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Significant progress has been made, and what matters is that the number of midwives that we have in place-the skills mix-provides good, safe outcomes for women and their babies. The NHS commissioning board will provide commissioning guidance and we are, of course, keen for it to support GP commissioning consortia in their commissioning of services. The Government will specify outcome indicators that demonstrate high quality and improving care, but it would not be appropriate for us to dictate models of care or how resources, including staff, are used. Instead, we will look for local leadership, from health and well-being boards for example, which will develop the joint strategic needs assessments and health and well-being strategies to inform commissioning, ensuring that trends in the birth rate and the growth in the number of more complex cases are taken into account by the local service. The complexity of a case is becoming more important than ever in determining the care and the number of staff needed to deliver babies safely, and its consideration will allow individual maternity services to adapt to the different pressures faced in different communities.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston rightly made important points about the deaths of the 25 babies in the west midlands between April 2008 and March 2009, and said that the report sadly states that 84% of those deaths were potentially avoidable. That is totally unacceptable, and I must admit that it comes as a shock to me, as it probably did to the hon. Lady, that we are still not good at using serious untoward incidents, and indeed the deaths of children and babies, to learn and to improve our practice. I met Professor Jason Gardosi, director of the west midlands Perinatal Institute and author of the report, to discuss the issue in more detail, and we have a lot of work to do to ensure that we learn from such tragic incidents. When I talk to women who have lost babies, they say that, more than anything, they want this not to happen again and lessons to be learnt from their experience.

The report outlines steps that could improve the safety of services, and we are looking at a number of ways in which they can be addressed. The NHS in the west midlands now has clear plans for improving standards of care and reducing preventable deaths, and it is important that those plans are implemented, including the urgent introduction of both a system whereby maternity units and commissioners can learn from and respond effectively to adverse incidents, and a standardised regional perinatal death reporting system across all its maternity units. Interestingly, as a result of that, the west midlands in many ways now leads the way in this field.

Nationally, the National Patient Safety Agency has launched an intrapartum toolkit, which is valuable in helping maternity units improve safety. Sharing best practice is terribly important and we do not do it enough in the NHS. I hope that the new outcomes framework will act as a catalyst for driving up quality across all NHS services by measuring what is important: clinical outcomes. Such outcomes make a real difference to people's experiences of services and to their health and well-being, and can sometimes save the lives of mothers and babies.

It would be unfair to say that there have been no improvements in the past few years; there have been improvements in antenatal care. The Care Quality Commission survey of women's experiences of maternity
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services published in December 2010 found that 92% of women rated their maternity care as good or better. We should be proud of that, but it is the 8% sitting on the edge and those babies who die that is completely unacceptable, and we need to do much more.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston talked eloquently about the association between deprivation and poor outcomes, and rightly said that commissioning is weak. She described Professor Gardosi's report as damning, but the previous Government presided over the years covered by the study. What exactly did her Government do? Where were they? Why were inequalities in health not reduced? What happened to the health visitor numbers? Why is commissioning so weak? It is the weakness of commissioners that has failed to drive up standards, and the hon. Lady spells out exactly the case for changing commissioning.

Ms Stuart: The report was the result of the chief medical officer's concerns from the early '90s onwards. What concerned the CMO was that, although we reduced inequality, this particular area was not addressed, going back to well before the Labour Government.

Anne Milton: I appreciate that, but for the past 13 years the hon. Lady's party has been in government. In many ways, she could not have made a better case for changing commissioning. It is not very sexy to talk about it, but the weakness of commissioning is what has been at fault in many ways. It is what has failed to drive up the quality of services and achieve the outcomes that we want. The Health and Social Care Bill gives us the chance to refocus the NHS on what is important to its users and the staff providing the services, and to achieve the results that are important to them.

I assure hon. Members that I will continue to work on maternity services, and I remind the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that it is simplistic in the extreme to say that this is just a numbers game. As far as health visitors are concerned, her Government presided over this dramatic loss in the health-visiting work force. We have promised to increase the number of health visitors to 4,200, and that vital work force will work with midwives and other professionals across the board to ensure a universal visiting service and targeted help for the most vulnerable.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston put across the exact case for why the changes to commissioning are so important, why our pledge to increase the number of health visitors is vital, why we need to create the maternity networks and why ring-fencing public health money is so important. Crucially, they are important because we are determined to improve the health outcomes of mothers and their babies.

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Pensioner Poverty

12.28 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): In our country, we have growing life expectancy, but pensioner poverty will become an increasing problem for us all. There are no reality shows on hospital geriatric wards. A dribbling one-year-old is cute, but a dribbling 91-year-old is not. One has their life in front of them, and for the other it is in the past. However, socially, each life is equally important.

We now have a population of 61 million. Nearly one third of us are pensioners. Of those, 1.8 million live in poverty. Statistically, when I walk down the street in my constituency, every 10th pensioner whom I see lives in poverty. Poverty is difficult to define, and I will not try to do so-it is a quagmire. To me, poverty involves not having enough food, clothing, warmth, shelter, care or contact with other people. Loneliness is a killer. How many of us have known of someone who just fell off the perch when their husband or wife died?

When I was canvassing for my seat-I am one of the youngest Members in the new intake eight months ago-I knocked on a door in my constituency and an old lady came to the door. It was a very respectable house. She said, "Would you like a cup of tea?" I said, "That would be lovely." I went through to the kitchen and sat down, and she made a cup of tea for me. I said, "Are you alone?" She said, "Yes, I've been alone for 10 years." I said, "I'm sorry. Your husband died?" She said, "Yes. It's very lonely." I said, "Well, thank goodness you've got a dog." I have a dog; they are great fun and good companions. She said, "I haven't got a dog." I said, "Well, you've got dog food on the sideboard." She said, "Do you know, it makes a passable stew." That was in a respectable house. Our society has hidden poverty as well.

Often, pensioners face a stark choice between heating and eating. I am shocked that between 20,000 and 25,000 pensioners a year in this country are said to die from hypothermia. In my constituency, I am told, an average of 30 old people die of cold each winter, which is shocking. For each one who dies, eight are admitted to hospital, 32 must seek out-patient treatment and 30 see care workers.

Obviously, people on low incomes are most at risk. All of us here expect to heat our homes to a temperature of 21° C, which is the norm. One can go as far down as 18° C, but below that we start losing old people. I saw one figure saying that at 17° C, 8,000 more people die. I cannot believe it, but that is the figure that I was given by Age Concern. The mean average temperature last winter was 3.4° C. Hypothermia in old people starts at 5° C, so home heating is essential.

The state pension is about £97 a week for a single person or £162 for a married couple. No one can live on that, and we all know it. It is vital to keep the winter fuel allowance, bus passes, eye tests, free prescriptions and free television licences for pensioners. They are good measures, and it is absolutely right that any Government should keep them.

I think of people who, perhaps like the old lady I met, tried all their life to save for their old age. But interest rates are low now, so nest eggs yield no interest, and pensioners must bite into their capital. It is infrequently mentioned in the media that the elderly suffer most
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from low interest rates. Some 28% of all pensioners have less than £1,500 in savings, 4% do not even have a bank account and 26% of female pensioners have no savings whatever-for men, that figure is 28%. What happens when those people have a crisis-when their boiler breaks or something crucial to their lifestyle goes wrong? They panic, and they then become good bait for loan sharks. I suspect some of them just give up and say, "That's it."

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 39% of pensioners fail to claim their benefits. That amounts to between £3.1 billion and £5.4 billion a year unclaimed. In statistical terms, that accounts for 700,000 of the 1.8 million pensioners in poverty. Of course, many, like my mother and the parents of other people in this Chamber, are proud and dignified. They do not want to be a burden on anyone, and they spent their entire lives saving so as not to be. God bless them for it, but those benefits are a right, not charity. We are only giving back to pensioners what they contributed to our society, but the problem is trying to convince them of it.

My constituency, which is part of Bromley, is served by Age Concern Bromley. The lady who runs it, Maureen Falloon, has helped pensioners to claim £900,000 in the past year, which is vital. We should be encouraging such outreach services, where charities get involved with vulnerable people and help them out.

The old need to be cared for. There are 2.8 million carers in our country who get no money whatever for caring. Some 5% of those are over 85 years of age. Of course people want to stay in their homes. My mother did; all our parents do. It is natural. They do not want to go somewhere strange. We must try to help them stay in their homes, which, by the way, is cheaper than putting them in a home.

Old age can be lonely. Some 12% of pensioners say that they feel trapped inside their homes, and 6% say that they leave their homes only once a week. Other societies have what used to be called-I do not know whether they still are-extended families. Extended families ensure that the old are looked after and have a place in society. We seem to have lost that, and it is a shame, because it is a part of the big society, too.

Unlimited funds would help, but the Minister and I know very well that we do not have them. Currently, there are 1.4 million people in our country over 85 years of age. In 10 years' time, according to The Spectator-it is in the press, so it must be true-there will be 2.5 million, which is a time bomb.

I will conclude with three thoughts. We need to get the 700,000 people who do not claim their benefits to do so, because if they do, they will be lifted out of the poverty trap. The Minister will know about the claim form for attendance allowance and its instructions. One of my staff spent two days-a whole weekend-and two bottles of wine filling out the form, which is actually half the size it was. We have to make it simpler, not only for those who are trying to claim individually, but for those who help them. The Minister is running an automatic credits payment scheme. It is a trial that has been ongoing since last year and will conclude at the end of this year. It is fantastic that, fundamentally, the Ministry, the Government and the system will identify people at risk and give them back their money, for which they have worked all their lives, look after them and make sure that they do not freeze to death or eat dog food.

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My second thought relates to fixed income bonds, which used to be called granny bonds. When someone has saved all their life and they are trying their best not to be a burden on anyone-not just the state, but their family-they might at least have some guarantee of income. If we were to give a guaranteed rate of return for savings, at least those people who need it would know how much money they could plan on getting without trying to take out their savings.

Thirdly, it should be relatively easy to target potential pensioners as they approach retirement. Surely Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs know what people's tax band is likely to be in retirement. Surely all our wonderful computer systems can spew out exactly what has happened and why we should target them. When that happens, they will need advice. The lady in the house with the dog food needed someone to help her. Perhaps she should downsize. I know that it is difficult for her, but somehow someone has to get in there and help her. A charity such as Age Concern Bromley could, through someone such as Maureen Falloon, talk to pensioners in that sort of situation, convince them of their entitlements and help them fill in forms such as that for attendance allowance.

Remember that some people in our society cannot read-they are illiterate. I speak as an ex-Army officer who had to deal with such people as they joined the Army. Surely it would be a moral and proper use of taxpayers' money to spend some of our resources on helping people via a grant of some kind to a local charity that could offer assistance. The way in which a society looks after its vulnerable is a very good measure of its civilization.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): Thank you, Mr Gale, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on raising a serious and important issue, and on explaining its depth and breadth. On pensioner poverty, we talk too often about incomes and measuring the statistics, and therefore lose sight of its human side. No matter how immersed we get in the statistics or how much progress we may think has been made, we should all still be shocked by the example that my hon. Friend has given. The experience of the pensioner whom he visited is totally unacceptable. Notwithstanding anything I might say in the time available to me, one person in such a situation is, clearly, one person too many.

My hon. Friend raised a broad spectrum of issues and I will respond to a number of his key themes. On fuel poverty, I want to talk about the support we aim to give and some of our new initiatives. I will also address the issue of non-take-up of benefit, which as he rightly says is one of the most significant causes of pensioner poverty. He raised the issue of investment returns, granny bonds, interest and so on during oral questions a few weeks ago. I am pleased that he has followed up on that and I will give him a bit more information on it. Finally, I will talk about some of the broader issues he raised-income, material deprivation, loneliness and so on-and the steps the Government can take to identify those problems and act on them. I will try to run through all those things.

On fuel poverty, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is a pretty basic need to be able to keep warm enough and healthy, particularly in such a bitterly cold
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winter. One of the very first decisions we had to take as a Government was, as he rightly says, to continue the winter fuel payment when there was some speculation that it might go or be cut in some other way. We also made a decision on the cold weather payments, which are specific, £25-a-week payments for when the temperature is below zero for a whole week. They were temporarily raised to £25, and the budget plans we inherited would have reduced them this winter to £8.50 a week. We took the view that spending money when temperatures are below freezing on relatively low-income pensioners, disabled people and families with young children was a priority. My hon. Friend rightly says that money is tight at present, but that was a priority for us. Instead of cutting it to £8.50, we held the rate at £25, and those who are eligible in his constituency will have received three payments of £25-a total of £75-towards the extra costs of heating in this bitterly cold winter. I think that he and I can be proud of that decision.

Obviously, that is a short-term situation and, ideally, we have to ask why we in Britain have what is known in the jargon as "excess winter deaths." Why is a cold winter killing people in Britain when, essentially, it does not in Scandinavia, which is a much colder region? It does not get the spikes that we do in the winter, but one of the fundamental reasons is the poor standard of our existing and new housing stock. Even the houses that we are now building are often not good enough. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is leading on those issues and it is requiring the energy companies, as part of their carbon reduction commitments-the carbon emissions reduction target scheme-to target the most vulnerable households. The idea is that the energy companies will pay for things such as home insulation, loft insulation, cavity walls, draft-proofing and so on because, yes, we need to make sure that pensioners can afford their heating bills; but it would be far better if we could make sure, through a properly insulated home, that those heating bills were not so large in the first place. If we can make sure that more elderly people have cosy homes, they will be able to afford to heat them and everybody will gain. We are requiring the energy companies to do more on that front.

We also experimented-this is an interesting point in relation to take-up-with the energy rebate scheme earlier this year. The electricity companies made payments to pensioners based on data-matching between the data held by the Department for Work and Pensions and the energy companies' customer data. We brought the two together, identified people on the guarantee credit element of the pension credit and simply credited them with £80 on their electricity bills. The previous Government initiated the scheme and we did it as an experiment earlier this year. We targeted those aged over 70, so the elderly and the vulnerable got £80 credit on their electricity accounts. It was a one-year pilot and most of the delivery costs were paid by energy suppliers, and I sense that it was pretty successful. I had a few letters about people who were not sure why they did not qualify when their name was on the bill, and we had a few teething problems. However, overwhelmingly, that scheme put cash in the pockets of people living in vulnerable households. That has worked well, so we are now proposing something called a warm home discount scheme that will build on that success. We propose that energy suppliers should
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again pay a rebate to vulnerable pensioners, who have been identified through data-matching. That scheme was a useful precedent and we want to build on it.

However, crucially, that brings me on the second point: take-up. Of course, eligibility for the scheme I mentioned is dependent on the person concerned getting pension credit. As my hon. Friend rightly says, too many people who are eligible do not get the money. I absolutely endorse his comment that the payment is not charity; it is a right. People have paid their taxes and their national insurance and they are entitled to the money. I would not want any pensioner to feel that claiming money that the law says they are entitled to is anything other than a right. I am grateful to him for how he expressed that. As he rightly says, one of the things we are looking at-I view this as a two-stage process-is getting people to claim what is there now and simplifying the claims process. The second step, which I will come on to, is to reduce the reliance on means-testing and use more of the benefits and pensions that we know people will get. We should regard means-testing as a safety net, a residual part of the system, rather than a mainstream part of the process, as it is now.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, we are running a pilot scheme. We are trying to use the data we already hold to indentify the people who are eligible but not claiming. I sense that that will be more difficult than we might think. Eligibility for pension credit depends not just on one's own income but one's spouse's. It also depends on the whole household's housing costs, and on all its savings in different accounts with different institutions. One of the problems we have in Government is bringing all that together. On my hon. Friend's point about identifying people approaching pension age who might be about to become poor, the pilot will tell us how far we can draw together the disparate information that different bits of Government hold. People might have three different pensions from three different providers, and, two years before pension age, might not have even crystallised the pot into a pension. We therefore do not yet know how big the pension will be.

Bob Stewart: Perhaps those who work for charities could be used as additional social workers to help those people and give information back to Government. We would all win by doing that.

Steve Webb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for stressing the valuable contribution of charities, such as Age Concern Bromley. Many other charities that do their work in people's front rooms have a crucial part to play. The Pension, Disability and Carers Service is a local service that works with local authorities and does home visits. It goes into people's front rooms and does similar sorts of work. Such work is very valuable, but I want to be as systematic as I can, so that we can catch the folk who fall through the net.

Bob Stewart: It is part of it.

Steve Webb: Absolutely. That work is a very valuable complement to the whole process. I want to ensure that the Government are as systematic as we can be, so that we can get as much money automatically to people as we can. As I said, we have been running a pilot scheme
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and have identified a sample of 2,000 people who, on the face of it, appear to be entitled to pension credit and are not claiming it. We have made payments to those people of what we think they should get. We have contacted them and said, "The money that's arriving in your bank account is what we think you could get as pension credit. Would you like to make a claim?" As my hon. Friend says, that has been going on and we are closing the study in the middle of March. We are hoping to learn from that how far we can use the information we have to ensure that people get what they are entitled to. We will certainly be reporting back to the House on that.

What we have to do-and what the Government are doing-is to ensure that the money people definitely do claim is better. Let me give an example. The state pension, which has virtually 100% take-up, is worth having. My hon. Friend will know that, after 30 years of the link with earnings being broken, we restored the earnings link this year. Over the lifetime of their retirement, a typical pensioner retiring this year can expect to get an extra £15,000 in state pension compared with the old price link. That money is guaranteed and we know they will claim it. My goal for the longer term is to try to rebalance the system, so that we do not have, as he rightly says, a wholly inadequate basic pension-someone cannot live on £97 a week-and a mass means-testing system that results in many people failing to claim. There will always be a need for a safety net and a catch-all, but I would rather ensure that the pension is at a decent level. Restoring the earnings link is the first step towards that, but I hope we can go further.

My hon. Friend rightly raised the issue of investment income and set out a very important context. In fact, many pensioners, particularly poorer pensioners, have next to no investment income. He quoted some figures. Regarding the poorest fifth of single pensioners, who are living on £136 a week, just £4 of that is coming from investment income. So even if I could magically double interest rates, I would be giving them an extra £4 a week. That clearly matters for those who have structured their finances to depend on interest income. I will say a word about that in a moment. However, for us as a Government, getting pensions, pension credit and so on right will have a substantial effect.

My hon. Friend is right: falling interest rates are an issue. He mentioned the granny bond or, as I gather it used to be called, the pensioner guaranteed income bond. That bond was withdrawn by National Savings and Investments in 2008, when it was paying an interest rate of 3.9%. That was a few years ago. Obviously, when there is a base rate of 0.5%, one might think that savings rates had plummeted so far there would be nothing like that out there. I have done a bit of research and, for example, today on the market 3% interest rates are available for a one-year bond, and for three-year bonds 4% interest rates are available.

However, people do not necessarily know about that. When I responded to my hon. Friend in the House a little while ago and mentioned the issue of shopping around, we discussed the fact that, if someone has access to the internet, dealing with such issues is straightforward. Moneymadeclear and so on are good websites. However, the Consumer Financial Education Body also offers a helpline that people can ring up. If someone is not sure whether they are getting the best
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interest rate and they want to know what is available, they can ring the helpline number. I shall read that number into the record: 0300 500 5000. People can simply phone that number and say, "I've got this amount of savings. What sort of options do I have?" As I mentioned, with savings rates of 4% or more and increased limits on individual savings accounts available, decent rates are out there. However, too many people are trapped in receiving very poor interest rates. Let me give an example. I noticed this morning that a high street building society is offering what it calls an e-savings plus account that pays 0.1% interest, and a high street bank is offering what it calls a premier saving account, also offering 0.1%.

Bob Stewart: That is exactly where people who work for charities that go into people's homes can help. If they have such things in their quiver, they can say, "Let's have a look at your savings and see if we can get you a better return." That does not cost them anything.

Steve Webb: Indeed. I certainly would not downplay the role of face-to-face conversations. I fully accept that many older and more vulnerable people will not have internet access. We need alternatives, such as charities or visitors going into people's homes and talking about savings rates and giving phone numbers of the sort I have mentioned. That is all part of getting the message across that people who have suffered a big fall in their savings rate need not necessarily face such a situation. There are options out there for them.

In the final few minutes of my speech, I shall talk about the broader issues that my hon. Friend raised. He mentioned carers and social care. As he will know, the Department of Health has an independent care commission headed by Andrew Dilnot, which is due to report in the summer. Although that commission's formal consultation process finished on Saturday, I am sure it would very much welcome my hon. Friend's input if he has further comments to make about the role of older carers, whom he mentioned. The Government are seeking to ensure that those who are doing full-time care of, for example, 50 hours a week or more can get far more respite. Perhaps 1 million people are in that category. He also raised the issue of claim forms. I entirely agree: there is always a lot more to be done. I should stress that people can ring a free phone number-0800 882200-and can claim over the telephone. As he rightly says, that might help people who cannot read or deal with the forms. It is great if those people have someone do the form for them or with them. We also try to enable people to complete the form over the phone if that is more helpful to them.

Finally, my hon. Friend properly raised the much wider issues of pensioner poverty. It is not just about income; it is about loneliness and what happens if the cooker breaks and so on. When we publish the figures on households with a below average income-the poverty figures-I am keen for our Department not simply to publish table after table about income, but for it to look much more broadly at deprivation. I have a list of the things we are studying and publishing figures on: for example, whether someone can replace a cooker, take a holiday away from home or go out socially at least once a month. As he rightly says, loneliness, isolation and financial insecurity are important facets.

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Bob Stewart rose-

Steve Webb: I am about to conclude as there are only a few seconds left.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising a vital issue and I look forward to having an ongoing conversation with him. Like him, I congratulate the voluntary sector and our front-line staff on their work. They are bringing these messages to vulnerable people, whom we are determined to help.

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Policing (Telford)

1 pm

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is good to see you officiating in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Gale.

I begin by paying tribute to the officers, community support officers and civilian staff who work so hard in my constituency. I have always felt that being a serving police officer or CSO is one of the toughest jobs in our community. When they go to work, they know that they might place themselves in harm's way, on a daily basis, to uphold the law and protect local people. May I say to those people that we are grateful for their work and the commitment that they show?

We have an establishment figure of 290 police officers and 49 CSOs in the Telford and Wrekin area. Those officers are backed up by civilian staff. In many police stations today, the person we meet, who will help us and point us in the right direction as we go up to the front desk, is often a civilian member of staff. The support they give front-line officers and CSOs is very important. Approximately 20% of the officers who work in Telford are in CID and specialist teams, 20% work in local policing teams and 60% of officers and CSOs work in the response unit. We saw a significant rise in police numbers in the previous decade, and the introduction from scratch of CSOs, who provide a valuable visible presence in the community and have proved to be a successful addition to the strength of divisions across West Mercia. I remember that when CSOs were brought in, people were somewhat sceptical, but they have worked very well in Telford. We often see CSOs paired up with police officers so that they can work jointly and provide cover for each other. They are often seen in our local centres, such as Dawley, Madeley and Oakengates, and provide a valuable, uniformed presence in those areas. People value them and the numbers have risen significantly in recent years. A range of partners, not just mainstream Home Office funding from the police authority, is involved in funding CSOs. Other partners are contributing to provide CSOs in our area. For example, we have seen partnerships with parish councils, which helped provide sponsorship for vehicles and individual CSOs.

The local policing teams serving my constituency operate out of Donnington, Malinsgate and Madeley police stations, and their ethos revolves around four key themes: access, influence, intervention and answers. It is their job to be the direct link and connection with communities in our area. This initiative was one of the best undertaken in policing during the lifetime of the Labour Government. It ensures that people can identify their local police officers and CSOs and engage with them directly.

In Telford, we also have the Partners and Communities Together process, which enables local people to engage with the police and other agencies to identify and tackle issues in their community. I have attended some PACT meetings. They are large meetings: they are often packed-different spelling-and very positive. Local police officers come and talk about policing priorities, and the community can say to police officers and CSOs, "Actually, in the next few weeks we need you to focus on this area or this particular type of crime in our community, because it is particularly troubling us." Those meetings are very positive and provide a link back to the public. The public get
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frustrated sometimes when they see that police officers are active, but do not receive any feedback on results or actions that have been taken. This is, therefore, a two-way process-a dialogue between the community and agencies that are attempting to tackle crime in our community. I regularly meet officers in Telford, both at Malinsgate and out on the patch. In a recent meeting with superintendent Gary Higgins, he said that, in relation to Telford, in 30 years in the police force, he had

I am pleased to say that crime has been falling in the Telford and Wrekin area in recent years. The overall number of crimes fell from 13,655 in 2006 to 11,444 in 2010. There have been falls in all types of crime, notably violent crime and antisocial behaviour. That is good progress, but every single figure in those statistics relates to a victim, and we need to do more to drive down crime and crime levels in our town.

Local policing teams are contributing to success and alongside this we have some excellent partnerships involving organisations such as Telford and Wrekin council, Wrekin housing trust, local parish councils and wider community groups. One particularly interesting initiative is focused on antisocial behaviour, where West Mercia is the ACPO lead. We have a co-ordinated antisocial behaviour team that encompasses staff from the police and local authority, in partnership with agencies such as the Wrekin housing trust. That ensures that people who are repeatedly targeted by antisocial behaviour get a tailored response, and we also have an antisocial behaviour vehicle that can be sent to incidents. That activity is then integrated with the work of the local policing teams and fed back through the PACT process, confidentially of course. It allows resources to be targeted effectively.

Antisocial behaviour is a blight on communities. It is a significant problem in urban areas such as Telford. It disproportionately affects different people in communities. When one person feels that they have been affected by antisocial behaviour, their perception of antisocial behaviour may be different from someone else's. For example, if a gang of young people is kicking a ball against the wall outside an elderly person's house or bungalow, that may be perceived as a big antisocial behaviour problem for the individual resident. You or I, Mr Gale, might find that perfectly tolerable to an extent, but an older person might feel significantly intimidated. The antisocial behaviour team can consider who is being repeatedly affected by antisocial behaviour and how it impacts on their life.

Alongside this type of work, the police in Telford and Wrekin have also been engaged in work that attacks organised crime networks. Telford is no different from any other town-organised criminals are active in our area. I receive briefings from senior officers on this activity and, although their work is often unseen by the public, I can inform the House that the effort and commitment shown by officers to those investigations is outstanding.

Crime has been falling and a range of local initiatives are producing results. I am, however, concerned about two key issues. First, police funding will be cut by 20% in the next four years and the Government are taking a big risk with public safety. The cuts could undermine the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour that we have been successfully waging in towns such as Telford. Helped by record numbers of police officers, crime fell by 43% under the Labour Government and
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the chance of being a victim of crime was at a 30-year low. However, the Government's reckless cuts to policing and crime prevention will put all that at risk.

The cuts are front-loaded. They will be larger for the first two years of this Parliament, making it even harder to make long-term efficiency savings and putting more pressure on police forces to cut officer numbers. In West Mercia, which covers Telford, that will mean a cut of £20.6 million between 2010-11 and 2012-13. That will inevitably lead to pressure on front-line police and CSO numbers in areas such as Telford. Home Office statistics, which were revealed last week, show that in West Mercia there are nearly 150 fewer officers than there were a year ago. The force has announced significant job losses already, and I fear that there are more to come in the next four years. The fall in numbers was for the period before the Government's 20% cut to police funding was announced, and I fear that it is only the thin end of the wedge.

In West Mercia there is a recruitment freeze, which means that, as people leave the service, they are not replaced. Very often, longer-serving officers leave, for obvious reasons, and they have often progressed up the ranks. Under normal circumstances, they would be replaced by officers from the front line, and new recruits would come in. That clearly cannot happen, so posts in specialist teams are left unfilled and force capacity is weakened, or the front-line force capacity is weakened if posts are filled through promotion. There is a Catch-22 problem with the recruitment freeze: we can see pressure on the front line but also on specialist teams.

Another concern to officers, particularly across West Mercia-I have spoken to officers in Telford about this-is regulation A19, which requires that officers retire after 30 years' service. West Mercia is not implementing A19 at present, but, like several other forces, it will be looking at it. The real problem is that the force would lose officers with great experience if it were implemented.

It is not just me who is concerned about these issues-the police themselves are. Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said on Sky News on 20 October 2010:

He was talking about the broad arrangements around the settlement.

Rob Garnham, chair of the Association of Police Authorities, said on 13 December 2010:

That is interesting stuff, is it not? During the election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister said that we would have 3,000 extra police officers on the streets. That was clearly a campaign commitment. The Prime Minister said that he would send back to their Department any Minister who proposed front-line cuts to services so that they could think again. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say this morning. During the general election, my Conservative opponent said
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that the West Mercia police in Telford were "underfunded". I do not know what he would think if he saw the figures today.

The second issue I want to discuss is directly elected police and crime commissioners. At the same time as we are looking at police cuts, the Government are committed to subjecting the police to an unwanted organisational upheaval, in which police authorities would be replaced by directly elected police and crime commissioners. It is estimated that that will cost more than £100 million.

In the nearly 10 years that I have been the MP for Telford, I have never met anyone in my constituency, neither a member of the public nor a party activist from any party, who suggested that that would be a good course of action. The fact is that we have a well-respected police authority model, which involves people from all parts of West Mercia-we do not want an American-style elected police commissioner.

There is a real danger that the position will be politicised, at huge cost to taxpayers. The Minister should take the money put aside for the project and give it to police forces such as West Mercia to spend on front-line services. The cash could come directly to Telford to be spent on front-line policing and on supporting police officers and CSOs. I urge her to go back to the Department and think again about the police commissioner idea. She should allocate the resources that have been ring-fenced for it to police authorities, and put them on the front line in towns such as Telford.

In closing, I once again pay tribute to the public servants in and out of uniform who serve our community as part of the police force in Telford. We ask them to do much on our behalf, and it is our duty to support them in doing their duty.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): It is a pleasure to stand before you this afternoon, Mr Gale. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on obtaining this debate, and I join him in paying tribute to the excellent and innovative work done by the police and other agencies in Telford. As he said, together with Telford and Wrekin council, they have set up a joint unit to improve action on the antisocial behaviour that can blight people's lives. West Mercia is the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on antisocial behaviour, and one of the eight forces chosen to take part in a new trial to improve the police response to complaints about such behaviour. A pilot is taking place in Telford, and a risk-assessment tool that identifies high-risk and vulnerable callers has been developed and is already being used. Such work makes a crucial difference to the safety of communities and the quality of people's lives.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about key issues. If I may, I would like to start with police and crime commissioners. He and I differ on the impact of the Government's proposals to introduce them. He said that the proposal would lead to politicisation of the police, whereas I believe that it provides an opportunity to open them up to democratic accountability. Police authorities are responsible for holding the police to account, but the introduction of elected commissioners will put power directly in the hands of the public.

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The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the cost of the exercise, but the commissioners will cost no more than police authorities did. Moreover, I am not sure whether he is aware that in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) proposed an amendment and then voted for having directly elected chairs of crime and community panels, which would involve an equivalent cost. For the election, £50 million has been especially allocated-it will not come out of the allocation for the police grant. The cost would be the same whether it were for an elected police and crime commissioner or an elected chair of an authority. Overall, the exercise would involve the same cost.

Commissioners will take over most of the functions of police authorities, and they will provide democratic accountability and will be a visible and active force for community engagement. Meanwhile, they themselves will be held to account by police and crime panels for the execution of their duties. The panels will be made up of locally elected councillors and some independent and lay members. They will be able to veto a commissioner's proposed precept by a three quarters majority and veto any candidate whom a commissioner proposes for chief constable by the same majority.

The public will also be given opportunities to scrutinise the performance of their police and crime commissioners directly through enhanced local crime information, including, from today, street-level crime maps. I am sure the hon. Member for Telford would agree that that will open up the whole of police information and crime statistics to the public, who will know what is happening in their street and area and be able to hold not just police commissioners but their local police to account. He discussed the importance of local people being able to hold their local police, local ward panels and so on to account for what is happening on their streets.

The running costs and day-to-day expenditure of police and crime commissioners will be less than 1% of the total costs of policing. As I said, we expect them to cost no more than the current system of police authorities. However, what will be different is the value that the public get for that money. Police and crime commissioners will need to demonstrate value for money to local people or they will not be re-elected. The additional cost is the £50 million over four years for elections, but, as I said, that is the same as would result from the suggestion of the hon. Member for Gedling for directly elected chairs of panels.

The hon. Member for Telford spoke about value for money, police numbers and the importance of local policing. The core challenge for the police is not just to reduce costs but to do so while maintaining and, indeed, improving public services. The police are very "can do", and I am constantly impressed by the determination of police officers and staff to do just that. After the provisional funding settlement was announced in December, the chair of West Mercia's police authority said:

The Government's priority is to ensure that the police service retains and enhances its ability to protect and serve the public. That is done by improving efficiency, driving out waste and increasing productivity.

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I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was at Home Office oral questions last week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) noted that there is a healthy appetite for more policemen on the beat-visible policing-with which I am sure we all agree. The chief constable of Gloucestershire has reorganised his force and increased the number of officers on the beat from 563 to 661-increasing his front-line ability to carry out visible policing-by looking at his back and middle offices. We know that there is much that chief constables and police authorities can do to improve services: improving deployment, getting officers out on the streets and smarter policing.

Only 11% of policing is visible at any one time. That has to be our focus: smarter policing, where we deploy police, and what they are doing when they are out on the streets. The broad strategy to improve value for money in the police service is actually about improving front-line services. I am sure we agree on the function that the police service performs in our communities, which is absolutely vital. The Government's priority is to ensure a better police service, retaining and enhancing its ability to protect and serve.

Despite a rapid expansion of the work force, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary found that only 11% of officers are visible and available to the public. The Government are cutting bureaucracy so that the police are crime fighters, not form writers. The Telford and Wrekin section of West Mercia police's website explains:

The primary responsibility for improving value for money is local, but the Government will ensure real leadership where national organisation is required, which will enhance policing at the local level and enable it to function better. Transparency of data and comparative data are key to enabling and driving change. Data on costs and services accessible to the public reinforce behaviours that drive value for money.

On pay and conditions of service, the Government have asked Tom Winsor to review the remuneration and conditions of service of police officers and staff, and to make recommendations that are fair to, and reasonable for, both the taxpayer and police and staff officers. Procurement and IT will have a concerted and nationally led approach. There will be a step change in collaboration between forces, providing the right support for forces and helping the police service to organise, so that it gains maximum benefit from working with the private sector. We estimate a potential £2.2 billion saving, which outstrips the £2.1 billion real reduction in grant.

The Government are taking a direct interest in ensuring that savings are realised. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice now chairs a high-level working group, with representation from chief constables and police authorities, to identify the right change programmes and agree that they should be taken forward. We all recognise that it is no longer business as usual. The time for talking about IT convergence, collective procurement, collaboration, sharing and outsourcing services is over. We cannot afford any longer not to do those things.

David Wright: I think we would all agree that the savings the Minister is talking about, through collaboration and working with other forces, are important. In fact,
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West Mercia is looking to work more with Warwickshire police. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the establishment police and community support officer figures for Telford will not decrease over the next five years-front-line police and CSOs?

Lynne Featherstone: That is a matter for the local chief constable-to organise the West Mercia police force as he can best deploy them, to the best of their ability. It is within local command to decree what the deployment must be. The Government's loud and clear message is that deployment should be to the front line for visible policing, by making back office and middle office savings. The front line should be protected and the Prime Minister would be very cross with those police forces that did not strive to make the effort and succeed-as Gloucestershire has done-in putting police on the front line.

There is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, as shown by the examples of other cities and countries, such as New York and Northern Ireland, and as shown in England and Wales during certain periods. We have all talked about the numbers. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister, when talking about the Liberal Democrat manifesto, putting 3,000 extra bobbies on the beat. In the event, many of the successes-where police numbers have fallen and crime has fallen-have been due to technological advances such as better burglar alarms and car safety. There is not a direct and absolute correlation between those two things.

I want to touch briefly on the issues the hon. Gentleman raised concerning antisocial behaviour. The Government would agree with him that antisocial behaviour blights lives and the public expect us to fight it. It is crime, however it is labelled. We know the damage that such behaviour can do to communities. It can be more disruptive than other types of crime, because it so often targets those least able to look after themselves. As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are planning to reform the toolkit for dealing with antisocial behaviour. Our aim is to reduce the bureaucracy, delay and costs that currently hamper the police and their local partners. We will be consulting shortly on new measures and proposals.

A trial for handling antisocial behaviour complaints was launched in eight police force areas, including West Mercia, on 4 January. That change in the way that forces respond to calls, involving IT improvements, uses new systems to log complaints. The trial aims to put into action the recommendations of HMIC's report on the police response to antisocial behaviour. The police and Telford council have already introduced an innovative joint ASB team. They are using and helping to develop the risk-assessment tool that identifies high-risk and vulnerable antisocial behaviour callers. The trials are being supported by the Home Office, ACPO, HMIC, social landlords, and crime and nuisance groups, which illustrates the point the hon. Gentleman made about the importance of partnership working.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the police and all the agencies and individuals who work with them in Telford and across the country. They perform an immensely valuable service in often difficult circumstances, and the Government are committed to doing everything we can to support them. We recognise the challenges caused by the unprecedented budget deficit, but we have every
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confidence that front-line services can be protected. We will provide real national leadership, with the National Crime Agency, in giving the police the powers they need and in helping to cut unnecessary costs and bureaucracy where a central role is needed. Our reforms will make them freer to develop local responses to local problems, without being hampered by unnecessary targets and regulations imposed from Whitehall.

I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure we have the same aims in policing the safety of our communities and giving everyone the confidence to go about their daily business without fear.

Mr Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. We will now move to the debate on funding for schools in Worcestershire. Before that debate commences, I notice that, quite properly, there are a number of Members from Worcestershire present. It seems appropriate to remind Members that while any Member may at any time seek to intervene on a speech, if anyone wishes to make a speech during a half-hour Adjournment debate, that has to be with the consent of the Member in charge and the Minister, and the Chair must be notified first.

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Schools Funding (Worcestershire)

1.30 pm

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): I begin by saying what a privilege it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gale. I seek leave from you to allow my fellow colleagues to speak.

Mr Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I am slightly distracted and I apologise to the hon. Lady. Any hon. Member who seeks to speak must have the permission of the hon. Member in charge of the debate and the consent of the Minister. I trust that the speeches have been cleared with the Minister as well.

Karen Lumley: Yes, they have.

At the outset, I declare an interest as chair of governors at Vaynor first school in my constituency. I want to speak for a few minutes and then invite my two Worcestershire colleagues, Mr Robin Walker and Mr Mark Garnier, to speak. Like me, they have a keen interest in this debate.

Mr Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again. We shall get started in a minute, and fortunately we still have a full half-hour. I remind her that she must refer to hon. Members by their constituencies and not by their names.

Karen Lumley: Fairer funding in Worcestershire has been a long-running crusade of mine ever since I came to the county in 2000, when we moved from Wrexham in north Wales to Redditch. At the time, both my children were happily and successfully educated in the state sector in Wales, so it came as quite a shock when we realised that their education in Worcestershire did not seem to carry the same monetary value as it did in Wales. By that, I mean there was obviously something of a funding gap between what was provided to every child in Wales and what was provided to children in Worcestershire, which was far lower. Perhaps the Minister will shed some light on that issue in his speech.

I became a governor at Vaynor first school in Redditch, where the situation was worse than I thought. The school provided a good education to our children, but without many of the necessary resources. Added to that was the competition that we faced with neighbouring authorities to attract extra staff. That was due to our lack of funds and available means compared with other schools.

Worcestershire has constantly been near the bottom of the league tables, and in 2008-09 the average funding per pupil per year in Worcestershire was £3,729 compared with £4,066 nationally. This year, it is £4,028 compared with £4,388 nationally. While £300 does not seem to make a great deal difference in this day and age, it is a significant amount when applied to each individual pupil across Worcestershire.

Locally, things are worse. As the Minister may know, Redditch is on the outskirts of Birmingham, and currently schools in Birmingham are allocated at least £700 more per pupil than Redditch. Although I understand that there are intervening factors, £700 is a huge amount of money per pupil when one considers what sports equipment, after-school clubs, arts, science or reading materials could be provided for each child.

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For a school such as Vaynor first school, which has 403 pupils, the funding disparity means that about £285,000 more would go to a similar school in Birmingham. Furthermore, with our current budget of just more than £1 million, we can see just how unfair the funding gap is. Cumulatively, that money could allow the school to provide one-to-one teaching for struggling students or provide extra resources.

Of course, Redditch will benefit from the Government's pupil premium initiative, which I welcome with open arms. I am pleased to see that the most disadvantaged pupils will receive an extra helping hand. That is especially important in Redditch where there are some deprived areas. I wholeheartedly agree with the Secretary of State for Education when he said:

We have a duty to ensure that the school system in the UK nurtures and provides for our young people to give them the best possible chances from an early age. Today, I have written to all head teachers in Redditch, asking them to contact parents to ensure that those children who are entitled to free school meals are aware of the help available.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which is so important to the future of children in Worcestershire. Does she agree that free school meals are not a good measure of deprivation in Worcestershire, particularly where rural schools no longer offer a dining room and therefore cannot offer free school meals?

Karen Lumley: I totally agree. We have to start somewhere, and perhaps as this Parliament progresses we will think of a fairer way of dividing the available money.

Redditch has the added problem of having been "red-flagged" by the Audit Commission on health and education issues. That is another factor for Redditch to deal with, in addition to those that I have already mentioned. The Government need to take a variety of factors into account when allocating funding, and I urge the Minister to recognise that. Some areas have slipped through the net, where funding is concerned. Although I understand that money is not the be-all and end-all, it goes a long way in sorting out some key issues.

I also realise that the solutions cannot all be provided by central Government, and neither should they be. My constituency staff in Redditch and I help out by mentoring young people from a local secondary school, which is the same school that both my children attended. We help those pupils to discuss any problems that they may have, encourage them to achieve their aspirations and offer them reassurance.

In conclusion, I am passionate about education, and I want to ensure that young people who attend school in Redditch-and indeed across the UK-get the best education that can be provided. We all know that children get only one chance, and we should help them to achieve the best they can. Although the Government are making significant improvements to our school system, we still have some way to go, mainly by ensuring that funding for schools is allocated in a fair and just way for the benefit of every child rather than according to the political jostling of central Government.

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1.35 pm

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) on securing this vital debate, and on the passionate way in which she has argued her case. The minutiae of funding formulae do not make for glamorous debates, and in discussing such technical matters it is only too easy to lose the wood for the trees. It is vital to remember that the heart of this issue is a concept that is so simple but yet so central to the coalition Government-fairness.

Like my hon. Friend, I was elected with a clear mandate to campaign for fairer funding, and I am passionate about securing that aim. I have been lucky to learn from people who have far greater knowledge of such matters and who for many years have made it their main aim to achieve fairer funding-the F40 group. If, in the next few minutes, I delve into the dark byways of the funding system, I make no apology, but I ask hon. Members to bear in mind that I do so in a quest for fairness.

When I received our county council's briefing on the impact of this year's changes to school funding, I immediately reached for a cold towel to put over my head. The complexities of having one grant mainstreamed and another top-sliced-here a top-up, there a minimum funding guarantee-would be enough to put off all but the most dedicated funding nerd. There is nothing transparent about our current system. At last, with the help of that cold towel and some expert tuition, I was able to make some sense of the numbers.

The Government said that they have provided flat funding. That may be the case across the country, although even that is a challenge with inflation as it is. Unfortunately, in Worcestershire the mainstreaming of grants appears to have seen some reductions. Before the introduction of the pupil premium, we will see a fall of approximately £1.2 million in cash terms from last year to this. A table of per pupil funding by authority has been compiled by F40, based on the guaranteed unit of funding and cash numbers. Disappointingly, it still shows that Worcestershire is among the 10 worst-funded authorities in the country on both counts.

However, all is not lost. As my hon. Friend has noted, that small fall is more than made up for by the pupil premium. The estimated £3 million increase from that means that Worcestershire is a net winner from the Government's changes. There is no doubt that the pupil premium marks a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Underlying the guaranteed unit of funding figures, there is no perfect formula produced by the finest minds in the Department for Education, and no work of genius compiled to meet the needs of every school in every part of the country. Instead, we have a mess-a hotch-potch of historical errors and corrections-and an unfairness, which is based on an injustice, which is based on a mistake.

The underlying formula has not changed. Instead, the so-called dedicated schools grant has ossified-it is tweaked from time to time, but every year the underlying mistakes are repeated and magnified. Each year, as the Labour party spent the golden legacy that it inherited, money was fired off on a flawed formula that is widely understood to favour big cities over rural counties. That formula targets deprivation on the broadest levels, but misses it in the many pockets where it truly exists. It fails to reflect activity in schools, which hurts places such as Worcestershire the most, due to their very diversity.

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Worse still, the constant use of spend-plus has magnified those effects. I do not need to repeat my hon. Friend's arguments, but I can set out the picture in Worcester, where a number of wards are in the top 5% for deprivation in the country. They are wards served by schools such as Gorse Hill primary, where I used to help with reading, and secondary schools, including the outstanding Christopher Whitehead language college, which caters for the Dines Green estate. Between them, Bishop Perowne college and Tudor Grange academy look after Tolladine and Warndon.

Those are all fine schools, and in the past their good performance has been used as a reason why they did not need fairer funding. Now, in a time of austerity, the same case cannot be made. Those schools will benefit from the pupil premium, but that does not undo the legacy of decades in which the formula worked against them.

As the Government White Paper accepts, and as the Leader of the House confirmed last week,

Who am I to argue with the Leader of the House?

I welcome the steps that Ministers have already taken. I was pleased when my noble Friend Lord Hill met me with the leadership of F40 to discuss the broad case for reform. I am delighted with the impact of the pupil premium and look forward to the benefits that it will bring to schools that have waited too long for their due. I urge the Government to deliver on their commitment as soon as humanly possible to develop a clear, transparent and fair national funding formula based on pupils' needs.

In the audience for the debate today are pupils from Bishop Perowne college, a very fine school in my constituency. In their interests, in the interests of Worcestershire and in the interests of fairness, I commend this cause to my hon. Friend the Minister.

1.40 pm

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) on securing the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who has worked incredibly hard on behalf of all of us in Worcestershire, on getting into the nitty-gritty and the nuts and bolts of the funding formula. It is very useful to have someone taking the lead on our behalf, although I stress that that in no way diminishes our enthusiasm to sort out this problem.

The issue of fairer funding for Worcestershire schools is an ongoing one, and much of what I am about to say will, to an extent, be repeating the arguments, but it helps to put the issue into context. I visited one of my local secondary schools just last Friday and met the members of the student council. Those pupils are still reeling at the prospect of university fees, but it was helpful and, I believe, productive to sit down with them, to discuss the arguments and to try to sort out some of the misunderstandings that have been promulgated in the debate.

People at the school were also very worried about the education maintenance allowance. During the meeting, the head teacher told me that some 45% of pupils at
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Stourport high school receive the EMA. Some may argue that that proves that it is poorly targeted, but I choose to look at it differently and to use it to illustrate that Worcestershire has hidden pockets of financial need. That evidence of financial need illustrates the point that Worcestershire is not the wealthy rural idyll that some believe it to be. It is not the affluent area that the appallingly low per pupil educational grant suggests; it is, in fact, an area that needs more investment in its education system.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that my constituency is in educational limbo at the moment as we wait to see whether there will be a capital grant to help the 11 schools whose rebuilding has been cancelled as a result of the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme. He will know that I am keen to secure the £125 million needed to complete those schools. As we have had a previous debate on the issue, I will not rehearse the arguments here a second time, aside from giving the Minister the most respectful but firmest of nudges, if I may, to ensure that Wyre Forest is looked at favourably when the money is handed out.

In the meantime, it is vital that the Minster takes on board the fact that another school in Kidderminster, Baxter college, draws its pupils, in part, from a ward that is rated in the bottom 10 in terms of indices of social deprivation across England, yet it receives about £3 million a year less than an equivalent school in Tower Hamlets. Of course, I realise that there are specific issues regarding the cost of being in central London, but the social issues do not justify such a massive discrepancy.

It is vital for us in Wyre Forest that we have investment in our schools locally, and the topic of this debate is the per pupil funding. If we continue being so unfair to Worcestershire's pupils, we will continue to lock some places into permanent under-achievement. I have got to know many of the teachers and heads in Wyre Forest, and I am staggered by the incredible job that they do in, in some cases, extremely difficult circumstances. However, we cannot rely solely on their continued good will and tireless work. It is vital that we support our teachers by giving them the resources that they need and deserve. Knowing that the Minister will be keen to help on this issue, I repeat how important it is that we see our capital funding in place, for reasons that we discussed in this Chamber in a previous debate.

1.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) on securing today's debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss school funding issues in Worcestershire with her and my other hon. Friends. I recognise her concern about the level of school funding in Worcestershire. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) said, I think that this is a glamorous subject to debate, and I am delighted to be doing so.

Worcestershire is one of the lowest funded authorities in the country. In funding allocations per pupil, Worcestershire is ranked 142nd out of 151 authorities, receiving, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch said, £4,028 per pupil compared with an average of £4,398. To put that in context, in neighbouring Birmingham,
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the figure is £4,790, which is £762 more per pupil, and in Tower Hamlets it is £6,792-a staggering £2,764 more per pupil per year.

I know that my hon. Friend's concern is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, who tabled an early-day motion last June calling for a fairer funding system for schools and raised the issue in the House at business questions last week. I also know that the F40 group, which represents many of the lower funded local authorities in England and of which Worcestershire is a member, has met my noble Friend Lord Hill and raised those issues with him. I know that all these concerns are also shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) and for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin).

The reason for the situation is the unfair and illogical funding system that we inherited from the previous Administration and that we are committed to reviewing. Indeed, we are doing so, as my hon. Friends will be pleased to know, with some of the finest minds in the Department for Education, who are sitting behind me-not directly behind me, but behind my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), although he also has a fine mind and will, I am sure, contribute to the debate.

To be fair to the previous Government, they had been reviewing the system as well. The method of distributing school funding is based on a formula created in 2003. That was subsumed into the dedicated schools grant using the spend plus method, which took the funding spent by local authorities in the financial year 2005-06 and moved it forward by uplifting it by a set percentage each year for every authority and adding funding for ministerial priorities. That means that the inequalities in the system that existed in 2005-06 have been amplified by the percentage increases in subsequent years. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, the grant has ossified and it repeats and amplifies the unfairness. The effect is that schools facing similar challenges can receive vastly different levels of funding. Two schools with the same needs should receive the same level of funding; it should not depend on an historical allocation made for a different set or a different generation of children.

Therefore, in our White Paper, "The Importance of Teaching", we said that we would consult on developing and introducing a clear, transparent and fairer national funding formula based on the needs of pupils. We recognise that not all schools are the same and that their funding should reflect the needs and characteristics of their pupils. Worcestershire, for instance, receives funding for sparsity of nearly £2.5 million a year. However, the current system no longer reflects needs adequately, depending more on what schools received in the past than on the characteristics and needs of pupils in their schools now. We want all schools to be funded transparently, so that schools and parents can see why there are differences.

We are already working with partners-such as the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Children's Services, teacher and governor associations and the Independent Academies Association-to develop options for the future funding of schools, with the aim of consulting in late spring. No doubt my hon. Friends will contribute to that consultation process. It is likely to cover the merits of a national funding formula, transitional arrangements and the factors that should be included in such a formula.

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I know that my hon. Friends will be disappointed that we have not been able to go further in our first year. We inherited a perilous economic state from the previous Administration, and the Government have made it clear that deficit reduction and continuing to ensure economic recovery are the most urgent issues facing Britain. Our budget deficit in the last financial year was £156 billion-the highest among the G20 countries. The interest on the accumulated Government debt to date is £42.7 billion a year, which is significantly more than the total schools budget. Unless we take serious measures to tackle the deficit, we will face a higher cost of borrowing as capital markets demand greater compensation for the heightened risk. Ultimately, without the action that the Government are taking, we would now face an economic crisis.

As with other public services and Government spending, we have had to make difficult decisions about funding for schools. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest will understand that, given that we do debate the difficult issues that he raised in his remarks. We have had to make very difficult decisions in relation to the spending review period. In reaching those decisions, we needed to balance taking urgent action to manage the public finances with protecting the most vulnerable and recognising that education faces particular pressures.

I am pleased that we are protecting funding in the system at flat cash per pupil, before adding the new pupil premium. Flat cash per pupil means that as pupil numbers go up, the overall budget increases in line with those numbers. The pupil premium is in addition to that and will be worth £2.5 billion by 2014-15.

In that context, I hope that my hon. Friends will see this as a good settlement for schools, in the circumstances. As ever, the actual level of budget for each individual school will vary; it will depend on each school's particular circumstances and the decisions made by local authorities and school forums about how best to allocate funds.

Harriett Baldwin: Will the Minister address my point about free school meals in rural constituencies, where many schools no longer offer a dining room?

Mr Gibb: Yes, I am happy to respond to my hon. Friend's question. I recognise the concerns about using free school meals as a measure, but they are the only available method that can correlate deprivation at pupil level, rather than at postcode or area level, so they are the most accurate reflection of deprivation. There is quite a lot of academic evidence that free school meals accurately reflect the levels of deprivation in an area. However, we will continue to look at the issue, and we might in future include a measure of, for instance, whether pupils ever qualified for free school meals during a period of, say, six or three years. In that way, those who qualify for free school meals for just one year, then no longer qualify will be eligible for the pupil premium.

The other thing that is happening as a consequence of policy on free school meals is that local authorities are pressing schools and parents to apply for free school meals, which they might not have done in the past. That will have a double benefit, in that more pupils will qualify for the pupil premium, as well as being able to have a meal at school.

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The flat-cash settlement means, of course, that it will take time to move to the fairer funding system that I have been talking about. However, funding reform will be introduced in such a way as to minimise disruption and ensure that schools' resources are not subject to sudden and dramatic change.

Our priority for 2011-12 is the introduction of the pupil premium. I have said before, and make no apology for repeating, that closing the attainment gap between those from the wealthiest and the poorest backgrounds is central to our education policy, and that was reflected in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch.

Mr Robin Walker: Does the Minister agree that a key issue in closing the attainment gap is early intervention to give people the best chances and the best start in their education? Another issue that needs to be prioritised, therefore, is the early intervention grant. Disappointingly, however, it is likely to go down in Worcestershire over the next couple of years. Will the Minister look into that to see how we can concentrate resources in the right places to prioritise early intervention as the Government address these issues?

Mr Gibb: My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is why we have allocated £2.2 billion to the early intervention grant. It is vital to intervene early to catch problems before they become more systemic in a child's life. My hon. Friend is right, and I will look into the issues he raises to ensure that there is not some undue unfairness in the allocation of the grant in Worcestershire. I will write to him shortly.

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Although the exact amount of the pupil premium will depend on the number of children known to be eligible for free school meals, as recorded in the January 2011 census, which is not yet finalised, the numbers recorded in 2010 give an indication of the numbers for Worcestershire. On that basis, schools in my hon. Friends' local education authority area will receive something like £3.8 million of additional funding from April 2011 to help them tackle deprivation.

The pupil premium will be worth £625 million in 2011-12 and build to £2.5 billion in 2014-15. That is significant spending to help the most disadvantaged children in society. To ensure that the premium is introduced as smoothly as possible, we have made the indicator for next year known eligibility for free school meals, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned. In future, we aim to include those who have previously been eligible for free school meals so that not only the value of the premium but the number of children eligible for it will rise year on year. Overall funding for the pupil premium will rise from £625 million this year to £2.5 billion in three years' time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redditch will appreciate that I am unable to pre-empt the findings of the current funding review, and I know that she will be disappointed about that. However, I hope that she and my hon. Friends will take in good faith a commitment from me carefully to study the issues that they have raised in the context of the school funding review and in our consultation later this year.

Question put and agreed to.

1.55 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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