Parliament is not immune from the scammers. In December last year a constituent of mine, a prominent farmer and butcher, received a letter from the “Office of Parliamentary Research” stating that it would like to use the details of my constituent’s business in its work, but, of course, it would cost him a fee. Suspecting from

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the outset that that was not what it seemed, my constituent got in touch with my office. A member of my staff rang the parliamentary switchboard and asked to be put through to the department the letter claimed to have been sent from, which did not exist in the same name. When the operator put my staff member through to the department with the closest-sounding name and asked for the person who had signed the letter, she was unsurprisingly told that no such person worked there. When my staff member explained why she was calling, she was advised that the call was not the first of its kind and the letter had nothing to do with Parliament; it was a bogus request for money. The letter was cleverly worded to get through the law, and, of course, our advice was to steer well clear. I have had two or three similar cases in my constituency, and I am sure people across the country have been approached. The sad reality is that many may have complied with the request for money, given the name on the letterhead.

So how do we address that problem? I have learnt a great deal from the hon. Members for South Derbyshire and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on the specifics of the Royal Mail. Education and awareness are critical, In my Ceredigion constituency we have had some excellent campaigns over the years involving trading standards and the voluntary sector, with Scambusters being the latest, We must promote to our constituents the value of protecting private details until they know who they are dealing with and treating all mail, e-mails and cold callers with acute caution. If something sounds too good to be true, the sad reality is that it probably is.

Dyfed-Powys police have talked glowingly of Action Fraud, the national campaign in which they have participated since December 2012. The scheme is run by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau in conjunction with City of London police with the intention of gathering a range of cases from across the country and collecting information on incidents and reports into a central database. The information is collated and analysed before being fed back to the police force in the area where the scam may have originated. Since Dyfed-Powys police went live with the scheme in December, they have received three such packages in only two months. They tell me that they find that method helpful in dealing with perpetrators. Last year, in Newtown in mid-Wales, five or six people were arrested in connection with a scam involving the online purchase of iPads and iPhones—payment was made, but the product never arrived. The work at the centre to collect that information and feed it through to Dyfed-Powys police meant that the perpetrators could be dealt with.

Consumer Focus has also done good work on scam mail, and its “Stay Private” website should be commended for helping people who sign up to reduce the amount of unwanted mail and sales calls they receive by bringing various marketing opt-out services together. The site is popular, with some 60,000 people signing up so far, which gives a small indication of the scale of the problem.

I cannot commend my local trading standards strongly enough, although it has limited resources. Above all else, trading standards need to hear from people who have been subjected to scams, but often people, particularly elderly people, are embarrassed. There is an issue with

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the addictive nature of scam mail, to which the hon. Member for South Derbyshire alluded, but sometimes people are embarrassed that they have been fooled or taken in for so long, and they, too, need support and encouragement to come forward.

3.9 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution, because I did not give notice of my intention to speak. I came to listen, but I have heard one or two things on which I would like briefly to comment.

Many of us have had people in our surgeries with scam mail problems. I want to address scratchcards and premium-rate numbers, which have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery). Those things have at the bottom, “Phone this number for untold riches.” Telephone numbers are changing. At one time, people could spot an STD—a subscriber trunk dialling—code, and if they were a bit sad like me, they could remember the places the codes were for. Now codes begin with 09 or 08 and people never know what they will be charged. The elderly and the vulnerable see things that say, “Phone this number to claim your prize. There are six prizes. One is a car, and one is a holiday.” As has been said, they are suddenly through to a phone number halfway round the world and they get a phone bill of £300, £400 or £500 many weeks later. That is a real problem. It is not only mail fraud that is becoming more prevalent, but e-mail fraud too.

Scratchcards are also an issue. They come in the post and in magazines. People look at them, and they seem wonderful, but I always try to find the flaw in them. If someone is aware, they can see that these things are a scam, but many people just see them and think, “This is fantastic.” I completely agree with what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said: if it looks too good to be true, it is. That is what I always say to my constituents, but, unfortunately, by the time they come to see me it is too late, because they have the bill and it has to be paid. It is a real problem.

The other scam I have started to see—it is done more by e-mail—is a message that someone has a package waiting. On the face of it, it looks like a completely legitimate courier has a package for the recipient. I had one of these e-mails once when, ironically, I was actually waiting for a package. The e-mail dropped into my spam folder, however, so I knew that it was not about my package. That is another way that these people are digging into the vulnerable in our society and the people who cannot afford these things. It is wrong whether the person has the money or not, but the people who are being targeted can ill afford to pay out these fraudulently demanded sums.

I have seen people affected by the problem, and their first emotion is anger that they have lost the money. Then they move on to a sense of shame and foolishness. People who have been done this way feel somewhat foolish and do not tell other people, because it makes them feel a little more foolish. Consequently, word does not go around to watch out for the scam. It is great that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), who is a near neighbour, has secured

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this debate, because it gives the issue publicity and lets people know that if they have been conned, they are not on their own. They should not feel ashamed or foolish. They should tell us and tell other people, because the more oxygen of publicity we can give the problem, the better chance we have of fighting it without bringing in legislation to stop it. This is a terrible and wicked crime that preys, as I have said, on the most vulnerable. If the Government can bring forward anything to stop it, they should look to do so as soon as possible.

3.12 pm

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Sheridan. It is always a great pleasure to be in your company.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this Westminster Hall debate. She is a good campaigner in the House, and today has emphasised how good a campaigner she is. Hopefully the debate will kick-start a process that will achieve some results on this serious issue. It is distressing not only for the victims and their families but for everyone concerned. I share the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed in her opening remarks.

As all those who have spoken have said, we have all had constituents who have been affected. Some of us have had personal experience of this problem. I was scammed when booking a holiday not too long ago. It looked as though it was a legitimate holiday company registered with the air travel organisers’ license scheme, but it was merely an online scam. It can be difficult to unwind such a process.

Many hon. Members will remember the 2008 survey conducted by Age UK and Barclays, which revealed that seven out of 10 older people in Britain—that is roughly 7 million people—are targeted by scams every month, either by telephone or letter. It is worth reflecting on what the Office of Fair Trading survey said. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) mentioned the £3.5 billion that is lost to scams every year, which equates to £70 for every adult in the UK. That is a massive amount, particularly considering family budgets. The average detriment in a scam is well over £1,000—about £1,200—which shows the scale of the problem.

The OFT survey in 2010 found that around one in 11 —just over 4 million—people said that they had responded to a scam at some time in their life, nearly a third of whom lost money. One in 25, or about 2 million people, had responded to a scam in the previous 12 months. Around half of those scammed have lost more than £50 in total, with 5% claiming to have lost more than £5,000. Three in 10 adults who responded to a scam received further correspondence from the scammer, with more than half being asked to send money and more than a third being asked to send personal information. Those statistics are pretty stark. They show the sheer scale of the problem and the effect it has across every constituency.

Of course, it is not a new practice. I thought I would reflect on the issue in the way the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would and take us back to when we first find any information on scamming. The first mail fraud dates back to 1660, when King Charles II of England first issued orders

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regarding postal carriers. Some corrupt letter carriers had taken to pocketing the money that was supposed to pay for the letter’s transport and then delivering the letter anyway, because that was what they were supposed to be doing. Mail scams are nothing new, and I hope the Minister can give us some hope, 400 years later, that we have seen the end of the mail scamming system.

In the present day, as well as sending scam mail by post, scammers are taking to new methods to target people young and old, including phishing e-mails and scam adverts on social networking sites. I know the debate is on scam mail, but it is worth reflecting that the scammers are becoming more sophisticated. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire asked us to look at mail in particular, but we need to update the legislation on social networking and the internet. The work that has been done by the Think Jessica campaign on that deserves great tribute.

Once someone is drawn in by a scam mail, they are often put on a “suckers list”. We have seen some of those suckers lists when scammers have been caught. The language used in scam mail is enticing, saying, “You are a guaranteed winner”, “This is a time-sensitive document”, or, “Reply immediately to release your award”. Various other slogans and logos are also used to entice people in for the first time. The scammers are looking for the first indication that someone may be capable of being scammed. They are not interested in the person who throws the message in the bin or puts it in the junk e-mail box. They are interested in grabbing that little bit of hope that they can take the scam forward.

The hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned bogus prize draws, lotteries and premium-rate prize promotions. Many of those promotions come with some of our national and local newspapers, as the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said. Perhaps we should tell the editors of those newspapers that we do not accept that.

Andrew Bingham: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The newspaper supplements come in a plastic bag for the simple reason that when the bag is opened and its contents are given a shake, a cascade of different things fall out. Many of them are legitimate, but among them are these scratchcards with super-premium-rate phone numbers.

Ian Murray: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, which emphasises part of the problem. I have experimented with a few Sunday newspapers by scratching off all the cards to see if I have ever not won. Given that the chances of winning the national lottery are 14.5 million to one, it is quite exceptional to pick up a Sunday newspaper and win on every single premium-rate scratchcard. That shows how people can be drawn in.

When Labour was in government, we recognised that the consumer regime needed to be more effective at stopping rogues, criminals and those who deliberately set out to defraud consumers, especially the elderly and vulnerable, through scam mailing. I am sure the Minister will respond positively to the patchwork of legislation that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire has laid out.

In government, Labour invested £7.5 million to create scambuster teams across the UK. Those specialist trading standards teams work hard with local police and others

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across local authority boundaries to come down hard on the worst scammers. The cross-boundary aspect of those teams’ work is absolutely essential, because trading standards teams generally find it difficult to work across local authority boundaries. Since 2006, the project has uncovered £55 million in fraud, saved consumers £23 million, seized £16.5 million in criminal assets and jailed 58 mail scammers for a total of 75 years. That is a good record, but not good enough, and the massive increase in scams, and the things that we have heard today, show that more is needed.

We strengthened the powers of the Office of Fair Trading, and of trading standards, with the implementation of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Those regulations banned all types of unfair selling and marketing methods, and, crucially, are enforceable through both criminal and civil courts, to ensure that appropriate action is taken against prolific scammers and to serve as a deterrent. However, as we have heard, the regulations are not really serving as a deterrent, given the stories that have emerged since this debate was announced about people moving on to new scams when one is closed down.

The Government’s commitment to further scambusters funding in December 2010 was welcome, but teams in the south-eastern region, which includes London and East Anglia, have been disbanded. Has the Minister assessed the effect of that on the ability to tackle scams and scam mailing? It would be interesting if she would explain whether scambusters funding will continue.

Sadly, people involved in scam mailing have never had it so good. The economic backdrop of stagnant wages and rising prices has made consumers more anxious to save every penny or earn more money. Sometimes, that has resulted in an explosion of money-making scams and sharp practices disguised as sources of help. In addition, we cannot deny that the Government have squeezed funding on consumer protection, and particularly trading standards, with an average 19% cut in overall local authority funding from central Government. The Trading Standards Institute has done an analysis of the aggregate amount of funding for consumer protection through trading standards. The projections are that from £250 million in 2010, the aggregate throughout the country will fall to £140 million by 2014. That significant drop gives scammers the opportunity to enter markets where they may not have been before.

It is important to consider the restructuring of the consumer landscape, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) mentioned. The consumer protection powers of Consumer Focus have been passed to Citizens Advice, and there is a worry that that transfer to an organisation of a different kind, with different philosophies and a different set-up, might undermine some of the great work that Consumer Focus did on the issue. The OFT operated an awareness campaign called Scamnesty in partnership with 129 local authority trading standards services. That was to increase consumer awareness of mass market scams and provide consumers with practical advice on how to avoid being scammed.

Perhaps that is one of the most important things that is needed as a result of the debate. Yes, there are legislative and parliamentary responses, but awareness

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is also needed of ways in which consumers can protect themselves in the first place, and how they can recognise scam mailings or phishing e-mails if they receive them. I received one such e-mail yesterday, apparently from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which said I was due a tax rebate. I know that that is not true, but the temptation to click on the link and get money back from the Chancellor of the Exchequer was incredibly tempting. The fact that Departments are being shadowed for the sending out of scam e-mails is a great worry, particularly at a time of year when people are filling out tax returns and may expect e-mails or correspondence from Departments, and particularly HMRC. The amount was only £194.70, if anyone is interested—but far better it should be in my pocket than the Chancellor’s.

It is important for people to be on their guard, and to know that help is available. Scams can bring misery to victims, and we need to remind constituents of several things that the OFT highlighted in its report. It is worth reading them, to raise awareness:

“Stop, think and be sceptical. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Do not be rushed into sending off money to someone you do not know, however plausible they might sound and even where an approach is personalised.

Ask yourself how likely it is that you have been especially chosen for this offer—thousands of other people will probably have received the same offer.

Think about how much money you could lose from replying to a potential scam—it’s not a gamble worth taking.”

It is also worth reflecting on the constituency case raised by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire about a gentleman who became addicted, and how that issue might fit into legislative change. The data protection issues, and requirement for the Home Secretary to obtain a warrant, are valid only if the individual in receipt of the mail would not complain that their rights were infringed. I wonder if in the hon. Lady’s example the poor old gentleman would complain that he wanted to receive the mailings—what he called his investments. They might be costly, but perhaps he was willing to do it for entertainment.

It is worth highlighting the mailing preference service, which the hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned, by which constituents can have their details removed from mailing lists to reduce the amount of addressed advertising literature that they receive. The MPS does not cover unaddressed mailings, of course and I suppose that the real problem with it is that people who are willing to scam completely forget it exists, so that all it does is remove legitimate people who want to send mail. However, if someone is registered with the MPS and receives mail that they think is a scam, their awareness may be heightened.

The Royal Mail door-to-door opt-out scheme includes unaddressed mail. Has the Minister reflected on the matter, and will she embark on an awareness campaign in conjunction with Royal Mail? The Foreign Secretary has just said in the House that we do not spend money on advertising these days, and he is probably right to say so, but I wonder whether there is any way in which Royal Mail could help with the process.

I want to touch briefly on the matter of e-mail scams. Surveys show that 73% of adults in the UK have received a scam e-mail in the past year. I think probably everyone in the Chamber has received one in the past

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week—from people who want to send us bequests, or to tell us that people have died, and so on. That is followed by scams via a letter, at 21%, and text messages at 12%. Social media sites appear to be emerging as a new route for scammers, with 9% of adults having received an approach in that way in the past year. It is not just older people who are the targets, although I appreciate that they are the targets of the physical mail. Young people, with the developments in smartphone technology, and now that many of them have their own bank accounts, are becoming susceptible to scams. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will secure a debate on that, because it would be interesting.

I have some information about phishing e-mails to Wonga customers, and about how people are being sucked in, but it is probably best to leave that for a debate about online phishing. Perhaps the Minister could expand on what the Government are doing to make the public aware of the problems, particularly when they relate to departments such as HMRC. The hon. Member for High Peak raised the issue of such departments being made to look as if they are sending information to constituents, and what we could do to tackle that.

As for mail that is posted, Royal Mail must deliver it. That is not its fault; it is governed by law, and it must do so. I believe we all recognise the importance of strong legislation of that kind, to give Royal Mail the backing needed to deliver its mail door to door. However, could the Government and consumer organisations do more, working with Royal Mail and its union, the Communication Workers Union, and postal workers? Perhaps, while there is an obligation to deliver mail, it would be possible to pick up signs—increased loads, or telltale envelopes—that someone on a particular round is at risk from scam mail, and at the very least deliver an information leaflet, or make the recipient aware. It might be very difficult for the House to change the law on intervening, or intercepting mail, and that is probably right, but there is nothing to prevent the Royal Mail or the postman from putting an information leaflet on scam mailing through the door if it is felt that such mailings are going to that address.

Once scam mail has entered the UK postal system, Royal Mail has a legal obligation to deliver it. However, there has been some criticism in connection with Royal Mail’s “local look” service offered by Spring Global Mail and Royal Mail, whereby letters from abroad bear the Royal Mail postmark and have no trace of their overseas origins. There are concerns about that giving credence to scam mail entering the country. Will the Minister reflect on whether enough is being done at Royal Mail to protect its brand, particularly in connection with organisations such as Spring Global Mail, so that at least those overseas issues can be dealt with?

I want to finish by reflecting on the BBC programme “Inside Out” broadcast a few weeks ago. The programme reported on one company called Emery Ltd, a mail handling company based in Hampshire, which willingly acts as a conduit for European mail scammers. Footage obtained by the BBC programme shows company staff throwing letters from scam victims in the bin. The show’s reporter reads one letter detailing that the victim is 90 years old and in a wheelchair, has had two heart

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attacks and is diabetic, and querying why they have not received their prize yet. Such letters of complaint were just going in the bin.

It will be crucial to continue to educate and empower consumers to recognise and resist scams. That can be done by key stakeholders working together, and some of the key changes in the consumer landscape that we have discussed will have an impact.

Finally, what is being done to simplify and clarify the law, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned at the start of her speech? I conclude back where I started, Mr Sheridan: not by congratulating you on being in the Chair, but by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this important debate about a problem that blights so many of our constituents.

3.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship Mr Sheridan, and to respond to this debate on an important issue that has been well highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). I congratulate her not only on securing this debate but on how eloquently she has taken up the issue, prompted by the appalling experiences of her constituent, Mrs Smith.

It is worth recognising the great campaigning work done on the issue by a range of individuals, including the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and organisations such as Age UK, Citizens Advice and the Think Jessica campaign. It is hugely important for raising awareness, a matter that I will address shortly. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) that it is an important part of tackling the problem.

Although we are mainly discussing postal scams, it is important to recognise that scams operate in a range of different ways, and that the people perpetrating such scams do not necessarily stick exclusively with one particular avenue. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) mentioned internet scams, which as e-mail users we are all familiar with. Premium telephone line prize scams have also been a great cause for concern, although the latter have at least decreased slightly in number since the new guidance from the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services was put in place.

It is important to recognise, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire did when introducing this debate, that the vast majority of direct mail delivered to our doors is legitimate advertising material. The industry is important to the economy, generating about £16 billion in sales each year, and is a linchpin of the postal service model in this country. We would not want to jeopardise that industry, as it ensures that we have a universal postal service and that we do not pay prohibitively expensive prices when we go to post a letter. I will come to preference services, as they are important, but the real villains of this case are the fraudsters. Their goal is simple: to cheat as many people as possible out of their money by making false promises.

It is worth noting that we are all potential victims. About 3.2 million people a year are victims of such scams, and the losses incurred total about £3.5 billion.

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Various Members have stated that it is particularly an issue for the vulnerable and elderly. We want to ensure that we protect such individuals, but it is easy to fall into a slightly superior sense that it could not happen to us: “I am a very savvy consumer, and this would never happen to me; it’s something that only happens to vulnerable elderly people.” I was certainly surprised to find when I looked at the research that the age group most likely to fall victim to postal scams is not elderly people—over-65s make up 13% of victims—but people between the ages of 35 and 44. More than a quarter of scams affect people in that age group. It is worth bearing that in mind.

We are discussing scams that are often cleverly customised. Some involve the prospect of a tax rebate, and are often sent around the time at which tax deadlines approach. Some use information about individuals to imitate interactions with banks of which they might be customers. That is how the perpetrators of such horrible crimes try to dupe people out of their money. It is true, however, that older victims tend to lose more money—about £1,200 per scam, almost double other age groups—so we must ensure that everyone is protected.

I was interested in the different types of scam. The most common are bogus holiday clubs, then high-risk investments, which are little more than pyramid or chain-letter scams. Foreign lottery scams also lead to £260 million in losses, whereas the figure for bogus holiday clubs is about £1.17 billion. A range of different scams exist.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh South discussed awareness of the issue, which is crucial. A variety of organisations, from the Office of Fair Trading to the Trading Standards Institute and Citizens Advice, try to get the message out so that people are aware of the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said and many Members in this debate have repeated—it is a good mantra—if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We must have a healthy scepticism about things that come to us through the post, via e-mail, over the telephone or by other methods, and ensure that people know what sort of thing to watch out for.

Age UK has produced a helpful checklist of things to consider. Was the offer unsolicited? Is it necessary to respond quickly? Why the rush? Is it necessary to pay for a prize or free gift, or ring a premium rate number that starts with 09? Are recipients being asked for any bank or credit card details? Is the business reluctant to give its address or contact details? Is the recipient being asked to keep it confidential or secret? Those are all healthy questions to ask. It is not just parts of Government, independent agencies or charities that have a role to play in raising awareness; all of us as Members can do our bit in our constituencies as well.

Beyond awareness, enforcement is clearly a key part of the action that the Government can take. In 2010, the National Fraud Authority produced a comprehensive strategy to confront mass marketing fraud, which includes postal scams and other types of fraud. The strategy was set up under the banner of Action Fraud, and the Metropolitan police and the NFA have been working on it with a range of partners—from local government to

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central Government bodies and stakeholder groups—to build a cohesive response to tackling postal scams. That includes engaging with Royal Mail and other postal operators and mailing operations. Royal Mail is aware that the nature of the service that it provides—universal access to all users—makes it vulnerable to being used for scams. In recognition of that, Royal Mail is working with the police and other enforcement bodies to prevent scam mail from getting into the system at the beginning of the process. I will return to that point later.

A public trigger is also important. If people suspect a scam, they should be able to do something to trigger a response. That is why awareness will always be important. The first step in stopping a scam is knowing what a scam looks like, but it is not always straightforward, as I have said. There is a range of advice on scams and clear and practical guidance to consumers about what they can do, and I will outline some of what is available.

If someone thinks that they have been the victim of a scam or would like to know how to advise a loved one who might be the victim of a scam, the Citizens Advice consumer helpline is a good first port of call. It is open during office hours on 0845 404 0506, and it gives consumers clear, practical advice on what to do. Action Fraud is the place to go to report the scams; its website is actionfraud.police.uk and its telephone line is 0300 123 2040. The process is simple and quick. If people are worried, they can go online or telephone and quickly make a report, then the appropriate authority will be alerted so that it can take action. It might not happen overnight, but action will be pursued.

Trading standards can take action locally or it can refer matters to national and international enforcement bodies, if required, depending on the nature of the scam that has been uncovered. Trading standards services and Scambusters can investigate scams under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which carry criminal sanctions.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned Scambusters and what the Government are doing. In respect of the consumer landscape changes, we are giving trading standards greater responsibility for consumer law enforcement, by transferring central Government funding to co-ordinate enforcement activity from the OFT to the new National Trading Standards Board. He rightly highlighted the success of Scambusters, mentioning figures for what it has done in the six years from 2006 to March 2012. It may be helpful for colleagues if I say that, since 2012, that work has continued and is now being co-ordinated more centrally as a result of that more national approach. The National Trading Standards Board is now responsible for the Scambusters teams and has matched previous funding levels, which is important recognition of how vital we think this issue is, particularly in the context of difficult economic circumstances. That central co-ordination will continue in 2013. I hope that I have provided hon. Members with some reassurance.

The snappily titled strategic intelligence, prevention and enforcement partnership, despite being in need of a new name, co-ordinates nationally between trading standards and the National Trading Standards Board and liaises over the border into Scotland, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and agencies there, and co-ordinates with external stakeholder organisations. It is also heavily involved in other activities, particularly in considering

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whether consumer or business education and awareness campaigns might be able to deal with some of the detriment caused.

Various ideas have been advanced in the debate about what could be done to tackle these scams. It was either the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) or the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) who suggested an opt-in system, whereby people could say, “I’m worried about this. Can I opt in to extra help?” There is merit in thinking about that idea, but it relies on the individual recognising that there is a problem and wanting support. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire discussed scenarios involving vulnerable people who do not realise what is going on and will not be open to such action. That said, it is worth setting out what people can do if they are worried about this, and worth doing for the many who have not, thankfully, been victims of a scam and do not want to be.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned things that people can do. I should like to elaborate on that. The Direct Marketing Association has two different opt-out mechanisms. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the mailing preference service, under which people can sign up to opt out of addressed direct mail, but rightly made the point that that does not include unaddressed direct mail. However, that association has a second service, which is called “Your Choice”, through which people can opt out of unaddressed direct mail. It has both services because some people might be happy to receive one type but not the other, so people have that option. Details of those opt-out schemes are available at dma.org.uk. The Royal Mail opt-out, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, stops about a quarter of unaddressed direct mail delivered by Royal Mail directly through its bulk mailing system, although that does not apply to other items in the postal system.

If people sign up to all three mechanisms, that will generally stop about 95% of direct mail. Of course, if people are freely breaking the law and trying to scam innocent people out of money, they are probably not going to be too bothered about following the rules of the mailing preference service. However, the point was rightly made that, if much less direct mail is coming in, it may be easier to spot something that is fraudulent or a scam. These services can give people a little bit more peace of mind. I recommend that individuals who would like an opt-in mechanism take that action.

There is a desire in some quarters for legislation as a solution—the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North has introduced a private Member’s Bill, and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned legislation—which I understand. However, there are significant drawbacks in reaching for such a solution. On the legal point, amending the Postal Services Act 2000 would not create the effect sought by the proponents of this approach, because the rules on not intercepting the post are contained not just in that Act; they are also in the Police Act 1997 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, both of which, for good reason, limit intercepts and set down the process for which warrants are required. A simple amendment to the Postal Services Act would not achieve the aim, and if those other Acts were amended the unintended consequences would be significant.

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There are consequences relating to privacy of individuals who want their mail to be delivered without it being opened by somebody else: I think that is the vast majority of people. I do not like to say it would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, because this is a significant problem, but given the total number of items going through the mail—60 million items a day through Royal Mail, for example, making 21.9 billion a year—and even taking into account the 3 million people a year who are victims, trying to identify which items are causing the problems is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They do not have a big stamp on the front of the envelope saying, “This is scam mail”.

George Hollingbery: The Minister mentioned my opt-in suggestion. My thinking was that there could be an option for people to sign into, such that their mail could be intercepted by their local post office worker. We have heard about postal workers’ frustration about not being able to get involved. If somebody could opt in, giving a postal worker the right to intercept at the door, there might be some scope for that.

Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. I will mention Royal Mail’s response and what we could do to enhance that.

Volume is just one issue that we face. It is not easy to tell which letters are scam mail, because they can arrive in plain envelopes. Indeed, the people designing scams try to stay one step ahead of any regime.

Heather Wheeler: With 12 minutes to go, I am not going to fall out with the hon. Lady. Unfortunately, given protocol, I did not wave around the envelopes, but they really are obvious.

Jo Swinson: I take the hon. Lady’s point that some may be obvious. I do not think that all of them are. We are talking about 3.2 million victims of scams a year, so there will be a wide range.

If we begin to give people licence to intercept mail, that creates a fundamental change in the postal workers’ role. There is a related issue—a genuine operational issue—about feasibility and the resource required. The postal service is universal and is welcomed and valued. We need to think about the resource impact, given the 60 million items of mail a day.

There are, however, things that Royal Mail can do, given the communication channel in which it operates. Hon. Members have mentioned Royal Mail employees feeling frustrated because they want to ensure that they can help. That is often because the local posties will have a pleasant chat and pass the time of day with people, or say hello to them, in particular someone who is housebound or in during the day. They are frequently the people who notice if someone has had a fall or been ill, because the mail is piling up at the door, and many of them take a real interest as upstanding members of the community. There is no reason why they should not be part of the solution, and that is why there is specific awareness among postal workers of such issues—general awareness in the population is vital, but such front-line workers have particular access to individuals, where things are happening.

Such awareness has already started to develop. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned the lack of funds for advertising campaigns, which is right, but

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there are other ways of communicating and getting information out there. For example, Royal Mail has an employee magazine, in which the Think Jessica campaign has been publicised, including contact details and its aims. If postal workers are concerned about someone on their regular round, they have a way of being able to pass on those complaints to Action Fraud to ensure that the police and the authorities can deal with the issues. That is important.

At the other end—not the mail delivery end, but at the beginning, trying to stop things before they get into the postal system—Royal Mail is working alongside the police and the UK Border Agency to identify some of the scam mailing houses. Royal Mail has the ability to cancel contracts, and it has done so with particular bulk mailing houses if they are found to have been used to facilitate scams. Such action in the early stages is important, as is the role of that trusted individual with access as a conduit for good advice.

One idea was that postal workers could have an information leaflet to give out, which would be less intrusive than a power to open mail—I have outlined some of the problems with that proposal. Royal Mail does not leaflet at the moment, but I am happy to go away and take up the idea with Royal Mail, to see if it is feasible and useful. In the scenarios outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire—I can imagine the brandishing of the envelopes that were pretty obvious—a leaflet could provide targeted and useful information without being intrusive or invading privacy. With awareness and enforcement, we can ensure that people understand the risks and can clamp down hard on the people who are abusing the system and conning innocent people out of money, causing a great deal of distress. That is vital.

I accept that my response is slightly disappointing for my hon. Friend, because I cannot say that the Government will support the proposed legislative change. I can, however, say that the Government are sympathetic to the problem she has rightly outlined. The victims of such scams are people who should not be conned out of their money. The practice is unacceptable and, to use a word used earlier, cruel. I disagree that we should deal with it by putting the onus on Royal Mail front-line staff and giving them an extra responsibility to identify things, then intercept and open the mail. Such an approach would be heavy-handed and there would be a raft of unintended consequences.

Another general principle is that legislation is a last resort. Some good ideas have been proposed in the debate today, and we can take those forward to see whether they can have a further impact. Indeed, excellent work is already going on, started through Scambusters under the previous Government, continued under this Government, to ensure awareness and that proper enforcement is followed up. Trading standards, Citizens Advice, individual MPs, UKBA and the police all have an important role to play in raising awareness, in improving enforcement and in putting a stop to this unacceptable practice.

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Reigate and Banstead Borough Council

3.57 pm

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr Sheridan, for allowing us to start a couple of minutes early, which is always helpful in such circumstances. I am grateful to have secured the opportunity to debate the core strategy of Reigate and Banstead borough council.

The strategy has been more than eight years in the making, since the introduction of the local development framework system in 2004. To say that the process has been fraught would be an understatement. There have been more than a dozen iterations, consultations, submissions, amendments and further amendments, and we are now in a public consultation period on further amendments that ends on 4 February. I intend my speech to be the basis of my contribution to the latest public consultation.

Before I get further into the details of process, which are of course where the devil sits, in an almost impenetrable fog of regulation, affordable housing needs assessments, employment and migration forecasts, judgments about housing demand and household social behaviour forecasts—all of which are being made against a framework of directives from the European Union overlaying national policy, overlaying regional plans, which may or may not be valid subject to potential judicial interpretations of EU law—let me highlight the key fact that something is badly awry with the process. Simply put, green fields in the green belt are being zoned for potential future development. That has had its first public presentation in the further amendments to the core strategy now being consulted on, and two sites for 500 to 700 homes each have been identified in technical papers supporting the consultation.

Unsurprisingly, as this wholly unexpected and unwelcome development has become public and people have realised that their interests are absolutely engaged in terms of local planning blight, the value of their property and the quality of their environment, they have started to express concern in debates in public meetings and on web pages. Greenfield development in the green belt, against the wishes of the local planning authority and its people, is surely a violation of two central tenets of our Government’s policy of localism and protection of the green belt. Set against what people rightly understand about our policy, what is being contemplated seems scandalous. How have we got into this position, and how can we get out of it?

Protection of the environment and the centrality of planning policy in my constituency have been plain to me ever since I first applied for the Conservative nomination back in 1997. The constituency is wholly within London’s metropolitan green belt and because of the ribbon developments down the A23 and the A217 the green belt is at its narrowest and most fragile. The villages to the north of the M25, which bisects the constituency east to west, including Banstead, Walton-on-the-Hill, Tadworth, Kingswood and Chipstead, have their own character and charm. Their individuality has been sustained by green belt protection and, before that, by the existence of substantial tracts of common land, and the determined policy of the borough council.

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South of the M25 and the north downs area of high conservation value, the adjacent towns of Reigate and Redhill complement each other in age, style, history and planning policy. South of Reigate and Redhill are the significant housing areas of Woodhatch, South Park, Earlswood and Whitebushes, much of which was conceived as social housing development. Without the protection of the green belt those areas would have sprawled to envelop the villages of Salfords and Sidlow and form one continuous development into Horley and on into Crawley. However, those settlements enjoy abutting on to green fields, much of which make up the floodplain of the River Mole, which is a significant plus of living in those areas, which do not possess some of the architectural or downland charm of other parts of the constituency. It is that asset and the principle of preventing sprawl development that is now under long-term threat in the proposed core strategy of Reigate and Banstead.

It is not the purpose of this speech to criticise the position of the borough council or the inspectorate. In the end, they are the prisoners of the national planning process and if things are going self-evidently wrong in Reigate and Banstead, we must of course look to the Minister to put things right. He is the policy supervisor of the planning process, and I look forward to his response, both in reply to this debate and on a more considered basis over the weeks to come, about how to turn around the alarming environmental outlook for my constituents.

Having tried to paint a picture of my constituency, let me go into some of the detail. Reigate and Banstead borough has the largest population by district in the county, and it is projected to grow by 18% by 2027, mainly due to the large amount of development in recent years, which has attracted young families and therefore the highest birth rate in the county. It is far from being the largest borough. It is not as though the borough, despite the green belt designation of much of it and the entire Reigate constituency, has not done its bit in contributing to national housing need. The annual housing target at 500 houses per year since 2006-07 has seen 3,689 housing completions in that period, exceeding policy by more than 20%.

The infrastructure is under serious pressure. We are already short of two primary schools and we will shortly require a new secondary school. The local road network becomes paralysed as soon as there is trouble on the M25, as it is already beyond capacity. This time last year, we were panicking about future water supply, and today we are recovering from the latest occasion on which the River Mole burst its banks on Sunday. Development will only make flooding worse, not least because the major development flowing from the 1994 borough development plan saw water retention and run- off factors built into a development of nearly 2,000 homes on the encouragingly named Great Lake farm.

Taking all factors into consideration, the proposed housing target for the borough of 460 houses per year is unsustainable, and undermines the green belt and the principles of localism. Frankly, it also undermines any sensible national regional policy because enabling development in the south-east further undermines the economic prospects of England’s less prosperous regions. That number drives everything, and takes us into the

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contentious area of defined housing need, which the Government set and on which the inspectorate hangs its decisions.

What is our objectively assessed housing need? It is not something that local policy seems able to influence. It is a number, which in its latest iteration, has been spat out of the 2008 strategic housing market assessment. How that process was to be done was imposed by central Government, and is so complex that local authorities cede it to specialist consultants. That number, at 981 is nearly double the requirement produced by the discredited regional south-east plan. It includes market demand and a requirement to meet the needs of migration, the sensitivities of which were again reflected at Prime Minister’s questions today.

Reigate and Banstead borough council is about to submit a third draft of the core strategy to the Planning Inspectorate, the previous two drafts having been withdrawn due to the planning inspector’s non-acceptance of the plans on the grounds that, notwithstanding the council’s assurances on site allocations, he did not consider that they would meet the stipulated housing targets. Here, I would enter an important concern about the process.

Windfall sites have made up much of local provision over the past decade. That is hardly surprising when nearly every property owner stands to make a life-changing development gain for their family given local property prices if they can secure unrestricted planning permission. The inspector should be able, indeed required, to include that historical pattern in his review of the council’s ability to meet its housing target. The council, including all Conservative and Green councillors, whom I have found equally committed to the defence of the environment, has unanimously endorsed a housing target of 460 per annum. That is significantly higher than councillors would wish, in actuality, but on the strong advice of their officials, is the lowest practical target they believe they have a chance of defending. The council’s figure is taken from the south-east plan, which remains in place due to the impact of EU regulation. I seem presciently to have predicted in my maiden speech in June 1997 that that would happen.

It should be deeply ironic to any Conservative that the core of the Conservative borough’s case is that to be allowed a strategy that will give it a measure of local control, it must rely on a regional plan, which Conservatives wish to abolish, but cannot because of EU regulation that Conservatives oppose, to give it a housing target that is unsustainable and inconsistent with any sensible balance of environmental and economic policy, compared with one that would be utterly catastrophic if consistent with central Government’s 2008 formulation of a strategic housing market assessment that could hold sway otherwise.

The threat of a much larger number being imposed by inspectors at planning appeals driven by developers, some of whom have already land-banked parts of the green belt in the absence of an authorised local plan, is forcing the council’s hand to contemplate future development it would otherwise not want. Under that impossible pressure, the borough council has had to issue for consultation a third draft core strategy, which refers to green belt development by way of two large but undefined urban extensions in the south of the borough, and holds out the prospect of future development around the village of Salfords after 2027.

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All that is deeply inimical to the interests of my constituents who, left to their own devices with their representatives, could properly balance economic, environmental and social pressures. However, we now have a situation in which every strategic objective of our policy, be it localism, protection of the green belt, or a sensible regional balance across the country between the economy and the environment, is being undermined by how planning policy is delivered in practice.

Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): As ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case for his constituents and his constituency. Does he agree that many of the voters in Surrey, which includes my seat as well as his, gave us their vote at the last election because they believed that we would protect the green belt, and they felt that we believed in localism, which was a central tenet of our manifesto? That is what they want to see MPs, our council and our Government deliver now.

Mr Blunt: I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He neatly makes the point that I will come to next in my peroration.

Clarity is required for my constituents, their councillors and the inspectorate on which national policy trumps which: the delivery of local autonomy through meeting perceived national housing need, or the protection of the green belt? Our rhetoric implies—this is the point that my hon. Friend made, with which I absolutely agree—that the green belt has priority when those two clash, as they do in my constituency. I hope that the Minister can make it clear that that is the reality of our policy as well.

4.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I apologise that you were not informed that I was going to be replying to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) on securing this debate on a matter of great importance, both to his constituents and to the constituents of many other hon. Members around the country. He referred to his prescience in his maiden speech, and I am sure it surprises none of us that he was prescient on that matter, as on many other things.

As I hope my hon. Friend will understand, because of my role being a strange beast, in that it is quasi-judicial, I will not be able to go into the details of his constituency and how planning policy and the recommendation that authorities produce a local plan affect it. I am not familiar with the situation, and it would be wrong of me to prejudge any decisions, but I hope that I can provide an explanation and even some reassurance about what national policy demands of local authorities that are producing local plans.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not take exception to my starting with what I think are the fundamentals: what are planning and the planning process all about? Any of us who have served as local councillors, whether on the planning committee or having represented our wards in front of planning committees, know that planning is an attempt to reconcile competing demands and

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make difficult trade-offs on behalf of the people we represent. Very few planning decisions are easy and no planning decisions are universally popular, but we believe, as I know he does, that the people who are best placed to make those difficult trade-offs are those who are closest to the people such decisions affect.

The national planning policy framework was the Government’s attempt to take a blizzard of planning policy that we had inherited—not only from the previous Government but from a series of Governments—and clarify and simplify it, so that there were a relatively limited number of national policy priorities that each locality needed to reconcile in its own way. One of those policy priorities is housing need, and it is probably on that priority that our performance, as a country, is most disappointing over the longest period of time.

Over 30 or 40 years, we have failed to build enough houses to meet the housing need of our population. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to single out the previous Government’s failure to control the level of immigration as a contributor to that need. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned during Prime Minister’s questions today, 2 million people in a decade moved to the UK. Of those, 1.7 million moved to England. Our population has grown largely because of an immigration policy that none of us—I apologise, Mr Sheridan, I do not mean to include you in this—supported. The Government are now trying to bring that under control, but we have to accept that those people now live here and have a right to do so.

Although that is a big contributor to the housing need of the country, it is not the only one. Something that we can all feel happier about is the fact that people are living longer, and as a result, there is a natural growth in the number of households. If people live into their 80s and 90s, while people are still being born, an increase in the number of households will inevitably be created, with each household having an entirely legitimate right to expect a home of their own.

The fact remains that the planning system that we inherited in 2010 had, for 30 or 40 years, failed to deliver the level of housing that we needed to meet the growth in the number of households. What is extraordinary is that it did not even meet the housing need between 2000 and 2010, when we had a booming economy and the loosest credit conditions that anybody had ever seen. In no year in that decade did we, as a country, build enough houses to meet our need. That priority is important. It is stated in the national planning policy framework and is one of the Government policies that every local plan must meet, but, of course, it is not the only one.

Mr Blunt: I would like to register a concern about the definition of housing need. The danger is that it starts to look like “predict and provide”. There are other ways in which housing policy and household formation policy will adapt to how many houses there are. I want to be careful about an approach that simply says, “We must have this number of houses, because these things are happening elsewhere.” The other things that are happening—in terms of household formation, when children leave home, and how rapidly or otherwise families break up—can change, and they will change in the face of economic pressures, some of which will come from housing shortage.

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Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but as I think he would agree, although we should feel comfortable with some adaptations, as he puts it, we should be profoundly uncomfortable with others. An adaptation with which we were all comfortable—the Government have therefore taken steps to facilitate it—is the idea that redundant buildings, such as offices, should be easily converted to housing, so that that can go some way to meeting that housing need. Every office that we can convert into housing is a bit of land that no longer needs to be built on to create new housing. I think we would all agree with that kind of adaptation.

However, two adaptations are taking place in our country that no Conservative, and probably no Member of Parliament, can feel entirely comfortable about. The first is the number of working people in their 20s and 30s who still have to live with their parents, or sometimes have to share a room, because they cannot afford to get a place of their own. The second is certain young families with young children, who have no prospect of ever being able to afford a place of their own with a bit of garden that the children can play in as they grow up. Neither my hon. Friend nor I would be comfortable with such an adaptation, which is clearly a response to the astonishingly high prices and lack of affordability of housing.

I do not want to dwell too long on that point, because that would imply that it is the only policy priority of the Government, when it is not. It is important for every local authority area to come up with a plan that meets its fair share of the housing need. However, the national planning policy framework, which was brought in under the auspices of the Localism Act 2011, is very clear about the protection of the green belt. That is of the utmost importance; its permanence and openness is vital, and the NPPF is absolutely explicit about the importance of preserving that.

The figures that we have are relatively encouraging—again, I refer to what is happening nationwide, and not to my hon. Friend’s constituency—as the amount of green belt has gone up in the past 10 years, and the amount of building that has taken place on the green belt is tiny. The number of times when and the number of places where the green belt is encroached on is still, I am glad to say, very small. It is very rare and is done as a result of a local authority going through the process of a local plan and working out which bits of green belt it is in the interests of the entire community to surrender for some kind of development in order to balance the competing demands of the community.

Mr Blunt: I want us to be clear on the starting position for the national Government, given that green belt is a national policy designed to protect us from the sprawl that would otherwise happen in terms of development. The Government start from the position that the green belt should be protected, and policies that lead to the green belt being encroached on violate that principal objective of Government policy.

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is an absolutely core tenet of Government policy that the green belt should be protected. It is also an absolutely core tenet of Government policy that housing need should be met. That is why localism is difficult and not

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a free lunch for anybody—we are devolving the matter to local authorities, in their communities, to resolve that very difficult tension between competing policy demands.

Mr Blunt: It is not terribly difficult. If the entire country were green belt, it would be difficult, but the entire country is not green belt, for very obvious reasons, and green belt is restricted to certain areas to stop towns simply growing for ever and there being no space. That is why green-belt policy exists. I gently put it to the Minister that it is not a very difficult tension to reconcile; indeed, it is essential that it is reconciled in favour of the green belt.

Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that the green belt does not cover everywhere. It does cover, nevertheless, a very substantial proportion of land. Interestingly, it covers more land, as a percentage of the total, than all the land that is currently developed in any way; 13% is in the green belt and only 8.9%, in the whole of England, is built on or even used for gardens in any form of development. The green belt is bigger than the total of all towns, cities, villages and all other kinds of uses.

It is absolutely the case that it is the function of the green belt, as the green lung, to prevent cities from splurging into each other, which is what has happened in the United States and in other countries. We absolutely do not want that to happen in England. Nevertheless, the green belt is a substantial proportion of land, and it has always been the case that local authorities have, by their own choice, through local consultation and the local plan process, sometimes varied it in small ways in order to meet community needs.

There are other policy objectives. My hon. Friend referred to them, and I want to make it clear that they, too, find their place in the national planning policy framework. I am referring to the broad idea of sustainability on all levels. He is absolutely right that infrastructure of all kinds needs to keep pace with the demands that are placed on it, and it is incumbent on the local authority to make those plans and not to encourage, welcome or accept development that is not adequately supported by infrastructure.

Another kind of sustainability, although in a sense it is all one concept, is environmental sustainability. My hon. Friend referred to the threat of flooding, and it is of course clearly a national policy in the framework that houses should not be built in areas of high flood risk unless there are flood defences or some other form of mitigation to prevent floods from affecting those houses.

I would like to say something that I fear may be somewhat unsatisfying to my hon. Friend. We as a Government cannot make the choices between these different priorities. All we ask the inspectorate to do, and all the inspectorate can do—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that the inspectorate should not be blamed for this, because we make the policy and the inspectorate, like a judge, just tries to interpret that policy—is to look and see whether it believes that a local authority has adequately measured its housing need, assessed the sustainability concerns, looked at all the different policy requirements in the national planning policy framework and given due weight to all of them in the difficult attempt to achieve a resolution. I completely

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accept that in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, for local authorities such as Reigate and Banstead, that difficult task is probably more difficult than it is for almost any other local authority in the country.

Mr Blunt: I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way again. When he spoke about green-belt development—I want to bring him back to that—he used the term “the community”, and I absolutely endorse that. The local community may be able to see a reason for developing on the green belt, as Reigate and Banstead did, with my support and everyone else’s support, when it developed proper access to the Holmethorpe industrial estate and then created a development of approximately 500 homes, now called Watercolour. That was entirely supported. It involved access underneath the London to Brighton railway line and it tidied up access to an important industrial estate in Redhill. That was a very good example of the community driving development.

What the Minister has not said, though—I want to bring him back to this—is that green belt is a national policy. We are dealing with the consequences of two national requirements. One is the housing numbers, and I would challenge how those numbers are acquired. I would also challenge other points. If children have to leave home slightly later because we are protecting the environment in our country and see that as a priority, so be it. If we make this country a less attractive place for immigration because there is a housing shortage, so be it. We protect the environment for our children and successive generations. The Minister and I may disagree on that, but that is a perfectly proper debate to have. But on this issue, the green belt is a national policy to protect cities from expanding ever outwards. Reigate and Banstead is now dealing with the contradiction between the two. I just want him to give an indication that it is fine for the community to seek development in the green belt, but not fine if it is done otherwise, in which case there will always be questions about why it is happening.

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Nick Boles: I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern to ensure that any changes to the green belt in his local authority area, in his constituency, are decided by his local authority. It is of course the case that although we very strongly encourage local authorities to produce a local plan, they are not compelled to do so. There is no obligation on them. No councillor will go to prison if they do not produce a local plan. However, we believe that even when the process of producing that local plan requires them to take intensely difficult decisions, some of which may not be very popular with local people, that is nevertheless a better position for them and their community to be in than to have no local plan at all. If there is no local plan, all applications will be speculative in a sense, because there will not be a plan to go by. All applications will be judged according to the national planning policy framework.

Of course, although the inspectorate can advise a local authority on how to make its local plan robust and suggest things that it might want to consider so that the local plan will pass examination and be adopted, it is entirely for the local authority to decide what it wants to have in its local plan. If it does not agree with the advice that it is getting or does not want to take up any of the suggestions that come from the inspectorate, it is entirely within its power to resist those suggestions and to decide either to put forward something else as a plan or not to have a plan at all. But what is the case—

Mr Blunt rose—

Nick Boles: May I just finish? I do not feel that I answered my hon. Friend’s previous question.

There is indeed a national policy about the green belt—that we should protect it, that it should be permanent and open. There is also a national policy that we must meet our housing need. Those two policies and many others about sustainability and about economic growth are all contained within the national planning policy framework, and it is for local authorities such as his to carry out the difficult task of achieving all those objectives within their local plan.

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Children’s Services

4.29 pm

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have secured this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to have the opportunity to discuss this very important topic in such a timely manner. I believe that it provides the Minister with a last chance to allay the concerns about reform of special educational needs provision before the children and families Bill enters Parliament.

I remind colleagues that this is not a marginal issue. There are about 700,000 disabled children in England. One in 15 families with dependent children has at least one disabled child and more than one fifth of children—about 1.7 million—are said to have special educational needs. Far too many of those families feel close to crisis point. I know of no MP whose casework file does not include countless calls for help from parents of disabled children and children with SEN. Parents are forced to fight their way over seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles to get the support they desperately need for their children. Parents come to me, and have done for many years, exhausted and demoralised, unable to understand why it is such a battle even to get their children’s needs recognised, let alone be given adequate support.

At the heart of the battle that families with disabled children and children with SEN face is the unacceptable lack of support close to home. Scope’s recent report, “Keep Us Close”, found that the biggest issue facing families with disabled children was a lack of local support services.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): When we first come into this place, we all think that it is just an individual problem, but I see from the Scope report the scale of the problem. The average distance travelled is more than 4,300 miles a year. That is staggering. When someone has to travel, it is always a fight to get funding from the local authority to cover even that.

Angela Smith: I empathise and agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. I will refer to that issue later in my speech. It is about not only distance, but cost, which in the case of low-income families can be an incredibly difficult burden to bear.

More than six in 10 parents of disabled children say that they cannot get the services they and their child need in their local area. A measly one in 10 parents told Scope that the process of getting local services was simple. Families with disabled children and children with SEN want to use the services that many families simply take for granted: child care, so that parents can work; short breaks, which enable families to rest and a disabled child to enjoy a leisure activity; therapeutic services, to support development such as speech and language; and, of course, the right educational setting, so a child can learn and reach their potential.

A lack of local, accessible services can have a devastating impact on a family’s quality of life. Recent research by Scope found that 80% of the families with disabled children who cannot access the services they need locally report feeling anxious and stressed, and more than half

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said that as a consequence they missed out on doing family activities together, such as days out or celebrating birthdays.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, families with disabled children travel on average more than 4,300 miles a year —84 miles a week—to access the services they need. The logistics and complicated arrangements necessary to get them to appointments, school and activities on time are vast. Travelling long distances is extremely demanding, particularly for children who tire easily or become distressed if they are contained for long periods. For disabled children and children with SEN, such journeys can be even more stressful. As one mother of a disabled child put it:

“Not being able to access the fun things for my child has left us isolated and almost housebound for most of the month. It is difficult to access things as we don’t drive and no thought is put in to the placement of services for disabled families who need to use public transport. It is always assumed we drive. Therefore public transport costs a fortune and takes at least twice as long. Services are a distance away, so if you don’t drive it means you just don’t go to services at all, which means being housebound and being further isolated.”

In some cases, the immense financial burden placed on families can literally tear them apart, which is the important point my hon. Friend made earlier.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): My hon. Friend describes a situation with which we are all familiar in our constituencies. One concern that parents in my constituency report is that funding for home-to-school transport has been reduced significantly due to pressure on councils’ budgets. Does she agree that it is extremely important to ensure that families can manage the day-to-day journey to school readily and affordably and that it ought to be given priority in any local offer?

Angela Smith: Transport is extremely important, as my hon. Friend points out, but so is the consistency of the service. Having the same driver, routine and route to school is often incredibly important for children, particularly those with autism, for example. There are issues with consistency of service and central Government funding for local government to ensure that such services are consistent and of a high quality.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the impact of funding cuts, which are of particular concern, given the additional responsibilities that will be pushed on to local services by the Government through the legislation. She will share my concern that extra services will be demanded and local authorities will need to put on those extra services, but the money will not come with them. At a time of pressure, that will make it even harder for the families she described.

Angela Smith: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. When local authority budgets are being reduced significantly, we may see the expectations on local authorities quite rightly increase in relation to disabled children and children with SEN. I will be pleased to hear the Minister’s response on that point. In Sheffield, £1 in every £3 is being cut from the council budget by central Government. Something has to give somewhere.

Frustrated at not being able to access support, some parents find that the only way to gain the help they need is to go through the formal process of getting a statement

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for their child. For too many, that process involves navigating their way round a very complex system, characterised by a lack of information, poor support and negative attitudes. Indeed, “banging our heads against a brick wall” is a phrase my constituents use time and time again when talking about the challenges they face to get the support they need. All too often, they feel that they have to be persistent and tireless if they are to get the services they need, and they often feel that only articulate families or those who shout the loudest—middle-class families—are successful in accessing services.

The Government have said that their reforms to SEN provision will reduce the adversarial nature of the system, putting an end to the frustration at having to fight to get the support families need and deserve. The former Minister with responsibility for children, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), said that the proposed children and families Bill would put an end to the unacceptable situation in which thousands of families

“are forced to go from pillar to post and face agonizing delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment.”

I welcome the intention behind the Bill. I particularly welcome the requirement for local authorities to publish a local offer to better enable families to find the education, health and care support that they need. I also welcome the duty on local agencies to jointly plan and commission services for disabled children—it is long overdue.

Too often, families feel that their child, and indeed the whole family, has been compartmentalised, with local agencies failing to see the whole picture of what is needed to support them. One of the most common refrains I hear from my constituents is that children are not seen as individuals and that services fail to see them as individuals and families.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend is right. Bringing together education and health in the plans is a positive move. The concern presented to the Select Committee on Education in evidence, when we conducted pre-legislative scrutiny, was about what happens at the thresholds. What happens to those people on the borderline who have low or medium levels of need? I am sure that she will touch on that concern and I know that the Minister is aware of it. It is one of the key issues around statementing.

Angela Smith: I was the cabinet member for education in Sheffield, and low incidence need is an area of SEN that has long been neglected. My personal view is that children with low incidence needs—dyscalculia, dyslexia and such heath conditions as diabetes and asthma—are often not given the care and support that they should receive in the education and health systems. Movement on that score is and will be very welcome, but we must scrutinise carefully what the Government are proposing, because this is a great opportunity to get it right.

The Government’s proposed reforms to SEN provision are well intentioned, as I have just said, but I cannot help feeling that they very much lack the ambition truly to improve the support available for families with disabled children and children with SEN. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong on that point when he responds.

In its pre-legislative scrutiny report, the Education Committee said:

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“The importance of getting the Local Offer right cannot be overstated.”

The local offer is designed to set out which services are available to support children and young people with SEN and their families, reflecting those services that can be made available from within existing local resource, but that only reinforces the status quo. Where is the vision to improve both the quality and the availability of services? Rather than reducing the adversarial nature of the system, the reforms in the proposed Bill might actually increase the battles faced by parents with disabled children and children with SEN, with the onus being placed on them to ensure that services meet the needs of their children.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Smith: I will take one more intervention, but I will then stop taking any others.

Annette Brooke: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we want to avoid the adversarial conditions of the past that have worn down whole families. Does she agree that it would be helpful if the Minister outlined what redress there is for parents who do not get adequate services?

Angela Smith: I take the hon. Lady’s point. Ambitious about Autism is pressing for the right to appeal to be included in the proposed Bill, but I want to state that it is important for services to be right in the first place. A problem with the current system is that the right to appeal in the tribunal process is exactly one of the reasons why parents find the system so difficult. At the moment, I do not think that services are meeting the needs of parents when the first offer is made to them in relation to their children. The constant obstacles and hurdles that parents have to go over to get where they need to be is the most depressing part of the SEN process.

Is it any wonder that people are so lacking in faith about what the Bill contains, given that a former Minister has openly stated that children and families policy is simply “not a priority” for the Secretary of State or the Department for Education? Unsurprisingly, the disability sector is worried that insufficient attention is being paid to a proposed Bill, the title of which comprises the words “children and families”. This concern is increasingly turning towards the development of the local offer, as is illustrated by the lack of detail and clarity in the Bill about that. Will the Minister confirm that the development of the local offer is being sufficiently prioritised by his Department?

That relates to the point that I previously made. Services must work really hard to ensure that they get the local offer right first time—when parents need to put support in place for their children. We do not want parents to have to battle against inadequate offers that may be made to them by local services. If the local offer is not of a high quality, families will continue to have to battle to get the services they need and the Government will have failed in their ambition for the proposed Bill.

There are widespread calls for the local offer to be strengthened. For example, Scope has called for a “provide local principle” to be introduced to place a clear duty on local authorities to ensure that local services—schools,

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playgroups, children’s centres and leisure centres—are inclusive and accessible for families with disabled children and children with SEN. That would ensure that where those services do not already exist, there is a duty on local agencies to commission and guarantee the delivery of them. Many feel that it is only through bringing about a cultural change in local authorities, with local councils and service providers thinking differently about the services they commission and run, that a step change in provision can be initiated. Such a cultural change is needed now more than ever.

I have already referred to the strongly worded pre-legislative scrutiny report from the Select Committee. Colleagues on the Committee have recommended that the Government strengthen the local offer through the introduction of minimum standards or a national framework, which I strongly support. Does the Minister have any plans to implement such a national framework or minimum standards? A commitment from him that the Bill will include such proposals would go a long way to alleviate the many concerns held by families with disabled children and by the organisations that represent them, as well as by many local authorities.

There is no doubt that local authorities face immense financial constraints, which means that many services for the disabled are being cut. That is particularly being done through tightening eligibility criteria, which means that people with lower-level needs are losing support. It is therefore imperative that the local offer meets the needs of children with less complex needs—that was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson)—notably, the 1.3 million who have SEN, but are not eligible for a statement. The needs of those children cannot merely be met by, as the Minister has stated,

“improving teaching and learning for all”.—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 304W.]

For example, many of those children have distinct difficulties, such as speech and language problems, which require specialist attention that cannot be provided by mainstream teaching alone. I have personal experience of that, and it relates exactly to my point about having to go over all the different hurdles that are in the way of getting the right support.

Many of those children currently receive support from the school action and school action plus programmes. The Government have announced that those programmes will be scrapped, which has created huge fear and uncertainty among parents, who simply do not know what support will be available for their children. The Education Committee highlighted that as a key concern. Will the Minister clarify exactly what support will be available for the 1.3 million pupils with SEN who do not have a statement, particularly those who currently receive support under the school action and school action plus programmes?

When the Minister gave oral evidence to the Education Committee, he stated the importance of ensuring that there is a strong local accountability mechanism for the local offer. That is extremely important for families with disabled children, and will be crucial to the success of the local offer. With plans to replace the school action and school action plus programmes with a single school-based category, there is an increased need for a strong local offer, as such children will be reliant on the universal services outlined in the offer. It is therefore

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crucial that families are able to hold local authorities to account for the delivery of the services described in the offer.

Ministerial responses affirming that the introduction of a local offer will “inevitably...prompt discussion locally” offer alarmingly little reassurance for families. Indeed, in the proposed Bill, the Government are relying on parents to create accountability for services within the local offer, which they could well do without. At the moment, parents already have to battle and struggle—and become demoralised—to get things right for their children. We do not want to replace one system with another that puts in place a different set of obstacles and hurdles. Parents will be forced to go from individual service to individual service to complain about inadequate local provision, or they will themselves have to examine local offers from neighbouring authorities to identify services that are missing in their area. That is not acceptable: it might lead to a deterioration in standards, and will not provide adequate accountability.

I want to end with a comment from Joanna, whose son has Down’s syndrome:

“I am not naive and I don’t expect services to exist just for me, or facilities to be for my convenience. The frustration comes from the possibility of services being made easier; the facilities are already there...but are out of my reach.”

No one disagrees that the battles faced by parents such as Joanna are unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will think that this a timely opportunity, before Second Reading of the proposed Bill, to answer some important questions. Lots of people, including parents of disabled children and children with SEN, are closely watching this debate, and I urge him to seize this opportunity to break down the barriers to accessing the services that those families so desperately need.

4.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important and timely debate. I know that she speaks from personal experience, and that she gives support to people in her constituency. I believe that she will be doing that on 1 February when she attends an employment fair for individuals with autism in the city of Sheffield. I hope the fair goes well. She has a strong and sustained interest in the issue and I am delighted that she has taken the time to look carefully at the Green Paper that was brought out by my predecessor and subsequently at the draft clauses that were subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee.

I will endeavour to cover as many points as possible in the short time that is left. In the usual way, I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady to provide full answers to any outstanding points; all her points carry weight and deserve a full response. Let me deal with the specific points that she raised at the outset. In relation to the local offer and where it will sit in the future provision of services for children with special educational needs and disability, clearly the purpose of the local offer is to have, for the first time, a single source of information, which is transparent and which sets out all the services in the local area and beyond. Clearly, there are not provisions for some low-instance conditions in every local area, but it is important that parents and young

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people know where they can access them if they fall outside their local authority area. Parents need to know how to access all the services in their local area and what support is available to enable them to do that. Where the support is not provided, parents need to know how they can redress that.

The approach of the Scope campaign has been constructive. It has supported many elements of the Bill that we, hopefully, will be introducing shortly. To allay some of its concerns over the veracity of the local offer and over how parents and young people will be able to review the services that are on offer to ensure that they match the need within the local area, it needs to be involved in the consultative stage of the local offer; I will come on to that in relation to the point that the hon. Lady raised about the framework and where it will sit as a national model. I do not see the local offer as a static document. It is important that it is an evolving piece of information and guidance for local people who have the opportunity to review, monitor and influence it to ensure that it reflects everything that is required by all young people with a special educational need or disability within the local authority area. I want to have local people as involved as possible in the whole process, and that is something that I hope to take forward in the Bill, which will deal with many of the issues that Scope has raised.

What will the local offer look like? What we have found from the 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities is that close involvement of parents and young people in the development of the local offer, through the parent carer forums funded by the Department, is a much more powerful way of ensuring that the services that local authorities will provide match the local need. To drive up national consistency, the code of practice, which is not in primary legislation, will set out a common framework that shows what should be in the local offer. We do not want it to require local authorities to provide only what is in that framework; it must not be a race to the bottom. It will set some parameters so that both local authorities and other agencies and services know their responsibilities and their duty to co-operate and to provide information for the local offer. Parents and young people need an explicit assurance that they will have that information available to them.

John McDonnell: That is really helpful. Our concern is that some local authorities will simply re-badge what they have already, and they will not drive up standards. A key role is to ensure that parents and local groups work with the local authority to raise those standards.

Mr Timpson: That is a sensible approach and one that we share. As is illustrated in the Green Paper, the redrafted Bill following the Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny, and the subsequent regulations in the code of practice, the whole purpose behind many of these reforms is to put parents and young people at the heart of the whole process—before the assessment and through the assessment, the delivery of service and any redress that follows. That can be done on an individual basis and also with the help of professionals. It can also be done through existing groups such as parent carer forums, which can be a powerful voice for parents in their local area.

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The Bill will strengthen the role of young people in the system, which is hugely important. We will move to a single system for those aged nought to 25 with a more co-ordinated assessment and joint commissioning, and increase the opportunities for young people over the current age requirement to take their own case to tribunal where their request for an assessment has been refused. We will also pilot a scheme for children to take forward an appeal if they feel that they have not been provided with everything that they require. That is a huge advance in ensuring that this system moves away from the huge barriers which the hon. Lady rightly referred to in her speech. Too many parents are still finding obstacles in their way, too much duplication of information and that they are having to retell their story again and again. We need to get away from that and have a system that has parents and young people at its heart from the start, rather than when it is too late and when there is too much division between them and the services that should be there to support children.

Bill Esterson: What the Minister is saying is absolutely right; I think we all agree with him. But without the additional resources, and given the constraints on local authorities because of the funding problems that they already have, will this be deliverable? That is a very grave concern for local authorities.

Mr Timpson: The overall spending on special educational needs is consistent; about £5.7 billion is being spent across local authorities. Clearly, other services fall outside that funding envelope. What we are seeing from the pathfinders, particularly with the onset of personal budgets, is that there is a much better way of bringing together services so that they can co-ordinate their response. Not duplicating efforts means that there can be a more efficient and effective provision of the service that the individual child needs.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of transport. That will be contained in the local offer, so it will be clear to parents and young people what the opportunities are for accessing transport. One pathfinder has demonstrated the power of personal budgets in that regard: in the East Riding area, a group of parents have pooled their personal budgets to provide a mode of transport on which they can all rely, which is far more cost-effective and puts them more in control of the arrangement.

Mr Sheridan, I am conscious that I have only 40 seconds left and there are many issues that we have not managed to cover. None the less, I welcome the hon. Lady’s broad support for the direction of travel of our reforms. When the Bill is finally published and we take it through Parliament, I hope that she will see that I have taken time to listen to many of the aspects that she has raised today and to the concerns of parents and others, and that I have taken on board much of what the Select Committee has said to get the proposed legislation in as good a state as possible. However, I recognise that this is about not just the legislation, but the culture change that we need, and we are determined to make that happen.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(13)).