26 Oct 2012 : Column 1227

To follow on from what I was saying about systems, it is important that we point out when we are concerned about the actions of others whatever role we play, be it Member of Parliament, doctor or social worker. Indeed, one thing I have found rather frustrating in the recently evolving scandal is the number of people at the BBC who said that they had suspicions, but that Savile was too big and too powerful. I am sorry; I do not think that is a defence. Ultimately, we all have to be brave enough to point out concerns and follow them through to the end, and if that means putting our jobs and progression in our careers at risk, then so be it. We all make a choice to get into jobs where we have the responsibility to protect vulnerable people. If someone does not want to take that responsibility fully, they should get out of the job.

John Hemming: Will the hon. Gentleman accept it from me that my objective in the Bill is actually to keep things relatively simple? Will he, as a doctor, say whether he thinks it would be useful to have a system to ensure that when a doctor feels that a child in care whom they are treating is encountering problems, they should have a mechanism for getting answers?

Dr Lee: Yes, that warrants consideration and has merit. I shall relate two instances that I recall. One was when I saw a 10-year-old child who presented having been self-harming—let us think about the idea of a 10-year-old child constantly using a razor blade on his wrist—and the other was when I examined an eight-year-old child, as I recall, and had to keep noting down evidence of cigarette burns. Both children had been in the care of their biological parents, I recall. It is all very well looking at evidence in the literature, but when one actually meets the child—when one looks at the child’s face and into their eyes—and encounters such evidence first hand, it is a genuinely heart-rending and extremely difficult thing to deal with. Indeed, I had some difficulty containing my anger at some points.

Moving on, as I said, I want to talk about parts 1 and 3 of the Bill. I particularly want to discuss grandparents’ access to their grandchildren. I am sure that the House will be surprised to learn that I had a spare hour at the weekend, and that I chose to spend it watching an episode of “The Waltons”, the famous 1970s television series. Those who have had the pleasure of watching it will recall that the Walton family all lived under the same roof. The grandparents, the parents and the seven children all lived in the same home. Part of the programme’s charm comes from the sense that the family is taking care of the vulnerable—the very young and the very old.

I was listening to the “Today” programme this morning. It has been running a series of short reports on social care in different countries, and today’s contribution was from the United States of America. I was struck by a suggestion that there could be a return to a Waltons model, with grandparents living under the same roof as their children and grandchildren. I suspect that that will also happen in this country. Putting aside the debate over the need to be able to afford a big enough house to accommodate such an arrangement, I believe that that is the likely direction of travel, given the ageing of our

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1228

society. That demographic and sociological change could lead to an increase in contact between grandchildren and their grandparents.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman see, as I do, any irony in his talking about the Waltons’ rather large family living in rather desperate circumstances, working hard and doing their best, given the current proposals to cut benefits for families that have more than two children? What effect would that have on the impact on children that the Bill is trying to mitigate?

Dr Lee: I might be wrong, but I was not aware that any of the Walton family was receiving benefits. Indeed, I recall an episode in which Grandma was railing at an individual for coming into the village and suggesting that the state should take responsibility for the family. Grandma’s point was the family had that responsibility, not the state. I would encourage anyone who shares Grandma’s view of the world, because it is a more sustainable model for the future.

Returning to the Bill, I understand that grandparents do not at present have an automatic right to have contact with their grandchildren. The Library note informs me that they may apply to a court for leave to apply for a contact order, unless an exception to the requirement to obtain leave applies. Clause 2(4) of the Bill states:

“Grandparents shall be permitted to have reasonable direct and indirect contact with their grandchildren if the child so wishes without this contact being supervised unless it is not in the interest of the welfare of the child.”

That proposal has merit, and I support it. Grandparents up and down the country are experiencing difficulty in gaining access to their grandchildren—following the divorce of the grandchildren’s parents, for example—and that situation needs to be looked at. Grandparents have an important role to play in the upbringing of children—I believe that “The Waltons” provides evidence of that—and, in the increasingly atomised world in which we live, it is important that they should have that contact. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is to be supported in progressing that proposal.

I also want to mention Criminal Records Bureau checks, another bête noire of mine. CRB checks are an example of the knee-jerk reactions to awful circumstances that Governments seem to have, rather like the banning of handguns post-Dunblane. Banning them did not mean that they no longer existed. I can think of a whole series of examples in which the Government thought that they could intervene to stop bad people existing and to stop other things occurring.

Working as a doctor, I have had personal experience of CRB checks. I tried to start working at Feltham young offenders institution, but it took me six months to get clearance to work there. It was an absolute disgrace.

Stephen Barclay: May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to an ongoing issue relating to CRB checks? It involves unnecessary duplication. I represent a constituency on a county border with Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and with the Peterborough unitary authority. We frequently find members of staff, such as taxi drivers taking children to schools in Peterborough and elsewhere in Cambridgeshire, having to apply for multiple CRB checks,

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1229

which have no value. They merely add cost and often delay the ability of those people to do their work while they wait for the checks to be carried out. Government guidance clearly states that the checks can be grandfathered, but Conservative-run local authorities, including my own, have been reluctant to do that. Does my hon. Friend agree that such cost, delay and unnecessary bureaucracy are not improving child protection?

Dr Lee: Of course. They lead to the inefficiencies that my hon. Friend has so eloquently described, and they blight the lives of innocent people. A gentleman who came to my constituency surgery had had an allegation made against him by a young child, but the allegation had been thrown out. The child’s father had said that she had made it up, yet the allegation had been recorded on the gentleman’s CRB form. He had never been charged with anything, or convicted. The result was that he was no longer able to do his job, which involved working with children, and he lost his career.

I can understand why we went down the road of introducing CRB checks, but they are clearly not working. They are leading to incredible inefficiencies. I want to put it on record today that in 10 years’ time we will probably look back and see that further scandals involving children—paedophile rings and the like—have taken place, even though we have carried out CRB checks on numerous individuals, the great majority of whom want to do the right thing. The scout leaders, teachers and people visiting schools will have been delayed or prevented from doing their work by those checks.

Stephen Barclay: Given that Jimmy Savile was given keys and his own room at a hospital, one suspects that he would have passed a CRB check. Indeed, he might well have done so.

Dr Lee: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As a junior doctor, I worked at Stoke Mandeville hospital, and as a Member of Parliament I represent Broadmoor hospital, which puts me in a unique position. I met Jimmy Savile in a hospital corridor at Stoke, and I have visited Broadmoor. It is beyond comprehension that he was given a set of keys enabling him to move around Broadmoor. The most remarkable decision was to give him responsibility to oversee the management of one of this country’s three high-security hospitals. I would like to know who made that decision at the Department of Health, which was at that time responsible for that hospital. I suspect that Jimmy Savile probably would have passed his CRB check, because he had not been convicted of anything, and that is my point. Why put in a system that will not prevent what it seeks to prevent?

Mr Ellwood: This CRB issue is very important. The fact is that one local authority does not recognise a CRB accreditation from another local authority. For example, my sister taught at one school and yet she had to pass the CRB accreditation process to pick up her children from, and use a minibus at, another school. Would it not make sense to have a CRB system whereby accreditation is recognised nationally?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I know that the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) realises that he needs to come back to the Bill. Although he and other Members may be tempted to discuss CRB

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1230

checks in general, they can do so only in so far as they relate to the Bill and not with regard to a rewriting of the scheme.

Dr Lee: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), I have had a CRB check on more than one occasion, which is remarkable. I agree that it would be nice if the checks were portable.

To bring the subject back to the Bill, my point is that we should be cautious about anything to do with CRB. The central thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is to protect the child, and I am not convinced that CRB checks do that.

Part 3 mentions fuel poverty. As I have said, I serve on the Energy and Climate Change Committee and, on the day on which EDF has announced an 11% increase in fuel prices, the cost of fuel is of great importance to every family throughout the country. I think that that is why the definition of fuel poverty and, indeed, poverty need to be carefully drawn up. On poverty, most of us can only really talk about the experiences of people we know. My grandfather was born into what I would describe as poverty: he did not have running water or a toilet, he shared a tap with six other cottages, and there was no electricity. That was in the 1930s in this country. He also shared a three-bedroom home with eight siblings. I would describe that as poverty.

Today, I struggle with the definition of what poverty is, and I draw on professional experience in making such comments. I have made home visits to pretty socially deprived parts of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, one of which was to somebody who had a fantastic plasma screen TV—I think it was bigger than the one that I am fortunate enough to possess—but no carpets. Ultimately, when we draw up a definition of poverty, we have to bear in mind that attitude and choice make a profound difference to how much money people then have left to spend on fuel.

There are some difficulties with the current definition of fuel poverty in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. The Library briefing paper highlights how the definition relates to problems with fuel prices, household income and dwelling condition. The conditions of the dwelling are the responsibility of the dwellers to some extent. The individuals in the social housing flat that I visited had made a choice to spend money on equipment for a fantastic audio-visual system and Sky subscriptions, and not to spend it on carpets. Does the fact that they are no longer able to afford a properly insulated flat—which it is not if it does not have carpets—mean that they are in poverty or not? On the definition of fuel poverty, which is what the hon. Gentleman seeks to address, let us not shy away from the reality that there are people in this country who make perverse decisions on priorities for home expenditure. If we can deal with that, we may go some way to dealing with the problems of fuel poverty.

I cannot conceive of a situation whereby anybody in this country is as poor as my grandfather was. If they are as poor, that begs the question: where does the £3 billion-plus per week spent on the welfare state go? We spend a significant sum as a proportion of our gross domestic product on welfare payments, so if there are

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1231

families and individuals who are genuinely without enough finance to pay for food and heating, I suggest that the system is not fit for purpose.

Energy efficiency is mentioned in the Bill. I do not need any convincing that improving the efficiency of both residential and industrial properties is the lowest-hanging fruit in trying to reduce families’ energy bills, and indeed in reducing the cost of energy to the country, given that we import so much of it. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman in that. I expect that there will be cross-party support for that principle. If the finances allowed the Government to subsidise and incentivise anything, I hope that it would be the proper, fuel-efficient insulation of properties. The Government’s green deal is a good start in that direction, and I hope that there will be more work in that area.

I am not 100% sure that microgeneration is the way forward. Combined air conditioning and water heating pumps are a good idea, and I visited a site in Norway where they were being made. I believe that work on that would be beneficial. Ultimately, we need to find a way of generating our electricity in the most cost-effective, efficient and low-carbon form possible. As I said in an intervention earlier, nuclear is the only option that ticks those boxes. I do not know the hon. Gentleman’s personal position, but I know that his party has some reluctance in the nuclear arena. They should revisit the matter, because as far as I am concerned, the science, engineering and everything else points to nuclear being the solution. If we could bring about the most cost-effective possible installation of nuclear power stations, energy prices would become more stable and affordable in the medium to longer term for families up and down the country. The fuel poverty that is mentioned in the Bill would therefore become less of a problem.

Stephen Barclay: Is not the point that my hon. Friend is driving at about the consistency of policy across Departments? Our coalition partners rightly share our desire to address fuel poverty, which is addressed in the Bill, but their reluctance to embrace nuclear is leading to a funding model that will drive up the costs of energy and go against that shared desire. That inconsistency of aims among Departments goes to the heart of his comments.

Dr Lee: I do not want to stray too far from the subject of the Bill, but if we spend huge amounts of money on our energy, whether via subsidy or not, that will lead to families struggling to meet their bills. We have to revisit how we are setting about securing sustainable and low-carbon energy generation that the country can afford in the medium to longer term. I suggest that there certainly needs to be more work on nuclear energy.

Mr Ellwood: The fundamental questions in the argument about fuel poverty are about how we generate energy, the security of supply and the costs, including the knock-on costs to the general public. Does my hon. Friend agree that had the last Government taken some of the bigger decisions about nuclear energy, the cost of Britain’s overall energy package would be lower and fuel poverty would not be such a big problem today?

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1232

Dr Lee: My hon. Friend is spot on. One has only to look at how many Energy Ministers there were under the last Administration to see that energy was never a priority until rather too late in the day. The problem with the majority of forms of energy, particularly the low-carbon ones and especially nuclear power, is that there has to be a decade-long perspective. The idea that we can press a button and then open a nuclear power station the following year is plainly nonsense. Remarkably, in 2003 an energy review by the then Government concluded that nuclear power did not have a role, although by 2007-08 they decided that it did—the policy was all over the place. We know that the current Government received a pretty ropey inheritance across the board from the previous Administration, but the situation regarding energy generation is truly challenging and something we must think about. Despite the fact that our inheritance from the previous Government was so bad, in future we will need cross-party agreement on nuclear power. There is a desperate need for a large number of nuclear reactors.

Jim Dobbin: As an Opposition Member who has a 27-turbine wind farm in his constituency, I understand and accept the need for nuclear energy to fulfil the capacity that the nation will require in the future. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and let him know that some Opposition Members do support nuclear energy.

Dr Lee: If I gave the impression that all Opposition Members are to blame, I apologise. When trying to address fuel poverty, energy generation is clearly significant. We are entertaining the idea of paying a significant strike price to EDF for nuclear power stations, and I encourage all Ministers engaged in those negotiations not to pay that but to step back, burn some gas and buy us some time, in order to get it right and so that families up and down the country can afford fuel to heat their homes.

Let me return to social housing and the drive towards energy efficiency, which I am sure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley agrees with. I attended part of the Opposition day debate last Wednesday, and the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), who sits with me on the Energy and Climate Change Committee, made a valid point about the quality of some social housing flats in his constituency, and how difficult it is to insulate them and introduce the energy-efficient measures that we would like to see in all homes up and down the country. We may have to reflect on such matters when considering how we build social housing in the future, as well as on the amount of social housing that needs to be built.

Our inheritance of housing stock from over the past 30, 40, 50 or 60 years—I am not blaming either side of the House for this—is not up to scratch. If we are to reduce our need for foreign energy imports, and reduce our carbon footprint in the medium to longer term, our housing stock and the quality of our buildings must be improved. That may require significant investment from the private and, I suspect, the public sectors, to arrive at a point where all in this country have energy-efficient homes.

In conclusion, I believe there is some merit in the measures included in this rather extensive Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1233

I support him in that and believe in anything that supports families and keeps them together. Even where there has been divorce, families can still retain some cohesion. We see children from broken homes manifested up and down the country—how many times do we see such cases on our screens on the Jeremy Kyle show and so on?—and children are growing up in environments that have no male or senior family role models. Anything we can do to alleviate or improve that situation gets my support.

Finally, on energy and fuel poverty, I say again that we need to redefine what poverty is in this country. If we do not, how on earth can we set about eradicating any problems that may still exist in 21st-century Britain?

12.24 pm

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who spoke with such passion and expertise about the various aspects of this wide-ranging Bill. He is perfectly placed to discuss these matters as he sits on the Energy and Climate Change Committee and is also a doctor.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on his success in the ballot. He has introduced a wide-ranging set of ideas—perhaps too many for one Bill, but I will come back to that point. Clearly, he has shown enormous dedication, expertise and effort in preparing this Bill and introducing it today. It reflects an understanding of, and a passion for, a subject that is important to him, and should be important to all hon. Members. Indeed, I am sorry that the Opposition have only managed to conjure up a single offering to the debate, other than a brief intervention from an Opposition Whip. Perhaps now that we are coming to the end of the debate, Opposition Members will rush in to try to make a final contribution. On the other hand, perhaps the lack will be made up for by the shadow Minister’s comments. We certainly look forward to them.

The issues of families in courts and the protection of children in that arena are ones that we all face. We see this through the work of our local authorities, which have to deal with it every day, and in dealing with the families, individuals and children in constituency cases when they are unfortunately forced to deal with the family justice system. I have two particular cases that are still not concluded. One is a divorced father who is seeking access to his child but has been denied the opportunity to develop that relationship. His relationship with his wife has fallen apart, but that should not mean that the child grows up without being aware of who his father is. It has taken far too long for the law courts to recognise his legal right to see his child. I am not in a position to say whether the decision is right or wrong, or how much time he should have with his child, but the process of making the decision must be expedited. We must be able to come to a judgment far faster, so that the stress caused is minimised.

The second issue that has come to my attention—I am sure other hon. Members have bumped into it too—is the time it takes for children to be adopted, once it is clear that they can be adopted. The length of time and bureaucracy involved causes increased stress

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1234

for the birth parents, for the parents who wish to adopt and, especially, for the child. Ultimately, it is the child we need to think of in this. In one particular case some years ago, I was involved in providing witness statements on the credibility of one of a couple wishing to adopt. It took more than two years to complete the process, and that is too long to spend making an assessment of whether people are of good standing and conduct and able to take on a child. I know that the Prime Minister has spoken with passion about this issue, and I hope that the Government will address it in the Bills that will deal with these issues in January.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, who is unfortunately no longer in his place—I understand that he is poorly—mentioned “The Waltons”. Much as it is amusing to remember that black and white series, it had some powerful messages that we can recognise today. It had three generations living under one roof and showed how they dealt with day-to-day problems. While my hon. Friend’s comment may have been a flippant attempt to illustrate some of the challenges that we face today, it reminded me of a discussion I had on Radio Solent this week about war veterans and national service veterans in which grandparents said they did not feel they had the respect of the younger generation. The discussion related specifically to their contribution during the war and after and to the place of grandparents in society, communities and families today. That role, it would be fair to say, has changed over the past three or four generations since the time of the Waltons.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned the influence of grandparents, access to them and their role in providing stability during unstable periods of life, whether during divorce, resettlement, adoption and so forth. The role of grandparents is fundamental to a more palatable answer to looking after children’s needs. Speaking on Radio Solent, these veterans raised concerns that today’s generation did not look up to them in the same way that perhaps my generation or my parent’s generation did. That shows that the role of the elderly—the seniors, if you like—has changed. Perhaps the distractions of growing up today—television, internet, mobile phones and so forth—and the fact that we live such diverse lifestyles and much further from families and grandparents has challenged the contribution that grandparents make. They simply do not have the same amount of access as they did in yesteryear.

That needs to be revisited. We, as a Parliament, a country and a society, need to underline those values and remind ourselves that we want citizens not only to pay taxes and obey the law but to be part of a community, whether a village society, a residents area or whatever. We need to underline the family bonds and connections that help in the good times and, most importantly, provide security and support in the bad times. That is why I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about provision of access to grandparents. Children should not be denied access simply because one of the disputing parties decides to alienate one of the family names.

The justice system makes life-changing decisions affecting many thousands of children every year. Churchill spoke passionately about the welfare state and talked about a safety net for society catching those who fall from their place in life and require the support of the state. The trouble with that analogy, however, is that if somebody falls through the net, they will be on the wrong side and

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1235

will find it difficult to get back. I prefer another analogy: those huddles of penguins in the cold, those communities of penguins sharing body heat, while others are on the outside and exposed, through no fault of their own. They are reliant on the whole community to see them through and to get them back into the centre. If we do not help them, those on the outside of our communities and society will be unable to weather the storm and move forward. That needs to be encouraged. I put my hand up: the Conservatives, in particular, need to emphasise that message more than those on any other side. I am glad to say that the Government are trying to do that.

As I said, the decisions are taking too long, because of unnecessary bureaucracy, which is leading to a lack of trust in the system, increased stress and—let us say it—a waste of taxpayers’ money, which needs to be spent wisely, particularly in these difficult times.

I certainly welcome the spirit of the Bill and what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is trying to achieve. I would, however, question the strategy and tactics that he has adopted. He acknowledged that the Bill was busy, and he covered an enormous amount of background, which was given licence but has now been cut down by Madam Deputy Speaker as we wandered away talking about anything from wind farms to child protection orders and all sorts of other aspects that are perhaps related to this enormous Bill. The hon. Gentleman seemed to say, “Fine, there is a lot there, but if need be, we can drops things in Committee.” He also recognised, however, that the Government are doing a number of things in various areas.

John Hemming rose

Mr Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I will happily accept his interventions after I have finished my point. In my interventions on him, I alluded to a number of areas where the Government are taking initiatives forward. Most specifically—I hope the Minister will clarify the point when he concludes the debate—legislation is expected in January, which will cover many of the areas that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

John Hemming: I did not check the draft legislation for the family justice review because I assumed it covered only the family justice review, with which I disagree. In fact, it does cover that and I have now reviewed it. First, I do not think it fixes the problems; and, secondly, I think it creates even worse problems in certain respects. It is obviously always possible to introduce a Bill and I realise that some elements could be introduced later. My argument is simply that on certain urgent issues, the Bill will allow us to start solving some problems rather than just kicking them down the track.

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful for that intervention, and I think everyone would agree with his last comment, in that the Bill provides an important opportunity to debate these issues. Not all the private Members’ Bills that we debate on Fridays make it on to the legislative book, but they allow individual Back Benchers to share new ideas, test where the Government are in respect of them at the time and ensure that the public are made aware that we are debating the issues. Subsequently, the

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1236

public can enter into the debate and comment. In that, the hon. Gentleman has certainly succeeded. We await the Minister’s comments—we are all salivating for them—before we find out exactly where we are from a Government perspective.

Dare I say it, there must be some sort of agreement between us and Opposition Members? My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell made the point well—that there should be cross-party agreement on the messages we are sending out and, indeed, to some extent, on the legislation itself. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, and I do not want to detract from the mammoth amount of work he has done, which needs to be acknowledged. Today’s debate is a healthy step forward, but I would like to know more about where the Government sit on a number of the issues. It is important to clarify Government thinking.

In an earlier intervention, I specifically mentioned the family justice review. This is the big piece of work being done by the Government. The foreword is written by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and the Secretary of State for Education. The Government responded to 130 recommendations from the family justice review, which was published in November 2011. It sets out a number of reforms to public and private family law, as well as reforms to the structures and governance of the family justice system. The Government response, which I have in my hand, was produced in February 2012.

I shall not go through all 130 responses, but I would like to share my view of three of them, if I may. The first is on page 28. It states:

“Judges and magistrates should be enabled and encouraged to specialise in family matters.”

The Government’s response is:

“The Government agrees with the Review’s analysis that enabling and encouraging specialisation in family matters will improve judicial continuity and create a more experienced family judiciary. The President of the Family Division has said that he favours a more specialist bench and that consideration should be given to the merits of setting a minimum sitting requirement for family ticketed judiciary.”

That sets out a direction of travel in relation to the time taken by these processes.

The next recommendation states:

“A single family court, with a single point of entry, should replace the current three tiers of court. All levels of family judiciary (including magistrates) should sit in the family court and work should be allocated according to case complexity.”

The Government’s response is:

“The Government agrees with the Review on the benefits of clarifying and simplifying the family courts, and making their operation more transparent, by establishing a single Family Court for England and Wales.”

If I may test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall give one more example. The recommendation states:

“There should be flexibility for legal advisers to conduct work to support judges across the family court.”

The Government’s response is:

“The Government agrees that there is scope for legal advisers, who currently work only in the magistrates’ courts, to take on some of the judiciary’s quasi-administrative functions across the whole of the Family Court once it is established.”

I have quoted just three of the 190 recommendations in the family justice review, but those who read the whole document will see that the Government accepted

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1237

the majority of them. That is a very positive result, but it has yet to be turned into legislation, which is, of course, the next step.

Part 3 deals not with court procedures but with a related but separate subject, namely energy and fuel poverty. As I made clear in an intervention earlier, there is a connection between the amount of energy that we create, where we get that energy from, how we use it, and how much we charge the nation for that process. I agree with what my hon. Friends have said today. Until we make those big decisions about new nuclear build, it will be very difficult for us to ensure that there is security of supply, and without security of supply we shall not be able to control the costs of the power that we generate. We shall have to import more energy, in which event we shall be governed by prices that are fixed outside this country. The consequences of that will affect fuel poverty; indeed, they will affect us all. That is why the Prime Minister announced the week before last that the tariffs would be looked at. I am pleased to see a smile of approval on the face of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter).

The tariffs need to be set in a certain way. First, they must be made far simpler, so that all users can recognise the tariff that they are on if they want to switch. Secondly, people must be encouraged to be on the lowest tariff. The present system is very confusing. I believe that there are 124 tariffs across all the energy boards, and that is far too complicated.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): We have gone from “will be” to “might be” to “could be” to “will be encouraged to be”, and now the tariffs are to be “looked at”. Does that represent another step back from the Prime Minister’s position of two weeks ago?

Mr Ellwood: I can use the first words quoted by the hon. Gentleman: the words “will be”. The Government and the Prime Minister are absolutely firm about their intent. I can write the hon. Gentleman a letter and include those words so that the position is unequivocal.

It is clear that people are being obliged to pay far too much for their energy, and that the process is far too complicated and needs to be simplified. The hon. Gentleman quibbles about the words used by the Prime Minister, but, dare I say it, his Government had 13 years in which to gain control of energy policy and develop an energy strategy. They did very little about it, and we are now having to deal with the consequences. Unbelievably, a third of our coal requirements are met by Russia, which is a bizarre state of affairs in a nation that ought to be able to generate its own power. The important aspect is that we keep the cost of energy and its generation down, which will have a knock-on consequence for all users, including the most vulnerable.

The Bill deals with the building regulations for social housing. It desires a reduction in fuel use, which would mean that fuel bills would be lower. That would be a positive step forward, and the proposal makes sense. However, it ignores the fact that building regulations have changed and are changing. An awful lot of powers are bestowed on local authorities to make these very decisions, rather than to have them made nationally. There is a commitment to introduce a zero-carbon requirement for all new homes built after 2016. [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1238

Birmingham, Yardley has come back into the Chamber, because he may wish to comment on this. The Bill would require that new dwellings comply with the level 6 standard—a very high standard. He may be aware that the Government’s standard is level 3. What is the difference between the two? Level three is deemed as providing the necessary insulation that will save on fuel costs, whereas levels 4, 5 and 6 take us into the bells and whistles. Those levels dramatically increase the cost of the build by about £30,000.

John Hemming: It is an issue for Committee.

Mr Ellwood: That is a wonderful line, but if this reaches Committee, perhaps its members would recognise that level 6 includes things such as rainwater harvesting. That is why I disagree with the provision. Rainwater harvesting may be something that an individual would like, and we would all aspire to use rainwater sensibly as it comes off the roof, but the scale of the social housing problem that we face in each of our constituencies—the shortage has been mentioned time and again in this House—means that promoting level 6 would make things unworkable. So the hon. Gentleman may be wise to amend his Bill in Committee. As I say, social housing is already obliged to comply with level 3, and local councils can demand, for example, where a new housing estate is being built, an increase to level 4, 5 or 6. Councils can impose that as part of the planning application process, but that is done in the town hall, not from here.

In conclusion, the family justice system continues to require reform to reduce delays, and to improve support for families and, specifically, for children. Every two months of delay represents 1% of a young child’s childhood, yet the average case now takes 55 weeks to complete. There is certainly still work to be done, but a lot of homework has been done on looking at these issues: the Munro review’s recommendations on child protection; Martin Narey’s work on adoption, legal aid and civil justice reforms; the family justice review, which I have referred to on a number of occasions; the Government’s response to that review; and now the ideas contained in this Bill. The coalition Government have done an awful lot of homework, but it is now time to legislate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

12.48 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): We have had a wide-ranging debate on a wide-ranging Bill, and I hope that my comments live up to the expectations raised by the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on all these issues, on which I can show off my expertise.

I pay genuine tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who has been contentious sometimes and used colourful language on this issue—not today, because he has been on his best behaviour, in trying to get Government support. However, no one can doubt his passion or, indeed, his knowledge, which he has ably demonstrated on all the issues in this detailed and wide-ranging Bill.

As the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) pointed out some hours ago, it is a heterogeneous Bill—it has many elements—and it shows off that detail, but the danger, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has realised, is that although some parts of it

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1239

might please some people, it is unlikely that all of it pleases everyone. I therefore note his plea to the Government in particular that they could fillet it if only they would let it go to Committee. I suspect that my response on behalf of the Opposition will be similar—we like some parts of the Bill very much; we are ambivalent about other parts; and we have doubts about some parts—but if it does get to Committee, we will certainly consider it constructively and seek to amend the parts that we do not like.

I will say a little, perhaps not so much as the hon. Gentleman did, about the Bill’s detail. It brings to the fore some of the overarching—one might say, eternal—themes in the justice system, the first of which is openness. The word “transparency” appears in the short title. Openness will be a contentious issue on the Floor of the House this autumn, when the Justice and Security Bill arrives and we will see what the Liberal Democrats do in relation to that matter.

Openness in the family courts is a difficult issue which requires a balance between what should always be the presupposition in English courts—that matters should be transparent, that the public should have admittance and that matters should be publicly available—and, obviously, the protection of children in particular and of sensitive and personal matters. I am not persuaded that some of the Bill’s provisions contain sufficient safeguards to prevent matters from becoming public which, perhaps, should not become public. I shall say a little more about that and talk about some of the individual clauses.

The second theme is equality of arms. There is an implication in everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about the Bill that there is an imbalance of power between the family on the one hand and the local authority on the other hand. To some extent, that is common sense. There is a difference in resources always. The local authority sometimes plays a dual role. Although it might be a party in proceedings, it has been judge, as well as a party, in its previous dealings with the family.

What concerns me particularly with the legal aid brief for the Opposition are the changes in the family law that are taking place as a consequence of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—the LASPO Act—and the fact that although legal aid is protected for public law, there are such swingeing cuts in legal aid for family law that the availability of family lawyers, representation and firms that have such expertise is threatened. That is a part of the de-professionalisation of the courts that the Government are overseeing in many different aspects. They say that that can be replaced with mediation in some instances. They say or at least imply that many cases can be conducted by litigants in person.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had regard to those matters in proposing the Bill. His solution appears to be that untrained people—McKenzie friends—or some form of non-professional advocacy and support can in some ways replace the help and assistance that the legal profession can provide.

John Hemming: The idea is to have someone there to provide people with psychological support. Everyone else is not associated with them. They may have solicitors

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1240

there as well. For instance, the mother of a 17 or 18-year-old young mother could be there, or an embassy representative could be there for foreign citizens.

Mr Slaughter: I see the hon. Gentleman’s point, and no one would disagree that it might be important to have someone to give emotional support to litigants in a time of great stress—most litigation is a time of great stress, but particularly family litigation. I understand the examples he gives, but he does not deal with the problem that occurs in many cases, namely the inequality and imbalance of arms in private family law, let alone in public family law. That problem is not addressed in the Bill.

The third theme is costs. I noticed with interest clause 8(3), on the risk of costs in judicial review proceedings. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as a consequence of part 2 of the 2012 Act, no win, no fee agreements will not be available in all cases—they will not be available in judicial review, and nor will qualified one-way cost-shifting. It is therefore very likely that judicial review will be restricted for persons who do not qualify for legal aid. I suggest he looks at draft regulations on the future provision of legal aid, which suggest that all other remedies will need to be exhausted before legal aid is available in public law proceedings in judicial review cases. The Minister is looking up and showing some interest—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright) indicated dissent.

Mr Slaughter: Perhaps it was just an involuntary reaction. The Minister might want to consider that point, because those regulations are likely to be debated in Committee within the next few weeks. If we are to have a wholesale restriction not only on those who do not qualify for legal aid, but on those who do, the availability of public law remedies will be severely curtailed. In that respect, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley could have gone some way further on how litigants in family proceedings—we are talking about family proceedings, but it will apply to proceedings more widely—could ensure that they can get access to justice and some protection in costs, particularly when they are up against public authorities.

On the detail of the Bill, the points in part 1 are well made, but I somewhat doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s remedies, which in most cases are statutory requirements on the courts and the fettering of the discretion of the courts, are the right way to proceed. We probably disagree on the family justice review. David Norgrove’s review, which was commissioned under the previous Government but published by and responded to by this Government, is an impressive piece of work. On family group conferences, which are dealt with in clause 1, the review said that

“the benefits of family group conferences should be more widely recognised and their use should be considered before proceedings”.

Separately, the family justice review found that both children and adults are “confused” about the family justice system—a point the hon. Gentleman made well. He and I would agree that family group conferences have an important role, and perhaps a bigger role, to play, but whether there should be a requirement is another matter.

On clause 2, more was said about grandparents than about any other single issue. I suspect there will be very little dissent from any party from the point that the role

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1241

of grandparents in both contact and proceedings can be important. However, the family justice review and the Government’s response say that the leave requirement should remain, because it acts as an important safeguard for children and their families, and that that is consistent with the principle that the court’s paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child.

The Government said that they were

“committed to ensuring that children have meaningful relationships with family members who are important to them”,

including grandparents. That really moves us on to the issue of sheer parenting, and the balance between the rights of family members and the rights of the child. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of what the final report of the family justice review said on that:

“the core principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child is sufficient and…to insert any additional statements brings with it unnecessary risk for little gain.”

That is a point on which the Government disagreed, but with which we find ourselves broadly in sympathy.

Clause 2 raises the issue of academic research. All that I would say on that—this point was raised by other hon. Members—is that there is a will in the courts to move away from a proliferation of expert reports. The hon. Gentleman says that those will not necessarily be reports given in evidence; I am therefore not entirely sure what the role of additional experts will be, or, if the reports are not given in evidence, how the provenance and authority of experts’ opinions will be judged. I agree with the point made by, I think, the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), who said that we would be better employed in ensuring that a single expert gave good advice than in looking to second-guess or challenge that advice in a variety of perhaps only semi-formal ways.

John Hemming: Will the hon. Gentleman say how we can ensure that an expert is giving good advice without having peer review at some stage?

Mr Slaughter: That is a problem that the courts have to tackle in not just family proceedings but in all types of proceedings. One has to look at the qualifications, experience, expertise and record of experts who come before the courts. In my time in practice, there was a strong trend away from everybody coming along with their own expert—as soon as there are two experts, there are three opinions, if not four or five—and towards trying to focus on a single expert, either agreed by both sides or independent, depending on the nature of proceedings, on whom the court would rely. Moving away from that trend would produce a lot of additional costs and confusion.

The principle behind clause 3 is that for children in care, particularly when it comes to hearing their voices and their serious complaints—this, of course, is a matter of contemporary public concern—there must be an independent voice. The issue really is whether the independent reviewing officers are sufficient. That was considered back in 1989 when the Children Act was introduced. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley doubts that they are sufficient. I note that the opinion of the family justice review is that, provided that independent reviewing officers are sufficiently independent, it is appropriate that they should be employed by the local authority. There is a danger of setting up entirely new

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1242

parallel processes, public bodies and authorities, and quangos to oversee them. Given his criticism of many of the existing quangos and satellite bodies surrounding the courts, I urge caution in setting up additional ones.

On clause 4, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that good practice should be that where adoption without consent occurs, clear reasons are given. It is important that when traumatic decisions of that kind are taken, they are fully explained. The Court of Appeal has stressed that that should be done. Putting requirements on the courts to do the same thing in all cases, and fettering and removing judicial discretion, is a habit that the House gets into too often.

To sum up my view on part 1 of the Bill, it is spot-on in identifying issues, but it may, perhaps intentionally, be looking to apply slightly over-prescriptive remedies to achieve the hon. Gentleman’s aims. The hon. Gentleman will find me more sympathetic on part 2, where many of his proposals are sensible and identify matters long overdue for consideration. In clause 7 there is no definition of “wrongdoing”, which may be an omission. I am sure he will say that that is a point for Committee, but it is a rather broad term. In the light of every current event from Hillsborough to Savile, the principle of increasing the ability to and facility for whistleblowing and the ability of responsible authority, including Members of the House, to take those matters up is right.

On the subject of scandalising the court, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that in the light of what happened to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), I think he is right about that, but I think I am right in saying that the Government have given undertakings that they will re-examine that during the passage of the Crime and Courts Bill through the House of Lords.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman does not go quite far enough in what he says about costs and judicial review. I am sympathetic to what he says in relation to clauses 9 and 11. Lawyers have a habit of relating anecdotes about their own practice, which is often not broad enough to be able to draw general conclusions from, but I dealt with many cases involving the Official Solicitor and the issue of capacity, and often came to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman—that there is insufficient scrutiny of those bodies. It is taken for granted that when a decision is made that the Official Solicitor should be involved or the matter of capacity needs to be dealt with, one moves on and deals with the situation as it is, without sometimes questioning whether those decisions have been properly made or whether those bodies are conducting themselves as well as they could.

I have sympathy also with what the hon. Gentleman says about obtaining transcripts, but his solution is not the correct one. The idea of people going into proceedings with their own recording devices, producing their own transcripts, no doubt in good faith, and those having to be subject to the same rules of confidentiality and presumably to the rules of reporting, is not practical. However, he presents a problem that needs to be looked at—the cost, the ease and the speed of obtaining transcripts of proceedings.

On part 3, I shall be brief. Unlike the prisons Minister, I am not an expert on passive flue gas technology, so I shall just make one or two general comments. The only time today that we got into a bit of party ruckus was on fuel poverty. For the record, it was an issue that the

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1243

Labour Government took extremely seriously from the time that they introduced winter fuel payments onwards, and on which a great deal was done. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and I disagree with what the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) said. Fuel poverty is still a serious problem and it should not be a serious problem in the 21st century. Energy pricing and the role of energy companies are matters on which the Leader of the Opposition has taken the lead.

The Prime Minister may have been panicked into a response when he said that everybody was going to be on the lowest tariff, but I hope that when he refines his ideas, we will see some positive movement towards ending profiteering by the cartel of energy companies, and ensuring that, in particular, those on low incomes and those who are vulnerable by reason of age or disability have the funds to heat their properties and that those properties are as weather-tight as possible. In that broad sense, I welcome the fact that he managed somehow to slide those issues into the Bill.

Before concluding my remarks, I want to mention one or two of the other contributions we heard, because they were all interesting. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) used his local knowledge and his expertise to talk about the terrible events in Rochdale, which perhaps were the most serious child welfare cases that have occurred recently.

Many hon. Members spoke from experience about cases in their constituencies. The hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire and several others mentioned the important role of grandparents, which I think we all agree on, although I certainly agree with the comments about the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and the need to avoid the proliferation of experts.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley had more than ample support from his friend and neighbour the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on most parts of the Bill, but did not perhaps enjoy the same level of support from the hon. Member for Bracknell, who treated us to an interesting televisual spectacle. I do not think that he was entirely frank with the House when he said the he had watched only one episode of “The Waltons” during a spare hour, because he went on to mention several other episodes and showed a rather prurient and extensive knowledge of the series, which I was a little worried about. However, it seems the only other programme he watches is “Jeremy Kyle”, so perhaps he should stick with “The Waltons”. Madam Deputy Speaker pulled him up at that point—when he started to wax lyrical about how we should ban benefits and unban handguns, it was felt that he was straying somewhat from the themes of the debate.

I am afraid that I do not recognise the pattern the hon. Member for Bracknell described of people on benefits living in luxury and poverty no longer existing in the way it had years ago, and I do not think other hon. Members, including those on the Conservative Benches, do either. If we have made significant improvements in relation to fuel poverty, it is thanks to previous Governments, including the previous Labour Government, and the consensus that existed in this country about the safety net and the welfare state.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1244

However, it is incontrovertibly true that more needs to be done, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley would agree, drawing on the experience from his own constituency, that it is shameful to see families relying on food banks and, as I encountered in the past couple of days, having to pawn their possessions and sell their furniture simply to make ends meet. In particular, it is shameful that, because of the extraordinary rises in energy prices, elderly people still have to decide which of the basic things in life, including warmth, they are able to provide themselves with over the winter. For that reason, I am pleased that he mentioned fuel poverty along with the many justice and family law issues he raised today.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) treated us to an account of his appearances on Radio Solent and the collectivist ideal of penguins. We were getting close to the time the Government had set for the debate to end, if I may put it that way—we always know when we are getting to the thin end of a debate. We of course then had still to hear from myself and the Minister. I will therefore take the hint and hand over to the Minister. I look forward to his comments with enthusiasm and to hearing which parts of the Bill the Government will take through because, whether or not they wish the Bill to proceed to Committee, I am sure that there are ideas and principles in it that should find their way on to the statute book. Whatever the Bill’s short-term future, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has raised a number of serious and important points.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): It is a great pleasure to respond to what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) rightly described as a wide-ranging debate. Any debate that gets us from thermodynamics to Jeremy Kyle by way of “The Waltons” cannot really be described in any other way. I am very grateful, too, for the contributions made by hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) and my hon. Friends the Members for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), all of whom spoke a good deal of common sense. They have had the opportunity to do so because of this Bill, presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming). I again agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that we should pay tribute to my hon. Friend, whose commitment and experience, certainly in the area of family justice, are hard to beat. He has long demonstrated a real interest in improving the lives of the most vulnerable children in this country. I hope all of us have addressed this debate in a manner in keeping with that.

I have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, however, because I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that we should not create too much legislation, especially where there is no need to do so. If we were operating in a vacuum—with the Government taking no interest in the reform of the family justice system, putting forward no proposals, commissioning no research—my hon. Friend’s arguments would have more force, but that is not the case. As he knows, a substantial amount of effort has been put into

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1245

reviewing the family justice system, and I am disappointed to learn that he is not a supporter of that. He knows that, with cross-party support, a review panel independently chaired by David Norgrove was set up in 2010 to look at all aspects of the family justice system, from court decisions on taking children into care through to disputes over children when parents divorce. The panel gathered evidence from hundreds of people and groups with a personal and professional interest, and conducted two public consultations. I do not know whether my hon. Friend contributed to that, but many people did. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East pointed out to us, the final report of the family justice review was published in November 2011, with over 130 recommendations to improve the way public and private law disputes are dealt with and to reform the structures and governance of the family justice system.

The Government published their response in February 2012. The Government accepted that the family justice system was too often characterised by delay, expense, bureaucracy and lack of trust—many of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others mentioned today. My hon. Friend is right, and those who have been involved in the review are right, that the public have the right to expect much more. The Government accepted the majority of the panel’s recommendations, including putting children at the heart of the process, creating a single family court to make the system more effective and easier to navigate, reducing unnecessary delays in care proceedings and providing for expert evidence to be commissioned only where necessary, and establishing a family justice board to drive improvements in the system and improve management information. I would hope that my hon. Friend supported those provisions.

A programme of reform addressing the findings is already under way, and it is of vital importance. I am pleased to say that, despite what my hon. Friend said, the reforms were welcomed by users and professionals alike, and there is now a sense that all the key stakeholders—possibly excluding my hon. Friend—from Government to the judiciary and from social workers to lawyers, are absolutely committed to working together to achieve the changes that the system so badly needs.

I know that my hon. Friend has not had an opportunity to consider fully the draft legislation that is now receiving pre-legislative review, but I hope very much that he will take the trouble to look at it carefully, because I imagine that he will see a great deal that he can agree with. Because that material is being presented for pre-legislative review, and also because the matter is being investigated by the Justice Committee, there will be opportunities for him and others to influence the way in which the Government’s thinking develops. If the Bill then comes before the House, as I hope it will early next year, there will be opportunities for my hon. Friend and others to influence things at that stage. It is in that environment that I hope my hon. Friend will take the view that, worth while though many of the contents of the Bill are, and valuable though many of his ideas are, he will be prepared to withdraw it and wait until that legislation comes forward, and improve it if he believes that is necessary.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has come in for some harsh words in the course of the debate, and people have wondered why it does not

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1246

support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It has made it very clear that it does not support the Bill because it does support the way in which the Government are going about reforming the family justice system more broadly. Whereas I am sure that the Bill has elements that it would agree with, the association believes, as I do, that we should be doing this in a much more holistic way, by virtue of the family justice review and the legislation that we expect to follow it.

It is worth saying that the Government have already made good progress in delivering these reforms and have been working with the judiciary to create a more effective court system. As a first step, we have introduced legislation through the Crime and Courts Bill to create a single family court. Once implemented, this new court structure will allow for the more efficient and flexible deployment of judicial resources. It will also be easier to understand and to navigate for court users.

Something that has not been touched on in great detail but is worth mentioning is that a key element of the draft legislation on family justice is the proposal to introduce a 26-week time limit for care proceedings. That is supported by a number of other reforms, including those on experts, to which I will return. The expectation is that it will be possible to complete cases sooner than 26 weeks while retaining the flexibility to extend complex cases where that is necessary to conclude the case justly. That is against the background that at the moment the average length of time it takes to complete such a case is over a year.

It is also right to focus on the quality of submissions made to courts by local authorities; that needs improvement. In many areas, poor-quality or late submissions delay cases and lead to too great a reliance on time-consuming expert reports. The Department for Education is working closely with the sector and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services on a new programme of work to strengthen court-related skills among social workers and to ensure that evidence submitted to the courts is robust and of high quality.

There has been substantial progress in setting up new governance structures for the family justice system. The Family Justice Board has now been established, and we have appointed David Norgrove, who chaired the family justice review, as its independent chair. The board has developed a system-wide action plan that sets out the contribution that it and its partners will make to the family justice reform agenda. This represents a big step in cementing the inter-agency co-operation that will be required to achieve our reforms. The Government are extremely encouraged by the progress that has been made in setting up local family justice boards, many of which are now up and running. That is testimony to the commitment and energy that exists to bring forward the improvements that we all agree the system so badly needs. The boards bring together individuals from agencies from across the system working together to provide locally tailored, system-wide solutions.

It is the Government’s view that a number of the proposals in the Bill are already addressed in the reform programme that I have outlined via legislation, guidance or best practice, while others are under consideration or in draft legislation as part of the widespread changes to the family justice system, or subject to consultation. I say again that the Government should not legislate on matters where legislation covering the issues already

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1247

exists or non-legislative solutions are available to address the problems. We all agree that the child’s safety and welfare must come first, and we must encourage committed professionals to follow that line.

The Bill does share many of the high-level goals we are seeking to attain, but introducing them through this route, at this point in time, has the potential to confuse and complicate an already ambitious reform agenda that has been arrived at following extensive and intensive dialogue with the key stakeholders and users over the past two years. Adding complexity at this point not only risks our losing the broad consensus that has been established but could ultimately jeopardise successful implementation as resources become stretched in adopting a less coherent and focused reform agenda. Clearly, however well intentioned—I accept, of course, that my hon. Friend’s intentions are very good indeed—such a scenario would not be of benefit to children.

Let me turn to the contents of the Bill. I hope that I will be able to set out for my hon. Friend why the Government in part accept the intentions that he has set out, but in other parts do not accept that the methods he has chosen will be effective. Let me start at the beginning, with clause 1. My hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to make the use of family group conferences mandatory, subject to limited exceptions. The Government fully support the use of family group conferences where they are appropriate. Their use was strongly endorsed by the family justice review, and the Government have already funded the development and dissemination of a toolkit to ensure that family group conferences are used in the best possible way. In addition, the Government are currently funding the development of a framework of accreditation. The statutory guidance that accompanies the Children Act 1989 already highlights the importance of the use of family group conferences at key stages in the decision-making process for children, but they are a complement to, rather than a substitute for, other statutory meetings.

The Government’s support for family group conferences where they are appropriate could therefore not be clearer. However, we are of the view that making them compulsory would be a step too far. Family group conferences are not always suitable for all families in all circumstances. Families also have to agree to a family group conference in order for it to happen, not least to ensure a realistic prospect of a successful outcome. The toolkit to which I have referred sets out best practice in running the conferences. It also sets a clear expectation that the plans should be completed and agreed within six weeks, and that this will be agreed by the referrer as long as it addresses the issues of concern. That is what is called for in the Bill. Many of the proposals in clause 1 are therefore already covered by existing guidelines and good practice. However, although we want to encourage the use of family group conferences more widely when any decision needs to be made about a child’s future, we do not believe that legislation to make them compulsory is appropriate at this point.

My hon. Friend also raised the importance of parents having simple information to support them through the court process. Again, we agree, and various forms of guidance are currently available to assist parents involved with child protection services or entering the family

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1248

justice system. In addition, a great deal of work is ongoing to improve the provision of information more generally for families before they enter the system. Parents will also continue to receive legal aid for public law cases, and work is under way to assist litigants in person in other cases. In the private law context, that includes the provision of an online hub, and telephone and face-to-face services for users, together with guidance for litigants in person and for practitioners, including the judiciary, on dealing with litigants in person.

The creation of a single family court is a key step in making the family courts easier for users to understand. Furthermore, a guiding principle of the 1989 Act is that local authorities must work in partnership with families when making any decisions about their children. The social worker has the primary responsibility to engage with family members to assess the overall capacity of the family to safeguard the child, as well as ascertaining the facts of the situation causing concern and the strengths in the family. Support is also available from other sources, such as the Family Rights Group, which receives funding from the Department for Education and produces advice sheets and free telephone and e-mail advice for parents and families involved with children’s social care about the care and protection of their children.

Clause 2 deals with proceedings in the family court. My hon. Friend’s support for the use of McKenzie friends to help parties put across their case is welcomed. The support for attendance by observers is also welcomed. Both McKenzie friends and observers are, of course, already a feature of the family courts, and courts take seriously the need of litigants to have such support. As my hon. Friend will know, McKenzie friends are already subject to rules of confidentiality regarding their work in court. The Government agree with my hon. Friend that there is a need to improve the quality of some expert reports in family proceedings, a question to which many other hon. Members have referred in this debate. We are working with the Family Justice Council to develop quality standards, on which we intend to consult later this year. Those standards will build on the existing framework of accountability set by the family procedure rules.

The family procedure rules make it clear that an expert’s overriding duty is to the court, regardless of who instructs or pays the experts. Experts are under a duty to provide an independent opinion that conforms to the best practice of their profession. In addition, experts are subject to the standards and codes set by their profession, and many are subject to statutory regulation. Imminent changes in secondary legislation and proposals for changes in primary legislation in the slightly longer term will reduce and focus the use of experts in family proceedings generally. Experts can, of course, play an important part in proceedings by providing an expert opinion about a question that is not within the skill and experience of the court. For example, an expert might be needed to determine whether the cause of an injury to a child is likely to be accidental, or to determine whether a parent is continuing to abuse illegal drugs.

Expert reports take up precious time, however. We agree with the family justice review’s conclusion that experts should be used only when they are necessary to determine a case justly, and that expert reports should

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1249

not duplicate evidence available from other sources. We also agree that the court should ensure that such evidence is properly focused on the key questions that the court needs to have answered. Changes to the family procedure rules to bring that into effect are under consideration, and we hope to implement them early next year.

I understand that my hon. Friend is keen for researchers to have access to court records, including experts’ reports. Provisions are already in place in the family procedure rules—in practice direction 12G, should he wish to check—that enable any person lawfully in receipt of information relating to children proceedings to pass that information to researchers conducting an approved research project, including expert evidence.

However, as Members will be aware, the issue of how to open up the family courts further, and how to balance access with proper controls to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information that might be harmful to parties in the proceedings if released, remains a difficult and controversial issue which merits more serious consideration in the round. In this context, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Family Justice Board, whose remit includes general improvements to the family justice system. It might well be profitable for him to have conversations with the board on how those matters could be taken forward.

Turning to the interests of grandparents and other members of a child’s family, let me start by reassuring my hon. Friend and others who have spoken today that the Government recognise that grandparents and other relatives can play an important role in children’s lives, and that those relationships are important. Grandparents and other relatives provide support for families in many different ways, including child care, support when things are difficult, and full-time care of the child.

The 1989 Act already requires local authorities to seek to place looked-after children with their wider family first if it is not possible for them to return to their birth family. The revised statutory guidance to the Act requires local authorities to demonstrate that they have considered family members and friends as potential carers at each stage of the decision-making process, before and during proceedings, and the family group conferences that we have already mentioned are an important way of involving family members.

The child and any person with parental responsibility for the child are party to proceedings. The court may at any time direct that any person be made a party to the proceedings, and that can include grandparents, family or friends. The local authority does not have a duty to assess informal family and friends care arrangements, unless it appears to the authority that services might be necessary to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child. In such circumstances, the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families provides a suitable model by which local authorities can satisfy themselves that the proposed carers have the capacity to meet the child’s needs.

Section 22C of the 1989 Act requires consideration to be given to the most appropriate placement that will safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. When return home to a birth parent is not possible, consideration must be given to placement with a relative or other connected person who is approved as a foster carer. When the arrangements involve private fostering

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1250

arrangements, the carer is not approved as a local authority foster carer. However, the private fostering arrangement may be prohibited if assessed by the local authority as unsuitable.

For those family and friends carers involved when the child is looked after—and when a child is the subject of care proceedings—the regulatory framework sets out the required processes to be followed when the most appropriate placement for a looked-after child is with a connected person. When an immediate placement for a looked-after child with a relative or other connected person is required, and it is not possible to fulfil the requirements of the full approval process, the 2010 regulations set out the arrangements for the temporary approval of a connected person, to ensure that the child does not have to be placed with a stranger in the meantime.

The Department for Education’s consultation on a proposed redraft of the “Working Together” package, including new statutory guidance on serious case reviews and statutory guidance on undertaking assessments, concluded on 4 September. As part of the consultation, we sought views on replacing nationally prescribed timetables for assessment with local frameworks. The assessment process for individual children and families should be timely, transparent and proportionate to their needs. Social workers will determine what is timely and proportionate by using their knowledge, expertise and judgment. We are currently analysing the responses and the final guidance on assessment will be published by the end of the year.

On contact for grandparents, in cases where parents separate, no individual has an automatic right to any particular level or type of contact with the child. Such arrangements, if they cannot be resolved by the family members concerned, are referred to courts for a decision. Grandparents and other relatives may apply for contact through the courts, whose decision will take into account all the circumstances of each individual case, although in certain circumstances the permission of the court may be required. The Children Act is clear that the welfare of the child must be the court’s paramount consideration in such decisions. It will make a contact order if it decides that it is in the child’s best interests to have contact with the applicant. Any legislation that granted an automatic right to specific individuals to have contact with the child would, potentially, not be consistent with that principle.

As my hon. Friend knows, however, the Government are clear that the importance of children’s relationships with other family members should be taken into account during dispute resolution processes. Children’s relationships with family members who are important to them will, therefore, feature prominently in the creation of parenting agreements where appropriate and in the bespoke parenting programmes that will be available to support parents in reaching agreement out of court. If my hon. Friend looks again at the draft measures, which are currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, he will see that they propose a child arrangement order whereby many of the issues may most sensibly be addressed.

Clause 2(5) proposes to change the wording of section 22C(7)(c) of the Children Act, which requires the local authority, in determining the most appropriate placement for the child, to ensure that the placement is such that the child is provided with accommodation

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1251

within the local authority’s area, unless that is not reasonably practicable. The amendment would remove the reasonable practicability test in favour of a best interests test, but section 22C(7) already places local authorities under an overarching duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked-after children. The section’s qualification of reasonable practicability ensures that, in a situation where the child should be placed within the local authority’s area but it is not possible to provide such accommodation—there might not, for example, be a suitable children’s home placement in the area—the child may be safely accommodated elsewhere. We cannot place an unqualified duty on local authorities in a situation where they may not be in a position to fulfil that duty.

On children in care, my hon. Friend’s concerns are reasonable and entirely understood. Putting children at the centre of the care planning process, whereby their wishes and feelings are always considered, is the underpinning principle of the Children Act.

Mr Leigh: Will the Minister give my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) a chance to get to his Bill?

Jeremy Wright: I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is an assiduous parliamentarian and familiar with how things work, will accept that, if a Bill is as wide-ranging as this one and if it has taken as long to debate as this one has, it deserves a proper response, which is what it will get from me.

As I was saying, the underpinning principle of the Children Act, which is in question here, is reflected throughout the regulations and guidance on care planning and reviews. Each child is allocated an independent reviewing officer and the regulations and guidance that came into force last year strengthen further the independence of that role by clarifying that they cannot be involved with the management or resource of that case. All local authorities with children’s services responsibilities must ensure that independent advocacy services are provided for children and young people making or intending to make a complaint through the complaints procedures and the processes that are already required to be in place. We are currently exploring what more the Government might be able to do to support those processes.

Under the Children Act, local authorities also have a duty to appoint a person to be a child’s independent visitor where it appears to them to be in the child’s best interests. Decisions about whether to appoint an independent visitor should be about the needs of the child, which are determined by examining a range of factors such as the distance from home of where they are placed and whether having an independent visitor will make a positive contribution to promoting their education and health. The independent visitor’s functions are to visit, advise and befriend the child.

In relation to my hon. Friend’s proposal that looked-after children should be treated the same as other children with regard to criminal records, I simply say to him that that should be the case now. Enforcing that does not require a change in the law, but if there are difficulties, we will of course work with him to address them.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1252

I turn to the Bill’s suggested amendments to the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It may be helpful if I set out in a little more detail the effect that clause 4 would have. It would amend section 52 of the Act, which makes it clear that the court can dispense with the need for parental consent only where it is satisfied that the parents cannot be found or lack mental capacity, or that the child’s welfare requires it. As my hon. Friend will know, a placement order authorises a local authority to place the child for adoption by prospective adopters. The effect of an adoption order is that the parental responsibility of the birth parents is extinguished, and that only the child’s adopted parents have parental responsibility. Neither a placement order nor an adoption order has the effect of putting a child in the care of a local authority.

There would be two distinct effects of clause 4. First, it would require the court to give in its written judgment a full explanation of how it reached its conclusion on each aspect of the welfare checklist. Secondly, it would place a duty on the court to consider

“whether it is possible and in the interest of the welfare of the child to place the child with one of his relatives”

before making an order placing a child in the care of a local authority. I understand my hon. Friend’s underlying concerns, but I do not think it is sensible to amend the law in that way.

The clause would place a statutory duty on the court to give a fully reasoned judgment for a decision to dispense with parental consent when the court makes a placement order or adoption order. The court is, however, already under a statutory duty to consider the welfare checklist, and that duty applies to any decision of the court relating to the adoption of a child, not just to a decision to dispense with parental consent. Furthermore, the 2002 Act requires the court to do more than just consider the welfare checklist when making an order. It must consider the child’s welfare and the whole range of powers available to it under that Act and the Children Act 1989. Current legislation already requires the family proceedings court to give its reasons for decisions. In addition, domestic law already makes it clear that the judge must go through, analyse and balance each factor in the welfare checklist in order to justify his conclusions.

The clause would also place a duty on the court to consider whether it is both possible and in the interests of the welfare of the child to place him with one of his relatives before making an order placing him in the care of a local authority. However, section 52 of the 2002 Act is not about placing children in the care of a local authority. It is about parental consent for the adoption of a child. I and the Government share my hon. Friend’s central concern for the welfare of children and the need to keep them in their families wherever possible. We understand his intention in setting out his proposals, but we simply do not think that they are the best way of achieving what he wants.

I would wish to cover a number of other matters in detail, but I am conscious of the other business to be discussed today, and I would not wish to deny my hon. Friends who are in their places the opportunity to discuss it. However, I need to say one or two things about other areas that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has covered in the Bill.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1253

In relation to the duties of local authorities and other bodies, it is worth pointing out that, as I said earlier, when making any decision about a looked-after child a local authority must be satisfied that it is the most appropriate way to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. Under the 2002 Act, when the court or an adoption agency makes a decision about the adoption of a child, the child’s welfare must be the paramount consideration. Existing legislation covers a great deal of the ground that my hon. Friend wishes his Bill to cover. The Government are currently considering whether to amend the law on contact for children in care, following their recent call for views on giving greater flexibility to local authorities when making contact arrangements.

I agree with the reservations held by the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the definitions in clause 7 and the right to report wrongdoing, and a great deal of work would be required on that. The hon. Gentleman was also right when he spoke about the proposal to abolish the offence of scandalising the court, and the Government are currently considering that matter. In response to a debate in the other place during Committee stage of the Crime and Courts Bill, my noble friend Lord McNally undertook to consider the matter further in consultation with the judiciary and the devolved Administrations and return to it on Report, and that is what we will do.

The proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley to publish contempt of court details would be difficult because of the impact it may have on innocent third parties. Were we to do so, the risk is that it would be possible to identify the child involved, which is obviously of concern. We must remember that cost liability in judicial reviews is an important deterrent to unmeritorious litigation. Legal aid remains available for judicial review, however, and legal aid clients have cost protection and are not usually required to pay the other side’s costs if they fail.

The law already contains provisions to deal with complaints about the Official Solicitor. I do not have time to go into those now, but I am sure that my hon. Friend can consider the matter at greater length if he wishes.

On the recording of hearings, parties already receive transcripts of court hearings and, as other hon. Members have said, it is not sensible to set up a competing process. Other transcripts may be produced, and if they did not match a further layer of complexity would be required to resolve any conflict. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but he does not go about resolving it in the right way in the Bill.

The right to assert litigation capacity is also covered by existing law. Courts are required to investigate capacity when that issue is raised, carefully and on the available evidence, and even if there seems to be no dispute, medical evidence is invariably required as a minimum before holding that a party lacks capacity. A person interested in the protected party for whom the Official Solicitor has been appointed by the court as litigation friend, can apply to the court and seek to have the Official Solicitor discharged as litigation friend, and that person—or somebody else—appointed in their place.

I do not believe that my hon. Friend is being too radical and progressive for the Government on the ambit of reasonableness in capacity, but the measure he suggests is not necessary because it is already covered

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1254

by the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Existing legislation already prioritises and protects capacity to the furthest extent that a person is able to exercise it, and without using the reasonableness of the person’s proposed decision as the criterion for capacity.

Finally let me turn in the last few minutes to energy and fuel justice. The majority of today’s debate has focused on the family justice parts of my hon. Friend’s Bill, and I hope he will forgive me if I deal with other areas in a little less time. Clause 13 introduces a strategy to achieve lower bills and a more efficient use of fuels, and my hon. Friend will be aware of what the Government are already doing in that area, led by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government. My colleagues in both Departments, and the Government as a whole, are supportive of the aims in that section of the Bill.

My hon. Friend’s proposal to ensure that all new homes comply with level 6 of the code for sustainable homes is admirable but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East said, potentially an expensive ambition. Building regulations already require high levels of energy efficiency in all new homes—socially or privately owned—and a home built to current building regulations, which were introduced only in 2010, is well insulated and much easier and cheaper to heat than a typical older house. The Government recently consulted on proposals to tighten further the carbon and energy performance of new homes in 2013, and they have committed to introducing a zero-carbon requirement for all new homes from 2016. Because of that, separate legislation to improve energy efficiency for new homes is not necessary.

Requiring level 6 of the code for all social homes would be disproportionate, and could add as much as £30,000 to the construction cost of each home. Alongside the regulations and the code, it is also worth noting that a national review of locally applicable standards for new housing is now under way to reduce the burden of red tape.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is especially interested in the ideas in the Bill on heating. That is because we as a Government are interested in the question of how to drive the long-term changes to heating systems in millions of domestic homes. We will need to do that if we wish to reduce emissions on the scale needed to avoid damaging climate change. My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion about the use of building regulations, and he may know that the Department of Energy and Climate Change will publish a heat policy options paper next year. Use of regulation is one of the options that the Department’s officials are exploring, in consultation with others. The Government are, therefore, already considering policy options that will seek to increase take-up of low carbon and renewable energy in buildings.

Clause 13(2)(c) of the Bill makes specific reference to microgeneration measures having access to the green deal and financial incentives. That is something that we will look at and, in addition, we think that in a small number of cases consumers may be able to get green deal finance to help fund a part of the cost of installing renewable heating. We need to do more work over the coming months to ensure that this interaction is as smooth, as joined-up and as consumer friendly as possible. Ministers will say more about those proposals in coming months.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1255

On fuel poverty, we have concerns, as my hon. Friend will know, about the way in which fuel poverty is being measured, and we are looking again at that measurement mechanism. He will be pleased to hear that we have already announced that next year we will publish a refreshed strategy for tackling fuel poverty—the first such strategy since 2001. So we are already undertaking the work needed to ensure that we have the right framework in place for measuring fuel poverty, which will in turn allow us to target our resources on those whom we need to help most.

My hon. Friend has put in front of us a very wide-ranging Bill, and the spirit of much of it is something that the Government entirely support. But I urge my hon. Friend to look again at the measures that are already in draft from the Government, which we believe address many of the problems that he has rightly identified. In that light, I ask him to withdraw his Bill and work with us to improve the legislation that the Government have put forward and give it his full support.

1.52 pm

John Hemming: I have not been given confidence by what the Minister has said. I do not wish to withdraw the Bill, although I do not intend to put up tellers so that the later debate has more time. As far as I am concerned, the Government are being dangerously complacent about issues such as cover-ups, and my personal support for the Government will rest on a change of attitude by them to take such matters more seriously. I accept that there are other legislative vehicles to achieve these changes, but we need action now. I do not withdraw the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

A Division was called, but no Members being appointed Tellers for the Ayes, the Deputy Speaker declared that the Noes had it.

Question accordingly negatived.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1256

European Communities Act 1972 (Repeal) Bill

Second Reading

1.55 pm

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I promote this Bill to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 not merely supported by many outside the House but as explicitly directed by more than 5,000 readers of the Guido Fawkes blog site. This is the first ever crowd-sourced private Member’s Bill. MPs are sometimes accused of not sharing the concerns of ordinary voters or the priorities of those outside the Westminster village, but this Bill was voted on by those outside Westminster.

Withdrawing from the EU can no longer be dismissed as unthinkable. It is no longer a marginal view confined to mavericks, but a legitimate point that is starting to go mainstream. It might have been many months since the House had a frank and open discussion about the merits of our EU membership, but perhaps that tells us more about the shortcomings of the Westminster system than about the cost benefits of being part of the EU club. According to a recent poll by Survation, a majority of voters—more than at any time in the past three decades—now want Britain to leave the EU. Some 51% are in favour of leaving and only 34% want to remain in. That is the highest level of discontent for a generation.

The idea that we should leave the EU might find few champions among the Sir Humphreys in King Charles street, but that just tells us how out of touch the Whitehall establishment has become. If we cannot get new people, perhaps we should try getting new Sir Humphreys. It is not just the people who want out; we hear that members of the Cabinet have started to come round to the view that Britain might, indeed, be better off out.

Britain joined the Common Market because, the people were told at the time, it would be good for the economy. What we lost in political sovereignty would be compensated for by material gain. Looking back, I can understand that view. We joined at a time when western Europe had been growing spectacularly. The Common Market that we joined in the early ’70s could look back at two and a half decades of the most spectacular growth. It seemed that we were joining a prosperous trade bloc. In 1973, western Europe accounted for 38% of total world output, but in 2010 that figure had shrunk to 24%, and in 2020 it will be 15%.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on once again making history in the House. Given what he has just said, how would he respond to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who, on the Order Paper today, is inviting us to agree that “tough decisions” are

“being taken…in countries across Europe to…stimulate economic growth”?

Mr Carswell: I would be more than a little sceptical of such claims. I am no Keynesian, but the idea that measures being taken across Europe, particularly southern Europe, are producing prosperity and growth seems absurd.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1257

Far from joining a growing and prosperous free trade area, it turns out that we joined a cramped and declining customs union. Far from joining a rising economic powerhouse, we have shackled ourselves to a corpse. Being part of the EU hinders us, rather than helping us to prosper. The common agricultural policy obliges us to subsidise our farmers’ competitors in continental Europe, raising food prices and penalising the poor. The common fisheries policy has caused an ecological catastrophe in the seas around us. The EU social and employment rules have made us uncompetitive. EU directives have struck at our industries, art dealers, slaughtermen, cheese makers, temping agencies and fund managers.

On the EU’s own statistics, the cost of regulation outweighs the benefits of being in the single market by 5:1. According to the European Commission’s own statistics, the cost of regulatory compliance amounts to €600 billion, while the benefits of being in the single market are €120 billion. The common external tariff has forced us behind protectionist walls. Far from giving us free trade, these tariffs of between 5% and 9% are higher now than they were a century ago. At a time when the non-western world is enjoying an extraordinary boom and an extraordinary surge of prosperity and growth, we are forced to watch. Rather than join in, we are cut off by the EU’s mercantilist mindset.

The absurdity is that we pay for the privilege of being members of this poverty-producing club. Britain has paid more into the EU budget than she has received back in every year bar one since we joined. It is not just that we pay; our membership fee for being part of the club has risen by 70% within the past three years. In 2009, our net contribution to the Brussels budget was £5.3 billion; in 2010, it rose to £9.2 billion, and our gross contribution is nearly £20 billion.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this Bill, which I wholeheartedly support. Is he as shocked as I was to discover that during the last five years of the previous Government’s tenure our membership fee was some £19 billion, while in the five years of the present coalition Government, that membership fee will be £41 billion? How many nurses, policemen, doctors and teachers would that pay for?

Mr Carswell: My hon. Friend is absolutely bang on the money. One would expect this Government to do something about it. Instead, we have heard many debates about the need for austerity and cuts, with Members of all parties expressing their concern about what reduced public spending might mean in their constituencies, yet all the coalition’s austerity savings taken together do not add up to anything like our annual EU membership fee. The 2010 increase in our net contribution is greater than the sum total of all the austerity savings made since the last general election. Exactly when we have to justify austerity in our constituencies, we have an Administration who are handing over ever larger sums of our money to remain part of this austerity club.

Too many people in Whitehall—too many of the grand Sir Humphreys—still think of the EU as though it were vital to our economic survival, but the fact is that it is becoming less important almost by the hour. In the first six months of this year, our exports to the EU

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1258

fell by 18%, while our exports to the rest of the world rose by 28%. On every measure, the EU now accounts for a minority of our trade. That is not to say, of course, that the single market is not important. It is very important and it remains a large market, but it is just one market alongside the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mercosur and all the rest. No one is suggesting that we have to give up our sovereignty in order to sell to them.

We joined the European Economic Community, as it then was, because we wanted to be part of a growing trade bloc. In the event, the growth has taken place elsewhere. The Prime Minister told us in Birmingham that European Council meetings are dominated by discussions about propping up Greece,

“while on the other side of the world, China is moving ahead so fast it’s creating a new economy the size of Greece every three months.”

While the eurozone stagnates, lurching from one round of bail-out-and-borrow blunders—usually supported by our Treasury—to the next, the International Monetary Fund expects the Commonwealth to grow by 7% every year for the next five years. This year, the Commonwealth’s gross domestic product overtook that of the EU for the first time. In just two years, exports to Brazil have increased by 25%; to China by 40%; to Russia by 80%. It is not me saying that; it is the Prime Minister. It is to this Government’s great credit that they recognise the need for us to realign ourselves economically. The Government have, I think, been successful in trying to refocus our efforts on trading with the wider world and on opening us up to the wider world. I would argue, however, that being part of the European Union is holding us back; it is stopping us from opening up the trade arrangements that we desperately need to be part of that network of global prosperity.

The Minister is, I know, an honourable man, a very clever and intelligent man and in many ways a great man. He can see beyond the Foreign Office brief on many things. He understands the arguments I am making, and I hope that in his response he will share with us his view on the extent to which we can realign ourselves economically if we remain part of the European Union. Can we? I do not believe we can. Could we have a Swiss-type relationship, through which we have access to Europe’s markets, but could at the same time negotiate entirely independent bilateral agreements with non-EU members on our own?

Of course, the Whitehall élite—the Sir Humphreys and Sir Jeremys—will say that we need to be part of the single market, but do we? Must we be part of the single market in order to trade with the EU? China seems to gain market access, and last time I checked it was not part of the single market. A firm in China, Japan, Australia or America that seeks to trade with the EU must conform to EU standards in order to sell its products there, but must it comply 100% with all energy regulations under the auspices of the single market? No, and the economies of those countries are in much better shape as a result.

About 80% of all the economic activity that takes place in this country this year will revolve entirely around internal trade, while about 20% will depend on external trade. Less than half of that 20%—between 8% and 9% of total output—will depend on trade with the EU. How can it possibly be right that all the economic

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1259

activity that takes place in this country must comply 100% with single market rules, when only 8% or 9% of economic activity is geared towards trade with the EU?

Mr Hollobone: I am enjoying enormously my hon. Friend’s very impressive speech. Is not our trading relationship with the EU even more absurd, given that, on a regular and worsening basis, we actually have a trade deficit with the EU? In other words, the EU is doing better out of our EU membership than we are.

Mr Carswell: My hon. Friend is right. We have a massive trade deficit with Euroland, and, to compensate partly for that, we have to run a trade surplus with the rest of the world. When we first joined the Europe club, our trade with Europe was much more balanced. I cannot imagine that if we withdrew from the European Union, Siemens or some of the other great wealth creators in continental Europe would be any less likely to want to trade with us. Why should a business that is producing goods and services to sell outside the EU—to, say, India or America—be subject to red tape created under the auspices of the EU single market?

I leave the House with this thought. Switzerland is outside the European Union, yet it manages to do four and half times more trade per head with the EU from outside than we do from within. Let me ask the Minister this question. If Switzerland, with a population of 7 million or 8 million, can obtain more favourable terms with the EU than we have, could not we, with a population of more than 60 million, obtain even better terms than Switzerland?

Being in the European Union has done dreadful harm to our economy. It has put us in the global slow lane, but it has hampered our democracy as well. Public policy decisions are no longer made by those of us who are vulnerable to the electorate. They are no longer made by those who have to stand for marginal seats with the risk of being thrown out of office. They are now made by remote, unaccountable officials in Whitehall. Of course the Oxbridge-educated Sir Humphreys in Whitehall like being part of the EU, because it allows them to carry on making public policy. They do not have to answer to hoi polloi outside. However, it has corroded our democracy.

From agriculture policy to banking policy, from environmental rules to rules on bin collection, decisions that ought to be made by those who are vulnerable to the democratic process are made by technocrats. Technocracy is no more effective—in fact, it is a good deal less effective—than democracy when it comes to making good public policy. What is the point of voting if those whom the voters elect have no power? I cannot help noticing that voter turnout has fallen in every decade of our membership of the Europe club.

I am not introducing this Bill in the expectation that it will become law—yet. My aim is to ensure that we begin to give serious thought to the mechanics of withdrawal. Leaving the European Union will be simple, but it will not be easy. It will be simple because a simple Act of Parliament can get us out, but what then? What about all the acres of public policy that have been created under the auspices of the European Communities Act? How might we retain, for instance, perfectly sensible

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1260

environmental protection rules, but change some of the secondary laws that need to be repealed? What process will we use to sort out the difference between public policy that we wish to retain and public policy that we need to get rid of? Do we need different mechanisms to deal with directives and to repeal regulations? How—and I say this as a staunch parliamentarian who is suspicious of all who sit on any Front Bench—do we balance the need for the legislature to oversee the process against the need for an Executive then to take action?

My proposal in this Bill is just one model. I propose that all secondary measures and laws would remain in place, but that Ministers would then, subject to the approval of this House, have the power to repeal or amend. Is this idea of statutory instruments and ministerial fiat enough? Might it not also be an idea to give Select Committees specific powers to try to overturn regulations introduced under the auspices of the 1972 Act?

I hope that by putting this Bill before the House I initiate some serious thought about the mechanics of withdrawal. It can be done, but those of us who want out need to give it serious thought. The question of Britain’s EU membership is no longer settled—it is now an open question. Many of us in this House, and indeed in the country, now openly question our EU membership. A referendum is coming, and it will boil down to in or out. The case for out gets stronger, but we need to give people a sense of what self-government is going to look like and feel like. I hope that this Bill helps us to begin to think carefully about what being a self-governing democracy once again would mean. The Whips may seek to talk out this Bill, but these questions will not go away.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We have three speakers, so we will start with Mr Edward Leigh and then work our way through.

2.10 pm

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

It is ironic that we are in the closing minutes of a Friday sitting and we have so little time to discuss possibly the most momentous decision that we are going to have to take in the coming years. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on raising this issue. I hope he will forgive me for not discussing at length the merits or otherwise of our membership of the European Union—there simply is not time to do so. This is too complex and important an issue to be left to just a 20-minute debate.

I wish to make one point: whatever one’s views on the EU—whether one is strongly in favour, whether one is agnostic or whether, like my hon. Friend, one has severe doubts about it—surely everyone must now accept that on this issue there is a democratic deficit. Why is it that every 16-year-old in Scotland is going to be allowed to vote on whether or not Scotland should remain in the Union, but no Briton under the age of 55—that includes most people in this Chamber and most people watching this debate—has ever been given the chance to vote on whether we should remain in the European Union? That is a severe democratic deficit, and either this

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1261

Government, in this Parliament, or a future Government will have to address it. The issue is becoming increasingly important and increasingly urgent.

The Government argue that the only way to resolve the crisis in the euro is for its members—the states that subscribe to it—to create full fiscal and monetary union. Let us be under no illusion: if that takes place—and our own Government are encouraging the process—it would have a dramatic effect on our relationship with the European Union, and on our whole trading and political position. I doubt that the process will be easy, but apparently the Government want it to take place. Whether one is fiercely in favour of our membership of the European Union or sceptical of it, nobody doubts that if full fiscal and monetary union were to take place, enormous pressures would be put on our Government, particularly in terms of financial regulation, and the oversight of the City of London and of our industries. I do not want to get involved in these arguments, but nobody denies that that would have a dramatic effect. I therefore believe that a referendum must take place. The Government must announce their decision to move towards a referendum.

What is going to be the nature of the referendum question? There is no doubt that the Government would like to have some sort of negotiation. I do not believe that the members of the European Union, or the fiscal and monetary union, will be able or willing, given that 27 nations are involved in this whole process, to allow a great return of powers. Ultimately the issue will boil down to a simple question: do you want to be part of the European Union—do you want to be a fully subscribing, enthusiastic member of the European Union who ultimately wants to join fiscal and monetary union; there may be many arguments in favour of that—or do you want to be part of a customs union?

A number of us had a meeting this week with an expert in this field, and I personally have come to the conclusion that loose talk of a free trade area simply will not do and that there is a future for this country as part of a customs union, which would be popular with the people and reassure opinion both in the City of London and in our industries. It is perfectly possible for us to regain our freedom—to regain the freedom to make our own laws—but to remain within a customs union. That is precisely what happens in other countries. Switzerland is a successful example.

This is a clear and simple issue—should we be in the European Union, or should we be part of a customs union?—and it could be put to the British people, and there would be a fair, honest and open debate, but I do not think the Government can simply sit on this issue for ever. There will be a fair amount of cynicism if the Government say some time in the next 18 months that it is their intention, perhaps after the next election, to hold a referendum without any clear indication of what the question will be and what will be negotiated. There is a huge amount of cynicism among the British people. They have been promised referendums in the past—they have had promises from the former Government; they have had them from this Government—so this is the most important issue of our times.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman refers to promises of referendums and says that Governments have not delivered on them. Does he

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1262

acknowledge that one Government promised a referendum and gave a referendum? They were the Labour Government under Harold Wilson.

Mr Leigh: That was a very long time ago, and the right hon. Gentleman and I, who are perhaps in a similar age group, were lucky enough to be given that choice, but our colleagues sitting in the Chamber are all younger than we are and they have never had a chance. Should they not be given one? Yes, I pay tribute to Harold Wilson and the then Labour Government; they actually gave the British people a chance. All I ask is that, once again, the British people are allowed to decide, yes or no.

2.16 pm

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on provoking this debate. I am slightly more optimistic about those who sit on the Front Bench than he is, and I will return for the second if not the third time to a speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Prague in 2007, when he said of the European Union:

“It is the last gasp of an outdated ideology, a philosophy that has no place in our new world of freedom, a world which demands that we fight this bureaucratic over-reach and lead Europe into the hope and potential of a new, post-bureaucratic age.”

Of course I am reminded of my hon. Friend’s book, “The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy”, which I would recommend to everyone. Both he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have, with typical wisdom, hit upon the trend of our times. This great experiment with social democracy, which the European Union typifies, is coming to an end. That can be seen right across the continent. Indeed, it can be seen in the United States.

The crux of the matter is that if nations will be combined in a customs union yet persist in interventionist policies, we must end up with economic centralisation. That policy has not worked. For 100 years, increasing state power has led us to this point. The idea that laissez-faire liberalism has failed is a total fallacy. The state right across Europe has produced the disaster that now faces so many of our friends around the continent. We must not return to a Europe of economic nationalism, so it is time to find a future that is hopeful, prosperous and free. That means a post-bureaucratic age.

The Prime Minister has called for a post-bureaucratic age, and my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton has in his own words called for the same thing. It is time that we moved on, got beyond the European Union and found a more hopeful way forward for the entire continent.

2.18 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) on having the courage to introduce a commendably short Bill. It comprises just one piece of paper, although admittedly it does stretch to two sides, and its purpose is very simple, straightforward and understandable: to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and all related legislation. “Hear, hear” to that—not just from me but, I believe, from a majority of the constituents I have the privilege to represent from the borough of

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1263

Kettering. It was in this very Chamber, almost exactly to the day, 40 years ago that the European Communities Act 1972 was passed. We are now in a very different world, a different UK and a different Europe, and the answers that seemed to be the solution to the difficulties of the 1970s are dragging this country back. If we are ever again to be the proud, confident and prosperous sovereign nation that we once were, the EU and our membership of it must go.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) was right to say that only people who are now at least 55 years of age had the privilege of taking part in the referendum that Harold Wilson introduced in 1975. I will not ask my hon. Friend which way he voted—I hope it was no—but, sadly, two thirds of the British people voted yes.

Mr Leigh: My hon. Friend asks me the question. Like so many other people, including our then leader, Margaret Thatcher, I voted yes, because I was promised a common market.

Mr Hollobone: My hon. Friend is exactly right. Two thirds of the British nation were convinced by the argument that we were joining a common market, and that the way out of our economic travails in the early 1970s was free trade with our European partners. That was a persuasive argument but 40 years on, in 2012, we do not have what we voted for.

Colleagues in the House who are less than 55 years old, and all our constituents who are under 55, have never had the chance to take part in a referendum on Europe. The Common Market morphed into the European Economic Community, the European Community, and the European Union. The United States of Europe is probably just around the corner. I am completely confident that the British people do not want that.

I should tell the Minister for Europe that my constituents do not want the situation we are in. They do not believe in ever-closer union, and nor do I. They want to have their say on whether Britain should carry on with its membership of this 27-member club, not least because our membership fee is simply too high. Ten billion pounds a year would buy a lot of nurses, police officers, doctors and teachers—the economically productive people we could employ to improve our public services. We could reduce the burden of taxation. We could decide to do whatever we want with that £10 billion, but giving it to Europe and Brussels is not the correct way to spend taxpayers’ money from this country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton said, our fishing industry has basically been destroyed. Tens of thousands of fishermen used to be gainfully employed in all the proud coastal ports in the early 1970s. Where are they now? The business has gone to France, Spain and other countries that have been stealing our fish. Our once prosperous fishing grounds have been destroyed—the European Union’s handling of fishing grounds is a conservationist’s nightmare.

The biggest issue is immigration. Effectively, we no longer have the border controls we once had. Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of EU citizens live freely in our country. They are just living by the rules and doing their best—who can blame them?—but most

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1264

of my constituents will say that we simply cannot cope as a nation with the uncontrolled wave of immigration from the EU to our shores. We cannot cope with the numbers of people who have come to this country. With the economic collapse in countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, hundreds of thousands more EU citizens could well be heading our way. Our economy is struggling out of a double-dip recession. How on earth will we provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of extra immigrants to our shores? I am not saying that we should not have immigrants who offer skills to our economy. Of course we should, but we should have bilateral agreements with those nations, not a border-free Europe in which we have no control over the number of people coming to our shores.

We also have the burden of regulation on struggling small businesses in this country thanks to the legislation factory in Brussels and the European Parliament in its two locations—a scandal that continues 40 years on. Why it needs a Parliament in the first place, let alone one that sits in two places, is beyond the comprehension of my constituents. Those institutions are turning out a stream of red tape and bureaucracy that stifles the economic growth of entrepreneurs in this country. Not only do we have to pay a horrendous membership fee of £10 billion a year, but we strangle economic growth from small enterprises with all the European legislation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton on having the courage to introduce the Bill 40 years on from our accession to the European club. Let me say on behalf of my constituents that the very least the British people deserve is another say on Europe. If there were such a referendum, I for one would vote to leave. I am confident that the majority of my constituents would do likewise, because Britain’s best future lies with the rest of the world. That is how Britain came to be one of the most dominant powers of the world—by trading with other countries and spreading our message overseas. Limiting ourselves to a future tied to an increasingly sclerotic European economy condemns future generations in this country to a life without the prosperity we would otherwise enjoy.

2.26 pm

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Clearly, the friends of the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) are trying to talk out his Bill and leave very little time for the Minister. I shall take less time, as I shall make merely two brief points.

First, as I said earlier, only Labour has given the people of this country a say. Not John Major, not Margaret Thatcher—only a Labour Government consulted the people. Secondly, this Bill does not consult the people. It intends to take a decision over their heads and is therefore quite inconsistent with the comments made by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). However, as we want to hear from the Minister, rather than intrude any longer on this private quarrel on the Government Benches I shall now allow him to speak.

2.27 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) has always been a champion of greater direct democracy in this House. In choosing to introduce a Bill that was

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1265

selected in the way he described, he has demonstrated to the House that he is fully prepared to practise what he preaches.

As the debate has shown, the Bill, which has considerable technical deficiencies, is in effect being used as a proxy for a debate about the principle of whether the United Kingdom should be in the European Union. The challenge to my hon. Friend is that our continued membership for 40 years derives not from some mythical conspiracy of civil servants in King Charles street—by the way, they come from a much more diverse range of social and educational backgrounds these days than the caricature he presented to the House—but from a hard-headed, calculated and pragmatic decision by successive Governments, and successive leaders of the Conservative party, that despite the acknowledged flaws and drawbacks of the European Union as it has existed and as it exists today, our membership of it is to the national advantage. It is to the advantage of the British people because of what it gives us through trade, market access, the attraction of foreign direct investment, and increased diplomatic leverage over foreign and security policies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton posed what I think is a false choice between increasing our trade with the emerging markets of Asia and Latin America and maintaining the lion’s share of our trade that remains with the European Union. Although I think that future growth will indeed, as he says, come largely from those emerging markets, the bulk of our trade and inward investment will continue to come from Europe.

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 1 March.

Business without Debate

Local services (planning) bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 2 November.

General anti tax-avoidance principle bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (14 September), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 2 November.

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1266

Acute and Emergency Services

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

2.31 pm

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): NHS hospitals face mounting financial, work force and demographic pressures. The stark reality is that health care provision in the future will require consolidation of acute and emergency services in fewer locations, and an increase in the provision of chronic care in the community through locally based clinics. That is not a political choice, but a clinically driven reality. It is widely believed among those in the medical profession that the reconfiguration of hospital services can provide a powerful means of improving quality in an environment where money and skilled health care workers are scarce. In some places, reconfiguration and changes to hospital services are already a necessity, not an option.

That is the case in the Thames Valley region, of which my Bracknell constituency is part. That is why I have recently introduced a strategy proposal for the provision of health care in the Thames Valley region, in which I call for a consolidated hospital—what some have described as a super-hospital—on the M4 at junction 8/9. A “Royal Thames Valley hospital” at this location, if it is ever built, would have crucial advantages. The existing transport infrastructure means that services could be provided, within easy reach of people’s homes, to a population of the greatest possible size. This model has a multitude of benefits, which include economies of scale and sharing of medical information and manpower, and it is supported by many senior medical professionals as being the key to saving the national health service.

Nevertheless, I sense a lack of the strategic leadership that is required to deliver the change that we all need. A major stumbling-block in many hospital reconfigurations is public concern about change, and the political opposition that follows. Politicians will have to make decisions on the basis of the quality, safety and efficiency of health care, while retaining strong public engagement in decision making. That is why I have already begun to hold regular public meetings throughout the Thames Valley region.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, he has set a number of hares running in my constituency. Will he concede that a number of NHS professionals, managerial and clinical, differ with him and think that a network of hospitals is an effective and incremental way forward?

Dr Lee: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, I concede that some—not many—local clinicians share that view. Whenever one presents something different that is a challenge to the status quo, one will come up against vested interests, particularly in the national health service. Many of my colleagues in the Chamber need to start engaging with the public on the issue. It is coming round the corner, and we should all try to provide the political environment in which the change can take place.

I would like first to set the context, say why I support this change, and talk about the current difficulties in our health care system, and those that we will face in the

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1267

future. In the past 50 years, according to the King’s Fund, the number of acute hospitals has reduced by 85% and the number of sites at which elements of highly specialist care is delivered has reduced even further. In England, general acute care is now delivered in just over 200 hospitals, and at the same time the average size of hospital has grown from 68 beds, according to a Ministry of Health document in 1962, to just over 400 beds. The average acute trust has just over 580 beds. These changes reflect developments in medical practice.

Advances in medicine and surgery have driven clinical staff and equipment to become more specialised. As skilled specialist staff are scarce and budgets are limited, services have been centralised on to fewer, larger sites, in order to ensure that patients are cared for by staff with the necessary skills and supporting specialist equipment. In addition, there has been decreasing reliance on bed rest as part of treatment; for example, most routine surgery is now undertaken as day surgery. The average length of stay in hospital is currently just less than six days and 80% of all patients have stays of less than three days.

Having surveyed both NHS trusts and the public on service change, the Foundation Trust Network found that 90% of NHS trusts said that a major change, such as a hospital merger, closure or changing the way in which services are provided, was necessary in their area in the next two years. Critically, eight in 10 trusts felt that a reconfiguration in their area would lead to maintained or improved patient outcomes which would not be possible if the change did not take place. Of those NHS trusts indicating that a reconfiguration would be necessary, 35% felt that there was a consensus locally about how this should take place. Local councillors were felt to be a barrier to service change in 49% of cases, as were other NHS trusts in 48% of cases, and MPs in 40% of cases.

Finally, market research organisation ICM’s polling of the public shows conflicting views. Four out of 10 people initially stated that they would prefer to be treated locally, but when asked to rank the importance of having services close to home versus accessing specialist care when being treated for a serious condition, more than half said that it was more important to be treated in a unit that specialised in their treatment area. That number rose to 60% if the respondent was talking about a loved one receiving the treatment rather than themselves. Three in 10 said that it was most important to have a hospital close to where they lived in such a case, suggesting that while people value the convenience and accessibility of local care, ultimately access to specialist expertise matters more where a serious condition is involved.

Demographic changes and the shifting burden of disease will require a fundamental shift from the hospital as the core focus of health service delivery to the community, to provide elective care and minor treatments from the community level in much-cherished community hospitals, and all major surgery and acute care from a central hub hospital, ideally located on a motorway.

In any reconfiguration of hospital services there are four drivers: quality—that is, better health care—work force, cost and access. The challenge is to try to arrive at a configuration that optimises all those elements as far as that is possible, given the complex trade-offs that

26 Oct 2012 : Column 1268

exist between them. Quality considerations include access to highly trained professionals in all disciplines, compliance with clinical guidelines, and access to diagnostic technologies and other support services, as well as strong clinical governance. More recently, there has been pressure on trusts to meet challenging funding needs, which is putting greater emphasis upon operational systems and environments to work together to meet the targets and improve patient safety in acute care settings. There are also interdependencies between services—for example, withdrawal of paediatric services can threaten obstetric services, which rely on paediatricians to provide care for the newborn child.

There is wide variation in the quality of care delivered by NHS hospitals. Reconfiguring services can be a powerful means of addressing this variation. An often cited successful example is here in London. It has been estimated that the recent reconfiguration of stroke services will save more than 400 lives a year. This is through the establishment of stroke networks that have concentrated specialist stroke expertise and diagnostics in fewer units, while retaining local access to stroke rehabilitation services in local community hospitals. Other examples include vascular surgery, where the mortality rate is lower in high-volume hospitals than low-volume hospitals, and paediatric heart surgery, where there are plans to cut the number of hospitals undertaking surgery to improve outcomes.

With reference to stroke mortality rates across acute hospital sites across England, it is estimated that there would be 2,117 fewer deaths per year from stroke in England with increased ambulance services to specialist centres. That clearly demonstrates that centralisation of stroke and trauma centres would benefit a larger proportion of the population and would reduce mortality rates and thereby improve the quality of care.

Alongside those changes, there is a need to shift the location of care for older people who do not require specialist care in a hospital setting. The Royal College of Physicians estimates that almost two thirds of people admitted to hospital are over 65. People over 85 account for 25% of bed days. As we have noted, older people make up the majority of patients in hospital beds, yet many could be cared for elsewhere if appropriate facilities were available. In particular, end-of-life care illustrates the inappropriate use of hospitals. Notwithstanding recent increases in the proportion of people dying at home, many still die in hospital even though they would prefer to be cared for in a hospice or their own home. One of the challenges in this regard is to make community services available 24/7, to stop hospitals becoming the default setting because of a lack of other options.

I will move on to work force pressures. Since the application of the European working time directive to junior doctors, there has been a 50% increase in the number of junior medical staff required to fill a rota and provide 24/7 care, which many units have struggled to achieve. According to a report by the Royal College of Physicians, three quarters of hospital consultants report being under more pressure now than they were three years ago and more than a quarter of medical registrars report an unmanageable work load. I draw colleagues’ attention to the report, “Hospitals on the edge? The time for action”, which is well worth a read and should be borne in mind when discussing or defending local hospital services.