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What we must do is ensure that the time over the next 18 months is used sensibly and rationally, with the aim of securing the most sustainable system possible. We must ensure not just that the post offices that are well used remain open, but thata point made by both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Argyll and Butelocal communities are protected. As I have said, it will not be easy. It is a painful decision, and
there is a painful path to tread, but I believe there is no real alternative to that path.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes made some other points. I hope that her discussion with Associated British Ports tomorrow goes well. Yes, there are operating licences, but big companies like that have a responsibility to act in a neighbourly way too, and it is clear that it could make a difference in the area. I also wish my hon. Friend well in her discussion with the national health service about tolls on the Humber bridge. I have used the bridge twice in the last month to go to Hull, and I understand the feelings of people who have to go to hospital and find themselves incurring real as well as personal costs.
I am pleased that progress has been made with police community support officers, and I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), is to visit my hon. Friends constituency. I know that he will use the opportunity to remind the council that it has powers to tackle antisocial behaviour and issue dispersal orders. I shall draw my hon. Friends comments about salt marshes in Cleethorpes to the attention of colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I hope that that will bring about the same kind of progress that she achieved before Easter.
What the hon. Member for West Chelmsford said about the prison population was exactly right, and he was right to quote the Prime Ministers words Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. The mentoring scheme that he described really is important. The Government recognise the importance of not just working with prisoners in prison, but continuing mentoring outside prison. That is why we set up the national offender management scheme. I was very interested in the points that the hon. Gentleman made, and I will talk to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), about the example that he gave. It is a good pioneering example and we can draw from it.
I have already mentioned what the hon. Gentleman said about social housing. Housing is a big issue for all of us. I remind him that the Government have made extra money available for social housing. Between 1997 and 2005, 300,000 new homes have been built. Housing investment has doubled; it is about £2 billion in the current year. I will have a little wager with him that when the comprehensive spending review is announced this autumn there will be yet more money for social housing. We all know through our constituency case loads that many young families are in real need; their needs are currently not being met.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about allocation policies. The Government have some influence in that respect, but again it is for housing associations and
local councils to create sensible schemes that meet the needs of their communities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East talked about the Ministry of Justice and the work of the Select Committee. I have already praised him, so he has goneknowing my right hon. Friend, he is already doing the press release. I followed the discussion in the Select Committee between the Lord Chancellor and Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, with interest. I note that, since the Select Committee hearing, the Lord Chancellor has been in direct touch with the Lord Chief Justice. It is important that we have a resolution to what could be an all-important constitutional point.
Those issues were also picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who spoke about the royal prerogative. I remind him that only 10 days or so ago the Government changed their position on war-making powers and conceded that there was a need for new procedures and new conventions that more closely involved Parliament in such important decisions.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley teased me and asked me what I expected to see from Prime Minister B, as he described him. I do not have a crystal ball, but I think that we will see an increasing focus on constitutional matters. I hope and expect that we will see greater belief and greater determination to involve Parliament more in the discussions. We should all celebrate that. If one were to ask me about a written constitution, it is interesting that both the Attorney-General and the Leader of the House are talking openly and are in discussions about the need for a written constitution. I believe that the tide is changing on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle got into some debate with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley about the European Council. A lot of discussion is going on in government about our negotiating position. I do not think for a moment that we will see the birth of a new constitutional treaty. Let us be clear that France and the Netherlands, where people had a chance to vote on it, turned down the constitution. I would be very surprised if we see any more than a framework document. When we have a document and something that is extant, rather than something that we speculate about, we will make a decision about a referendum, but the promise still stands: if there were to be big constitutional changes such as that, the Government's position remains that there would be a referendum. Let us see what emanates from discussions on the Council. I remind the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate that before the Council sits and that a statement will be made after the Council meeting.
I want to refer to an article in Le Monde, if only to prove that I am better read than the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was in his contribution. I will return it to the Tea Roomhonest. It is about Sarkozy, Brussels and the renewal that is taking place. Since he has become president, Sarkozy is clearly displaying a new attitude. My great fear is that the terms of the new constitutional treaty will go much deeper than was anticipated. For example, if we are
going to have a president of the European Union who is directly elected, surely that should be a decision for the British people, if that is the way we wish to go.
Paddy Tipping: I thought that I had just given that commitment. Let me just say that there are different forces working in Europe and it is important to be at the heart of Europe to try and influence those discussions so that we get an outcome that is in the best interest of the UK people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle talked not only about the Ministry of Justice, but about reorganisation and the mechanics of government. My view is that we are very good at making policy, but we are not good atand we need to improvechange management. As my hon. Friend said, we must consider the dysfunctional costs of change. We may have big ideas about the future, but we need to be clear what our policies are, what our outputs will be and how to measure them. What we also need to do is not criticise public services. The people who work in public services do so because of their commitment and vision for the future. A good manager will praise people to get rewards rather than criticise them.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley made an important point about the utility companies and the fact that people who do not have direct debits have to pay more. I have been looking at my BT bill, which makes it clear that I can still pay it at the post office. It really is unfortunate that big companiesbig water and electricity companies, for exampleare penalising some of the oldest and most disadvantaged members of our communities by insisting that they have to pay by direct debit. I hope that those who follow our debate will listen carefully to the points that have been made across the House about that.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley also talked about agriculture. He is right to say that there is a big market for organics and local food. Booths supermarkets and others have now identified that market and are trying to buy locally, source locally and promote locallyand taste the view is a good example of that. He also talked about the plight of dairy farmers. I do not minimise the difficultiesthey are realbut Booths and other supermarkets are introducing schemes to pay a better, increased price, sometimes for premium milk, which will help the industry. I would also like to praise the work of the womens institute. Consumers can change things and the womens institute has caused a very important change to be made as a result of its campaign.
I know that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is a bit of a Eurosceptic, but we spend about £3 billion on the common agricultural policy. I think that we will move even further from paying for production towards paying for those things judged to be for the public good. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the value of the environment and the landscape to many people and I believe that, increasingly, we will make payments to farmers to maintain that landscape and environment rather than pay them for crops, which we have not always wanted in the past.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) on scoring at Stamford Bridge todaya fine performance there and a good performance here in the Commonsthough I am very
sorry for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who, because of his duties in the House, did not score the best century ever at Lords today. I do not want to comment directly on the two examples of the Marie Louise gardens and the Mersey valley warden service other than to say that covenants are very difficult. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington said, a covenant has to have beneficiaries and finding them can sometimes be hard. The wider issue is to take good advice on covenants. It is worth reminding all local authoritiesnot just those in Manchesterof the real value of Victorian parks and open spaces in urban areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have neglected them in the past.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a bit of advice, although he might not need it. At Wigwam lane in Hucknall, in my constituency, a local playing field is being sold off. The local people have discovered a covenant and taken legal advice. They have perhaps not got as far with that as they might have done, but they have been able to establish that there have been 20 years of continuous informal use and have applied for village green status. People who are interested in the Marie Louise gardens might want to investigate that option. I am delighted that there now appears to be a better relationship with the appropriate cabinet minister in Manchester city council.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned cuts in the warden scheme. I do not want to comment on that, save to say that the growing number of elderly people presents an important challenge to us all. It is one of the big policy challenges of the future. The number of people aged over 85 in the hon. Gentlemans constituency will double by 2020, and we will need to make more resources available for proper community services that meet peoples needs, which can often cost more than residential accommodation. This is a big, real issue.
I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Blaby describe himself as a wicked Tory. That allows me to say, Its the same old Tories. They havent changed their spots at all. The hon. Gentleman talked about electoral matters, including new processes and new methods of voting. It is important that we experiment with those, and that we go forward carefully with them and evaluate the evidence. We must also look carefully at things that go wrong, and things clearly went wrong in the Scottish parliamentary election. That is why there is now an inquiry involving the Electoral Commission and independent international expertise.
Rather than talking about methodology and processes, however, the important thing that we, as politicians, need to do is to inspire and excite people about politics, so that they will want to be part of the democratic process and feel that they can make a difference. It is important to recognise that in parts of
the country on 3 May, only 21 per cent. of the people came out to vote, whereas 85 per cent. turned out in the French presidential election at about the same time. We need to encourage people to believe that they can make a difference.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Leeds. I have looked at the article in The Sunday Times very carefully. This is a matter for the West Yorkshire police, who are investigating the issue, but it seems to me that the electoral code on postal voting produced by the Electoral Commission has not been followed properly. However, I am not immediately convinced that an electoral crime has been committed. That is a matter for the police and the returning officer; let us wait and see what they have to say.
I am pleased to support the hon. Gentlemans call for single-Member first-past-the-post systems. One of the things that is important to us as parliamentarians is our clear link and relationship with our own areas, our own people, our own voters. I would be anxious if we were to move away from that.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute spoke strongly about post offices, and I have already addressed that issue. He also mentioned another issue that all parliamentarians are concerned about, namely the tax credit system. He acknowledged that tax credits were important for low-paid families, particularly those with children. Six million families are now benefiting from them. The amount of overpayment is coming down year on year, although more needs to be done. The disregard of £25,000 from 1 April this year will also make a difference, because it is unlikely that many peoples income will vary by that amount over a year. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us, however, that we need to be vigilant and to push Her Majestys Revenue and Customs when overpayments take place. It is a difficult matter and we need to give people proper advice and confidence in the system.
This has been a good debate. I am conscious that I have not answered all the points but I am going to stop now [ Interruption. ] I have got the message from the Conservative Whip and my Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who is glaring at me. We will look carefully at the points made by hon. Members and if we have not addressed them, we will draw them to the attention of the appropriate Ministers and ensure that Members get a reply.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): This is certainly the second and possibly the third time that I have been selected for an Adjournment debate just before a recess, and therefore detained a Minister, and a Parliamentary Private Secretary, who might have other things that they would like to be doing. I hope that he will find it worth while, because this is an important subject that deserves further discussion in this House.
The subject is the Every Child a Reader scheme, and I shall start by placing what I am going to say in the context of the Governments achievements in literacy. The substantial improvement since 1997 in the performance of schools in producing pupils who are at least basically literate has been significant and welcome. There have been a number of innovative and highly successful initiatives to strengthen the ability to build literacy through other means as well. Sure Start is an excellent example, and one of the mini Sure Starts is in my constituency. But other initiatives, such as Reading Champions, which is focused on boys, and the Bookstart programme to deliver books to families, are all intended to provide a holistic approach to improving literacy skills. The worrying element is that there remains a tail of non-achievement amongst a minority. Roughly 20 per cent. of boys and 13 per cent. of girls leave our schools with literacy levels below the accepted range for that age.
Every Child a Reader is aimed at exactly that tail: identifying early those who will struggle with literacy and providing remedial programmes for them. The previous Adjournment debate on the subject came just before the publication of two reports that evaluated the success of the programme, so I thought it would be opportune to discuss this again, now we have in the public domain the research that shows what has been going on.
The first piece of research I will refer to is by KPMG. KPMG is one of the sponsors of the programme; it is worth saying that the programme is not wholly funded by the Government. It is match-funded by the Government and linked to a range of private and voluntary sector funding bodies who share the Governments goal of wishing to improve reading skills. KPMGs research focused on the costs of failing to remedy poor literacy skills. It showed that the cost to the state per person up to the age of 37, where the data become difficult to work with, was £45,053 per individual. That amounts to around £2 billion a year.
Those costs are often incurred in ways that most of us could readily identify, and which would lead us to say, Well, thats fair enough; I can see that. A good example is additional special educational needs support in secondary schools, which is expensive. Slightly less obvious are costs relating to exclusion and the consequences of negative experiences in school, which are often linked to poor literacy. Another cost is that someone who leaves school with poor reading skills is likely to face longer periods of unemployment, or employment on very low earningsand as we know, one outcome of unemployment can be poor health,
and it can also result in a greater likelihood of that person being involved in criminal activity. It is not difficult to see how the figures for the economic consequences of failing to deal with poor reading skills at an early age are worked out.
Other costs are not even estimated. One of them involves the intergenerational link. Once poor literacy has been established in a family, it is likely that those low reading skills will continue for generation after generation, because the childs home will not have the role models, or the books, that can help them to build on whatever they have achieved in school.
I will address the success of Every Child a Reader shortly, but first let us consider the return on the investment in that programme. The cost is just under £2,500 per pupil, so the return is about £15 to £18 for every pound spent. I used to be a business man, and if someone had offered a return of anything like that, I would have found myself standing in a long queue of those willing to invest their money. That return makes it incontrovertible that early remedial action to deal with poor reading skills has a huge societal and economic benefit, and is well worth taking.
Let us look at other research on the scheme. It funds specially trained reading recovery teachers in infant and primary schools teaching five to six-year-olds. It is targeted on that age range, based on experience of success elsewhere. The scheme is not novelit came from New Zealandand there is plenty of learning experience behind it, which shows that it is best applied in that period of a childs education.
The first year of the three-year pilot that is still in progress has been evaluated. It showed that in schools funded through the programme, there was an average gain of 21 months in the reading age of the children targeted in four to five months of teachingjust 38 hours of committed time by a teacher. In contrast, similar children in schools without that level of support fell further behind. Regrettably, the experience is that once poor reading skills are established, the child becomes depressed and demotivated in schooland that instead of progressing, they fall back.
Unsurprisingly, the benefits of better reading skills are not confined to being able to read better. They have a huge impact on behaviour in schools, commitment to other subjects in the school curriculum and matters such as school attendance. They have a major rounded effect on the child in the school community, and also on the school community itself. Encouragingly, the research shows that the gender gap between boys and girls is narrowed, too. Boys gain slightly more from this intervention than girls. The gap is illustrated by the fact that 63 per cent. of children taking part in the programme are boys. We all know that disproportionately more young boys have difficulty learning to read and achieving in school.
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