4.27 pm

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I note that no Member has spoken in favour of APD, which I think says a lot. In the midst of a recession, when the cult of austerity is starving the economy, taxes such as APD are bleeding the economy. That is not just my view; it is the view of those in the frustrated aviation and airport sector in Scotland, who see themselves as hostages of a Government policy here at Westminster that is damaging their sector and, by logical extension, the wider economy.

Amanda McMillan, the managing director of Glasgow airport, has said:

“Due to the size of the market in Scotland, we will always find it difficult to attain and sustain new routes, and this situation is compounded…further by APD which simply serves to artificially depress demand and dissuade airlines from basing aircraft here.

Unless APD is reformed, people travelling to and from Scotland—who must fly due to the lack of feasible alternatives—will continue to face some of the highest levels of taxation in Europe which is clearly a disincentive to travel.”

Jim Sheridan: If APD were devolved to Scotland, and Scotland then cut the tax, would there not be consequences for the Barnett formula?

Mr MacNeil: If APD were devolved to Scotland, the economy would grow. I should like all taxes to be devolved, so that the benefits of the policies introduced by the Scottish Government could go to the Scottish Exchequer. That is a logical extension, and it is what is happening in all the other countries. I am sure that, given the level of APD in the United Kingdom, no other country would be as foolish as the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supports at Westminster. He wants a Tory Government to have these powers over Scotland, and, given that he is a Labour MP, I find that quite shocking.

It is calculated that APD will have cost the Scottish economy £210 million in lost spending by 2016. So short-sighted is this policy that it will end up with our losing up to £50 million in other taxes through economic activity that will not take place. The Federation of Small Businesses has been damning of the UK policy on this tax:

“The Government’s determination to tax air passengers has resulted in a sustained negative impact on businesses as well as on leisure travel. IATA reported in June 2012 that UK passenger numbers have declined slightly over the past four years at a period when Germany, France and the Netherlands saw growth of between 2-4%.”

That must have damaged our economy.

1 Nov 2012 : Column 476

The UK has embraced this tax in a helter-skelter fashion. It is regressive and it hits the poor disproportionately. It is a poll tax of the skies. It is felt less by millionaires in the Cabinet and elsewhere than it is by others.

Other countries have been wiser in their approach. Some countries that have introduced APD, such as Germany and Austria, have done so at a lower level. The Germans are economically canny, of course, and after they introduced it, they reduced it, rather than increasing it as the UK has done. We must welcome the fact that Aer Lingus is planning to fly to Edinburgh and therefore give us more choice, but there is still the handicap of high APD.

King Louis XIV of France was known as the sun king, and perhaps his sunny disposition was in part due to this quote from his Finance Minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert:

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”

For the benefit of Members, I have translated that passage from the French. We have not had much of a sunny disposition from the Treasury for the past two years, but there has been plenty of hissing—and booing—in its direction.

Since 2007, APD has risen by 160% on short-haul flights and between 225% and 360% on long-haul flights. The Aberdeen Airport managing director has said:

“At Aberdeen Airport we run a real risk of losing around 200,000 passengers by 2016 through this damaging tax. Each recent increase in APD has had a dramatic impact upon what we, as airports, have achieved and could have achieved without APD. It is imperative that the UK government undertake a detailed and comprehensive review into APD with the utmost urgency, and at the very least freeze APD whilst that is taking place.”

Gordon Dewar of Edinburgh Airport adds:

“This tax has now hit its tipping point where the damage it is doing to Scotland far outweighs the benefits. This cannot stand and must be reviewed as a matter of urgency.”

No wonder people are concerned, especially as the Calman commission recommended this policy be devolved in 2009 and the MSP representing the Edinburgh airport area, Colin Keir, says:

“APD hits tourism and business and we need to have the power at Holyrood to maintain competitiveness with other countries and fairness to those travellers who have to use our airports.”

The economic mismanagement from Westminster is frustrating people, especially as this Parliament and Government will not devolve this policy to Scotland. I tell Parliament and the wider country, however, that in 2014 people will have a chance to have APD devolved and to give Scotland a competitive edge. After the independence referendum of 2014, I look forward to the devolution of APD, along with everything else, by one means or another.

4.33 pm

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): I will not be churlish, so let me say only that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), with whom I have shared a number of flights to destinations both within the UK and further afield. I have therefore heard him speak at great length on some of the issues he has just discussed, but he has still not persuaded me of anything other than that we are better together.

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I congratulate those Members who secured the debate. By and large, we have had some helpful and thoughtful contributions, and I was very aware from the outset that a number of Scots were in the Chamber. I was glad to see that. Most of them are still here, although I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe), who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the airline industry and was warning of inclement weather, is no longer in his place. I am worried that the rest of us might be detained here for somewhat longer than we had wished—I hope that will not be the case.

Hon. Members have made the case for the motion powerfully and persuasively. I am not going to repeat everything that has been said, although some points are worth reiterating because the issue has clearly touched a lot of people. The fact that well over the 100,000 people needed to trigger a debate in this place were drawn to sign the fair flying petition is evidence of that. Although I perhaps did not receive as many e-mails as other hon. Members, I know from my postbag that the issue matters to people. It matters to those who fly for business purposes, for family reasons, and for leisure and holidays.

I undertook a short survey of those who responded to the fair flying petition, asking them for their comments. I heard from a 65-year-old woman who flies from Scotland regularly to see her elderly father, who lives in the south of England; from the mother of a young person who is working overseas as a teacher—she told me that she helps to pay for the flights to enable the visits; and from a grandmother who travels regularly to the other side of the world to see her grandchild, who has a long-term condition. Those are the real-life examples that people were bringing to me. It is important to recognise the strength of feeling on this issue.

There has been wider frustration at this Government’s lack of consistency or urgency on aviation policy, as well as concerns about APD. When the economy has been struggling, the family purse strings have been tightened and businesses are crying out for support, the lack of direction has not been helpful. A number of speeches have dealt with the issues of tourism and jobs. I can tell the hon. Members who mentioned the Caribbean question that I have agreed to meet a delegation to discuss that in more detail, just as I have agreed to meet a number of other organisations after this debate to see where we take things in future.

It is important to remember that when Labour was in government APD was restructured so that it would be based on four geographical bands set at intervals of 2,000 miles. It was intended that travellers flying further would pay a higher rate of duty, but I know that hon. Members have discussed some of the anomalies. The intention was that additional taxes on air travel would be targeted at the most polluting, long-haul flights—again, people have raised issues about that today.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), during the election campaign both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats argued for reforming APD further. The Conservatives argued that they wished to

“reform Air Passenger Duty to encourage a switch to fuller and cleaner planes.”

The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto contained more detail, suggesting that they would ensure that pollution was properly taxed by replacing the per-passenger APD

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with a per-plane duty—PPD—and that air freight would be taxed for the first time. They also said they would introduce an additional, higher rate of PPD on domestic flights if realistic alternative and less-polluting travel was available.

Those statements in the manifestos were supposed to be translated into action following the coalition agreement, which confirmed that the Government would

“reform the taxation of air travel by switching from a per-passenger to a per-plane duty”

and

“ensure that a proportion of any increased revenues over time will be used to help fund increases in the personal allowance.”

Those allowances were referred to in an earlier debate, and they have been referred to again today.

The Chancellor announced in the 2010 Budget that major changes would be subject to a public consultation. We then saw speculation in the press that the Government had had a change of heart over per-plane duty. Indeed, that was what triggered the organisations coming together to launch the fair tax on flying campaign, to apply pressure in order at least to get some action or clarification on APD.

In the 2011 Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government would consult on simplifying the structure of APD. He also announced that he was dropping the commitment made in the coalition agreement and not pressing ahead with a per-plane duty, and that APD rates would rise in line with inflation, although the next increase would be deferred for a year. After promises of wholesale reform, the industry and the public heard that he was not only keeping the current structure but raising the rates further.

I am always happy to try to give people credit where it is due, not that I have had to do that often in the Chancellor’s case. There was a consultation and it covered a number of areas, including private jets, different tax bands, premium economy flights, flights from regional airports and the devolution of APD—all the things that people have talked about today. However, having consulted, the Government failed to propose anything. They did not propose any changes to the tax’s banding structure, to how different classes of flights are taxed or to the application of APD to the regions. Instead, they seemed for some time to have given up on any reform of APD at all. They argued, as the Minister did again fairly recently, that although no action had been taken there was no reason for another consultation or review.

I have only a couple of minutes left to summarise the debate and I realise that this subject is very difficult, given the range of considerations that must be balanced—including those of industry and business, the travel trade, airlines, consumers and the Treasury. I recognise the Scottish issues and those in Northern Ireland, particularly those outlined as regards Scotland and the connections with the main hub airports.

Mr David Hamilton: If a passenger uses the same airline—British Airways, for example—from Scotland to London and then to America, Australia or South Africa, the duty in the regional airport does not matter. The real issue is the double tax.

Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point and I know that he has raised that question on a number of occasions. A sensible review would allow us

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to consider such matters. For the Government to undertake a consultation and take no action, without even considering any further work on the issue, was disappointing and showed a lack of leadership. It did not go unnoticed by the aviation industry, and we have heard a string of comments from the travel organisations, airlines and consumers. The Select Committee on Transport stepped in, in a sense, with its inquiry into aviation. The Chair helpfully confirmed that that inquiry would consider APD issues and it has provided an initial focus.

In conclusion, I hope that the Chancellor and the Minister, who will relay this debate to him, will take note of what has been said today and will consider and act on the findings of the Transport Committee’s report when it is published. Many Members are arguing for action and a review. The motion is modestly worded, although at some points I might not have worded it in such a way. However, in the spirit of co-operation, we want to ensure that we have the opportunity to consider the issue in more detail. We recognise the significant economic issues in the UK that need tough decisions, but such decisions should be based on the best available evidence.

The consistent message coming from all sectors of the industry is that the lack of certainty is causing problems, delaying investment decisions, risking future development and, crucially, risking jobs. I hope that the Minister, who comes fresh to this issue—indeed, he is the third Minister I have faced across the Dispatch Box in the relatively short time for which I have been shadow Minister—will take account of the points that have been made today, take away the work that needs to be done and introduce the review asked for in the motion.

4.43 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Sajid Javid): We had an excellent debate earlier on beer duty and now we are discussing APD. I am pleased that, as far as I know, there will be no debate on fuel duty this afternoon. After this debate, I would like a cold beer and a trip to the Caribbean.

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Witham (Priti Patel) and for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing the debate. I will address some of the specific issues raised by my hon. Friends and by all hon. Members —I believe that 15 spoke from the Back Benches.

As the Minister responsible for air passenger duty, I would like to acknowledge clearly the important contribution the aviation industry makes to the growth and development of the UK economy. The sector connects millions of UK consumers and businesses with international markets, enables tourism to and from the UK and makes long-distance visits between families and relatives possible. I also recognise that recent economic conditions and the global downturn have been challenging for both consumers and the aviation sector. However, there are positive signs for the industry, as evidenced by the recent increase in recorded passenger numbers. I believe that the aviation sector will continue to play an important role in helping the UK economy back to health and strong growth.

I would like to say a little about my own experience. Before being elected to the House, I spent 20 years doing business in emerging countries, and I did that from New York, London and Singapore. I relied very much on the aviation industry and on global international

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hubs. Therefore, I understand the importance of global aviation to the UK economy if we are maintain our position as one of the world’s leading financial and business centres.

Let me respond to the hon. Members who have expressed concern about the overall level of APD and the impact of recent rises in the duty. The real-terms increases in APD in 2009-10 and 2010-11 were legislated for by the previous Government. Despite the challenge of the budget deficit we inherited, this Government have limited the rise in APD to inflation over the period 2010-11 to 2012-13. Also, in recognising the sector’s need to plan ahead, we have sought to provide airlines and passengers with clarity on future rates. The 2012 Budget set out APD rates for 2013-14, and again the rise is limited to no more than RPI inflation. The real burden of APD will therefore remain unchanged for a further year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) helpfully recognised.

Hon. Members have today raised concerns about the impact of APD on the UK’s competitiveness and ability to attract inward investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham described us, rather intelligently, as being in a global race, and she is absolutely right. The UK has the third largest aviation network in the world, after the USA and China. The Government wish to ensure that UK airports and airlines remain internationally competitive. In that regard, it is important to consider the tax system as a whole.

The Government are committed to creating the most competitive tax regime in the G20, and we have already made significant progress towards that aim. The corporation tax rate has already been reduced to 24% and will be cut to 22% in 2014, which is significantly lower than, for example, the rate in the United States, France and Germany. The further cut in the main rate of corporation tax was warmly received and has encouraged businesses that had previously left the UK to return, such as WPP. It is also encouraging new businesses to relocate to Britain. For example, Aon, one of the world’s largest insurance brokers, has announced plans to relocate its global headquarters from Chicago to London.

Changes to controlled foreign company rules have also been welcomed, with the CBI stating that the new rules will meet the Government’s objectives of simplification and greater competitiveness. As part of the Government’s ambition to increase exports, in July 2012 we also announced a £5 billion export refinancing facility, to be delivered through UK Export Finance as part of its UK guarantees. That will help banks to provide long-term trade finance for UK exports.

Let me say a little about the Government’s approach to APD. I know that some hon. Members have called clearly today for a cut in APD, or at least a freeze in cash terms, but let us be frank about the situation we find ourselves in. Let us not forget that when we came to office we inherited a fiscal deficit of historic proportions. We were burdened with the largest budget deficit in the developed world: £159 billion in the last year of the previous Government, which was more than 11% of the country’s income. At that rate, the previous Government were borrowing more in one week than we raise in one year with APD. The Government’s position is that there can be a sustainable platform for economic growth only if we are willing to tackle that overspending. The plan has earned credibility around the world. Our actions to

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reduce the deficit and rebuild the UK economy have secured interest rates at near-record lows, benefiting thousands of businesses and families alike. APD is forecast to raise about £2.9 billion in 2013-14. Those revenues will be important if we are to maintain progress towards our goal.

I also remind hon. Members that international aviation is generally not subject to tax on fuel and, in contrast to many other countries that apply VAT on domestic flights, no VAT is levied on international or domestic flights in the UK.

Let me also address hon. Members’ concerns about inbound tourism. The Government continue to place great value on the tourism sector, which makes an important contribution to the economy. Tourism is one of the largest industries in the UK and our third highest export earner, worth around £116 billion to our economy, or roughly 9% of GDP. The Government remain focused on building a long-term tourism legacy from the Olympic games, with Visit Britain investing £125 million in one of its largest international tourism campaigns. One ambition is to raise the number of Chinese visitors from 150,000 now to 500,000 by 2015. Visit Britain is developing a specific marketing plan for China to respond to that challenge.

Domestic tourism is also very important. Of course, for tourism to grow, it must remain affordable. We acknowledge that family budgets are being squeezed and we have to take action to help. The changes to the personal income tax allowances that the Government have already made have helped the budgets of more than 25 million individuals and taken 2 million people out of income taxation altogether.

Our action to reduce the deficit has led to near-record low interest rates, which have also made a contribution. We must not forget that. If interest rates today were just 1% higher than they are now, businesses—particularly small and medium-sized enterprises—would face an additional interest rate bill of almost £10 billion in total, and the average mortgage for a family would rise by almost £1,000 a year.

Let me also address concerns that hon. Members have raised about the 2011 APD consultation and calls for further research. The consultation examined whether reforms to the design of APD could improve the overall fairness of the tax. Following the consultation, we confirmed that APD would be extended to business jets, and the majority of people who responded to the consultation agreed with that.

However, in weighing up the case for reform, the Government recognised that no banding structure could be entirely free of anomalies. A number of hon. Members have mentioned flights to the Caribbean. They have made good points on that issue, which we have heard about before in the House. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) asked whether I would be prepared to meet him and a delegation; I would be more than happy to do so. The hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) also eloquently referred to flights to and from the Caribbean.

A revenue-neutral change would have required 90% of passengers—those who fly to band A destinations across Europe and band B destinations, such as the

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US—to pay more for their flights. The Government felt that, in the current economic climate, it would not be fair to ask the majority to pay more to help fund a cut in APD for the minority. They therefore decided to retain the existing structure of four APD distance bands.

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): I hope that the Minister recognises that his words are extremely disappointing to many of my constituents who travel regularly to the Caribbean—[Interruption.] I have been watching the debate on television. Those constituents will be very concerned about the Minister’s words. Will he reconsider the issue and look at a more granulated banding system that would ensure that those from the Caribbean were not particularly disadvantaged? I recognise his point about asking others to pay more, but the situation is surely unfair for those who are travelling not very far—not as far as to the US.

Sajid Javid: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I am pleased to hear that she has been glued to her television set watching this debate. I take her point about the Caribbean. Several hon. Members have made a similar point, and I have listened carefully.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman has spoken about having a revenue-neutral tax. When the Government cut taxation from 50% to 45% for millionaires, did the revenue-neutral consideration enter into that equation?

Sajid Javid: Absolutely. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the effects on taxation were taken together and that the Government had determined that the extra 5% was raising hardly any tax whatsoever.

Given that we have recently completed a comprehensive consultation on the subject, we have no plans for further reform at this point.

Henry Smith: Would it not be reasonable, though, to have a study, as proposed in the motion, to see the impact on the economy that air passenger duty is having? Surely a study by the Treasury is a reasonable thing to request.

Sajid Javid: I thank my hon. Friend. I will come to that point in a moment.

As I said, we have no plans at this point for further consultation, but we are keen to ensure that the aviation sector can continue to enable economic growth and support jobs across the country. APD makes an essential contribution to the public finances and to this Government’s plan to create a stable platform for growth.

This has been an excellent debate that has given me and the Government much food for thought. There have been excellent contributions from Members in all parts of the House, and I assure them that I have been listening very carefully. Should the motion pass; I have a feeling that it might well do so—

Jim Sheridan: Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, does he accept that it is grossly unfair for British people to pay APD twice, depending on where they live?

Sajid Javid: I thank the hon. Gentleman. We have looked at these issues in the consultation, and I believe that I have addressed them.

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I have listened carefully to the debate, and the many thoughtful contributions from Members on both sides of the House have been very valuable. Should the motion pass, then of course the Government will take note of Parliament’s view; it is important that we listen to the views of Parliament. Let me conclude by thanking my hon. Friends the Members for Witham and for Crawley for raising this important issue with the House.

4.57 pm

Priti Patel: I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to this powerful debate in which we have heard about the impact of this tax on hard-pressed families and businesses, and about its counter-productive nature. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his remarks. I hope that he and the Treasury will keep a very open mind about the call in the motion for an economic assessment and a full review and will not rule it out, because, as we have heard, this tax is having a counter-productive impact on the economy. All Members present will continue to press him and the Treasury to secure a review in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House believes that the UK’s air passenger duty acts as a barrier to economic growth and deters both inward investment and inbound tourism; notes the financial impact on families of the rising costs of air passenger duty; further notes the impact on British businesses wishing to export and take advantage of business opportunities overseas; notes that the current air passenger duty regime is the highest air passenger tax in the world, which makes the UK less competitive than countries with lower aviation taxes; further notes that over 200,000 members of the public are calling for a review of the economic impact of air passenger duty; calls on HM Treasury to commission a comprehensive study into the full economic impact of air passenger duty in the UK, including the effects on jobs and growth, reporting in advance of the 2013 Budget; and calls on the Government to use the evidence from the study to inform future policy-making.

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Rhiya Malin

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

4.58 pm

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I am bringing before the House the matter of the death of little Rhiya Malin, who was two-and-a-half years old when she died at Eton Manor nursery in Chigwell in my constituency. I do so because it is our duty here in Parliament to hold public bodies to account. The people of this country rely on Government and Government agencies to protect them from wrongdoing. Sadly, however, we sometimes discover instances in which the attitude of a Government Department or agency is based on a box-ticking, passing the buck and “it’s in the rules, so it’s okay” attitude. Sometimes the real effect on real people is passed by—

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Mrs Laing: I had not realised that we were ahead of time. We will have an extra minute, so the Minister will be delighted that she will be able to give an even longer explanation of what went on in the case under discussion.

As I was saying, sometimes the effect on real people, who rely on Government Departments and agencies, is passed by, forgotten or ignored. Sadly, that is true in this case.

Before I begin the main part of what I have to say, I welcome the new Minister to her position. I appreciate that she has played no part whatsoever in and has had no personal responsibility for the matter until now, but some of her predecessors, of whom I am critical, should bear some responsibility for passing the buck and an over-reliance on bureaucratic rules. My intention in bringing the matter to the House’s attention is to ensure that, in future, such matters will be dealt with in a better way and have a more satisfactory outcome.

This is a very sad case. Five years ago, on 8 November 2007, Rhiya Malin, a little girl aged two, died while in the care of Eton Manor day nursery in Chigwell in my constituency. The nursery is still operating. Some of the people who had care of—or, it could be argued, did not have care of—the little girl at the time she died are still working there. The facts speak for themselves. Someone put a child aged two and a half in a nursery. We are not talking about a child aged seven or eight, who can run about and do things that lead to accidents, such as climb trees, go up on roofs or fall off bicycles. We are talking about a two-year-old baby who should have been supervised. She was unaccounted for for 25 minutes, so something went wrong. The facts speak for themselves. That little girl should not have died while in the care of that nursery.

I fully appreciate that it is not the duty of Parliament to hold individuals to account and that some proceedings relating to this matter are still sub judice. I also appreciate that neither the Minister nor anyone else can comment on those issues in public, and I will not do so either, because that would be wrong. The question whether a

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particular individual was or was not responsible for the apparent negligence that led to Rhiya Malin’s death is a matter for the courts, not us, but the nursery has accepted responsibility for the health and safety failings and it is still trading. The people who failed to find that little dying girl for 25 minutes that day are still there.

I am not interested in dealing with a criminal standard of proof, and I am not interested in retribution—as I said, those are matters for the courts. I just want to ensure that we do all we can to hold public bodies to account and ensure that what happened at Eton Manor nursery that day does not happen again, ever, to any other little child who has been put in the care of people who have been presumed to be responsible but have acted irresponsibly.

One aspect of the case that really upsets me is that Ofsted has treated it as though a child had broken a leg or an arm and it were required to ensure that it did not admit liability for fear of having to spend public money on compensation to the parents of the injured child. That has been its attitude throughout.

For me to receive a letter from one of the Minister’s predecessors suggesting that I could hold Ofsted to account by going to a Select Committee or the ombudsman was an utter insult to a family who are bereaved and a little child who lost her life. There has been a box-ticking mentality of passing the buck. The mentality has been, “We have done everything we were meant to do,” and “It says here that this is what Ofsted should do, so that is what it did—no more, no less—so it is okay. Go away, Member of Parliament. What are you getting so upset about?”

I am getting upset because there were many complaints about that nursery before little Rhiya died. I have evidence of complaints or investigations in September 2004, April 2005, June 2005, September 2005 and September 2007. There may have been many more, but those are the ones of which I am aware. Yet nothing was done. Ofsted appears to have gone in and said, “Well, this could be improved on and that was wrong”, or “This was right, but that could be done better”, and nothing happened. There was probably not a good enough ratio of carers to little children, but it is not for me to make that judgment. It is for Ofsted to make it, and to carry through the job that is assigned to it by ensuring that a nursery—a place where little children are supposed to be looked after—is properly run and properly regulated.

I have delayed and delayed bringing the matter to the House, because we were awaiting the inquest, a judicial review result and the result of health and safety hearings, but it gets to the point where enough is enough. Five years have now passed, and in bringing the matter to the notice of the House and the Minister in public today, I think what I would say to myself if, five years after a tragic incident such as this, a similar incident were to occur in that nursery or some other nursery that could have been prevented if steps had been taken and lessons learned from the death of Rhiya Malin. After five years, I perceive that nothing has changed in that nursery. That is why I have brought the matter before the House. I appreciate that the Minister may be restricted in what she can say because parts of the case are still sub judice, but I do not mind because at least we are airing the matter in public.

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One of the most concerning issues is re-registration. Soon after little Rhiya died, the nursery in question was re-registered under a different company name. We all know about the ownership of companies and the corporate veil and so on, but it looks as if deliberate steps were taken to re-register the nursery under a different name so that the record was wiped clean, and so that prospective parents researching whether it was a suitable company and place to put their small children would not have been able to find out that a child died. That change in company might have been a coincidence, and the name might have been changed for some other business, financial or tax reason, but it looks very much as if re-registration occurred because the company wished to conceal its responsibility—or possible responsibility—for what happened when little Rhiya died.

In September 2008 a director of Casterbridge Care and Education Ltd applied to register the five nurseries in that company with another company, Casterbridge Nurseries Ltd., of which they were also a director. Ofsted should have inspected Eton Manor in 2008, but because the company had re-registered, that did not happen.

An e-mail from someone at Ofsted states:

“I have an open CIE case…and the Midlands have an open CIE case…on two provisions within Casterbridge nurseries chain…Both provisions have recently been re-registered as the provider has changed its name from Casterbridge Care and Education Ltd to Casterbridge Ltd. The new certificates giving the new registration numbers have already been dispatched to the provider. The provider’s history with Companies House shows numerous changes of names over the last 5 years and a high number of CIE cases. Is it possible for us to transfer these cases which are logged against the old registrations to the new one? Or are we now in a position where we are forced to accept the provider’s resignation…which would effectively mean that the CIE cases trail is lost and the cases that are now live are simply closed?”

I know the Minister will say that the system has changed since 2008. One of her predecessors wrote to me saying that matters have been improved, and that as a result of this case Ofsted now deals differently with such matters. I am still wary, however, that not enough has been done to pinpoint who was responsible on the day that little girl died, and to make them feel their responsibility.

A letter from Ofsted from December 2009, on exactly the same matter, states:

“On the law as it stands, it is not clear that we have the power to publish the regulatory history of the old company in connection with the new company. Our current position is that we do not do so. We do not have any direct evidence to show that providers have used changes in legal entity to remove a poor registration history deliberately, although we are aware and mindful of the risks on this going forward. However, our registration process is sufficiently robust to pick up any significant concerns, such that if required, we would refuse registration.”

That is not so. A little girl died in that nursery five years ago, and it has gone on trading every day since. Other two-year-olds have been in that nursery every day since the death of Rhiya Malin, and Ofsted has not taken the necessary steps to stop it happening again.

As I have said, this is a complicated matter, but I do not want the Minister and her officials to wriggle out of it by saying, “We cannot hold any particular individual responsible because that is a matter for the criminal law,” or, “We cannot hold this company responsible because the nursery is no longer owned by it—it has changed from being this company to that company and

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another company.” Individuals within those companies have been involved all along. I know what happens when company names change and ownership changes. I am bringing the matter before the House because somebody somewhere in the chain of responsibility should have stopped passing the buck and ticking the boxes. They should have said, “This is not a case in which a child was injured or something remotely distasteful occurred. A child died in this case. It is not run of the mill. It is not an every day occurrence—thank goodness.” This is an unusual and exceptional case, and it should have been dealt with as such.

As I have said, I appreciate that the Minister has not dealt with the matter before, but I ask her to look at these facts. The nursery is still in operation; the people who were in charge are still there; no one has been held responsible for the death; and nothing has been done to ensure that it never happens again. I hope she can give some answers today, but I appreciate that it is difficult for her to do so. I hope that those in the chain of responsibility—through Ofsted and other Government agencies—sit up and take note. It is unacceptable to allow five years and more to pass after the death of a small child in a place that was regulated by the Government, where such a child should have been safe and properly cared for.

In bringing the matter to the House, I pay tribute to Rhiya Malin’s parents—her bereaved, heartbroken parents. They could have drawn a line under their tragedy, but they did not. They have continued to campaign and to do all they can to ensure that no other parents and little children suffer the tragedy they have suffered. I pay tribute to them for all they have done and continue to do.

The Minister is not afraid of taking on a challenge. I hope that by bringing the matter to the House, I have given her an opportunity to take action to ensure that nurseries such as Eton Manor are safer in future, and that the people who run such nurseries as businesses—not for the sake of caring, but simply for the sake of making money—are not allowed to hide behind the corporate veil.

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) for obtaining a debate on this important issue and bringing it to my attention. Rhiya Malin’s tragic death happened a few years ago and was a truly appalling ordeal for her parents. It was also a truly appalling thing to take place in a nursery that—as my hon. Friend points out—is regulated by the Government. She raised two issues in her very passionate speech. The first was about how individuals who had taken decisions in the chain of command had been held to account, and the second was about the way in which Ofsted operates and the role it plays.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is extremely important that Government bodies are held to account and that individuals take responsibility for their actions, whether they are in an agency or a central Department. I will certainly follow up on the specific issues that she mentioned.

My hon. Friend also highlighted the processes that Ofsted goes through, especially how it regulates and inspects nurseries and other child care providers. We

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launched a new early years foundation stage in September which sets stringent welfare requirements that inspectors regulate against. We are being clear that staff have responsibility for the safety and health of children; that children must be properly supervised in nurseries; and that nursery managers and other staff must fulfil certain qualification requirements. One of the very important factors in the safety of children in nurseries is the quality of management and staff. As she pointed out, I have only recently started work on this portfolio and I will shortly make further comments on staff qualifications and Ofsted regulation in response to the Nutbrown review of qualifications. I hope to talk to my hon. Friend before announcing those new measures. I hope also that they will address some of the issues that she has raised, such as box-ticking rather than understanding outcomes, and looking at what is happening on the ground—both important points that she raised in her speech.

On the particular powers that Ofsted has to intervene, Ofsted can set actions on providers that must be met within specified time scales. If failings are serious or pose a risk to the welfare of children, registrations can and should be cancelled. I will consider the implications of the outcome of the health and safety prosecutions of Casterbridge Care and the staff on duty at the time of Rhiya’s death. In response to my hon. Friend’s points about registration and inspection, I understand that the previous Minister accepted Ofsted’s proposals to retain information about previous registrations on its website for three years, and that information will be kept irrespective of whether there has been a change in ownership. That includes the inspection reports, and complaints and actions taken in respect of them. Parents will be able to press nursery owners, whether related to previous owners or not, about possible links with the previous registration.

It is my priority in this role to put in place a system that ensures that safety and quality in our nurseries and child care provision are the most important things. We want our regulatory system to focus on those two important areas. That is what parents care about. They want to know that if they leave their child in the trust of a nursery, they will be cared for and kept safe. If a nursery is not capable of keeping children safe and secure, it should not be in operation.

I mentioned that we were shortly to respond to the Nutbrown review and to consider various issues, including the salaries and qualification levels of staff operating in the child care industry. We are keen to ensure that it is a professional sector where people take responsibility, where there is proper training and development in all parts of the industry and where quality supervision and best practice are followed in nurseries across the county.

I have also been in discussions with Ofsted about how to ensure that our inspection system is of the best possible quality and cannot be accused of simply ticking the boxes. Inspectors must be properly observing what happens in nurseries and child care settings and ensuring that children are properly supervised, engaged with, educated and given the skills and tools they need to lead a successful life. Evidence shows more and more how important those early years are to children’s future development. And of course parents’ No. 1 concern is to ensure that their children are safe. That is all about the quality of the supervision and the people involved.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on pursuing this case for such a long time. I am concerned that she and the parents, who have gone through an extremely distressing time, have not yet had the full answers and full accountability they need. It is right that public bodies be held to account for their actions. I commit to her that, as well as ensuring that the structures under which Ofsted operates are the best possible and ensuring the safety

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and quality of the care that our children receive, I will also look into the issues that previous Ministers have undertaken to look into to see what further action can be taken.

Question put and agreed to.

5.28 pm

House adjourned.