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8 Jan 2008 : Column 45WH—continued

12.20 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Thank you, Mr. Hancock. The debate has indeed been interesting and important. I understand its importance to Members of Parliament and their constituents in farming and related sectors. If I were not aware of its importance from the debate, I would be from the correspondence that I have received from hon. Members of all parties. I can tell hon. Members that I am receiving more letters on this issue than any other in my portfolio, including international climate change. That gives us an appreciation of its importance. In particular, the letters from individual farmers have been intelligent and well argued, and the parliamentary questions that have been tabled have also been well informed. Not all Members who have tabled questions are here.

I met representatives of the National Farmers Union only this morning, before this debate—it was a happy coincidence—to discuss these issues. I wish to answer the questions as best I can and to set out the Government’s approach.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that we agreed on the need to reduce nitrates and to address the problem. I emphasise that, but let me dwell on two points. The cost of treating
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water to meet drinking water requirements in respect of nitrates between 2005 and 2010 is estimated to be some £288 million in capital expenditure and £6 million in operating expenditure. The nitrate problem results in a cost on the other side of the equation as well. The cost of environmental damage to river and wetland ecosystems and to natural habitats is estimated to be some £716 million to £1.3 billion per year, so there are important issues in the balance. It is true that agriculture contributes approximately 60 per cent. of the nitrogen entering rivers in England.

The issue, of course, is the European directive. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) provided one solution to the problem: attempt to get Parliament out of the directive. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) provided another: anaerobic digestion. He said that that solution was for the long term and would not answer the immediate problems, and I concur with him. It is an important opportunity that the Government will be pursuing in any event, but it is not an answer to the immediate question.

The fact is that the UK negotiated and agreed the directive in 1991. It might be old, and some would argue that its prescriptive approach is outdated—it is a prescriptive approach—but its environmental objectives are still relevant. So far, our efforts to implement the directive have been considered insufficient by the European Commission, and an infraction case has been opened against us. In our discussions with the Commission, we have expressed the firm view that the measures that we apply should be based on robust evidence and the status of our water bodies, and should go no further than our evidence shows to be necessary. However, the UK continues to have one of the highest levels of nitrate pollution in the European Union, and while monitoring data suggest that the nitrate levels in many surface waters are on a downward trend, we have no basis for concluding that the trend is significant or sustained. On the contrary, concentrations remain high and are increasing in some areas, particularly in groundwater.

So, what action are the Government planning to take? Our proposals for making additional designations of nitrate vulnerable zones and introducing a reinforced action programme were set out in a consultation document that was published in August last year. In developing the proposals, we took on board the views of people with a direct and indirect interest in the sector. Those views were gained through a series of workshops with farmers and meetings with their representatives and others. I can assure hon. Members that we have also had, and are having, extended discussions with the European Commission as part of the ongoing infraction proceedings.

Mr. Cash: How does the Minister answer the NFU’s claim that the nitrate level risk that is prescribed by the directive represents no human health impact? Surely that is at the heart of the issue.

Mr. Woolas: As ever in these important debates, the Minister finds himself in a position of being unable to answer all hon. Members’ questions, however reasonable, because of the time limit. While I am in that position now, I can say that the consultation has taken place. It resulted in some 700 responses, which reinforces the seriousness of the matter. I will try to respond to the points that have been made, and I have an open mind on how we implement the directive.

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Daniel Kawczynski: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Woolas: Hon. Gentlemen are pressing me. If I give way, I will not be able to answer all questions that have been asked. I hope that that is understood.

Let me briefly finish this point and see where we are. The proposed revisions would bring us more in line with the action being taken in other member states, although I have to say that requirements are even more stringent in other countries. For example, in Finland, 12 months’ slurry storage is required. In other countries, satellites are used to check compliance. In Denmark, applications of fertiliser are restricted below the economic optimum.

The formal consultation ended on 13 December 2007. As I said, we had 700 responses to it, and I am in the process of considering them.

Mr. Benyon: Will the Minister respond to the points made about the gold-plating of the regulations, particularly in respect of autumn cover crops?

Mr. Woolas: What I have in mind on that is the importance of storage. I understand the point about cover crops, which the NFU made in the formal consultation and many hon. Members made in their letters. I have an open mind about it. There is no intentional desire to gold-plate the directive, which, as I have already said, some would argue is outdated. It is a prescriptive directive, and I have to bear that in mind. I reassure hon. Members that I have an open-minded attitude to the point about cover crops and the importance of stubble.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), who initiated the debate, asked about the timetable. I am not committed to 6 April. It is important that I consider the responses. Areas to be improved can be de-designated and reduced—there is some flexibility. I am aware of the point about ammonia, which was raised by him and by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and others in written questions. The hon. Member for Ludlow mentioned the level of feeling about cover crops. We are seeking a derogation from the measure on 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year. I shall consider his suggestion to go further, but I am presently in discussions on the 170 kg, and I have to balance European Commission requirements against the points that have been made by hon. Members.

A happy new year to you, Mr. Hancock, and to the other Chairmen. I am sorry that I have not been able to answer the questions in detail. I shall, of course, undertake to answer hon. Members who raised pressing points that have not been answered today or covered by responses to parliamentary questions and letters. I have no doubt that I will be in other debates as we move towards decisions on this important directive.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I thank the Minister and hon. Members for their co-operation. I hope that Members who are leaving will do so quietly as we move on to the next debate.

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Local Area Agreement (Nottingham)

12.30 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): The title of this debate could hardly be drier, despite your eloquence in reading it out, Mr. Hancock, yet it is about the key social policy for the future of our society. In plain English, we are using early intervention policies to break the intergenerational nature of the cycle of underachievement in the UK, which will liberate the talents and potential of all our children rather than dooming them to repeat the failures of the past.

Every area must have a plan. The Minister for the Environment, who replied to the previous debate, knows very well that the local area agreement constitutes that plan. Nottingham, with its local and national partners, will use the LAA to pioneer a unique long-term strategy centred on a package of early intervention policies, starting at the prenatal stage, continuing through pre-school and school years, and completing the circle with parenting and relationship skills for teenagers that will enable the next generation of newborns to get the best start in life; a virtuous circle that replaces a vicious circle.

I pay tribute to all those involved in the policy, including our local strategic partnership, One Nottingham. Being recognised by central Government as a city that can demonstrate early intervention to others is an accolade indeed, especially as our partnership work was officially dubbed “failing” just two years ago. It marks the end of our first phase of development—the recovery of the local strategic partnership—and demonstrates the clarity that we all now share locally about our mission to tackle deprivation in a unique way. We have a 20-year programme of early intervention to pre-empt rather than to manage the consequences of personal and social failure.

Of course we must continue to swat the mosquitoes of antisocial behaviour, poor educational outcomes and worklessness. We must create the intellectual and professional space to drain the swamp of poor parenting and emotional and social dysfunction, too. The programme signals the beginning of the LAA as a vehicle for policy sharing. That in turn will herald effective and agreed budget sharing with all local partners. One Nottingham will seek to guide and evolve the policy over the next 12 to 24 months. It is a job that we will do with relish and imagination now that our local and national long-term goals can converge in the LAA. That is more productive and motivating than placating some irrelevant and burdensome central-targeting machinery that seems to have a life and an agenda of its own, separate from the task of improving the life chances of the people of Nottingham. Singing from the same LAA hymn sheet will end such discordance.

Hitherto, we had felt alone and exposed in introducing a serious long-term plan to alter radically the life chances of the people of Nottingham. However, the psychological impact of being asked to demonstrate the use of our LAA on early intervention is to give partners official recognition and permission to go ahead and tackle local challenges. The impact of those permissions in turning back 30 years of top-down conditioning of local officials cannot be underestimated. We thank the Government for their foresight in providing them.

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We have overcome massive local challenges and have many more ahead. Our designation means that our key partners in national Government now understand what we are trying to do, and have confidence in us. We will seek to deepen our local and national engagement as we strengthen the social foundations of our city, and hopefully others will find that instructive. There are a number of areas in which national and local activities converge. On finance, we welcome the flexibility of the three-year funding set out in the comprehensive spending review, which will allow us to develop a local medium-term strategy with partners and end the destructive annual cycle, especially as it affects the voluntary sector, which the Minister and I discussed in our last Adjournment debate together. We will use the first three-year period to develop pooled budgeting and, much more ambitiously, seek to create—with support from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office—the financial instruments necessary to recycle future savings from early intervention into the very investment necessary to initiate it. Although we do not seek Government funds, we need Government expertise. We have received extremely good assistance so far, not least from the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, as we tentatively explored the most effective financial instruments. The LAA gives us a three-year plan, which we can use to drive forward the necessary local cultural changes. That is a tremendous help. Short-term annual box ticking is the antithesis of effective planning. The Government have taken a brave step forward in recognising that and, despite some obvious resistance in parts of Whitehall—welcome to partnership working—we are moving towards a lower and more meaningful number of targets.

That process must continue and accelerate, because early intervention is about setting long-term intergenerational targets. To deliver lasting change and reduce the level of public resources required to mitigate the symptoms of multiple deprivation, we need targets and budget planning on a local and national level that recognise long-term ambition, which is neither risk nor, on occasion, imagination-averse. A good start has been made, but there is still some way to go.

In Nottingham, we will use the evolution of the local strategic partnership and the LAA to create space to allow a culture of joined-up planning, delivery and local budget setting. We have started to deliver an early intervention programme by co-ordinating a multitude of different services to improve the life chances of families in Nottingham. Government must be joined up to work in the same way. We hope that the creation of One Nottingham’s local and national partners’ forum, which has already had its first meeting in Whitehall, can evolve to show how that can be done. We welcome the concept of a cross-departmental agreement, or similar, that seeks to achieve that. We intend to put our sponsoring Minister to work to that end and to work on a number of other issues. We hope that our sponsoring Minister will not just be decoration, but a voice for us, moving us forward constructively within the Whitehall machinery.

We have received excellent support, too, from our Government regional office, field forces and other agencies. They need to come with us on to a higher level to incorporate that long-term approach much more intimately in their own work. The LAA focus on early intervention will show how we must work together with our local
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and national partners. Much of that is about process, but we must always remember why we are doing this. Early intervention is not an add-on. It is a prerequisite for transforming the lives of many of the citizens of Nottingham by breaking intergenerational cycles of underachievement, deprivation and social exclusion. If we can do that in Nottingham, there is no reason why we cannot do it elsewhere in the UK. Nottingham is a hard case, not least with its Victorian boundary, which includes former council estates in the inner and outer city but little else. Life expectancy in my city is four years lower than the national average, and varies within the city by 10 years between the most and least deprived areas.

There are high levels of child poverty in the city, and nearly two out of three children and young people live in workless or low-income households. Furthermore, despite a strong economy, almost half of Nottingham’s population—124,000 people—live in the 10 per cent. most deprived areas in England. My constituency also sends the fewest young people to university of any constituency in the United Kingdom. Finally, some 58 per cent. of births are out of wedlock—I make no moral judgment about that, but we must bear that factor in mind as we make progress on a number of problems in our city.

Partners have already tackled such problems across the board. There has been a 25 per cent. reduction in crime in the past three years, we have broken through the 50 per cent. five A to C GCSEs barrier this year, and there are many other examples from areas such as health and employment. However, heroic efforts by committed public servants in the here and now must be supported by a long-term strategy if they are to be sustained and built on. Early intervention is not a catchphrase, but a robust definition underpinning a specific package of measures. If it does not help to break the intergenerational cycle of disadvantage and deprivation, it is not early intervention.

Although we are already putting parts of our package in place, the most significant changes will not happen in the short term. We will be successful only if we remain patient locally and, above all, nationally as we build our policy interventions and change our culture. Our new local area agreement will be used as a tool to enable all partners to drive forward improvements and reshape services, with the early identification of issues and early intervention becoming standard practice—the modus operandi—for all partners across the city. That will take time, and I beg the Minister and his Department to bear with us—not to let us off the hook or give us an easy time—as we build. If they do, they will see developments taking shape through the years as part of a steady process.

Slowly and painstakingly, we are developing consensus across the city so that partners can work together in an integrated, holistic way. Some of that work will be about continuous improvement, building on much of the good work that is currently taking place; in other areas, we are prepared for radical innovation. For example, in its work on the social and emotional aspects of learning programme, Nottingham has taken the programme further than any other city following the intervention of the local strategic partnership, One Nottingham. Other examples of innovation include children’s centres and the intensive family support service, which has received
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match funding from One Nottingham and the Home Office. Work has been undertaken with health visitors, too, and we have tried to devise our own intensive health visiting scheme, along the lines of the nurse-family partnership that has been pioneered in 10 other cities. Another example of innovation is the targeted youth work undertaken under the pioneering Respect programme, which was invented in the city of Nottingham.

Nottingham, as an early intervention city, will break the intergenerational nature of underachievement and deprivation by identifying children, young people and families at the earliest possible opportunity, by intervening and by empowering people to transform their lives and their future children’s lives. As a demonstration area for the LAA, we have asked all our key partners to identify early intervention projects that are backed by a robust, proper evidence base and a research focus that is aligned to our mission. A sharp package of measures, some of which are already in place, and a clear implementation timetable will be endorsed and marketed in a way that is tangible to the public and professionals. We are preparing an exciting launch event—it might even involve the Minister’s own presence—with local and national partners in April 2008.

We are the first, so there is no blueprint. When we stumble, as we surely will, central Government must help us up, not berate us. One Nottingham, the local strategic partnership, will continue to lead our approach, with ever stronger governance and clearer lines of account. We will not only evolve our demands on partners in the public sector, but increasingly enable the business and voluntary sectors to step up to the plate, too. We will ensure that there are operational cross-cutting arrangements by, for example, allowing data and tracking to be used to facilitate early intervention and reinforce our commitment to a holistic, family-centred approach.

The Government’s decision to authorise our role as a demonstration area is a most welcome and timely boost, which will stimulate and firm up our thinking. We will use a wider group of local strategic partnerships and councils to bolster our learning and evaluation as we build an evidence base of what works. We already know that early intervention is about tying in best practice globally, nationally, regionally and locally, then tailoring specific policies to the local context.

Nottingham has set out its stall. We have made excellent progress and we relish the challenges ahead. Our Government partners must continue to help us over the coming year. First, they must provide public support to underpin the long-termism and patience that we require to be successful. Secondly, they can continue to help us, as I suggested earlier, to devise the financial instruments necessary to sustain early intervention for a generation. That will help us to avoid the massive and growing costs of subsidising failure by intervening early and cheaply to build success.

Local and national policy makers have realised that the financial, social and individual costs of late intervention are too high. Working locally and nationally as partners, through early intervention, we can find a better way in our city, which may give colleagues throughout the UK some examples of the way forward.

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Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): If the scheme is as good as the speech made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), I am sure that it will be a rip-roaring success. I invite the Minister to reply.

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