John Redwood’s Christmas Message for 2011

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP has released his Christmas Message for 2011:

“We need some mid winter magic this year. There is a warming familiarity as the tinsel and the trees, the holly and the baubles appear in shops and homes. For children there is instant wonder as they see these things for the first time, or join in the festivities in a new way. For us adults there is the joy at watching youngsters captivated by the sights and sounds of Christmas as they await the day of presents with an excited impatience.

In Wokingham there are the usual pleasures of the carols in the Market Place and the massed choirs of our primary schools in Loddon Valley Hall, the giving trees and the fund raising to ensure there are gifts and treats for those who might otherwise be neglected. Wokingham is a community that cares, and is capable of many countless acts of kindness and collective good works.

I would like to thank the many people who serve our borough tirelessly and selflessly over the year. Christmas is a time to say a special thank you to postman and shopkeeper, to nurse and teacher, to stall holder and many others. It is a time to catch up with old and new friends and relatives, to send cards and arrange visits. It gives us the chance of more time to talk to neighbours and to bring the lonely into our celebrations.

I have made my Christmas puddings but have not yet found time for the cake. I look forward to hanging high the cards and adorning the tree, to welcome home friends and family.  I wish you and yours every joy and
happiness this Christmas. This may be an austere time, but it is still a time when little acts of kindness, or something home made, can say so much more and be so much better valued. That is the true spirit of Christmas.”

Text of the Prime Minister's Speech on Immigration, 10 Oct

Today I want to talk about what we are doing to get a grip on immigration into our country.

I know the sense out there is that mass migration is inevitable in a globalised society and a modern economy and as a result it’s all too difficult for one country to control its own borders.

And that with migration from the EU to worry about as well, we’re powerless to address half of the problem anyway.

But today I’m going to argue how I believe this Government can act in a way that will genuinely tackle the problem, avoiding the dangers that opponents of reform have put forward.

First we need to be clear about what the problem is.

I know this is an issue that people feel really passionate about.

And I know the debate around immigration is not always a healthy one.

It often swings between extremes, between those who argue strongly that migration is an unalloyed good, vital for our economic success and those who say it completely undermines our economy because immigrants take all our jobs.

Between those who attack caution about immigration as racist and xenophobic and those who plead that our communities just can’t cope with the demands of ever greater numbers flooding in.

I have a very clear view about this.

I have never shied away from talking about immigration.

I called for reform and clear limits in Opposition.

And I’m determined to deliver in government.

So let me tell you how I see it.

Yes, some immigration is a good thing.

It is right that we should attract the brightest and the best to Britain.

We genuinely need foreign investors and entrepreneurs to come here.

In the same way that many British people take advantage of opportunities to work, study and live overseas many of our communities have been enriched by the contribution of generations of migrants.

Our schools and universities have some of the best teachers, researchers and students from all over the world and we’re proud of that.

Our hospitals are full of talented doctors and nurses caring for the sick and vulnerable.

Our high streets are home to entrepreneurs who are not just adding to the local economy but playing a part in local life.

And yes, Britain will always be open to those seeking asylum from persecution. That says something very important about the kind of country we are.

And we should be proud of that too.

But excessive immigration also brings pressures real pressures on our communities up and down the country.

Pressures on schools, housing and healthcare.

And social pressures too.

When large numbers of people arrive in new neighbourhoods perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there perhaps not always wanting to integrate, perhaps seeking simply to take advantage of our NHS, paid for by our taxpayers there is a discomfort and a tension in some of our communities.

Crucially, while it’s crude and wrong to say immigrants come to Britain and “take all our jobs” there’s no doubt that badly controlled immigration has compounded the failure of our welfare system and allowed governments and employers to carry on with the waste of people stuck on welfare when they should be working.

And there is also concern that relatively uncontrolled immigration can hurt the low paid and the low skilled, while the better off reap many of the benefits.

So it’s absolutely right to address all these concerns.

Because if people don’t feel that mainstream political parties understand these issues they will turn instead to those who seek to exploit these issues to create social unrest.

And there’s an even bigger reason for addressing immigration too.

It’s about fairness – real fairness.

Fairness for people already living here, working here, contributing here who worry about finding work, getting a good school for their children and affording a good house.

For too long, they have been overlooked in this debate.

And it’s time to do right by them.

So what does this all mean?

Put simply, yes, we need immigration, but it needs to be controlled.

We need to have control over how many people come here – and who.

But the reality is we inherited a system where we didn’t have real control over either.

The figures for people coming to Britain are huge.

575 thousand people came here last year intending to stay for a year or more.

Of course, it is right that when many people are choosing to live abroad and when some migrants stay for a period but then return home we should have a clear eye on net migration, the difference between people leaving and people coming.

But this keeps rising too.

In 2008 it was about 163,000.

In 2009, 198,000.

And in the data published earlier this summer, the 2010 figure is a staggering 239,000.

There are early signs in the most recent figures that the reforms this government has brought in are beginning to reduce the overall figure.

But these very high numbers for the end of the last government’s term of office are why under the last government, we saw a worrying collapse in public confidence in our ability to control inward migration.
They may have talked tough, but there was a fundamental mismatch between rhetoric and reality.

And at the heart of all of this I believe is the complete failure of the last government’s Points Based System to control migration.

It sounded great in principle.

But the very term “Points Based System” has proved to be misleading.

The rhetoric implies that each and every potential migrant is carefully and individually assessed with only those scoring the most points able to enter the country.

But the reality was very different.

Instead of a system of points for individuals there were a range of low minimum thresholds where anyone who met them was automatically entitled to come, almost on a self-selection basis, to work and study and in many cases bring dependants.

Take Tier 1, for example, for so-called highly skilled migrants.

This was sold as “bringing in the best of the best.”

People with extraordinary skills and qualifications who were going to drive economic growth.
They were so good that they didn’t have to have a job offer before they came here the door was permanently open to them.

That was the rhetoric.

But what was the reality?

The reality was that someone with a modest salary and a Bachelor’s degree in any subject from any college in the world could come over here and do any job they liked.

And of course the system was a magnet for fraudsters.

Plenty never found work at all.

One study showed that about a third of those sampled only found low skilled roles working as shop assistants, in takeaways and as security guards.

When this government came into office, we ignored the rhetoric, looked hard at the reality and simply closed down the whole of the Tier 1 General route.

Take the next tier – Tier 2, for migrants coming here who actually did have job offers.

Large numbers of this group were actually coming to do low- level work which many people have rightly felt those on welfare should be trained for but which instead went to migrants.

Tier 3 – albeit never opened – was explicitly for those with no skills.

The fact they even created this tier, I think tells you everything you need to know about the so-called selectivity of the system we inherited.

And Tier 4 allowed those with a place at college to come to the UK even if the college was extremely low level – or worse bogus, not really a college at all – and the student spoke no English.

People should never forget that this is the reality of the last government’s much vaunted rhetoric about their Points Based System.

The legacy of their talk about controls is the net migration figures which we have seen going through the roof.

It’s a system where migrants got the choice to come, rather than us having the choice of migrants.

And it’s a system which was totally unfair which people rightly feel added to the sense that “something for nothing” was the order of the day.

We simply could not carry on like this.

So today I want to set out the new approach this government is taking to control immigration into this country.

An approach that ensures a hard-headed selection of genuinely talented individuals based on our national interest, people who will really contribute to this country and drive the economic growth on which we all depend.

But an approach that imposes tough limits, not weak minimum thresholds real tests of skill and potential, not thousands of people box-ticking their way into the UK.

In short a system that actually controls migration for the good of this country that doesn’t just sound tough, but is tough.

There are four areas to focus on if we are really going to start controlling how many people come here and who they are.

Work visas, students, family migrants and illegal immigrants.
And we need to address all of them.

Now what I am saying today is not the final word.

I want to pay tribute to the Home Secretary and to Damian Green for the brilliant and dedicated work they have already done, working with others across government.

But much more hard work lies ahead.

And today I want to set out some of the areas where we now need to go further in tackling abuse and ensuring immigration is controlled.

Immigration needs to be controlled – and I’m absolutely focussed on this.
So let me start with those who come here to work.

As a Coalition government we agree about the importance of controlling immigration but our approach has rightly focused on how to do this without damaging business or discouraging inward investment in to the UK.

In April we introduced a limit on the number of economic migrants able to come to the UK from outside the European Economic Area.

Many predicted that this wouldn’t work and that it would stop British businesses getting the workers they need.

But the evidence shows this just hasn’t been the case.

That limit of 20,700 for the year – has been undersubscribed each and every month since it was introduced with businesses currently using less than half of their monthly quotas.

That provides the opportunity to consider with business what further tightening of the system may be possible without undermining growth and we will be asking the Migration Advisory Committee, in consultation with business, to look into this whole area again and to reconsider whether the limit is set at the right level.

But we’ve not just added a blanket limit.

We’ve begun to be much more selective not just about how many people come in – but who actually comes in.
Britain is one of the most open economies and societies in the world.
We want the brightest and best to come here.

The investors and the entrepreneurs who will create the businesses and jobs of tomorrow and the scientists who will help keep Britain at the heart of the greatest advances in medicine, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and communications.

These people deserve the red carpet treatment.

And that’s what we will give them.

So we have increased the opportunities for foreign investors and entrepreneurs to come here issuing 196 visas to entrepreneurs in the first half of this year, on track to far exceed 2010.

We have opened a new pathway for those of Exceptional Talent, nominated by the likes of the Royal Society and the Arts Council.

And in future we will make it easier for angel investors to back foreign entrepreneurs – people who are starting small scale but may end up running the blue chip businesses of tomorrow.

We’ve also listened to business over intra-company transfers ensuring that multinational companies with a presence here can bring in their skilled managers and specialists.

Because attracting top business investment to Britain is a fundamental part of our strategy for economic growth.

But we also want to do more to encourage employers to take on British workers.

On the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee we have reduced the number of jobs that can be offered to migrants, including jobs like careworkers and chefs.

But I want us to go further.

Over the last decade, millions of new jobs have been created in the UK.

Large numbers of people have come to the UK and successfully found work.

In fact, some estimates suggest that around two-thirds of the increase in employment since 1997, was accounted for by foreign-born workers.

Even now people are managing to come to the UK and find a job.

Yet throughout all of those years we consistently had between 4 and 5 million people on out of work benefits.

You can understand it from the employer’s point of view.

Confronted by a failing welfare system, shortcomings in our education system and an open door immigration system they can choose between a disillusioned and demotivated person on benefits here in the UK or an Eastern European with the get up and go to come across a continent to find work.

Or they can choose between an inexperienced school leaver here or someone five years older coming to Britain with the experience they need.

But that situation is simply not good enough. We have to change things.

Going down the high street, we can’t fail to notice the pride that employers have in British products.

I want to see the day when they all have the same pride in the British workforce and where there’s a culture where companies feel positively encouraged to explain how many people they’ve helped off welfare and into work.

That is why we are addressing the shortcomings in the education system so there are plenty of people with the right skills entering the labour market.

It’s why we are getting a proper grip on immigration controls.

And it’s why we are reforming the welfare system with proper conditions for those on benefits and a Work Programme that offers real support to get people off benefits and into work.

Re-motivating the long-term unemployed, making them believe they can work again.

Matching individuals to employers and giving those young people real experience of work, or a proper preparation for the places where the jobs can be found.

Not discriminating against those from other countries but making sure that the British option, with the local knowledge that an employer also needs, is once again the best option.

Jobcentre Plus and Work Programme providers are already hard at work helping the unemployed into work.
We’re now putting in place the systems we will be using to track their success.

And we are looking at new ways to encourage employers to do even more, including through a national awards scheme to recognise the organisations that excel in getting people into work.

So we make sure that this time it is the long term British unemployed who reap the benefits of growth in the labour market.

Second, let me turn to students.

The concern in this area was that properly controlling migration would damage our prestigious universities, higher education institutions and colleges a vital part of a sector, further and higher education, which should be a key driver of growth and in which Britain is already a world leader.

Through carefully made coalition policy, we have managed to ensure there is nothing to stop genuine students applying to study here.

We are working with the sector to encourage the brightest and best students from around the world to come and study here.

And we intend over the next year to step up efforts to attract a greater share of the best globally mobile business school and other post-graduate talent to come to the UK.

We need to be absolutely clear in this whole debate.

We want these top students to come here.

We can’t have world-class education if our institutions are closed to the outside world.

Our education exports are worth more than £14 billion a year.

So international students, postgraduates and researchers bring tremendous economic benefits to this country.

And they make an enormous contribution to the intellectual vibrancy and diversity of our educational institutions.

But when it comes to bogus colleges and bogus students we have to be equally clear: they have no place in our country.

In June last year in New Delhi, for example, more than a third of student applications verified by the visa section were found to contain forged documents.

Private colleges now have to face far more rigorous checks on the quality of their education provision before they can sponsor international students.

Since May 2010 the UK Border Agency has revoked the licences of 97 education providers.
A further 36 currently have their licences suspended.

And 340 institutions will be prevented from bringing in new non-EU students after failing to apply to the relevant bodies who will oversee the quality and standards of education providers.

This represents just over 30 per cent of the privately funded institutions previously on the UK Border Agency’s register, including so-called colleges that have been undermining the good reputation of the whole sector by bringing in thousands of bogus students.

Not only have there been bogus and low quality students, coming to bogus and low quality colleges, there have been a huge number of people bringing dependants under the pretext of studying.

Some people in the past used the student visa route simply so that their spouses or families could come and work in the UK.

But there are now clear restrictions for all students on working and bringing dependents.

And we will continue to ensure that the foreign students coming in will be genuine high quality students who we really want and who can make a meaningful contribution to our economy.

The third area is around family migration.

Of course in the modern world where people travel and communicate more easily than ever before, and where families have connections all across the globe, people do want to move to different countries to be with loved ones.

We all understand this human instinct.

But we need to make sure – for their sake as well as ours – that those who come through this route are genuinely coming for family reasons that they can speak English nd that they have the resources they need to live here and make a contribution here – not just to scrape by, or worse, to subsist on benefit.

Last year family migration accounted for almost a fifth of total non-EU immigration to the UK with nearly 50,000 visas granted to family members of British citizens and those with permanent residence here in the UK.

We have been consulting on how to ensure those who come to the UK as family migrants are supported without becoming a burden on the taxpayer and we will be bringing forward firm proposals shortly.
A sample of more than 500 family migration cases found that over 70 per cent of UK-based sponsors had post-tax earnings of less than £20,000 a year.

When the income level of the sponsor is this low, there is an obvious risk that the migrants and their family will become a significant burden on the welfare system and the taxpayer.

So we have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to look at the case for increasing the minimum level for appropriate maintenance.

And we’re going to look at further measures to ensure financial independence: discounting promises of support from family and friends, and whether a financial bond would be appropriate in some cases.
We’re also consulting on how to tackle abuse of the system, to make sure that family migrants who come here are in a genuine relationship with their partner.

Time and again, visa officers receive applications from spouses or partners sponsoring another spouse or partner soon after being granted settlement in the UK suggesting that the original marriage or partnership was a sham simply designed to get them permanent residence here.

For example, there was a Pakistani national who applied for a spouse visa on the basis of his marriage to someone settled in the UK.

He obtained indefinite leave to remain and then immediately divorced his UK-based spouse. He returned to Pakistan and re-married and then applied for entry clearance for his new spouse.

We simply can not sit back and allow the system to be abused in this way.

So we will make migrants wait longer, to show they really are in a genuine relationship before they can get settlement.

And we’ll also impose stricter and clearer tests on the genuineness of a relationship including the ability to speak the same language and to know each other’s circumstances.

We will also end the ridiculous situation where a registrar who knows a marriage is a sham still has to perform the ceremony.

Of course, the most grotesque example of a relationship that isn’t genuine is a forced marriage which is of course completely different from an arranged marriage where both partners consent or a sham marriage where the aim is to circumvent immigration control or make a financial gain.

Forced marriage is little more than slavery.

To force someone into marriage is completely wrong.

And I strongly believe this is a problem we should not shy away from addressing.

But I know that there is a worry that criminalisation could make it less likely that those at risk will come forward.

So, as a first step, I am announcing today that we will criminalise the breach of Forced Marriage Prevention Orders.

It’s ridiculous that an Order made to stop a forced marriage isn’t enforced with the full rigour of the criminal law.

And I am also asking the Home Secretary to consult on making forcing someone to marry an offence in its own right working closely with those who provide support to women forced into marriage to make sure that such a step would not prevent or hinder them from reporting what has happened to them.

We are also going to rewrite the immigration rules to reinforce the public interest in seeing foreign criminals and immigration offenders removed from this country and help prevent Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights being misinterpreted.

Of course, immigration is not just about people coming to live here for a while.

Some will want to settle and then join us as fellow British citizens.

But it’s been too easy to come to work, and then stay on.

It was virtually an automatic progress. We are going to break the link between work and settlement.

Only those who contribute the most economically will be able to stay.

And we are consulting the Migration Advisory Committee on how best to do this.

Citizenship should be a big deal for them and for us.

I’ve been to the ceremonies. They are moving. They work. But here too changes are needed.

So let me say one more thing about the journey to becoming a British citizen.

We’re also going to change the Citizenship test.

There’s a whole chapter in the Citizenship handbook on British history but incredibly, there are no questions on British history in the actual test.

Instead you’ll find questions on the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe and the benefits system within the UK.

So we are going to revise the whole test and put British history and culture at the heart of it.
The final group I want to talk about today are illegal immigrants.

People who have come here illegally, but also people who have come on a visa for a limited amount of time, and then not gone home.

We’ve got to be so much better at finding these people and getting them out of our country.

We’ve already made some big changes, telling credit reference agencies about illegal immigrants so they can’t get easy access to credit ensuring the UK Border Agency and HMRC work together more closely to come down hard on rogue businesses which use illegal labour to evade tax and minimum wage laws.

Creating biometric residence permits – which just like a biometric passport -gives employers much greater certainty over who they are employing and their right to be in the country.

A targeted campaign this summer has seen more than 600 operations and over 550 arrests.

And we are working to remove more people more quickly to more countries.

Since May 2010 we have completed a total of 68 specially chartered removal flights, sending home more than 2,500 people.

But I want us to go further and be even tougher.

For our part in government, we are creating a new National Crime Agency with a dedicated Border Policing Command which will have responsibility for safeguarding the security of our border.

But I want everyone in the country to help including by reporting suspected illegal immigrants to our Border Agency through the Crimestoppers phone line or through the Border Agency website.

Together we will reclaim our borders and send illegal immigrants home.

So that’s how we are going to get a grip of immigration in this country.

Real limits.

Proper enforcement.

Real control over how many people come here and who.

If we take the steps set out today and deal with the all the different avenues of migration, legal and illegal then levels of immigration can return to where they were in the 1980s and 90s – a time when immigration was not a front rank political issue.

And I believe that will mean net migration to this country will be in the order of tens of thousands each year, not the hundreds of thousands every year that we have seen over the last decade.
How do we know when we are getting immigration right?

It’s when we are getting the right people we need for our economy and when all those who come here do so for genuine reasons and join with the rest of society in making our country stronger, richer and more secure.

That’s the kind of immigration I want. And that’s the kind of immigration this government will deliver.

High streets get a boost from fairer parking in Wokingham

John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, has welcomed new measures to provide more car parking spaces in town centres. Anti-car red tape imposed by Labour is being scrapped, tackling the parking misery faced by shoppers.

Centrally-imposed limits on town centre parking spaces will be removed, helping to provide a big boost to struggling high streets and small shops, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced this week. National parking restrictions set by Whitehall have until now dictated the number of parking spaces a council is permitted to grant, often with a cap that limits the spaces town centres can offer even when they want to offer more.

John Redwood said:

‘The return of fairer parking is great news for Wokingham, its shoppers and businesses.

‘We are calling off Labour’s war on the motorist. We want to see more parking spaces to help small shops prosper on local high streets and assist mums struggling with their family shop.

‘Labour’s planning rules hiked up parking charges; they raised business rates by stealth and their licensing laws made towns less safe at night, driving people away.

‘In addition to ripping up the red tape on parking, this Government has scrapped Whitehall rules on town centres, doubled small business rate relief for two years and is giving councils more powers to tackle late-night antisocial behaviour’.

Question Time and Prison warders


          I am receiving a number of emails about the retirement age for prison warders.

          I sought to make it clear on Question Time that there are two possible answers to the problem of  later retirement for prison warders. The first is they may negotiate a general exemption from the  later retirement age. The government does accept that some employment like that of soldiers and police are special and justifies a lower retirement age.  The second is that within the wider public sector there might be more appropriate duties for 0lder prison warders who would find the modern prison warder role too demanding. As I made clear in the programme, I do believe strongly all these issues have to be negotiated with good will and commonsense on both sides.

John Redwood has received an update from the Ministry of Defence on the future of Arborfield Garrison

John Redwood has received a reply from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) about Arborfield Garrison.

In his letter the Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Liam Fox forecasts the closure of the garrison by 2015 and the disposal of the site.

He says the MOD are in negotiation over how much they might contribute to the costs of a new school and other infrastructure. They are also considering whether some of the MOD facilities could form part of a new school.

You can view a copy of the letter here: Ministerial Reply – Arborfield Garrison1.13.04.11.

John Redwood welcomes measures to reduce the disruption of future water mains renewals by South East Water

John Redwood has welcomed news that South East Water is now exploring a number of alternative methods for use in relation to future water mains renewal works in Wokingham. Following the significant disruption caused after continued road closures took place earlier this month in Finchampstead Road and Easthampstead Road/Heathlands Road, John wrote to South East Water to raise his concerns about the long delays caused by such works.

South East Water responded by saying that while a number of constraints often make highway work necessary, they are now exploring the possibility of laying part of the new main pipe from the Easthampstead and Heathlands scheme in adjacent fields, instead of under the main road.

In addition, they hope to use directional drilling – a trenchless method of construction – to minimise the scale of future disruption. This method only requires an access and exit pit for the insertion of water pipes, as opposed to the traditionally extensive excavation often associated with similar renewal works.

John Redwood cautiously welcomes flood prevention measures by the Environment Agency

Wokingham MP John Redwood has welcomed news that the Environment Agency is to carry out work at the River Loddon to reduce the risk of flooding. However, he warns that the agency is still playing a reactive game, and that it needs to be much more proactive in removing the causes of flood water from the river.

In a letter to Berkshire MPs, the Environment Agency has said it is to carry out work at the River Loddon starting on Saturday the 27th March. This work will include:

Removing an isolated shoal of silt that has built up at Loddon Bridge, to cut back the shoal downstream of Loddon Bridge in line with the original river bank in order to remove any restriction to the river channel.
Removal of the concrete spoil from the construction collapse below at A329M fly-over and associated silt. This is planned for later in the year. Gravels removed during these works will be separated, cleaned and re-installed into the river, where they will not create any flood risk.

John Redwood has expressed disappointment that the Environment Agency will not be carrying out any dredging of the river, as they do not believe full scale dredging will have any impact of preventing flooding.

Speaking about the work, John said: “I am pleased that the Environment Agency is getting round to the serious work of removing blockages to the river as I have been persuading them to do so for some time”.

“What we ultimately need is a flood alleviation scheme alongside a commitment to regular, planned monitoring of water channels and maintenance or dredging as soon as obstacles or blockages appear. This way, we will be able to prevent problems with flooding and stop taking reactive measures every time we suffer a supposedly ‘once in a hundred years’ rainfall”.

“I will continue pressing the Environment Agency to do what is necessary to prevent future incidents of flooding”.

John Redwood welcomes clarification of householders’ liability when clearing snow from outside their homes

John Redwood has welcomed confirmation from the Government that householders who clear snow from the pavements outside their homes are unlikely to face any legal liability should someone slip or have an accident.

In response to a letter sent by John to the Department for Transport seeking clarification on the legal risks to homeowners, Sadiq Khan, the Minister responsible for local roads, said:

“At present, there is no legal restriction preventing members of the public from clearing the snow and ice on the highway outside their properties; it remains open for them to do this.

Provided that they are reasonable and careful it is unlikely that a member of the public would face any legal liability, and those using the road or footway have a responsibility to be careful themselves.

Action by citizens to clear snow outside their properties does not remove the duty placed on the local highway authority by S41 of the Highways Act 1980 to ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.”

Speaking about the Minister’s clarification, John said: “I’m pleased that on this occasion the Government seems to be on the side of householders who just want to clear the snow from their drives or the roads outside their homes.

At a time when there is much vexatious litigation it is refreshing to see the Government apparently acknowledge that a bit of care and common sense is needed”.

Department of Children, Schools and Families responds to John Redwood’s petition on the Badman Report

Last December, John Redwood tabled a petition to the House of Commons on behalf of his constituents asking the Government to think again about the Badman Report into home education. The report recommended the regulation and inspection of parents who educate their children at home. Many parents in Wokingham were concerned at the onerous nature of the regulation and that it cast unfair suspicion on parents.

The Government has now responded to John Redwood’s petition. They have said that they still accept the conclusions of the Badman Report, which are incorporated into the Children, Schools and Families Bill currently before Parliament. However, they have offered reassurances that the proposals in the Bill amount to “light touch regulation” and that the Bill will also allocate funding for parents who choose to educate their children at home. The Badman proposals will oblige parents who home educate their children to provide their local authority with a statement of the educational approach and to submit to an annual meeting with their local authority.

Speaking about the reply to his petition, John Redwood said: “I welcome the Government’s statement that they recognise home education as an established part of Britain’s education system. They say that even after the Badmam Report, Britain will still remain a liberal place in terms of regulation for parents who educate their children at home. Allowing parents to decide their children’s education is a mark of a free society”.

“However, I am still concerned that the proposals in the Badman Report will allow local government officers to question children without their parents’ consent. This Government has a rather authoritarian record when it comes to civil liberties and interfering in family life, and I am not reassured that they intend to use any new powers to interfere in home education with restraint”.

John Redwood raises Wokingham flooding and water management issues in Parliament

Speaking at the Bill Committee stage of the Flooding and Water Management Bill on the 2nd February, John Redwood sought detailed answers from the Government on a number of flooding and water management issues that have been raised by his constituents in Wokingham.

The week before the debate on the Bill, John drew the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government’s attention to the fact that the Government’s centralised planning policy means a large number of homes have been build on the flood plain in Wokingham, despite the local authority not wishing such developments to go ahead.

While speaking on the Bill, John concentrated on two main issues. The first is the situation where water companies fail to prevent sewage rising out of the water system and mixing with flood water, which then causes damage once it enters people’s homes. John sought clarification on whether the law as it stands places a duty on the water authorities to deal with foul water that escapes from the sewer system, or whether the law needed to be strengthened further through the new Bill. The Minister replied by saying that Section 94 of the Water Industry Act gives householders and local authorities sufficient power to insist on repairs and improvements to prevent this happening.

The second area John focused his attention on was cases where local rivers flood. John urged the Government to impose a duty on the Environment Agency to keep the water courses free of debris so rivers can flow freely when there is heavy rain. John drew the Government’s attention to the fact that the Emm Brook and Loddon in Wokingham have flooded on a number of occasions, with flood alleviation being made more difficulty by the failure of the Environment Agency to keep the waterways clear. He pointed out that, while it has been very easy to get expert opinion, reports, memos, legal advice and Parliamentary debates on flooding issues, it has proven much more difficult to get the Environment Agency to actually start the physical work of clearing the ditches and water courses. The Minister offered assurances that the Environment Agency already has the powers it needs to carry out any necessary repairs to the flood defences.

On the issue of charges for water consumption, John asked who would be eligible for assistance in meeting their bills under a proposed plan from the Government to help low-income families who use water meters. John cautioned that it would be counter-productive to start taxing medium income and moderately worse off families to subsidise other people’s water bills, and sought clarification of how the Government defined “low income” families and what the cut-off point for support would be. He also suggested that the introduction of greater competition into the water industry would help keep prices down.

John’s contribution to the debate and his interventions, taken from Hansard, now follows:

(1) Mr. Redwood: In appraising the proposal, it is crucial that we know how the Minister defines people “who would have difficulty paying”.

Cross-subsidy might be involved, and we want to avoid the pretty poor cross-subsidising the even poorer, so it is important that we know where he is minded to draw the line.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, but that is absolutely why the Bill should not include specific definitions of who does or does not fall into that category. That is exactly the purpose of going out to proper consultation-so that those terms can be defined and we can accurately reflect not only how those individuals or households are defined, but how such definitions in a local area tie in with complementary national schemes.

(2) Mr. Redwood: The issue is the level of income, because I cannot persuade my fairly poor constituents to have a big increase in order to pay for somebody else.

Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Some of the figures put forward by Thames Water, which I can share with him another time, suggest that the number affected is a small percentage of the overall total. That means that if the money was to be recovered through other people’s water bills, the increase for everybody else would be miniscule in practice, so the slightly poor would not have to pay an undue amount in order to subsidise the very poor. However, he makes a fair point. The key issue with new clause 22 is the need to put the legality of social tariffs beyond doubt. While we have the Bill before us-what the Minister said is quite true: we might not see another water Bill for some years-new clause 22 is a timely amendment.

(3) Mr. Redwood: Has my hon. Friend considered how the introduction of proper competition into the water industry, for retail as well as for large customers, would solve many of the problems and probably bring prices down without a Bill?

Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment. We are doing some serious work in that regard. We have had some meaningful discussions with the authors of the two reports. We need to take a longer-term view, and that would be part and parcel of the White Paper, but it certainly could have a positive impact on bills.

(4) Mr. Redwood: I am very grateful to the Minister for being so helpful, but will he answer my query? Does the law as it stands place a duty on a water authority to deal with foul water that escapes and causes problems, or do we need to strengthen the law?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I shall return to that issue in a moment. I believe that such powers exist-not in this Bill, but under existing water industry legislation. However, I shall seek some inspiration to recall the exact Act.

(5) Mr. Redwood: That goes to the heart of a big problem in my constituency, where the rivers Emm and Loddon have flooded on all too many occasions in the past decade. Part of the problem has been the failure of the Environment Agency to maintain the free flow of the waters, which means blockages that exacerbate the flooding. I hope that my hon. Friend is successful with new clause 2.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful for that support from my right hon. Friend. There is an argument that the Government have reduced the maintenance programme while increasing along with inflation the budget for substantial infrastructure projects. Capital expenditure has been maintained and even modestly increased, but the same has not happened on the same scale with maintenance.

(6) Mr. Redwood: Is not one of the problems with this whole area that we can all get access to lots more experts, memos, legal advice and buck passing, but we cannot get access to any money for men in diggers to get the ditches cleared?

Martin Horwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes an eloquent point. The spirit of it is exactly right. It underlines the risk of endlessly creating more and more bureaucracy and responsibility. Some of it may be welcome, but if it is allowed to grow without restraint, we may find that the practical result is less flood defence, not more.

(7) Mr. Redwood: I welcome in particular new clause 2, tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues. First, I welcome the fact that it states:
“The Environment Agency must undertake a programme”.
We need greater clarity throughout the legislation on who is responsible for what, and the new clause gives a lead on that. Secondly, I welcome the requirement that the Environment Agency undertake regular maintenance of the major watercourses. Under existing legislation the Environment Agency is responsible for the major watercourses, but as I discovered when trying to follow up on the persistent-the all too regular-flooding incidents in my constituency in recent years, it is terribly difficult to get any single body to take responsibility. There is always buck passing between the EA, the water companies and the local authority; each of them makes out a case that it is not technically responsible.

Clarity is essential and, unfortunately, I do not believe that the Minister’s legislation, in its widest sense, provides that. The Bill seeks to provide it in some areas, but in other areas it will be a lawyers’ charter. I have a heavy feeling in my heart that there will still be endless battles to establish who is responsible for what. I hope that we have not lost the clarity provided in existing legislation on the fact that main rivers and watercourses are the responsibility of the Environment Agency. That should remain the case; the Environment Agency should maintain them to ensure that the flows are as good as possible, given the existing channels and water flows in those rivers, and should come up with major and minor capital schemes to improve them where we persistently and regularly encounter obvious flooding problems.
My constituency is typical of those which were badly attacked by floods in 2007-but this flooding did not just happen in 2007. We have often been told that these events happen once in 100 years, but for many of my constituents such flooding might be a two or three times in a decade event; it is becoming extremely persistent.

The main reason is overbuilding on the floodplain, which is often forced on the council against its will and when its judgment was rather better. In such situations, I have always encountered a secondary problem of inadequate facilities and the inadequate maintenance of facilities. That means that water flows are impeded or are simply too great for the facilities provided by the Environment Agency, the water company and, in some cases, the local authority, and thus there is bound to be another flood. I hope that the Minister will give us some comfort in addressing the initiative proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).

Let us consider the problems in my area. The River Emm is a rather small stream at most times, but can swell quickly; the River Loddon is a fairly big river, because it is close to joining the Thames by the time that it flows through my area; and on the edges there is the Thames itself and some Thames floodplain. All of those flood, and it is clear that some of the problem is the aggravation that comes from improper maintenance. All too often branches get caught in the River Emm, resulting in the detritus of leaves, litter and so on which creates a mini-dam at various places along the watercourse. Vegetation grows extremely quickly in the rather wet summers that we are having these days and that creates another barrier to the free flow of water. Clumsy people sometimes do not help the matter by putting a shopping trolley or an old pram into the river, thus adding to the trees and the vegetation, and before we know it, there is a dam in the river. Maintenance work cannot be done once a year; people have to be sent out regularly to inspect and to supervise. If a little work were done often, it would not be so expensive. We need boots on the ground; we need someone who walks the course. We need someone who has the tools and equipment necessary to remove that detritus.

One of the obstacles on the Loddon, which is a bigger river, results from the fact that people dropped a lot of masonry some years ago when they were building a bridge-undoubtedly this was a public sector project that caused problems. These people never bothered to take the masonry out of the river bed and so at a very crucial point where the river abuts a pub and houses there is insufficient depth. That is where it naturally floods. It also usually floods the main Reading road.

In the most recent bad floods, all the main roads to Reading were cut off, with the exception of the motorway. It is odd when someone in high-tech valley 35 miles from London cannot for a whole day make a simple journey into the main town in the middle of our high-tech valley because the rivers have not been kept clear or the necessary capital works have not been carried out to handle the water. I hope that the Minister will take this more seriously.

I am glad that the Liberal Democrats support the proposal. Their spokesman, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), has brightened up our debates, because it is the first time that I have seen someone come along with carefully prepared and beautifully typed-out scripts on each of the provisions, with his notes on the Liberal Democrat amendments on yellow paper, his notes on the Conservative amendments on blue paper, and his notes on the Government amendments on light pink paper-that paper should probably be dark red now, as they have moved on.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Deepest red.

Mr. Redwood: Exactly. I am sure that the Minister is upset that the notes on the Government amendments are only on mild pink paper.

Martin Horwood: I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that if he had tabled any amendments, the notes on those would have been on extremely dark blue paper.

Mr. Redwood: I think that was a compliment, but I cannot be sure. The hon. Gentleman’s well prepared support is welcome, and I am sure that he speaks for his community, as I speak for mine. I think that all sensible right hon. and hon. Members of this House would wish to support this proposal, because it is clear and positive, and it addresses one of the reasons why we have all too frequent flooding in our constituencies despite the fact that a stitch in time-simple action-would save nine.

The proposal would even be a public expenditure cut, and we need that at the moment. Little-and-often maintenance would mean that we would not have huge clear-up and clean-up costs and we would have none of the bureaucracy that one encounters after a big flood, when one sees inquiries, lawyers, highly paid executives, more quangos and more legislation. I assure the Minister that we are not short of any of those things.

When dealing with the flooding issue I have found all too many expensive and intelligent people to whom to talk, write or complain, or to receive memos or arguments from. I have met all too many people who work out strategies and plans, and who tell me why one cannot do it today but that one might, after spending a long time in a queue, be able to do it tomorrow. As I keep saying to these people, all we want is someone who does something: a man or woman in a digger who clears a ditch; someone who puts a new pipe in; someone who goes out to cut the vegetation down; or someone in a pair of gumboots with good sturdy tools that can clear a ditch that is too small for a digger to go down. That is what we need. I suspect that it would cost a lot less than the massive bureaucracy that this legislation and its predecessors has created. I want an Environment Agency that actually gets out there and does some physical work; I do not want an Environment Agency that gives 1,000 clever excuses while my constituents have to continue to be flooded.

(8) Mr. Redwood: I rise to discuss Government new clause 22. As I have said in interventions, we all feel well disposed and warm towards the aim of more affordable water for people on lower incomes, but I find it difficult to welcome the way in which the Government propose to do that, as we need some indication of the detail that needs to follow to make this a sensible and workable scheme.

The best way to make water more affordable for those on low incomes and for those on any kind of income is to introduce competition and get the costs of producing the water down. I believe that it would probably cut the cost by about a fifth if we introduced comprehensive water competition and used the pipe network as a common carrier. It is easy to do. It has already been done in the case of gas and other fluids requiring access to pipelines. There is no natural monopoly in the provision of water, the collection of water or the delivery of water. If there is any monopoly element in the provision of pipes, it can be dealt with quite easily by a proper common-carrier regulated system.

However, those who are introducing the new clause need to give us more indication of how poor people have to be to qualify under it. It seems to be a cross-subsidy scheme. As the Minister has been gracious enough to accept, if the very poor are beneficiaries, everyone else could be losers. The Liberal Democrat spokesman suggests that it will not mean much of a loss for people on fairly low incomes because not many people would be helped by the scheme. That may be true.

Martin Horwood: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was listening carefully, but that is not what I said. I said that, because the subsidy was going to be spread across a very large number of people-in Thames Water’s proposed scheme, the suggestion is that 95 per cent. would be subsidising and only 5 per cent. benefiting, although that might be a bit niggardly-that would mean a terribly small increase for everyone else. That is what I meant-that the moderately poor would have hardly any increase at all.

Mr. Redwood: I think that that is what I said in slightly different language. I said that not many people would benefit. The hon. Gentleman is saying that only a very small percentage of people would benefit. However, I think that he will find that quite a lot of people think that their water bills are too high. It is not just the people on the lowest 5 per cent. of incomes who think that their water bills are too high. I suspect that perhaps half the people think that their water bills are too high and a lot of them will be very disappointed, so we need to send the right kind of signals if we are really talking about only 5 per cent.

While the hon. Gentleman is right that, on the numbers, the increase for the other 95 per cent. will not be huge, there will none the less be some increase for people who are clearly really quite poor as they are in the bottom 6 or 7 per cent. of the income scale-because, on the hon. Gentleman’s numbers, they will be excluded. We therefore need to have a better feel for the numbers before we can come to a fair conclusion on this; we need to know how big the increase will be, how many people will be paying it, and how many will benefit. I still think it would be much better to find a way of reducing the bills generally, as that would alleviate problems for the many people who find the water bill difficult to afford and feel that it has increased too much in recent years with no improvement in the service.

I also wish to make a few remarks on new clause 18, tabled by my Front-Bench colleagues. It may be sensible, but both the Government and Opposition Front-Bench teams need to help me a little by explaining what they mean by sustainable water management. It is one of those phrases that people trot out; they say, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have sustainable water management?” It is very difficult to say, “No, we don’t want that,” as nobody wants unsustainable water management, but we have to unpack this common jargon and explore what it means. If it means we are going to have some common sense on the provision of clean water in adequate quantities at all times of the year and in all years to my constituents, I would welcome that. If it means that the water companies will do rather better in handling the disposal of foul water than at present, which would also matter a great deal to my constituents, I would welcome that very much, too.

Let me offer one of quite a few possible examples of poor water service in my constituency from the main monopoly provider. There is an area of nice housing where there has been over-building on floodplain land. That has led to too much surface water, which the drainage system cannot handle, so the surface water rushes through the housing area, hits and knocks out the pumps that are meant to take the foul water safely underground, and the foul water then swells up from underground and mixes with the surface water already running around in this low-lying housing area. As a result, people have very unpleasant things coming into their drawing rooms and kitchens, and they then cannot live in their houses for the next year while they are being cleaned out, dried out, re-plastered and so forth. That is totally unsatisfactory in 2010 in the United Kingdom, which is meant to be a rich and caring country with lifestyles of a sensible level.

If having sustainable water management means stopping such things happening, and saying to companies that allow them to happen, “You have some responsibility and you need to come up with solutions more urgently out of your rather generous cash flows and large capital programmes,” I am all for having sustainable water management. I suspect that this is what a lot of Members would find that their constituents want. They want more than the sensible and fine words in these various new clauses; rather, they want to know that something will actually happen. That is why I say this could be a very good idea, and I welcome what my Front-Bench colleagues are trying to do, but it can work only if the Minister both agrees that it is a sensible idea and then puts the detailed provisions into the regulations, so that monopoly local providers are under an obligation to deal with the obvious offences that we see in the service they are delivering.

The water industry as a whole has all the characteristics of a monopoly provider. Were we to have three dry and hot summers in a row-oh, blessed memory, when we had such things-I am sure that we would run out of water very quickly and be told we had to kill all our plants in our nice gardens because we could not afford to water them any more. That should not happen. These companies should be able to handle such weather conditions. Above all, however, they should be able to handle conditions in which we have quite a bit of rainfall. This country has had a lot of rainfall over many years; we seem to be having a succession of wet and damp winters and summers at present. Companies should be made to organise things so that they are able to handle such eventualities, because if customers cannot switch to another company that will do the job properly, it is terribly important that there is a regulator in place that will take the necessary action. I therefore hope that if we are in favour of sustainable water management, that means we are in favour of tackling these problems vigorously and thereby giving reassurance to my constituents that they will not be flooded in future.

(9) Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is the Minister aware that her top-down planning policies mean that places such as Wokingham have to build on flood plain, leading to flooding of adjacent dwellings, because they are instructed to do so when they would not otherwise dream of it?

Ms Winterton: Considerable guidance is in place on building and flood plains. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that guidance applies at various levels. It is important that councils are able to take decisions according to the situation that they face locally.