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23 Nov 2010 : Column 42WH—continued

11.56 am

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to say just a few words in this important debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) for securing it.

I am ashamed to admit that I have been involved in the youth service for nearly 40 years, since I was a teenager, particularly in detached youth work, which is, for me, one of the most important areas of youth work in urban Britain and many other places, too. I want to say a few words and join other hon. Members in pleading for the Government to ensure that they understand the importance of Government and local authority support for the youth service.

I have always believed that there ought to be a statutory youth service. That is my party's policy, it is still my belief, and I hope that before long that can be the position. It has always been a Cinderella service, although it is the bit of support for young people that is needed to complement parental and family support, and school and educational support. Other role models who are not authority figures can often be far more influential in ensuring that young people have the development, security and safety they need.

I welcome the Education Committee's inquiry. The Government are looking forward to introducing comprehensive proposals in the new year. I welcome that. The Minister has often been well received since taking on his job. I thank him for that. I am keen for him to be bold and ambitious, both in his Department and across Government, because this is not only the responsibility of the Department for Education.

The national citizen service is a good idea, but as colleagues have said it is a time-limited, specific activity for some people at some time. It will grow slowly. The reality of the youth service is that it can be found by and is accessible to everybody in every community. That is the difference. The youth service is there now. We have to ensure that we do not lose any of its validity or accessibility.

May I make a special plea to ensure that the funding for people to be qualified and trained as youth workers is increased, not decreased? Some of the best,
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most talented people, who may not have a great academic background, come through the youth service as volunteers, then realise that it is their vocation. They have just the sort of skills that are needed. Often, they are women or people from black and minority ethnic communities. They are really good role models who have been where the youngsters are now. They understand the score, because they have been in the front line and have come through. We need to ensure that they are given the educational support to go on and do practice-based qualifications.

I have said that my engagement has mainly been with detached youth work, but that is not to underestimate club-based or specialist youth work. The benefit that the hon. Member for Bolton West mentioned in being out on the street, engaging with youngsters where they are, not expecting them to come to where the service is, is fundamentally important. If people are to gain the confidence of young people, they do not say, "Come and do it my way"; they say, "We're going to come alongside you and understand what you want."

We know that local government will have a hard time, as will central Government, because the settlement is difficult. But local government does not have to find all its savings by cutting grants to the voluntary sector and does not have to cut equally across the board. I plead with every council, no matter who runs it, to make sure that they do not think that the implication of a severe spending cut means cutting the voluntary sector rather than reducing the in-house services. Often, the latter needs to be done, because money for the voluntary sector can multiply in terms of its benefits in the community.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hughes: I will not because I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak.

I am keen to ensure that evening and weekend work is supported. One of the problems with a lot of traditional youth services is that they were there-fantastically-on Monday to Thursday evenings, but not on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays. That is exactly when young people need places to go to.

A good example of a youth service was a place I went to in south Wales a few years ago. The kids wanted somewhere to hang around safely. They were given support locally in the valleys and they were able to build a shelter. It was a very simple shelter, but they built it and it was their place. It was a sort of glorified bus shelter, but it meant they had somewhere they could go, supported by individuals. Often, simple things that cost small amounts of money can transform people's self worth and allow them to have a place they can call their own and build on.

Lastly, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) pointed out that there are often many unused buildings. In difficult financial circumstances there is an imperative for organisations to work together complementarily, to ensure that facilities are shared and that people do not just do their own thing. That is often a danger in the statutory youth sector if there are schools that do not stay open after school hours or youth clubs that open only in the evenings. Local authorities
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need to lead on that, and my plea is for the Minister to say to every council, "You lead with the voluntary and faith groups. Do the work on the ground."

The Minister must also ensure that we have funding for youth workers whom we need to do their job, and that we do not lose them; we need them now more than ever. We must not lose key services, which are often the glue that keeps communities together as well as keeping young people and their communities safe.

12.1 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on her excellent speech. She is clearly not just an expert but passionate about her working life before Parliament, and she probably knows more than anybody in the House about the youth service. I hope the Government will listen to her.

Luton North is an unusual constituency. When I was elected in 1997 it had the highest proportion of children aged under five in the whole country. In more recent years, it had the highest proportion of school-age children in the country, and those are now young people. There has been a surge of young people, and although Luton has wonderful educational and youth facilities, we have a considerable number of young people who are disaffected and perhaps not so successful in education, and they need much more support. We had a large number of people not in education, employment or training, and until recently, we did not quite know what was happening to them every year.

A number of community centres were built by Labour councils in the past. When I was a councillor in the 1970s, we built superb facilities that are still in operation today. However, facilities alone are not enough. We need staff to operate them. Some of that staffing is now being squeezed, and some of the services in those centres for young people are being trimmed at the edges, despite the fact that we have an excellent Labour council that is doing its best. There are problems now, and unless something is done it will get much worse once the serious cuts come through. To pretend that youth services do not need to be cut and that we can squeeze somewhere else is playing with words. The cuts will affect every service one way or another. The youth service has been underfunded in the past and it does not need less funding; it needs much more.

[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

One factor is safety, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Young people are on the streets. It is not just those in gangs, but those not in gangs who do not feel safe. They need places to go and professional staff to organise activities in which they can participate. In a letter that I received this morning, Tracey Quinn, the integrated youth support team manager for Luton North and a senior youth worker, wrote,

There is serious concern at local level in Luton. I worked for Unison for many years as a researcher. It has said that Connexions will face cuts of up to 50% across the country. That has serious implications, especially for NEETs.

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I must take issue with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). He was talking about a national youth service and implying that the Government should take a central role in that. However, when asked to justify current cuts to youth services at a recent meeting with young people, he told them that the decision was not for central Government, but for local councils. That is saying, "We'll cut your money, but you'll get the blame." We cannot blame local authorities when they are facing savage cuts.

My major point is that I do not accept the need for cuts. I have raised that point in the Commons and, before anybody intervenes, I also raised it with Ministers in the last Government before the election. We should be targeting employment creation to bring down unemployment. That will increase tax revenues and reduce the need for benefit payments. The by-product of that will be a reduction in the deficit.

Some countries have gone for savage cuts. I feel deeply sorry for the Irish; they have gone for savage cuts, but that makes their economy perform less well. Setting aside their massive debts, they have seen output decline, and going for deeper cuts will make the problem even worse. The developed world should be reflating not deflating, but we are moving towards deflation. Cutting expenditure on youth facilities will make the situation worse. Employment generation should be used in that area to bring down levels of unemployment and start to reduce the deficit. I could go on at greater length but I have probably said enough. I will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.

12.6 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Weir. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr Rosindell, you don't even look like Mr Weir.

This has been an excellent and thought-provoking debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) on securing the debate and on her contribution, and I will reflect on some of the other contributions.

One point that my hon. Friend made particularly powerfully was about the value that youth work provides in generating money into our communities. The fact that for every £1 spent on youth services, another £8 of voluntary activity is generated is a powerful statistic. She also reflected on the national citizen service, and whether it should be seen as an alternative to youth service provision. The general mood of the debate was that it should not.

I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments to the question raised by my hon. Friend during Education questions:

The Minister responded:

To an impartial observer, that sounds rather as if the national citizen service was the replacement for youth services.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said that cuts to the youth service are a false economy. That is a powerful and central point that we should all reflect on. Making such cuts to youth services will lead to additional costs in policing, social work, education, health services and fighting crime in our communities. If we do not get it right, we will be paying for the cuts to the youth service time and time again.

Justin Tomlinson: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm exactly what level of funding the Labour party would provide and how they would pay for it?

Toby Perkins: I will come to the hon. Gentleman's contribution in more detail. We had a Budget in 2010, and people could see from the direction of travel taken by the Labour Government over previous years just how much of a priority we placed on youth services. The improvement in youth services is clear as a result of that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West also said that she did not want us to return to the bleak days of the 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) talked about the big society as a political convenience. She is in good company because the Minister himself is completely unclear about what the big society means. He says:

We look forward to him attempting to do that in a moment. He says:

I can answer that question: it is getting smaller by the moment. However, I look forward to him perhaps attempting to articulate better in the future than he has been able to in the past what the big society is and what the contribution of youth services should be to the big society.

The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made a thoughtful contribution, which started well when she said that prevention was better than cure. She focused on how important it was for us to take serious action on NEETs. She may be aware of the piece in TheTimes Educational Supplement with the sub-heading "Experts predict rise in Neets as young people are left without support following local authority raids". It stated:

and youth services,

In raising the initial question, the hon. Lady was on exactly the right lines. It is just a shame that she did not follow that through, but decided instead to divert us to the line we heard a number of times that the issue is the quality of the service, rather than the money. It is deeply disingenuous for us as politicians and for those in government to talk about the level of cuts that local authorities will see and say that they must not cut safeguarding-the Minister has already told them that, and the Prime Minister said that they should not cut the voluntary sector-but that it is totally up to local authorities what decisions they make. Some responsibility must be
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taken at central Government level. If cuts of 27% in local authority funding are to be made, youth services in particular will be affected, but services will be affected across the board. We cannot keep saying to local authorities, "Well, it's your decision what you choose to cut." The Government have to take some responsibility for that.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) had obviously given youth services considerable thought and he reflected positively on his experiences as a councillor and the importance of youth services in that area, but he repeated the idea that the cut in funding should not necessarily lead to a cut in services. That is the elephant in the room that we need to be honest about. If youth service professionals are to take us seriously in this debate, we need to be honest about the fact that they will see very substantial cuts. I think that 95% of local authority youth services say that their budgets for providing services to young people in their area are being cut. That will make a real difference to the level of service provided.

The hon. Gentleman had some good ideas about how school and council buildings could be used more effectively, but we must be realistic. The big cost for youth services is actually for the people employed within them, so yes, we can use buildings more effectively, but there is still a cost attached. We ought to be realistic about the cost attached to improving those services. The hon. Gentleman's ideas about taking people on trips and so on all have a cost attached to them.

Justin Tomlinson: Just to clarify, opening up those facilities was as much for external organisations, whether those are scout groups, dance groups, sports clubs or whatever.

Toby Perkins: Okay. Certainly the voluntary sector will play a very important role. As someone who has been involved in youth sport coaching for the last six or seven years, I know how important the role of the voluntary sector and sports organisations is and completely support that. That is why I have been so horrified by the cuts that the same Minister has been making to the school sports partnership. That was a very important way of engaging children in sport, which led to their involvement in sports clubs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) reflected on the interconnectivity of all these services. That is a central point that we need to consider. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) reflected on a lifetime dedicated to youth work and youth services and made a thoughtful contribution. When he reflected on the success of youth services in their contribution to the education of people who then go on to develop themselves further and become mature students, he made a very powerful point. He also reflected on the importance of street engagement in terms of youth services. That is another of the central areas in which the national citizen service will be no replacement for youth services, because the national citizen service is a universal service and the activity that it involves will take place over a very short period of a young person's life, whereas youth services are there every single day of the year, providing a service, particularly to people from more deprived communities, out on the streets. It is a service that they have to engage with; they have to make that contribution.

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When the hon. Gentleman said that councils do not have to cut the voluntary sector, he was repeating the line that we have been hearing, which does not take into account the serious level of cuts that there will be for local authorities. Inevitably, when so much of local authorities' money is already tied up in contracts with external providers, the cost of redundancies and so on, the voluntary sector is an easy area for them to cut. The reality that we all recognise, and that the voluntary sector is very worried about, is the amount of cuts that there will be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) focused on the fact that the cuts will not spare youth services. I put it to him that in fact the cuts will specifically focus more on an area such as youth services than on some of the statutory areas, such as safeguarding, which councils will be very sensitive about cutting.

I think that all of us, right across the House, would support the general ethos of a big society and the general principle behind it. The Minister is right to say that it still defies an exact description, but we all have an idea of what we think it ought to mean.

The lack of co-ordination between different organisations has implications for how we keep our children safe. Safeguarding is an area that many councils will be protecting, but safeguarding often applies after the problem has been identified. Youth workers play a central role in identifying children who are at risk and in making referrals. There are many cross-referrals from youth services, police services and adult social services to child social services. If those services are diminished, the number of referrals will reduce and many children will never be identified as having problems.

I would like the Minister to respond to the question about whether he agrees that youth services are an integral part of our education system. Does he still see a central role for youth services in our education system? Does he accept that local authority funding is the glue that holds a wide range of youth services together? We currently spend about £100 per year per young person. How much does the Minister think that we will spend in 2011-12? Does he see youth work as a professional role? Does he recognise the professional qualifications that youth workers have now and how important they are?

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the majority of youths in an area have no interaction whatever with youth services, and that within areas there is often tension between a number of voluntary organisations and the local authority? It would be much better if the local authorities worked much more closely with the youths and if the local voluntary organisations provided the activities and services that those young people wanted.

Toby Perkins: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for expanding funding for youth services. I would certainly support him in that campaign, but at this time we are trying to protect what we have. The key point is that youth services work across our communities, but they work most closely with those in the most deprived areas, those most likely to drop out of school and those most likely to get involved in crime. The central role played by youth services in this country and their success has been recognised by people across the world.

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Finally, the Minister must set at rest the minds of people involved in youth work and say that he values their work. If he does value it, he should say what he will do to ensure that the excellent youth services that are provided in this country are protected.

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Rosindell. This is the worst kind of debate to which to respond. I have been left with 11 minutes to take on board the excellent contributions of seven Back Benchers in this worthwhile and informed debate. It has not been quite as well attended as the debate on high-speed rail, but this matter is of great importance to everybody who is present and to people in our constituencies.

I will discard most of my speech and respond to the points that have been raised by hon. Members. At the end, I will respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). She provided some questions to the Department at 21 minutes past midnight last night. Unfortunately, I was not at my desk and have not had time to go into them in detail. [Interruption.] I was at my desk at 21 minutes past 11 last night, but not at 21 minutes past 12. I am happy to provide the hon. Lady with more detail and to have a meeting with her to take up the more substantive issues.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and recognise her great experience in this area as a former youth worker, a former president of the Community and Youth Workers Union and a committed campaigner for young people. I believe that services for young people are vital. I have had the pleasure of visiting the fantastic Bolton Lads and Girls Club, which has been mentioned no fewer than three times. The Prime Minister has been there at least twice and the Prime Minister's wife has visited it. It is in the constituency neighbouring the hon. Lady's. Recently, I was delighted to join a group of business leaders in Blackburn who are working with the founders of that club to establish a series of similar facilities across the north-west of England, which is tremendously exciting. The commitment shown to young people by the OnSide project and by local people and businesses in Bolton is second to none, so the hon. Lady can speak from great experience.

I will set out briefly the principles of the Government's approach to youth services before responding to specific questions. We want to promote a culture of being positive about young people in this country, which engages with the media, central and local government and people of all generations. Intergenerational trust has taken a knock in recent years, and has been exacerbated by negative stories about young people and mixed messages from the previous Government. The good projects supported by the previous Government sat uneasily with the negative messages given by the respect agenda, antisocial behaviour orders, curfew orders and the proliferation of those ghastly Mosquito devices.

We want to promote the involvement of young people in decision making at the top table on matters that affect them, not just on specific youth budget issues. That is not tokenism. As money is tight, we are freeing local authorities to decide what money should be spent on in the light of local priorities. We have ended ring-fencing
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to give greater autonomy to local authorities. We want to introduce an early intervention grant to help disadvantaged young people get on track for success, using proven effective practices. That is the best use of public funds. The hon. Lady rightly catalogued the cost of failure in this area.

Yesterday, I visited Nottingham, the early intervention city, to see a series of projects that are being led by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who I am delighted to say is undertaking an early intervention review for the Government. That is where the hon. Lady has her roots as a youth worker. As many hon. Members have said, early intervention is key. It is important not just in the early years, but in identifying teenagers who are at risk of indulging in dangerous behaviour, before they get on a slippery slope.

We also want to promote new partnerships and sources of finance with the private sector and voluntary bodies. We want to enable voluntary bodies to challenge the monopoly provision of youth services departments. The big society bank is a particularly interesting way in which huge amounts of money might be leveraged into innovative and exciting youth projects.

I have talked to a huge number of people who are passionate about achieving excellent services for young people and I will be talking to young people, youth services representatives, businesses and the media over the coming months to develop our thinking. I have set up a youth forum of key players in the youth sector, which will meet again in two weeks. That is an important source of information, as are the various panels of young people that I have set up to inform the Government about how best to shape policy.

Young people contribute a massive amount to their communities, but the press they get is out of keeping with that and unduly negative. Antisocial behaviour must be tackled firmly, but one of my first responsibilities is to celebrate young people's achievements, and to promote a culture in the country and in the media of doing so. I am sure that all hon. Members present will want to contribute to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) made the strong point that prevention is better than waiting for the cure, hence our emphasis on early intervention through the early intervention grant. How that money is spent is important. We should not just throw money at projects. Their success should be determined not by the number of participants, but by whether they provide a life-changing experience for the young person, by the value added and by the quality of the experience. There has been too much concentration on how many people have participated, regardless of the outcomes.

My hon. Friend rightly said that the big society is not a political convenience, but something that has been going on in parts of the country beneath the radar for many years. We want to raise it on to the radar and to encourage more people to participate in it. The Opposition spokesman fell into the trap of lazy journalists. Occasionally, it is useful to let detail get in the way of a good headline. If he reads my speech at the Edith Kahn memorial lecture, he will see that the 17 pages subsequent to the initial setting out of the problems are rather good and set out what the big society is all about. I recommend
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that he reads it in full; it is available on the Department for Education website. It sounds as though Mike Stephens is something of a one-man big society in his own right.

The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) went on about the bleak days of the 1980s. She clearly got her headline because she has now legged it elsewhere. She mentioned Armley Juniors, which has set up a youth facility in a local post office-one of the few things to come from the previous Government's wholesale closure of the post office network.

The Government's policy is not about cuts, but about new and smarter ways of doing things. Just yesterday, we launched the voluntary and community sector grant scheme, which encourages youth services organisations to come forward with their good ideas to get funding from the Department for Education. There is a new £110 million education endowment fund that will allow schools, charities, local authorities, academy sponsors and other groups to bid for funding to boost the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. There is about £470 million to help fund key programmes, including the training of community organisers, the creation of a new neighbourhood grant programme and so on. We should look beyond the headlines.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) is right that we should use existing facilities in a smarter way. We want to use children's centres more out of hours and at weekends for youth activities. We should make more use of schools and sports facilities that are lying idle for much of the time. In my constituency, I set up a midnight football project that runs from 10 o'clock to midnight on Saturdays at a leisure centre after it has closed. That is when it is not being used and when the problems happen.

I will come on to the points made by the hon. Member for Bolton West, but because I have so little time I think that we will have to have a meeting. She
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asked about collecting information on youth services and auditing them. The Government collect annual figures on local authority expenditure on youth work through what have become known as section 52 returns. We are reviewing all data requirements on local authorities, but we have no plans to discontinue the collection of that information. I hope that that answer is helpful.

It is important that youth services are scrutinised by local young people. Youth mayors-there is one in Worthing-youth cabinets and UK Youth Parliament members should scrutinise the quality of youth services. They should use their voice to challenge local authorities and the Government. I spend a lot of time with them.

The hon. Lady mentioned West Sussex and I am aware of the pressures on local authority budgets. In fact, West Sussex county council has changed the way in which it does things and the cuts will not be of the level that she mentioned.

I look forward to visiting the project tomorrow with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). The national citizen service is not compensation for youth services. The funding will not come out of the Department for Education's funding for youth services, but will be completely separate. However, it does bring lessons for new ways of doing things that can be applied to the youth sector-it is about inspiring young people. We are not discussing just a short summer camp, but an experience of a lifetime at the transition to adulthood that will engage and re-engage young people in their communities on an ongoing and lasting basis. Let us not confuse it with a glorified summer camp.

There are many more questions, but I am running out of time in which to answer them. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member for Bolton West.

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Heritage Sites (Halesowen)

12.30 pm

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time today, Mr Rosindell.

At first glance, the debate seems specific to my constituency of Halesowen and Rowley Regis. However, potentially wider implications regarding the role of English Heritage should become clear and might well require further investigation.

People in Halesowen are proud of their cultural heritage and are concerned about one particular site of historic interest, which I want to talk about in some detail, as it illustrates some of the wider points that I want to make in the debate.

Halesowen abbey has been an intrinsic part of the heritage of Halesowen since it was founded nearly 800 years ago, in 1215. It was used as a monastery until the 16th century, when it was closed down by Henry VIII. The site was later granted to Sir John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, before being sold to the Lyttleton family in 1558. It later descended to Lord Cobham, who sold it to the current owner in 1993. A number of impressive tiles from the abbey are now held in the British Museum. The County Express,on Saturday 3 August 1938, reported a major archaeological find at the site. Many local people and the Halesowen Abbey Trust, which has been influential in looking after the site, are convinced that there are other archaeological deposits on the site of major historical significance.

The abbey is, under law, a scheduled ancient monument of national importance, which comes with certain implications that I will touch on later. The abbey was first classified with such significance in the early 20th century. Since 1950 it has also been a grade I listed building due to its special architectural and historic interest. The abbey is, evidently, not just another old building, but rather a demonstrably iconic piece in the Halesowen historical jigsaw.

Concern has been expressed on decisions about the site over a long period of time. Since 1993 many local people and groups have expressed concern that changes at the site have run roughshod over planning law and local opinion in Halesowen, even choosing to ignore and contradict the stipulations laid down by the Secretary of State in 1995, when giving scheduled monument consent. At that time, rather than knocking down an outbuilding, as approved by the Secretary of State, an extension was built on to an existing building.

I have no personal animus towards the current owner of the site, but several retrospective planning permissions have been applied for on multiple occasions, and the local group the Halesowen Abbey Trust argues that lasting damage has been caused, for example through repeated unauthorised tipping, to this site of national significance. As a consequence, there has been a substantial drop in the number of visitors to the site, from around 1,800 visitors in one weekend alone in 1989 to the temporary ending of public access in 2001. Furthermore, in spite of poor upkeep, when the site was opened for a three-day period earlier this year, more than 500 people visited, illustrating the importance of the site to local people and those from the surrounding area.

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English Heritage itself has, on a number of occasions, observed the poor condition of the site, reporting

among the reasons for a failure to open the site and as a general comment on its deterioration. English Heritage has also accepted that the unauthorised works that went on might have damaged buried archaeological artefacts.

As I said, I do not hold any personal animus towards the current owner, and it is up to the development control committee of the local authority to determine whether the current owner has the best intentions of Halesowen at heart when it considers his planning application. It will be for the committee to decide whether the conversion of a number of abbey outbuildings and barns into residential properties offers any improvement to the site-I understand that, last night, the most recent application for the barn conversion was accepted and passed by the development control committee.

As a result, it is absolutely imperative that English Heritage plays a proactive role in the future of the site, and that it answers some important questions about its role in the future preservation and development of this important historical site. What monitoring and level of active interest will English Heritage now exercise as a consequence of the decision? Will it oversee necessary archaeological work? Will it conduct impromptu site visits, to ensure that access is properly available? Will we be able to see a report of what was found during the development? What level of public visiting does English Heritage envisage in the future?

There are significant question marks over the role of English Heritage in the whole saga. Supposedly, its role is regularly to monitor scheduled monuments such as Halesowen abbey and to ensure that they are conserved or enhanced if conservation work is undertaken. However, I would question the ability of English Heritage properly and regularly to monitor the sites put into its care and its efforts to act upon any unauthorised material changes to historical sites such as Halesowen abbey.

At this point, Mr Rosindell, I should make you aware that Stonehenge has the same statutory protection as Halesowen abbey. Therefore, the role of English Heritage at Halesowen abbey, upon which I will expand, has potential implications for the heritage of ancient sites across the UK.

English Heritage has had unrivalled access to Halesowen abbey, through its statutory rights under law. In spite of that, it took a third party, the Halesowen Abbey Trust, to notice and report unauthorised works by the current owner. Indeed, the trust noticed that the works were of

The Halesowen Abbey Trust also helpfully informed me that English Heritage offices are based in Colmore row, Birmingham, which is just a 20-minute bus journey away from the site in Halesowen. Such material facts call into question the ability of English Heritage, in its current guise, effectively to operate and protect our national heritage, and illustrate an apparent lack of commitment and will to protect this particular site.

When the first instance of unauthorised work at the site occurred in 1996, English Heritage and the local council chose not to use the legal and practical means at
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their disposal to seek any meaningful move to restoring the site to its state before the unauthorised work. The local authority decision was made in a particular context, which involved an attempt to take the site forward in co-operation with the new owners. At the time, a number of assurances were made in good faith that there would be no repetition of such unauthorised works. As the Minister will understand, the Halesowen Abbey Trust was somewhat surprised in 2005 when English Heritage took the same position on further unauthorised work.

As far back as 1996, English Heritage wrote to the local press explaining that it had been unable to uphold its statutory functions because it lacked the necessary resources. If English Heritage is saying now that it has neither sufficient resources to protect our heritage from unauthorised works, nor the will to take appropriate action against those undertaking such works, there are some serious questions about its role and validity in this case. Although English Heritage survived the recent review of quangos by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, there is an argument for saying that that might, in some respects, have been slightly fortuitous.

English Heritage has made a number of decisions about the abbey that could be construed, at best, as very surprising and, at worst, as bizarre and lacking any credibility, and I want to give one illustration. The current owner built an unauthorised 2.3 metre high wall on the site, citing the need for a flood barrier. When the retrospective planning application was put before English Heritage and the Environment Agency in October 2002, it was noted that the constructed wall would

and both bodies advised that the planning application should be refused. Yet just months later, in August 2003, both organisations decided to approve a retrospective planning application on the basis that the wall would be reduced from 2.3 to 1.5 metres. That change would not of course make any material difference to the flooding issue that was originally cited. However, the creation of the wall leaves the monument and its setting damaged in perpetuity.

Halesowen abbey is not the only heritage site that is being poorly maintained in my constituency. The Ice house, which was built in the late 18th century and which is located in close proximity to Halesowen abbey, was given grade II listed building status last year. However, it has been vandalised on a number of occasions, and little has been done to protect and maintain it. Although Halesowen has a long history of heritage, there are few sites, and residents in Halesowen and the surrounding area are rightly concerned and angry about the deterioration of a number of them and want action to be taken. Constituents have written to me, and others have spoken to me directly, to express their unhappiness. I am therefore grateful that the Minister is here to address some of my points, and I have some specific questions for him.

What ability and competence does English Heritage have in terms of upholding laws and regulations relating to ancient and historical monuments such as Halesowen abbey and surrounding sites? Would a significant change to an historic site, such as the conversion of nearby outbuildings to residential use, represent a material deterioration, conservation or an enhancement to such
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a site? Would the Minister support a decision by English Heritage not to take action against the owner of an historic site for breaking the law on the basis that it wanted to avoid upsetting the owner? Will the Minister consider introducing an independent review of the current legislation on, and role of, regulatory bodies in respect of heritage sites of national significance?

The people of Halesowen want the proper preservation and enhancement of their sites of historical interest. They are concerned by the ongoing deterioration of such sites and by the apparent lack of will on the part of public agencies to preserve them. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend, and I thank him once again for being here to engage in this important debate.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose): Let me echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) by saying that this is my first opportunity to serve under you on one of these occasions, Mr Rosindell, and I am sure that it will be a pleasure. I saw you running the previous debate with military efficiency, so I am sure that we will make good progress in this one, too.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on gaining this debate and on setting out his case so clearly. He has made it clear to everybody here that Halesowen has elected a doughty champion for local people, who is willing to fight for local issues and to take them right the way to debates in the Houses of Parliament, when necessary. Heritage is not everybody's cup of tea, but my hon. Friend has shown that he is willing to engage with issues right across the breadth of political discourse, and I congratulate him.

I will endeavour to respond to my hon. Friend's points one by one in order, because he asked some quite specific questions. Before I begin that detailed response, however, I should say that if my hon. Friend hears anything in my response that, on further reflection and after discussion with local constituents, he wants to come back to me on, I am of course at his disposal. He can write to me, or we can have a conversation, if there are any points to follow up after the debate.

It might be helpful if I give a small amount of background about the site. My hon. Friend rightly said that it is quite a complicated site. On frequent occasions, it has been quite messy, and all sorts of different layers of usage have built up during its long history. Most recently, it has been quite a hard-working agricultural area, so the site has been used as a farmyard and a working area for quite some time. He is therefore right that the site has been messy, but he will understand that although everyone would obviously like all parts of the country to be beautiful, gorgeous and well maintained, the important issue from the point of view of English Heritage and the Government is whether the heritage has been damaged for future generations and whether the public has access, albeit messy access. Those are the crucial points that he is driving at, and I shall try to confine my remarks to the thrust of his questions.

My hon. Friend asked some quite specific questions about the controls that English Heritage may or may not exercise with regard to the development process. As he said, the local authority, in its planning authority
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role, gave permission just yesterday for the proposed developments to go ahead. He is absolutely right that English Heritage will expect to maintain quite close scrutiny of the development process for a monument of this importance and seniority to make sure that it is not harmed and that the development goes as planned and does not depart from the original plans.

Where such developments take place, the requirements are very specific to each individual site, so I shall ask English Heritage to write my hon. Friend a letter detailing precisely how it plans to engage with the development process in this case. If I describe generalities, that might not necessarily do the trick for this specific site, which will have its own idiosyncrasies. However, if I ask English Heritage to write to my hon. Friend to lay out precisely how it plans to engage with this process, he will have something in black and white, and he will be able to check whether it is being done. Equally, constituents and the Halesowen Abbey Trust will know what to expect from English Heritage, so that they can make sure that the development process is being conducted sympathetically and in a controlled fashion. I am sure that my hon. Friend, his constituents and I would all agree that that will be essential over the coming weeks and months as the development process moves forward.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government believe that a significant change to an historic site, such as the conversion of nearby outbuildings for residential use, represented a material deterioration, conservation or an enhancement to the site in question. That is a tremendously important question generally and in the specific case of this site. It is undoubtedly true that any change or development can constitute a risk to a site of heritage importance. However, it is also true that sympathetic development, when done correctly, can be the saving of an awful lot of such sites. In general, English Heritage, other heritage bodies up and down the country and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have found that it is far better to have a sympathetic site owner or manager, and a site that is in continuous use with a sustainable use going forward. That is simply because it then has a continuing purpose and is likely to be invested in as necessary, to ensure that the new and historical structures are well maintained.

James Morris: I totally understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but in this case there has been a lot of evidence over a long time of a lack of confidence on the part of the local community and, in particular, the Halesowen Abbey Trust, in the will to make the necessary changes and ensure that, where there is controlled development, it is done in a way that is suitable for the site and preserves its potential archaeological interest.

John Penrose: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As I understand it, the plans that have just been approved were originally developed a couple of years ago, starting in 2008, in full consultation with English Heritage. It had extensive input into those plans and has indicated that it is comfortable with how the plans will treat the monument and the listed remains.

Of course, the question is not just whether the plans are sympathetically drawn up, and whether the intention is to use sensible materials that will frame the heritage parts of the site in an impressive and academically acceptable way, but whether those plans will genuinely be delivered, as the development process goes through. I take my hon. Friend's point on that.

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I shall come on to answer some of his questions about developments to the site that were made without planning permission and that needed retrospective planning permission. I hope that my answer to my hon. Friend's question about controls over the development process and how English Heritage is planning to engage with those-and the fact that I am going to ask English Heritage to write to him with a list of how it is going to do that-will help to address both his concerns and those of local people. In the unlikely event that English Heritage does not live up to what it plans to do on that site during the development process, I am sure that he and the trust will be on its case and will contact me as necessary to ensure that there is no slippage or backsliding.

To pick up on the final point I was making in answer to the last question, it is better to have a living building that is being used in a sustainable fashion, provided that that is done sympathetically to the heritage asset concerned, than something that is unused and not cared for, that does not attract investment, and that is therefore unlikely to be maintained. That is something that we find across the country.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit some of the new developments taking place by King's Cross station in north London, where a number of listed buildings are being incorporated into some stunning modern architecture. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new; it is being done very carefully with a great deal of respect for the heritage assets. The future of those heritage assets will be hugely improved as a result of being brought back into use in a modern way. I hope that is a clear answer to my hon. Friend's original question.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government would support a decision by English Heritage not to prosecute the owner of an historic site for breaking the law, on the basis that it wanted to avoid upsetting the owner. He mentioned the case of the flood wall, but I understand that there have been other, smaller cases, too. I understand that English Heritage did consider prosecution and took the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, which indicated it would not be prepared to take forward the prosecution of Mr Tudor for the unauthorised works. That is not to say that it is never right to prosecute. In fact, English Heritage has prosecuted in the past, though not frequently because the cost is very high and, technically, achieving a positive result in court in these cases is hard. However, it has happened, and successfully. I do not think that there is any theoretical or practical obstacle to doing so, but it happens rarely.

Given that the CPS said it was reluctant to take the case forward because it felt that there was a low probability of success, I think English Heritage's approach of saying that it needed to work constructively with the owner was probably the best opportunity in that specific option. That does not mean that it should not come down hard on examples of bad behaviour. On occasions, it is necessary, as the French said of the English Navy, to hang an admiral pour encourager les autres. It is important to make it clear that there is a line in the sand beyond which people should not go. The principle is clear and is as my hon. Friend describes.

My hon. Friend's final question was whether we should introduce an independent review to check on the ability of English Heritage to uphold laws and regulations. I think that English Heritage is held in pretty high
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regard across the wider heritage community, if I can put it that way, although obviously no organisation is perfect. A lot of people, including within English Heritage, would say that they wanted it to improve in a number of ways. However, English Heritage, among others, also agrees that in the wake of the comprehensive spending review, like any other part of the public sector, it has to do more with less. At the moment it is busy re-organising in order to become more efficient and is cutting its cloth to fit, in the same way that everybody else has to. It is not pleasant or fun, but it has to make do, and is doing so professionally.

It is clear that, once the dust has settled, English Heritage will have to look at some of its current processes-for example, the listings process-to work out how to perform those statutory tasks in a way that is more efficient, faster and cheaper, while at the same time ensuring that it provides the important protection of heritage assets that my hon. Friend and I have been debating.

James Morris: Again, I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. Will he emphasise to English Heritage the importance of sites in areas such as Halesowen? If one mentions Halesowen heritage outside of Halesowen, people do not realise the rich tapestry of culture and heritage that there is there and in other areas of the black country. English Heritage should prioritise and give thought to the importance of monuments in places that are not typically thought of as traditional areas of English heritage.

John Penrose: I am happy to do so. My hon. Friend has touched on an important point, because heritage assets are wrongly viewed as a crumbling piece of an awkward obstacle to development. In most communities, they are rightly seen as huge assets from which the community can benefit. They make each community distinct and different, and keep us in touch with our local past. In many cases they are great sources of tourism income, too. I agree completely that there are a lot of opportunities there.

To conclude, English Heritage knows that it has to react to the recent comprehensive spending review by becoming more efficient, in the same way as many other bodies in the public sector. It is starting that remodelling, and I expect it to go a great deal further over the next months. I hope it will do so in a way that will please my hon. Friend. In the meantime, I will ask it to write to him with the details of how it proposes to protect this site.

Andrew Rosindell (in the Chair): Order. The sitting is suspended until 1 o'clock.

12.58 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Education Policies (Warrington North)

1 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure, Mr Rosindell, to serve under your chairmanship. It is a pleasure, also, to see the Minister in his place; he and I used to serve on the Select Committee for Education and I know that he has a genuine interest in education. I hope that he will take seriously what I am about to say.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the impact that the Government's education policies are having, and will continue to have, on my constituency. In truth, however, the Government's decisions and their cuts to the education budget will seriously hamper the life chances of many young people in my constituency, especially the poorest.

The borough of Warrington does not rank high in the indices of deprivation. It contains some affluent areas, but it also contains areas of multiple deprivation. Many of the poorest wards in the borough are in my constituency-indeed, they are among the most deprived in Cheshire-and it is those areas that are now being hit.

The cuts began with the Government's decision to cancel the Building Schools for the Future project. As a result, two schools in my constituency-William Beamont high school and Lysander high school-saw their hopes of new buildings disappear rapidly over the horizon.

We opened one new school in my constituency under the BSF project. It was Culcheth high school, and I went to the opening in the autumn. It is a fantastic building, and it will enhance the opportunity for teaching and learning in the area, as well as providing more facilities for the community. It is so good that Warrington's cabinet executive member for education, Councillor Sheila Woodyatt, called it the best thing to happen to Culcheth in 100 years-and she is a Conservative. It is sad that some of the more deprived areas in my constituency will not have the same opportunities.

The BSF project was cancelled without properly assessing the need to rebuild in certain areas. Indeed, I asked the Department what assessment it had made of the need for rebuilding at a number of schools in my constituency, but it took a long time to answer. I asked the question in July; I received the answer on 26 October. The answer made it clear that no real assessment of need had been made before cancellation, yet BSF would have given us £80 million to rebuild Warrington's schools. That sum would have enabled the rebuilding of William Beamont high school and modernised Lysander high school. Those schools serve some of the most deprived areas in the borough. They serve wards where many have low incomes, and where an increasing number of people are unemployed. Above all, they serve areas where many have no qualifications, yet those schools have done a fantastic job in increasing aspiration and improving educational outcomes.

William Beamont is a specialist sports college with a second specialism in IT. Lysander high school is another specialist school. William Beamont has increased the number of children getting five good GCSEs; it has cut its exclusion rate, and it has increased attendance. Lysander school has exceeded its targets for improving its GCSE results, and it has also exceeded the council's targets.
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They did all those things in old and unsuitable buildings. I ask the Minister to imagine what could be done if they had decent, up-to-date facilities.

Facilities matter. Conservative members of Warrington borough council know that they matter. When the BSF project was announced, Councillor Woodyatt told the Warrington Guardian that she welcomed the difference that it would make not only to teachers and pupils but to the community. Her allies, the Liberal Democrats-Warrington, too, has a Conservative-Liberal coalition-trumpeted about the BSF money in their newsletter, saying that

They did not say then that it was not necessary, and they did not foresee any problems. They were glad of it. Now, however, those schools will have to bid again for money from a much-reduced capital spending pot.

The Government's criteria in the Treasury's Green Book for allocating that money are clear; they are population growth and modernisation. Deprivation is not mentioned anywhere. We know that population growth will lead to a bulge in primary school pupil numbers, which will necessitate the spending of more money. The Government also want to spend money on free schools and academies, thus depleting the pot even more. The Warrington schools will be bidding for money from a reduced pot, but experience shows that many of those that have already been given the go-ahead are receiving only 40% of what they expected. That is a huge slap in the face for the poorer communities in Warrington.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones: I am sorry, but I have limited time and the hon. Gentleman did not seek my permission to participate in the debate.

The BSF cuts are not the only problem faced by Warrington schools. As I said, those two schools are specialist schools, yet specialist funding has been stopped. William Beamont is part of the school sports partnership, which hugely increased the number of young people taking part in sport in Warrington. That funding, too, is to be axed.

As for the overall settlement, we foresee further problems. The Government are keen to tell us that they are to increase spending on schools by 0.1% each year. However, that takes no account of the fact that the pupil premium, which we were told would be extra, is included in that settlement. It is not extra money. It also fails to recognise that the growth in pupil numbers will mean a reduction in spending per pupil over the next four years.

Those schools will be left in unsuitable buildings, with a decreasing amount of money per pupil. They will also have to suffer the problems caused by council cuts. Services that they used to receive from local councils are gradually being reduced, and they will have to purchase them elsewhere. I give one example; the council is already considering withdrawing IT support for schools. That would give rise to further problems.

I turn to the Government's decision on the education maintenance allowance. Almost 2,000 young people in Warrington receive the EMA. That money has made a
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real difference to participation rates in education; £10, £20 or £30 may not seem much to some, but it allows the poorer families in my constituency to pay bus fares to college, gives young people money to buy lunch and is has helped some to buy stationery and other things that they need for their courses. Those are all things that the poorer families find difficult to purchase.

Reducing that allowance will make a real difference to participation rates in education, because the money has worked during the past few years; it has increased the number of students staying on and the number of students in my constituency who go into higher education. The number of students in my constituency going into higher education rose by more than half in the 10 years from 1999 to 2009.

It seems that we will get in return a fund that will be used by head teachers and principals. I have tried asking the Government what the criteria will be for the allocation of that money and I cannot find out. In the last Education questions, I asked whether head teachers had been consulted about this change and the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning was terribly courteous, but he just did not answer my question. He also did not tell me whether there would be an appeals process. So we do not know how that money will be allocated and it seems that we are moving from a system in which people receive money according to their income-as of right-to a type of "Lady Bountiful" system, in which money will be dished out by head teachers. Actually, I doubt that many head teachers want to do that.

What we do know is that the Government will be saving more than £500 million on the EMA, but they will be allocating only £150 million to the new scheme. That means a huge reduction in the cash available to the poorest students. Although the Government tell us that they want to increase participation and staying-on rates, they will the ends without willing the means.

At Warrington Collegiate in my constituency, 61% of students aged between 16 and 18 are in receipt of EMA and a third of the intake is from areas of multiple deprivation. Warrington Collegiate strongly fears that removing EMA will mean fewer students coming through the college.

Warrington Collegiate also faces another cut in its budget. It is clear from the comprehensive spending review that the unit costs for 16 to 19-year-olds will be reduced. Warrington Collegiate does not yet know how that reduction will feed through into its budget. It expects a cut of at least 3%. May I repeat that those 16 to 19-year-olds are the very people whom the Government say they want to keep in education?

To add insult to injury, the university of Chester, which has a large campus in Warrington, has seen 88.5% of its teaching funding go. That is all the teaching funding for group C and group D courses, and probably half the funding for group B courses. The university estimates that to fill that gap it will have to charge fees of £7,000. The university is vital to Warrington and its economic development and to the development of the Omega site, which is a huge employment creation site in my constituency. The university of Chester has done tremendous work with schools to increase aspirations and to get more young people from families where no one has been to university before to enter higher education.

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The results of this decision to cut funding could be very serious indeed for the courses that are provided at the Warrington campus such as courses in creative industries, business, media and sport. It is fashionable to sniff at those courses, but the Minister knows as well as I do that most of the graduates from those courses actually get jobs. It will be a very serious matter for young people in my constituency if they can no longer gain access to that facility.

In effect, what we are seeing is a triple whammy. I have no time today to go into the axing of the programmes for rebuilding special schools in my constituency, or what will happen with the reduction in school support staff, or the further reductions in council services. However, we have seen the building programme cut, we are seeing funding cut and we are seeing support for students cut. The impact of those cuts on the poorest wards and the poorest families in my constituency cannot be overestimated. The Government tell us that we are all "in this together", but these are the very people who do not have the resources to replace that funding.

I say to the Minister that that is wrong on two counts. First, it is wrong economically. We all know that in the future unskilled jobs will start to disappear, and that the future of this country is in producing a skilled and educated population. We cannot underbid other countries in wages all the time; we have to gain on skills. Without education provision, however, our skills will not improve.

Secondly, it is wrong morally. "Morally" is not a word that we often use in Parliament, but I believe that these cuts are wrong morally. It is morally wrong to penalise our poorest communities and our poorest families in this way.

I know that the Minister is a decent man and that he has a real concern for underprivileged students in education. I hope that he will listen to the case that I-along with many others in their own communities-am making, because if we do not get changes in this policy what will happen is very simple. Fewer of our young people will stay on in education; fewer will go into higher education, and this country will suffer for many years ahead as a result. Young people are our most precious resource. We ought to be caring for and husbanding that resource, rather than chopping it off.

There used to be a slogan among the teaching unions-I think that it was used at the time of the last Tory Government-that, "If you think education's expensive, try ignorance". I think that we are in danger of trying ignorance. The people in my constituency whom I have talked about today will suffer hugely as a result, and I hope that the Minister will give the facts that I have outlined serious consideration.

1.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate. I know that she has been a tremendous champion of education, not only in Warrington but nationally, having served for many years on the Select Committee on Education. As she kindly said, for some of those years we served on
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the Committee together. I always enjoyed working with her on the various reports that the Committee produced and I have listened very carefully to her comments today.

In Warrington, the attainment of children and young people across each key stage is consistently above, or well above, the national average. For example, the proportion of 16-year-olds in Warrington achieving five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C was 10% higher than the national level or the level in similar local authority areas.

Helen Jones: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister before he gets into his stride-he is very generous in giving way. However, does he accept that those figures mask huge disparities within the borough and that, although schools in deprived areas have taken tremendous strides, there is still a disparity between the more affluent areas and the poorer areas?

Mr Gibb: Yes-I was coming on to that point. I was not citing those figures as a reason not to take action; I merely wanted to point out what has been achieved in Warrington already.

In 2009, the proportion of 11-year-olds in Warrington achieving expected levels of attainment in both English and maths was 77%, compared to 72% in all schools in England. However, as the hon. Lady intimated, within Warrington, as in many other areas of the country, performance varies significantly from school to school. There are excellent schools in Warrington, as there are many excellent schools nationally, but it is also the case that too many schools are still struggling or coasting. The results at national level and the large gaps in performance between different groups of pupils are why we believe urgent reform is needed.

It is the Government's ambition to raise academic standards in all this country's schools to ensure a high-quality education for all children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. The Government's key objective is to close that attainment gap between those from the wealthiest backgrounds and those from the poorest backgrounds. We therefore share the hon. Lady's aim that she set out in her remarks. Education is key to social mobility-indeed, in my opinion it is the only route to social mobility. That is why we announced yesterday our focus on ensuring that every child has mastered the basic skill of decoding and reading words by the end of the second year of primary school, through a light-touch screening check.

That is why we also sought to put onto the statute book the Academies Act 2010, to enable us to expand the academies programme, with 144 new academies having opened since the start of the academic year. That Act for the first time enables primary and special schools to become academies and to enjoy the greater freedoms that academy status brings.

David Mowat: I am interested in what the Minister is saying about social mobility. Does he recognise that in the past decade, we as a nation have slipped from fourth to 14th in science teaching and from eighth to 24th in mathematics teaching? The impact of that will have been felt in Warrington. Those statistics are a damning indictment of our ability to be socially mobile. Science, technology, engineering and maths, more than anything else, will provide jobs and skills for the future.

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Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I know that he has been campaigning in Warrington for his schools, and I congratulate him on his work, as I congratulate the hon. Lady on hers. On his point, that is why we are considering the national curriculum with the intention of restoring it to its intended purpose of providing a minimum core entitlement built around subject discipline. It is also why we are enabling parents, teachers and other education providers to set up free schools, so parents have a real choice for their children.

Good school buildings, though, are part of that package. School buildings need continuing investment, but it is vital that future spending represents the best possible value for money. Building Schools for the Future was an important programme of the previous Administration, which aimed to rebuild or refurbish every one of our 3,500 secondary schools by 2023. That was a bold and impressive ambition, but unfortunately the programme has failed spectacularly to live up to the hype. During five years of the programme, just 263 schools have benefited. The number of schools completely rebuilt under the programme is even smaller: just 136. That is a very small number for such a grand ambition.

Where BSF has delivered, it has been at exorbitant cost. As has been pointed out, rebuilding a school under BSF has turned out to be three times more expensive than constructing a commercial building and twice as expensive as building a school in Ireland, while the BSF budget has grown from £45 billion to £55 billion and the time scale has increased from 10 years to a projected 18. Some of the reasons for the additional cost and delay are understandable, but the fact remains that BSF had become a vast and confusing morass of process and cost by the time it was ended, and it represented extremely poor value for money. Some £60 million of the £250 million spent on BSF was frittered away on consultants and advisory costs before a brick had even been laid.

David Mowat: The Minister might be aware that the average cost of bidding for a BSF project was about £1 million, which is approximately the cost of a new primary school. Does that not say all that there is to be said about the waste implicit in the programme? Everybody wants more and better schools. Two schools in my constituency, Sir Thomas Boteler and Penketh high schools, desperately need refurbishment, but that must be done cost-effectively, not while frittering away money as BSF did.

Mr Gibb: That is where we want the money to go: not on consultants, but on refurbishment and bricks.

Nobody comes into politics to cut funding, least of all a new Government who have inherited a school system that we are worried lets down too many of its pupils. However, we are faced with a £156 billion budget deficit, and it is our responsibility-difficult and painful though it might be-to tackle that problem. Although we have announced the end of the BSF programme, that does not mean the end of capital spending on schools.

The hon. Lady will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) has organised a meeting with my noble Friend Lord Hill at the Department for Education to make the case for Warrington schools. Also present will be the leader of
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the council and the head teachers of several schools that have been affected. I know that she is to attend that meeting as well, to represent the schools in her constituency.

In determining which projects would go ahead and which would cease, the Government developed a single set of criteria and applied it nationally. The three types of school project allowed to continue were: those projects that were part of their area's initial BSF schemes and had reached financial close; the so-called sample projects that were part of their area's initial BSF schemes, where financial close had not been reached but a preferred bidder had been appointed at close of dialogue; and some planned school projects in addition to a local authority's initial scheme.

As the hon. Lady will know, Warrington formally entered the BSF programme in February 2010. As Warrington did not have any sample schemes or an outline business case approved before 1 January 2010, the Warrington scheme was stopped. I recognise that those areas close to the cut-off point for BSF, including the hon. Lady's constituency, might find that extremely frustrating and upsetting, and I am acutely aware that stopping the BSF programmes for schools in her constituency has, understandably, caused dismay among students, teachers and parents. However, it is important to remember that the end of BSF does not mean the end of capital spending on schools. Money will still be spent on school buildings, but it is imperative, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that that money is spent on school infrastructure and buildings, not on the process, especially if we are to meet increasing demand for school places over the coming years as the birth rate rises.

To correct the hon. Lady, cash per pupil is per-pupil cash. Funding for schools will be maintained at the same amount of cash per pupil, so schools' expanding pupil population will not affect it. On top of that, the pupil premium will come from outside the schools budget, meaning that over four years, spending on schools will rise in real terms.

Helen Jones: Will the Minister confirm that the pupil premium is included in the 0.1% increase and is not extra money? That is what the figures say that I have seen.

Mr Gibb: Yes. The £2.5 billion is what enables us to deliver real-terms increases across the schools budget.

We appointed a review to consider how capital spending will be allocated in future. The hon. Lady discussed the Green Book allocation process; we will be considering the new basis on which scarce resources will be allocated. We appointed Sebastian James to conduct a root-and-branch review of all capital investment in schools, sixth-form colleges and other services for which the Department is responsible. The review is due to report back at the end of December. It will consider how best to meet parental demand, make design and procurement cost-effective and efficient, and overhaul the allocation and targeting of capital. That will give us the means to ensure that future decisions on capital spending are based on actual need and that all schools provide an environment that supports high-quality education.

Given the fact that the review is still in progress, I am sure that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot make any specific commitments today on
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how much money will be allocated or exactly when. However, I assure them that the Department will continue to make capital allocations on the basis of need, in particular on dilapidation and deprivation, and that the end of BSF does not therefore mean the end of school building.

David Mowat: Does the Minister agree that this week's announcement by Councillor Woodyatt, who has been mentioned extensively in this debate, of a new primary school in Warrington North, Oakwood avenue, is an example of the fact that capital spending is continuing? Not everything has been stopped by the hiatus in BSF.

Mr Gibb: Again, my hon. Friend makes a worthwhile intervention, for which I am grateful. Capital spending is being conducted, and several hundred schools are continuing work under the BSF programme.

The hon. Lady spoke about the education maintenance allowance. I acknowledge that evidence from the pilots shows that the EMA was successful, in its early days, in encouraging young people to stay in education. The decision to end the scheme will be disappointing to many young people, but I do not believe that anyone will have to drop out of education as a consequence. Already, 96% of 16-year-olds and 94% of 17-year-olds participate in education, employment or training. Attitudes to staying in education post-16 have changed. We are committed to going further still and attaining full participation by 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 must reconsider the most effective way to support the most vulnerable young people to stay on in education. There is evidence that the EMA has helped a small number of young people stay on, but the same evidence suggests that the scheme has a significant dead-weight cost. Pilot evidence throughout the scheme and more recent research from the National Foundation for Educational Research found that almost 90% of young people receiving the EMA believe that they still would have participated in their courses if they had not received it.

The EMA is a hugely expensive programme, costing more than £560 million a year, £36 million of which is administration. Of course we do not want any young person to drop out of education due to financial difficulty, but we cannot justify continuing to fund a programme so expensive and poorly targeted. Currently, a discretionary learner support fund gives £25 million a year to schools, colleges and training providers to enable payments to be made to young people to help them meet the cost of their education. Colleges value the fund and are happy to play Lady Bountiful, as the hon. Lady said, by handing out the money to the young people whom they consider to be most in need. They can also respond to changes in students' household income during the year. After the EMA is abolished, the fund will be increased significantly over the spending review period. The detail of future arrangements is still being considered.

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Dartford Crossing (Congestion)

1.30 pm

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I am pleased to open the debate and to have secured a discussion on the biggest local issue facing Dartford. As the time allowed for the debate is short, I will try to cover as many points as I can and, with your leave, Mr Rosindell, I will take interventions, about which I have spoken to the Minister. Of course, I will also leave time for the Minister to respond.

Hon. Members will know that the Dartford crossing is probably the most congested part of the country's motorway network. Tailbacks regularly stretch for miles on both the Kent and Essex sides of the crossing and cause delay and misery for motorists. The crossing is a scar on the face of Dartford. When a problem exists by the crossing, local roads in Dartford also become congested with motorists trying to find alternative routes. The crossing should open up Dartford and encourage businesses to base themselves in the area; instead, it holds it back and strangles commerce. A continuation of the status quo is not an option for the Dartford crossing.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing the debate, but on the passionate way he has fought for the issue with different agencies over the years. I applaud his commitment to that. He mentioned Dartford being affected by the crossing, but does he also agree that it affects constituencies around Dartford in terms of businesses, people travelling and holiday makers? It is absolutely vital for the whole of the south-east that we get this right.

Gareth Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I totally agree with him. The issue affects the whole of the Thames Gateway area-not least Gillingham and Rainham, which are particularly pertinent to him. It is essential that we tackle congestion on the Dartford crossing in order to open up the whole area and allow business to flourish across the Thames Gateway network.

I am pleased that the Minister shares my view that a continuation of the status quo is not an option for the Dartford crossing. Although we may disagree on some issues regarding the crossing, I pay tribute to his work on tackling the problem. His positive, can-do attitude to dealing with the problem has led to more progress on the issue during the six months he has been the relevant Minister than in the whole of the last 13 years. His determination to remove the toll booths, which ultimately cause the congestion, is to be welcomed. I have noticed that each time a difficulty with removing the toll booths has been presented to him, he has not simply thrown the papers away and given up on the notion of removing the booths; instead, he has sought to find a solution that tackles that problem.

I want to make it clear that the tolls on the Dartford crossing should be scrapped in their entirety. That is what was promised to the residents of Dartford by the previous Government. We were told that the tolls would be scrapped when the bridge had been paid for. That happened in 2003, yet the tolls remain. Today, I call on the Minister to scrap the tolls completely.

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Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He and the Minister will be well aware that I am also in favour of scrapping the tolls on the crossing. There has been a betrayal of what we were initially told about the bridge being free when it has paid for itself. However, I appreciate that we are currently in a tough financial and economic situation. Congestion is a real issue in my borough of Bexley and for my constituents of Bexleyheath and Crayford, as well for businesses and residents of other constituencies. I therefore endorse what my hon. Friend says. Does he agree that we should pursue more radical solutions with the Minister, such as removing the toll booths, and that we should also consider the more effective use of free-flow technology by promoting and developing the DART-Tag scheme further?

Gareth Johnson: I totally agree with my hon. Friend's comments. I am fully aware of the problems that Bexleyheath and Crayford suffer as a result of the congestion at the Dartford crossing. The No. 1 challenge is to remove the booths themselves, because they are the cause of congestion on the crossing. The tailbacks emanate from the booths and, without them, there would be a dramatic improvement in-and perhaps even the eradication of-the congestion on the Dartford crossing that causes problems in Bexleyheath, Crayford and, of course, Dartford, Thurrock and the surrounding areas.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): My understanding is that by introducing free-flow technology, of course, there would be an increase in capacity on the crossing. However, that would give only a one-off increase of approximately 20%. In recent years, the volume of traffic using the crossing has increased exponentially. Does my hon. Friend agree that ultimately we need an additional crossing somewhere else on the Thames to enable traffic to be diverted from the M25 on to another crossing?

Gareth Johnson: I am grateful for that intervention. In principle, I accept that there should be a further crossing over the Thames. The big issue is, of course, where that crossing should be. It is a classic case of nimbyism. I do not think anyone here would hold their hand up and ask for a further crossing to be placed in their constituency. Doing so would add further congestion and difficulties to the particular areas that we represent. Finding a location for an extra crossing over the Thames area is problematic and will be the biggest challenge of all in trying to ensure that we have greater capacity for vehicles to get across the Thames.

We have recently had an announcement that the price of the tolls should be increased. I cannot accept that extra levy on the motorist, who is feeling fairly beleaguered in this particular part of the country. At the general election, I said that unlike my predecessor I would never vote to keep the tolls on the Dartford crossing and that I would only vote to scrap them. I meant that. The Transport Act 2000 was supported by Labour MPs and opposed by Conservative MPs. That piece of legislation allowed the tolls to continue and, ironically, changed them from a toll to a form of congestion charge. I say "ironically" because the tolls actually cause the congestion on the crossing. In this case, the congestion charge itself is responsible for causing the congestion.

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I welcome the Department for Transport's confirmation that the previous Government's announcement of the privatisation of the crossing will not take place. We have overturned the previous Labour Government's policy of selling off the Dartford crossing. If the Labour party had won the last general election, the crossing would have been sold to a private company and we would have lost control over the levying of charges on the motorist. Perhaps that is why there are not too many Labour MPs in this Chamber championing this cause. The local resident discount scheme has financially helped some local residents who are frequent users of the crossing, but the initial outlay for the DART-Tag has put off local residents who use the crossing only occasionally.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): My hon. Friend knows that I share his long-term desire for the removal of tolls on the Dartford crossing. However, he will also be aware of the enormous sense of unfairness felt by many people in north Kent, who do not qualify for the resident discount scheme. Does he not agree that if the tolls are to stay in the foreseeable future, the local discount scheme should be extended to neighbouring authorities, such as Medway?

Gareth Johnson: My hon. Friend has championed that cause for the residents of Chatham and Aylesford for a considerable time, and I pay tribute to the work that she put into the issue. I am pleased that she shares my view that, ultimately, the solution to the problem is the removal of the tolls.

I hope that there is some scope to expand the local persons discount scheme. I am pleased to note that, although the scheme has some limitations, it is likely to apply to the proposed increases in the tolls. The introduction of the scheme coincided with an increase in the toll from £1 to £1.50, which left many more motorists needing change. The highways authority has informed me that it has had to remove some of the automated toll booths to allow for that, which of course has increased the length of the queues and led to the dreadful congestion we see today. It is no advantage to a local person who receives a discount if they have to wait in a queue for three hours to get it.

Removing the booths and replacing them with modern technology to levy a charge on motorists would remove the two worst aspects of the crossing, the congestion and the pollution, but it would not remove the costs. Local businesses have told me that the congestion is the worst problem for them. They can budget for the cost of using the crossing, but they cannot budget for the unpredictable nature of the congestion.

Jackie Doyle-Price: I endorse that point on behalf of businesses in my constituency. The cost of congestion is really adding to the cost of doing business, and at a time when we want to see expansion in south Essex, that is unacceptable. We really need to grip that problem.

Gareth Johnson: Members will be aware that the area of Thurrock that is closest to the crossing is an industrial area, and the same is true in some parts of Dartford. We have the Crossways boulevard, which is as area of industrial strength, but it could be so much better were it not for the congestion. For the reasons to which my hon. Friend alluded and the potential benefit for businesses
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in Dartford, I believe that local businesses will welcome the Minister's proposals and the removal of the booths themselves, which should lead ultimately to the removal of the congestion.

The congestion at the Dartford crossing has united Dartford against the current toll booths system. Local people despise the impact that it has had on the area, as we have had nothing but misery, congestion and pollution as a result. The local media have played their part in lobbying for the congestion to be tackled. The Dartford Times has had a "Stop the Toll" campaign, the Dartford Messenger has had the "Axe the Tax" campaign, and the News Shopper has also campaigned hard on the matter. They are all correct to do so, because I believe that the only complete solution to the enormous problem is for the tolls to be scrapped entirely.

The Minister's proposals are a vast improvement on the current situation. They will ensure that there need be no more congestion at the Dartford crossing than anywhere else on the M25. The previous Government did absolutely nothing about the congestion at the Dartford crossing. We had 13 years of inaction. They introduced a local discount scheme, but although it lowered costs, it increased congestion. They announced a plan to sell off the whole crossing. It is yet another mess that we have inherited and that we are trying to resolve. It is a problem that has been ignored for the past 13 years, a problem with which I am pleased that we are now beginning to get to grips.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Rosindell. What an ironic coincidence it is that you are chairing a debate on a matter that is so important in your constituency, a part of the world that I know well. I know that the correct protocol for Ministers, quite rightly, is to address the Chamber when speaking on behalf of the Government, but it will be quite difficult to do so as the Opposition Benches are completely empty. I apologise if I have to turn my back to Members who are present for this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on being so persistent about the matter, and on securing the debate. It is a shame that it is only a half-hour debate, as I know that colleagues on this side of the Chamber would have liked to spend more time debating the issues that are so relevant to their constituents.

In the short time I have been a Minister, I have encountered few issues that raise as much local and national concern as has the Thames crossing between Thurrock and Dartford. As a former fireman, I have on too many occasions attended incidents on the Essex side of the crossing where road traffic accidents-road traffic collisions, or whatever modern term we use today-have taken place because people were so frustrated that they took risks. I would ask the drivers and passengers what the cause of the accident was, and all too often they replied that it was anger, frustration and concern that they were being delayed in going about their business or doing their personal duties. Whether they were going north or south, they were usually delayed for one reason: the toll booths on the Kent side of the river.

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I am determined, with the Secretary of State's permission, to do everything we can to alleviate that congestion and pollution. We have not had enough time to debate the pollution, but on both sides of the river it is blighting the lives of many constituents. Visitors to the country are also affected, as 20% of all heavy goods vehicles travelling north through both bores are foreign. The crossing is the lifeblood of the country's economy. It is invariably how traffic gets from the south to the north.

We have looked carefully at the situation in these difficult times. I fully respect the position of hon. Members who have campaigned over the years to have the previous Government's promise to remove the tolls honoured. However, we are in really difficult economic times, and the £70 million a year gross revenue that the tolls take in is an important part of the money available for the infrastructure and transport network for the whole country. I know that the matter is really personal for those in that part of the world, but it is a piece of national infrastructure, and the Transport Act 2000 specifically states that the net value of the tolls should be used in transport infrastructure. It is one of the few hypothecated sources of revenue that we have.

I will outline quickly what we have done in the short time we have been able to address a situation that has been going on for years. The first thing we asked was whether it is right in the 21st century to delay people, sometimes for hours, when we expect them to pay a fee to use a crossing. When the tolls are causing the problem and the resulting tailbacks become unacceptably long, we have been releasing the toll charge. In other words, we have lifted the barriers at those times and people are not being charged. There is currently no guidance on how long the tailbacks have to be before we do that, so we hope to have a protocol in place in the new year so that people will know exactly what that distance will be.

That is just an interim measure, because we all know that the way to address the congestion and pollution is to have free flow charging. For the foreseeable future we will have to impose a toll, so how do we minimise the effect on the user while recouping the income? Fantastically, the congestion charge uses vehicle number plate recognition, and it works well. We intend to use that technology to remove the barriers at the north and south of the crossing.

The toll booths are what is really holding up the traffic. As we heard earlier in the debate, the delays are actually being caused by people trying to find change, not realising that they have to pay, or losing their DART-Tag. If we remove the toll booths altogether so that people can drive across the bridge or through the bores, that delay will be removed. Although we are looking at whether we can enhance the number of vehicles that can use the bridge, and 20% seems to be the figure we are looking at, particularly for the bridge-I will come back to the bores in a moment-it is surely fair to the user, whether local or national, that there is free flow.

A considerable amount of construction work is required to realign the road so that there is a straight run, particularly when vehicles come off the bridge. Otherwise, at junction 1A, as those of us who are familiar with that part of the world know, they would be dog-legging to the right at that optimal speed of 50 mph, which will be the speed at which they will be allowed to come down. There will be a great deal of work and cost involved in
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doing that, and a great deal of technology needs to be put in place as well. Some of that technology is already there. The average-speed cameras will be commissioned soon, and we intend to start commissioning beyond the bridge and back towards junction 2 as the public get used to the 50 mph speed that we want them to use to come across the bridge safely and go towards the bores.

The money will come specifically from the increase in the toll. I would love to have informed the House today that we do not need the 50p from 2011 and 2012, because, obviously, I do not like taxing the British public. However, we need that money, which will be hypothecated for the work we need to do and to pay not only for the non-charging, which we will implement as a short-term measure, but for the free-flow tolling and then-this was touched on by colleagues-to look at a business plan for a new lower Thames crossing.

We all know that the capacity and growth that this country needs will mean that we will struggle, particularly going north. Why will there be such a problem going north? It is because the two bores are not the same size. The inside bore is smaller, so we will struggle to keep a free flow going while oversize vehicles move into the outside lane to go through the larger bore. That is a big technical issue. We still intend to remove the barriers, but we will have to use the matrix signs to slow the traffic going north or halt it so that those vehicles can move across. That will always be a problem.

Secondly, where there is congestion-for example, on the M25 in the Essex section-we cannot legally allow traffic to sit in the tunnel for any length of time. It is not safe, and we have no intention of doing that. Therefore, as we look forward to developing different plans, we have to start to ask whether we will invest some of the money that we are recouping from the region-the net income at the moment is £45 million-in a business plan. As we develop the concept, we must ask, first, whether we should build a bridge or a tunnel, and, secondly, where it will go. Of course, there will be investment not just in the crossing but in the infrastructure on the Essex and Kent sides, which must be linked in.

That was brought home to me starkly when I visited some of my old stomping grounds in Essex recently and, as the Minister with responsibility for shipping, was taken on to the river by the Port of London Authority. I have a dual role when it comes to that part of the country. I spoke to business people who told me that they owned land on the Kent side but had no intention of using it because they could not guarantee that they would be able to get their vehicles across the bridge and back. That is stifling the economy and growth. I freely admit that not one of them has said to me, "We can't afford to do this; we think that the 50p is going to be a problem for us." I am sure that there are businesses that will be affected by it, but what they were looking at was the ability to have a business plan that worked. In other words, if they need to get from A to B, and that happens to be from the Kent coast up through the midlands, how can they plan for that when they know, for instance, that they will be queuing at peak times-and sometimes not at peak times?

Several colleagues have written to me in the past couple of days to ask why we did not suspend the toll charges when the winds were bad the other day. The reason was that it was not the barriers that were causing
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the problem; we had to close the bridge because of the wind. The bridge was not designed brilliantly well-hindsight is a wonderful thing-and does not have the kind of protection from winds exceeding 50 mph that we would expect from a modern bridge. That meant that use of the bridge had to be suspended, and we reverted to using the two bores in the two tunnels-that almost took me back to my youth. I accept that that caused a great deal of trouble. Was the problem caused by the infrastructure or by the tolling? It was caused by the infrastructure not being fit for purpose.

As we work together-I hope that we can-on this project in the next couple of months, I hope to be able to bring in colleagues from all parties who represent constituencies in and around the Dartford river crossing area. I always wonder why we call it the Dartford river crossing area when Thurrock is on the other side. We should call it the Thurrock-Dartford river crossing. I stood as a parliamentary candidate in Thurrock in 2001, and I know only too well that it could be a fantastic growth area if there were confidence in the bridge.

I understand that there may be disappointment that the tolls were not removed when the previous agreement was in place, but I have to stand here as the Minister and say what will be the best outcome for the country as a whole, and for the constituents of hon. Friends who are here today. There are two things that I can do: I can give them confidence in the future that, by removing the barriers so that traffic will have free flow, local people will be able to cross regularly, whether they are going to work or moving socially from north to south and south to north.

The other thing that I need to come back to is the effect on the environment when that free flow comes in. It is of paramount importance that we look after not only the economy of this country but our constituents. We know that the levels of pollution are unacceptably high-particularly when there are problems going north, and because of how close residential properties are to the roads-and are likely to increase. Even though we are driving down emissions, we know from the sheer number of HGVs that come through that we will have issues with that.

We can move as fast as we can for free flow to take place, but we must ensure that the technology works and that local residents have confidence in the local discount schemes. I hope you will not mind my saying this, Mr Rosindell: the take-up of the schemes was as high as we all expected. However, if there are complications-I know that local residents find the schemes complicated-perhaps hon. Members could drop me a line about their concerns.

We are spreading the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) was looking at that, and it has been put forward many times. The problem is where to stop. I fully understand that the people who live nearby get a discount and that others just down the road do not, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Mr Evennett: Bexley residents are much closer to the bridge and the tunnel than many others, but they do not have a discount scheme. Will they be included in the Minister's thoughts?

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Mike Penning: They are certainly included in my thoughts-my hon. Friend uses a good piece of terminology. I am more than willing to look at that, but if I take the discount away from some and give it to others, I will get just as many complaints from the other side. I have to look at the revenue. The key at present is not to have a cash cow but to use the money to make the environment better for my hon. Friend's constituents in the future.

I hope that this will not be the last debate on the subject. This is not a bid for being here every day, or on a regular basis, but I hope that colleagues will engage with my officials, my Department and me to get the best option. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said earlier that we may not agree on everything, but let us work together on those things we do agree on. Let us use this opportunity to develop the economy and the environment, and to make the area a much better place for everyone to live and work in.

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Rehman Chishti: Will every avenue be followed to ensure full and thorough consultation with local authorities and residents in the areas that are proposed for any future Thames crossing?

Mike Penning: There will be full consultation on that, just as there will be consultation now on the toll increases. Of course consultation will take place, but we must ensure that whatever is built is fit for purpose not just for us today, but for future generations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford on securing this debate, and I hope we can work with other colleagues on this project.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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