The Minister and the Department recognise that this is an issue of serious and profound concern for many people. Given that the Minister is with us today, however, I want to ask for a number of commitments. First, there is no getting away from the fact that not making RE an option in the humanities section of the E-bac will lead to reductions in RE-trained and experienced staff; in fact, I am already receiving anecdotal evidence that that is happening. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that possible trend is halted? I fear that the redundancies

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that will inevitably come from the Department’s proposed changes will lead to a fall in standards, less focus on RE as part of a compulsory key stage 4 curriculum and, importantly, a lack of trained resource for the future, which our children and schools will ultimately regret deeply—I certainly would, and all my colleagues in the Chamber would, too.

Secondly, when the Minister speaks at the end—I am not trying to read his mind, but I have been in constant discussion with his Department, so I am pretty sure that this is accurate—he will state that RE does not need to be included as an option in the E-bac because it is a compulsory part of the key stage 4 curriculum, but that is not the case for academies. Will he therefore clarify the situation on academies and tell us what he will do about the fact that take-up in academies is—I have heard this anecdotally—beginning to decline? That is even more relevant when we consider that academies are far more prevalent in areas where there is more deprivation and where children grow up in a range of different religions. In a way, that makes it even more important that academies have the trained, experienced RE teachers to teach children in a balanced way.

Thirdly, I suspect that the Minister will state that the number of students studying RE has risen from 16% in 1995 to 28% in 2010 and that the take-up of history and geography has declined over that period. I agree with him and accept that that is an issue. I welcome the E-Bac, but does the Minister accept not only that the increased take-up of RE is a good thing, but that excluding it from the E-bac will perhaps lead to an even more dramatic decline in take-up than geography has experienced over the past 16 years—from 45% to 26%? What will he do to address that? I would like him to commit to revisiting and reviewing the role of RE, should take-up decline.

[Dr William McCrae in the Chair]

Essentially, I and many of my colleagues—on both sides of the House, and of all beliefs and none—along with hundreds of thousands of members of the public, profoundly believe that the changes could lead to a diminution for our children of RE teaching by trained and experienced teachers. I urge the Minister to reconsider the Department’s direction of travel, to listen to us and to the public, and to not do a U-turn but change his mind as the facts change.

12.1 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate. I suspect that this is one of those subjects on which, as Kipling said,

“never the twain shall meet”.

Those who regard religious teaching in our schools, or any religious instruction, as brainwashing will not be convinced otherwise, and, yes, those who passionately favour the continuation of RE lessons as an essential part of our young people’s education tend to feel equally passionate.

I am a Christian and, although I favour the continuation of RE teaching in our schools, I hope that I have been able to step back and look objectively at the arguments on both sides. I agree with my hon. Friend when she

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stresses how important it is that RE not be downgraded, to use her phrase. The argument is not about the continuation of “brainwashing”, but about providing an essential background to our culture and identity as a nation. Our history centres around monarchy, Parliament and Church, and although all those institutions have passed through turbulent times, they have, in the end, brought stability and the freedom to enjoy the benefits of religion—or, indeed, the freedom not to practise any faith.

Like many children of the 1950s, I attended Sunday school until I was of an age when my father, who regularly attended that most beautiful of Anglican services, evensong, decided that I, too, was old enough to go with him and appreciate it. Of course, at that time there was a daily assembly in school. I realise that there are many difficulties in delivering such an assembly nowadays, but many of our schools quite simply do not try hard enough—where there is a will, there is indeed a way.

Children who miss out on adequate RE lessons as part of their schooling miss out not only on the opportunity to learn the benefits that faith can bring to an individual and how faith can inspire, but on the opportunity of the shared experience that our churches bring when our communities celebrate the rites of passage or an occasion of thanksgiving. Until two or three years ago, I served for five years as a churchwarden, and it was a privilege to be on duty at, for example, a baptism; but I was always saddened by the fact that many people were not fully able to share the whole experience because they could not recite the Lord’s prayer or understand many of the symbols and traditions that are instinctive to my generation.

It is good that some of our other organisations cater for young people to some extent and fill the gap, on some occasions, that schools have left. On Sunday, I attended Grimsby minster for the somewhat delayed annual St George’s day service of the Grimsby and Cleethorpes scout association. There were a few hundred young people parading and saluting their flag, promising to serve God, Queen and country and to help their fellow men and women, and all in the setting of an act of collective worship and thanksgiving.

Our country is the poorer in that, nowadays, we provide our young people with little opportunity to take part in collective worship and to learn the basic teachings of our major religions; love, respect and tolerance are at their heart and we should treasure those teachings. I readily admit that it is possible to value those precepts and to pass them on to future generations without a faith, but those generations will miss the opportunity to learn about religions and to weigh up for themselves whether to accept their teachings.

The then head teacher at my daughter’s junior school, David Thomas, when questioned at a parents’ evening on the role of RE, said that its role in his school was to bring the pupils to the “threshold of belief”. That phrase has stuck with me; it is valuable and the ideal at which schools should aim. It saddens me that at times there seems to be an acceptance—certainly among some mainstream Christian Churches—that it is all a little too difficult and we must be even-handed, but if the will exists, we can ensure that the valuable tradition of RE in our schools continues.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) spoke earlier about a general indifference to RE among people. To some extent that is correct. People are not constantly thinking about it as they go about their daily business, but we should not assume that the great majority of British people are quite that indifferent to it. Only a few weeks ago, someone approached me—ironically enough, as I left a Grimsby Town football match. He had obviously been idling away his time looking at the Parliament website and had spotted that I supported an early-day motion on RE in schools. He congratulated me and said, “I am sure the people are behind you”, which was encouraging and important.

RE in our schools is vital if we are to make people aware of faith and to contribute to the rounded development of our young people, so that they can appreciate our rich cultural history. I hope the Minister will give a robust defence of RE in our schools and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said, ensure that the resources for it will be available. I hope the Minister will reassure me that the Government will play their full part; that is particularly important, given what has been said on academies. North East Lincolnshire local education authority has been a trailblazer for academies, so it is particularly important that the role of RE in those schools be maintained. I apologise to the Minister: I will have to slip out a few minutes before the end of his summing-up speech, but tomorrow I will eagerly read what he has said in Hansard.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. There are still a number of people who want to speak, and I am sorry but we will not be able to fit everyone in. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at about 10 past 12.

12.7 pm

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): It has been an interesting debate and I hope that I will not, as so often happens, be the grit in the oyster. I value religion as much as anybody in the House—I have written a book on the decline of religion and how it affects society—but I believe that we owe the Minister a careful hearing, because the whole point of the E-bac is to bring rigor back into academic education. I support RE more than anybody, but too many schools have climbed up the league tables by, frankly, cheating by providing Mickey Mouse courses. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on performing a great service with this debate. I have a son at the London Oratory, which is a Catholic school, and I value that fact. It will do very well out of the E-bac, because a rigorous academic school, which will continue to promote faith studies, will benefit in the league tables by concentrating on rigorous academic subjects such as maths and English.

I intervened on my hon. Friend earlier because those of us who support RE must argue based on what it is. Has it been so degraded in how it is taught that it is no longer an academic subject? Of course we should support other religions and value people of other religions—that goes without saying—but my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) says that we need to understand and to debate whether it is right for people to wear the

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burqa or the cross. That is fine as a subject of public debate, but should it be part of a rigorous academic subject?

Mr Lammy: I generally agree with the hon. Gentleman on these matters, but is he suggesting that Shakespeare is of more value than the Koran or the Bible?

Mr Leigh: No, I am not. I am saying that a close study of the Talmud is as valuable and rigorous, and in my view as academic, as a close study of the Koran or the Christian Bible.

If we are to restore religious education as an academic subject, we may have to restore it as an academic study. Otherwise, it will continue to be an easy cop-out. One cannot defend an academic subject on the ground of good citizenship—we should all be good citizens, we should all value other people and we should all be kind and nice to others, but that is not an academic subject.

I hope the Minister will assure us that the exclusion of religious education is not a prejudice against religion. I am sure he will want to assure us about academies, which is an important point. However, I hope that he will also give a hint to those of us who organise religious education—there is no point in denying that it was a bad Ofsted report—that it has to return to its history as a rigorous academic subject.

12.11 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate, which has been most interesting. The hon. Lady acknowledged the considerable progress on religious education that was made under the previous Government; as she has said, the numbers have quadrupled. She made an extremely thoughtful speech on the teaching of religious education, with particular emphasis on the E-bac.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her speech. I also congratulate her on getting a timely reply to her letter from the Secretary of State for Education, which is a rare thing. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) called for a two-out-of-three option on the E-bac. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made a passionate speech about her Catholic religious background. As ever, the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) was donnish and scholarly in his observations. He seemed to be putting forward a case for the compulsory teaching of philosophy rather than of religion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) reminded us that the Church is disestablished in Wales, but he admirably resisted the temptation to use the word “antidisestablishmentarianism”, which showed a great deal of restraint, which I do not possess. My hon. Friend preached respect rather than tolerance, which is an interesting distinction.

The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), a former teacher, spoke with passion. Incidentally, my school—St Alban’s RC comprehensive school at Pontypool —is obviously named after the same martyr as her city. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) acknowledged the progress made under the previous

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Labour Government, saying that four times as many are now studying RE at A-level. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) urged the Minister to repent on the matter of E-bac. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) is obviously a man of great faith; he must be to support Grimsby Town football club.

Finally, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) accused schools of cheating. It was slightly over the top, even for him, to say of schools that enter pupils for exams that are available and properly set out by the examination boards that they are cheating. I would be interested to know which schools in his constituency he thinks are cheats, and which teachers and head teachers. I am sure that he will list them all later.

It is right for me to say something about what the previous Government did to improve RE teaching in our schools. We invested £1 million in an RE action plan during our last three years. We wanted to improve the quality of teaching and learning of religious education, with revised guidance and a review of resources, support and materials for teachers. We wanted to strengthen the role of RE in the curriculum, and we worked closely with the key stakeholders to deliver that plan. The previous Government, like this Government, were supportive of religious education being taught in our schools, and we were supportive of it being broadly Christian in character. However, it is extremely important that pupils should be taught about different religions, not least in the multi-faith world which we live in and which is reflected in so many of our constituencies.

The previous Labour Government were right to do that, and I do not think that there has been any particular deliberate change in emphasis by the present Government. However, a number of Members spoke about the impact of the English baccalaureate on the teaching of RE. That policy comes under the famous “nudge” theory. I have said it before, and I shall say it again, but if we nudge people with a loaded gun the consequences are obvious. The consequence of the loaded gun of the English baccalaureate for the teaching of RE in schools is becoming clear.

I wonder what the Secretary of State thought would happen to the teaching of RE when he announced the English baccalaureate. It was done in a rush, without consultation and without deep thought being given to it. Was he emphasising the importance of teaching the core academic subjects? Was he setting his own exam test that he could not fail? He knows that in a few years’ time the impact of nudging people in that way—of saying that schools will be judged on how they do in the E-bac—would be a rush, a diversion, of schools’ resources into the teaching of those subjects. The inevitable consequence, which he desires, is that he would be able to say at the end of his parliamentary term, “I have succeeded, because more people are studying the subjects that I have decided are important.”

What will be the consequences for RE? As the hon. Member for St Albans has said, The T imes Educational Supplement of 4 February 2011 published a survey by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, which had gathered 800 responses from state and independent schools. It was reported that the survey had

“found planned cuts to both short and full-course GCSEs in religious studies from this September. In some cases schools are reported to be ignoring their statutory duty to offer RE at all.”

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That was the result of the rushed and ill-considered introduction of the English baccalaureate by the Secretary of State.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con) rose

Kevin Brennan: Because the hon. Gentleman did not speak earlier, I shall give way.

Andrew Percy: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. For the last two decades we have seen that schools will always teach to whatever they are measured on. The real risk of the English baccalaureate being drawn so narrowly is as the hon. Gentleman says. It is happening in my constituency; head teachers tell me that they are doing exactly that—rushing resources to the subjects that contribute to the E-bac to the detriment of all other subjects.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman, like me, is an ex-teacher and speaks from experience. He knows the impact of directives, missives or advice from the Department for Education.

The Times Educational Supplement of 13 May—last Friday—stated in its magazine:

“Even though RE is a statutory subject, the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education…has warned that some headteachers are allocating less, or no, time to RE. A poll of nearly 800 schools in January found that 30 per cent have cut time for RE. With less time devoted to their subject, and potentially fewer pupils and funding, there are fears about job losses in non-EBac subjects.”

That, of course, includes RE. The article then states:

“With RE, the DfE argues that because it is a statutory subject, it will be protected. In the past, Mr Gove has said that ‘high-quality religious education is a characteristic of the very best schools; faith schools and non-faith schools’. But the RE community is not convinced. Mike Castelli, who sits on the RE Council of England and Wales and is principal lecturer in education at Roehampton University, is under no illusions that the statutory nature of the subject will protect its importance in school. ‘What secured it was Ofsted inspections, but Ofsted now doesn't report on the curriculum in detail,’ he says. ‘Therefore there’s no comeback to headteachers who decide they don’t want to put RE on at GCSE level. The fact that RE is statutory is not doing what the Government thinks it is doing.”

I could go on, but there is not enough time. I say to the Schools Minister that the situation is the result of ill-considered, non-evidence-based policy being introduced without consultation. The Government should drop this approach to making education policy. The Minister is not malevolent, but misguided. He will have to do a U-turn, and he is lucky that he will have to do it with regard to RE, because he knows that, in this case, for sinners redemption is available.

12.20 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate and on her opening speech, which set out the argument extremely well. This issue has engendered a large volume of correspondence from hon. Members and the Churches. We believe that religious education is an important subject. In fact, it is the only subject that

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has been a compulsory part of the school curriculum since 1944. The Education Reform Act 1988 made religious education a fundamental part of the basic curriculum, as opposed to the national curriculum, in all maintained schools. Its unique status signifies the special position that religious education holds in reflecting the traditions and beliefs that underpin contemporary society.

RE is central to the aim of the school curriculum, which is to promote the spiritual, moral and cultural development of children and young people and to help prepare them for the responsibilities and experiences of adult life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) appeared to be proposing the ending of compulsory RE in the curriculum, which is an argument that we will resist. As a Government, we are committed to retaining RE as a compulsory subject to the age of 16, notwithstanding the increasing volume of the secular lobby. Unlike the previous Government, this Administration are committed to faith schools. We value the enormous contribution that they make to our education system, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has acknowledged.

I agree with the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who said that RE helps to promote community cohesion. RE, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum, should be relevant to all pupils’ background and beliefs. Crucially, the content of the RE syllabus is determined by the locally agreed syllabus conferences, which are appointed by the local standing advisory councils for religious education. Those councils know their communities and understand their needs. It is important that they have the freedom to design an RE curriculum that is relevant and valued by their community.

Less prescription in the curriculum will achieve better teaching. It will enable teachers to do what only they can, which is to engage and inspire their pupils. The national curriculum review aims to prescribe only the essential knowledge and concepts that children should know and be taught, and to leave the professionals to determine how to teach them. We must get away from the mentality that says that, just because a topic or subject is important, it has to be specified in the national curriculum. Moreover, just because something is not in the national curriculum does not mean that it is not important. That same principle applies to what is or is not incorporated into the English baccalaureate.

RE has a locally developed syllabus, which is based on the minimum prescription established in law, and we do not intend to change that. We want schools to have greater freedom because central prescription and the uniformity that it implies do not necessarily produce the best outcomes.

I can assure my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) that academies and free schools are required to teach RE as a condition of their funding agreement, which reflects the importance that the Government attach to the subject.

Mrs Main: How would it be read if the humanities and geography were dropped out of the baccalaureate? I am sure that people would think that they were being devalued or downgraded.

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Mr Gibb: I will come on to why we have included history and geography in a moment, which relates to significant drops in the proportion of the cohort taking both history and geography.

I recognise that there are many concerns about the fact that the non-inclusion of religious studies in the humanities component of the English baccalaureate could have an adverse impact on the study of the subject. The E-bac recognises those pupils and those schools that succeed in securing achievement in the core subjects of English language, mathematics, the sciences, a language and history or geography, which reflects what happens in other high-performing countries. Singapore, for example, has compulsory O-levels in English language, mother tongue, maths, combined humanities and science. In France, the brevet is made up of exams in French, maths, history, geography and civics. In Japan, all students at the end of junior high school at the age of 15 are tested in Japanese, social studies, maths, science and English, depending on the prefecture. In Alberta, there are compulsory tests at 15 in maths, science, social studies, English and French. In Poland, 16-year-olds are tested in humanities, Polish, maths, science and a foreign language.

We deliberately kept the English baccalaureate small enough to enable pupils to study other subjects, such as music, art, RE, economics or vocational subjects. My concern is that the core academic subjects of the English baccalaureate—English, maths, science, a language, history or geography—are being denied to too many pupils, especially the more disadvantaged. In 2010, only 8% of pupils eligible for free school meals were entered for the English baccalaureate subjects, with only 4% achieving them. Of the 24% of non-free school meal pupils who took the E-bac, 17% achieved it.

In 719 maintained mainstream schools, no pupil entered any of the single award science GCSEs. No pupil was entered for French in 169 secondary schools. No pupil was entered for geography in 137 schools and no pupil was entered for history in 70 schools.

John Pugh: May I disabuse the Minister of his view that I was arguing for a change in the legal status of RE? I was trying to explore whether there are good arguments that he could give that are rationales for

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making the subject compulsory, which would not be good arguments for making it an option within the baccalaureate.

Mr Gibb: The arguments would be the same except that it is unnecessary to make RE a component of the English baccalaureate, because it is already compulsory by law. That is the reasoning behind our decision not to include RE in the humanities component.

RE is clearly a popular and successful subject. Judging by the increasing proportion of students who take a GCSE, it is one that is taught to an academically rigorous standard. There has been an increase in RE GCSEs from 16% of the cohort in 2000 to 28% in 2010. In addition, 36% of the cohort was entered for the short course GCSE in religious studies. By contrast, there has been a decline in the numbers entered for GCSE in history, geography and languages.

Mr Lammy rose—

Mr Gibb: I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman, because I am running out of time.

The proportion of young people attempting geography GCSE dropped from 37% in 2000 to 26% last year. Modern languages dropped from 79% in 2000 to 43% in 2010. Of course 79% of pupils in the independent sector attempted at least one foreign language in 2010. We are determined to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds, and this is one tool in our toolbox to achieve that.

Our hope and expectation is that the English baccalaureate will encourage more students to study history, geography and languages. As it is compulsory to study RE until the age of 16, students will continue to take RS GCSEs in addition to the English baccalaureate subjects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) proposed having a humanity component of two out of three options, including RE, in the humanities block. We have considered that, and we will continue to review it. The concern is that that will extend the size of the E-bac to seven or eight GCSEs, making it less small and therefore restricting the space for vocational education, music and the arts and for those who do not want to study RE to GCSE.

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Forensic Science Service

12.30 pm

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I am also pleased to secure this debate on the future of the Forensic Science Service.

My interest in this subject began with a visit from one of my constituents, who works as a senior forensic scientist at the northern firearms unit in Manchester. It was at his invitation that I was able to visit that facility, which is part of the wider FSS. I intend to say a little more about the unit later in my speech, but first I want to say that my constituency owes a wider debt to the work of the FSS.

I am sure that Members are familiar with the crimes of Dr Harold Shipman. He was a trusted family doctor in my constituency who murdered more than 200 of his patients in what remains this country’s worst case of a serial killer. Without the detailed toxicology evidence that the FSS offered to the courts, it is questionable whether the extent of his killings would ever have been proven. This single example is a powerful reminder of the capacity that the FSS gives to our law enforcement agencies.

The 1,100 highly trained staff in the FSS have the skills and expertise to identify an offender or unravel the chain of events that led to a crime, often from studying no more than a pattern of blood, a strand of hair or the tread-markings left by a shoe. Their unrivalled range of expertise includes the analysis of documents, mobile phones, toxicology, marks and traces, DNA, firearms, fibres and hair. Their analysis has helped to secure convictions in 220 so-called “cold cases”, and a further 600 cases are actively under review. Among their groundbreaking achievements was the establishment of the world’s first national DNA database. The FSS is now based in four laboratories across the country and it deals with up to 120,000 cases a year, regardless of their complexity. The quality of its meticulous work has earned the FSS the respect of experts from around the globe.

In December 2010, the Government announced that the FSS will close by the end of March 2012. As I understand it, the Government hope that the closure of the FSS will increase competition. They believe that the vacuum created by its absence will immediately be filled by private providers and in-house police force provision, and they hope that by creating a more commercial market prices will be driven down and turnaround times improved.

I have real fears, however, that the absence of the FSS will impact on the quality of justice in the courts. I know that no Member would want to back proposals that would directly result in our losing the ability to carry out this kind of work. I hope that raising these concerns today will lead the Government to take a second look at their plans.

Any changes to the FSS must have the integrity of our judicial system at their core. There are still too many questions about the scope and quality of the provision that will be available following the closure of the FSS. In my remarks today, I will consider whether the high standards, impartiality and scope of the current provision will survive under the Government’s proposals;

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I will question the financial argument being put by the Government; and I will ask whether the Minister is willing to risk serious damage to the quality of justice by implementing these reforms.

As I mentioned previously, my concern about this issue began when I recently visited the northern firearms unit, which is part of the FSS. My visit was at the invitation of a constituent who has worked in this sector for more than 24 years and is deeply concerned by the Government’s plans. He is one of several specialists at the unit who are called on to support the police at scenes of shootings around the clock, 365 days a year. Their laboratory analysis can shed important light on the circumstances surrounding a crime. By looking at wounds, blood patterns and bullet casings, they can determine how a person was shot, the number of weapons involved and even if the same gun has been involved in other shootings. The unit has played a major role in solving a number of high-profile gun crimes and in achieving the subsequent convictions.

The unit’s success relies, however, on the flexibility to devote the time necessary to each investigation. Staff at the unit fear that many of their successes might not have been possible within the financial constraints of a more commercial market. They also fear that private providers are unlikely to offer the guaranteed on-call service that is required. I am sure that private companies will bid for the work of the FSS, but the risk is that they will cherry-pick the quickest, least labour-intensive and most profitable parts, which could have a serious impact on the quality of justice delivered by our court system.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate, and I agree with the points that he is making. Does he agree that another factor to consider is that the FSS, which I have also visited, keeps an awful lot of DNA samples taken from crime scenes, and that it seems that the Government have not given much thought to what will happen to all those samples when the FSS closes? The work done by the FSS is far too important for us simply to hope that something will be put in its place. The Government need to ensure that something is in place before they go ahead with the closure of the FSS.

Jonathan Reynolds: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I absolutely agree with him. I will address the point he makes later in my speech.

I visited the firearms archive in Manchester, which is truly something to be seen. It is important not only for cross-referencing crimes with other crimes but for the expertise that goes with that work. Using the archive properly is absolutely crucial, but I understand that the Government have not yet decided what will happen to it. The future of the archive is very important.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I will be cautious in my remarks because I am Chair of the Science and Technology Committee and we are in the middle of an inquiry into this issue. I am pleased to see that two of my assiduous colleagues on the Committee—the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) and for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe)—are in Westminster Hall for this debate; they both play an important role on the Committee.

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One strand of evidence given by many people is about the Birmingham archive for the FSS, which is the central records store of the FSS operation. Everyone is arguing that the archive needs to be kept intact and protected and made accessible for the investigations that my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) has referred to. Following his own research, does he agree that protecting the Birmingham archive is a necessary part of the process?

Jonathan Reynolds: I agree absolutely and I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee, and indeed other members of the Select Committee for attending today. I have read through much of the evidence they have received. Given the limited time for this debate, it is not possible to go through all the evidence, but my hon. Friend’s point about the Birmingham archive is particularly important and I hope the Minister will be able to offer us some assurance about the archive.

The northern firearms unit, which I visited, is just one of many disciplines offered by the FSS. It is a small but significant cog in a much larger wheel. No private provider is currently able to offer the same breadth of forensic services and expertise as the FSS, whose holistic approach is a clear benefit to our judicial system. By offering such a comprehensive range of services, it is in an unrivalled position to determine what is required from a crime scene and to provide the data.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The FSS has a range of responsibilities and inputs. Does he agree that, given the unfortunate potential for a rise in terrorist offences—or at least the threat of terrorist offences—as well as the more regular criminal activity that the FSS deals with as part of the justice system, there are concerns about resilience in dealing with terror?

Jonathan Reynolds: I agree. Our capacity to deal with an incident such as a major terrorist incident is one of the most pressing problems that we face. I think that we would all agree that, whatever the costs involved, we simply cannot be without the capacity to respond to such incidents appropriately.

By working across a range of services, the FSS offers a holistic approach that allows its specialists to evaluate the relative importance of any crime scene before a case goes to court. Without that holistic approach, the danger is that analysis of a crime scene would have to be delivered piecemeal by different providers. That would introduce unnecessary confusion and possibly compromise justice.

In addition, there is the challenge of maintaining standards if the FSS is closed. The ability to determine that current levels of accuracy are maintained will be crucial. At present, members of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, such as the FSS, must be accredited. However, with the exception of those dealing with DNA, there are no statutory requirements for forensic science companies or in-house police departments to comply with any published standards. Few of us would think that these plans to close the FSS could come into force until stronger requirements were in place to ensure that all providers must meet minimum standards.

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Moreover, that step would have financial implications of its own. I understand that the Government have already made it clear that additional funds would not be available for police forces that wished to increase their own laboratory capacity. If the police choose to increase their in-house provision of forensic services, they will also have to address the issue of impartiality. We are well aware of the importance of justice being seen to be done as well as being done, but where the police are both the forensic science provider and customer, questions are bound to be asked. Of course, among the incidents that are likely to cause concern are those involving police officers themselves.

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the police have already taken a great deal of forensic science in-house, and that the trend in the marketplace, which perhaps has led to some of the current problems, has been caused by the police doing that and leaving less and less for people to fight over?

Jonathan Reynolds: I recognise that point. The statistics show that income from the sector has decreased as functions have been taken in-house. A point that I would like to address later in my speech is that some functions can be taken in-house but others cannot, and we must maintain that capacity.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time in giving way. Further to the point my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) has just made, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, although the Government have to take some action because of the FSS’s financial situation, the market that their strategy seeks to create is being diminished each year by the increasing level of police in-house provision?

Jonathan Reynolds: Yes. The hon. Gentleman’s point is crucial because, if the market is not rigorous and robust, there will be nothing there to fill the gap created by the absence of the FSS.

As well as being active in the immediate aftermath of a crime, the FSS also secures convictions in so-called cold cases. Over many years, it has built up archives of more than 1.5 million case files and a vast number of retained materials, including DNA, fibres and recovered debris. The application of advanced forensic techniques to archive material by FSS scientists has helped to secure convictions for more than 220 historical crimes. That work would not be possible without the archives, but we do not know what will happen to them when the FSS is closed. Other Members have made that point, and the Government dearly need to address it. In addition, we do not know what will happen to the unrivalled collection of firearms currently in the FSS’s possession.

The dissolution of the FSS will clearly require something to emerge to fill its place and continue its important work. The Government have claimed that there is no reason to think that the private sector would be unable to meet the demand for forensic services; but where, Minister—as the FSS itself might ask—is the evidence? As uncertainty continues to surround the provision of forensic science services in the UK, significant numbers

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of scientists are taking up jobs overseas or choosing to move on to other careers, and the coverage offered by the current private forensic science providers is broad in neither scope nor geography. I am told, for instance, that not one provider in the south of England specialises in firearms. Following the reduction in the market, questions have been asked about the financial stability of a number of accredited private providers. Can the Minister tell us what safeguards there will be to ensure that all the required forensic specialisms are available in the new marketplace?

We also need to ask what will happen in the wake of a major terrorist incident. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings and attempted bombings of 7 and 21 July, more than 100 FSS scientists were called on to analyse 4,500 items. Drawing on those experts in DNA, document examination, mobile phone analysis, toxicology, and marks and traces, it was possible to determine what had happened. Thankfully, such incidents are not commonplace, but the warning this week reminds us that we never know when the next incident might be—we know only that there is likely to be one.

The FSS is the only UK organisation with forensic experience of terrorist attacks. Without it, who would have the capability and capacity to provide the vital evidence that our judicial system requires? It is not acceptable to leave the UK unable to deal with the aftermath of a major terrorist attack, and if the Government cannot prove that their plans have the rigour to cope, they should withdraw them immediately and think again.

When there are so many unanswered questions and so many risks attached, I wonder why the Government have started down this path. I fear that they have made a mistake in reaching their decision to close the FSS, and that they will soon regret it. They have repeatedly insisted that the FSS—currently a Government-owned company—makes monthly losses of about £2 million, and I understand that they hope that a more commercial market will drive prices down and improve turnaround times. The Government’s plans, however, do not seem to add up.

In recent months, the FSS has closed down three laboratory sites and shed 750 staff as part of a drive to make itself more competitive. It is believed to be on track to make the required savings, yet the Government themselves admit that the £2 million figure they repeatedly use to justify their plans takes no account of the significant savings made by the restructuring programme.

We know that the service provided by the FSS is exceptionally good. I can say without hesitation that its work has made my city, my constituency and my community safer, and the same is true for other Members. I hope, therefore, that the Minister understands how concerned many of us are about the possibility of losing the FSS and is able to offer me some solid assurances in his response today.

12.44 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I echo other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) on securing this debate. I am aware of the importance of this issue and the sensitivities that surround it. Forensic

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science is clearly a vital tool of the criminal justice system and one which deserves proper consideration by this House.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Harold Shipman case, which is just one of the most dramatic—in many ways terrible, obviously—of the many cases in which forensic science plays a vital role. The Forensic Science Service has had a proud tradition of providing an excellent, professional service to the whole criminal justice system, but its financial circumstances meant that decisive action was needed to maintain the continuity of supply of forensic services to that system. In the end, I think that what all our constituents will most care about is that the system continues in an efficient fashion.

Let me go through why the announcement has had to be made and answer some of the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman and by other Members on both sides of the House. The situation that led to the Government’s announcement to manage the closure of the FSS last December is clear: the challenging forensics market put the FSS in serious financial difficulty. As the hon. Gentleman said, the FSS had monthly operating losses of about £2 million and faced the prospect of further shrinkage in demand for forensic services. The Government have invested significant amounts of money in recent years in restructuring the FSS, but the downturn in the forensics market unfortunately meant that further investment in restructuring the company was no longer a viable option.

We considered three options to resolve the financial difficulties faced by the FSS: uncontrolled administration, further restructuring of the company, and a managed wind-down. Without the prospect of further financial help, the FSS board would have been forced to place the company into administration in early 2011. Uncontrolled administration would have seriously damaged the forensics capability available to the criminal justice system, and we were not prepared to take that risk. From everything that the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, I imagine he would agree that such a risk should not have been countenanced in any way. Although further restructuring would have had less impact on the criminal justice system than losing the FSS overnight, it would not have solved the key underlying problem of reduced customer demand. The FSS had already received a £50 million grant for restructuring, and although it has significantly reduced the size of its business, the market has continued to contract. The FSS’s share of the market has also shrunk as other competent companies have won police contracts through the police procurement process. That, combined with EU state aid and competition law constraints, meant that further restructuring was simply no longer viable.

I strongly believe that the managed wind-down of the FSS is the right choice, both financially and for the criminal justice system. Several Members have asked about the attitude of other people within the criminal justice system. We consulted key partners across the system before making this decision, and their collective view is that a managed closure is in the best interests of the system as a whole.

Andrew Miller: I would be the first to acknowledge that the GovCo process had not been as successful as was hoped. What worries me about the position taken by the Minister and his colleagues is that no one can tell

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us what the economic facts are. Simply talking about the FSS’s expenditure is not adequate; we need to know the capital expenditure on forensic science—programmes past and present—of every police authority, but neither the Home Office nor the Association of Chief Police Officers can provide that information. Until that information is available, I am afraid that the Minister will have a hard job convincing people of what might be a meritorious case.

Damian Green: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I have read the evidence given to the Science and Technology Committee by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), a few weeks ago. He was pressed for that information, and undertook to go away and find it out. The hon. Gentleman said that he requires the full economic case. The starkest economic point is simply that the FSS is draining money away. Money has been put into restructuring, and it has not worked. As he said, the previous Government set up a GovCo in an attempt to solve the problem, but sadly, that has not worked. We knew that we could not carry on as before. The Government were faced with a set of options, and I am trying to explain why we chose what we did.

Andrew Miller: I understand where the Minister is coming from, and we have been told today that the Home Office cannot provide that information because it is impossible to calculate, but the starkest economic fact is that we do not know how we are managing public money that has been spent on forensic science. Surely it must be the Minister’s highest priority to work out that conundrum.

Damian Green: It is certainly a priority, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the operational expenditure of individual police forces is a matter for chief constables. [ Interruption. ] He makes a gesture, but it would be wrong for Home Office Ministers to try to detail every piece of expenditure by every police force in the country. By going down that route, we have over-managed police forces and other public services, to their detriment. I am afraid he will have to bite the bullet: allowing the police operational independence is an important way to improve the service.

Philip Davies: On the operational independence of the police, the Minister will be aware that some of the fiercest criticism of the closure of the FSS has come from police chief constables, including the chief constable of South Yorkshire, who said that it would

“have a ‘disproportionate effect’ on forces in Yorkshire and the North East because they are more reliant on the service than constabularies elsewhere.”

If the views of the police are so important, will he bear in mind their views on the closure of the FSS?

Damian Green: Absolutely. My hon. Friend leads me neatly into what I was about to say. The Association of Chief Police Officers, in particular, is clear that the forensic markets can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS, and ACPO has been closely involved in the process being carried out by the Government.

To address the fears about uncertainty, the managed wind-down of the FSS will allow time for the restructuring of the timetable for tendering new contracts, for the re-tendering of existing FSS contracts and for other

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forensic suppliers to develop their capacity to meet any additional requirements. That approach will also enable the FSS’s business and assets to be transferred in order to build a healthy market around other existing forensic suppliers, which already account for about 35% of the forensics market. That is clearly a significant point. Some may think that there is no one out there and this is a leap in the dark, but more than one third of the market is already in the hands of other operators.

Jonathan Reynolds: Does the Minister accept that many of the prices currently offered by private sector providers are the result of competition with the FSS? If that is taken away, there is a chance that the marketplace could consolidate or prices could rise, which would not be in our interests. Further to that, many of the people in that specialist area have been trained by the FSS. As I understand it, private sector providers’ prices do not take into account the increased cost base of training their own people to be as skilled as they need to be to cover all the specialisms currently being covered.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman makes the valid point that competition drives prices down and makes industries more efficient. That is a universal truth. However, a competitive market exists, and the managed wind-down of the FSS will enable the individual players in that market to become more competitive and the market itself to become a more effective area of competition.

The Government want the UK’s forensic science industry to operate as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost. That will, inter alia, preserve police resources and maximise the positive impact that forensic sciences can have on tackling crime. A competitive market can help drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning that serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, I am sure that that is what we all want.

Research and development in forensic science is essential to ensure the continued availability of a high-quality, efficient forensic science capability for the criminal justice system. Historically, such research has been undertaken by a wide range of organisations, including the private sector, Government-owned laboratories and academia.

Our decision took into account the need to manage the impact on forensic science research and development in the UK. Unfortunately, the FSS’s financial position had already limited the capacity for research and development for which it had become renowned. During the managed wind-down, we are working closely with the police, the FSS, the Crown Prosecution Service and other forensic providers to consider how the industry can build on existing expertise and continue the UK’s renowned research and innovation.

Gavin Barwell: The Minister outlined the options that the Government considered when taking the decision. Did they consider restricting the police’s ability to provide in-house forensic services? That might have given the FSS a larger market in which to compete. As he will know if he has studied the evidence received by the Select Committee, many private sector suppliers have expressed concerns about their ability to invest in the future in a declining market if police provision continues to increase.

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Damian Green: I am aware of the evidence given to the Select Committee. Perhaps this is a good time for me to address directly the question of how objective the advice given to police forces on forensic science will be if the service is provided in-house. The evidential value and integrity of forensic exhibits is tested under the intense scrutiny of the courts—from the point of collection, through analysis to interpretation and reporting. Each step in the process must be able to withstand such critical review, not least because the first body that the police must convince in any prosecution is the CPS. That is now an independent function. Fears that something untoward will happen if an individual police force does its own forensics in-house can be overstated.

Keeping one eye on the clock, I will deal directly with one or two other points raised in the debate. On the question of what will happen to the FSS’s archives, the Government obviously recognise their importance in academic terms and, perhaps even more importantly, to the investigation of cold cases. The forensic transition board has set up an archiving project board with members from the Home Office, the FSS, ACPO and key partners across the criminal justice system to recommend options for the handling and retention of FSS records so that historical data remain available to the criminal justice system. As part of that, we will seek to ensure that the necessary expertise remains to work on the data and mine them in the future.

Doubt was expressed about whether private providers will be able to cope, particularly with a major incident such as 7/7. As I mentioned, ACPO has made it clear that the forensics market can cope with the managed wind-down of the FSS. An orderly wind-down, which is what we are managing, will allow adequate time for the current forensics framework to be restructured, for existing FSS contracts to be re-tendered and for other suppliers to increase their capability. We are reviewing the FSS functions as part of the process of managed closure. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who is the Minister responsible for crime and security, has kept Members informed of the Government’s plans so far and will continue to do so, particularly those Members who have forensic science sites in their constituencies.

The Government are aware that the decision to manage the closure of the FSS has put employees and their families in a difficult position. My hon. Friend has personally—

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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Problem Gambling

1 pm

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

The gambling sector is a highly successful industry in this country, employing more than 100,000 people and contributing more than £1.4 billion to the Exchequer in betting and gambling duty alone. A large majority of the British public enjoy gambling as a leisure activity, with 73% of the UK population participating last year alone, which is an increase of 5% from 2007. In his excellent book, “Gambling: A Healthy Bet”, Patrick Basham finds that gamblers tend to participate more in community and social activities than non-gamblers and donate more to charity. However, for a small proportion—0.9%, according to the latest prevalent study—gambling can develop into a problem that negatively affects their lives.

What we must bear in mind, however, is that 0.9% is a very small amount. Many experts in the field have concluded that the small rise in the number of those with problem gambling in the latest prevalent study may not be a true representation of an increase in problem gambling; it may well be that problem gambling is both better reported and more socially acceptable today and that its true extent is now, therefore, becoming more apparent. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of any other policy area in which 0.9% of the population affects Government policy as markedly as seems to be the case with gambling.

As with all other forms of addiction, there will always be a proportion of the population who are addicted to gambling. It is impossible to eliminate addiction, no matter how much money, how many programmes or how much treatment is provided. The blame for an addiction should not be placed at the industry’s door, because it is not the industry itself that makes people addicts—it merely offers a service—but the individuals themselves. We should therefore treat the problem, which is the person concerned, and stop attacking the product.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned that bookmakers in particular are saturating many of our high streets, particularly in London? Although a few shops might satisfy demand, a proliferation of them and an increase to nine or 10 shops on one stretch of high road can, frankly, only promote gambling and addictive behaviour among the poorest.

Philip Davies: No, I am not. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a bee in his bonnet about this issue, but I do not share his concern. I believe in the free market and the market of supply and demand. If there is not enough demand to meet the supply of those shops, they will close down. I am sure that he would prefer high streets to have betting shops rather than shops that have been boarded over and are ripe for vandalism. I certainly welcome betting shops moving on to the high street when other shops will not.

It is for the reason that I have outlined that I disagree with the premise that the gambling industry should be compelled to fund the treatment of problem gambling. It seems absurd, especially as fast-food companies such

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as Burger King and Krispy Kreme do not fund research into and the treatment of obesity. I used to work for Asda and I cannot remember anybody saying that Asda was expected to fund treatment of obesity just because we happened to sell cream cakes down one of our aisles. It seems that gambling is treated on a completely different basis from those other industries.

Discussion of the issue also strikes me as disproportionate. The gambling industry’s funding target is set at £6 million for 2011 and £7 million for 2012. In contrast, the Portman Group, another highly regarded organisation, raised £6.3 million between 2007 and 2009 for their trust’s education and campaigning work. Given that the UK alcoholic drinks industry is valued at more than £30 billion, the demands on the gambling sector seem less than fair or consistent, to say the least.

Nevertheless, we are where we are for the time being. Given that the industry is pouring so much money into the issue, and given that it has the greatest vested interest of all in the money being spent wisely and in being successful in reducing problem gambling, does the Minister not agree that it would be fairer and make more sense if it had a greater role in how the money that it gives is spent?

In October 2008, the Gambling Commission recommended the establishment of a new structure to raise and distribute funding for gambling research, education and treatment. The previous Labour Government insisted that if a voluntary agreement was not reached, they would intervene and ensure that a statutory levy was installed. I am interested to hear the Minister’s definition of “voluntary”, because that certainly is not what I understand the term to mean.

As a result, new bodies were created. The GREaT Foundation—Gambling Research, Education and Treatment —raises funds for research, education and treatment of problem gambling by collecting voluntary donations from the gambling industry. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board advises Ministers and the Gambling Commission on priorities of funding, and the Responsible Gambling Fund is an independent charity that was set up to distribute the money raised. In addition, there are three expert advisory panels. Can the Minister explain why we need all of those? Why can the body that raises the money not be trusted also to allocate it? In short, we appear to have a bureaucratic nightmare—not to mention the cost. The Responsible Gambling Strategy Board costs about £250,000 a year just to run, which does not give any benefit to those suffering from problem gambling.

Almost half the funding last year was given to a charity called GamCare, which is the leading provider of information, advice, support and free counselling for the prevention and treatment of problem gambling. GamCare has established a responsible gambling code of practice and certification process that have been adopted by many of the successful betting companies. The 11-point code consists of an age verification-parental supervision process, encourages a balanced advertising and promotional message for gambling companies, and allows customers to set a daily, weekly or monthly deposit limit on their gambling accounts.

Other initiatives include a self-exclusion policy whereby customers can close their accounts for six months, after which they must present a written case for why they should be allowed to use their accounts again. Customers can also limit their session times for games or events

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that have no natural end, which provides them with greater control over their gambling. Employees in gambling companies also receive responsible gambling awareness training, which assists them in identifying the triggers and causes of problem gambling and raises awareness of the relevant support agencies and the policies, processes and regulatory requirements that surround the gambling industry.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman see a role for educationlists or schools in helping to educate young people about the danger of gambling addiction?

Philip Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I encourage him to read Patrick Basham’s book, “Gambling: A Healthy Bet”, which talks about how developing an understanding of risk at an earlier age is good for people in terms of not just gambling, but their skills for the rest of their lives. I certainly think that there is much merit in what Patrick Basham writes in his book.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that there is currently no GamCare treatment provider available on Merseyside? The closest is in Manchester. Does he know whether that will be addressed?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is, as ever, on the ball with what is happening in her area. She has quickly established a reputation for herself as a champion of her constituents and her area. She is absolutely right that Merseyside currently lacks a GamCare treatment facility. It is not GamCare’s fault; its provider had funding from other agencies taken away, so it has closed down. I know that GamCare shares my hon. Friend’s concern that there should be a provider on Merseyside, and I hope that it will be able to find a replacement provider soon for the benefit of her constituents.

GamCare has established a national helpline with an international reputation and an infrastructure delivering counselling to 70% of the country. The helpline, including a net-line live chat service and forum, provides a service for gamblers and others affected by gambling. The helpline receives about 1,000 calls a week. It offers help and support to people in crisis, some of them suicidal. GamCare’s professionally trained advisers explore the best way to support the caller by signposting them to debt advice, family therapy, self-exclusion or further counselling.

In 2010-11, GamCare provided sustained confidential counselling for some 2,500 people, which is 20% more than the previous year. GamCare also worked closely with the National Problem Gambling clinic in London to provide the best treatment for customers. And it works; some two thirds of the problem gamblers it treats are no longer problem gamblers at the end of their treatment. At the beginning of counselling, 88% of GamCare’s clients are assessed as problem gamblers; by the end of treatment, that figure is 28%.

GamCare has calculated the cost-benefit analysis of its treatment. It has estimated that each problem gambler costs the state about £8,000 a year. With 450,000 problem gamblers in the UK, that could mean an annual bill of about £3.5 billion. By contrast, GamCare has estimated that, on average, it costs just £650 to treat each individual.

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With two-thirds of clients successfully ceasing to be problem gamblers at the end of their treatment, that produces a return on investment that is greater than 8:1—compared with the treatment for drug users, where the return is estimated at just 2.5:1. That surely highlights that the money is well spent and that expanding the service should be a priority.

GamCare has recently launched a new e-learning package, with the aim of helping more companies to improve their standards of player protection. Considering that there are 127,500 people under the age of 24 with a gambling problem in the UK, GamCare is ready to introduce education into schools and for parents and to open the communication lines with GPs. That is all ready to go if the funding is in place. However, at a time when more money than ever is available—a funding target of £6 million this year and £7 million next year—the industry is seeing more and more of it swept up into burgeoning bureaucracy.

In particular, the Responsible Gambling Fund established under the previous Government is crippling front-line services, which is where the money is needed most. In 2009-10, the RGF spent almost £500,000 on staff costs and overheads, including £51,000 on consultancy. Even more interestingly, it is estimated that those costs will have risen by 10% for the year 2010-11. In an age of austerity, such an attempt at empire building is extremely worrying, and it is vital that we guard against the growth of a monster that constantly calls for more and more money, bigger and bigger budgets and more and more employees to deal with a problem that is being tackled effectively by organisations such as GamCare.

On top of that, the RGF is funding eight PhD studentships at an average of £20,000 a year to widen participation in gambling-related research as a means of informing public policy. That is a prime example of the unfocused nature of its research. In addition, the RGF has done very little on education for adolescents, while GamCare has already researched and outlined a fully costed actionable programme to implement. Can the Minister enlighten us about what research commissioned by the RGF has led to a major policy implementation that has made a real difference to reducing problem gambling? If he can do that, he is doing better than I can.

The people on the front line desperately need that money to fund treatment and to launch education and prevention programmes. By contrast, GamCare’s funding for 2010-11 has been frozen, which makes it difficult even to maintain existing services, let alone develop new ones. Furthermore, the RGF has decided that GamCare’s helpline should become a national problem gambling telephone helpline, thus throwing away the industry’s investment over many years in an established and successful service and brand.

GamCare is currently basing its programmes on interim funding on a month-by-month basis, when what it really needs is a strategic three-year funding programme. In fact, with the correct funding, GamCare could provide the treatment, education and prevention services—either itself or with the appropriate partners—for an annual cost of around £3.5 million a year. The Government should concentrate on ensuring that the money is well spent, rather than just ensuring that more and more

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money is being pumped into a situation where it is being badly spent. The structure that was put in place nearly three years ago is just not working. There has been time for it to prove itself and, sadly, it has failed. Most of the people involved in the industry would recognise that.

The answer to this conundrum is threefold: strip away the unnecessary levels of bureaucracy; let those experts on the front line, who know how to help people in trouble, get on with delivering and expanding their existing services; and put proper programmes quickly in place to educate those most in need.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport appeared before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, of which I am a member, and expressed his concern about problem gambling and the importance that the Government attach to dealing with the matter. It is therefore the Government’s responsibility to ensure that there is a coherent strategy for education, prevention and treatment. The industry needs an effective body that makes good strategic decisions about risks and takes proportionate measures in terms of allocating funding to deal with problem gambling. The majority of the research should go to treatment providers and there is no justifiable reason why GamCare should not remain as the principal treatment provider and operator of the national helpline.

The industry, working directly with the charities, can step up to the plate and sort out the issue of problem gambling, but it would find it easier if it knew that it had the Minister’s support in stripping away bureaucracy, getting the money quickly to the front line and trusting the experts. I hope that the Minister will give me his assurance today that that is what the Government will do.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (John Penrose): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr McCrea.

I will endeavour to respond to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) in order, if I possibly can. I am delighted that he has taken the trouble to air this important and potentially tremendously troubling issue in Parliament. It is a topic that does not get enough balanced and careful debate, and I therefore pay tribute to him for raising it. Some of the issues surrounding the problem deserve a fuller and more careful exploration and I welcome his initiative in seeking to do so.

I also welcome my hon. Friend’s opening comments. He is absolutely right to say that, for the vast majority of people, gambling is fine if it is done carefully and in moderation. In many cases, gambling causes no problems and is a source of innocent fun and enjoyment. It is the same as enjoying an occasional glass of wine or pint of beer—it causes no problem for anybody. He also rightly went on to say that, sadly, that is not the case for a small but real minority of people. I am sure that everybody here regrets and is concerned about the current figure of 0.9% of people who gamble turning into problem gamblers. In focusing on those unfortunate people and what we can do for them, however, we should not lose sight of the fact that, for the vast majority of people who participate in gambling, it is a harmless and enjoyable

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source of fun. He is absolutely right to put the matter in context and to lay out that framework before we get into the detail.

I must confess that I was a little concerned when my hon. Friend started to make the point that he is not sure whether gambling companies should be funding research and help for problem gambling. He then moderated his point a bit and said that it is entirely reasonable—he gave the example of the Portman Group in the drinks industry and in doing so seemed to accept the principle—for companies involved in these kinds of industries to contribute something. His point is not that it is wrong in principle; rather he is arguing about the level of contribution. It is important we accept that principle and that all hon. Members agree that companies involved in such an industry, whether we are talking about alcohol or gambling, accept that they have a broader social duty to act and behave responsibly towards the small minority of people whom their products potentially harm.

Mr Lammy: The Minister has paid some attention to the small proportion of problem gamblers, as has the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). Does he recognise that the prevalence study also reveals that there has been a 50% increase in gambling in society since 2007? That is significant and of concern.

John Penrose: I completely accept what I think is the right hon. Gentleman’s underlying point: that one figure—it was just into the area of statistical significance, although it was right at the borderline—in the recent gambling prevalence survey shows that there has been an increase in the number of problem gamblers. That figure has partly been driven by the fact that more people are gambling, many of whom create no problem at all. However, the fact that the total number of gamblers has increased and that a proportion of those are problem gamblers means that there has been a statistically significant increase. He is absolutely right to point that out. I hope that I struck the right balance in my earlier remarks about the need to put that into context. We are not doing too badly internationally and, relatively speaking, other countries have higher proportions of people who are problem gamblers, but I am sure he agrees that that is absolutely no cause for either complacency or relaxation. We need to ensure that we remain alive to the matter, so I am glad that he made that intervention.

To return to the earlier comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley, I am delighted that he accepts the principle that it is right for companies involved in this kind of industry to contribute and to remain responsible. To be fair, almost without exception, the vast majority of people I have met in the gambling and gaming industries are keen to ensure that they recognise and live up to that duty. They are delighted to let it be known that they want to do that. There is an acceptance in the industry, and I think in society as a whole, that that is appropriate for companies involved in the industry. There may be an argument about the level of collaboration and involvement, which is entirely appropriate, but there is a broad cross-party consensus.

I accept my hon. Friend’s point, however, that it is not only up to the industry. Clearly, Government and public health have a role. Organisations are starting to move into and participate in this area—the NHS has been participating for some time. It is interesting to note that—if I can call it this—the medicalisation of problem

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gambling is far less advanced than the medicalisation of other kinds of addiction. The treatment provided in the NHS for other kinds of addiction—for example, substance abuse—has been longer established than that provided for gambling addiction. There are moves in the NHS to do more, but he is right to say that there has to be a partnership between the industry and publicly-funded bodies to address the issue.

My hon. Friend has discussed the current arrangements. He is right to say that they have been in place for not quite two years. They stem from a report in 2008 and were implemented in 2009. I must confess that when I began my current role as Minister with responsibility for this issue, just under a year into the new arrangements, I looked at the history. It is true to say that there was a series of different attempts before the current arrangements were set up. I think that this is either the second or the third set of institutional architecture that has been imposed in this area. While there were people who made the precisely the same points as my hon. Friend on the concerns about the bureaucracy and cost in the current structure, a third or fourth reorganisation would have been something that both the industry, and to be fair problem gamblers, probably needed like a hole in the head at that point. He is, however, right to make the fundamental point. It is always correct for everybody to want to get the maximum possible value for money from any funds put towards treating an addiction problem, such as problem gambling. It is therefore sensible for us to look periodically at whether we are getting the best possible value for money.

The small caveat that I add to my hon. Friend’s remarks is that, yes, the Government need to be comfortable with this, but we also need to bear in mind that the organisations that he talked about are overwhelmingly—exclusively, in this case—funded by the industry itself. This is industry money, not public money. We are not talking about a public bureaucracy, or an executive agency of either my Department, the Department of Health or any other branch of Government. Those organisations are, rightly in my view, funded and organised by the industry, and they include people who are involved in treating and dealing with gambling addiction. They share a very heavy proportion of the burden of trying to ensure that the maximum possible value for money is achieved.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that the new arrangements have been in place for nearly two years, so there is beginning to be enough of a track record to evaluate whether they are effective. In the course of the coming 12 months, that track record will be well bedded-in, and it will be sensible to start evaluating whether the value for money that everyone wants to see is being achieved. He is enunciating a very sensible principle. The plea that I would make, and the principle that I want us to establish, is that while Government clearly have an interest, we would expect the charities concerned and the industry to take a leading role as well.

Philip Davies: I welcome the comments that the Minister has made so far, and I agree with what he has just said. The industry needs to play a leading role. Will he accept, therefore, that it would be far better if the gambling industry, which funds all this, had much more of a say in how the money is spent to ensure that it is spent effectively? The industry pays the money, but it often has very little say in how it is actually spent.

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John Penrose: That is a fair point, although it has a practical limit. It is perfectly reasonable for the gambling industry to be a force for good and to expect it to want to ensure that the money that it is donating is spent in an appropriate way. Other stakeholders will, none the less, want to be convinced that the gambling industry would not—I am sure that it would not, but this is the fear—give money and then direct the research into areas that were comfortable for the gambling industry, but not necessarily in the best interests of the wider issue of problem gambling. The gambling industry needs to push forward an agenda of value for money and the effective use of the cash that it is donating, but the gambling industry will need other stakeholders to create the right level of credibility in deciding where the money goes in the same way that the Government currently give money for academic research, but research funding councils decide which research projects are selected. That is correct, because otherwise there would always be the fear that the Government were funding academic research, in any area, into pet projects—politically convenient projects—rather than the ones that were academically pure. The same argument applies here.

Mr Lammy: The Minister makes a very good point. Is he concerned about the prevalence of fixed-odds betting terminals, particularly in bookmakers? That is a concern in other parts of the gambling industry. We also have two bookmakers currently paying their tax overseas. That is a concern, if we are talking about the overall quantum available for treating problem gamblers.

John Penrose: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I think goes back to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley: are there any examples of public policy research, funded by the Responsible Gambling Fund, that have made an impact on any of my decisions, or those of my predecessors?

One issue that I have raised with the RGF is that I am concerned that there is no significant research into establishing the kind of causal links, which I think the right hon. Gentleman suspects that there may be, between particular kinds of gambling and problem gambling. For example, many people believe that fixed-odds betting terminals are more likely to contribute to problem gambling than other kinds of gambling. The difficulty for someone in my position is that, while that is a

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widespread suspicion, there is no academically solid underpinning as yet to justify it. From my point of view, therefore, it is extremely difficult for any Gambling Minister to take effective decisions about whether particular kinds of gambling should be expanded or reduced, because there is not an adequate evidential basis on which to build a proper business case, or a proper political consensus. Into that vacuum rushes everybody with their favourite prejudice. Everybody has an answer about the reasons why we have this amount of problem gambling here and that amount of problem gambling there, but nobody has enough facts to form a solid evidential basis on which to build a reason for changing the law. I have therefore asked the various bodies to prioritise research that will provide that kind of evidential basis, and they have agreed to do so. Clearly, they must then decide what that will be—it needs to be at arm’s length from Government to be credible. In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, it is vital that we have that kind of evidential basis for the benefit of sensible and objective fact-based public policy making in future.

Philip Davies: Will the Minister also bear in mind the common-sense point that the number of machines in a particular shop cannot hinder problem gambling on the basis that somebody can only play on one at a time? That is like saying that if a pub has four different beers, and decides to extend that to 10, there will be an increase in alcoholism. That would clearly be nonsense, and I hope that the Minister will not let common sense fly out of the window when he looks at the research.

John Penrose: I am always happy to apply common sense. The particular example that my hon. Friend has chosen is perhaps unfortunate, because with the advent of the switch from £2 stakes to £1 stakes, there have been examples of people playing two machines at once, because they like playing with £2 stakes. I take his general point, however.

My hon. Friend has said, rightly, that he wants the industry to step up to the plate and take a lead in trying to sort out issues around problem gambling that cause concern. I share his view, and it is essential that both the industry and the other stakeholders do precisely that. The Government will certainly support any of their efforts to bring this issue under control.

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Public Sector Jobs (Grimsby)

1.30 pm

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I am grateful to be able to raise the issue of the transfer of between 20 and 30 compliance staff in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and 20 Valuation Office Agency staff out of Grimsby, where they are happily living and working. Grimsby is a very good place to live and work, but they are being transferred away, reluctantly in most cases. I raise the issue because the Treasury is responding this week, and the responsibility is HMRC’s.

The numbers are small, it is true. HMRC states in its impact assessment that they are

“less than 1% of those employed within the local authority area. It is therefore reasonable to infer that the local economy is not dependent on the HMRC presence at this office.”

That is true, but they are simply part of a wider exodus from Grimsby and other smaller centres produced by the concentration policy, designed to concentrate Government services in larger centres and so to dispose of property and to produce efficiency savings.

In the context of that wider problem, Dame Lesley Strathie, the chief executive of HMRC, is the new Moses—leading her people not into the promised land but out of it, because Grimsby is surely the promised land and the best place for those people to be. She is leading them instead into some traffic-jammed wasteland of a bigger city, where they do not want to be. That is counterproductive, expensive and wrong. They will all have to drive for well over an hour, at enormous expense, to a destination where they do not want to work or be. I apologise to the Minister, because he is dealing not only with the issue of HMRC staff but with the policy of concentration and its impact on Grimsby and other small centres.

The impact is damaging, and Grimsby has higher unemployment than most of the country, in common with a lot of other one-industry towns in which the industry has declined. Grimsby needs jobs—public sector jobs: 21% of employment in Grimsby is in the public sector, compared with 9% in a place such as Wokingham in the prosperous south. Any transfer or loss of public sector jobs, therefore, has a disproportionate effect in Grimsby.

We have a higher proportion of the work force in manual jobs in north-east Lincolnshire than in most of the rest of the country, and fewer people in white collar and managerial jobs. According to the figures, 20% of the work force are classified under the categories of managers, senior officials and professionals, as opposed to 30% for Great Britain overall.

It is a great shame that the founders or forefathers of Grimsby did not take the trouble to invent a Grimsby building society or a Grimsby insurance company, such as the Norwich or the Halifax, which can continue to give employment to local people. We have not got that. We need more white collar and professional jobs in the employment mix, not only to leaven the lump—I should not describe it as that—but to widen employment prospects, providing more diversity and a better choice of careers for young people growing up in Grimsby. Those are the very jobs being taken away from us, however, by transfers based on what I see as a series of wrong decisions—by an act of folly.

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Let me turn to specifics and, in particular, to the HMRC tax compliance staff, who are widely praised. In our deliberations on the Public Accounts Committee, we praised them for their achievement in recouping tax and for their great service. They have been praised by HMRC itself. Twenty-nine of them work in Heritage house, which is available to them until 2021—I think it was built to house Government departments and services, and it is certainly co-owned by Mapeley Estates, of glorious memory.

I cannot see why there is a rush to leave Heritage house. Why the exodus? The heads of the Valuation Office Agency and the chief executive of HMRC give different reasons for moving out of Heritage house, which will still be available. People from other departments, notably the Crown Prosecution Service, are also fleeing. That is part of the wider problem. The exodus involves not only HMRC, the Valuation Office Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service, but VAT staff and, we now hear, Jobcentre Plus and Department for Work and Pensions staff. All of them are moving out of Grimsby. Why the exodus from Heritage house? What is the effect on Heritage house?

Those people do not need to leave Grimsby at all. The HMRC staff could certainly be transferred to Imperial house, which also houses Inland Revenue staff. Thanks to the reduction in the Revenue staff employed in Grimsby, the fourth floor is now vacant. HMRC has to hang on to it—the fourth floor cannot be lopped off and turned into an entertainment centre, disco or whatever, to alleviate the problems of the staff. If the staff have to be transferred from Heritage house, why can they not be transferred to the fourth floor of Imperial house, to work with the other tax staff?

They are not being offered that, however, and nor are they being offered the opportunity to work from home, which they told me they could do. Instead, the proposal is to transfer them to Hull or to Cromwell house in Lincoln. The chief executive of HMRC told me that the policy was to

“consolidate its teams into fewer sites and place more location-specific work into larger, more efficient teams in urban centres.”

That will be costly, because both Hull and Lincoln are more than an hour and a quarter’s drive away. If people are transferred to Hull rather than Lincoln, they will have to pay £30 a week in toll charges on the Humber bridge—an expensive business which, incidentally, was not mentioned in the impact survey.

If staff who are transferred must travel for more than an hour—these people will be travelling for well over an hour and a quarter—their travelling expenses must be paid for five years and not only for three years. The department’s calculations are made on the basis of three years’ payment of travelling expenses, for 27 staff I think, at a total cost of £492,000. I think it would be a higher figure than that to transfer those staff to Lincoln: probably £600,000 or more, because they have to be paid for five years given the distance involved. That is deemed by the Treasury to be taxable income. We are taking on a major expense for a minimal service, and shuffling expenditure from the property portfolio to continuous travel expenses. If staff are transferred to Cromwell house, they will arrive there knackered. The drive is not pleasant—I do it quite often—and the drive

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to Halton is even worse. I like going to Lincoln, but it is unpleasant driving there, particularly at peak travel time.

I am not sure whether it is HMRC’s intention that compliance staff should arrive at Lincoln after an hour-and-a-half drive exhausted and bad tempered, so that they will be more aggressive with the claims they deal with and produce an even greater return. I hope that is not the intention, but it will certainly be the effect. The work done by HMRC staff is not local but non-specific; however, that done by VOA staff is largely local. In the recent fracas about retrospective property valuations, VOA did not have enough staff to complete them. They should have been done from 2006 onwards, but there were not finished until 2010 because of staff shortages arising from efficiency decisions. Yet it is proposed to move staff.

The problem varies in each department, but the overall transfer of not only HMRC staff but staff in other departments is damaging to the employment mix in Grimsby and the recruitment prospects of young Grimbarians, and is unnecessary. I am sorry to say that it will also be damaging to the work, morale and lives of the staff who will be shuttled around willy-nilly, because they do not want to go. They like living and working in Grimsby, which is understandable; I do, too. Why must they move when it would be cheaper for them to continue working in Grimsby, it is expensive to move them to Lincoln, and there is existing office space in Grimsby?

The policy is short-sighted and wrong. It is yesterday’s policy from the mid-noughties, and it is being forced on today’s work force at a time when unemployment is higher than when the policy was arrived at. I have been arguing and have had extensive correspondence with the chief executive of HMRC, who is a courteous and place-worthy lady, and the chief executive of VOA, but it is like arguing with a speak-your-weight machine. Their replies are about a policy that was forced on them when they took over their jobs. The correspondence has not been satisfactory, and their letters always end, “I hope you find this helpful.” Frankly, I do not, because they do not respond to my points. The policy is dictated by the need for economy and efficiency savings, but it will work against both because staff will not be more efficient after an hour-and-a-half drive to work, and it will not be economic to pay them £200,000 a year in travel expenses to do so.

The answer is not to take staff from Grimsby, but to transfer them to Grimsby. It is a good place to live and work. Office expenses are low, and rents per square foot are much lower than in the big centres where it is proposed staff should be transferred. Staff like being there, and do not want to leave. Why pursue at this late stage an expensive policy of concentration when staff who must be transferred could come to Grimsby, where office rents are lower, where staff can live more cheaply in the real world, and where they prefer to be? The problem with Grimsby is its name—I did not give it its name—and it is anything but grim as a place to live. That should be recognised, because people can live there more economically and have a more satisfactory life in a smaller urban centre than in a big city. It is time to reverse the priorities and to bring functions and staff

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to Grimsby, which is cheaper, instead of driving people out as a result of the policy of concentration in larger centres.

1.45 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain and to discuss the Government’s policy on people and estate issues, and its impact on public sector jobs in HMRC and the Valuation Office Agency in Grimsby.

I recognise and appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s passion for his constituency—perhaps we should all call it the promised land—and the fact that he wants to retain as many local services, jobs and employment opportunities for the area as possible. He set out with great knowledge and understanding some of the challenges facing Grimsby, because the private sector is not as strong as he and I would like it to be.

The issue before us is that the main department, HMRC, and its agency, VOA, like others, have been going through a transformation to ensure that they operate in the most efficient and cost-effective way. That process has been taking place for some years, and further efficiencies are required under the spending review settlement. For HMRC, that also provides for reinvestment of more than £900 million to combat tax avoidance, evasion and fraud in return for a reduction in the tax gap of £7 billion a year by 2014-15. That will lead to increased opportunities in enforcement and compliance, but by 2015 HMRC overall will be operating with around 13,000 fewer staff than in 2010.

For both organisations, having the right mix of people and skills in the right-sized teams and locations is important to ensure that they can deliver the services that their customers need. Balancing the need to retain a national network of offices with consistency across operations, while building capability to handle different areas of work, is core to maintaining customer service. Both HMRC and VOA have been carrying out good housekeeping of their estates for a number of years to utilise existing space to the maximum, and that has realised significant savings. For example, VOA has reduced its estate by 25%, saving in excess of £5 million in running costs a year since 2008. HMRC has made cumulative estate savings of £239 million since 2006.

The core efficiency agenda is key to deficit reduction, and managing Government property can contribute to that. The Government’s £370 billion estate costs around £25 billion per annum to run. The highly diverse estate has substantial scope for efficiency improvement, and the Government are the UK’s largest landowner and largest tenant, so it is important to achieve clarity on what is expected from property and how it is to be achieved.

The Government’s property unit leads the property strategy and is responsible for delivering the targeted savings, as well improving the building environment and promoting economic growth where possible. The decisions made by HMRC and VOA working together in a co-ordinated, cross-departmental way on their estates have identified savings to be made, as well as opportunities

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for work to remain in Grimsby. In December 2008, as part of HMRC’s earlier restructuring programme, the decision on HMRC’s offices in Grimsby was announced. It was decided to vacate Heritage house and retain Imperial house, the larger of the two offices. Heritage house is occupied by HMRC under a memorandum of terms of occupation with the VOA. The VOA now wishes to terminate that memorandum, and HMRC and the VOA will vacate the office by 31 March 2012. HMRC staff in Heritage house were informed of that decision on 24 March 2011.

The office closures will have an immediate impact on people in those locations, and I understand that that is a big concern for the hon. Gentleman. There are around 200 HMRC staff in Grimsby—15 at Heritage house and the remainder at Imperial house. As the hon. Gentleman has said, Imperial house has sufficient space to accommodate all HMRC staff when Heritage house is vacated. The vast majority of staff—167 people—work in the VAT directorate, and about 25 people work in the local compliance department. Local compliance work is being consolidated in Lincoln and Hull where there are established teams.

Austin Mitchell: The Minister has still not said why Heritage house is being disposed of. It is as if the place needs fumigating—there is a mass exodus. Staff from the VOA and HMRC are going, and those from the Crown Prosecution Service have fled to Hull. The building was designed to provide office accommodation for public administration staff. It is beautifully situated; there is parking; and there is a wonderful fish and chip shop nearby. Why the exodus from Heritage house? Why do the Government want to get rid of it?

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman has described a somewhat idyllic scene for Heritage house, and the proximity of an excellent fish and chip shop cannot be entirely ignored. Nevertheless, HMRC has to find savings in its estate and, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, Imperial house has the capacity to take in additional staff. HMRC needs to find savings to be more efficient and to ensure that it is as effective as possible at collecting taxes. Together with the VOA, it has taken the view that Heritage house is surplus to requirements.

The long-term strategy for local compliance is to consolidate teams in fewer sites and place non-specific work in larger teams in urban centres. The local compliance department carries out a risk assessment of location specific work, and it assessed that there is no need for a longer-term compliance presence in Grimsby. It has stretching targets for performance improvement and must deliver those with a reduced work force. The aim is to achieve that by setting up co-located teams that will provide greater opportunity to share skills and experience. That has been happening for some years, and as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of recent improvements in the compliance yield obtained by HMRC.

There are similar issues for the 20 VOA staff located in Heritage house. The VOA is working towards having fewer locations nationally, each with a critical mass of staff to enable the sharing of knowledge and skills and improve efficiency. Discussions are taking place between VOA staff and their managers before a formal preference exercise in June. The consideration for HMRC is whether

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or not the 25 local compliance staff are able to travel to Lincoln or Hull, and they have been asked to express their favoured options by the end of May. The focus at present is on supporting HMRC and VOA staff through that change, while ensuring the continuity of service required for customers—the taxpayer or ratepayer—and in the case of VOA, delivery partners such as billing authorities.

HMRC and the VOA are seeking to avoid any job losses, and the staff consultation will enable them to explore all available options. HMRC staff unable to relocate to Lincoln or Hull will continue to undertake compliance-related work for the foreseeable future, based at Imperial house. No one who lives further away than a distance of reasonable daily travel will be forced to move. The 20 VOA staff, many of whom live in and cover properties in the Grimsby area, may be based elsewhere as a result of those decisions. It is not, however, uncommon for VOA property inspectors to start or end their day from home, if that is more effective and efficient. In addition, the VOA has made provision—subject to business need—for home working, which staff may opt for in the preference exercise. The local impacts of the change will be minimal.

The policy for both HMRC and the VOA is to avoid compulsory redundancies. They will do everything possible to help staff find a suitable role, which may be at the closest neighbouring offices or elsewhere. The VOA will continue to carry out property valuations and assessments locally, and many local staff will continue to carry out that work for Grimsby, so that local knowledge of the area and conditions will not be affected. The specific issue of ports will require specialist expertise, but it should not be disrupted by the changes.

Decisions to inspect specific properties or areas are not necessarily determined by the office location; understanding the area and having the right supporting information is key. In all cases, the decision to inspect a property or locality is made after other avenues have been exhausted and when the information required can be gleaned only by a visit.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of increased travel costs as a consequence of the changes. Travel costs may increase, but HMRC and the VOA believe that those increases will be significantly outweighed by savings on accommodation. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that costs are greater in Hull and Lincoln, but as far as the VOA is concerned, accommodation in those places is considerably cheaper than it is in Grimsby. The issue affects many areas, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it today and defending the interests of his constituents with such passion. Nevertheless, HMRC and the VOA must make a contribution to clearing the fiscal deficit.

Austin Mitchell: This is the second survey that staff have received—the first must have been inconclusive. This time HMRC staff are not signing the option forms, because they feel that there are no alternative jobs in the tax system in north-east Lincolnshire or in other areas. The Minister has not answered the question about why jobs should not be transferred to Grimsby. It would be a cheaper centre from which to carry out non-locational work. If the work can be done from anywhere, why not Grimsby?

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Mr Gauke: As I understand it, the view taken by HMRC and the VOA is that the options presented by Hull and Lincoln were more financially persuasive. Accommodation in Lincoln and Hull for the VOA is considerably cheaper than in Grimsby, and decisions were taken for those reasons and on the basis of good estate management. I know that will disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but it is important that HMRC and

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the VOA take a businesslike approach to the issue and ensure that assets are distributed in the most effective and efficient manner possible.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.