That is why it is absolutely vital that, in understanding the potential of HS2 to unlock the north, we must not forget the west. That is the plea I make today, that in

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any future development of HS2 priority is placed upon the need to connect the major airport for our country with the rest of England and the wider UK. Central London is, of course, an important destination, but the businesses that I represent tell me time and time again that it is Heathrow airport that is crucial to their future success. The importance of businesses’ ability to link with Heathrow should not be underestimated.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am sorry to keep intervening on my hon. Friends’ speeches; both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) have made very good points.

The reason that I called this particular debate today was that once the planning gets too far down the line—excuse the pun—and particularly when the hybrid Bill has gone through this place, it will be much more difficult to consider alternatives than it is now. Now is the time that we must urge the Minister to stand back, pause and consider whether there are any better alternatives; there may not be, but she should look to see if there are.

Mr Buckland: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. When I looked in detail at a map of Old Oak Common—and I am delighted that it will become an important part of this network—one thing struck me very forcibly that I had not realised before, and that is how close the Euston line runs to the Great Western Line. In fact, there is a connecting spur now that allows trains to move between the two networks.

That spur is a metaphor for the debate that we are having today. We are within an ace of getting things right in terms of judging future demand, not only for rail capacity but for the future of our principal airport. As I have said, it would be a missed opportunity, as well as a tragedy, if we were within an ace of getting things right and we then missed the opportunity that, as my hon. Friend says, the hybrid Bill presents. He is right to say that once we proceed down the line of legislation, it will become more difficult to add on various concepts or indeed to get the basic concepts right in the first place. So this debate today is timely, I welcome it and I congratulate him on securing it. I wish to add my voice on behalf of both the west of England and south Wales—let us not forget that region—and the whole growing economy and growing population that need support and proper connectivity with what will continue to be our principal airport for many years to come.

3.17 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Dr McCrea, for the opportunity to speak. It is a great pleasure to serve under you in the Chair.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing this important and timely debate today. I commend him for making a speech that had many excellent and vital points. He will be delighted to hear that I will reinforce those points in my own speech.

This debate is important because, despite the step change when Heathrow was linked to the national network in 1999 and which has already been referred to, its rail links remain inferior to those of most of its European

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competitors and indeed to those of many smaller UK airports. And this debate is timely because last week we had not only the very welcome news of investment in a western rail link to Heathrow but a continuation of the silence about the central issue of airport capacity in the south-east. Of course, this debate is closely tied to that issue. In addition, the issues surrounding the Boston Manor viaduct on the M4 have underlined the fragility of existing transport links to Heathrow, as well as the need for infrastructure resilience and a range of alternative routes.

The proposed construction of a rail spur to link destinations to the west of Heathrow directly to the airport could bring real improvements. Removing the need for a journey via Paddington or a coach from Reading will reduce journey times and it will make rail a more attractive option for hundreds of thousands of airport users each year, cutting congestion on the M4 and other roads. Both the draft aviation strategy framework and the high-level output statement are short on detail, so perhaps the Minister will fill in some of the gaps. What is the status of the £500 million of funding mentioned for the scheme? Does she expect the aviation industry to foot some of the bill? What is the timetable for putting together a business case for the programme, and can she confirm the planned opening date of 2021, which has been mentioned in the media? Is it intended that the link will provide through services from the west of England and south Wales to Heathrow, or will local trains simply shuttle between Reading, Slough and the airport?

Mr Donohoe: Has my hon. Friend considered how long the connection to Scotland will take?

John Woodcock: That, I know, is a continuing and important longer-term issue for High Speed 2. Every time it is raised it is incumbent on us all to stress that even the first phase, as it is currently set out, would reduce journey times to Scotland. Obviously the further north the high-speed line goes, the faster those journey times will be, which we all want.

A western link would provide welcome improved connections, as will the commencement of Crossrail in 2018; but if Heathrow is to function better as a major national airport it needs national connectivity. The airport currently has 70 million passengers a year. Whatever decisions are eventually made on south-east expansion—if they are made—Heathrow will remain dominant for the foreseeable future. Yet for much of the country, it is cosmically hard to access, at present, except by car or a domestic flight. To take the example of my constituents in south Cumbria, there are many business or holiday destinations to which only Heathrow offers a direct flight, and if people want to avoid a five-hour drive and hefty parking charges they consider taking the train. However, they find that that will take just as long and will require four changes, which is not much fun for people with a lot of luggage, those with a young family, or people who have limited mobility. Instead, many take a domestic flight from Manchester, at financial and environmental cost, or they fly via a European hub airport.

High Speed 2 could help to solve that problem and significantly strengthen Heathrow as a truly national airport. Linking Heathrow into HS2 at the earliest

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possible opportunity would allow for faster, far better integrated journeys between the airport and various northern destinations. Connecting Heathrow would, as has been well explained in several speeches today, make it possible to boost the economies of the regions, reduce road congestion and cut short-haul flights, and, in doing so, begin to address Heathrow’s chronic capacity problem. We deeply regret, therefore, that Ministers have chosen to reject Labour’s call for the first phase of HS2 to run via Heathrow. Instead, they have opted thus far for an expensive branch line, which it appears will not even be legislated for as part of phase 1 and will not be built until an unspecified future date. Can the Minister provide any more clarity on that point?

An Old Oak Common interchange with Crossrail would indeed make for an easier journey to Heathrow for many people; but it is no substitute, as has been explained today, for a through train. As the hon. Member for the Cotswolds eloquently explained, the sad thing is that the Minister used to get that. If she does not mind, I shall quote her. In March 2010, just before the general election—how things change—she told the House of Commons that

“the idea that some kind of ‘Wormwood Scrubs international’ station is the best rail solution for Heathrow is just not credible.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 451.]

Hear, hear: but just two years on, that is exactly what the Minister proposes—at least until 2033. Why the volte face? Will she take this opportunity to condemn the potentially deeply damaging briefings from somewhere in Government, suggesting a wobble on the entire project? If she is not wobbling, it is important that she should say so now, and I am delighted to give way.

Mrs Villiers: There is no wobble on this project. HS2 is going ahead.

John Woodcock: The Minister is not for wobbling and we are very pleased to hear it.

Any aviation strategy—and it would be nice to have one—must have as its starting point maximising the efficiency of the capacity that already exists. It is far better to use a slot to land 600 passengers from Beijing than 200 from Manchester. Ministers are right to cite, in their recent document, the potential for code sharing to promote through tickets from international flights to trains; but the key to that success is that the high-speed train should stop at the airport, not several miles away. Further, as has been mentioned, an HS2 link into Heathrow could provide a connection to the existing line to the channel tunnel, raising the possibility of high-speed trains replacing hub flights to nearby European destinations.

There is still time for Ministers to reconsider their stance on HS2. The right hon. Lady knows that high-speed rail commands support across the House. It has the full support of the Opposition, and we are keen to work together to get the necessary legislation on the statute book and to get spades in the ground. However, we will continue to argue that Heathrow should be part of phase 1 of the scheme. A failure to connect Britain’s hub airport to its first domestic high-speed line would epitomise the failure to join up UK infrastructure planning—a failure in transport that has bedevilled the country for too long.

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3.27 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is a pleasure to respond to an interesting and well-informed debate. I congratulate, as other hon. Members have done, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on securing it and on his thoughtful and insightful speech on his ideas for the route options for HS2. I thank him and other hon. Members for the support that they have expressed for the announcements that we made yesterday on improving the rail network and for their support in principle for the dramatic further improvement that we will deliver with the HS2 project. It is always welcome to hear Opposition Front Benchers repeat their support for high-speed rail, because it is only with cross-party support that projects of such magnitude can be successful.

The Government have put transport at the heart of their strategy for economic growth and recovery, because improving our transport system is one of the best ways to support British jobs, boost business and create growth. That is one reason for our commitment to the biggest rail capacity expansion programme since the Victorian era. Yesterday, we added a further major package of projects to that already ambitious programme.

We fully accept the importance of high-quality surface access to airports, and we emphasised that point in the aviation framework document that we published last week. We are co-ordinating our rail and aviation policies, and I fully agree with the points made this afternoon about the importance of co-ordination and integration, between air and rail on the ground and in the decision and policy-making processes. That point was made by my hon. and great Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), and by my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart). [Interruption.] Well, I have known my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon for 20 years, so he gets an extra-warm mention whenever we are in a debate together.

Reliable rail and road access can obviously contribute greatly to the quality of the passenger experience at our airports, and it is an important component in ensuring that our airports provide high-quality international gateways. It is particularly important to airport workers and crucial to the air freight sector, which is another important UK industry. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds that greater use of rail access to airports has the potential to reduce carbon emissions, as well as relieving road congestion, and also improving air quality, which is a real issue at Heathrow.

Mr Donohoe: I am sure that the Minister has listened to my questions to some of the other contributors this afternoon. Can she tell us how long it takes the passenger who gets out of a plane at terminal 4 to get to terminal 1, and what distance they travel?

Mrs Villiers: Certainly. It takes passenger a while to get from terminal 4 to the other terminals. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue about Heathrow’s current layout, and I will come to it in a moment. Despite the adversities, however, Heathrow continues to be a successful airport. I appreciate and understand the point of view of my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, but one of the fundamental drawbacks of

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his proposed rail hub at Iver, to support Heathrow, is that it would be more than three miles from the airport terminals. What my hon. Friend advocates would compound the problem that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) has just alluded to, which is that Heathrow is already very spread out.

Returning for a moment to the environmental impact of surface access, I welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). It is important that we all focus on the environmental impact of surface access, as well on that of aviation. We are committed to working with airport operators, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to improve surface access to our major airports across the country. Time constrains me from going into detail, but improvements are under way in Manchester and Birmingham, and Luton will get better road access and Gatwick a new station. A tremendous amount of work is under way to improve access at a number of airports.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My right hon. Friend is making a helpful speech, but I would not like the four interventions made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) to colour the debate. With innovative solutions, it is possible for travellers, having checked their bags in at the hub that I propose—or others propose—to get in to a more rationalised Heathrow airport and on to an aeroplane via high-speed rail at considerably increased speeds.

Mrs Villiers: But it remains the case that among the downsides of my hon. Friend’s suggestion are the distance from the terminals, the lack of a serious proposal about how that distance will be travelled and a failure to cost the idea.

Returning to the work that is being done on rail access to Heathrow—the subject of the debate—Crossrail is now well under way, more than two decades since it was first proposed, and the tunnel boring machines have started their journey under central London. We expect the Crossrail project to provide new services that link Heathrow directly with the west end, the City and Canary Wharf for the first time. The 2010 spending review confirmed the Government’s shared commitment with the Mayor to the tube upgrade programme, which will increase the overall capacity of the London underground network by 30% and improve reliability, benefiting people travelling to Heathrow by tube.

Last week, as has been acknowledged, we announced as part of our aviation policy framework that the Government will provide funding for a new rail line to Heathrow from the Great Western main line near Slough. It would provide significantly improved connections from destinations west of the airport—a point already made—and would cut journey times from those destinations by as much as half an hour. Easier, faster and more convenient access to one of the world’s busiest and most successful airports should provide a significant boost to the economies of the Thames valley, south Wales and the west and south-west of England.

I very much welcome the enthusiasm shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South about how we might seek to take advantage of the

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electrification and east-west rail proposals, to see if we can further improve and enhance access to Heathrow airport.

The shadow Minister asked a number of questions about the project. More work is needed to refine it and assess delivery time scales over the coming months, including the consideration of route options. The scheme remains subject to the delivery of a robust business case, and we hope to secure funding contributions from the Heathrow aviation community.

Mr Donohoe: When this issue was presented to the House, at the outset, an area of some dubiety was that tunnelling would be cheaper than putting rail above ground. I have talked to a number of civil engineers, and none of them believes in that prospect. Can the Minister shed any light on where the information came from?

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I know that the Minister is delighted to look towards her very good friend, and her other hon. Friends, but it is always nice if you turn towards the Chair and look also at Opposition Members.

Mrs Villiers: I do apologise, Dr McCrea, and I shall ensure that I project more efficiently around the room. I have now completely forgotten what the hon. Gentleman asked me about.

Mr Donohoe: Tunnelling.

Mrs Villiers: Yes. It depends on the circumstances. It is important to appreciate that a significant cost associated with tunnelling is the disposal of spoil. In certain instances, combining two tunnels might reduce the cost of such disposal, so tunnelling does not end up cheaper than doing something on the surface in every case. However, where we can get synergies between two different projects that reduce the cost of spoil disposal, we can deliver an overall reduction in cost.

On the route options, whether for western access to Heathrow via conventional rail or, in due course, the high-speed rail spur to the airport, we will seriously consider what is viable regarding tunnelling, just as we have done in relation to the rest of the HS2 route. It is too early to make the decisions because they are subject to consultation and further processes, but we will, of course, seriously consider that, given the areas through which the new lines would go.

In response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, if things progress smoothly, the new line giving western access to Heathrow could be operational by around 2020 or 2022. No final decisions have yet been made on timetables for direct trains, but we expect there to be through trains from destinations in the west, because that would be the better way to realise the benefits of the programme.

Our high-level output specification proposals, announced last week, to improve access to Heathrow from the west will complement our work on HS2, which we expect to provide greatly improved access to the airport from destinations in the midlands and the north of England. We are taking a phased approach to HS2.

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In phase 1, when the London to Birmingham line is built, we want passengers from the west midlands, Manchester and other cities in the north to be able to connect as seamlessly as possible with the Heathrow Express at a new station at Old Oak common. Phase 1 is expected to open in 2026, and will include a direct connection to Birmingham airport. I welcome the interesting ideas proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South about how we might use that improved surface access to Birmingham to help the airport flourish and attract more aviation passengers, potentially from the south-east, given the improved rail access that HS2 will deliver.

Phase 2 will follow in 2032-33, when the HS2 line will be extended to Manchester and Leeds. A direct connection with Heathrow is planned as part of the second phase.

John Woodcock: Why has the Minister changed her mind? Has the Secretary of State for Transport just taken a different view?

Mrs Villiers: A huge amount of work has been done to analyse the options, including one of the biggest consultations ever undertaken in this country. I would be arrogant to ignore the results of that work and that consultation. I am absolutely convinced that the preferred route, which will be proposed in a hybrid Bill, is the right one, and I will explain why in due course.

John Woodcock: You have not said that you agree with it.

Mrs Villiers: I do agree with it. I give the shadow Minister my firm assurance that the preferred route that we are proposing, after the consultation and consideration of all the consultation responses, is the right one.

Mr Donohoe: May I show the Minister a poster that I picked up in Wendover on Sunday? It does not give us much hope that constituents in that part of the world are likely to have as much enthusiasm as us about the building of HS2.

Mrs Villiers: It is inevitable, when one seeks to build a major piece of infrastructure, that it will cause anxiety in the areas in which it will have a local impact. I will come in a moment to the efforts that the Government have been making to mitigate or reduce the impact of HS2. We fully understand the anxiety felt by those in the local areas affected and by those with wider concerns about protecting the countryside, but as I have said in the House many times, I firmly believe that, with high-quality engineering and care, we can mitigate the worst effects of HS2 and emulate the success of HS1, which has been delivered without the catastrophic local impacts once predicted for it. I believe that it is possible to deliver infrastructure on that scale in a way that is fair to the local communities affected by it. The Government are determined to do all that is reasonable to ensure that we mitigate the local impact of HS2.

To pick up where I left off, the Government’s preferred option for delivering the direct connection to Heathrow is a spur running from the main HS2 line, which would allow passengers from the midlands and the north to travel directly to the airport without having to change trains. Some of my hon. Friends and colleagues, including

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my hon. Friends the Member for The Cotswolds and for Milton Keynes South, asked for a pause. I assure them that other options, including a direct alignment that would have taken the line to Birmingham nearer to Heathrow, were considered before deciding on the preferred route that was presented for consultation.

Further thought and analysis was carried out on direct alignment as part of the consultation and the Government’s consideration of the many thousands of responses. As I said, it was one of the most extensive consultations ever carried out, and I am confident that the outcome is the right one. I assure my hon. Friends that further scrutiny will take place when the hybrid Bill goes through Parliament.

After the consultation and analysis were completed, it was decided that a spur to Heathrow would provide the better option, and it was concluded that the proposal advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds would have involved too great a journey time penalty and too much extra cost and, as I said, would not have taken the line to the airport. The site at Iver, the proposal for which he supports, is more than three miles from the airport terminals.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s sincere belief in the Government’s preferred solution rather than the option that I proposed, but I am trying to get something out of this debate. Will she carefully consider building the Heathrow spur in the first phase of HS2, so that at least the residents of Birmingham and Birmingham airport can get the benefit of that spur as soon as possible? Will she also consider the northward-facing aspect of the spur, so that at least it can be used from central London, as well as by those approaching London from the north?

Mrs Villiers: I will come to timing in a moment. We are enthusiastic about making progress on all aspects of HS2 as soon as we can. If we can speed up the process, we will be delighted to do so, but as I said, I will come in a moment to the timing of the next steps on phase 2 and the spur. I assure my hon. Friend that the spur is planned to have what is known as a delta junction, which could enable trains to run from Heathrow on to HS1, and possibly on to European destinations, when the spur is built.

On the timetable, the Government have asked HS2 Ltd to develop detailed route options for the spur. The plans will then be subject to detailed public consultation in 2014, alongside the rest of phase 2. If possible, we would like to make fast progress and start the consultation next year. Depending on the results of that consultation, the spur could be included in the hybrid Bill for the second phase, including the Y network.

HS2 represents a valuable opportunity to draw important strategic links between major components of our transport infrastructure. As my hon. Friend mentioned, other countries have successfully integrated high-speed rail services with their international airports. Using HS2 to improve access to the country’s major hub airport for businesses in the midlands and the north will create new opportunities for growth. Better links to Heathrow will make those regions even more attractive locations to invest and do business in, because they will benefit from Heathrow’s global reach as a successful hub airport.

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As I said earlier, London has one of the most extensive aviation networks in the world, with connections to more than 360 destinations. Heathrow alone has more flights to the crucial BRIC economies than any of its rivals, including more flights to China. Airlines are expanding and covering new routes to key emerging markets. For example, British Airways recently started a new route to Seoul.

I agree with my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we should look to HS2 to provide an attractive alternative to thousands of short-haul flights. Experience in Europe shows that where high-speed rail competes with aviation, it can capture a significant proportion of the market for journeys of up to three or even four hours. For example, Air France stopped flying between Paris and Brussels entirely when the high-speed rail link opened between the two cities, and high-speed rail in Spain led to a significant switch from domestic aviation to the train. Deutsche Bahn proposes to start direct services between London, Amsterdam and Paris, so the train could start to compete with the plane for some passengers on those routes, just as Eurostar already does on the Paris-Brussels-London route.

Mr Donohoe: There has even been a change domestically: BA has removed all services from Birmingham to London as a result of the upgrading of the west coast main line.

Mrs Villiers: Absolutely. The upgrading of the west coast main line encouraged a switch from air to rail travel from Manchester as well.

I believe that the HS2 plans that I have outlined have the potential to deliver further air to rail switch. In particular, the completion of phase 2 will deliver journey times between Edinburgh or Glasgow and London of not much more than three and a half hours. In 2010, there were about 382 flights a week between those destinations and Heathrow, and about 962 flights a week to the five London airports from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Providing an attractive alternative to those flights could release vital capacity, which could provide opportunities for developing new routes to emerging markets and other key long-haul destinations in just the way that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds and others have outlined today. Better integration of rail and air in terms of flight schedules, through-ticketing and baggage check-in could intensify the switch from

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the plan to the train. The shadow Minister has made a valid point on those maters.

No debate on HS2 would be complete without reference to the local environmental impact. I fully recognise people’s concerns about the local environmental impact of HS2 and the preferred route, including the potential impact of a proposed Heathrow spur. There is no easy way to build a new train line through our country. I am afraid that the alignment proposed by my hon. Friend and supported by Mark Bostock would not be a miracle solution. Local impacts would still have to be considered, and, frankly, there would still be controversy. It would just be transplanted to a different area.

We have gone to very great lengths to listen to those with concerns about our preferred route and to take steps to mitigate its local impact. In particular, we are working to respond to the concerns of communities around Euston, where the station redevelopment impacts most on homes and communities. The Secretary of State for Transport regularly meets elected representatives from the area; we are working with Camden council; and we have already agreed to fund the Euston opportunity area planning framework to address the issues raised by the planned Euston expansion, including the investigation of options for the provision of replacement social housing. Elsewhere on the route, there will be a more than 50% increase in tunnel or green tunnel compared with the plans that we inherited from our Labour predecessors.

As I have said many times, I believe that, with the right mitigation and high-quality engineering, HS2 need not have anything like the extreme impact that its opponents fear. The precedent provided by HS1 shows that it is possible to have a high-speed line that does not devastate the communities through which it passes.

There are difficult times ahead, whether in relation to the main part of HS2 or to the Heathrow spur under discussion, but I firmly believe that this project will generate tremendous economic benefits. It is vital if we are to deal with the capacity crunch that we will face on our inter-city rail connections in the coming years, and that is why I welcome the support that has been expressed for HS2 in today’s debate.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Thank you, Minister, and I also thank all the hon. Members who have participated in the debate. I wish those Members who will now leave the Chamber a very pleasant recess.

3.52 pm

Sitting suspended.

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4 pm

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on Cyprus under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I welcome the Minister, who is not the Minister for Europe, but his portfolio includes responsibility for human rights. The issue of human rights transcends the boundaries of Cyprus and should be a matter of concern to us all. Indeed, some years ago, the Minister was on the campaign trail in Enfield, Southgate and may know about the issue of Cyprus. It is certainly of great concern to my constituents and others.

In the past 40 years there have been many debates about Cyprus in this House. Over the seven years that I have been in Parliament, and particularly given my constituency interest, I have inevitably been involved in speaking on Cyprus and securing many such debates. This time it is a particular pleasure to have secured a debate, because this month Cyprus has assumed the presidency of the European Union. It is a great historic achievement of a small but important island in Europe. It is a cause for celebration of the independence and sovereignty of Cyprus. Its leadership comes at a crucial time, given the travails in Europe. I am sure that the House will wish the Cyprus presidency well over the next six months.

But—sadly, with Cyprus politics there is usually a “but”—the reason why there have been so many debates over nearly four decades is that Cyprus remains divided, with the north occupied by Turkish troops. Ministers—and perhaps the Minister here today—will visit Nicosia during the next six months. That city is the only divided capital in Europe; part of the island in the north remains occupied by troops from a foreign country—Turkey—leading to the north being one of the most militarised places in the world.

During this six-month period, pressure needs to be put on Turkey to properly recognise the Republic of Cyprus. The threats made by Turkish leaders to freeze relations with the European Union while Cyprus has the presidency should not wash with the United Kingdom or the Government. If—as many want—Turkey wants in time to be a member of the European club, it needs to play by the rules, which include respecting the rotating presidency and also respecting European agreements, not least the customs union. It is extraordinary that, although a key aim of the presidency is developing European Union maritime policy, Turkey refuses to fulfil the Ankara protocol and to accept Cyprus ships at its ports. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that during the next six months the Government will do all they can to put pressure on Turkey to recognise Cyprus and not let it off the hook during a period that can be seen too easily as a vacuum period.

The subject of the debate is Cyprus, but I have already spent time talking about Turkey. When I spoke in a debate two weeks ago about UK relations with Turkey, I spoke about Cyprus. Sadly, Turkey’s influence and involvement in Cyprus are significant. We and no doubt the Minister will want to reaffirm that the future of Cyprus must be properly determined by Cypriots, but Turkey calls the shots in the north. It is therefore incumbent on Britain to help to ensure that Cypriots—

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Greek and Turkish Cypriots—have the freedom and capacity to determine their future as a reunited island based on the principles of the United Nations framework of the bizonal, bicommunal federal solution.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Having been to Cyprus on two separate occasions in the past six weeks as Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I very much endorse what my hon. Friend is saying. We are conscious of the problem that he has identified, and it would be extremely helpful if the present Cypriot Government addressed the problem of fraudulent titles, which is a problem for some 2,000 people in the UK who have interests in the land. A Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cyprus told me that they would try to sort it out. Does my hon. Friend agree that, just as we have to sort out the Turkish question, the Cypriots have a responsibility to sort out the problem of fraudulent titles?

Mr Burrowes: I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention on the issues of fraudulent titles and illegal occupation of land. The Foreign Office website advises UK citizens to be clear about property ownership in the north. It advises against exploiting the situation and highlights the illegality in the north. It is a huge problem that needs to be resolved.

I imagine the Minister who took up the brief today may have approached the debate with some weariness given the stalemate in the talks between the Cypriot leaders. The House is familiar with the debate. The main purpose of the debate today is to seek to break new ground and to urge the Government not to sit on the sidelines or just cheer or cajole from the terraces, but to take seriously our historical responsibilities and our responsibilities as a guarantor power. We have responsibilities to many of those represented here. I see my hon. Friends here. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), has a significant number of Cypriot constituents, as do my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). It is clear that many Members are concerned that we do not simply let the next six months pass.

One of the areas of new ground is curiously an old one: religious and cultural heritage. Last May, I led an all-party group delegation, including my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North and for Hendon and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), to clean up some cemeteries and churches in Cyprus. Some of the cemeteries had been neglected, but most had been desecrated. Having visited the north last November, I witnessed for myself the desecration and damage. I resolved that the next time I returned we would do something practical about it.

Our delegation did not visit national political leaders, which is what usually happens. We wanted to focus on the local communities and villages to try not only physically to restore respect to trashed cemeteries and pillaged churches, but to restore the link between the village associations—both Greek and Turkish Cypriot—which, through the conflict, has sadly been lost.

Our visit’s aim was not to try to change the world or to solve the Cyprus problem—or indeed to restore all religious and cultural heritage—in a few days. The aim

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was to take some small but practical steps through cleaning a cemetery or a church to rebuild confidence and to make the point that, as British Members of Parliament with responsibilities, along with the Cypriots who were with us, we would not tolerate the desecration of religious heritage.

We will not accept the status quo. We made the point loud and clear that the situation cannot just be accepted and allowed to carry on. The memories of loved ones and the places of worship that people want to go to matter. Such respect transcends faiths, backgrounds and countries. It is about respect for common shared values. In building those small steps of confidence, the aim was to lead to a better future.

Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): I am delighted that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. Does he agree that when we visited heritage sites on the north and the south of the island they were sadly not as they should be? By reaching beyond the politicians in the villages of Pigi and Peristerona, we saw people coming together from both sides of the island who have not seen each other for a long time. They shared that wish for respect and for restoration. We can reach above the politicians, and civic society has a role to play in helping to bring about the right solution.

Mr Burrowes: That visit was one of the most positive that I have been on, because we were able to see that. The common refrain is that the problem is not the people but the politics and the involvement of an outside political force in the form of Turkey. For example, in Peristerona—because of our presence, no doubt—there was a feeling of wanting to do something about a church that, throughout the time of division, had not been touched. Over time, debris, rubbish and droppings had accumulated. While we were there, we were able to see that church cleared of the debris—we were able to make a video—for the first time. A Cypriot who lived in Liverpool just happened to turn up on a visit. He had been baptised in the church before it was destroyed and desecrated. To see someone take an interest and some care—local Turkish Cypriots were helping to restore it as well—made a big difference to him. He said that there is a brighter future and that we can do something about it—not just so much talk that we often hear about, but real, practical action.

There were, however, some who warned us against doing that. Particularly in the north, politicians tried to lobby against us and build division where there was none. The media also seemed to be against us. There was caution, too, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I see some of the team here, and I pay tribute to its helpful advice throughout the trip, for which I was grateful. There was a cautionary note saying that we should do things only when we had the approval of various people, not least Mr Kucuk in the north, the so-called Prime Minister. He would give us direction on whether we were able to go ahead with our cleaning activities.

What we actually found was that Cyprus does not wholly work like that—quite properly so. It works through villages. It works through different villages that take their orders from no one; they run themselves as they

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have done in years gone by. They will not simply take orders from those on high. They were concerned more with the relationship they had with us and the village association people, and they were willing to take steps. They said very clearly that they would give permission for future cleaning programmes, which was encouraging and we need to make progress.

One of the highlights was our visit to Assia. Again, there were cautionary notes about it being in a nationalist area and close to an army base. However, with Greek Cypriot association villagers who had the confidence to come over for the first time with us, we were able to build a good degree of confidence with local Turkish Cypriots, mukhtars and mayors and say, “Yes, together we can do something about this.” In that village, a mosque and a church need restoring, and together they want to work on them. We also went to a cemetery that had been trashed over the years, but they were able to go there for the first time and see that we cared about the fact that the cemetery needs to be in a better condition.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, for securing the debate and for organising the visit. He mentioned the visit to Assia, which I found very poignant. Some of the people who accompanied us from the UK and, as he said, felt safe coming out with us, took us on a tour around the graveyard. One gentleman’s aunt had died on the day I was born, so I certainly feel a link with what we want to achieve in Assia. I certainly hope that, following our visit, we will have a programme of works, and that the mukhtars and the people in the north will engage with the people from the south, and from the United Kingdom, to ensure that graveyards are cleaned up, churches are repaired and some kind of civility is brought back to the island of Cyprus.

Mr Burrowes: Those were poignant moments. The villagers of Assia have agreed to go back, in agreement with Bishop Porfyrios, to restore the crosses that have been broken and put them back in their place. That will be an important symbolic moment that says that this is a village where we care for our loved ones. In fact, when I went back in November, which was a motivation for this visit, they were saying, “How can we respect the living if we cannot respect the dead?”

Nick de Bois: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for letting me make a very brief intervention. I hope that he will understand why, at this point, I am also keen to remind hon. Members of our visit to the south. For example, in Kivisili we also saw a willingness to put right some of the graveyards that were not in a satisfactory condition. The spirit he talks about relating to our visit to the north is also reflected in the south.

Mr Burrowes: We agreed to go across the whole island, so we visited Limassol, Larnaca, Dromolaxia, Kivisili and Kalo Choiro, as well as Afania, Assia, Genagra, Pigi, Peristerona and Nicosia. That was important. For example, we went to the Limassol mosque which, not long before we visited, had been partially burned by vandals. We were able to visit the mosque with Bishop Porfyrios and Imam Shakir, who were affirming their united support for a greater respect for religious and cultural heritage. The problem is not one of division or

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religious division—that is not a problem at all. They were saying that we can look at the issue of religious cultural heritage as one where we can respect religion, which can be a uniting, not dividing, force, to build confidence and trust for all Cypriots. I ask the Minister to support such confidence-building measures in areas of religious cultural heritage. Citizens from this country will be going to Cyprus to carry out such visits in the future.

This is a current issue, and there is a concern that it is not all positive. There are reports this week that the cemetery in the village of Trachoni in the north has been completely destroyed to make way for the building of a new police station. That does not help at all when we want to build a common future for Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and I ask the Minister to condemn that approach.

Mr Cash: Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to take another question which relates, as I understand it, to the refusal of the Turkish Government to recognise the law of the sea and the exclusive economic zone in relation to gas? That is a huge issue that raises massive questions about good faith.

Mr Burrowes: I was going to come on to that. The discovery of hydrocarbon reserves is a wonderful opportunity—a natural resource for the whole of the island of Cyprus—to help resource a reunited island. There are struggles in the region both with energy and finance, and that provides hope for a brighter future. That is why it is depressing that, at this time, Turkey is being provocative in bringing ships around to show an aggressive approach, and not fully recognising that this is a resource for Cyprus. Outside powers should not be trying to get their hands on it. As a guarantor power, Britain has responsibility for the independence of the island. This is a threat to that independence. I understand that the Minister for Europe has been vigorous in making representations, and I ask the Minister present to reaffirm that respect for the integrity of that resource for the benefit of the island, which offers real hope for the future—a dynamic that can happen now and can be assured.

This period could lapse into a vacuum period of six months where the talks are stalled, but we can make practical progress. In Famagusta, the fenced-off Varosha area has been looted, uninhabited and decaying for nearly 40 years. Will the Minister reaffirm what the Prime Minister has said—I am sure that he will want to do so—in response to my reference to this on behalf of other hon. Members? The Prime Minister said:

“We fully support all the relevant Security Council resolutions, including UNSCR550 and UNSCR789. We have raised this with the Turkish authorities”.

I urge the Government to continue to do that. The Prime Minister recognises

“that measures to build confidence between the communities in Cyprus can have great value in facilitating efforts towards a comprehensive settlement. We continue to encourage all parties to the Cyprus problem to develop such measures.”

Famagusta is one such area that can come under UN supervision and properly allow, in compliance with those United Nations resolutions, for the return of lawful inhabitants. Hon. Members believe that that would help to facilitate efforts towards a settlement.

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That does not need to wait for a settlement; progress can be made, as it can in the area of missing persons. There was a protest yet again last week by the relatives of missing persons. The relatives are still literally crying out for basic information about their loved ones, despite the great efforts of the communal committee for missing persons—work supported by the European Union, and by the UK taxpayer, too. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of those relatives are in the domain of Turkish authorities, in military bases and in Turkey itself. There must be compliance with the European Court of Human Rights judgments to allow the whereabouts of those missing people to be established.

It is important that we do not rely simply on the fact that the talks have stalled in the past six months, on what will be said, which is that we want to ensure that the Cyprus problem is resolved by Cypriots, and on the UN framework. Obviously, we want that, but we want to ensure that Britain takes its responsibilities seriously and that we as a Government step up our pressure on Turkey to recognise Cyprus when Cyprus has the European presidency. We also encourage Cypriots to step up and civil society to take a place where there are political talks and restore religious heritage and other things beyond that. We will be right behind them, supporting them every step of the way. We are doing that on behalf of British Cypriots and because of our historical responsibilities, so that we can, at long last, end the need for such debates in Parliament.

Dr Offord: While we were in Cyprus, the mukhtars in the north part assured us that they would continue with some of the reconstructive works that they had engaged in before we got there. That was a sign of great hope and a positive step during our visit, but will my hon. Friend confirm that he has received letters of reassurance from the mukhtars to say that the work will continue, which they assured us during our visit that they would provide?

Mr Burrowes: The words were positive. I have said that we need actions, not just words. It is disappointing that we have not yet had that practical confirmation from those authorities. We will pursue that. If the Foreign Office can help us to do that as well, that would be much appreciated, because we have laid the groundwork and now need to ensure that we carry on with it. We should now allow a lot of Cypriots to walk over the bridges that have been built, so that we can build confidence.

We are happy to talk about Cyprus a lot, but it is important that we do not have more debates about it in the present context of a divided island. We want to support and stand full square, throughout the House, for a free, reunited Cyprus. As the holder of the presidency of the EU, it should be free and reunited. We need that sooner rather than later.

4.22 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). He is right. I belong in the elite group of people who have stood in Enfield, Southgate in a general election. He belongs in the even more elite group of

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people who have won in that constituency. I pay tribute to all colleagues who have joined us for this important debate, specifically my hon. Friend, who has a deep, consistent interest in this subject, which is a cause of great importance to a large number of his constituents and in which he takes an interest more widely.

Let me make a couple of points in response to specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, then touch on three themes that came out of the debate: cultural sites, missing persons and natural gas and mineral reserves, which were mentioned in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash).

The United Kingdom fully supports Security Council resolutions 550 and 789, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned, and we will continue to raise those issues with the Turkish authorities. We urge Turkey to implement the additional Ankara protocol when we have a suitable opportunity to bring that to its attention. It is important that the European Union and Turkey find a way to make progress on this issue.

My hon. Friend was right to draw the attention of the House to this significant moment in the long history of Cyprus, because from 1 July until the end of this year it holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. There are close links between our countries: Cyprus is one of only three EU member states in the Commonwealth; more than 80,000 British citizens live on the island; more than 300,000 Cypriots live permanently in the UK, many of them in Enfield and other parts of north London and across the country; a million British people visit the island annually; and 11,000 Cypriot students attend British universities. I strongly take on board the point that was made about our historical obligations and our contemporary interest in events happening in Cyprus.

Mr Cash: Will the Minister commit to looking into the question of the fraudulent title to land? Many thousands of English—British—people have land in Cyprus. I raised that matter when I visited. Will he commit to taking that forward, to ensure that there is a proper resolution in the courts so that these titles can be remedied?

Mr Browne: I will happily undertake to task the Department with looking into that. The Minister for Europe or I will write to my hon. Friend.

I have mentioned the three areas that I want to talk about in the five minutes available to me. First, on missing people, there are significant efforts to help families discover the fate of their relatives and give them the opportunity to bury them with respect. We understand that this is an important and sensitive issue for all Cypriots and recognise the need for it to be resolved. The work of the committee for missing persons is of great significance. Since its establishment in 1981, it has been one of the only institutionalised bi-communal committees in Cyprus. To date, the remains of 853 individuals have been exhumed from different burial sites located across the island and 321 remains of individuals exhumed within the framework of the CMP project have been identified through this process—255 Greek Cypriots and 66 Turkish Cypriots.

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Of course, to complete its vital work the CMP must be granted access to all areas where it needs to excavate. I therefore urge all those in control of such areas, including the Turkish military, to co-operate fully with the committee. The Committee of Ministers responsible for the supervision of the Turkey v. Cyprus case in the European Court of Human Rights case has also underlined the need for Turkish authorities to take concrete measures in relation to the missing persons, and particularly in relation to the CMP’s access to all relevant information and places.

Secondly, the cultural heritage of the island, which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate discussed at some length, is a sensitive area and the technical committee on cultural heritage, established in April 2008, has the mandate to work on improving the situation. The committee has developed an action plan to protect vulnerable buildings. It has already started work on some projects and hopes, with further funding, to be able to implement more of its plan. The UK Government strongly believe that respect for religious and cultural buildings is a key element in building trust between different communities, including through the preservation of churches, mosques and other buildings of religious and cultural heritage.

Thirdly, and finally—I am conscious that I am slightly skimming through these areas, but I know that hon. Members will want to hear the response to specific points—my hon. Friends the Members for Stone and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned the discovery of substantial gas reserves in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, which we regard as good news for the island. There has never been any doubt about the United Kingdom’s support for the right of the Republic of Cyprus to develop the reserves that lie within its exclusive economic zone. Along with the international community we have publicly stated our recognition of Cyprus’ sovereign rights to do so.

We welcome President Christofias’s saying that the gas reserves should benefit all the people living in Cyprus. We hope that the Government of the Republic of Cyprus will take further steps to demonstrate to Turkish Cypriots that they have a clear interest in the development of these reserves. We call on all parties to handle the issue in a way that does not undermine the settlement process and urge both sides not to escalate the issue.

I express once again, on behalf of the Government, my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for raising this subject and reiterate that the Government remain committed to seeing a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus.

Dr Offord: Treading carefully, because this Government and no other Government apart from the Turkish Government recognise the northern Republic of Cyprus, will the Minister undertake, or give us assurances, that his Department will assist either the all-party parliamentary group on Cyprus or hon. Members present in seeking assurances from the mukhtars in the north that they would undertake the work that we have described?

Mr Browne: In the seconds that I have left, let me say that I will bring that to the attention of the Minister for Europe, who I am sure will take it on board as he does all representations from hon. Members.

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Further Education Loans

4.30 pm

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I think that we last met in the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill—what a spectacular use of all our time that was. I hope to finish a little early to allow some of my colleagues to say a few words—in particular, the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden).

It is a great pleasure to have secured this debate on the last day of term—an important debate that, frankly, following the Minister’s announcements last week should have been held on the Floor of the House. However, as with the Government’s higher education policy, on which we wait in vain for a White Paper and proper scrutiny, the Government have a terrible fear of discussing their skills and education strategy—such as it is.

It is also a great pleasure to have in the debate the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who graciously visited Stoke-on-Trent a fortnight ago to see the excellent work done by Sara Robinson and her team at Stoke-on-Trent college. For a city such as Stoke-on-Trent, the debate is vital. As a report from the Centre for Cities think-tank revealed only last week,

“Skills are the biggest determinant of success for cities, and are critical to the life chances of individuals.”

We are a city with some of the finest craftsman and most skilled workers in the land, who produce objects of inestimable beauty, but we also need to up our educational and skills attainment levels and we expect Government partnership to help us to do so.

Thus far, sadly, we have not had the kind of support that we would like: the scrapping of education maintenance allowances was not helpful, while the botched introduction of higher education tuition fees has seen steep falls in applications to the surrounding universities of Keele, Staffordshire and Manchester Metropolitan. My fear is that some of the strategic thinking that was at work on higher education policy has also been at work in further education—not only the same model of lending, but the same insouciance about detail and accountability.

There are some crucial differences between the higher education sector and the further education sector. A system of loans is an entirely new approach to FE provision and the so-called deterrent factor seems more complex. The argument that up-front course fees can act as a deterrent to learning has some merit. The impact of debt is less clear. I was concerned about the piling up of debt by students moving from level 3 qualifications to higher education and facing a double whammy.

I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the Minister’s concession in last Thursday’s statement that the Student Loans Company will now wipe the outstanding loan for access course students who go on to complete a higher education course. Perhaps the Minister could explain, however, why that offer does not apply to other level 3 qualifications, such as A-levels, BTECs or advanced apprenticeships. The Minister must surely be concerned by his Department’s impact assessment, which suggests that up to 150,000 students might drop out of adult learning altogether.

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Clearly, we need a larger evidence base and greater scrutiny of the proposals. Some 375,000 adult learners stand to be affected by the changes, of which a disproportionate number are women—often carers. At Stoke-on-Trent college in my constituency, 1,080 of the 1,780 affected students are women. That is why the £50 million bursary for vulnerable students is a welcome addition, although I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed whether that money is being drawn from other learner support budgets. If so, could he tell us whether the negative impacts of removing the funds have been properly assessed?

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. At Stoke-on-Trent, which is similar to Rotherham, he mentioned 1,800 students; in Rotherham and Barnsley, there are probably 3,000 students over 24 who could be hit by up to £4,000 a year extra, for the first time ever paying the full cost of their fees and having to take out student loans for further education. Does he agree that that will put people off and that it is perhaps the worst possible time to introduce student loans for further education, when people are worried about their jobs, their debt and how they are going to pay the bills?

Tristram Hunt: In Stoke-on-Trent and, I imagine, in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, we have seen a fall in the number of those who are seeking to go on to higher education in local universities as a result of the increase in tuition fees to £9,000. Will we see the self-same fall among those who are seeking to go on to further education? That is exactly the wrong strategy to pursue in such cities, which, above all, need to upgrade their skills.

I also welcome Government recognition that there is a capital issue in FE with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths, although it is not clear how that will prevent the cost differential between those more expensive courses and the cheaper humanity courses in a sustainable way. Again, we need more details.

Another difference between the higher and further education sectors does not stack up well for the proposals—the relative homogeneity of higher education courses in terms of length, the academic calendar, qualifications offered and the application process, compared with courses in further education, which can often vary in length, begin at different points and have much less obvious timings. To be generous, the Student Loans Company does not have an outstanding record of delivery even when administering the far simpler world of higher education loans. In the Minister’s response, will he outline what steps he is taking to ensure that the Student Loans Company can cope with that added pressure? We will certainly see the consequences in our constituency surgeries if the change goes wrong.

My greatest concern with the proposals, however, surrounds their financing. It is my understanding that the Government have estimated that only 40% of all level 3 qualification loans will get fully repaid. As my right hon. Friend implied, under the current policy, the Skills Funding Agency funds 50% of the cost of further education courses. There is a powerful case for not decreasing state support for further education on social mobility grounds—perhaps even more so than for higher education—but the Government have been clear that

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deficit reduction is part of their motivation. If only 40% of the loans are repaid, how would that represent a better deal for the taxpayer?

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that there will be an in-built inefficiency if the numbers of students fall so substantially that the fixed costs of colleges are no longer adequately covered by student fees?

Tristram Hunt: That is precisely the kind of area that we will need to look at when considering how the loans play out. What we saw in the higher education loans system was all sorts of additions to the initial policy, as the Government sought to unpick the consequences. In the way that things have been managed, we simply do not have the data to appreciate what will happen.

We can be positive about many elements of the Government plans, but we need to thrash out the questions of the consequences: value for money for the taxpayers; whether the Government have a philosophical objection to public investment in skills, although we know how important they are; and some of the detailed practicalities surrounding last week’s announcement, as my right hon. and hon. Friends have suggested. It would have been helpful to have had the discussion in the House, with more colleagues with FE colleges in their constituencies present to explore such major public policy changes.

4.40 pm

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) not only on securing this debate, but on the detailed, cogent and strong case he made that gave both an overview of the issue and the specific details from his constituency. This debate is necessary because, as has been pointed out, the Government have used negative resolution procedure to lay regulations on these loans without any debate or oral statements. This is the biggest change for a generation; it will affect 375,000 learners, and because of the way the Government have introduced the regulations, it will come into effect on 1 September which is before the House returns from its summer recess. That is why it is so important to have more details from the Minister today.

Further education colleges now have to make decisions about retaining courses and staff as part of a Treasury cuts-driven loans system—let us make no bones about it—that even the Department’s officials say will cover only 80% of the current learner cohort. I appreciate the concession that the Government have made in response to widespread concerns across the sector, and the personal diligence shown by the Minister and the Secretary of State on this matter. Those concessions, however, and the written ministerial statement, have only provoked further concerns of substance from all FE stakeholders, and I want to raise one or two of those points with the Minister today.

My hon. Friend noted that only about £20 million of the bursary money is new money, and the 157 Group has also drawn attention to that. Will the Minister say

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how the funds will operate, what flexibility he is going to give to colleges, and what extra administrative burdens that will place on them? Will he pledge to lobby the Treasury if the £50 million proves inadequate?

The chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education said that the loans system is new territory and creates uncertainty, and as we have heard, the Government have asked the Student Loans Company to administer FE loans as well. The SLC’s mixed record in such matters is well known. Will it have additional staff to administer the more complex FE structure, without the central processing mechanism used by UCAS in higher education? Will the Minister comment on the admission by his officials to stakeholders—I was present when it was made—that colleges may have to work with a paper-based system from the Student Loans Company for the first year because of the speed with which FE loans are being introduced?

The Government have promised to write off HE access course loans, but stakeholders such as Million+ are rightly concerned—as was my hon. Friend—that vulnerable individuals will shy away from taking up access courses in the first place. Will the Minister look at a potential broadening of the write-off, or at a grace period of perhaps three to five years for HE access students who, through no fault of their own but due to family circumstances or whatever, find themselves unable to get on an HE course immediately?

Loans are also to be enforced on adult advanced and higher apprentices to take out on an individual basis. However, the written ministerial statement made little reference to how that will work, or to the concerns voiced by the Government’s Commission for Employment and Skills about the potential reluctance of individuals and employers to participate. Why has the Minister so far not taken note of those concerns and those of Unionlearn? What consultation has he had with major employers involved in apprenticeship programmes, including the armed forces, about such reservations? Have his officials made an estimate of the number of adult apprentices who are at risk of dropping out if they are forced to take up loans on an individual basis? In a written reply, the Minister told me that he currently has no agreement with the Treasury to prevent it from clawing back unused loan funding if take-up is slower or poorer than anticipated. Will he undertake to obtain such an agreement before the loans are introduced next March?

As my hon. Friend and other colleagues have said, we need adult learners to continue to prosper and thrive, and not to be put off in places such as my hon. Friend’s constituency in Stoke, from improving their life chances and—this is important—from contributing to kick-starting growth in our local economies, something that we desperately need.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) on initiating this important debate. He and the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) have spoken about skills being critical to cities. Do they therefore concur that the FE freedoms outlined in the “New Challenges, New Chances” report will give more freedom to employers to meet the needs and demands of the future work force, and are a positive step in the right direction?

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Mr Marsden: That is probably more a point for the Minister than for me, but I will observe that freedoms are great but, as we know, the freedom to dine at the Ritz is not a very useful freedom. This measure must be seen in the context of extra administrative burdens that the FE loan system may place on colleges. In a way, that brings me to my final point. The devil is in the detail, and the Government will be judged on how they deliver this huge change to the further education system over the next 12 months.

4.45 pm

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) on securing it. He is right to say that it is timely and, to pick up on his first point, that we should have an opportunity to debate the issue at greater length. I have already made, and I will continue to make, overtures to create some space for such a debate when we return, not least because I am always happy to debate skills and further education. I do not say that those things are the Government’s only shining example of success—far from it—but they are certainly shining brightly. That is because we are determined to give FE colleges the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to become increasingly responsive to employer need and learner choice—my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) referred to that.

Disraeli said that it is easier to be critical than to be correct. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central was not terribly critical and was correct to welcome the measures that have been put in place, which I shall mention in a moment. First, however, let me set the scene. With the new freedoms that I have given the sector, it is essential that further education is able to offer as many people as possible the opportunity to gain learning as a means of improving their prospects through progressive learning or access to employment.

When we debated the comprehensive spending review, I and my colleagues in Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—in particular the Secretary of State—were determined that our priority should be those who are most disadvantaged, either by an absence of prior learning or by their circumstances, and those to whom we could make the most difference in terms of further education. That is not to underestimate the significance of lifelong learning or second and third chance education. Indeed, in the same CSR negotiations we cemented and safeguarded the adult and community learning budget that had been threatened and—I am reluctant to say this—sometimes disparaged by the Labour party when in government. That safeguarding surprised some who had not anticipated that we would be so protective, but I believe in adult and community learning not only as a means of re-engaging people but because it adds to the individual and collective well-being of our nation. As you know, Dr McCrea, I believe in the promotion of the common good and would not do anything to inhibit the interests of the people.

To that end, we made it clear that priority would continue to be placed on basic skills, younger learners and people below level 3. When introducing loans, we limited them to people over the age of 24 and those studying for a qualification at level 3 or above. That was

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a deliberate attempt—more than an attempt; a deliberate policy decision—to prioritise the least advantaged, because in my judgment, it is the duty of the fortunate to promote the interests of the less fortunate, no less in government than in our personal affairs.

In net terms, around 10% of FE learners will be affected by the new loans, and as I have said, they will be older learners and people studying at level 3 and above. Notwithstanding, however, that that is a small minority of the FE cohort, I received representations over time, we conducted an impact assessment, we surveyed the sector, and we engaged in discussions with the 157 Group, NIACE, the AOC and others—the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) referred to them all. Those representations made it clear to us, and that analysis showed, that some kinds of learner might be, in the words of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), disproportionately affected by the prospect of loans. One has to be a little cautious, because similar evidence before the introduction of HE loans suggested a lower take-up than subsequently occurred. One therefore needs to qualify one’s doubts in those terms, but I do share the view that we needed to do more. Indeed, that was set out in the very good letter sent to me at the end of June by the hon. Member for Blackpool South, who has contributed for the Opposition. He identified four areas in which he believed that there was a particular issue and he put his case, as ever, very reasonably and fairly. Those four areas were essentially access to—

John Healey: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hayes: Yes, I will happily give way.

John Healey: When I came into the Chamber, the Minister said, “Are you here to pay tribute to my work?” I have been known to do that and I suspect that his hand has been forced somewhat on this question of student loans. Before he moves off the impact assessment and the research, is he not worried that that research showed that only one in 10 current students would definitely do their course if they were faced with having student loans as he is proposing?

Mr Hayes: Actually, if one looks at the impact assessment closely, it suggests that after clear communication of the offer, we will expect full take-up of the funding for loans. A very significant majority of people, when the circumstances of the loans were explained to them, said that they would participate. Initially, some were very likely to do so and some were less certain, but the number saying that they would participate grew as these things were explained to them. By the way, full take-up of the loans would be 90% of 24-plus learners studying at level 3 and above. We are therefore talking about a very significant majority of 10% of the cohort. That is where we are in terms of the overall FE numbers.

It should be borne in mind that the impact assessment was carried out before I announced the mitigation package, to which the hon. Member for Blackpool South has referred. I was coming on to why we put that in place. A case was made about access to HE. It seems to me perfectly fair to argue that it would be unacceptable for someone to borrow to study an access course and then borrow again to study an HE course. The hon. Member

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for Blackpool South asked whether we could look at the issue of timing. I think that we should and I will do so. I think that there is an argument for people who do not immediately progress to HE, but do so perhaps a year or two years later. We need to consider how we manage that, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point and I will certainly look at it.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): Would my hon. Friend the Minister care to tell us a little more about the £50 million bursary fund that is available over two years, because that is quite an important element of the mitigation and support package?

Mr Hayes: I am almost as excited about that as my hon. Friend. I will certainly come to it, because it is wonderful news. I have been asked to give more detail and I will in the time available. Let me just finish my point about the access-to-HE measures. They mean that anyone who goes on to HE will see their access loan written off. That is very important, as that route disproportionately contains people with poor levels of prior attainment; after all, that is why they are doing access-to-HE courses. They are often doing so later in life. There is also a disproportionate number of women and women returners in that group. That is very important, too. What we are doing is therefore socially regenerative; it is about social justice. All I do is driven by my passion for social justice. That is what those courses are about and that is why we have taken this action.

However, that alone, in my judgment, would not have been sufficient. That is why I wanted a bursary fund. The hon. Member for Blackpool South has asked how much of that is drawn from existing provision. About £20 million is completely new money. As hon. Members will know, there is some existing learner support money in FE. It is targeted at, for example, people with learning difficulties and disabilities. That will be made part of this bursary, but I do not anticipate that any learner will be worse off as a result of these changes. In other words, we are not displacing the interests of any group of learners. It is just more straightforward for colleges and learners to have these things in a single national bursary package.

I have always favoured the idea of a national bursary fund, by the way, so this is the fulfilment of another long-held ambition, framed by the discussions that I have had over many years with the sector, which argued that it would be a very effective way of allowing colleges to respond to local circumstances. They know their cohort best; they know their circumstances better than I ever could. We therefore need to build in a level of discretion to allow colleges to work with their communities, their learner base and their local employers to ensure that what they are providing meets the needs.

However, the point made from the Opposition side of the Chamber about how much discretion there will be was well made. I think that we should set down some criteria according to which we expect the money to be allocated and I will do so, having had discussions with the sector and bearing in mind—let us get the time scale clear—that the application period for loans opens in April 2013 for courses starting in August or September 2013. Therefore, although it is true that we will not have

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a chance to debate the matter more fully until this September, it is not happening until the year after the next academic year. The hon. Member for Blackpool South makes the point that FE colleges must plan and he is right. That is why we have done what we have now, rather than waiting any longer. I hope that the fund will address the issue of older learners, who were, according to the impact assessment, disproportionately risk averse in terms of loans. That is hardly surprising. Someone of 55 might perceive a 30-year loan in a rather different way from someone of 20 or 25.

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): My hon. Friend the Minister makes a very important point. May I welcome the cautious approach that he has taken in this area? Does he agree with me that at a time of recession, when we are trying to get our economy going, supporting adult learning is incredibly important for reskilling the work force and those who may find themselves out of work?

Mr Hayes: As I am the champion of apprenticeships, my hon. Friend would hardly expect me to disagree with that analysis. He is right that skills are critical to recalibrating the competences of our work force in a way that makes our economy more sustainable by making our businesses more resilient.

The bursary fund is exciting and new and will allow us to address some of the perfectly properly argued concerns of Opposition Members, but more than that, I wanted to accept NIACE’s proposal of a mid-life learning health check, so that we could look at people at the age of 40 and 50 perhaps and use the national careers service to gauge when and where they could study to upskill or reskill. That there is a need for that has been argued by the sector for some time, and we have taken it on board as part of this package.

On the issue of STEM, which was raised specifically, I take the view that tying capital investment to STEM is not only about growing capacity, but about pinning down the costs of those courses. It is often argued that the costs are so high because of the need to resource in order to deliver them. I will look at how we can be specific about that in the next FE capital round. We have already had a number of such rounds, and we will have many more, because it is vital that we invest in our college infrastructure. We have excellent colleges, such as the one that I visited in Stoke, when, as a result of the kindness of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), I was able to take away with me an Arnold Bennett volume to read over my brief summer sojourn.

All of that represents responsiveness. It was developed after discussion with hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was certainly discussed with the sector. It is a considerable step forward. But I just say this. Our determination is to ensure that it is put in place efficiently and effectively, so there will be no paper-based system. This will be done properly. The Student Loans Company will get it right, as the hon. Member for Blackpool South urged it to do, quite properly. This is a fair package—a just package. It is a package of which we can all be proud. We should now move forward together with confidence to put in place loans and get rid of up-front fees—a point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central very generously made and that I would

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have made otherwise. We should do so in the spirit that has imbued all we have done; one of elevating practical learning by elevating those who teach and learn in our FE colleges, who change so many lives by changing so many life chances.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): Order. I wish right hon. and hon. Members a very pleasant recess.

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Question put and agreed to.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned.