborough we have one of the finest structures in the country. However, sixth-form colleges are facing a challenge because they are eligible for VAT, unlike sixth forms in mainstream schools. Will my hon. Friend do something to remedy that anomaly because it is really having an effect on not only my sixth-form college but many others around the country?
We absolutely recognise this “anomaly”, as my hon. Friend calls it, which also applies to further education colleges. It goes along with other freedoms that schools and academies do not have—sixth-form colleges have the freedom to borrow in a way that academies do not—but we nevertheless recognise that this issue is of concern to a lot of sixth-form colleges, and we are actively discussing ways in which we might ameliorate it. However, to get rid of the problem entirely would cost many tens of millions of pounds, which would require us to identify savings that we cannot find at the moment.
I understand that the Minister, who recognises this “anomaly”, has in his rather amiable way when visiting sixth-form colleges been encouraging some of them to consider going for academy status. When that happens, however, his noble friend Lord Nash says, “This isn’t on mate”. Which is right? Can colleges go for academy status or not?
Lord Nash and I are not only great friends but we agree entirely on this issue. It is legally possible under existing provisions for a college to convert to academy status, but there are issues around how the VAT will be dealt with, and how any debt that it has already amassed will be dealt with on its balance sheet. Those issues are tricky, but we are looking at them.
Successive rounds of cuts to sixth-form and further education colleges are having a devastating effect. One principal of a college in the west country—a college recently judged by Ofsted as outstanding and a beacon college—recently told The Times Educational Supplement that
“cuts have taken us to the edge”,
and added that any further cuts would threaten the services the college offers.
Will the Minister commit to Labour’s pledge to protect the education budget in real terms?
I will not commit to a pledge that is as unfunded as every pledge that Labour has made since 2010. Labour Members think that they will pay for all this out of a tax on bankers’ bonuses that has so far been used about 27 times. There was no money left according to the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and that is because Labour has absolutely no idea how to run a budget.
College of Teaching
12. What support her Department is providing for the establishment of a college of teaching. 
Nothing in schools matters more than good teaching, and we are proud to have so many dedicated professionals in our classrooms. An independent professional body could play a valuable part in raising the status and standards of teaching, and give teachers vital support. Our consultation, “A world-class teaching profession”, outlined our commitment to offer support to those seeking to establish such a body, independent of Government, and we will publish our response to the consultation shortly.
The Government’s offer of funding to help a college start up is welcome, but can the Secretary of State reassure me that it will come with no strings attached so that teachers themselves can drive what the college is, and that she will not seek to impose things such as teacher licensing schemes top-down, before this fledgling college has even left the nest?
If my hon. Friend knows anything about me she will know that I am not in favour of anything that is top-down, and I agree that the proposed body must be established and owned by teachers for teachers. To be successful, a college of teaching must be free from Government control. Our recent consultation made a commitment to offer support—whether financial or otherwise—if that would be helpful, but the independence of the college from Government remains our overriding concern and our support must not compromise that.
Teacher Work Load
14. What steps she is taking to ease teachers’ work loads. 
Reducing unnecessary work load is a priority for this Government. In October 2014, we launched the Workload Challenge, asking teachers for views on how to tackle unnecessary work load. On 6 February, we published our response with a comprehensive programme of action.
Teachers across Bolton West are telling me that they love teaching but are thinking of leaving the profession because they cannot tolerate the work load any longer. Will the Minister set a target for the reduction in work load and limit working hours, rather than just monitoring them?
The risk of that is picking out an arbitrary number, but we are clear that we want to see consequences for the actions we are putting in place, and reduce figures for unnecessary work load. We are commissioning biannual surveys to measure the effectiveness of the policy. I hope that the Labour party will sign up to some of the measures included in the conclusions of the Workload Challenge, including the protocol that would set out minimum lead-in times for significant changes in curriculum qualifications and accountability, which has been very much welcomed by teachers.
15. How many state secondary schools and colleges in England engage alumni to support students. 
We encourage all schools to involve former students in advising young people about career opportunities and the course choices that can lead to them. Future First does excellent work in helping schools to do this.
St Peter’s school in my constituency is in one of the most deprived communities in the country, yet it has produced the current head of performance engineering at the Williams Formula 1 team and the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). Does the Minister agree that such alumni can play a valuable role in raising aspiration in the next generation?
I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely. It is hard to know who I admire more: my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells or the other gentleman he refers to. One of the key tasks of the new careers company being set up by Christine Hodgson is to help every school in the country to have an enterprise adviser, a current or recently retired local executive, who can help the school and the students identify opportunities in the area for their future career.
Sex and Relationship Education
16. If she will ensure that all children receive age-appropriate sex and relationship education. 
Sex and relationship education must be taught in all maintained secondary schools; we believe that most secondary academies and many primary schools also teach it. Any school teaching SRE must have regard to the Secretary of State’s “Sex and Relationship Education Guidance”. The guidance makes it clear that all sex and relationship education should be age-appropriate, and that schools should ensure that young people develop positive values and a moral framework that will guide their decisions, judgments and behaviour.
Will the Minister consider that the ongoing revelations over child sexual exploitation, the explicit content on new technologies widely available to children, and the warnings of the deputy Children’s Commissioner and the Education Committee among others together make an overwhelming case for the urgent introduction of mandatory age-appropriate sex and relationship education, starting at primary school?
We are considering the report of the Education Committee very carefully and will respond to it in due course. We believe that all schools should teach personal, social, health and economic education and, within that, SRE. Indeed, the introduction to the new national curriculum makes that explicitly clear. What is important is not whether PSHE is statutory, but the quality of the teaching. That is our focus, and we are working with the PSHE Association and other expert bodies to ensure that teachers have the best resources to teach these very sensitive issues.
Teacher Recruitment: Armed Forces
18. What progress has been made on attracting former members of the armed forces to become teachers. 
There are currently two cohorts of former service leavers on the Troops to Teachers programme, totalling 84 trainees. The university of Brighton is proactively working with the Department for Education and the Ministry of Defence to promote the expansion of the scheme through a targeted marketing and recruitment campaign, including attendance at recruitment fairs and MOD resettlement centres, as well as promotion through a variety of online and other publications.
Those who served in Her Majesty’s armed forces represent Britain at its very best. Getting these individuals into our schools needs to be a key priority for any Government. Can the Minister supercharge this policy and put rocket boosters under it so that many more troops are turned into teachers?
My hon. Friend’s long-standing support for this policy is extremely gratefully received. He will be pleased to hear there has been a huge interest in the latest cohort, which will take up its training in September this year. It is our intention to do what we can to expand the programme in the future for the very good reasons my hon. Friend has given.
Teach First Scheme
20. If she will encourage and extend the use of the Teach First scheme. 
Teach First has made a real difference to the education and life chances of thousands of children in some of the most disadvantaged areas in our country. Since the Government came to office, we have more than doubled the number of trainees on the programme and spread its reach to every region in the country. For 2015-16, we have expanded the programme again. Funding has been allocated for 2,000 trainees, 33% up on last year. More than 50% of the secondary allocation will focus on priority subjects: maths, science, modern languages, computing, and design and technology.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive answer. On a recent visit to the absolutely splendid Grove academy in Watford, it was brought to my attention that it can be difficult for the school, and for Watford schools in general, to attract staff because 2 miles down the road, with London weighting as it is, people receive £2,500 a year more for the same job. Given that Watford is demographically and occupationally similar to most London suburbs, will the Minister look at London weighting in this respect, so that Watford jobs become more competitive with London jobs next door?
My hon. Friend raised these issues when I visited Watford and a number of schools there recently. The pay reforms we have introduced over the last two years have given schools greater flexibility to decide how much they can pay a teacher and how quickly pay progresses. Our reforms are providing schools with the discretion they need to address any school-level recruitment and retention problems they may have. However, as my hon. Friend also knows, decisions about the definitions of inner and outer London and the London fringe area are ultimately a matter for the independent School Teachers Review Body.
It is good that we have got through all the substantive questions on the Order Paper.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. 
As this is the last Education Question Time of this Parliament, I thank colleagues in all parts of the House for their questions, though I particularly thank all staff and governors at the thousands of schools up and down this country who work so hard every day to prepare our young people for life in modern Britain.
In this Parliament, the Government have established more than 4,200 academies, 255 free schools, 37 studio schools and 37 university technical colleges. More than 100,000 more six-year-olds are able to read because of our focus on phonics, and we have introduced the pupil premium, worth £2.5 billion this year. Our plan for education is working.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but one thing that the Government have not done is introduce a holistic approach to education for life. If we are talking about positive values and life skills, is it not time that first aid training was made a requirement in the school curriculum?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for spotting one of the things that we have not yet achieved in this Parliament. I agree with him that first aid skills are very important, and I was discussing that only this morning with Natasha Jones, who has been named Tesco community mum of the year for setting up a baby resuscitation project. We also welcome the work of expert organisations such as the British Heart Foundation to support schools in this aspect of teaching and we have been working with the Department of Health on helping schools to procure defibrillators at a reduced price.
T7. Today is national secondary offer day, yet 24% of the country’s secondary schools are full or over capacity. Given that this Government have wasted £240 million on free school places in areas without any real need for them, what does the Secretary of State say to parents whose children are being crammed into schools that are over capacity? 
What I say to the hon. Lady, and therefore to anyone who wants to ask questions about this, is that when her party was in government, it stripped 200,000 places at the time of a baby boom and allowed uncontrolled immigration. At the last national offer day—[Interruption.] I suggest that she waits to find out what the offers are this year, but at the last national offer day, 82.5% of pupils were offered a place at the highest preference school and 95.5% were offered a place at one of the top three; and of course, seven out of 10 free schools have been opened in areas of basic need.
T2. Little Fatima at Fonthill school in Southmead made two years’ reading progress in just 16 weeks thanks to the “Read on. Get on” scheme. What support are the Government giving to reading recovery schemes such as this? 
One of the purposes of the phonics check, which we introduced in 2012, is to identify early on those children who are still struggling with the basic reading skill of decoding. We expect schools to focus their resources on helping those children, which is why they retake the check at the end of year 2 to ensure that no child slips through the net. As a result of our policy on reading and the introduction of the phonics check in 2012, 102,000 six-year-olds are today reading more effectively than they would otherwise have done had Labour stayed in office.
Given that two secondary academies in my constituency have recently been judged inadequate by Ofsted—one having previously been judged as outstanding, the other as good—the Secretary of State will understand that many of those parents would like to see her working closely and quickly with those schools to get them back to where they need to be. What action is she going to take to ensure that those children in Stockport and in Tameside receive the life chances they deserve?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that a good education is exactly that: it is all about enhancing the life chances of all the young people at those schools. If he wants to let us have the names of those schools, I am of course happy to follow the issue up with DFE officials and the regional schools commissioner, as well as working with the heads directly.
T3. On that subject, does the Secretary of State agree that improving the links with local businesses and schools is key? Will she therefore welcome the interest that David Nieper Ltd has shown in sponsoring Alfreton Grange arts college? 
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s points, and I would like to congratulate the company he mentioned on its sponsorship. Professional standards of governance in schools are vital, and we want to make sure that governing boards are focused on recruiting people with the skills for the role. People from business have valuable transferable skills and benefit from board-level experience. I want to see more employers encouraging and supporting their staff to volunteer as governors. This is something I have discussed with the CBI.
Why does the Conservative party not value education? Why is the Secretary of State happy to see her budget slashed under any future Tory Government? Why will she not make a commitment, as the Labour party has done, to protecting the education budget in real terms rather than delivering a 10% cut to schools over the next Parliament?
Why will the hon. Gentleman not secure from his party leader a per pupil funding? Under our spending plans, the next Conservative Government will be spending £590 million more on schools than his party will.
T4. All Durham’s secondary schools were rated good or outstanding in 2013, and there was such a surplus of places that one school closed. That school became the home of the Durham free school, and I noticed that the Secretary of State was in Durham confirming its closure just last week. Why does she think her Department allowed this waste of taxpayers’ money, and what lessons has it learned? 
I was pleased to meet some of the parents from the Durham free school, and we discussed various interests. I made it clear to them that my Department operates on the basis of putting the interests of children absolutely first. We will of course look at all the lessons to be learned from the way in which the application was processed and considered in the first place. Nevertheless, 24% of open or free schools have already been judged outstanding by Ofsted, and more have been judged as good. This is a successful programme, but there will inevitably be some issues, and we have taken swift action to deal with problems in this case.
What help can the Minister give to the Archbishop Sumner primary school—a school in my constituency that has been rated outstanding by Ofsted—which has been trying to become a two-form entry school for some years? Lambeth seems to have taken against that idea, despite it not affecting any of the local schools. Will the Secretary of State get involved in this issue?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter with me. I would be happy to take a look. We can take further details, arrange a meeting and work out ways to raise this issue with the local authority. On the basis of previous conversations, I think both she and I want the same thing, which is for all young people to get the best possible education to set them up for life.
We have some of the best schools in the country in my Windsor constituency—and perhaps one or two of them are slightly over-represented here in the House of Commons! I speak, of course, of Windsor Boys’ school. Will the Secretary of State commend Windsor Girls’ school for forming a joint academy status with Windsor Boys’ school?
I add my congratulations to the two schools on becoming academies. On this side, we firmly believe that academy status puts power in the hands of heads and teachers who know how best to serve their pupils and give them the best possible start in life.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all our children should have a full chance of exploiting all their talents in our educational system? If so, why is she cutting further education again when FE is so important to the less privileged in our country? Why has nothing been mentioned in this Question Time about special educational needs or autism or about the fact that so many parents in this country have no chance of help?
The hon. Gentleman raised an important point at the end of his question, but to be honest, I am here to answer the questions, not to ask them. It is up to hon. Members to raise the issues, whether they be about special educational needs, autism, disability or any other topic. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), would answer any such questions brilliantly, as he always does. On FE, I have already explained that this Government have had to take difficult financial decisions as a result of the legacy that we inherited. I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the decision to prioritise spending on early years and on schools for children up to 16 is right because that will be of most benefit to our young people.
T5. We may not have Eton in the Ribble Valley, but all our schools are of an incredibly high standard. To make parental choice effective, we must ensure that parents are not stung when youngsters decide to go past their nearest school to a grammar, a faith-based school or, indeed, a non-faith-based school. They might want to go and learn Russian. Will the Secretary of State ensure that she talks to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government so that we make parental choice effective? 
My hon. Friend has raised this matter before. I know that he has campaigned on it, and that he feels passionately about it. I should be happy to talk to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government. I believe that faith schools play an important role in our education system, and I support them. As my hon. Friend is aware from discussions that we have had, I want to encourage all local authorities to arrange school transport flexibly, creatively and innovatively, and to make the best possible use of any gaps in their existing school bus provision.
I understand that the Minister recently visited Shanghai to look at the education system in China. In this respect, the Chinese are more successful than we are in many ways. What is the key difference that makes China’s socialist state system so much more successful than our system, in terms of classrooms, culture and teaching methods, and what did the Minister learn from that?
In maths, 15-year-olds in Shanghai are three years ahead of 15-year-olds in this country in the programme for international student assessment tables. We look very carefully at international evidence, which is why we sent 71 teachers to Shanghai to study teaching methods there. Now 30 Shanghai teachers are in 20 primary schools in this country, teaching our teachers how to improve their maths teaching. They have a mastery model. Pupils face the front, learn their tables, concentrate for 35 minutes, and use textbooks. We are learning from the best in the world.
Order. I feel sure that there will be a full debate on this matter on one of the long summer evenings that lie ahead of us.
T6. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to maintaining a focus on social justice and rooting for those who do not go to university? Will he reject out of hand a policy that has been described by the New Statesman as “dire”, by Martin Lewis as “financially illiterate”, and by The Times as Labour’s worst policy? Tuition fees cuts amounting to £2.7 billion would subsidise the very richest at a time when we need to do more for the very poorest. 
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. We are taking money from the welfare budget to pay for apprenticeships that will set our young people up in life, while the Labour party is taking money away from pensioners in order to fund a misguided policy on tuition fees. According to the vice-chancellor of my own university, Loughborough, that policy would make 500 people redundant. Which 500 people in Loughborough does the shadow Secretary of State think should be made redundant?
I have had a letter from the head teacher of the excellent Baylis Court secondary school in my constituency, pointing out that the cost of payroll changes involving, for instance, national insurance will be £222,000 next year, without funding. Moreover, the education support grant is to be cut by £53 a head. What difference will that makes to the girls’ learning?
As we have seen during the current Parliament, schools have been able to raise standards at a time of straitened budgets. I have every faith in them. I believe that they will continue to raise their standards, and that all the young people in that school will benefit.
The Secretary of State has been very supportive of the protection of schools against terrorism attacks, and my constituents and I are very grateful for that. Will she update the House on progress in the funding of counter-terrorism measures at independent Jewish schools?
My hon. Friend has raised an extremely important point. I do not want any young people to feel frightened of attending school or of their journey to and from school, and, sadly, that applies particularly to members of the Jewish community at present. I have had discussions with a number of Jewish organisations about the funds that are required and the estimates that they have provided.
Given that 30% of Birmingham’s population are under the age of 15, there are enormous pressures on school places, which will continue. However, there is no correlation between teacher training places and demand in regions where that demand will increase. Will the Secretary of State address the problem, and ensure that the availability of teacher training places matches regional demands?
That is a very interesting point. I shall need to look into exactly how the teacher supply model is calculated each year, but I can tell the hon. Lady that, during the current Parliament, the Government have invested £5 billion to create new school places, and that, because we continue to recognise that there is pressure on the system, we have announced further funding up to 2021.
We were delighted to see the Orchard special school in Newark added to a list of 16 schools in Nottinghamshire to which funding was provided last month for classrooms. Those of us who know the Orchard school believe it may be beyond repair; this school really is in bad condition. Will the Secretary of State agree to review this case and get back to us?
I was delighted last month to be able to announce £6 billion of investment in school buildings for school blocks in the worst condition, but of course, sadly, demand always outstrips supply. If my hon. Friend would like to send me further details, I shall ensure that I or one of the Ministers respond, and perhaps meet him to have a chat about it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that she is against top-down imposition. Will she therefore admit that her predecessor made a huge mistake when he ordered the decoupling of AS and A-levels, and put that right before it is too late?
I like the hon. Gentleman very much indeed, but I am afraid I am going to have to disagree with him on this, because the evidence shows that having linear exams, where students have much longer to study the subject, benefits them as they understand the subject in depth. This is an important reform and I wait to see the progress it makes.
This Government have protected school budgets, yet those at the secondary school in my constituency who wrote to me last week say that they are facing a cut of nearly 3% in their funding next year. Is that a result of the long-standing unfair budget formula, is it because of an imbalance between secondary and primary schools, or is it because of decisions taken by Somerset county council locally?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I suspect that it is a combination of factors, and I am sure that Ministers will be happy to look into this further, but he makes an important point about the need to push on with restoring the national fairer funding formula. Too many areas and too many authorities in this country have suffered from funding falling back over many years. We are making progress—small progress—in this Parliament and we hope to make greater progress in the next Parliament in restoring that fairness.
Counter-Terrorism: Conflict Zones
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the Government’s counter-terrorism policy and implications for individuals travelling to the Iraq/Syria conflict zones.
As the Government have made clear repeatedly, the threat we face from terrorism is grave and is growing. The House will appreciate that I cannot comment on operational matters and individual cases, but the threat level in the United Kingdom, which is set by the independent joint terrorism analysis centre, is at severe. This means that a terrorist attack is highly likely and could occur without warning.
The Government have consistently and emphatically advised against all travel to Syria and parts of Iraq. Anyone who travels to these areas is putting themselves in considerable danger, and the impact that such a decision can have on families and communities can be devastating.
The serious nature of the threat we face is exactly why the Government have been determined to act. We have protected the counter-terrorism policing budget up to and including 2015-16, and increased the budget for the security and intelligence agencies. In addition, we have provided an additional £130 million to strengthen counter-terrorism capabilities and help address the threat from ISIL, and we have taken significant steps to ensure that the police and the security services have the powers and capabilities they need.
Last year, we acted swiftly to protect vital capabilities that allow the police and the security services to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to clarify the law in respect of interception for communications-service providers. This year we have introduced the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. This has provided the police with a power to seize a passport at the border temporarily, during which time they will be able to investigate the individual concerned—and I can confirm that this power has already been used. It has created a temporary exclusion order that allows for the managed return to the UK of a British citizen suspected of involvement in terrorist activity abroad. It has strengthened the existing terrorism prevention and investigation measures regime so that, among other measures, subjects can be made to relocate to another part of the country, and it has enhanced our border security for aviation, maritime and rail travel, with provisions relating to passenger data, no-fly lists, and security and screening measures.
Since its national roll-out in April 2012, more than 2,000 people have been referred to Channel, the Government’s programme for people vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism, many of whom might have gone on to be radicalised or to fight in Syria. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 has now placed Channel on a statutory basis. It has also placed our Prevent work on a statutory basis, which will mean that schools, colleges, universities, prisons, local government and the police will have to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. Already since 2012, local Prevent projects have reached more than 55,000 people and have helped young people and community groups to understand and challenge extremist narratives, including those of ISIL.
In addition to this work, alongside the checks we already conduct on a significant number of passengers who leave the UK, we have committed to reintroducing exit checks, and arrangements to do so will be in place by April 2015. These will extend our ability to identify persons of interest from a security, criminal, immigration or customs perspective. And as the Prime Minister stated last week, the Transport Secretary and I will be working with airlines to put proportionate arrangements in place to ensure that children who are at risk are properly identified and questioned.
The Government are taking robust action, but we have been clear that tackling the extremist threat that we face is not just a job for the Government, the police and the security services; it needs everyone to play their part. It requires educational institutions, social media companies, communities, religious leaders and families to help to protect people vulnerable to radicalisation and to confront this poisonous ideology. If we are to defeat this appalling threat and ideology, we must all work together.
An estimated 600 British citizens have now travelled to join the conflict in Syria, from extremists with a terrorist history to 15-year-old schoolgirls. The whole House will share a revulsion at the barbarism of ISIL, a determination to tackle extremism and strong support for the vital and unsung work of the security services and the police to tackle the threat here and abroad. Members on both sides of the House have also recently supported further legislation to tackle the terrorist threat. However, there are specific areas in which we need answers about Government policies and decisions.
First, we need answers on the handling of a west London network of terror suspects. In 2011, court papers described a network including three individuals relocated on control orders, 10 other named individuals and further unnamed individuals based in west London who were
“involved in the provision of funds and equipment”
to terrorism and the
“facilitation of individuals’ travel from the UK”
to join terrorist-related activity.
The Home Secretary’s decision, against advice, to abolish control orders and cancel relocations was implemented in 2012, meaning that no one could then be relocated, despite the continued police view that relocation was one of the best ways to disrupt terrorist networks. One of those who had been relocated absconded in a London black cab; another associate absconded wearing a burqa. Other men from that west London network have been reported in the media as subsequently leaving for Syria and becoming involved in brutal violence. The Home Secretary has finally restored the relocation powers within the past few weeks. Does she believe that her decision to remove those relocation powers made it easier for that west London network to operate, recruit and send people to Syria? Will she now ask the independent terrorism reviewer or the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider the details of that west London network and to assess whether Government policy made it easier for it to operate and harder for the police and the Security Service to disrupt it?
Secondly, we need to know about the Government’s policy to prevent young people and children from travelling to Syria, in the light of the distressing story of three schoolgirls from east London travelling there. I have not had a reply to my letter to the Home Secretary of last Wednesday, so will she tell us now whether the Government had an agreement in place with the airlines to raise alerts over unaccompanied minors travelling on known Syrian routes? If not, why not? And will she put such an agreement in place now? The girls flew out on Tuesday, but they did not leave Istanbul bus station until late Wednesday. It is reported that the police contacted the London embassy on Wednesday, but when were the Istanbul authorities alerted, and when were checks made at the main airports and train and bus stations in that city?
One pupil from Bethnal Green academy is reported to have left for Syria before Christmas, and it is widely known that recruitment is taking place through friendship groups and social media. What training and support was given to the teachers and parents of other children at Bethnal Green academy to prevent further recruitment, grooming and radicalisation? What community-led Prevent programmes is the Home Office currently supporting in Bethnal Green?
When the Home Secretary came to office and changed policy to end relocation orders and to remove community work from Prevent, she claimed that previous policies had failed to tackle extremism and she promised:
“We will not make the same mistakes”.—[Official Report, 7 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 52.]
We need answers from her now about the mistakes that have been made under this Government, so that we can all work together to strengthen counter-terrorism policy in the face of these serious threats.
The shadow Home Secretary has raised a number of serious issues. She asked about Prevent and on that I have to say to her that she needs to stop using the numbers she likes to quote. She tries to compare Prevent before the election with Prevent after the election, but in 2011 we took the very important decision to split work on integration, which is now the sole responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and Prevent. That was done for very good reasons, and if the right hon. Lady wants to securitise integration work again, I suggest to her that she has not learned from the mistakes made by her Government. I would like her to say, at some stage: whether she supports the changes we have made to Prevent; whether she supports the fact that Prevent now looks at non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism; and whether she supports the changes we have made to make sure that no public money finds its way to extremists, as it did under her Government.
The right hon. Lady made various comments about TPIMs, and has done so outside this Chamber, asking why I did not put certain individuals on TPIMs. I cannot comment on individual cases, but I think she should understand how TPIMs work and how control orders worked. I do not decide to put somebody on a TPIM; the Security Service makes an application to me for permission to put somebody on a TPIM and if it has made a strong enough case, I approve the application. If she thinks that the Home Secretary should be taking operational decisions, I suggest that she should study the history of our constitution.
The right hon. Lady raised the issue of control orders, but, as I have said at this Dispatch Box many times, control orders were being whittled away by the courts—they were not a sustainable system. TPIMs have, in contrast, consistently been upheld by the courts. She mentioned relocation, and, of course, the House has just passed the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which adds relocation to the TPIM regime. I understand that she told the BBC on Sunday:
“I think effectively—
that TPIMs and control orders are—
“the same thing if you bring the relocation powers back”.
That is precisely what we have done.
The right hon. Lady says the power to relocate has not always been there, but what she fails to say is that the cases that have been raised in the media date from the time when control orders and the power of relocation were in place. At no point has anybody from the police or Security Service said to me that if we had the power of relocation we would be able to prevent people from travelling to Syria. Indeed, at the weekend, Helen Ball, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said—and they have said consistently—
“short of locking someone up for 24 hours a day, you can’t eliminate the risk they pose.”
The shadow Home Secretary herself said yesterday about control orders:
“We can’t pretend it’s going to solve all of the problems.”
I agree with her, which is why we consistently look at the powers available to the police and the security services in dealing with this issue. But, as I made absolutely clear in the answer to her question, this is not just a question of government and the powers we give to the police and to the security services; this is about families and communities as well, and we all need to work together to ensure that we can defeat this poisonous ideology.
The Home Secretary should be wary of taking advice from Labour Members on control orders, because under the last four years of their regime seven of the so-called “control order” subjects absconded, in some cases, as we know, to commit jihad abroad. However, will she revisit the issue of using intercept evidence in court, as the best protection of the British public is provided by being able to prosecute, convict and lock up the people who are a threat to the British public?
I agree that the best way of dealing with these people who pose a threat is to prosecute them and lock them up. That view has been shared with the assistant commissioner with responsibility for counter-terrorism. Indeed the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, also made that point. On the question about intercept as evidence, that issue has been looked at on a number of occasions over the years. Most recently, it was considered by a cross-party Privy Council group, which reported some months ago and made it absolutely clear that, in the current situation, it was not appropriate to change the arrangements such that intercept should be used as evidence.
No one is suggesting that there is any range of measures that would completely eliminate the risk of people travelling to Syria and Iraq. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary has certainly not done so. But since the Home Secretary has now reintroduced the power of relocation, does she not accept that removing that power in 2011 was a mistake?
We took the decision that we did in 2011 based on the situation at the time. We have now reviewed the measures that are available and put other measures in place. I repeat what I said earlier, which is that some of the cases that have been quoted in the press go back to a date when control orders with relocation were in place.
Does the Home Secretary agree that it is quite right that when the identity of some brainwashed, narcissistic psychopathic killer is exposed there should be wide media coverage of it? But does she also agree that a degree of self-restraint at some point should be necessary if we are not to build up these bogey men in precisely the way that they intend us to do?
I accept my hon. Friend’s point. Indeed, as others have said, including Helen Ball in her interview yesterday, there are other reasons why restraint should be applied, and they include when there are ongoing investigations and when there may be a risk to life involved.
I am sure that the Home Secretary has heard the anguished pleas of the parents of Shamina, Kadiza and Amira, the three London schoolgirls who have left this country. They left on the Tuesday, but the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey says that the Turkish authorities in Istanbul were not informed until three days later. I accept that the embassy in London may have been alerted, but this is something that should have gone straight to Istanbul. Will she look again at the circumstances so that we know exactly what the facts are, and will she look at a recommendation made by the Home Affairs Committee, which is that police spotters need to be placed in Istanbul, a destination of concern, so that immediate action can be taken if young girls disappear in this way?
I always look with great care at the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee. The Metropolitan police have been absolutely clear about the date and time at which they alerted the Turkish authorities to the girls going missing. There is concern over this matter. Sadly, we have seen, over time, an increasing number of women and girls going to Syria, alongside the men and the younger boys. This is an ongoing matter, which is why Home Office officials have been talking to Turkish airlines about these issues. I will meet the Transport Secretary to see whether further arrangements can be put in place to ensure that we do not see other families facing the same trauma and stress.
We are of course all concerned about radicalisation in the UK and people going to join ISIS, but I urge the Home Secretary not to give way to the authoritarian views of the Labour party as it was wrong on identity cards, wrong on 90-day detention without charge and is wrong now. Will she update the House on what progress she has made on implementing the Anderson recommendations, which are a far more sensible way to resolve this matter?
My hon. Friend will know that we did in fact take on board a number of Anderson’s recommendations in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. David Anderson is carrying out a fuller review for the Government on the question of the threat, the capabilities that are needed and the regulatory framework that needs to be in place to ensure that the police and the security and intelligence agencies have the necessary powers, and I look forward to his report.
If I knew at 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening that three girls had gone to Turkey, why did not the authorities in Istanbul?
The hon. Lady is basing her comments on statements that have been made in Turkey. The Metropolitan police have made it very clear what the position is and when they alerted the Turkish authorities.
May I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)? I find it abhorrent that the media continue to use a photograph of a man who is a murderer, to name him and to give him an identity by giving him a nickname. That will probably reinforce the ideas of those who think that what he is doing is good and that he is some sort of modern Jesse James. I just find it abhorrent that our media continue to use this man’s name.
I will not comment on any individual case when ongoing investigations are taking place, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would not expect me to do so. What I will say is that we are all appalled and shocked at the horrific barbarism that is being shown by ISIL, and we expect that to be reflected in any reporting.
The Home Secretary spends a great deal of time trying to persuade us that there needs to be more surveillance of everyone and that more data need to be collected. Does she not agree that recent cases suggest that the biggest problem is the incapacity of the security services—although it is not their fault—to deal adequately with the data and information that they already possess?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that I am saying that the agencies should have different capabilities. It is right that as people communicate less by telephone and more across the internet, we should update the legislation on access to communications data. This capability is not about looking at the content of any messages that people are exchanging. It is an important capability that has been there for some time and that has proved valuable not just in counter-terrorism cases, but in serious crime cases. I believe that it should be updated and a Conservative Government would certainly do that.
It has been reported in the newspapers that one of the three poor girls was travelling on a false passport. Does that not indicate that there are severe shortcomings in the entry and exit checks by our immigration and nationality department and in the airline checks? Will my right hon. Friend commit a future Conservative Government to a root and branch re-examination of those systems?
Of course, we are reintroducing exit checks. A certain amount of advance passenger information is available from airlines. We are looking at other ports of departure and the information that can be available. As I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, exit checks will be in place in April of this year.
I am not aware that the media have made a hero of the individual who has been mentioned today, but is it not important to make it absolutely clear from this Parliament, not just from the Government, that the person who is responsible for the beheading of kidnapped British citizens should be brought to justice in whatever form is necessary and however long it takes?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we wish to bring to justice the individual who is responsible for the beheading of British hostages. There is an ongoing police investigation into that case and that is why I am not commenting any further on it. However, he is absolutely right that that individual should be brought to justice.
Will my right hon. Friend ignore any opportunistic criticism and continue to meet the difficult challenge of balancing the defence of our values and our security? Will she continue to ensure that our intelligence services and her Department learn from our experiences in this area, so that we continue to be among the best in the world at getting that balance right?
My hon. Friend is right, and of course that is what this Government have done. We have looked at the balance between people’s privacy and liberty and the need for our services to have the appropriate powers and capabilities to keep people safe. I believe that we have struck the right balance, but of course we must continue to consider the issue as matters develop and as the terrorists find new ways of communicating and of carrying out their terrible and horrific attacks. We must be ever vigilant on this matter and that is exactly what the Government have been.
The Home Secretary failed to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) about airlines and airline checks. A number of Members from all parties have been raising this concern for some months; I raised it in relation to constituents of mine who had travelled to Syria, tragically, to fight. Will the Home Secretary explain whether specific arrangements are in place with commercial airlines flying to Turkey and Cyprus, specifically with Turkish airlines?
A number of measures are put in place at our ports for people leaving the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, we are considering what further steps can be taken and, specifically, are having discussions with Turkish airlines.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the comments made by activists from Cage, an organisation that receives charitable funds? What does she make of those comments, and will she take the opportunity to thank and congratulate in this House the security and intelligence services in this country for their excellent and brave work?
To take the latter point first, the shadow Home Secretary made that point and I am happy to do that again, as I have on many occasions in the past and as I did at the weekend. The men and women working for our security services do an excellent job for us. It is challenging work that they are doing unseen and unknown and without general praise precisely because they have to be unseen and unknown. They do an excellent job for us. As for the comments made by Cage, I must say to my hon. Friend in this House that there can be no excuse for the barbarism shown by those operating in the name of ISIL. I condemn anybody who attempts to excuse that barbarism away in the way that has been done by Cage.
May I ask the Home Secretary not to set her face completely against the potential the control orders might still offer? Will she give further thought to helping families to be more resilient, particularly when young members are susceptible to violent extremism? Will she give more support and encouragement to projects such as the JAN Trust, which are very helpful to people in that situation and certainly need to be encouraged?
The comment that has consistently been made about control orders concerns the power of relocation, but as the shadow Home Secretary said yesterday, TPIMs are effectively the same as control orders if we bring the relocation powers back, which we have done. The right hon. Gentleman is right that many good groups up and down the country are providing support for families. I launched a project by Families Against Stress and Trauma—FAST—last summer, which works with those families whose sons and daughters might have tried or might want to travel to Syria. I also commend the work of Inspire and Sara Khan, standing up with Muslim women throughout the UK against the radicalisation of young people.
“World at One” this lunchtime carried a discussion about the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and its effect on radicalisation. Will the Home Secretary take this opportunity to send a clear message to universities about how they can play their part in addressing that?
I am happy to do so. It is absolutely right that we have included universities in the Prevent duty in the Act. Universities should have a duty of care for the welfare of their students. If radicalisation is taking place on their campus, they should be aware of that and willing to deal with it.
I would be grateful if the Home Secretary could answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) about what training and support has been provided to teachers and parents from the Bethnal Green academy since the teenager absconded at Christmastime. When does the Home Secretary expect to release the funds to schools and universities to take part in the Prevent programme?
We are finalising the Prevent guidance that is going out to universities and the other public sector bodies that are involved, and I understand that the police did have discussions with the school that the hon. Lady mentions.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the diligence she has shown in introducing various Prevent programmes to Crawley. Gatwick airport is also in my constituency, so can she say a little more about passenger name record checks for intra-EU flights, not just for those coming from outside the EU?
The whole question of exchanging passenger name records for intra-EU flights is one that I and others have been putting forward in the debate in the European Union arena for some time now. I am pleased to say that other member states have recognised the need for an EU PNR directive. It was one of the issues referred to at the recent European Council meeting. I am clear that any such directive should include the exchange of PNR for intra-EU flights. Failing that, it is open to member states to undertake bilateral agreements to that effect.
Scotland Yard’s budget for monitoring extremism on social media has been cut this year—by how much and why?
Decisions about individual aspects of Scotland Yard’s budget are a matter for the Metropolitan police. Let me be clear that the Government have protected counter-terrorism policing budgets over our period in office, and we have extended that to 2015-16.
Given that many of these terrorists represent a clear and present danger to our country, our national security and the security of individuals, is it not important that we offer our intelligence services more powers, particularly through human rights reform and a communications data Bill, to ensure that we can secure our nation properly?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the impact that human rights legislation has sometimes had, for example on our ability to deport certain individuals who pose a threat to us here in the UK. I am clear that we need to reform our human rights legislation and introduce a communications data Bill, and a Conservative Government after 7 May will do just that.
Why should members of the public trust for one second Ministers whose judgment was so utterly flawed that they thought terrorist suspects should be able to live wherever they want, mix with whoever they like and have access to computers and mobile phones? Is it not a fact that when we introduced relocation powers not a single terrorist suspect absconded, but when the Home Secretary got rid of them, lots of them did? [Interruption.] She can laugh all she likes, but the people out there do not think it is a laughing matter. Last week Lord Carlile said that if one of those people had been subject to a control order, they would not have been able to leave the country.
I am afraid that some of the facts that the hon. Gentleman suggests in his question are inaccurate. Control orders were being whittled away by the courts, as he knows, so we decided to introduce TPIMs. We have now enhanced TPIMs through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, and the ability to introduce a TPIM has remained available to the security services upon request to the Secretary of State.
Yesterday I attended an event in Pendle at which counter-terrorism and security were discussed. It involved the former Pakistani high commissioner, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, the MEP for North West England, Sajjad Karim, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and many more, all of whom reject the idea that the so-called Islamic State has any connection with the true faith of Islam. Does my right hon. Friend agree that dialogue with the vast majority of the law-abiding Muslim community in this country is the best way to avoid radicalisation, rather than stigmatising communities, as Labour’s failed Prevent strategy did?
I absolutely agree. We should make it very clear that the so-called Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state. One of the best ways to prevent radicalisation is for communities themselves to stand up and say that what is being done by terrorists is not being done in their name. I commend those imams and others from Muslim communities across the country who have responded to events such as the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the beheading of hostages and recent terrorist incidents in Europe and elsewhere precisely by saying that it is not in their name and that it is not about Islam; it is about a poisonous ideology.
It should not have to be said that the people who were subject to control orders and those who are now subject to TPIMs are very dangerous people indeed. Does the Home Secretary not recognise that the changes that she instigated in 2011 to counter-terrorism laws, particularly the decision to remove the powers of relocation, did not help? I think she does recognise that, from the fact that she had to reintroduce them three years later. Will she say sorry?
I can only repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have said in answer to a number of questions on this matter from his right hon. and hon. Friends. Of course the background against which we are operating has changed over the past few years. We have taken the decisions that we believe were necessary and appropriate at the time.
It is right that we show compassion and sympathy for the families. It is every parent’s worst nightmare that their children should do as those young girls have done, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the approach of some in the media leaves something to be desired? I am thinking also of the Government’s YouTube videos, which could make more apparent the full horrors of what those young ladies have got themselves into, to try to deter young people like them from going to Iraq and Syria in the future.
My hon. Friend is right. It is important that we make very clear the dangers and the horrors of what can happen when people go to such countries. Even if people are going to Syria with the best of humanitarian intentions, they can find themselves caught up in horrific situations, including with terrorist groups. That message is important. We have consistently been saying to people that they should not be travelling to Syria and Iraq. If they wish to help and support the people of Syria who have been displaced by the actions of the regime in Syria, there are better ways of doing it. That is a message that we will continue to put out.
Returning to the point first made by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) that some of these sick individuals revel in and feel rewarded by high-profile media, does the Home Secretary agree that when young girls like those choose to travel, apart from instances where their identity is needed, perhaps for the public to apprehend them on their route, it would be far better if the media were to report the facts in a more anonymised form, rather than naming those individuals and showing pictures of them time and again?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. A free press is obviously part of what underpins our democracy, but I would expect the media to be responsible in the way in which they deal with such issues in a number of ways. She mentioned the young girls travelling and whether their names should have been revealed. I say to the media that these are important issues. The families in that case are under considerable stress and trauma, suffering as a result of their daughters having gone to Syria, and I expect the media to respect that.
With Heathrow airport in my own patch, exit checks are very important to me. The whole House, including the shadow Home Secretary, has welcomed the improvements made to TPIMs and to other Prevent measures. On relocation, exit checks and the data and communications changes that we need, the Conservative elements of the Government have been pushing hard to put these in place sooner rather than later. To what extent has the Home Secretary been held back by the Liberal Democrats in coalition?
The reintroduction of exit checks was a coalition Government agreement; it was in the coalition Government agreement that we published at the beginning of this Government as one of the measures that we were going to introduce. The draft Communications Data Bill is a different matter. It is a matter of public record that our Liberal Democrat colleagues did not want the introduction of that Bill. That is why we have not been able to do it.
Speaking on the BBC yesterday, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said that the Metropolitan police have always thought that relocation powers were a valuable tool in disrupting terrorist networks. Is the Home Secretary saying that when she relaxed the control order regime, the Metropolitan police never made this clear to her?
When we changed the control orders regime we discussed the matter with the agencies and the police, and they were absolutely clear that the changes we were making did not significantly increase the risk.
I have saved the hon. Gentleman, who is an exquisite delicacy in the House, until last.
With regard to the London schoolgirls going to Syria, is there not a mechanism in place whereby parents can apply for a parental watch on a young person’s passport so that if they undertake an airline ticket purchase or present themselves at the airport, an alarm goes off that the parents need to be contacted because the passport is being used without parental consent?
I know that parents up and down the country who are concerned about the possibility of their children travelling have removed their passports from them so that they are unable to access them in order to travel. In some cases, that has been effective in ensuring that young people do not travel.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will come to the right hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but, to be fair, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) has been present in the Chamber, although he has only just started standing—but that is perfectly proper. Let us hear from him.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; nobody has made the point that I am about to make. Many legitimate people are travelling from these troubled parts of the world, including students from the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, many of whom study at Huddersfield university. Will the Secretary of State assure me that these security measures will ensure that they are still able to travel to our country and enjoy a world-class education at our universities?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The assumption that has appeared to lie behind some of the points that have been made is that there should be security because any young person travelling is a matter of concern, but of course that is not right—there will be people travelling for perfectly legitimate reasons. In relation to travel to Turkey, I think that about 2 million British tourists go to Turkey each summer, so there is significant movement between the United Kingdom and Turkey, and that is an important part of the Turkish economy.
Point of Order
I seek your help, Mr Speaker. I received an e-mail from the Chancellor of the Exchequer engagingly entitled “Constituency courtesy”, which told me that he was proposing to visit my constituency on the following day—Friday—as indeed he duly did. However, this e-mail was sent at 9.17 pm on Thursday night, when I received it. That seems to stretch the concept of courtesy rather a long way. Could we not introduce some sort of training course or refresher course that we can send Ministers and their advisers on so that they have a full understanding of what these courtesies are?
I am bound to say that I think Members would benefit from such a course. I have known the right hon. Gentleman long enough to know that, perhaps unlike a number of colleagues in all parties, his own included, he himself would never be guilty of a discourtesy because he is among the most courteous Members of the House. I think that people ought to observe the spirit and not just the letter of the convention. Many people will feel that it is a discourtesy for him to be notified at such a late stage. I leave colleagues to consider whether that is worthy of somebody who occupies any ministerial office—notably, in this case, the occupant of the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think that people ought to rise to the level of events, if I can put it that way.
[2nd Allotted Day]
Department for Communities and Local Government
Devolution in England
[Relevant Documents: First Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on Devolution in England: the case for local government, HC 503, and the Government response, Cm 8998; and Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2012-13, Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government, HC 656, and the Government response, Cm 8623.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2015, for expenditure by the Department for Communities and Local Government:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £752,206,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 1019,
(2) the resources authorised for use for capital purposes be reduced by £607,860,000 as so set out, and
(3) the sum authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £1,092,985,000 as so set out.—(Damian Hinds.)
It is a great pleasure to introduce this debate on the report of the Communities and Local Government Committee entitled “Devolution in England: the case for local government”—which rather gives away the Committee’s findings and recommendations. I thank Professor Alan Harding from Liverpool university and Sean Nolan, an ex-local authority treasurer, who, as our specialist advisers, helped us through a great deal of technicality in trying to come to terms with the recommendations we made. I also thank Steve Habberley, our Committee specialist, whose hard work and diligence helped us through a very challenging report on which to reach conclusions.
The Committee decided on its inquiry not because of any specific Government legislation, but because of the widespread and welcome interest across all parties in localism, decentralisation and devolution. Despite recent reforms, the reality is that the United Kingdom, particularly England, remains one of the most centralised western democracies in terms of its arrangements both for expenditure and for tax raising, and that is still a matter of concern. Indeed, figures produced by the Mayor of London show that local authorities in London have to get 75% of their funding from central Government. In Tokyo the figure is only 7%, and in Madrid, New York and Berlin it ranges from 25% to 40%. In other words, all those capital cities get more than half their money from locally raised taxes, while in London only a quarter of it comes from such taxes.
The hon. Gentleman is correct about the importance of devolution to cities in England, but the counties make up about 50% of its population and about 85% of its land area. Does he agree that there is a very strong case for devolution to county government, which has a strategic and very strong democratic record?
Absolutely. The essence of our recommendations is that there should be a framework—a pathway—by which all areas of the country could achieve devolved powers. Some will probably go more quickly than others, but there is no reason for there to be a barrier to all areas joining in. That is very much in the spirit of the work of the Local Government Finance Commission, which has just been published by the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. It has slightly different arrangements, although the essence is that, while some authorities will go quicker than others, they will all get there eventually.
I am a firm believer in the decentralisation of power, but does my hon. Friend recognise that decentralisation is not an end in itself and that we need to have accountability alongside it? Does he share my concerns that, under the Greater Manchester proposals, nobody in Greater Manchester other than the council leaders has been asked about what model of decentralisation they would like to see?
We looked at that issue and it is clear that there have to be proper governance arrangements if local authorities are to have not just large amounts of extra spending to control, but greater tax-raising powers, as we also recommend. We looked specifically at the combined authorities, which is the issue my hon. Friend refers to, and we have said that different government arrangements might be suitable in different areas. A directly elected mayor might be appropriate in some areas and a strengthened Public Accounts Committee could scrutinise the work of the executive of the combined authorities. In other areas an indirectly elected mayor might be appropriate, as is the case in Bologna and other places in the world. There are different models available, but no single one is necessarily the right one for every area. We should not say that devolution cannot happen until an area has a particular model of governance in place, but it is clearly right that they should get a proper model in place.
I support the remarks of my fellow Select Committee Chair. We have to make a start, particularly given that our country has been so massively over-centralised in Whitehall. It may be a halting start or it may take different forms, but the letter crafted by the Mayor of London, the leader of Greater Manchester, and by Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Labour members and parish councils that appeared in The Times before Christmas called for devolution at all levels to be comparable—not identical—to that achieved in Scotland. Does my hon. Friend think there is something in the water in England that means that somehow we are incapable of devolving effectively over the long term in England?
That is an interesting question. I do not think there is anything in the water of members of the Communities and Local Government Committee that would prevent that. Members on the two Front Benches probably have slightly different water that affects the way they think on certain issues. I will come back to that in due course.
The right hon. Gentleman on the third Front Bench wants to join in as well.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s commitment on this issue, particularly to the devolution of tax-raising powers. Does he recognise that the accountability problem, which has been raised, is a real one? For example, in the north-east, one party currently has the leadership in every authority, so there is a lack of representation of the minorities, whether Conservative or Liberal Democrat, across the region in bodies holding accountability for what is done with the money.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says and I think the issue of accountability is important, but it can be dealt with in a number of ways. Instinctively, my view is that these things should be decided at a local level, and areas may come to different views about how accountability should be exercised. I do not think that it is up to us to prescribe one model for how that should happen.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
First, I assure—[Interruption.]
Order. We are not having an identity parade, but I think the hon. Gentleman has the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) in mind.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee. When the members of his Committee looked at the big devolution of powers, including that of income tax to Scotland, did they ask themselves how England would settle such issues? Is there not a need for income tax to be settled at England level, just as there is not power in Scotland?
There are two aspects to that intervention. The first is that we did not look at income tax, although we said at the end of the report that, in terms of fiscal devolution, there is a case for considering income tax and VAT further. That is an issue for the future, but we recognise that it has to be addressed. The second issue probably strays into the area of English votes on English laws, which the Committee did not go into, but there is a case for devolution within England to more local areas irrespective of how Parliament addresses the other issue.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important and powerful point. He is right to say that although accountability is critical, we should not get too hung up on issues of party political control. When, as the Minister, I signed off the Greater Manchester combined authority, it struck me that both Conservative-controlled Trafford and Liberal Democrat-led Stockport were able to live within the system that was set up. It is important to get the structure of devolution in place before we worry about other matters.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Indeed, the Committee visited Manchester as part of the inquiry, and it found exactly the arrangements that he has described.
We also went to look at the arrangements in Lyon in France. Interestingly, it has attempted, with the development of the grande métropole, to pull authorities together into almost a combined authority arrangement. It currently has an indirectly elected mayor and it will eventually move to a directly elected mayor, so it will have two different governance arrangements in the same area within a short period. There are therefore clearly alternatives.
The report was agreed unanimously—it is a cross-party report—and it was very much written with the next Parliament in mind. The Government made a response, as they should to a Select Committee report. I would say to the Minister that responses are supposed to be made within eight weeks, not eight months. The response was rather a long time in coming, as though the Government could not quite get their collective view together about what should be done.
It was very good to hear the comment that the
“Government welcomes this report’s contribution to the ongoing public debate on the scope for devolution and decentralisation within England.”
That is welcome, at least as a contribution to the debate, but there were not many welcomes in the Government response to the Select Committee’s specific recommendations. I have obviously also read the briefing from those on the Opposition Front Bench. I would say to both Government and Opposition Front Benchers that they do not seem fully to have bought in to the level of change that the Select Committee has recommended and which I think we need. I am sure we will have an ongoing debate with them both over a period of time.
The report was written before the Scottish referendum, but it anticipated that more taxation and spending powers would be given to Scotland and Wales. Very simply, I think that what is right for Scotland and Wales is right for England, and we followed that very simple rule. The report was also written after the London Finance Commission report, which was supported by the Mayor and the London boroughs, as well as the eight Core Cities. All those bodies and the Local Government Association have welcomed our report. Indeed, the Mayor said that Ministers “could not ignore” the “excellent” findings, as it would
“provide England’s cities with the means, incentives and crucially the stability of funding to deliver much needed jobs, growth and infrastructure”.
The Mayor of London is clearly with us, and he is pushing Ministers a little bit further than they are currently inclined to go.
We have had subsequent reports from the Institute for Public Policy Research, ResPublica, the City Growth Commission, and we now have the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance from the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. All have come to a similar direction of travel on devolution, perhaps with slight differences concerning how it should be done. We came to the conclusion that in England we should not be creating new bodies or regions, for example, and that we should base devolution on local authorities and combinations of local authorities—the Government have at least welcomed that fundamental recommendation.
Why not local authorities? Greater Manchester has a larger gross value added than Wales, and London has a larger GVA than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. Those are large economic entities, and there is no problem about devolving powers to them. We came to the conclusion that devolution was beneficial for growth, a way of delivering better public services that are better related to local need, and a possible way of re-energising the democratic process. People feel that we in Westminster are somewhat out of touch with what happens in their daily lives, and there is more chance of reconnecting politicians and the democratic process with people if decisions are taken at a more local level.
Is my hon. Friend concerned about how the Government have pushed through this undemocratic process in terms of what has happened in Greater Manchester and the NHS, because it seems to be completely at odds with the process of increasing democratic involvement?
I hope that colleagues will discuss with their colleagues in local government in Greater Manchester how that process can be made truly accountable and how social care and health can be joined up—I think that aspiration goes across the House. I have been concerned that the debate could lead to social care being transferred to the health service, and local accountability being lost as part of that process. I therefore welcome what the Government have done to put health commissioning into the arena for local councillors to commission along with social care, as that is an interesting step forward. A lot of detail is required to ensure that that is done properly and with true local accountability, but the principle of putting that measure into the local arena, rather than centralising it to NHS England, is probably correct.
I share my hon. Friend’s views about the benefits of devolution to people and communities, but what is happening in Greater Manchester looks to me like a levelling up of power, not a levelling down. Health and social care is currently rolled together at local level with local accountability, but the deal imposed on Greater Manchester takes those decisions to a regional level, and at worst takes away a national framework. It enables the centre to hold its hands up and say, “It’s not our problem”, and takes away accountability from local people and councillors to make decisions about their local areas.
Without going into the details of Greater Manchester, which I do not know all the aspects of, this seems to be a debate between the combined authority, and the collective of leaders there, and individual local councils about further localisation. In my view, devolution does not simply stop with the transfer of power from central Government to a local authority or combination of authorities; it is about how combined authorities enable devolution within their areas to existing local councils, and how those local councils ensure that devolution goes out of the town hall door and into local communities. We cannot be too prescriptive of those stages in this debate, but I understand the concern about losing national frameworks. The idea that everything in the national health service works similarly across the country is not true. Indeed, the words “postcode lottery” did not come from local government but from the NHS because things have been done differently in different parts of the country. More accountability through mechanisms that will potentially be set up is the way forward. I hear the concerns, but they are a debate for Members to have with their colleagues in councils in Greater Manchester.
The Committee defined fiscal devolution as:
“handing to local authorities the power to raise money through a range of existing and new taxes and charges; some responsibility for setting those taxes; and the facility to borrow.”
We contrasted that with decentralisation transferring powers over service delivery and spending to local authorities. We welcomed these developments, but said that greater control over local spending did not constitute devolution. In that sense, we are disappointed with the Government’s response, which seems to equate fiscal devolution with a desire to raise taxes everywhere. The two are not the same. Fiscal devolution is about making tax-raising decisions at a different level, not necessarily about raising taxes through those decisions. I think the Government missed that point.
I hope the Minister agrees with the Prime Minister, when he said the other day:
“Today’s agreement paves the way for a referendum, that could deliver an assembly that’s not just a spending body but is actually responsible for raising more of its revenue too. And to me that is responsible devolution, that is real devolution and I think that is vital for Wales”.
It is vital, too, for Manchester, London and the other major cities that we are going to devolve powers to. The Prime Minister has made a really important point. It means that those who spend taxpayers’ money must be made more responsible for raising it. That is an absolutely fundamental point. Devolution is not simply about handing money out from the centre and allowing more say in how it is spent at local level. It is about holding local politicians to account not just for spending the money, but raising it in the first place. That is fundamental. If the Government resist that, they will stop the general flow of movement throughout the House and the country that requires genuine devolution that is more than simply decentralisation of spending powers to take place.
My hon. Friend has produced an excellent report. On the relationship between taxes and responsibility, does he agree that one of the problems in Scotland, which has allowed the Scottish National party to have fantasies that it can spend more and more money, is that the Scottish Parliament was set up with the ability to spend money but not to raise taxes? That is the exact opposite of what the plantation people had in north America, where their cry was “No taxation without representation”. In Scotland, we have had representation and tax without taxation, which has been a democratic disaster.
That has been true so far, but the positions in Scotland and in Wales are going to change. They will have more tax-raising powers and will be held to account. Otherwise, we will have a body that simply spends and gives out the largess, but is not held accountable for raising the money in the first place.
The Committee tried to deal with some difficult issues. We recognise that we may not have got absolutely all the details right. We felt, on balance, that there was a very clear case that devolution would encourage greater growth, particularly in cities. That applies to counties as well, but there are very clear figures for cities. Unlike other countries where the GVA of their major cities tends to be above the national average, with the exception of London and Bristol, the GVAs of the major cities in this country are actually below the national average. There is a fundamental problem there. Devolution does not necessarily guarantee more growth, but it removes some of the current restrictions on decisions being taken at a local level that can make growth take place.
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee with whom I served for some time, although I did not take part in this report. One problem of devolution as he describes it, particularly on the issue of GVA in cities, is potentially the buoyancy and predictability of taxation and revenues. I would have thought that if this was done too rapidly and without some sort of mechanism from central Government to iron out fluctuations, there could be some very severe problems.
I was going to come on to equalisation. Some areas have a greater ability to create and get the benefits of growth than others. This was a difficult issue, and we looked at it. I see the former Minister the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) in his place. We thought that what had been done with the business rate retention scheme, or at least the partial retention scheme, was actually quite a good model: a starting point where a certain amount of tax is collected and transferred to a local authority in exchange for the grant that is currently given. The extra receipts that come in through growth would be kept in that area. Some receipts might in future be disproportionate, perhaps because of a very large increase in rateable values that are not directly linked to the efforts of an authority, so there should be a resetting arrangement every so often to take account of that.
We thought that was quite a careful way of doing it. We have probably gone further, in that we recommend that the totality of business rates be kept at local level and there should be a right within a group of authorities, a combined authority or the Greater London authority to set business rates as well—and obviously the element of any increase in the business rate level should not be taken back by central Government. It is a complicated issue, but we thought that the Government had basically got it right in their business rate retention scheme, which could be used as a model for the totality of business rates, or for stamp duty or capital gains tax, bearing in mind the fact that stamp duty is much more a London issue and therefore slightly more complicated. We recommend the idea in principle, but we recognise that it needs to be looked at in the way the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned.
We tried to deal with equalisation. We suggested that an independent body be set up to deal with problems of resetting and other issues where there might be a conflict between central and local government. The Government dismissed that and thought that they could do all those things. We thought it would probably be useful to have a body like the Office for Budget Responsibility in the local government sphere.
In principle, we are recommending that a framework be set out for how more powers could be devolved, with local authorities setting out their governance arrangements, how they will be fiscally responsible and the sort of strategy they have for using any powers that are devolved to them. We recognised that progress would probably be made more quickly in some areas than in others and that initially the GLA and the combined authorities would probably be best placed to take on those powers. We see them very quickly taking on place-based budgets, strategic planning and housing, and the sorts of health arrangements proposed for Greater Manchester—I will be careful to go back to that with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) present. Indeed, the Government intend to introduce primary legislation to allow those sorts of powers to be taken by the combined authorities. We also recommended the devolution of 100% of business rates, setting the multiplier on business rates, stamp duty and capital gains tax, and flexibility with council tax bands as well.
Although all local authorities could go there, we thought there were some changes that could immediately be made to the powers available to all local authorities, including the complete freedom to set council tax. It is quite staggering that the one tax that local authorities have got—the one that is supposedly theirs—is one for which any increase by more than the Secretary of State thinks is appropriate has to be put to a referendum. There is no other tax in this country for which we have to have a referendum to increase it. Those sorts of freedoms could be given straight away. We thought there could be further freedoms by pushing the commissioning of the Work programme down to all local authorities and that controls over fees and charges could be freed up. Why should the Secretary of State fix fees and charges? They should be fixed at a more local level.
My hon. Friend will know that the report from the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which I chair, is tagged to today’s debate. We talk about the democratic aspect of this issue, which may reassure some of our hon. Friends and other hon. Members in the Chamber. Does he accept that although we might get a benign Government who wish to push power away from Whitehall, there may be Governments who want to take it back? Does he accept what I hope is the strong case made by my Committee that there needs to be some entrenchment of the independence and rights of local government? Otherwise, that possibility could come true in time.
Yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend and his Select Committee on the work they have done; indeed, we have worked together on a number of these aspects. He is absolutely right: there ought to be some fundamental commitment to the rights of local authorities to have these devolved powers. The worry is that everyone feels that this is a great thing now, but in five years’ time it could be reversed. There needs to be a degree of certainty about the direction of travel we are moving in.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
This will be the last intervention; then I will conclude.
Once these powers have been devolved, what happens if a local authority started behaving in a mad, mad way? Would national Government have any oversight in that instance, or is there none?
It is possible for a Secretary of State to have reserve powers to intervene in extremis, as indeed the Secretary of State has powers to do now. [Interruption.] I hear a little whisper from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) about what happens when the central Government behave in a completely irresponsible way—who can deal with them? At the local level, the local electorate can take a view.
It might be worth bearing in mind the fact—for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—that even with significantly greater devolution, the local authority would still have to behave within the principles of public law, acting in Wednesbury reasonableness terms, and be subject to judicial review if it behaved wholly irrationally.
I am sure lawyers will not be out of business any time soon on this matter The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In our recommendations on extra borrowing powers as part of a devolution package—including the housing revenue account and using tax increment financing more actively as local authorities have complete control over business rates—we make it clear that all the borrowing has to be done within the prudential borrowing rules. That is absolutely clear.
There is one other major issue: the control total for total managed expenditure that central Government use. The Government have already had to accept that if the Scottish Parliament decides to raise more money and spend it, that has to come outside the total. If Scotland can vary it, there cannot be a total managed expenditure that is absolutely fixed, because it cannot be cut elsewhere to compensate for Scotland’s increase. The principle has been accepted, and the Treasury has to relax more about allowing local authorities to raise money for investment purposes at local level outside the controlled total.
Finally, let us return to what the Prime Minister said about devolution in Wales:
“That means those who spend taxpayers’ money must be more responsible for raising it.”
That is a fundamental point. It is why fiscal devolution, as well as spending devolution, is essential. As the Select Committee said:
“The point has been reached for the Government (and policy makers in other political parties) to make it clear whether they are committed in principle to large-scale and more comprehensive fiscal devolution in England.”
We as a Select Committee are, and we believe that all those on the Front Benches should be, too.
I congratulate the Select Committee on its report and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) as Chairman on his excellent speech introducing it. He is right that there is a consensus between the political parties on the need for, and role of, greater devolution. In my view, that should include devolution of powers not just from central government to local and regional government, but ultimately from local government to communities as well. I shall touch on that in my remarks.
The topical issue in this debate is about the northern powerhouse, the Manchester area and the devolution of powers from central Government to that Greater Manchester authority on matters including economic development and infrastructure, and health and social care. I am sure we will hear more from hon. Members from that region as the debate proceeds. In my region of Kent, however, many people looking at that level of devolution would probably welcome it and like to see it in their area, too.
The Select Committee Chairman rightly highlighted the number of city and county areas in the country that are of comparable size to other devolved areas of government. Kent, for example, has a similar size of population and parliamentary representation as Northern Ireland, which is a clearly defined area. If devolution can be managed in Northern Ireland, I think it can be managed in an English county authority, particularly one with more than 1.5 million people, as well. I would like to see this form of devolution—incorporating the planning of major economic projects, major investments and major infrastructure projects. We can take a county-wide view, lobby the Government for money, plan for the future and have the power to manage more of the investment ourselves and to create our own priorities, particular for transport infrastructure.
The debate about the integration and local management of health and social services also reflects something that many hon. Members would recognise and agree with for their own communities—the fact that greater integration between the management of those two resources is essential. We need to consider the experience of patients either being treated in the health service or receiving social care in their community so that they end up on one single pathway of care that can be managed by different bodies. The more they are integrated and the more their budgets are managed together, the better the results will be.
As we all know from our constituency case work, when a vulnerable person needs urgent and expensive medical care, we know exactly how that should be dealt with and it is often easy to provide for it, whereas when someone needs less expensive intervention at a lower level to support independent living at home, the money may be harder to find. I believe that if we adopted a more strategic approach and viewed such cases alongside each other, we would deliver not only better value for money for the taxpayer but better outcomes for patients.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we also need an England level of decision making when it comes to strategic railways, strategic roads and major health policies? We already have that in Whitehall Departments, but is there not a fundamental injustice if Members of Parliament from other parts of the United Kingdom can vote on such issues when they are England-only issues handled by England Ministers?
I agree that powers and decisions should not be forced on English communities by MPs who are not affected by the outcomes of their votes. However, I think that there is a case for devolution of the kind that we have seen in the Greater Manchester area to large English authorities—county authorities such as Kent county council, for instance—which should be able to take a strategic lead. My right hon. Friend is right about major infrastructure projects. Local enterprise partnership boards, for instance, are often better placed than someone in Whitehall to know which road and which rail network should be made a priority for funding and investment. Local leadership of that kind is greatly to be welcomed.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if all that we do relates to the question of English whipped MP votes for English laws, we may well recreate the worst features of the Whitehall system rather than devolving power to where it can be used more effectively at local levels?
I think that there are two important debates to be had, and that it would not necessarily be helpful for them to become entirely enmeshed. There is a debate to be had about English votes and English laws, which is very important to the settlement for the whole United Kingdom. As one who believes in the Union, I think that we must get that settlement right. We need to look at it again, and we are doing so. There is another debate to be had about the role of devolution to city regions and larger strategic authorities in England, which might cause some regions to look with envy at others and say, “We wish we had some of those more devolved powers.”
In some respects, that debate is more specific. I think that it should be led by city and other local regions, presenting their own proposals, and that there should be an active dialogue in which the presumption is that devolution should and could be possible for those regions. As I said earlier, I think that health and social care should be a priority, alongside economic development and infrastructure. That is why I was particularly pleased by the announcement about Greater Manchester.
Many local authorities are already considering how services can be better integrated, and, in my area of south-east Kent and in Dover, the Kent Health Commission has examined the issue in some detail. GPs in Folkestone and Dover have been working on a pathway of proactive health care enabling more joint decisions to be made by GPs and social services. Such a system often leads to better-quality interventions, better advice for patients, and fewer occasions on which patients are required to go to a major hospital because of a failure in their treatment and care pathway. Obviously that is not only inconvenient for the patient, but a more expensive and often less effective solution. What I am proposing are common-sense reforms.
We should look beyond the city regions to the county areas. We should consider the role that could be played by more strategic authorities in not only receiving powers from central Government but managing the relationships between county and district authorities, and parish councils as well. In Kent we have three tiers of local government, county, district and town parish councils. We often hear the challenging cry, “Who is in charge?” It can be frustrating when so many powers are split between authorities, or it is not clear which is the lead authority.
I think that a degree of simplification and clearer structures under the umbrella of a strategic authority would make sense. We see that in part already with district councils working together to share resources on the environment and waste management and on housing allocation and provision. In east Kent we have seen the East Kent Housing group bringing together different districts and boroughs to work together on common housing strategies. That is a sensible use of resources and will deliver a better quality of service for local residents, and we should see more of it.
Could there also be scope to look at other central Government agencies working with a strategic authority in areas such as Kent? For example, we already have local flood management run in part by the Environment Agency and by the county council. There are also major strategic national projects that are of great significance to my community but on a scale that makes it right for central Government to take the lead. For example, in respect of the completion of the sea defences at Dymchurch on the English channel coast in my constituency, investment that has already been spent and that is currently planned amounts to around £130 million. That is clearly a significant capital investment. Many other schemes are managed routinely by the Environment Agency, the local authority and the local drainage boards. Do we really need three different bodies to manage some of that work? Could it not be better managed by devolving it to a local strategic authority that could oversee some of the work currently done by Government agencies operating within a national framework? Could not such work be done better locally? Those are issues we should look at, too.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that I wanted to look at the scope for devolving powers to communities. We have seen this in a number of areas, such as the devolution, effectively, of the management of schools to academies, so that schools can now manage their own budgets and, indeed, roll them over. That was a significant reform. There are head teachers in my constituency who say that gives them greater certainty in planning for the future, and they are perfectly able to manage their budgets and are doing so very well.
There are other areas of devolved government, too. In Kent there has been a particular success in devolving youth service provision to local communities. That is contracted out. I declare an interest as chair of the Folkestone Youth Project. It receives a budget from the county council, and I believe it delivers a better and more flexible youth service than was delivered before—it is designed around the people who use it and it is not run by the county council. It is not necessary for the county council to run that. It may be responsible and commission and provide the resources, but the communities can design it. We are already seeing that in library provision on a voluntary basis, where villages and parishes are coming up to take over the provision of their local libraries. Often they can design and run that service more effectively than the council could.
My hon. Friend is talking very eloquently about the need to devolve powers to communities. Does he agree that neighbourhood planning represents an opportunity for communities to express their preferences in respect of how they see their communities developing over time?
I agree with my hon. Friend and believe that having a good local plan is the best guarantee a local community has that it can design its future in line with its own aspirations and ambitions. That is a process that councils work on in different ways, but I believe that a strong and robust local plan and good neighbourhood plans are a very important way of designing the services that people want and allocating them as communities want. It is something they should pursue.
I shall not take up any more time as other Members wish to speak, but I just want to reiterate the fact that I think the devolution of power from central Government to English county regions should be considered, as well as for major city regions. The major county regions such as Kent are just as capable of taking on those powers as major city regions. We should also consider creating more strategic authorities that look to centralise powers between districts and borough councils within those strategic authorities. We should look not just at devolving power from the centre but at how those local authorities might work together, and, wherever possible, at devolving further power to the communities themselves. That is the general approach we should follow. I welcome the Select Committee report and the important debate it has started.
Several hon. Members
Order. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) has spoken for approximately 10 minutes, which is just about right in a debate such as this, and fits in with the amount of time available to us. If everybody has the courtesy to speak for approximately 10 minutes, it will not be necessary to impose a formal time limit. I hope we can manage without such a time limit.
I would like to start by disagreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who said in an intervention on the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), that decentralisation was not an aim in itself. If democracy and local democracy is an objective—and I believe it is—then decentralisation is an objective. To allow local people to vote for people to take decisions that affect them directly, and for the people who are elected to raise local taxes to pay for those services, is a clear objective. There is absolutely no guarantee, in any system of national or local democracy, that this will lead to efficient services or economic growth, but at the heart of the matter is the principle that we should be able to vote for the people who take decisions using public money raised through taxes. I therefore believe that that is an objective.
I am not on the Select Committee, but I have read the report and I have been left with two conflicting emotions. First, I found the report depressing, although not because it is not a good report; it is a good report and it goes into a lot of detail. I was elected—as I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East was—to a local authority more than a third of century ago. At that time, local authorities had complete control over the level of the business rate and over their other rates, and they could set levels of expenditure. It is a measure of how far we have moved that we now think it an advance to have a share of the local business rate. That is a depressing thought. On the other hand, I am optimistic about some of the Government’s proposals and some of the activities in our major cities and counties where agreement to devolve powers has been reached. There seems to be a movement to reverse many decades of centralisation.
There is one thought that lies behind a lot of the Government’s thinking and behind the thinking of other Members, even though it might not be expressed. It is that central Government somehow do things better than local government. I have never seen any evidence of that. Let us consider the waste of money on the NHS computer. I do not have the exact figures, but I believe that about £12 billion has been wasted—a mere £12 billion. That would probably be sufficient to fund the Government grants to run Manchester and Birmingham for about a decade, and that is just one example of a failed computer programme. It is extraordinary that central Government can sit there and think that they are more effective than local government. There is no evidence whatever for that.
Thinking slightly cynically, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks that Treasury Ministers and shadow Treasury Ministers are interested in pushing more spending powers down to local level because they think that they can get better value out of that arrangement and that if there is more austerity to come, local government would probably manage it better?
Sometimes that is absolutely true. It is sometimes the objective of central Government to pass on the responsibility for “difficult decisions”, which can often be code for “cuts”.
In the light of the great achievements of cities such as Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle—the cities that this country’s wealth was built on—we have taken that money and power and centralised it. This has led to an increase in the north-south divide. London has such a booming economy because of its geography and because of the City of London, but also because the expenditure in local government has been centralised, and about 90%—we can argue about the final decimal point—of the expenditure on transport has been spent in London and the south-east and not in the other regions. That in itself leads to economic growth. There is also an increased intensity of investment in hospitals and science in the golden triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London.
On that basis, I very much welcomed the statement about the devolution to Manchester, the powerhouse of the north and the combined authorities, which would give control over the skills budget and over transport, allow the re-regulation of buses in Greater Manchester, give control over the housing budget and allow a look at the social care budget, so that local people would take decisions locally. A lot of the criticism, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), is that nobody has been consulted about a mayor for that process, but let us look at what the combined authority was faced with. All those local authorities—Labour, Lib Dem-led and Conservative-controlled—believed that more decisions should be taken locally, which, incidentally, would also lead to more efficient services. The Government’s position is that they are willing to hand over control of that money but that because a lot of those services, particularly transport and skills, are provided at a county level, there should be an elected mayor. One could either recreate the Greater Manchester county council, which used to deal with many of those services, or have an elected mayor, and the Government prefer an elected mayor. The position facing the leaders of the 10 authorities was: do we accept this—and we wanted this kind of thing when I was leader of Manchester city council, a long time ago —accept what is offered by the Government and plug the hole of the democratic deficit, or do we not?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue about the mayor. He says it is a directly elected mayor but, unfortunately, it is not; the mayor that is envisaged will be appointed immediately and will serve until 2017, or possibly 2019, without facing an election. In the meantime £13.5 million-worth of public money has been spent and, according to Ministers, there are currently no plans for public involvement or scrutiny in this process.
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend about that, although we do disagree on other parts of this devolution. The gap between what we have now and an elected mayor is too long. Appointing a mayor is almost a contradiction in terms; mayors should be elected and then they should take the responsibility that the electorate give them, having stood on a manifesto. I would prefer the 10 leaders, who do have an elected mandate, to continue. Having an appointed mayor is a halfway house—a solution that is not really a solution—and it would be better to move earlier to an elected mayor and not have an interim situation. Having made that criticism, I do not think it spoils the whole broth—the essential elements of the decentralisation.
The next part of the decentralisation that seemed to cause some difficulty to some of my hon. Friends, and to some other right hon. and hon. Members, is the devolution of the health budget, so that health and social care can work together in Greater Manchester and deliver better services. When it was announced on the “Today” programme—six days ago, I believe—the presenter said, “This will mean that local councillors will get their grubby hands on the health service.” That represents not only an appalling statement by a supposedly neutral BBC presenter, but an attitude of contempt for local democracy. There is absolutely no guarantee that when locally elected councillors, working with the clinical commissioning groups, get together the service will be better, but the expectation must be that it will be, because when decisions are taken locally, the decisions are usually better. That is not always the case and it is not inevitable, but usually when people of good will try to make things better and they can see the detail on the ground, we get a better service.
I have been fighting the Healthier Together proposals in Greater Manchester, which are all about bringing care for the elderly and the ordinary services together. I have been fighting them not on principle, because the principle of what they are saying is right, but on detail and procedure. In every case, we go back to NHS England. I would much rather discuss my disagreements over detail with people who are elected locally and with local clinicians than with some distant bureaucrat in London. I do not believe that this measure is being imposed; it is being negotiated by properly elected local government leaders. One objection that may be made before a general election—I had better be up front about this—is that Labour councillors should not be sitting down with the devil of a Conservative Chancellor. Well, I think they should. It would be an absurd position if any elected leader of any district or city said, “I will not accept something that I think is good for my area because the person who is proposing it is of a different political colour.”
There are still many details to be decided and some obvious pitfalls. We need to ensure that at least the amount of money that was scheduled to go into the NHS actually goes in and is transferred to Greater Manchester. If that money goes across but there is a deficit, we come back to that most difficult decision—I will finish on this point because I know many Members wish to speak—which is the closure of a hospital. If care for the elderly works in combination with the NHS and many people who should not be in hospital are taken out of hospital, hospitals may have to be reduced in size. If that happens, who would Members like to take that decision: somebody sat in Whitehall or locally elected people who have to face the electorate daily? That is the toughest decision, and I would prefer it to be made by local people, which is why I am pleased to support the proposals for Greater Manchester. I hope that this Government and the next one get more enthusiastic about devolution.
Several hon. Members
Order. I had every confidence that the hon. Gentleman could add 10, get over the hour and get to the right number, but I appreciate that he had a lot to say. Let us try a bit harder for the 10 minutes.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). I agree with his analysis of the right approach to Greater Manchester, but I will come back to that in a moment.
First, let me address the broad thrust of the report, with which I very much agree. It is an excellent report, the Chair of the Select Committee made an excellent speech on it, and I struggled to disagree with anything in it. I hope that all parties will take the report on board.
We have a real opportunity to create a cross-party consensus on this matter. All too often in this House, devolution is spoken of in terms of legislative devolution —of votes for laws and structures. That is critically important, but without significant fiscal devolution, it is effectively meaningless. If we can get around that point, we would have a sensible basis on which to build. We need to recognise that this Government have done a lot already. I congratulate the Secretary of State and his team—I might be seen as being a little biased here—on having reversed what was nearly a 50-year trend of centralism.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that, when he was elected, there was much more control, and that is true. I was first elected to a London borough in 1974—I would like to think that I lied about my age, but I did not. By that stage, power was already being removed, and that had been a process throughout the post-war period. Therefore credit must go to this Government for having reversed that trend so significantly. I am talking here about the power of general competence, removing capping and replacing it with the consultation of residents via a referendum, which is an important step forward, and breaking down ring-fencing. Those are important and significant changes. I particularly welcome the further steps that were taken around devolution to Greater Manchester. I am a little disappointed that one or two Members were carping about the approach.
I am a firm believer in the idea that, from the point of view of local government, the first thing to do is to get the power devolved. For heaven’s sake, do not worry about the detail until the power is devolved. It is the tendency to allow the best to be the enemy of the good that has bedevilled local government in its relations with central Government over the years. It has been all too easy for the civil servant or the Minister, with every respect, to be told, “The local authorities cannot agree among themselves, so it is better that we keep the power centrally.” The same is said to Members of this House. However, if the principle of devolution and the transfer of power and finances is agreed, local authority leaders have the ability, with good will and common sense, to sort out the exact arrangements for themselves. In that respect, the leaders of all parties in Greater Manchester have been markedly more pragmatic than those in this House sometimes show themselves to be through the arguments that they deploy.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, as somebody who is a Member of Parliament in Greater Manchester, that the public might also be involved in the conversation between local authority leaders and the Government that he has talked about?
Local authority leaders are elected via their local authorities. We can talk about the time frame for having a directly elected mayor, but I am afraid that we are again allowing process to get in the way of the principle of fiscal devolution, which is the most important thing. When one looks at local authority systems in other countries where there is significantly more financial devolution, of which France is a very good example, the public participation at elections is significantly higher because people realise that their vote makes a difference. That is the main objective that we should be aiming for.
As a Greater London Member of Parliament, I also welcome the devolution package that was announced by the Chancellor and the Mayor of London. It does not go quite as far as the Greater Manchester package, but it is extremely valuable. It is worth noting that it was a Conservative Mayor and the Labour-led London Councils that agreed, in a pragmatic fashion, on a set of 10 principles for how London local authorities would use the extra devolved powers and the even greater devolved fiscal power that was recommended in the London Finance Commission report, which I hope will be adopted by the next Government—I hope of my complexion—in the next Parliament. Again, the hugely important point to make is that when local government is pragmatic, it delivers better.
The Prime Minister gave me hope in his speech in June. The Financial Times reported him as saying that
“devolving power and money from Whitehall to the cities…is the future. The debate now is about how far and fast it can go.”
I hope that in the next Parliament, we will see a significant increase in the amount of public spending that is devolved. We have made a valuable step, because some 70% of council income is now raised locally. That is a big improvement on where we were. However, council income is not the same as total spend.
That is why the pooling arrangements between health and adult social care in Greater Manchester are an important step forward. Anyone who has served on a top-tier authority, whether it is a county, a unitary, a London borough or a metropolitan district, will know that adult social care is one of the principal cost pressures. The ability to align it more closely with the health service makes obvious sense financially and in terms of better and more effective service delivery. As has been observed, local authorities are often better placed to nuance the delivery arrangements to reflect the needs of the population.
The Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee made a perfectly fair point about where we should go from here. I think that we should start to look at the further devolution of property taxes. That is the most obvious thing to do. We have made a start with the local retention of the increase in the business rate. He was kind enough to make observations about the methodology that was put in place. He was perfectly right that we always envisaged the methodology as being capable of improvement and refinement. It would be easy to increase the locally retained share. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State talked at the Local Government Association conference last year about raising it to the high 80s or 90s. The Prime Minister has spoken in similar terms. Personally, I hope that we will move to make all the additional business rate retained in the next Parliament. We should aim, within not too short a period, to re-localise the whole of the business rate.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case for increased devolution, which is exactly what we heard on the Select Committee. He has been a Minister in the Department, so what does he think are the obstacles within the institutions of government that prevent that devolution from taking place? Why has it not happened before now?
There are two things. One is a practical matter that we must address seriously, which is the need for equalisation arrangements. As the Chairman of the Select Committee fairly said, we have a model already in place that could be adjusted to deal with that. I therefore do not think that we should allow the need for a measure of equalisation to fall in the way of further devolution. The question of risk of local authority failure is sometimes raised, but I think that it is overstated, first because of the public law constraints that are already there and, secondly, because in truth if we believe in devolution we must accept that sometimes, very occasionally, a local authority will fail. That is what democracy is about. Allowing failure as a result of a democratically elected body’s decision, provided there are sensible reserve powers that can be put in place, as the Chairman of the Select Committee properly and sensibly set out, is a sensible way forward. We could easily deal with that.
The final problem is the institutional inertia of a system in which so much has come to this place over the years that initiative at a local level is often stifled. The most talented in politics and business see London and Westminster as the centre of operations rather than driving forward their careers at a local level. In France, it would be perfectly natural for the mayor to be a significant political player. The combined authorities in France referred to by the Chairman of the Select Committee work exceptionally well and have done for some 30 years. They have delivered on social care and on major infrastructure improvements. That is a sensible and pragmatic way forward that can be tweaked to reflect areas and on that basis there is no reason why we cannot also consider similar but not exactly identical arrangements for the shire counties. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) is absolutely right that they are capable of significant devolution too.
This is a most important debate. I am glad that we have had some thoughtful and constructive speeches and it is a good report. This is a piece of work that we must continue in the new Parliament, as we cannot continue with the current set-up. The Government are entitled to congratulations for what has been done so far, and I hope that it is work on which we can build.
I want to speak as a partial and not wildly enthusiastic supporter of the Select Committee’s report and as a very long-standing advocate for devolution. In 1974, with the late Richard Wainwright, I formed the campaign for the north, back in the days of Redcliffe-Maud, beyond recall, in a first example of the Lib-Lab pact. When the Labour Government had the Prescott proposals for regional government, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign for Yorkshire. It was unfortunate that the then Prime Minister, who was more enthusiastic for invading small countries than he was for giving us devolution, so watered down the proposals that they were not worth voting for. In the end, they were duly not voted for in the north-east.
That is my history of campaigning for devolution, but that does not make me enthusiastic about the caution of the Committee’s report or about the proposals for Greater Manchester. They seem to me to be something of a deathbed repentance by a Government who have centralised continuously in a country that is over-centralised already. We must be one of the most over-centralised countries in the world. We are more over-centralised than Monaco or Luxembourg, two capitals without countries. Cobbett’s Great Wen has always drained ability, money and investment away from the rest of this country and concentrated them on London and the prosperous south-east. That process has gone on for far too long. It has been heightened by this Government and needs to be reversed so that the rest of us can have a chance. It might be a mistake to start building the northern powerhouse on the wrong side of the Pennines—the wet side—rather than the hard-working, intelligent and serious side, but I do not begrudge regional devolution to Manchester, because what Manchester thinks today, Yorkshire certainly thought yesterday, and it deserves better than what it has been given.
What is proposed is not really devolution, but another example of Conservative tinkering with local government, which has been going on for so long. Their attitude to local government reform is like the hokey cokey—you put your whole self in, your whole self out, and then you shake it all about. They created the metropolitan counties, then they abolished them, and now they are bringing them back. They created Humberside, then they abolished it, and now they are effectively bringing it back.
What we need is serious thinking—the Select Committee has begun this, but it really needs to be done by both parties and into the next Parliament, when it will become more relevant—about what the framework of devolution should be and what exactly should be devolved. We need to think about what powers should go to local government, because we have to transfer them down from the centre to where the people can handle and control them democratically, because they know their needs far better than Whitehall does. That should be the process of devolution, but this is not it. This is another piece of tinkering, with an elected mayor—an eventually elected mayor, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) pointed out—sitting on top like the fairy on a wedding cake, with inadequate powers and no democratic control. That is not real devolution for Manchester. We have to think seriously about what real devolution is.
What is proposed is a coalition of 12 boroughs with minimal powers and financing and an elected mayor. I do not know whether the £6 billion will be enough to cover the cost of the health service or just enough to distribute blame downward when things go wrong, but certainly the powers and the financing are inadequate. There is no elective democratic accountability, because control is indirect through the coalition of boroughs, and that is not effective control at all.
If what is proposed is devolution at all, it is asymmetric devolution that will end up creating a patchwork of devolution, with different powers all over the country, a kind of one-winged bird that can flap but cannot fly. As other Members have pointed out, it leaves out large areas of the country. For example, the best and most important part—Grimsby—has nothing to gain from it. Huge rural areas such as Lincolnshire and north Yorkshire have nothing to gain from it. They all want more power, but they are outside this new system.
Therefore, we must first ask what we can learn from this Manchester situation for Yorkshire and then ask how we can create a national framework for devolution for those areas that want it. I am not saying that devolution should be forced on people, because it is more important to the north and to Yorkshire than it is to the south, to which all blessings flow anyway, but we must ask what example we can set that other areas will want to follow. What can be the framework for English devolution to turn this unitary state, in which some powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, into one of devolution all round in which Yorkshire can show the way? We could call it “devo-tyke”—I do not see why not, if we can have “devo-Manc”.
On the table at present are proposals for city devolution—city regions for Sheffield and Leeds and a big Newcastle-Tyne-Tees area—plus minimal proposals for Humberside. I would like to see greater Yorkshire as a devolved region. That would include Sheffield, Leeds and both sides of Humberside, because our interests on the south bank lie to the west rather than to the south. They lie with Yorkshire, and we are Yorkshire’s gateway to Europe. Greater Yorkshire would provide a firm, strong base which would be able to take on a variety of powers and functions over which we could have an elected government, which would control those functions for the purposes of the people—in other words, democratic accountability and democratic control—and which should have revenue-raising powers to finance what it wants to do.
A bigger area can take a broader view and be a firmer and more effective base than a smaller, more parochial area. That is the way we should go. The current proposals are a beginning, but no more than a beginning, which we need to follow up and build on in the next Parliament so that power passes from London, to which it has been so remorselessly transferred over the years, to the regions and to the people so that they can control their own destiny. In that way we will get the synergy and energy of democratic control of government functions in the north, where it belongs.
We are debating devolution in England, but if we are to have more devolution in England, we first need devolution to England. We must make sure that there is an English level of decision making for the strategic matters, and English Ministers who can then decide which matters could be properly devolved within their strategic framework.
If we take the case of transport, it is predominantly or wholly an English Department, yet it is treated as if it were a Department of the Union. But our Ministers have no control or influence over the roads of Northern Ireland or Scotland. They deal predominantly with English issues. In the new looser federation that we are going to create in the next Parliament, we need to identify the need for England to have rights and opportunities that equal these powers that the other parts of the country have already gained or will gain in the more generous devolution settlements now being offered to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is a good case for the English Transport Department to devolve some more powers to unitary, county and borough councils in the country. On the issue of railways, for example, we have a very expensive nationalised industry, which decides on the track, the track maintenance, the track investment and the principal train routes and is responsible for the signalling and most of the stations. These are very important issues for local communities. They are massive budgets, but I found it extremely difficult as a local representative to get the ear of Network Rail and to get the right attention paid to the railway line in my area, even though my voters are producing a great deal of tax revenue which is going into Network Rail. A case can be made that there should be more devolved power to counties, boroughs, unitaries and maybe even to MPs over railway budgets, which can have a very important impact on the face of the town, the nature of the countryside and the commuter and freight services available.
We must be careful not to devolve too much. For the roads system, it is right that there is a strategic highway network of motorways and larger trunk roads which is controlled at the England level, masquerading as the Union level, and that those decisions should be properly taken by an English Minister responsible to this House, spending moneys collected in the normal national way and going through the national budgets. I hope that in due course we will have a proper English devolved budget, just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do.
In my area, we have a motorway that is a local road, and the council is responsible for it. It is a very useful and good motorway, but it stops at the boundary with Oxfordshire and Reading. Most of us want it to go over the river and on to more useful places as part of our economic growth and development. We are making a huge contribution in our area, with a lot of extra housing and jobs, and we need more road space, but Oxfordshire will not allow us to put a bridge over the river and take the road on to other parts of our burgeoning area and up towards Oxford. That may be a case where a devolved power should be given back. I think that my unitary borough would be happy to surrender control of the motorway in return for a promise from a Government Minister to finish the job and make the motorway go to other places so that it could take more of our traffic. At the moment, a very large amount of traffic has to go through the neighbouring constituency of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in the small and beautiful village of Sonning, which has a single-track bridge over a beautiful stretch of the river. That takes a massive amount of commuter and freight traffic that ought to go on a motorway-standard bridge, away from a place of such great beauty, but we cannot do that because of the way in which parts of local government relate to one another. Those are two examples: one where we could devolve more once we had the right powers in England, and one where we might want to devolve less to get a better strategic answer at the national level.
The health service is also primarily or wholly an English Department. It is called the Department of Health, but it should really be called the Department of English Health because its Ministers do not run the health service in Scotland, in particular—although in the recent debates on Scottish devolution some people seemed not to understand that and to think that Scotland’s vote would somehow have an impact on their health service when it has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. If we are going to pursue devolution, English Ministers should ask the question that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has asked, and started to answer, in the case of Manchester. If it makes sense for Manchester to have more control over health budgets at local authority level to try to deal with the big border issues between social care and health, it must make sense for other parts of England to have exactly the same type of thing.
All my life in active politics and in government, as a local government Minister and in other roles such as Secretary of State for Wales, I was very conscious that there were always border issues between the UK-wide nationally controlled health service and local government, dealing with social care. Both sides were prone to blame each other. The health service would say, “We could get our costs down and put more people through our hospitals if only local government did a better job on providing care facilities for people who should leave hospital,” and local government would say, “Our budgets have been starved because so much money goes to health, but perhaps that isn’t the right priority, because it is a lot more expensive to keep someone in a hospital bed for a few extra days when they do not need the urgent care any more than it is to provide them with good care in a care home without all the medical staff and additions that you have in a hospital.”
There has always been that problem, and I look forward to seeing the more detailed work and the results of the negotiations, because it would be good if there could be a new solution. Once again, however, we need to make sure that the right things are defined at the England level, because it is still meant to be a national health service, although there are now going to be several different national health services because of Scottish and other devolution. In relation to England, I think that a lot of our voters in England want there to be national standards, a national level of service, national protocols and national agreements, so quite a lot needs to be settled by an English national Minister sitting in the English Health Department. However, we can see whether we can devolve certain things. It would be really good to have a new and novel solution to the cross-border issues between social care and health care.
The third Department that is already clearly an English Department is the Department for Communities and Local Government—the origin of this debate. The Select Committee has produced an interesting report to influence English local government Ministers. They must make sure that they have unrestricted English control over English local government, and I am sure that many of them, in this Government and successor Governments, will be interested in exploring the big issue of how many more things can reasonably be left to councillors and their serving officers to decide. I look forward to there being more things and I have suggested one, namely railways, but we need to be realistic and understand that people also want a national agreed level of service. They also want to know that, when a decision in one place has a consequence on other places, people above the fray of the locality will be making the decisions. Not all the decisions will go downwards; some will have to go upwards.
Above all, we need justice for England. We need English votes for English issues and to make sure that England has a voice and can decide the things that apply only to England.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and his Committee on such an important report and on giving us the opportunity to have what I hope will be a much more thoughtful, detailed and nuanced debate about recent devolution proposals.
I want to reflect in particular on what is happening in my area of Greater Manchester. I am a passionate advocate of real devolution to people, communities and those who serve them. Before I entered Parliament, my experience of almost 10 years working with children and young people in some of the most challenging circumstances told me that we will not deal with the most intractable problems this country faces if we do not move away from a deficit-based model of dealing with people towards an asset-based model. That requires decisions to be taken much closer to people, with greater local accountability and people and their communities in the driving seat on decisions that affect them, their families and their lives.
I particularly welcome some of the decisions that are being devolved to Greater Manchester, including on transport, skills and the Work programme. Such issues are critical to solving our intractable problems. One of the great fallacies is that it is possible to solve local problems at national level. Too often, national policy fails not just because it does not identify the right solutions, but because it does not define the problems properly. That is because those problems differ not just from region to region, but from local area to local area, within constituencies as well as among them.
Devolution gives areas such as mine in Wigan and across Greater Manchester a considerable opportunity to draw on our strengths. It will give us the chance to move away from handing out big block contracts to the small number of private companies that are currently the only ones able to bid and compete for them, and instead to work with the charities and community groups that are the lifeblood of our local area and to draw on the talent throughout regions such as mine.
Given how incredibly centralised this country is, it is incredible that there has been so much local and regional success over the years. A particular example from my own region that springs to mind is when, finally, after years and years of pushing and lobbying, the regional development agency, working in partnership with Government and the media companies, managed to get the BBC to relocate to MediaCity. That has been an absolutely stunning success for many of my constituents and the region. It has brought a completely fresh perspective to the way in which our public debate is conducted, because the guests and presenters now come from a much broader area than a small few miles around the capital.
I am very concerned, however, about what has unfolded in Greater Manchester over recent months. The people of Greater Manchester have been treated with contempt, because they have been cut out of the process. Real devolution is based on the principle of consent, not contempt. My hon. Friend has said that one of the reasons he is so committed to the agenda is that it can re-energise the democratic process. I absolutely agree with him, but the problem in Greater Manchester is that, from the very day the process was leaked to the media and then announced at a press conference, the public have been entirely cut out of the conversation. I want to say, particularly to Ministers, that that cannot be allowed to continue. There is a significant opportunity to bring benefits to areas such as mine and others across the country, but not if the public continue to be cut out of the conversation.
We were denied a referendum about this plan, which came out of the blue, to impose a mayor who will be appointed, not elected, for between two and four years. Cutting the public out of the conversation was not a good start. When the people of the city of Manchester were given a referendum a few years ago, they said that they did not want an elected mayor, although the result was quite close, but my constituents in Wigan have never been asked that question. They may have voted for it, and if we had been given some detail about how the mayor would be held to account, I might even have campaigned and voted for it, but the truth is that we have been cut out of the conversation.
We will continue to be cut out of the conversation because the Government have confirmed to me that not only will the mayor be appointed immediately and rule until 2017, but that the term may be extended until 2019 by the same local authority leaders who negotiated the deal. That reminds me of Tony Benn’s five questions for the powerful, the most important of which are:
“To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”
“If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.”
It is 2015, not 1815: people deserve the right to elect the politicians who wield enormous power over their lives.
I am not confident that the situation is going to get better. In a series of recent written answers, the Minister has confirmed that no thought whatsoever has been given to the ongoing scrutiny by or involvement of the public in these decisions. I had to ring three Departments to get the Greater Manchester health and social care devolution memorandum of understanding”, before the Government realised that it had been published by the first Department I had rung and pointed me to an obscure place on its website to find it. The document says this about April 2015, which is next month:
“Process for establishment of shadow governance arrangements agreed and initiated”.
My question is: by whom and with whom? From the document, it looks as though local authority leaders, clinical commissioning groups and NHS England will make up some kind of shadow governance arrangements, but we do not have any more details, even though it is all supposed to happen in the next four weeks. I must tell the Minister that he should be very concerned about that, given that every hon. Member has referred to the importance of local democracy and accountability. We have 10 local authority leaders and a huge range of appointed officials from CCGs and NHS England, with an appointed mayor, but no room for direct elections for another two to four years.
The consultation by the Department for Communities and Local Government ran for three weeks from the middle of January to the beginning of February. There were 12 responses, of which 10 came from the local authority leaders who negotiated the deal in the first place. I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) that I very much share his concerns about the Healthier Together process: we were both heavily critical of its consultation process, but that sort of public engagement makes Healthier Together look like an absolute dream.
This consultation asked for the impact on communities, but according to the Minister’s own Department, it was not advertised, so there were no responses from the public. The document did not make a single mention of health care or the national health service; yet one week after it closed, we were told via a leak to the Manchester Evening News and then in a press conference that billions of pounds of public funding were being transferred. In the meantime, £13.5 million of public money—our money—has been spent on transforming Manchester town hall to get ready for the new bureaucracy. This is not the way to build power-sharing with people.
Would the hon. Lady agree with all this if the new mayor were directly elected to a quicker timetable?
The right hon. Gentleman has helped me brilliantly to segue into what must happen next. The truth is that for Greater Manchester, this is where we are. We have been handed this model and, as many hon. Members have said, there are opportunities for the region if we can get it right, and it is important that we do not make the same mistakes again. The Government tell us that they are committed to rolling out devolution arrangements around the country, and we must get that right for the people of Greater Manchester. We need clarity about the role of local councillors who currently do not have the tools and resources they need to hold the leadership to account. When we devolve power upwards to combined authority level, the issue becomes even more pressing and critical. The local councillor is the link between people in my constituency on different streets and different communities around Wigan, and decisions that are taken miles away in Manchester town hall. As someone recently said to me in Wigan, “If I can’t hold any of these people to account, it’s the same to me wherever they are sitting.” We need clarity about the role of local councillors, and we must ensure that they have the tools and resources they need to hold power to account.
The memorandum mentions the principle of subsidiarity. I share a commitment to that, but we deserve to know what it means in practice. For example, there are huge benefits to be had from rolling together health and social care, and in my local area in Wigan that is what the local authority and CCGs have been doing because we face a wide variation in health and social care challenges across Greater Manchester. Mine is an older borough that contains lots of people with chronic health conditions and real geographical challenges—we are one of the biggest boroughs in Greater Manchester. The risk is that when we level up those decisions, we end up with serious problems because we ignore pressing issues in different local areas.
We should have, and deserve, direct elections if people are to make decisions that affect our lives, particularly if we are to concentrate power in the hands of one individual. A potential four years before anyone gets a say over who takes those decisions is ridiculous and shows utter contempt. Many people have said that this is not a London-style mayor. They are right, because at the very least the Mayor of London is directly elected and has to account to the Greater London authority, in public, for their decisions. There are no plans in Greater Manchester for similar scrutiny arrangements, which shows a complete and utter lack of respect for the public.
Finally, there is a huge gap around civil society, and I understand why this debate looks like a conversation between national and regional politicians from which the public have been excluded. Charities, community groups—nobody has been spoken to or consulted, and they do not have access to the information and data they need to hold power to account. The risk is that we are replicating the worst features of national Government at regional and sub-regional level.
This is not a binary choice between unaccountable power structures in London and unaccountable power structures in Manchester. We can do so much better than that: real accountability and real challenge in the system; meaningful tools to hold people to account; no more backroom deals; and real power sharing. The people in my region are our best asset. Let us build our public services with them, not without them.
Several hon. Members
Order. Again I implore hon. Members for 10 minutes to mean 10 minutes more than are currently on the clock—it is easy to count.
I will do my best to keep to your time limit, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This has been a welcome and interesting debate, and I repeat the thanks to the Select Committee for its report which contains helpful and useful recommendations. It is always welcome to take part in a debate with my own MP, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), although I was slightly concerned about the number of times that he referred to Yorkshire rather than Lincolnshire.
The Scottish situation has developed with more and more powers being devolved. That is perhaps regrettable in many ways, but we can be thankful that it has spurred on the debate about how we devolve powers in England. Like most of my constituents, I regret the fact that the settlement with Scotland now means Scottish MPs have far too much influence over decisions. I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) in that respect.
There has been considerable devolution under this Government, and my own area has benefited greatly. Like the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, I was present a couple of weeks ago when the Hull and Humber region growth deal was signed. There is no doubt that that is particularly beneficial.
I note that paragraph 15 of the Select Committee report states:
“The power to raise, retain and spend money locally—fiscal devolution—is back on the political agenda. Local government wants more of it.”
I agree on unleashing more and more powers to our cities and towns. I emphasise the word towns: too much rhetoric in recent months has referred to cities. People in towns up and down the country feel somewhat left out. Towns make a major contribution to the national economy, and constant reference to cities has not been helpful.
On the present structures of local government, I am not entirely sure that they are particularly well designed to cope with more powers and responsibilities. In many cases, local government is in fact more efficient than central Government—the squeeze on budgets in recent years has delivered many necessary efficiencies. I was a local councillor for 26 years; 14 of those were on a district council and 12 on a unitary council. I wholly recommend the latter: unitary authorities are vastly superior. We have to recognise that district councils are dying. They are sharing more and more of their powers and responsibilities—joint chief executives, shared officers and shared delivery of services—and we have seriously to ask whether there is a role for the two-tier system in the future. My view is that a move to unitary top-tier authorities, supported by parish councils, is the way forward.
Reference has been made on a number of occasions to combined authorities. I share the misgivings of others that they are not particularly democratically accountable. I have yet to find an elector who has said to me, “I’m not going to vote for so-and-so, because I don’t think their contribution to the combined economic authority has been particularly helpful.” The reality is that we need a figurehead at the head of a unitary authority. I have always been in favour of elected mayors—I stress elected. A clearly identifiable person responsible and directly accountable to the electorate is the best way forward.
The report states:
“Enhanced local democracy offers the best possibility of a step towards addressing the challenges of the wider democratic deficit caused by the over centralisation of England.”
I am not, as I said, entirely convinced that combined authorities are the way forward. The relationship between unitary authorities and parish councils is crucial. Unitary authorities are the best way of creating a clearly identifiable structure that the electorate can identify with. We have all experienced the confusion in the minds of voters about who is responsible for various services. We have to recognise that people identify with their towns or villages and their counties. However, in many cases, counties, such as my own county of Lincolnshire, are geographically too large to cope with one local unitary authority. Authorities with 70, 80, 90 or 100 councillors are far too large. All parties have difficulty recruiting good-quality candidates to be councillors. We need slimmed-down authorities.
In my own area—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred to this—we suffered County Humberside for too long. We were dumped in it against the wishes of just about everyone in the locality, and suffered it for about 20-odd years. I have concerns about its possible re-creation, as we seem to be edging towards that. I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I point out that it is the view of the Labour authority that a combined authority, which I would regard as a stepping stone to a larger unitary authority, should be to the south of the Humber. I think any edging towards the re-creation of Humberside is totally inappropriate. We seem to have an inferiority complex on the south bank about Humberside. The reality, however, is that the strength of the local economies, voluntary organisations and the councils themselves on the south bank are the equal of those on the north bank. Having said that, because of overwhelming public opposition, I do not think that is the way forward.
I urge the Minister to address the issue of perhaps edging towards more unitary authorities with elected mayors, and perhaps even to commit a future Conservative Government to moving in that direction.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on both his speech and his excellent chairmanship of the Communities and Local Government Committee. Wherever he or I end up after the general election, I shall be pleased and privileged to say that I served under his chairmanship. It is something I have learned much from.
Some people dream of becoming a politician because they love the fame and the glamour; some because they picture themselves as the next Gladstone or Churchill; and some, let’s face it, because they quite like the sound of their own voice. But I was different. I came into politics because I want fiscal devolution—that is the reality. It may come as something of a surprise, but it is true. Fiscal devolution sounds like an obscure and impenetrable topic, but for me it speaks to one very simple principle: that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people who are affected by them. Belief in fiscal devolution has therefore always come down to simple faith: faith in local people, faith in local decisions and faith in local elections—and a healthy scepticism of central Government and Whitehall.
It seems that the public share that faith. The Local Government Association asked members of the public who they trusted to make decisions about their local areas: local councillors, MPs or Government Ministers. With apologies to those on the Front Benches, I can reveal that 72% of the public went for their local councillors, 11% for MPs and only 7% for Ministers. I can reassure hon. Members that I do not believe this is a reflection on their competence or integrity. I certainly do not think I have become less trustworthy since I left Blackburn council and took my seat in this place, although some hon. Members may disagree. It is not about personalities at all; it is simply that local people prefer decisions to be taken by their local representatives on the ground, rather than by remote mandarins in the capital. Many of my constituents would not understand why people who could barely point to Rochdale on a map should be taking decisions about their town. It is an understandable frustration. In principle, I want to see decisions made at a local level. The public seem to agree, but all hon. Members know that decision-making powers count for very little when they are not accompanied by control of the purse strings.
I have two young children. Often it is fun to let them make decisions about where we should go or what we should do, but I would never dream of giving them my credit card, because that is where the real power lies. For too long, central Government have treated local government as a wayward child—happy to devolve some powers, but never letting go of the credit card. I can understand that instinct. After all, it is not so long ago that a quarter of the world was quite literally run from this postcode. It must be quite a wrench for civil servants to consider giving up the power they have left. However, just as we left behind the era of empire, we should now abandon the era of the mighty central state.
Despite progress over recent years, the UK remains one of the most centralised countries in the world. Even here in London, our most autonomous city, only 7% of the taxes raised are kept by the Mayor. That compares with 50% in New York and 70% in Tokyo. In fact, the economies that are prospering at the moment, from the USA to Germany, are those with high levels of local and regional devolution. That is a point made in our report, which finds a connection between fiscal devolution and economic growth. Devolution is an idea whose time has come, and it is time that this country joined the modern world.
If devolution is the aim, how do we get there? That is the question, and I believe that the Committee’s report provides a good place to start looking for answers. Hon. Members will be familiar with the recommendations, but I would particularly like to lend my voice to the idea that we need to balance the desire for local authorities to keep as much money as possible with the recognition that money must also be fairly distributed across the whole country. I would also endorse the idea that fiscal devolution should happen within the local government structures that already exist. We do not need an English Parliament, creating yet another layer between people and power.
I do not want to go into detail about which spending powers should be devolved; that is for another time. What I would like to do is try to set out some broad principles. First, the process of devolution should not be uniform. The British state has often seemed obsessed with rigid uniformity, when the opposite is often more appropriate. If we look at Scotland or London, we see that devolution can often be quite messy. Instead of smooth sides, there are often sharp edges, but that is not something we should be too worried about. The mess of devolution breeds the innovation and energy that are the drivers of growth and prosperity. Nor should we be concerned if devolution happens at different rates in different areas.
That brings me to my second major point. With great spending power comes great responsibility. We need to make sure that the governance is in place to cope with new powers. This is something I have real concerns about. The Select Committee has recently seen a number of local authorities regarding serious failings, not least Rotherham council. One has to ask whether we would devolve more power to such an authority, yet there are clearly some local authorities, such as those in Greater Manchester—or Greater Rochdale, as I would prefer to call it—that want and deserve more control. The key will be to make sure that local councils can handle the powers that are devolved to them and that we manage to monitor their performance.
That brings me to the recent issue of devolved NHS spending in Greater Manchester. I should say from the start that I welcome the increased governance being given to the city region through a directly elected mayor, although I understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). Elected mayors are something I have long campaigned for. However, I have a number of reservations regarding the latest announcement. The key to devolution is that the right powers are given to the right level at the right time. I have real questions about both the level of government and the timing.
Devolution on such a scale should be part of a long process and kept separate from party politics. To make such an announcement in the middle of an election campaign seems irresponsible and makes me question the motivation behind the decision. It seems to me that the announcement was designed to show that the Chancellor can appeal to northern cities in a way that some of his colleagues clearly cannot. The decision should not be driven by personalities, but by clear evidence and arguments. This cannot simply be a case of securing the legacy of Howard Bernstein, the chief executive of Manchester council; it must be about much more than that. Finally, I am worried that the decision will mean yet another structural revolution in health provision in Greater Manchester, when what we need is a focus on outcomes. This example goes to show that someone can be committed to devolution, as I am, but also cautious about going too far, too fast.
To conclude, I am sure that there will be disagreement in this House in the coming years about fiscal devolution. People will question individual settlements, powers and decisions; however, I hope our report shows that we can have those disagreements within a framework of consensus about the principle behind it. Personally, I favour a plan that is ambitious but also gradual. I do not want to see huge amounts of power and money thrown at local authorities that are not ready for it. That would not be good for local government or for the principle of devolution. I want to see a pragmatic approach that goes as fast as we dare, but does not overreach what is possible. I am not clear exactly how that will look, but I am comfortable with this unknown. The process needs to be organic, which will mean some confusion at points, but I am clear about what kind of country we will have once we devolve more fiscal powers: a country that is more open, free, democratic and prosperous. That is why we should all back this report.
May I begin by apologising to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Chair of the Committee for missing the start of this debate? I shall read the Chair’s wise remarks in Hansard with intense concentration tomorrow. We have kept to the general rule of estimates day, which is a bit like “Fight Club”: the one thing we do not do on estimates day is mention the estimates, such as the £750 million on the Order Paper, which, like everybody else, I shall ignore.
The devolution we find easiest is devolving trouble—cuts, problems, hard choices. Wherever there is a good story, such as money for school dinners suddenly, we in this place rush to take the credit in one form or another. Behind it all there seems to be no genuinely guiding principle or absolute constitutional demarcation. In effect, we yo-yo between having ring-fenced, dedicated funds and giving direction where we want credit and there is money, and going back in harder times to rolling everything into some incomprehensible formula, when we want to dodge blame for cuts that are in the offing. In other words, we have no principle that we are following. We let councils make big, painful decisions on social care and housing, and then we fiddle around with their bins when we want to. I therefore warm to the idea of a genuine constitutional settlement—or at least a concordat for each Parliament—that lets each level of government know what it is supposed to be doing.
The assumption, shared across the Chamber in this debate, is that local government should try to do more and central Government should try to do less. That means in effect that local government has to have enhanced power and hopefully—and importantly—capacity. Clearly that is not generally the case, because some units are simply far too small, and even big units such as mets and unitaries have to band together to do new and bigger tasks. A solution might be a wholesale local government reorganisation. That is a brave choice that few Governments consider for long, so instead we have devolution on demand. However, we do not quite get it by demanding it; it has to be what the previous Government used to refer to as “earned autonomy”.
In effect, what happens is that central Government lays down some sensible conditions, such as evidence of co-operation, economic independence, officer ability and so on, and occasionally some silly conditions, such as elected mayors. But however central Government lay down those conditions and whatever they are, there are three hitches with the end result. First, it creates a patchwork quilt across the country, which some Members clearly do not think is a problem. Secondly, it leaves some areas completely and utterly orphaned—what, I ask often, will happen to places such as West Lancs, which are not in any city region whatever? Thirdly, it means that the whole issue of fair funding becomes a bigger nightmare and even more imponderable. As the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said, England still loses out at the end of process by comparison with the regions of Scotland and Wales.
There is one unexpected consequence, however, and I want to draw people’s attention to it today. It appears to me that existing local authorities are not best shaped to deliver the new agendas. Their boundaries often have little relationship with economic, transport or strategic priorities. My own borough of Sefton provides quite a good example in that it has hugely different priorities at either end. It has a seaside town at one end and Liverpool’s major dock at the other. The future of one end is bound up with the River Mersey and Liverpool, while the other end looks to the River Ribble and Lancashire.
How can one authority with limited representation on the city region fight for the interests of both? In a sense, it is diluted. Sefton has made a virtue of its oddness, which is down to two town halls, although at one stage it had five. It has often boasted that diversity is its strength. I have constantly pointed out that that did not work particularly well for Yugoslavia. Sefton has had two boundary reviews that have clearly indicated the severe problem here.
I conclude that if there is to be devolution on demand, there must be scope for local government reorganisation on demand, but there has been little scope for that recently. Were a clear case to be made, I think it could be positively helpful. We must have a permissive approach; otherwise, devolution—in the wrong shape and with the wrong organisations—will end up just as unpopular as centralisation.
It is a pleasure to respond to this interesting and constructive debate. In common with other hon. Members, when I am out and about visiting school and community groups, groups of elderly residents and so forth, I am often asked what it is like in Parliament and people share their disdain for how Parliament behaves, particularly at Prime Minister’s Question Time, for example. I regret that members of the public do not so often encounter debates such as this one, in which interesting contributions are made from all sides and a measure of agreement is reached about devolution, along with some significant differences about how to devolve power and how to engage the public in the debate.
The report that has provided much of the focus of today’s debate makes a strong and passionate case for further devolution in England. I found it telling that none of the submissions to the inquiry opposed further devolution. The case for localism in the UK is overwhelming, and the case for further devolution within England—the great unfinished business of Labour’s long-term commitment to devolution across the UK—is overwhelming, too.
The report identifies a shared consensus that we have reached a “high water mark” of powers maintained in Whitehall, and I agree with that assessment. The report identifies three key features through which changes can be made to the way in which local government is funded and to the powers it possesses. I agree with the first recommendation that
“any system of devolution should recognise need while balancing incentives for local areas to build up their economies.”
The debate has provided an interesting airing of the tension in the report between those two aspects, which I commend to anyone looking at how best to grapple with it. I agree, too, that
“power should be devolved to groups of local authorities, covering a recognisable large-scale area, that can demonstrate how they share, and work together as, a functioning economy.”
Thirdly, I agree that
“a strong, locally agreed governance model”
is required, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) strongly suggested.
The report, I think rightly, does not prescribe a particular governance model, unlike this Government who are determined to force metro-mayors on English cities—without, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said, any proper public consultation. In fact, following public consultation some years ago, that very idea was rejected.
We broadly welcome all three proposals. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee, and the other members of the Committee, many of whom have spoken, on their excellent work in producing this report, and indeed on all the excellent work they have done over this Parliament in scrutinising the work of the Department for Communities and Local Government as thoughtful advocates for localism.
I am disappointed that we have had to wait eight months for the Government’s response to this report. Why are we having this incredibly important debate just four weeks before this Parliament dissolves? Could it be that the Government have something to hide? It is noticeable that on the equalisation and redistribution recommendations, the Government response does not refer at all to the importance of having a needs-based element to the funding.
This Government have paid lip service to localism, but the rhetoric has not often matched the reality. Far from feeling empowered by this Government, councils feel emasculated. They have been consistently attacked by the Secretary of State, who vents his opinion on everything from the level of reserves councils should hold to how often the bins should be collected. At the same time, councils have been subjected to the biggest cuts of any part of the public sector, despite being recognised at the beginning of this Parliament as the most efficient part of it.
There is much talk of savings and efficiency, but we know that the reality in many communities around the country is of councils trying to do their very best, but now having to make serious cuts that impact on people’s lives. Core funding reductions in local government are an average real-terms cut of 40%, but the cuts were not spread fairly. Some areas have had huge cuts. Reductions in spending have hit areas with the highest needs hardest, and projections for 2017-18 suggest that by that time there might be a difference in cuts of nearly £1,000 per head between the least and worst-affected communities.
On many occasions we have debated the figures that the Government use to illustrate local government spending power, so I shall not focus too much on them today, other than to say that no one and nobody—not the Local Government Association, not the National Audit Office, not the Select Committee and not the Public Accounts Committee—believes that the Government provide a true reflection of the levels of resource available to local authorities, of the deep unfairness of those cuts and of the challenges that presents. This provides an important context for understanding devolution, but let me say that I think it makes the case for devolution even stronger. We must be thoughtful about how we implement it at a time when councils are under such huge strain.
I cannot agree with the assessment of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) that the districts are dying. I see districts doing incredible work. My own local authority of Corby is doing great things in our local area—building new council houses, backing regeneration and working with me to improve the local labour market by trying to cut bad practice by agencies. Our districts are doing great work, as are all levels of local government, but they are faced with really difficult times.
What councils want, aside from a Government who treat them with respect, is fairer funding, to which Labour is absolutely committed. Councils also want help with longer-term funding settlements, as the report makes clear, so that they can plan ahead. Labour is committed to that, too. Thirdly, they want more devolution of power and funding so that they can work with other public services to get the most out of every pound of public funding.
Does the hon. Gentleman’s party have plans to devolve the right and the duty to raise more revenue by local government? If so, by which taxes and what powers?
I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman wants to tempt me down that path. What I am setting out today is a very radical plan for devolution of £30 billion of funding. Of course we recognise that there is a case for fiscal devolution, and we will allow local authorities and combined authorities to retain 100% of business rates. That is a welcome step forward in fiscal devolution, with which the right hon. Gentleman’s party is yet to catch up.
A Labour Government will introduce a proper recognition of needs into the funding formula—we are committed to that. How can it be right for the 10 poorest authorities to be hit hardest, while some authorities such as Wokingham have seen their budgets increase? The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) will doubtless have different conversations with his local authority, which has benefited from a budget increase, from those of many other hon. Members whose areas have faced huge cuts.
We will take steps to allocate resources much more fairly across local government. Over the medium term, we will give councils greater ability to make long-term plans by introducing multi-year funding settlements. This is supported by local government: we have heard those calls; we support them and we will act. We will devolve power down to local councils and communities—devolving decision making on transport investment and on bus regulation, for example. If those powers are good enough for people in London to exercise at a more local level, they are good enough for the rest of the country.
The public will know that Labour has a strong track-record of devolving power. We passed the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006, and only a future Labour Government will be committed to an English devolution Act that will reverse a century of centralisation. Members have talked about the great early years of some of our cities, which provided pioneering solutions to the problems they faced in the 19th century, but also about how those powers subsequently drifted back to the centre. We intend to reverse that.
Our devolution Act will secure devolution for local communities in England, transferring £30 billion over five years and passing down power and resources for transport, skills, employment support, housing and business support. That is three times as much money as the current Government have said they will devolve in the next Parliament. We will also devolve business rates to city and county regions and combined authorities so that they retain 100% of the additional money that is raised, which constitutes an important fiscal devolution.
The current Government’s talk of devolution relates to limited powers for a small number of larger cities. I agree with those who have called for devolution throughout the country, to all the villages, towns and cities that we represent and that want an opportunity to take more powers and funding so that they can make decisions locally. For all the rhetoric about empowering northern cities, it is worth reminding ourselves that areas such as Liverpool and Manchester—some of the most deprived areas with some of the greatest needs—have faced the biggest cuts in the country. There is nothing empowering or localist about taking with one hand and giving far less back with the other. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan, we need to involve people in this devolution, because they currently feel that decisions are made too far away from them. It is important for communities to be involved as we hand over power and resources.
We will join up commissioning between councils and the NHS through health and wellbeing boards to provide “whole person care” by means of a care budget for people with long-term conditions such as disability and frailty. I shall say something about the Manchester proposals in a moment. We will devolve commissioning for employment and skills so that those services are properly joined up. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said she felt that the public had been cut out of the conversation in her area, and that consent was needed for this devolution. She was absolutely right. We want to ensure that, as authorities come forward and explain how they will work together to take their new powers and make the most of them, they engage the public in that conversation.
I was extremely disappointed when my local county council announced its intention to explore a partnership with two neighbouring county councils. That did not make much sense to me, but I was more worried by the fact that neither the districts nor the public had been engaged. That is no way in which to build public consent for a radical devolution of power.
We have heard from some Members who represent county areas. I agree with their criticism that the Government have no plan for devolution to counties and county regions. They seem to have a blind spot when it comes to huge areas of the country. If we are given the opportunity to change the position, we will do so. We will offer economic devolution to every part of England.
The Government’s announcement that they will devolve the NHS budget to local authorities in Manchester is particularly topical, and many Members have been exercised about it today. After five years of making savage cuts in council budgets and five years of fragmenting and privatising, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has waited until five weeks before the end of the current Parliament to endorse—in many respects—Labour’s plan to integrate the NHS and social care. Moreover, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan and other Members, he has rushed into it without a proper consultation. The Government are really not doing this in the right way.
A key issue on which Members have commented is motive, which is what makes many of them suspicious. A Government who have, for instance, forced the part-privatisation of ambulance services on people in Greater Manchester are not a Government to be trusted with our NHS, and we question their motive when they make an announcement like this just before an election. Local leaders in Greater Manchester—who have worked with this Government and, in the interests of the people whom they serve, will work with the next—have said that they want an opportunity to develop NHS and social care integration. The leader of Manchester county council, for instance, played a big role in Labour’s local government innovation taskforce, which has championed ideas about the proper integration of health and social care.
The people of Greater Manchester want to be able to get on with the job of developing whole person care. However, before any final deal is signed, important questions about the new arrangements need to be answered. For instance, how much money is on offer, and will it be enough? Members have rightly speculated on the possibility that this is another example of the Government’s devolving the axe by handing over any responsibility for ensuring that a proper NHS and social care service can be provided in an area, and allowing local leaders to take the blame when that service does not meet public expectations.
We must all be vigilant in the face of the danger that the Government are trying to devolve an NHS funding crisis that they have themselves created, not least through their cuts in social care. Labour will offer a better deal. We will offer the NHS and councils more money, raised through our new mansion tax That will allow them to build an NHS that starts in people’s homes, looking after them there and ending the culture of 15-minute care visits. There will be money for the extra nurses, GPs, home care workers and midwives whom we need. Rather than creating new bureaucracies—that is a worrying aspect of the new structure—we will move quickly to devolve more power to councils and councillors.
Democratic accountability is very important, and local leaders must be seen to be in the lead, but we must also think about what additional means of holding people to account may work in different parts of the country. We believe that local public accounts committees could provide a way of including civil society. As other Members have said, we want to engage the public directly, but we can also engage them through civil society organisations.
I agree with my hon. Friend that many questions about the deal in Greater Manchester need to be asked and answered, and locally elected Members of Parliament should be involved in that process. Is it not crucial, however, that if we are to join up health and social care, there should be accountability to local elected politicians for the spending of the money? Is that important issue not embedded in the whole process?
I entirely agree. There is an opportunity here. NHS England and the Department of Health at Richmond house are not necessarily providing the strongest form of accountability to the public when things go wrong. Any Labour plan for real devolution will be intended to create a much stronger feeling that those who provide local public services are accountable. That applies especially to our NHS, which we value so much, and which we need to protect from five more years of a Government who want to underfund, break up and privatise it.
Under this Government, people in cities and towns throughout our country are feeling the pain of the longest cost of living crisis in a century. That is why we need a Labour Government to spread power and prosperity across England, so that the economic recovery benefits all working people and not just a wealthy few.
I welcome the debate and the report, and I share the central tenet of the speech that we heard from the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I agree that the role of local government and local leaders must be at the heart of any debate about English devolution.
Many reports have followed the Select Committee’s report. The Government published a Command Paper on the implications of English devolution in December, and we have now published our response to the Committee’s report. One reason for the delay in its publication is the publication of a number of other reports which we thought it appropriate to consider. However, I should have liked our response to be published earlier, and I apologise to members of the Committee for the fact that that was not possible.
I welcome the Committee’s support for the basing of decentralisation and further devolution on existing structures and groups of authorities rather than on a top-down reform of structures. Local areas are best placed to make decisions about joint working and stronger partnership. We will take further steps, which will include encouraging the establishment of combined authorities when they are appropriate.
We have undertaken the biggest ever transfer of powers away from Whitehall through devolution deals, to grow the economy in a balanced way and enable Britain’s cities and communities to be engines for growth. As several Members have pointed out, this is the first Government for a long time to halt the constant move towards centralisation and provide a path back to the empowerment of local people. We have removed centrally imposed regional policy, replacing it with local enterprise partnerships which define their own boundaries and priorities and bring together local business leaders with locally elected leaders. We have given local areas a very substantial share of increases in their local tax base, with areas keeping up to 50% of the increases they deliver in business rates and all council tax plus the new homes bonus, and we have made it clear that we want to go further. The Prime Minister has said a Conservative Government would enable authorities to retain some 66%, and the Secretary of State has said he would like to see 90% retained by 2020.
Where health expenditures and money is being offered to local government and local government representatives, what powers will they have to switch money either out of the health budget into the social care budget or out of the social care budget into the health budget?
As I understand it, the accountability for the spend of that money will remain with the NHS and it will be a negotiated position with the local authority. As has been said, the key thing is that the money associated with social services will be driven and directed by local government, but the idea that local authorities, the NHS and the clinical commissioning group come together and shape the services required for their local people is a major step forward. The better care fund has been a path to some of this, but this step itself is fundamental.
I would like to point out some of the things that we have achieved. We have abolished the inspection regime and targets for councils. That regime was extremely costly and imposed huge burdens on local authorities. We have reduced ring-fencing for councils and have created new community rights, giving local people a greater say in shaping their community. We have enabled more decisions about social housing to be taken locally, making the system fairer and more effective, and we have reformed the planning system to cut red tape and interference from central Government, shifting the focus for local authorities to report to their local communities. Through neighbourhood planning, we have helped local people to play a strong role in shaping the areas in which they live and work and in supporting local development proposals.
We have also taken more ambitious steps through growth deals and recent devolution deals further to incentivise local leadership and growth. Some 28 city deals have been negotiated with the largest and fastest-growing cities and their wider functional economic areas outside of London. We should also recognise that 39 local enterprise partnerships will have £12 billion of local growth funding devolved to them over the next five years, with £6 billion having been agreed under the first wave. They are having a direct impact. They are locally led and locally driven, with local people making choices about where the money should be spent—on better roads and public transport, greater support for local businesses to train young people and enhance skills, faster broadband and more homes.
I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister about the benefit the growth funds are bringing to LEPs, but does he share my desire that there should be more democratic accountability for the spending of all this money?
LEPs are a partnership between the local authorities and the business leaders who sit inside those groups, and it is up to them to negotiate that position and drive out the delivery of those services. I am confident that these emerging relationships—some of them are very strong at the moment; some still have a way to go—are giving a massive return on the limited amount of money we have to spend as a consequence of the economic situation we found ourselves in.
I congratulate the Minister and his Government on the list of the measures to decentralise power that he has read out, but does he accept that any Front Bench may come forward with such a record of achievement in this area which could be imperilled by some future Government, and that the answer is to build in the rights and responsibilities of local government, and to entrench them beyond easy repeal on the whim of some future Government?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good observation about the opportunity for a Government who are not as positive and decentralising as this one to follow another path, but I think that if local authorities are bold and understand what they want and ask for it, we will deliver that for them. I think that once they have been empowered they will be very reluctant to give up those powers.
The Government have built on the success of these approaches relating to enterprise zones and city deals to negotiate devolution settlements with cities. In November the Chancellor announced that Manchester will be taking advantage of greater devolution of powers and shortly will have its own directly elected, city-wide mayor.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I did anticipate that.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I question his use of the term “shortly” to mean two to four years, but I also say to him that if this agenda is genuinely about empowering people across entire city regions, it is important to get the language right. He just talked about cities and about Manchester, but my constituents in Wigan would not recognise that that relates to them. It is important that we get the language right and make sure people understand that this sort of deal could, if we do it right, bring significant benefits to city regions, not just to cities.
I think I got off lightly, because I appreciate that language is important when we are talking about identity. Certainly, the Greater Manchester area has been extremely engaged in this issue for a long time, and I welcome the path it has taken. I just want to correct the point about two to four years. Elections are anticipated in 2017, and we want to see that. Primary legislation needs to be put forward to deliver that. The models for then holding the mayor to account will be debated in this House. There will be an opportunity for every Member who is re-elected to participate in the process, and I am very confident that we will have a democratically held to account mayor driving forward a very extensive range of services, including transport, housing, planning, skills, policing, welfare support and, of course, health.
Other cities have been engaged in this, including Sheffield city region, and there are continuing talks about Leeds. We believe there is scope for decentralising more funds, but the key is making sure that local authorities have an opportunity to grow their own local economy, and we have assisted in that through business rates retention and the new homes bonus.
Select Committee recommendation 49 starts:
“Growth in one area of England does not mean reduced growth elsewhere.”
Frankly, I did not understand the Government’s response to that recommendation. Can the Minister confirm that he agrees with the Select Committee recommendation, and that growth in one area will not mean less borrowing powers or less resources for another part of the country?
That is certainly not my intention. My intention is to see every part of the country grow. The Chancellor has gone out there and supported the northern powerhouse, and we have gone to every corner of this country to make sure that this works. At the end of the day, however, growth will be locally led and individual areas will need to be supported in this process, but many will seize the opportunity to grow their local economies.
We have heard some good contributions from Members and I want to comment on them.
I read out a quote by the Prime Minister, which I presume the Minister agrees with, about proposals for increased fiscal devolution in Wales. So far, he has not talked about fiscal devolution at all. The Prime Minister said:
“That means those who spend taxpayers’ money must be more responsible for raising it. This is devolution with a purpose”.
Does the Minister agree with that in principle, and if so, if it applies to Wales, why does it not apply to Manchester, London or Sheffield?
It applies to England at this moment. We have given local authorities the ability to raise money, to drive their local economies and to build more houses and be rewarded for doing so. The decisions associated with that expenditure are now being taken at local level.
The tone of the debate has been really good, despite one or two glitches in some contributions. On the whole, people realise the enormous power that local government has and the massive contribution that it makes to society and to delivering public services. The report produced by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East recognises that the movement towards more decentralisation and ensuring that people at local level are more accountable is the way forward. That is certainly the desire of this Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) talked about a northern powerhouse, and about his desire to see his county step up and seize the opportunity for more devolved powers. He was right to say that. In contrast, the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) seemed to believe that it was up to central Government to come up with a plan for a local area. It is not about