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18 Jan 2011 : Column 224WH—continued

Members on both sides have stressed time and again the valuable social role of the post office, and the Government's recent subsidy allocation suggests that it is a role worth paying for.

Will the Minister say whether concern about the marketability of Royal Mail is the reason for the Government's reluctance to pursue a robust IBA? If so, does he consider potential diminished marketability to be a price worth paying when it comes to guaranteeing the future of 37% of the post office network's business? What analysis have the Government made of the cost of a presumed lower price for Royal Mail with a robust IBA with the Post Office, and the cost of continued subsidy of the post office network? Once Royal Mail is privatised and possibly sold to a foreign owner without a long-term IBA in place, it will be too late to insist on one.

The Government will not be able to insist on Royal Mail using the Post Office. They will not be able to do what Lord Mandelson did. They have the chance here and now. I want to know whether they are going to take it.

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12.16 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): It is always a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is a delight, also, to welcome a debate on the implications for the post office network of the privatisation of Royal Mail, and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on securing it. She introduced the subject with typical courtesy and clarity. I know that her concerns are widely felt, and I want to be as responsive and sensitive to those concerns as I can. I shall try to deal with as many of the points raised in debate as possible; I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I am not as generous as usual in taking interventions, as we have a lot of ground to cover.

The matter has been extensively debated over recent weeks, including during the Committee stage of the Postal Services Bill, the oral evidence session of the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Third Reading of the Bill last Wednesday and at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Question Time. Indeed, the matter has been aired in a number of forums. I fully appreciate that people are concerned about the future of the post office network. In essence, this debate focuses on that subject, and I shall try to restrict my remarks to that, for understandable reasons.

I start by putting the matter in context. I do not mean the economic context-the fact that the Government inherited the largest peacetime deficit in our history, and that the state is borrowing one pound in every four that it spends and is paying only the interest on the nation's debt, which costs £43 billion each year, or about £120 million a day. That is not entirely relevant, Mr Hollobone, and you would not want me to dwell on it, but it needs to be said. I mean the context that surrounds Royal Mail-the need to invest in Royal Mail, to update it and to make it a business that can compete in an increasingly complex international scene.

As the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said, social change and the way in which people access, exchange and use information are having an impact on post offices and Royal Mail, as has the increasingly competitive nature of the marketplace. In order to get that investment, the Government needed to think afresh about the ownership of Royal Mail. That is widely acknowledged. I put on record that the previous Government were indeed considering the matter, and introduced a Bill in the Lords. Had they been re-elected, I have no doubt that we would be having a debate in Government time about the future of Royal Mail, but on a different set of assumptions about its ownership.

The context is one of a need for change, and a need for fresh ideas about how to guarantee a strong future for Royal Mail. In that spirit, I do not want to dwell too much on the previous Government's record, but it would be remiss of me not to say that between 1997 and 2010, about 7,000 post offices closed, 5,000 of which were in two Government-funded closure programmes in 2003-05 and 2007-09. Government Members should not be expected to take too many lessons from the Opposition.

I do not want to be excessively partisan or to get into an argument about this, but the Government value post offices. We understand their social and cultural value as well as their utility. As constituency Members, we have fought for them to be retained up and down the land, so
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we have nothing to be embarrassed about in those terms. It is in that spirit that this Government approach the subject of post offices and make it clear there will be no further post office closure programme. That is enough of my partisan points; I just felt that it was important to put them on the record.

Let me make 10 points to kick things off, then I will try to deal with the points that have been raised in the debate. First, the Government have made it absolutely clear that the Post Office is not for sale. Secondly, we recognise that the Post Office is a unique national asset, so there will be no repeat of the closure programmes of the past. Thirdly, we have committed £1.34 billion to the Post Office for it to modernise its network and safeguard its future, thus making it a stronger partner for Royal Mail. Fourthly, the Bill before Parliament proposes to separate Post Office Ltd from the Royal Mail Group, thus allowing the Post Office to focus more attention on developing its business. It also allows for the possible future mutualisation of Post Office Ltd.

Fifthly, under a mutual structure, the ownership and running of the post office network could be handed over to employees, sub-postmasters and communities. Sixthly, the Government are committed to secure a sustainable future for the Post Office and we want it to become a genuine front office for Government at both a national and local level. Seventhly, we will support the expansion of accessible and affordable personal financial services that are available through the post office. Eighthly, we will support the greater involvement of local authorities in planning and delivering local post office provision.

Ninthly, the Government fully share hon. Members' laudable interest in ensuring a strong commercial relationship between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd, but we do not share the view that legislating for a contract of between five and 20 years is the way in which to achieve our shared objective. To pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), it is not just that that would make Royal Mail less saleable-although it might-but that it would be legally challenged under competition law and possibly internationally, too. I agree that it is important that the arrangements between Royal Mail and the Post Office are as secure as they can be, and I will return to that point and the particular question that she raised in a moment.

Lastly, as the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), made it clear last week, stamps will continue to be issued in the same way.

Anne Marie Morris: I am delighted to hear the Minister's comments about stamps, but I am concerned about those wonderful red pillar boxes and the monogram. Will the Minister confirm that they will also be protected?

Mr Hayes: I was about to say that stamps will continue to bear the sovereign's head, which is right and proper. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I share her view; it is important that we retain the iconic pillar box with the Royal monogram on. That is something that the Government will consider. I can say no more at this stage, but I know that my hon. Friend will want to take up that point and see what can be done.

In evidence to the Postal Services Bill Committee over recent weeks, there has been strong backing for the separation of Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd. I noted
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that no one made a case against that today. As I said, it was, I think, accepted by most Members in this House. They are different businesses that will benefit from focusing on different challenges. In his evidence to the Committee, Richard Hooper of Consumer Focus and Postcomm supported the separation of the ownership of the businesses.

In her evidence to the Committee, Moya Greene, chief executive of Royal Mail, said that it would be unthinkable not always to have a strong relationship between the Post Office and Royal Mail. To underline that point, Donald Brydon, Royal Mail's chairman, pledged in his evidence that before any privatisation of Royal Mail could take place, a continued long-term commercial contract will be in place between the two businesses for the longest duration that is legally permissible-a point that was picked up by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid). Such a pledge provides a reassurance about the marriage between the two, which is essential to maintaining the post office network that we all feel so strongly about. This is done not for sentimental reasons, but because it makes good commercial sense. The post office network has an unparalleled reach and a very strong brand. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, we can be optimistic about the relationship. A stronger Royal Mail is more likely to secure the future of many more post offices. If we do not take the necessary radical steps to support and invest in Royal Mail, post offices will be at risk. That is something that we can look to with confidence, based on the belief that post offices not only provide important services, but are at the hub of local communities. The post office in my own village of Moulton, which is run by Gary and Jane, does an excellent job not just providing postal services but as a centre for all kinds of activities in the village. It is a shop, too, and provides a valuable local service.

As a representative of a rural constituency, I understand some of the concerns expressed by other rural colleagues. We heard from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran that there are concerns about the spread of the network-the universality. Let me make it clear that in terms of universality, the Bill will create a fundamental duty at the heart of the legislation for a six-day per week collection and delivery of letters at uniform and affordable prices. To do that, we need a service that is spread across the whole nation and not a partial service; we are committed to that and I personally feel very strongly about it.

It is important to say that the future success of the post office network will depend on it providing a fuller and wider range of services. I hear what my hon. Friend
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the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) says about cost and subsidy. We can deal with that by allowing post offices to do more, thus ensuring that they can be profitable businesses. We are looking at a range of additional services-both local government and national Government services-that post offices can provide. Post offices can act as a front line for those clients or users that need to do things in their community in a way that is accessible and convenient. We are piloting a range of services that post offices can provide and, as a result of this debate, we will look at other things that Government can do to make the post office network more viable, commercial and profitable. I know that my hon. Friend is anxious about that and I understand why.

However, there will always be small rural post offices, perhaps in more remote communities, that will find it very hard to operate without subsidy. I do not have a problem with that. Post offices are so culturally and socially important that we need to take that on board. Certainly, all those that can be profitable should be profitable.

David Mowat: After the modernisation programme, how many post offices does the Minister think will be self-sufficient?

Mr Hayes: As part of the recent £1.34 billion funding package, there is a legally binding commitment to a minimum number of post offices-the Post Office is required to provide a network of at least 11,500 branches. As I have said, there will be no closure programme under this Government. I am confident that many more post offices can be made profitable, but I will not speculate on which post offices will take up which services in which locations; my hon. Friend can hardly expect me to do that.

I have just time to say a word about demutualisation, which was raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). Demutualisation is not something that we see happening; indeed it will be specifically prohibited.

A better future for Royal Mail means a brighter future for post offices. This Government seek that brighter future and will deliver it; nothing less will do.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. I thank all the Members who took part in that most interesting debate and ask all those who are leaving to do so quickly and quietly.

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Trailers (EU Proposals)

12.30 pm

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship.

Although talking about the height of trailers does not sound too exciting, the new proposal from the European Commission to limit the height of trailers to 4 metres will have a detrimental effect on the British haulage sector, on our environment and on every person who uses our already crowded roads. One of my constituents, Robin Allen, contacted me towards the end of last year to ask me to raise the issue in this House, hopefully to stir up some support for our country's hauliers.

Like many people, at first I did not realise the potential impact of the proposed legislation. Of the EU member states, 20 out of 25 have a 4-metre height restriction on trailers for safety reasons. The proposal from the European Commission aims to bring the UK and four other member states into line with the majority. It is my personal view that this proposal demonstrates the unnecessary work of the European Commission, which makes regulations for regulation's sake.

The UK's road infrastructure can accommodate trailers that are up to 4.9 metres high and there is currently no limit in Britain on the height that a trailer can be; the only restriction is whether a trailer can pass under bridges here. People might think that a reduction of 90 cm will not make much difference, but, as the excellent report by Professor Alan McKinnon, "Britain without Double-deck Lorries", demonstrates, this proposal will have a massive impact on Britain's haulage industry.

Professor McKinnon suggests that, if the height of lorries is restricted, haulage companies will have to increase their fleet size just to accommodate the same load capacity, and it will cost an extra £387 million to distribute the same amount of goods. Double-deck lorries, or lorries over 4 metres in height, cost roughly 10% more money to operate than other lorries, due to their size. Nevertheless, it would cost a haulage company more money to have fewer double-deck lorries and to increase the size of its fleet. Any extra cost would inevitably have a huge impact on the ability of smaller firms to remain competitive, thus resulting in cuts in employment in the sector. As there are several haulage firms in my constituency, I am particularly concerned for their viability, given all the other challenges that they face, such as rising fuel prices and the rise in VAT.

Professor McKinnon's research suggests that the proposed legislation would result in a 5.5% increase in the number of lorries on Britain's roads. That would mean more wear and tear on our roads-the previous Government's economic record already makes it difficult to keep on top of that issue. The increase in the number of lorries using our roads and the resulting damage to our roads would lead to more traffic and more traffic jams. In turn, that would mean higher transport costs and higher costs for goods in the shops, along with increased stress and inconvenience for drivers.

Finally, there is the issue of the impact on our environment; it is probably not the main concern of Britain's haulage firms, but in my view it is equally important. If in 2008 we had replaced all double-deck
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vehicles with single-deck ones, the total amount of fuel consumed since 2008 would have increased from 190 million litres of fuel to 342 million litres, which is an 80% increase in fuel consumption. With carbon dioxide directly linked to fuel consumption, it has been predicted that that increase in fuel consumption would increase CO2 emissions from 0.5 million tonnes to 0.9 million tonnes a year, which relates to a 5.3% increase in the amount of CO2 emitted by articulated lorries on British roads.

Although the concerns that I have expressed are paramount, I am also concerned by the way in which the European Commission has conducted itself on this issue. The proposal on page 49 of version two of the working paper of the "Fl JPD PE Masses and Dimensions" document is registered for "restricted circulation", and it is not at all easy to track down. In fact, it took a lot lateral thinking and persuasion by my staff to finally see a copy. It concerns me that, given the impact this proposal will have on British haulage, this document is being hidden away, despite its being well known within the haulage industry.

Perhaps my lack of trust in the openness of Europe is getting the better of me, but I believe that the European Commission would be better able to defend itself if it were completely open with the industry that it is attempting to regulate. An e-mail from the European Commission received by my office states that the document is not ready to be seen outside the working group on the policy. As I have said, the proposal is already well known within the haulage industry, so I ask the European Union to open the discussion to everyone who will be affected by the proposal, to ensure that anything that is developed is in the interests of British companies.

The European Commission's proposal has caused concern among those in the haulage industry, from my constituent, Robin Allen, to the chief executive officer of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Mr Paul Everitt, who has stated:

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I come to this debate as the chairman of the all-party group on freight transport, and we discussed this issue at our last meeting. At that meeting, there were organisations around the table from across the spectrum, not only from the haulage industry but from the haulage rescue industry, which would undoubtedly see its work load rise under this proposal.

The hon. Lady has made some excellent points. Does she agree that Britain should be at the forefront of fighting against this proposal, saying, "No, 4.2 metres, 4 metres or whatever the European suggestion is for is just ridiculous. It doesn't work for British hauliers and should be opposed at every stage."?

Pauline Latham: I agree that we should be at the forefront of the fight against this proposal, because it would impact so greatly on our haulage industry, which, as I have said, faces so many challenges at the moment. It would also impact on the people of this country, who would pay more for their goods. We are already in a difficult, cash-strapped situation, so we do not want to increase the difficulties not only for the haulage industry
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but for every single one of us. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman's point and hope that the Minister will take it on board.

Time is short, so I will use what time I have left to ask three things of the Minister-for the sake of the British economy, we need to get this proposal right. Before doing so, however, I thank him for his letter of 22 December 2010. First, I hope that the Minister will use his time today to outline his Department's position in relation to the European Commission's proposal. I understand from his letter to me and his comments to the trade press that he and the Department share many of the views of the haulage industry, but perhaps he will put that position on record. Secondly, will he ask the European Commission to make the proposal document available, so that those within the industry who will be affected can give their views? Thirdly and finally, I ask him to write to Government MEPs to ask them to raise the concerns of the British haulage industry in Europe.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): I have certainly learned a lot from what the hon. Lady has just said, and I am very much looking forward to hearing the response from the Minister.

12.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We entered the House together; clearly I have gone one way and you have gone another.

This is a really important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing it, so that I can do exactly what she has asked me to do and set out the Government's position. Also, I say to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) that I would love to speak to the all-party group on freight transport and set out the Government's position there, too; I know the all-party group well, just as the haulage industry in general knows me very well.

In the short time that I have been a Minister, I have been trying to set out as quickly as possible the new Government's position on this issue, particularly to hauliers given the problems that they face. I would love to think that, when the Prime Minister appointed me to my post, he knew that I hold a heavy goods vehicle licence and have done so since I was 17-I was in the military at the time, so I could hold a HGV licence at that age, unlike in civvy street, where someone has to be 21. Sadly, I have never driven an articulated vehicle, although the Stobart Group has encouraged me to do so on its private land; indeed, I will do so in the very near future.

I want to set out right from the start that the Government have absolutely no intention of introducing the 4-metre regulation here; we are fighting it tooth and nail. Yesterday, my officials within this group in Europe attended a meeting, and said exactly that. This is majority vote territory, so we have to ensure that we are not alone, and I am pleased that the information coming back is that other countries with substantial vote clout are indicating that they are not happy either.

It is important that I set out why I am turning around and saying no to my European friends. It is not just that I am a little Eurosceptic, but that the measure would have a fundamental effect on the British haulage industry.
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Other countries in Europe already have a 4-metre limit-Austria, for example. No vehicle entering that country can have a height of more than 4 metres, which is absolutely fine. The people of Austria have every right to decide that, but they do not have any right to tell us, in this country, what the height of our vehicles should be.

There are a number of key points. We have a system that works perfectly well-it's not broken, so don't fix it. We should not put our hauliers in a disproportionately difficult fiscal position. Environmentally, what are we doing talking about limiting the height and thereby increasing the number of vehicles on our roads? I have absolutely no intention of increasing the weight limit on vehicles, so this measure would immediately cause a problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would place a disproportionate burden on our industry.

I am carefully considering proposals to extend the length of vehicles by adding more crates to the back of certain vehicles. The issue has split the industry almost 50:50, and I can see the benefits but also the problems for some of the smaller hauliers, whose trailer stock would have to be changed. The industry should not fear that proposal though, because it is common sense to move more products around our congested roads in just one vehicle, which will take more vehicles off the roads altogether.

I have not only set out the position to the industry here in Parliament, but written articles, provided interviews and strongly set out my views, because I want this market-driven industry, which has very tight profit margins, to know not only what is happening on this issue, but how the Government will protect it in the future. Hauliers come over to this country from other European countries with belly tanks on, drive around our roads, pay no taxation and buy no fuel. It is difficult for our industry to compete with that, so we are looking at lorry road-user charges to create a more level playing field. We are committed to bringing in such a charge for trucks, because it will create a better balance.

I am also trying to limit the amount of regulation, so that the industry does not feel that the Government are on its back all the time. If there are bad hauliers out there with vehicles that are not fit for purpose, it is quite right that our police should bring regulation down on them like a ton of bricks. The vast majority of those in the industry, however, play by the rules and do the very best they can, but at the same time they feel that more regulation and more of a burden is placed on them.

As well as being the roads Minister, responsible for the UK freight industry and haulage, I am the deregulation Minister, and I am looking carefully at the regulations that are out there, some of which we have inherited and some of which have come from Europe. We are talking about just one of the measures that Europe has decided to look at, but about four fifths of all regulations that come through the Department for Transport are either EU or internationally led. It is difficult, therefore, to start to deregulate when these things have already been decided. The key is to get in early, to put our foot down absolutely rigorously right at the start and say, "This is the position we're in." To be fair to the Commission, I think that it realises that the measure is not popular and will certainly not get unanimity, and it is starting to learn that not only this country but others will start to kick and push back.

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The earlier we push back on regulations from Europe, the better. As I have said, there were meetings yesterday, and there will be more as we go forward, and there is no doubt that the Commission knows this Government's views-it certainly knows mine. My officials have been told in no uncertain terms to ensure that those views are put forward as strongly as possible. The European Parliament also knows my views, and I certainly will be working with it, and hon. Members, and I can spread the good word about where we are through the all-party groups. I hope to write an article on this matter in the next few weeks, to elaborate exactly where we are, not only on this matter but on the enormously important issue of trailer length.

To move forward on this subject, in which I am sure you are very interested, Mr Hollobone, it is important that not only do I do my bit and my hon. Friend does hers but, as constituency MPs, we all do our bit. It is important that I get as much written support as possible, to show that we have, in our armoury, cross-party support in the House. The matter is not new-it has been around since 2005-and I am sure that the shadow teams, even though they quite rightly cannot contribute to the debate today, understand the problems that have been coming through. It is important that the hauliers in my constituency, my hon. Friend's constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South know that we will do everything we can to support them in this and other areas related to the regulatory burden.

Robert Flello: I welcome what the Minister has said today, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing the debate.

Taking up the comment that the Minister made at the beginning, I invite him to address the next meeting of the all-party group on freight transport, to set at rest the minds of all the different organisations represented there, and perhaps to discuss issues of great concern and relevance to various organisations out there in the haulage industry, such as the motor insurance database.

Mike Penning: I am more than grateful to accept that offer. I am sure that my officials have heard what has been said and will contact the hon. Gentleman in the near future, so that I can discuss these and the many other issues of concern to the haulage industry. On his point about insurance-something that he is perhaps looking into-there should be no fears around that. The idea is to remove the at least 1.5 million people who drive on the highways and byways of this country when uninsured, and I am sure that the haulage industry wholeheartedly supports me on the importance of addressing that.

The haulage industry needs to supply us with evidence, because it is all well and good my standing up here and our having a debate, but we are not experts in this field. The people in the industry are the experts on these problems, which affect their jobs, and their capacity to do them, every single day. As well as us and the Government saying, "Right, we're going to push back on this," the evidence has to come from the industry itself, so that when other countries in the European Union say that they are pro this-some are-we can have an evidence-based argument, which is absolutely crucial.

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The evidence needs to be on not only the costs and the increased distance travelled-there are different figures around, but there would be an increase of about 4.5% in road use, particularly by articulated lorries-but on the effects on CO2 emissions. One thing that we all want to do is to protect the planet for our young people and for the future, but at the same time we need growth. The last thing in the world that I want, therefore, if I am sweating the assets on the highways, and particularly the motorways, of this country-something we try to do as much as possible-is to see an increase in the number of lorries without an increase in growth. There would be an increase in cost, but not in profitability. We estimate that this would equate to about 151,000 new cars on the road, which, for those who do not know the industry, would cost road haulage about £305 million a year. Figures such as those-our Department produced them in consultation with the industry-are desperately needed. We need to quantify matters and ensure that we have a proper evidence base.

Impact assessments must be done not only for fiscal problems and emissions but for congestion. One thing that I have learned since I took over this portfolio eight months ago is that congestion involves not only pollution but money for the haulage industry. That is why we have announced, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, that we will remove barrier tolls from the Dartford river crossing by the end of 2012 to allow free flow, so that hauliers do not sit in traffic for 10, 11 or 12 miles. Often, no accident has occurred; it is just that someone is trying to find their money or credit card to pay, while the barriers bob up and down and traffic moves forward. That will open up opportunities enormously for the industry in that part of the world.

I have said to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs that we will consider whether we can negotiate with the contract holder of the Severn bridge crossing to do the same. I was also on the M6 toll road the other day to discuss whether barriers could be removed there and replaced by number plate recognition. Sadly, legislation would need to be introduced-I hope to introduce it with reference to the Dartford river crossing-to allow us to pursue and find people who refuse to pay the tolls that everybody else pays.

The next step is that the Department for Transport will again meet the relevant heads of responsibilities in the European Commission-as I have said, we met yesterday- and make it perfectly clear that we are more than happy with the status quo and do not want to reduce the limit to 4 metres. We have told the other member states supporting us that we are happy with the status quo. They feel that issues might arise involving cross-border enforcement. That operates perfectly well today; as I said earlier, Austria already has a 4-metre limit and enforces it. That is fine for Austria. We do not need to enforce anything, because there is no limit and we are perfectly happy. We have weight restrictions.

I have alluded to allowing free-flow tolling at the Dartford river crossing. Interestingly, the left-hand bore going north is the smaller of the two tunnels, and when we move to free-flow tolling, there will be issues involving how to move oversize vehicles into the right-hand bore. Free-flow tolling going south will cost money, but it is much simpler coming off the bridge.

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[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Because of the size of the regional tunnel-some of us remember when it was the only tunnel available for crossing at that part of the dock-it is absolutely imperative that we consider traffic going north, as there are safety implications. However, we have managed to do it. There are plenty of bridges, tunnels and crossings in this country with height restrictions, and we have pushed hard to ensure that we protect them.

As I said earlier, Mr Hollobone-[Interruption.] It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I mentioned earlier that if we made the change, there would undoubtedly be pressure on me as a Minister to increase the weight limits in line with other parts of Europe. It is a natural argument to make. If I argue that we do not want more vehicles as a result of the height limitation, the pressure will say, "We have dropped to 4 metres. If you want fewer vehicles, it would be better-wouldn't it, Minister?-to increase weight limits so we can move the same amount of freight around the country on the same number of vehicles." I am not minded to do so. As it is, our roads are struggling to cope with the size of some lorries. Some lorries, often unintentionally, end up on wrong and completely unsuitable roads-we have all seen it; I have seen it especially in the rural part of my constituency-often sent by some satellite navigation device.

There are some interesting ideas about how trailers can adapt for the 21st century without the need to drop the height. For instance, one interesting idea submitted to me is that the payload might be dropped between the two axles in order to get more volume into the trailer on lighter loads. I am considering the extension of trailers, and, as I have said, I will make an announcement pretty soon.

It all falls into place. Margins are tight for hauliers. They are worried, for instance, about the cost of fuel, wages and insurance. This is the last thing that any Government want. I am surprised that Europe is considering such a measure. I do not actually think that that was what was originally intended; I think that it was drifted into. The matter falls into the area of subsidiarity. Europe should not be touching it; it is a sovereign area. However, it is a matter for qualified majority voting, so as much as I would like to stand alone and say that England can defend our shores, unless we carry the support of a significant number of other European Union countries, we will struggle. However, all the evidence that we are receiving at the moment says that we have support, including, interestingly, from France, our closest neighbour, which is also not interested in imposing the 4-metre limit. It looks as though common sense will come forward.

I think that I have exhausted this interesting and important subject and set out the Government's position strongly. I hope that hon. Members here today are listening, as are the industry and the European Commission, and that we can move forward and protect our freight industry and hauliers. I am passionate about the issue.

To declare an interest, I drove HGVs young in life-I was a fireman and, like all firemen, had a part-time job, so I drove HGVs during my time off. We must protect hauliers and ensure that we have a robust British industry of which we can be proud. As the Minister, I am determined to defend it.

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Arbroath and Forfar Driving Test Centres

12.56 pm

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am pleased to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am also pleased to see the Minister here. I was a bit worried this morning when I saw the written statement that the Secretary of State for Transport issued on the closure of an office in Cardiff. It starts:

I wondered whether the Government had devolved responsibility without telling us, but I am assured that that is not the case and that the Minister is still responsible for the Scottish centres.

A problem has arisen in my constituency. Last week, the Driving Standards Agency announced the closure of the driving test centres at Arbroath and Forfar. The decision has caused a huge amount of anger among those who are undergoing driving instruction, driving instructors and the general public. That anger stems not only from the effects of the closure on our local communities, but from how the closure was announced.

Actually, saying that it was announced is incorrect. What happened is that the Driving Standards Agency wrote to local driving instructors on 30 December, although many letters were not received until after the new year holiday. At the same time, the DSA sent me a letter with a copy of the first letter attached. The letter informed driving instructors about a wonderful new multi-purpose testing centre to be opened in Dundee in February. Halfway through, the letter casually stated:

That was the first that any of us had heard of it. No prior notice was given, no consultation was held and, in effect, no public announcement was made; only a letter was sent to driving instructors.

The letter went on to say that those who had booked tests at Arbroath and Forfar centres would

It is not a change in location; it is the removal of a local facility without any notice or consultation. In effect, those seeking tests will have to sit them in Dundee.

Worse still, the DSA imperiously noted that it did not need to consult on the matter and that the closure would go ahead. That is a ridiculous, high-handed and objectionable way for any Government agency to behave. Surely those affected by such a decision should, at the very least, be consulted before an important local service is removed. The present Government say that they are committed to localism-in fact, the Localism Bill received Second Reading yesterday-but the way they have proceeded is the antithesis of such a policy. Will the Minister get in touch with the DSA immediately and tell it that such a high-handed attitude is totally unacceptable and that it must consult before removing services from local communities?

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In Angus, local petitions and a Facebook campaign are already showing the level of opposition to that move. The removal of the driving test centres would have serious implications for Angus. It would mean that only Montrose, which is a part-time testing station, would be left between Dundee and Aberdeen on the east cost of Scotland. All the driving centres in the area already have substantial waiting times, and I will address that point in a moment.

The Driving Standards Agency's own charter for excellence gives a standard of six weeks' waiting time for a driving test, but I am told by local instructors that, at present, the average waiting time in Arbroath, Forfar, Montrose and Dundee test centres is 10 to 12 weeks, while 14 is not unknown. I know that that is the case because my own daughter is learning to drive and, apart from the cost, she will have to wait for a driving test.

At the end of December, tests were being allocated for the end of March, which effectively means a three-month wait for a test. Closure of the Arbroath and Forfar stations will surely exacerbate that problem and lead to even longer waiting times. How does that comply with the agency's own charter? I understand that the Government's charter mark was removed from the agency in 2003 due to its inability to meet its obligations. It seems that, given the waiting times and the charter's terms, it is moving towards the same situation.

The removal of the stations in Arbroath and Forfar would mean that those who have already booked tests for dates after the closure would have to re-book for a test in Dundee and would fall, presumably, to the end of the queue, putting their tests off for at least several weeks. They would also either face further lessons to learn the techniques of driving under very different city conditions on their test route, or take the test at a huge disadvantage; it might be different from what they expected.

The situation is even worse for future learner drivers in the Angus area. At present, a driving lesson in Angus costs in the region of £20 for an hour, which I can confirm because, as I have said, my daughter is learning to drive. The costs are already under pressure due to the escalating price of fuel, which now stands at £1.26 a litre in Brechin, where I live, and to increases in VAT, and they will undoubtedly rise further. Within the hour of a driving lesson, the learner can learn driving techniques that are normal in the area in which they would expect to take their test: Arbroath, Forfar or Montrose. If, however, they now face having to go to Dundee to take the test, they will, understandably, wish to learn to drive in the type of conditions in which they would be taking their tests, which means that they would have to learn to drive mostly in the city of Dundee. Therefore, if they took lessons from a local driving instructor, the driving time from Forfar or Arbroath to Dundee and back would take up the vast bulk of their one hour lesson, giving them very little time to learn within the city area.

The implications for those people are quite clear: they would have to take substantially more lessons, or to book two-hour lessons, which would substantially increase the cost of learning to drive. Few of the young people in my constituency who are learning to drive could afford to pay the £40 to £50 per week that would be required. Moreover, on the test days themselves, as
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well as paying the fee of £62 for the test, they would incur the costs of three hours' hire of the instructor's car and time. It is a substantial cost just to sit the test.

The implications for local driving instructors would be equally devastating. They are mostly small businesses; indeed, they are often one-person operations. They have to meet increasing costs, as I have mentioned, due to rising fuel prices and VAT, which already impact upon the costs of lessons. Clearly, they would wish to teach their pupils on the types of routes over which they would have to sit their tests, but is it really conceivable that their pupils would be prepared to pay almost double the price currently charged? Many pupils may take the bus to Dundee and receive their lessons from a Dundee instructor rather than a local one, thus devastating their businesses. What is the sense in closing local facilities and imperilling local small businesses? I thought that the Government's policy was to encourage the creation of private sector jobs, but the ridiculous closure decision will have exactly the opposite effect. How on earth can this be justified? It seems to fly in the face of the much-vaunted localism agenda.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valuable point in relation to the impact on driving instructors whose centres are closed in that way, particularly in Forfar and Arbroath. When the driving test centre in Warrington was closed, there was a displacement of activity to driving instructors in St Helen's, which had a test centre, and that has resulted in a number of Warrington-based driving instructors going out of business. A secondary impact is that the pass rates for Warrington-based students have declined, presumably because they were less likely to be able to practise in those areas in which they would ultimately take the test.

Mr Weir: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has reiterated my point. There will also be real impacts upon the local community of Angus. Not only will the decision mean, as I have said, that there will be only one test centre between Dundee and Aberdeen-and that a part-time one-but, inevitably, there will be increased waiting times for tests for many constituents. The Minister will also be aware, however, that the type of driving that is suitable for cities-I think that this is the point that the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) was making-is different from the type of driving that is, or should, be practised on rural roads in areas such as Angus.

I noticed the Minister shaking his head at some of my earlier points on this issue. Although it is undoubtedly true that drivers should be able to deal with any road conditions and situations that they encounter, I am sure that he would agree that it is vital that those who learn to drive do so on the roads that they are most likely to use, especially in the early months of driving. I am seriously concerned that those who learn to drive on the congested city roads may find it a very different experience on country roads. I believe that to be a serious safety issue.

As I said, the Minister shook his head at some of my earlier remarks, but just before Christmas he accepted that argument, to some extent, in relation to motorcycle tests when he announced that they would take place mostly on local roads, not in specialist centres, in order
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to deal with the ridiculous situation where motorcyclists in rural areas often had to travel large distances to a test centre. However, the letter that I received from the DSA states that the test facilities in Perth for motorcyclists are also being withdrawn and that they will have to travel to Dundee for the tests. It appears that motorcyclists from highland Perthshire, for example, will have to go to either Dundee or Inverness, which is a long journey either way, for a test. Surely that action goes against the Minister's own announced policy a month ago.

The DSA's actions are even more inexplicable when we look at the pass rates from the various test centres. The hon. Member for Warrington South referred to that point in relation to his own area. In 2010, Arbroath had a pass rate of 61.1% and Forfar 57.2%, while Dundee had a pass rate of only 47.3%. They all administer the same test, so it seems that the driving instructors and examiners in those areas are doing something right, yet they are being rewarded by the daft decision to close the centres.

In its own publicity, the DSA says that it aims to make appointments available within nine weeks, although it gives itself an out by limiting that to 90% of test centres. I submit that that will, in any event, be almost impossible if this centralising proposal goes ahead. The promise under the DSA's "Customer Service Excellence" section to

will raise a hollow laugh around Angus as our facilities are stripped away. What customers want is a local facility that meets local needs.

It is also interesting to note that the agency promotes an eco-safe driving scheme. It states that

How will it be more eco-efficient to have learners and instructors travelling from all over Angus to take lessons and tests in Dundee? Surely the effect will be an increase in carbon emissions.

Since I secured the debate, I have received representations from many areas of the United Kingdom where similar situations have developed. I understand that some 22 test centres have closed over the past two years and accept that the problem predates the Government. However, the Minister is in post when the Government are trying to close the test centre in my constituency and many others throughout the UK. The Driving Standards Agency seems to have a deliberate policy of closing smaller test centres in favour of large multi-purpose test centres. For all the reasons I have noted, that is a misguided and dangerous proposal for learners, instructors and local communities.

I urge the Minister to undertake an urgent review of the policy and immediately to tell the Driving Standards Agency to halt the proposed closures at Arbroath and Forfar. At the very least, they should ensure that there is a public consultation before any decisions are made. That is the least the general public should expect when an important local facility is under threat. Such a facility would not be removed by central diktat in any other area without a public announcement or consultation
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with not only the community, but those directly affected by the proposal. This is a totally inappropriate way for any Government agency to proceed.

1.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I reiterate the earlier comments I made when you took the Chair, Mr Chope: it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir). He is doing exactly what I would do if I were a Back Bencher-standing up for his community.

Let us agree on some things from the start. If the waiting list is 10 to 12 weeks-I take the hon. Gentleman's word that that is the case-the centres will not close until they are within the guidelines, which is six weeks. Pre-bookings are an issue. People can pre-book in bulk, which causes a problem. The hon. Gentleman said that there were bookings into March. There will be pre-bookings in cases when instructors can predict that their pupils are likely to be able to take the test at that time. That is why there are pre-bookings. It happens around the country-it happened when my daughter was doing her test just 18 months ago.

There is an issue relating to consultation. However, I must say that I have inherited the Driving Standards Agency code of practice that his Government put into place.

Mr Weir: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: No. I sat and listened, so the hon. Gentleman can listen to me for a few minutes longer and then he can intervene. Let me make my point first. I inherited the current situation. As a result of the distance travelled, the code of practice brought in by the previous Government states that there does not have to be a consultation. I am looking at that issue because I do not think it is acceptable. I am eight months into the job and I have a very large portfolio. I accept that there are issues, but I inherited this situation and I will look at it and see if we can change it. I am happy to do so as long as the hon. Gentleman accepts that his Government were the problem and were closing driving test centres long before I was appointed to my post.

Mr Weir: I do not accept that. I was not a supporter of the previous Government just as I am not a supporter of this Government. I represent the Scottish National party. I accept the Minister's point that he did not introduce the code of practice, but the code of practice exists and he is the Minister. He says he is looking at it, but will he suspend closures until he considers the matter in more detail?

Mike Penning: I humbly apologise to the hon. Gentleman. It was wrong and improper of me to assume that he was a member of the previous Government. It is probably because there has been a coalition in Scotland over the years since I have been in politics. I completely and humbly apologise; it was an insult.

Mr Weir: It was a great insult.

Mike Penning: I have been insulted many times over the years. I am sure we can solve the problem over a pint of beer.

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I am not going to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests because I want the Driving Standards Agency to make progress. I shall touch on several points, including those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), regarding how we should be dealing with the matter. The issue has nothing to do with bricks and mortar and buildings; it is about the quality of service, the test and the people who are taking the test. I shall work backwards through the issues.

Long before I took this portfolio, one of the biggest things that worried me as a father and that worries me now as a Minister is that people are being taught to pass a test, rather than how to drive and be safe on the road for themselves and other road users. My daughter is going through the process at the moment-as is the daughter of the hon. Member for Angus-which is difficult and strenuous. I intend to make it more difficult, not because I am picking on young people, or on anyone who is taking their test, but because if we consider the statistics on 17 to 25-year-old people who pass their test-predominantly boys-they are a huge risk to themselves, other road users and their passengers.

A frightening statistic shows that the riskiest thing a lady aged 17 to 25 can do is to sit in the passenger seat of a car with a 17 to 25-year-old boy of any description, whether he is related to the lady or not. That is a frightening thing. The system is not working, so we must look at what the test involves. For someone to say, "That test centre has a better pass rate than that one so it should stay open," is really looking at things from the wrong end of the telescope. We have recently changed the driving test to give young drivers in particular-and other drivers-the skills that they need when they leave the test centre and they are sitting in a car on their own with no one telling them which way to go, and they have not driven the route 100 times with their instructor.

Mr Weir: I do not disagree to a large extent with what the Minister is saying. I agree that there is sometimes a serious problem with young drivers. I accept that a 10-minute independent drive is now part of the test, but does he not accept that if someone learns to drive in a congested city area and they are faced with the country roads of somewhere such as Angus or perhaps his own constituency, they experience very different driving conditions that are perhaps not the appropriate driving conditions? It would be better if they understood the conditions in which they will be driving, at least in the early months of their driving.

Mike Penning: When someone passes their test, there is no restriction at all on where they can drive in the country. Someone can pass their test in Angus, drive to the nearest dual carriageway on their own and go down the motorway. I am also seriously considering how we can give the relevant skills to young drivers who have never driven on a motorway in their life, whether or not someone is sat next to them. At the moment, they can pass their test and go straight on the motorway. We must work on dealing with that.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not looked at the changes that have recently been made to the driving test. We have dealt with the problem of
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someone going to an area because they know it. We are not publishing the routes that people take for their test, and instructors will not know what the examiners are going to do. However, I agree that people have to understand how to drive on rural roads, which we have in parts of my constituency as well as in that of the hon. Gentleman, and in urban areas. We must have a situation in which we increase the skill base. I have listened to the instructors in certain areas and they have said, "This will have a detrimental effect because we will have to teach them to go there." That is based on old knowledge and on the fact that we used to publish the routes that examiners would take. We are no longer going to do that. They will not know the routes. People will not only have to be able to drive for 10 minutes without being guided, which is what happens when people have passed their test, but they will not know the routes. The instructors do not know the routes; things will not happen that way.

This a short debate, so let us touch on the important points raised by the hon. Gentleman because I find some of them very worrying, especially his analogy. The reason I changed the motorcycle test is because someone could drive for up to two hours to a test centre and be taken off-road to a piece of tarmac that the Government own to do an off-road test. They could fail the test, yet be allowed to drive two hours back, or whatever the distance is. The test was not fit for purpose, which is why I have reviewed it. The whole test will be on the road not off-road and will be done in one go, unlike the present on-road and off-road arrangement. That will give motorcyclists the skills that will enable them to make progress, about which I have been talking in relation to car drivers. The analogy is not there.

As I have said, what is important-I will consider this matter-is that if the waiting list is as great as the hon. Gentleman says and it is blocked, these centres will not close until the capacity can be taken up in Dundee. I give that commitment today. We have to be in that situation. However, I will consider the matter of block bookings by driving instructors who pre-book extensively and block up areas, so that there are no bookings available for other people.

In the short period of time we have for the debate, let us look, if we can, at what the test should be for and see if we can go forward fixated not with buildings, but with service to the community and the people who want to take their test.

David Mowat: I was hoping that the debate would touch on what I regard as the major issue, which is the multi-test centres and other super-test centres. They became the policy of the previous Government because they over-interpreted an EU requirement regarding the motorcycle test. I believe that the Transport Committee, inter alia, pointed out that that was wrong, did not need to happen and was an error, yet the concept of a super-test centre is being pursued. It sounds as though that happened in Dundee and St Helens. One result of that, which the Minister might want to comment on, is that motorcyclists have to travel even further for their test, and further back if they fail it.

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Select Committee, under the previous Administration, had real concerns about how the motorcycle test was fundamentally changed. It felt that the Government
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had misinterpreted guidance on kilometres-in English, motorcyclists had to do just under 31 miles an hour. I agree, fundamentally, with the Select Committee, which is why we have broken away from that. We have a pilot at the moment and we have worked with the industry-the testers, the unions and everybody out there-to get a test that I hope is closer to fit for purpose.

There is a fundamental difference, I am afraid, regarding the motorcycle test centres. A plethora of them appeared all over the country. The big problem was finding suitable off-road facilities for part one of the test. I looked at that, and the review looked at it. It was farcical that we spent millions and millions of pounds building pieces of tarmac that, in the near future, we will have to sell off because we do not need them any more.

The key issue and the most important thing, to return to what I was saying, is not the building, the instructors, Members of Parliament or Ministers, but the people who take their test. The test has to be fit for purpose. I am not at all worried about a drop in pass rates, because that would tell me something. For example, quite a few people think that their instructor is a qualified driving instructor-very often, they are not. That is something we need to look at to ensure that the public know exactly who is qualified and who is not. We need to ensure that the test is fit for purpose, and we are doing a lot of work on that.

The next stage is to ask why people who want to take their test have to go to the instructor. Why can the instructor not come to them? The two test centres mentioned earlier, in Forfar and Arbroath, are open two days a week. Why is there not a facility, whatever the demand is, for a tester to go people's community two days a week? Why are we fixated with a Soviet system that means that people have to come to Government so that we can give them a piece of paper that says they can drive? That, to me, is the way forward. Other countries around the world have looked at that and do not have test centres that are physically big. There are test centres where instructors are based, and they then go out into the community. That would alleviate many of the concerns that the hon. Member for Angus has raised today-how far people have to go, the cost to the community, the risk to instructors and so on. Some of that fear is unfounded and I have touched on why, especially given the developments in the test, but I am more than willing to look at whether it is right, in the 21st century, that if someone wants a piece of paper or card that says that the Government say they can drive a car, motorcycle or a lorry, they have to go into a Government building in Dundee, or wherever it happens to be-in my case, in St Albans.

It is fit and proper to look closely at how the DSA works. I accept some of the criticisms. I have already said that I will look carefully at how the consultation process works. I would like to have been told. I apologise to the hon. Member for Angus for not sending him a letter, because I write to everybody when there are
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closures and I do not know how that one slipped through the net. I also apologise on behalf of the DSA and the Department, because I am absolutely paranoid about writing to MPs when something happens in their constituency. I think that it is very important that MPs are informed. I will look at the guidance on how the code of practice works. It is not difficult to consult on these things; it is difficult to know how far to go, but it is important that we do so. We must not, I stress, be fixated with buildings. Buildings deliver a service that could be delivered in other ways.

Mr Weir: It is not a fixation about buildings; it is a fixation about the service being available in the community. If the Minister can tell me I am wrong I would be delighted to have further details, but what appears to be happening is that the service has been removed from the local community. People will still have to go to a building. That building will not be in Arbroath and Forfar, however, it will be in Dundee, and that will be severely detrimental to the community.

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman is right. Under the proposals, that is what will happen. There is not full-time demand in his constituency, so we have a building sitting empty for three days of the week. That is a fact, and I cannot afford to do that in the present situation. Going forward-I stress going forward-the proposals will be developed. It will take time; they will have to be piloted and pushed forward in consultation with the whole of the industry, whether testers or instructors, and relevant MPs, to ensure that there is proper debate.

It must be right that we offer services to the community. That is what this is about. It is not about the buildings, as the hon. Gentleman said, it is about service to the community. At the moment, in his constituency, the service is being taken up on two days a week. That is what I am told. If I am wrong, please write to me and tell me. The demand may be there, but the centres are not operating for more than two days a week. That is where we are.

Given the cost and the really difficult fiscal situation that we are in, which is the same in Scotland as it is in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, we have to ensure that all assets are being sweated as much as they can be. I will look carefully at the consultation. I will look carefully at the amount of waiting times, but I think I will find a lot of block bookings from the instructors the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier. If it is a problem of block bookings, we will have to address it. However, if he waiting time is more than six weeks-more than the code of conduct says-they will not close until it is inside six weeks. That is a commitment I give today. What we all want, for all our constituents, is for the test to be fit for purpose, and for people to be able to enjoy the road, no matter what vehicle they pass their test on, so that they are safe for themselves and others. At the moment, I stress that we have a lot of work to do on the test to make it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

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Young Carers

1.28 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Chope. I am delighted to have been granted the opportunity to secure a debate on the sensitive and somewhat emotional subject of young carers.

Across our country, it is estimated that 700,000 young people support their mother, father, brother, sister or grandparent as a primary carer. Each and every one of those brave young people has a unique story to tell, and all of them face a range of difficulties as a result of the compassion and love that they show toward their cared-for relatives. As I am sure all new MPs will agree, attempting to visit as many community groups and local organisations as possible was, and remains, a key priority following last May's general election. I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit York Young Carers last October. I shall always remember meeting some of York's most valuable young people. Listening to some of the young carers' stories made me immensely proud to be one of the MPs of our great city of York. I cannot praise highly enough our young cares' courage, compassion and utter dedication to their role.

The visit also opened my eyes to the vast responsibilities that young carers find placed on their shoulders at such a young age. Their wide-ranging roles include providing physical and mental support, organising hospital visits, paying bills, cooking meals, cleaning, organising medication and liaising with social workers. Given that the average age of young carers is just 12 years, it is remarkable that so many have the capacity to care while also studying at school and developing emotionally themselves.

In addition, my meeting gave me a fascinating insight into the tremendous work carried out by the York Young Carers charity, and I know that many other charities across the country do similar things. I take this opportunity to highlight the dedication of the organisation's staff and volunteers. From offering young carers one-to-one support to providing an environment where they can come together to socialise, support each other and share their experience, the charity is an invaluable source of support and stability for the young people.

One of the most important support mechanisms that the charity provides is organising away-day trips. Young carers spend so much of their time acting with the responsibility and maturity of adults that it is important to remember that they are, in fact, just children themselves. By providing trips and away days, charities such as York Young Carers provide welcome relief from the everyday challenges of caring. For a brief period, young carers are allowed to enjoy being children again.

I would also like to draw attention to the "Young Carers Revolution" media campaign set up by York Young Carers to highlight the difficulties facing young carers across the country. A promotional DVD is available on YouTube, and I encourage all interested Members to watch it to see for themselves what young carers go through, and to hear about it through their own words.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this incredibly important debate. Does he agree that the work of York Young Carers is important because of the great stigma that is
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often attached to young children who care for relatives? Authorities, whether school or social services, are often not aware of the work that they do to try to support their family. That is why what York Young Carers does is so valuable.

Julian Sturdy: I agree entirely with those comments. The essence of the debate is to try to raise awareness. I shall go into more detail later about the educational side and potential bullying, but my hon. Friend is right that awareness is crucial. It is sad that the work of so many young carers, not only in York but across the country, goes unrecognised. We must remember that, and the essential contribution that they make not only to their own family but to society as a whole.

The national focus of the "Young Carers Revolution" campaign requires us to look at the state of play for young carers up and down the country more generally. In particular, I am extremely worried by research by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers which concludes that one in three young carers face educational difficulties, while two in three experience bullying at school.

There can be no doubt that young carers live under huge pressure. As I have said, their roles and responsibilities are great and many. We must all expect that such unenviable circumstances will, in most instances, have an adverse effect on the time and ability of young carers to contribute fully to their educational studies. With a young carer's first priority being the relative for whom they care, it is only right that schools and education providers understand and are sympathetic to their role. One of the greatest frustrations outlined to me by York Young Carers was that too few people, including some teachers, fully appreciate the pressures, both time-wise and emotionally, under which young carers operate. Sadly, 60% of young carers say that they would not be able to talk to a teacher about their caring role, which I find disappointing.

Given that the research by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers shows that some young carers spend up to 50 hours a week carrying out their caring role in their family home, the subject needs greater exposure. It is essential that schools not only show great understanding towards students who are carers, but take on the role of educating others about the pressures faced by their peers. I know that Members on both sides of the House fully support the "Stand Against Bullying" campaign, and I hope that the Minister will be able to commit Government support to those who are working hard to challenge negative attitudes in our classrooms. It is simply unacceptable that two out of three young carers are subject to bullying, and I would welcome his thoughts on how central Government, in conjunction with local authorities and schools, can work in a co-ordinated manner to tackle that form of harassment.

On the academic side, I urge all schools and colleges to provide additional learning support to known young carers who may struggle with their grades as a result of their responsibilities. I am concerned that a childhood of care can sometimes lead to limited options for the individual concerned as they move into adulthood. It would be a tragedy if that were to prove to be the case, so I would like universities and employers to take a more informed view when being approached by those
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who have spent a sizeable part of their learning years operating as carers. Ensuring accessibility to education, higher study and employment for young carers is vital.

As well as educational difficulties, young carers face struggles relating to additional social support and financial assistance. Less than a month ago-it might seem longer to some Members-the country was celebrating Christmas, a wonderful festive season. As a father of two young children, I know how important it is to families and children, yet it is at that time of year that the plight of young carers can be captured most vividly.

Sadly, more than one quarter of young carers had to wrap their own Christmas presents, and one in five found Christmas day tougher or sadder than the rest of the year because support services are reduced and family finances are under greater pressure. For most of Britain's children, Christmas day is an opportunity to relax, enjoy presents, watch TV and share family time, but more than one third of young carers spend more than six hours carrying out their caring role on Christmas day itself. The chief executive of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers stated:

My purpose in highlighting young carers' difficulties during the festive period is not simply to praise their magnificent contribution, though that would be a worthy enough reason in itself, but to pick up on the amount of support that is available to them. Without question, a number of fantastic social services staff work with young carers across the country, but what worries me is that, on average, it takes four years for young carers to receive any support at all.

Such delays are often a result of fear or embarrassment. Sadly, a culture of fear seems to be prevalent among young carers, and I can absolutely understand why. Asking for help is never easy, particularly if one fears that their family home may be broken up or disrupted as a result. It is the job of the authorities and the voluntary sector to break the cycle of fear, and I welcome the new national carers strategy commitment to early identification of carers. Such identification and the subsequent focus of support towards young carers are essential.

The recent report commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in association with the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, "MyCare: The challenges facing young carers of parents with a severe mental illness", found that young carers are at greater risk of isolation than any other youth group. Also, many young carers lack the information to understand a relative's mental health problems, and they disproportionately face their own physical and mental health risks.

I share the sentiments of the senior researcher at the Mental Health Foundation, Dr Robotham, who led the "MyCare" report:

That is an accurate assessment. The work of the York Young Carers charity will, for example, be further enhanced if some of the following report suggestions are implemented locally and nationally.

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First, I support the report's suggestion for young carers to be included in discussions of their relative's treatment. Indeed, young carers in York raised that very issue with me when I met them last year. Our young carers often know the most about the cared-for's condition and yet, frequently, they are overlooked by health professionals and GPs. I would be most grateful for the Minister's specific views on that, because it is an important aspect of how young carers are dealt with by the medical profession.

Secondly, as I have touched upon, it is essential that every school has a policy on provision of support for pupils who are young carers. Such a measure would ensure that all teachers and education professionals were aware of the sensitive issues involved.

Thirdly, our health, mental and social services should be encouraged to work together, to be more effective in their offer of support not only to the cared-for but to the carer. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether he has had any discussions with appropriate agencies to promote any such increased co-operation.

Lastly, the issue of funding is of great concern to many carers and related charities. As a firm supporter of the localism agenda and the Localism Bill-sadly, I did not get to speak yesterday, although I was one of the 52 who put in to speak-I strongly believe in providing local authorities with greater flexibility about how best to spend their budgets. However, I urge local authorities, including City of York council, to prioritise the needs of young carers highly.

Following the publication of the "MyCare" report, the chief executive of the Princess Royal Trust for Carers stated:

That is a key point in the whole process.

Some of the individual concerns that I have discussed today might seem small or insignificant when viewed alongside the wider social services agenda. However, for our young carers, more recognition from health services, greater support from teachers, firmer guarantees about future support provision and simple understanding from wider society would make their pressurised lives a bit easier.

Having spoken with local experts, agencies and, more importantly, young carers themselves, I believe that the issue could and should attract cross-party consensus and action. Our young carers carry out remarkable work, often in unimaginable circumstances and under tremendous pressure. We must do all we can to promote their cause and to ease their burdens.

Britain's young carers have spent their lives loving, supporting and caring for a member of their family. It is now time that we begin to champion them, and to ensure that each and every young carer has a strong voice and clear access to as much support as possible.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate and on his exceedingly articulate and measured way of making a strong case. I echo most of the sentiments in his excellent speech, which I hope is heard more widely beyond today's not overly crowded Chamber.

I am pleased, in particular, to be here to respond as a Minister. As shadow Minister for Children, I took a particular interest in the subject, and I have met many groups of young carers and the organisations involved with them. I pay tribute to those various organisations, some of which my hon. Friend has mentioned, for their excellent and often unrecognised work in a really important area, which affects many more children than some estimates suggest.

Supporting vulnerable children, including young carers, is, of course, a priority for the Government, which is why I am pleased to have the opportunity to articulate our approach to that subset of young people. Helping to care for a family member is something that many young people are happy and proud to do-it helps them to develop a sense of responsibility and skills that are important in later life. Such young people play an absolutely vital role in their families and in society as a whole, for whom they save an awful lot of money. They deserve our recognition and support. However, inappropriate or excessive levels of caring by young people-even if at their own behest-can put their education, training, social development or health at risk, preventing them from enjoying their childhood in the same way as other children. Too many young carers are trapped in harmful caring roles without much hope of fulfilling their potential. That can be as a result of a number of reasons: they do not recognise themselves as young carers or, if they do, they do not seek help; services are not identifying them as carers; or they fear involving children's services and outside agencies.

That is not, of course, the full picture. Thousands of carers, through admirable resilience and sheer determination, achieve so much despite the odds stacked against them. I have met many young carers, including at the annual young carers festival down in Southampton, which is organised by the Children's Society-in particular, by Jenny Frank, who has devoted so much of her career to helping young carers-and by the YMCA Fairthorne Group. I have attended for most of the 12 years that that incredible festival has been running. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer to attend, if he can-it is usually on a weekend in July. I never cease to be impressed by the commitment of the people whom I meet there and their determination to do the best not only for the person they care for but often for other members of their families, such as their brothers and sisters. Some of those young people have done all that and still succeeded at school and gone on to university or successful employment, but not all of them cope so well.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for making the issue a priority and for finding time to meet the York Young Carers-I shall certainly look at the group's excellent film on YouTube. As he has said, the life of a new Member is at the call of many organisations wanting to familiarise themselves with new MPs. However, young carers, such as those in my hon. Friend's constituency,
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have made it clear to me that they want their schools, GPs and the mental health and other health services with which their family members come into contact to be more supportive and more carer aware. My hon. Friend made a good point, which young carers often make to me, about how the doctor, social worker or professional from another agency, who is seeing the parent or whoever is being cared for, often talks over the head of the young person.

If that young person has the day-to-day responsibility, that young person has some very grown-up responsibility placed on them, they know an awful lot about their loved one's situation, and they need to be talked to and involved in the process. That is a common plea, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue. Professionals, therefore, need to be more carer aware. Young carers want professionals to recognise that the young carer, despite being a minor, will often be the responsible person in the house and might understand better than anyone what kind of support is needed and when.

It is shocking that so many young people lose the opportunity to live a normal childhood because of their caring role. Such young people are often hidden from everyone but their families. I agree with my hon. Friend that all of us, including those services I mentioned earlier, need to be mindful of the impact that caring can have on a young person's education, training or employment opportunities. Indeed, that is why providing carers with vital information about the illness or disability that they and their family are coping with and involving them in the decisions about how best to provide care and manage their health is one of the key principles in the carers strategy, "Recognised, valued and supported: next steps for the Carers Strategy", to which my hon. Friend has referred.

I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), for the speed with which he and his Department, with support from the Department for Education and others in the Government, published the new strategy. I am pleased to say that carers' views, including those of young carers, are very much at the heart of it. If we listened to the views of young carers, it would go a long way to helping them.

I shall take this opportunity to praise the young carers in York for producing their "Young Carers Revolution" media campaign, and for the sterling work that they have done to raise awareness and reach out to young carers. They come to the annual festival and have interesting things to say.

The new carers strategy recognises that there are hidden young carers. It sends out a strong signal that effective support for young carers requires adult and children's services, including health services, schools and the voluntary sector, to work together and prevent young carers from taking on harmful or excessive caring roles. The early intervention grant, worth £2.2 billion a year over the period of the spending review, provides local authorities and their partners with the freedom and flexibility to decide how best to prioritise their resources in accordance with local demand.

The Government strongly believe that such support should be targeted at those children and families who are most in need, and I encourage local authorities to identify appropriate services for young carers and prioritise them. Local authorities can do that by adopting the
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"Working together to support young carers" programme, which is a memorandum of understanding published jointly by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Association of Directors of Children's Services. The memorandum is unambiguous in stating that no care package should rely on a young person taking on an inappropriate caring role. I urge local authorities-including that of my hon. Friend-as does the Government's carers strategy, to consider adopting that memorandum.

All too often, as an Ofsted report highlighted in 2009, services do not work together effectively and young carers fall through the gaps. Training can be an effective way of raising awareness of young carers among professionals who might not otherwise recognise that a young carer is involved. I am grateful for the work done by the Children's Society, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the Social Care Institute for Excellence, and others, to train a range of professionals to be more carer aware.

There is already much good practice in this area, and I join my hon. Friend in saluting the dedication of staff-including thousands of volunteers-who through hundreds of young carer projects, mostly in the voluntary sector, provide young carers with the respite and one-to-one support that they need, giving them the opportunity to take part in activities or go on breaks with friends with whom they can share their experiences. Often, young people who find themselves as carers need to get together with other young people in a similar situation who can appreciate, understand and sympathise with the challenges they face at home. It is about having the opportunity to take an evening off to go and see a film with other people, or to go bowling, or whatever. There are lots of interesting projects, largely set up through the Children's Society by Jenny Frank and others, and we have entertained many such projects in this House over the years. They could be something simple that make young carers feel that they are not alone and that other people understand and look out for them.

The voluntary sector plays a vital role in supporting those young people, and I am pleased that through the innovation fund, the National Young Carers Coalition is extending the support that it provides to the whole family. The carers centre in York is another example of a voluntary sector project that provides invaluable support.

It is not for Government to micro-manage and prescribe what is best for local authorities-local authorities should know what is most appropriate for their residents and communities. Practice and approach, however, varies across the country and I am committed to encouraging the sharing of best practice-something that we are often not terribly good at-so that all areas in the country can share knowledge about what works from areas that are doing well. I am pleased that the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, will, on behalf of the National Young Carers Coalition, showcase the learning from the innovation fund.

My Department has already made available the interim findings from the young carer pathfinders scheme. It shows that where intensive support was co-ordinated by a key worker and focused around the family, between entry and exit from the project, there was a 35% reduction
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in the number of young carers in those families, and a 41% reduction in the number of young people for whom caring was having a negative impact.

An improving picture is emerging as more young people are referred to receive the support they need as a result of their parents' mental health or substance misuse problems, and more schools are becoming aware of the support that they need to provide. However, there is much still to do, and a number of families will be facing a range of other complex problems. For example, research highlights that family violence can be an issue at home. That is why I am pleased that on 10 December last year, the Prime Minister announced a new national campaign for families with multiple problems. That campaign sets out to support the most vulnerable 120,000 families, a number of whom will have a young person or persons in a caring role. It represents a new and determined effort to improve the lives of those families and those who live around them. It will trial innovative new approaches to providing tailored support to the whole family where there are complex problems, and it will provide personalised and holistic support to help a family deal with its problems. I look forward to seeing the benefits of that new approach.

From a young carer's perspective, schools are arguably the local service with which they have the most contact and which play the greatest role in helping them. Young carers have told us that they want their schools to be more supportive and understanding about their caring role and education, and I support that. Young carers want teaching staff to recognise that they may need flexible learning arrangements and additional support. That is a major issue, and it comes up when I go to conferences and meet people. Young carers need an understanding teacher who knows the demands on them and can put in a word if, for some good reason, homework is in late or it is necessary to be in telephone contact with a doctor or another professional because a relative has taken a turn for the worse, or whatever. Good practice is for each school to designate somebody in that role, but that does not always happen.

Although many schools have systems in place to support young carers and have a lead person to support them, that does not happen enough. Some schools may like to consider whether a governor should have an oversight role, just as we recommend for children in the care system who have particular requirements. To increase the support available to young carers in schools, the Department for Education is working closely with the Department of Health to provide the National Young Carers Coalition with an e-learning module for teachers and staff as part of the healthy schools approach to help better identify and support young carers.

Another issue that affects young carers-I am aware of the research by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers that my hon. Friend has mentioned-is bullying. Unacceptably, and incredibly, nearly two thirds of young carers are bullied at school. Perhaps they are often late, do not have time to take part in social activities or do not dress in the same way as others. All those things can mark them out as different from their peers. The Government, the Secretary of State for Education and I, take that issue very seriously. It is unacceptable for any child to be victimised, and even more so when they have the responsibilities of a young carer on their shoulders.

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We can be proud of the vast majority of young people, but when bullies are identified we cannot just suspend them for a couple of days and allow them to saunter back into school to torment their victims again. We will put head teachers and teachers back in control and give them a range of tough new powers to deal with bullies. Head teachers will be able to take a zero-tolerance approach and will have the final say. We trust that head teachers will use those powers but I hope they do not have to. By educating young people to appreciate, respect and empathise with the pressures on people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in an adult caring role, I hope that we can eradicate that completely unacceptable form of bullying.

When bullying occurs, schools need to respond promptly and firmly. They need to apply disciplinary sanctions and work with bullies so that they are held to account for their actions and accept responsibility for the harm they have caused. Schools must also support those who are being bullied and, above all, they must educate bullying out of the school and classroom. All of us in society have a responsibility in that area. I hope that
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this debate and the other initiatives for young carers, such as the fantastic weekend at Fairthorne manor and the meetings in which we speak to young carers to understand their problems from the sharp end and look at how better we can accommodate them, will raise the profile of this issue, so that more people recognise the particular challenges faced by those young people.

The Department for Education will continue to work closely with the voluntary sector and local authorities to break down barriers to supporting young carers and their families effectively, which is the least we can do. We have a duty as a society to help those people, and frankly it is a false economy both socially and financially not to do that as actively as possible. I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this subject and putting his case so strongly. I hope that he is a convert, an advocate and an ambassador for the issue of young carers, and that he will ensure that as many people in his constituency-and beyond-are aware of the challenges faced and do their bit to make the role of young carers as easy as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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