3.4 pm

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): It is a delight to participate in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this debate. I thought she set the context extremely well. By focusing on one particular aspect of the funding problems faced by Sheffield college, I hope not to take up too much time. I will try to illustrate or further illuminate her narrative by outlining how some of the decisions are forcing counter-productive choices on the college. They are counter-productive for students, for the local economy and for the Government’s objectives in so many areas.

Sheffield college is a strong institution. It is well regarded and well rated by Ofsted. It has strong managerial leadership and a chair of governors who is the chief executive of the local chamber of commerce. The college is focused on the needs of students, the local economy and employers in the area. It addresses those needs through direct provision and by contracting the delivery of some courses out to businesses and, as I will highlight, social enterprises and third sector organisations, which are particularly adept at reaching some of the more vulnerable and harder-to-reach sections of the community.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) illustrated the challenges that many colleges face in addressing funding issues. Like the examples he gave, Sheffield

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college has been thoughtful, flexible and innovative in trying to address those challenges, but it has lost almost £1.6 million this year from its adult learner responsive funding. One way in which the college has been forced to respond to that substantial loss of funding is by retrenching and ending its contracts with providers that make an important contribution to adult learning.

One particular area that has felt the impact is the teaching of community-based English for speakers of other languages. Learn for Life Enterprise is a social enterprise and one of a number of providers to Sheffield college. I know it well. I have spent time with it and seen its excellent work within the community, giving adult learners the opportunity to gain confidence and English language skills, and through that to begin to engage effectively and productively in the local economy. Not only are the courses under threat, but these enterprises are being put at a tipping point where they might go under. The cuts have an extra leverage—a disproportionate impact—on the role that Learn for Life Enterprise plays. Similarly affected will be the work of the Yemeni Community Association in Sheffield, which engages with its community effectively in one of the most deprived areas of the city, developing those language skills and that confidence and engaging people in the economy.

All that negative impact is being forced on the college through the Skills Funding Agency by a Government who rightly stress the importance of learning and speaking English as an entry route into effective engagement with the economy, as well as its importance for community cohesion and wider integration. I have written to the Skills Funding Agency, asking for the allocation to Sheffield college to be reviewed, to give the college a little more space to continue its important provision or, as a fall-back, for Learn for Life Enterprise and the Yemeni Community Association to secure direct funding. The SFA has simply told me that its hands are tied, because the cuts, devastating as they are, simply reflect the overall 8.5% reduction in the adult skills budget. On direct provision, it said that because the providers are so small, they fall below the level at which they could effectively contract directly. That is a double whammy for this provision. Does the Minister think this is a wise saving? Does limiting opportunities for people to develop their language skills fit in with the Government’s stated intention to get more effective integration and to get more people into work, or does he agree with me that reducing opportunities for people to gain the communication skills and wider skills necessary to engage with the economy is a false economy? Not only is it affecting them as individuals and our local economy, but—for a Government that has cracked on quite a lot about the big society—it is fundamentally undermining third-sector organisations, which make a big contribution. I look forward to his response.

3.10 pm

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing this important and timely debate, and the way she set out her case so clearly.

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Adult learning has long been a passport to fulfilment. It helps raise aspirations and transforms lives. I recognise the magnificent work of all those engaged in adult learning and all the teachers, support staff and managers who help deliver it. They are wonderful people making a real difference to the lives of others, often working in partnership with employers. I have welcomed winners of the Keith Fletcher memorial access awards to Parliament every year since I was elected. It has been a real pleasure to recognise their achievement, and it has been wonderful to welcome access students from North Lindsey college to this place each year as part of their course.

By and large, this and the previous Government’s record on apprenticeships has been positive. There have been many examples of excellent practice in my constituency, including the outstanding Tata apprenticeships and the work that North Lindsey college has done with North Lincolnshire council. The spotlight on apprenticeships has improved the quality of the brand, and that is to be applauded. However, just as we had proper concerns about short Train to Gain courses being branded “apprenticeships”, the time is now right to ask hard questions about how to further improve apprenticeships’ quality, so that they best serve the interests of employers, learners and the state. The number of 24-plus apprenticeships has risen rapidly, largely through Government funding. It is important to be rigorous in asking whether employers are discharging their obligations to these learners simply by paying them the minimum wage. Should employers contribute more to ensure that certain apprenticeships do not end up as a significant Government subsidy for large, profitable companies?

Conversely, the change in funding when an apprentice turns 19 might act as an unhelpful disincentive for small employers to take them on. As a result of 45 local employers writing to me, I visited Side by Side in Hull to hear for myself the very real concerns employers have about the changes the Government are pursuing to route apprenticeship funding through employers. That is not what businesses want. We have an opportunity with a new Minister. I hope he will listen carefully to what employers are saying about putting wholesale funding for apprenticeships through pay-as-you-earn. As the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), has said, this could turn out to be a disaster. Careful evaluation of how the package of support for learners and employers is performing would be highly valuable in informing how to improve further the quality of the apprenticeship product.

The debate is an opportunity to consider how to reshape post-18 learning for the future. We need to develop stronger alternatives to full-time degree study, with clear technical and vocational pathways through FE colleges. The Government could actively consider ideas from the Association of Colleges and National Institute of Adult Continuing Education to create secure adult learning accounts, into which the individual, the employer and the Government could contribute. Such accounts could be put in place for all adult learners, whatever pathway they choose to take, and thereby bring greater parity between academic and vocational routes. Another thing Government could do, which ought to be relatively easy, is to provide secure, three-year budgets for colleges to give greater planning certainty

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to institutions. That would help colleges to make decisions early and maximise not only the value for every pound they spend, but the interests of their adult learners.

The best FE colleges and training providers have the connections and expertise to bring the world of work and education together in a way that benefits all partners. One of the most challenging areas is in turning round the life chances of the long-term unemployed. I commend the work that North Lindsey college has done with Jobcentre Plus to give unemployed people the skills to succeed and get them into employment. I also echo my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, who urged the Minister to look at the ways the Department for Work and Pensions can work more creatively, to the benefit of local communities, and not apply rules that anyone with any common sense can see act as a barrier to allowing people to develop.

Much has already been said about the immense impact of funding cuts on this sector. I will say a few things about the 17.5% cut in funding for 18-year-olds. I know from personal experience as a former college principal that these students have often struggled to reach the expected level by the age of 18. They can ultimately achieve success, but only with appropriate study support, personal mentoring and so on. These are the highest-risk students and we are now making them the highest-cost students as well. This could create perverse incentives and results.

Let me give a few North Lindsey college examples to illustrate these students’ success. Oliver joined a preparation for employment painting and decorating course last year. He started with no qualifications, a history of behavioural problems and poor school attendance. Ultimately, he achieved qualifications for the first time in his life. He has now opened and is running his own shop. He also wants to continue his education.

Kirsty started at a care home as a volunteer on work experience from Jobcentre Plus. She was initially very shy and negative about education. She suffered from dyslexia and had low self-esteem. She now has qualifications for the first time and is the face of her company, appearing on its website. She has made a promotional video to support future staff.

After little success at school, Lima enrolled on a level 1 caring for children course in 2009. She has since done level 2, level 3 and level 4 courses at the college and is training to be a teacher. Those are the sort of successes FE colleges can deliver.

Here is an opportunity, as the general election approaches, for all political parties to demonstrate that adult learning is at the heart of the opportunity to change our society for the better. Adult learning needs to be properly funded in a stable environment to allow colleges to deliver effectively for their communities, learners and business.

3.17 pm

Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) for securing this important debate.

By and large, FE has always been seen as the poorer partner of other forms of education, predominantly because people like me managed to come through it. I managed to get an apprenticeship when I left school;

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I did not have great A-levels so I was fortunate to get that. It gave me a huge chance to get into engineering and follow through. I certainly hope that many others will now have the same opportunity, because it offers a last chance.

There are currently some serious challenges in Birmingham, such as high levels of unemployment, which, in some of the inner-city areas, are three times the national average. These colleges and further education institutions support unemployed people. People over the age of 19 are still finding it difficult to find employment. We need to look at that. In my constituency, the areas of Lozells and Handsworth have significantly high unemployment. We need to see what we can do to support those people.

We have a good college that is willing to look at that. I share with the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), responsibility for South & City college, which crosses our constituencies. It is doing a tremendous amount of work, particularly with training in its construction, motor vehicle and electrical training centres, and with other vocational training. It is doing an absolutely fantastic job to get some of those people in areas of high unemployment into jobs.

We have good manufacturing companies that need support, but the current arrangement for over-24s needing loans for level 3 courses prevents a lot of people already in employment from training. That is particularly the case for those aged over 24 who have managed to get a job and who, because technology and practices move on, want to progress or maintain themselves in their work. They want to be able to develop in that way and find it difficult when they are presented with the requirement to get further qualifications for which they must take out loans. Those are the most studious ones, because they want to make a difference. I see that in my constituency, where young people have started out from the local jobcentre and have progressed to management. I pay tribute to them, because they are prepared to give their own time for further training.

There are world leaders in advanced manufacturing in my constituency. I appreciate their work, because I am an engineer. Truflo is the world leader in submarine valves and at the moment is probably the only company for hull valves for submarines and surface ships. It does a fantastic job. It was an honour for me to take my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), the shadow Minister for Defence, around the site about 10 days ago; it was fantastic to show off some of the good work being done, and the apprenticeships there. Other companies include TRW—the skeleton that came out of the old Lucas works. It does fantastic work to develop technology, but we need support for the 19-year-olds and the over-24-year-olds, so that that can continue. We want to reduce the current high employment levels.

Dana is another very good and reputable engineering manufacturing company in my constituency and I want to keep it there and bring more advanced manufacturing to the area. McGeoch is just over the road in Ladywood, and I was privileged to visit it with my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Minister. It does a huge amount of fantastic work with ceramics, but it needs to do some development; the obstacles it encounters include getting apprentices to follow through with the huge amount of

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manufacturing it is doing. It provides components for satellites for NASA. It is fantastic to have that happening in Birmingham.

The EEF apprenticeship centre in the city takes on 300 apprentices from local employers, and some of the companies that I have mentioned use people from there. It has not had a penny of funding; it has done that through contributions from engineering employers in its patch. I should be happy to take the Minister around it, if he wants to come and look at the great work that it is doing. I hope he will take the offer up. As I said before, South & City college is doing a fantastic job in my constituency. Wilmott Dixon also does a lot of work with apprenticeships in construction and housing, such as electrical stuff. It is also now doing training for the installation of solar panels. Again, that is a private scheme that it has taken on without any funding.

I go along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, the shadow spokesman, over the bid for an HS2 maintenance depot in Birmingham. We have the colleges and training places, and I hope that that will be passed on in relation to the bid that he has made, which I fully support.

A key issue is funding for 19-year-olds and those aged 24-plus. One of the key requests from South & City college is for provision for English for speakers of other languages. Demand is currently twice what it is providing. If we are to reduce the unemployment rate of three times the national average in inner city areas, we need an appropriate supply of training, so that the college can make a start with those people. People are eager and knocking on the college’s door, wanting to take part. They are not hanging back. We need to deal with that, to get people into employment. There is a huge amount of interest. Many community and voluntary organisations want to provide support, but they cannot because of funding cuts. I urge the Minister to review the situation and think about how we can start to rejuvenate some of our inner cities.

There are many contributory issues outside the further education debate; if people—particularly young people—are not in employment, that makes work for idle hands. I urge the Minister to think about those things, and about the comments of my hon. Friends, which I think were all valid. Further education is a huge sector, and a fantastic one for people who need its vital support. I urge the Minister to continue to support it, and to fund it properly.

3.25 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, as it was to hear the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), and all the speeches that have been made. All the hon. Members who have spoken made positive and useful comments and I hope that the Minister will pay attention to them.

The focus so far has been on employment-related learning, but the title of the debate is adult learning, which I think goes beyond that. I had experience of teaching in further education in the 1970s and I know the sheer joy of adults coming back to study—particularly

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at evening classes—subjects that perhaps they did not have a chance to do at school. They might not have had any academic qualifications, but their eyes would be opened and they would see life with more possibilities because of what they studied at evening class.

In those days, certainly in Luton, we had better provision than now. The colleges and schools in Luton are excellent, but in those days we had a technical college with a language laboratory where people could learn a variety of languages, including even Swedish. We had a further education college with all sorts of engineering courses that people could do for fun, as well as those related to work. There was a range of subjects.

I saw friends transformed by the experience of going to an evening class for a modest fee. They would sign up, having had no real academic experience, and would come out with an A-level. A friend of mine did A-level government and politics and got a grade B, and her life was transformed. She was a single parent and could not afford expensive education, but she did an evening class. Subsequently—it was not directly related—she became, and eventually retired as, a lecturer in further education. That resulted from the leap forward she made by doing an A-level.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): As to the transformational effect that adult learning can have, does the hon. Gentleman agree that for many people, particularly in deprived communities on large working-class estates, such opportunities open doors? If they do not get that opportunity, the door is closed for a generation, because in many cases the fathers and grandparents of those people were also unemployed.

Kelvin Hopkins: That is a valid point. During my time teaching in further education in the 1970s I not only took evening classes but taught day-release students for what was called liberal studies. That is nothing to do with Liberalism with a capital L, of course. I saw young people whose view of the world might be very narrow suddenly opening up to the possibilities. They started to understand politics, believe it or not, and a range of other subjects that I used to talk about in those classes. The experience was enhancing and enriching for them. It made their lives different. They went away thinking, “I have had my eyes opened to new possibilities in life that I never thought I would have.”

Initially, sometimes, there was a bit of hostility, because of resentment at “these clever people coming and talking about subjects I know nothing about”; it took time. I had one experience of a class that insisted at the end of term on dragging me to the pub to buy me a pint, because they enjoyed their time with me so much. I think that was the biggest compliment I was paid. Working-class young men, who were particularly alienated from education, were changed by having a bit of a good experience, and I am glad I made a contribution.

I was for 10 years co-chair of the all-party group on further education, skills and lifelong learning. I emphasise the term “lifelong learning”, which is not just about getting on a course to get a job; it is about one’s whole life. One can go on studying all one’s life—most of us do, in one way or another—but some people need the opportunity to have people who know things talking to them in a friendly way at an evening or day-release class, to open their eyes to the possibilities of the world.

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I had those experiences, but something really disappoints me now. Luton has a wonderful sixth-form college, of which I have been a governor for 21 years. I am now the vice-chair of governors, and the college has a brand-new building and superb teachers, but it is unable to put on evening classes because funding for adult education in sixth-form colleges has been cut and it receives statutory funding for 18-year-olds and below only.

The teachers want to teach adults, and adults want to be taught by them. The fabulous building is unused and empty in the evenings, but it should and could be used for education in this conurbation of perhaps a third of a million people. If someone wants to study a European language, for example, they cannot do that in-class in Luton anymore. The possibilities exist, but such areas need specific funding. We cannot just say to sixth-form colleges, “Get on with it. Put on an evening class if you want, but you’ll get no more money.” It would not happen, because teachers need to be paid and perhaps more teachers would be required.

From my experience, teachers enjoy the variety of teaching adults as well as youngsters. Adults often have a positive effect on classes, because—I am trying to be polite about young people—they are more likely to behave themselves and to be positive about education. They can also actually have a maturing effect on younger students, so mixed classes can be a good thing. We are preventing potentially millions of people from studying things that they would like to learn simply because we will not fund non-statutory adult learning.

I hope that when the Labour party forms a Government in a few months’ time, they will hear this message and start to rebuild the kind of evening classes that we used to have when I taught in the 1970s. I hope that millions more people will be able to study not only for work, but also to enrich their lives and to enjoy the simple pleasure of knowing things.

John Robertson (in the Chair): Before I call the Front-Bench spokesmen, I want to thank all speakers for sticking to the time limit.

3.31 pm

Mr Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing the debate. She has always been a fighter for her constituency and for Hackney college, and she reminded us this afternoon of why we need to spend more time debating this subject, for which we are grateful.

I want to draw out a couple of remarks from today’s debate and to sharpen the points of some of the questions that my colleagues have asked the Minister, but I will start by discussing the skills crisis that so many businesses up and down the country are now confronting. Report after report has been put before us over the past two or three years, all basically saying the same thing: there is a skills crisis in Britain that is holding back growth, destroying productivity and keeping people trapped in the cost of living crisis that has bedevilled this Parliament. KPMG reports that a third of manufacturers would like to reshore work back to this country, but cannot do so due to a lack of skills. The Migration Advisory Committee, which was set up when my hon. Friend and

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I were at the Home Office, has now added 100 different roles to the shortage occupation list. As a result, under this Government, we have imported 282,000 workers because their skills could not be found at home. In a recent report, Mike Wright, the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover, said:

“We must double the number of engineering apprentices qualifying at advanced level…by 2020.”

Lord Adonis has said that skills are

“the single biggest impediment to economic growth.”

Report after report says the same thing: we have a skills crisis in Britain that is holding the country back.

The impact on productivity in this country has been devastating. We used to have a phrase for that in public debate—the British disease. A crisis of productivity means that we do not produce as much in this country as the rest of the world produces. Today, the productivity gap is 21% against the G7, meaning that what the rest of the G7 finishes producing on a Thursday night takes us until the end of Friday to complete. There will be no escape from an economy of low wages unless we increase productivity. As the Royal Society puts it:

“Unless we get smarter, we will get poorer.”

As we have heard this afternoon, the problem is not just one of productivity, but one of poverty. Before the summer, we published a big report in Birmingham about child poverty, which has led to a 40% spike in the number of children presenting in A and E units having tried to take their own lives. The majority of children in poverty in Birmingham are in families where people are working. How do we raise family living standards in a great city such as Birmingham? There is only one way: raising productivity and therefore raising skill levels. We have heard this afternoon about a £958 million cut in the adult skills budget. Overall, taking into account other cuts in capital, but also the injection of money in from 24-plus loans, nearly £900 million has been taken out of adult skills over this Parliament. The impact is that fewer adults are enrolling in skills courses.

Kelvin Hopkins: My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech about the importance and lack of skills and opportunities. The reality is that we are still importing some 15,000 graduate engineers every year to work in an industry that even now is too small. Manufacturing in this country is half the size as a proportion of GDP than that of Germany, and yet we still cannot find enough engineers from among our own people. Something is wrong and I hope he addresses it.

Mr Byrne: I certainly will.

Money is tight, and I noticed that the former Member for Clacton—I am not sure whether he is still the Minister’s hon. Friend—wrote on his blog earlier this week that public sector net debt has increased and is now £400 billion higher than the debt that the Labour Government left. He said that this Government have now put on more debt in five years than the Labour Government did in 13 years.

We all know that money is tight, but there are three things to which the Government could turn their mind to quickly. The first thing must be integration with the Department for Work and Pensions, which means bringing together ESOL budgets in a completely new way. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr

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(Mr Mahmood) made clear, the Skills Funding Agency has taken away well over £1 million in ESOL provision that the DWP has had to put back in. It is heartbreaking for us to meet mums who are desperate to go back to work but do not have a strong enough grasp of English. They want to do well by their families, but they cannot. Proposals from Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis radically to devolve skills funding are on the table and would allow us to put together the Work programme and skills budgets in a new way, so that we can skill people up to do the jobs that are available. I represent a constituency a mile away from the expanding Jaguar Land Rover plant in Castle Bromwich, but it has the highest youth unemployment in the country, which is prima facie evidence that the skills system is not working. We should listen to Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis and think radically about how to devolve skills funding so that the DWP and skills budgets can be joined up in a new way.

The second point, as made eloquently in a forensic speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), and underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, is that we must raise our game on skills and radically increase the number of higher apprenticeships. If we want to tilt our economy decisively towards those high-value engineering and science-based industries that are the key to the bigger-knowledge economy, we must increase the number of higher apprenticeships. Just 2% of apprentices go on to study higher level skills, which is appalling and needs to increase. Across the country, however, there is a profound lack of clarity about how the Government’s new proposed money will actually be distributed. That lack of clarity is unacceptable and the Minister will want to work that out quickly.

There is wide support to increase employer ownership of skills as one way of increasing the number of apprenticeships and higher level apprenticeships, but in an economy in which small and medium-sized enterprises are creating jobs three or four times faster than big business, the new funding system must work for SMEs. All over Britain, SMEs are saying that putting in all the money through the tax system will not work. That decision is in the Minister’s red box and I hope he will be able to tell us whether he is planning to go wholesale and introduce the plan in the autumn, as originally proposed, or whether to listen to the voices of 4 million or 5 million small businesses across the country that are asking him to think again.

The third thing that the Minister was left with by his predecessors, as underlined by my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), is the strategic problem with adult skills. Big cuts to further education, a very marketised higher education system and a huge explosion in the private sector college system have unleashed a series of competitive pressures in the further and higher education system. As a result, system collaboration is incredibly difficult. That problem is compounded by a broken bridge between funding for 18-year-olds and funding for those over the age of 24.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe underlined the appalling impact of big cuts in further education funding for those at 18, but between the ages of 18 and 24 there is only 50% funding towards tuition costs

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and 0% access to the Student Loans Company. That means a broken bridge between the funding system that works up to the age of 18 and the one that then kicks in at the age of 24. There is no clear escalator through the skills system. Some funding for level 4 and above is offered by the Skills Funding Agency, but only for a higher apprenticeship. The problem is that, out of 200 apprenticeship frameworks, only 14 go up to level 4. Furthermore, people need a degree to understand the system. Why is that a problem? It is a problem because, as the OECD cited in its seminal report on skills in England back in 2013:

“the weak articulation between level 4 and 6 programmes and university bachelor programmes is a serious problem”.

There is a broken bridge, and a radical rethink is needed.

On behalf of the Labour party, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), and I have set out a different approach—a “gold standard” route for vocational education, so that we begin to reform the school system, the further education system and the university system. We believe that everyone should be doing some vocational education from the age of 14. We believe that there should be a new gold-standard technical baccalaureate with compulsory English and maths up to the age of 18. We believe that the priority for expanding the higher education system should be the creation of technical degrees, so that people can study while they are still working. We floated the idea over the summer that a new institutional partnership between further education colleges and universities is needed, along the lines of the American community college programme.

Those new technical universities should have partnerships with universities with world-class engineering and science facilities, perhaps as part of new university enterprise zones up and down the country. That could be one of the ways in which we make the decisive shift that was explained by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham. We have got to rebalance our economy, and rebalancing our skills system has got to be part of it.

We have had an impassioned debate. Particularly welcome was the emphasis of my hon. Friends the Members for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) not only on the sheer economic importance of further and higher education and of adult learning, but on the life-changing power of such investment. This country faces a productivity crisis and a poverty crisis, so we must leave the Chamber hearing the note sounded by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch sounded—she said that there is poverty, but no poverty of ambition—as well as leaving with a determination to do something about it.

The Minister is a thinking member of his party and has a track record of thinking through complicated issues. He is someone with a conscience and he cares profoundly about increasing social mobility in this country. He is blessed by simply having been appointed, with that great mind of his, to one of the most fantastic jobs in the Government. We look forward to his brief and his work with a heightened sense of anticipation. We also look forward to what he has to say to us this afternoon.

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3.44 pm

The Minister for Skills, Enterprise and Equalities (Nick Boles): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. It is also a pleasure, and an unfamiliar one, for me to be in a Westminster Hall debate—although we are not actually in Westminster Hall—in which I am not facing a crowd of angry Back Benchers from my own party; they are much less gentle in their attacks than Labour party Members have proved to be today. That was my experience as planning Minister, and an uncomfortable one it often was. It is reassuring to find myself in the traditional position of mainly facing criticism, as well as inquiry and constructive suggestion, from the Opposition. I am, however, also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) for his contribution.

We have covered a lot of ground today. I want to be clear that almost everyone who has contributed to the debate knows more about the area than I do. I am still myself an adult learner, and a rather slow one at that, so if I do not have the detailed technical grasp to answer all the questions, I apologise. I am happy to have further discussion and correspondence with any Members who feel that I have not adequately answered their questions.

While setting the context, I am afraid—I hope that the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), will forgive me—that I must remind the House of a few awkward truths. Clearly, there has of course been a substantial cut in the adult skills budget; no one is denying that or pretending otherwise. As the author of a notorious note, which I will forbear to repeat the few words of, no one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman the financial environment that we inherited when we came into government. I also suspect that, had his party stayed in government after the election, no one would have been more ferocious than him in making the case for protecting that part of the education system that every child must go through, and which is critical to every education—whether academic, technical, vocational or professional. That is, of course, the schools system. That is what the Government have done. It has been difficult and painful and it has involved sacrifices in other areas, one of which has been in the adult skills budget.

The second awkward truth that we all need to acknowledge is that much of the spending in the adult skills budget—

Pat Glass: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Boles: I am happy to.

Pat Glass: I want to remind the Minister of another awkward truth: the £1 billion overspend on the academies and free schools budget. The Government had priorities and they made decisions—they chose to put money into new and experimental areas, while making cuts that affected the most vulnerable children in our society.

Nick Boles: Let us put to bed the ridiculous shibboleth that somehow free schools are an experiment. Free schools are, basically, new academies; they are exactly the same as academies. Tell the children at free schools that their schools are somehow different or experimental and that the money spent on them, that £1 billion, is not spent on the education of the children of Britain. I think that they would give the hon. Lady the flea in her ear that she so richly deserves—

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John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. May I draw us back to the debate?

Nick Boles: The other awkward truth is that a lot of the spending from the adult skills budget was, frankly, on a series of qualifications that were a fraud on those who were duped into taking them. A whole bunch of the qualifications that were funded did not prepare people for work, enrich their CVs, enable them to command better jobs or add to the productivity that, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill so rightly said, everyone needs. It was therefore right to do what we did, which was to focus the system of qualifications down and to ensure that the funding goes to produce qualifications that will actually help people.

Mr Byrne: May I draw the Minister back to the future, rather than to the past? In the autumn statement last year, the Chancellor talked about one of the most important adult qualifications available in this country, which is degree places. He said that degree places would be uncapped and he set out, conservatively, the cost of about £1.9 billion, which was to be financed by selling off student loan debt.

On 20 July the Minister’s boss, the Secretary of State, said that he and the Deputy Prime Minister had decided that the sale of student loan debt would not now go ahead. Will the Minister confirm whether the expansion will still go ahead and, if so, where on earth the money will come from?

Nick Boles: Needless to say, not being the Minister responsible for higher education and certainly not being my boss, the Secretary of State or indeed the Prime Minister, I can do no such thing. We are talking about the adult skills budget and that is what I will return to.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to focus on the future and I am happy to do that. The position we are in now is not as bleak as some hon. Members have tried to paint it. Yes, we have a dire skills shortage in this country, but I remind hon. Members that all the young people who are not currently equipped to get the jobs that have been created and that hon. Members listed were educated under a Labour Government. All of them went through primary and secondary school under that Labour Government, so if they have left the school system ill-prepared for the jobs of the modern economy, let us share the responsibility for that lack and together work out how to fill the gap.

There is more agreement about the future than there will ever be about the past, and I will come on to the key elements of that. Specific questions were raised, however, and I want to make sure that I address them before I run out of time. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made an interesting speech, in which she specifically challenged me to take up with the DWP the question—[Interruption.] Was it the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier)? I am sorry, I cannot remember. I was asked to take up the issue of jobcentres being inflexible about courses and requiring people to leave them. I am aware of the issue broadly but not in detail, and I will be happy to take it up.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood), who is no longer in his place, invited me to visit an apprenticeship centre run by the EEF. Will somebody tell him afterwards that I will be happy to do so if I can, as it sounds like an interesting venture?

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I am happy to take up any issues that individual hon. Members have with particular colleges and funding situations. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), for example, raised some issues about a specific college, and I would be happy to take those up.

Now I come to the actual question from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. She asked about funding of HNDs and HNCs. If I may, I will get back to her with more specific detail on that. She also asked specifically about extending the internship model to older adults. That is an interesting idea, but not one in which I am sufficiently well versed to give a response now. I will be happy to meet her to discuss the issue and see whether we can do more.

Now, to the future, and how we improve the productivity of people in this country so that they can secure the fantastic jobs being created—I hope we will all acknowledge this—in record numbers in this economy, to an extent that no other European country seems to be able to match at the moment. For the Government—we make no apologies for this—the most important policy to ensure that improvement is the policy on apprenticeships. That is why, even with a declining skills budget, we have ensured that the funding of apprenticeships is maintained and have been able to secure a dramatic increase in the number of people taking apprenticeships.

That is not at all to say that we are in any way satisfied with the position we are in. We also recognise, for instance, the very low number of higher apprenticeships as a proportion of the total and want to expand those, but without in any sense diminishing the lower level apprenticeships. Those are often the ones that young people who leave school without qualifications are going to be able to access first; we are not necessarily saying, either, that they should not move on to a higher apprenticeship in due course.

Mr Byrne: In that case, the Minister will want the maximum value for money from the programme that he is responsible for. A total of £340 million has been earmarked for the employer ownership pilot for apprenticeships, but the latest figures show that only 20,000 new apprenticeships have been provided. That is a unit cost of about £17,000. Will he explain whether he thinks that is value for money and what he is doing to drive up numbers for that programme?

Nick Boles: The right hon. Gentleman is too good a numbers man not to recognise the trick he has just played, which is to take the total budget as his denominator and use only the number of starts achieved so far as the figure that he is declaring it against. If he looked at the amount of money that has been drawn down from the pilot, he would see that his denominator is a very much smaller figure and that dividing that three-hundred-and-whatever million by 20,000 does not present an entirely accurate picture.

Meg Hillier: On that point, £340 million has been allocated and has not been drawn down at the right rate. What is going wrong, what is the Minister doing to check on what is happening and how on earth is the situation being monitored to make sure that it is not

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just backfilling what employers would do anyway and giving money to businesses without them adding more to adult skills education?

Nick Boles: What this Government do not do—we do not believe in it—is just push money out of the door. That is what the previous Government did, which is why we inherited a deficit on the scale that we did. We believe in inviting people to come forward with bids and come up with quite experimental ideas—the scheme is unashamedly a pilot—and then checking whether those ideas are high quality and are adding value, and whether the money is going to be put to good use. If we do not end up spending all of the money mentioned, I will be the first to say that we did not do so because we did not have bids that were good enough and were going to deliver enough impact. That is the responsible way to deal with taxpayers’ money and money borrowed from future taxpayers, not the approach of the previous Government.

To return—it seems rather optimistic now—to areas where we perhaps agree, we need to have more higher apprenticeships. We also agree that although the increase in the number of adults doing apprenticeships is welcome, we should not allow that to be at the cost of 16 to 18-year-olds doing them. We therefore need to ensure that the offer is there and stands for everybody.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)and a number of others asked me about the changes in the funding of apprenticeships under the new trailblazer standards. All I can say at this stage is that, first, I am looking at the matter extremely closely, and, secondly, before coming anywhere near politics—before coming into the policy world, let alone to Parliament—I spent 10 years running a business that employed 150 people in the manufacture of paint brushes and rollers. I have lived and breathed—and wept—the experience of running a small business; I am not going to be a Minister who puts burdens on small or medium-sized enterprises that persuade them not to do what we want them to—provide more high-quality, long-term, demanding apprenticeships that improve the skills of the people of Britain.

There were also a lot of questions about adult learning and its funding. It is clear that there have been some very difficult decisions in that area, which have caused difficulties for some institutions and further education colleges, and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central, for some of the charities and social enterprises that work with FE colleges. Those decisions have also perhaps interrupted the availability of some provision, as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) so eloquently described. We have had to make sacrifices, and it may be that some are never undone because of the fiscal situation we face as a country and the priorities we have to put in place. But we are going to look at the experience of advanced learner loans and then ask ourselves a series of tough questions about how much further it is right to go to align what is available for adult learners who are not going into universities with what is available for those who do.

We have had one little reassuring set of data. Wild and gloomy predictions were made about the effect of fees and loans on the participation of people from a range of different backgrounds, including poorer ones, in universities. Those predictions have not come about. Similarly, we have no evidence on advanced learner

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loans of any dramatic effect on or change in the profile of those who participate in adult learning. We will be looking at making sure the opportunities are available. They may need to be funded differently from how they were in the past, but it is right to see whether we can make sure they are available for all in the future.

[Interruption.]

3.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Waste Management Sites (Fires)

4.12 pm

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak today.

The issue I want to raise is that of fires at waste management sites. This is a problem that literally stinks to high heaven. Fires at waste management sites can have a far-reaching impact, way beyond a 999 call and a few hours’ attendance by the local fire crew and their appliance. They can come with a very hefty financial cost. They often demand a multi-agency response and, worryingly, the resulting fall-out can blight communities.

Today, I want to tell you about a fire at the waste management site in the village of Nantyglo, in my constituency that burned for 10 days in January 2013. A small mountain of waste—more than 200 tonnes worth—caught aflame. The smoke billowing from the fire made the lives of the residents in the nearby streets a misery. It clogged the air, seeped into washing hanging on the line, and filled homes and cars with a noxious smell. One of the neighbours with asthma and emphysema could not go out of the house at all for the whole time of the fire. Such waste sites store everything from plastic containers and solvent-based paints to oily rags and aerosol cans, and the burning of chemicals trapped people in their own home. The resident with respiratory illnesses loves the area and keeps her home clean and tidy, but now she feels that she will have to move out if there is a prospect of future fires. That is not right.

When home for the long weekend, I caught sight of a big smoke cloud over Nantyglo from my kitchen window, and it was held there for 10 days by the many rainclouds above. The air was acrid, and clearly, the matter needed urgent attention.

After trying to understand who was co-ordinating matters, I got stuck in and called a multi-agency meeting to try and take things forward. Everybody eventually pulled together. Natural Resources Wales had stationed a staff member by the site to oversee and co-ordinate. The fire service went back and forth to keep a lid on the still smouldering fire and Public Health Wales set in place air quality measuring kit. It was a very small, enclosed site, but fair do’s, Blaenau Gwent council helped a lot by making available some nearby land to shift hundreds of tonnes of waste on to. That enabled the eventual control of the fire. Months later, the bill for the operation was estimated to reach £70,000. That is just one example of the damage and demands on public services, as well as the insurance industry, that such fires can cause, and it is one of many.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the subject, as there was a fire lasting six months in a pile of carpet waste in my constituency. He mentioned insurance and cost. In the case of my constituency, the operating firm is in liquidation. Ought there not to be some system of insurance or bonds that ensures that if there is nobody left to pay, there is some money in the bank to deal with the terrible consequences that our constituents have to face?

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Nick Smith: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, not least because I understand that some bits of the insurance sector are pulling out of this industry because the premiums are not covering their costs.

The incident in Nantyglo is, it seems, one of many. A total of 600 fires occurred at waste management sites in England between 2012 and 2013, with 61 additional fires occurring in Wales. Despite waste management sites being monitored and requiring licences, we are getting nearly one fire a day across England and Wales.

While I was putting this speech together, firefighters in Swindon were hoping finally to get on top of a waste site fire that has been burning away for a month. There, 3,000 tonnes of waste have had to be moved so that firefighters can tackle the fire effectively. The bill for the entire operation is expected to be in the region of £400,000, with concerns that it may be the taxpayer who shoulders the burden of that cost.

I wanted to understand the financial impact of these fires fully, so I logged freedom of information requests with fire services up and down the country. I asked how many fires they have dealt with and the cost of dealing with them. It became immediately apparent that there is not a standardised scale for costing these measures. Each service had its own way of categorising such fires, and their cost analysis varied from a few hundred pounds to several thousand.

If we want to tackle this problem in the future, we need an agreed nationwide system, perhaps developed with the National Audit Office, that is transparent, credible and allows regions to share data and better understand the costs of these sorts of fires. The responses from South Wales fire and rescue service and Merseyside fire and rescue service were the most interesting, as their costs were significantly higher than the other services. Merseyside fire and rescue service identified 18 incidents, with single incidents costing, on average, £48,000. South Wales fire and rescue service identified the estimated cost of attending seven calls as £344,000, which is an average cost of £49,000 a fire.

Those numbers were generated using the economic cost of fire reports from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Welsh Government. These reports not only look at response costs, but the money needed to repair the damage afterwards and protect against the cost of fires in the future. For instance, the 2006 Welsh report includes property damage, loss of business, injuries and insurance costs in that financial bundle. Indeed, as I mentioned, insurance companies have been pulling out of the sector all year, citing the amount of losses not stacking up with the premiums taken.

I believe that those higher figures give us a more accurate cost of the impact of waste fires. That would mean that in two years, waste management fires in Wales and England—this is just my back-of-an-envelope figure; I am not an econometrician—will have cost the economy approximately £32 million.

What needs to be done to solve the problem? It is clearly a problem for the communities who have to suffer the consequences and it is a problem for our economy, but I am also concerned by the breakdown of those fires. In response to parliamentary questions, the Minister told me that 595 of the fires in England were at private sites compared with just five at local authority

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sites and that one in every 18 private sites suffered a fire compared with one in 110 local authority-run sites. It is a similar story in Wales, with only three of the 61 fires being at local authority sites.

This is a big industry and it is fairly complex, I know, but it is important to understand whether the two types of site are doing similar work or are subject to the same regulations and standards. How are they monitored? Why are there such good records for publicly organised sites compared with private ones? It would be interesting if the Minister could tell us more.

In addition, looking through the lists of fires supplied by Natural Resources Wales and the Environment Agency, we see that there are countless instances of fires occurring multiple times in the same location. A quick glance through the 61 entries in the NRW records alone is illuminating. There were three reports for one Port Talbot site in just three weeks. There were three incidents at a Dowlais Top site in Merthyr in five months. If a small number of sites are responsible for a large percentage of fires, action needs to be taken.

My concerns are mirrored by those of the Fire Futures Forum, which attempted to tackle these problems last November. Chaired by the Chief Fire Officers Association, it was a round-table event aimed at understanding the issues that arise from waste management fires. The forum put forward three points that I believe should be looked at seriously by the Minister—I do understand that this is a cross-departmental issue. First, it recognised the need to share good practice across the industry. That was particularly relevant for larger waste management operators guiding small and medium-sized businesses and not only helping to reduce the incidence of fires, but lessening their impact when they do happen. Although private companies could undertake that course of action themselves, regulatory authorities could play a part in helping the sector to deliver good practice throughout the industry.

Secondly, the forum wanted a clampdown on rogue traders. Bad operators need to be identified and action taken accordingly. It suggested that licensing process could be tightened up and a national database of waste management operators and sites established. I wholeheartedly support that point. The bad neighbours who run these sites and blight their local communities need the strongest possible oversight.

Legislation is potentially required to support the work of the Environment Agency in case it needs further powers, and I would be interested in what it has to say about that possibility. We also need a single agency to take responsibility for pulling together all the others for concerted action when fires do occur. We may also need to look at planning for locations of waste management facilities, waste permits, and appropriate advice and guidance on suitable risk-management processes.

This is a big issue, affecting many communities across England and Wales. I expect that the same is also true in Scotland and Northern Ireland—so across the UK. Fires at waste management sites cost public services, the industry and its insurers an arm and a leg. They make everyday life intolerable for residents close to a fire and can badly affect the health of some. However, there is a clear agenda that could help with this issue, so I hope that the Minister will try to answer some of the points that I have made and will agree an action plan that gets a good grip of it.

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4.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing the debate on reducing fires at waste management sites. I am delighted to see in their places other hon. Members who have concerns in that regard, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who has raised the issue with me on previous occasions and will continue to do so until he is satisfied, as I am sure the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent will. Given the fire at the A. Lewis Waste Paper Collections Ltd site in Nantyglo in his constituency in January 2013, to which he referred, the subject is of understandable concern to his constituents, but it is also a concern to many people in the United Kingdom.

Waste management policy, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, is largely a devolved matter. The Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales, to which he referred in relation to that incident, are responsible for policy and regulation of Welsh waste sites respectively. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain what the Government and others are doing to address this important issue in England. We will return to some of the issues he raised, which are no doubt important across all jurisdictions in the United Kingdom.

The Government recognise that the public and the resource management industry have legitimate concerns about fires at waste management sites. The fires can involve large volumes of waste burning for prolonged periods. They cause unacceptable impacts on people, the environment and local infrastructure. Responding to waste fires places a huge strain on the resources not just of the fire and rescue service and the Environment Agency, but of the police, local authorities, the Health and Safety Executive and public health organisations. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the substantial cost of waste fires. The firefighting costs alone can be substantial, but as he pointed out, the costs range much more widely than that. For example, the cost to the London Fire Brigade of keeping safe just one waste site that has experienced repeated fires has been in the region of £650,000. I agree completely with him that those are unacceptable costs to the public purse. Repeated waste fires also have an impact on the insurance costs for the resource management sector as a whole—there is also an impact on the businesses of those who are following best practice.

When I came into this post last October, there was a long-running fire at the waste site near Berwick-upon-Tweed, and recurring fires at a waste site near Bromley in London. I met the then chair of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith of Finsbury, in December to stress the importance of early intervention to tackle waste crime and poor performance, which are often contributory factors in waste fires.

The Environment Agency set up a waste fires task and finish group last year to review actions needed to address the risk of fires at the waste sites that it regulates. As part of that work, the agency conducted a screening exercise to identify sites where there was an increased risk of a significant fire and/or sites that posed a significant hazard to people and the environment should a fire break out, so we are looking at risk and likely severity

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of impact. That screening exercise has identified 80 waste sites in England that would pose a very high risk of impact if a fire were to occur. The agency is taking action to reduce risks at those sites to acceptable levels, and I am seeking regular updates on progress.

The Environment Agency has identified a further 215 medium-risk waste sites. Local Environment Agency teams will prioritise appropriate action to reduce the risk at those sites in the same way as for the initial 80 high-risk sites. Last year, the agency also wrote to more than 7,000 waste operators to remind them of their regulatory obligations to control the risks and impacts of fires at their sites, and issued a technical guidance note setting out appropriate measures and performance standards for preventing waste fires. The agency guidance is endorsed by the Chief Fire Officers Association in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, to get the benefit of that technical expertise across the sector.

The Chief Fire Officers Association brought the waste industry, the enforcing authorities and other stakeholders together in a forum last year, as the hon. Gentleman said, to develop a road map towards ensuring a sustained reduction in fires in waste facilities. One outcome of that forum has been the development by the resource management sector of new draft fire safety management guidance and best practice, to be published later this year, so the suggestion that he rightly makes has been taken forward, and I am pleased that he is adding his support. In fact, his securing of this debate provides renewed impetus and ensures that we keep pushing forward on that work.

Sir Alan Beith: The lessons learned document for the fire in my constituency contained, as one of the lessons, this:

“Review the merits of…mandatory insurance”,

meaning that proof of insurance would need to be produced when a permit is issued. That was referred to as something to be determined under the national action plan. Will it be considered in the discussions that my hon. Friend the Minister has described?

Dan Rogerson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. That is one of the areas I have been discussing with the agency. The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent raised concerns about the pressure on the insurance industry as a result of the situation. We need to look at all these issues in the round. Certainly that is an issue that we will continue to discuss and address to see whether it would be fruitful to put in some more work in that direction.

The Chief Fire Officers Association has been working closely with the Environment Agency. The organisations are in the process of signing a national memorandum, which will promote the co-operation and data-sharing that the hon. Gentleman is keen to see, and which will set out how local Environment Agency and fire and rescue teams will collaborate and carry out site visits to ensure effective fire prevention.

In many cases, fires at waste sites are linked to poor operator compliance. This week, I have written to waste industry representatives outlining a series of Government and Environment Agency proposals focused on waste crime and tackling poor performance at waste management sites. Those proposals, which were developed in part in

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response to calls by the industry for more robust enforcement action, include: increased agency intervention at poor-performing sites; a review of the powers for suspending or revoking environmental permits; increased regulatory fees paid by operators of poorly performing sites; greater agency scrutiny of newly permitted sites; and revisions to the systems for assessing operator competence, which is another crucial angle. We have talked about the financial risks, but a thorough assessment of operator competence is important in preparation for the opening of new sites and the entry of new businesses to the sector, because it is a technical matter. We want to see people acting in the sector, creating jobs and making better use of available resources as part of our move towards a circular economy, but we have to ensure that they are technically competent to do so. We also propose to ensure that environmental permits contain minimum standards for the storage of combustible materials. I have invited representatives of the resource industry and the profession to discuss how we and the agency can take our proposals forward, because the Government and the regulator cannot do that alone.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the means of recording and reporting on fires at waste sites. Each local fire and rescue authority provides the Department for Communities and Local Government with information about all incidents that it attends, including fires at waste and recycling sites, through the incident reporting system, which covers England and Wales. The data gathered include details of the area of damage caused by the fire. The Environment Agency separately collects reports from the operators of permitted sites on the scale and nature of any environmental impacts associated with fires. Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency adopt a similar approach to recording fires at permitted sites in Wales and Scotland.

We will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the data collected by the Environment Agency and the fire and rescue authorities are as consistent and robust as possible. I acknowledge that there have been some recent high-profile fires, although Environment Agency figures show that the total number of fires at regulated waste sites over the past 10 years has remained relatively constant at some 250 to 300 a year. Of course, constant is not as good as declining, so we want further progress. That sounds like a lot, but the majority are low-level fires—some of them are caused by electrical faults or equipment failure—that are put out quickly by operatives at the site without the need to call fire and rescue services. However, it is important for those to be recorded and form part of our information dataset.

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Environment Agency statistics show that the number of serious or significant fires at waste sites during the past four years has been relatively stable at approximately 15 a year. The Environment Agency regulates more than 8,000 permitted sites that are involved in storing combustible waste. The 12 serious and significant fires that have occurred so far this year represent less than 0.2% of the sites that store combustible waste. We must not be complacent, however, and we must strive to prevent any such incidents from occurring. The waste and resource management sector, the regulators, the fire and rescue services and the Government are taking forward a range of actions to reduce serious waste fires. I welcome the positive and proactive approach that has been taken by all involved.

The hon. Gentleman made a valuable point when he mentioned the dissemination of best practice. The code of best practice and the memorandum of understanding to which I have referred show that the industry, the fire and rescue services and the environmental protection agencies are taking forward such best practice. The new proposals are designed to tackle rogue traders and poor performers who got into the industry without technical expertise, so I am pleased that he raised that. In many cases, the answer is extra investment in enforcement and early intervention to prevent outbreaks of fire, however small, and the most serious ones must be dealt with.

The hon. Gentleman asked about planning and permitting, and we will consider those as part of our review. If the evidence base supports changes to those regimes, we will look at making those changes. He asked questions about local authority-managed sites and private sector sites. Given the answers he received to his parliamentary questions and the terms in which he raised them, I understand why he has drawn attention to the matter. There are a range of facilities, however, and the local authority sites do not necessarily operate with the same materials or deal with the same volumes as other sites do, so it is difficult to draw conclusions from the points he has raised, but that was an interesting contribution to the debate.

As Minister with responsibility for resources management, I will continue to work with the Environment Agency and encourage it to review the effectiveness of its approach to the enforcement of waste controls, and to consider what more can be done to reduce the incidence of serious waste fires.

John Robertson (in the Chair): Owing to the earlier suspension for the Division, the next debate will end no later than 5.12 pm, so there is some extra time available for it.

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Public Health England Hub Programme and Porton Down

4.30 pm

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Robertson?

I have called this debate on the back of two similar debates in June 2010 and September 2013, several questions in the House, the lobbying of Ministers and meetings with officials over the past four years. Today, I urge the Minister critically to appraise the recommendations that she and her ministerial colleagues have received from the board of Public Health England to move significant elements of the PHE facility at Porton Down to a new site in Essex.

The UK Government have had capabilities at Porton Down for more than a century, which have evolved into a unique asset overseen by PHE. The facility is recognised around the world for its role in responding to some of the gravest threats facing mankind today. Indeed, several of my constituents have been deployed abroad to support the international response to the Ebola crisis, which is widely reported in the media.

However, it is well known that the facilities at Porton Down have been in need of a substantial upgrade to remain fit for purpose. Until 2009, the board of the Health Protection Agency, PHE’s predecessor organisation, felt that its objectives would be best achieved by expanding and redeveloping the existing site at Porton. The PHE board has submitted three different business cases—in June 2010, April 2012 and, after a two-year gap, in 2014 —as it has sought to justify its intention to create a single science hub in Harlow. The PHE board has submitted the outline business case to Ministers, and the preferred option is to collocate its assets on a new campus in Harlow modelled on the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The latest publicly available analysis from Professor George Griffin’s 2012 due diligence report disclosed that the Harlow option would produce a mere 2.6% cost saving for the Treasury compared with redevelopment with Porton, over a 68-year time frame.

I want to use the debate to highlight the risks associated with relocating such a sensitive facility. PHE’s primary mandate is to

“protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing”.

Some of the work done at PHE Porton, especially translational research into taking products from the workbench to commercial markets, arguably does not fit comfortably in that mission statement. Consequently, I am led to believe that the business case does not fully assess the potential of a redeveloped site at Porton to drive growth in the UK life sciences sector. The Government clearly view that sector as important to the UK economy, given that they selected one of our colleagues to become Minister with responsibility for life sciences in the July reshuffle. I emphasise the critical importance of translational research and urge the Minister to be the one who finally unleashes PHE’s full potential at Porton in that area.

Public Health England Porton is on course to generate £65 million in external revenues this year; it receives just £8 million in funding from the Department of Health. PHE Porton is operating in an increasingly competitive

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global environment where outcomes are harder to achieve, and it is doing so very successfully. Understandably, PHE’s primary mandate is not about seizing commercial opportunities, and the translational research capability at Porton has arguably never been fully realised, and its potential never fully exploited, as a consequence.

One of the key arguments for relocating to Essex is that Harlow is ideally sited between London and Cambridge, which would allow PHE to establish links with companies and research institutions based there. My fear, however, is that that argument is flawed because the team at Porton has never been disadvantaged by its current location. As the useful document from the Porton life sciences group sets out, the team at Porton currently works with more than 250 partners across the world, including more than 130 universities, the US Government, five international health agencies, nine global pharmaceutical companies and more than 60 small and medium-sized enterprises. The list includes more than 30 entities currently based in London or Cambridge.

In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group carried out a comprehensive study of the drivers of research productivity in 420 life science companies. The study found that location was not a key factor and that accumulated research expertise was twice as significant. PHE Porton has some 3,750 years of scientific acumen relating to infectious disease in its ranks. Almost half of those individuals are operating above PhD level. PHE argues that new staff can easily be moved or recruited to Harlow and that it is a desirable place to work, but the fact remains that, when the staff at Porton were last surveyed, just 7%, or one in 14, were inclined and prepared to move.

I find it perplexing that in the modern age, when the Government are increasingly looking beyond geographical borders for commercial opportunities, when digital by default is the preferred option and when the Government are actively seeking to disperse their functions outside the south-east, Ministers could accept a plan that flies in the face of those aspirations. The entire business case is dependent on the premise that an organisation will be more effective if its staff and resources are in one location, but across PHE employees perform a wide range of functions, many of which have little day-to-day operational co-dependency.

The idea that a physical hub will result in “water cooler conversations” leading to improved research outcomes is, at best, highly questionable. The private sector left that mindset and approach long ago in favour of more effective use of technology and flexible working practices. The outline business case also makes the assumption that existing partnerships will be able to continue operating effectively throughout at least a 10-year transition period.

I want to imagine a different scenario in which Porton is finally given the operational freedom to capitalise fully and extend its current external research relationships, as I have consistently suggested in debates in the House over the past four years. Other Departments have recognised the potential of what exists at Porton. On the same day that Public Health England’s board made public its recommendation to move to Harlow, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced an investment of several million pounds to establish a new science park at Porton, which was supported by the local authority, Wiltshire council, and the local enterprise partnership. The science park will be next door to

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Public Health England and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The Department of Health’s first spin-off company emerged from PHE Porton, and one of the reasons why the science park was conceived was to provide space for similar likely companies in the future.

Imagine if the ambition of the universities of Oxford and Southampton to create a second corridor of excellence to rival Cambridge and London could be fostered. The regional life sciences industry proposed to create a new national centre for translational vaccinology, which the Medical Research Council could not support further because of the uncertainty around PHE at Porton Down. The project is not some blue-sky ambition proposed at the last moment, either. There are signed expressions of interest from two multinational pharmaceutical companies and SMEs across the region. It is not a new project but one that has developed from existing working relationships. The university of Southampton, for example, is involved in more than 30 projects with PHE Porton, such as the one awarded $1.4 million by the US National Institute of Health last month to continue its groundbreaking work on tuberculosis treatments.

I will now discuss PHE Porton’s one geographical partnership that depends on physical location. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is currently located immediately adjacent to PHE, and there is a natural synergy in the work that the two organisations do and the security arrangements that they share. I am told that staff have worked particularly closely in emergencies. They have a close historical connection, their staff share a number of unique competencies and both organisations retain a significant proportion of the UK’s containment level 4 laboratories.

Although I understand that greater collaboration with DSTL has nominally been considered as part of the single science hub programme, I seek reassurance that that option has been fully evaluated, particularly in light of what I know to be the willingness of DSTL’s management to embrace the programme. It has been known since 2008 that there is spare capacity in DSTL’s high containment facilities, as Professor Griffin told the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills. He reported in 2012 that it is important that the relationship is preserved:

“A move to Harlow would not prevent collaboration with DSTL but it would be more difficult, particularly since outside the UK ‘Porton Down’ is perceived as being managed more under common control than it really is and this carries considerable brand value.”

I emphasise that point. When the Prime Minister said that our laboratories had confirmed that there were chemical weapons in Syria, he referred not to DSTL or PHE labs but our labs at Porton Down. The media reports on samples of Ebola being sent to “our experts at Porton.” Porton has a global reputation built up over several decades, which Harlow will need to work hard even to establish.

Although I fully concede the need to do what is best for the national public health interest as a whole, my concern is that the translational research function and the complex relationships and revenue generation activities that have been built up over many years will be put at serious risk if the outline business case is accepted as is.

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Given the pace of technological change, the notion of a single science hub might become redundant, too. Earlier this week I met my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), the new Minister with responsibility for life sciences, and he is a great believer in the power of genome sequencing to revolutionise care in the NHS. He will know that the direction of travel undermines the case for physical collaborations as more laboratory-based diagnostic work is replaced by computer-based modelling.

Before approving the plan, I ask the Minister to be sure that the business case contains a rigorous analysis of the issues of transitioning and recruiting teams of world-class scientists and that the security concerns about sensitive work, which we hear nothing about, are not optimistically handled in the business case. Please be sure that the economic value associated with 10-year contracts with the US Government and other external parties will not be seriously jeopardised during an extended, uncertain transitional period in which facilities at both Porton and Harlow will need to co-exist.

Perhaps more importantly, I urge the Minister to recognise that, although translational science may not be core to the entity that is currently Public Health England, it is certainly core to the UK’s life sciences industry. Please be sure that the outline business case demonstrates conclusively that the commercial opportunities for PHE will be significantly improved by relocating to Harlow and that the anticipated gains clearly outweigh the opportunity to create a new world-leading corridor of translational vaccinology in the south-west at Porton.

I stand here today, for the third time in an Adjournment debate since I was elected in 2010, not because I want to articulate a narrow “keep the jobs in my constituency at all costs” argument. My primary concern is that this decision is motivated by a misjudged desire to tidy up different entities within the PHE organisation into a single site, when the day-to-day functional synergies of the different components of PHE are not significant, the advantages of co-location are notional, uncosted and unproven and most of all, sadly, the risk to the life science sector and the international Porton Down brand are so significant that they render the recommendation to proceed with the Harlow option even more questionable.

4.50 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this important debate. We are in the strange position of being good friends in the House but having completely different perspectives on this issue. I am grateful to him for giving me a couple of minutes to speak. Like him, I have been campaigning on this for the past four years in meetings with Ministers, by speaking in the House and by tabling Commons motions.

The proposed move of Public Health England to Harlow is right for four simple reasons. First, it is right for the organisation itself. The proposed site in Harlow is ideally located on the London to Cambridge science corridor, so Public Health England will be able to benefit from the life sciences and science-based enterprises based around Harlow. The town also has an enterprise zone that specialises in medtech and IT, which will help Public Health England in its vital role of protecting the nation’s security and well-being.

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According to the Chrysalis review, the Harlow site

“provides excellent existing buildings as the framework for laboratory, bioinformatics, epidemiology, national microbial culture storage, and office facilities”.

That is because of the closure of the GlaxoSmithKline laboratories and plant.

My hon. Friend talked about transport links, but I stress that we do have good links: we are close to Stansted Airport, the M11 and M25 and also have good train links. Transport is not an end in itself, as expertise is needed, but the opportunity to create a scientific corridor with expertise and those transport links in this part of the east of England will provide huge benefits indeed. The board of Public Health England has now formally recommended the relocation of services at Porton Down, Whitechapel and Colindale to Harlow, saying that it would be able to bring together a range of its national functions and improve its efficiency and effectiveness.

Relocation to Harlow would be a great opportunity for Public Health England’s staff. Of course, I empathise with those who do not want to be uprooted, but there are great opportunities in Harlow. We are a sculpture town, with fantastic facilities. We have good quality housing and beautiful countryside. We also have outstanding local schools, such as: Burnt Mill which achieved an 86% GCSE A* to C rate; Harlow college, which according to the Department for Education has for three years in a row been a No. 1 college in England on all statistics; and a brand new Sir Charles Cao university technical college, which has just officially opened—the Prime Minister visited it just before the summer.

The move is right not just for the employees and for Porton Down, but for the taxpayer. We know that Porton Down is coming to the end of its life and something must be done to stop it becoming a health risk. The option of refurbishment was rejected in the business case as representing poor value for money. In fact, Public Health England’s own analysis shows that moving to Harlow would deliver the lowest cost over the 60-year life of the programme. The initial outline business case said that these savings would be in excess of £100 billion.

Finally, yes, as the Harlow MP I argue that the move is right for Harlow as well. Thanks to the enterprise zone and the UTC, the relocation would be a good strategic fit and Harlow council is very supportive of the move. It would also be consistent with the increasingly renowned pathology specialism of the Princess Alexandra hospital. When GSK unfortunately left the town, Harlow lost a lot of jobs. Public Health England’s moving to Harlow would give the town a much needed boost, with an estimated 700 jobs created initially, which would offset the job losses over time.

As I said, the decision is right for Public Health England, for British taxpayers and for Harlow. We have the skills, infrastructure and expertise to make it possible. In essence, it is a no-brainer, which is why, time after time, Public Health England itself has recommended that the move should take place.

4.55 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon.

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Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate. It is not his first on this subject, but he is right to use his opportunities to highlight such important topics. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for his contribution.

The future of Porton Down is important not only to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, but to the whole country, given its work on a wide range of public health threats—including, as he highlighted, most recently the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. Scientists have been doing invaluable work at Porton Down since the 1950s, but its buildings are more than 60 years old and, based on independent surveys of the estate, they are increasingly unfit for purpose. My hon. Friend agrees that we need to find a solution to that problem to ensure that this vital work is able to continue in top quality facilities.

We all agree it is important that scientists have the benefit of state-of-the-art facilities that reflect the latest technological advancements, including, as my hon. Friend alluded to, the shift from the Petri dish to big data. Public Health England put forward the case that significant benefits would result from not only re-providing the facilities at Porton, but bringing together the range of public health science functions that it manages across disparate sites to create an integrated national science hub. That would enable the UK to punch above its weight on the international stage in preventing, and reducing the burden of, both communicable and non-communicable disease.

As my hon. Friend knows, Public Health England is considering a number of options to meet that challenge and its preferred option is to create a public health science hub based at the former GSK facility, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. To reach that position, it has had to consider a wide range of long and short-listed options and demonstrate which offers the best value for money.

The main focus of those options has been on Porton, Colindale—it is good to see the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who represents Colindale, in his place—and Harlow. Public Health England has briefed the local Members, including my hon. Friends, and the local authorities about the three sites affected and considered those views in the option appraisal.

The case submitted by Public Health England is being scrutinised by the Department of Health, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Major Projects Authority. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury that the process will be thorough and robust. Following that process, the business case will require ministerial approval, as he mentioned, and will be published once finalised.

It is not appropriate for me to give further details on the business case until the review has been completed and I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that. As he may be aware, that is to protect commercial confidentiality and the integrity of decision making. It is established practice that outline business case documents are not shared outside the Government before decisions have been made, but the Department and PHE are committed to being open and consultative throughout this process.

When I am being briefed on these issues ahead of debates, my first question is always whether we have had regular and open contact with the Members involved.

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I am assured that regular contact has been made between PHE and those hon. Members who are rightly concerned for the future of the facilities in their constituencies. We want to ensure transparency on the progress of the process, and at all stages we are providing opportunities to comment on the case, with this debate being the most recent example. That commitment to a consultative process has, for instance, led to all three affected authorities submitting statements about how the science hub would link with the local economy, which have been included in the business case.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing the debate. We have focused on the business side, which is very important when we introduce a national hub, but I am concerned that my constituents’ views about what will happen to them and their extended families have not been considered. Many of my constituents who work at Colindale are responsible for elderly family members and children, and they feel that that has not been taken into account. Will the Minister respond to that point?

Jane Ellison: I would be disappointed if that issue had not been considered. There have already been some meetings with staff, but this is an ongoing process. My understanding is that at the point at which any firm decisions are made there will be an extensive consultation process. I have time set aside to meet with my hon. Friend, who is right to highlight those concerns. We can explore them further and I can respond to any specific concerns. Those valuable members of the scientific community make an enormous contribution in lots of ways to our country and we want to ensure that they and their families are considered carefully in this process.

On the point about the consultation process, I recently received a letter from the Minister responsible for PHE’s neighbours at Porton, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which praised PHE’s open, collaborative approach to discussions about the use of specialist high-containment facilities. That reassures me that a good level of communication is being achieved.

The business case contains a summary of the collaborative work. When my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), outlined the Department of Health’s position in a debate a year ago—also secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury—she said:

“We need to be clear that although PHE and DSTL will continue to collaborate closely, PHE needs dedicated high-containment facilities to ensure that public health work can proceed in the event of the DSTL facilities being fully occupied. This will provide resilience if DSTL’s facilities are closed for any reason.”—[Official Report, 11 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 1136.]

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, issues of national security and our national response capability must be carefully considered before a final decision is made. It is therefore key that Public Health England continues to develop links not only with DSTL, but with all the other agencies involved in the national security response.

Another important consideration that my hon. Friend drew out in his speech is the commercial impact of the chosen solution, which must ensure that PHE can continue to work in partnership with industry to support wider growth in the UK life sciences sector. Like him, I celebrate the important work and development that has taken place in that area in recent years. I reassure my hon. Friend that PHE has undertaken a survey of its current key customers, and only one has said that moving from the Porton site would be important for their future business relationship with PHE.

In Harlow, PHE proposes that the science hub would link with the Harlow enterprise zone and the London-Cambridge corridor, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned. It is one of the key international centres for the life sciences sector and PHE has had discussions with Cambridge university about the opportunities for collaboration based around Harlow.

Even if a decision were made to relocate research functions and staff, PHE has confirmed that it remains fully committed to the recently announced Porton science park, which would involve PHE facilities—consisting of some 300 staff in the development, production and regional laboratories—remaining at Porton. I know PHE has briefed my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury on the work it is doing to maximise the commercial potential of the production facilities at Porton, which he highlighted in his speech. I want to reassure him that his important concern has not been overlooked.

The final decision on the outline business case will be made as soon as possible. My hon. Friend’s wish to have certainty on the case sooner rather than later is entirely reasonable and understandable, but—as he said—it is important that we get this vital decision right. I have listened carefully to his arguments—this is the first opportunity I have had to hear them laid out first hand—and to the important short speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. I will look at the document to which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury referred and ask PHE to respond to it. My hon. Friend is right to champion that renowned facility and his constituency, and I congratulate him on using this further opportunity to highlight his concerns, to which we will give a serious response.

Question put and agreed to.

5.4 pm

Sitting adjourned.