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2 Nov 2010 : Column 220WH—continued

11.47 am

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this Westminster Hall debate. I thank the Minister for being here and for producing various briefings on the Postal Services Bill for my
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colleagues. The future of the post office network is close to my heart, not only because I am one of the vice-chairs of the all-party group on post offices, but because my rural constituents of Colne Valley, west Yorkshire, have suffered many post office closures in recent years. In fact, my parents lost their local branch in Holmbridge in the past couple of years.

We all know the crucial role post offices play in our local communities. It is sometimes only when they have gone that we really appreciate what they offered our communities. The role of the Meltham post office in my patch has become all the more important because the last bank branch has closed there this month, with Lloyds TSB pulling out. That leaves the post office branch with the only town centre cash machine, which is crucial.

I am very lucky because I live just a couple of hundred yards from a fabulous community post office in my village of Honley. I can tax my car there, get foreign currency, get my dry cleaning done, and I can even get tasty fresh olive bread-yes, even in west Yorkshire we get such lovely goodies. However, as we heard earlier, we cannot get everything done there. I cannot renew my TV licence and, although I can pay my Yorkshire Water bill, I would be penalised £2.50 for the transaction. The branch is also doing Santander bank work. It is handling bags full of coins and change from businesses and charities, which is a good service. However, for an hour's coin handling, the sub-postmaster tells me that they receive only about £1. That is hardly the basis for a stable business, so all is not well.

What can be done? The National Federation of SubPostmasters has identified several measures that could enhance the network. We heard about many such measures during the debate, and we will hear some more in the next 40 minutes. However, I will end my contribution with the thoughts of my local sub-postmaster, Brenda, who has been running the Honley branch for four and a half years. I called her last night while jotting down some notes. Please remember that it is her business and her family's livelihood.

She made three points. First, Government Departments, central and local, and including the Department for Work and Pensions, must make the Post Office their No. 1 facilitator of services-a point we heard earlier-and prioritise it ahead of telephone and online provision. Secondly, we must understand that post offices need to deliver more work to flourish. They are ideally placed to be the focal point of the big society. Thirdly, we must speculate to accumulate; we have already heard about the £1.3 billion of investment, which Brenda welcomes, but we need to invest now if we are to have a network for decades to come. Money from Royal Mail needs to be invested to bring the branches into the 21st century. Brenda highlighted the fact that that means basic equipment, such as proper scales, which they struggle without. We need to invest in that if we are to have an accessible network that makes sub-postmasters proud, so that in 10 years' time we will not need to put in the rural subsidy.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jason McCartney: I am afraid that I have almost finished. In summary, the Postal Services Bill signals a crossroads for the post office network. It is a great
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opportunity, and I hope that my colleagues in all parts of the Chamber will join me in fighting for a sustainable, long-term future for our post office network.

11.51 am

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I apologise for having to leave during the previous speaker's contribution, Mr Caton-it was probably the excitement of the previous debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this important and timely debate, which follows the Government's announcement last week.

I want to start by saying that I support the post office network, and I do so as a customer; I ensure that I pay all my bills across the counter at my local town post office. In doing so, I hope to set an example. As a Member, I ensure that all my office transactions are done in local post offices. As has been mentioned, it is wrong for Members to drive past post offices that are closing down and say, "Isn't it a crying shame?", before going to other outlets. We must lead by example in our communities if we are to keep our post offices.

The important business for post offices is not only from individuals, but from Government Departments and local government. The hon. Member for The Cotswolds rightly said that we need innovative business. One simple business transaction that local government could encourage council tax payers to undertake would be to pay their bills in local post offices. During the network change programme, I suggested that to my local council, because it was outraged that central Government were closing post offices. I challenged it simply to state on the notice that it sent to each household in my constituency that that service was available in post offices, but it refused to do so. Worse still, the chief executive said categorically that the council could save a lot of money by having people pay the bills electronically or in one-off payments.

I think that we are all in this together. We talk about the big society, and my Anglesey community has a big heart, but we do not need lectures on that from anyone. There needs to be interdependency and help from the public, private and third sectors, a point I will come to later. I opposed the network change programme's closures because it was too rigid and came from the centre. I wish that the Conservative Opposition at the time had said that they would put money into that, but they did not commit themselves in the last Parliament to put in the subsidy, which is why I did not support the Conservative motion. I abstained, and people who know me know that I do not do that very often; if I think something is right I will vote for it, and if I think something is wrong I will vote against it. It was wrong of the Conservatives not to commit themselves to the subsidy, but the new Government have said that they will commit additional money to help the post office network, and I support that. It would be churlish not to do so. I think that that is important and must be sustained.

Echoing the comments of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir), I am confused about the mutualisation programme. I support mutualisation. Indeed, I told the previous Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for the Post Office at the time that Royal Mail should be mutualised, because I believe that it is so special in the fabric of British society that it must be treated differently. It should be neither left to the laissez-faire approach
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and the free-for-all of the market, nor cushioned as it had been under previous management and Governments. I was told that mutualisation was the wrong model, but I do not think that Hooper looked at that model carefully enough. Welsh Water, for example, which operates in my constituency, is a not-for-profit organisation. It provides a universal, quality service in Wales, and all its profits are reinvested in the company for the benefit of the customers. That is the kind of model we need for Royal Mail. I hope that the Minister will give some details on the mutualisation for the post office network.

Ultimately, post offices are private businesses in the main. They are run by individuals who have invested their own hard cash, time and effort to provide a public service. They are private means. There are also the private subsidies from Government and, in the case of Wales and Scotland, a special diversification programme to help keep the businesses open, so there are three streams of investment to the post office business.

I wonder how the mutualisation will work and, if there is difficulty, how post offices will get help. There will be difficulty, because business is dropping as the pattern continues of people using mechanisation and electronic mail, which is taking over. There are big concerns, which I am sure the Minister will try to address, because it is important that people know now what will happen. I have friends who are postmen, sub-postmasters and in management, whom I work with, and they are all confused about that. We need clarity on that matter

Gregg McClymont: I want to add to something my hon. Friend has said. Our understanding from Post Office Ltd is that only about 4,000 of the 11,500 post offices now open are profitable. In addition to the public subsidy, Post Office Ltd cross-subsidises the loss-making post offices to the tune of £400 million. The Government subsidy is welcome, but we have to be clear that it really is an uphill task. Mutualisation will have to be tremendously successful to make up the shortfall for those 7,500 post offices.

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although it is not for me to answer on the Government's proposals. I would like to see something developed along the lines of the people's bank. I would like to see credit union activities in local communities, in which people will have a real say on what goes on.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning credit unions. Does he agree with me that one of the useful things that the Government could do with the subsidy they propose to put into post offices is support the back office integration that needs to happen and the technology that would allow post offices and credit unions to work together?

Albert Owen: I absolutely agree, and I think that a mutual, with its ethics, could do that. There is a way forward, but I am unsure of the detail at present, so I will not commit that that can be done in the proposals we have seen and in the form they have been given.

Other Members wish to speak, so I will conclude my remarks by referring to another issue that the National
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Federation of SubPostmasters has raised: the separation of the Post Office from Royal Mail, and the inter-business agreement. The hon. Member for Angus asked whether there is an international model that the Minister has in mind that is successful, and I would be grateful if the Minister responded. If we do away with a third of the business or privatise it, there is a risk that it will look at its shareholders as its main priority, rather than the post office network. Those are my concerns, and I am sure that the Minister will look to address them.

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

11.58 am

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I will make a short contribution, as I know that many Members wish to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate on an issue that is important for all our constituents. The two counties represented in my constituency were badly affected by the most recent round of post office closures. In the Yorkshire part, we lost post offices in Airmyn, Pollington and on Westfield avenue in Goole. Over in Lincolnshire, we lost them at Wrawby, West Butterwick and Eastoft. When my village of Airmyn lost its post office, we sadly also lost our village shop, so we are left with only our pub.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon): Does my hon. Friend agree that rural pubs offer an opportunity to protect and enhance the post office network? The Red Lion pub in my constituency recently submitted an application to offer the post office service, which I support, as it is probably a good opportunity to protect our service.

Andrew Percy: I do. As it happens, I was in a different Red Lion this past weekend, in Epworth-it is wonderful. There is an opportunity for pubs and other organisations to be used for outreach services. In fact, I was planning to speak about outreach in a couple of minutes.

The impact of post office closures, particularly on rural communities, cannot be overestimated. I do not believe that the previous Government fully appreciated the impact of losing services such as the village post office and shop.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Andrew Percy: I will give way to my near neighbour.

Julian Sturdy: My hon. Friend makes a good point about losing the local post office and shop. We had a similar case in Fulford in my constituency: the post office and shop were not viable, but together they are a viable concern and an important community facility. Once the post office goes, the local shop goes, and that is something that we have to remember.

Andrew Percy: I absolutely agree. I remember reading in local newspapers that my hon. Friend ran a campaign for the Fulford post office and delivered a petition to No. 10 Downing street. I know that he worked incredibly hard on that.

I want to say a couple of things about what local authorities can do to support the post office network. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made a
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point about that. One of my local councils in north Lincolnshire attempted two or three years ago to put into the council budget and local council policy the establishment of council terminals in every sub-post office so that residents could pay their bills and access council services and essential advice. All of that was costed and put into the budget proposals but, sadly, it was rejected by the Labour-run council, which missed a huge opportunity. I am sure there are plenty of examples around the country of missed opportunities to engage local authorities in doing what they should be doing, which is standing up for their rural areas as much as their urban areas, and supporting what we all accept is important. Everyone has fine words. They say that they support post offices, but actually doing something is a little harder sometimes.

Another point that I want to pick up on is rural broadband, where post offices could have a role. Several of my villages have no access to broadband and are unlikely to get it any time soon. I welcome the announcement about the additional funding that will be coming our way. There is the potential in some of our villages for post offices to help roll out a mobile broadband or satellite broadband network, but there must be structures in place to manage a local solution such as that. Perhaps the Government could give some consideration to it.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the back-door closure of post offices, which I raised in a debate last week? I am enormously grateful to the Minister for recognising the problem. He may be interested to know that, of the 2,406 audits that were done in 2009, 265 suspensions were held, and there were only two reinstatements after appeal. That very much reinforces the picture that suspensions are being used as a means of closing post offices, which I am sure we would all deprecate.

Andrew Percy: I absolutely agree. I join my hon. Friend in condemning that, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to his comments.

The additional funding is extremely welcome. In fact, it was publicised in my local paper just last weekend. I was out door-knocking this weekend in several villages, and quite a few people who had seen the article told me how grateful they are that the Government have finally committed to the post office network.

Will there be additional funding to extend outreach services where we have lost post offices? We lost several post offices, which were replaced with outreach. Unfortunately, the outreach services are often available for only two or three hours a week during the middle of the working day. For people such as myself in my village, it is utterly impossible to use those services. Perhaps we could have a bit more information on whether outreach services will benefit from the subsidy.

We all have a responsibility to support the post office network and Royal Mail in general. During my four years of campaigning, I used Royal Mail for all my deliveries-my opponent sadly did not. When we tax our cars, we can lead by example; we can use Royal Mail and support our post offices. As I said, words are easy but actions are sometimes a little harder, but we all have a role to play in our communities.

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Several hon. Members rose-

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. The previous Chairman indicated that the winding-up speeches would start at 10 past 12. Realistically, we will have time for only two more speakers, so I intend to call Gregg McClymont followed by Lorely Burt. I ask that they each speak for three minutes.

12.4 pm

Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I shall speak even more briefly than that.

I spoke on Second Reading and have had conversations and briefings with the Minister. All politics is local, so it is understandable that we have heard a great deal today about local post office branches; in villages, in particular, they are a lifeline. However, I want to raise the broader picture and speak a little about how the Postal Services Bill is drafted.

I said in an intervention that statutory provision for post offices should be written into the Bill. At the moment, it is unclear what mutualisation actually means, but however well it proceeds we have a big problem, because 7,500 post offices do not make a profit. The two most successful mail services in the world are the German and Dutch services. In both those countries, provision for post office services is written into statute. I reiterate the point that however worthy the good intentions of the Government and Members on both sides of the House in respect of the Bill, unless we make provision in it for post office numbers, given the economics of Royal Mail and the Post Office, we are looking at significant closures down the line.

The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) made a valid point about allowing managers to manage, but given the economics of the Royal Mail and post offices, even wonderful managers will have a difficult task protecting the 7,500 post offices that do not make a profit.

Mr Binley: Recognising that most of our small post offices are private businesses, is the hon. Gentleman willing to subsidise private businesses and, if so, to what extent?

Gregg McClymont: I am tempted to produce a line from the Leader of the Opposition: I understand that I ask the questions and the Government answer them. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given the logic of the economics of the post office network and Royal Mail, it is difficult to see how to protect the 11,500 post offices we currently have unless we write into the Bill provision to protect them? That is the key point.

Mr Binley: There is an easy way to do that: help post offices with marketing, a proper retailing policy and a wider range of services to sell. It is all there to do, but it has not been done effectively.

Gregg McClymont: I admire the hon. Gentleman's confidence and enthusiasm. We hear a great deal-understandably-from Government Members about the Labour Government closing 5,000 post offices, but that Government's criteria meant that we have maintained 11,500 although only 4,000 are profitable. I say in all
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sincerity that unless we write into the Bill provision to protect the number of post offices we have now, we will see post office closures down the line, and that is something that everyone in the House would deprecate. I ask the Minister whether he will put that provision in the Bill.

My final point is about the universal service. I understand that the first universal service order that Ofcom will make as the regulator will not require parliamentary assent. When Ofcom makes its universal service order we will not be able to say that we do not accept it. That is important.

12.8 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): For the past 10 years, we watched the near desecration of the post office network under the Labour Government, who presided over a subsidised decline of the post office. Well, things will change radically. I very much look forward to the statement that I believe is coming tomorrow. There will be no closure programme under this Government.

Simon Danczuk: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lorely Burt: No, I am sorry, but I have only two minutes.

There will be more services and more potential. I greatly welcome separation from the Royal Mail. It will give the Post Office much more say in its own affairs; it will no longer be a junior partner. Can we build into the Postal Services Bill provision for the Secretary of State to seek a review of the access criteria, subject to parliamentary approval? There is concern about that.

I would like to know a little more about what conditions need to be in place before mutualisation can happen.

Simon Danczuk: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lorely Burt: No, I am sorry, but I have no time.

On funding, it is absolutely brilliant that we will have the £1.3 billion which, at last, will give the Post Office the boost that it needs. The most important thing is that it will enable the Post Office to move into the 21st century. We have already been told a little about essentials, and we are really looking forward to bringing down the barriers that have been created by previous Governments, so that we can open up the Post Office to the sort of thing that it is very capable of doing. Government work, new mail services-including local collection and drop-off-the Post Office bank, which was mentioned by Members earlier, access to all the major high street banks and benefit changes are all things that the Post Office is well equipped to do, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister outlining in the statement tomorrow exactly what can be done.

12.10 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for the Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing the debate. It is clear from the turnout and the speeches that hon. Members on both sides of the House have high regard for the post office network.

Our post office network is much more than a network of businesses. Post offices are the lifeblood of our communities and an essential part of our social network. For many people, particularly those who do not have
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bank accounts or access to the internet, they are the only means of accessing services, withdrawing pensions and paying bills. We all know sub-postmasters who frequently go that extra mile, those who will notice that Mrs Jones has not turned up to collect her pension and will make discreet inquiries to see if anything is amiss.

When we were in government, we established access criteria for the first time, in recognition of the business and social importance of the post office network. The access criteria developed by the Labour Government ensured that 99% of people living in deprived urban areas, and 90% of people nationally, would be within one mile of a post office. That is extremely important, because it provides the access that some of the most vulnerable in our society need. We then put in money to keep open 11,500 post offices, whereas a purely commercial network would have been reduced to some 4,000. We put in £150 million per year up to 2011 to subsidise that network, with an increase to £180 million for 2011-12. We welcome the recent Government announcement that there will be continued support for post offices.

Anyone who runs a business knows that it is necessary to be constantly prepared to change and adapt. Post offices need to attract new customers, and offer new products to existing customers. Sub-postmasters retire and new people come in. When someone first decides to take over the running of a local post office, they need to know that their business will be viable. When sub-postmasters retire, they sometimes decide to keep the premises as their home. That means that newcomers have not only to identify premises and find the funds to start up, but also find the funds to install the counters and facilities to meet post office requirements. To make that sort of commitment they need the confidence that they can make a go of it, and absolutely fundamental to that confidence is the inter-business agreement with Royal Mail. That is why the National Federation of SubPostmasters wants the guarantee of a minimum 10-year agreement signed and sealed between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. Anything less would be a betrayal. It would be a death sentence hanging over all but the busiest of our post offices.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I share the hon. Lady's concern about the impact on business start-ups and business innovation. I represent a very rural constituency, and one thing that we have seen over recent years is new businesses springing up and using the internet to sell goods further afield than the isolated rural areas in which they are based. I am very concerned that the loss both of the universal service commitment and of post offices is inhibiting business growth. That will absolutely undermine existing small businesses and disincentivise new ones, not only in the post office network but in the wider rural economy.

Nia Griffith: Indeed. The hon. Lady makes reference to the important role of post offices in rural communities, but those very post offices are the ones that would be most threatened if the inter-business agreement were not in place. It is absolutely vital, as the National Federation of Sub-postmasters suggests, that we have some sort of 10-year agreement to guarantee that business.

Proceeding to privatise Royal Mail without such guarantees for Post Office Ltd would also call into question the wisdom of investing considerable sums of
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taxpayers' money in a business that had no chance of being viable-a bit like redecorating flood-prone properties without shoring up the flood defences. It is not sufficient for there to be vague assurances and assumptions that somehow Royal Mail would automatically choose Post Office Ltd for its counter services. No astute business person would be satisfied with anything less than protection through written contracts and legislation. The Postal Services Bill does not provide that protection, and the Opposition will be tabling amendments that would provide Post Office Ltd with the necessary certainty that a privatised Royal Mail will continue to use the post office network for its counter services.

It is very worrying to hear the National Federation of SubPostmasters report that the Government are very resistant to its requests for the guarantee of a 10-year agreement. That is no way to treat sub-postmasters who have invested considerable sums of their own money in the local post office network, and it will certainly not encourage new entrants to take over when sub-postmasters retire. That is one area in which the Government can, and should, take action to safeguard the third of Post Office income that derives from Royal Mail.

Furthermore, one in seven rural post offices provides premises, facilities and supervision for Royal Mail delivery staff. Sub-postmasters running the 900 mail-work post offices are paid according to the number of postmen and women they supervise. That pay is frequently about 25% of the income of such post offices. They need a guarantee that the income will continue. There is no guarantee that a privatised Royal Mail, quite possibly owned by foreign interests, would honour or renew the inter-business agreement, and without determined Government action in that respect post offices will lose their core business.

In addition, we need to know what other specific proposals the Government have to increase footfall in our post office network. As I have said, all businesses need to attract new customers and identify new services that will interest their customers. One notable success story is that post offices have become major suppliers of foreign currency.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con) : The hon. Lady is setting out a fantastic case as to why the post office network is vital, so will she briefly explain why her Government closed down 7,000 branches?

Nia Griffith: I have just explained why we put in money to ensure that 7,500 branches, in addition to the 4,000 commercially viable ones, were in fact kept open. The crucial issue we all have to address, and on which we need answers from the Minister, is how to make those post offices viable so that, in the words of some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues, the subsidy is not needed for ever and at the end of the day there is a viable business that can survive, and provide the network that we all want.

Jesse Norman rose-

Nia Griffith: May I finish, please?

The Labour Government undertook to develop a successor to the Post Office card account, and the contract was awarded to the Post Office. We need specific details from this Government about their vision for
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such accounts and how their scope could be broadened. We also prepared the way for increasing the range of banking services to be made available through local post offices. Hon. Members might remember that we instigated a consultation, and they might have encouraged their constituents to take part in that last February, and to respond to a survey about the type of banking services they would like to be able to access at their local post office. How do the Government intend to take forward that work, and what specific plans do they have to extend and promote banking services through the post office network? It is not simply a question of making services available at post offices; we cannot turn the clocks back.

In some areas, as few as 7% of women over the age of 65 in lower-income groups have regular access to the internet, but that figure rises to almost 100% among younger men on middle and high incomes, many of whom want and expect to be able to access services online. They are likely, for example, to renew their driving licences at the click of a mouse, rather than in their local post office, even when they might physically call in to the shop that houses the post office to buy snacks or drinks, or to rent a DVD.

In terms of the sub-postmasters' vision of an enhanced role for post offices as the front-line provider of an expanded range of Government services, what specific plans do the Government have to make that happen? Fine words and lofty aspirations are not enough. Even the straightforward availability of services might not in itself be sufficient. Even the plentiful good will towards post offices that exists in our communities is unlikely, on its own, to increase footfall. How exactly do the Government plan to turn that vision into a queue of real people choosing to carry out business transactions at post office counters?

Local councils can also play a role, but some councils have not always been supportive of the post office network. For example, a couple of years ago, we found hidden away in the small print on the back of council tax demands from my county council plans to cease accepting payments via the post office network. I persuaded councillors to allow representatives of local sub-postmasters to address the full council, and those plans were dropped.

To sum up, we want to hear specifics from the Minister. We want an explicit commitment to protect the inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd and to hear specific plans for increased Government use of post offices and developing more business for them. I look forward to hearing the Minister's answers.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): The debate has been extremely good; I counted at least 26 Members present during our discussion. We heard passionate defences of the services that many of our constituents enjoy up and down our country, and I want to reply to as much of the debate as possible, although I will be making a statement in the very near future-but not tomorrow; I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). We will publish our policy statement soon, and I hope that hon. Members will enjoy reading it and questioning me and other Ministers as we go through the Postal Services Bill over the next few weeks and, possibly, months.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on his exemplary speech. He started by praising the Government, which is always a good beginning. It would have been even better if, with a Norfolk accent, he had burst into song like the postman; nevertheless, he talked cogently about the issues in his constituency and showed what a fine constituency MP he is. He has campaigned for his constituents, particularly for the local post offices in Stratton and the Beeches, and, although they were closed, he is still campaigning and working with local sub-postmasters and councils on putting forward a report to Post Office Ltd. His remarks about the importance of outreach services and their potential were well made.

Even before the debate, the hon. Gentleman scored a major victory because he got a review for those post offices and the potential for reopening them. He is meeting Post Office Ltd management shortly, and I wish him luck. He will understand that through legislation and Government practice over time, Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail operate at arm's length, so it would be wrong for a Minister to instruct Post Office Ltd to meet his demands in detail, but he has already made a powerful case. I am sure that he will be listened to closely.

The hon. Members for Angus (Mr Weir) and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), among others, raised our plans for mutualisation. There is a little confusion, so I am grateful for the opportunity to put it right. The proposals in the Bill focus on Post Office Ltd-the national organisation that holds everything from the intellectual property, to the brand, the contracts, the discipline codes and so on. We are proposing that it could become a mutualised organisation in due course, if the network became more financially viable through our other plans. Let us be clear: that would mean an organisation that could be owned and run by sub-postmasters, post office employees and communities.

How are we approaching that? Because we need a number of years for our policies to take effect, it will be some time before we can be sure that the post office network is completely viable, but I hope that in the lifetime of this Parliament we can move towards mutualisation. We want a real debate, so I welcome the contributions that we have had. We have already had a pamphlet from Mutuo discussing the possibilities of mutualisation. The Government have asked Co-operatives UK to consult widely, not only within post offices, but in the co-operative movement and other mutualised organisations with expertise in the area. We asked it to do that because Government do not run co-operative and mutual organisations. This is not about Government imposing a structure; if the process is to be successful, it must be organic, which is why we are keen for the first big consultation on it to be led from outside Government.

Of course, Government must take responsibility, and once we have had the response to the Co-operatives UK-led consultation, we will hold a national consultation, which I expect to start some time after the Postal Services Bill receives Royal Assent. Members of the wider public can then be involved in the consultation. That will prepare the ground and the details, so when we have a financially viable post office network, or a
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network that is on train to becoming financially viable, the mutualisation option will become real. That is not to say that individual post offices cannot be mutualised.

As hon. Members know, individual post offices are often single, sub-postmaster-run, privately owned businesses. Some are chains run by different agents-such as WH Smith -and some already operate on a mutual basis, either as community mutuals, and we have heard examples of those, or through mutual organisations such as Co-operatives UK. Mutualisation already exists locally, and I think that more than 1,000 post offices are already run in that way. We are talking about mutualising the national organisation, which will improve the incentive structure by aligning the incentives for local sub-postmasters at community level with the incentives of the national organisation.

I hope that is a full answer. I am grateful for the opportunity to put it on record.

Albert Owen: There is a social enterprise in my constituency. That would be straightforward-a mutual could work with a mutual-but how would a private business that is investing retain its assets? Would that company have to go mutual to have a relationship with Post Office Ltd in its new form?

Mr Davey: No, it would remain a private organisation, but it would have a share in the mutual organisation, which would give it contracts and so on. In no way would we take assets from individual private entrepreneurs who have set up post offices and run them for years. That would be wrong.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: In the little time that the Minister has left, will he concentrate on how the £1.34 billion investment will be put into the Post Office network to strengthen branches? Will he give us a flavour of how many branches he envisages the post office having? I have been through the bruising process of losing 12 post offices. Having heard from hon. Members around the Chamber this morning what a terrible problem there is when a post office closes, what is his vision for the future and the number of branches?

Mr Davey: I will disappoint my hon. Friend because to answer him would be getting ahead of the statement that we have to make. It will deal with how we want to spend the £1.34 billion and the detailed business case that Post Office Ltd developed. It was not done on the back of a fag packet, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) said. Given the amount of detail in the business plan for spending the £1.34 billion, it would have to be a very large fag packet. In the statement, we will also flesh out our vision for the future of the post office network.

I shall try to deal with some of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk was incredibly critical of the Government. He failed to point out that five post offices in his constituency closed during the previous Government's closure programmes. If he had done that, we might have listened to him with a little more attention. He and the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Gregg McClymont) commented on the need to write into legislation the number of post offices there must be in Great Britain. I looked at the Postal Services
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Act 2000 and the previous Government's 2009 Postal Services Bill, to see what their proposals were. Do you know what, Mr Hollobone? The previous Government made no such proposals at all. No sensible Government would tie down private business in knots of legislation, and we should remember that private businesses run 97% of post offices. Frankly, that sort of approach goes back to old socialist regulation and is not how to modernise the post office network and make it more commercially viable.

Nia Griffith: The Minister must realise that clause 3 of our Bill said that the organisation would be publicly owned. That is the difference. If Royal Mail is in majority public ownership, a great deal more can be done to control those details than if the entire business were sold into private-possibly foreign-hands. That is the key difference between our proposals and those in the current Postal Services Bill. I hope that the Minister can answer the sub-postmasters and sub-mistresses who are worried about the viability of their businesses because they cannot see an agreement in the legislation.

Mr Davey: Again, the hon. Lady shows that her party does not understand business and certainly does not understand the post office network. The previous Government did not write the inter-business agreement between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, and nor should they have; it was an agreement between two separate organisations.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. That was an enjoyable debate. I ask all those who were taking part to leave quickly and quietly. We are now moving on to a debate on the education maintenance allowance.

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Education Maintenance Allowance

12.30 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): This is my first opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I look forward to it and wish you well on the Panel of Chairs. I am grateful to have secured this debate, and for the opportunity to exchange views with the Minister. I look forward to hearing his opinions on the wider issues that I shall raise.

I would like to discuss the education maintenance allowance and the effect that axing the scheme will have on those young people and families who rely on it. Even though I am a Scottish MP, and the EMA was first attacked by the tartan Tories-the SNP-I fight for the rights of young people as a UK MP.

During the previous Parliament, I secured an Adjournment debate on 2 February this year. If hon. Members want a good example of the differences between the previous Government and the current Government, they should look at the policy on the EMA. Last time I spoke, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), committed the Labour Government to maintaining the EMA in its current form until 2011 and beyond. Many of the young people who contacted me following that debate with their support and thanks will feel disappointed by politics and by having their fears and hopes raised and then crushed in a matter of months. Let there be no mistake-that is what happened.

I will give an example from the campaign that I support. Since the announcement to abolish the EMA was made in the comprehensive spending review, many young people have posted comments on the website I was struck by comments such as this one from Nick:

Alex said:

It is obvious from comments left on the website that the families of pupils who receive the EMA will also suffer. Ms Robson states:

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be tens of thousands of students across the country from low-income families who will be anxious about their future chances of going to college aged 16 if no allowance is forthcoming? Worse still, they will find themselves seeking work without the benefit of the future jobs fund, which has also been axed by the Government.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will go on to talk about such people in detail. In my speech, I will refute the Government's reasoning for scrapping the scheme, and shed light on the path they have taken to arrive at their position. Let me give a brief
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explanation for those in the Chamber who may be unaware of the EMA and why it is such an essential part of further educational support.

The EMA is a means-tested allowance of £10, £20 or £30. It is paid to 16 to 19-year-olds who stay in education and come from families where the annual household income is below £30,810. The top rate of EMA payment is £30, which requires the student to come from a family where household income is below £20,810. Some 80% of all recipients are on that top rate of £30.

The EMA was introduced nationally in September 2004 in order to reduce the country's post-16 drop-out rate, which was one of the worst in the developed world at that time. The policy intent of the EMA is to broaden participation and improve the retention and attainment of young people aged 16 to 19 in post-compulsory education. The EMA is already strictly means-tested, so tightening the eligibility criteria further will only harm already disadvantaged young people. The scheme is close to my heart because it is based on providing a platform for poor families so that economic barriers will no longer stand in their way to getting an education and getting on in life.

I expect the Minister to say that the EMA is not being axed but rather "replaced." However, if we turn to page 42 of the comprehensive spending review, we see that the so-called "saving" from replacing EMA is £500 million from a £550 million budget. It is not necessary to be Einstein or to have a university degree to realise that removing 90% of the budget of any scheme means effectively axing it, or severely undermining its implementation. I say to the Minister: do not insult my intelligence or that of our young people, and be honest.

The Government will tell us that there is a dead weight to the scheme and that according to a poll, only 10% of people say that they need the EMA. However, that argument barely stands up to closer examination. First, that was the only research on which the Government based their decision, despite the weight of widely available evidence showing that the EMA works. One example of how bad that research was is the fact that the Government poll was carried out on school pupils instead of college students. As we know, those still in school are in receipt of free school meals and free travel, as well as a uniform allowance and the full measures afforded to school pupils. In contrast, the National Union of Students conducted a poll this year looking at actual recipients of the EMA in college. Almost 60% of those students said that they would not be able to continue in education without the EMA.

Let us take the Minister's argument to its natural conclusion. His research suggests that 10% of students would be affected, which equates to over 60,000 of the poorest teenagers in this country-the sort of numbers mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). Does the Minister feel that that is a price worth paying?

For a long time, many supporters of the Conservative party have argued that the scheme is a waste of money and that the allowance is misspent by those receiving it. Before last week, the Conservative party, the Secretary of State for Education and the Prime Minister all said that they would support the EMA. In March, the Secretary of State told The Guardian:

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It is not only the Secretary of State who has said one thing in opposition and another in government. In January this year, the Prime Minster, then leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, told the Save EMA campaign in an ironically named "Cameron Direct" event in Hammersmith that he supported the EMA. That was after he had refused to give a straight answer on the EMA in an interview with Sky in 2007, so I was pleased to hear that he had seen the light and was supporting the EMA.

A couple of weeks ago, however, we had the announcement on page 42 of the CSR about axing the EMA. It is safe to say that the Prime Minister's support did not last long. I hope for the Minister's sake that the Prime Minster does not offer the same level of support for him as he did for the EMA, or the Minister will be out of a job by Easter-then again, perhaps I do hope that.

On a serious note, I do not ignore the fact that there may have been some fraudulent claims, just as there are those who claim other benefits fraudulently or who avoid paying tax by using offshore bank accounts. I despise fraud whether it is by Tory grandees or benefit scroungers. However, if EMA fraud follows the levels of other benefit fraud, we are looking at a meagre 1%. It seems draconian to axe an entire scheme because of the actions of such a minority; it is tantamount to cutting off the head to cure a cold.

I hope that the Minister does not try to link the end of the scheme with the deficit, because that would show a lack of economic competence on his part. First, if he is telling me that taking money out of the pockets of the poorest teenagers in the country is our salvation, we are beyond redemption. Secondly, it makes very bad long-term economic sense to do that, because according to the Treasury, by 2020 the number of unskilled jobs will be half what it is today, meaning that more unskilled people will be fighting for even fewer jobs. I would be interested to know whether the Minister denies that.

Lastly, we need more people in employment. With rising youth unemployment, the decision we are discussing will swell an area that does not need increasing any further. What is more, as the Directgov website page for EMA clearly points out, for every extra skill and qualification that someone earns, they are £3,000 a year better off. Research by the Office for National Statistics shows that people without the minimum set of qualifications earn on average £55 a week less. I am sure the Minister will agree with me that paying people £30 a week in the short term so they can earn £55 a week more in the long term will help us not only to upskill our work force, but to pay down the deficit faster.

A 2009 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that only 17% of employers were planning to recruit from the pool of 16-year-olds leaving school, and that only one third of employers planned to recruit those leaving school at 18. We know that being unemployed for more than 12 months under the age of 23 has a hugely negative impact on a person's future, causing a permanent scar of disadvantage. Those who have experienced long periods of unemployment in their youth will suffer sizeable wage penalties well into their 40s.

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There has been talk that the Government plan to budget for EMA at local authority level. That concerns me greatly. With no ring-fencing of council spend, how will that be achieved?

The best thing about EMA is that it ensures parity of payments throughout the country. Let us take, for example, someone under 18 who is a care leaver. As payments controlled by local authority children's or leaving care services vary, young care leavers could fall victim to a postcode lottery of support. A care leaver living in Croydon in south London, where almost 5,000 young people are on EMA, could receive less than someone in Richmond upon Thames, which is only a bus ride away but has only 900 young people on EMA, as there is less demand locally and it has a bigger budget to go round.

The evidence speaks for itself on why we should save EMA. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that attainment at GCSE and A-level by EMA recipients has risen by 40% since its introduction, and by even more for those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods.

In addition, RCU market research services carried out research on the national scheme and published in 2007 a report called "Evaluation of the EMA National Roll-out", which concluded:

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. As a Conservative, I am a fan of EMA; 65% of students in my constituency going to Nelson and Colne college receive EMA. The Government are not scrapping EMA; they are simply replacing it with more targeted support. Surely that is a sensible and credible step in clearing up the worst public sector deficit in the G20, which was bequeathed to them by the hon. Gentleman's party.

John Robertson: I did not see, but the hon. Gentleman must have come into the Chamber late, because he obviously has not listened to my speech and has not read the CSR. I point him to page 42 of that document; he obviously was not listening.

Andrew Stephenson: I've been here for two hours.

John Robertson: If the hon. Gentleman was here, how sad.

As we can see, the scheme is widely recognised by independent authorities as a success, and the arguments by those opposed to the scheme are easily silenced.

The Minister will be aware that the EMA scheme is devolved and each Administration have their own policy responsibility for EMA. The Scottish National party Administration in Scotland have been as inconsiderate as this one when it comes to protecting students from low-income families during the recession. They cut the £10 and £20 payment scheme and lowered the threshold for the top rate of £30 to below £19,000, despite warnings from NUS Scotland that that could lead to about 8,000 students dropping out this year alone. This year, EMA for my constituency of Glasgow North West has been cut by 20%.

However, figures released by the Scottish Government last year show that the old system, developed under Labour, was successful. The figures showed an increase
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in uptake on previous years and that the allowance helped school pupils from low-income families to stay on in education, just as it was planned to do.

I know that the Minister has no responsibility for the administration of EMA in Scotland, but I use that as an example of what will happen if support is removed from students on EMA. That view is supported by the National Union of Students for Scotland, as well as by many education experts and independent think-tanks.

The Minister should also take into consideration those living independently at an early age, who may need particular support. Lack of access to financial support may be one of the main barriers to participation in education. There are some key barriers: course fees; travel expenses; the cost of food and other essential items; costs associated with the course or placement, such as equipment; and a lack of comprehensive advice and guidance for young people on their entitlement to benefits.

For example, a young person aged from 16 to 18 is far more likely to be independent of their family than younger students, and as such to require more support to enable them to participate in learning. For those living with families on a low income, the overall impact on the family finances should be considered. In some instances, young people have been discouraged from taking part in education. Economic barriers should not be part of someone's choice about whether to stay on in education.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, particularly in communities where education is not highly valued, the EMA has played a fantastic role in allowing young people to make for themselves the decision to stay on in education? That is particularly the case for girls and young women, whose families often see no purpose in their girls continuing in education. The EMA has played a very valuable role in ensuring that those young people can stay on in education.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is absolutely right. That is why I have tried on several occasions to secure a Westminster Hall debate on this subject. We must raise the issue of the plight of people who need extra help in education. At the end of the day, education is the doorway to their future. If we take EMA away from them and do not give them that opportunity, we are destined to repeat the class system of history, and I do not want that.

I shall put to the Minister one of the comments on the Save EMA website. Cassie Campbell says:

In conclusion, I have to ask the following questions. Does the Minister agree with me that because of the importance of EMA to students from low-income families, it should be supported beyond 2011? What will replace EMA and how can we ensure that it reaches the young people who need it, no matter where they live? What assessment have the Government made of the cumulative impact of cuts on young people aged 16 to 25? How many students have the Government estimated will no longer be able to afford to continue studying under their plans to administer student support with 90% less funding? How does the Minister believe that young people should
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fund their transport to and from college once EMA has been abolished and local authorities have withdrawn subsidised travel passes? Considering the number of students, particularly those from a wider range of backgrounds, who have EMA to thank for their being at university today, have the Government given up on widening participation in higher education altogether?

People put honesty, loyalty and trust at the top of their agenda. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have failed those tests. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and seeing whether he, too, fails those tests.

12.49 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing the debate? I know that he is passionate about the issue-as he said in his opening remarks, education maintenance allowances are close to his heart.

I share the hon. Gentleman's desire to see more young people, from lower income households in particular, staying on in education and gaining the qualifications they need to contribute to and enjoy the culture of our country and to obtain good employment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the main priorities for the Government is to ensure that our education system is on a par with the best in the world. We want our schools and colleges to prepare their students for success. We will continue to provide support for the most vulnerable young people, so that they can stay on in education.

I acknowledge that the evidence from the EMA pilots shows that the EMA was successful in its early days at encouraging young people to stay on in education. The decision to end the scheme will be disappointing to many young people, in particular to those from the website whom the hon. Gentleman cited in his opening remarks: Nick; Alex, who said that without it he would have "no education" and "no future"; and Cassie Campbell, whom he cited towards the end of his speech and who said that without the EMA she would have to drop out. I will come to that point later in my comments, when I say that they will not have to drop out of education as a consequence of this decision.

We are, today, in a different world. Already, 96% of 16-year-olds and 94% of 17-year-olds participate in education, employment or training. Attitudes to staying on in education post-16 have changed. We are committed to going further still, to full participation for all young people up to the age of 18 by 2015. However, a payment designed as an incentive to stay on is no longer the right way to ensure that those facing real financial barriers to continuing their education get the support that they need. We need to look again at the most effective way of supporting the most vulnerable young people to stay on in education.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): As the Minister might well know, I was the principal of a sixth-form college until fairly recently. I can say from personal experience that the EMA has supported widening participation, the raising of aspiration and greater attainment among young people from a wide range of backgrounds. The
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EMA has certainly underpinned those developments-it is not an incentive, but an underpinning of continuing in further education. The Minister would be foolish to move away from his statements of only June this year, when he gave assurances that EMAs would continue into the future.

Mr Gibb: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. There is evidence that EMAs have helped a small number of young people to stay on in education. However, that same evidence suggests that the scheme has a significant deadweight cost. Indeed, pilot evidence throughout the scheme, and more recent research, to which the hon. Member for Glasgow North West referred, from the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that almost 90% of young people receiving the EMA believed that they would still have participated in the courses they were doing if they had not received it.

The fact is, the EMA is a hugely expensive programme, costing more than £560 million a year, with costs of administration amounting to £36 million, but impacting on the participation of only around 10% of the young people who receive support. In effect, the taxpayer has been paying £9,300 for every extra young person who has stayed in education due to EMA. Most of the young people who receive the EMA would have made the same choices and achieved the same qualifications without it.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): The research quoted by the Minister has been questioned by other research, some of which has shown that the EMA has increased participation. My point is that it is not just about either/or, and whether the children or youngsters go into education, but it is about supplementing poorer families' incomes so that they are encouraged to stay in education. It is not whether they go into it, it is helping them a little-with some cash-so that they stay in education.

Mr Gibb: Again, I shall come to that point in just a moment.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West talked about how successful the EMA has been. I have acknowledged some important positive impacts, but it is also important to look at where the EMA has been less successful. That will help us to develop something that is fairer, more responsive to individual need and more efficiently targeted. Many young people and their parents think that the EMA is unfair and have told me that many people who receive it do not need it, and that some who do need it-the point made by the hon. Gentleman-are not able to claim it.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The young people in north Lincolnshire certainly needed all the support that they could get when the Labour council put their bus passes up by 500%. It is important that we target support in the right area.

I used to teach in a private school-only for a short period-where there were parents who were paying fees but whose children were still accessing the EMA. I am a big supporter of the EMA and of support for young people, but it is important that that support goes to the people who most need it, rather than through the somewhat scattergun approach we have seen.

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Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that some people have seen the EMA as an additional welfare benefit-the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)-but it is important to clarify that the EMA has never been a support benefit. It was introduced by the previous Government to incentivise young people to stay in post-compulsory education. It has always been paid in addition to welfare payments. The Government have protected support for families with the lowest incomes and we will continue to support the most vulnerable while ensuring that all sections of society that are able to contribute to the deficit reduction do so. The withdrawal of child benefit from higher rate taxpayers, which will save £2.5 billion a year by the end of the review period, will ensure that people on lower incomes are not subsidising those who are better off.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gibb: I will not give way to the hon. Lady, because I am running out of time and I want to get to this point: child benefit for families without a higher rate taxpayer will be maintained and will be paid for children up to the age of 19 if they are in full-time education. The Government will use some of the savings from child benefit to help fund significant, above-indexation increases in child tax credit, which will be worth something like £30 in 2011-12 and £50 in 2012-13. That is in addition to the increases announced in the Budget: £150 in a year for 2011-12 and £60 in 2012-13.

I can also assure the hon. Member for Glasgow North West that none of us wants any young person to drop out of education because of financial difficulty. However, we cannot justify continuing to fund a programme that is so expensive, unresponsive and poorly targeted. Instead, we will introduce an enhanced discretionary learner support fund.

Currently, £25 million a year is given to schools, colleges and training providers through a discretionary learner support fund, to enable small payments to young people to help them meet the cost of their education. Colleges value the fund, because they are able to provide support to the young people whom they consider to be in most need. They can also respond to any changes that there might be in a student's household income during the year. After the EMA is abolished, the fund
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will be significantly increased over the spending review period. The detail of the future arrangements is still being considered, but we envisage that the enhanced learner support fund will build on the principles of the current scheme to provide exceptional targeted support to students aged 16 to 18 who are experiencing financial difficulties.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I thank the Minister for saying that. Students in my patch who go to Greenhead and Kirklees colleges will welcome those announcements that the help will be more targeted. Some of the scaremongering around the EMA can now hopefully be put to one side, and I am pleased to hear that it is all about targeting the help on the students who really need it. I thank the Minister for clarifying that.

Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he encapsulated in one intervention everything that I have been saying for the past 10 minutes.

In conclusion, I ask the hon. Member for Glasgow North West to bear in mind the economic background to our decision to remove the EMA. In today's economic climate, with a budget deficit of £155 billion, the highest of any G20 country, we have a particular duty to ensure that we continue to spend where spending is needed and to get the best possible value for taxpayers' money. We cannot justify spending more than £556 million a year on an allowance 96% of the recipients of which would have stayed on in education even if they had not received it.

We will, of course, continue to support the most vulnerable and to provide help to those who need it. That is why all schools with children from poorer backgrounds will benefit from the pupil premium. That is why we plan to increase and enhance the discretionary learner support fund once the EMA is abolished.

The Government believe that we should trust the professionals working with young people to make the right decisions. Student support officers in schools and colleges are better able to identify those students who need support.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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National Express East Anglia

1 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is a genuine delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to raise in Westminster Hall the issue of the performance of National Express East Anglia, which operates the Greater Anglia franchise. The issue really affects my constituents, so I welcome the Minister, who will listen to the concerns I raise. She has been incredibly helpful on issues relating to the commuters and the local rail service in my area, and she has heard about some of the quality-of-service issues I have had to raise previously.

By way of background, I should say that my constituency has four rail stations on the great eastern main line, which very much parallels the A12 through my constituency. The main stations, from west to east, are Hatfield Peverel, Witham, Kelvedon and Marks Tey. Marks Tey may be familiar to some Members, because it is at the junction with the Sudbury line, which crosses into Suffolk. There was a serious derailment there in August when a train collided with a sewage tanker. Witham is at the junction of the Witham to Braintree branch line. These are incredibly busy junctions, and total annual passenger usage for the four stations is close to 4 million.

The great eastern main line is a busy line. A lot of commuters travel to London, which takes under an hour, given London's accessibility. As a result of its close proximity to London, my constituency has boomed, and that is also true of its housing developments. My constituency is very attractive for professionals working in London, particularly in the City and in Docklands.

Given the high fares that they pay, local commuters genuinely expect a good-quality service on their journeys and a good overall commuter experience. Let's face it, a commuter paying a lot of money each day will want a reasonably pleasant journey. On that point, I should pay tribute to the Braintree and Witham rail users group and the Kelvedon rail users group, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) would want to do so, too. Over the years, both groups have relentlessly fought on behalf of rail users on issues such as poor-quality train stations, the lack of ticket office staff, overcrowding, access to train stations and fares, which are going up constantly.

I want to draw a number of issues to the Minister's attention. They relate predominantly to the Marks Tey train station and the new timetable that comes in from December, as well as to customer satisfaction levels and performance across the board, which I have touched on.

On customer satisfaction, a recent study highlighted the poor record of National Express in running train services in a reliable and punctual manner. Only 62% of National Express East Anglia passengers arrive in London on time and just 48% of those travelling from London arrive on time. The Minister will be aware that National Express has the second lowest customer satisfaction levels of any train operator in the country. The number of complaints it receives has soared, while the number of answers it supplies within 20 working days continues to fall. I get complaints from constituents about that. The situation is unacceptable, and constituents and commuters who use these services deserve better.

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These matters need to be addressed, and I would welcome some reassurance from the Minister that many of them will be raised as and when the discussions on the franchising arrangements take place. Frankly, if National Express cannot provide the service that my constituents expect, local people would obviously welcome a new operator taking over. I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet later this month with one of my constituents, the chairman of the Kelvedon rail users group, Mr Mark Leslie, who has many issues to raise.

On poor performance, I have touched on satisfaction and punctuality, and I want now to move on to Marks Tey station. The Minister is well versed in what has happened and she is already aware of the appalling way in which National Express has handled the £2.4 million of taxpayers' money that has been spent through the national station improvement programme. Network Rail described the development as a "programme of investment" that

Despite the promises of new facilities, however, there is a major issue.

One gentleman, local business man entrepreneur Mr Nigel Clark, who runs his business out of Marks Tey station, has been treated very badly during planning for the redevelopment of the station. He has been a stalwart of passengers at the station. Every day over the past decade, in all weather conditions, he has served commuters their morning coffees and newspapers from a stall on the platform. Since the plans were put together, however, he has effectively been made homeless.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Although few people in Brigg and Goole probably use the National Express East Anglia route, the quality of our stations is important. Some train operating companies have told me that if franchises lasted longer, companies could plan investment in stations much more and possibly increase it much more. Perhaps the Minister can address that when she responds.

Priti Patel: That is a timely intervention. The development at Mark Tey station has come together quickly, and there was no local consultation. I presented the Minister with a petition bearing the signatures of more than 700 local commuters who were very distressed that Mr Clark's service is being taken away from the station, but National Express completely ignored their views and those of Mr Clark. Planning and timing are important; as I said, however, the development has come together very quickly in Marks Tey. The frustrating aspect of the plans is that they made provision only for a "retail outlet" in the ticket office. That would then be offered to Mr Clark. I say retail outlet in inverted commas, because Mr Clark's business is a stall.

The only reason why National Express was willing to take any representations on board was that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made persistent representations to secure Mr Clark's business in some shape or form. The Minister may be interested to hear that I have had a letter from National Express today saying that it has had positive engagement with Mr Clark, will take the dialogue on
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board and will secure a facility for him. Alas, I have also heard today from Mr Clark. He was told that he would have a new stand, but it was too small and inadequate to function on the platform, so it has been removed and put in the car park. Mr Clark is losing business because nobody comes through the car park in the morning to buy coffee and newspapers. Mr Clark needs to be on the station platform.

The poor performance of National Express really is in another realm. There has been no full consultation. Local passengers have been ignored. Mr Clark has been treated appallingly. The premise that National Express used in the consultation was based on some kind of national passenger survey results from Passenger Focus, which, for the record, is a quango receiving £7 million of public money. Given that we are spending vast sums of public money and that our policy is very much about localism and giving people the chance to have a say-that brings in issues of accountability and transparency in public spending-we should have had much more accountability and engagement.

I ask the Minister to review in full the details of the way in which National Express has performed in relation to Marks Tey. I would very much like a response from Passenger Focus. I wrote to the chief executive two months ago, but I have yet to receive a response about the background to the dialogue that has gone on. I have asked for the full evidence base for the decisions that have been taken. I would be grateful if the Minister informed me when all the contracts for the project were signed. It seems to have come together very quickly. I would welcome a reassurance that she will look again at Mr Clark's situation and see whether there is any way to guarantee his future.

Another example of poor performance by National Express is in the consultation of commuters about timetable changes. Following the comprehensive spending review and the introduction of the retail price index plus 3% fare formula, commuters will pay significantly more for their tickets. Yet commuters using Kelvedon, who currently pay more than £3,500 for their season tickets, will lose a service in the new timetable, from December. The 18.38 from Liverpool Street will no longer stop there. That is more than inconvenient for hard-pressed commuters, who want to get home to be with their families, because the next train is not until 19.08. One of my constituents who contacted National Express was told that no alterations would be considered, and despite a request for an explanation for the changes, none has been forthcoming. Likewise, the 6.27 service from Witham to London will be lost. In both cases, commuters feel they will simply be paying more money for a reduced service. I trust that the Minister will help my constituents to obtain the explanations from National Express that have been denied them.

I know the Minister is considering and reviewing the franchising process, and that the Greater Anglia franchise is likely to be the first to be put out to tender, under new arrangements. I hope the Minister will take seriously many of the points I have made, and the views of my constituents-she will meet the Kelvedon rail user group later in the month-and reflect on them as part of the franchise review and the Greater Anglia tendering process. I welcome her attention and thank her for coming to the debate.

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1.13 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I join my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) in saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate her on securing the debate and on presenting her case with such energy and tenacity. It gives us a useful opportunity to consider the performance of rail services on the East Anglia franchise. I pay tribute to the energetic campaign she has run to champion the interests of her commuting constituents.

I want first to outline some of the Government's broader plans for reform of the railways, because they may help to address a number of the issues that have been raised today. Secondly, I will focus on my hon. Friend's concerns about the works under way at Marks Tey station, and Mr Clark's retailing stand. Thirdly, I will consider the general performance of National Express East Anglia, and fourthly, I will attend to my hon. Friend's points about the new timetable

Just a few months ago I announced that the NXEA franchise would be extended by a little over six months. I chose to exercise the Government's contractual right to do that to allow the outcome of our consultation on rail franchising to be taken on board in the letting of the new franchise. That extension will also enable the interim conclusions of the McNulty study on rail value for money to inform our decisions on the future of rail services in East Anglia. Of course, I urge my hon. Friend to make her views about current services known when the re-let takes place. The record of all the bidders for the potential new franchise will be taken into account in assessing their suitability to take it on.

The Government believe that we need to reform the railways to ensure they deliver better value for money. My hon. Friend emphasised that concern. Unless we get costs down, we will not be able to bring about the improvements to services and capacity that passengers want, so we are committed to reforming Network Rail. When Labour established the company, it failed to put in place sufficiently robust accountability mechanisms to ensure that Network Rail would deliver value for money and high-quality performance at the level needed for a modern and successful railway. We need to tackle that accountability gap, and to get the people running our tracks and trains working more efficiently and cohesively together. We also need to modernise the franchising system. We propose to move to longer franchises to give the private sector the certainty it needs to help us deliver vital improvements, such as better services and stations. They should also help us in providing better rolling stock, which I know is a serious concern for my hon. Friend and many of her constituents.

The reforms are aimed at moving away from a system in which Whitehall specifies detailed and prescriptive inputs into franchises. Instead, we want a stronger focus on the quality of outcomes for passengers, giving more flexibility to the professionals who run our railways to apply innovation and enterprise in working out the best way to deliver those outcomes. Let me assure the House that the outcomes we set will be demanding for the franchise my hon. Friend is concerned about and for all the rest for which we have responsibility. Operators who do not comply with franchise requirements will face sanctions, including termination of the franchise in the most serious cases. I expect our reform plans for Network
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Rail and franchising to get the two sides of the rail industry working more cohesively together, and to ensure that they are more responsive to passenger needs. I therefore believe they will help to address a range of the issues raised by my hon. Friend this afternoon.

As to the national station improvement programme and the works that are under way at Marks Tey, a budget of £150 million has been allocated to the programme to improve the passenger environment at about 150 medium-sized stations in the current railway control period. The improvement scheme at Marks Tey station includes the provision of a modern ticket office building and booking hall area, and a small retailing opportunity. We hope that the project will give passengers protection from the weather, which they currently lack. It will also improve staff accommodation, which is apparently in such disrepair that the station office suffers from repeated flooding. The London-bound platform will be widened to improve circulation for passengers. New waiting shelters will also be installed on that platform. The station forecourt will be redesigned to provide a passenger pick-up and drop-off area and improvements to cycle and motorbike parking.

My hon. Friend is concerned that the work under way is not the best way to deploy taxpayers' money. Decisions on how to deploy the budget were devolved to the rail industry, but they are overseen by an NSIP project delivery board and ultimately by the rail regulator, to ensure that proper checks are kept on the way in which the rail industry spends taxpayers' money. I am informed that national passenger survey scores were taken into account in deciding which stations were most in need of improvement, but in addition-I know my hon. Friend is a little sceptical about their value-comments from local stakeholders were taken on board. I understand that with respect to Marks Tey, a value-for-money assessment was carried out by Network Rail and NXEA. NXEA consulted a range of stakeholders, including some local rail user groups and station tenants, local authorities, rail staff and Passenger Focus. It is unfortunate that the train operator's customer surgeries at Marks Tey took place only fairly late in the day, after most of the key decisions had been made about the shape of the upgrade programme. I understand my hon. Friend's concerns about that, but I have received some assurance that customer feedback from an earlier point was taken on board in putting together the improvement proposals. Clearly it would have been preferable if NXEA had carried out those customer surgeries earlier.

Priti Patel: I would welcome an assurance that for future developments of this nature, there will be greater transparency in the consultation and dialogue with communities. It is all well and good receiving a survey and ticking a box, but there is the question of understanding the intricacies of planning and the impact on the community and businesses. That should be taken into consideration.

Mrs Villiers: I do not think it would appropriate for us to mandate a model for consultation, but across the board we encourage train operators to engage extensively with passengers and local stakeholders on decisions of this kind, and a range of other issues that are important for commuters.

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National Express has advised my officials that passengers have commented on the queues and congestion caused by there being only one poorly positioned ticket window at Marks Tey. Passengers interchanging between the main line and Sudbury have also complained about the state of the toilets and the waiting shelters on platforms 3 and 4. However, it seems that improvement works at Marks Tey are designed to relieve those conditions.

The key issue for my hon. Friend today is the future of Nigel Clark's newspaper and coffee retailing business. My hon. Friend has fought a robust campaign to secure the future of Mr Clark's news stand and the service it provides to her commuting constituents. If I remember correctly, I prepared a briefing for the Prime Minister on the subject, so I know that my hon. Friend has taken the matter to the top; I am impressed by her determination. However, my answer must be the same as that which I gave in correspondence.

It is not for me, the Minister responsible for rail, or for the Department for Transport to dictate how train operators should structure retail opportunities at their stations. However, my hon. Friend knows that I have passed her concerns to NXEA, along with the petition that she delivered to me on the subject. She has put her concerns on the record, and fought a good campaign. It is for National Express and Mr Clark to resolve matters, no doubt assisted by my hon. Friend's robust intervention. I understand that a six-month lease for a temporary unit has been agreed, although my hon. Friend has expressed some concern about its location. I hope that a longer term solution will be found in due course. I know that Mr Clark and others will have the chance to submit proposals for use of a new and permanent retail unit should they wish to do so. I hope that the matter will be resolved, and I urge both sides to find a satisfactory outcome.

I turn to the overall performance of NXEA. The latest period for which complete performance data are available shows that 90.9% of NXEA trains arrived on time. That is according to the moving annual average. However, those figures are aggregated across a diverse franchise that covers long-distance, rural and commuter services, so they do not necessarily reflect the experience of commuters using the services in my hon. Friend's constituency. Nevertheless, as she pointed out, satisfaction with NXEA is lower than for train operators in other places, so there is clearly room for improvement, particularly in light of what she said today.

A key task for the Government and the Department for Transport is to protect the passenger and hold train operators to account for their performance, particularly in relation to some recent reliability problems. For example, in early summer NXEA suffered some significant problems with its fleet, which caused a large number of delays and cancellations. The Department took up the problem with NXEA. As a result, an emergency action plan has been adopted. Part of that plan involved hiring additional engineering staff, who were placed at Liverpool Street station to try to deal with technical faults on the spot, in order to keep the trains in service. I gather that that has had a positive impact and that fleet performance has improved considerably.

I emphasise that reliability issues on the rail network in my hon. Friend's constituency are not solely down to National Express East Anglia. Another significant factor is the performance of Network Rail. According to the
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latest industry figures, approximately 70% of passenger delays on the line are caused by Network Rail or other train operators. A significant amount of work is under way to improve reliability on the great eastern main line route. Most of the overhead electrical equipment between Liverpool Street and Colchester stations dates from the late 1950s, and extensive renewal work is being undertaken by Network Rail on the Liverpool Street to Chelmsford section. That work is due to be completed by 2012, and it will provide real improvements in reliability. Problems with the ageing infrastructure are one reason for the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend's constituents.

Every passenger dreads hearing the terrible words "planned engineering work". However, when scheduling maintenance and renewals work, the rail industry always faces a difficult balancing act. On the one hand it needs to deliver the relevant work in an efficient and cost-effective manner; on the other it is essential to minimise disruption for passengers whenever possible. Because of the scale of work needed on the East Anglia routes, there has been a long series of weekend track possessions. No matter how much care is taken, is inevitable that possessions will cause some disruption, but on the routes in question it sometimes results from delays in Network Rail handing back possession to National Express East Anglia. If the possession overruns, the train operator does not gain access to the tracks at the scheduled time.

Such disruption can be considerable, especially for passengers facing the dreary Monday morning commute. It is such problems that we need to address in our rail reform programme; we must ensure that Network Rail becomes more responsive to customer concerns about issues such as track possessions and overruns, and that it improves its performance overall in providing an infrastructure that keeps services running. We are very focused on those reforms as well as on reforming the franchise system. The twin tracks of reform are designed to deliver the enhanced levels of improvement necessary to address the problems my hon. Friend has highlighted.

The Office of Rail Regulation is responsible for regulating Network Rail's performance and its stewardship of the national network. In addition, I regularly meet senior representatives of the ORR and rail industry to discuss
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operational performance and the measures being taken to address problems. I have raised the issue of the performance of the East Anglia routes at this regular forum. In addition, officials at the Department for Transport are in regular contact with train operators to discuss service reliability; and targets for each operator are closely monitored.

The third concern raised by my hon. Friend relates to the timetable to be introduced in December. The Government are funding increased capacity for the NXEA franchise, but that has meant a significant recasting of the timetable. In order to get a timetable that maximises the efficient use of the network and ensures overall passenger benefits, a small number of stations are left with longer gaps between trains. My hon. Friend referred to two of them. Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact that difficult trade-offs have to be made and conflicts resolved between the various passenger groups. Efforts to get the maximum efficient use out of the network will sometimes mean that such conflicts are resolved in favour of the busier journeys.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend, and I emphasise that it is important that the operator endeavour to keep instances of extended gaps between services to a minimum. The new timetable was developed following extensive consultation during the summer of 2009. I have seen no evidence that the train operators acted unreasonably in making their decisions; but when the new franchise is re-let, timetabling with be considered afresh. That will give my hon. Friend an important opportunity to make further representation.

Our rail reforms are designed to make the rail industry perform more efficiently and respond more effectively to the sort of problems highlighted by my hon. Friend. Programmes to expand capacity on the East Anglia franchise and to renew and improve the infrastructure in order to ensure more reliable services are already under way. Although we had to take tough decisions on rail fares, we have made it clear that the three-year rail fare increase will enable us to deliver the upgrades that are vital to improving life for passengers and to securing our long-term economic competitiveness.

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Science, Engineering and Technology (Women)

1.30 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss Government policy on support for women in science, engineering and technology, and that it has attracted such interest across the main parties in Parliament.

Science, engineering and technology are important areas, where we need to increase research and improve productivity, in order that the UK economy can achieve sustained economic growth. It is the view of many that, to achieve these desirable goals, we have to increase the number of women working in those fields. That increase should come from both encouraging young women to enter and supporting women getting back into those fields when they have been away for some years. To do that means continuing to support the work being undertaken by a number of organisations, including the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology, and the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Employers increasingly worry about the under-representation of women, as it is directly affecting productivity and growth. In the private sector, in all SET occupations, there are around 417,000 female employees. Women made up only 12.3% of the work force in 2008, and the IET 2010 survey of engineering employers found that only 5% of engineers and 4% of engineering technicians are women. In the IT industry, men outnumber women by four to one.

Government strategy for women in SET was laid out in 2003, and the key mechanism for taking the strategy forward is the UKRC, which was launched in 2004. The UKRC works with British business to maximise the opportunities for professional women in the relevant areas of activity, and close the skills gap that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says is damaging UK competitiveness. It also collates statistics on women's participation in SET education and employment and funds individual projects that aim to improve women's progression and profile. The UKRC analysed its work to assess its value and effectiveness using the social return on investment methodology, as developed by the Cabinet Office and others. The social value generated by the UKRC is nearly £12 million above its grant funding. That means that for every pound invested in the UKRC, £5.27 of social value is created for organisations, women and their families.

My first question to the Minister concerns its future. I consider the UKRC an organisation that we should be supporting at this time to ensure our future economic growth. Are there any proposed cuts to its budget? Public sector cuts could also have a long-term impact on women working in a wide range of science, engineering and technology-related roles. The UKRC's assistant director, Jane Butcher said:

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One positive sign for the future is that more girls are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses, otherwise known as STEM. Girls and boys enter GCSE exams in those courses in almost equal numbers. Furthermore, the overall representation of girls in those subjects has improved in recent years, especially in physics, chemistry and biology.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The hon. Lady is right. However, girls and young women are often pressured later into a more academic route, as it is seen traditionally as female. I am keen to pursue joint pathways, where young people, particularly girls, can take both partly academic and partly vocational qualifications. Does the hon. Lady not think that if we can achieve that in our schools, we will encourage many more of our girls to go on much further in these subjects?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Although we are not largely concerned today with issues in schooling and the like, it is still important in terms of what happens.

Overall, we know that number of girls taking further mathematics, technology subjects, physics and other science subjects at A-level has increased, and it has increased proportionately more than the number of boys taking those subjects. So there is an interest there. The girls perform as well and often better in their GCSE and A-level courses. In 2009, girls outperformed boys in grades A* to C attainment in six out of 12 STEM GCSE subjects. They also outperformed boys in A-grade attainment in all but two A-level STEM subjects and had a slightly better pass rate than boys in all A-level STEM subjects. That level of success is good, but where are those bright young girls going? More young women are studying STEM courses, but female graduates are not heading towards employment in those areas.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing forward such an important issue. I would like to declare an interest as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the chemical industry and as a supporter of women in this area for the past 10 years. It is interesting that a new report has come out from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers to say that it is vital not only to guide girls through from age 11 to 14, but now to start to look at the progression from the age of seven to 11. I wonder whether the Minister would look to that for future policy.

Meg Munn: These are important areas. It demonstrates that, while we have the Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills here today, other Departments also have a key role. It is a cross-Government issue. Less than 30% of all female STEM graduates-compared with half of all male graduates-are working in those occupations. Many of those skilled women work in lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs, and the economy is therefore operating below its potential. That is not a recent phenomenon, with 70% of women overall with SET qualifications not working in those areas. Encouraging women into higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs would help us to reduce the current skills shortage and ensure that women have the opportunity to reach their potential.

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Unfortunately, in ICT there are particular challenges, with low levels of participation at GCSE, which fall further at A-level and subsequently degree level. Worryingly, participation levels of women and girls have fallen in recent years and that is reflected in a fall in female IT professionals from 25% in 2001 to 21% today. To be successful in the global economy the UK needs more technologists, more scientists and more engineers at every level.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to pay tribute to some of the engineers in my constituency, who are at the forefront of the Young Engineers project. They do not just take it into primary schools, they follow on through and are particularly keen on using the opportunity to go into girls-only schools. I know three ladies who worked incredibly hard on the engineering projects and are now at Cambridge doing engineering. Clearly, that is the future.

Meg Munn: I am delighted to pay tribute to the work they are doing. The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of role models. I shall shortly come on to talk a little about that.

We need people with the experience and skills; we need them for their positive impact on our manufacturing sector and to broaden our innovative capacity. How can we entice female graduates with the knowledge and skills into these sectors of the economy, sectors which are vital to our future? We need to change the culture of many organisations; we must have greater opportunities for women to enter and return to SET training, to education in this area and to employment. To attract, retain and promote women more actively, companies should support women through targeted programmes and improved opportunities. The UKRC runs innovative programmes to help companies understand unconscious bias, which can impact on their work, and to help them identify the practical steps that can help promote gender equality. We need employers also to recognise the benefits of keeping women with skills, through promoting the availability of senior, high-quality part-time and flexible roles. We lose far too many women who just cannot make a full-time job work with family life. They then find that, by the time they can return to full-time work, their skills are out of date.

Of course, it is important to note that some of the companies that are putting those programmes into action are themselves experiencing real benefits, as well as benefiting our economy. Atkins Global, E.ON, BT, Sony and PepsiCo are among more than 100 businesses and organisations that have signed up to the UKRC chief executive officer charter. Women taking part in this type of support project report real change in their job prospects, with more than 60% of them securing work or promotion.

One company where we can see a positive effect of the UKRC CEO charter is E.ON. Back in 2007, the EU Commission found that just 10% of board members across Europe were women, despite the degrees and training that women had. E.ON acknowledged that it was not an exception to those findings. At E.ON, 27% of the employees were female but only 11% held positions in senior management. E.ON wanted to change that and double the number of women in leadership positions
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in the medium term. It created the Women@Energy project in 2007 to support women. The first results from the research have already been put into practice. Gender issues are now part of the leadership training programme. After a year, more than 100 employees were involved in the group-wide IngE network for women in engineering-I am not sure if I have pronounced the name of that network correctly, but I will give the Hansard reporters the spelling. As well as being a fantastic networking device, the key objective of IngE was to find ways to support the prospects for women in technological jobs.

The effort at E.ON progresses. The female network for women executives, which was founded in 2008, provides six half-day seminars over the course of a year, giving focused advice and intensive leadership training to female managers. There is also the women into engineering programme and there are girls' days. E.ON really is a company that recognises the benefits of having a more diverse work force.

I now come on to the issue of role models. The Institution of Engineering and Technology runs the young woman engineer of the year award. That award goes to the very best female engineer that the UK has to offer and highlights the achievements of women in engineering. There is no doubt that providing high-profile role models is an effective way to encourage women to become engineers. The institution supports the winners throughout their year in office and ensures that they get media coverage, highlighting what female engineers can achieve. I wonder if the Minister can commit to supporting this excellent scheme. He will be relieved to know that I am not necessarily talking about money. Rather, I am talking about raising its profile throughout the engineering industry, which would be a signal to young women that their talents and skills are seen as important.

I also want to mention the work being done in the charity sector. The Daphne Jackson Trust is an independent charity focusing on returning talented scientists, engineers and technologists to careers after a break of two years or more. The trust offers flexible, part-time and paid fellowships in universities and industrial laboratories throughout the UK. It has been highly praised by the Government and is acknowledged as running a vital returners scheme. It has a 96% success rate in returning fellows to SET careers. I hope that the Minister will join me in commending the trust's work and thanking it for the effort that it has put into supporting women to return to the careers in which they were previously successful.

Finally, I turn to the women and work sector pathways initiative, which focuses on women's career progression in industries where women are under-represented. For example, Aston Martin is putting 17 female employees through the programme. The company realised that women were encountering barriers and it wanted to equip female employees with the right skills to promote themselves within its engineering business. The company accessed £400 towards the cost of tailor-made training for each of those 17 employees, which was matched by its own contribution. Since the pathways initiative was established in 2006, £20 million in funding has helped more than 22,500 women and 3,200 employers. It is estimated that the value to the economy per woman helped by this scheme is between £900 and £1,300 per
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annum, and 93% of employers have stated that the initiative has met previously identified skills gaps within their industries.

However, I am concerned that that initiative is at risk of not being renewed as its final phase is due to end in March 2011. So, can the Minister reassure me that programmes such as this one will continue to receive the vital support that they require? I am sure that the Minister is aware that this project grew out of the Women in Work Commission, which looked at the gender pay gap. Interestingly, today is equal pay day, as designated by the Fawcett Society. The full-time pay gap means that effectively this is the last day on which women are paid in the financial year compared to men. So it is highly appropriate that we are having this debate in Westminster Hall today.

Today's debate will only scratch the surface of this very important issue. I have not discussed in any detail the important role of early school experiences, which some of my hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), have mentioned -I will call them hon. Friends today. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]. I have also not mentioned the role of work experience in encouraging girls into these sectors, nor have I touched on the importance of careers guidance, university funding or apprenticeships. In this short debate, I have put briefly to the Minister some of the important work that has been started in this area during the last few years.

It is recognised by everybody that there must be public spending cuts and I acknowledge that the Government have identified the importance of protecting the science budget as much as possible. However, within that budget I ask the Minister to acknowledge the importance of continuing to support the initiatives that I have mentioned, which are making a difference to science, engineering and technology. By ensuring that women are encouraged to develop these skills and by supporting women with these skills to return to their professions, we can help our economy to grow and prosper.

1.46 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) for securing such an important debate and I also thank the Minister in advance for what I am sure will be a very positive response to it.

As an engineer myself for 23 years, this is a subject that I feel passionately about. During the summer, I worked with many organisations to look at ideas for encouraging girls into science, technology, engineering and maths. We have discussed the points that have been raised in this debate with the Minister for Equalities and I look forward to working on them with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley.

I agree with everything that has been said so far in the debate. Briefly, I want to make two additional points. First, although women are under-represented in all areas of engineering, only 3% of engineering apprenticeships are filled by women, which is a figure in the realms of statistical error. Therefore, I want to ask the Minister if he will develop an action plan to address that particular issue.

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Secondly, as has been said already, it is essential to inspire young girls about the potential of engineering. There are many good pilots and projects that are running in this area, and I hope that the Minister is aware of and can confirm the funding for projects such as the Aim Higher and Stimulating Physics schemes, which are run by the Institute of Physics. I hope that we will go on to see a cross-party consensus in this area.

1.47 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship and indeed to respond to this short but important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) on bringing this issue to the attention of the House, and I also congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on her contribution to the debate. I know that both of them have relevant experience in this field. I know that the hon. Lady has a degree in electrical engineering from Imperial college, and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley has highlighted her own long experience in the field.

The subject matter of this debate concerns both women and science. To begin with, let me say a word about the first of those. It is absolutely right that we should provide opportunities for girls and women to fulfil their potential, wherever that takes them. The Government are wholly committed to the idea that people, regardless of where they start and of who they are, should be able to fulfil their potential. Of course, that includes science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM, subjects, about which I will speak in detail in a moment. However, it is perhaps worth putting on the record that women contribute to our society in all kinds of ways, not least in this place, and I make no apologies in your presence, Mr Hollobone, for highlighting the contribution that women are making to our national interest in Afghanistan and Iraq as we speak.

For too long, however, the public perception of science has been that it is a predominantly male field. The reality of the scientific professions has been and, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley pointed out, to some extent remains predominantly one of middle-aged men in white coats. However, even that reality must not be allowed to obscure the achievements of women who have dared to break the glass ceiling.

When women first battered down the doors of our universities, it was most often to study the most scientifically demanding of subjects: medicine. These days, more than a century on, young British women with a talent for science are not short of inspirational examples, including Dorothy Hodgkin, who won a Nobel prize, and Rosalind Franklin, who surely would also have won one alongside her colleagues Watson and Crick had she not died tragically young. Other great figures such as Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Nancy Rothwell happily remain with us as living proof that women's aptitude for science is certainly no less than that of men. Why should anyone assume otherwise? After all, science is as bound up with the world around us as other subjects, if not more so. Rosalind Franklin wrote that

In my view, the case for women not just in science but in other supposedly male preserves is already made.

History is full of instances where the price of equality has been paid in blood, but in the case of women's representation in scientific and technological subjects, it has tended to be paid in gold. The hon. Lady mentioned a number of schemes that have contributed toward that price. Some have been supported by Government funding; others rely on other sources. I will happily advertise those schemes, as she asked, and congratulate the people associated with them. By advertising such schemes, as this debate plays an important part in doing, we will encourage more people to participate. We need not apologise for amplifying remarks such as those made here today whenever we can.

On the hon. Lady's understandable concern about the continued availability of public funds, although that is not the only issue, as she generously acknowledged, I point out-she would hardly expect me to do otherwise-that in the recent comprehensive spending review, the Government acknowledged the critical role that science plays by defending and protecting its budget for an extended period. That decision was not easy, for there are, of course, many competing priorities, but we fully understand the key role that science plays in contributing to economic growth, feeding social enterprise and networks, serving the common good and providing the competitive edge that our businesses need. Her assessment of the value of science is shared across this Chamber and in Government.

Beyond that, I hope to satisfy the hon. Lady on several specific issues and to offer reassurance. I mentioned the ring-fenced support that we have given to science in the CSR; she will know that it amounts to about £4.6 billion a year. That will continue to support research in higher education and remains a substantial commitment of taxpayers' money, as well as a vote of confidence in the science base. This Government need no convincing that scientific and technological excellence have a big role to play in renewing economic growth.

The hon. Lady rightly mentioned employers such as E.ON and charitable organisations such as the Daphne Jackson Trust, which are important, in particular, to women entering or returning to careers in science, engineering and technology. I assure her that such initiatives have and will continue to have the Government's full support and encouragement.

In her concluding remarks-though she said that she did not have time to discuss it in detail-the hon. Lady mentioned the importance of high-quality careers guidance. She is right; it is critical in setting young women's feet on the path towards careers in areas that have traditionally been largely male preserves. She is also right that the advice that young people get at school shapes the pattern of their subsequent progress in both learning and employment. It is therefore important that such advice is empirical, independent, up-to-date and gender-neutral, and is not about where people start from but about where they might end up. To that end, I shall set out this week, in a speech in Belfast, plans for improving careers advice and guidance.

The hon. Lady will know of my personal commitment to apprenticeships. She is right that they too involve a gender imbalance. She will be pleased to know that,
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mindful of that imbalance, I wrote this summer to the Skills Funding Agency asking how we can take steps to improve access to apprenticeships, particularly in fields such as engineering, for young women. I am anxious to ensure that that access enables young women with an interest and passion in and a talent and taste for STEM subjects, particularly applied science, to enter apprenticeships at all levels. I will speak more about apprenticeships in the coming weeks and months, but suffice it to say at this juncture that our extra investment in apprenticeships-£250 million in the CSR, with the potential to increase the number of apprenticeships by 75,000-must include a proper concentration on the opportunities available to young women and those who want to return to the workplace, change direction or upskill.

On that point, I will say a word about adult community learning, which we also protected in the CSR settlement, as both hon. Ladies will know. Adult community learning is important, in particular, for returning women who have taken time out from learning or the workplace and want to improve their chances of re-engagement by updating their skills. It is an important bridge to subsequent learning opportunities and employment.

It is not necessarily the case, nor should it be, that few young women, properly and professionally advised, should make their way into science, engineering and technology. I do not accept that we must leave things as they are. To that end, as I think the hon. Lady is aware, the Government have taken and continue to take steps and support initiatives to break down perceptions among young women, employers, training providers and educational institutions that the battle that she has fought for some time cannot be won.

The case for bringing more women into science and technology studies and careers requiring excellence in those fields is, in my judgment, unanswerable. It is impossible at this stage to promise new investment. I do not think that the hon. Lady expects me to-indeed, she almost acknowledged in her speech, generously, that I would be unlikely to do so-but it is important to promise on the record our continued commitment and effort in the direction in which she wishes us to travel, not merely as a Government but as a nation.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has rightly described the Government's task as bringing our economy back from the brink. Let no one be in any doubt that we are fully aware that a strong science base has an indispensible role to play in accomplishing that task. Without it and the skills of our scientists-both men and women-Britain's ability to use scientific and technological innovation to promote growth would be greatly diminished.

Meg Munn: I am trying to pin the Minister down on two specific points. Can he say anything today about the UKRC and its funding, or about the future of the women and work sector pathways initiative?

Mr Hayes: I considered both those points in anticipation of this debate, as the hon. Lady would expect. I cannot give a definitive answer, but I can tell her that we take those matters seriously and are debating them carefully. The fallout from the CSR in all areas of Government is such that we are working through exactly what we will
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fund and how. Even within the ring-fenced science budget, it is obviously imperative to ensure maximum cost-effectiveness. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science is considering the issue closely and that he is particularly aware of those two initiatives, as I discussed them with him before I entered this debate to speak on his behalf. The hon. Lady's point has been heard and taken note of. That is as far as I dare go, given that I am standing in for the Science Minister and am interested in keeping my job by not falling out with the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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The hon. Lady is right to say that it is partly an issue of culture and of what we expect and anticipate. It is also partly about the perceptions of young women. She made an interesting point about the early promise in STEM subjects shown by many young women that is not fulfilled. Our job, on the back of this debate and inspired by examples such as hers, is to ensure that that promise is fulfilled for many more young women in future. It will benefit them, our society and our economy, and I think that we will all grow bigger as a result.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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