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The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes):
The pleasure in serving under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, is matched by the pleasure of facing the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) for the first time in his new Opposition role. We are old friends, and I am delighted that he has been able to contribute to the debate. I am conscious that I am here with an enormous task; I gather from the debate so far that I must draw together
Government policies on cities, towns, growth, planning, historic buildings, transport, Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Roman history, tourism, Victorian architecture, prisons and nursery rhymes. Ever mindful of the fate of the three blind mice, Humpty Dumpty and the cat in the well, here is my best shot.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) has done the House a service in securing the debate. He made a powerful case for the balance, as the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) put it, between the historic character of his constituency and the need for change, a point to which I will return later. He is right that economic development is of central importance in ensuring the future well-being of our historic towns and cities across the country, including those in his fine constituency.
The coalition Government inherited a record public sector deficit-you would expect me to say that the day before the comprehensive spending review, Mr Hollobone, but it is relevant to the debate because, as well as being about history, the debate is about economic growth, regeneration and the opportunities that come from investment in the towns and cities that have been so well represented by those who have spoken in the debate.
The hon. Member for York Central, an old friend and sparring partner, spoke with typical eloquence and passion about York. I know what a dedicated servant of that great city he is, and he will know that I holidayed there recently and so can give testament to all that he says about the balance between a modern, thriving York, and its rich architectural and other history. He was right to say that heritage generates employment. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), whom I shall ever after think of as twinkling like a diamond in the Essex sky, made a strong case for both the history and modern profile of his town, which I also know well. Like York, it is a diverse place with a rich history, but one with modern challenges, and he articulated them today, as he always does, with commitment.
Chester is another city that I know well. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) spoke about holistically integrating the needs of local businesses, infrastructure requirements for transport and issues around planning. He spoke about the threat of out-of-town development, and I shall try to cover that in the brief time that I have to contribute to the debate.
In essence, my hon. Friend showed a humility in recognising that Chester can do more, be better and learn from other examples. Sometimes in drawing together the outcomes of these debates, what we can glean from them is as much about sharing good practice drawn from our constituency experience as anything that the Minister or shadow Minister can say, and my hon. Friend did a service to the House in that regard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Mr Ruffley), whom I am delighted to see-I have welcomed him twice, now in Westminster Hall and previously on the Floor of the House-also made a point about holistic development. I was interested particularly in what he said about Sir Michael Hopkins's mixed development, which combines residential provision, retail business and transport. The assumption that those things should be separated has done immense damage to many of our towns and cities, for the idea that one can compartmentalise those requirements is unhelpful.
His example was of the opposite, of how those things can be drawn together in a development which delivers aesthetically as well as in terms of its utility. Again, I shall say more about that.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South spoke of the need for co-ordination. He is right to say that the Government should play a role, but sometimes the Government need to step back as well as forward. This is about getting the Government off people's backs and on their side. It is about understanding that what the Government do matters, but that what we do not do matters, too; about the balance between local action and Government intervention, and understanding the advantages of the discretion which should and could be exercised by local people and the diversity that springs from that; and about the need to ensure that where co-ordination is required, where some overarching view is needed to pull together transport investment or direct economic activity, the Government should play a part. All this is at the heart of this debate. Let me try in the time I have available to outline how we think that can work.
I mentioned that the CSR will come to its exciting culmination tomorrow. Essential to developing our town and cities and to promoting economic growth is economic well-being. The Chancellor will set out in the spending review detailed policy proposals to promote economic development and spread economic opportunity.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has made it clear that we believe that functions such as inward investment, sector leadership, innovation, responsibility for business support and access to finance are best led nationally, but that much is best decided locally: for example, planning and housing policies, creating the right local environment for business to grow, and tackling issues such as employment and enterprise.
Mr Marsden: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way-I know that he does not have a great deal of time. He and others spoke about transport. Is he able to confirm that it remains the view of Ministers in his Department that, in some cases, transport needs infrastructure planning over and above sub-regional planning?
Mr Hayes: It is true that the Government need to set national priorities for transport infrastructure, but if those priorities are set outside the assumptions and wishes of local communities at sub-regional or local level, they will be frustrated. They will be unpopular at best, and undeliverable at worst, so getting a better balance between local wishes, sensitivities and understanding of economic need, and Government priorities, is at the heart of what we hope to do.
Of course localism is crucial, but does the Minister agree that if a local council has responsibility for buildings or structures that are, in effect, of national
or international significance, there has to be financial support from the centre? It cannot be left to the local authority to pick up the bill.
Mr Hayes: Yes, that is a fair point. Where there are, for example, buildings of national significance, it is right that we take a bigger view about the contribution that they make to their locality, but also to what we are as a people. In those cases, there must be an overarching view. Indeed, the hon. Member for York Central made it clear that the Government's approach to English Heritage reflects exactly that view.
Let me briefly describe how I think the marriage of local decision making and national priorities can be made. The approach that we seek is one that distinguishes between strategic national needs and local economic priorities. A distinction must be made between what is best determined at national level-for example, innovation and sector leadership-and specifically local issues such as transport, planning and housing, notwithstanding the point that I made in response to the hon. Member for Blackpool South. We will publish a White Paper on sub-national economic growth outlining the way forward in those terms.
Our approach is that we can promote growth by freeing enterprise and innovation, and that it is vital to do so. Business confidence depends on sound finances and a Government who are there when they are needed, and who offer support that does not get in the way. Our growth White Paper will set out a new relationship between business and the state.
Our approach will empower local civic and business leaders to determine how to enable their community to create wealth and jobs. If we want to build a bigger, better society, we must bring forward and make real new forms of community engagement. In the strategy that we are putting together, the tension-I believe that was how it was described by one speaker-between the local and the national must be embraced, as must the marriage between the strategic and the tactical. We must find a happy solution to that and I am not sure that that has always happened in the past. I do not want to be excessively party political-this debate is not about that-but I am not sure that previous Governments got that marriage right.
That was well illustrated by some of the points that were made about what was described as the tension between the old and the new. I do not think it is necessary to have tension between the old and the new. It is only through a symbiotic relationship between the two that we can accommodate the familiar touchstones of enduring certainty which make all that is disturbing and surprising in life tolerable, and the constant need for change. The hon. Member for Blackpool South quoted Deng Xiaoping, but I prefer to quote Disraeli, who said:
"Change is inevitable. Change is constant."
Governments have been insensitive to that symbiosis. It is true that York, Chester, Colchester and Bury St Edmunds are fine places, but much damage has been done at street level-at human level-in many towns.
As well as the scars of much of the building that has emerged since the war, there is also the pain of what has gone. I am sure that that has happened because of an insensitivity to beauty; the triumph of soulless utility over all that elevates and provides our sense of pride and purpose.
The issues that were listed at the beginning of this debate are too numerous for me to cover in detail, but if I had the time, I would be delighted to do so, Mr Hollobone, as you know. In drawing them together, we must take a view about what we see-the buildings, townscapes and landscapes; what we feel-the values and ideas that permeate the towns and cities that we have heard about today and the whole of the nation; and what we do-what workplaces look like, and how our communities are shaped. What we see, feel and do add up to what we are as individuals, as communities, as a people and as a nation.
I am grateful for the opportunity in this all too brief time to congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood, and to thank all those who contributed and also you, Mr Hollobone, for it is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I refer hon. Members to the Register of Members' Financial Interests, which notes that I donate 50% of my Scottish Parliament salary to the charity, Who Cares? Scotland, to which I shall refer.
The abolition of child trust funds was announced earlier this year and will have far-reaching effects. We are all aware that they were set up in 2002 by the Labour Government, and that additional payments for looked-after children were introduced in 2008. That was welcomed at the time by a significant number of children's groups as a positive step in what had hitherto been a fairly neglected area of social policy.
Like others, I have concerns about the wider proposal to end child trust funds, but I want to focus today on its impact on looked-after children. The matter seems to have stayed below the radar because, sadly, the needs of young people in care are often not high on the political agenda, despite the best efforts of organisations such as the Who Cares Trust and Who Cares? Scotland, which represent the views and needs of young people who are looked after and accommodated.
Under the scheme, the UK Government provide £100 a year to put into a child trust fund for every child who is looked after away from home, including those who are in foster care, residential care and kinship care. Some of those young people have spent all or the majority of their life in care, and the money is paid when they have spent part of a year in the care system. The amount of money is not a lot per child, but it helps young people to build up a personal fund that will become available when they move on from care to post-school education or employment training. Its purpose is to help young people move on to independent living. It also offers useful educational opportunities for learning how to manage money, and the discipline of developing a saving habit. That is important.
Research on young people in the care system shows that access even to a modest level of savings at the age of 18 makes a real difference to the decisions that young people can make about their future, as well as encouraging investment. Many of the things that we take for granted and that have been put in place for us and that we put in place for our children are simply not there for young people who are brought up in the care system. We must also remember that young people in care often move on to an independent lifestyle much earlier than other young people. They are often expected to take on the tenancy of their own home, and to manage a household budget when they are entering further or higher education, or the world of work. That is a time when, as those of us who are parents or have had teenagers know, young people are vulnerable. Young people in the care system are expected to make adult decisions and to move quickly into the adult world.
As corporate parents, the Government at any level have responsibility for children in care. The purpose of the child trust fund scheme, especially for looked-after children, was to help to improve outcomes for those children, and we should find a way of continuing it. Sadly, it is being abandoned just as we have begun to unearth more efficient ways of operating it.
The concept of asset building for young people in the care system is not well developed. Having access to individual asset accounts can make an important contribution to the well-being of children in care by providing a sense of security and encouraging planning for the future. It can help the local authorities that are looking after children to work with them to strengthen their saving habit, and to ensure that they have something for their future needs. It would also send positive messages to parents of looked-after children about the need to become involved in the process of saving for their children's future, and encourage them, when possible, to take on some responsibility for supporting their children.
I realise that the Minister is not responsible for the actions of the Scottish Government, but I want to place on record my belief that the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities should also give more consideration to future financial planning for looked-after children. That would be entirely consistent with the recommendations of the 2009 national residential child care review for developing corporate parent responsibilities. Again, those recommendations attracted widespread support.
The Minister should take an interest in the funding that was provided to the Scottish Government specifically to benefit looked-after children but did not go to those children. Back in July, in response to a series of questions in the Scottish Parliament, it was revealed that the Scottish Government had no idea whether looked-after children had received the payments. That was incredibly disappointing and worrying. Under pressure following those revelations, most Scottish local authorities have now ensured that the payments have been made, but it was worrying that the Scottish Government had not been monitoring the payments, so not only did they not know what was happening to the money but they were unlikely to be able to assess any outcomes of what that money had gone towards. Will the Minister tell us what evidence the Treasury has of the outcomes of that initiative throughout the UK, and how it was taken into account before the decision to scrap child trust fund payments?
The Conservatives' commitment before the election was to end Government payments to child trust funds, except for children in the poorest third of families and children with disabilities. Many young people who are looked after and accommodated will fall into those categories because of the difficulties in their background. When the Bill that introduced child trust funds was going through Parliament, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that
"we greatly support the principle that the Bill is designed to promote...We think that having savings...gives people a stake in society, gives them independence, encourages self-reliance and bolsters the freedom of the individual against the overbearing state."-[Official Report, 15 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1345.]
As recently as September, Phillip Blond-the same Phillip Blond who has emerged as one of the Prime Minister's policy gurus-in his role as director of ResPublica launched a report entitled "Asset Building for Children-Creating a new civic savings platform for young people". It called on the Government to tackle social mobility by
adopting a savings policy that builds assets for all children's futures. The key recommendations included a new type of asset building for children-an ABC account-based on retaining the infrastructure of the child trust fund that the new Government scrapped; a reward scheme to encourage saving with money off, for example, leisure facilities; new private sector incentives offered by banks and savings providers; and a financial capability programme with the voluntary sector to improve financial literacy. All those suggestions would benefit young people who are looked after and accommodated.
"to maintain, extend and improve the infrastructure of the Child Trust Fund"
as part of any asset-building agenda to boost savings. It argued that the child trust fund was one of the most successful saving schemes ever, and that the framework could be retained for a small administrative cost. The alliance acknowledged that even if the Government were unable to make contributions to the scheme in the current economic climate, keeping the structure in place would at least ensure that all newborn children have a chance of having a savings account opened for them at birth that would improve the life chances of future generations.
"When it comes to social mobility, a lump sum asset is a lot more powerful than income in unlocking opportunities for youngsters as they enter adulthood. This is particularly vital for less well-off families to help give their children the best start to their adult lives. We must not allow what has been a successful start in fostering a savings culture for all to fall away from the most vulnerable in society."
"The last two years of economic strife have reminded British society of the importance of personal savings. It's imperative that we help ordinary families put money away for a child's future. The Child Trust Fund offers a proven structure for this."
"The Child Trust Fund ensured that every single newborn child in the UK had a savings account opened for them which they, and only they, could access at the age of 18. With ever increasing day-to-day demands on family savings and reports that university students face debts of £25,000 on graduation, it is critical that we explore ways to protect savings for our children. Whatever their background, the next generation should not be forced to start adulthood saddled with debt or as a dependent drain on their parents."
According to figures from HM Treasury, on 5 April 2009, the total number of children in local authority care for whom a child trust fund had been opened was 33,158. Figures from the Department for Education
reveal that the cost of the £100 top-up for looked-after children paid to local authorities in England and in the devolved Assemblies was £1,039,833 in 2008-09, and £1,502,786 in 2009-10. That is a relatively small amount of money per young person, but it has the potential to make a big difference. If asset building and financial education for the next generation are to be tackled, in light of current personal debt levels, I believe that that would be money well spent.
I appreciate that policy decisions can often have unintended consequences, and it is the mark of a compassionate and caring Government that they can admit when things are wrong and take steps to correct errors. My preference would be for the Government to revisit the whole policy on child trust funds and keep the scheme intact. I realise, however, that that plea may fall on stony ground.
For a relatively small amount of Government investment, the child trust fund system could be maintained for our most vulnerable children, who are surely those who are looked after and accommodated. Young people in care often feel isolated with little control over their lives. They feel that few people speak out on their behalf and that no one listens to them. I am speaking out on their behalf today, and I hope that the Government will not only listen, but act to ensure that the term "looked after" actually means something for those young people.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hollobone, and it is nice to see you in your place today. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) on securing this debate. As she points out, it is an important topic. She is right to say that perhaps more than many other communities in our country, looked-after children need people who will stand up and speak on their behalf about some of the challenges that they and their families face.
The context for today's debate is unfortunate-it is the day before tomorrow's spending review. I suppose that that is either good or bad, depending on how one looks at it. I will respond to the hon. Lady in detail, and I will also try to address the important questions that she has raised. In the time available, I will set out the overall context of the changes and explain why they are taking place. I will go on to talk in more detail about the specific issues that she raised regarding looked-after children. The devolved Assemblies are an added aspect. As the hon. Lady said, responsibility for the delivery of services and support for looked-after children lies with the Scottish Government.
I agree that looked-after children face greater challenges than other children, and that they need and deserve greater support. In England, we are looking at ways to improve that support, alongside other measures taken in the spending review. I understand the hon. Lady's disappointment at the changes that we have to make to the child trust fund. Unfortunately, those changes are necessary. This week in particular, with the spending review happening tomorrow, hon. Members will be aware of the unprecedented budget deficit that the
Government inherited. That is not a position that we wanted to be in, but it is a grave situation.
At the moment, we currently borrow £1 of every £4 that we spend. The hon. Lady mentioned financial literacy, and that is a broader issue that we as the UK Government are trying to tackle for our country as a whole. Because of the problems that we face with the deficit, our level of debt and the interest that we have to pay, the amount left for public service support is being squeezed. It is simply not affordable to spend over £0.5 billion a year on the child trust fund. The children concerned cannot use that money for 18 years, and we cannot afford to spend it when we have limited resources that are under pressure to provide support and services for people now, including looked-after children. As I said, I will come on to the more specific issues, but it is important to drill down into the wider context for those who may read the debate later.
As the hon. Lady knows, we have already reduced Government payments into child trust funds, and we have introduced a Bill to end eligibility to child trust funds for children born from next January onwards. In other words, most women who were pregnant when we made our initial announcement will have access to the child trust fund; the Bill will affect children born from next January onwards.
I confirm that the top-up payments to the child trust funds of looked-after children will stop. Those changes will save £320 million this year, and over £500 million a year in the future. That is £0.5 billion that we do not have to find through spending cuts-perhaps in important areas such as education or children's social services-increasing taxes further, or borrowing, which would mean that our deficit was higher and that even more taxpayers' money was going to fund debt interest instead of public services.
We are talking about a legacy. The hon. Lady rightly made the point about looking ahead, but we are concerned about the legacy that all children will inherit if we do not tackle the debt that we face now and the deficit; the country's level of debt would be eye watering, even compared with today. During this Parliament, spending on our debt interest could rise from £43 billion-a huge figure compared with what we spend on transport, prisons or justice, for example-to £60 billion. That is a rise of £17 billion over the next few years and shows what a challenge we face. We must try to work together to balance our priorities. If we do not address the debt, it will only increase further and put even more pressure on the vital public services that we want to support.
Cathy Jamieson: I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful and I look forward to what she has to say, particularly on support for looked-after children, but could she answer the question that I raised? What assessment was made of the effectiveness of the outcomes of the child trust fund for looked-after children before it was decided to scrap this particular scheme?
The hon. Lady will be aware that a key aspect of the emergency Budget was to examine the distributional analysis of how people would be affected, but also to consider key issues in relation to children, such as child poverty. We were very careful to consider those issues. Indeed, given the problem that we were having to start to solve, the fact that we were able to
introduce an emergency Budget that still managed to see child poverty not rising is a measure not only, we hope, of its effectiveness, but of our desire as a Government to see that whole issue as important. We are trying to balance protecting things today with, as the hon. Lady points out, the need to look more long term.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is examining ways in which we can encourage saving and children's saving. We recognise that that is an issue and my hon. Friend is considering it. He is very interested on a personal level, and has been for many years, in how we can improve financial literacy-the other key issue that the hon. Lady raised-and ensure that people take good decisions.
The hon. Lady said that the Scottish Government had not always ensured that money got to where it was meant to go. She is right to raise that as a concern. In England and in Scotland, local authorities have a statutory obligation to report to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs all children who come into their care who are of child trust fund age, precisely so that HMRC can ensure that all children who were due to get a child trust fund got an account and received the payments to which they were entitled at birth and at age seven. In fact, they are meant to report monthly to HMRC so that that can be followed up. There are very clear guidelines from the Department for Education requiring local authorities to make those payments, so the hon. Lady is right to raise her concerns in relation to the Scottish Government. I shall take this opportunity to say to her what she has probably already said to the Scottish Government. As a devolved Administration, they, too, can take decisions about whether they want to see this area as a priority for children in Scotland and for looked-after children-the group about which the hon. Lady is particularly concerned.
The hon. Lady talked about keeping the top-ups for looked-after children in place, despite the difficult decisions that we are having to take about child trust funds. We examined some of the challenges in relation to doing that. We recognise that looked-after children need to have additional support, and certainly in England we will be looking at how we can ensure that that happens. Ultimately, however, we just did not believe that continuing to pay the £100 top-ups to looked-after children would be the most effective way of providing that support, given the broader pressures that we faced in relation to public services and ensuring that we tackled the deficit. That is why we took the difficult decision that the top-ups would be stopped in due course.
One issue that we examined was that when local authorities make those £100 payments, it costs them £122. Part of the challenge that we face now is that that extra £22 spent on administration would be much better put into front-line services. When we considered that, it just did not make sense to continue those £100 payments, especially given the impact that that would have had on the broader budget and the fact that the £100 payments would be locked away until the children reached 18. They were not going to get the benefit from them for many years, and our concern was that we want them to reach that age in a country that is not paying hand over fist for debt interest and that does have money to pump into public services in a sustainable way. That was not the situation that we found ourselves in when we came into office.
Cathy Jamieson: I absolutely understand the issue about value for money and ensuring efficiency. It certainly does not seem to make sense that it costs £122 to make a payment of £100. However, does the Minister agree that looked-after children do not have a parent putting money aside for the future or putting money literally in trust for the future, as we would all do for our kids, so that when they get to the age of 18, they have some money, however small the amount, and that someone has to take responsibility for that? In those circumstances, is there anything that she can say today about ensuring that young people, when they leave care at the age of 18 to go into further or higher education or into the world of work, will have some money behind them to allow them to move on into adult life?
Justine Greening: I talked briefly about the fact that we recognise that financial literacy and encouraging saving for children are important. She knows that we have a broader problem with saving in Britain. The savings ratio had really fallen. It was not just the Government who had unsustainable finances; many households did as well. As I said, we are considering how we can nevertheless encourage saving and encourage children to save. Obviously, we have to work within the constraints of the public finances, but that work will explore the idea of allowing parents potentially to open a tax-free account for children born after child trust fund eligibility ends. I am sure that, as part of that, we would look at the group of looked-after children, in the same way that they were part of the child trust fund scheme. For most children in Britain, the account was triggered and opened by the parents, but for looked-after children, it was the local authority that took that approach.
Any such account would not have Government contributions going into it, but potentially could have some of the other features of child trust funds. Clearly, however, if we go down that road, we need to consider the design of any account carefully. It is clear that it would not be exactly the same as the child trust fund. However, I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are trying to find our way through the problems that we face today, which are grave and must be tackled, while at the same time ensuring that on these important issues, for the longer term, we still do what we can to support these children and address the issues.
Time is moving on. I shall try to ensure that I have covered the other issues that the hon. Lady raised. She talks about social mobility and she is absolutely right. I passionately believe in social mobility. She is right to talk about ensuring that we support looked-after children and that particularly when they leave care and face all the challenges that she referred to, they get support. Certainly in England, we are very keen to consider the overall package of support for these children, and I know that my colleagues in the Department for Education are doing that.
I am certain, given the hon. Lady's clear interest in the issue, that she will follow it up in the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, she has a long track record not just
of expressing an interest, but of being involved in direct policy making in this area. It is great that that experience has been brought into the UK Parliament.
I can see time ticking on. To conclude, I again congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and on her eloquent and passionate description of the needs of looked-after children. As I have explained, I agree that these children, alongside other disadvantaged children, need more support than many children. Only last week, the Deputy Prime Minister was talking about the fairness premium to ensure that we can target and help those children growing up who perhaps need the most support to make sure that they can get the opportunities that many children in this country have, but too many do not.
We are passionate about tackling disadvantage, including for looked-after children, and we want to provide that support, but as a Government-a coalition Government-we just do not think that the child trust fund is the best way to do that. Those children, including looked-after children, need support now, rather than having it locked away until they are 18. It would not have been the best use of our limited money, either for looked-after children or for others-
I am very pleased to have secured this debate, as it gives me an excellent opportunity to put on record the case for the funding of school building in Wyre Forest. However, before I get to the main thrust of my argument, I want also to put on record how incredibly grateful I am to Lord Hill, the Under-Secretary of State for Education with responsibility for the Building Schools for the Future programme, who agreed to meet last week with seven of my local school heads, the chief executive of Worcestershire county council and the officer in charge of the council's estates. It was an incredibly helpful meeting and, I believe, very constructive, and I hope that it bears dividends.
To underscore the argument, it would help if I gave the history behind what is going on in Wyre Forest. Wyre Forest is-or was-part of the wave 6a tranche of the Building Schools for the Future programme. As a result of the cancellation of some 700 BSF projects across the country, Wyre Forest has now lost the rebuild or partial rebuild of five secondary schools. I am certainly not here to argue in favour of the BSF programme. My constituents, particularly those who have had a lot to do with the programme, think that BSF was an overly bureaucratic and unnecessarily expensive way to deliver what is otherwise a very good outcome: new schools fit for the 21st century. Indeed, Worcestershire county council was encouraged by the previous Government to spend about £3 million on the programme, on what have amounted to largely unnecessarily bureaucratic measures. However, in Wyre Forest we are just part way through a major schools reorganisation, and the implications of the BSF cancellation are widespread. It is not just that five schools have had their rebuilds cancelled; as a direct result of the decision by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, a total of 11 schools in Wyre Forest face an uncertain future regarding their accommodation, and a special school has failed to take advantage of a unique opportunity.
About 10 years ago, Worcestershire county council was instructed by the Department for Education to look into a number of local education issues that were causing concern. In very simple terms, there were three key issues: failing standards and lower-than-average pupil retention into the sixth form; a very small surplus of accommodation; and Wyre Forest's adoption of a three-tier system of education as opposed to the two-tier one, which was, I believe, used in more than 90% of the country at the time. The county council undertook not one but two consultations among parents, pupils and staff across the whole district, and in April 2005 the county council cabinet took the bold decision to implement what is now widely known as the Wyre Forest schools review. That incredibly bold decision introduced the biggest school changes ever undertaken in this country, and culminated in moving 45 three-tier schools into just 30 two-tier ones.
In August 2007, all 45 first, middle and high schools were closed, and just 30 primary and secondary schools were opened in September. All middle schools and a
handful of primary schools were closed for ever. It is important to underscore the enormity of that undertaking. Every child, parent and teacher, as well as all the support staff, were involved in this colossal local change. A third of the education estate in Wyre Forest was closed, never to be reopened. Every member of staff had to reapply for their job, many children were moved from one school to another, and parents had to adapt to changes that they were not expecting. Importantly, accommodation became very cramped across the whole Wyre Forest school system. But my constituents, in a manner that I am finding is typical of them, knuckled down as a group to deal with the disruption, and teachers and other staff made huge efforts to ensure that standards were kept as high as possible and that no child was at any time disadvantaged by the process of change. The past five years have been very traumatic in Wyre Forest, but the light at the end of the tunnel has always been that in the end the district would have education facilities fit for the 21st century-until, of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made his decision to cancel BSF in Wyre Forest.
The knock-on effect of the BSF cancellation has been immense. As I have mentioned, five secondary schools have been cancelled. As I have said, I am not here to argue for BSF, but the vision for the district was far greater. Because of the building programme, the county council made what I believe was a wise decision-that economies of scale could be introduced. Accordingly, three of the secondary schools were to have primary schools located on their sites. Stourport high school, a school rated as excellent, was to have Burlish Park primary school built on its single site. Stourport was built for about 900 pupils, but now accommodates about 1,400 on a split site, with significant numbers of pupils in temporary classrooms. I shall refer to Burlish Park primary school a little later, because it is important in its own right.
Kidderminster's King Charles I school now has 1,300 pupils on two sites that are 10 minutes apart and separated by a main road. There are 880 pupils on one site and 420 on the other. Only recently, a child was involved in a road accident there, but I am happy to say that it was not serious. King Charles I was to have a complete rebuild, and was to accommodate Comberton primary school on its new single site. Comberton was built as a one-form entry school, but is now struggling as one-and-a-half-form entry and is being asked to become two-form entry this year, accommodating half its pupils in temporary classrooms.
The most visionary development was to have been the learning village at Baxter college. There was to have been a major rebuild, alongside St John's primary school, of the 70-year-old building, which accommodates just under 1,100 pupils.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this excellent debate. I attended St John's first school and middle school, and Baxter college, so I know first hand the importance of delivering improvements and investing in schools. I would, however, politely request that, should my hon. Friend secure any investment, he insist that Baxter college revert to its original name of Harry Cheshire high school.
Mark Garnier: I am very grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend is an example of just how good the education system in Wyre Forest can be: he has come from Kidderminster to Westminster and has done very well as a newly elected Member of Parliament. He raises a very interesting point. The school was initially endowed by Harry Cheshire, a local philanthropist, and due to changes over the past few years it is now called Baxter college. I shall certainly take up that issue with the headmaster; I know that my hon. Friend is very keen on this campaign.
The idea was to have a learning village that contained not just Baxter college and St John's primary, but Wyre Forest special school. That school would have accommodated, on the same site, the unusually large number of special needs children that, for historic reasons, we have in Wyre Forest, alongside regular pupils.
The three linked proposals that I have described demonstrate an economy of scale that I hope the Minister would welcome, but the vision of the Baxter learning village not only encompasses value for money, but just as significantly teaches the importance of inclusion to all pupils on the site. The special needs school must go ahead irrespective of BSF or any other building programmes for the more regular schools in Wyre Forest, and the county council has therefore had to divert funds to that important resource. That has had knock-on effects elsewhere in the Wyre Forest school building programme. The council has found money from its own resources to build a number of schools, but has had to cancel the rebuild of a further three primary schools: Franche primary school is suffering a split site and the significant dilapidation of its estate; St Oswald's has manageable problems but is facing a bulge in entry and desperately needs two new classrooms; and Cookley primary is in a class of its own.
I would like to talk about Burlish Park and Cookley primary schools together. These two schools, for me, epitomise all that is good and all that is bad about the primary schools in Wyre Forest. That we are asking teachers and staff to work in these conditions is appalling. That they are doing so, and doing as good a job as they can, is a testament to the incredible dedication of the teaching staff whom I have met both at these and at other schools across Wyre Forest. The two schools highlight the appalling problems that we face locally.
Burlish Park was built as a first school, but it is now taking children from nursery to year 6. Some 470 children have to take lunch in not one, or two, but three sittings. There is nowhere to accommodate children on wet playtimes. Classes are taken in a corridor alongside gym and dance lessons. The school's pupils cannot congregate together in one go. The staff room is too small to accommodate even a small proportion of the staff, who have to prepare for lessons at home using their own IT equipment. Seventy female staff have just two lavatories between them. We always say that it is not buildings that teach, but teachers. However, if a teacher has to queue for 20 minutes to use the bathroom, that causes classes significant problems. When looking through the school's 20-page urgent maintenance schedule, the head teacher and I totted up more than £1 million of urgent maintenance work in just three or four pages. The school is derelict.
Cookley has similar problems. The school is based in a Victorian school block and so is arguably better built than the 1960s block at Burlish Park, but its accommodation
problems are just as bad. A series of classes in corridors and the building's antiquated layout meant that the school only just received a provisional pass from Ofsted. That was because the safeguarding provisions were far below standard, but Ofsted was prepared to pass the school because it was due for a rebuild. We can only assume that it will be very unhappy if the situation is not resolved.
These two schools illustrate how the good-will elastic band can be stretched only so far. Staff and parents have had their good will stretched just about as far as it will go. With the cancellation of the rebuilding programme, the light at the end of the tunnel has been extinguished, and that is unfair.
In Bewdley, the high school has had a partial rebuild, but there are dilapidation issues, as well as safeguarding issues where the school grounds back unguarded on to the fast-flowing River Severn. Wolverley high school has its own portakabin village, but these temporary classrooms are rotting and need replacing imminently.
The schools that I have described make up the 11 schools that have been hit by the BSF cancellation. However, Wyre Forest is even unluckier than that. The five secondary schools are part of a wider consortium of schools known as the ContinU Trust, a collegiate trust comprising Wyre Forest's five secondary schools, two secondary schools from Bromsgrove and Kidderminster college. At this point, I must declare an interest as I sit as a governor at Kidderminster college. Through the college, the trust was to have built a new learning centre on one of the redundant middle school sites, but the project was cancelled in the past 18 months or so as a result of the Learning and Skills Council funding fiasco, in which 144 colleges across the country lost their funding. That loss only adds to the accommodation problems in Wyre Forest.
I am here to plead Wyre Forest's case on two principal issues: capacity and dilapidation. Across Wyre Forest, 23%-nearly a quarter-of pupils are in temporary accommodation, and that rises to 50% in some of the schools that I have mentioned. Teachers do not have basic needs met to allow them to prepare for classes. They do not have sufficient IT provision or quiet work areas and resource rooms where they can gather their thoughts. They are not given sufficient space to be able to rest in staff rooms, where staff can outnumber available chairs by 10 to one. There are not enough bathroom facilities for female staff, although male staff seem to be doing very well, because there are fewer men, and there is at least one lavatory per man.
Pupils are taught in corridors in many schools. There is little or no storage space for equipment. Many pupils lack sufficient, safeguarded outside spaces. The wider estate is dilapidated. Given where Wyre Forest featured on the priority list-it was part of wave 6a of BSF-the school buildings have generally not been maintained. That was done on the instructions of the county council and, ultimately, the Department for Education, to save resources for the new rebuild. The dilapidation is quite acute, and the cost of carrying out essential maintenance work is immense.
The economies of scale in the building programme still to be carried out are a huge incentive to undertake all the remaining building works in quick succession
and to use joint sites, as I described earlier. The plans put forward for Wyre Forest are exciting and incredibly well thought through. Failing to deliver at this late stage would be to lose an incredible opportunity for a comprehensive, district-wide schools building programme.
Officers at Worcestershire county council will work with civil servants at the Department for Education, and they will put a comprehensive and excellent case for Wyre Forest. As I said, I am incredibly grateful to Lord Hill for his meeting last week, but, in my closing words, I ask the Minster to reinforce the message that we are trying to deliver. There is acute dilapidation in the estate and a severe lack of space for staff and pupils. We want the opportunity to deliver excellent value for money through economies of scale by completing the work started almost a decade ago and delivering 21st-century schools for Wyre Forest.
The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) on securing this important debate. I thank him for his strong support for the coalition's education reforms and his kind words about Lord Hill. My hon. Friend is an exceptionally committed campaigner on behalf of his constituency's schools. As he has just proved in his speech, he is also a strong advocate of improving provision for all pupils, teachers and parents across the country.
As my hon. Friend knows, the coalition Government very much share that priority. That is why we have made it our mission from day one to make this country's education system among the very best in the world by restoring confidence in our qualifications and exam system and by ensuring that school prepares every pupil for success. That ambition is based on the simple but profoundly important principles of giving teachers and heads greater freedom, giving parents greater choice, providing higher standards for pupils and reducing the amount of red tape in the system.
As I hope my hon. Friend will agree, the coalition Government have already taken important steps to achieve those aims in their first few months. We have, for instance, expanded the academies programme so that all schools can enjoy the greater freedoms that academy status brings. We are looking at the national curriculum, with the intention of restoring it to its intended purpose of setting out a minimum core entitlement beyond which teachers can tailor their tuition to meet the particular needs of their pupils. We are also allowing parents, teachers and other groups to set up free schools so that each local area has a good mix of provision, feels the responsibility to raise standards in every school and offers parents real choice for their children.
As my hon. Friend argued so persuasively, school buildings, teaching staff and pupils are also important as part of the continuing investment in our school system. The coalition Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that that remains the case, but it is nevertheless critical that future spending in Wyre Forest, and indeed the rest of the country, represent the best possible value for money during these exceptionally difficult economic times.
Building Schools for the Future was, of course, an important programme for the previous Government, who aimed to rebuild or refurbish every one of our
3,500 secondary schools by 2023. That was undoubtedly a bold and impressive ambition, but unfortunately it failed to live up to the hype. During the five years of the BSF programme, just 265 schools benefited. The figure for schools that were completely rebuilt was just 146.
Where BSF has delivered, it has been at an exorbitant cost. As has been pointed out, rebuilding a school under BSF has turned out to be three times more expensive than constructing a commercial building and twice as expensive as building a school in Ireland. While the BSF budget grew from £45 billion to £55 billion, the time scale also grew, from 10 years to a projected 18 years.
Some of the reasons behind that additional cost and delay were understandable, but the fact remains that BSF had become a vast and confusing morass of process and cost upon cost by the time that it was ended, representing extremely poor value for money, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. Indeed, £60 million of the £250 million spent on BSF was frittered away on consultants and advisory costs before a brick was even laid.
Nobody comes into politics to cut funding, least of all a new Government who have inherited a school system that has desperately short-changed so many of its students, and particularly those from poorer communities. We recognise that these things can be extremely frustrating for areas close to the cut-off point for BSF, of which my hon. Friend's constituency was one. Five schools in his constituency have had to have their BSF programmes stopped, and that has understandably caused real dismay among students, teachers and parents. As my hon. Friend has said, things do not stop there; 11 schools in the area have been affected by the decision.
I am also aware that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of Wyre Forest Building Schools for the Future projects directly with the Department, pointing out the difficulty of operating primary and secondary schools in buildings that were designed for the three-tier system of first, middle and upper schools. He has been and remains a powerful and assiduous advocate of his constituency in the House. However, it is important to stress from the outset that every area in the country has been treated consistently and fairly, with no one authority or community singled out for cuts. In deciding which projects would be taken forward and which would end we developed a single set of criteria and applied it uniformly across the country. Those school projects that were part of their area's initial BSF schemes and which had reached financial close were allowed to continue, as were the sample projects that were part of their area's initial BSF schemes, where financial close had not been reached but where a preferred bidder had been appointed at the close of dialogue. Thirdly, a number of planned school projects, in addition to a local authority's initial scheme, were allowed to continue.
As we have heard today, the BSF projects in my hon. Friend's constituency were not, unfortunately, additional projects; nor had they appointed a preferred bidder, and therefore they had not reached financial close either. As none of the criteria applied, they could not go ahead, apart from the Tudor Grange academy, which will be unaffected.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's excellent speech and one cannot help but be moved on hearing of the state of the fabric in some of the buildings, where a
quarter of the pupils-in some schools half the pupils-are having lessons in temporary accommodation. I have seen the photographs that my hon. Friend brought to the meeting with Lord Hill and I share his concern about the state of the fabric of some buildings. My hon. Friend talked ably about Burlish Park primary school, where there is no accommodation for children on wet playtimes, and where classes are sometimes taken in the corridor, alongside gym and dance lessons. He also discussed Cookley primary school where, because classes are taking place in corridors, there was a risk that Ofsted would fail it on well-being grounds. He makes a powerful case about need in his area.
The end of BSF, however, does not mean the end of capital spending on schools. Money will be spent on school buildings in future, but it is imperative that it be spent on school infrastructure and the buildings themselves, and not on process, as my hon. Friend pointed out-particularly if we are to meet the increasing demand for school places in the coming years as the birth rate rises. That is why we appointed the group headed by Sebastian James, the group operations director of DSG International, to conduct a root and branch review of all capital investment in schools, sixth form colleges and other services for which the Department is responsible. The group is due to report back to us at the end of December, and will be looking at how best to meet parental demand; make design and procurement cost-effective and efficient; and overhaul the allocation and targeting of capital.
That will give us the means to ensure that future decisions on capital spending are based on actual need, which I know is one of my hon. Friend's chief concerns, and on ensuring that all schools provide an environment that supports high-quality education. However, given the fact that the review is still in progress, I am sure my hon. Friend will forgive me and understand that I cannot make any specific commitments today about how much money will be allocated, or exactly when. I am sure that that will disappoint students at Stourport high school, and other young people who have campaigned so hard for their schools in his constituency. I would at least like to assure my hon. Friend, as well as parents, staff and students in Wyre Forest, that the Department will continue to make capital allocations on the basis of need-particularly dilapidation and deprivation-and that the end of BSF does not mean the end of school rebuilding.
I know that my hon. Friend is worried about the fairness of per pupil funding in Wyre Forest and Worcestershire, as well as about capital expenditure. I can assure him that we share those concerns. We recognise that the spend-plus methodology has provided some stability and predictability, which many schools and local authorities have welcomed, but we nevertheless intend to undertake a thorough review of the current system, which will consider how to fund schools for 2012 and beyond, and look at how we can ensure that each and every school in the country is fairly funded. In addition, I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement last week on the fairness premium, which will help disadvantaged students to receive the support they need to reach their potential. That is intended to tackle one of the failings of the past decade in schools, when the achievement gap between the richest and poorest children actually grew. The odds of a pupil on free school meals achieving
five or more GCSEs at A to C, including English and maths, currently stand at less than one third of those for a pupil who is not on free school meals doing so.
In conclusion, I ask my hon. Friend to bear in mind the economic background to the matters that we are considering. No one comes into politics to cut public spending, but the Government face a £156 billion deficit-the largest among all the G20 countries-and it is our responsibility, difficult and painful as it may be, to do something about it. In the current financial climate, and with the announcement of the comprehensive spending review tomorrow, we have a particular duty to ensure that we continue to invest where investment is needed, to get the best possible value for taxpayers' money, and to achieve the right balance between spending and other means of school improvement.
Change will not be effected just through spending decisions, but by the creation of a system that puts more trust in the professionals who work in it. The Government believe that head teachers should have more of a say in how money is spent, and that teachers should have more say in what and how they teach their students. We believe that parents should have a real choice about what school to send their child to. Future spending must support those aims and ensure that money is directed where it is really needed, to pupils, school and staff. Finally, I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the matters in question to the attention of the House, and on the conscientiousness with which he has pursued his constituents' matters with the Department.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to raise the future of the Wedgwood museum. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) for joining me here, as well as the Minister, who has proved generous with his time and attention in this matter.
We are here to highlight one of the greatest cultural collections in England, and the threat to its future. On the southern edge of Stoke-on-Trent, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), stands a museum dedicated to
"The People Who Have Made Objects of Great Beauty from the Soils of Staffordshire."
In 2009, it won the £100,000 Art Fund prize for museums and galleries, and the judges praised it as a "brilliant snapshot", highlighting the marriage of art, design, manufacturing and commerce. However, today the museum is under threat from a legal quagmire more akin to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce than any rational museums policy. What is more, the principle at stake in the dissolution of the collection could have major, damaging repercussions for museums across the UK.
"I have often wish'd I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, & would now give twenty times the original value for such a collection. I am now, from thinking, and talking a little more upon this subject...resolv'd to make a beginning."
And so resolved, Wedgwood made a beginning on what is undoubtedly among the finest ceramics collections in the world, with some 8,000 objects on display, from black jasper Portland designs to bone china tea sets and Robert Adam-designed vases. The collection testifies both to Wedgwood's genius and the company's productivity.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree, given the context of the debate and his reference to Josiah Wedgwood, that this debate is part of a wider debate about ceramics and the culture of the Potteries, and about the importance of finding a long-term solution for the Wedgwood institute in Burslem?
Tristram Hunt: I absolutely agree. As I hope to point out, the interrelationship between the past and the present is enormously important, drawing on history not simply for archaic reasons but as an economic and cultural motor for the city of Stoke-on-Trent and the county of Staffordshire. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the collection is as much commercial as aesthetic. We see in the museum guides to earthenware and creamware, and to jasper and basalt production.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has only half an hour but, as I said in a message I left in his office, I would be grateful for the opportunity to make a short intervention on the subject. As he well knows, the museum, because of the configuration of boundaries, is actually in my constituency. I just wanted to say a few words.
Wedgwood died in 1795, but his descendants, the Wedgwood family, dedicated their collections to the museum right through the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, collections from the Wedgwood family were donated right up to the last few years. It was always done as an act of social philanthropy, in the belief that the collection would be preserved for all future generations, in perpetuity. Wedgwood stands very much in line with the thinking of the Secretary of State, who recently announced:
"Philanthropy is central to our vision of a thriving cultural sector",
"more individual acts of social responsibility".
However, the museum goes far beyond telling the extraordinary life of Wedgwood, the manufacturer, agitator, internationalist and salesman. It describes the advent of industrialisation, the nature of the English enlightenment and how the French revolution and the struggle against slavery reverberated throughout the UK. For me and some of my colleagues, one of the most inspiring parts of the collection is the series of medallions stating:
"Am I not a man and a brother",
The Wedgwood family and business have always had a keen sense of their place in history. The firm opened its first museum in 1906. By 1909, the museum catalogue was packed full of artefacts. In 1962 the family, with great prescience, aware that the Wedgwood family business was likely to go public, decided formally to separate the museum from the factory, specifically to prevent the museum from being used as a realisable asset by any future predator. Whatever financial difficulties were encountered by Wedgwood, any corporate owners could not sell the collection. Even in 2009, when Waterford Wedgwood entered administration, Deloitte, the administrator, could not touch the collection and sell it off to pay the many creditors.
The museum became a charitable trust in 1998, in order to secure funding for a new building to house the collection. The Heritage Lottery Fund generously contributed £5.86 million, resulting in a magnificent new museum which opened to the public in 2008, confident in the status of a charitable trust. Since then, unfortunately, an Alice in Wonderland legal situation of such absurdity has developed that it barely seems credible. In January 2009, Waterford Wedgwood, the pottery giant, went into administration. The company was bought by KPS, an American private equity firm, which managed to purchase the prize assets of Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Waterford without taking on board any of the £134 million pension liability of the Wedgwood group pension fund. This was the initial cause of the problem.
Pensions legislation, introduced initially in 2005 and amended in April 2008, now means that the museum, a small charitable trust, is being held responsible for the £134 million shortfall in the Wedgwood companies' pension plan, because five of the museum's staff are among the Wedgwood group pension fund's 7,000 members. We have the madness of a £60,000 pension liability being liable for £134 million of debts, with a priceless collection at risk. How can this be?
The museum staff are not employed by the insolvent Wedgwood firm, but by the entirely independent Wedgwood Museum Trust Ltd, a completely separate charitable company. The brand new museum, housing a 250-year-old collection, has not gone bankrupt, but it has gone into administration, because the Pension Protection Fund has made a claim on every penny of its assets.
To be fair to the PPF, it has acted intelligently through the process, as it seeks to find a solution. However, under the "last man standing" principle, the Wedgwood museum is still a solvent company: it is the last man standing, because five of its employees are in the same pension fund. The legislation might have had laudable aims in preventing large multinationals from hiding assets to reduce pension payouts, but somehow charities and trusts have fallen foul of its far-reaching tentacles.
In such a context, it is important to make it absolutely clear that even if the whole collection were sold, it would not meet even half the pension debt, and the 7,000 ex-employees would not receive any more pension income. The money would simply be swallowed up by the Pension Protection Fund. Loyal ex-Wedgwood employees know this and support our campaign to save the historic collection. They know from experience the hard work, craftsmanship and sheer excellence of design that went into producing many of the pieces in the collection. All the citizens of Stoke are immeasurably proud of the Wedgwood museum and will be devastated if it becomes a victim of poorly applied legislation and a pensions crisis.
Joan Walley: I simply want to put on record my thanks, and that of my constituents, to all those Wedgwood employees who, over the years, have made the collection what it is. It is absolutely essential that, when the Minister replies, he assures the people of Stoke-on-Trent that he will look at a plan B or at whatever is needed to ensure that we do not end up losing this most precious of museums.
The future of the Wedgwood museum collection now rests on a court decision expected in January-though it would be good to have some clarity on dates from the Minister-as to whether the collection is alienable. Former Wedgwood employees, local Stoke and Staffordshire enthusiasts, Wedgwood family members and leading historians, curators, artists and ceramicists are appalled by the situation. Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of the Royal College of Art, puts it well:
"If the court case goes against the museum it will not only be catastrophic for one of the finest museums in the country but blow a hole through all our assumptions about the inalienability of collections held by trusts."
The case could have major implications for other museum trusts across the UK. Which museum linked to a pension deficit of a local authority, university or company might be in difficulties after a poor judgment?
As ever, the Minister has listened attentively. We seek some commitment from the Government that they are doing more than simply watching this car crash take place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North asked, what are the Government's plans for the Wedgwood museum if the case goes against it? Do the Government have plans to amend legislation, to ensure that such a crazy outcome never befalls another museum? Will they put pressure on the Pension Protection Fund so that if the case goes against the museum, there will not be a quick-fire sale of historic assets?
The pottery industry of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent is far more than a museum piece, as last week's Ceramics 2010 exhibition proved. However, the industry values its heritage and continues to draw inspiration from the designs and craftsmanship that the Wedgwood museum embodies. It would be a monstrous act of cultural self-destruction and a betrayal of those very people who have made objects of great beauty from the soils of Staffordshire if the museum was allowed to collapse, and with it a vital component of the meaning and memory of the potteries.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this extremely important debate. It is important not only to the people of north Staffordshire but to people across the globe. This is an industry that is at the heart of the beauty and craftsmanship that goes on around the world. Does he think that it would be appropriate for the Minister to furnish the House of Commons Library with details of museums that may be in a similar position in future given that they, too, may have links with pension funds? That would enable us to know as soon as possible what other collections around the country may be at similar risk.
Tristram Hunt: That is a very good point. It would be interesting to know what other museums could be at the same risk as the Wedgwood museum. Some people believe that this is a one-off case, but knowing lawyers and judges as I do, that is rarely the case.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just a parochial issue for north Staffordshire? The Wedgwood museum is iconic for the whole industrial and cultural heritage of the country. Indeed, Wedgwood was one of the first global brands and is still one of our best-known names. Does he agree, therefore, that it would be sacrilege if it were forced to be sold or broken up as an unintended consequence of insolvency regulations relating to pension funds? If the case were to go against it in court-courts are bound by the law-it is vital that legislation be pushed through to tidy up these loose ends, because, at the end of the day, that is what the House of Commons is for.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is crazy for legislation to be applied in this context. It is right that this museum should be able to provide encouragement to the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent, which is beginning to export and innovate more and to
return to health, and that we have a Government who believe in manufacturing and growth outside the south-east. The museum is a good symbol of their commitment to a broader vision of a regional economy.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) for allowing me to speak. The previous Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central was Mr Mark Fisher, who was a great friend of mine.
I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he has conducted himself in this debate because the issue relates not only to the museum itself but to the whole question of how we address the anomalies that can arise when a piece of legislation unexpectedly hits a museum and our artistic heritage in such an unpredictable and, I believe, unintended manner. It almost provides a reason for contemplating the idea of retrospective legislation. It would be extremely rare to do that, but there are circumstances that can arise, such as money not being available. A court judgment, which no doubt follows the letter of the law, may have an unpredictable result, such as the destruction of something as important as this museum, in my constituency. I should like to pay tribute not only to the hon. Gentleman but to all the other hon. Members here. This is a very important debate, and I want to give the Minister plenty of time in which to reply.
I received a letter from the chairman of the trust a few days ago, for which I am grateful, expressing his concern and saying that the question of future legislation must be discussed with the Government, which we shall do. Let me add that the reference to the anti-slavery movement by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who is a distinguished historian, touched me because members of my own family were involved. In fact, Samuel Lucas and John Bright no doubt had meetings with the family over it all.
As for the future, we must resolve this matter. This is not just an aberration; it is something that must be resolved. I know from the useful letter that I received from the Minister only a few weeks ago that he himself is well apprised of that. He said:
"I too am concerned to protect the Wedgwood Collection and the award-winning Wedgwood Museum."
I know that he means what he says. I am quite sure that some means will be found to deal with the matter, perhaps using the National Heritage Memorial Fund. I drew up the first draft of the Bill in the 1970s for Denis Mahon and Arthur Jones when we had had an historic houses meeting. I drafted the Bill and, to all intents and purposes, that is the basis on which that fund now exists. It was to deal with war surplus and it is now being topped up. Before, it was just being allowed to become a wasting asset. I know that the Government now are committed to that fund and that there are also the lottery funds as well. There are all kinds of ways and means to address the matter. There is the prospect of legislation-perhaps even a private Member's Bill. I hesitate to suggest anything that has a "Downton Abbey" look about it, but to save the entail of Staffordshire, perhaps a private Member's Bill is appropriate.
I should also like to pay tribute to at least one member of the family who is here today. I pay tribute to the family and to the whole tradition of Wedgwood,
including its employees and others, such as Christopher Johnson, who have taken an active part and an intelligent interest in the manner in which a resolution can be achieved. Given the fact that the organisation is in a legal situation, the most that we can do is to find a way out of this impasse.
I should also like to pay tribute to Neil Cossons, who is a distinguished expert in heritage and who also worked with me in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in the 1970s. He has now gone on to so many great things. To have his support is tremendously important.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Hollobone. I know that you will go on to have a distinguished career as a Chairman of these kinds of debates, and in many other areas of the parliamentary process. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) on calling this debate to highlight the plight of the Wedgwood museum. It has been very enjoyable-I hesitate to use that word-to hear him set out the case for the Wedgwood museum in the forceful style to which many millions of television viewers have become accustomed. I also express my gratitude to the number of hon. Members who have attended and spoken in this debate. I refer to the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for his presence and the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly), who intervened. I pay tribute to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). We had not only a deep historical analysis of the importance of the Wedgwood collection, but, through my hon. Friend -he is one of our foremost and most distinguished constitutional lawyers-we were able to have a tour d'horizon of the legislative or constitutional solutions that might pertain to the future of the Wedgwood collection.
As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made clear, the Wedgwood collection is part of this country's history. I make no bones about that; it is probably one of the most important crafts collections and one of the most important historic collections in the country. It is an integral collection and, as the hon. Gentleman indicated in his speech, it has been more than 250 years in the making. It stands, as it were, at one end of the spectrum of the craft in which this country continues to thrive, a spectrum that ranges from the Wedgwood collection to the creation of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is the foremost museum of crafts in the world. Two years ago, the Wedgwood museum won the prestigious Art Fund prize and the Victoria & Albert Museum of course reopened its crafts galleries to huge acclaim.
It is absolutely clear from the remarks of hon. Members that have already been made during this debate and I hope that it will be absolutely clear from the remarks that I will make in concluding the debate that none of us would like to be in this position. We are almost, as it
were, walk-on parts in an obscure Dickensian novel, in which a complicated piece of legislation has the most dramatic and unintended consequences. Potentially, those consequences put one of the great cultural jewels of the nation under threat.
Nevertheless, as a Minister I cannot circumvent the law. At this stage, I must simply report to hon. Members what I believe to be the current position and then I can perhaps extrapolate from that position where we might go with a plan A, or indeed a plan B. So I want to update hon. Members on the progress on the case; I want to outline the Government's position; I want to set out what I believe could be the next steps to protect the museum and avoid the loss of the collection; and, as hon. Members have suggested, I also want to consider what we can learn from this case to ensure that other museums do not find themselves in a similar position in the future.
First, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Wedgwood museum went into administration in April this year after it was served with a substantial pension debt by the company that was set up to manage the Wedgwood Group pension plan. The trustees of the museum firmly believe that the museum's collection is held in special trust and should not be available to pay that debt. Therefore the administrator, together with the trustees of the museum, is preparing to make an application to court to clarify the status of the collection. That application will be made when certain administrative matters have been settled, which we are informed should be by the end of November. Then the administrator will be able to make a formal application to court. Although that application to court will be made as soon as is possible, the timing of the court hearing is not within the control of the museum or the administrator.
As the hon. Gentleman also indicated in his opening remarks, the museum is in the unfortunate position that it finds itself in because of its participation in a multi-employer pension scheme covering a number of employers in the Waterford Wedgwood Group. When the group went into administration in 2009, the museum found itself as the last remaining employer in that scheme. Therefore, the museum technically became responsible for a pension debt that, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, is in the region of £134 million. That pension debt or shortfall affects some 7,000 members of that pension scheme, including former employees of Wedgwood Ltd, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd and Stuart and Sons Ltd.
Due processes now need to be followed to establish what assets are potentially available, and the Wedgwood museum is not exempt from those processes. The pension scheme has now entered an assessment period for the Pension Protection Fund, the body that was put in place to ensure that pension scheme members receive a meaningful income in place of their pension, where an employer has become insolvent or where there are insufficient assets. However, the PPF has no control over the sale of the museum's assets.
We must follow the correct processes. If schemes such as the Wedgwood Group pension plan were to be admitted to the PPF without pursuing the debts owed to them, a greater burden would fall on pension schemes that pay the pension protection levy. That would then undermine the financial sustainability of the system and its ability
to serve its purpose. Unfortunately, as I have already indicated, in this case there is a view that the Wedgwood collection could be a potential asset.
The Charity Commission was asked to provide a view on whether the collection is held in permanent endowment or whether it is part of the charity's corporate property, which is available to creditors. The issue was considered at the very highest level by the Charity Commission. Despite the commission's sympathy for the museum and its recognition of the importance of the collection, it reached the conclusion that the museum's collection was not protected.
The commission cannot exercise any discretion in that decision and it must reach a conclusion based on the facts of the case and the law. However, it is a regulator and it can only reach a view on whether the collection is held in permanent endowment. The only body able to give a definitive ruling remains a court of law.
Given what is at stake here and the need for absolute certainty, the commission has confirmed that it would give consent for the museum to take court proceedings. The process of administration intervened before those court proceedings could commence.
Mr Cash: I just want to raise the question of equitable relief. I hope that the court, in its generosity, might be able to take account of matters of that kind, because of course this issue affects trusts.
Mr Vaizey: It has been a while since I studied trust law, but I am not quite sure on what grounds equitable relief would be available in these cases. However, I would defer to more senior counsel on that point.
I would like to return to what I was discussing before my hon. Friend's intervention, which is my Department's involvement in the issue of the future of the Wedgwood collection. The Department has worked closely with the museum's director and trustees, their legal advisers and the Charity Commission to assist in this matter. Under the last Government, the Department provided assistance to the Wedgwood museum, and since I have been in office I have also given as much assistance as I have been able to.
I will recap on the Department's involvement so far. First, the chairman of the museum approached the Department in October 2009 to ask for help in clarifying the status of the collection. Department officials set up a meeting with the Charity Commission, in which the commission agreed to review the museum's evidence. That led to the commission taking the view about the collection that it did.
More important, in January of this year the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council awarded a grant of £200,000 to the museum to support its legal costs. I
know that hon. Members will agree with me, particularly as it happened under the previous Government, that that was an important injection of financial support given the situation that the museum finds itself in. The Department also gave a one-off grant of £25,000 to support the museum's operational commitments.
As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central pointed out, the Heritage Lottery Fund had already generously funded a substantial proportion of the new museum, but since January of this year it has awarded a grant of £50,000 towards the museum's educational work with schools, its volunteers' programme and staff training, to enable the museum to meet the new challenges that it faces.
In July, I wrote to the new owners of the Wedgwood company to alert them to the museum's predicament and to emphasise the importance of the museum's collection. I am pleased to say that the museum now has a good relationship with the new owners of the Wedgwood company.
Throughout this time, my Department, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Charity Commission have all worked as closely as possible to support and advise the Wedgwood museum, and to try to plot a way forward. As a result of that work and the efforts of the museum's director and its excellent staff, the museum is still open to the public and receiving a steady flow of visitors. It has made strong partnerships with the local cultural and tourist industries, and it has a business plan in place to ensure that it can continue to operate if the courts should rule in its favour.
To sum up, I believe that my Department and its sponsored bodies have acted quickly and effectively to support the Wedgwood museum during the past year, when there have been two different Governments.
Tristram Hunt: I just want to ask whether the Minister will be having talks with the PPF. In particular, if the judgment goes against the museum and therefore its assets are considered liable, what is the space that the PPF has, in terms of giving time for raising money and for appeals, so that we do not have Sotheby's and Christie's crawling all over the collection on a Tuesday morning and so that we can work to save it?
Mr Vaizey: Let me continue with what I was going to say, because some of my points may address that issue. As I was going to say, we must await the outcome of the court case. However, I will happily discuss with the PPF what more needs to be done. In terms of a plan B, we have had discussions with two national museums about what should happen if there is a problem, and we will work for a solution that way-