We have had a number of further discussions, both privately between myself and the Commissioner and at Council meetings. In September, the Secretary of State wrote jointly with nine other concerned member states to the Commission, urging it to act quickly. However, at the October Agriculture Council—this is very important in light of what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk

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and Malton has said—the Commission ruled out the option of an inter-community trade ban, which it said is not legally possible. That is clearly on the record as a result of that Council meeting. I have to emphasise that it has warned member states not to do so individually. The Commission has told us clearly that there is no legal basis for a ban.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the Minister for clarifying that point. Have he and his officials accepted that, or have they challenged it and sought alternative legal advice to take back to the Commissioner?

Mr Paice: I assure the hon. Gentleman that, of course, we have sought our own legal advice. I was going to mention that issue later, but I am happy to address it now. Please forgive me, Ms Osborne, if I read from my notes verbatim, but I need to get it right. I must stress that I am not reading out direct legal advice. Perhaps I can use this opportunity to say to him that I have answered his parliamentary question and that I suspect that he will get the answer today. As I am sure that he knows, I am afraid that the answer is no. Governments do not publish legal advice given to Ministers. That was not the case under the previous Government, and it is not the case under this Government.

The treaty on the functioning of the EU prohibits quantitative restrictions on imports between member states and all measures that have a similar effect, with limited exceptions to that general rule, including where they are necessary on animal health or human health grounds. The advice that we have received shows that it is extremely unlikely that a court would extend those exceptions to animal welfare grounds in these circumstances. The treaty also states that any restriction of trade must not constitute arbitrary discrimination.

Given the traceability issues around distinguishing between imported eggs that have been reared in conventional cages in other member states and those that have not—I will come back to traceability in a moment—any ban would have to be on imports of all eggs from a particular country, whether reared in conventional cages or not. That would clearly penalise compliant producers in other member states, which runs contrary to the principle of the free movement of goods. The hon. Member for Ogmore and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton raised the ban on sow stalls, which we implemented a long time ago in this country. If we apply the logic of the argument that we are discussing to that, we would have had to introduce a ban on all pigmeat, including that not introduced in sow stalls. Neither the Government at the time nor the previous Labour Government believed that they had the power to do that. It is quite clear that we do not have the legal basis to take such action.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for sharing the advice with us. The sad fact is that if we claimed there was an animal health issue with shelled eggs or their products, we could reject them. I submit to the Minister that the legal basis on which we can rely for either a unilateral or multilateral ban is the EU directive coming into force from 1 January, which finds its legal base in the treaty. We are breaking new

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ground here. This is the first time that the Commission has imposed a community-wide ban on animal welfare grounds. I therefore submit that the legal instrument is the directive. I ask the Minister to respond to John Dalli’s comments that I read out about having the power and duty to keep products produced illegally off our markets, either unilaterally or, as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) has said, multilaterally. I cannot accept that there are no grounds for a ban, because the EU directive is the legal instrument.

Mr Paice: My hon. Friend is right, but she needs to read that legal instrument to see what powers it gives member states to introduce a ban. The fact is that it does not give those powers. The Commissioner has been through this over and over again. I have had private meetings with him and with others as well. He is absolutely adamant that there are no powers available to him or member states to introduce the ban in the way in which my hon. Friend has advocated

I hope that I can clarify the matter by coming to traceability, which is right at the heart of the issue. Before getting to that, I shall finish my point about the Commission’s role. Once Commissioner Dalli realised that there was going to be a big problem, the Commission started looking for a robust enforcement approach that would avoid a large number of producers having to close down their operations. More importantly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has said, the Commissioner also wanted to avoid the destruction of millions and millions of eggs, which clearly would not have been right when many people are struggling to make ends meet.

At the same time, the Commissioner wanted to protect producers who have complied with the ban. He came up with the concept of what has been described as a gentlemen’s agreement, which does not have a legal basis. Most of those member states who were expecting to be compliant did not like the idea. Those who were not compliant reluctantly agreed to the idea. I took the view that, although we did not want any slippage in the timetable, we had to face up to the reality that there would be non-compliant eggs and therefore something had to be done. In fact, the gentlemen’s agreement died. There was clearly no prospect of a gentlemen’s agreement, and it has not been progressed.

The Commission has acted on the practical things for which the UK has been pressing. As several hon. Members have said, it has begun pre-infraction procedures. More importantly, it has also asked for the action plans from all non-compliant member states to contain measures to accelerate compliance. In answer to the hon. Member for Ogmore, its intention is for a monthly report of those plans to be given to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, which is known as SCoFCAH for short.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Once again, I thank the Minister for clarification on those points. Returning to the legal advice, has he sought clarification from his officials on the risk of the UK being found guilty and prosecuted for infraction for trying to abide by the very standards that the EU Commissioner wants to apply eventually throughout Europe? Considering the backdrop he has just explained about the EU Commission driving forward pre-infraction procedures, if the UK or other countries

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were to go for a unilateral ban or a multilateral ban with like-minded countries, what is the likelihood of the UK facing infraction? If a country is infracted for not doing something, it is different from being infracted for doing the very thing the EU wants countries to do.

Mr Paice: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable suggestion. Obviously, I cannot tell him what the risk is. This is an extremely important point and, to go back in history, his Government took such a view about earlier issues when the boot was on the other foot. It is very difficult for someone to argue that other people are not complying with the law if they then proceed to break it themselves. Someone would lose a great deal of moral standing if they did that.

I want to make a final point about the Commission before I come back to the key issues. The Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office missions will be targeted from the beginning of 2012 at non-compliant member states and, to help that, all member states have been asked to submit lists of compliant producers. We have asked for all those measures, because they will give some protection to compliant producers in the UK and across the EU. Clearly, that is not enough, which is why we have said that we reserve the right to take our own actions. Yes, we have thoroughly investigated the possibility of unilateral action and, when I have said in the past that we were considering the matter, I was saying it exactly as it was. I think that hon. Members who know me well enough will know that I would be keen to take action, but, unfortunately, the legal advice that I have had from within, plus the statements from the Commission to which I have referred, have led me to believe that we cannot do so. That is partly because of the practical issues and difficulties in enforcing such an approach.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Mr Paice: Let me continue, because I am addressing my hon. Friend’s point about the issue of traceability. Perhaps I can also mention the point about the egg marketing regulations, because the two matters are interlinked. The answer to her question about the egg marketing regulations is that class A are shell eggs and they have to be marked with a producer number and a mark defining the production method—in other words, it would be code 3 from a battery cage or, from January, from an enriched cage.

Class B eggs, however, which are mainly used in manufacturing, are not required to be marked with anything—with either a producer number or a code—so there is no traceability, which is the key point. If we were to introduce a ban, it would have to be on all non-grade A eggs or on all powder and/or liquid. We could not differentiate them, which is the nub of the challenge that we faced. Because of that, as I suggested earlier in relation to the legal advice, we would have been accused of a discriminatory approach and would certainly have been in breach of the legislation.

Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister confirm whether the marketing regulations are European Union regulations or UK regulations? If they are EU regulations, we, as a country, would have had the opportunity to query them and, presumably, amend them when they were drafted. Will the Minister comment on that? I look forward to

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his response to other questions, but what will be the cost to the industry—to processors, retailers and manufacturers—of doing what the Government are asking it to do from 1 January?

Mr Paice: They are European regulations—there is no question about that—as I am sure the advisers to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will have confirmed to my hon. Friend. We have, in recent months, asked the Commission—and we will continue to ask it—to amend those regulations. That has not happened so far, and I must confess that the Commission officials with whom we have had detailed discussions do not seem overly keen on the idea, so we are faced with having to operate within the existing legislation.

On the issue of what exactly is an offence, it will be an offence to keep hens in those cages, and we would prosecute under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. That is clear. However, it will not necessarily be an offence to be in possession of an egg from an illegal cage, but it would be an offence to try to pass it off as an egg from a legal cage. It is important to be clear about that.

On the efforts that we have made within the constraints, the hon. Member for Ogmore challenged me about the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and my description of the use of ultraviolet light. He is right that the technique has never been used directly in the way that we propose, but, as he has also said, it has been used to identify eggs from caged hens within batches that have been described as free range or barn eggs. Not until now has it been specifically used to identify different types of caged egg production, but we have had it independently validated, and I have looked at it myself. When an egg is laid, the shell is momentarily a bit soft and takes an imprint of the material on which it is laid. If it is laid on wire, it comes through clearly under ultraviolet light, which is obvious. If it is laid on any sort of softer egg-laying surface, which is a requirement of an enriched cage, that comes through as a completely different pattern.

I must also make it clear, however, that the use of ultraviolet light is simply a marker for us and would not, by itself, be the basis of prosecution. If any suspect eggs are found, we will ask the country of origin to confirm our suspicions about whether the producer—do not forget that the information will be on the egg—is compliant or not. That is how the system will operate. If the eggs are found to be from an illegal system, they will be prevented from being marketed as class A eggs and sent for processing—that is, as I have said, downgraded to class B. I have now explained the point about marketing regulations.

As of today, as far as we can establish, the average price per dozen of class A caged eggs, which are, of course, legal at the moment, is about 54p, while the average price per dozen of class B eggs is 29.4p. That is nearly 25p per dozen cheaper, which is close to 50% of the price. That is a massive price differential. I cannot believe that anybody will seek to import eggs from non-compliant cages and risk losing half the value of the eggs if we detect them. We have to be sensible. The economic impact on anybody who has their eggs downgraded will be absolutely massive, and I do not believe that they would risk it happening. As far as shell eggs are concerned, our measures will be sufficient.

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Let me turn to the understandably more concerning issue of processed eggs, which, as has rightly been said, represent about half the imports of egg and egg products into this country and approximately 9% of total consumption. As I have said, they are much less easy to trace, because the eggs are not required to carry any identification. That loophole causes us immense problems, which is why we have been pressing, and will continue to press, to get it closed. In the absence of that, we have had to use what opportunity we have, which, as I have said, is to work with the industry. The hon. Member for Ogmore is right and that is why I published a list in my statement, and was happy to do so, unusually, on the basis of name and shame. I am happy to update the list and, as of today, can add two more processors—Bumble Hole Foods Ltd and D Wise Ltd. That now means that nine of the major processors are on board, reducing still further the likelihood of eggs from conventional cages or their products being imported.

That is the situation. I am approaching the end of my allocated time and have almost finished addressing the issues, but I am conscious that I also need to respond to a number of questions. In the absence of the ability to instigate a ban, we have tried, as I have explained, to throttle the market. That is what it boils down to—we have tried to make sure that there is no market in the UK for illegally produced eggs or egg products.

I have dealt with the issue of legal advice. To return to my earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, I have been in contact with like-minded countries in the EU. In the week before I made the statement, I telephoned them myself and not one of them is proposing any action yet. As far as we can establish, we are the only country proposing any measures from 1 January. Of course, I continue to work with them and, if there are prospects for more unified action, I will take it, but, as I have said, they are not minded to take action.

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I have mentioned the regular monthly updates to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health and, in response to a question asked by the hon. Member for Ogmore, I will ensure that, somehow, that is brought to the House’s attention. I cannot give him the information about non-compliant imports, because of the issue of traceability, which I have mentioned. We do not know whether such imports are non-compliant, and we are trying to ensure that they are not. The European Commission cannot impose financial penalties, which is a matter for the courts following infraction proceedings. On the industry’s issues, it has not provided us with any form of costings. We are open about that. I am sure that if the costings had been onerous, the industry would have been quick to tell us.

Finally, I fully understand the importance of the issue. We have tried very hard to use the weapons available to us.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Paice: I am sorry, but I must finish. The fact that I have been able to list not just retailers, but all the major bakery brands, such as the producers of Mr Kipling and all sorts of biscuits, and the major caterers, such as Compass Group, BaxterStorey, Sodexo, and a number of, if not all, the major importers of egg products, demonstrates that we have gone a long way to throttling the marketplace in this country for eggs from non-compliant cages. My final point for anybody who tells me that it is too difficult and that the eggs cannot be traced is that the importers of processed eggs have their own traceability systems, because that is what they are trying to do and, they have assured us, what they will do. However, when we are faced with an egg that has no indication of where it came from, we cannot trace it, which is the harsh fact. I hope that the House will accept that the Government are doing all that we can to protect our producers.

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West Midlands and Coventry

12.30 pm

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be involved, for the first time, in a debate that you are chairing, Ms Osborne. I also take the opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for granting us the debate.

I will start with an overview of the employment situation in Coventry. Coventry suffers from high unemployment, with just less than 10,500 claimants; that is above the west midlands average, which, in turn, is well above the UK average. The public sector accounts for 23% of the total employed, which is more or less the same throughout the west midlands. In the past six months, there have been 1,648 redundancies in the public sector. Coventry was home to a number of national public bodies and has been hit harder by public sector job cuts: 155 jobs have gone at Becta, 153 at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, with 400 more by the end of the year; and 258 at the Skills Funding Agency. Additionally, at least 620 jobs have been cut by local authorities and other public services; the main casualty so far has been Coventry city council. In the private sector in the past six months, according to Jobcentre Plus, there have been 1,237 redundancies, with 204 in the manufacturing sector and 38 in a small catering company.

Coventry is a city where many jobs can be lost and won in the space of a day. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), will no doubt be aware of the Gateway development, which was designed to create 10,000 jobs and had secured £250 million in private sector investment to develop airport infrastructure, a technology hub and a business and distribution park. However, both bids by the local enterprise partnership, for enterprise zone status and to the regional growth fund, were unsuccessful. I understand that, despite the plans to go ahead, the project could now be in jeopardy, given the Chancellor’s recent announcement of £110 million for highways infrastructure improvements. The money from the Treasury would need to be fully integrated with the Gateway scheme, which has allocated funds to a solution for the Tollbar issue—most of the Coventry and Warwickshire MPs know what I am referring to—or else the project could be scrapped. Can the Minister update us about what he understands to be the progress in that matter?

On the problems facing small businesses in particular, I have already mentioned a small business in Coventry that was forced to lay off 38 people, and there are 9,240 small businesses in Coventry, with 44,090 in Coventry and Warwickshire county. That example is symptomatic of the problems facing small businesses throughout the west midlands; 31% of them miss out on growth opportunities because they cannot get credit from the high street banks and 70% experience late payment and have cash-flow problems. Furthermore, the Government must take steps to simplify the tax system and to introduce targeted VAT cuts for key sectors, as a temporary measure. There are also problems at big companies, and we have held various meetings with the Rolls-Royce combined shop steward representatives. In particular, we have some concern about Ansty, despite the company’s assurances.

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On young people’s prospects, I have heard a lot from young people in my constituency about their employment anxieties. To take one example, highly skilled medics are graduating from the universities in the Coventry area and are unable to find work. I am concerned that we are not retaining the skills in the area that are necessary to regain a balanced economy. The Minister might be aware of Coventry’s recently launched plan for 100 apprentices in 100 days, and it is hoped that 100 firms will join the scheme. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government will bring forward proposals to encourage firms to take on apprentices, with a view to giving them a full-time job?

Not all is doom and gloom in the region, however. The manufacturing sector has a vital role in the recovery of the west midlands economy. The biggest recruiter has been Jaguar Land Rover, which has two bases in Coventry and is powering ahead with a multi-million pound investment; it has taken on 525 new staff throughout its businesses. The other big recruiter has been Ricoh Arena, with 86 posts, mainly in catering. The most symbolic deal for the city has been the news that car production is set to return—we hope—to the site of the former car plant at Browns Lane.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friend’s comprehensive review of the situation in Coventry. I am pleased that he is emphasising some positive aspects; but, sadly, the return of any sort of car production to Browns Lane crashed when the Government turned down a bid from a local company under the regional development fund, with which we have so far had no success for Coventry city.

Mr Cunningham: I was aware of that, but there are still indications that something might happen, although the possibility is pretty remote given what my hon. Friend has said.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): I compliment the hon. Gentleman on securing an important debate on a serious matter, but I was interested in his remarks that not all is doom and gloom. My constituency, which is immediately adjacent to his, has over the past 12 months had a fall in unemployment of 13.2%, which we attribute to a progressive council going out to seek new businesses, bringing them in and having a constructive attitude to development. Does he think that there is some good news and that there is a way forward?

Mr Cunningham: I do not know about good news. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the economy goes up and down in patches, so we cannot ever predict what the future will hold. We like to think that things will improve, but we will have to see—I do not want to diversify too much and get on to Europe, but after what happened on Friday, I will be very careful what I say about the future, frankly.

Returning to the Coventry situation, the city has embraced new technologies and is leading the way for the whole of the UK. A Coventry coach company has won £3 million of new contracts and taken on 40 new staff. It will produce the UK’s first electric bus—we hope so this time, although we have been down that road before. Only last week, I visited the Institute of

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Digital Healthcare, which was established in 2010 and is a five-year, £4 million project, which will have a real benefit for patients and their care support networks. I advise any of my colleagues that, if they get the opportunity to go up to the university of Warwick, the IDH is well worth visiting. It will address a number of health care issues, including the use of monitoring and communication devices to support people in their own homes, the development of new platforms to measure, analyse and communicate health data to support health care and to promote well-being, meeting the information and training needs of clinicians and health care technologists and improving the targeting of activities by health and social care teams.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise some of the positives, but there are some huge negatives, as he is aware. I do not know whether he read the report only the other day in the Coventry Telegraph about the massive increase, because of the rise in unemployment, in the cost to the Government of benefit pay-outs in the city, which is not out of line with what is happening elsewhere and is by no means the worst. That in itself is an indication that the Government will not get the deficit right, despite people being thrown out of work because of the austerity programme.

Mr Cunningham: I saw that article in the Coventry Telegraph, and I am also aware that my right hon. Friend’s constituency is probably the top of the list; my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) is second and I am at the bottom somewhere. What I am saying is that, despite the Government’s measures, there are things happening in Coventry. That is the message that I am trying to get across.

Some hon. Members will remember the major improvements planned for the Coventry to Nuneaton rail corridor, which is known as the Nuckle project. It will help to improve accessibility and encourage increased use of the train for journeys that might otherwise be undertaken by car. When Warwickshire county council has received outline funding approval, it will aim for final approval by the end of the year or the start of 2012.

On Friargate, a recent meeting with the local enterprise partnership revealed that the project is making reasonable progress. It is an office-based project with residential, retail, car parking and delivery facilities, and an acclaimed arrival point for rail passengers. It, too, is expected to start in 2012 and has the firm backing of Coventry city council.

We have seen Coventry and the west midlands benefit from private sector investment. However, I am deeply concerned about the prospects for young people throughout the region and, more generally, about the loss of skills in various sectors. We have already seen a fall in university applications of more 19,200 in the west midlands region. We have also seen a fall in the number of skilled graduates in medicine and nursing who can find work in their qualified field because of public sector cuts, and that is against a backdrop of high youth unemployment.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am sure that there is deep concern on both sides of the House about youth unemployment. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that

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the coalition Government are seeking to extend opportunities for young people in particular through enhanced apprenticeships and the Work programme to ensure that we do not lose a generation of young people? All employers are being galvanised to take youngsters on and to give them experience, so that when the upturn comes, they will be able to utilise the skills that they have developed.

Mr Cunningham: There is weakness in what the hon. Lady says. We have been here lately, and frankly we have seen this before. If we really want to give young people work experience, we must pay employers to take them on for six or nine months. Two or three months are not really helpful, because they do not then get another job. If I had my way, I would make it 12 months, but that is another argument.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is making a passionate case for Coventry and on issues that affect us all more generally. Is not part of the answer to the hon. Lady’s question that many employers would like to take on more apprentices and provide more skills training, but they need demand in the economy and demand for their products to do so? The Government’s failure to achieve that demand in the economy is leaving it flatlining. We need the plan for growth that the Labour party has suggested.

Mr Cunningham: I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend, but I would add that the Government, despite their protestations, must consider small businesses and help with their financial situation and their liquidity problems, perhaps with loans from the banks. If my earlier suggestion about six to nine months’ payment was adopted, they might be able to take on young people. The Government will never crack the problem unless they provide that.

To wind up, I want to ask the Minister some questions. Will he tell us what evidence-based assessment he has made of the Government’s industrial policy? What confidence can he give to global manufacturers with long-term investment horizons? What confidence can he give to companies to take on apprentices? How will the Government support small and medium-sized businesses to retain skills in the region?

12.43 pm

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing it. For us in Coventry, it is an important and timely debate, and we look to the Minister to give what answers he can today and some sense of a future for Coventry and similar cities in the west midlands and beyond. At the moment, with the dramatic situation in Europe, the likelihood of a further recession there and the possibility of a double dip in this country, the outlook for employment and prosperity in the west midlands particularly is grim indeed.

I want to follow my hon. Friend in saying that we are pleased to see guests and supporters from Birmingham and Oxford with us for this debate. Its national significance and relevance should not be overlooked. I shall speak first about unemployment. Coventry always seems to

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suffer a double whammy. The first public sector cuts were pushed through by the Secretary of State for Education, who went for Becta—the Bringing Educational Creativity to All agency—the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency and the Skills Funding Agency.

Those good-quality jobs had been located to Coventry from London because it is central and as part of a clear-cut Government policy to promote growth and quality jobs in the region; but they were cut just like that, in a disgraceful and wanton act without notification, without warning and without consultation. The Secretary of State issued a rude letter closing them down without more ado. He then mended his ways to some extent. We had a debate about the matter in this Chamber, and told him that that was no way to behave and that we hoped he would reconsider. I note that the number of job losses is somewhat lower than was announced, but the total number is 1,237 in the private sector, plus 620 in local authorities and public services. That has created a grim situation in Coventry city, and we can do nothing about it until the Government stop the national cuts, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) referred.

There is no salvation for Coventry in isolation, although we shall make some suggestions to the Minister today about what he could, and should, do to help. But in the background is the single objective that the Government have set for their economic policy—the reduction of the deficit, come what may. Whatever cuts and deflation are necessary, that is what the Government intend to achieve. We have pointed out many times, and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South said again today, that they cannot achieve that objective with policies that are destroying so much of the economy. It is as simple as that, and until they change their policies, the outlook for Coventry and Britain is grim indeed.

Where do we stand on some of the Government’s initiatives that were intended to improve the situation? Some were referred to by my hon. Friend. First, we have had no luck in Coventry with the regional growth fund, and the Minister knows the situation with CPP, which was turned down. I do not want to reopen the matter at this stage, but we hope that it will return. It might have restarted car production at Browns Lane, but I do not think that it will, nor do I think that we will have much luck there. We tried for enterprise zone status, but failed for some reason, and I would like the Government to reconsider that and to explain the criteria that Coventry failed to fulfil.

Similarly, Coventry is suffering badly with youth unemployment, and that is the most serious aspect of unemployment. Some unemployed kids are the third and fourth generation of families that have never been in work and will never get into work because they do not know what it is about. That is why the Government were so wrong, when they came to office, to cut Labour’s scheme that was running successfully. They have now scored the unique achievement of promoting 1 million young people out of work. That came as a shock to everyone in the country, not least the Government. They are now trying belatedly to do something about it, but unless they change their economic stance and the sheer deflationary course on which they have embarked, that will simply not happen.

I turn to something else that the Government could do that would be useful to the nation as a whole and to

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Coventry: credit easing. Where do they stand on that? Various schemes have been suggested, and we are supposed to hear the details of the present scheme in January. Can the Minister tell us when the credit will flow from that and when it will be available in Coventry? As my hon. Friend said, many small companies that are okay at the moment could do so much better with credit easing in place; they could obtain the credit they need for working and investment capital to improve their output and their sales. It is as simple as that, but until we know the details, we have nothing to go on.

The situation with the Nuckle project, which involves transport, is similar. The paraphernalia and bureaucracy surrounding various Government investment projects were supposed to be cut back. It is a good scheme for linking the north-south train run through Coventry. It is a very good project. We have been dealing with it for about five years or more, partly because of Government bureaucracy, but this Government are even worse. I hear now—I think that my hon. Friend referred to it—that they have promised a decision this month, before Christmas. Can we at least have some indication? What assurance can the Minister give us that the decision will not only be taken, but be positive? That would be the most important thing that we could hear from him today. I hope that he will take that on board. If he cannot answer this morning, will he answer as soon as possible?

We are looking for Government action. The people of Coventry are finding it more and more difficult to respond to the situation. There is no future in cuts, in recession and in an economy that is depressed and looks like remaining so. We shall have growing youth unemployment and growing national unemployment, and we will never create the new businesses, jobs and growth that we need to put the deficit right. Coventry is a microcosm of that problem. It certainly highlights all the problem’s worst aspects in an area that has suffered so much in every recession and throughout the period since this Government took office.

12.51 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): I am pleased to have the chance to discuss economic opportunities in the west midlands, particularly in Coventry. I commend the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for securing the debate. He highlighted several practical issues around job losses and questions for small businesses. I will address all of them, including the specific transport schemes that have been mentioned.

It is worth taking a step back and remembering that the west midlands is a key part of our national economy. If we look at the most recent complete gross value added figures, it accounted for just over 7% of the UK’s GVA in 2008. It is important that the area is successful and prosperous. Clearly, there have been problems. I understand that it is a difficult time for individuals caught in unemployment or facing redundancy. However, there has been positive news. I welcome the balanced view that the hon. Gentleman presented of the challenges and also the good news. The Opposition will understandably challenge what the Government are doing, but we have to be careful that we do not start to talk down Coventry or other areas and that we strike a sensible balance. We

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must recognise the problems, but we must also look at where the opportunities are, because I think they are strong.

We have seen, for example, the £355 million investment by Jaguar Land Rover at i54. It is not immediately within the Coventry area, but it is crucial for the whole JLR programme. We have seen the £31 million that JCB is putting forward for its next generation of engines, which will form a crucial part of the skills base in the west midlands. We have also seen investment in BMW at Hams Hall, just outside Coventry. This is welcome news because not only is it good for businesses, it is a tribute to local workers. I want to put that point on the record. The hon. Gentleman and I have met the trade unions with regard to Rolls-Royce at Ansty. I hope that conversations between unions and management will persist to ensure that is somewhere that can remain competitive.

Lorely Burt: For many of us in the coalition, it seems that there is tremendous potential for the west midlands, because of the tremendous skills base. The Minister mentioned Ansty; he did not mention the fact that in my constituency of Solihull, Land Rover is creating 1,000 jobs in addition to the ones that he has already mentioned. There is so much potential for jobs and for the development of research and technology in our west midlands area, particularly close to Coventry.

Mr Prisk: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s contribution. I will come to the broader Jaguar Land Rover issue, because it is crucial for the whole network of engineering and manufacturing in the region. We must be careful to remember where the roots of the problem lie. In 1975, GVA was ahead in the west midlands—above the national average. In the first decade of this century, from 2000 to 2008, the increase in GVA per head in the region was the lowest of any part of the country. In Coventry, the decline is clear. In 2000, we saw GVA per head 10 points above the national average; by the time we get to 2008, it is eight points below, so there are significant challenges. Indeed, the west midlands was the only part of the country where the number of private sector jobs fell between 1998 and 2008, so there are real underlying issues.

We are committed to rebalancing the economy; that includes sectors and geography. I turn to the specific areas of activity that I think are relevant. First, local enterprise partnerships are crucial. In the few months that they have been in existence, the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP has established a business mentor network; it is working with the banks to unlock credit at local level in addition to what we are doing at national level, and it has also identified key development and infrastructure opportunities. If I may, I will come to the question of Tollbar End and the development of that site in a moment. I know it is very important.

We have put £248,000 into the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP to get it up and running. That is not designed to provide a vast administration. I am not sure that we want a vast administration. We want outcomes. That is why the LEP is getting its funding strategy in place; it is why it is putting in place its evergreen fund

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and it is why we are making sure that there is a portal in place so that it is actually able to engage with small businesses.

Mr Ainsworth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Prisk: If the right hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way, because I want to try to answer some of the points raised. There are important issues that will advantage his constituency in Coventry as well.

I entirely agree that apprenticeships are crucial. The LEP is addressing that issue with its local project, on top of the work that we are doing to help small and medium-sized enterprises. I can direct the hon. Member for Coventry South to the new programme recently announced to make it easier and simpler for SMEs to take on apprenticeships. We are providing funding to the tune of up to £1,500 per apprentice. I agree that there is an issue around making sure that SMEs are able to do this. Accessibility will make it easier for Coventry’s SMEs.

There are 24 enterprise zones. I am aware that the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP will have been disappointed that its own bid did not make it. However, just beyond the area, the MIRA technology park will be of some importance to local businesses. On transport and the Tollbar End commitment, the Government have brought forward their intention to ensure that £110 million is available to sort out the congestion. We recognise that there are still live issues about whether the development next door could be hindered by it. I have made that clear to officials and they are engaged in discussions with the LEP to see whether we can keep the £110 million to get the investment, but not lose or unduly delay the development programme.

Mr Ainsworth: Members representing the whole of the LEP—from both parties—met earlier this week and will be seeking a meeting with the Minister to try to make absolutely certain that his Department is focused on that problem, because it is enormously important. Can the Minister give us a commitment to meet a delegation from the whole Coventry and Warwickshire area on that issue?

Mr Prisk: I understand the issue. Given that the Department for Transport is in the process of finalising its decision, I should not pre-empt it. If it becomes necessary for Ministers to have a meeting, I am sure that I or my colleagues will be willing to do that.

The hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) said that Coventry had not had any successes with the regional growth fund. Perhaps I can bring him up to speed. In fact, £3.6 million from the second round of the regional growth fund has brought two relevant projects to the area. There is the Aston Martin body construction facility with £1.6 million of public investment, unlocking between £5 and £6 for every public pound put in. There is also, perhaps more importantly, the LNX distribution programme with £2 million of investment from the Government, which should bring some 340 manufacturing jobs directly to Coventry. I understand the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raised and that he may have been disappointed by the bid, but there has been some success, particularly in Coventry, and I hope that he welcomes that.

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I welcome the points that have been raised; we need sensible dialogue about them. Parties may disagree on the bigger economic issues, but we are committed to ensuring that businesses and workers in Coventry and the wider west midlands are able to unlock their potential. We need to support them through skills and investment, to make sure that they can fulfil their potential and overcome their historical problems.

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Children’s Access to Parents

1 pm

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this important debate. Week in, week out, our constituency surgeries are all too often full of parents who are struggling to see, have contact with or have access to their children. Evidence suggests that around 3 million children in the United Kingdom live apart from a parent, and 1 million of them have no contact with the non-resident parent three years after separation.

In recent years, the number of court applications, and the number of backlogged cases in the system, have increased. In 2005, there were 110,330 court applications, compared with 122,330 in 2010. The CAFCASS—Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service—case load has also been growing: in 2007-08 there were 39,432 cases, but in 2010-11 there were 43,759. A massive delay in family court cases is not in the best interests of children or parents.

Although the numbers of court applications and cases in the CAFCASS backlog look slightly better than last year, they are still far too high and I suggest that mediation would be a faster and better way forward. Mediation is cheaper at £752 per case compared with £1,682 for full court proceedings, and on average it takes 110 days, while court cases take 435 days. Some 95% of mediations are complete within nine months, while only 70% of court cases are over within 18 months.

In such circumstances, time is of the essence to provide stability for the child and their parents, and to ensure the protection of the child’s welfare and that there is closure and a settlement regarding how they will be looked after, with arrangements for parental contact and access. It is important that such situations are dealt with quickly, and from paragraph 115 onwards the Norgrove report promotes mediation, which is to be welcomed. My only caveat, however, is that the report goes on to state that if people do not like the results of mediation, they should still be able to apply to the courts. I do not agree; one needs closure as soon as possible, and parents who are busy arguing with one another should not be allowed further bites of the cherry.

A key issue is the right of children to see their parents following a separation. It is not an issue of dads’ rights, or fathers’ rights, or about those of the mother; it is about the fundamental and basic rights of the child. I believe that child welfare is best served by ensuring that children know and have a relationship with both parents after separation. Too often, parents sink their children’s rights in a sea of acrimony when they split up, which must be fundamentally wrong.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is right to say that such cases should be about the rights of the child, but does he agree that those rights also extend to a child’s right to see their grandparents?

Charlie Elphicke: The right of grandparents to see their grandchildren is important, although not, I hasten to add, in the teeth of the unity of both parents if the grandparents are, shall we say, of the more interfering busybody variety who destabilise families. In general

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terms, however, a relationship between a child and their grandparents is positive and should be encouraged. It is not good if one parent who has custody of the child tries to frustrates that relationship, just as they should not try to frustrate the non-resident parent. My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of grandparents’ rights, and once again he makes a powerful and forceful point. If there is acrimony between families, it is flatly wrong for parents to inflict their mutual loathing, which too often exists in a relationship breakdown, on the child.

In its conclusions in paragraph 109, the Norgrove report states:

“The child’s welfare should be the court’s paramount consideration, as required by the Children Act 1989. No change should be made that might compromise this principle. Accordingly, no legislation should be introduced that creates or risks creating the perception that there is a parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents. For that reason and taking account of further evidence we also do not recommend a change canvassed in our interim report that legislation might state the importance to the child of a meaningful relationship with both parents after their separation where this is safe. While true, and indeed a principle that guides court decisions, we have concluded that this would do more harm than good.”

The most important words are,

“no legislation should be introduced that creates or risks creating the perception that there is a parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents.”

The difficulty with the report is that it confuses the issue of time with that of an emotional bond. An emotional bond—love and affection—is not about the amount of time spent with someone. A person could have a best friend from university they have not seen for years. When they next meet, however, the friendship will pick up as if it had been only five minutes and that is because a relationship exists. The person may not have spent much time with their friend over the intervening years, but they know and have a relationship with them. That, in essence, is what we must ensure for our children, because they have the right to know both their parents and to have a relationship, reasonable access and contact with them following a separation.

The Norgrove report has confused those two issues. A relationship is not about time but about that bond, that sharing between parent and child, and the love and affection that goes with it. A clear social message needs to be sent out, which is why I have tabled the Children (Access to Parents) Bill, and why I secured this debate. A relationship is not about the amount of time spent together but about the bond created, and that lies at the heart of my case.

We need action because 1 million children do not see both their parents. Society has changed and is still changing, and social change means that over the past few decades, both parents have become more actively engaged than was previously the case. One study showed that parental involvement by fathers rose 200% between 1974 and 2000, and the change in work patterns seen over recent decades suggests that there is more joint parenting. According to research that I requested from the House of Commons Library, the number of men in part-time work has risen from about 500,000 in 1985 to 2 million today, while the number of partnered mothers in work rose from 52% in 1986 to 71% in 2010. That suggests that parents are sharing work and bringing up

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their children, and all of us, particularly the younger Members of the House, know that the work-life balance includes more juggling and sharing of parenting and parental responsibility.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this extremely important debate. He has mentioned some of the latest data but is he aware of recent research by the insurance company Aviva showing that the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in a year? That is part of the trend that he mentions.

Together with taking on more of the burden and responsibilities of parenting should come more of the rights. I agree with points raised earlier about the rights of the child, but there is also an issue of securing paternal access. I have heard cases in my constituency surgery where although an access order has been passed by the court, it is flouted, sometimes dozens of times, by the other partner. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must take a firmer, clearer look at enforcement action against recalcitrant partners?

Charlie Elphicke: I thank my hon. Friend for that powerful intervention. I will come later to the key issue of orders being flouted.

Parents share work and the bringing up of children, and that should not end at separation. It should not be a case of falling off a cliff; it should not suddenly be the case that children never see one of their parents any more. That is a mad way to proceed and it is destabilising for the child. The welfare of the child is best served by ensuring a continuing relationship with both parents.

The same is true in respect of educational attainment. In December 2010, the Fatherhood Institute published a report showing that better school results, better behaviour, lower criminality and less drug abuse are associated with children having the type of relationship with both parents that I have described. That is why it matters that the child has the right to know both parents and have a relationship with them through reasonable access and contact. It is essential to the rights of the child, the welfare of the child and the success of the child.

My hon. Friend made a powerful and telling point: too often, court orders are flouted. One sees this from the Norgrove report and the sixth report of Session 2010-12 of the Select Committee on Justice. People say, “Oh, there’s no need to change anything. We can see from the court figures that it all looks perfectly fine. In only a couple of hundred cases is contact denied.” However, the reality is that even if orders are made, they are just ignored. Even if people go down the route of a court process, they may be forced into abandoning it simply because of how long it all takes.

That is why a change in the law should send a social message as much as a legal message. I urge the Minister to reject the aspect of the Norgrove report that I have described and to support a change in the law. We need that change to send a clear message to the courts, but also to all parents who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) said, deny their children the right to see and know both their parents through reasonable access and contact. That right should be enshrined in law. I hope that if I end my contribution now, it will allow a little time for my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) to speak.

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1.12 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), who has expressed the feelings of millions of people throughout the country in what he has said. As ever, his speech contained an enormous amount of research and interesting facts.

I will speak for only a minute or so, because other hon. Members want to speak. I want to talk about just two things. First, there is a father in my constituency of Harlow, Mr Colin Riches, whose children have been denied access to him. It is a tragic case, which shows why the law must change. Secondly—this relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) has said—I am campaigning on behalf of the Grandparents’ Association, whose headquarters is in my constituency. We are asking for children to have the legal right to letterbox access to their grandparents. Put simply, that is the right to send and receive cards at birthdays and Christmas.

I have worked with Mr Colin Riches to table an e-petition—No. 23102—and I have raised his case many times in Parliament with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and others. The crux of his e-petition is this:

“Shared parenting should become the natural position in the UK. It’s in the best interest of the child. The law should be there to protect children’s relationships with both parents. It needs to show children that both their parents are treated with equality. So that children who have been cared for by both parents and grandparents do not suffer the pain of a living bereavement.”

I welcome the fact that the Government are looking into this matter, most recently through the family justice review, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover. That review was a ratchet in the right direction, because it accepted this point:

“More should be done to allow children to have a voice in proceedings.”

However, although I welcome some of the review’s contents, it does not go nearly far enough to help families such as that of Colin Riches.

I have had a very positive letter from the Minister—by chance, it arrived today—regarding my constituent, Mr Riches. In that letter, the Minister mentions that the review stops short of recommending a change in the law, because of the risk that a change could both encourage litigation and compromise the key principle of the Children Act 1989. As has been said, however, the law is clearly balanced too far in one direction—it is weighted against fathers and grandparents—and we need a change in the law to redress the balance.

I am nevertheless grateful to the Minister for his sympathetic response to my letter. He says that the Government will

“explore possible options for strengthening the expectation that both of a child’s parents should continue to be involved with the child’s care, post-separation”.

Will the Minister meet me and Mr Riches to discuss these issues more fully?

Secondly, I want briefly to ask the Minister about the work of the Grandparents’ Association. Last Thursday, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole at No. 10 Downing street to hand in a petition with more than 7,000 names calling for children to have

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the right to letterbox access to their grandparents—the right to send and receive cards on special occasions. That is a very small but symbolic thing, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Sadly, throughout Britain today, thousands of children are denied any access to their grandparents, even on birthdays and during the holiday season, which is often caused by family conflict.

Again, to be fair, the Government are considering the issue. I had a very positive response from the Leader of the House last week, when I raised the matter at business questions, but if the Minister could give a clear commitment to examine the issue, it would be hugely welcomed by grandparents in my constituency, the Grandparents’ Association and millions of grandparents up and down the land. It would be a tiny gesture, but it could transform the lives of many families. Ultimately, this is about the right of children to know who their family are and to have a chance to communicate with them. In the context of what the Government are doing to support the family, surely that is the right thing to do. Both the issues that I have raised fit with what we said in opposition, so I very much hope that we will be able to do something in the months and years ahead.

Andrew Percy rose—

Sandra Osborne (in the Chair): Order. Not all hon. Members have given notice that they want to speak. I am sure that they will want the Minister to have adequate time to respond.

1.17 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I apologise for that, Ms Osborne. I will make this an extended intervention. I just want to agree with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who delivered the petition to No. 10 Downing street, and to give two quick examples from my constituency. I have two ongoing cases of constituents who have lost access to their grandchildren. In the first case, that was, very sadly, through the death of the daughter. In the second case, it was through a daughter’s new relationship with someone who exercised considerable influence over her. Consequently, the children left the country before legal processes could be put in place by the grandparent. I have met my hon. Friend the Minister to discuss this matter before, and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss it with him again. Those of us who are campaigning for grandparents’ rights fully accept the rights of parents, but at the end of the day this is about the rights of children, and those rights should extend to including grandparents. I hope that the Minister will meet us—I will end there, having taken less than a minute.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I will try to get through as much as possible of my speech in the time left to me, but I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) on securing the debate. I agree with virtually everything that he said and with other hon. Members who raised points as well. The whole point of mediation is that it is quicker and cheaper, and we are of course examining that through the various devices being promoted by the Ministry of Justice and with which the Department for Education is involved.

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I agree with the points made about grandparents. Part of establishing greater stability for children who find themselves in a broken family is that grandparents often offer an anchor of continuity when parents split up. I am sympathetic to those points, and we are looking at various ways to make sure that, wherever possible, grandparents remain engaged. Too many of them do not, as I know from my constituency.

This is a highly emotive issue, and one that is important to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of children and young people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover mentioned, an estimated 240,000 children experience the separation of their parents every year. Overall, more than one in three children will see their parents split up before their 16th birthday. That is a huge number, and I am afraid it is a reflection on society today.

There is great pressure on the courts at the moment, not least on the public law courts, post Baby P, which is having a knock-on effect. It is therefore absolutely right and urgent that we sort out some of the often acrimonious cases in the private law courts. My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he talks about parents sinking a child’s rights in a sea of acrimony. In too many cases, parents use their children as pawns, and the instability and emotional pressure that causes for children cannot be good for them. For all concerned, but particularly for the children, we must make sure that we do a lot better.

Just about everyone agrees that a child’s welfare is best served if both their parents are as actively involved in their upbringing as possible, unless there are good reasons for their not being involved, and the child’s welfare would be undermined—that must remain the safety net. All the evidence tells us that children genuinely benefit from a relationship with both parents, with the potential for each to make different contributions to their child’s development. Yet, as we have heard from my hon. Friend, many children grow up with little or no relationship with one parent—usually, although not exclusively, the father.

This is a topical issue. My hon. Friend mentioned his Bill, which had its First Reading in March. Since then, the family justice review has carried out its consultation, and it produced its final report last month. It is right that we consider the issue of a child’s contact with their parents in that wider context.

I would just make two points. The Norgrove report, excellent thought it is, is a Government-commissioned report, not a Government report. The Government will, I hope, produce their response to it in January. I am working with colleagues from other Departments, including the Ministry of Justice, to reflect on many of the issues that have arisen from the Norgrove review, with which we are very familiar.

Some of the review’s concerns about having a presumption in favour of shared parenting were based on its visit to Australia. However, I think there were concerns about the Australian experience because, too often, the focus was interpreted as being about equality of time. As we know, we cannot carve up a child’s existence on the basis of some spurious 50:50 split in terms of time. As Members of Parliament, we probably know that better than others. We are not good role models as parents. If, heaven forbid, I were to split

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up from my wife—she has tolerated my being an MP for 14 and a half years—it would be bliss if I was expected to spend 50% of time with my children, because it does not happen now. However, we need to be realistic and not to base things on artificial equalities in terms of time.

There is, however, a much broader issue about the culture of parenting. The culture has shifted away from the traditional view that mothers are primarily responsible for the care of children. Increasingly, society recognises the valuable and distinct role of both parents. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) mentioned the Aviva survey, which pointed to the increasing existence of stay-at-home dads and dads’ wish to be much more involved in their child’s upbringing.

The Government are doing much to encourage that societal change, promoting fathers as equal parents and encouraging them to be fully involved with their children from the earliest stages of their lives. Co-operative parents, both actively involved with their children, are more likely to continue that pattern after separation, and a co-operative, flexible approach is more likely to lead to contact arrangements that actually work. In that, I include the important role of grandparents.

As we know, however much education and awareness-raising we carry out, many parents separate in a hostile environment that fosters selfish perceptions. I am not seeking to downplay in any way the trauma of relationship breakdown, particularly where children are involved. Rebuilding a new life after separation or divorce can be one of the hardest things any of us will face. It is a sad truth, though, that the outcome, all too often, is that loving parents are frozen out of their children’s lives, and those who stand to lose the most are the children themselves.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton spoke about the serial flouting of contact orders in too many cases. Too often, the resident parent can use the weapon of delay to freeze out a non-resident parent, such that a large portion of non-resident parents lose contact with their children altogether within two years. Whatever changes we do or do not make to the law, we need better enforcement of what exists now. That is absolutely essential, and I have been holding conversations to that effect with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and the family courts themselves.

A relatively small proportion of families—about 10%—end up seeking help from family courts to resolve disputes about contact. These are the most complex and difficult cases, often involving multiple problems. The examples mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) reflect some fairly acrimonious marriage breakdowns.

We should not kid ourselves that the remaining 90% of separating parents, who do not seek help from the courts, are happy with the degree of their involvement in their children’s lives. Of course, many manage to put their children’s needs first and to reach an amicable settlement, but far too many non-resident parents feel they must accept unsatisfactory or unfair contact arrangements, because of the fear of long, drawn-out and expensive court procedures. That is why up to a third of non-resident parents have no meaningful contact with their children. Once that happens, it can be almost impossible in some cases to resume contact, particularly

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where young children are concerned. At every stage, we must remember that the most important part of this whole equation is the child. The delay and continued uncertainty caused by an acrimonious dispute going through the courts over a long period can only be damaging to the child.

That is a tragedy, and one the Government intend to address. Our vision is to establish a clear expectation that, under normal circumstances, a child will have a relationship with both his or her parents, regardless of their relationship with each other. We want to achieve that by creating a climate in which separating parents are able to see through their personal differences and to recognise the importance of their both remaining involved in their child’s lives. For those who need support to focus on their children’s needs, there will be a range of interventions to facilitate the making of practical and lasting agreements.

This will be a society where family courts are a last resort, used to determine only the most difficult cases, particularly those where there are welfare concerns. This court system will be transparent and accessible to those who need it, with no perceptions of bias based on sex or resident or non-resident status. Children will feel that their views count and are listened to, and the minority of parents who take their dispute to court will do so in the knowledge that it is only in exceptional cases that a child will not be able to maintain ongoing contact with both parents. Crucially, parents will adhere to court orders in the knowledge that action to enforce breaches will be swift and decisive—if I am reading quickly, it is because I am determined to get to the end of my speech.

Whether the Government achieve that vision is only partly in our hands. We cannot prevent acrimonious break-ups or change the way individual families choose to organise their lives. However we must do everything we can to improve the system so that it gives children the best chance of growing up under the guidance of two loving parents.

As I have said, the family justice review panel reported last month. It paints a grim picture of the experience of families in a private law system that is too slow, too expensive and too emotionally damaging for children and parents. The panel’s view is that shared parenting is best encouraged through education rather than legislation. It proposes a range of measures to encourage out-of-court dispute resolution and to support parents in putting their children’s needs first. Such pre-court processes

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would focus on giving parents effective tools to resolve their problems and change their behaviour. They would include mediation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover has said, parenting information programmes and the drawing up of parenting agreements. Most of us would agree that those are sensible. In addition, an online hub would, in the first instance, provide information and advice on a wide range of issues faced by parents. The Government are carefully considering the panel’s proposals for reform and will respond to them early in the new year. However the rationale behind these pre-court plans—more support for parents to make child-centred agreements, and fewer parents going to court—fits with the vision I outlined earlier.

I turn now to the nub of my hon. Friend’s proposal, which is legislation to promote shared parenting. As we have heard, the family justice review opposed such a move. It is concerned that any such changes to legislation risk creating the perception of a parental right to shared time with their children. It has also taken on board the concern that legislation could be seen as undermining the fundamental principle under which courts operate—the principle in the Children Act 1989 that paramount consideration is given to the welfare of the child. As I have said, I have some concern about that.

This debate has been raging for some time. Five and a half years ago, I myself argued in the House for an amendment to the Children and Adoption Bill that would have inserted a presumption in favour of shared parenting into the 1989 Act. The concerns that gave rise to that have not diminished today. It would be wrong for me to try to pre-empt the Government’s decision, but I can say that we are looking closely at all the options for promoting shared parenting through possible legislative and non-legislative means.

The debate is often polarised around two issues. On the one hand, we have the frustration that an obstructive resident parent can stop the non-resident parent seeing their child. On the other, there is, understandably, considerable pressure for robust safeguarding processes to ensure that potential welfare issues are properly identified and that care arrangements are safe. Ultimately, both concerns centre on harmful impacts on children, and any solution we come to must maintain a clear focus on the welfare of the child.

The Children Act 1989 is a landmark piece of legislation, and we approach any debate about amending it with the utmost caution. We are clear that the paramountcy principle, which has universal support, must not be diluted.

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Empty Homes (Hyndburn)

1.30 pm

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne—for the first time, I think. It is also an honour to have secured this Adjournment debate on empty homes in Hyndburn, an issue close to my heart and a huge problem in my constituency. The debate is very welcome, after the recent launch of the Government’s housing strategy, with much surrounding national publicity.

The causes of empty homes and the issues and problems connected with them are complex and vary around the country. In Hyndburn and other parts of Pennine Lancashire, the biggest factors are over-supply and low demand. Hyndburn has a total housing stock of 36,447, but there are only 34,201 resident households in the borough. Simply put, we have more residential dwellings than households that require homes. Most up-to-date figures indicate that we have 2,546 vacant dwellings—nearly 7% of the total housing stock—of which 1,579 are long-term empties. Vacant housing is therefore almost inevitable, as we do not have a housing shortage.

The causes and solutions go beyond housing. We need support for growth, which will stimulate the local economy. We need to boost the local gross domestic product. Our housing offer needs to support the growth agenda, so we need to provide greater choice and flexibility, as well as affordable homes. Unfortunately, choice is limited in Hyndburn, and more than 50% of our housing stock is terraced, most of it with two bedrooms. There is nothing wrong with terraced housing—I live in a terraced house—but we need to modernise and improve those houses; otherwise we will not retain households or attract new ones. In fact, demand for new housing only exaggerates the problem of the older stock.

Demand and modernisation are the focus in dealing with empty homes in Hyndburn. Nearly half the vacant homes are in neighbourhoods surrounding the centre of Accrington and most are pre-1919 two-bedroom—as we would expect—terraced houses, many of which are in serious disrepair; the climate is of course damp, and private landlord activity is significant, at around 30% of overall tenure. We currently have 1,310 people in need on the housing register, mainly because of inappropriate housing and related poor conditions. The reasons for homes being vacant vary, and in Hyndburn the reasons are certainly different from those described by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), when he raised the matter of empty homes in the House on 29 November. Our problem is not overdevelopment, but over-supply and a lack of choice.

High concentrations of long-term vacant dwellings blight our neighbourhoods and the solution that is needed is a long-term, comprehensive approach to regeneration. Although the housing market renewal programme was not perfect, it was as close as we have come to a comprehensive approach. The ending of the programme has left a legacy, and community expectations remain. The recent award of £2.3 million transitional funding allows us to meet our remaining legal obligations, as well as to relocate a number of households that are trapped in potential clearance areas. However, low demand has not gone away and there is a continuing need to regenerate some of Hyndburn’s neighbourhoods that were never included in the HMR programme.

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I welcome Government support for new house building, but I am seriously concerned that elements of it will not work in areas of low housing demand. Government housing policy remains driven by the south, ignoring the nuances of the housing problems in northern towns. Greater flexibility is required. Regeneration is a long-term, comprehensive process, which is aimed at tackling social, economic, physical and environmental issues in places where the market has simply failed. There is a risk that the remaining resources will go to growth areas, rather than to help more deprived areas, and that that will exacerbate the problem. I understand that value for money is important, but I ask the Government to identify, or top-slice, funding to assist growth in less affluent areas, such as Haslingden and Hyndburn. That would at least give more deprived areas a competitive chance, as well as supporting economic growth.

I understand that the second tranche of the £50 million for low-demand areas must be match funded. That is a significant problem. I must advise the Minister that that is nigh on impossible in Hyndburn, so his policy will disadvantage Hyndburn in comparison with larger local authorities with greater access to resources. As a small district authority, Hyndburn receives only 15% of the council tax that is collected. Lancashire, the shire authority, has no interest in empty homes. Hyndburn has already matched funded the transitional grant from HMR, to the tune of £2.3 million. It no longer receives capital funding, with the end of the Government’s support for a housing capital fund.

As I have previously pointed out in the House, the new homes bonus is insignificant in Hyndburn. The amounts have been residual and small, and new house building only exacerbates the problem of over-supply, because it disadvantages areas of low demand. In short, Hyndburn has run out of available resources with which to generate match funding. The local authority’s budget is due to diminish from some £17 million to about £11 million in 2014. Unfortunately, the funding will not be anywhere near enough to address the 300,000-plus long-term empty homes across the country.

On 29 November in the House, I expressed my shock that local authorities cannot bid for the empty homes fund, and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), advised me that that was not the case, as reported at column 915 of that day’s Hansard. I have now had the opportunity to review the guidance for the £100 million fund, and it is clear to me that only registered providers and community and voluntary groups can apply—not local authorities such as Hyndburn, which are not registered social providers. I welcome the support for community and voluntary groups, but otherwise limiting the funding just to registered providers is a missed opportunity in an area with a significant problem. Allocating funds to local authorities would have provided more flexibility and innovation.

In addition, the guidance for the £100 million does not allow bids for vacant dwellings in council ownership. That is another missed opportunity. Hyndburn council owns long-term vacant houses not because it is a landlord, but because it is a former housing market renewal pathfinder. Allowing the former pathfinder local authorities to use the funding in partnership with others, including registered providers, would allow greater flexibly in addressing some of those depressing images that Channel 4

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recently highlighted in the former HMR areas, and there would be viable alternatives to demolition, which is what I believe the Government want to encourage. I therefore hope that when the Government draft their guidance for the £50 million for empty homes in low-demand areas, they will bear my comments in mind: more freedom and flexibility, led by local authorities, will achieve more innovation and better value for money. Unless I am mistaken, that is the Government’s objective.

I am led to believe that bids for empty homes funding will be made from at least one registered provider in Hyndburn and from the local authority if the second tranche of funding permits. Our priority area is known as Woodnook and has nearly 350 vacant homes, with ownership in both the private and public sectors. I am pleased to inform the Minister that we are working with a private sector partner to bring in £7 million of investment to convert and refurbish 89 long-term vacant homes—many of which have been vacant for two years—without public sector funding. However, I hope that the Department for Communities and Local Government will look favourably on applications from our partners to extend the innovative work that we are doing to more vacant homes in this neighbourhood, as well as elsewhere in the borough.

I have on several occasions in the past raised the issues and problems caused by some landlords in Hyndburn; I find it necessary to do so again in relation to empty properties. Unfortunately, private landlords contribute directly to the problem of empty homes and of low housing demand through poor standards of management and maintenance. When I requested the information, I was told that slightly more than 80% of the empty properties are in the hands of private landlords. Although I acknowledge that legislation exists to introduce selective licensing in areas of low demand, the measures required to introduce a licensing scheme are onerous and potentially costly to the public purse, as Hyndburn found, regrettably, to its cost, having had to fork out £100,000 in a lost case in the High Court during—I must add—the previous Administration.

The Government’s new housing strategy quite rightly acknowledges the private rented sector’s essential role in the housing market. However, I would welcome a commitment from the Government to hold an independent review, to try to improve standards in the private rented sector and to relax the bureaucracy that currently exists when seeking to establish a selective licensing designation. I understand that the council is considering a new licensing designation, but the potential for a legal challenge and subsequent cost may be a deterrent. If the rules and guidance were simplified and made more transparent, thus making such a designation easier, more local authorities would be encouraged to consider using the power.

I welcome the consultation on an empty homes premium on council tax, payable on homes that have been left empty for more than two years. I fully support the initiative, but I ask that in two-tier authorities—this problem keeps coming back—district councils retain the premium, as that is where the burden to council tax payers currently exists.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, thus building on the progress made in my Adjournment debate, to

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which he contributed, and keeping empty homes well and truly on the agenda. I also thank the Minister for attending.

I particularly appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman has progressed the arguments. He has considered cases in his constituency and identified that the question, which also applies to my constituency, is about overdevelopment on green fields and about bringing rural properties back into use. I welcome the cross-party approach on the issue and praise the Minister for the way in which the Government have reacted.

Graham Jones: There is some consensus that the problem needs tackling. There are variances, particularly between the north and the south—between under-supply of housing in the south and over-supply in the north. There are also complexities regarding low demand. The hon. Gentleman, who has a constituency not far from mine that has some of the problems, is quite right in saying that there is some sort of a cross-party consensus, but there is a difference between certain areas in tackling empty homes.

I end my contribution by expressing a sense of disappointment and frustration that the Government’s housing policy is driven from the south and that they seem unwilling or unable to see the disjuncture between their strategy and the realities of places such as Hyndburn—my constituency—and Haslingden.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on bringing the matter back to the House. As he says, it is crucial, and I personally and the Department take it seriously. It is set out in some considerable detail in the housing strategy document that we published a fortnight ago. There is quite a lot of common cause between the hon. Gentleman’s intentions, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and mine.

The first point to acknowledge is that there is not one housing market in England—there are not even 10. In fact, if I look at my own borough of Stockport, I would say that there are 10 different markets, even in Stockport.

Graham Jones indicated assent.

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman acknowledges that. In every square mile, some bits are seen to be more desirable than others and accommodation is more popular. That is not a function of the private market alone; it is also true of social housing, where estates are seen to be desirable, undesirable or less desirable. Therefore, we cannot have a one-policy-fits-all solution, and I think that we have common cause on that. I want to assure him that, as a fellow north-western MP, I am well aware of the market’s complexity and the differences even between places that are adjacent to one another.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s starting contention that the way out of the current problems faced by Hyndburn and other similar communities is to get the economy going again and ensure that we have growth and investment in industry and jobs. I am sure that he is aware of the Chancellor’s autumn statement and the

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huge emphasis that the Government place on securing those outcomes. He will also be aware of the Government’s central task, which is to bring our finances and our economy back into balance, so that growth can be based on secure foundations.

I think that we also agree that, when people need homes, the fact that we have empty homes is a scandal. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that his district has 36,000 homes and only 34,000 households to fill them. That makes his area distinctive, although not unique—certainly not in the north-west.

At the latest count, there were 720,000 empty properties across England, which was down by 17,000 from the past year. Around 279,000 of those are long-term empties, which are properties that have been empty for longer than six months. The number of long-term empties has fallen by a larger number—some 21,000—since 2010. That is the biggest year-on-year decrease since 2004. I am pleased to report those figures to the House.

According to the figures supplied by Hyndburn, it currently has 2,547 empty properties, which is a rise of 101 since 2010. It has 1,160 long-term empty homes, which is a reduction on the previous year—31 homes were brought back into use, for which the borough gets a new homes bonus.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that empty homes can rapidly fall into disrepair. They can attract antisocial behaviour and certainly do not enhance the general environment of the neighbourhood. We need to make better use of them. That is why our housing strategy sets out a strategy for empty homes.

I have already mentioned the new homes bonus, which has now been running for two years. In the first year, the decrease in the number of long-term empty homes was just over 15,000. That produced a reward for local authorities of almost £19 million.

Graham Jones: The Minister makes a good point, and I am not going to decry it. The issue in Hyndburn is that we cannot build and we do not have households. It is understandable how the new homes bonus was £67,000 last year and £53,000 this year—we are now into the second year of the £67,000. It is difficult, and I hope that the Minister will address the problem of how we match fund when there is no money; we have found the last £2.3 million that we had at the bottom of the barrel.

Andrew Stunell: I hope to develop that point in the remainder of my remarks. The new homes bonus year goes from October to September. In the first 12 months, £19 million was paid out in new homes bonus to local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use. I accept that the figure was modest for Hyndburn borough. It had a net decrease of six empty homes and was paid £12,537 as a result. In the second year, which ended this September, Hyndburn had a net decrease of 31 empty homes and will receive an additional £25,460. In total, because the scheme runs for six years, this year it will receive £37, 997. That is the existing mechanism in place.

The housing strategy added a £100 million fund to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing. Housing associations and local authorities can apply

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via the Homes and Communities Agency. The bidding guidance for that was launched by the HCA on 21 November and the deadline for applications is 23 January 2012. The HCA bidding guidance sets out that the ultimate landlord of the property must be a registered provider of social housing. That point was made by the hon. Gentleman, both in his intervention in the debate the other day and again today. It is true that bids must come from a current registered provider or an organisation that intends to apply to become one.

I have some good news for the hon. Gentleman. Local authorities that are not currently registered providers—usually because they were housing authorities but have transferred their stock—can still access the funding. There are two routes by which they can do so, the first of which is by partnering a housing association that is a registered provider, as I set out in a letter that I sent yesterday to the hon. Gentleman, which I hope he has received. The second route is to become a registered provider itself.

Hyndburn borough council is not currently a registered provider. What does it need to do to become one and therefore become eligible to make a bid against the £100 million directly, rather than working through a partner? Under section 114A of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, all that it has to do is to notify the Tenant Services Authority by letter that it intends to become a provider of social housing, owing to a change in circumstances. In this case, the change in circumstances would involve gaining access to the empty homes funding allocated via the HCA. It does not need to fill in the application form on the TSA website or go through the full application process. It will simply be added to the register as a registered provider of social housing within a few days of notification of its intention to do so.

I strongly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he may want to get on the phone straight after the debate to recommend to Hyndburn borough council that it does exactly that. It can then choose either route for accessing the money: either to bid in association with a registered provider, such as the housing association that is managing its housing stock, or to make a separate application to become a registered provider itself. I hope that that gives him the confidence that he needs that this scheme is open and accessible to his local authority.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of other points, including that the housing stock in Hyndburn is not of the right mix or quality. The empty homes strategy will not address that to a serious degree; other elements of the housing strategy will be helpful. We have in place a social and affordable home construction programme: 170,000 social and affordable homes are to be built by 2015. The affordable home model is providing new homes in every housing authority area in England, including Hyndburn. Again, those homes are being delivered through registered providers, and the hon. Gentleman might want to check with the HCA the nature of the bids that have been made and accepted by the HCA for his area.

We are, of course, continuing to fund a substantial decent homes programme to bring social housing stock up to standard. The hon. Gentleman did not specifically set out the case in Hyndburn, but the number of non-decent homes has been halved since the Government came to office 18 months ago. We have a substantial decent

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homes investment programme and have made substantial progress already. I apologise, Ms Osborne, I wish to correct that figure. We have reduced the number of non-decent homes by 26% and are on course to halve it by the end of this Parliament. That involves more than £2 billion in investment, which shows not only earnest of intent but good news for Hyndburn.

The hon. Gentleman appealed to my better nature with regard to how the funding for the additional £50 million is to be set out. The fund was announced on 21 November and is designed to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes in areas of low demand. I put it to him that that money is essentially targeted at areas such as Hyndburn. That is, of course, on top of the money that he referred to, to ensure that the worst excesses of the market renewal project are patched up in the areas of greatest need. The bid submitted by Hyndburn and other local authorities in east Lancashire was accepted in full by the Department.

The funding details for the additional £50 million have not yet been finalised. Further details will be announced shortly. There are key differences between the £100 million fund for social and affordable housing and the new £50 million fund. In particular, it will not be appropriate under the additional programme for all the homes to be brought back into use as affordable housing. The schemes are all backed by cash rewards through the new homes bonus. We have also made it clear that the £50 million fund will take into account the

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need to look at environmental and broader works in association with bringing homes back into use, not simply the refurbishment of the homes themselves.

The hon. Gentleman also drew attention to the plans that we are currently consulting on regarding the introduction of an empty homes premium, to be a strong encouragement to landlords and home owners to bring homes back on to the market or into productive use. That consultation is going on and I take the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to this debate as a response to that consultation in favour of the introduction of the empty homes premium. I would be even happier if he wrote formally to the Department to put that clearly on the record.

Graham Jones: I would be delighted to do that, but in the last few seconds, will the Minister address the fact that we have no match funding?

Andrew Stunell: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but I do not wish to pre-empt anything that may be in the criteria for the £50 million. I will undertake to convey his view and the circumstances in Hyndburn to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government, who is working on that.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).