Reference has been made to the importance of the Supporting People budget. Despite the enormous pressure on reducing budgets to deal with the record deficit, we have kept almost the entire cash amount for the Supporting People programme. In fact, there was a 1% reduction in Supporting People over four years—£6.5 billion. I know that there have been problems on the ground—the hon. Member for Westminster North described them clearly—about the way in which Supporting People money has been spent. I understand that there are challenges when such funding is not ring-fenced—it was not ring-fenced in 2009—and that with other pressures the Supporting People budget has been pressurised on the ground, but

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it is not that the money has not been going in. Nor is it the case that we have reduced by even a penny support for homelessness. The homelessness budget was £400 million—£100 million a year—for the spending review period, and that has not been reduced.

I do not know whether it has escaped the attention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington, but during the past year, I took another £70 million, which was not in the spending review and aimed at homelessness, and put it into homelessness programmes, because I passionately believe in maintaining that fantastic homelessness support in this country. When we talk about people being homeless, we generally mean that they have been accepted as being homeless so that they can get a home, but there is a category of single people who do not receive help and support through our system. If a single person—the sort of people we are familiar with from our constituency surgeries—turns up at their local authority, under the rules that have applied until now they would simply be told, “I’m sorry, you are not covered as a preference category. We can do nothing for you.” That is not good enough, and I am sure that other hon. Members agree, so I have made £18.5 million available in the last few months to ensure that tailored advice is available for individuals, in addition to £10 million to Crisis to do the same.

I would dearly like to make the category of single people without dependants a preference category, and that should be the objective of any Government when money allows. I have not only protected all the preference categories that Opposition Members talked about—the work of Louise Casey was praised, and I echo that—I have added to those preference categories and I am trying to go further.

It is crazy that anyone who sees someone sleeping rough in this country must call the local authority; they may or may not get a response, and will not know what has happened afterwards. That is not good enough, so I am setting up a national helpline and a website to ensure that assistance can be brought directly to that individual. It will be run with the assistance of Homeless Link and will be in place by Christmas, and I hope that the whole House will join me in supporting it. When we see somebody sleeping rough, we have a terrible moment of dilemma about whether we should try to assist them directly—even if we do not know whether the money will be used in that person’s best interest—or do something else for them. Now we will be able to use the helpline, and information will be available so that people can see whether that person was helped and in what way. I think that is important.

We have also announced the “no second night out” initiative nationwide. “No second night out” came from the first cross-ministerial working group report, and I hope that Opposition Members will welcome it. The £70 million that I mentioned includes £20 million to back that programme, and it means that nobody in this country who is found sleeping on the street should ever experience a second night in that situation. I slept rough for a night to see what it was like: it is frightening and one feels vulnerable. We do not want any of our citizens to be in that position, and there is no reason for them to be because we have also allocated £42.5 million of funding to the hostel system, to ensure that new and refurbished hostel places are available.

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The problem in this country, and particularly in London where we have the excellent combined homelessness and information network—CHAIN—database, is generally not about whether a hostel place is available on any given night, but about finding the individual, connecting them with the hostel, and sometimes persuading them to go into it. “No second night out” and the national reporting line is designed to help deal with that, and I am pleased to say that it has been taken up in Merseyside, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. It is an excellent, practical example of the way that we are trying to work.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Minister mentions telephone lines, advice and websites, but people need houses. In particular, those who are homeless, as well as those living in overcrowded and poor conditions, need new social rented homes. I am sorry that I was not in the Chamber for the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck). I understand that she mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham—perhaps the worst housing authority in the country—which builds no social rented homes. As a consequence of that, its homelessness strategy, which I commend to the Minister and ask him to read, states that anybody who needs a three-bedroomed house, or bigger, should be discharged to the private rented sector outside the borough. That is contrary to the housing policy of the Government and the Mayor, but is it something that the Minister supports?

Grant Shapps: No contribution from the hon. Gentleman would be complete without a reference to his own time as leader of housing in Hammersmith and Fulham. I think, however, that that council has a good record of looking for constructive measures that help to take people off the housing waiting list. For example, it was one of the forerunners in a programme that I launched recently with the Prime Minister to sell 100,000 homes under the right-to-buy programme. Critically, and unlike the previous programme, every penny of that money will be used to build more homes for affordable rent, and that seems to be a great solution. Not only can a family achieve their aspiration of purchasing their own property, but they can do so in the knowledge that somebody else is being taken off the housing waiting list. I have yet to hear whether the Opposition support the return to the right to buy, with the money going towards affordable houses.

Jack Dromey rose—

Grant Shapps: I will happily give way so that I can understand the hon. Gentleman’s policy.

Jack Dromey: A straight answer to a straight question. Labour has supported the right to buy, but—crucially—we are not convinced about the bogus figures put forward that somehow suggest there will be one-for-one replacement. Councils are not able to retain the bulk of the receipts, and there is no guarantee that if a home is sold in a local authority area, a matching home will be built in the same area. We therefore fear that we will see a significant reduction in available social council stock, without any new build to compensate. Time will tell, but the sad reality will soon dawn.

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Grant Shapps: I am still not entirely sure whether the Opposition support the initiative, but one-for-one replacement is part of the policy and is what we intend. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) challenges the Government by saying that the answer is to build more homes. I absolutely agree.

Ms Buck: A question has been posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Slaughter) and by me, and I am anxious to have a response. What are the Government going to do about the two rules that are being breached and, indeed, are in conflict with each other? The maximum time that local authorities are supposed to keep families in bed and breakfasts is increasingly being breached, and the respect of local connection rule has been breached in the examples that my hon. Friend and I described. Will the Government enforce those orders?

Grant Shapps: As the hon. Lady knows, I have written to the 20 authorities that were responsible for 80% of the breaches of the six-week bed-and-breakfast rule. I pointed out that they are in breach of the law and asked for their plan or strategy to resolve the issue. It involves a small number of authorities, although I share her concern. I make no distinction politically or otherwise—the authorities concerned come from across the board—and I expect them to put plans in place to deal with the issue.

As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) noted in her intervention, there are enormous pressures in every direction and the problem is not simple to resolve. None the less, the changes we are making are designed to make it easier for authorities to discharge those all-important homelessness duties. Through the Localism Act 2011, we are allowing a discharge of those duties into the private rented sector on a fixed-term lease, with protections in place, which I think is an utterly sensible approach. Quality homes in the private rented sector could massively expand our capacity to deal with families who require assistance. Again, I have not heard—although on this occasion, I do not think I will provide them with the opportunity—what the Opposition think of discharging that homelessness responsibility into the private rented sector, but I think it is an important element.

Ms Buck: This issue goes to the heart of the debate, and I do not feel that we have had a response. In order to comply with the Minister’s request, local authorities that have exceeded the limit for families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation need to find somewhere to place them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith mentioned guidance from Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster’s response to increasing demand states:

“Increasing procurement of family-sized properties in East London where the council has focused its out of borough procurement. Investigating procuring new properties in areas outside of London…a number of properties within Kent and Essex and we consider other proposals from organisations who approach us, including areas outside London.”

Does the Minister agree with that or not?

Grant Shapps: Guidance is already in place, which I am strengthening, to make it clear that local connections are critical and that people should never be shipped hundreds of miles away. There will, however, be cases

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where somebody may move from one borough to the next—the local housing area can encompass one, two or three boroughs, depending on location. I have been clear, however, that the kind of Newham games of writing and threatening to send 500 residents across the country are neither fair nor right. I was absolutely appalled by that approach. Interestingly, when I was approached by the leader of that council some time afterwards, he sort of half apologised and suggested that those letters should never have gone out.

In the last minute or two I will return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He says that housing has never been a priority for this Government, but he is absolutely wrong. The truth is that housing was never a priority for the previous Government. Those are not my views, and when the Leader of the Opposition stated:

“We refused to prioritise the building of new social housing”

he was absolutely right. The critical figure that nobody in this House and beyond should ever forget, is that after 13 years there was a net loss in the number of affordable homes for rent in this country. That is a terrible, disastrous record that we are in the process of turning round, with 170,000 new affordable homes for rent that, as shown by HCA figures published today, are on track to be built by the end of this Parliament. I would have thought that that would be welcomed across the House, although bizarrely it is not. The idea that the Labour party is interested in housing is belied by that quote from the Leader of the Opposition and by the nine people who occupied the position of Housing Minister when Labour were in government. It is belied by the fact that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington is the eighth shadow Housing Minister I have faced. This Government are prioritising housing and doing something about getting homes built, which is the best way to prevent people from entering the world of homelessness.

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Homophobic Bullying (Schools)

12.30 pm

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, for what I think is the first time. Why do we need a debate on homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools? Is it not the case that any form of bullying is bad and should be tackled? I agree with that up to a point. Bullying is not a new phenomenon. It has always been the case that some children are cruel and will pick on others because they are perceived to be different in some way. Perhaps they are not wearing trendy clothes; they wear glasses; they are overweight; they have acne—there are all sorts of reasons. Schools should have in place effective anti-bullying policies, both to foster a general culture of respect, so that the likelihood of bullying is diminished in the first place, and to be able to nip bullying in the bud quickly when it does take place. That is certainly true, but I want to demonstrate today why I believe that there is a particular problem with homophobic bullying that needs to be tackled.

Research commissioned by Stonewall in 2009 and conducted by YouGov found that 90% of secondary school teachers and 40% of primary school teachers had regularly witnessed homophobic bullying in schools. An earlier survey of young gay people found that 65% had been bullied themselves and 98% were aware of homophobic language being used. Although we do not yet have the figures, Stonewall is carrying out a major research programme and will publish an updated set of figures in the next few weeks. That will demonstrate—I had a meeting with Stonewall last week—that the problem very much remains.

There is clearly a problem to be tackled, but statistics do not convey the human cost of bullying. I want to draw attention to the case of the Crouch family, which has been covered in the press in the past few months and certainly does show the human cost of bullying. Dominic Crouch was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Gloucestershire. During a school trip in 2010, he played a game of spin the bottle with his classmates. As a forfeit, he had to kiss another boy. That event was videoed on a mobile phone and quickly spread virally round the school. Dominic suffered severe taunting for being gay. It is not actually known whether he was gay, but the intensity of the bullying was so great that Dominic committed suicide by jumping off a tall building. His father, Roger, commendably and bravely, spoke up publicly about his son’s suicide, to help to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage people to take action. However, Roger’s grief was so intense that he could not cope and he took his own life last November. Those two lives were lost utterly needlessly.

Sadly, the Crouch family’s story is not an isolated case. Last year in my area of Milton Keynes, there were four teenage suicides. Of those, three were young gay men. Does that not tell us that there is a problem that needs to be addressed?

Homophobic bullying can leave very deep emotional scars that can take a long time to heal and sometimes will never heal. I know that from personal experience. At school, I knew that I was gay, but I did not dare admit it, either to myself or to others. It was inconceivable for me to do that as a teenager growing up in the west of

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Scotland in the mid-1980s. Indeed, with you, Mr Robertson, in the Chair, I will say that it was easier for me to admit that I was a Tory in Glasgow than it was to come clean about my sexual orientation.

John Robertson (in the Chair): I find that hard to believe! [Laughter.]

Iain Stewart: I do not want to over-egg things. I was not physically bullied and the verbal bullying that I experienced was very mild and short-lived, but I was perceived to be different and it left deep scars. It was enough to make me feel isolated and introverted, and it took me a very long time to overcome. It is clear from the research that Stonewall and others have done that those consequences of bullying can severely impair a young person’s academic and social development. Further evidence shows that, where there is a culture of bullying in schools and particularly homophobic bullying, it drags down the performance of the class and the school as a whole, so it is not just those who are bullied who suffer; it is their classmates as well.

Social attitudes have changed enormously in the two decades or so since I was at school. Thankfully, we live in more enlightened times. However, it is wrong to think that homophobia does not exist among young people. I challenge hon. Members to read some of the horrifying stories in the recent special youth edition of Attitude magazine. Some pretty appalling things have gone on and are going on in classrooms in our schools today.

In preparing for this speech, I took the time to speak to some of the pupils in my constituency to find out what their experience of bullying in schools was. I found some pretty surprising and appalling things. One girl told me that she was doing a media studies class and part of the research involved looking at the portrayal of homosexuality in the media. The class had to view an episode of, I think, “EastEnders” in which two men were kissing. The phrase “dirty faggot” was shouted out in the classroom and clearly heard by the teacher, but the teacher did nothing about it. Such incidents take place; they are happening today. The girl also told me that a Facebook page was set up so that pupils at the school who were thought to be gay could be outed.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on talking so personally about this issue. Bullying, in whatever form, is a terrifying experience for those who suffer it. Sadly, one of my friends committed suicide because of bullying, although it was not homophobic bullying, and that had a profound effect on me personally. My hon. Friend mentions Facebook, and there is also Twitter. In this age of modern technology, there seems to be no escape for some bullying victims, because even when they go home, whether through the mobile phone in their pocket or the laptop in their bedroom, the bullies are ever present. Does my hon. Friend think that that is another aspect of the issue that needs serious consideration?

Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an important point. Cyber-bullying is very much with us. It takes place in many different forms. It extends the boundaries and the times of the school, as my hon.

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Friend said, so that pupils feel victimised in their own homes and not just when they are within the school gates. From what I have been able to research, I do not think that there is a particular problem with homophobic bullying in cyberspace—it is just another vehicle through which homophobia and homophobic bullying can take place—but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it needs to be part of our response to the problem.

What can we do to tackle this important problem? The Government have made a good start. It was very good that the schools White Paper included a specific reference to preventing and tackling homophobic bullying in schools. I am aware that new anti-bullying guidance has been produced for schools to use. I am glad that within the Ofsted inspection framework is the expectation that schools should create a safe learning environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. I certainly applaud all those initiatives, but more needs to be done.

For all the toolkits available, research by Stonewall found that the vast majority of teachers want to combat homophobic bullying but do not feel that they have the appropriate training or support. If we isolate only one thing that needs to be done—many more things need to be done—it is to improve training for teachers, so that they have the skills to prevent bullying from happening in the first place and to tackle it when it does.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I apologise for arriving late, but I have been attacking the Church of England on a very similar issue.

An organisation called Diversity Role Models, which plays an important role in London schools, would like to be able to play a role more widely around the country. It provides role models to go into schools who are expert at talking about such issues. In one class, 95% of the kids at the beginning of a session said that they would never have a gay or lesbian friend, but by the end, only 20% said that they would not have one. That is the kind of difference that we need to make, is it not?

Iain Stewart: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; indeed, he has anticipated my mentioning Diversity Role Models. I spoke to it yesterday and it sent me some reports about its work. I agree that it performs an excellent role by going into schools, as does Stonewall.

Sometimes, it is not that schools do not want to tackle such bullying, but that they do not perceive it as an issue that they have to deal with. Part of my reason for initiating the debate today is to put on record that there is a problem that should be tackled. Every school will have gay pupils who need support. I want schools to realise that there is help from the Government and organisations such as Stonewall and Diversity Role Models to assist them in tackling the problem.

The record in schools is mixed. There are some very good schools, with very effective policies. The evidence shows that when schools have good policies in place, instances of bullying drop dramatically, so it is not some airy-fairy idea that would be nice, but something that shows tangible results. I do not have a preconceived idea of how this should be done, but we need to do more to share best practice from the schools that have policies to those that either do not have such policies or have policies that are not delivering.

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Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On his point about teachers, in the 1970s and ’80s, teachers faced the same problem with a different issue—racism in schools—and it was dealt with. It was not just about training, which he alludes to and is fundamental, but about teachers feeling that they had the support of the wider community, whether governors, education authorities, councillors or Members of Parliament. In a classroom, teachers need to feel that they have the support of wider society to be able to deal with the issue. We dealt with racism in schools in the ’70s and ’80s, and we can deal with this.

Iain Stewart: My hon. Friend makes an important point and brings considerable experience as a teacher to the debate. The analogy with racist bullying is powerful. It goes back to my opening remarks about why we need a specific policy on homophobic bullying. No one would dare to argue now that we did not need a specific policy to tackle racist bullying; the same can be said for homophobic and transphobic bullying. His point about the reflection of wider social norms is important. Teachers cannot exist in isolation; they are part of the broader community. Tackling such bullying requires everyone—parents, teachers and everyone in society—to challenge it and say that it is not right and cannot be allowed.

Sport has an important role to play. Rightly, there are lots of campaigns to stop racist abuse on the terraces at football games, and we have seen some of the controversy with Euro 2012 at the moment. We do not hear as much about homophobic chants at grounds. If young people go to football, they will pick up on it and think that it is acceptable, so this is not only about schools; there is a broader challenge to society to say that homophobia is not acceptable, because not doing so creates the breeding ground for such sentiments.

I will conclude my remarks now, because I want to give the Minister enough time to respond. I hope that by securing the debate today, I have helped to give the issue the publicity that it deserves and that more schools will take steps to address bullying, which blights far too many young lives.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing a debate on an issue of great importance and on his very moving and powerful speech. I know that this is a matter of interest to him; he asked the Secretary of State for Education about the Government’s plans to tackle homophobic bullying in the debate on the schools White Paper in November 2010. In reply, my right hon. Friend said:

“Homophobic bullying is on the rise in our schools, and homophobic terms are increasingly used towards gay students and straight students in a way that seeks to undermine the tolerance that we have built up over the past 15 years. We therefore need to work with organisations such as Stonewall and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, and to shine the light on schools such as St George’s Church of England school, which has done a fantastic job in tackling homophobic bullying. This requires work not only by school leaders but by political leaders and all of society to tackle a growing prejudice that is scarring our tolerant society.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 278.]

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The Government are committed to tackling this issue. In the coalition programme for Government, we said:

“We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.”

In the White Paper that my hon. Friend referred to—“The Importance of Teaching”—we said that we would

“empower head teachers to take a strong stand against bullying, especially racist, homophobic and other prejudice-based bullying.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) was right to equate pejorative terms used against gay people, or the pejorative use of terms such as “gay”, with the racist phrases that we have almost managed to eliminate from schools owing to the action taken in the ’70s and ’80s. We now need the same approach to the use of phrases directed against gay people.

Bullying, for whatever reason, is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated in our schools. It can have a devastating effect on individuals. It can bring misery, distress, fear and in extreme cases, such as the tragic case referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South, suicide. It has no place either in our schools or in wider society. The figures tell their own story: according to the TellUs survey data published in February 2010, 26% of children had been bullied in school in the preceding year and 21% had been bullied outside school. Overall, 46% of pupils experienced bullying at school at some point in their lives.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance in 2011 found that a quarter of 11 to 16-year-olds have directly experienced verbal bullying, with the vast majority of it—79%—happening at school. Almost 40% reported being bullied online or by mobile phone. In 2011, Beatbullying figures showed that more than a third of young people aged between 16 and 25 reported having suffered a severe physical or sexual attack during childhood by a fellow young person. Beatbullying’s 2009 research of 11 to 18-year-olds found that more than 60% had witnessed some form of cyber-bullying. Stonewall reported that two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have been victims of bullying.

Homophobic bullying is often directed at heterosexual pupils as well. Stonewall found that 98% of young gay pupils hear the word “gay” used as a form of abuse at school. Even when the language is used pejoratively without thinking, it is still offensive and still unacceptable. I expect teachers to react in the same way as they would to an offensive racial slur.

We know that poor behaviour can affect attainment. Pupils who said that they had misbehaved in most classes had lower predicted key stage 4 attainment—predicting a capped GCSE score 29 points lower than those who said that they had not misbehaved. Bullying can have a serious effect on the education of children and young people, as my hon. Friend said. Our schools must be safe and calm places where pupils can study free from disruption, and that includes being free from the distraction and distress that comes with being the target of bullying. Ensuring good behaviour and tackling bullying is therefore central to meeting the Government’s priority of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

It is important that schools take the necessary action to ensure good behaviour and to prevent and tackle bullying. We cannot dictate how they should do that, but we have made available clear and succinct advice.

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That includes the checklist prepared by Charlie Taylor, the Government’s expert adviser on behaviour, of the key principles that head teachers may wish to follow to improve behaviour in their schools. In addition, we have updated our advice to schools on preventing and tackling bullying. Schools have a specific legal duty to tackle bullying, and we know that they need clear anti-bullying policies and procedures. Our advice gives information on how to prevent and deal with bullying. It sets out the action that schools can consider when determining their approach to bullying, and it explains the legal powers that schools have to discipline pupils when bullying incidents occur off the school premises. It signposts schools to specialist organisations that can provide further help, such as Stonewall and Beatbullying.

I should like to recognise the work of organisations such as Stonewall, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Beatbullying, Educational Action Challenging Homophobia and the Diana Award in highlighting this important issue. In April, I was pleased to be invited to speak at an event that the Diana Award had organised for its anti-bullying ambassadors. Those young people play an important part in tackling bullying in their schools and communities and set an example to others.

Alongside our advice and guidance for schools, we have given teachers the legal powers that they need to ensure good behaviour. Under the Education Act 2011, we have strengthened their powers to search pupils. New search powers have given teachers stronger powers to tackle cyber-bullying by providing a specific power to search for and, if necessary, delete inappropriate images on electronic devices, including mobile phones. We have removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of a detention. We have banned items such as tobacco and fireworks, which have no place in our schools; and from October, we are granting teachers anonymity when they are accused by pupils of abuse. In addition, the new system of independent review panels will ensure that decisions by schools permanently to exclude a pupil can no longer be overturned by an appeal process that can force reinstatement against the best interests of the school.

Schools are now held more closely to account for the way that they tackle bullying. New school inspection arrangements, which took effect in January, focus on four core areas: teaching, achievement, leadership, and behaviour and safety. When evaluating the behaviour and safety of pupils at the school, inspectors must consider pupils’ behaviour towards and respect for other pupils and adults. That will include freedom from bullying and harassment, including bullying based on sexual orientation and all other kinds of prejudice-based bullying.

Chris Bryant: It is all sounding a bit rosy, and, much as I recognise all that the Government are trying to do, the experience in many schools is still pretty awful. In some schools, that is because there is no proper sex and relationship education, teachers are not prepared to talk about the issues openly and properly, and there is inadequate preparation. Sometimes, school governors impede the development of proper policies. How are we going to ensure that we address those issues?

Mr Gibb: The points that the hon. Gentleman makes are important. The issue cannot be tackled overnight with any instant panacea. We have made it clear that the

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Government regard any form of prejudice-based bullying in schools as unacceptable. We expect teachers to take action when pejorative phrases are used, or when a pupil shouts out in the way that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South. Teachers should take action against pupils who use those words in the same way that they would against a racial slur. Those things will not be dealt with overnight. There is no clear and simple solution, such as the solutions proposed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We need a range of answers. However, one of the relevant issues is ensuring that schools have proper behaviour policies and that there is an intolerant approach to poor behaviour and bullying, from whatever cause and of whatever type. That is a key priority of the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) pointed out, widespread access to technology such as the internet and social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have provided another avenue by which bullying can occur. Such bullying is not confined to the school site or day, but can happen at any time. As has been mentioned, there is no escape from bullying. Going home is no longer a safe haven from bullying for pupils.

To help children and young people to use the internet safely, the Department supports the UK Council for Child Internet Safety—a voluntary organisation that works to protect children from risks including cyber-bullying as well as harmful content, sexual images, grooming, loss of privacy and scams. Earlier this year, UKCCIS launched child internet safety guidance, including on the theme of cyberbullying. Facebook, the BBC and others are using the guidance, which should ensure that, whichever online service children use, they receive sound and consistent messages about what to do if they want to prevent harm or if they have become upset by something online.

In addition, children’s charities such as Childnet and Beatbullying, which are active UKCCIS members, offer expert advice on cyber-bullying for young people to raise awareness of online safety and how to protect themselves. Beatbullying has developed the CyberMentors peer support programme, with dedicated websites using a social networking model to allow young people to help and support one another.

Bullying is not an issue that is just for the bully and the bullied. It can affect a whole school and so can need a whole school to create an environment that prevents bullying from being a problem in the first place. Each pupil has a part to play in preventing and tackling bullying. All pupils should show respect and courtesy towards one another and should be encouraged in that by their parents. Pupils can demonstrate that attitude by not going along with a bully. As Stonewall would put it, “Don’t be a bystander.” That applies of course to teachers as well—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South about a teacher who failed to admonish pupils for making anti-gay remarks. Prejudice-based bullying in schools, such as homophobic bullying, is unacceptable. When I spoke last July at the Stonewall “Education for All” conference I said:

“We need to send a message that homophobic bullying, of any kind and of any child, is unacceptable.”

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I am happy to restate that message today and will continue to send as clear a signal as I can that we cannot and should not tolerate homophobic bullying.

I have set out our expectations of schools and what they should do to prevent and tackle bullying. We have taken action to support them by ensuring that they have the powers that they need to maintain good behaviour and discipline. We have taken action by giving them clear advice on their duties and their powers. We continue to work with specialist organisations that can provide help and advice, not just to schools, but to those who experience bullying. Schools now need to be able to demonstrate the impact of their anti-bullying policies to Ofsted. I believe that that provides a comprehensive approach to ending not just homophobic bullying, but all bullying in our schools.

12.58 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Food Crisis (The Sahel)

1 pm

Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am delighted to have secured this debate. I also thank my colleagues for joining me here this afternoon.

To put the debate in context, 18 million people across seven countries, from Senegal to Eritrea, are now feeling the effects of food shortages. The horn of Africa crisis is beginning to fade in our memories, and as it is not the force it was in the media, our attentions start to turn to another crisis. Although we have an opportunity to do better this time, I am concerned that the world community is not acting swiftly enough. These crises illustrate how food security is a growing problem, which will show no sign of lessening unless there is a global commitment to tackle the issues. That global commitment must deliver its promises to the world’s poor.

I want to focus on a few issues, including children’s welfare during food crises, long-term investment and short-term recovery, and funding and the international community. Living in the region when times are not too bad is difficult. Four of the Sahel countries, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali, are in the bottom 15 human development index countries. Even in a very good year, Oxfam says, 300,000 children die from malnutrition. These communities are some of the most vulnerable in the world and they lack almost all of life’s most basic requirements. To meet the millennium development goals, the Government must work to protect these people by investing in their future and protecting their present.

The current crisis has recognisable traits plus the added complication of conflict. We have seen it before, but this time we must deal with it differently and better. Cereal production across the Sahel in autumn 2011 was 25% lower than in 2010. A change in the climate can be an inconvenience here in the UK. We saw that with the Queen’s jubilee when it rained throughout the pageant. When we have water shortages, we might not be able to bowl on our favourite bowling green because it has not been watered. In the Sahel, however, such shortages can be a matter of life and death.

One of the most dangerous consequences of a food crisis is malnutrition, which often hits children first, and the most vulnerable children at that. Malnutrition is destroying the potential of thousands of children across Africa. In early May, UNICEF warned that 1 million children could die from malnutrition in the Sahel. We have been warned and we continue to be warned about the ramifications of not acting. The Government must act now to prevent not only deaths but the spread of malnutrition.

The Save the Children report, “A Dangerous Delay” highlights how damaging malnutrition can be, as it directly affects education and future earning power. The impact of not acting now will affect generations to come. Oxfam estimated that it cost $1 a day to protect a child from malnutrition before the 2005 food crisis in Niger, but $80 a day to save a child’s life from severe malnutrition once the crisis had peaked. It makes sense both morally and economically to act now.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important

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debate. We are all aware of the number of debates that have taken place on this matter in this Chamber and elsewhere in the House. There is a problem of food security right across the globe, but in these countries some 300,000 children will die from malnutrition. Of course there is an issue of aid, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is good not only that we send aid to those regions but that the aid reaches the people who need it? There is also an issue of education and, where possible, irrigation should be introduced. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me on the need for security of food.

Tony Cunningham: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and pay tribute to him for the work that he has done on this problem over many years. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to do more, but the problem is broader than just malnutrition; lots of other factors are involved as well.

Although some money has been pledged to Save the Children, UNICEF and elsewhere, not nearly enough is being spent to protect children from the harmful effects of long-term malnutrition. World Vision estimates that in Niger nearly 50,000 children have dropped out of school since the crisis began, and that 44% of school-aged children are migrating for work. The food crisis is not just about food; it affects a child’s health, mental well-being, education and future. We sometimes forget that education is a once in a lifetime thing. Malnutrition does not just affect the child while they are hungry; it is a life sentence. If a child misses out on education at a vital period in their life because of malnutrition, they never recover. Malnutrition is a life sentence for many people in this region.

Although UK funding has increased, it has not taken into consideration that the need has grown since 2010, when funding was £20 million. I urge the Government to act swiftly, not only to provide crisis funding but to invest in the future of the Sahel communities.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. On the point about contributions, the Department for International Development has already made significant contributions of food, water, seeds, medicines and vaccinations for cattle, and the Minister will have even more details. Some 1.4 million people are being helped at the moment. Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that this humanitarian crisis is so grave that we need leadership and involvement from the entire international community, and that further assistance and contribution from some of the wealthier middle east countries would not go amiss?

Tony Cunningham: I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution and pay tribute to her for her work on this matter over a long period of time. I noticed that the Minister was shaking his head. I do pay tribute to the Government for what they are doing and I will come on to say that we very much welcome the extra money. The point that I was trying to make was that we need to be doing more on a world community basis. We need to involve Europe and other bodies. I certainly was not minimising what the Government are doing.

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Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Following on from the hon. Lady’s point about global leadership, does he agree that it was disappointing that the G8 leaders did not take a stance similar to the one taken in L’Aguila in 2009? We need a global response to food security, ensuring that we tackle not only the urgent crisis in Sahel but future crises in other parts of the world.

Tony Cunningham: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The UK Government can do their bit and provide support and additional funding, but unless we get a global commitment and involve multilateral institutions, we will not solve the problem.

As I have already said, I urge the Government to act swiftly, not only to provide crisis funding but to invest in the future of the Sahel communities. The long-term investment should include investment to build capacity and resilience within those communities. The region’s long-term problems must be tackled before a crisis emerges; it is so important to deal with crises before they happen, rather than wait until they happen to act. Not only do we risk lives if we wait but the cost of the delay will also be huge; that was another point that I made before.

Recent humanitarian disasters have shown the importance of heeding early warning systems and not delaying before taking action. “A Dangerous Delay”, the report produced by Oxfam and Save the Children, highlighted the mistakes that were made in the response to the east African crisis. The report said that national Governments, donors, NGOs and the UN needed to

“act decisively on information from early warning systems and not wait for certainty before responding”

and

“actively seek to reduce drought risk in all activities, ensuring that long-term development interventions increase resilience and adapt to the changing context”.

I am sure that the Minister has been waiting to hear my next point: I very much welcome the news that the Department for International Development has increased funding. However, what I am saying is that the Sahel crisis is so huge that we need even more money, and we also need the UK Government to make sure that everyone else is pulling their weight too. The extra £10 million from DFID could not have come at a more important time, but the UN states that we are still missing £300 million to fight the worst of the crisis. Food security is no longer just about the human imperative of having enough to eat; it also impacts on government and on the very structures of the societies in which these people live.

I will conclude as quickly as I can, because I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to tell us what he is doing—not only what he is doing as part of the UK Government’s efforts, but what he is doing in relation to the actions of international organisations, other donors and other countries. I hope that he will paint a picture of the UK being hugely active in trying to deal with an incredibly difficult crisis.

As I have said, Oxfam has warned that 400,000 children may need life-saving treatment for malnutrition. A donor-pledging conference is crucial. Can the Minister comment on the possibility of having such a conference? Is a conference feasible? I would very much welcome one as

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soon as possible, because the crisis is getting worse as we speak. We need a donor-pledging conference to minimise the risk that the crisis poses to children and severely affected communities.

The UK is respected worldwide for its commitment to aid and for the difference that it makes globally. That was the case under the last Labour Government and I hope that it will be the case under this Government too. I hope that they will make a commitment to do the best they can for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I hope that this Government will continue the UK’s work in this area and, as I have already said, that they will encourage as many other individuals and organisations as possible to get involved. What role can the UK play to encourage more funding? That is the key question for the Minister. The Government must increase their own funding, but they must also encourage more funding from other organisations. That additional funding is desperately needed.

I thank Members for being here in Westminster Hall today and I thank the Minister for coming along. I am sure that we are all hugely concerned about the growing crisis in the Sahel, but this is a debate. We have uttered warm words; we have all said how vital it is to act and how desperate the crisis is, but those are simply words. What we need now is action, and I hope that action is what we get.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): I am delighted to have this opportunity to ensure that we give a high degree of attention and recognition to what is unquestionably one of the most pressing issues facing the people of our planet today. It is therefore very timely that the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) has secured this debate. I saw it listed on the Order Paper some time ago, and I think that it has been brought forward to today, when Parliament has reconvened. I am glad that we now all have the opportunity not only to catch up with the facts on the ground as we now best understand them, but to understand what our response on behalf of the British people has been to date.

I particularly seek to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s questions about where we go from here. We are not only focused on the immediate humanitarian needs, although we are rightly focused on them at this stage, but on the resilience issues highlighted by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and the hon. Members for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar). Indeed, we also focus on the year-on-year challenges that face that area of the world.

The crisis in the Sahel is something that we need to debate, to ensure that it is kept in the public eye. As the hon. Member for Workington said, it is currently estimated that about 18 million people are at risk of food shortages, of whom 8 million need immediate assistance. We are witnessing exceptional circumstances, as almost 1.5 million children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year, which is obviously a large increase on the number of children affected by food insecurity in the Sahel year on year. The worst affected countries are Niger, Chad and Mali, where 72% of those who are

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affected by the crisis live, but a huge swathe of land is affected, from Senegal and Gambia on the Atlantic coast to the northern parts of Nigeria and Cameroon, as well as areas to the north and east of those areas.

The humanitarian crisis in the Sahel is getting worse. Increasing numbers of people are being forced to resort to coping mechanisms that store up trouble for the future, such as reducing the number of meals each day or going without food altogether for days at a time. The physical condition of the livestock that provide the livelihoods for many families in the Sahel is beginning to deteriorate, and some animals are now too weak to reach pasturelands. Admission rates of severely malnourished children to therapeutic treatment centres are on the rise, and greater numbers are being admitted to treatment centres in Niger than at the same stage of the 2010 crisis.

I will respond in particular to a point made by the hon. Gentleman about the cereal deficit. He said that cereal production in 2011 was 25% lower than in 2010. That is certainly factually true, but 2010 was actually a bumper year, so we need to be extremely careful about how we understand the phenomenon for the resilience argument going forward. In 2011, cereal production in the Sahel was actually about 3% in deficit compared to the overall running average. There is, of course, a structural problem about what that average represents in terms of meeting the ongoing and continuing need.

Tony Cunningham: Does the Minister accept my point that, even in the good years, life is desperately hard for people in the Sahel?

Mr O'Brien: Absolutely; I was seeking to make that point. It is helpful to reinforce the point that, in any event, we are dealing with an extraordinarily challenged area of the world, which has a year-on-year crisis; that is no exaggeration. However, as I have just pointed out, we have an exceptional situation now—this minute, this year—and a fairly tight window in which to do something about it before the weather conditions in the normal weather patterns arise in the next few weeks and make it even more difficult to gain access to the area and deliver aid, even where security issues do not make that more difficult than it already is climatically and geographically.

That is why, as Ministers in the Department for International Development and on behalf of the British people through the coalition Government, we announced yesterday an additional £10 million to be provided immediately, to help just over 1 million people in six countries of the Sahel, by giving food, health care, clean water, animal feed, treatment for children and aid to refugees. That brings our total funding commitment to the region to date to £20 million, which will assist more than 1.4 million people at risk of hunger in the Sahel—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald in her intervention.

The UK has shown leadership by being one of the first international donors to respond to this crisis, at the same time as we have pushed others to do more. Our initial £10 million, which was given some weeks back, is already starting to demonstrate results. An example of UK aid impact in April includes assistance to more than 43,000 men, women and children. Of those 43,000 people, 15,000 people in Niger have received food; 27,000 people, or approximately 3,464 families—that

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is a rather precise number for an approximation—in Niger and Mali have received inflation-proof cash vouchers to purchase food and other critical supplies; and 1,700 Nigerien children have been vaccinated against measles.

In addition to our direct support, the UK has provided a substantial share of multilateral contributions to the response to the crisis in the Sahel. The UN’s central emergency response fund has released £57 million, and the European Community Humanitarian Office has provided £105 million. So the UK is taking its fair share of the burden. But for our intervention and contribution, the situation would unquestionably have become even more serious at an even earlier stage. Families would have used up seeds and plants, and breeding animals would have been eaten and household assets sold to meet immediate food needs.

We have to be clear, however, that our links with the Sahel are not as strong as those that we have with other areas of Africa. We do not have the local presence or knowledge to take a lead in the Sahel, as we have done in the horn of Africa, for instance. Therefore, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s urging on this point, it is vital that we get other donors to be encouraged to step forward to carry their share of the international response, particularly those that have the shared history, the knowledge and the presence on the ground in the countries of the Sahel that the UK does not. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I continue to lobby our counterparts in other Governments, to urge them to increase their support.

Things are made even more difficult, of course, by things such as the coup in Mali. The rebellion in the north of the country has added a new and potentially dangerous dimension. More than 300,000 people have been directly affected by the conflict. Humanitarian agencies are increasingly concerned by reports of human rights violations, of increasing malnutrition and of armed groups seeking to place restrictions on humanitarian access. We have witnessed the effects of the deadly combination of drought, food insecurity and conflict in Somalia.

Tony Cunningham: Now that the Minister has mentioned conflict complicating things, does he also accept that what has happened in Libya has had an impact on the Sahel region, with returning soldiers and so on? That does not help at all.

Mr O'Brien: I absolutely agree. I prefer in this debate not to get too far down into the security implications, but suffice it to say that, perhaps a little unusually for a Minister of the Crown, I have driven right the way through the Sahara and this area and know the geography well. It was many years ago, but in the years when I was going there, it was seen as relatively safe, without the pressures that have come from returnees from some of the conflicts—in Libya, for instance—and the access to cut-price AK47s and other munitions. There were already very insecure parts to the region, because it has always been borderless from the perspective of how people perceive and identify themselves and adhere to various ways of life. That presents additional challenges. We have already closely monitored, and will continue to monitor, the humanitarian situation in northern Mali,

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to the extent that access and information are obtainable, and encouraged the Economic Community of West African States to continue with its efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

The international community has learnt from previous crises in the area in 2005 and 2010 and has brought those lessons to bear, as best it can, this year. Early interventions have helped many people to cope, including the UK’s cash voucher programme, which has enabled more than 3,400 families to hold on to their livestock during the start of the hunger season. However, we are now approaching a critical point in the crisis, with historical experience suggesting that acute malnutrition rates will rise to reach a peak in July and August. The rains expected to start this month will make it more difficult for aid agencies to deliver supplies across the region and will increase the risk of diarrhoeal diseases and malaria.

The urgency of the situation requires an intensified and co-ordinated international response. The UN’s appointment of a regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sahel will support a more coherent and prioritised response, and that is welcome. The UN has revised its estimate of the funding needed to meet humanitarian requirements to almost £1 billion, which is more than double its initial needs estimate and is an indication of the growing seriousness of the situation. It is therefore right to put pressure on other donors, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as we speak, calls are being placed—I happen to know because I am personally involved—through to Germany, Norway and Canada. There are, of course, continuing and very active discussions with ECHO, through Brussels and through our French counterparts, as they have the strength of historical connection that perhaps replicate ours in the east and in the horn of Africa.

It is right that we focus our attention on meeting the immediate needs of people in distress, but at the same time we must continue to learn lessons from the Sahel’s third humanitarian crisis in less than a decade, so that there is much less likelihood of a repeat in the coming years. The underlying causes of the crisis are deeply rooted and long-standing.

The Sahel is a climatically vulnerable area and its vulnerability will be exacerbated by climate change. Even in so-called good years, some areas have rates of acute malnutrition chronically above 15%. It takes only a year of below average rainfall to push many more people over the edge; many poor households are still recovering from the 2010 crisis. It is not, however, simply a problem of uncertain climate; it is one of poverty, rooted in poor governance, political instability, endemic conflict and weak economies.

The key point is that there is enough food to feed the people of west Africa in 2012, and in many areas of the Sahel food is available but at prices that the poor cannot afford. In the markets of Mali, Mauritania and the north of Burkina Faso, food prices are historically high—more than double the five-year average for this time of year in Mali’s capital, Bamako, and 85% higher in Ouagadougou. It is a problem of economic access made worse by protectionist measures of Governments, such as restrictions on grain exports and border closures. We must continue—I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are continuing—to support the free movement of trade and food affordability to ensure that even the

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poorest can eat. At the same time, we must help Governments and communities to withstand a harsher and more uncertain climate, unlocking the region’s economic potential and helping to build a stronger contract between peoples and states.

The coalition Government are implementing recommendations from the humanitarian emergency response review to strengthen the resilience of poor people in Africa to withstand and recover from future shocks and to increase food security. We are developing safety net programmes, supporting work to improve agricultural livelihoods, funding research into higher-yielding and drought-resistant staple crops, and building stronger health and education systems. By 2015, 20 million young children around the developing world will benefit from our nutrition programmes.

Although we do not have a bilateral programme in the Sahel, the UK retains significant development investment in the region through our contributions to the multilateral development organisations. The European Union’s security and development strategy for the Sahel will commit €600 million over the next 10 years to provide basic services, increase economic opportunities and rebuild the contract between state and communities. The UK is also the second largest contributor to the World Bank’s global facility for disaster risk reduction and recovery, which is helping 20 developing countries, including Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, to cope with disasters, adapt to climate change and build long-term resilience.

In picking up the hon. Gentleman’s point, I remind the House that the meeting of the G8 identified food security as a major theme that it wished now to focus on, and we are not only fully behind that but have had some help in ensuring that it is the focus of the agenda. We will continue to push that, both at the G20 and at other gatherings. It is vital that we recognise that worldwide,

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as a top development, humanitarian and aid issue—whichever way we define it—addressing food insecurity through resilience and other food security measures is now a huge and important priority for us, as the UK Government, with our development programme and humanitarian response, but also increasingly among the international interlocutors and partners.

The long-term investments in resilience and development not only are needed to give poor people in the Sahel and other vulnerable regions the means to take control of their lives again, but represent far better value for money than emergency humanitarian aid alone—a point underlined by the hon. Gentleman. So now that we have made our commitment clear and have stepped up not only bilaterally but particularly and equally through the multilaterals, urging the prioritisation that is required, it is the moment to build on working with others to try to get them to make up their equal shares. I am pleased to see that the responses are beginning to come forward and that we are seeing much greater prioritisation of, and focus on, this very immediate crisis that we all face.

Tony Cunningham: Will the Minister please assure me that he will take a personal interest in monitoring the situation as the days, weeks and months go on?

Mr O'Brien: I can give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance because for the past 14 weeks I have been making sure that I have a daily report. For reasons that he will understand, plans about how close I can get to having eyes on are in development.

In the meantime, I am grateful to have had this opportunity to update the House on the significant work that the coalition Government, on behalf of the British people, are doing to encourage the rest of the international community, as well as to contribute our fair share to what is a very difficult crisis that the world faces today.

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Rail Infrastructure (Merseyside)

1.29 pm

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): I thank the Speaker for providing me with the opportunity to hold this debate. I am a railwayman’s daughter. I am also a railwayman’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and had the opportunity to work for Network Rail for a few years myself.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way so early in her speech and congratulate her on securing the debate. On the subject of fatherhood, is she aware that Merseyrail provides free travel for pensioners travelling from the Merseyside area to Chester, but that pensioners who catch the train at Hooton must pay to travel to Chester?

Alison McGovern: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is always important to speak up for pensioners, especially those related to us. I am sure that people outside this place will take note of his comments.

As I was saying, I come from a long line of railway people. I mention that not to emphasise a lack of imagination in the McGovern family but to say that in this debate, I will be demanding in speaking for the future of rail in Merseyside. However, I do so in the knowledge of how difficult questions of investment can be.

For reasons that I will suggest shortly, public transport should be central to the current national debate about the economic future of our country. This afternoon’s debate focuses on Merseyside and the surrounding areas of north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire, but my point—that infrastructure planning is at the heart of economic development and poverty alleviation—could be made about many places in our country.

This year, the Secretary of State for Transport will set out the Government’s investment priorities for our rail network for the five-year period from 2014 to 2019. It is a significant opportunity. It will set the agenda for investment and begin thousands of conversations about how we can speed up, increase capacity and provide access to markets for our many citizens who are looking for a job or need access to parts of our economy.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am pleased to be here as the MP for Wrexham and to support my hon. Friend in her debate. Many big businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover, General Motors in Ellesmere Port and Airbus provide jobs not just across Merseyside but in north Wales. It is important to enable access to those jobs for people who do not have private transport. We need a good public transport network in the region.

Alison McGovern: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He and I have tried to work closely together on these issues, for the reasons that he mentions. People do not respect administrative boundaries when it comes to getting a job. We must ensure that people in residential areas, a lot of whom need work, have access to big businesses such as the ones that he mentioned. I hope that I can suggest exactly how we might do so.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Hopefully, my hon. Friend will agree that many people separate, isolate or segregate transport as just a means of moving

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goods or individuals from one place to another. Does she agree that there are also massive economic, health and well-being and social benefits to infrastructure, and that it creates the sorts of job and employment opportunity that she will know are all too needed on Merseyside?

Alison McGovern: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is quite right. If we consider the body of evidence produced by, for example, the Thameslink and Crossrail projects in London, we find exactly what he suggests. Transport infrastructure underpins economic development, but it also gives access to employment, and to the personal dignity involved, to those who currently do not have it. With that point in mind—

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alison McGovern: I will give way once more, before I make some progress.

Rosie Cooper: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in her speech. Does she agree that for places such as Skelmersdale, the most populous town in my constituency, not to have a rail service in the 21st century places the town and its residents at a massive disadvantage and reflects the desperate need for investment in local rail services? To amplify the comments made so far, communities such as Skelmersdale must have rail services, which will deliver significant regeneration benefits socially, economically and culturally—

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. Thanks for the speech.

Alison McGovern: Thank you, Mr Robertson. I promise not to test your patience any more by taking further interventions. My hon. Friend and I have mentioned Skelmersdale in this Chamber before. She will correct me if I am not right, but I believe that the reduction in rail service happened just before Skelmersdale became a new town. How ironic that such a residential centre should not have a rail link. That must be addressed as well.

Rosie Cooper: Absolutely. There will now be significant investment in the new town centre in Skelmersdale. It would be a travesty if that development were to go ahead without some land being reserved for a prospective rail station.

Alison McGovern: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

With all those points in mind, the test that I would set the Government for their priorities is this. First, whatever those priorities are, will they help rebalance the UK economy? Secondly, will those priorities address existing pockets of poverty in the UK? I would be grateful if the Minister addressed those points of principle.

I remind everybody that Merseyside has an important place in rail history. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record at Rainhill in Merseyside. One year later, the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened as the world’s first steam passenger service. However, wonderful though that history is, it is not enough. We need a

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fantastic economic future as well. Luckily, that seems to be happening for Merseyside. We have a brilliant, burgeoning visitor economy.

During the recent “Sea Odyssey”, I am told, hotels in the city were at 99% occupancy, against the backdrop of a large increase in the number of hotels. We have a successful visitor economy on our hands. Our port is also growing, and more development is possible through the Wirral Waters schemes and others. What infrastructure does Merseyside require to ensure that economic growth is achieved, and that growth, when it comes, significantly benefits the least well off?

Turning to the specifics, Merseyside’s rail network is very busy already, and it is well used. Especially through the east side of my constituency, services are busy and getting busier by the day. However, a key problem is the existence of what I call railway black holes. That was not always the case. Many parts of Merseyside and the surrounding area suffer from poor connectivity because their railway station was closed or their service reduced many years ago, when it was not clear that railways would be as popular and necessary as they now clearly are. There are public transport gaps across Merseyside. As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most disadvantaged communities in our region are in those blackspots. We have already mentioned Skelmersdale and the surrounding area, just across the border in Lancashire. Parts of north Liverpool also suffer. They are important population centres. Parts of the Wirral, such as the Woodchurch estate, which need a railway station within a short distance so that people can get to work do not have that connectivity.

There are some important issues for the Government to consider. The Minister might mention the northern hub. It is important to finish the northern hub in order to get the full benefit. Only through quick links—four trains an hour between Liverpool and Manchester—will we open up the commuting area. We also need to look at the Halton curve, which could provide two routes into Liverpool and help with managing the west coast main line.

Parts of my constituency of Wirral South are very well connected to employment centres in Liverpool and Chester, and onwards to Warrington and Manchester, but other parts are less fortunate. They are served by a railway running from Bidston, on the Wirral, through Heswall, Neston and Deeside to Wrexham in north Wales. I stand to be corrected, but I believe the route has received little or no significant investment for years. The unreliable and infrequent service means that those of my constituents in Heswall who have the choice tend to opt for their cars rather than the train. Members representing constituencies in north Wales tell me that it is also common in Flintshire and Deeside for people to opt automatically for their car rather than the train. Those without access to private transport are then left with either rail services that are not as good as in other places, or slow buses. Electrifying the line, which is fewer than 30 miles in length, would tie it in and provide through services to Liverpool and more frequent trains.

I know that these are difficult times and I understand that even if we were to start planning for further electrification, it would be a long process to find funding over a number of years. During the economic instability of the 1980s, however, the then Government electrified parts of the Merseyside rail network, namely the line

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through Rock Ferry, on the other side of my constituency. That has underpinned today’s economic development, so investing in rail, even at times like these, really works. Unfortunately, some parts were left out and those areas form today’s gaps, but if it was possible to invest in our rail network in the 1980s, I am sure that it should be possible to do so again today. There are long-term benefits to electrification.

I would like to add, as a slight caveat, that we need rolling stock as well as infrastructure. There will be a cascade of new rolling stock as the Thameslink programme comes online. Will the Minister comment on how that is proceeding? It would be helpful if the rolling stock could make more trains available.

In my test for the Government’s priorities, how will my proposal for extra electrification help? First, it must be recognised that the railway line happens to link the potential of Wirral Waters, in north Wirral, with industry in Deeside, where we hope to see much growth. It runs between those two flagship zones for economic development. North Wales and Liverpool have a historic connection: many people from one area visit the other on holiday, and vice versa, and more people from Merseyside now want to visit the beautiful surroundings of north Wales. We want a direct rail link between the two to serve those people well.

Secondly, on poverty reduction, we know that we have to tackle worklessness by reducing travel-to-work barriers. This is not a “get-on-your-bike” mentality; people are already trying to make journeys between centres of population and centres of employment. We have to plan for how we can support them to do that in a way that will give businesses the confidence to invest because they know that there are skilled people available to hire. This is about addressing historic imbalances in rail investment and seeing whether we can do some infilling of pockets with a relatively modest investment that could have a long-term impact on economic development.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will plot a journey for us on how we can make progress with this project, which has been an aspiration for many years. My predecessor worked on it and other Members present have spent a great deal of time promoting it. On economic development and the difficulties that we face, especially in an area where a large number of people are employed in businesses that export to the eurozone, we need to continue to support the underlying infrastructure investment that will keep our industry strong.

More than simply arguing for the investment from which my own constituents could benefit—I do not apologise for doing so, although it is not enough to do just that—I hope that I have made a case for the potential in Merseyside and its surrounding areas in north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire. Our region has much to offer a rebalanced UK economy. I hope that the Government will seize tomorrow’s opportunities and, by doing so, set in progress some of the answers to today’s economic strife.

1.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I am pleased to be able to respond to this important debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on

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securing it. I concur with her that Liverpool’s real place in railway history is as the home of the first passenger railway. On the railway’s opening day, an MP got run over, which was a little unfortunate, but I will try to avoid such an incident in the future. Today, the city of Liverpool has one of the most intensive and busiest suburban networks outside London. A number of rail improvements have been delivered or are due to be delivered in the coming years and I will discuss them in a moment, but first I will address some the hon. Lady’s general points.

The coalition fully agrees that investment in our transport network is crucial. It can help to generate growth and improve competitiveness, which is why, despite the difficult public finances relating to the deficit, we have prioritised investment in our road and rail network. Our programme of rail improvements is bigger than any since the Victorian era. I agree that providing opportunities for employment, as well as widening labour pools and access to jobs and employment, is one of the key benefits of rail improvement schemes.

The hon. Lady was kind enough to refer to the previous Conservative Government’s activities in electrifying lines in the 1980s. The coalition Government also recognise the benefits of electrification, which is why we have a programme to roll it out in the north-west and on the Great Western line. We will also consider what more can be done. The hon. Lady asked about rolling stock cascade. Network Rail is programmed to deliver the electrification in the north-west and on the Great Western line that will start to deliver that cascade. The work is going well and is on schedule. We are also making progress on the Thameslink procurement, which is a key trigger for making available rolling stock to be cascaded elsewhere in the country, potentially to Merseyside.

The hon. Lady mentioned the aspiration to electrify the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am, of course, aware of the scheme and have discussed it with Merseytravel. I acknowledge its potential in relation to the economies of Wirral and Deeside, and she is right to mention the potential benefits of better links between north Wales and Merseyside. She will probably be aware that, a few years ago, Merseytravel and the Welsh Government asked Network Rail to undertake a study outlining the costs of the electrification proposal, and the figure produced was £207 million, so it is quite a high-cost scheme, which makes delivery a challenge. There was little follow-up on the study, and it must be recognised that, although we support electrification, if schemes are to go ahead they need to demonstrate value for money and be affordable.

Alison McGovern: Does the Minister agree that although railways are not cheap, compared with the billions that have been provided for Thameslink, which will have a great impact on London, the proposed investment is modest; that what matters is the resulting cost-benefit ratio; and that we need to clarify exactly what those benefits will be?

Mrs Villiers: I agree that we need to assess carefully the value for money of every scheme, but we also need to look at overall affordability. I am afraid that even when one is talking about Government spending,

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£200 million is a significant amount. I am impressed with the work that Network Rail is doing, for example, on how to get the costs of delivering electrification down. I hope that there is scope to see whether there might be a more affordable scheme in the future.

For a local line, we, like the previous Government, would normally look to the local authorities to seek out the funding to realise such a scheme. We know that such schemes are important to the local authorities and, if they attach a priority to them, we would expect them to consider their options for funding. That might include the major local scheme, which will reopen in 2015. That has funded some very important improvements, for example, at Kirkstall Forge and in Coventry. There are options open to Merseytravel and the Welsh Government. As we have done in the past, the Government are prepared to engage with them if they want to do further work.

We take broadly the same position on some of the other improvements mentioned in today’s debate. On proposals to upgrade the Halton curve, we recognise the potential local benefits and we would be happy to work with the local authorities on their aspirations. However, again, the local authorities need to identify the funding.

Steve Rotheram: I am sure that the right hon. Lady, like all Ministers, is used to special pleading and everyone thinking that their project is the most important, but is she aware of the huge increase in visitor numbers to Liverpool and the importance of the extra connectivity my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about to the future of the city and to growing the local economy? That is what the Government keep telling us that they want to see in relation to rebalancing the economy.

Mrs Villiers: We fully agree that improving our rail network can help us to achieve our aspiration to rebalance the economy and close the prosperity gap between north and south. That is why we are investing in a major programme of rail improvements, a number of which will benefit Liverpool—I am about to come on to those—including the announcements we have already made about the northern hub.

It is very important that we consider how to get the maximum benefits from rail investment to help to provide the jobs and prosperity that I think everyone in this Chamber wants. I acknowledge that rail has been key to Liverpool’s success as a port. In recent years, there have been a number of measures to improve rail freight connectivity. Under the previous Government, the Olive Mount chord was reopened to facilitate better freight train access to the port. The upgrade of the west coast main line has cut journey times between London and Liverpool, and a total of 106 new Pendolino carriages will be in use on the line by December, amounting to a 20% uplift in capacity, which obviously benefits many people in Merseyside travelling between Liverpool and London.

A competition for the next west coast franchise is under way. We are emphasising the importance of raising passenger satisfaction and service quality and improving punctuality. However, I fully agree that it is not only north-south connections we need to focus on. It is vital that we improve connectivity between our great cities of

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the north of England, because that is another way we will achieve the goals, rightly set out by the hon. Member for Wirral South, of rebalancing the economy and boosting the economy of the north of England.

In our spending review, we confirmed the control period 4 programme of rail improvements, including line speed improvements between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Electrification in the north-west, which was another programme we inherited from the previous Government, was also given the go-ahead. That includes electrification of the line to Wigan via St Helens, which will benefit commuter services in Merseyside. The Ordsall chord recently got the go-ahead, which is a key part of the northern hub scheme.

Rosie Cooper: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Villiers: I am sorry, but I need to conclude now.

Although located in Manchester, that scheme will benefit Liverpool because it will deliver those faster journey times between Liverpool and Manchester that the hon. Member for Wirral South rightly identified as very important. The combination of that with the electrification of the north trans-Pennine line to York means that we will see improvements to journey times between Liverpool and Leeds. When those very important improvements are complete, journey times will decrease from around 109 minutes to 77 minutes.

In the meantime, TransPennine Express is consulting on a new timetable that could result in an additional service between Liverpool and Newcastle. We welcome that because it could increase capacity on the route and deliver some journey time savings early, in advance of those infrastructure upgrades that are also going ahead. As I have many times before, I assure hon. Members that we are considering all the remaining schemes in the northern hub, including increasing the capacity of the Chat Moss route. That is very relevant to Merseyside. We will assess what is affordable and what can be included in the high-level output specification that we will publish over the summer.

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I will end by referring to some of the real successes we have seen on the Merseyrail Electrics network, which was devolved to Merseytravel and supported by a grant of around £70 million a year from the Government. Passenger satisfaction ratings have risen significantly to 93% in autumn 2011 and high levels of reliability have been achieved. All the trains have been refurbished and automatic ticket barriers have been introduced in many stations. All of Liverpool’s five underground stations are to receive a £40 million overhaul in the next few years, and £20 million is being spent on refurbishing Liverpool Central station, which forms a key hub of the Merseyrail network. Merseytravel is putting together plans to replace every train on the Merseyrail network. That is an ambitious programme and my Department is happy to provide advice on developing the case for replacement rolling stock.

That programme provides an illustration of what the devolution of transport decision making can achieve. We have consulted on our proposals to devolve the local major scheme to local transport bodies. Local authorities might like to consider the scheme I mentioned in relation to their aspirations to improve local rail services. We are also discussing a city deal with the Liverpool city region, which has identified improving connectivity as essential to its future economic growth.

Last but certainly not least, our HS2 plans will see classic compatible high-speed trains running off the new network on to the west coast line to serve Liverpool directly. That will provide improved connectivity to London and faster journey times and will further assist in achieving the goals, which I am sure the hon. Member for Wirral South and I share, of regenerating the economy around Merseyside, promoting growth in the north of England and rebalancing our economy. A high-quality rail network is one of the means we can use to achieve those objectives.

Question put and agreed to.

1.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.