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7 Sep 2010 : Column 42WH—continued

Ian Lucas: I am not sure that I agree with that observation, because the thrust of what I am saying is that perhaps we ought to move away from the banks
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when it comes to financing businesses. Of course, it is true that there will always be a role for banks, but we should be aware of the possibility of alternative models, because it seems to me that the banking sector is not that interested in small business. It certainly does not seem to be providing the support locally to small business and if the big banks are not interested in small business, small business should perhaps look for investment from someone who is interested. We need to provide structures that will support the development of business over a long term and I hope that those structures could be provided by some alternative sources of finance, which have been referred to in this debate.

Of course, one of the major problems in the banking sector is the lack of effective competition between the big banks, which seems to be one of these problems that is very difficult to solve. I would be interested to know about the time scale that is going to be applied to the commission that is looking into these subjects, including when the commission is likely to report.

We have a finance system that needs to change. I think that there is a willingness among people to make longer-term investments, provided of course that the security is there for the investments that are made. In the longer term, it may be that the Government will have a more important role, in ensuring that, if we are using alternative models for investment, there is a guarantee mechanism provided by the Government, so that they support-with their hand in their pocket-those who make the publicly-spirited investments in the businesses that will provide jobs and prosperity for the UK in the future.

Clearly, we have had a seismic shock to the financial system in the past three years. It has been a shock in historic terms and not only in the UK, of course, but right across the world. The banking system and the regulatory system were found gravely wanting during that period. Now that we have gone through a period in which we have held the banks very much responsible for what has happened and we are seeing that they are not able to respond to the necessary moves towards growth that are being made, we need to think in a different way-I think that many Members have done so in this debate already-about how we take forward investment in businesses that will grow the economy in the UK in the years to come, providing the jobs that we all want for our constituents. I think that many of the ideas that we have heard today are an interesting initial step and I hope that we will continue to take more steps in the months and years to come.

12.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) not only on securing this debate but on providing an informed and informative contribution that ranged over the wider issues-from debt through to equity-showing how we can help small businesses, which is vital given their crucial role in the economy.

I also want to say how refreshing it has been to take part in a debate in which nearly every Member has had to declare an interest. That is often seen as a negative thing, but I regard it as wholly positive when Members
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bring to the Chamber and this House their own experience. As several Members have alluded to, I myself started my own business at the bottom of the last recession and I was able to run it for 10 years. I value that experience, and I hope it has informed what I have been able to do as a Member and that it will inform what I can do as a Minister. How refreshing it has been that almost everyone who has contributed to this debate-including my opposite number, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)-has been able to do so on the basis of real-world experience. I only wish that that was the case in more of the debates we have in this place.

A wide range of topics has been raised and I have a relatively short time in which to refer to them. On the cash-flow issue, which several Members have mentioned, I encourage hon. Members to take the cudgels up with the relevant Government agency and to copy the relevant Ministers in on any correspondence. The relevant Ministers will probably not thank me for saying that, but it is important to ensure that hon. Members play that role, because often there will be a miscommunication or an error will be made, and hon. Members can help to tackle such problems. That is an important point to make first.

A number of other issues were raised. In due course, I hope that I may have the opportunity to discuss the "Lil-lets solution", although I must confess that I feared where the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) was heading when she discussed that. However, I will focus on other issues: debt, particularly the enterprise finance guarantee, about which a number of questions have been asked; the finance Green Paper and the role of equity, which underpins that document; and, of course, the vexed issue of bank lending.

As we emerge from the deepest and longest recession since the second world war, the continuing constraints on finance for SMEs are a prime concern for the coalition Government. The coalition agreement made it clear that one of our core priorities is to increase the availability of both debt and equity finance to businesses that are fundamentally sound. As several Members have rightly pointed out, that is crucial to the future growth and structure of the economy. I entirely applaud the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) about what a noble calling it is to begin a business. How right he is, and how well he put it.

The Government also want to ensure that the banking system and financial markets meet the economy's long-term needs and support sustained growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), who, sadly, is not in his place at the moment, raised the issue of the balance between lending and capital reserves. We must be careful, for we do not want to repeat the instability and over-exuberance-to put it nicely-in the banking system that led to many of the problems we are discussing. Balance is important.

In the few weeks since taking office, we have introduced a number of measures to tackle the immediate challenges that small businesses face when accessing credit. We are also considering the longer term. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly said, it is action that counts, not words, so I will refer to three specific matters before I consider the Green Paper.

We have increased the enterprise finance guarantee by £200 million to support £700 million in additional lending until March next year. The additional money
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will support up to 2,000 SMEs. In addition, having listened to small businesses' concerns, we have set a target of 20 working days for lenders to inform businesses of their decision. Time and again, SME owners have said to me, "The worst part of the process is not knowing. If I know that I'm going to have a clear decision in 15 days, 20 days or whenever, I can plan and work forward." We felt that it was important to introduce an element of predictability into decision making as well as providing the additional £200 million.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Prisk: I will, although my hon. Friend has not contributed to the debate.

Mr Cash: I wanted to draw attention to the fact that among this distinguished company are five Staffordshire MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) has carried forward the initiatives of Stafford Enterprise, which was formed in the 1980s and to which the document from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills refers. In the 1980s, we established the culture that my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) mentioned, which enabled us to create enterprise and employment. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister agrees with all that, but it is worth putting on record. It was a huge incentive to such a culture, and it needs to be related for the sake of historical continuity. In the 1980s, we achieved it.

Mr Prisk: I strongly commend that achievement and totally endorse what my hon. Friend suggests. Staffordshire Members are well represented here, which indicates their commitment to their constituencies. That is to be applauded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford raised several issues involving the enterprise finance guarantee. On its own, it cannot be a remedy for the broader problems that SMEs face. It exists to underpin additional bank lending; it is not an alternative loan product. However, it is important to bear it in mind that the EFG is there to ensure that viable businesses that can pay back the money but are struggling to secure a commercial loan-often because their track record is insufficiently long or they do not have security-can obtain finance. At this point in the economic cycle, especially given several hon. Members' comments about start-ups and fresh new businesses, such underpinning is crucial as businesses develop a track record. They need an opportunity to get going.

My hon. Friend asked some specific questions, some of which I will answer. I have information for the period from January to October last year; I hope shortly to have information for the period thereafter. The sum lent during the first nine-year period was £580 million. The cost to the taxpayer-principally in administration-was £21 million. The number of jobs created or saved, according to the information we have received, was 31,600. Therefore, the cost per job is expected to be £665. Hon. Members will realise that that is an encouraging set of statistics. A note of caution: most of those loans are three or five-year arrangements, so absolute clarity about how successful the scheme has been would be a
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little premature at this stage. However, the statistics are encouraging, which is why I did not hesitate to take on the work.

The hon. Member for Wrexham, my predecessor in the former Government, worked hard on these matters. I thought it important that we should say, "Fine, this seems to be working. Let's move on and use it, not just change it for the sake of change." That is an important part of what we are doing. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, whom I no doubt annoyed and challenged in my role as shadow Minister. He was diligent in trying to ensure that the scheme worked.

In addition, we are considering equity issues, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned. A growth capital fund is being created to fill a gap for SMEs that need to finance growth. We will provide more detail in the next couple of weeks. A further enterprise capital fund of £37.5 million is being set up to provide early-stage risk capital-to get the phraseology correct-to innovative small businesses with high growth potential. Several hon. Members asked about that. It is part of a £1 billion series of programmes. There are 10 ECFs, run by Capital for Enterprise Ltd. Like the market, they seek to invest in key high-technology areas. In that sense, there is an element of small pots, about which I have been critical on the record, but I think that hon. Members will realise that targeting key technologies and capabilities requires expert investors and not politicians to make the decisions. That is an important part of what we are doing.

On the green investment bank, I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will have the full details when the Chancellor announces them during the next couple of months. I would love to be able to pre-empt the Chancellor, but that might be the end of my career, so my hon. Friend must be a little patient. He is keen, which is encouraging, but it is important to wait. Crucially, the green investment bank is meant to enable the transition to a low-carbon economy. Several hon. Members have pointed to the important role of high-technology businesses in the low-carbon field. It is important to recognise that and to make a targeted effort using the green investment bank. Details will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

I am aware of the time, so I will move on to the vexed issue of bank lending. We should be clear that, as Members have suggested, most small businesses seeking funds at the moment are getting the money they require, but I am well aware of the problems. Although it is true that international regulators have tightened banks' capital and reserve requirements, it is nevertheless clear to me and this Government that banks can and should be doing more to support the financing needs of viable SMEs. The Secretary of State and I have stressed that in our conversations. I will put it clearly on the record again: where unreasonable terms or behaviour are brought to our attention, we will challenge the bank concerned and make absolutely sure that it understands the issue's importance to both the Government and the economy as a whole.

Hon. Members raised several other topics. I am aware that time is short, but I will return to the question of competition asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford. We will challenge the banks. I want to ensure that if they are not doing their job, we hold their feet to the fire. However, in the end, competition will be the
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answer. That is why I have great faith in the role of community development finance institutions for micro-businesses wishing to secure microfinance. Again, the last Government took a role in that, which is to be applauded. I want to consider how we can extend and develop that.

It is crucial to remember that small businesses are short not of finances but of time. We must ensure that debt and equity finance is simple and clear and that it works. That is my ambition and the ambition of this Government, and I hope that it will secure the House's support when we introduce our measures.

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PC Yvonne Fletcher

12.30 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Thank you, Mrs Main, for calling me to initiate this debate on PC Yvonne Fletcher. I am seeking help from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to resolve this longstanding and tragic case. Who can forget that British police officer-a beautiful young woman-being shot in the back so many years ago while she was policing a peaceful demonstration? She had a glittering career ahead of her, had worked hard to get into the police service and was recently engaged. She had her whole life ahead of her, and it was tragically cut short on that fateful day. I will never forget the image of her lying on the ground dying. I saw it on the television as a relatively young child and that image is still indelibly imprinted on my mind.

The one message we should try to get across as a nation is that if someone kills a British police officer, we will track them down-no matter where such a person goes or how they try to flee, Great Britain will always go to the nth degree to track down killers of British police officers. That must be the message we send out as a country. I give as an example the case of Sharon Beshenivsky, another British police officer who was shot. Her killer escaped to, I believe, Somalia. We sent operatives out there to drag him across the border to Ethiopia and he was subsequently extradited from there to face British justice. I want the Government to take such action and to send out a strong message to any person who dares inflict harm on our police officers that we will seek justice.

We talk a great deal about our armed forces, who are very important, but our police officers put their lives on the line every single day, too. We must never forget the extraordinary sacrifices that they make and the courage that they display. In Shrewsbury, in my constituency, we have recently had the tragedy of a police officer being shot dead. I cannot begin to explain the overwhelming sense of grief and tragedy that permeated the whole of my community because that police officer was shot. I have become involved in this case because I have written a book about Colonel Gaddafi. I am not sure whether I have presented the Minister with a copy of that book, but if I have not, I shall give him a copy at the end of the debate.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): Signed by the author.

Daniel Kawczynski: Signed. The book is a biography of Colonel Gaddafi and it was published in February. Of course, one cannot write a book about Colonel Gaddafi without talking about this huge, outstanding issue. One chapter of the book is called "Death in the square", which relates specifically to what happened to PC Yvonne Fletcher. In writing the book, I obviously interviewed PC Yvonne Fletcher's parents who, despite their cynicism towards politicians-they feel badly let down and I will come on to that point later-kindly agreed to meet me and be interviewed for the book.

I would like the Minister to note that the previous Administration were appallingly bad to the Fletcher family. The former Foreign Secretary was frankly as useful as a cat-flap on a submarine when it came to
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dealing with the issue-his behaviour was absolutely appalling. I worry about the prospect of him being leader of the Labour party when I think about how he treated PC Yvonne Fletcher's family. The family's letters were assiduously ignored for many years. No response was sent to the relatives of PC Yvonne Fletcher, despite their numerous attempts to get some form of communication out of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I wrote an open letter on a website demanding that the Foreign Secretary meet with the family of PC Yvonne Fletcher. I thank the media, particularly the Telegraph, for promoting that letter, as that is what it took finally to force the then Foreign Secretary to meet the Fletcher family. I know that the current Minister, whom I know very well as being assiduous, courteous and professional, will do a much better job at keeping the family informed of what is happening than the previous Foreign Secretary and his officials. I urge the Minister to keep the family informed through writing and at any opportunity he has to meet with them directly.

I would like to pay tribute to Mr John Murray, who is a retired police officer and is in my opinion decency personified. I have had the great privilege of meeting him on a number of occasions and I would like the Minister to make a note of his name: John Murray. I took him around the House of Commons this morning and, so well known, revered and respected is he among the constabulary, many police officers came up to say "Hello" and pay their respects and compliments to him. Mr Murray, who is from Chingford, was standing next to PC Yvonne Fletcher when she was shot dead. He accompanied her in the ambulance en route to hospital, and held her hand. In the ambulance, he promised her that he would fight to bring the person who had done such a thing to justice. He carried her coffin at her funeral and, for the past 25 years, he has campaigned on the issue. He has started petitions, raised the matter with Ministers, tried to get publicity for the issue and written to Members of Parliament. In his own way, he has never forgotten the pledge and commitment he made on that fateful day to his colleague PC Yvonne Fletcher. I pay tribute to him and I would like the Minister to know about Mr John Murray from Chingford, the respect that police officers have for him and how important it is to keep him posted and informed of progress.

Together with Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, I took Mr Murray to meet the Libyan chargé d'affaires in November last year. Mr Jelban informed us that this was a Government to Government matter and I should not get too preoccupied with it. He said that all was in hand between the Governments of the United Kingdom and Libya. However, because I had so little confidence in the former Foreign Secretary, I did not want to leave it to those bilateral discussions. I took Mr Murray to see the Libyan chargé d'affaires because he would like to go to Libya-in fact, a national newspaper is prepared to pay for him to fly out there and for his accommodation.

We are trying to get a visa for Mr Murray to enable him to go out to Libya and campaign on the issue directly with the Libyans. Neither Mr Murray nor I are getting any younger, so it is important I raise the matter with the Minister to establish whether he can do anything to assist Mr Murray to get a visa. It would be a wonderful thing if Mr Murray were given a visa because
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he would be able to meet Libyan officials personally in Tripoli and talk to them directly about the campaign he has so faithfully pursued over the past quarter of a century. He would be able see if he is better able to get those officials to comply than the politicians who have tried to do so.

I pay tribute also to Scotland Yard for its work. I have been to Scotland Yard and received briefings on its work, and I believe that it has done an excellent job so far. Of course, it has been frustrated in the past, primarily by not being given visas to re-enter Libya to pursue its inquiries. Interestingly, its officers have just been allowed back into Libya for the first time in three years, as the Minister will know. I have been led to believe that that is a direct result of the new coalition Government's attitude to and handling of the case, which has finally put pressure on the Libyans to grant those visas and allow Scotland Yard to re-enter the country. I pay tribute to the Minister and the new Government for that significant breakthrough, which had eluded the previous Administration, although I have doubts about the previous Administration's commitment to pursuing the matter.

At the time of the release of Mr al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, who was found culpable of the worst atrocity to take place in the UK since the second world war, I tried to use the release unashamedly as a bargaining chip in exchange for Libyan co-operation in the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher. I was told that that was highly improper and that I was behaving inappropriately, but I do not flinch from my decision to do so; politics is sometimes a dirty game.

I was appalled, shocked, dismayed and deeply embarrassed that at the time of the release of the Lockerbie bomber there was total silence from the previous Government on the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher. They did not use the occasion to challenge the Libyan authorities publicly over that critical outstanding issue. Why was that? It is simply unacceptable, and it makes us look so weak in the eyes of the Arab world: we cannot even get a country such as Libya to co-operate so that our security services can pursue their investigations.

At the time, I pleaded with Mr MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, and with the First Minister. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, pleading with them to use the occasion to challenge the Libyans publicly. It all fell on deaf ears and there was a totally mute response from the Government. I want the UK never again to be in the iniquitous position of bending over backwards to accommodate Libya by affording it the release of a convicted bomber, terrorist and killer and yet doing nothing, publicly at least, to pursue co-operation on investigations into the killing of a police officer.

I want to raise briefly the protocol, signed under the previous Government, whereby the chief suspect would be put on trial in Libya. That is deeply regrettable and highly unacceptable. I would like the following phrase, which I have used when speaking to The Daily Telegraph, to ring in the Minister's mind: you cannot face British justice in a Libyan court. It is simply impossible to face British justice in a court under Libyan jurisdiction in Tripoli. The only way to face British justice is in a British court under British jurisdiction.

For that protocol to have been signed under the previous Government was highly inappropriate for our country. For a major power in the world to acquiesce in
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such a shoddy, back-room deal is highly regrettable. What was going through the minds of the people who signed the protocol? I urge, beg and plead with the Minister to see what he can do to renegotiate the protocol. If we cannot get the suspect into a British court in the UK, can we at least, as the worst option, hold the trial in a third country under some form of British jurisdiction, as happened for the trial of the Lockerbie bomber, which took place in the Netherlands?

I set up the all-party group on Libya in the last Parliament because I am passionate about that country and its people. There are huge opportunities for trade between Libya and the UK. Libya sits on top of one of the largest gas and oil reserves in the world, and it is strategically placed just a short distance from some Mediterranean countries. It is a hugely important partner for us, and there are massive opportunities for British firms. However, I will help British companies to work in Libya only after the case of PC Yvonne Fletcher is resolved. If we want a genuine relationship with Libya and if we are really serious about a long-term strategic partnership, and if it is serious about it too, the outstanding issue of the murder of a British police officer must be resolved. Otherwise, that relationship will be built on sand-pardon the pun-and in a flimsy way that will not withstand the test of time.

I will continue to write parliamentary questions to the Minister on the matter. I would like to thank the media, particularly The Daily Telegraph and Mr Christopher Hope, for continually raising the story. Sometimes I feel like a lone voice in this place when I speak on the matter. I have flown to Scotland to interview Tam Dalyell for my book, and he is a great campaigner for PC Yvonne Fletcher, so I pay tribute to the former Father of the House for his work on that. I will continue, with the help of The Daily Telegraph and others, to raise the matter repeatedly. I ask the Minister to help and support John Murray in his campaign.

My last point is on the Vienna convention. Mr Murray and I have discussed what happened on the fateful day when Leon Brittan decided, following the Vienna convention, that those killers would have to be released under diplomatic nicety, which I think was extraordinary. The Vienna convention was intended to protect diplomats from intrusion and inappropriate levels of investigation. Yes, it allows them to park illegally on London streets and to do all sorts of things with protection in their diplomatic bags, but it must not give them protection when they are directly culpable for or implicated in the murder of a British police officer. If we do only one thing as a result of the case, it must be to see whether there are any ways in which we can modernise the Vienna convention, at least as a tribute to PC Yvonne Fletcher, to ensure that if such a murder happens on UK soil we are never again left in the same position.

12.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship at the start of a new term, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate and thank him for his kind remarks, which I am happy to reciprocate. The passion
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and commitment with which he has taken on the case is typical of the way he works generally, which is noticed and appreciated. I note also Mr Murray's commitment to the case. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's suggestions about assistance for Mr Murray, and my officials will certainly be in touch with him to see how we might be able to help.

My hon. Friend's focus is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for the investigation into the killing of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. First and foremost, I offer heartfelt condolences to the Fletcher family on behalf of myself and the Government for their continuing grief over their loss. It is now more than 26 years since her death, 26 years in which her family have sought answers for their loss. They are still looking for the truth of what happened that day. A resolution to the sad issue is a key objective in our relations with Libya.

The killing of the unarmed woman constable on 17 April 1984 was a wicked, unwarranted and undeserved murder. No political or cultural circumstances justified such a cowardly attack on a woman police officer, and it will for ever be a mark of shame on those involved.

Following the severing of diplomatic relations on 23 April 1984, and the expulsion of all those involved in the bureau siege, the possibility of pursuing any inquiry into the shooting that involved Libya was not practicable, until time passed and events began to change the relationship between our two countries.

Libya's dark past and its involvement with international terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s caused grief and suffering for countless people. That is not, and cannot, be forgotten. However, through a series of actions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including the decisions to hand over the two suspects accused of the Lockerbie bombing in 1999, and to renounce terrorism and give up weapons of mass destruction in 2003, Libya turned a corner. If I have time, I will return to the wider consequences of that policy later, but at this stage let me indicate the impact that that change of circumstances had on the WPC Fletcher investigation.

On 7 July 1999 the Libyan Government accepted "general responsibility" for the shooting of WPC Fletcher and paid compensation to her family. On 8 July 1999 Scotland Yard announced its intention to reopen the investigation into her death. On 24 May 2002 Scotland Yard officers made their first visit to Libya but returned with no real leads to follow. On 24 June 2002 a meeting between the Metropolitan police and the Libyan Government was held in London to discuss the investigation. On 25 March 2004 the then Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), announced that Metropolitan police officers would fly to Libya in a fresh attempt to find WPC Fletcher's murderer. After March 2004 the investigation stalled and there was no further progress. In 2006 letters were exchanged in an attempt to move the investigation forward-I will return to that later.

I would like to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to progressing the police investigation into WPC Fletcher's death-that remains one of our key objectives. The FCO keeps in close contact with the family of WPC Fletcher and with the Metropolitan police. In a statement released in response to last week's ITV documentary, the family themselves made clear that they are content with the support
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provided by the FCO and by the Metropolitan police. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about such comments. The Foreign Secretary has also offered to meet WPC Fletcher's family, at a time and date that is convenient to them. I will ensure that that invitation is renewed.

We raise the case with the Libyan Government at every possible opportunity. The Foreign Secretary raised the Libyan refusal to co-operate when he first spoke to the Libyan Foreign Minister, when we became the Government. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue again in a letter to the Foreign Minister just last month. I have raised the issue in meetings in July with the Libyan Europe and Interior Ministers. The Prime Minister also raised the case of WPC Fletcher when he wrote to Colonel Gaddafi in July.

Since the Government came to office, we have made it clear to the Libyans that the issue will continue to cast a shadow over the bilateral relationship between our two countries, and continue to do serious damage to the image of Libya among the UK media and public. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to indicate that that was the case.

I would like to make it clear that responsibility for the decision to suspend the investigation, and the ability to restart it, rests with the Libyan Government. Their decision to suspend the investigation is unacceptable. They made a commitment to us in 1999, and breaking it is not acceptable. That commitment must be honoured. We will not let the issue go away.

The stalled investigation is one of the last remaining issues to affect our relationship with Libya seriously. As my hon. Friend noticed, I am pleased that following intensive representations by Her Majesty's Government, including by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, last month a joint FCO and Metropolitan police delegation visited Tripoli. That was at the invitation of the Libyan Government and was the first time since May 2007 that Metropolitan police investigators have been allowed to return to Libya to discuss the case. That meeting, on 5 August, discussed ways of moving the investigation forward to the satisfaction of both countries, and will, I hope, be the start of a new stage of co-operation.

The visit was a welcome step, but much more needs to be done to ensure that the family get the answers that they need. Securing full Libyan co-operation with the Metropolitan Police Service investigation, which would lead to a resumption of the witness interviews, therefore continues to be a key objective in our relations with Libya.

We thus come to the exchange of letters in 2006. As a direct result of the exchange of letters, between the British ambassador and Libyan Foreign Minister, which was aimed specifically at re-launching the investigation, the Metropolitan police visited Libya for witness interviews in December 2006 and in May 2007. That was an important step forward for the investigation, and a step that would likely not have occurred without the exchange. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the balance in such a case being difficult to get right.

The exchange of letters reflects the view of the Government at the time on how to enable the inquiry by the Met to progress. Establishing precisely what happened is crucial to the pursuit of justice. There is nothing unless that is done. The engagement of the Libyan
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authorities is, therefore, essential. The letters also reflect the reality that the Libyan authorities retain the right to decide where any suspect might be tried under their rules of extradition. In the event of a successful investigation, which is the most important issue, a joint decision will be reached about any trial. However, we should be realistic that a trial is more likely if it takes place in Libya rather than anywhere else.

Before I conclude, let me spend a few moments setting out our overall relationship with Libya. Since 1999 the UK and Libya have shared a number of diplomatic successes which have helped to normalise relations. Key among those successes were the agreement to pay compensation to the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and, as I mentioned earlier, the decision to give up weapons of mass destruction and to renounce terrorism. Those were difficult issues, but their resolution has brought benefits to both countries and to the world in general. Libya is now a partner of the UK in our joint efforts to counter international terrorism and to combat illegal migration into Europe.

The normalisation of relations has, of course, also brought about the development of trade with Libya, which has helped to create jobs for British citizens here and in Libya. However, commercial considerations have, and will, not play any part when pursuing the investigation into the killing of WPC Fletcher or the tackling of human rights abuses. Libya's actions in the past few years also show to other countries the benefits of choosing the route that Libya has followed in abandoning weapons of mass destruction and renouncing terrorism. That route delivers more than the terrorist route, which is an important lesson for other nations and for the world.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that Libya's past is a dark one, as I said. However, its actions since then indicate its determination to follow a different future. We recognise its willingness to co-operate on such matters as counter-terrorism activity against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, energy security and combating illegal migration, but difficult issues remain. Libya needs to continue to demonstrate that it has turned its back on its murderous past by addressing issues that still haunt our relations, in particular the case raised by my hon. Friend today.

We can only imagine the pain felt by the Fletcher family, at losing a loved one in such devastating circumstances, and by Yvonne Fletcher's colleagues. To have received no answers for more than 26 years can only add to the sadness and frustration felt by the family. It is important to the Foreign Secretary and the Government that the Fletcher family are given the answers and the closure that they seek, and that depends on finding out the truth of what happened.

We will relentlessly pursue the resolution of that issue and of other human rights abuses in Libya, regardless of our current good relationship. We will continue to push the Libyans and to work hard to convince them to take the moral approach and to allow the Metropolitan police to complete the investigation.

I do not pretend for a moment that the case is not among the most difficult and emotive of issues-impossible to quantify or to calculate on some sort of scale in a returning relationship with a country recovering from its past. The FCO and I will do our level best to secure the information leading to a just resolution. I will do all I can to ensure the continuing assistance of the Libyan
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authorities, so that we may find out exactly what happened. That needs to be the basis for any conclusion about what might happen afterwards.

My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on and commended for his work on the issue. We will continue to work closely. Resolution matters greatly to the Government, in terms of securing justice for WPC Fletcher and her family.

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Education Expenditure (Coventry)

1 pm

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I look forward to serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I know that you will be fair; in fact, you may be lenient with us. I thank Mr Speaker for granting my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) and me the opportunity to raise concerns about education in Coventry, and the effects on Coventry's economy.

Coventry has been widely identified as one of the areas hardest hit by the Government's recent spending cuts. In fact, the BBC described it as the first big victim of the cuts. So far, cuts applied to Coventry have resulted in a £5.2 million loss of funding in several different areas. That translates into a cut per person of approximately £11.17, which is higher than the national average of £8.97. The recent recession has also hurt the broader region to a great extent.

Coventry had already suffered devastating blows to its economy. During the 1980s and 1990s, manufacturing declined sharply. The city has worked hard and is working hard to rebuild its economy and create jobs, many of which are now based in the public sector, but that is being undermined by the Government's programme of arbitrary spending cuts. The leader of Coventry city council estimated that there is a possibility of losing between 1,000 and 10,000 jobs in the region, some of which obviously could be lost in the south of Coventry.

The largest proportion of the cuts is a 24% reduction in our annual allocation from the Department for Education. Today I want to focus on cuts made by the Department in Coventry which will have extremely adverse effects on the city. The Department announced recently that the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are to be abolished, but so far we have received no clear rationale from Ministers as to why.

BECTA works to obtain the most cost-effective information technology equipment for schools and colleges. Between 2002 and 2010, it saved schools and colleges £275 million on the costs of computer equipment. It employs nearly 240 people in Coventry.

An important part of BECTA's work is its home access programme, which is part of a Labour Government initiative that seeks to provide children from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, and those with special needs, with computer equipment and internet access at home. As of July 2010, BECTA had provided equipment to children from more than 200,000 low-income families. However, the funding for that programme is secure only until March 2011, and the Government have given no assurances as to what will happen after that date.

The decision to close BECTA could result in increased costs to the taxpayer over the longer term. For example, a BECTA agreement with Microsoft which greatly reduced IT costs to schools will not be renewed in December 2010 when it runs out. How will the Government be able to create such large economies of scale after that central agency is closed? It will be more difficult for schools acting individually to achieve the same high standard of information and communications technology provision that is currently provided through BECTA.

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The QCDA employs more than 500 people in Coventry, having recently relocated there from Piccadilly, London. The Department announced that it, too, would be abolished, but no date has yet been set. The QCDA develops and maintains the curriculum, improves and delivers assessments such as standard assessment tests and reviews qualifications. Its work is of vital importance to the wider education sector. The Government themselves admit that some functions will need to continue after the agency is abolished; for example, work supporting SATs. There is total uncertainty about which functions and, more importantly, which staff will be retained, and which will be absorbed into the Department.

A parliamentary question that I tabled on the subject received an unsatisfactory and vague answer from the Government. There is no clear strategy as to how the functions the agency carries out will be continued, which suggests that the decision to scrap it has been rushed. That is entirely unfair to staff. There is no clarity from the Government on what their future jobs may be.

The cuts are clearly arbitrary and, I suspect, ideologically driven. There has been no consultation with hard-working staff on the matter. As a result of the cuts, nearly 1,000 public sector jobs in Coventry related to education could be, or will be, lost. That will have knock-on effects on the regional as well as the city economy, yet the city desperately needs growth following the recession.

Aimhigher may also come under fire from the Government. This Government-funded service, which provides support for individuals from under-represented groups to enter higher education, makes, on average, 1 million interventions each year. Evidence shows that its work creates more motivated and committed learners. Learners are 70% more likely to look forward to going to school. However, its funding of approximately £83 million is guaranteed from 2010 to 2011 only. Approximately £10.4 million of that is allocated to Aimhigher partnerships in the west midlands, including Coventry. There has been no indication from the Government that the funding will continue.

In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled on the subject, the Government stated that the need to attract more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education is written into the coalition agreement. So why are the Government not supporting such bodies?

Cuts to the biggest Government investment in improving schools for more than 50 years have had devastating impacts for many communities up and down the country. Coventry has been particularly unfairly treated, as every one of its 20 school projects-it had been earmarked to receive £325 million for new buildings and £30 million for ICT-has been cancelled, despite the fact that its bids were just weeks away from the close of dialogue stage, which is the stage at which projects in many other local authorities have been allowed to proceed. We are one of only two wave 4 and 5 local authorities that have had our whole programme stopped.

The sample schools in Coventry-President Kennedy and Westwood-have also been stopped, whereas sample schools in some other areas have been allowed to continue. Coventry city council had already spent millions on getting bids to the closing stages, but that money has been wasted. In addition, there is uncertainty among faith schools such as Blue Coat and St Thomas More in Coventry. They do not know what will happen to their capital programmes and are expressing extreme concern.

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Coventry's projects also included progressive plans for special school provision in the area. Three special schools were to be combined into two new broad spectrum schools, which were to be co-sited with the secondary schools President Kennedy and Ernesford Grange. The current special school buildings are not suitable for the wide range of educational needs of the children who attend them. Therefore, cancellation of the project is detrimental to their education.

Coventry city council has obtained independent advice that many of the school buildings across the city are uneconomic to maintain and therefore in desperate need of refurbishment. Many of those schools are located in disadvantaged areas. Pupils in Coventry deserve a first-class education in first-class facilities, but that has been put at risk by the Government.

The Government claim, as part of their cost-saving measures, that the BSF programme was too bureaucratic and took too long to produce results. However, in 2007 the Conservative party committed itself to cutting £4.5 billion from the Labour Government's school building programme to fund the capital costs of their proposed new free schools. Could the improvement of educational facilities for the majority be being sacrificed for the benefit of the few? This is grossly unfair. There are many unanswered questions about the axing of the BSF programme. Why was such a one-size-fits-all approach used to stop a phased scheme? Will an exception be made for special school provision in Coventry during the capital allocation review? How soon will a decision be made on capital allocation? Parents, pupils and teachers need to know.

The Secretary of State for Education met a delegation from Coventry to discuss this issue, including representatives from the council and all three city Members of Parliament. The Government undertook to review the capital allocation and send a review team to Coventry. I understand that that team has visited, but we do not know the outcome yet and we are looking forward to hearing it. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us.

The decision to scrap the BSF scheme in Coventry will also have negative consequences for the construction industry in Coventry, the recovery of which would have been hugely helped by these projects, following the recession. It also has a knock-on effect for job creation and apprenticeship opportunities in the area. It is important to note that BSF has cross-party support in Coventry, indicating how much it is needed.

I want to say a word or two about possible future cuts. The Government have already cut 10,000 extra university places, but made no impact equality assessment before doing so. Future cuts to university funding are being discussed, notwithstanding the outcome of the tuition fee review, which may mean that universities in Coventry-Warwick and Coventry universities-will have to manage 25% funding cuts. These institutions are major employers in the city and are of great economic importance to the regional and national economy. Cuts in funding will therefore have a negative effect on not only on the city's economy but the regional economy.

In conclusion, I hope the Minister will consider seriously my submissions and those that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West will make in a minute or two, because the Government's policy will have a major impact on jobs, training, education and, importantly, the construction industry in Coventry. I hope the Minister will at least give us some encouragement.

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1.12 pm

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I am pleased to see the Minister here today. I have a few questions to put to him, following the comprehensive account of the situation in Coventry given by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), whom I congratulate on securing the debate.

The Minister is a decent man whom I had the pleasure of getting to know during three Budgets in the early days of the Labour Government a few years ago. The problem is not just that BECTA and the QCDA have been closed-that is the right of the Government, if they mistakenly think that that expenditure on those organisations is unnecessary-it is the manner of their closure. If the Minister cares to turn it up, he will see that the letter from the Secretary of State, whose signature I was surprised to see on it, was disgraceful in its tone and terms. It was written in haste and the decision had been taken in haste. There was no consultation, which is, to some extent, understandable, but no thought was given to what would be transferred and what would be done in the Department and how some of the work, which the Government recognised that it was important to continue with, would be continued. Having looked at that letter, the Minister will see how not to proceed in a difficult situation. It really was a great pity that it was done in that way. The Government are in danger of losing a lot of good will among people whose help they will need in due course.

I endorse the criticisms made by my hon. Friend and I should like to focus on the Government's tone and the manner in which the policy is being carried out in specific cases, particularly in respect of the QCDA. Many of the 900 QCDA staff had just moved up to Coventry, taken on mortgages and committed themselves to the city, only to receive a letter out of the blue. I do not think that the Department or Ministers can be proud of that.

Turning to the BSF programme, we spoke to the Secretary of State after he met the delegation in the House. At that meeting last week, he undertook-he was as good as his word on this occasion-to send a delegation to Coventry, but nothing really came from that. We still are none the wiser about whether the schools will go ahead, when that will happen or to what extent that will happen. I shall mention certain schools in a moment. A further meeting is intended, from which I hope that we get something. I hope at least that the matter is settled by 20 October, when the comprehensive spending review will be completed. This situation cannot go on indefinitely, leaving people, buildings and children in limbo in the way that they have been left at the moment.

I shall mention three schools, two of which are in my constituency: President Kennedy, a sample school for total rebuild, and Woodlands, which is a sample for refurbishment. In respect of Woodlands, we have worked hard-the Minister will probably be aware of the file-to get English Heritage agreement to deal with certain Hills buildings, which were the original concrete system buildings and are most unsatisfactory. Most have been pulled down now. There is also the CLASP system- consortium of local authorities special programme-to which, for some particular reason that escapes me, English Heritage attaches particular architectural
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significance. We have reached agreement there. I do not know why it was so difficult, but it was. The Minister may also know that we are having a terrible fight with English Heritage about Coventry market. Once agreement is reached with English Heritage, gosh, it feels like one has gone through the mangle and the last thing that anyone wants to do is reopen the matter, have it deferred or see it lapse.

The specific point, which is worth underlining, is that we have English Heritage agreement and all the planning consents that we need. In the case of Woodlands, those have been available for two years. [Interruption.] I see that the Minister is making a note of this. Woodlands was ready to go ahead, because rebuilding its central part is essential. Imagine trying to attract children there, even under the academy programme, which Woodlands has applied for, when the central building is covered in scaffolding to keep it up and has been covered for the past 18 months. What sort of message does that send out to parents? That school has improved its standards for the past three years, despite the buildings, not because of them, and is keen to be known as a good school in the area. Indeed, it is. It is a great sporting academy and has a long list of outstanding rugby players, some of whom, as you probably know, Mrs Main, have played for England. I think that Woodlands specialises in producing particularly tough forwards. The school has a dynamic head who is keen to push it forward. Questions need to be answered. Will the Minister please ensure that the permissions are not allowed to lapse or will be renewed and that any ministerial action that needs to be taken in that respect will be taken? We would be grateful for that.

There was to have been a total rebuild of President Kennedy, which is a Hills system building put up 56 years ago in the 1950s and 60s, a generation ago. Fortunately, as coincidence would have it-I do not want to say "luck"-the delegation from the Department visited that school when it was pouring with rain and they saw the water dripping into the classrooms and saw just how unfit the school was for purpose. I believe that that school was within weeks of closure. I had thought that that was so near that, although the signatures were not fully secured, it would have been agreed to. However, it was turned down, as was Ernesford Grange, which is not in my constituency, but is one of three schools in Coventry that urgently need proceeding with.

Will the Minister please get behind the new delegation coming up to Coventry-the second delegation-and ensure that, whatever the dates are and however much money will be released, we get those things finally pinned down, so that the insecurity is removed?

It may interest some hon. Members listening to the debate today to know that the word we had from the meeting was that, under the Government target, BSF is to be cut by 50%. That is a terrible blow to young children who are looking forward to going to school in a new building with all the motivation and encouragement that that may bring. They will be disappointed indefinitely if only half of the buildings are proceeded with, and there will probably not be many more if cuts are made to the programmes involved.

I am aware that the Minister wants to reply and that we are under tight time pressure, so I shall confine myself to those comments, and look forward to hearing his response.

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1.20 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): It is always a sign of age when the Chairman is younger than oneself. Having celebrated a significant birthday last week, that has been brought home to me in stark terms, but it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate. On behalf of his constituents, he is an assiduous advocate on these issues in written questions, on the Floor of the House and in the debate.

The Government's ambition is to raise academic standards in our schools and to ensure high-quality education for all children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Education is the key to social mobility and the Government's key objective is to close the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and poorest backgrounds, so we put the Academies Act 2010 on to the statute book to enable us to expand the academies programme. During the past two weeks, 100 new academies have opened, one of which is the Sidney Stringer academy in Coventry, which is where the former Education Secretary, Lady Morris, was once deputy head.

The Academies Act 2010 enables primary and special schools, for the first time, to become academies and to enjoy the greater freedoms that academy status brings. We are considering the national curriculum with the intention of restoring it to its intended purpose-a minimum core entitlement built around subject disciplines. We are enabling parents, teachers and other education providers to set up free schools so that parents have a real choice for their children.

School buildings, of course, need continuing investment, but it is vital that future spending represents the best possible value for money. The Building Schools for the Future programme was a flagship programme of the previous Government, of which the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) was a prominent and distinguished member. The programme aimed to rebuild or to refurbish every secondary school in the country by 2023. Where it has delivered, some impressive new buildings have been built, and no one would deny that a good working environment can only aid achievement and help to improve behaviour. But the BSF programme was not the most effective way to deliver new school buildings.

Rebuilding a school under BSF is three times more expensive than constructing a commercial building and twice as expensive as building a school in Ireland. During the five years of the BSF programme, a scheme that was intended to improve the entire stock of the nation's 3,500 secondary schools benefited just a 175 schools.

Mr Cunningham: The important point for my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr. Robinson) and for me is what will replace BSF, because we badly need those schools.

Mr Gibb: The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. If he will be patient for a few minutes I will come to exactly that point.

Just 103 schools have been completely rebuilt under BSF. The budget bulged from £45 billion to £55 billion for a variety of reasons, some of which were legitimate,
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but the projected time scale rose from 10 years to 18. Of the £250 million spent before building began, £60 million was spent on consultants or advisory costs. In short, because of its structure and the way in which it was put together, BSF became a vast and confusing edifice of process within process and cost upon cost. It represented poor value for money. No one comes into politics to cut public spending, but the Government were faced with a £156 billion deficit, and it is our responsibility, difficult and painful as it may be, to tackle that problem lest we delay our economic recovery and cause further economic problems. We announced that the BSF programme is ending, but that does not mean the end of capital spending on schools.

I come now to the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Coventry South. When determining which projects would go ahead and which would cease, the Government developed a single set of criteria and applied them nationally. Those school projects that were part of the initial BSF schemes and had reached financial close would go ahead. Of the so-called sample projects that were part of an area's initial BSF schemes and where financial close had not been reached-the sample schools to which the hon. Gentleman referred-only those with a selected bidder after close of competitive dialogue in the relevant local authority went ahead. Coventry had not reached close of dialogue in those sample schools. Some planned school projects, in addition to a local authority's initial scheme, were all allowed to continue. Unfortunately, the BSF projects in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and in Coventry as a whole, were not additional projects, had not appointed a preferred bidder, and had not reached financial close. As none of the criteria applied, the projects in question could not go ahead, with the exception of the Sidney Stringer academy.

In a meeting during the summer with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, the Secretary of State indicated that he is keen for the Department to learn from Coventry's experience with BSF, and capital spending outside that review. The Secretary of State has made it clear that the end of BSF does not mean the end of capital spending on schools. Money will, of course, be invested in school buildings in the future, particularly with a rising birth rate and increasing demand for school places, but it is imperative that money is spent on buildings and not on process. To that end, a group headed by Sebastian James, and with other professionals, began a comprehensive review of all capital investment in schools-early years, colleges and sixth forms-and will consider how best to meet parental demand, to make design and procurement cost-effective and efficient, and to overhaul the allocation and targeting of capital.

The hon. Gentleman will know that officials working for the review team visited Coventry on 26 August and explored in depth the capital needs of the city's schools and the plans for tackling those needs. A further visit is planned for later this month when the capital review team will meet councillors, representatives of schools and city council officers to discuss the needs of the city's schools including, in particular, the requirements of the city's special schools. I have taken on board the comments of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West about the state of those schools, particularly issues such as scaffolding holding up a building's roof. Such issues will be taken into account by the capital review team, and I assure both
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hon. Members that the Department will continue to make capital allocations on the basis of need, particularly based on dilapidations and levels of deprivation. However, I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen will understand that I am unable to make any commitments today about how much money will be allocated, or exactly when. That will depend on the outcome of the spending review and the capital review.

Mr Robinson: I understand that the Minister cannot give a commitment, but will he at least say that by the comprehensive spending review on 20 October we will have a decision about those projects that have priority and can proceed, and to what extent?

Mr Gibb: The capital review will report by the end of December, so it will not coincide exactly with the end of the spending review. The hon. Gentleman will have to be a little more patient. There will be an interim review before that, but the answers to his specific question will not be available by that specific date.

Mr Cunningham: When the capital review has been completed, and when the Minister has met the councils and so on, will he meet the MPs again to discuss the outcome?

Mr Gibb: The capital review team will be delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman-now is the opportunity to raise specific issues regarding the fabric of school buildings in his constituency and in Coventry-but it will not be able to report in public until it reports finally at the end of December.

In the time remaining, I want so speak briefly about the planned closure of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, which employs some 446 staff in Coventry, with another 43 staff working from home. The QCDA's remit is inconsistent with our vision for school improvement driven by school leaders and teachers, with as much of the education budget as possible going to schools. That is why many of the QCDA's centralising functions will be stopped, and others will be made more clearly accountable to Ministers. We are considering how vital work such as the national curriculum tests can best continue when the QCDA has been abolished. It is too early to assess the scale of any job losses, but we are working with QCDA carefully to plan the winding down of its functions, and the proper and sensitive handling of the implications of those changes for QCDA's staff.

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Public Libraries

1.30 pm

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Thank you, Mrs Main, for presiding over my first Westminster Hall debate. I am delighted to have secured this crucial debate on the future of library provision, and I am grateful to the Minister for his time. He knows of my interest in this area from his various visits to Swindon. I am pleased that the Government have recently launched a support programme for public libraries-that prompted me to request this debate.

It is vital that libraries are preserved for future generations. They provide a unique environment in which anyone is welcome to read, learn or access the internet in their area. They are places where one can relax and reflect in a quiet and open setting, and where children can be entertained by stories and encouraged to explore their imaginations while learning. Libraries are a focal point for communities and provide an important source of information, as well as bringing people from all generations together.

It is concerning to see that libraries are in steady decline in the UK, and that there are a number of further potential library closures across the country. Having spent four years as a council cabinet member responsible for libraries in Swindon, I saw first hand how much local residents supported the new libraries that we built, including the award-winning, £10 million, central library. There was real concern and anger when local community libraries were threatened-something I am sure that all MPs can relate to.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I would like to add my voice to my hon. Friend's concerns; I have first-hand knowledge of such matters because 60,000 people across Wirral came out and protested when their libraries were threatened with closure. However, does my hon. Friend agree that we must modernise libraries and make them an amenity for the whole community and everybody within it?

Justin Tomlinson: My hon. Friend makes two points in her helpful intervention, and I will come on to speak about revamping and modernising the library service. The campaigns that my hon. Friend was involved in highlighted how important community libraries are to local councils. I attended lots of meetings, and I remember one attended by more people than there were active users of the library service. I told them that they should take a few more books out.

The trend in library closures needs to change because with each closure, a community is deprived of a key service. However, as with all areas of the public sector, it is important to recognise that savings to the public budget are necessary and that difficult decisions must be made by local authorities. In that context, libraries have the challenge of improving customer services while reducing costs. The Minister will be pleased to know that I am not calling for an increase in spending on public libraries, but rather for a revamp of the way that libraries are run so as to ensure that they are viable and fit for purpose for future generations.

Changes must be made to the way that library services are delivered so as to encourage customers to use them. Public use of libraries is in decline, which was shown in
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the 2010 Taking Part report, commissioned by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and published last month. The report shows that since 2005-06, there has been an overall downward trend in the number of adults visiting public libraries in England across all adult age categories and socio-demographic groups. Only 39.4% of adults surveyed said they had visited a public library over the past year, compared with over 48% of adults five years ago.

Reading figures, however, are not declining, and the same report shows an increase in the number of people who read for pleasure. Over 65% of adults surveyed read for pleasure and of those, 80% had done so over the past week. In addition, book sales have grown. With the popularity of books such as "Harry Potter" and the "Twilight" series, annual figures from Nielsen BookScan show that children's book sales in 2009 increased by nearly 5% on the previous year.

Such figures suggest that the problem lies in the services offered by libraries. Numerous surveys have shown that the public want good choice, convenient opening hours and a pleasant environment from their local library. However, many libraries do not provide a service that attracts a significant proportion of the reading population. There is a market for libraries, but they must improve their ability to attract readers. Libraries should provide a useful professional service and an environment in which people want to be. They must do their job properly and adapt to what the public want and need, in order to ensure that they remain and are embraced by communities.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is he aware of the excellent work currently being undertaken by Lancashire county council to increase the use of local libraries? Colne library in my constituency was reopened last January following a complete refurbishment that transformed it. While continuing to deliver a traditional range of services, the library is also able to help people of all ages attain their full potential by providing services such as courses in information and communications technology, adult education and writing courses, and musical activities. There are new meeting rooms for a range of community groups, one of which I use for my local surgeries.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention which highlighted how local libraries can adapt to the needs of individual communities. That is a good example showing how the future of that community library has been secured.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate-I know that he is a passionate advocate of libraries. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) spoke in support of what has been happening in his area, but in my area, our experience of the local council has been a little different. We currently have a Labour council that is proposing the possible closure of a library in Haxey on the Isle of Axholme. It has not been at all innovative in its approach but has simply offered residents the options of the closure of the library and replacement with a mobile service, or staffing by volunteers. Although it is important to transform libraries, the
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challenge is for local councils to be innovative and not simply present the public with bland options. It is hit or miss around the country.

Justin Tomlinson: That is why I requested this debate, which I hope will highlight that although councils have difficult decisions to make, there are options that can transform the service that is offered, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) highlighted.

I am pleased that the Minister has announced that the future libraries programme, led by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Local Government Association group, will work with and support councils to deliver key services for communities while driving costs down. I welcome a rethink of the way that library services are delivered, and I endorse the introduction of shared services, merging functions, staffing across authorities and greater connection with other local services, where appropriate for the community. Councils need to deliver fresh initiatives to achieve cost savings and new partnerships, and they must make the most of digital advancements because further opportunities will arise through the medium of digital books.

We must ensure that libraries deliver the services that communities want and need, and that they can adapt and be shaped by the local people who use them. That is why library services should be run at a local level. Local authorities are important for the delivery of library services, but the responsibility of the day-to-day running of libraries must lie with library managers.

The person running the library and their relationship with the community is what matters. Flexibility and efficiencies can be enabled by cutting out bureaucracy and upper management. If libraries are run from the bottom up, front-line staff are given the freedom to provide a service that caters for the public who want to use them. Managers are often too heavily controlled from above, and each individual library should be released so that it can have a relationship with the community. The most important person should be the manager who must know their library, their customers and the needs of their community. By cutting corporate structure and giving management back to individual libraries, services can be tailored to-and led by-the community.

Where possible, back offices should be reduced, and activities that are not part of the libraries should be removed. Public library statistics state that only 7.5% of library expenditure for 2008-09 was spent on book stock, which is staggering. There should be a reduction in bureaucracy through the use of universal categorising and cataloguing, and labelling should be standardised. Costs saved by cutting through red tape can be spent on improving stock, opening hours and the environment of the libraries-areas that have been shown to be important to the public but which have all too often been neglected. National library campaigner, Tim Coates, is passionate about that issue, and rightly so as it is exactly how Hillingdon local authority helped to transform its library service.

If services are released from a corporate structure that undermines managers, decisions can be made about vital areas such as stock. Such decisions can be made directly in response to requests and local demand without additional bureaucracy or delay. When we opened our new central library, we allowed local residents to pick and choose-within legal boundaries-any item or book
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that they wanted to have in the library. That is important, as people will not use libraries if they do not have the books that they want or the stock is not up to date with new releases or trends. Big-name bookstores such as Waterstones often provide a wide variety and an up-to-date collection, and a pleasant coffee culture environment in which to enjoy a book. Libraries must be able to compete and go further by also providing additional services that are unique and appropriate to the local area. Again, I refer to the excellent example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle.

Local communities need to be able to access services or be offered a service that they want. The library manager can be responsible for successfully offering and delivering services appropriate for the area-as they know it best-working in conjunction with volunteers. For example, delivery services to the elderly in local care homes or reading time for children after nurseries or schools finish, with the use of volunteer groups, can help to take the library directly to the community and drive up usage. I recently experienced that when I took part in the launch of the Swindon summer reading challenge for children, acting as an elephant in the support cast for author Neil Griffiths' excellent live story time. Thankfully, my red-faced performance, which has not featured on YouTube, did not put off the children, with an amazing 2,598 children signing up-a just reward for the staff and volunteers who went that extra mile to make the library exciting for the children.

Local solutions can be developed to increase opening times. In Swindon, we saw the Old Town community library facing closure. I know that the Minister is well aware of it. There were concerns about limited opening times, fears of falling usage following the opening of the new Central library and concerns about an unsuitable and cramped building. That was typical of so many closures across the country. However, local campaigns were organised, led by local activist and passionate library supporter Shirley Burnham, and thankfully a practical solution was found by moving the library into the arts centre just around the corner. Incidentally, that move is happening as we speak. The move started today, and knowing Councillor Fionuala Foley and head of libraries Allyson Jordan, there will not be any delay in the library opening later this week.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. We could certainly use his experience elsewhere in Wiltshire. My local council is proposing to close Melksham library and replace it with bookshelves in the foyer of an out-of-town swimming pool and leisure centre. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the arts centre that features in the innovative solution that he has outlined is a much better bedfellow for a library than the rather damp suggestions that people have been experiencing in my part of the county?

Justin Tomlinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am not familiar with that area in particular. There are opportunities to extend the library service in places such as leisure centres, with self-service machines, but I question their replacing the library service and I suggest that the council thinks a little more and comes
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up with more innovative ideas and consults the local community a little more widely to find a solution that will work.

The move to the arts centre will not only provide a modern, improved environment. In addition to transferring the existing 18 hours of staffed opening, those hours will be extended, through the use of self-service machines, to the 40 hours for which the arts centre is open during the daytime, plus any evening performances-crucially, at no extra cost to the taxpayer. With the additional footfall driven by the library, the arts centre will surely see increased sales for its performances and the café will be made more viable-a real win-win situation, thanks to the willingness to adapt and change. That highlights the thrust of my proactive case.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the Old Town library, which is in my constituency. I can tell you, Mrs Main, that as an instinctive bookworm and a user of the library service in South Swindon who gave an involuntary shudder when he learnt that the third edition of "The Oxford English Dictionary" is not to be put into print, I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to libraries. However, I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend's reference to the need for a place of quiet reflection. Does he agree that in any move to new premises, such as the welcome arts centre development in Old Town, we must remember that at the back of it all libraries should remain places where there can be quiet reflection for those who use them?

Justin Tomlinson: I thank my hon. Friend. I am delighted that he shares my passion for libraries. I know that Wroughton library benefits from his family's exhaustive use of the book stock. He is right to say that there should be provision for quiet study time, but also sometimes we need to make libraries more welcoming, so it is a question of achieving that balance.

For libraries to attract more readers, they need to improve the library experience. The environment must be welcoming for all ages, and clean. Staff should be smart and well presented, as well as friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Opening times can be synchronised to the opening hours of local shops or footfall for the area-for example, if there is late-night shopping or Sunday trading. Innovative ideas need to be encouraged to provide new solutions that fit the local area and demand.

More must be done to ensure that libraries, particularly our small community libraries, can survive the current financial climate and are providing a service that is fit for purpose and the community that it serves, not a one-size-fits-all approach. Libraries need to adapt to changing times and be led by local demand. Services must deliver choice, convenience and quality customer care. Responsibility for management should be based at local level, so that the people who use and cherish libraries can have a say and are involved in the future of their community libraries.

My fear is that although many people agree with the sentiments expressed in my speech, a failure to act will see the steady and continual decline of our much-loved community facilities. I therefore urge the Minster, in his most determined and enthusiastic style, to do all he can to encourage local authorities to ensure that libraries are viable and fit for purpose for future generations.

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1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) and I will attempt to rise to the challenge. First, I welcome you, Mrs Main, to the Chair. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to debate under your chairmanship. You and I came into the House together, and it is always a little depressing when one sees a colleague rise in advance of oneself, as you have, but in your case I can say that it is thoroughly deserved, and you have chaired this debate in a consummately professional manner.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for initiating the debate and for the many excellent points that he made. What characterised his speech, which perhaps does not characterise many of the contributions on libraries that one reads on blogs or in newspapers, was that it was relentlessly positive. He saw the opportunities that exist in the library service up and down the country, and by and large I can say that that was the case for the many excellent contributions that we heard this afternoon, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who talked about the need to modernise, and from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), who illustrated the fact that his libraries are being innovative. The concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) were valid and illustrated their awareness that libraries are a force for good in their communities. They were simply encouraging their local authorities to think again about how to be more innovative.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland)-a man I have known for many years-reminded us that traditionalism and modernisation can co-exist and create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, as it has indeed done in the person of my hon. Friend.

Although I want to make a relentlessly positive and enthusiastic speech, I will just pause for about 30 seconds to make a cheap party political point. It is interesting to note that the coalition Government have fielded no fewer than seven Members of the House, whereas the Opposition, who presided over the decline in library usage that we have learned about over the past five years from the statistics produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, have not fielded a single Member of the House to talk about their own thoughts and plans for libraries. When I was in opposition, I found extremely frustrating the lack of action from the Government in providing a leadership role.

I said earlier that one thing that I find depressing about the libraries debate is that so much of it is couched in negativity and quite a lot of it is based on a lack of knowledge and a huge degree of ignorance. It was interesting for me that in opposition, when we discussed the library closures in the Wirral-in the constituency now represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West-and in Swindon, I was, I think, the only Member of Parliament who bothered to visit both places and at least felt that I knew something of what I was talking about. Most people were happy to get on their hobby-horse and talk about the closures, never having got into the detail of the debate.

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Much of the debate is conservative with a small c and somewhat negative. I myself see a huge opportunity and an optimistic future for libraries. I am an enthusiastic champion of libraries and will do all I can, in the time that I have as a Minister, to encourage local authorities to cherish and value their libraries, but also to innovate and modernise in their libraries.

In opposition, before I had been sent to the coalition Government's re-education camp, I did want to set up a library development agency. I learnt in government that first, we have no money, and secondly we are not particularly pro setting up quangos. It may therefore appear somewhat confusing that one of my first acts as a Minister was to abolish the quango responsible for libraries-the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council-so I had better square the circle regarding how that decision came about.

That gives me an opportunity, first, to say how grateful I am to the council's chairman, Sir Andrew Motion, its chief executive, Roy Clare, and all the team who so ably support them. The MLA has come to the table and understood the political necessity of saving overhead costs and delivering as much money as possible to the front line. We are working hand in hand with it to ensure that we have a smooth transition and that its functions continue to be carried out at the same time as we achieve a cost saving. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said, that is the kind of thinking that should be going through the heads of library authorities up and down the land.

I am confident that we will have a smooth transition. The specific detail of what will happen has not yet been decided exactly, but we are working closely with the Arts Council, for example, to look at the future. The Arts Council already supports important reading and literature initiatives-notably, the Reading Agency, which is behind the summer challenge, in which my hon. Friend realised his vocation as an elephant. That gives me an opportunity to praise Miranda McKearney and all those who work for the agency, because they do an enormously valuable job in encouraging children to read.

In the meantime, I am delighted to say that I have had the opportunity to put in place the library support programme. What is exciting about it, albeit that my press release was couched in slightly bureaucratic language, is that it brings the Local Government Association to the table. It explicitly recognises that local government has a huge role to play in library organisation and that diktats from Whitehall should not dictate the pace of change in local authority libraries, which should be local authority-driven. I am absolutely delighted that Liberal Democrat councillor Chris White, who is in charge of the programme, has worked so well with us to realise its aims. More than 100 local authorities expressed interest in getting on board, and more than 30 are now part of the initial stages. It is important to stress that libraries are a local service and that it is not for the Government to tell local authorities how to run their local library service-we exist to encourage and support. In particular, I hope that the library support programme will bring together different views about innovation and modernisation and enable best practice to be shared.

It is not all doom and gloom in the library service. We absolutely acknowledge the passionate support among the local community for the Old Town library, but one of the frustrations about the Old Town library campaign, as my hon. Friend will acknowledge, was that Swindon
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was somehow seen as withdrawing from the library service, when, in fact, a new £10 million library had been built literally half a mile down the road. The same is true up and down the country. If one goes to Norwich, one will see the Millennium library, which is the most visited library in the country, with 1.5 million visitors. In Newcastle, Her Majesty the Queen opened a new central library with a great new civics facility, which already has a podcast from me on its website, just to enhance the service. Manchester has blazed a trail, with the first public library to be successfully co-located with a further education college. It has also announced a full-blown strategy to develop its central library and a network of community libraries. York saw the first private sector sponsorship of a library service in the country, with £300,000 from Aviva. Luton and Wigan are examples of the successful operation of library services within charitable trusts. I could also talk about Essex and Leicester, and Hillingdon has already been mentioned. The library service in Kent is now seen as integral to delivering local authority services. Tower Hamlets has re-engineered its libraries and attracted a whole new group of people in to use them. There is therefore a massive amount of innovation.

The trouble with the library debate is that the minute one mentions an example of innovation, people throw up their hands in horror and say that everything is going to hell in a hand basket. If someone happens to mention that Hillingdon has put coffee shops in its libraries, people throw up their hands and say, "The Government want to turn libraries into coffee shops." No, we do not; we just think that there is nothing wrong with being able to buy a cup of coffee and then read the paper, borrow a book or access the internet. I tried to make a speech that I recently gave about libraries slightly more interesting by mentioning that there is a library in a pub in North Yorkshire. It was immediately said that the Government want all libraries to be closed down and put in pubs. No, we do not. As my hon. Friend so eloquently said, this is about putting library managers and the people who run the library service in charge. If they think that their local community would find it easier to visit a library in a pub, they should be entitled to try that out.

There are some key principles behind the library support programme and the Government's support for libraries. Local authorities should ask themselves what their library is for. Of course it is about books, borrowing and reading, but it is also about digital access, inclusion, access to the computer network and information. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said, the library is a place to have thinking time and to be quietly contemplative. Libraries are also great community centres for people who are new to an area, and refugees, in particular, find them a fantastically useful resource that can help them begin integrating into the local community. Libraries are also a massive resource for helping local councils to put services in front of local residents.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said, however, library authorities also have to look at where they can cut costs. I have gone on record again and again as saying that it is a matter of intense frustration that there are 151 library authorities. Before I risk contradicting myself, let me say that I will not impose
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change or force library authorities to merge, but it is absolutely sensible that library authorities should find ways to work together. I was delighted that Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea, each of which has six libraries, will now work together. Even so, Hillingdon has 18 libraries, which is three times more than Hammersmith and Fulham. Rutland has five libraries, and I am delighted that it is working with Lincolnshire, which has 61. Library authorities therefore cover a huge range of sizes, ranging from 80 or 81 libraries in Kent down to five in Rutland, and it makes sense for people to work together to try to save on bureaucracy.

Instead of thinking of a library as a cost-as somewhere where savings have to be made-local authorities should think of it as a resource, where innovation can happen. We are moving into the digital age, and people will be reading e-books, so they will want a place to go where they can be introduced to and try out new technology. In the same way, libraries in the 19th century were set up to introduce people to books, when books were an expensive resource and not available in every household.

Training is also incredibly important. If we are to put library managers in charge, we must also ensure that we concentrate on training them and librarians so that they can provide a service for different kinds of users.

Andrew Percy: One issue that we have not talked about is post offices. My area has lost a number of post offices in the past few years, and along with the post office we also lose the village shop. Will there be discussions between Ministers about how we can get the Post Office to work more closely with library authorities on possibly co-locating?

Mr Vaizey: What concerns me about that intervention is that my hon. Friend has clearly bugged the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. About 45 minutes ago, I was having a discussion with the Minister responsible for post offices. I said that there is a clear correlation between libraries and post offices as community resources. I would be delighted to have discussions with my hon. Friend, because he, I and the Minister responsible for post offices are clearly on exactly the same wavelength.

The location of a library-location, location, location-is incredibly important. I have talked about libraries co-locating with GP surgeries, health centres or, indeed, supermarkets. Again, the headlines said that the Government planned to close down libraries and put them in supermarkets or, indeed, leisure centres. However, the key point, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon said, is ease of use for users and residents. If co-locating means that libraries can stay open longer without additional costs to the taxpayer, or that they can increase their footfall and the number of people passing by who say, "Oh, there's the library. I must just pop in," that must be a good thing.

I will bang the drum for libraries and campaign for them. I will make the point again and again that I am not abdicating my responsibility when I emphasise the fact that local authorities are responsible for libraries. Libraries are a massive resource, and I am happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with local authorities in encouraging them to innovate, cut costs and move forward into the future.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).

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