I completely support the recommendation to encourage foreign students to attend our universities to diversify the region, but it flies in the face of much of the Government’s policy on immigration and learning academies. The Government seem to disregard completely the fact that international students not only attend lectures, write essays and sit exams, but import money into local economies, create new enterprises, support

5 Sep 2013 : Column 570

work with local industry, and make vast academic, cultural and financial contributions to regions such as the north-east of England.

Another significant—if not the most significant—aspect of the report is transport. It is essential that the north-east’s links to national and international economies are improved, so I welcome proposals to pool funding from the various authorities to deliver a regional transport strategy, which would hopefully result in improved roads and rail, bus and metro services.

I use the word “hopefully” because funding is essential to achieve those aspirations, but I am not convinced that the Government are willing to put their hands in the coffers for the north-east to the extent that they are for other parts of the country. In response to that assumption, Ministers might say that I am over-sceptical, given the announced improvements to the A1 in my constituency at the Lobley hill pinch point. Although I am delighted by such overdue improvements, the region should not be settling for scraps from the table. We should be demanding the best and most effective transport systems that are on offer for other regions in the country, so let us consider spending per head on transport infrastructure projects by region.

A report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research in June called “Still on the wrong track” highlights the distinct disparities: the north-east receives only £5.01 per head of population whereas Londoners receive £770 a head. When thinking about national funding and taking into account the needs and special requirements of the capital, we might rationally determine that it should get twice, three times or five times the funding of other regions, but should it get 154 times the funding of a region such as the north-east? Such a thing is repeated year on year. If the roles were reversed, the screaming of London Members in the Chamber would be heard in Southend. I wonder how many Ministers have driven up the A1 north of Catterick and realised that it is no longer a motorway because it peters out into a dual carriageway with the occasional crawler lane as part of the motorway system.

Last month we heard about Government proposals to introduce fines for people hogging the middle lane on the motorway—chance would be a fine thing in the north-east of England. There is no middle lane because there are no three-lane roads; it is that bad. North of Newcastle, north of Morpeth, the road peters out into a single lane in each direction between Newcastle and Edinburgh. It is not good enough. The people of the north-east deserve better, not just from this Government, but from every Government.

Then we are being told that we will get investment from High Speed 2. In 20 to 30 years, that will deliver trains that will do the journey from London to Newcastle via Leeds 20 minutes faster than 20 years ago. In 40 to 50 years, we will have achieved a 20-minute decrease in the journey time to London. That is not good enough.

I emphasise that the report lacks ambition. My borough of Gateshead has largely been transformed in economic, environmental, cultural, architectural and educational terms in the last 30 years. How much more could we do if the whole region was given ambition and galvanised to make the sort of improvement that we in Gateshead have made? We need to do more and much more quickly.

Several hon. Members rose

5 Sep 2013 : Column 571

Mr Speaker: Order. The time limit will have to be reduced with immediate effect to six minutes for each Back-Bench speech.

4.31 pm

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who always delivers his speeches with force, but with much humour too.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing the debate. He has always been a champion for our area, especially when he was the regional Minister, and he demonstrated that he understands what makes our region work.

The 2010 general election brought our region new challenges, including the removal of the successful regional development agency by the coalition Government, and its replacement with the less powerful LEPs. I know from the shadow Minister that when Labour is returned to power, we will not be rushing to get rid of regional institutions in the way that the Tories did with the RDA. Instead, Labour will strengthen such institutions so that they work to generate economic growth throughout the area.

In the meantime, we must do all that we can to press the coalition Government to take notice of the recommendations in the report, which reinforce the eager ambitions of our public and private sectors for more quality jobs and training, increased trade and ever-higher standards of education, as well as improved transport and infrastructure.

In my constituency, I already see examples of businesses, such as Fabricom and Insure the Box, gaining national recognition for their commitment to skills and training, and providing real apprenticeships that lead to well-paid, secure jobs and careers, which we so much need. I hope that Skills North East, as set out in the report, can learn from these businesses, which have achieved everything that they have achieved without Government funding, and could have achieved so much more with it.

The north-east schools recommendation cannot and must not detract from the success of schools in our deprived areas, such as Churchill community college, which had a 100% pass rate in grades A to C at GCSE this summer.

On transport links, we already have an excellent airport at Newcastle, and the newly published master plan outlines an ambitious future for aviation in our region. On the River Tyne, the Port of Tyne is playing its part in increasing industry and tourism for the whole area, but we must see investment in rail and roads, as so many of my colleagues have already said.

I welcome the coming together of the seven local authorities to set up the combined authority. This new body will bring energy and drive to the implementation of the Adonis review and has within it the experience and expertise to drive the wider economic and social growth that we so need to see.

My own council, North Tyneside, as well as now being part of the combined authority, has already been working closely with the North Eastern LEP. The LEP has provided moneys from the Growing Places fund to support the advanced infrastructure works for the former

5 Sep 2013 : Column 572

Swan Hunter yard, so the site is available for companies in the advanced manufacturing sector requiring access to the Tyne, as set out in the north bank strategy.

I will conclude by quoting the elected Labour mayor of north Tyneside. She told me that

“the Adonis Review has provided useful analysis and reinforcement of many and varied strategies and will be useful in focusing the delivery activity, but it can only be delivered if the Government fully support the devolution of resources, as proposed in the Heseltine Review, and actually give the Combined Authority, the North East LEP and others freedom to act in the best interests of the North East.”

I am sure that we all concur.

4.35 pm

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to sing the north-east’s praises in this important debate. I start by congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends and the Backbench Business Committee on securing the debate. I would also like to acknowledge my colleague in the other place, Lord Adonis, and all those who worked with him on the review.

It is fair to say that at times the north-east has an underserved reputation in the media and, sadly, among some politicians. I get fed up with those who do not know how fantastic my part of the world and its inhabitants are, referring to the region as a cold, grim and—dare I say it?— desolate place. I know better, because it is my home. I am so proud of my region, and I am acutely aware of its incredible strengths, which are ready to be harnessed by Government and business. The real failure has been that of national Government, who have overlooked those strengths and neglected our needs, particularly when it comes to infrastructure.

In my constituency, more than one in 10 people are unemployed, including over 1,000 18 to 24-year-olds. Economic stagnation under this Government means that the number of people who have been out of work for over 24 months is four times higher than it was a year ago. Although students in my constituency received excellent GCSE and A-level results at the end of last month, less than a quarter of them will go on to higher education and fewer than one in 10 will start an apprenticeship. The simple fact is that this Government refuse to admit that there are not enough jobs and that, of those that exist, not enough are highly skilled. Job creation and training are essential for the north-east and its people.

The review states that

“lower paid jobs won’t change the economy”.

It is correct. Skills and training are an essential part of transforming our economy. The review recommends establishing a “North East Schools Challenge”, a dramatic expansion of the Teach First programme in the region and the introduction of university technical colleges, which will enable students to study technical skills alongside their GCSEs.

Apprenticeships will have an important role to play. In South Shields there are more apprentices over 25 than under, and the majority of them are at the intermediate level 2, rather than the advanced level 3. It is the level 3 qualifications that employers, and particularly manufacturers, favour. Local businesses in my area are going some way toward remedying that. Ford Aerospace,

5 Sep 2013 : Column 573

a local manufacturer, is working in partnership with South Tyneside college to take on 14 school leavers. They will have the potential to earn national vocational qualification level 3 apprenticeships. The Port of Tyne, meanwhile, has taken on seven apprentices, including five teenagers, with more to join later this year.

Ford Aerospace and the Port of Tyne also represent two of the areas that the review highlights as the north-east’s strengths: manufacturing and exports. The north-east’s well-known success as a manufacturer has been maintained in recent years, as it continues to outperform other areas of the country.

It is true that manufacturing provides high-skilled and high-paid jobs and contributes to our local supply chains. The Port of Tyne is one of our great success stories, contributing an estimated £467 million pounds to the region and helping to sustain an estimated 9,500 jobs. But those businesses are not helped by infrastructure that is failing through a lack of investment. The Government announced in the spending review that the transport funding allocated to the north-east will be a third lower than anticipated, and the Institute for Public Policy Research North has revealed that transport project spending per head is over 500 times higher in London than in the north-east.

The second Tyne tunnel, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr Hepburn) and feeds directly into mine, has been a success story. By linking the north and south sides of the Tyne, it dramatically reduces travelling times and increases economic activity and potential for business. However, this success is at risk if the investment for the junctions on the north side and the south side is not forthcoming.

It is a shame that the report says little about how smaller towns such as South Shields with a heavy retail and tourist focus can make the most of the plan, especially given that the local authority in my constituency has suffered cuts per head of £262.24—considerably higher than the national average and higher than all our north-east authority neighbours.

We desperately need investment in South Shields. The review sets out a strategy that takes advantage of the north-east’s characteristic strengths. There are difficulties, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East and other hon. Friends have stated, but I am totally committed to ensuring that South Shields is part of any transformation plan for the north-east.

4.40 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I might be slightly biased, but I have to say that the north-east has the best cohort of right hon. and hon. Members anywhere in the country in terms of their passion, commitment and determination for their local area to succeed. We have certainly seen that today. [Interruption.] You should always get them on-side first!

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), who was an excellent Minister for the region. It would be wrong to suggest, as has been suggested several times today, that the north-east comprises solely Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham. The true quality of the region as regards its people, industry and scenery

5 Sep 2013 : Column 574

can be seen best of all in Hartlepool—and to some extent, I have to concede, in Middlesbrough, Stockton, Darlington and Redcar.

What has been particularly striking and welcome about the debate is that no speaker has been negative or despairing about our region. It is not a failed region suffering inevitable or irreversible decline. As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), it has real potential. That is reflected today in the great news that Nissan will be spending £250 million on expanding its factory in Sunderland and increasing its work force by 1,000 in order to become the first Nissan plant in Europe to produce the luxury Infiniti model. The onesies in Wansbeck are also good news.

The biggest single problem facing the north-east is skills and unemployment. Unemployment in our region is 10.3%, and getting worse. The gap between the region and the rest of the country is widening. This needs to be an urgent priority for Government. What is the Minister going to do about it? Will he explain how the abolition of the future jobs fund has helped young people in the north-east to get a foot on the career path? How has the cancellation of the education maintenance allowance helped young people in the north-east to stay on in education or training to get a skill or a trade that will get them a better job? How have savage cuts in the public sector helped demand, economic activity and public sector employment in the region?

Investment and access to finance are essential if businesses in the north are to succeed and grow. Yet the north-east is suffering just as much as other regions, if not more. Notwithstanding the great news from Nissan and Hitachi, the gap in foreign direct investment between London and the regions is widening. The Ernst and Young attractiveness survey for 2013 found that investments in England outside London were 24% below their level in 2010. The north-east secured 26 projects, which represented 4% of the UK market share of FDI—better than the likes of Yorkshire and the east of England but trailing behind comparable regions such as the west midlands, the north-west and, crucially, the devolved nations, and well behind London, which alone captured 45% market share of total FDI. Ernst and Young concludes:

“It appears that the abolition of the RDAs may be starting to undermine not only the regions in which they operated, but also the UK’s ability to sustain its overall leading position for inward investment.”

Will the Minister comment on that? Will he also address a theme that has emerged throughout the debate—that this is not so much about structure or process but about our need for outcomes on employment, innovation and productivity, not at some distant point, but now, to help the people of the north-east immediately?

Very often, the absence of business investment is because firms have no access to finance. Speaking this week to northern MPs, the managing director of the Tees valley local enterprise partnership said that that is the single biggest factor affecting firms and their ability to grow. I mentioned this in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday. Every initiative that the Government have attempted to put in place has failed. Net lending to businesses has contracted in 21 of the past 24 months. That is confirmed on the ground in the north-east. John

5 Sep 2013 : Column 575

Anderson, chairman of the North East Business and Innovation Centre, said bluntly in an interview with the

Newcastle Journal

last month:

“In the North East, Government lending channelled through banks has not been reaching businesses.”

Will the Minister acknowledge that none of the Government’s initiatives have worked? Will he pledge to change policy and come up with schemes that will succeed in securing access to finance for small and medium-sized firms in the north-east that have the potential to grow?

Guy Opperman: Does the hon. Gentleman at least accept the report’s recommendations on the business bank? Specifically, does he now accept—he did not when he voted against them in April 2012—that community banks are the way forward for the north-east?

Mr Wright: Businesses do not have confidence that the Government’s business bank is having any impact whatsoever. It is slow off the mark—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would stop chuntering and allow me to speak, I will respond to his question. The business bank is not working. It has had no impact in the regions. It is merely a desk in the Minister’s Department in Whitehall. A proper British investment bank would help fast-growing, innovative businesses, working together on proposals for a network of regional banks, to spark activity and economic growth in the north-east as well as other regions.

A number of hon. Members have discussed Government spending and infrastructure. The north-east has been singled out for particularly savage cuts. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned the more than £200 million-worth of cuts in the local enterprise partnership area over the next two years. Hartlepool and Middlesbrough have been particularly badly hit.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has set out clearly:

“The North…suffers from weak public investment: government spending per capita on science and technology and transport in the North is almost half that spent in London and the south east.”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said, that has a long-term cumulative effect: lower spend and investment lead to weaker demand, competitiveness and economic growth, which in turn undermines a justification for additional spending and investment.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Gateshead, for South Shields and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) have all said, the north-east did not do well in the Government’s announcement in June on infrastructure. That has been exacerbated by the capital spend cuts of northern local authorities. The North East chamber of commerce said at the time:

“One disappointing element of today’s announcement is the lack of investment in projects in the Tees Valley, which requires significant infrastructure upgrades.”

Will the Minister explain why that was the case?

In the three months since the announcement, there has been precious little evidence of work commencing.

5 Sep 2013 : Column 576

When will the construction of the A19 Testos flyover start? When will the A19-A1058 coast road improve access to the Port of Tyne? When I used the A19 last week to visit Ford Aerospace in the Port of Tyne in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, I saw precious little evidence of work on the ground. There seems to be a big lag between Government announcements and actual work starting. Will the Minister display a sense of boldness, priority and urgency and deal with those matters now?

Will the Minister comment on yesterday’s announcement in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) that he may chunter from a sedentary position on a continuing basis to no evident purpose, but he must bear his burden with stoicism and fortitude, in the best parliamentary tradition.

Mr Wright: Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I am conscious of the time, but will the Minister comment on the global competitiveness index, which shows that our infrastructure ranking has moved from fourth in the world to 28th? That will not help productivity and innovation.

It is clear from the remarks of all north-east MPs that the region does not face inevitable and terminal decline. We are not asking for handouts or sympathy as we somehow slide towards obsolescence. The north-east has always been characterised by grit, ingenuity, invention and imagination. It led the world through the industrial revolution and has the potential in the 21st century to be the biggest global player in fields such as low-emission vehicles, renewable technology and high-value engineering.

To achieve that potential, the north-east needs a Government who are on the side of its businesses and its people, supporting it through a long-term industrial policy and giving it the freedoms and flexibilities needed to chart our own destiny, not a Government who prioritise austerity and neglect, as this Government have done over the past three years, and turn a blind eye to high unemployment and low pay.

The Minister has heard today of the potential and ambition of the north-east. We need boldness and action now. Will he and the Government deliver?

4.49 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) on securing this lively debate. I have occasionally felt that I had found myself in a meeting of the north-east parliamentary caucus, which is clearly a very lively group. It just needs a little more political balance, but we are working on that. This has been a very interesting discussion of what I think is a very important report.

I will start with the important opening speech by the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East. I recognise that he has great expertise in this area. He criticised the Adonis report for focusing on structures, but many of his own comments were, in turn, about structures and organisations. He raised issues such as

5 Sep 2013 : Column 577

whether there should be regional Ministers. Let me make it clear that in the last few months, we have established the Local Growth Cabinet Committee, which is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and is directly involved in decisions on the powerful tools for regional development that we have put in place. Notable among those is the regional growth fund, from which the north-east has benefited substantially, and the city deals, which offer enormous opportunities for the cities that negotiate them.

I was rather disappointed by the approach that the right hon. Gentleman and several other Opposition Members took to the report. I hold no particular brief for this report. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said, it was not commissioned by the Government. It was commissioned by the north-east for the north-east and produced by a former Labour Cabinet Minister. I think that it is a valuable report. We should congratulate the LEP on leading the way by producing such an important and substantial report that really tackles the economic challenges facing the north-east.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham on taking the right approach. He told the House that there will be a meeting in the north-east tomorrow, where 400 delegates will assess the ideas in the report. That will not be the final word, but I hope he will take to that meeting the message that the Government take the report very seriously indeed and consider it to be a high-quality piece of work. We will not get bogged down in endless arguments about process. We look forward to working with the LEP, local councils and local representatives in rising to the challenge, which has just been set by the hon. Member for Hartlepool, of improving further the growth and economic performance of the north-east. That is what this is all about.

There was a range of further contributions. I agreed with the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) that we should focus not just on the Russell Group, but look at the strength of all the universities in the north-east. As Minister for Universities I have, of course, visited all of them. They all have distinctive strengths, but they share a commitment to playing a constructive role in the local economy.

The hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) made some important points about the range of initiatives that are available to support economic growth. I have referred briefly to the regional growth fund. He mentioned the opportunities that are presented by enterprise zones and by securing funding from the European Union. He spoke about the commitment on access to superfast broadband, both urban and, very importantly, rural. He also mentioned the good news that comes from major investment decisions, such as that of Hitachi. A lot is going on, but there is always more that needs to be done.

We heard from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and then from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who seemed to think that the review was a plot to ignore the views of Labour MPs—a plot so subtle that it involved putting a former Labour Cabinet Minister in charge of the exercise. He clearly has an obsession with Lord Adonis, which is rivalled only by his obsession with Wokingham. I do not think either obsession need detain us any longer, as time is so tight, but I think I represent the only party in

5 Sep 2013 : Column 578

the House with which Lord Adonis has not had a political connection at any point, so I can say that we should thank him for the important work that he has led. Of course, I can also repeat our commitment to another of his great visions, High Speed 2, which we know many key business organisations in the north-east welcome strongly.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland thought that the report was a plot commissioned by the Deputy Prime Minister. Again, we should treat it as what is—a report from the north-east, commissioned by the north-east, for the north-east.

I was fascinated to hear about onesies. It is great to know that they are one of the many contributions of north-east business to the national well-being

We heard quite a bit about transport, particularly from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who made the touching plea that if only there were three-lane motorways, people could be charged with the new offence of driving slowly in the centre lane. We have a substantial programme of transport investment, including the £314 million scheme to upgrade 11 miles of the A1, which will begin in 2014, and the £60 million scheme to improve a further stretch of the A1 between Newcastle and the Gateshead western bypass, which is due to start by 2015. And yes, we will also be moving soon on the development of funding for schemes on the A19. There are also smaller-scale pinch point schemes—I have a note about them and will read it out, as Opposition Members will know more about them than I do—that are planned for completion by the end of 2014 on the A19 junction with the A1 at Seaton Burn and the A19 junction with the A1231 in Sunderland. There is investment in transport.

The hon. Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) also made contributions, but sadly I do not have time to comment on them.

We recognise that the report contains recommendations aimed at local government and businesses, but also those specifically aimed at the Government. We are absolutely up for rising to the challenge of those recommendations. Indeed, one of them is a north-east schools challenge, rather on the model of the London schools challenge, and we very much look forward to hearing full details of it. It is exactly the type of issue that I hope will be discussed at the major meeting tomorrow, because we would be interested to see the proposal worked up.

Skills funding, which Members of all parties talked about, is of course important. We absolutely understand the importance of skills, which is why we have doubled the number of apprenticeship starts since we came into office. As we make apprenticeships increasingly rigorous and expect high academic standards as well as high vocational standards, we are also creating traineeships to help to prepare people for apprenticeships. We are absolutely up for devolving decisions and power on the skills programmes of the greatest significance, and we will do so as part of our skills commitment.

We look forward to engaging with the imaginative proposals in the report, and I hope that message will go to tomorrow’s meeting.

5 Sep 2013 : Column 579

4.58 pm

Mr Nicholas Brown: It is a great pleasure to be able to tell the House that when I was a Minister of the Crown, I made ministerial announcements on points that Lord Adonis has now recommended, and the Minister has been able to make them as ministerial announcements again today. I say gently that some of these things are not new.

Mr Willetts: None the worse for that.

Mr Brown: Of course.

I thank the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) for joining me and my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) in securing this important debate on matters that concern our constituents. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that although the hon. Members for Redcar (Ian Swales) and for Hexham served their parties well in drawing on the positive things in the report, on which I think we all agree, if I had to pick one point that characterised the contributions of Opposition Members, it would be the fear that there will not be much delivery for our constituents on getting them back into work. If the Minister takes away my plea that he and his ministerial colleagues try to do something for the long-term unemployed, and young people in particular, in our constituencies, something will have come from the debate.

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


West Coast Rail Links with London

5 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I should like to present a petition to the House that has been ably worked on by the Shropshire Star and its editor, Mr Martin Wright. We have gathered more than 3,000 signatures on the importance of a direct service between Shrewsbury and London, our capital city. Shrewsbury is the only county town in England without a direct train service to London.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Shrewsbury and Shropshire,

Declares that the Petitioners are without a direct rail service to London from anywhere in the county, with Shrewsbury being the only mainland county town in England without such a service which is of real detriment to businesses and individuals travelling to the capital.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Department of Transport and Office for Rail regulation to work with Network Rail and the train operators to improve services on the west coast mainline and subsequently ensure a regular and direct service from Shrewsbury to London to be established as soon as possible.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


5 Sep 2013 : Column 580

Immigration (Detention of Pregnant Women)

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

5.1 pm

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate and to call for the ending of the detention of pregnant women for immigration purposes. In making my case, I want to challenge my hon. Friend the Minister on the numbers; on the efficacy of current Government policy; and on the ethics of the Government’s policies on the detention of pregnant women for immigration purposes. However, in those challenges, I want to encourage him in making the change; it is an achievable change in the context of the Government’s policies to reduce immigration. Such a change will say more about the morality of the Government and the country and our handling of our immigration policies than any other change within his control as Minister for Immigration.

I am motivated in introducing the debate because I believe profoundly that there is no incompatibility between effective control and limited numbers, and the standards of our behaviour and how we treat people caught in the historical mess of the UK immigration system. I am motivated because of the excellence of the Medical Justice report, “Expecting Change”, which, for the first time, pulls together information that can provide a clear picture of the reality of the situation for pregnant women in detention in the UK.

I am also motivated by news that has come to me today from Yarl’s Wood Befrienders—Yarl’s Wood is a detention centre for women just outside Bedford—that directly contradicts the Government’s stated policy on the detention of pregnant women. Today, a lady who was 28 weeks’ pregnant was released from Yarl’s Wood after six weeks’ detention. That detention was in complete contradiction of the current UK Border Agency policy on the detention of pregnant women. I will point out the reasons for that discrepancy.

This debate is core because of the consequences of the disastrous open-door immigration policies pursued under the previous Labour Government, and the efforts of this coalition Government to deal with them. This debate is often held in the context of people talking about statistics and numbers, or the effectiveness of current Government policies to deal with that open-door policy. It is right that we have a debate about the number of people allowed into this country, the growth of our population and whether public services can manage. That is exactly right; we should be doing that. Equally, it is right that we talk about the efficiency and effectiveness of our border controls, so that we can hear the Minister—as he did yesterday so admirably—explain how we are managing to improve the situation and get our borders under control.

We must also ensure, however, that we do not lose sight of the individual people caught up in this bureaucratic mess, and its impact on them and their children. The Government recognised that when they ended the policy of detaining children for immigration purposes. That was the right thing to do: it was right from the point of view of effectiveness and right from the point of view of morality. It is important that we recognise morality

5 Sep 2013 : Column 581

in our immigration policies. Imprisoning children was not only ineffective; it was morally wrong. It should not be seen as just an inconvenience of bureaucratic policy.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He makes a compelling case that, in practice, when it comes to pregnant women, the policy of not detaining is not enforced. Is he aware that the same is true of children, who are also being detained at present, despite Government policy to the contrary?

Richard Fuller: The hon. Lady makes a good point. I am sure she would want to welcome the changes the Government have made after the previous Government’s policies on detaining children. There are always things that need to be done to improve policies. The issue here is this: how are our bureaucratic systems harming children, whether they have been born or are being carried by pregnant women?

The report produced by Medical Justice provides the most effective understanding of the current situation for pregnant women, and is why 334 organisations and charities support its recommendation to end the detention of pregnant women. I would also like to point out to the Minister that that position is supported by the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists—the experts in this field. They have set a challenge for the Minister. Ahead of his response, I want to explain that challenge.

Let me start with some statistics. Every year, about 27,000 people are detained for immigration purposes, of whom 4,000 are women. Of those, approximately 100 are pregnant women. One hundred women—that is what this debate is all about. In the grand picture of immigration control, that number barely registers, but in an assessment of what type of people we are, and how we manage and care for those 100 women and the children they are carrying, it matters a great deal.

The reason for detaining pregnant women is to achieve their removal. Home Office policy states that:

“Pregnant women should not normally be detained. The exceptions to this general rule are where removal is imminent and medical advice does not suggest confinement before the due removal date.”

However, the stated policy is not, in my view, and according to the evidence that I have been given, being implemented in practice. In practice, pregnant women are not being detained in exceptional circumstances only. This concern has been raised by Medical Justice and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, and the pregnant women are not detained for periods of time that would match any description of what an imminent removal would be.

It concerned me that the UK Border Agency was not collecting information on the detention of pregnant women, so questions could not be answered about whether policy was being followed. With no information, how are we to understand whether this important policy relating to vulnerable people is being pursued correctly? I asked Medical Justice to review the 20 cases in its report. It found that the average detention period was 11 weeks, and that in four of the 20 cases the women were detained for 20 weeks or more. By no stretch can that be described as pursuing the stated policy of the UK Border Agency.

5 Sep 2013 : Column 582

A trimester ago, I asked the Minister to ask the UK Border Agency to check its facts. I appreciate his response, but I would like to ask him again today, because collecting information is so important. Does he know how many pregnant women are currently in detention? Can he advise the House what the detention period has been for each of those women and for all other pregnant women detained in the past 12 months? Is he satisfied that the procedures for identifying pregnant women and applying the UK Border Agency’s policies are being implemented fairly? Only 5% of pregnant women who are detained are deported, with 95% released back into the community. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister could confirm those numbers. If he can, what is his assessment of their implications for the efficacy of the UK Border Agency’s policy? Spending more than £700 a week to keep a pregnant woman in detention when we are going to release her, compared with spending £150 a week to keep that lady in the community with people who can support her, is the complete opposite of an efficient and effective policy.

There is another issue: our ethics. In my view, a pregnant woman who is in detention is vulnerable almost by definition. The circumstances that led her to that position will already be associated with heightened vulnerability. She might have been seeking asylum or she might have been trafficked. She might have been left on the streets and made vulnerable in terms of accessing housing, which might then have made her vulnerable to the actions and motivations of people who wanted to provide her with housing. Then, while she is pregnant, she is put in prison—we can use the language of “detention centres” all we like, but it is a prison. That tells us something about how we are treating people.

It seems utterly wrong to ignore the moral and ethical arguments. I am concerned about the response of the UK Border Agency when ethical issues are presented. Let me present two ethical differences and concerns of mine. The first concerns the use of force to remove a pregnant woman, which has now been resolved. In 2012, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons said:

“Force should never be used to effect the removal of pregnant women or…children.”

However, only in February 2013, and only after a High Court case, did the Government yield on that point. I do not understand the ethics of that. That leads to another question. If we have accepted that force cannot be used in the removal—as we have heard, only five out of 100 women are removed—why detain pregnant women at all?

The second ethical question relates to the medical guidelines for pregnant women who are deported to countries with a high risk of malaria. That issue was given particular focus in Medical Justice’s report. The NHS guidelines for British citizens are quite clear: “If you’re pregnant, do not travel to a country with a high risk of malaria.” However, the UK Border Agency guidelines say: “It’s okay to go, but take your tablets”—have pill, will travel. Why the double standard? It is important that the Minister is clear. Do we want to treat the health of those who have come here in that way—I understand that they are here illegally—differently when we deport them to other countries, or do we think that the United Kingdom Government should take the same approach in their treatment of all pregnant women? If he accepts

5 Sep 2013 : Column 583

that point, which I hope he does, he must accept it as another strike against the ethics and morality of detaining pregnant women for immigration purposes.

I am no expert on pregnancy and the issues that may arise. The Minister may have more understanding than me—you yourself may have more, Mr Speaker—but I am sure we would all yield to the experts on this issue. Let me quote the director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives:

“The very process of being detained interrupts a woman’s fundamental human right to access maternity care. The detention system makes it very difficult for midwives to put women at the centre of their care. We believe that the treatment of pregnant asylum seekers in detention is governed by outmoded and outdated practices that shame us all.”

The previous Government lost control of our immigration system. That has led to major concerns around the country about immigration levels, and this Government are rightly focusing on reducing them and ensuring that we control our borders. However, I urge the Minister to recognise that it is morally wrong for a bureaucracy to act wilfully to harm a child’s prospects when there are superior alternatives available that would reduce or eliminate any such harm. Those alternatives exist.

I urge my hon. Friend to listen to the experts who understand the care of pregnant women, to understand the facts—which we have and he does not—as they are presented, to consider that the ethics involved here are the same as those that motivated this Government to end the detention of children, and to end now the detention of pregnant women for immigration purposes.

5.16 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for securing this debate. As he acknowledged, he and I have had detailed discussions on this issue. Yarl’s Wood, the principal immigration removal centre holding female detainees, is located in his constituency, so I completely understand his interest in this particular issue, both from a policy and a constituency perspective.

First, I would like to emphasise that the decision to detain someone is never taken lightly and only as a last resort. My hon. Friend acknowledged that in his speech. Generally, when we decide that detention is appropriate, we ensure that we take care of detainees’ welfare. That obviously includes pregnant women, who have particular needs. He set out the Government’s policy quite fairly. It is that we do not, in general, detain pregnant women except in two sets of circumstances. The first is when a woman’s removal from the UK is imminent and medical advice suggests that her baby is not due before the expected removal date. The second is, under the asylum system, when the decision not to grant asylum would allow for the woman to be removed.

I thought that the statistics that my hon. Friend cited suggested that we were doing as the policy required. He described the significant number of people who were detained, then said that only 100 of those were pregnant women. I think I have got that figure right; I was listening carefully to his speech. That shows that we detain very few pregnant women and that we do so only in the circumstances that I have described.

5 Sep 2013 : Column 584

We factor into our decisions the timing issue that my hon. Friend raised. Obviously I do not have the details of the specific case that he mentioned, but I will explain in a minute why I do not think that that case would have contravened our existing policy. We factor into the decision on timing the International Air Transport Association’s guidelines to airlines on carrying pregnant women, which provide for travel up to 28 weeks or, if medically certified, up to either 32 or 36 weeks depending on the circumstances of the pregnancy. Women who are less than 24 weeks pregnant may also be detained under the fast-track asylum process operating at Yarl’s Wood, which would allow for a case to be processed and, if appropriate—that is, if asylum is not granted—for removal to take place within those time frames.

In regard to the case that my hon. Friend described, I can give him only a general answer as I do not have the details. If he would like to write to me after the debate with those details, however, I will of course look into the specifics of the case and correspond with him about them. We might have detained the woman for removal, and the removal might then not have gone ahead for a reason that was not anticipated at the time. There might have been a further legal challenge, for example, or perhaps a travel document was unavailable. Alternatively, she could have been detained under the fast-track process prior to the 24-week point. All those circumstances would fall within published policy, but it would be better if my hon. Friend could furnish me with the details of the specific case so that I can look into it.

Richard Fuller: The Minister has just indicated in his answer the very reason the current policy does not work. It is based on imminence, and imminence cannot be predicted, for the very reason that he has just set out. He has therefore just stated why ending the detention of pregnant women would be a clearer, fairer, better and more moral policy. We are talking about 100 women. That is it. Would it not say more about the ethics of his policy if he were to accept that reality and stop the policy now, rather than pretending that the policy is actually happening in practice?

Mr Harper: I do not agree with my hon. Friend, for this reason. The use of statistics was mentioned, but we do not collect statistics on this matter because women are not, of course, obliged to tell the Home Office whether they are pregnant. They may tell us, and if they do, the information will be held on their individual case file and they will be provided with appropriate health care, broadly comparable to what is available from an NHS general practitioner. The women are under no obligation to tell us, and I do not think forcing them to disclose the information would be right. That is an issue about the statistics.

Making decisions about the imminence of removal is clearly based on our best intelligence, but as we know, the people who have no right to be in the United Kingdom and who should leave the country voluntarily often throw all sorts of legal obstacles in the way. We may detain a woman when removal is imminent and she may attempt to secure a last-minute legal challenge to throw a roadblock in the way of her removal, and we have no way of anticipating that before she does so. That provides my hon. Friend with an example.

5 Sep 2013 : Column 585

If we were to do what my hon. Friend suggested and have a blanket policy of not detaining women, first, having read many cases, I fear we would find quite a lot of people saying they were pregnant as another method of delaying their departure from the UK. I have seen people throw many obstacles in the way when they have no right to be here, and I do not want this to be one of them. We are committed to treating pregnant women properly, providing proper health care and treating them well. I do not want this to be an excuse that women who are not pregnant dream up in order to throw a legal obstacle in the way. I fear that that would be the result of adopting the blanket policy suggested by my hon. Friend.

A logical follow-on policy from what my hon. Friend suggests would mean not removing the women from the UK when they were pregnant and allowing them to give birth to their child, but then seeking to remove both the woman and the very young child from the UK to their home country or country of origin—and I am not sure that that would be an improvement. If I anticipate correctly, if we did that, we would then be criticised for trying to remove the mother with her very young child back to their country of origin. As I say, I am not sure that that would be an improvement on the present situation, because the fact remains that these women have no right to be in the UK: they should not be here and they should leave voluntarily. [Interruption.] I cannot quite tell whether the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) is dying to intervene.

Fiona Mactaggart: I was squeaking—the Minister is right—because I cannot believe that someone is going to get pregnant in order not to be detained. Secondly, it is quite easy to find out whether someone is pregnant, so that bit of the Minister’s excuse proves his hon. Friend’s very powerful argument that this is a moral case. I fear that I hear in the Minister’s response a kind of Home Office “jobsworthness”, which I think he should be above and is usually above.

Mr Harper: I am not going to let the hon. Lady put words into my mouth. I did not say—I chose my words very carefully—that women would get pregnant; I said women would say they were pregnant in order to throw a legal challenge. I know it is perfectly easy to test whether women are pregnant, but we do not have the right to do that. The Home Office does not have the right to insist that a women disclose that she is pregnant. We do not have the right forcibly to test people to see whether they are pregnant. If I were to propose that, I doubt whether the hon. Lady would support it. To be clear, I did not say that people would get pregnant; I said that they would say they were to throw a legal obstacle in the way of their removal from the country. I have seen enough cases—and I know the hon. Lady has—to know that there are people who would stoop to doing that to delay their removal from the UK.

Fiona Mactaggart: However, the Home Office could easily say, “We will release you if you provide evidence of pregnancy.”

Mr Harper: That may be the case, but our objective is not to let the people out of detention, but to remove them from the UK. That it is the point, and it is one I think my hon. Friend is missing, too. The fact is that

5 Sep 2013 : Column 586

these women have no right to be in the UK and should leave. I am not sure that a policy that allowed them stay in order to give birth to their child, when we would immediately want to remove both the woman and the child from the UK, would be a better policy than the one we have today.

Richard Fuller: If the purpose is to remove people, will the Minister counter my statistics with statistics of his own, and explain why only five out of 100 women have been deported and 95 have been returned to the community? I am not sure that his argument stacks up.

Mr Harper: I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend’s statistics, but I do not have the details. Because, as far as I know, the Home Office has not been given the details of the 20 people to whom Medical Justice referred, it is difficult for us to validate its assertions. The difficulty with giving my hon. Friend overall statistics is that although when women provide the information that they are pregnant, that information is held on their health records, we do not log it statistically, and obviously we can do so only when they disclose the information to us. Of course, in the early stages of pregnancy they may not even be aware of the fact themselves.

When a pregnant woman is detained she will, like all other detainees, have access to free on-site health care facilities and medical advice broadly equivalent to that which is available from national health service GPs in the community. At Yarl’s Wood, for instance, all midwifery services are provided by Bedfordshire NHS Trust. Midwives from the trust visit the centre every week. At Dungavel immigration removal centre, where women may also be detained, midwifery services are provided by NHS Lanarkshire. In line with practice in the community, the visiting midwives will determine how frequently they need to see patients.

Women can make requests for additional midwife appointments through the health care centre if they wish. The centre is staffed by nurses around the clock, and the GP can be called upon seven days a week when necessary. In the event of a particularly difficult medical problem, health care staff can refer women to the antenatal clinic or early pregnancy unit in the local hospital, or to another appropriate health care service. I therefore do not agree with my hon. Friend that there is a health care issue.

My hon. Friend asked about pregnant women being returned to countries where malaria is prevalent. We take steps to ensure that they are given the appropriate course of anti-malaria medication before their removal, but decisions about that medication must, of course, be made by doctors.

As for my hon. Friend’s point about advice to British nationals who are travelling, he should bear in mind that these women are nationals of their home countries, the countries where they should live. The NHS is a national health service whose purpose is to provide health care for citizens and residents of the United Kingdom. It is not an international health service. I do not think that the comparison between the health care that a woman would receive in the United Kingdom if she lived here and the health care that is available in her home country is relevant. Her home country is the country in which she should live. It is not the job of the national health service to become a health service for

5 Sep 2013 : Column 587

everyone in the world. If it were to do so, it would rapidly collapse, and I do not think we want that to happen.

Richard Fuller: The Minister is right to say that the NHS is a national and not an international health service, but that is not quite the point that I was making. One of the consequences of losing control of immigration is that people have been in this country for a long period, and when people have spent a long period in another country, their immunity to malaria is lowered. We are sending back pregnant women with low immunity. Their health condition is not the same as the health condition of a lady who becomes pregnant in her country of origin. That is the comparison that I was trying to make. I certainly do not want us to have an international health service, but I think the Minister must accept that delaying the repatriation of people who are here illegally has consequences in terms of their health status, particularly when it comes to malaria. That is a key point for pregnant women.

Mr Harper: And that is exactly why we ensure that pregnant women are given a course of anti-malaria medication. We also provide them with mosquito nets, free of charge, to use in their countries of origin. I am not sure that I follow the logic of my hon. Friend’s argument. If we allowed those pregnant women to remain in the United Kingdom and give birth here, we would still later be removing both mother and child to that same country of origin where malaria may be prevalent.

5 Sep 2013 : Column 588

The fact is that we will not allow women to stay here when they do not have a right to do so. Not only will their cases have been judged by the Home Office, but a number of appeal routes will have been open to them, and only when all those routes have been exhausted will we be in a position to remove them from the country. We try to persuade people to return home voluntarily, and that includes providing assistance when they are in their home countries. Those whom we do detain—those to whom my hon. Friend is referring—will be people who have no right to be here. We will have tried to persuade them to leave voluntarily, and to give them support that would help them to do so. Only when they have refused all those offers of assistance and help from the United Kingdom will we seek to enforce their removal. Therefore, by definition they are people who are not co-operating in their removal from the United Kingdom. That is why I anticipate that if we change the policy to the one my hon. Friend suggests, people will use that to throw legal obstacles in the way—not to do what the hon. Member for Slough said, but at least to suggest to us that that is the case, which would at least delay, if not stop, their removal.

I am therefore unable to give my hon. Friend the outcome he desired. I am very happy to continue this dialogue with him and to look into the case he has raised with me, and if he thinks there are other cases where the Government are not following the policy we have set out, I will look into them. On his central request, however, I am afraid the Government have no plans to change the current policy.

Question put and agreed to.

5.30 pm

House adjourned.