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David Tredinnick: I absolutely agree. What is going on in coffee shops is a debate in itself, but coffee used to be taken in very small quantities. It was not intended that we should have so much caffeine in our system.

My last point is about size—the size of portions and the sizing of clothes. I was very touched when, on the day we came back from the recess last week, one of our colleagues came into the Chamber and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and one or two others were saying how slim and how wonderful he looked—he had better be nameless because I did not talk to him about the fact that I might refer to him in this debate. He said, “Yes, I’ve lost a lot of weight,” and I think that it was my hon. Friend who said, “How did you do it?” He said, “I’m eating half as much food as I used to eat.” He is eating half as much food—it is not rocket science.

How about suggesting to people that sometimes they do not need to eat as much food? For those who have a faith, may I remind them that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins? This wonderful stone-age body that we have knows when it has had enough food. The problem is that we override the system too much. We are not taught moderation. Instead of trying to eat smaller portions, we tend to overeat and eat very large meals. We are not helped by the restaurant industry and the food industry, which are constantly trying to pile our plates higher and higher, with triple or quadruple deckers and vast portions. The same applies to children’s food. That is a problem.

On the sizes of clothes, I have some reliable research from someone well known to me. In the mid-1970s, a lady weighing 7 stone with a 24-inch waist would buy a skirt in a size 10; in 2011, the same person, whose waist has increased by three quarters of an inch, buys a size 8 or 6 because the size 10 is far too large. The industry has created a completely new range of sizes to accommodate the population. The largest size used to be size 18; it is now 20 to 22. People who are buying a particular size, thinking that they are a certain weight, are actually much larger than they think they are. That is very unsatisfactory.

Some of my hon. Friends touched on sport. Sport is fantastic; it is so important, and we have the Olympics coming to this country next year. Obese children do not play much sport. They cannot because they cannot get on the pitch—they are too big—so they miss on that wonderful opportunity. With the Olympics round the corner, surely this is the best time to take every possible measure and all steps in the Minister’s power to reduce obesity among children.

12.5 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on calling this very important debate. I also congratulate you, Ms Dorries. I am sure that you have chaired many debates, but this is the first time that I have spoken under your distinguished chairmanship.

When we discuss childhood obesity, we should be clear that we are talking not about how children look but about how they feel, because one of the problems with debates about body size is that they can have an element of judgmentalism, which makes the issue more difficult and emotional for people. I think that we can

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all agree, as a Chamber, that everyone’s child is loveable and everyone’s child is beautiful. We do not want to get into being judgmental about body size, because the other side of the coin from childhood obesity is childhood eating disorders—particularly among girls, but also, increasingly, among boys.

I want to touch on the introductory remarks made by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth about the origins of childhood obesity. She talked about parenting. I do not disagree with anything that she said, but let us stand back and realise that we live in a world that has changed since the days when Nye Bevan set up the national health service. At that time, fewer than one in 10 households had a television and fewer than a third owned a car. Nowadays, 98% of households have at least one television, if not two or three, and 19.5 million households own a car.

When the NHS was set up, the only form of processed food available was spam. Now, there is an infinite variety of processed food; it is possible to eat it three times a day, with all the problems of trans fats, added sugar and so on that that involves. It is also the case that when the NHS was set up, many more people did manual labour. We are looking at a world that has changed. It is not just that people are making different personal choices; they live in a much less mobile, much less active, much more sedentary world.

When I was a child, I was not as sporty as some of the Government Members present, but in the summer holidays I would have my breakfast and then go out and play all day. Children played out all day. Their parents did not worry about where they were; they just knew that they were playing out. Children played down back alleys and in other people’s gardens. We might or might not come home for lunch, but we came home for tea. I am a parent myself—my son is now 19—and I would not have dreamt of letting him play out on the streets of London. Whereas parents 30 or 40 years ago thought nothing of letting their children play out unsupervised, nowadays parents feel much happier if their children are at home watching television or playing a computer game. They think that they are being good parents and they are certainly less fearful parents.

When I was a child, children routinely walked to school. Now, I see children driven to school over much shorter distances than I used to cover when I walked to school. Again, those parents think that they are being good parents. Perhaps my family was not as grand as those of some hon. Members, but when I was a child, we always sat down for a family meal together. We waited for my father to come home from work and we all sat down and ate as a family. There was not the snacking that my son routinely did when he was at home. Our world is very different from Nye Bevan’s.

Even over the past 20 or 30 years, however, the world has changed. People’s notions of what it means to be a good parent have been attenuated, certainly in big cities, although things may be different in Shropshire and more rural areas. In big cities, people think being a good parent means having their child safely at home. They think it means that their child is never hungry and that there is always food in the fridge to feed them. They think it means that they must feed their child the most

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heavily advertised and expensive products. The issue is not, therefore, just one of individual choices; we live in a changing society with changing ideas about parenthood.

Altogether, this is a more sedentary and materialistic society. As Members have said, even if children are active at school, that activity will stop when they leave. That is particularly true of girls. There are also the attractions of television. When I was a child, there was no daytime television, so children could not sit at home in the daytime watching television. We were out in the garden, on the swing or up the park; we were chasing people up and down, shouting at our brother and doing all the things that helped us work off the calories bit by bit.

We live in a changed world, which is part of the reason why we have seen a gradual increase in children leading more sedentary lifestyles, eating more processed food and snacking on processed food between meals. When I was a child, the only form of fast food was fish and chips or food from a Wimpy bar. I remember begging my father to take me to a Wimpy bar, which I thought was the height of sophistication and glamour. There was no question of children routinely stopping off at some fast-food shop on the way home from school or having fast food between meals; we lived in a very different world.

What can the Government do in a world that has changed and become commodified—one in which the average British child recognises nearly 400 brand names? We have touched on a number of issues that I am interested to hear the Minister talk about. In particular, there is the issue of what happens in school. As we have heard, one important thing is that children can learn to cook in school and can be taught about good nutrition. There is also the issue of the sort of school meals that are made available. There was some resistance to Jamie Oliver-type school meals, particularly when they were introduced at secondary school level, but introducing children to healthy food at primary school will set up habits that see them through life.

There is also the issue of food labelling. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about traffic-light labelling, which is the easiest for mothers in places such as Hackney to understand. Mothers there are not going to read a label or to try to do the sums to work out how many calories there are in a packet of food if there are 60 calories per 100 grams. However, a traffic-light label in red, yellow and green is easy for them to understand.

I will be interested to hear the Minister explain how the commissioning model of health care in public health will engage with these issues. I am particularly interested to hear what she says about the extent to which Change4Life is working with the food industry. As one Member said, we might as well have the Silk Cut marathon, but I have an open mind and I am waiting to hear what the Minister has to say.

Childhood obesity is about how our children feel, not how they look. If somebody was a little chubby when I was a child, people used to say, “Oh, she’ll grow out of it,” but 70% of obese children stay obese well into adult life, with all the outcomes we are so familiar with in terms of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and blood pressure.

The striking thing about child obesity in 2011 is the extent to which it is a problem of poverty in the United Kingdom and the United States. Historically, it and the

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gout that went with it were problems that rich people had. Increasingly, however, heroes in popular culture in America and elsewhere are strikingly obese, which never used to be the case. Obesity is a problem of poverty; it is about a lack of information and a lack of access to a healthy diet.

We have heard about the increase in the numbers and about the real danger that significant numbers of today’s children will live shorter lives than their parents and spend their lives in poor health. We as a political class, and the Government, cannot simply leave childhood obesity as a matter of parental or children’s choice. Of course, choice is a big issue, but we have to set out a policy framework, whether it relates to schools, labelling or schemes such as Change4Life.

We have to set out a policy framework that makes things easier for parents, who are under more pressure than ever from commodification and materialism, and who are more frightened than ever about simply letting their children out to play. We have to set out a policy framework that makes it easier for parents, including Members of the House, to make the right decisions and to determine not only how their children look now, but how their health will be in years to come.

12.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries? I have not had the pleasure before. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on securing the debate. I thank her and other Members for their contributions. I noticed that the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) stayed on from the previous debate because she was so riveted by my hon. Friend’s contribution. It is good to see that, because we perhaps do not see it as much as we would like in this Chamber.

My hon. Friend eloquently highlighted not only the scale of the problem and its costs in her constituency, but the individual consequences and the health impact. She was absolutely right, however, to say that this is not just a health issue, and if we need to get one thing across today, it is that. The Prime Minister set up a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Public Health because we need sign-up from all Departments. This is everybody’s business; it is about local government, education, transport and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and it requires action on every level.

I was not in the country for the royal wedding on Friday, sadly, because I was attending a World Health Organisation conference in Moscow on non-communicable diseases. Along with smoking, alcohol and lack of exercise, obesity is one of the major issues facing the world, and it was interesting to hear some of the interesting ideas that are coming forward.

There is no doubt that tackling the problem of obesity, particularly in children, is key. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was right to raise the associations between obesity and deprivation. Obesity was, and still is in some developing countries, a problem for wealthier people, but we are now seeing a switch, with obesity now being associated with deprivation.

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My hon. Friend and other Members mentioned MEND. She also mentioned the importance of the Olympic legacy and food labelling, and I will deal with those points in my remarks.

As Members are aware, the Government published their public health White Paper last year. It set out the scale of the public health challenge ahead of us and the Government’s approach to improving health and well-being.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington mentioned parenting, which involves some really complex issues. There is the issue of what constitutes a good parent. Am I not a good parent if my fridge is not full? The hon. Lady rightly touched on that. Am I not a good parent if I do not make my children clean their plate at every meal? My generation was brought up on the idea that what children do not eat one day, they have cold in their sandwiches for tea the next day. We need to approach such attitudes.

The White Paper signalled the Government’s commitment to addressing the current trend. This is not about just the governmental costs, but the social costs and the burden of disease. The latest figures show that 61% of adults and 28% of children aged between two and 10 in England are overweight or obese. Those figures are enormous. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth mentioned the publication of a report by the London assembly. We know that in her area nearly a quarter of children in year 6 are obese—one quarter, one out of every four children, is obese. The risks of being overweight include the increase of a range of diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

An analysis by the National Heart Forum has predicted that, by 2050, the number of people getting diabetes because of their weight will nearly double, and that those with heart disease caused by obesity will rise by 44%. Obese and overweight people place a significant burden on the NHS and the direct costs are estimated to be £4.2 billion. However, the indirect costs are massive, such as the impact of early death on families, poverty due to not being able to work, and so on.

The White Paper sets out our vision and general approach. There are three underlying principles. First is individual responsibility: we want to encourage people to take responsibility for their own health. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) commented on an anecdote about losing weight by eating less. That is old-fashioned and simple, but a message that we need to get across. It is about individual responsibility.

The second principle is working together, to which I have referred. That is about the problem being everybody’s business—every part of society, focusing on developing partnerships across the board, with third sector organisations, social enterprises and business. Everybody has a role to play. The third aspect is the role of local communities, about which we heard a lot from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), who talked about local initiatives and what can be done at that level.

We will publish before the summer a document on obesity, which will set out how we will tackle the matter in the new public health and NHS systems, and the role of key partners. The Department has recently held two events with key organisations involved in reducing obesity,

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to help develop the document. We will also consider comments from the consultation exercise on proposals for a public health outcomes framework, which has just come to an end. That framework includes two possible indicators relating to adults and children, to measure progress relating to obesity.

Experts from the Foresight team described the UK as having an “obesogenic environment”. That is probably right in many ways. There are a number of factors that drive people towards overweight and obesity. As I have said, it is clear that too many people eat too much and exercise too little, and are storing up big health problems. We all need to play our part. It is for local and central Government, business and other partners to make it easier for people, and remove the sort of barriers—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon—which include irritating matters such as insuring minibuses to get people to sporting events.

The Government cannot compel people to eat less food. We can encourage people and make it easier for them to make better choices. There is already a lot of action under way to do that. Many products in the UK voluntarily provide front-of-pack nutrition labelling, which provides more information. The regulations surrounding front-of-pack labelling are an EU competence. The EU is not dragging its feet, but it is incredibly complicated to get all member states to sign.

We would like to see as light a regulatory burden as possible, to allow different member states to have different front-of-pack labels, because, as a number of hon. Members have said, all systems—guideline daily allowances are one example, traffic lights another—have upsides and downsides. Some can be difficult to understand and some can be misleading. We have all seen claims on the front of packets indicating low fat, but the sugar content is another problem staring one in the face. Indicating calories is attractive to some people but is a problem for those with an eating disorder and are underweight. We need maximum flexibility. Discussions are very active in the EU at the moment and we will start to see some suggestions coming forward.

The Change4Life programme is encouraging people to make simple changes: eating more fruit and vegetables, cutting down on fatty and sugary food and being more active. The national child measurement programme, started under the previous Government, provides feedback to parents about the weight status of their children, enabling them to take action where necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth mentioned clothes sizing, which indicates that being fatter has become the norm. The child measurement programme is an important part of giving information to parents.

The Department has also been working with the Association of Convenience Stores to increase the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables in convenience stores across the country. That initiative has been expanding incredibly quickly. I recently had the pleasure of visiting a scheme. This development is particularly important for areas of high deprivation; convenience stores are

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often the first port of call for many to do their shopping. Some participating stores have seen a dramatic 47% increase in sales of fruit and vegetables.

As part of the public health responsibility deal, a number of organisations have made a series of pledges, which will provide better information to consumers about food. Let me make it clear that the Government are the only people to decide Government policy. However, the responsibility deal currently involves 180 organisations and businesses, and there are 19 collective pledges available online, which I urge hon. Members to view. The idea is to capitalise on the reach of many of these organisations—both businesses and voluntary bodies—so that we can tap into the unrealised potential of a wide range of resources that can promote healthier lifestyles and give people information.

Calorie labelling in out-of-home venues is intended to give information and has been quite successful. We have talked about the half-pint latte and a muffin. It is dramatic and astounding to discover that one has probably had the daily allowance just in a snack on the way to work.

We talked about physical activity. We are currently reviewing the chief medical officer’s guidelines, and are looking at evidence in relation to the health benefits of physical activity. There is also an important psychological benefit, because it makes one consider how one feels and what one is eating and doing, and to be more conscious of overall general physical and mental health.

While much of the focus is on preventing problems from arising, we are also working to meet the needs of those at most risk of becoming obese, including those who are already overweight. Weight management providers will continue to play a role in tackling obesity. In future, the move of public health into local councils is going to be an important and significant step.

I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon who mentioned playing in the street and street parties. Interestingly, when I was in Moscow last week, the Minister of Health for Columbia talked about a scheme they have there. On Sundays they close certain streets so that everybody can play in them. That is an outstanding idea. Before constituents e-mail to complain about their streets closing, I should say that I accept it would not work everywhere. It could, however, work in some places.

We have heard today of the huge opportunity for local action; we cannot work in silos any more. Government cannot tackle obesity alone and we want to work with the widest range of providers. Government can and must do their part, but we rely on the compliance of the public as individuals. We have to facilitate and help more people to want to lose weight and stay at a healthy weight. The truth is that no single solution will make a difference; the issue is about using all the ideas raised in this debate to turn round the supertanker. There is a tendency to refer to an epidemic, to suggest that it is something that happens to us. We are like—

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Order. I call Mr Jim Cunningham.

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Budget (Coventry)

12.30 pm

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): This is the first time, Ms Dorries, that I have been involved in a debate chaired by you; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair.

Coventry has had a long and significant economic history, which continues to shape and influence the performance of the local economy and could provide the foundation for its growth. The steady waning of coal mining after the second world war, together with the more rapid decline of our motor industry in the 1970s and 1980s, hit Coventry particularly hard. Coventry’s economic output is now 8.5% lower than the national average, and for Nuneaton and Bedworth it is now 35% below the average, yet Warwick performs 17% better than the national average.

Since the millennium, Coventry has benefited from significant redevelopment and regeneration, and the public sector has been crucial in that process. Coventry has a particularly youthful age profile, and scores well above average in measures of economic adaptability. Rates of growth were increasing before the recession, which suggests that the structural change is largely complete. The city holds many competitive advantages for research and development, engineering and niche manufacturing. However, unemployment is a growing worry. The latest figures from the House of Commons Library reveal that Coventry has 10,324 unemployed job seekers, and things are likely to get worse as the year progresses.

Coventry is famous for making cars, but it is public sector workers who drive much of the local economy. As we know, Becta and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency are being abolished. It may have seemed the easy option to get rid of these education quangos, but they employ a combined total of close to 800 people. Many are former teachers. The relocation of the QCDA cost the Government more than £44 million, and it came at a personal cost to many of the staff who relocated from London.

We cannot ignore the strain on the private sector. Friends Life, formerly Friends Provident, recently announced that it plans to close its offices in Coventry by the end of the first half of 2012. There are 428 jobs at stake, and staff will be badly affected. That brings total job losses in Coventry to around 3,000.

I turn to the scale of the grant reductions that Coventry faces. Because of the cuts, the city council is being forced by the Tory-led Government to cut as many as 500 posts over the next 18 months. The amount of money that the council spends in the local economy will also be dramatically reduced. That, too, will have an impact on council staff. The front-loading of cuts means that staff losses will be required in the early stages of the spending cuts. That will affect families throughout Coventry. The overall impact is that Coventry city council is expected to lose about £45 million over the next few years.

The cuts will have an impact on the economy of the west midlands. They will have a significant knock-on impact on local businesses and employment in the region. We can see what is happening in other sectors as the cuts and reforms begin to bite. For example, cuts of more than 20% to the West Midlands police equate to 2,500 jobs.

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There are two parts to the Department for Communities and Local Government cuts for Coventry council. It will lose formula grant of more than £19 million, and specific grants in excess of £17 million. The city council will not be able to continue providing services at the same level. Because of the latter cuts, there will be far fewer grants and they will have a lower overall value. It is a matter of great concern that many grant streams will end.

The vulnerable people of Coventry will be hit a number of times by the Government’s deficit reduction plan. Pensioners were dealt a blow by Government when the winter fuel payment was slashed by up to £100. How can those who are disabled or who live in care homes take part in the Government’s big society once the mobility component of the disability living allowance has been removed? Has the Minister considered the effects of reduced local government budgets on the cost per placement of patients on independent care providers such as Southern Cross? Notwithstanding the burden on the NHS, local hospitals will be expected to deliver far-reaching reforms to patient care as their budget decreases and demand increases. How can the Minister justify removing the provision of face-to-face legal advice for the poorer residents of Coventry in favour of a cheaper phone line?

I am deeply concerned about local provisions for our young people. Building Schools for the Future is to be abolished. That will result in a loss of £300 million to the local economy in construction, which can be added to the cuts in the council’s budget We await the James review—it has been a long time coming—but that is of no comfort to schools that are in desperate need of repair. From this year, the Connexions careers service will operate on a budget that is more than 70% smaller than in April 2010. The service gives young people the skills and confidence to get into the workplace. Its downsizing will doubtless contribute to the high youth unemployment that the region has experienced.

The coalition Government admit that Sure Start will suffer real-terms cuts. Ministers refuse to deny that this will result in the closure of Sure Start centres. However, Sure Start centres in Coventry will lose nearly £600,000, which will be a great blow to young families. Services for young people face other financial pressures. Coventry’s children, learning and young people’s department has announced a further £1.2 million loss because of the ending of the 5% standards fund.

Crucial retention funds that the council had relied upon will not be continued in the next financial year. The largest proportion of JSA claimants in Coventry are aged between 18 and 24. Given what I said about the Coventry’s youthful profile, there is no reason why our young people should not be given the opportunities that they need as it will strengthen Coventry’s regeneration.

All these changes will have an irreversible effect on the economic growth of the region. The leader of Coventry city council estimates that up to £25 million will be taken out of the local economy. The public and private sectors will not be able to invest in the regeneration of the region and its infrastructure.

There is an urgent need to address infrastructure issues. We need an increase in train travel between Coventry and Nuneaton, and Coventry and Leamington. The go-ahead for a new station at the Ricoh arena is vital to Coventry’s economy. Equally, we are waiting for

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the Friargate development to go ahead; again, it could have a big impact in revitalising the city centre. Revitalising the city will obviously create jobs.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I raise the question of what I fear is the impending sale of the strategically important land at Ansty. If a developer gets hold of that land, the possibility is that it will sit on it, waiting for the maximum return. That will probably be through housing rather than what it was meant for, which was job creation in the high-tech manufacturing sector.

Mr Cunningham: My right hon. Friend anticipates me, as I was just coming on to that.

The abolition of RDA funding means that there is little to lever in private sector investment for large-scale redevelopment projects. Although the prospect of 10,000 jobs in the enterprise zone is welcome, questions arise on the implications for other employment sites such as those at Ansty and Browns lane. In answer to my right hon. Friend, I am sure that he will remember, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), that we lobbied hard to get the Ansty site as a technological centre, and the city and the west midlands invested a lot of money in it—if my memory serves me correctly, the investment for the infrastructure was somewhere in the region of £5.9 million. It is vital that the Minister clears up the future of that site. A lot of taxpayers’ money has been invested in it and some companies are operating from it at the moment. How does the development of that site square up with the proposal to create 10,000 jobs at Coventry airport? Although my hon. Friends and I do not deny that such jobs are needed, we need the issue to be sorted out one way or another. The public in Coventry want to know why some of those jobs cannot be located on the Ansty site. My right hon. Friend, therefore, raises a vital point, which is of interest to a lot of people, particularly those in Coventry.

My next point relates to the impact of the Localism Bill. Local people seek assurances from Government that there will be no fire sale of employment sites in need of overhaul, such as the Ansty and Browns lane sites, to help address the deficit. I have dealt with the Ansty site, but of equal importance is the Browns lane site, which was once a manufacturing site for Jaguar in Coventry—let me just say in passing that my hon. Friends and I are glad to see that Jaguar is reinvesting in the west midlands and in Coventry.

The Localism Bill also applies to the Coventry airport site, which is a proposed enterprise zone. Some major environmental issues will arise from the development of that site and the Severn Trent site. People will be testing the Localism Bill to see whether the public will have a major say in any development initiatives. Many people in Coventry are worried about the use of greenbelt land for example. We will soon find out whether the Government mean what they say about localism.

The Government need to address the balance of housing and employment. The highest rates of unemployment are generally found in the neighbourhoods that were based around the mining and manufacturing industries of the past. That highlights the key role that

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places can play in creating and sustaining unemployment. Areas housing large numbers of unemployed, low-skilled and vulnerable residents cannot generally attract business investment.

I will finish here because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West wants to speak and we obviously want to give the Minister time to answer our points.

12.42 pm

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): We are very grateful to you, Ms Dorries, for your chairmanship of this important debate on the present economic situation in Coventry. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate and I thank Mr Speaker for granting it.

I should like to develop a few of the points made by my hon. Friend. I want to draw the Government’s attention to them as they contribute to the highly unsatisfactory situation regarding jobs and the prospects for jobs in Coventry at the moment.

My first point relates to the review of the schools building programme. The situation in Coventry is particularly bad. All building was stopped and none was allowed to go forward. Even two schemes in my own constituency—Woodlands school and President Kennedy school—that were on the point of signature were refused. The Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb) is aware that at present the main building of Woodlands school is propped up by scaffolding, and has been for the past two years. What family is likely to want their child to go to a school that is propped up by scaffolding and might collapse at any minute? That scheme should have been given the go-ahead because the school is not fit for present-day purposes. I know that such buildings are the subject of the current capital review that is going on. We are approaching the end of the first year of this coalition Government and the situation is no longer satisfactory.

Similarly, development at the President Kennedy school, which was on the brink of getting the go-ahead, was suddenly stopped. Again, it is a totally unsatisfactory situation. There are a number of other such schools. My hon. Friend mentioned others in his own constituency and in Coventry North East. The matter must be brought to head in the near future.

My hon. Friend mentioned the regional fund, which has been slashed by 70% in Coventry. Such a cut will have a major impact on the level of activity and on the number of schemes that can be carried out with Government support. Many projects could go ahead if we had quicker and easier funding for them.

Let me draw the Minister’s attention to transport. Not so long ago, we had a debate in this Chamber with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) in which we tried to thrash out alternatives to the massive High Speed 2 programme. Some £18 billion would need to be spent on the London to Birmingham route. What needs to be done urgently and would hugely contribute to employment activity in the Birmingham and Coventry area is simple four-tracking, which has to be done on the London to Birmingham

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route. Such a scheme is supported by Centro and local experts who say that it could make a huge contribution not just to employment but to the development of the region by bringing in activity and easing transport between Coventry and Birmingham, which is a very congested area of the west midlands. That scheme is not going ahead now because it has been earmarked to be done in five years’ time—if we are lucky—as part of an £18 billion build. It could be done under a rail package 2 proposal, which has been put up by the same consultants who are doing the HS2 work for the Government, at a fraction of the cost. With many areas under blight, many Conservative MPs in the south-east share our view that we should invest in the areas through which the rail already travels.

Similarly, there is the issue of the Knuckle project, which is the rail link between Coventry and the Ricoh stadium. It goes further north to Nuneaton and further south from Coventry. Again, it is local and regional and could get the go-ahead. We know that it has not been killed by the present Government; it is still there and is still a possibility. The project is estimated at about £18 million, which is chickenfeed compared with the scale of the investments that we are considering in other areas.

The schools schemes and the rail programme could be given the go-ahead and they would make a tremendous difference to the blight that we otherwise face in Coventry.

The last time we went through a similarly bad period was in the early 1980s. The car industry and the machine tool industry collapsed. Virtually all the mechanical engineering sectors that were located in Coventry collapsed. There was nothing much left at the end of that period and we still have not recovered. Although investment and development continued to take place in the country, much of it bypassed Coventry. We face the same problem again and it will affect those sectors that came in to replace manufacturing, notably the public sector. Becta and the QCDA have been closed. The council is announcing huge cuts. The whole public sector that came in to replace manufacturing—not much else came in apart from transport and delivery—is now facing the same sort of cuts at a time of severe recession and once again, Coventry will be pushed down.

I realise that time is limited and I will not go on any more. I have listed a number of specific projects that could be undertaken in the context of what the Government have available now for regional development. I urge the Minister, who has no direct responsibility for any of the projects, to push her colleagues who are responsible at least to consider them.

12.49 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Justine Greening): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what must be the first time Mr Dorries.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on tabling and securing an important debate. It is important not only for Coventry itself but more broadly. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) who spoke, as did the hon. Member for Coventry South, with great passion about the challenges facing Coventry. In the time available to me, I will try to address a number of wide-ranging points that the hon. Members made.

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The hon. Member for Coventry South is right to make the points that he did, in the sense that there is not going to be one thing that helps to regenerate and grow the Coventry economy, and create jobs. We need a broader strategy in place to ensure that we are successful in helping Coventry. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the main backdrop to the policies that the Government are pursuing is the huge budget deficit that we inherited, which we must tackle. In his speech, he talked about young people; the worst thing that we could do for young people is to pass on to them that debt of the money that our generation has spent, so that they can pay it off. We have an obligation to get our finances back in order so that young people do not face that additional challenge as they enter the economy.

We need to tackle the deficit. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have also got to increase economic growth and rebalance the economy across all regions of the UK. I think that he would recognise, as many of us do, that too much of the last economic boom, which took place roughly between 2000 and 2007, was enjoyed by London and the south-east, and not enough of it was enjoyed by cities and regions outside the south-east. We must ensure that, as we generate and create the right ingredients for the next period of growth in our economy, that growth is enjoyed by precisely those communities that can benefit most from it, in terms of jobs, skills and opportunities.

The key aspect at the last Budget was not only economic growth itself but ensuring that we had some plans to stimulate that growth. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we made a series of proposals at the last Budget to create a model for more sustainable and more balanced growth, including in Coventry and more broadly in the west midlands.

As hon. Members have made clear, Coventry faces some difficult challenges, but it remains a significant contributor to the regional economy in the west midlands. As has also been mentioned, during the last 20 years Coventry has rebalanced its economy somewhat by moving towards more high-tech manufacturing and business services. The reforms set out in the plan for growth, and indeed in the broader Budget, will give businesses and individuals in the region, including in Coventry, a real boost. Those reforms include cutting corporation tax from this month, so that it will be 23% by 2014; increasing the personal allowance by £630 next year, following the increase of £1,000 last month, which will take 25,000 people in the west midlands out of tax altogether; and, of course, building on the success of the manufacturing technology centre in Coventry and in other cities, by creating high-value manufacturing technology innovation centres. They will be the first of an elite network of centres that will enable businesses to access state-of-the-art equipment and technical skills.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a further opportunity for Coventry—one that I am sure is already being investigated in the city—is the enterprise zones policy. The west midlands already has two of the enterprise zones that were announced at the Budget. He will be aware of the zone in Birmingham and Solihull, created by the local enterprise partnership, and of the zone in the black country. During the coming months, I hope that Coventry itself will submit a proposal to become part of an enterprise zone.

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Mr Jim Cunningham: Can the Minister talk to her colleagues in other Departments about one issue that I do not think her Department—the Treasury—actually handles? That issue is the future of Ansty. A list of sites has been published. In particular, we are talking about Advantage West Midlands, which is the regional development agency. On that list of sites, Ansty is not mentioned, so we do not know what is happening with it. That is one of the points that I made in my speech. A lot of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the site and a lot of effort has been put in by myself and my colleagues to get it developed. We and the public want to know what exactly will happen to it. I do not expect the Minister to answer me directly today, but perhaps she could go away and consider that matter.

Justine Greening: One of the things that the hon. Gentleman has been able to do very effectively in his speech is to raise a number of issues—such as transport and infrastructure, which I will come on to shortly—that are not necessarily a concern of the Treasury, but that doubtless have been recognised by the Departments concerned. I will ensure that I pass back his specific comments about the Ansty site to my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and I will write to him in more detail about that specific site.

As I was saying, enterprise zones are another opportunity to bring some genuine benefits to the hon. Gentleman’s area. In his speech on the Budget debate and again today, he has expressed the hope that Coventry will benefit from inclusion in an enterprise zone in the future. I welcome his enthusiasm for the enterprise zone policy. Of course, the Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership is welcome to bid to be part of the second tranche of 10 enterprise zones. Regarding timelines, I have no doubt that his local LEP will be working on its proposal already. We expect to take some decisions within Government in the summer about where the next tranche of enterprise zones will be. We do not intend to spend a long time making those decisions. We are aware of the urgent need to get on with this policy, because we believe that it can make a real difference.

The Government have also established the regional growth fund, which is worth £1.4 billion overall, to help to grow a private sector-led economy in England. Of course, Coventry will benefit directly from the first round of awards from that fund, with Jaguar Land Rover having won support for a project to undertake design engineering for a new small common vehicle platform that will be developed in part in its Whitley centre.

There have been other signals that the private sector sees Coventry as being “open for business” and that it has real confidence in the future of the city. Only last week, it was announced that the overhaul of Coventry airport will go ahead, creating new infrastructure and business opportunities in a £250 million development.

The second round of the regional growth fund, in which we are aiming to allocate the remaining £950 million of funding available, is now open for bidding. The second round closes on 1 July and I look forward to seeing many more exciting proposals, including from businesses in Coventry.

Hon. Members have raised concerns about local government funding. As I have already made clear, the

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last Government left an appalling financial mess behind them and we have a moral obligation to ensure that we pay down our debts as quickly as possible. Tough decisions have been necessary across all areas of public spending. Local government, which makes up a quarter of all public expenditure, has its part to play in that process.

The Government have delivered a challenging but fair settlement for local government to ensure that the most vulnerable communities are protected. Although financial settlements have been tight, local authorities will still receive £29 billion in grant next year. It is also worth noting that formula grant in Coventry will be nearly £500 in 2011-12, which is more than twice what it will be in west Oxfordshire, precisely reflecting the higher levels of need in Coventry. I know that Coventry council is getting on with calculating how it will make the savings that it needs to make. In fact, its deputy leader, Councillor George Duggins, has said that the council was in a “good position” compared with other councils, because it has taken early action.

There is no doubt that these are difficult decisions to make and of course they should be made at the local level by local authorities, to ensure that the priorities of local people, including those of people in Coventry, are reflected in those decisions. Ultimately, however, there is no doubt that the worst thing that we could do is to ignore the huge deficit that our country faces and the need to tackle it.

The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the issue of infrastructure in his speech and I want to refer to it briefly. During the spending review period, the Government will actually spend slightly more on infrastructure than the last Government had planned to spend. Of course, investment across the board has already been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, but I have no doubt that the points that have been made today about the regional transport infrastructure in the west midlands, including rail, will also be taken on board by him. Hon. Members are right to point out that high-speed rail is a strategic project that can bring benefits not only to the west midlands but nationally. However, there is still the need to ensure that we get investment in the existing track. Of course, that existing track has a clear role to play in the coming months and years, by helping Coventry and other areas to regenerate their economy.

Finally, I will mention the Building Schools for the Future programme. I recognise the concerns that the hon. Gentleman set out about that programme—they are concerns that I face in my own constituency. It says everything about the BSF programme that a Government who were in power for 13 years could come to the end of their term and still have existing schools in the sort of state that the hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the hon. Member for Coventry North West, described.

However, I have no doubt that such considerations are being taken into account by the James review and I assure both hon. Gentlemen that, as we go through the coming years, we want to ensure that parts of the country outside the south-east, such as Coventry, benefit to the maximum from the next period of economic growth.

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Larch Disease

1 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is very nice to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is nice to see the Minister with responsibility for agriculture here.

There is an insidious disease hitting the south-west that, if swept under the carpet, could decimate some of our most treasured ancient woodland, and cost many of the green jobs in the forestry sector that are vital to the rural economy and to the maintenance of our environment. Phytophthora ramorum is a fungus-like pathogen that is causing extensive damage and mortality to plants and trees. In particular, it has infected commercial softwoods such as Japanese larch in the south-west of England and south Wales. It was unknowingly spread by plant movements of ornamental rhododendrons to gardens across the UK.

In 2000, Forestry Commission scientists found similarities between a pathogen that had been causing leaf blotch and dieback in rhododendrons in nurseries in Germany since the early 1990s, and a pathogen in California—and subsequently in Oregon—that had caused the death of more than 1 million oak trees since its symptoms were identified in the US in 1994, gaining it the name, “sudden oak death.” In Japanese larch, the symptoms are that shoots and foliage can be affected and are visible as wilted, withered shoot tips with blackened needles, with the infected shoots shedding their needles prematurely. Trees with branch dieback may have numerous cankers on their branches and upper trunk that can bleed resin.

It is now known that Japanese larch, when actively growing in spring and summer, can produce very high quantities of disease-carrying spores, at much higher levels than those produced by rhododendrons, and they can be spread across significant distances in moist air. In August 2009, the pathogen was found to have infected Japanese larch trees at sites in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, which was an unexpected change in its behaviour. More recently, in March 2011, the disease was found in the European larch in woodlands near Lostwithiel in Cornwall. The fact that this lethal pathogen has now proved capable of infecting yet another species is a worrying development and a setback in tackling the disease, but given the similarities between the two species, experts were not surprised.

Regarding the threat to the industry, as of January 2011 some 138 statutory plant notices had been issued in the UK requiring trees to be felled due to infections on some 2,200 hectares. An estimated 1,745 hectares in the south-west are affected by the disease. That is a grave threat to our woodlands and to the 2,220 people who are employed in primary production and processing. The 15,000 green jobs in the south-west supported by the forestry sector are under threat.

Japanese and European larch, the primary victims of the disease in the south-west, are extensively used in the manufacture of garden furniture, fencing and pallets, and their value to the south-west’s economy has been estimated at £47 million. Wood prices have been hit, with landowners estimating that the disease outbreak has seen larch prices fall by 35%. Over-supply, the cost

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of bio-security measures and the need for the diseased timber to be handled carefully only at licensed mills has also affected profitability.

Current actions by the Food and Environment Research Agency include a strategy to control and contain the disease, reducing levels of the infective spores in the environment by felling infected plantings of the principal host—Japanese larch—as rapidly as possible. FERA is also continuing its programme of clearing infected rhododendrons from woodland and other sites. There is also an aerial survey programme in the south-west, Wales and western Britain, where the climate favours the disease, to identify possible sites of infected larch, which is then followed by contact with owners, site visits to check symptoms and laboratory testing to confirm the presence or otherwise of the disease. When the disease is confirmed, there is a programme of clearance on both private and publicly owned sites and the development of a package of short-term help for private woodland owners affected by the disease, which includes a licence system to enable the movement and processing of timber from affected larch.

Other actions include continued scientific research better to understand the disease and the overall risks to our trees, woods and forests, including the potential impacts on the UK forestry sector and its associated industries; a further survey of rhododendrons by FERA, followed up with funded rhododendron clearance agreements when appropriate; and, very importantly, encouraging owners to check their woodland, especially larch plantings, for signs of the disease and to report suspicious symptoms promptly. Owners have a legal obligation under plant health legislation to notify the authorities if they suspect that the disease is present.

Regarding the effect on the forestry industry and the Confederation of Forest Industries, felling diseased larch has accelerated the loss of productive softwood forest, and the area of such forestry is already in decline, with new planting falling to match ongoing losses. A report by South West Woodland Renaissance, a coalition of 35 sawmillers and woodland owners, warned:

“The forecast total softwood availability from the current potential productive growing stock is forecast to decrease”

by up to 50%. The loss of larch trees has caused the acceleration of lost softwood forestry, undermining local green jobs and damaging efforts to reduce carbon emissions and develop a low-carbon economy.

I turn to the felling of diseased larch and replanting. Many landowners are concerned about the considerable cost of clearing woodland of infected trees, and also that the lack of support for woodland creation is inadequate and the resource is diminishing, especially with the value of larch trees going down due to so many of the trees having to be cut down because of the disease. There is a huge disparity in the current grant system, with the grant rates providing a higher contribution to the cost per hectare of planting broadleaves than softwood, and providing no grant at all for replanting softwood in protected ancient woodlands.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): May I back that up by talking about the experience of my constituent, Mr Rob White, who has lost 20 hectares of his Japanese larch under a compulsory felling notice? He is on a planted ancient woodland site and only 50% to 70% of his replanting costs would be covered—even if he planted

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wholly broadleaf species—and he is seriously considering the extent to which he will replant. He would, of course, like to use his common sense and replant a range of species; he has talked to me about replanting Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, which are relatively disease-resistant, and he would also like to mix in some broadleaf species. Does my hon. Friend feel that we should trust our constituents to use their common sense in that regard?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to use our common sense and bring a mixture of trees back into these ancient woodlands, which have suffered from the destructive larch disease. From my farming background, I know that the greater the spread of varieties of tree, the lower the chance of spreading the larch disease that might still be there. I am sure that the Minister heard exactly what my hon. Friend said, and it will be interesting to see whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can come up with a solution whereby we can get the forests replanted, especially the very valuable ancient woodland.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall; his concerns are shared by many of us. In Northern Ireland, for example, some 200 hectares of trees are under the same threat. Does he agree that trees are perceived as the lungs of the earth and that if they die, it will affect the environment as well? They are important. Does he agree that we need a co-ordinated plan that takes in not only parts of southern England but other regions such as Northern Ireland, where there has been a severe outbreak? It is clear from the evidence that the disease has jumped species.

Neil Parish: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right. It is said that such diseases often breed better in the south-west of England due to the climate, but it is amazing how, over the years, they gradually move north. Is the disease present in Northern Ireland at the moment?

Jim Shannon: The evidence from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is clear. The disease is present in 200 hectares across nine woodlands and 4 hectares of private woodland. It is a disaster for the woodland in Northern Ireland, and it is prevalent in the Republic of Ireland as well.

Neil Parish: There are a lot of larch trees in Scotland as well. We must be concerned about the disease, which is why I am glad to have the opportunity to debate it with the Minister so that we can put the case to him. The case has been made for Northern Ireland and the south-west of England, and I will carry on. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The industry believes that a flat-rate supplement will maintain the present imbalance of incentives, exacerbate the softwood differential and push up the cost of dealing with the disease. The Confederation of Forest Industries believes that the proposed grant system will increase the cost to the taxpayer by £1,500 a hectare. To retain a successful forestry sector in the south-west, urgent action is needed to create a more balanced grant system to

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allow forest owners more choice in replanting; my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made that point. We must also listen closely to people who own and manage forests.

The Clinton Devon Estates are close to my constituency, and they have assessed what is happening with the disease. Before the involvement of His Royal Highness Prince Charles in February 2011—I understand that the Secretary of State was present at a meeting with the Clinton Devon Estates—the growing belief in the industry was that the plant health threat was poorly understood within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that the issue was under-resourced and at significant risk of being compounded by a lack of timely action and resource.

The Clinton Devon Estates now believe that the situation is being turned around. Experts and practitioners across the field are pulling together an action plan that highlights the following: understanding and minimising plant disease threats and mitigating their risks; managing pests and diseases and mitigating their impact; a robust review of the UK’s plant import controls to learn how we inflicted the disease on ourselves, which we hope will delay future disease threats; continued resourcing of relevant Forestry Commission activities, specifically aerial monitoring and diagnostic and research work undertaken at the FC research station at Alice Holt, to provide rapid diagnostic support to field teams and resource to engage proactively with woodland owners; and adequate resourcing of rhododendron removal from the wider environment.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, many parts of the south-west have a huge number of rhododendrons. Natural England leads on the issue within DEFRA and has requested additional resources. To date, there has been no response, although I understand that the Minister is probably not entirely flush with money.

The disease needs to be treated like foot and mouth, and the equivalent of a national war room should be set up to give focus and momentum to efforts to address the threat. Unlike foot and mouth, larch disease does not represent an obvious issue to society. Therefore, it is important to keep the pressure on so that proper resources are allocated to addressing it. The proposed support measures for replanting infected woodland should be equitable to commercial softwood species and native broad-leaf planting. Significant productive areas within the south-west risk being lost, which would have a direct negative impact on the wood processing sector.

Some 11.5% of Devon, or some 77,000 acres of land, is woodland, enjoyed by all who visit it. However, a Forestry Commission survey found that 60% of Devon’s woodlands are under-managed. That is a key issue that should be addressed. I am happy that the Minister could be here for this debate, and I ask him to take these matters forward. As I said, not everybody realises what is happening to our forests as a result of larch disease, and we need to tackle it quickly. We have many rhododendrons in the west country that could spread the disease. I will be interested to hear what solutions he has.

1.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on bringing this important issue to the

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attention of the House. I am happy to confirm that when I took responsibility as the forestry Minister almost a year ago and was apprised of the issue, I quickly realised its importance and the potential severity of its impact on the UK’s forests. It is right that a year on, we should be having a debate, albeit a short one, about Phytophthora ramorum, particularly in the south-west.

As my hon. Friend said, the disease was first identified in rhododendrons in this country in about 2002. It was not until 2009 that it appeared to jump species into the Japanese larch. It has appeared in other species—in Ireland it has been found in Sitka spruce—but apparently, in all such instances, the individual tree has been surrounded by highly infected rhododendron, which shows the impact of the spores. Touch wood—perhaps that is an unfortunate phrase—there is no sign that the disease is openly jumping to other species, but that is clearly the big worry.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the matter does not affect only state forests. The vast majority of England’s forests, 80%, are not state-owned, so private forests have a serious role to play. I am sure that he will pass on my thanks to those in his constituency for how private landowners have joined the Forestry Commission and the Food and Environment Research Agency to combat the threat of Phytophthora ramorum.

My hon. Friend asked what we are doing in the widest context. I will try to address that first. DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Bob Watson, is advising us on the issues, opportunities and priorities for new research, working with others to ensure that outputs have maximum impact on what we can do and working with the Forestry Commission, FERA and the wider scientific community to develop further our strategic approach to existing and emerging plant pests and diseases, which are not unique to this country. There is an international perspective as well.

That work is setting out an agenda wider than Phytophthora ramorum to minimise the risk of new threats entering the UK, to enable us to understand more about the threats that we face, to work with society to make it more aware of threats, pathways and the risks of bringing in infection and to identify positive actions that those who manage our trees, woodlands and forests can take to improve their resilience. In addition, Forest Research, the research agency of the Forestry Commission, is, like every other public body, going through its own spending review. It has decided, rightly, to reprioritise its research work. As part of that, programmes such as biosecurity will be increased and the budget maintained.

As my hon. Friend has said, Phytophthora ramorum is not unique to this country. We do not know exactly how it came in, but it is believed to have probably come from some infected plant importation. It exists in 15 European Union member states and, as he has pointed out, the United States. In the UK, it was initially in rhododendron and the whole of that species, and it then jumped into Japanese larch. It is not so much that this is a disease of the south-west, but it appears to be a disease of larch, which is a particularly common species in the south-west—particularly Japanese larch—for the commercial reasons to which my hon. Friend has referred. Larch is an important forestry species in the south-west and in parts of Wales and the rest of England. The

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disease has, as my hon. Friend has said, also been found in European larch in Cornwall. I have asked whether that indicates that European larch is any more resistant, but we just do not know. It is probably because there are far more Japanese larch than European larch in the south-west.

On the Government’s strategy, whether it relates to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Forestry Commission, to deal with Phytophthora ramorum, our overall strategy on the fungal pathogen, which is the disease under discussion, is to reduce the pathogen inoculum—in other words, the spores that are produced—to an epidemiologically insignificant level by removing sporulating host plants from high-risk areas. The aim is to reduce the risk of significant tree death and other impacts. In plain English, our policy is to cut them down as quickly as possible. The point is that, while the tree is alive and standing in the wind, the fungus is sporulating and the spores spread considerably. The sooner the tree is cut down and dies, the less risk. Although the tree being on the ground and dead does not remove all risk, it dramatically reduces it. That is the fundamental objective—cut them down as soon as possible.

I should say that the timber from such trees is perfectly okay. The timber itself does not carry any disease. The bark and any foliage, however, are more risky. Bark can be burnt and used for incineration for power generation and heat and so on, but it cannot be used for mulch purposes, because of the risk that it contains disease. Small trees and useless stuff are left on the ground, because it is not cost-effective to remove them for the small risk. Once they are on the ground, the risk is much lower. That is the layman’s approach to what is happening, which is important.

Jim Shannon: Biosecurity precautions are important. Have their been any discussions with other regions in the United Kingdom and Great Britain—in other words, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales—where there have also been outbreaks, so that there is a co-ordinated plan to address the issue across the whole of the United Kingdom?

Mr Paice: I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we are talking to bodies not only throughout the United Kingdom, but beyond. As I have said, 15 EU member states have Phytophthora ramorum. Clearly, it would be pointless for everybody to enter into their own, unique research programmes, so we are working closely with all of them on research into the disease and, as he has indicated, on biosecurity.

I have responded to my hon. Friend about our practical solutions to reduce the incidence of sporulation of the fungus, to reduce the risk of further infection. It is a massive challenge and he is right to identify the need to find out more. The Forestry Commission and FERA, together with other organisations, such as the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society and Natural England, are delivering a five-year, £25 million programme in England and Wales against Phytophthora ramorum. This partnership is working together to implement the measures necessary to achieve the programme’s objectives. Some of those measures are obvious and my hon. Friend has referred to them. They include the use of aerial surveillance of more than 50,000 sq km to detect

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symptomatic trees and to monitor progress with felling. That aerial surveillance started again a couple of weeks ago, because larch, unlike most conifers, is deciduous and we do not know when it will come into leaf until it does.

The measures also include additional funding for woodland owners to use the services of qualified agents to arrange the felling and removal of infected timber, and there has been a moratorium on felling asymptomatic larch in winter. The Forestry Commission also has statutory powers to deal with the disease, and they require the felling of infected trees on up to 2,000 hectares of private land and the public forest estate. We are also issuing licences that allow the timber processing industry to transport infected timber and utilise it in an approved manner. My hon. Friend has rightly referred to the sad fact that that has led to a reduction in the value of larch timber. I gather that it has picked up again to about 75% of its price before the disease’s outbreak, but I recognise fully that it is an issue.

That brings me to our assistance with the restocking of infected sites, which includes enhanced rates of grant aid and advice on alternative species to larch. This relates to the point that both my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made about planting on ancient woodland sites, a number of which have been infected. We will announce shortly the new rates of grants, so I cannot use this as an opportunity to speculate on what they may be, but I can say to both my hon. Friends that we are aware of the challenges of dealing with planted ancient woodland sites. On the one hand, there is the desire for an economic return, which is why larch was there in the first place, but, on the other hand, there is considerable pressure to return them to their ancient woodland origins by using, primarily, broadleaf trees. We are trying to work out a grant system that recognises that challenge.

The Forestry Commission and FERA have regular meetings with industry associations to alert them to the various threats of the pathogens. There have been a number of reports in the media about the disease, which is helpful, and the commission maintains a series of

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web pages. We have talked about the problem of a number of diseases, pathogens and pests that have found their way into the UK in recent years. There is little doubt that, with increased trade, transport and, possibly, climate change, we face a higher level of challenge from those various, newly arrived organisms. We recognise that many of them may have been introduced through the international trade in plants, and we are committed to finding ways of preventing entry through that route, which brings us back to biosecurity.

A review of the European Union’s plant health regime is well under way and a number of recommendations have been made and are being considered by both the Government and industry stakeholders. A number of improvements are likely to be implemented in 2013-14. However, our import controls can be targeted only at plants and plant products that are known to pose a risk. Owing to international law, we cannot put a blanket control on all plants and trees.

It is worth mentioning that the level of infection of Phytophthora ramorum in nurseries and garden centres has been reduced significantly. Last year, only 0.16% of inspections resulted in any positive findings, which is a reduction of more than 3% since 2003. It is clearly going in the right direction. However, we may—I hate to say this, but I think it is the reality—have to learn to live with some pests and diseases, which means that we have to learn to manage them and keep them under control rather than eliminate them entirely. It will require a co-ordinated approach from our forest owners and managers, as well as our scientists, forestry experts and policy makers. It may require any of a range of different approaches, but we have to put biosecurity at the centre.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the Government and I take this disease extremely seriously. I am pleased that he has used the opportunity of a short debate to talk about it, describe it and challenge the Government about it. We appreciate its importance. If he or anybody he knows feels that the Government are not taking it sufficiently seriously, or has any other suggestions, I would be interested to hear from them. I am grateful to him and hope that I have been able to reassure him about the seriousness that we attach to the issue.

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Medical Students

1.29 pm

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to raise some key issues about the funding of medical students. Aspects of the upheaval in higher education funding are, of course, important both for the recruitment of doctors and the availability of opportunities to study for the medical profession. They are of particular concern in my constituency, which is home to 1,000 undergraduates and 1,300 postgraduates in medical sciences. I am grateful for the briefing that I have received on the matter from the British Medical Association and the Oxford university medical sciences division, as well as for the concerns that constituents have raised with me on these issues.

At a time when higher education as a whole faces the challenges and dangers of the 80% cut in university teaching support and the trebling of fees, concerns about the costs of and access to medical education are all the greater. The length and intensity of medical courses both add to the cost to students and limit their opportunity to supplement their income through paid work.

The BMA estimates that, under the present system, medical students graduate with some £37,000 of student debt. With all universities charging or set to charge £9,000 for medical studies under the new regime, the BMA estimates that that figure will go up to around £70,000. That does not count overdrafts, credit cards, professional loans or family borrowing. We do not need to exaggerate the impact of prospective debt on students’ choices to be concerned that debts of £70,000 or more might be a barrier to able people from poor—or, indeed, middling—backgrounds who are considering entering the medical profession.

My concern is about the funding position facing all medical students. However, on the challenge facing us on widening participation, there is likely to be a triple impact on entry to medical studies. The A-level admission grades are understandably particularly demanding and poorer students from schools serving poorer areas are less likely to achieve them, which clearly demands further action within the school system. The requirement of medical work experience is also likely to be harder to fulfil for school students from financially hard-pressed families or, indeed, from families with no connections to the medical profession. At the same time, the prospective length and costs of study are considerably higher and it seems plausible that those are also having an impact on the relatively low rates of admission to medical studies from poorer socio-economic groups.

Statistics on admissions show that the wider challenge of opening up access to higher education is certainly compounded in the case of medical studies. The BMA equal opportunities committee report published in October 2009 includes a review of UCAS data. It states:

“The proportion of acceptances to medical school coming from socio-economic class I (31%) was almost twice that of acceptances to all other degrees from class I (16 %). Just 15% of students accepted into medical school came from the four poorer socio-economic classes (grades IV to VII) compared with 24% of students accepted to all degrees.”

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The BMA has also said:

“The percentage of students from lower income families is slowly improving across the higher education sector but the rate remains stagnant in medicine.”

In the light of all that and the Government’s stated commitment to widen access to higher education, I would like to ask the Minister what the Government’s specific proposals are to widen the pool of talent entering medicine and whether the Government, in bringing forward the higher education White Paper, will look at the likely special factors at work in relation to medicine? I have listed some of those.

Will the Government also consider the advice and support given to able students in school, the necessity and operation of the work experience requirement and the £75 cost of the UK clinical aptitude test used as part of the selection process? That test gives an early signal to students from poor backgrounds that studying medicine is an expensive undertaking.

An important part of overall support for medical students is the provision of bursaries. As the Minister will be aware, the future shape of those has been uncertain for some time. The previous Government consulted on options for change in 2009, and last month the present Government set out new options for reforming the system.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): As I represent the other half of the Oxford university seat, the right hon. Gentleman will know that I share many of his concerns. In the light of his valid concerns about equal representation among medical students, does he agree that now is the crucial time to decide about the NHS bursary scheme, given that many students are deciding which courses to apply for?

Mr Smith: I am grateful to have the support of my colleague. I might describe her constituency as covering the other third of Oxford university. Her support on that point is very welcome. I was about to say that people are already asking what the situation will be, and obviously the sooner they can have certainty, the better.

The BMA has joined other bodies in consulting on the issue, and I understand there is some expectation that agreement will be reached. However, one big outstanding question is whether the new proposed bursary arrangements will cover tuition fees in the same way as they are covered now, with the Department of Health paying the fees for years 5 and 6 of an undergraduate course. If the bursary does not cover fees—it seems extraordinary that Ministers have not yet made the Government’s position on that clear—medical students would obviously face still higher costs and debt.

As my colleague and friend the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), whose constituency represents the other third of Oxford university, says, mounting urgency on that matter arises because would-be applicants worry about how the arrangements will work for 2012-13. I press the Minister to give an undertaking that tuition fees for medical students will be covered at least as well as they are now.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): The other point that needs to be made is that many of these courses are for six years, not just five. We need to take into account

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the cost of living expenses and the fact that many medical students have to take out commercial loans in addition to student loans, which makes the matter especially significant. I declare an interest as the mother of a medical student on a six-year course.

Mr Smith: The hon. Lady will know all about the matter. That was a very well made point. I will come to the subject of commercial loans later.

I also want to press the Minister on the position of graduate-entry medical students. That is an even more important route of entry than the 10% of total numbers that they represent suggests. The BMA has pointed out to me that its 2009-10 medical student finance survey shows that a higher proportion of students from poorer socio-economic groups enter medicine through graduate-entry courses than do so through undergraduate courses. Oxford university medical sciences division has pointed out to me that the best graduate-entry students are extremely strong and do exceptionally well. That route into medicine is important both for excellence and widening access.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The pharmaceutical and medical sectors of industry have clearly made many financial commitments to a number of universities across the whole of the United Kingdom, including at Queen’s university, Belfast. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the pharmaceutical and medical industry could do more to help poorer students with tuition fees?

Mr Smith: A number already do, and of course we are grateful to those who give support directly, or through foundations and trusts. If more could be given, that would be very welcome. As the hon. Gentleman says, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK, the contribution that spin-offs make to our economy, as well as the direct benefits of investment in medicine, is enormous. Those who benefit from that in profit should put extra back.

The point that I was making about graduate-entry medical students is that they are not eligible for loans to cover tuition fees and have to find first year fee costs out of their own pocket or from other sources of help, some from specific university bursaries. If graduate-entry students had to raise £9,000 for their first, and maybe subsequent, year fees, on top of the debts that they would have already accumulated as undergraduate students, that might be prohibitively expensive and inflict real damage on the quality and social range of graduate-entry medical students. What assurances can the Minister give on graduate-entry student funding? Will there be additional help for first year fees in light of the increase? Will tuition fees for subsequent years be supported by the Department of Health at the new, higher rate?

Another concern, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, regards graduate-entry students who may no longer have access to some of the loans for professional development that have been made available by commercial lenders. The BMA has cited the recent decision by banks such as NatWest to withdraw those loans, which were obviously hugely important for graduate students who were ineligible for tuition fee support. Will the

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Minister make representations directly to the banks and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who might usefully underline that this is an especially important area for us all to be in it together in doing what we can for graduate medical entry?

All in all, there are big challenges facing prospective medical students. Yes, demand for the courses is high, and it is good for patients, science and the economy that so many of the brightest want to study medicine, but we cannot be complacent. It is vital that people from all backgrounds are encouraged and helped to fulfil their potential in medicine when they have something good to offer.

I would like to thank and praise the work of access officers, at Oxford university and elsewhere, who are working hard to reach out to schools and students who have not in the past thought of Oxford, and to raise aspirations and challenge prejudice. A very good example is the university of Oxford’s UNIQ summer school—it is unique, I think, but it is called UNIQ too—which is a programme of free residential courses in July and August for year 12 students from UK state schools and colleges.

The summer schools are targeted at academically talented students whose school or college has little or no history of making successful applications to Oxford. Participants follow a week-long academic course designed and taught by Oxford lecturers and tutors, as well as taking part in social activities and meeting up with alumni of the university and current students.

In its first year, 69% of UNIQ summer school students went on to apply to Oxford and 27% were given conditional offers by the university. I understand that the medical strand of that initiative has attracted a lot of state school applicants, and that the conversion rate to application and the offer of an undergraduate place in medicine is very good. That shows what can be done. Let us, through the funding arrangements for medical students, make the job of those promoting access arrangements easier, not harder.

This country can be very proud of the quality of education, training and research in medicine, and the scale of achievement in my constituency is awesome. We all want to see the most able people, regardless of background, working in the profession. Criteria for admission and the judgment of would-be students’ potential must, as with the assessment of their progress and qualifications, be matters for the medical schools and universities, not the Government. The Government have a clear responsibility to act and open up opportunities to ensure that there is the right advice and support, to raise school standards and aspirations, to remove barriers and to fund medical students fairly. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on whether and how the Government intend to set about that.

1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing this debate on what I know is an area of great importance. He is right to say that it is about recruitment, skills and the development of the profession. I would also like to thank him for his praise of access officers at Oxford, and for highlighting the summer school. It is important to see universities doing what they can to ensure that participation is

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widened, and that people who might not have felt able to apply to such universities as Oxford, or who might not have felt that they had the necessary skills, are given the greatest opportunity to do so. It is good to hear the right hon. Gentleman raise the point that this is something that schools have to take on board. We often discuss the issue of universities widening participation, but we also want to ensure that our schools prepare young people, and have the skills to prepare young people, to apply to all universities. Young people should not feel as though they are excluded from any opportunity.

There is no doubt that training for medical students in this country is some of the best in the world, and we want to keep it that way. That means that funding must be at a level that allows for the best training. The consultation paper “Liberating the NHS: developing the healthcare workforce” sets out our proposals for a new framework for education and training, and the right hon. Gentleman raised particular issues that I will come back to in more detail. The proposals would see health care providers take the lead. They would plan and develop their own work force, and take on many of the responsibilities that were previously held by the strategic health authorities. A new statutory body, health education England, would provide national leadership for education and training, with a strong clinical focus from top to bottom. The proposals for health education England have been widely applauded—it is very important to have that leadership in education and in that strong clinical focus. We now have an opportunity to review and reshape our work force and what it is designed to do, so that it can respond to the challenges of the future while still providing excellent care. We sometimes lag behind, trying to solve the problems of tomorrow with the solutions of yesterday.

For patients, of course, but also for staff and students, there must be a secure, diverse work force that has full access to education, training and opportunities to progress. That must be transparent, so that we can see how it is working and help ensure that we all get value for money, students included. The Government have consulted to see how that can happen. We have involved a wide range of people, because the new framework is about giving some of the power to those people. The central pillar is the transfer of greater responsibility to health care providers, escaping the one-size-fits-all approach that has been too prevalent in the past. Those providers will need to work together to co-ordinate the development of their local work force, so that it is tailor-made for the individual pressures of individual areas, which vary widely. That means building strong partnerships with universities and colleges to put the skills of educators to the best possible use and strengthening those relationships, which I do not think have been strong enough. There has been a general recognition among health care providers that those relationships have not been strong enough in the past.

I know that those involved with both the medical profession, including the BMA, and the education sector, want to ensure that medical education is protected and improved. They also want to know that the role of the postgraduate medical and dental deaneries, which currently form part of the strategic health authorities, will continue, so that medical students and trainees continue to be well-supported. Medicine, like many other professions, does not end at the end of training—continuing professional development is an important part of it.

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Mr Smith: Will the Minister come on to the specific questions that I asked about bursaries, both for undergraduates and those on postgraduate entry?

Anne Milton: I am happy to—so that the right hon. Gentleman does not feel I am ducking his questions, I will deal with them once I have finished with the deaneries.

We want to retain and build on the important functions of deaneries as we build the new framework for education and training. We know how important that is, because any transition not only makes the participants feel nervous but is a significant operation for any Government. The transition is when we can let the baby slip out with the bath water.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of bursaries in particular, but I have to disappoint him, in that I cannot make an announcement today. We are acutely aware how long awaited it is. No one could be more frustrated than me with the slowness of government at times, but it is important that we get it right. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes also raised the issue of some of the indirect costs of training, to do with the length of the course. We will be making announcements soon but, as I said, it is important that we get it right and that we involve other Departments.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked if I would make representations via the Treasury to other organisations about supporting training schemes. It is important that we continue to do that—perhaps we do not see enough of that in this country. At this point, I should mention that Julie Moore, the chief executive of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is leading some of the work we are doing with the NHS Future Forum, as part of the ongoing listening exercise on the health reforms. Julie will continue the debate started in the consultation, so there will be further opportunity for input. I urge him and the other Members present to get involved, to ensure that their views and the particular issues faced by medical students are taken on board.

Our responsibility is held jointly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, so the right hon. Gentleman should ensure that any comments made today also go as directly to it. The two Departments are working closely together, so that the specifics of medical education can be recognised.

Mr Smith: I wanted the assurance that, as part of the Department of Health’s collaborative work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the long-awaited higher education White Paper, which it would have been better to have had before the fees increase rather than after, will address the specific position, challenges and opportunities of medical students.

Anne Milton: Very much so. To some extent, the health of the nation rests on the skills of the professions that deal with the consequences of poor health. Medical students and doctors are part of that, so it is important that we get the system right. We need to maintain a competitive edge if we are to continue to produce medical graduates of the highest calibre. We shall not fail in our duty to make representations to other Departments, although working together is not always

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as easy for government as it sounds. However, we have made significant progress, and I think our words are being heard loud and clear.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, universities will be able to charge a basic threshold of £6,000 a year for courses, and up to £9,000 a year for some, but subject to much tougher conditions on widening participation and fair access, which he mentioned in particular. There are still many such challenges, not only for universities but for our education system and at a wider societal level, if we are truly to get participation as wide as it can be. We need to look at all sorts of other drivers in the system directing young people to their choices.

We are shifting the balance of contributions from taxpayers to graduates, who benefit most from higher earnings over the course of their working lives. It is important to recognise that, after medical students have gone through the system and become consultants, they are probably among the top few percent of wage earners in this country. Contribution from them, therefore, is important. For poorer students, who might feel that the burden is too high, there is a balance or tipping point at which active participation in a fees scheme becomes a barrier. We have done a lot of work to ensure that that is not the case, and we continue to do so.

Many of the subjects associated with medicine cost more to teach, and we want a system in which anyone with the ability can access university and study such courses without being put off by the cost. That is why we will continue to provide additional funding for science, technology, engineering and medical courses.

The NHS bursary, which is in recognition of the length of time it takes to study medicine, will continue, helping students with their tuition fees and supporting those from low to middle-income families—sometimes, the middle-income families get squeezed in the middle. We have undertaken a review of the bursary, and will make some announcements shortly. In the review, we considered the views of the British Medical Association, which played an active part, ensuring that the perspective of medical students was considered.

In addition to the NHS bursary, last year an additional £890 million were invested by the NHS to provide clinical placements to medical students, ensuring that NHS providers continue to deliver high-quality clinical placements, which are an important part of such training.

The central investment in 2011-12 is £4.9 billion, a 2% increase on 2012-13. It is important that the funding mechanisms provide the right incentives and allow funding

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to be transparent, to drive quality and to be value for money, supporting a level playing field between providers. Any bursary schemes included should be easy to use and to access—sometimes, the mechanisms by which one can get support are only available to those at the top end of the IQ scale, because they are so complicated. Such complexity can be another significant barrier.

Current funding for clinical education and training is based on local agreements between strategic health authorities and providers. It can result in inequities in the funding of similar placements in different parts of the country. To resolve that, we have been working with others to develop proposals for a tariff-based approach to clinical education and training funding. Such tariffs would enable a national approach to funding all undergraduate clinical placements, including placements for medical students, as well as postgraduate medical training programmes. That will support a much more level playing field between providers. The variation in current funding arrangements means that the introduction of tariffs would have a bigger impact on some providers than others.

Mr Smith: Will the proposed tariff take account of the extra cost of living in certain places—obviously London but also places such as Oxford?

Anne Milton: We are looking at that issue at the moment. We have received about 500 consultation responses, so I am sure that it will be highlighted—it is something we need to look at. The other important thing we are looking at is proposed levies on private health care providers. Certainly, when I trained as a nurse—many years ago—that was an issue, and it remains so today.

The tariff ought to mean a more even and equitable system throughout the country. We will continue to work with SHAs and providers, and we will consider all the views expressed, to build understanding of what the tariffs will do and of how to manage the transition.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise the importance of medical education and of continuing medical education. The new arrangements will take on board many of the issues he has raised, to ensure that we have a health care work force fit for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.