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Westminster Hall

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2016

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 15 March 2016

[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Engineering Skills: Design and Technology Education

I beg to move,

That this House has considered engineering skills and design and technology education.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I have called this debate because I believe that the future of engineering and design and technology education is central to the challenges facing our economy today. An under-skilled workforce limits a company’s—and, in turn, the country’s—growth prospects. If our labour supply does not match our jobs market, the result is simple: companies will either relocate or, potentially, close. That is a massive threat facing businesses in my constituency and our country.

We must be bold. We cannot just tinker around the edges and hope for the best—not if we want to fulfil the infamous long-term economic plan, support British businesses, boost productivity and give young people a fair shot in life by encouraging them to study subjects that are more likely to lead to employment. The UK is the 11th biggest manufacturer in the world. We are competitive in our ability to research and develop highly specialised technologies. However, to maintain our influence, we must focus on exports and address the UK’s productivity crisis. Since 2013, the UK’s productivity has been stagnating. That is simply unacceptable and needs addressing.

We have a severe shortage of engineers. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the country will need almost 2 million more engineers in the next seven years. I repeat: 2 million. That is a flabbergasting figure. Each week, I visit businesses in my constituency, and time and again the same message is echoed: they are struggling to hire adequately skilled staff. Shockingly, some businesses are considering the possibility of relocating. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills estimates that companies are struggling to fill 43% of their STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—vacancies because of the skills gap.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate about such an important topic. Does she agree that it is not just the commercial sector that is affected? The shortage of skills in the wider economy also has an impact on our military, who train people in STEM subjects; the Royal Navy has one engineer for every two it would like in some sectors, because of private sector companies desperately trying to recruit people with the skills in which it provides training.

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. The shortage of STEM skills is vast across a number of sectors, and we need to face that. In the military, the private sector and the public sector, it is a big problem facing us. Also on that point, there is a problem with the numbers of females and of people from socially deprived backgrounds in STEM. We must try to make the industry much more representative. The number of women in engineering is just 6%. Something needs to be done to address that.

A business in my constituency, Alford Technologies, summed the situation up well in an email to me. It said:

“Engineering is sadly underrated in the UK. Britain needs to do something to raise the profile of engineering, to make it something more people aspire to do. In order to stay at the forefront of the modern, technological world, the Government really needs to invest in encouraging the next generation of great engineers, designers and innovators.”

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. She says that the Government must do more to engage and promote engineering, but does she agree that there is also an important role for businesses to play? They should be getting out there, into primary and secondary schools, promoting their business and showing what they do behind what might appear to be closed doors to families and children, who often do not know what engineering means until it is too late.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I will touch on in a minute. I completely agree: the link between business, companies and education needs to be aligned much better. There is a big stigma and misconception about this sector, and the only way in which we can myth-bust is by introducing young people to real people in the industry, who will tell them what life is like in the job.

Does my hon. Friend accept that businesses are already doing a great deal in this area? In my constituency, Marshall does a great job of inspiring young people to go into engineering and aerospace, and yesterday I met representatives of TWI, a company just outside my constituency, which is doing the same. However, businesses need to do more and they need to do it at an early stage if they are to inspire young people at the ages of six, seven and eight to get involved in engineering.

Yes. I thank my hon. and learned Friend. Again, I will touch on that point in a minute, but I totally agree. The problem is that there is inconsistency. A number of businesses and schools in my constituency are also doing an excellent job, but not every school is offering the same link with businesses and not every business is engaging as much as it could be.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend; she is being intervened on a lot by hon. Friends, and I am sure that we are all providing her with excellent advice—I hope she will take it in that spirit.

I am the co-chair of the all-party group on design and innovation, so I have an interest in this area. Will my hon. Friend comment on the link that there should be between the sectors that she is talking about and education? We recently had a meeting with the Minister to discuss whether this subject could be included in the English baccalaureate. I understand the reluctance about that, but will my hon. Friend comment on the relationship with education generally?

The main thrust of my speech is about the EBacc, so I will leave that point and my hon. Friend can eagerly anticipate what I will say in a few moments.

Linking education with business can be done in a variety of ways. The most important way is to get businesses into schools to talk to children face to face. Only a certain amount of information can be had from books and the media, and if we continue to perpetuate stereotypes, we will not get anywhere. That is the reality.

To go back to my speech, we must support businesses such as Alford. We must inspire the next generation of thinkers and create an innovation-hungry economy. Britain needs more businesses making more things, designing more things, inventing more things and exporting more things. We must recognise that engineering and manufacturing are an important part—indeed, a vital part—of Britain’s economic future.

What is the answer to all these problems? We need to improve our careers education system, starting at primary school age. Studies show that from age six children rule out careers. That is just perpetuating the stereotyping and the reluctance of girls to enter this industry. We need to strengthen further the links with local businesses and to increase the emphasis that we place on local labour market intelligence, so that we inform our young people about local opportunities and the best career choices and options are available to them.

I am extremely grateful to my fellow Wiltshire MP from my home town of Chippenham for initiating this debate. Does she concur that one of the great opportunities in Wiltshire is provided by QinetiQ? That company provides thousands of apprenticeships in science and technology, and there is its initiative with the 5% Club to target high investment in apprenticeships, so that local people in Wiltshire can see the opportunities for apprenticeships in science and technology at age 18 locally. That is a good start on the journey that my hon. Friend will take us on this morning.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is right. I know at first hand the work that that company is doing in Wiltshire, especially in the area of apprenticeships, which is vital for our economy and for giving young people the opportunity to experience these industries from a younger age. We need to run more schemes like that.

I believe that we need to go further and measure schools on destination reporting—reporting on what careers young people go into—so that we can better measure what is happening. However, this is really all quite simple. To make our economy more productive, we need to make our education system more productive. To put it another way, we need to wake up to the fact that we need to align the business sector and the education sector and ensure that they are working much more to support each other.

The Government have already done quite a lot in this area, and I do not want to overlook that. They have recognised the need to focus on STEM with initiatives such as STEMNET, providing £6.3 million a year to run a number of programmes. That includes more than 28,000 STEM ambassadors. The Big Bang Fair is another initiative that I have seen at first hand in Wiltshire, and Wiltshire College is doing an excellent job of celebrating STEM for young people in the UK. There is also the “Your Life” campaign, which is increasing the number of pupils taking on A-level physics and maths.

University technology colleges are another fantastic way to address the STEM shortage, and I am delighted that more than 55 UTCs will be open by 2017, catering for more than 33,000 students. A number of other initiatives focus on further education and university education, of which the most important is the removal of the cap on university places for STEM subjects. Those are all great initiatives, but we still face a huge skills gap that is threatening our economy.

I believe that the answer to addressing the skills gap lies in the new design and technology GCSE course. For too long, design, technology and engineering subjects have been misunderstood, stigmatised and stereotyped, which is quite ironic given that the skills shortage means that we are in dire need of encouraging more young people to pursue those careers. It is also ironic given that all those subjects give students the best shot at getting highly valued, highly paid jobs, and given the UK’s productivity crisis. Those in the know—business leaders—see design and technology as an essential part of the UK’s remaining a global leader in product design. If we are to plug the ever-growing skills gap and address our rather shameful productivity crisis, we must listen to business and act urgently.

Education is the key to addressing the skills shortage, and design and technology is a key part of that. Entries for the D and T GCSE have declined by 18% since 2010—a decline that, at 26% over the five-year period, is even more dramatic among girls. In addition, the recruitment of D and T teachers has hit an all-time low. Since 2010, their number has fallen by 2,300, and the number of teaching hours has fallen by 16%.

The Government are rightly pushing ahead on ensuring that education is vigorous and gives students the core skills they need for the workplace. It is vital that the Ebacc remains purely academic, ensuring that students leave education with the skills that they need to get on in life. I fully support that. However, the push towards the Ebacc in its current form threatens to undermine any progress being made to address the stigma associated with technology and engineering. I would like the vastly improved D and T GCSE to be included as an option of the science element of the Ebacc. There is huge support for that within the business community and the teaching community—not just in my constituency and not just in Wiltshire, but across the country. They are crying out for this change, and something needs to be done.

Figures vary, but estimates suggest that there are about 54,000 vacancies for the 1,200 graduate engineers each year. That is a brake on business and a drag on the economy. Let me be clear: I am asking not for a U-turn in the policy, but for a minor change to strengthen, improve and safeguard the Ebacc given the scientific and academic nature of the new D and T GCSE. There will be no outcry from vocational subject pressure groups, such as art, music and religious education, as that is a totally different debate.

There is a precedent for the change in the example of computer science. In recognition of the changing economy, the former information and communications technology qualification was revamped as computer science to cater for the economic need for computer programmers and the shortfall in the digital industries. Yet the skills shortages in design, manufacturing and engineering are far vaster, so surely the case is much more pressing.

Without a technology and engineering element to the Ebacc, young people do not have the opportunity to taste those subjects and thus gain a greater insight into those careers. Yes, they can do the core subjects such as maths and science, which can lead them on to a university place or an apprenticeship in such fields, but why would they do that if they had never actually tasted D and T and had no real concept of what it means? In fact, they will not, as the evidence shows us. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of A-level entries for D and T fell by more than 24%, which indicates that the decline in the GCSE is having a further impact that is knocking on through the STEM pipeline.

The Government are committed to 3 million new apprenticeship schemes. Ensuring that D and T is part of the Ebacc will help towards that goal. A taster in a technical course will encourage people to go on to do a technical apprenticeship. I encourage the Minister to utilise the same foresight used with computer science by introducing the newly improved and very scientific D and T course as part of the Ebacc. Doing so would add to the image and value of the subject, and send out a message that D and T and engineering are science subjects that are core to the curriculum. After all, is not one of the key purposes of our education system to create the workforce of tomorrow?

Progress 8, in theory, measures students’ progress across eight subjects: English; maths; three other Ebacc subjects, which can be science, computer science, geography, history or languages; and three further subjects, which can be from a range of the Ebacc subjects or any other highly approved art, academic or vocational qualification. However, many schools—schools are telling me this—are pushing their students towards the academic subjects. Many students are taking more than the expected minimum of five subjects, resulting in D and T being squeezed into a single or double option box to compete with the likes of photography or dance for a single place among the students’ options. It would be tragic for the new, academically rigorous D and T GCSE still to be sidelined after all the work, time and money that has been invested in it.

Some will argue that the Ebacc is only five subjects from a GCSE programme of nine, but that does not really show an understanding of the situation we face. D and T is being marginalised. The brightest students overlook it because they do not perceive it as a scientific subject and because it does not have that Ebacc accreditation.

As a result of the hard work and commitment of the Minister, the James Dyson Foundation and the business community, the content of the new course, which will be launched in September 2017, is highly scientific and a vast improvement on the previous qualification. It encourages the innovation and creativity needed to boost UK productivity, and it is worthy of Ebacc status. The Minister has made some very good points, describing the new GCSE as “gold-standard”, and said:

“This is a rigorous qualification which will require students to have a sound grasp of maths and science, and which will undoubtedly stretch them to further develop the kind of knowledge and skills so sought after by employers and universities.”

Well, I agree. D and T is the only subject in which students put their maths and physics knowledge to a practical test. It is the only subject that gives a window into engineering careers, and it is the obvious pipeline for engineering talent. That view is shared by Sir James Dyson; Dr Rhys Morgan, director of education at the Royal Academy of Engineering; Paul Jackson, the chief executive officer of EngineeringUK; the Design and Technology Association; and hundreds of businesses that have contacted me in the past few weeks. We must listen to the experts and take action. Including the course within the Ebacc would help to challenge perceptions of the subject, and boost recruitment and take-up. There is a 57% recruitment shortfall in trainee D and T teachers, who are concerned over the subject’s future and status.

There are a number of other ways in which we can encourage young people to take engineering and D and T to safeguard the subject and their futures, and I do not deny that I have only really touched on one way today. I am sure that colleagues will go into further depth on other areas. I have focused on including the new D and T course within the Ebacc because I believe that it is crucial and very doable. The simple change is what business and the economy need. It would highlight that the Government understand the need to align the education system much more with the economy and to give our young the best opportunity in life.

We have a chance to include a new, robust and rigorous D and T course within the Ebacc as a science element, just as was done with computer science, to combat any negative perceptions and recognise the needs of the industry. It is unacceptable, at a time when we have such severe engineering shortages and a growing productivity crisis, that we are prioritising only the S and M, and not the T and E, of STEM. What is the point of all the programmes we have to encourage young people to consider a career in the sector if we are going to say that the new science-based D and T course is actually not really science? That is what this categorisation means—that it is not actually science—and it sends out the message that the subject is not important to the STEM agenda.

In conclusion, if we are to remain at the forefront of global product design, we must take action. Bolstering the D and T GCSE by its inclusion in the Ebacc is an important step to addressing the skills shortage, safeguarding the future of the subject, and supporting skills and businesses. As I said to the Prime Minister last month, the skills shortage is a ticking time bomb, and I urge the Minister to act now.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for setting the scene so well on a subject that is of interest to us all. It is nice to see the Minister here, too. I look forward to his contribution. I also look forward to the speech of the shadow Minister. He and I celebrated Leicester City’s win against Newcastle last night as we march on to premier league success, so we have more reasons for smiling this morning than we normally do. As a Leicester City supporter of some 46 years, I must say that we have been through hard times, so it is good to enjoy the good times, too. I digress; we are here to discuss an important issue.

I have spoken on this issue many times in the House, and I have tabled questions and early-day motions. The need for MPs—and Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as it is a devolved matter—to push for engineering skills and design and technology education has never been more important. When I first became a Member of Parliament in 2010, our unemployment rate was 5.4%; it is now down to 3.9%. To give credit where it is due, that is due to the Government’s economic policy and to our Ministers in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who have collectively encouraged job creation. In proportion to our size, job creation in Northern Ireland has matched job creation in south-east England.

Job creation in Northern Ireland is important, but we need a skilled workforce and young people coming through to take advantage of the many good jobs that have been created. The country needs to look to the future and produce a workforce that will allow the jobs of the future to come to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and be part of a resurging manufacturing sector in the high-skilled economy that we are trying to create. We in Northern Ireland are keen to benefit from that, and we have seen some benefits. We have seen economic growth in the Province, with more jobs than ever, but the jobs that have come have too often not offered the quality career that aspiring young people want and need. The jobs of the future will be located in the STEM sectors of our economy, which can make a real contribution towards establishing a more balanced economy across the whole country and producing a more sustainable economy in a volatile global market.

We have to respond to the market. Of course, many people would say that the market is uncertain, as the Chancellor seems to be indicating—we will probably know more about that after tomorrow’s Budget—which raises concern for the future. One reason why our economy was exposed during the recession was the lack of manufacturing jobs. We need to focus more on manufacturing. We cannot let all the manufacturing jobs go outside the United Kingdom. We cannot let other countries take advantage of lower workforce costs. We have to retain as much of our manufacturing base as we can.

When we talk about manufacturing jobs, of course, we have to take account of the fact that manufacturing is part of a global market, and it is near impossible to bring production line manufacturing jobs back to the United Kingdom. Simply, nations across the globe are undercutting us to such an extent that we would have to abolish the minimum wage even to try to compete, and we are not going to do that. We are going in the opposition direction, and the Prime Minister and the Government have committed to introducing the living wage, which is a welcome development. With that in mind, we must seek to bring in high-end manufacturing jobs—the jobs of the future of which I spoke—which require a highly skilled workforce. Such a workforce can only be achieved by investing properly in this field of education, and in apprenticeships, so that we can be globally competitive once again.

We debated International Women’s Day last Tuesday, and a notable achievement of the push for STEM education in schools is that more than 40% of ambassadors in the STEM ambassador programme are women. In last night’s debate on Commonwealth Day, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) said that women were in very high places across the United Kingdom, as they should be. It was once a male-dominated industry with a male-dominated ethos and environment, but real change is now happening in the STEM sectors, and careers are open to all. I am encouraged by what the Northern Irish Minister for Employment and Learning, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Northern Ireland Assembly are doing. We have created a lot of apprenticeships for young people across the gender base. Many young girls are now taking up engineering as a job. The wage structure is such that new starters earn £30,000 to £35,000. Some people tell me that that is not a great wage, but it is a terrific wage for Northern Ireland. Such wages provide opportunity and keep our skill base at home. We want to see more of that.

I sit on the board of governors of Glastry College in my Strangford constituency. At our meeting last Thursday, the careers teacher had an opportunity to indicate some of the things that she was doing to ensure that young people at the school, and particularly young girls, saw engineering and the STEM industries as an opportunity. How do we do that? It is not just about the jobs; it is about pointing people in the right direction and bringing those two things together. In her introduction, the hon. Member for Chippenham mentioned “designer technology”—I wrote it down. That is what we need. We need to get our young people looking towards where those jobs are, which is important to me.

Shorts Bombardier has announced the bad news of job layoffs, but we are hopeful that that will make the company leaner, although maybe not meaner, and therefore more cost-effective, which will be a base from which the manufacturing base can hopefully bounce back. Last Thursday, the Minister for Skills announced more help for apprenticeships across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are all going to benefit—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England—and perhaps the Minister for Schools will comment on that. I know that it is not his Department, but there are great opportunities to do more.

Indeed, there have been commendable efforts and STEM initiatives, particularly in schools. We need to ensure that those initiatives translate into results and that there are real returns on our investment. The Government have invested some £15 million, and we need results not just for the sake of the economy but for our young people who need to grow up with the security of a top-class career and wage so that they can cement their position here in the United Kingdom.

Despite those efforts, results have been disappointing, and I have some statistics. GCSE entries for design and technology declined by 18% between 2011 and 2014-15. The decline has been even more pronounced among girls, with entries falling by 26%, compared with 12% for boys over the same period. Will the Minister comment on that? Between 2011 and 2014-15, A-level entries for design and technology fell by 24%. Either the Government’s efforts have not taken hold or we need to consider a different way of doing it. I always like to be constructive in debates, so that is not a criticism. It is about how we can do it better and how we can find solutions and improvement.

Efforts have also been made in Northern Ireland’s higher education sector, where the Department for Employment and Learning has taken significant steps to focus on STEM and make changes in the further education sector, universities and colleges. In the 2015 autumn statement, the Government announced that from 2017-18, the equal and lower qualification fee exemption would be extended so that students wishing to take a part-time second degree in a wider range of STEM subjects would be eligible for tuition loans. Will the Minister comment on that?

In addition to supporting those in education, there has been some support for educators in the STEM sector. Trainee teachers in England with a first-class degree or a PhD in physics, chemistry, mathematics or computing are eligible for a bursary of £25,000, which is significant. The bursary for trainee teachers in physics with a first-class degree or a PhD will go up to £30,000 in 2016-17. Those are significant, positive changes to the bursary opportunities that are available.

Compared with November 2010, the number of design and technology teachers has fallen by 2,300, but the number of engineering teachers has risen by 100. Again, it seems that a change in education provision is needed. Have the Government made provision to ensure that there is a sufficient number of engineering teachers so that pupils can take advantage of that opportunity? The situation reflects decreased demand in schools, but it also prompts us to ask what point there is in incentives for teachers in the sector if we cannot even motivate students to take the subject.

There has been some success. In the year 2014-2015, there were 74,060 apprenticeship starts in the engineering and manufacturing technology sector. Absolutely significant steps forward have been taken if there are 74,000 apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing. It is the highest figure of all comparable years since 2011; that is a big step. There has been some success, but unfortunately, lower figures in schools should raise alarm bells. I urge the Government to act on that, for the sake not just of the economy but of the future of our young people, who want quality long-term and sustainable careers.

I am in the second half of life. Although not everyone in this room is, those of us who are must prepare our young people to come forward—our children, our grandchildren and other people’s children and grandchildren. Let us give them the job opportunities that we want for them. I want to see our young people stay in Northern Ireland; I certainly want them to stay within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That means Scotland staying in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well, by the way. [Interruption.] The hon. Members from the Scottish National party knew I was going to say that. It has been a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Chippenham for securing it and giving us a chance to participate.

Four people have indicated that they wish to speak. I want to call the Front-Bench spokespersons by half-past 10, so if subsequent speakers could confine their remarks to about seven minutes, I would be grateful. It will enable us to get everybody in.

Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this debate and on her detailed speech, which correctly highlighted the issues facing us.

I represent a constituency with a long, rich history of engineering. It has the dockyard, the Royal Engineers, Short Brothers, BAE Systems and now a growing digital and high-tech economy. The Royal Academy of Engineering has suggested, as my hon. Friend said, that there is an annual shortage of about 53,000 graduate engineers. We must encourage young people to get excited about a career in engineering and technology and to see the plethora of opportunities that are available if they choose engineering and design and technology as a career.

In my constituency, we are lucky enough to have an engineering and construction university technical college, which was opened in September. It gives 14 to 19-year-olds the opportunity to study those subjects, gaining academic qualifications and—this is also key—the skills required to go out into the workplace. We hear that employers value that very much, and it is what they look for in young people who study those subjects.

We particularly need to encourage girls, who are less likely to see engineering and design and technology as a route. Last week, on International Women’s Day, I was lucky enough to have some young women from the UTC come up here to showcase some of the work that they had carried out since starting there in September. They are doing their bit locally as well by running a “UTCs are for girls” campaign, but they rightly point out that the necessary change must start earlier, in primary and secondary schools, so that young people are completely aware of the opportunities and excitement that engineering can bring. That can be achieved only by offering the opportunity to study those subjects at GCSE level and by giving pupils good-quality careers advice while they study.

This year, BAE Systems has offered 12 higher-level apprenticeships at its Rochester site in my constituency. BAE is doing exciting design and highly technical manufacturing work in my constituency, and some people there have not always been aware of that work. BAE reports that the young people who came through the doors were aware of those 12 higher-level apprenticeships only because they had been guided by their parents or had friends or relatives who worked at BAE Systems.

Our UTC reports that it also has concerns and challenges in recruiting staff for the technology subjects. It is proving increasingly difficult as schools phase out some of those subjects. It is absolutely right that we should be able to attract high-quality people into such roles within our schools to ensure that they create the excitement that our young people need when choosing further careers. Businesses are doing their bit. For example, BAE Systems has an early years working group, a team of volunteers working to drive encouragement for future generations to consider engineering careers. BAE has increased engagement with the community, and has launched a brochure to inspire the workforce of the future which has been shared and delivered across 360 educational establishments in Kent.

BAE Systems is working to encourage young people, particularly in my constituency, to consider a route to a long, exciting career, with opportunities not only to work in the UK by fulfilling jobs available currently and in the future, but to dream of travelling and working in other countries. We are lucky: we have an international history of sending young people abroad with quality skills. I hope that we continue to increase that.

It is important that we can fulfil the requirement for such skills in future, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham has outlined. I support her call to re-include the design and technology GCSE in the EBacc. I was lucky enough to take the design and technology GSCE when I was at school, and I later became a marine surveyor. I had opportunities to travel all around the world, and I was not limited to one career option. I think we should focus on ensuring that we really understand what engineering means. Maybe that one word does not always highlight correctly what opportunities there are.

I know I am repeating myself, but it is important to labour this point. I would particularly like to mention careers advice. It is a challenge not just in my constituency but across the country. It is crucial that the teachers charged with teaching the young people in our schools can be educated on what opportunities and career choices there are in this field. It is not necessarily teachers’ fault if they are not aware of some of the opportunities available. I would like much more focus on how we train and brief our teachers to understand what opportunities there are, so they can impart them to our young people and be part of the challenge of engaging with local businesses to drive the situation from a school perspective, not just by bringing businesses into schools.

Thank you for allowing me to speak in this debate, Mr Bailey. I welcome what the Government have already done to focus on STEM subjects. The issue is always on the agenda now; we are talking about it more and more often. That is absolutely right, and I wish that to continue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Bailey. Hopefully, from your perspective it will end up being a pleasure having to listen to me.

I thank the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for securing this debate on what can be quite a wide-ranging topic. I will try to cover a few key aspects.

Before becoming a Member of the House, I worked as a civil engineer for more than 20 years, so I am well aware how the skills gap and the gender gap have exercised the engineering industry over those years. When I first graduated, it was the time of the recession in the early 1990s, which made jobs really difficult to come by and also deflated the wages that were available. The result was a constant drip-feed of fresh talent into other sectors, including the financial sector. That meant that when there was an inevitable upturn, there was a big skills shortage. I am well aware of that, but I can also say that over the past 20-odd years there has been a big improvement in trying to close these gaps and to raise awareness about engineering as a career.

I speak about engineering from my perspective, but quite often it might differ from other people’s perspectives about what constitutes an engineer. That can sometimes make it problematic to promote the concept of a career in engineering, because engineering is so wide-ranging. I recently visited some engineering workshops associated with the aerospace industry. Hands-on, high-quality manufacturing was in evidence, but again it was very different to what I saw as my career—latterly, I worked as a consultant, which is worlds away from that hands-on engineering environment. That in itself illustrates that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that can be conceived to fill the skills gaps across the broader engineering sector.

Having said that, it is clear that, fundamentally, what is required is the promotion of STEM subjects. STEM is an acronym that is widely used. However, as the hon. Member for Chippenham touched on, we really need to focus on the technology and engineering aspects of STEM; those aspects need to be more widely promoted and developed at school level.

I also served as a councillor for my local authority, East Ayrshire Council, which has introduced a STEM programme for primary children. Recently, I met Dr Peter Hughes, a former chief executive of Scottish Engineering. He said that East Ayrshire’s approach to STEM subjects, both in primary schools and through its business enterprise initiative for secondary schools, is world-leading. That shows what can be done when there is a drive in a local area, and obviously it would be good if that best practice was shared across the country.

The local college in my area, Ayrshire College, also works with industry to develop courses that the industry requires to fill its gaps. One example of that is working with wind farm operators to develop turbine technician courses. That gives some engineering-related courses a less intense academic focus, and instead balances the knowledge and understanding that is required with hands-on working. In civil engineering, I have also noted a return to the technician-engineer route. For me, there is no doubt that that can attract those who otherwise would not want to do a four-year degree course. In relation to the turbine course, obviously the cuts to subsidies for the renewables industry will not allow this industry to continue to grow. That is a shame, because the industry was getting to a stage where it could forge really sustainable careers for people.

These education initiatives accord with the wider Scottish National party Government’s determination to improve the take-up of STEM subjects in schools and to encourage a more diverse range of young people into STEM subjects and careers. Several initiatives underpin that. There has been a £1.5 million allocation to boost delivery of STEM subjects; there is a “Making Maths Count” initiative to drive up numeracy attainment; the Scottish Funding Council has provided funding for an additional 1,200 STEM subject places over four years; there has been an Inspiring Teachers recruitment campaign; and only last month, part of a £12 million transition training fund for the oil and gas sector was set aside to allow individuals from the sector to retrain as teachers and hopefully inspire a new generation. The SNP has also set up the general £100m Attainment Scotland Fund.

Higher education in Scotland is still free, which we are proud of. Again, that compares with the previous coalition Government trebling tuition fees to £9,000 a year, and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that those fees can be a barrier to people entering higher education, which of course can impact on the engineering sector as well.

There is another risk caused by the UK Government that I have identified, which is the cut of funding for research and innovation. The move from innovation grants towards innovation loans has been decried by Bivek Sharma, who is the head of small business accounting at KPMG. We really should not be de-incentivising the industry when it has been making large strides to promote innovation and forge better links with education establishments.

Another issue in Scotland is the loss of the post-study work visa, which was particularly useful in the civil engineering industry to fill the skill gaps. Again, I have encountered that: at the place I worked, we had graduates who came from all over the world, but they had studied in Scotland and they were able at that time to stay in Scotland in that working environment. Not only had they contributed to education establishments; they then had an opportunity to contribute to the wider society, pay taxes and learn their careers, so I urge the UK Government to rethink.

As a civil engineer, I am a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which has developed some fantastic initiatives over the years that aim to inspire the next generation. In Scotland, outreach activity reached more than 5,000 pupils in 2015 alone. That activity includes the Bridges to Schools programme, which is a hands-on activity for primary year 6 and 7 pupils, enabling them to build a 12-metre long cable bridge. They build the bridge, and then they are able to walk on it, understand the loading on it, and deconstruct it. It is about teamwork, promotion of engineering and letting them understand that wider career.

ICE in Scotland also organises the rapid response engineering challenge, which covers first and second year pupils. It also hosts careers evenings and targeted events to increase diversity in the industry and works with Skills Development Scotland and Young Scot to get out appropriate messages about engineering career paths.

As a younger engineer, I participated in classroom visits myself, but given that I have not even managed to persuade my two sons to enter engineering, I am not sure I was the best advocate to encourage others. Nevertheless, I certainly enjoyed doing that and it is great that other people continue to do it.

Across the UK, ICE also works closely with STEMNET, asking members to sign up with ICE as STEM ambassadors. STEMNET works with schools, colleges and STEM employers to enable young people to meet inspiring role models, understand the real-world applications of STEM subjects and experience hands-on activities. Obviously, the intention is to motivate and inspire the pupils, and to bring learning and career opportunities to life for them. There have been more than 30,000 trained STEM ambassadors, of whom more than 40% are female—

Order. If the hon. Gentleman could wind up, I would be very grateful, as it would enable other speakers to participate in the debate.

More than 40% of the STEM ambassadors and more than 60% of them are under the age of 25.

To conclude, industry, education establishments and the Scottish Government are making inroads in promoting STEM subjects. I agree with the hon. Member for Chippenham: we need a way to measure the impact of engagement with pupils and its results in their careers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate on the future of engineering skills, and of design and technology.

The UK has serious shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematical skills. Although such shortages are not new, statistics show that many children choose not to study STEM subjects at a higher level. That is of concern to schools, universities, other training providers and especially employers. STEM subjects underpin many careers in technologically dependent sectors of the economy, including manufacturing and engineering. Almost 70% of research and development investment is in the manufacturing sector, and goods produced in this sector account for 44% of UK exports.

Engineering is also important for the northern powerhouse, which requires growth in manufacturing industry; alongside that growth, we also need to see the growth and development of the educational sector, to provide skills for such industries as they develop over time. Our modern economy needs the skills and abilities that STEM and design technology subjects bring. These subjects promote problem solving and practical skills, and are some of only a few subjects in the curriculum that develop hands-on skills.

Although the subjects can be challenging, there are plenty of opportunities on offer for motivated individuals to develop their abilities in real-world situations. Although we need people to do the academic subjects, so much of what we create not only has to achieve its basic function but must feel right. We need practical skills really to make a product, not just in terms of its performance function but in terms of feeling right when it is performing that function—for anything from creating a saucepan to creating all the components and elements that go into making a high-speed train, which, hopefully, will be discussed tomorrow by the Chancellor.

Pupils experience STEM directly through the curriculum, which means, as was highlighted earlier, that they mainly encounter only science and mathematics. However, many more career openings are on the engineering and technology side. Although it is important to enhance the prospects of pupils by ensuring that they receive a core academic curriculum, with employers in technical and skilled occupations reporting a shortage we cannot afford to overlook subjects that lead to careers in technology-dependent sectors of our economy. Just as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has a background in civil engineering, I worked for nearly 20 years in the mass spectrometry industry. An academic background is necessary, but hands-on skills are also key, because so much of what is learned then has to be applied by the hands.

Hon. Members might be aware of the Your Life campaign, which aims to increase the number of people studying science and mathematics at A-level. It is welcome news that since 2010 the number of young people studying for science and mathematics A-levels has increased by about 29,000, but there is still much more to be done in the other STEM subjects of design and technology, and engineering. Teachers and employers must boost pupils’ understanding of the value of those subjects, including their relevance to the modern world and their transferability to a wide range of careers. Students should not be aiming for high grades irrespective of the subject they choose, just so the statistics look good. Subject options must be taken with career choices in mind and with the best possible careers advice.

Too much focus on the academic and not enough on skills and more practical applied learning will mean that the skills gap in the economy will increase. The future of the UK’s economy requires a fundamental change in how pupils choose their subjects, as this leads to their future career paths—into higher education or apprenticeships, or directly into employment. I regularly hear from businesses in my constituency that they are concerned that children are regularly pushed down the university route and actively—not just tacitly—pushed away from the apprenticeship alternative. I ask the Minister directly to address the concern that schools encourage people to go down the academic route and discourage the apprenticeship side.

Our schools can do more to engage with local businesses—and that is key, as local businesses have a wealth of experience and present a wealth of opportunities locally. Children can be encouraged, when choosing their options, to think about what opportunities there are locally. Providing young people with the right incentives and the right information about the choices they make is vital for their future and for the future of the UK’s economy.

I am glad to be speaking here today, Mr Bailey, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on bringing forward the debate.

I wanted to speak in this debate because I had three years in Northern Ireland as vice-chair of the education committee—so a little bit of experience there—and I now chair the all-party parliamentary group on education here. I also worked for three years in the 1980s at Short Brothers, later Bombardier Aerospace, where I was definitely a square peg in a round hole. At university, I remember computer science coming at me for the first time as part of my business studies degree, and in those days—I am a little older than most here—it was about punching cards, stacking them into a machine and pressing the button that said “Run”. I think it worked only once. So the message I would really like to hear is that we need to teach and train everyone in these skills—they certainly passed me by.

I feel that, particularly in Northern Ireland, we have lost our way in education by concentrating too much on certain skills. Because we are devolved and in danger of devolving further into northern powerhouses, midlands machines and all sorts of other things, we must ensure that we all work together, helping each other throughout education, and do not end up concentrating on our little areas.

There are schemes for sharing the skills that are there, such as Catapult, and that is the sort of thing I would like to see as we all work together. I want education to prepare pupils for jobs, life and employment. The all-party group will be doing a survey and an inquiry into future skills, and I hope that all hon. Members here and their colleagues will get involved in helping us to explore what those skills are and how we work at the issue so that people leave school ready for a job.

When I was at Stormont working on education, various statistics came at me. One was that the Chinese produce 76,000 engineers a year. We have to stay better than them, and keep our entrepreneurship better than theirs too. I was also told that 80% of jobs now include IT, and when we went down to our excellent science park in Belfast, we discovered that there is a shortfall of some 30,000 people in Northern Ireland being trained in those skills. That fits with all the other figures. We need to get more people involved, and I think that our approach is wrong.

I will be a little local. In Northern Ireland, we have had Sinn Féin running our education system for more than a decade. It is trying to get rid of the grammar schools, squeezing them from every angle. Grammars are our one chance of getting people to perfect certain skills and certain angles, so we have had to work hard to get changes in so that they all work together. Sinn Féin has tried to get rid of that concentration on high-level skills, to bring everything down to the lowest common denominator. That is where we have lost our way.

We need to get science teaching into primary schools—Sinn Féin cut that and moved it away. It also cut the funding to Sentinus, one of the major bodies involved in making STEM interesting to pupils, and then it cut a lot of the funding to STEM. We are going in the opposite direction, but we have some fantastic teachers—in fact, most of our teachers are good. A teacher at one of my local schools, Creavery, won the award for the best primary school science teacher of the year. We must keep working so that everyone gets interested.

We also have to work on careers and make them interesting. A few years ago, I met someone from Northern Ireland who had gone to China and produced a business skills course, which he sold to the Chinese but not to us. The course teaches everything from sourcing raw materials all the way through to working on them and producing the end product. No one ever taught me that sort of skill at school—how to understand the whole business of trade and creation—and that is the sort of thing we have to get into the teaching. We have to make the area interesting.

I sometimes wonder whether we could not have one big web portal, into which someone would stick the skill they were interested in. Say they put in “Art”: it would lead them down to design and technology, to whether they were going to design pottery, paint paintings or do the interiors of houses or ships. Everything would open up. I have been to various air shows and seen the great big banks of screens about what industry is doing. That could all be on a web portal. Every single angle could be gone down and children and pupils could go, “Wow! That’s what I want to do”. That is what we should be doing. We should be lifting everyone’s education so that they really want to move into the fields of science and technology. It did not work for me.

Thank you. But it could work for everyone. Some of us are art and some of us are history, but we can make things work for everyone. It all interlinks. If I have a message today, it is this: “Please promote and educate in STEM—all the sciences and technology—so that it really grips the students and pupils and makes them interested, so that they want to go out and work in those fields”.

The Minister has been asked to respond to an enormous number of points, so I ask the Front-Bench spokespeople to ensure that he is given adequate time to do so. I would also, of course, like to bring in the mover of the motion, Michelle Donelan, for a couple of minutes at the end to sum up.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate. It has been informative, with many valuable contributions, and there are clear messages coming through. The hon. Lady talked about the need to tailor the curriculum to what business requires and, when looking at school curricula, it is important to consider what we are trying to achieve as the end product.

As a physics teacher, I have been long aware of the growing need for specific professions within the workplace. Engineers, scientists and computer scientists have become key to economic success in this ever more digital world. There is a massive skills gap, and we should be taking positive steps to address it. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about retaining the teachers we have and encouraging more people to take up a career in STEM teaching, and I agree; teachers are key to everything we are discussing this morning. If we cannot get teachers in, how can we possibly encourage our young people to take up these subjects? It is also important that we have an environment that is conducive to people moving into teaching. We need to look at what is happening in schools and the stresses and strains that have been put on teachers.

The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) talked about working together to produce the best results, and that is important. We want a situation where our young people educated in engineering and science can travel not only throughout the UK but throughout the world. We are producing top-class engineers, but we are just not producing enough of them. We should be able to export these young people worldwide. He also mentioned grammar schools. I taught in a comprehensive school for most of my career, and I do not believe that grammar schools solve all the problems.

Schoolchildren’s awareness of careers in industry has been mentioned, and we need to be careful about some of the language we use. We talk about industry, but for many children that word conjures up images of boiler suits, oil and probably fairly manky toilet facilities. If we are trying to encourage our young people, we need to be careful when we loosely talk about the engineer coming round to fix our central heating boiler or our satellite TV. Important though those workers are, I am pretty sure that most of them do not have a degree in engineering.

The hon. Lady is making an interesting and at some points amusing speech. Does she agree that part of the issue is that we perceive engineering in this country as someone fixing a washing machine? In other parts of Europe, “engineer” is a title in itself, almost like having a knighthood.

Absolutely. We of course have chartered engineer status, but that does not filter through to children when they are thinking about careers. The stereotypes are damaging. The hon. Member for Strangford talked about the high-end jobs we have in the UK, but how do we raise awareness? A few weeks ago, I visited Clyde Space, an engineering and manufacturing plant in an office block in the centre of Glasgow that manufacturers satellites. It has a lovely open-plan area with computers down one side. Lots of young people were sitting at them, chatting and working away. They were in jeans and some even had make-up on. It is a relaxed, nice environment, and they are all engineers. We need to change our perception of what an engineer is.

The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) talked about raising awareness of STEM careers at a much earlier age, and that is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked about the STEM outreach in his local area. Things like that start getting children ready for other possible careers.

The hon. Member for Chippenham mentioned the subjects included in the EBacc, but what is the purpose of the EBacc? Is it an attempt at producing a gold-standard qualification, or is it simply for league tables? I spoke to the Minister for Schools last week about the composition of the EBacc—we are becoming great friends across the Chamber—and I talked about the science pillar, which retains the traditional subjects. Although the rhetoric about STEM is positive, such things as the composition of the EBacc should be driven by economic factors, not just by outdated views of what a gold-standard education should be. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) talked about the importance of hands-on skills, problem solving and apprenticeships. Those are vital. Problem-solving skills developed at school can be used widely in society, and not just within an engineering situation.

The Scottish picture was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun. In response to him, I should say that my son is just about to embark on an engineering degree at university, so perhaps I was more persuasive. In Scotland, we have redesigned our curriculum not by making a list of the subjects we consider to be core but instead by starting at the end point: looking at what employers need and the skills our young people have to have. Our new curriculum requires children to study a broad general curriculum from age three. It must cover lots of curricular areas, including expressive arts, health and wellbeing, languages, maths, religious education, sciences, social studies and technologies. All those subjects must be covered to age 14, so children in Scotland are getting the exposure that many Members have talked about today. As young people approach their exams, they can choose which strands they wish to progress. Within the technologies curriculum, there are many different subjects—computing science, design and manufacture, design and technology, engineering and science, to name but a few—that allow them to specialise. The beauty of it is that all subject areas have equal status and the markers by which schools are judged encompass all curricular areas.

As our young people progress, they have far wider options in which they can choose to specialise. The hon. Member for South Antrim talked about his difficulties with some of those areas. Not everyone is born to be an engineer, but not everyone is born to be an expert in classics, either. Variety is what makes our society rich. We have a baccalaureate in Scotland, but it happens at a later stage. Students can do four different baccalaureates: languages; expressive arts; social sciences; and science, which includes design and manufacture and engineering science. Those qualifications at a late stage in secondary are meant to be cross-curricular and include a cross-curricular project.

In conclusion, I totally agree with the hon. Member for Chippenham and the point she raised about the importance of design and technology qualifications. We need to look at a curriculum that is driven by what industry requires, not by what politicians think is needed. We also need curricula that allow for personalisation and choice, so that young people can become experts in their areas of interest.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, I think for the first time. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on setting out her stall so well at the beginning of the debate. She reminded us that engineering and design and technology education are central to our future economic success and underlined the need for skills to match the requirements of our economy. She also talked interestingly about creating an “innovation-hungry economy”. I liked that phrase; it inspired and encouraged me, and that is what we want for young people, is it not? She also spoke with passion and knowledge about the new, improved design and technology GCSE, which I think everyone in the Chamber would commend. It is an exciting move forward with a lot of potential. She also argued that, because it is exciting and has rigour and clear value, it should be given EBacc status. I will come to that later.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said that he had had words with the Minister about trying to elbow D and T into the EBacc. I can understand why the Minister has difficulties with that, but I will come to that later. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke as always with passion and reminded us that design and technology are even more important than Leicester City’s success this season. The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) highlighted the need for better careers information, advice and guidance, which is something I very much agree with. She also pointed to her personal experience of her own design and technology GCSE and the way in which that helped to prepare her for a career as a marine surveyor.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) worked as an engineer and came out with the perceptive statement that the one-size-fits-all approach will not work in this area. That is at the heart of some of the difficulties that the Government are perhaps getting into with their EBacc approach. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) reminded us that a modern economy needs hands-on skills as well as academic skills. I think that is very perceptive. The design and technology curriculum is particularly good at developing practical skills, which he told us were necessary whether making a saucepan or HS2. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) drew on his great experience in Northern Ireland and again underlined the importance of practical skills and careers education, among other things.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) made a significant contribution to the debate by drawing on her experience as a physics teacher and underlined the fact that there is a massive skills gap that needs to be addressed. She drew attention to how the term “engineer” covers a wide range of disciplines. Frankly, we need the practical hands-on engineering skills of plumbers as well as the high-tech engineering skills of qualified chartered engineers. We need it all; that is why design and technology is so important in our curriculum. The hon. Lady concluded by emphasising the importance of the personalisation of learning, and I think she is correct. Learning that combines rigour and the interests of the learner as well as the destination of the economy is the very best sort of learning because that allows everybody to succeed.

If I glance back to 2010, the curriculum was in many ways in quite a good place. It was not perfect, but we had a highly personalised curriculum with a lot of rigour that was driving up performance and moving people forward. That did not mean it did not need to change, but there were a lot of strengths in that approach. I know that from my own experience in leading a sixth-form college at that time. We saw standards improving in local schools, often driven by curriculum innovation, so we saw the five A* to Cs rising, and a couple of years behind that we saw the five A* to Cs plus maths and English rising. Once someone has a sense of achievement and success, it drives aspiration not only for the youngsters in that community school, but for everybody around them. That is the spiral of success that we had in 2010. Hopefully, we can continue to move forward on that.

When the EBacc was introduced, the Education Committee, on which I served, raised concerns in a critical and challenging report. The concerns were around why a particular set of subjects were chosen. Why was ancient history more important than design and technology? Why was Latin more important than business studies? The evidence base was not clear. The examination of what the world of work needs and what the world of education should supply was not there. I think we would all agree that a core curriculum is necessary, but the Government knew without asking anybody what the answer was, and, when probed, came up with the thought that the facilitating subjects of the Russell Group universities were the set of subjects that should determine the EBacc’s central purpose. There is no logical reason why that should be so. Indeed, as somebody who has probably sent more students to Russell Group universities than anybody else here, I know that the Russell Group accept a wide range of subjects beyond those facilitating subjects.

To go down such a route is questionable. To extend the EBacc to 90% of students obviously constricts the timetable even more. Again, I know that from having done timetables in which a limited number of resources had to be managed. Concentrating resources on certain things means other things will not fit. So there are big challenges. I recently spoke to the leader of one of the highest performing multi-academy trusts. He said that they might not go down that road. He pointed to the former Labour Government’s diploma activities as something else that they did not follow because, from their views on what is in the best interests of young people, it does not work, so there is a challenge there.

The Edge Foundation’s submission to the EBacc consultation concluded:

“Imposing an arbitrary set of qualifications on students is not supported by a solid evidence base. The 90% EBacc target is neither necessary nor desirable. It will harm, not help, large numbers of students, reduce the uptake of technical and creative subjects and limit choices open to students and their parents. It could exacerbate the country's growing skills gap, because fewer students will achieve passes in technical and creative subjects linked to the needs of the economy.”

Let us hope that that is wrong, but it is a clarion call from the organisation. The Baker Dearing Educational Trust has been very much behind the movement towards greater skills development and so on.

The Labour party wants to see a broad and balanced curriculum. We welcome the steps towards measuring the progress that children make on progress 8 and attainment 8, because a broader range of subjects are provided. It is important that young people have a core knowledge of the curriculum, including English, maths and sciences. It is all well and good thinking about D and T and the EBacc, but the thing that undermines that the most is not having enough qualified teachers to teach it. Many contributions today have drawn attention to that. The key challenge is to ensure there are enough teachers to teach design and technology, yet at the moment the Government are not getting anywhere near the target they need to achieve this, with just 41% of the target being met, and they are also missing their targets in science and computing.

The fall in the numbers of students taking design and technology is a concern too, given the skills shortages in the economy. Design and technology and engineering are important for delivering the productive high-tech economy that we need to compete in an increasingly globalised world. Forecasts suggest that the UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians in the next five years. The Conservative Government are failing to deliver the pipeline of talent that we require. It would be a challenge for anybody, so we all need to support the Government in meeting the challenge, but we need to check whether this direction is the right way to meet it.

From manufacturers and construction firms to digital industries and the CBI, businesses in Britain are increasingly warning about the skills shortages that our country is grappling with. I hope the Minister has time to answer the many questions that have been raised in the debate. He is courteous and able and always does his best in that regard.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey; I think it is the first time I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on securing this important debate during British science week. I pay tribute to her for her work on these issues on the Education Committee and elsewhere. I also congratulate her on the powerful and compelling speech that introduced the debate.

Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital subjects in our modern economy. Our manifesto included a commitment to make this country the best place in the world to study maths and STEM subjects in primary, secondary and further education. There is widespread demand for employees with an in-depth knowledge of STEM subjects, and those working in science and technology careers are paid, on average, 19% more than in other professions. Despite those attractive employment prospects, research from organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry shows that companies still have difficulties in recruiting people with technical and professional STEM backgrounds and qualifications.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) referred to the importance of careers advice. The Government have established the Careers & Enterprise Company, and we are also taking steps to improve the quality of careers advice through the development of a new careers strategy that will set out our vision for 2020 and the clear lines of accountability, through Ofsted and the new destination measures, for the quality of careers advice in schools.

We have recognised the importance of STEM subjects to young people’s life chances, and we accept the plea of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) that we promote science and technology subjects at school. Our ambitious programme of reform is addressing the historical underperformance in STEM education. Our reforms to the curriculum and to qualifications mean that standards in public qualifications will match the expectations of the best education systems in the world.

We are also reforming vocational qualifications to introduce a small number of technical and professional routes, which will support students’ progress from school into employment. Those routes will be valued by employers to ensure that more students progress into higher-level technical occupations in areas such as engineering. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, high-quality teaching is also essential to tackling the skills shortages, which is why the Government support schools to recruit top graduates into teaching.

Last year, the Prime Minister announced an additional package worth £67 million to recruit and train up to 17,500 maths and physics teachers. The Government run scholarships and offer bursaries to encourage high-quality maths and physics graduates to train as teachers. We also support schools and existing STEM teachers to improve the quality of teaching through Government-funded programmes such as maths hubs and the network of science learning partnerships.

More than 22,000 more young people are taking A-levels in STEM subjects this year compared with 2010, and the number of STEM apprenticeships is increasing. The percentage of apprentices starting in STEM-sector-related subject areas has increased by 64% since 2010, to more than 90,000. Over the same period, the number of women starting STEM-related apprenticeships has more than doubled to 8,000, and the number starting apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing technologies has more than trebled to 5,100.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) emphasised the importance of the apprenticeship programme. We are committed to reaching 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020, an ambition that we are helping to fund to the tune of £2.5 billion with the apprenticeship levy. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood highlighted the example of 12 higher-level apprenticeships at the BAE Systems site in Rochester.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) mentioned schools actively discouraging students from looking into the possibility of becoming an apprentice. The Education Act 2011, introduced by the coalition Government, says that schools should secure independent careers advice, and adds explicitly that that must include information on apprenticeships.

Another issue that the Government are tackling is the gender gap in STEM A-levels and careers. We should celebrate the fact that 12,000 more girls entered mathematics and science at A-level in 2015 than in 2010, but total entries in maths and science were still 36% higher for boys than for girls. The Secretary of State recently announced an ambition to tackle that unjustifiable gender gap by increasing the proportion of girls entering maths and science A-levels by 20% by 2020. My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham referred to the STEMNET programme. There are now 32,000 STEM ambassador volunteers throughout the country who support their local schools with STEM careers advice, and 40% of them are female—a point also made by the hon. Member for Strangford.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham welcomed the reforms made to the design and technology curriculum and associated qualifications. She is right that design and technology is a valuable subject that prepares young people for further technical study, and it remains compulsory in school from key stage 1 to key stage 3—from ages five to 14. The content of the previous design and technology qualifications did not include the knowledge and skills sought by leading engineering employers, so, as my hon. Friend said, we have worked closely with key organisations in the sector—including the Design and Technology Association, the James Dyson Foundation and the Royal Academy of Engineering —to align the qualification with high-tech industry practice. Industry leaders have been very supportive of our reforms.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe criticised some of our approaches to design and technology. Under the last Labour Government, between 2007-08 and 2010, the numbers entering design and technology GCSE fell from 311,000 to 238,000. I am optimistic that our reforms to the content of the design and technology GCSE and A-level will result in a rise in the number of students who opt to study them. The decline started before we introduced the EBacc or the Progress 8 measure.

We continue to support design and technology teacher recruitment through bursaries of up to £12,000 and marketing campaigns that feature design and technology. Subject knowledge enhancement courses are available for candidates who need to refresh or boost their subject knowledge. We also provide a specific webpage on the “Get Into Teaching” website for potential design and technology trainee teachers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham expressed concerns about the impact of the recently introduced accountability measures—such as the EBacc and the Progress 8 measure—on the take-up of design and technology. I share her concern at the declining numbers that I just highlighted. In my view, that decline reflects the declining quality and status of the previous qualification. As I said, I am optimistic that we will see the numbers rise.

The EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs is an important performance measure and the Government are determined that every child should leave school fully literate and fluent in maths, with an understanding of the history and geography of the world they inhabit, its workings as revealed by the findings of science, and a grasp of a language other than their own. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science—there is nothing old-fashioned in emphasising the importance of those subjects, which was the criticism levelled at us by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan).

I have every hope that the combination of the revised design and technology qualifications and our focus on attracting new specialist teachers will restore the subject’s focus. To give my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham time to respond, I shall finish by saying that I am enormously grateful for her support for this agenda. She has raised some important issues, and I hope she is happy with the steps that the Government are taking to address them. Over the course of the Parliament, we will continue to build on the progress we have made on this issue.

I thank all colleagues who participated in the debate. Together, we have stressed the importance of promoting the STEM sector and combatting the stereotypical image that has arisen so that we can tackle the skills gap. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) summed it up when she said that we need to excite people about the industry. Today’s discussion highlighted the fact that the focus needs to be on the T and E of STEM, not just on the S and M.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) talked about the need for practical skills and hands-on ability. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), who said that education should be led by industry, not by politicians. That sums up the progress that we need to make in the sector. I am impressed that I managed to inspire the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin).

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response. I congratulate him on his work in the sector. It is easy to overlook the fact that he is one of the people who dramatically changed the design and technology course we have been discussing, so he understands its value and its long-term potential for progress. I agree with him about the importance of the academic rigour and core focus of the EBacc and stress that that is exactly why we need design and technology to be part of it. It is very much an academic subject, and we can send out that message to students and teachers throughout the country. I urge the Government to listen to businesses and to teachers and help to give students the best shot at life by looking again at making design and technology part of the EBacc.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered engineering skills and design and technology education.

Sheppey Crossing: Safety

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety measures on the Sheppey Crossing.

I thought that the hon. Members leaving were here for my debate, but no doubt very few people have heard of the Sheppey crossing or know where it is.

Highways England has always maintained that the Sheppey crossing is safe and that there is nothing wrong with its design, but that view is simply not backed up by the facts. During the bridge’s design and build phase, Mott MacDonald undertook a road safety audit on behalf of what was then the Highways Agency. Stage 2 of the audit highlighted a number of deficiencies. For instance, paragraph 3.1 pointed out that the gradient of the bridge is 6% greater than that recommended for all- purpose dual carriageways. It went on to say that,

“This gradient, combined with the comparatively tight horizontal radius, and reduced stopping sight distances, may result, for example, in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”

Mott MacDonald recommended that the horizontal and vertical geometry be reviewed and that the stopping distance be maximised wherever possible. It also recommended that

“super elevation appropriate for the horizontal alignment”

be provided. That recommendation was rejected. An exception was made for the following reasons:

“The horizontal and vertical geometry has been reviewed however there is little opportunity to increase the stopping sight distance without significant amendments to the bridge. To maximise the stopping distance the alignment or bridge width would have to be changed.”

Here is the important bit:

“Changes of this nature would require additional land within the environmentally sensitive marshes and substantially increase the cost of construction.”

Despite the acknowledgement that the stopping sight distances should have been greater, it was decided that the recommendations of the audit would be ignored on the grounds of cost.

In paragraph 3.24, Mott MacDonald highlighted the inadequacies of the manual flat type signs used to warn motorists of hazards. The audit pointed out that those signs would

“present avoidable road safety hazards to both operatives and the travelling public.”

Mott MacDonald recommended that the flat type signs be replaced by remotely controlled signs using rotating planks/prisms or fibre optics—in effect, a matrix warning system. That recommendation was also rejected on the following grounds:

“Consultations have taken place with Kent County Council and the police and it has been agreed that flap type warning signs will be used to advise of high winds.”

I am not sure whether Kent County Council was happy with the flat type signs, but I know that the police were not. That was explained to me in an email I received from Dick Denyer, who was the Kent police traffic officer for the Swale area during the period in which the Sheppey crossing was built. He insists that throughout the consultation process he raised a number of concerns about the bridge’s design with the Highways Agency and the contractors. In his email, he wrote the following:

“Right up until the 11th hour prior to the opening of the bridge I asked and campaigned for the following:...Low level fluorescent lights positioned along the inside of the concrete parapet so as not to contravene the RSPB objections.”

They were never provided. There are no lights on the Sheppey crossing. He asked for

“A safe walkway for stranded motorists to get off the bridge.”

There is no safe walkway on the bridge. Motorists have to sit in their car. He also asked for

“Emergency Telephones to be positioned at regular intervals on the bridge.”

There are no emergency telephones on the Sheppey crossing. He campaigned for

“Matrix warning signs on the approach to the bridge from either side to warn of fog and set speed limits suited to the conditions.”

There are two matrix warning signs, but they are manual ones. He said that there should be

“Gates at either side of the bridge.”

There are no gates on the bridge in case of emergencies.

Mr Denyer went on to claim that he was stalled, ignored and fed misinformation, and that it was only in the month leading up to the opening of the bridge that it was admitted to him in meetings with the contractors and the Highways Agency that his requests were valid and that the bridge had serious safety shortcomings. However, the bridge construction was already considerably over budget, and there was no money left to make any of the alterations that Mr Denyer had requested, but he was told that they might be considered in the future.

Mott MacDonald’s audit statement, which I cited earlier, is very important. It said that the gradient of the bridge,

“combined with the comparatively tight horizontal radius, and reduced stopping sight distances, may result, for example, in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”

On 5 September 2013, there was a massive pile-up on the Sheppey crossing involving 150 vehicles in a succession of nose-to-tail collisions—the largest such accident in Britain’s history. After that crash, I asked that a review be undertaken of safety on the bridge. The Highways Agency said in response that no review was necessary because the police had concluded that driver behaviour was the main contributory factor to the incident, and that they had not called into question any aspect of the bridge’s design or operation. It went on to claim that that supported the view that the bridge, which opened in July 2006, was constructed in accordance with national highway design standards for roads and bridges and was intrinsically safe.

The most charitable way of describing that statement is that it is disingenuous. When I queried it, the police told me in a letter that,

“The parameters of the investigation did not cross over into the design or layout of the Sheppey Bridge in any way, but were focussed on the actions of the drivers involved.”

In other words, there was no need for them to look at the design of the bridge, so it was disingenuous of the Highways Agency to say that the police said that the bridge was intrinsically safe. That is not the case.

In fact, since the bridge opened, there have been a number of other nose-to-tail accidents, including one on 1 July 2014, in which a mother and son were tragically killed. After that accident, I again asked for a review of safety on the crossing, but on that occasion I was told that we would have to wait until after the inquest into the two deaths. I accepted that; it was reasonable.

At the inquest, which has now been held, the coroner made the following telling comments in a report sent to the chief executive of Highways England:

“During the course of the investigation my inquiries revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.

Accident data reveals that in addition to the collision subject of this inquest which resulted in two fatalities, there have been a number of rear end collisions on the Sheppey Bridge associated with stationary vehicles being struck, including a multiple vehicle collision in September 2013.

A review of the safety of the Sheppey Bridge published in February 2015 has concluded that a combination of the geometry of the bridge affecting the forward visibility to drivers and the high speeds of vehicles travelling over the bridge, which has a 70 mph limit, impacts on the safety of the bridge. The review recommended a reduction in the speed limit to 50 mph to mitigate the safety concerns.

The speed limit for the bridge remains at 70 mph.”

The coroner went on to say:

“In my opinion urgent action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe your organisation has the power to take such action.”

The action that Highways England took was to introduce a temporary 50 mph speed limit. That was eight months ago. The problem is that few drivers comply with the speed limit and, because of the absence of repeater speed signs on the bridge, it is not possible for the police to enforce it on the Sheppey crossing itself, which somewhat defeats the object of a temporary speed limit. I understand that Highways England has commissioned Arup to undertake a review of safety on the Sheppey crossing. I asked for such a report almost three years ago, so although I am pleased that something is now being done, it prompts the question of why a report was not commissioned when I first requested it.

In November 2014, following the two tragic deaths, I made a speech here in Westminster Hall, in which I pointed out that as a result of the 2013 pile-up, as a bare minimum, there should be proper matrix warning signs on the bridge. I also said that even more measures were needed, including average speed cameras to enforce the 70 mph speed limit; CCTV monitoring of the bridge to spot breakdowns sooner and to enable the police to close the bridge more quickly; and the installation of emergency telephones and refuge bays, so that people do not have to stay in their cars if they break down.

It is now 2016 and no safety measures have been introduced, except for an unenforceable 50 mph speed limit. That is unacceptable. I plead with the Minister to encourage Highways England to treat the matter with the urgency that my constituents deserve. If action is not taken quickly and there is another major pile-up or, God forbid, another tragic death, then Highways England will have blood on its collective hands.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. It is probably most appropriate to start by saying that I am grateful that it gives me the opportunity to express my sincere condolences to the families of the two people killed on 1 July 2014 on the Sheppey crossing. I also wish for a full recovery for all those injured in the multi-vehicle accident in fog in September 2013.

My hon. Friend has articulated clearly his constituents’ problems with the crossing. He also talked about how local people raised the issues during the planning and construction phase, including those with significant knowledge of the area from an emergency services perspective. I am sure that he is frustrated that the situation is where it is, but we cannot rewrite the past; we have to work to improve the future.

My hon. Friend met my predecessor to seek assurances on the safety of the Sheppey crossing, and I confirm that the Government take road safety very seriously. The target set for Highways England is to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our road network to no more than 1,393 in a year by the end of 2020. That would be a 40% reduction on the 2005 to 2009 average baseline. As we all know, however, that is still too many people, and we will continue to put road safety at the heart of our decisions as we review the strategic road network.

I am most aware and have always been conscious that behind every statistic is a shattered family. That is why I am pleased that we were able to produce our road safety statement for this Parliament in December of last year, articulating a number of actions that we can take across the spectrum of road-safety issues to improve the situation.

To turn directly to the matter of the A249 Sheppey crossing, perhaps it would be helpful to go over some of its recent history. A road safety audit was undertaken after the road had been open for a year, and it concluded that the accident frequency was lower than the predicted national average. I acknowledge that Kent police have expressed concerns since the opening of the crossing and, in particular, have sought a permanent 50 mph speed limit. Following the multi-vehicle collision in September 2013, however, the Kent police’s conclusion was that drivers had not adjusted their driving to take account of the fog. That happens all too frequently and is a constant source of concern for the network.

Following the tragic fatal accident on 1 July 2014, which sadly resulted in two deaths, as my hon. Friend said, an investigation was carried out by the consortium that operates the Sheppey crossing, in addition to the police investigation. A further study by the consortium reported its findings in February 2015, with the conclusion that no evidence was available to support the premise that inappropriate speed was a contributory factor to the fatal collision or any of the other collisions covered in the report, with the exception of the multiple collision in fog.

The report also concluded that the accident rate at the crossing was no higher than for other similar dual carriageways operated by Highways England.

For the Sheppey crossing, I accept that the rate of collisions is lower than the national average, but does the Minister accept that the rate on the accident severity index is higher than the national average?

My hon. Friend rightly makes an important point. The worst multiple-vehicle collision on record in our country’s history and an accident with two fatalities indicate the severity of the issues in the area.

The report identified a degree of non-compliance with the legal speed limit about one mile south of the collision. On 11 June last year, at a pre-inquest meeting, the coroner asked for urgent action to be taken by Highways England under regulation 28 of the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013. Highways England responded and commissioned a road safety study. The initial study, published on 27 July last year, recommended that a temporary 50 mph speed limit should be imposed on the bridge and that it should be monitored. If the monitoring indicated that the speed limit was still being substantially exceeded, the use of average speed enforcement systems and other mitigation should be considered.

The 50 mph speed limit has since been imposed, and Highways England is monitoring the effects of the speed limit with average speed cameras that could be used to enforce the speed limit, but at the moment are not used for such enforcement—they are used for measurement, rather than for enforcement.

With regard to the speed limit and the monitoring of it, the Minister might not be aware from his briefing that the speeds for July and August were monitored. The average speed on the Sheppey crossing—bearing in mind that it is meant to have a 70 mph speed limit anyway—dropped from 80.55 mph to 75.38 mph northbound and from 78.15 mph to 72.71 mph southbound. So even while the 50 mph speed limit has been in place, the average speed has still been higher than the permanent 70 mph speed limit.

I was aware of those data and my hon. Friend is correct that speeds are still very high in the area. When I read those data, I was struck by how far above the temporary speed limit the speeds were. He makes a fair point about speed on the crossing.

The average speed cameras will provide Highways England with better information on traffic flows and speed on the Sheppey crossing as they cover a more focused area than the normal journey monitoring system on the A249. With the benefit of such speed and flow data, Highways England and Kent Police will hold discussions about whether the cameras should be used to enforce the speed limit.

I recognise that this is not just a matter of safety: incidents on the crossing have a significant impact on the Isle of Sheppey, both from an economic perspective and on its residents’ quality of life. My hon. Friend has made that point in discussions with me on several occasions prior to the debate.

On the question of enforcement, even with average speed cameras the police cannot enforce the limit unless signs are in place. That is clear in D3.7.19—that is the reference that Highways England uses—which says:

“The police can only enforce speed limits where the speed limit signs are correctly placed”,

and we cannot get those signs on the bridge. Unless there are proper average speed cameras and speed camera signs, which are not in place, the limit cannot be enforced.

My hon. Friend and I will be busy agreeing with each other on that point. I am aware of the restrictions in signage and lighting and of the environmental sensitivity of the crossing. I am also aware of the narrowness of the central reservation, the lack of refuges and the constrained nature of the site, which have restricted all the measures he mentioned.

Let me inform my hon. Friend and the House that Highways England recently held a workshop requested by its health and safety board, at which a number of actions were considered, including: removal of the temporary 50 mph speed limit currently in place; enforcement of the national 70 mph speed limit; enhanced road markings and signing; and setting a review period to monitor safety performance. Any permanent speed limit change would be subject to consultation with the police and would also require a statutory traffic regulation order. However, subject to the board’s endorsement, Highways England will develop an action plan for delivering the works, which may span over several months.

Highways England is also carrying out a further study on the whole of the A249 to identify permanent and viable cost-effective safety measures to ensure that drivers recognise that the posted speed limit is there for a reason. The outcome of that study is due to be published in about a month’s time—it is only four weeks away. I have not been able to see that report—it is not ready for publication—but it is clearly important. I suggest that, after it is published, my hon. Friend and I should read it and then meet to discuss its content. I would like to hear from him about local people’s concerns and the acceptability of speed limits. He obviously knows the site, and I do not know it anything like as well, so I would be grateful to hear his views when we get to that point. Perhaps a follow-up of the debate will be such a meeting.

Subject to the recommendations of the study, Highways England will consider a rationalisation of the existing speed limits on the lengths of single carriageway. It will also continue to monitor traffic and speeds, as well as incidents, with a view to bringing forward other measures that may be required.

May I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House? It is clearly a timely issue, given that we are only a few weeks from the publication date of that important report. He raised a number of points. First, he said that urgency is required in dealing with this matter, which is an important point. I am happy to confirm that that is exactly what will happen. Indeed, I have already raised the report and safety on the crossing with the chief executive of Highways England and will continue to do so as an action point from the debate.

Safety is at the heart of our work on road investment. As a Government, we are investing an unprecedented amount in our transport infrastructure and safety is at the heart of the decision-making process. It is one of the key elements that underpins our road investment strategy. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that action is being taken to make journeys better and safer for all. He has done a valuable job, speaking up on behalf of his constituents today about a difficult crossing that, as he articulated so clearly, has a chequered history in terms of safety. I look forward to working with him and with Highways England to improve the situation for all his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Local Government: Ethical Procurement

[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered local government and ethical procurement.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. As I look around, I see right hon. and hon. Members with very different views on Israel and Palestine, and people who disagree about what incentives or pressure should apply to either side to secure equal rights, including the rights of statehood and the right to security for the peoples of both Palestine and Israel.

As chair of the Britain-Palestine all-party parliamentary group, I take a close interest in the situation in the middle east. However, this debate is not primarily about whether any of us takes this view or that view on how to bring peace there; I sought today’s debate to hold Ministers to account and to require them to be clear about what their policy announcements mean and do not mean. This debate is also about the ability of those who are responsible in public institutions to exercise the judgments that they are appointed to exercise within the law when they make decisions. That could be in respect of how local authorities are accountable to their electorates for making decisions or of the ability of pensions trustees to make judgments in line with their fiduciary duties.

I welcome the Minister here today to answer questions about the procurement policy note issued by the Cabinet Office on 17 February entitled “Putting a stop to public procurement boycotts” and about the proposed changes to the rules governing the local government pension scheme’s investments—for which I understand the Cabinet Office is also responsible, for some reason. I look to the Minister to answer what he will be asked clearly and without ambiguity. That is always important, but it is even more important on these matters because the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has volunteered very little about them to the House. That is in stark contrast to the amount of publicity he has sought to generate for his proposals outside the House.

For where this all starts, we need to go back to the Conservative party conference last October. A press release was issued in which the right hon. Gentleman was quoted. It was headlined “Government to stop ‘divisive’ town hall boycotts and sanctions” and said that action was going to be taken against the

“growing spread of militant divestment campaigns against UK defence and Israeli firms.”

However, that press release also contained a note to editors, as press releases often do, that suggested that a large number of the local authorities and public institutions that were apparently due to be targeted by the new rules had not resolved to divest from companies on the grounds that they were Israeli or of any other nationality. They had made or were in the course of making procurement or investment decisions on the basis of the behaviour of companies, irrespective of their nationality. In fact, the behaviour most frequently mentioned in the press release was financial involvement with illegal settlements in the west bank, about which local authorities and others were concerned.

I know that in October last year, collective Cabinet responsibility was perhaps expected rather more than it appears to be these days. However, it is rather surprising that the Minister for the Cabinet Office took such exception to public institutions seeking to avoid dealings with companies involved with illegal settlements, given that the Foreign Office’s own website carries very different advice.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this vital discussion. As he will be aware, the UK Trade & Investment website, which is sponsored by the Foreign Office, states:

“we do not encourage or offer support”

to firms that trade with illegal settlements. Does my hon. Friend agree that we find ourselves in a perverse situation? The Foreign Office is warning UK companies and private individuals against trading with the settlements, while the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Cabinet Office are threatening to make it illegal for public bodies to do so.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is worth quoting directly from that Foreign Office advice, which is there to this day. It says:

“Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace”

and “threaten” the “two-state solution”. It goes on:

“There are therefore clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and”—

as my hon. Friend just said—

“we do not encourage or offer support to such activity. Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements as well as other economic activities (including in services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a legitimate part of Israel’s territory.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend for securing such an important debate. Does he agree that local authorities are in fact a branch of the state and therefore have a duty to observe our obligations under international human rights law?

I understand what my hon. Friend says, but this is also about different public institutions making judgments in line with the law and their best belief of what the situation is. I hope that all public institutions would pay due regard to international law.

Before giving way, I just want to finish this quote from the Foreign Office advice:

“This may result in disputed titles to the land, water, mineral or other natural resources which might be the subject of purchase or investment. EU citizens and businesses should also be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible abuses of the rights of individuals. Those contemplating any economic or financial involvement in settlements should seek appropriate legal advice.”

Following the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) just made, the Foreign Office guidance also talks about

“possible violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law”.

Indeed, the Foreign Office guidance is very clear, whereas the procurement policy note is very unclear. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) agree that that may be intentional—that the actual aim is not to change the law, but to discourage and blackmail local authorities into not taking steps that may be perfectly legitimate and that the Foreign Office is encouraging them to take?

The point that my hon. Friend makes is about the fear that a lot of people have about the agenda behind this procurement policy note.

My hon. Friend is constructing a very powerful case. Does he agree that this is about not necessarily Israel but a much wider issue? It is about the freedom of people in local government to do as I and five of my fellow councillors—who all subsequently became MPs—did in the London Borough of Ealing in 1982, when we were quite happy to disinvest in Barclays. Will my hon. Friend remind me about what element of parliamentary scrutiny or involvement there was when the statement was made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office in February this year? I do not recall it being mentioned on the Floor of the House at all.

My hon. Friend is quite right. Parliamentary scrutiny of this matter has come down to a number of us having to ask questions—to which we have had not very detailed replies, I have to say—and to this debate. We had to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall to get any parliamentary scrutiny of this matter at all.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for giving me an opportunity to ask him this question. I asked the Cabinet Office and a number of other Departments whether they had recently met people from the arms industry, the tobacco industry or, indeed, the Israeli embassy who may have lobbied for this measure. I am afraid that I did not get a substantive response from any of the Departments. Has my hon. Friend had any answers to questions such as that?

I am afraid that my hon. Friend’s experience rather mirrors mine and that of a number of other hon. Members.

This point is merely about the mechanics of parliamentary time. I simply wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows how many procurement policy notes there have been in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and how many of those have merited parliamentary scrutiny in their own right.

I have no idea about that, but if the hon. Lady thinks this is not a very significant public procurement note that merits parliamentary scrutiny, I wonder why the Minister for the Cabinet Office took the trouble of announcing it in a press conference with the Prime Minister of Israel on 17 February.

On 16 December, I asked the Secretary of State for International Development whether she agreed with the Foreign Office that it was perfectly reasonable for both public and private institutions to pay due regard to that Foreign Office advice when they make their own investment and procurement decisions. Her answer was unequivocal. She said:

“They should do that; that is good Foreign Office advice.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 1534.]

So my first question to the Minister is this: were civil servants consulted at all before the press release was issued at the Conservative party conference? I am happy to give way to him if he has a reply.

I was planning to wait until the end and collect what I am sure will be a whole series of questions. Perhaps that will allow me to wrap them all up together in a series of responses.

I am very happy for that to happen. I give the Minister notice that there will be six questions on which I am seeking answers.

Did Ministers really take the view that public institutions should not have the same rights and concerns as private institutions when it comes to good business practice and corporate social responsibility? What was it that Ministers were trying to outlaw? The public procurement note published on 17 February appears to suggest much less than the Conservative press release of October; it appears to say that institutions should not impose a blanket ban on contracts with companies on the basis of the nationality of the companies concerned, in line with existing EU and World Trade Organisation rules. We know that the WTO forbids the use of quantitative restrictions, such as a ban on imports—phrased in terms of products originating in the “territory” of another WTO member.

On 9 March, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) about whether the occupied territories could be considered part of Israel, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was absolutely clear:

“The World Trade Organisation does not define the territory of its members. The UK does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. We therefore do not consider the Occupied Palestinian Territories to be part of Israel.”

So my second question to the Minister is this: is there anything in this public procurement notice or that is intended by the Government that in any way changes that?

European Union rules are also mentioned in the public procurement notice. They allow public institutions, on a case-by-case basis, to exclude companies from tenders on the basis of their behaviour, specifically where grave misconduct may be involved. What could that mean? Let us turn again to the Government’s own documents—to their 2013 national action plan on implementing the UN guiding principles on human rights and business. An extract from that states that the UK Government

“are committed to ensuring that in UK Government procurement human rights related matters are reflected appropriately when purchasing goods, works and services. Under the public procurement rules public bodies may exclude tenderers from bidding for a contract opportunity in certain circumstances, including where there is information showing grave misconduct by a company in the course of its business or profession. Such misconduct might arise in cases where there are breaches of human rights.”

My third question to the Minister is therefore this: does the February 2016 public procurement note in any way change or add to that advice?

My fourth question is about whether the Minister considers that a breach of the fourth Geneva convention is a breach of human rights. If he does, would the public procurement note restrict a public institution from resolving not to deal with a company that was involved in aiding and abetting breaches of that convention?

If the public procurement note is prompting these and more questions, so, too, are the changes that the Cabinet Office says it is going to introduce in relation to investment decisions of local government pension funds. So my fifth question is this: pension fund trustees are already covered by a fiduciary duty, but will the changes being introduced in any way fetter the judgments that they make in line with that fiduciary duty in relation to, say, not investing in fossil fuels, tobacco or the arms trade?

My sixth question logically follows from that: in order to be clear on these points, will the Minister outline what plans he has for parliamentary scrutiny of these changes to pension fund guidance? Specifically, will he commit to consulting on any draft guidance he intends to issue in respect of local government pension scheme investments before it is published and before Parliament, through whatever procedure, is asked to make any kind of decision on these changes?

My hon. Friend is setting out a clear set of questions, and he has made it clear that there is some ambiguity about precisely what the impact of the guidance note is. Is his reading of it that the kind of disinvestment by a local authority pension fund that was referred to earlier—Barclays and activities in South Africa—would be ruled out?

I should say in answer to my right hon. Friend that I honestly do not know. That is the whole point—the Minister has to answer these questions. The wording of the Conservative party press release would certainly indicate to me that that kind of thing would be outlawed, but the Minister has to give specific answers today to these specific questions. That is important because it simply is not acceptable for councils, pension funds or other public institutions to feel threatened away from acting in line with their best judgments, in line with their duties, as a result of innuendo broadcast by the Cabinet Office Minister at the Conservative party conference—or indeed, broadcast more recently in Israel.

I am not entirely sure whether the Church of England is counted as an institution in this context, but does my hon. Friend realise that it would certainly be caught up in this guidance note?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that; that could be a seventh question for the Minister.

The Minister no doubt spoke to his right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office before this debate, so perhaps he knows why his right hon. Friend decided to launch this public procurement note not in a statement to the House or under any House procedure, but in a press conference alongside the Prime Minister of Israel. If the reason was that he wanted to make a point on the world stage about this Government’s opposition to generalised boycotts of Israel, then okay—if he wants to make that point—but why did he apparently not feel any need to utter a word about other parts of Government policy, such as the fact that settlements in the occupied territories are illegal?

Why was there not a word about the fact that Israel had only recently withdrawn co-operation from an independent delegation of UK lawyers acting on a Foreign Office-supported project, which has found that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian child prisoners breached article 76 of fourth Geneva convention and several articles of the UN convention on the rights of the child? Why did the right hon. Gentleman not find time to mention that in the first six weeks of 2016, over 400 Palestinians have been displaced from their homes? That is over half the total number of Palestinians displaced in the whole of 2015.

I suspect that the Minister for the Cabinet Office’s apparent failure to say a word publicly about those things during his visit illustrates a rather strange set of priorities and a highly selective approach to UK policies on the Israel-Palestine question. He will have to answer for himself about his priorities and inconsistencies, but the Minister here today has an obligation to answer, on behalf of the Government, the specific questions about the procurement policy note and the changes they intend for local authority pension regulations. I have asked this Minister six specific questions and I ask him to do the House the courtesy of giving six clear and unambiguous answers to those questions today.

Order. Nine colleagues wish to catch my eye and have roughly 40 minutes in which to do so. Perhaps I could impose a voluntary restraint of four minutes each, and we will see how we get on.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—I mean Mr Streeter—for calling me to speak. Aside from promoting you, I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on having secured this debate.

I will take as my starting point the wisdom that regularly emerges from the mouth of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for whom I have great respect. He said that the issue was not about any one country’s policies but about local government powers. I believe that it is wrong for councils to attempt to use local government pension funds and procurement practices to make their own foreign policy.

First, it is wrong because foreign policy is reserved to Westminster as a matter for national Government. Having policy made in town halls can damage foreign relations, to the detriment of Britain’s national and international security.

Does that principle extend to banning city councils, for example, from giving the freedom of their cities to notable figures from abroad? Would that fall within her ban on a foreign policy for local government?

If the hon. Gentleman will wait for the rest of my speech, he will hear that I intend my contribution to be about council expenditure of taxpayers’ money. I know that Labour Members are not so hot on the expenditure of taxpayers’ money, but perhaps he will allow me to make the rest of my comments.

I am sorry, but I must continue because there is so little time left.

My second reason for believing that it is wrong for local government to make their own foreign policy is that local boycotts in and of themselves can damage integration and community cohesion. That is highly unfortunate.

Thirdly, to attempt to hold an item of foreign policy locally is likely to be unlawful. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman found it impossible to read procurement policy note 01/16, but I took from it very clearly that EU and UK procurement legislation, backed up by the World Trade Organisation, can result in severe penalties against the contracting authority and the Government. That takes me on to my answer to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). It is at the heart of this debate that we should not seek to put taxpayers’ business rates or council tax at risk of substantial fines that could arise from unlawful treatment of suppliers. The Government are very clear in the note that they will always involve the relevant contracting authority in these proceedings, so there is nowhere to hide.

Finally, the other reason why such a policy is wrong is that it does not provide taxpayers with value for money. Procurement is quite simply for purposes other than political. It is the act of buying something because taxpayers need it, not because the council leader wants to wear a particular political pin badge that week. I want local taxpayers’ money to be used for the goods and services that they need, and only for what they need.

I do not know whether the Labour party really thinks there is any money to spare after they left the cupboard bare, but until public finances are back in order, the job in hand is to get the best deal for taxpayers. What I want in local procurement is the best possible value for money from the total spend, which may amount to tens of billions of pounds; a strategic approach to procurement rather than political whim, which may be ultra vires; reduced procurement bureaucracy, such as the welcome removal of pre-qualification questionnaires for low-value contracts and standardisation for high-value procurements; sound commercial and contract management of that spend; accountability for the services or goods bought; wherever possible, local SMEs benefiting from spending decisions because that value stays in the community and can often provide huge innovation; and prompt payment to contractors. Why do I want those simple goals? Because when budgets are squeezed, local taxpayers should come first. Every public body should do better for the British economy and not be distracted elsewhere.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing this debate. I want to put on the record something that will appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests when it next comes out. I recently visited the west bank and Jerusalem, the trip being sponsored by the UK branch of Fatah.

I want to emphasise some of the questions my hon. Friend asked. Does the guidance on pension investments and procurement change the law in any way? Does it in any way fetter local authorities’ decisions on best value in procurement? That is not simply about cheapness. We are not going back to the compulsory competitive tendering days. The last Labour Government brought in best value, which takes account of social and environmental matters, as the Government have confirmed. Does it in any way fetter the discretion of pension trustees to exercise their fiduciary duties, which go far wider than the narrow responsibility for public sector pensions? Will the Government confirm that the guidance for private businesses on their engagement with the settlements, on goods from the settlements, and on trade with the settlements, applies to public bodies as well? Can we have clarity on that?

During the 1980s, some local authorities sought to sever links with firms that traded with South Africa. I think local authorities were right then and I think there is a lot of shame on the Conservative Benches about the action that the then Conservative Government took in defence of the apartheid regime.

There is a story about what happened. Shell took Leicester city council to court because it said that by refusing to allow it to compete for a tender, the council was losing out on a potentially cheaper contract. Shell won in court. Sheffield city council decided not to put Shell on the tender list for a contract because of its dealings with South Africa and justified that because it had wider responsibilities for good race relations and to take account of the views of its citizens. Shell did not take Sheffield city council to court because it was recognised that it had behaved legally in taking those views into account.

The Secretary of State has said that the actions of councils have caused community division. The Minister must say precisely what examples he has of that division. The Government have a responsibility not just for race relations but, under the Equality Act 2010, for equality impact assessments and public sector equality. The Act requires public authorities to have regard to a number of equality considerations affecting race, and also religion.

The House of Commons Library has produced a good note, which says:

“A Minister must assess the risk and extent of any adverse impact and the ways in which such risk may be eliminated before the adoption of a proposed policy and not merely as a ‘rearguard action’”.

Have the Government done that? Where is the equality impact assessment? Do local authorities not have a duty to have regard to the effect on equality in their area in terms of both race and religion when considering whether to buy goods from the illegal Israeli settlements? Can the Minister explain what he thinks the effect will be on race relations in my constituency, which has a large number of people of Muslim faith from a background of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Somalia and Somaliland? What would be the impact on them if they saw their council tax being used to buy goods from the illegal Israeli settlements? How could that possibly be good for community relations? That is where the division is in this argument and the Minister must come clean about the Government’s objectives, how they assessed them and whether they think local authorities have the wider responsibility that I contend they have.

It is a great pity that this has been promoted as a debate about local government when in reality it is just a thinly disguised attack against the legitimate and democratic state of Israel. Why has there been no discussion about the repression in other middle eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia and Iran? Why does the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions organisation spend all its time demonising Israel and ignoring Hamas and Hezbollah as they pour rocket fire down on Israel? The premise of the debate has more to do with cheap political point scoring than with the lives of individuals. Palestinian workers would risk losing their jobs if such actions by BDS were successful and economic sanctions were directed against Israeli firms that employ them. [Interruption.]

Those Palestinian workers are paid on average three or four times more than they could earn elsewhere. About 500 Palestinians lost their jobs in October 2015, when international pressure from the BDS movement led to the closure of SodaStream’s factory in Ma’ale Adumim. That demonstrates that the BDS movement only seeks to harm Israel, with little consideration of how its actions will affect the livelihood of Palestinians, even though Palestinians employed by Israeli companies enjoy substantially higher wages and improved living conditions than those employed elsewhere.

No, I will not. Supporters of the movement claim to embrace the boycott tactic as a non-violent way to pressure Israel into negotiations. The campaign is clearly a biased effort to demonise Israel and place the entire onus for the conflict on one side—the Israelis.

No. The BDS campaign rejects a two-state solution and denies the Jewish right to self-determination and statehood in favour of supporting the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

No. In fact, the BDS movement has an anti-Semitic foundation. [Interruption.] No. One of its co-founders is on record as rejecting the right of a Jewish state in Israel—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] No.

Indeed, reports of anti-Semitic attacks being perpetrated in Europe can be directly linked with the hateful rhetoric espoused by many BDS campaigners, and BDS founder Omar Barghouti has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Israel’s right to exist as a state of the Jewish people. But most telling of all is that the Palestinian Authority themselves do not support a boycott.

The subject of this debate is local government and ethical procurement. We have got so far from that subject as to be ridiculous, in my opinion.

If the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) was out of order, I would have called him out of order. It is actually the point that has been raised by the opening speaker, so I call Dr Matthew Offord.

Thank you, Mr Streeter, for your wise words.

In December 2013, Mahmoud Abbas stated that, with the exception of settlement goods, the Palestinian Authority do not support a boycott on Israel. He said that

“we do not ask anyone to boycott Israel itself. We have relations with Israel, we have mutual recognition of Israel.”

I and my constituents welcome the Government’s announcement of new rules to curtail silly left-wing town halls and all publicly funded bodies from adopting politically motivated anti-Israel boycott and divestment campaigns.

Apology accepted. The BDS movement says that having such interests makes companies “complicit in war crimes”, as they help to entrench the occupation and settlements. If that was the case, why did not BDS and its supporters seek a ban on British goods and services when Tony Blair decided to invade Iraq? The simple reason is that British goods and services had no influence over British foreign policy, as indeed academics and universities and goods and services in Israel have no influence over Israeli foreign policy.

What Labour and the Scottish National party failed to achieve in the general election—a majority or coalition Government to decide foreign policy—we will not let them seek to achieve at local level. Such policy is made in this House. There is no place for that in town halls, whose duties are simply to deliver local services and not to make foreign policy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for securing the debate. Like other hon. Members, I am quite curious as to why the Westminster Government want to censure local government authorities for making ethical decisions on where to invest their own pension funds.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree with him: that is the reason why we are here today—to discuss the ethical decisions that have been made by local authorities. I shall proceed as fast as I can, Mr Streeter.

The whole thing strikes me as not good practice; indeed, it could be called bad practice. I would like the Minister to explain to me the reasons for that interference by the Government with the principles, with the decisions made by trustees on behalf of local communities, who appoint tried and trusted fund managers to look after the pension funds for them. The Government are quite breathtaking in their contradictions. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has stated that he wants to start northern powerhouses; he wants to give local people more say in what is happening in their local communities. Yet he is telling them, “Sorry, you’re not going to get a say in what your pension funds do.” That is an absolute shambles of a policy, and it sounds to me as if he just made it up as he went along—for what reason, I would love to know. It would not be right to deny pension funds the right to direct their fund managers on how they want their investments to work for them. It is that local authority’s business. Local authorities alone are answerable to their communities in terms of how they want their funds to work for them.

Can the Minister explain to me and others why this policy differs from the one that I have just mentioned? The Government want to introduce powerhouses in the north of England to give people more powers, but now they are introducing this policy. I want to hear an answer on that. It sounds like an absolute and total contradiction. There is one rule for the Government and another rule for local authorities. That is absolutely and blatantly wrong.

We can compare the Westminster Government with the Scottish Government, who take a much more considered approach, with proper regard, respect and trust for the social and environmental investments made by pension fund managers on behalf of local authorities in Scotland. My local authority in Falkirk has £1.8 billion in its fund and at this moment might well be looking at investing with the Green Investment Bank. If that bank moves away from its original purpose—God forbid—of investing in green energy, surely an authority has the right to withdraw funding from that organisation; it will need to alter its investments accordingly. And the same is true for that pension fund with regard to international developments. That statement of investment principles must be honoured.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I start by declaring an interest: both I and my wife are members of the Cheshire local government pension fund.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing this extremely important and timely debate, but of course it should not have been left to members of the Opposition to drag the Minister into a debate to explain the Government’s policy, so I hope that when he responds, he will, as my hon. Friend said, set out why he thought that it was appropriate to announce a change in policy in front of the media in another country rather than in this House, where proper scrutiny could have followed.

As well as the failure to follow any kind of proper process, I am extremely concerned by the tone that Ministers have adopted when addressing this issue. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has accused councils of adopting policies that

“undermine good community relations, and harm the economic security of families by pushing up council tax.”

Those are very serious allegations, but people will note that no specific examples have been given and no specific authority has been referred to. It is therefore a smear against local government as a whole. I challenge the Minister to name a single authority that has increased its council tax as a direct result of the issues that we are discussing today. If he cannot, he should urge the Secretary of State to retract that totally groundless comment and to start treating local politicians and public servants with the respect that they deserve.

Of course, when making such sweeping statements, the Minister ignores the fact that councils are having to increase council tax this year to address the damage that the Government have caused to local government and, in particular, the social care sector. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has so far failed to claim that an explicit demand from the Chancellor to raise council tax, in violation of Conservative manifesto commitments, is harming the economic security of families. That is in stark contrast to the subject matter of this debate. It is only the latest in a series of announcements that set out what this Government really think about devolution, and the contempt with which they continue to treat local government. Their policy on devolution can now be summed up in one sentence: “We will give you as much power as you want, as long as we get to choose what those powers are and exactly how they can be used.”

The Government have so far discussed the changes only in terms of so-called boycotts, but there is understandable unease in the sector about the wider implications for ethical procurement, which is vital if councils are to use their purchasing power to deliver wider benefits to their communities and to honour their election pledges.

Local government procures around £12 billion a year of goods and services, much of it from the UK, but some from the global supply chain. Ethical procurement can produce tangible benefits. For example, in my local Labour council, Cheshire West and Chester, the new adult social care contracts adhere to Unison’s ethical care charter, which stipulates that 80% of the workforce must be on contracted hours, not zero-hours contracts. In the domiciliary care contract, providers pay at least £7.68 per hour.

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, in contrast to Government Members. The point about local government is that democracy is not all focused in this place. Decisions about spending, representation and taxation can also be made at a local level. If we strip that out, it undermines the pluralism and democracy of this country.

Absolutely. That is the central point of what I am trying to say today. Our local authority had all-out elections last May. Ethical procurement was one of the key parts of the manifesto commitment, and it has been delivered. I do not believe that any Member of this House would say that that is not a legitimate practice of the local authority. The council is now looking to see how it can use future procurements to encourage more employers in the area to improve the terms and conditions of their staff.

As a result of the Labour group’s suggestions, the council has decided not to use companies involved in union blacklisting. That is a value judgment by the democratically elected councillors about who they want to do business with. I am struggling to see any rational basis for distinguishing between those sorts of decisions and choices and the sorts of decisions referred to in the draft regulations. That is the nub of the matter. If local government is to have genuine autonomy, there might be occasions when people say, “I do not agree with what you are doing, but I recognise your democratic right to exercise that choice.” So I say to Ministers: resist the temptation to micromanage local government. Show us that the Government are genuine about devolution and withdraw the regulations.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who knows more about these matters than possibly any other Member of the House, certainly with regard to Israel and Palestine. He has probably enabled us all to stay within our four-minute limit because he has asked most of the relevant questions. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who referred to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last month, I was on a visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, funded by Medical Aid for Palestinians and organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding.

When I arrived in Jerusalem, the first thing I got was a call from the BBC to ask me whether I wanted to comment on the arrival of the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who was due to arrive in Tel Aviv the following day to make an announcement on local government procurement. I was a local authority council leader for quite a few years and I remember lots of procurement directives and announcements, particularly on the issue of compulsory competitive tendering in those dark days of the 1990s. I do not remember any of them being made from Tel Aviv.

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), but she presented a rather thin argument—a thin but measured argument, as opposed to a thick and unmeasured argument, which we have also heard from the other side. The idea that, for instance, London—or any local authority, particularly in our great cities—should not be able to take a view on such matters is a thin and transparent argument, especially when the current Mayor of London spends half his life touring the world, quite rightly promoting British trade and matters of that kind. This is a thin and transparent argument, and it comes from the fact that this ridiculous advice note comes out of the Conservative party press notice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield has said.

I will make just three points. First, there is a conflict between the established and well drafted Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, which has been quoted extensively—it is very clear in its advice to businesses not to get involved in settlement trade—and the obscurity, lack of clarity and, indeed, disingenuous nature of the procurement policy note, which does not appear to say very much but hints at a great deal, mentioning things such as community cohesion and other matters of that kind, and also favouring national suppliers.

Secondly, there does not appear to be in that note—I hope the Minister will clarify this—any breach of the World Trade Organisation or European Union guidance, because there is no discrimination based on nationality, contrary to some of the almost hysterical things that we have heard today. The specific issue being dealt with in this debate and that the Minister is being asked about—it was the one dealt with in the answer to my question—relates to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We all know that the occupation is unlawful under international law and that they are not recognised by the UK and many other countries as part of Israel.

This issue should not be conflated with BDS. Different people have different views on BDS. The fact that we have labelling guidance, which the Government have maintained, allows people to make individual choices. Some may argue that it is open to public bodies or others to make such choices if they want to, or for Members of Parliament to make statements in relation to such matters, but that is a different matter from illegal settlements. Illegal settlements should not be traded with, and if local authorities wish to make such a decision, that should be open.

Let us remember what we are talking about here: theft of land, occupation, colonisation, and the arbitrary detention of many thousands of Palestinians. Those are crimes in international law as great as anything that happened in South Africa. They are not happening within one country; they are happening in somebody else’s country. That is the reason why action needs to be taken, and it is perfectly reasonable that it is done in this way.

I was not intending to speak in this debate, but it has been very interesting to listen to and I would like to add a few brief remarks.

In respect of the comments made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the Minister and the press conference at which the announcement was made—or made at least the second time—in the presence of the Prime Minster of Israel, by coincidence I happened to be at that meeting. [Interruption.] Clearly, it was not by sheer coincidence. I was not with the Minister—was what I meant to say—but with a group of MPs and Members of the House of Lords. A cross-party group was sitting in the room, so there were many witnesses of all parties. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, who otherwise made a sensible case—I do not agree with it, but it was sensible—was wrong in that respect, because various points that he and those who feel strongly in support of the Palestinians would have wished to be raised were raised at that meeting by those present, including by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I recall important points about the peace process and specific asks about Gaza and fishing rights being raised, so that should be corrected for the record.

I want to make three brief points. First, the genesis of this debate is the BDS movement, and we should acknowledge that. There are differences of opinion. I think that BDS is unlikely to further the peace process. I personally believe that settlements are extremely unhelpful. I support the British Government’s policy in objecting to them and trying to use any opportunity, such as that meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, to try to change minds and to further that argument, but I do not think the BDS movement is at all likely to further that argument. In fact, it is likely to be totally counterproductive.

My second point builds on one from another hon. Member, which was in respect of community cohesion. That is a consideration for us as Members of Parliament. Indeed, if I were on a local council, I would like to bear that in mind, but it is worth recognising that the BDS movement has an impact on community cohesion, which is a negative one for many, particularly Israelis living in the United Kingdom and the Jewish community. Not everybody, clearly—that would be an outrageous oversimplification—but a number of those involved in the BDS movement are linked to intolerance and to anti-Semitic behaviour, and they make life extremely unpleasant for Jewish people living in our communities.

I checked on Twitter a few minutes before walking into this debate. One only has to type in “BDS” to see some very unpleasant tweets, including one that actually asked whether my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General was a Jew himself. It said, “Is Hancock an Ashkenazi name, because he would come up with a policy like this?” Such behaviour is totally intolerable and whatever side we on in this debate, we should recognise that and condemn it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who made a fantastic and important speech, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). He made a helpful speech. Both of those contrasted starkly with what I found to be one of the most disappointing speeches I have heard in the six years I have been in this place, from the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). I was disappointed with the content and the delivery.

I have four quick points to make; I will rattle through them as quickly as possible. First, I have concern about where the Minister for the Cabinet Office made the announcement, and I think the Minister should explain the situation. Secondly, ambiguity is an issue for me. The Government have said that the aim of the changes is to stop politically motivated boycott and divestment campaigns by town halls against UK defence companies and Israel. That is despite the Foreign Office advice already outlined—so I will not go into it—by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield. There is no doubt that there is confusion, because in January the Government said they were opposed to the development of settlements in the west bank. In one breath the Government condemn the illegal settlements and in another they say that local authorities will face severe consequences should they choose to avoid investing in them. The entire advice needs to be cleared up, and perhaps the Minister will shed some light on it.

The third point I wanted to make is about the World Trade Organisation. The Government appear to suggest that local authorities could be in breach of rules, but in fact they cannot, so perhaps the Minister will provide clarity on that. Fourthly, and finally, I am concerned about local government being treated in such a way. The issue is about local democracy and the need for decisions to be made by elected members, rather than imposed by central Government.

It is lovely to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).

Spending is inherently political, as we can see when we think about the Chancellor, and austerity and its effect on communities. Watering down and limiting the impact of local democracy because of disagreement about Government policy is wrong. Only this week a constituent came to see me about divesting from the West Yorkshire pension fund. I will take that up on behalf of my constituent, and it is only fair that councils make their decisions ethically.

If we are to have a nanny state that tells councils where they can and cannot invest, where will the line be drawn for procurement? I am disheartened, because Conservative Members are trying to skew the debate and turn it into an anti-Israel debate. BDS is about upholding international law. Nobody in the House is saying we should boycott Israel; what we are saying is that councils and people should have a legitimate right to make decisions on procurement.

I will not be on the wrong side of history in this House. It was a shameful patch in our history when this House voted against sanctions on South Africa. That is not how I want to go down in history. I feel that we are moving towards governing in the shadows, with people making bigger and bigger decisions without bringing them to the House and without due democratic process. A smaller and smaller group of people is making decisions that affect bigger and bigger issues. That is surely not acceptable to the House.

To raise the matter of international law again, in 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled that all states have an obligation not to provide aid to Israeli violations of international law. The question is international law, not boycotts. I feel very disheartened that Conservative Members are trying to stifle debate by bringing up the issue of anti-Semitism, and that narrative is playing out while we are trying to have an honest conversation. That is all it is about. In local procurement, should we not go green or buy fair trade? We need to stop what is happening at some point, and here is where it must stop. We cannot endorse the change, and we cannot carry on with it. I certainly will not vote for it.

I, too, should start with a declaration of interest, having recently visited Palestine, courtesy of Fatah UK.

I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) for securing this timely debate. Thankfully, the latest procurement policy note not does not directly apply to Scotland, where procurement is devolved and the Scottish Government lead on related procurement regulations. Of course, both Scottish regulations and the regulations for the rest of the UK must adhere to the same set of underlying EU directives, and it is those that set out the limits on the situations in which authorities can exclude bidders from a procurement process.

The Scottish Government strongly discourage trade and investment with illegal settlements. Such decisions must be taken in compliance with procurement legislation. For a company to be excluded from competition, it has to have been convicted of a specific offence or committed an act of grave misconduct in the course of its business. One view, supported by the Scottish Government, is that where a company exploits assets in illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, it may be guilty of grave professional misconduct, and it may therefore be permissible to exclude it from a procurement process.

It must never be forgotten when engaging in such considerations that local government is always answerable to the interests and wishes of its local communities and electorates. I know from my own mailbag that many local residents in Linlithgow and East Falkirk feel very strongly about this issue. There is a general presumption that decisions taken in their interest should be ethical where possible, and there is particular outrage that the UK Government appear to favour promoting goods from the illegal Israeli settlements. I genuinely fear that if the UK Government’s proposals effectively force local councils and other public bodies to invest unethically in areas such as the Israeli occupation or arms companies, where local opinion would have directed them otherwise, we will be at risk of serious democratic failings.

Rather than attacking local democracy, the Government should take steps to support it. An approach akin to that being taken in Scotland would be good, but at the very least a full clarification from Ministers regarding the recent guidance is essential.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on obtaining the debate, and I thank Martin Linton, the former Member of Parliament for Battersea, for the background work he has done. I declare an interest because I visited Jerusalem and the west bank recently with a Labour delegation funded by the excellent organisation Medical Aid for Palestinians, with which I am proud to be associated. As a Front Bencher, I do not want to speak for long, but I have a particular wish to speak because of my visit to Jerusalem and the west bank.

Like many Opposition Members, I was very concerned about the nature of the announcement that has been made. I was concerned that the Cabinet Office Minister announced the proposals not in the Commons—which was in recess—but at a press conference in Israel, with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. That announcement coincided with our delegation to illegally occupied Palestine.

People’s attention has already been brought to the statement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government:

“Divisive policies undermine good community relations, and harm the economic security of families by pushing up council tax. We need to challenge and prevent the politics of division.”

I wish to say something about divided communities, after our recent delegation to the illegally occupied territories of Palestine. The experience that we had in the west bank clarified why some councils might want to take some action on illegal settlements. The policies pursued by the Government of Israel in allowing illegal settlements to flourish are a physical and political barrier to peace and a two-state solution.

I want to draw my brief remarks to a conclusion by asking the Minister whether he has been to the west bank and seen the Israeli settlements. Does he agree with UK Government policy that settlements are illegal under international law? Does he see any contradiction in the local authority devolution agenda when they are freeing up policy on business rates while freezing powers on pension investment and procurement decisions? Government regulations threaten councils with “severe penalties” if they fail to reflect foreign policy, but why is it so wrong to impose a ban or boycott with respect to settlements that the Government deem to be illegal?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the point about sanctions and boycotts made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) was quite ridiculous? On that basis, why do we boycott Iran, Syria, Russia, individuals, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Zimbabwe? It seems to be an illogical position to take that we should not have sanctions or boycotts.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should make democratic choice the key part of this debate but, after hearing some contributions from Government Members, I think that they are not in favour of democratic choice in relation to this matter.

These proposals are a step too far. Britain has a clear position on settlements: they are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. This is about democracy, and the proposals are an affront to democracy, choice and local power, and the comments of the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) are an absolute disgrace.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments from a sedentary position and when he stood up to speak. His comments were an affront to local democracy.

As we move towards the Front Bencher’s speeches, may I thank you all for your co-operation in getting us through in time for the wind-ups?

I draw hon. Members attention to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I also had the fortune to go to the west bank on the Fatah UK trip that has been referred to.

When we saw that the topic for the debate was local government and procurement policy, we wondered whether it had much to do with Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) noted, those matters are a matter for the Scottish Government—I shall return to that in a moment. However, it quickly became apparent—I think all parties understand this—that this is a debate not about local government, but about foreign policy. It is interesting that, rather than choosing an English town hall in which to make a pronouncement about the affairs of local authorities, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, travelled to Tel Aviv to make an announcement alongside the Prime Minister of Israel, and chose to illustrate his announcement by referring to the impact of local authorities’ actions on the settlements in the occupied territories.

Now, if we are to say—as some Government Members have suggested—that local councillors should not be having a foreign policy and should concern themselves with local matters, we might rightly ask ourselves, “What are the Ministers responsible for the UK civil service and English local authorities doing travelling to foreign countries to make pronouncements on foreign policy?” We need to understand whether this is actually a dispute among colleagues in the Cabinet and an attempt by some who disagree with the established position of the Foreign Office to undermine it, or whether it is a genuine confusion that has arisen. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position in his response.

We should be absolutely clear that what is under discussion here is not the state of Israel, but the activities in the illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I know that the Israeli Government refute the fact that the settlements are illegal, but the UN Security Council, the General Assembly of the UN, the European Union, every NGO I can think of, and our own Government regard the settlements as illegal, so I hope that we can at least agree that engagement in those activities is unlawful.

I have witnessed these settlements, and I think that when some people refer to community settlements, they still believe that they are small, little, cutesy villages that are being developed. In fact, these are massive conurbations of thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of people, with all the infrastructure we would expect from a modern city. Although many of the settlements have been built effectively as dormitories for people working inside Israel proper, it is clear that if they are to continue, they must develop their own economy and, therefore, the capacity to develop trade and production in those areas is vital for their survival.

We need to ask ourselves a question: is it the role of public agencies in the UK to assist in that illegal process or is it right and proper that they should do something about it? I think it is entirely proper that they should do something about it. The advice of the Scottish Government is consistent with that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in saying that there is a general presumption against trade and investment in illegal settlements and telling local councils that they should make a decision on individual matters of procurement according to procurement legislation and take into account the circumstances that apply, but reminding them that when it comes to the term “gross misconduct”, which colleagues have mentioned, it is entirely right and proper to regard the support for an international illegal operation as gross misconduct.

Looking at some of these contracts, people should be advised that they need to understand whether the contract will be secure—whether the agency or company with which they are contracting has the legal right to sign the contract, and to use the resources and occupy the lands and premises that they say they do. If a local authority is being prudent and making a careful judgment about that, it is acting in the interests of the people who elected it, and that is right and proper.

I have a minute or two left, so I want to say to the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) that in his speech, which I thought he galloped through with rather undue haste—it would have been better for him to have taken some interventions, because it might have demonstrated better confidence in his own arguments—he attempted, as others have, to suggest that this is an attack on Israel. It is not. I believe in the two-state solution. I would like to see a viable state of Palestine and a viable state of Israel, but I firmly believe that the actions of this right-wing Israeli Government and their refusal to take moves to end the military occupation are putting the prospects of a two-state solution in severe jeopardy.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution because he is consistent, unlike, unfortunately, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who has hurriedly left the Chamber. Does the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) not agree that the disinvestment strategy promoted by the BDS would actually lead to ending the possibility of a two-state solution, which would mean that there would not be peace in the middle east?

No, I do not make that connection or draw that conclusion in the slightest. In fact, I have visited the area recently and spoken to many Palestinians who are involved. They are absolutely of one mind in telling us that they want us to call for disinvestment in the illegal settlements in the occupied territories. That is their position and it is incumbent on us to try to understand, respect and advocate that position if we can.

I have limited time, but I very much welcome the fact that we are having this debate, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) secured. I welcome the attendance and the level of contribution. I do think that it is time, following this discussion, that we sought a debate in the main Chamber and devoted rather more time not just to this issue, but to the underlying aspects behind it. It is incumbent on us to do that because the overriding impression that I brought back from my recent trip to the west bank was one of desperation and despair among people who really feel that the world has given up on them. We need to show them that we have not.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I suppose I will start where the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) left off—why we are having this debate. Well, we are having the debate because my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) asked for it, and I congratulate him on that. He spoke with his typical eloquence and knowledge of the situation—eloquence and knowledge that I have been familiar with since I was a teenager listening to his speeches when he came to the Mechanics Institute in Manchester in the mid-’90s.

I have followed my hon. Friend’s career closely ever since. I think I speak for everybody in thanking him for securing the debate, but the reality is that we should not be having the debate in this Chamber; we should be having it in the main Chamber—and not on the initiative of an Opposition Member through the usual processes and channels or as a result of the Backbench Business Committee; I wonder whether the hon. Member for Edinburgh East was hinting at that. We should be having this debate because the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, who announced the policy at the Conservative party conference and then again on a trip to Israel, should have given the House the courtesy of coming to the House, outlining his change in procurement policy and allowing hon. Members to question him.

I entirely appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who said that there had been a number of changes to procurement policies over the years. I do not doubt that she is right: she is a former Cabinet Office Minister and is very experienced, but other experienced Members know that Members on both sides of the argument have sincerely held views and those experienced Members appreciate that the issues are sensitive. Given that, the Paymaster General should have come to this House to announce the shift in Government policy and allowed us all to question him.

The hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) was lucky enough to be on a delegation with the Paymaster General in Israel. At that time, the Paymaster General may well have been happy to answer questions about what the issue meant for Government policy and for the Palestinians. Well done! We are pleased that the hon. Gentleman got that opportunity, but everybody else in the House should have that opportunity, too. That is why Members on both sides of the Chamber will want to hear the Minister answer a number of questions; it is a pleasure to see him in his place. I will not take up too much time with my remarks, because I know that Members are anxious to hear the Minister’s response. I want to give him ample opportunity to answer satisfactorily the questions of my hon. Friends and colleagues.

When I came back from Israel, I assumed that there might be an urgent question in the House on the issue. Did the shadow Minister request an urgent question?

It is not for me to criticise Mr Speaker and his team of Deputy Speakers on the selection of urgent questions. That is not in order—is it, Mr Streeter?

It is not in order to criticise Mr Speaker when he grants or does not grant an urgent question, so far as I am aware.

The hon. Gentleman makes his usual witty sedentary contribution, but let us get back to the substance of the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, there has been a conflation in what the Government are hinting at about our relations with Israel. They seem to be suggesting that we need to clarify the rules on procurement because, according to them as far as we can tell, the procurement rules are not clear and we need better guidance on whether local authorities are allowed to procure and not be in contravention of the various World Trade Organisation rules. Is it the view of the Cabinet Office that the guidelines were vague and that proceedings were taken to the WTO about local authorities making decisions in contravention of those guidelines? How many proceedings have been taken?

The reality is that this is more about politics. When the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General announced the policy at the Conservative party conference, he said that it would

“prevent…playground politics undermining our international security.”

Yet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield highlighted, in the briefings, the editors’ notes and the suggestions to the newspapers, and so on, councils such as Leicester City Council and Tower Hamlets Borough Council were being highlighted. Those councils were not making decisions about Israel as a nation; they were responding to the illegal settlements in the occupied west bank. It was not about the nation of Israel; it was about illegal settlements, which the Government recognise and accept are illegal settlements.

When the Paymaster General says that this is “playground politics” and that he is taking the decision in order not to undermine international security, why, as Members have said, does guidance on the FCO website talk of the risks of trade with the illegal settlements? The guidance discourages such trade, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said. What discussions has the Minister for the Cabinet Office had with the relevant Foreign Office Ministers on this matter? If he really believes that this is undermining international security, how does he sleep at night when he sees that guidance on the FCO’s website?

As the hon. Members for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and for Edinburgh East, our colleagues from north of the border, told us, the Scottish Government, in procurement notices of last year, or two years ago,

“strongly discourages trade and investment from illegal settlements”.

Is the Minister for the Cabinet Office saying that the Scottish Government are undermining international security? Is that really the view of the Paymaster General? Is this not about democracy at local level, as various Opposition colleagues have said, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and for Leeds East (Richard Burgon)? Is it not ironic that all this comes from the Government who talk of and celebrate localism and from a Prime Minister who told us:

“When one-size-fits-all solutions are dispensed from the centre, it’s not surprising they…fail local communities”?

In 2009, the Prime Minister told us that

“We’re going to trust local authorities”.

How are these decisions trusting of local authorities?

Is it not right that local councils should make such decisions and be accountable to the people who elect them? Leicester City Council, the area I represent, made its decisions in 2014—the Government always quote Leicester City Council in the newspapers—and the councillors who put those decisions to the council chamber stood for election in 2015. They were re-elected with people knowing about those decisions on trade with illegal settlements in the west bank, not trade with Israel. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) knows Leicester well.

My hon. Friend is right; the issue is not just about the content and the context of the decision made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Government seem to be saying that it is completely out of order for local government to have any regard to ethical or valid policy considerations when it comes to procurement or supply. Yet when we passed the Modern Slavery Bill in the last Parliament, this House improved the Bill and the Government, against their first position, accepted the need to include responsibility for supply chains and procurement in the Bill. How can we legislate for that in the private sector and then abolish it for local government?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I will speed up, because I know that people want to put points to the Minister and want him to answer. Will he tell us what “severe penalties” he has in mind for local authorities if they do not follow through on the regulations? Given the scepticism about what the regulations actually mean, will he answer my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and tell us whether the guidance actually changes the law in any way? Will he answer the six questions put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield?

Will the Minister confirm that the guidance is simply restating existing law that states that public bodies cannot refuse to award contracts to companies purely because of their nationality? Will he confirm whether the Government think it is still lawful for public bodies to refuse to award contracts to companies for reasons other than nationality, such as their human rights record, compliance with international law or connection with trade such as the arms trade or fossil fuels?

The Paymaster General talked about “playground politics.” Well, there are many in this House who take these issues extremely seriously and who have sincerely held views on both sides of the argument. When the Paymaster General talks about playground politics, perhaps he should look a little closer to home.

It is always good to have your sure hand guiding our proceedings, Mr Streeter. I start by joining the chorus of congratulations to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on securing this debate. He is right that this is an important issue. He is also right to say what it is about and what it is not about, and to acknowledge that there are sincerely held views on both sides of the broader issue. He is right to put that point up front and pay it due respect. I echo those points.

As the hon. Gentleman has asked some distinct questions, and other questions have embroidered around them, I will try to address those questions as I go through my speech. I am sure he will pick me up if I do not. I will try to make sure that he has a minute or so at the end to sum up.

At the beginning of his comments, will the Minister clarify an important point of fact, which is the kernel of this issue? Will the Government’s proposed procurement rules permit a local authority to adopt a policy against investment in, or purchase from, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian west bank?

The answer is that it depends; I am sorry to be a little indistinct. I will come on to the details. I hope to give my right hon. Friend a proper answer, rather than just a straightforward yes or no, because there are situations where councils will be able to and situations where they will not.

The overarching principles behind public procurement are twofold. First, public sector procurers are required to seek the very best value for money for the taxpayer. Secondly, public procurement must be delivered through fair and open competition. Public sector procurers have to follow detailed procedural rules laid down in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which implement the Government’s domestic procurement policy and wider EU and international rules, including the EU procurement directives and the WTO Government procurement agreement; a number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the GPA in this debate.

Under those obligations, our contracting authorities are required to treat all suppliers equally, regardless of their geographic origin. The regulations have recently been updated and modernised, but the basic principles are long-standing and have been in place for many decades. Any breach of the rules puts public authorities and the Government themselves at risk of breaching all sorts of laws. Serious remedies are available to aggrieved suppliers through the courts for breaches of those rules, including damages, fines and what lawyers call “ineffectiveness”, which basically means contract cancellation.

A number of colleagues have mentioned that ethical procurement has a much wider meaning than we have focused on here. We could talk about it in relation to arms firms, defence industry investment or investment in the tobacco industry. However, we have focused, perhaps understandably, on a specific example. The point is that “ethical procurement” is not a defined term—it means different things. There are many examples of how procurers take ethical considerations into account. For example, the rules allow authorities to exclude suppliers that have breached certain international social, environmental or labour laws. In addition, we already ensure that prime contractors behave ethically towards their subcontractors—for example, by requiring 30-day payment terms. That applies through supply chains, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said.

The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which came into effect in 2013, placed a requirement on commissioners to consider the economic, environmental and social benefits of their approaches to procurement before the process starts.

In that case, is there anything in the Minister’s list that includes the illegal origin of the products to be bought?

The point is that although we are clear that the settlements themselves are absolutely illegal—I am happy to clarify the Government’s foreign policy—that does not necessarily mean that activities undertaken by firms that happen to be based there are themselves automatically illegal. A separate, case-by-case decision must be made about whether each potential supplier satisfies the rules. I will give more detail about that as I go, if I can.

We have flexibilities in our procurement rules. Some things are explicitly ruled out—

We are back to the point about how to distinguish between one activity of an organisation and another when deciding whether to have a relationship with it. To go back to banks, for example, it was rightly decided not to have any dealings with Barclays back in the 1980s because of its particular link with South Africa. One could not distinguish between the money it lent to South African firms and the money that it lent to other firms. How then does the Minister distinguish between the activities of financial organisations now and their treatment of the settlements?

I am explaining how the law is, rather than how the hon. Gentleman might like it to be. As I said, we are clear that the settlements themselves are illegal, but a firm based or trading within one of those settlements may be operating in an entirely whiter-than-white, above-board fashion in how it treats its suppliers, staff and customers. Therefore, I suggest, one cannot assume that absolutely everything done in a particular place is implicitly wrong.

There are flexibilities in our procurement rules. Some things are explicitly ruled out. Discrimination is absolutely ruled out as a matter of law and policy. The problem with boycotts in public procurement is that they may often stray over the line from acceptable ethical procurement within the rules that I have described to become an act of discrimination. The principles of non-discrimination and equal treatment underpin the UK’s whole approach to public procurement policy—we have heard examples of that from other speeches already—and are mandatory under UK, EU and World Trade Organisation procurement rules.

Moreover, public policy that includes decisions on whether to impose Government sanctions on other countries is a matter reserved for central Government. We are devolving a great deal down to local government and other Parliaments within the UK, but foreign policy, particularly sanctions against other countries, is a matter still reserved for central Government. It is therefore the Government’s position that discriminating against any supplier based on geographic location is unacceptable unless formal, legal sanctions, embargoes or restrictions have been put in place by the UK Government here.

Despite those long-standing rules, we have been concerned to learn that some authorities have decided to impose local-level procurement boycotts, which is why on 17 February, as we have heard, the Government published guidance to remind authorities of their obligations in that respect. I hasten to add that it is not an Israel-specific policy, nor is it focused on the Israeli settlements, in line with the initial remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield. It is general guidance about procurement principles, so it does not address directly or in detail any questions about procuring from Israel or the illegal settlements. The Minister for the Cabinet Office highlighted the guidance when visiting some technology companies during his trip to Israel to reassure them that the UK Government marketplace is open to overseas bidders, despite what they might have read elsewhere.

Of course, the WTO Government procurement agreement has its limitations. It applies only to countries that have signed up to it. Israel is a party to it, so it clearly applies to Israeli suppliers, whereas the Government do not recognise the illegal settlements as part of Israel.

I should have declared an interest earlier: I recently visited the west bank with colleagues and Medical Aid for Palestine. I am grateful to the Minister for his somewhat grey explanation of certain areas, but can he help me with this point, with which I am sure other hon. Members will agree? He has accepted that the settlements are illegal. On what basis, legal or otherwise, is he asserting that the businesses operating within those illegal settlements are operating legally? Can he explain that to me, please?

I believe I already have. Although it is difficult, it is entirely possible for a settlement to be illegal while the businesses operating within it are entirely within the law, treating their staff, suppliers and customers properly and so on. It is possible for both those things to happen at once.

I must make progress. In spite of those flexibilities, local authorities must still be careful not to make discriminatory policies even where they believe that the GPA does not apply. The rules also provide mechanisms to protect authorities from dealing with risky suppliers.

To answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), I should say that authorities can take into account the legal and economic risks of dealing with particular suppliers. The rules include various grounds on which individual suppliers can be excluded from bidding, such as where the company is guilty of criminal offences, corruption or grave professional misconduct or in breach of environmental, social or labour laws and so forth. This is a key point: the rules must be applied on a case-by-case basis, company by company, rather than on the basis of an entire geographical area, as a blanket ban or boycott would inevitably do—that would make them discriminatory.

Local authorities have significant flexibilities and can exercise pretty wide discretion within the rules—I hope that I am answering my right hon. Friend’s question—but the rules themselves are clearly necessary to protect them by ensuring that they do not take actions that could land them and us in court. Nobody wants to waste public money on costly court cases.

I am running out of time, so I will stop to allow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield time to respond, but I emphasise that on foreign policy, we have clearly not changed our approach to the Palestinian occupied territories or to settlements around the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel. With that, although there are many other things that I would have liked the opportunity to address, I want to leave the hon. Gentleman a chance to respond. I will sit down and leave the floor to him.

I always thought that public procurement notes were meant to clarify procurement rules, but the Minister has just demonstrated the art of muddying them through his explanation of this procurement note. He said that the note is not Israel-specific; it just happens that the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced it in a Conservative party conference press release that was almost entirely devoted to the situation in the middle east, and then announced the public procurement note itself in Israel.

If settlements are illegal, I fail to see how trade with those settlements and co-operation with businesses involved in aiding and abetting illegality is not itself illegal. That is what the Foreign Office advice to business is about. I know that the Minister has had a problem today; for some time now, we have been trying to work out which Minister would reply to this debate. I get the impression that this is a parcel that has been passed from pillar to post.

Eminently flexible—with flexible rules as well, by the sound of it. My six questions have not been answered to my satisfaction, nor have the questions asked by other hon. Members. I ask the Minister to answer in writing.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Housebuilding: King’s Hill, Coventry

[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered proposals for house-building on King’s Hill, Coventry.

Obviously you and I have known each other for a long time, Mr Pritchard, and this is probably the first time that I have taken part in an Adjournment debate that you are chairing. I know you will chair it in a very fair manner, as you always do. If I can start, Mr Pritchard—[Interruption.]

Order. Members are not to use mobile phones in Westminster Hall and certainly not when other Members are trying to speak in a debate on behalf of their constituents. It is completely unacceptable.

The King’s Hill area of Coventry is obviously causing quite a stir in Coventry at the moment, to say the least. In fact, at the moment the city council is debating a motion in relation to King’s Hill. The Conservative opposition put that motion down and what they are effectively saying is that King’s Hill should not be sold until the proper infrastructure is put in place. Many people will interpret that differently, although it is not for me to interpret what the Conservative motion means.

Having said that, let me take the opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. Over the years, I have tried to secure debates on this matter, so I thank him for granting this debate. I also welcome the Minister to the debate, because he is the Minister responsible and that demonstrates that at least the Government are showing some respect to this debate and about what happens in King’s Hill. I hope he will agree with some of the points I raise today.

The King’s Hill area is located just outside the city boundaries of Coventry, between Finham and Kenilworth, to the south of Coventry. It is designated as a green-belt area—I hope the Minister will pay special attention to that point. The proposals are for thousands of homes on this land; it is my objection to these proposals that I will outline today. For many years, I have spoken in defence of the area and, in particular, about its beauty and history. I have probably been campaigning for it to retain its present status for a good five or six years, so I have not come late to this issue; I have been involved with it for a very long time.

Over the years, Coventry City Council has come to know my views about King’s Hill. Only recently, I had some correspondence with the council about its plans for the area. My view is that the council should think again about selling the land to Warwick District Council. Essentially, that is where I differ from what the Conservative motion in the council seems to be suggesting. King’s Hill needs to remain free from development. These sentiments are not just my own; they have been echoed by local residents and by anybody who takes an interest in the history and environment of Coventry. I am disappointed that these plans have been allowed to progress; I am equally disappointed that I now must take my opposition to them to the Commons and to the Minister who is responding to this debate.

I will now detail my concerns about these plans. First, King’s Hill is green-belt land, and that is not a designation applied to land without reason. The land around King’s Hill is of environmental importance, as I have said, but it is also important historically. In addition, it helps to define the city boundaries of Coventry. Most importantly, it is a welcome patch of countryside on the edge of a city that over the years has lost a lot of its green space.

My next concern is about the proximity of the proposed development to Coventry itself. It is a large development of 4,000 homes. I am not opposed to the growth of Coventry, but the current situation makes no sense and is a reflection of poorly thought-out plans, which would increase the pressure on Coventry council tax payers. These plans would deprive them of green space. Coventry residents would lose out on every level with these plans and the council could find itself further overstretched. It is already suffering as a result of huge budget cuts by central Government; I have yet to see anything to suggest that that will not be the case. I believe that the alternative brownfield sites in Coventry and Warwickshire would help to resolve the housing problems.

I will now briefly detail some other aspects of the plan. A small percentage of the land at King’s Hill is owned by Coventry City Council and that would be sold to Warwick District Council if the development plans are approved. It amounts to 190 acres of the 665-acre site, or roughly 28% of the land, but only around half of those 190 acres could be developed because of Wainbody Wood and plots that are subject to agreed long leases. That makes Coventry City Council’s holding roughly 15% of the site.

The decision to sell the land is ultimately the responsibility of the council, and I have already urged it to reconsider its decision and not sell that land. I will not hide my preference that the land should not be used for development, especially when the council tax from it will be sent to Warwickshire and while it is green-belt land.

However, that is only part of the story. Over two thirds of the land located at the King’s Hill site is owned not by Coventry City Council, but by Warwick District Council, which will give or refuse the planning permission for development. Even if Coventry Council land was not sold, over two thirds of the site would still be developed if Warwick District Council gave its approval, causing the same problems that I have already described.

These plans must be viewed as a whole; to divide them up into who-owns-what misses the point. The point is to object to the plans in principle to save King's Hill, and that is why I have called on Warwick District Council to scrap these development proposals. If Warwick District Council refused planning permission, then the rug would be pulled out from beneath the entire plan.

I want to prevent all large-scale development on the King’s Hill site and not just on part of it. There is a national shortage of housing and more homes need to be built in Coventry and Warwickshire, but poorly thought-out proposals are not the answer. There are alternative sites that should be used instead of King’s Hill. They are better placed to deal with the impact of such large developments and they already have the necessary infrastructure in place to deal with thousands of new homes. Using those sites would be more beneficial to Coventry and Warwickshire—they are sites where council tax would be used to provide services to the residents who pay it—and these sites are not designated as green-belt land.

I have to question whether the green-belt safeguards are fit for purpose, and I also question whether Warwick District Council has fully considered the wider impact of these proposals, which aim to hit Government quotas on housing.

In conclusion, this planning decision belongs to Warwick District Council, but it will impact directly on the people of Coventry. I urge Warwick District Council to take on board the views of local residents and other stakeholders; to explore the impact of these proposals on the local area; and to speak with Coventry City Council about the issue of council tax, which I believe would be used to subsidise the development. The best option for Warwick District Council is to reconsider these proposals and to refuse planning permission for this development—an action that would stop it completely.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate. I appreciate that he has concerns about the proposals for development in the King’s Hill area, and that the issue is of considerable importance to him and the local communities he represents.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the proposals, in particular about their impact on surrounding areas. There is a fundamental disagreement between us, however. He may not have registered the fact that the Government have reformed the planning system over the past year. He noted that local authorities are looking to match housing numbers, under housing requirements, to Government quotas, but we have got rid of those quotas. The previous Labour Government had centrally run quotas through the regional spatial strategies, but there are no Government quotas or targets for housing now. The process is worked out entirely locally. The hon. Gentleman might, therefore, want to speak to his local authority to get a full understanding of that.

I note that Warwick District Council is proposing modifications to its local plan. It is right that the process is locally led. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, as a Minister with a quasi-judicial role in the planning system, I cannot comment on the detail of specific proposals or on specific local plans, but I can give more general feedback on some of the issues he has raised. Our policy rightly asks that

“local planning authorities should use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in the National Planning Policy framework.”

So the numbers are worked out by the local authority based on local need—they are locally derived.

The local plans play a key role in building the houses we need. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a need to build more houses—we have not done enough house building for the past 40 years—and we have ensured that local plans will have some ease in the future by asking an independent group of experts to look at how we can streamline and improve the process of producing them. I look forward to seeing their recommendations soon. I have also made clear, publicly, our determination to intervene where local plans have not been produced by early 2017, and that will help to speed up the production of the plans. The Housing and Planning Bill also makes it clear that we are sharpening the Secretary of State’s powers to intervene in local plans, and the hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that we have recently issued a consultation document to consider the criteria we will use in that intervention process.

The national planning policy framework—the NPPF—makes it clear that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, but that is not development at any cost or development anywhere. National policy sets out that planning must take account of the different roles and characters of different areas, recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside, and take into account all the benefits that an area has. In respect of the historic environment, for example, local planning authorities should set out in their local plans a positive strategy for its conservation and enjoyment. Similarly, in preparing plans to meet development needs, the aim should be to minimise adverse effects on the local and natural environment.

Local plans do far more than set housing numbers; they establish areas that it is necessary to protect and set out how development will be supported by appropriate infrastructure. The NPPF emphasises that development must be sustainable and that local authorities have a responsibility to make plans to provide the necessary infrastructure to meet the needs generated by new development. Our planning guidance also underscores the importance of ensuring that infrastructure is provided to support new development and notes how infrastructure constraints should be considered when assessing the suitability of sites for development. Local authorities can use section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levies to guarantee that, and we are carrying out some reviews to ensure that we keep the process as streamlined and efficient as possible.

A community infrastructure levy is much more transparent than a section 106 agreement. Once a local area has adopted such a levy, any developer looking to build there knows what the cost will be. It has that information up front; the cost is pre-set by the local authority. When the developer builds, it pays the money to the local authority, and the latter spends it on infrastructure as it sees fit. The difference with a section 106 agreement is that it is negotiated on a site-by-site basis, and there is no transparency or up-front knowledge. There is a negotiation that can often take a very, very long time, and we will speed that up with the Housing and Planning Bill. Also, whatever is agreed in a section 106 agreement is normally site-specific, whereas the community infrastructure levy is money that the council itself can use how and where it sees fit.

There is also a duty to co-operate, which requires local planning authorities to make every effort to secure co-operation on strategic cross-boundary matters before they submit their local plans for examination. We expect local planning authorities to explore all available options for delivering their planning within their planning area. It is only when that is not possible that they should approach other authorities with whom it would be sensible to work through a cross-boundary strategic planning process. Ultimately, working with neighbouring councils and working together across parties and across boundaries can enable development needs that cannot wholly be met within one area to be covered. That can be an important way forward and it can beneficial for the authorities, if they work together cohesively. The requirements of the duty provide a clear approach to enable local authorities to discuss strategic planning issues with their neighbouring authorities, to achieve positive outcomes.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the green belt. We are clear—and the NPPF makes it clear—that the green belt is a legitimate constraint on development. In the Chamber, my hon. Friends have often talked about how the green belt is important to our country, and I think that you, Mr Pritchard, may have also commented on it.

Order. I am grateful for the Minister’s compliment but, for the record, while I am in the Chair I am completely neutral on all things, including the green belt.

Well noted, Mr Pritchard. I take your comments on board, as obviously the record will.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have heard this, and if he looks back at the record, he will see that we have regularly made the point that the green belt is a legitimate constraint. It is an important part of the country’s infrastructure and the Government attach the highest importance to its protection. In fact, over the past few years we have increased it. The NPPF makes it clear that green belt boundaries should be established in local plans and can be altered only in exceptional circumstances, using the local plan’s process of consultation and independent examination. The Government do not specify what constitutes exceptional circumstances, as it is for each local authority to determine that and how much weight to attach to those circumstances.

When I visit local areas, I hear widespread support for the fact that we need to build more houses—the hon. Gentleman touched on that in his remarks—but areas often swiftly follow that with concerns about where the houses will be built. It is a credit to local authorities that they are grabbing the baton and doing the right thing to ensure the homes they need for their communities. I congratulate those that are taking clear leadership, making what can sometimes be tough decisions to deliver the housing that their local areas need.

We have given local councils the responsibility of planning to meet their own needs locally and working with local residents and neighbouring communities and authorities to meet the needs across the housing market areas. How communities have informed the strategy in a local plan will be an important consideration in the examination of that plan.

With Warwick District Council currently consulting on its proposed modifications to the submitted plan, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will continue to make strong representations to the council on the proposals and that he will express his views, as he has done today.

May I reassure the Minister that I am certainly taking the matter up with Warwick District Council? I have written to it, raising my objections. It has not yet responded, but I am sure it will at some point.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has done that. That is the right place to pick up the discussion and debate; it is right to make the case locally. Ultimately, we have devolved powers to local authorities, and we trust them and local people to make the right decisions for their areas and to provide the housing for their areas in the future. I have absolute faith that they will continue to do a good job in delivering that. After all, a record number of homes—more than 253,000—have been given planning permission over the last 12-month recording period. That is a really good step forward. Also, approval of development from local people has roughly doubled since 2010 because of our trusting local people to work out what is right for them in building the homes that we need in the places we need them and with the tenures we need, in a locally driven way, and that is certainly the way to continue.

Question put and agreed to.

We could proceed early to the next debate, which will give it additional time, but out of courtesy we need to wait for the shadow Minister. As soon as the shadow Minister turns up, we will proceed straight away to the debate.

Sitting suspended.

Transport Infrastructure: Lancashire

I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Lancashire.

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

The Government have quite rightly made a commitment to rebalancing the nation’s economy. For many years, under Governments of different political persuasions, our economy has been too focused and over-reliant on the service sector and too focused on London and the south-east. Of course, that was not always the case. We in Lancashire are very proud of our place in the nation’s industrial history. I pay tribute to the Friends of Real Lancashire for promoting the historical borders of real Lancashire—I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) present—which boasted the two great northern cities of Manchester and Liverpool. Those two conurbations have changed beyond all recognition in the past half century and are forging ahead. Within its current borders, Lancashire also has a role to play in the important task of balancing the economy and strengthening our industrial base. I, for one, do not want to see Lancashire lose out at the expense of our larger urban neighbours—and certainly not to those “white rose” residents to the east.

The Lancashire city deal was signed by Preston City Council, South Ribble Borough Council and Lancashire County Council in September 2013. It is the second biggest city deal outside London and promises to create 17,000 homes and 20,000 jobs over its first decade. It is crucial to the whole county, and I pay tribute to all those involved in its preparation, particularly Councillor Margaret Smith, the visionary leader of South Ribble Borough Council. Some important pieces of road infrastructure were started immediately under the auspices of the city deal, including the Broughton bypass and the M55 junction. At this point I must pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who worked so persistently on securing that infrastructure over the previous Parliament. The Preston western distributor road will improve access to the BAE site at Warton. In my constituency, work on the A582 is ongoing, with much of it already finished. The Penwortham bypass, for which people have been hoping for 30 or 40 years, will be finished by 2019-20. That will take a great deal of pressure off the A59 and will be a key connecting route between the motorway and local roads—a welcome development.

The key piece of infrastructure that has not yet been built but would link all the roads in the city deal region is the proposed new Ribble bridge. The most westerly and most recent bridge over the Ribble was completed more than 30 years ago. It links what is now the city of Preston with access routes to Penwortham, Leyland and the villages of west Lancashire. It becomes extremely clogged up at rush hour, and there have been terrible congestion problems when accidents or breakdowns have occurred on the bridge itself. The city deal makes provision for scoping works for the bridge. Indeed, the infrastructure plan states that it will

“define the general alignment and connections to a new bridge crossing of the River Ribble linking with the Preston Western Distributor”.

The local enterprise partnership’s report, “Lancashire as part of an Interconnected and Productive Northern Powerhouse”, envisages the bridge as the final link in the ring road.

There are compelling economic reasons for building the new bridge. It will complete the ring road and help to connect the two parts of the Lancashire enterprise zone at Samlesbury and Warton. It will pave the way for many more homes to be built. It is an important piece of infrastructure for not only the western part of Lancashire but the whole county and wider region. The “Central Lancashire Highways and Transport Masterplan” proposes that the bridge should be built post 2026, but that is another decade into the future and a good six or seven years after the Penwortham bypass will be finished. The delivery of the other road schemes has been accelerated through the city deal. Can the Minister say whether it is possible for the bridge to be assessed as a nationally significant infrastructure project and the build time brought forward from 2026?

It is no big secret that Lancashire County Council has upwards of £430 million in reserves. Does my hon. Friend agree that releasing some of those reserves would speed up the process and facilitate the bridge being built quicker?

Lancashire County Council is aware of the great desire for the bridge in the area. I have been having ongoing discussions with the council, and that is one of the things about which I have spoken to its representatives.

The Ribble bridge is clearly a regionally significant piece of transport infrastructure. I shall now touch on a project that, although much smaller, would bring enormous benefits to two villages in my constituency, if it were completed. For those who do not know South Ribble, the western part of the constituency comprises the flood plain of the Ribble. Thirty-two per cent. of land in the constituency is grade 1 and 9% is grade 2 agricultural land, making it the seventh highest-ranked constituency in England in terms of the proportion of such land within its boundaries. Hundreds of people are involved in the vegetable and salad industry, which is growing and reckoned to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the area.

During the winter there is the traditional farming of brassicas and potatoes, as well as some salads under glass. Such work has been going on for centuries. The vegetables used to be carried on small wagons or tractors, but of course this growing industry is now year round. Foods such as prepared vegetables and stuffed mushrooms —hard-pressed Members of Parliament might be familiar with such comestibles—are assembled. Salads, which of course cannot be grown in our country during the winter, are imported from Spain and Portugal and brought to the pack houses, where they are packed for the British consumer. The two small villages of Tarleton and Hesketh Bank in my constituency are now overrun with gargantuan heavy goods vehicles from Spain and Portugal that bring salads to the growers and take the assembled bagged items to the supermarkets.

Supermarkets demand a 24-hour service, which means that the HGV drivers cannot avoid peak times such as rush hour or school runs. The main B road through the two villages sees domestic and commuter traffic competing with large tractors—they are much bigger than they used to be—and HGVs. Road surfaces and pavements are under constant stress. There have been several near misses in which HGVs have overturned. It is only by the grace of God that nobody has been killed in one of these accidents. The solution to the traffic tribulation in Tarleton and Hesketh Bank is the proposed Green Lane link, which would take traffic out of the main roads through the villages and on to the A59. The link is in the West Lancashire highways and transport masterplan.

At this point I should pay particular tribute to Tarleton and North Meols parish councils, which commissioned an excellent report outlining the safety and environmental benefits that the Green Lane link would bring to those villages. I am happy to provide a copy of the report to the Minister. I must also mention a tireless local champion of the link, County Councillor Malcolm Barron, who has assisted me greatly over the past two years in understanding not only the safety and environmental imperative for the link but its absolute economic necessity in supporting our local agricultural industry.

I want to speak briefly about rail links in Lancashire. The north-south links have improved greatly in the more than 20 years that I have regularly been using the line between Euston and Preston. There is one service that takes only two hours, compared with three hours in the early 1990s. I politely suggest to the Minister that Preston is the natural next staging point for HS2. We would be happy to begin the works in the north, rather than the south.

The Library briefing tells me that by 2033 the journey time should be a mere 77 minutes using HS2, which will be another boost for investment. However, before that can happen, Preston station, which currently has only six platforms, will need considerable modernisation and expansion. I will be grateful if the Minister can expand on any plans to do such work. Although north-south connections are improving, the links between Lancashire towns and Manchester are still poor.

The electrification of the rail line between Manchester and Preston is very welcome, but does my hon. Friend share my concerns about the one-year delay? The line is very congested at the moment, so we need additional carriages and services on the track over the coming year until the electrification process is finished and the upgrades are completed.

I thank my hon. Friend, who is from Bolton in the real Lancashire—the extended Lancashire area—for that intervention. Many of us have spent a bone-shaking hour travelling from Preston to Manchester. I understand that there were complications in the tunnelling works at Farnworth. The sooner the situation is improved, the better.

Such rail links result in more people taking to their cars. The A59 used to be the main road between Liverpool and York. It is my constituency’s main artery. In days gone by, there were two branch lines—one from Preston to Southport, and the other from Preston to Ormskirk. The first line was sadly completely dismantled and built over, but the second is intact. I pay tribute to the Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers’ Association for helping me with my research.

At the moment, my constituents in Rufford and Croston who wish to carry on to Liverpool have to take a diesel train to Ormskirk and then get on an electric train to continue their journey because the line is broken. That train line also goes through the village of Midge Hall, whose station was closed in the 1960s. At Midge Hall, one witnesses a scene straight out of “Thomas the Tank Engine”: the driver gets off the train and exchanges a token to drive down the rest of the line. Although it is picturesque, it is inefficient, prolongs the journey time and persuades more of my constituents into their cars. There are compelling reasons to reopen the Midge Hall station. It is estimated that if it were reopened, 80% of Leyland residents—Leyland is a town that will expand as a result of the city deal—would be within walking distance of a railway station.

Although I have concentrated my comments on schemes in my constituency, they are relevant to the surrounding areas and the whole of Lancashire. Connectivity is crucial to the idea of the northern powerhouse—the notion that northern towns and cities can conglomerate to compete with London. If that is missing in Lancashire, we will be left out of what I believe can be a great northern renaissance.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing this debate. I often travel through her constituency, paying particular attention to the speed cameras in Penwortham that regularly trap an awful lot of my constituents.

The hon. Lady and I represent the same corner of Lancs. I am tempted to call it a forgotten corner because its priorities are masked by the greater priorities of and the vocabulary surrounding the city regions—Manchester, Liverpool and so on, which are part of the northern powerhouse. Laudable though such a city-focused agenda is, it risks neglecting the periphery—the areas that are not plum centre in the city regions.

I question the use of the word “periphery” in referring to this area, particularly when it is applied to the hon. Lady’s constituency and mine. A recent report pointed out that, although there are a number of thriving city regions in Lancashire—the triangle of Manchester, Liverpool and Preston—their connectivity has an important missing piece, which is a good direct rail link between Preston and Liverpool. Such a link would go through Southport, of course. It is a relatively small part of Lancashire, and its omission is to be regretted. That certainly was not the case before Beeching.

Why has that area been omitted? I have an explanation, which I hope the Minister will take in the spirit in which it is intended. There are several transport authorities in the area. Manchester has a very big, powerful one—the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee; Liverpool has the Merseytravel Committee; and then there is Lancashire, which is the problem. It is a two-tier system, and Lancashire is a very diffuse authority—it is broken and fragmented with many priorities lying elsewhere—so things get strangely omitted.

Take, for example, the Burscough curves, which I have spoken about in Westminster Hall previously. Outside the hon. Lady’s constituency and mine, there are two stations in the thriving and expanding town of Burscough that are literally half a mile apart. They could be joined together by a piece of track, and there is certainly the capacity to do that. That proposal, which is supported by the Ormkirk, Preston and Southport Travellers Association, the organisation that the hon. Lady said helped her prepare for the debate, would link Manchester with Wigan, Bolton and Preston, and connect the Merseyrail network to the wider rail network. It would be an easy, very quick win and could be funded from the tea money from Crossrail or another big project. If those stations were anywhere but that particular corner of the north west, it would have been done. Were they in London, it would have been done 50 or 60 years ago, but it has not happened. It is a project that could be completed for a very small sum of money. It is, incidentally, going to be looked into as a feasibility prospect by the new franchiser for the northern franchise, Arriva.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about connectivity in connection with the northern powerhouse, but my constituency is very unfortunate because it will lose a connection to Manchester airport and the south Manchester business district, where many of my constituents are employed; yet paradoxically we are in the city region. There is clear evidence that the city regions of Manchester and Liverpool will be worse connected. The bit that will be worst connected is the northernmost tip of the Merseyside city region. [Interruption.] The Minister is looking at his map carefully—it is Southport.

I have another example of how things can be overlooked. There was an electrification taskforce, which the Minister served very creditably and chaired. Using objective evidence, it came up with a number of proposals, and I was delighted to see that one of them was electrification of the Southport line. It is hard to fathom what will come out of that report. I am very unsure about what action will be taken on it.

Not a lot happens in that area, although there is a lot that could be done, which would benefit communities and be relatively low-cost, compared with some of the larger projects that seem to please the Government more. Part of the problem is that the boundaries of the various transport regions are not situated in a way that helps either the hon. Lady’s constituency or mine. We are at the intersection of a number of different transport authority areas. Part of the problem is that, particularly in Lancashire, we are grappling with a two-tier system. The priorities identified by the districts are not necessarily priorities for the transport authorities.

There is a forgotten Lancashire. This area is forgotten in the vocabulary and rhetoric surrounding the city regions. I suspect that there are forgotten areas of many counties right across the country. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to ensure that this forgotten area is forefront in the Minister’s mind, if only for the fleeting 10 minutes that he takes to reply.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing the debate. I have never been known to miss an opportunity to talk about transport in Lancashire and, if she set us all the challenge of how often we can use the phrase “northern powerhouse” in the course of the hour, I will try to beat her.

In recent weeks, I have had multiple calls to visit the constabulary headquarters in Preston, because I am on the police parliamentary scheme, and I am delighted to hear that Penwortham will get a bypass, because I have become acquainted with the long traffic jam that snakes through it at peak hours. I would be even more delighted about the Ribble bridge, if that ever comes about, because it would speed my journey still more. However, I am conscious of wanting to avoid, even if only for the Minister’s sake, my personal wish list for Blackpool—we have only 40 minutes until the end of the debate and that would not be long enough for me to go through every bus shelter, pothole and road improvement that can possibly be dreamed up.

The point I want to draw on was made by my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh): Liverpool and Manchester are forging ahead, but I am not quite certain that Lancashire has yet seen the train arrive in the station, let alone boarded it or even known its destination. A fortnight ago, we received a glossy and colourful brochure from the county council. Such brochures always worry me, because the content rarely matches the presentation. It was the council’s transport infrastructure plan and full of wonderful projects, all of which I am sure are good in and of themselves, but I still cannot get to the bottom of how in Lancashire transport projects are assessed against each other—and I have been an MP for six years.

I have scoured the documents for benefit-cost ratios and I have submitted freedom of information requests to the local enterprise partnership, to the county council and, frankly, to anyone who moves and breathes in Lancashire, trying to work out how they assess the worthiness of all those competing projects. In six years, answer I have none. The Department for Transport has developed many tools that allow projects to be appraised, but Lancashire does not seem to be able to get its act together.

I recognise that benefit-cost ratios are not the answer to everything. We cannot compare the BCR for High Speed 2 with that for a local road in my area, but we can compare apples with apples. In a county with so many competing road schemes, for example, it strikes me that the tool deployed by the county council is to listen to who is shouting loudest, and then to ensure that everyone gets something, just so no MP shouts too loudly when they deign to come down to Westminster to brief us. That, to me, is not a transport strategy, but a back-covering strategy, which does nothing for systematic economic development.

I urge the Minister to use his response to explain, if possible, how he sees the systematic appraisal of schemes flowing from Transport for the North down to that local level. The first ever oral question I asked as a Member of Parliament was when we were going to get something such as Transport for the North, so the Minister deserves great credit for bringing that organisation to fruition. It will make a positive difference, but it needs to exert pressure on that median level in Lancashire, when the projects to run with are being selected—frankly, they cannot all get prizes, so not everyone will get what they want. It should not be about who shouts loudest.

I concur with the hon. Gentleman’s views about Transport for the North, but is not the danger that the best prepared local authorities—by that I mean Manchester and Liverpool—knowing what they are going to do, will have disproportionate influence compared with other areas?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that, because that is largely my point—Lancashire risks being left behind. Equally, the challenge of devolution is that the responsibility of local government in Lancashire is not to get left behind. It is hard for central Government to yank Lancashire into line; they need to enthuse and equip Lancashire, certainly, but the onus is on local government to ensure that it is playing its part.

I also want to touch briefly on another aspect of public transport infrastructure in Lancashire. The last time that I faced the Minister, it was on this point—I wanted to give him some good news for once, which is that thanks to his personal intervention, I suspect, Lancashire County Council performed a U-turn. My constituents who are residents of Cleveleys, who had lost their free access to the trams, have had it restored to them. Everyone in Cleveleys is absolutely delighted. Now, of course, we have the bun fight about who claims the credit. I hope that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), will forgive me if I make a slightly partisan point, which I do not normally like to do in Westminster Hall, because it is often better to be edified here. It amuses me, however, to see the Labour party seeking to claim credit for the U-turn on a decision that it originally implemented.

Labour does not want to say that the price of the U-turn appears to have been a decimation of local bus services. My constituents might have had their NoWcard restored for use on the trams, but they do not have many buses left to get on. That is a real concern in Lancashire and, frankly, I am disappointed that more Members are not present to shout about it—not least because the county council itself does not seem to have a clue what is happening.

Every month, we get a helpful email with a little leaflet attached as a PDF document, announcing this month’s bus changes. It was a fascinating read this month, because it was saying, “We don’t really know what’s going on.” I read it and I had no idea what was going on; they have no idea what is going on. I have involved the county council’s chief executive. She has forwarded my email on somewhere deep into the bureaucracy of the county council and denies all knowledge of it—no one in Lancashire seems to have a clue about what is going on, least of all the date on which the precious NoWcard will be restored to all my constituents. It is an absolute shambles. I urge the Minister to try and persuade Lancashire to ensure that we, the representatives of the people of Lancashire, understand exactly what buses will run on 1 April, because at the moment no one has a clue.

Finally, I re-emphasise that we could all come here with long lists of desirable transport projects. I am grateful that the A585 will be improved at some future date—I hope that 2019 will be the start date—and for some of the other investments, not least the electrification of the main line into Blackpool. I could spend a whole separate debate discussing rail services from Blackpool, but I will spare hon. Members. However, I also urge that when we are comparing apples with apples, the new, devolved transport authorities need to ensure that they present further information to allow us to compare the relative benefits of different projects, all of which are highly appealing, but need to be judged against each other, like for like. That would aid the decision-making process and might also help to clarify what exactly Lancashire thinks its economic strategy might be in the future.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing the debate. She made a series of detailed points well, and I am sure that the Minister was listening closely. The hon. Lady also referred to city deals and, as a Member with a city deal in my part of the world, I cannot help but reflect that they are sometimes similar to the candyfloss that I used to buy on Blackpool seafront when I was at the Labour party conference—they look magnificent and sound wonderful, but a bit further down the line they can seem a touch insubstantial. That is a word of caution.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for attending, because shadow Ministers do not always have to come to 60-minute debates. I appreciate that. As I said in my speech, however, in the first three years of the Lancashire city deal, substantial infrastructure projects have already taken place and are making a real on-the-ground difference to road times. So our city deal is going very well.

I do not like to correct the hon. Lady, because she is rarely wrong, but shadow Ministers do have to attend 60-minute debates; they do not have to attend 30-minute debates. I just to ensure that we get that on the record. They may attend whatever debate they wish.

Thank you, Mr Pritchard. I am here very happily.

I have also listened closely to the other contributions to the debate, and I have consulted colleagues who know a little more about Lancashire than I do—I come from the east of England. I have heard worries from colleagues about cuts to bus services, as we have heard this afternoon, and about old recycled trains trundling along through east Lancashire. I must say that I have also heard talk of Chorley being given insufficient mention in transport plans, but my source will have to remain anonymous.

In January this year, the Lancashire enterprise partnership argued that connectivity, in Lancashire as elsewhere, is fundamental to maximising our growth potential. Sadly, however, Lancashire’s average economic performance is more than 20% below the national average, in terms of gross value added per resident. Clearly, in order to unlock and harness the economic power of Lancashire, we need far greater and more efficient delivery of promised projects to improve transport connectivity in the region than we have had so far—delivery, not just announcements.

The Secretary of State for Transport told us last week:

“I do not think I need to encourage the Chancellor on infrastructure spending. I have been incredibly successful in securing funding for infrastructure from the Chancellor, who certainly gets the importance of infrastructure investment, not least in the north. Indeed, it is his policy to pursue the northern powerhouse and to take forward transport for the north. That will have a transformative effect on transport between our northern cities and is something other parts of the country are looking to follow.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 424.]

The rhetoric is good, but the record is not so good. Despite the claims, the Government have a poor record on transport infrastructure. In 2010, they cut a huge £4 billion from the strategic road network, which created major uncertainty and saw existing schemes scrapped and delayed. Road maintenance budgets have fallen in real terms and we discovered recently that the much vaunted permanent pothole fund is yet to fill a pothole. We have bus passes preserved, but in too many cases there are no buses on which to use them, and manifesto promises to electrify key rail lines have been broken. Those are hardly the actions of a Government that certainly gets the importance of infrastructure investment.

Indeed, Britain is lagging behind other countries when it comes to delivering major projects. Embarrassingly, we are now 28th in the World Economic Forum rankings for infrastructure quality. We should be trailblazing for transport infrastructure, not trailing behind. The Government’s sluggish delivery of infrastructure projects in Lancashire aptly illustrates that failure.

In December 2014, nine new schemes to improve major roads in the north-west were announced, worth around £800 million. However, just one of those schemes has an updated cost estimate and that cost is careering out of control. Latest estimates on the Highways England website suggest that the M6 junction 19 improvements will cost between £192 million and £274 million, but in the “Road investment strategy: investment plan”, they were estimated to cost between just £25 million and £50 million. That single scheme is now projected to cost ten times as much as initially predicted.

What of the other eight schemes? When my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) asked a question last week requesting the latest cost estimates for schemes announced in 2014, the question—as so often—was ducked. Will the Minister give us an update on the delivery and projected cost of those schemes now? We worry that those announcements were little more than part of a pre-election stunt. Also, the numbers keep changing. A £15.2 billion road investment strategy was announced in December 2014, yet in the Office of Road and Rail’s first “Highways England Monitor”, a different figure of £11 billion emerged. We suggest that the Government have been announcing those road plans since July 2013 and we need some action to accompany the announcements.

Transport Focus has identified that, in the north-west, car and van drivers’ top priorities for major road improvements are improved quality of road surfaces, safer design and upkeep of roads and better management of roadworks. While in both 2013 and 2015 the Government committed £6 billion

“to resurface 80% of the SRN and keep our network in top condition”,

it was reported last month that Highways England will not meet that target. Will the Minister now tell us where the billions have vanished and which projects have had to be scrapped?

On rail, too, Lancashire and the north-west is being let down. Labour supports the extension of high-speed rail services. The Secretary of State for Transport has said of HS2:

“When we start the service from Birmingham, it will be possible to link with conventional rail routes, rather as high-speed trains currently run from St Pancras to Ashford and then beyond. I hope that the northern parts of the United Kingdom will be served by HS2 straightaway.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 394.]

Indeed, Lancashire local enterprise partnership is planning to modernise Preston station as part of its HS2 growth strategy in order to accommodate HS2 trains and to reduce journey times between Preston and London from the current 128 minutes to 77 minutes by 2033 after phase 2 of HS2 is complete, but, unfortunately, we are still waiting for Ministers to confirm the route and the station locations for HS2 north of Birmingham. We were told that the route for phase 2 of HS2 would be confirmed by the end of 2014, but the target has now been deferred for at least another two years. That lack of certainty is damaging for residents, damaging for potential investment and damaging for the Government’s credibility when they profess their commitment to HS2 in the north.

We are full of questions today and we have some more. How can Lancashire and other areas in the north-west plan to benefit from HS2 when its route and station locations have not yet been confirmed? Why has that confirmation been kicked into the long grass and why are the Government letting down the north by dragging their heels?

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that for many people who live in Lancashire—I know he does not, so he cannot be expected to know this—HS2 is a distant dream? The improvements they would most like are some ease of getting by train from, say, Preston to Liverpool, or anywhere in east Lancashire from the coast.

While I recognise that it may seem like a distant dream, as far as we are concerned it is certainly an improvement on the current situation and that is why we will continue to support it.

The Government also paused the trans-Pennine electrification last year; pausing seems to be a characteristic of this Government when what we actually need is fast-forward. Furthermore, after recommencing in September, completion of the whole Manchester to Leeds and York corridor was pushed back from 2019 to 2022. Transport infrastructure improvements in the north, including in Lancashire and the wider north-west, have too often been characterised by dithering and delay. There is still no official estimate of the cost of the trans-Pennine electrification outside the initial funding commitment of £300 million and the £92 million that has been spent so far on contracts.

In addition to delays in infrastructural improvement, Lancashire has also suffered severe cuts to its funding from central Government. Lancashire County Council has had to reduce funding of bus services from £7 million to £2 million to make £85 million in budget savings next year. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) has already referred to bus issues, but I have said it before and I will say it again: the Government are devolving cuts, not power. They are putting local authorities in impossible positions and keeping their own hands clean.

As the shadow Front-Bench spokesman, might the hon. Gentleman be able to help me by encouraging his colleagues in Lancashire to explain to us what the £400 million in reserves at county hall are being kept back for? When will it rain to such an extent that we need the rainy day fund? That is our key question to the Labour party.

Ah, reserves—they are always quoted on all sides as the answer to every question. Of course it is for every authority to decide responsibly how to use its resources appropriately, and I do not think that Government Members can really deny that there has been a squeeze on resources.

Lancashire County Council has said that in the next five years it will need to make savings of £262 million on top of those agreed in previous budgets. It describes that as

“an unprecedented financial challenge due to continued cuts in Government funding, rising costs and increasing demand for key services.”

It states that by April 2018 it will not have sufficient financial resources to meet its statutory obligations even if it does not deliver any of the non-statutory services.

In the comprehensive spending review, the Government announced a reduction of 24% in central Government funding for local government over the spending review period. The Local Government Association tells us:

“Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light, they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.”

In conclusion, those cuts alongside the uncosted deferment of major transport infrastructure projects is preventing Lancashire—and other areas—from reaching its full potential. Lancashire is rightly ambitious to unlock the potential for economic growth, but that will happen only when the Government move from their current practice of recycling announcements and actually start to deliver.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing the debate? I will be replying as one of those rascally white rose-types just from the east, but we will move on from that.

I am sure everyone is aware that last week we saw the publication of “The Northern Transport Strategy: Spring 2016 Report”. The importance of the transport infrastructure of the north is therefore right at the front of our minds. We have been working closely with our partners at Transport for the North, and that is our first annual update of the northern transport strategy, which was originally set out a year ago.

The report outlines the significant progress that the Government and our partners have made in laying the foundation for transformative transport projects right across the north of England. It sets out the next steps for projects, which include major improvements to the north’s road networks, better connecting the northern regions by rail and enhancing the passenger experience of travelling across the north using smart and integrated ticketing technologies. This is therefore a proper milestone in the Government’s plans as we build for Britain’s future, making the biggest investment in transport infrastructure in generations, starting with that £13 billion committed for transport infrastructure in the north over this Parliament and then looking into the future with the work that Transport for the North is undertaking. All of that investment will help to create a northern powerhouse, which is, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble explained, critical for rebalancing our country’s economy. It will enable the north to pool its strengths and become greater than the sum of its parts. We are working closely with Transport for the North to deliver improvements in the short term and are making progress on longer-term projects, all of which benefit the north as a whole.

There have been a number of questions from Members in the course of this debate. I am now surrounded by papers with the detailed answers. I will get to all of them, but I will first outline some of our thinking and the progress we have made. Following the extension of Transport for the North to include all the areas in the north, Lancashire has become an integral part of TfN and its importance to the northern powerhouse is fully recognised. The northern powerhouse without Lancashire is unimaginable.

Lancashire has a £25 billion economy—one of the largest in the north of England. It has more than 40,000 businesses employing more than 670,000 people. Its key strengths of advanced manufacturing, aerospace and automotive are well known, but it also has a strong tradition in energy, higher education, professional and business services and logistics. Lancashire also has Britain’s most famous and largest seaside resort, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) frequently mentions, although he did not do so today. Lancashire’s four enterprise zones are also at the forefront of propelling Lancashire’s future growth as part of the northern powerhouse.

We cannot create the northern powerhouse unless we have good transport and connectivity at its heart; those are key to Lancashire’s future growth. The M6 and west coast main line are vital north-south arteries. The M65 and M55 support key growth corridors both east and west, and the proximity of the great northern conurbations of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool to much of Lancashire’s population mean that improved connectivity can further strengthen Lancashire’s growth. We have recognised the importance of Lancashire’s transport infrastructure and are investing in it on a scale not seen in that part of the world for some time.

On the strategic road network, we have delivered a number of key improvements, such as unblocking pinch points at junction 32 of the M6 and junction 1 of the M55, at the A585 at Windy Harbour and at junction 5 of the M65. Our road investment strategy includes a commitment to significant further investment on the A585 to improve connectivity to Fleetwood and the Hillhouse enterprise zone and to the construction of what is sometimes called the “missing” junction 2 on the M55 linking to the Preston western distributor road, which we are funding through the Preston city deal and the Lancashire growth deal. The route strategy process, which will inform RIS2—our second road investment strategy—will commence in the near future, enabling Highways England to work with local partners to determine future investment priorities for the strategic road network in Lancashire.

Many colleagues have mentioned rail, and it is therefore appropriate to highlight how we are significantly improving rail in Lancashire through investment. As of last year, electric services are operating between Preston and Liverpool, and we are currently upgrading the line between Preston and Manchester to deliver faster, more frequent and less crowded journeys for passengers by December 2017. We are building the foundations for better journeys across the north.

The Farnworth tunnel, which was mentioned earlier, is a significant project. Network Rail has enlarged the railway tunnel in order to accommodate the new wires that will soon be installed for electrification of the line. The tunnel boring machine used by Network Rail was made in Oldham and is larger than the machines used to build Crossrail. Around 120 people worked on the project 24/7, moving 30,000 tonnes of material from a 270-metre long tunnel. I wanted to go and see it, but I am afraid to say that the Secretary of State, who has an interest in tunnelling, decided that that would be his particular priority. That progress is a sign of our commitment to the people of the north. We are already well under way with works on the line from Manchester to Blackpool via Chorley, due to be completed to Preston in December 2017 and to Blackpool by spring 2018.

If I may, I will take a moment to update Members on an issue that is very important to me in transport: accessibility. At Leyland station, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble mentioned, we have spent £4.5 million—including more than £200,000 of third-party funding—to provide an accessible route into the station and to each platform with a new footbridge and three lifts. Network Rail started on site last summer and the work will complete in July. The footbridge is already in public use, while work continues to complete the new lifts. That will be a significant change for the people using the station. I have looked at pictures of the work in progress, and it looks fantastic.

At a local level, we have provided funding via the regional growth fund for Lancashire to reopen the Todmorden curve. The reinstatement of that 500-metre curve through local funding and the regional growth fund has enabled the reintroduction of direct rail services between Burnley and Manchester city centre for the first time in 40 years, significantly reducing journey times. I have checked the passenger usage, and we have already seen passenger numbers grow significantly as a result of that new service. We have also supported upgrades between Blackburn and Bolton, which will support more regular services to Greater Manchester.

I am interested in what the Minister says about the Todmorden curve, because it shows that small-scale curve reinstallation—as I outlined in the case of Burscough—can pay dividends. He mentioned his commitment to connectivity, which I think we all share. As part of that commitment, will he look into the mooted change to the Southport to Manchester line? Under those new arrangements, my residents will lose any chance of getting to south Manchester and the airport; we are actually losing connectivity, rather than gaining it. That has not been finally decided, but will he look into what is happening?

I will indeed look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises, as well as all other matters that colleagues have raised. I am aware of the issue of the Burscough curves because he has explained them to me on previous occasions. As a comparison, we used the local growth fund to reinstate the Halton curve elsewhere in the Liverpool city region, as he knows. That key project shows that where local areas prioritise, we are able to provide support. I simply urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that his LEP continues to prioritise rail investment, including that particular project.

Lancashire will benefit significantly from our plans for HS2. Phase 2a to Crewe, which will bring the project forward by six years, will result in the benefits from classic compatible services arriving in Lancashire by 2027. The completion of phase 2 will bring journey times between London and Preston down from the current 128 minutes to 77 minutes by 2033. HS2 is not being delayed, as the shadow Minister said. We are doing all we can to accelerate HS2, and later this year we will announce the potential routes from Birmingham up into Manchester and Leeds. HS2 is a critical part of rebalancing our economy.

We are supporting a significant investment programme in Lancashire’s local transport infrastructure through the city deal process, which vitally puts Lancashire partners at the forefront of determining the transport investment that they need to grow and support the Lancashire economy. The Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire city deal, which is key to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, was signed in 2013 and is worth more than £430 million to the local economy. The road infrastructure that the deal will deliver, including the Preston western distributor and the Broughton bypass, will support significant housing growth and the advanced manufacturing enterprise zone and will make Preston one of the most commercially dynamic locations in the UK.

The Lancashire growth deal, signed in 2014, is supporting a truly significant investment programme, with a local growth fund of more than £250 million allocated to the LEP to deliver its programme. That programme includes 14 local transport schemes that will see new roads in and around Preston and to St Anne’s; key maintenance projects in Burnley and Blackpool; rail improvements in Blackburn; a new tramway in Blackpool; cycling networks in east Lancashire; and improvements to the M65 growth corridor.

We are funding schemes that have been on the waiting list for years. For example, work started in January on a bypass for Broughton after years of plans that had all come to nothing. Perhaps the best example is the Heysham link road, linking the port of Heysham to junction 34 of the M6 and providing congestion relief to the centre of Lancashire. After 60 years of waiting, it should open later this year, following £111 million of support from the Government towards the total £123 million cost. I hope that time allows me to mention the near £32 million that we have invested in the Pennine Reach bus scheme for east Lancashire, significantly improving east-west bus linkages in the area.

Looking ahead, Transport for Lancashire, on behalf of the LEP, has produced its strategic transport prospectus setting out the transport infrastructure that it believes is needed to deliver Lancashire’s potential. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys had some reservations about the nature of that document, and particularly its print type—it is a very glossy document—but I think we should welcome the idea that local areas are taking responsibility, showing aspiration for those areas and determining what they need. That is at the heart of what Transport for the North is all about.

The document helpfully sets out interventions that have a potentially pan-northern impact and are therefore of particular interest to Transport for the North, as well as key local schemes, such as the South Ribble crossing, which are vital to local growth. I urge Lancashire partners to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by Transport for the North, devolution and growth deals to move their proposals forward.

We are seeing a significant change in the way that we handle transport. My hon. Friend mentioned that he had called for Transport for the North a long time before it was actually created. We are seeing a partnership that has brought together 29 partners locally to determine what they think is required. Transport for the North will be running the franchises on our rail network in the north, in partnership with the Department for Transport. It is from the north, for the north. We will have better decisions when they are taken as near as possible to where a service is delivered. This is a significant development in transport. The Bill to put it on a statutory basis received Royal Assent at the end of January, and we are working towards Transport for the North being set up on a statutory basis within a year.

I have been asked many questions, which I shall try to answer as quickly as I can. Let me start with those asked my hon. Friend. How are schemes appraised? All schemes appraised and promoted by the LEP should be assessed in accordance with its assurance framework. That has to be WebTAG compliant and all results should be published—he is looking sceptical. If he would like any kind of technical briefing on the WebTAG process, I am happy for that to be arranged for him—he should just let me know afterwards.

My hon. Friend highlighted the importance of bus services, and I agree; bus services are critical for local areas. However, we have managed to retain the BSOG—the bus service operators grant—in the spending review programme, in recognition of the importance that we place on protecting buses. They are absolutely vital to our network.

I turn to the points raised the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh). I am aware that areas away from our core cities feel that they may get a slighter deal from Transport for the North and devolution. People in other parts of the north have raised that issue. I simply say that it has appointed an independent chair—independent from the local authorities—ex-CBI president, John Cridland. We have discussed this issue, and Transport for the North is acutely aware of it and is determined that it should not happen or even be seen to happen. The Government are giving it £50 million over the course of this Parliament so that it can do its job and work with all its partners, including Lancashire, to ensure that all projects are developed in an integrated manner.

Let me address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble. The development of the new South Ribble crossing project is certainly an issue for Lancashire County Council. It is a local scheme. The LEP’s strategic transport prospectus identifies it as a key project. The county council says that it is examining how it could be accelerated and funded. A £12 billion local growth fund was announced in the spending review, including £475 million for large local majors, and this is the sort of scheme that could be considered a large local major. I suggest that she picks that matter up on a local basis.

We recognise the importance of HS2. It is worth continuing to highlight how much people in the north, in my estimate—not everybody, but certainly the overwhelming majority—welcome the arrival of HS2 and are impatient for it to happen. I am sure that they are pleased that we will be able to take HS2 up to Crewe six years earlier than planned. That will speed up services to Lancashire sooner. The greater connectivity that it will provide, and the greater capacity that it will inject into our network will be a great help in allowing more services, and therefore, more benefits to flow from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) mentioned additional carriages at Bolton. As I am sure he is aware, the rail franchises included significant upgrades to the rolling stock—both the TransPennine and Northern franchises—and our new franchises start only on the first of next month, so passengers will start to see the benefits flow through in the not-too-distant future.

I cannot ignore some of the questions from the shadow Minister. The new franchises that I just mentioned will deliver new-build trains—more than 500 carriages, in fact, across the north, and that will create room for 40,000 more passengers across the region as a whole.

Potholes were also mentioned, and I should highlight that we have announced a £6 billion fund for local road maintenance up to 2021. Allocations have been given to local councils. I have the information if colleagues wish to know the allocation for their particular area. The point is that we have been able to provide some clarity for the years ahead, so that local councils can plan appropriately.

If the shadow Minister does not mind me saying so, there was a slightly churlish element to his comments. The impatience for transport delivery is obviously fair—we are all impatient. I could perhaps highlight that, after 10 miles of electrification were delivered in 13 years of Labour government, all the good schemes that we have referred to have been welcomed in the north. We need to remember that many of the councils in the north are run by the Labour party, and what we hear locally from Labour and what we hear nationally from Labour are utterly disconnected.

The idea that the transport inheritance that this Government took on from the Labour party is strong is, I am afraid, not borne out by facts. The shadow Minister mentioned the World Economic Forum’s infrastructure league table. During the Labour years, our performance fell from seventh to 33rd in that league table. It was a shocking record, and we are now recovering that position. The Labour party has a poor record and it should start to get behind the programme, as some of its local members have.

I hope that I have managed to convince Members that this is not a forgotten corner of the north—very far from it. It clearly has strong and powerful advocates who have developed a good reputation for championing it already. It is not a forgotten corner; it is a key part of our northern powerhouse. We cannot deliver a strong northern powerhouse without a strong Lancashire—and I say that as a proud Yorkshireman.

Transport is at the heart of what we are delivering. That is clear across all the modes of transport that we have been talking about today—bus, road and rail. We have not talked about aviation connections, but many residents of Lancashire will be using the growth that we are seeing and the improved access into Manchester airport. We have a strong record, as we work with partners to transform transport in the north of England.

I thank the Minister, the shadow Minister and hon. Members on both sides of the House for their excellent contributions today, particularly those from the wider real Lancashire area. We in the red rose county are proud of our industrial heritage. However, we do not want to stay in the past; we want to forge ahead and be part of a strong northern renaissance. Good transport infrastructure is key to that, and I am grateful that we have had an opportunity to debate road, rail, potholes and buses so fully—[Interruption.] And trams, of course—I had forgotten about trams. I did not touch on aviation but, for most of our residents, it is their daily commute that will be key to their success in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in Lancashire.

Sitting adjourned.