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Commons Chamber

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 12 November 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Germ Warfare Tests (West Country)

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

9.34 am

During the 1960s and 1970s, germ warfare tests were carried out off the west country coast by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. During that period, and indeed as late as 1977, testing took place from Lyme bay to Devonport, involving a cocktail of bacteria, including E. coli 162, B. globigii and serratia marcescens, being pumped into the atmosphere. Those germs were apparently used for their usefulness in simulating a biological attack. The issue has recently come to light because of the release of previously classified documents.

The Western Morning News, and especially its journalist, Mark Townsend, deserve high praise for their pioneering work in bringing the facts to the public's attention and the responsible way in which they have raised the inevitable question of what lasting effects the experiments may have had. Even today, the many people living in the coastline areas where the experiments took place continue to suffer a growing number of unexplained illnesses and medical conditions.

The issue is not party political. My purpose in bringing it before the House is simply to find out exactly what happened, and especially which bacteria were used. I wish to find out why the experiments were conducted in the first place; what safeguards were devised at the time, if any; and what assessments successive Governments have made of the lasting dangers. I believe that those living in the coastline areas deserve specific answers and nothing else will suffice.

Many documents, especially those relating to later incidents of testing in Portland and Devonport, have still not been released. Obviously, we do not know how many documents exist, but the fact that full disclosure has still not taken place must inevitably raise fears and suspicions. At least in Portland and Devonport we have an explanation of sorts of why the experiments took place.

Last year, the former Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, in a letter to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said that the experiments were
"to assess the vulnerability of naval vessels, to determine the hazard arising from a biological attack and to evaluate rapid detection concepts."

The purpose of the earlier Lyme bay experiments is, however, far from clear. In those earlier experiments, it seems that a bacterial brew was pumped into the atmosphere and deliberately aimed inland towards the coast of west Dorset and east Devon. The extent of spread and penetration was supposedly monitored for up to 10 miles inshore. I had better lay my cards on the table, and concede that a physics with chemistry O-level from 1965 does not equip me to come to a final conclusion, but I wonder how a floating cloud of bacteria could be monitored in that way. Why 10 miles? Why not nine miles or 11 miles? One has only to ask those and similar questions to wonder at what was done.

The possible lasting effects of those actions has not been properly explained. The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency continues to reiterate the theory that the bacteria used will have had no harmful effects, but what is the evidence for that proposition? It is not the agreed position of several of the country's leading independent microbiologists. Professor Richard Lacey of Leeds university, writing on the army's germ warfare simulants, maintains that much evidence points to the conclusion that the type of germs used cannot be labelled harmless.

I do not wish to detain the House at length by going through all the examples that could be cited, but I want to give just one example from Professor Lacey's book. George H. Connell, the assistant to the director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America, addressing the United States Senate hearings on biological warfare testing, said in 1977:
"There is no such thing as a microorganism that cannot cause trouble."
He continued:
"If you get the right concentration at the right place, at the right time, and in the right person, something is going to happen."
Professor Lacey concludes:
"none of the four agents that the army admits using over populated areas in simulated biological warfare attacks is harmless."

Indeed, many families who have lived in the area since the experiments took place feel a growing concern that there may be a link between the experiments and their high proportion of health problems. Of the 22 families who grew up in one village—East Lulworth, on the coast of Lyme bay—all the girls have had miscarriages or given birth to children with defects.

One family in particular, that of Noreen and Sidney Hall, has seen an unprecedented number of unexplained illnesses over the past 14 years. Each of the four daughters has had a miscarriage or given birth to a disabled child. Babies have been born with missing limbs, been afflicted with severe learning difficulties, or started life with shrunken brains caused by unexplained illnesses.

Those who served in the ship that was used in the experiments, the Icewhale, also believe that there is a link between the experiments and various mysterious illnesses. Fishermen caught in the cloud of bacteria have complained of the effects of a "tear-gas-like" cloud emitted at the time.

The apparent failure to explain in detail what was done, and the lack of any detail concerning the possible lasting consequences of the experiments, led many people to say that the tests are responsible for a number of debilitating illnesses and birth defects. Whatever the reasons for the tests at the time, I can safely say that it is inconceivable that such experiments would be carried out in such a random way today. People on the south coast were used as human guinea pigs.

If people are to know the possible effects of what they were subjected to, and when and over what period they were subjected to it, the only reasonable course of action is for the Ministry of Defence to release all the paperwork relating to the incidents. The Government must also carry out a full and public examination to establish once and for all whether there is a causal link between the experiments conducted and the personal medical tragedies that I have mentioned.

Obviously, the present Government are not responsible for the experiments. None the less, it is their responsibility to carry out the fullest investigation into the experiments, so as finally to determine exactly what went on, and what the possible consequences are. If a link is established between the experiments and the unexplained illnesses, the question of compensation will have to be faced.

It will not be sufficient to say that there is no evidence that people have been harmed, simply because at the time it may have been assumed that the whole process was safe. What people need to know is not the assumptions that may have been made 25 and more years ago, but what, in the light of today's knowledge, they may have suffered.

I have deliberately spoken briefly, so as to give other hon. Members the chance to take part. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams, in particular—

Times change.

I know that my hon. Friend, in particular, has been concerned about the matter, and that he needs to attend a Committee in a few moments. I also want to allow the Minister the necessary time to respond. I am pleased to see that the Minister of State himself has come here to reply to the debate. I hope that he will have been helped by the fact that I provided him with a copy of my speech in advance.

I have not sought to apportion blame. I have set out such facts as are available as briefly and dispassionately as I can. I pass no judgment on the scientific aspects of the matter; indeed, I am not qualified to do so. What I can say is that, finally, once and for all, answers are needed. I should like to think that, when the Minister has responded to the debate, the process of answering the questions that people want answered will be seen to have started today.

9.44 am

I have only a few words to say, chiefly to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) for bringing the matter to the notice of the House. Clearly it concerns us all in the west country. My hon. Friend does a great service to his constituency and to the rest of Devon by raising the matter.

I am glad to say that I cannot endorse some of the cases that my hon. Friend has raised, simply because, fortunately, my experiences have not been the same as his. I have not been advised of any problems in the former South Hams constituency, which is now known as Totnes. All I can say is that the matter will cause the House some concern, and that I feel sure that the Government will investigate it as they should.

9.45 am

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on bringing the debate to the House. As a Member who has been actively involved with the problem for more than a year, perhaps I can throw more light on what has happened already, and what we are trying to do about it.

It is important that we give serious consideration to the concerns of our constituents, but also that we do not leave them in an alarmed state, in which all the health problems of the past 30 years will be blamed on the experiments.

I certainly follow my hon. Friend in asking for the release of any information that is still to be released under the 30-year rule—in some cases, the 30 years may not yet be up.

When the matter first became public knowledge, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) tabled a series of questions bringing to the attention of the House the fact that the experiments had taken place. We were told that bacteria that would be totally harmless had been released, to check how bacteria of that nature dispersed around the coastline, and how they might or might not penetrate the defences of Her Majesty's warships.

The immediate reaction in my constituency was dramatic. One of my local papers, the Dorset Evening Echo, to which I pay tribute, sent someone to the Public Records Office to find out as much information as possible. In a series of articles, the paper explained what had been going on. That was the most important development in terms of getting information out to the public.

The local authorities and I approached the then Government and said, "Look, this is an extremely important issue. What are you going to do about explaining to the public what has happened?" With representatives from the county council, from West Dorset district council and from Weymouth and Portland district council, I had an interesting and detailed meeting with the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who explained that the Ministry had examined all the files and was satisfied that no harm had been done to anybody. However, it was strange that such a harmless experiment had been kept so secret.

One interesting development had taken place under a previous Labour Administration. Like other Ministers of the time, Lord Healey said that he knew nothing about the experiments, and that the scientists had never told him what was happening. There is some dispute about that, because there are records within the Ministry of Defence showing that he was being briefed at Porton Down while the experiments were being designed—but there is no record of whether he was briefed on those specific issues.

We are also told that, at the time, an independent committee approved all such experiments, and that those independent scientists said that what was being done was perfectly safe. None the less, in today's climate it would not be possible to do the experiments without telling the public. They concerned not secret materials but the dispersal of bacteria. Not telling people that they were being carried out was reprehensible.

If the public and the health authorities had known what was happening at the time, they could have checked the population to monitor the effects. We understand that no such checks were made, and there is no record of anything untoward happening at the time. Had checks been made, we could have ensured that not only the Ministry of Defence but the health authorities thought that the experiments were safe.

The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which is now responsible for Porton Down, agreed that, rather than holding a public inquiry—an expensive way of going round in circles—it would mount a detailed exhibition. That was shown in three places in Dorset, to allow the public to examine all the available information and to decide whether they could have been affected. DERA is adamant that it has done nothing that could have given rise to problems.

The exhibition was shown during the summer recess, and various people said that they had a medical condition, that their cattle had died because of E. coli, or that they had all sorts of other problems, but it is difficult to link any such incidents directly to the tests. Nobody is suggesting that, on the morning of a test, or five days afterwards, something suddenly happened. People who have experienced a cluster of problems wonder whether the tests are responsible.

We invited the Dorset health authority to be represented at the exhibition, to reassure the public. Wisely, the authority decided not to do so, because it believes that it should be seen as the guardian of the public interest, and it wants to investigate independently what is going on without being seen as part and parcel of the Government or Ministry of Defence machine.

The most serious allegation is that East Lulworth has had many more birth defects and miscarriages than would normally be expected. I wrote to the Dorset health authority about that; its immediate reaction was to say that it had no record whatever of undue problems in East Lulworth. The family who had experienced particular difficulties decided to conduct a survey. They found that many girls who had been brought up in East Lulworth had married and moved away, spreading the cluster of miscarriages and birth defects further afield, so the health records did not show that East Lulworth had an especial problem.

The health authority assures me that it is using that information and conducting an epidemiological study. That route is much more positive than simply asking the MOD why the people are having problems. East Lulworth is close to a nuclear facility, and even closer to a tank range. I certainly hope that the Minister will assist the health authority to find out whether any substances are emanating from the tank range; after all, we use a lot of nasty materials to fire tank rounds, and within the rounds themselves. Let us ensure that we concentrate on establishing whether there is a link between the tests and the problems.

I have received a helpful letter from Dorset health authority about some letters that I sent on from people with concerns. It says:
"I have passed on these letters to the Consultant in Public Health who is investigating the concerns … The health authority became aware of the germ warfare experiments at the same time as the general public and has liaised closely with relevant local authorities as well as with members of the general public who have written in or telephoned the Department of Public Health about specific issues. Mr. Peter Harvey, the Chief Executive of Dorset County Council, has made a file available to the Public Health Department which includes all correspondence received by his Department from the general public detailing their concerns of possible health problems associated with the germ warfare experiments. The letters cover a very wide range of medical problems and give no indication that there has been any clustering of any particular problem in any given locality within Dorset. The Authority is currently only aware of one cluster of childhood illness in Dorset, and that is the neuroblastoma cluster in the Littlemoor area of Weymouth which is being investigated as part of a national epidemiological study.
During July 1997 a Consultant in Public Health from the Dorset Health Authority, together with a Community Infection Control Nurse, made a visit to DERA and were given a presentation detailing the nature of the germ warfare experiments. This confirmed that the bacteria released over Dorset as part of the experiments were not known to cause illness in man at the time the experiments were conducted. However, one of the bacteria, Serratia marcescens, has been subsequently demonstrated to cause acute illness in people with weak immune systems especially in Intensive Care Unit settings. There is currently no research evidence to link the bacteria which were released with birth defects or any chronic illness such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease.
The Communications and Public Relations Department of Dorset Health Authority assisted DERA by providing comments on the final format of the material which they presented at the Roadshows held in Dorset to inform the general public about the experiments. The Authority did not send representatives to attend the Roadshows as it was felt important to maintain a distance between ourselves and the Ministry of Defence in order to demonstrate to the public that the Authority is an independent body. This is important to maintain public confidence in the Authority's ability impartially to investigate public concerns, not just about the germ warfare experiments but also other environmental issues such as electromagnetic radiation from power lines, chemical release from landfill sites and chemical emissions into the air from chemical factories in Dorset."
I want to reassure my constituents that, although the link to the experiments may be tenuous, we are taking the problems seriously.

I wrote to the Minister suggesting that he might have access to files that were not available to a Conservative Government. I was somewhat disappointed—although I do not blame him personally—that his correspondence section sent the letter on to DERA, with which I had already had a long correspondence. I understand from DERA that it has not even received the forwarded correspondence, although it had my letter telling it to ignore it because I was writing to the Minister again.

I hope that the Minister will shed as much light as possible on the matter from the MOD point of view, and that every facility will be provided to the Dorset health authority to help people from East Lulworth. If the problems come from a source other than the biological experiment, we want to know, so that we can take some action. I hope that the MOD will act expeditiously, and give as much help as possible.

9.58 am

I should like to amplify in two respects the remarks made by my hon. Friends the Members for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce). I have had considerable correspondence from constituents about the problem, much of which relates specifically to West Dorset, where the recent roadshows and exhibitions were mainly held. I have also had various correspondence from the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence, and I want to thank him for the efforts he made to expand the scope of the roadshows, which were much appreciated in West Dorset.

I understand that some 27 field reports have been prepared. Of those, two are public knowledge so far. I believe—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong— that two or three further reports are to be released roughly a year from now. That leaves more than 20 that are scheduled for release some years from now as they come up to their 30-year rule.

The secrecy of the field reports is generating, perhaps unnecessarily, a disproportionate amount of concern among my constituents, and, judging by the sedentary reactions of my hon. Friends, among theirs. People feel that those reports may contain material which would cast light on the issue, and that they cannot have access to it simply because of the 30-year rule. It may be that the reports contain matters of profound importance to national security which it would be inappropriate to release. Speaking as an amateur, I find it difficult to imagine that items which will be open to inspection a few years from now without compromising national security would compromise it if released now.

I urge the Minister to consider, upon a personal view of those papers, whether there is genuinely a case for retaining them in secrecy for as long as would normally be the practice, or whether, either in whole or in great part, those papers could be released earlier. That would certainly contribute to the reassurance that, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, is urgently needed.

There is inevitably concern that the Ministry of Defence and other Government Departments and public authorities, including Dorset health authority are in some conspiracy. Very often, the belief that officialdom is in conspiracy is wholly false. My general supposition is that, when things go wrong, it is usually by mistake rather than by conspiracy.

Nevertheless, there is an understandable fear in this case. I do not believe that it will be resolved until and unless, in addition to the release of the field reports, steps are taken to establish a reputable, calm, dispassionate, scientific view of the matter. That could be achieved by appointing someone who is not an employee of Her Majesty's Government or a lurid, overblown scare raiser—the last thing we need—to review the field reports. It should be an expert who can reassure the public that nothing went wrong, if nothing did go wrong.

Such an expert could investigate in detail whether there were any grounds for supposing that there was a link between the problems experienced and the events to which we have referred this morning. Such an expert could produce a report much faster than a public inquiry or royal commission. He would have the same independence that one expects of such bodies. That is particularly important because, as my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset and for Teignbridge said, increasing numbers of cases brought to the attention of constituency members are now being laid at the door of the experiments.

One farmer's cattle had a severe and unexplained set of problems. On investigation at Porton Down, it turned out that the problems were caused by a severe outbreak of E. coli. I have not the slightest idea whether there was any link between that outbreak and the experiments, but it is inevitable that, in the present climate, in the absence of release of the field reports or an independent investigation of any links, it is widely asserted that such a link exists. That is regrettable if it is not true. If it is true, it needs to be pinned down.

Therefore, I urge the Minister to release the reports and establish an independent expert quickly to review the matter.

10.4 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on obtaining this Adjournment debate today. I thank The Western Morning News for its sensitive, non-sensational handling of this issue. The speeches by hon. Members this morning have also been non-sensationalist, and that is the way in which the issue should be treated.

It is difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt the link between scientific substances known within the scientific community and medical conditions. The public need to be satisfied that the matter has been rigorously investigated, that all available information is freely available, and that nothing has been kept secret.

My attention is particularly drawn to a report from the biological research advisory board, which tested the bacteria on animals before releasing them. According to the report of the 51st meeting of the board, after tests on animals, the board approved
"the use of living non-pathogens in trials which might involve exposure of members of the public, subject to rigorous testing of every batch of material in animals."
So it is clear that there was no release into the atmosphere of the agents involved until after they had been tested on animals.

Nevertheless, in one of the field reports from the time, the methodology for toxicity tests on mice is recorded. In one, 20 mice were exposed to a cloud of E. coli cells for five minutes and then observed for seven days after, and the number of survivors recorded. In another, the lungs of mice exposed to a cloud of E. coli were examined for evidence of lesions, but the report failed to mention how many actually survived. That begs the question whether the so-called pre-testing was adequate to enable a judgment to be made that the bacteria should be released into the atmosphere, where they would be likely to come into contact with human beings.

My constituency is in the middle of the test area, between Portland and Plymouth. I was brought up in the area. I do not want anyone to draw any conclusions about that. I never thought that I had been exposed to germ warfare before I read The Western Morning News, and I suspect that many of my constituents thought the same. There is genuine concern among the population of the coastline and those who may have been around at the time. That is why the debate is important, and questions need to be answered.

Why were the experiments carried out? Who approved them, and what conclusions were drawn? Have all health authority records covering people resident along the coast from Portland to Plymouth been investigated to identify and further investigate any cluster of abnormalities? We know that some research has been done into health records in Dorset, but we do not know whether such an investigation has taken place in Devon.

Can the Minister inform us whether similar tests may have taken place in other parts of the country? These things have a habit of coming to light thanks to the vigilance of the press. Unless a similar informant speaks to the press in other areas, we will not know whether other tests may have taken place. Should we not know? Why did tests take place only in Lyme bay? Perhaps there is a reason for that, which the Minister can give us, or perhaps he can tell us whether other areas were affected.

I look forward to the Minister's replies to my questions. I know that my constituents will be reassured if full information is made available, and there is no suspicion that anything is being hidden.

10.9 am

If the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls)—indeed, if any people—have had their health damaged as a result of Ministry of Defence trials, there is absolutely no doubt that every effort should be made to find out what happened. The Ministry of Defence and its agencies have a clear duty to do all they can to allay the fears of those concerned, and to assist the health authorities wherever possible. I have no doubt that they will be keen to do that—it is in their interests, and it is in everyone's interest.

It must be for the Minister to answer the charges laid by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge. We on the Opposition Benches will listen with great interest and care to his detailed explanation, because my hon. Friend's debate raises some fundamental issues.

It is an irony that, as a direct consequence of the increasing openness of the Ministry of Defence under the current Government and under previous Governments, we have seen headlines in regional newspapers such as "End the secrecy on germ war tests" and "Disagreement over dangers of bacteria".

It is not surprising that our constituents have not read the scientific journals describing the work at Porton Down over many years. Aspects of the trial being debated today were first recorded in the scientific press in 1968; but, had it not been for documents released under the 30-year rule and the excellent road shows touring the country explaining the work of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, we would not be debating the issue today.

There must, inevitably and always, be secrecy and confidentiality surrounding our national defence interests—but only when it is genuinely necessary. I know from personal experience that, in respect of Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence always does all it can to be helpful in individual cases of personal health problems, and that records are always made available to general practitioners, wherever records are available and whenever doing so may be helpful.

There have been calls for a public inquiry, but it is hard to know what might be gained, because DERA has already put into the public domain much, if not all, of what there is to know. The agency even released the old black-and-white film of what happened all those years ago on board the ship off Portland.

The records are clear enough about the trials themselves, but explanation and reassurance are needed about the effects on the general public inland. I understand that a former Dorset county medical officer has come forward to say that the situation was monitored at the time, and there was no record of anything abnormal in the population. Let us examine that in more detail—I hope that we can be reassured that no abnormalities were recorded by the health authorities.

At this point, I wish to say a few words about Porton Down itself. With pride, I declare an interest as Member of Parliament for Porton Down. It amazes my constituents that Porton Down is used as a generic term for the two establishments based there. They are also amazed when they are accused of having some complicity in germ warfare.

We are not talking about germ warfare—we all know that this country gave up any aggressive capacity in that respect decades ago; what we are talking about is research and defence. Until 1979, the Ministry of Defence had at Porton Down the Microbiological Research Establishment and the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment. In 1979, they were divided: the Department of Health took over what became the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, and the Ministry of Defence retained the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment.

Speaking as a former member of the Medical Research Council, I believe that it is extremely important that we in this country retain confidence in the scientific community at Porton Down and elsewhere. We are talking not about monsters, determined to do ill and create havoc, but about real people, with real families and normal concerns about everyday life and health issues, who make a huge contribution to the life of our community.

I know that all the staff at both the CBDE and CAMAR operate to the highest ethical standards, and that they are world-class scientists. I am proud of their contribution to science, to the health of the nation and to the world. I am proud of what they have achieved in raising standards of public health around the world through their contribution to research into cancer, AIDS and more common ailments. It is astonishing to me that anyone should question the motives of the scientists at Porton Down.

Although I echo my hon. Friend's tribute to the work at Porton Down and to the good sense of the scientists involved, would he not agree that to carry out perfectly safe experiments but not tell people would not be acceptable today? On that basis, surely we ought to have all the information that would have been released if the experiments of the past 30 years were going on today?

I am delighted to acknowledge that my hon. Friend has stolen my final lines. Of course he is right—times have changed.

As constituency Member of Parliament for Porton Down, I have received inquiries about this issue and I have pursued them; but, since March, I have had no further representations from the local community, who are those most likely to be affected by any adverse reaction to the work of Porton Down. There is great local confidence in the work of the two establishments there, but I agree that we need to understand far more about why the experiments and trials are conducted in the first place.

The work is conducted primarily in order to protect our service men and women and the platforms or vehicles in which they work—be those helicopters, aircraft, ships, tanks, land rovers, tents or only protective suits.

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend so rudely—it is hard to catch his eye when I am sitting right behind him. For the avoidance of any doubt, I wish to emphasise that nowhere in my presentation did I criticise his constituents or the workers of Porton Down. I have no reason whatsoever to suspect that the standards applicable at the time were not followed to the hilt.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), I ask only that we should find out what happened. Unless we are about to hear some revelation from the Minister of State, which I suspect is unlikely, I have no criticism to make of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) or of staff at Porton Down.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reassurance, which I know will be noted by the scientific community at the Porton Down establishments and beyond.

We must understand that there are real threats. That fact is supported by the declarations made to the United Nations special commission by Iraq in the matter of its biological weapons programme, and by the use of a chemical weapon on the Tokyo subway shortly afterwards. There is no doubt that the threat exists, so we must understand how chemical and biological agents are dispersed and how they can be detected. That was what the trials we are debating were designed to discover, and the work done all those years ago was of real benefit to us all.

As for the incidents mentioned, I have been reassured by John Chisholm, the chief executive of DERA, who wrote to me on 20 March. He made it absolutely clear that
"The majority of these studies involved no release of biological material whatsoever and were conducted using organisms in different environmental conditions."
He also reassured me that
"The work in public areas would have been subject to clearance by Ministry of Defence committees, external to the research establishments concerned, before approval was given to go ahead."
He concluded:
"I must stress that the simulant substances that were released were harmless organisms commonly found in soil, grassland and hay throughout the United Kingdom and were not judged to present a risk to the general population."

It is of the greatest importance to the protection of service men and the general public that work at the two establishments at Porton Down continues—indeed, in an uncertain and unstable world, there is a strong case for enhancing and expanding the effort put into their work.

I warmly welcome the greater openness that we have seen at those establishments. I recognise that times have changed. The standards that were acceptable 30, 40 and more years ago are not acceptable today, and I am sure that the Government would wish to do all they can to be as open as possible in that respect.

However, we all need to put our minds to greater public education and awareness of what goes on at those establishments and why, and what we are protecting our troops and civilian communities at home for. If we can answer those questions, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge will be much reassured, and so will everyone else.

10.19 am

I thank all those who have spoken this morning: the hon. Members for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who has had to go to a Committee meeting, for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), and for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge on having the good fortune and good sense to raise such an important issue. Hon. Members have raised this issue in an extremely responsible fashion, without being uncritical. I assure them that I am aware of both the anxieties and the importance which their constituents attach to it.

I shall refer to a number of issues raised by the hon. Member for Teignbridge and others, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall refer first to a number of specific issues that were raised by the hon. Member for South Dorset.

The first was about a letter addressed to me, which was apparently diverted. My general rule on those matters is that, when a Member of Parliament writes to me, he is entitled to expect that the Minister will deal with the issue. I have caused inquiries to be made, and can confirm that the letter was received, and erroneously sent on to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.

In view of what the hon. Member for South Dorset said, I shall ensure that the letter receives the attention it deserves at DERA, but he may, as he said, wish to write to me again. This time, we shall see whether Wells Fargo manages to get the mail through to the Minister's office. I shall then personally answer the points that he raises.

The hon. Member for South Dorset then asked about ministerial approval, advice and so on. He is aware that the general convention that applies to all incoming Ministers is that we are not entitled to see the advice proffered by civil servants or others to previous Ministers. I am therefore somewhat restricted, as I cannot gain access to the personal papers.

If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish this point, it may satisfy his question.

At the time of the trials, the Ministry of Defence was advised on safety by part of the then Government's scientific advisory council, which was called the biological research advisory board—in the context of a Department that loves acronyms, he will be pleased to know that it was called BRAB—and included a range of independent and eminent academics. It is understood that Ministers were aware of the trials. The hon. Member for South Dorset raised that specific point, so I hope that that clears up any ambiguity.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but will he clarify the following point? The previous Minister made it clear that he could not see most of the ministerial advice given to the previous Labour Administration, and one accepts that rule. Given that the previous Minister could see everything that happened under the Conservative Administration—he gave me assurances about what was happening in that respect—can the Minister return to the previous Labour Government's detailed memorandums, or are those banned from him as well?

I shall have that investigated. I understand that I am not entitled to go back to those papers. It is a matter not of party politics but of subsequent consecutive Administrations.

As the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, it is to protect civil servants, and the impartiality of their advice depends on such protection. If it did not exist, the advice given might be mitigated by a fear of future impingement on that confidentiality.

I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who has an esteemed past as a Defence Minister.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as I have only just walked into this debate, although I listened to some of the earlier speeches.

Can the Minister confirm that documents will come into the public domain under the 30-year rule? That is a rolling process, and we hope that any advice tendered to his predecessors will soon be available for public scrutiny.

Yes, I can confirm that. I shall cover that general point in my speech, but at this stage I was dealing with the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for South Dorset. I thought that I was being specific enough by telling him, to clear up any ambiguities, that I understand that previous Ministers were aware of the trials.

The Minister knows that the noble Lord, Lord Healey has written to the Cabinet Secretary asking that the civil service look again at his past papers and advise him on whether he had been briefed. He denies that he was briefed about those tests, and says that he knew nothing about them. That gives rise to concern.

If the scientists did not tell the Minister, my constituents want to know what they had to hide. The Minister says that Lord Healey had been told about the trials. The House needs to know what was going on. We are more reassured if we know that the civil service and the MOD told the Minister of the day about the trials and what was going on.

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is helping to clarify the issues by going into great detail. I can be no clearer than to say that previous Ministers were aware of the trials. I am aware of all the facts that the hon. Gentleman puts and of previous statements, but those events took place 30 years ago, and it is not always immediately apparent to those involved that every aspect of the issue was known to them at the time.

In the natural course of events, those involved would have caused investigations to be carried out, and would have written to people at the time asking for access to papers. I am giving the hon. Gentleman the latest position: I understand that previous Ministers were aware of the trials. That will be elaborated in due course by the then Ministers themselves, once they have access to the information and have satisfied themselves that they have an accurate picture of events.

Another question raised was whether the local health authority was told of the trials. Nothing in our records, which we have studied, shows who was informed of the trials. However, during the exhibitions in Dorset, to which the hon. Member for Teignbridge and others referred, we were informed by a then employee of the county emergency planning staff that elements of the local authority were aware of the trials. We have also been told that the area health authority, which collected regular medical returns, detected nothing abnormal during or after the trials.

Finally, I was asked a specific question about harmful effects on immuno-compromised people, or people with asthma. In recent years, some people have questioned whether extremely large doses of the material, to which I shall refer later, that was used during the tests causes a problem in certain people, such as immuno-compromised people. I do not suggest that that means anyone to whom hon. Members have referred, but people with AIDS, for example, are classified as immuno-compromised. Although no specific studies have been carried out, the experts consulted do not believe that there would be a problem. Of course, the number of immuno-compromised people in the 1960s was very much smaller than it is now, and such people would be at much greater risk from the large number of other bacteria and viruses present in the atmosphere all the time than they would be from the four to which we shall refer today.

With reference to asthma, there are a large number of bacteria, viruses and other particles of biological origin, such as pollen and fungal spores, in the air all the time. There are no special features of BG—B. globigii—or E. coli that make them any more likely to cause asthma than all the organisms to which people are exposed all their lives.

I have dealt in some detail with those specific points, because I know that the hon. Gentleman and others have taken an interest in the matter over the years.

I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge, which, because of his courtesy, I had been able to read in advance. I do not regard the subject as a matter of party politics; it is a matter of national interest, and I am gratified by the way in which it was handled by the hon. Gentleman. I was entirely in accord with that. One would expect a good constituency representative to raise issues that are of particular importance to his constituents.

I listened closely to the hon. Gentleman's thoughtful speech, and to those of other hon. Members. 1 shall deal with the main issues that he addressed, and if he wants to raise specific points, he will no doubt come back to me during the debate or in writing.

I am aware that the subject is, naturally, of great concern in the west country. 1 have read with close attention the articles that appeared in the local, and more recently the national, press, and I am therefore pleased to take the opportunity to respond to the points raised this morning. Before I deal with the hon. Gentleman's specific concerns, I hope that he will allow me to establish for the record some basic facts on which I hope we can all agree. I do so because it is important that the House understands—as I do now, having been briefed in considerable detail—the background to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.

The debate relates essentially to a series of trials carried out in the 1960s and 1970s by the former Microbiological Research Establishment, or MRE, at Porton Down. I should make it clear that MRE closed in 1979. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, or DERA, is now responsible for activities at Porton Down.

The tests to which we refer are those that scientists would probably prefer to call biological defence trials. We call them germ warfare tests, which is easier for ordinary people to understand, but the term provokes visions of dangers that might not be borne out when one realises what the tests involved.

The tests were carried out because, during the icy confrontation of the cold war, there was a real concern that infectious, disease-causing biological agents could be used to attack not only our armed forces, but the mainland of the United Kingdom. In retrospect, that may appear an idle invention, but it was not. It was a hard-headed assessment made at the time of a potentially terrifying threat to the British people.

The trials were designed to assess the potential impact of a biological attack on our country, and to determine what level of protection would be needed. The fearful consequences of such an attack, were it to be launched, need no amplification for hon. Members.

In support of the Minister's remarks, may I point out that, in 1992, President Yeltsin confirmed what had been suspected by western intelligence agencies for a long time: that, for 20 years, the Soviet Union had been breaching the 1972 biological weapons convention, whereby it was supposed to have abolished all its offensive biological weapons stocks, and had been carrying out detailed and intensive research on anthrax and other deadly diseases.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who we all know has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of such matters. From my less than encyclopaedic knowledge, I can confirm my memory that that is correct. That revelation was made, as the hon. Gentleman says, within the past six years. Indeed, there is some concern that, even at that point, without the President's full knowledge and authority, the research was still being carried on. Such revelations during the past decade show that the attitude taken 20 years previously was not as melodramatic as it might seem in the more relaxed atmosphere of a thaw in the icy confrontation.

Faced with a dreadful perceived threat, scientists at the time needed to answer important questions, not as a matter of abstract scientific pursuits or as research for the sake of research, but with the practical implication of discharging the first duty of a Government—the protection of their citizens.

Scientists needed to know how far a cloud of bacteria would travel, how long organisms would survive in atmospheric conditions, and how such a cloud could be detected. All those questions had important practical implications for any counter-measures against biological attack.

To determine the answers to those questions, a range of trials was carried out. Some, which took place in many parts of southern England, involved the exposure of micro-organisms to the atmosphere in special apparatus, so that the bacteria were not released at all.

I am well aware that the natural secrecy with which such tests had to be carried out provokes even greater speculation about the meaning of terms such as "special apparatus". Hon. Members will have read accounts that special apparatus was used on London bridge. I can tell hon. Members that they need not worry; I can show them that special apparatus, which I understand is no longer classified. Some of the wilder visions of what it involved can be put to rest by opening up a little of the secrecy. The special apparatus is no longer being used, hon. Members will be pleased to know.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but the House is not used to demonstrations of the kind that he has just made. It will be difficult to record it in the context of the debate, unless he will be good enough to describe what he has produced before the House.

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is precisely why I brought the apparatus with me. I was not quite sure how one would describe it. It is almost like a fish knife without a middle in it. It is a rectangular piece of metal approximately 1½ in long with a 2 in handle extended on it, round which was wrapped an extremely thin thread, almost of the dimension of a spider's web, which held within it a small number of such bacteria. The apparatus was carried on Waterloo bridge and elsewhere to expose it to the atmosphere, then put away and tested to see whether the bacteria had been killed by the atmosphere. It was as simple as that.

I hope that I have dispelled any visions of London being swamped by bacteria through the use of such special equipment. Hon. Members have heard my description, and I hope that they are somewhat relieved.

During his measured speech, the hon. Member for Teignbridge referred in passing to trials involving the release of micro-organisms far offshore while testing protective measures for ships and their crews. I cannot say that no material from those trials drifted overland, although that was not the intention of the tests. However, that possible outcome was not monitored, so I cannot provide any results.

The third category of tests to which hon. Members referred specifically has attracted the most attention.

I think that hon. Members will understand that the Minister cannot give a guarantee whether the far offshore trials led to a dispersion of micro-organisms over land. However, can he give some assessment as to the likelihood that that occurred? Presumably he has been reassured by officials that the likelihood is very small, but it would be interesting to know the percentages.

I cannot give a guarantee, because it was never intended that the tests would involve bacteria reaching land. The trials were conducted far offshore, so there was no monitoring on the land. However, the bacteria used in the tests do not last very long in a polluted atmosphere.

Some less concentrated or minute traces of bacteria may have reached land, so it is impossible for me to guarantee that no bacteria landed anywhere. However, the second series of tests was conducted so far from shore that it is extremely unlikely—that was the assumption at the time—that the bacteria would have caused land-based infection. When I describe the bacteria that were used in the third test, I think that the hon. Gentleman will be even more reassured. That point was at the heart of the contribution by the hon. Member for Teignbridge.

The third group of trials generated the most public interest, because it was intended that the bacteria would be carried on to the mainland by on-shore winds, and they may have travelled over populated areas with houses, places of work and other buildings. The hon. Gentleman asked for some clarification as to the range of the tests—was it five or 10 miles inland? I think—I speak from memory and not from notes—that the range was 40 or 50 miles inland.

There were good reasons for choosing Lyme bay as the trial site. Its geography meant that the trials could proceed in a variety of wind conditions. Its location was also convenient to the naval base at Portland and to Porton Down, which helped with setting up the trials and collecting the results.

For those trials that involved the release of micro-organisms in Lyme bay, bacteria levels were monitored over the mainland. In those trials, the Microbiological Research Establishment used a specially adapted experimental trials vessel, Icewhale, which was equipped to spray material from the rear of the vessel into the onshore wind. The exact course that the ship sailed, and the position of the land-based sampling sites on each trial, were determined by several factors, including weather conditions. The samples collected from the detectors behind the ship and from the land-based sampling stations were taken for scientific analysis in the laboratory.

I must reassure hon. Members that the scientists did not use real biological agents in those experiments, but four species of bacteria that would mimic the behaviour of real agents. Two of the bacteria, bacterium aerogenes and serratia marcescens, were killed before use. They were dead bacteria, and as such they would have been incapable of growing and of producing disease. Those species were used in only a limited number of trials.

Hon. Members may ask: if the bacteria were dead, why were they used? I remind them that one purpose of the tests was to see, among other things, how biological agents would be carried by weather conditions. Another purpose was to measure how long live bacteria would last in the atmosphere. Although the bacteria used were dead, they were still traced. They were covered with a translucent coat—I think it was purple—that allowed the bacteria, though dead, to be detected as they came ashore.

The other two species of bacteria that were used in the majority of the trials occur naturally in the environment, and most people are exposed to them many times during their lifetimes. The first organism, B. globigii—which, thankfully, is commonly referred to as BG—occurs widely in soil, dust, hay and water, and is naturally present in large amounts during the autumn. It would be inhaled simply by walking in the countryside, and material disturbed during harvesting is likely to be released in high concentrations.

Hon. Members will be pleased to know that I asked what would happen if the organism were found in larger quantities and higher concentrations than normal. I was assured that there is no evidence that it would cause any particular ailment, and certainly no long-term damage.

The second micro-organism, E. coli strain MRE 162, causes concern because of its generic name. It is one of the many different strains of the E. coli species, in which I take a particular interest, given my constituency background and last year's tragic incidents. Many of the E. coli species are part of the normal flora of the intestines of man and animals. They are part of the background atmospheric rumble, both outside and inside human beings and animals.

Unlike some strains of the organism, MRE 162 does not produce harmful toxins. I stress that it is quite different from the strain that caused recent food poisoning epidemics in Scotland. Each batch was tested before use at the time, and its safety was reaffirmed recently by independent tests at the Central Public Health Laboratory using the most up-to-date technology. In this case—which I presume is the most worrying for hon. Members—we are relying not purely on 30-year-old assertions, but upon recent evidence as well.

Several hon. Members asked whether the trials were useful. I have been advised that they were extremely useful, providing a considerable amount of important information about the progress and survival of micro-organisms released close to the United Kingdom, as might happen in a biological attack.

For example, scientists were able to calculate the concentration of surviving organisms at different times and different distances from their source of release, and how that related to their size and meteorological conditions. In light of my description, hon. Members may assert that some results may contain information that we would not wish to disperse to anyone who might seek it. I shall return to that point.

Information gathered from these trials proved invaluable for assessing what measures would be needed to protect Britain and its people from a biological attack. The results obtained also contributed to the development of computer models that were used as late as the Gulf war to help plan to protect the UK armed forces should Saddam Hussein have used his biological weapons.

Hon. Members will know—they will need no reminding, since they read newspapers and watch television, and heard my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who answered a private notice question in the Chamber on Monday—that this is, of course, still a very live issue. Indeed, it is at the centre of some of the tensions that have arisen recently in the Gulf. When I refer to the release of information, 1 hope that it will be accepted that it is not merely convention, paranoia or natural secrecy that causes me not to give absolute assurances on these matters, although I will try to be as helpful as I can.

One of the contentious questions that cause concern today—not least to the hon. Member for Teignbridge—is, of course, whether the general public should have been told about the trials before they took place. Several hon. Members raised that point. At the time, almost certainly for reasons of national security, the trials to simulate the impact of a biological attack on the United Kingdom were kept secret, although information subsequently became available in the form of reports placed in the Public Record Office at Kew.

As I have said before, it is important to remember that, at the time of the trials—more than 30 years ago—before the general thaw that we seem almost to take for granted today, there was a general disposition to keep defence matters very much under wraps. It goes without saying that biological warfare was a particularly secretive area. Certainly MRE would not have wanted to release any information that might have helped a potential aggressor, any more than I would wish to do so today.

Some of the detailed data remain sensitive. There is a fine balance to be struck between helping those with aggressive intentions and, on the other hand, informing people with a legitimate interest in what is going on.

I have given reasons why the trials were kept secret, although I accept that, if we were considering such trials today, they would not take place without some publicity—however constrained—and with greater information than would have been expected and was the convention some 30 years ago. Nevertheless, the existence of the trials has been in the public domain for many years, and in the past year in particular much more information has been placed in the Public Record Office.

The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency also held, as several hon. Members mentioned, a series of informative exhibitions during September 1997. Those exhibitions, in Dorchester, Weymouth and Bridport, were aimed specifically at explaining the background and facts surrounding the biological defence trials in the Dorset area, and gave many people the opportunity to talk to scientists and to find out exactly what took place.

The hon. Gentleman's other main—and entirely legitimate—concern was whether the trials presented any hazard to the health of the people living in his area, and in the areas of other hon. Members.

Let me be quite clear about this. The scientists who carried out the trials concluded at the time that they in no way posed a threat to human life. A current evaluation of the work has reaffirmed that conclusion. I referred to some of that work earlier as regards bacteria. None of the experiments would have been carried out if there had been any doubt about the effects on public safety. They were designed with the sole and exclusive purpose of ensuring public safety, and no harmful reactions were reported at the time.

Nevertheless, I do know of the anxieties, and that a number of concerns have been voiced since the existence of these experiments came to light. In particular, as the hon. Member for Teignbridge, and others, mentioned, a number of people have suffered, or some within their family group have suffered, serious and largely unexplained illness, and they believe that the trials may have had something to do with their specific medical problems.

I have every sympathy with their search for answers and explanations, and I would use this occasion—as no doubt the hon. Gentleman would—to urge them, if they have suspicion about this, to approach their health authority, which has, in any case, just commissioned a statistical survey of the incidence of birth defects in the area covered by the trials.

Of course, the trials, as several hon. Members said, are just one of a number of potential factors that would need to be considered if any causal relationship was being studied. Nevertheless, it almost goes without saying that, if the health authority were to decide that there was a case to be investigated, I—and my Ministry—would, of course, be more than willing to assist them and to give them any help they wanted in interpreting the data, most of which are already in the public domain.

I am sure that the public will be greatly reassured by the way in which the Minister has handled this. He has given a painstaking explanation, and I am very grateful to him for it. However, I ask him to clarify one thing.

Is he saying that some of the information in documents that have yet to be released is still so sensitive that it will be exempt from the 30-year disclosure? If the information is sensitive today but is releasable in a year, 18 months or two years' time, the case for its release may not be very attractive to civil servants, but, from a political perspective, which the Minister will understand completely, there could be a very good reason indeed for releasing it now. Which of those two categories does the information fall into?

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that I have read the other 27 documents—I have not. However, I shall look at this and review the risk, in my view, of releasing information, which on its own is sometimes not dangerous but which, when added incrementally to other information in the public sphere, can be of great use to a potential enemy. I will balance that against the political requirements. I will be as open and honest as I can. I will have two caveats, because this is not completely in my power to handle.

I shall give way briefly to the hon. Gentleman, but I really must finish now.

I shall be brief. I am very grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has conducted the debate. He is not a scientist, and nor am I, but we are both concerned for constituents who are genuinely worried about any ill health that they may feel goes from generation to generation. Is it the Minister's understanding, as it is mine, that, even though no dangerous pathogens were released, if chemical or biological agents which were real had been released, their effects would have taken place within minutes or hours, and we would not be talking about something happening 30 years later?

That depends on which bacteria were released, but, yes, in most cases, that certainly would have been the case. I understand that, because, for very good reasons, many of these matters had to be kept secret at the time—some of them, perhaps, even now—people's suspicions are naturally heightened. That is not automatically the case. There are very good reasons for having kept some of this secret. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that, if the health authority were to decide that there is a case to be investigated, we will be willing to assist it, in interpreting the data in particular.

In the meantime, some of the formal scientific reports relating to these trials have already been routinely released—in the normal way—into the Public Record Office at Kew. The remainder are in the process of being so released.

I have no unconstrained power in my office to order release. There is the 30-year rule. Other Departments are involved in this. It is not entirely within my gift. There may, of course, be matters that relate specifically to future security.

However, I can tell the House that, in discussions with Porton Down, I have made my own view known, and have asked that whatever steps can be taken by my office to assist the processes being accelerated should be taken. I have also ordered that copies of reports so far published, and any others that are published, are placed in the Library of the House to make it easier for hon. Members to access them rather than having to send to Porton Down or anywhere else. I hope that that is of some assistance.

I hope that my commitment to be open and honest in dealing with the public on these issues, and to offer assistance to the local authorities where we sensibly can, together with the facts that I have set out this morning, will offer some reassurance to those living in the localities in which the tests took place.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Teignbridge for bringing these issues to my attention, and for providing me with the opportunity publicly to respond to the points that he made; and to assure him and his colleagues that, as far as the Ministry of Defence is concerned, we will do whatever we can to reassure the public and address his constituents' anxiety.


10.59 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate one of the biggest issues that face us as we enter the next millennium: where people are going to live. I do not intend to speak for long, because I know how many other hon. Members wish to speak.

On entering the House, I was somewhat surprised to find how little national debate there had been about this subject, despite the last Government's paper entitled "Household growth: where shall we live?" and a report on housing need by the Environment Select Committee. Given its importance and relevance to every constituency, and therefore to every Member of Parliament, it is surprising what a low public profile the issue has had. Many of us have had to deal with housing development in our own localities.

Housing has slipped down the public agenda, despite fulfilling a basic human need, and is frequently perceived as a purely local and technical matter. Because of that, housing development figures are seen to be irrefutable and handed down from above, although they should be a key element in debate with the public. We all know that housing is one of the issues that should gain resonance during general elections, but recently it has failed to feature.

The Department of the Environment published the latest set of household projections in 1995. The figures predicted a 4.4 million, or 23 per cent., increase in the number of households in England between 1991 and 2016, and have been used to determine the level and location of new housing development across the country. What is emerging is the existence of localised planning disputes focusing on the specifics of individual sites and the question of where the housing should go. What is being missed is the bigger picture, and questions about whether the housing figures are valid or indeed desirable, whether their impact is acceptable in economic, social and environmental terms and whether they amount to a coherent strategy.

In my constituency, there is growing resentment about plans for thousands of extra houses, which has resulted in many letters in my postbag. For much of my time as a local councillor, I have been personally involved with development and planning, and I understand the frustration felt by many local residents. I believe that the time has come when we must be prepared to question the basis of the housing projections, particularly if we want to be a listening Government.

I want to raise three specific concerns: the validity and repercussions of the housing figures, the issue of sustainability and the role of public policy in housing. The current projection of 4.4 million additional households is based on the assumption that the future is simply a continuation of past trends, and, in particular, that demographic changes, migration patterns and social behaviour will continue much as before. That is admitted in the last Government's paper on household growth, although in other areas of policy such as road building the "predict and provide" approach is now being seriously questioned, primarily on grounds of environmental impact.

Research by Professor Glen Bramley of Heriot-Watt university has highlighted the circularity of the relationship between household projections and economic and housing market factors—the influence of the supply of housing on demand, and vice versa. That has much in common with the road-building and traffic debate.

Let me now deal with some of the specific factors that generate housing numbers: an aging population, the fact that younger people are leaving home earlier, the growing divorce and separation rate, the existence of more single-person households and migration flows across the country, essentially from urban to rural areas and from north to south. I am particularly interested in that last feature, because of the dynamic that migration causes in parts of the country. In the south-west, it generates development as much as indigenous growth. We must therefore subject the figures to thorough scrutiny.

Research carried out over the past two years by John Allinson of the University of the West of England on net migration into Gloucestershire raises serious doubts about the robustness of the net in-migration figures being used to determine the massive house-building programme, and an approach based entirely on past trends rather than public policy. In its structure plan, Gloucestershire county council assumes a net annual in-migration of 2,700 people, but Allinson demonstrates that the true figure is much lower. In his view, that is due to emerging societal sea changes relating principally to labour and housing markets.

The real significance of John Allinson's research, however, lies in what he has to say about migration patterns beyond Gloucestershire at regional and national levels. The overall implications are simple but dramatic. In Gloucestershire, planners are about to make provision for some 6,000 more houses than are required, thereby needlessly and irreversibly destroying hundreds of acres of green-field land. The reduction in net migration flows that is increasingly evident in Gloucestershire is being replicated in the other counties in the south-west and in other regions, and is part of a wider national trend. Moreover, public policy can have an impact on migration between areas of the country, and, in particular, out of our cities.

Although the research only examines the migration element of the household projections, that element accounts for more than half the predicted growth in Gloucestershire, and is therefore significant. However, there are other aspects of the key assumption that raise doubts about the overall soundness of the projections and the methodology employed. For example, the figures assume virtually no increase in the proportion of households in which people are cohabiting, which rose from 2.9 per cent. to 6.4 per cent. between 1981 and 1991. It is projected to have risen by only 0.3 per cent. between 1991 and 2016, which reinforces the thesis of a massive growth in single-person households.

The figures do not appear to have been adjusted for the estimated missing million people who failed to complete the 1991 census, thereby reducing the average household size and, again, reinforcing the thesis of a smaller household—a case of "Honey, I shrunk the household". That provides strong evidence that the household figures are open to challenge, are likely to be a significant overestimate and therefore need to be reviewed as part of a reappraisal of housing requirements.

Given the consequences for local economies, communities and the environment, the accumulated data must be acted on. The numbers will be affected, directly and indirectly, by policy decisions. For example, a substantial regional investment creating jobs eventually affects migration from, for instance, the north to the south. Social, affordable housing provision designed to meet the local needs of those on low incomes—the homeless and young indigenous people—is more effective than massive increases in housing supply at lower prices.

Similarly, changing patterns of student study may encourage students to stay in their home environment, and improvements in standards in urban schools may persuade families to stay in the cities. We therefore have serious doubts about trend-based forecasts that take the last 20 years, and roll the findings forward into the next 20 and make the result the main presumption behind housing needs.

Next, let me deal with sustainability. Notwithstanding the arguments, we must consider how the housing debate can be advanced. The concept of sustainability needs to be central. More clarity and a higher priority are required before its implications for economies, communities and the environment can be properly weighed within a modernised planning system. Associated issues of capacity and environmental impact assessment are also essential if we are to have more integrated evolutionary planning.

One way in which we could reduce development pressures without absolving ourselves of responsibility for unforeseen changes, while maintaining a coherent planning strategy, would be to introduce the phasing of land allocation for development. Programmed reviews of need would be built in, and, perhaps, land would be released on a sequential basis designed to enhance sustainability and the regeneration of local economies and communities, and to discourage cherry-picking of the best green-field sites.

Another associated issue is the use of brown-field sites in preference to green-field sites. In principle, that approach supports the notion that minimising the impact on the environment should largely determine the location of new housing. The last Government suggested in a White Paper a target of 50 per cent. building on brown-field sites, and more recently the United Kingdom round table on sustainable development has suggested a 75 per cent. target.

The identification of brown-field sites has posed difficulties, and local authorities need to make a greater effort. A system of incentives and constraints is required if less attractive or costly sites are to be provided. Nevertheless, those high targets are likely to prove unrealistic. Brown-field sites are not evenly distributed across the country, and the impact on the urban environment needs to be considered carefully.

I have been listening with much interest to the hon. Gentleman's speech. Does he agree that, to an extent, the use of brown-field sites is a question of urban renewal? If we built sensible housing—dare I say, what abroad would be termed apartments, and what people wish to live in in Paris—instead of building detached housing in the countryside, in which people are encouraged to live, we would kill two birds with one stone. We would renew the cities without destroying the countryside of which the hon. Gentleman has spoken so eloquently.

I agree with the hon. Member. Planning policies should reflect that, so that we prevent an attack on our countryside and make urban centres places where people want to live.

To degrade the quality of life in cities through excessive development will, ultimately, prove to be disastrous for the countryside, as it will inevitably lead to further migration.

If we are to wean people off the car, we must think hard about where development is placed, and how sufficient jobs can be created locally. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that that has been successful. Too often, the locus for new development is road systems, and jobs have to follow people. That results in settlements that are essentially commuter land. Sadly, where such developments have occurred, rather than adding to the social mix, younger people are driven out and jobs go with them.

Those features are only too apparent in my constituency. Stroud is currently having to implement a new county structure plan as well as attempting its own local plan. The area faces considerable constraints, because 50 per cent. of the district is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, another 27 per cent. runs along the Severn estuary, much of which is a site of international ecological importance, and a significant remainder of the district is prime agricultural land or has conservation area status. Less than 5 per cent. of the land is considered brown-field, much of which is already designated for employment purposes.

Outside those constraints, there are areas of immense sensitivity. The late Laurie Lee's Slad valley has no protective designation, and was subject to a recent planning inquiry, which was thankfully turned down. Does anyone pretend that that is acceptable?

Despite those constraints, this summer Stroud district council produced a draft plan for consultation. It has encouraged the involvement in that process of parish and town councils and the general public. In a survey of the entire district, 70 per cent. of those who responded supported a dispersal strategy as opposed to a new settlement, which was the favoured option of the county council initially and which would have had a devastating impact on the environment and on the economies of local market towns, especially Stroud.

Stroud district council is now attempting a bottom-up approach to resolve difficulties. It is too early to say whether that bold approach will be successful, but it must be the way forward, provided that the numbers are realistic and account is taken of the constraints.

There is a need to understand the specific dynamics of our rural areas, but that is not to argue that, as an alternative, houses should be crammed into cities. The message is that the future health and sustainability of the countryside is dependent on the health and sustainability of our cities.

We must revise the approach that resulted in urban and rural policies being entirely separate spheres, and we should examine the relationship between the two as a basis of a clearer vision of what both want. Protection of the countryside must go hand in hand with a strong, urban policy.

I want to comment on the planning system. I would argue for a proper, plan-led system to enable communities better to control their environment and to meet local needs, and to bring certainty into the process. That would overcome the policy and practice in recent years that allowed market forces to dominate.

One of my concerns is provision for windfall sites, which undermines the certainty of a plan-led system. The Council for the Protection of Rural England argues that windfalls should be adequately accounted for by local authorities. In particular, a plan-led system would provide for a specific number of homes to be built, which would reassure village communities that a precedent is not being created for excessive development in the future. A plan-led system should also allow proper provision for social housing to deal with homelessness and social exclusion, rather than having to rely on piggy-backing private development.

I support the Government's regional strategy. I advocate combining the capacity that it offers with the development of a broad planning policy with a bottom-up approach that involves people in the creation of sustainable, revitalised communities.

I would welcome a visit to Gloucestershire by the Minister, not to get him embroiled in protracted local issues, but to engage him in a wide discussion on the Government's thinking on how the planning system could be improved.

The Government have been criticised by the Conservative party for not listening to the interests of the countryside. I hope that, by initiating this debate, I have shown that Labour Members are genuinely concerned with the real issues of the countryside, and that we will play our part in this major issue. We have shown our concern through local Agenda 21—or Vision 21 as we call it in Gloucestershire—whereby factors such as sustainability have been discussed. In its own way, that could be a model for the future. It is through such initiatives and getting people involved that we shall begin to find answers to what otherwise seems to be an intractable problem.

Order. It is clear that several hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. Brevity will assist.

11.14 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). He even acknowledged that Conservative Members are suspicious that Labour Members have no care for the countryside. I was grateful for his contribution, and I shall listen carefully to ensure that the Minister agrees with him, and with the vast majority of Conservative Members, that we must do much more to preserve the countryside that we all enjoy, irrespective of whether we live in the country or the town.

I am not speaking from a NIMBYist "not in my backyard" position. I shall talk about the importance of preserving the countryside in my area, but I shall also refer to the commitment of certain villages in my constituency to the need to give some of their land for extra housing. The previous Government's commitment to the preservation of the environment was second to none. We shall be careful to ensure that that commitment is carried on by the new Government. The previous Secretary of State for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), said in a debate only last week that he could recall only one occasion on which he gave permission to build on a green-field site. The new Government have a lot to live up to. When she was Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher said that we were merely leaseholders of this land for future generations. It is a full, repairing lease, so we have a lot of work to do.

Conservative Members are suspicious not only of the private Member's Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), but of the Government's commitment to agriculture, especially in less-favoured areas. Agriculture is part of the countryside that we all enjoy. The £60 million in hill livestock compensatory allowances for last year will be taken away for this year, and that will be a terrible deprivation for farmers. That is one of the reasons why Conservative Members are so concerned.

There is much concern about the problems that new homes in the countryside bring with them. We have to put up with extra traffic from tourists and those who come to live in the countryside, and extra pressure is caused by the erection of telecommunication masts, wind turbines and pylons. The countryside is under attack not just from housing, but from other pressures.

Several reports over the summer—primarily in The Sunday Times—claimed that the Government are preparing to relax restrictions on the building of up to 2 million new homes in the countryside. The reports claimed that millions of acres of green-field land, such as the green-belt land between Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, could be converted into housing estates.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the report of the Round Table on Sustainable Development, which said that 75 per cent. of extra housing could be built on brown-field sites. If the Government are sufficiently committed to that, it will be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said that we should consider different ways of providing the extra housing that will be necessary due to changing demographics and people's changing needs.

It has been estimated that, without any restrictions, the countryside will have to find room for at least 2 million more homes. Current figures from the Council for the Protection of Rural England show that, 270,000 acres of countryside will each year be flooded with concrete by developers. That is equivalent to 250,000 football pitches. The CPRE reckons that, by 2016, an area the size of Hampshire will have been lost—and that is before the relaxation of current restrictions.

Imagine how much worse it would be if the Government allowed building on green-field sites. I do not dispute that extra housing is needed, but we have to be careful exactly where we put it all. How turning much of our green and pleasant land into an urban jungle will solve the problems of neglected inner cities is beyond me.

I have already seen what plans to build on small villages can do to an area. The hon. Member for Stroud talked about his constituency; 75 per cent. of my constituency is an area of outstanding natural beauty. That means that, in many ways, there is much more pressure on the rest of the constituency. People think that there is a straight demarcation line: they are either in the AONB or outside it. Of course, much of the area leads up to the AONB, so it is all part of the countryside that people enjoy.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Does he accept that in constituencies such as his, or mine on the fringe of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and green belt, there is reinforced pressure for development because they lie just beyond the fringe of areas where restraint is obligatory?

Of course I accept that. Because they enjoy the countryside in the area of outstanding natural beauty, people live as close as they can to it; it is on their doorstep. They do not realise that, as all this building is going on there, they are helping to scar and to encroach on AONBs and to damage the very thing that they love, so we have to be guarded about that.

On villages with surrounding AONBs, as I have said, in my constituency Barrow has taken on more than 200 houses. That does not sound like a lot, but it is double the size of the village. Clitheroe, another area around my constituency, is one of the larger market towns and it has taken on several hundred houses, which are dotted all over the place. Each application does not sound like an awful lot—some are for only about 70 or 100 houses—but they all take up different green-field sites dotted around the town.

One green-field site is taken up after another, although each application is for only one more green-field site. Over years, several green-field sites have been taken over. They are disappearing by stealth, and we must guard against such applications.

In Ribchester, a brown-field site has been used for extra housing: it is a mixed development of affordable housing and less affordable housing. I have no problems with that at all, although there was much concern among villagers about all the extra housing coming in. However, the new development has married well with the village.

Longridge has also given over some extra fields to housing. As the name would suggest, Fulwood—which is near the Preston end of the constituency, which is more urban—was at some stage a wood. Now we can drop the word "wood" and just have the word "full", because just four green-field sites are left.

The Commission for the New Towns owns those four fields. I and residents in the area have had many meetings with the CNT, trying to appeal to it. We know that it has an obligation to get the best price for the land, and one of the ways in which to do that is obviously to secure planning permission for houses on it, but we have asked the CNT to be a little compassionate and to have regard to all the extra housing that has been built in the Fulwood area—some "lungs" are necessary for all the people who have moved into the extra housing. We have had some constructive meetings with the CNT, and I hope that they will continue.

My constituency has also suffered from the fact that three large institutions have virtually all closed, apart from one that is now half in operation. They are former mental institutions of the Victorian style, which housed 3,000 patients. As they have closed, they have become ripe for sell-off and for housing then to be built there. Because those large institutions were not too far away from other villages, which used to supply much of the work force, there is now tremendous pressure for the old hospitals to be flattened and for developments of 1,000 houses to be put on those areas, with little regard to the fact that there are only 500 houses in the neighbouring village.

Again, we ask the Minister to consider those sites carefully. No one is discounting the fact that, once the hospitals disappear, building can go on to the footprint of the old hospital site, but people resent green fields around the old hospital being given up so that extra housing can go on to those green-field sites as well, totally swamping the old villages, with little regard for the infrastructure, never mind the fact that doctors' surgeries and schools cannot cope with the extra numbers.

One of the deals is to say to developers, "You can put on these extra houses so long as you give us extra money to build an extra school." It is called planning gain. I plead with the Minister: there is such a thing as non-planning gain. One of the reasons why people go to live in or visit the countryside is because conditions in cities and towns are not replicated there. Certain people, as we have already heard, want to live in cities and towns, and we have to regenerate those areas to ensure that they can do so. It is done in other countries and we should be looking to do it more here. That will also work as a safety valve for less building in the countryside, so that people can come from cities and towns and enjoy the countryside as well.

I ask the Minister, therefore, to consider carefully those old hospital sites. Many other institutions are past their sell-by date and there is now tremendous pressure for them to be turned into something else. Another one, called Whittingham, an old mental institution, has been flattened and there is tremendous pressure to put 1,000 houses on that site as well. There are about 500 houses in the local village, and villagers are protesting. We have the support of the local council to ensure that the development is down to about 375 houses, so it is not true that we do not want any houses there. We accept that some building will take place, but we ask for sensitivity to ensure that the developments are as small as possible.

I shall now bring my remarks to a close because I know that many other hon. Members want to speak about the problems in their constituencies, and the more people talk about their anecdotal evidence, the stronger the case will be. In many cases, building on green fields is viewed as cheaper, but it will have an enormous cost, which will be borne by all of us and by future generations, if we allow it to go ahead. Those future generations have no say at the moment and we have to speak up on their behalf as well, so that they can enjoy what we are enjoying currently.

11.26 am

I support much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has said. However, representing an urban constituency, I view the issue of the 40,000 to 50,000-plus new homes to be developed in our county from a slightly different perspective.

Perhaps I feel a little sensitive that my constituency, the city of Gloucester, might be an easy target for the new developments and the tens of thousands of new homes that we have to accommodate on our doorstep, because the recent history of growth has been one of incremental development on the boundary of Gloucester. Often, housing estates have sprung up on the edges of the city, where the agenda has been set predominantly by developers rather than by the communities that have to sustain themselves for future generations.

I have another anecdotal, but perhaps briefer, example. Quedgeley in my constituency has about 10,000 residents. It is a big new development on the southern part of Gloucester city. It was originally developed as part of Stroud district, but the residents, being so close to Gloucester, needed to rely to on Gloucester for services, for transport and for everything that is required to sustain a community.

Eventually, therefore, the city boundaries were changed and Quedgeley became a welcome part of our city. However, the people there now feel let down because, over time, they have realised that they have nice houses, but little else. They have a poor transport network after bus deregulation, few community services, few pre-school services and poor shopping facilities.

Abbeymead is another big estate that has been bolted on to the east of the city. It comprises very nice houses—predominantly three to four-bedroom or smaller detached houses that attract young families. Yet, once again, it is a developer-led settlement rather than a community-led settlement, so residents have little access to good public transport. There is no pre-school provision for under-fives, and shopping facilities are bad. The developments that have sprung up around Gloucester have been bolted on to the edge of our city and are developer-led. We should be building communities, not simply houses.

Gloucester has learnt some sharp lessons from the new developments. The Government should provide a lead, centrally and at county level, and address the housing puzzle with more vision. The previous Government left us in a mess. We are now looking to the new Labour Government not simply to puzzle out where to put new houses, but to have a long-term strategic vision of where future communities should be.

It is often convenient for rural areas to avoid any development by shunting developments on to the urban fringes, but that is storing up problems for the future. I understand that those living in beautiful rural areas do not want large developments, but nor do we want to take what often seems to be the easy option—shoving new developments on to the edges of cities without any real consideration for the needs of the communities.

More than half Gloucestershire comprises areas of outstanding natural beauty or green belt land. It would be very difficult for Gloucester to absorb many more new developments by bolting them on to the edges of our cities without longer-term vision and a strategic approach to developing communities.

There are difficulties, because we have to rely on private developers. We know what we want in our cities—it has already been mentioned by Opposition Members. We want to develop inner-city areas—flats above shops, small low-cost housing units for single people and elderly people. We want some of the run-down areas in the city to be redeveloped. However, we have to rely on private developers. When they can choose between regenerating an inner-city area with derelict streets or building profitable estates bolted on to the outskirts of cities, we all know which option they will take. We want development in Gloucester to be from the inside out, not bolted on the outskirts of the city.

We are looking to the new Labour Government to take a firm lead, as I am sure they will, in clearing up the mess that we were left by the previous Administration. We want an approach that goes beyond physical planning, reliance on private developers and current planning arrangements. We need a joint strategy to encompass housing, employment needs and transport to create large self-sustaining communities and a regional policy that meets that vision.

I want to be able to reassure local communities in Gloucester that it is not simply a puzzle of where to put 40,000 to 50,000 new house and shunting them between rural and urban areas. Therefore, I am asking the Government to reassure the people in my constituency that there is a long-term vision of building communities that takes us into the new millennium considering all the elements that a new community needs, including employment, community facilities and giving local authorities the power and encouragement to deal with private developers and look at the real needs of the communities that they serve.

11.33 am

I thank the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for initiating today's debate on an issue that affects rural constituencies and suburban ones such as mine.

The hon. Member for Stroud has already explained why there will be an increase in the number of households. That there will be is indisputable, but there is doubt about the number of homes that might be required. A figure of 4.4 million has been mentioned, but it is possible to reach another figure—some 500,000—and I shall explain how.

The 4.4 million figure was projected in 1991. Since then, up to 1 million homes may already have been built, so we may be talking about a requirement of an additional 3.4 million. The figures assume inward migration. Historically, there have been periods when there has been no inward migration, so it is possible that 500,000 fewer dwellings may be needed. Assumptions have been made about the increase in the number of single households. If half the built-in increase actually occurs, a further 600,000 homes may be knocked off the estimate. Finally, there are 800,000 empty homes, so that figure can be taken off the list.

If we subtract all those figures from the original 4.4 million, we are left with 500,000. My calculation illustrates the wide range of figures that could be used, and the discrepancy makes it extremely important that the Government re-examine the figures.

The figures were produced in 1991 and the Government should not assume, six years later, that 4.4 million homes continue to be required and that new settlements and towns should be built throughout the country on the basis of figures that could be significantly out.

There may be a danger of wishful thinking getting in the way of facts. I appreciate that we are working on the previous Government's figures, but are not the projected housing figures reviewed every three years? Were not the present figures reviewed in 1995? Is it not also the case that they are based on Government statistics that were collected in 1992 and that the three most recent projections underestimated the growth in housing need? Is the hon. Gentleman not being a little unrealistic in hoping that we can reduce the figure simply be adjusting the mathematics?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was saying only that there is some debate about the accuracy of the figure of 4.4 million. I am not suggesting that only 500,000 new houses are required; simply that there is a difference of view among experts about the figure. For that reason, the Government should consider a phased release of land rather than do everything in one go.

I agree that the figures are based on historic data that are merely projected forward. No clear methodology or model is employed in calculating the figures. As the Guinness advert says, 33 per cent. of all statistics are made up on the spot. One gets the feeling that the mechanical model of projecting from historic trends is not the way to discover our housing needs. The figures must be right, otherwise we will build on our green acres and all will be lost.

The Government should re-examine the projections, otherwise builders will embark unnecessarily on a massive building programme.

I should like to know whether demand can be reduced. The previous Government attempted to use social engineering with back to basics, but I am not suggesting that route. Demand cannot be reduced by social engineering, but something can be done about the 800,000 empty homes. The Government should support initiatives such as the above-shop scheme. In the past couple of days, my local council has set up an empty homes hotline that people can call if they have inherited a home that they are not using or are aware of a dwelling that has been empty for a number of years. Such schemes should be encouraged.

Can housing demand be influenced by the Government? Undoubtedly—even if they influence only inter-region migration. As the hon. Member for Stroud mentioned, the Government could increase employment and prosperity in certain areas, thereby reducing the need for migration. An integrated transport policy could help to ensure that currently inaccessible places are easier to reach, and make people want to remain there. The Government should examine also the reasons for inter-region migration.

If we accept that millions of homes are required, should we build them? We are back to the predict-and-provide question. Unlike roads—to which one can provide an alternative in the form of public transport—we cannot provide an alternative to a roof over someone's head; housing has to be provided.

If we provide housing, where should it be built? Brown-field and green-field sites have already been mentioned. The Government currently believe that perhaps 50 per cent. of new housing can be built on brown-field sites and that the remaining 50 per cent. can be built in other locations. Other experts hold a different view—that possibly 60 per cent. of new housing can be built on brown-field sites and that 40 per cent. can be built in other areas. There is a good case for choosing and running with a target. Perhaps the Government should consider a 60 per cent. rather than a 50 per cent. construction target on brown-field sites.

Whether homes are built on brown-field or green-field sites, there will be some common requirements, some of which the hon. Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) outlined. Matters that require consideration include transport, health provision, education, social services, water resources and a host of other issues that will have to be considered at the time.

In my constituency, in the ward of Wandle valley, there has been massive private residential development. The only problem is that general practitioner services have not kept pace and many people now find it extremely difficult to get on to a GP's list. We must consider all the implications before we start a building programme on either brown-field or green-field sites.

It is environmentally preferable to build on brown-field sites. As technological advances are made, it will be easier, and I hope cheaper, to decontaminate sites. In my constituency, a BP chemical plant is being redeveloped as a model housing estate, with which we are very pleased. Moreover, commercial advances will make decontamination easier. Recently, an organisation with which some hon. Members may be familiar launched a commercial insurance scheme under which it provides land certification and developers with cover for potential risks associated with decontamination work.

Such developments will make it easier to develop brown-field sites, but we must ensure that jobs follow those developments. There is no point building homes on brown-field—or even on green-field—sites if there are no jobs. Furthermore, development will have to go hand in hand with regeneration of town centres. As hon. Members have said in this debate, brown-field site developments can help us to regenerate inner cities and other urban areas.

There is undoubtedly insufficient brown-field land. We must therefore consider building on other land—on what I have described as taupe-field land. For hon. Members who do not know it, taupe is a mixture of brown and grey. Taupe-field sites are those on which there is already some development, such as a road or a retail or industrial park. If we run out of brown-field land, perhaps we should consider either taupe-field sites or land on which there has been limited development, such as Ministry of Defence land.

It is probable that all hon. Members in the Chamber favour greater development on brown-field land. The problem is that much of it is contaminated. Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea how we might decontaminate brown-field land and therefore be able to build on more of it?

In my constituency, BP has very successfully decontaminated land by removing topsoil and cleaning the environment. Decontamination has already happened. I do not think that there are any problems with decontaminating some land.

As a last resort, green-field sites will undoubtedly have to be used. Organisations that one would never have expected to support such development are already saying, "Yes, it will have to happen, because a limited amount of land is available for development."

I should like Ministers, first, to review the housing projections. They must be reviewed, regardless of whether they are made on a three-yearly basis. Secondly, the Government should also back an empty homes campaign, spearheaded by all local authorities. Finally, if development happens, as it must, it should happen—in descending order—on brown-field, taupe-field and green-field land.

11.45 am

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak in a debate on a matter that is of such great concern to my constituents in North Swindon. I know that our concerns are shared by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). I too should like to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on initiating this important debate. As he rightly said, the housing need projection could change the face of the country and transform the way in which we live. I therefore agree with him and with other hon. Members who have spoken that that figure requires greater scrutiny.

Some housing increase is clearly required. The Government must also tackle the legacy of homelessness that they have inherited from the previous Government—an objective on which they have made a heartening start. Equally, new housing may have to be provided because of changing living patterns. The sheer scale of the numbers, however, is causing concern. It is projected that, by 2016, more than 5,000 new homes will be required in every constituency in the country, with all the consequent pressures on the local environment and infrastructure.

In Swindon, pressure on our green-field sites is already intense, and our share of the projected numbers could turn an already intolerable situation into an impossible one. I am sure that we are not alone, because numbers on such a scale amount to a revolution. I hope that no hon. Member would embark on a revolution without the most rigorous analysis of all the issues.

Much of the national debate—although not in the Chamber today, I am pleased to note—has focused on where new housing should be built and on the correct balance between green-field and brown-field sites. Although that is a vital issue, I should like to focus today on what, logically, is a prior issue. How certain can we be that we really need to make provision for quite so many homes? The answer must be: not very.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and other hon. Members have said, the numbers have been reached by trend-based projections, which are extrapolations based on past behaviour. The evidence is that that technique has not proved wholly reliable. Between 1981 and 1992, for example, projections for annual household formation between 1991 and 1996 varied by almost 100 per cent.

Will such reliability really provide the basis for paving over our fields? I hope not. I suggest that public policy should never be too narrowly based on projections derived from highly complex sets of assumptions about human behaviour in 20 years' time. Will such projections really provide the only justification for concreting over our green spaces? Again, I hope not. I fear, however, that that is precisely what we will do if we allow the figure of 4.4 million new homes required by 2016 to be the driver of our housing policy.

As my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have pointed out, the figure is based on assumptions about social trends, which could easily turn out to be wrong in a society that is increasingly characterised by rapid change. Even relatively limited areas in the assumptions could have significant consequences for the figures.

In a study published in August, the city firm Credit Lyonnais Laing estimates that more than 1 million homes could be removed from the projection total if different, but realistic, assumptions are made about the growth in single unmarried households and a return to nil migration. All the experience of government in recent years tells us that, the more complex the calculations, the more likely they are to be wrong. These calculations are very complex. The more the Government depend on such calculations, the more likely they are to make mistakes.

Of course a start must be made somewhere. It would be wrong of me to cast aspersions on the validity of the methodology; that is not the point. The point is that government is an iterative process. It has to respond to the way in which complex forces interact with each other. We must not let a mathematical formula alone transform our landscape and our environment.

The hon. Gentleman, my parliamentary neighbour, is making a very cogent case for looking very carefully at projections. Does he agree that, if we over-provide, such over-provision—for any of the statistical reasons that he has enunciated—could become self-fulfilling?

Yes, I agree. That is one of the reasons why I am so worried about the apparent reliance on the figure.

It is clear from all the speeches in this debate that policies to implement the current figures will have a dramatic impact on this country. Surely there should be a more fully informed public debate on whether the people want their lives to be transformed in such a way.

Why cannot the Government produce a spread of scenarios based on realistic variations of key statistical factors, showing the impact of each scenario on the projected housing need and the resulting implications for the environment? With such a range of scenarios, we would be in a position to start making democratic decisions about whether we want to try to influence the key factors driving housing demand to produce a different outcome from the one we currently foresee. We are not helpless; there are all sorts of options. We have heard several in this debate—not least, encouraging the more efficient use of housing stock.

Whether we can make better use of housing stock is a very important issue. The need for 33 per cent. of the 4.4 million homes is due to a change in behaviour, which would suggest that we could make greater use of conversion. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be looking at the tax structure? There is a huge disincentive to convert homes because value added tax has to be paid—whereas it does not on new homes. Does he agree that the Government should be considering that?

I certainly agree. That is precisely the sort of measure that we need to factor into the figures to produce different scenarios for consideration by the people.

The Government have already signalled that they are prepared to make judgments and hard choices about the way in which people live for economic, social and health reasons. Should not we also be prepared to consider such action for environmental ones too? The election of the Government on 1 May revealed that people wanted to take their future back into their own hands. Now is the time for the Government to help them to do so over one of the most important issues facing the country. If we get this wrong, our children and our children's children will pay the price for generations.

A poet summed up the risk far better than I can—a man who contemplated Britain from his library in the town now represented in such a distinguished manner by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Philip Larkin wrote:
  • "I thought it would last my time
  • The sense that, beyond the town,
  • There would always be fields and farms.
  • For the first time I feel somehow
  • That it isn't going to last
  • That before I snuff it, the whole
  • Boiling will be bricked in
  • Except for the tourist parts
  • And that will be England gone:
  • The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
  • The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
  • There'll be books; it will linger on
  • In galleries; but all that remains
  • For us will be concrete and tyres."
I urge the Government to heed his warning and look again at the figures.

11.54 am

I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing a debate on this very important subject. He made a detailed speech about the statistics and analysis underlying the housing requirement. I do not propose to go too far down that route.

The hon. Member for Stroud will know that the previous Government received expert advice that there would be a growth in the number of households from 19.2 million to 23.6 million between 1991 and 2016. The hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) cast some doubts on the statistics. It will be important for the Minister in his winding-up speech to say whether he agrees with the projection.

The figure is, of course, only a projection, which can always be revised. If it is revised downwards, we would all be pleased. None the less, the projection was made on the basis of expert advice, so it is incumbent on the Minister to say clearly whether he accepts it or questions it in the way his Back Benchers have.

The previous Government received the expert advice from very good sources. I say to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that that advice was considered by the then Select Committee on the Environment, which did not question the projection. In fact, it said that there was a consensus among experts that the figure might be an underestimate.

When the Government receive such expert advice, they have to be responsible, act on it, and be open. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) for his openness. He acted on the best advice available. For him, the question was not so much how many, but where. He set about planning in the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way. As the last Secretary of State for the Environment, he was a great friend of the environment. My speech will concentrate on the environment.

In meeting the housing requirement, it is vital that the planning system responds to the challenge and, if at all possible, steers development away from the green belt. I am very troubled, as a Member representing Hertfordshire, by the way in which the county and some borough authorities have responded to the planning process. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said, Hertfordshire county council has allocated for development 1,000 acres of green belt between Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage. That is of great concern throughout Hertfordshire. As the House will know, the green belt in Hertfordshire and the south-east generally is an extremely sensitive issue.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is an incentive to build on green-field sites, since the cost of them—if one can get hold of them—is often much less than that of brown-field sites? Did the previous Government ever think about doing something about that?

As the House has already heard, the previous Government signalled to developers that they should try to avoid green belt sites. The House has also heard how very difficult it was to get permission for green belt sites from the previous Government. Indeed, the Opposition are a little troubled that the present Government have already given permission for a significant green belt development in Birmingham.

I return to the issue of Hertfordshire, which is important to me as a Member representing the county. I am concerned about not only the county development but the borough development in my constituency. My local authority first responded to its requirement of 4,600 new homes by issuing a draft local plan that identified three green belt sites. One was a particularly sensitive part of my constituency in Borehamwood—land known as Woodcock Hill north of Barnet lane in Borehamwood— where there are very strong green belt reasons for not allowing development to take place.

There was a significant campaign against development on the site in my constituency. I pay tribute to the Elstree and Borehamwood Green Belt Society and the Woodcock Hill Open Spaces Forever—WHOSE—campaign. They have persuaded the local authority to think again and, in the latest version of the draft local plan, part of the site has been removed—although I regret that part of it is still to be built on.

Unhappily, my local authority is now planning to build on another six green belt sites—building into the open countryside in some cases—against strong green belt considerations, in places such as Cherry Tree lane in Potters Bar and Watford road in Radlett, affecting the village character of Radlett and the green open spaces around Potters Bar. We value our green open spaces in Hertsmere. As hon. Members who have travelled through the area know, it contains the first green spaces on routes out of London.

The issues that I have raised are the responsibility of the local planning authority. Like many others, I have made my representations to it. I want the Government to give a strong signal to the planners, who are deciding how the housing requirement will be met. It is incumbent on the Government to send a clear signal that the green belt needs very strong protection.

I should like a strong restatement from the Minister of the importance of the green belt. One or two recent Government statements, made under the pressure of debate or radio interviews, have not put as strong an emphasis on green belt protection as they might have done. We know that appearing on the "Today" programme can put one under pressure. However, the Minister said in an interview on that programme that the green belt was
"up for grabs in the sense that it is always up for grabs. There are planning guidances to say that you can build on green belt in certain circumstances."

The Minister was a little modest in stating the protection that Government policy affords the green belt. Under the previous Government, green belt policy was embodied in planning policy guidance 2, which says not simply that the green belt can be built on in certain circumstances, but:
"There is a presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt unless very special circumstances exist which outweigh the harm caused by the development. Proposals in draft plans that would result in releasing land from the green belt must be fully justified. The Government are committed to protecting the green belt and encourage the recycling of land in urban areas wherever possible to meet development needs."
We need a robust re-statement from the Minister of the importance of the green belt.

We also need a commitment from the Government to consider the targets for brown-field development. We have heard about the targets set by the previous Government. In 1995 we set a target of half of all new development taking place on brown-field land. We thought that that needed to be looked at again and revised upwards. We were considering moving up to 60 per cent. The Minister knows that we received good advice from the Council for the Protection of Rural England and from the Round Table on Sustainable Development that as much as 75 per cent. could be achieved.

I ask the new Government to consider that expert advice carefully, particularly that from the round table, which was promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal under the previous Government as a source of good, independent, impartial advice to the Government. If any Government ever needed such impartial advice rather than cheerleading, the present Government do. They should consider that advice, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable, as it was for the previous Government. I ask the Minister to look carefully at the targets. I know that it may be a little early for a definite reply, but he should give us some indication that he is giving the ideas a fair wind. The green belt is of fundamental importance to my constituency, as it is to the rest of the country, particularly the south-east.

12.2 pm

The debate has been a partial re-run of the debate initiated by the Conservatives last week to express concern on behalf of our constituents. In that debate, as today, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) questioned the figures for household projections. He was joined in that today by the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills). They are both issuing a serious challenge to their Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) asked whether the Government accepted the projected figures. That was answered in last week's debate by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), who said:
"We do not dispute the figures."—[Official Report, 4 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 211.]
Extraordinarily, there seems to be an orchestrated campaign by some Labour Members to undermine those figures. Perhaps the Minister will take a different line from that taken by his Under-Secretary last week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere issued a plea on behalf of the green belt. Today we have the advantage that the Minister against whom the charges on the green belt are being made will come to the Dispatch Box to answer the debate. I shall not detain the House too long, because we are eager to hear what he has to say about the green belt, and his answer to the charge that he has been playing fast and loose with it.

Our suspicions were increased in last week's debate, because our motion included a charge against the Government of weakening planning controls designed to protect the green belt. That point was not answered in the Government amendment or in the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere has said, the Minister's words on the "Today" programme on 30 October have caused considerable suspicion. During that interview he repeatedly and pointedly failed to confirm the strong presumption against building on the green belt, which was the cornerstone of policy under the Conservative Government, who doubled the amount of green belt and dramatically increased its protection.

Recent Government actions have also given rise to concern. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions decided arbitrarily to overturn the recommendation of his independent inspector following a public inquiry on the development of 140 acres of green belt land in Birmingham, near Sutton Coldfield.

That is not for housing.

Under the Conservative Government, the green belt was sacrosanct, both in respect of housing and in respect of industrial use. It is amazing that the Minister is suggesting that the green belt is not safe against development for industrial purposes, particularly if an inspector has followed the plan-led system put in place by the Conservatives.

I am not going to give way, because I hope that the Minister will have a chance to respond to the debate and will take some interventions from Conservative Members, if, as we fear, his responses are not satisfactory.

We are told that the Government are considering the 700 responses to the Green Paper, "Where shall we live?", Perhaps it would have been better titled, "Where will you live?", because most of us know where we wish to live, and we choose to live where we want to live. Some of the comments from Labour Members have shown that there is a danger of telling people what to do. I have chosen to live in the countryside, in a semi-rural area. I do not wish to deprive other people of the chance to do that, but I recognise that we should be concerned about the destruction of the existing environment.

One of the concerns in East Dorset at the moment is that the Government's response to the East Dorset draft plan said that the proposed densities were not high enough. Coupled with the rather vague definition of brown land, that means that people who live in houses with gardens are threatened by substantial infill development that would dramatically alter the character of those areas and would, ironically, increase the pressure for more people to live in the countryside.

I hope that the Minister will tell us when the Government will produce some conclusions and stop the general chit-chat on the issue. The time for action is now.

12.8 pm

I wish to thank most of the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, because it has been very constructive. I shall set out the base line for the debate—the Conservatives' best record, in 18 years, for building on brown-field sites was 40 per cent. Miraculously, within six months of leaving office, they have improved that to 75 per cent. That is definitely gilding the lily.

Will my hon. Friend note that the previous junior Minister at the Department of the Environment, who lost Hemel Hempstead—the area that I now represent—at the election, is now employed by a construction company? Will he also note that intensive research to try to identify brown-field sites in Hertfordshire has proved unavailing?

My hon. Friend's comments have been noted by the House and will appear in Hansard.

I first wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on initiating the debate today. As has been mentioned, it was covered in part in the Opposition day debate on rural life.

The housing problem is a major issue facing society today. I would love to come to the Dispatch Box and say that no new houses need to be built, but that is not the reality. It is not the Government who are changing social patterns—that is happening out there in the real world. The Government have to accept that and respond to it. Many opportunities will arise from the growth in the number of households, and some have been mentioned this morning. Mixed development is an exciting prospect, and I have visited imaginative mixed development schemes in Liverpool and Manchester. The Government will encourage those.

I hope that the White Paper will be supportive of regional development agencies and will address the need to improve economic growth and tackle underperformance in the English regions. I hope that it will also suggest ways to relieve those areas in which economic development is overheating and to bring areas that are under-utilised closer to the average. I hope that the Government will be positive and constructive in the White Paper and the Bill that will be introduced later in the year.

I also hope that hon. Members will contribute to the White Paper on an integrated transport system, which will be important for the environment and for the issues that we are discussing today. While we accept that the market has a role to play in housing, we believe that the Government also have a role to play. Unfortunately, the previous Administration abdicated many of their responsibilities.

The main concerns for my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud are whether we believe the household projections and, more particularly, whether we need to plan for the number of households that they suggest will be formed. He has also, rightly, raised the special concerns of his constituency, where the projections require decisions to identify how and where housing should be provided, not just how much. I will try to address each of those issues in turn.

It will be useful for the House—because there seems to be some misunderstanding—if I explain what the household projections are, how they are arrived at, what they say, and how they are translated into development plans. In many areas of government, we do not have the luxury of looking a long way into the future and trying to plan for the changes that we expect will happen. The household projections do just that. They enable local authorities to estimate in their development plans the additional housing that they should provide in the next 10 years or so.

The first stage in the process involves assessing the population of the country using the census and the regular sub-national population projections, which are updated every two to three years. Migration trends, which have been mentioned by several hon. Members, are taken into account in that assessment, and local authorities are consulted about the accuracy of the trends. The evaluation is a rolling programme that is updated every three to four years. The result is a demographic picture of the country for up to 25 years into the future.

The second stage involves turning the population projections into household projections. That is done by dividing the population into five types of household, and projecting the trends in their formation rates into the future. Figures are available for every county and metropolitan area in the country.

I hope that the Minister will recognise that the problem is not with the overall methodology but with the application of the methodology to specific areas, especially rural counties such as Gloucestershire—which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned—and my local county of Somerset. We cannot sustain the projected migration levels without employment. We cannot sustain the use of brown-field sites when they do not exist in our rural counties, but building on green-field sites would change our counties' character completely.

I hope to clear that point up later in my speech.

Finally, local authorities meet at regional planning conferences and, using the household projections as their starting point, try to assess how the growth patterns in their region can best be managed. We will examine that issue carefully in the next year, and we will consult about how to strengthen regional planning. We are committed to the plan-led system, although we believe that it needs modernising. Regional areas need strengthening, as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) suggested when he mentioned economic development in the regions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government were bequeathed a centralised planning system, in which local people had little opportunity to participate in the fundamental decision making at regional and county structure level? As part of his welcome proposals for reviewing regional planning operations and the possible introduction of regional development agencies, will he consider ways in which local people can have the first instead of the last say in the crucial housing needs and the environmental capacity of the areas that they know so well?

That is an excellent intervention, and we will consider those issues when we consult on the modernisation of the plan-led system. [Interruption.] I say that genuinely, although the hon. Member for Christchurch is sniggering. The Conservatives never offered the people proper consultation. During their 18 years in office, people had to take it or leave it. We do not behave like that. We genuinely consult people and take their point of view into account. I may also say that I will probably take up the offer by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, and launch the consultation on the plan-led system in his constituency.

Will the Minister accept that every planning policy guidance note was subject to the most thorough consultation process before it was implemented?

My comments about consultation were in a wider context. The plan-led system exists, and planning guidance will continue to be subjected to consultation among those whom it will affect.

The regional planning conferences decide how much new growth their urban areas can take and broadly how much should go on brown-field sites and how much on green-field sites. If the Secretary of State is happy with their decisions, the advice is formally turned into regional planning guidance by the Government office. Following that, counties and local authorities use the regional planning guidance as the basis for preparing their plans. At each stage, the projections are again tested and distributed by the authorities. So where all the housing goes eventually—green-field or brown-field sites—is decided by the local authorities. It must be stressed that that is where the decision is taken.

It is unfortunate that the debate still seems to be stuck on the question whether we believe the projections, or whether we need to meet demand. That ground has been examined in detail on numerous occasions, especially in the previous Administration's Green Paper "Household Growth—Where shall we live?", which has been mentioned already today. That document stated in no uncertain terms that large-scale household growth was a fact driven by social, demographic, and cultural changes and that we should address how we can manage the problems, or grasp the opportunities that the growth presents, rather than focusing on "not in my back yard" attitudes.

I understand the principle of using the projection model, but I am concerned about the lack of academic investigation of the social drivers. Where does what is happening in society come into the numbers and the model?

That is factored in in a number of ways. I cannot go into the detail now, but it is in the household projections to the year 2016.

I was about to say that, since the 1920s, every projection for household growth has been an underestimate. Moreover, in 1995 the Environment Committee's inquiry into housing need went through the entire methodology of the way in which such figures are arrived at. It is not for me, from the Dispatch Box, to direct, but all I can suggest is that, if Select Committees wishes to revisit that methodology and the rest of what the Select Committee did in 1995, it is open to it to do so.

I cannot give way again. Time is moving on.

Many people still criticise the system, but no one produces viable alternatives. With all due respect, it was a bit of a back-of-the-fag packet calculation by which the figure was brought down this morning from 4.4 million to half a million.

Those who suggest that local authorities should not make adequate provision for projected housing demand often seem to ignore the consequences. People must realise that serious under-provision would mean house price inflation, as demand bids up prices—and the average price of residential development land in England is already £250,000 per acre.

That would mean an increase in the Government's social housing bill, because more people would be unable to afford their own homes, and because land prices would continue to rise. It would even mean an increase in homelessness as some people were forced out of the system altogether, and, with fewer homes to go round, an increase in sharing would become a reality, so many people could be forced into living together against their wishes. Those factors must be considered.

I should make clear the fact that the target for reusing previously developed land remains at 50 per cent., the same as the previous Government's official target. Although the Green Paper floated a figure of 60 per cent. as an aspirational target, and the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development even suggested 75 per cent., we have not changed the target. The key issue, however, is that, whatever recycling target is proposed, by whatever Government, a certain proportion of growth will still need to take place on green-field sites.

Am I to take it that the Minister is not listening to the UK Round Table on Sustainable Development, and is ignoring the consultation and the figure that it gave? He will know that the target of 50 per cent. is only slightly higher than the 47 per cent. that was achieved in 1992. Will he think carefully about giving a lead for urban regeneration and brown-field development by setting a target?

I can set targets, but if targets are not realistic, it is stupid for Governments to set them. I have set a target of 50 per cent. and if we can achieve that, and more, I should welcome the fact. If we could get 100 per cent. of development on brown-field sites, I would welcome that—but all the evidence from the previous Administration, as well as our present advice, suggests that it is not achievable.

What I have said so far is very general. What does it mean for local areas, for local people in Stroud and the rest of Gloucestershire? As my hon. Friend will know from his time as a Stroud district councillor, Gloucestershire county council is reviewing its structure plan. In that process, it has to take as its starting point the housing requirement figure agreed and published in the regional planning guidance for the south-west. That figure is 53,000 additional dwellings between 1991 and 2011. It was based on the previous set of household projections, not those issued in 1995, which provide the basis for the 4.4 million additional households.

The consultation draft Gloucestershire structure plan was published in May 1996. It accepted the regional planning guidance figure of 53,000, and allocated 8,900 additional dwellings to Stroud for the period 1991 to 2011.

No, I cannot give way, because if I do I shall not be able to get through my speech, and hon. Members have already asked me to answer some of the questions.

I shall deal with that, too.

Following its consideration of the responses to the draft plan, Gloucestershire county council does not intend to proceed further with it. I understand that it is now in the process of preparing a new plan, which it intends to place on deposit for public consultation on 12 January. That plan will be subject to scrutiny at an examination in public, which the council intends to hold next June. That will give everyone concerned about its content an opportunity to question the county's proposals.

Stroud district published a local plan consultation document last July, which accepted the housing requirements in the draft structure plan. After taking account of houses built since 1991, existing allocations and an allowance for windfall sites, the council identifies a need to find land for a further 3,800 new dwellings between now and 2011.

The consultation draft considers ways in which the requirement could be met, and identifies 12 potential housing sites. I understand that the largest of those, covering about 200 acres in an area of outstanding natural beauty to the north of Stroud, in the Painswick valley, has been very controversial locally. My officials in the Government office for the south-west have commented that the consultation paper did not consider how the proposed development in the Painswick valley could be reconciled with the objectives of designating areas of outstanding natural beauty; nor did it provide any local justification that might override the national importance of the designation.

I understand that the district council intends to publish a deposit version of the plan next summer, so my hon. Friend and his constituents will have a further opportunity to make their views known. The district council will have an opportunity to reconsider its proposals, and if it does not, objectors have the right to debate the issue before an inspector at the local plan inquiry. That is a good illustration of the process of checks and balances.

The household projections feed into the consideration of housing requirements in regional planning guidance, which, after debate at the regional level, allocates housing requirement figures to the counties. The counties then propose how much housing should be provided for in their areas by district, and that is tested at the examination in public into the structure plans. The structure plan figures are then further tested in the course of producing the district-wide local plans through public consultation, and ultimately at the local plan inquiry. That also shows that it is for local authorities to determine how and where new housing should go.

The new housing creates both problems and opportunities. District councils cannot simply decide which field should be developed next, or what sites can be found for redevelopment. The need to look ahead to 2011 ensures that they must address the question of what will prove the most suitable and sustainable pattern of development. The choices must be local, unless there is direct conflict with national policy. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud would agree that is how things should be.

I now come to the question that the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) asked about urbanisation. The urbanisation projections should be put into perspective. The most recent projections suggest that the additional housing from 1991 to 2016 would mean only about an extra 1.3 per cent. of the whole of England being urbanised by 2016, bringing urbanisation to a total of 11.9 per cent. It is on that 11.9 per cent. that 88 per cent. of the population would live. That hardly sounds like the concreting over of the countryside that some Members would have us believe is taking place. There would still be as much green belt as urban land.

There is growing concern about the green belt, but let me put that into perspective. The green belt has doubled in area over the past 20 years, whereas the amount of land in urban use has increased by just over 10 per cent. in the same period.

Four times as much land has been added to the green belt over the past 20 years as we expect to urbanise over the next 20 years. The policy on green belts, however, has not changed. It is in PPG2: there is a presumption against inappropriate development in green belts. However, local authorities have always been able to make changes to the boundaries of green belts through the development plan process. That allows for public participation. If local people consider that the most suitable approach, we must think carefully before intervening.

Overall, we have very tight controls on development in this country, with 35 per cent. of our land area designated, as areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, sites of special scientific interest or other special protection areas. In addition, more than 15 per cent. of land is protected as high-grade agricultural land. The countryside, we believe, is not unprotected.

The household projections are at present the only logical starting point for calculating the housing requirements in regional planning guidance and subsequently in development plans. However, they are only projections, incorporating our best understanding of recent social and demographic trends, including migration. They operate on a rolling basis, and can be challenged by local people before they are put into practice.

Traffic Lights (Left Turns)

12.30 pm

Turning right on red with caution is a practice that has been successfully adopted in the United States for about 15 years; so successfully that its application has spread from state to state, and, I believe, now applies in every state in the Union. That is in a country that has the best traffic accident record in the world.

Allowing right turns on red in the United States has greatly increased traffic flows, not least for road-based public transport. Why not try it here, in the form of a "turning left on red with caution" policy? As in the United States, the responsibility for making the manoeuvre safely would rest with the driver, who would often face an identical situation to the one in which he has to turn left at a T-junction with no lights. I see no reason why the British motorist should be less able to cope than his American or Canadian counterpart, or, for that matter, the driver in New Zealand, where the introduction of the practice is being considered.

The practice would not be universal, as there would be intersections at which it would be inappropriate; those would be clearly marked, as they are in the United States. Traffic at certain times of the day, in some of our big towns and cities, has reached near-crisis proportions; there are times when it comes to a complete standstill. That hits public road transport especially hard.

A recent survey by the Department of Transport in central London showed that, in 1996, an average journey of 1.7 miles took 18 minutes by bicycle, but 38 minutes by bus—more than twice as long. The time spent on the bus had increased by three minutes since 1993. I know that bicycling to work is considered green and therefore the height of fashion, but bicycling in big cities, with all its attendant safety risks, as against using public road transport, cannot sensibly be the Government's preferred option—unless they want our cities to become like Chinese cities.

In his interesting dissertation on traffic conditions in cities, my hon. Friend may care to consider the propensity, indeed the habitual practice, of some cyclists of using the pavement, which is the proper precinct for pedestrians.

That is an interesting thought.

One of the objectives of transport policy, even though it may not be totally fashionable with the Government at the moment, must be to speed up traffic flows. My suggestion is modest, and cannot compare in importance to measures that might be introduced for road pricing, for instance. Because it works elsewhere, turning left on red merits the Minister's attention. I ask her not for a definitive answer, but to agree to a study, preferably by the Road Transport Laboratory at Crowthorne, and to report back to the House on it.

There are clearly problems with the idea, especially where pedestrians are concerned, but they have not proved insurmountable in America, which has higher road safety standards than any comparable country. In this context, America includes Canada, with the exception of Quebec. It cannot be right for the present congestion, especially in our cities and towns, to continue. The clogging of inner-city roads has reached the point at which it is bad for safety, bad for health and bad for the economy.

My suggestion is offered modestly and undogmatically. If, after studying the matter, the Minister does not like it, she will have to come up with something better—something that I sincerely trust will not involve a dictatorial ban on the private motorist.

12.36 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) on raising a particularly interesting question. Making the best use of the road network will be an important part of our integrated transport policy, but best does not necessarily mean maximising capacity for cars and lorries. We must take account of the needs of all road users, as well as our environmental and safety objectives.

Managing traffic at road junctions, which are often the main constraints and conflict points, especially in towns and cities, will be one of the key elements in any local transport strategy, and traffic signals are one of a range of tools available to do that. Each junction needs to be carefully considered; that is particularly important in areas where there is usually a wide range of competing demands from pedestrians, cyclists, motor cyclists, buses, taxis, vans, lorries and cars.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) talked about cycling on pavements. I am sure that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire is aware that such a practice is illegal unless local authorities have designated specific cycle routes on especially wide pavements.

My Department publishes advice on highway and junction design that includes the geometric design of junctions and the design of traffic signals and pedestrian crossings. Traffic signals are an effective means of helping to ration road space. As we try to do more, and particularly when local highway authorities are aiming to provide better facilities for pedestrians, signal control strategies and the equipment that goes with them will become more complex.

I speak only in general terms; what is right for an individual site will be a matter for the highway authority concerned, which will need to consider all the characteristics of the site and the traffic demands.

Authorities will increasingly consider how to meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, who do not always receive a good, or indeed fair, deal in the allocation of time or space at junctions and on the highway generally. Initiatives are under way to improve conditions for cycling and walking, both of which have a part to play in helping to reduce car dependency. I chair the national cycling forum and the walking steering group, both of which are addressing these issues.

If the Minister's Department is to consider the possibility of cars turning left at traffic lights, could it also consider the possibility of cyclists doing the same?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I have as yet given no indication as to the Government's response to the proposals made by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire. I shall come to that later.

My Department has promoted the use of new signalling systems, and continues to sponsor research to see how they can be developed to deal with increasingly complicated traffic movements. Green arrow signals are widely used to control the movement of separate traffic streams, and they work well. For example, they allow left and right turns to be signalled to go at different times. The more efficient use of junctions and can sometimes be the key to providing protected crossings for pedestrians.

Where junctions become very complex, a multitude of traffic signal heads may become confusing. We are working with local authorities to evaluate whether amber arrows may be helpful to drivers. At sites with a number of different green arrow signalled movements, some drivers may wrongly anticipate the next signal in the sequence. Amber arrow signals may help. If the trials prove promising, we could prepare advice on when and where their wider use would be appropriate.

It is often suggested that we should adopt the practice of allowing drivers to make left turns at red traffic signals if their exit is clear—a practice often used, as the hon. Member for West Worcestershire stated, in the United States of America, although there, as he said, it is right turn on red. I believe that it was Woody Allen who said that the sole cultural contribution made by the state of California to the United States of America was the privilege of turning right on a red light.

There are significant differences between traffic signal operation here and in the USA. There, traffic signals tend to operate in a fixed-time manner, which can lead to traffic waiting at signals when there is no conflicting traffic movement. The majority of traffic signals in the United Kingdom are vehicle-actuated, where the green period is varied automatically with the traffic flow. This reduces unnecessary delays and the need to introduce uncontrolled turns.

One effect of vehicle-actuated signals and relatively short signal stages is that traffic moves through junctions in blocks. These blocks crossing the junction would prevent left-turning traffic from moving until given a green light in any case, and there would be only a small improvement, at best, in the efficiency of the junction.

Opportunities to turn left are further limited when, as in much of the United Kingdom, road widths preclude separate left-turn lanes, and left-turn traffic has to wait behind that going straight on. Another factor is visibility for turning traffic. Regrettably, many junctions here have poor visibility because of existing buildings and the junction geometry.

Safety must be a key consideration, so positive signalling is used. Vehicles may not proceed without a green light. This is vital where pedestrians may be crossing. Pedestrian facilities are often provided at signal-controlled junctions, and may include audible and tactile indicators for use by people with visual disabilities. Pedestrians are not given a signal to cross unless a red signal has been given to all vehicles that could pass or turn through that crossing point. This protection for pedestrians would be compromised by allowing left-turning vehicles to pass a red signal.

The Government have a clear commitment to promote the independent mobility of disabled people, including those who are blind or partially sighted. One of the key aspects of independence is giving blind people the confidence to move with safety within the urban environment.

There is a long tradition in the United Kingdom of audible and tactile signals at road crossings which tell a blind person when it is safe to cross. This is possible only when all traffic has been signalled to stop. It is out of the question to consider a situation in which the message to a blind person would have to be, "It's probably okay to cross, but there might be traffic turning across you as you do."

It is worth noting that, in the USA, where a right turn on red is a long-established custom, the needs of blind people have not been given the priority that they have in this country. Studies in the mid-1970s, in six states where turning right on red was introduced, showed, despite the comment of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire, increases in accidents ranging from 20 per cent. to 110 per cent. Vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists' groups showed the greatest increase.

We have a system of traffic control in this country that works well. It is consistent, well understood and obeyed. It is as good as or better than that in use anywhere else, and we want to keep it that way.

The Minister just said the system of traffic control worked well. By what criteria does she judge whether a traffic system works well? Clearly, if all the traffic has come to a stop in part of a big city, and part of that is caused by the traffic light system, it is not working well.

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two issues here. Traffic jams are not occasioned by poor signalling or a system of signalling. They are often caused because there are far too many cars on roads that were not built to accommodate them. That is why the Government intend to introduce an integrated transport strategy, whereby there will be alternatives to what is seen to be an over-dependence on the private car. I do not think that we would automatically reduce traffic jams by making major changes to signalling systems that meet the needs of a wide range of road users. As I say, the primary consideration must be safety.

Although we wish to make improvements to the efficiency and flexibility of traffic control, they must not be at the expense of safety, especially for the more vulnerable groups of road users. We should, of course, always be open to new ideas, and should look at what others do to see if we can learn from them, but it is important that we are careful to evaluate proposed changes to see that they do not compromise our objectives.

In the case of turning left through red traffic lights, we have looked at the proposal, but have concluded that the disbenefits to pedestrians, to blind and partially-sighted pedestrians especially, more than outweigh any gains that might be achieved for vehicles.

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot address the House again.

Hatfield Peverel To Witham (Link Road)

12.46 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on this proposed road. Before I proceed, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her appointment. I say that not out of sycophancy but because she was good enough to visit my constituency before 1 May and before it obtained most-favoured status.

I imagine that most hon. Members are familiar with the Al2. It is the trunk road that runs from the Southend arterial Al27 in south Essex north-east through Essex and thence to East Anglia. It is a major carrier of vehicles and has traditionally so been. It has obviously changed over the years. Elderly folk in my constituency are proud to show me photographs showing their grandparents playing in the street that was then the Al2. If anyone did that now, they would not last more than 15 seconds.

The original Al2 meandered through the towns and villages of Essex, in particular Hatfield Peverel, Witham and Kelvedon, which are on the section with which I am concerned. That was the position until the early 1960s, when improvements began to be made. Even at that time, the road was heavily congested. One can remember as a child being taken for outings to the east coast and being stuck in Hatfield Peverel, Witham or Kelvedon or one or another of the villages along the road.

From the 1960s onwards, dual carriageways were constructed. The section to which I have referred was affected by two bypasses in 1965. When the Hatfield Peverel and Witham dual carriageway bypasses were constructed, the volume of traffic per day was some 21,000 vehicles. The comparative figure for 1996 is 75,000 vehicles per day on that section—three and a half times greater than the volume of traffic for which the road was constructed some 30 years ago.

The problem is not merely one of volume. The approach to Hatfield Peverel on the Al2 is singularly hazardous. Some time after 1965, the Chelmsford section running north-east towards Hatfield Peverel was constructed in three lanes, but the three-lane section ends just short of Hatfield Peverel and thereafter the road goes back to two lanes by way of a defile through the village and out the other side. All of us are aware of the hazards of a road changing from three lanes to two: vehicles bunch together and there is often high-speed and erratic crossing of lanes, and this certainly occurs on the Al2 at that point. Indeed, the problem is aggravated by the fact that the vehicles accelerate: the approach to the two-lane section is downhill, thus increasing the speed of vehicles approaching Hatfield Peverel.

Once through Hatfield Peverel, the Al2 is joined by a slip road out of the village itself. That slip road serves not only village residents, but those coming from Maldon and the Dengie peninsula to the east in order either to join the Al2 or to pass on to Witham and Braintree. As the A 12 approaches that slip road, it is coming up a hill and around a bend and the visibility of the entrance to the slip road is extremely obscured for vehicles travelling on the major trunk road, the Al2.

Those brave enough to enter the Al2 from the Hatfield Peverel slip road running north-east face a downhill short section with a low level of visibility to traffic coming from behind. Indeed, for the nervous or inexperienced motorist, it is a junction to be avoided. At busy times of day, it is almost impossible to enter the Al2 from the Hatfield Peverel slip road because of the speed of traffic and the lack of visibility of oncoming vehicles.

I strongly endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. He is right to say that many of my Maldon constituents use the road to Hatfield Peverel to reach the Al2, but is he aware that Maldon continues to grow, and that congestion at Danbury is forcing more people to reach the Al2 via Hatfield Peverel? The problem which he describes is therefore likely to increase in coming years.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The population of the old Maldon division, which was formerly part of my constituency, has increased considerably over the past 30 years, and there are proposals that that growth should continue.

Over the past three years, there have been 50 personal injury accidents on the 2 km section of dual carriageway. That number includes five fatalities: it is a tragic coincidence that, today, an inquest is being held in the county town of Chelmsford into the most recent fatality, which occurred earlier this year. The statistic for the accident rate is 0.4 personal injury accidents per million vehicle kilometres; I am advised that that is 50 per cent. higher than the national A road rate, and more than three times the national rate for dual carriageways.

Essex county council, of which I am honoured to remain a member for a few months, has been concerned at the dangers presented by the Al2 Hatfield Peverel to Witham section and has put at the top of its priority list the link road proposal to which I shall come shortly. I attended a meeting of the highways committee held earlier in the month, at which the proposal was placed in the priority category, above improvements to the Mil in west Essex.

I now turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) about population growth. In the 1960s, Witham was designated to receive industrial development linked with population growth, predominantly from east London. Over 20 years, until the 1980s, its population increased greatly, and the growth continues to the present day, especially on the south side of the town. An additional development is planned for the south side: known as the Maltings Lane development, it will add a further 800 dwellings.

It is significant that a debate earlier this morning dealt with housing allocation, because the Essex structure plan would site a further 4,000 dwellings, over and above those already allocated, near the Witham-Hatfield Peverel-Kelvedon section of the Al2. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is substantial growth in the Maldon area and in parts of Danbury and Chelmsford, which will lead to increased use of the intersections on to the A12.

Turning to local people's response, a consultation exercise was carried out by Essex county council on options and proposals for improvement by way of a link road. The exercise took a fairly wide form—in particular, an exhibition at Hatfield Peverel village hall in summer 1996 ran for some time and attracted many visitors who gave their preferences. The current favoured scheme is for a road to run parallel on the north-east side of Hatfield Peverel to link up with the intersection at Witham. It will have limited or no environmental disadvantages and will ensure that all local traffic—not only from Hatfield Peverel, but from the Maldon, Dengie and Chelmsford areas—can be routed without entering the Al2 at all. If local traffic is removed from the Al2, that has obvious advantages, not only for local residents, but for those travelling on the Al2 who are at risk from those seeking access to the A12 dual carriageway, whether carefully or otherwise.

The proposal is supported by the county council and by Hatfield Peverel parish council, Witham town council and Braintree district council. I should not be surprised to find that it is supported by district councils and parish councils in the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. I understand that the current anticipated cost of the limited scheme now favoured by the county council is between £2.2 million and £2.4 million. A cost-benefit analysis shows that 88 per cent. of the scheme benefits would accrue to the trunk road. I claim no great expertise in such calculations, but those who advise me say that that is a high rating.

In comparison with other road improvement schemes, the cost of the link is comparatively modest. I should be pleased if the Minister would give favourable consideration to the link being given high priority as a reasonable scheme. I am sure that that would give great benefit to residents of Hatfield Peverel, Witham and beyond.

12.58 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) on securing this debate and thank him for his generosity in affording the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) an intervention. Clearly, there is cross-party unity on many of the issues on which my hon. Friend touched. I also thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to the Government Front Bench. I assure him that compliments in this place are so rare that there is never a danger of anyone being accused of sycophancy.

My hon. Friend has devoted a good deal of effort and time to drawing the attention of my noble Friend the Minister for Roads to the problems on the A12 and the spate of recent mortalities. I feel sure that the whole House offers its sympathy to my hon. Friend and its condolences to his constituents. My noble Friend was particularly saddened to read a letter from Nancy Mesher, one of my hon. Friend's constituents, who suffered the tragic loss of her mother and young brother in a road accident. In her letter, Nancy gave details of the terrible tragedy that robbed her of her mother and brother, and was particularly concerned about what seemed to her to be a lack of adequate signing which occasioned her personal tragedy.

My noble Friend was particularly moved by the fact that Nancy had put aside her personal tragedy and written to my noble Friend putting forward ideas which she hoped would ensure that no other family would have to go through the grievous experience that she had lived through. My noble Friend wrote to Nancy and was able to tell her that Essex county council had now completed improvements to the signing and road markings, which change the priority at the Duke of Wellington junction opposite the bridge over the Al2 so that north bound drivers are guided more clearly to the through route. Other improvements have been made, such as a waiting restriction and cross-hatching on the County road, beyond the end of the slip road, to prevent vehicles from parking on the road and obscuring the signs that have also now been installed.

My noble Friend the Minister for Roads was so moved by the thought of Nancy writing to try to improve road safety when she must be still grieving for her own terrible loss that she immediately agreed to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree and a deputation of Essex county councillors to discuss the safety issues relating to that road. I believe that the meeting is to take place very soon.

I understand my hon. Friend's desire for an early decision on the scheme, but it may help the House if I put it into the context of the roads review and how that review fits into the overall thrust of the Government's transport policies. Our work to develop an integrated transport policy provides the immediate context for the roads review. The backdrop to that fundamental review is a candid recognition that we cannot carry on as at present. The predicted growth of traffic and the consequent congestion are unsustainable; the environmental, economic and social implications are simply unacceptable. The appropriate response, however, 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, using broadly based criteria to assess schemes. One of the encouraging aspects of that hugely ambitious task is the degree to which there is agreement that we need to change. We need to look at the role of the motor vehicle in providing mobility in a more integrated transport system, which makes the best use of the contribution that each mode can make, ensures that all options are considered on a basis that is fair and is seen to be fair, takes safety, environmental, economic, accessibility and integration considerations into account from the outset—and does so in a way in which we can all have confidence and which, above all, is sustainable.

That is the context for our roads review. It is an integral part of our integrated transport policy work. It is about the role that trunk roads should play alongside other modes in an integrated and sustainable transport policy.

An issue that looms largest in the roads review is 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 be unacceptable. That leaves us with three broad options: to make better use of the existing infrastructure; to manage demand; or to provide new infrastructure.

Making best use of the existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It has been provided at substantial cost, in both financial and environmental terms, and we must make the best use of that investment. Much work is going on, looking at old and new technologies, on local roads and on the motorway and trunk road network, to make better use of the network. A number of measures can also bring safety benefits, and we shall need to ensure that those are given proper priority, but we need to be realistic about what the various options for making better use of the network can truly deliver. We must also look seriously at other harder options: managing demand and providing new infrastructure.

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

It includes both carrots and sticks. It provides carrots in terms of providing attractive public transport alternatives; safe and unpolluted routes for walking and cycling; easy access to public transport and good interchanges between different public transport services. It provides sticks in terms of measures, such as parking restraints, that make car use less attractive. Many local authorities are seeking, through integrated transport packages, to combine measures in that way so that mobility is maintained but the adverse consequence of that mobility is reduced.

The Highways Agency's programme of small safety schemes is continuing and is not being put on hold pending the outcome of the roads review, but other new major construction is under review. Providing new infrastructure is a difficult option, both financially and in terms of its possible impact on the environment. In some cases, a new or widened road may turn out to be the only option, but our starting point is that we shall not proceed with major new trunk road infrastructure unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative. Even then, difficult choices will have to be made within the limited resources available.

There is no substitute for rigorous case-by-case examination of the options. That is what we have set about in our consultation exercise. In addition, my noble Friend the Minister for Roads recently wrote to all Members of Parliament inviting them to meetings on a regional basis. Hon. Members will have an opportunity to comment on schemes and help Ministers assess the outcome of the consultation before we take any decisions.

I shall now deal with the specifics of my hon. Friend's case for a link road between Hatfield Peverel and Witham. The Al2 trunk road links east London with Chelmsford, Colchester, Ipswich and the east coast ports of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. Traffic is very heavy towards London, with the section between Hatfield Peverel and Witham carrying more than 80,000 vehicles a day.

Although the Al2 is dual carriageway between the M25 and Ipswich, the standard varies between dual two and dual three lanes. In 1990, there were nine schemes for bypasses or widening of the A12 in the national programme, one of which—Gorleston relief road—was constructed in 1993. The list included the Al2 between Hatfield Peverel and Marks Tey. In the 1994 review, one scheme—Saxmundham bypass dualling—was withdrawn and others rationalised. In that review, all the schemes between the M25 and Ipswich were given priority two status, which means that they remained in the programme but priority one schemes had first call on available funds.

In November 1995, three schemes—a Blythburgh bypass, a Kessingland to Pleasurewood road and widening of the Chelmsford bypass—were withdrawn from the programme. The remaining six schemes were put into the longer-term programme, as they were judged to have lower national priority. Preparation work was suspended, to be resumed when the programme rolled forward. In November 1996, however, all the remaining schemes for improvement of the A12 were withdrawn.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the Essex transport issues to the attention of the House. I am sure that he will appreciate that, until the roads review has been completed, I cannot tell him what priority the scheme that he advocates can expect to be given in a world of developing policy and increasingly heavy demands on the public purse, but I can guarantee close scrutiny.

Planning (Maidenhead)

1.9 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity of this Adjournment debate to raise a number of planning issues that are of particular concern to my constituents in Maidenhead, but which will have an echo across the country, because they are general issues with which many hon. Members will have experienced problems in their constituencies. I hope that, as I am raising general issues, the Minister will respond positively.

Many of my constituents feel under siege from developers, especially developers who will not take no for an answer. The problem of multiple applications is very much alive in my constituency. There are two aspects to the problem, which I shall illustrate by quoting two examples.

The first is Badnell's tip in Maidenhead. It is a former waste tip site. Later, I shall speak about contaminated land. Badnell's tip has been the subject of a planning application for development. The residents opposed the application, the council turned it down, the matter went to public inquiry, the appeal was turned down, and now the process is starting again with another development application, which the residents continue to oppose and the council has refused. The public inquiry finished over the summer and we now await the inspector's decision.

My constituents ask why they should have to go through the process all over again. There is a cost to local residents in terms of their worry about what might happen to the site, there is a cost in overall terms to the town, because we do not know whether a potentially significant development will proceed, and there is a cost to the council tax payers as the council has to fight another public inquiry. The Badnell's tip public inquiry cost the local borough council about £70,000.

Residents are worried that, if they are constantly fighting development applications, eventually something will give and an application that might otherwise have been refused will be given permission.

The problem arises in a different way in another issue in my constituency—the development of motorway service areas. There are currently eight applications for the development of a motorway service area at junction 8/9 on the M4 or between junction 8/9 and junction 10. We have just had a public inquiry on three of those applications, and the others are at various stages of the planning process. They affect not only my constituency, but the constituencies of Windsor and Bracknell.

Once again, residents find that they must fight constantly to defend their local environment. They are particularly concerned because, when the planning inspector gave approval for the development of a motorway service area at Reading, which is the first MSA down the M4 from Heston, he said in his judgment that he did not consider that there was any need for a motorway service area between Reading and Heston, yet there are eight applications on the stocks for just such an MSA.

Constituents ask why the planning process can put them through all that anxiety and the battle to save their environment, when a decision from a planning inspector suggests that there may be no need for the development in that stretch of road.

I hope that the Government will examine the issue of multiple applications and look perhaps at the imposition of time limits and at the possibility that all applications for a given type of development such as an MSA are submitted within a given time and considered in one block, instead of the rolling process and the constant need to fight. I hope that the Government will consider the problem sympathetically and find a way of resolving it, as it does not affect my constituency alone.

I mentioned Badnell's tip and the issue of contaminated land. Badnell's tip was a waste tip in the times when people dumped waste without giving the matter much thought. A local builder tells the story of having been down to the site many years ago and seen some rather nice glass bottles. He did not know what was in them, but fortunately someone else at the site suggested that he should not take the bottles away, as they were full of cyanide. There is certainly cyanide and asbestos in the tip, but no one is quite sure what else is present on the Badnell's tip site. Local residents are, naturally, extremely concerned.

At present there is no problem. The site is open space and is undisturbed, but local people are worried about what might happen if development permission is given and the site is disturbed by a developer. The potential problems arising from the site are illustrated by the fact that when the inspector at the recent planning inquiry went to look at the site, he wore a gas mask—a precaution that I did not take when I visited the site recently with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the shadow spokesman on planning and local government matters.

Will the Government examine the issue of contaminated land? In 1990, the Select Committee on the Environment proposed that local authorities should have a duty to compile registers of contaminated land. That was originally in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but was repealed in the Environment Act 1995. I understand why the Government did that, but I question whether the decision was correct. I hope that the Government will consider instituting registers of contaminated land, and will review the powers of local authorities and the Environment Agency, to help with the clearing up of such sites.

Another relevant site in my constituency is Sandford farm in Woodley. I sometimes say that I am the Member of Parliament for tips—I will not say that I am the rubbish Member of Parliament, which would have an entirely different connotation. There has been a problem with the tip at Sandford farm. In the summer of 1996, the district council told local residents that they should not hold barbecues in their gardens because of the methane escaping from the site, which created the risk of explosions.

There is the question whether the local authority has the finance or the power to clean up that site, and what role the Environment Agency has in the matter. I ask the Minister to examine the issue. There is an application from a developer offering to clear up the site, if development permission were granted. Local residents are concerned that a development which might otherwise not be acceptable would be allowed through because it provided an easy option for dealing with the problem of contaminated land. That applies to both Badnell's tip and Sandford farm. The third issue is the guidance given to local authorities on the aspects that they may take into material consideration when considering planning applications. Again, I shall illustrate the problem with an example from my constituency. I refer to the East Park farm development at Charvil where, following a public inquiry, 232 houses—family homes—are being built on the edge of the village, which has no school and only one small shop. The children from those homes will have to travel into a nearby village, with all the resulting congestion problems on the roads.

Local authorities should be required to take more notice of the more general infrastructure features when they consider planning applications for significant development, such as a housing development of that size. Such considerations include schools and whether the local water supply can cope with the number of houses to be built on a site. As I understand it, there is no statutory requirement to consult water companies about whether the water supply will cope with increased demand. Local authorities should examine those issues more carefully when considering such developments. They should ask whether a village can cope with a significant development on its doorstep.

I have raised three issues: multiple applications in the planning process, contaminated land, and the consideration of infrastructure issues. There is considerable interest in this Adjournment debate in my constituency—particularly because of the Badnell's tip issue—and the story made the front page of the Maidenhead Advertiser. That is a significant local paper to which I have referred in the House previously. Local residents are very interested in the outcome of the debate and in the Minister's response. They hope that, because the issues facing Maidenhead are also experienced up and down the country, the Government will consider them sympathetically. I hope that the Minister will respond positively.

1.20 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on her extremely fluent presentation of issues relating to several sites in her constituency, which have clearly raised concerns locally. She highlighted local interest in the debate, and I only hope that those who read the Maidenhead Advertiser do not pick up on her reference to herself as the "Member of Parliament for tips"—I cannot think of a less appropriate description.

Before I respond to the specific issues that the hon. Lady raised, I shall put them into context. The Government retain a firm commitment to achieving sustainable development through a plan-led system. We believe this to be the most effective way of reconciling the demands for land for development and the need to protect the environment. The plan-led system has a vital role to play in identifying and providing sites for necessary development in locations that do not compromise the needs of future generations. It provides greater certainty for developers and business, and an appropriate framework for them to take investment decisions. At the same time—and perhaps more important—it allows anyone with an interest to be involved in shaping the policies that determine future decisions on land use. The system must be open and accountable.

We have a well-established system of statutory development plans, and we have no proposals for changing those basic arrangements. However, if the system is to survive, it must be made more efficient. A number of proposals for changes to the way in which local plans and unitary development plans are prepared and adopted were put forward by our predecessors last January. I certainly share their view that the current procedures are too cumbersome.

Some commentators have suggested that the Government are interested only in speed and in getting plans adopted as soon as possible—even if that is to the detriment of public involvement in the plan-making process and the quality of the end product. That is not the case. The Government are committed to proper public involvement in the plan-making process and to achieving a high-quality plan.

We have considered the responses to consultation on the issue initiated by the previous Government, and we intend to implement the changes to procedures related to the deposit stage, designed to encourage local planning authorities to make real efforts to negotiate with objectors and thereby resolve objections before plans reach the inquiry. There is certainly some scope for improving inquiry procedures, possibly involving the introduction of procedural rules, and we shall pursue measures to reduce the time spent on modifications after the inquiry. We hope that we can achieve a position where modifications become the exception rather than the rule.

On the other hand, we have decided not to pursue changes that would reduce the rights of people to be involved in the preparation of development plans. Similarly, we have decided not to take forward the previous Government's proposal that the recommendations in the report on the public local inquiry into a plan should be made binding on the local authority. We consider it important that the authority should remain accountable for the planning policies adopted in its area. Some of the changes can be taken forward by the Government, and we hope to issue consultation revisions to the development plan regulations and PPG12 before the new year.

We are also actively looking at ways of improving both the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning appeals system. We want to speed up the handling of appeals and deliver quicker decisions. I say that with some feeling, having had to deal with a large number of planning appeals over the past few months—some of which have been outstanding for far too long. Many individuals and organisations have recently given their views on a number of suggestions to speed up the planning appeals process. That is very helpful, and we aim to build on those suggestions.

The importance of the issues and the need to get the changes right are reflected in the variety and volume of comments: more than 250 responses have been received. The message is positive overall—although some reservations were expressed. Most respondents welcomed the main objective of improving speed and efficiency while retaining the essential elements of fairness, openness and impartiality. We have been giving careful thought to all the responses, but have not yet reached any final conclusions about future changes. Clearly, a number of the proposals are capable of being implemented in the short term either administratively or through secondary legislation but, where necessary, we do not rule out the possibility of primary legislation if and when the opportunity arises.

Having established the context, I come to the specific issues raised by the hon. Lady. I start with Badnell's tip, which is located behind homes in Blackamore lane to the north of Maidenhead town centre. The hon. Lady referred to her constituents' concerns about the number of planning applications that have been made for the site over the years. While the site has been subject to a number of applications, not all have gone to determination. Applications on the site for a hotel and for a football ground were withdrawn. The site was subject to retail applications in 1992–93, but they were also withdrawn. In the past 10 years, I understand that there have been only two appeals on the site.

The site was allocated in the local plan for housing in the 1970s. A local plan inquiry was held in 1995–96. The inspector came down against proposals for housing—even though that is what the local authority suggested—because he was not satisfied at the time about the remediation measures necessary to deal with the contamination to which the hon. Lady referred. I was slightly alarmed to hear that an inspector wandered around the site wearing a gas mask, and I am delighted that the hon. Lady felt sufficiently confident to visit the site without taking such measures.

That confidence is obviously shared by the local authority, which has undertaken further studies aimed at solving the contamination issue. It proposes to use the site for about 120 dwellings, and views it as an urban brown-field site. Because of the very real pressures for housing throughout the south-east, not just in Maidenhead, it is important—and very much part of the Government' s thinking—that, where appropriate, brown-field sites should be used for housing in order to avoid placing unnecessary pressure on the green belt and the countryside.

I also understand that there are currently proposals by the Michael Shanly Group for an edge-of-town superstore on the site. We understand that remediation is required to make the site suitable for such development and that the proposals have been subject to considerable local controversy. An appeal was lodged against non-determination of permission by the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and a public inquiry was held. The many concerns raised at the inquiry will, of course, be fully considered by the inspector in reaching his decision. The inspector's report is awaited by the local planning authority.

As the decision is still under consideration, I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot discuss the details of the proposals. The Secretary of State and Ministers in the Department have a quasi-judicial capacity in the matter. I hope that my remarks have at least put the issues in context.

I come now to the implications for PPG6 with regard to town centres and retail developments. There are several general concerns in that area. The Government reaffirm the objectives of the current planning policy guidance in PPG6 on town centres and retail developments. The guidance seeks to sustain and enhance the vitality and viability of our existing city, town and district centres. That will remain a key pillar of Government policy.

We are also keen to ensure that, where possible, development is planned in a manner that is consistent with the maintenance and defence of the environment. Sustainability issues are at the forefront of the Government's approach. When we consider the kind of development that the hon. Lady mentioned towards the end of her speech—I apologise for forgetting the precise location to which she referred, involving the proposal for a large development at the edge of a village—issues such as transport, infrastructure, how the development would relate to the existing settlement, and whether there are adequate water supplies and other facilities must be material considerations if we are to contemplate such developments from the point of view of sustainability.

On the issue of contaminated land, which the hon. Lady rightly highlighted, local authorities were required to draw up registers under section 143 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The previous Government withdrew their proposals for statutory registers in 1993 and instigated instead a review of contaminated land policy. The basic argument against registers was that they could unnecessarily blight land. I understand that.

The review led to a recommendation that there should be a specific contaminated land power in place of the general statutory nuisance power. The previous Government took that power in section 57 of the Environment Act 1995, which inserted a new part IIA into the Environmental Protection Act 1990. That has not yet been implemented, but the Government are considering whether, and if so when, to bring part IIA into operation. We expect to make an announcement shortly.

Let me now refer to repetitive planning applications. I am aware that concern is sometimes expressed about the resource implications of developers submitting more than one planning application for the same piece of land.

A power was introduced through the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 which gives local planning authorities a measure of protection against the behaviour of a small number of developers who submit repetitive applications in an attempt to wear down the resistance of local communities and planning committees. The power enables authorities to turn away planning applications when a substantially similar proposal has been rejected by the Secretary of State on appeal, or following a call-in within the previous two years and where there has been no significant change in the material circumstances.

I appreciate that that power does not go as far as some would wish. It does not control the situation in which an applicant submits repeated applications to the local planning authority, but does not take any of them to appeal. In those situations, we must be careful not to tilt the scales too far and remove from the applicant his legitimate right to appeal. However, I am also concerned at the extra burden that such repeated applications may place on the local authority. It is therefore my intention to look again at that issue, to see what further action might be taken.

The hon. Lady also mentioned motorway service areas. I am well aware that there are a number of competing proposals for motorway service areas on the section of the M4 in the Maidenhead area. A joint public local planning inquiry has been held into a planning appeal concerning proposals for a motorway service area west of junction 8/9—which is one junction—on the M4. The other site considered at the joint inquiry is in Bracknell Forest district council area.

The inspector's report is unlikely to be received in the Government office for some months, and the proposed decision will be submitted to Ministers in due course. I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that, because of our quasi-judicial role, I cannot comment on the merits of the scheme, but I am sure that she is aware that, as the final decision will be taken in the Department, we shall consider carefully all the issues that she raised, and the other representations that have been made.

I am aware that the inquiry has lasted since January and has only just concluded. We are also aware that there have been concerns about the cost of such lengthy inquiries to the local planning authority. I can assure the hon. Lady that we too are concerned about delays in the planning process and are looking at mechanisms to speed it up in the future. That will not remedy the problem that she highlighted, but it may help in the future.

I understand that further developers are also competing to provide MSAs on that section of the M4. In considering proposals for further MSAs, the Government will have regard to the planning policy guidance note, PPG13 on transport, which states that the minimum gap between any two MSAs should normally be 15 miles. That does not mean that the guidance positively recommends provision of MSAs at 15-mile intervals, but it means that the need for a new facility nearer than about 15 miles to an existing one would not normally be sufficient to outweigh objections on road safety and traffic management grounds.

The guidance does not have in mind any maximum interval beyond which there would be any presumption in favour of the siting of an MSA. The precise number and frequency will depend on private sector responses to market pressures tempered by normal planning considerations. There is no change in the normal operation of the land use planning process, including land use planning policy. Local planning authorities should bear it in mind that, where MSAs are proposed within a short distance of another, my Department will provide signs for only one of them. It will also direct refusal of any scheme accessed directly from the motorway if its proximity to another MSA would disqualify it from signing.

I am conscious that the hon. Lady has raised a large number of detailed issues, and I have not been able to cover every aspect of what she said. I invite her, if she has further concerns, to write to me. I shall be only too happy to try to give her a more detailed response on those matters, apart from those on which I have indicated that we are not able to comment at this stage because the matter may come to our Department on appeal. I repeat my appreciation of the way in which she has raised those important matters, and hope that my reply has helped her and her constituents to understand how the Government are responding to their concerns.

It being before 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

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked

Welfare To Work


What assessment she has made of the potential for the Government's welfare to work proposals to benefit the overseas aid programme. [14107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
(Mr. George Foulkes)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue, but as the schemes are designed to help young people available for work in the UK they cannot be used to support work overseas. However, we are contacting the relevant development organisations to draw their attention to the proposals and to suggest that they examine the scope for participating in the scheme at their headquarters in Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is it not exciting that Labour's new deal for young unemployed people may lead to more young Britons helping, albeit in this country, to eradicate poverty and suffering in other parts of the world? Is it not pleasing, too, that that answer shows that the Government are capable of working corporately to meet important policy objectives? Does he think that such success might lead to a wider appreciation of and concern for suffering in less fortunate parts of the world?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Such involvement would be doubly valuable in that it would help young people and the work of organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas and Oxfam. I understand from the Department for Education and Employment that those organisations have not yet shown an interest, but we are encouraging them to do so, and I hope that from today they will take up such schemes.

Global Free Trade


What research her Department has evaluated into the impact of global free trade on third world countries. [14108]

My Department keeps abreast of most research in this sector and is particularly attentive to work by international development organisations including the World bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. We also maintain a dialogue with non-governmental organisations and academic institutions which are engaged in the sector.

Would the right hon. Lady confirm her personal commitment and that of her Department to the principle of global free trade? Will she give an undertaking that both she and her Department will work towards the principle of totally free international trade by the year 2020?

Globalisation is a fact of life; it is not a question of whether people are for or against it. It is as big a historical change as the industrial revolution and can bring great benefits to the world, but it can also have damaging consequences. Recent reports say that it will benefit many developing countries, but that there is a danger that some countries could be completely marginalised from the world economy, and that it could also cause increased inequality and marginalisation in the developed world.

Of course we favour globalisation and the benefits that it brings. We believe that we have to intervene to try to ensure that those benefits are distributed fairly. The great challenge for the industrialised world is to believe in free trade in agricultural goods also, which would benefit the developing world but means that we have to put our house in order.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is often difficult to reconcile free trade with fair trade, and that we must enhance fair trade? Following the launch of the White Paper last week, will she therefore undertake to let the House know from time to time how Members' efforts in their constituencies to enhance fair trade are getting on, and what expansion there is in that regard?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that the growth of world trade does not drive down environmental and labour standards and that it produces an improvement of life for humanity and not competition through reduced standards. I also agree with my hon. Friend about fair trade and the ethical movements that are growing and strengthening in Britain. British consumers want to know that the produce they buy and the places where their pension funds are invested are not exploiting labour or damaging the environment. Such movements have great potential impact to reach out across the world and increasingly encourage business to source ethically and improve standards worldwide.



What progress has been made in implementing the housing programme for Montserrat. [14109]

I authorised the provision of £6.5 million for new houses in July 1997. Fifty new permanent houses have been completed and are being handed over to the Government of Montserrat this week. They are due to be occupied from 12 November. A further 50 are under construction and are scheduled to be ready for occupation by the end of December 1997.

I should add for the benefit of the House that the recent scientific evidence from Montserrat is extremely worrying. There is new evidence that the north of the island may not be as safe as was previously thought. Obviously, we must press on, but we have to review the position due to those worrying developments.

No one underestimates the difficulties on Montserrat and the challenges that the Government face there. Is it not slightly surprising that the Secretary of State has yet to find time to visit Montserrat? Had she done so, some of the confusion in recent weeks might not have been quite so great.

The line from the Government has been that the slowness of the housing programme was due to an alleged strike on Montserrat, whereas the Chief Minister of Montserrat says that there has been no strike whatsoever but simply a slowness of funds from our Government to the Government of Montserrat to pay for the housing programme. Perhaps it is all part of the confusion that no one is quite sure which bits the right hon. Lady is responsible for and which bits are the responsibility of Baroness Symons. Perhaps the Secretary of State will take the opportunity to clarify the issue. Has there been a delay in getting funds to Montserrat? And for which matters is she now responsible?

The right hon. Gentleman might like to look at the dates. Fifty houses were authorised in July. They were built and handed over. There was some delay in installing the electrics because of a "sick-out", as strikes are called in Montserrat. That is regrettable in the current circumstances.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the fracturing of responsibility in Montserrat is a serious problem. My Department is responsible for expenditures from our budget for projects on Montserrat. The Foreign Office is responsible for co-ordination and lead decision making. There is an elected Government of Montserrat and there is also a governor. That creates great difficulties for efficient decision making.

When we have dealt with the present crisis, we need to review how we manage dependent territories, as there is room for improvement.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 300 people in Montserrat are still in temporary shelters? Many of them have been in those shelters for more than two years, often in appalling conditions. Men, women and children are separated only by thin curtains and there is no sanitation. Is she aware of the concern on Montserrat about the slowness of the Government's house building programme?

I am aware of those conditions, but my hon. Friend referred to a two-year delay. She will be aware that we have not been in power for all that time. I authorised a house-building programme in July, and the first 50 houses are about to be occupied. I am aware that the management of the shelters leaves a lot to be desired.

In addition, large numbers of people who live on Montserrat have expressed a wish to leave the island, and I am worried that their desires have not been properly processed. As I said in my main answer, the recent scientific advice is extremely worrying: we have to review new building in the north of the island and whether it remains safe for large numbers of people to remain there.

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether, in her view, the north of the island is safely habitable? What plans are there for a large-scale evacuation while a sustainable development plan is being prepared for the island?

As I said to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), that is a decision for the Foreign Office. We received reports in September that the volcanic ash, which is predominantly in the south of the island but blows everywhere, is more dangerous than was previously thought and can cause silicosis. It was thought that the north of the island would be safe, but the ash blowing around could affect human health. We have just received new advice from the scientists that the volcano could produce droppings—clast, or whatever it is called—on the north of the island, creating new dangers. We have just received that advice, and it needs to be reviewed urgently.

Ethical Trading


What contacts her Department has with organisations advocating fair trade and ethical investment; and what consideration she is giving to further development in these areas. [14110]

As I said, I am very keen to encourage and reinforce the fair trade and ethical investment consumer movements in every possible way. My Department has numerous and growing contacts with groups interested in fair trade and ethical investment in developing countries. I especially welcome our increasing contacts with groups within the British business community, which is increasingly interested in the issue. The potential of those movements to improve labour standards and environmental protection for large numbers of people in developing countries is considerable. We are asking British companies and non-governmental organisations to work together towards those goals.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate her on what last week's White Paper had to say about fair trade. May I suggest, however, that the really difficult part will be in achieving any world consensus or action on practical ways in which fair trade and ethical investment can operate? Nevertheless, I congratulate my right hon. Friend and you, Madam Speaker, on launching a practical example in the House today showing that it is possible to drink fair trade coffee. Not only does such coffee offer production workers good wages and conditions—it tastes very good, too.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with her that it is very good that the House will now consume ethical coffee which has been produced without abusing labour or pesticides—[Interruption.] Conservative Members sneer at ethics, but the British people are interested in them. Like you, Madam Speaker, I had a cup of that coffee this morning and it was extremely good. As I have said, ethical movements and consumers' interest in such movements are potentially very influential in the world.

Currently, my Department is assisting all British supermarkets and non-governmental organisations in talks on a code for ethical sourcing so that the British people will know that everything on the shelves in those supermarkets is being produced with decent labour standards and non-abuse of the environment. The value of the produce ordered in developing countries by the top 10 British supermarkets is greater than the total income of the world's 35 poorest countries, so the potential power of this is enormous.

May I refer the right hon. Lady to section 3 of her White Paper, which deals specifically with fair trade and ethical investment? That section advocates reform of the European Union's common agricultural policy, and the first paragraph of the section stresses the importance of consistency. In the reform that she will advocate, will she advocate elimination of European Union subsidies to tobacco producers in the southern European states—or is the promotion of tobacco production in the developed world a special case?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue—which includes the issue of tobacco production. However, I prefer to deal with the matter straight on, rather than to play silly political games.

The issue of trade liberalisation extends to agriculture. Although industrialised countries frequently lecture developing countries about the need to open their markets to trade, we have highly protected and highly subsidised agriculture—dumping lots of agricultural produce on world markets and undermining the capacity of those countries to develop. I am against such subsidies in principle, including for tobacco. [Interruption.] I take no lessons from Opposition Members.

Due to the proposal to widen the European Union, there is a very good opportunity for—and a driving commitment to—common agricultural policy reform. It is the duty of my Department to ensure that the interests of the developing world, and its chance to work its way out of poverty, are taken into account in the review of the CAP.

White Paper (Representations)


What representations her Department has received in response to the White Paper on International Development in respect of its emphasis on poverty. [14111]

We had about 150 detailed written submissions from outside bodies in preparing the White Paper, many of which called for a focus on poverty elimination. Since its publication on 5 November, the White Paper has had an enthusiastic and positive reception, particularly for its commitment to work towards ending world poverty.

What mechanisms will the Department use to target investment from British companies on the poorest countries, and how will those targets benefit the poorest people in those countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We shall be working with our development partners to help poorer countries to create an enabling environment which will attract more investment. In particular, we shall work to reduce initial costs and the perceived risks of investments which support the aim of poverty elimination.

Does the Minister agree that it is very sad that a country as rich as ours cannot increase its proportion of aid to developing countries? I understand that the Department is to review and redirect funds over the next two years. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the review will be totally transparent and that the House will be told which countries and organisations are to be the winners and losers?

I am beginning to wonder whether the hon. Lady has read the White Paper. It commits the Government clearly to reversing the decline in money spent in development which occurred under the previous Government—a decline from 0.51 per cent. of total spending and rising when Labour left office to 0.27 per cent. and falling now.

We also intend to create a public-private partnership of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which will put hundreds of millions of extra pounds into the development programme. It is about time the hon. Lady recognised that, and congratulated the new Government on what we are doing.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that abject poverty can be created by sudden natural disaster? What has been his Department's response to the worsening crisis in southern Somalia as a result of flooding of the River Giuba, which has reportedly caused at least 150,000 people to be cast into total destitution over the past day or two in a situation of worsening anarchy?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. As soon as I heard about the situation in southern Somalia, I discussed it with our officials, and we have made it absolutely clear—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also made it clear—that we shall make resources available through the international aid agencies working in Somalia. As soon as we get a request we shall consider it sympathetically. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support.

Will the Minister confirm that he is making all haste to allow the Commonwealth Development Corporation to access private financial sums to invest in ethical projects such as those that we have discussed? Can he give the House some idea of the time scale for the changes that he intends to bring about?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fact, the purpose of the public-private partnership is to access more money to help poorer countries. It will, however, require legislation, which we hope can be introduced in the next Session. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for indicating his willingness to serve on the Committee that twill examine that legislation.

Commonwealth Development Corporation


What are her plans for the future of the Commonwealth Development Corporation. [14112]

As has just been said, my plans are to propose to Parliament that private investors should be invited to invest money in the CDC, turning a state corporation into a partnership between the public and private sectors. The Government will retain a substantial minority holding and a golden share, which will ensure that the CDC remains a development organisation. The new arrangements will enable it to increase private sector investment into the poorest countries.

How long will the Government retain their golden share? Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a risk that the CDC could be acquired by an organisation not dedicated to the fullest implementation of the developmental process?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that. We intend that the golden share will be held in perpetuity. The CDC is working on strengthening the ethical code governing its work. It wants a public-private partnership. It does not want to be an entirely private sector organisation. We do not want that, either. It can act as an important bridge for private sector investment in the world's poorest countries, which do not currently receive such investment. We hope that that will be followed by pure private sector investment. 1 give the hon. Gentleman the absolute guarantee that the CDC will not become a private investment institution. There are plenty of those. It has a different job.



If she will make a statement on assistance to Montserrat. [14113]

Since the start of the volcanic crisis, around £45.8 million of emergency aid, development assistance and budgetary aid has been committed by Her Majesty's Government to the needs of Montserrat. When I visited Montserrat in September, we agreed to produce a sustainable development plan for the northern third of the island so that people can continue to live there as long as it remains safe to do so. However, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, I met the chief scientist of the Montserrat volcanic observatory earlier and there are further doubts about safety which we have to consider urgently.

I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Does he agree with the Chief Minister of Montserrat that it is wrong to use the same budget for assistance to British dependent territories as is used for aid to India, Pakistan and Uganda? Does not aid currently go from London offices to Barbados offices and thence to Montserrat? Could we not cut out one of those stages?

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, although I am surprised to hear myself say that. He has raised a good point about where the money comes from. If he has had the opportunity to read they White Paper, he will know that the reasonable needs of dependent territories will remain a first call on the aid budget. Barbados has been taken out of the line of decision making; there is a direct link between Montserrat and our Department in the United Kingdom and I talk regularly to the Chief Minister to ensure that things are done as quickly as possible and that the decisions made are implemented as quickly as possible.

Will the Minister look urgently into the problem faced by many people from Montserrat who have been evacuated to this country through no fault of their own but are being subjected to the three-year rule on going into higher and further education and therefore not getting grants from local authorities? Will he discuss that with his colleagues from the Department for Education and Employment to find a way to assist British dependent territory citizens while they are in this country?

My hon. Friend is a little out of date on the arrangements for citizens of Montserrat. Special arrangements have been made for them. On his most recent visit to the United Kingdom, Chief Minister Brandt discussed that issue with Baroness Blackstone and I know that the Department for Education and Employment is particularly concerned about it.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall the assurance that he gave the House on 1 July that he would make strong representations to the defence review on behalf of the West Indies guard ship, which continues to play a vital role in bringing relief to the people of Montserrat? Can he explain the written answer that I have received from the Secretary of State for Defence saying that no such representations have been made? Did it merely slip the Minister's mind that he gave the House such an assurance, or does he no longer consider the role of the guard ship to be as important as it was?

The West Indies guard ship plays an especially important role, as I saw myself when I visited Monserrat and met the captain and many of its crew. I have spoken personally to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the guard ship, which is perhaps why the hon. Gentleman got the answer he did. Officials from our Department are participating in discussions on the strategic defence review, and those points and others will be made.

Child Labour


What steps the Government are taking to eliminate child labour. [14114]

We are working with the International Labour Organisation and developing countries to support programmes immediately to ban hazardous and exploitative child labour and to put in place plans to phase out excessive child labour and get the children into school. At the international conference on child labour in Oslo last month, I announced support for a new project in Pakistan and my willingness to work with other countries to reach our goal.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. Does she agree that poverty lies at the heart of child labour and the exploitation of children, and that the way to eradicate those problems is to eradicate world poverty?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is useful to examine our history on the matter and then we learn the right lessons. We used to have high levels of child labour and low levels of child education, but improvements in living conditions, as well as the spread of education, brought child labour to an end. We must have similar programmes in other countries to ban immediately the most exploitative and hazardous labour, and to increase the number of children in education and the opportunities of their parents to gain employment. That process of change is connected with plans for poverty eradication.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on transforming the way of dealing with child labour. The worst problems of many third-world countries are not the young children who work in sensible jobs. Will she focus the attention of her Department on street children, who work on their own behalf and are often badly abused? That should be the first focus of our help; the other problems should begin to resolve as the economies of those countries improve.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The evidence in Bangladesh shows that well intentioned moves by the United States of America to ban the import of any garments produced by child labour led to many children going on to the streets as beggars and child prostitutes. That is why we need an overview of the problem to deal with the most exploitative mistreatment of children and to work with Governments to phase out child labour and get children into school, instead of having one-off boycotts.

Palestinian Authority


If she will make a statement on the level of financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority in the current year; and what is the projected level for 1998–99. [14115]

Bilateral assistance to the Palestinian National Authority in this financial year will amount to about £10 million. That is in addition to our £6 million contribution in 1997 to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees and our one-sixth share of the European Commission's 50 million ecu programme of assistance to the West Bank and Gaza. Bilateral funding for the next financial year will be decided early in the next calendar year.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he give particular attention, when he has some additional funds, to the needs of the Palestinian National Authority and projects in Palestine? I am sure that he is aware of the disappointment felt by people who live in Gaza and the West Bank at the restrictions on their borders. It is important that we ensure that progress is made in that territory to support arguments to put to those who wish to take up arms to support their cause. We need to urge them to join in the work to make the peace process effective.

I am sympathetic to the point made by my hon. Friend. Expenditure in the past three years has ranged between £3.5 million and £6 million. I am sure that he will agree that £10 million in the current financial year is a significant and welcome increase.

As the Palestinian refugee question is one of the final status issues to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority by May 1999—in 18 months' time—does the Minister agree that Governments should be budgeting now for their donations to the cost of resettlement out of the 59 camps, as well as their contributions to the Palestinian Authority and to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? What initiatives does he have in mind to draw that need to the attention of Governments during the forthcoming British presidency of the European Union?

We shall certainly take account of those points, and we shall raise them on behalf of the United Kingdom Government in our discussions with UNRWA.

As the White Paper stresses the importance of private investment in helping with development effort, does my hon. Friend agree that the current closure of the west bank makes it incredibly difficult for private industry to invest there or in Gaza, because industries have almost no stable future in that environment?

Land Mines


If she will make a statement regarding the Government's intended stance at the forthcoming Ottawa conference in connection with anti-personnel land mines. [14117]

I plan to attend the ministerial conference and convention signing ceremony on 3 December, and I shall proudly sign on behalf of Britain to join in the land mine ban. I will emphasise the Government's commitment to achieving the widest possible support for a total ban on anti-personnel land mines. We shall follow up the Ottawa convention in other negotiating bodies. We shall also pursue with vigour our programme of de-mining. The British delegation will take part in the parallel round table discussions, which will include discussion of plans to speed up and co-ordinate de-mining internationally.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that answer, and I wish her well in her attempts to secure a worldwide ban. Is she aware that many land mines throughout the world are cleared by children as young as 10? What will the Government do to prevent that?

The hon. Gentleman is right; we need both a ban and a speeding up of de-mining. At current rates of clearance, it will take 1,000 years to clear the land mines already out there, and more are being laid as we speak. We must speed clearance and enlarge the capacity of the countries that have so many land mines to clear them for themselves. That is the only way to get the speed up.

I am not aware of children actually de-mining, but many children suffer grave injuries as a result of mines when they go out to play or to collect wood. We must make more urgent progress on the matter.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Q1. [14137]

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I shall have further meetings with them later today.

Which Minister took the decision to exempt formula one from the tobacco sponsorship ban?

I shall set out our position for the hon. Gentleman with enthusiasm and relish. It was a collective decision, made in the normal way. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If the hon. Gentleman listens, I can explain how.

There have been discussions over a period of time, ever since the European Union directive was raised about the impact on sport. On 5 June, my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health told the European Council:
"The UK Government shares the broad objectives of the draft Directive. But there are unresolved legal questions about its scope, as well as practical issues, such as the impact on sports if it is agreed that the Directive should extend to sports sponsorship by tobacco companies."

Following that meeting, there were meetings and discussions about sport and the effect on sports sponsorship of a ban on tobacco sponsorship. The Minister for Public Health met representatives of formula one on 23 September. They met Chancellor Kohl on 28 September and had earlier met Prime Minister Prodi. I met them on 16 October. No decisions were taken then. A number of different options were under discussion, including legislating through subsidiarity or a period of derogation for all sport.

Finally, at the beginning of last week, there was the decision to seek a specific exemption for formula one and then to seek a worldwide voluntary agreement so as to avoid grand prix in other countries being shown here without restriction. Once that route was chosen, I recognised that there was obviously an appearance of conflict of interest. After discussion with the general secretary of the Labour party, we sought Sir Patrick Neill's advice. He gave it; we followed it to the letter. It was the right decision for the right reasons. Can anyone imagine the Tory party ever returning a donation?

Q2. [14138]

I am sure that many people in Scarborough and Whitby, and indeed in the rest of the nation, will support the Government's intention to introduce legislation on foreign donations to political parties. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only should the terms of reference—[Interruption.]

Order. All hon. Members who are on their feet will be heard. Others do not have to listen, but hon. Members who are speaking will be heard.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Committee on Standards in Public Life should not only be given the widest terms of reference but be asked to deliver its deliberations at the earliest opportunity, not only from the point of view of the people in the country, but with the widest support of the House? [Laughter.]

Conservative Members may laugh, but they refused to have such an investigation when they were in power. We announced at the time of Sir Patrick Neill's appointment as successor to Lord Nolan that his remit would be extended to cover all aspects of party funding. 1 can confirm that we are asking Sir Patrick to consider the whole area of party funding: whether donors should be disclosed; whether the size of donations should be disclosed; whether there should be a limit on individual donations; whether there should be a limit on overall spending; and whether there should be different arrangements altogether, such as increased state funding. The investigation is long overdue; it is one that we urged in opposition, when the Conservative Government refused to have it. Sir Patrick Neill will be able to make his recommendations, and we will all then be playing on a level playing field.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the leading governing bodies of sport met this morning and decided to ask for a personal meeting with him about tobacco advertising? Is he happy to have such a meeting on the same basis as his meeting with formula one?

Of course I am, but they have not sought such a meeting before. If they seek such a meeting now, of course they can have it.

They are seeking such a meeting now, and I am happy to hear that the Prime Minister will see them. When he does, will he consider the letter sent to the Government last week by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, which says that:

"all the arguments made by Formula One for exemption can also be made by"
billiards and snooker? It continues:
"It is grossly unfair that the strength of a powerful lobby should"
"over the reasoned argument of less well funded sports. Surely this is not the way of New Labour."
Will the Prime Minister consider a temporary exemption for billiards and snooker, as he did for formula one?

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman understands. In the directive there is already a temporary derogation for sport. The question is whether it is long enough and right for formula one, which is in a special position. [Laughter.] Let me explain. There are some 15 grand prix countries, of which some, including the United Kingdom, have no legal tobacco sponsorship restrictions or very limited ones. All the eight others that have restrictions on sponsorship have either special exemptions for formula one alone or special arrangements for formula one.

Australia has the toughest anti-sponsorship laws in the world, but specifically exempts formula one. In Canada there are new regulations to prohibit sponsorship, but auto racing is to be exempt. There are specific exemptions in Portugal, Germany and France. In Italy there is a ban that covers formula one, but formula one takes place, there is sponsorship, and a nominal fine is levied on the company every year.

The right hon. Gentleman may disagree with the decision that we have taken, but when all those other countries have specific exemptions, I ask him to have a care for the effect on British industry if we follow the course that he is advocating.

It is no good the Prime Minister talking about the European directive, when the European Commission has said of his announcement:

"it's a disaster, a complete U turn. This could spell the end of the directive, obliging the Commission to withdraw the proposal."
It is no good his talking about the European directive. Is he aware of the deep anxieties in sports other than formula one such as angling and cricket, one of the representatives of which said this morning:
"It is particularly disappointing that a Labour Government of all governments should strangle the life out of working-class sports."
Is the Prime Minister now prepared to give the same consideration to those sports as to formula one?

The right hon. Gentleman blocked the directive on tobacco advertising. The Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member blocked the directive.

Is not the Prime Minister making up his policy as he goes along? Is it not the case that the Government are in turmoil and chaos over this? Is it not the case that this is another broken promise to go along with pensions, tax, tuition fees and cold weather payments? I am not accusing the Labour party of being paid to break its promises; it breaks them for free all the time. Is this not what happens when a party seeks office without a principle, value, or belief to its name?

I think that people remember what happened: a Tory party that undermined the national health service; a Tory party that wrecked Britain's schools; a Labour party putting more money into health and more money into schools; the welfare-to-work programme; a Tory party that said that it would never put VAT on fuel and then put it on; a Tory party that cannot even make up its mind whether it disagrees with the decision that we have taken or thinks that we have taken it for the wrong reasons.

We were told at lunchtime that the right hon. Gentleman had some killer points; that it was an open goal and he was going to put the ball in the net. He has walked up to the penalty spot and booted it over the bar.

Will my right hon. Friend recognise, on reflection. that there is a long history and deep experience of receiving money from industrial sources both national and international in the Tory party? Would it not, therefore, be appropriate that, in looking to a review of the way in which politics is funded, all parties represented in this Chamber should open their books for the past five years so that the public can see what they have been about?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservative party has never disclosed any of the donations that it has received, and it has not even paid back Asil Nadir's £360,000.

Leaving aside the Government's extraordinary change of policy on cigarette advertising, which I hope they will reconsider, may I return to the question of political funding? The Prime Minister's statement that the Neill inquiry into political funding will have the widest remit and will be required to produce its outcome as soon as possible is welcome—we cannot lose any time in restoring public confidence in how we fund our politics.

However, in that context, I remind the Prime Minister that, more than 100 years ago, in 1883, we decided to limit the amount that constituencies could spend on electoral campaigning. Surely the time has now arrived to end once and for all this damaging warfare—this arms race—between the parties and limit the amount of money that can be spent on national campaigning as well.

First, let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the decision is extraordinary. I have set out how virtually every other country has exemptions for formula one if it has a grand prix, so it is not a very extraordinary decision. I would also draw his attention to the jobs that are at risk if we lose formula one from this country—the 8,000 people directly employed in formula one. The chairman of the Motorsport Industry Association said earlier today that, if formula one leaves the country, there will be problems for the whole of the British motor racing industry. So, whether people agree or disagree with the decision, there is at least a perfectly sensible basis for it, given what happens in other countries.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about party funding, I agree that there is a case for looking at all these things. I hope that Sir Patrick Neill can look at every issue connected with party funding. We will support him strongly in doing that. I would say only that for years I have fought elections with the Labour party being outspent by the Tory party £4 or £5 to £1, because they never disclose the source of their donations at all. What I want is a level playing field, and if that comes with restrictions on amounts and restrictions on the level of money that can be spent in elections, I am perfectly happy with that. What I will not do is go into election fighting when the Tories can raise as much money as they want and never have to disclose it—without the Labour party's being able to raise money, too.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the staff of Crawley hospital will be much happier this winter when they discover that they now have a £450,000 share of the £300 million for crisis admissions? Does not such news make people working in the caring professions believe that working for the national health service is more worth while?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Having gone around several hospitals, I know that although people still suffer as a result of many of the things done by the previous Government, they at last believe that they have a Government who believe in the national health service. We have the extra £300 million going in this year and an extra £1.2 billion next year, and we are doing our very best to ensure that health service funding is put on a stable footing for the long term. That will be enormously welcome to everyone who works in the health service.

Q3. [14139]

Instead of waiting for details of the Ecclestone donation to be forced out of him four weeks later, why did the Prime Minister not refer that donation to the public standards watchdog immediately after the meeting on 16 October?

Because the papers have been referred to Sir Patrick Neill—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] At the end of last week. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] They ask the question, but do not want the answer. The papers were referred to Sir Patrick Neill, who then reported back on Monday. The moment he reported back, we published his advice and followed it. I repeat: I do not believe that the party the hon. Gentleman represents would ever have behaved in that way.

Q4. [14140]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the further education sector has been treated appallingly over the past 18 years, having been subjected by the previous Government to alternating periods of neglect, especially in terms of funding, and harassment? Is it not still the Cinderella service of our education system, when it should be regarded as its linchpin? Will he tell the House what the Government are going to do to correct that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the dire financial situation that further education colleges were left in by the previous Government's policies. I am delighted, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment today announced a major new boost for further education. An extra £83 million in new funding will be made available next year, and colleges will also be able to bid for more than £100 million new deal money for education and training. That is new money, which would never have been put in by the previous Government.

Q5. [14141]