5.43 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate.

When we served on the Joint Committee on the draft Climate Change Bill, we heard from manufacturers how much they wanted certainty. They said, “Well, whatever you decide, whatever you do, certainty is what we want. We want to have that message. We want to know exactly what we are doing.”

The decarbonisation of the power sector is vital, not only in its own right but as a contribution to decarbonisation in other sectors, such as transport, industry and buildings. If we delay setting decarbonisation targets, that will lead to an increased reliance on gas. We can all understand why we had North sea gas and why we then imported gas to take over from North sea gas, but can anybody understand why a country would wish to rely so much on imported gas now? First, importing gas contributes to greenhouse gases and the speeding-up of climate change, but secondly, following the oil crisis in the ’70s, surely we must understand the volatility of oil prices and, linked to them, gas prices. In addition, there is increased world demand and the volatility of some nations that supply gas to us. Furthermore, the versatility of gas means that when we do have it there are things that we should be using it for, such as piping it directly to industry or homes.

As for shale gas, it is highly controversial in a densely populated country such as our own, and costs will certainly escalate before it can be extracted, not to mention the carbon footprint that its extraction will leave behind. However, tacitly encouraging—

David Mowat: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Nia Griffith: No, the hon. Gentleman has had many chances to talk; I will give way only to someone who has not yet had a turn.

Tacitly encouraging more reliance on imported gas looks even more bizarre when we have huge potential here for renewables, particularly—

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Nia Griffith: Indeed, I will.

Mark Reckless: Gas prices are linked to oil, but we have seen in the United States that the success of shale gas has detached gas prices from oil, and gas prices are now much lower. In addition, that has helped the US to reduce its carbon emissions.

Nia Griffith: Mr Gray, I will not digress to discuss that matter, as we want to keep—fairly strictly—to the matter of decarbonisation targets, and it is absolutely vital that we get those targets now. That is because the Government’s position is that no targets will be set until 2016 at the earliest, with no guarantee then as to what those targets might be. Targets are absolutely vital for industry, because we need absolute certainty to encourage investment in low or indeed zero-carbon technologies. We want to get ahead, rather than seeing big investment in green energy components go elsewhere.

I am secretary of the all-party group on steel and metal related industry, and we see huge opportunities for the steel industry in the production of turbines for offshore wind farms and of marine current turbines. Without targets, however, we will lose those opportunities to other countries. The steel industry in this country is facing a real crisis in demand, and certainty about decarbonisation targets now would bolster investment in renewable technologies and help that manufacturing to stay in the UK.

Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research puts paid to the myth that decarbonisation will increase fuel bills. Leaving aside all the disgraceful ways in which the big energy companies exploit the consumer as a result of weak regulation, excessive profits and now, we understand, dubious taxation practices, simply looking at the price of decarbonisation, the conclusions are that increased reliance on electricity generated from gas will cost the consumer more, and that is on conservative estimates of price rises without unpredictable events. Certainty on decarbonisation targets now would be good for the future of the planet, good for manufacturing and good for the consumer.

5.47 pm

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I, too, will try to be as brief as possible, because I know that other Members wish to contribute to this debate.

The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) stated that we had some of the world’s toughest targets on climate change, but it is precisely because we have those targets that a target now for decarbonisation of the energy sector up to 2030 is vital. Essentially, that is the case that the Committee on Climate Change made on decarbonising the power sector, falling from 450 grams or so per kWh today to about 50 grams per kWh by 2030. That is because the power sector produces a large percentage of emissions, so we cannot decouple the question of decarbonisation of the power sector from overall targets. The suggestion by the Committee on Climate Change that, in order to stay in line with the overall targets that this country has set itself, the target should be about 50 grams per kWh by 2030 should be the basis for what we set as a target in the Energy Bill.

The Government tabled amendments to the Energy Bill after it was considered in Committee, stating that they “may” set a target. However, they cannot do it before 2016, and if they do so the Minister “may” set a target

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of—a level we know not what. In terms of building confidence for industry and knowing that we have to reach the position that I have suggested regarding the relationship of energy to overall climate change targets, that change in the Bill will be of very little comfort indeed to those people who know what they have to do as far as investment in the low-carbon economy is concerned.

I would go further than that. Between now and 2016 —we cannot set a target before then in the amendments—a number of events will occur, and I wish to ask hon. Members if they can spot the difference between two phrases. The paragraph in the energy White Paper dealing with what will happen in respect of emissions when the Government revise their view of EU emissions trajectories in 2014 says:

“The Government will review progress towards the EU emissions goal in early 2014. If at that point our domestic commitments place us on a different emissions trajectory than the EU ETS trajectory agreed by the EU, we will, as appropriate and consistent with the legal requirements of the Climate Change Act, revise up our budget to align it with the actual EU trajectory.”

That sounds good. The gas strategy, which came out shortly afterwards, states:

“We will review our progress in early 2014 and if, at that point, our domestic commitments place us on a different trajectory from the one agreed by our partners in the EU under the ETS, we will revise ... our budget as appropriate to align it with the actual EU trajectory.”

That is the problem of waiting until 2016. If, by that point, we have revised up our trajectory to deal with a gas strategy that suggests that, in at least one direction, we have more than 37 GW of new gas plant running at full tilt, rather than DECC’s previous suggestion of some 19 GW of gas—we need gas, but not that much, running at a much lower trajectory—we will irrevocably bust our climate change targets by that act alone. That is why it is important that there is a target in the Bill that locks us into a proper direction on the decarbonisation of energy and, at the same time, gives confidence in respect of future investment for those who wish to invest in that low-carbon economy.

I hope that I have done the Minister a favour by mentioning that he appears to have agreed, on behalf of his Department, to a different strategy from the one to which he is committed, and to which he thinks he is committed. I hope that, in the run-up to the end of the Energy Bill, he looks at the quote from the gas strategy—it is on page 22—and sees whether, among other things, he might agree with the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), which may be considered during the latter stages of the Bill, and excise that paragraph from the gas strategy, to make things really tidy for the future as far as our targets are concerned.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. Two minutes for Ian Swales.

5.52 pm

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): I will cut my remarks short, Mr Gray. I was going to speak about the beneficial effects of all this for the Teesside economy and mention a number of projects, but I do not have time.

Although there is good news for the local economy, not everything in the garden is rosy. The bioethanol plant in my constituency, set up in February 2010, shut

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down for more than a year. Having restarted, it has recently shut again, because of Government dithering over renewable transport fuel. We do not have full clarity from the Department about a biomass power station at Teesport, which three Korean companies have formed a consortium to build. We are getting mixed messages from the Department on that.

As other hon. Members have said, we need local purchasing. A wind farm is being built offshore, literally outside my house. Although that is good news, I have seen the ships transporting all the materials coming past my house. We must act urgently to ensure that we have supply chain and local purchasing.

I heard this week for the first time that there are concerns in the north-east about the national grid capacity not being in line with the Department’s various energy generation plans. I hope that the Minister will provide clarity on that. Other hon. Members have spoken about the need for long-term certainty. That is not just about long-term targets, but about the grandfathering arrangements that the Department makes. The omens are not good. The retrospective change in combined heat and power has been bad for companies that thought they had a regime lasting until 2027.

There have been seven Energy Acts since 2003. I hope that we are getting to the end of this and that the Minister will think about standing down the policy factory, or at least part of it, that has been working for 10 years, so that we can get on with all the investment that is required.

5.55 pm

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. As is his habit, he gave a comprehensive account of the issues, many of which other hon. Members were seeking to add to the debate. He rightly made the point about the time pressure in respect of the Energy Bill. Members of the Bill Committee know that we need to return to a range of issues and it is important that we have adequate time on Report if we are ever to get to them. Even in this debate, a number of hon. Members have been unable to speak or have had to truncate their remarks on a fundamentally important issue.

It is always a pleasure to stand opposite the Minister, although I am slightly disappointed that the other, new, part-time Energy Minister—the third Energy Minister in six months—is not here, because his other part-time responsibility is in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and publications coming out of that Department have highlighted the important role that decarbonisation and the green, low-carbon economy needs to play in having a target and a direction for the future.

Mark Reckless: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Tom Greatrex: I am tempted not to, because the hon. Gentleman came into the debate late, but I will. I am more generous than I should be.

Mark Reckless: Some are concerned about the extent to which decarbonisation and the green agenda are pushing up electricity prices. The shadow Minister says

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that he is keen to have sufficient time to discuss all the issues on Report, so would he support having two days on Report?

Tom Greatrex: I am glad that I gave way, because the hon. Gentleman is right on that point. Significant time needs to be given to these matters, because a range of issues must be discussed, and this is just one. He has talked previously about other issues covered in aspects of the Energy Bill—not directly on this point—and I am sure that he would want to contribute. I hope that the Minister and the usual channels have heard his concern.

I have mentioned the other responsibilities of the new Energy Minister. The hon. Member for St Ives rightly focused on the business case, and the jobs and growth case, for the decarbonisation target, but there are other strong arguments. My hon. Friends the Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) made the climate arguments. There are also important security-of-supply arguments about why this is sensible.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), the close geographical colleague of the hon. Member for St Ives, is sitting slightly apart from the rest of the Liberal Democrat Members today, and he is the only Liberal Democrat in the Chamber who had the opportunity to ensure that this target was in the Bill. We debated the matter in the Energy Bill Committee and he and another colleague chose not to vote for his party’s policy. I hope that the number of Liberal Democrats who are here this afternoon is indicative of the fact that those who are not encumbered by ministerial or Parliamentary Private Secretary posts will support that policy when the opportunity to support the cross-party amendment comes in due course, although their party’s policy was not in the manifesto, but was agreed at their party conference in October, when the Bill was under way and under discussion in pre-legislative scrutiny.

Andrew George: Neither was it in the Labour party manifesto. Rather than trading points, I want to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), because he cannot speak in this debate, and say that we should ensure that this agenda is shared across all parties. It is led, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) knows, by a Conservative Member. Although I cannot speak for the Conservatives, there is an economic agenda in favour of decarbonisation. That needs to be emphasised at this stage and we need cross-party consensus for it.

Tom Greatrex: The hon. Gentleman is right to make that point, as he did in his speech and as other hon. Members have. My remark about his colleague was just to make it clear to those who were not on the Energy Bill Committee that there was an opportunity to put that target in the legislation, but sadly it was missed. That could have been done, but those with the opportunity chose not to do so. I hope that, on reflection, we will get to a better position and a better decision on Report.

Members of the Energy Bill Committee have dealt with a number of similar issues that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) touched on. He mentioned targets, including in other countries. I am sure that he is as aware as I am of the targets in

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Denmark—the 2035 target for all electricity and heating production to be fossil fuel free; in Austria, in relation to low-carbon energy by 2050; and in Germany, in relation to 50% of electricity generation in 2030.

It is not strictly accurate to suggest that there are not targets elsewhere in Europe and across the world, because those countries are seized of the growth and job opportunities that come with the imperative to decarbonise the power sector. Those of us on the Energy Bill Committee heard repeatedly—others will have heard this in subsequent letters—that business is seeking clarity of purpose beyond the scope of this Government and of this Parliament and the next, towards 2030.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North was right to address the levy control framework, but the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) was also right to mention the time it takes to make some of those decisions. There are serious, big decisions that have not yet been made, such as on the memorandums of understanding that have been signed on siting offshore wind fabrication facilities in the UK. Part of the reason why the final decision has not yet been taken on that is the fact that the global companies involved, which have to make a case to their international boards, are not convinced that they have the clarity to be able to say that there will be a market. The only way we will bring down the cost of offshore wind is by having scale, and the way to do that is through manufacturing. There are strong business threads throughout the debate.

Ian Swales: Does the shadow Minister agree that it is not just climate that companies are interested in? Although climate is obviously an important overall consideration, the companies want their specific arrangements to be grandfathered when they decide to invest.

Tom Greatrex: I agree. We are grappling with the legislation because we do not know the detail of how that will operate. Again, in Committee we received assurance from the then Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), that that will be forthcoming, but it has not yet emerged. Not only can we not scrutinise it, but the companies, to which the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) was going to refer before he had to truncate his speech, cannot.

Finally, Ministers speak about setting a decarbonisation target, as the Deputy Prime Minister did on the very afternoon that we moved amendments in Committee that the Liberal Democrats failed to support, but that is not to say that this is about setting a target. As others have said, it is about the power perhaps to set a target. The Government may set a target, but they might not. The longer this goes on, all we are doing is storing up lack of certainty, which means that the costs will not necessarily come down as fast as they might and that we cannot get the benefit of jobs and growth from the shift to the green economy that is happening—and it will have to happen in any case.

David Mowat: It is right that the costs need to come down, and, of course, activity will drive down the costs. There is a school of thought that says that excessive

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subsidies stop costs coming down, but I accept that costs need to come down. Does the shadow Minister accept that these are global industries and that global activity, not just UK activity, is what will drive down costs?

Tom Greatrex: There is activity in other parts of the globe, and these are global companies making global investment decisions. To get the costs down we need scale, and to get scale we need manufacturing. That manufacturing will not happen without the sense of a long-term trajectory in that part of the energy sector in this country.

I am conscious that I am about to run out of time, but I hope that we get the opportunity on Report to debate the issue fully. I am sure that the cross-party amendment will draw a degree of support from across all parties, as has been demonstrated this afternoon.

6.4 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): Having returned from St Paul’s, I may be feeling a little dewy-eyed and unduly romantic, but I think this was a really good debate on both sides of the Chamber. I do not agree with all the speeches and interventions, but the quality of the arguments deployed by both sides has been very high and I have listened carefully to the points made by the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Angus (Mr Weir), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). I have also listened carefully to the powerful and pithy interventions by my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), for Warrington South (David Mowat) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless).

Most of all, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on securing this debate and on opening with a tour d’horizon on the energy sector with a clear focus on decarbonisation. He is right in so many respects on the Government’s ambition and direction. In less than three years, we have put in place many of the key building blocks of a greener, cleaner energy economy of which both coalition partners can be rightly proud.

Year-on-year, offshore wind capacity was up 60% and solar PV capacity was up 500% in 2011-12. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) is chortling, but in the past six months we have added more than half a gigawatt of solar. That totally flies in the face of the Opposition’s doom-mongering and scaremongering. The Government have a record of deployment and real action of which we can be proud, but we are absolutely clear that we will always consider the interests of the consumer. We will always consider who is actually paying. We do not believe in going green at any price; we believe that there is a fair balance between value for money and achieving our vital climate goals.

Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister give way?

Gregory Barker: I am afraid that I will not give way, because I have very little time to cover all the points.

It is interesting that I do not think that I have heard anyone in this debate refer to consumers, to consumer bills or to the ability of the British taxpayer to shoulder

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the subsidies that are necessary to pay for this agenda. As hon. Members know, I am a great champion of greening our economy. I am one of the few Members present who played a part in the passage of the Climate Change Act 2008, which is one of the proudest moments of my parliamentary life to date. I am absolutely committed to that, but we have to reconcile the difficult challenge of cost and delivery.

The Prime Minister has been emphatic. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned that we are the greenest Government ever. That was the Prime Minister’s pledge when he visited the Department of Energy and Climate Change on day four of the Government, and he reiterated the pledge only a matter of weeks ago to the Royal Society:

“we are in a global race and the countries that succeed in that race, the economies…that will prosper are those that are the greenest and the most energy-efficient… it is the countries that prioritise green energy that will secure the biggest share of jobs and growth.”

There is no fundamental difference between the two sides of the House in our direction, destination or determination to meet the goals that are embedded in the Climate Change Act. In fact, there is not so much between us on the decarbonisation target, either. We have tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill that will allow us to set a decarbonisation target alongside the fifth carbon budget, and I will go on to address that in detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned marine energy in his opening speech. I am extremely proud of the huge leaps forward we have made on that exciting technology over the past three years with the establishment of the UK’s first marine energy parks—first in the south-west and now in Scotland. I am extremely proud of that investment. Our commitment in the last review, despite all the pressure on public finance and energy bills, was to increase substantially the renewable obligations certificates that we are giving marine, to give it the investment punch that it needs.

My hon. Friend kindly invited me to visit Cornwall and see FaBTest. I will be there next week. I must admit that it was already in the pipeline, but he can take back the good news this weekend and tell every Cornishman good and true that the Energy Minister is coming.

Mr Weir: What about Cornishwomen?

Gregory Barker: Quite right. I stand corrected. Although I am blowing my own trumpet, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) chided my Department for its turnover in Energy Ministers. Coming from the Labour party, that is a bit bleeding rich. Under the previous Administration, there was a revolving door on the Department. I think I am now the longest-serving Energy Minister since the previous Conservative Administration—

Tom Greatrex: Will the Minister give way?

Gregory Barker: No, I will not, I am afraid. I greatly welcome the closer alignment with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I cheered the last Government when they created a separate Department of Energy and Climate Change. It is a good thing, but it must also be a good thing, as he pointed out, to have

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much closer alignment between BIS and DECC. The appointment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) to the important job of Energy Minister, much as it will stretch him, sends a clear signal about the central importance of the low-carbon economy to British growth and our long-term growth prospects, as the Prime Minister said and every Member who has spoken in the debate has pointed out. The CBI supports the agenda, and there is wider support for the low-carbon economy that goes way beyond certain renewable energy technologies. It offers export and other business opportunities requiring little or no subsidy, and it has a great deal of its own momentum.

We will return to the decarbonisation target when the Bill returns to the Commons on Report after the Queen’s Speech. I know that some hon. Members have argued that we should go further and set a target now, to provide greater certainty to investors. I understand that argument—I listened carefully to the contributions made in the evidence session before the Bill Committee—and I see the strong merit of the argument for a decarbonisation target. That is why we are introducing measures in the Bill to create such a target. However, we must also resist the temptation to think that life is about targets. Surely, we learned our lesson under the last Government. Simply setting targets does not deliver results. If this Government are about anything, we are about deployment, results and driving real change in real time, and our record demonstrates that we are capable of doing that.

As we set out in the carbon plan in December 2011, it is likely that, as well as decarbonising electricity generation, meeting our 2050 target will require the electrification of a significant amount of heat and transport in the UK. In turn, that will not only affect overall demand for electricity but require us to take into account when that electricity is needed. For instance, when will people want to charge electric vehicles? Heat demand changes seasonally and over the course of a single day. All those things must be taken together when we consider the best way to decarbonise electricity as part of a least-cost route to meeting our obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008.

The second reason why I believe we should wait to set a target range is that we do not need to do so now. As I have said, we have provided clear signals to investors via a range of different initiatives, legally binding targets and the action that we are taking through the electricity market reforms in the Energy Bill. They have prompted the director of the CBI to say that the Bill sends

“a strong signal to investors that the Government is serious about providing firms with the certainty they need to invest in affordable secure low-carbon energy.”

That is what we are doing.

This must be seen in the context of the Government’s wider plans. The green investment bank is now investing billions of pounds in our green economy and catalysing billions more. I appreciate that hon. Members have focused on one element, but the wider package is extremely ambitious and encouraging.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): I am most grateful to the Minister for winding up precisely at 6.15. Can people from the last debate leave the Chamber quickly and quietly?

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Police Cautions (Young People)

6.15 pm

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): You will be happy to know that I have prepared for this debate, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time and I am pleased to have secured the debate. I am still wearing a black tie after the events of this morning, but I think that this debate involves good news. I look forward to the Minister’s winding-up speech. The debate provides an opportunity for me to discuss an issue that can blight the lives of many hard-working young people in our constituencies and seek clarification from the Minister on recent developments in Government policy.

Police cautions can have a detrimental impact on the lives and employment prospects of young people. An e-mail from one of my constituents led me to initiate the debate, and I know that many other Members have received similar correspondence. My constituent, who is now in her final year at university, received a police caution in early 2007, when she was 15 years old, for a minor shoplifting offence while part of a dominant group of girls. Her e-mail explained to me that the huge peer pressure that she felt so as to be accepted as part of that group and coercion by her then friends were key reasons for her behaviour, which she admits was poor. I am sure that many of us have some sympathy with that.

Looking back, my constituent admits that she feels utterly embarrassed by and ashamed of her actions, which were completely unrepresentative of her character. She has not acted similarly before or since. She is not a dishonest person—I have seen several character references from employers and former teachers that she has provided to back that up—and in the years since the offence she has not kept in contact with any of the people involved and has gone on to achieve success in her exams and at university.

My constituent’s ambition is to pursue a career in law, and her academic success and involvement in voluntary and extracurricular activities make such a career possible, but that dream has been jeopardised by the police caution that she received more than six years ago. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has informed her that it is more likely than not that her application will be rejected due to her caution. She is understandably devastated that she may not be able to pursue her chosen career.

As the Minister will be aware, the Justice Committee, of which I am a member—I am pleased to see our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), here today—published a wide-ranging report on youth justice on 14 March. Among our many recommendations, one is particularly relevant to this debate. Paragraph 21 of the conclusions and recommendations reads:

“We support the reduction in rehabilitation periods introduced via the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which means that many young offenders’ convictions will become spent sooner. We also agree with the Minister that employers, as well as schools, colleges and universities, should consider taking young people on despite their previous offences, as many do. Nevertheless, while we recognise that for very serious offending, disclosure of convictions will continue to be in the public interest, we consider there is potential to go further in relation to more minor convictions. We therefore recommend that, in addition to keeping the youth rehabilitation periods under review, the Government considers legislating to erase out-of-court disposals and convictions

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from the records of very early, minor and non-persistent offenders at the age of 18, so that they cannot be disclosed to employers under the Exceptions Order to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.”

Since 2008, more than 1 million child arrests have been made in England and Wales, about one third of which resulted in a police caution. Lest I am misunderstood —heaven forbid—by certain sections of the press or even the House, I want to be clear that I believe young people should be punished according to the rule of law, like anybody else, when they do wrong. How we respond to often low-level bad behaviour by youngsters, however, has the potential to blight the rest of their lives by further alienating them from society. Our country cannot afford and would not be right to put young people, in effect, on the scrap heap before they had ever had a chance. Those young people need support, not perpetual criminalisation, and this change would provide that.

The Justice Committee report’s recommendation aims to improve the prospects of young people who have received police cautions for minor offences and have not reoffended by wiping their records, thereby preventing cautions from being disclosed to certain potential employers during criminal record checks.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the problem can be hugely discriminatory against youngsters in inner cities, many of whom receive cautions at an early age, blighting their lives? We are in danger of creating a perpetual underclass of people who can never escape due to minor offences for which Parliament never legislated such a disproportionate penalty.

Steve Brine: I very much agree. We are often talking about people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. As a country, we are crazy to hold them down, as we do in some cases. They need support, not perpetual criminalisation.

Although not entirely down to the actions of our Committee—it would have been a swift move by the Minister if so—I am pleased that the Government plan to lay before Parliament a statutory instrument to amend the exceptions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, so that some spent convictions and cautions do not have to be disclosed and cannot be taken into account in employment decisions. Nevertheless, that development still leaves us with several questions.

On 29 January this year, the Court of Appeal ruled that the system of Criminal Records Bureau checks constituted a breach of article 8 of the European convention on human rights and of the Human Rights Act 1998, and that requiring the disclosure of all convictions and cautions relating to recordable offences is disproportionate to the aim of protecting children and vulnerable adults. Why, therefore, did the Government feel the need to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court?

The statutory instrument that the Government will lay before Parliament will help my constituent and many others, so I welcome it. It is proposed that cautions and equivalents administered to a young offender will not be subject to disclosure after two years, and that a conviction received as a young offender resulting in a non-custodial sentence will not be subject to disclosure after five and a half years. May I press the Minister, however, to implement the measure as quickly as possible?

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How long will it be before the order is laid before the House? Will he confirm that any changes will be applied retrospectively?

Finally, my constituent highlighted two other important issues, which concern other Members as well. First, on the role of local constabularies in removing or retaining a caution on a young person’s record, my constituent contacted Hampshire constabulary in the hope that it might be able to remove the caution from her record, but she was told that nothing could be done in that regard. However, in certain circumstances, do not chief constables have the discretion to prevent the disclosure of cautions? Where does the truth lie?

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and the work that he does on these issues. He is talking about certain constabularies approaching the matter in certain ways. I understand that the Government have piloted initiatives to examine dealing with cautions in a different way, as he has discussed. Has he made any assessment of how effective the pilot scheme has been so far?

Steve Brine: No, is the honest answer, but I am aware of the pilot, so perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to refer to it. I am grateful for that point, made by a fellow member of the Justice Committee.

Other people want to get in to speak and we want to give the Minister time to respond, so I shall draw to a close. To make the second point, there is no requirement to consent to receiving a police caution for young people. Many of them do not appreciate the impact that a criminal record will have on their life and career prospects, which means that they can be burdened with a record without fully understanding the consequences. Can more be done, therefore, to ensure that young people are aware of the consequences of receiving a caution, which is more than just a ticking off or what used to be a clip around the ear?

In summary, many of the young people who receive cautions immediately regret their actions, but they soon discover that the consequences severely jeopardise their job prospects and opportunities. Many of those youngsters come from underprivileged and unstable backgrounds, so is it not counter-productive to criminalise them further and to destroy what opportunities they might have in our society?

I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to prevent disclosure of old and minor offences to potential employers. I hope that the reforms make a significant difference to the life of many constituents, such as mine and many others.

6.24 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) not only on securing the debate, but on his admirable and in my experience unprecedented brevity in not filling up the entire time available to him. I appreciate his interest not only generally, as a member of the Justice Committee, which has indeed pronounced on the matter recently, but particularly, in the individual case that brought the issue to his attention. I will deal with that later in my speech.

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On the generalities, the youth justice system is focused on early intervention and on diversion of children and young people from formal disposals where that is appropriate. In recent times, there has been an increase in the use of informal disposals by the police and an adoption of restorative justice approaches, which I strongly support. All police forces now have trained restorative justice facilitators, and an on-the-spot restorative action can often provide the best disposal when a minor, usually first-time misdemeanour is committed. Such an approach can also be beneficial to the victim, who gets immediate reparation from the young person who has committed the offence. There has been a significant reduction in the use of formal disposals by the police over recent years. Since 2001-02, there has been a 57% fall in the number of reprimands, final warnings and conditional cautions given to young people in England and Wales: 40,757 were given in 2011-12, compared with 94,836 in 2001-02.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on his contribution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) made a good intervention, which I support absolutely. People in inner city areas such as the one that I represent, and in particular minority ethnic youths in those areas, seem to have a disproportionately high chance of being stopped and searched, of getting formal cautions and therefore of being impeded in getting work in the future. Will the Minister look into the geographical breakdown of the cautions given and the operational guidance given to police forces? I, of course, support the much earlier write-off of cautions to preserve the career opportunities of all our young people.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman might be aware that we are conducting a cautions review at the moment, so feeding into that is important. As I am about to explain in detail, we are concerned to encourage the use of out-of-court disposals but to ensure that, first, the length of time for which they are active beyond the period of the commission of the offence is properly limited and that, at the same time, they provide confidence in the wider justice system and in particular a feeling among victims that appropriate reparation has been made. That is the balance to be struck.

Mr Spellar: The initiatives that the Minister is announcing are useful and heading in the right direction, but we might be getting away slightly from the core of the issue: misdemeanours or offences committed at a young age, whether leading to cautions or convictions and minor punishments, can blight people’s lives. We saw that, in particular, with the elections for police and crime commissioners, when a number of individuals of all political parties were prevented from standing 40 or 50 years after committing the offences. That should have highlighted the necessity of taking action, to prevent them from appearing on people’s records and their life being affected.

Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman is right; that was certainly a vivid example of the long-lasting effect. I gently point out, however, that that legislation was passed by the House over the past couple of years entirely unopposed.

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Mr Spellar: All parties made a mistake.

Damian Green: However, the time for which an offence should hang over a young person or anyone else is contentious, and we must be careful to strike a balance. Ensuring appropriate punishment and particularly appropriate reparation for victims, so that they have confidence in the system, form the other half of the balance that I am sure all hon. Members want to strike.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): The Minister makes a valid point about the public’s confidence being undermined by using cautions. Does he agree that confidence might also be lost when cautions are repetitively given to offenders with a view to improving the clear-up figures?

Damian Green: I would be interested to know whether my hon. Friend has evidence that cautions are used to improve clear-up figures. The answer to his general point is that, yes, I agree that the repetitive use of cautions may damage confidence in the system. One reason why we are looking at the whole system of cautions is precisely to avoid such damage to confidence.

A youth caution may be given for any offence that the young offender admits when there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction but it is not in the public interest to prosecute. The flexibility provided by the youth caution allows the police greater discretion to offer a disposal that is appropriate to the circumstances of the offence and offender, rather than being arbitrarily determined by previous disposals or convictions.

We have retained in the youth caution the critical elements of assessment and intervention inherent in the final warning scheme. The youth offending team will be obliged to assess and, unless considered inappropriate, to put a rehabilitation programme in place when a young person has received a second or subsequent youth caution. That reflects the current threshold of obligatory assessment following a warning and is designed to prevent a return to precisely the repeat cautioning to which my hon. Friend referred. Unlike reprimands and warnings, the youth caution does not have a fixed limit on the number that may be administered, and it may be used if a young person has previously been convicted. That allows the police to use discretion, in consultation with the youth offending team, and to avoid an unnecessary court process if that is not merited.

Introducing a flexible youth caution that can be used more than once should help young people when seeking future gainful employment despite a minor misdemeanour that is causing concern. The youth caution becomes spent immediately, so there is no requirement for the young person to disclose that they have received one, unless they are seeking employment in an occupation listed in the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975, such as working with children or other vulnerable people.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 revised the youth conditional caution. We reduced unnecessary bureaucracy by giving the police power to authorise youth conditional cautions without the need to seek the authorisation of a prosecutor. The police can now offer a youth conditional caution with input from a youth offending team as at present but without the need for agreement from the Crown Prosecution

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Service. The youth offending team’s role is now statutory to provide a check on the appropriateness of the disposal and will also allow the YOT to apply for a parenting order if necessary.

Conditional cautions require offenders to take responsibility for their actions, including agreement to conditions that require them to put things right or to seek help for their behaviour. It is important to recognise the role of the victim and to ensure that they have proper redress through such an out-of-court disposal. Since 8 April, the revised youth conditional caution has been available to all 10 to 17-year-olds throughout England and Wales. The youth conditional caution has a three-month rehabilitation period to allow for the conditions to be completed, but offers similar benefits to the youth caution in becoming spent rapidly and therefore not subject to disclosure for most purposes.

The third change to that sort of disposal in the 2012 Act was to abolish penalty notices for disorder for 10 to 17-year-olds. Penalty notices can be an effective deterrent and provide resolution of offences for adult offenders, but we believe they are less effective for young people. The principal aim of the youth justice system is to prevent offending by young people. For that age group, we believe it is more effective to use out-of-court disposals involving assessment and intervention by the local youth offending team than fixed penalties.

Other legislation that is centrally important to the matters that the debate gives rise to is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which has an important role in helping those who have a criminal conviction but have put criminality behind them. From the tone of the debate, it is clear that many hon. Members believe that it is important to provide individuals with the opportunity to leave behind mistakes that they made when they were young. Minor offending behaviour committed when the offender was immature should not blight their prospects. That is recognised in the fact that rehabilitation periods are generally shorter for under-eights than for adults. Most crime committed by young people is relatively minor and often results in the out-of-court disposals or fines that I am talking about. A significant proportion of the population have had a conviction at some point in their lives, but few of them pose a serious risk of harm to the public. I am sure that we all agree that it is in society’s interest that ex-offenders are given the chance to reintegrate into their communities and lead law-abiding lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester referred to a recent Court of Appeal judgment that found that both the current exceptions order to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and part V of the Police Act 1997 are unlawful. That is because they provide for blanket disclosure of all spent convictions and cautions regardless of how old or minor they may be. In response to that judgment—my hon. Friend raised this point specifically —we are amending the exceptions order. We are proposing that certain spent disposals will no longer be subject to disclosure under that order after a specified period, which will be shorter for young offenders than for adults.

Public protection and safeguarding obviously remain primary concerns, and for that reason disposals for specified sexual and violent offences and other offences relevant to safeguarding will always be subject to standard or enhanced disclosure. Any offence resulting in a custodial

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sentence will continue to be subject to disclosure. Those measures are necessary to maintain public protection, and I suspect that there is agreement on that on both sides of the Chamber.

For other offences, cautions and minor convictions will no longer be subject to disclosure, nor will they be able to be taken into account by an employer after a certain period. Cautions and equivalents administered to a young offender for a non-specified offence will no longer be subject to disclosure under the exceptions order after two years. Secondary legislation containing those provisions has been laid before Parliament and will be subject to the affirmative process. My hon. Friend wanted a detailed timetable, but he has been here long enough to know that such business management goes on behind closed doors.

Steve Brine: I have been here a while now and I cannot wait to be on another Committee. The Minister may be coming to this, but will he refer to retrospection of the order?

Damian Green: The changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 will have retrospective effect. I will come to the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, but I can give him that general reassurance.

Employers have a key role in how criminal record information is treated, and they should have a fair and objective policy on the recruitment of ex-offenders. It is important that they should consider the circumstances and relevance of a spent, or unspent, conviction where that is disclosed. That should include taking into account the age of the person at the time, the disposal received and what the person has done in the meantime. Of course, we encourage employers to adopt that fair approach, which is critical in assisting ex-offenders in obtaining gainful employment and, therefore, helping their rehabilitation. It ought to go without saying—but it is worth mentioning—that a minor youthful indiscretion should clearly not be a barrier to employment in later life.

Turning to my hon. Friend’s constituent, I understand that she received a caution for theft aged 15 but now wishes to pursue a career as a lawyer. That is an occupation listed on the exceptions order and therefore disclosure of spent cautions and convictions can be requested and an employer can take them into account. As he said, she has been advised that her caution means that she may not be accepted to practise law. However, I am pleased to say that, from his description of the case, it appears that she will benefit from our proposed amendment to the exceptions order. As I have said, under the proposals, a caution received as a young person for a non-specified offence, which includes theft, will no longer be subject to disclosure, nor will an employer be able to take it into account, after a period of two years. I should be clear that the caution will nevertheless remain on the record, but the changes to the exceptions order will specifically address his constituent’s case. Clearly, there are circumstances in which the disclosure of all cautions and convictions may still be required, such as in subsequent court proceedings.

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Returning to the use of out-of-court disposals in general, we know that it is important to consider the need to provide assurance to the public that they are being used appropriately and proportionately. We very much recognise the concern of the public and that expressed in the recent Justice Committee report about the proper use of out-of-court disposals. The Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), is here, and I thank the Committee for contributing to a thought process that has led to our review of simple cautions. The Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Attorney-General’s office will be working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, as well as taking the views of practitioners across the criminal justice system.

The review is considering a number of issues: the existing guidance and practice relating to the use of simple cautions; whether there are some offence types for which the use of simply cautions is generally inappropriate—and if so, what procedures we should adopt; the reasons why multiple cautions have been given to some criminals; the difference in the use of cautions by different police forces and whether increased scrutiny is needed to ensure that they are used consistently; and the impact on individuals of accepting a caution, including any potential impact on future employment. I take the point that was raised by a couple of hon. Members in the debate on whether the use of such disposals may have a disproportionate impact on different communities.

I should make it clear that, although the review into cautions is focused on adult simple cautioning, it will consider aspects of youth cautioning and adult conditional cautioning, where there is good reason to do so. The Justice Committee expressed concern about the provision of oversight and scrutiny of how the police are using out-of-court disposals, so I hope that the various Committee members who are here at the moment will welcome our commitment to look into the matter further.

I make it clear that the Government believe that out-of-court disposals have an important part to play in the youth justice system, because they can provide a quick and effective resolution to a crime for the victim, which a court case might not. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester asked a specific question about the Government seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. We consider that the terms of the judgment are simply too broad, but, as I have mentioned, the orders that we laid before Parliament on 26 March can be taken as our response to the judgment, and the orders will come into force when they are approved by the House.

More generally, the provisions in the LASPO Act that came into effect earlier this month have significantly simplified the youth out-of-court disposals framework, by providing clearer and simpler decision-making for practitioners, a greater understanding for the public of how the disposals fit together and the circumstances in which they are used—

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but the clock dictates that I should do so. We now come to the next debate.

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Department for Education Offices (Runcorn)

6.45 pm

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I do not intend to take all the time that would normally be taken in such debates, as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) has a key interest, because his constituency is affected. Therefore, I will cut down the time I have to speak.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): That will be quite in order with me, as long as the hon. Gentleman has the permission of the Minister to do so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss) indicated assent.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): In that case, that is fine.

Derek Twigg: The Department for Education announced on 13 November 2012 its intention to close Castle View house in Runcorn, which is owned by the Department as a freehold property. It proposes to transfer the work to Manchester. The Runcorn site accommodates 450 staff, including 222 Department for Education staff, private sector support staff, staff from other Departments—including the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—and staff from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and national health service procurement staff. Civil service jobs—originally with the Department of Employment—have been based at the site, and previously at the building next door, for more than 40 years, providing an important source of good-quality jobs in the borough of Halton.

The Department has identified the following key areas on which to test its proposal: cost and value for money, needs of the business, estates policy, the effect on staff and the wider socio-economic impact. I will address each area individually, but first, what about the overall handling of the issues by the Department for Education? There was no business case on which to justify a closure, and it was made clear to staff from the beginning that it was highly unlikely that the proposal would be changed, despite a consultation being launched later. Even when I, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and David Parr, chief executive of Halton borough council, met the DFE permanent secretary to discuss the proposal, we came away with a view that the decision was a fait accompli.

I am sure that most independent-minded people would find it odd that there was no business case to base the proposal on. The key arguments made for closure and transfer of the work to Manchester do not remotely stand up to scrutiny, as I shall argue. It is fair to state that the staff and unions have believed for some years that there has been an agenda in the senior management to close down the Runcorn operation for reasons that we could never get to the bottom of. I think the DFE wants the closure now because it fits in with the image that it wants to project of being ahead of the game in Whitehall on how to cut costs, and, therefore, it will

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be held up as a template for other Departments. The problem for the Department for Education is that the change will not save the taxpayer anything.

In terms of cost and value for money, of the 12 DFE sites, Castle View house is the second least expensive. The cost per person for Castle View house is £2,545. The cost for Piccadilly Gate in Manchester—the building that it is proposed to move the jobs to—when comparing like for like is £4,583 per person. The Department suggests that the refurbishment of Castle View house would cost £500,000. A qualified property survey carried out by Halton borough council suggests that the figure would be nearer to £30,000 to £50,000, depending on whether decoration was undertaken. Castle View house is a modern building with excellent facilities and good IT infrastructure. The Department did not factor in the income from sub-tenants in the figures that it based its original closure proposals on.

I have also been informed today that the Public and Commercial Services Union met the Department on Monday in London to talk about staff relocation costs. The DFE has now accepted that it will have to support Runcorn staff with travel costs of up to £4,250 each year—a significant increase, I understand—to cover travel costs on other, longer routes than the very congested Runcorn East line.

We have not yet seen all the Department’s figures for relocation. The Manchester building that the Department is proposing to move staff to will be demolished as a result of High Speed 2, as I am sure the hon. Member for Weaver Vale will point out, incurring more cost for the taxpayer. Further, we can add to that the cost of running an empty building when a re-let is unlikely, according to Halton borough council, in the short to medium term. The DFE already has an empty site next door to Castle View house.

Let us consider the business need. The suggestion was that Manchester had a wider-ranging skills base, but that has not been evidenced or tested other than by the fact that a number of other Departments are based there. Similarly, the assertion by the DFE that Manchester would attract better staff is flawed—again, where is the evidence? The Runcorn site offers a range of skilled staff, holding degree-level and professional qualifications. The public communications unit at Runcorn offers a centre of excellence. A skills audit by the PCS of its members showed that, among the staff who responded, 139 professional qualifications were held.

It is accepted that Manchester has very good travel connections, but it is quicker to travel to London from Runcorn. There are also local lines to Liverpool, Manchester and Chester. The M56 is only a few minutes from Castle View house and also gives quick access to the M62 and the M6.

On being able to attract and retain good-quality staff at Runcorn, we have only to look back to the heyday of the Runcorn site in the 1980s and early ’90s, when nearly 1,000 staff were employed there. That is a clear indication that staff with good skills can be attracted.

I want to examine the effect on staff. It goes without saying that the morale of this loyal and hard-working work force has been badly affected by the proposal, but also by the way the Department has handled it. The closure of Castle View house will also impact more on

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the lowest-graded and lowest-paid staff, and those who are made redundant will find it hard to get another job, given the high unemployment in Halton.

The PCS union met departmental officials and representatives of Arriva Trains on 30 January. Arriva has confirmed that it cannot transport the required number of staff from Runcorn East station to Manchester at peak times. I understand that the Department has now accepted that and informed staff that it will explore “alternative options”. There are also few parking spaces at Runcorn East, where staff would travel from. That is a particular concern for disabled staff. A number of staff who live in Halton would have to make two bus journeys to get to the station.

On the socio-economic impacts, Halton is the 30th most deprived borough in the country and the areas that fall within the Halton Lea ward are some of the most deprived in England. Youth unemployment is particularly high in the area. There will be a wider impact on Halton through the largely retail-based employment in Halton Lea, which was known as Shopping City and which relies on the employee daytime population. Castle View house and those employed there are an important source of custom. Therefore, if employment is removed from the Halton Lea ward, wider employment in the ward will suffer. The wider impact on Halton will be worsened by the fact that a large proportion of Halton Lea’s work force live in Halton.

It is important not to forget that Halton Lea is a town centre, not just a shopping centre, and the Government have stated that they want to regenerate town centres. I hope that, when coming to a decision, the Minister will ensure that account is taken of wider Government policy on town centres.

It is important to highlight to the Minister the fact that support for retaining the DFE jobs from both the private sector and the public sector is very strong. That includes Halton borough council, the Liverpool City Region local enterprise partnership—I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) is present for the debate—and Halton chamber of commerce.

To summarise, Castle View house is much cheaper to run than the Manchester Piccadilly Gate building. Closing the MPG building would save the DFE more money than closing Castle View house. Closing Castle View house would be an ongoing liability for the DFE. Staff at Castle View house would find it harder to find jobs in the locality. Closing Castle View house puts in jeopardy the other 200-plus non-DFE public sector jobs based there. The socio-economic impact on Runcorn and on the viability of Halton Lea shopping centre will be serious. There are serious issues about Runcorn staff being able to travel to Manchester and about the associated costs.

If, despite what is being said today, the Minister goes ahead and closes the DFE offices in Runcorn, I intend to write to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), to ask whether her Committee will investigate a decision that is obviously a waste of public money.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Weaver Vale and I had the chance to meet the Secretary of State on 15 January—I am grateful to him—so that he could hear our case against closing Castle View house. I hope

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that the Minister will now go back and discuss with him the facts of the situation, which are unarguably weighted against the Department’s proposal to shut Castle View house.

6.54 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) oninitiating this important debate, which has far-reaching implications for both my constituency and his own. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and his Department for engaging with all concerned parties, including the hon. Gentleman and me, alongside the council and representatives of the PCS union.

I should like to make two key points. First, I shall address the need for savings across the Department—to position the real impact that the closure could have on the Department’s balance books. Secondly, I shall address the human and economic cost that it would have on an area that has the potential to thrive, at a time when we should be addressing unemployment issues, not adding to them.

I do not dispute the need to look for economies, and the Department for Education is no less bloated than other Departments that have ballooned in size to unsustainable proportions. However, those efficiencies need to be just that—the business case must be sound to justify the action. I am convinced that these proposals are not sound. Significantly, there are gaps in both the long and the short-term expectations of savings.

Castle View house has been portrayed as a low-quality building in need of significant redevelopment. That is simply not the case. I have visited the building on numerous occasions, and compared with the wildly varying conditions of other public sector buildings, it is in very good condition, with excellent facilities. Even if a full refurbishment were required, the cost, as set out by Halton council’s response, would be one tenth of the £500,000 suggested by the Department’s review. In reality, the building has the second-lowest overheads of all the Department’s offices and the cost per square metre is just over one quarter of that for the Manchester Piccadilly site.

It is clear that a withdrawal from the area would have a negative impact and make it less easy to re-let or sell in the near future. That is clear from a consideration of other nearby Government buildings that have previously been closed. The overhead costs of Castle View as an unused building are a staggering £382,000 a year. That would swiftly impact on the balance sheets that the Department so desperately wants to correct.

The long-term impact of the decision has also not been considered sufficiently. The High Speed 2 route, which will connect up the country, will have a major terminus in the centre of Manchester, in the location of the Department for Education’s building. Although the line will not reach the city for some time, it is obvious that the building work for such a significant station will take years and result in the vacation of the offices sooner rather than later. That will be hugely costly and would, were the Castle View staff to relocate there, cause significant instability and uncertainty once more. Closing one office in Runcorn, sending staff to Manchester Piccadilly and then moving them again makes no sense

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whatever. It is clear that the scrutiny that we expect from a detailed analysis is lacking, and I urge the Department to have more foresight.

I should like to draw attention to the impact that the proposal will have on Halton Lea. Although some steps have been taken to produce an action plan for relocating staff to the Manchester branch, it is clear that such a move will leave many behind. Half of Halton Lea falls within the most deprived 5% of the country; the other half is within the bottom 15% and unemployment has risen to 9.4% in the past year. When we talk about closure, we are not talking just about comfortable civil servants having a longer commute—an issue that I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will address—but about those at the bottom of the employment scale falling out of work entirely. Service workers at the site cannot relocate, and as I have said previously, the chances of an instant re-let of the building are remote. That is not to mention that the shops and services around the area do not just benefit from but rely heavily on trade from these offices. Footfall at Halton Lea’s retail centre could drop by 20%—a drop that I am sure hon. Members will agree is too significant to ignore.

To summarise, Castle View house is the second least expensive building of the 12 Department for Education sites identified. It has excellent public transport and road links and free car parking on site. Halton Lea’s Castle View house would be difficult to re-let or sell in the short to medium term. Halton Lea is one of the most deprived wards in one of the most deprived communities in the country. Some 85% of the work force are local and it is therefore the most sustainable solution. Most of the people employed there live in the borough. Closure will only add to the borough’s socio-economic challenges. The Manchester Piccadilly site has staff from the whole of Greater Manchester.

When a proposal will change not how a Department is run but how a town will survive, we must look harder and think more clearly. I therefore respectfully urge the Secretary of State to review the plans in the same way as the former Secretaries of State did—namely, the right hon. Members for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) and the former Member for Norwich South. What is it that they saw in Castle View house that my right hon. Friend, at the moment, does not?

7 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I thank the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) for securing the debate and for their contributions. Both Members made excellent contributions, which reflected the impact on their constituencies of the future of the Department for Education offices. I am sure that they would join me in paying tribute to the excellence and professionalism of the staff in Runcorn. Indeed, the hon. Member for Halton made a point about the quality of those staff, and I absolutely agree with him.

The hon. Gentleman has always been a passionate advocate for his constituents. I understand that he was an employee of Castle View house when my Department was known as the Department for Education and

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Employment, so he has personal experience of working at the location and contributing to the work of the Department. I am grateful for the work he has undertaken with my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale in making representations to the Secretary of State, along with Halton local authority and the local branch of the PCS.

I will return to this, but the information that we put out in the initial consultation has been significantly amended, and the information that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have provided has been very helpful in enabling us to reach a proper decision. Some of what they have discussed was initial information that was our best evidence at the time. In coming to its conclusions, the Department of course listens to representations from people who represent and understand the local area.

Derek Twigg: Is it not a real concern that the Department developed a proposal to close down a building and transfer staff to Manchester, based on a flawed case and best-guess estimates, when a local authority and MPs were later able to put together much clearer facts than the Department itself could? Does that not make the Minister worry about her civil service information?

Elizabeth Truss: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making his point. It is an open consultation; the decision has not yet been made. We wanted to listen to available evidence, but we put forward the evidence available at the time. His contributions, and those of others, have helped to develop our thinking.

The Secretary of State and I have often spoken in the House about our desire to see a better education system for our children and families, and we have made great strides in achieving that aim, by expanding the academies programme, rolling out free schools and introducing a rigorous new curriculum. Key to success is the hard work and dedication of civil servants in the Department for Education, who are tireless in their efforts to improve our schools and children’s services, but there is always more work to be done. The Department for Education can continue to build on the successes. We want to be the best Department in Government, a Department in which the best and brightest want to work.

We have launched the DFE review, which reported last November and laid out how we intend to achieve our aim. The review proposes fundamental changes to our ways of working, which are designed to make the Department the best it can be. We need to hold ourselves to account to the same standards of use of public money to which we hold schools and children’s services to account. That is important. As a result of the changes, there will be difficult decisions to make. We have a smaller work force, which needs to be more flexible, effective and responsive to future needs, which means that we have to reduce our office space. We currently occupy 12 sites across the country and the review recommended that we consolidate them into just six and move to cheaper accommodation. That is the issue we are discussing today. We do, however, value the regional presence of the Department. It provides an alternative perspective on policy to that of a single London-based office. It provides accessibility for external stakeholders.

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Graham Evans: Is my hon. Friend aware that Halton borough council has suggested several alternatives to the existing building, based on the consultation? I do not agree with this, but it says that the proposal it is not economic; it is the most expensive option. There are various alternative locations in my constituency that have been put on the table—Rutland house, Vale house, Howard house, Clifton house—so there is no shortage of public sector properties available in Halton. It does not have to be shifted out of the community of Halton Lea to Manchester Piccadilly in Greater Manchester; it could be kept within the community, as there is no shortage of alternative buildings.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Before the Minister replies, it might be helpful for hon. Members to know that we expect a Division in the main Chamber, possibly at 7.15 pm or earlier, so we might tailor our remarks to suit that probability.

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale for his comments, and I am aware of his proposals. We are absolutely considering all available options in the north-west in relation to our package. I understand that both speakers have acknowledged that there is essentially a choice between Runcorn and Manchester. They have put forward a good case about why Runcorn has particular issues of staff quality, employment levels and local regeneration that need to be considered in the decision-making process.

The decision to close any Government site is never easy. I understand the worry and uncertainty of staff who might be affected by the decision. It is a difficult time across the Department when there is such uncertainty. I also understand the concerns of the local community in Runcorn about the site’s future. The consultation is open, but we wanted to be honest about our initial intentions, so that people have time to make representations and preparations.

I acknowledge the points made about the economic impact on the area. Among the factors that we will take into account in our decision are wider central Government policies—for example, the town centre policy that the hon. Member for Halton mentioned—and minimising costs for the Department, which is clearly important to the achievement of value for money. I note the point that both hon. Members made about the availability of more affordable sites in the Runcorn area.

Whichever site is selected for closure, we will put in place comprehensive support for affected staff to help them through the change. All staff will have the option to transfer to work from whichever site is chosen, and we will offer assistance with excess fares. However, for

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those who either cannot or do not want to make such a move, we have already made a commitment to allow staff to apply for voluntary terms, and we are working with local recruitment agencies and other Government employers in the region to identify alternative employment opportunities.

I shall respond to the specific issues raised in the debate. Following the further representations about cost, vis-à-vis Manchester and the local economic situation, I confirm that they will be taken into account in the final decision. I shall ensure that I discuss the important points made in today’s debate with the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State. The decision is being deliberated on and I alert hon. Members to the fact that we expect it within the next two weeks.

We did not say that Castle View house would cost £500,000 to refurbish. We were talking about bringing it up to the same standard as Manchester Piccadilly Gate. I completely understand the point that the hon. Member for Halton made about alternative accommodation being available in the Runcorn area. We are aware that High Speed 2 could mean that Manchester Piccadilly Gate will be demolished, but that is subject to consultation, and plans suggest that demolition would not be required before 2027, which is after the lease on the Manchester Piccadilly Gate building ends. We will consider the impact of High Speed 2 as part of our deliberations.

Derek Twigg: I welcome the fact that the Minister will have a discussion with the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State to consider the points that we have made. I have not heard any argument from her to refute the figures that the borough council and the PCS agree on, which are different from those that the Department put forward. Does she agree that our figures are accurate or does she stand by the Department’s figures?

Elizabeth Truss: We are taking into account all the submissions and we will continue to receive and analyse figures before making a decision. When a decision is made, we will release the business case, which will show which figures we ultimately adhered to when making the decision. We are taking account of the points made about other office space being available. I will reflect on the figures in my conversations with the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State. We certainly want to base the final decision on the best available evidence, which may not necessarily be the evidence we presented in the initial consultation.

Question put and agreed to.

7.11 pm

Sitting adjourned.