I took O-level—as it was in those days—history back in 1976, and I took A-level history in 1978. I always remember one teacher saying to me that I would prefer A-level to O-level because it is about not only regurgitating facts, but understanding, interpretation and so on. I still have, in a cupboard at home, several green exercise books containing the notes from my history A-level lessons, which consisted mainly of our teacher—I will not name him unfairly—standing up for the first half of

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the lesson and giving a A.J.P. Taylor-type lecture. The second half of the lesson consisted of our writing down the notes that he dictated into those green exercise books. I sometimes wonder whether that is what the Minister with responsibility for schools has in mind when he talks about the sorts of changes he would like to see in our schools and whether, in his mind’s eye, he sees rows of pupils sitting down at their individual desks in their short trousers writing down whatever it is that the teacher has asked them to copy down off the board—perhaps in the manner in which the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) deprecated in his speech of copying down facts about the kings and queens of England from the board. I accept that that is a parody, but the reason why I love history, and I think the reason why a lot of people love history, is not because of rote learning, but because of the interest in finding out that people in the past were just like us.

The idea that a diet of key facts and an officially sanctioned version of state history will inspire people or serve their interests is fanciful. We need to ensure that we do not go back to the approach taken when I was learning history at A-level in the 1970s. It was not the regurgitation of facts that caught my imagination about history, but the fascination of how people in the past, who were exactly the same as us biologically, acted in the face of the beliefs, culture, values and political power structures of the time, and what that told us about ourselves now. For me, that was the reason to study history.

As has been said, by the time I came to do a PGCE in history in 1984, the subject had changed a lot, which has been reflected in today’s debate. The Oxford history project and various other initiatives that were taken at the time involved talking about the skills needed to be a historian, assessing the reliability of evidence and, even for young pupils, thinking about what being a historian involves—being a kind of detective of the past. All those initiatives had come into the teaching of history, which was for the good. I looked recently at a careers guidance page for the university of Kent. One interview question for potential history teachers asked how they felt about a skills-based approach versus a factual approach to teaching history. That question, which seems to dominate a lot of the debate about the teaching of history in our schools at the moment, is fairly ludicrous, because teaching history cannot be skills versus facts. It has to be about having the skills to be able to learn, understand and interpret the facts. There is a legitimate concern about a loss of the sense of the narrative of history, which has been picked up in several of the contributions today. However, it would be a big mistake to turn history teaching into the dissemination of a patriotic narrative. It is interesting that there was not unanimity between colleagues from all parties on that.

We should not look at history as a way to mould our citizens into compliant people. We need to go beyond a simple glorification of the past, which I felt the hon. Member for Dartford might have suggested. We need students to be able critically to engage with the past and understand how it affects them now, as individuals, and their community and country. In respect of studying history, the emphasis should not be placed on a particular narrative based merely on a political agenda. We should study history to have a sense of identity beyond race

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and religion and understand something of a common culture, so that we learn about the past and ourselves as individuals and members of British society.

Sir Bob Russell: I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman would touch on local history, because clearly national exams will only deal with national history. Where does he think that local history fits into the teaching of history in schools, bearing in mind that we are a diverse country and within a county there will be different local history characteristics?

Kevin Brennan: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, and with what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who is no longer here, said: local history is a way of engaging the interest of pupils and students and enables them to spread out beyond that into a much wider historical context. Like the hon. Member for Colchester, I come from a town—in south Wales—where there are powerful remnants of the Roman empire, including an amphitheatre and a barracks of the second Augustan legion based at the Roman town of Isca, which is now Caerleon. Some 5,000 Roman troops were stationed there in a town that probably does not have a population as large today. It was fascinating for me, as a young person, to think about what it must have been like 2,000 years earlier in the area in which I grew up.

Although the title of the debate is not, “Should we make history compulsory to 16”, I think that is what the hon. Member for Kingswood wanted to focus on in his speech. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on raising that important subject.

One problem with, and paradox of, the Government’s approach to this matter is revealed, in a sense, by what the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Dartford said. The Government say that they are seeking to decentralise education and to have schools that are effectively autonomous and exempted, with choice about what they teach, and if the Government get their way, by the end of this Parliament most schools will be exempt from a national curriculum. Yet they are undertaking a review of the national curriculum and will, presumably, at some point, advance detailed proposals about the national curriculum. Some interim information on that has been provided by the Government. However, by the end of this Parliament, if the Government proceed in the way that they are going at the moment, most schools will not be compelled to teach the national curriculum. If the hon. Gentleman is advocating, on top of that, that more subjects should be made compulsory up to 16—in this case, history—I do not understand the transmission mechanism by which his ambition might be achieved. Exultation is fine, as are nudge-theory approaches, such as the English baccalaureate, but ultimately the hon. Gentleman will not achieve his aim of making history compulsory if it is not possible to implement a transmission mechanism to compel schools to teach that subject.

Chris Skidmore: On transmission—I agree in part with the hon. Gentleman on the curriculum—the point of the curriculum is secondary to assessment, which is increasingly becoming the driver of standards in schools.

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Parents and their children will look at schools offering high-quality examinations and at the standard that is achieved in those examinations. This relates to my point about creating a narrative of British history GCSE, because I believe that that would be the lever by which parents would be able to look at all schools offering history GCSE—just as they can in respect of GCSE maths, English and science, which all schools have to offer. If history joined that cadre and we were able to ensure that all pupils studied the equivalent of a western canon, instead of a GSCE that focuses only on the Third Reich or Stalin’s Russia, we would have one that allowed pupils to study the narrative of British history.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is right. Many parents will do what he described, but not all of them will. That is why education itself is compulsory: it will not happen just through exhortation or because the Government say that they would like it to happen, or even by the Government employing little nudge mechanisms, such as the English baccalaureate.

I am reserving judgment on whether history should be taught compulsorily up to 16, because I, too, have a fairly open mind about that. History has never been compulsory. When I was 14 years of age, we had to do either history or geography, and we could not opt for both because of the tightness of the options in the school that I attended.

Sir Bob Russell indicated assent.

Kevin Brennan: That was common, as I can see from the reaction of the hon. Member for Colchester.

Gareth Johnson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Kevin Brennan: I took a long intervention and do not want to eat into the Minister’s time. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not being able to give way one more time.

The Third Reich came up quite a bit during our debate. I confess that teaching that subject started during the time when I was teaching history. I taught up to about the end of 1994 and even back then the Third Reich was a major component of O-level history, which then became GCSE during the time I was teaching. It seems to have generated itself into a kind of educational industry over that period. My daughter, who is doing A-level history, is studying the Third Reich, having studied it at GCSE as well. I share the frustration of other hon. Members about that. Really, schools should not be doing that. I understand why they do it—teachers gain expertise and resources, and so on, and want to give their pupils the best opportunity to pass exams, which is only natural—but it should not be studied over and over, as hon. Members have described.

I shall conclude, because I want to give the Minister an opportunity to respond. We have had an interesting debate with some excellent contributions. First, I am interested to hear the Minister set out his plans and say whether he has any intention of making teaching history compulsory up to 16. If that is not his intention, perhaps he will make it clear. Secondly, what is the transmission mechanism by which he is going to get the national curriculum taught if most schools are exempt from it?

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12.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing this debate, which has been of high quality throughout. All contributions to it were valuable. My hon. Friend is a firm supporter of recognising the importance of history in schools and has played an active role in highlighting some key issues relating to this subject, including in his excellent recent report, which paints a worrying picture of the decline of history in our schools.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s view that teaching history should form a key part of a child’s education. As young people develop, taking on the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, they need a good understanding and appreciation of how and why our systems of democracy and justice were developed and established. They also need to understand the aspirations and values that motivated our predecessors to create the society in which we live today.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who made an excellent, gripping contribution to this debate, that history is a body of knowledge that allows us to understand where we are. The study of history is also an important academic discipline in primary schools and at key stages 3 and 4 at secondary school. As well as providing knowledge, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) set out in interventions, it helps to develop pupils’ skills at reading, précising text and essay writing, which cannot just be left to the English curriculum in a school. It is about developing the skills of scholarship, which are important in a school career.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood has written a number of excellent history books, including studies of Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. He would therefore have been as shocked as me to find that, in a survey of history undergraduates entering a Russell group university, only one in three knew who the monarch was during the armada. In the same survey, almost 90% of the undergraduates could not name a single British Prime Minister from the 19th century. Professor Matthews, who conducted the survey, said that the students were

“studying at one of the Russell group of universities, on courses where the entry requirement is an A and two Bs at A level, which probably places them in the top 15% of their generation in terms of educational qualifications. This implies that, all things being equal, 85% of my undergraduates’ age group know even less than they do. In other words, we are looking at a whole generation that knows almost nothing about the history of their (or anyone else’s) country.”

As my hon. Friend highlighted in his report, the decline in the number of pupils taking history GCSE in this country is a matter of concern. In 1995, more than 223,000 pupils, representing nearly 40% of pupils, were taking history GCSE. By 2010, this figure had dropped by more than 25,000, so it is now only 31% of pupils, or just less than a third, taking the subject. If we scrutinise that decline further, as my hon. Friend has, we see a worrying trend around the clear divisions in GCSE take-up between different types of school and pupil background and in whether they are eligible for free school meals. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) said, a potential class divide is being created in this country with the subjects that are being studied.

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For example, nearly 20% more pupils in the independent sector study history than pupils in maintained schools. My hon. Friend’s report also highlighted the links to deprivation reflected in the take-up of history at GCSE. For example, in 2010 only 25% of black pupils took history GCSE compared with 31% of white pupils; only 18% of pupils eligible for free school meals studied the subject at GCSE level, which is 13% less than the percentage take-up for pupils overall, at 31%. The decline in the study of history has also been reflected in further and higher education, with the proportion of students opting for A-level history remaining static for a number of years. Enrolments in history at university are well below the average compared with other subjects.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the current history curriculum does not give pupils a grasp of the narrative of the past. Last year’s Ofsted survey of history teaching in schools, to which he referred, supports that view. It found that in primary schools, although pupils generally had good knowledge of particular topics and episodes in history, chronological understanding and the ability to make links across the knowledge gained were significantly weaker. It is also clear that many schools are spending less time teaching history. In the recent Historical Association survey of secondary school history teachers, lack of teaching time was the most frequently cited issue that teachers raised about key stage 3, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, who I am glad to see is back in the Chamber having met his constituent, mentioned in his excellent contribution. Part of the problem is that GCSE history is too narrowly focused, with exam choices clustering around certain topics such as the American west 1840 to 1895 or the Third Reich, which has been referred to by many hon. Members. Exams have a significant influence over what is taught, so it is no surprise that pupils have huge gaps in their knowledge of our national story and a disconnected sense of narrative.

There are also issues with teacher training. Last year’s Ofsted report also cited that in most of the primary schools visited, there was not enough subject-specific expertise or professional development to help teachers to be clearer about the standards expected in the subject. I hope that we agree that it is fundamental that a greater emphasis is needed on knowledge and content in the current school curriculum, which is why we have launched a review of the national curriculum.

John Pugh: The Minister has mostly outlined the decline in history as taught in all sorts of schools. Will he touch on the causal factors? He has not explained what appears to be an appreciable decline, as documented by the hon. Member for Kingswood.

Mr Gibb: There are all kinds of reasons why the decline has happened. It could be, for example, because of the move to a more skills-based approach. History might be regarded as a tougher subject in which to achieve the grades that a school feels that it needs to achieve to maintain or increase its position in the school league tables. We have had a concern for a number of years about the move to what are called softer subjects in order to boost league table positions, and history could well have been a victim of that process.

The new national curriculum will be based on a body of essential knowledge that children should be expected

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to acquire in key subjects during the course of their school career. It will embody for all children their cultural and scientific inheritance, and it will enhance their understanding of the world around them and expose them to the best that has been thought and written. We are engaging with a wide range of academics, teachers and other interested parties to ensure that the new national curriculum compares favourably with those of the highest performing countries in the world.

Sir Bob Russell: As yet there has been no reference to the importance of local history being taught in our schools. How will that fit in, when schools are clearly being directed towards history that fits the exams?

Mr Gibb: Those are precisely the issues for consideration by the national curriculum review.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood would like history to be compulsory to 16, which is one of the things that the national curriculum review will consider. As I said at the outset, it is clear that some subjects, such as history, which all pupils should have a good grasp of, have been less popular choices at GCSE. The Government therefore want to encourage more children to take up history beyond the age of 14, particularly among disadvantaged pupils and certain ethnic groups. That is why we introduced the English baccalaureate, which will recognise the work of pupils who achieve an A* to C in maths, English, two sciences, a language and either history or geography, to encourage more widespread take-up of those core of subjects, which provide a sound basis for academic progress.

The English baccalaureate has already had a significant impact on the take-up of history: according to a NatCen survey of nearly 700 schools, 39% of pupils sitting GCSEs in 2013 in the schools responding will be taking history GCSE, up eight percentage points and back to the 1995 level of history up-take. There are clear benefits to pupils in taking the subjects combined in the E-bac. Pupils who have achieved that combination of subjects have proved more likely to progress to A-level than those with similar attainment in different subjects in the

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past. They have also attempted a greater number of A-levels and achieved better results. We are also committed to restoring confidence in GCSEs as rigorous and valued qualifications. We will reform GCSEs to ensure that they are more keenly focused on essential knowledge in those key subjects, and with exams at the end of the course to support good teaching and in-depth study.

To refer to the questions of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), what we want to achieve from the national curriculum review is a curriculum that is so good that the academies will want to adopt it, albeit not being compulsory. The national curriculum also does feed in to statutory testing, in maths and English at the end of key stage 2 and the GCSE specifications.

Kevin Brennan: Is the Minister considering writing into funding agreements the requirement that academy schools should teach the national curriculum?

Mr Gibb: No, that would obviate some of the freedoms and the whole essence of academy schools. The funding agreements require the teaching of maths, science and English to 16, thus making them compulsory, but the application of the national curriculum is not compulsory for academies, although it feeds into the specification that determines what is tested and assessed through the GCSE system. In that sense, there is an imperative for schools to teach those subjects.

The essence of the national curriculum review is to produce a curriculum that is on a par with the best in the world, based on evidence of what is taught in those jurisdictions that have the best education systems and against whom graduates from this country’s schools will be competing for jobs in the future. The national curriculum, which will be published and available to parents, will be of such a quality that it will become the norm and the benchmark against which parents will judge the quality of their schools.

Finally, I want to touch on the part that teachers play in our school systems as far as history is concerned.

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. We now come to the next debate.

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Millennium Development Goals

12.30 pm

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I secured this debate because I am interested in finding out: what the Government are doing to help galvanise international action to secure a global development agreement for 2015 onwards; what they are doing to engage European Governments, not least through the upcoming EU budget negotiations; and their view of the process proposals and goal ideas in circulation at the moment.

I understand that a task team of senior technical experts from the United Nations Development Programme and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs have begun preparing work on the UN’s vision and road map for post-2015. Similarly, I understand that the UN Secretary-General is expected to appoint a high-level panel of eminent people to advise on the post-2015 framework, so the agenda is likely to gather momentum in New York. Next year, Britain will chair the G8. With the UN millennium review summit due in September 2013, which is arguably the key moment for agreeing a post millennium development goals agreement, UK Ministers will bear a heavy responsibility for progress—or a lack of progress—on achieving a post-MDGs accord. Thus far—I say this gently—there has been little sign from the Government of serious political leadership or engagement on the issue.

As the Government’s policies are putting a considerable squeeze on family incomes in the UK, and as Ministers are so obviously out of touch with the consequences, a debate about poverty in poor countries—and particularly about whether new targets for tackling poverty overseas are required—will seem to some people to be misplaced. However, tackling poverty in the world’s poorest countries is surely not just morally right, but fundamental to Britain’s long-term interests. We live in an interdependent world, and jobs in the UK, the level and types of disease in Britain, and migration patterns to the UK are all affected by what happens to the world’s poorest people. Indeed, the rise of the Taliban and their decision to shelter al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is a powerful example of what can happen when progress in tackling poverty is going in the wrong direction, when states are fragile, and when those for whom poverty is an irrelevance are what passes for being in charge.

The millennium development goals have been remarkably successful in galvanising political leaders, civil society organisations, parts of the private sector, trade unions and donors in the pursuit of tackling poverty. They were launched back in 2000 and are due to be achieved by 2015, and it is likely that the headline goal of halving extreme poverty will be achieved. There has been substantial progress in many countries towards achieving many of the individual goals.

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that a key to those goals is education? It is difficult for young people in developing countries to get an education. It is more difficult for a girl, and almost impossible for disabled people. We must get to grips with the issue.

Mr Thomas: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope that the Minister will take advantage of his intervention to bring the House up to date with what

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the Government are doing to drive progress towards meeting the education millennium development goals.

Some countries have achieved all the millennium development goal targets, and others will have made significant progress by 2015. Clearly, not all countries will achieve all the goals, and some of the poorest—usually but not exclusively those that are, or have been, affected by conflict—are a long way from achieving them. Significant shortfalls remain in the delivery of international commitments to support the achievement of the goals. However, a joint report by the Overseas Development Institute and the Millennium Campaign on progress on the MDGs concluded that although it is not uniform across all countries,

“the rate of progress in reducing poverty and in increasing access to basic health, education, water, and other essential services is unparalleled in many countries’ histories.”

Britain undoubtedly played a significant role in galvanising the progress made towards meeting the MDGs through its ministerial support for, and engagement in, the process that saw the MDGs adopted. It maintained pressure for progress up to and beyond the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles, and in the UN General Assembly discussions in 2008 and 2009. That support has continued in more recent years, and I acknowledge the role that the Minister and his colleagues have played while in office.

Britain played a crucial role in keeping European aid directed at achievement of the millennium development goals, with the European development framework clearly targeted at the needs of the poorest.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. In the spirit of co-operation that he has shown in his work with me on my private Member’s Bill, does he agree that four years is a very short time in international politics, and that it is crucial that the UK starts to lead the debate on the formation of post-2015 goals for global development, and particularly on putting more emphasis on millennium development goal 8?

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. That is a long intervention. Does the hon. Gentleman have a question?

Chris White: Does the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) agree that particular attention should be paid to goal 8, which is specifically about creating better governance so that we maximise the impact of aid spending and ensure that the gains that we make are not undermined by poor planning and corruption?

Mr Thomas: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Governance is crucial, and I believe strongly that it needs to be part of a post-MDGs framework. The key question for this debate is what comes after the millennium development goals, from 2015 onwards. Where do Ministers stand on that agenda? Do they support the UN Secretary-General’s ambition for a new generation of sustainable development goals, and if they do, what action are they taking to make such an agenda happen?

The Minister will be cautious, understandably, about saying today what should be included among a new set of international goals, but Ministers could help to galvanise the process of agreeing an accord by supporting

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and encouraging international debate on what a post-MDGs agenda might look like. To date, we have heard remarkably little from the Secretary of State on this issue. Has a policy team of civil servants been set up within the Department to corral ideas, and to engage with those in civil society, the UN and other national Governments, particularly in Europe, to drive the UK’s involvement in the preparation of such an agenda?

Elsewhere in the UK, among the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, the Overseas Development Institute, the Institute for Development Studies, Christian Aid, and the Beyond 2015 coalition of non-governmental organisations, there has been real interest in the question. Indeed, the Beyond 2015 coalition has published an interesting and thoughtful set of essential must-haves for a new global development framework, focusing on how a process might work and stressing the importance of the MDGs review summit next year, and the Rio plus 20 process in June this year. That interest in UK civil society is mirrored by a growing interest throughout civil society in developing countries.

Both CAFOD and the excellent Overseas Development Institute have noted how significant the “how” will be in reaching an agreement, and the importance of “what”—that is, what such an agreement should contain. I would welcome hearing how the Minister thinks an agreement could be reached, and what he plans to do to assist.

Civil society interest is clearly key in framing debate, and in involving those in developing countries and developed countries, but Governments must reach agreement. Vital to that is active dialogue within Government, between Governments and their civil society groups and, crucially, at intergovernmental level. That is where the British Government could do more. Although in recent years the G20 has become more prominent, discussions between G8 leaders still matter hugely. Britain will chair the G8 next year in the run-up to the review summit, and it could put a post-MDGs agreement at the centre of the debate between the richest nations in the world.

International negotiations require considerable time and effort, and they make progress only when leaders and national politicians are engaged. A G8-driven agenda to replace MDGs is likely to stir up scepticism and concern, so any agreement must be—and I believe will be—UN-led. It would, however, be a mistake to think that an agreement will be reached without the richest nations on board. As a result of its record and its forthcoming role, Britain is uniquely placed in the G8 to support the UN more visibly in working towards a post-MDGs accord.

There have been a series of initiatives to consider the post-2015 framework. Early suggestions included the roll-over of existing MDGs to 2020 or 2025, or an “MDG plus” agreement that could take some existing core goals in education, health or nutrition, and add three or four new, locally defined, goals. The so-called one world approach would have new goals based on issues such as resilience and climate change. More recent proposals include a gross national happiness index, such as that currently used by Bhutan, for measuring national progress; the UN General Assembly has expressed qualified interest in that. Measuring happiness has begun to be of interest in the UK and in France, and in a series

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of state governments in the US. A Sri Lankan economist has proposed a series of consumption goals to target under-consumption by the poorest countries and over-consumption in richer countries. The Colombian Government have proposed a series of sustainable development goals that I understand also have the support of Brazil. Those are due to be discussed at the forthcoming Rio plus 20 meeting in June, and focus on addressing global climate change and development. I would be interested to know what the Minister thinks about those ideas.

The Overseas Development Institute has suggested three principles for a new post-MDGs agreement. First, the principle of universality and inclusiveness goes with the grain of existing anti-poverty measures in developing countries such as Mexico, Kenya or Sierra Leone that deal with social protection, education and health care. Such measures create minimum standards of provision that are now within range of many more developing countries than was the case when the MDGs were originally conceived.

The ODI’s second principle is that of building resilience and reducing vulnerability. That could provide a focus for the use of renewed G8 and G20 development interest in growth and infrastructure to help tackle inequality and address issues such as capital flight and tax avoidance, as well as other critical environmental issues such as climate change, which reduce a community’s resilience and increase vulnerability. Finally, the ODI suggests a principle of building national economies—a key concern of Governments in developing countries, and one that increasingly reflects debate in many developed countries about what should be the priorities for overseas aid.

Perhaps the most interesting specific proposals come from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They have proposed 12 new goals that seek to build on existing MDGs while reflecting the changed international context, and they include new methods for devising targets and accounting for progress. As well as arguing for the inclusion of further indicators to improve the living standards of the poor, reduce diseases, eradicate hunger and ensure access to safe water supplies, they also suggest new indicators concerning access to and quality of education—that point will be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham). They urge a new focus on the reduction of violence, particularly against women and children, the promotion of gender equality, and better access to basic infrastructure, such as energy, information and financial services. They also support indicators of environmental sustainability, access to justice, trade rules and the transparency of Government budgets—that will be of interest to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White).

At the moment, that list contains too many suggestions to achieve the simplicity that has helped to drive the continuing appeal of the MDGs, and there is perhaps not enough focus on job creation and growth. In my view, however, the proposals merit further serious debate and attention, and in that spirit, I commend them to the House.

Time is ticking, and a new post-MDGs agreement would be a huge prize, with regard to our efforts to tackle global poverty and improve sustainability. Britain

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could—and I believe should—once again occupy a pivotal place in the debates, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plans to achieve that goal.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) for securing this debate on an important topic. Securing global agreement on a framework that updates the millennium development goals is a major priority for the coalition Government and the Secretary of State for International Development. We are now in 2012, and I welcome the chance to begin talking more openly about the key leadership role that the UK is playing—and will continue to play—on that agenda. Just as MDGs are at the heart of Government development policy, a successor framework should be central to all that we do, which means shaping it to ensure that any future global agreement reflects what we know about achieving results in the fight against global poverty. As one of the leading countries on development issues and with the legitimacy that comes from the coalition Government’s commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development from 2013, the UK will play a leading role.

The MDGs set a benchmark for global development policy, and over the past decade they have helped to galvanise efforts to improve the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people. The coalition has augmented and built on the previous Government’s commitment to put the achievement of MDGs at the centre of the UK’s development efforts.

Tony Cunningham: We have spoken a lot about international dialogue and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) mentioned the G8 and G20. Will the Minister touch on our relationship with Europe and the European Union? Europe has a key role to play and the dialogue between the UK and the European Union will be crucially important.

Mr O'Brien: I do not plan to talk about Europe on the basis that the hon. Member for Harrow West—quite rightly—focused the debate on the UN. This is an international issue. There will, of course, be continuing discussions vis-à-vis Europe, but the primary focus must be on the UN and driven by the broad international community, not least because of the focus on moving to the post-MDG world and the emerging powers and other bodies that can be brought into a greater international political consensus to help in the battle against poverty.

The coalition is making every effort to accelerate progress with the current set of eight MDGs and particularly with those most off track. The UK’s aid effort has been designed, particularly over the past 18 months, to deliver the following key results by 2015, the first of which is to secure schooling for 11 million children—more than we educate in the UK but at 2.5% of the cost. That aim is particularly important for girls, as noted by the hon. Member for Workington. Other aims include vaccinating more children against preventable diseases than there are people in the whole of England; providing access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation to more people than live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; saving the lives of 50,000 women in pregnancy and childbirth; stopping 250,000 newborn babies from dying needlessly; and helping 10 million more women get access to modern family planning.

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Tony Cunningham rose

Mr O'Brien: I will not give way, as I want to make some progress and there is a lot to get through.

Tremendous progress with MDGs has been made globally. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the USA’s Raj Shah showed in the MDG countdown event at the UN last September, countries such as Brazil, Zambia, Peru and Nepal have demonstrated how political commitment, good policies and targeted resources can make a real difference to the lives of the poorest people.

Over the next four years, we will continue to showcase and celebrate the successes that have been achieved. Of course, that is very important in building and maintaining broad public confidence and consent. However, in 2015, millions of people around the world will still be living in conditions of extreme poverty. It is important that we do not lose the momentum created by the MDGs: 2015 will be the moment to update the framework, building on the success of the current one, so that it can reflect the new challenges and opportunities that we face in a world that has changed dramatically since 2000. The process of building global consensus on that updated framework is starting now.

The MDGs have played an important role in generating global political consensus on development and worked well as a communication and advocacy tool, both with the UK public and internationally. The framework, with its tightly focused set of targets and indicators, has also helped to strengthen the availability of data in developing countries and thereby made it easier to put a greater focus on results. However, the MDG framework has had its limitations.

A number of critical themes and issues were not included—the importance of economic growth or conflict and fragility, for instance. There are concerns that in some cases the poorest and most vulnerable have been neglected and not even explicitly referred to or focused on. An example is people with disabilities—another point mentioned by the hon. Member for Workington. There are concerns that the plight of the poorest and most vulnerable has often been masked by the average success rates in countries where progress has been very uneven.

Ownership of the MDGs at country level has been patchy and has not always been closely linked to a country’s own plans and objectives. In some cases, the framework has also created perverse incentives. For example, it has incentivised a focus on measuring school attendance, rather than the quality of education or retention of students in education. It has also made it more difficult to deal with critical problems that are best tackled multi-sectorally.

An updated framework will need to deal with the weaknesses, while capitalising on the strengths of the current MDGs, ensuring that we retain the simplicity of the current goals, intensifying the political imperative to focus on poverty reduction and building on the progress achieved so far. An updated framework needs to reflect the new global context. Of course, the world has changed since the original MDGs were created: it is no longer as easy to divide the world into countries that we would classify as either developed or developing. India alone

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has more poor people than all of sub-Saharan Africa, but India faces rich-world and poor-world problems at the same time.

An updated framework will need to resonate with the Governments and citizens of emerging powers such as India, as well as dealing with the needs of low-income countries. Moreover, in parts of the world, aid is likely to become a much smaller share of external financing for development in the future. As aid dependence falls in certain countries, a development framework that focuses mainly on targeting aid will be less relevant.

The principles for an updated framework are fourfold, so people are not being quite as cautious as the hon. Member for Harrow West feared. Four principles seem to be emerging from the discussions about post-MDGs. The Secretary of State is considering whether those principles would help to take forward the revision of the framework. I can confirm that we have already set up a team of officials in the Department for International Development’s policy division. That involves the most senior officials. Ministers are already having regular discussions with international counterparts on the post-MDG question.

The first principle is that the process to agree an updated framework needs to involve new powers and engage citizens, especially those who are most vulnerable and marginalised. Last time, the OECD-led process meant that ownership at country level was weaker than it should have been.

Secondly, there is a need to retain a simple set of global goals, but to enable greater ownership and accountability at national level, allowing nationally defined indicators and targets. National targets should still link into a global agenda that enables us to get a sense of overall progress.

To pick up one of the ODI points referred to, the third principle is universality. There is a strong view that, after 2015, we will need goals that resonate with the aspirations and challenges of citizens in emerging powers and OECD countries, as well as those in poor countries. However, there is also the view that we need to seek universal outcomes to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable are not neglected and, indeed, that inclusiveness applies.

Fourthly, an updated framework must incentivise action beyond aid. Goals should recognise that we are talking not only about aid transfers, but about all financial flows, including domestic public and private revenues—a framework that incentivises better resource allocation and helps to measure results. That is vital to the points on governance and anti-corruption measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) rightfully highlighted. It is a useful point to make that the international Open Government Partnership, which the UK is chairing with Brazil, will provide opportunities to build alliances to ensure that governance and transparency are incentivised as part of the successor framework to the MDGs.

The discussions about what should happen to the MDGs after 2015 are getting going on the international stage. We are in the early stages of the process, but the coalition Government are already actively engaging with old and new partners to shape the debate. Thanks

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to the all-party consensus on the 0.7% and the UK’s broader credibility and status on development issues, we have the potential to play a critical leadership role on this agenda internationally.

The Secretary of State has spoken to the UN Secretary-General, indicating our readiness to continue to play a leadership role. The Rio plus 20 sustainable development conference in June will provide a key occasion for the UK to further the debate. We are seeking opportunities on every occasion to develop consensus on a post-MDG framework. We are doing that with others in the UN and the G8, with other Governments, with foundations and with the private sector.

Mr Thomas: I specifically asked the Minister what discussions he has had with colleagues in Europe. Let me ask him even more specifically whether European International Development Ministers, at the regular formal meetings that take place, have discussed the post-MDGs summit and whether a British Minister from the Department for International Development will go to Rio plus 20. One would expect someone from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to go, but surely a Minister from DFID should attend as well.

Mr O’Brien: Of course, discussions have been happening both at the formal level and in the informal like-minded group—the hon. Gentleman will be aware that those are also very important meetings. They are broad discussions, but in relation to establishing the principles for the post-MDG framework, the primary focus has been on the more international, UN-driven bodies. Of course, he is right to identify—to some degree, this answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Workington—that discussions are going on around Europe, but as yet it has not become a critical focus. It is something that we are trying to lead and push on, as we have those various meetings.

Particularly with regard to the UN, it is important to recognise that the discussions are held with other bilaterals, groups of countries and key Governments such as Brazil to ensure that the interest in the sustainable development goals, to which the hon. Member for Harrow West referred, and the post-MDG agenda are brought together. That is a cross-Government agenda involving DFID, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given that cross-Government basis, the hon. Gentleman is quite right: of course there will be ministerial attendance at Rio. I am not in a position at the moment to confirm which of the Ministers will attend—that would be premature—but I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is being given the very high importance that he would expect.

We hope that there will be broader engagement by all interested parties, the UK public, the private sector and others to help us to define the agenda for international development for the next generation, not least because the MDGs were very useful in setting not just the advocacy but the aspirational drivers that supported it politically.

The four principles that I articulated, which are the key to ensuring that the post-MDGs are framed in the correct way, are the ones that the Secretary of State in particular and personally is taking forward. Those principles are that the updated framework on development needs

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to be legitimate, that it needs to balance better the relationship between the global and the national, that there needs to be universality and inclusiveness and that the updated framework must incentivise action that will be owned at country level.

I am thinking about the example that the hon. Member for Workington gave about education. Looking at education in relation to the post-MDGs, we will want to build on the dramatic progress on enrolment, but also to shift the focus on to incentivising learning outcomes. This is not just about retention and particularly getting girls into school and enabling them to sustain their education to secondary level, but about ensuring the quality of education and the attendance of the teachers and ensuring that that is sustained throughout. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Workington would like to make a short intervention now; there is about two seconds to go.

Tony Cunningham: I wanted the Minister to deal with the issue of disabled children; that was all.

Mr O’Brien: I covered the disablement point, which was one of the few notable absences in the original drafting of the MDGs. I hope that that can be rectified in the post-MDG framework, with a focus on the most vulnerable and the poorest. All of us who have travelled around various countries in the poorest parts of the world will know that one of the hidden but great concerns relates to the access to services that disabled children have.

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School Transport

1 pm

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to lead today’s debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. After my question to the Minister in November on school transport, I am sure that he was not entirely surprised to see my name associated with the topic today, and I am pleased that he is here to answer this afternoon’s debate.

If all politics is local, nowhere does that seem to be more true than on the vexed issue of home-to-school transport. My interest in school transport policy arises from the decision of Leicestershire county council on the provision of a bus service to take pupils from the village of Sileby to Humphrey Perkins school in Barrow upon Soar in my constituency. A smaller number of families in Mountsorrel are also affected, but I will particularly focus on Sileby today. The objection in my case arises from the council’s view that the proposed walking route from Sileby to Barrow is safe and the strongly held view of almost everyone else that it is not.

Before I dwell on local matters, I feel duty bound to explore why the Minister and the Department for Education should have an interest in the subject despite the fact that the assessment of walking routes and decisions about the provision of home-to-school transport and on appeals made by affected families are all matters for local authorities. I firmly believe in localism and that local authorities and elected local members should make decisions about school transport routes—as long as they are made fairly and transparently.

National legislation, namely the Education Act 1996, as amended, governs the duties and powers of local authorities in England to provide home-to-school transport. In addition, case law on school transport and “Home to School Travel and Transport Guidance”, published by the then Department for Education and Skills in 2007, contains detailed guidance on the provision of school transport. In March 2011, the Department for Education commissioned a review of efficiency and practice in the procurement, planning and provision of school transport across England. Section 509 of the 1996 Act states:

“A local education authority shall make such arrangements for the provision of transport and otherwise as they consider necessary, or as the Secretary of State may direct, for the purpose of facilitating the attendance of persons not of sixth form age receiving education…at schools”.

The 1986 case of Rogers v. Essex County Council was one of the most significant brought in recent years on available walking routes. In its ruling, the House of Lords stated that for a route to be available within the meaning of the 1996 Act, it must be a route

“along which a child accompanied as necessary can walk and walk with reasonable safety to school”.

A route does not fail to qualify as “available” because of dangers that would arise if the child remained unaccompanied, but the Court also held that a route is available even if the child would need to be accompanied along the route, as long as it is reasonably practicable for the child to be accompanied. Local education authorities can therefore take into account parents’ capacity to accompany their child. Following that judgment, the law was changed so that in considering whether local education authority is required to make arrangements

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in relation to a particular pupil, it shall have regard to, among other things, the age of the pupil and the nature of the route or alternative routes that they could reasonably be expected to take.

Hon. Members must forgive me, because I am afraid that I am showing my background as a lawyer, but the history is helpful. In George v. Devon county council 1988, the High Court took the view that

“For an ordinary child whose home is within walking distance, but who applies under”

the relevant section

“a local education authority should consider: the age of the child and the nature of the route which he could reasonably be expected to take; the question should the child be accompanied on the route or alternative routes? If the answer is ‘no’, then normally there”


“no case for free transport. If the answer is ‘yes’, then”

the next question is

“whether the nature of the route or alternative routes is dangerous for the child if accompanied. If the answer is ‘yes’, then normally there would be a case for free transport. If the answer is ‘no’, then: the question”


“whether it is reasonably practicable for the child to be accompanied. If the answer is ‘no’, then normally there would be a case for free transport.”

Consequently, local education authorities must consider section 509, together with the various legal rulings, in defining their policies on the provision of school transport and the eligibility of individual pupils for free transport. Pupils, parents and families are encouraged to turn to the Directgov website for views on national policy. It states on its home-to-school transport page that

“Safe walking routes are those which usually include road crossings, good lighting and well maintained pavements and footpaths. LAs are required to assess the suitability of walking routes.”

Having set out the national policy background, I will turn to my local issue. Leicestershire county council stated its view on the Directgov approach in a letter to me dated 20 July 2011 from the assistant director of transport:

“‘Safe’ is a very absolute term and it is not possible to guarantee that anything is absolutely safe, so it is an unreasonable stipulation. The law requires that a walking route be ‘available’ for a child accompanied as necessary by a responsible adult and it is this criterion that we apply.”

As I have mentioned, however, a route also has to be reasonably safe, and therefore the dangers of a particular route should be taken into account.

In February 2011, a Leicestershire county council scrutiny review panel reported to the council’s cabinet on the council’s home-to-school transport policy. The panel was asked to consider, first, how available walking routes are assessed and the appropriateness of the current method of assessment, and, secondly, what are known in Leicestershire as “historic exceptions” and whether such services are still justified. Historic exceptions are bus services provided free to children despite the route length being under the statutory distance and despite a route having subsequently been assessed as available for children to walk. Children using services on those historic

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exception routes will continue to receive free transport until September 2012. The Sileby to Barrow route is not an historic exception.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for securing the debate on school transport, which is also a major issue in my constituency. Does she agree that under current guidelines common sense sometimes appears to go out the window? In my constituency, there have been instances of older children retaining free bus passes, while younger children in the same household are asked to walk to school. Does she appreciate how frustrating it can be when a household is judged to be outside the three-mile limit and gets free bus travel, but the next-door neighbour is judged to be within the limit and their children are asked to walk to school? Surely we need discretion and common sense in such cases.

Nicky Morgan: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Common sense has been lost as part of the debate and in reviewing the routes. I have exactly the same situation in Mountsorrel, where apparently older children already at the Humphrey Perkins school will continue to receive free bus passes and younger children starting at the school will not.

In undertaking the review, the scrutiny review panel was asked to have regard to the financial, environmental and health implications of any proposed changes to existing policies in the context of the legal obligations placed on the county council. The overall review was conducted as part of the council’s medium-term financial strategy. The panel did not consider the Sileby to Barrow route and nobody with an interest in the route, such as the headmaster, the families or local councillors, was asked to give evidence to the panel. In reaching its conclusions, the panel decided that the width of a footpath and the lighting of a route did not need to be considered when a route is assessed, which is where common sense has gone out the window.

In May 2011, parents of pupils in Sileby and Mountsorrel due to start at Humphrey Perkins school in September 2011 were written to and told that free school transport would be available for their child. Imagine their surprise, and the surprise of the head teacher, who also knew nothing about this, when in late June last year they and the families of children already receiving free transport, because the route was deemed to be unavailable, received a letter saying that that would no longer be the case and that because they lived less than three miles from the school and there would now be an available walking route, they would not be eligible for free transport and instead would have to pay for a school bus service. It was at that point that a campaign group was formed and I was made aware of the problems that the 53 parents in Sileby face.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. We have many problems in Dorset, and I want briefly to share some similar stories. I consider age to be a vital factor, in so far as a 13-year-old would not wish to be accompanied, so it is not a matter of the availability of somebody to accompany them. A rural lane with fast traffic is incredibly unsafe. I hope that she will expand on the point that notifying parents at the last possible

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moment or halfway through a sixth-form course, given that a choice will have been based on previous information, is unacceptable.

Nicky Morgan: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and congratulate her on the early-day motion on the topic, which has been signed by hon. Members from across the House. She is right that the safety of routes has not been considered and another frustrating point is the manner in which notifications have been sent out.

As I have said, a campaign group was formed in Sileby. To cut a long story short, the council admitted shortly afterwards that insufficient notice of the change had been given. The decision to withdraw transport was postponed for a term, and I was promised that a new assessment of the route would be conducted once the clocks had gone back in the autumn.

Why do we all consider the route to be dangerous? My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has mentioned some of the dangers of such routes, but much of the Sileby to Barrow route has a footpath on only one side of the road, so that children—and adults—returning from school have their back to oncoming traffic. The footpath is narrow and there are several pinch points where everyone has to walk in single file—we are talking about 11-year-old children not messing about on the way to and from school. The speed limit along the road is 40 mph, and it is regularly exceeded. There are industrial estates, a deep ditch and a conveyor belt for a nearby quarry. The road is also so narrow at points that if two large vehicles pass each other the wing mirrors overhang into the footpath at head height.

Alas, the promise to wait for the next assessment to be conducted after British summer time ended and before any further decisions were taken was not fulfilled, and parents received further letters in October to say that as the necessary cutting back of vegetation had now happened along the walking route the free bus service would no longer be offered to them from this month. Meanwhile, despite my urging the county council to work with the school to examine alternative services, no contact was made with the headmaster between July and late October 2011. The council has since then had contact with the school about an alternative service, but that would be at almost double the cost of the service now procured by the headmaster. The council has also indicated that, when the school becomes an academy, home-to-school transport will no longer be its concern. I hope that the Minister can address that point. On a practical level, today, on the second day of term, the service for children living less than three miles from the school has been withdrawn, and some will now be using the train to get from Sileby to Barrow. I expect that others will be driven to school, which will increase congestion, and some will walk that route.

The walking route that some children will have to use remains, in my opinion, highly dangerous and therefore not “available” as the legislation requires, because even an accompanied child cannot walk along it with reasonable safety. The real question for us, as a national legislature, is whether the national legislation and guidance reflects the realities of modern Britain, or whether the safety of our children is at risk, when a route can be deemed to be available when it is clearly unsafe.

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Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree, having touched on the safety of children going to school, that parents of children with special educational needs, in particular, are deeply worried? A case of mine concerns Melanie Green, whose 7-year-old son Aaron Green is given no support in going to school. I would welcome it if the Minister were to look at that case. In modern Britain, with our children’s changing needs, the area in question is one that must be considered thoroughly. Local authorities in particular must pay more attention to it.

Nicky Morgan: I entirely agree. I am sure that the Minister has heard and will hear representations about the particular case that my hon. Friend has mentioned. She is right about the need to return to a common-sense approach and consider the needs of individual families, whether it is the parents or pupils who are affected. There are parents with disabilities who cannot accompany their children to school, because they just do not have the physical ability to do so, yet somehow they are deemed to be able to accompany their children. This is a huge issue for many hon. Members, across the House, and I am glad to have the opportunity to allow them to express their frustrations and views today.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that at the heart of the question is the issue of one size not fitting all, and legislation not working in rural areas in the same way that it does in urban ones? In cities, many of us will have seen happy gangs of schoolchildren walking and cycling safely to school in a morning. In rural areas, increasingly both members of couples are working, and at rush hour families who commute are affected by the cost of fuel and the higher speed of traffic. There is much more traffic on rural roads, and many people in mid-Norfolk live more than two or three miles from a local school. School rush hour in rural areas is a real problem. Norfolk now provides 24,000 free journeys a day, which has been described as the tip of the iceberg. That is a problem across rural areas, and I urge the Minister to see whether the criteria can be reviewed to take account of the important change that has taken place in the past 40 years.

Nicky Morgan: My hon. Friend is right. He is concerned for parents, I am sure, across the country, but rural areas are particularly badly hit. My constituency example involves two villages and the route between them, which is rural and unlit. I shall discuss working hours as well, and I am sure that the Minister has taken my hon. Friend’s comments on board.

As I mentioned at the start of the debate, the Leicestershire county council test is that

“a route is available if it is a route which a child, accompanied as necessary, can walk with reasonable safety to school.”

We have talked about the reasonable safety point, and I will not labour it, in view of the time, but I want to deal with the question of the child being accompanied. To assume that children will be accompanied is surely to ignore the reality of much of family life— many parents now work—and the way in which the school day interacts with the working day. To walk three or more miles to a school will take an adult at least 45 minutes. When I walked the Sileby to Barrow route with the head teacher, the local PCSO, a parent, the leader of the county

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council and local councillors, it took us more than an hour, and we had no children with us. The policy therefore assumes that the relevant adult has between three and four hours spare walking time a day to accompany the child. Clearly that is totally unachievable.

My example in Leicestershire is not an isolated one. The Campaign for Better Transport has revealed that 38% of councils are reviewing or cutting transport to faith schools, and 46% are reviewing or cutting transport to schools other than faith schools. I fully understand the need to make savings in light of the appalling economic legacy left by the previous Government and the tough choices that that means for our local authorities, but there are some changes in services that have potentially devastating consequences.

I want to ask the Minister to address the following points: first, will he update the Chamber on the progress made on his Department’s review of efficiency and practice in the procurement, planning and provision of school transport across England? Depending on the stage that has been reached, will the review team consider how the safety of travelling children is being assessed by councils?

Secondly, will the Minister, perhaps in conjunction with the Department for Communities and Local Government, consider whether there is scope for issuing advice or guidance on how local authorities should handle decision making around the withdrawal of transport services? In particular, I think there should be advance consultation requirements, minimum notice periods and an obligation on local authorities to work with schools and colleges in relation to the provision of alternative services before services are withdrawn or fundamentally changed.

Thirdly, what is the position of those schools that become academies? Does conversion mean that an LEA is relieved of all its obligations in relation to home-to-school transport?

Finally, will the Minister, perhaps as part of his consideration of the responses to the review, consider whether the time has come for a clearer statutory test on whether a route is or is not available? In particular, is it time to drop the assumption that children will be accompanied, and should not child safety be considered above all other factors when considering whether a walking route is now available?

I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have attended today for their attention and for their support.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Tim Loughton): I have barely 12 minutes in which to take up all those questions, and I have a horrible feeling that I am not going to finish what is a fairly long and technical speech. If that happens, I shall give my unsaid comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). I congratulate her on bringing this important subject to the Chamber. I agree with all the considerations that she raises. She made some important points, and I pay tribute to the way that she has rolled up her sleeves and seen the situation in her constituency, as a good MP should.

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Other hon. Members presented their points well. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) described the inconsistencies over the three-mile limit and different treatment of people in the same family and said that common sense was required. That is a fair point.

The point about late notification made by the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) is particularly relevant. I have come across that problem in my constituency, when parents have been told at the very end of term that, from the following term, the bus will not be available. We must do a lot better on that front.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned considerations about special educational needs, which I shall discuss if I have time. We need greater flexibility there. There are examples of local authorities that will pay or subsidise parents, where they can, to provide the transport for those children themselves, rather than using expensive chaperoned taxis or school buses. Certainly flexibility is a requirement with SEN.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) also talked about considerations in rural constituencies in particular and the one-size-fits-all approach, which clearly will not work. We must ensure that we have a school transport system that reflects people’s lifestyles in the 21st century, as well as changes in education and educational establishments.

By saying all that, I have eaten into my time. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has asked for clarity on four key points, and I will endeavour to provide that during my response. I agree with the broad thrust of her remarks. First, school transport is one of those areas where local decisions really do affect local people, and it should not be for Whitehall to dictate such decisions.

Secondly, in my position as Minister for Children, I hear from parents that the safety of their children is one of their paramount concerns. I have been holding discussions with my colleagues from the Department for Transport, particularly with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), because we have a joint interest in this matter. This is clearly an area in which more work needs to be done, and this debate will be a useful addition to the wider discussion. I shall include hon. Members who are present today and others in the work that we will undertake in the coming weeks and months.

Thirdly, local authorities are having to make difficult decisions and to prioritise the services that they provide, but that cannot and should not be at the cost of the safety of children and young people.

In responding to my hon. Friend’s points, I intend to set out the legal basis for home-to-school transport, including the status of guidance available from Government. I want to give details on how it is funded, what routes of redress are available to parents and others and briefly to update the rather slow progress of the review of efficiency and practice commissioned by the Department.

We are debating the Government’s policy on home-to-school transport. Like many areas of education policy that we have inherited, this policy has grown over the past 20 years into a bureaucratic, costly source of frustration for many parents. Local authorities are now spending well in excess of £1 billion a year, yet some are

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not able to say exactly how many pupils they support or whether that support is meeting the needs of the children who need it most.

As communities have grown and evolved, the links between schools, transport and communities have, if anything, become more fragmented. yet I do not wish to paint too bleak a picture. Some authorities have risen above the challenges and are making savings to their budgets, but without the fuss and furore described by my hon. Friend and other colleagues in the Chamber today. The East Riding of Yorkshire, a predominantly rural authority, has developed an in-house software system combined with Ordnance Survey’s geographical information system to review the efficiency of all its bus routes. The resulting efficiencies arising from the planning and rerouting of a number of existing services, over three years, led to more than £1 million of savings.

The Department decided to start a review to identify and promulgate those very learning points from and for local authorities. Before launching the external review, officials from the Department undertook a review of the legal position to examine whether it required any amendment. The coalition has at its heart an ambition to reduce the inequalities in attainment that we still see in our education system. Too many young people’s destiny is governed by their family background and too few quality places are available to all parents. Only when every school is a good school can parents feel that they have a real choice from which to express a preference. Obviously, school choice is relevant to the transport issue, especially for people who do not live in urban areas.

Increasing the supply of good places is paramount to the coalition, which is why we have expanded the academies’ programme and established the free schools programme, with the first 24 schools now operational. The theory is quite simple: rather than bus the child to the school, bring the school to the child, and give parents and teachers the power to establish a school in their community and reduce the reliance on transport as far as possible. With that rather simple mantra, we concluded that the current legislative basis, while not perfect, is sufficient to meet the Government’s policy ambitions. Our decision was further strengthened by the experience in Northern Ireland, where changes such as revising the statutory walking distances were considered but not proceeded with on the basis that they would have significant funding implications—communications, assessments and so on. Given our economic situation, we were not willing to commit to such a cost.

The legal basis of school transport remains unchanged. Local authorities must provide free home to school transport where a child is attending a school beyond the statutory walking distances of two miles for pupils below the age of eight and three miles for those aged eight and over and no suitable arrangements have been made by the local authority for the child to attend a school closer to their home.

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 amended the legislative framework by inserting a number of transport provisions into the Education Act 1996. Of relevance for today’s debate are sections 508B and 508C and schedule 35B of the Act. Section 508B places a duty on local authorities to provide transport for eligible children. Eligible children are defined in schedule 35B. They include those children who are unable to walk to

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school because of their special educational needs, mobility problems or where they cannot reasonably be expected to walk because the nature of the route. Certain children from low-income families are also eligible under schedule 35B. Such provisions are often referred to as the extended rights.

Section 508C of the Education Act 1996 provides local authorities with discretionary powers to make travel arrangements for those not covered in 508B and make financial provision, in full or in part, for travel under such arrangements. Those provisions apply irrespective of whether the school the child attends is a maintained school, a foundation school, or as my hon. Friend has asked, an academy.

I have told hon. Members that my contribution would be technical, so I will have to continue at this pace. How is this duty funded? Without going into copious details, local authority transport duties are funded through a combination of revenue support grant and local generated council tax. In respect of the extended rights, the Secretary of State for Education provides an additional funding stream which for 2011-12 and 2012-13 amounts to £85 million. As this funding is not ring-fenced, it allows local authorities to work with their communities and set their priorities accordingly.

As my hon. Friend has stated, local authorities have already begun to tackle their spending. However, not all have approached it in the same methodological manner, and I have had a number of letters from concerned families who say that bus routes have been changed or cut and that they have to find, in relative terms, quite significant sums of money. Many decisions are driven solely by financial constraints, but there are examples where the local authority has saved money, managed the communications well and established a sustainable process for future changes. Departmental officials are now working hard to finalise the report and shine a light on those case studies. It is clear from the review that local authorities must make savings and can do so without the effects on provision that many of us have seen and heard about.

Leicestershire’s allocations were £640,000 in 2011-12 and £795,000 this year. Those are not insignificant sums. I am aware that in some authorities this non-ring-fenced funding is proving to be generous, and having met their statutory responsibilities, some authorities are using their discretion in how they meet any demands that they face. That has included making transport arrangements for children who are not entitled to free transport.

I also want to set out the legal basis in respect of safety. I want it to be clear that responsibility for road safety, even in school transport, actually rests with my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport. We are as one in our determination to make our roads as safe as possible, while ensuring that common sense is applied. There is a statutory duty on local authorities to ensure that suitable travel arrangements are made for eligible children for the purpose of facilitating their attendance at school. We are quite clear in our statutory guidance that local authorities are under a duty to make travel arrangements where the nature of the route is such that children cannot walk along it in reasonable safety—accompanied as necessary—where the distance is within the statutory walking limit.

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In assessing route availability, authorities are obliged to conduct an assessment of the risks that children may encounter on the route. They include the volume and speed of traffic along roads, overhanging trees or branches and ditches, rivers and so on. The age of the children must also be considered and any assessment should take place at the time of day that children are expected to use the route. That is common sense, but it does not always happen. Many local authorities follow the guidelines provided by Road Safety GB, which is the national organisation that represents local government road safety teams across the UK and works with them in fulfilling their statutory role.

While ensuring that children remain safe, local authorities should, quite properly, take advantage of improved measuring technology and route availability that takes into account new building and infrastructure developments, in identifying new and suitable walking routes where previously there was no right of way. That is where the use of new technology, such as the public sector mapping agreement, which provides authorities with free digital geographic mapping data, has resulted in authorities being able to plan more efficient walking and school bus routes. That has led to significant efficiency savings without authorities having to withdraw services. The draft report will recommend better use of freely available public sector data to build a picture of service provision and use.

The processes followed by Road Safety GB are accepted as the industry norm, and that best practice has been built up over many years. Indeed, Road Safety GB is in the process of refreshing its guidance, and although we await the final outcome, I am informed that substantial

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changes are unlikely. The guidance will continue to reflect both case law and education legislation requirements. It will be amended to be easier to use and follow and to accommodate legislation changes, but there will be no additional pressure on assessors to make walking routes available.

In conducting an assessment of a walking route, there will be an element of subjectivity, given the wide range and mix of roads and surrounding terrain. That makes it difficult to advise on every eventuality and capture the subtleties in a definitive statutory instruction. However, Road Safety GB considers that the guidance sets the parameters appropriately, drawing on case law and education legislation, so that any personal judgment required by assessors is not too great. In the light of those safeguards, further intervention by the Government into assessment practice will simply be a bureaucratic burden, which is something that we are actively trying to resist.

On the subject of local consultation and local decisions, I understand that when proposing changes there is a need for sensitivity and reassurance over children’s safety and that there is an opportunity for parents to challenge and debate with the authority. That is why the statutory guidance states that local authorities should consult widely on proposed policy changes and that at least 28 days, in term time, should be set aside for the process to be completed. Local authorities should also have in place, and publish, a robust appeals procedure for parents to follow should they have a disagreement with regard to the provision of transport. As I am not satisfied that we have such a procedure, I will take the matter away and reconsider it.

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

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1.30 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate about Government policy on deregulation.

I secured this debate partly to publicise the Government’s desire to slash red tape for businesses—and, indeed, in every walk of life—but also to encourage businesses to be very specific, and to participate in the review of red tape so that we do as much as we can to get rid of the red tape that is strangling parts of our industry.

If I were giving a termly report, I would say to the Minister and his colleagues, “Good progress so far, but could do even better.” I agree with others that many huge strides have been made. Understandably, the topic of red tape has the full attention of the Prime Minister and No. 10 Downing street, but it is important that it has the attention of all Departments, covering every industry possible.

My challenge to the Minister and his colleagues is to go further and faster, because in many cases deregulation is free; in fact, it will often save businesses and Government money. Even more importantly, however, we all know that regulation often drives cost. That relates not only to implementation by businesses of measures such as the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, but the bureaucracy, including inspection to check that measures have been implemented. Regulation is a self-perpetuating industry. We know that the forces of conservatism are entrenched when it comes to ensuring that we have good regulation, which often means a lot of regulation. However, the Minister and I know, as do many other Members, that it is not a case of having no regulation; often, it is a case of having better regulation and less regulation.

It will take great will-power to wrench aspects of bureaucracy into the post-bureaucratic age. Take a simple thing like the requirement for companies to keep six years’ accounts or VAT records. If there are not going to be tax losses, why do we not trim that requirement down to two or three years? There is a desire by Government to make sure that companies have information, just in case. There are other aspects of administration that require businesses to provide information constantly to the Government, whether it is to the Office for National Statistics or other bodies. Frankly, all those things add very little value to a business in its own microcosm; basically, they provide information for free to the Government; they are a way of generating data. In the macro-economic sphere, they may seem good, but if businesses are employing people just to generate statistics or other information for the Government, just in case it is needed, or to comply with a policy, or to satisfy an insurer, and so on, the risk is that businesses will use that talent and those resources not seeking to grow, but seeking to comply.

Of course the European Union has been a huge source of the regulations that have been brought into British law. The majority of the regulations imported from the EU have been generated as a result of the single market and the EU continuing to issue directives. Although I think that we are all great supporters of the single market, I am sure that many of us are not

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particularly enamoured of how much regulation the single market has brought to our shores. In particular, I am thinking of aspects of certain environmental directives, such as the habitats directive or the water directive.

In a recent statement, the Chancellor said that we want to review quite a lot of those directives, not only to check that they are having the desired effects—the UK Government would not have signed up to them if they did not wish to see a more general approach in particular areas—but to ask whether we are being over-zealous in our interpretation of the directives. Are we getting the balance right between what is in the interests of people and what is in the interests of nature? Are we getting the balance right between consumer and producer? It is critical that we ensure that we have a harmonised approach to understanding how directives should be implemented; we certainly should not gold-plate them in their implementation.

Just last week, I met farmers from my community who are worried about the water directives, how they have been implemented, and the risk that implementation causes in terms of abstraction. That matters because Suffolk is a great producer of many of the crops that we all enjoy around the UK. Suffolk has three potato seasons a year, and it also produces other root vegetables. If Suffolk was not producing that quantity and quality of food, we would basically have to start importing a lot more food. We must ensure that we get the balance right. Elements of food security matter, but so does the environment. We have to respect the environment, sustaining it for the future, and our own farmers know that better than anybody else; they do not want to put themselves out of business overnight. A balanced, sensible, common-sense approach, which involves farmers as much as possible, is needed.

There is another community initiative in my area that has recently been affected by regulation. Plans for a community transport bus are being frustrated at the moment because of a restriction that means that people who passed their driving test after 1995 can carry only a certain amount of weight. That is another European directive that was probably common sense when it was introduced, but it has meant that fewer and fewer people can volunteer to be drivers, or can get their expenses back. That is because the allowable driving weight limit was set some time ago. Of course, those who drive people in wheelchairs, or something similar, around will know that those pieces of equipment have often since become heavier as more technologies are installed in them. As a consequence, fewer people than we would like are able to fill the important role of volunteer driver.

Of course, it is not only European directives that we have put into our regulation; many directives are home-grown, and they often come about in reaction to particular events. Dare I say that the “something must be done” brigade see something happen, and may react by saying, “Something must be done about it; let’s regulate to try and change this behaviour”? We all know that it is not necessarily possible to change behaviour by legislating. We can try to criminalise certain activities, but what is really important is having more positive indications of how we want people, companies and indeed our own councils to behave, rather than simply having a rule whereby they must do something.

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Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that quite often the regulations that we are discussing have a disproportionate effect on small businesses? For example, farmers in South West Norfolk who are struggling with the natural habitats directive have had to have endless meetings with the local council, Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to sort things out, which is a huge burden on their administrative time. Moreover, quite often, large businesses, particularly in the banking and energy sectors, lobby Government and support them in introducing more regulation, because they see regulation as a barrier to entry for smaller businesses that are trying to enter those important markets.

Dr Coffey: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and on the subject of energy, the energy red tape challenge will close in less than an hour, according to the Twitter feed on the red tape challenge.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point completely. There is an interesting balance to be struck in legislating for safety by introducing regulations. I agree with her that we do not want unnecessary regulations introduced to try to keep cartels or oligopolies going. Whether it is in response to the REACH—registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—directive or the herbal products directive, which we are busy trying to implement at the moment in response to European laws that have been passed, there is an argument for allowing people to make their own decisions and choices, rather than having regulation decide things for them.

I also wanted to refer to my hon. Friend’s work on child care. She has done quite a lot of policy work about the cost of child care, and how costs that have been driven into the industry mean that child care becomes exceptionally expensive for parents who want to go to work, but who sometimes cannot afford to, or for whom work seems only to pay for the costs of child care. The question is rightly being asked: what is driving that cost? Looking after children of course takes skill, but it need not take a graduate degree. Over the years, we have ended up with various regulations, leading to a situation in 2009 when two police officers were told that they could not look after each other’s children for more than so many hours at a time because, as they were not registered as child minders, the activity was deemed illegal. The Government looked into the matter, but this is another example of common sense being replaced by some bright spark’s desire to ensure that children are looked after only by child minders, rather than by their parents’ friends or colleagues.

Another issue that comes up regularly is the portability of the Criminal Records Bureau check. Someone going into a school might need five different CRB checks, depending on the activity they want to do. I know that the Government are looking into such issues but, as I said at the start of my speech, I encourage them to go much further, much faster. Not only will that help their constituents, but it will free up Government time to focus on what really matters—assisting people at home and helping businesses to grow and to employ people.

The Prime Minister is reported to have said in the past few days that he is looking for Ministers to ensure that their Bills pass the U-turn test—in other words, to ensure that there are no U-turns. Some of this is about

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drafting simpler legislation, but a lot of it is about not trying to regulate for every possible scenario. One of the challenges that our country has been facing—this is no criticism of the people involved—is that an openness to having everything in regulation means that measures can become a lawyers’ picnic, with everything open to judicial review. The constant desire to put everything in statute is a huge challenge, because people almost cannot turn for the risk of being taken to court or to judicial review. That is not to say, of course, that people should not have recourse to action when something is patently unfair, but we all, as Members of Parliament, need to consider whether we will end up with lawyers and judges deciding what is right and wrong, rather than Parliament deciding on that through better laws.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Businesses, certainly in my constituency but also across the country, definitely welcome the Government’s agenda of deregulating much more, but does she agree that small and medium-sized businesses are still deeply sceptical and concerned about the constant battles they face, including legal judgments and even with local authorities, which seem to think they know best, when it is the businesses themselves that know how to get on and make the right decisions to thrive and grow?

Dr Coffey: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, especially about the role of local authorities. With her pedigree in a family business and through her subsequent work, she knows about the challenges that people in our constituencies face every day. I will mention one case.

To my surprise, my local district council has responded in an over-the-top way to a deemed health and safety risk. In one part of the country, problems were identified with a commercial building’s liquefied petroleum gas tank, and that led to a measure, across the country, to investigate every such LPG tank. That led to a series of visits, and to changes having to be made. Tanks have not exploded and no risk has been identified, but the tanks must now have cages and there must be a clearing away from the site. There was also a two-page detailed submission by the council officer, essentially telling people that they had to provide details, written instructions, training, and a sign to explain how to call the emergency services, instead of allowing our local pub to use common sense: “If there’s a fire, I’ll tell you what: you just call 999.” I was told: “Well, that business might not have mainly English-speaking people working in it.” For God’s sake, let us use our common sense, so that council officers are talking to their businesses and not issuing two-page template instructions about how to dial 999.

I appreciate that setting out laws represents an ambition—a way of ensuring that we do things in a certain manner—but I encourage the Government to try to not only take the scissors to red tape, as they are already doing, but to get out the shears and really start hacking back. This is about supporting common sense and having simpler legislation. I have every confidence in the Minister, but please, let us go for as short a haircut as we can.

1.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): I certainly need a haircut. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk

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Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate and on her excellent contribution. In particular, I accept the argument, “Good progress, could to better,” not because I am unambitious, but because it is important to be realistic. Businesses have heard a lot of rhetoric from politicians of all parties on this issue, but the reality on the ground has often been of a lesser degree, so wanting to ensure a consistent approach has been crucial to our stance.

This issue has vexed Governments for many years—throughout my lifetime, in fact. The previous Administration had a strong rhetoric on the issue, but in the end were delivering the equivalent of six new regulations every working day, which is a daunting inheritance. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the problem lies partly in that natural tension between the wider social and political agenda of any Government and how we deregulate. It is true that when a tragedy occurs—my hon. Friend alluded to this when she talked about something needing to be done—the public pressure on parliamentarians and Government can often be overwhelming, even when, looked at objectively, evidence for new laws is thin. This debate is constantly held in Government.

We as a Government have taken a different approach. Rather than find 200 or 300 regulations that we should get rid of and leave it at that, we are trying to be systematic. Our approach recognises the tension between the wider goals of any Government and the purpose of deregulation and seeks to change the very culture of Whitehall, so that regulation becomes the last resort and not the first option. To do that, we first sought to establish a system to cap the cost of new domestic regulation—the one-in, one-out system, which I will discuss in a moment. We then matched it with a systematic review of all existing regulations, through the red tape challenge, which I will update Members on in a moment.

Those policies are supplemented by an intention to sunset new regulations, to establish a regulatory moratorium on micro-enterprises—that addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel)—and by our recently announced review of regulators and local enforcement. I will come on to that as well, because very often it is not the legislation but how it is enforced that drives the small business crazy. Alongside that domestic agenda, we have sought to reduce the burden of regulation coming from Brussels, first by ending the routine habit of gold-plating everything that comes from there and, secondly, by actively seeking an exemption from EU legislation for small businesses, and I would like to update Members on that point.

I shall look at each element, to bring the core points together and to answer some of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal. Turning to new regulations, last January we introduced the one-in, one-out system to cap their cost, so Ministers have to balance the cost of new regulations by making a commensurate reduction in the existing regulatory burden. We think, as businesses have to, about the picture in the round, not just about the single measure that we have been charged with getting through Westminster. That is important, because when running a business it is not the single measure that breaks one’s back but the cumulative burden of regulations.

When we began the process in January of last year, 157 regulations were in preparation, 119 of which would have imposed a cost on business, and many more have come through the system in the past 12 months. The

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one-in, one-out system has had the effect of rejecting many of those measures and forcing Whitehall to change its habits, and by the end of last year, we had got to the point of only 89 new measures being agreed, only 19 of which would impose any cost on business.

In the first year—I say this with caution—one-in, one-out has started to have an impact on the flow of new regulations, although it is far from perfect. I want to ensure that the message from the Better Regulation Executive and me, as the Minister with responsibility, is clear. We have made an encouraging start, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal rightly said, we could do better. We need to strengthen and enhance that.

There have been substantial changes in some areas. One-in, one-out has helped to get Departments to think about the picture in the round. For example, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has launched its own employment law review. There has been a package of changes on employment tribunals, on commissioning an independent review of managing sickness absence, which is a critical issue for business and on launching an employers’ charter to rebalance the agenda.

We have agreed to create a universally portable Criminal Records Bureau check that employers can view online instantly, thus reducing the duplication in the process and making it easier to access. Naturally, it will maintain the minimum check that we want to ensure that children are safe, but it will reduce the ridiculous paperwork embroiled in the process.

Similarly, on health and safety, we intend to implement all Professor Löfstedt’s recommendations, which include exempting up to 1 million self-employed people from many health and safety rules designed for multi-nationals. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) made an excellent point about rules being set, possibly conveniently for large businesses, that are disproportionate for the self-employed and for smaller firms.

The red tape challenge and the question of Europe are related. The red tape challenge matches the wish of the one-in, one-out policy to examine systematically what is already on the statute book. It is not easy to be exact, but we think that the statute book incorporates approximately 21,000 measures, 11,000 or so of which have a direct bearing on business. It is a mammoth task, as Members will appreciate. We intend systematically to review and cull unnecessary, burdensome or ineffective regulations.

We have grouped regulations into themes to make it easier to see the picture in the round. The website has featured 13 themes, and the Star Chamber, which goes through regulations item by item with civil servants from all the relevant Departments, has examined five themes completely. The environmental themes, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal referred, are before us at the moment. The points that she made have been mirrored in many of our discussions. I welcome her contribution. If she wants to add to it after the debate, I shall be happy to ensure that her comments are incorporated into the process.

Of the 1,200 measures that we have considered so far, more than half will be either scrapped or substantially improved. On 15 December last year, 84 defunct regulations were removed from the statute book by the House. The

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process in law has begun in Westminster, not just in Whitehall. To reverse the situation, we must ensure that the sausage machine is put into reverse and that we regularly remove measures from the statute book. Key measures include overhauling employment tribunals, replacing 12 sets of consumer rules and laws with a single consumer bill of rights, implementing a wholesale deregulation of entertainment licensing and simplifying poisons licensing. Some of the most serious poisons are on the same list as fly spray. My hon. Friend rightly described the rather crude way in which significant and minor risks are lumped together, sometimes for all the wrong historical reasons. That must be addressed, and poisons are a classic example.

We are cutting the number of different sets of food labelling regulations from a rather dazzling 31 to 17, and maybe we need to do a little more. We are removing needless energy rules that currently tie up the process of short-term holiday letting, which is important in East Anglia. We are also scrapping 80 of the 107 regulations considered in the hospitality, food and drinks sector. Those are important changes.

We have incorporated the habitat and wildlife directive into our consideration of environmental law under the red tape challenge. How could we not? However, the red tape challenge cannot rewrite set European legislation. What we can do is ask ourselves, “Are we implementing this in a minimal way and a way that is reasonable for those whom we seek to regulate? Is the information that we seek from those organisations in a form and of a scale that it is reasonable to expect them to fulfil?” It is easy for a large department of 2,000 people not to realise that a three-person business finds it a heck of a challenge to fill in endless survey forms and still earn a living.

On Europe, we recognise that we need to deal with the issue fundamentally. That is why we started last year with a new set of guiding principles. The first was to end the routine gold-plating of EU laws. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk is absolutely right that large, well-established lobbying voices can argue that it would be really good for Britain to have enhanced rules—just slightly more than the minimum standard, as they might describe it, in Europe. “It would be good, Minister,” they say, “to make things crystal clear by setting out all 74 possible circumstances in legislation. That would be really helpful. Clarity would be brought.” That is the natural argument presented.

To prevent that, we have put in place a principle saying that the default position is that we will simply copy what is in the agreed directive into UK law unless that would clearly affect UK interests adversely. That is a fundamental shift from the default position. It does not mean that no measure will ever be gold-plated, but

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it does mean that the Minister in question will have to bring it before their Cabinet colleagues to justify why. That is an important deterrent.

We also need to go back further in the policy-making process in Europe. That is why, last March, the Prime Minister wrote to President Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, calling for new burdens on business to be offset by savings elsewhere. Members can see that the principle of the cumulative burden has been introduced. Since then, we have secured a commitment from the European Commission to reverse the burden of proof when including micro-businesses in the scope of EU legislation. The EU must justify why a micro-business should be included, rather than assuming that it should. That is an important first principle. To illustrate, we have agreed with EU Ministers to exempt micro-businesses from certain EU accounting rules. We think that that will save UK small businesses approximately £150 million to £300 million in annual costs. That is an important shift, and it sets a precedent. Once it is seen that that can be done in that field, there is no reason why it cannot be explored elsewhere.

It is not just the Commission or the Council with which we must concern ourselves; often, it is also the European Parliament, where there are also strong voices similarly in favour of saying “Something must be done.” That is why, working with Members of the European Parliament across the coalition, we have secured the European Parliament’s agreement that it will conduct independent impact assessments on its substantive amendments. It has also set up a specific unit to consider that work. In other words, when a measure is introduced, the European Parliament can now say, “Hang on a moment. What will that cost?” The cost can be judged independently. That is an important start, although we need to go a lot further. Now that we have those matrices, the next step is to ensure that they are implemented.

In conclusion, rather than just finding 50 popular measures to get rid of and leaving it at that, we have tried to address the root problem. During the next week or so, I will set out for the House the details of what we did in 2011, so that people can see measure for measure, item for item and cost for cost exactly what has gone, what is going and what will stay. Over the past 12 months, we have sought to turn the oil tanker around, change direction and ensure that we not only cap the cost of new regulation and reduce the burden of existing regulations, but tackle the burden of EU regulations and how the UK implements them. Together, those things will make a good start, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal rightly said, we recognise that there is much more to be done.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned .