Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I am proud to be a member of Community and a founder of the all-party group on steel in the 2001 Parliament. I also draw the

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House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which refers to the fact that I had the privilege of addressing the Community biennial conference last year.

I represent the proud steel town of Port Talbot. The late great Jack Thomas, of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, once said that Sir Brian Moffat wore an Aberavon rugby jersey. I am not sure whether he always wanted to wear it, but I am proud to wear my Aberavon rugby tie today.

This has been a good, constructive and timely debate, and it has raised the key issues of energy costs, the importance of steel as a foundation industry and—the point I want to elaborate on—the importance of co-operation among the unions, management and the Government. In Port Talbot, we have developed an important initiative, called “the journey”, which in essence is a microcosm of that co-operation. Given the many important issues, it is understandable that duty of care has not been mentioned. The steel unions, particularly Community, have a proud record of representing their members, but they also have a duty of care to the steel industry. I want to mention two aspects of that: first, safety; and secondly, pensions.

My cousin, Ian Powell of South Cornelly, a mill boy aged 16, was killed in the steelworks at Port Talbot, and shortly after I was elected in 2001, Len Radford, Stephen Galsworthy and Andrew Hutin were killed in the terrible explosion in the No. 5 blast furnace. No one in the steel industry needs reminding of the price of steel. In my regular discussions with steel union representatives, including Alan Coombs, the national vice-president of Community, John Tetsill, also of Community, and David Bowyer, of Unite, safety is always the first issue discussed. In these straitened, strained and difficult times, safety should remain the top priority. In our discussions with the hub director of Strip Products UK, Mr Hridayeshwar Jha, he has recognised that point too. Recently, we have been discussing the issue of contractors working at height and the need for the proper training of scaffolders, particularly contractors.

On pensions, frequent mention has been made of the future ownership of the steel industry, and there is great concern across the industry about what will happen to the steel pensions scheme. The Government, employers and unions need to recognise the importance of their duty of care to steelworkers past, present and future.

When I entered the House in 2001, there was an enormous air of uncertainty, and as I leave the House, in 2015, there remains an enormous air of uncertainty around the steel industry. In between, particularly in Port Talbot, there have been many redundancies, but there has also been considerable investment, much of which has been off the back of the effective co-operation developed between the unions and the management. I also commend the Welsh Government—this has not been mentioned—for supporting, training and helping steelworkers past and present. I hope and trust that the co-operation among unions, employers and Governments, which we Labour Members have urged tonight, will be achieved in order to sustain this important industry, which is vital for this country.

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6.40 pm

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I declare my interest as a member of the wonderful Community union; I am very proud to be so. We have had an important and critical debate, sending out a strong message not just to the steel industry that we stand up for steel, but to the Government that more needs to be done. It is a sad indication of the Government’s commitment to this issue that we have heard only one speaker from the Government side—the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales)—and nobody from the Conservative party. The Government Benches have been almost completely empty for the majority of this debate. This is not to belittle the contribution of the hon. Member for Redcar, but if someone lives in Redcar and wants a party that stands up of for steel, they should vote for the Labour party and get their MP on the Government Benches.

It is worth emphasising the importance of the industry to this country. The UK steel industry and associated metals sector has 24,000 firms employing more than 330,000 people and generating £45.5 billion in the UK economy. Every directly employed job in the sector sustains a further three jobs in the wider economy. Today’s debate is important, too, because steel is a foundation for supply chains of strategic sectors such as aerospace, automotives, construction and energy, which are so important to the UK economy. The debate is important because steel is an essential part of a low-carbon, resource-efficient future.

All these points have been raised consistently by my right hon. and hon. Friends, and particularly in the wonderful opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). The Secretary of State was ungenerous in his praise for my hon. Friend. I thought my hon. Friend made a very positive speech, outlining the industry’s problems, and it is important to raise with the Government our concerns about their actions in supporting the sector.

There is no bigger or more passionate supporter in this House of steel and manufacturing than my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool. He stands up for his constituents’ jobs and he stands up for his constituents in promoting the steel industry. Indeed, we should call him “Mr Hartlepool” and “Mr Manufacturing”. He does so much for current generations in Hartlepool and looks after the future as well. During his opening remarks, my hon. Friend was right to say that steel has to be a key part of the vision of a modern innovative economy. The UK steel and metal sector, as our motion rightly makes clear, provides highly skilled jobs—not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but throughout the United Kingdom, and we have heard contributions from Sheffield, Scunthorpe, Corby, Cardiff, Port Talbot, Newport and Clydebridge and Motherwell in Scotland.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right in his opening remarks to highlight the significant economic contribution that those facilities make through the wealth created by the plants and by the workers who make the steel. The wealth that is circulated in firms in the supply chain and businesses in those areas, not to mention through the steelworkers themselves, is often the foundation of many local economies. My hon. Friend stressed that the steel industry is the foundation of many valuable sectors of the economy, forming part of a number of important value chains in which Britain has a competitive advantage.

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I have a number of pages to my speech and I would have liked to have run through them, but it is probably much better to reflect on the wonderful contributions made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. We heard speakers from Wales, from England and from Scotland who all had two things in common: standing up for steel and being Labour Members. Members from no other party—apart from the hon. Member for Redcar, who I am delighted to see back in his place—spoke in this debate.

I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) mentioned the contribution of the Community union to this debate and reminded us that the union’s general secretary said:

“UK steel companies need a UK Government that can intervene just as they do in France and Germany.”

That was brought out as part of the general debate. My right hon. Friend also spoke up for his Aldwarke plant, explaining how it was saved in the past by proper co-operation among the trade unions, the Government and the owners.

Let me especially mention and pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy)—a steelworker himself for many years. Whenever he speaks in this House or when we speak privately and professionally together, he talks of his love for the steel industry. He stands up for his constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw, and he is a strong advocate of steel and jobs in his constituency. I was struck by what he said about all the processes involved in the steel industry. It is not just about forging and blacksmiths; it is about the cleaners, about the accountants, about the drivers, and about the wider supply chain. It is about every single business that the industry supports in his constituency.

My hon. Friend also referred to the Scottish Government’s approach to the steel industry. It was an absolute dereliction of duty for them to import £790 million-worth of steel from Poland, Spain and China for the new Queensferry crossing when there was a plant 35 miles down the road. We need Governments to stand up for industry in this country, rather than being full of rhetoric about standing up for it. Standing up for it in practice is slightly different.

We heard a valuable contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who rightly pressed the Government to do more. That has been a common theme in the debate. I hear the members of the Scottish National party chuntering behind me, but the facts speak for themselves. Moreover, none of them contributed to the debate, just as they did not contribute to debate on the urgent question on steel that was asked back in November. My hon. Friend spoke of the pressures on the steel plants in her constituency. As she explained, Tata and other companies have invested in key industries in her constituency for many years, but they cannot continue to do that in isolation, and the Government must help.

The Clydebridge plant in Cambuslang is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex). It is a centrepiece not just of the constituency as it is now, but of the constituency’s industrial heritage. However, as my hon. Friend reminded us, it should be not just part of the past, but part of the future. He pointed out that procurement was vital, and, like many other Members,

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he mentioned the dangers involved in Tata’s sale of the long products division to Klesch, which has been raised in a number of other debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) speaks passionately about the steel industry in his constituency. He is one of the many Members who spring to mind and are always talked about in the same fashion when steel and manufacturing are discussed in the House. He was right to praise Tata’s contribution to the United Kingdom in the form of investment in skills and diversification—it has invested in a number of industries—but he was also right to worry about the future. That, too, was a common theme in the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) spoke of the way in which the trade unions, Tata and the regions worked together to improve the position of the steel industry following the 2008 worldwide crash. He made a point that was at the heart of the debate when he said that it was all about livelihoods—people’s lives and communities—and not just about steel manufacturing and Government intervention. The Minister may wish to reflect on some of his comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) told us that four generations of her family had worked in the steel industry, including her grandmother. I think that that is a wonderful model for those working in the industry.

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): And her grandmother’s sisters.

Ian Murray: The Minister may want to mention that in his speech. We were also reminded earlier of the contribution that my hon. Friend made in highlighting the Government’s decision about Sheffield Forgemasters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) spoke about the steel industry in her constituency. She said that it was a proud British industry that should form an integral part of the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) pointed out that, in a globalised world, we did not want protectionism; all we want is a level playing field. I think that that is a very sensible and pragmatic approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) is not just called Champion; she champions the steel industry and jobs in her constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) is a founder member of the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal related industries. We shall certainly miss his contribution to steel debates when he leaves the House later this year. He ended with a poignant reminder of the dangers involved in the industry; we should all remember those whom he lost in the tragedies in his constituency.

We have had a wonderful debate, which has shown that Labour Members, at least, stand up for steel. Our motion makes clear the importance of the steel industry to this country. The industry supports tens of thousands of jobs, and supports many of the supply chains that are key UK sectors. It supports communities and livelihoods. The Government must provide a co-ordinated response that involves energy-mitigation measures, challenges the European Union in regard to certification and safety, and supports an active industrial strategy for the metals

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industry in the United Kingdom. It is time for the Government to stand up for steel. Labour clearly stands up for it, but we want the Government to support it as well. I commend our motion to the House.

6.49 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): Let me begin by agreeing with the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray)—who lived up to his reputation as an articulate and passionate Member of this House—that this has been a good and important debate on the steel industry. It is important to note that there will be no Division at the end of the debate, because the Government take no issue with the Opposition motion.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) set out a coherent and passionate case for what he perceives to be the issues affecting the steel industry in this country, and there was some suggestion that the Secretary of State replied to him in a somewhat churlish manner. I have worked closely with the Secretary of State for many years now, and I have to say that I have always found him to be one of the more congenial members of the Government, and I simply think that perhaps his manner was misinterpreted. He was perhaps less churlish and more wounded. That is how I would characterise the Secretary of State’s response, because he clearly articulated the many visits he has made to the steel industry itself and industries that use steel, and his great engagement with the industry, and his own perception that he is engaged with, and seeking to provide solutions to, many of the issues highlighted by the hon. Gentleman.

This has been a good and passionate debate because so many Opposition Members have strong links with this industry. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh South noted, we heard speeches from those who have worked in the steel industry and those whose families have a long and distinguished history of working in this brilliant industry. It is an industry that began in this country hundreds of years ago and, as some Opposition Members know, I have a tenuous connection with it as my father wrote “The History of British Steel”, published 40 years ago. My father had a somewhat waspish sense of humour; he died 30 years ago, and I suspect he would find it mildly amusing that his son has now spoken in three debates on the steel industry on behalf of the Government despite not having formal responsibility for the industry. However, I can tell Opposition Members that should they ever call a debate on the south London barge-building industry, I will be there to talk about the history of the Vaizeys who worked in that industry from the mid 19th century until just after the second world war.

We heard passionate contributions from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who talked about energy tax and procurement, and the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), who has Tata in his constituency. We also heard from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy), who has worked in the steel industry, the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), who talked about the infrastructure opportunities for the steel industry, and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who talked in detail about the long products division potential

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sale, which I hope I will have a chance to speak about. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) also talked about the long products division and is a worthy successor to that great former Member of this House, Ashok Kumar, who, as well as having been a distinguished Member of this House, is the only Member who has ever read John Vaizey’s “The History of British Steel”. We heard, too, from the hon. Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who talked, obviously, about Celsa in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who is sitting on the Front Bench with me, has been passionately involved in this issue, as indeed has the Secretary of State for Wales, who was in the Chamber earlier discussing the issue with me and the Business Secretary.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) made the point that every five seconds a plane made with steel from Rotherham takes off or lands—challenging, in effect, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who was only able to say that of one in three planes flying overhead. The final contribution was from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis), whose daughter went to school with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan, and whom we are sorry to see retiring from the House.

Mr Frank Roy: Before he sits down, would the Minister like to tell the thousands and thousands of steelworkers’ families watching or reading this debate what he is going to do for their future?

Mr Vaizey: If I am unable to answer any of the specific questions that were asked in the time allocated to me, the Minister responsible for the industry will write to each and every Member who has contributed to the debate.

The main issues that arose from the debate are the need to compensate the steel industry for the high energy costs resulting from the renewables obligation and other mechanisms designed to reduce carbon, a procurement strategy as part of a metals strategy, business rates, the future of the long products division, and CARES. As the Secretary of State explained at length, we are giving as much energy compensation as we are allowed to give under European rules. We are working as fast as we can to get state aid clearance, so that we can increase the level of compensation. We are working with industry to introduce a metals strategy. We hope that such an industry-led strategy will be produced in the next few months, to be published, provisionally, in the summer.

The future of the long products division is a very serious issue and Ministers are engaged with it. The Prime Minister and the Business Secretary met north Lincolnshire MPs, and the Secretary of State and the Minister with responsibility for such matters met Klesch. As I understand it, our officials are supporting the Syndex report, which will be published this month and will look at the rationale for sale and alternative proposals. We hope that the proposals will come forward at the end of February or the beginning of March. Those could include a commercial solution or working with organisations such as the Green Investment Bank or Infrastructure UK.

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As has been well trailed, an extensive review of business rates is being undertaken, and a £1 billion package of business rate support is already in place. We do understand that the steel industry, like other large industries, is concerned that new investment in plant and equipment affects the business rate valuation, thereby increasing business rates. It wants such new investment to be excluded, and I would expect the Treasury to consider that as part of its ongoing consultation. However, Members should understand that this includes the whole business rate framework, and needs to be consulted on.

Tom Blenkinsop: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Vaizey: I will, provided that other Members understand that doing so will reduce my time to address other points of concern to the thousands of steelworkers watching this debate.

Tom Blenkinsop: Perhaps the Minister can give a succinct answer. Given that the Government are not opposing the motion, they must support it. The motion

“urges the Government urgently to reconsider whether mitigating measures on energy prices, planned to start in April 2016, can be brought forward”.

Could they be brought forward before or at the Budget?

Mr Vaizey: We are in the hands of the European Commission. There is a bottleneck on state aid and, having previously dealt with a state aid issue myself, I know that despite time being of the essence from the UK Government’s perspective, that is not always the Commission’s view. On energy prices, I remind Members that France has the benefit of extensive nuclear power, and Germany has the benefit of having grandfathered previous state aid rights into its current energy prices and state aid support.

As I have said in other debates, the important issue of rebar has been looked at in some detail and we have asked CARES to examine how it is dealing with it. It has increased sampling and checks—

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House recognises the importance of the UK steel industry including as a provider of highly-skilled jobs and research and development; values the steel supply chain which supports strategic industries such as automotive, aerospace and construction; notes with concern Tata’s proposed sale of its Long Products Division and the impact this could have on UK steel industry capacity; welcomes the efforts of UK steel producers to cut carbon emissions and expresses concern that losing trade to countries with less efficient processes could increase global carbon

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emissions; further notes with concern that some steel imports do not meet British standards; calls on the Government to recognise the importance of the steel industry and to work with it, the Scottish and Welsh Governments and trade unions to provide a co-ordinated plan for the industry’s future; urges the Government urgently to reconsider whether mitigating measures on energy prices, planned to start in April 2016, can be brought forward to support the competitiveness of UK steel producers, to press the European Commission to launch an inquiry into the CARES certification of imported steel products to ensure safety and traceability and to take action through the EU and World Trade Organisation to challenge the uncompetitive subsidisation of steel products; and further calls on the Government to introduce an active industrial policy for the metals industry, including strengthening supply chains, strategic approaches to public sector procurement, encouraging innovation, skills development and resource efficiency and providing support for steel exporters.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Constitutional Law

That the draft Reservoirs (Scotland) Act 2011 (Restrictions on Disclosure of Information in relation to National Security etc.) Order 2015, which was laid before this House on 18 November 2014, be approved.—(Mr Foster.)

Question agreed to.

petition

Persecution of Christians in Pakistan

7 pm

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I should like to present a petition on behalf of the Nelson Asian Christian Fellowship regarding the plight of minorities living in Pakistan. I was presented with the petition, signed by more than 200 of my constituents, when I joined them for worship in the run-up to Christmas and I said I would bring it to the attention of the House.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Pendle,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that the laws of Pakistan systematically discriminate against non-Muslims and leads to the persecution of Christians such as Shahzad Masih and Shama Bibi, who were beaten, tortured and burned alive on 4th November 2014.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to use its influence to encourage the Pakistani authorities to ensure that perpetrators of hate attacks against minorities are convicted; the Blasphemy Laws are abrogated; modern day slavery in Pakistan is ended; Asia Bibi is released; and that aid to Pakistan is terminated until its human rights record is improved.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.

[P001421]

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Horticulture (Skills and Training)

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

7.1 pm

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Each year, twice as many people visit the gardens of England as watch premiership football—around 28 million versus 14 million. Horticulture is a great British success story, but it is an industry in crisis. There is not enough home-grown talent for the industry to sustain itself without increasingly importing skilled labour from overseas. Successive Governments, and the education establishment, can be blamed for this. Horticulture has not been seen as important; it is not something that young people have been encouraged to pursue as a career.

The coalition Government can take great pride in the way they have developed apprenticeships over the past four to five years in many areas of the British economy. However, there is still more to be done in horticulture. In 2010-11, only 1,060 of the more than 200,000 apprenticeships completed were in horticulture, and only 10 of those were in production horticulture. Elsewhere, there has been a renaissance for apprenticeships after the years of decline and failure by so many parts of industry and commerce, during which something that had stood the nation in good stead for centuries had become, in many respects, a neglected concept. While that decline has to a large extent been challenged and reversed under this Government, that has not been the case in horticulture, and the industry’s needs for skills and training are at a crossroads. I hope, however, that the Minister can bring good news on that front, because a little bird tells me that there might be an announcement during the next month.

Last year, in partnership with the Colchester Daily Gazette newspaper, the Colchester Institute and the National Apprenticeship Service in the east of England, I launched a campaign for local businesses to recruit 100 apprentices in 100 days. We soared past that target, and more than 150 young people were placed in apprenticeships. Sadly, not a single one was in horticulture, yet that is a part of the country where horticulture and food growing are still a major part of the landscape, so perhaps the industry should also be asking questions of itself.

There is some good news, in that across the border in Suffolk, Otley college has horticulture courses. It is now a good 55 years since I gained my gardening badge in the scouts—something that my wife, children and grandchildren find hilarious when they observe my current efforts. My excuse is that I lead a busy life. I love gardens, and we would be hard-pressed to find any better than those in the award-winning Colchester Castle park, or at Beth Chatto’s gardens a few miles to the east.

My town was once renowned for its roses. The Colchester rose show, at which my paternal grandfather was a leading member—he has a cup named in his memory—was once a major event in the town’s summer calendar. Today, it is a shadow of its former glory, kept going by a small group of enthusiasts, whom I commend. Professional rose growers from Colchester used to win many cups and prizes at national shows. Sadly, only one company, Cants of Colchester, remains, and I fear it will soon

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make its way into the history books as its rose fields disappear under a massive housing estate, following the dastardly decision to allow them to be lost to development, which the local community does not want.

Let me make a further local observation. The people’s choice garden at last year’s internationally acclaimed Chelsea flower show, “Hope on the Horizon”, which was created in association with Help for Heroes, was later taken to Colchester, where I can confirm it is an attractive feature in the grounds of the Chavasse VC House recovery centre for members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who have been injured. The garden was designed by a 29-year-old first-time exhibitor at Chelsea, landscape designer Matt Keightley. What a great role model for young people to look up to!

People love gardens, both their own and those they can visit. I am told that the Royal Horticultural Society is the world’s largest gardening charity, with a growing membership that exceeds 420,000—that is more than the combined membership of the UK’s mainstream political parties. In 2013, the RHS published a cross-industry report, “Horticulture Matters”, supported by 180 horticulture organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, Lantra, the Horticultural Trades Association, Landex, the British Association of Landscape Industries, English Heritage, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Grow. The report was launched by the then Minister with responsibility for agriculture and food, my good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). At the time he said the UK is facing

“a serious issue as we look forward in terms of food security and feeding the UK and the world. We have to have the best possible skills.”

That, of course, is what my debate is all about. He continued:

“We have got to invest in this sector—we’ve got to understand some of the messages in the report and react to that. We can work with the industry to massively improve its prospects.”

In June last year, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs started an initiative to identify the key opportunities and challenges in the ornamental horticulture sector, with the aim that the industry should agree an action plan to take forward with Government support. So that we can have it placed on the official record, will the Minister this evening say where we are with the promised “action plan”?

Lantra, the land-based and environmental industries sector skills council—it covers horticulture—estimates that horticulture will need 595,000 more people by the end of this decade As 2020 is only five years away, the need is very urgent if overcoming such a large skills shortage is to be achieved. In doing so, it will be necessary to educate an educational establishment that undervalues the role of those who work in the horticulture sector. Perhaps that is due to a lack of understanding of the breadth of work that horticulturists do, and of its importance to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, by which I mean all forms of life.

The stigma that is attached to careers in the horticulture industry was recently underlined by a survey by the RHS, supported by the wider horticulture industry, which showed that 70% of 18-year-olds believe that horticultural careers should be considered only by people who have failed academically. Almost 50% of under-25s

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are of the opinion that horticulture is an unskilled career—that is insulting and ignorant in equal measure. With horticulture wrongly seen to be lacking career appeal, increasing numbers of horticulture businesses struggle to fill skilled vacancies and are being forced to recruit from overseas. British jobs for British people are available—more than 100,000 each and every year over the next five years, and not exclusively in the horticulture industry, but across the land-based and environmental sectors. It is essential that we act now to change the public perception of skills and careers in the horticulture industry. Horticulture contributes £9 billion to the UK economy each year. Gardening plays such an important role in everyday lives that garden products make up 1.7% of all UK retail sales.

Gardening centres in Colchester, which I visit at weekends, are always busy. Local economies benefit from a thriving horticulture sector as the “green” appeal of parks and other green spaces attracts businesses, residents and customers to an area. Horticulture also benefits the tourism industry by attracting millions of people to our nation’s stately homes, nature reserves—I recommend those of the Essex wildlife trust—and public, private and charitable gardens.

A strong horticulture sector provides employment, but, as I have mentioned, there is a serious shortage of workers, which could be addressed through the promotion of skilled apprenticeships. When it comes to career opportunities, the sector provides a huge variety of roles, all of which require a diverse set of professional and practical skills. I am talking about crop growers, gardeners, scientists, tree surgeons and turf specialists to name just a few.

By the end of this century, it is estimated that temperatures in major UK cities could rise by as much as 4%. However, increasing the amount of “green infrastructure” by 10% could entirely offset the impact of rising temperatures in such high-density urban centres. Horticulture has the power to mitigate the consequences of environmental change. It can help combat the harmful effects humankind is having on the environment. I support the concept of “greening the urban environment”. Indeed I promoted it and had it approved at a Liberal Democrat party conference. I want to see more trees in our towns and cities. Indeed, growing trees is something that I practice as well as preach. I have been growing trees, mostly oaks from acorns, for more than 25 years.

Planning policies of at least 70 years that include concreting and paving open land within commercial and residential developments must stop. Surface water run-off could be mitigated by an increased amount of vegetation and “green space infrastructure”, helping to reduce localised flooding during heavy rain. In the spirit of joined-up Government, does the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discuss such matters with the Department for Communities and Local Government? How much better it would have been if the new housing developments in Colchester on the former cavalry barracks, the former Paxman’s factory site and the Solus estate had had considerably less paved areas and more trees, shrubs and gardens.

The time allowed for this debate is sadly too short to cover all aspects of the subject—for example, how horticulture has a vital role to play in helping to overcome Britain's chronic failure to grow more of the food we

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eat. At this point, I pay tribute to the National Farmers Union for its work in this area. It is a founding member of the agri-skills forum, which addresses skills and training issues throughout agriculture and horticulture. Today, we are only 63% self-sufficient in vegetables and salads, and the figure is declining, and only 40% self-sufficient in fruit. The spirit that rallied the British people on the home front during two world wars is needed now.

We had a gardening class at primary school, but not at secondary school, which brings me back to what this debate is all about: promoting skills and training in the horticulture industry. The Government need to work with the industry on three priorities: improving the perception of horticulture among the population; supporting horticulture in education and training; and safeguarding UK horticulture with financial support for research into plant science and other initiatives. A positive response from the Minister will give the British horticultural industry the boost it needs, particularly in respect of skills and training.

7.15 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): I apologise for it being me again. I seem to be dominating proceedings in the House this afternoon, representing the Government across a range of fronts, from steel to vegetables. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) on an important and timely debate on the horticulture industry. He is quite right that we do not have enough time to go into all the issues that we could cover under the auspices of this debate. Certainly, I could have carried on listening to him for a great deal longer, particularly his pun-tastic approach in talking about home-grown skills.

I was interested to hear about my hon. Friend’s boy scout gardening badge, which shows that we are never too old to learn a new skill. He was slightly modest in outlining his horticultural achievements. I have been informed by a good source that he has made a prize-winning blackcurrant jam.

Sir Bob Russell: Blackberry.

Mr Vaizey: I stand corrected.

Mr Speaker: Order. I can personally testify to the truth of what has just been said.

Mr Vaizey: I am unaware of whether the hon. Member from a Scottish constituency who stands poised to enter the Chamber has sampled this jam, but it is depressing that 60% of the Members present have sampled it and that I am in the 40% who have not. I trust that my hon. Friend will rectify that as soon as possible.

This could lead on, Mr Speaker, but I know you will want me to get to the nub of the argument. I could start talking about the Prime Minister’s prize-winning vegetables, but it is an important point to make that even those at the very top do take their horticultural skills seriously. I know that my right hon. Friend is very proud indeed of the prize-winning marrow that often wins prizes in his local village competition. My hon. Friend mentioned the farmers markets, and I am asked by an influential Member of the House to point out that the first farmers market took place in Bath.

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My hon. Friend also talked about the need for joined-up government, and it is important that the points that he has made in the Chamber this evening are communicated both to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, particularly with reference to the points my hon. Friend made about the impact of the horticulture industry on climate change, and to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who will want to hear personally about the points that my hon. Friend made about skills.

As my hon. Friend made clear in his excellent speech, the horticulture industry is important to the UK, contributing £9 billion a year to our economy. It often appears dry and desiccated constantly to refer to important industries in terms of their economic value, but Ministers have learned that to get some of the things that we need for the industries that we look after, when we knock on the door of the Treasury, we have to provide some kind of economic justification for the support we seek from it.

My hon. Friend made a good point, which I make about a lot of the creative industries that I represent in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as well as in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, about the wide ecology that is supported. One talks about horticulture and one may simply be talking about planting plants and trees, but a whole industry surrounds that that benefits from horticulture. That is why one comes up with the figure of £9 billion. It is a diverse industry and it is closely linked to farming and agriculture, which get a great deal of prominence.

My hon. Friend’s speech focused mainly on skills, and that is entirely appropriate because he identified a skills gap and urged the Government to act as soon as possible to try to close that gap. I am grateful for his remarks in recognising that the Government have put an enormous amount of effort into the skills agenda. I referred earlier to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a personal passion of his has been both apprenticeships for young people and for adult education. When he was fighting for his budget during the regrettable reductions in expenditure that we have had, skills were very much at the forefront of this thinking.

We have also adopted an employer-led approach to skills. It would be absurd of the Government to identify the skills that are needed. We need employers to come to us, as my hon. Friend indicated, and tell us where they think the skills gaps are, and then to work in partnership with us to look at how we can remedy that skills gap.

We welcome the agri-tech strategy, which aims to ensure that the horticultural sector is equipped with the knowledge and skills that are needed by horticultural employers. We are facilitating employer engagement across a range of sectors, including horticulture, with our employer ownership pilot schemes, which are pilot schemes owned by employers, giving them even more opportunity to take greater control of the skills agenda. For example, the G Growers project has given £1 million to employers to train their staff in cutting-edge research and agricultural techniques. We have made £20 million

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available through the Skills Funding Agency for adult vocational training in horticulture, an increase of 11% on the previous year.

I hope that the perception to which my hon. Friend referred—I stress that it was not a perception that he shared in the slightest—that working in horticulture is a menial job which one can do if one has no qualifications could not be more wrong. The climate is changing. In some of the industries that I represent, such as the fashion industry, there is a return to craftsmanship and old-fashioned skills. The crafts industry has achieved notable success, and the “Made in Britain”, “Made in England” and “Made in Scotland” tags are all becoming measures of quality and authenticity. Although I do not have specific evidence to bring to bear on this point, I suspect that the horticulture industry will benefit from that. I would like to work with my hon. Friend and Ministers to ensure that we change the perception of the horticulture industry. As I said, we made £20 million available through the Skills Funding Agency. That is an increase of 11% on the year before, so the investment is going in.

The “Horticulture Matters” report said that job candidates often lack basic workplace skills and practical experience. We have put together traineeships to tackle that gap. As my hon. Friend knows, we have a new Trailblazer project in the horticulture sector, which focuses on a level 2 technician doing horticultural, fresh produce, arable and glasshouse work, a level 2 pack house operative, and a level 2 stock person for dairy, sheep and pigs, which is not strictly horticulture, but the project covers agriculture and production as well as horticulture. These traineeships are an education and training programme which includes work experience to give young people the skills and vital experience they need to help them compete for apprenticeships or other jobs. The G Growers employer ownership pilot that I mentioned should deliver 10,000 learning opportunities at level 4 plus in the horticulture sector.

The latest figures show that a step change is taking place. We now see almost 5,000 horticulture apprentices at work. That is an increase of almost 250% since 2009-10. The latest figures for higher education show that over 19,000 are studying an agriculture-related subject in higher education. These are the graduates who will lead the profession well into the 21st century.

My hon. Friend mentioned the food and farming plan, which we hope to publish at the end of the month. He wanted me to put that on record. It will look at food enterprise zones and potentially local development orders for local enterprise partnerships in food and farming businesses. It will also look at apprentices. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is planning a round-table conference in March to look at increasing competitiveness and increasing growth in the food and farming industries. DEFRA is also working alongside us in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. My hon. Friend, who talked about the need for joined-up Government, will be pleased to know that DEFRA is working with BIS to promote apprenticeships in the industry.

As Minister for the creative industries, I am not in a position to annex the horticultural industry, but I think there is a close link between the two. Those of us who occasionally go to the Chelsea flower show will know how unbelievably popular it is. Funnily enough, it is

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popular with some of the elites in our society. I go there occasionally—I am not referring to myself as part of one of those elites, I hasten to add—and one sees captains of industry, as I think we can still call them, flocking to it. We see there the nexus of advanced, innovative and creative horticulture alongside architecture and design. In rather the same way as London fashion week sits at the apex of the fashion industry, the Chelsea flower show sits at the apex of horticulture but is not remote from it; it acts as a bellwether. Just as the catwalks of the London fashion show will be translated into high street shops and the wider ecology of make-up, photography and magazines, the ideas piloted at the Chelsea flower show will percolate through the horticulture industry. In talking about the image of the horticulture industry, we should recognise that the crowds that gather at the Chelsea flower show represent a snapshot of the passion that exists in this country for gardening and horticulture.

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I should also say, in my role as heritage Minister, that we fully recognise—in working with the heritage lottery fund, for example—the very important role that the gardens of historic houses play in drawing in tourists and enhancing the role of those houses as visitor attractions. One only need visit Chatsworth, with the landscapes of Capability Brown, and, closer to my own home, the amazing landscapes of Blenheim to see that this country has taken the role of horticulture very seriously for many centuries.

This is a timely and important debate. I think that those involved in the horticulture industry all over the country will praise my hon. Friend for bringing these important matters to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

7.27 pm

House adjourned.