Previous Section Index Home Page

1.32 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): I shall follow the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in making a number of local points. That is the nature of these debates, which provide an opportunity to raise with the Minister some issues that constituents have brought to my attention.

I start with an education issue: the role that Ofsted has played in discharging its inspection responsibilities. Earlier this year it undertook an inspection of Robin Hood junior school in my constituency and rather used it as a guinea pig for a test run of its new inspection regime and a new inspector. The inspectors' conclusions match neither the school's view of itself nor the view of the local education authority and particularly the executive head responsible for school improvement. There has been unprecedented unanimity of view that the inspectors' conduct and review have led to a judgment that is false and damaging to the school.

When the inspectors came to the school, they seemed to have a predetermined view about what was going on there. That was an incomplete picture based on a partial reading of the data that were available about the school's educational performance. They proceeded very selectively to gather evidence that seemed to reinforce the hypothesis that they had already arrived at, disregarding evidence that would in any way contradict it. The inspectors took just one year's data to form a view and projected that to conclude that there was widespread underachievement in the school. That was not true and is not fair, and the data do not support that conclusion. The inspectors seemed wilfully to overlook positive achievements while they were in the school, and by taking just one-year's data rather than the normal three-year average, they misled themselves, and could mislead parents who are deciding whether to send their children to that school. I would argue that, in some ways, they misdirected themselves in how they conducted the inspection.

There is an appeal process to challenge Ofsted judgments and how inspectors have come to their conclusions, and it has been used to challenge the judgment in that case. However, from my direct experience of the process so far and discussions with the head teacher, I do not
16 Dec 2009 : Column 986
believe that it is a robust and independent process of checking whether the inspector has done the job properly. So far in the appeal process, points that I, the school and the local authority have raised have been disregarded. The inspectors' version of events seems to have been accepted without question, and when alternative points of view are put forward they seem to be set aside if the inspectors' notes do not include any evidence of them. That does not seem to be in any way fair or natural justice.

I finally wrote a letter to the chief inspector on behalf of the school and others. She has not replied to it herself, but in the reply that I have received, many of the questions that I posed were not answered by Ofsted. It was little more than a cut-and-paste version of the reply that was sent to the head teacher, who asked a number of questions that were similar but not completely the same.

I ask the Minister: where is the accountability, quality control and robust independent complaints procedure, and how can we accept a situation in which damage can be done to a school's reputation by a rogue Ofsted report? I am concerned that the school could be done harm by the process. I have been delighted by how the school and parents have worked together and by the fact that the school has reassured parents, not least because it has been so robustly supported by the local education authority. I hope that justice will be done in the new year and that there will be some serious engagement by Ofsted in that serious problem.

The second matter that I wish to raise was mentioned by the Leader of the House in Prime Minister's questions today. She referred to the need for credit unions to deal with the pressures that come from loan sharks. I have been supporting the efforts of the London borough of Sutton to set up a credit union to promote a culture of savings and offer secure low-cost loans. The route that the borough chose was to extend an existing credit union from the London borough of Croydon to cover both Sutton and Merton as well. That would cost less than other options and could be done more quickly.

Just last week, on 2 December, we learned that the application to extend the common bond to permit the Croydon Savers Union to operate in Sutton and Merton had been rejected. It would seem that it ticked all the boxes except one-it did not meet the locality rule that currently applies. The view of the Financial Services Authority was that although Sutton, Merton and Croydon share borders, they are not a sufficiently clear and coherent locality to warrant ticking that box. I suspect that many hon. Members will accept that, when administrative boundaries are drawn, the areas that fall within them are not automatically and always seen as a common locality. When it comes to finding a cost-effective way of extending the benefits of a credit union, it seems rather strange that that one rule is becoming such a barrier.

We have been told that changes to the rules that are due to come in by next July mean that the credit union will be able to go ahead then. However, I hope that the Minister will pass on to colleagues in the Treasury my view that hard-pressed families who are struggling under a burden of debt and financial pressures of one sort or another would benefit from a credit union as soon as possible. I hope that something can be done to ensure that one comes to Sutton sooner rather than later.

16 Dec 2009 : Column 987

Decent council homes are a concern for many of my constituents, not just those who live in them but those who work in them to make them decent. It was a real blow to hear the announcement in July that the Government were to switch resources out of the decent homes programme and into the building of new council homes. One can understand the case for investment in new homes, but that should not in any way undermine the absolute need to ensure that existing properties are properly maintained, renovated and improved. A devastating blow has been dealt to tenants, and to the staff who have been working so hard to ensure that they get a two-star rating through the assessment, and that the programmes to meet the need are in place.

That money would have been used to replace a number of things, including life-expired, asbestos-ridden box bathrooms that are literally coming away from the sides of the properties to which they were attached 40 years ago, and electrical and plumbing works. New boilers and home insulation will go a long way to help to tackle fuel poverty in my constituency. Given that the stock condition has been put in the bottom quartile of London councils, the decent homes programme is much needed in my area.

A team has been set up to do all that work, but they are now at risk of being sacked, because the work will not be available to them. The contractors who have been lined up, who would have employed 27 new apprentices, are also now having to be stood down. We need that £120 million programme, to lift the standard of living of many of my constituents. I had a very successful and useful meeting just last week with the Minister for Housing and local tenants leaders, who made a very powerful case. The talks were productive. I certainly hope that the Minister will reflect on the matter over the Christmas period and that we will have a change of heart so that that resource becomes available.

I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions about Sri Lanka. The Tamil community in my constituency is concerned about relatives and others given what is happening in the country. I shall address only one issue today-the camps-and I hope that Foreign Office Ministers will continue to pursue it vigorously. The camps are seen by many Tamils as detention camps. People are not allowed free movement and certainly not to go home. There is a lack of information about who is being detained and why, and a lack of access for independent human rights and humanitarian agencies. Twelve thousand alleged Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam members are held in them without access to those agencies or even the Red Cross. They have now been incarcerated for seven months without any form of charge and certainly without any promise of being released.

The Government are doing much to put pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to honour their commitments on international law and human rights, but can more be done to ensure that, through the European Union, where we have leverage and which has recently reported on human rights violations, the renewal of the generalised system of preferences plus does not happen? That would be a way of signalling to the Sri Lankan Government that they must strive more to ensure that Tamils are treated fairly and equally in that country, and that there
16 Dec 2009 : Column 988
is a genuine process of restoring trust and building peace, rather than continued intimidation of, and misery for, many Tamils.

I end where I began-with education. There has been a 29.4 per cent. rise in births in my borough since 2001, which means that an additional 300 children per year will turn up at reception classes across Sutton. Indeed, in the past three years, there has been a 21 per cent. increase in Sutton and a 24 per cent. increase in Worcester Park in my constituency. Based on those figures and other data, there is a need, I believe, for anything between 170 and 200 more places in September of 2011 and over 300 more by 2012.

Despite having the largest birth rate increases in London and the lowest numbers of surplus places nationally, Sutton has recently been told that it will receive nothing of the £271 million that has been allocated by the Department for Children, Schools and Families as a safety valve to help to cope with such unexpected and increasing pressures. It therefore has to find up to £18 million itself to fund the additional accommodation that will be needed to ensure that those children have a school place to go to. The real concern now is that the accommodation will not be of the right sort-temporary accommodation-and that schools, governors, head teachers and others will understandably object to it, thus causing even more delays in delivery. I have been trying to get a response to an e-mail that I sent to the Minister for Schools and Learners to arrange a meeting to discuss my local education authority's concerns and its case for additional funding, but I have not yet had one. I would like the opportunity to meet the Minister in the new year to see whether we can find a way through the funding problem.

In conclusion, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Speaker, the staff of individual Members of Parliament and those who work in the service of the House, the compliments of the season. I am sure that we all look forward to a very prosperous and successful new year.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I just remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions?

1.45 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure Members on both sides of the House will be hoping for a positive outcome from the Copenhagen meeting as it draws toward a close. It is vital that an agreement is reached that will commit the countries of the world to work seriously together to tackle this international problem. During the summer I led a small Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to study the effects of climate change on some of the smallest countries in the world. The group visited Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu in the south Pacific, which have populations ranging from 11,000 to just over 200,000.

We heard from many people about how the effects of climate change are making their daily lives much more difficult. The Pacific islands are relatively poor, and the local people lack the resources to cope well with the extreme weather that is becoming more frequent. Some
16 Dec 2009 : Column 989
were angry that they suffer the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions having contributed virtually none themselves.

Most people imagine that rising sea levels lead to low-lying islands disappearing under water, causing local populations to relocate, but local inhabitants move long before that happens. Already in Vanuatu, the population of one small island has had to do so.

High tides and rising sea water contaminate the drinking water, meaning that the only option for populations is to collect rain water to drink. On Funafuti, the main island of Tuvalu, the local council told us that owing to low rainfall, families are currently rationed to six buckets of water each morning and evening. Although the European Union has been able to help with the provision of large rain water collection tanks on the main island, as yet no means have been found to transport similar tanks to the outer islands. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that representatives from Tuvalu have made themselves heard at the summit in Copenhagen.

Over time the land becomes saturated with salty water, making it impossible to grow food. At the moment, around 70 to 80 per cent. of the people on those islands are reliant on agriculture. We heard in Tuvalu that the island now frequently experiences high tides that lead to flooding. How can a small farmer keep animals or sow crops when fertile soils and fresh water are contaminated with salt water?

Pressure will grow for the larger countries in the Pacific to take in climate change refugees. The reality is that no Pacific nation will be unaffected, no matter how large. More than half the population of the islands of the region lives within 1.5 km of the shore. We were shown maps that showed that within 20 years, the heavily populated areas of many countries will be uninhabitable.

The visit brought it home to the delegation that climate change is having a profound impact now, and that the prospects for the people of the region are poor. Whatever the result of the Copenhagen discussions, I think it important that we in the UK continue to take what action we can to tackle the problem.

All Pacific island nations have drawn up national adaptation plans with the support of funds from the United Nations, but we were told that the lack resources to implement the plans causes those nations a great deal of concern. Climate change experts at the university of the South Pacific were clear that without significant adaptation now, the longer-term prospects for the countries are bleak.

Earlier this week, I asked the Prime Minister whether European Union money that has been allocated for assistance can be made available for adaptation. In his response he clearly recognised the importance of taking action. For many people in the world climate change is not an issue for the future: it is affecting them now.

In the UK we are lucky not to face such immediate problems. However, we do have a responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions to mitigate the future effects of climate change. I believe strongly that by focusing more on energy efficiency we could begin to see dramatic reductions. Houses in the UK are responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. While there are
16 Dec 2009 : Column 990
many aspects to this which could and should be addressed, I particularly want to address the matter of heating and electricity.

I commend the Government for announcing a boiler scrappage scheme in the pre-Budget report last week. Around 125,000 households will be able to upgrade their boiler when the scheme starts early next year. I hope that we can allocate further funds in due course as part of a rolling programme to replace the large number of old and inefficient boilers in use. The Chancellor said:

That scheme will be a positive step in reducing household emissions. It has an added attraction in that it will bring down the average household energy bill, which will be especially important to those caught in the fuel poverty trap.

It is important that we have financial incentives in place to encourage the next generation of low-carbon and renewable electricity. I know that the Government have been consulting on two mechanisms: the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs. I want to concentrate today on feed-in tariffs: the money paid for electricity supplied to the national grid. I think that we can make more progress. The Renewable Energy Association states that the Government are planning to meet just 2 per cent. of the UK's electricity needs from technologies supported through the current tariff scheme. That figure is far lower than the potential and considerably lower than other countries are achieving or working toward.

If we pay more attention to that aspect of electricity production, we can encourage many more individual households and small businesses to become involved. The expansion of small-scale electricity production would help us in tackling climate change. It would also encourage technological innovation, followed in due course by the manufacture of the newly designed equipment.

Around the world, tariff schemes have had positive effects on cutting costs of renewable technologies, as well as creating employment opportunities. They offer an incentive for individuals and companies, particularly those already focused on products aimed at low carbon emissions. I understand that the proposed clean energy cash back tariff, scheduled to launch in April, will pay households which generate their own power from wind turbines and solar panels. They will receive money for each unit of electricity that they use in their own home, and also for the surplus energy that they provide to their local energy company. Both payments will be tax free.

I know that the Government's consultation on renewable electricity financial incentives is now closed, and they have yet to issue their response. I hope that they will seriously consider increasing the proposed level of tariffs. The suggested return on investment of between 5 per cent. and 8 per cent. is not likely to be sufficient to encourage significant take-up. According to the modelling commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, tariffs that deliver a 10 per cent. return on investment would result in three times the amount of renewable electricity generation by 2020 than will be delivered by the proposed scheme.

Over the past few months, I have been working closely with one small Sheffield company in this field, Disenco Energy plc. It is close to the commercial production
16 Dec 2009 : Column 991
of the first viable micro combined heat and power appliance suitable for the domestic and commercial market. Currently the size of a washing machine, Disenco's patented HomePowerPlan is a highly efficient boiler and a 3 KW electrical system at 92 per cent. efficiency. That appliance will supply all the hot water and heating requirements of a home, and up to 70 per cent. of its electricity needs at peak times. That is obviously beneficial for the consumer as costs and efficiency savings result in reductions to annual electrical bills. Importantly, it can cut the carbon footprint of a home by about 70 per cent., reducing C02 emissions.

The product is targeted at the domestic market as a direct replacement for the boiler. The company estimates that the cost could be around £3,000 when production gets into commercial gear. That would put them in the same market as many current new boilers, obviously important when trying to entice people to replace their old boiler with a new energy-efficient appliance.

The other significant benefit of micro combined heat and power units is that they assist with electricity generation at precisely the times when there is significant demand, helping the grid to cope with peak periods. They also make a significant contribution to tackling fuel poverty. Elderly and vulnerable people, who currently hesitate to put the heating on for fear of the cost, will be able to heat their homes, knowing that by doing so they are also generating electricity and being paid for it.

Emerging small businesses such as Disenco need the support that the Government can provide. They need a revenue system in place that provides incentives for householders to replace their old boilers with new products that can generate sufficient electricity that surplus can be sold to the national grid. They also of course need money to get their products to market. At a time when we have supported banks with billions of pounds, a few million pounds of investment could see these important new technologies in place in months.

We face the challenge of meeting the UK targets of reducing energy use, while at the same time bringing to an end the excessive use of fossil fuels. Feed-in tariffs are one way of helping us to get there. Encouraging change is a huge challenge, particularly so during this difficult economic time. However, the possibilities of these new technologies fill me with optimism. They will reduce carbon emissions, ensure that people can stay warm in their homes, and importantly we will use less of the planet's resources. If we can encourage and help along this process, we can also help to generate future prosperity for the country.

On that note, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, everybody else in the House and all the staff a very happy Christmas and all the best for the new year.

Next Section Index Home Page