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Commons Chamber

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 5 November 1997

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 5 November 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Road Safety

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Allen.]

9.34 am

It is 10 years since the committee chaired by Dr. Peter North prepared its report on our road traffic laws. Since then, most of the changes in the laws affecting road traffic have been based on its recommendations. Ten years on, I believe that it is time to take a fresh look at road safety, for two reasons.

First, the committee did not directly consider the issue of road safety; it was not within its terms of reference, a fact acknowledged in the report by its author. Secondly, many changes have taken place in the past 10 years. The volume of traffic has increased enormously and road safety technology has made huge advances. There is also the recent phenomenon of road rage, most graphically brought to our attention recently by the tragic deaths of Toby Exley and Karen Martin in an incident west of London.

Another factor is the strength of feeling of bereaved families that suffer the loss of loved ones in killings on our roads. They see that the law is not effective enough to prevent those deaths or to punish those who cause them. That view was prevalent at the time of the North committee report, which mentioned that bereaved families felt that the criminal law was too lenient to those who caused deaths on our roads. That that strength of feeling has continued—and hardened—over the past 10 years, despite changes in the law as recommended by the committee, is testament enough that something more needs to be done.

I do not claim that this debate alone constitutes a thoroughgoing investigation of road safety, but I hope that it contributes to a continuing interest in road safety during this Parliament. In my contribution to the debate, I wish to concentrate on two road safety issues: drinking and driving, and speeding.

The scale of the problem of drinking and driving is all too apparent from the figures. Every year, more than 500 deaths on our roads are due to illegal levels of alcohol consumption by one or other of those involved. A quarter of those deaths are children. More than 10 people die every week. Another 40 people per week avoid death but suffer serious injury. In fairness, those figures were worse at the time of the North committee's deliberations by a factor of two, but since 1993, the reductions obtained following the committee's report have come to an end. Many people speak of our having reached a plateau. A plateau where 500 people die each year because of drink driving is not an acceptable point to stop. We must seek new measures to reduce deaths.

Every death on the road involves personal tragedy for many people. I should like to give one example from my constituency, to illustrate how far and wide the effects can run. The family of Mrs. Ingram in Penkridge included a brother, Gordon Husselbee, who emigrated with his wife to Australia. Last year, Mr. and Mrs. Husselbee returned for a once-in-a-lifetime reunion with their family in Penkridge. During the trip, they went out for a day to Ashbourne with two other family members, another couple. As they returned from a lovely day out, their car was struck by a lorry, killing the two men in the car and seriously injuring both women. The driver of the lorry was found to be three times over the legal limit for alcohol, even though he was working at the time.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who is not in his place, has particularly asked me to make it known that he, too, wishes to join me in extending sympathy and condolences to the family on their tragic double loss in 1996. He also shares my determination that changes should be made to prevent similar deaths in the future. The hon. Gentleman represented Penkridge until the general election, when boundary changes removed it from his seat.

Alcohol impairs a driver's capability, and the more alcohol that is consumed, the greater the impairment. I believe that the legal limit should be reduced from 80 mg in 100 ml of blood to 50 mg. That would save lives year in, year out. There is public support for such a change, and it is also supported by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the British Medical Association. I also believe that there is a proposal to harmonise the level at 50 mg across the European Union, but that is not why I believe that such a change should be made. I have made that suggestion because I believe that it is right for the roads of Britain. What is the Government's view?

After Mrs. Ingram and her family recovered from the natural grief that they felt at the loss of two members of their family, they suffered frustration and anger at the way in which the criminal system dealt with the driver who caused those deaths. They therefore determined to make a difference themselves, and from the market towns of Staffordshire they have collected a petition of more than 10,000 signatures calling for changes to the way in which the legal process deals with drivers who cause deaths through drink-driving. The Minister has kindly agreed to meet the family after the debate to receive their petition.

That petition calls for the immediate suspension of a driver's licence when he or she has caused death through drink-driving. It also advocates more use of the charge of manslaughter and greater opportunities for medical advisers to deny a driving licence on medical grounds.

A principled approach to reducing the number of deaths through drink-driving requires punishment that reflects the seriousness of the offence; an effective deterrent and consistent education. The punishment should reflect the revulsion felt by decent people when an innocent life is taken because of the irresponsibility of someone who drinks and drives. In 1994, 18 charges for manslaughter were brought, but not a single conviction was achieved. In 1995, there were just four convictions. In appropriate cases, manslaughter should be the appropriate charge. It is also wrong that drivers who cause death because of their excessive consumption of alcohol should continue to be at liberty to drive their vehicles between the time of the death and their eventual appearance before the court for sentence—often many months later. At the moment, the only possible restriction available is when a court imposes a bail condition that a person should not drive, but sometimes even the appearance at court is delayed for many weeks if the police bail a person from the police station.

A driver's licence should be suspended immediately if he is charged with a drink-driving offence. It is up to him to apply to a court before his trial if he considers that there is a reason why he should be entitled to keep his licence. Prison sentences should also be longer in appropriate cases when irresponsible drink-driving has led to death on the roads.

The best deterrent is when drivers know that there is a high risk of detection. That has led some to call for random breath testing by the police. Police powers to administer roadside breath tests are already quite wide. They can test after a road accident; after observing moving traffic offences; and if they suspect that a driver has consumed alcohol. The Government could help to strengthen the current law if they established uniform practice by all police forces. For example, Staffordshire police policy is to administer roadside breath tests after all road accidents, and all year round.

Effective education about the dangers of drink-driving should also be given all year round. In recent years, we have become accustomed to hard-hitting advertisements on our television screens just before Christmas and sometimes at the height of summer. All-year-round education would make a difference.

Those who drive under the influence of drugs represent a growing problem, but the technology for the detection of such drivers lags behind that aimed at discovering those who drink and drive. The dangers posed by that practice are increasing.

Speed is a bigger killer than drink-driving. In 1996, the then Minister estimated that 1,200 lives had been lost in the previous year because of excessive speed, including 160 children. Given that that is equivalent to more than 20 lives lost every week, urgent action is required.

A partnership has been established between the Staffordshire police force and the county council, which has led to a big investment in speed cameras and radar for the detection of drivers over the speed limit. The county town of Stafford is a speed enforcement zone. There are warning signs on every road entering the town and an abundance of speed cameras. They are sited according to laid-down criteria relating to fatal or serious accidents in a set period. That programme has dramatically reduced speed and injuries. Average speeds have dropped by 6.5 mph and the injury/accident rate has fallen by 29 per cent. That mirrors the evidence of the first pilot scheme that was conducted in west London in 1993, which led to average speed reductions of 10 per cent. and a fall in the injury/accident rate of 21 per cent.

The availability of resources for such a high-profile, consistent campaign against speeding is a problem. The Staffordshire police could not have afforded to buy all the necessary cameras for that strategy without the support of the county council. That reflects the strength of the partnership between the two organisations. The administration of speed camera detection involves the installation and maintenance of cameras, and the imposition of fixed fines. All those processes cost money. Will the Government consider adding an amount to the fixed fine to be paid to the police to cover that administration? That the speeding motorist should pay a slightly higher fine is in keeping with the notion that the punishment should fit the crime. The use of more cameras adds to the deterrent.

We should also educate drivers to understand not just that it is wrong to break the law, but that inappropriate speed causes accidents, injuries and deaths. Sometimes, drivers fail to see the need for particular speed limits—more needs to be done to establish in their minds the link between particular speed limits and the requirement for them to observe them. I commend such developments as local speed plans, safe routes to school and highlighting the special need for caution on rural roads.

Each year, an unacceptably high number of adults and children die on our roads. Responsible drivers want to drive in ways that minimise the risk of death and injury to other road users. A responsible Parliament will want to encourage and guide improved road safety through road layout designs and signs, vehicle specifications, driver training and testing, public education and the enforcement of our criminal laws, including effective punishment that commands widespread public support.

Parliament is not alone in seeking to achieve those ends—many organisations are willing to help. They include the police, local government, PACTS, which I mentioned earlier, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and even, I am pleased to learn, Vauxhall, which recently launched a campaign for children to be seen and to be safe on their way to and from school each day under the title, "Glow power—It's cool to be seen."

Today's debate comes early in the new Parliament. Perhaps we should look on our mission of improving road safety as a journey—naturally, a road journey. We sit in the driving seat, barely having switched on the engine and checked the rear-view mirror. I hope that today we shall signal our intention to move forward. From today, we must travel—wisely and safely, of course—towards our journey's end, where we shall want to look back with satisfaction on the fact that fewer people have been injured on our roads and fewer killed.

9.49 am

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for raising this subject and for the way in which he introduced the debate. I suspect that there will be both all-party agreement and Government action on the two specific points that he made, which I shall rehearse and emphasise.

The first is that if someone has been caught above the legal limit for alcohol when driving, it is clearly right that their licence should be suspended—whether or not there has been an injury—until the case has come to court, with the sole exception of the accused person going to court and asking the court for special permission to have the licence back until the case is heard. That should be the way forward. It is wrong and anomalous that someone who has committed an offence—in all senses, an absolute offence—should be able to delay the beginning of part of the punishment by the arbitrary factor of when the case comes to court.

If I were apprehended in Victoria street with a dangerous weapon, I would not be given the weapon back until the case involving the charge of carrying an offensive weapon was heard. I hope that what the hon. Member for Stafford has said will help the Minister for Transport in London to negotiate with other members of the Government—the Law Officers and the Home Office—to ensure that it becomes mandatory or, if not mandatory, conventional that a licence is suspended until a case comes to court. Clearly, if there are exceptional circumstances, those can be heard by the court, but it should be an exception that a driver carries on driving until the case is heard after having been apprehended and arrested for being above the legal limit for alcohol or for refusing to take a blood or breath test.

The second point raised by the hon. Member for Stafford that I want to reinforce strongly is that the costs of speed cameras and red light cameras should be recycled through charges. 1 do not want to delve into ancient history, but we had the same sort of argument over the enforcement of the parking meter system that the Ministers of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be having with Ministers from other Departments about this issue. The central Exchequer got the benefit of the penalties for overstaying at a parking meter, but the local authority had to find the costs of enforcement. That was changed and led to the City of Westminster, for example, receiving an immediate increase in income of £3 million a year; more important, however, was that the change made the parking meter system effective.

The task facing us is to make camera enforcement effective—not because we want to catch more people, but because we want more drivers to behave in the way that they would if they saw a liveried police car behind them or at their side. Only if enforcement works can the deterrent effect be achieved and that simply requires agreement on the recycling of all or part of the penalty, so that it becomes a charge and the system becomes a net cost regime.

I should declare, as is stated in the Register of Members' Interests, that I give evidence on occasion to lawyers in America on a civil liability case relating to small four-by-four vehicles. It is not relevant to the debate except that, as a result, I might be called an expert on road casualty reduction.

In general, we should try to move our debates away from road safety to the specific expression, casualty reduction. We could achieve a great increase in road safety without affecting the decisions that drivers like me make, which lead to the deaths of about 3,500 people a year. The reason for concentrating on casualty reduction is that that is what has been happening since the number of road deaths peaked at between 8,000 and 9,000 a year. The hon. Member for Stafford rightly referred to the increase in traffic and, in another debate, I would say how we can help to improve the position of those who walk and those who cycle, but today we are concentrating on motorised vehicle casualties.

There has been continuous progress and, speaking as a former Minister, I do not want to sound as if I am saying that my period as a Minister was when the process started. I see the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) in his place: he was one of the founders of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), who worked as the co-chairman of that body for a long time. It is also right to acknowledge the effective work of Jeanne Breene, who was the director before Robert Gifford of PACTS, and who now leads the European Transport Safety Council.

To pick up the position in 1986, which was about the time of the North report on road traffic law, I support the hon. Member for Stafford in saying that it is time to have another review of the law. I do not believe, however, that the North process was the particular factor that led to the drop in casualties.

In 1987, we set the target of cutting casualties by a third by 2000, regardless of the increase in traffic. We made a mistake—I made a mistake—because it was not possible to achieve that for slight injuries and we should have said so at the time; but we were right to set targets for death and serious injury resulting from accidents, which create gaps in families and cause as much pain as terrorism or homicide.

We hope that the Government will continue to make progress towards setting new targets, by category and with some idea of how those targets will be achieved. We need to consider pedestrians and the two-wheelers, both pedal powered and motorised. We need to consider passengers and drivers. We need to understand what has happened in the past.

I want to make a criticism of our media and then praise them. The criticism is that, since the world's most famous car crash happened in Paris two or three months ago, I have not spotted in the British or continental press any comparison, over time and by country, of seat belt-wearing rates, of the incidence of drink-driving or of the changes in the casualty rate in various countries. That is not the only thing that matters—there were other aspects to the death of the princess and her companions—but had they died because they had trodden on a land mine or been assaulted with a machete, people would have started to ask, "What about land mines?" or, "What about machetes?" It is no good covering such a crash, which gets almost the whole world paying attention for a week or longer, while ignoring the question of what can be done about rates of drink-driving, which might have dropped in some countries more than in others.

My praise for the media is that the fact that drink-driving became unfashionable, against the culture of young people in the late 1980s, was in large part because of the then sole national pop music station, Radio 1. When the controller, Johnny Beerling, approved of Radio 1 treating drink-driving as a news and current affairs issue for young people, he and the disc jockeys made a big difference to the outcome. I shall quote the figures, and I hope that anyone in the media who reads our debate will pay attention to them and start asking how we can transfer that success to the middle-aged, which is the age of most Members of Parliament. The number of people dying in drink-drive crashes fell from 1,800 18 years ago, to 1,200 in 1986, to less than 600 now. Those figures are dramatic.

The same rate of improvement is possible for older people. but only if we do not rely on hard-hitting advertisements or a hard-hitting judicial approach. I shall not argue against sentencing solutions, but it is the culture that makes the biggest difference. If, when I am out of an evening—at a pub, club, party or someone else's home—people expect me not to drink alcohol before driving, that is more powerful than the legal limit. If, as a host, I feel an obligation to have alcohol-free drink within reach of those who are driving, that is more powerful than changing the legal limit. If, when people such as me are charged with driving with excess alcohol in their blood, magistrates ask with whom I was drinking and where I had been—not to charge the other people, but to make them feel part of that social culture—we shall get the same improvement among older people that we got among younger people.

It has become fashionable to say that we do not need to spend money on new roads. That is wrong. In far too many communities, shopping centres, residential streets and school precincts are dominated by passing traffic. Whatever impact we can make with traffic management arrangements, we still need to remove traffic, wherever possible, from where people are.

The A27 bypass in west Worthing may not go ahead, but we need to ensure that the county council and national Government have the necessary resources to build the roads that reduce casualties.

Part of the reason for the reduction in the number of deaths has been the money spent on new through roads—not just on road traffic management schemes, although they are vital.

If, in five or 10 years' time, we can say that the number of deaths has fallen from 3,500 to 2,500, or to below 2,000, that will show that we have continued with measures that work. The very worst approach is to do things just because they sound good.

We must continue with the things that work best; very often they are also the cheapest option. In that way, we can fulfil our responsibility to cut the number of casualties effectively.

10 am

I want to echo the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and to concentrate on one aspect of road safety—safe routes to schools—with illustrations from my constituency.

It is deeply ironic that some of the most dangerous parts of our roads at crucial times of the day—very early in the morning and the middle of the afternoon—are near our primary and secondary schools. It is even more ironic, perhaps, that because parents have become increasingly worried about their children's safety on the way to and from school, they have begun to take their children there by car—thus compounding the problem and making the roads busier and more dangerous.

In my constituency, several schools are on dangerous roads, and, like many hon. Members, I receive a great deal of correspondence and a great many telephone calls—not to mention representations at my surgeries—from constituents who are concerned about the problem.

Most recently, in the town of Poulton Le Fylde only a few weeks ago, a young person was seriously injured when she was knocked down near her former primary school on the way to her high school. The incident took place in the area of Carr Head lane and Hardhorn road, both of which are near the two schools concerned, Baines high school and Carr Head primary. Fortunately, although she was seriously injured, she is making a good recovery. As often happens after such accidents, a massive campaign to make the roads safer around those two schools has been launched, led by that redoubtable campaigner, Mrs. Hughes, of Poulton Le Fylde. A petition has been got up, there have been interviews on the local radio and press, and local politicians have been lobbied.

Two weeks from now, I shall chair a meeting that will bring together huge numbers of parents, the police, the county council highways department and the borough council. In our well-meaning way, we shall all desperately try to find a solution that will make the roads safer. Some of those roads are winding roads; one of them has a particularly dangerous bend in it. None of them was built to carry the amount of traffic that now uses them, or to accommodate the amount of traffic that routinely parks along them at the very time when children are going into or coming out of school.

At the meeting, we shall discuss crossing patrols. Indeed, Mrs. Hughes and her friends have already secured a new school crossing patrol for the area. We shall talk about a new zebra crossing, about traffic-calming measures and about reducing speeds to 20 mph. At some point, we shall have to discuss the understandable but unacceptable methods used to allocate priority as between road safety measures. We shall have to examine the number of serious accidents—fortunately, no deaths yet—that have occurred in the area. In short, the whole point of the meeting will be to prevent such tragedies in future.

The point will be made that by taking preventive action and recognising the dangers, local people may be able to alleviate the problem, but, at the same time, they may undermine their case for road safety improvements. No doubt our discussions will be quite heated at times, but I hope that we shall be able to make real progress and to improve safety on the roads near those two schools for the children who use them.

We need a fundamental reordering of priorities; more attention must be paid to the needs of vulnerable pedestrians—children and older people. The Government need to get to grips with the problem, perhaps in the transport White Paper. Local authorities need more support in the work of creating safe routes to schools. The reordering of priorities to which I referred must result in road safety for vulnerable people not being tacked on to the end of debates but being kept at the forefront of everyone's mind.

10.7 am

I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for initiating this morning's debate. Britain's road safety record is good, but there is no doubt that it can be improved on. We often hear the past 18 years mentioned in derogatory terms; in this case, we can congratulate the previous Administration on what they achieved in that time.

The hon. Member for Stafford outlined certain measures which he believes will help. I agree with increasing the number of speed cameras and reviewing the drink-driving laws. As he dealt with that in some detail, I shall touch on it only briefly.

The transport priorities that my party supports will contribute, directly or indirectly, to improving road safety. I refer to maximising the potential of rail for the carriage of freight and passengers; to reducing traffic totals; to a shift from private to public transport; and crucially, to reducing the need to travel. We must implement planning measures and initiatives such as teleworking to good effect, so that people do not have to get in their cars at all. Local authorities have a key role in dealing with road safety and I shall outline some of the measures that my local authority, the London borough of Sutton, of which I am still a councillor, has introduced in the past two years.

The first measure that I commend to the House is STEPs—the strategic traffic and environment projects—which is a traffic-calming initiative. We have worked out criteria on which to introduce traffic-calming measures based on, for instance, the number of schools, rat runs, and accidents in a given area, and whether cycle paths exist there. We then identified the top priorities for traffic-calming measures within the borough. Rather than address each road piecemeal, we have dealt with all the traffic-calming measures in a particular square to ensure that traffic-calming measures do not simply shift traffic to a parallel road with no speed humps or other such measure. That has been successful and we have been gradually—regrettably, all too gradually—working our way round the borough introducing traffic-calming measures.

We are working hard on a network of safe cycle paths, which I occasionally use, and we want to introduce cycling in parks. May I take this opportunity to ask the Home Office to respond as quickly as possible to our request for a change in the byelaws? The council has introduced a mileage allowance for council employees using their bicycles to get to work or to council business. It introduced a "leave your car at home" day, which was supported by the health authority and many large businesses locally. I participated in that interesting exercise on a day when I had three or four constituency visits to make and it was pouring with rain. I concluded that it was achievable but not very easy.

Like many other authorities throughout the country, the council has introduced small-scale measures such as flashing lights to warn motorists when they are approaching a school. Those operate when children travel to, or return from, school. However, we want local authorities to have greater powers in respect of road safety. Speed cameras have already been mentioned. Local authorities, in consultation with the police, should be able to install those and use the revenues generated by them to improve traffic safety in their boroughs. Traffic wardens, who are now the responsibility of local authorities, need further powers to take action against non-moving traffic. We also want more 20 mph limits in appropriate places.

Those are some of the specific proposals that have been made. Another key measure that would directly or indirectly improve road safety is our pledge to increase the number of police by 3,000. People are deterred by the chance of being caught, whether for speeding or for drink-drive offences. Driving tests or probationary periods also need to be reviewed because there are far too many boy racers dashing around. At the risk of stereotyping, I shall describe them to the House: they wear their baseball caps the wrong way round and one can hear their loud sound systems blaring at traffic lights. They have only just passed their test, and believe that they are the local Schumacher and know everything that they need to know about driving. Unfortunately, they have learned the mechanical skills of driving rather than how to anticipate problems.

Further significant improvements in road safety could be achieved by introducing the full range of measures that I have outlined. Had those measures been in place, I may not have had the visitor that I had to my advice centre a couple of weeks ago. He was a postman who had been in a hit-and-run accident and has since been trying to get back his job with the Post Office. We want to reduce those tragedies still further. Should the Government decide to legislate on any of those measures or review the law, the Liberal Democrats would support them.

10.14 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on introducing this debate. I also congratulate the Minister for Transport in London on her new post. I have not had a chance to do so since she took over, and I hope that we can all work carefully and well together on the important issue of road safety.

May I issue a warning to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford? If he gets involved in road safety, he will get rather a reputation. Those of us who have been interested in the subject for many years have become known as eccentric. It is strange that the core of us who have, over the years, tried to maintain the House's interest in road safety are regarded as slightly odd, but it is also the most satisfying part of one's work. I spent many years in opposition—from 1979 until six months ago—and one of the few achievements in my career has been to make a difference in the number of people who have died or been seriously injured on our roads.

I became involved in this issue because my first private Member's Bill was the Children in Cars Bill, which was accepted by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). We moved on to a wonderful fight to achieve seat belt legislation, which was a Back-Bench success against the leaders of both main parties in the House. I mark that up to show that Back Benchers can make achievements over Ministers, if Ministers do not always go along with us. The reduction in the number of casualties shows the importance of seat belt legislation.

When I first came to the House, 1,000 young men a year were being killed on motorcycles. If 1,000 young men had been killed in a foreign war, one could imagine the debate in this House. One of the proudest achievements that our little group can boast is that we took on the motorcycle lobby and the Japanese manufacturers, and came up with proposals, which were eventually accepted by Ministers, for training motorcyclists and making large motorcycles less available less quickly. We have seen the results.

In that struggle, we formed the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, of which we are extremely proud. We learned early on that, if we wanted to make changes in respect of road safety, we would have to build a partnership between politicians, Ministers, police, road safety organisations outside this place and every concerned citizen. The best way to form partnerships is not to have "hearts and flowers" campaigns. I have seen those come and go and they do not work. The campaigns that work are those based on good science, good technological information and best practice world wide. Adopting or adapting best practice in a society like ours, whether it is in Australia, Canada, the United States or elsewhere, can often be valuable, but applying good methods and involving the best brains in the business is also important. We made sure that we brought together the academics, medics and other experts.

Increasingly, responsibility for the legislation that we used to pass has moved to Europe. I do not regret that, but many of the changes that we need to make—construction, use and much else—depend on achieving a Europe-wide, positive move. We set up the European Transport Safety Council, which is now one of the most respected transport safety lobbies in Europe. We must not forget that we must work with our European partners to bring the standards across Europe up to our standards, and then all improve together. Many of our people increasingly drive not just on United Kingdom roads, but on European Union roads, and some of those roads are extremely dangerous. We must broaden our horizons to protect our constituents' interests.

We are on a plateau, and more changes are needed. Too many people are losing their lives or suffering dreadful physical damage that affects their entire lives. We must continue to reduce casualty figures. One of the most important measures is speed control. That must be done intelligently, and the Government will have to provide more money for speed cameras and enforcement.

If we are interested in safety on the roads, we must not be seen as ghastly people who want to hang, draw and quarter offenders or lock them up for a long time. I do not want to do that to any of my fellow citizens; I want to prevent them committing the crime in the first place. Deterrence works, and the most effective deterrent is if people know that, if they go on the road and speed, or go on the road having drunk, there is a high chance that they will be caught. I want to save their lives, as well as those of their victims on the roads. A drink-driving accident destroys at least two families.

We need enforcement in relation to drink-driving and speeding. I do not know the Minister's mind on that, and sometimes, even within this exclusive company, we disagree. I have always been a champion of random breath testing. It must be introduced, as it is effective in cutting down the number of people who drink and drive.

I agree with the former Minister, the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), who said that it is imperative to change the culture, so that it becomes unacceptable to drink and drive or to speed. When that happens, we shall know that we have succeeded.

All the statistics show that children—and, to a lesser extent, old people—as pedestrians, and as cyclists, are especially vulnerable. The number of children involved in accidents is extremely worrying. Why, in particular parts of our towns and cities, are there more incidents in which children are killed or seriously injured? The picture is complicated, but we must confront it.

As someone who still has a couple of children at school, I notice as I drive around at school time that there is a relaxation in seat belt wearing among children, which concerns me greatly. One sees very few convictions for not having a child sitting safely in a car. The worst thing is for a small child to sit on an adult's lap in the front seat. I thought that that had been pushed out of our culture. I hope that my hon. Friend will speak to her colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment about renewing awareness that it is unacceptable behaviour to carry children in cars if they are not secured safely.

Enforcement is the key. We must maintain a cross-party approach. Sometimes there is a little party political argy-bargy, but not much. By and large, people of good will have worked extremely hard to make road safety a success. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will not get any medals; he will get a reputation for slight eccentricity, but I welcome him aboard.

10.23 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the opportunity for a debate of such importance.

Four years ago, I introduced the "Health of the Nation" strategy, which looked for key areas in which we could reduce ill health, disability and death. One of those was accidents, in which road safety is a critical element. That was certainly an area in which the strategy of cross-party alliances was welcomed by the then Opposition.

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). I have been pleased to see the way in which the present Government have built on the focus of prevention in health. 1 am confident that the introduction of collaboration between the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Health and other arms of government will be maintained. I used to say that any number of ambulances or health services could to little in the face of the deaths and injuries on the roads.

I pay tribute to my close and hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). It is true, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, that those who become preoccupied with road safety tend to have a sharp concentration on the subject. Attitudes have changed, and my hon. Friend is entitled to a considerable degree of credit for that.

I shall speak about a constituency issue. Road safety—the well-being of people passing through my constituency—is an ever-greater problem. In a debate yesterday, the Minister for Transport in London said that, in the face of growing congestion, there were three options:
"first, to make better use of existing infrastructure; secondly, to manage demand; and thirdly, to provide new infrastructure."—[Official Report, 4 November 1997; Vol. 300. c. 225.]

Hindhead on the A3 is at the centre of a major strategic route between London and Portsmouth. The entire road is now dualled, except for the 4.1 miles in my constituency. The hon. Lady and the House will realise that, with Portsmouth being the second busiest international passenger port in the country, and with the efforts to regenerate Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight and the consequent economic pressures, there is growing anxiety about the danger in the Hindhead area.

Legislation, speed cameras, road humps and all the other measures that make such a difference in many situations will have no impact at Hindhead. The Government are conducting a review of trunk roads. They also have a consultation exercise on integrated transport strategies. I hope that those reviews will consider the interests of road safety and economic regeneration in constituencies that are not my own, but are part of the region. It is a cross-party issue, and I am confident that, had we alerted them, the Liberal and Labour Members representing Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight would have been with me today, because they feel as strongly on the matter. I hope that the Minister will add her contribution from the road safety perspective to the arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) kindly visited my constituency recently. He was inundated by individuals who were complaining about the danger to passengers, pedestrians and road users in all the associated villages—in Milford, Witley, Grayswood, Thursley, Tilford, Shottermill and Beacon Hill. Throughout my constituency, there is deep alarm that the rural areas are being used as rat runs, with growing numbers of incidents.

When I met representatives of the National Farmers Union recently, the crucial issue that they raised was the danger to their members from the growing volume and speed of traffic on the A3, and the lack of alternatives.

I congratulate the Government on articulating their commitment to economic opportunities, prosperity and the gateway to Europe. However, if that results in ever-larger lorries, greater congestion and more traffic of all sorts using our roads, it will be a tragedy if, on every occasion that the Minister is asked to comment on the A3 at Hindhead, it is in relation to another death or serious injury. The area has critical landscape value of international significance, and there are also economic arguments in favour of the scheme. I am waiting for an opportunity to meet the Deputy Prime Minister with an all-party delegation in order to spell out those arguments.

My constituency has traditionally been a resting place between London and Portsmouth. Horses and carriages used to stop at various inns in the area. As a result, there are many extremely good pubs which are—thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West—also selling alcohol-free beer. I would hate my constituency to become known as people's final resting place between London and Portsmouth. Unless there is an announcement about the A3 tunnel at Hindhead, I fear that that may happen.

10.30 am

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on introducing the debate. He made some pertinent points. If I were to make any adverse comment about his speech, it would be that he stopped short of developing his argument about the growing concern about those who drive while under the influence of drugs. There must be scope for making a breakthrough in that area similar to that made previously in relation to those who drive under the influence of alcohol. I hope that the Government will respond to the increasing pleas from all quarters for action on that front.

In fairness to me, I think that I am correct in saying that the Department is funding a three-year study into the effects of the consumption of illegal drugs on road deaths. That study has been under way for only one year. What I said about the consumption of drugs was based on the first year's figures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, we must move forward on the basis of scientific evidence and research, but the relevant research is not yet complete. If I stopped short in advancing my argument, I did so because we are short on evidence.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but we must increase public awareness of the dangers associated with driving while under the influence of drugs. Many people do not seem to be too worried about it.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) for his typically sage comments. He and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) pleaded for the Government to concentrate on practical measures that work, which I am sure strikes a chord with everyone concerned about the issue. The Road Traffic Act 1991—my hon. Friend did much work preparing for it—has been the backbone of many changes that have given new powers to the police and local authorities to improve road safety. My hon. Friend reminded the House of the difficulty involved in persuading the Home Office to give local authorities the power to enforce and recover fines for illegal parking. That great battle in Whitehall was eventually won and we are now seeing the benefits of that victory.

There is a plea coming through today's debate for the same sort of imagination to be applied to the conflict between the local desire for more speed cameras and the standard response that the police cannot afford them and that more speed cameras will result in additional costs that must be borne by local people. If the revenue from penalties imposed for speed infringements went to local authorities rather than into the Consolidated Fund, authorities could make progress and invest in more road speed cameras just as they are investing in improved parking enforcement arrangements in London and other towns and cities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South—West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), whose constituency I took great pleasure in visiting again recently, pleaded for action regarding the A3 Hindhead bypass. I hope that the Government will listen to her pleas. There is no point in having trunk roads with bottlenecks, such as occur at Hindhead. Bottlenecks affect the operation of the whole route and cause people to divert onto other routes. Action must be taken in that regard.

The Government have inherited a fine legacy of sustained road casualty reduction. This country has the safest roads in Europe. There were fewer road deaths in the United Kingdom in 1996 than in any year since records began in 1926. The number of drink-related road deaths has more than halved in 18 years and there has been a substantial reduction in both deaths and serious injuries. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) for paying tribute to the success of the previous Government in that area.

Despite that success, there is still much to do. I shall concentrate on what must be done at a local level, because that is where the biggest impact can be made. Local road safety schemes were encouraged by the previous Government. It is estimated that 1,500 casualties and 200 deaths have been saved each year since 1991 as a result of the investment of £170 million in local safety schemes.

With local safety improvements, good road maintenance is also important for road safety and casualty reduction. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 accidents every week are related to road surface defects. It also appears that the number of such defects is increasing rather reducing. Between 100 and 200 road accidents a week are caused by defective road signs and traffic signals. Again, the number of defective road signs and signals is increasing. More than 1,000 accidents a week involve skidding. The Transport Research Laboratory estimates that well-maintained, high-skid-resistant surfaces can halve the number of wet-weather accidents. Speed often contributes to such accidents, but let us not ignore the fact that the road surface can also play a significant part.

The message is that good road safety and casualty reduction cost money. I have one question for the Minister, which I hope she will answer today: will she guarantee that local authorities will receive no less money for highway maintenance and road safety schemes next year than they are receiving this year? That is not a very strong demand; we are not asking for more funds—although obviously every hon. Member in the Chamber would like more expenditure in that area. Local authorities and those concerned about road safety locally fear that there will be a significant cut in the resources available for highway maintenance and road safety schemes next year. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to allay their concerns.

Privately financed local schemes are related to that issue. Essex and Dorset county councils, to name but two, have invested substantial resources in developing imaginative and innovative private finance initiative schemes for roads for which they are responsible. Essex county council has been promoting the Southend-Chelmsford road scheme. Six fatal accidents have been suffered on that road during the past 18 months. Tremendous road safety benefits will result from road improvements, but I am concerned that the Department—perhaps at the behest of the hon. Lady or of her noble Friend the Minister for Roads—has sent back those schemes. I hope that the hon. Lady will assure the House today that they have not been sent back in order to delay Government expenditure on roads, which seems to be part of Labour policy. Delaying decisions saves money, but it is done at the expense of casualty reduction.

I know that there is a parliamentary briefing today on the completion of the A66 in North Yorkshire. A county councillor, Michael Heseltine—no relation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—is leading a deputation seeking a commitment from the Government on further action on and investment in the A66, again making the point that the dualling of that road would enhance and improve road safety and ensure casualty reduction.

There is plenty for the Minister to get to grips with, but if she gives resources to local authorities they can continue to make important safety improvements such as those that have played a critical part in the overall success of this country, which is the envy of road safety experts throughout the world.

10.40 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this Adjournment debate and affording the House the opportunity to discuss the important issue of road safety.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House made interesting and informed speeches. The only slightly sour note came from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who made a somewhat half-hearted attempt to make a party political point on local authority funding. He asked questions that he knows I am in no position to answer at this stage, and which are bitterly ironic given that, year on year, the previous Administration cut local authority funding for the very issues that he now deems essential.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for his kind welcome. I must tell him that hon. Members who express concerns on road safety are not deemed odd by me, my Department or the Government, and his informed and detailed contribution to the debate confirms us in our judgment.

The United Kingdom has one of the best road safety records in the world. We have not reached this position by accident or as a result of some special trait in the British character but by hard work and careful planning over several decades. Thirty years ago, almost 8,000 people were killed on our roads each year. The death toll has now fallen to less than half that number—around 3,600. I pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Castle who, as Minister of Transport, laid the foundations for so much that has followed. It was she who in 1967 introduced the 80 mg drink-drive limit and the breathalyser—an act of great political courage at the time—the 70 mph speed limit on motorways, the goods vehicle operator licensing system and many other vital reforms.

However, it is unacceptable that we still have around 10 road deaths a day—a toll which would rightly be deemed scandalous if it occurred in almost any other transport mode. We are determined to bring down the number of these avoidable deaths and are working on a long-term target for 2010 and a strategy to achieve it.

In 1987, a target was set: to reduce by a third road traffic casualties by the year 2000 compared with the average for 1981 to 1985. Progress has been good. In 1996, deaths on the road had reduced by 36 per cent. to 3,598, and serious casualties by 40 per cent. to 44,473. The total number of casualties, however, has remained the same—about 320,000—but traffic volumes have risen by 50 per cent. since 1981 to 1985. The chance of being slightly injured in a road accident has gone down by a quarter and of being killed or seriously injured by nearly two thirds, but we cannot be complacent.

It was therefore announced on 15 October that the Government will set a new road safety target for beyond the turn of the century. Work is in hand to consider what new measures might be productive in terms of casualty reduction and to recommend a target figure and a coherent road safety strategy within which that reduction can be achieved. An announcement is planned for the latter half of 1998. Progress towards the new target will be monitored every three years so that the assumptions made when the target was set can be re-examined. The process will take full account of our policies on walking, cycling and public transport, reflecting the Government's work on an integrated transport policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford clearly stated his concerns about drink-driving when he highlighted its tragic consequences in the case of his constituent, whom I will have the pleasure and privilege of meeting later today. The campaign against drink-driving, sustained since the mid-1970s, has reduced the number of deaths in which illegal alcohol levels were a factor to around a third of the level when the campaign started. I can assure the House that we shall launch another hard-hitting Christmas campaign on 2 December. However, about three years ago, the steady improvement in the drink-drive figures seemed to bottom out and we are actively looking at ways to give it a further push. We have been listening carefully to road safety organisations and looking at research on measures taken in other parts of the world.

Among the issues is whether the 80 mg limit, set in 1967, is still appropriate. The basic evidence of risk has been refined by later research, but not fundamentally changed. Public opinion towards the drink-driver has changed a great deal and much of that change is due to the very successful campaigning by my Department and its predecessors. Most heartening is the attitude of teenage drivers, who take a far more responsible view than I recall from those of my generation. Unfortunately, however, that sense of responsibility is not reflected by drivers in their 20s, who are disproportionately involved in drink-drive accidents. It is at that group that most recent Government campaigns have been targeted.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) referred to boy racers. The Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 provides that should a new driver amass six points on their licence they will lose it and will have to pass the test again.

We must not deceive ourselves that a lower limit would solve all the problems. Half of those convicted by the courts were driving at levels at least twice the current limit, so there are several issues to address, besides the limit itself.

I noted carefully what my hon. Friend said about random breath testing and see the attractions of it, but I am not sure that there is any persuasive evidence that powers to test randomly would mean better enforcement. The Association of Chief Police Officers is not seeking a power to conduct breath tests at random. That, it argues, would be a waste of resources. It does, however, recommend breath testing after all injury accidents, and all forces now do that. Roadside tests now number 780,000 a year. The Association of Chief Police Officers has for many years sought a general power to conduct breath tests that would target the hard core of persistent drink-drivers. It is clear, therefore, that we must look carefully at whether we can improve the effectiveness of police powers.

Existing legislation provides the courts with a comprehensive set of measures and penalties to deal with drink-drivers. A drink-drive conviction almost invariably results in automatic disqualification for a minimum of 12 months. For a second conviction within 10 years, the minimum period of disqualification is increased to three years. Those who are convicted with alcohol levels of at least two and a half times the legal limit must present themselves for medical assessment before being pronounced fit to hold a driving licence again. The courts have powers to require convicted drink-drivers to become "learners" again for a period following the end of the disqualification and to order interim disqualification where there is an adjournment before sentencing.

I know that these issues go beyond the Minister's Department, but will the Government be open about the debate between Departments on the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Stafford, which is supported on both sides of the House, that when someone has been arrested for being over the limit or for refusing to take a test they should automatically lose their licence unless they get a positive approval from a court that they should not until the case is heard? Open government would help the rest of us to know the debates within government.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I can assure him that one of the benchmarks of this Government is the drive that Departments should communicate with each other. I shall certainly raise the point that he has made. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that someone who has been charged with an offence is not a convicted person. I understand, of course, the hon. Gentleman's concern that a driver who has been charged may continue to drive until his or her case is heard. The answer is to ensure that cases come before the courts speedily. The Government are working on proposals to reduce delays throughout the criminal justice system.

Hon. Members have taken up the issue of driving under the influence of drugs. It is correct that the Government are funding an inquiry that will examine the matter.

Speed is of particular concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and other hon. Members. We have made enormous progress on drink-driving; combating excessive and inappropriate speed is now the major challenge. Last year, about 3,600 people were killed and 320,000 injured in road accidents. Speed is a major factor in an estimated one third of all road accidents. But for people driving too fast for the conditions, more than 1,000 people might still be alive and 100,000 might not be suffering injuries, many of which are serious and permanent.

This is not exclusively a matter of reducing speed limits; we must get drivers to obey existing limits. There exists a wide variety of measures to persuade or prevent drivers from exceeding speed limits. They all help to reduce accidents and casualties. The long-term solution, however, must be to change our attitude to speed. Speed is not glamorous, not desirable and not sensible. It can kill and maim. That is why my noble Friend Baroness Hayman recently launched our kill your speed campaign—to make us aware of the potential consequences of exceeding speed limits.

I welcome the kill your speed initiative, but, at the same time, there is a great accent on speed in the advertising, especially on television, of new cars. We must do everything that we can, including approaching the Advertising Standards Authority, to reduce the impact of such advertising. We constantly read or hear of cars accelerating from standstill to 100 mph in a few seconds and being great performers at 120 mph. It is essential that we tackle the advertisers.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and it is one which I have had occasion to raise with car manufacturers in the past. Their consideration of the points that I was making was quite marked. I can make no promises, but the manufacturers are listening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned the effectiveness of speed enforcement cameras. Experience shows that they are most effective at sites with a history of speed-related accidents. Drivers tend to slow down for the cameras and speed up again once past them. Where it is necessary to reduce traffic speeds along a series of roads, cameras are less likely to succeed than, for example, traffic-calming measures.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the ability of highway authorities and enforcement agencies to place more cameras. There is a long-standing principle that money from court fines goes to the Consolidated Fund, from which it is not generally possible to divert money to fund enforcement costs.

A simple solution that is often suggested is to decriminalise speeding. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford presented other ideas for raising additional funds. At a time when we are highlighting the dangers and terrible consequences of speed, we believe that decriminalisation would send out the wrong message. I can assure my hon. Friend that, with Home Office colleagues, we are examining the funding arrangements for cameras to ascertain whether there is a way to make better use of existing cameras and increase their use where needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) expressed concern about the speeds at which vehicles are driven near schools, a concern which the Government and, I am sure, all hon. Members share. Finding ways to reduce speeds and accidents around our schools is vital in taking forward the Labour party's manifesto commitment to improve road safety for school children. It is an increasingly common view that roads adjacent to schools should have 20 mph speed limits. The view is promoted for the best of all possible reasons, but drivers, as I have had occasion to observe, do not always respect speed limits. To be successful, therefore, 20 mph limits should be supported by traffic calming, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said.

It makes sense to adopt a local zoning approach. A proper 20 mph zone with supporting traffic-calming features is much more likely to be effective in reducing speeds and, therefore, accidents.

One of our concerns is that an increasing number of parents are driving their children to and from school. The results of surveys tell us that the number of children being driven to school has doubled in the past 20 years and that journeys to school now account for one in six cars. We understand why parents want to drive their children to school. They think that children will be safer in the car than on the pavement, and our record on child pedestrian casualties adds weight to that argument. It is, however, a vicious circle; the more children are driven to school, the more traffic there is on the roads and the higher is the risk to child pedestrians. We must find a way to make routes to school safe for children so that they can walk and cycle and to encourage parents to allow them to do so.

Many schools and local authorities throughout the country already have school travel plans in place. Many more are working with parents, governors and children to find a solution that is safe and works for the school. The charity SUSTRANS designs and builds routes for cyclists, walkers and people with disabilities. It has set up a safe routes to school demonstration project with 10 schools in various parts of the country. It is essential that child safety is always a priority. It is not only walking and cycling which we wish to encourage. When children live too far away from school to walk, there may be suitable bus services that will avoid the need to drive.

My Department has provided research funds for two projects that involve examining how to reduce the number of children being driven to school. We shall embark on further research in this area. We shall also examine journey types as part of the fundamental review of transport to consider how we can make walking and cycling to school realistic and safe options for our children. These are serious and complex, but vital, issues.

I assure the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) that road safety is central to our White Paper on integrated transport. The concerns of her constituents are replicated throughout the country. That is why the Government are determined to put in place measures that will continue to decrease the number of people who suffer death or injury on our roads.

Agriculture (Wales)

10.57 am

In seeking the debate, my colleagues and I were fulfilling an undertaking that we made during the summer recess when, of course, we were all on holiday, as the Minister knows. At meetings with farmers, we promised them that we would raise in Parliament, as soon as it reconvened, the grievous crisis that is besetting the farming community in Wales and, by extension, the grievous crisis that is affecting the entire rural community. That was our undertaking and I am glad to be able to fulfil it.

Farming in general is under pressure these days, but it is generally accepted and well understood that the crisis is worst of all in the hills, and 80 per cent. of Welsh farm land is in the hills and so officially categorised as being among the less-favoured areas.

It is legendary that farmers always complain, and there is something in that. It is fair to say, however, that they are not unique in that. It is important to understand that the situation now is different. I cannot remember a time when there was such profound gloom, such pessimism and so little laughter among farmers. Their complaints these days are not shot through with satire and teasing as they have been in the past. They are genuinely pessimistic and gloomy.

Farmers fear for their livelihoods and for their very survival. More radically, they foresee the loss of a way of life. They ask specifically whether the new Labour Government care about farming and about the countryside, by which I do not mean just the landscape, which is terribly important, or wildlife and biodiversity, which is even more important, but the countryside, its people and its communities. Do the new Government care? That is the issue.

Farmers' minds remain open, especially in Wales, where many of them are part of the non-Tory majority. It is important for the Government to understand that political point. In Ceredigion, by far the majority of farmers are among the non-Tory majority. The Labour party should bear that in mind, because at some time it may need their practical support, albeit indirectly through other parties. Farmers are rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Government do not care: that is what they believe, and will say so.

The Government are on trial, and their credibility is at stake. If they care, they must show that they care. For a range of reasons, Plaid Cymru hopes that they will show by their actions that they care.

Let us make no mistake about it: there is a real crisis. Not since the war have so many things gone so badly wrong at the same time. A combination of problems is pressing down on farmers. Beef prices are worse than they were last year due to the continuing effect of the BSE crisis and the export ban, and the effect of a strong pound.

The strong pound has depressed prices across all sectors of Welsh agriculture. The high prices of lamb last year partly compensated for the low beef prices, although not all farmers keep both sheep and beef cattle. The strong pound does not affect prices only by disadvantaging exports and facilitating imports; it also significantly reduces the value of European support payments, so it has a double effect.

Farmers feel that whatever they do, they cannot win. Higher lamb prices in early 1996 led last year to a reduced sheep annual premium, but lower lamb prices this year will not lead to an increase in that premium, because it is calculated on the European Union average price for the whole year, which this year is high. Welsh hill farmers receive a double whammy: United Kingdom prices are lower because of the strong pound, and Welsh hill prices are lower still, even though the product that farmers bring to market is first rate, because lambs do not come to market until later in the year when prices are lower. By all accounts, SAP payments will be down and not up next year.

Does my hon. Friend accept that in 1995–96, as many as 40 per cent. of Welsh cattle and sheep farmers in less-favoured areas—where 80 per cent. of Welsh farmland is located—had incomes of less than £10,000? That was with the higher prices to which he referred, so the prospects for this year are devastating.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) for making that point. Income levels this year are certainly significantly lower than £10,000. On top of the problems that I have already described, there has been a sharp reduction—about 20 per cent.—in the price of milk, partly due to the strong pound. Worst of all, that reduction has coincided with Milk Marque's new collection charge system. We understand why Milk Marque introduced it, although its detail is questionable.

The combination of the reduction in price and the new collection charge system is driving farmers with up to 40 or more milking cows out of milk production while they can cut their losses. They have been driven out peremptorily, because they are losing money in production. The holdings that cease milk production will remain for a while producing beef and sheepmeat, thus exacerbating the problems in those sectors, until they are absorbed into ever-larger holdings, adding a further twist to the spiral of decline in our rural communities.

There is also the possibility of quota moving out of parts of Wales. The Welsh Office should keep a careful eye on that.

Farming unions reckon that 69 per cent. of farms in less-favoured areas in Wales have a net farm income of less than £10,000 a year: 80 per cent. of agricultural land in Wales is in less-favoured areas. Interest payments and reinvestment must be funded from net farm income, which leaves precious little on which to live.

It is small wonder that the results of a recent National Farmers Union survey were depressing for the prospects of hill farmers. It found that 64 per cent. of hill farmers are over 50, and of them, 18 per cent. are over 60: so it is an aging population. Of those who responded to the survey, 82 per cent. had children, and 43 per cent. of them stated that their children would not take over the running of the farm after them. There is a strong prospect of a mass exodus.

The reasons given by young people for not taking up farming were income levels, 74 per cent.; lack of long-term stability, 48 per cent.; and long working hours, 50 per cent. It is difficult to do anything about the last factor, because farmers have always lived with long working hours. However, it would make a big difference if the first two factors were tackled. It is the combination of factors which young people find so depressing.

The evidence shows that there is a real danger that farming in the less-favoured areas could go into steep decline. The problem is as serious as that. No wonder farmers are depressed. Unlike us, they see at first hand this decline taking place each and every day.

The effects of such a decline on social and cultural life, including the Welsh language, which we must bear in mind all the time, on the natural environment in rural Wales, which requires people to maintain it—we should make no mistake about that—and on the economic vitality of rural areas, would be far reaching and deeply harmful. Farmers and their children contribute enormously to the economic vitality of rural areas. We cannot afford to lose the tradition of entrepreneurialism not just in farming, but in other sectors of the economy.

We should also consider the loss of the complex and invaluable inherited skills of farming communities that cannot easily be recreated. A series of national vocational qualifications or even a degree in agriculture does not make a farmer. That skill is inherited: it is intricate, complex and rich. In 15 or 20 years, if not sooner, we may rue the loss of those skills. I am sure that in 15 years' time we will need people in agriculture more than we do now.

In that context, farmers see a Government who are not even seeking to stabilise the situation, let alone launch a rescue operation. They see a Government who want to grind them down even further. Cuts in over-30-months scheme compensation have led to a reduction in receipts from barren cows—an important part of milk farmers' income—of 60 per cent., with average prices down from £760 last year to £311 this year.

The Government are refusing to take advantage of European Union compensation for sterling revaluation, although all other eligible EU countries have done so. Ireland has just delivered top-up support for BSE-affected farmers to the tune of £17 million—£50 per beef animal. Farmers are asking whether that is fair competition in a free and open market, and, clearly, the answer is no.

Of immediate relevance is the Ministry of Agriculture's pre-empting of the outcome of this year's review of hill livestock compensatory allowances by freezing payments at 1996 levels, and its cancellation of the supplement paid last year in recognition of the BSE crisis, which amounted to some £9.6 million for Wales and £60 million for the United Kingdom as a whole.

There have been successive cuts in HLCAs since 1992. Ministers did not mention that last night. Those cuts reflect doubts in Government about the validity of HLCAs as support mechanisms. Along with others who understand the position far better than I do, I disagree strongly with that perception: if we consider the other options, we conclude that HLCAs are the best.

Maintaining production in the hills is vital. Animals of the highest quality are reared extensively in the hills, and the highest welfare standards apply. Hill farming, however, labours under disadvantages, and there are few opportunities for diversification. There may well be a need for change in the way in which HLCAs are designed, particularly to strengthen modulation, in which my party believes. We should, however, be suspicious of the view of some conservationists that HLCAs have caused both social and environmental problems. HLCAs are probably the best method of maintaining stock farming in the hills, and there is every reason to support the unions' view that they should be kept and restored to their 1992 real value. We also support, as a separate issue, the view that the BSE compensation supplement should be retained.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing time for the debate. Is he aware of recent research carried out by Aberystwyth university, that austere body which I know was also attended by some Conservative Members? According to that research, for every 10 full-time jobs in upland agriculture there are some 25 in the supply industry. The crisis affects not just agriculture, but life in rural Wales as we know it. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?

The only thing with which I might disagree is the adjective "austere". I never noticed much austerity at Aberystwyth, at least among the students.

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is well known that one of the best ways of putting money into the rural economy is to put it into farmers' pockets, because they spend the money locally. They do not go on foreign holidays, or buy outside their areas. We should also bear in mind the complex links between agriculture and all kinds of other sectors, and the possibility of developing further links through value addition. Farmers are currently eager to consider such prospects, but it is difficult for them to do so when they are under such pressure.

I have mentioned a number of ways in which the Government could help farming at this critical time. Another way in which they could help is by applying themselves seriously to the task of lifting the beef export ban. I think that we can all agree that, whatever applied in the past, there is no longer any justification for retaining it.

I am glad that the Government are adopting the date-based export scheme, which enables animals born after 1 August 1996 to be exported. They have put that scheme on the table in Europe, alongside the certified herd scheme. The date-based scheme is far preferable to the certified herd scheme, and—given that passports are available from that date—perfectly practicable and safe.

The question is, how hard are the Government pushing the scheme? How high a priority is it in their diplomatic and negotiating activity in the European Union? In rural Wales it is a top priority, and we expect the Government to reflect that through the intensity of their lobbying. They, too, should make it a high priority. The lifting of the ban would not deliver all the results that we want overnight, but it would be a tremendously important threshold to cross, recreating abroad the confidence in beef as a product that has already been recreated in the United Kingdom.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue is no longer the safety of British beef—which is the safest in the world—but marketing confidence, both in the United Kingdom and in Europe? That is what we need if we are to get our beef back on to the European market.

Absolutely—and lifting the export ban is crucial to that.

Before I end my speech, I want to say a little about reform of the common agricultural policy. Farmers accept that CAP reform is necessary, that it is coming and that it will probably have to be radical. They accept that some of the problems besetting them, and besetting rural areas, are a consequence of the worst aspects of the CAP. The principle of environmental management payments as the main mechanism for support is gaining widespread acceptance among farmers. What is essential is that the distinctive needs of Wales, and the distinctive views of Welsh farmers, are strongly represented in the process of considering CAP reform.

The priorities of Welsh fanning are not those of the south of England. Indeed, in certain cases there are conflicts of interest. For example, the Farmers Union of Wales—like Plaid Cymru—supports sensible and flexibly applied modulation: I use that dirty word again. The dominant voice of English farming does not support modulation. I want a clear commitment that, in this as in other matters, the United Kingdom Minister of Agriculture, who makes policy—not just the Secretary of State for Wales, who, by and large, is able only to influence—will listen to and take account of the voice of the people and the farmers of Wales. The time for him to start doing that is now, while discussions about CAP reform are proceeding.

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that there are also lowland farmers in Wales, particularly in my constituency? When the Minister of Agriculture takes the needs of farming in Wales into consideration, he should take account of all farming, not just hill farming.

Absolutely. I dare say that there are conflicts of interest about that even within Wales at times; it is never a simple issue. We need the kind of CAP reform that will deliver good, sustainable, healthy agriculture everywhere. Specific hill-farming issues need to be considered, however, and CAP reform is relevant to those issue.

I repeat that the Government's reputation is at stake. I am glad that meetings have taken place recently, and I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State for Wales said: he recognised the existence of severe problems that might have far-reaching effects. What we want now is action, and I want to hear what that action might be.

11.18 am

I speak as a Member who has inherited part of the former constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis), so I am aware of many of the difficulties that he has mentioned.

During the past six months, I have had several meetings with farmers in my constituency to listen to their concerns. I have met groups from the two Welsh farming unions. It is interesting that only one supports modulation, so it seems that Plaid Cymru is meeting the needs only of one section of Welsh farmers. I have taken time to visit several holdings of various sizes and types, with differing sectors of interest.

The one message that comes back from all those farmers is their sheer desperation at the constant and extensive battering to which every aspect of agriculture has been subjected in the past few years. At those meetings—I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion will agree about this problem—farmers also spoke of the delay between action and its impact on the rural community.

For example, the beef sector, which is of great importance to west Wales, has been struggling with the consequences of the former Government's ineptitude and bungling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy issue since the mid-1980s. Although farmers in my constituency welcome the current Government's moves to get the ban lifted, the long-term financial and economic effects still live on.

The dairy sector has had to cope with the former Government's decision to negotiate quotas within the European Union for only 80 per cent. of United Kingdom domestic demand, while the Irish Government negotiated quotas for 120 per cent. of their domestic demand. The natural consequence has been Welsh and UK farmers sitting by, unable to produce more, while imports flood in from elsewhere to satisfy domestic need. With the additional burden to dairy farmers of Milk Marque collection charges, is it surprising that independent organisations predict that, by 2000, 50 per cent. of the UK's milk will be produced by only 7,000 major dairy farmers? In addition, arable farmers in Wales were incensed at their unequal treatment by the previous Government compared with their farming colleagues in England.

Coupled with all that is the feeling among fanners that they are being squeezed from both sides—as a result of the misfortunes suffered by the industry in recent years and, at the other end of the spectrum, by the large retail outlets that are dominating markets and reducing even further farmers' diminishing capacity to make a living. There is no doubt that that is exemplified in the National Farmers Union's national survey of hill farming published this week, to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Sixty-four per cent. of farmers who replied to the survey were over 50 years of age and 18 per cent. were over 60 years of age. Eighty-two per cent. had children, but 43 per cent. of those said that their children would not be taking over the running of the farm when they retired.

That is worrying enough in general terms, but in Wales those facts have even wider cultural and social implications than in other parts of the UK. The rural economy throughout the UK is underpinned by agriculture. In addition in Wales, culturally and linguistically, unique communities rely on the economic success of agriculture. Therefore, when our farmers suffer, it threatens the very fabric of Wales's individuality.

Of particular concern to me and my constituents is the fate of hill farmers. Only two weeks ago, I visited a 200-acre hill farm in my constituency and heard the plight of the 40 per cent. of hill farmers in Wales's less-favoured areas whose net incomes are less than £10,000 a year. None of the children of the group of farmers whom I spoke to were entering farming; they were seeking employment in other sectors with better earning potential.

In my maiden speech, I said that there was an exodus of 11.54 per cent. of young males aged 16 to 24 out of the county, but, at the same time, an influx of 27.6 per cent. of males aged over 65. That has already had an impact. If it is unchecked, areas such as west Wales will eventually exist simply as areas of recreation and retirement for people who have spent their economically active lives elsewhere.

The new Government have already made bold and positive moves that will secure the future of a living countryside, thereby showing their commitment to halt the decline. As has been mentioned, action by the Minister to end the beef ban is welcome. Before the election earlier this year, Labour was the only UK political party to send a delegate to the conference on rural development to seek positive ways to revitalise our rural community. The new Welsh Assembly at last offers real opportunities for Welsh farmers and rural communities to have their voices and specific demands addressed regionally.

All those policies show a firm commitment to preserving and enhancing rural communities and the agricultural basis on which they depend, but they will all take time to implement. In the meantime, many of our farmers are suffering unwarranted hardship and financial crises. I ask the Minister to examine ways, as has been done in health and education, of providing more short-term financial assistance to our farmers, if that is at all possible, within the Government's sensible and stabilising long-term policies, both to address the neglect of 18 years of Conservative Government and to ensure that
"with safe land in sight—the ship does not sink before it gains the shore".

11.25 am

It is good to follow the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Ms Lawrence). She has been doing her homework in visiting farms in her constituency, which is the best way to find out precisely what is going on. I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) for raising this topic, which is vital in my constituency, a mainly farming area, with up to 25 per cent. of the population dependent on farming in one way or another.

Hill farms, upland farms, small dairy farms and smallholdings have all been badly hit, particularly in the past two years or so. Upland farms, which come between hill farms and lowland farms, have a less robust support system than some of the hill farms, and they have been particularly badly hit, and—I say this as an agriculturist—the push factors out of farming are acute.

Between 1992 and 1997, hill livestock compensatory allowances were cut twice by the Conservative Government. Those HLCAs are in the less-favoured areas and are a social support mechanism. They are vital for maintaining people in the hills and uplands. Clearly, that is crucial in areas of Wales such as my constituency, where practically nowhere is less than 400 ft above sea level.

The previous Government muddled the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis with HLCA payments. They used the HLCA mechanism to add on a special one-off £60 million payment. Fair enough, the money was needed, but it was for only one year. The present Government are religiously cloning the previous Government's budget and now we have a crisis. I sincerely hope that that budget will be consolidated and changed into HLCA payments.

The rise of the pound against the European currency unit of 20 per cent. has created huge problems, particularly in terms of the reduction in ewe premiums of up to 40 per cent. We do not have to be magical mathematicians to realise that if a farmer has a 600-ewe flock and the ewe premiums have gone down from approximately £20 to £12, that is a big loss for that farmer.

For small upland dairy farms, there are lower cull cow prices as a result of the over-30-months-scheme weight limits and lower milk prices. Smallholdings are in crisis as well. Farmers have occasionally cried wolf when the situation has not been as serious, but it is really serious now, and all the farms to which I refer are family units.

In the current financial year, one county council smallholding in my constituency will be £19,500 down on the previous financial year. It is not difficult to see where that is coming from—the reduction in milk prices of £13,500; the reduction in barren cow prices of £3,000; and the reduction in calf sales of £3,000, all in the past 12 months. It is not this Government's fault; it is the result of all sorts of things that happened under the previous Government. We have a major crisis on our hands. The farm comprises only 50 acres, but three children have been reared there. Now, the farmer rightly says that this is the worst crisis in agriculture since the 1930s, and I do not think that that is an overstatement.

One particular plea to the Minister is to chivvy up his Department and get the ewe premium payments expedited. Many farmers in Wales have not received them; they would make a big difference to them on the threshold of winter. The previous Government cut staffing, so it has taken a long time to expedite the payments.

I recently visited three farms in the famous area of Beulah. The Beulah ewe is known worldwide as a first-rate breeding ewe. It is the dam of the Welsh mule. The farmers whom I visited enjoy a fantastic vista across to the Cambrian mountains. We could see nine family farms spread out in front of us, but only two of them had sons who could carry on the business. That is a major crisis.

One farmer I visited had two daughters, one of whom had worked on the farm—but even she, as a professional shepherd, had left because she could earn more money working as a shepherd in Wiltshire than she could earn on the family farm. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion said, net farm incomes are too low to support two people. Indeed, the Welsh farm management survey has forecast a reduction of 40 per cent. in farm incomes in the current financial year. That is a huge crisis for farmers. Young farmers are not prepared to stay at home and live on a poverty wage. Who can blame them? But that means that the countryside will rapidly depopulate. We have already heard this morning statistics on the average age of farmers in upland Wales. The all-Wales agri-environmental scheme is about to be introduced, and the Liberal Democrats welcome that. However, it appears that it will not be as well financed as the pilot Tir Cymen scheme. It is vital that the overall income used for production purposes on our upland farms is compensated for in the agri-environmental scheme. There must be no less money coming in to support our family units.

The whole rural economy is in crisis. The powerhouse agency must have a sound and thrusting strategy for small businesses. It must ensure that rural families have sufficient income from off-farm activities as well as from on-farm activities. There is the whole question of changes from 5b funding to objective 2. I understand that a great deal of 5b money has not been claimed in Wales, and we must get access to that.

What are the solutions to the problems that I have outlined? We must have the £60 million BSE payment—which was one-off—incorporated into HLCAs. The HLCAs must be restored to their 1992 levels, before the Tories cut them, plus inflation. We have to secure green pound compensation, which will greatly assist the impact on the ewe premium and on milk prices. We must raise the weight limits on the over-30-months scheme. We must take up the European Union retirement scheme, which the previous Government would not do. I well remember the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), in a previous decade, saying that he would not touch it. He was wrong to take that view.

We must adopt the European Union's scheme for young farmers, which gives them access to funding, so that they can obtain working capital to help them make a start on their farms. We must ensure that the Agenda 2000 proposals take into account an element of modulation on a UK basis and, indeed, on a Welsh basis, to support family units.

Clearly, we must ensure that the beef export ban is lifted, and we must prevent sub-standard beef imports. That would be an important move. In the beef industry, many livestock farmers would like additional support for beef heifers coming off upland farms. The price for heifers is rock bottom. A real crisis confronts family farms in upland Wales. When I talked to farmers, as I did over the summer, I was told that they were having to sell their beef herds because they could not make them pay. That leaves only one enterprise in our hills—sheep. That is a real crisis.

11.35 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) on securing time for this important debate. I welcome the contributions of the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Ms Lawrence) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey). Many of the points of real concern to the agriculture industry have already been aired. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire referred to the crisis surrounding entrants into the industry.

One major concern is that the average age of people in the agriculture industry is steadily rising. Young people no longer want to come into the industry. Therefore, packages to support young farmers are important. I think in particular of pensions and of the European Union schemes. When I visited France with the Select Committee on Agriculture, I found young farmers from Wales taking up the offers available in that country. They could not stay in Wales because there was nothing on offer.

The immediate crisis facing the industry in Wales must be set against the background of continuing concern about the viability of the industry in general. Indeed, we need to look at the viability of the whole rural economy. It is important to put the debate into the context of the employment crisis, but that must be set against the background facing the rural economy year on year. We cannot look at agriculture in isolation—it must be part of an integrated rural strategy, bringing the strands together. If the economic powerhouse is to make a real impact in rural Wales, it must ensure that the integrated approach is uppermost in its policy.

Although agriculture faces major problems, it is still the major player in the economy of rural Wales. We have heard eloquent speeches, from both sides of the House, about the immediate crisis facing the industry. For example, we heard about the problems surrounding the strength of the pound; the green pound and its effect on commodity support; the BSE crisis and the previous Government's refusal—and, so far, the refusal of this Government—to ask the European Union for additional support; the reduction of support through the over-30-months scheme; and the continuing ban on exports.

I am pleased that certain moves have been made to resolve the crisis. If the Government secure a raising of the ban on beef exports, that will boost confidence and aid the marketing strategy of the beef sector. That should be an immediate aim.

We have also heard much about hill livestock compensatory allowance payments. There is no immediate prospect of an increase in those payments. Farmers are aware that although prices have been frozen this year, the prospect is that they will be frozen again next year. A freeze is likely, because the Government have adopted for at least two years the previous Administration's spending plans.

Unless Ministers are prepared to consider switching money from other budgets in the Welsh Office, farmers face the prospect that HLCA payments will again be frozen next year. The effect of such a freeze on farmers in difficult areas will be devastating. This year, therefore, farmers are making the case that the review should be a real one and should not be conducted against a background of frozen payments.

Current pressures on the industry are adding to the underlying problems that it faces. There are two major concerns on the horizon—common agricultural policy reforms and Agenda 2000, and the World Trade Organisation talks. We must consider how the industry will be supported, because it must be supported.

People from every part of the political spectrum realise that agriculture cannot survive without support in some areas in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom. The nature of support for the industry will change over time, but it must have support.

For all types of reasons, Plaid Cymru Members support the shift from headage payments to agri-environmental payments, although we place some caveats on that support. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion made clear, agri-environmental payments must be regarded as part of a package rather than as the entire answer. Commodity support—added to the agri-environmental part of the equation—must be retained in one form or another.

Secondly, the Government must show clearly that they are committed to keeping their side of the bargain. Let us acknowledge the fact that, currently, the European Union finances 100 per cent. of commodity support. The problem with agri-environmental payments is that they must be co-financed. Based on the record of recent Governments, however, we cannot rely on European payments being co-financed. Whenever European Union support required matching income, the Conservatives Government refused to do it properly. The result has been that farmers in other parts of the European Union receive co-financed support, annually giving them greater income buoyancy.

A question that Ministers will have to answer is whether they will ensure that a shift to an all-Wales agri-environmental scheme is properly financed. We should remember that the Tir Cymen pilot scheme has been largely successful, building on the previous environmentally sensitive area schemes—some of which were successful, although others were not. Although the results of ESA schemes have been patchy, the Tir Cymen scheme has built on their successes and examined the possibilities of co-farm management.

The Tir Cymen scheme has been generally successful because it was targeted; the available pot of money was not spread too thinly and it dealt with only one geographical area. The problem with an all-Wales scheme is that, unless the Government realise that more money must go into the system, only one of two options will be available. The first option is that the butter will have to be spread more thinly, which—because there will be no incentive—will deter many farmers from entering the system. The second option is to prevent some farmers from entering the scheme.

An all-Wales scheme can work in only one of those two ways. The real fear among Welsh farmers is that the second option will prevail, and that the rules will be rigged to prevent some farmers from joining the scheme. Many farmers believe that such an outcome is likely, although I hope that Ministers will convince hon. Members that it is not.

The point made earlier in the debate about CAP reform was well taken, because such reform must be made. I am sure that all hon. Members believe that allowing 80 per cent. of the aid to go to 20 per cent. of farmers is a grotesque situation. I should tell the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire that Plaid Cymru Members support modulation, because we believe that help must be targeted. We support modulation not to ensure that those with large farms continue to fill their pockets with European money, but to ensure that the Welsh traditional family farm receives targeted support and that cuts under CAP reform do not disproportionately hit small family farms. Most farmers in Wales share those objectives. In targeting aid, we shall not only reduce the CAP budget but ensure that farmers who really need help receive it in the most beneficial form.

HLCA payments have always been regarded as socio-economic payments, assisting farmers who farm in difficult areas. There is even a system within HLCAs that distinguishes specially disadvantaged areas from disadvantaged areas. HLCA payments have always been made on the basis that more assistance should be given in the areas where it is more difficult to farm. Over the years, many people have examined different systems of providing such support, but no one has yet devised a better one. Everyone has been forced back to the conclusion that the current system is the fairest way in which to provide money. Although I realise that we might have to re-examine the current system to ensure that it is properly targeting payments, it is broadly accepted by the industry.

The Government's decision to freeze HLCA payments this year is no different from the decision made by the previous Government. I remember so well hearing an agriculture Minister say at a sitting of the Select Committee on Agriculture, "Of course, we shall have to consider reducing HLCA payments to farmers in years in which their incomes go up. That must be seen not as support in the traditional sense, but as support when incomes are low. Payments are increased when farmers' incomes are low and go down when incomes rise." Over the past 10 years, however, the problem has been that payments have been cut when incomes are high, but have never been increased when incomes are low. Over the past 15 years, in real terms, HLCA payments have been eroded considerably.

By observing the lines on graphs, we know that, ultimately, HLCA payments will simply disappear. That is the obvious outcome. For many years, there has been a type of shadow-boxing in progress, in which farmers argue and lobby for greater HLCA payments. Although Ministers listen, they do not listen properly, because the payments are never increased. The payments are withering on the vine. We can predict that, in about 10 years, the value of the payments will be virtually nothing.

What is the Government's policy on HLCA payments? Do Ministers want them eventually to disappear? If so, what do they think should replace them? Everyone involved in the debate realises that if support is withdrawn, agriculture will simply cease to exist as a living industry in some areas of Wales. My hon.Friend the Member for Ceredigion touched on an important point when he said that we are talking not only about the economy of rural Wales but about the fabric of rural society. Hon. Members who have visited farms in rural Wales realise the difficulties facing those farms.

There is a consensus among all politicians that support is necessary. The difficulty has always been to ensure that that support comes at the right time. As it does not come at the right time, there is a continual drift from the land, and agriculture becomes an aging industry. Agricultural colleges are failing to attract students because young people no longer see agriculture as an attractive industry.

This year's crisis is immediate, and the Government need to deal with it, but I should like the Minister to give us an idea of how he sees the future of agriculture. Do the Government have any plans to attract young people into the industry in future? Do they see agriculture forming an important part of an integrated rural strategy? Do they have any real policies to breathe life back into the countryside?

11.49 am

I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) in securing this debate on an issue of great importance to all the people of Wales. However, I found his remarks to the effect that the Government do not care about agriculture not only inaccurate but rather offensive, especially to Members of Parliament such as me who represent rural constituencies and who have a good relationship with the farming unions and, I am pleased to say, with the farmers themselves.

The Government have inherited an extremely difficult situation. As was outlined by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in yesterday's debate, which I know the hon. Member for Ceredigion attended, mitigation of the hardship suffered by hill farmers unfortunately has a price tag. The most realistic assessment of that price tag is that it would cost no less than £440 million this year to introduce the measures that the hon. Gentleman suggested in respect of the over-30-months scheme, revaluation of the green pound, agri-monetary compensation and so on. The remarks made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion bear the hallmark of irresponsibility, because his party will never have the opportunity to introduce legislation and will never have responsibility for the economy of the United Kingdom. It is all very well for him to press for those measures, but, realistically, given the extremely difficult situation that the Government have inherited, they are not possible.

Having said that, I urge my Government colleagues to look again at the hardship being caused, especially to hill farmers in Wales. I am prepared to accept and trust that the Government are heading in the right direction—they have a constructive dialogue with the European institutions and with the farming unions.

It is fair to say that agricultural policy is nowadays inextricably linked with European policy. If European policy is wrong, as I suggest the Opposition's policy is wrong, agricultural policy will inevitably suffer. It is of grave concern to many farmers in my constituency that the Conservative party seems so aggressive towards Europe. It has an ideological fixation or phobia about Europe, which I am afraid will harm agriculture in the long term. A great many agriculturists feel that there is benefit in a single currency or that, at the very least, it is harmful to shut out for 10 years, as the Opposition are, any possibility of joining a single currency. Fluctuating prices and instability are added features of the difficulties confronting many farmers. The Government's more pragmatic approach to European policy is to be welcomed—it means that the general approach to agriculture is far more realistic.

I welcome the Government's initiative in introducing an all-Wales agri-environmental scheme, learning from the lessons that came from the development of Tir Cymen and the environmentally sensitive area schemes. I also welcome the fact that reform of the common agricultural policy is a priority for the Government. It is essential that resources be diverted from price support in the long term. Although there is scope for price support, and I wish it to continue, in the long term there has to be movement towards environmental support and conservation. Farmers in my constituency in particular know that. I recently visited an upland farm, Plas Matw, owned by Mr. Tecwyn Evans. I must congratulate him on the conservation work, especially the protection of hedgerows, that he has undertaken with the support of the Countryside Council for Wales and the Agricultural Training Board. I welcome the Government's initiative in that respect. The Government have inherited a difficult situation, but they have a constructive dialogue with the farming unions and the European institutions. In the long term, I expect that the hardship confronting farmers, particularly in Wales, will be mitigated. The Government have every sympathy with them, but, unfortunately, it is a very difficult time for everyone, and I am afraid that the Government have to prioritise.

11.55 am

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) for securing this debate and enabling me to make a few brief comments about family farms and smallholdings. I shall not rehearse all the arguments again, but I wish to emphasise the great importance of protecting family farms and smallholdings, not just for the present but for the foreseeable future.

My constituency, where the largest town has only 12,000 people and where there are no others with even 10,000, depends on farming and rural life not only for its culture and for a sustained economy, but for its very existence. If farming is threatened, Montgomeryshire, and places like it across Wales, will fall into serious economic decline.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Ms Lawrence) made an important point about depopulation, which is being experienced all over rural Wales. Young people are tempted to leave the world of agriculture and rural life for the simple reason that it is easier to make a living and have a sustained and stable income by going to the city. According to one projection, the number of retired people will increase by 31 per cent. in some parts of mid-Wales over the next 13 or 14 years, so we have another social crisis in the offing.

Hill livestock compensatory allowances and the other payments that we have discussed need to be regarded as a form of social payment, not just as support for the agriculture industry. I counsel the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) to be a little more cautious. He accused some Opposition Members of irresponsibility because we are calling for more money. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that many of these payments are a substitute for unemployment benefit and other direct benefits that would have to be paid if farms collapsed? Let us make no mistake about the fact that many farms and smallholdings are on the verge of collapse, for the reasons that have been outlined. I would go further and suggest that it is probably cheaper to make these payments to the agriculture industry than to pay the money through the benefits system. Farmers work hard for a living; by and large, the smallholders have to work the hardest of all.

It is clear that the continuity in terms of culture and economic survival provided by the family farm is vital to the countryside. That continuity is threatened when the sons and daughters of farmers find it easier to leave the countryside. Again, I suggest that the payments and the security that they represent are a guarantee that reassures the offspring of farmers that there is a future for them in farming.

I must mention the plight of new or young farmers coming into the business, because the enormous "in-going cost" of becoming a farmer these days has not been mentioned. We would welcome the Government giving serious consideration to ways of making it easier for new entrants to come into the agricultural market. The voice of the countryside is sometimes drowned by the shout of the city in the Chamber. Today, we have heard from hon. Members who evidently care about agriculture in Wales. I counsel the Government to take on board the points that have been made and to recognise that the issue is not saving money from the countryside, but saving the countryside. That is why we desperately require funds.

11.59 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) on securing it. I am delighted to be able to contribute because, as a Conservative Member for a rural English constituency, I have spoken to farmers in my constituency and in Wales many times. The Conservative party is still the second party in Wales, with 100,000 more votes than the Liberal Democrats and almost twice as many votes as Plaid Cymru at the general election.

We know how difficult times have been for hill farmers recently. More than 55 per cent. of farmers now feel that hill farming is not an attractive career option. That is very worrying. We have heard how the population, particularly in the less-favoured areas, is aging. There is a great fear that there will be nobody to take on the farms after those people. The Government have an enormous task to prove their rural credentials. They should act on four main issues to benefit rural farmers in Wales and save the industry from decline: the hill livestock compensatory allowance review; the over-30-months scheme; the revaluation of the green pound; and the lifting of the beef export ban. Those issues have all been mentioned today. Other problems include the falling price of milk, the pressure of quota and charges for carrying milk.

Labour's planned minimum wage could prove disastrous, leading to the closure of small businesses and job losses in rural Wales. We all know that farms in the less-favoured areas operate close to the margins of profitability or even below them. To afford wage costs and operate within the law, some small firms will have to shed labour. That could be a real problem. The alternative is a big increase in black market labour, without the protection of health and safety legislation. That will lead inevitably to the rundown of rural villages, as people move away to look for work. Our countryside will then decline. We have already heard that, for every job on the farm, there are at least two and a half outside.

The HLCA areas are important for the management of the countryside, for tourism in Wales and for the economic vitality of various parts of Wales. The previous Government maintained their commitment to hill farmers, paying out £107 million in HLCAs in 1995. Despite a tough Government spending round, the rates for 1996–97 were not cut. We provided an extra £60 million on HLCAs because of the effect on hill farming incomes of the BSE crisis, which is still affecting many farmers.

I shall give way in a moment, but I want to build up a little head of steam first. I have only 10 minutes, because I know that the Minister will want to answer many of the points that have been raised. The £60 million increase in payments for the 60,000 United Kingdom farmers who claimed upland livestock subsidies was announced by the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in November 1996.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether that £60 million was put in the spending plans that this Government took over?

The £60 million would not have been in the Government's spending plans, because nobody could have predicted the huge scale of the BSE crisis. Some £1.4 billion was spent to support the agriculture industry after the rise of BSE. We are asking the Government to consider the needs of farmers in HLCA areas carefully, to ensure that they get the support that they desperately need. The Government seem to have pre-empted the review, even though, as we know, they love reviews.

In 1995–96, HLCA payments to Welsh hill farmers reached £27.2 million. A similar figure is expected for 1996–97. Planned expenditure for the next year is £36.4 million. Labour does not share our commitment to hill farming. The Government plan to announce a cut in the HLCA back to 1996 levels, wiping out the £60 million supplement. Such a move will fail to take into account the current trends in hill farming incomes. Government figures for 1994–95 show that 69 per cent. of farmers in the less-favoured areas of Wales had a net farm income of less than £10,000—and the Government have the nerve to talk about a minimum wage.

Cuts in compensation for Welsh farmers without reference to economic conditions and incomes in the hills and the less-favoured areas will mean savings for the Government, but cuts in income for all hill farmers, putting some of them out of business. The cuts will mean deprivation and depression for many rural villages. The Government are not listening to Welsh farmers, not consulting them and giving many of them no chance.

A recent National Farmers Union survey showed that farming incomes were back to below 1988–89 levels.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise the damage that the previous Conservative Government did to the rural economy? They presided over it for 18 years, during which there was Alar in the apple industry, anthrax in the pig industry, botulism in the food processing industry, listeria in the dairy industry, salmonella in the poultry industry, E. coli in the meat industry and BSE in the beef industry. Does he believe that that strengthened or weakened the rural economy in Wales?

If the Government had sat back and done nothing to support the farming industry, with those problems, it would have been a complete disaster. I have already mentioned the enormous £1.4 billion support on BSE. The Government's reactions in the next three or four years will be interesting. There have been incidences of E. coli in Scotland since this Government came to power. We shall not scaremonger in the appalling way that certain Labour spokesmen did when we were in government. Some of the comments made when the BSE crisis began did not help hill farmers in Wales. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recall the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) asking:

"Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that public confidence on this issue is hanging by a thread?"—[Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 376.]
Matthew Parris succinctly remarked the following day in his column that she then proceeded to cut it. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not in Parliament then, but some of the statements made by other Labour Members at that time were not helpful to hill farmers in Wales or any other farmers throughout the country.

A recent National Farmers Union survey showed that farming incomes were back to below 1988–89 levels. It also showed that 74 per cent. thought that the main reason for young people not taking up hill farming was the low incomes. The president of the Country Landowners Association has predicted that hill farmers face tough times unless the Government boost special payments to keep their incomes above the breadline. He said:
"HLCAs were originally brought in to compensate farmers for the natural handicaps to farming in LFAs. Now more than ever, this policy is justified and higher rates are needed for LFA farmers to survive."
By cutting the HLCA, the Government are acting ahead of the outcome of the annual review of the state of hill farming. It is like a judge passing a life sentence for murder before he has heard any of the defence's evidence. It is an irresponsible act worthy only of a Government who have shown themselves untrustworthy and unable to keep their word. They say whatever they feel like at the time. If it turns out to be inconvenient later, they simply drop it. It is a betrayal of our farmers' trust.

The over-30-months scheme provides farmers with compensation for the culling of cattle over 30 months as they come to the end of their working lives. The culling of cattle over 30 months was one of the conditions for the lifting of the beef ban agreed at the European Council of Ministers meeting in Florence in 1996. By the time of the general election, more than 1.2 million cattle had been culled under the scheme.

We have already heard how wonderful the Government are, with their pro-communautaire policies and their relations with our European neighbours. At the time of the BSE crisis, they said that the Conservative Government were not doing enough to lift the ban, but the ban has not been lifted since 1 May. We want the Government to do more. They said that they had good relations with Europe. They almost gave the impression that if they were elected on 1 May, the ban would be lifted on 2 May. That has not happened. It is damaging to the industry in Wales.

In March 1996, before the BSE crisis, the average price reported by the Meat and Livestock Commission for a grade 1 cull cow was 95.3p per kilo liveweight. That made an 800 kg cull cow worth about £760. With the new weight limits and prices, the same animal would be worth only £311, an enormous drop in farmers' incomes. The accusation against Welsh farmers, and against farmers generally, was that the system was being abused. That is an ill-founded, ill-considered accusation against hardworking, decent farmers. I ask that the Government take measures to review the decisions that they have taken, which are hitting farmers in Wales so hard.

On green pound revaluation, the value of sterling has risen strongly since the general election, caused at least in part by the four interest rate rises since 1 May. That has led to a further revaluation of the green pound and means that the value of common agricultural policy support prices in sterling has fallen. The agreement at the June 1995 Agriculture Council allowed member states to freeze the green rate applying to CAP direct payments. We exercised that right to protect British farmers against revaluation. The freeze protects the value in sterling of more than 60 per cent. of CAP expenditure and is worth a massive £440 million over two years. To compensate for the effects of the strong pound, the Government can apply to the Commission for further compensation to help farmers whose CAP payments have effectively been reduced by the strong pound. The Government should take that course of action at the earliest possible time, which would go some way to helping Welsh farmers.

No, I said that I would finish at 12.10 and I aim to do that.

I ask the Minister to reverse the weight limits, seek greater compensation and give real assistance to farmers through the hill livestock compensatory allowance, to help farmers in their time of need. They do not need an insensitive Government who look the other way. Welsh farmers deserve better; if they do not get it, the loss of the livelihoods of thousands of Welsh farmers will lie with this Government.

12.11 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) on his success in the ballot and on taking the opportunity to raise matters of great importance to the rural communities of Wales. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Ms Lawrence) and for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) and the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) and for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik), all of whom made thoughtful contributions.

The hon. Member for Dribble—I mean Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I was getting him confused with Tom Finney—can say all that he likes now but the huge crisis that we face is the doing of his Government. He knows that all his demands for expenditure were left unprovided for in their Red Book estimates in the last public expenditure round. That is part of the problem with which we have to deal.

As to lifting the ban, when one considers that we were left in a trench as deep as the Marianas in the Pacific, it has to be recognised that we have already made huge progress in increasing the European Union's confidence in the measures that we are taking to ensure that it can be lifted. I assure all the hon. Members who raised the matter that we give it the highest priority. It is the opening of export markets to British produce that will make the fundamental difference.

We all agree that lifting the ban would boost Welsh farmers. Can the Minister give us any idea of when he believes that it will be lifted?

I would love to be able to, but 1 can say only that we are giving the matter top priority. The sooner it happens, the better, but I cannot set a deadline because that would look as if I were holding our European colleagues to ransom. I assure the House that it is a top Government priority. While agriculture accounts for only a small part of total employment in the Principality as a whole, in the rural areas of Wales it is the dominant occupation and one on which scores of other jobs depend. The rural economy depends on healthy agriculture. The Government's commitment to agriculture remains very firm. We believe that an efficient and competitive farming industry in Wales is an essential part of our rural economy and vital to the cultural and social life of rural areas.

The number of people engaged in the industry is declining, as it has for decades but, thankfully, in Wales it is a modest decline. It is inevitable that, as farming methods improve and productivity rises, the number of farmers will decrease, but we recognise that those who continue to work in agriculture are entitled to a reasonable measure of support from the community as a whole, not least because of their role in preserving the landscape that is so valued by millions of townspeople. While the number of farmers continues to decline, their impact in rural communities remains as strong as ever.

The Government have a large number of market support measures, such as the sheep annual premium scheme, the beef special premium scheme, arable crops area payments, hill livestock compensatory allowances, the agri-environment programme, the environmentally sensitive area scheme, and Tir Cymen. An integrated countryside and agricultural information service provides free advice to farmers in Wales. We have two grant schemes designed to help companies improve their food processing and marketing facilities. The European Commission has given structural support amounting to £28 million over five years under the European agricultural guidance and guarantee fund. Government support has helped to maintain the incomes of those employed in agriculture in Wales over the years. In talking about the Government in this case, I refer to the previous Government, because all those schemes are on-going and part of the European Community process.

Planned expenditure on agriculture in Wales this year is around £250 million. That is a demonstration of our support for the rural economy and a significant contribution from the taxpayer. I recognise that farming is at the heart of community life in the hills of Wales. Farming in the hills of Wales is predominantly the production of sheep and suckler cows. We fully endorse the importance of HLCAs to Wales, where 80 per cent. of the land is in less-favoured areas.

I underline what was said last night and raised again by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. The £60 million to which the previous Government so often referred was a special one-off payment. As the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed out, it should never have got embroiled with HLCAs. No provision was made for it in this year's budget. That is part of the problem that we are dealing with.

I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales have had good discussions with the Farmers Union of Wales and the National Farmers Union in Wales about the difficulties that their members face. Over the next few weeks, we shall consider what they and others have said to us, but, as hon. Members know, the Government are pledged to live within overall public expenditure targets set by the previous Administration. That was part of the basis on which we were elected, but it makes life difficult for us. Having said that, we are considering the situation in the hill farms and of farming in Wales and we are setting up a dialogue, which I shall mention again, for the future.

We want to ensure that hill farmers and those in less-favoured and severely disadvantaged areas continue to receive a high level of support. It is interesting to note that the rate of decline in farming in severely disadvantaged areas is much slower than that recorded in other parts of Wales. The rate of decline in non-less-favoured areas, for example, is just under 20 per cent., whereas it is 2 per cent. elsewhere.

Last year, most of the £226 million of subsidies for the production of livestock in Wales went to farmers in less-favoured areas. Those significant sums of money demonstrate that we are committed to HLCAs.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies at Aberystwyth has won the contract for the evaluation of HLCAs in Wales. It will be presenting its report to the Welsh Office before the end of the year. As soon as I have read it, I shall send a copy to hon. Member for Ceredigion and the farming unions and I shall also place a copy in the Library so that all hon. Members can look at it. It will be an important contribution to establishing a dialogue between the farming unions and others about the future of agriculture in Wales and how best to support it.

We also face the challenge posed by the reform of the common agriculture policy. In addition to the internal need for that to happen for the good of the development of the European Union, one must consider external factors such as the need for our goods to be competitive on world markets. The World Trade Organisation wants agricultural markets to be opened up. We also want CAP to become more market oriented, with payments decoupled from production, and supply controls removed.

All those issues will be subject to radical thinking and the Government want to play their full part in helping to construct a modern, sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture policy. The debate has shown that that desire is shared by plenty of other hon. Members. We know that there will be challenges to farmers in adjusting to any new regime. We shall continue to consult the industry and farming unions in Wales about the proposed EC reforms, and we understand farmers' concerns.

We believe that the reform of the CAP is necessary and inevitable and that Welsh agriculture must respond and adapt to the challenge of reform. Unlike the previous Government, this Government will look at constructive ways in which to provide practical help to farmers to make that possible. We need to examine the needs of key sectors in the Welsh agricultural industry, such as the beef, lamb and dairy industries, which will be affected most directly by CAP reform, while looking at the development potential of our other important farming sector, horticulture.

In that context, it is particularly important to develop the range of premium and added-value food products that our industries produce. We shall continue to support the development of food promotion schemes such as farm assurance schemes, which prove the quality of our products and have done much to help them appeal to the retailer and the consumer alike. That is why the work of the Welsh food strategy is so important to the long-term competitive position of agriculture in Wales. I am keen to see that work developed more effectively. I want to see Wales develop a good reputation for first-class food products, which will give us a strong market position in organic and farm-assured foods.

I like what the Minister is saying. I, too, would like to emphasise that adding value to Welsh food and the production of high-quality products are important issues of economic development. That must be borne in mind when deciding the spending priorities of the new development agency. Together with inward investment, such issues will be key, important considerations in the creation of a vibrant economy in rural areas and in Wales generally.

The Secretary of State for Wales, my fellow Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) and I will use our respective briefs to consider that issue. We want to ensure that our economic powerhouse, to which reference has already been made, adds value to the work of the Rural Development Agency, to strengthen the rural economy in Wales.

The BSE crisis has certainly added to the difficulties that hill farmers are facing. As I have already said, one of our high priorities is to get rid of the export ban. We are also aware that some of the changes that we have announced, together with the OTMS and the difficulties in responding quickly on the revaluation of the green pound, have caused further problems for farmers. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made clear last night, we are still considering the green pound revaluation and have got until January to make a decision about most of the products affected. We want to get to grips with those problems.

In the short-term, it is important to appreciate that we inherited a dire situation. It is therefore difficult to fulfil the Opposition's expectation that we will undo the severe damage inflicted in the past eight years in just a couple of months.

We want to beef up the agri-environment scheme. The hon. Members for Ynys Môn and for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about providing money for whole-farm management to make such a proposal worth while. We have not made any decision about the rates of payment, but we realise that we must make them attractive so that farmers will opt into the scheme. The resources required from 1999 will be considered as part of the comprehensive spending review. We want that scheme to be successful.

It is inevitable that the schemes that provide most added value environmentally will get the money first, but we shall not make Tir Cymen or something like it an all-Wales scheme, in receipt of a fixed amount. That would not be in keeping with the spirit of our proposals. The exact amount of additional resources available will, however, depend on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. The working group is considering the scheme now. We want to ensure that everything that we do is designed to meet our targets on biodiversity and other commitments.

It is important to us that farming continues in rural Wales because of the associated social, cultural, economic and conservation considerations. I can reassure the House that the Government are committed to re-establishing a prosperous agricultural industry in Wales. When we discussed HLCAs with the farming unions they accepted the existence of a short-term difficulty. We had a positive dialogue about moving the debate beyond the first two years in question to ensure that there is a common approach to the development of long-term strategies.

How many farms in less-favoured areas does the Minister think will be able to survive two years? In the last minute, what good news can he give to farmers farming in less-favoured areas?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we face the problem of working within the budget that the Conservative Government considered to be sufficient to deal with those issues. All I can say is that we are looking for ways to provide some short-term help, but there is no question of my being able to trumpet any major figures now, because difficult discussions are still going on. We accept that there is a need to do something in the short term, but it is difficult. I would not wish to raise anyone's hopes, but the point—

River Thames (Transport Safety)

12.30 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that will be of concern to the House and especially to those hon. Members whose constituencies, like mine, border the Thames.

Hon. Members will remember that, last week, a 3,000 lb dredger known as the Sand Kite collided with the Thames barrier and sank. Thankfully, none of the 10 crew on the vessel was seriously hurt and there were no other casualties; nor, it appears, was the barrier seriously damaged, although it was closed as a result of the accident, which was the most serious to have occurred since the barrier became operational 15 years ago. However, the potential impact of the incident was far worse, as the shipping journal Lloyd's List pointed out in its leading article the following day:
"In this case no lives were lost, and the Thames Barrier has demonstrated that it is a good deal stronger than the forepart of a ship. The accident did not coincide with the 100 year North Sea storm surge and a spring tide working against flooding in the Thames Valley. London has survived again. It could have been a good deal worse."
It could indeed.

The vessel involved, although now named the Sand Kite, was previously called the Bow Knight and it is the sister ship of the Bow Belle, which was involved in the tragic 1989 collision with the Marchioness that killed 51 people. In the early 1980s, a third sister ship, the Bow Trader, was involved in a collision with a small passenger craft: and, in 1992, that same ship scored a double hit when it ran into two Thames bridges: the Cannon Street railway bridge and Southwark road bridge. I can understand why the owners wished to drop the Sand Kite's maiden name.

Such incidents provide a vivid warning of the respect with which we should treat the stretch of water that flows only a few feet from where we are debating today. It is powerful and can be both capricious and dangerous. Hon. Members do not need reminding of the incident involving the Sand Kite—it is still fresh in our memories—and we cannot be certain of the causes of the incident until the marine accidents investigation branch has completed its investigation. My reason for bringing the matter to the House's attention today is that it is a timely warning that proposals being promoted by the Port of London Authority could have serious implications for safety and environmental hazard.

I refer to pilotage direction No. 5, which proposes to exempt vessels of less than 80 m in length from the requirement to take on a pilot in the river; currently, only vessels of less than 50 m are exempt. In the Thames estuary, vessels of less than 90 m will be exempt from having to take on a pilot; the current limit is 80 m. It is a little puzzling that the PLA should be proposing a reduction in pilotage at this time. Recent incidents should surely have alerted us to the potential dangers of unpiloted vessels. The Bow Trader was exempt from having a pilot on board when it collided with the Southwark and Cannon Street bridges. The Bow Belle did not have a pilot on board when it sank the Marchioness. The Bow Knight, alias the Sand Kite, did not have a pilot on board when it wedged itself against the Thames barrier and sank last week.

May I add to that list the Thames bubbler, a larger vessel owned by Thames Water and used to aerate the Thames, which collided with Putney rail bridge? There was no underground service from the south-west of London into central London for some days. The incident occurred in 1991, but it is only in the past few months that the service has been restored, at a cost of several million pounds. Will the Minister, separate from the debate, advise me whether the PLA has changed its way of working, taking into account the incidents involving the bubbler and the Sand Kite?

I have no way of knowing whether the vessel that my hon. Friend mentioned had a pilot on board when that incident occurred. Nor do we have any way of knowing whether the other incidents I mentioned would have occurred had the vessels had pilots on board. We can be certain of one thing, however: the likelihood of such an incident would not have been greater with a pilot than without.

I understand that, following the Marchioness tragedy, the marine accidents investigation branch recommended an increase in pilotage standards on the Thames, yet the PLA is proposing to do the opposite. Following the report on the grounding of the Sea Empress at Milford Haven, with disastrous environmental consequences, the Government have ordered a review of the Pilotage Act 1987, yet the PLA is apparently proposing to go it alone and reduce pilotage on the Thames before the outcome of that review is heard.

Is my hon. Friend aware that although the PLA has requested changes to regulations on pilotage, Members of Parliament whose constituencies bank on the Thames have not been made part of the process?

I share that concern. I have had a meeting with the PLA at its headquarters in Gravesend in my constituency, but I am concerned about the extent of the consultation process. I am especially concerned about the importance that the PLA has placed on the views of its pilots and of users of the Thames. Although the PLA has had meetings with pilots, there is no evidence that real consultation has taken place, and that should be of concern to the House.

I was first made aware of the proposals, which will come into effect on 15 January 1998 unless the PLA reconsiders its position, by representatives of the London river pilots and by the Medway pilots, who are major users of the Thames. I raised the matter in oral questions in July and in an early-day motion, also tabled in July and signed by 19 Members of Parliament. The pilots, whom the PLA acknowledges are "the experts", are unanimously opposed to the proposals. In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Medway pilots committee warned that the proposals
"would affect the safety and environment of the Thames Estuary and River".
The PLA denies that risk to safety is involved or that there is an increased risk of environmental hazard. Despite repeated warnings from its own pilots and those on the Medway, the PLA apparently intends to press ahead, if allowed to do so, with its plans for increased pilotage exemptions. We need, therefore, to examine the arguments carefully.

The first of the PLA's arguments is that the vessels to be exempted under the proposals are relatively small. It is, nevertheless, a fact that ships the size of Westminster Hall will be able to navigate the Thames without taking on board a pilot. I would not consider them particularly small. Moreover, as the chairman of the London pilots committee reminded the PLA in a letter dated 30 September 1997:
"Pilots do not consider 'modest changes' to be a realistic description of the proposals for changing the limits above Sea Reach No. I"—
that is, in the river itself. The letter goes on:
"It should be considered that raising the limit by 60 per cent. from 50 to 80 metres results in the deadweight of ships affected increasing … from approximately 700 tonnes to 2,500 tonnes, perhaps more".
It points out that manoeuvrability is generally in inverse proportion to size.

Even if the PLA were correct in its assertion that the vessels affected are relatively small, such vessels can still create hazards for other river users should they find themselves in trouble or acting erratically. What would the House say of a proposal to exempt light aircraft and helicopters from air traffic control? Would we not be slightly concerned that such aircraft might collide with jumbo jets that were subject to directions from the control tower?

An experienced pilot recently wrote to me to explain the risks:
"The non-piloted ships being unaware of the constraints of the larger vessels could either hog the deep water, force the tanker to take evasive action, resulting in grounding or a collision, or just generally impede the safe passage … Having spoken to many large ship masters recently about this review, they express alarm and concern with regards to the considerably increased risks."

An additional implication of exempting so-called smaller vessels derives from the fact that it is on these vessels that newly qualified pilots gain their experience—that is part of the training process for pilots on the Thames. With such vessels exempted, pilots will have to practise on the larger vessels.

The second argument of the PLA—it is a legitimate one—is that the proposals introduce new requirements for vessels above a certain draught to take on a pilot even if they are below the proposed length requirement. The PLA argues that draught is more important than length in determining safety.

I have no objection to the PLA's introducing new draught requirements for pilotage; I am sure that other hon. Members will have no objections either—the pilots certainly have none. The difficulty, however, lies in the suggestion that that should go hand in hand with a reduction in the length requirement. While the PLA is correct to maintain that it is the draught of a vessel, not its length, which determines its likelihood of running aground, the authority also acknowledges that length determines manoeuvrability and, hence, the danger of collision.

The reason for today's debate, after all, is that the House is concerned about a number of collisions on the Thames, including those involving the Bow Belle and the Marchioness. What is more, as one experienced river pilot explained to me last night, draught is no indicator of safety and it is very difficult to police.

I do not want to get myself into deep water dealing with the technicalities, if colleagues will forgive the pun, or stray too far beyond my technical expertise, which is not extensive. However, I understand that it is difficult to police the draught of a vessel because much of it is under water at any given time. Nor is draught a fixed measure. The master of a ship can adjust draught as necessary by shifting cargo, fuel or water in the tanks, and he may be encouraged to do so if it avoids the bothersome business of having to take on a pilot.

Thirdly, the PLA points out that vessels carrying marine pollutants in bulk should be compelled to take on a pilot, regardless of size. The PLA argues that that is a further reason why we should not be concerned about the environmental implications of the proposals. I find that puzzling. The PLA tells us that vessels of less than 80 m do not run a significant risk of collision or grounding. Why, then, should we or the PLA be concerned about whether they are carrying marine pollutants? Is this a sign that the PLA is not wholly confident about the implications of exempting certain vessels?

We must also ask: what are marine pollutants in bulk? Would we consider 15,000 litres of fuel oil an environmental hazard if discharged into the Thames? The PLA certainly did last week, when it made the effort to pump that amount of fuel oil off the Sand Kite as an environmental precaution. It was not being carried as cargo; it was being carried as fuel. The Sand Kite is only marginally bigger, at 98 m, than the vessels that the PLA proposes to exempt from pilotage.

All vessels require fuel oil, sometimes very large amounts of it, just to propel them along the river. Unlike large tankers, smaller vessels are likely to have fuel tanks that are single skinned, posing the risk that the fuel will be discharged in the event of an accident.

The full effects of the PLA proposals are difficult to assess. The PLA cannot tell us with any precision how many additional vessel movements will be exempted under the proposals. It suggests that 1,000 additional movements will take place without a pilot each year—although I have this morning seen PLA figures that suggest the number might be as great as 1,800. Even on those figures, that is a great many more opportunities for incidents such as the Sand Kite crash to occur. The pilots suggest that there could be as many as 4,000 additional exempted movements.

The PLA cannot satisfactorily explain why the changes are necessary. The savings, we are told, will be minimal, and there are no plans to cut pilot numbers still further—they have already been significantly reduced in recent years. While the advantages of the proposals are difficult to discern, however, the disadvantages have been all too vividly illustrated by recent incidents on the Thames.

The port of London is one of the busiest in the world and it is becoming busier all the time. Ships entering the Thames often carry foreign crews with little knowledge of the port of London—or often of English. Pressures on costs have resulted in the so-called lean manning of vessels, so that
"it is not uncommon to find excessive fatigue in evidence amongst ships crews".

All this should point to the need for more stringent pilotage on the Thames. Already, the requirements here are more lax than in any other European member state. Foreign crews who can enter the port of London without a pilot will nevertheless be required to take on a pilot when navigating their home ports on their return. The chief harbour master, Rear Admiral Bruce Richardson, tells me that
"the safety performance of the Port of London has been and continues to be excellent."
On PLA figures, there have been only 15 recorded incidents in the past year. We must be slightly sceptical about those figures. Evidence provided by the pilots suggests that the number could be much higher—they recorded 90 incidents between the beginning of June and the beginning of August alone. Of course, those incidents were of varying seriousness, but we know that all of them could have been dangerous. Just one such incident, involving the Sand Kite, should be enough to warn of the dangers.

I understand that the Secretary of State is technically unable to prevent the PLA from pressing ahead with these proposals, but I am grateful to the Library for eliciting the response from a PLA official that
"although the authority has the power in law to implement any changes in its directions, it would be very unlikely to go ahead if the Secretary of State strongly opposed them".
I hope that the Minister will clarify the position for us. I believe that the proposals should be strongly opposed. Last week's incident should at least cause the PLA to draw breath and think again. The investigation into it could provide important lessons for the PLA and for river users. The authority may argue that the new technology in which it plans to invest will provide additional safety for vessel movements, but the technology is not yet operational and is unlikely to become so for a year or 18 months. Moreover, the PLA should be requested, if that is all that the Secretary of State can do, to withhold implementation of its proposals until the results of the review of the Pilotage Act are complete.

Finally, I hope that the Minister who is good enough to respond today will feel able to use her good offices to persuade the PLA to defer its plans, listen carefully to its experienced pilots, and perhaps take the time to draw lessons from the Sand Kite incident.

12.49 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on obtaining this timely debate and thank him for his generosity in allowing interventions by my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt). I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney on the issue that he raised. If, by any chance, I do not manage to touch on all the points that my hon. Friends have made, I shall forward complete copies of my speech.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said, the Sand Kite, a dredger of 98 m length, collided with the Thames flood barrier at 6.50 am on Monday 27 October. Fortunately, there were neither casualties nor pollution. The Sand Kite was inbound, laden with sand and gravel. Visibility was reduced by fog to 400 yd. A similar-sized dredger had preceded the Sand Kite a few minutes earlier without incident, but the Sand Kite struck the barrier, started to sink and was then grounded.

The marine accidents investigation branch is conducting an inspector's inquiry and the House will agree that it would be wrong to speculate on the cause of the incident until we have that report.

My hon. Friend said that the Sand Kite was previously known as the Bow Kite and averred that she was a sister vessel to the Bow Belle. I understand, however, that the Sand Kite is a very different design, a much larger vessel, and of a different class. The Sand Kite struck the Thames barrier at an angle and no serious damage has yet been found. There is little likelihood of needing to raise the barrier to protect London from flooding between now and 12 November, as tides will be low.

In the light of points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, may I deal with pilotage and its importance in relation to the general issue of safety on the river? The Sand Kite was subject to a compulsory pilotage direction, issued by the competent harbour authority, the Port of London Authority. The master is a frequent user of the Thames and holder of a pilotage exemption certificate, as is his first mate, who was logged as being the pilot for the passage at the time of the collision.

The current statutory basis for compulsory pilotage is the Pilotage Act 1987. Before the Act, pilotage services were organised by pilotage authorities working out of pilotage districts. The 1987 Act swept those authorities away, and responsibility for the provision of pilotage services was transferred to "competent harbour authorities". The PLA is an example of one such authority. A CHA is any harbour authority with statutory powers over the regulation of shipping movements and the safety of navigation within its harbour, and whose harbour falls wholly or partly within an active former pilotage district.

Under the Act, a CHA may, if it is in the interests of safety, direct pilotage to be compulsory for ships navigating in any area or part of an area in which it has the duty to provide pilotage. Such a direction may apply to all ships, or all ships of a specified description, but may not apply to ships of less than 20 m in length or to fishing boats with a registered length of less than 47.5 m. The 1987 Act also imposes on CHAs, such as the PLA, certain duties in the provision of pilotage services. It requires each CHA to keep under consideration whether any and, if so, what pilotage services need to be provided to secure the safety of ships; whether pilotage should be compulsory and, if so, for which ships and in which circumstances; and what pilotage services need to be provided. The CHA must establish and keep under review a framework of pilotage operations for its area.

Under the Act, the CHA that has given a pilotage direction must, on application by any bona fide master or first mate of any ship, grant a pilotage exemption certificate—a PEC—if it is satisfied that the applicant's skill, experience and local knowledge are sufficient for the applicant to be capable of piloting the ship of which he or she is master or first mate, and any other ships specified in the certificate, within its harbour or such part of its harbour as may be so specified. The conditions imposed on an applicant must not be unduly onerous, having regard to the difficulties and danger of navigation in the harbour in question. They must not be more onerous than those required to be met by a person applying to the authority to be an authorised pilot in its area. The current law allows compulsory pilotage to be imposed by a CHA only in connection with the safety of vessels in its area. The CHA is obliged to grant PECs to suitably qualified masters or mates, and that exemption may be withheld only where unusual hazards are involved in shipping movements within a harbour.

The 1987 Act reserves almost no role on pilotage for my Department. The Department has no oversight of harbour pilotage and no general information about how competent harbour authorities carry out their functions. As the House will no doubt recall, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has therefore announced a review of the arrangements for harbour pilotage under the Pilotage Act 1987. The review covers the whole of the UK. It is well under way and has involved discussions with the Marine Safety Agency, the three port associations, the UK Harbour Masters' Association, the Chamber of Shipping, the Nautical Institute, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, the Transport and General Workers Union and the UK Pilots Association. Visits have also been made to individual ports where local pilots have been consulted. The PLA has offered officials working on the review an opportunity to visit the port on 8 December to talk to the authority's officers, pilots and users.

I am aware of pilots' concerns about proposals put forward by the PLA to alter their pilotage direction. The PLA has been responsible for pilotage on the Thames since the 1987 Act came into force. It has not hitherto undertaken any substantial change to the pilotage directions that it inherited and it has a statutory duty under the Act to review its pilotage requirements. That is the review currently under way, the object of which has been to enhance safety. It has been based on an assessment of risks and seeks to introduce the draught, or depth of a vessel, in addition to the length, as a criterion for pilotage. The PLA believes that the risks of grounding in its area are determined more by draught than by any other vessel characteristic.

The review proposes to replace the single criterion for compulsory pilotage with a combination of length and draught. In that way, the PLA can target pilotage more precisely where risk demands. Certain shallow draught vessels that do not pose a significant risk, which in the past have been compelled to take a pilot on grounds of length alone, would no longer be compelled to do so. Pilotage for vessels carrying hazardous cargoes and passenger vessels will remain compulsory. An added safety feature is the proposal to make the new limits responsive to poor visibility by reducing yet further the allowable draught limitation when visibility is significantly reduced.

I hope that it will be seen that none of the proposed changes to the PLA pilotage regime are relevant to the Sand Kite incident. The Sand Kite and vessels similar to it will remain subject to compulsory pilotage, as will all vessels over 50 m length navigating above Barking creek in the vicinity of the Thames barrier. A system of exemptions from the requirement to have a pilot on board will always be needed. Masters and mates familiar with the harbour should be able to apply for exemption certificates, as now, and be granted them on proof of competence.

At present, ships over 50 m in length navigating the river, and those over 80 m in length navigating the estuary, must be piloted. All PLA PEC holders are required, as a minimum, to make six entries or departures during the previous 12 months, under the guidance of an authorised pilot. For vessels over 100 m, applicants are also required to sit a series of oral examinations. All certificates are subject to annual renewal.

The review of the Act that my Department is undertaking is necessarily at a more general policy level. It is not intended to include case-by-case examination of each CHA's directions. Pilots have asked, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham argued, that the PLA's proposals should not be implemented until my Department's more general review has been completed. That is a matter for the PLA. We have no power to insist on it.

I understand that the London pilots are particularly concerned about consultation. The Port of London Authority tells me that it has consulted its own staff, including pilots, and river users and riparian authorities. The consultation process is nearing completion, and I understand that the PLA met its pilots for the fourth time on this subject on 28 October.

Before I conclude—

A5 Trunk Road

1 pm

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing the deplorable state of the road north of Shrewsbury to be brought to the attention of Parliament.

I believe that the matter was last debated in 1817, when Irish Members, exasperated by the road stretching from London to Holyhead, which goes back to Roman times, managed to persuade Parliament to commission Thomas Telford to rebuild the road. He found that the condition of the road between London and Shrewsbury was not too bad, but the road from Shrewsbury to Holyhead had to be completely rebuilt. It was described after that time as the finest road in Europe.

There are echoes of that today. A person leaving Dover can drive 200 miles on motorways or dual carriageway. Coming to Shrewsbury, that person will drive on a new dual carriageway built in 1992. There are roundabouts at Shrewsbury, and the road later becomes single carriageway. That person's life is at risk. He passes through Nesscliffe, the first village to be traversed since leaving Dover.

Reaching my constituency, the driver comes to Shottaton, a crossroad that has not changed since Thomas Telford built it. It the most dangerous crossroad in Shropshire. Two miles further on, at Queen's Head, there is the second most dangerous junction. At Oswestry, there are four roundabouts. For the purposes of this debate, I am including the road from the Shropshire boundary on to Ruabon, which is designated the A483. That is also single carriageway. From Ruabon onwards, it is plain sailing—dual carriageway right the way through to Holyhead.

It is extraordinary that we expect long-distance goods traffic and express buses to travel at high speed all the way from Dover, and then suddenly to cope with the demands of a narrow road built in the early 19th century, competing with local traffic, local buses, local delivery vehicles and local people going to school and trying to cross—there are 94 access points to the A5, 23 junctions and 23 footpaths. The result is confusion.

Traffic is increasing. At Moreton Hall, 21,300 vehicles cross on an average day. That is an increase of 44 per cent. from 1991 to 1996. Already this year, there has been an increase of 5.9 per cent. in traffic. There is dreadful confusion, congestion and, above all, an entirely unacceptable level of accidents.

I could read out the most harrowing letters, outlining the human misery caused by those accidents, which are totally unnecessary. I shall give the figures, which speak with a horrible, cold clarity. From 1992 to September this year, between Shrewsbury and Ruabon, there have been 276 accidents; 367 people have been slightly injured; 147 have been seriously injured; and 25 people have been killed.

The West Mercia police have a formula for calculating the cost to the community of accidents. They estimate that slight injury costs us all £10,000, a serious injury £150,000, and a death £1 million. I estimate that the road has cost the country more than £50 million in the past five years.

The only solution is to build a dual carriageway from Shrewsbury to Ruabon. The new dual carriageway round Shrewsbury has reduced the accident rate to levels below the national level. If those levels prevailed on the A5, next year there would be 45 fewer accidents, and two fewer people would die.

The road would not be cheap. Shropshire county council's engineers estimate £48 million for the stretch from Shrewsbury to Oswestry, and another £34 million from Oswestry to Ruabon. However, the payback in simple human terms—the reduction in human suffering and loss of life—would be rapid.

There is also a local economic cost. Oswestry has the highest unemployment in Shropshire at 7 per cent., and the Victoria ward of Oswestry has male unemployment of 13 per cent. However, the Highways Agency has the statutory duty to overrule local planners if any new project would bring extra traffic to the A5 above 3 per cent.

That has already happened. A supermarket project was cancelled at Mile End, and now there is a complete blight on any further development on that site. It is extraordinary, considering the fact that storage, refrigeration and food distribution is a major industry in Oswestry. To deliver just on time to supermarkets all over the country, those distributors need a road that they can rely on. The existing road is not reliable.

Just up the road, at Gobowen, there is the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt orthopaedic hospital, offering care second to none in the world, serving 8 million people and employing 900. The future of that hospital must be prejudiced if health authorities are loth to risk their patients on the road, which is dangerous and subject to delays. The workings of that major hospital are constantly disrupted by the delays caused by the accidents on the A5, as patients and consultants do not arrive on time.

There is a regional aspect. The Shropshire Gap links the west midlands industrial conurbations and also Wrexham and the industrial area of north-east Wales. Soon, those areas will also be damaged by the constant delays of freight and passenger traffic being held up on the A5. That is bizarre, when one considers that the road has been designated one of the key roads in the trans-European road network—that is the road from Felixstowe, Britain's largest container port, through to Holyhead. Of the 333 miles, 32 miles are single carriageway, and those are the miles between Shrewsbury and Ruabon, which are as narrow as 7.3 m in parts of my constituency.

It would be entirely consistent with the strategy laid out in the Government's discussion paper to invest in a dual carriageway on the A5. The Government would not be reacting in an ad hoc manner to a spirited local campaign, as the investment would be the final link—the final 10 per cent.—in a strategic road, which would conform to the Government's idea of long-term investment in planned integrated trunk roads.

As the House may know, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) was born and bred in the county of Shropshire and knows the county and its problems well. Is it his impression that over the past few years, since the completion of the Shrewsbury bypass, and the making of the road north of Wrexham into a dual carriageway, the weight of traffic on that section of the A5 through Shropshire has increased exponentially? Does he recognise that some of the so-called improvements that have been carried out on that road have created accident blackspots, which the Government would do well to study, with a view to making the road more capable of carrying the volumes of traffic that currently go along it, and making it safer?

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention: I concur entirely with his views. As I said, traffic at Moreton Hall increased by 44 per cent. from 1991 to 1996 and has grown by 5.9 per cent. this year. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct when he says that some minor improvements have made the situation worse. Queen's Head junction was built in 1986 and is a relatively new road, but it is the second most dangerous junction after Thomas Telford's road at Shottaton.

There would certainly be environmental gains if the road were improved. The village of Nesscliffe, just outside my constituency, is totally blighted by heavy traffic passing through it. Because of the interminable delays and accidents on the A5, heavy traffic tries to find a way around it through the narrow byroads and the little villages of north Shropshire. Those villages and roads are totally unsuited to the heavy traffic that tries to force its way through. Road improvements would produce air quality gains: it is well known that heavy engines running at a constant speed produce less pollutants than engines that stop and start.

There would also be a political gain—I am trying to be helpful to the Government. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the poor communications between north and south Wales. Plugging the Shropshire Gap with a dual carriageway would sharply reduce the travel time between north Wales and Cardiff.

I stress to the Minister the extraordinary support that the campaign has aroused since a summit was held in Oswestry on 4 July. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) in the Chamber. I assure the Minister that the project enjoys the full support of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden). I also thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for attending the debate. I have the full support of Shropshire county council, the four district councils and 13 parish councils. The project has the full support of the West Mercia police, the Shropshire fire brigade, the Shropshire ambulance service, the national health service trust at Gobowen, the Confederation of British Industry, the National Farmers Union, the chambers of commerce in Shrewsbury and Oswestry, and the overwhelming support of the business and the farming communities in the area.

Judging from the letters that I have received, I also have the overwhelming support of the people of northern Shropshire. The project also enjoys the support of Shropshire's leading newspaper, the Shropshire Star, which sells more copies in Shropshire than all the national dailies combined. In a short time, it has gathered 13,000 to 14,000 signatures in support of the project. That is a significant number.

I would like an assurance from the Minister that she will discuss the matter with her colleagues in the Welsh Office as the stretch of road north of the Shropshire border does not fall in her bailiwick but is an integral part of the project. I also seek an assurance that the Minister and her ministerial colleague from another place, Baroness Hayman, will come to see the road for themselves. As the project has never been a priority in any previous Government's strategy, I would like an assurance from the Minister that that fact will not prejudice it when the Government discuss the very difficult priorities that they must set for the road building programme.

To give a flavour of the strength of feeling in Shropshire about this issue, I cannot improve upon the words of my constituent Mr. Simon Boyes, a teacher from Ruyton-XI-Towns. On 8 October, he wrote:
"Recently my son was involved in a major accident on this road and is lucky to have escaped with his life. I know that you are leading a cross party campaign for the A5 to be upgraded to a dual carriageway. This, in my opinion, cannot be done any too soon. Be assured you have the fullest possible backing from your constituents of whatever political persuasion for anything that can be done to improve the situation. This is a matter of pressing importance and needs instant action on the Ministry of Transport's part."

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) on obtaining the debate and on delivering such an informed and passionate speech on behalf of his constituents without the benefit of a single note. I also congratulate him on his generosity in taking an intervention from the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and in referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden). Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have devoted a great deal of time and effort to drawing the attention of my noble Friend the Minister for Roads to the problems on the A5 between Shrewsbury and the Welsh border. The hon. Member for North Shropshire has detailed those difficulties to the House today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to discussions with the Welsh Office about the project. As he knows, funding for that part of the A5 which runs through Wales is a matter for the Welsh Office, and it will be considered with all other requests for funding. The consideration of road schemes is part of the Welsh Office roads review, which runs in parallel with our roads review for England and Scotland.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. On that point, does she recognise that there is great resentment in Shropshire where we have very inadequate roads? When we cross the border, we generally find that Welsh roads are in much better condition than those in Shropshire. Much more money has apparently been spent on roads in Wales even though the density of traffic and road usage is comparably less than in Shropshire. That causes an enormous amount of resentment, quite apart from the practical problems so ably outlined by my hon. Friend.

I shall certainly consider the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. I knew that part of the road on the Welsh side of the border well as a child, and resentment was clearly felt then on the Welsh side about what was perceived to be unfair expenditure in Wales.

Before I touch on the specific issues regarding the A5, it might be helpful if I explain how the roads review fits into the overall thrust of the Government's transport policies. We are working to develop an integrated transport policy, which provides the immediate context for the roads review. The backdrop to this fundamental review of transport policy is a candid recognition of the fact that we cannot carry on as at present. The predicted growth of traffic and the consequent congestion are unsustainable, and the environmental, economic and social implications are totally unacceptable.

However, the appropriate response cannot be simply to hack away once again at the roads programme without taking any other action. We need to take a much broader view, looking at all modes and using broadly based criteria to assess schemes. One of the encouraging aspects of what is a hugely ambitious task is the degree to which there is agreement that we do need to change.

We need to look at the role of the motor vehicle in providing mobility in a more integrated transport system: one which makes the best use of the contribution that each mode can make; which ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair and is seen to be fair; and which takes safety—an essential part of the hon. Gentleman's contribution—environmental, economic, accessibility and integration considerations into account from the outset. It should do that in a way which ensures that we can have confidence in the system and which, above all, is sustainable. That is the context for the roads review. It is an integral part of our integrated transport policy. It is about the role that trunk roads should play alongside other modes in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

On the road safety point, does my hon. Friend accept that priority should be afforded to people who live alongside major trunk roads, such as the A5? My constituents in the Wrekin, through which the A5 passes, must cross that road occasionally—although they may not use it—at extremely dangerous junctions. I also press the point about the pressure on local roads that is caused when through traffic seeks to circumvent traffic jams and pinch points by rat running through country lanes. I hope that those specific pressures in my constituency and in those of other hon. Members will be considered in the integrated review that my hon. Friend has outlined.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which highlights difficulties, real dangers and concerns that are not limited to his constituents or his constituency. They can be replicated across the whole country, which is why the issues on which my hon. Friend has touched will be central to our White Paper.

The issue that looms largest in the roads review is undoubtedly congestion. On current predictions, if we do nothing, in 20 years' time there will be roughly half as much traffic again on our roads. We could allow increasing congestion to ration road space, but the costs to industry, the environment and society more generally would, I believe, be unacceptable. That leaves us with three broad options—making better use of the existing infrastructure, managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

Making better use of the existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It may also be the least painful. Making better use of the network may help to provide a much-needed breathing space, but there must be some doubt about whether it can cater for more than a small fraction of the forecast increase in demand. That means that we have to look very seriously at the other, harder options—managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

Managing demand is a vast topic, cutting across all modes. It encompasses reducing the need to travel, through land use planning and by changing the way in which we live, work and enjoy our leisure. It must include an assessment of the extent to which we can encourage a shift to other modes. Inevitably, it involves controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms—unpopular though they may be.

At bottom, managing demand is about changing human behaviour. It follows that it is an extremely difficult thing to do. I am sure that we could readily achieve a consensus that as a society we should use cars less, but making it happen is another matter. Managing demand has to be a question of carrots and sticks. The carrots include ensuring that there are attractive public transport alternatives and that there are safe and unpolluted routes for those who would prefer to cycle or walk.

During her deliberations on these very difficult questions, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that Shrewsbury was effectively cut off from the capital of the country with the withdrawal of the inter-city service from Shrewsbury to Euston some years ago? One of the greatest boons to the encouragement of public transport in our county would be the restoration of the inter-city route from Euston to Shrewsbury. Many Salopians travel to Crewe, Birmingham International and other stations to catch their trains to London. That, I believe, would not happen if there were an adequate inter-city service from the county town.

It would be churlish for me to remind the hon. Gentleman why our integrated railways became less than integrated. It may have had something to do with his Government's policy of rail privatisation, but we, as the new Government, have to deal with the situation with which we have been left. He will be aware that we are concerned to ensure that the £1.8 billion of taxpayers' money that goes into our railways every year produces a high-quality railway service for the people of this country. We are continuing to urge Railtrack to ensure that it really does invest the amounts that it claims it is prepared to invest into our railway system, so that more passengers and freight can be moved on our rail network.

I had a meeting last week with Railtrack and Virgin Rail and am pleased to say that they are planning to bring forward by a year, to next summer, the planned date for restoring daily services from Shrewsbury to London. However, in Shropshire we want both. We want better rail services, but we also want, indeed need—this is the point of my speech—a better road, because certain traffic will not go by rail.

I am delighted to hear that Railtrack and Virgin Rail are producing the desired results for Shrewsbury. The hon. Gentleman referred to the needs of the people of Shrewsbury. Those needs could be replicated anywhere in the country. The Government are concerned to create a properly integrated transport strategy in which the carriage of passengers and freight can genuinely be shared. Easy access to public transport and good interchanges between different public transport services are critical. However—to refer to my carrot and stick analogy—carrots may get us only so far. We must also look at the sticks.

Telling people that they cannot do something that they have hitherto done, or are continuing to do, will cost them more is never easy. We must also be careful that we do not cut across our objective of creating a just and inclusive society and so make mobility the province of the rich.

That brings us to the third and last option: providing new infrastructure. This is also a very difficult option, both financially and in terms of its potential impact on the environment. Circumstances vary from case-to-case. In some cases a new or widened road may be the only option. In others, it may be the best—or least worst—option. There is no substitute here for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options.

We are looking region by region at the perceived traffic problems and the roads programme we inherited from our predecessors. We regard the existence of a scheme in the inherited programme as prima facie evidence of a transport problem. Apart from the roads already under construction and those on which we took decisions in the accelerated review last July, the Government are not committed to any of those schemes at this stage.

Will the Minister assure the House that the strategic implications for economic development, in this case for north, mid and west Wales, will be included in such a review when assessing, for example, the A5 trunk road?

As I have already pointed out, the whole purpose behind our consultation process and the publication of a White Paper next year is that there should be a strategy to create an integrated transport system not only for the short and medium term but well into the future. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the point that I made earlier: in Wales a similar review is taking place, based on exactly the same principle. We have to have a strategic overview.

Once we have identified the priority problems, the next step is to ensure that all the credible options are properly evaluated. There is no presumption that a road scheme is the right solution, or that a scheme in the roads programme is the best option. We envisage two outputs from this part of the review: first, a short-term investment programme; secondly, a programme of studies to look at the remaining problems—from which we will develop the medium and longer-term investment programme.

The short-term programme will include measures to make better use of the existing network, and new construction schemes. The new construction schemes are likely to come from the inherited roads programme and address priority problems in a way that is consistent with our integrated transport strategy. We will not put schemes into the programme if it is clear that an alternative option could obviate the need for the existing scheme. The right thing to do in those cases is to study the alternatives more fully before reaching decisions.

I now deal with the specifics of the hon. Gentleman's point about the A5 between the west midlands and north Wales. As he said, the A5 is an important transport link in regional, national and international terms. It is designated as part of the trans-European network route known as the Ireland-UK-Benelux road link. Over the past few years, improvements have been made to the Oswestry bypass, the Chirk bypass and its extension over the Welsh border to Ruabon, and the Shrewsbury to Telford improvement.

Other schemes to improve the Wolfshead Weirbrook section and provide a bypass of Nesscliffe have not gone forward. However, the hon. Gentleman has made it quite clear—both to my noble Friend and in his speech this afternoon—that the A5 has a poor safety record in this area. The Highways Agency is well aware of these problems and is considering various options, including options for an improvement at Shottaton crossroads, for which a 50 mph speed limit and speed cameras, are proposed. The cameras will be installed this year, and speed limits will follow once the statutory processes have been completed. The Highways Agency also proposes to introduce camera sites west of Churncote. It is seeking more information on accident problems on particular sections of the road and is looking at options for traffic-calming measures in Nesscliffe.

The whole of the A5 corridor is being considered as part of the roads review. The Government office for the west midlands is seeking regional views on priorities for investment on trunk roads for the region in the context of an integrated approach to transport planning. Officials from the Government office met local authorities from Shropshire and from Hereford and Worcester on 30 September. At that meeting, the local authorities expressed clear support for dualling of the A5 between Ruabon and Shrewsbury. I know that a route assessment study is being carried out for Shropshire county council, which is partly funded by the Highways Agency. We shall take that work into account when we make decisions on the road programme that will emerge from the review.

I must make it clear that a roads-based solution might not be the best one. As I have already said, we want to look afresh at the role of our road system in an integrated approach to transport planning. We seek long-term solutions that will promote sustainable economic development. The criteria are open and above board—integration, environment, accessibility, safety and economy. We should remember that the A5 forms part of the trans-European road network.

Legal Aid

1.30 pm

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the Government's legal aid proposals because I regard legal aid as embodying an important principle that we should support and empower. Individuals, especially those who do not have the financial means to employ legal services themselves, sometimes find themselves against big organisations, big corporations and power. Legal aid is an important means of addressing imbalances in our society. The people need the law, and now more than ever in view of the complexity and size of the powerful business organisations that they often have to oppose. They need its support and it should be available to them. If we are to have an equal legal system in which individuals have the ability to take on big power they must be backed in some way by public provision.

I am worried because it seems that the Government's proposals tilt the balance against the people in favour of power in a hasty and ill-considered fashion. If the Government's paramount aim is to provide an efficient service for the less well off, which it should be, the obvious approach would he to take the money that is now provided for legal aid—about £1.5 billion—and use it to establish a competing employed service of solicitors and barristers in the form of a public defender service dealing with criminal cases. It would comprise also a nationwide network of law centres dealing with all the civil matters that are raised in the courts. It is worrying that the Government appear not even to have considered such a service. It seems that they have not considered how we can provide better, more efficient, more direct and more committed support. Instead, the Government are engaged in a Treasury raid on legal aid.

Labour Members criticised the previous Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, because his proposals were Treasury driven, yet the Labour Government's proposals seem to be a Treasury nuclear raid on the system which if implemented will effectively destroy it.

I intend to deal primarily with the proposals for compensation cases, which seem to be straightforward and simple and would cut out legal aid completely. I will do so in a spirit which is, of course, helpful to the Government because it will allow them to flesh out their proposals, to tell us what is involved and to demonstrate that the issues have been considered.

Compensation cases are classic instances of the individual against big power—drug companies, industrialists, hospitals or the health service, for example. In many instances, these cases advance the public interest because they prove dereliction of duty and failure on the part of large organisations. In all these instances, the individual is weak when facing the large organisation unless he or she is empowered by some form of public provision.

My hon. Friend the Minister, when he replies, may accuse me of defending vested interests—in other words, lawyers—but instead I am defending the interests of the people, consumers, because they are paramount. I do not care about lawyers squabbling among themselves, with one branch of fat-cat lawyers accusing another branch of being fat-cat lawyers, which is edifying for the rest of us as a spectator sport. The real problem is to decide, against the background of that distasteful argument, how we might best protect the people.

First, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister how much will be saved by removing legal aid from compensation cases. Various estimates range from £600 million to £800. Those figures reflect the cost of civil non-family legal aid. What will be the saving? Are the figures to which I have referred net of recovery? Is recovery to be deducted from the estimated saving? If so, the saving will be comparatively small. There will be a massive shift of power against the people to produce a small saving at the end of the day.

I have no doubt that there are abuses in the legal aid system. The Lord Chancellor has told us, and I agree, that the public should not finance unwinnable cases. I am horrified to be told that the public are supporting such cases. If that is happening, I am sure that the Lord Chancellor has the power to stop the public purse being drained in that way. The issue, however, is to deal with the abuses as they occur rather using abuses as an excuse for scrapping the legal aid system.

We must provide an alternative if we are to cut legal aid. The only alternative is to provide legal aid through a network of law centres.

I would rather not give way because I have a difficult argument to advance and with the need for speed my argument must be somewhat compressed.

Section 202 of the Local Government Act 1972 gives local authorities the power to set up local services. In many instances, that power has not been developed because of lack of finance. If we are to divert massive sums from the legal aid system, surely they should be used to provide community services such as law centres. What a difference a few hundred million pounds would make to law centres throughout the country, but that provision is not being made. Instead, it seems, proposals are to be implemented prematurely without consultation, research and adequate information. That can be said of the proposals that have emerged so far.

The abolition of legal aid for compensation cases and instead placing emphasis on conditional fees did not appear in the Woolf report. That report focused on giving the courts more control over the legal process. Conditional fees put lawyers back in the driving seat because they will have a vested interest in pursuing cases. The Government's proposal was not recommended in the Middleton report either. Sir Peter Middleton did not endorse it. Sir Peter argued in his report that there could be a gradual transition from legal aid to conditional fees, but he did not recommend that legal aid should be scrapped and replaced entirely with conditional fees.

I have no great argument with conditional fees. I remember when the then Lord Chancellor introduced them from Scotland some years ago—an alien import into the British legal system—to cries of protest from the Law Society and from individual banisters. I would go further and have contingency fees. The legal profession must be able to compete in any way that it finds appropriate. The problem is that we are faced with an untried system and we do not know what consequences it will have. It is being put forward as a replacement for a system that is working and which protects the vulnerable.

My hon. Friend the Minister claims that the Government's proposals will open up justice to a range of people who are now excluded from it because at present the legal system is pricing itself out of use by the people, even those with substantial means. The fact remains, however, that conditional fees, as a replacement, are untried. My hon. Friend has no authority for advancing such an argument. We do not know how conditional fees are working since they have been introduced. We do not know of the problems that ensue.

I specialised as a personal injury lawyer for 19 years. There have been conditional fees for the past two years and the system has been working extremely well, but I accept my hon. Friend's argument that they may not be suitable for every type of case. He may not be aware, however, that John Monks of the TUC, while speaking to representatives of the insurance industry on 3 November, made an interesting proposal that will be advanced to the Lord Chancellor, and that is to extend the trade union legal aid scheme to all people who are injured at work. Trade union schemes are a success story and they are not dependent on legal aid. Perhaps my hon. Friend will care to reflect on these points.

I encourage the extension of the trade union legal aid scheme: it is obviously important. However, neither that scheme nor conditional fees can replace the substantial sums in legal aid that will be taken away. People who do not belong to a trade union and who are not able to get access to conditional fees will be particularly vulnerable.

It must be proved to me that conditional fees are not only workingI— did not expect them to be a disastrous failure—but are working for the benefit of the people. All that we have is the research undertaken by the Policy Studies Institute, which involved 200 cases seen from the solicitors' and not the consumers' point of view. How difficult is it for consumers to obtain legal aid? What barriers are put in their way? How much are solicitors proposing to charge? How many cases were turned away because solicitors would not take them up? We know nothing of all that. All that we have is a study of 190 or so cases and the fees charged: we have nothing from the users' point of view. It is the users whom I am defending. It is wrong to put so much weight on conditional fees as an alternative to legal aid without any research.

Conditional fees are inherently loaded against the poor. Compensation cases incur substantial up-front costs, such as medical reports, which are expensive. Insurance premiums will be a substantial charge on the system. Insurance companies will want their own medical reports. A poor litigant will have to pay substantial up-front costs before he can even get his case to court. Present charges are £95 for road traffic accidents, £161 for personal injury cases, and a mere £15,000 for medical negligence cases, which are the most difficult. If insurance is to be required, it will load the odds against the poor. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us that the Government will fund the insurance charges for litigants whose income is below a certain level. That would not solve the problem, but it would make the proposal more acceptable.

What cases will be taken? I am sure that conditional fees will work with a sure-fire winner, such as a simple, straightforward personal injury case, but it will be impossible for them to work in a medical negligence case, in drug cases and in consumer product cases. Cases of builders or hairdressers from hell will also be difficult. Conditional fees will not be available in such cases, because the odds will be loaded against them and in favour of cases that will obviously be successful.

What will be the effect on legal practices? Practices devoted to legal aid will be driven out. Only fat practices with large incomes will be able to finance conditional fee litigation, because they will not get a quick return. They will need a large case load to carry them through the lean years. Small practices that presently provide devoted service to legal aid cases do not have large enough case loads: they lack weight and fat, so cases will go to the large practices.

All that is predictable. It is essential for the Government to acknowledge those consequences. I do not want them to abolish legal aid, but if they are going to replace it by conditional fees there should be a period of transition during which the one can be developed to replace the other. Let us have a transitional phase so that we can see that it works. That is the only sensible way to protect the people. The Government propose a sudden, overnight transition. It will take years: there will be no sudden savings. Under a smokescreen of a tax on fat-cat lawyers—with which I totally sympathise—legal aid will be abolished in compensation cases. That is not a responsible policy for any Government, but particularly not for a Labour Government whose commitment must be to protect and empower the poor and those who cannot afford legal services.

Legal aid was becoming expensive. Like the common agricultural policy—which the Government do not criticise much—it is demand led. However, there are ways of dealing with that problem short of abolition. We should consider alternative provisions, such as competition by employed solicitors, or an attack on the restrictive practices of the Bar, which enormously drive up expenses in court cases. It is interesting to note that Sir Peter Middleton has pointed out that these reforms will not damage the incomes of those at the Bar: it is obviously important to reassure the Bar that it will be protected against these changes. We could allow the Crown Prosecution Service to use its own banisters rather than force them to employ outside banisters. More paralegals could be used: legal aid for mediation is not proposed. The Government should not kick away the support provided for the people until they have provided an adequate, proven alternative to protect even more people more efficiently and economically. That is the prime need.

I hope that, as he clarifies Government policy, my hon. Friend will reassure me. The Lord Chancellor used a worrying phrase when he said that it is unfair for the middle classes to pay for poorer people to have services that they cannot afford themselves. Is that the basic new Labour principle behind this reform?

1.45 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for allowing me to speak in the debate. I want to bring a number of points to the Minister's attention, and to seek his assurance that they will be considered when his Department discusses publicly funded litigation.

I broadly welcome the commitment to conditional fees. They will give unity of commercial purpose between the lawyer and the client, and ensure that they are both striving towards the same goal. They will also open up the courts to many who find the doors closed to them at present. It cannot be acceptable for the state to finance only those cases involving a sufficiently bad risk that no commercial practitioner would touch them with a bargepole.

There will have to be insurance against losing the case and having to pay the other side's costs. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with the insurance industry to ensure that insurance products are available?

I urge my hon. Friend to retain the cost protection against the cost of enforcement presently enjoyed by those who qualify for legal aid. I also ask him to bear in mind the cases, such as housing or human rights cases, in which the main aim of the litigation, even though it is a damages claim, is an injunction or interlocutory relief, so there is no final award of damages.

I urge my hon. Friend to make the 25 per cent. mark-up a statutory limit, or at least a statutory limit to be exceeded only in cases in which a taxing master has considered that the solicitors took an exceptional risk in undertaking the litigation in the first place.

1.47 pm

I speak as a slightly overweight rather than a fat-cat lawyer, who has had some experience in personal injury litigation. I also speak as one of the vice chairs of the all-party head injury group that meets regularly in the House. One of the valid concerns of that group is that firms of solicitors will not be able to carry the huge disbursements that are necessary to pursue medical negligence or personal injury cases. Typically, lawyers are reliant on medical reports and specialist reports, such as engineers' reports. They will also refer matters back and forth to counsel, all of which costs money.

Smaller firms will not be able to carry those disbursements. The people most at risk are those at the bottom of the pile, and they need to have their cases brought to court. My great fear is that, even with the best will in the world, no firm will be able to take up the cudgels on their behalf.

I hope and trust that the Minister, thoughtful as he always is, will deal with that aspect, because it worries me and many other lawyers. I understand that there is to be a lobby on this subject in the other place next week. I hope that all those who are interested will appear next Tuesday to make their voices heard. I am obliged to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for allowing me to make that brief point.

1.49 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for raising such an important issue—even if he did appear to be playing a new role as the lawyer's friend.

From its creation in 1949, the legal aid scheme in England and Wales was vital in enabling people of limited means to enforce their legal rights, and in many ways it was one of the great successes of the welfare state; but, over the years, the scheme has become less and less able to fulfil its original ambitions. I hardly need rehearse the problems, as they are well known to all of us as constituency Members. Eligibility has fallen from 70 per cent. of households to fewer than 50 per cent., spending has outstripped inflation, although fewer people are being helped, and the average cost of cases has been rising and rising, with no way of stopping it or even slowing it down. That is why this Government will fundamentally reform legal aid.

Sadly, the legal profession has proved deeply conservative in the face of previous attempts at control or reform. I understand why it does not want an end to the present system of payment, as it delivers a healthy income, often largely from the taxpayer, irrespective of value for money. The trouble is that, despite huge expense, legal aid is costing more to do less. Civil legal aid has tripled in six years, to £671 million. Broadly, that means that the income from legal aid going to the legal profession has risen by 20 per cent. a year on average over the same period. While civil legal aid continued to rise last year, there were about 13,500 fewer acts of help. We simply cannot go on like that. I want to help more people, not fewer; I want legal aid to be directed to those with unmet legal needs. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees with that.

My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and I have concluded that—as the first step on the path of reform—because there are areas of unmet legal need but no extra money, legal aid should not be used where alternatives are as good or better. That is why we have decided that those claiming damages or making claims for money should generally use no-win, no-fee arrangements rather than legal aid.

My hon. Friend said that the measure had been introduced overnight. The change will be made, but, obviously, on the first day following it lawyers will continue to obtain their income from all the legal aid cases that they previously had. On the first day of the system, they will perhaps have one conditional-fee case; as the system develops, they will have more and more such cases and, clearly, lower income from legal aid. It will take some time: it is a process of transition. We will not make savings on the first day. Obviously, lawyers will subsequently have no legal aid cases, but the process will not happen overnight. The savings will take many years to work through into the system.

Unfortunately, the lawyers' response has been rapid and all too predictable. They say that the poor cannot use no-win, no-fee arrangements because they cannot afford either the up-front costs of investigating the merits of a case or the insurance against having to pay the other side's costs if they lose—an argument which my hon. Friend repeated. But are the current arrangements, under which the client is expected to meet those up-front costs, the only way of working? Let us go a step further and ask whether they are fair. I have some doubts, and as a result I shall invite the lawyers to consider the following proposition. Why should not lawyers absorb the up-front costs of investigating the merits, bear the risk of the other side's costs and simply factor those into the pricing structure of their overall business?

There have always been lawyers who have taken on cases on the informal understanding that they will not be paid for their work if they do not win. Since 1995, lawyers have also been able to charge their clients a "success fee" on top of their normal prices if they do win. There are few areas of commerce or business in which some money is not put at risk to realise an overall positive return. Why should lawyers in business in the private sector be any different? It may mean that only efficient, professionally competent and busy firms will be able to offer the agreements that we are discussing, but is that not a good thing? Is it not precisely what my hon. Friend's conveyancing reforms achieved, for the benefit of the consumer? His proposals fundamentally changed the way in which conveyancing operated, because he was not afraid to consider alternatives to the existing traditional arrangements. I hope that he will approach our proposals for reform in the same spirit.

It is claimed that conditional fees will not cover some cases that legal aid currently supports, particularly those with a poor prospect of success. I do not consider it fair to help the less well off to sue under legal aid provisions in cases in which the great majority—whose taxes help to pay for legal aid—could not themselves sue. I also cannot see why it is objectionable to keep weak cases out of the courts.

It has been deeply disappointing to observe the speed with which, in the last three weeks, leading lawyers have rushed to use the example of children who were brain damaged at birth to demonstrate that our plans are wrong. They argue that those children, who would receive legal aid now, would not be able to arrange a conditional fee agreement because of the difficulty of their cases. I find it distressing that they need to use those cases in their arguments, or to adopt a moral high ground as if the Government had no regard for the children or their parents.

I shall go on to deal with that.

Those cases are emotive: they engage strong emotions in all of us. The fact that issues are painful, however, is no excuse for refusing to think the issues through; indeed, it emphasises our duty to do that. Whose interest is served if cases proceed on the slim hope that some benefit may accrue? Not, I suspect, that of the parents, for whom the trauma of unsuccessful and pointless litigation will be added to the trauma of the original damage to the child. Nor will such action serve the interests of the health authority, which has to divert effort and resources to meet the claims, or that of sick people whose care may suffer because of the money diverted to fight cases. Meanwhile, the taxpayer is asked to fund the child's lawyers, and when—as most often happens—the litigation fails, the only people who have profited are the lawyers. They do not do so out of malice or malevolence; nevertheless, they alone stand to gain regardless of the outcome. Is that in the interests of the sick and the injured? Is that the best use that we can make of scarce public money?

The issues are difficult and painful, and I would prefer not to face them; but they must be faced. It must be said that we can no longer allow weak cases to be taken up by lawyers and paid for by the taxpayer irrespective of the cost, and the Government have the right and the duty to say so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) raised the important question of insurance. We will certainly look at the ways in which insurance may be available in such circumstances. As I have said, however, I think that in the first place it is a responsibility of lawyers in business and private practice to consider bearing the costs for themselves.

If conditional fees are introduced, will the insurance premiums of those who currently qualify for legal aid be paid by the legal aid fund, and will the fund pay the costs of investigating a case and its merits?

It is for the lawyers to consider whether they should absorb those costs up front as a cost of doing business. If we receive persuasive evidence that that is totally impossible, we may take other considerations into account; in the first place, however, I want lawyers to consider their businesses, and this is a business that they are in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby raised the question whether our action was motivated solely by the need to cut legal aid expenditure, and driven by the Treasury. I emphasise that that is not the case. We will not spend less than is currently contained in the published expenditure plans covering the next three years, but we shall not continue to pay millions more to lawyers to provide ever fewer people with help. The poor can rest safe in the knowledge that they will be able to benefit from conditional fees in money recovery cases while benefiting from the existing legal aid budget for other cases such as those involving family law.

In the longer term, we intend to reform the legal aid scheme further by buying legal services under contract. We will transform the way in which legal aid operates. For too long it has been simply a bill-paying machine, paying lawyers on demand for the work that they choose to do. Instead, it should become a positive system for buying the services that people need. We will establish a system of contracting whereby the Legal Aid Board will buy services from people other than lawyers, such as advice agencies and mediators, and will make suppliers compete in terms of quality and price. That will allow us to help more people pound for pound.

Contracting will give us power to direct services to those in most need, taking account of local demand and the best way of meeting it. That is already a developing reality. The Legal Aid Board is already contracting with agencies such as the citizens advice bureaux and lawyers for legal advice and assistance. The first regional legal services committee has been set up to liaise with local people on local priorities. Here is the beginning of the development of community legal services, and we will move quickly to make it a reality. As elsewhere in Government, we are maintaining our manifesto promises.

I know that my hon. Friend would like a national legal service to be established. Obviously, we want everyone to have access to legal advice, but our preferred approach of delivering services through contracts offers us the flexibility to purchase services in ways that best take account of local conditions. It may well be that when contracting takes place with a firm with high volumes of work—in Grimsby, say—it will be possible in some fields to buy services under a block contract with a unit price per case while in a market town, perhaps in rural Lincolnshire, where there is less volume, cases may have to be paid for on a different and more individual basis. Again, in some areas of legal practice—or in some local circumstances—it may be better to pay for a salaried service, or to buy the time of a supplier rather than a volume of cases. What is more, as the world changes and demand on legal aid and ways of meeting it also change, contracting will allow us to keep the delivery systems up to date. Our proposals will allow for a wide range of flexible services.

The proposals also allow us to refocus legal aid on the problems of the less well off—on the problems of those who need the law to help them to struggle out of social or economic exclusion. I want legal aid to be aimed at social welfare issues and matters of public interest. The diversion of most money claims to conditional fees will help, because we can then use the money that would have been used up in providing traditional legal aid for civil litigation to tackle more effectively issues such as housing, debt, employment, welfare benefits and immigration, and matters of broad public interest.

With legal aid delivered through contracts, we can decide how much to spend each year. For the first time, Ministers will be properly accountable to the House for how much they spend and on what services. The Government will be accountable for how much they spend on legal aid, and how much they spend on other public services such as health and education. As my hon. Friend said, at present legal aid is demand led—

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

Oral Answers To Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked

Job Creation

1.

What progress has been made by the Welsh Development Agency in meeting its target in respect of jobs created being based outside the eastern M4 corridor and the A55 corridor. [12375]

One of the WDA's strategic targets for 1997–98 is to create or to safeguard 12,500 jobs within Wales, of which not less than 50 per cent. should be outside the eastern M4 and A55 corridors. The agency recorded 7,870 jobs created or safeguarded up to the end of September, of which 4,018—or 51 per cent.—were outside the eastern corridors. Recently, I met the agency's board and told it of my particular concern about the Pembrokeshire economy.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to keep it in mind that, in recent years, parts of Wales have suffered a battering, particularly my constituency of Preseli Pembrokeshire? Defence establishments and a Gulf oil refinery there have closed and the power station in neighbouring Pembroke has also been shut down. Will he do all that he can to bring inward investment to west Wales to tackle the local economic crisis?

I most certainly will. I am conscious of the fact that unemployment in my hon. Friend's constituency is 50 per cent. higher than the Welsh average. It is important that we use the resources that are available to us as effectively as we can. I have made it clear that the Welsh Office, the WDA, training and enterprise councils and local authorities should work together in partnership. That team approach is the only way to extend economic prosperity not only to Pembrokeshire but to the whole of Wales.

Will the Minister give us all an assurance that, as the WDA examines reconfiguring itself in relation to regional development agencies and so forth, all Members representing parts of Wales will be able to make an active contribution to that debate?

I have had discussions with the WDA and it is already discussing with the Land Authority for Wales and the Development Board for Rural Wales the configuration of the new economic powerhouse. As the hon. Gentleman already knows, I am more than prepared at any time to listen to any representations that he, or any other parliamentary colleague, wishes to make to me.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, surprisingly, one of the main impediments to the attraction of large inward investment to south-west Wales has been the shortage of large flat and suitable sites? Will he ensure co-ordination between the WDA, the Welsh Office and local authorities so that that impediment is removed?

I most certainly will. My right hon. Friend knows that the Velindre site, in which he has taken a particularly close interest, and the Cleddau Bridge site are two of the strategic sites that have been identified. I shall do all that I can to ensure that those sites are promoted for large inward investment.

It is all very well for the Secretary of State to talk about WDA targets for attracting inward investment away from the A55 and M4 corridors, but an article in one of today's newspapers mentions a damaging row between himself and the President of the Board of Trade about who should have the final say on aid packages to attract inward investment. Therefore, will the Secretary of State for Wales clear up this issue: who does have the final say over inward investment issues? Is it himself or the President of the Board of Trade, or will it be the Assembly?

The targets of which the hon. Gentleman is so scornful were set by my predecessor as Secretary of State for Wales, who is now leader of the Conservative party. I am quite happy to tell the hon. Gentleman the Government's position. It was clearly set out in the White Paper, which was endorsed in September. There will be an agreed relationship between the Department of Trade and Industry, the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office—a concordat will be established. That will be the basis on which the relationship between the DTI, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will operate.

Education

If he will make a statement on the progress of legislation affecting education in Wales. [12376]

The Government have already brought in legislation to fulfil their election pledge to phase out the assisted places scheme. In addition, we shall shortly present to Parliament legislation containing measures on higher and further education and on raising standards of education for every pupil in schools in Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will know of the tremendous economic significance for south-west Wales of Swansea university and Swansea institute. Is he aware of the great concern among academics and other employees in those centres of learning about the current financial position? That was reflected in a letter that all Welsh Members of Parliament received from the heads of the higher education institutions in Wales. They warn of dire consequences if the current shortfall in finance continues. I do not think that they are crying wolf—what does my hon. Friend think?

I visited Swansea university last Friday. It is a fine university. Under the Conservative Government, universities in Wales faced a growing financial crisis. That is why I am pleased—

Just wait for it. I am pleased to announce for next year an additional £10 million for higher education in Wales. That new investment will match proportionately the package announced in England recently. I hope that this money, allocated despite constraints on public spending, will show that the new Labour Government backs Welsh universities. They are critical to our objective of building a high-quality, world-beating economy in Wales.

Does the Minister agree that education will be one of the main priorities—if not the main priority—for the Welsh Assembly? Is there not an opportunity to design an education system, educational policies and patterns of provision in Wales that are distinctive and that correspond to Welsh needs? I think in particular of curricula as well as organisation. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Welsh Assembly will be seriously empowered in influencing the pattern of education provision in Wales from 1999 onwards?

Yes, I can confirm that. The new Government have made an auspicious start by publishing the first-ever education White Paper for Wales covering schools. Next year, we shall publish the first-ever education White Paper covering lifelong learning. That is a sign of our intention to establish a distinctive educational agenda for Wales that meets the interests and values of Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the additional money for higher education in Wales. Is it new money, or is it money from elsewhere in the education budget? If it is from elsewhere in the budget, where is it coming from?

It is not money from elsewhere in the education budget—it is additional money, which has come in part from the up-front funding from the introduction of student fees for tuition.

Welsh Assembly

3.

If he will make a statement on the outcome of the vote on a Welsh Assembly. [12377]

The Government put their proposals to the people of Wales in a vote on 18 September. I am delighted to remind the hon. Gentleman that the people of Wales recorded a yes vote. There was a massive 30 per cent. increase in the yes vote compared with 1979. The swings in the south and south-east were truly remarkable, from barely 12 per cent. in favour in West and Mid Glamorgan in 1979 to more than 55 per cent. in favour now. In Gwent and South Glamorgan, the yes vote rose from well under 10 per cent. to more than 40 per cent. We now have a unique opportunity to improve the governance of Wales and I look forward to introducing legislation at the earliest opportunity. We have a mandate, but it is important that we continue to broaden and deepen our support.

Does the Secretary of State accept that—although he tried so hard in that answer—almost three quarters of people in Wales did not support the proposals, which can hardly be described as the settled will of the people of Wales? In those circumstances, it must be right for the legislation to be scrutinised carefully. Will he give an undertaking that any Bill dealing with the proposals will be introduced in the House and not in another place, and that it will be considered, as a constitutional Bill, on the Floor of the House? Is it not surprising that we have yet to see the Bill published, and is that not a rather dismal reflection on the stewardship of the matter?

Not at all. The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues, and I shall try to deal with them. In the referendum of 18 September 1997, 25 per cent. of the people of Wales voted against the proposals. He has no basis on which to claim that those who did not vote in the referendum were expressing opposition. I cannot give him the guarantee that he requests on introducing the Bill into one or another House, because that is a matter for the Government's business managers. I can tell him, however, that I am anxious that there should be proper scrutiny of the legislation as it passes through the House. I have always made it clear that I expect the Bill to be published by the end of this month. I made that statement at the start of the legislative process, and I am happy to repeat it today. I expect the Bill to be published before the end of this month.

Does my right hon. Friend expect the Assembly to meet in north Wales—for example, in the county of Flintshire? Does he expect the Assembly to have plans to improve road and rail communications between the north and the south, bearing in mind that many people in the north think of Cardiff as a faraway place?

Those are interesting questions, but they deal with matters that the Assembly itself will have to decide. The purpose of devolution is to empower the Assembly to deal with those matters relating to Wales that are best dealt with in Wales. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), is examining ways in which we can improve road and rail links between north and south Wales—an important matter. As for the Assembly meeting in north Wales, it will have the right to choose where to meet. I certainly expect the Assembly to have its headquarters in Cardiff, but there will be a north Wales committee. The Assembly may well decide to meet in various parts of Wales when it wishes to examine matters of current concern.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the historic result of the referendum and the establishment of a Welsh national assembly. Does he agree that one of the main reasons why people voted yes was the Assembly's potential for developing the economy of Wales, not least in the context of reorganisation of the Welsh Development Agency and other agencies dealing with industry?

In that context, will the Secretary of State give the House a categorical assurance that the powers that have been enjoyed by the Welsh Development Agency to attract inward investment to Wales will not be undermined by the action of other Ministers, and that the power will be there to do the much-needed job of raising Wales's gross domestic product from the current 83 per cent. nearer to 100 per cent? We are at the bottom of the league table of regions and countries in Great Britain, and we shall need those powers, and more, to get a solution.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—I congratulate him on achieving that new status—that the economic future of Wales was central to the devolution debate. I pay tribute to the work done by members of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats in achieving the yes vote, which was an historic performance by all three progressive parties in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the powers that will be available to the Assembly to attract inward investment and deal with other economic development matters. I remind him of the statement made in "A Voice for Wales"—the White Paper on which the referendum campaign was based—which was:
"Financial assistance to industry will remain subject to common UK guidelines and consultation arrangements to be set out in a published concordat."
That is my policy, and that is the Government's policy. I strongly support it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be far better if Opposition Members ceased to refight the battles of this summer, accepted that the people of Wales have asked for a Welsh Assembly and contributed constructively to the establishment of a democratic institution which we all want to work? Does he agree that there is no point in fighting old battles and that we have to look forward?

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. He has for many years made known his views known on Welsh devolution. I am delighted that he, like many other people in Wales who had reservations about the proposals, now accepts the outcome. I agree that it is a great pity that the Conservative party in England does not talk to the Conservative party in Wales. The Conservative party in Wales, what little there is, has now accepted that there is no turning back the clock. It wants to play a constructive part in building the new democracy, and it is a pity that Conservative Front Benchers do not learn some lessons from it.

Does the Secretary of State recall that, on the morning after the vote, the Prime Minister scrubbed his celebration visit to Cardiff—which, incidentally, had voted no—and in Downing street told journalists that he would now listen to the people of Wales? Does the Secretary of State accept that, whatever else they might do, the votes revealed the real and legitimate fears of people in certain parts of Wales that a Welsh Assembly would permanently ride roughshod over their interests? What listening has been done since 18 September, and what fundamental changes are proposed to the plans—or was it just one more bit of prime ministerial hollow rhetoric that he will ignore by riding roughshod over the voice of the people of Wales?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is stuck in a time warp. Politics has changed, and the vast majority of people in Wales now understand that there will be a new democracy. No prime ministerial visit was arranged for Wales for 19 September. What I remember from 19 September was my announcing the Government's determination to proceed with the devolution plans on the basis that it was a very good morning for Wales.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I propose to create an advisory committee, which will consist of representatives of all political parties in Wales. I am delighted that members of Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, as well as representatives of business, industry and the voluntary sector in Wales, have all undertaken to co-operate in the process. I hope that, if the right hon. Gentleman is sincere in his protestations about building a consensus and listening to people with reservations, he will, in turn, be prepared to play a full part in the process.

Is it not good that we have an example of yet another manifesto commitment being delivered and endorsed by the people? Is there not now a new obligation on the Conservative party to recognise that the people of Wales have endorsed the proposal and an obligation on the other place to recognise that it is not elected and should have no place in seeking fundamentally to alter what was proposed by the Government and endorsed in the election and the referendum?

I am delighted to be able to agree with my hon. Friend. I refer him to an article in the Western Mail this morning, which appeared under the heading "Devo-vote linked to surge in optimism". The London editor of the newspaper says:

"A wave of optimism is sweeping across Wales as consumers indulge themselves in a pro-devolution spending boom celebration".
The article reports an economist as saying:
"The pro-devolution votes have unleashed an unprecedented wave of optimism in both Wales and Scotland".
The only people who are going to be left behind are those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Special Advisers

4.

What role his special advisers played during the referendum campaign in Wales. [12378]

My special advisers played an active role supporting my ministerial colleagues and me throughout the referendum campaign. Their wide-ranging duties included analysing policy, advising on presentational matters and liaising with Members of Parliament from my party and those in other parties and campaigning groups in Wales that supported the Government's policy. They were both pleased to be on the winning side.

Would not the right hon. Gentleman's account of the work of political advisers in the campaign be fuller if he drew attention to the fact that one of his special advisers telephoned Blaenau Gwent council, asking it to put pressure on the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), saying that if he did not co-operate, access would be denied—or possibly even granted—to the right hon. Gentleman? Is not that attitude to constitutional propriety more reminiscent of the late Mr. Fawkes, whose happy demise we shall be celebrating today? Does the right hon. Gentleman have confidence in a verdict that gave him such a very small majority, obtained only through a massive expenditure of public money and by strong arming his hon. Friends?

I am afraid that the allegations to which the hon. Gentleman is referring are ancient history. Let me remind him that both my special advisers were properly employed in line with the Cabinet Office advice of 20 May. As I have said, they carried out a wide range of duties. The hon. Gentleman will be particularly interested to know that, on those occasions when it would have been unwise of me to use my car, my special advisers arranged taxis for me.

House Building

5.

What representations he has received concerning the building of extra houses in Wales. [12379]

I have received the Welsh Local Government Association's housing manifesto for Wales, which urges an increase in social housing provision.

Does the Minister agree with the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning that the green belt is up for grabs?

There is no such thing as the green belt being up for grabs in Wales. Under current planning guidance in Wales, there is no green belt. However, earlier this summer, I wrote to all Welsh planning authorities asking them to consider those places where it would be appropriate to have green belts because of the danger of one settlement running into another.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the release of capital receipts by the Government will provide a great boost to the building of local authority homes, if local authorities wish to build? Will he welcome that release of capital receipts for authorities such as Flintshire, which is ploughing money into new house building and refurbishments this year?

Under the capital receipts initiative, more than £9 million will be available this year and more than £33 million in the next financial year. Local authorities will be able to put forward proposals on how that money might be spent. They will be able to provide more new houses if they act together with housing associations, bringing in private capital. One way or another, the capital receipts initiative is good news for housing and people in Wales.

Beef Crisis

When he last met representatives of the farming unions to discuss the beef crisis in Wales. [12380]

My right hon. Friend and I met both farming unions in Wales on Friday 30 May and again just over a week ago. Welsh Office Ministers and officials have had discussions with both unions on numerous occasions.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I also thank him for his contribution to this morning's debate. I particularly welcome the Government's initiative on attempting to lift the beef ban, which was made more difficult by the actions of the previous Conservative Government. Does he recognise that there are immediate concerns in the beef industry about the over-30-months scheme, the green pound and the value of sterling? Can the Government do anything in the short term to alleviate those real problems?

I can give no categorical, cast-iron assurances of significant action in the short term, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, although we are not yet convinced that there is a proven case for tackling any aspect of the green pound revaluation, we have given an undertaking to continue reviewing that. We have until next January to make final decisions on most aspects of the green pound revaluation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to keep that under review.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many farmers in Wales deplore the Opposition's negative attitude to Europe? Many farmers know that agricultural policy is inextricably linked with European policy. Does he agree that it is high time that the Opposition took a more realistic approach to Europe?

That is certainly the case. It is a pity that the previous Government were so anti-European—virtually at war with Europe. This Government have much improved relationships with Europe. They will be further improved next week, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will visit Brussels for discussions with, among others, the Agriculture Commissioner.

Order. Let me remind hon. Members that they can ask only questions for which the Government are responsible. The Government have no responsibility for what the Opposition do.

Higher Education

7.

What meetings he has had with students to discuss higher education in Wales. [12381]

I am due to meet the president of the National Union of Students, Wales at the beginning of December. I recently met a deputation of students in my constituency.

I am sure that, in addition to many hon. Members, many students in Wales will be interested by the Minister's answer to Question 2, in which he admitted that a large portion of the money that was to be allocated to universities in Wales would come from raising tuition fees for students. Is that not absolute hypocrisy, given that, during the general election campaign, the Prime Minister said categorically that student fees in higher education would not be raised?

The Prime Minister did not say that. It is a bit rich for Conservatives to complain about the situation in higher education. They reduced many of our universities in Wales to near bankruptcy. Under the previous financial regime, they saddled students with huge debts. We are introducing a new system that is fair to students, to parents, to universities and to our country. It will establish higher education on a sound basis and give our students the opportunities that they deserve.

I believe that my hon. Friend is aware of a letter from the Department for Education and Employment to his office in Cardiff alleging serious irregularities in the use of European social fund moneys at Gwent tertiary college. Will he investigate those allegations and make a statement to the House?

I am aware of the allegations. My officials are keeping me informed about the progress of the investigation.

Local Government Finance

8.

What steps he will take to assist local authorities facing reductions in local services. [12382]

We are well aware of the financial pressures on local government in Wales and will do what we can in the forthcoming revenue settlement to recognise them, although the room for manoeuvre in 1998–99 is relatively small.

Will the Minister consider removing the cap on local government expenditure in Wales to enable local communities to benefit from not having their services under the extreme pressure that they face at present?

We in the Welsh Office have had a constructive debate with the Welsh Local Government Association and, in particular, with the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance. A package of proposals has been put forward to which Councillor Shaw from Powys county council made an invaluable contribution. We are considering those proposals. On the basis of our last meeting, we believe that there will be a way forward in this difficult year and that, while it will not lead to the removal of capping, there will be sufficient room in the system to keep everybody happy at least for the coming year.

Nhs Trusts

9.

What progress has been made by his Department in reducing the number of NHS trusts in Wales. [12383]

The Welsh Office is currently consulting on proposals to create a single ambulance trust for Wales, and hon. Members for Welsh constituencies will have received a copy of the consultation document. In addition, a finalised plan for reviewing the number and shape of the other NHS trusts in Wales is due to be completed by April 1999. The document was distributed on 30 September. A copy of the project plan has also been placed in the Library of the House.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. How will he get round the problem that will be caused in the Cardiff area by the likely proposal to merge the two big hospital trusts, University Hospital of Wales and Llandough, given that their expected deficit at the end of this financial year will be more than £7.5 million? That is equivalent to 35 per cent. of the total expected deficit of all the trusts in Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the Cardiff area it is not so much a question of NHS trusts as NHS bust?

I have every confidence that the management of both trusts will be able to bring the projected deficits down this year and will continue to ensure that their trusts perform well for their patients and in terms of financial efficiency. As for which trusts may or may not combine, or the shape of services after 1999, I have no predictions to make.

Prime Minister

Engagements

The Prime Minister was asked—

Q1.

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 November. [12355]

This morning, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, I launched a White Paper setting out the Government's commitment to sustainable development and the elimination of international poverty. I shall have meetings with ministerial colleagues and others later in the day.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that his decision to give away the essential British veto over European research matters now means that he will not be able to block plans by other European Union countries to increase the budget by 24 per cent., which means a £2 billion increase in that budget? Will not the British taxpayer now have to pay higher taxes because of his betrayal of the British national interest?

No. I do not think that I have ever heard such nonsense. I am rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not make a case for a referendum on the Amsterdam treaty, but perhaps that is because, a couple of days ago, Lord Howe said:

"Fortunately, the public has reacted to this proposal with complete indifference."
[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] The simple answer is no. We protected the national interest fully at Amsterdam in contrast to the negative, foolish isolationism of the previous Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be widespread welcome for the first White Paper on international development to be published for 20 years? Will he tell the House whether it will deal with the needs of children, millions of whom die under the age of five because of poverty?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is an important White Paper. It will allow us to put our aid and development programmes on a sound footing. In particular, it means that any money that is spent abroad by this country is spent on the basis of long-term programmes that work not just to the benefit of those individual countries but for the long-term benefit of the developing and developed world.

Has the Prime Minister seen reports that the European Commission wants to extend to tens of thousands of smaller British firms regulations that now apply only to large multinationals? Can he confirm that British businesses are opposed to that? Can he confirm that the Government are opposed to that? Now that he has signed away our veto by signing up to the social chapter, can he also confirm that there may be nothing that he can do to stop that?

No. We have already made our position clear; we do not believe that such extensions are sensible. It is simply a Commission proposal at present. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that the biggest extension of qualified majority voting was agreed by the Government of which he was a member.

I am asking the Prime Minister about the social chapter. Given that he is opposed to these regulations, does he now regret signing away our veto? Can he give small businesses a guarantee that he will prevent those regulations coming into force—yes or no?

As I have already made clear to the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] As I have already made clear, joining the social chapter is manifestly in Britain's interests because this side of the House does not believe that treating people fairly and getting a good deal for the country are inconsistent objectives.

Now that we have had the old propaganda, let us have an answer. Can the Prime Minister give a guarantee that he will prevent the regulations to which he is opposed and to which British small businesses are opposed—yes or no?

We have already made it clear that this is a Commission proposal and that we do not believe that it should be extended. The right hon. Gentleman is making a pretty transparent attempt to hide the fact that his party is hopelessly divided on the issue. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the Leader of the Opposition said:

"The days of disunity, factions and wings, groups within groups … is over"—[Interruption.]

Order. The House does not have to listen, but hon. Members must be heard. Let us hear what the Prime Minister has to say.

I thought that they would enjoy hearing the words of the Leader of the Opposition. He said:

"The days of disunity … is over. It's finished. It's out. And as long as I am leader it will never come back."
I do not think that we need lessons from the right hon. Gentleman in leadership.

It is no good the Prime Minister giving the answers he prepared last week to the questions he is being asked this week. If he has such faith in his negotiating power, will he make a better fist of negotiating in the social chapter than he made of the border control agreement? Does he not regret boasting to the House in June that if we wanted to opt into the border control agreement no other country could block it? Now that the Foreign Secretary has said that that was a misunderstanding and other countries could block it, is it not clear that what the Prime Minister said in the House was wrong?

For 18 years the Conservatives failed to get a deal on border controls. It is this party that got the deal on border controls and, for the first time, it is a legally binding deal. I simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman: when are we going to hear about this referendum?

We have got used to the Prime Minister dodging questions at these sessions, but we have not been used to its becoming more pathetic as the questions go on. The fact is that he went to Amsterdam, signed away this country's legal rights by accident and came back with a letter saying, "Don't worry about it." That is not very good for a lawyer, is it? After all this, is it not obvious that the assurances that he offered businesses about European regulation before the election are like the assurances he gave to students and to people with pension funds—absolutely worthless?

After the past couple of weeks, I think that business prefers our position on Europe to that of the Conservatives. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that we not only got a good deal for this country in Europe; we managed to set the country on a different path in our relations with Europe that allows us to play a part in leading in Europe, not to be perpetually isolated in Europe. Whatever he may say, I think that a large number of people who support the Conservative party want this country to behave sensibly in Europe—and we will.

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that it is hypocritical of some Conservative Members to decry the fact that we are not able to take into account the wind chill factor in cold weather payments when, within the past 12 months, they have blocked a Bill that would have done exactly that? Is it not true that, as a result of our changes to value added tax on fuel, we have given a far better benefit to every pensioner in the country than the wind chill measure would have given them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservative party broke the link with earnings for pensioners, it would end the tax relief on pension contributions, and it was responsible for the greatest pensions scandal—the mis-selling of pensions—the country has ever seen. The Conservatives promised that they would never raise VAT and then doubled it. My party promised to cut VAT and kept the promise.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that one of the Government's key commitments is to equal opportunities throughout the United Kingdom?

I am grateful for that confirmation. Will the right hon. Gentleman then tell me how that commitment is consistent with the fact that the Government are to require English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at Scottish universities to pay for their fourth year, whereas Scottish students and students from every other European country will not have to pay? That means that students from the south of Ireland will have their fourth year in Scotland paid for by the British taxpayer whereas students from the north of Ireland will have to pay for it themselves. How does he justify that?

No, that is not entirely accurate. Students from inside the European Union but outside the United Kingdom last year numbered some 350; they will not be eligible for maintenance loans so they will be in a worse position than British students, whether English or from other parts of the United Kingdom.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it remains the Government's intention to prohibit the introduction of the rapid draw lottery known as Pronto, based on the American system Keno? Does he agree that if it were introduced it would damage the national lottery and give rise to great concern about an increase in gambling?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that concern. I understand that the Home Secretary is considering a number of representations on the subject and will announce a decision shortly.

Q2. [12356]

Can the Prime Minister explain why, if someone commits murder and terrorist offences against the people of Bosnia British troops are dispatched to arrest him and bring him to trial, whereas if someone commits murder against the people of the United Kingdom and terrorises them for 25 years, all he will feel is the warmth and glow of a prime ministerial handshake?

It is difficult enough to achieve a settlement in Northern Ireland without that type of utter perversion of the truth. The plain fact is that we shall seek to bring terrorists to justice wherever they may be, but it is important that we try to seek a long-term settlement in Northern Ireland. I supported the Conservative Government through every difficult decision that they had to take on this issue because in the end that was manifestly in the interests of the country. I very much hope that the Conservative party can put aside party differences on this and do the same.

Is the Prime Minister aware that on this day in the Chamber in 1940 the then Prime Minister commended civilians on their courage during the first years of the second world war? Subsequently, 60,000 British civilians died in that war, 30,000 of them Londoners. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should provide an adequate memorial for the civilians who died? Will he therefore call in the planning application for the Hermitage site so that a fitting memorial can go up? If the poppies that we are all wearing today are to have any meaning, we must give those people a suitable memorial.

I thank my hon. Friend. I cannot give a commitment on any particular planning application, but we shall obviously consider her representations carefully. As for the civilians who died during the war, everyone in this House—especially the generations of us who grew up after the war—realises the debt that we owe not just to the troops who died but to the civilians who gave their lives, often in difficult circumstances requiring the greatest courage.

The Prime Minister will remember that just before the summer recess, in response to a question from a Conservative Member, he said that he thought that the green belt was a good thing. Is he aware that in Hertfordshire a recent poll carried out by the local council showed that 95 per cent. of those who responded agreed with him by rejecting Hertfordshire county council's structure plan to build on the green belt? Will the Prime Minister support the majority of Hertfordshire voters in their campaign against building on the green belt? Will he call in the plan and ask the county council to examine regeneration as a solution, rather than destroy the green belt in Hertfordshire?

I shall not comment on the application to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention. I recall the question that I was asked. I drew attention to the fact that the proposals about which I was being asked had been drawn up by the previous Government. Of course we support the green belt and it is important that any planning applications are considered in conjunction with our support.

Q3. [12357]

On law and order, does my right hon. Friend recognise the need not only to allay continuing and legitimate public fears but to discourage illegitimate vigilantism of the sort that my constituency suffered earlier this year, by introducing measures to protect the community from sex offenders who pose a continuing risk? Will the Prime Minister outline his plans to deal with that problem?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the range of powerful new measures we have already taken to improve the criminal justice system. He is also right to point out the public's concern about the risks posed by sex offenders who are not already subject to the Sex Offenders Act 1997. We shall therefore announce today new powers to protect the public from such sex offenders. Community protection orders will be applied to sex offenders whose conduct poses a serious threat to children and the public. I hope that those measures will go some way towards allaying the public's justifiable fear about these matters.

Q4. [12358]

May we now have a straight answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition's question? If the Prime Minister genuinely believes that the Commission's proposals for new regulations and penalties for the information and consultation of employees should not apply to British small businesses that employ as few as 50 employees, how can he guarantee that under the social chapter the proposals will not be applied to them?

I have made our position absolutely clear. Moreover, in the end the choice is whether we want to be part of the social chapter or not. This side of the House says, unhesitatingly, yes and I believe that the vast majority of British business wants a better, more constructive fresh start in Europe.

Following my right hon. Friend's meeting on sustainable development this morning, will he take this opportunity to reinforce the Government's commitment to a fully sustainable, integrated transport strategy? Is he aware that many parts of the country, including East Anglia, have suffered from severe underinvestment in road and rail transport links over the past two decades? Following the Government's welcome review of transport and trunk road policies, what prospect can he offer those parts of the country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of transport policy as part of our policy of sustainable development. That is precisely why we have committed ourselves to our own proposals and targets and why we have been part of the European Union's commitment to proper binding targets for the long term. The Kyoto conference, which is coming up shortly, will provide a further opportunity for us to take international action. In the meantime, at the conclusion of our consultation on transport policy, I hope that we can offer for the first time the genuine prospect of a proper national integrated transport strategy, which has been overdue for a long, long time.

Q5. [12359]

In view of the tremendous improvement in inward investment that the previous Government secured for this country through maintaining a flexible labour market—I welcome the cheer on the Labour Benches for it—will the Prime Minister now please answer a question that he has had a great many chances to answer? This is a simple question and he has had lots of time to go through his notes. Given that much of that flexibility will be removed under the social chapter, to which he has signed up, how will he guarantee to small businesses that they will not suffer from those inflexibilities?

There are no proposals under the social chapter to stop flexibility. That is the simple answer. We have a simple choice: we can be part of discussions in Europe or be shut out from them. That is precisely why British business would prefer us to be engaged in discussions that might affect it, rather than excluded from them. If the right hon. Lady wants to know what British business really fears about Europe, it fears the policy of her party, which she and the person sitting next to her—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—do not agree with.

We recognise the importance of the family to social structure and to individual welfare, and I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the concern about the lack of integrated policies on the family under the previous Government. Can he tell us what this Government have done to bring about an integrated policy towards the family, bearing in mind the importance of that issue for Britain?

As I said at conference, we have set up a ministerial group that is looking at every aspect of family policy. Part of the reason we have laid such emphasis on getting the long-term unemployed back to work and on trying to deal with the problems of education in our education system is that those are two of the ways in which we can best strengthen family life. As we have made clear throughout, whether in the tax and benefit system or in any other area of policy, the family is an essential part of British society and we should do everything that we can to support it.

Q6. [12361]

The small and medium businesses in this country have—[Interruption.] It is worth trying the question a different way round. Small and medium businesses in this country have already faced four interest rate rises and a raid on pensions under this Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come over, then."]Will the right hon. Gentleman-it is tough on this side—confirm that, under the Labour Government, those businesses, as well as having to deal with millennium compliance and prepare for the euro, will have to take on board the working time directive—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—the parental leave directive—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]part—time rights for workers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—the burden of proof in sex discrimination, and now new workers councils? Would he advise business voters in Winchester and Beckenham to vote for such commercial suicide?

I know that it is tough on that side, but we will just have to disagree about the social chapter. I believe that many small businesses welcome our proposals, not least the cut in corporation tax to the lowest it has been, with particular reference to small businesses. I repeat—although I do not think that we will greatly advance the argument between us—that what business fears is a business community trying to do business with the rest of Europe and a Government who end up being isolated and separated from the rest of Europe. That is why, if the hon. Lady had the interests of business at heart, she should join us—as I thought for a moment she would—rather than continue to support the views of her party leadership, which are contrary to the best interests of business.