“The calibration of performance metrics of chief executive remuneration is a matter for each individual bank.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2011; Vol. 524, c. 433W.]

On the tax take from the banking sector, I have given credit to the Government before for unilaterally implementing the bank levy—it is just a shame they set it at a low level, given that they are not renewing Labour’s bank bonus tax. In his statement, the Chancellor claimed Labour’s bank bonus tax raised £2.3 billion despite the fact that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has clearly stated that it raised £3.5 billion. The Financial Times looked into that and said that the Chancellor reached his £2.3 billion figure by lopping off £1.2 billion from the real £3.5 billion figure on account of income tax and national insurance that the Exchequer might have lost because of lower bonus payouts, which the FT described as

“a highly speculative behavioural assumption.”

Large bonus payouts dominated the headlines at the beginning of this year, and in his statement the Chancellor said that the four major banks had agreed that total bonuses for their UK-based staff would be lower than last year. In each case, we were told that the non-executive director who chairs the remuneration committee of each bank would have to confirm personally in writing that those agreements had been met, yet the banks’ statement says:

“Nothing in this statement derogates from the obligation of the banks, and their boards and remuneration committees, to manage pay policy in a way which protects and enhances the interests of their shareholders.”

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Why should we believe that the banks will not wave that flag as an excuse when it comes to meeting the commitments on pay?

The Chancellor also said the banks have committed to disclose the pay details of not only their executive board members but the top five highest-paid executives not on the board, meaning that the salary details of at least seven executives at each bank will be published this year. Clearly, that Merlin provision has no teeth, because the chief executive of the Financial Services Authority has said that he has

“no power under the Financial Services and Markets Act to compel firms to supply information where it is not required for our regulatory functions''.

That of course falls far short of what was required in the Walker review.

In conclusion, Project Merlin was welcome at the time, but it all seems rather aspirational, and there are gaping holes in the agreement. There is hope: on Monday of next week, the Independent Commission on Banking will publish its interim report. We hope that it will be robust and wide-ranging.

6.53 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): I was just reflecting on what a pleasure it is to have these little nuggets of debate at the end of term; it is one of the unexpected pleasures of being a new Member of Parliament. I want to associate myself with, among others, the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) about animals and those by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) about antisocial behaviour. The issue that I want to bring to the House’s and the Government’s attention is the role of incineration in the UK’s strategy for dealing with domestic, municipal and other waste.

It might interest the House to know that according to the UK Without Incineration Network, about 90 applications for mass burn incinerators are being considered and 30 incinerators are operational across the country. The applications include one in Cornwall in a village called St Dennis in my constituency, and I want to talk about that later after I have made some general remarks about incineration.

It is quite clear from the evidence that incineration depresses recycling rates, wastes resources and releases greenhouse gases. Schemes are often forced through against the backdrop of strong public opposition. The business model for incineration often relies on an exaggeration of future levels of waste. Incinerators create potentially harmful emissions and leave a hazardous by-product in the fly ash that remains. As well as all that, the alternatives to incineration are cheaper, more flexible, quicker to implement and better for the environment. The question we are left with is “Why?”

Of course, for the industry and for local authorities across the country, incineration is a quick fix. It is an off-the-shelf solution, a one-off easy win to deal with the problem. However, in life I find that the easy solutions are often not the correct solutions. Rather than simply burn our waste, we should focus on reusing and recycling, separating food and other waste, and getting the maximum value out of the stuff that we dispose of. Incineration creates a Catch-22 situation in which we cannot achieve that value. For example, few local authorities are prepared to collect plastic waste other than bottles as there is

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limited potential for it to be recycled. That locks the recycling industry into a position in which it will never be able to achieve the requisite economies of scale or to recycle and reuse the maximum possible amount.

We know that private finance contracts for waste that include incineration, such as that proposed for my constituency, depress recycling rates. They must do. They rely on having a steady amount of waste to fill the incinerators in each and every year of their operation. Given that criterion, we will never be able to achieve the maximum possible level of recycling.

Accounting for recovered energy, incineration produces twice or more the CO2 per unit of power than energy produced by fossil fuels. Incinerators that do not maximise the heat that they are producing for other benefits have worse carbon emissions than gas or coal-fired power stations and a worse effect on climate change.

Incineration is not the way householders want their discarded material to be managed. Wherever an incinerator is planned anywhere in the country, protest groups are launched. Such people are not nimbys; they care about the future of our environment and recognise that there is a different way to do things.

Many waste PFI contracts are entered into as a response to the huge predicted increases in the quantity of household waste. In fact, household waste has fallen in many areas. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the average annual increase in municipal waste from 2001-02 to 2006-07 was just 0.2%—far short of the predicted 3% year-on-year rises on which many business models for incineration are based.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on an excellent speech, which I agree with 100%. In my constituency, a business case was made for incineration and the application talked about 20% of the waste being supplied by road and 80% by rail. Come the retrospective planning permission, it changed to 80% by road and 20% by rail. That was done just so that planning permission could be obtained.

Stephen Gilbert: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In Cornwall, the prediction is that there would be more than 1,000 additional lorry movements per week to serve the 240,000-tonne incinerator that would dominate the historic village in my constituency.

I am sure that in his constituency, just as in mine, there are concerns about the health impacts of the dioxins that are emitted by incinerators, despite the assurances on the filtering process that is used. There are particular concerns about that at start-up and close-down, when dioxins are not monitored.

During the general election, the incinerator planned for St Dennis was, bizarrely, one of the issues on which all but one of the candidates agreed. I believed then, and I still believe, that incineration is the wrong technology for Cornwall. Having one site to service all of Cornwall’s waste is the wrong solution. St Dennis, a small and ancient village in the middle of Cornwall, is absolutely the wrong place.

Time after time, when the people of Cornwall have been asked for their views, they have rejected the option of incineration. The local parish councils rejected it, the district council rejected it and the former county council’s planning committee rejected it. The community came

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together across the political divide to oppose the application. Despite that, the applicant, SITA, has appealed those decisions, and senior officers of Cornwall council continue to peddle the doomsday myth to the people of Cornwall that incineration is the only answer to avoid multi-million pound fines—it is not, and they are wrong.

The application now sits on the desk of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I hope that as testament to his commitment to localism, he will back the united view of the local community and put the plans for the incinerator where they belong—in the recycling.

7 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I, too, am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to participate in this evening’s debate.

I wish to talk about early years provision in Trafford, and I am especially pleased to do so on the day on which the Government publish their much awaited child poverty strategy. We have been told, not least by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, that Trafford is a model council that is in some way managing the miracle of avoiding cuts to front-line services. I must tell the House, as a resident of Trafford, that that is not the case. Today, I want to highlight concerns about the impact on children’s services.

I believe that Members throughout the House are united in our enthusiasm for Sure Start. We were all pleased when the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), told us that its funding would be protected. Yet in Trafford, despite that assurance, the council has decided to impose a £689,000 cut on the provision of services in our children’s centres. That means the end of universal provision, with a focus on services only for the most vulnerable, with the gaps that will be left being filled with volunteers, if possible.

What is wrong with that approach? First, where will we find the volunteers? Parents are often too busy to nip down the road and run their local Sure Start centre. More important still, it is vital that children, especially the most disadvantaged, receive the high-quality, professional child care that research has repeatedly shown us can really make a difference to their outcomes. It is important also to recognise that in targeting services, we miss the point that some needs apply right across the social and income spectrum. I could cite, for example, the need for support for post-natal depression, which can occur in all social classes and economic backgrounds. That service has been valued in children’s centres in Trafford. I am pleased to say that it looks as though it will be performed on a voluntary basis for a time, but we ought not to rely on volunteers to provide something that is so fundamentally needed by women from across the social spectrum.

I worry repeatedly that when we start to talk of targeting services, we introduce the risk of stigmatising them. It is very important, when we want to reach out to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in particular, that we do not create that sense of stigma or residualise our Sure Start children’s centres by keeping them for only the most excluded.

In that context, I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will feed back to the relevant Minister a genuine concern that I have, which I have not yet heard raised in

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debates about the targeting of Sure Start services. Surely, on a day when we are considering how to increase the social mobility of some of the most disadvantaged in society, it is important that we recognise the importance of enabling the most disadvantaged children to mix with children of other backgrounds. That helps to raise aspirations and keep quality and standards up, and I am concerned that a residualised approach to Sure Start, such as we are beginning to see in Trafford, may remove that aspirational gain. That point was raised in his excellent report by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field)—I am sorry to see that he has just left the Chamber. He strongly advocated a universal Sure Start service because of the role that it could fulfil in helping to strengthen communities and the support that it could give families.

I am concerned that Trafford council’s decision ignores the legitimate and important concerns that I have mentioned. I understand that Ministers do not want to interfere in local decisions about priorities, but I hope that as they publish their important document on child poverty and social mobility strategy today, they will want to track the indicators of social mobility not just at national but at local level. If that is not done, it is difficult for me to see how, in the current circumstances, children in Trafford can be properly protected and our council held to account.

7.4 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I have the honour of representing the only place that has given its name to an international game. Rugby is known as both a midlands market town and a fast-growing game, played in two codes by men and women. Indeed, the use of the same word for town and game occasionally leads to confusion. If one googles any organisation in my constituency with the town in the title, one gets links to a variety of rugby clubs around the world.

It all started in 1823 at Rugby school, which was originally established by Lawrence Sheriff for the boys of the town. In a game that largely did not have any rules, but involved hacking about an inflated pig’s bladder, a pupil called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and, importantly, ran with it, creating the characteristic feature of the Rugby game.

Other schools had their own rules for football, but they adopted Rugby’s rules over time and the growth in the game led in 1851 to a ball of the characteristic oval shape, which was made by William Gilbert in Rugby, being exhibited at the great exhibition in Crystal Palace.

In 1871, at a meeting of 21 clubs in the Pall Mall restaurant in Regent street, the Rugby Football Union, the governing body for the sport in England, was founded, with its headquarters at Twickenham, which I describe as the second most well known place associated with the game of rugby.

In the 1860s and ’70s, the game started to be played around the world, often taken to places by former pupils of the school. That led to the formation in 1886 of the International Rugby Board. One of the most significant developments in the game took place in 1895,

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when the 12 northern clubs broke away to form the Northern Rugby Union, later called the Rugby League. Since rugby league has remained mostly in the north of England, the connections between the town of Rugby and the game have been mostly in respect of rugby union.

In the same year as the split, a plaque was unveiled at Rugby school, commemorating Webb Ellis’s invention of the game. It is known locally as the tablet. Along with the field, which is known locally as the close, it serves as the main draw to the town for enthusiasts of the game.

The most significant recent development has been the introduction of the world cup tournament every four years. In 1987 it was first held, in Australia and New Zealand, when a trophy named after the game’s founder, Webb Ellis, was won, of course, by New Zealand.

The next tournament took place in England four years later, in 1991, when Australia won and the town of Rugby experienced a large increase in visitor numbers as enthusiasts of the game, supporting their team, also looked in on the game’s home. The 1991 world cup served as a catalyst for the town’s increasing involvement with the game. In that year, Rugby’s pathway of fame, a series of plaques embedded in footpaths around the town, was opened.

Also in 1991, the parliamentary world cup was played on the close at Rugby school. That enabled several Members of this place to put on their boots and play on the turf where William Webb Ellis started it all. I hope that that event will be repeated in the near future.

After England’s victory in the 2003 tournament, the Sweet Chariot tour brought the trophy to the town, which honoured the winning team by granting them the freedom of the borough. The borough council has worked closely with the Rugby Football Union and the International Rugby Board in managing the collection of items that relates to the heritage of the game. Plans are in hand for a more extensive display in the town.

The game that started modestly in my constituency has grown in the UK to 200 clubs nationwide embedded in local communities, with the unique feature that there is a position for everyone, regardless of shape or size. Two and a half million people are engaged in rugby activity throughout England, with 60,000 volunteers and 35,000 coaches.

Rugby union is played in more than 100 countries spanning six continents. Later this year, the game’s profile will be raised internationally with this year’s world cup in New Zealand, which will provide a further focus on the town. However, the biggest opportunity will come in four years, when the tournament is based in England, with some games taking place at the nearby Ricoh stadium in Coventry.

At that time, the town of Rugby will prepare itself for its biggest ever influx of visitors as people seek out the place where William Webb Ellis did the deed that led to the formation of the massive international game that we all know today.

Rugby looks forward to that opportunity and to support from the Deputy Leader of the House and his Department in promoting the town as the home of the game.

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7.10 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). I should point out to him that the original rules for association football were drawn up in Cambridge, so we have a shared interest, although that is not the subject that I wish to talk about today. I am sure we can discuss which game is better later.

I want to talk about a Cambridge transport matter. It is important that the difficult decisions we must make to tackle the structural deficit do not make us give up hope for what we can do in future. Perhaps we should see the recent economic crisis as an opportunity to remodel our economy, to make it more sustainable, diverse and innovative. We talk a lot about the need to encourage innovation, research and development in manufacturing, and my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Business Secretary have both played important roles in encouraging scientific research in providing funding, for which I thank them. However, to build such a stable economy, we need a transport system to match. We need to get away from our overreliance on roads and cars, and move towards public transport, walking and cycling, and indeed towards travelling less altogether, with video-conferencing and working from home becoming increasingly viable alternatives.

I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to talk about a plan that meets all those policy objectives: Chesterton station in north-east Cambridge. The proposal that I am supporting today would cost a little over £20 million. A bid has been made for £10 million of regional growth fund support, which I hope the Government will support. It is a well-thought-through, carefully planned scheme that would mean, right from the start, 12 trains an hour running through the new station during the peak times. The station would be an important strategic interchange that would cut journey times for the vast majority who work in the north of the city, whether they travel from other parts of Cambridge or from further afield. The station would also provide a direct link between the high-tech businesses in the north of Cambridge and London, which is critical to their growth, and it would link up with the rather flawed guided bus scheme, if that £180 million project, which was due for completion two years ago, is ever actually finished.

Cambridge is a very special constituency for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that it is a new business model for the rest of the country. It has a robust economy driven by innovation, research and development. I have explored those issues more extensively elsewhere in a charter for entrepreneurs, drawing on the successful experience of Cambridge’s brightest and best investors and innovators.

There are some very successful areas. Cambridge science park has more than 100 global companies, 145 square metres of R and D floor space, and more than 5,000 jobs on site in important high-tech companies such as CSR and Cambridge Consultants. Nearby, Cambridge business park has another 1,200 jobs in companies such as Autonomy and Cambridge Broadband Networks and so on. St John’s Innovation Centre is also in Cambridge. As well as the large global companies, we have the small start-ups—the globals of tomorrow—such as Taptu, Light Blue Optics and many others. Their

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presence means that Cambridge has been insulated from many of the problems that have affected other parts of the country, such as unemployment.

There are risks—Cambridge is in danger of losing its comparative advantage as a business destination of choice. When I talk to entrepreneurs and those companies, they express concerns about overheating and the lack of infrastructure investment, and talk of housing shortages forcing people to live further away and of traffic congestion in the city. Despite the impressive environmental credentials of many of my constituents, more than a quarter of whom cycle to work or education, the ability of companies and businesses to grow is hampered by the lack of public transport access, particularly in the northern part of the city.

That is a key issue, and why it is so important that the Government accept the compelling case for a new station in Chesterton. Financially, the £10 million from regional growth funds, with £10 million that we can raise locally, will in only a few years give a £5 million a year cash surplus to the railway through fares and parking. It is a very profitable proposal. It has been calculated that the proposal will lead to around 1,000 jobs, making it a good investment.

The case is clear not only in Cambridge, but more widely. For example, somebody who works at the science park but commutes in from Brandon in Suffolk currently has roughly a 40-minute drive—or twice that if the traffic is bad. The rail journey would cut that down to 28 minutes. That is true for a huge range of other rail journeys into the science park area, because the new station would be just a short walk from all those companies. It has been suggested that it would attract about 2,600 users a day, about 1,500 of whom would be new users. Furthermore, the 1,100 who are not new to rail would not be travelling across the congested centre of Cambridge.

The scheme has been worked up and in the pipeline for a long time, and is supported by Cambridge city council, Cambridgeshire county council, Suffolk county council and many others. When I served on the regional assembly, it was the No. 1 regional priority. It would remove unnecessary traffic from Cambridge city centre, improve air quality, reduce congestion and delay, enhance public transport access and relieve congested roads such as the A14, A10, A11, M11 and A1301. It would also open up public transport routes for those in cities to the north of Cambridge, such as March, King’s Lynn and Brandon, where there is less opportunity already.

The station could open up these opportunities and bring economic benefits to those areas, as the spending power of employees who live in the towns and could now commute by train to Cambridge increases. That is why Suffolk county council supports the scheme. The scheme fits well with national and local transport objectives, and would also alleviate traffic on the A14, which is a national concern. I do not envy Ministers in the Department for Transport. They have to be skilled financial managers and strategic visionaries, planning transport schemes years or decades in advance. However, every once in a while something comes along that really is an easy win. I urge the Government to support the plans for a station at Chesterton. It makes sense for Cambridge, for the east of England and for the UK as a whole.

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7.16 pm

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and to speak about the importance of supporting businesses in our rural communities. I represent a highly rural constituency. At 550 square miles, it is one of the largest in the country. It is also, I believe, the only constituency in the country with no conurbation with a population in excess of 10,000—my largest town has a population of about 6,000 or 7,000.

Quite often in the House when we debate the economy and business, we implicitly make the assumption that city and city-centre economies, areas with high levels of public sector employment and perhaps our traditional industrial heartlands are particularly vulnerable to economic downturn. However, I am here to argue that rural communities are just as vulnerable, although in different but equally important ways. Much of the economic output in my constituency comes from farming and agriculture, which has its own unique challenges, including the power of supermarkets to control milk prices and the ongoing problems with bovine TB. I and many of my constituents felt that the previous Government did very little to tackle the latter problem, so I am pleased that this Government are taking a more positive approach.

In my constituency, as in many rural constituencies, small and medium-sized enterprises are particularly important. Hon. Members might be aware of a town called Okehampton in my constituency, which, because three SMEs have recently closed their plants, has seen unemployment sky-rocket from about 2% to in excess of 10%. That town and its community are having a difficult time at the moment.

In general, I welcome what the Government have done to support business. First, through the emergency Budget last year, they stabilised the economy, got to grips with the deficit to ensure that we did not lose our credit rating status, and ensured that interest rates did not spike and that we did not end up in the position that Greece is in today. Secondly, they are bearing down on the tax burden on business. In the previous Budget, they removed an extra 1% from corporation tax, so that it will be 23% by April 2014, which will give us the lowest level of corporation tax in the G7.

I have serious concerns, however, about the level of national insurance taxation. I know that the Government headed off some of the more onerous elements that Labour had planned, but this is a tax on jobs, and it is very unwelcome. I ask Ministers to consider bringing it down as soon as possible. I received an e-mail just this afternoon from an important business in Bovey Tracey, the House of Marbles, pointing out just how onerous that tax will be on the future of the business.

I welcome the fact that we are going to tackle regulation, that Lord Young’s proposals are to be implemented and that domestic regulation on businesses that employ fewer than 10 people and on genuine new start-ups will be removed or not applied for three years. Those are all positive steps forward.

Specifically for rural communities, it is very important that the Government should keep a close eye on fuel costs. Very little happens in Central Devon in a business sense that is not affected by the price of fuel. Transporting a 25-tonne feed lorry from East Anglia to Devon costs some £400 in fuel alone. These are huge amounts, and

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they affect all businesses that use distribution. For example, Gregory's, a large haulage company in North Tawton in my constituency which transports milk in particular, operates right across the south-west and beyond. To the extent that fuel prices go up, the company’s prices go up too, and at the end of the day farmers’ margins are squeezed even harder.

I want to raise one other important issue: the VAT rates applicable to tourist accommodation. We are unusual in the European Union, in that we are one of only five countries of the 27 member states to apply the same VAT rate to tourist accommodation as to other VAT-able items. That is a mistake. We should look seriously at lowering the rate. Germany has a VAT rate of 19%, but applies only a 9% rate to tourist accommodation. In Portugal, the figures are 20% for the general VAT rate, as here, but only 5% for tourist accommodation. Some 20% of our fellow countrymen and women take their holidays here in the United Kingdom, which is well below the 28% average across Europe, so we should really look at changing the rate.

The final element that I would like to mention is the importance of getting broadband rolled out in our rural communities. Some 33% of households in Central Devon do not have access to broadband at 2 megabytes a second, which hampers business. The national figure is just 18.1%. I hope that Ministers will listen to the points that I have made and recognise that when it comes to business, rural communities are as important as those in our towns and cities.

7.22 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) and, before him, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), as I live within walking distance of the proper home of football—Wembley stadium. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate, and I thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) raised the issue of Equitable Life policyholders. As co-chair of the all-party Equitable Life policyholders group, I trust that Members will attend our next meeting, on 17 May, when that subject will no doubt be raised.

In the time available, I want to talk about the seven schools in my area that are considering moving to academy status, the consultation for which closed yesterday. Three of the schools, Park High, Canons High and Bentley Wood High, are in my constituency, and four of them, Hatch End, Nower Hill, Harrow High and Rooks Heath college, are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas). We are talking about a potentially massive change to secondary schooling in Harrow and Brent: in the neighbouring borough, Claremont High school, which is just across the road from my constituency, is also considering becoming an academy.

The background to the issue has to be understood. During the 1990s in Harrow, only two schools decided to go grant maintained, the rest remaining under local authority control. Therefore, some 74% of secondary places are now in schools that are under consideration to become academies. According to Ofsted, all the schools are classified as outstanding. However, we cannot

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be complacent, because that takes no account of academic capability or the results achieved in those schools. In fact, Ofsted reported that Park High school needed to

“raise achievement by planning lessons to meet the varied needs of…students”

and

“Improve the consistency of the rigour with which curriculum leaders analyse the weaknesses in student achievement.”

Canons High needed to

“Raise attainment, especially in English and Maths, via inspirational teaching, sharper monitoring and curriculum development,”

all of which I would strongly support.

One of the myths that is spread about the London borough of Harrow is that it is a leafy suburb. The fact is that, in most of the schools there, between 30% and 60% of the children are eligible for free school meals. There is great deprivation in Harrow, and it needs extensive assistance. One problem is that the schools were so successful that the last Government put Harrow right at the back of the queue for Building Schools for the Future. There was therefore no prospect of the schools being rebuilt to provide better-quality facilities where young people could learn.

Mr Thomas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my colleague in Harrow, for giving way. I would just like to correct something, as he is perhaps not aware that the eighth school, which is not going for academy status, Whitmore high school, received considerable sums of money from the previous Government and was completely rebuilt. That process was facilitated by the local authority under the stewardship of his party and mine. Is that not a good example of a local authority working in partnership with schools? Does he agree that we want to see that continue, whether the schools become academies or not?

Bob Blackman: I thank my hon. colleague for that intervention. The Whitmore high school, which has been rebuilt, suffered a fire and is now the subject of a scandal over the commitment of money and the overspending that has taken place on the rebuilding. The hon. Gentleman and I both care passionately about that subject, and we would not want to see that situation repeated. However, we want the co-operation to continue, whether the schools become academies or not, so that the community spirit can focus on the schools across the whole of Harrow.

Money is a big issue, and the additional funding that the seven schools would gain would add up to just over £3 million every year, which they would then disburse. It is not surprising, therefore, that Harrow council is taking this matter very seriously and looking at the structure of education locally as a result. I have raised this matter in the House before. I am concerned about the misinformation that has been spread by the council in its answers to frequently asked questions. In answer to the question “What do academies teach?”, it suggests that each school is

“free to teach whatever it decides and does not have to follow the National Curriculum.”

It does not go on to say that the curriculum must be broad and balanced, and have a core of subjects including maths, English and science. That would of course be in the minds of many parents.

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The council also talks about admissions policies, but makes no mention of the fact that academies will be bound by the admissions code. Again, this is setting up problems for the future. In answer to the question about whether academies will raise standards, the council talks about the previous Government’s proposals to replace failing and low-performing schools with academies. This takes no account of the fact that these are high-performing schools that will achieve more when the new leaderships take over their duties.

Questions are also asked about the effect on primary schools, and about whether the academies will have an impact on the ethos of education locally. It is clear that the schools in Harrow that are now consulting on becoming academies have said that they will retain the same admissions policies. They will also have a policy to work with the primary schools and other feeder schools, and in co-operation with all the other schools in the borough, whether they become academies or not.

The trade unions have run a major campaign against the schools taking on academy status. They have taken a short-sighted, narrow view on what could happen to the schools if they became academies. In May, the governing bodies of all seven schools will make a decision. It will be a momentous decision for the future not only of the individual schools but of the education system in the borough. I hope that those governing bodies will make the right decision, set themselves free and improve education for all the people of Harrow.

7.29 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to make a brief contribution. I want to talk about a recent announcement that has generated considerable concern in my constituency. After endless delays under Labour, this coalition Government have approved capital investment funding for the £431 million Mersey Gateway project in Runcorn. This plan is for a second crossing of the river Mersey; it is essential for tackling congestion across the region and will play a crucial part in the regeneration of Runcorn. It enjoys cross-party support and I have been pleased to work with Labour-controlled Halton borough council and the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who I know has worked tirelessly in support of the project.

At the recent “march for the alternative”, however, when asked where Labour would make the £14 billion-worth of cuts they said they would make this year, the Labour deputy leader said that the Labour party would

“hold back on capital investment”.

Given that the total level of capital investment planned is far less than the amount Labour says it will cut, and given that it has failed to specify any other areas for cuts, one must assume that it is planning to cut all capital investment. We can only assume that that means that Labour would scrap the Mersey Gateway project. That would be a terrible and stupid mistake. One must also assume that Labour would also cut £100 million of science capital development, including the substantial share going to Daresbury science and innovation campus in my constituency.

Presumably, high-speed rail is also for the chop under Labour’s plans. Indeed, it would appear that no capital projects are safe under Labour. I strongly encourage all Members to speak up and demonstrate why the

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infrastructure projects in their constituencies should go ahead, as it would be economic madness to hold back on genuine capital investment at this time. If we want to rebalance the economy, improve our international competitiveness and go back to sustainable growth, we need to go ahead with the sensible capital investment that was approved following the spending review. Let me put it this way: Labour’s plan to hold back on capital investment would be the wrong cut at the wrong time.

I thus applaud the Government who have been able to put together a credible and comprehensive plan for eliminating the structural deficit over the course of this Parliament, while ensuring that key projects such as the Mersey Gateway scheme go ahead. I think it is essential for the Opposition urgently to clarify their position on this crucial subject.

Finally, let me talk about another issue of serious concern in my area, on which it would be helpful to have some clarity from the Labour party. Having free parking in a town is one proven way of helping to keep a high street vibrant. In Northwich in my constituency, it remains free to park. Conservative councillors have made it crystal clear that it will remain free to park. The local Labour candidates for the election this May, however, have been going round running a misinformation campaign, trying to convince local businesses and residents that the only way to keep parking free is to vote Labour. Despite being criticised for shameless scaremongering and being asked to apologise and clarify the situation, Labour has carried on pursuing every dirty trick in the book in its attempt to get a footing back in the town after being wiped out at the local elections of 2008.

Labour first took the people of Northwich for granted; now it is trying to take us for fools—and it is becoming more serious. Some businesses contacted me because they were worried after hearing Labour’s rumours. Some have talked even of leaving Northwich. Labour’s reckless scaremongering campaign is now at risk of hurting our high streets and putting jobs in danger. It is important for the Labour candidates involved in this campaign to come out and apologise immediately. The people of Northwich deserve better.

7.33 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): What a wonderful occasion these pre-Adjournment debates always are. I congratulate, as have others, the Backbench Business Committee on maintaining the tradition, albeit as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said, under a modified Hollobone system, rather than the full Hollobone one that we had last time. That has enabled four Members to have their contributions answered by the relevant, and very much better informed, Minister—the Minister with responsibility for pensions in the Department for Work and Pensions. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough was kind enough to say in his earlier comments—it is mentioned in the rubric to the notice of the debate—it is anticipated that I will be unable to answer the debate satisfactorily and therefore to provide hon. Members with adequate responses. I share that pessimistic assessment. Notwithstanding any comments

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that I make this evening, I will ensure that every Member who has spoken receives a proper written response from the relevant Department.

Mr Thomas: The Deputy Leader of the House is generous in allowing me to intervene, as indeed he should be on occasions such as this. Does he agree that local authorities should help to create a genuine and open debate about the merits or otherwise of academies, and that putting both sides of the argument on councils’ websites and encouraging youth parliaments in towns to debate the issue is a positive move? In that context, would he care to praise Harrow council—Labour-run—for facilitating such a debate?

Mr Heath: I have to say that I have no idea how Harrow council—Labour-run—has approached the issue of academies in the borough, although I have heard what has been said by both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who shares the borough with him. I think it important for communities—both the school community and the wider community—to discuss such matters properly and for a view to be reached that is then conveyed to Government, and to that extent I agree with him, but the way in which the arguments are couched is a very different matter.

I was looking for some common themes in the debate, but reluctantly concluded that there were none. For that reason, rather than trying to weave Members’ contributions together in an elegant fashion, I shall deal with them one by one, commenting on them briefly.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) spoke of problems of oil and gas production associated with his constituency. I do not know of anyone who is better attuned to the industry than my hon. Friend, who has made a point of talking to representatives of industry over the years and being alive to their concerns. I understand why he said what he said, but, as he knows, the Treasury believes that because the oil industry is making record profits which will probably remain high because of the oil price, there is unlikely to be a significant effect on production and investment as a result of the tax change in the Budget. However, he was right to pass on the concerns that had been expressed to him, and I will ensure that Ministers from the Treasury and, indeed, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are aware of them.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) talked about buses. I was intrigued to hear about her big bus survey—a very snappy name for a survey—which, I gathered, was obtaining very useful results. I think that unless we recognise the value of public transport in this country we will be missing a trick, and will not achieve some of our objectives. I hope that she will maintain pressure on local authorities in her area to support bus services where that is appropriate. As she knows, a great many bus services receive no funds directly from councils, and are entirely commercially run. I am very impressed by what is being done by my colleagues in the Department for Transport in supporting community transport, and she may like to consider that in the context of her constituency.

I disagreed with the hon. Lady on only one point. She said that the loss of education maintenance allowance meant that young people attending colleges would not

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be able to obtain transport, but that is precisely the issue that will be dealt with by the replacement for EMAs. An important part of the support for young people entering further and higher education is ensuring that they are equipped to do the job, as I hope she will recognise during the months and years to come.

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned his constituents George and Dot Kemp. I am sure that the whole House will want to offer its heartiest congratulations to George and Dot on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary, which is a remarkable achievement in anyone’s book. The hon. Gentleman stressed, as he often does, the importance of stable families and stable relationships to stable societies.

I do not think anyone would disagree with the view that it is important to provide family stability for children. That can be achieved in a variety of contexts of course, but stability is crucial. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was heartened by the earlier response that he received to an intervention during my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks on social mobility. He knows that the Government are attuned to supporting stability in family relationships, so far as it is possible for the Government to achieve that objective.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce) talked about the very difficult situation that has arisen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in respect of the competing commercial claims of companies working there. I perfectly well understand why he has reported that to the House, but he also knows that this is a legal dispute, and at the end of the day it will have to be resolved within the DRC legal systems. He made some wider points too, however. He stressed the need for—I hope I can say this while in no way patronising the DRC or any other developing country—a business environment that people can trust. That is crucial for the economic development of many such countries. I know Her Majesty’s ambassador to Kinshasa has already raised that with the DRC Government in the context of First Quantum Minerals. The hon. Gentleman also stressed the need for transparency in business arrangements, and the Government absolutely agree. I hope that we will make further progress on that, particularly in respect of British companies or those listed on British exchanges. He has therefore made a valuable point.

No pre-recess Adjournment debate would be complete without the tour d’horizon of Southend that the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) generally provides. He said at one point that it is all happening in Southend. It seems that it is always all happening in Southend, which is why we love his contributions so much. I do not know how he manages to fit so many subjects into such a short period of time. He raised topics ranging from internet scams to Camp Ashraf, and I will, of course, make sure he receives responses on all of them. I wish to single out what he said about internet scams, however, as that is a growing problem. The Government take online fraud extremely seriously. What is illegal offline is illegal online, and it is a matter for the police and the relevant regulator.

When we get these phishing e-mails or scams, most of us do nothing about them; we just delete them. Those of us who are—if I can use this word—sophisticated enough to recognise a scam when we see it should do more than just delete them, however. We should report them every single time, so that the authorities can pursue the people

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who prey on the vulnerable and those less able to recognise a scam. People are often defrauded of very large sums of money. I hope that we can make a start in pushing back against what is a very pernicious way of defrauding many people.

Sir Robert Smith: It would be good if the companies whose logos are used as a front for phishing scams took an interest when a customer reports such incidents. The logo of the Royal Bank of Scotland has been used.

Mr Heath: I could not agree more. I have often received e-mails telling me about my Halifax account when I have never had a Halifax account in my life. I feel guilty that I have not contacted the Halifax and said, “Do you know somebody’s conducting a scam and pretending it’s from your site?”

Sadly, the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is not in his place at present. He talked about the swine flu pandemic. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I do not entirely agree with everything he said. It is easy to say that contingency expenditure was not necessary, but the authorities would rightly have been criticised if they had not taken appropriate measures in response to what the World Health Organisation said. As the House probably knows, an independent review, undertaken by Dame Deirdre Hine, of the UK response concluded that the preparations for the pandemic were soundly based in terms of value for money and that the response was proportionate and effective. I criticised the previous Government at one point for not being ready for a pandemic, but they took action and made sure that we were better prepared. Therefore, I am not going to criticise Labour Members now for having perhaps reacted excessively in this case, although without having any reason to realise that they were overreacting.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) raised the cases of three of his constituents, all of which ought to give us cause for concern. The wounded soldier’s case is the one that immediately comes to mind, because everyone in this House ought to appreciate the debt that we owe to the young men and women we send to places such as Afghanistan. They risk their lives and their futures in that country and similar conflict areas, and part of the covenant with our armed forces is that we will treat them properly when they return. I will make sure that the relevant Minister gets a clear message about that individual.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Ukraine and the case of Barry Pring, a constituent of his who is, sadly, deceased. This is a matter that I should bring to the attention of the Minister with responsibility for consular services in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am not sure whether the case of Mr Hart and the Axminster medical practice has gone beyond the point where it can be remedied, but I will still pass the details on to my colleagues in the Department of Health.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) rightly raised the issue of Sri Lanka, as he has done on a number of occasions. He knows that the Government continue to have grave concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka, including in respect of disappearances, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and restrictions on free expression. These concerns are constantly raised with the Sri Lankan Government and we have also consistently stressed the need for Sri Lanka to have an

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independent and credible process to address allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the conflict. I think we can only maintain that pressure. He is right to raise the issue on behalf of a substantial community in his constituency with an interest in Sri Lanka, and I hope that the House will continue to concentrate its mind on such matters.

Mr Thomas rose

Mr Heath: I do not have an unlimited amount of time, but I will give way briefly.

Mr Thomas: I recognise that, understandably, the Minister cannot give me a detailed answer to my various questions, but may I ask him to encourage the Foreign Office to examine the particular issue of the three-member panel and whether its report to the UN Secretary-General can be made public?

Mr Heath: I will indeed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of polyclinics. He knows that the Government’s view is that local health facilities are best determined by people in localities and that the whole thrust of Government policy is to ensure that that happens. Therefore, if the polyclinics enjoy a high level of support in his area, I hope that that will be demonstrated in any future action in that area.

The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) raised a fascinating issue. We sometimes forget about the value of 20th-century buildings that may not be immediately attractive. I am not saying that such buildings are not immediately attractive, because some listed buildings in my area, dating from the second world war, are sections of hangars. They were made into residential properties as a temporary measure during the war and are very near the air station at Yeovilton. They are now listed and they are fine examples of something that was done as an expediency but that has a continuing historical interest.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of nuclear facilities. As he says, this is not a question about the rights or wrongs of nuclear power; it is about the fact that they have clearly made a contribution to the technological advances, or otherwise, of the 20th century. He recognises the difficulties involved when a heritage site may indeed be dangerous because of radioactive contamination—we need to be careful—but he knows that the Government recognise the historical significance of Britain’s nuclear sites and that we are looking to see what can be done to ensure that that heritage is at least maintained in part. I must say that when I am in Bridgwater bay I prefer to look towards the Quantocks and Exmoor than towards Hinkley Point, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) talked about the Animal Procedures Committee. This is a very sensitive issue and he was absolutely right to raise it in the House. We have moved a long way over the years. When I was an undergraduate reading physiological sciences, I was automatically given a vivisection licence as a 19-year-old. That would not happen nowadays, but it was normal at the time. It was considered perfectly all right then, but it would not be now. The Government have made a clear commitment in the coalition agreement

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to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific procedures and we are working on plans that we will announce in due course, which I hope will trigger exactly the sort of debate that he asked for.

The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) mentioned the Avon and Somerset helicopter, which is very dear to my heart because I was the chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority when it was bought. Until then we had had no air cover in Avon and Somerset. I persuaded Gloucestershire constabulary to share a third of the cost and between us we were able to afford a helicopter that was based at Filton, so I recognise the value of that facility to the force area.

The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s comments was antisocial behaviour and the effect on his constituents. I am sure that he will have done this, but if he has not he ought to seek a meeting in the very near future with Chief Constable Colin Port of the Avon and Somerset police, who is very keen on community policing and policing at the local level. I am sure that he would be interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) raised the issue of Project Merlin. He is in the privileged position, as a member of the Treasury Committee, to be able to tease out these issues on a regular basis and I know he will continue to do so. I share his anticipation regarding the report of the Independent Commission on Banking. Like him, I hope it will be comprehensive and robust. The one point on which I would perhaps take issue with him is his comment that he would be reading the small print on Project Merlin. Under the previous Government’s arrangements with the banks, we could not read the small print because there was none—the pass was sold in a masterpiece of poor negotiation, but there we are.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) talked about the UK’s incineration policy. I think he will consider it good news when I tell him that the Government are reviewing all aspects of waste policy and delivery in England, including the recovery of energy from waste, with the principal aim of ensuring that we are taking the right steps towards a zero-waste economy. The findings of the review will be ready for publication in May 2011. In other words, it will not be very long now. I hope that he will find in that review something of value to his constituents, particularly those who live in St Dennis. I absolutely agree with him that the major objective must be an overall goal of waste reduction. The priority must be reducing it at source wherever possible rather than any form of waste disposal.

The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), to whom I listen with great care when she talks about child poverty and children’s care issues because I know she has a great deal of experience and expertise, talked about children’s centres and how they might be dealt with in Trafford. I apologise for sounding as though I invented everything, but I was involved in setting up one of the first children’s centres in Frome when I was the leader of the county council there. I think they are of enormous value, as do the Government. She raised a particular point about socialisation and the interplay between child poverty and providing opportunities for children to mix with others from different backgrounds, and she is absolutely right. We cannot have a system

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that is based on ghettoising people of modest means in any way, as that will not achieve the objectives of social mobility that were the entire thrust of what the Government said today.

The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) started his speech very boldly by claiming that his was the only town to have given its name to a game. I say to him: Badminton. Obviously, rugby is the most important sport. Actually, there are three sports in my book: rugby, cricket and horse racing. The rest are games. He ought to know that he is talking to the right person about rugby, as I used to try to participate, and I would have worn my Saracens tie had I known that that was what he would raise. We are all looking forward to hosting the rugby league world cup in 2013 and the rugby union world cup in 2015, the latter of which is expected to contribute £1.1 billion to the economy. It is not just sport; it is big business as well, and all the better for it. I hope that the town of Rugby can contribute to and be recognised as part of that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) made an extremely strong case for establishing a new railway station at Chesterton in his constituency, but obviously he needs to garner all the local support that is necessary to push for the project with the Department for Transport. I know that the Department is aware of the local interest. If I am in his constituency over the next few weeks, as I suspect I will be, I would be delighted to see the site for myself and report back to colleagues in the Department if that would be helpful. However, I cannot promise all hon. Members who have spoken that I will be able to visit their constituencies over the next few days.

The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) raised a number of issues that are common to both our constituencies. I have one town—Frome—that is bigger than his biggest town, but nowhere else in the constituency has more than 3,000 or 4,000 inhabitants, so we have similar demographics. We in rural areas often feel that we have been forgotten over the years. It is very important that we recognise the economic needs and potential of areas such as Somerset and Devon—but principally Somerset, of course.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): And Shropshire.

Mr Heath: Yes, although Shropshire is not in the same local enterprise partnership as Somerset and Devon, which were a little slow off the mark but now have their LEP. I am looking forward to seeing it work carefully to encourage business growth in our area and, in particular, stimulate the need for investment in broadband, which is essential to the economic future of areas such as ours. I know that the Government recognise that fact.

The hon. Member for Harrow East referred to the seven schools in Harrow that are applying to become academies, and we heard a preview of that discussion from the hon. Member for Harrow West. I repeat that it is a matter for the governing bodies, but it is also a matter for others in the community to discuss with those bodies. We would expect local authorities to respect schools’ wishes and support them, but to do so in an informed way. I know that the Department for Education is keen to hear from the local schools and discuss their future needs with them.

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Finally, but not least among the 20 colleagues to whom I am responding in this brief debate, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) talked about the Mersey gateway project in Runcorn. He could not be more right. At a time when revenue budgets are necessarily constrained because we are dealing with the biggest deficit that any Government have ever faced, capital investment is nevertheless absolutely crucial. This Government have demonstrated that they are committed to introducing and maintaining capital investment to improve infrastructure and to create jobs, and that must be the right way to proceed. I hope that there will be no question whatever of what has been promised being cancelled at any future stage.

In closing, I thank again the Backbench Business Committee, but I would like to wish you, Mr Deputy Speaker, the staff and Officers of the House and, indeed, all Members not a happy holiday, because I suspect that, certainly for most Members, it will be a very busy period indeed in their constituencies, but a peaceful Easter, and at least a brief respite from their duties in the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

Petitions

Bus Service (Croyland, Wellingborough)

8 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): With the leave of the House, I will present two petitions.

Last Friday I went to a packed protest meeting in the Croyland ward, which had been organised by the excellent Councillor Thomas Pursglove and Councillor Martin Griffiths, and it concerned the loss of a bus service.

The petition states:

The Humble Petition of residents of the Croyland area of Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, and the surrounding areas,

Sheweth,

That the proposed loss or reduction of public transport routes within the Croyland Ward of Wellingborough will significantly disadvantage local residents, in particular the elderly, disabled and young; and that the potential loss of the W3 bus service will leave many residents with no way of getting to the town centre.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Transport to liaise with Northamptonshire County Council and the Borough Council of Wellingborough to find a resolution that will lead to the maintenance of an acceptable level of public transport in Croyland.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.

[P000915]

Isham Bypass (Wellingborough)

8.1 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The second petition is on the disappointing news that the Isham bypass will not be built at the moment.

The petition states:

To the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled,

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The Humble Petition of residents of the Isham area of Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, and the surrounding areas,

Sheweth,

That for forty years there has been a need for a by-pass of the village of Isham; that the recent increase in housing and traffic has led to the environmental conditions for the residents of the main road in Isham being intolerable; and that the lack of a by-pass has caused unacceptable levels of noise and air pollution, safety issues for pedestrians and motorists and structural damage to properties.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Transport to liaise with Northamptonshire County Council and the Borough Council of Wellingborough to find a resolution that will lead to the reconsideration of the cancellation of the Isham By-Pass and a high priority given to its construction.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.

[P000914]

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Forestry Commission (Northumberland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

8.3 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): And finally, to forestry. I am very glad of the opportunity to raise the issue of employment in forestry, and particularly employment by the Forestry Commission in Northumberland.

There is more forestry production in Northumberland than in any other English county, and part of it takes place in my constituency, where the Forestry Commission has Harwood, Rothbury, Kidland and other forest areas. The greater part of the production takes place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), which has Kielder, Wark and Redesdale forests.

Forestry jobs in my constituency are centred on the commission’s Rothbury office, but all 12 full-time equivalent jobs are planned to go with its closure. That is out of a total of just under 90 full-time equivalent jobs in the county, and they are to be reduced to 65. Most are based at Bellingham and Kielder in the Hexham constituency. Those numbers might not seem large to Members from urban areas, but they are very important to small rural communities such as Rothbury and Bellingham.

Forestry staff are key holders of expertise on woodland issues. The forest ranger—we will have only one at the end of this process—used to educate schoolchildren about the forests and their wildlife, as well as helping to secure income from deerstalking. Forestry employees are key members of their local communities, often serving as first responders and trained firefighters. There are jobs in the wider community dependent on forestry, and the Rothbury office puts £200,000 a year into the local economy in salaries alone.

Looking at the post-war history, it is interesting to note that the few remaining jobs in the direct employment of the Forestry Commission contrast with the original plans to provide a major source of employment in the countryside. Whole new villages such as Harwood in my constituency, and Kielder, were built between the 1940s and the 1960s for the workers who were expected to be employed in the expanding state forests. Now almost no forestry workers live in these houses. There were many critics of the policy that replaced hill shepherding with massive, regimented plantings of Norway and Sitka spruce, but the critics were told that trees meant jobs. Kielder village alone was projected to have a population of 800, but it never happened. The more accessible but still remote village of Harwood has become home to people who travel to a variety of jobs elsewhere. Even the house that has been built during my time as an MP, for the forest manager at Harwood, is no longer in forestry use.

To get a reminder of the almost ideological commitment that brought large-scale forestry to our hills, I looked at the 1950s edition of the Shell guide to Northumberland written by the legendary town planner, Thomas Sharp, who said:

“there is now taking place…an agronomic and scenic revolution of a kind that has happened only once before in the recorded history of England…The present revolution is in the development of the great new FORESTS that are being planted by the Forestry

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Commission, acting as the agent of Government…two or three hundred square miles of Cheviot country is being… transformed…beyond all recognition from grassy sheep walk into vast forest of…Sitka and Norway spruce.”

He goes on:

“You may not like what you see. Most of us who have loved these grassy hills with their soft, many-tinted, cloud-shadowed outlines, their sense of wide, unrestricted freedom, their clean free air, cannot but regret the beauty that has gone. But when these forests have matured they too will have some beauty of their own. And in any event, the case for change is incontestable. In the planting that is now going forward much hardly-used land is being brought into enormously increased productivity for human benefit. Where before, as sheep walk, it employed one man to approximately every 500 acres, as maturing forest it will employ twenty times as many”.

He says that the new villages were to be

“large enough to afford opportunities for a reasonably full social life even in these remote hills: and all so designed that they will not be suburban-looking intrusions but closely-knit places”

with

“something of the character of the true English village…in this great Government undertaking you will see in progress a rural revolution”.

Well, we should beware of planners and their forecasts. Even in those days, many country people and many who loved the hills as walking country did not subscribe to this vision. Indeed, the Forestry Commission was often criticised for covering the hills with regimented blocks of non-native trees and for the failure of so many of these jobs ever to materialise. The majority of the jobs that were created in the local communities disappeared as a result of mechanisation, the use of highly mobile contractors, and the sale of standing timber to be harvested by the purchaser.

We all experienced the recent campaign against the forest sales. The enthusiasm of that campaign, which has led to a rethink of the policies of the present Government, and indeed the previous one, is something of a tribute to the Forestry Commission and its staff. It was not that they campaigned, but that their work had changed the way that the Forestry Commission is perceived. From a position that was controversial to many, it has over the years won a lot of friends. How? It has significantly increased its commitment to landscaping and the use of native species, and adjusted its planting policy to avoid the alien squares and rectangles that wrecked the hill landscape in earlier forestry plantations. It has developed access and leisure opportunities that are much appreciated by the public. At Kielder, this is in co-operation with Northumbrian Water. Through the forest service, which is the main activity at the Rothbury office, it has provided valuable advice and administered grant and approval schemes for the large number of private forest owners and farmers in Northumberland. It has educated children and young people about forests and wildlife. Forest Enterprise, its commercial arm, is regarded by the timber-using industries, which are well-represented in Northumberland, as a guarantor of supply and relative stability in the market.

It is obvious from all the e-mails we receive that people have learned to love the Forestry Commission, and that is down to the work of its staff. Clearly, a massive sale of forests would reduce the small staff even further and bring to an end much of the activity I have described. Smaller forest sales to rationalise the estate and some purchases can make sense, and I would not

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want the prospect of charitable trusts choosing to run some ancient woodlands, as the Woodland Trust already does, to be thrown out with the bathwater of the large-scale sales idea.

The threat to jobs does not come from the halted programme of large-scale sales; it was planned to meet the financial pressures on the commission under the spending review. The redundancies were to be paid for out of the proceeds of the more limited programme of sales that the Government had announced earlier, based on the system for forest sales operated by the Labour Government, which has also been halted while the Government’s new independent advisory panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, considers the future of state forestry.

If the panel recommends that there should be very few further sales, how are the redundancies to be financed? How are the losses, funded by the previous Government partly from sales, to be funded? If the panel recommends that more work should be done in access and leisure, in biodiversity or in education, how can it be done without the expertise of the staff who are being made redundant? How will the advisory work of the forest service in Northumberland’s private forestry be maintained? Its role is crucial, in, for example, combating disease when the threat arises. How will the panel consult not just the Institute of Chartered Foresters, which is represented on the panel, but forestry workers in general?

There is a further crucial point that I want Ministers to consider. The Northumberland forests are unlike the forests of southern England—they are predominantly commercial, high-yielding forests. There is also extensive private commercial forestry to regulate. If all the forest service offices in the northernmost counties close—Rothbury, Hamsterley and Penrith—that work will not be easily or well managed from York or Delamere.

Forestry in Northumberland is much more akin to forestry in Scotland. Indeed, the border forests used to be seen as a single group—I have with me tonight a guide book to the border forests—and they meet at the border in some places. Northumberland’s forests are commercial producers on a very large scale and they need to be understood differently from some of the forests in southern England.

I have a specific proposal for the Government about the Rothbury office. The national park is considering closing its information centre in Rothbury and both Natural England and the Environment Agency work closely with the Forestry Commission and the national park, as does Northumberland county council. Why cannot those agencies pool a small amount of resources and maintain a presence in shared offices in Rothbury? In that way, they can retain an effective local service and improve joined-up working, which proved itself to be essential in handling the recent floods. It is time to think more radically about how services vital to the countryside and the rural community can be maintained. Here is an opportunity to set an example.

Nationally, under the spending review, the Forestry Commission is likely to lose 29% of the staff of Forest Enterprise and 19% of the staff of forest services. Nowhere is that more keenly felt than in Northumberland. Now that the forest sales that were to fund that redundancy programme are being reconsidered, surely the office closure and the redundancies must be reconsidered, too. Apparently, half a million people signed—or perhaps

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clicked on—the petition opposing forestry sales. They were not convinced by the argument that large-scale commercial forestry does not need to be state run, at least in part. They were particularly concerned to maintain the access and biodiversity work, which needs experienced and qualified commission staff. This is not an easy circle for the Government to square, but they must listen and they must respond.

8.14 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing the last Adjournment debate of this part of the parliamentary Session. This matter is close to his heart and important to his constituency, but, as he rightly said, it is of much greater significance, as we have witnessed over the past few weeks.

As my right hon. Friend rightly reminded us, his constituency, and the county of Northumberland even more so, are hugely important to the public forestry estate. His constituency, despite not containing Kielder, is within the top 10 by public forest estate land area, which makes it very important. He rightly referred to many issues beyond pure forestry, such as forestry employment and jobs, and rural housing. He knows as well as I do that the world has moved on and that the idea of big estates, whether private or public, for workers in any industry has long since disappeared. Nevertheless, forestry workers and the forestry industry are important in rural areas. I have always understood the statistics, which he gave, that compare forestry with hill farming, which preceded the planting of many forests.

I and the Department recognise that Kielder and most forests in northern England are primarily commercial. As my right hon. Friend said, they are more akin to some Scottish forests. Nevertheless, as we have witnessed over the past few weeks, there is significant public concern about their future. However, I do not wish to repeat all the issues that were raised in the initial consultation and before it.

We have taken a step back and have appointed the independent panel, to which my right hon. Friend referred. The panel will advise us on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England. It has already had its first meeting. To partly answer his question about forestry workers, the chairman of the panel said yesterday in a brief statement after its first meeting that it is determined to get around the country and to meet everybody who has an interest in these matters, including forestry employees and those who campaigned in various ways in the run-up to the formation of the panel.

As my right hon. Friend said, there is the separate issue of the planned disposal of 15% of the public forest estate, which we had planned to do during the spending period from this financial year to 2014-15. I stress that that has been suspended, not cancelled. As he rightly said, those figures were part of the overall DEFRA budget, although most of the money was not allocated because we did not have it. Nevertheless, some of it was to be used by the Forestry Commission. I will come back to that point.

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My right hon. Friend asked how the redundancies will be funded. I will come back to this in more detail, but it is relevant at this point. They will be funded by DEFRA’s modernisation fund, and were not planned to be funded from the forest sales. Obviously, there will be an effect on cash flow, because we intend to resume the sales after the panel has reported on how we can protect public interests. That is a cash-flow issue for the Forestry Commission, which we are working closely with it to minimise.

Obviously, the panel will have to recognise the constraints and competing demands on public expenditure in this spending review period and beyond. That brings us to the current situation, which my right hon. Friend rightly distinguished from the future of the public forestry estate. Clearly, we have to reduce the structural deficit. We have said that that is the No. 1 Government priority, and with the two notable exceptions of the national health service and the Department for International Development, everybody is having to take their fair share. The Forestry Commission, along with DEFRA and all our other arm’s length bodies, has to work in that tough fiscal environment, which means unprecedented savings.

The Forestry Commission’s budget in England will reduce by 25% over the next four years, and I stress that in addition, we expect Forest Enterprise to reduce to zero the current reliance on the sale of assets for some £8 million a year of income. My right hon. Friend referred to the sales carried out by previous Governments, and in the past several years capital has been sold to fund revenue. That practice is completely wrong. It has been the selling off of forests simply to fill a gap in Forestry Commission finances, and it has to stop by the end of this spending review period.

To achieve those changes, the Forestry Commission in England will need to undertake significant restructuring and the downsizing of its programmes, at the same time as taking on a number of new challenges. The commission’s focus will be much more on protecting and improving the woodland resource and encouraging woodland expansion. That will be delivered through promoting a competitive, thriving and resilient forestry sector, and through the empowerment, engagement and involvement of many local communities in the big society.

May I pick up my right hon. Friend’s point about disease? Ever since I took responsibility for the matter, I have been extremely concerned by the march of a number of diseases, particularly Phytophthora ramorum, which fortunately I do not think has reached Northumberland, but which has devastated forests in the south-west. I do not want to say too much, because the commission has not yet consulted on the matter, but I can assure him that we are doing our very best to maintain research into such diseases. Although I cannot say that there will be no reduction in spending on forestry research, the key tree health and disease programmes will be protected. That is very important if we are to get on top of diseases that could have a devastating effect, and not just on non-native species—we know that some of them are in oaks, as well.

Sir Alan Beith: I know that the Minister takes a close interest in that matter. The disease threat requires the commission to be able to respond quickly if a farmer or landowner discovers what appears to be evidence of

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disease on his land. It will not be satisfactory if somebody has to come up from the opposite end of the country to do that.

Mr Paice: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I am just coming on to the specific proposals. I do not think there is any real suggestion that somebody would have to come up from the other end of the country.

Only last Friday, the commission closed its consultation with its staff on proposals for restructuring and reducing the size of the organisation in such a way that it can manage the public estate and deliver the wider forestry service. One proposal in the consultation document was to reduce the number of forest districts that manage the public forest estate from 12 to six, and the units that manage grants and regulations from nine to five. An inevitable consequence of that proposal would be a reduction in the number of offices needed, and as my right hon. Friend said, regrettably, one of the offices that has been identified as potentially surplus to future requirements is Rothbury. However, the nearby office at Bellingham would remain, and high priority is being given to retaining front-line staff. The Forestry Commission will aim to minimise the negative impact on its staff and will use compulsory redundancies only as a last resort.

My right hon. Friend rightly referred to the options for sharing offices, and I can assure him that the potential for office sharing with other delivery bodies is being considered. That is not unique to the Forestry Commission, because DEFRA is pressurising all its arm’s length bodies to work much more closely together. That applies to Natural England and the Environment Agency, and, as he rightly said, to the national park authorities where relevant. We are encouraging much closer working, not just the sharing of office space, in the interests of efficiency as well as of resource saving.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I cannot speculate on the outcome of the consultation to which I referred and the decisions that the Forestry Commission needs to make, but I can outline the next steps that it has planned.

By the end of April, the responses to the consultation will be shared with staff and by the end of May, the proposals for structures and staffing will be presented

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to the Forestry Commission’s staff council and to wider staff. That will be followed by an implementation plan, which is expected to be delivered progressively to 2014-15.

Unfortunately, as we all know, the financial position in which we find ourselves means that forestry commissioners cannot delay starting the changes until after the panel advising on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England has reported.

The way in which the Forestry Commission moves forward to 2014-15 is also likely to be influenced by the outcome of the panel’s report, and any decisions we make in response to its advice. My right hon. Friend rightly said that perhaps the outcome will be more work for the Forestry Commission. All I can say is that we will have to cross that bridge if and when we come to it. We cannot afford to wait, because the savings have to be made.

However, the overall aim is to ensure that we have an organisation that is fit for purpose and can deliver our key objectives for forestry in England.

None of us willingly enters into action that will cause other people to lose their jobs. As somebody born and bred in the countryside, I feel passionately about it and fully understand that, as my right hon. Friend said, very small numbers can be significant in our more rural areas. None of us entertains such action lightly. However, getting the country’s structural deficit back under control should not be taken lightly, either. That is why we have to make tough decisions, although the detail is clearly a matter for the Forestry Commission.

The Department and the Government feel strongly that forestry is a vital part of our rural communities. It is now in the hands of the panel to advise us on the form that it takes—the ownership, management and so on—but we are convinced that it has a long-term future as part of the rural economy and of providing biodiversity, energy, a carbon sink and the multiple benefits that we all, as a community, get from our forests.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the subject and I hope that I have been able to answer at least some of his concerns.

Question put and agreed to.

8.27 pm

House adjourned.