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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 May 2011

[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]

English for Speakers of Other Languages

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.––(Jeremy Wright.)

9.30 am

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate, but I would rather that the need for such a debate had not arisen. Last November, the Government published a document that was somewhat euphemistically entitled “Investing in Skills for Sustainable Growth”. Alongside various changes to the funding of further education and training in the UK, Ministers announced that from 1 August this year, many people who currently qualify for free courses in English for speakers of other languages will have to pay a significant amount towards their studies. From August, anyone who receives council tax benefit, housing benefit, income support, working tax credit or pension credit will be expected to contribute £2.91 per hour to the cost of their ESOL course. Anyone who is dependent on someone who receives what the Department for Work and Pensions has defined as “inactive benefits” will also be expected to pay.

The sum of £2.91 per hour may not sound like a lot of money, but it amounts to a minimum of £1,300 in tuition fees for a full-time course. Although as a point of principle I tend to agree that those who can pay should pay, the Government are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think that those currently on such courses, or those who most need them, will be able to pay—they will not. If someone’s husband has a job on the minimum wage and works full time but still earns less than £12,000 per year, will they really be able to pay £1,000 for an English language course? It will not happen.

I cannot help but think that the proposed changes to the way ESOL is funded are woefully short-sighted. Set alongside the Prime Minister’s repeated pronouncements on immigration and the need for everyone to speak the language of their new home, they are nothing short of hypocritical. I called this debate to give the Minister an opportunity to explain the rationale behind the changes and to question him on the impact they will have, to ask him to reconsider the crude distinction that has been made between those on active and inactive benefits, and to urge him, at the very least, to delay the changes by a year to allow those involved in the provision of ESOL to work with the Government to find a way forward.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes are another example of this Government’s attack on women? Figures from the Association of Colleges suggest that about 77% of those affected by the changes will be women who, in a two-parent household, will not be in receipt of the benefits required.

Heidi Alexander: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and believe that the changes will have a hugely disproportionate effect on women and on members of black and ethnic minority communities across the country.

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Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that acquiring English language skills is important both for women’s access to the labour market, and because women mediate so many of the social services for families such as medical appointments, dealing with schools and so on?

Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will come on to those matters later in my contribution.

One reason I requested this debate is because a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of meeting a group of ESOL students at the Granville Park education centre in my constituency. About 25 women sat in a classroom in Lewisham and asked me whether their individual circumstances mean that they will have to pay for their courses this September. They wanted to know why the Government are making changes to the funding of ESOL courses, how much money will be saved, and why the Government are taking away the one thing that offers them a lifeline out of poverty and the chance of a better life. They wanted to know whether the Government are pushing through the changes simply because they think that they can get away with it. The people affected by the changes, such as those women, are some of the least likely to be able to mount a campaign against them. Suffice it to say, I struggled to answer their questions.

The ESOL students I met in Lewisham come from all over the world. Some are eastern European, some African, some Asian and some from the middle east. Some have come to this country recently, and others have been here for many years. Most are not in receipt of active benefits and do not receive jobseeker’s allowance or employment support allowance. Many of those people have husbands in relatively low paid jobs, and many are in receipt of tax credits. Most have children in local schools and told me that they want to improve their English in order to get a job. Without exception, all of them told me that they want to speak better English so as to get on in life and be able to speak to their doctor, their neighbours and their children’s school teacher.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case and I wonder whether her experience has been similar to mine. Priory Park in my constituency has written to me to say that out of 42 students in the three classes run by that centre, only one receives benefits that will qualify them for such support in the future.

Heidi Alexander: That has certainly been my experience in Lewisham, and research by the Association of Colleges shows that a significant number of people who study ESOL courses are in receipt of inactive benefits.

I was talking about the sorts of people whom we find in English language classes across the country. Some people in the UK may ask how it is that those who cannot speak English are living in the United Kingdom. I have some sympathy with such a sentiment, although I wonder how many Brits living abroad make little effort to learn the local language. More seriously, the circumstances that led to some people—refugees in particular—coming to this country in the first place did not mean that they could say, “Hang on a minute, let me

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brush up on my English language skills.” Like it or not, there are people in this country, many of whom are British citizens, who have poor language skills.

When the Prime Minister tells us how vital it is that all migrants speak the language of their new home, I agree with him. When he says that practical things can make a big difference to community cohesion, I agree with him again. When he says that the presence in neighbourhoods of significant numbers of people who cannot speak the same language as those already living in the area can cause discomfort and disjointedness, I agree with him for a third time. Why on earth, therefore, are the Prime Minster’s colleagues, including the Minister present today, making it harder for people to learn English? It is completely nonsensical. Many other countries make language training compulsory for new arrivals, but we are in the unique position of running the risk of making it harder to learn English.

The situation that I described of the ESOL class in Lewisham is replicated in towns and cities up and down the country. A recent survey carried out by the Association of Colleges found that at least 90,000 ESOL students are on inactive benefits—that is 90,000 people who currently have access to free language tuition but will not if they start their course in September. According to the survey, 74% of those people are women. The AOC’s survey also found that over half of ESOL students receive inactive benefits—income support, working tax credits or housing benefit—but that only 14% receive the so-called active benefits of jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance. Did the Minister realise that when he published his skills strategy last November, and did he realise that roughly two thirds of ESOL students on inactive benefits are women? I know that he has promised an equality impact assessment of the changes to ESOL funding, as distinct from the broader assessment carried out by the skills for sustainable growth strategy, but where is it? Will he update us on when that assessment will be published?

One of the most perverse things that strikes me about the changes to the way that ESOL is funded is that we could end up in a situation where money has been allocated to colleges and other providers for courses such as ESOL, but they will not be able to use it. There is a serious risk that Government funding will just sit in bank accounts during the coming academic year because the students who should be on those courses simply will not be able to pay their half of the course fees.

The Government seem to have acknowledged that that could be a problem in the most recent guidance note published by the Skills Funding Agency. Paragraph 53 of guidance note 7 states:

“The Agency recognises that new rules on learner eligibility and fee remission mean that many colleges and training organisations will have to make significant shifts in their provision in order to earn the allocation they have received for 2011/12. Given the scale of the challenge, the Agency will consider some transitional flexibility, to support colleges and training organisations making that change.”

Paragraph 54 states:

“At the end of the year, if the Agency is satisfied that a transition plan has been successfully implemented during 2011/12, the Agency will agree a manual adjustment to the final claim, to reduce the amount of funding that would otherwise be subject to clawback.”

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Will the Minister explain whether that means that colleges that cannot spend their adult education budget on ESOL courses next year because the students simply will not be coming through their doors can keep the money that they would otherwise have spent?

Kate Green: Does my hon. Friend share the concern expressed to me by Trafford college that some colleges may be forced to close classes, so even for those people who can fund themselves to attend college classes, those classes may cease to exist?

Heidi Alexander: I agree that college governors throughout the country are making decisions at this time about how they will fund courses next year and whether to keep staff on or put them on notice of redundancy, so there is a real danger that the ability to provide the courses will simply dry up.

I spoke about the possibility of funds just sitting in bank accounts this year, unable to be used, as the students will not be coming through the door because they would not be able to pay their half of the course fees. I ask myself and the Minister whether that is a good use of public funds in such straitened economic times or whether it is an admission that the Department had not really understood the significance of the changes that it included when it published its strategy document last November. What happens in a year’s time, when money has not been spent and budgets are being set for the subsequent year? Does the Minister recognise that reduced spend by colleges and training providers will be a reflection not of demand for English language courses, but of students’ inability to pay?

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): There is an additional point. If courses cease because of cuts, students who have already made some progress but who cannot afford the fees in the coming year will not be able to study. I know from my appalling French that if people do not focus on the study of a new language and maintain their learning, they go backwards.

Heidi Alexander: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Later in my speech, I have some testimony from Lewisham college students who make precisely that point—that to improve and, indeed, to make the best progress possible, there needs to be continuity of learning.

I was talking about the latest guidance note from the Skills Funding Agency. While I am on that subject, I would like to ask the Minister a few more questions. In particular, why is the Department treating ESOL differently from other basic skills training and foundation learning? In paragraph 47 of the latest Skills Funding Agency note, the Government state that where a learner has an entitlement to a level 2 qualification, entry or level 1 aims will be fully funded to facilitate progression. However, the note also states that skills for life, including ESOL, are exempt from that provision. Will the Minister tell me why? Simply saying, as guidance note 7 does, that guidance note 6 deals with that is not an answer to my question.

It is remarkable that colleges and training providers may not be able to spend money that has been allocated to address basic skills because of the new co-financing requirements that the Government are introducing. That just does not make sense.

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I will turn now to some of the wider arguments about why investment in ESOL courses is so important. In the last few days, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has estimated that eastern European immigration has added £4.9 billon to the UK’s gross domestic product. Surely having more people able to speak the language and able to work is a good thing. The alternative is more dependence on the state and a greater outlay on benefits. That is before we start to think about the knock-on effects of poor language ability on the public purse.

In April, a series of freedom of information requests to London hospitals showed that in the three years from 2007 to 2010, £15 million was spent by seven different hospitals on interpreters and translators. We know that other parts of the public sector, whether councils or the Courts Service, have similarly high bills. Again, I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a Minister. This time, it is the Minister for Immigration, who is quoted in connection with that story as saying:

“This illustrates very starkly why we need to do more to ensure that those people who are settled in this country can speak basic English.”

Will the Minister responsible for skills tell me what discussions he has had with the Minister for Immigration about the impact of his changes to ESOL? Has he told the Minister for Immigration that his Department’s changes will result in fewer people being able to speak basic English? It is not just the NHS that is affected.

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a very powerful case with which most of us would agree. Given the financial constraints that the Government find themselves under because of the general economic situation, will she accept that for every pound that she would like to be restored to the budget for ESOL, a pound should be taken away from translation along the lines that she has suggested?

Heidi Alexander: This issue is so important and has such knock-on effects that investment in English language courses is fundamental. That is why I have called for the debate today.

I was making some points about the wider societal importance of English language skills and had spoken about the NHS. Let us think now about schools and what happens to many children who grow up without English as their mother tongue. They go to primary schools and hundreds of teachers throughout the country do a sterling job in improving their language skills and helping them to integrate with their classmates. Then they go home, where perhaps they revert to speaking the language of their mother and father. Is it not much better for those children to be able to hear both their parents speaking English—perhaps not all the time, but at least so that they can see and hear that their parents can speak the language? Is it not much better for their parents to be able to understand the letter from school, to be able to speak to the teachers and to be able to contribute to the wider school community?

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the very powerful case that she has made. Like me, she represents an area in south-east London with a

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very large number of relatively poor migrants and she will know the number of occasions on which in our surgeries we are confronted with constituents who bring a child to translate for them. Her point is very powerful: in the interests of community cohesion, it must be right to encourage those families to speak English at home and not just to depend on their children to translate for them.

Heidi Alexander: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. Like him, I have had that experience at my surgeries.

We are coming to the nub of the debate now. Time and again, people at the top of the Government have talked tough on immigration and community cohesion. It is often a simplistic narrative that runs the danger of inflaming tensions rather than dealing with them. However, its simplicity, even if it is problematic in many ways, demonstrates how critical language skills are to building a shared sense of what it means to be British, what it means to live together in our towns and cities and how we might all be able to develop respect and tolerance for someone else’s way of life.

That is why, on 30 March, I stood up in the Chamber and asked the Prime Minister to reconsider the Government’s plans for ESOL, given his desire to see everyone speaking English. His response was illuminating. He said:

“We will have to take some difficult decisions over student numbers, and the priority should be to ensure that our universities can go on attracting the best and the brightest from around the world...That is why we have said that there should be a post-study work route. However, it does mean that we should be tough, particularly on those colleges that are not highly regarded. The fact is that over the last year, about 90,000 students were coming to colleges that did not have proper regard at all.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 342.]

I could not quite believe what I heard. I was so incensed as I sat there that I am surprised that I did not get a “Calm down, dear.”

I appreciate that answers to unasked questions are a common occurrence in politics, but I am afraid that the ignorance the Prime Minister’s reply demonstrated was in another league altogether. I was not talking about international students coming to the UK to learn English, about bogus colleges or about 90,000 students coming to study at institutions with no “proper regard”. I actually had to watch the clip of our exchange again on Democracy Live because I thought I must have been so vague and ambiguous that the Prime Minister could not possibly have understood me, but, no, I was relatively clear, and the Prime Minister did not know what I was talking about.

I was talking about the thousands of people who are settled in the UK and who need to be able to speak our language. I was talking about the mums in Lewisham, Sheffield and Liverpool who are desperate to learn English. There may not be many such mums in Witney, but if the Prime Minister is going to insist on giving us lectures on immigration and community cohesion, he should at least have a basic grasp of the things that can make a difference to communities such as the one I represent, and ESOL is one of those things.

Before I close, I want to refer to some of the stories of Lewisham college’s ESOL students, all of whom have contacted me about the proposed changes. Solange

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Makaba is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has lived in the UK for 11 years. She says:

“I heard on the news yesterday that the government is going to change everything about studies in this country and I feel disappointed and depressed about it.”

Speaking of when she first came to this country, she says:

“I didn’t know where to start and I was unable to do anything because I had a problem with my English. It was too hard at the beginning, but when I found an ESOL class, it helped me a lot. Now I am able to do something because I improved my English.”

I have another e-mail, from Nanthankumary Sivakumar, and the Minister should already be familiar with these comments, as the e-mail was copied to both of us on 10 February. Nanthankumary says:

“I am writing to you because I feel worried about the proposed cuts to ESOL English classes. I came to England in 2005, when I couldn’t speak English and no one could help. First my life was hard. Then my husband found work. After that my children joined a school. It was very difficult for me because I couldn’t understand English at my children’s school and GP. I couldn’t answer important phone calls during that period. I thought about going back to France. Then I found an English class at Lewisham College. I couldn’t speak very well but I could manage everything. If I had to pay for my course I wouldn’t have improved so quickly”—

my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) touched on that—

“and I wouldn’t be able to help my children. I am worried that after the cuts people will not be able to access education.”

There is also the story of Maryam Zeinolabedini, whose e-mail the Minister was also copied in on. Maryam says:

“I am writing to tell you that I am very worried about the proposed cuts to ESOL courses…When I came to England, I couldn’t speak English. I was living in Nottingham and one day I was very sick. I went to hospital and nobody could help me. I was very upset and for 4 hours I waited for an interpreter.”

After that, she decided to learn English. She says:

“I went to college and English classes. I was very happy because I got a part time job in a factory and in the afternoon I went to college and discussed with my classmates and teacher and improved my English. If I had to pay for my ESOL course I couldn’t come to college and would feel very unhappy and couldn’t communicate with people.”

Finally, there is Percy Tabaoda, who says:

“I am writing to you because I’m so worried about the proposed Government cuts to ESOL and the effects they’ll have on the most vulnerable people and their families. I come from Peru and I’ve been living in this country for more than 10 years. I’m a British citizen now but in my experience as an immigrant I’ll tell you that what helped me gain confidence and integrate into the society was courses like ESOL. I believe the government will be making a big mistake if they proceed with the cuts because it is not a solution to the problems the country is facing.”

I repeat: the changes are not a solution to the problems the country is facing—Percy hits the nail on the head. The danger, of course, is that the proposed changes to ESOL will not only not be a solution, but will make some of the problems in our country much worse. I implore Ministers to look again at their proposed change. They should look hard at the impact assessment when their civil servants put it in front of them. They should look again at the Prime Minister’s speeches and ask themselves whether they really think their changes will result in more people being able to speak basic English.

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I have not come here to score political points, but because the Government did not do their homework before announcing the changes to ESOL last November. I want to give the last word to another constituent, Nick Linford, who is a further education funding consultant and the managing director of Learning and skills—events, consultancy and training, or Lsect. I must thank Nick for his help and advice over the bank holiday weekend when I was preparing this speech. He sums up the current situation better than I ever could when he says:

“The change to inactive benefit policy will impact on tens of thousands of English language learners, something it is clear the Government did not properly consider when they announced the policy…in November 2010. It is an unintended consequence and a rethink whilst embarrassing is more than worth it…as aside from the impact on communities and people’s lives, it would avoid tens of millions in funding going unspent.”

In referring to unintended consequences, Nick gives the Government the benefit of the doubt, and the debate gives the Government an opportunity to show that he is right to so.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at about 10.35 am. At least 10 hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak. If hon. Members do the maths, they will work out that they have about three minutes each. I have no power to curtail speeches, and I had, in fact, been allowing for the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) to take rather longer. However, the length of time for which Members speak is not in my gift, but in the gift of others present.

9.56 am

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Six or seven months before the election, I attended a session on phonics at a school where I was a governor. The session was also attended by 50 parents—48 women and two men. I am not suggesting that all those who attended were poor at English, but the parents of only 10% of the school’s children—there are nearly 700 children at the school and its nursery—were born in this country, so Members will appreciate the difficulties that the children have at times with the lack of English in their homes.

When Kate and Will looked at their contribution to reducing the deficit, I am sure that they carried out a cost-benefit analysis and decided that their wedding was worth while, because of the tourism and the extra hotel rooms that would be booked. In the case of ESOL provision, too, we really need to look rigorously at the cost-benefit analysis. We are not talking about people who are fluent in Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati, or in the languages of Slovakia and Lithuania. Very often, although not so much in the case of eastern Europeans, we are talking about people who have never developed language skills, even in their mother tongue, and ESOL lessons are the first time that they learn not only English, but how to develop language skills.

One of the most powerful arguments used against the education maintenance allowance, which I did not agree with, was the infamous dead-weight argument that 90% of people would go to college or stay on even without EMA. However, surely that argument does not apply to the situation that we are discussing. Clearly, the majority

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of people who benefit from ESOL provision would not be able fully to fund it themselves. At Bradford college, 46% of ESOL students who are currently fully funded would not receive full funding, and they would not be able to access ESOL provision.

We have a social contract. I did not sign the pledge on free higher education, which has been a massive subsidy to the middle and upper classes for years, and I welcome the fact that those people will now have to contribute to the cost of their higher education. However, there is a social contract for those up to 18, and all parties agree that we should provide free education up to the statutory leaving age. We have reached that agreement, because we realise that young people need to develop basic knowledge and skills, including language skills, to make the best of themselves when they leave full-time education. Why do we not extend that free aspect? Why does that social contract not extend to those who do not have English, whatever their age? Whether people are 19 or 90, if they do not have the skills to enable them to be fully functioning members of society, why do we not extend that social contract to them, as we do to those under 18? The argument that is made is that that is a matter of equality. We do not fund, apart from those on active benefits, those who are over 19, so why should we provide ESOL for those over 19? However, the lesson that I have learned over many years in my community is that if unequal people are treated equally, inequality is reinforced. If one does not favour those who are over 19 but who lack the basic skills to be part of a functioning society, one is disadvantaging and reinforcing the inequality that already exists.

Bradford college, one of the largest providers of ESOL in the country, has considered the impact on the local community. Those on low incomes are likely to remain on low incomes, as they will lose out on the opportunity to develop their language skills and to improve their employment prospects.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, with this approach, the Government are creating an environment of social alienation, which can be so damaging to multicultural communities such as mine?

Mr Ward: That approach is damaging to my community, as well. I believe that that is a fundamental consideration that needs to be taken on board. Bradford college has also said:

“The college currently makes an excellent contribution to Bradford’s widening participation, social mobility and social cohesion agendas. The ESOL team is a significant force in meeting these agendas.”

Coming from Bradford, I know the cost of not having social cohesion, which is a cost that we cannot afford. We need to do all that we can, which includes fully funding ESOL provision for all those who require it. In answer to the question whether, pound for pound, provision should be for translators or for ESOL, it should be both—maybe we could fund that from the royal family.

10.2 am

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. I will do my best to be brief to allow other colleagues to contribute.

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I wish to refer to two aspects of the impact of Government policies on my constituency. The first has been expressed in correspondence from Michael Farley, principal of Tower Hamlets college, who tells me that at the college there are 2,000 adult students on ESOL training, only 20% of whom are on active benefits. He also expects a 24% cut in ESOL funding generally. He asked me to raise three specific points with the Minister. My hon. Friend has already referred to two such points, and maybe to all three.

The first point concerns when the Minister will publish the specific equality impact assessment on the ESOL changes, which will be appreciated as soon as possible. Secondly, there has been a request to delay any changes by at least a year to allow a working group to be convened by the Association of Colleges, the Refugee Council, the University and College Union and others to try to plot a consensus and way forward. Thirdly, there has been a request to consider a sliding scale of fees depending on circumstances, which would replace the current models with colleges having flexibility to decide how they support the provision. Tower Hamlets college is a huge educational institution in my constituency, and it provides education to people from the next-door constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali). Michael Farley’s advice has been taken by both of us, and we are keen to hear the Minister’s response.

The second aspect of the impact was clear from a visit that I made to the Bromley by Bow centre in my constituency, one of the premier social entrepreneurial centres in the UK, where I met 100 ESOL students, 95 of whom were women and 85 of whom were not on active benefits and therefore will not be entitled to future support. Seeking work is obviously an important criterion, but many of those people are not looking for work and are therefore not entitled to benefits. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East has said, the ability to communicate with their children and teachers in English is very important, and the ability to present adequately to doctors—to describe signs and symptoms and be able to understand the advice and medication—is critical.

It is most important that people integrate into UK society, which is a fundamental ambition of all political parties. With these policies, we are preventing that from taking place. Those critical aspects of life are not addressed by the coalition’s proposals. The ESOL students at the Bromley by Bow centre asked me to raise those points with the Minister and to seek his response to them. I am pleased to have the chance to do that, and I thank my hon. Friend for providing the opportunity. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those important points, which I will send to my constituents.

10.5 am

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. She spoke in a heartfelt way, although some hyperbolic concerns have been expressed by some of her colleagues.

I want to offer my input as a Government Member with an inner-London seat. I share the concerns that have been expressed about the unintended consequences at the margins of some of the proposals, and I will be

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listening to the Minister with interest. Westminster Kingsway college in my constituency does a tremendous job not only for my constituents but for other central London authorities.

As the Minister shadowed his role in opposition for some years, he fully understands elements of the skills gap. He is passionate about what he is trying to achieve in what has been the Cinderella area of further education for many years. We will see some tremendous advantages from some of the deep-seated work that he has done in the area. He recognises the importance of English language skills, and I hope that he will work through all the unintended consequences of the financial implications. I expect that he will say more on that point.

We are living in difficult financial straits. In the exchange that I had earlier with the hon. Member for Lewisham East, I was sincere in saying that there has been a tremendous amount of waste in translation services not only in our hospitals but in local authorities. Conservative local authorities have been equally big offenders, with huge amounts of money spent on translating masses of literature into umpteen languages. I have seen that both in Westminster and in the next-door authority of Kensington and Chelsea, where I was a councillor for eight years. I made these points time and again during the late 1990s about the amount of money being spent in rather more clement economic weather—I was not trying to be flippant and we have got to think about that. Is there a way in which we can make distinct savings and ring-fence money saved on translation services to be put into ESOL?

In the 10 years in which I have been an MP in inner London, I have always stood up for English language courses. I have always said, whenever I have been lobbied—particularly by the large Bangladeshi and Chinese communities in my constituency—about courses in their home language, that I do not believe it right for public money to be spent in that area. However, where there is a need—there clearly is—for English language skills in those communities, we should do all that we can. I accept we are living in a very different economic environment and that money is tight.

I take on board what the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) had to say. This issue transcends further education; it is an issue of community cohesion, and we must take it extremely seriously. If that means the Minister knocking some heads together in the Home Office to ensure that we can parcel elements of this budget, it would be a sensible way forward.

I hope that the Minister will take on board some of the heartfelt concerns expressed today. I accept that we are in such a difficult financial state that we have to make some difficult decisions and that this is one of them. However, I hope that we can look at community cohesion in a much broader way, and I also hope that the Minister will work with other Ministers.

I look forward to hearing other contributions to the debate. I hope that we can all work together, and that it is not a matter of making hyperbolic claims about the Government being somewhat racist or sexist. We all recognise that there are difficult decisions to be made, and I hope that we can work together in the interests of community cohesion and of making life better for many millions of immigrants who are committed to this

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country. Many of them were equally committed to the events on the streets of London last Friday. It was great to see many coloured faces of people who recognise that the royal family represents all their interests in a way that no political party can purport to do.

10.9 am

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): On a number of occasions, I have presented certificates to ESOL graduates in my constituency. York college, which provides the majority of the courses, does an essential job.

English is one of our great national assets. It is the international language for business, science, politics and the internet. It gives our country an enormous economic advantage. It is a mistake to think of immigration as a one-way flow. Millions who came to our country helped us to create the economic boom of the noughties. They came from eastern and central Europe and from many other parts of the world, and many of them returned to their countries speaking English, which helps to give us the enormous global economic advantage of making ours the pre-eminent international language.

The Government are right to use the teaching of English for speakers of other languages as a way to help people get paid work, but they are wrong to suppose that it is only Jobcentre Plus that provides a route from benefits into work. College courses are effective, and they reach people that Jobcentre Plus does not reach and enable them to find work. The Government are also wrong to assume that paid work is the only way for people to contribute to society. What about voluntary work? The big society will fail if it does not involve immigrants and speakers of other languages. The Prime Minister is right to say that immigrants have a duty to integrate; they should not be excluded from the big society, but unless they are given the opportunity to learn our language, they will be.

The Association of Colleges has made some useful suggestions, and I hope that the Minister will consider them carefully and take them on board. It suggests a sliding scale of fees rather than students getting the course for free or having to pay the full rate. It also suggests that for many of those with basic skills needs, the learning of English is a means to an end, because without the ability to communicate in our language, they will not gain the necessary basic numeracy and literacy skills.

I know that time is short, so my final point is this. I know that the Minister has taken a huge interest in promoting apprenticeships during his time in Parliament, both in opposition and in government. He will know that black and minority ethnic people are enormously under-represented on apprenticeship schemes. If the Government cut back on giving people from other countries who do not speak English the opportunity to learn our language, that huge racial disadvantage will never be overcome.

10.13 am

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I apologise, Mr Gale, because I will not be able to stay for the whole debate; I have to attend the Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee at 10.30 am.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. I am grateful to the Minister for engaging in correspondence

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with me on the problem as it affects my central Manchester constituency. My constituency also contains a diverse and successful multicultural community, so I strongly support everything said this morning about the impact on individuals and families and on the implications for strengthening communities and community cohesion.

I wish to raise a couple of specific points, as time is so short. First, will the Minister amplify what he said in his letter of 13 April about the way in which colleges are to be encouraged to identify and draw in people from vulnerable backgrounds and communities? What processes will be put in place to make that happen? What guidance will be made available to colleges to support them in making those decisions? What auditing or monitoring will be put in place subsequently to ensure that it is indeed the most vulnerable learners who have access to those courses?

Secondly, ESOL funding is to continue for people making steps back into employment through jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Whether those people are routed through Jobcentre Plus or Work programme providers, how will the Minister ensure that there is sufficient funding for colleges to sustain that provision and enable access to those courses? As I have said, it is a big concern for Trafford college in my constituency that classes may have to close. ESOL funding has always been patchy and stop-go, and it is difficult to rely on it. What assurances can the Minister give that there will be certainty of funding, even for those who now or under a future regime will remain entitled?

Thirdly, what attention is being to given to ensuring that ESOL provision is sufficiently resourced to meet the needs of people not only to learn English but to learn it in a way that allows them to apply it through their roles in the community and on their journeys towards employment? That applies whether or not they are on active benefits. Many women in my community in Trafford are not on active benefits, but it is none the less likely that at some point they will want to move into paid employment. They are certainly actively engaged in their communities.

The best way to reach those women is in the settings where they already go, and for English language teaching to be set in the context of the activities that they already undertake in the community—in Sure Start centres, in caring for their children, in medical centres and talking to their doctors, in improving their children’s health and well-being and in the context of the kind of jobs that they might be interested in doing in future, such as caring, catering or clerical roles. I would be grateful if the Minister were to say something about making ESOL courses useful and relevant to people’s life courses, whether in or out of work, and about resourcing and supporting them.

I am sorry that I cannot be here to hear the Minister’s response, but I undertake to read his comments in the Official Report, particularly as I am meeting the principal of my further education college in Trafford later this week to discuss this important matter.

10.16 am

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate. Indeed, the number of Members present shows how essential it is.

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As time is short and many have spoken on the matters about which I would have liked to speak, I simply support the ideas that have been expressed and recognise the feelings in their constituencies. As a person who had little knowledge of English 42 years ago, I know that without the opportunity to learn the language in this country I probably would have been working on the factory floor. In today’s circumstances, I would probably not even have had the chance to work.

Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college in my constituency is one of the largest providers of ESOL courses in the UK, with almost 3,000 students at its five campuses. More than 2,000 of the students are women, many of whom will now be denied the chance to improve their English, their job prospects and their children’s chances of fully integrating into society. The college told me that it was concerned that the high proportion of women who will be affected will have a severe impact on families and on the next generation. They said this change will stop English being spoken at home, which means that the fluency of the younger generation will continue to be affected, thus ensuring that the literacy and language problems already present in our schools will be perpetuated, affecting educational standards.

The college also spoke to me of its dismay that women in particular will now be denied the chance to learn. It said:

“it seems to have been forgotten that many of these students have escaped serious repression in their own countries. The women in particular are also frequently fighting their husbands to have the freedom to study. The real issue, therefore, is that they have come to this country to find their voice, and in return we are locking them into silence.”

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): My hon. Friend rightly concentrates, as have others, on the effect on students, but Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college—the largest provider of ESOL in his constituency and mine—will suffer badly because ESOL courses give people access to other courses enabling them to gain further qualifications. The college will lose £5 million, and its successful future will be jeopardised by these changes, which are very short-sighted.

Mr Sharma: I agree with my hon. Friend. The colleges and campuses are in both of our constituencies, and I am aware of his point.

The students at West London college felt so strongly about the changes that they organised an ESOL day of action, which I, and probably many other Members in their own constituencies, attended. The students are worried that their voices are not being heard by the Government. Now is the time to stop and listen to those who will have to live with these changes. The Prime Minister wanted the Government to go further in helping those who come to the UK to learn English, and we must ensure that that wish is fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will take note of the views that are being expressed not just by me but by many of my colleagues who have experienced similar calls from their constituents. He must ensure that people have the opportunities and resources to integrate into our society and to improve their working opportunities so that they, too, can contribute to the future of this country.

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10.21 am

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I apologise that I will have to rush away early from this debate to attend a statutory instrument Committee at 10.30. I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on the fine way in which she has presented her case today. She said everything that needed to be said, but we all want to add a little of our own experience.

Many of the students of the Granville Park education centre, which my hon. Friend visited, are constituents of mine, and Lewisham college is in my constituency. Its excellent principal, Maxine Room, has made representations on the subject to both my hon. Friends and me.

If the Minister were to say that the Labour Government started this process of targeting benefits, I would say to him that when we targeted, we wanted to be absolutely sure that these were people who were resident in this country and who had the right to be here and to be on benefits. There is a difference between what his Government propose and what we did in 2007. We said, “If you are here and entitled as a member of our society, we want you to be able to learn English.” It is this change to active benefits that excludes so many women. Women are often not even required to sign for active benefits. They are legitimately claiming inactive benefits. Many women who are single parents have young children in their care and cannot possibly put themselves forward for an active benefit, but they are playing a real part in society. It is this matter of community cohesion that must concern us.

I have been appalled by the idea of very young children having to explain to doctors their mothers’ gynaecological conditions. Some women have no hope of getting medical help without such assistance from their child.

I remember a group of Somali mothers who came together because of their great concern that their children were not in school. Some 17 Somali youngsters were identified who were not in school and not known to the education authorities. The mothers did not know how to get their children into school. If we want community cohesion, we do not want to see children, who were never schooled in the original countries from which they and their mothers fled because of appalling violence, not being given the opportunity to be in school in this country.

I urge the Minister to look at the equality assessment objectively when it comes in. Opposition Members and, I think, Government Members, believe that that will demonstrate that this measure is against everything the Government have ever said they want to achieve in terms of community cohesion and it is certainly discriminatory against women. He must find the scope to act if he has the evidence. This issue must be grasped because we are punishing those who have often suffered already, those who have come here to make a better life for themselves, and those who just want to live a normal life but cannot access that life or integrate. Time prevents me from reading out some of the many letters that I have received on this matter. None the less, the Minister will see that he needs to change his mind. I am sorry that I cannot be here to hear him promise to do that, but I hope very much that he will.

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10.25 am

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): In view of the time, I will severely curtail my points. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on this timely debate and I welcome the comments from Government Members on the need to work together in resolving the issue. I tabled an early-day motion on the issue, which drew support from parties across the House. There is the potential for us to address the concerns that have been raised this morning.

I will not read out all the testimonies that I received in response to my early-day motion. A number of students from Sheffield college talked about wanting to improve their lives, to find a job, to help their children, and to be able to talk to their doctor. One said, “I don’t need an interpreter any more. I feel more confident. I can join in with things. I won’t keep myself so far from society.” Is not that what we all want to see?

Of the testimonies I received, almost all of them were from women. That is not surprising. As has already been said, 74% of ESOL students on inactive benefits—those who will be affected by the Government’s proposals—are women. Six months on from the original proposals being published by the Department, the equality impact assessment has yet to be produced. Only last week, the Minister, in response to a written question that I tabled, said:

“There is no specific date currently planned for publication of the assessment.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2011; Vol. 527, c. 487W.]

That is simply not acceptable because there is a date for implementation of the proposals. There is a real danger that we will find ourselves in a position—as the Government have on other policies—in which we implement changes before we consider the evidence. I join my hon. Friend in urging a delay in implementation.

Although, regrettably, I will not be able to stay until the end of the debate, I would like an assurance from the Minister today that he will consider our remarks and that we will receive the equality impact assessment and have the opportunity to consider it before the Government proceed with their proposals. That delay will give us the time to consider the helpful proposals that have been made by the Association of Colleges and others. My own early-day motion simply asks the Government to modify their proposals to alleviate the devastating impact that they will have on many people, and on women in particular.

10.28 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) brilliantly summed up the main points. I just want to add a few remarks about what is happening in my area. I have been contacted by Uxbridge college, which delivers ESOL classes from the Hayes campus. The principal, Laraine Smith, has contacted me, as has the ESOL lecturer Rubina Kause. My constituency, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), is one of the most multicultural in the country and has a 100-year history of migration. When ESOL was introduced, we found that it significantly contributed to overcoming divisions and isolation and maintaining a cohesive community.

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I attend the award ceremonies for ESOL classes in my area. There is a 100% attendance record for such classes, and they are mainly attended by women. When I ask them what their motivation is, they say that it is about supporting their children in education and wanting to engage in the wider community. In my area, 80% of students are not on the benefits appropriate to enable them to maintain their attendance at these classes.

The main concern expressed by the colleges is that individuals will be driven back into isolation, which will result in a divided community in the future. Uxbridge college in my constituency has already lost its capital grant for reconstruction. It has lost grants that have supported ESOL classes and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall said, its concern is that there will now be further instability that will threaten the courses that it offers in the long term.

I urge the Minister to pause again. We await the outcome of the equality impact assessment, but I invite him today to visit a number of colleges. I am happy for him to visit classes in my own area and to meet representatives of the University and College Union and some of its lecturers to talk through the long-term implications for our communities of the threat to these courses. I cannot overestimate the seriousness of the cuts to these courses for the wider community.

10.30 am

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I, too, want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) for initiating this debate. I also want to thank the Minister. Along with representatives of the Refugee Council and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, I had a meeting with him about this policy. At the end of that meeting, I felt a bit optimistic. I feel slightly foolish about that now; I thought that the Minister had got the point.

That point has been emphasised in speeches today. It is that this policy will affect women in an unfair way and that the women who will be affected are the mothers of children whose future is here in Britain. I do not think that we have heard enough about their children. For a child to succeed in school, the input of their parents is critical and mums who can read in English with their children make a major contribution to their children’s learning.

In my constituency, the evidence is that five times as many women as men are affected by this policy and that it is mums for whom the difference is greatest, because it is mums who quite often find it difficult to get out of their homes. That is not only because they do not have the necessary resources but because there are “gatekeepers” in their family who will not allow them out, except to something safe such as an ESOL class. It is a very liberating experience for mothers to attend such a class.

I urge the Minister to raid not only the translation budgets, which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) has already referred to, but the interpretation budgets. In our police stations and health service in Slough, we spend a huge amount on Language Line. If we could ensure that patients and criminals alike could speak English, less money would need to be spent on Language Line. The Minister needs to invest to save that money.

The Minister wrote to me after our meeting and said:

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“We have therefore prioritised Government investment in training for unemployed people actively seeking work.”

He is being too short-term in his thinking. The people who we are talking about today will be able to work in future, but right now they are not able to seek work actively. Unless we invest in them at this point, they will never be able to seek work actively, because one of the things that I have discovered through speaking to many ESOL teachers is that getting people early, before they have learned to get by with pidgin English, is the key to their achieving success in learning English.

I urge the Minister not only to scoop money out of the interpretation budgets for the Home Office and the NHS and use it to reduce the need for interpretation, but to invest in community provision of ESOL. That provision involves family learning, ESOL with reading and ESOL with basic skills. If he could offer that kind of provision, it would provide some of the things that we need for the mums who I am talking about.

There is another thing that the Minister could do. In his letter to me, he referred to “flexibilities” for colleges. If there were more flexibility for colleges, the risk that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East referred to—of colleges having money that they cannot spend—would be reduced. In my constituency, for example, the percentage of students who will receive fee remission in the council-run courses will fall from 82% at present to 6% under the Minister’s proposals. If he gave complete flexibility to colleges and other providers about how they used the money that he gave them, I think that they would use that flexibility well.

Unless the Minister has community-based ESOL education for free or at affordable prices for the mums I have mentioned, we will create a generation of children who, although they were born in Britain, will speak pidgin English and will not be able to use their learning as well as they ought to. Unless he invests in addressing that problem, we will lose another generation of workers.

10.34 am

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I want to make two points, briefly. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) has already said, Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college is one of the largest colleges in the country and it is the largest provider of ESOL in the country; it has almost 3,000 ESOL students. Of the college’s total number of students, 84% are of non-white British heritage, and for 70% English is not their mother tongue. Among the students, there are 100 nationalities and 70 languages are spoken. Of those taking ESOL courses, 65% are on inactive benefits and 77% are women.

Those statistics show that ESOL is fundamental to the life and success of that college and the surrounding community. This measure is not simply “another cut”; it is destroying the basis for education for thousands of people in my constituency and the neighbouring constituencies in west London—and, of course, over a wider area.

My second point is that this policy is not only about education; it is exactly to do with what the Prime Minister has said about British values, culture and traditions. In my constituency, we had an ESOL day on 24 March, when the students at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college came together to celebrate

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their own history and culture, as well as what ESOL had given them. They showed great enthusiasm, producing a magazine written in English in which they not only showed off their skills but said what ESOL meant to them. I will read out one excerpt from that magazine, from Mohammed Conde, who is from Guinea:

“If you don’t speak English, that means no life for you. How do you expect to live in this country if you’re not able to speak English? There are many things you have to understand about the country. For example, the laws, the history, the culture and the lifestyle, and all this only happens when you start speaking English.”

That could have been the Prime Minister speaking.

If the Minister will not listen to Mohammed Conde and the other students at the college, perhaps he will listen to the Prime Minister and look not only for people to succeed economically in this country but for a more cohesive society as a consequence of preserving ESOL for students who simply will not be able to afford the amount—up to £1,200—that they will have to pay in the future. That will destroy our colleges and the future of many young people and adults in my community and others.

10.36 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I will be very brief because of the short time we have left.

I think that the Minister has been in touch with or visited City and Islington college in my constituency. Consequently, he will be well aware of the excellent work that the college does on ESOL training, the good-quality teaching that it provides and the knock-on benefits for the entire community.

During his visit, he will also have heard from the students there—and no doubt from many other students around the country—that it is not only the college-based teaching that is valuable and important but the community-based teaching and the grant support for small community groups to learn English as a second language. That is because many people, particularly women, feel extremely isolated. For them, the concept and prospect of going to a college is quite daunting, whereas a fairly small teaching group in a community centre or a similarly appropriate location can be just as effective as teaching in a college.

Any analysis of what we are doing in this country about teaching English as a second language would show that the relatively small amount spent on it has enormous beneficial effects in later life for the children of ESOL students and for the economy and the community as a whole.

In Australia, any newly arrived migrant who does not speak English receives—as of right—up to 500 hours of English teaching, to enable them to participate fully in Australian society. That is extremely valuable. The community in north London that I am very proud to represent has dozens of different languages, possibly even 100. The multicultural concept and the associated quality of life is hugely valuable. However, there is a thirst among those people to be able to contribute to society. If we do not teach those people English, or give them the opportunity to learn English, in a college or elsewhere in a community, where will they learn it? English is not spoken in their homes, as nobody there

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has had the chance to learn it other than through the children. As a result, we end up with the embarrassing consequences of small children translating for their parents, as other Members have already pointed out, or we end up with children underachieving in school because their parents are unable to support and assist them. Those children underachieve and their parents are unable to access work.

We should educate the parents, particularly the mother, to speak English. The knock-on effects of doing that are enormous—for the achievements of the children in school and for the participation in society of both parents in every way, including gaining access to work and jobs. We would get back the money spent a dozenfold, in increased taxation and increased income for the community as a whole. It is a win-win situation as a result of a relatively small investment.

My plea to the Minister is that he fight his corner within Government spending requirements, that he understand both the value of English as a second language to the learners and its benefit to our entire community, and that he recognise the dedicated commitment of ESOL teachers in colleges and communities up and down the country. They not only teach English as a second language but do so much to bring the people they teach into the ambit of community life, so that they understand what it is like to live in this country and understand the rights, responsibilities and opportunities that they have. Cutting back on that is not sensible, fair or reasonable, and will simply be counter-productive in the long run. Give people a chance to communicate, participate and be part of our society; give them the chance to learn English as a second language.

10.40 am

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on the comprehensive and passionate way in which she has put her case—and, indeed, the case of so many Members on both sides of the Chamber today. She conveyed with great passion and conviction her points about the particular impact on women, which were echoed by so many, and about whether the Minister had realised that two thirds of ESOL students were women. She also made points about the practicalities of the co-funding, about why the Departments are treating ESOL differently from various other Skills Funding Agency funding streams, and about economic activity.

My hon. Friend’s passion and conviction have been shared by the other contributors. The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) urged the Minister to look at the cost-benefit analysis of ESOL and focused, very importantly, on economic inequality. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) talked about listening to what the Association of Colleges has said about sliding scales of fees. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) reminded us that the issue is broader than just further education and used, I think, the phrase “knocking heads” with the Home Office—that is a challenge for the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) made the very important point that the big society will fail if it does not include new entrants, and

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that ESOL is very important in that process. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) urged the Minister to look at the design of the ESOL programme, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) made the point that many women come to England to find a voice and that we are in danger, with the legislative changes, of locking them into silence.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) made some very important points about the role of single parents, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said that the importance of the equality impact assessment was still not recognised by the Government, even at this late stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about how ESOL overcomes division and isolation, and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made a very important point about the future of Britain—about mothers and children—and said that the issue is part of lifelong learning, about which I know the Minister is passionate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) talked about how ESOL was fundamental to the life and success of FE colleges, and I shall say a little more about that shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made another important point about community-based, as well as college-based, teaching. In my own constituency of Blackpool South, many of the groups that we want to meet simply will not or cannot go to colleges, so that point is very important.

The Minister has had a cornucopia of advice and fervour today, and I think that he will recognise all the points made. ESOL courses play a key role in helping people who have arrived in the UK to learn and develop English and to integrate into our society. The Minister will know, because of his own portfolio, that that is important in equipping them to contribute to the communities in which they live, not just through their integration, but also through their skills, their taxes and their economic activities.

As we have heard several times today, no less a person than the Prime Minister has banged on about the issue in recent speeches and has rightly identified the understanding of English as a key element. Yet paradoxically, at the very time when he is being so fervent with the rhetoric, the impact of some of his Ministers’ decisions will make the job much harder. Their decision to remove ESOL funding for learners on inactive benefits—in other words, not on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance—will hit many people on low incomes. They are precisely the sort of people that ESOL courses would help, by improving their language skills and, in turn, helping them in the job market and to feel further integrated into our society, rather than being stuck on the perimeter. It is worth remembering that, alongside these changes, the £4.3 million learner support fund that gave colleges the discretion to help with fees has been scrapped, as has the funding uplift that gave ESOL courses 20% more than courses in other subjects.

I am afraid that, as with so many other policies, the Department seems to have rushed in and then stopped to ask the questions later. It is very much like “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”: sentence first, trial later. Only now, after the policy has been announced, a

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matter of months from the changes coming into force, has the Department commissioned a specific equality impact assessment.

I urge the Minister to listen to everything that has been said today and to make that assessment a real basis for real change. How could his Department sign off on changes as fundamental as these without a proper assessment of how they could affect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, and exacerbate the gender bias in progression and employment? I hope that he already has his officials working on a plan to counteract some of those anticipated problems.

The changes to ESOL funding are, however, only the tip of a large iceberg. The restriction of fee remission to only those on active benefits is being applied across the board by the Skills Funding Agency as part of the harsh funding settlement that the Minister’s Department was dealt by last year’s comprehensive spending review, and Lsect—a learning and skills analysis company—estimates that the move could affect up to 25% of the adult provision currently funded by the SFA. That works out at some 300,000 learners.

Last year’s Government skills strategy was called “Skills for Sustainable Growth”, but what exactly is sustainable in cutting back on support that would enable low-income earners to take courses to improve their skills and job prospects? Those are surely vital aspects of building a balanced and sustainable economy. Someone working 30 hours a week on the minimum wage, for example, who has an annual income of £9,050 and receives working tax credits, will no longer qualify for full fee remission, thanks to the changes being brought in by the Government. I believe that the policies will nudge people away from, rather than towards, work, and that they point to a fundamental and potentially fatal disconnect between the Government’s policies on skills and welfare.

It is clear from discussions that I have had with many of the key stakeholder groups, who were not consulted on the potential impact of ESOL change, that they are driven by the waste as well as the unfairness. I attended and spoke at a meeting in this House at the end of March, at which the University and College Union, the Association of Colleges, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the Refugee Council and a number of individuals eloquently expressed their frustration with the Government on this issue. I urge the Minister to take on board not just what he can do in his own Department, but what he can and needs to do with the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, to prod them into rowing back from this ill-advised course of action.

The ESOL learning cuts could be, as others have said today, another blow to FE colleges, which have already had to cope with a 25% cut in their resource grant over the CSR period and the possible disastrous drop in enrolment thanks to the abolition of the education maintenance allowance. The cutting of ESOL funding could put college courses at risk, and in turn jeopardise lecturers’ positions, and that is reflected in a recent UCU-Unison survey that shows that 60 of the colleges surveyed were already planning to cut courses over the next year.

The Minister is, as others have been, fond of referring to FE as moving away from being a Cinderella sector. However, he knows—because he and I were in Birmingham at the Association of Colleges conference, where it

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came up time and again from the floor—that many of the colleges that right hon. and hon. Members here represent are very worried about the story’s ending. The confusion that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has caused over ESOL sums up the muddled thinking and lack of joined-up thinking across the Departments, with sweeping changes being made before their impact has been considered.

The Prime Minister has talked the talk on promoting cohesion and integration, but the Minister’s Department is failing to walk the walk. The issues being thrown up in ESOL provision will replicate themselves as general FE colleges across the country suffer the implications. The consequences will be serious for those who want to gain the skills to improve their career prospects and move on with their lives.

The issue is about the big society and moving forward. I urge the Minister to listen to what has been said today, delay the introduction of the policies, consider alternatives and convene the group that has been discussed. As I said, the Prime Minister has been eloquent on the subject. On 2 February, in response to a question on ESOL from one of his own Back Benchers, the hon. Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), he said:

“I completely agree, and the fact is that in too many cases”,

learning English

“is not happening. The previous Government did make some progress…I think we need to go further.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 856.]

Are the cuts the sort of going further that we need? I think not. The Minister is rightly fond of literary quotations. I remind him of the words of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The General”, about Tommies on the western front:

“‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack…

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”

If the Minister does not wish himself or his Prime Minister to be associated with such an outcome, he needs to think, persuade and act fast.

10.51 am

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): I am delighted to speak in this debate secured by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), who represents her constituency, which I know extremely well, with a passion and commitment. I thank other hon. Members for contributing to this debate. Both the tone and the spirit of their contributions have been helpful. I put it on record that in opposition and, more especially, in government, I have always informed what I have said and done by listening to the views of others, and I am happy to do so again today. In the short time available to me, I hope to be able to give some illustration of that willingness to listen.

Let us be clear about the context in which the decisions are being made. I have two points to make about that. One was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field). We are debating in difficult times for Government finances and public spending. The strategy that we published last November, which has been mentioned, set out changes that, although positive in my view, occur in the context of spending reductions, not just in the area of English

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for speakers of other languages but in many other areas. We have had to consider closely how to get maximum cost-effectiveness. I do not think that anyone in this Chamber expects ESOL to be exempt from such scrutiny. It was absolutely right to consider it alongside other spending commitments to decide how we could ensure value for money.

The second contextual point is that the changes are part of a strategy. I will not plead guilty to the charge that they were not thought through. We planned our skills strategy during five years in opposition, and the document that I published was the result of a careful rethink of how we fund and manage skills in this country. At the heart of that rethink is the question of who pays for what. What contribution should individuals make, what contribution should the state make and what contribution should business make? That question has been ducked for too long. It has informed the debate on skills for as long as I have been involved in it, but it has been posed and never previously answered. We are moving towards giving some clear answer.

The context is one of difficulty and the need for a fresh range of ideas and fresh thinking. However, it is also absolutely right that changes should be made on the basis of fairness. I am strongly committed to some of the principles articulated in this debate, such as social justice, social cohesion and social mobility. They are the cornerstone of my political views and should inform what we do in respect of policy. [ Interruption. ] I will not give way. I am terribly sorry. There have been a lot of contributions, and I want to make as much progress as I can. I apologise because I normally would.

I have five points to make in the time available to me, and in making them I will try to reflect the comments made during this debate and our consideration of these matters in correspondence and meetings. The first, which is a point of disagreement with some of the comments made, is that I take Trevor Phillips’s view of multiculturalism, to be blunt. I think that there is a choice to be made in framing a society with people who started in many different places. Either we build a society around integration or we allow the co-existence of subcultures, with the potential risk, as Phillips said, of ghettoisation. In that spirit, it is important that we develop strong bonds that unite us so that the things that unite us are more important than those that divide us. Language seems central to that. Indeed, I agree that language is an absolutely crucial element in creating such social cohesion. The issue is how to fund the acquisition of those necessary language skills.

That brings me to the second point. If English language skills are critical to the kind of integration that I seek and that the Prime Minister has advocated so powerfully, how do we go about funding the acquisition of those skills? When I first considered ESOL, it was clear to me that, for example, many people who came here temporarily as migrant workers were being trained in English free of charge. As Alan Tuckett mentioned in his Guardian article on the subject last week, some firms have advertised abroad, saying, “Come to England to work and you will be taught English free by the Government.” That seemed entirely unsustainable to me. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to subsidise highly profitable companies that recruit abroad to train their staff in English. It is not acceptable, and it must end.

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Other people who came here used ESOL as a way to acquire language skills that helped them socially or culturally, or because they wanted to travel further. I remember going to a college and meeting someone from another European country, whom I asked, “Why are you learning ESOL here?” He said, “So I can travel around the world. You can’t travel around the world if you don’t have English.” That also seemed to me fundamentally unacceptable.

My third point is a point of absolute agreement with the arguments made by the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Lewisham East. It is important, where women and families are fundamentally affected by the absence of good English skills, that we consider how to help and support them. The fourth point is that it is also vital, where the absence of English is an impediment to employment and the economic activity that is central to people’s social and civic engagement, that we should also help. That is why I have decided to support people on active benefits.

The fifth point is that it was I who decided that a further impact assessment should be done. An impact assessment done at the time of the skills strategy determined that there would be no disproportionate effect on particular groups, but I felt that we should go further and consider the particular effect of this policy. That assessment will inform how the policy develops.

Heidi Alexander: When will the assessment be published?

Mr Hayes: I will ensure that it is published in good time—certainly before the summer recess—so that we have a chance to consider it in detail, informed by debates such as this one. The assessment will, of course, consider issues such as family learning and the effect of the changes on children, mothers and women. In addition, we will consider closely how our support for adult community learning can assist the wider cultural agenda. I have defended adult community learning clearly and strongly—people will know that the £210 million budget remains intact, even following the comprehensive spending review. We will also consider how colleges can use their flexibility to address the kinds of particular concern in their neighbourhood that have been raised today.

In summary, yes, we needed to re-consider ESOL, as we have needed to consider all spending priorities; yes, we needed to eliminate some of the waste; yes, I will ensure that the review is completed properly and informs policy. We will then determine how we move forward, inspired by some of the comments made today.

Mr Roger Gale (in the Chair): I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated in this debate on their exemplary conduct. It has been most helpful.

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Childhood Obesity

11 am

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): Thank you, Mr Gale, for the opportunity to introduce this debate on childhood obesity, which is, unfortunately, an issue that I understand far too well. Childhood obesity is a significant issue in my constituency of Brentford and Isleworth, which is part of the Hounslow borough—13.9% of children in reception are at risk of being obese, with the figure rising to 24.6% by year 6, or age 10—so I have a personal interest in finding out as much as I can about the issue and what we can do to address it.

I believe that there are two strong reasons why childhood obesity requires Government focus. First, the issue concerns children, who may not, therefore, be directly responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. We must, therefore, do all that we can to support and help them. Secondly, the potential long-term implications on the health of these children is serious, as is the cost to the state of their medical care, so it is our duty to do all that we can to address the issue.

This debate is timely, because there have been several recent developments on the issue. When I switched on the news this morning, there was a story about overweight people in middle age having a greater chance of dementia. On the children’s side, the Greater London authority has commissioned a report on childhood obesity in London, which looks in detail at the causes of childhood obesity and the effectiveness of intervention programmes. The London assembly has published a report on childhood obesity in London, “Tipping the scales”, which considers the role that the Mayor of London could play and puts the cost of treating childhood obesity in the capital at £7.1 million per annum. The current generation of obese children will cost the London economy £110.8 million a year if they grow up to be overweight adults. The Government recently launched their responsibility deal as part of the strategy for public health in England. They are also working on the paper on obesity, which will be published later this year. It would be good to hear from the Minister about any progress on that.

In today’s debate, I want to review the scale of the issue, talk about some of the possible causes of childhood obesity and look to the future to discuss what actions we can take. First, how significant is childhood obesity in the UK? The headline figures on childhood obesity in this country are alarming—29.8% of children aged two to 15 are either overweight or obese, which is almost one in three children. On current trends, two thirds of children will be overweight or obese by 2050. Breaking down the figures on childhood obesity throughout the UK shows that there is a particular problem in urban areas, especially London. Data for 2009-10 show that in London 11.6% of children aged four to five, and 21.8% of children aged 10 to 11, are at risk of being obese. I have already mentioned the figures for my area in London.

The figures are a significant worry for the future health of our nation as a whole, because evidence suggests that overweight adolescents have a 70% chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. Obesity is a disease with, potentially, very serious health implications, including, in the short term, breathlessness, feeling tired,

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and back and joint pains, and, in the longer term, hypertension, cardiovascular disease—mainly heart disease and stroke—type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, especially osteoarthritis, and some cancers, including breast cancer and colon cancer. There are also psychological issues of low self-esteem, lack of confidence, depression and feeling isolated, which restrict a person’s potential ability to earn. Obesity is also associated with a higher chance of premature death and disability in adulthood. The long-term costs for the UK of this level of childhood obesity are vast. The 2007 Foresight report on obesity predicted that the NHS costs associated with overweight people and obesity will double to £10 billion per year by 2050, and that the wider costs to society and business will reach £50 billion per year by 2050.

Secondly, why is there an issue? Before we can decide how best to tackle childhood obesity, we need to understand more about what causes it. As one doctor once put to me, at its most basic level the formula behind obesity is simple—we put on weight when we take in more calories than we burn off through day-to-day living and physical exercise. However, we need to dig deeper than that to find out what is causing the problem, because, clearly, a number of factors are at play.

We are talking about children, so perhaps the biggest single factor is parental influence. Weight Concern reports that children with two overweight parents are 70% more likely to be overweight themselves. GPs to whom I have spoken in my area are often the first point of contact for parents on the issue, and they feel that, often, parents do not accept that their children are overweight. Given that perhaps more than a quarter of other children in the class are also overweight, they may feel that their child is normal. They may also feel that the suggestion that their child is overweight is a direct criticism of their parenting skills, and they are reluctant to accept that.

I am not a parent myself, but I have discussed this issue with friends and constituents who are. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a lack of knowledge and information that is easy to understand. Often, parents simply do not realise the number of calories that they are feeding to their children. For example, I am pretty sure that no parent would allow their child to sit and eat five spoonfuls of sugar, but some think nothing of giving them fizzy drinks containing the same quantity. Ask a parent how many calories there are in a bowl of chocolate-flavoured cereal and what percentage of a child’s recommended intake of sugar that represents, and I would wager that most would probably not know the answer.

When I speak to parents about the issue, a common story emerges. Many start off with the best of intentions, breastfeeding their babies for weeks or months under the regular guidance of health visitors. Perhaps they then move on to religiously preparing pureed vegetables and home-cooked meals that they bag up and put in the freezer for their babies and toddlers. Gradually, however, as the years progress and as the influence of peers, TV and the media grows, as well as that of, critically, the children themselves, who become more demanding and fussy about what they eat, it is too easy to slip into bad habits from which it is very difficult to get them back.

I am not saying all this to give parents a hard time—far from it. What I am saying is that those who feed our children and organise their activities—typically parents

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and schools for the most part—are so critical to this issue and need to be supported in any way we can. Jamie Oliver and many others in the school environment have worked hard to make progress in improving the quality of the meals that are provided to children when they are at school, and they should be commended for that work.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many factors at play, and I want to touch on another key one. Deprivation has been shown to play a significant part in levels of obesity, with children from the poorest backgrounds being much more likely to be obese. When families are struggling financially, they are more likely to be attracted to cheap, high fat, energy dense and poor foods, many of which are marketed with “buy one, get one free” deals.

The 2007 Foresight report on obesity highlighted the full range of factors that it believed were behind the trend towards obesity and made the point that there are lots to consider. However, to summarise the causes, the issue is about parents who have been overweight themselves, those who live in an urban area and those who come from a lower-income household.

Thirdly, what can be done in the future? Given that so many different factors influence childhood obesity, this is clearly not just a health issue, although I am pleased that a Health Minister is responding to the debate. The issue is also affected by planning, housing, transport, education, business and other things. Therefore, although the model we are aiming for is spearheaded by the Department of Health, it must be integrated across all areas. The Government have already taken important steps. Public health funding has been ring-fenced to ensure that sufficient focus is given to the matter and, in March, the responsibility deal was launched.

In the White Paper, “Healthy lives, healthy people: our strategy for public health in England,” the Government stressed that localism is key. A partnership approach will be encouraged between the Government, local authorities, health representatives, education, business and the voluntary sector. In addition to putting in place the right environment for change with that partnership approach and by integrating policies across Departments, we need to tackle the problem head-on by making nationally recognised programmes available to address childhood obesity.

I am a fellow of MEND, which is a social enterprise that has evolved from a 20-year partnership between Great Ormond Street hospital and the University College London institute of child health. MEND is the child-weight management partner of more than 100 primary care trusts and 15 local authorities in England. MEND stands for Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it, which sums up the approach that it takes to covering each of those important elements. At a recent parliamentary event for MEND, I met a young boy called Charlie and his mother, who had been through the MEND programme. Over 10 weeks, the whole family learned about portion sizes and how to read and understand food labels. They set goals as a family and took part in fun physical activities. Charlie told me that taking part in the MEND programme has not only helped him to lose weight, but given him new confidence. He now enjoys taking part in many school activities. The changes put in place have made a real difference to the whole family, including

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to Charlie’s sister. He now looks forward to going out shopping with her and her friends to buy new clothes, when previously he absolutely dreaded doing so.

Like many other programmes across the country, MEND builds in a number of best practices to ensure success. The programme is about working with the whole family to ensure that changes are made to the weekly shop and family activities. It focuses on nutrition and physical activity, and it aims to start young. One school in my constituency, Hounslow Manor, works with children from reception to achieve the greatest possible long-term impact. The programme also aims to deliver in a community-based way to reduce the stigma around the programme and build the real support networks that can make a difference.

In the GLA intelligence unit report published this month, MEND was evaluated as a cost-effective approach to obesity intervention. Other cost-effective programmes in the UK include the local exercise action pilots, which focus on increasing physical activity. Other such programmes include one to reduce television viewing in the US and the regulation of television advertising of high-fat, high-sugar products at certain times, which was introduced in Australia. I would like research to be directed at how we can extend the online elements of programmes that are provided to children. Children enjoy learning in an online, gaming-style environment, and it would be good to see how that could be used in obesity programmes to build up such an approach.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I am thoroughly enjoying the hon. Lady’s contribution. I have stayed here from the previous debate just to listen to what she has to say and because I have a personal interest in the issue. Does she agree that getting children involved in cooking enables a child to explore foods that they might otherwise not try? That enables a family to experience better, more wholesome home-cooked food, rather than the processed rubbish that is thrust at them from television screens every day.

Mary Macleod: I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and absolutely agree with her. The issue is about the whole family, including children, understanding what goes into food. If they understand more about that and participate and get involved in it, they will have a better understanding and knowledge of what it is all about.

How should we start to deal with the issue? I want to consider a couple of things that are happening and that might have an impact. The first is the move from a primary care trust-based model to GP commissioning consortia, and the other is the upcoming London Olympics. As we move towards GP commissioning, we need to consider the impact on the obesity service provision. Currently, providers such as MEND have suggested that decision makers in the new model will require clear information and guidance in the commissioning process for weight management programmes. They have also suggested that the commissioning process itself could be simplified and redesigned to ensure that it focuses on clear and consistent information and measured outcomes. The commissioning model will help in pulling together best practice. That is certainly the case in the Great West commissioning consortium, of which Hounslow is a part. It is already starting to focus on some of the public health issues that need to be addressed.

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The 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics will soon be taking place. Those events provide us with a fantastic opportunity not only in London, but elsewhere around the country to build on the legacy that will be left. What better Olympic legacy could we have than a whole generation of children who appreciate the benefits and enjoyment that come from regular participation in sport? The Mayor of London is working hard to encourage schools in London to participate in his Get Set programme, which involves school children taking part in a host of sporting and cultural activities related to the games. A majority of my schools have signed up to that. We need to make sure that other such programmes are happening across the country and that the influence of the Olympics lasts well beyond the event itself.

As part of the obesity paper, the Government will also no doubt want to consider the approach they should take on the use of legislation in the food and drinks industry. In its recent report, “Stepping up to the plate—industry in action on public health”, the Food and Drink Federation offers its view on the progress the industry is making, particularly in the areas of reducing salt, fat and energy in popular products and in improving food labelling and marketing. There is more that the food and drink industry can do in that area—for example, having clearer labelling, so that people know exactly what they are eating.

In conclusion, nearly one in three children in the UK is overweight or obese, and much more can be done to give them a better quality of life. We need to protect the long-term health of children and avoid unnecessary short and long-term financial burdens on the NHS. There needs to be a broad integrated and co-ordinated approach across Departments. We need to raise awareness about planning permission for fast food outlets very near schools and to ensure that we share best practice and measure outcomes from all the obesity intervention programmes. We want to use the London 2012 Olympics as a starting block to encourage more young people into sport and to engage in physical activity as much as possible. We need to integrate ideas, such as encouraging schools to grow food, into the curriculum and to support and encourage parents to restrict television and do more things outdoors. We also need to encourage eateries to sell healthy options and have better labelling, so that people know what they are eating. In addition, we need to encourage more exercise. I have signed up for the Race for Life that will take place this month in Battersea, so I will be running my 5 km for charity as well as for my health.

I came into politics to help to make a difference to my constituency and the country as a whole. I feel very strongly that by improving health outcomes on childhood obesity we can definitely make a real difference to many people.

11.20 am

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) for her excellent speech. I would also like to echo the comments my hon. Friend made with regard to the MEND programme. I met a child from my constituency who had taken part in the programme and it had made a real difference. As Members of Parliament, we should be extremely supportive of the MEND programme.

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I am interested in this debate for a variety of reasons. I am the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on heart disease. Heart disease runs in my family and I have always had an eye on trying to be as active and as healthy as can be reasonably expected. I am also a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary leisure group. I am a big, unashamed sports enthusiast, because sport can play an extremely important and positive role in encouraging an active and healthy lifestyle. My hon. Friend set out the picture, but I just want to concentrate on three areas that have a significant impact on child obesity levels: planning issues, food and organised sport.

On planning issues, prior to becoming the MP for North Swindon I was a councillor for 10 years. I represented a new build housing estate that had many good things and many poor things. One of the biggest challenges was the huge differences that hampered a child’s ability to run around: back gardens are now a third of the size they were in the 1960s; front gardens all too often simply do not exist, with cars literally driving right in front of the front door, and we then wonder why children do not have the opportunity to run around; and there is a lack of accessible, useable open space. I was for ever being told that the ward I represented had a huge amount of open space, but I could not see that. All I could see was concrete, and I wondered what was going on. I did a little bit of digging and it transpired that open spaces included hedges and heritage sites, neither of which are suitable for jumpers for goalposts. We do not need premier league-standard open spaces for kids to run around. When I was growing up, the bit of open space in the middle of my estate was almost vertical. That was handy, however, as some of my friends were more technically gifted than me and some of my other friends, so we had the advantage of kicking downhill all day long.

I was the lead member for leisure on Swindon borough council for four years and a lot of the focus in tackling child obesity was on organised sport through leisure centres. The most significant opportunity for children to be active, however, is through open spaces where they are unsupervised, can put down jumpers for goalposts and follow the latest TV trends. If Wimbledon is on TV, out come the tennis rackets; with the Tour de France, out come the bikes; with the Ashes, out come the cricket bats; and football, in my case, was played for the majority of the year. I welcome the fact that in my constituency the council invested £6 million, working in conjunction with the national lottery fund, in the Lydiard park facility, and that we have fantastic parks such as Coate Water and Mouldon Hill right on the doorstep. On a sunny day, and we have been blessed in the past month or so, one can see thousands of families coming out and kids being able to run around.

Another interesting observation was that on Friday, following the fantastic royal wedding, I went to visit a number of royal wedding parties where communities had reclaimed the streets as open spaces. While parents sat around toasting the happy occasion, the children ran around and were extremely active, and I was touched by that. That shows the importance of having those open, accessible community spaces.

I echo the comments my hon. Friend made about food labelling. It is essential that parents, and children themselves, can make informed decisions. I am not one

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of those food zealots who says that we should never eat junk food, or unhealthy food. It is all part of a balance. I charged around as a youngster and was then sometimes fuelled by food that was deemed to be not particularly healthy, but it is about striking a balance. We need to see clear, uniform food labelling. I am a big supporter of the traffic light system. We have it here in our parliamentary restaurants and that makes a difference to my choice of food. On this occasion, the EU is dragging its feet. I encourage the Government to continue to put pressure on to ensure that all retailers use a uniform and clear system. I know that they are doing so. I welcome the Government’s public health responsibility deal, which has seen retailers such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC committed to reducing trans fats. That is the big secret killer and we need to do so much to remove trans fats, reduce salt and display calories—all coming together as part of the informed decisions.

Hon. Members have already talked about cookery skills. I am a big advocate of basic cookery skills. I would go as far as to say that it should be a compulsory element of the national curriculum. I am a big supporter of the Let’s Get Cooking campaign, which is in its fourth year of a five-year £20 million programme funded by the national lottery. It encourages schools to take up cookery. I visited Haydonleigh primary school, in my constituency, a few weeks ago. Not only were the children taking part in a cookery session, the parents and grandparents were also coming in and getting involved so that, when they went home, it was not just a one-off, two-hour cookery session, but something that would become part of their home life. Echoing the point about allotments that was raised earlier, the school had its own allotment, and was using the fruit and vegetables that were grown in the school. Wherever possible, schools should be allowed to do that full cycle. Basic cookery skills are essential for later life. It was not so long ago that I left university, where the idea of cookery for the vast majority of my colleagues involved the ping of the microwave and a three-minute wait. We certainly need to do something about that.

Finally, and probably what I am most passionate about, is organised sport. Not so many months ago, we had a debate on the school sport partnership and I was openly critical of the proposed changes. I am delighted that the Government changed their position, because where school sport partnerships work well, they can help maximise sporting opportunities. One frustration with the debate at the time was that, despite approximately £170 million a year being invested in SSP, we had not seen a massive increase in competitive sport activity. The reason for that is that children are sports-gifted, generally, because their parents have encouraged them at a young age and, by and large, whether a school is offering that sport or not, they will have joined a sports club and carried on. The SSP, however, was about the other children—those children who would otherwise just sit in front of the TV, not taking part. The advantage of the SSP was that it offered a menu of different sporting activities and there was always something for everybody to capture their imagination. I have spent many happy times touring schools and sporting groups to see what different sport captures them. A lot of people will no doubt bash television today, but television often inspires children, whether through traditional sport or through programmes such as “Pineapple Dance

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Studios”—suddenly, there will be huge swathes of children dancing around in a dance hall. Yes, it is not a competitive sport as such, but it is extremely active.

The SSP in my constituency saw the number of schools taking part in two hours a week rise from 33 to 68 —a fantastic result. The changes have allowed the SSPs nine months to secure continued funding from schools. Where there are good SSPs, they will be successful. Where some of the SSPs were not so good, those schools are now free to commission their own sports coaches. That is essential because there are a limited number of teachers with confidence, particularly in primary schools, to offer that wide range. A number of teachers said to me that they needed help. Another welcome Government measure that would indirectly improve the situation is fast-tracking the troops to teachers programme, because often troops are up for outdoor active lifestyles. They will be able to come in and get the kids engaged in something that is healthy and active.

I am also a fan of working with local sports groups. If children are given a taster session, they make sure that they then have an opportunity to continue. In my constituency, we set up a successful sports forum with the active involvement of about 60 different sports groups. They share best practice and help secure extra funding, but they also link in with programmes such as the SSP, going directly to the schools and saying, “Why don’t you try this and we can then get you involved?”

Lyn Brown: I have enjoyed the hon. Gentleman’s contribution very much. I was involved in the culture sector when I was in local government, and in the Local Government Association, and I recognise many of his arguments. Does he agree with me that the biggest problem we have, following on from our schools sports intervention, is that when children leave school there is no exit strategy for young people to enable them to continue in the sports that they played? I played badminton for my school up until the age of 16. By the age of 16 I stopped and there was no local club, or link with my school and a local club, for me to continue my activity. That is where we fall down.

Justin Tomlinson: I thank the hon. Lady for that useful contribution. She is right. A lot of what we are doing is putting in the building blocks for a long-term future to tackle health issues. Organisations, such as the sports forum, can talk to people of all ages and ask people to engage. Local authorities and sports groups have a role in that. One of the best things that I saw was Swindon borough council’s Challenge Swindon campaign, which brought together offices, pubs and sports groups and got them all involved in different sports. It aimed to get people to try something and then continue to do it.

We face a number of other challenges. The lack of volunteers is always a challenge, particularly in sport. A huge number of sports groups would like to be able to do something, but there are not sufficient parents with the time to be able to do that—a particular problem for organised sport.

Private finance initiative schools are another challenge: when I was a councillor, the majority of schools in my area were PFI schools. We had a high-density development and a wonderful piece of open space, but a fence and a set of high hire charges blocked children from utilising what was their school until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Sports clubs came to me on a number of occasions

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saying that they simply could not afford to use the facilities, which could not be opened because there was not enough flexibility. It was a crying shame that they were left unused.

An issue that I have brought into other debates is the cost of insurance for transporting children. As we push things such as the school Olympics or outdoor active learning, insuring a teacher to take a minibus can cost more than £1,000. I have urged the Government to create a national insurance scheme for teachers and sports clubs using minibuses.

We must not forget the Olympics and the Olympics legacy, about which we had a debate in the main Chamber last week. It is all about the legacy. We will have an enjoyable Olympics, when we are bound to win some medals, but the key will be the lasting legacy. That is why I was so supportive of the principle of school sport partnerships. A big advert for a whole variety of sports that different children will have never thought of trying will be on the television, and the ones we do particularly well in will inspire children to go and re-create them. We must ensure that we do all that we can. Going back to the point about insurance, if we want the school Olympics to work, we need to be able to get children from one school to another in order to compete.

My slightly more radical proposal is to do with how leisure and youth services work in local authorities. In the old days, leisure was very much about competitive sport, with the traditional youth service organising youth activities. The two would never meet in the middle. Times have now changed massively.

I remember that on a Friday night the leisure centre would put on an ice-skating disco for the teenagers—again, not technically a sport, but 600 teenagers building up a head of steam and racing around chasing after the person they thought particularly attractive was a sporting activity. It was absolutely fantastic. Under my radical proposal, the youth service with its mobile buses would have been better off pitching up at that facility, to offer advice, advocacy and support to those who wanted it, and letting leisure be the attraction to bring people in. Likewise with the point made about the Pineapple dance studios and the street dance, often the biggest challenge is to get young girls active, but hundreds of children want to do dance and cheerleading.

Youth and leisure services should sit around the same table, pooling their funds and facilities—the leisure centres often have the better facilities—and working together. They would then be on hand. My hon. Friend mentioned the Get Set programme, and I have written to all the schools in my constituency, encouraging them to do as much as they can.

In conclusion, we need to learn three lessons. First, it is important to have balance in an active and healthy lifestyle. We can sometimes be a bit too zealous in saying, “You should not watch TV. You should not play computer games.” When I was growing up, as soon as the sun was shining, I was charging around outside. I would not have dreamed of watching TV or playing computer games. However, in the evening, that is what I did. That is a fine balance to have.

Secondly, we should allow people to make informed decisions through clear labelling and to do things for themselves. To do that, they need the skills, which is why I am such a fan of the cookery lessons.

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Finally, everything should be fun. Children like fun things. Give them the open spaces—as I said, it does not matter if the open spaces are vertical, because children are creative and will come up with their own way of dealing with such things. However, let us at least give them the opportunity to have a better lifestyle.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I expect the occupant of the Chair will wish to call the Front Benchers at five past 12, at the latest, and three hon. Members are waiting to speak. Hon. Members should bear that in mind when speaking.

11.33 am

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing and opening the debate. She showed an incredible level of expertise and was thoughtful in her remarks. We have had our own discussions about food, and I look forward to having many more in future.

I confess that I was hesitant about speaking in the debate today. It is difficult to talk about obesity, including childhood obesity—and we have a serious problem in Harlow—in a way that does not upset people. When I have spoken about it in the past, I have had many letters and e-mails from anguished individuals and residents. Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead today because the issue is so important and must be dealt with.

Some take the view that the only way to solve obesity is by encouraging people to go on a diet. I do not take that view. Dieting is essential, but obesity problems are very much about parenting, education and health. One of the best books that I have read about food—I read it almost in one sitting—was called “The Hungry Years” by William Leith. The author talks about his addiction to food, describing food almost as a drug. He went on the Atkins diet but, although he addressed that addiction, he went on to another—from memory, drugs. It was only when he dealt with the reasons for his compulsive behaviour that he ultimately managed to lose weight. It is a very important book.

I know how difficult diets are, having had to be on diets as a child because of my walking. As hon. Members understand, diets sometimes feel like walking up a hill with a boulder, like Sisyphus in the Greek myth: as soon as we get to the top, we see the boulder roll down, and we have to start again.

As well as having obesity and childhood obesity problems, Harlow has some important sporting organisations for young people. I want to talk about them; they are very much part of the big society. We have the Harlow athletics club, the Harlow gymnastics club and the football club Kickz, as well as strong candidates for the Olympics and Paralympics such as James Huckle and Anne Strike. We have probably the finest sports Leisurezone in the country, run by a non-profit making trust, which is another example of the big society. However, we still have the problem of obesity.

As my hon. Friend set out, Harlow is not alone in having such problems. Over the past 13 years, the United Kingdom has seen an unprecedented rise in obesity,

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especially in childhood obesity. The proportion of children aged two to 10 who were overweight or obese increased from 22% in 1995 to 28% in 2003. If the number of obese children continues to rise, such children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents do.

My constituency of Harlow has significant challenges of its own. Sadly, by the time that Harlow children finish primary school, one in three is overweight; and one in five has the most challenging weight problems and is considered obese. Harlow has the highest such figures for any of the 12 district councils in Essex. I mention that not to criticise anyone—I am proud of my constituency and residents, and I do not want to cause offence—but because such problems cannot be swept under the carpet.

Clearly, some of the obesity problem is down to parenting, but it is also down to the McDonald’s culture that we live in. We do not even have to get out of the car these days; stopping off for fast food is so much easier than going to the supermarket and having to cook ingredients from scratch. I have a confession to make: I happen to love McDonald’s. As for most people, it is a treat, providing value for money and affordable meals. It has made progress, with the preparation of chicken salads and so on. The problem is when people eat there regularly, as if it were an extension of their kitchen.

The second reason for the obesity problems is the big retailers and food companies. At an all-party group meeting with Kellogg’s, I asked why all its cereals have so much sugar—cornflakes, or whatever they might be. The people from Kellogg’s said that some of the company’s cereals did not have so much sugar, and that it has non-sugar brands. However, we never see those non-sugar brands advertised or displayed prominently. As with everyone else, I go to the supermarket, but I would not have a clue about what a non-sugar cereal from Kellogg’s is, and yet I would know about its cornflakes and the rest, because those are the ones advertised.

Schools have made a lot of progress with their meals, following the media campaigns of recent years. Jamie Oliver, who has been mentioned, was successful partly because he was not the man or woman from Whitehall, although there is always the risk of bureaucracy when we deal with such things. I have a short anecdote on that subject. I visited a school in my constituency that wanted to give fresh fruit to its children every day. Instead of being able to buy it from the greengrocer down the road, the school had to order it through a centralised fruit planning system set up by the bureaucracy. A fruit co-ordinator was needed, to count the number of pieces of fruit, and how much was eaten and left. That shows the ludicrousness of what happens when big government gets in the way.

Why does Harlow have a unique problem? There are many reasons for general obesity, but they do not explain the specific problems in my constituency. The truth is that the tale in Harlow is of two towns. In many ways, it is an ambitious and enterprising place, with a culture of hard work. We have more than 2,500 private businesses, which makes us one of the most entrepreneurial towns in Essex, but according to the latest comprehensive study in 2007, Harlow also has housing estates with pockets of some of the worst deprivation and poverty not just in the region, but in England as a whole. That impacts on everything: homelessness, unemployment, literacy and numeracy, family breakdown, crime, and of

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course health. Obesity is just one symptom of the broken society, but is that because of poverty, or educational poverty?

When it comes to solutions for obesity, it is fair to say that big or grand Government diet schemes do not work. Television adverts a few years ago urged us to eat fruit and said that it was wrong to have a bottle of wine with dinner. Many parts of the UK are still awash with NHS adverts covering the landscape with the same advice. In 2009, the Food Standards Agency—a quango that survived the bonfire—announced a scheme to encourage restaurants to give calorie counts beside each dish. The Department of Health has told us that we are all eating too much saturated fat, but despite all those worthy initiatives and their cost for taxpayers, obesity has gone up and up.

I am a Conservative because I believe in choice, freedom and the right of individuals to make their own decisions. Big state or “nanny-knows-best” programmes usually cost a lot, and do not achieve what they are intended to achieve, however noble they are. One thing that sticks in my mind about the Jamie Oliver success is that parents came to the school and tried to thrust fried Mars bars through the gate. The reason was partly lack of education, but also resentment at being told what to do by the big state. They were the parents, and they wanted to decide what to do with their own children.

People are not chess pieces to move around a board. We cannot design a Government scheme that will magically repair people’s lives, but I accept that we must not abandon people. The solutions must come from the communities and neighbourhoods that we live in. That is an old idea, but it has been given fresh impetus by the big society reforms.

We have some remarkable sporting groups in Harlow, which are very popular. They are run by volunteers and social entrepreneurs, who know how to stretch a few hundred pounds to have the greatest impact with as little bureaucracy as possible. Such big society groups need more support. If we diverted just 1% of the sin taxes on cigarettes—around £209 million a year, based on 2010 figures—and if the same were applied to alcopops, excessively fatty foods and high-sugar products aimed at children, and that money was then funnelled into the big society bank, the Big Lottery Fund or local funds and ring-fenced specifically for smaller grass-roots charities, that would really make a difference. It would transform childhood obesity. That incentive could work in many ways. Supermarket vouchers that are currently used for school equipment could also fund sports charities in the community.

Community support officers on the Berecroft estate in Harlow have a regular Saturday football game with local children, and organise it with the Berecroft residents association. All they need is a few hundred pounds to connect their floodlights to mains electricity. Small amounts of money can make a huge difference, and millions of pounds are not always needed, because small community groups are best at fighting obesity. Another example is Harlow gymnastic club. It has many members, and the cost of joining is very small. It has changed the lives of countless young people and those with significant health problems, but it struggles to access funding because it is not part of any grand Government diet scheme.

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I have often said that, if the big society, or even the big-boned society, is to work, we must build the little society. That is why I urge the Minister to focus on sustainable funding for smaller, grass-roots charities, as well as national organisations.

11.45 am

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on her contribution to the debate, which is important. The problem has reached such a level that we cannot ignore the emerging evidence. I am pleased that we have extended the debate beyond eating to education, diet, labelling and aspiration. I shall dwell a little on my area of interest—physical activity—as other hon. Members have done.

Another issue that has emerged in our debate is the problem of being overweight, in addition to the more technical issue of obesity. Exhibit A is a document from the NHS highlighting the number of overweight children in the four-to-five and 10-to-11 age groups between 2006 and 2009. I shall not go through all the figures, but they show that the problem has risen consistently in the overweight and obese categories. Exhibit B is a helpful response to my parliamentary question to the Minister. It highlights the fact that Government spending on obesity rose from £9 million in 2008-09 to the £36.8 million that is projected for 2010-11. If ever there was an example of the necessity of re-examining the ratio of expenditure to results, that is surely it.

I want to dwell a little on my debate in this Chamber in December 2010 on outdoor learning. It was directed at the Department for Education. Today’s debate, thanks to my hon. Friend, highlights the fact that obesity is probably an issue for every Department, not least the Treasury. A point that I tried to make in the earlier debate was that evidence, not just opinion, is emerging of genuine behavioural improvement in children who are exposed to outdoor learning, which is outdoor education as distinct from outdoor entertainment, which I fear is what some people think it is.

There are encouraging signs regarding school exclusions and the behaviour of children in school when they are exposed to outdoor learning, and there are considerable health benefits, as hon. Members have said, particularly in food sourcing and preparation. Underpinning all that is the critical evidence that I suspect is more relevant now than it has ever been that a massive national saving can be made from investing in the project to reduce obesity, instead of seeing it simply as an expense that we cannot currently afford.

I tried to raise a distressing point during the debate back in December. There is enthusiasm for engaging in outdoor learning, and 86% of children and parents want it, but at the same time 76% of teachers are turning down the opportunity to undertake outdoor learning because of concerns about health and safety risks associated with such trips. However, the evidence shows that there are very few health and safety risks; in fact, risk is low, and the return for teacher, pupil and parent is very high.

I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). He talked about the balance to be struck between being libertarian and

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adopting a hands-off approach to the problem, as well as the seriousness of the situation and what it requires us to do. I want to suggest some scenarios to the Minister, although not necessarily with a view to her coming up with the answers now or requiring her to state on the record what the Government propose. The examples come from my own experience as a parent of two young children aged 11 and nine, very much in the category that is most susceptible to the habits of the 21st century.

If we are serious about this issue, are we content that in April last year alone, 53 million new computer games were launched on to the open market? Are we satisfied by the fact that access to junk food has never been higher than it is this decade? Are we aware how commonplace advertisements for junk food are on children’s television? Are we satisfied by the fact that one incentive to go to a fast food outlet is that of receiving free toys with a meal? My children would be appalled if they heard me say that because one of the greatest incentives for them is what comes with the meal that they get through the car window in a drive-through—I am trying hard to not mention any brand names.

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Are we aware of the extent to which children, particularly those under sixth-form age, go to the local chippy for lunch when they are at school, rather than eating something healthier? Do we know what is in the school lunch boxes that are provided with great care and attention by parents who often have considerable financial difficulties or other stresses?

In healthy schools where a lot of the kids will eat meat and two veg as part of their daily diet, those who bring a packed lunch do not have access to that good food. Let me put in a little plug for Pembrokeshire county council. It has a fantastic school dinner service—I think it is so good that it should be compulsory—and it is free. Are we as a nation satisfied with the propensity of supersize options, where one pays an extra 50p and receives 50% more food? Under current circumstances, and given the statistics that underpin the debate, is that a satisfactory situation?

Finally, is it not a little disingenuous that some of our major sporting events are sponsored by crisp makers and chocolate manufacturers? Is that not like having the Silk Cut London marathon? Are we not turning a blind eye to what such sponsorship means and how it legitimises in the eyes of children not particularly healthy foodstuffs, simply because they are attached to a major sporting event? I do not have the answers to those questions although perhaps other hon. Members will. I am not sure, however, that we can continue to turn away completely from the reality of the problem that is emerging.

The great achievement of this debate—I hope hon. Members will continue to raise other points—is that we are eventually recognising the social, cultural and economic cost to the nation of obesity and overweight children. As other hon. Members have said, the issue crosses all Departments. It is not about “curing” children—not the most appropriate expression—but about early intervention and prevention. I suggest to the Minister, just as I suggested to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) in the debate last December, that it is not about

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what we as a nation can afford to do, but about whether we can afford not to address the situation. Evidence clearly shows the damage done by obesity, not only to the prospects of our children, but to those of the nation.

11.53 am

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing this crucial debate, and my other hon. Friends who have spoken.

I was in the Mall on Friday for what everybody agreed was a most wonderful royal wedding. However, my heart sank when I saw a very large, hugely overweight man hanging on to a railing for dear life and panting. He may have had a problem caused by steroids or something else, but it is most likely that he was obese. I thought how unhappy he must be with his life—my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) touched on the issue of happiness. One point we must get across to people who are obese is that they can be much happier if they overcome obesity.

My hon. Friends have made many points, but I want to touch on three issues. First, I want to look at the Change4Life programme and the changes that the Minister proposes to make. Secondly, I would like to say something about the impact of high-energy drinks that contain a lot of sugar and caffeine. Thirdly, I will speak about sizes of portions and clothes.

I will start by referring to the October 2007 Government report, “Tackling Obesities: Future Choices”, on what the human body is designed to do. It points out, with classic understatement, that our biological system is,

“not well adapted to a changing world, where the pace of technological progress and lifestyle change has outstripped that of human evolution.”

Many years ago in this Chamber—the old Grand Committee Room—I listened to a debate one evening, instigated by the food and health forum, that I have never forgotten. The speaker was a professor of nutrition and he said, “Look, in a nutshell, if you want to stay healthy, remember that we have not really evolved since the stone age; we are essentially stone-age people in the 20th century.” He said that if we want to be healthy, we should live like stone-age people. We should walk most of the time and run occasionally, eat berries and vegetables in season, catch fish when possible, and eat meat rarely. I was struck by that speech. Generally, our health problems arrive when we deviate from that simple model.

Last week, The Daily Telegraph looked at the problem of obesity as it affects parents. It pointed out that British men are among the fattest in Europe and that according to the World Health Organisation, we do less exercise as a nation than almost every other country in the world. In another article, I read that the World Health Organisation believes that in the regions of Europe, the east Mediterranean and the Americas, over 50% of women are overweight.

We have an enormous problem. All my hon. Friends have drawn on statistics. We tend to follow what happens in America, so we should be aware of what is happening in that country, where the problem is greater—obesity

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rates are 36% among women and 32% among men. The number of obese men in England has doubled since 1993, and the number of obese women has risen by half.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) referred eloquently to issues in his constituency, but in my constituency we do not have the problems that affect many others. For example, the prevalence of obesity among reception-age children in the east midlands is just under 10%, and for year six children by region it is 18%. In Hinckley and Bosworth, the figures are smaller at just over 7% and under 16% respectively. Those are still enormous figures, however, and we must put that in the context of my original point about happiness. How many of those children are very unhappy with their lives?

The Minister inherited the Change4Life programme from the previous Government and I hope she will say a few things about the changes that she proposes to make. As I understand it, the funding for that programme is to change and she will be looking for contributions from the food industry. That may be a good thing, but I would like reassurances that the food industry will not be driving the agenda. I know that she has already said that we will not legislate further to bring in a range of new standards, but I think the quid pro quo is that we must know that the food industry will be very supportive of measures that do exactly what has been suggested and ensure that we see a reduction in sugar. There is far too much sugar in cereal, for example. I suggest to my hon. Friends that if they really want a cereal that is sugar-free, they should make it themselves; it is not difficult. I look to the Minister for support on that issue.

My next point relates to high-energy drinks. I have not heard a word about high-energy drinks this morning; I think that that is a forgotten area. Children and adults are consuming drinks that have two or three times the recommended caffeine level and a very high sugar content. If people have far too much caffeine, they get behavioural disorders. It is very bad for them. It increases their heart rate, and there have been instances of children going to hospital in such circumstances. It is extremely dangerous.

I recommend that the Minister look at the research conducted by Johns Hopkins university, which concluded that energy drinks should be labelled with highly visible health warnings aimed at young people. I will not quote from the study extensively, but it based its recommendations on research that discovered that certain drinks contained as much as 14 times more caffeine than the average can of cola. That is the same as drinking seven cups of coffee.

While we are on the subject of coffee, is it not extraordinary that we are now being invited by coffee shops to drink half-pint mugs of coffee? Have we taken leave of our senses? Have we all gone mad? If I stop for a cup of coffee with a friend, I often order the smallest cup of coffee and split it into two mugs because it is too much. In the 19th century, coffee cups were tiny. That is another issue that we must address.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Drinking half a pint of coffee would be one thing. Is not the problem with coffee shops that often people are also drinking coffee with cream, sugar and additives? Sometimes with these half-pint cups of coffee, people would get fewer calories in an ordinary meal.