This is not a quick fix, but we must ensure that we take full advantage of this day that celebrates vocational qualifications. Further education colleges, along with other institutions, are the fulcrum of ensuring that things happen in that space. My local FE college, North Lindsey College, does an excellent job of bringing together the worlds of work and study, because it has a pivotal role in the local community. The college has lots of links with local companies and businesses, and students of all ages come to work and study at its various premises. Further education is a key partner, and it needs to be backed and supported. I illustrate that with a local example: the work that North Lindsey College is doing with Bradbury Security on Youth Engineering

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Scunthorpe, a scheme that gives people who have been out of work for some time an opportunity to come back into it, doing work that would otherwise not exist. That work is not displacing jobs that would otherwise be taken by other people; these are new jobs. The scheme is onshoring jobs that Bradbury Security previously delivered from China. We need such work in order to reskill, develop capacity and secure and grow new business.

Mr Sheerman: My hon. Friend knows more about this sector than almost anyone else in the House of Commons, and I defer to his great knowledge and professional experience. This is not party political, but does he agree that, across successive Governments, further education has been the neglected area of UK education? Does he agree that FE has been neglected in terms of budget, focus and interest for many years?

Nic Dakin: My hon. Friend is right that further education has been a Cinderella area of education and training. One reason why I applaud Vocational Qualifications Day is that it represents a real effort to rebalance what we are saying out there, and what is being said back to us. It is important that we seize that with both hands.

Careers advice is an area in which the Government need to up their game. We have a new careers and enterprise company in place, but it is not clear—the Minister might tell us that it is crystal clear—exactly what that company is doing, or how it will address the current deficit that means that whereas 63% of young people can name A-levels as a post-GCSE qualification, only 7% can name apprenticeships and only 26% are able to name national vocational qualifications as post-GCSE qualifications. Despite the plug that the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) gave for BTECs, only 19% of pupils were able to name them. When I was a college principal, I expanded the BTEC curriculum within my college because it acts as a very good bridge between the academic and the vocational. That applied learning is the sort of bridge we need in order for people to develop and move on to both vocational and academic pathways, as he described.

Kate Green: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of careers advice in raising young people’s awareness of alternative education and qualification routes, but will he say something about what can be done better to inform parents? Parents influence their children’s choices, and many parents assume that a university education is the best and only suitable option for their children.

Nic Dakin: Absolutely. That is where there is a real danger in the fragmentation of schools, academies, UTCs and other provision. Sadly, the evidence is that in schools with their own sixth form, the quality of careers education, as regards raising awareness of the various pathways available, is lower than in schools that do not have their own sixth form. We must ensure that impartial advice is available to all young people, wherever they undertake their secondary education. That includes connecting better with parents and ensuring that they get information about the range of available pathways from the secondary school, which is the main vehicle through which they receive such information. Research commissioned by the Association of Colleges shows that

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only 14% of 11 to 16-year-olds have heard of apprenticeships, which is just not good enough. That is evidence that, collectively, we all need to up our game.

The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned LEPs, which are well placed to maximise the value of careers education locally. They seem to be the other player in the mix, with a good connection with the worlds of work and education. LEPs are in an opportune place to bring those things together. Given that LEPs are becoming more mature as organisations, any opportunity to allow them to show more leadership with regards to careers information, advice and guidance would probably benefit young people in their area. I commend Humber local enterprise partnership for its work in promoting gold standard awards for quality in careers information, advice and guidance in the Humber area. It is an example of good practice.

The adult skills budget is disappointing. Vocational qualifications are not just for younger people; they are for older people, particularly because many people will lose one job and have to retrain for another. Given that people are living longer, that is likely to be a challenge for older as well as younger people. It is disappointing that the adult skills budget was cut by 24% in February 2015, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) said earlier. It is equally disappointing that just last week, further cuts were announced of £450 million to the non-schools budget and £450 million to the further and higher education part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills budget.

Those cuts will cause challenges and pressures, particularly if there are retrospective funding cuts. As a former principal of a college, I know what it is like to set out my stall and put my plans in place. If schools are told halfway through the year that they need to save more money, it is difficult to do so, even for the best-run organisations. I have concerns about the impact on providing the better vocational education and better pathways that we all want for young people, as well as better understanding and support for older people retraining. We might accidentally achieve the opposite. I know that the Minister is passionately committed to ensuring that this works, and I am sure that he did not decide to decrease funding in certain areas to benefit the bit of the world that he champions. I am sure that he will take away from this debate the desire to bat even harder in private for the people whom we want to deliver well for us in public: that is, young people coming into the workplace, as well as older people needing retraining. For both those groups, vocational qualifications are a key underpinning of bridges and platforms into the future.

3.2 pm

Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, in this interesting debate. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He is absolutely right that awareness of further education qualifications is one of our key challenges, and I will discuss that in my contribution. However, the issue is not just about awareness; it is also about attitudes. They are part of the key to finding the solution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate and for giving us all the opportunity to recognise the eighth annual

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national Vocational Qualifications Day, as well as the organisers of the day; it always takes a great deal of organisation to ensure that such days have longevity. My hon. Friend put his finger on it when he spoke about productivity. It is one of this Government’s greatest challenges to ensure that Britain is fighting fit for an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Today, in the main Chamber, right hon. and hon. Members might be discussing the future of the EU, but I am sure that many Members would agree with me that we should be looking beyond the EU to consider what trade deals we can do with other countries to secure the future of the United Kingdom. Productivity—ensuring that we are as competitive as any other country in the world—will certainly be one of our biggest challenges. Although the Government’s investment in infrastructure such as high-street broadband, railways and roads are all important, the key to productivity is skills: ensuring that our workforce is as skilled as it can be and that every single citizen can contribute to the best of their ability, making us a successful nation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I look forward to hearing other Members’ contributions.

Mr Sheerman: The right hon. Lady is making a brilliant speech, but does she accept that this conundrum of the lack of productivity in our country, which we face across parties, is often related to management—a skill that we do not talk about enough? A recent report shows that there are a lot of highly skilled people in our nation, but they are poorly managed. Does she agree?

Mrs Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes his own point. I am not sure. If we look at the analysis of productivity, we see that among the most important factors are transport systems. As a result of woeful investment in recent decades, this Government are running to catch up with some of the problems that we have inherited. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but we should not forget that productivity is not just about skills; it is about the ability to export and to move goods around a country. I congratulate the Government on how much support they are giving transport systems, some of which are woefully unable to relieve congestion. We should not forget that productivity is not simply a UK problem but a problem of all mature markets, so we should not beat ourselves up too much.

Before moving to my own comments, I want to respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said about the festival of manufacturing and engineering in his constituency—an idea that I think all of us will want to emulate. What a great way to highlight to young people the job opportunities available in their community and the importance of vocational qualifications to securing such jobs! It is a fascinating idea that I am sure we will all want to consider in more detail.

My constituency understands further education, primarily as a result of incredibly strong leadership in FE at Basingstoke College of Technology. I have had the privilege of introducing Anthony Bravo, the principal of that college, to my hon. Friend the Minister, who was extremely generous with his time, in order to discuss some of our ideas for FE, particularly apprenticeships in Basingstoke. Business responds well to such strong

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leadership. We have engaged businesses in Basingstoke in further education and in valuing its role, particularly apprenticeships, in a way that has impressed me. I also echo the point about the role of local enterprise partnerships in providing such leadership. We in my constituency are fortunate to have one of the best LEPs in the country: the M3 LEP, which has implemented a special management position to consider apprenticeships and how we can maximise them in our area, as they are critical to business growth.

I will make three short observations on the future of vocational education and how we can make it even more vibrant, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. The first was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) in her intervention earlier. It is important to support a positive attitude to vocational qualifications and ensure that schools and parents, as has been mentioned, understand what role such qualifications can play in their children’s educational careers.

Both my grandfathers were tool room workers. There was no way to work one’s way up the ladder 60 or 70 years ago without embracing the idea of apprenticeships. For my family, it was a huge way to move forward. We talk about social mobility; apprenticeships were critical to families such as mine in the black country all those years ago.

In the drive to increase university participation—I was incredibly fortunate to be part of it, as one of the first people in my family to go to university; the London School of Economics, a fabulous university, set me up for life—we have, in many ways, marginalised the further education that my grandfathers’ generation so valued. I urge the Minister to share with us, perhaps today, how he anticipates the Government working with not only schools, but parents, to encourage them to understand how vocational qualifications can fit their children with the right skills for life and help in retraining us all, as we work for much longer and have one, two or three different careers.

My second point relates to the importance of building business into a vocational educational approach. The reason why we in Basingstoke have been so successful in driving forward apprenticeships is our links with local businesses. My local college has taken that to such a degree that it is developing a work-based university centre to deliver degree-level apprenticeships in digital engineering and the construction industries. It has an employer advisory board, which includes the likes of Sony and the Atomic Weapons Establishment—I am fortunate to represent one of the top 10 centres for employment in the south-east, and many such household names are local employers. I applaud the work that Anthony Bravo is doing on the degree-level apprenticeship, because such developments can help to build further education’s credentials.

My third point picks up on some of the funding concerns that other Members have raised. If we want to encourage people to see further education as a viable option, they need the confidence that the funding is there. On a slightly different note, the Minister will remember the conversation he had with me and Anthony Bravo about the funding issues around apprenticeships, and I hope he has been able to make progress in removing some of the uncertainty, which, as we discussed, was creating delays in expanding the number of apprenticeships.

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In conclusion, education is all about fulfilling the potential of every citizen in the country. It is the reason why I became a Member of Parliament, and why I am fascinated by the issues we are discussing today. Vocational qualifications have a huge part to play in getting young people on to a career ladder and in helping us all to stay in a lifelong programme of employment. The country faces a productivity gap, which we need to address head on, and although infrastructure investment and better ways of trading with other nations are important, skills are central. The Minister knows that and in him we have an effective champion in the Government. I look forward to hearing his thoughts.

3.13 pm

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller).

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this important debate and on raising vocational education’s profile in Parliament. I cannot claim to have been a college principal, but I can claim to have studied a BTEC ordinary national certificate in engineering, which is probably as rare as hen’s teeth in this place.

Mr Sheerman: It may not be as rare as my vocational qualification. I failed my ONC at the City College in London, but I passed intermediate paint technology.

Chris White: I do not think there is any possible response to that.

As a result of my background, I am a passionate supporter of further education. Warwickshire College, whose headquarters are in my constituency, is one of the best such colleges in the country. It has six centres across Warwickshire and Worcestershire, with more than 15,500 students attending each year. It offers more than 1,000 courses across 20 different subject areas, including management. It has the highest enrolment among 16 to 18-year-old students and one of the highest success rates among larger FE colleges in the country.

To its credit, the college has developed strong links with employers. As result, it trains more than 1,750 apprentices every year in a variety of sectors, from agriculture and farriery to construction and digital media—an area that colleges are beginning to embrace with open arms. The college offers a broad range of courses and subject areas, and it is, importantly, addressing two national skill shortage areas.

Capital investments of more than £10 million mean that two important projects—in horticulture and engineering—will be completed by September, ready for students attending from the start of the academic year. As part of the college’s expansion and development, a new engineering building is being constructed at Warwick’s Trident College. The new complex will comprise specialist engineering workshops, 12 teaching labs, three computer labs and three specialist, tailored engineering technology labs. The aim is to create the capacity to meet demand for an additional 285 advanced and 253 higher apprenticeships in the manufacturing, mechanical, electrical, electronic, automotive and product-creation sectors, providing skills the country desperately needs.

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There have been fantastic achievements in terms of the number of students who progress directly into higher education, although that is not the essential goal. To mention just a few examples, the number in agriculture is 95%; in construction, it is 94%; and in computing and IT, it is an astonishing 99%.

As parliamentarians, we must discourage the perception that further education is a second-tier choice—to be taken up only if one’s first preference has not been achieved. In fact, FE is quite the reverse. Many students now see the benefits of a practical and vocational education that provides them with the skills and real-life work experience they need to get on.

Links with business are key for the FE sector. Businesses can recruit from colleges, but they can also help them financially and practically as they tailor courses to the needs of business and the wider workforce. For the last 18 months, for example, the college has been involved in the trailblazer apprenticeship scheme, which allows employers—in this case, Jaguar Land Rover—to partner with the college to reform apprenticeship frameworks and ensure that they are the best training for future employees. In engineering, the college also has links with more than 40 small and medium-sized enterprises, with the aim of increasing that to 65.

Nationally, support from the Government is essential. The Government have done a great deal over the last five years to invest in vocational education. Two million apprenticeships were started during the last Parliament, and I fully support the aim of delivering 3 million by 2020. Businesses can also support vocational education. As I mentioned, encouraging them to partner with colleges and other FE providers benefits all concerned.

We must work hard to ensure that vocational education’s contribution to the economy is more widely acknowledged and that there is appropriate recognition for vocational education. We must commit to working towards parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications by continuing to raise the standards and promote the benefits of vocational education.

3.19 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger, for a Westminster Hall debate early in the new Session. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this interesting and important debate to celebrate national Vocational Qualifications Day.

Romsey and Southampton North is quite unusual in that within the constituency there is no 16-to-18 state sector provision, which means that those in that age range are effectively exported out. That is sometimes seen as a negative, but I regard it as something of a benefit, because it gives me the opportunity to work with a range of college principals, albeit at the edge of my constituency.

For example, I am an advisory governor at the further education college in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies). For many years I have been invited annually to Eastleigh College to present the awards at its apprenticeship celebration event. That is exactly the sort of initiative that we want to happen everywhere, to celebrate the apprentices and their achievements, as well as the achievements of the employers who have taken the plunge and taken apprentices

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on. Many employers arrive annually having been nominated by their apprentices for the brilliant experience that they give young people in the Hampshire area.

We want more vocational qualifications and more high- quality apprenticeships. It is crucial that apprenticeships should provide the quality training that young people deserve. I have been pleased over the past nearly 12 months to have a business administration apprentice in my office. That has been a learning curve for us and for her. I hope that she has benefited from the experience. I guess we will know about that at the end of it, and I hope that she will get a good certificate, which she will be able to take to future employers, or potentially to university. We have a responsibility to practise what we preach, and that was one reason for my taking on an apprentice. I was struck by Eastleigh College’s determination to promote its provision and to make things as easy as possible for the employer. That is crucial. Sometimes there are far too many barriers, although many are perceived rather than real.

Nic Dakin: The hon. Lady is right that taking on an apprentice—and I have taken on two so far in my current role—helps to educate us as employers about the challenges in taking on such a responsibility. It is hugely rewarding, and we should celebrate the employers’ role.

Caroline Nokes: The hon. Gentleman is right. Taking on apprentices is great for us, for the employers, and for the economy and everyone else. I have long held that the first rung on the employment ladder is the hardest, and that is why vocational qualifications are so important. They provide a fantastic bridge from school to work. Whether they be tech-levels or technical awards, and at whatever age they are achieved, we need the suite of qualifications of which they are part to be attractive and available to students, and we need it to have parity of esteem, as various hon. Members have said.

Life is about more than a clutch of good GCSEs. It is about acquiring the life skills necessary to make the transition to the world of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the soft skills that can be obtained from work experience and vocational qualifications—whether in retail, catering or the example that he used of sport. Such opportunities can also build confidence, which is important for young people who too often have just experienced the classroom, and who lack the interaction that they will need in later life to play a constructive role in the world of work.

Southampton has some great vocational qualification providers, such as City College in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) and the Southampton Engineering Training Association, which I enjoyed visiting last summer for its annual presentation and celebration evening. There are hundreds of courses for thousands of students, which all provide obvious and successful routes into work. City College makes much of the fact that its young people who undertake vocational qualifications often go on to be self-employed. They will be small business owners, employing other people. We need to encourage that, because if every small business employed one more person we would have zero unemployment.

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At the SETA evening, 70 young men and one girl received engineering qualifications. We still have an enormous amount of work to do to encourage young women to take up engineering qualifications and follow that vocational route. We must make sure that, just as GCSE and A-level results are celebrated annually in local papers, when we see young people with brilliant achievements and fantastic certificates, there is also an opportunity to celebrate just as vehemently and vigorously those who get vocational qualifications. It is great to see exactly that happening on the website of the Edge Foundation, but I would love to see more of it in my local paper.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) made a point about careers advice, which is crucial. In my constituency there are some great examples of best practice, with opportunities to expand on career options and choices. The Romsey School has done brilliant work, particularly with young girls, on vocational qualifications. They set up their own beauty studio in the school, to try to get across the message that science qualifications are needed to go on vocational courses in beauty and hairdressing. That was a practical way of conveying to girls the importance of continuing with science studies, when perhaps they were not finding them that interesting.

Just up the road is The Mountbatten School, which has done brilliant work linking up with local businesses. That is crucial; we must have such opportunities to bring companies into schools, so that young people can see the opportunities and the range of jobs out there. I take part annually in what The Mountbatten School refers to as its enrichment day. The poor year 10 children have to do a mock interview with me. They appeared slightly horrified the first year I did it, because they were used to doing it with their teachers, but the event has expanded every year, and the school now brings in the Rotary Club and eminent members of the local chamber of commerce. The children are confronted with real live employers and they go through a real interview, so they understand how tough it can be to make that important first impression. We must make sure that 14-year-olds make the right decisions about their future, based on what they want, enjoy and are interested in, and that they avoid the age-old problem of choosing to do exactly what their friends are doing.

I congratulate the Edge Foundation, which has done great work on establishing, celebrating and promoting VQ Day. It plays a crucial part in reinforcing parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. In the words of Lord Baker,

“By 2022, 90% of the most in-demand job areas will be accessible through technical, practical and vocational learning.”

That gives a very clear steer about the scale of the opportunity, and we must make sure that we grab it with both hands.

Today I have given some local examples of best practice throughout Hampshire, and there are others throughout the country. We need to celebrate and promote them, and make sure that they are rolled out across the country.

3.27 pm

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, want to start by congratulating the hon. Member

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for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing the debate. I was of course very disappointed at his re-election to the House, but I notice that he is back with an increased majority; that is a testament to the work that he has put in, in his constituency. He reminded us of some of the reasons for his re-election by making an excellent speech in an excellent debate.

I want to add a word of praise and congratulation to the organisers of Vocational Qualifications Day. The wisdom of the hon. Member for Stroud in securing the debate has been much in evidence as we have listened to a wide range of excellent speeches. It can be seen, at the beginning of the present Parliament, that there is great interest in this field of policy, and a shared agenda across the House for strengthening it and moving it forward. We all know how important it is to our economic future.

I also congratulate the Minister. I am disappointed that he is doing the job and I am not; but there is no better member of his party to serve in that role. He has taken a huge interest in the subject and has bothered to spend a great deal of time in colleges, talking to students, teachers and principals. I hope that he will bring energy to the brief, and maintain and sustain it in the months and hopefully years ahead. What this field of policy needs above anything else is stability, and I very much hope that he will provide that. For my part, I will provide the Minister with all the support and scrutiny that he has enjoyed over the last year. When he does well, he will get hymns of praise, and when he does badly he will get a forensic verbal assault here and elsewhere. I hope that the hymns of praise greatly outnumber the words of verbal assault.

However, I will start where the hon. Member for Stroud started: I too welcome the fact that, rather belatedly, the Chancellor has woken up to the grave productivity crisis that our country confronts. The truth is that we have the worst productivity record in the G7. There is something like a 20% productivity gap between ourselves and our major competitors, and it is not getting better; it is getting worse. We have to ask ourselves what it is about this country today that means that despite our long history of genius and innovation on these islands, what the rest of the G7 finishes making on a Thursday afternoon takes us until the end of Friday to get done. If we want to break out of the cost-of-living challenges that many families still confront, we have to earn more as a country, and skills are absolutely at the core of that problem.

I look forward to the Chancellor putting his money where his mouth is in the Budget later in the parliamentary Session, because of course setting out a Budget that seeks to raise UK productivity is incompatible with further withdrawing money from skills and from the Minister’s domain.

Mrs Miller: I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not implying that workers in this country do not work as hard as workers elsewhere. Perhaps he will agree that, when considering productivity, he cannot ignore either the figures on congestion on our roads or the need for us to trade more broadly as a nation.

Liam Byrne: That is absolutely right. The right hon. Lady helpfully points to the fact that global competition is intensifying, and if we are to improve our performance

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in trade markets in which we have been losing market share during the last four or five years, we will have to raise our game. Skills are absolutely at the core of that, because there is a risk, given the pattern of economic development over that time, that our country is becoming a cheap labour economy. About 80% to 85% of the jobs that have been created have been low-paid jobs, which is a problem if we are to earn our way out of the cost of living crisis that we are trapped in. There are not necessarily the column inches devoted to this issue that there should be;

The Economist

has done a good job, as has Nigel Nelson of the

Sunday People

, in highlighting the risk associated with this change.

We have to look hard at the competition that we are up against. When the programme for international student assessment results in Shanghai are so much better than ours, when China is about to spend more on science than the whole of Europe put together and when four out of the top 10 global tech firms are Asian, we can see how the battle for good jobs will intensify over the next 10 years, and the risk is that we will lose it. We will not beat the global competition without a much bigger and bolder plan to improve the skills of our country in the years ahead.

Of course, that situation has particular consequences for not only families but young people. All of us now serve the younger generation, which is the first generation in a century that is worse off than the generation that came before it. Social mobility is, in effect, going into reverse; none of us can be proud of that, and all of us must want to alter it. Young people in particular desperately need breakthroughs in this policy area, and I know that the Minister is absolutely focused on it, like a laser.

I hope that the Minister will use this debate and this great day to begin telling us a bit about an ambitious vision for system reform—reform that is evolutionary, perhaps, but revolutionary in scale. The truth is that although we talk about a system of technical education in this country, we do not have a system worthy of the name. We have a piecemeal, ad hoc system of institutions, exams and funding entitlements that are yoked together, often in a very rudimentary way. That does not allow young people from the age of 14 a clear line of sight for a technical education career that goes up to the degree level of skill, which many hon. Members have talked about, celebrated and underlined as being critically important.

In his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) forensically exposed the inadequacies of the current system. If I might be so bold, I will throw a few suggestions on to the pile that hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Stroud, have given us this afternoon. In our schools, there has to be a bigger and bolder effort to expose more 14-year-olds to technical education. That is why I support many of the reforms pioneered by Lord Baker. I hope that the Minister, with his colleagues at the Department for Education, can continue to lobby for practical and empirical subjects.

I hope that we make serious progress in building a stronger careers service during this Parliament. I think it was the CBI, of all organisations, that said before the election that the careers service in this country was “on life support”. That situation will not help us to compete with the global competition that we now confront. Although small amounts of money were offered before

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the election, the Minister will know, and in his heart believe, that that was not a solution to the problem, given its scale. We need a radical increase in apprenticeships; I am glad that there is all-party consensus on that. The Minister will know that we intend to focus constantly on ensuring that quantity does not come at the expense of quality. Quite simply, there is no point in putting our people on to programmes that do not genuinely equip them with the skills to compete globally. I know that he, too, cares about that issue passionately.

However, the bigger and more complicated question is about the whole system of qualifications, entitlements and funding arrangements for our constituents who are aged between 18 and 24. At the moment, there is not a smooth pathway on a technical education track for our constituents in that age range. There are entitlements to maintenance, which stop at the age of 18 but restart at the age of 24, with the availability of advanced learning loans. The funding entitlements for colleges differ according to whether their students are under 18, between 18 and 24, or over 24. There is a quagmire of qualifications. There are too many qualifications; they are too disjointed; they are delivered at far more cost in England than in Scotland; and, frankly, the whole field of technical qualifications needs a good root-and-branch review. I know that there has already been some simplification of the system, but we have much further to go.

Crucially, there must be a revolution in the collaboration between further education and higher education. Hon. Members made some very good contributions this afternoon about the need to join those systems up. It is not good enough that just 2% or 3% of apprentices go on to degree-level skills; we will not compete globally if that situation continues. There have been some welcome advances, which I know the Minister helped to drive through before the election, but there must be a revolution in the number of apprentices going on to degree-level skills. Apprenticeships should be a route to the top in the same way that doing A-levels and going to university is. At the moment, I believe that many people are not taking the apprenticeship route because they know that the ladder only goes so far up the wall. We want an apprenticeship to be a fast track to the top, in the same way that a degree at a good university is.

I know that all of this work will be detailed and involved, and there are few better minds than that of the Minister to puzzle all of it through. However, his bigger challenge will of course be the funding settlement that he will have to contend with. As the last Government put up our national debt to £1.5 trillion, this Government will have to deliver some savings. I hope that they will also sensibly raise some taxes from those who can afford to pay just a little bit more. The Budget will tell us more.

If we are to close the productivity gap that our country confronts, we must support technical education in a radically new way. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe made an excellent point when he sounded the alarm about the 24% cut in adult skills delivered in-year.

During the many visits he made before the election, the Minister will have been lobbied about some colleges now being unviable. I know this because I visited many colleges after him. Some colleges are at risk of falling

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over without urgent action this year. On top of that, a third of the cuts announced by the Chancellor last week are set to hit the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education. Many colleges are already on the brink. The Minister will have to move fast with his colleagues at the Treasury to ensure that colleges do not fall over and become unviable, despite the Chancellor saying that we need to fix the productivity gap, and many in this House saying, “Look, technical education is key to this.”

The Minister will also want to, or have to, consider other funding pressures, including the performance of advanced learning loans for those over 24, because they are vastly underperforming at the moment. There has to be a sevenfold increase in the number of people taking up these loans if the budget is to be consumed. I want to put on record my thanks and congratulations to the Association of Colleges and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education for their work in consistently highlighting this risk.

I hope that the Minister shows us a little bit of leg this afternoon as regards his plans for system reform. We famously designed a wonderful system of technical education for the new Germany after the war, but forgot to implement a similar blueprint for our own country. Perhaps it is time to move on and introduce system changes of our own. I hope that the Minister can tell us about those changes. I hope that he can say a bit more about his ambitious plans to devolve control over skills to local authorities, and particularly city regions. Many people throughout the country told me that they would not have had to contend with a 24% cut to the adult skills budget this year if they had just been given the budget they were entitled to and were allowed to make decisions about priorities much more locally.

I hope that the Minister tells about his conversations with the new Minister for Universities and Science, whose father was rather unfair in attacking his lack of exposure to science as a young man. I have always found that new Minister a thoughtful, clever and progressive individual. I hope that the Minister here today and the new Minister in BIS will make a good double act, because, heaven knows, there is an awful lot of work to do.

3.42 pm

The Minister for Skills (Nick Boles): Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship during my first outing in Westminster Hall since the election and my reappointment as Skills Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this important debate. He congratulated the Edge Foundation on setting up this day of celebration of all that is good in technical and professional education, and all those people, young and not so young, who take advantage of those opportunities to secure qualifications that enrich their lives and promote their careers. This is an excellent debate with which to kick off the deliberations in this five-year Parliament. Technical and professional education has an important role to play in making our economy more productive and providing opportunities for all people in all parts of the country.

Before getting into the meat of my argument, I want to deal with a few issues raised by hon. Members. First, it is important to say that the 24% cut in the adult skills

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budget—in the allocations offered to colleges and providers —is obviously an average figure and, more importantly, relates to the non-apprenticeship portion of the adult skills budget. It does not take a genius to work out that if the overall scale of a budget is reduced and the size of an important element in it is doubled, there will be larger reductions in what is left. Even I could work it out. That is what has happened to the non-apprenticeship portion of the adult skills budget. We have reduced the overall budget and doubled the spending on adult apprenticeships funded out of that budget. That has necessitated rather larger cuts in that particular area.

Nic Dakin: Does not the Minister agree that by doing that certain activities currently very much valued by employers will disappear from the offer that is available locally?

Nick Boles: I fear that cuts often require difficult choices to be made. Colleges are all trying to ensure that they make economies chiefly through efficiencies and in areas of lower value. Following on from that, I should like to correct something said by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the relative value of full-time FE courses and apprenticeships. I am not for a minute suggesting that full-time FE courses do not have a positive impact—they do—but their positive impact on people’s earnings between five and seven years later is not nearly as high as the positive impact of apprenticeships. We have just done one of the biggest data studies undertaken by Government, matching people’s education performance and their earnings as recorded by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Almost 500,000 individuals were covered by this study, which found that a level 2 apprenticeship leads to approximately a 16% improvement in the individual’s earnings five to seven years later, whereas the impact for a full-time level 2 is roughly 6%. At level 3 it is 16% for those on an apprenticeship, against 4% on a full-time course. There are positive impacts from full-time courses and some of those courses—not least the BTEC mentioned by my hon. Friend—may well have a higher value, but the averages suggest that it is sensible to do what the Government have been doing and shift resources out of full-time FE courses into apprenticeships, while continuing to invest in full-time FE.

My neighbour, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), mentioned the in-year cuts to both the DFE and BIS budgets. Although I cannot go into detail, because it would be way above my pay grade to do so, he should not assume that the only way of cutting the unprotected part of the DFE budget is by cutting funding for 16 to 19 education, including funding for FE colleges. He should also not assume that the only way of cutting the part of the BIS budget that has been subject to in-year cuts is by cutting funding for FE colleges. No doubt everybody will have to make a contribution, but he should not assume that those cuts involving large figures will fall entirely on the sectors that he so admirably represents in the House and in this debate.

We are at the start of a five-year Parliament, so we have a bit of time to think and plan and be strategic, and to try to build something that addresses some of the problems that have afflicted us as a country for decades. There has been a huge amount of agreement

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across the House about the nature of the productivity challenge that we face as a country. We have lower productivity—all that means is how much value people are producing for every hour that they work—in part, I am glad to say, because we manage to find jobs for people with very low skills who are less productive. Of course, a large number of the least productive workers in countries not too far from here are not employed, and by necessity that means that their average productivity per hour of employment is higher. I prefer to live on this side of the channel rather than on the other side, where that is so, but that does not in any sense diminish the challenge to us of ensuring that the productivity of everybody, whether relatively low-skilled or high-skilled, is improving so that they can command higher wages, pay higher taxes and have better lives for themselves and their families. That is, of course, a fundamental challenge for this Parliament.

The Opposition spokesman was right to say that Members of all parties have long bemoaned our inability to create a system of technical and professional education that commands the same level of understanding in the country, and in families and schools, and in this House—not to mention the level of respect—as the academic education system, which is admired around the world. He is absolutely right to challenge the Government in these early weeks to grapple with the problem systematically, rather than in a piecemeal way, and I hope and intend to rise to the challenge.

I will resist the temptation, long though my legs are, to show too much of them in my response to the debate. That is not because I am coy, because I am not naturally that coy, as you may have noticed, Sir Roger, but because it is a little premature for me as a Minister, although I was in this post for 10 months before the election, to start rushing to judgment. I would like to hear from others, and it has been tremendously useful to hear the contributions of my hon. and right hon. Friends and Opposition Members on the elements of the system that they see as needing to be reformed, changed or improved.

I also want to learn from other countries. The Opposition spokesman referred to the example that we always beat ourselves over the head about: the German system of technical education. He is right to say that we honourably and admirably had some part to play in creating that system, but it is also right to observe that it is the product of a deep economic, educational and social culture that is somewhat different from ours. We need to ensure that we are looking to learn from relevant examples that are, in a sense, transferable and applicable to our system. I am keen to look at—I encourage Members to come forward if they have better example—the Dutch example. The Dutch economy is more similar to our own in culture and approach than the German one. It is smaller, but it has what we would see as—I am not sure that the Dutch would accept this—Anglo-Saxon features. As the Opposition spokesman said, they seem to have a better system of clear routes through education to high, degree-level qualifications.

Liam Byrne: The Minister is absolutely right to sound a warning that it is impossible to import one system wholesale to one economy from another. The key thing we have to learn from the German system is that smooth pathway through. A couple of things have been mentioned

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in the debate that are important to incorporate into some of the Minister’s research, of which one of the most important is the growth in self-employment and enterprise. There are superb colleges up and down this country—not least Sheffield College and others in the Peter Jones network—that are doing a first-class job in encouraging an entrepreneurial revolution among our young people. They are a good example of how we cannot simply import a system from a country such as Germany that does a much less good job at fostering a culture of self-employment, the skills for self-employment and a yen for enterprise, too.

Nick Boles: I thank the shadow Minister for that; it was very interesting and I entirely agree with him. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud raised this, too, but when people are working for 50 or 60 years of their lives in a fast-changing economy, we have to consider the kind of qualifications that are relevant by being sufficiently flexible to cope with the different employment situations that a person is likely to want to go through, which may well include working for themselves, setting up their own business and acting in a whole range of different circumstances.

My new and fantastic Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris)—she is the Select Committee’s loss, but my gain—is also operating as the PPS for my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science. If any Member here would like to come through her with any suggestions or answers to the following questions to which I will be seeking sensible and systematic answers over the next few months, I will be incredibly grateful. The first question is: what do people think should start at 14 and what do people think should start at 16? That is an age-old debate that will not be settled in this parliamentary term, but we should have it again, not least when we look at the work of the university technical colleges and Lord Baker in introducing to the system some education that starts at 14. Should that become a common thing or remain an exception to the rule?

The second question is about the institutions. We have all talked with affection, admiration and praise about the further education colleges in our constituencies, and I am lucky enough to have two such institutions. Are those institutions in their current guise equipped for all the demands that we are going to place on them and the financial pressures that are inevitable, even if we can maintain funding broadly at the current level? Should they specialise more? Should some of them focus more on higher level skills and others more on training for people who have not received an adequate education at school? What institutions do we need, what institutions have we got and how can we get from one to the other? That naturally leads to the question of who should be making such decisions. Should it be the Minister in his Whitehall office with the help and guidance of the Skills Funding Agency, should it be local enterprise partnerships, or should it be combined authorities on the Greater Manchester northern powerhouse model? Who is properly placed with a sufficient understanding

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of the local economy to decide what institutions are needed locally to meet the full range of young people’s and employers’ needs?

The final question, although it is only the final one because I will probably run out of time soon—there will be many other questions—is on qualifications. The shadow Minister raised it, as did several other Members who talked about the different qualifications and how badly known and badly recognised they are among parents and young people. Do we have the right set of qualifications? Have we been prescriptive enough? We have weeded out a whole lot of very weak qualifications, and I think we can all agree that that was a necessary and a good step, but do we need to be more prescriptive about the combinations of qualifications that denote a sensible route to a high-quality career and so should receive the benefit of taxpayer funding?

The questions about who should be involved in making the decisions about local institutions and qualifications will lie at the core of the long-term system plan that the shadow Minister has urged on me. While I know that he will be forensic and at times even a little brutal—I know, because I have witnessed it before—in his examination, I also know that he and all other Members will make a positive contribution, because ultimately we want the same thing: a country where everyone can get the skills they need, at whatever point in their life that they feel the need for them, so that they can prosper and have fulfilling lives.

3.58 pm

Neil Carmichael: Thank you, Sir Roger, for chairing this effective and excellent debate. I thank all the contributors, too, because the debate has been constructive and allowed us to set out the issues. I also thank the Edge Foundation for all it has done to make the Vocational Qualifications Day work, because, as we have all acknowledged, it is an important day. The trackneeds reform, more rigorous thought and more attention to detail. We should be doing more on productivity, and there is a lot more we could be doing to ensure that young people understand what vocational qualifications are and why they should be seeking them.

Above all, it is a question of ensuring that our education system is adaptable and responsive enough to the emerging modern economy that we are all part of. We cannot stop at our shores, because we are in a global economy, and that has a significant impact on how we should operate. The Minister’s three questions will help to focus what we do in the next five years so that in five years’ time we can say, “Britain is well placed in the provision of skills. We have matched our competitors in productivity and we have demonstrated that we are concerned that each and every one in our country can make the most of themselves and fulfil their lives in a way that reflects their aspirations and the emerging economy.” We have the opportunity to make this a country that is founded on good working practices, strong ethics in education and the appreciation of society.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered annual Vocational Qualifications Day.

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Libraries (Harrow)

4 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of libraries in Harrow.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time in this Chamber, Sir David.

I want to set out the case for the continuation of public libraries in the London borough of Harrow, part of which I am privileged to represent. Over the past 25 to 30 years, I have had great involvement in libraries in both Brent and Harrow. When I was first elected as a councillor in the London borough of Brent, the Labour administration in the borough at the time tried to close libraries. That attempt was overturned after a long campaign by the community.

When I became leader of Brent Council in 1991, we invested in public libraries and turned them into assets that were used to the ultimate. In fact, I was almost considered a revolutionary because I opened Willesden Green library on Sundays so that students could study. Sadly, in 2010, the Labour administration in Brent decided to close four libraries and create a new civic centre library. That resulted in a long community campaign that eventually led to a community library in the ward that I used to represent reopening as a community-run library. That demonstrates how much the public want libraries to continue.

In contrast, in the London borough of Harrow over the same period, only one library has closed: the Gayton Road library. I will return to that later, because it is important in the current context. Over the past five years, the library service has been put out to tender and various aspects have changed, resulting in the diminution of the services provided to library users. When the budget process started last year, the Labour administration in Harrow claimed that it needed to find £75 million in budget savings over four years. That would have been okay, but the next day it reinstated its chief executive position, with a salary of £160,000 per annum. It then went further by rehiring the same chief executive whose post had been deleted some six to nine months earlier. It could have saved £1 million over four years—quite enough to fund all the borough’s libraries. The council has changed its view and now says that it needs to find savings of £83 million. We are not sure whether the figure is £75 million or £83 million.

As part of its saving drive, Harrow council proposed the closure of a swathe of public facilities, including Harrow’s only arts centre and Harrow museum. Of course, there was a huge backlash. I joined forces with my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) to prevent the closures, and I am pleased to say that the council has backed down on closing the arts centre—temporarily, at least—and alternative funding arrangements are being made. Nevertheless, the urgency of the situation is demonstrated by the fact that from 5 pm on 13 June, four of Harrow’s 10 public libraries—the Bob Lawrence, Hatch End, North Harrow and Rayners Lane libraries—will be closing their doors, despite the local protests.

Harrow Council undertook a consultation on the current proposals between 24 November 2014 and 19 January this year, and found that 71.48% were against the closure

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of the libraries. Of course, that has not stopped Harrow’s Labour-run council from wanting to close them. In fact, the consultation was flawed, because it specifically suggested that, as alternatives, library users in Edgware could use Kingsbury library in Brent or Burnt Oak library in Barnet. I am not sure whether the council tax payers of Barnet or Brent would welcome Harrow’s council tax payers using their libraries free of charge, but there is also another issue: Barnet council is currently consulting on the closure of Burnt Oak library. The consultation was therefore completely flawed. There is a strong feeling locally that the decision had been made before Harrow council’s consultation started and that the process has just been one of rubber-stamping the council’s decision.

All campaigns against the current situation are being ignored. There was an excellent campaign in Edgware to preserve Bob Lawrence library. Campaigners gathered a petition with more than 5,000 signatures from people who want to keep the library open. Both my hon. Friend the Minister and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), visited Bob Lawrence library to see how it is used and the good work done there. It is not only a centre for reading and lending books; it is a place where young people study. Students and young people at school who do not have facilities at home can go to the library to do homework and project work. Indeed, members of the public visit the library for various community events.

The local community put together an excellent business case for keeping the Bob Lawrence library open and fully funded, with a revenue stream, and identified a number of income streams, including social enterprise funding. They even proposed taking over the library as an organisation under the community right to bid. Sadly, the problem is that the council decides whether such a bid is allowed to proceed. Surprise, surprise, the council rejected the business case without giving any specific reason—it just said that the case did not pass muster.

Those currently running Harrow Council want to place the blame at the Government’s door, but that is disingenuous. It is worth pointing out that, thanks to the work put in when Harrow council was run by an Independent Labour and minority Conservative administration, the council had a balanced budget for 2013-14 and 2014-15, and delivered savings of £22.8 million over those two years. That shows that it is possible to achieve savings without closing public facilities.

In March, the Prime Minister came to Harrow and this subject was raised with him directly. He made the point that, actually, Harrow council had spent less than its budget envisaged and its budget for 2014-5 was higher than it had been the previous year. The council has reserves—it has the capability to fund the libraries if it so chooses. There is no need for libraries to be closed on this scale.

The council has recently announced a new library for Harrow town centre, with

“state of the art facilities and self-service technologies”.

That proposal is currently being considered, but, on closer inspection, the site has not yet been redeveloped and no planning permission has been granted. The planning application is extremely controversial, because the proposed building would be very tall. There is a lot of local opposition to the consideration of the planning

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application itself, let alone to the setting up of a new library. The site under consideration is that of the old Gayton Road library—the proposal is merely to replace the library that was closed with a new state-of-the-art library.

According to the council, as of April 2014 total library membership in Harrow was 146,661 people, about 40% of Harrow’s population. That, I suggest, means that the people of Harrow greatly value their community libraries and do not want to see them close.

According to demographic information completed at the time of joining, in August 2014 46% of active borrowers were under 18 years old and 13% were aged over 60. Given that the Office for National Statistics states that 20% of people in Harrow are under 16 and 14% are over 65, those figures represent huge levels of use from both age groups. Libraries are vital resources that must be retained for schoolchildren, older people and all groups who want to use computers but do not have them at home.

Furthermore, Harrow Council’s own data in 2013-14 show that there were 1,104,846 visits to Harrow libraries and that 1,147,630 items were loaned. Harrow is always ranked in the top quartile of outer London boroughs for book loans and it is ranked fourth out of 18 for that period. Local residents want to use their libraries for study purposes, recreation, computer access, social activities and, importantly, to access council information. It is vital that those facilities are provided and that that continues. One of my concerns is that if the Bob Lawrence library were to close, the nearest library to it, the Kenton library, is some two miles away, which would be a long journey on foot for elderly people and a challenge for younger people as well. There is also no direct bus or train service between the two.

It is quite clear that Harrow Council cannot blame the Government for its decisions on cuts and spending. The Government commissioned the independent library report, led by William Sieghart, to advise on the future of libraries and one of its central recommendations was to increase the number of libraries with internet and wi-fi. As a result, £7.4 million was allocated in the 2015 Budget to deliver that. The Arts Council, supported by Government funding, has also allocated £6 million to help libraries increase the range of facilities they provide to visitors. Some libraries have chosen to stage exhibitions of paintings by local artists to increase the number of visitors, which shows that entrepreneurial spirit can make a difference.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my Harrow neighbour, for giving way. He is making an interesting argument and, similarly, I hope that North Harrow library can be kept open. I think he went a tad too far in suggesting that the Government cannot be held to account at all, given that potentially Harrow Council will be hit with £83 million of cuts over a four-year period. That inevitably means that, on the tough decisions that it has to make, it is between a rock and a hard place.

Bob Blackman: I thank the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for that intervention. As I said at the beginning of my speech, Harrow Council seems to want it both ways: it cannot seem to make up its mind about whether

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it faces £75 million or £83 million of reductions. If it cannot make its mind up about £8 million of savings, the council must have a really serious problem at its heart. If it offers, I will take up the challenge of reorganising its budget, but that is another matter.

As has been demonstrated, local authorities can make efficiencies without closing community facilities. The council received two community takeover proposals, which related to the Bob Lawrence library, which I mentioned before, and North Harrow library, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I believe that the North Harrow library proposal is still being considered, but the Bob Lawrence library proposal has been dismissed out of all regard. I wonder whether there is a political reason for that, because while the proposal for the North Harrow library is being led by a former leader of the council who was also a notable Harrow Labour councillor, the Bob Lawrence library proposal is led by a former mayor of the borough who has fallen out with the Labour group on Harrow council.

Libraries provide a vital service, offering people the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills and opening up new possibilities in work, education and culture. Harrow is a rapidly growing area, so we will see greater pressure on school places, at primary school level in particular, and we need additional public knowledge facilities that our children and elderly people can access.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 says:

“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof”.

The Act imposes a duty on the Secretary of State to

“superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and to secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities by or under this Act.”

Given the large number of people using the services, the extreme dissatisfaction with the consultation phase and the apparent unwillingness to look at alternative strategies, there is a case for reviewing the decisions made by Harrow Council to ensure that those statutory requirements are being met.

I would be grateful for confirmation that the Secretary of State will pursue that. I have written to him today on that subject, inviting him to call the decision in and to ensure that the libraries do not close next Saturday. I look forward to the Minister’s response to our reasoned arguments.

4.16 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship for the first time in this Parliament, Sir David. Indeed, this is the first debate in which I have taken part in this Parliament, although I did participate in oral questions last week.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his excellent speech, which set out the position in Harrow. Before I turn to that specifically, with your indulgence, Sir David, I will talk a bit about libraries in general. In the 21st century, no one should underestimate the importance of libraries. Last week, I spoke at a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians, and I made the point that in a digital age libraries are arguably more important than ever.

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Perhaps the threat to libraries is about nostalgia. Many commentators on libraries perhaps benefited from them greatly in their youth by going in and borrowing books, but they now offer a huge range of other, equally important, services. In essence, and without downplaying at all the importance of borrowing books, reading and literature, they are important community spaces and hubs.

Mr Gareth Thomas: I agree with what the Minister has said thus far. Given his comments about the future of libraries, does his Department have any sort of library modernisation fund that could be accessed by those who are trying to turn North Harrow library in my constituency, which the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) referred to, into a community library, to help move things forward?

Mr Vaizey: That is a useful point, which I will come to in a second. However, I want to make it plain first that under the 1964 Act, every library authority is required to provide a

“comprehensive and efficient library service”.

It is open to the Minister to call in any plans to alter that library service if they think, prima facie, that the duty is not being carried out. It is important to emphasise that that power has been exercised only once: in 2009 in respect of Wirral libraries. That was useful, because the Sue Charteris report that emerged from that was a good guide for local authorities who are undertaking reviews.

As far as libraries are concerned, the Government have not stood still. Libraries are provided and funded by local authorities, as has always been the case, but the Government can and should play a role. One of the first decisions I took as Minister was to merge the functions of the then Museums, Libraries and Archives Council with those of the Arts Council. That merger was long overdue; when the 1964 Act was being debated, the role of libraries in local culture was emphasised, so it was important to put the Arts Council and libraries together. There is a £6 million lottery fund; it is not for the modernisation or transformation of libraries per se, but allows libraries to host cultural events. Much of the money has been used, but some is still available.

We also commissioned William Sieghart to look at e-lending. In a digital age, more and more library users may want to borrow books digitally, but it is important to get the right balance between libraries and the needs and legitimate concerns of publishers running commercial businesses. From that process emerged a second report, as we commissioned from him a wider report on the future of libraries, which made a number of recommendations. One was to set up a task and finish group; it is chaired by the Local Government Association and has a chief executive, Kathy Settle, who is on secondment from the Government Digital Service. That group is looking at real practical measures to help libraries. It called “task and finish” because it is time-limited and focused—it is funded for the next two years—so as to make a real impact.

William Sieghart also called for all libraries to have wi-fi. In the last Budget before the election, the Chancellor awarded £7.4 million to libraries to help them put wi-fi in. That answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) to a certain extent, although I appreciate that the fund that he is looking for would perhaps be wider.

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Mr Gareth Thomas: Were North Harrow community library—supported, I am sure, by Harrow Council—to put in a bid to the lottery fund for some of the £6 million pot that the Minister alluded to, and to write to him with the details, would he be willing to consider writing in support of that request for finance?

Mr Vaizey: It is important that such decisions are taken independently. The fund will be managed by the Arts Council and the criteria for applying to it—whether applicants should be local-authority-provided libraries or could be community libraries—will be established by the council in the coming weeks. The fund will go live in July. It is important to emphasise that the Department for Communities and Local Government has issued guidance for community-managed libraries. It is also incumbent on me as a Minister to make sure that community libraries are aware of potential funds from tangential sources—the kind of community funds that the DCLG oversees.

Much of my time as Minister with responsibility for libraries has been taken up with concerns about library closures. I should emphasise that despite the mood music provided by some library campaigners the scale of closures is not what people would have us believe. Fewer than 100 static libraries—effectively, library buildings—have closed. It is a sad reflection on them that five times as many libraries have been closed by Labour authorities as by Conservative ones. At the same time, there is good news. Lots of libraries have been refurbished and many have reopened. Indeed, some Labour authorities—Liverpool and Manchester—have refurbished their central libraries, and Birmingham has built the largest library in Europe, although that was started under a Conservative council.

The specific situation in Harrow, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, is somewhat depressing. I forgot to mention that I was privileged to spend some time with him in his constituency earlier in the year. It was a pleasure to spend time with such a hard-working local MP, and although it may have surprised some people, it did not surprise me at all to see his majority increase at the last election; that was well deserved. I was privileged to visit the Bob Lawrence library with him and meet the people working there, as well as some of the library users.

When one looks at what Harrow is proposing, a number of questions arise. As I said earlier, although books are important, libraries are about more than just books; they are community hubs. What has the council done to look at other services that it could provide through libraries? What has it done about providing, for example, homework clubs for children, or adult education opportunities, or perhaps the opportunity for community nurses to talk to people about their concerns and give advice? Is it planning to apply for the wi-fi fund? Indeed, do all its libraries have wi-fi—libraries that do attract many more users?

Are the council’s libraries fully integrated into all its services? Has it looked, for example, at how its libraries could work with jobcentres to help people who need to use a computer to apply for benefits online or to brush up their CVs? As my hon. Friend said, is the council providing opportunities for young people to study? Has it worked hard enough with the community to allow the community to take over a library? I was concerned by,

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and will look in more detail at, what my hon. Friend said about the bids to take over a library under the community right to bid. Community libraries are an important aspect of library services, and where the community is prepared to step forward it is incumbent on councils not to shut the door but to open it and welcome the community in.

Has the council looked at different models for how it could run its library services? In Suffolk, an industrial and provident society took over the libraries, kept them open and extended the opening hours. Has Harrow Council looked at mergers with other library authorities? Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea merged their library services a few years ago, saving £1 million and keeping all the libraries open; in fact, I think I am right in saying that one of the authorities opened another library. There are a whole range of options and features that it is now incumbent on library authorities to look at. Important though it was, the Charteris review took place some five or six years ago, and we have moved further forward in the past few years in terms of the ways in which libraries are seen, and the huge opportunities that they now have to play a role in a fast-moving society in which more and more people rely on becoming more digitally literate and engaged.

As I mentioned, library closures have not been on so great a scale as some library campaigners would have us believe. However, importantly, every single proposal by a library authority to change its library service is looked at by Ministers, and we get independent advice on whether it is appropriate to call a proposal in. Up until this point I have not done so, because a lot of library authorities have undertaken careful reviews, but it is important to put on the record—I have always said this—that I have never taken the position that I will never call in any proposal. I will always look closely at any and every proposal for significant change to a library service.

Coming back after the election, I have engaged once more with the Society of Chief Librarians, an excellent organisation, and talked to library services that are enthusiastic and ambitious. Perhaps my vigour has been further renewed—spurred on by the excellent task and finish group that William Sieghart prompted us to establish, led by chief executive Kathy Settle—for banging the drum again about the importance of libraries, and for encouraging local authorities to see libraries for what they actually are. They are neither a burden nor something at the front of the queue for cutting, but an enormous asset for councils, through which they can engage with communities and provide citizens with a huge range of opportunities.

My hon. Friend is a hard-working MP who represents an extraordinarily diverse constituency. In a diverse community, there can be no more important place than a library; when people come into a community and want to put down roots, there can be no better thing for them to do than walk through the doors of a library to find a warm welcome and a map to navigate their new life. I will certainly look at Harrow’s proposals, and we will come to a decision as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

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City Regions and Metro Mayors

4.29 pm

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I beg to move,

That this House has considered city regions and Metro Mayors.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I welcome the Minister to his post; I am sure that one of the joys he is looking forward to is responding to endless Adjournment debates.

This debate has excited a certain amount of interest; it is somewhat topical. We have a new Government with a newish agenda, two key themes of which I am personally keen on. One is devolution and the other is the northern powerhouse, both of which I support in principle. For England, we are largely talking about devolution to city regions, but it is wholly unclear, as many hon. Members have already said in the Commons Chamber, what will happen to areas outside city regions.

I understand city regions, because they are essentially the rediscovery of what we used to call metropolitan counties, which were abolished as collateral damage when Mrs Thatcher got rid of the Greater London Council. She was so antagonised by signs across the road from County Hall that she decided it had to go, and to make it not seem personal and vindictive she got rid of the metropolitan counties as well, just to prove the point. There has always been a necessity for sub-regional bodies of one kind or another, which was proved by the need to recreate the GLC as the Greater London Authority, with an associated Mayor’s office. It was also proved by the fact that the met counties more or less persisted in one form or another. They persisted in most areas as four joint boards or authorities dealing with police, fire, transport and waste.

That is what Mrs Thatcher did. What we are seeing now is almost a reversal of Thatcherism—the Minister may not be comfortable with that, but that is what is happening. Police authorities, which Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives who followed her tried insistently to depoliticise by adding to them cohorts of magistrates, independents and so on, have now become politically accountable police and crime commissioners—I am not particularly fond of that proposal, but nonetheless it is a politicisation. There is a promise of a devolution of power from Whitehall to what we have learned to call our combined authorities, which have essentially replaced the joint boards and the met counties before them. The only real difference is that they are indirectly nominated rather than directly elected.

Governments are often trapped into having to reinvent the wheel. There is always a need for a sub-regional structure to make the big economic and transport decisions that are beyond the individual competence of even a sizeable council. Governments have also learned that those kinds of decisions cannot be made well or to local satisfaction by Whitehall.

What is odd about the Government’s proposals is their insistence that this sort of devolution requires something called a Metro Mayor—a Mr Big or a kind of civic Mussolini—which is different from having an effective council leader or a figurehead, for which many people see the need in certain areas or for certain purposes. It is essentially the appropriation of executive power to one individual.

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Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): There is a great deal of confusion about the real shape of the metropolitan areas and the Metro Mayors. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the research that suggests that the emphasis on big cities such as Leeds or Manchester will squeeze and have a deleterious effect on smaller towns and cities, such as my town of Huddersfield?

John Pugh: I will come to that point later, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

The interesting thing is that this is the sort of devolution that people have requested and want. There is clamour up and down the northern cities and conurbations—people are saying, “Let’s have a Metro Mayor.” But it is a Government-knows-best, Procrustean model. The Chancellor has been explicit that proper, full devolution—devolution that is worth anything—will be on that model. If I were being unkind, I could accuse the Government of dogmatism, ideological stupidity, blind prejudice or even a predilection for civic Mussolinis, but I am genuinely struggling to follow their argument. There is no evidence from anywhere in the world that conurbations with all-powerful mayors thrive any better or any worse than those that do not. Some clearly do, but a lot do not; governance is not always a decisive factor. There is no evidence that one man alone always makes a better decision than a leader surrounded by his peers or a group of adequately informed, able people.

There is an appreciable body of evidence that shows that systems that invest power in a single decision-maker are vulnerable to a number of things. They are vulnerable to cronyism—that kind of accusation has been made against the Mayor of London. They are vulnerable, in the long term, to an element of corruption, as decisions become less transparent, and to political obtuseness and people flying a kite—I am thinking of things such as Boris’s island airport. Collective decisions, rather than individual decisions, are always more transparent and more open to challenge, because they have to be argued for. They are not always quicker, which may be why the Government are infatuated with the Metro Mayor idea, but if corporate bodies are required to make quick decisions, most can think of an intelligent scheme of delegation that enables them to deal with the particular problem. Few people would argue that a President of the United States, surrounded by advisers, perforce and naturally makes better decisions than a Prime Minister of England, who has a Cabinet and has to get things through Parliament.

In Merseyside, we have a particular problem. From our point of view, it is essential that decisions that affect the whole region have proper input from all parts of the region. All voices—those of Southport, Sefton, the Wirral and St Helens—should be heard. It is not simply all about Liverpool. One person, however good, qualified and sensitive they are, is unlikely to be equally alert and caring or equally bothered about all areas.

In my area—right on the margins of the Liverpool city region—we worry about marginalisation. We are already in a borough that is controlled by no one elected by Southport or who belongs to a party that has been elected in Southport. There is genuine unhappiness about being in the council we are in, and we will make representations later in the Parliament about boundary changes. But how much worse will it be for my constituency

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when not even a Sefton voice is involved in the decisions that directly affect us? We will become a marginalised community.

Our tourism, for example, could be overlooked in Liverpool’s drive to boost its own tourist economy. There does not seem to be an adequate restraint on that. Following on from the intervention of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), what we want is a better engagement with the areas immediately outside the city region. It is important to us to find out what is going to happen in our neighbouring authority, west Lancashire—a district highly dependent on the city region economy, but exiled from it, no part of it and not able to join it. We need to talk about transport links with west Lancashire, and it is not obvious that having a Metro Mayor would be of any assistance to us.

The situation genuinely would not be so bad if, as in the ResPublica pamphlet, which backed the proposal of “Devo Manc”, the prospect of a Metro Mayor was presented as an option—as something in the toolkit. But it is not; it is a precondition, regardless of local opinion. It is not devolution by demand, but almost devolution as the Chancellor demands. To that extent, it has to be questioned.

I do not think these problems are unique to the area of Merseyside, or even just to Merseyside, Manchester and the north-west. The same issues can be found in Tyneside, the Sheffield area and Birmingham. The fact that Manchester has been such a success recently in terms of its devolution—it was picked as an early candidate for devolution without a Metro Mayor—proves how tangential the presence of a Metro Mayor is to genuine devolution.

Let me conclude by summarising the problem. We want devolution, just like the Scots—it would be nice, of course, to have the same level of per capita funding—but the Government’s offer, as it is at the moment, is simply piecemeal. We are leaving many areas completely orphaned. We are patronising other areas by suggesting that they can only have one particular form of governance, regardless of what the electorate actually wants, otherwise they will not get the funding that devolved areas will have. We are marginalising communities, such as mine of Southport, within the city region, and we are confronted with a wholly unproven, unevidenced strategy.

The worst thing is that there is absolutely no opportunity for the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this devolution to have or express a view on the template that the Government offer them. That is not devolution; it is imposition.

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): To help the Chamber, I should say that the new arrangements for sittings in Westminster Hall are as follows: this debate finishes at 5.30 pm, and the Scottish National party, Labour and Government Front Benchers each get seven minutes at the end of the debate. As colleagues can see, there is very little time to be shared between 13 people. I am very happy to call everyone, but they will have only three or four minutes to speak, so I ask colleagues to bear that in mind. Whether they want only to make interventions is entirely a matter for the Chamber.

4.42 pm

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh)

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on securing this important debate, which is not only about city regions and Metro Mayors, but, as he ably put it in his speech, about where devolution is ultimately leading us.

Devolving the decision-making process closer to communities and tackling our nation’s historic north-south divide head on make perfect sense as principles. Empowering the north to achieve its true potential will ensure that we do not surrender to the unyielding rise of London. I say that because rather than dragging our capital down, we should instead empower the rest of the country to rise to the challenge.

Britain is at its best when all our cities and regions have the freedom to champion their unique strengths in order to generate more highly skilled jobs and greater prosperity. Clearly, it would be a mistake to restrict the offer of greater powers to a small, elite club of metropolitan centres. Every region of the country must be free to seize the opportunity of controlling its own destiny. That is the only way in which devolution can be truly successful.

I am therefore delighted that the proposals for devolution, as we see them at the moment, will now be considered much more widely, regardless of where they come from. For me, the essence of Conservative philosophy is that it is not where someone comes from that matters, but where they are going and what they can achieve in life. That is ultimately where the devolution argument has to lie.

After the excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Southport, I would like to take this discussion across the Pennines and focus attention on the impact of the devolution debate on the great county of Yorkshire and my city of York. As the historic heart of Yorkshire, the city of York is uniquely placed to benefit from the Government’s offer of devolution. We are fortunate enough to benefit from the membership of two local enterprise partnerships, and we are strategically linked not only with the economies of west Yorkshire, but with the more rural hinterland of North Yorkshire and the East Riding.

Although it is true that parts of our economy are intertwined with west Yorkshire, our connections with the rest of North Yorkshire run far deeper. We share many of the essential services with North Yorkshire, and our proud heritage as the northern capital of both the Romans and the Vikings—as the city of York—provides us with a more intangible connection with the rest of the county.

I remember when the proposals for combined authorities were first mooted and first debated in the House. I, along with many other colleagues, voiced my concern about the lack of alternatives for places such as York to take a different path from the one proposed for major cities. I am delighted that the Government look set to deliver on this key commitment and I sincerely hope that York will be able to achieve its ambition of working closely with its long-established partners, such as North Yorkshire and the East Riding, to deliver greater benefits for our local communities.

The importance of York, North Yorkshire and the East Riding as a valuable counterweight to the competing interests of Leeds, Sheffield and Hull must not be overlooked. The new Conservative-led City of York

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Council, which has a Conservative leader for the first time since the authority was created over 20 years ago, has a great opportunity to make devolution work for our society and truly unlock York’s potential.

It has been made abundantly clear that the only way in which we can achieve a Yorkshire powerhouse and make sure that devolution percolates right the way through our great county is to dissolve the responsibilities for investment in our transport infrastructure. On transport infrastructure and the need for investment, we can look no further than the northern ring road in my constituency. It provides the main access to key retail and employment and leisure sites. However, as the numbers of vehicles using that particular road have increased by more than half over the past decade, large stretches of the route are now at full capacity. Without further investment, journeys that take 20 minutes today will take over an hour in 2020, so devolving transport funds to York would provide the ancient city with the tools that it needs for a modern transport infrastructure that fits the demands of the 21st century.

I will just touch on this next point, because I know that other people want to come in. If we are really going to put wings under our devolution project, we must also devolve funding for our local airports. As many Yorkshire colleagues will agree, it is essential that access to Leeds Bradford airport—one of the fastest growing airports in the country—is greatly improved. We have to get rail links in there and not just road links, as we have at the moment. Again, devolution can really put the wings under that airport and move it forward, so to speak. As such, we need that long-term approach to funding, with a dedicated rail link into the airport.

Clearly, the possibilities offered by devolution really have the potential to be transformative, not only for many of our cities, but for our rural communities. However, we must make sure that it percolates right the way through, across our great country, empowering rural communities and cities such as York, leaving nowhere behind. It must not just be about the metropolitan centres.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): My hon. Friend is talking about devolution to cities, but does he agree that is extremely important to remember the counties that are further away from the cities, such as Cumbria?

Julian Sturdy: I entirely agree. As I was saying, if devolution is to work, we must ensure that it percolates right the way through, leaving no area or community unaffected. We must ensure that it gets right across the country, into our rural communities, and is not something just for the metropolitan elite, as we see it at the moment.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): My hon. Friend is talking about devolution and has mentioned rural communities. I agree about that; I come from a rural community. But how does that link to the Metro Mayors concept? Is the Metro Mayors concept as appropriate to somewhere such as Oxfordshire as it is to somewhere such as York?

Julian Sturdy: As I have said, if devolution is to work across the country and we are not to end up leaving communities behind and widening the divide between metropolitan centres and our rural communities, we must ensure that that link does work. I look forward to

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what my hon. Friend the Minister will say on that. I am sure that he will come up with many arguments as to why rural communities should be reconnected. I know that that will affect his constituency and the north as much as it affects mine and the great county of Yorkshire.

While we are talking about Yorkshire and the city of York, I should say that if the rural communities that surround York are to play that leading role in devolution, we must ensure that it gets right to the heart of them. If we can achieve that, we can ensure that all communities play a leading role in what I would argue delivers for my area a Yorkshire powerhouse to rival that of Manchester and London.

4.51 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you back in your place after the election, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing this important debate. I also welcome the Minister, a constituency neighbour, to his place on the Front Bench. I hope that he will be working in the interests of Teesside and the wider north-east. This debate is a good opportunity to start probing the Minister on what he will do for our area.

In the short time available, I want to make four points. First and foremost, and as the hon. Member for Southport established in the course of his excellent opening to the debate, the Government are trying to show their enthusiasm for devolution and letting go of power to local areas by insisting on a one-size-fits-all approach to governance. Areas can have further devolution, but only if they adopt the Government’s way. That seems a pretty odd way of devolving power to local areas in order to ensure that local wishes and circumstances prevail. If devolution is properly chosen by the Government, how on earth can the Minister justify that?

Following on from that, my second point is that the Government, in adopting this approach, are disregarding in a very significant way the wishes of local people. It seems a fundamental principle of British politics that if there is a significant change in the model by which people are governed, the people affected should be allowed a say. Indeed, the House is at this very moment debating the Second Reading of the European Union Referendum Bill.

The principle has been true at national level, with the referendum in 2011 to change the parliamentary electoral system. It has been true at regional level, such as with the referendum in 2004 in my own region of the north-east to determine whether we would have a regional assembly. Significantly, it has also been true at local level in my own constituency. In 2001, the electorate of Hartlepool decided in a referendum that they wanted a mayoral system of governance at local level—and they elected a monkey. In 2012, after a decade of a directly elected mayor, the good people of Hartlepool decided in another referendum that they had had enough of that and rejected the model. Given that my constituents, in recent years, have had their say on which local models of governance they prefer, and given in particular their rejection of a mayoral model, why are their views so obviously ignored by the Government?

My third point is about something that was raised eloquently by the hon. Member for Southport. Much of the economic drive in future decades will be fuelled by cities, but by no means all of it. In my own area of the

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north-east, Newcastle is a superb city. I used to work there and my eldest son is at university there. I want to see Newcastle thrive and it is in the region’s interests for it to thrive. But I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) at the debate. What about Sunderland and Nissan? What about somewhere closer to home—the Teesside area and the great manufacturing firms there? City regions will not be the sole drivers. What will the Minister do to ensure that smaller towns and cities, such as Hartlepool and Stockton, are able to benefit? That is incredibly important.

Can the Minister confirm that the combined authority for Teesside is working well? Those local authorities are working adequately together and can work together; there is no need for a change in governance, so can he discount here and now a Metro Mayor for Tees Valley?

My fourth and final point relates to the matters that could be devolved. I would wish to see economic development, regeneration, skills and transport devolved, but I would also hope to see health matters devolved properly. My constituents and I want to see hospital services return to Hartlepool—the Minister will know about this issue all too well—but my constituents feel powerless to ensure that that happens. Surely real devolution allows local people to feel empowered.

Of course clinical safety has to be paramount and medical advice has to be prioritised, but decisions on hospital services are made by the NHS foundation trusts that do not have the support of the local population. Hartlepool Borough Council, regardless of political affiliation, is against the changes. I want to see hospital services return to Hartlepool, but there is a lack of real devolution, power and accountability at local level. The people of Hartlepool do not feel that they are being listened to. If we are to have real devolution and accountability, that should always include public services vital to the people of an area, and there is no bigger such public service than the NHS, so will the Minister say something about how local people can have a real say about this?

John Howell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the big prize is not just in transferring the NHS services, but in linking up the NHS with social care, so that they are all under one roof and decisions can be made about both at the same time?

Mr Wright: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That integration—ensuring that local authorities are working in conjunction with different parts of the NHS, which are often very silo-like in approach—is the key to ensuring that my constituency, as well as his own, gets the best possible health and social care.

I shall summarise by saying that the people in my area would like more power over their future and their destiny, but the model proposed by the Government is rigid and fixed according to their own agenda rather than that of local areas. The Minister knows our part of the world incredibly well. I hope that he will show some flexibility in allowing proper devolution.

4.57 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. I will try to be brief, because

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I agree with an awful lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said, particularly his references to the great county of Yorkshire, but I do want to talk about devolution in the Humber and our concerns about how that may go.

I start by expressing my support for the Government’s agenda to devolve more powers. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is shocked that I am supporting the Government line, but this is a new Parliament and we are all ambitious! I spent 10 years as a local councillor in the Humber, on Hull City Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who was sitting next to me until a moment ago, spent 26 years on the council in north-east Lincolnshire, or the precursor to that council. Our experiences as local councillors during that period were, under any Government, of centralisation of power to Westminster and a lack of trust between central Government and local government. If something did come out to local government—an extra power or funding—it always came with strings attached; we were told how to spend the money.

Inevitably, the money ran out at some point, but we still had to continue doing whatever it was, so I pay tribute to this Government for being the first in a long time at least to talk about devolving powers and taking them away from Westminster. For me, a proud Englishman as well as a Yorkshireman, the current structures will never work. As someone who believes in a federal Britain, I do not believe that we can ever right the constitutional settlement that we have, given the powers that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly have.

I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about regional airports. Although the Scotland Bill is going through the House and we will be voting on that—the Committee stage is on Monday—it is a concern that air passenger duty, for example, will be devolved to Scotland. For airports in the north of England, there is a real risk there. Although devolution to local government along the proposed structures is to be welcomed, it will not, in my view, right the constitutional settlement that the Scotland Bill will make a lot worse for constituents in England. That is a debate for elsewhere, however.

I agree with the comments made about not trying to be too prescriptive. I noted the surprise expressed by the hon. Member for Southport and my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about the idea that central Government might demand something fixed and rigid. That should not be a shock to anybody who has been here or in local government; it is generally the way of things.

I concur with what has been said, however. We do not want a solution to be imposed on the Humber. I represent an area served by three local enterprise partnerships, which are all doing different jobs but doing them very well. We do not want the return of Humberside, and we do not want a Metro Mayor for the great city of Hull. Hull is a fantastic city, which is going to be UK city of culture in 2017 and which is really important to our region, but my constituents in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in Goole and on the south bank of the Humber in north Lincolnshire do not want to be part of a governance structure with Humberside. I believe that the Government’s

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position is that nothing will be imposed against the will of the people. That will be reassuring to my constituents, who are very concerned about the idea that anybody might try to recreate Humberside.

Finally—I am trying to keep within three or four minutes—if local authorities come forward with radical and innovative solutions, I would like two assurances from the Minister. First, I would like an assurance that regional boundaries would not be a barrier to such solutions. I represent north Lincolnshire, which is in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, but which sees itself as part of Lincolnshire because it is, of course, part of that great county. If north Lincolnshire wishes to pair with any of the district authorities to the south, which are in a different region—they are technically in the east midlands, although in north Lincolnshire we have far more in common with Lincolnshire than we do with west Yorkshire or even York—regional barriers must not be a barrier to its doing so.

Secondly, if unitary authorities want to work with district councils in places where there are also county councils, which is the situation in Lincolnshire—in north Lincolnshire we are a unitary authority, but Lincolnshire proper still has a district and county model—there may be a problem if district councils agree to the structures but county councils do not. Although I understand the desire for us to proceed on the basis of agreement, district and county councils have a history of disagreeing with each other on pretty much everything. I hope that the Minister will tell me that if a district council wishes to partner with a unitary authority, the county council will not have an absolute veto on that.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order. We have 12 minutes to share between three colleagues before the wind-ups.

5.2 pm

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) for securing the debate. I am wholly in favour of devolution, but I would like to quote Charles Kennedy, who got it exactly right when he said:

“I want to see far more decisions taken far closer to the patients, the passengers and the pupils. Far more power for locally and regionally elected politicians who understand best the needs of their areas.”

I could not have put it better myself. He was a very wise gentleman who will certainly be missed.

One of the key issues about devolution is funding. During the past five years under the previous Government, finance to local government was reduced by some 37%. If that is the way that this Government will go, passing powers down through Bills but cutting the funding, that is wholly unacceptable. We have to give localities the power to collect the money that they require.

Having said that, I support and welcome the extra powers in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, and I welcome what the legislation could provide to Greater Manchester. I add a note of caution—this has been touched on already—about the focus being too much on cities rather than smaller towns. Rochdale, for example, is on the periphery of Manchester, and

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there are some disadvantages attached to that, although the city of Manchester serves Rochdale well. The Bill must ensure that the powers that are passed down give equal weight to the peripheral towns, not only in Greater Manchester but in south Lancashire and east Lancashire. That is worth bearing in mind, because there are inequalities not only between regions—those are fairly obvious—but between sub-regions within the regions. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, I am in favour of directly elected Metro Mayors. I believe that they provide greater accountability, more decisive action and a visible local champion whom the people can get behind and support.

Finally, a number of good people are coming forward in Greater Manchester hoping to be the Metro Mayor for the city region. I advise hon. Members who would like a flutter that I am 20:1 and my good wife Karen is 33:1. I will not comment on who is the better bet.

5.5 pm

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): First, I want to recognise and welcome what the Government are doing. I believe that the proposal is a recognition of the failure of more than 70 years of centralisation. It may not be completely perfect—there may be warts on it and difficulties with it—but it is the first real reversal in England of centralisation since the second world war, and as such, it is to be welcomed.

Secondly, regarding some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) and others, it is very easy to find the faults in the proposal. It is easy to argue about boundaries or about consistency between different areas, and to say that the shires will not do as well as the cities. One problem that has bedevilled those of us who have argued for decentralisation—in my case, over the past third of a century—is the fact that nobody can agree on boundaries or on a consistent view. Cornwall is very different from Kent, which is very different from Manchester, which is very different from Birmingham. Each area has to argue the case for what is appropriate for Cheshire or for Kent, rather than looking to central Government to impose a uniform system across the whole country. That is what devolution should mean. If we try, as in the early ’70s, to find a completely homogeneous system, we will end up with no change whatsoever.

Thirdly, I want to make a point about the municipal Mussolinis that the hon. Member for Southport mentioned. His argument was deficient, quite frankly. He said that there was no empirical basis for the proposal. The difference between this country and the democracies in Europe and north America is that all those democracies, in essence, have elected mayors under the strong mayor model, the weak mayor model or variations of those models. We may be talking about mayors of tiny villages that nobody has ever heard of in the middle of France, but the mayoral model is well understood and there is a huge empirical basis for it. Those who argue against the mayoral model must respond to this point: I do not think that there is any empirical basis for saying that the system of local government that has grown up in this country, which was originally based on committees and elected leaders and which now has scrutiny committees and executive members, is better than elected mayors.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) that a mayoral system has the fundamental democratic advantages of transparency and accountability. In London, for example, people

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know who is responsible for transport in the city—it is the Mayor—but they often do not know who is their local councillor or the local leader of the council, who is elected under secondary legislation. If democracy means anything, it means that people understand who takes decisions on their behalf because that individual is elected, and that people can throw that individual out if they do not like them. If that is the case, I think that the mayoral model works well.

There is a huge amount to be said about the matter. As a Greater Manchester Member of Parliament, I welcome the proposals for Greater Manchester. Having looked at the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, I believe that there are still areas of it that need improvement and clarification. I do not see why the Deputy Mayor should have to be the leader of a council, and why they cannot come from a different sector altogether, as they do in London. That restriction is unnecessary. Why is it necessary to have a separate Bill to transfer transport powers so that we can re-regulate the buses in Greater Manchester? I worry about that, and I want to see what will be in that Bill to ensure that we get a good deal. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) that the bonus of devolution is that we could integrate healthcare and social care so that we can take decisions on hospitals and the rest of healthcare locally, preferably by this method. Overall, the Government are on the right track, but there is some detail to get right. The proposal is welcome.

5.10 pm

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): Time is short, so I will try to get through my remarks as quickly as possible. There is huge potential in the north-east for economic growth, but if the past five years have taught us anything, it is that our region is experiencing disproportionate funding cuts. We need a fairer deal from the Government this time around. Any talk of regional devolution has to go hand in hand with action to address that unfair funding imbalance.

Although I welcome the Chancellor’s belated recognition that the north does not end at Manchester or Leeds by incorporating the north-east in his plans, his proposed settlement on devolution for our region is deeply flawed. Devolution should mean empowering local regions to decide how best to spend their resources in order to nurture economic growth. Indeed, he has promised to give local authorities the levers they need to grow their local economy and ensure that local people keep the rewards, but under his current proposals only areas with a directly elected mayor will be given such levers. Devolution by diktat seems a strange form of empowerment to me.

The Government may believe that directly elected mayors represent the best means of ensuring accountability on devolved decision making, but Ministers have yet fully to make the case for why they believe that to be true. I am sceptical about whether local voters will agree with them. People in the north-east should be given the opportunity to make that decision for themselves. Forcing them to accept devolution on the Government’s terms is not devolution at all.

Sunderland and Newcastle have previously rejected directly elected Mayors in referendums. The 2004 regional assembly referendum was very clear. If that opposition remains, why should the north-east and the communities

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I represent be denied the benefits that devolution will bring, especially as the North East combined authority has made significant progress in a short space of time, not least on local transport matters? Plans to re-regulate local buses are under way through the quality contract scheme, a change for which I have long campaigned and that I have long supported.

I welcome the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) to his new role, and I am pleased that he, at least, has recognised that a one-size-fits-all approach to the devolution of regional powers is flawed. But if, as he says, the so-called northern powerhouse is not a proposal to force a uniform model on everyone, why has the Chancellor gone on the record as saying that he will settle for nothing less than elected mayors? Which is it? If the Government are serious about creating an economic powerhouse that encapsulates all of the north, local people must be given freedom to determine their own destiny, free from prescription or interference from Whitehall. The Government’s proposals, in their current form, will deny the people of the north-east that opportunity.

5.13 pm

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I have listened to this debate with great interest more as an observer than as someone who seeks to impose their views. As a Scottish National party Member, and as a former local councillor, I think it is important that local areas take decisions for themselves because they understand what best suits their needs. The debate on city deals for England is interesting because we have a city deal in Scotland. The area I represent has a partnership of eight local authorities covering Glasgow and the surrounding areas, but a mayor has not been imposed because it is not part of the Scottish local government tradition to have an elected mayor. Indeed, in Glasgow we have a political head, the leader of the council, and a civic head, the Lord Provost. Those two roles are separate and understood. I can see the point of conflict between urban areas, which may suit a mayor, and rural areas that, for different reasons, may not.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this debate because we have diverse areas in Scotland, too. Our 32 local authorities include the city of Glasgow with a population of some 600,000 and Clackmannanshire with a population of only around 50,000, but both local authorities are set up in broadly the same way. Devolution is working well in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament’s powers have been used to address local demands and to set a separate course for Scotland where we think things can be done in a particularly Scottish way for the benefit of our people. I will watch this debate with great interest. Much detail is still to appear, but we agree that, if the Government are giving powers to local areas, finance ought to be provided, too.

5.15 pm

Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing this important debate.

I make it clear that Labour supports devolution to cities, counties and communities in every part of the United Kingdom for a simple reason: decisions are

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better if they are taken closer to the people they affect. In the past, Governments of every political colour have been too centralising, which is one reason why people have lost trust in politics. Power feels too remote, too unaccountable and too disconnected from people’s everyday lives and everyday concerns. The time has come to get power out of Whitehall and into the hands of people across the country.

The previous coalition Government claimed to be localist, but the evidence tells a different story, and I speak as someone who led a reasonably high-profile council until I was elected to this place in December 2012. Education was centralised in Whitehall, with civil servants and national Ministers taking decisions about where schools would be built and who would run them. There was little, if any, engagement with parents, local communities or local government and, as a result, mistakes were made. The Government told councils how and when they should empty bins, how they could communicate with local residents and how much council tax they could charge. They told councils what level of financial reserves they should hold to cover known risks, and then they denounced those councils for not spending the same money on the day-to-day services that they had to operate. I even received a letter from a Minister telling me how and where the council should organise street parties.

Now we have a new Government also claiming that they will devolve and decentralise. That sounds good, but the omens are less good. We have just had our first sight of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which does not include any proposals for devolving specific powers. Devolution must be on offer to every part of the country and should benefit every city region, not just Greater Manchester. Devolution should benefit towns and county regions, too, not just our major urban areas. And devolution should not stop at the town hall. Tenants need more control over the homes they rent. Patients need more control over the health and care services they use. Parents need more control over the schools their children attend. Unemployed people need more control over the support on offer to help them get back to work. Devolution should be about handing power to the people.

Fundamentally, devolution cannot work without a fair funding settlement or longer-term funding deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) said, the areas that are being identified for devolution are those that have suffered the greatest cuts. Areas are being set up to fail, which feeds my concern, shared by many others, that the primary thing the Government want to localise is the blame for cuts they have made in Whitehall. Perhaps the starkest contradiction of all is that devolution is on offer only if it comes with an elected mayor. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said:

“I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less.”

Surely localism means trusting local people to take decisions for themselves, rather than having to rely on the occupant of No. 11 Downing Street.

Why do the Government feel that devolution needs to be accompanied by a mayor? Does the Minister not think that combined authorities are capable of finding a model of governance that is acceptable to the people they represent? Why are the Government choosing to propose only one model with a “take it or leave it” offer

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designed in Whitehall? There is nothing localist about doing it that way. Labour wants much more devolution and decentralisation, and Labour-run cities are at the forefront of the devolution agenda. Combined authorities need a wide range of powers to create jobs, build homes, keep communities healthy and provide support to those who need it most, but there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. That does not work, and the Government should not be putting barriers in the way of parts of the country that want more devolution.

Why do the Government not give local people a choice? They cannot end the culture of “Whitehall knows best” by letting Whitehall override the preferences of areas that want more devolution but also want to choose how they are governed. Why are the Government denying local areas that choice? I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is ready to think again.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that local people should be involved in devolution and the right to take powers. At present, if they want to have a referendum and elect a mayor locally, 5% of the population must sign a petition. Would he be agreeable to reducing that to 1% or 2%, given that he wants local people to make decisions?

Mr Reed: My view of localism is that we must allow more such decisions to be taken by local authorities or local combined authorities in the areas that they seek to represent. The key point is that the Minister should not determine such things on behalf of those people. He cannot claim to be localist while imposing decisions on local communities.

5.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (James Wharton): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) on securing a debate that is clearly of such interest to colleagues of all parties. Members have raised a range of issues, many of which are fundamental to how the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill will work and many of which feed directly into hon. Members’ understandable concerns in the early stages of this debate. I hope that I can address most of those concerns in my comments.

The hon. Member for Southport accused me of the reversal of Thatcherism and the re-creation of metropolitan counties. I am not often accused of such things, nor did I expect to be accused of them on my first appearance as a Minister in a Conservative majority Government; I am sure that he will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree. We are not re-creating the metropolitan counties. They were large, cumbersome organisations with layers of bureaucracy that often conflicted with themselves. Instead, we are seeking to do what we can to transfer powers down to people sensibly and efficiently, and to build on combined authorities by empowering them to make decisions more locally and quickly and tailor those decisions to the needs of the communities that they serve. We have been accused of wanting to create Metro Mussolinis. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The hon. Member for Southport mentioned uniformity of approach—the Procrustean approach to devolving powers. Again, that is not the Government’s intention, nor is it contained in the legislation that we hope to introduce. We are seeking bespoke deals. We are saying

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to local areas, “Tell us what works for you. Tell us what geographic area works for you and what powers work for you. Come to the Government and make a deal with us that will help you grow your local economy, deliver better services for local people and, fundamentally, play a part in the northern powerhouse project that this Government are introducing to rebalance our economy so that the north of England can grow at the rate it should be able to expect, and so that the success enjoyed by London and the south over many years can be replicated across the country as a whole.”

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Will the Minister comment on the feeling in the midlands that we are somewhat left out by the talk of a northern powerhouse? We are home to 10 million people, and we are the beating heart of manufacturing. Does he understand that there is some concern that we do not appear to be maximising ministerial favour and interest, given all this talk of the north versus the south?

James Wharton: The talk is not of the north versus the south; it is about how the rest of the country can catch up with some of the successes realised in the south not just recently but over many years. The midlands have just as important a role to play in that process. The Chancellor was in the midlands not long ago, talking about the midlands engine and what we can deliver there. Devolution can work for the midlands just as it can for the north. The majority of comments in this debate have been from Members for northern constituencies, but by no means does that mean that the Bill will apply only to those areas; it will provide opportunities to the country as a whole.

I want to address the accusation of uniformity of approach and prescription. That is not what the Bill will do; it is not what the Government are proposing. We propose to go to each area and find out what will work for that area. The legislation that we want to introduce is enabling legislation: it will allow different, tailored approaches to be delivered where they are needed, and in ways that have local agreement.

Members have raised concerns about the Metro Mayor model. It has been asked why the Government have been clear that we want to require the Metro Mayor as part of the devolution package for some city areas. If areas want the big devolution deal that places such as Manchester are getting, it is absolutely true that a Metro Mayor is a Government requirement as part of that package. The legislation enables but does not require that to happen. That is because we are talking about a wholesale transfer of powers, right down to a much more local level, in a way that has not been done by Government in this country for generations. We have seen power move away from local communities under successive Governments of different party political colours, and we want to reverse that trend. We want to say, “What can you do better locally, what do you need and what can we deliver for you?” With that, however, there must be accountability and responsibility. The mayoral model has been shown to work all over the world, and a directly elected and accountable individual is an important part of that model.

Bridget Phillipson: Can the Minister clarify something? Regarding the north-east, where we already have a combined authority, will devolution of further powers

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be conditional on a Metro Mayor? I am a bit unclear. On the one hand, he says that it is not a one-size-fits-all approach; on the other hand, he says, “It is, because you must have a Metro Mayor.”

James Wharton: I am happy to clarify matters to the hon. Lady to the extent that I can, because it depends on what the areas that want to take part in the devolution process want to get from it. If they want the Manchester model—the exciting package of powers that we are already delivering to the Greater Manchester area—a mayor will be a requirement of it. We in the Government believe that that needs to happen, and we will insist on it. If they want something less, then we can have a discussion about what that might look like. But yes, fundamentally, if areas want to push ahead with the sort of devolution package that areas such as Greater Manchester are already in line to get, a mayor will be a requirement of that process or will be part of that deal.

John Pugh: The Minister has repeated some of the mantras that I think we have heard before on this subject. However, what I genuinely want to know is this: why is that impossible in the Government’s mind? It must be impossible for there to be a prescription; if the Government are insisting on a Metro Mayor, that means they do not think that other things will work. Why is it impossible to give a level of devolution to a combined authority similar to that on offer in Manchester? What capacity does a combined authority lack that a Metro Mayor has?

James Wharton: I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises that combined authorities are made up of individuals who, while they are elected in their own respective local authority area, are not directly elected by the totality of the people they are there to serve. It is that democratic accountability that we are trying to deliver with this model and prescribing.

John Pugh rose—

James Wharton: I will give way one final time, because I must make progress.

John Pugh: The answer to that argument is that if the reason for having one accountable person is that it will make things more accountable to the public and serve them better, why will the Government not give the public a chance to decide whether they want that template in the first place?

James Wharton: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that local authorities already have the power to put mayors in place, and local authority mayors are different

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from what is being proposed under the Metro Mayor model. Local authorities already have that power, without referendums. We as a Government are trying to give combined authorities the same power to deliver that accountability for those larger areas, and the directly accountable individual that local people can hold to account.

I will touch on a number of other issues that hon. Members raised, including the question of whether this project is just for cities. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Carlisle (John Stevenson), and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and the hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), asked whether counties count too. The answer is that of course they do. The Bill we are considering is an enabling one that will allow us to tailor packages for different areas right across the country. We want to see cities succeed—they can be drivers of growth—but counties contribute a huge amount to our economy as well, and we want all those areas to come forward, make deals and find devolution settlements that work for them, so the Government are making an absolute commitment to pursue devolution not only for cities but for counties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also asked about boundaries. This is a bottom-up process, and I say to him that if proposals come forward from local areas both for the powers they want and the areas they want them to apply to, we are open to listening to those proposals and making a deal with those areas. We want local areas to come forward with that approach.

The health budget was raised in the context of powers that might be devolved. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) made an important contribution on that issue, recognising the opportunity that arises when health and social care budgets can be brought together, and the work that can be done locally to drive better provision of those sorts of services. That approach is already being pursued in the Greater Manchester model.

This Bill is an opportunity that the Government are introducing to rebalance our economy, to drive the northern powerhouse while driving economic growth across the country as a whole and to transfer powers away from Whitehall in a way that will not only provide accountability at a local level but allow local areas to make decisions more quickly and effectively, tailoring them to their needs, so they can grow their economies for the benefit of us all.

5.30 pm

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(14)).