4.23 pm

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his excellent statement. This is an unprecedented procedure, but it was important for him to make it as leader of his party. As he has said, our democracy needs, indeed depends upon, the existence of a free press, but a strong press must be a clean press. The wrongdoing brought shame on a press that has a great tradition and is admired around the world. That wrongdoing by the press brought misery to families who were already suffering. We heard the brave and harrowing evidence of the Dowlers and the McCanns. We often talk of walking a mile in someone’s shoes; none of us would want to walk even one step in theirs.

The Leveson proposals are to stop that happening again. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that they will strengthen the press by ensuring that it has the legitimacy—the moral authority—to hold power to account, and that by providing for a proper complaints system, they will protect individuals from abuse and unwarranted intrusion? We believe that the system Leveson proposes is independent both of politicians and of the press. We also believe that that can be achieved only by legislation on the basis Leveson proposes. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister commit to the timetable that the Leader of the Opposition has set out: that by the end of January next year, this House should have the opportunity to debate and vote on taking the Leveson proposals forward? Will he commit his party to vote to support Leveson’s core proposals? Does he agree that we should expect the legislation to have completed its passage through both Houses by the end of the next parliamentary Session, which starts in May next year? We are about to go into all-party talks. Will he assure the House that he will not kick this into the long grass? Will he assure us that he will not allow the press to have yet another lock-in at the last-chance saloon?

I agree with what the Deputy Prime Minister said, but does he agree that what the Prime Minister said amounts to nothing more than a craven acceptance of the status quo? If the Prime Minister does not think again, he will have surrendered to powerful press interests and betrayed the victims.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is obvious, of course, that the Prime Minister and I come at this from different angles, but the right hon. and learned Lady should not overlook the perfectly legitimate misgivings—I happen not to share them, but they are none the less misgivings—that the Prime Minister has expressed about legislation in such a sensitive area.

I have no problem with a speedy timetable, which is obviously one of the main things that we need to concentrate on this afternoon in the cross-party talks. I strongly agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that the long grass is the last place this problem should end up. We have got to act now in one way or another.

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Lord Justice Leveson has put forward his proposals, and I am convinced that he has made a case for legislation. I have not seen—no one has—what that legislation would actually look like. It is important that we see his proposals translated into draft legislative form so that we can all examine that and make the rapid progress that I think everybody, whatever their different views on specific aspects of this report, believes is now necessary.

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I declare an interest as a member of the media law Bar.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister—it is always a joy to hear him—set out very briefly the differences in principle between the view that he takes and that of the Prime Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The difference is that I believe that the case for legislation has been made, but of course I acknowledge that we now need to show how it could be delivered in practice in a proportionate and workable way. The Prime Minister—I hesitate to recap what he said while he is sitting next to me—has thoughtfully expressed his serious misgivings about taking the step of legislation, but has not entirely excluded that possibility in the absence of other viable alternatives. I think that, in a nutshell, is the difference between our two approaches.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Echoing an important point made by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the Prime Minister was incorrect when he talked about crossing the Rubicon in writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land, because the press themselves explicitly asked that there be direct reference to the press complaints code in what became section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998? The press has already sought a statutory underpinning of what it does. All that Leveson is proposing is to give greater strength to the process that they began in 1998.

The Deputy Prime Minister: What I think we can all agree on—Lord Justice Leveson places great emphasis on this in his report—is that none of this would have arisen if the press had abided by its own code. What surprised all witnesses to the Leveson inquiry—it certainly surprised me, because I was not familiar with the details of the code—was that on reading the code, one thought, “This is excellent—brilliant!” We just need to ensure that it is enforced.

That is where the debate now comes: it is about the means. Everybody agrees that the end must be the application of the principles set out by Lord Justice Leveson. Everybody agrees that the code itself was well drafted and that, if it had been enforced in full, the problems would not have arisen in the first place. The debate, which is clearly already raging this afternoon, is about how we can make absolutely sure that that is done in a way that is independently monitored and that endures. My view is that Lord Justice Leveson has made the case for why that can be done only through legislation, although I stress that how that legislation is crafted is a separate matter, to which the House will need to address itself.

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Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that one of the greatest expressions of liberty in the world is the first amendment to the American constitution—a measure in statute if ever there was one? That has proved to be compatible with legal restrictions on copyright and obscenity which, as in this country, provide a statutory framework for the press already. Should that not reassure traditional champions of liberty, even the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), that it is possible to have a legal framework that guarantees both the freedom of the press and the rights of individuals?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I accept that there is a big philosophical difference between liberals, who, as I have sought to explain, try to balance freedom with the hurt endured by people who are abused by the powerful, and libertarianism, which believes that freedom should be completely untrammelled and unconstrained. The latter is not a philosophy that I believe in—it is a one-eyed approach to freedom. The press has always operated within the ambit and the context of the law. It is creating a straw man to imply that law is always inimical to the exercise of freedom in the press. That is a slightly absurd position, because the press has been constrained and indeed protected in many respects by the law for generations.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): The detail of the new regulatory body is critical, but does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that it is only within the legal underpinning that the public support that is so crucial to any new regulator is carried?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have expressed my own views about the assertions that Lord Justice Leveson makes about that. As I said, this is a debate about means, not ends. Let us dwell for a minute on the fact that this afternoon everybody appears to have agreed that what we need is tough, independent regulation of the press, where people are properly protected when things go wrong. The debate is about whether legislation is the indispensible means to deliver that.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on anticipating what was in the Leveson report and on anticipating that he would have a disagreement with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

How does my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister think statutory underpinning by Ofcom would have prevented what happened in the past?

I commend to my right hon. Friend a book called “The Laughter of Triumph” by Ben Wilson, which is about William Hone, the man who got criminal libel laughed out of practical use. We ought to have a sense of proportion.

We must also protect the rights of newspapers such as the ones that campaigned for Stephen Lawrence and that almost certainly broke rules. If there had been statutory underpinning then, what would have happened?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Lord Justice Leveson advocates legislation for three reasons. First, he does not think that the system of incentives—the carrots and

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sticks that he is offering the press so that they all join in the new system—would work without law. Secondly, he thinks that that is the only way in which we can establish a credible process of “verifying”, as he puts it, the independence of the new self-regulatory system. Thirdly, and crucially, he thinks that there should be additional protections in law to enshrine the freedom of the press. I ask the hon. Gentleman, in return, to accept that it is perfectly rational to suggest that these things can be held in balance and that it is not a zero-sum game between freedom on the one hand and regulation that protects the vulnerable on the other.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it would be a betrayal of the victims if we allowed the Leveson report to be kicked into the long grass, which is exactly what has happened to every previous report into press standards? If he cannot persuade the Prime Minister, will he and his party work with us and the significant number of Conservatives who support the Leveson report to implement its proposals as quickly as possible?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and I will start talking this afternoon, in a positive spirit, to try to find a cross-party approach. I think the British people would lose patience with this place if we turned an important issue, which is being treated with the seriousness it deserves this afternoon, into a political football. I want to avoid that and find a solution together that not only answers the demands of the victims, but provides a solution for the country. After two and a half years in coalition, I am used to starting from different positions and finding a solution that suits the whole country in the end.

Mark Reckless (Rochester and Strood) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister speak for the Government, and what are the implications of his statement today for the doctrine of Cabinet collective responsibility?

The Deputy Prime Minister: In a coalition Government there can be no collective position that is not agreed collectively by all parts of that Government. I know people in Westminster get terribly hot under the collar about some of these doctrines, but people out there in the country find it perfectly normal that in a Government with two parties, there are issues on which those parties, because they are two parties, might not have the same view. We have to be relaxed and grown up about explaining that to the House and to the public and then, as has been set out, seek to resolve those issues in the national interest.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister has spoken about 60 years of failure of self-regulation. That is precisely why the public, and particularly the victims, will not be able to accept the Prime Minister’s position today. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition might not be able to persuade the Prime Minister, may I wish the Deputy Prime Minister every success in trying to bring the right hon. Gentleman round to his point of view?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a daily undertaking on many issues. I win some and I lose some.

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I say again that we will not get what we all want out of cross-party talks unless we first agree that we all want the code by which the press was supposed to abide to be properly respected, and we want the principles set out by Lord Justice Leveson to be respected. If we keep that in mind and ensure those objectives are delivered, we will do a big and good thing for the country and future generations.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): We have just heard about the 60 years of failure of self-regulation, and newspapers have been given five previous chances. Under Labour and Conservative Governments, the problem has not been solved: there has been too cosy a relationship between politicians and the press, and abuse of victims. What does my right hon. Friend think is different about this Government, who set up the Leveson inquiry and will now make some progress?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend wants me to say, “Other than the fact that the Liberal Democrats are in it?” I think it was right that we in the Government collectively decided to take the unprecedented step of asking Lord Justice Leveson, with help from the panel members, to look at the issue in the round. He has very wide terms of reference and has not yet completed his work in full. The sheer breadth of what he has been asked to do is revealed in the sheer volume of what he has produced.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): As the Deputy Prime Minister knows, when the Prime Minister set up this inquiry it was in two parts. He did not mention part 2 in his statement, but may I assume that the Prime Minister fully supports part 2 of the report, which deals with the relationship between the police and the investigations they have conducted? Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is vital that we give the police in London all the resources they need, so that Operations Weeting, Tuleta and Elveden can be completed as soon as possible? At the moment, it looks like a timetable of three years.

The Deputy Prime Minister: On the first point, the Prime Minister did refer to part 2 of the report and reiterated that the Government’s attitude to part 2 and to the inquiry as a whole has not changed from the day it was established. He also explained that part 2 is affected by criminal investigations being conducted right now. We will of course endeavour wherever we can to ensure resources are provided so that criminal investigations being conducted by the Metropolitan police are completed as quickly as possible.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The first duty of the Deputy Prime Minister is to support the Prime Minister. We have today seen something that has never happened before in parliamentary history. The doctrine of collective responsibility has been swished away by the Deputy Prime Minister. How can he spend 25 minutes at the Dispatch Box criticising my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and remain in the Government? Is he considering resigning?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman and I have had this exchange countless times. He still struggles to get coalition. His party did not win the

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election, and my party did not win the election, so we have a Government of two parties that must compromise. That is different from previous one-party Governments. It might lead to anomalies, glitches and innovations in this venerable place that he finds unwelcome, but that is the reality of coalition government. I suspect it will be repeated quite a lot in future.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What actions will the Deputy Prime Minister and his Government take if newspapers do not establish the new system?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is incredibly important that the newspaper industry heeds what hon. Members have said and what the Prime Minister has said forcefully—that the ball is now in its court to make the first move of showing that it can propose a self-regulatory institution, which would be independently verified in one way or another as soon as possible. It would be an extraordinary failure if the press did not take up that opportunity and respond to Lord Justice Leveson’s invitation for its own good. Everybody who cares about our great British press knows that the public need to be reassured that it will abide by higher standards in future.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Given that we can choose one of two extremes—one is a dangerously politicised regulation of the press, and the other is allowing editors to continue to regulate themselves through a lock-in at the last-chance saloon—is not the best thing to do to accept the advice of an independent commission that sat for so long, heard so much evidence and produced such a lengthy report, so that we do not kick the matter into the long grass, and so that we give the victims of the worst examples of journalism the justice they deserve?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend’s basic premise that, if the central insights of Lord Leveson are good ones, we should implement them. However, I disagree with hon. Members who have implied that the report should be adopted in its entirety, with every t crossed and every i dotted. There is a lot of dense and complex stuff in the report. There is an extensive chapter on data protection. I am no data protection expert, but Parliament will want to scrutinise the implications of that chapter properly. We should adopt Leveson’s central insights and what he is seeking to deliver, but I do not believe we should therefore suspend all critical faculties on some of the detail, which must be got right.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): It is clear that Leveson does not propose in any way any kind of statutory regulation of the press, and no one in the House wants to see that in any shape or form. Is it not very important, as the debate progresses in the coming days and weeks, that nobody either outside or inside the House, by open assertion or implication, tries to frame the debate in those terms? This is about getting proper redress for those who have been abused; it is not about statutory regulation of the press or crossing any Rubicon.

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The Deputy Prime Minister: Lord Justice Leveson was very clear and unambiguous this afternoon and in his report that he is not advocating statutory regulation, from which hon. Members on both sides of the House would recoil. What he is trying to do is ingenious, but it is materially different from statutory regulation, because it is based on voluntary participation—yes, it is driven by incentives, but it is none the less voluntary—from all parts of the press. That is why the detail and the design of the incentives he is offering to the press are incredibly important.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister’s suggestion is neither liberal nor democratic. Accordingly, does he understand that many victims feel aggrieved because they are unable to seek justice through the legal system, which is often considered too complex and costly? What will he do within the coalition Government to try to put that right?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not accept the underlying premise that all this can be settled by courts and the criminal justice system. Kate and Gerry McCann had their privacy abused and were subject to the most shocking and vile accusations, which they could not have possibly remedied through the law. The hon. Gentleman should read Gerry McCann’s evidence if he really thinks it is undemocratic or illiberal to suggest that maybe we should set up a system that can help people such as them. Gerry McCann went to the Press Complaints Commission and was basically told, “Sorry, there is nothing we can do.” Surely, one would have to have a heart of stone not to accept that there is something seriously, seriously wrong when there is nothing that helps Kate and Gerry McCann. I strongly refute the hon. Gentleman’s idea that it is illiberal and undemocratic to help them.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Given what the Deputy Prime Minister has said and what the Leader of the Opposition said earlier, the Prime Minister now seems to have become a marginal figure on this issue. Therefore, will the Deputy Prime Minister work with the Leader of the Opposition, the First Minister of Scotland and the Taoiseach na hEireann, Enda Kenny, to find, where possible, common ground in this free movement area of the UK and Ireland in press regulation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Prime Minister has initiated the cross-party talks. They will happen shortly and I hope that, with good will, we can make progress. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Irish model. There are similarities between the Irish model and what Lord Justice Leveson is suggesting. They are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. In many ways, the Irish model is a much more direct form of the statutory establishment of a regulator than the indirect verification of a self-established regulator set up by the press. There is an important qualitative difference between the two, although, as I said earlier, it is remarkable that a number of British newspapers operate, as far as I can make out, relatively comfortably under the more exacting—dare it say slightly more illiberal?—system that exists across the Irish sea.

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John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Why do we need legislation, ministerial involvement through Ofcom and implicit licensing for news printed on dead trees, but not for news displayed on computer screens?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Lord Justice Leveson said this afternoon that he thinks there is something qualitatively different about the impact of news printed in our newspapers than there is in the great ecosystem of digital news and news on the internet. He is not making any claims that one form of regulatory remedy is applicable to other media; he is explicitly dealing with abuses in the newspaper industry. To say that because it does not apply to others we should therefore do nothing is a curious way of making the best the enemy of the good.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s stance and I accept that he has given it a lot of thought, but will he tell the House how he proposes to give effect to his views when the Prime Minister is fundamentally opposed to bringing forward any legislation to underpin a new, truly independent system of regulation? Will he urge the Prime Minister, for instance, to allow a Bill to be introduced so that the House can have a free, democratic vote on it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: To be fair, the Prime Minister expressed misgivings about taking a significant step. Of course, these are the kinds of things that we will talk about in the cross-party discussions, but if we all immediately start digging trenches and digging our heels in the worst of all outcomes will happen, which is that nothing will happen at all. I will work very hard to prevent that.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): During the Prime Minister’s statement, I suggested that Lord Justice Leveson had called time at the last-chance saloon. Does my right hon. Friend agree that without implementing the central planks of the Leveson report, we risk any changes brought forward being seen as yet another last chance from an industry that has failed miserably to regulate itself effectively?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My eye was caught by a quote from John Major, who said in his evidence to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry:

“I think on this occasion it’s the politicians who are in the last-chance saloon.”

This is a test not just for the press, but this place. It is a test for us all to try to find a cross-party approach. That is best done on a cross-party basis, rather than becoming the subject of party political point scoring. On the central assertion, I think that Lord Justice Leveson’s report makes the case well for why legislation is necessary to administer his system, although as I keep stressing I do not know exactly what the legislation would look like. It is very important to get the details, as well as the principle, right.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I commend the Deputy Prime Minister for his measured and thoughtful statement and how he has dealt with questions this afternoon. Given the two statements, will he clarify whether he intends to adopt the same principle on this issue as on the boundary proposals—that when

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he disagrees with his Conservative colleagues, Liberal Democrat Ministers will, on a point of principle, go through the Lobby with us when they agree with us?

The Deputy Prime Minister: To be fair, this is not driven by being in agreement with the Opposition.

I am not going to repeat what I have said in the House about boundaries, but I accept, of course, that in coalition government there will be cases—this is one instance—where it is perfectly fair, normal and transparent to the public and the House to say, in a level-headed way, “Look, these are the differences of view.” Coalition does not mean homogenised government where the differences that naturally exist between parties are somehow eliminated.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was present in the Chamber at the start of this statement. If he was, of course we will hear from him. If not, the nation will have to wait for another occasion.

Zac Goldsmith: For the record, I was here for both statements—but I moved around.

Mr Speaker: I am glad to hear it. Let us hear from the hon. Gentleman.

Zac Goldsmith: Given that my party appears to be split on this issue—judging by recent letters submitted to Lord Justice Leveson—given that the coalition is clearly split on it and given that the House is split, too, does the Deputy Prime Minister share my hope that the various measures we will be discussing over the coming weeks will be put to the House, preferably in a free vote?

The Deputy Prime Minister: In the first instance, before we get to that, we should seek a cross-party approach. It is nothing for the House to be ashamed of that there are strongly held views in all parties on something of principled importance. I just hope that we do not allow those differences of view to become an alibi for inaction.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) will remember acutely having his ear bent by me and others over the creation of the Data Protection Act 1998 and the checks and balances within it. That happened at the time we brought together the European directive and the original Act. I would like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister precisely the same question I asked the Prime Minister. Paragraph 57 of the summary recommendations is for the creation of an information commission that would include members of the media. Does that not provide a vehicle to remove his concerns about some of Leveson’s comments on data protection?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think the hon. Gentleman’s idea is, in effect, to turn the Information Commissioner into an information commission. I am no great expert,

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but that does not seem, in and of itself, to be the worrisome part of the proposals. As he will know better than I do, it is worth bearing it in mind that further and new European data protection legislation is in the pipeline on a separate timetable. That is one example of something we need to examine, but it would put the cart before the horse were we to pass all these data protection provisions, and then have to reinvent it all in the light of a new EU data protection directive. That is exactly the kind of level of detail I hope we can get into very rapidly.

Mr Speaker: Last but also never forgotten, I call Mr John McDonnell.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): By the way, I support the idea of separate statements— I would have liked to make some myself in the past.

I think I know the answer, but, because it will strengthen the message, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm the call that the Prime Minister has now backed for proprietors to meet the National Union of Journalists and others to start work immediately on the introduction of a conscience clause into journalists’ contracts?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, that is one important part of a long list of issues that proprietors and editors now need to address. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the NUJ. I think I am right in saying that the NUJ has come out unambiguously in favour of a model of statutory underpinning. It is important to remember, therefore, that there are working journalists, who care as much as anybody in the House about the freedom of the press, who none the less recognise that this might be the right way to proceed.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have enjoyed an innovation. I was going to ask whether the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) had asked whether he could make a statement after the energy statement earlier today.

I was going to go on to say, perhaps not as light-heartedly—which means seriously—whether the Procedure Committee should be consulted on whether Ministers wanting to make a second statement should require the leave of the House or whether that should be left to you, Mr Speaker.

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Mr Speaker: I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. In respect of his first point, if I did not know him so well, I would think that he was being mischievous, but because I know him so well, I do not think anything of the kind. Secondly, the Procedure Committee can take up any matter at any time of its own volition. It requires no permission from anybody else to do so. I feel sure that the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), will shortly have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say.

I thank the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and all colleagues for their co-operation today. We now move to the next item of business.

Delegated Legislation

Ordered,

That the motion in the name of Mr Andrew Lansley relating to the House of Commons Members’ Fund shall be treated as if it related to an instrument subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 118 (Delegated Legislation Committees) in respect of which notice of a motion has been given that the instrument be approved.—(Anne Milton.)

Petition

Rushden Lakes Retail Leisure Park

4.55 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Returning to normality, in my constituency there is a proposal for a retail leisure park that will create 2,000 jobs. There is massive support for it among my constituents, with many hundreds of signatures.

The lead signatory is a Mr Jack Spriggs and the petition reads:

The Humble Petition of residents of Rushden and Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire and the surrounding areas,

Sheweth,

That the planning application for the Rushden Lakes retail leisure park has the support of East Northamptonshire District Council, the Borough Council of Wellingborough, Rushden Town Council, Higham Ferrers Town Council and the overwhelming majority of local residents, will provide 2,000 new jobs, a high quality leisure park and retail outlets such as Marks and Spencer.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to as speedily as possible approve the scheme.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.

[P001140]

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Central Bedfordshire College

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

4.57 pm

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Central Bedfordshire college is a vital institution in the constituency I am proud to represent. It has a presence in all three of the towns in my constituency—Dunstable, Leighton Buzzard and Houghton Regis. I am a strong supporter of the vital work of colleges, as they provide the skills that people need to make Britain a high value-added economy. It has an excellent new principal in Ali Hadawi, who was recently appointed a Commander of the British Empire and who turned his last college into a beacon college. I have every confidence he will do the same for Central Bedfordshire college.

The college was founded in 1961 as Dunstable college, originally with a focus on the printing trade, and most of the buildings are the original 50-year-old buildings. C and F blocks, for example, were built in 1959 and 1960. The remaining buildings were built in 1968, with the newest built in 1973, so my hon. Friend the Minister can see that they are now quite dated.

Central Bedfordshire college was one of 70 colleges that lost out under the old Learning and Skills Council’s Building Colleges for the Future capital programme. The college initially put in a £5 million proposal, but was told that that was not big enough and that it should go back and produce something grander—with an atrium, I believe. The college was encouraged to work up a more expensive proposal. It then put in a £40 million proposal, but unfortunately no one at the Learning and Skills Council was totting up the total cost of all the bids and the capital programme collapsed. Central Bedfordshire college was one of 70 colleges not to receive any capital grant. Those 70 colleges then went through a bidding process for the remaining amount of money available, and 13 were successful. I believe that, for some reason, all of them were in Labour constituencies, including a late application from Hartlepool college. This took place under the previous Government.

There were then 57 colleges left with—

5 pm

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

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

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I am terribly sorry about that. It is a technicality, and it is perhaps something that the Procedure Committee could look into, at its own initiative.

Andrew Selous: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, there were then 57 colleges left, of which 45 were given financial assistance to prop up their balance sheets. That left 12 colleges out of the original 70 without any assistance for capital funding under the old Learning and Skills Council regime. I believe that Central Bedfordshire college is one of the very few colleges not to have received any capital funding under the three enhanced renewal grant capital funding rounds that the new Government have introduced.

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I would like to know how many colleges benefiting from the Learning and Skills Council capital grant, which was allocated under the previous Government, have received further capital funding under the enhanced renewal grant funding process. I would also be interested to know how many colleges had their ERG applications approved when they were not able to meet the match funding requirement. Central Bedfordshire college was able to meet that requirement in each of the three ERG application rounds that it put in for.

To recap, Central Bedfordshire college has put in three ERG bids. The first was in July 2010, when it requested a £1 million contribution from the Skills Funding Agency to match a £3 million contribution from the college itself. That bid was unsuccessful. The second bid, in November 2011, involved the college requesting a £2 million contribution from the SFA to match a £4 million contribution from the college. Most recently, in September 2012, the college requested £3 million from the SFA to match a £6 million contribution from the college.

The college had been led to believe that its bid would be prioritised, as it had not received even a pound in capital funding from those earlier rounds. It has had no written feedback on the bid process, although it has been told that it can attend a surgery at the SFA regional office. There is some puzzlement among the people running the college as to how all this is worked out. If the process is not helping the neediest colleges, perhaps it needs to be looked at again.

I want to go into more detail about the feedback that has been received from the SFA on why the third bid was unsuccessful. Will the Minister tell me whether the due diligence exercise that is going to take place in relation to the colleges whose bids were successful could be applied to Central Bedfordshire college, to see whether it could be awarded a few more points? I understand that the bid failed by just one point, and if we could look again to see whether any additional points could be awarded, there might be a happier outcome. I understand that the college’s education case scored the highest number of points in the whole of the eastern region, and the third highest in the whole country. I am sure the Minister would agree that the education bid is at the heart of what further education colleges should be about. I wonder whether that part of the bid should have slightly more weighting than some of the more technical considerations relating to the building proposals.

As I have said, this is the third enhanced renewal grant that the college has not been successful in securing. It has been acknowledged by officials in the Skills Funding Agency that the college is one of the neediest, if not the neediest, college in the country. In May this year, I was present when the outgoing SFA chief executive, Geoff Russell, visited Central Bedfordshire college, and he commented that the college did not need just an ERG; he would have liked to have seen a complete rebuild. Speaking as the local MP, I believe that the learners in Central Bedfordshire college deserve just as much support for creating a conducive learning environment as other students in other colleges throughout the country.

If the process is not helping the neediest colleges, we should have a look at how that process runs. I shall discuss four specific technical areas where we think the bid has lost out. The SFA commented that the refurbishment element had not been properly environmentally assessed.

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The primary objective of the college’s bid was to construct a new centre for hair, beauty, holistic therapies and hospitality and catering, with a focus on green technology in the curriculum and skills development. In order to achieve the new build in the optimum campus location, the college had to relocate other curriculum elements, with a small amount of associated refurbishment. The college understands that it was marked down because that latter refurbishment element did not have a full environmental assessment—unlike the main new build. That refurbishment element represented only 3.3% of the total project budget. It is simply an enabling element for the project itself, and the overall project has been environmentally assessed. The college feels unhappy about that aspect of its bid’s assessment.

The second aspect of the bid was the savings in estate costs over a 20-year period. The college was advised that other bids demonstrated larger savings over the project life of 20 years. The college, however, has come in the top quarter for national estates cost efficiency, as demonstrated by the SFA’s own data collection, which I understand is known as “e-Mandate”. That makes it hard for the college to demonstrate a huge decrease in building costs related to the bid, because it starts from such an efficient base. As a result, its savings are likely to be at a lower margin. That efficiency has been achieved by the college being very prudent and managing its projects from within its own estates department, for example. Again, the college feels that this rather crude assessment fails to take into account the efficiency point that it has already reached, even for a 50-year-old building, so it believes that it has been unfairly penalised for doing the right thing, as it were.

The third technical aspect on which the bid was marked down related to the costs of the proposed project build against the SFA’s own cost plan. The feedback stated that the bid was 10% adrift from the SFA’s cost plan norms. In simple terms, the bid comprised the following three parts. First, there is the demolition of the old F block, dating back to 1959, as I told the Minister at the start of my speech. That F block was going to be replaced with a new build centre of excellence for green catering and for hair, beauty and holistic therapies. That did fall within the SFA’s cost norms. Secondly, there is the partial demolition of the B block and the construction of a new media studies centre, together with associated works, which also fell within the SFA cost norms.

It was the third aspect that I think caused the college problems: the creation of a new surface-level car park and access road from the public highway. The project costs are required to conform to the appropriate SFA cost model for the type of college establishment. The first two elements of the bid, the demolition of the F block and the partial demolition of the B block, accorded with the SFA’s criteria. It was the third element, the car park, that did not accord with its indicative costs and is being regarded as abnormal.

The college has commented that it is required to dispose of a portion of its estate in order to release capital to contribute to the cost of the project. It has also said that the land to be disposed of currently houses a significant proportion of its car-parking provision, and that because it is not practicable for it to operate

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effectively without replacing that lost parking provision, it must be replaced elsewhere on the campus. The replacement of the car park and the provision of a new access road are a fundamental component of any redevelopment scheme that relies on capital release from the sale of land to the rear of the college to enable the college to make its substantial contribution to the overall project costs.

It was recognised at an early stage in the preparation of the stage C cost plan that the creation of the new car park would show the project costs at an unacceptable level of variance to the cost model, and for that reason two cost model comparisons were prepared and included. The first compared project costs associated with the B and F block works and their associated external works, and the second compared all project costs, including the creation of a new car park and access road.

The fourth element was health and safety, on which the bid was marked down. The college has said to me that the reason a significant improvement was not shown was that it had already taken care of that aspect of the bid. It had worked very hard, with its own money, to deal with all the health and safety issues that might have arisen, and not a great deal of further progress could have been made.

I hope that I have helped the Minister by giving him some feedback from the college. I hope that I have managed to explain why it feels aggrieved. In particular, I hope that I have managed to explain why the car park is necessary to the release of that significant extra contribution. The Minister has heard something of a litany of complaints, but I want to end on a positive note by telling him about the excellent things that the college is doing, notwithstanding the difficulties which I have outlined and which I hope he will be able to address when he responds.

Central Bedfordshire college is the proud sponsor of the new Central Bedfordshire university technical college, which is one of only two UTCs in the country that opened in September this year. It will have 600 students, and I am immensely proud that the only UTC in the east of England is in my constituency. It is a fantastic innovation, and it is exactly what the country needs to drive it towards a prosperous future.

Under construction in another location is the Incuba centre, a £5 million facility to help new businesses to develop Dunstable with a focus on the green economy. That is very welcome. It will help to re-energise the industrial base in Dunstable and Houghton Regis, and also the wider economy. Central Bedfordshire college is at the heart of that.

More recently, the college bought a former Volkswagen garage in the Luton road in Dunstable which it is turning into the most fantastic motor vehicle training facility. A real, live, state-of-the-art garage facility, in a building where a commercial garage was operating only a few months ago, will enable my constituents and people from the wider area to train to become motor mechanics in excellent conditions.

I know that the Minister is particularly interested in the college’s work with local employers. Again, it is doing all the things that he is asking colleges to do. It has, for instance, worked very closely with the Morrisons supermarket. I was proud to attend an event hosted jointly by the college and Morrisons. The college had provided up to 100 local unemployed people with a

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specific training course over the summer. If they completed it, they would be guaranteed a job interview at the new Morrisons branch that was opening in Houghton Regis. That initiative has been hugely successful. It has been excellent for the local unemployed people and excellent for the supermarket, which has really appreciated it. The college has done a fantastic thing.

The college is also working with other employers, including BAE Systems and Liebherr, engaging with them to develop an employer-tailored curriculum. It is working with Center Parcs, too, another new major provider of employment in central Bedfordshire, and with the developer of the new housing development north of Houghton Regis, which will require lots of construction skills.

It is a bugbear of mine that when there are major construction projects, the jobs often do not go to local people. It upsets me when people come in from miles around to take the jobs. Unemployed construction workers come to see me at my surgery. I am determined, as is Central Bedfordshire college, that many of the jobs created in the building of thousands of new houses to the north of Houghton Regis to help pay for the Dunstable northern bypass will be taken by local people. That is very important. CBC is at the forefront of providing the skills for the construction companies contracted to carry out that work.

The college also works with London Luton airport in delivering cabin crew and baggage-handling skills. It is working with Luton Town football club and the Bedfordshire football association to deliver coaching and football qualifications. It is also working with our local train company, First Capital Connect.

I hope the Minister will therefore see that the college has heard the Government’s message and is mustard-keen to provide the skills our local economy needs to help UK plc compete in the global race in which we are engaged. We just need a little bit of help with the capital funding. I think we have had a bit of a rough deal for a while now, but I know the Minister is a fair man, and I know he will look seriously into these issues. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

5.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills (Matthew Hancock): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate, which is so important for Central Bedfordshire college—for everybody who works at it and, most importantly, everybody who studies at it. I know that he raised this issue with my predecessor, and he has also raised it with me a number of times. He is a powerful advocate of the need for improvements.

I also congratulate the college on its success in opening the new university technical college. UTCs are a crucial part of ensuring we have the skills we need in the years and decades ahead. I also commend the college on the work it is doing with local businesses to provide the skills employers need, and to ensure we make good any skills shortages. Colleges across the country are increasingly working with local employers and businesses to ensure we provide the skills they need. The driving mission behind the work we are doing and behind my job is to ensure that local people have the skills they need for the jobs that are available, such as in the construction industry, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

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For decades, colleges were starved of the funding for capital renewal that both schools and universities enjoyed. I know that from personal experience because I studied at a further education college—West Cheshire college—in the mid-1990s. Therefore, when the Learning and Skills Council offered significant capital grants, the colleges jumped at the opportunity. My hon. Friend set out the history of what happened. Bids were encouraged, and were encouraged to grow, and then promises were made without the funding to match them. Hugely expensive projects with poor cost control delivered very poor value for money in some of the projects that were completed. They ran out of money, and building projects were stopped, sometimes after huge expense on plans and with diggers in the ground. In that context, and in the context of the wider catastrophe that was the public finances, we are now trying to rebuild. I say that to give the background before getting on to the specifics of the case.

We have been working hard to ensure that lessons are learned from that period. One of those lessons, inevitably, is that we should have a firm and unbending eye on value for money, the physical infrastructure needs of colleges and the benefits to students that capital spending can bring. The approach is coupled with the urgency for affordability. That is the background to how the criteria for making decisions are structured.

We consult the sector on the criteria for deciding allocations. We then provide colleges with advice on the criteria, assess and moderate—and fund when an application is successful. We are happy to work with the college to develop a fundable case. I will certainly look at my hon. Friend’s point about due diligence and moderation executed on successful projects to see whether those can be applied in this case.

Since May 2010, total Government investment across the country in new colleges amounts to more than £330 million. That has enabled more than £1 billion-worth of projects. Across the whole programme, £2 of private cash have been put in for every £1 of Government cash. My hon. Friend said that that was the case with Central Bedfordshire college’s bids, too.

Let me go through some of the specifics of what has happened in the three rounds of renewal grant that have been set out so far. The first is that we have had 117 bids for college funding, which would have cost in excess of £200 million if all had been approved. I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s argument about the quality of the buildings at the college—60% of its buildings are in poor or inoperable condition. I am sad to report to him that, of the 240 general further education colleges across the country, 59 are in a worse state on this measure than Central Bedfordshire college. Although the college has a high level of need, such need, unfortunately, is replicated in some colleges across the country.

The first criterion relates to the condition of the existing estate; Central Bedfordshire college has a case, but there are other colleges with a worse rating. The second criterion is value for money, and my hon. Friend reported the concerns raised about that issue. I entirely understand his point that, having done work to ensure good value for money in respect of running costs, the college feels penalised. He will understand that value for money has to be a critical part of our assessment. I give my hon. Friend this commitment: we will work with the college to see what can be done to improve the

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value for money in the bid. The third criterion is the benefits that would flow from the work as planned. In that area, as he stated, Central Bedfordshire college did relatively well.

On my hon. Friend’s specific questions, 10 colleges got funds without match funding, but they offered much stronger value for money and benefits in the rest of their bids. Of course, the amount of match funding is a critical part of the question, but it is not the only element of value for money. Only one college in the third round of the enhanced renewal grant had received serious amounts of money since 2001. A very strong emphasis was placed in these bids on those colleges that have received less than £5 million since 2001, and in the third round only one college, Barnsley college, had received more than that since then. By contrast, Central Bedfordshire college had received £450,000 since 2010, including £225,000 in the first round, £100,000 in the second round and £120,000 to help work up the bid for the third round. We are going to have to work with the college in future to see what further we can do to try to get it over the line.

My hon. Friend asked about written feedback, which will, of course, be provided. Earlier this month, the college, including the principal, met civil servants for oral feedback, but we will also provide written feedback.

On my hon. Friend’s point about rebuild, I am tempted not to recommend that we again go down the route of suggesting yet more expensive propositions for the college, but we should keep all options on the table. On the point about the education case being the best in the east of England, I am glad to say that these things are no longer done on a regional basis and are instead done on a national basis. The college scored well in that area.

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As my hon. Friend said, the college scored 21 out of a possible 39 points in the process and was just one point short of the score deemed necessary to secure funding. There is broad agreement that the process was carried out on a fair, open and competitive basis; the process was agreed in consultation with the sector. Even so, an appeals process is available for colleges that feel they have been hard done by. I entirely understand his disappointment and I commend the pressure he is applying.

Andrew Selous: The Minister may not be able to do this now, but will he respond, perhaps in writing later, on the issue of the car park? It seems that the bid was marked down severely on that basis, and I want to check that he has understood the point I was making about the car park being essential for the release of a significant sum of the college’s own money in order to match-fund.

Matthew Hancock: I understand the point about the car park, and I will look into it and get back to my hon. Friend on the specifics. I am sorry to say that I cannot give him a clear and specific answer today, but of course I will be happy to work with him to see what we can do in the months ahead. As and when details of any future capital funding are made available, we will work with the college. I understand, not least as a result of his lobbying, the important role the college plays in the community, what it is doing to support young people and the needs that it has. We will look carefully at, and work with him on, future propositions. I hope he will accept that and that we can move forward.

Question put and agreed to.

5.28 pm

House adjourned.