Issues clearly arise when large numbers of workers from less wealthy member states wish to move to other countries where wages and benefit payments are much

12 Dec 2011 : Column 621

higher. The previous Government’s decision not to implement transitional agreements to restrict the number of workers entering Britain from the new EU member states in 2004 was little short of a disaster. Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden chose to allow, from day one, an unrestricted right to work, and as a result Britain attracted far higher migration from those new member states than would otherwise have been the case. That seriously undermined public confidence in the immigration system, and that problem remains. Last week, Croatia signed its accession agreement to join the EU in 2013. It is essential that we do not repeat the mistakes of the previous Government.

A third area that must be addressed if we are to build confidence in the system is bureaucracy, because few things are more guaranteed to destroy that public confidence than cases in which people with no right to stay in this country cannot be removed. Most of us will be aware of cases in or near our own constituencies where red tape has prevented the rules from being properly enforced, and the Minister will be aware of a recent one involving a patient at Russells Hall hospital in Dudley just outside my constituency. The patient was a Pakistani national whose visa had expired four years before. The hospital declared him fit enough to be discharged in August last year, but he remained at the hospital until this autumn because of difficulties in arranging a medical escort to accompany him home and problems in finding suitable nursing care in Pakistan. The 14 months that he spent at the hospital cost the NHS about £100,000. We must make it easier to remove people who have no right to remain in Britain more quickly and effectively.

We must never forget the important contribution that migrants have made to our society, economy and culture over many centuries, and we can take pride in our history of welcoming people from around the world and, on the whole, in Britain’s record of creating strong and diverse communities, but the Government are right to recognise that sustainable community cohesion within an integrated society is possible only if people have faith that the immigration system is not a floodgate. My constituents look to the Government to build on their positive actions so far and to deliver on our promise to bring immigration levels back under control.

9.32 pm

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who made brilliant contributions.

Migration is a contentious issue that until recently no one really dared discuss. The noble Lord Howard of Lympne brought it to the fore when he was the Conservative party leader, but it was not for another five years until both main parties recognised it as a problem to be addressed. The Conservatives have led the way on the issue since the last general election.

The facts are well documented but it does good to repeat them: the most recent figures show that in the year ending September 2011, 540,000 people entered Britain with the intention of staying for longer than six months, of whom 186,000 came from the Commonwealth, both old and new, and 200,000 from the rest of the world excluding the EU. That leaves 150,000 from the

12 Dec 2011 : Column 622

European Union. All they get is a simple passport check. Then they are entitled to come into the country, live in a house or flat, find employment and, crucially, apply for benefits—all because they came from a member state of the European Union, not from the rest of the world.

When in opposition, the Government specifically pledged to bring immigration from non-EU countries down to the tens of thousands before the next election. I applaud that sentiment, but I would like them to go further. I believe the time has come to conduct a wholesale re-evaluation of all our benefits policies. Within that, I would specifically end the agreement with other EU countries.

Why do I think we should have tougher border checks? Because not having them is very expensive—expensive financially, expensive for our young people trying to find low-skilled jobs and expensive for our housing market. If we prevent foreigners from settling in Britain, more money will stay in the country. There will also be less demand on houses, keeping the property markets in check and allowing our first-time buyers to get on the property ladder, especially in south-east England. There will also be fewer people applying for the same number of jobs, thus reducing unemployment. Other countries are tough on this, including the USA. Why does Britain have to be a soft touch? Rather than having people come to this country, we should be encouraging them to stay in theirs, and to generate the wealth that goes with that.

Every time Europe is discussed, I am grateful for two things: first, that we did not join the euro; and secondly, that we did not sign the Schengen agreement. As it is, the thought that some 437 million people of the EU are allowed to come to the UK chills my blood. If we had committed to Schengen, they would be able to come into the UK without anyone even checking their passports. It is bad enough that one can go from Cyprus to Calais without one’s passport being checked; imagine if we had signed away any advantage that the channel affords us as well.

Before I finish, I would like briefly to pay a tribute. The men and women who go to work at our ports of entry on a daily basis deserve our recognition. If our armed forces are protecting our borders in Afghanistan, the UK Border Agency has an equal responsibility at home. There would be no point conducting operations across the world if our border agency did not conduct its work with a similar professionalism here. I know that occasionally things appear to go wrong, but I also know that it is never intentional, and we must remember that. We are talking about dedicated public servants doing a difficult job, and I welcome that.

I call on the Minister to have a good look at those wanting to come into the UK from outside Europe, but I would also like the policies that allow arrivals from within the EU to be thoroughly reviewed too—this is one way in which the Prime Minister can really look after our national interests. Let us get tough on them. The shores of this island are ours, not Europe’s. We should be able to decide who lands upon them.

9.38 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): We have had an interesting debate this evening, with the Minister and the shadow Minister using their opening remarks to set the measured tone with which we should

12 Dec 2011 : Column 623

always conduct debates on immigration. As constituency Members of Parliament, we all know that immigration frequently crops up when we talk to constituents. I not only represent a port city, but I have a university in my constituency with many overseas students. I also live in an area that has many seasonal workers who come for the agricultural work that needs to be done.

There is a general consensus around the Chamber that we need to control immigration. We acknowledge, of course, the benefit of immigration to this country over many years. We also acknowledge the genuine asylum seekers, whom we want to assist and provide a safe haven for in this country. However, I am sure we all agree that we also need tough enforcement for illegal immigrants—those who should not be here, those who are overstayers. We need to tackle that problem.

On the whole, we have had a considered and sensible debate. However, I was a little disappointed that the Minister could not be more generous in his opening remarks about some of the positive steps that were taken through the points-based system. I understand and acknowledge that the Government are adapting and changing it, but the system in place now was introduced by the last, Labour Government. I also dispute the notion that when the coalition Government came to power in 2010 the system was in chaos. That is not correct. Instead, the coalition is building on many of the positive steps and measures introduced by the previous Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made some thoughtful comments in his opening contribution. He identified some of the difficult issues surrounding immigration, including those to do with marriage and family reunion and the debate on economic independence and when it is appropriate to set the level of financial support necessary for someone to bring a husband or wife into the country. My hon. Friend also talked about gay asylum issues, which I believe we should have a long, hard think about. All hon. Members know how important is the NHS and how it has benefited in the past from immigration and the dedication of nurses, doctors and health service workers. I hope that when the Minister concludes, he will answer the points that my hon. Friend raised and deal with domestic workers and trafficking, too, as many hon. Members are concerned about them.

I would like to highlight some of the local issues raised by individual Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) talked about students who had been left high and dry by bogus colleges. I hope that the Immigration Minister will revisit that point, as I know my hon. Friend is still concerned that the students who legitimately applied for their status have been left in a difficult position. Legacy cases are important, too, and the Home Office needs to accept that it has not always responded as quickly or as effectively as it should to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) mentioned the port of Stranraer, as he has on many occasions, in the context of southern Ireland and the ability to travel to the mainland from there. I am sure that the Minister will want to pursue that further with my hon. Friend.

The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) talked about the projections for the UK population, mentioning the figure of 70 million that has

12 Dec 2011 : Column 624

been bandied around. He highlighted issues relating to students, workers and marriage. I was struck by the fact that that other hon. Members spoke about the tone of the debate about students. We know that higher and further education are key economic growth areas for the country, and we do not want to put off good students from coming to our good institutions because of the perception that the system is stacked against them.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) made some remarks about overcrowding, which I found a little odd, considering that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned in an intervention, huge areas of this country are not well populated. I represent the city of Hull in East Yorkshire, where there is a quite a lot of space in some areas. The hon. Gentleman made the important point that immigrants pay more tax than they often receive in benefits. I believe we should reflect further on that.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) represents an area I know a little, and I am familiar with issues to do with agricultural workers and the seasonal character of the population. He made a strong and passionate case about resources for his area, but I would refer him to the migration impact fund, which was introduced by the last Government to support areas that were seeing a certain level of immigration into their local communities.

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was very brave to make comments about the number of Labour Members in the Chamber after the non-appearance of his leader today in the most important statement the House has had for quite some time, but I will move on. I found his comments about his manifesto promise interesting. It was a promise to stop holding children in detention, but of course that promise changed once the Liberal Democrats were in government.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) focused on the Opposition’s policies on immigration rather than on his own party’s proposals. I suggest that he look at the figures showing that net migration of 245,000 for the year ending March 2011 compares with net migration of 222,000 in March 2010. That is something to reflect on, particularly in respect of whether his Government’s policies are working.

The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) said that the Government had struck the right balance. We must pay special attention to the statistics, and ensure that they have been authorised. The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) spoke about what was happening in his constituency. Obviously that is important, but let me gently remind him that—as I recall—the first BNP councillor was elected in 1993 in Tower Hamlets, when we had a Conservative Government and the Liberal Democrats controlled Tower Hamlets council.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) spoke about sham marriages and scams, and of course we all agree with her that such activities must be dealt with quickly and effectively. She said that the UKBA had been overwhelmed, which was an interesting comment given the 6,500 jobs that will be lost in the agency in the coming years.

The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) spoke of an effective removal regime, and gave a good local example. I think that all Members

12 Dec 2011 : Column 625

want to ensure that the removal regime is as effective and speedy as possible when that is appropriate. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) referred to the need to strengthen checks at the borders, and to the hard work of UKBA staff. I am sure that the whole House agrees with him about that.

Members took advantage of the opportunity to discuss all the issues involved, and this was a good debate. However, I fear that the Government’s rhetoric does not match the reality represented by the statistics. We recall the debacle over the summer involving the UKBA immigration checks, when Ministers clearly did not have a grip on what was happening on the front line, and we know that there are 6,500 UKBA job losses to come. We do not know whether the Government’s policies will be effectively implemented. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda pointed out that 12% fewer illegal immigrants, overstayers and criminals had been removed this year than last year.

We must be alive to this issue. We must pay attention to the statistics, and must hold the Government to account in the months and years to come. We shall see whether they can deliver on their commitment to reducing net migration to tens of thousands.

9.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): We have had an informative and measured debate, and it is important to note that the Government found time for it. As many Members have pointed out, we should be able to discuss immigration with candour, openness and honesty, basing our evidence on the facts. My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) spoke of the need to ensure that the subject was not off limits, as I think we have done today. As was clear from many speeches, it is a matter of significant concern to our constituents. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), for instance, highlighted the support for the Migrationwatch e-petition.

I welcomed the 10 speeches from Back Benchers, although I was disappointed and slightly surprised that they were all made by Government Members. As I have said, it is important for the subject not to be off limits and for a broad debate to take place across the Chamber.

Let me remind the House of this Government’s approach to immigration, which is about balance. Britain benefits from immigration and has always done so, but it will continue to do so only if immigration is properly controlled. That means that the unsustainable level of net migration in recent years must be brought down. It is not unfair to characterise the previous Government’s approach as not being about controlled migration; it was more characterised by unlimited migration. Following the pushing by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) accepted that the level of migration had been too high, so we look forward to the development of further policy and of the debate in the weeks and months ahead.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) highlighted the points-based system. I am sure that we will return to these issues in the future, but I wish to set out one fact for her. When that system

12 Dec 2011 : Column 626

was introduced in 2009, the number of student visas increased from 232,000 to a record 320,000. We have taken the clear approach that the view and policy of the previous Government were not sustainable, so we have imposed some much-needed rigour on the system through: an annual limit of 20,700 sponsored workers with a job offer; closing the tier 1 general route and replacing it with a smaller, more focused exceptional talent route; accelerated settlement for the biggest investors and most successful entrepreneurs; restricting tier 2 to graduate-level occupations and intermediate-level English speakers; restricting intra-company transfers to 12 months, unless someone is earning £40,000 or more; and introducing tougher entry requirements, with higher language competency and evidence of maintenance requirements, whereby all educational institutions are to be highly trusted sponsors and vetted by the relevant improved inspectorate. However, there is more to be done, which is why the Government will be announcing reforms to settlement and the family route in due course.

Some important contributions have made by hon. Members, and I will try to respond to as many as I can in the time left to me. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex highlighted the need to take action on the student route. Statistics show that one in five students—or about 21%—appeared to remain in the migration system five years after the end of their course, which highlights clearly why we need to take action. Indeed, we have fundamentally reformed the student visa route, with measures including a tightening of the regime for licensing colleges that sponsor foreign students; restrictions on the entitlements of students, including the right to work; and the closure of the post-study work route from April 2012. The hon. Member for Rhondda highlighted the issue of the post-study work route, which we believe is far too generous. In 2010, one in 10 UK graduates was unemployed and 39,000 non-EU students took advantage of post-study work. The figure was 47,000 between January and September this year, which is why we will close the post-study work route from April 2012.

I wish to comment on the points raised by a number of hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), and for Peterborough, about the pressures on public services. Those pressures are the reason why the Government have commissioned research into the impact of migration on UK employment and the take-up of public services, and we will be publishing this work in due course. We have commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to examine the national impacts on employment, congestion and national services, and its report will be published early next year.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness about scientists and researchers, the Government’s changes to the points-based system have all been made with the needs of the science, academic and research communities in mind. A number of routes are available depending on the individual’s level of experience or the length of time needed in the UK, including at tier 2, which is the main route for those coming to work as scientific, academic or research staff, where the possibility of a long stay is available. Migrants with PhDs are given extra points and migrants must meet the resident labour market test and be paid the appropriate rate for the job, with a minimum salary

12 Dec 2011 : Column 627

of £20,000. We have clearly reflected on the needs of science in the proposals and on the exceptional talent route, through which 700 of the 1,000 places in the first year have been earmarked for the use of exceptionally talented scientists, academics and engineers.

Let me comment on the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about children in detention. We have radically changed the system to ensure that the welfare of the child is at the heart of the decision and the removals process. This Government have introduced very important and significant change and my right hon. Friend was right to highlight that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough highlighted the issue of A2 nationals and, as he said, the Migration Advisory Committee has made a clear case for extending the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians. He may be aware that on 23 November, restrictions on how Bulgarian and Romanian nationals access the UK labour market were extended until the end of 2013, which means that those nationals will continue to require permission from the UKBA before they can work in the UK. Let me make it absolutely clear that this Government will always introduce transitional controls on all new EU member states as a matter of course. That is a very important statement to underline and put on the record, recognising to some extent the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner).

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) highlighted the issue of the European Court of Human Rights and article 8. The Government will revise the immigration rules to reinforce the public interest in seeing foreign criminals and those who have breached our immigration laws removed from this country.

I talked about a balanced immigration policy. We want the brightest and the best to come to the UK and we want to support economic growth. I know that that point was, in many ways, underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) when he talked about the economy and how this issue factors in. That is why we have consulted widely on all our reforms with business and with the higher education sector. Every month since we introduced the limit the visas on offer have been under-subscribed, so not a single valuable worker has been prevented from coming here.

To promote the brightest and the best we made the investor and entrepreneur routes more attractive and accessible, for instance through an accelerated path to settlement. The latest quarterly figures show that numbers for both investors and entrepreneurs have more than doubled compared with the same period last year. We have opened a new route for exceptional talent under which applicants do not need a job offer but must be endorsed by a competent body as world-leading talent. By introducing these important changes, we have underlined the sense of balance and their contribution to the economic well-being of our country.

Our border operations are key in ensuring the effectiveness of our migration policies, guarding against abuse and circumvention of the visa system and illegal immigration. It is important to understand that the old

12 Dec 2011 : Column 628

idea that the border starts at Dover or Heathrow will become increasingly old-fashioned. To reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, we want to export our borders so that they start at airports and visa application centres around the world. In so doing, we will ensure that we have stronger, more effective controls.

People have a right to know that the Government are protecting their jobs, keeping a firm grip on those who come here and sending home those who break the rules. That is the approach the Government have taken and will continue to take in the best interests of our citizens, our economy and our country. It is very much that sense of balance that we have adopted in our policies. Immigration is a vitally important subject for this country.

10 pm

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

Business without Debate

Delegated legislation

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

Corporation Tax

That the draft Investment Trust (Approved Company) (Tax) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 7 November, be approved.—(Mr Vara.)

Question agreed to.


BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE (14 DECEMBER) (No. 2)

Ordered,

That at the sitting on Wednesday 14 December the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on:

1. the Motions in the name of Sir George Young relating to Carry-over (Bills brought in upon a ways and means resolution), Third reading (bills brought in upon a ways and means resolution), Sessionality (supply), Consideration of estimates and Questions on voting of estimates, &c. not later than one and a half hours after their commencement; and

2. the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to Public bodies: scrutiny of draft orders not later than three hours after commencement of proceedings on the Motions specified in paragraph 1;

and such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved.—(Mr Vara.)


POLITICAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

Ordered,

That Yasmin Qureshi be discharged from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and Paul Flynn be added.— (Mr Vara .)


CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT

Ordered,

That Mr Gerry Sutcliffe be added to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.—( Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

12 Dec 2011 : Column 629

Pregnancy Counselling

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

10.1 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this Adjournment debate. Three months ago, during our debates on the Health and Social Care Bill, an amendment upholding a notion supported by 78% of the British public, that

“a woman should have a right to independent counselling when considering having an abortion, from a source that has no financial interest in her decision”

was put to the vote. It was voted down by a majority of three to one. I know this all too well because I intervened in the debate to say why I hoped it would not go to a Division. It felt misplaced in the legislation and followed a fractious debate that had been conducted in the papers and the media. It descended, as all such debates seem to, into a political bun fight. Indeed, one of the few voices of moderation—hon. Members might be surprised to hear me say this—was the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is in her place tonight.

The Government are rightly engaging in a consultation process to see how best to improve pregnancy counselling services. It is in that context that I sought this Adjournment debate. I hope that we can show, as a House, that we have the maturity to ask a simple question without descending into accusations either of betrayal or of compromise. The question we must ask is this: do the present arrangements for pregnancy counselling, when a woman is deciding whether to undergo a termination procedure or to make arrangements for seeing her pregnancy through, serve us well?

I should like to quote a few women who have spoken about their experiences of the pregnancy counselling system as it is currently constituted. All these women received taxpayer-funded counselling; they really are the most important voices we could hear from this evening. A woman called Jennie had a bad experience. She said,

“I felt this counsellor was disinterested. I actually told her to pay attention because this was important to me that I had this counselling. It was like she was thinking about her shopping and I was just choosing a handbag.”

Emma said:

“I felt irritated with the counsellor because she presented my abortion options like it was a sweet shop; ‘So what would you prefer? The pills that will do this, this and this or you could have a surgical procedure.’ I was so angry; I just told her I didn’t care.”

Other women have reported that they felt pregnancy option counselling simply was not made available to them. A woman called Kerry said:

“They did not offer me counselling. I was crying and screaming as I went for the abortion but they still went through with it. I was pressurised by my boyfriend. It is the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing at night.”

Patricia was not offered counselling either. She said:

“I was never given any options. When I took the second pill I was sent home to have the abortion. I have not stopped crying ever since.”

It is tempting to dismiss these experiences, but they are real. Any mature debate will, I hope, avoid the accusation that these women are in some way rewriting

12 Dec 2011 : Column 630

their own history. Surely we should do all we can as a society to ensure that women, regardless of their choice in such circumstances, do not have to live with regret, in many cases for the rest of their lives.

At the heart of the proposal that all women should access independent counselling where the source of that counselling does not have a financial interest in their decision is a concern about the current arrangements. At present the only available taxpayer- funded pregnancy counselling is given by those working for abortion providers. Some have suggested that this means that counsellors will act unprofessionally, in a directive fashion. I do not suggest that, but I do have a concern.

When a pregnancy counsellor also works for an organisation that provides abortions, there is an underlying direction of travel. The expectation, for both the organisation and the woman accessing the service, is that the normal process will conclude in the termination of a pregnancy.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Given that the law gives a woman the right to choose, does the hon. Gentleman agree that a woman should also have the right to choose from where she gets her counselling? I have a wonderful lady in my constituency, Sarah Richards, who receives no funding for the women who come to her. She does not badger them in any direction. Would the hon. Gentleman like to see a woman such as Sarah Richards who provides such a service receiving the same payment as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service receives for the women it counsels?

Gavin Shuker: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point about the experiences in his constituency. I will go on to talk about the system that I think might be able to facilitate something along those lines and address some of the concerns that, quite understandably, many people will have when they hear about those who are currently outside the system coming in as well.

It is reasonable to expect that women are offered, should they want it, counselling that does not have a connection and an underlying association with only one outcome.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a very thoughtful case. Does he agree that we particularly want to avoid late terminations? They are stressful for women and they are obviously a cause of great concern. How would he be sure that directing women to sources of counselling outwith abortion providers would not cause delay?

Gavin Shuker: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Where terminations are to occur, they should happen early. There is a concern that women who desire the kind of context in which they can make their own decision are provided for as well. There will always have to be a balance in any system, but there is an inherent risk in the system as it is currently constituted that women are not able to access that counselling.

It is reasonable that independent pregnancy counselling should be made available to all women who are considering their options. It might surprise the House to know that there is no legal guarantee that such counselling is available.

12 Dec 2011 : Column 631

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I commend the hon. Gentleman for introducing this important debate. Does he also agree that where such counselling is offered, it should be provided by counsellors who have specialist training and experience in advising those who are in the situation he describes?

Gavin Shuker: The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point. I agree, and I will go on to say a few words about some of the criteria that we should look for in people providing such counselling in future.

I believe it is perfectly reasonable, in a debate as complex and fractious as this, to suggest that given the issues we have talked about, the most sensible thing the Government could do is take out of the equation the financial link between counselling and the procedure. I accept that there are opinions in all parts of the House, but one simple principle to enact—and one potentially complex thing to do—would be to take the financial link out of the process. Many would see it as wrong that pregnancy counselling is currently monopolised by those who are pro-choice. There is an imbalance in the system which means that, by and large, counselling is provided only by private abortion clinics. I encourage hon. Members, whatever their perspective on the issue, to consider this simple question: can it really be right that the only taxpayer-funded pregnancy counselling available is currently given by those working for abortion providers?

Counselling in this context should always be non-directive, client-centred and universally available, and the right to it should be legally protected, but I do not believe that it should be subject to a duopoly, as it is at present. If a provider can produce genuinely client-centred and non-directive counselling that is free from a financial link to any given procedure, I believe that the NHS should fund it. There are more than two such providers in the UK today.

In that light, I very much welcome the commitment that the Minister gave the House in September. She said:

“Whether women want to take up the offer of independent counselling will be a matter for them, but we are clear that the offer should be made.”—[Official Report, 7 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 384.]

She also spoke of the difficulty in defining what was meant by “independent” in this context. For some it simply means non-directive, but for others it means independence from finance or independence of the organisational structure from the abortion provider. As I understand it, her Department has not yet given any assurance that the offer of independent counselling would by definition mean counselling by persons or bodies without any kind of vested interest in abortion provision. I ask her to reflect on this and reiterate her commitment that women will be offered independent counselling and that the way to ensure that is by creating a regulatory framework that recognises the provision of alternative sources of pregnancy counselling to those offered by the big two.

In this country we have more than 40,000 trained counsellors who are members of either the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or the UK Council for Psychotherapy. I hope that the Department will liaise with both organisations and the Royal College of Psychiatrists in developing an entirely new approach to how pregnancy counselling is provided in this country.

12 Dec 2011 : Column 632

I know I speak for many, both in the Chamber and outside, when I say that my preference would be for abortion clinics not to be provided in pregnancy options counselling, ensuring that every woman seeking such counselling would know that there is no financial relationship between counselling and the provision of a termination. However, I accept the Government’s position that the right way forward on this issue is through consultation that allows all parties to express their views. It seems entirely practical and plausible for the Government, using the resources currently available, to develop a system in which every woman considering her pregnancy is offered counselling, should she wish to have it.

Non-directive pregnancy options counsellors, who are excluded from the present state settlement, can offer practical advice and help for women who choose to take their pregnancy to full term and often an ongoing support relationship. The focus of existing providers, understandably, is whether to abort or not. Just as choices are wider than simply whether or not to have an abortion, so counselling should give recognition to and advice on adoption and fostering when a woman considers continuing with her pregnancy.

Let me turn to the inevitable charge that allowing counsellors who are pro-life in their personal lives into the system would be inherently damaging to women. It starts with an assumption that the present system is both neutral and independent and hinges on a prejudice about those who hold such convictions. Allow me humbly to disagree with this notion. First, if the debate this autumn taught us anything, it is that no one is neutral. On an issue of conscience, right-minded and well-meaning people will rightly disagree and end up on different sides of the debate, but they will hold a position of conscience that they feel strongly about, hence my suggestion that we do what we can do now, hence my call to break the financial link between counselling and the termination procedure, and hence my desire to ensure that there is no nagging doubt at the back of any woman’s mind about who is looking out for their interests.

Secondly, there is an assumption that people cannot park their personal convictions at the door. Every counsellor knows that pressure in any direction is counter-productive for a woman who wants to continue her pregnancy but needs the space to reach that conclusion herself. In a new system, every counsellor should know that, whether they are personally pro-choice or pro-life, any moves that depart from non-directive principles should endanger their ability to do such work in future.

Equally, I hope that being pro-choice would mean being pro-all-the-choices available to women and that some providers are more expert at providing additional choices to those currently available and funded within the present system. That is why I hope that providers who, as many Members have mentioned, are doing amazing work to support women who would otherwise have felt no option but to undergo an abortion will be welcomed into our present system.

As a House, we have always had the ability to bridge divides, overcome prejudices we see in one another and together find a better arrangement for those we are here to serve. I feel certain that there are women who are let down by the current arrangements. The right response for us is to come together in a spirit of respect, excluding no one or their views. The ongoing consultation by the Government is an opportunity for us to do so, and I hope that we will not be found lacking.

12 Dec 2011 : Column 633

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): I thank the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for bringing this important issue to the fore in the House again. It is testament to how important the issue is that, at this late hour, the House is filled with many Members who take an interest in it. People rightly feel very strongly about it, and he has made some very important points. In this debate, whatever our respective positions, I think we all agree that women who face a decision about whether to proceed with their pregnancy need support, advice and, indeed, counselling; often, it is a very difficult decision for women to make.

The hon. Gentleman supported the amendment introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), and since that debate officials in the Department of Health have been developing and looking at proposals for a consultation on the counselling options in the independent sector and in the NHS for all women considering abortion.

I am working with Members from both sides of the House to look at how we might proceed with the consultation, and I have been impressed by what the hon. Gentleman referred to as the “maturity” of that group of people, who, despite starting from quite opposite ends of the debate, have come together to find out where we agree and, at the end of the day, to ensure that we put forward a consultation that looks at what is best for women.

The consultation will consider how to develop an offer of counselling that is impartial and supportive and, as part of the process, we will look at who is best placed to offer counselling. It is not about automatically including or excluding any one type of organisation; what matters is that we define clearly the outcomes that we want for women. It is important to focus on the process, but we need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve.

Officials have visited several counselling providers to find out more about the services that are offered in terms of the process, the qualifications that their counsellors hold, and what people should expect on booking a counselling appointment. Some organisations are abortion providers, some are services that refer people to abortion providers, and others do not make direct abortion referrals. Official recently visited a Marie Stopes International clinic and a BPAS clinic, and what they found was quite interesting. During the consultation, I am sure that we will hear from many other people with experience of those services.

The proposals are still being developed, and, on an issue that has sought to divide the House in the past, and on which there are sometimes very strong views, it is important that we go into the consultation with one mind. We are confident that, as a result of the work, counselling arrangements will be improved. That is the purpose of the work, and we want to take into account everyone’s point of view so that we put together for consultation the right document that asks the right questions and includes the right options, and so that we hear and know exactly what is the best way forward.

It is clear that good work, delivered by different providers, is going on in many places, but we need to make sure that all women are offered a consistently good service. The repercussions of that not being the

12 Dec 2011 : Column 634

case are very serious. The aim of the consultation will be to propose ways to strengthen existing counselling options for women where they are good, improve the services where they fall short, and set out detailed options to achieve that goal.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) for securing this well-measured debate. The Minister will be aware that the Health and Social Care Bill is going through the House of Lords. Will she guarantee that before the Bill leaves the other place and comes back here, she will bring forward a measured package to make sure that there is a consultation about these issues?

Anne Milton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but there is no need for this to be dealt with in legislation. Before today, I have given my word at this Dispatch Box that we will carry out the consultation and bring forward the best options in finding the best way to make sure that women have an offer of counselling should they wish to take it up. It is important to remember that women who access services sometimes do so from a wide variety of directions—they may self-refer or come from their GP. What matters is that we get the offer in the right place. We need to consider whether the woman should have the one offer or whether the offer needs to be continually open because she might turn it down in the first instance, at the first appointment, but want to take it up, say, a week down the line. It is important that we get the detail right. We do not need to put it into primary legislation; in fact, it would arguably be inappropriate to do so. I repeat that I have said from this Dispatch Box, on more than one occasion, what we will do.

As the hon. Member for Luton South said, there is concern that there is a conflict of interest in that counsellors are paid for procedures and yet also expected to provide entirely impartial advice to women. Although there are no formal quality standards in place for counsellors and no minimum standards for training or qualifications, we have found that the majority of counsellors who work in independent sector abortion providers are registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Underpinning membership of, and accreditation by, this organisation is a thorough ethical framework that counsellors must abide by. However, sufficient concern has been expressed, so we are looking at everything in the round to make sure that the sector is not only independent but has the confidence of the public that it is independent. It is important to say that independent sector abortion providers and organisations that refer women for an abortion are subject to the Secretary of State’s approval and monitoring by the Care Quality Commission. Marie Stopes International, which is one of the leading abortion providers, has reported that 20% of its clients decided not to go through with the termination following counselling. That is an interesting statistic.

Pregnancy counselling is about providing women with a non-directional and non-threatening service in which they can explore the issues. Some will immediately decide on their course of action, and others will still be unsure about what to do at their first appointment with a health professional. This can sometimes make it very

12 Dec 2011 : Column 635

difficult to provide the uniform standard of care that is so important. What is right for one woman will not necessarily be right for another, and so a flexible service that can respond as far as possible to individual women’s needs is essential. Moreover, we do not want to create barriers or to instil delays in the service. Counselling can help a woman to recognise conflicting emotions and feelings and allow her to accept that there may be no perfect, straightforward answer to this crisis in her life. Most importantly, it allows her time and space to reach an informed decision. There is evidence that counselling can help women, particularly vulnerable women, to make a decision with which they are comfortable. We have also heard anecdotal evidence from women who feel that they could have been helped by counselling before making their decision to have an abortion.

Counselling must be balanced. Effective counselling must be confidential, non-directive, non-judgmental, supportive and understood by the person to be independent of any assessment for legal approval for abortion. It needs to happen away from the influence of family or friends. The hon. Member for Luton South highlighted the case of a woman who felt pressurised by her boyfriend and I know that some women feel pressurised by their families.

Contraception has been free on the NHS since 1974. It has helped millions of people to avoid unintended pregnancy and to plan their families as they wish. There are 15 methods of contraception and we have seen a recent increase in the number of women choosing highly effective methods of long-acting contraception.

Although abortion rates for all ages have remained stable, between 2007 and 2010 the abortion rate fell for those aged 24 and under, and the number of abortions overall fell. In 2007 there were just shy of 200,000 abortions, whereas in 2010 there were 189,574, which is a decrease of nearly 10,000 in the space of three years. That is good, but we clearly have a great deal of work to do. Ideally, we do not want to face anything near those numbers. We must ensure that young people have good relationships and sex education so that they can make good choices for their lives.

In conclusion, this work is about ensuring that all women considering an abortion get the best possible service, which they not only need, but deserve. We are looking to build on the recent early successes of the increasing access to psychological therapies programme and to use that model to develop options for pregnancy counselling. We have had discussions with the officials leading that team in the Department and there is a lot

12 Dec 2011 : Column 636

of opportunity. I have no doubt that when we offer young women counselling, it will be an opportunity for some women to unearth all sorts of other issues in their lives, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse. I hope that all Members agree with the principle behind this, as I think they do, even though we sometimes disagree about the small print. I hope that the hon. Member for Luton South and all hon. Members will continue to work with us to get this right.

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the stand that she is taking, even though some of her statistics have slightly mystified me. Before she completes her speech, will she tell the House roughly when, after the consultation next January or February, she believes we will come to a new arrangement for abortion counselling?

Anne Milton: As I have said, I am working with Members on all sides of the debate to get the consultation document right, with the right options and the right offer. The consultation will last for 12 weeks and I then hope to bring forward the arrangements. There are issues with the number of counsellors who are available and with the pathways. These things never happen as quickly as I would like. I always wish that things could happen yesterday, but sadly they cannot.

Thomas Docherty: Will the Minister confirm whether she thinks that it will happen before or after the Health and Social Care Bill passes from the House of Lords?

Anne Milton: It is not for me to prejudge the passage of any Bill, particularly when it is in another place. I am determined to get on with this work. It is not dependent on the Bill. We need to move forward so that we can get the process in place for the offer to be made as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Luton South rightly said that no one is neutral. We want women to receive advice on all the available options and to get support in making their decisions. We want them to have the offer of independent counselling so that when they make a decision, they feel sure in their hearts that it is right for them not just for today, but for the rest of their lives.

Question put and agreed to.

10.29 pm

House adjourned.