That leads me to yet another of the numbers that we might want to focus on in the debate. Yesterday, in the main Chamber, a couple of points were made about the number of women in work and the way we might look at the statistics. One statistic, which is important to

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use in today’s debate, is that almost 200,000 women in coupled families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011, compared with 185,000 between 1996 and 2011. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal had to deal with the notion that a few years of achievement now are worth more than 13 years of non-achievement in the past, and that point stands on the same side of the argument.

Catherine McKinnell: Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that many of the women who are entering the work force are doing so in part-time jobs, although they probably need more hours to pay their bills, and on zero-hours contracts and poor wages, terms and conditions? Seven out of 10 women say they cannot go back to work, because the child care costs are so high that they deter them from doing so, while those who do go back are simply not earning enough to pay their bills.

Chloe Smith: I think that the hon. Lady knows all too well that we will deal with the point inside the policy only by tackling the cost of child care, and my hon. Friend the Minister has set out plans to do that. I think that the hon. Lady also knows all too well that we will tackle the far bigger point that sits outside this issue only by securing an economic recovery, and that is what I want to point my comments at on behalf of the taxpayers and families in my constituency.

Catherine McKinnell: I am interested to hear the hon. Lady’s economic arguments, but I must correct her on one thing. She suggested that the Labour party left the economy in the doldrums in 2010. In fact, the economy was growing in 2010, but we have had complete economic stagnation since. It would be more honest if she acknowledged that point before continuing.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I am sure the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) will want to get back to the subject of the debate, which is child care.

Chloe Smith: Mr Hood, I will be only too delighted to get back to the subject of child care.

The point on which I want to finish is about having honesty in politics for the families who we might wish to help. It is not honest to ignore the fact that Labour doubled the national debt or to try to spend the same amount 10 times.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chloe Smith: I am terribly sorry, but I need to finish my comments, so that other Members can speak.

I want to finish on the point that false claims, scaremongering and, worst of all, false accounting do young families absolutely no good. Younger people—various polls and statistics show that this is demonstrably true—are turning away from traditional party politics. Some will become parents and seek to take care of their children, and it will do none of them any good whatever to hear the false numbers that are being put about in this debate. It will not help a single child, parent or citizen to regain faith in what politics is for if we cannot have a slightly more honest debate today.

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3.13 pm

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this timely and important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing it. I appreciate that we had an opportunity to debate some of these issues yesterday, but it is incredibly useful to have an opportunity not only to expand on some of them, but to reinforce some of the points that were made and, in particular, to get some clarity from the Minister on issues that were left unclear at the end of that debate, certainly in my mind.

It would be right for me to declare an interest, as other hon. Members have done. I am the mother of two children aged six and four. Although they are of school age, they rely on child care, which supports my working hours and those of my husband. Obviously, I have an interest in securing good-quality child care at an affordable price for all my constituents, who are deeply concerned about this issue.

Hon. Members have drawn on a number of aspects in explaining why this is such an important debate, and we touched on a number of issues yesterday. Child care is important for the children, because of the pre-school support, confidence and education they get, which give them the right start in life. I have visited child care facilities across a range of areas in my constituency, and it is evident how vital that pre-school support is in ensuring children reaching school age do not start out disadvantaged compared with children from perhaps more economically fortunate backgrounds. All children should have that pre-school input, and the child care offer and the child care debate are crucial to ensuring that we see that equality across the board.

Child care is also crucial for women. I am therefore pleased we have such a great showing of male MPs in the debate, as we did yesterday. That is vital because this is increasingly an issue for fathers as well as mothers, and rightly so. The Labour Government introduced a lot of changes to ensure that we reach the goal of equality between men and women and on child care responsibilities. Ultimately, we know that we are not there yet, and child care is still very much an issue for mothers and women generally.

As a result of child care responsibilities, women are unable to stay in work, and they fall out of the workplace. Many choose not to work, and that should be supported, but we are talking about child care, so it is right to focus on those women who would like to stay in the workplace but are unable to do so. I mentioned the figures from a survey that Asda undertook, and I find them startling. It should prompt any Government to action to know that seven out of 10 mums say they cannot go back to work because the cost of child care makes it too expensive.

Tom Blenkinsop: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I raised in yesterday’s debate, about female unemployment. In May 2010, female unemployment in our region—the north-east—was 20,657. It is now 25,973. That is a 25.7% increase. What does my hon. Friend think is the main cause?

Catherine McKinnell: That is a deeply disturbing figure, and we know that women have borne the brunt of the cuts in public services. Many more women than

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men work in the public services, so they have suffered redundancy and unemployment as a consequence. We have not seen a matching increase in private sector employment for women. As we know, women have lost out in the jobs market as a result of many of the changes we have seen in the past three years.

Tom Blenkinsop: Does my hon. Friend think that the fact that we have had £30 billion less investment in small and medium-sized enterprises since this Government came to power in 2011 is a cause of the lack of employment in the private sector among not only women but men?

Catherine McKinnell: That is a deeply concerning statistic. I know the issue is close to my hon. Friend’s heart, and he is extremely passionate about having the case heard. On the other side of the coin, a lot of women who would like to work have fallen out of the workplace because child care costs are prohibitive. However, women have also suffered pregnancy discrimination, sex discrimination or maternity discrimination. One deeply concerning issue is the additional barriers the Government have put in the way of women who want to seek redress for such unfairness. I am surprised because members of the Government—particularly female ones—should be deeply concerned at additional barriers such as charges for going to a tribunal being put up for women seeking redress for such discrimination. I hope that the Government will listen and take that seriously, because it is nothing short of a scandal.

Bridget Phillipson: Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, about the fact that many families, in addition to dealing with the cost of child care, are responsible for the care of older relatives? That affects women in particular. They must try to combine looking after elderly parents or other relatives, when there is pressure on social care, with trying to make ends meet for their children. That is a great pressure at the moment.

Catherine McKinnell: Women have suffered a triple whammy. Many have suffered unemployment because of public service cuts. They are also dealing with the reduction in the availability of child care, and increasing costs because of increased demand. As well as that, they are picking up the pieces where public services can no longer provide support and must step back because of reductions in funding. It is often women who step into the breach. They must juggle their ability to provide family support of both kinds. Many women do that willingly, happily and lovingly, but as a society we must question whether that is the future we want, or whether we are taking a step back on equality by pushing more and more women who want to stay in work and progress economically back home and into caring roles. Women are still not equal to men in economic terms.

The issue that I raised yesterday was not just the quality of child care, which has been touched on today, but its availability. There has been much debate about child care figures and availability, but the number of places has reduced in the past three years, which is a big concern. The Government are making various promises of things to come, but whether they will be able to deliver is deeply in doubt when we consider what is looming on the horizon. When we consider how children’s

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centres and Sure Start centres are at risk at the moment, the Government cannot bury their head in the sand much longer.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I apologise for not being here earlier: I had a Committee meeting and could not get here in time.

I understand that figures show that 5.8 million women are working mothers and that their average child care costs are 22% of their wages. Does the hon. Lady feel that it should be a priority for the Government to address the issue, to keep women in their job and enable others to obtain employment?

Catherine McKinnell: The hon. Gentleman makes a passionate case and is right; it makes sense for equality, women and the individuals involved, but also for the economy. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), is keen to stress the fact that the cost of child care is not a soft issue, but a key issue for the economy. It affects whether we get economic productivity or waste the resources of women who would choose to work, but are prevented from doing so or do not bring home enough money at the end of the month. I know many women working all the hours they can, whose earnings are taken up in child care costs to such an extent that they ask every week, or sometimes every day, “Is this actually worth it?” The cost of juggling caring responsibilities with work is a challenge in itself, even without the challenge of bringing home very little pay. Often there is a short-term crisis for a family for the sake of a long-term economic benefit for the individual, the family and the children. It is a key area and the Government should take it seriously.

I am concerned that many more Sure Start closures are looming than the 579 that have already happened. The Government dispute those figures, but their database of children’s centres shows that there are 3,053, while the official Department for Education figures in April 2010 showed that there were 3,632. Will the Minister clarify when she winds up—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I am happy to do so now.

Catherine McKinnell: I have a series of questions, so perhaps the Minister can answer them all.

Where have the missing 579 centres gone? There is an obligation on local authorities to keep the figures updated. According to the Government’s figures, in black and white, those centres have gone, and the Government’s denial that they ever existed is causing confusion. What assessment has the Minister made of the anticipated number of closures over the next two years? In Oxfordshire, for example, 37 may be closed, and in my local authority area the closure of a large number is being considered and all 20 are under review. Presumably such things are happening elsewhere in the country, and I wonder whether the Government have a handle on it.

Mr McFadden: Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not just the total number of Sure Starts? It is what they are doing. Many have stayed open but have had to cut back what they offer. The argument about

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numbers is important, but it is not the whole story. The diminished offer from some Sure Starts that have managed to stay open is part of it.

Catherine McKinnell: Perhaps the Minister can respond not only to my questions but to the issue outlined by my right hon. Friend.

Elizabeth Truss: I shall make the point about numbers again in my closing remarks, as I intended, but I am puzzled by Opposition comments because currently Sure Start provides 1% of child care places and schools provide 30%. Why have the Opposition not talked about places for under-fives in schools but about Sure Start centres, which provide far fewer places? It is a strange way to approach a debate about child care.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. Before the hon. Lady responds, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that I shall call the Front-Benchers at 3.40 pm at the latest, to give them 10 minutes each. I have one speaker left on my list who may want some time.

Catherine McKinnell: Thank you for that clarification, Mr Hood, and for your management of the debate.

I appreciate the Minister’s point, but the Government promise a roll-out of additional places for two-year-olds and I know for a fact that many schools do not have the capacity to provide pre-schooling places for three-year-olds at the moment, let alone for the two-year-olds to whom the Government aspire to give places. It would therefore seem logical for Sure Start to be among the places where child care places are provided. That is why I question the Government not only about the broader picture for Sure Start—including its important early intervention work and the fact that it is available and accessible for new mums and communities—but about the loss of child care places when Sure Start centres go.

Can the Minister also clarify the guidance on the provision of children’s centres published in April? It states that children’s centres and their services should be

“within reasonable reach of all families with young children”.

However, there seems to be no clarity on what “reasonable reach” means. What journey by public transport might be deemed reasonable? What are the reasonable changes a family would be expected to make? If they were travelling with a pram or buggy, which presumably they would be, given that young children are involved, is that reasonable? How frequent must a bus service be to be deemed reasonable? How much should it cost a young family to travel by public transport to a children’s centre? I would be grateful if the Minister provided some clarity on those issues, which would help to inform the debate around not only child care but Sure Start more widely.

3.30 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): May I apologise, Mr Hood, for not being here at the beginning of the debate as I was in a delegated legislation Committee? I am sure, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) gave an excellent speech and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Such debates are little like buses: we do not have a debate on child care and then two

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come along at once. The quality of debate both yesterday and today reflects the quality of debate in the country. The issue is important and central to families up and down the land, both in the constituencies represented in the debates and in those not represented.

I want to begin with a statistic to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) has already alluded. It is the thing that has affected me the most over the past month. Ofsted has stated that five-year-olds from the least affluent backgrounds are 19 months behind five-year-olds from the most affluent backgrounds in development terms. That is a shocking statistic, and it alone should be a call to arms for all of us to roll up our sleeves and to put child care centre stage. The costs of child care should not be a barrier to addressing that inequality.

If I had a penny for every time I have heard Members of Parliament on both sides of the House refer to the need to close the inequality gap, I would be a very rich person. There is a theoretical commitment to doing something, but we need to turn that belief in principle into a belief in practice. Only through practical effects can we change the situation for those five-year-olds who become tomorrow’s adults and leaders. The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), for whom I have a lot of respect, appeared to say that we perhaps cannot afford to do the right thing, but the Ofsted statistic tells us that we cannot afford not to do the right thing. We need to find the finance, whatever the situation, to address the issue. It is absolutely crucial.

I have visited many nursery settings in my Scunthorpe constituency over the past month, and I was struck by the vast variety and diversity of those settings. As the Minister mentioned, many of them are nurseries attached to schools, which provide a very important part of that landscape. I visited Messingham farm nursery, which is a new business in my constituency that meets the needs of a particular community and does a fantastic job. As the name suggests, it is about not only child care, but also using animal care to provide a particular experience for young people. I also visited the Ark family centre, which is run in partnership with the Baptist Church and delivers very good nursery care. Finally, last week, I took advantage of what was laughingly called a “mini-recess” to go to the Ashby Sure Start children’s centre, which is a fantastic facility that was created as a result of the previous Government’s Sure Start initiative. It is transforming the lives of the children in an area of my constituency where such a service is most needed.

I am always impressed by the quality, professionalism and commitment of the people working with children in such settings and by the way in which they divide up their time based on specific skill sets to address the needs of children at different stages of development. At the Ashby children’s centre last week, I was shown the files in which each child’s progress is carefully measured. Interestingly, I was told that schools are now more interested in receiving that information and building on it. The transition to the next stage of education should therefore be more secure, which was perhaps not the case a few years ago. We can see how the investment in nursery education is making a real difference.

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I want to refer to the recent concerns of the Children’s Society about tax-free child care replacing the employer-supported child care vouchers. The Minister will hopefully take this opportunity to address the society’s concerns, because it is clearly focused on children’s well-being. Parents on universal credit will not be eligible to receive tax-free child care. Instead, they will receive a component of universal credit up to 85% of child care costs. Working parents on the lowest incomes will receive help with up to 70% of costs. It seems odd to me and to the Children’s Society that working parents on the lowest incomes will get the lowest level of support. If its concern is accurate, I hope the Minister will address that point.

The Children’s Society is also concerned that the complexity of having two systems of child care support for working parents and issues around the threshold may cause the same sort of difficulties that many of us experienced in relation to the Child Support Agency. If the Government provide help with only 70% of child care costs to those on the lowest incomes, can they still guarantee that every hour of work will pay for those on universal credit if there is an increase in the tax threshold? There may be an unforeseen consequence that we would all want to avoid. Children’s charities, including the Children’s Society, have asked for 85% support for those on universal credit, and I hope that the Government will examine that and ensure that that is the case for all parents on universal credit.

I will end with some points of concern. The cost of nursery places has risen by 30% since the last general election, which is five times faster than pay. At the same time, the same families are seeing their budgets squeezed by the rise in energy prices and transport costs and by general inflation. The average bill for a part-time nursery place of 25 hours a week has gone up to £107, and parents working part-time on average wages would have to work from Monday to Thursday before they paid off their weekly child care costs.

There are 576 fewer Sure Start centres, with three being lost on average every week. The Minister and I might disagree about the numbers, but I think we agree that Sure Start centres have been closed and have had their functions changed, which is clearly evidenced by what people across the country tell us. There are 35,000 fewer child care places than at the time of the last election.

The Government’s initiative of offering places to disadvantaged two-year-olds is positive. It did have teething problems when it was initially rolled out due to a qualification around Ofsted reports, which are often five or six years old. Fortunately, in my area that problem has been overcome. However, I am sure the shadow Minister and the Minister will wish to address those issues of practicality to ensure that together we take the opportunity to do something about the 19-month difference, before it is too late.

3.40 pm

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I had hoped for my first outing as a Front-Bench spokesperson to be in this Chamber, but we had a similar debate in the main Chamber yesterday. I am hoping that today will be slightly less boisterous than some of our exchanges then.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) for securing this extremely important debate. I declare, as she did, an interest—in fact, our children play together at the same nursery, here in the House of Commons. Many Members present share such an interest, in that our children are in child care. Over the past few days, we have seen how important the issue is for many of our constituents, as a debate is now raging throughout the country.

For the record, the Labour party is proud of what we achieved on early years during our time in office, but there was still much to do when we left government. There is no silver bullet or panacea to resolve such difficult and complex issues. The point, however, is the direction of travel, which under the Labour Government was positive and in the right direction, but under this Government has turned back. Ensuring that we have good, affordable and flexible child care is not only critical to families and to closing some of those inequality gaps, but to the economy as a whole, as we have heard from Members today. That is why we need to do more about it.

Instead of repeating the arguments that we had yesterday, I want to take the opportunity to discuss further some of the issues that have been mentioned. We heard from my hon. Friend a cogent argument about the triple whammy facing families: rising costs, falling places and cuts to support.

Since 2010, the number of child care places has fallen by more than 35,000. As the Minister agreed yesterday, we now have 2,423 fewer childminders than in 2009, so places are going down under this Government. We had some debate about Labour’s record on childminders, but I want to put on the record at least once a quote from the chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, when she gave evidence to the Children and Families Bill Committee:

“The statistic…often…quoted…is not one we recognise in terms of the scale of downsizing of registered childminders in the period that the Minister talks about”—

when Labour was in government.

“Pre-Ofsted registration, childminders were managed by local authorities and registered locally”,


“when Ofsted took over that registration, there was a clearout of a lot of data on individuals who were not practising childminders.”––[Official Report, Children and Families Public Bill Committee, 7 March 2013; c. 99, Q208.]

The Minister also asked why we were not discussing school nursery provision, but we are very much doing so. First, Labour policy is to extend nursery provision to three and four-year-olds for 15 hours a week, which is leading to school nurseries being able to offer that to parents. Members present today, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), mentioned the provision of offers for three and four-year-olds in school nurseries. Our policy pledge is about extending that offer further still.

The figures that we were talking about are for childminders and child care places, but if the Minister wishes to take some credit for Labour’s policy for three and four-year-olds, I am happy for her to do so.

Elizabeth Truss: My specific point was that the 35,000 figure cited by the hon. Lady is only that from the Ofsted early years register; there are also nursery places on the schools register for Ofsted, which have not

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been counted in her numbers. The claim was that there are 1.3 million child care places, but there are actually 2 million, because the two registers were not added together by the Opposition; Labour used only one of the registers in its analysis, so its numbers are wrong.

Lucy Powell: I do not want to get into a stats war with the Minister, but the point is that families up and down this country know that it is getting harder and harder to find childminders and quality early-years provision. As the Minister knows, there is also massively increased demand: the birth rate has been rising by more than 125,000 year on year while the Government have been in office. The sector is therefore facing significantly increased demand as well.

On Sure Start, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) rightly asked the Minister about the figures. The Department for Education’s own press release from June 2010 stated that there were 3,621 Sure Start centres; recently, the Directgov website showed that there were only 3,053. That is where our figures come from—they are the Minister’s own figures. The point being made today, however, is that the issue is not only about the numbers, but about the services being offered, because many Sure Start centres are being downgraded.

I do not want to confuse matters, because there are two separate issues: Sure Start centres and their provision for early-years intervention work; and Sure Start and child care provision. The Policy Exchange paper showed that, in the poorest areas, child care provision is of the poorest quality—that is why the Sure Start provision of child care is of particular importance. It has focused on some of the most deprived areas, where child care quality is at its worst. That is where it is most needed. We still need Sure Start centres that are able to provide child care.

On the model more broadly, the early intervention grant, which provides the funding for children’s centres, will be halved between 2010 and 2015, going from £3 billion a year to £1.5 billion a year. That is what is having such an impact on the services that Sure Start centres are able to provide to new mums. Those centres play a critical role.

I asked a further question about the Sure Start model yesterday, which I hope the Minister can answer today. It was about another critical component of delivering that essential support for new mums—the role of health visitors. The Prime Minister said before the election that we would have 4,200 new health visitors by 2015. Will the Minister update us today on what progress has been made?

I will skip past some of my other points, but I will repeat the request for an answer to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) about universal credit and its impact on whether the lowest-income families can meet child care costs. Will the Minister also answer those questions?

The Government response seems to have been to do little in their time in office—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the Minister’s own flagship policy on child care ratios has now been resoundingly dumped by her colleague; we welcome the extension of the free offer to two-year-olds,

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but delivery problems remain; and childminder agencies are an unknown quantity and an experiment. We will see how they pan out.

The Government’s main flagship policy now seems to be the tax-free child care policy, but that is too little, too late. The scheme is not coming in until the autumn of 2015, and the people who will benefit most from it will be the highest paid—the more people spend on child care and the more they earn, the more they will benefit. It will do absolutely nothing about cost. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the scheme—putting so much into the system on the demand side, rather than on the supply side—will lead to costs going up further still. I hope for reassurance from the Minister on that today.

Labour has new policies to extend the three and four-year-old offer from 15 to 25 hours a week and around guaranteeing wrap-around care—welcome policies that are a step in the right direction and will help families to meet the child care crunch that they face. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East so eloquently put it, such policies are only steps in the right direction—as a country, we face a big challenge, and we will need bigger and bolder policies to address it. Under this Government, we are going in the wrong direction.

3.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on securing today’s debate. I associate myself very much with the comments made by all parents here today; I am the proud mother of two daughters. We need more parents representing people in the House. I am a great supporter of the changes that we have made to parliamentary hours, but we could do more to make the House of Commons a parent-friendly place. It is important to have representatives who are also mothers or fathers.

I am afraid that I cannot agree, however, with the hon. Lady’s analysis of the Government’s policies or indeed of the previous Government’s record. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) pointed out, that Government left the biggest budget deficit of any major economy, and as a result we were borrowing £1 for every £4 that we spent. In those circumstances, the support that the Government have given to parents and families is excellent. We have increased total spending on child care and early-years education: it was almost £5 billion but will be over £6 billion. We have increased the number of hours of free early-years education for three and four-year-olds from 12.5 hours to 15 hours a week, which is worth £400 per child for parents. We have extended support to two-year-olds, and tax-free child care, available from 2015, will be worth up to £1,200 per child. That provision is flexible between the ages of nought and five so parents can spend the allowance in the way that they see fit. We are providing support to families in tough times.

I want to comment briefly on the claims made about child care places. There is a genuine issue here, and we need to be clear about the figures. There are two different registers upon which child care places are based under

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Ofsted. The most accurate figures can be found in the Department for Education early-years providers survey from 2011—that is the most recent of those surveys, which are biennial. I am concerned that the Opposition’s figures do not include the 800,000 places in school nurseries. In places such as London, about 50% of all places are based in schools. As Baroness Morgan, an Opposition peer, has pointed out, school provision gives a strong basis for future progression and avoids some of the issues with transition that Opposition Members have raised. I would like to point out that our survey shows that over 200,000 places are available across the country. It is wrong to say that there is a shortage of places. Of course, I agree that we need to do more work on supply and quality.

Catherine McKinnell: Will the Minister give way?

Elizabeth Truss: I am sorry, but I will not be able to take interventions at the moment because I want to try to answer all the many questions hon. Members have raised.

Labour claims that costs have risen by 30% since the Government took office. The study that was mentioned also suggested that costs had risen by 50% under the previous Labour Government. Child care costs have been rising year on year, but other recent studies suggest that those costs are now stabilising and have been flat in real terms for the past two years. Across the political spectrum, we need to analyse why we put the same amount of money into our child care system as countries such as France and Germany but parents in those countries pay a lot less—they pay about half the costs that parents here pay. It is not just about the money that the Government are putting in; it is about the efficiency of provision, competition in the child care market and how that market works. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that as a Minister, and some of my plans are aimed at addressing those specific issues.

Lucy Powell: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Elizabeth Truss: I will briefly, but I want to try to answer all the questions raised.

Lucy Powell: I appreciate that the Minister is being generous in giving way. On the basis of the analysis that she has just given, how does she think that giving a tax-free child care offer will address the costs?

Elizabeth Truss: That offer will help parents to pay towards the costs of child care. Our reforms to encourage more childminders, more school-based care and more private and voluntary nurseries are aimed at expanding supply. Those two policies go hand in hand.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South is not right in her analysis that after-school clubs have declined. In fact, our most recent study shows that they have increased by 5%. One of the issues with the extended schools policy that Labour had before the election was that schools could simply put a link to a child care provider on their website, or something like that, and that would count as providing an extended school place; the school had ticked the box, but there was not really any all-day provision. We are working on

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aligning requirements during the school day and afterwards, as well as making it easier for schools to collaborate with outside providers, so that they can provide real care on the school site.

It is important that schools are encouraged to use their assets better. It helps children to learn more and supports working parents. We are working hard to encourage more schools to do that. I am pleased to say that, for example, the Harris academy chain has agreed that all its new primary schools will have a school day of 8 am to 6 pm. We need to make provision in a sustainable way that enables schools to mix and match with their school day, so that children have extra learning and extra opportunities for creativity, sports and after-school activities. We are keen to encourage that approach.

A lot of claims have been made about children’s centres. As I said in the debate in the House yesterday, the figures on the Department for Education website are about the management structures of children’s centres. There have been only 45 outright closures. A lot of management structures have been merged but with the centres remaining open. In fact, a record number of parents are using children’s centres—over 1 million this year. That shows the success of those centres.

I wanted to respond briefly to the excellent comments that the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) all made about the importance of quality in early-years provision. I could not agree more. We need more highly qualified people in that area. That is why we have developed the early-years educator qualification and are offering bursaries this year for early-years educators—that is, young people with good qualifications who wish to enter the professions of child care and early-years education. We have also matched the entry requirements for early-years teachers to those for teachers. This year we have seen an increase of 25% in registrations on our early-years teacher course because of the higher profile that it has had. That will encourage more good people into early-years education.

This year, we have also started Teach First for early-years provision. For the first time, we have high-quality graduates going into the Teach First programme and working

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with three and four-year-olds. Some will be working with two-year-olds as well, as those places are rolled out in schools. For example, starting in January, the Oasis academy in Hadley is offering 40 places for two-year-olds with a Teach First early-years teacher. Exciting things are happening in schools to get highly qualified people working with our youngest children. Of course, that is being done in an age-appropriate way; when I visited the class of two-year-olds based there already, they were having their feet painted then running around, and doing other things like that. It is certainly not about two-year-olds studying trigonometry. Some of Baroness Morgan’s comments on the matter have been misinterpreted: the aim is to develop early language skills.

The Opposition have proposals on child care places for three and four-year-olds. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North covered those proposals well when she said that the Opposition have already spent the bank levy 11 times. There is no magic money tree for policies such as that one. We have to make sure that we use our existing assets better. We are using schools better and giving new planning freedoms, so that shops and offices can be converted into new nurseries.

We also particularly want to see a revival in the number of childminders. I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) that we need more high-quality childminders. One issue is that new people have not been joining the childminding profession and the average age within it is gradually rising. We need good ways to attract new people into childminding. Childminding agencies are one of the ways in which we will be able to do that. The hon. Lady will be interested to hear that we are working on involving children’s centres in our attempts to increase childminder numbers, because we think those centres can help to provide a network and training for childminders. We must also make sure that we use nursery facilities and school nursery facilities better.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe asked a lot of questions about universal credit. I will reply in writing to him, as I do not think I will be able to answer them in the 15 seconds I have left to speak. But there is a lot of common ground in this debate, and I am happy to share more of the figures and details on this matter with the Opposition to make sure that we are debating on the same terms.

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Gay-to-straight Conversion Therapy

4 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): It is a great pleasure, Mr Hood, to serve under your chairmanship. I am raising this debate as part of an ongoing discussion on gay-to-straight conversion therapy, and I refer to my early-day motion, which attracted 52 signatures; the petition presented to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson); and the private Member’s Bill, the Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Regulation) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies).

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I want to put on record the enormously helpful work of Tom Stevens and Colin Levitt, who live in Hull and were behind the petition that was presented to Parliament because they felt strongly about the matter and decided something had to be done.

Sandra Osborne: I, too, have reason to be grateful to those people.

I want to place on the record the fact that several hon. Members indicated that they wanted to attend this debate but had other commitments.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): As my hon. Friend was so kind as to mention my Bill, does she agree that our joint ambition to get rid of gay-to-straight conversion therapy needs to be embraced in a regulatory context so that all psychotherapists are regulated, which they are not at present?

Sandra Osborne: I agree, and I will go into that further. Conversion or reparative therapy is the attempt by individuals, often posing as professionals, to alter the sexuality of lesbian, gay or bisexual patients. Virtually every major national and international professional organisation has condemned the practice as ineffective and potentially extremely harmful to patients.

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): I want to place on the record the fact that I am proud to represent some 6,000 gay men in my constituency, and that conversion of any sort is unacceptable in this day and age.

Sandra Osborne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The prevalence of conversion therapy in Britain has been the subject of recent interest in Parliament. Hon. Members will have received a recent communiqué from the pro-conversion group, Core Issues, calling on us not to support the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West on the regulation of counsellors and psychotherapists. The people in Core Issues are the very same who tried and, fortunately, failed to put up posters on London buses advertising conversion therapy. On 30 January, alongside Christian Concern, they hosted a debate on conversion therapy in a Committee Room of this House. One of the speakers at that debate, Canadian psychiatrist Dr Joseph Berger, is on the record as advocating the bullying of cross-dressing children in schools.

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Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that such courses are particularly dangerous for young people who are struggling with their sexuality? When I was a teenager, I had great difficulty reconciling who I was. The variability of those courses places an enormous burden on young people who are already frightened about the consequences of being open about who they are.

Mr Jim Hood(in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that this is a 30-minute debate, and interventions should be brief to allow the hon. Member whose debate it is to speak.

Sandra Osborne: Thank you, Mr Hood.

I want to focus on the main aspects of the problem of conversion therapy, and to debunk three common myths: first, that conversion therapy is something that happens only in America; secondly, that conversion therapy is carried out only by religious fundamentalists operating outside professional channels; thirdly, that the debate about conversion therapy is a simplistic one between allowing people freely to choose conversion therapy and infringing people’s personal choices. On the contrary, I hope to show that conversion therapy is a real and present danger in Britain, and that instead of being a problem just among religious fundamentalists, it is an issue for the national health service and the professional sector. This is not a simplistic debate about freedom to choose. If lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community patients are coaxed into undertaking therapy by peer pressure or referred to conversion therapists after approaching professionals, that is hardly free choice.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that until now the Department of Health has been weak on the matter? Instead of condoning it, it should ban the voodoo medicine and conversion therapy.

Sandra Osborne: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I hope to get some answers from the Minister.

Conversion therapy used to be a much greater and more systemic problem in Britain than it is today. In the 1950s and ’60s, LGBT patients were routinely forwarded by teachers, GPs and, as in the case of Alan Turing, criminal courts to NHS so-called specialists in sexual orientation treatment. During that period, all branches of psychology from the cognitive to the behavioural and the psychodynamic had their own cruel and unpalatable methods of dealing with same-sex attraction.

The watershed moment came when homosexuality was removed from the American “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” in 1973. However, simply changing the rules does not change an entire system overnight. Conversion therapy persisted and psychotherapy remains an unregulated profession in Britain. Anyone in the country can set up as a psychotherapist without being part of a professional body, and there are professionals practising in the NHS and therapy sectors who received their training well before homosexuality ceased to be classed a mental illness. Even the new intake of therapists is a cause for concern.

In 2008, a survey of 226 British psychology undergraduates was published in the Journal of Homosexuality and found that only 66% agreed with

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an equal age of consent. That is the context in which we should view the extent of conversion therapy in Britain. In a 2009 survey of more than 1,300 accredited mental health professionals, nearly 300 willingly admitted to having attempted to change at least one patient’s sexuality. Even more shocking, the therapists admitted that some 35% of the patients they treated were referred to them for treatment by GPs, and 40% were treated inside an NHS practice.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very serious that the issue is so widespread among GPs and other professionals, and that we must tackle that when regulating psychotherapy and the health professionals who refer people?

Sandra Osborne: The issue is serious and it is not recognised to the extent it should be, which is one reason why I am so pleased that we are having this debate.

In 2010, Patrick Strudwick of The Independent carried out an undercover investigation. One psychotherapist who attempted to “cure” him, Lesley Pilkington, readily admitted that most of her clients were referred to her from her local GP’s surgery. Many professionals receive little training in what to do when a gay person approaches them expressing uneasiness about their sexuality. There is legitimate concern that some professionals in the NHS and elsewhere are referring LGBT patients to conversion therapists.

Addressing the problem of conversion therapy in Britain requires a range of measures. In the therapeutic profession, affirmative therapy, which begins from the premise that no efforts should be made to change sexuality and that homosexuality is perfectly normal, should be promoted as the appropriate, healthy way of assisting LGBT patients who feel uneasy about their sexuality. To promote this therapy, we must ensure that therapists and students are properly trained in LGBT-friendly mental health provision.

The public sector equality duty mandates the public sector to address inequality and is vital to drive forward reform. That is why recent Government calls to review the duty are particularly concerning. It is important to consider the role that the public sector equality duty can play in improving the quality of care for LGBT patients. What initiatives has the Department of Health supported from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, for example, and from non-governmental organisations such as Stonewall, to identify and promote good practice in relation to the public sector equality duty and LGBT patients? We know that when public bodies are proactive, it can make a real difference.

We need to explore the regulation of psychotherapy. At the very least, it has to become a protected profession in which nobody can legally call themselves a psychotherapist without being accredited by a professional body. We also need to ensure that professional bodies have an appropriate complaints procedure, so that LGBT patients who undergo conversion therapy can achieve justice. Patrick Strudwick, to whom I referred, has raised concerns about the complex bureaucratic process that he had to go through to ensure that the conversion therapist who treated him was struck off her professional body.

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We need to ensure that psychotherapists who are not members of those professional bodies that explicitly have a position against conversion therapy are not commissioned by the NHS. Will the Minister tell us whether groups without professional affiliations are commissioned by the NHS for services? What about the advertising to which I referred earlier? A New York Times advert in the ’90s for conversion therapy is credited with causing a revival in the practice. That is why restricting advertisements for conversion therapies is vital and should be explored. What is the Minister’s view on that?

At the very least, the Government must force practitioner full disclosure, which was advocated as the desired alternative to the model of Health Professions Council regulation in the Maresfield report of 2009, and involves

“the establishment of an independent body to administer a register of therapists, with the statutory requirement that anyone practising a therapy supply full details of training and professional history.”

The Government’s regulatory model for psychotherapy falls far short of PFD. Why?

Finally, I want to raise the question of the role of the law in tackling the practice of conversion therapy. The Government could opt to ban conversion therapy for all under-18s and go further with an all-out ban for all age groups, as happens in other countries.

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on the measures that she has outlined and support her fully. Is it not the case that in 21st-century Britain, no lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual individual should be accessing this kind of voodoo psychology? Instead, we should provide services that help to give confidence and which support them in discovering their sexuality and about themselves, rather than making them feel more ashamed about it.

Sandra Osborne: I totally agree, and thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. In addition to a ban, we must go further in the training of professionals who are dealing with LGBT patients and provide friendly public service provision.

Other than a solitary remark from the Government that they do “not condone” conversion therapy, made in response to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North, the Government have said nothing about their views on conversion therapy. I look forward to the contribution of other Members and, in particular, to the Minister’s reply on the issues that I have raised.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): I have received a letter from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) requesting permission to speak in the debate. She assures me that she has had the agreement of the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne), and the Minister has told me that he agrees. To be fair to the Minister, he has to have the same time as the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock had in opening the debate, so I ask the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West to take only a few minutes, which will hopefully leave time for the Minister.

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4.14 pm

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing the debate, and on her powerful speech setting out the problem that we are hoping the Government can solve. I thank her, the Chair and the Minister for allowing me and other hon. Members to make small contributions to the debate.

I should also pay tribute to the many Members on both sides who have campaigned on the issue, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for his excellent private Member’s Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who did a national petition on the matter.

This debate comes during an important week for the LGBT community. On Monday, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the abolition of the wretched section 28, and today is the annual transgender day of remembrance, when we remember the thousands of transgender people across the world who have paid the ultimate price, simply for seeking to be themselves. Those men and women have lost their lives at the hands of hate-filled zealots, because they had the courage to be who they wanted to be.

Pushing conversion therapy on people who are homosexual might not be on the same level as physical attacks on a member of the LGBT community, but it is certainly part of the wider problem of discrimination against them. That said, the psychological harm that medical professionals have recognised as a side effect of such attempts to change or tone down sexuality could well lead to the same end result.

Let us be absolutely clear: allowing the continuation of so-called therapists offering gay cures is, first, saying that being gay is problem that needs to be cured, and secondly, that it can be cured. Being gay is not an affliction. The only higher power that I defer to on the matter is the World Health Organisation, which has categorically confirmed that fact. Being gay cannot be cured any more than any other aspect of someone’s personality can be changed without doing that person serious damage.

What we want from the Government is similarly clear. The action taken last year by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and in 2010 by the UK Council for Psychotherapy, is welcome. However, they cannot solve the problems themselves if the people they strike off their registers can still legally continue to call themselves therapists.

We need a system to ensure that counsellors and therapists are properly accountable. A statutory register has been put forward in the past as a solution to the problem, and in the absence of any better ideas, I still think that that is the way to go. However, I would be grateful for any other solution that the Minister can put forward that would have the same effect.

While such a system is set up, no doctor practising in this country—and certainly no doctor paid by our NHS—should be sending any of their patients to conversion therapy. Even if that patient begs to be referred, doctors swear an oath to do no harm, not to do whatever their patient asks them to do. We know that conversion therapy is harmful and doctors should know that too.

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We also know that the majority of people who request conversion therapy do so because of pressure or abuse from family or peers—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I now call the Minister.

4.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): Thank you, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing the debate and thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) for her contribution, which I was pleased to hear as well. I found myself agreeing with the vast bulk of what has been said and with the interventions that have been made—in fact, I agreed with everything that has been said.

Personally, I find the practice utterly abhorrent and it has no place in a modern society. That is my personal view, and many of the questions that have been asked are questions that I have asked officials about the powers that might be available. If hon. Members would welcome it, I would be very happy to meet with all of them or a group of them to discuss the matter further. That is an open offer, which I make genuinely.

The Government have a proud record of supporting the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Most recently, we witnessed and welcomed the enactment of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. Our support for the legislation demonstrates absolutely our belief that extending the right to marry to lesbians and gay men is part of recognising that loving and committed relationships and families in modern Britain come in all shapes and sizes and should be celebrated.

Sandra Osborne: Is the Minister aware that today in the Scottish Parliament the same-sex marriage Bill is being introduced? Does he not think that that is ironic, given that we are discussing this matter?

Norman Lamb: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I note her point. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual is not an illness—it is sad that we need to state that, but it needs to be stated. It is not an illness to be treated or cured. Way back in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic glossary of mental disorders. Thankfully, the international classification of diseases produced by the World Health Organisation eventually followed suit in 1992; there was quite a long delay before that happened. Therefore, we are concerned about the issue of so-called gay-to-straight conversion therapy.

The Department of Health has received 15 or so letters in the past few months about the issue. All but one of those letters have been supportive of gay people and against the notion of gay-to-straight conversion therapy. That surely reflects the fact that most people in society today are far more relaxed and understanding about people’s sexuality than they ever were in the past.

We are not aware that the NHS commissions this type of therapy. It is completely inappropriate for any GP to be referring a patient for such a thing. It is unacceptable that that should happen through someone working in our national health service.

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Geraint Davies: Is the Minister aware that the number of people who go to psychotherapists has tripled under this Government to 1 million? Given that number and given that we have heard evidence about people being referred by GPs, is it not now high time for regulation to stop abuse and potential abuse?

Norman Lamb: I will come to that. I do not think that the fact that numbers have increased can be blamed on this Government.

We are not aware that the NHS commissions this type of therapy. In my replies to correspondence, I have confirmed that the Department of Health does not recommend the use of conversion therapy—I have made clear today my personal view on that—and it is not a National Institute for Health and Care Excellence-recommended treatment. That is self-evident. Furthermore, the main national professional associations for psycho- therapy have declared that they regard conversion therapy as wrong.

In February 2010, the UK Council for Psychotherapy said:

“UKCP does not consider homosexuality or bisexuality, or transsexual and transgendered states, to be pathologies, mental disorders or indicative of developmental arrest. These are not symptoms to be treated by psychotherapists, in the sense of attempting to change or remove them.

It follows”—

this is very important—

“that no responsible psychotherapist will attempt to ‘convert’ a client from homosexuality to heterosexuality”.

Similarly, in September 2012, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy set out the following:

“The…Association…is dedicated to social diversity, equality and inclusivity of treatment without discrimination of any kind. BACP opposes any psychological treatment such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, or based on the premise that the client/patient should change his/her sexuality.”

In January 2013, the British Psychological Society published a position statement that opposed any psychological, psychotherapeutic or counselling treatments or interventions that view same-sex sexual orientations as diagnosable illnesses. It declared:

“This includes freedom from harassment or discrimination in any sphere, and a right to protection from therapies that are potentially damaging”—

that point was made by hon. Members—

“particularly those that purport to change or ‘convert’ sexual orientation.”

This issue is clearly causing a great deal of concern in the House, and rightly so. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, as well as sponsoring this important debate, tabled an early-day motion in June. It called on the Government to take steps to ban gay conversion therapy and to investigate NHS links to conversion therapists. Several hon. Members present have referred to that motion and put their names to it.

The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) tabled a second early-day motion, calling on the Government to regulate counsellors and psychotherapists. There have also been a number of parliamentary questions on the issue. As hon. Members will know, the hon. Member for Swansea West has also introduced a private Member’s Bill seeking regulation of therapists. That is scheduled for Second Reading this Friday.

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The Government have already said that there are no plans at this stage to introduce statutory regulation of psychotherapists. We do not believe that regulation would necessarily prevent this type of counselling in any case, as it would not depend on the type of therapy offered.

The Command Paper entitled “Enabling Excellence: Autonomy and Accountability for Healthcare Workers, Social Workers and Social Care Workers”, which we published in February 2011, sets out the Government’s vision for the future of work force regulation. That paper makes clear our continuing view that, although statutory regulation is sometimes necessary, it is not always the most proportionate or effective means of assuring the safe and effective care of patients or social care service users. That is why we provided powers to the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care in the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

The Professional Standards Authority oversees the work of the health care profession regulators, including the Health and Care Professions Council. Those powers facilitated the establishment of voluntary registers for unregulated health care professionals and health care workers in the UK, social care workers in England and certain students.

The accredited voluntary registration scheme to which I am referring is not a form of regulation, nor is the PSA a regulator. To be accredited, organisations must provide evidence to the PSA that they are well run and they require registrants to meet high standards of personal behaviour, technical competence and, where relevant, business practice, but the scheme does not endorse any particular therapy as effective and it makes it clear that accreditation does not imply that it has done so. However, organisations seeking to be accredited can set their own rules about what therapies their members can or cannot offer.

As accredited voluntary registration appears to be gaining momentum and is proportionate to the risk, we believe that statutory regulation would not be appropriate and the costs to registrants or the taxpayer could not be justified. This is not to say that we are ruling out statutory regulation for this group for ever. We will continue to assess the need for it. I give an absolute assurance about that.

This is not to say that lesbians, gay men and bisexual people cannot seek counselling or therapy because they are distressed about a particular aspect of their sexuality—that is very important—or that a therapist should not try to help their patient with whatever is causing them distress, which may involve helping them to come to terms with their sexuality, family arguments over their sexuality, or hostility from other people. Supporting people through aspects of their lives that are difficult or challenging is a large part of what therapists do. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) made that point in his intervention.

We want to minimise the risk that lesbians, gay men and bisexual people who seek counselling about their sexuality will face therapists attempting to change their sexual orientation because the therapist considers that being gay is wrong. That, of course, is completely unacceptable. That is why Department of Health officials last week met representatives from the UK Council for

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Psychotherapy to discuss a way forward on this important and sensitive issue. Officials will work in partnership with the council in the following ways.

First, the UK Council for Psychotherapy has agreed to draft, in consultation with the other relevant professional bodies, a public statement on conversion therapy that provides information and outlines the views held by those organisations. That is incredibly important. Once produced, that statement will be widely publicised and placed on relevant websites to ensure that individuals seeking a counsellor or therapist will be aware of those bodies’ views on gay conversion therapy.

Secondly, the Department of Health will host a round-table event in the spring to which it will invite relevant individuals and organisations in order to discuss ways to achieve greater quality and consistency across the profession in general, as well as on this specific issue. Thirdly, and subject to the progress of the private Member’s Bill, the Department will consider writing to statutory regulators, setting out key principles, to be agreed with the professional bodies.

In addition, although we are not aware of such therapies being commissioned by the NHS, my officials will explore with NHS England what actions it can take to ensure that clinical commissioning groups are not commissioning them locally. That is one of the issues that I am happy to discuss with hon. Members. I totally agree that it is not something that public money should have anything to do with.

I hope that I have assured those who have spoken passionately and persuasively in today’s debate that the Government are listening and taking action. I repeat my offer to meet hon. Members. We have a lot to be proud of. The UK is once again recognised as No. 1 in Europe on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality by the International Lesbian and Gay Association, and we continue to make great strides forward on equality. I hope that that reassures hon. Members both that this Government are strongly committed to advancing lesbian, gay and bisexual equality and that we are taking the issue of gay conversion therapy extremely seriously.

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South Worcestershire Development Plan

4.30 pm

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I start by declaring that I have an interest in the South Worcestershire development plan, because I am fortunate enough to be a home owner in the beautiful Malvern Hills district. On 24 October, in this Chamber, I discussed the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who has responsibility for planning. There were some unanswered questions on that occasion, and since then we have had an initial opinion from the inspector, hence my request for today’s debate.

Planning is in a much better place than it was under the top-down regional spatial strategies of the previous Government. I fully support the need to build new homes to meet the pent-up demand for property in south Worcestershire, which has resulted in an average house sale price of £224,500 in the past quarter—well above the national average for affordability. I also appreciate the importance of house building for jobs and growth in the construction industry, which is only now recovering from the economic shocks inflicted on the country by the previous Government.

In south Worcestershire, our three local councils—Worcester city council, Malvern Hills district council and Wychavon district council, which my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for planning visited recently—have been working in partnership for seven years to develop an ambitious and sound local plan for housing growth. After the 2010 election, and in light of the planned revocation of the west midlands regional spatial strategy in the coalition agreement, they immediately and presciently commissioned expert projections of local population growth. In so doing, they perhaps got a head start on other councils, and their evidence base is fresh and up to date.

All three local councils democratically agreed the plan last December. Although it caused much controversy at the time, one of the factors that encouraged councillors to vote in favour of the plan was that it would allow them to secure a plan-led system, which would provide certainty on the amount and location of development until 2030. The plan was submitted for examination in public on 28 May, and on 28 October the inspector issued his interim thoughts about stage 1 of the inspection.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, to which she has already made a strong introduction. One of the welcome things from the inspector’s report was the support for the job numbers that were being targeted in the South Worcestershire development plan. Does she agree that it is vital for us to be able to take the plan forward to provide the local jobs and growth that our county badly needs?

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The plan is so ambitious for jobs and growth in south Worcestershire that we even had some complaints from Birmingham city council. It is a proactive and positive plan for growth in our area.

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The inspector recognises in his initial assessment that the legal duty of the councils to co-operate has been met. He recognises that economic forecasting is notoriously difficult—some of us might say that it was impossible—and that none of the other six analyses of housing need presented to the examination by the development industry provides a sufficiently firm basis on which to derive an overall housing requirement for the plan period.

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that the plan must be adopted as soon as possible to stop speculative developments, such as that in Hanbury in my constituency, being put in to our planning authorities? Such developments can cost councils a great deal of money in appeal costs.

Harriett Baldwin: I am not familiar with the details of the Hanbury proposals, but I know that there is no stronger champion of the interests of Hanbury residents than my hon. Friend. She seems to be in complete agreement with the gist of my speech.

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I join in the accolades to my hon. Friend on this important debate. On the subject of speed and speculative development, which my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) rightly raised, is it not crucial for the plan to be delivered as quickly as possible? It is an ambitious plan for growth, but delay is destroying faith in local democracy because councils appear to find speculative development, in places where it is not appropriate, to be irresistible. Speed is of the essence in getting the plan adopted.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the importance of localism and local democracy, and I completely agree with him. The plan has been locally agreed, not set down from on high. He also makes the point that the protracted appeal period is slowing down growth and construction in our constituencies and that much-needed housing is not being built as a result.

The inspector has effectively rejected all seven of the econometric methodologies presented to him, which surely demonstrates a significant flaw in the process. Across the country, there are disagreements over the amount of development required to meet needs, and such differences of opinion concerning circumstances many years in the future are wasting very scarce resources.

The test should be that the plans and projections are competent, not that they are perfect. We do not possess perfect foresight; if we did, we would all be able to retire as billionaires tomorrow, because we would know exactly what tomorrow’s closing stock prices would be. Particularly when there is opportunity for a revision during the plan period, can we agree that in a time of constrained resources it is inequitable to place such a high evidential and process bar on councils, and that to do so is a disproportionate use of resources?

The plan-making system does not appear to recognise efficiency of process to minimise the impact on the taxpayer. Can the Minister issue clear guidance on the methodology that should be used to calculate housing needs, so that other councils do not suffer the same delay and costs as the south Worcestershire authorities have?

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The inspector highlights the difficulties of economic forecasting, particularly beyond 2021. He makes a range of helpful technical points about past under-supply, affordable housing provision, windfall provision, non-delivery allowances, phasing and buffers. He discusses bringing empty housing back into use and whether C2 extra care provision should count towards a council’s housing supply. On that point, the provision of extra care to include C2 accommodation is a key priority in our area, and we are keen to attract such development. If the housing allocation in the plan were x thousand, and y% of the units were for C2 extra care, will the Minister confirm that that would meet housing need and would not be considered as double counting?

On Monday this week, I learned that the three south Worcestershire councils have published a timetable for the additional technical work requested, which will take until the end of January 2014. The inspector has decided “in the interests of natural justice”, as he puts it, that further hearing sessions will be required and that the earliest that they could start would be the week commencing March 10 2014. Only once the inspector has reached his conclusions on stage 1 will he be able to give details of the time scales for stage 2. It sounds as though the process might easily run until the end of 2014. Frankly, world war two took less time than getting through the bureaucracy and red tape that surrounds the local plan.

To make matters worse, all that bureaucracy and red tape is strangling housing growth in the area. Because the plan has not been agreed, developers are submitting speculative planning applications in areas that are not in the plan, and applications are being determined simply on a first come, first served basis, despite the potential of other, more favourable sites to meet local housing need. That leads not to the house building that we want to see, but to a long series of legal disputes between developers and the council. When such appeals occur, it appears to be for each planning inspector to decide how much weight should be given to the emerging plan and how much to the old—we thought defunct—regional spatial strategy.

For example, a planning inspector referring to an appeal about Abberley common in the Malvern hills said on only 18 October:

“The policies within the SWDP carry some weight given its reasonably advanced stage of preparation. Nonetheless, there are a number of outstanding objections to its strategy for the delivery of housing, including the overall housing requirements. These will be considered at the examination which will determine whether the approach in the SWDP is sound, or whether an alternative housing strategy should be adopted. For this reason, having regard to the guidance within the Framework I attribute the housing targets within the SWDP limited weight. I consider this approach to be consistent with the ‘Axminster decision’ referred to by the Council where the Court found that although the emerging plan was a material consideration, the weight to be accorded to it was a matter for the decision-maker.”

Please can the Minister issue guidance that an emerging plan such as ours, where the disagreements are mainly about housing projections in 10 years’ time, should be given almost full weight today? If not, why not?

Peter Luff: I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend says. Is she as concerned as I am that developers are building up land banks with planning permission they would never normally get? They are not building, but

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just land banking and trading among themselves, making a fat profit for developers, without building a single house in Worcestershire.

Harriett Baldwin: My hon. Friend speaks passionately of our desire to see home building start according to our democratically agreed local plan, which provides a sound basis for the next few years’ growth and the development of the south Worcestershire area. Clearly, some minor tweaks need to be made—in particular, to the forecasts affecting housing numbers between 2020 and 2030—but our local councils are keen to enable local growth without unnecessary delay. Why can we not proceed on the basis of the emerging plan, while simultaneously making tweaks to distant years, especially as the councils are planning to review progress in 2019?

Turning now to neighbourhood planning, may I ask the Minister for his thoughts on how we as MPs can best support emerging neighbourhood plans? I love neighbourhood planning. It is an excellent way to give power to local people, to bring back an organic approach to planning and to reduce the need for vast swathes of land to be swallowed up by urban extensions.

Mr Robin Walker: My hon. Friend brings up a key element. Proper neighbourhood planning will allow us to protect the green spaces around places such as St Peter the Great and Battenhall in Worcester, which are valued by local people, while going ahead with the development that we need to provide affordable homes. I urge all power to her arm in pressing the case for real neighbourhood plans.

Harriett Baldwin: Provided that my hon. Friend’s constituents are consistent with the overall parameters of the local plan and the plan still provides the housing that we need, a neighbourhood plan is an excellent way for local people to have some control over how their villages develop. Villages such as Lower Broadheath in my constituency have been put off by the complication and complexity and the possible powerlessness that they interpret in the current rules. Will the Minister reassure villagers in Lower Broadheath and other parishes that, once they have agreed their neighbourhood plan and won a vote on it in a referendum, it will take precedence over the local plan, even if that local plan has been adopted? Will he elaborate on the remarks made to The Sunday Times this weekend by his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford, who said that he will make the process of neighbourhood planning easier for villages and other neighbourhoods?

What can the Minister say to the octogenarian farmer in my local area who lives in a draughty five-bedroom home, owns land nearby and wants nothing more than to build a bungalow in the field next door for the final years of his life? Under today’s rules, such building is prohibited in open countryside. If a neighbourhood plan permits such single homes inside settlement boundaries, will my farmer have any hope that he can build his bungalow? Will individuals be able to get planning permission to build a single home on land that they own

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in the countryside? That is how our beautiful villages originally developed. Can a parish put that in their neighbourhood plan?

To conclude, I have come to the view that the planning process still remains extraordinarily baroque and subject to the whim of distant bureaucrats with no stake in the locality. Planning lawyers surely rub their hands in glee at all the legal fees involved. One local parish, Powick, raised £10,000 for its own lawyer. How is that a good use of family budgets? How does it help the economy? In balancing the interests of tomorrow’s population with the interests of today’s home owners and home builders, we are strangling growth in south Worcestershire, preventing house building and stalling construction in my constituency and elsewhere. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about his and the Secretary of State’s plans to unblock the Byzantine process.

4.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) on securing the debate. I should explain at the outset that, although I am speaking on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government, I am sure that when she requested the debate, she hoped that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), would reply, as he is the planning Minister. He is unable to be in London today, so I shall reply to the debate.

I acknowledge the passion with which my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire put her case. I have heard the planning system described in many ways, but the use of the words “baroque” and “Byzantine” in the same speech is quite an achievement. I will try to answer her questions, but I hope she will understand the dual constraint I am under: I am not the planning Minister, but even if I were, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the Secretary of State’s position, I would not be able to comment in depth on some of her points or certain individual cases that she raises.

National planning policy places local plans at the heart of the planning system. Those plans set out a vision and framework for the future development of an area. The Government urge councils to get on with their local plans: 51% have now adopted a local plan and 76% have reached at least publication stage. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, that represents good progress over the past three years. When the Government came to office, only 17% of councils had an adopted plan that complied with the 2004 legislation, which is an extraordinary state of affairs. When I became a Minister in the Department, I was surprised to find that in 2010, 83% of local authorities had not adopted an up-to-date local plan, despite the fact that six years had passed since the legislation. In the general context of what she says, that fact might support the idea that the planning system is both baroque and Byzantine to some of those trying to navigate their way through it.

The purpose of the local plan is to identify what development is needed and assess where and how that can best be delivered. That gives local people more control over the planning decisions that affect them. I cannot comment on the details of the plan in south

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Worcestershire or housing needs there in particular, because the plan is currently before the Planning Inspectorate. The Government have removed top-down targets for housing delivery. My hon. Friend mentioned the west midlands regional spatial strategy. When I was an MP in the previous Parliament—you may remember this, Mr Hood—Westminster Hall was often full of west midlands MPs, in the case of my hon. Friend, and west country MPs, in my case, complaining about regional spatial strategies and how they had been imposed by fiat from central Government. They were often resisted by MPs of all political complexions. The fact that the coalition Government removed them is welcome.

Targets did not incentivise housing delivery. As a country, there is a significant problem that we must counter: we simply have not been building enough houses to meet our needs. The latest household projections suggest a need for 221,000 homes a year. In the most recent year for which figures are available, 2012-13, the number of first-time buyers in England who were able to buy a home without their parents’ help fell to one third—the lowest level since we began recording such information. My hon. Friends from Worcestershire will have come across that issue when dealing with their constituents. I am sure that we all come across that problem whatever area we represent, whether cities such as mine, more rural areas or a cathedral city such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). I recognise the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire raised: we desperately need more housing to be built.

Harriett Baldwin: I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. I would like to press a particular question. He alluded to the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State. I would hate to allege that he is hiding behind that to any extent, but he and the Secretary of State can issue guidance and influence the overall weight given to emerging plans. Will he elaborate on what power the Secretary of State has to try to speed up the delivery of homes, which he has rightly pointed out are needed in our area?

Stephen Williams: I will shortly be coming on to the weight that should be given to emerging plans. Assessment of objectively assessed need is not an exact science; the regional spatial strategy proved that. It depends on a number of assumptions about future conditions, so the examination of any local plan must test those assumptions. Agreement on housing need involves difficult decisions, but such decisions bring a security that the plan will steer development to where people agree it should go. If need is underestimated, housing shortages will be perpetuated for decades.

Regarding the methodology for calculating housing need, the draft national planning practice guidance suite has expanded on the requirements for assessing objectively assessed housing need, and aims to provide clarity. To answer a specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, we are currently considering comments on the guidance and will issue the final guidance shortly. [Interruption.] I hear a snigger coming from a former Minister. None the less, those are the words that I have been given.

Peter Luff: Will the Minister give way?

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Stephen Williams: I will press on for just a moment.

A balance must be struck between applying a fixed methodology and the need to give flexibility to adjust for local circumstances. One methodology is unlikely to suit all circumstances. We favour local flexibility, underpinned by robust evidence of local circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned C2 accommodation and extra care homes in particular. The planning Minister is certainly aware of that issue. He fully supports the need to ensure that housing for elderly people is properly planned and provided. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester said that he too wants to see that in his area.

Mr Robin Walker: In Worcester, we have a lot of extra care planned. Does the Minister agree, in principle, that where extra care enables people to vacate homes for families, it can be valuable in dealing with the overall housing shortage as well as the housing shortage for elderly people?

Stephen Williams: I agree with my hon. Friend, and would extrapolate from that across the Government’s welfare reform policies. One planning decision certainly can have the beneficial effects elsewhere that we are trying to achieve.

The planning Minister is considering whether clarity can be afforded on extra care housing and housing supply in forthcoming planning guidance. The message to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire is that there are revisions and new guidance in the pipeline. Perhaps the planning Minister will write to her with a timetable on when the guidance will be issued.

The thrust of what my hon. Friend was saying concerned the time taken to put the South Worcestershire development plan in place. Clearly, we all want plans to be put in place as quickly as possible. However, the length of time taken at an examination depends on many factors, including the complexity of the issues and the level of objection. It is quicker in the long run for the inspector to give the council an opportunity to revisit evidence. The alternative is withdrawal from examination, which will leave councils without a plan for a longer period.

My hon. Friend asked some questions about what weight should be given to emerging plans. I cannot comment on the individual cases and areas she mentioned, but I can say that Government policy sets out the fact that plans become more robust as they evolve through the plan-making process. Decision makers, whether they are councils or inspectors, can consider whether they should give weight to emerging policies in local plans. That weight will increase as the plan evolves.

We need to strike the right balance. We cannot have a situation where development decisions are put on hold whenever a plan is in preparation. It would not be sensible to have some form of moratorium on development during that period. It would not be advisable to give draft plans the same weight as an adopted plan. Applying such weight to a draft plan would allow councils to postpone examination, perhaps indefinitely, leaving uncertainty for all concerned. Our draft planning guidance sets out what we think is an appropriate way forward. It establishes the exceptional circumstances under which

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applications should be considered, but we need to consider carefully the comments made on the draft guidance before reaching a final view.

My hon. Friend mentioned neighbourhood planning, and I am glad that she said that she loves neighbourhood planning. Before I became a Minister in this Department, I was involved with the preparation of the Old Market neighbourhood plan in my constituency of Bristol West—even writing its foreword. I share her enthusiasm for neighbourhood planning, a major reform introduced by the coalition Government in the Localism Act 2011. There is a growing momentum behind neighbourhood plans. I think there are more than 700 plans at the beginning of their journey. At the moment, four have gone all the way to the end—to a referendum.

I asked one of my officials in the Department to show me the voting figures in those referendums. Interestingly, even when the referendum was coterminous—on the same day—with a local government election, the turnout in the referendums was higher than in the election of a councillor for the same area. That shows the enthusiasm of local people in engaging with the process. That is what the Government are all about in this area: trying to grow organic, grass-roots activity to get people involved in shaping their own community.

Harriett Baldwin: I appreciate the enthusiasm that the Minister shares with me on neighbourhood planning. What would he say to the parishes in my constituency that are in the process of developing neighbourhood plans and are concerned about the timetable and other obstacles in their way? Will we be hearing in the guidance soon about how the process will—

Peter Luff: Shortly.

Harriett Baldwin: Is shortly longer than soon? I can never remember.

Will we be hearing in the guidance about how the process will be made simpler, easier, quicker and less complex for smaller villages to develop their plans?

Stephen Williams: I will see whether my concluding remarks will satisfy my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also asked about the role of Members of Parliament in delivering neighbourhood plans. I have mentioned my own role in my local plan before

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I became a Minister, and I would certainly encourage all Members of Parliament to take an active interest in neighbourhood planning—not to have a top-down approach, but to involve people. Often as constituency MPs, we know our communities in great detail, so there is a role for us on the ground, perhaps to bring people together and to act as mediators between local businesses, amenity groups, residents groups and local planning authorities.

On the legal status of a neighbourhood plan—my hon. Friend mentioned Lower Broadheath in particular—neighbourhood plans should implement the strategic policies set by the local plan. I appreciate that in this case the local plan is out of date, and where an up-to-date local plan is not in place, the community and the local authority should work together to produce complementary neighbourhood and local plans. The law requires the decision maker to favour the most recently adopted plan where there is any conflict.

Regarding my hon. Friend’s invitation to comment on the planning Minister’s comments in The Sunday Times about putting neighbourhood plans in place, I must say that the planning Minister makes quite a lot of controversial comments in newspaper articles, some of which are not very complimentary about her party leader—or my party leader—but we will not go into that.

We are learning from the process of neighbourhood planning. I said that 700 were in their early stages and four have gone all the way. The Department takes great interest in how the plans develop. I chaired a round table with another Minister recently with all sorts of groups interested in the whole suite of community rights. We are certainly encouraging neighbourhood and campaign groups, such as the Campaign for Real Ale, Supporters Direct and other amenity groups and civic societies, to come forward to give us their experience on how the whole suite of community rights under the Localism Act has been adopted.

Finally, on the farmer and his bungalow, I am afraid that I have to disappoint my hon. Friend and say that I cannot comment on individual cases. However, I suggest that she looks at the Upper Eden neighbourhood plan, which has gone all the way through, to see how people have dealt with that issue.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.