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13 July 2010 : Column 216WH—continued

Is it the Government's intention to introduce new legislation to change the homelessness duty? What discussions are being held with local authorities about changes to the homelessness duty and the local connection criterion? Is the Minister confident that local authorities that will be the recipients of large numbers of people moved as a consequence of housing benefit changes are content to receive additional large numbers of low-income and, often, vulnerable households? What discussions have been held between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government about the introduction of new homelessness legislation to accommodate that difference?
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Will the forthcoming impact assessment indicate the Government's confidence as to the availability of additional private rented sector housing at the reduced local housing allowance levels in all areas? What assessment has been made of the market capacity and ability to reduce rent levels?

I have a number of other questions, but I shall write to the Minister because other hon. Members want to speak. I am absolutely confident that the Department does not realise the full gravity of what is proposed.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I call Caroline Lucas. Please remember the time.

11.59 am

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing the debate.

The Government's housing benefit proposals demonstrate beyond doubt that they are intent on pursuing plans that overwhelmingly penalise the poor-forget any nice words about our being in this together. As many housing charities predict, the proposals will make thousands of people homeless, as cuts to housing benefit combine with increased repossessions and higher unemployment. It is an absolute scandal that that should happen in one of the richest countries in the world in the 21st century-what a damning judgment on what was supposed to be a new politics.

I am deeply concerned about the impact in my constituency. We have heard a lot about London, and understandably so, but I reiterate that many areas, particularly beyond London's periphery, are also suffering a huge amount. In Brighton, Pavilion, for example, someone would have to earn more than £50,000 a year to buy an average-priced house. No wonder that nearly 10,000 households are on the waiting list for affordable housing in the Brighton and Hove area. At current rates, that list will take more than eight years to clear.

The increase in housing benefit bills over recent years is not, as the Government would have us believe, the result of some epidemic of scroungers, but, as others have said, of the considerable growth in the number of people who are being forced into the private rented sector, where rents are almost double those in social housing. Again in my own constituency, the private rented sector makes up about 21% of the housing sector, which is much higher than average. My surgeries are full of people who are already struggling to pay rent and to find alternatives to cramped, overcrowded and overpriced accommodation, and the Government's plans can only make that worse.

If we are to reduce the housing benefit bill in the long term, we should be building more affordable housing, which should, of course, be green, decent and fuel-efficient housing. We need a reduction in VAT on repairs to encourage people to put older properties to better use and we need to support people in bringing empty properties into use. We also need to support housing co-ops and other forms of affordable housing.

In the meantime, however, the Government's proposals will simply make the situation worse. Particularly pernicious are the proposals to reduce the percentile of local
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market rents used to calculate LHA from the median to the 30th percentile and to cap the maximum LHA payable for each property size. Those reforms will lead to a significant reduction in the amount of LHA received by every claimant, exacerbating widespread problems with rent shortfalls and increasing barriers to accessing accommodation. As a result, swathes of London and the south-east will simply become unaffordable for people on LHA, which is likely to push them into debt, eviction and homelessness. Behind the statistics, it is important to remember the individual families many of us see in our surgeries, whose hopes and aspirations are being wrecked every day. The Government's proposals will simply make things worse.

We are short of time, so I will make one final point. The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) talked about increasing discretionary housing payments, or the DHP budget, as an additional safety net to support the thousands of claimants who will face shortfalls once the cuts to LHA are introduced. Let us remember, however, that the Chartered Institute of Housing has undertaken analysis showing that if the additional £40 million is spent solely on making up the shortfall in rents due to the proposed drop, it will support just 4% of the claimants facing the drop from the 50th to the 30th percentile for a year.

If that were not enough, from April 2013, receipt of full housing benefit for claimants who can be expected to look for work will be time limited to 12 months and then reduced by 10%. Attaching sanctions to housing benefit is an extremely unfair way of trying to help into work claimants who could work. Indeed, after the Budget, I have to ask where the jobs are that we expect these people to find. In the context of rising unemployment, it is hugely unjust to penalise people who cannot find work, and the Government's proposals will simply lead to an even greater increase in poverty.

Let me finish with some questions. What kind of transitional protection measures will be in place for the people affected by the Government's proposals? Have the Government considered the knock-on costs for local authorities and the knock-on effects on the private rented sector? Finally, to reiterate an earlier point, what is the point of an impact assessment that is produced after the proposals?

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you very much. Before I call the last Back-Bench speaker, I apologise to everyone who wanted to speak but whom I could not get in. The last speaker is Emily Thornberry. It would be helpful, Emily, if you could remember that we have given an undertaking to start the winding-up speeches at 12.10 pm.

12.4 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Well, six minutes.

Mr Mike Hancock (in the Chair): More than you could have hoped for, I think.

Emily Thornberry: Much more than I could possibly have hoped for, although I have to say that most of my speech will appear on my website.

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[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]

In some areas of the country-my constituency is an obvious example-there is a serious mismatch between earnings and housing costs. The average worker in my constituency earns £20,000 a year and pays tax on that. The average rent for a two-bedroom flat in inner north London, which is not the most expensive part of my constituency, is more than £17,000 a year. That leaves an average working parent with less than £60 a week for food, clothes, travel and council tax. It is clear, therefore, that there has to be some form of intervention in areas where the rent is so high. Either we build more affordable housing-I am sure that everyone here knows and agrees that that is exactly what we should do with the money-or we intervene to subsidise rents and put people in the private market.

Mr Mark Field: This lack of building has been a problem not only over the past 13 years. Does the hon. Lady not recognise, however, that there has to be some sharing of the blame? During the past 13 years of the Labour Government, there was no substantial building, and that is the nub of the problem, particularly in central London.

Emily Thornberry: Many of us in the Chamber have been major campaigners on that issue, and I know that the hon. Gentleman is, too. I was completely outraged that the Lib Dem council in my area, which was in power for 10 years, built only one flat for social rented housing for every seven new flats that were built, which is completely inappropriate in a constituency such as mine, given the needs that it has.

Of the 850 Islington families in flats with two or more bedrooms who are claiming LHA, or housing benefit in the case of private landlords, more than half-more than 500 families-will lose benefits under the new capping rules, and some will lose more than £100 a week. Where will they go? Is there room for them in Thornbury and Yate? Will they move into cars? Where do the Government expect them to go when they lose all that money? They certainly will not be able to keep their flats.

To make an obvious point, expecting housing benefit claimants to live in the cheapest 30% of private rented flats will cause real hardship in areas such as London, where housing is already in short supply. The differential between the median and the 30th percentile might be small in some areas. For example, in central Lancashire-perhaps in Thornbury and Yate-there is less than £6 difference between a two-bedroom flat on the median and one on the 30th percentile, and people can get a family home for less than £120 a week. However, in my constituency, in Islington, the difference between the median and the 30th percentile for a two-bedroom flat is £40 a week-the difference between £330 and £290 a week. Where will people get that money? What will happen? It is fundamentally unfair to expect claimants in my constituency to make up a housing benefit gap of £40 a week when claimants elsewhere will be expected to find only £6 a week.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that officialdom clearly accepts that the cap is not fair? It suggests a cap of £340 for a three-bedroom flat, whereas the Independent Parliamentary
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Standards Authority allows Members from outside London £340 for a one-bedroom flat. We are being told that the going rate for a three-bedroom flat is the same as that for a single-bedroom flat.

Emily Thornberry: On a much less serious level, the representations that London MPs are making about the money that we need to run offices rely on exactly the same argument that we are putting today on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable of our constituents. Although we all need help, they need it a great deal more.

It is unfair to expect all private tenants to compete for the cheapest properties, because private landlords will simply take the easiest families, rather than the difficult kids or the people on unemployment benefit. Where will the other families go? Will they live in cars?

I am appalled by the suggestion that the long-term unemployed should have their housing benefit cut by 10%. I am sorry to sound like a stuck record, but the effect of a 10% cut on families in London will be much more than that on families in Bradford. A 10% cut in benefit may mean £25 a week for someone in a one-bedroom flat in London, but it will be £8.60 in Bradford. It is not fair, and it is not right. The rules will affect a large number of people in the most deprived areas of London. At the moment, 1,200 Islington residents get jobseeker's allowance or incapacity benefit for more than a year. What will they do to make up for the loss of that benefit? The idea is that they are on jobseeker's allowance because they want to be-that they are malingerers and do not want to work. I invite the Minister -and, indeed, his boss-to come to some of my surgeries to see the reality of how people live in London.

We should build more affordable housing, provide sensible pathways to work and support families through child tax credits and child benefit. Yes, it is social engineering, but it is positive and sustainable.

12.10 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): May I say what a pleasure it is, Mr Streeter, to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this extremely important debate.

Of course, everyone agrees on the need to tackle high rents and high payments. It is clearly not right to pay people more than £1,000 a week for housing benefit. That is why, in his March Budget, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) took measures to strip out the top rents; that will save the taxpayer £50 million. Before considering the current Budget measures, I have one question for the Minister: will he abolish the £15 excess as well as introducing the raft of measures included in the Red Book?

It seems to me that the coalition Government have used the small number of exceptionally high benefit payments as a ruse to cut housing benefit across the land. The truth is that only 100 households in the entire country receive housing benefit of more than £1,000 a week. In the social sector the average payment is £72 a week, and in the private rented sector it is £106.

Over the last month, the Minister has refused to answer virtually all parliamentary questions about the number of people who will lose and by how much. I see
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that he looks puzzled, but even yesterday he refused to answer 36 parliamentary questions. I am not sure whether he does not know how many people will be affected and what the losses will be, or he is embarrassed. I am not sure, either, which is worse.

Did Department for Work and Pensions Ministers take decisions without proper analysis? Were they ambushed by the Treasury, as we suspect? Is that why Ministers are delaying giving us the information until 23 July-in 10 days' time? How very convenient for them. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has refused to release data that would have allowed people to analyse the impact of the housing benefit changes. That is despite the coalition agreement saying that data will be released so that we have proper transparency.

The Minister is Pensions Minister. Is he going to tell us today how the housing benefit cuts will affect the 1.5 million old-age pensioners who now receive housing benefit? Will he confirm that, in addition to the London problems that were so eloquently described by my colleagues, more than 1 million people will lose at least £500 a year? With the help of Citizens Advice, we have discovered what the cuts will be in other parts of the country. In some places, they will be huge. A single person on the lowest shared room rate in Durham will lose £700. A single person in a one-bedroom flat in St Helens will lose £800. People in four-bedroom accommodation in Nottingham will lose £1,100. Those figures are disgraceful.

It is quite wrong for the Government to have produced distribution figures in the Red Book that completely ignore the impact on housing benefit. The rents that people are expected to survive upon in the provinces are completely ridiculous. In central Lancashire, the single-room rate is down to £44 a week. In Hull, the one-bedroom rate is down to £67 a week. In Chesterfield, a family needing four bedrooms is expected to find accommodation for £138 a week. As hon. Members have said, the abolition of the housing benefit rate for five-bedroom properties will be particularly bad for large families. What will the impact be on the various ethnic and religious groups? It will clearly be discriminatory. We know that child poverty is bad for ethnic minorities and large families. It just got a whole lot worse.

I turn to the benefit cap. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch has not been describing the problems of people who want to live in Mayfair, but the problems of people in an ordinary part of London. The Minister must explain how it will impact on work incentives. How does he expect people to travel to jobs such as cleaning our offices or working in hotels in central London? Is he trying to reproduce the apartheid conditions seen in cities elsewhere? Certainly he is not supporting mixed communities. The way to address work incentives is not to cut benefits, but to introduce run-ons and fixed-period payments-things that we were asked to do by Crisis and Shelter and others in the voluntary sector that work with the homeless. Things will get even worse in 2012-13, when the local housing allowance switches to a consumer prices index link. The benefit will then be completely disconnected from rent levels. Had that been done in 1999, by now people would be suffering a further 20% shortfall.

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Will the Minister tell us what the effect will be on families? How many will have to move? What will the effect be on homelessness? What will the effect be on the number of families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation? What will the effect be on the availability of private rented accommodation? What have the responses been of private landlords to the Government? As many hon. Members have asked, what transitional arrangements will the Government introduce?

The Government have also announced a number of measures that will particularly affect the social sector. Deductions for non-dependence, as projected by the Chartered Institute of Housing, will impact on 170,000 people, who will all lose more than £900 a year. Typically, they are people whose children are aged between 16 and 24. Another measure that will affect the social sector is the proposal to limit working-age entitlements to reflect the size of family. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, that could affect 180,000 people, to the tune of £2,300 a year. Will the Minister tell us whether he proposes that these deductions will be made when people's partnerships break up? Will we see women with children being forced to move because the partner has left the home? None of the social implications of the measures have been considered.

Perhaps the most vicious measure is the cutting of benefits by 10% after a claimant has been unemployed for 12 months. What possible rationale can there be for punishing the victims of the recession? Does the Minister not realise that, in London, eight people are chasing every vacancy? That cut is happening at the same time as a cut in support for those who are unemployed. It is pointlessly punitive. The CIH estimates that, overall, the measure will affect between 231,000 and 375,000 people by between £400 and £580 a year.

Has the Minister thought through the impact on lone parents? Forcing mothers of five-year-olds onto JSA will, by the Government's own estimate-it was published in the Budget policy assumptions document-result in only 10% of lone parents getting jobs within a year. That will leave 135,000 lone parents facing housing benefit cuts in 2013-14. That is utterly appalling.

The final little sop-to increase the discretionary housing payments by £40 million-is totally inadequate. It will not deal with the hardships caused by taking £1.8 billion out of the housing benefit budget. I hope the Minister will give us some answers, and that he will undertake to rethink these draconian measures.

12.19 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): This is the first time that I have had the pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on raising this important issue and on giving a number of hon. Members, particularly but not exclusively from the London area, the chance to air their views, which they have done effectively.

I have been advised not to run through a whole history of housing benefit because we do not have enough time. However, I will set out some of the thinking behind the reforms. The housing benefit bill has been rising inexorably: in the past five years, we have seen a 50% real rise in the bill when the numbers have gone up
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by less than 20%. With £1 billion added each year, it does not take long before we are talking about serious money. The question is this: do we stand by and watch that or do we allow our constituents, who are on low wages and paying tax out of their low wages, to have a voice in this debate? A number of hon. Members said that the taxpayers' perspective relates not just to the well-off but to low earners as well. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, if we consider the whole tax burden, the tax impact on low earners is quite substantial.

What we cannot do is to continue to pay out blank cheques to private landlords-this is a blank cheque not to tenants but to private landlords. Rents have been going up and the state has been a passive observer. The housing market has demanded cash from us and we have simply handed it over. Then it has demanded more and we have handed it over again.

Margaret Hodge: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Steve Webb: Not at the moment. I will take some interventions, but first I want to set the scene.

If we do not have a blank cheque, what do we do? What is a legitimate way to say that someone who takes a low-paid job typically chooses a rent around the 30th percentile? That number has not been plucked from the sky. If someone takes a low-paid job, they do not have an unlimited choice about where they live. They cannot live in as big a house as they would like. They are constrained in where they live. Why should our constituents who take a low-paid job with all the associated uncertainties and who have to restrict their housing choice be in a worse position than those-I do not use the words "scroungers" or "apartheid", which have come from the Opposition Benches-who are, for example, unemployed? There is an issue about social justice.

Meg Hillier: The Minister is confusing things. In my constituency, people do not have a choice. To afford anything, they need the housing benefit top-up. That is because rent levels and the demand for property are high. If landlords do not rent to people on benefit, there will be plenty of people in the private sector who do not need benefit who will take those homes.

Steve Webb: Clearly, there is a differential impact in different parts of London; I do not dispute that for a second. Taking London as a whole, just a little under a third of properties will be available within the caps. Obviously, the figure will vary from area to area, and there are particular issues that affect central inner London.

Mr Mark Field: Will the Minister briefly give way?

Steve Webb: I will carry on just for now, because I want to respond to as much of the debate as I can.

The question is, how can we appropriately look at this matter? Some of the figures that have been quoted for losers assume that nothing changes and that people will go on living exactly where they are living and making the same choices, but the whole point of the reform is to have an influence on the housing market, and to try to do something about escalating rents.

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Frank Dobson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Steve Webb: I will not. I want to respond to the debate in the short time that is available to me. If we allow rents to go on rising as they are doing, how can we expect people to find the work that will enable them to pay those exorbitant rents? There are not the jobs that will enable people to afford to pay those rents. If we can do something about the rents that landlords charge, more people will find it worth working. At the moment, people get no return for work.

Several hon. Members rose-

Steve Webb: No, I will not give way. I said that I wanted to respond to the debate.[Interruption.] I am trying to respond. If I give way, I will not have time to do that.

The issue of the discretionary housing benefit was raised. We are tripling the budget; it is £20 million now and it will be £60 million in a couple of years' time. If we spread that thinly across the country, it will not go far, which is why, when we are allocating discretionary housing benefit we will have particular regard for the places in the country and the local housing markets where the changes will have the most impact. I am sure that the constituents of many hon. Members here today will see a bigger share of the money because of the points that have been raised. That is part of the answer to the question that was raised about transitional measures. Local authorities will consider on a case-by-case basis individuals who have been severely affected by our measures and for whom moving would be most disruptive, and, in those extreme cases, provide assistance.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked about timing. It is important that I place it on the record that I need to make some corrections. Nothing happens this autumn; nothing will change until next April. We have to put regulations through the Social Security Advisory Committee, so there will be a process of consultation on the regulations. The regulations will be laid before Parliament in October or November. There will then be a further six months before anything changes. As she rightly said, those are the changes that will go through secondary legislation. Some of the longer-term changes will require primary legislation, so there will be a further process of scrutiny and consultation.

I want to address some of the specific issues raised. The hon. Lady raised the issue of the rent levels relevant to the cap in her constituency. I understand that the broad rental market for inner east London is significant. I have looked at the figures for one-bed, two-bed, three-bed and four-bed properties at the 30th percentile in her constituency, and they are all at or below the cap. I am happy to supply her with the figures.

We have had many contributions to the debate. The extraordinary word "apartheid" was used and we heard about vast numbers of people criss-crossing London. There has been an awful lot of overstatement about the actual impact of the changes, particularly given that three out of 10 private rented properties will still be available after the change within the cap.

The issue of pensioners was raised. There was some suggestion that elderly people would be particularly adversely affected. I hope that the Chamber will recall that the local housing allowance that we have been
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talking about today, which is used in the private rented sector, applies only to 80,000 pensioners the length and breadth of Britain. [Interruption.] There was some implication that millions of pensioners would be affected by our measures. We are talking about only a tiny number of pensioners across Britain, and many of them live in regulated tenancies, which will be protected in any case.

Margaret Hodge: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Steve Webb: No, I will not. Hon. Members have asked about the impact assessment, statistics and parliamentary questions. The impact assessment will be published on 23 July. There was some suggestion that that had something to do with the timing of this debate. We do not control the timing of these debates.

Helen Goodman: But the Government control the timing of publication.

Steve Webb: We are publishing on 23 July to give us time to prepare the detailed statistics that the House wants to see. We know the aggregate impact, but the House wants some fine detail. I can tell the Chamber that the impact assessment will include the impact on groups at a national level, broad rental market areas, bedroom category, the availability of accommodation by broad rental market area, the households affected by caps by local authority and by Government office region, the households affected by moving to the 30th percentile and the distribution of local housing allowance and housing benefit award by case load and by housing benefit award intervals. Rather than drip-feed incomplete
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information, we want to give the Chamber comprehensive detailed information before the House rises for the summer recess.

One thing that is usually said in such debates is that people on housing benefit will not be able to find anywhere to rent. We have all come across anecdotal examples of that. Occasionally, landlords will not rent to people on housing benefit. [Interruption.] I hate to bring the facts to bear in this debate, but since November 2008 the number of private sector tenants on housing benefit has not fallen. It has risen by 400,000. If private landlords are not willing to rent to people on housing benefit, how come there are 400,000 more of them doing it?

Ms Buck: I refer back to my first question, which the Minister has not had time to answer. The majority of increase, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government, is in households that are placed in private rented accommodation by local authorities. That is why they have been able to access it, and they will no longer be able to access it in whole swathes of the country including London.

Steve Webb: As the hon. Lady knows-she is exceptionally knowledgeable about such matters-what is important is how the market responds to these changed incentives. If everything carries on as it is now, the reforms will have failed. We want an impact on the rental market so that we can end the situation in which people have huge rents paid for by the taxpayer that they cannot afford from the jobs they get.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. Our time for this debate has gone. We now move on to the less controversial subject of the construction of nuclear power stations. [Laughter.] Will Members leaving Westminster Hall please do so quietly?

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New Nuclear Power Stations

12.30 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): I am very grateful to have this chance to talk about an issue that of course affects my constituency enormously, as you know Mr Streeter.

The future of nuclear power is vital to my constituency and to the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why I am very grateful to have the chance to debate the issue today and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is here to respond to the debate.

It is no secret that we are running out of capacity to generate electricity. Existing nuclear stations are growing old and they must be replaced within the next seven years or-to be blunt-the lights will start going out. We cannot afford any more delays and I am afraid that, as a nation, we must take decisive action now.

The previous time I raised these matters in Westminster Hall, which was nine months ago, there was a different Government and many attitudes were different from those that exist now. Today I hope that I am preaching to the converted about the necessities and advantages of nuclear power.

In Bridgwater, nuclear power has provided reliable electricity to the grid since 1970 through the four reactors of the A and B stations, two of which, at the A station, have now been decommissioned. The B station has been given a five-year extension and is now owned by EDF Energy. We know that nuclear power works very well and is safe. We have a whole generation of local experts closely involved in the building, management and decommissioning of stations. Last October, we got the go-ahead to create the first nuclear academy in the United Kingdom at Bridgwater college. So there are many positive factors about nuclear power.

Of course, Hinkley Point is far from invisible-nuclear power stations cannot really be hidden. The existing station sits like a concrete castle overlooking the Bristol channel and dominates the skyline in one of the loveliest parts of this country. The plan is to construct a pair of new pressurised water reactors. Such reactors are tried, trusted and used safely all over the world. Two new reactors could pump out enough power to satisfy 4 million customers in the United Kingdom.

I make absolutely no bones about it-this is a massive operation. It will be the biggest ever civil engineering operation in the south-west. It will create 900 permanent jobs and roughly 5,000 people will be needed just to build the new plant. EDF Energy commissioned research into how the work would help the local economy. It estimates that £100 million will be spent every year during the building work and roughly £40 million a year will be spent thereafter, but I ask the Minister-is that enough?

Naturally, we welcome the concept of the new development. Of course we want to have the automatic boost to the local economy that building anything that big would bring, and yes, we need the contractors earning good salaries and spending their money in local shops. Bridgwater is an industrial town and we are very keen on business.

However, as a community, we have every right to ask for something more substantial in return. A nuclear power station is not like a supermarket. It is a gigantic piece of industrial machinery and the new development
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in my constituency would be slap-bang in the middle of some of England's loveliest countryside. A fair slice of compensation ought to be in order. Some of it could come in the form of old-fashioned folding money, which would be nice. Some of it could be invested in the local community with sensible, joined-up thinking, which would be nicer still.

Just a few moments ago, I mentioned the nuclear academy at Bridgwater college. Bridgwater college is a remarkable college run by dedicated people who deserve to be at the heart of the work, training the new generation of nuclear experts. You don't get owt for nowt. Bridgwater college put in the backwork, time and commitment to secure its place in the south-west hub for all nuclear skills training, as part of the nuclear skills academy. It is great to have the college, I am very proud of all its achievements and it has proved its worth, time and again, under the leadership of Fiona McMillan.

As the Minister will be all too aware, spending on education is in the spotlight, not just locally but nationally. Last week, the announcement about the Building Schools for the Future programme dealt a heavy blow in my area; I will come on to the reasoning behind that announcement shortly. We understand the pressures, we know that we must be prudent and we know that the BSF programme was not always very well organised, but Bridgwater college did an excellent job, in the same way that industry in Bridgwater does an excellent job. It produced sensible plans and everybody agreed to them.

Take it from me-cutting back on schools in Bridgwater now or in the future is not the answer to anything. That is especially true because of what we are going to do locally. Cutting back is not the answer if we want to encourage a new generation of professionals, which we must have. It is not the answer if we want to have home-grown nuclear experts, and it is not the answer if, as a Government, we want to have joined-up policy.

Our local schools were ready to sign the relevant documents on the very day that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made his announcement about the BSF programme. Millions of pounds had been invested and a lot of it had come from the nuclear industry. Some of the building work had already begun and it made perfect sense to carry on.

How many other areas are about to build a huge new nuclear power station? How many other areas were as ready as we were with their plans for schools? Other areas were not ready.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I would say that my area is ready. As with the nuclear power station in his constituency, Wylfa nuclear power station in my constituency has been decommissioned and a new build is happening on-site.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the skills that he is talking about are long-term skills to provide a job for life, that they are transferrable throughout the whole energy sector and that they are vital for the "green deal" that this Government are talking about?

Mr Liddell-Grainger: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman and his point is well made. I think that the proposals for Wylfa are in phase 2 of the proposals for nuclear power. He makes a good point.

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As I was saying, the decision about the BSF programme does not add up. These schools in my area were due to be refurbished and built under the private finance initiative system. It was absolutely right that there should have been public investment in a local economy as good as ours.

Later today, I have an appointment to see the Secretary of State for Education and I intend to leave him in no uncertainty about what his announcement means for the programmes in my area that we are now looking at. However, I first want to offer my hon. Friend the Minister a few ideas that might help his thinking and that of his colleagues.

To build a new nuclear power station requires a reliable operating company, a shedload of money, a sensitive planning system and, perhaps above all, the ability to think outside the box. Deciding to put up a power station today means that we are planning for the next 60 to 150 years. It is ridiculous and completely unfair to see such things in terms of the conventional five-year life span of any Parliament. If we do not get this decision right now, we will be blamed by our children, by our grandchildren and, in the case of nuclear, by our great-grandchildren.

Therefore, I am afraid to say that cheeseparing on education with one hand while trying to nurture a skills academy with the other hand does not make sense to me or to anybody else. Everyone agrees that there is still a national deficit-we know that there is-and that there is a real need to be careful with the precious financial resources that we have. Equally, however, everybody knows that there are several ways to skin a cat.

Why will the Government not examine the possibility of using a proportion of the very substantial business rates that EDF Energy will have to pay to meet some of the extra needs of the community? It is not such an outlandish idea and it was mooted publicly just a few days ago by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is the Minister with responsibility for decentralisation. He suggested that some major developments should be allowed to take the lion's share of local business rates for the first six years of their existence. In terms of EDF Energy, that would mean a very healthy sum indeed to pay back to the community; it could amount to £40 million a year.

One might say that such a proposal is a form of legalised bribery and it sounds like an un-British way of going about things. However, there are quite a few solid examples of community funds that were deliberately established to compensate local people in the wake of major developments.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister knows about the Shetland Charitable Trust, which was set up in 1974 when the huge oil terminal at Sullom Voe was built. Shetland council wanted to claw back money from the oil companies to help to compensate fishermen and because it felt that Sullom Voe was an ugly and unnecessary development. However, little councils do not have any power. Parliament pushed through the Zetland County Council Act 1974 to give Shetland council some muscle. The council now has £200 million in the bank and it shells out up to £13 million every year
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on special community projects. Sullom Voe is nothing like as heavily populated as Bridgwater and West Somerset. We would like a lot more money because, as the advert says, "We're worth it".

Another example is Cumbria, home to Sellafield, a nuclear establishment with even more history than Hinkley. The area is covered by Copeland district council, which negotiated a special deal with the Government in 2007 to get compensation for the inconvenience of looking after the nation's low-level nuclear waste. As the Minister knows, the deal involved the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority paying £10 million up front plus £1.5 million for every year of waste storage. In addition, the parish of Drigg and Carleton gets an extra £50,000 compensation a year for the next 60 years. That is seriously big money, given that only 600 people live there.

I know of many possible ways to spend such sums in and around Hinkley, in both our district council areas. One facility that we lack, for example, is a decent road that bypasses heavily populated areas and goes straight to the power plant. That is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity given the huge number of lorries required during the plant's building phase, which will go on for seven years. It is possible to construct a direct link. I congratulate one of my constituents, an engineer named Alan Beasley, who has worked extremely hard to identify a feasible route that would upset the fewest number of people in the area.

We do not yet know what such a scheme might cost, but there are other local sources of money. The Minister might consider having a chat with some of our honourable colleagues about schemes that he could scrap. For instance, the £20 million earmarked for our schools will be used for something else, but £20 million is available next door. The Environment Agency is about to flood the Steart peninsula, which is about 600 yards from the plant at Hinkley. Flooding the peninsula will cost £20 million and is being done to tick boxes in Europe. The official reason is that the flood defences are too old and expensive to keep. Why can we not use that money to help with the nuclear project? The actual reason for the flooding of the peninsula is that regulations and directives on the conservation of wild birds and natural habitats are more important than human beings. I do not think that that is fair. We are all in favour of our feathered friends living happily ever after in the wetlands, but we cannot afford to fork out £20 million for the privilege. If the choice is a genuinely environmental one, a relief road will offer more real environmental benefits than obeying European directives to the last letter.

Like any nuclear power station, Hinkley is a national issue, not just a local one. Our creaking planning system is feeling the strain. The previous Government introduced a wildly extravagant quango called the Infrastructure Planning Commission, where EDF's plans might have gone for judgment. The new Government have scrapped the IPC and intend to let the Planning Inspectorate take on the task of helping to decide Hinkley's future. That may look like swapping one quango for another, but if I understand correctly, there will be one fewer quango. However, the complications involved in altering the planning process might lead to more delay, which would not be healthy.

More or less everyone agrees that the bad old days are gone when major projects such as motorways and airports were considered by public inquiries. Good riddance
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to them. Public inquiries rambled on too long and often failed to reach any definite conclusions. The precise details could not be dealt with because so many activists wanted to argue the moral theories first. That is why years were wasted on the rights and wrongs of aviation rather than on exact plans to expand Heathrow.

Having got rid of the IPC, the Government's current idea is to let Ministers, advised by the Planning Inspectorate, make the final decision, and perhaps to hold a narrow public inquiry if it is really necessary. However, as far as I can see, the essential ingredient is a national policy statement on nuclear energy, to be ratified by Parliament. Without that, nothing can proceed. I am sorry to say that in July 2010, nine months after I first asked a question about it, we are still here pleading for a national policy statement. Can we please have it soon?

Since I have devoted so much of my speech to money, I ask the Minister to consider another glaring omission from the planning process. France builds nuclear power stations wherever it chooses because landowners and local communities queue up to claim the generous compensation packages on offer. Perhaps it is no accident that EDF Energy, the firm that wants to build Hinkley C and D, is a French company. In my neck of the woods, furious rows are going on about plans to build wind farms. That is not surprising, as the operators are offering pain but no gain to those who happen to live under one. However, in Spain, Denmark and Germany, significant local benefits are built into the fabric of all wind power projects. The companies involved often pay substantial local taxes. All that we have is a woolly voluntary system.

I believe that this Government genuinely want to reform planning for the better, but decent compensation is part and parcel of good planning. I ask the Minister to remember that Hinkley is vital for the nation, and to make it worth while to Somerset to build it.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): It is a great pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the debate and leading it with his normal approach of combining passion, vigour, commitment and enthusiasm with addressing the issues directly. He is absolutely right that this is a long-term decision, and we must see it in that context. Our decisions on nuclear will be some of the most important taken on energy policy by this Government. We therefore attach great importance to how those decisions are made and realise that they must pass the test of time.

My hon. Friend is also right to remind us that we are discussing national issues. A development such as Hinkley is of national significance, and it will play an important role in our future electricity generation, if it goes ahead. I totally accept the background to his argument. He raised several issues during his speech that do not relate directly to the work of my Department. I am pleased that he is meeting the Secretary of State this afternoon to discuss Building Schools for the Future and I will be interested to know the outcome. However, I am keen to set out clearly the approach of my Department and the Government to the building of new nuclear.

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We set out a clear plan for nuclear in the coalition agreement. We are committed to allowing the construction of new nuclear plants, subject to the normal planning process for major projects and the fact that they should be without public subsidy. We will continue to take forward the national policy statement and the process through Parliament.

New nuclear has a clear role in the energy mix, but we are certainly alive to many people's concerns about the costs of such activities, so we are absolutely clear that there should be no public subsidy. In that respect, our position is broadly the same as the previous Government's. It is for private sector energy companies to construct, operate and decommission plants, but it is for the Government to ensure that there is appropriate safety, security and environmental regulation.

We will ensure that the taxpayer is protected now and in the future from such costs. Operators will be required by law from the outset to set aside money to pay for long-term waste management costs. Having considered various possible subsidy issues, we will ensure that the taxpayer is protected. I am encouraged that despite those restrictions, which are some of the toughest in the world, Britain is nevertheless the most exciting place in Europe-perhaps in the world-for the construction of new nuclear plants. Many companies are keen to invest on that basis.

We are also committed to removing barriers to investment. The work of the Office for Nuclear Development has been fundamental to that, as has the nuclear development forum, which considers how to address the practical issues that can present challenges. On that basis, we will drive forward work on planning, regulatory justification, the generic design assessment and waste and decommissioning financing arrangements. The Government are required to undertake regulatory justification. We will take a decision after we have finished considering responses to the recent public consultation on how best to proceed.

On waste and decommissioning financing, we must redouble our efforts to deliver a framework for dealing with the costs that protects the taxpayer and provides both taxpayers and operators with clarity. The consultations on the fixed unit price and waste handling regulations have closed. We are now considering our responses carefully and will respond in due course.

I know that, to the companies proposing plans for reactor designs, the process for the generic design assessment is fundamental. I am encouraged by the nuclear installations inspectorate's recent comments that it is on course to conclude by June 2011. The Environment Agency is consulting on its preliminary findings.

We have also indicated that there needs to be reform of the nuclear regulator, which must be structured and equipped to meet current and future challenges. In its role as a nuclear regulator, the Health and Safety Executive has responded to those challenges, but I am persuaded that reform is needed to meet the specific challenges of the sector. I want an effective, efficient and independent nuclear regulator to ensure that we have transparency and accountability. Those are some of the big national issues that we have to take into account as we consider how the programme moves forward.

I want to pick up on my hon. Friend's concerns about the planning system. We have said that we are determined to reform the planning system. The changes made by
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the previous Government addressed some of the issues about the speed of the process, which they were right to identify, as applications and considerations could sometimes go on for years. They put in place a process to deal with that, but it did not have democratic accountability.

We have decided that national policy statements should continue to be an integral part of the process, but that they will be subject to a substantive vote in Parliament. That will give national policy statements greater democratic legitimacy and reduce the risk of judicial review. Following the consultation on the national policy statements, we were required to take account of the public meetings and the thousands of submissions that were received, which we are currently considering. I assure my hon. Friend that we will set out our further consideration on the NPSs as soon as we can, because we understand how significant the matter is to all those involved in the sector.

My hon. Friend also correctly identified the changes that we intend to make to the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Again, we thought that that organisation lacked democratic legitimacy. The changes will mean that the back-office function and the analytical work carried out on individual applications will be done by a dedicated unit-the major infrastructure planning unit-which will come under the Planning Inspectorate. Instead of the unit's recommendations going to a competent but, nevertheless, unelected quango, they will go to the Secretary of State.

For those who are concerned about the time scales, I can give a clear assurance that there will be an obligation on the Secretary of State to make a decision within the same time scale under which the IPC would have proceeded, so there will be no delays. Critically, an application under the transitional arrangements will continue under the same jurisdiction in which it started. There is no risk that an application made under the current system will have to be started again from scratch when the changes come into place. We want to make sure that people who are investing know there will be certainty about the time scale in which the process will move forward.

My hon. Friend also talked about business rates. It is proper to debate the wider issue of whether allowing some business rates and new business activities generally to be kept locally is a good way of encouraging local authorities to stimulate business activities in their areas. On energy issues-this picks up on the final part of his speech-we have said that we are keen to build a new relationship between energy installations and the communities that host them. If a community is hosting something such as a wind farm on behalf of the wider interest and not purely for the benefit of that community, it is reasonable to find ways of recognising that.

We want to find new ways of achieving shared ownership so that direct funding returns come into a local community. We also want to consider how the business rates that become payable as a result of that development can be maintained locally for the first few years. We are in discussions with our colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how broadly based that approach can be, because if that same approach were to be applied to a nuclear power facility, as my hon. Friend said, many tens of millions of pounds would come into the local community, which would
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make a significant contribution towards the infrastructure and educational changes that might be necessary. I am holding continuing discussions with my colleagues in the DCLG on that basis, and we understand the need for early clarity.

On the specific application at Hinkley Point, EDF is carrying out consultations in preparation for submitting a planning application. Realistically, we think that nothing will come forward until this winter or next year, by which time we would expect the national policy statements to have gone through the parliamentary approval process. Given the legal constraints on those issues, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that there is a limit to what I can say at this stage. We have found the consultation process extremely helpful in understanding the wider picture and the views of local communities and national organisations.

Albert Owen: The Minister is being as helpful as he can. On the planning issues, he indicated earlier that when the recommendation is made to the Secretary of State, the same time frame that existed under the old system, which did not get a chance to develop, will be used. Will he indicate roughly what period that will involve? If the companies and developers are going to submit this autumn, when is the unit likely to make its recommendation to the Secretary of State, and how long will the Secretary of State take?

Charles Hendry: A consultation process is ongoing. The expectation of the IPC was three months, and we will be looking at the same sort of period. We will be able to provide further clarity in due course. The other advantage of our approach is that it reduces the risk of judicial review. If someone who is accountable to Parliament-someone who can be called before Select Committees, or who can attend debates in Westminster Hall and elsewhere-has responsibility for a decision, it can clearly be shown that that has received greater democratic scrutiny and it is therefore more robust.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset also rightly mentioned nuclear waste. We must focus clearly on how we manage the new generation of nuclear waste and spent fuel, as well as the legacy issues. When the Secretary of State and I visited Sellafield recently, we were both struck by the magnitude of the challenge facing the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It has put in place significant measures to try to deal with nuclear waste and we now have a system that addresses the magnitude of that challenge. However, we must also ensure that measures are in place to deal with the safe disposal of the new waste that will be generated as a result of a new-build programme.

On the hosting of installations, we have been encouraged to note that three local communities in Cumbria have come forward. We are certainly keen to know whether other communities wish to come forward, because we are absolutely committed to a voluntarist approach. The process will not work if it involves the Government saying to a community, in a national lottery style, "It's going to be you." The local community must buy into the process, be keen to participate and understand the benefit that it would get from hosting a facility. It has been instructive to see how that has been done elsewhere. A couple of years ago, I went to Sweden to look at how
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it is carrying out such a process. Two communities were bidding against each other to host a facility because they could see the benefits. It is clear to us that that will be an important part of the process as we go forward.

We recognise that if we are to stimulate the sort of investment that my hon. Friend talked about, further signals to the market will be necessary. There is a great deal that we can do to remove regulatory burdens and streamline the process. However, at the same time, we recognise that there needs to be greater clarity about the carbon price. I am therefore pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his recent Budget that a consultation on the carbon price will take place this autumn, with a view to setting a floor price. Investors need to know what carbon price they will be paying when these plants come online. It is important to state that such a measure is not a subsidy for nuclear, because we believe that the carbon floor price will drive investment in all low-carbon technologies-nuclear, coal with carbon capture, and renewable technologies. That is one of the most important decisions we will make during this Parliament for the sector.

Finally, I shall mention some of the education issues. It is clear that the people who currently work in the nuclear industry are part of an ageing work force-some 80% of today's industry work force will retire by 2024. Those people have fantastic skill sets and an enormous amount to contribute to the industry, but we must do more to bring a new generation of people into the sector. I am pleased that there have been collaborative projects-for example involving the nuclear advanced manufacturing research centre, to which the Government have committed more than £33 million. That will help to ensure that we take forward opportunities and bring business into the UK supply chain, which we consider to be an important part of the issue. My hon. Friend mentioned the facilities at Bridgwater college. I am glad that it will receive more than £4 million to launch the south-west energy skills centre, which is a specialist nuclear skills training centre. I am also encouraged that EDF already trains about 2,500 people a year nearby at Barnwood, which shows some of the commitment that it is bringing to the sector.

In conclusion, this could be one of the most important energy and industrial sectors for Britain. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is a national issue that needs to be treated as a national challenge and opportunity. I hope that what I have said reassures him of the seriousness with which we are addressing the matter.

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Sarika Singh

1 pm

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I am grateful to have secured this debate, and to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I welcome the new Minister to his post. I hope he hears what I am saying-I welcome the new Minister to his post.

Sarika Watkins-Singh is a young Welsh Punjabi Sikh. In November 2007, as a 14-year-old, she was excluded from Aberdare girls school in my constituency, for refusing to remove the kara, a steel bangle that she wore as an integral part of her Sikh religion. The headmistress had told Sarika that she was not permitted to attend the school wearing the kara, and tried teaching her in isolation, away from her friends and fellow pupils. However, Sarika rightly and bravely continued to argue that she should be allowed to wear the kara, and so the headmistress excluded her from the school.

This has been a sad case from the start, because all that was needed was a bit of common sense and not much more than a cursory understanding of the law. I told the school, first privately and then publicly, that it was making a mistake, and that its action represented a considerable injustice to the young girl. I told the school that if it persisted it would cost it money. I met Sarika and her mother and tried to speak to governors of the school. I spoke to colleagues here in the House of Commons and was told that the civil liberties organisation, Liberty, had already become involved. It seemed clear to me that the school's action contravened the Race Relations Act 1976, the Equality Act 2006 and the Human Rights Act 1998. I urged the school and its governors to think again, and to act in the interests of good race relations. Unfortunately, the school stubbornly stuck to its position.

Sarika, showing courage and determination far beyond her years, continued to stand up for her right to practise her religion and exhibit her Sikh identity, and she pursued a legal case against the school through judicial review. Of course, she won her case, just as I had predicted. The High Court found that the school had indirectly discriminated against Sarika on the grounds of race, contrary to the Race Relations Act, and on the grounds of religion under the Equality Act. As the constituency MP, I repeatedly warned the school and the governors that they should uphold the law and not waste public money on the case. My advice was simply ignored.

In the aftermath of the legal case, it seemed to me that the school had some big questions to answer. It was obvious from the start that the school would lose the legal case but it stubbornly went ahead with fighting it, at, I suspect, considerable expense to local taxpayers. I then asked, on behalf of my constituents, how much the legal case had cost the school and from where the money to pay for it would come: would it come from the school's budget-the budget to pay for school books, teachers and resources for the pupils' education-or had the local authority agreed to provide other public money to support a foolish and unwinnable case? I also wanted to know how the decision to fight the case had been reached. Obviously, I am not a lawyer, but it seemed pretty clear that the school would lose. What legal advice, therefore, had enabled the school and its
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governors to come to their ill-informed decision to defend their position? The school is, of course, a public authority for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and so under that Act I requested that information-and more-of the school's governing body.

I am sorry that this is a lengthy list of events, but it is important to put it on the record. In brief, I first wrote to the chair of governors on 20 February 2008. Following exchanges of letters, it was clear that I was not getting answers on what public money was being spent on the case. I therefore notified the school in March 2008 that I intended to make requests under the Freedom of Information Act. I wrote again to the school on 15 May 2008, requesting that an internal review be conducted, a step required of me before I made any complaint to the Information Commissioner. After the school refused my request, I contacted the Information Commissioner on 29 July 2008, requesting answers to my questions. I also sent a copy of the letter to the school.

I received a reply from the Information Commissioner on 11 September 2008, recommending that the school issue me with an internal review decision within 20 days. The school replied on 16 September 2008, stating that the internal review

It said that my requested review would therefore take place on 24 September 2008. On 23 October 2008, I was notified by the clerk to the governing body that the only answer that the school would disclose was that the judicial review claim had, to date, cost the school £76,699.40.

Following the legal case, I began a fresh request for information in March 2009, by which time there was a new chair of governors. I requested the information and the school ignored my letter. I wrote again on 16 April 2009, and the school denied having received my first letter. The chair of governors then acknowledged the copy that I sent to them of my letter, but was not able to provide any of the information. I replied to him in May 2009, suggesting that we extend the deadline by another 20 days. The school then replied on 27 May 2009, refusing to provide the information, but not giving appropriate reasons in line with the Freedom of Information Act. I wrote to the school on 9 June 2009 asking it to conduct an internal review of its decision to refuse to provide the information. The school replied on 6 July 2009, sticking to its decision to refuse to provide the information. I wrote to the Information Commissioner on 15 July 2009, initiating a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner's Office wrote to the school on 7 October 2009, and the chair of the governing body wrote to me on 8 October, disclosing that the costs in relation to the judicial review had escalated to £170,000.

The Information Commissioner had given the school until 4 November 2009 to provide a copy of the disputed-withheld-information and to give any further arguments it had for withholding information. On 23 November 2009 the Information Commissioner said:

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Three weeks later, the Information Commissioner wrote again, saying that, unfortunately, despite her assurances in her letter of 23 November 2009 that the authority now had a full understanding,

We are now in July 2010, and I am still being sent around in circles. I believe that the school fully understood the situation but was still playing for time. In a letter dated 19 January 2010, the Information Commissioner told me that the 30-day deadline for a response from the school had passed. The ICO said that it was writing to the governing body again, giving it a further 14 days to respond, and thanked me for my continued patience. My patience has now run out.

On 20 January, the ICO said that the matter had been passed to the Information Commissioner's solicitors because the school had appealed to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights). The ICO informed me on 27 April that it had decided to cancel the first information notice, and that it had written on two further occasions to request the information from the school, but that the information remained outstanding.

In my letter of 17 May, I asked why the original information notice dated 17 December 2009 had been cancelled. I was told that it was on the advice of the ICO's legal team, because-it is worth emphasising this-the governing body of Aberdare girls school had complained that the notice was addressed to Aberdare girls school rather than to the governing body of Aberdare girls school. The ICO admitted that that was an error and sincerely apologised for it, but clearly this is just another excuse by the school for yet further delay.

The ICO issued a second information notice in May 2010, but the school appealed to the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) on 27 May. In a further letter on 27 May, the ICO stated that it cannot make further progress in the investigation of my complaint until the tribunal makes a decision.

More than two years on, that is where the case sits now. I am told by the ICO that further progress cannot be made with the investigation of my complaint until the tribunal has ruled on the appeal, and that that is likely to be some months away. In effect, the school has run rings around the law to avoid explaining how much money has been wasted on a stupid, ill-considered action to defend the indefensible.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information published a report in July last year about delays in investigating freedom of information complaints. Its survey showed long delays in the processing of such complaints. The report states:

That is very much my view.

I am aware that the ICO's annual report will be published tomorrow. Perhaps the Minister might be able to say something about that. However, whatever the deficiencies in the ICO or the law, the advent of the
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Freedom of Information Act should be celebrated. It was one of the triumphs of the Labour Government, and it enables us, the public, to subject public authorities to the kind of scrutiny that was never possible before. It gives us access to all the inconvenient and embarrassing bits of information that some public authorities would rather not disclose.

However, public confidence and the effectiveness of the Act are being undermined by the difficulty in pursuing complaints against authorities that refuse to release information that the Act requires them to release. The problem is that it is just too easy for public authorities to obstruct the process. If they ignore enough letters, miss enough deadlines and pretend that they do not really know what is happening and why, they will be able successfully to evade an information request for a long enough period to diminish the detrimental impact, reduce embarrassment and avoid the accountability that release of the information would cause. In this case, a possible reorganisation in the near future of the school concerned means that accountability can be brushed under the carpet because it suits the authority concerned.

I assure the House that I will not let this case rest until the truth-the whole truth-comes out, and those who are responsible for what has been done to their community and for impoverishing the resources of the school are named. Their actions have been irresponsible and a disgrace. Deadlines must be more strictly enforced. A reply being required within 20 days should mean that failure to provide a reply in that time is a breach of the Act and subject to sanction, and failure to release information that is required under the Act should also be a breach of the Act and subject to sanction.

The Sarika Singh case received national news attention. It led on the "News at Ten" and made the headlines in many newspapers. It was a long and arduous case for a courageous 14-year-old schoolgirl to go through, and it was an important and contentious case for my constituents. It established important precedents for schools throughout the country in respect of respecting pupils' rights to give expression to their religion. The public have a right to know how the governing body of Aberdare girls school came to its decision to pursue the legal case and, in particular, how much public money was spent.

Yesterday, I received an addition to my vast file of correspondence on the subject. I received a letter from the commissioner, which states:

The case has cost the school at least £170,000, but I do not yet know whether that is the full extent of it. The final figure is yet to be revealed-it may well be much more. As an elected representative, I have asked questions of the school and its governing body on behalf of the public. All the information is held by the school, and none of it is difficult to provide. I believe that the reasons for non-disclosure have been to shield those who are responsible from the disapproval of the public for reasons that they may now regret.

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1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on securing this debate on a matter that I am sure will be of interest to many hon. Members because of its wider impact. I thank her for working with the Justice Department in preparation for the debate and would like to say up front how much I admire her determination in this case to seek transparency from a public body as provided for by the law.

The Government are committed to enhancing transparency, as was made clear by the coalition agreement. We are already making available a wide range of information in line with the agreement. For example, the Treasury's combined online information system, or COINS, database on UK Government expenditure, which was provided by Government Departments, has been published at The website also has information about special advisers working in Government Departments, as well as the numbers of staff, consultants, contractors and agency staff working in Departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies.

That is just the start. Much more information will be made available over the coming weeks and months to increase transparency and accountability in the public sector. Of course, proactively making information available forms just one part of our commitment. Ensuring the effective operation of the Freedom of Information Act is also key to transparent and accountable government. It is vital that the public be able to request information that is of interest to them directly from public authorities, and that that is provided where it is in the public interest to do so. But the buck does not stop with the public authority. It is equally important that the Act be enforced in a robust and timely manner by the Information Commissioner. The same applies in relation to the other legislation that the commissioner has responsibility for, such as the Data Protection Act 1998.

The issue of robust and timely regulation is the focus of this debate. The right hon. Lady is right to be alert to the challenges that continue to be posed by the maintenance of a robust and efficient FOI regime. However, I hope that she will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specific case at the heart of this debate, as it is ongoing and is the subject of an appeal to the First-Tier Tribunal General Regulatory Chamber.

The right hon. Lady has made plain her feelings about the situation. She is correct to identify delays in processing requests at the Information Commissioner's Office, which were highlighted in the report published in July 2009 by the Campaign for Freedom of Information, as she mentioned. She also noted that the original information notice was wrongly issued due to ICO error, but that she has received an apology from the ICO in relation to that.

The CFI report highlighted a catalogue of delays based on an analysis of almost 500 decision notices issued by the Information Commissioner's Office between 1 October 2007 and 31 March 2009. The report calculated that it took an average of 19.7 months to issue a decision notice and stated that it took between one and two years to issue a decision notice in 46% of cases. In one quarter of cases, it took between two and three
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years to issue a decision notice. Although those figures say nothing of the many cases that were resolved informally, without recourse to a decision notice over the period, it was still a pretty damning picture. However, very significant progress has and is still being made to rectify that situation.

The current Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, took up office in June 2009, just before the Campaign for Freedom of Information published its report. Following his appointment, Mr Graham recognised the impact that the backlog of cases has had on the performance of his office and announced his intention to


The clearance of the backlog of FOI cases was identified as one of his top priorities. I am pleased to say that he has made significant progress in clearing the backlog of old FOI cases that he inherited. In the first three months of 2010 alone, for instance, more than 1,000 cases were closed; the number of cases over one year old was halved; and the average age of cases fell by 34%. Those impressive results have continued. Between 1 April 2009 and 1 April 2010, the number of cases more than two years old fell by 91% and the number of cases more than one year old fell by 72%. That is a very significant achievement, of which Mr Graham and his staff can be justifiably proud, especially in the face of rising demands for the ICO's services. However, both Mr Graham and the Ministry of Justice recognise that there is no room for complacency. Efforts to maintain and improve the level of performance must be maintained.

The commissioner will publish his annual report tomorrow, as the right hon. Lady said. Although she will understand that I cannot disclose its contents today, I have no doubt that she will be encouraged by the progress that it will show.

The current economic climate is, of course, extremely challenging, but the Government are committed to providing the ICO with the best deal possible to maintain its progress and to fulfil its vital role. I have to say that this is not just about money; it is also about people and expertise. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will be interested to know that three experienced caseworkers have been seconded from central Government, helping to cut through the ICO's backlog.

The commissioner has made great strides to improve the efficiency of his operation to provide increasing value for money. That is evidenced in the remarkable increase in case clearance that I have just mentioned. The programme of work is holistic and ongoing and includes a fresh look at all processes; the integration of FOI and data protection staff to achieve greater flexibility in the ICO's resources; the introduction of a triage system for casework; greater emphasis on the informal resolution of cases; the production of more concise decision notices; and increasing the numbers of staff authorised to sign off formal decisions.

Of course, the speed with which requests are dealt with is only one part of the picture. An effective commissioner must have sufficient enforcement powers to hand to perform his role-a point made strongly by
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the right hon. Lady-including the power to require a public authority to provide him with information through an information notice, and a power to require a public authority to take a particular course of action, through an enforcement notice. The commissioner has stated that he will readily use those powers against public authorities and has increasingly done so. It is worth bearing it in mind that non-compliance with either an information or enforcement notice from the commissioner is a criminal offence. That has been key to ensuring greater compliance from recalcitrant authorities. However, in a democratic society, it is only right that a public authority has a right of appeal against such notices and the FOI Act provides for that.

Sometimes the process can feel frustratingly slow for those trying to access information. The right hon. Lady knows how it feels, as she said during her long description of what she had to go through. I understand that she wanted to put the process on the record so that we can learn from what happened in her situation. However, we should not allow frustration to override the right of public authorities and requesters to challenge decisions where they think they have a right to do so.

Debates such as these prompt us to reconsider whether the ICO's powers of enforcement and public authorities' right of appeal are appropriate, fair and balanced. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we will keep returning to the matter, because it is of central importance in ensuring that both individuals and organisations can exercise the rights that we want them to have. Any unnecessary obstacles, such as delays, must be-and are being-tackled to make sure that personal data are protected and that information that should be released is released as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It is important that we continue to support the commissioner, as his work is at the heart of the Government's transparency agenda. The commissioner will publish his annual report tomorrow and the right hon. Lady will have the opportunity to see it. I am sure that she will be pleased to note the steps that the Government have already taken and will continue to take to make more information available to the public, shedding light on public affairs, from the corridors of Whitehall to the meeting rooms of borough councils and local schools.

The right hon. Lady specifically asked me to say whether the commissioner has enough power to regulate the freedom of information regime effectively. We believe that, as things stand, that is so. The powers are there. The commissioner can issue information notices, which require public authorities to provide the information requested, and can issue enforcement notices that do not require an initial complaint to be made to the ICO. One can technically start off with an enforcement notice straight away, if it is appropriate. It is a criminal offence not to comply with those notices, and if public bodies do not comply the commissioner can refer the matter to the courts to be dealt with as contempt of court.

Under section 49 of the Freedom of Information Act, the commissioner presents annual reports to Parliament, as will happen tomorrow, on the exercising of his functions and can lay further reports as he sees fit. Those reports can raise criticisms of public bodies' handling of FOI. Furthermore, under schedule 3, if the commissioner reasonably suspects that public bodies are failing to comply with any of the requirements of
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the Act, he can seek a warrant from a circuit judge, granting the ICO the right to inspect premises, seize information and retain it for as long as necessary, unless it is under cover of legal privilege.

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Minor Injuries Services (Devizes)

1.30 pm

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr Streeter, for chairing the debate. I believe that your constituency is also devoid of minor injuries units, so you might pay particular attention to the debate. I am also grateful to colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for taking time out of their hectic schedules to attend. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who, as many will know, worked selflessly on the judicial review that resulted from the shutdown of services at Savernake hospital. If I had a pound for every time I was told during my selection campaign, "If Guy Opperman was standing, you would not stand a chance," I would be a very rich woman today. Thankfully, we have both made it to this place and can campaign together on this and other important topics.

I am also especially grateful to the Minister for attending, as I know that the launch of his team's momentous proposals yesterday means that he must have an extremely long "to do" list. I would also like to mention briefly my local paper, the Gazette and Herald, which is a tireless campaigner against the loss of our local health services, as well as the hundreds of other individuals in the constituency who have protested, petitioned, written letters, held meetings and tried their best to roll back the tide of closure and service erosion.

I want to mention briefly the DASH2 group-Devizes Action to Save Our Hospital-and the new Devizes health matters forum, which was set up only this month to try to resolve the impasse we have reached. I will also mention the CASH group-Community Action for Savernake Hospital-which fought long and hard to keep open the day hospital and the minor injuries unit at Savernake hospital in Marlborough. That hospital was completely rebuilt in 2005 under a PFI contract that will cost taxpayers almost £70 million over 25 years, but the services at its core-the day hospital and the minor injuries unit-closed less than a year after it reopened. The hospital now hosts a multitude of services completely unrelated to local health care, such as the eating disorders clinic for patients of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire mental health partnership, while Wiltshire primary care trust scrambles to pay its unitary charges.

For my constituency, which is the 25th largest in England by land area and home to more than 91,000 people, the past 13 years of NHS management has meant multiple top-down initiatives, a continual reshuffling of priorities and the management of local health services by quangos. The result is clear: a slow and steady erosion of our local health services, despite the protests of clinicians, patients and politicians. Let me refresh people's memories of what we have lost. In the Devizes hospital, the UNICEF award-winning maternity unit, the in-patients' facilities, the minor injuries services and now the X-ray department have all gone. In Marlborough, the day hospital, the maternity unit, the minor injuries facilities and now 50% of in-patient beds have also gone. That pattern has been replicated throughout the rest of Wiltshire as services have been farmed out to neighbourhood or community teams-they
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can deliver good outcomes in some cases, but not all-or concentrated in larger hospitals in Swindon, Bath and Salisbury.

In January 2007, Wiltshire PCT set out its vision for services in the now infamous document "Reforming community services in Wiltshire", which announced the closure of minor injuries units in Devizes and Marlborough and the axing of a host of other services, which was driven in large part by the burgeoning financial deficit that the PCT had inherited after the merger of three other organisations. In my view, the loss of reliable local minor injuries services was the most keenly felt of all the changes. My constituents literally have nowhere to go locally if they suffer a fall, cut, wound or some type of minor trauma. Nurse practitioner-led minor injuries units had served the constituency well for years. They were well used, cost-effective in comparison with sending patients to far more high-spec accident and emergency departments, and extremely popular. Indeed, with the exception of the head of the PCT, I could find no one-literally not one person-who though that it was a good decision to close those minor injuries units and ask people to travel instead to Trowbridge, Chippenham, the Great Western hospital or a walk-in centre in Swindon, the Royal United hospital in Bath or Salisbury district hospital.

My constituency ranks among the 20 lowest by population density in England, with only 20 people per hectare. Members who have visited Devizes-I hope that many will-will know that there are almost no dual carriageways, no railway connections between our major towns and few direct bus services. As a result, there are extended journey times, which is particularly problematic for families or individuals without full-time access to private transport, who account for 25% of the people in Devizes.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way in this crucial debate that she has secured for Wiltshire residents. I want to highlight a concern that supports her specific point about public transport. When the Great Western hospital in Swindon was set up in my constituency, there was an emphasis on green travel, so there was a limit on parking provision. The residents of Devizes who are sent to Swindon almost invariable come by car, and there simply is not adequate parking provision.

Claire Perry: I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. We have built hospitals following the sound principle of encouraging local travel and walk-ins, but the major service review forgot that most bus services do not run to the existing services from the places where minor injuries services used to be provided. In fact, it is impossible to take a bus from Marlborough to any of the six suggested units for minor injuries services.

I was interested to learn what the current PCT guidance recommends, so last night I phoned NHS Direct and asked what I was to do if I had a bad cut and lived in Pewsey, which, as many will know, is in the centre of my constituency and, as home to around 4,000 people, one of the largest villages in the area. I was advised to go to Swindon hospital's A and E unit, which is considered to be a journey of only 16 miles. However, as we know, the concept of "as the crow flies" does not give a good indication of distance in rural constituencies. In fact, a
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simple search on Google maps reveals that that journey takes between 38 and 46 minutes by private car, which is far too long for a mother of a child with a bleeding head wound, or the carer of an older person with a fracture that needs immediate attention.

Let us consider the journey that the residents of Honeystreet, a lovely village in the heart of my constituency, would be advised to take to get to the nearest service. By private car, it would take them 37 minutes to get to Chippenham hospital, or 40 minutes to Trowbridge hospital. In fact, there is only one other constituency with a lower population density and no minor injuries provision: South West Norfolk. Most of the other spread-out rural constituencies are blessed with more than one such unit. Indeed, they trumpet their facilities as being appropriate for populations in a rural area. North Devon has four units, Rutland and Melton has three, and the nearby constituency of The Cotswolds also has three units. Those constituencies all have population densities that are similar to or slightly lower than that of Devizes.

We might all be asking how the situation has arisen. I submit that it is because decisions about our local health care have been taken by decision makers who were unelected and unaccountable, and often uninterested in the local consequences of their actions. It was not because they were bad, malicious or unintelligent-there are many good and dedicated health care professionals in the PCT-but because the whole system rewarded top-down compliance with central Government diktat and ignored the needs and wishes of the population. Indeed, when I went to see the head of Wiltshire PCT only last week about the proposals in the White Paper that we have heard about, he said that he had no intention of reopening the minor injuries units that we have lost and that there was no case for doing so. I would like the Minister's opinion of whether a case can be made for those services.

I would like to cite four facts to frame the debate. The population in my constituency, as is the case across much of rural Britain, continues to grow. There is a population flow from the cities to the villages and hamlets of the UK. The population in my constituency has increased by 5% since the turn of the decade. Indeed, part of the support for the redevelopment of Savernake hospital resulted from the prediction of 20% population growth in the Swindon area.

The Alberti report "Emergency Access", which was published by the NHS in 2006, suggested that it was better clinically and more cost-effective to send patients out of A and E departments and into local urgent care centres where more nurses, paramedics and nurse-led emergency care practitioners could be used to treat them. I am grateful to the PCT for providing data showing that, in the past year, there have been 17,086 attendances by patients registered in my constituency at the minor injuries units in Trowbridge and Chippenham, and the A and E departments in Salisbury and Bath. As I have already stated, the journeys that people have to take to access those facilities are unacceptable. The cost of providing the services at the current tariff is £1.352 million.

With our new localism agenda, and given the cost that the PCT is paying for minor injury services for my constituents, surely a business case could be made for restarting a minor injury service in the constituency, as
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long as the total cost was below the current tariff. Some doctors in Devizes and Marlborough have expressed an interest in restarting the service and having it delivered by nurse practitioners located in their practices. Premises are certainly available in which the service could be located, including the half-empty and shuttered Savernake hospital.

Will the Minister tell us how, in the light of our NHS reforms, we can move the process forward? The current PCT, which will be in existence for at least another two and a half years, has no interest in recommissioning the service, so can we go around it in the interim period and use sustainable communities legislation, for example, to get back those services that we so desperately need?

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I commend the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Some years ago, when the closures first happened, we petitioned Wiltshire county council's health overview and scrutiny committee to intervene on our behalf. I will be grateful if the Minister indicates whether it had a role to play in standing up for the residents, constituents and patients who have written to the hon. Lady and me. Melksham in my constituency has lost its minor injury unit, and it was far closer to her constituents than the one in Chippenham.

Claire Perry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that excellent point. It is interesting that a subtopic of the debate is the PCT's failure to deliver a new primary care centre in Devizes, which was promised as part of the quid pro quo when the closure announcements were made. When I suggested last week that perhaps the time had come to rip up the original plans that seem to be stymieing progress, return to the drawing board and ask whether we can deliver a hospital in Devizes under the current constraints, I was referred back to the council's overview and scrutiny committee, which clearly has an important role to play in defining the services that we need for our local community. Will the Minister say whether, instead of waiting until 2013, we can submit pilot proposals to the national commissioning body when it is up and running and start to make progress, for example by looking for voluntary sector partners to begin a pilot programme?

There are few things that unite all the people in my constituency, but the feeling that we have been short-changed by our PCT and the NHS over the past 13 years is almost universal. I am sure that we are all united in welcoming the exciting proposals that the Secretary of State announced yesterday, and I know that the ideas of equality, excellence and liberating the NHS, and the possibility of getting back some of our minor injury services, make my pulse beat a little faster.

1.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr Simon Burns): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) on securing this important debate. I know that local health services are a top priority for her and that she campaigned vigorously before coming to the House, and has done so since, as we have heard today, on behalf of her constituents to ensure that she obtains the best health care provision for the people she so ably represents. I admire her dedication and determination in fighting that battle for her constituents.
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I pay tribute to the NHS staff in Devizes and throughout Wiltshire for the excellent care and dedication that they provide day in, day out when looking after my hon. Friend's constituents and those of other hon. Members in the county.

My hon. Friend is aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has launched our White Paper on liberating the national health service. It is our vision for freeing the NHS from the shackles of politicians and bureaucrats in Whitehall, giving power to people locally, and working with clinicians and general practitioners to provide those services that local communities in Devizes, Wiltshire and the country need. It is a vision for making the NHS more accountable to patients, whether my hon. Friend's constituents in Devizes or people elsewhere. We want to free staff from excessive bureaucracy and top-down control. We want patients to be at the heart of everything that the NHS does and we want local people to have more choice and control than they have ever had and a greater say in their treatment, their needs and their health requirements. People in Devizes and the other small towns and villages that my hon. Friend mentioned will be in charge of making decisions about their care and provision of health requirements.

My hon. Friend has outlined the strength of feeling in her constituency for local minor injury services, and the support for the NHS generally. The minor injury units for Devizes and Marlborough at Savernake community hospital closed in September 2007, and my hon. Friend and her constituents were, understandably, disappointed at the decision, and have been frustrated by the difficulties and delays that have resulted from it. I am aware that people living in different parts of her constituency access different minor injury units, including those at the community hospitals at Trowbridge, Chippenham, Andover and Newbury, and that minor injury treatment continues to be available at the A and E departments in the acute hospitals in Salisbury, Bath and Swindon. As my hon. Friend rightly said, transport access causes problems for some of her constituents. I have considerable sympathy with the points she made about that.

I am also aware that my hon. Friend's constituency covers a large rural area. She gave some interesting figures and comparisons with other rural constituencies when making her point so powerfully. I understand her desire for local minor injury units that are accessible as quickly as possible to her constituents. But I must be frank with her. Given where we are at the moment and the processes that have taken place in her county and constituency on reconfiguration of services, I am unable to ask the NHS to open previously conceded processes, or to halt those that have passed the point of no return. I know that that will disappoint my hon. Friend, but I am afraid that at the moment we are where we are because of previous decisions and the degree to which they are in process.

My hon. Friend asked what could be done, and whether pilot schemes could be introduced as a forerunner to the abolition of PCTs in 2013, and she suggested other ways of working with outside interests. I want to give her as clear a steer as possible, and unfortunately, until the PCTs are closed and cease to exist in 2013, due processes and proper procedures must be adopted to move forward. Until they are phased out from 2013, the PCTs will continue to have the same responsibilities
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that they have now for the provision and commissioning of health care in the areas for which they are responsible, including Wiltshire.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) for carrying on the work that we have all been doing for a considerable period on hospitals in Wiltshire. I spent three years of my life trying to keep them open. The Minister is saying that in reality, whatever the situation, despite the Health Secretary saying in 2007 that clinical need should justify closure, despite this being fundamentally an accounting measure, and despite decisions apparently not being reviewed before 2013, people are desperate for a hospital to reopen that is pre-existing, prepaid and sitting there-

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be brief.

Guy Opperman: It is a long question. I apologise, Mr Streeter, but the hospital is still there, and capable of being used. With the greatest respect, I fail to see why it is not being used.

Mr Burns: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention and I fully appreciate his frustration at the situation. I also appreciate the greater frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, because her constituency is directly affected by the issue that we are discussing. I repeat: we are where we are. We have a vision of a health service that works from the bottom up rather than the top down. However, until the changes occur, we are in a straitjacket because of procedures currently in place that have to be adopted.

Before the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), I was responding to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes about the way forward. I hope to give her a glimmer of hope and I will give her some advice about how I see the situation, both as a constituency MP and as a Minister. As long as we are in what is effectively an interim period since the publication of yesterday's White Paper, with the PCTs still commissioning services and having the lead role, I advise her to continue her spirited and dedicated campaign to get what she seeks for her constituents. She should continue seeking to persuade the PCT, local clinicians, GPs and the local community to stay onside in the desire to establish a minor injuries unit, and ensure that the other care services she mentioned are instigated for her constituents. At the moment, that route is the only way forward because the PCTs are the commissioning agents.

I urge my hon. Friend to continue her campaign in the hope that during the interim period over the next three years, she will see a change of heart if that is possible. If it is not possible, when the changes come in, she should use the new system to seek to persuade those in charge of reconfigurations and the provision of services to reinstate the services that she so passionately and rightly believes are needed and deserved by her constituents. That is my advice. It may not be as palatable as she would hope, but I know that she will appreciate and understand that under current circumstances, we have not yet changed the system. That vision was announced yesterday and it is a vision for the future.

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Claire Perry: By 2013, if we get our ducks in a row, get our clinicians onside and our draft contracts drawn up, will we be able to present that business plan-in whatever forum we are in-to the national commissioning body and have some chance of success? Is there hope that within a three-year period before the next election we might get those services back under a new contract commissioned by the central body?

Mr Burns: Obviously, I cannot give a commitment that my hon. Friend would be successful. I wish her well in her endeavours, but it is not for me to prejudge what might happen. She is certainly right that if she puts all her ducks in a row-as she put it-with a business plan for what she believes her constituents need, she can present it to the national commissioning board and to GP consortiums in her area. Everybody will then work together, and make an overwhelming case for what my hon. Friend wants to see delivered for the local people of Devizes and her constituency.

As my hon. Friend will accept, "The times they are a-changin'". The Government's approach is different from the top-down approach taken by the previous Government. We believe that local decision making is essential to improve outcomes for patients and drive up quality. We will do more than just talk about pushing power to the local level; as the Secretary of State's White Paper shows, we are going to do it and make the dream a reality. That will be of considerable help to my hon. Friend in her campaign.

Given my hon. Friend's experiences during her ongoing battle, she will agree that we must move away from having Whitehall dictate how care should be delivered in Devizes, Westbury or any other town or village in Wiltshire. We believe that change must be driven from the bottom up, and that the patient must be the heart of health care provision. The patient must be put first; their interests and quality of health care is the No. 1 priority, not the decisions, ramifications and shenanigans of politicians and civil servants.

In future, all service changes must be led by clinicians and patients, not driven by Ministers such as me, or civil servants from the Department of Health. Only then will the NHS achieve the quality improvements that we all want to see.

Duncan Hames: In his search for local accountability in decision making, it would be helpful if the Minister advised hon. Members where in the process the public's demand for these services will be heard. Is there a role for locally elected politicians to secure influence in determining outcomes through the health overview and scrutiny committees of our local councils?

Mr Burns: If the hon. Gentleman refers to current arrangements, he will no doubt be aware that in late May, the Secretary of State announced changes to the criteria that need to be taken into account in any reconfigurations currently under way-providing that those reconfigurations are not so far advanced that it would be impossible to reverse them-and any future reconfigurations. The main priorities include taking into account the views of local people, clinicians and GPs and ensuring that health care is relevant for the local area.

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If the hon. Gentleman is asking what will happen after the changes in the White Paper, let me say that once the PCTs are wound down and abolished, there will be a transfer of powers to the national commissioning board and all that flows downwards from that. Provision and responsibility for the commissioning and delivery of health care in a local area will be linked to local authorities, and accountability will be through local authority input with locally elected representatives. Public health is currently dealt with through the input from the primary local authority level in each area. That is where the accountability will be. The predominant point is that because one must have a locally driven health service, the wishes of the patient-not only in their individual care but in the requirements of the local community-must be fundamental to the decision about units or configurations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend are reassured by that.

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In conclusion, I once again pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her commitment and dedication in fighting so hard for her constituents, not only before the election but afterwards. She has been in the House for about eight weeks, and she has already made her mark fighting for her constituents on the issue that she promised, during those long days in April, to take to Westminster. She is now in Westminster and has brought the issue to the debate today. I have every confidence that she will continue to use the means available to her in the House to pursue her agenda, and that she will mobilise support in her constituency to ensure that the issue does not go away. She will be determined to get what she believes to be the best health care for her community, and I wish her every success.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).

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