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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 March 2011

[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]

Private Schools (Access)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Tim Loughton.)

9.30 am

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea.

Let me begin by welcoming the coalition Government’s work to date on education. I am sure that more freedom for schools, more meaningful accountability, a commitment to driving up teacher quality and new powers for schools to get tough on the blight of poor behaviour will, over time, help to deliver the improvements in pupil attainment across the sector that we all desperately want to see.

The coalition Government are right to be concerned about the educational attainment of the least affluent children in our society and, in that respect, I very much welcome the additional early years provision and the introduction of the pupil premium. Members may not know this, but I was one of the early advocates of the pupil premium and, for some time, convincing my colleagues of its usefulness felt like an uphill task. I was delighted when the pupil premium was adopted, perhaps with a little help from our coalition partners. I strongly suspect that the Minister’s response to my proposals today will be similar to how it felt all those years ago when I started this journey.

This discussion is well worth having; we never know what will happen a couple of years down the line. I propose, as I have in the past, that in order to make the pupil premium successful, we need to do two things. First, we need to direct it at the very poorest children in the education system. Secondly, we need to make it flexible so that it gives those children real choices within the education system.

I fear that our reforms, particularly in relation to the pupil premium and its current structure, will not do enough to bridge this country’s great and growing educational divide between the very rich and the poor. By focusing our attention solely on the state sector, we risk ignoring the fact that some of the very best educational opportunities that this country has to offer in terms of the schools that dominate the top A-level and GCSE results are in schools that are largely reserved for the children of the wealthy and well-connected, and are closed off to a vast majority of the children who live on their doorstep. That is not to say that many middle-class parents do not stretch their household budgets to breaking point to ensure that they get the best educational opportunities for their children.

Although only about half of pupils achieve five good grades at GCSE, and fewer than one in 100 children eligible for free school meals makes it to university, some of the leading private schools routinely send half their pupils to Oxford and Cambridge; Westminster school and St Paul’s girls’ school are good examples. On

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the rate of low-income attendance at top universities, a recent report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) states:

“The rate of low income attendance at top universities has stagnated at 2 per cent.”

It will therefore come as little surprise that former private school pupils have a disproportionate hold on the leading professions. Social mobility has declined and it has become even harder for the least affluent to make it to the top of the tree.

Despite evidence in a recent report showing that the situation has improved slightly over the past few decades, former private school pupils still account for two thirds of judges, more than 60% of barristers, and more than half of solicitors, chief executive officers and doctors. I also note with a wry smile that the proportion of journalists who attended independent schools has risen in recent years.

If we contrast that with the performance of pupils eligible for free school meals, we see that the difference is very striking. Just 27% of free school meal children get A* to C, including English and maths, at GCSE. That is half the national average, which is already too low. The situation is even worse when evaluated against the English baccalaureate subjects, something the Secretary of State likes to do. The report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is again relevant, because in many respects, low-income students are being mis-sold the new GCSEs and A-levels on the basis that they are equal according to league tables and UCAS points. The evidence shows, however, that universities and employers value core academic subjects, such as mathematics, English, the sciences and English baccalaureate subjects. The result is poor performance, with only 4% of free school meal pupils achieving five A* to C grades in core academic subjects, compared with the 15% national average.

Research shows that a wealthy child attending an independent school is 55 times more likely to win a place at Oxbridge than a child eligible for free school meals, whose chance of winning a place at one of our ancient universities is less than one in 100.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely and important debate. Is he as concerned as I am about figures showing that in 2009 just 4% of children on free school meals took chemistry or physics, while fewer than one in five took history and less than 15% studied geography or French?

Mr Wilson: Yes, that concerns me enormously, and that is why the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is so timely. I hope the Minister will take the issue on board and address it directly later.

I do not say what I have said in order to criticise universities, but I hope that it demonstrates to Members the epic scale of the challenge that we face as a nation. If we are serious about fairness and about unleashing aspiration and opportunity for all, we should take action to make first-rate teaching and the ethos of excellence available to everyone, rich or poor.

Before I give details of what I think should be done to remedy the situation, let me be clear about what I am not calling for and not claiming today. First, I am not

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making sweeping claims that independent schools are better than state-maintained schools. There are huge variations within the independent sector in terms of standards and pupil attainment. The bottom half of private schools accounted for just 7% of A* A-level grades in the independent sector last year. Moreover, the OECD has argued that on average the difference in attainment between state schools and private schools is largely accounted for by the socio-economic background of the students.

Secondly, as I will explain later, I am not calling for a system-wide educational passport or public subsidy for private schools. Thirdly, I do not wish to re-enter the argument about selection or reintroducing grammar schools. None of the main parties has plans to expand selection in the education system in England, and neither do I. Fourthly and finally, what I shall propose in the next few minutes is not a panacea for improving educational attainment across the whole population of school children, but I stress that it will make an important contribution to social mobility and aspiration in England.

That is not an excuse for ignoring the fact that selective private schools exist and that many of them offer first-rate educational opportunities, with an ethos of excellence. Last summer’s A-level results show that of the top 40 schools in terms of academic A* grades per pupil, three quarters were private schools. Independent school pupils make up 33% of all pupils who get three As at A-level. Despite the fact that the independent sector as a whole educates just 7% of school pupils, students who attended private school still account for more than 45% of places at Oxford and 40% at Cambridge.

Who has the opportunity to attend these schools? The answer is that since the demise of direct grant schools and the assisted places scheme, apart from bursaries and scholarships, admissions are largely restricted to pupils whose families have the ability to pay. Some of the best performing schools in the nation are closed off to a vast majority of the poor children who live on their doorstep.

If we are serious about boosting the life chances of more children from poor homes, and increasing social mobility so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a better chance of making it to the top, something must be done to break down the social apartheid in our schools. I would like the Minister to consider a proposal that could broaden the social base of some of our leading private schools and boost the life chances of many less affluent pupils now, rather than in however many years it takes to dramatically raise teaching quality and tackle issues of poor behaviour across the entire school system.

Specifically, I would like a number of the leading private day schools to consider offering a number of free places to pupils in their surrounding area who are eligible for free school meals. The Government could support them by meeting some of the cost, but by no means all of it. It would be entirely up to the children and their families whether they applied for a place at participating schools. The pupils would have to demonstrate their aptitude and potential through a competitive admissions process. As the Sutton Trust has noted, tests these days are far more sophisticated than the old 11-plus. For example, many independent schools have

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developed tests around verbal reasoning, which test the child’s aptitude rather than how well they have been tutored or taught at school. My proposal is not an exercise in social engineering, so all those who take the test—rich or poor—should have the same chance of success.

My proposal is completely cost-neutral to the Government and therefore to the taxpayer. All that changes is that the per pupil funding and the pupil premium shift to another school. The remainder of the cost of the fees is met by the independent school itself or its supporters. Many such schools have alumni who are willing to step in. It is interesting to note that the Government will provide £150 million for a national scholarship scheme for disadvantaged young people attending our universities. Those resources are devoted to creating a more balanced intake for our elite universities, which, after all, are independent, selective, fee-charging educational institutions. Will the Minister explain where the difference lies in relation to independent schools?

It is important that the proposal is evidence based, and the evidence suggests that opening up access works. Between 2000 and 2006, the Sutton Trust joined forces with the Girls’ Day School Trust to sponsor an open access scheme at the then fee-paying Belvedere school in Toxteth, a very deprived part of Liverpool. With the support of both organisations, every place at the school was allocated on the basis of merit alone, not ability to pay; the way the scheme operated was almost needs-blind. A five-year evaluation of the Belvedere school scheme was conducted by the Centre for Education and Employment Research. It found that open access could lead to a broader social mix of pupils at some of our very best schools and that it could raise aspiration among pupils to go on to university and improve the exam results achieved by the participating school.

In the first three years of the Belvedere scheme, the school attracted an average of 366 applications for just 65 places, with applications from three quarters of primary schools across the Liverpool area. During the five years of the scheme, entries from middle and lower income postcodes increased considerably. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals over the five years was 32.8%, which is more than double the national average for girls aged 11 to 15 in the maintained secondary sector. Far from the scheme’s threatening academic standards at the school, Belvedere went on to achieve its best ever results in 2005. Some 99% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, compared with an average of 49% across the rest of the local education authority. Survey evidence showed that the school was a happy place, and that 95% of the pupils were hoping to go to university.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the pioneering charity the Sutton Trust, told me that he regards the open access scheme as the most important project that the trust has undertaken. He sought to persuade the previous Government to take up open access and expand it, initially to 12 schools, but ultimately to 100 or more top independent schools. Unfortunately, despite a broad base of support and great willingness from schools in the independent sector, the previous Government failed to take forward the programme.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Charity Commission and its esteemed head, Dame Suzi Leather, would be better off supporting similar

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initiatives to that pursued by the Sutton Trust in Liverpool, rather than hounding small private schools on the spurious basis that they are not opening their rolls to children across the community?

Mr Wilson: I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. My experience of dealing with the independent sector is that, perhaps more than any other sector, it is focused on trying to do all it can to help children from poorer backgrounds. A number of schools have contacted me about the subject during the past few days and they are very keen to get involved, and to do more of this type of work and give more opportunities to poor children. I find it hard to know where the Charity Commission is coming from, when those independent schools are doing such a wonderful job trying to help the life chances of children from poorer families.

Since I wrote an article on the issue that appeared The Daily Telegraph last Friday, I have received an e-mail from John Claughton who is chief master of King Edward’s school, Birmingham. He told me that

“our central purpose at the moment is to extend accessibility: we would love to become needs blind. We certainly have the demand for places from low-income families. We would respond positively to any government initiative to encourage attendance of such pupils in our schools.”

King Edward’s, the former school of the Minister for Universities and Science , already has a hugely impressive record in making places available to less affluent pupils. More than 30% of its pupils get some kind of financial support and more than 15% attend for free. For the coming academic year, the school is offering a quarter of its places for free—30 free places in an intake of 120. Mr Claughton believes that if the Government could meet half the cost of providing more places to free school meals pupils, the school’s alumni would be in there like a shot to support that initiative.

Mr Kevin Fear, the headmaster of Nottingham high school—attended by the Secretary of State for Justice and none other than the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)—wrote to me over the weekend fully endorsing the proposals to expand open access:

“I welcome these proposals to support the most needy in our society to access the great independent day schools. As a school, we already support as many pupils on bursaries as we are able to, but with support of this kind, we would be able to support many more and greatly assist social mobility, particularly in our inner cities.”

Independent schools are already making a strong contribution to the educational success of pupils from poorer homes. Nearly a third of the students admitted to Oxford in 2010 from households with an income below £16,000 had been in the independent sector. The head teachers and organisations I have spoken to believe that the kind of Government support I am advocating would allow them to double the number of bursaries they can offer. The message from the independent sector is clear: schools are keen to do what they can to offer real chances to some of the poorest children in their areas. Only yesterday, private schools belonging to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference created 60 extra bursaries to sponsor sixth-form school pupils from the state sector to study physics, chemistry and languages.

David Levin, chairman of the HMC, has made it clear that he wants private schools to offer even more

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bursaries, but the difficulty is obviously raising the funds. However, as the schools have indicated to me, Government support would have the added advantage of leveraging and unleashing philanthropic contributions from alumni, business and charitable communities.

As I have already said, what I ask from the Minister is unlikely to be forthcoming today, but we can but try. I am aware that the resources of the Department for Education are extremely tight. We have been left with a very difficult economic inheritance and we have to deal with the situation as it is. I am also aware that any move by the Government to get involved with, let alone support, independent selective schools is fraught with political difficulty. I realise that the Government may be reluctant to reallocate money from the state sector to the independent sector on the basis of a single study, but does the Minister agree that the open access scheme sponsored by the Sutton Trust shows exceptional promise? Does he agree that the idea should be explored further? If he does, how will that initiative be taken forward, and will he ask the Secretary of State to meet a delegation of those interested in pursuing it?

In time, I hope that the Government will take another look at opening access in a number of leading private schools, perhaps beginning with a pilot of up to 12 schools, as envisaged by Sir Peter Lampl. That would give a broader and stronger evidence base from which to evaluate open access policies. At the very least, I hope that the Government will look at what leading independent schools are doing to broaden access, and will do what it can to support them and encourage best practice. Opening up access would send a powerful message that none of the nation’s best educational opportunities is out of reach of children solely on the basis of their family’s resources. What I ask for today is a very small change, but it could have huge implications for social mobility in this country.

9.51 am

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): Thank you, Dr McCrea, for the opportunity to make a contribution to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing the debate. I know that he cares passionately about this important subject, in which he is deeply involved, and that he is far more knowledgeable than I would claim to be. I want to take this opportunity to make a short contribution and to discuss my experience of some of the excellent independent schools in my constituency of Stockton South. We have two independent schools: Teesside High, which was founded in 1833 and, until recently, was an all-girls school; and Yarm, which was founded in 1978. It is the experience of Yarm school that I want to relate today.

Yarm school rose from the ashes of Yarm grammar school, which had closed. It was brought about by a group of determined parents, who decided that they wanted alternative educational provision for children from the Cleveland area, as it then was. Much as free schools today will be started in small numbers by dedicated parents and then grow, hopefully, into successful educational institutions, Yarm school started in an old, dilapidated building. Parents and supporters gave up their own time, donated materials, found funds, painted, renovated and taught.

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The founding headmaster, Neville Tate—a great man who has made a significant difference to the education of many thousands of children who have passed through the school, and who will do so for many years to come—used to go in at weekends, paint the lines on the rugby pitch and drive the school minibus to the train station. It was a hands-on endeavour, to which many people, who cared passionately about what the school wanted to achieve, contributed.

In the early years, the school found things quite difficult and challenging because, unlike a modern free school, the parents who wanted to send their children there also had to pay. The offer that it put on the table was limited, as it did not have modern classrooms and facilities. All it had was the right attitude, the right atmosphere and a dedication and will to get things done.

That school has now moved. It bought the location across the road and expanded. It has built countless new buildings and offered educational opportunities to countless more children. I should, of course, declare that I had the privilege of going to that school in my constituency when I was younger. Now that the school is expanding and doing very well, it also makes a greater contribution to the local community, and not just in the education of its pupils or the local economy, of which it is a significant feature. It also works with local state schools. It had an excellent partnership with Grangefield school, which is in the southern Stockton part of my constituency, sharing services and working together to ensure that pupils at both schools had better access to facilities and a better quality of education.

Yarm school has a track record of delivering locally, not just for itself, but for others in the community that it serves and represents. It also serves another purpose. It relieves pressure on some of the excellent nearby state schools, which are currently overcrowded and oversubscribed; for example, Egglescliffe school and Conyers school. Egglescliffe school, in particular, which is a superb high-quality secondary school in my constituency, is on a relatively small site that was designed for many fewer children than it currently accommodates. With the growing population of Stockton, it has seen more and more people applying for fewer and fewer available places. It also serves a large and growing housing estate in Ingleby Barwick, which I believe is one of the largest private housing estates in western Europe and has grown exponentially in the past two decades. That housing estate has one secondary school, All Saints, a 600-place Church of England school, which is a very good local secondary school, but not sufficient in size to serve local needs. Hundreds upon hundreds of children are bussed off the estate to nearby Egglescliffe and Conyers every morning. Some also go to Yarm, because they have not been able to secure places at the secondary schools of their choice.

That brings me to the exciting new prospect that is on the horizon for the people of Ingleby Barwick, who are now progressing with their own bid for a free school. I have certainly done what I can to make representations to the Secretary of State to support the bid for a free school in Ingleby Barwick. We will hopefully see a new school in the next few years that will deliver diversity of choice and more school places, so that children from

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that community can choose which school they wish to apply to and parents which school they want to send their children to. It will also allow local children to go to a school in their own community. That will relieve pressure on other schools in the area, so that they can better manage the facilities that they already have. We want to secure the future of all of the schools in the south of the Stockton borough—the school in Ingleby Barwick itself and Egglescliffe, Conyers and Yarm schools.

That exciting new project is one step in the direction in which we need to go, opening up choice, diversity, access and possibilities in our education system. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke passionately about how he would like to see access opened, so that those who are not necessarily from the most affluent backgrounds are able to get into those schools that have perhaps been seen as not within their reach in the past. I would like to add my voice to his call that the Government should look to do everything they can to ensure that every child, no matter what their financial or social background, has access to the highest possible quality of education, in the way that they and their parents believe it should be best delivered to suit their individual needs.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and make a small contribution, and to comment on a number of the excellent local schools that serve my constituency. I look forward to what the Minister has to say in response to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East.

9.57 am

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. May I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) for securing this excellent debate on a very important subject? His great knowledge, expertise—from his time on the Front Bench, and from his own research—and commitment, especially to social mobility, shines through in his passionate remarks. He is a little more shy than I am at ascribing fault in the existing system. We inherit not only a significant debt—to the extent that we are paying £120 million a year in debt interest as a result of the financial mismanagement and incompetence of the previous Government—but, to be charitable, a mixed picture in terms of educational attainment.

I believe that this is an existential debate—a philosophical debate—about the future of our children’s education. We are debating that age-old struggle between whether we commit ourselves to equality of outcome, which I think is difficult if not impossible, or whether we commit ourselves to strive for equality of opportunity. If we move towards the initiatives that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East has spoken about, we will be paying due regard to a progressive, Conservative tradition that goes back many years. Disraeli would have called it the enervation of the condition of the working classes. I would not be so pompous as to compare myself with Disraeli, but it is about a one nation tradition of saying that whatever the household income or background, whatever one’s parents have done and whatever their attainment, a child has as much right as any other to be educated to the best of their ability, and to achieve the maximum attainment possible.

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Where are we now? We have a ghettoised situation in which 7% of children go to independent schools, but, for the other 93% of children, there are mixed results. It so often comes down to where one lives and their household income, because if a parent cannot afford to provide for their children by buying a house and sending them to a good school in a good neighbourhood—this particularly applies in London but also in many other parts of the country, whether Bristol, Manchester or Cambridge—their children will often be confined to schools where attainment is poor, and that is not acceptable.

We are also in a position where, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey, the United Kingdom has slipped since 2000 from 7th to 25th in reading, 8th to 28th in mathematics, and 4th to 16th in science. Only 15.6% of pupils in England achieve A* to C GCSE grades in English, maths, sciences, a modern or ancient language, history and geography—one in six children.

The previous Labour Government offered some powerful symbols to people. It seems beyond belief that their first priority on being elected in 1997 was the completely unnecessary, gratuitous and spiteful decision to scrap the assisted places scheme for purely ideological reasons. One of the leading lights of that party dedicated himself to destroying grammar schools. I shall not add the epithet that he used. That was what he believed in. To quote Abraham Lincoln:

“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.”

The decision to destroy the grammar schools was, in fact, a calamity in terms of social mobility, education and political policies.

That set the tone, as did the idea, which has been tested to destruction, that throwing money at a problem is a solution, and that it will of necessity deliver better educational attainment. I do not believe that that is the case. Whether we like it or not, parents choose to send their children to independent schools for a number of reasons, but it is as much as anything else about discipline, ethos, culture and philosophy. Why should children from poorer backgrounds be excluded from the opportunity to partake of that culture, and to achieve what they are capable of achieving?

My constituency is a proud, blue-collar, engineering centre. The city has gone through great change over the past 50 years. Its population was less than 50,000 after the war; it is now 170,000. We have significant pockets of deprivation, but we also have in the immediate travel-to-work area some of the finest independent schools in the country: Stamford, Uppingham, Oundle and, of course, the excellent Peterborough school, headed by Adrian Meadows. We have significant levels of poor attainment and underachievement in the state sector in Peterborough, yet we also have excellent schools with enormously good results of more than 85%—often 90%—attainment of GCSE A* to E.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East is right in saying that, at present, children from families with more modest incomes are precluded from being able to attend such schools. There must be a way for the most gifted children—not necessarily on the basis of academic results or setting, but intelligence and other criteria—to go forward to achieve their potential.

I pay tribute to the Sutton Trust and Sir Peter Lampl, who is passionate about social mobility, which, if I may be partisan again, ossified under the Labour Government

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over 13 years. The gap between the richest 10% and the poorest 10% grew. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) might not like to hear it, but his party is represented by the noble Lord Mandelson, who said that he was

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Fair enough, but he did not at the same time endeavour to drag up the educational attainment of the people in the bottom 10%.

We really need to think about supporting, with the limited resources that we have, initiatives such as those at the Belvedere school in Liverpool. It is a superb example—in fact, it is the opposite of what normally happens. With the best will in the world, Toxteth, where the school is based, may have been a salubrious neighbourhood many years ago, but it is not now. Middle-class parents would not necessarily have moved to Toxteth so that their children could go to that school. In fact, I imagine that parents from all over Merseyside, Lancashire and even Greater Manchester are sending their children to that school, while children in the poorer neighbourhoods around Scotland Road, Toxteth, West Derby and Walton are excluded from it. With the proposed initiative, those local children in Liverpool could go to their local school and receive an exemplary and superb education into the bargain.

It would be remiss of me to ignore the excellent initiatives being pursued by this Government, and I have no doubt that the Minister would remind me of them if I did that. I agree that the English baccalaureate is an enormously important qualification to be pushing forward into secondary schools. It speaks to a mature debate about a division in society and, in particular, in education, which we have shied away from for too long. I give as an example the well known book written by Melanie Phillips, “All Must Have Prizes”. All must be academic, all must go to university. We have ignored, to our economic disadvantage, the fact that technical and vocational education can be and is just as important.

The economic success of countries such as Sweden, Germany, Italy and France is the result of their taking a mature, long-term approach and disregarding the apartheid between academic, and technical and vocational. This Government understand that and are moving forward by replacing Train to Gain with an apprenticeships programme and saying that engineering and manual trades are as important for growing our economy as the knowledge economy, the environment, tourism, leisure, finance and banking. That is important.

The pupil premium is the right way forward. I had a debate in this place a month or so ago with the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who brings to his role enormous commitment and diligence, and a passion for driving up educational standards in primary and secondary schools. He is the epitome of a square peg in a square hole, and is doing a fantastic job.

However, the pupil premium could be construed as a blunt instrument. There are issues other than free school meals that should inform the review of the dedicated schools grant. In my own constituency—I shall not rehearse the arguments—31% of primary school children do not speak English as their first language. If we ignore such factors, we blind ourselves to their importance in informing the results in primary and secondary schools.

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I am delighted with the agreement that £430 per pupil for the pupil premium is a good start, and with the broad consensus across the House, but other factors need to be taken into account. One of them is social deprivation in particular wards and super-output areas. That may need to be looked at in consultation with the Treasury, but I know that dealing with it could be very resource-intensive and that the Department has only limited means.

This debate is about obtaining from the Minister at least an indication that he is receptive to the eloquent arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. The independent sector would then begin to feel that it can use the mechanism of Government support to develop a much more thorough and comprehensive scheme of bursaries and scholarships, and take a much more altruistic and charitable approach. If the Government are supportive, it will introduce outreach programmes and recruit children from poorer families because that will deliver the goods for the school and attract kudos and support. It is a circular argument. To say that we must have nothing to do with the independent sector, and that it is an iron curtain through which we cannot tread is short-sighted and foolhardy. We need more open access policies, such as those at the Bluecoat school.

The best independent schools can impart lessons to the state sector—that works both ways—on tackling ill discipline. They can impart lessons on special educational needs. Some independent schools have a number of children with special educational needs, and provide special help for children on the autism spectrum, with dyspraxia or dyslexia, and so on. They have expertise that they can share with the state sector, and there should be more dialogue.

Freedom and autonomy are the templates for the free schools, and I am delighted that there will be an announcement this week in my constituency that the former Hereward community college will become a free school. I do not often say this, but Peterborough city council has done a fantastic job in pushing the proposals forward, and inviting bids from five extremely good providers in a competitive bid process in an area where attainment at primary and secondary schools has not been good. We look forward to the revolutionary zeal of the free school movement in driving up standards, involving the community, valuing professionals at senior management, teaching and teaching assistant levels, and providing autonomy. We should have more free schools in my constituency.

I conclude by inviting the Minister to respond positively. The issue is not about assisted places two, or about the debate on grammar schools. In some respects, I was on the wrong side of that debate in my party in 2007, because I said that it was better to take a holistic approach to academies, instead of fixating on a relatively small number of grammar schools—there were then 164. I speak as an alumnus of a grammar school—Chatham House grammar school, Ramsgate—the other alumnus of note being our former right hon. Friend and Prime Minister Ted Heath, although he and I did not have closely shared political views.

The issue is about how to enable children from families with modest incomes to achieve their full potential. Today is the beginning of the debate. I know that the

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Secretary of State is absolutely committed to using education as a catalyst to tackle lack of social mobility, so that we deal with the underlying endemic social problems of welfare dependency, worklessness, and lack of competitiveness in our economy. Education is the most powerful tool for doing that, and I fully commend and welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to starting that debate. I hope that we have a positive response, not only from the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Chesterfield, but from the Minister. I am sure that we will.

10.14 am

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Dr McCrea. You seem to have controlled the debate very well, despite all the heckling. We have had a good debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) on securing it, and on his thoughtful contribution. I thank him for taking the time yesterday to notify me in more detail about the subjects that he wanted to cover. That was helpful to my contribution, and I hope that it will add to its quality, at least at some small level. His valuable experience before coming to this place brings to the debate knowledge, passion and well intentioned motives, in his case, towards the Government.

Before commenting on the hon. Gentleman’s points, I want to touch briefly on the other contributions that we have heard today. The hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) spoke about his experience with two local schools in his constituency, and the extent to which access has been opened up. One independent school was set up with, perhaps, similar intentions to the free school model, and it was interesting to hear about that. He referred to the freeing up of spaces in other schools, and to creating the best for every child. The test of any education policy should be whether it delivers for every child and enables every child and every school to improve, or whether it increases educational disparity. That is one of my tests for the proposal of the hon. Member for Reading East.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) gave what may have been a less measured contribution. At least, he warned us that he did not intend to be shy, and he stuck to his word. When describing his contribution as partisan, he was, if anything, understating it. I started to write down the areas I disagreed with, but I filled a full side of A4, so I shall touch on a couple of areas where there was agreement, which may save time.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of discipline. He is of course right that the independent sector takes discipline very seriously, but he does a great disservice to the state school sector if he is suggesting that that is not also the case there. We welcome some of the measures in the Education Bill to clarify the role of teachers and the possibilities for discipline. The Bill contains some welcome moves.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the importance of technical and vocational education, and said that it is as important as academic education. I entirely welcome that sentiment, which I fear is missing from the Government’s move towards the EBacc, but very much drove some of the previous Labour Government’s policies.

I do not intend to cover every area in the hon. Gentleman’s contribution with which I disagreed, but I will touch on a couple. He started by rehashing the

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financial mismanagement line, completely overlooking, of course, the fact that his party supported the previous Government’s spending plans right up to 2008. He should not rehash that line if he was not speaking out against the policies pursued by his party at that time.

The hon. Gentleman claimed, perhaps rightly, that the policies suggested by the hon. Member for Reading East fit into a progressive Conservative tradition; I think he described it as a one-nation approach. That brought to mind the drama “Cranford”, which the hon. Member for Peterborough may have had the opportunity to watch. In one scene, the lady in charge of the grand manor house was shown as a firm disciple of the idea that the working classes should work in the fields, and that there should be different jobs for different types of people in different environments. She also had a clear idea that she wanted to help the poor by employing them in her fields, but that they should never move beyond that. The idea that on one level we help the poor as a way of assuaging our conscience, while fundamentally nothing is changed, lay behind a lot of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks.

Mr Stewart Jackson: I have never before been compared to a mid-Victorian matriarch in her mansion. The hon. Gentleman is a passionate and articulate spokesman for his party, but he should not believe its class war rhetoric and propaganda. My party is proud to have been responsible for an enormous amount of progressive social change through Housing Acts and through civic renewal, education and health over many years. He suggests that my point was “You stay in your place while I stay in mine”, but perhaps he is referring to some of his esteemed parliamentary colleagues who had a good grammar school or independent sector education, but chose to kick the ladder away for those who followed.

Toby Perkins: I do not know whether that was an intervention or a second speech, but I thank the hon. Gentleman either way. Without delving deep into history, he should do his research before he refers to the gap between rich and poor. If he listens to people such as Wilkinson and Pickett, who influence the policies of the Prime Minister, they will tell him that the huge gap between rich and poor occurred under the previous Conservative Government. Policies introduced by the previous Labour Government such as tax credits, attempts to improve the education of people from the lowest demographics, and the reform of the welfare system were designed to close the gap between rich and poor, and they made positive steps towards that.

Mr Jackson: indicated dissent.

Toby Perkins: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is what he will be told. He said that the previous Government were supremely relaxed about people getting rich and did not care as much about the bottom 10%, but that disgraceful comment bears no relationship to what actually happened over the past 13 years. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution said much about his values, and the values that have always informed sections of his party. I recognise, however, that there are good motives behind contributions from Conservative Members.

I turn to the more thoughtful contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading East. He spoke first about the academic disparity that still exists in our

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system, and which has challenged politicians from both parties for a long time. The original academies programme was introduced precisely to combat that disparity, and the previous Government set out specific attainment levels that they expected every school to achieve, with 30% of all pupils achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE as an absolute minimum. That academic disparity lay behind the massive investment in Sure Start, which has been welcomed across the House, and it is why we welcome some of the sentiments behind the early intervention policies pursued by this Government. It is also why the education maintenance allowance was introduced, to assist pupils from more deprived backgrounds to continue their education past age 16.

When Labour came to power, half of all schools failed the basic minimum standard. The figure is now fewer than one in 12, which is one of the ways that the attainment of pupils right across the financial spectrum improved under the previous Government. Of course, that is not the same as saying that we have arrived at some promised land and things are now good enough. Clearly, they are not and I recognise that the contribution made by the hon. Member for Reading East is an attempt to make things better.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the most elite private schools are currently only for the wealthy and the well connected. He hit on a key point in terms of those connections and the idea that, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” which I hope hon. Members across the House would be against. The hon. Gentleman made another key point about Oxbridge entrance, and I would like to hear more about that from the Minister and the Government. As the hon. Gentleman explained, although 50% of children from elite public schools go to Oxbridge, only 2% of those from the most deprived backgrounds do so.

Last Friday a young lady, Charlotte Crossley, came to see me. She qualified for free school meals and came from a home in a deprived part of Chesterfield. Her first secondary school fell well below the national challenge level of 30% of pupils achieving five GCSEs. However, she studied fantastically and got excellent GCSE results. She subsequently went to another state school to do her A-levels, and finally achieved three A*s and one A—a fantastic achievement. At that time, children in her cohort were the first group to achieve a 30% pass rate at GCSE. Charlotte Crossley was an exceptional student, but when she applied to Oxford she was not even given an interview.

Alongside removing the academic disparity between children in secondary schools, pressure must be put on elite institutions. The hon. Member for Reading East explained that the ratio of passing core subjects is 1:4 for children on free school meals against those from elite public schools. The ratio between those two groups in terms of Oxbridge entrance is 1:25. There are two sides to the equation and more pressure needs to be applied.

Selection was mentioned, and the hon. Gentleman claimed that he did not see how a return to the grammar school system would be helpful. Fundamentally, however, his proposal would continue to weaken schools that are left behind. If we cream off the best pupils from the more deprived communities, we perpetuate the idea that to get the best pupils, we must look at the schools they come from. The best schools will already have the

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highest levels of attainment because of their pupils’ privileged and advantageous backgrounds, but such a proposal would mean that those schools can also cream off the best of the pupils who have not had an advantage due to the financial well-being of their parents. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is not a panacea. He is right; potentially, it is positively unhelpful in terms of social mobility.

The hon. Gentleman also claimed that private schools do more to help poorer pupils. In response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Peterborough, he questioned the effectiveness of what the Charity Commission wanted. It was interesting that in the initial move towards that, two independent schools had to open up the availability of bursaries. It could be argued that if they were already doing everything that the Charity Commission wanted, that would not make any difference to them.

For the reasons that I have given, we do not agree with the proposals that the hon. Member for Reading East has put forward, although we recognise that they are well intentioned. From the Labour party’s point of view, the first thing to say is that we do not wish to interfere with the freedom of independent schools to develop a distinctive curriculum and to manage the day-to-day operation of their schools. However, the standards that all independent schools must meet ensure that pupils are able to learn in a safe and secure environment and to have suitable learning opportunities, which match their age, aptitudes and needs. We will continue to insist on those basic safeguards, which protect pupils’ interests, while recognising the freedoms of independent schools.

We abolished the assisted places scheme. Looking back, I would say that we put unprecedented amounts of investment into education in the state sector. We dramatically improved the standard of the state school estate, by which I mean the quality of buildings. As I have outlined, we also made a dramatic difference to attainment in those schools. The percentage of people going to university from more deprived communities has dramatically increased, far outpacing the increase in access among people from more privileged areas.

Labour has always argued that approaches such as those that we are discussing today represent a narrow ladder of opportunity for a few bright but disadvantaged children, with the side-effect of creaming off the most able pupils from state schools.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Toby Perkins: I will give way once again, with due trepidation.

Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman has nothing to fear. I thank him for his generosity in giving way again. I am struggling to follow his argument because he uses the traditional Labour argument that if we elevate a small group of children, we “cream off” those children and the rest are subject to very poor educational attainment, yet his party spent an enormous amount of money over 13 years. He seems to be saying that it did not do any good, because those schools, if the best pupils are taken out of them, are still not very good schools, with not

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very good educational attainment and perhaps not very good staff. Where did the money go? Why are all schools not at an internationally recognised, demonstrably good standard?

Toby Perkins: Just before the hon. Gentleman intervened, I had said almost entirely the opposite to what he has said about the improvement in school performance under the Labour Government, so it is hard to understand why he thinks that I was saying the opposite of that—perhaps it is my accent.

In relation to the improvement in our schools, I have already referred to the massive improvement in the number of schools in which 30% of pupils get five GCSEs at grades A* to C. The figure has gone from 49% to 88%, so that is one massive step forward. I have also referred to the massive improvement in the number of people from more deprived schools going to university. Therefore, I do not accept at all that people are set up to fail if they go to the wrong school.

However, I do say that the proposals that we are debating today are sticking-plaster. They do not address the fundamental issue of improving the education of every child and every school, but are about creaming off a small number of the most talented pupils. Yes, that will inevitably leave a weaker school behind, albeit at a small level. More important, it will perpetuate the idea that if an organisation wants a talented employee, or a university wants a talented student, it needs to look at the school the person went to. That is what I am saying. It is not to say that the education system that we left behind was not giving our schools value for the massive investment in them.

Just last week I visited Milton Keynes academy, which was one of Labour’s newest academies. The pride that people in that school have in the new school building and the investment that has been made in them was heart-warming. To a school such as that, where I believe more than 70 languages are spoken as a first language and which is working so hard to improve its standards, it is a savage blow when the English baccalaureate is introduced retrospectively and the school is judged and told that it is failing because no one is achieving a standard that the school was not even aware that it was working to.

Today’s debate cannot be taken out of the entire context of education spending. That context includes a dramatic 60% cut in capital funding and the fact that schools that already educate the most deprived pupils are convinced that after the advent of the pupil premium, alongside all the other changes that will be made to their financial systems and budgets, they will end up worse off. That is the context into which this debate has been plunged. To say that we need to give extra money to independent schools to take away the best pupils seems absolutely the wrong priority.

I will conclude by adding a few questions for the Minister. At a time when hundreds of schools have seen their desperately needed capital rebuilding projects scrapped, will he really support a scheme that perpetuates and increases the educational dominance of the elite public schools? What steps are the Government taking to get Oxbridge to be more open-minded about their intake to ensure that the Charlotte Crossleys of tomorrow are not denied those opportunities? Why are so many schools that take a high number of children from poorer

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backgrounds convinced that they will be worse off in real terms when they receive this year’s budget? Does he think that increasing privilege and the disparity between different educational establishments will assist, in the Prime Minister’s words, every child to have the chances he had?

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr McCrea. Perhaps in contrast to the last speaker, I shall address the subject of the debate, but before doing so, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), and not only on securing the debate. As anyone who knows him will testify, he is uncompromising in his belief that all children should have access to the best possible education, as well as passionate about speaking up on behalf of the most disadvantaged children. Those are the only motives behind his bringing this subject to the Chamber, and he articulated them typically well in his comments. The sentiments that he expressed are wholly admirable, well founded and respected by hon. Members on both sides of the House. He has great experience and knowledge in this area, and he made a typically well informed speech.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling us what the debate was not going to be about, because we would have needed longer than the time allotted to us to cover all those interesting and often contentious areas. I congratulate him also on something that I had not realised—that he was one of the pioneers of the idea of the pupil premium. He was advocating that in the wilderness for many years and then the rest of us caught up with him. As he said, this discussion is well worth having. The subject perhaps has not been aired as much in this Chamber as it might be. Some of the figures that he cited for the decline in social mobility, which is the real problem behind the whole subject, are very stark and were repeated by a number of hon. Members who spoke after him.

My hon. Friend said he was not overly optimistic about what I might say, but I aim to give him as many grounds for optimism as possible. I do not want to undermine in any way what he is trying to do, and I am more than happy—particularly as I am not one of the Schools Ministers, who I am standing in for—to help facilitate a meeting between my hon. Friend and ministerial colleagues in the Department.

We have had a real glitterati of talent and knowledge, given the contributions from my Back-Bench colleagues. It took my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) some time to declare his interest in what was one of the original free schools, which was in his constituency. I should perhaps call him the child of the free school in Yarm. I do not have to declare an interest, as the 100% product of a state primary school and a state comprehensive school. None the less, my hon. Friend repeated the sentiments and the aim that we all share—that children should have the best possible chances of accessing the best possible education.

I do not agree with the accusation that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) was not measured; I thought he was considered and forthright, as one would expect. I certainly would not put him

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down as a Victorian matriarch, even though he embellished the debate with the quote from Disraeli about the elevation of the condition of the working class. He speaks with great knowledge, given the various social deprivation challenges in his constituency, which are greater than those faced by many hon. Members.

The response to my hon. Friend and to the debate from the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) gave us something of a treble whammy. He did not seem to deal with the subject in hand; indeed, I do not think he talked at all about access to private schools for children on free school meals, which is the nub of the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East. Instead, his speech gave us a return to deficit denial; indeed, we had deficit denial in the context of the Building Schools for the Future programme. Although the capital programme has nothing to do with the scheme we are debating and is entirely irrelevant, there would be rather more money to go round for schools that are still in a parlous state if money had been spent more efficiently under the BSF programme.

In addition to deficit denial, we had the usual class warrior clap-trap on this subject, which is not about class war, but about giving equality of opportunity to as many children as possible in the education system. I mentioned a treble whammy—we also had social mobility gap denial. Social mobility has never been in a more parlous state. The gap between those who are privileged in terms of finance, education and opportunities and those who are not has widened enormously, and the Government are now trying to pick up the challenges in education after 13 years in which social mobility absolutely ground to a halt.

Toby Perkins: The Minister said that he would like to see educational equality “as far as possible”—I think that that was his phrase. Perhaps he could explain what he means by that. Will he also confirm that when he was in opposition, he argued against the then Leader of the Opposition—now the Prime Minister—who was saying that the Conservative party should maintain the Labour Government’s level of public spending right up to 2008? Was the Minister arguing against the now Prime Minister at that point?

Tim Loughton: I am not entirely sure about the relevance of that question. What I do know is that we argued for 13 years in opposition that the Labour Government were spending money like it was going out of fashion. The efficiency of that spending was enormously compromised, as we have seen. Anybody who comes to the Department for Education will throw their hands up in horror at the amount that was wasted. I am afraid that deficit denial will not butter any parsnips in this debate.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Will the Minister give way?

Tim Loughton: Well, I will. I might start my speech in a minute, as well.

Mr Jackson: Does the Minister not think that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) and the Labour party have a cheek lecturing us about social mobility when, after 14 years of economic growth, they have bequeathed us a situation in which 5.2 million

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people are on out-of-work benefits and we have the highest number of young unemployed ever, as well as the highest number of young people not in education, employment or training? Is that not the tragic legacy of the previous Labour Government?

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and all Government Members know that.

I want to get on to my substantive comments. Before I do, however, I should say that it was slightly worrying that the hon. Member for Chesterfield started by saying that his party did not want to interfere with independent schools, but then listed a whole area where they had better watch out—I think that that is what he was telling them. The Labour party still cannot stop meddling. It was also rather patronising of him to say so many times that Government Members have well-intentioned motives, even if he did not agree with any of us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East referred to the excellent work of the Sutton Trust, to which I pay tribute, and that is particularly true of its head, Sir Peter Lampl. For more than a decade, the trust’s work to promote social mobility has played an important role in all debates covering the early years, schools and higher education.

It is important to recognise at the outset of any debate about the quality of education that we have many great schools in the state and independent sectors, where the hard work and commitment of superb head teachers and inspirational teachers enable pupils to achieve good qualifications. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that all children have access to the best possible education. The challenge facing us is to ensure that there are more of these great schools so that all children can get the best possible education.

Over the past decade, we have slipped down the international league tables for school performance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough said. What makes that so much worse is that we also have one of the most stratified and segregated school systems in the developed world. Studies such as those undertaken by UNICEF and the OECD underline the fact that we have one of the most unequal educational systems in the world, coming near bottom out of 57 countries for educational equity.

The gap in attainment between rich and poor remains persistently stubborn, as my hon. Friend recognised. It opens even before children get to school. We know from Leon Feinstein’s research that the highest early achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds by the age of five. The achievement gap between rich and poor then widens at the beginning of primary school. By the end of key stage 1, a child eligible for free school meals is a third as likely as other pupils to reach the expected level in reading, writing and maths.

The gap then widens further still. A child eligible for free school meals is less than a third as likely to achieve five or more GCSEs at grade A* to C, including in English and maths, than a child from a less deprived background. By 18, the gap is vast. In the most recent year for which we have data, of 80,000 young people eligible for free school meals, just 40 made it to Oxbridge—

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less than some independent schools manage in a single year. Our schools should be engines of social mobility, offering a route to liberation from the constraints imposed by accidents of birth and background. At the moment, however, that just is not the case.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East, I am a big fan of independent schools; like him, I want the advantages of the independent sector to be available to a great many more of our children. Independent schools have a proven track record of success. Children who attend private schools are three times more likely to achieve three A-grade A-levels than those who attend state-funded schools. The coalition Government believe independent schools have a vital role to play in our education system in ensuring that more children achieve such excellence.

In the past, access to independent schools was provided to disadvantaged pupils. During the 1980s and 1990s, as we have heard, the previous Conservative Government’s assisted places scheme provided means-tested Government-supported places at leading independent schools. In fact, I made my maiden speech on the very Bill that did away with the scheme—the first piece of legislation from the previous Labour Government to do away with something.

The scheme followed the principle that the lower a family’s income, the more support the state should provide. I am pleased to say that the coalition Government are following the same principle today with our pupil premium. As I said, the previous Government phased the assisted place scheme out. That is not to say that no disadvantaged pupils are educated in the independent sector, because they are. Independent schools cater for about 7% of pupils. Of those pupils, more than 160,000—about a third—receive support to help cover the cost of their fees. That support is worth more than £660 million every year.

Around 80% of that support comes as bursaries or scholarships provided by the schools themselves. I welcome that and hope that it continues. Access to an independent education can also be supported by local authorities; for instance, where a vulnerable child is at risk of being taken into care and where it may be in the interests of the child to attend a boarding school, or where support needs to be provided to a child with a special educational need that cannot be met in the state sector. Again, that support is welcome and it is right that it continues. Indeed, independent schools can approach local authorities that can come up with arrangements of their own. In Cheshire, I gather the local authority already buys in places at the boys’ independent grammar, Sandbach school, for example. Many local authorities also place pupils with special educational needs in independent mainstream and special schools. I have already mentioned children in the care system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East specifically mentioned the open access project run by the Sutton Trust to support access to the Belvedere school. It is an impressive project, and I would naturally be fascinated by any proposal that my hon. Friend might put forward that would enable more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to access independent education. However, I regret to say that it is neither practicable nor affordable for the state to fund a similar project today. Instead, our priority must be to improve the state school system and to close the gap between rich and poor for all.

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Those were the twin goals of our recent White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, which set out a comprehensive programme of reform, based on evidence of what has worked for nations with the best-performing education systems in the world. While they have taken their own unique approach to education reform, all successful systems share certain common features. They have prioritised plans to improve teacher quality, for example, granted greater autonomy to the front line, made schools more accountable to their communities, modernised curricula and qualifications, and encouraged more professional collaboration.

We are enacting the same kind of whole-system reform here in this country, with both profound structural change and rigorous attention to standards. We have also taken steps to support the education of the most disadvantaged pupils. Our pupil premium, as I mentioned earlier, will see schools receive additional money—starting at £430 per pupil but rising in total from £625 million this year to £2.5 billion per year by 2015—that will provide an incentive for them to take pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, and, I hope, give them a better education than they are able to access at the moment.

On top of that, we have created a new education endowment fund worth £110 million, which provides a further incentive for schools and local authorities to work together to bring forward innovative projects that will raise attainment of disadvantaged children in under-performing schools. Because nothing matters more than giving more of the poorest children access to the best teaching, we are more than doubling the size of Teach First, so more of the best young graduates are able to teach in more of our most challenging schools, including primary schools. We have appointed Dr Liz Sidwell, herself an inspirational head, to use her experience and knowledge to work with local authorities to identify those schools most in need of support and help them develop plans for their improvement.

Once again, the independent sector has an important role to play. At the heart of our approach to school improvement is a belief that the best way to help schools improve is to encourage other schools with great head teachers and impressive track records to collaborate with them. There are already many examples

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of successful partnerships between schools in the independent and state sectors. The Independent Schools Council survey showed that more than four in five independent schools are now working with local state schools, to mutual benefit. I am very keen that that continues. Indeed, an independent school has sponsored an academy in my constituency. Beyond the financial and direct assistance given to the academy, there is shared teaching, use of resources and a greater integration between those two sets of pupils, to the benefit of both schools.

One way to build on that is for independent schools to become academy sponsors, as I have said. As outstanding schools in their own right, they can share their expertise and set a clear ethos that together help to transform state schools that are under-performing. More than 30 independent schools are already sponsoring academies, and I hope many more will do so in future, again, as I say, for the mutual benefit of both the independent and maintained sectors.

Another way that independent schools can play a wider role in the school system is by proposing a new free school, and we have already heard examples of that. We have already received applications from independent schools and I hope that others will join them in the months and years ahead.

Let me end by thanking my right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend, rather—once again.

Mr Rob Wilson: It is only a matter of time

Tim Loughton: Exactly. I thank my hon. Friend for calling the debate. He is right to draw attention to the vital role that independent schools have to play in supporting the education of disadvantaged children in our country. While I might not have given him the full response he was looking for, I empathise with the intentions and motives behind the points he made. I encourage him to continue pursuing practical ways that we can get more children from maintained sectors integrating better with children from other backgrounds from the private sector. I look forward to continuing to work together, with him and other Ministers, to help all children access the best possible education, which it is their absolute right to want and our duty to provide.

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A38 (Amber Valley)

10.56 am

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I am grateful to have the chance to raise this issue, which is of great importance to many communities throughout my constituency.

It would help to start by putting the issue in context, in case the Minister is not fully familiar with the stretch of road. The A38 is a dual carriageway, providing a convenient link from the M1 to Derby and on to Birmingham. Despite the efforts of some signposting on the M1, it is an attractive commuter route to Birmingham, especially when faced with the risk of delays on the M1 and M42, the generally suggested route.

Since the road was constructed about 30 or 40 years ago, the level of traffic, especially heavy lorries, using it has grown consistently, exacerbating the noise. There is real concern that the level of traffic will only continue to increase. There are some proposed developments, including one in my constituency that would add a new junction to the road and a new business park. As a result, we would all expect to see an increase, certainly in heavy goods traffic.

Employment and jobs are attracted into my constituency by the great transport links provided by the road, especially to the various industrial parks nearby. That is not something any of us wants to stop. I suspect the strategy for increasing the number of jobs is to build on the attractiveness of the road. However, that leaves us with the problem that a number of people up and down the road are suffering significantly from the level of noise.

It is useful to paint a picture of the geography of Amber Valley. The clue is in the name of the constituency. It is made up of lots of hills and valleys, through which the A38 sweeps. In places the road is higher than the neighbouring houses, and in others the houses look down on the road. Those two situations suffer some of the most significant noise problems.

Various communities up and down that nine-mile stretch of the road are in my constituency. We can start in the south in the small village of Coxbench, working northwards to Rawson Green and various bits of the town of Ripley that are quite close to the road. Moving further north, we come to Swanwick; that, too, abuts the road. The place that perhaps suffers the most significant problem, given the volume of houses, is the town of Alfreton. I have not listed every place that suffers an impact from the road, because my constituency contains so many separate communities.

It will be useful to explain the history of the road. Some places that are affected were there before the road was built. Sadly, when the road was constructed, the present rules and regulations on how close to houses new roads can be built, or on what noise abatement measures should be put in place, were not in force. We ended up with some slightly strange situations where houses are incredibly close to the road.

In various places, the road almost goes over houses, and some unfortunate people in Alfreton live in houses that are almost sandwiched between the A38 and the

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slip road that joins it at that point. One can only imagine the level of noise suffered by those who live there. I have visited one of those houses, and even with double glazing and with all the doors and windows closed there is a constant burr of noise when the road is busy; when the windows or the back door are open in the summer, the noise is unbelievable. It is not something that any of us would choose. The noise obviously has a major impact on quality of life.

I have tried to stress how significant a problem it is, although I do not doubt that it is a problem for all who live near trunk roads. The problem was recognised by the previous Government, because noise action plans for major roads were signed off by the then Secretary of State almost a year ago, on 15 March 2010. They set out action plans for tackling the problem.

A study has come up with some scary statistics. For instance, 9.7 million people in the country have to live with noise of more than 55 dB from major roads. That figure falls as the level of noise increases; about 74,000 people have to live with noise of more than 75 dB. Having experienced what I suspect was noise of more than 75 dB, I can tell the House that urgent action is needed. The study says that dealing with those locations is the first priority. The details provided by the Highways Agency show that four patches in my constituency fall within those first priority locations—Coxbench, Rawson Green and two stretches in Alfreton.

I have some concerns about exactly how that study was done. I was told that it was a desktop study that mainly considered distances between houses and the road. I do not know whether it took account of the fact that the road towers over houses or that other houses are somewhat higher than the road, but the nature of valleys can cause the noise to echo, resulting in the noise being louder than expected from a distance. Perhaps further work needs to be done to validate whether those sites, too, should be a first priority. I have listened to the noise in some parts of my constituency, and I am surprised that they are not shown as being at the same level as those that are considered to be first priority.

That leads me to the two themes that I hope the Minister will address. First, when can we expect to see action for those who live in first priority locations? Secondly, where will that leave those who are not in those locations? The action plan produced a year ago sets out four potential courses of action for those who live in first priority areas. In simple terms—I am not an expert—they are to erect noise barriers, with which we are all familiar; to install low-noise surfaces; to introduce traffic management measures; and to improve the noise insulation of affected properties. I suspect that on this stretch of the A38, traffic management measures will be a challenge, as it is a long run with no junctions from the M1 to Derby, and it attracts some to drive at high speeds—except at the rush-hour peak, when the traffic tends to back up.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): To what extent does traffic divert from the A38 to the B6179, which seems to run parallel to it for a long stretch?

Nigel Mills: As with all such matters, trying to work out who uses what route at what time and for what purpose is a challenge. The A38 is a major trunk road,

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and unless there is a problem for those travelling through Amber Valley from Derby to the M1 or vice versa, I suspect that they are unlikely to divert to other routes. People who are making short, local journeys will clearly take a different view, and there are other options for those who might prefer a different route, but it depends where they are going. Most of the noise problems are caused by heavy goods vehicles going at significant speeds, but it is unlikely that HGV drivers would divert from the main road.

I doubt whether traffic abatement measures will help. If we were to say that the solution was to reduce the speed limit to 50 mph, we would hear howls of protest, especially as the Government are apparently talking about raising the speed limit on motorways to 80 mph. If the speed limit on the A38 were reduced, I am not sure how many drivers would observe it, given that many do not observe the existing speed limit.

A low-noise surface would be an attractive solution. It is used in some places, but I understand that funding does not allow the proactive replacement of such a surface; in most cases we have to wait until the existing surface has worn away and needs to be replaced, at which point the change could be made. I wonder whether there is any scope for proactive replacement of that surface where there is a clear problem. That leaves the erection of noise barriers, when effective, or helping people to insulate their houses.

The study suggested four potential outcomes for people in high-priority areas. The first is the implementation of action, with financial resources being immediately available. That sounds like a great scenario. Will the Minister say what financial resources will be immediately available? I am not sure that we in Amber Valley look forward to his answer.

The second is the implementation of action but with no immediately available resources. That may be possible, but what resources does the Minister expect to be available in the short to medium term, and how are we to go about finding them? The problem is caused by the Highways Agency’s trunk road and there is a duty to take some action. It is not a discretionary matter, where people can say, “Yes, we know it’s a problem but it is not our problem.” There is a duty to act.

The third is that action is possible but there is no scope to construct or there are overriding technical problems. The worst potential outcome is that action will not be possible owing to large adverse effects—perhaps environmental matters.

The questions are these: what can be done and when can it be done? It is all about timing. My constituents have known about the problem for many years, and have been waiting for some kind of action. There is an action plan, and I suspect that everyone wants to see progress being made. Will the Minister say when he expects to see these projects being started? I am not sure that I can press him for this level of detail, but when can we expect to see some help in Amber Valley? The action plan implies that some of the action will start from April 2011. Is that still the case, or is there likely to be some delay?

I wish to raise one more matter, as I want to give the Minister plenty of time to respond.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): You are probably wondering why I am intervening on the subject of this road, Dr McCrea. It is because it goes through my

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constituency as well. There are two points that I should like to bring to the Minister’s attention. First, we have difficulty with the varying speed limits, and it would be easier to have a consistent speed limit for some parts of the A38. Secondly, we need to lower speed limits to deal with the problems of noise. Can the Department for Transport be more flexible and allow our local councils to alter speed limits to suit local needs?

Nigel Mills: I am grateful for that intervention. I was talking about speed a few minutes ago. Although such a solution would be helpful for my hon. Friend, I struggle to see how practical it is as an option and how likely it is even to be observed.

Before my hon. Friend intervened on me, I was asking about the people who are not in the areas of first priority. What hope do they have of seeing some noise mitigation measures even in the medium term? Will this Parliament only be able to deal with those in the first priority areas, or is there some hope for the next highest band? A significant number of people who are not in the first priority area have to live with noise of more than 60 or even 70 dB. If it is unlikely that we will have any significant amounts of funding from the taxpayer to deal with that, what other options are available? Is it possible to consider match funding? If there is some significant development in the area that will increase traffic, is there a way in which we can raise section 106 contributions to put in noise barriers, even if they are not exactly adjacent to the new development? It is probably not right to rule out any option. If we think creatively, we may be able to improve the quality of life for people who live in these areas.

I hope that the Minister can give me some good news on when we will start seeing some action. At the very least, I hope that he can help my constituents to understand what the timings and processes are before we can resolve this long-standing issue.

11.12 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for raising the important subject of traffic noise and securing time to allow us to debate the issues. I speak for the Government on 97% of the roads in England—the local roads. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), deals with trunk roads and motorways, so the A38 is one of his roads. Unfortunately, he cannot be here today, so I am standing in for him. I will discuss with him the issues that have been raised today and draw his attention to my hon. Friend’s comments about the road in his constituency.

Nuisance from traffic noise is an issue that the Government recognise. Action is being taken to reduce the problem and real progress continues to be made. The strategic road network provides the backbone for the distribution of goods, services and people within England and beyond, thus providing a valuable contribution to the UK economy.

The network carries a third of all traffic and two thirds of all freight traffic, but represents only 3% of the road network by length in England. With such a concentration of use, combined with the speed of vehicles, noise from motorways and high-speed trunk roads is an understandable concern for those living close to them.

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My hon. Friend has raised a number of concerns about traffic noise at sites along the A38 in his constituency. I sympathise with his concerns and I will explain our policy on dealing with traffic noise from roads and what measures the Highways Agency has taken, and will take in the future, to deal with the issues identified by him.

Before 1998, the assessment of noise impacts was carried out only for new roads. Where noise levels have been predicted to be high as a result of the construction of a new or improved road, measures such as noise barriers or earth embankments are normally included in the design of the road as a means of reducing noise to more acceptable levels. Where such measures cannot be provided, either because of high costs or for practical reasons, there are provisions in the Land Compensation Act 1973 and the Noise Insulation Regulations 1975 for the provision of noise insulation at the affected properties. Such measures have, for many years, provided protection against increased road noise for those affected by new roads.

Since 1998, quieter surfacing materials have been installed on new strategic roads as a matter of course. They have also been installed on existing strategic roads when they have required resurfacing to restore them to a safe and serviceable condition. Such materials have provided significant reductions in traffic noise for many in recent years.

The UK has used quieter surfaces from as early as the 1970s, developing the use of porous asphalt, which was known to reduce tyre noise as well as spray in wet conditions. That material has successfully been used for a number of years on some strategic roads, but it is a more costly solution than recently developed materials. Further progress has been achieved in the development of a new generation of quieter surfacing materials, which are cost-effective, reduce the time needed for resurfacing and can be used routinely on motorways and other high-speed trunk roads. To date, 40% of the strategic road network has been resurfaced with these materials, including a section of the southbound A38 between Ripley and Rawson Green.

The Highways Agency regularly reviews ways in which it can maintain the network in the most cost-effective way. It is currently reviewing maintenance strategies for the strategic network in its drive to reduce cost. I will ask the Highways Agency to keep my hon. Friend informed of the outcome of the review, particularly if it has an impact on future maintenance of the A38 in his constituency.

My hon. Friend mentioned resurfacing as one of the possible ways in which to deal with these matters. I am advised that the Highways Agency policy is to install quieter surfaces when a road is due to be resurfaced, but it will not resurface a road solely for noise-abatement purposes. That is deeply frustrating for hon. Members. I have been trying to persuade the Highways Agency to resurface the A27 in my constituency for similar reasons, so I understand the concerns that he and his constituents have. I am advised that there will be not much new surfacing along this particular stretch of road for the next four or five years.

Looking to the future, we will continue to manage road traffic noise levels as a result of the introduction of the environmental noise directive. The directive requires

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member states to undertake five-yearly cycles of noise mapping and action planning for all major sources of environmental noise, including that from road traffic.

This approach will help us to understand the extent of traffic noise problems alongside our major roads, and to identify where action to reduce road traffic noise needs to be taken, subject to funding being available. Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has overall responsibility for delivering the directive’s requirements in the UK, the Highways Agency has been working with it for a number of years to deliver its noise mapping and action planning requirements.

The first round of noise mapping results were published in May 2008 by DEFRA. That was followed in March 2010 by the noise action plans, which were designed to identify important areas that sustain impacts from major sources such as road traffic. The action plans require those important areas that contain first priority locations to be investigated initially. My hon. Friend referred to those locations in his constituency. I am advised that there are about 1,500 important areas containing first priority locations along the strategic road network. Two of those are along the A38 within his constituency and, as he is aware—from his meeting with Highways Agency officials on 16 August last year—they are at Rawson Green and Coxbench.

Nigel Mills: The details provided by the Highways Agency have identified some further locations in Alfreton in addition to the two at Coxbench and Rawson Green. Is that something that is not correct now, or is it something that the Minister needs to check?

Norman Baker: The information that I was given by officials is that there are two areas on the A38 within my hon. Friend’s constituency, but as he has put his query on the record, I will ensure that either I or my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead writes to him to clarify that point.

As with all important areas with first priority locations, the agency will investigate the sites at Coxbench and Rawson Green during 2011. Those investigations will identify what measures could be effective at reducing noise levels at the individual locations. As they are not yet complete, I cannot confirm what measures will be identified at the two sites and whether any funding will be available to install them. However, I will ask the Highways Agency to inform my hon. Friend of the outcome of the investigations at these two sites when that information is available. If there is any further information that is available when I or the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, write to him about the points that he has raised in this debate, we will include it in the letter so that he has the most up-to-date information available at that stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned a number of possible solutions. Barriers will obviously be considered as a potential solution, if their use is thought to be appropriate. I must make it clear that I am not promising that barriers will be installed, but they will be considered just as a matter of common sense. Obviously, barriers have a cost and an impact on the countryside, and those factors must be taken into account when considering the use of barriers on any trunk road in the country.

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My hon. Friend is probably right to say that the potential for traffic management on the A38 in his constituency is limited, although I note his comment about speed limits. Again, I will pass that back to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. In addition, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) made an intervention about speed limits. The general approach of the Department and indeed of the Government is to move towards having more localism, but obviously speed limits for local roads—the 97% of roads that are within my portfolio—more easily lend themselves to local authority influence than speed limits on trunk roads. However, if a local authority, particularly a highway authority, wants to suggest a speed limit for a motorway or, more likely, a trunk road, there is no reason why that suggestion should not be fed in to the Highways Agency and properly considered at that stage. If there are particular views about the speed limit on the A38, I encourage hon. Members to feed them in to the Highways Agency or to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead.

There was also mention of section 106 agreements. In principle, section 106 agreements can be designed and used to achieve helpful changes to the road network in a particular location, if they are germane to the planning application that has been submitted and agreed to. However, that is really a matter for the local authority—the planning authority—to take forward and to determine what, if any conditions, are appropriate for a section 106 agreement. That is not a process that we would get involved with directly, but if there was a feeling in an area that section 106 money should be used to tackle a trunk road problem, obviously the Highways Agency would want to become involved at that stage, to discuss whether or not that course of action was appropriate for that location.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley also mentioned the action plan on noise. As he knows, that plan has already been published by DEFRA and, as I have already said, at the start of next month the Highways Agency will begin to consider noise mitigation measures that, in theory, can be installed in 2012-13.

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Lastly, the policies that are already in place have led to significant improvements for many residents living close to strategic roads across England. Real differences have been made and we will continue to help those people who are most affected by road traffic noise in the long term, including people in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Nigel Mills: I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. The “pushback” that we get from constituents is that these action plans are meant to be five-year action plans and what we all want is that, during the five years of these plans, we actually see some action. Is the Minister suggesting that we will start to see some action on some of the 1,500 projects around the country during the life of this Parliament, or is it likely that the funding constraints will mean that there is little chance of these noise hot spots being dealt with during that time? He was not entirely clear about how much resource was immediately available to address these issues.

Norman Baker: Dr McCrea, I had actually finished my response to the debate, but I am happy to take a further intervention and respond to it as best I can. My hon. Friend will be aware that the resources that are available at the present time are stretched, because of the appalling inheritance that we received from the last Government. Therefore, we have had to look carefully at where we spend our money. On the other hand, we have legal obligations—for example, the environmental noise directive—and we will seek to discharge them.

If there is any further information that I can add about time scale in the letter that we will send to my hon. Friend—it will come either from myself or from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead—after this debate, we will do that. We will certainly try to include as much information as possible at that time. I hope that that response has been helpful.

11.24 am

Sitting suspended.

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Wood Panel Industry

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I do not think that I have had the pleasure of being on a Committee that you have chaired. We go back a long time in this place, so I am delighted to see you here today. I am also very pleased to see both the Minister, with whom I have had conversations on this issue in other parts of the Commons, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who is representing the Opposition.

I am delighted that we have secured the debate, because we are at a crucial juncture for the wood panel industry. It is the UN international year of forests, which presents a good opportunity to review policies that affect our forests and associated industries. Last week’s announcement on the renewable heat incentive was a great blow to Norbord, a panel manufacturer in my constituency and one of seven plants that constitute the UK’s wood panel industry. The industry produces, wholly from UK-sourced wood, two thirds of the UK’s consumption of wood-based panels—chipboard, MDF and oriented strand board. Much of that wood is post-consumer waste wood, with Sonae UK in Merseyside now making chipboard from 98% recycled material. All virgin material is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. The industry plays a valuable, if somewhat understated, role in carbon abatement, by locking carbon into the product, often for decades, as is the case with housing.

Norbord plays a vital role in my constituency. It employs more than 250 people directly and is one of the few large private sector employers in the area, offering a valuable apprenticeship scheme in addition to manufacturing. Its campaign to highlight the detrimental impact of large-scale biomass energy is fully supported by the workers at the factory, under their trade union Unite.

Let me be very clear to the Minister from the outset: neither Norbord nor the wood panel industry has any objection to the aims of the RHI. Indeed, the sector accounts for a third of the British industry’s generation of renewable heat. However, that huge contribution is threatened by exclusion from the RHI of the industry’s existing capacity. This is, in many respects, an issue that does not gain the headlines, so I want to put on record the fact that we have support from organisations such as the United Kingdom Forest Products Association, Timcon, Valpak and other wood supply outlets that have fears about some of the issues that I will raise this afternoon.

As the Minister knows full well from meetings with the industry and with the all-party group for the wood panel industry, of which I am chair, biomass is unlike any other major form of renewable energy because of the ongoing fuel costs involved and the potential for serious distortion of the wood market. I appreciate that the Government do not want to support all early adoption of renewable technologies. That is perfectly understandable, but I hope that the Minister recognises that the industry has an important contribution to make to renewable

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heat. If we do not get some resolution to the current situation, that important contribution will be jeopardised by subsidies to new entrants to the wood market, and by the arbitrary nature of the July 2009 cut-off date for installed installations.

I have to be frank with the Minister. The wood panel industry feels particularly aggrieved by the apparent lack of consideration given by the Department of Energy and Climate Change to its well-evidenced arguments about the impact of subsidised biomass demand on the UK wood market. I would, therefore, like the Minister to tell us why the wood industries are not even mentioned in the RHI impact assessment, despite the submission to his Department of data on timber prices and availability. The four paragraphs devoted to competition assessment make no mention of the wood market, which, as the Minister knows full well, will be the source of most of the biomass feedstock. There appears to be little point in conducting an impact assessment when adverse impacts that are clearly detailed to the Department are, apparently, studiously ignored. If assessments are not objective, who will trust them? I am sure that my all-party group colleagues who are here today can, like me, attest to the clarity of information and evidence that the Wood Panel Industries Federation has produced for the Department’s scrutiny.

I am not sure whether the Minister heard the recent BBC “Today” programme’s coverage of the RHI announcement. It picked up on the sustainability question: will biomass demand prove as unsustainable and environmentally damaging as biofuels? Roger Harrabin, the environmental analyst, raised the important issue of the double-counting of land when assessing potential biomass availability. That relates not just to the UK; it appears to be the case across Europe as well, where the combined biomass demand from EU member states, as declared in their national renewable energy plans, is just short of 1 billion tonnes of wood every year. That would require the total global harvest of wood to increase by a third. Does that sound sustainable?

On the renewables obligation, although the Government’s decision on the RHI is a further crushing blow to the competitiveness of the sector, the core problem remains the unsustainable and flawed support for large-scale electricity from wood. The wood panel industry has long argued that the renewables obligation has had the unintended consequence of distorting the UK wood market. That was not done deliberately, but we now have to deal with it. Several cumulative factors contributed to the distortion. First, demand for UK wood is beginning to outstrip supply; secondly, energy crops have not been planted in significant volumes, despite there having been generous incentives for a decade; and finally, the scale of biomass plants is huge. For example, Port Talbot’s Prenergy plant will burn about 3 million green tonnes of wood per annum, with no guarantees that the material will be exclusively imported. That represents close to a quarter of the biomass available today in the UK. The consequences for the wood-processing industry are extremely serious, and will only be compounded by the introduction of an RHI that does not support the industry’s existing renewable heat generation.

I hope that the Minister will accept that one of the most important myths that has to be confronted is that biomass plants will satisfy their demand from overseas—from imports. That is hugely inaccurate, misleading and

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irresponsible for three main reasons: first, the global pressure on wood supply; secondly, the differential in price between imported and domestic wood fibre; and thirdly, the fact that biomass plants are not committed to any supply chain when they receive planning permission.

Let me start with global wood supply and demand. Investment in biomass and biofuels is increasing significantly around the world, as the Minister undoubtedly knows. Canada and the US, which are frequently cited as potential sources of fuel for the UK, are seeing more and more biomass plants proposed, as the cost margin between energy generation from oil and from wood decreases. The Government know well how difficult it is to estimate how much wood will be available from abroad in the next 10 or 20 years, yet they are somehow confident that energy companies will be able to secure imports and will, therefore, not impinge too greatly on domestic wood. Many organisations are a great deal more sceptical about the sustainability of such global demand. They include Friends of the Earth, WWF and BirdLife International, to mention but a few. Furthermore, does the building of numerous import-reliant biomass plants not have serious ramifications for UK energy security?

The second factor undermining wood imports is price. As long as domestic wood is significantly cheaper than imported wood, which is currently about double the price, any energy company worth its salt will source as much cheaper UK wood as it can. That is just business. Forth Energy, for example, which is trying to build four large electricity plants close to my constituency in central Scotland, has been more open than most in stating that it intends to burn as much indigenous biomass—that is British wood—as possible.

The consultancy E4tech produced a report for DECC’s renewable energy strategy in 2009 that considered international biomass supply. E4tech concluded that the UK could import significant volumes of woody biomass to supply UK demand, but that import costs would remain high. It predicted that in 2010, all imported material would be more expensive than domestic wood, and would still be more expensive even by 2030. That was true in each of the four scenarios that the report used, from business as usual to high growth.

E4tech produced another report for DECC earlier last year on biomass prices in the UK electricity and heat sectors. On wood chip prices, the report concluded:

“In 2020, imported chips are estimated to be much more expensive…than chips from UK energy crops…hence are unlikely to be used for heating. The UK biomass heating sector is therefore likely to only see the UK energy crop chip prices.”

I hope the Minister will accept that that goes to show that the RHI will only add to pressure on domestic wood supply and drive up prices above levels that the wood panel industry can absorb or pass on to customers. Biomass energy companies will buy wood from established wood markets, such as the market for small roundwood, unless they are specifically encouraged not to do so. Why would they seek out twisted branches, stump and brash when they can outbid existing industries for small roundwood, sawdust and even logs?

The final and crucial factor concerning imports is that biomass plants, once built, can source material from wherever they see fit as long as the wood is certified under a forest management scheme. The fact that many such plants are situated at ports does not

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mean that they will not buy huge amounts of wood from the UK. As I have explained with the aid of DECC-commissioned reports, there is no prospect of international woody biomass becoming cheaper than domestic wood.

On carbon balance, my fundamental question to the Government is this: what is the best possible environmental outcome for this precious and limited resource? The Government must not simply weigh the carbon balance of energy generation from fossil fuels and wood; they must also consider the environmental benefits of competing uses of wood. It is a well-established fact that wood products are an important carbon sink that can be burned for energy after their useful life.

According to the Forestry Commission’s Biomass Energy Centre, direct CO2 emissions from combustion of wood chips for electricity in a large-scale plant are more than five times as high as emissions from the combustion of hard coal. I acknowledge that life-cycle CO2 emissions from large-scale wood-fired electricity production are considerably less than coal, but there is a considerable and crucial time lag, or carbon debt. It will be between 30 and 40 years before new plantings in coniferous temperate forests can reabsorb the carbon released through combustion. I represent a constituency with large forests—a landscape you will recognise, Mr Weir, as someone from Scotland—so I know that is not a short-term fix. In the short to medium term, new large-scale biomass plants will massively increase carbon emissions. If climate change is to be taken seriously, how can we be comfortable with such a perverse outcome?

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She is making a powerful case for which I have a lot of sympathy. A lot of wood ends up in landfill that could be used in biomass facilities, which would be of benefit in reducing carbon.

Mrs McGuire: That chimes with the views of the industry. Some of that wood could easily be used for biomass energy generation, instead of the wood currently used by the wood panel industry and other industries. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. An appropriate comment might be that we must look beyond the trees so that we can see the wood.

The Environment Agency’s 2009 report “Biomass: Carbon sink or carbon sinner?” got to the nub of getting the best environmental outcome from the material. Although I accept that the introduction of a heat incentive is a good step in principle, wood will continue to be consumed in massive quantities for electricity production as long as financial incentives make it attractive. Because wood supply is limited and displacement of the wood panel industry is a realistic outcome, it is vital to compare the carbon emissions of electricity from biomass with those produced by panel board manufacture.

A study by Carbon River submitted to DECC last year demonstrated that CO2 emissions from the wood panel industry equate to 378 kg of CO2 per tonne of timber processed. By comparison, CO2 emissions from the biomass industry consuming domestically sourced timber equate to 1,905 kg of CO2 per tonne of timber processed. The wood panel industry’s annual consumption of timber is between 4 million and 4.5 million tonnes per annum. If it were displaced by the biomass industry,

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the increase in net CO2 emissions would equate to 1,527 kg of CO2 per tonne of timber processed. That works out at about 6 million tonnes of CO2, or a 1% increase in the UK’s net CO2 emissions each year.

If the UK is to burn 50 million tonnes of timber a year to satisfy its energy requirements, direct CO2 emissions could increase by 95 million tonnes per annum. Will the equivalent capacity of fossil fuel plants be retired to compensate, or will the carbon reduction policy in fact increase our carbon footprint? Large-scale growth of biomass usage for electricity production will not only be detrimental to the wood processing industries, including sawmills; it is also likely to put even greater pressure on land in the UK and abroad that is currently used for farming food crops.

I hope that the Government can accept some responsibility for elements of that powerful challenge. In response to a Channel 4 news exposé of biomass and timber prices last week, the Government stated:

“It is not our intention for our renewable support mechanisms to adversely affect other industries. We believe this can be minimised by increasing the supply of wood and forestry residues available, better management of our waste wood”—

that chimes with the comments of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams)—

“and the increased use of other biomass resources such as food waste and perennial energy crops.”

Frankly, it is not good enough for the Government to say that it is not their intention to affect industry. If they are interfering in the market, which they are, they must make certain that they obey the golden rule: do no harm. Therefore, I respectfully suggest that it is negligent of the Department to omit the industry from its RHI impact assessment.

The Government’s answer to concerns about the sustainability of biomass energy is to cite the proposed sustainability criteria. With regard to wood, those are simply measures of good forest management and in no way provide a picture of sustainable levels of demand and supply, or of the impact that biomass will have on carbon sinks and recycling. The Government say that they will act if distortion occurs, but frankly, any action will be far too late. Distortion is occurring today, and these industries are already at their competitive limits.

No one doubts the complexity of the problem. However, we have to recognise that there is a better way of making decisions about the use of wood. At present, no other country in the European Union encourages wood-fired electricity generation on the scale seen in the UK. Countries with much greater forest cover, such as Germany and Austria, have sensibly instituted minimum efficiency standards that preclude electricity generation from wood alone, thus encouraging the development of high efficiency heating and small-scale combined heat and power. The Minister does not even need to look beyond these islands. You will love this sentence, Mr Weir: we could follow the lead of the Scottish Government, who have expressed a preference for those processes over large-scale electricity from biomass. I am pleased to tip my hat, on this occasion, to the Scottish Government’s lead on the issue.

Despite the introduction of the RHI, the Minister cannot deny that the current incentive regime still makes burning virgin timber for electricity an attractive proposition. The best way to end market distortion and to achieve

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the best environmental outcomes is to end support for electricity-only generation from wood, and to exclusively support quality CHP, heat generation and energy from treated wood waste. That would ensure high energy efficiencies, protect current and future wood recycling, and reduce landfill. It would also greatly reduce the impact on wood processors, who play a vital role in carbon abatement, through the manufacture and recycling of low-carbon, sustainable construction and furniture materials.

If the Minister recognises the valuable contribution made to the carbon agenda by the panel board industry, will he please comment specifically on how the creation, through a subsidy, of a four to fivefold increase in the demand for limited biomass cannot but distort that market and impact detrimentally on that industry? Finally, does he feel that the loss of the UK’s wood panel industry is acceptable collateral damage for hitting renewable targets? That is what appears to be happening. It would be a sad conclusion, not just because of the jobs and skills that would be lost in a rural industry, but because, perversely, such displacement of wood would actually increase carbon emissions, which is the very thing that I am sure the Minister would not want. I welcome this opportunity to put these issues to the Minister and look forward to the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree for the Opposition, as well as that of the Minister himself.

2.54 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr Weir. I apologise for being late, but I was detained briefly in another meeting.

I will begin by giving some background to the debate. I have 49,000 square hectares of forest in my constituency, which has at least six major forests. I have three times more than anybody else in the House of Commons. I did not vote for the Government’s forestry proposal. I abstained and did so for a number of reasons, not least because I did not think that it was the best way forward for individual forests to be assessed. I also abstained because a significant number of jobs were under threat—one must not diminish the numbers involved. I agree almost entirely with the comments of my friend the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), because the law of unintended consequences may be relevant. We have a significant supplier in the form of Egger, which has more than 400 people involved in the forestry business. A second supplier, SCA Timber, has another 400 people. The third supplier is the Forestry Commission, which, along with others, is associated in a multitude of different ways.

I am talking about the most sparsely populated part of England, and it is hard to think of what else individual people could do to make a living. They have eked out a good, successful niche business, based around the forestry proposals. The difficulty is that the wood, and the approach to it, is what binds those people together. It is the glue that holds the community together. I do not want to overstate this, but it seems that we are approaching a crucial decision on the way forward. To that end, I am surprised that there is no mention of the wood panel industry’s views in the RHI consideration. Will the Minister comment on that when he responds? I fully understand that the RHI has been delayed and accept

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entirely that there are many difficult problems, but the fact that the views of the wood panel industry have been ignored is important. The impression given is that the wood panel industry will survive with or without RHI. In fact, one could go further and say that that implies that the wood panel industry will survive in the absence of RHI.

I remind all parties involved of the huge amount of capacity involved in wood biomass. The forestry industry believes that one of the core problems is the Department’s optimism about wood biomass supply. I grant that a modicum of extra material could be brought to market, but even the most optimistic estimate of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is an extra 2 million tonnes a year. Last year’s report by John Clegg Consulting categorically states that current wood demand is in balance with wood supply. In other words, the demand and the amount in this country—give or take a little either way—are, effectively, the same.

Roger Williams: I apologise, Mr Weir, that I will have to leave shortly, so I will not be able to make a speech. I, too, represent a constituency that has a lot of forestry and a lot of people employed in forest jobs. Eighty per cent. of the forestry estate in England is in private hands, and of that 80%, only 60% is properly managed. If the other 40% were brought into proper management, that would generate more wood fibre and deliver more public good.

Guy Opperman: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point because it is absolutely key. It is often argued in relation to these particular environments that wood capacity will increase—we could market it better, find it better and produce it better—and we can then find the supply we need. Even allowing for the hon. Gentleman’s argument, given the amount that we will have to find, there is a massive disparity between what the Minister will say and the point we are trying to make.

I shall give one example in relation to the Drax argument. The level of wood demand will be approximately 40 million to 50 million tonnes a year if various things go forward, but we must bear it in mind that we are at a level of just over 10 million tonnes, going up to 12 million tonnes on an ongoing basis, so there is a massive disparity. I flag up the point that if Drax gets its way in the next renewables obligation review and the co-firing cap is removed, it could consume a further 10 million tonnes. I hope that that is not the case because it would mean that a standard wood producer—an owner of a supply—would struggle in terms of their contribution and ability to function. The Government have to respond to the industry’s extremely reasonable argument that biomass electricity plants will consume the cheapest and most easily available material—namely, virgin timber from UK forests.

I urge the Government to reform the renewables obligation before it is too late, so that biomass energy is proportionate, sustainable and highly efficient. At the moment, there is a real danger that if someone is involved in this particular product, they will face the issue of overseas supply. I cannot see how we will be able to produce this type of work, and this amount of wood, on an ongoing basis without there being significant overseas supply, with all the environmental factors that are attached to that. The statistics are effectively unarguable. I would welcome the Minister’s views on the matter.

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Given that we have a very successful ability to produce good jobs in a competitive economy on an ongoing basis—1,000 people are employed in the industry in my constituency—it is odd that we are trying to pass legislation, which, as my friend the right hon. Member for Stirling explained very eloquently, will cause long-term difficulties. If we do not address the matter, we will end up with problems.

3.3 pm

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I am delighted that we are holding this debate on the wood panel industry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) on securing time for it. I thank the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for his thoughtful contribution and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) for his thoughtful intervention.

The wood panel industry is represented in my constituency by Kronospan, which is based at Chirk. The factory is a key employer in the area and is one of the largest in north Wales, with around 600 direct jobs on site. Those are highly skilled comparatively well-paid jobs that make a huge difference to the economy of the area. Kronospan worldwide is the number one producer of medium-density fibreboard and particleboard, and it operates in 24 countries. Locally, it is impossible to overestimate the massive economic impact that that company has. It spends in the region of £30 million a year on local suppliers and close to £ l million in rates. I am extremely concerned to hear that support for large-scale wood-fired electricity generation is threatening the very survival of that sustainable and crucial business in my constituency.

Let me make it clear—this point has been previously made by hon. Members—that we recognise that what is happening is an unforeseen consequence and we also recognise the reasoning behind support for what was the fledging biomass industry. It is not our place to be critical of that. However, we recognise the reality of what is happening to the wood panel industry as a consequence of that position. Wood supply and the best use of wood have suffered in policy making because of the way those issues fall between three Departments—DEFRA, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government—and their respective agencies. I know that DEFRA is well aware of both the limits of domestic wood supply and the extreme inefficiency of burning wood purely for electricity. For example, it is worth noting that the Environment Agency’s report, “Biomass: Carbon Sink or Carbon Sinner,” explicitly calls for a

“strong presumption in favour of combined heat and power”

over electricity-only generation. DCLG certainly supports the use of wood products for construction as a low-carbon alternative to other materials, but the policies that will most affect how wood will be used are the most lucrative ones, namely renewable energy. That is partly because DECC is doing its level best to achieve extremely ambitious renewable energy targets.

The industry has long suspected that information sharing between the Forestry Commission and DECC and its predecessors is simply not up to scratch. The commission undoubtedly has a good grasp on the availability of UK wood. However, for a variety of

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reasons, it does not have an equivalent expertise in forecasting wood demand. It is the wood industry’s belief that DECC’s understanding of wood fibre streams, uses and demands is totally inadequate, considering the impact that the Department’s policies have on the wood market. The renewable heat incentive’s timber coverage is a case in point. The RHI document states:

“We do not expect significant quantities of prime timber to be diverted into energy as a result of the RHI. However, should evidence show that high grade timber is being diverted into heat use, and that turns out to be a perverse outcome from a greenhouse gas lifecycle perspective or causes concerns about deforestation, measures will be introduced to prevent it.”

That is the sum total of the policy’s attention to the largest source of biomass in the UK.

The industry is most interested to know what DECC means by “prime” or “high grade” timber, as the RHI document provides no explanation. We already know that energy companies are seeking long-term contracts for the supply of small round wood, which is the core feedstock for the wood panel industry. The Department seems to be ignoring the fact that that distortion is happening today. Wood pellet plants, such as the one near Inverness, are using high-grade timber in the production of pellets. That trend will only increase with the additional incentive of the RHI. Will the Minister comment on what he deems to be prime timber? What evidence would his Department wish to see to convince it that such an outcome is already a reality? Does a wood panel factory have to close before measures are introduced to prevent that happening? I sincerely hope not. The Minister needs only to look at the experience of German and Austrian wood processors, which have suffered greatly as the result of massive increases in timber prices in 2004 and 2005.

Of course, this debate is also about the crucial issue of jobs, particularly but not exclusively in rural areas. If an overly generous biomass subsidy continues to be given to electricity producers, wood panel manufacturers will simply be priced out of the domestic wood market on which they rely. It will then become uneconomic to produce wood panel boards in the UK. A report on the wood panel industry by Europe Economics produced last year and submitted to DECC estimated that the loss of the industry would risk more than 8,500 full-time equivalent jobs. Taking the Government’s re-absorption rate into consideration, that still means the estimated loss of well over 4,000 jobs. The displacement of the industry by large-scale biomass would also cost nearly £1 billion in lost economic activity across several industries, as calculated using basic input-output measures.

It is extremely significant that six of the seven panel plants we are discussing are in rural areas with moderate to high unemployment rates. We are speaking of rural or semi-rural communities with at most one or two large-scale employers; indeed, many have no such employers, which is why the employment we are discussing is so vital. In some places—Hexham, Ayrshire, Chirk, which is in my constituency, in north Wales, and South Molton, which is in Devon—the plants dominate the economic landscape, and their loss would be devastating for local communities. Whatever one’s political persuasion, and whatever one’s views on the wider macro-economic

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debate and on what will happen at this point in our economic history, such losses do not bear thinking about.

I recognise that we are not talking about one of the largest industrial sectors, but the Europe Economics report that I cited earlier said that the sawmilling industry would become vulnerable if biomass demand continued to increase and generators looked to buy the whole tree. The Forestry Commission estimates that the sawmilling sector accounts for about 12,000 employees, and the Government would surely be worried about the loss of that employment.

Biomass plants frequently cite green jobs in applications for planning consent. In reality, however, the number of such new jobs is minimal—on a plant-to-plant comparison and per tonne of wood consumed—compared with the number created in the paper and panelboard sectors. On any objective analysis, biomass plants are less green. I am, of course, extremely concerned about the potential loss of a major employer in my constituency, and I trust that the Government will be, too.

The risk to the industry has been recognised right across Europe, with panel companies shutting down production lines or whole factories in Belgium and Germany because of a lack of wood. In 2009, the EU officially recognised the wood panel sector as one of several industrial sectors exposed to carbon leakage—the risk that companies might relocate outside the EU to countries with less onerous environmental regimes, thereby increasing global emissions. How can that recognition by the EU be reconciled with the RHI impact assessment for the panelboard industry?

As all Members present will recognise, the wood panel industry faces an extremely serious situation unless such consequences are foreseen and dealt with.

3.13 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for not being present at the commencement of the debate, and no discourtesy was intended. I was participating in a debate on the Floor of the House on fuel prices, an issue that will be of some interest to the wood panel industry and the wider timber industry.

I want to make a brief contribution because others will already have covered a number of points. The issues raised in the debate are of concern to me because I represent an Ayrshire constituency, which borders the constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. The Egger plant at Auchinleck is on the border between the two constituencies, although, technically, it is in the constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. I have had the privilege of looking around the plant on a couple of occasions in my capacity as MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, although I will become the former MSP when the Scottish Parliament breaks up for the election in a few days. However, I continue to take a close interest in what happens at the plant and in Government policy on the industry in Scotland and the UK.

As Members will have heard, some very high-quality products are made at the Egger plant. I was certainly amazed, as a consumer of all things DIY at various stages in my life, to see how high-quality chipboard was made, finished and then used to make the doors that we have all seen in new housing developments. However, the important point for me was that this was a high-quality

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product and created high-quality jobs in my constituency, which has particularly high unemployment and which has suffered for many years because of the loss of the mining industry and other parts of the manufacturing sector. The plant is therefore crucial, and the then Cumnock and Doon Valley district council was quite brave to pursue moves to locate the plant in the area. To be fair, it had to persuade the local community a little that it would be a good thing, and the company certainly worked with the council on that. I should add that the plant’s work force have been retrained and upskilled to keep them up to date with what is required in this modern industry.

I was therefore somewhat disconcerted when I first heard that the supply of the waste wood that was being recycled and used to produce the new items at the plant might dry up if a significant amount were channelled for use in biomass. It seemed slightly perverse, at a time when we are trying to make the best use of recycled products, that there would be more incentive to burn waste wood than to recycle it, reuse it and turn it into something much more useful and productive. Obviously, I hope that we will hear about that from the Minister.

It is also slightly perverse that there seem to be incentives to use all waste wood in biomass. There should be some way of incentivising people to sort it and to strip out the treated wood from the wood that can be reprocessed sensibly. The Scottish Government, for example, support a proposal to ban the production of energy from materials that could otherwise be recycled. That would also reduce landfill. That is a particularly sensible approach. I am not sure whether I should be standing up for the Scottish Government, given that we are about to have elections.

Mrs McGuire: I should just let my hon. Friend know that, in the spirit of solidarity on this issue, I also took the opportunity to congratulate the Scottish Government, and I think you, Mr Weir, were delighted.

Mr Mike Weir (in the Chair): Twice in one debate.

Cathy Jamieson: With due respect to you, Mr Weir, I suppose we might as well make it a double. Two Labour Members supporting the Scottish Government in one day is surely not something that happens all too often in this place.

The ban is important. In my role as an MSP, I had the opportunity to raise questions about it. I was pleased that the Scottish Government decided to move on the issue and that they have proposed a ban in respect of wood that could be put to a positive use and be suitably recycled and reprocessed. Such a ban will ensure that only wood that is not suitable for processing in any other way goes to landfill.

We have to be a bit more imaginative and adventurous. I hope that we will see a shift when we talk about some of the issues facing the construction industry and some of the challenges facing us at the moment. I hope that we will talk about building our way out of the present difficult economic climate. When we renovate housing or look at new school buildings and other things in our local communities, I hope that we will look all the way through at what we can do to recycle and reuse wood products.

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To conclude, if there is any opportunity to use Ayrshire-made products, which are manufactured on my doorstep and which are of the highest quality, I hope, of course, that people will do so—indeed, I am sure they will.

3.19 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I also add my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) for securing the debate and highlighting the challenges that the wood panel companies are facing, particularly Norbord in her constituency.

It is important to recognise the role that wood panel industries play in local communities. The Wood Panel Industries Federation estimates that UK wood panel companies directly employ around 2,300 people and, including indirect jobs, secure around 8,700 full-time jobs.

We have heard representations from hon. Members about the highly skilled jobs that the wood panel industry provides in their constituencies. Many of those are located in small rural communities that depend on the industry, so it is important that the Government take seriously the concerns expressed. Careful consideration needs to be taken of the effect that renewables subsidies are having on the wood industry. The Opposition want to encourage a sustainable energy mix, with renewables playing a significant role. We recognise that biomass will play an important part in our energy future, if we are to reduce our carbon emissions and meet our renewables targets. If produced sustainably and burned efficiently, biomass emits low levels of carbon. However, WPIF and hon. Members today have expressed their concerns about the efficiency of biomass plants. Improving the efficiency of biomass plants and ensuring that we have a sustainable energy mix will be key to ensuring our energy security and meeting our carbon reduction targets.

The Minister will know that, as we are discussing this matter, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) are debating in Committee the draft Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2011, which seeks to amend the sustainability criteria for biomass. The Government have considered several options, from doing nothing to several levels of new obligations in respect of sustainability. If passed, the measure will require all generators of solid biomass or gas over 50 kW to report against greenhouse gas emissions criteria and land use sustainability criteria. One notable exemption would be biomass generators wholly derived from waste. Many people and organisations have been calling for that clarity from Government.

What impact might that development have on the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling? In the 12-week consultation up to October 2010, which solicited 80 responses, were any representations made by the wood panel industry, and what was the gist of those representations? In the same order, the Minister has delayed implementing a requirement for biomass generators over 1 MW to comply with—as opposed to report against—greenhouse gas emissions and land use sustainability criteria, until closer to the intended start date for the requirement in 2013. That is to allow

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experience from reporting against the EU criteria to be taken into account before amending the renewables obligation. Will the Minister commit to take the intervening time to consult widely again? I stress “widely”, including specifically with the wood panel and associated industries to make sure their voice is heard.

As well as raising questions about how we produce our energy, today’s debate has highlighted serious questions about how the Government are making their decisions. As was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the Department for Energy and Climate Change did not consider the effect the renewable heat incentive would have on the wood panel industry in its RHI impact assessment. I hope that the Minister will say why that was the case, especially as the Department took so long to announce the RHI and much of the work had already been done by the previous Government.

It would be helpful to learn from the Minister what meetings he has had with representatives of the wood panel industry, the work force and representatives from Unite. In addition, can he tell us what discussions, if any, DECC Ministers had with their counterparts in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effect of biomass on the wood panel industry?

As most biomass energy is derived from wood, it is only renewable as long as forests are controlled locally and managed in a sensitive way. We saw just a few weeks ago how exercised the public are about protecting our forests and woodland, when the Government tried to sell off our forests to the highest bidders. Even after the Government’s painful U-turn, the public still doubt whether the Government can be trusted with our forests.

The Government parties were keen to talk up their green credentials when they were in opposition, and we heard them today on aspiring to be the greenest Government ever. However, green government is about actually delivering a low-carbon future, not chasing headlines. It is about delivering low-carbon investment, not delaying on the green investment bank and dithering on feed-in tariffs. It is also about protecting our woodlands and green spaces, so that we leave the next generation a greener country than we inherited. It is slightly ironic that, in the UN international year of forests, when we are meant to be doing everything we can to protect against deforestation, the Government were considering selling them off and are still planning to sell off 40,000 hectares of public forests.

The debate has highlighted the clear need for a serious strategy to protect our forests and to do all that we can to increase them. As the report “Combating Climate Change: A Role for UK Forests”, commissioned by the Forestry Commission, shows, if an extra 4% of the UK’s land were planted with new woodland over the next 40 years, it could reduce our national carbon emissions by 10% by 2050.