6.27 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I begin with the case of Ian Elam of Dunfermline, who is the sole carer for his wife, Jeanie, and has looked after her for about 10 years without any respite. She suffers from multiple sclerosis and requires 24-hour care. At the end of 2009, Mr Elam was persuaded by Fife council social workers to make use of a respite opportunity, and his wife entered respite care at Queen Margaret hospital. Regrettably, the staff could not cope with Mrs Elam, and her husband had to attend to her needs for about 12 hours per day during her stay, which continued until February 2010.

Unfortunately, the Department for Work and Pensions has decided that Mr Elam should lose many of the benefits that he receives during his respite from caring. I am sure the House will be surprised to learn that, when people who provide 24-hour care take a short period of respite, they lose all their benefits. After all, no one in this House or, indeed, in the Press Gallery would expect to take unpaid holiday. I should be grateful, therefore, if the Deputy Leader of the House made some inquiries about the state of the case and report back to me at a later date.

It is fitting that I follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), as I too have a naval interest. Just this weekend, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter

24 May 2011 : Column 883

Luff), who is responsible for defence procurement, wrote to many Members to inform them of the outcome of the Government’s strategic defence and security review and the refitting and basing of the surface and submarine fleets. Two Type 23 frigates, HMS Somerset and HMS Richmond, which had been scheduled for refitting at Rosyth dockyard, are now to be refitted at Devonport. I do not oppose the move—after all, Devonport has a large hole in its order book thanks to the decisions of this Government—but there is uncertainty about the future of Rosyth dockyard.

I am sure the Deputy Leader of the House is also aware of the ongoing uncertainties at DM Crombie, which faces an uncertain future when the last of the surface fleet is fitted out at Rosyth at the end of 2013, because there is a long gap until—I hope—the Queen Elizabeth class comes into service. I would therefore be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House ascertained whether the Minister would be prepared to meet me to discuss the long-term future of Rosyth and Crombie.

In my maiden speech, I talked about Longannet power station, which is now the only bidder for the carbon capture and storage project. It has waited 12 months for a decision from this Government, and there does not appear to be one in sight. I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House updated the House on what progress has been made on carbon capture and storage at Longannet and whether the relevant Minister of State would be prepared to meet me to discuss it.

The House will recall that I have led the charge against ship-to-ship transfers in the Firth of Forth. This decision lies with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). I would be grateful if the Deputy Leader of the House urged him to make a decision as speedily as possible when we come back after the recess, as the uncertainty is helping no one.

6.30 pm

Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): My constituency is a highly rural one in which agriculture matters a great deal. It matters for jobs on farms and in the processing and distribution sectors—and of course farmers are the stewards of our land and promote tourism too. Food matters. In terms of food security, there are pressures on our population worldwide, with 6.8 billion people today, rising to 9.2 billion in 2050. The amount of land per person that was available for cultivation in the 1950s was 0.5 hectares—it is now just half that amount, and it will be down to a third by 2050. Global warming will also make farming more problematic, as will changes in dietary habits as we get wealthier and eat more meat that requires more land to produce it. That is a huge challenge.

I wish to address one or two important points regarding the challenges that face my farming community in Central Devon. Bovine TB has led to the slaughtering of 25,000 cattle, last year alone, at a cost of £63 million—something that scars the farming families who are affected. I am afraid that the previous Government sat on their hands when the Independent Scientific Group’s report was published. We now await with great interest the Government’s announcement, which is due shortly, on whether action will be taken on the provision of badger

24 May 2011 : Column 884

control licences. I urge them to take positive action in that respect. Incidentally, that has the support of the British Veterinary Association and the British Cattle Veterinary Association.

Milk prices are a huge issue, particularly for dairy farmers in the south-west. As recently as this February, the National Farmers Union reported that the cost of milk production was 29.1p per litre, which is above the farm-gate price that farmers are receiving. Much has been said in this Chamber about the importance of restraining the power of the supermarkets and creating an ombudsman for that purpose. I urge the Government to make good on their commitment for a groceries code adjudicator.

On red tape, we said in the coalition agreement:

“We will reduce the regulatory burden on farmers”.

I welcome Richard Macdonald’s report and urge the Government to respond to the 200 recommendations that he made by bringing forward as many of those changes as possible, including moving towards risk-based inspection of farms to reduce their onerous nature to as limited a number of farms as possible.

My final plea is for hill farmers. Hill farm incomes in 2008-09 were just £25,700 compared with over £50,000 for other farms. Hill farming is one of the most difficult forms of farming in our country; it is very tough. These are proud, resilient, hard-working people who need our support by continuing to support the higher level stewardship arrangements and stock rearing and suckler cows on the moors. I ask the Minister to let me know what the Government’s thinking is on section 68 funding from the EU, which could be directed specifically into hill farming.

I am anxious that other Members have an opportunity to speak, so I will leave it at that.

6.34 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I will canter through some topical issues that affect families in the Witham constituency.

First, I bring good news for one Minister. I put on record my thanks to the Minister of State, Department for Transport for listening to the concerns of my constituents and removing the Greater Anglia rail franchise from National Express East Anglia. Its service was appalling. She genuinely listened to my constituents’ concerns and did something about them. With the publication of the McNulty report and the ongoing work on the new long-term franchise arrangements, I make a plea to Ministers to put customer service and value for money first when awarding franchises.

Another issue is the NHS reforms. My constituency has no hospital and it asks for no hospital. However, it has two primary care trusts that have spent a lot of money over the past decade investing in bureaucrats and managers while my constituents have been left high and dry without treatments and access to local health care. That will change with the reforms. I press Ministers to stick with the principles of the Health and Social Care Bill and ensure that real investment can be made at the front line, rather than being spent on management and bureaucracy.

I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members have had difficulties with planning issues in their constituencies, particularly in relation to Traveller sites. I have endless

24 May 2011 : Column 885

issues with Traveller sites and planning applications in my constituency. Ministers have had plenty of correspondence with me about this issue. I recognise that there is currently a consultation that relates in particular to Traveller circulars. There are serious concerns on this issue and I hope that Ministers will take representations from Members of Parliament and local communities, perhaps as part of the Localism Bill, and listen to genuine local concerns.

On small businesses, I have spoken tirelessly about the fact that 83% of the jobs in my constituency are in small and medium-sized enterprises. That is a tremendous figure and I would like it to be even higher. One problem with trying to make it higher is that banks are still not lending money to small businesses and enterprise is still being stifled. I make a plea to Ministers to ensure that this matter is given priority so that our wealth creators can get the private sector growing, create more jobs, and get our economy back on track.

My constituents frequently raise the sentencing of offenders and the criminal justice system with me. They are appalled by the waves of soft justice that we have seen in recent years and that it is now almost impossible to lock up criminals. In the view of my constituents, prison is there to punish people, to act as a deterrent and to keep the public safe. I urge the Government to use the opportunity of the sentencing review to restore public confidence by bringing in tougher and longer sentences for criminals to protect the public and victims.

6.37 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): In the short time that I have, I wish to raise three specific issues.

The first issue is the plight of the Ashiana charitable trust, to which I was proud to give an award last night at the national Kids Count awards. It enables disabled young people and people with learning difficulties to fulfil an active life, and entertains people throughout London and beyond. It is sad to report that Harrow council has decided to remove all funding from that organisation. That is a national scandal that I hope the council will change, even at this late stage.

Secondly, I am a passionate about ensuring that there is growth in the private sector. I was therefore amazed to be told by a constituent who wants to set up a business in my constituency that he has attempted to register for VAT, and yet has been put on hold by the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for 18 months. He would employ more than 10 people locally, and he has done the right thing in trying to register for VAT, but the answer that he has been given is that he should charge customers for VAT, retain the money and then hand it over to HMRC when he is finally given registration. He wishes to seek a business-to-business arrangement, but the other businesses require a VAT number before they will do business with him. He has been forced into a position where he cannot get premises and cannot buy vehicles, because he cannot afford to get the loan that is required until he is VAT registered. HMRC is acting as a direct obstacle to the setting up of that business in my constituency. I trust that we can see an end to that.

The third plight that I will allude to briefly has been exposed nationally. My constituent, Yvonne Alpagot, came to see me about Brentsouth Trading Ltd, which operates out of a garage in Southall. I have also raised

24 May 2011 : Column 886

this matter with the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma). My constituent found the website because she has a car with a Renault engine. The company purported to be expert in sorting out Renault engines, but she was scandalously treated. When she finally got to see her vehicle again, the engine had been removed and placed on the back seat, spilling oil all over the seat. The car had been damaged out of all proportion, and when she sought to recover the vehicle she was physically threatened by individuals in the company. She took them to court and won, but unfortunately they had closed the company just a week before she got to court.

After doing some research, Yvonne Alpagot discovered that more than six companies were operating out of a single site, and curiously enough, each of them had a number of the same directors. She found that they had closed down companies and opened them again, leaving hundreds of customers high and dry. On many occasions, they had closed down companies with court judgments against them. That is a scandal, and it needs to be put right. We need to ensure that when companies close down and there are court judgments against their directors, the directors are not allowed to start up another company performing the same function on the same site. We need to rectify that scandal.

I could go into great detail about that case, but I recognise that time is against me. What I seek, as I have said before at Question Time, is for such phoenix operations to be stopped in their tracks, so that innocent people who have no idea that those companies are trading illegally are not forced to pay thousands of pounds to companies that should not be operating in the first place.

6.41 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I noticed when I looked at the list of Members who were going to take part in the debate, and examined their background in “Dod’s”, that the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt)—I do not intend to embarrass her in any way—was once a magician’s assistant, which is perhaps not widely known. It seemed me that I needed at least a magician’s assistant to answer all the points that have been raised in the debate. As usual, I will not be able to do so adequately, and as usual I will ensure that the various Departments that are relevant to the points that have been made write to the Members concerned in due course.

Let us canter through the 18 contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Eric Joyce), who is not in his place at the moment, talked about the ongoing controversy about privacy and the difficulty of policing online social sites such as Twitter. He is absolutely right that it is very difficult, but that does not mean that there is no responsibility on either those sites or the people who use them to comply with the law. We have said previously, and I say again, that what is illegal offline is illegal online. The criminal law applies as much to those sites as it does to anyone else, and we look forward to the work of the Joint Committee that is being set up to examine those matters and the wider privacy and defamation issues.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) gave us a wonderful look at his constituency and explained the contribution that it could make to this country’s tourism industry. I have been a tourist in

24 May 2011 : Column 887

his constituency, so I feel rather superior. I took a weekend in north Kent recently, and I am familiar with Hall Place. What I did not know was that his constituency shares something with mine, because it contains an edifice that was built as penance for the murder of Thomas à Becket. In fact, the entire village in which I live was built as penance by Henry II, so the hon. Gentleman and I have something in common.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the capacity of our tourism, both internationally and within this country, and said that it was not just the obvious places that had something to offer. He was absolutely right, and I will ensure that he gets a full response in due course from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) raised two very important points as far as his constituents are concerned: the closures of Edale House and of the Ancoats centre. I am not clear on the extent to which those decisions are irrevocable, but it is essential that local people have a proper input into such key decisions on their health provision. That is the entire thrust of what the Government are trying to do. We want to ensure that decisions are not top-down edicts, but that they are taken on the basis of the advice of local clinicians and the local people involved. If the Government can assist in ensuring that those matters are discussed in the context of what is right for his constituency and the people whom he represents, I am sure we would be happy to do so.

I shall leave the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) to one side for a moment, and address the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who spoke about the difficulties of the parking regime in Walsall. In fact, I was well aware of those problems, because I have been reading the correspondents’ pages in the Walsall Advertiser, which draw attention to exactly the point she raised. Of course, that is a local council issue, and there is a limit to what the Government can or would wish to do, because such matters are best decided at community level. However, clearly, she has taken the opportunity to represent the views of many of her constituents, and as I understand it, she will present a petition later, which will include the views of News and Booze, which I notice decries its name by selling choc bars and hair cuts. I am sure that she represents what a lot of people in her constituency think on the subject of parking in Walsall.

I recall the contribution of the hon. Member for Woking (Jonathan Lord) to a previous debate on courts. His remarks today on the importance of Woking community hospital were entirely consistent with that. He is working with the grain in this instance, because the indication is that it is felt that that hospital can play a leading role in providing health services in that part of the county of Surrey. I notice that the Surrey primary care trust has made that clear as part of its forward programme, but he is right to emphasise that local hospitals can do things that the big acute hospitals cannot do, and that they can act as a hub for provision. I am glad he took the opportunity to say that.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) talked about fuel poverty. He may or may not know that that subject is dear to my heart and to the heart of the hon. Member for Southend West—he has previously

24 May 2011 : Column 888

presented legislation on fuel poverty, and I presented a Bill on fuel poverty in the last Session of the previous Parliament. I am afraid that my Bill foundered at the hands of the previous Government, who were not quite as keen on dealing effectively with fuel poverty as the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and I are. However, this Government are making real progress. The hon. Gentleman was right to talk about the impact of fuel poverty on communities such as the one he represents. One thing that pleases me about our proposals is that they deal not just with the houses that it is easy to deal with, but those that are more difficult to treat. Some of the residential stock of which he spoke—in Nantyglo, for instance—probably falls into the latter category. It is essential that we do not simply go for the low-hanging fruit and the easy pickings, but ensure that we extend defences against fuel poverty to all parts of our community. I applaud him for making those points.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about emergency life-saving skills; that point has been raised several times recently. He is obviously right. It is essential that young people have the opportunity to learn those skills so that they can put them to good use at a later stage. I noticed that this point was raised in Education questions yesterday. I think the Secretary of State agreed that it needs to be addressed and that we need to ensure that young people have access to that information. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will continue his campaign, although whether the teaching of those skills should be a formal part of the national curriculum, or whether there are other ways of providing them in the school programme, is a moot point. However, it is clear that young people ought to have them in their skill range for when they leave school, so that they can use them when needed—and none of us ever knows when they will be needed.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about heritage buildings in his constituency. I am getting to know his constituency rather better having had two of these debates with him. What has happened at Dower house, in particular, sounds very odd. I understand that it is still subject to a police investigation, so we shall see what happens with that in due course. He mentioned other buildings in his constituency that he felt were at risk, including the Harmondsworth great barn, the Golden crescent library and others. English Heritage has indicated to me that it would be happy to meet him and others in his constituency to discuss these issues. I will also extend that request to a Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to see whether we can arrange something. I know that the Department, English Heritage and the Crown Prosecution Service take heritage crime very seriously. It happens far too easily: an important building suddenly goes up in smoke, often following failed planning permission. We have got to stop that; we have got to take effective measures. I am sure he will find that he is speaking to people who agree with the basic principles he has outlined.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) is clearly very upset with the decision taken on the incinerator at St Dennis. I cannot tell him anything about the decision-making process of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and nor should I say anything, because he will have acted in a quasi-judicial capacity when making that decision. However, I will ensure that

24 May 2011 : Column 889

the points my hon. Friend raised on behalf of his constituents are communicated to the Secretary of State. I do not know whether things have changed since I sat on an authority with responsibility for such matters, but I seem to remember that there was a two-stage process: planning permission followed by an operating licence. When granting an operating licence, further restrictions or conditions could be applied. I might be wrong, however. I will certainly ensure that his points are raised with the relevant Minister.

The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) spoke about antisocial behaviour, which is the curse of many of our constituencies and causes much unhappiness for many of our constituents. He is right to raise it. I am pleased that he got a good reply from the Minister concerned when he raised it previously. It sounds like issues remain to be resolved in his constituency, however, and it would be sensible were he to raise them directly with Chief Constable Colin Port, because it is clear that he is not yet satisfied with the police response. It is for the chief constable to respond on those matters.

The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) raised again the issue of private finance initiatives, on which he is fighting an excellent campaign. The key concern is value for money, yet it has become transparently obvious that many PFI schemes simply did not provide that. The Government are committed to ensuring that we get value for money whenever we enter a scheme of that kind. I know that he has had discussions—in fact, he mentioned them—with the Chancellor and the Commercial Secretary, and that he feels that real progress is being made. I hope that progress continues and we ensure that if we use that form of financing for public projects, it is not simply a way of getting the amounts involved off the balance sheet, but a way of ensuring that people have the services they need at a cost that is commensurate with their value. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue his campaign to achieve that.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) is someone else whose constituency I feel I know much more about than I did a few weeks ago, having replied to a debate with him only recently. I know how important the Vestas investment in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey is to his constituents. He asked me a series of questions, but accepted that I would probably be unable to answer him. He is absolutely right—I cannot—but I will ensure that his questions are communicated to the relevant Minister. What I can say is that the Government are talking to Vestas about how to assist the investment that it is thinking of making. There is a problem, in that the £60 million is not available because Sheerness is not an assisted area. There are EU state aid rules and there are difficulties getting around them, but the Government are very keen on assisting the investment, as the hon. Gentleman is, and I hope we can do everything possible to make it a reality.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth North talked about Portsmouth and the issues there. One thing that I had not known until I read the background notes to this debate is that Portsmouth is the most densely populated city outside inner London. Again, not many people know that. We need to ensure that development continues in Portsmouth. She raised the significant issue of the relationship with the Ministry of Defence, and how it might be brought on board with the local enterprise partnership and the other keys to growth in the area. If

24 May 2011 : Column 890

there is anything we can do to make that happen more effectively, that would make obvious sense for the interests of her constituents. I will draw the issue to the attention not only of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but of the MOD. Hopefully we can make progress. She would also like to talk to the Treasury about national insurance contributions relief, and I will pass on that request too.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) raised a number of issues. I cannot give an answer to his point about his constituent Mr Elam and respite care, but I will ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions does. As for the shipyards in his constituency, I think he recognises the fact that not every refit can take place in Rosyth—some are taking place in Devonport—but there is work there that has been commissioned by this Government and that will continue, which is good news for Rosyth. As for Longannet, this is a key issue that Ministers in the Department of Energy and Climate Change have been directly involved in. He asked for the relevant Minister of State to visit his constituency. I am sure that the Minister concerned would very much like to do so if he could, but the Secretary of State and the permanent secretary both already have, so the hon. Gentleman has not been neglected.

The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) talked about farming issues. He will celebrate, as I will on behalf of my constituents, today’s publication of the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. We are making real progress.

The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) talked about various things. She was kind enough to say thank you to the Minister of State, Department for Transport for her work on rail services. She talked about Travellers sites, small businesses and sentences—issues that I know will continue to crop up. As far as hospitals are concerned, it is absolutely clear that the main thrust of the policy will survive whatever changes are made to the details.

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about HMRC registration for VAT and a trust in his constituency, which are points that I am afraid I cannot answer in full.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) listed about 20 things in his speech, but I cannot talk about them now. Let me tell him, however, that I will spend the next couple of weeks writing to the relevant Departments about all those issues. Others will have other priorities, but I—

7 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Draft Defamation Bill (Joint Committee)


That this House concurs with the Lords Message of 23 May that, notwithstanding the resolution of this House of 24 March, it be an instruction to the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill that it should report on the draft Bill by 31 October.—(Mr Goodwill.)

24 May 2011 : Column 891

Draft Detention of Terrorist Suspects (Temporary Extension) Bills (Joint Committee)


That this House concurs with the Lords Message of 23 May that, notwithstanding the resolution of this House of 15 March, it be an instruction to the Joint Committee on the Draft Detention of Terrorist Suspects (Temporary Extension) Bills that it should report on the draft Bills by 23 June.—(Mr Goodwill.)

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Information Systems

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 14436/10 and Addenda 1 and 2, a draft directive on attacks against information systems, repealing Council Framework Decision 2005/222/JHA; and supports the Government’s aim of working with other Member States to tackle the threat from cyber crime.— (Mr Goodwill.)

Question agreed to .

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(11)),

Space Strategy

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 8693/11 and Addenda 1 to 6, relating to a Commission Communication: Towards a space strategy for the European Union that benefits its citizens; and supports the Government’s aims for the proposal, which include ensuring focus on resolving the current EU space programmes, avoiding any pre-judgement of the negotiations on the EU budget from 2014 onwards, and seeking further analysis to demonstrate clear added value in any new EU actions.—(Mr Goodwill.)

Question agreed to.


Parking Restrictions (Walsall)

6 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): This petition is from the business owners and customers of Ablewell street, Walsall. The petitioners oppose the new parking restrictions on Ablewell street. There are 787 signatories to the petition.

The petition states:

The Petition of the business owners and customers of Ablewell Street, Walsall,

Declares that the Petitioners are opposed to the parking restrictions on Ablewell Street.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take all possible steps to encourage Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council to allow a parking amnesty of at least 30 minutes.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


24 May 2011 : Column 892

School Places (Finchley)

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

7.2 pm

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Thank you for granting permission for this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I must first apologise for delaying the House prior to the recess.

Education is at the heart of the Government’s agenda, as is allowing good schools to expand. On Monday the Secretary of State for Education said in The Guardian that he was going to change the admissions code to help to meet parental demand for good schools. He said:

“We hope the new admissions code allows the possibility of increasing planned admissions numbers so good schools can expand, and there will be underperforming schools that have fewer and fewer numbers.”

That is spot on, but it assumes that the popular schools are able to expand. In Finchley there is no shortage of good schools at primary and secondary level. We even have schools with the space to expand; what we do not have are the capital grants to fund the expansion. The schools in Finchley are part of the family of schools in the London borough of Barnet, and Conservative-controlled Barnet is consistently one of the best local education authorities in the country. Barnet is enthusiastically pursuing many new academies and free schools.

Before turning to the lack of capital support from the Department, I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Minister that the council has not sat by and done nothing about the shortage of places. Several years ago, it recognised that there would be an increase in demand for primary and secondary places and, in the absence of Government support, it embarked on its own £250 million primary school expansion programme. Starting in 2004, using a mixture of prudential borrowing and capital raised from asset sales, the programme set about rebuilding, expanding and refurbishing the primary estate. Barnet is forecasting that pupil numbers in the maintained secondary sector will continue to grow, and that they will grow by 22% by 2015-16. That is the second highest growth rate in the UK. The situation is not helped by the Greenwich decision. LEAs are unable to put their own pupils first.

The factors combine to create a demographic shift that Barnet council cannot cope with—certainly not without help. Hitherto, enough help has not been forthcoming. This outstanding LEA has not been rewarded for its education record. Having delivered new schools on time and on budget, however, the authority was invited to join the last phase of Building Schools for the Future. I hold no affection for the BSF programme, as I saw Barnet council being forced into a process it did not need and could not afford, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The promised £83 million under BSF would have allowed three schools to expand and be refurbished—and two of those schools are in Finchley. The schools lost out when BSF was cancelled, so good schools and a good local education authority were penalised again.

I am sure that the capital division of the Department will argue that Barnet has received capital that it should use for expansion. I know that, because it wrote to me

24 May 2011 : Column 893

in forceful terms to tell me, but Barnet has received an average of just £14.6 million over the past few years for non-academy, non-children’s centre spend. That is money earmarked for new boilers, new toilets, roof repairs, rewiring and so forth—simple basic maintenance. With more than 120 schools in Barnet, that is just £122,000 per school. To put that into perspective, the cost of rewiring one secondary school alone was £1.9 million. The allocation does not go far. It is true that the council could have diverted that capital for school expansion, but is the capital team really expecting a first-class local education authority to tell parents that their school’s broken boiler or leaking roof cannot be fixed because the money has been spent on expanding another school in a different part of the borough?

The council cannot simply borrow the money. I would like to stress that borrowing approval, supported or otherwise, is no help at all. Barnet council has been on the funding floor for several years and borrowing approval is useless if the debt servicing cost is unaffordable because it falls on the general fund paid for out of general council tax. The capital allocation formula appears to need a complete overhaul. The increase in demand for state places has been seen across every borough in London. It is inequitable that London accounts for 64% of pupil place shortages and yet receives just 26% of the capital allocation.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for the plight of Barnet, and indeed for the whole of London. Does he agree that we are talking not only about issues related to expanding schools, but about allowing parental choice, so that faith-based schools are an important part of the equation? We have identified the need for a Hindu secondary school located between Harrow and Barnet, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to secure support for it from the Department.

Mike Freer: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The expansion of the Hindu faith school somewhere between Barnet and Harrow would not only meet parental preference but relieve pressure on the remaining schools in the maintained sector.

To return to the iniquity of the shortage of places and the capital funding allocation, that discrepancy between 64% of places and just 26% of funding means that London is short-changed by more £300 million in the existing allocation.

The current shortage of primary places has been met by providing additional classrooms in portakabins, by changing information technology rooms and libraries into classrooms, or simply by making children travel much further to an available school space. That is not a sustainable solution.

Things are no better in the secondary sector. The area is served by the Bishop Douglass mixed Roman Catholic comprehensive school, which is over-subscribed with 383 applications for 180 places, and by the Compton mixed comprehensive school, which is also over-subscribed—and every applicant from Finchley N2 was rejected; not a single pupil could get a place there. Mr Speaker went to the Compton school—or the Finchley Manorhill school, as it was then called—but he would not get in today, as he lived too far away from it. Then there is Christ’s college, a boys-only school—again

24 May 2011 : Column 894

over-subscribed, with 424 applications for 150 places. St. Michael’s Catholic grammar school for girls has 370 applications for just 96 places. We also have Henrietta Barnett, a highly selective girls school, grossly over-subscribed with 2,000 applications for 180 places. Then we have Copthall, a girls comprehensive. It too is over-subscribed, and 100% of applicants from N2 were rejected simply because they lived too far away.

In the past fortnight alone I have received 200 emails from worried parents. Let me report just some of what they have said. Mrs Catherine Atkinson wrote:

“I have lived in East Finchley for 28 years. My son got into Fortismere by the skin of his teeth 8 years ago and I remember the stressful wait for the letter saying he had the place. Those not so lucky because they lived maybe 200 yards farther away from the school were offered either Bishop Douglass school or…Christ’s college.”

That would more difficult today, because those schools too are over-subscribed and full.

Mrs Carey wrote to me:

“I live in Long Lane. My daughter is in year 5 and my son is in year 4. Our position is as follows: Fortismere—we’re not in catchment and are unable to afford property prices in Fortismere catchment. Wren Academy Church of England—we are not churchgoers and we are not close enough geographically either. Compton—not in catchment. Christ’s College—we would be in catchment for our son, but that is not much help for our daughter! Bishop Douglass—it is at heart very much a Catholic school”,

and they are not churchgoers.

“Henrietta Barnet is highly selective.”

In Barnet, first preferences granted stand at just 62%, and once second preferences have been allocated, just 85% of parents secure their first or second preferences. That is well below the national average of 85% and 96% respectively. I appreciate that capital is scarce, and I appreciate the difficulties that the Minister is experiencing. I am not asking him to issue a cheque this evening, although I am pretty sure that we would name a school after him if he did: the “Gibb Academy” does have something of a ring to it.

I hope the Minister will accept my view that we must seek to overhaul the capital allocation formula, reward good local education authorities, fund good schools so that they can flourish and expand, help parents to secure their preferences, and give pupils the best possible education and start in life. All that I ask this evening is that he agree to meet me, along with the chief executive and leader of the council, to discuss what targeted support he is able to provide.

7.12 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on securing the debate. Let me say at the outset that I will accede to one of his two requests, and that I will reveal which it is at the end of my speech.

I know that my hon. Friend is no stranger to the issues surrounding Finchley and Golders Green, as he has served the community well in local and national Government for a number of years. The Government are well aware of the pressures faced by many local authorities in London, including Barnet, in their attempt to provide enough suitable places to meet higher demand arising from the increase in birth rates and other demographic changes. I am also familiar with the argument

24 May 2011 : Column 895

advanced by London Councils—which my hon. Friend mentioned at the beginning of his speech—about the inequitable levels of funding received by London boroughs. The figures are not in line with our data, but I have asked officials to meet councils to discuss theirs in more detail.

The Government ascribe considerable importance to meeting the Department’s priority of ensuring that every child has a good school place. Responsibility for balancing supply and demand rests with individual local authorities. We look to members of those authorities —as the people with the best and most relevant local knowledge—to ensure that there are enough places and that local schools meet the needs of local communities. They are in the best position to know how many schools are needed, and where those schools should be located to serve local populations.

For its part, the Department for Education supplies capital funding directly to local authorities to help them to provide school places. Through the recent spending review and this year’s Budget, the Department secured £15.9 billion of capital funding over the four-year period starting in April this year. By taking early action to stop the wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme, the Secretary of State has been able to ensure that funding is available for the most pressing needs. He has allocated £800 million to local authorities for pupil places in 2011-12, and has indicated that he expects that level of support to continue for the other years of the spending review. That is twice the previous annual level of support that was given for those needs. It has been targeted on the areas of greatest demand, based on forecasts of pupil numbers provided by each local authority, and in addition to allocating the £800 million for additional pupil places the Secretary of State has informed local authorities of their overall share of capital funding for 2011-12.

Local authorities have been asked to prioritise spending to provide new places in areas experiencing severe demographic pressures, as well as to address the needs of the schools in the very worst condition. The London borough of Barnet and its schools have been allocated almost £17 million of capital funding for 2011-12, which includes £9.4 million for the provision of basic need places. Local authorities are also able to use money allocated to school maintenance to address basic need and vice versa. They have that flexibility. Barnet has also benefited from a substantial contribution from Government to JCOSS, or the Jewish Community secondary school, which will over time provide an additional 1,300 places in the area.

Forecasting future pupil numbers cannot be an exact science. That is why the Department has used the school census returns of the number on roll for 2010 as the starting point for basic need funding. As well as giving actual numbers on roll, the census collects information from each local authority on forecast growth areas for the three years to 2013-14. That information was used by the Department as the basis for the basic need funding calculation for 2011-12.

By using that informed approach, the Department has been able to target funding to where growth in demand has been forecast by the local authority. However, it must be stressed that, as a result of the actions taken, we have been able to allocate all of the basic need

24 May 2011 : Column 896

funding to the local authorities as the providers of places in their local area, and as a consequence I am afraid to say that no unallocated or additional funds are available for local authorities to call upon during 2011-12. Alas, we are therefore unable to make an exception for Finchley. I think I have now answered one of my hon. Friend’s two requests.

We are serious about getting education funding right in the future. I agree with my hon. Friend that the current capital allocation system is overly complex and unfair, which is why the Department is taking steps to ensure that future capital expenditure delivers greater value for money for everyone involved in the education sector, and that the maximum number of children benefit. We have already made changes to the allocation system to address one of my hon. Friend’s main concerns. I recognise that some local authorities were in practice unable to use supported borrowing. That is why for all schools we have allocated capital funding in 2011-12 as capital grant. That means authorities at the floor receive real funding to address their need for school places.

Last year, the Secretary of State commissioned Sebastian James to conduct a full and independent review of the Department’s capital programmes. That review has now been published, and the Secretary of State is currently considering its recommendations. They include the proposal that there should be a new approach to the future allocation and use of all the available capital funding. The Secretary of State hopes to respond to the recommendations shortly.

Future capital allocations and the management of funding for 2012-13 until 2014-15 will be informed by the outcome of the capital review. However, as I have said, the Secretary of State has already indicated that local authorities can expect that the headline amounts of capital available in future years will be in line with those of 2011-12. As well as providing funding to meet basic need pressures and radically reviewing the way in which capital funding is allocated and spent in future, the Government are pressing forward with their academy and free school programmes. I am aware that my hon. Friend’s constituency contains two open academies, the Wren academy and the Compton school, both of which he mentioned. By giving those involved in education the freedoms to shape the future of our schools and by opening up the opportunity for others to enter the education sector, we believe that we are offering an education system that will meet the needs of local communities.

I hope that the House will acknowledge that the steps the Government have taken and continue to take to ensure that future capital investment benefits those in most need represent the correct approach. By tackling the areas of greatest need first and then developing a new approach to future investment that delivers value for money, I believe that we are making the best use of limited taxpayers’ money to improve the fabric and quality of our schools. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the very difficult fiscal situation faced by the country, but I would be pleased to meet him and his colleagues from Barnet council to discuss these issues further. On that note, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I wish you and the House a very fruitful recess?

Question put and agreed to.

7.21 pm

House adjourned.