We have already heard that Port Talbot’s Prenergy plant will burn around 3 million tonnes of wood per year. There are real concerns about where the wood will be sourced from, and the effect it will have on the UK’s wood stocks and the wood panel industry. Will the Minister give us details of the plans the Government have to ensure that wood for large-scale biomass will

16 Mar 2011 : Column 114WH

not lead to a drastic reduction in our woodland? What ongoing review and monitoring will he undertake of the sustainability criteria for timber used for biomass? What further work is he doing in the UK and with the EU on the sustainable use of biomass, to reduce the negative impacts on land use and food production, referred to by hon. Members today?

Will the Minister update us on the Government’s progress in imposing a UK domestic ban on illegally sourced timber imported to the UK? Finally, will he outline what plans the Government have to ensure that we enhance our public forests, in order to help to reduce our carbon emissions?

I would continue, but the debate has raised a great number of questions for the Minister and we are all keen to hear his response.

3.27 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I am delighted to participate in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) on securing the time. She has a commendable record for keeping the issue at the forefront of debate at Westminster. I had the opportunity to meet her and other colleagues in September for a productive meeting with the all-party group on wood panelling. I met industry representatives on numerous occasions before that, particularly while in Opposition.

A range of important issues has been raised, not only by the hon. Lady but by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is also an articulate champion, not just for his constituency but for this industry in particular. We also heard thoughtful speeches from the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). I have anticipated in my remarks many points made in the debate and I will seek to address those questions raised as best as I can in the time that I have at the end.

I appreciate that very serious issues have been raised, and if I am not able to cover all of them in this time, I will be happy to follow up with more detailed answers. I can assure all hon. Members that I understand their concerns about the wood panel industry. The coalition Government value the significant investment made in the UK wood panel industry, and we certainly acknowledge the important benefits it delivers, including the real carbon benefits of locking carbon into new buildings. It also provides the benefit of offering jobs—skilled, sustainable jobs—right across the UK, often in rural areas where there is no alternative employment. I think it is not unfair to say that there has been an attitude of complacency in the past, and that the voice of this industry has not always been effectively heard. I am determined to listen.

The right hon. Member for Stirling raised the question at the outset of why the RHI impact assessment did not include the impact on the wood panelling industry. I would like to say, up front, that that is a very good point and I do not have a proper answer for her. She is right to raise it and I will pursue that issue as soon as I get back to the Department. I invite her to meet me so that we can go through the data. I can tell her, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who also raised this matter, that in respect of the

16 Mar 2011 : Column 115WH

renewables obligation consultation there was a significant contribution from the wood panel industry, which set out its concerns along the lines that have been highlighted today. We are now working on guidance about what will be considered as waste and excluded from sustainability criteria. I will say more about that in the course of my remarks.

Mrs McGuire: I welcome the Minister’s frankness in admitting that there may have been an omission in terms of the impact assessment. I would be delighted, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of my colleagues, to meet him to see whether we can rebalance that impact assessment in a way that recognises the importance of the issue to the industry.

Gregory Barker: I look forward to meeting the right hon. Lady and going through those issues in more detail. Before I go into more substantive points about UK policy, may I also just echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and go on record to say that the UK welcomes 2011 as the international year of forests? This is an excellent opportunity to raise public awareness of the importance of forests—although I think that the coalition Government have done quite a good job of doing that already—and in tackling climate change, halting biodiversity loss and preserving the livelihoods of forest-dwelling peoples.

Forests have a dual role in helping us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to tackle climate change. First, forests act as carbon sinks, removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and storing it in plant and soil matter, but forests also contribute by providing wood for energy and renewable materials for construction and manufacturing, and reducing the use of fossil materials. However, deforestation is a very real risk that must be addressed. If the world’s growing demand for bio-energy and renewable materials were to lead to the clearing of forests, particularly primary forests, that would increase total global emissions dangerously and drive forward, rather than tackle, dangerous man-made climate change.

The coalition Government are committed to tackling the drivers of deforestation, in particular the global trade in illegal timber—an issue raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree. The international year of forests provides a useful platform to highlight our recent achievements in that area, particularly in terms of EU timber regulation. That regulation prohibits the first placing of illegal timber on the EU market, and will send a clear message to producer countries that illegal timber has no place in the UK market. That complements our wider efforts to improve forest governance in developing countries through the EU forest law enforcement, governance and trade action plan.

The international year of forests is also an excellent opportunity to promote the importance of sustainable forest management in building a greener, more equitable and sustainable future. To complement our work on tackling deforestation, the UK is working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and other international partners to promote the role of forests in restoring degraded landscapes. The Forestry Commission is using its programme of educational, community and recreational events throughout 2011 to highlight the international year of forests. I am sure that those activities are going on in many of the constituencies of hon. Members who are present.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 116WH

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree raised the issue of our clear ambition to be the greenest Government ever, which goes right to the heart of the coalition’s programme for Government. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spelled that out on numerous occasions, but our ambitions go much further than our work to stop deforestation, critical though that is to us. We want to be a global leader in the world-wide transition to a low-carbon economy. We are committed to producing 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, and to reducing our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Renewable energy, and bio-energy in particular, must play a very important role as we decarbonise our economy and seize opportunities to create new businesses, employment and long-term green prosperity in the UK.

Heat and electricity from biomass could provide nearly a third of UK needs from renewables by 2020, meeting approximately 4.5% of our overall energy demand. Bio-energy offers the rare benefit, for a renewable technology, of not being intermittent. It can generate electricity or heat on demand at any time of the day or night. The UK needs the flexibility and security that that supply brings. Moreover, bio-energy can provide significant new business and employment opportunities to the UK. For example, the expansion of biomass use in off-gas-grid areas of the UK will mean a growing order book for specialist boiler manufacturers, demand for new local businesses to provide installation and maintenance, and will create opportunities across the wood fuel supply production and distribution chain. Just last week, we set out a portfolio of major policies that will help us achieve that. Bio-energy will make a significant contribution to our decarbonisation plans, but that must not be at the expense of other jobs. I am very aware of unintended or perverse consequences and hon. Members present are perfectly entitled to raise those issues. We will work harder to look at the consequences for the wood panel industry. Many powerful arguments were made today, not least how it is better to lock up carbon rather than to burn it, and I am mindful of that.

Mrs McGuire: While welcoming future discussion and recognising that issues have been raised, is the Minister in a position to say to us today that he thinks there may be some flexibility in the way in which the RHI is being implemented to the current detriment to the wood panel industry? While discussions with the Minister are wonderful, I would like to push him that wee bit further to see what commitment he can give to us today.

Gregory Barker: I will develop my theme in my speech, but I think that there is a genuine point of disagreement in our approaches. I agree with the right hon. Lady; there is absolutely no excuse for not publishing the account that we take of the impact on the wood panel industry in the impact assessment, and we will address that. I am sure that there are ways that we can improve measures to mitigate the impact on the wood panel industry, and we are keen to see more wood used in houses. However, the difference between us may lie in the fact that, fundamentally, we believe that the market will respond with more supply, both domestically and globally. This is an immature market—this is a theme that I wish to develop—and the biomass industry in the

16 Mar 2011 : Column 117WH

UK has fallen to a very low level. Historically, we powered the country on biomass. I represent a constituency in East Sussex, the most wooded county in England. I know, just from my own experience, that the vast majority of woodland in that county has fallen into a state of disrepair and is not actively managed. There is significant scope to bring in new supply, both globally and in the UK, and I will come to that in more detail if I may.

Guy Opperman: Does the Minister not see that there is a real risk of the law of unintended consequences? If he does not address the problem of subsidised biomass and its effect, then the impact on the wood panel business will be significant and severe, and until he says something on that issue, we will struggle.

Gregory Barker: Let me make a little progress with my speech. I am getting slightly ahead of myself, and I will address those issues in the course of my remarks.

On Thursday, as hon. Members have said, we launched the world’s first incentive for renewable heat. That was an important step forward for an Administration who claim they want to be the greenest Government ever, and a genuine, tangible sign of walking the walk as well as talking the talk, of putting investment—money—where our mouth is.

The scheme will provide long-term support for renewable heat technologies, from ground-source heat pumps to wood-chip boilers. It will help drive a sevenfold increase in renewable heat over the coming decade, which will help shift what currently is a fringe option firmly into the mainstream. We expect the RHI to deliver an additional 57 TWh of renewable heat, bringing the total to 68 TWh by 2020 and saving 44 million tonnes of carbon by that year. It is part of a bigger picture, in that we expect 500,000 jobs to be created by the end of the decade in the renewables industry across heat, electricity and transport. The RHI alone could potentially stimulate billions of pounds of new capital investment.

We are reviewing the incentives for renewable electricity under the renewables obligation. The RO banding review will ensure that the level of support for biomass electricity reflects industry costs. It will also reflect the UK Government’s ambition for large-scale bio-electricity, which is being considered through an evidence-based review of biomass resources and their use, to be published in 2011. Analysis of the best use of biomass will form an integral part of that work. I would certainly welcome further contributions to it from hon. Members and the interests that they represent, because it needs to be evidence-based, and we are genuinely open-minded about it.

As I have just mentioned the RHI, I would like to take the opportunity to address the question of why we have decided that only renewable heat installations installed after 15 July 2009 will be rewarded. The RHI is a mechanism designed deliberately to bring forward sufficient new renewable heat to meet our renewables targets. The design was begun by the previous Government—I have to give them credit—and is not something that we dreamed up. It is not intended to be a retrospective reward mechanism for early adopters or existing users of renewable technologies. The justification for it was to

16 Mar 2011 : Column 118WH

pull in renewable heat technologies and renewable heat users that otherwise would not have moved in this direction.

Moreover, in the context of the current economic climate and the huge deficit that we inherited from the previous Government, it is vital that we maximise the value for money delivered by public expenditure. Existing renewable heat generators have already invested in the new technology without needing or expecting the support of a financial incentive, so while I can see why they could make a case for it, I am afraid that we would not consider extending the RHI to include installations prior to July 2009, as that would not be a prudent use of taxpayers’ money.

Susan Elan Jones: If plants ripped out existing equipment to access the subsidy, presumably they would be eligible. Of course, that is not the sort of thing that responsible plants would do, but it demonstrates the inequity of what the Minister is saying.

Gregory Barker: If it were simply a dodge to try to get around the regulations, they would have great difficulty in proving their case. If they were to upgrade their plant or adopt new technologies in a new installation, that would be a different proposition.

We recognise that mainstreaming bio-energy is not without risk—hon. Members have done a good job of outlining the risks. We acknowledge the critical importance of taking action to ensure that rapid growth in bio-energy does not result in loss of important habitat either at home or internationally, or the release of more carbon than we actually save. Hon. Members raised concerns about that. Biomass can be a low-carbon energy source, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, but that requires it to be grown, harvested, processed and transported sustainably.

We are introducing mandatory sustainability criteria to ensure that the biomass power generation supported by the renewables obligation is genuinely sustainable. From April, generators will be required to report to Ofgem on their performance against a target of 60% greenhouse gas emissions savings compared with fossil fuel use, and on land criteria. Following a transition phase, we intend to make those criteria mandatory from 2013 for all generators of 1 MW capacity and above. We expect that similar standards—again, mandatory sustainability criteria—will be introduced for biomass used for heat under the renewable heat incentive from 2013.

Sustainable forest management is a critical part of biomass sustainability. Therefore, the Government are actively working with stakeholders to develop an approach that will robustly protect not just UK forests but global forests, and enable UK woodlands to come under active management, with the many benefits that that will bring not just to those who use the products but also in terms of biodiversity and recreational benefits for the communities that live around them.

Mrs McGuire: I do not believe that any of us who are participating in this debate have any problems with some of the good things that the Minister has identified, but I would like to draw him back to the fundamental questions posed by the debate. The first is the impact when wood that could be utilised for other purposes is

16 Mar 2011 : Column 119WH

burned in biomass-powered generators, and the second—this was my final question—was about jobs, which the Minister mentioned. Is he willing to recognise that there will be collateral damage to an important rural industry which links into all the forestry management that he has spoken about, in order to get the other elements of his policy through? I do not believe that any of us have any problems with some of the good things that he is talking about, but we need to draw him back to the crucial question and the nub of the debate.

Gregory Barker: Let us be absolutely clear: the coalition values the jobs in the wood panelling industry, as we value all jobs. It is certainly not our aim—unintended or otherwise—to see those jobs disappear. That neatly brings me on to my next point, which is about the impact of other wood-using industries on wood prices and trends, and competition for a limited resource.

We recognise that the increased use of wood for energy risks negative impacts on other potential users of wood. We understand that the wood panel industry is facing more competition for their raw materials. We also want more wood to be used in the construction of homes. Our analysis shows that the deliveries to wood fuel markets are increasing from a very low base. In 2005, just 100,000 green tonnes of softwood were delivered to fuel markets, accounting for just 1.2% of total softwood deliveries. In 2009, that had increased to only 600,000 green tonnes, less than 7.5% of total softwood deliveries.

In real terms—perhaps this is the most telling point—the price of softwood saw-logs increased by 14% over the five-year period ending in September 2010. I have not done the arithmetic, but I would have thought that the rise was below inflation over that period. I apologise that I do not have more recent statistics. Obviously, this is a dynamic model, and we will continue to inform Members. I do not think anyone could argue that that represents significant inflation in costs. If there were a problem of the magnitude hon. Members have described, it would be reflected in the price, but, clearly, we have not seen that to date. However, I accept that that is clearly something that we will have to watch.

Guy Opperman: Surely it is unarguable that prices have risen, and it is surely without doubt that the opportunities to proceed on the basis that the Minister is talking about, although entirely laudable, as we all accept, are limited by the amount of wood in this country that can be produced and sold on.

I have one final point, but I will be brief—

Gregory Barker: I will not have time to finish.

Guy Opperman: The Minister has plenty of time. What is his expectation of how much wood will be sold?

Gregory Barker: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Yes, there has been a rise in wood prices, but my maths tells me—I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong—that it is below the inflation rate. Wood is a commodity like everything else, but a 14% rise over five years is not alone a cause for concern. Over 20 years, the real-terms price of softwood saw-logs has fallen by almost 46%. The lowest value was reached in March 2009, so the pricing indicators do not support his argument.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 120WH

Price have recovered slightly since March 2009, but the bottom line is that even if prices increase—I anticipate that they will—we are starting from a very low base. In real terms, they are substantially lower now than 20 years ago.

Mrs McGuire: I hope that I highlighted some of the information that DECC has on forward supply of and demand for wood. It is unhelpful to be historic about that when all the analyses show that the demand for wood will outstrip supply.

Another element is that one part of the market—the demand side—is being subsidised when other elements of the market are not. I know that the Minister is a great believer in competition, but surely the Government are putting the wood panel industry in an unfair position when its competitors are being subsidised for the same products.

Gregory Barker: It must be remembered that timber prices are set by global markets, not solely by national Government energy incentives. According to some sources, international energy markets are already influencing timber prices. There was a forecasted 10% drop in log prices for 2010, but instead they were higher than in 2008, which was probably due to increased demand for wood fuel. I assure the hon. Lady that we are looking at that carefully. In addition, we are very aware that wood fuel is increasingly traded as a global commodity, so UK wood supplies can and will be exported for energy use in other countries if that will deliver a better price, and we may import timber from abroad. Nevertheless, as I stated in my introduction, the value of the wood panel industry in terms of green jobs and the carbon stored in its product is significant, and we are mindful of that. That is why the Government are taking action to reduce those displacement issues.

Our actions fall into three main areas: increasing the use of biomass feedstocks that the wood panel industry has no use for; bringing more wood supplies forward; and diverting more waste from UK landfill. To increase the use of other biomass—for example, food waste and anaerobic digestion—it is important to look beyond just wood when sourcing biomass. Biomass suitable for energy generation may come from a wide range of plant and animal materials, many of which are unsuitable as raw materials for our wood processing industries. They include perennial energy crops, such as Miscanthus grass and short-rotation coppiced willow, which can be grown on lower grade land. Similarly, dry farming residues, such as straw, can be combusted for energy.

The Government support perennial energy crops, so long as they do not displace food crops. The renewables obligation provides additional support for energy crops over other biomass feedstocks. That uplift of half a renewable obligation certificate aims to stimulate interest in energy crops grown by the power generation sector, and to help to develop the fuel supply chain.

Support is also provided directly to farmers through the energy crops scheme, which is part of DEFRA's rural development programme for England. The ECS seeks to remove one of the most significant barriers for prospective energy crop growers—the high initial cost of establishing new plantations. The ECS provides grants that reimburse 50% of planting costs.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 121WH

Another important area is the use of wet biomass residues, such as food waste, sewage and animal manure, that can be anaerobically digested to produce biogas, which can then be used to produce heat and electricity. The UK produces about 100 million tonnes of wet organic material that is suitable for treatment by AD. That includes up to 20 million tonnes of food waste from households and industry; 90 million tonnes of agriculture by-products, such as manure and slurry; and 1.7 million tonnes of sewage sludge. By diverting those wet organic wastes into energy, we can stop slurry surface water run-off polluting our rivers, reduce pressure on landfill sites, and avoid methane emissions, which are 23 times worse than those of CO2 . The Government are working with the industry to draw up a joint programme to tackle the barriers to the deployment of AD. That will be published in May 2011. We are also looking at the feed-in tariff scheme to see whether the tariff rates are enough to make farm-based AD worthwhile.

What about bringing more wood supplies forward? A further key way to reduce the impact on the UK wood processing industries is to bring new supplies of wood to the UK marketplace. There is a large underused bio-energy resource in the UK. Around 40% of the UK's forest and woodlands, measured by land area, are not currently under an active management plan, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) said. When woodland becomes overly mature, leaf cover prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor, and the biodiversity is poor. Sustainable management would allow a wider range of shrubs, birds, trees and bees to thrive, and at the same time bring more UK timber and wood supplies to the market, and generate new business, jobs and opportunities.

The Forestry Commission is developing a wood fuel implementation plan, to be launched later this year. It will set out actions to bring forward an additional 2 million green tonnes of wood from unmanaged forests and other sources by 2020. The commission is also developing a wood fuel woodland improvement grant to assist harvesting and marketing activity. Key features of the new grant are that the wood fuel WIG will offer a 60% contribution to costs, and can support forest roads, access tracks and other related harvesting infrastructure. Further details will be published later this year.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 122WH

Alongside the development of UK woodlands, developing the biomass import market and securing a healthy share of that for the UK will be essential. We have estimated that a global market of up to 50 million oven-dried tonnes annually will be available to the UK by 2020. I recognise that the wood panel industry is rightly proud of the use it makes of the UK's waste wood. It is estimated that around 4.5 million tonnes of wood waste are generated in the UK every year, of which more than 1 million tonnes, mainly from packaging waste and wooden pallets, are recycled by the panel-manufacturing industry. But we estimate that a considerable quantity is still going to UK landfill.

Wood in landfill is particularly dangerous because it decays and generates methane, so the Government are actively considering how best to make further reductions in the amount of waste going to landfill as part of the review of waste policies, which is due to conclude in the spring. It will look at all aspects of waste policy and delivery in England, including the role of energy from waste. The aim is to ensure that we are on the right path towards a zero waste economy.

In particular, we want to address the priority of moving wood up the waste hierarchy so that it best delivers the right environmental outcome. The waste hierarchy will be legally binding in the UK, so we will seek better to address the potential for diverting treated wood waste, which is not suitable for use in the wood processing industries, from landfill to energy recovery.

In conclusion, the wood panel industry has an important and valuable role to play in the UK's low carbon economy. I have set out today the proactive actions that we are taking to bring new biomass to the UK market, and to ensure that we have the supply to meet demand. We are increasing the use of biomass, other than clean wood, for energy; we are bringing forward more wood supplies; and we are diverting more waste from landfill. But we are open to new ideas. I do not pretend that we have the perfect solution yet, and DECC would very much welcome continuing engagement with the wood panel industry.

I thank all hon. Members who have participated in an important and valuable debate. The agenda will certainly continue beyond today.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 123WH

Health Care (West Cumbria)

4 pm

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate because few things, if anything, are more important to my constituents and the wider population of west Cumbria than the future of the NHS and local health care services.

4.1 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.21 pm

On resuming

Mr Reed: Before continuing, I ought to declare some interests. I shall be talking about the West Cumberland hospital today. Not only was I born there, but so was my wife and our four children; my nieces and nephews were all born there; and about a year ago it saved my life.

At best, the future provision of health care services in west Cumbria—indeed, in Cumbria in its entirety—is confused. Given the majority of representations that I have received, from ordinary people and medical professionals, at worst it is in crisis. Before the election, and immediately after it, the development of health care services in Cumbria was praised by the Secretary of State for Health and those sympathetic to his views as a model for the rest of the country. I shall return to this aspect in due course, but suffice it to say that the Secretary of State has stopped using Cumbria as an example of best practice; surely even he realises the chaos that is being caused there by the top-down, unwanted and unwarranted reorganisation of the NHS that he is inflicting on us.

First I shall give a brief history. In 2007-08, NHS Cumbria, the primary care trust for the area, undertook a huge public consultation under the closer to home initiative. It was an enormous task; 140,000 people contributed to the consultation, a huge proportion for any consultation, let alone for a county with a total population of just under half a million. It identified the need to redevelop the West Cumberland hospital and to integrate and improve primary care services as part of the closer to home deal.

During a period of record and sustained funding for the NHS, the public reluctantly agreed to a reduction in the number of beds at the West Cumberland hospital. I have no doubt that the Minister will say that beds do not equal services, and I accept that from the outset. Negotiations with the public were incredibly difficult, but the change was accepted with two provisos. First, the reduction in the number of beds would result in more complex surgery and tertiary-level care coming back to Cumbria from the north-east, taking place at the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle; that would reduce travelling times for people in my constituency and west Cumbria and help with family concerns for those requiring tertiary-level services.

Secondly, the reduction would effectively result in the building of a new hospital on the site of the West Cumberland hospital. The hospital would retain its acute status, its consultant-led maternity, paediatric and anaesthesiology services, develop specialisms not available

16 Mar 2011 : Column 124WH

at Carlisle, and develop its teaching function. Crucially, it would be surrounded by a network of refurbished or even entirely rebuilt community hospitals in Millom, Keswick, Cockermouth and Maryport, with a brand-new health centre in Cleator Moor; together, they would be able to deal with an increased level of primary-care needs, to allocate resources better, to sign-post acute care when necessary and, importantly, to provide care closer to home.

After real difficulties, hospital consultants from both hospitals in north Cumbria—the West Cumberland hospital in Whitehaven and the Cumberland infirmary in Carlisle—began to forge an effective working relationship with local GPs. I brokered many of their meetings, chaired them and tried to help navigate a route towards an integrated provision of local health services in west Cumbria—one that was outcomes driven in the best interests of patients and that would underpin the future professional and economic stability, viability and sustainability of the local NHS. I believe that it was achieved, albeit imperfectly.

Collectively, the local community and primary and acute medical practitioners were developing a model that would best fit Cumbria. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham); he had a huge part to play in those developments. So advanced was the relationship, and so strong was the plan, that we were able to insist that a publicly funded, privately operated clinical assessment and treatment centre was not introduced in the area. We knew that it would destabilise the local NHS. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), then Secretary of State for Health, listened and did as we asked. It seems that times have changed—and significantly for the worse.

A funding package was developed for west Cumbria, through the west Cumbria strategic forum, and the principle of “west Cumbria proofing” was consistently implemented by the previous Government. That funding was meant to provide £100 million for the West Cumberland hospital and up to £80 million for the community health facilities that I mentioned earlier. Do the Government and the Department of Health remain committed to “west Cumbria proofing”, and the memorandum of agreement that underpinned it?

After the election, these moneys were arbitrarily withdrawn, despite the fact that demolition had already begun on the site of the West Cumberland hospital. The events in my constituency on 2 June 2010 caused me to ask the Prime Minister to visit the hospital and to see for himself the extraordinary clinical work being undertaken by the accident and emergency team in the face of quite unprecedented events. I also used the opportunity to lobby for the money that had been taken from us. Eventually, the Department of Health returned £70 million to the project.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): Finance is obviously an important part of health care in north Cumbria. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the PFI scheme has been a burden to the area?

Mr Reed: I would like to examine our PFI scheme forensically and try to discover why other PFI schemes around the country work so well. What is it about the Carlisle scheme that causes such difficulties for the

16 Mar 2011 : Column 125WH

health economy of our area? However, the burdens that it imposes pale in comparison with the GP fundholding system that we face.

The North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust remains committed to its £20 million investment. However, the abolition of the north-west regional development agency and the instruction from Downing street that incomplete projects were to have RDA funding withdrawn has led to a £10 million shortfall in the new-build budget. Will the Minister please reinstate that missing £10 million? If not, will she and her Department help me to identify money to cover that shortfall from other sources—even, perhaps, not from the Department of Health? Can she help expedite the detailed business case approval for the West Cumberland hospital?

Already £10 million down, the trust and NHS Cumbria have also been instructed to make 4% annual recurring cuts. That would be an incredibly difficult situation for the west Cumbrian health economy at any time, but we have not yet approached the real horror that threatens to hole it below the waterline.

At Prime Minister’s Question Time today, the Prime Minister made a Freudian slip when referring to GP fundholding. The Department of Health prefers to call it GP commissioning, but GP fundholding is the practice that brought hospitals to their knees and that almost bankrupted the NHS in the 1980s and 1990s. That is precisely what GP commissioning is. There is all the difference between GPs commissioning and designing services in an integrated way with their hospital colleagues, and GPs being forced to hold the purse strings for the provision of each hospital service upon which their patients rely.

Will the Minister tell us what limit, if any, will be placed on GPs’ remuneration under the new system? Does she have any fears relating to soaring salaries and the fact that the bond of trust between patient and doctor could become severed as a result? Does she have any concerns with regard to the imbalance now between GPs and their acute colleagues and does she think that that will affect future recruitment and the provision of services within the NHS?

With GP fundholding effectively in place in Cumbria—in shadow form—we are witnessing a massive cut to the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust and to the West Cumberland hospital. Last year, the hospitals trust provided acute hospital services worth some £183 million across its sites. Under GP fundholding, that is being reduced, in the space of one year, to £153 million, which is bound to affect the provision of acute hospital services at the West Cumberland hospital. Does the Minister agree that such a financial hit cannot be absorbed without affecting front-line services?

The shortfall has plunged the trust into chaos. It is now unable, not unreasonably, to meet the foundation trust status qualifying criteria deadline of 2013-14 and that has caused it to seek a merger with another trust or any other willing provider. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us categorically what the Department means by “any other willing provider”. Minutes from meetings of senior consultants across the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, which have been leaked to me, show that those consultants fear that this could result in the closure of the West Cumberland hospital.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 126WH

That would be—as the cuts are—the direct consequence of centrally imposed, top-down Government policy in the NHS.

Will the Minister guarantee that she will not let that happen and that the current level of services will only be added to and not taken away from? Will she agree to arrange a meeting between the Secretary of State, concerned local clinicians and me to hear the case in detail? Will she also grant the trust extra time to meet the foundation trust qualifying deadline so that a merger can be avoided? A merger of trusts is not in the interests of the trust itself or any other trust being asked to take it on. If not, will she guarantee that no other trust or willing service provider will reduce the services provided by the West Cumberland hospital? In short, will she commit today to ensure the delivery of the closer to home programme, which my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington have been consulted on and reached agreement on?

What of our local community hospitals and planned health centre? Will the Minister guarantee that the money for those facilities will be provided by Government, or financially facilitated, very soon, so that these long promised and keenly anticipated investments can take place? What is the status of the programme to rebuild and replace our community hospitals in west Cumbria and provide a new health centre in Cleator Moor? Does the Minister agree that the closer to home initiative will collapse if these facilities are not forthcoming and that a deal will then have been reneged upon? Were that to happen, the sense of betrayal would be profound and the consequences significant.

The West Cumberland hospital was the first new hospital in this country to be built by the NHS after its creation. Right now, it risks becoming the first casualty of what many see as the stealth privatisation of the NHS by a right-wing Government implementing centrally driven health policies that command no democratic mandate or clinical support. As I speak, Bevan will be turning in his grave. I am asking for help, compromise and understanding of the problems facing the future of health service provision in west Cumbria. There is still time to put that right and I hope that the Minister and the Government will see sense.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate. My goodness, it is quite a thing that he, his wife and his four children were all born in the West Cumberland hospital. The hospital also saved his life. Despite our political differences, I am sure that he will join me in saying that whenever we debate the NHS, we always pay tribute to the staff who work in it at every level. We tend to talk about doctors and nurses, but there are many members of staff who ensure the safe delivery of children and who save lives. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to associate himself with those comments.

The hon. Gentleman has been actively involved in campaigning for the redevelopment of West Cumberland hospital, and he is also a strong supporter of community hospitals. He spoke with some passion about his role and his long history in that regard.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 127WH

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): The Minister mentioned community hospitals. There is one in my constituency at Cockermouth, and for a considerable period the authorities have been promising to rebuild it. After the terrible flooding in 2009, parts of the hospital are in portakabins. We are desperate for the new hospital. The funding and the planning permission are in place, yet we are still waiting for a decision. Will the Minister please look into that situation—she does not have to do it now—because the people of Cockermouth are desperate to get their new hospital?

Anne Milton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It is frustrating for local people when they are waiting for decisions to be made. General elections come along, disrupt things and, sadly, slow down the process even more. I can understand his constituents’ frustration. Later in my remarks, I will address how we can move forward.

The hon. Member for Copeland was right to make the point that local NHS organisations are precious not just for the services that they provide, but for the employment and economic support that they bring to the area. I note, in particular, his work with the west Cumbria strategic forum and the development of the energy coast master plan for west Cumbria. The development of local NHS services plays an important role in that.

The hon. Gentleman will also know that in west Cumbria, as in other parts of the country, the NHS is under tremendous financial pressure. Indeed, he alluded to that. We are where we are; we have inherited a substantial deficit. Both parties acknowledge the fact that we face some serious economic challenges, and we are determined to find £20 billion in efficiency savings so that we can then reinvest in quality care, and the need to do that is real and urgent. Such pressures would have existed whoever was in government. The fact that we have protected NHS budgets is an important step in ensuring that the challenges facing the NHS are slightly less than those facing other areas. None the less, the upshot is that every NHS trust in the country will have to make tough choices to put health care on a sustainable footing, and that is what is happening in west Cumbria.

I understand that the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust has struggled financially for a number of years. Clearly, there are some unresolved issues that people are now keen to sort out. Like the country as a whole, the trust is on a journey to restore balance to its finances, and we need to consider how we get better value for money. When I visit hospitals and trusts, it is interesting to see how substantial amounts of money have been taken out of costs by small changes in the way services are delivered. Although this is a challenge, it is also an opportunity, and I am impressed with the innovation that people are demonstrating.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the trust concluded in February 2011 that it would not be in a financially viable position for achieving independent foundation trust status by the 2014 deadline. It has made the difficult choice to pursue an arrangement with an existing foundation trust, through merger or acquisition, to ensure its ability to deliver high quality services in the future. The trust reached that decision for a number of reasons, including reduced contract income as more health care is provided outside acute settings, historical

16 Mar 2011 : Column 128WH

debts, costs associated with the private finance initiative scheme, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, and ongoing requirements to meet cost saving targets.

Having trained as a nurse and worked in the NHS for 25 years, including as a district nurse, I am acutely aware that although our focus is always on acute care the majority of health care is delivered outside acute settings. It is the tension and the co-operation between those two elements of health care that we must now finally get right. The trust must address the issues that I have just mentioned. In particular, it must identify and agree an affordable clinical model that will deliver sustainable high-quality services. It is no good going for short-term gains. We need the process to be sustainable and lasting.

The hon. Gentleman will know that, back in 2007, the NHS in Cumbria set out its plan to reduce unnecessary hospital admissions by looking after people closer to their homes, which is where they want to be. The closer to home programme supported the development of community-based services and the redevelopment of acute facilities to meet local needs. In support of that programme in Cumbria, there is the redevelopment of West Cumberland hospital, which will deliver acute services with support from a wider range of community services.

Following recommendations by the national clinical advisory team last year, I understand that the north Cumbria health economy is now working to develop an affordable clinical strategy, covering primary, secondary and acute hospital services. I understand that the strategy will be published this summer. I suspect that it cannot come soon enough for the hon. Gentleman and many others in the area. In many ways, the strategy will build on the closer to home programme by considering how local health care services can be delivered more affordably, while keeping service quality at the very highest level, which is critical. As part of that process, it is true that the review group is looking at what will happen to acute services at West Cumberland hospital.

During his tour of hospitals in Cumbria last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health acknowledged the importance of West Cumberland hospital to the local people. That view is shared by all of us and it is being taken into account by the Department of Health, the North West strategic health authority and the NHS in Cumbria, which is working on the full business case for the redevelopment of the hospital. That business case will need to reflect the clinical strategy. It is very important that these decisions are driven by clinical need and that they meet the needs of local people.

Mr Reed: The Minister talked about the trust’s unique responsibilities. Of course, one of the unique responsibilities that the trust must address is the unique service that west Cumbria provides to this country in the form of the nuclear industry, and the unique challenges that the industry poses for the trust. It is in the interests not only of my constituents but of the whole country that the issue is addressed, and it must be done on a cross-party basis. Would the hon. Lady care to say something about that?

Anne Milton: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right to tie up the facts. As politicians, we tend to use the word “sustainable”

16 Mar 2011 : Column 129WH

in a rather flippant way, but what he has just said is what “sustainability” should be about. It should take account of the changing needs of the area; we should be building services not for the next five years but for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.

Tension between acute services and community services has always existed, as has tension between acute services and specialist services. If I think back to my own time in the NHS 30 or 40 years ago—I am very old and it was a long time ago—I recall that regional centres for neurosurgery were being developed. Specialist services need to be provided in specialist centres. Local people want to know that they can go to their local hospital for the majority of things that are wrong with them. That is important. There needs to be a clinical driver in the process, to ensure that people get the quality of care that they need. However, one also needs to take account of people’s wants and desires, and they want care on their doorstep.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. I recommend that he attends the debate that is happening elsewhere in the House today if he wants a fuller discussion of NHS services. He wanted a number of guarantees from me, so he wanted a number of guarantees from the centre and yet in the same breath he talked about “top-down” and “centrally imposed” diktats. Again, that is one of the key issues, because the centre is never very good at making local decisions. What matters locally is that changes and discussions have the support of clinicians, and ideally are led by clinicians. Those changes and discussions must also have the confidence of local people. That confidence is possibly what has suffered in the past.

The hon. Gentleman talked a little about GP commissioning, GP fundholding and “any other willing provider”. He asked what “any other willing provider” means. I suggest that he goes back to his own party to ask that question, because using “any other willing provider” was at one point its policy. I feel very strongly that the reforms in the NHS will bring decisions about commissioning and getting care right for people absolutely where they should be: with the GPs who know and understand their local communities. It is extremely important that GPs’ inputs and commissioning skills are used to the fullest.

I am told that the national clinical advisory team is reviewing the draft strategy and that a final version will be put to the strategic health authority in the months ahead. In addition, the full business case for West Cumberland hospital, together with the business cases for development of community services, will need to be considered alongside the final clinical strategy. I know that the delay is frustrating, but it is absolutely vital if the decisions are to be made. I or my ministerial colleagues will be very happy to have a meeting with the hon. Member for Copeland. In fact, it might be useful if a meeting was set up with a number of MPs from the area, to thrash out some of the more difficult issues when we have slightly more time to do so.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 130WH

The process must be clinically led and choices must be made on clinical grounds. The primary care trust must also be satisfied that proposals are properly costed and can deliver sustainable solutions and a sustainable model of care for Cumbria. However, I emphasise that no final decisions have yet been made.

This is an important period in the story of the NHS. An ageing population, rising demand and increasing costs are combining to make it a uniquely challenging time. It is always challenging to deliver health care, with rising expectations and rising demands. That means that all parts of the country must look critically at how they can make the best use of resources to deliver effective health care, in whatever setting it can be most effectively delivered. It also means more care being provided in the home and in the community. I think most people see that development as a positive step, and there must be support for it. The difficulty is that realising cost savings ultimately means changing hospital services as demand changes. However, the NHS actually has a good history and a good record on evolving and changing to meet changes in demand and patient choice.

Tony Cunningham: I quite agree with the Minister, and we understand why there need to be more services in the community. However, the point that I was trying to make in my earlier intervention is that we are desperately in need of a new community hospital in Cockermouth. If we are to have acute services at the West Cumberland hospital, we need up-to-date modern community hospitals that can do the sort of work that she is talking about. Will she at least undertake to look personally into why there is such a delay in the development of the community hospital in Cockermouth?

Anne Milton: Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I understand completely his passion on the subject. It is terribly frustrating to wait for something and I will ensure that we come back to him specifically on that point, because the hospital has been delayed for too long.

Tony Cunningham: I thank the Minister.

Anne Milton: Our ministerial doors are open, so I urge Members to set up a meeting to thrash out some of the issues that we have discussed today. Obviously, no final decisions have been made yet and we are waiting for reviews to be completed, so that all the relevant information is on the table. However, it is terribly important that local politicians feel confidence in the process, which must always be led by clinical needs, and feel that they can bring the public with them.

It is not an easy time in west Cumbria. Change is not easy and we are in a difficult financial climate. However, change requires proper scrutiny and this debate has been an opportunity for some of that scrutiny. As I have said, change also requires public engagement. I hope—indeed, I am sure—that the hon. Member for Copeland and his colleagues in the area will play their part in making change happen and ensuring that there is public engagement with it.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 131WH

School Crossing Patrols (Dorset)

4.49 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am very pleased to have secured this debate, because parents across Dorset are deeply concerned about the county council’s proposals. It is true to say that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and I will be speaking today on behalf of thousands of parents.

I understand that 2011-2020 is the United Nations decade of action for road safety, and that in Great Britain pedestrian injury is the leading cause of accidental death among children. Each year, 5,000 children under 16 are seriously injured or die on Britain’s roads. The incident rate for children peaks between 8 am and 9 am, when they are travelling to school, and again at 3 pm when they are on their way home. Incidents on school journeys account for 14.6% of all five and six-year-old casualties, 21% of all eight to 11-year-old casualties and 23.9% of all 12 to 15-year-old casualties. Although the United Kingdom has the second lowest road death rate in the EU, its child pedestrian death rate is worse than in 10 other EU countries, and eight times higher than in Sweden.

Research by Royal Holloway, university of London shows that children are unable to accurately judge the speed of vehicles travelling at more than 20 miles per hour. The study found that children aged six to 11 suffered from speed illusion, which means that they cannot make a reliable guess at a car’s speed if it is going at more than 20 miles per hour, unlike adults, who accurately judge speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Since 2003, death and injury rates have fallen every year, but road safety groups fear that that trend could end if school crossing patrols were axed.

The Minister will be aware that several authorities, including Dorset, propose changes in their provision of school crossing patrols. Dorset county council proposes to cut 65 jobs and save £200,000 by not paying for lollipop patrols, at least eight of which are in my constituency. Other Dorset councils do not propose to make cuts in the service. Bournemouth council says that it has no plans to cut funding to its 46 crossing patrols, and Poole has no current plans to change its service, which employs 26 people, plus five relief staff to help children to cross the road. Incidentally, neither Poole nor Bournemouth proposes to close any libraries, whereas Dorset proposes to close 20 out of 34.

Of the Dorset county council sites, 55 meet the national criteria for the provision of such crossings. The county council’s total budget is about £273 million, and although the council had a better financial settlement than most other councils, it still has to find £31 million of savings this next financial year. However, the benefits of saving £200,000 in this way are minimal compared with the wider costs placed upon communities.

The council insists that its proposal to stop funding the salaries of school crossing patrol guards does not amount to a withdrawal of the service, as it would retain the management, supervision and training responsibility for it. Schools and communities are being given until March 2012 to explore how they can take over the patrols themselves, and it has been suggested that volunteers could come forward to take over the jobs, or that additional funding streams could be tapped.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 132WH

I do not consider that the service could be run reliably by volunteers, because of what the job entails: getting up early in the morning in all weathers; an absolute commitment to be there on time morning and afternoon; and sometimes being placed in a dangerous environment with cars not stopping when requested. In recent years, we have rightly been honouring paid lollipop men and women for their sterling service. The job is very different from that of volunteering in a library. The county council acknowledges that parents can, on an ad hoc basis, escort groups of children across the road, that its road safety team can provide guidance on the safest way to do that, but that the parents cannot legally order traffic to stop. So that does not sound like a permanent solution.

Should, and can, schools find the money from their budgets to pay the £3,000 salary per year? The county council in its report says that schools cannot use their devolved budgets to pay the salaries. So as to provide full clarification, will the Minister answer the following questions, or obtain clear answers from his colleagues in the Department for Education? Are there rules that prohibit a school using some of its delegated school funding for the salary of school crossing patrol staff? Is there any school funding apart from parent-teacher association funds that could be legally used for such purposes?

Even if funds legally could be used, it seems immoral that children should have less spent on their education just because their school is located on a busy road. One of the school crossing patrols in my constituency is for a very small village school, which has about 65 or 69 pupils and is on a busy road, and it would be untenable for a small school such as that to find money within its budget. At any rate, there would still be a cut in front-line education services, which surely goes against the principle of maintaining such services.

The other suggestion is that money could be raised through the parent-teacher association. That, I suggest, is not possible for a small school and, as some PTAs are in a better position than others to raise money from parents, it could lead to an inequitable situation, with deprived areas losing their crossings while affluent areas were able to maintain theirs.

Another option is for a parish or town council to fund the crossing. In my constituency two crossings are under threat—a £6,000 bill—and the parish council’s total budget is £30,000, so I really do not think that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government would be pleased with the size of the precept that would be necessary. Another parish has three crossings, but is fully committed to supporting an important youth project and hence cannot possibly fund the crossings. The county council’s report says:

“If no funds or volunteers are forthcoming from the local community then as long as the site still meets national criteria it would remain ‘dormant’.”

That is totally unacceptable, and is incompatible with other Government policies. The Education Act 1996 places upon local authorities the obligation to promote sustainable travel to school, and to produce a strategy for developing the sustainable travel and transportation infrastructure. To what extent does the Minister believe that the removal of funding for school crossing patrols conflicts with those obligations?

16 Mar 2011 : Column 133WH

Dorset county council makes much of the fact that it is parents and carers who are responsible for the safety of their children but, given that in many families both parents work, if the safe crossing point were not there, I believe that there would be a greater incentive for parents to take their children to school by car. The county council, however, says that there is no evidence that more children would be driven to school if the crossings were not staffed. What does the Minister think, and how does he believe that the lack of a safe crossing point will enhance walk to school programmes? In addition, the Government are encouraging single parents to return to work while their children are of school age and that, I suggest, is another conflict of policy.

Dorset county council says that there is no evidence that child pedestrian casualties will increase if school crossing patrol sites are not staffed. I would be interested in the Minister’s comments on the evidence, especially in light of the statistics that I quoted at the beginning of the debate. What obligations, statutory and moral, do local authorities have to provide safe crossings for pedestrians, including, but not limited to, children and adults walking to school? Since Dorset county council is proposing a blanket removal of all its school crossing patrols, and says that if a community solution is not found the crossings will be “dormant”, should there not have been a risk assessment of the 55 patrols that meet the national criteria?

The roads through communities in my constituency are heavily trafficked, which, as the Minister will be aware, is due to the nature of Dorset’s road system. For example, one area that has two patrol crossings on the A351 carries 26,000 vehicles per day at peak season. The county council installed a pelican crossing. In January 2009, it decided that the pelican crossing alone was not safe and retained the patrol crossing person at that point. Has it become more safe since then? Quite the contrary, I would argue.

Lytchett Matravers has a road that is incredibly busy and dangerous for parents and children to cross. In Colehill, three crossing patrols serve five schools. Without a crossing, parents cannot get a child to the middle school and one to a first school on time. The county council recently spent £28,000 on a cycleway and pavement to help to support the walk to school programme, but parents and children reach the end of the pavement and find no safe point to cross the road. Corfe Mullen parish council has vehemently opposed the cut, making the point that children’s safety is paramount.

What additional powers would be needed to ensure that local authorities fund school crossings that are shown to meet the agreed national criteria? I am beginning to conclude that the power should not be discretionary, and I point out that if a few authorities cut school crossing patrols this year, it could become widespread across the country, which would be of great concern.

We are discussing vulnerable children who should be walking and cycling to school where practicable. The cut is small in relation to the county council’s budget, achieves nothing and destroys a lot. I hope that the Minister will respond with some facts and figures that will help to persuade the county council that it should find savings elsewhere.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 134WH

5.1 pm

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Forgive my voice, Mr Weir. It is a bit croaky, so I will try to speak up. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for securing this debate. It is an excellent topic that affects Dorset. My constituency is more rural than hers, and its nature, topography and make-up demand that lollipop men and women should stay. Many of my local schools are stuck in remote communities. We do not have motorways—we have one dual carriageway, and we hope to have a new relief road—and many schools are at the end of cul-de-sacs or rutted roads, often in ill repair, particularly in the winter months. Cars come flying down those roads at night when children are going home and in the morning when they are going to school, during the rush periods when people try to get between their rural homes and their places of work.

I suspect and fear that the move by the county council will have unintended consequences. As my hon. Friend said, tough spending cuts have, of necessity, been imposed on our county councils. To ease constraints, the Government have removed ring-fencing from local authority grants so that councils can set their own priorities. However, it was not expected that councils would downgrade the importance of road safety.

Tackling road child casualties is a stated priority for this Government and is the subject of recent new initiatives. As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), said in a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph,

“We would expect that road safety would remain a priority for local communities and that local spending would reflect that”,

yet in Dorset, in order to cut £200,000, a tiny portion of the county council’s huge budget, more than 60 lollipop wardens will go, a decision that was reaffirmed at a full council meeting on 17 February.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government suggest that that role should be taken over by schools, charities and parish councils, but I argue, as she did, that it is not a volunteer role. In the past year, one lollipop person in the United Kingdom was killed, two more were seriously injured and several more were hurt.

The School Crossing Patrol Order 1954 introduced the first lollipop warden to our streets, and the benefits were crystal clear. It was never thought necessary to make their employment compulsory. As a result, local authorities have the power to provide lollipop wardens, but no obligation to do so. I argue that any transport grant made to a council should be conditional on its keeping existing school crossing patrols. Indeed, like my hon. Friend, I believe that local authorities should have a statutory duty to provide this excellent service. Naturally, I understand that such legislation would fly in the face of our Government’s move towards localism, but some things are more important than ideology. Our children’s safety is clearly of paramount importance. In recent years, this country has managed to reduce road casualties. It would be nothing less than a tragedy if that reduction were reversed.

5.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette

16 Mar 2011 : Column 135WH

Brooke) on securing this debate on a subject so important to children, families and schools in Dorset and elsewhere. I assure the House that we take the safety of children, and indeed all road users, very seriously indeed. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) correctly quoted my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), on that matter.

I listened with great interest to the points made by both my colleagues, who were eloquent and persuasive in their arguments. I will start by explaining the legislative background to the school crossing patrol service. The service is provided by local authorities. Legislation gives local authorities the power, but not the duty—my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset was quite right—to appoint school crossing patrols to help children cross the road on their way to and from school. A school crossing patrol officer appointed by an appropriate authority, wearing the approved uniform and displaying the familiar sign has the power to require drivers to stop. It is correct that others acting on an informal basis do not have that power. School crossing patrol officers operating outside those conditions have no legal power to stop traffic.

Local authorities have a general duty under section 39 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to promote road safety. The duty requires them to take such measures as appear appropriate to prevent accidents. It is for them to decide whether those measures should include school crossing patrols. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 introduced a duty on local education authorities to promote sustainable travel to school. If a particular road is considered unsafe for children to cross en route to school, the local authority can address the issue in various ways. School crossing patrols are one of the options available to them.

There are no specific requirements in the rules on school crossing patrols about the funding of the service, and there is nothing in those rules to prevent a school from providing such funding. Schools have considerable freedom in how they spend their delegated budget. Regulations prescribe that they can spend it on anything for the “purposes of the school”. That includes expenditure that will benefit pupils at the school and other maintained schools. We therefore believe that it is legitimate for schools to spend their budgets on school crossing patrols as long as governing bodies are satisfied that it is for the purposes of the school. All those matters are the business of the local authority and not something in which my Department can or should intervene.

I understand my hon. Friends’ concerns about a power as opposed to a duty, but I must advise them that we do not intend to introduce new legislation to place obligations on local authorities to provide specific road safety measures, whether they are school crossing patrols or any other measures. We believe that local authorities are best placed to decide the priorities for their local areas and the best way to improve road safety in those areas. Dorset county council, like other county councils, is democratically elected and answerable for its decisions to its local electorate. If it makes wrong decisions or decisions that appear to be or are interpreted as wrong, the electorate can make that known in how they cast their votes at subsequent county council elections.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 136WH

The Government continue to provide substantial funding for local transport, including for road safety. It is for local authorities and their communities to decide what resources are used to improve road safety, and to determine their own solutions, tailored to the specific needs and priorities of their communities. Dorset county council has decided to seek to continue providing its school crossing patrols by inviting those who value their service to make some contribution. It has advised us that the changes are not due to take effect until September 2012. The word used was “postponed,” but I wonder whether that means that they really have been postponed or whether that is in line with the council arrangements that have been voted on and that were referred to earlier. In any case, that is the intended start date. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole and the hon. Member for South Dorset may be interested to know that I am not aware of any other local authority with no crossing patrols at present.

Although we want decisions to be made locally wherever possible, we accept that national Government still have a crucial role in providing leadership on road safety, delivering better driving standards and testing, enforcement, education, and managing the strategic road infrastructure. We also provide information and guidance to support local delivery. We are preparing the strategic framework for road safety and have held workshops to inform its development. We plan to publish it in the near future. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, will lead that process.

The Department for Transport does much to promote the safety of children in many ways. For example, as well as working to protect children by improving driving standards, we issue advice, guidance and teaching materials so that children can be given the skills to become safe road users when they are out and about. In our most recent campaign, we piloted an innovative new partnership between the Think! child road safety campaign and four football clubs located in regions with higher than average casualties of six to 11-year-olds. The football clubs used Think! materials, prepared by the Department for Transport, in their after-school clubs and in activities in schools and on match days to help children learn how to find safe places to cross the road, which evidence shows is a key factor in helping children stay safe on the roads. The materials are on the Department’s website and we hope that other authorities will use them, too.

We have also made available to all schools our comprehensive set of road safety teaching resources, so that they have good-quality materials that they will want to teach. Think! education is aimed at four to 16-year-olds and covers all aspects of road safety, from car seats for young children to pre-driver attitudes for secondary schools. It includes materials for teachers, pupils and parents and can also be used by out-of-school groups, such as the Cubs and Brownies. The suite of teaching resources is currently being independently evaluated. We have also disseminated the Kerbcraft child pedestrian training scheme, whose evaluation has shown that the scheme is highly effective in delivering a lasting improvement in children’s road-crossing skills and understanding.

We strongly advise parents to encourage their children to take cycle training at about the age of 10 onwards. It provides the opportunity to influence their future travel

16 Mar 2011 : Column 137WH

behaviour by enthusing them and equipping them with the necessary skills. I want to make it plain that the Government are fully committed to supporting sustainable travel, including cycling. We are delighted to support Bikeability training—the cycling proficiency for the 21st century— for the remainder of this Parliament. It is designed to give children and adults the skills and confidence to ride their bikes on today’s roads. In 2011-12, £11 million will be available to local authorities and school sport partnerships to enable 275,000 more children to receive training.

I recently launched the new local sustainable transport fund, which was mentioned in the Department for Transport’s White Paper. The fund makes available £560 million to local authorities to encourage local sustainable travel. I hope that Dorset county council and other highway authorities will submit a bid for the fund. The hon. Members present may want to draw the county council’s attention to it to encourage sustainable travel initiatives in Dorset.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for drawing attention to that large fund and for the emphasis that the Government are placing on sustainable travel to school. Walking is very important. We are talking about patrol crossings that meet national criteria, so should there not be more leadership from the Government, in the form of conversations with councils, if we are faced with the possibility of those crossings disappearing?

Norman Baker: We in the Department for Transport have a view of what would be desirable for each individual local authority to adopt as best practice, and, as I have indicated, we try to make available the materials and information to enable them to reach sensible conclusions about their own practices. Members will be aware, however, that, ultimately, we are encouraging democratically elected bodies to be responsible for their own actions. As a consequence of that, county councils, district councils and unitary authorities will take decisions that, in some cases, are not the ones that the Department would have taken had the matter been centrally controlled. In the era of localism, it is for county councils to be free to innovate. That might drive up performance, but on some occasions it might drive down performance. That is a consequence of localism. It will be more of a patchwork arrangement across the country.

16 Mar 2011 : Column 138WH

What we can do is make it plain from the centre what we believe best practice is—we are beginning to do that through the methods that I have described—but, ultimately, it is up to Dorset and other county councils to decide whether they want to pay attention to that. Obviously, I hope that Dorset and every other county council in the country takes its road safety responsibilities seriously.

I was asked whether there should be a risk assessment before the matter is decided. I am advised that there is no requirement to carry out a risk assessment before stopping the service. As my hon. Friends know, the service is discretionary, so Dorset county council is not duty bound to produce a risk assessment, although it could, of course, have done so had it wished.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the men and women all over the country who work as school crossing patrol officers—our much-loved lollipop men and women. I am very grateful for the invaluable work that they do. They are important members of the community, performing a difficult job in all weathers to ensure that children get to school as safely as possible. They have a crucial role to play in introducing children to road safety and respect for traffic. Everybody should value their contribution. I know that many have served their community over many years. They have seen the children grow up and then bring their own children to school, and they are remembered with affection by those of us young enough to have benefited from their help.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole for introducing this debate. The Department, the Government and I consider the issue of child safety to be very important, and I hope that I have demonstrated that this is an area in which we are active. On the specific matter to which my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for South Dorset have referred, they will appreciate that any decisions are to be made, ultimately, by Dorset county council. However, my hon. Friend was absolutely right to introduce the debate and I am grateful that she has received support from her parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for South Dorset. I believe that she has put together a compelling case, and hope that Dorset county council will reflect very carefully indeed on her remarks and those of the hon. Gentleman.

Question put and agreed to.

5.17 pm

Sitting adjourned.