Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

House Of Commons

Wednesday 19 November 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Kyoto Summit

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

9.34 am

It is a privilege to initiate the debate on the Kyoto climate summit to be held in December. I am pleased to see the Minister for the Environment at the Dispatch Box. I am pleased also to see so many Members in the Chamber for this really important debate. I hope particularly that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) will be able to contribute to it. He is as genuinely concerned about the effects of global warming in Gillingham as I am about the effects in Stoke-on-Trent, North.

We must remember the context in which the debate is taking place. The Kyoto summit will be the third conference of the parties to the United Nations framework conference on climate change. It will review progress to date, and it is an opportunity which we cannot afford to lose.

There are many reasons why I wish to raise the issues surrounding the Kyoto summit. It is important that we have the opportunity to debate them, but I want the debate to be for the many and not the few. It is not enough for Parliament to have the debate; we must ensure that it spreads ever wider throughout the country.

I noted with great interest this morning's announcement by my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that he is setting up an advisory panel to promote citizenship among young people. I hope that its chairman, Professor Bernard Crick, will make arrangements for that awareness to include environmental issues.

I want the media to take up the debate about Kyoto and about how we might make progress towards achieving the tightest possible emission standards. I am pleased that the two programmes "Costing the Earth" are to appear on television this week and next week. I hope that they will give the public the opportunity to consider the scientific evidence and to make up their own minds about what is happening. I hope also that debates such as this will take place in parliaments throughout the world so that parliamentarians, as well as Governments and Ministers, can take part in a crucial worldwide debate.

More than anything else, I want to give our new Government the most resounding send-off when they go to the important negotiations in Kyoto. It is crucial that the debate here takes place in time to influence events and so that Ministers know that they have the backing of the country when they go to Kyoto.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be part of the mission, which may even save the world at Kyoto. I want him to return with a legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. I am mindful of the work that he has already done in respect of the sea and seafarers and transport policy. I have confidence that, given what my right hon. Friend learned so often with the International Maritime Organisation, he, of all people, knows that it is crucial to go for the highest denominator, not the lowest. That is the message of optimism that we must send from the House.

I would not be so bold as to assert that people throughout the country talk of nothing else but Kyoto. I should like to think that that was true, but things do not work quite like that. I know that in many parts of the country people are talking about major political issues. One major issue, for example, is whether we will get the world cup four years after Paris. I should like the debate about Kyoto to be on a par with interest in the world cup. I should like to think that the debate about global warming is of such importance that people will wish to become well informed and well versed on issues that will become everyday matters of conversation.

Although such topics may not be on everybody's lips, people are increasingly concerned about the effects of global warming. It does matter; it touches their everyday lives. People want something to be done, and they want to be part of the solution.

We are not quite in the same situation as people who live in small island states such as the Maldives, who fear that, because of the rising sea level, their islands could disappear, but we face a real danger of flooding. What will happen to low-lying areas? There are crucial issues involving health, the water supply, shortage and biodiversity. Most of all, we have to look at the scientific evidence to see whether what we have heard could happen is just scaremongering or whether there is a scientific base for the worst possible scenario. As most hon. Members know, I would want us always to take the precautionary approach, and I hope that I will be able to carry many people with me.

The scientific evidence is indisputable. The 1996 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprised no fewer than 2,500 experts, concluded:
"There is a discernible human"—
I stress human—
"influence on global climate."
A report is due next month from the workshop held in Boulder, Colorado, in September, which was attended by the world's biggest wildlife groups, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Wildlife International, of which our own Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is a member. All the evidence is there. Groups such as Greenpeace, for which I have the greatest respect, and Friends of the Earth are not scaremongering. There is evidence, which we have to accept. Having done so, we cannot just leave it. To know is not enough. Once something is known, something has to be done about it. That is why all of us are here. We all have to do as much as we can, in whatever way we can, about Kyoto and the huge issues we face.

It concerns me that there are still people, for example the chairman of Exxon, who say that climate change is not really an issue, and that it should not be dealt with by regulation. We have to tackle people who still say that. We must ensure that we make real progress with the climate conventions, and ensure that this Parliament—I stress that it is not just for the Government and Ministers—gives full backing to our Government in what will be an uphill, or "up-bank", as we say in Stoke-on-Trent, struggle that they will have on their hands when they go to Japan.

The run-up to the 10 days of negotiations at Kyoto will be a testing time for the United Kingdom. It is not just our hopes that are pinned on the leadership of the new Labour Government. The whole world has recognised, particularly at the Earth summit II conference in New York last July, that, with our Prime Minister, we have new vision and leadership. Having seen what can be done, there is even greater emphasis on what more could be done. I still believe that, if anybody can, our Government can achieve the best deal.

It is a question not of doing as I say, but of doing as I do. For that reason, I welcome the very clear commitments that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has given, including various presentations at the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. We are aiming for a 20 per cent. reduction in 1990 emission levels by 2010. Above all else, that commitment makes the Government most able to squeeze the best deal out of negotiations. I accept that the dash for gas has helped us to achieve things that we might never have dared hope for, although at a price. None the less, that is our starting point. Now we can achieve even more.

There is also a track record since July. I recognise that the former Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), tried to address the issue. We have a Cabinet committee, which is at the heart of government, to ensure proper environmental assessment on all issues. It will not be easy to get that from the Treasury when the Green Paper is published. When I talk about a green Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer may not have the same ideas that I have, but the Cabinet committee can start to make progress on these matters, and I hope that it will.

We will continue the round table on sustainability. That can play an important role in the debate that we need to have throughout the country. I am delighted that the Environment Audit Committee, which was a manifesto pledge, has been set up. I am proud to be a member of it, and I want to play my part on it to get real progress. We now have the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which comprises the former Departments of Transport and the Environment. We have an opportunity for integrated transport. The consultation period has just ended, and we are about to have new Green Papers and White Papers. What is more, the Deputy Prime Minister is striding round the world, bringing together all the countries that have not yet signed up to what we want them to sign. He is also chairing the annexe 1 group of countries at Kyoto.

It is not all simple and straightforward. Achieving the 20 per cent. target that this country wants will not be plain sailing. It will present us with difficulties. More can usually be achieved at the beginning than further along the way, because, by the later stage, the big savings have already been made. However, sometimes it is possible to achieve more later, because more people understand the issues. That is the message which we have to get across. There will be hard choices, but I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend will see how we can balance them. I shall list just a few.

In our integrated transport plans, I want to see targets for road traffic reduction as well as for transport. At some stage, however much we may not want to do so, we will have to consider the issue of aviation fuel and tax subsidies.

There is a threat of opencast coal mining in my constituency. I want us to have a presumption against opencast. I want legislation for energy conservation and efficiency. I am not happy that the gas regulator, unlike her predecessor, is not prepared to understand the arguments about energy savings and conservation. It may well be a matter on which the House will need to legislate, but my understanding is that we could not do so within about two years. What happens in the meantime? Are we to let her get away with saying that it is not her responsibility? It does not appear to be anybody else's responsibility either.

While on the subject of energy conservation, I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, in the nicest and most supportive way that I can, that I met the Energy Saving Trust yesterday, and although I understand that we have accepted the previous Government's spending limits, it does not seem quite right in terms of our priorities that the trust's budget has been reduced from £19 million to £13 million. I am sure that, with the right will, we can find a way forward so that it can continue its invaluable work.

Clean coal technology for deep-mined coal needs to be on the agenda. Sooner or later—perhaps later rather than sooner—we must look at switching the balance towards renewables, and at the whole role of oil exploration.

We have to ensure that civil servants are doing what the political masters and mistresses here are saying that they could be doing.

There is enormous hope for optimism because of what we have committed ourselves to. As with anything, it is no good our doing our best if we cannot secure agreements on the world stage for what needs to be done internationally.

As far as I can see, Japan is not doing enough. As the host country for the summit, it should be under a special obligation to be at the cutting edge and to make the greatest possible commitment to what is needed at Kyoto. Extra pressure needs to be exerted, and I hope that our Government will be able to put in whatever word is needed. As a member of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, with the prospect—I put it no higher than that—of a visit to Japan, I hope that the Committee will be able to continue where the Government leaves off post-Kyoto.

I know that the work of the House deservedly has a considerable personal following throughout America. We recognise that President Clinton may be between a rock and a hard place—between Congress and the Senate—but we want him to look afresh at the issues. We pin great hopes on his securing tighter agreement in his country about what should be happening at Kyoto. I hope that our Government can exert further influence in America, so that it, too, can play its part. President Clinton was elected on an environmental platform, and I feel that he can do better than stabilising emissions at 1990 levels by 2012.

We all have a special responsibility for the annexe 1 countries. It is vital that we do not transfer to the developing world the mistakes that the industrialised countries have made. I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will take that on board, but I feel that a message of support should go out from our Parliament.

Binding targets must be agreed at Kyoto. It is the best chance we have. I want these to be "ten days that shook the world". Energy-efficient technology needs to be transferred, and, as part of the reform of the United Nations, we need to find a way of monitoring, policing and enforcing agreements so that there is full compliance. I hope that Klaus Topfler will be able to carry out some of the necessary reforms if he moves to the United Nations Environment Programme. I also hope that we shall be able to make progress when we attend conferences with other parliamentarians.

We should not lose heart just because we may not secure the best possible deal at Kyoto, and may manage only a modest first step. The United Kingdom must go on leading. We need a permanent process to keep the negotiations moving and to follow through success or failure at Kyoto. The European presidency will provide us with a huge opportunity to do that.

We need more than a one-off, ad hoc debate in Parliament on this important issue. We need a strategy. Perhaps the Procedure Committee could ensure that we have regular follow-up discussions, so that we can identify the targets and establish how much progress we are making. There is no way out for any of us. We must make certain that the debate reaches out to the heart of our democracy—to schools and local government, through Agenda 21; to business, and to community groups. We need full and regular scrutiny of how our 20 per cent. targets are progressing here in the United Kingdom. Parliament has a real role to play, and I hope that through today's debate—in which I know many hon. Members wish to speak—we can take things forward, and send our Government off to do the job that we depend on their doing in Kyoto next month.

9.53 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing a debate on such an important matter. Perhaps we should discuss environmental issues more than we do. In fact, this is not just a question of the environment, it is a question of the economy, the politics of the country and our attitude to various of our industries, including important industries such as the car industry and the fossil fuel industry.

Let me put my cards on the table. I drive a car, and Ford UK is in my constituency. That company is an important employer, but, like the rest of the car industry in the west nowadays, it is also extremely responsible in regard to emissions. Over the past few years, it has reduced the particulates—the bits and pieces that come out of exhaust pipes—to practically nil.

We are not talking about the kind of pollution that we associate with the old-fashioned smogs. We are talking in particular about Kyoto, which is intended to deal with the level of carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere. We must discover where those emissions come from. In fact, the great majority do not come from motor cars: only about 20 per cent. of the alleged carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere—by which I assume people mean emissions other than the natural carbon dioxide emissions from decaying vegetable matter—come from cars.

I should say in passing that I have been a scientist for the past 35 years, and I therefore know something about the detail of the subject. Facts and figures sometimes drive people nuts and do not get to the point, but the point is that the motor car is not the villain that it is sometimes portrayed as being. The vast majority of carbon dioxide emissions probably come from house dwellers—from the fuel they burn or from the fuel they waste. Housing should be better insulated, because it can have a detrimental effect on the air that we all breathe.

Of course we are all keen to improve the environment, but the atmosphere and its effect on our climate have little to do with anything we do on this earth. Most climate changes are due either to the sun, which influences our climate enormously, or to our planet's orbit around it. That orbit varies, as was demonstrated recently. Those who were awake and looking at the sky one night in September will have seen a remarkable eclipse of the moon, which, for a short period, appeared much larger than usual. That was because of one of the wobbles in the earth's orbit.

The climate is also strongly influenced by ocean currents, as we saw recently. El Nino has had a massive effect on the climate. It causes huge changes, producing violent rain storms and other destructive weather, for which some people immediately blame motor car pollution.

Another massive cause of climate change is volcanic activity. People seem to think, from what they read in the papers, that a volcano pops off occasionally—that it is a one-off event that occurs every few years, and is not significant. That is not true. In the Antarctic region, close to the area where the measurement of ozone holes is carried out, there is a very active volcano, Mount Erebus, which produces in a year more chlorine gases—which contribute to the chlorofluorocarbons in the upper atmosphere—than the whole of industrial production since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Those are the three massive forces over which human beings have little control.

Another significant climatic element is the fact that the Earth is basically a water planet, 75 per cent. of whose surface is covered by water. Only 15 per cent. of the remaining part—the land mass—is habitable: most of it consists of mountain ranges, ice plains and deserts.

The inhabited part of the earth's surface is very small, and only a tiny portion of that is industrialised; most of it is agricultural land. It is important to keep the facts and figures in proportion. Only a small part of the Earth's surface is involved in industrial activities that contribute CO2, to the atmosphere. There is a tendency to think that industrial activity is extremely dangerous for our atmosphere and climate, and that the problem can be dealt with by punishing the motorist and cutting down on the use of the motor car. At that point, the argument comes down to politics.

I see from the attendance in the Chamber for this debate that a number of hon. Members are concerned about this matter. If they want to hear the other side of the story, I advise them to read documents produced by NASA. Its upper atmosphere research programme puts out extremely informative documents about changes in the atmosphere and about the amount of gases, including greenhouse gases. It insists that the hysteria that is generated by this subject, particularly on climate effects, is unwarranted, but that is not a particularly popular view. An enormous number of institutions, such as Globe, genuinely believe that there is a serious problem that industrialised western countries can deal with.

I should love better quality air. Everyone wants that; it is like motherhood and apple pie. I deplore the fact that, when I was in Egypt recently, I could see across the Nile at 7 am, but not at 10 am, because pollution levels from the old rust buckets that roam the streets were such that the atmosphere was very unpleasant. That applies in other parts of the world, such as China, although I have never been there. I know Mexico City very well, and it has a dreadful pollution problem, but that is partly due to the fact that the city is surrounded by mountainous regions.

There is an alternative point of view, and it is well received in the United States. It brings me to the attitude of President Clinton to the Kyoto conference. Without the agreement of the Americans to the proposed 20 per cent. reduction in emissions, nothing much will happen. President Clinton has laid his cards on the table. We should not assume that his is just the voice of a careless and vote-happy President who wants to preserve his industries against the better interests of mankind. The Americans are as pollution-conscious and as concerned about global warming as we are.

In science, one has to deal with the facts and consider both sides of the story. The amount of investment in our industrial society, the jobs it provides and its importance to the standard of living of the people we represent are serious considerations. We should not go to the Kyoto conference calling for global figures, such as a 20 per cent. reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, just because that is a nice target at which to aim.

I appreciate the hon. Lady's argument, because I recognise that other factors are at work, but we should take the right remedy. The car industry produced the catalytic converter, but it is not much use in industrial cities and is a waste of money. Does the hon. Lady accept that the argument coming out of the United States is that the Americans do not want their industries to be injured further while other countries are polluting more than they are? The argument is not just about the scientific fact that nature produces its own pollution: it is about the Americans looking after the mighty buck.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I put it to him that it is the duty of any Government to ensure that industries, which are the backbone of communities, are properly looked after and protected. I hope that every hon. Member has the same attitude.

Is President Clinton being selfish or is he being responsible in saying that emissions produced by motor cars in the United States are relatively small, given the improvements that have been made, especially with regard to particulates as opposed to the CO2 element? How important are 2 emissions from the motor car compared with other forms of adding CO2 to the atmosphere? I repeat that less than 20 per cent. of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere come from the car, so it is an easy target. Insulation of properties is less easy, because everyone could do something about that, as opposed to leaving an individual industry to do it.

Other parts of the globe, such as China, the countries of the former Soviet Union and Mexico, are not able to make those improvements, especially given the low level of wealth of their citizens. The way to help those countries is to improve their economies overall. I am sure that the Egyptians who were driving rust buckets around Cairo would love to have a nice car with controlled emissions and catalytic convertors, whether or not they work.

My argument is about the importance of the motor car. This debate and the discussions at Kyoto are an attack on the industrialised west, its alleged greedy consumption of fossil fuels such as coal and its selfish use of raw materials in the production of motor cars.

It is important to note that objective scientific work has been done on this subject. The energy technology support unit has produced an account of how it believes the United Kingdom proposal of a 20 per cent. reduction could be achieved by 2010. It has produced figures for different sectors: industry and services could reduce by 9.6 million tonnes of carbon; the domestic sector by 7.6 million tonnes; transport by 14.9 million tonnes, so that is an important component; and renewable energy could make a contribution of 2.7 million tonnes. Those figures show a 40 million tonne carbon reduction. That is not a random attack on any particular sector, certainly not on the transport sector. However, the reality is that transport can and will have to make its contribution.

The hon. Gentleman's point is perfectly acceptable, but I am trying to explain to the House that most of the carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is not the responsibility of the motor car. Furthermore, gas carbon dioxide is only one of the greenhouse gases; most of it is water vapour that rises above the Earth, forms clouds and helps climate control by acting as a screen.

No, not at the moment.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is welcome because it aids the photosynthetic process of plants. It is not an awful substance: it is not poisonous to human beings, except in vast concentrations, and it is positively helpful to vegetation. It is a soluble gas, especially in sea water where plankton rely on it for photosynthesis, which affects the food chain right up to mankind. We must stop regarding that gas as a poisonous substance which does us enormous harm.

The question is not whether there is a natural balance in the atmosphere, which includes natural CO2 as well as that which is emitted. In time, that balance will alter. The issue is whether mankind's additional CO2 emissions are upsetting that balance. The hon. Lady seems to miss the fact that, overwhelmingly, the world's scientists take the view that we are upsetting that balance. The OECD nations and the Government have also accepted that. Even oil companies such as BP have accepted that it is a serious issue and that our actions are affecting the climate because we are upsetting the natural balance.

The hon. Gentleman has his view. I recently attended a meeting in the House of Lords with the energy industries. Those industries, and especially the coal industry, expressed great concern that the demands of Kyoto would wipe them out. Every hon. Member knows that it is important not to devastate key industries because that would have an enormous backlash affecting the amount of support that we would have to provide to those communities. If we are not careful, they could be destroyed by the casual adoption of a target whose significance I challenge in terms of improving the global climate, pollution or the well-being of mankind in general. I presume that I shall be the only person to present that view.

I do not wish to denigrate the sentiments of the dedicated followers of orthodoxy, including the Globe European network mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke—on—Trent, North. I do not suggest that they are on a crusade to destroy basic industries. My point is that there is another side to the scientific evidence. The United States is much more aware of that, because its technological and scientific groups such as NASA are producing the statistics to back that view. Far from being irresponsible and selfish, President Clinton's attitude is balanced, sensible and sane.

We all want to make life better for people and the way not to do that is to attack, seek to destroy or make more expensive the use of the motor car, which is people's pride and joy, or increase the cost of fuel for heating their homes. That is a sensitive political issue and we should not lightly embark on increasing fuel costs because of concern for what may not be as important an issue as it is made out to be.

10.12 am

It is tempting to respond in detail to the speech by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman).

I shall take that advice.

The topic is vital not just for us but for our children and our grandchildren. Some of the hon. Lady's comments were sad. Climate change is real, global warming is serious and both of them are avoidable. The hon. Lady has missed those points. Kyoto provides an opportunity to concentrate people's minds on the impact of failure. If it succeeds, there is little doubt that climate change can be arrested, but it will take decades of hard work internationally, nationally and locally.

If Kyoto fails, climate change is likely to spin out of control. The consequences for the United Kingdom would be serious, and the hon. Member for Billericay has missed some of those. Elsewhere in the world, the effects would be catastrophic. There is no doubt that some nations would disappear, and the feedback from catastrophes elsewhere will produce political instability, poverty, homelessness and hunger on an international scale that we have not seen so far.

The hon. Member for Billericay is right to say that global warming is a natural consequence of our atmosphere. Its greenhouse effect adds about 21 deg C to the temperature of the earth, and the hon. Lady might think that an extra couple of degrees will not make much difference. It will make a great deal of difference. It will add 50 cm to sea levels in the next 40 or 50 years and the levels will continue to rise. That is why the Liberal Democrats think that it is right for the United Kingdom and the European Union to take the lead in tackling global warming.

We welcome the United Kingdom's progress over the past few years, although we recall that much of it was accidental—the consequence of the destruction of our indigenous coal industry and the dash for gas. We welcome the Prime Minister's pledge of a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2010. It is good to hear that that will remain a Government commitment even if Kyoto is not a success. Promises must be backed by action. We recognise that it is early days for the Government to produce an impact on the issue. There has not been much time to sort things out, and we accept what the Prime Minister said on television on Sunday. He is a man of honour and he intends to deliver. I know that the Minister fully shares that view.

However, the Government need to recognise some harsh realities. The first is that UK carbon emissions rose by some 2 per cent. last year, after a period during which they had been dropping. Contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Billericay, the good work is being undone by the additional mileage on British roads. The growth of that transport has led to the increase in carbon emissions, and that is a worrying trend. We take 1990 as our base line and look forward to 2010. We are a third of the way through that 20-year interval, and Britain has rising carbon emissions.

There is a risk that by the year 2000—halfway through the 20-year period—we will have failed to reduce emissions to the 1990 level. The previous Government had intended to be about 8 per cent. below that level by the year 2000. The figures show that significant new policies will be needed if Britain is to reduce emissions to 20 per cent. below 1990 emissions by 2010.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) was right to speak about positive actions by the Government. I must balance the account and point to some less positive happenings since 1 May.

The targets will be harder to reach because most Departments do not know whether they are keeping to targets. I recently asked a series of parliamentary questions and in every case I was referred to the climate change book which was produced by the previous Government. I thought that perhaps I was a slow reader and had missed a bit at the back listing every Department and giving targets, but no such information is there. If the parliamentary answers are to be believed, Departments do not have clear, internal energy policies, objectives and plans. I asked the Secretary of State for Health what representations he had received about public health and hygiene as a result of climate change, and he said that he had received none The targets will be more difficult to achieve for another reason: in a commendable effort to reduce fuel poverty, the Government have cut value added tax on domestic fuel to 8 per cent., but kept it at 17.5 per cent. on insulation materials, which could help to reduce fuel consumption. Last week, the House debated the fossil fuel levy, which can now be applied to renewable energy producers—another Government decision which is difficult to understand. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister for the Environment believes that that is sensible.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned the Energy Saving Trust. Can it be right that, last year, supported by the Department of the Environment, its budget was £25 million, that this year it is £19 million and that next year it is projected to be £13.5 million? Is that a sensible way to set about reaching the targets?

The hon. Member also mentioned that the gas regulator is blocking a levy to support renewables. It is interesting that, when Neighbourhood Energy Action asked MORI to do a poll of the public, asking, "Would you prefer to have your fuel bills reduced by the installation of insulation in your home or by being offered lower prices by your fuel supplier?", 40 per cent. of people said that they would prefer the insulation solution and 30 per cent. the lower prices solution. It would be both popular and sensible to invest in insulation rather than simply in cut-price fuel supplies.

I agree with the drift of what the hon. Gentleman says. Meeting the 20 per cent. reduction target by 2010 is ambitious and may be difficult, but may I console him with this fact? Most of the progress to date has been because of the dash for gas. At present, only about 20 per cent. of our electricity is generated from gas. By 2000, it will be 50 per cent. and, after that, it will be more, so the dash for gas will continue. I know that that is bad news for coal mining areas, but the continued dash for gas makes a large contribution to savings.

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It is still true that the driving force for that dash is the gas surplus in the world market. Therefore, as its price is low, a levy could be placed on the fuel by the regulator, with customers still receiving lower gas prices—although not perhaps as low as they would be if one went for bargain-basement pricing—and would be invested in insulation, which would reduce overall fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

There is an absolutely key point here. This is one for Government; the previous Government failed to face it. With energy prices falling and likely to continue to fall, the Government can simply allow that to happen, with customers receiving the benefit and inevitably using more fuel because it is cheaper, or take action through levies to pay for improvements to tackle fuel poverty. For the people who can least afford to heat their homes, fuel price cuts are not significant. Insulation would be far more significant. It would mean a stabilisation of fuel prices, which would send a signal that people cannot expect a cut in prices.

Order. This is a brief debate. Interventions should be short. The hon. Gentleman is depriving other hon. Members who badly want to speak of the time in which to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for what he has said, which I fully support.

In the run-up to Kyoto, the Government should, first, be working more closely with non-governmental organisations. It was disappointing for the Prime Minister to reply that the Government would not be including any non-governmental organisation representative in the official delegation to Kyoto, and it is worrying that neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary will be going to such a major international event.

Secondly, the Government should ensure that every Government Department and agency establishes an energy-saving plan with clear objectives and targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases. Thirdly, the Government should cut VAT on insulation materials and sign up to the Energy Saving Trust plan, which would reduce domestic fuel consumption by 17 per cent. and carbon emissions by some 14 per cent. over the next 13 years. It would also save money for consumers purchasing fuel and create 20,000 jobs.

That is an ambitious target, and I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Billericay. We are talking about the development of high-technology alternative industries. If Britain manages to be at the forefront of those industries, they will be profitable as well as ecologically sound.

Fourthly, the Government should reconsider their new deal plan and the money that they put into the environmental task force. At present, the materials grant is up to £90 per week per person. In many cases, that will mean that insulation projects are beyond the reach of the task force. I hope that the Government will consider that apparently small point, which could have a major impact.

Fifthly, I hope that the Government will pledge support and time to the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill, which would make a material difference on traffic emissions into the atmosphere.

Sixthly, as a Liberal Democrat, I say, of course, that it would be appropriate for the Government to cut vehicle excise duty on cars below 1,500 cc and to increase fuel tax to raise the extra money required. In that way, we could achieve a pattern more like that of the Danes and the Italians: we could have smaller cars and fewer journeys.

I could say much more, but I know that this is a short debate. I give credit to the Government for their stance and promises on global warming. I and other Liberal Democrat Members wish them every success in the difficult and complex negotiations, but I sincerely urge them to get stuck in here in the UK. There is much to be done and there is plenty of public support for it to be done. There is no great mystery about the policies that are needed, and most of them do not have a high price tag. Liberal Democrats want some Government courage and some Government determination. That will bring success and profit.

It gives me great pleasure to deliver my maiden speech, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) for securing this debate. It is a great pleasure because I recognise the honour bestowed on me by the electorate of Gillingham and because I am representing my home town, of which I am immensely proud.

My success on 1 May was, of course, another's failure. James Couchman was the sitting Member of Parliament and had held the seat for some 14 years. He served on the Social Security, Health, Public Accounts and Northern Ireland Select Committees and was Parliamentary Private Secretary to many Ministers during those years.

Times move on, but I am pleased to say that Gillingham people are loyal, at least to the authority of Parliament. History records that, during the civil war, a distinguished Gillingham citizen, Philip Fraude, fought on the side of the king, but:
"The district as a whole appears to have prudently supported Parliament".
Long may Gillingham people have so much sense.

Some hon. Members may ask, where is Gillingham? It lies on the estuary of the River Medway in Kent and some of my constituency is a special scientific interest area, which has been a matter of consultation this week. Gillingham is one of the Medway towns and, unlike its neighbours, Chatham and Rochester, it is densely populated: its total population is more than 90,000, squeezed into just 4,500 hectares of land. That figure includes the special scientific interest area that lies in the River Medway—not much use for people in terms of expansion. However, it is important in other ways, as I shall mention. There are a number of differences between the older part of the constituency, which lies to the north of the A2, and the southern part. On indices of overcrowding, as defined by the 1991 census, many of the northern wards have figures in excess of 3 per cent., when the average for Kent is 1.8 per cent. A survey of private sector stock showed that 8.5. per cent. of properties were unfit—for example, in poor repair, damp or with kitchen problems—compared with a county level of 5.6 per cent. In one ward, more than one fifth of properties were classified as unfit. Gillingham has a number of challenging issues, and none more so than the overcrowding of its land space.

Was Gillingham born out of reorganisation? No—it is recorded in the Domesday book of 1086. It is said that it was named after a war lord, Gyllingas—from the old English "gyllan" meaning "to shout". He was a notable man in Kent history as he led his warriors into battle screaming and shouting. I suppose that a modern translation of Gillingham would be "the home of shouting men"—and, of course, women, to be technically correct. I am delighted to tell the House that we keep up that tradition. The shouting men and women of Gillingham can be found every other Saturday on the terraces of Priestfield stadium, the home of Kent's only football league team, Gillingham FC, which is going from strength to strength.

Gillingham has assumed a role that has perhaps been unknown, but has been an important part of the defence of this country. It developed as a fishing village and port and 450 years ago, in 1547, storehouses were rented by the Navy for use at Gillingham water—so started Gillingham's long association with the Navy. Gillingham dockyard formally opened in 1559, and it is from those early beginnings that the Medway towns developed. Over the centuries, thousands of men and women have been involved in the defence of the realm.

Gillingham is also the home of Her Majesty's Corps of Royal Engineers. They are an integral part of the town and their headquarters continues to provide the finest military engineering training to be found anywhere in the western world. The corps headquarters have also been, at one time or another, home to great heroes of British history, such as Kitchener, Gordon and the eminent father and son team of Generals Sir Manley and Sir John Glubb. Gillingham is proud to have the engineers museum in the town, which I recommend to hon. Members as well worth a visit.

Many hon. Members will be saying, "Gillingham dockyard; Medway towns—wasn't it called Chatham dockyard?" Yes, it was, despite the facts that it started in Gillingham, and that, until the day it was closed in 1984, two thirds of the then modern-day dockyard lay within the boundaries of Gillingham. No one knows for certain why the name changed, but anyone who knows anything about using semaphore flags will be well aware that it is easier to spell out Chatham than Gillingham.

Gillingham has other claims to fame. Louis Brennan lived in Gillingham and tested his monorail in the town. He was clearly a man of great foresight, recognising traffic congestion in the early part of this century and the need for an integrated transport system.

Will Adams was equally famous, but he did not realise that he was to lay the foundations for Gillingham's future. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan—where the Kyoto summit is being held—and he stayed there to help develop Japanese ships. From that has arisen a link with two Japanese cities, Yokosuka and Ito. We have grown close to them through exchange visits. That has enabled us to form close links for business development. Gillingham business park is home to many thriving businesses, including Fuji Seal, Fuji Copian and Hochiki. They are the bases for their European operations.

There is a great deal of hope in Gillingham, which has a great deal to offer. Rising from the ashes of its former glory, the dockyard, there are high-quality developments providing jobs and housing on brown-field sites, but all that will pale into insignificance if we do not tackle the fundamentals that are being presented at the Kyoto conference. The cost of failing to reach agreement on the global climatic agenda will be to fail our country and our children.

As other hon. Members have said, it is essential that the greening of our policies must permeate all our thinking. I welcome the positive steps taken so far by the Government, such as the clear commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. on 1990 levels by 2010, and the decision to put sustainable development at the heart of policy making, as is evident in the bringing together of the environment, transport and the regions into one co-ordinated Department.

ough targets have been set, but they are achievable by policies that are sensible in their own right. An integrated transport policy will make public transport more acceptable and attractive. There should be increasing use of renewable forms of energy. We must achieve greater efficiency in firms and bring the public sector up to the standards of the best. We must also improve energy efficiency in homes.

The first Labour Budget in 20 years was used to show that the environment has been placed at the core of the Government's objectives for the tax system. Among other measures, duties on road fuel were increased by 6 per cent., with a commitment to future increases of about 6 per cent. It is estimated that that will lead to additional savings of about 2.5 million tonnes of carbon annually by the year 2010.

Failure to secure legally binding targets in Kyoto will present us with the unthinkable. Other hon. Members have referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conferences in 1990, 1992 and 1996. The Geneva conference in 1996 concluded that there was discernible human influence on climate, which none of us can afford to ignore.

What does Kyoto mean to the people of Gillingham? Even today, when certain weather conditions prevail within the north sea and the Thames barrier is raised, there is a chance of flooding in the Medway estuary. The effects of rising sea levels would seriously affect the Medway towns. Gillingham's north Kent marshes are designated not only as a site of special scientific interest, but as a special protection area under the European directive on the conservation of wild birds. In addition, the marshes are a listed Ramsar site under the convention on wetlands of international importance.

Seven internationally important bird species, including the Brent goose and the redshank, live in the Medway marshes. They would all be threatened by rising sea levels, with the mudflats being affected and, hence, the loss of a valuable source of food to support the birds of coastal habitats.

There is also the possibility of increased rainfall, especially in the south and south-east areas. It is predicted that certain red data book species in Gillingham and the surrounding towns would disappear—for example, the lizard orchid, a species to be found in Kent and, in particular, on the Darland banks in the southern part of my constituency. Various butterflies are equally vulnerable, along with the bush cricket, which is predominantly found within the Medway and Thames estuaries.

At its simplest level, the link to population levels is clearest—the more people there are, the higher the emissions are likely to be. The more we alter land use patterns and associated vegetation, the more we add to our problems of water run-off and pollution levels. That is why we must take local control of our local environment. It is no good local authorities issuing planning briefs for areas that allow development surrounded by patches of natural environment, supposedly to maintain ecological balance, only to allow substantial infilling on those areas a few years later. All too often, we see good intentions thrown out of the window.

In Rainham, at the eastern end of my constituency, a windfall site has occurred since the county council decided that it was no longer required for its intended use. It is a wedge of unspoilt land which runs between highly developed and populated areas. To walk through it takes us back to the Rainham of 40 or 50 years ago—orchards, open space teaming with wildlife and an important natural and undisturbed habitat for many species. It is important to the people of Rainham as an escape from the demands of everyday life. There is now a battle to save it from the developer's bulldozers. Clearly, we must take in hand our own concerns.

The House needs Kyoto to deliver, and the people of Gillingham need it to deliver. A protocol containing legally binding commitments for industrialised countries will have to be adopted. We fully support our Government's objective of reducing CO2, emissions to 20 per cent. of 1990 levels by 2010. In setting that objective, they are showing leadership to those who are less willing to respect our climate, notably the United States and Japan. The developed, industrialised countries must not only bear responsibility for past emissions and lead the way in setting challenging targets but offer our knowledge and expertise to developing countries to help them to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

If the Government's representatives need any moral support when they attend the Kyoto conference, I assure them that they will have the good will of the people of Gillingham. During the general election campaign, apart from education and health environmental issues were a serious concern among voters in Gillingham. As Gillingham's Member of Parliament since May, I have had to deal with a number of environmental issues.

I hope that I have explained the importance to the people of Gillingham of what some might regard as an irrelevant conference in a far-flung part of the world. I am sure that what is relevant for my constituents is relevant for all of us in the United Kingdom. We look forward to success in Kyoto.

10.40 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) on his excellent maiden speech. Unfortunately, time prevents me from following up his points in detail, but the House looks forward to hearing from him again.

I congratulate also the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing the debate. I deplore the fact that the Government have not made their own time available for such a debate. The request that I made at business questions three weeks ago was refused. Since then, the House has more than once addressed such internal issues as modernisation.

I much regret that, only two weeks before Kyoto, the Government have declined to explain in any detail to the House their position on the issues that the conference will address, and have denied many hon. Members—including some who would have liked to speak in this debate—an opportunity to express their views to the House. The Government's refusal does not sit easily with their claims to be seeking greater accountability and openness in the processes of government, and to be committed to environmental ideals. It rather provokes the suspicion that their green commitments are more about soundbites than about substance—although the Minister for the Environment will have the chance to correct that impression when he replies.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that climate change is one of the most crucial and urgent issues facing Governments around the world. It is crucial because the science is clear; human activity is affecting the world's climate. It is urgent because the longer that Governments in any part of the world delay acting, the more drastic, expensive and disruptive the solutions and the action will have to be. Many people—most people, I think—now realise that sustainable development is a goal whose achievement is essential for the world's survival. I hope that even my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is close to accepting that point.

Passing on to our children and grandchildren a world that is as good as the one that we inherited depends on sustainable development and addressing climate change. The damage that climate change could do to the world—a world that future generations will inhabit—is not dissimilar to the damage that could be inflicted by nuclear weapons. The damage is perhaps less immediate and less threatening to the short-term survival of the human race, but the long-term consequences for the earth are no less far reaching.

Climate change is not accurately described by the phrase global warming, and it is not only about an agreeable Mediterranean climate coming to these shores. Even within the United Kingdom, many of the consequences of climate change will not be pleasant. There will be severe droughts in parts of the country, including the south-east and East Anglia. There will be more violent storms, and serious consequences for farming, tourism and insurance. Some coastline will be threatened. For the world, the consequences are, of course, much more far-reaching. The very survival of some low-lying territories, where millions of people live, is under immediate threat.

Britain has had a distinguished role in the issue. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stoke—on—Trent, North did not have the grace to acknowledge the previous Government's record.

I am sorry, but the hon. Lady had much longer to speak than I have, and I cannot give way.

From the time when Margaret Thatcher forced the issue on to the agenda of the world's Heads of Government, Britain has been at the forefront of the debate. Leadership has never been more needed than now. Expectations of what will come out of Kyoto are running high. Public interest is greater than it has been for several years, and the importance of a good settlement is widely recognised.

However, there are two dangers. The first is that the overall target that is decided at Kyoto will be too lax. There will be a risk if the United States influence at Kyoto is too great. We simply cannot defer for another 12 years the timetable for achieving the Rio targets.

The second danger is greater and, more subtle can be summed up in the word flexibility. A good headline target for cutting emissions by 2010—perhaps to 10 per cent. below 1990 levels—could be rendered valueless if the small print contains too many loopholes. If such loopholes are included in an agreement, Kyoto's contribution to averting continued and damaging climate change will be as effective as Munich's contribution, in 1938, to averting war in Europe. A fudged deal in Kyoto will be worse than no deal at all.

I therefore ask the Minister to confirm that Britain will resist any proposal allowing countries such as Russia—whose emissions have fallen sharply since 1990, because of economic collapse—to take credit for those falls, and to sell those credits to other countries under emission trading arrangements which may be established early in the next century.

Will the Minister also clarify the Government's attitude to New Zealand's proposal to use gross emissions as the 1990 baseline figure, which would allow some countries to take credit for reductions resulting from the existence of carbon sinks, although those sinks already existed in 1990?

Above all, will the Minister confirm that the Government understand that the fine print of the Kyoto agreement is as important as the headline target?

The Government's target of a 20 per cent. cut by 2010 has my full support. The European Union target of a 15 per cent. cut also has my full support. I hope that, in the next six months, the Government will use the presidency of the Council of Ministers to stick to that 15 per cent. target, whatever the outcome of the Kyoto negotiations. Will the Minister confirm today that both those targets will remain, even if—as is very likely—Kyoto settles for less challenging figures?

There is growing evidence that people and businesses in advanced countries are prepared for challenging targets. Business increasingly recognises the potential opportunities of accepting the actions that are necessary to tackle climate change. I congratulate BP on pulling out of the Global Climate Coalition in the United States, and on its forward-looking approach to climate change issues. I hope that Shell will follow in its footsteps. I welcome moves by both those great energy companies to step up their efforts in solar energy. Eventually, we may persuade even Exxon to see the light.

Does the Minister understand that, if Britain is to offer the necessary leadership and to continue exercising influence, merely announcing challenging targets is not enough? There must be, and as soon as possible, details of the policies that will enable those targets to be achieved. I regret that they have not already been spelt out.

As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said, new policies will be needed. Even if the Minister does not want to gives us details of those policies today, confirmation of some broad principles would be helpful.

For example, will the Minister confirm that coal's contribution in power generation must continue to decline? In transport, will he confirm that market instruments, rather than regulation, will be the main way in which emission reductions are achieved? Will those instruments include, for example, variable rates of vehicle excise duty, to encourage cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars?

Will the Minister confirm that tax changes that are introduced to tackle climate change will be revenue neutral? Environmental goals must not be a smokescreen behind which the Government raise revenue. The model of the landfill tax, where all the proceeds of a new tax on pollution were used to cut the tax on jobs, should continue to be followed.

Finally, the Opposition will not let go of the issue of climate change after the Kyoto conference; it is far too important. We shall continue to monitor the Government's future action. The verdict so far is that the rhetoric has been good but the action disappointing, especially as the tax on energy consumption has been cut, but the tax on energy saving has been maintained at a much higher level. I hope that the Minister recognises that the more he says today about the Government's policies, the louder Britain's voice will be at Kyoto next month.

10.50 am

We have has an excellent debate which shows the House at its best. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on obtaining the debate. I thank her for introducing it in a positive, generous and elegant manner. I agree that she has raised what is arguably one of the greatest environmental issues currently facing the world.

I shall cover as much ground as I can in very little time and respond briefly to some of the points that have been raised. We are concerned about the domestic measures to deliver our targets and reduce road traffic. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced the 6 per cent. fuel price escalator, and we are currently putting through the House regulations to increase local authorities' traffic management powers for that purpose. We are also concerned about the contribution of aviation fuel to greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is in favour of an international tax and we are looking to the United States, among others, for support.

We are certainly in favour of extending energy-saving measures. Standards of performance have been provided by the electricity regulator since 1994, but not by the gas regulator, so we shall address that. I am concerned about the reducing budget for the Energy Saving Trust, as it does an excellent job. Of course, we inherited public expenditure totals to which we are keeping, but a comprehensive spending review is being undertaken in Departments precisely to see whether we can redistribute money into key areas. I am also keen to see the development of clean coal technology.

I warmly welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) said in an amusing, enjoyable and well-informed maiden speech. I thought that I knew Gillingham and the Medway pretty well, but I have learnt a great deal more about its history from my hon. Friend. I endorse what he said and thank him for his support for our policies in respect of integrated transport, energy efficiency at home and environmental taxes. The House should have regard to what he said about the effects of greenhouse gas warming on rising sea levels, not just in Bangladesh or the Maldives, but in parts of the United Kingdom such as the Medway marshes.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), in a stimulating speech, seemed to be representing the car industry or the Global Climate Coalition. She should recognise that, although, as she said, traffic emissions represent only 25 per cent. of United Kingdom CO2 emissions, CO2 emissions represent 81 per cent. of all greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, traffic emissions represent about 20 per cent. of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is a substantial figure which we cannot ignore.

The hon. Lady raised a number of scientific points that some might consider as debunking the conventional wisdom. I understand her point about the effects of the sun and the Milankovich cycles, about the effect of El Nino, which is now more frequent and more violent and may have some connection with the effects of global warming and vulcanism, what happened at Mount Pinatubo and other factors. However, it is fair to say that the balance of evidence is strongly against her and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprises 2,500 scientists and experts from around the world, believes that the evidence clearly suggests a discernible anthropogenic effect on the climate. We have to accept that and act on it.

I thank the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) for his fine comments and I share nearly all his concerns. It is a little early to expect all Government Departments to have clear targets. As he said, we have been in office for only a short time. However, the White Paper that we shall issue in the spring will include energy-saving and transport-saving plans for each Department and targets that they will have to achieve. I accept his point—I am on the record as referring to it before the election—about the desirability of synchronising VAT on energy and energy-saving materials. A Customs and Excise review is under way, looking at precisely that point.

Before I turn to the main part my speech, let me at last refer to the speech by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). We have heard two speeches from Opposition Members which seem to be diametrically opposed. This is one of the rare occasions when I agree with the remarks of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, rather than the speech of a Back Bencher. The hon. Gentleman is quite right about superheating in Russia. Of course, it is perfectly sensible that there should be joint implementation so that Russia is able to grow using the latest technology and that it should be able to obtain credits for that. However, there must be emphasis on the restructuring of domestic economies. Flexibility and joint implementation are meant to strengthen those targets and not be a substitute for them.

We are concerned about carbon sinks. The EU has yet to take a final decision, but the entire world has seen the fires in Indonesia and the destruction of the forests which sequestrate carbon and the increase in CO2 that forest fires produce. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we need to be careful about how we write that into the protocol, if we do.

On the hon. Member's important point about the EU, following Kyoto—assuming that it is a success—there will be a new burden-sharing arrangement to be agreed at the first EU Environment Council in March, when Britain will have the presidency. We shall also maintain our domestic target of a 20 per cent. reduction in emissions. Our first commitment is to achieve our legally binding commitment, as agreed at Kyoto, but, in time, we will go beyond that to achieve our own domestic target.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk said that we had not set out the details of our policies. We have not had a great deal of time, but the delivery mechanisms will be set out in detail in our White Paper in the spring.

We were elected on a manifesto commitment to lead the international fight against global warming. It is not fair for the hon. Gentleman to say that it is a matter of soundbites. Although we have made substantial progress already on delivering that promise, a successful outcome to Kyoto is far from assured. We shall certainly do everything within our powers. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I will be engaged in extensive international consultation involving much travelling over the next fortnight precisely to exert diplomatic pressure where we can.

As I said, we have committed ourselves to a 20 per cent. cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. The Prime Minister restated his support for action in a speech to the United Nations. I should make it clear that I believe that the previous Administration had a good reputation on climate change. Indeed, to be fair, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said that. I pay tribute to the previous Secretary of State. The problem was that he was not backed up by his Cabinet colleagues; he did not have the support of the rest of the Government. That is what is so different this time. The whole Government are behind our objectives.

As others have said, global warming will not be as attractive a prospect as some may believe. Yes, there may be more long, hot summers, more alfresco dinner parties and warmer winters, as we are seeing, but the reality in future will be very different if we do nothing. There will be more rain, frequent floods, more storms, hurricanes and disasters, and diseases such as malaria will certainly reappear. Prime agricultural land will begin to disappear under the waves, and if the Gulf stream shifts, which could well happen, we could certainly face a much colder climate—perhaps more like Siberia than the south of France.

Oxford And Cambridge College Fees

11 am

A story runs that only in Oxford would one hear a snatched conversation between two people walking down the street, in which one is saying to the other, "And ninthly." The House will be pleased to know that, although I have a number of points to make, I shall not tax its patience or my numeracy by matching that caricature.

I should begin by making clear what I shall not be speaking about. I shall not be claiming that Oxford and Cambridge are the only two excellent universities. Indeed, I would mention that, in many of our leading universities, departments across a range of subjects rival and even exceed the quality found in Oxford and Cambridge. I hope that Members will not spend time this morning arguing that point, which I think has already been conceded.

This debate allows discussion on how we can improve access to excellence in teaching and research. It does not concern privilege or elitism in any sense other than we would wish to help to produce an academic elite just as we would artistic, cultural and sporting innovators and leaders. There is no reason why the term "elite" should be one of abuse, providing that there are opportunities for all members of society with the right gifts and talents to access the means by which they may excel.

Will the hon. Gentleman spell out to the Government the limited range of practical steps for many colleges if the fee that the Government pay is abolished or substantially reduced and if they are not allowed to resume the charging of private fees? As he will point out, such options are stark. Colleges could close, they could scale down their activities to the level that their endowment and university-derived income provides, or they could substantially increase the number of full fee-paying overseas students. Does he agree that the Government would be well advised to cut out egalitarian dogma and focus on practical implications?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Although I shall not necessarily imply that I believe that that is what the Government are doing, I shall turn to some of the options for universities if they are faced with a cut in income of any kind, specifically the potential cut in college-fee income. Access is at the heart of the debate, and I shall return to it later.

The current review is being conducted because the Dearing report said that any funding differentials between different educational establishments should be reviewed with a view to maintaining higher levels of investment only if there is an improved difference in provision and if the state, through the Department for Education and Employment, decides that it is a good use of resources. The review is therefore welcome because it is an opportunity for Oxford and Cambridge universities to justify their additional funding.

It is right, as Lord Plant said last week in another place, that any differential funding by the state be the subject of proper scrutiny. It must be publicly justified and periodically reviewed. The review provides an opportunity to show value for money and to re-energise universities' efforts to expand access.

We must remember that the Government and parliamentarians share an interest in ensuring that nothing said here will deter state-school applicants of appropriate merit from applying to Oxford and Cambridge universities. There is a great problem with image; it is an outdated one which portrays them as caricatures and as stereotypes in the media. We must ensure that any comments that we make today can be used by people who wish to see the excellence offered at Oxford and Cambridge and other universities open to state-school applicants.

Today's debate, and the review which prompted my request for House of Commons' time to discuss it, provides a valuable opportunity to debunk the Oxbridge myths. I was educated in a Liverpool state school and trained in medicine at Oxford university so that I could go on to a career in public service—the health service initially. I am therefore anxious to eliminate the myth of Brideshead-style privilege. Broadening access and encouraging the most able from all backgrounds to apply and undergo the, albeit rigorous, selection procedures is a job for the two universities, in co-operation with the Government.

Some people will always be attracted to Oxbridge for what we might call the wrong reasons, but I am concerned with the substance rather than the fluff of what it produces. We must deprecate the fact that the press do not publish pictures of people in formal academic dress at other universities which have the same or similar ceremonies to those at Oxford and Cambridge and approximately the same number of annual occasions. I want to move away from the associated image of gilded youth and dreaming spires.

The Government are right to be taking advice and seeking information from various sources, including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which has been asked to give a view. We should, however, remember that the funding council has a relatively narrow remit to look only at funding issues, and then only within its terms of operation, which is generally to even out funding. The Government must not allow any reduction in funding to be implemented without proper consideration of Oxbridge's place and role in what the Prime Minister likes to call "the big picture".

Our secondary education system is severely damaged. The state sector achieves relatively poor results compared with private and grammar schools. People have made great play of the apparent wider access to universities in former days, but that was of course before the huge expansion in private secondary school education over past decades, when grammar schools moved into the private sector.

We have also seen a huge expansion in the number of assisted places. The figures that Oxbridge collects—the only universities to publish them—will include people who, in the 1960s, would have attended state grammar schools and who come from all backgrounds, especially lower socio-economic groups. We must remember that, until recently, such people did not progress through assisted places.

Problems with access—the ratio of state to privately educated students at Oxford and Cambridge is approximately 50:50—together with the British tendency to associate the word "elite" with class privilege, has skewed our perceptions of excellence in higher education. The French have no problem with the concept of an elite, and pour far more money than we do into students who attend the top higher education institutions—the grandes ecoles. Since the French have a totally egalitarian state secondary school system that works, their elite is meritocratic. We need to move more quickly toward that ideal, as I am sure the Government would agree, by broadening access to the best institutions and not by homogenising or levelling down.

The Government have spoken of their commitment to excellence in, for example, their intention to create centres of excellence and special training facilities for tomorrow's sporting heroes. I hope that they can work with Oxford and Cambridge to ensure that those two training grounds for exceptional academic ability continue to lead the world and draw on all British talents.

Oxford and Cambridge are world-class institutions, in the top 10 on any measure of merit, and unique in Europe for being able to compete with and match the standards of the great American universities in both teaching and research across a broad subject range. Alone in Europe, Oxford and Cambridge can compete with Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Chicago and California. Penicillin was discovered in an Oxford laboratory and DNA in a Cambridge physics department. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) is present, and look forward to her contribution to the debate.

Through their work, the universities indirectly contribute to the standing of this country in arts and science, and of course to the work of other universities in cross-fertilisation of ideas and personnel. Of the university professors listed in "Who's Who", a majority have been through Oxford or Cambridge—especially for an early part of their research career.

The extra college fee income must be seen to be used to maintain quality, not for other purposes. That extra fee income is used by Oxford and Cambridge to provide a unique teaching system and extensive research capabilities, all in the context of a collegiate structure.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extra resources would be more acceptable if the price extracted for them was wider availability for ordinary bright children to go to Oxford and Cambridge?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which I shall deal with later. It is at the nub of the argument. The fee will not be perceived as value for money unless it is used to provide wider access to Oxford and Cambridge for all socio-economic groups than applies at present. The funding is used to deliver excellence and quality in the collegiate system. I do not claim that one-to-one tutorials are the norm or the only way of teaching, but the collegiate structure and the community of learning make those places different and contribute to the excellence that is provided.

Dearing specified that there should be diversity in Britain's higher education. Oxbridge offers unique features that must not be sacrificed on the altar of a fallacious definition of equality. The Dearing report says:
"We do not believe that students in the future will see themselves simply as customers of higher education but as members of a learning community."
Oxbridge has cross-subject communities. That experience should be held up as an ideal. Those who sit on the Labour Benches in another place have said that, from teaching in other universities and consulting universities abroad, they have found that Oxford and Cambridge are a model on which many institutions abroad base their teaching methods.

College-based university life provides unique opportunities to interface between disciplines, which leads to unusual and exceptional achievements. The discovery of DNA was a biology problem solved in the physics department at Cambridge. If Britain loses a precious asset such as Cambridge science—there is great fear and danger that, should the fee be reduced—Microsoft's recent valuable inward investment package may not be repeated. Indeed, the standing of British universities may never recover.

It is not strictly correct to say that the argument is about undergraduate teaching alone. Lord Plant, from the Labour Benches in another place, has said that research in Oxford and Cambridge is embedded in a collegiate structure which is bound to be more expensive and will not survive if college fees disappear. Colleges fund research fellowships, junior research fellowships, graduate studentships and graduate scholarships from their income.

The college system is not the only way to achieve that or a template that all must follow, but where it exists there are additional benefits that compensate for additional costs. The Oxford and Cambridge college system is a fact of life that cannot be uninvented, even if it is a model that other universities would prefer not to, or could not afford to, follow.

The £35 million that goes to Oxbridge in college fees gives good value for money, helping to maintain those pre-eminent institutions and their teaching and research strengths. The money does not come from the HEFCE pool, so it is not taken directly from other universities. It is a separate item in the budget of the Department for Education and Employment, used to compensate local education authorities for paying the fees that students used to pay. The HEFCE general budget gets a clawback.

There is a danger that, if the fee were reduced, the Government would not automatically allocate the money to other universities without taking a decision to do so. While I join the Government in lamenting the drop in unit resource in universities over the years and I recognise that there is chronic underfunding in the higher education system, I do not think that they would argue that such a simplistic measure would solve all the problems facing higher education.

It is sad that so much is said about funding that is deleterious, looking at what some colleges have and saying that they should not have it simply because other universities do not. Some have said in another place that it would be no bad thing if Oxford and Cambridge colleges were to close. Such comments are unwelcome in this debate.

Academic salaries in Oxford are as low as those anywhere else in the sector. Without the senior lecturer grade that exists in other universities, many age equivalents are less well remunerated. It is sad that hon. Members may have to be reminded that college members pay from their salary for any wine that is supposedly consumed in large quantities in the colleges. I hope that we shall hear no more such nonsense and stereotypes.

There is no pot of gold on which colleges can draw to keep afloat. They cannot compensate for the withdrawal of college fees by selling their assets, as recent press coverage has suggested. Some colleges have valuable assets, but every penny earned from those assets, endowments and funds is spent on teaching research and the upkeep of libraries, laboratories and college buildings, often of great heritage value.

Christ Church in Oxford is not poor, but it funds, among other things, 16 junior research fellowships and looks after the 12th-century cathedral for the city and the nation with part of its income. The Cambridge equivalent is the King's college chapel.

Those who suggest that such colleges should sell what they have fail to distinguish between capital and revenue. By the standards of American universities, which have far larger endowments, Oxbridge is positively reckless in taking earnings of 4.6 per cent. from its investments and assets to complement the funding that it receives from the public purse. What is more, the decision in the July Budget to abolish tax relief from dividends will reduce income by about 10 per cent. I make no comment about the appropriateness of that decision.

If assets are sold, there will not be the income to match—indeed, more than match—the public subsidy. The situation is a superb example of a public-private partnership. The colleges, which are private institutions, more than match, for the same purposes, the funding provided by the state in the college fee.

In arguing for the preservation of the elitism of Oxbridge, I understood the hon. Gentleman to say that we should improve access by developing an egalitarian state school system. Is he advocating the abolition of the public school system?

I am asking that we improve standards in the state sector—a policy that I believe the Government to be committed to. We have supported moving the subsidy previously used for assisted places to the state sector. That will allow higher quality from the state sector. The current lack of applications from good state sector candidates, for reasons that I have already mentioned, is the biggest problem in our attempts to ensure a better ratio of state to private and overseas students.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the crux of the issue? Unless targets for admissions from the state sector are set for Oxford and Cambridge, it is unlikely that anything will change. Does he agree that part of the package to justify the extra £35 million must be positive steps on that and agreed targets to redress the balance?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the universities welcome the Government's initiative in seeking the review. Many proposals have been put forward to expand further the work done on access from the state sector to those two universities.

That is all well and good, but will the hon. Gentleman remind the House that a substantial proportion of A-levels go to pupils from independent schools? As long as Oxford and Cambridge are seeking to attract the brightest and ablest students, which must be part of their mission, it is inevitable that they will choose from the pool of people with A-levels. Regrettably, the performance of the state sector is such that a high proportion of A-levels go to children from independent schools.

I am afraid that I must disagree. There are clever people in all sectors of education, but we do not get a sufficient number of applications from the state sector. A-level results are not necessarily the best way of judging whether people are bright.

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that Oxbridge merely accepts the students who are best prepared, not necessarily the brightest students; and that that is why so many of them are from the public school sector?

Yes, but recent changes in Oxbridge admission procedures have attempted to tackle that. Certainly Oxford—and I think Cambridge too—interviews far more people for each place than does any other university, so as to ensure that what appears on paper, perhaps reflecting good preparation, does not disguise people's ability or rule out those with great potential from the state sector. Often ability will emerge better in an interview—but more remains to be done.

Removing college fees will inevitably damage access, either because colleges will have to reintroduce charges to the student that are no longer made up for by LEAs, or because colleges will have to put up room and board costs, or because they will have to admit a greater number of paying—and hence wealthier—overseas students. The universities do not want to start charging students fees which the Government currently pay, but that is the next alternative open to them as independent institutions.

If the Government want to prevent the Oxbridge colleges from taking this step under the duress of the removal of the fee money by the DFEE, that will involve complex and time-consuming hybrid legislation. As the Bishop of Oxford said in another place, it would be sad if, as a result of Government legislation, Oxford and Cambridge became a club for the relatively well-off, with all that that would imply for future jobs and careers and the accentuation of a worse kind of elitism.

Of course Oxbridge has always charged college fees. Until 1962, scholarship students there had their fees paid by the state, but all others paid the extra money. But then legislation passed on the costs to the LEAs for all UK undergraduates. The LEAs were then able to recoup the costs from the Treasury. If the Government remove funding for the college fee system, the colleges will have to find students who can afford to pay the fees themselves, and that in turn will further damage access. Indeed, the effect would be the very opposite of what the proposal is intended to achieve.

Does my hon. Friend share my great concern that, if the Government persist with their wrong-headed decision to introduce tuition fees, not only will such fees increase across the board in time but differentials will open up between various places of learning? In the end, Oxbridge and the medical and veterinary colleges will be completely out of reach of ordinary people and will turn into truly elite institutions—

Order. May I remind the House yet again that this is a very short debate? A number of those who have intervened are also, I believe, seeking to catch my eye later; they should hear in mind that their interventions take time away from their own speeches.

There is certainly great concern that up-front fees—or up-front debts—may deter people from higher education and from taking less well remunerated jobs in the public sector. The Government are grappling with such difficulties, but I will not dwell on the subject today. Suffice it to say that we all deprecate additional up-front fees, even with means testing administered by colleges, as the worst of all worlds.

Critics of Oxbridge call for modernisation. There is a great deal of room for improvement in the crucial area of access; but people must realise that removing the college fee would achieve the opposite of what they want. If colleges cannot charge their students for the fee, the first ones to go bankrupt or to go private will be the newer, poorer colleges, many of which are women's colleges—the only remaining state women's colleges in Britain. Surely the continuation of such arrangements would be in line with the spirit of Dearing, which requires the fostering of diversity.

The women's colleges and the more recently founded colleges do not possess land or inherited wealth, and have far smaller endowments and fewer assets. A good example would be Somerville college in Oxford, where the college fee money provides one third of the college's total income. It is spent entirely on academic stipends.

Removing some or all of the fee will have serious consequences for jobs and the local economies of both cities, with redundancies and associated costs in academic, administration and ancillary posts. Such action would contribute to the brain drain. Talented British academics would leave for postings overseas, especially in the USA. The loss of the fee would also undermine the general economic health of the two cities. Oxford University employs 10,500 people, of whom 3,000 are college non-academic staff. That is to say nothing of those employed by the companies and institutions that flock to these cities to be close to the universities.

Colleges maintain their historic buildings and collections without heritage grants. The Bodleian library has just had its application for a restoration project rejected by those who make the decisions on lottery awards. This investment by the universities in heritage feeds into the lucrative year-round tourist trade, which also generates jobs. In this sense Oxford and Cambridge are industrial cities whose main industry is education, based in and around the universities. Damaging those universities would threaten the economic well-being of a large part of the population.

The Liberal Democrats will support Government moves to provide high-quality mass education and to support our existing centres of excellence, with open admission procedures based on merit and talent. I hope that some of my arguments this morning, especially those about the need to improve broad access, have demonstrated the place held by Oxford and Cambridge in this vision. I further hope that Members who enjoyed and benefited from an Oxbridge education after leaving state schools, as I did, will not adopt a drawbridge mentality. We must be keen to maximise opportunity for those who come after us; we must retain the college fee coupled with a requirement to improve access and to show value for money.

I close with a statement by Lord Winston, who said that he joined the Labour party because he believed in a fair society, but, he said, a fair society does not mean that people are equal in every respect. We are talking about truly outstanding institutions which are models of university education not merely in this country but throughout the world. Academic institutions throughout Britain are extremely fragile. We might damage something which in turn could damage our national economy.

These universities are brand leaders in British higher education. If they fall, the reputation of British higher education will be damaged. I hope that the Minister's response today will be as constructive as the spirit in which I have attempted to deal with these difficult issues.

11.26 am

I thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for raising this issue and congratulate him on gaining the time in which to do so.

I am proud to represent a university that has contributed so much success to academic endeavour and excellence. Most of us are proud to live in a country that can still achieve world firsts—a country renowned for its contributions to science and technology as well as the arts and humanities. We should celebrate our nation's success: it increases our self-confidence and self-esteem, and it leads us to greater achievements in the future.

One thinks of some of the people who studied at Cambridge—Isaac Newton, Watson and Crick, Rutherford and J. J. Thompson. They all achieved their remarkable success at Cambridge university. Cambridge has also shaped the arts and humanities by giving us people such as F. R. Leavis, Rupert Brooke, Ted Hughes, Maynard Keynes, Wittgenstein, Joan Robinson and Ian McKellen.

The briefing prepared by Cambridge for Members of Parliament stated that Cambridge had won 68 Nobel prizes, but since that briefing was prepared Cambridge has won another one for molecular biology. That is surely a record to be proud of.

Oxbridge's contribution to our economy is difficult to assess, although needless to say it is pervasive. Among its better known graduates are the Prime Minister, Cabinet Ministers, many Members of Parliament, including me, captains of industry, senior civil servants, professional people, actors, journalists and many others—all of them sport a Cambridge or Oxford MA after their names.

The contribution to the local economy is much easier to measure. About 30,000 people are employed in 1,000 technology-based firms in and around Cambridge, in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley). Most of those companies say that the university is one of the main reasons for locating in the area or that it is the basis for their existence.

A wide range of expertise is represented, from telecommunications, in firms such as lonica and Cambridge Cable; biotechnology, in firms such as Amgen, Cantab Pharmaceuticals and Peptide Therapeutics; information services, in firms such as Analysis and UUnet; computer hardware and software, in firms such as Olivetti and Xemplar, and now Microsoft, and industrial consultancy, in firms such as Cambridge Consultants and Scientific Generics. Those firms are known not just nationally but internationally as excellent in their fields.

Those companies also generate huge revenues for the Exchequer. One argument that I have heard made is that the college fee should be increased because the payback on the investment is so enormous that it justifies the initial investment. I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that we should do nothing that will damage the excellence of those institutions and the national benefits which accrue from them.

That is not to argue for the status quo. It is right that Oxbridge colleges should account for the ways in which their public subsidies are spent and justify them. When every other item of expenditure is being closely examined, it would be wrong to regard Oxbridge as untouchable. Few would argue that the system could not be more efficient or effective. We have a new Government who value achievement and who set out a clear agenda for higher education in their pre-election document, "Lifelong Learning". Equal access to higher education is an important principle, on which the Labour party fought the election and which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the population.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said that at the moment the system is not egalitarian. More than half the students at Oxbridge are recruited from the independent sector, which represents only 9 per cent. of the school population. For those who wish to preserve the excellence which is Oxbridge, that makes the college fee hard to defend. It means that the subsidy goes to those who have been best prepared rather than those who are the brightest and have the most ability. Although many state schools prepare students well for higher education, after 18 years of Tory mismanagement of our education system, many do not.

Do not Oxford and Cambridge go to a great deal of trouble in their interview process to discover not just the academic qualifications of individual candidates, but their inherent intelligence? Do they not bend over backwards in that endeavour?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is implying that, because the admission of students from the independent sector is more than 50 per cent. at Oxford and Cambridge, it means that students who go to the state sector are less intelligent than those who go to the independent sector, but that argument does not hold up. Oxbridge cannot make up for the defects of our state school system, but it can suit well those bright students who have underdeveloped potential. Some colleges in Cambridge have led the way—Churchill, Fitzwilliam and King's, which now admit 75 per cent. of their intake from the state sector. Those are examples which can be copied and from which we can learn.

I want to quote the example of one of my constituents who went to Cambridge from a less than privileged background. He described to me how he had been admitted to Fitzwilliam college with qualifications gained through part-time study at a technical college some 30 years ago. That was obviously an enlightened admissions tutor. He had qualifications well below the average standard of undergraduate entry. Through the efforts of his college supervisor, he quickly made up lost ground and went on to play a major role in the development of the scanning electron microscope.

Such instruments are now to be found in research laboratories throughout the world and have helped to create hundreds of thousands of jobs at Leo Electron Optics, formerly Leica, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In addition, he started a small science park company. That shows that there has been a worthwhile return on the investment in his education, which has created so many jobs and has been of so much value to the country.

It has been said that Oxford and Cambridge do try to admit students from the state sector, but they should try harder. I was pleased to see Cambridge university's recent statement on the steps that it is taking to do just that. The recently announced target of 65 per cent. of students from the state sector is not just empty rhetoric. The proposals include a high-powered task force and a public relations campaign to encourage more clever students in state schools to consider applying; the group to encourage ethnic minority applicants will also continue, and the internal admissions procedure will be simplified and sharpened.

While I am on the subject, I want to say a little more about the excellent initiative—the target schools scheme—which I think operates in Oxford and Cambridge. It is run in Cambridge by the Cambridge university students' union. The reason I am so knowledgeable about it is that one of the people who ran the scheme, Alex King, is my researcher in the House this year. He and a number of other people organised the scheme successfully in Cambridge. Each school with a sixth form and each sixth-form college receives a 16-page prospectus aimed at state schools, and the offer of a visit from a student to encourage others to apply.

I was alarmed that last year the student union had to dip into its own resources to find £350 for a computer disk with updated information on the names of schools, head teachers and so on. I should be glad if my hon. Friend the Minister would investigate whether such information could be provided free in future by the Department for Education and Employment. It is a worthwhile cause, and students should not have to dip into their own pockets to pay for it.

I understand that there are plans to strengthen the target schools scheme and I heartily applaud those efforts. We should heartily approve of students who are prepared to give up their own time and resources in order to participate.

I am interested in many of the hon. Lady's remarks, but is not one of the barriers to greater access the gold standard of A-levels? Does she agree that, until we have a different qualification structure for 14 to 19-year-olds which is more egalitarian, we will never achieve the sort of targets that she and I, and my hon. Friends, would like to see?

There is a case for widening the qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. That is something that the Labour party has been in favour of in the past. There is a misconception in many universities, and probably in Oxbridge as well, about other qualifications, such as vocational qualifications, and their intellectual value as a preparation for a degree.

In addition to all the steps that I have mentioned, Cambridge is developing further its provision for mature students. It is extending a scheme for undergraduates with low financial resources, appointing an access officer and an access task force and it is making access and admissions information available on the university website and colleges are making direct contact with teachers in more state secondary schools. A great deal is being done and I look forward to seeing the success of that in the months and years to come.

The Government are keen to promote lifelong learning, something of which I wholeheartedly approve. It is perhaps less well known that Cambridge university was a pioneer of adult and continuing education in the last century. That has continued through to this day. Currently, 15,000 students benefit from the adult programmes at Cambridge university. Professional and vocational development programmes are offered to a wide range of practitioners, including doctors, teachers and the police.

I want to touch briefly on the recently published college accounts, about which there has been a great deal in some of the Sunday papers, which show that a few colleges are particularly wealthy. Trinity is one of those that has managed its assets well, and it now has an income of around £19 million a year. It has been argued that, if redistributed, the Trinity income alone could make up the loss of the college fee. However, it is worth asking where Trinity's funds currently go and what areas would lose out if they were to be redistributed.

In addition to undergraduates, Trinity, in common with all the other colleges, has a high proportion of postgraduates and research fellows, who are funded from the college's private endowments. Trinity college also makes funds available for research—for instance, at the Newton Mathematical Institute, which scored a magnificent success when a young researcher, Andrew Wiles, discovered the proof for Fermat's last theorem. That problem had confounded mathematicians all over the world for 300 years. We should all take delight in such success, celebrate it and try to ensure that it continues.

I would guess that in the Chamber today are sceptics who believe that the £35 million could be better spent elsewhere, and I do not doubt that there is room for change. Corresponding changes in the government and structure of the university could create a better institution than the one we have at present. It does not seem sensible that the colleges and the university are funded separately from the public purse. A funding system whereby the money went directly to the university to be distributed to the colleges would lead to more efficient management of the system.

I urge the university to listen to student pleas for a more centralised welfare system. The stresses on students in a demanding hothouse atmosphere are excessive and cause great suffering. It is time to take a more professional approach than that offered by an untrained academic acting as a tutor. I know that colleges subscribe to the university counselling service, but that is available only when students are already experiencing serious problems. Young people who are living away from home, often for the first time, require advice and guidance from professionals; they should not have to rely solely on someone who will write their references at the end of their course. Pooling resources to provide a comprehensive student welfare service, as exists in many other universities, would be beneficial.

There are those of us who regard the current review as being as much an opportunity as a threat. A review of the system will lead to improvements, regardless of the outcome of the funding review, but we should consider what would be the outcome if the college fee were to be removed completely.

Colleges would certainly react by taking in more foreign students, who would pay the sort of fees currently charged by universities in the United States. That would have knock-on effects in terms of limiting opportunities for home-grown students. Colleges might also be tempted to increase their income by charging top-up fees to home students. I am heartened by the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that he would make great efforts to prevent universities and colleges from adopting that course. It would be difficult to prevent them from doing so, because they are private institutions, but no doubt ways will be found.

The consequence of such actions would not be that desired by many of my colleagues. The university would become more exclusive: there would be no incentive for colleges to take more students from poorer backgrounds and the recent gains in the percentage of state-school pupils admitted would be reversed. Oxbridge would, once again, become the exclusive home of privilege and wealth. I want everyone to be able to gain from the excellence available at Oxbridge. Bright students everywhere should be able compete for places without the fear that Oxbridge is not for them or that there is a bar to their entry. That is what the colleges want, too, and I hope that the Government will help them to achieve their aim.

11.43 am

I am especially pleased to be called in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who made several remarks with which I agree, so I shall not delay the House by repeating them. I am grateful, as are we all, to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for having sought this timely and important debate.

As Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire, I represent two Cambridge colleges—the lesser part of Cambridge university, but the part containing the Institute of Molecular Biology; I am happy to say that, just a few weeks ago, my constituency acquired another Nobel prize winner.

I am not a graduate of either Oxford or Cambridge, although some say I would have benefited from being so. Nevertheless, that does not disqualify me from saying that I entirely concur with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that we are not talking about two centres of excellence to the exclusion of other universities. There is much excellence to be found in Britain's higher education sector, and to say that Oxford and Cambridge occupy a special position is not to denigrate the achievements of other universities.

Oxford and Cambridge occupy a special position not only in our own education system but in the world education structure. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was right to say that they are unique within Europe and that they have a capacity to compete directly with the major United States universities. If the higher education structure in this country did not exist, the United States universities would acquire an international monopoly as centres of excellence. That would be a monopoly to be strongly deplored.

I shall restrict myself to making one or two points. First, much of the debate has been about access and admissions to Oxford and Cambridge. The hon. Member for Cambridge amply testified to Cambridge university's intention to increase further the number of students taken from state schools.

I declare an interest in that I was educated at Oxford. I am sorry that there is such a strong Oxbridge flavour to the debate this morning and I hope that hon. Members representing other parts of the country will be called to contribute later. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that, when I was at Oxford in the 1960s, the ratio was about 50 per cent. private school students: 50 per cent. state system students, and that that has not changed at all over the past 30 years? The promises we keep hearing from Oxbridge ring hollow.

The speech of the hon. Member for Cambridge gave ample testimony to the great efforts made by Oxford and Cambridge in that respect. The figures tend to mislead.

My hon. Friend makes the point about A-levels: in so far as A-levels are a measure, it is clear that Oxford and Cambridge are being presented with many highly successful A-level students from the independent sector, but they are not restricting their efforts to attracting such students. Through the target schools scheme, many colleges are making every effort to interview applicants from the state sector in a way that identifies potential rather than simply assessing performance at A-level.

Is my hon. Friend aware that a significant proportion of Oxbridge students from independent schools went to those schools via the assisted places scheme, a fact which distorts the comparison? In addition, a number of schools that were in the state sector 30 years ago have since moved into the private sector.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not wish to debate the assisted places scheme again, but its existence has meant that the proportion of students coming to Oxford and Cambridge from the independent sector is by no means an expression of elitism, since such students may well have come from low-income households and used the assisted places route to secondary education.

I run the risk of falling into the trap against which I wish to argue, which is construing the review as being essentially about access and admissions. It is not. The review is fundamentally about value for money and the use of the resources deployed through the collegiate system in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to achieve excellence. If, as I hope, access is improved and admissions from state schools are increased, students will not wish to be admitted to a university whose standards have not been maintained and whose methods of teaching are no longer those that once sustained those standards on an international scale.

We have to look at the use of money and resources, and on that point the arguments are clear. We are talking about one third of 1 per cent. of total expenditure on higher education—perhaps one thousandth part of spending on education in this country, but it is a one thousandth part that has a powerful influence throughout the system. Excellence breeds excellence, not only within higher education, but within the education system as a whole. The collegiate system is not simply about tutorial groups and teaching: it is integral to the research output of Oxford and Cambridge.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made it clear that 70 per cent. of United Kingdom university professors pass through Oxford or Cambridge at some time during their academic career, so there is a spread of that excellence throughout the education system. The idea that we can have some sort of Marmite strategy and take the—

Can the hon. Gentleman give me an example of a piece of excellent research that developed solely because of the collegiate system, as opposed to research such as that on DNA, which was developed in a Medical Research Council laboratory that just happened to be sited in Cambridge?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not attempt to give examples. I am aware that, in Cambridge generally, the ability within the multi-faculty universities and the collegiate system to relate one discipline to another has led to a cross-fertilisation of great importance.

My hon. Friend might like to refer the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) to Trinity College, Cambridge. Over 100 years of the Nobel prize, that one college has won more prizes than France.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are many examples of excellence within both universities. As I have said, I am not denying the presence of excellence in other universities. There are universities where two thirds to three quarters of research departments are achieving five-star ranking. There is no lack of excellence in other universities, but we must recognize—it is a matter of perception as well as reality—that, throughout the world, there is a recognition of what Oxford and Cambridge are achieving.

We need to look at the two Dearing criteria. I am sure that hon. Members understand and accept the need for a review of the college fees system and I am sure that the two criteria of good value for money and good use of resources are perfectly acceptable. On those two criteria there will be no difficulty sustaining the college fees system, because it does represent good value for money and is a good use of resources.

It is good for the universities in terms of what they achieve with the students who attend them. It is good for the higher education system because Oxford and Cambridge are feeding excellence and success elsewhere within higher education. It is a good use of resources in terms of our economic benefit. The hon. Member for Cambridge accurately referred to the impact on local economies, but we could look at the impact on the United Kingdom economy as a whole.

I used to be a recruiter of graduates in a highly competitive environment. I was only too well aware of the aptitude and skills of those Oxford and Cambridge graduates. I am sure that that was due in no small part to the fact that they were not just graduates in a particular discipline, but had an awareness of other disciplines through the collegiate system. The combination of a residential collegiate system and a tutorial system is important, and it has had substantial benefits in our higher education system. It is important to sustain it.

11.52 am

I am not a representative of either an Oxford or a Cambridge constituency, but I have an interest in the debate because I am a governor of the London School of Economics and I have a daughter at Jesus College, Cambridge and a daughter who has attended Pembroke College.

There needs to be a breath of fresh air in a debate that recognises that there is a real crisis in higher education. That crisis has been caused by chronic underfunding over 18 years under the previous Government. Pay in the higher education sector is appalling. I do not believe the argument about the brain drain, but I do believe that some people with excellent qualifications do not want to stay on in higher education because they can slip into the City or into occupations that pay two or three times more than professorial salaries within just a short time.

There is a crisis with our elite institutions. I believe that we will always have elite institutions in higher education and that we must have world-class institutions. However, I do not think that Oxford and Cambridge are quite as good as they think they are. If they measure themselves against the best in the United States, they will see that they have been falling behind for a long time. They need to buck up their ideas about how they organise themselves and how they attract high-quality researchers and students. They need to do that using all the talents in our country.

As I said, 1 am a governor of the LSE. We have real problems there. As a result of the cuts over the past 18 years, more than 50 per cent. of our students now come from overseas. More people come to the LSE from the public school sector than many Oxford and Cambridge colleges. That is happening increasingly in a group of elite universities and colleges across the country. It is a real crisis. We must decide that we need to have some world-class institutions and then provide the funds for them.

The hon. Gentleman has had his chance.

I am willing to see extra resources flowing to Oxford and Cambridge if we get something for it. I do not believe that, over the years that they have had that extra funding, we have seen enough of an effort to change the way in which they recruit talented students. I have been talking to some of the people involved in recruitment in the colleges. They were talking about the 50:50 split which, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) said, has not changed for a long time.

The recruiters would say that we should look more closely at what parts of the state sector the students come from; it is not the average comprehensive such as those in my constituency but an exclusive group of schools in the state sector. I believe that, because of the cosy arrangements that Oxford and Cambridge colleges have with specific schools in both the state and the private sector, many talented young people are losing out. Many of them are just as able as those already at Oxford or Cambridge.

We talk about public schools having good results, but I am afraid that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) has lost the argument here. I often agree with the hon. Gentleman about education, but he is losing it on this one. An examination of where the children are coming from reveals that talented children are not getting sufficient opportunities. We need to spread their abilities. Rather than stimulating talent, enterprise and so on, I believe that Oxford and Cambridge are stifling them. They stifle the talent of people coming from other institutions. We need to open up Oxford and Cambridge and the other universities to talent. That is a real challenge.

We must make sure that we fund higher education properly and that we have a proper strategy. I do not think that that is contained in Dearing. The House must debate this issue far more widely otherwise our higher education institutions—Oxford, Cambridge, the LSE and many others—will have a dismal future. I am sure that our Government and our Minister will have some of the answers today.

11.57 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on calling for the debate. I remind the House that it is specifically about whether Oxbridge meets the requirements under the definition of approved difference for a relatively modest sum of £35 million of additional funding.

I have talked to many of my contacts in America, India and Europe and they ask whether this country has gone mad. They cannot understand the wish to attack our two leading academic institutions. We have heard evidence from many hon. Members of the contribution made by those universities, which includes 69 Nobel prizes. I would have thought that Microsoft arriving at Cambridge is just the latest recognition of what has been achieved. We know what the economic impact is, and the tourist impact.

We are talking about two traditional institutions of excellence. To threaten them with severe damage and the eventual prospect of going independent for the sake of £35 million would be an act of levelling madness.

In the case of Cambridge, it is argued that the colleges have their own endowment income. What would be the impact of the proposed reduction in college funding? Of a total endowment income of about £65 million, one third relates to one college, Trinity; another third relates to five colleges only; and the final third covers a spread of 23 colleges. Those 23 colleges could not exist, as they are without the college funding that they receive.

Colleges exist, first, to provide tutorial instruction. Their second great asset is that they provide homes and finance for research fellows. If the £35 million is lost, there may be some scope for sharing funding, but 23 Cambridge colleges—the overwhelming majority—will be forced to change their arrangements.

Unless this country becomes Stalinist, it will not be possible for the Government to prevent the universities from rendering additional charges. I am advised that the European courts would take the view that the Government would not be permitted to restrict them under European Union law.

By contemplating a reduction in funding, we have foolishly raised the possibility of Oxford and Cambridge considering going independent. Those universities have been Labour supporters; now they feel that they have been stabbed in the back. They have attempted to broaden admissions—

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there should be no review of the college fee?

The colleges' income can certainly be reviewed, but in terms of hard finance, the sum of £1,700 per pupil is required by the collegiate system to function as it does at present. At Cambridge—and the situation is not much different at Oxford—23 colleges would have to change their structure enormously if that source of income were lost.

I do not believe that the Government, who have presented themselves to the nation as sensible, moderate and reasonable, seriously wish to destroy the academic excellence of Oxford and Cambridge, which is the envy of the world, and is a great maker of our relationships and contacts and a generator of business around the world—there are, for example, 3,000 Indian members of Cambridge throughout the world.

I do not believe that the Government want to propel those two institutions down a path that may mean that they ultimately become entirely independent, like Harvard. It would be an act of madness, and undesirable. For the reasons outlined by other hon. Members, I am sure that the Government will change their mind. Under the approved difference definition, there is no reason for restricting the level of finance at those institutions.

12.3 pm

I came to the debate merely to listen, and totally unprepared to make a contribution, but I feel that there must be a balance in the debate on behalf of the scores of other universities, one of which I worked at. I must declare an interest. I was not educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. My degrees were obtained from the university of Hull, but I have worked in a collegiate university, Durham, so I know something about the collegiate system; I have examined and lectured at both Oxford and Cambridge, and visited many other universities throughout the country in my career in the university system.

When Oxbridge is under attack—boy, how it can react, and throughout the entire establishment. It plants people in the very House that makes all the important decisions. That is what the debate has been about this morning.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) seems to be confused about the difference between excellence and privilege. I challenged him to tell me whether, in arguing for an egalitarian state system, he could identify with the abolition of the public school system, but all that he could talk about was assisted places. In entering this debate on the record, he has been fighting to protect the privilege of two outstanding universities.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to answer that. Does he agree that it is not the fault of Oxford and Cambridge that we have had a Conservative Government underfunding higher education for 18 years, damaging the state secondary sector for 18 years and bringing about a situation where a greater proportion of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge come from the private sector, which has been expanded? That is not the fault of Oxford and Cambridge. I invite the hon. Gentleman to agree with me that efforts must be made to improve access, but that must be done through putting resources into the state sector, and scrapping assisted places, so that applicants come through the state sector. I agree with him on that.

Yes, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but there are other ways of improving access to those two universities. Protecting the public school system is not the way to do it. As has been said, the public school system is well prepared to get its pupils into both those universities. Some schools in the state sector have learnt how to do it, but the vast majority of schools in the state sector are not prepared, as those institutions have been prepared in the past, to get their pupils into the Oxbridge system.

It is amazing to hear the Conservatives arguing for the continuation of the privileges of the Oxbridge system. I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the previous Government did more damage to the university system than any preceding Government could even have contemplated doing.

For 33 years I have been teaching at the university of Salford. In the early 1980s we received a letter in July of a given year announcing a 46 per cent. cut in the funding of Salford university, which was doing excellent work in science and technology. That cut was for a single year. The cuts that Oxford and Cambridge experienced in that year were trivial by comparison, and I mean trivial. The effects of cuts in the funding of Oxford and Cambridge and the other elite universities have been trivial by comparison with the effects of the cuts imposed on universities such as Aston, Bradford, Salford and scores of others.

I accept that the previous Government damaged the university system immensely. The present Government will find it extremely difficult to get back to where we were in 1979, when those cuts started.

I refer to the teaching at Oxford and Cambridge through the collegiate system and the excellent tutorial system. I know what goes on in those tutorials: small groups of students—five or six—face to face with an excellent teacher is an excellent method for the transfer of knowledge.

I remind the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that in some universities now, tutorials have disappeared entirely from the university system. At the university of Salford, we adopted a similar system, where we had face-to-face contact with five or six students, and we transferred our knowledge in the same excellent manner. However, when I left the university of Salford to join the House of Commons on 1 May, we were trying to conduct tutorials—I did not regard them as tutorials any longer—with groups of students as large as 15.

If the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon wants to argue for the continuation of protected privilege for those two universities, I want him to tell us how the Government should be reversing the situation that has arisen in the other universities. I cannot agree that such privileges should be protected when the system has become so bad for the vast majority of other universities. I am arguing for the hundreds of thousands of students who are suffering as a result. In other words, I am trying to strike a balance.

It was a great mistake for the previous Government to convert all the polytechnics into universities in one fell swoop. I say that as someone who used to be on the staff of a college of advanced technology at Salford, which had to fight to become a university. It was necessary to prove excellence in all subjects that were taught at what was the college. I accept that some of the polytechnics were worthy of university status, but some were not.

Against the background of decisions taken by the previous Government, we are in danger of creating an ivy league of universities, of which Oxford and Cambridge would obviously be members. There must be the same provision throughout the university sector and we must seek to achieve generally what Oxford and Cambridge have tried to achieve in the absence of privilege and other knock-on effects,

Academic salaries are low compared with professional salaries elsewhere. When I became a Member of this place my salary increased by more than £10,000. Before coming here I was a reader in chemistry at Salford university. That must be wrong. In my view, the two professions are comparable. After all, I have done both jobs. Academic salaries are low, and I blame the previous Government for that.

I remind the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that to continue the privileged teaching methods of Oxford and Cambridge, the college fellowships pay those who conduct the tutorial teaching systems extra money. That privilege—let us underline "privilege" —is not available to academic staff in most other British universities. I must accuse the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon of trying to protect privilege and not excellence.

The hon. Gentleman made the claim that penicillin was a discovery of Oxford university. I accept that Florey and Chain developed penicillin at Oxford university and that

their contribution was excellent. However, Alexander Fleming saw the effects of penicillum notatum on bacilli and made the observation in London in a dingy basement laboratory. If it had not been for that observation in London, Oxford would not have been able to develop penicillin.

12.12 pm

Like the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I came into the Chamber to listen. The hon. Gentleman spoke, however, and he went on about privilege. I was at Oxford university, and some may say that I was very privileged. When I was there the number of students coming up year on year from state schools was rising. What has stopped that happening? The answer is the argument that is now being advanced against Oxbridge, and that is an attack on excellence. In the 1960s and 1970s there was an attack on excellent grammar schools. I accept that some comprehensive schools are first-class but it should never have been a matter of also trying to ensure that grammar schools enjoyed no privilege—the "let's get rid of them" approach.

At that time hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, including some on the Front Benches, had been to grammar schools. They are now prepared to deny good-quality education to children for reasons of ideology.

Oxford and Cambridge are not basic bastions of privilege. Indeed, they are often bastions of left-wing thought. Many of those who taught me would disagree with me fundamentally on many issues. I say to all those who seek to bring down Oxford and Cambridge for ideological reasons that they should remember that both are excellent institutions of world renown. Other universities should be brought up to their standards. Let us do that, rather than levelling Oxford and Cambridge.

12.14 pm

I shall try to address my remarks to the subject of the debate, although the debate has ranged more widely. The House may have an opportunity to discuss admission policies on another occasion.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the funding of Oxbridge because, since the general election, the Government have unveiled policies that threaten the nature of grant-maintained schools, grammar schools and Church schools. Their policy towards Oxford and Cambridge represents yet another attack on centres of excellence.

The Government have been divided on this issue and the Prime Minister has intervened to ameliorate the more harmful aspects of the Department for Education and Employment's policy. The right hon. Gentleman has now been forced to slap down the Department's proposals for Oxbridge funding.

The Minister now has an opportunity to clarify the policy that has been batted across the net in the Chamber and by Government spokesmen outside this House, including Baroness Blackstone, the Minister with responsibility for higher education. We know that she is the driving force behind the destructive policy that we are discussing, which has created great uncertainty at Oxford and Cambridge.

The word "egalitarian" has been knocked about the Chamber a good deal today. That being so, I draw attention to an article in last night's edition of the Evening Standard by my former colleague George Walden. The headline reads:
"Old egalitarians never die, they simply wreck our schools."
They are now out to wreck our excellent universities as well.

In the time that is available to me, I want to outline the background, which will explain why the matter before us is of such concern and why there is such uncertainty. The Dearing report suggested that the Government should reassess the payment of college fees at Oxford and Cambridge. Recommendation 74 said:
"variations in the level of public funding for teaching"
were legitimate only if
"there is an approved difference in the provision"
of teaching and
"society, through the Secretary of State or his or her agent,"
decides, after examination of the evidence
"that in relation to other funding needs in higher education, it represents a good use of resources."
In August 1997, the Department wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England to examine the issue of funding at Oxford and Cambridge and especially the tutorial system. The Government especially asked the council to consider, when reaching its conclusions, the remarks made in the Dearing report and its new funding method for teaching, which is grounded on the principle of a set price for each of the four broad subject areas. Since then the HEFCE has been discussing the matter with Oxford and Cambridge and their colleges and we expect advice to come forward shortly.

The Government's initial position was, it appeared, to withdraw entirely the £35 million that supports the college-based tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

Who said that?

I am going through the chronology for the Minister. I hope that he will clarify the matter.

According to newspaper reports, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the Minister, Baroness Blackstone and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were keen to redistribute the £35 million. It was clear from comments made by the Chancellor at the Labour party conference that he believed that Oxford and Cambridge received the money simply to pander to an elite. The indication given at the conference was that the money would be withdrawn.

A Minister was reported in the Financial Times on 23 October—perhaps it was the Under-Secretary; he might like to say whether it was—as saying:
"with the entire sector facing a squeeze, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend a system which gives extra money to the rich."
That theme was taken up by Labour Members this morning. It is clear that a theme ran through the Government's initial response to the Dearing report—to remove the £35 million subsidy from Oxford and Cambridge. Since then, the Prime Minister has received representations from, among others, Lord Eatwell of Queen's college, Cambridge, Baroness Perry, head of Cambridge's Lucy Cavendish college, Lord Plant, master of St. Catherine's college, Oxford, and Eric Anderson, former headmaster of Eton and now master of Lincoln college, Oxford. Mr. Anderson taught the Prime Minister at Fettes—the fee-paying school that is known as Scotland's Eton, for those interested in elitism.

It is important that the Minister clarifies the matter, because the Government's initial reaction is a compromise. The HEFCE is planning to make changes. It will be helpful if the Minister will guarantee that whatever compromise the Government come to following the Prime Minister's lobbying, representations made by the colleges will be taken into account.

I want to emphasise the value for money and the positive outcomes of the present arrangement. I hope that the compromise will take account of them. Oxford and Cambridge are world renowned centres of academic research, graduates coming out of them secure employment within six months and undergraduates have only a 2.6 per cent. fall-out rate compared with the national average of some 8 per cent. That excellence is a tribute to Oxford and Cambridge. Moreover, it costs half as much to educate a graduate at Oxford and Cambridge as it does at some of the ivy league universities in the United States, such as Stanford and Harvard. Oxford and Cambridge are good value for money.

The future of Oxford and Cambridge universities hangs in the balance. I hope that the Minister will reassure them and us that centres of excellence, not just in this country but worldwide, such as at Oxford and Cambridge will be retained and that no dogma or elitism will see their stature diminished, as the Government have sought to do in other areas of education.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

I thank the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) for raising this issue at a time when there is great interest in it.

I was very sorry to hear the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) refer to an article, which appeared last night, written by a former hon. Member—George Walden. It was possibly the most spiteful, personal attack on my noble Friend the Minister of State that I have ever read. I know that, as she comes from an education background, the hon. Lady is aware, as we all are, of the need to review every part of education funding. No part of the review should be sacrosanct. We should be able to review the funding that goes to every university. I shall try to set out just how we intend to do it.

I am intrigued to hear that we have already decided that we are to manipulate the HEFCE's review, because I have not seen that report. It has not yet arrived on our desks. We asked for the report precisely because we wanted a good, objective assessment of the situation at the moment.

Many other people would like to review the situation as well. One thinks, for example, of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. I wonder how the Oxford colleges would feel if they had him breathing down their necks wanting to find out just how each pound is spent. Many agencies that are hard pressed for money are examined under that microscope. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, I know that there are no rules of engagement. The colleges would have a very tough time justifying how the money is spent.

No. The hon. Gentleman—much as I appreciate his contributions—has spoken enough.

We asked for help from the HEFCE because we believe that it is vital that we get expert help and that we try to understand how Oxford and Cambridge relate to every other university and higher education institution in the country. We are aware of the standard of excellence that comes out of Oxford and Cambridge. I would be the last person in the world to be any part of a new regime or system that threatened or reduced standards of excellence. If somebody were to ask, "What about the 69 Nobel prizes?" I would say, yes, it would be very hard to reinvent the system that has won this country 69 Nobel prizes, but I would like a lot more Nobel prizes to be won by other universities as well.

Nobody should go away from the Chamber thinking that Oxford and Cambridge are the only centres of excellence. There are very many others and there are universities that are improving at a tremendous rate.

Exactly.

We are talking to Oxford and Cambridge. I met the vice-chancellors last week. We are talking to everybody involved. I am fully aware of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). They must be made aware that, although we cannot influence any university's policy on student admissions, we are watching very carefully to ensure that the static intake of the past 30 years starts to improve. I do not believe that children who are at state schools are intrinsically any less intelligent than children who are at independent schools. On the contrary, all children have enormous potential and we need to do a great deal to start tapping it. I welcome any debate on the review for Oxford and Cambridge. That is why I am so grateful that we are having this debate.

Today, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, we are looking specifically at one issue—college fees. I assure the House that we will consider the matter objectively. We will do nothing to endanger the standards of excellence at Oxford or Cambridge.

Will the Minister give me an undertaking that he will write to me setting out the legal basis of the threats to legislate against the charging of private fees by private institutions? In particular will he take into account European law and the relevant European convention?

When I understand the significance of that question, I shall certainly consider whether to respond. If it is academic-speak for whether we are in favour of top-up fees, let me tell the hon. Gentleman right now that we are not. If there are problems with a percentage of bright young people going from state schools to Oxford and Cambridge when top-up fees are introduced, it will be a long time before the Government allow that to happen.

No, I shall not give way again. The hon. Gentleman has intervened many times. I shall look carefully at the legal basis and try to reassure him, if that is possible.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton challenged the Government on the basis of press reports. I hope that she will acknowledge that that is not the best source of information and accept my undertaking here and now that we are not in the business of dumbing down or egalitarian dogma. It is a long time since I have been accused of dogma—

Since 1968, probably.

We have no intention of indulging in dogma. Suggesting that we do is a cheap crack. The Government realise that the country's future lies in our having the best educated, best trained work force in the world. If we do not have it, we will not be able to compete in an increasingly global economy. We are determined to ensure that we have such a work force, and Oxford and Cambridge will play their part in that, as will all the other universities and an area of education about which there is often a deafening silence in this place, especially from Conservative Members—further education.

We will ensure that we see the role of Oxford and Cambridge within that wider context. If we manage to do that, we will go some way towards turning the rhetoric in which so many of us believe-lifelong learning, creating a learning society—into a reality.

We will take note of what has been said today. This has been a very useful debate. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. We have all benefited from it.

European Regional Aid

12.28 pm

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about a matter that is of paramount concern not only to my constituency in South Yorkshire, but to every other area in the United Kingdom that has suffered job losses as a result of the demise of our traditional industries—industries such as coal mining, as in Barnsley's case, and steel, textiles and heavy engineering. All those industries are trying desperately to get back on their feet and reaching for new economic directions. Without new industry and new jobs they will inevitably continue on a downward spiral.

I am happy to say, however, that huge strides are being made. In Barnsley and Doncaster, a brighter future is beginning to emerge: although there is still a long way to go, a solid foundation has been laid for future growth. I would like to say that that foundation stemmed from the interest and help of the last Government over the past decade or so but, sadly, assistance from that quarter has been derisory, so I cannot say it. No Conservative Members are present to answer that point.

What I can and must say is that, without doubt, the impetus for the first steps in Barnsley's recovery has come primarily from the European Union. Given my position as a Barnsley Member, it is difficult for me to criticise Brussels. When we lost 14 pits and 20,000 mining jobs almost at a stroke, Barnsley lost its livelihood and came close to economic death. Over recent years, European help—not the last Government's help—has sustained us and put Barnsley back on the road to recovery. Barnsley is not atypical: I know for a fact that the same can be said for all coalfield areas and I suspect that the story will be similar in the many other areas that have suffered from the structural decline of their basic industries.

The figures speak for themselves. The current EU regional aid programme runs from 1994 to 1999; in that period, the United Kingdom will have received some £4.7 billion in assistance—nearly £1 billion for each and every year. We are talking big money. Over the years, the EU has been used to nurture new enterprises, to provide new industrial infrastructure, to fund training and to develop community projects.

That brings me to the crux of my reason for requesting the debate. There is a real crisis on the horizon: there is a real danger that our principal lifeline could soon disappear. The current spending round for EU aid ends in 1999. Discussions on the framework of the next round, which will run from 2000 to 2006, are already well advanced. The European Commission has already revealed its proposals in a consultation document that was published in July. Fortunately, those proposals have yet to be agreed by member Governments.

I say that with relief because it is no exaggeration to state that, if allowed to proceed, the proposals will deal a body blow to our hopes of recovery. Let me spell it out loud and clear. If the Commission is allowed to do as it intends, there is a real possibility that not one part of the United Kingdom will qualify for continuing regional aid. It is that bad—that serious. I shall explain why.

First, the Commission is determined to reduce the geographical coverage of the regional funds from about 50 per cent. of the EU population to between 35 and 40 per cent. Secondly, it is proposed that there should be no change in the key eligibility criteria—gross domestic product, industrial job losses and unemployment—that are used to decide the distribution of aid. Those two factors—greater concentration of funds and unchanged eligibility criteria—are extremely bad news for Britain.

The GDP indicator for eligibility is used to decide the top tier of aid, which is known as objective 1. If an area is to qualify, its GDP must be less than 75 per cent. of the Community average. In Britain's industrial areas, although GDP is falling in relation to that of the rest of Europe, most rates are between 75 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the Community average and none are lower than 75 per cent.

In other words, those areas are in a poor state of health but are not quite badly off enough to qualify for the top tier of aid. Ironically, despite their lower GDP, they may well fail to qualify for the second tier of aid as well—objective 2 aid. The eligibility criteria are industrial job losses and unemployment. We can no longer demonstrate substantial recent job losses, most jobs having been shed in the 1980s; and our official unemployment rates are falsely low and, for the most part, will not meet the EU criteria.

On paper—this is the information that European Commission officials will use—Britain's older industrial areas seem to be in fine fettle, with few job losses and falling unemployment, but anyone who is familiar with the situation in, for example, the north-east, south Wales, Merseyside and my patch—South Yorkshire—will know that that is simply not the case. Despite progress, the problems of those areas remain numerous and acute.

Such concerns are heightened in areas such as Merseyside, which have been experiencing the worst of the recession over the past few years. Among other things, we would like a commitment from the Government to fight for every area that currently enjoys objective 1 and objective 2 status. That is very important to us. We would also like the labour survey figures, rather than the unemployment figures, to be used; and we would like the Government to fight for a flexible approach to GDP. If my hon. Friend the Minister will give me an assurance to that effect today, much of the concern that has been expressed to me—which I know is felt throughout the country—will be alleviated.

I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reply specifically to his points.

The fact that only a few of the hundreds and thousands of jobs that were lost in the 1970s and 1980s have been replaced is hidden by the distortion of the unemployment statistics. I shall give three brief examples from my area. First, 24.4 per cent. —nearly one in four—of school children in Barnsley come from households with no experience of work Secondly, the average income in Barnsley is 55 per cent. of the national average. Thirdly, 19,000 new jobs will be needed to return employment in Barnsley to the national average. I defy anyone, here or in Brussels, to say that those figures illustrate the existence of a vibrant and healthy economy.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, which can be equally well illustrated by the situation in south Wales. Economic inactivity rates—which reflect hidden mass unemployment—are also extremely important, and male economic inactivity rates in my area are of grave concern to us. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will press that point hard in negotiations about the criteria.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Again, I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

I would like to say that Barnsley is unique. It would certainly be in the town's interest for me to do so, thereby indulging in a spot of special pleading. I cannot say that, however. It must be said that Barnsley's circumstances are replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, in other traditional industrial areas throughout the nation. In making our case to Brussels for continuing aid after 1999, we could all be scuppered on the same misleading grounds, unable to demonstrate the existence of large-scale job losses in recent years and unable to show the true level of joblessness. I am enraged by the position and—as has been demonstrated by the interventions that we have heard—others share my sentiments. Brussels must not be allowed to walk away from a job that in our areas is only half done.

What should we do? I am closely associated with the alliance for regional aid, which was set up specifically in response to fears about European regional aid. The alliance represents virtually every local authority in the older industrial areas of the United Kingdom that currently qualify for objective 1 and objective 2 regional aid. In total, 130 local authorities make up that alliance, so it has a powerful voice. It has been working on this issue for some months and has come up with proposals that I and many other hon. Members fully endorse.

It is essential for the Commission to adopt eligibility criteria that reflect the true situation in Britain's industrial areas. The true picture is not shown by information on recent job losses and official unemployment figures. The thrust of the Government's negotiations must be to modify those criteria.

I urge Ministers seriously to consider three proposals. First, the Commission currently uses the International Labour Organisation's measure of unemployment, which profoundly disadvantages the United Kingdom by excluding people who have given up looking for work and those who are supported by benefits, such as incapacity benefit and income support, that do not require them actively to seek jobs. A broader definition of unemployment that embraces all those out of work who want a job would be a truer reflection of joblessness. Those figures are available Europewide, so such a definition could be adopted.

Secondly, GDP figures are used as objective 1 criteria. Their adoption as objective 2 criteria would assist the United Kingdom's case enormously. Most UK industrial areas have a lower GDP than similar areas in France and Germany, so such a step would benefit us greatly.

Thirdly, the Commission must be persuaded to take a long view, possibly as far back as 1980 when the United Kingdom's industrial restructuring began. If it adopts a base date in the 1990s, most UK industrial areas will not qualify. It is of paramount importance that the Government urgently and successfully negotiate adjustments to the criteria in those three critical areas.

Furthermore, informed, reliable guidance shows that the Commission is minded to designate up to 50 per cent. of objective 2 areas across the European Union on the basis of proposals from member state Governments using national data. That would greatly assist our case. The Government must grasp this opportunity, because it would open the door for objective 2 aid to be directed at areas where it is needed by allowing European Union-wide criteria to be supported by criteria set at national level and based on national data.

Indicators that measure social exclusion and competitiveness could be brought into play. That would substantially strengthen the United Kingdom's bid for continued funding. I ask the Government to consider including in the calculations three measures of social exclusion: income support, incapacity benefit and level of earnings. I am confident that close examination of those three indicators would reveal those areas of the United Kingdom that most urgently need help, and that should be recommended to the Commission for objective 2 assistance.

I remind Ministers that time is running out. The Commission will publish firm proposals on the future of regional aid next spring and it will then be difficult to bring about a change of course. There is no doubt that European regional aid has provided a lifeline to former traditional industrial areas such as Barnsley and Doncaster. The new Labour Government must maintain that lifeline.

12.44 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) on securing the debate. As a former leader of Barnsley metropolitan borough council and as founder and chair of the Barnsley economic regeneration forum, which is a private-public partnership, he brings great local and national experience to our discussions. He has shown his expertise by setting out the case not just for the Barnsley area, but for the whole of the United Kingdom.

I am glad to see a good attendance by Labour Members at this first economic debate on regional aid—in contrast to the vacant Conservative Benches. Not one Conservative Member is present and there is no Conservative spokesman. Where is the shadow President of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), or any of his deputies? No wonder they were recently described by a Conservative supporter as nonentities. They are not present because they do not know about the problems and do not care.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, European structural funds make an important contribution to economic development in many regions of the United Kingdom. On 16 July, the European Commission published its suggestions for the reform of the funds in its communication "Agenda 2000". We expect detailed legislative proposals in the spring of next year, so this short debate is topical.

Current structural fund programmes run until the end of 1999: 30 programmes operate across the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend's constituency is covered by the Yorkshire and Humberside objective 2 programme. Our short-term aim is to maximise the effectiveness of those programmes. So far this year, elected members from local authorities have played a strong role in programme monitoring, new financial systems have been introduced in England to accelerate payments, and we have brought social partners, such as representatives from employers' and employees' organisations, into local partnerships to support those programmes.

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we have also nominated to the Commission 10 UK pilot projects for territorial employment pacts, including one in Barnsley. In England, we have put new arrangements in place for administering structural funds. We want to give local partnerships more responsibility through an action plan approach. Action plans will provide a real opportunity to improve the administration of structural funds. They will allow partnerships to bring together individual projects so as to reflect regional priorities, to tackle issues in a co-ordinated way and to streamline bureaucracy.

Circumstances vary across the country and between regions, so we are not seeking to impose a uniform system. It will be for each programme monitoring committee to decide to what extent it wishes to adopt the new action plan approach. We will aim to do more in the next two years to improve effectiveness further.

I realise that the interests of all my hon. Friends go beyond 1999. The European Union will face significant changes over the next decade, particularly if it is to be enlarged to include new member states from central and eastern Europe. The common agricultural policy should be reformed and its structural policies should be adapted to the changed circumstances.

On the key question of reform of the structural and cohesion funds, the Government believe that the new arrangements should be fair to all member states, especially to the United Kingdom and its regions, and should be affordable, durable, simpler and more efficient.

The United Kingdom is the second largest net contributor to the European Union's finances. We are net contributors to the cost of these development funds. That is why we are paying close attention to the total cost of the funds and to our receipts.

The accession of poorer countries will have significant implications for EU finances. As the overall EU budget must be contained within its current share of GDP, enlargement will mean that the structural funds will have to stretch further. All existing member states will have to accept significantly lower receipts in the next century. The United Kingdom's net contribution, like those of many other countries, will rise on enlargement. We accept this as the necessary price for bringing these countries into the EU, but we cannot accept that the UK's net contribution should move even further out of line.

The fundamentals of reform for the structural and cohesion funds should be as follows. First, the overall cost of the structural and cohesion funds should be contained below 0.46 per cent. of European Union GDP both before and after enlargement. Secondly, existing member states should expect cuts in their receipts if costs are to be contained. Thirdly, while we recognise that there will be a drop in receipts, the new regime should and must be fair to the UK in comparison with other member states. Fourthly, the reform of the funds should be durable and fair to acceding member states. Fifthly, the effectiveness of the funds should be improved, and substantial administrative simplification is needed.

Fairness was at the heart of the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough, so I will go into some detail about what we understand by fairness. According to data held by the Commission, the United Kingdom is the fourth or fifth poorest state in the European Union; the Commission's proposals will not make us the fourth or fifth largest per capita recipient. Therefore, we are not convinced that the Commission's ideas for distributing the funds are fair. I am pleased to tell the House that we are actively pursuing with the Commission and with other member states the issue of how a fairer system can be established.

I feel passionately about the key issue of unemployment. The Commission intends to use Eurostat figures as part of determining allocations and eligibility based on unemployment. Those statistics are based on the International Labour Organisation definition and are collected in the labour force survey. People are asked whether they are working or looking for work and whether they are available for work. Even on this internationally harmonised basis it is not clear whether the statistics provide a useful measure of need between countries. On that basis, UK unemployment is still three or four percentage points below the European average.

Portugal's unemployment rate is a third that of Spain despite being the poorer country. Comparisons between different countries and unemployment statistics may say more about business cycles and national labour markets than about regional need.

Would it help if our unemployment statistics had not been produced by the fiddled method that the previous Government introduced? They altered the collection of unemployment figures 30 times. Presumably it would be helpful to have the correct figures. The Government have a problem because, if they correct the figures in one fell swoop, it will look as if we have massively increased unemployment. At least for a period, two sets of figures could be produced, one under the current method and the other under the method that should be used with the corrected figures that we think should be taken into account.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue is not about figures: it is about millions of unemployed people. We need Europewide figures that will accurately reflect that. We agree that the present figures do not accurately reflect the criteria that are needed to assess regional aid and regional aid policy. We are considering other possibilities that more accurately reflect the realities of unemployment. I assure my hon. Friends that we are discussing those with the Commission and with other member states. One suggestion is that receipts and eligibility should be related to national GDP, with each member state or region deciding which sub-regional areas would be eligible within a centrally determined total.

Would my hon. Friend be prepared to meet an alliance delegation which might be able to help him come up with a better formula than the one that is currently used?

As my hon. Friend knows, I do not have direct responsibility for this matter, but I shall certainly communicate his request to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, if only to prove that although the Conservative Benches are empty there are at least some opposition Members in the House. Will he assure the House that he will argue for fairness in a European context and in the national context so that all regions have an equal ability to access funds? In previous years, the DTI has been a barrier rather than a help to some regions' attempts to access funds. There should be subsidiarity in this matter as in others.

That point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough. The Conservative Benches are still empty, as they have been throughout the debate.

The Commission has proposed reducing the number of objectives from seven to three so that each area of the European Union is covered by one of them. In terms of eligibility for the three objectives, the Commission has proposed that objective 1—the most generous—should be based on regional per capita GDP.

For the new objective 2, the Commission is slightly less clear about eligibility criteria. That objective will cover industrial, urban, rural and fishing areas, and it is a matter of deciding which areas would benefit most from such support. Relatively few local area statistics are available at the European level; many more are available nationally. In our informal discussions with the Commission, we are suggesting that determining eligibility at national or regional level would improve the effective targeting of the funds.

The Commission also proposes that the population coverage of the two geographically targeted objectives should represent only 35 to 40 per cent. of the EU population. This compares with 51 per cent. currently covered by geographical targeting. The consequence will be that many European areas currently benefiting from objective 2 or objective 5b will lose such eligibility. Some of them will be in the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend has spoken many times about informal discussions. Do the Government intend to table a proper paper on these issues? If they do, will he make it available to the House?

I think that I have referred only once to informal discussions. There have been other discussions. My hon. Friend has fought tirelessly to bring employment to his constituency and to south Wales. I know that he will support our aim of ensuring that the UK as a whole is treated fairly.

We hope to obtain a reasonable transition period for areas that eventually lose eligibility. In negotiations on the future of the funds, the Government aim to protect everybody in the United Kingdom and will seek to ensure that the needs of individual regions are taken into account.

For the first six months of next year, the UK will hold the presidency of the European Union Council of Ministers. We expect the Commission to present detailed legislative proposals on the funds during the spring. We will then push forward the detailed negotiations, although we would expect them not to be completed until the Austrian presidency. They will also need to be approved by the European Parliament. At some stage, possibly in early 1999, we will know how eligibility under the three objectives will be determined and individual areas' eligibility can be confirmed and financial allocations made. After that, regional plans can be drawn up, negotiated and adopted. The European Commission must aim to complete that in time for the new programmes to start in the year 2000 and the funds must be able to continue their work. However, that is a matter for negotiation.

I repeat: we will seek to ensure that the needs of individual regions are taken into account. We have already started lobbying. We need the UK to speak with one voice, whether it is the national Government, local authorities or campaigning groups of the type that have been mentioned. We need to draw on one another's knowledge, skills and argument.

The House has listened to the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough with interest. I am sorry that no Conservative Member has listened. It would help us to argue our case in Europe for each UK region if we spoke as a whole House and if Conservative Members took an interest in the matter. I welcome the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given us to consider some of the crucial economic issues involved.

Storage Tanks (Petrol Leakage)

1 pm

I am pleased to have secured time for this important matter. Although it might at first appear to be a typical Back-Bench debate, dealing with a specified area and of limited interest outside that area, it has universal application.

Within the past 12 months, my constituency has witnessed two serious pollution incidents as a result of petrol tank leakage. One incident occurred at Bontddu near Dolgellau, the other at Llanrwst. Broadly speaking, there are some stark lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn.

The person on the street might be forgiven for believing that the sale of petroleum is highly regulated. A considerable body of law applies to the sector. We have, for example, the Petroleum Spirit (Motor Vehicles etc.) Regulations 1929, the Petroleum (Mixtures) Order 1929, the Petroleum (Compressed Gases) Order 1930, the Petroleum (Liquid Methane) Order 1957, the Highly Flammable Liquids and Liquified Petroleum Gases Regulations 1972, the Petroleum (Regulation) Acts 1928, the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928, the Petroleum Spirit (Plastic Containers) Regulations 1982 and many others. Despite that, after 13 months, the incident at Bontddu is still unresolved.

Details of a pollution incident were received by the Environment Agency locally on 19 September 1996. Some of the villagers at Bontddu had complained of petroleum odours to Gwynedd council's trading standards officers in the previous week. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that both are linked and that the discharge had begun several days before 19 September.

It was found that there had been leakage from underground tanks at Bontddu service station into a stream that flows into the Mawddach river, one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the whole of Wales. The quality of the stream was severely impaired, and there were high fish mortalities. Some estuary invertebrates were also affected.

During the initial investigation, the Environment Agency ascertained that a volume in excess of 30,000 litres of petrol had leaked from the underground tanks and drained from the immediate vicinity of the site. A meeting was convened on 27 September 1996 between Environment Agency staff, the garage proprietor, Liquid Cargo Management—an oil recovery specialist—and officers of Gwynedd trading standards and environmental health departments. Certain remedial works were agreed—for example, booming off the river, excavation of the tank in question and flushing the contamination from the ground. By now, the leaked volume was estimated to be in excess of 60,000 litres—twice the original estimate.

Families were meantime evacuated because the concentrated petroleum smell was at times almost unbearable and routinely gave villagers severe headaches. There was also the obvious possibility of an explosive mixture being created at some point.

Things appeared to be proceeding slowly. The county council and the Environment Agency were involved, but there was no official involvement by the Health and Safety Executive. A public meeting that I chaired was arranged in November, calling together representatives of all agencies and the specialist firm that had been retained to rectify the pollution. At that meeting, an HSE representative said that that body would not become involved unless there was a risk to public safety.

With a spillage of 60,000 litres—13,000 gallons—of the most flammable products known to man, one would conclude that a danger would at some point arise. Not so, the experts told us—despite the pollution and the obvious health problems being caused, including headaches and worse. The public were safe, they said. Those who attended the public meeting were incredulous, but the experts said that there was no danger. Our arguments did not change their minds. The HSE said that it was perfectly okay and that there were no problems.

A few weeks later, not surprisingly, there was an explosion in one of the houses near the polluted site—a build-up of gases, and bang. It was safe to assume now that there was a danger to the public. Even the HSE took that view at that late stage.

The village school was evacuated. The children were bussed each day to Dolgellau to receive their education in a sports and leisure complex. That unhappy situation lasted until September. Homes continue to be evacuated. Several families have been moved from one address to another, in some cases from mobile home to mobile home. One family even camped out for a while. Incredibly, the remedial work has not been completed.

The explosion occurred in the early part of this year. Naturally, the villagers became increasingly concerned at the lack of progress and were alarmed at the fact that, despite asking several months previously for air and monitoring systems, these were not installed in the affected areas until spring 1997. Similarly, monitoring equipment was promised for the school building, so that an informed judgment could be made as to when it would be safe for pupils to return to it. That was supplied late as well.

To bring some pressure to bear, a further public meeting, which I chaired, took place in April. By now, it was a question of trying to ascertain who was responsible for clearing up the pollution and bringing Bontddu back to normality. Incidentally, the village has many times won the title of the prettiest village in Meirionnydd. That is some honour when one looks at the constituency that I am privileged to represent.

It was hoped that this would not become a buck-passing exercise. In the event, assurances were given at the meeting about monitoring equipment and so on. One of the villagers' greatest concerns was the closure of the village school. Naturally, as parents, they wanted the school to thrive and to continue providing first-class education. Their fear was that children might be placed in other schools and their previous one closed permanently. In the event, I am pleased to say that the children returned to school in September.

Somewhat incredibly, the pollution incident has yet to be dealt with. Homes remain evacuated. Naturally, there is considerable anger and resentment about the way in which this intolerable situation has been allowed to drift on and on, almost aimlessly.

Let us consider the main players. We have the loss adjusters, who act for the garage proprietor. They engaged two specialist clearing-up firms, one of which caused an explosion, although the other fortunately did not. The Environment Agency, which was in at the beginning, has done nothing about the fish kill. The HSE, in its infinite wisdom, declined to act because there was no perceived risk to public safety. Needless to say, the explosion changed that. Those incidents should be the subject of a full public inquiry. I am adamant that lessons can be learned from our experiences.

Many serious questions need to be answered. Why was it that the spillage was assessed at 30,000 litres for some time, but then that assessment was varied to 60,000 litres? How long will it take to clear the petrol from the ground and the atmosphere? Why were read-out machines placed so far away as to be of no evidential use? Why was the school closed but the garage allowed to continue trading? Why did it take so long to install benzene tubes in the houses most affected? What about the dozens of other houses in the area that were not supplied with them?

Why, when it was patently obvious that there was a safety risk, did the HSE, although knowing all the facts in October 1996, decline to become involved until March 1997, after the explosion—some might say, the expected explosion. Why are four families still evacuated from their homes almost 14 months after the incident? Why did it take six months to issue an improvement notice on the garage proprietor? Who is in overall charge of the operation, and therefore, who should be charged with answering those important questions and more?

This morning, I spoke to a responsible officer of Conwy borough council, who took charge of another incident at Llanrwst. He was this morning taking part in a debriefing exercise with representatives of all north Wales unitary authorities to compare the Bontddu incident with the one at Llanrwst and to see what lessons might be learnt. I welcome that. Unfortunately, I believe that such incidents will occur with increasing frequency over the next months and years.

In Bontddu, the situation was muddled when one authority passed the ball to another and no one wished to run with the ball or to accept ultimate responsibility. It is an absolute and unmitigated nightmare for many of my constituents. Surely a public inquiry is necessary. We cannot allow matters to be left without proper expert examination and analysis.

I have asked 10 basic questions which remain unanswered. I am sure that there are another 10 or 20 that should be asked. A public inquiry is the only vehicle for doing that. It is the only way that we can ensure that such incidents do not happen again.

In a written answer that I received yesterday from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, I was told:
"In the period since January 1995 the Environment Agency recorded 55 incidents of water pollution from underground petrol storage at filling stations in England and six such incidents in Wales." — [Official Report, 18 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 125.]
By contrast, in a recent article in The Guardian, the London Fire Brigade said that it registers 70 to 80 seepages a year. Three years ago, Shell UK suggested that up to one third of all underground tanks—as many as 10,000—may be faulty. Perhaps we are seeing the tip of a very nasty iceberg.

There are 900 service stations in Wales, about half of which are independently operated. I do not want to place additional burdens on retailers because we have already lost dozens of them over the years. Rural areas, such as the area in which I live, depend on them, so it is not a part of my brief to place financial commitments on retailers. However, an answer must somehow be found. Compulsory insurance for retailers is probably the most obvious and will have to come in.

I am aware of the new draft regulations that have been formulated by the HSE, but I do not think that they will greatly assist matters. They will codify the myriad pieces of legislation—a move that I welcome. They will place on local authorities virtually all the responsibility for licensing—as is the case now—but also risk assessment and enforcement. That is fine if local authorities are given the resources to train staff and to obtain expensive equipment. They need those resources if they are effectively to undertake risk assessments. If they do not get them, the regulations will contain only empty words. They will do nothing to address the problem.

I urge the Minister to undertake a Welsh Office inquiry into the prevalence of older tanks, which we are virtually waiting to see burst. Secondly, will he ensure that there is a full public inquiry into the continuing nightmare at Bontddu near Dolgellau? Thirdly, will he ensure that there is effective co-ordination between the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the public protection units of unitary authorities? Fourthly, I urge upon him the need for the automatic adoption by the HSE of a lead role in dealing with those crises.

I hope that the Minister will respond in detail to my points. My constituents at Bontddu and Llanwrst—but especially those at Bontddu, who remain homeless—deserve nothing less.

1.15 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for bringing this important issue of public safety before the House. I sympathise with the plight of his constituents, who have had to cope with the disruption and anxiety caused by the events at Bontddu during the past year.

In the time available, I shall try to deal with the areas of concern identified by the hon. Gentleman. If I do not deal with all of them, I will be happy to meet him and to correspond with him on the subject—although I am sure that he will understand that a number of the issues are outside my Department's direct responsibility.

There are about 15,000 retail petrol stations in Great Britain. In general, their safety record is very good. Every day, millions of people visit petrol stations to refuel their vehicles, usually in complete safety. We all tend to take that convenience for granted. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, petrol is a potentially dangerous material, so it is essential that all the necessary safety controls are put in place and properly maintained.

Fortunately, injuries to members of the public following the leakage of petrol from underground tanks and pipes is rare. Nevertheless, although the recent series of incidents in Wales has resulted in only one slight injury, that is still one too many.

The hon. Gentleman has reminded us of the history of the Bontddu incident. In September last year, it was discovered that a substantial quantity of petrol had leaked into the ground and into a nearby river from an underground storage tank. Various agencies have been involved in the response to that. Following an explosion last April, a number of homes were evacuated, as was the school—although, thankfully, the school has since reopened. From last November, the Health and Safety Executive has assisted the local authority in investigating the incident.

I am aware that the local HSE office at Wrexham has recently written to the hon. Gentleman informing him of the continuing progress of the clean-up operation. I am pleased to be able to report that a clean-up plan has been prepared by the contractors. The HSE received a copy on 12 November and has now commented on it. I expect that the contractors will start work shortly, in close consultation with local residents.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he agree that 12 months is a long time in which to prepare a clean-up plan? It is a fact that the HSE did not officially become involved until March of this year, after the explosion.

It is unfortunate that the matter has taken a year to come to a conclusion. Perhaps that is a lesson that we need to learn from the way that the incident has been handled. We may need to reflect on whether the HSE should become involved at an earlier stage in such incidents. We need to look at those matters.

Gwynedd county council has issued formal cautions for breaches of the petroleum licence, and other aspects of the case may result in legal proceedings. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy about the length of time that the incident has been allowed to continue, especially because of the impact on the local community. In recent months, there have been several similar incidents in Wales, and that highlights the importance of the issue raised today by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we are approaching a transition in safety law for petrol stations. Current legislation dates back to 1928 and requires anyone storing petrol to hold a licence from the local petrol licensing authority. In Wales, the authority was either the trading standards or the environmental health department of the local authority. The authority uses licence conditions to achieve the safety measures that it feels are necessary at particular sites. Local authority inspectors are able to visit sites to ensure that the licensee is complying with the licence conditions. They have the power also to take enforcement action when non-compliance is discovered.

The Government accept that current legislation is not completely satisfactory—which may be a bit of an understatement. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has certainly briefly highlighted the complexity of current legislation. As licensing authorities have a free hand in determining which conditions should apply, there are variations in controls imposed by authorities for similar petrol stations across Wales, Scotland and England. Those and other points emerged in the Health and Safety Commission's "Review of Regulation" report. As he will be aware, the commission advised the Government on safety matters and the need for changes to safety legislation.

In 1996, the Health and Safety Commission asked the Health and Safety Executive to develop modern legislation that addressed today's safety concerns at petrol stations. On 1 September 1997, the commission published a consultative document on its proposals. The closing date for comments is 1 December 1997.

The commission's principal considerations are to ensure that there is confidence that the law will apply equally to all petrol stations across the land, that the law reflects risks from petrol—especially leaks from sites—and that enforcers have effective and flexible enforcement tools when those are necessary.

I shall explain the key proposals affecting petrol storage. For the first time, the local enforcement authority's consent would be needed before the building or major alteration of a petrol situation could begin. A site developer would have to provide technical information, including details of proposed underground tanks and pipework. Consent would be based upon risk assessment of the site, which would have to take particular account of risks to the public who live in the vicinity. If the local enforcing authority is not satisfied on safety grounds, it will be able to require changes to the plans.

A new duty will be placed on site operators to ensure that petrol is stored safely. Such a duty is of particular relevance to the incident that occurred in the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, because it will require that a system is in place to detect rapidly leaks from underground tanks and pipes. There will be a requirement also to ensure that equipment is maintained in a safe condition. Those requirements will apply not only to new sites but to all sites. There will be a requirement also to make safe tanks and pipes that are no longer used. The Government plan to lay the new regulations—supported by new guidance—before the House towards the middle of 1998.

The Government realise the environmental damage caused by petrol leakage from underground tanks and are working on tackling the problem. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said so forcefully in his speech, water pollution is the main environmental threat posed by such leaks. Under the Water Resources Act 1991, the Environment Agency is responsible for protecting controlled waters—which include inland, coastal and ground waters. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions told the hon. Gentleman yesterday, in response to his parliamentary question, in the past two years, the Environment Agency recorded six water pollution incidents in Wales from underground storage tanks.

I should stress that, under the Water Resources Act 1991, it is a criminal offence to cause the pollution of controlled waters, whether the pollution is caused deliberately or accidentally. The Environment Agency has made it clear that, when serious pollution is caused and the agency has adequate evidence to support a case, it will prosecute polluters.

The Government intend to strengthen further powers available to the agency. We plan soon, for example, to bring into force provisions under the 1991 Act enabling the agency to require anti-pollution works to be done. The powers should allow the agency to be more proactive in preventing water pollution from petrol filling stations.

It is vital that all Government agencies involved with petrol should work together effectively. I know that the Government and our relevant agencies—such as the Health and Safety Agency and the Environment Agency—are already considering the necessary arrangements.

As I said, the Government's plans to strengthen petrol safety controls and environmental protection are already well advanced. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—or the hon. Gentleman, as he is not quite yet an hon. Friend in the technical, House sense; outside the House, of course he is a friend—will be reassured by that.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I know that it will be difficult for him to say anything today about my call for a public inquiry, but will he consider that request further? I am not trying to put him on the spot, and I realise that he cannot comment on it today. Nevertheless, now that he has heard more about the incident—I also propose to write further to him on it—will he please keep the possibility open?

I had planned to deal with that point, although I can well understand why the hon. Gentleman should be concerned about it, as we have reached the end of the debate and it has not yet been mentioned. I shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister—to whom the Health and Safety Commission is responsible—the concerns expressed today by him, especially his wish that lessons should be learned from the recent events and that new controls should be introduced as speedily as possible.

I have asked that a full report be prepared of the way in which the incident has been handled, and I will arrange for it to be placed in the Library. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is a very serious matter and—based on the evidence provided and the story recounted by him—I am not in a position to decide whether there should be a public inquiry. I hope that my assurance that a full history of the incident will be put on paper and placed in the Library is adequate. I will ensure also that he personally receives a copy of the report.

If the hon. Gentleman feels that the report does not cover everything, we shall look again at anything that may concern him. Once again I thank him for introducing a debate on a very important issue. It has given the Government the opportunity to put clearly in the public domain our concern and the measures that we intend to take to ensure that such incidents do not recur.

Kenya (Human Rights)

1.29 pm

I am extremely heartened by the acceptance of the subject of human rights abuses in Kenya for today's debate. It is a reflection of the warmth and affection that many right hon. and hon. Members feel for Kenya and its people.

No one who has visited Kenya and met its people can fail to be entranced by a country so beautiful and so abundant in natural resources. From the fertile shores of Lake Naivasha to the game-filled plains of the Masai Mara, across the green foothills of Mount Kenya to the beaches of Mombasa, Kenya is a stunning garden of Eden.

No one can fail to be impressed by the fortitude, vigour and enterprise of the Kenyan people. Kenya is a vibrant melee of Africans, Asians and Mzungus—the settlers who stayed on after decolonialisation—most of whom share a common bond of loyalty and commitment to their country—a commitment bred from a courageous struggle to free themselves from colonial oppression and establish a modern nation.

I introduce the debate with considerable humility. I do not wish to be depicted as some interfering neo-colonialist lecturing an ex-colony on how to manage its affairs. Nor do I want to be portrayed as some ex-pat arrogantly expostulating over a tusker beer on the verandah of the Norfolk hotel in Nairobi.

Instead, I speak firstly as a friend to friends—a friend of the Kenyan people to the Kenyan people. I speak as someone who represents many constituents who originate from Kenya and who share my love of that country. Above all, I speak as a socialist, and thus someone who believes that international solidarity places a duty on us all to associate ourselves with and support all those whose human rights are being abused and who struggle against oppression.

The Government, with wide acclaim and my total support, have placed human rights at the centre of their international relations policy. The recent White Paper on international development defined the human rights that have been recognised by the global community and protected by international legal instruments.

We said that human rights include all those rights essential for human survival, physical security, liberty, and development in dignity of the human being. They include the right to life and liberty; the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, water and housing; the right to social protection in times of need; the right to education; freedoms of religion, opinion, speech and expression; freedom of association; the right to participate in the political process; the right to be free from arbitrary arrest or imprisonment and to a fair trial; and, above all, freedom from torture and from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

It is with immense sadness that I report that, on virtually every count, the present Kenyan Government stand accused. On those basic physical freedoms—freedom from torture, imprisonment and loss of life—the most recent Amnesty International report published two months ago indicts the Kenyan regime.

Physical force has increasingly become a basic ingredient of Kenyan life. In its recent investigations in Kenya, Amnesty International identified numerous reports of human rights defenders being threatened, harassed, beaten or arbitrarily arrested. Their meetings have been disrupted, and their premises raided. Journalists trying to report on events have been assaulted by the police and by members of the ruling party's youth wing.

The Kenyan police have used their wide-ranging powers of arrest without warrant extensively in round-ups of the poor, the street children and those suspected of sedition. There are continued reports of ill-treatment, torture and deaths in custody as a result of torture.

Kenya retains the death penalty, and there are currently more than 700 prisoners under sentence of death. There have been no executions in the past nine years, but many prisoners on death row have died as a result of the appalling prison conditions. A Kenyan high court judge recently described the prisons as "death chambers" and noted:
"going to prison these days has become a sure way to a death certificate."
Amnesty International reports hundreds of political prisoners dying each year, the majority from infectious diseases resulting from severe overcrowding and shortages of food, clean water and adequate medical care. Exact figures are hard to come by, but the most recent official figures suggest that more than 800 prisoners died in the first nine months of 1995.

The Kenyan police have become notorious for their use of excessive lethal force. Less than a year ago, the shooting of three students by the police provoked widespread revulsion in the community, only to be followed in March this year by a further student being killed by the police, who followed up his murder by arresting and beating up his two companions.

As for the Kenyan Government's record on political freedoms, hon. Members will be aware that the last year has been dominated by preparations for the Kenyan general election, which, thankfully, has now been called for 29 December. Recently, Kenya has witnessed the use of force and intimidation by the existing regime in order to undermine the Opposition and thus the potential for free and fair elections.

Earlier this year, a loose alliance of Church groups, lawyers and reformers came together and launched under the banner of the National Convention Executive Council a new campaign with the aim of securing basic electoral reforms in advance of the general election. All but one of the demonstrations for reform organised by the NCEC have been broken up by the police and by supporters of KANU, the governing party.

On 10 October, when President Daniel Arap Moi was celebrating Moi day—his 19th year in power—his police were violently breaking up the most recent NCEC demonstration. People were beaten and tear-gassed by the police. Prominent NCEC supporters including Paul Muite, Ngengi Mugai—Jomo Kenyatta's nephew—and Richard Leakey were beaten so brutally that they left in ambulances. The police commander in charge personally physically thrashed an elderly and ailing Member of Parliament.

In a previous demonstration in July, 14 people were shot dead. Mothers carrying babies were beaten, students sitting exams at Nairobi university's school of architecture were beaten up and tear-gassed, and a lecturer had his arms broken. At the capital's All Saints cathedral, the presidential security guard itself beat up the pro-Opposition clergy at prayer, spattering blood over the pews, and leaving one Church leader unconscious and soaked in blood.

The Kenyan Public Order Act requires meetings and demonstrations to be licensed in advance, and has been used to restrict meetings and rallies of Opposition groups. Sections of Kenya's penal code dealing with sedition and treason have formed the basis of the Government's ability to threaten their critics with detention.

In effect, some Opposition parties have been banned from the forthcoming election by the Government's refusal to allow them to register as political parties. The Safina party, led by lawyers Paul Muite and Mutari Kigano and the archaeologist and conservationist Richard Leakey, has not been allowed to register, and therefore cannot put forward candidates in the election. The Islamic party of Kenya has been banned outright.

The Kenyan constitution requires a successful presidential candidate to obtain at least 25 per cent. of the vote in five out of the country's eight regions. In key marginal areas such as Mombasa, there have been concerted attacks on northern settlers aimed at driving out potential Opposition voters—an activity that occurred in the earlier elections in 1992.

In the raids on Mombasa by ruling KANU supporters, 31 people have been reported as killed and hundreds forced to leave their homes and shelter for safety in the grounds of local churches. The Economist reported that it was revealed that the gang of 150 youths responsible for the attacks had been recruited, armed and trained in the coastal hinterland some months ago with orders to
"keep the coast safe for KANU".
The tragic irony is that the present level of violence and loss of life is almost certainly unnecessary to sustain President Moi and his regime in power. A divided Opposition is President Moi's best guarantee of remaining in the State House, and his recent simple manoeuvre of offering some token reforms has yet again split his opponents asunder. That, plus the inevitable sprinkling of bribes, should ensure his re-election.

The real question is whether President Moi will use his last term of office to leave behind the inheritance of a prosperous, cohesive democracy, or the same monument to human greed as Mobutu did—a billion-dollar Swiss bank account. The abuse of human rights in Kenya stems from a regime that will do almost anything to sustain itself in power in order to be able to continue to plunder the country's resources.

Corruption is the motivating force for denial of and attacks on human rights in Kenya's beautiful but unhappy country. The corruption of the regimes of Mobutu and Moi, denounced by their own people as Moi-butu, is on such a scale and so all-pervasive in the system of government that we have been prompted to coin a new political term for such rule. Instead of democracy or aristocracy, the states have developed a kleptocracy: a system of government whose main purpose appears to be the plundering of the nation's resources by a kleptomaniac ruler—a kleptocrat.

The massive scale of corruption in Kenya has almost been counter-productive, as in recent months international donors have increasingly frozen or withdrawn support, and the Kenyan currency has spiralled downwards. On 31 July, the International Monetary Fund suspended its $220 million loan programme to Kenya in the face of not only the refusal of Moi's Government to act against corruption but the direct involvement of members of the Government in corrupt practices.

The corrupt scams become increasingly bizarre. In one recent notorious scam called the Goldenberg scandal, implicating Saitoti, Moi's Vice-President, huge subsidies were gained from the Government to support the export of gold and diamonds by individuals associated with the Government. The only problem with that worthy policy is that there are no gold or diamond mines in Kenya from which to export. An honest customs commissioner tried to close a similar con on sugar importation, and was sacked by the President himself.

The latest Nairobi fashion in corruption is land-grabbing, which involves the simple appropriation of publicly owned land by corrupt politicians and civil servants. In Nairobi and other towns, public parks and gardens, school playgrounds and even graveyards have been allocated to individuals well connected to the ruling elite. While that theft is going on, the country's infrastructure is deteriorating rapidly. Many people go hungry and are uneducated, ill-clothed and unhealthy, while the tragedy of street children multiplies.

What can we do to help? Our new Government can serve in the coming period as a true friend of the Kenyan people. First, in the run-up to the elections in December, we should continue—as I know my right hon. and hon. Friends have done—to impress on the Kenyan Government in the strongest possible terms the need for abuses of human rights to stop, and the importance of fair elections in a climate free from violence and intimidation.

Secondly, we should review the adequacy of the scale of assistance that we are providing through non-governmental organisations which perform the task of monitoring elections. Thirdly, we should join other international donors, including the United States and the IMF, in an approach to the Kenyan Government to agree new ground rules on human rights, corruption and poverty elimination before loan facilities are renewed.

Finally, we should commence the process of redirecting all bilateral aid to Kenya through NGOs rather than the Kenyan Government, and review procedures for ensuring financial probity in all the assistance that we provide to Kenyan organisations.

Many of us were inspired by the original Mau Mau struggle and the ideals that they developed. I dream of a return to the ideals of Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya, which were hammered out in the freedom struggle and became expressed in the concept of Ujamaa, when Kenyatta said:
"I stand for the purposes of human dignity and freedom and for the values of tolerance and peace."
I believe that our Government should assist the Kenyan people in standing once again for those virtues.

1.42 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) on securing this debate, and thank him and the Minister for allowing me to make a modest contribution in the short time available. I also thank my hon. Friend for referring in the House to Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya, two heroes of African post-colonial politics.

I, too, am a long-standing friend, both of the people of Kenya and of their country. That friendship goes back 18 years, to when, as a teenager, I was a volunteer teacher in two Harambee schools. My hon. Friend mentioned the Mzungu community. I was a white teacher in that community—"Mimi mwalimu mzungu".

Since then, I have visited the country several times. I went back with my wife on our honeymoon, and returned shortly afterwards to take her to one of the schools at which I taught. Over the intervening decade, the school had changed from a single block in a mud-hut village with just a salt-water well to a multiple block in a village that had tap water—supplied through the international community.

From my very first time in Kenya, I was concerned about the lack of democracy. The first time that I was there, Oginga Odinga, the former Vice-President, was effectively in domestic exile. Shortly afterwards, leading literary figures, such as Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, were forced into real exile. On our honeymoon, we flew into a curfew in Nairobi, such was the political pressure for democracy and the resistance to it. More recently, I too have seen on television from these shores the savagery with which the pro-democracy demonstrators have been treated.

Those experiences lie behind a number of written questions that I have tabled in order to test exactly the Government's attitude in foreign policy to what we see in Kenya. Are we providing military or other assistance to the existing regime? What measures are we taking in our ethical foreign policy to ensure that pressure is brought to bear to bring democracy to true fruition?

I must say that I am slightly concerned by some of the answers that I have received, which do not reveal exactly what military assistance we have been giving, but do reveal that, notwithstanding what appear to be human rights abuses, we are still treating the country as eligible to receive military training at the very least.

I press the Minister to confirm that our ethical human rights policy is what it proclaims to be: that we will be led by the guiding light of human rights; that we will look cautiously at applications for military assistance; that we will do what we can to support the pro-democracy movement; and that, in particular, we will be vigilant in monitoring the progress in the lead-up to the elections on 29 December to ensure that there is no intimidation and the democratic process works properly and fulsomely, so that we can restore Kenya to the kind of country that Tom Mboya and Jomo Kenyatta wished it to be.

1.45 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) on introducing this very important debate. It could not be more timely, given the impending presidential and parliamentary elections in Kenya.

I congratulate my hon. Friends on expressing the great affection—it is important that the House expresses such affection—in which Kenya and the Kenyan people are held by hon. Members and British people generally. It is important that that message is given, because it is important that we do not send a mixed signal about our ambitions and intent.

Our relations with Kenya are obviously long-standing. It is a measure of the importance that we as a country—and certainly the Government—attach to Kenya that, on my first official visit to Africa in June, not long after our general election, I decided to visit Kenya.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington gave a graphic account of the criticisms made of the Kenyan Government's human rights abuses. Indeed, earlier in the year and again in September, Amnesty International launched a document in which it went into considerable detail about its concerns. My hon. Friend has already cited some examples, such as the questions of arbitrary detention, killings by the police, detention without trial and numerous other grave and serious charges to which the Kenyan Government have to respond.

I raised such issues when I visited Kenya. I specifically raised Amnesty International's manifesto with the Attorney-General, Mr. Wako, and President Moi himself. The key points in the manifesto were the need for legal reform, the end to indefinite detention without trial, the need for reform of the press and media and the judicial system, an end to torture and ill-treatment of prisoners—an argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington made forcefully—and action on police killings. There is a legitimate demand that lethal force be countenanced only when unavoidable in order to protect lives.

At that time, and since that time, the Government have pressed all concerned on those issues and, more generally, on the need to avoid confrontation and to resolve differences—there are real differences in Kenyan society—through dialogue and not by resorting to violence.

We have called consistently for free and fair elections. We knew that the electoral cycle in Kenya meant that elections would have to take place this year, or possibly early next year. We have said specifically that free and fair elections are ones in which all those who want to vote can exercise that choice freely, all those who want to stand have the opportunity to do so, the electorate have access to the candidates through the media to help them to make their choice, and people can come together freely in support of the candidates of their choice.

The donor community—the Europeans, the United States and the Japanese—have made it clear that such conditions are necessary for proper elections. We have been consistent in our demand that that process take place.

The elections that have been announced are a great opportunity for the Kenyan people to take control of the destiny of their country. The election takes place against a backdrop of laws that have made the electoral process a subject of concern. The elections held in 1992 were widely seen not to have come up to the standards that we demand. The saving grace is that they were the first multi-party elections after a long period of one-party rule. We must insist that the elections this time are fought and won on a more acceptable basis than those of five years ago.

During the summer, there was considerable violence, much of it no doubt related to the anticipation of elections. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to several specific incidents, including that in the Anglican cathedral and another in which Paul Muite and Nengi Muigai, both of whom I know personally, were subjected to violent attack. We have made it clear to the Kenyan Government that we abhor violence from Opposition figures, state institutions or the Government's supporters. It has no place in Kenyan society.

I spoke at length with Church leaders when I was in Kenya, urging them to continue to play a constructive role, as they seek to do. Their initiative brought the different sides together to form the inter-parties parliamentary group. That has had positive results.

On 7 November, Parliament and the President approved three important reform Bills. One removed the principal legal instrument that has been used to harass Opposition politicians—the Public Order Act. When I was Opposition spokesman, I had direct experience of the operation of that Act, when a meeting that I was supposed to address was cancelled arbitrarily and at short notice. That did not ultimately prevent the meeting, but the intention was certainly to disrupt and reduce the audience.

I welcome the abandonment of that Act, which means that political meetings no longer require a licence. That takes them outside the immediate control of those with a political incentive. There is now simply a requirement to notify the police of public rallies.

The Preservation of Public Security Act has also been amended, removing the provisions for detention without trial, as has the penal code, with the replacement of the sedition laws, which had been used to prevent freedom of expression and to intimidate Opposition politicians. Importantly for the coming election, the constitutional provision preventing coalition government has now been changed.

We note the commitment of the Kenyan Government to allowing equitable access to publicly funded media. All parties must have access to the radio, in particular, to ensure free and fair elections. When the election was announced, we issued a statement calling for a peaceful election and insisting that all parties and candidates of national status should have access to the media on a fair basis, particularly to the radio.

We also note that a law has been passed to establish a constitutional review commission, which will draw from diverse sections of Kenyan society, with a two-year timetable to draw up fundamental reforms to present to Parliament.

We are not sanguine about the process. We do not think that it goes far enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to the unacceptable continued refusal to register Safina as a political party. There can be no place in a democratic system for parties being arbitrarily forbidden to contest elections.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised that with the Kenyan Foreign Minister as recently as the Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in October. I am writing once again to the Kenyan Government, asking them to allow an urgent appeal against that refusal. I do not know whether that will be possible in time for the forthcoming election, but, if not, that will be a severe blot on the credibility of the election.

We shall follow the election campaign closely. The Department for International Development, together with the Swedes, the Danes and the Dutch, is jointly financing a $1.5 million project to help independent Kenyan non-governmental organisations to observe the elections. Those bodies include the National Council for Churches, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the Institute for Education in Democracy. We have also seconded staff to the international secretariat in Nairobi, which will co-ordinate the monitoring of the electoral process from start to finish. The election is important. The world has an interest in ensuring that it is fought on a free and fair basis.

We shall continue to be critical of all human rights abuses. We know about the problem of persistent police brutality. We recognise the evidence of tortures and deaths of prisoners and detainees and of excessive violence in crowd control, arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings. I have raised those issues with the Kenyan Attorney-General on at least two occasions. We shall continue to criticise excessive police violence, particularly incidents such as those of 7 July and 15 October. I wrote to the President about our concerns at that time, and the Foreign Secretary has raised the issues with the Kenyan Foreign Ministry.

Against that background, the Department for International Development is considering funding training courses for the Kenyan police. I want to disabuse my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough of his concerns. There are 4,000 British troops in Kenya on their own training exercises. We are simply using the training facilities offered by the Kenyans.

The only training that we offer the Kenyans is not on civilian control, but on peacekeeping duties on a wider basis throughout Africa. There is no large-scale military training programme that might give him concerns—which we would share. We are not training an armed force that is out of control.

I should add that the Kenyan army has a remarkably high standard of discipline, and there is little evidence of it being involved in the abuses that have been referred to.

The concerns are specifically related to the Kenyan police and its training.

The police training that we have provided has been limited to a training scheme for senior management, which includes a human rights component. We believe that that helps to improve the quality of the Kenyan police. The Department for International Development is considering a human rights training scheme, which we hope will focus on improving the human rights attitudes of the Kenyan police. We shall monitor how that works out. Those are important initiatives.

We look forward to the election. It is a new chapter in Kenya's history. We hope that it will be a multi-party election fought on a proper democratic basis. It is not for the British Government to choose the winners. It is up to us to work with whoever wins the election and to ensure that action is taken on corruption, an end to which is vital for the long-term economic future of Kenya, and human

rights abuses, on which the Kenyan Government are bound under international obligations to make progress. More generally, there is a need for constitutional reform to give sovereignty to the Kenyan people.

My hon. Friends are right to urge the Government to play their part in pressing those issues on the Kenyan Government—the current Government and whatever Government emerges after the election. We intend to ensure that pressure is maintained on the Kenyan Government. We shall continue constructive private dialogue and, when circumstances warrant it, make public our concerns. My hon. Friends have taken part in that process.

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

Duchy Of Lancaster

The Chancellor was asked—

Freedom Of Information

When he will publish the White Paper on freedom of information. [15090]

A White Paper on our proposals for a freedom of information Bill will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for his reply. How does he propose to make the information that will become available under the legislation accessible to the ordinary citizen, not just to lobbyists?

It will be important to give a great deal of publicity to the freedom of information Act. The code has been partly ineffective because of inadequate publicity. I also believe that the amount of press publicity surrounding freedom of information will ensure that virtually everyone is aware of the legislation.

When the Chancellor of the Duchy publishes the White Paper, will he at the same time publish the advice that has been rendered to Ministers by officials about the scope of freedom of information and its method of application?

When we publish the White Paper, it will contain the Government's proposals for consultation. Part of the process of that debate will concern how we deal with information to Ministers. On the one hand we need to be as open as possible; on the other, we must retain the central confidences that will allow the business of good government to continue.

Will the freedom of information legislation apply to devolved government in Scotland and Wales? If so, will it be introduced via the devolution legislation or by a subsequent Act of this House?

The parts of public information that relate to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly will be matters for those authorities. How we bring that about will be a matter of detail that we will examine as we work through the consultation period.

As much public business today is carried out on behalf of the Government by contractors in the private sector, will the Chancellor of the Duchy ensure that the White Paper does not exempt such contractors from the requirements of disclosure that would be in place if the business were carried out in-house by the Government?

The right hon. Gentleman has a fair point. The nature of government has changed a great deal in recent years. With so much privatisation and contracting out, public business that would in the past have been carried out by Government Departments is now being done by private organisations. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the Act, but this is the sort of issue that we are examining in the committee that is considering the White Paper.

Will the Animal Procedures Committee under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 be part of the freedom of information Act, thus ending the shabby secrecy that vivisectionists have been able to hide behind under the Tories?

I believe that that particular legislation is one of the 200 Acts which contain clauses relating to the release or disclosure of information. If my memory is right in that respect, we shall deal with it in the White Paper. If not, I shall write to my hon. Friend.

In the interests of freedom of information, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he found it necessary to make trips to Australasia, the United States and Canada in order to study open government? In connection with those trips, as reported in The Times on 20 October, we on the Conservative Benches at least hope that it is not the case that a smear campaign is being conducted against the right hon. Gentleman by a senior colleague—not, surely, something that we would want to expect from an open Government.

We on the Government Benches take the view that, if we are to modernise our constitution, the freedom of information legislation is very important. We also take the view that we will probably have only one opportunity to put such legislation on the statute book, so we must get it right on the first occasion. Therefore, I felt that it was right and proper not to reinvent the wheel but to learn from experiences elsewhere. It just so happens that, whereas the Conservative Government did not have the guts to face up to that difficult issue, we are prepared to grasp the nettle.

I felt it right and proper to go to the United States of America, which has a long history of freedom of information, and also to go to those three Commonwealth countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have introduced freedom of information Acts in the past 15 years, so that when we compiled our legislation, we could ensure that, we were using the best practices from the experiences in those Westminster models.

Departmental Appointments

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy in respect of appointments to the press and information departments of Government Departments. [15091]

All appointments to the permanent civil service—including those in press and information divisions—are made on the basis of merit through fair and open competition.

If that blameless description is true, and if there really is no politicisation of press and information appointments, as is widely reported, will the

hon. Gentleman explain why no fewer than eight senior civil servants in press and information departments have suddenly found an overwhelming desire to spend more time with their families?

First, the figure is seven, not eight. There are a variety of reasons for such changes. Bernard Ingham, in his memoirs, points out that, when Viscount Whitelaw returned from Northern Ireland, he was out of a job because Viscount Whitelaw brought his own press officer with him. It is a matter of public record that the chief press officer and the Minister without Portfolio have endorsed the impartiality of the press officer service within the civil service. That has been the case in the past, is the case at present and will remain the case in future.

Is not it rather rich of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to complain about the Government in this respect when the Conservative party was responsible for pumping tens of millions of pounds into Government propaganda campaigns which masqueraded as Government information?

However much the Conservative party pumped into propaganda when they were in government, they signally failed on I May. The Labour party made it abundantly clear before the election that it would be an integral part of a Labour Government's modus operandi to present their case effectively and impartially. Not only is it necessary for the Government to do that: it is their responsibility.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that seven press officers—:that is, about one third of the leading press officers in Government Departments—have found it impossible to work with the directives being issued to them by their Ministers makes it absolutely plain that what we are seeing is the politicisation by the Labour party of the civil service?

Needless to say, I completely reject that allegation; more important, so did Sir Robin Butler when he appeared before the Select Committee. It is perfectly in order that there should be staffing changes in press offices as elsewhere with the advent of a new Government. Indeed, without divulging the particulars of individual cases, there was a variety of reasons why people chose at that time to vacate their job in a Department.

Better Government Programme

3.

If he will make a statement on the progress of his better government programme. [15092]

We are making good progress in developing the better government White Paper, which will set out a vision for public service into the new millennium. Our aim is to make government simpler and more responsive to citizens. That will partly be achieved by using the latest developments in information technology to improve the services we offer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set the target that one quarter of Government services should be deliverable electronically within the next five years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the better government initiative should involve the talents and experience of those in local government, where a number of improvements in service delivery have already been introduced?

Yes. I think it essential that we involve ordinary citizens at every level of government. Ordinary citizens do not distinguish between tiers of government, whether central or local; all they are interested in is the quality of the service that they receive. The better government initiative aims to end the perception that government is only about queues and forms. I am determined that local government will be involved in the initiative because local government is involved in many exciting initiatives in service provision. In order to co-ordinate and learn from those experiences, I recently set up a working group as part of the central-local partnership initiative, so that we can look at the various pilots and try to spread best practice.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he has told me in a written answer that it is not Government policy for Ministers to be accessible by e-mail? With all the talk about better government and information technology, would it not be a good idea either for Ministers to have e-mail addresses instead of handing out a sheaf of replies consisting of "I will reply to the hon. Gentleman as quickly as possible", or for him to tell me that Ministers have no intention of having e-mail addresses?

The hon. Gentleman does not understand my answer correctly if he thinks that I am saying that it is not my policy to encourage Ministers to have e-mail addresses or to use them. In fact, I do have an e-mail address and it is public. My reply to the hon. Gentleman was that the information is not held centrally and therefore I cannot provide him with the answer for which he asks.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the better government programme is absolutely essential if we are to bring government closer to the people, overcome some of the cynicism people feel towards government and take better decisions in the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We fought the last election on the issue of the regeneration of our country, economic, social and democratic. Part of that appeal was the democratic appeal and, through our better government initiative, it is our hope and intention to involve many more of our citizens in the running of their country.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies (Women)

4.

What measures he will be taking to increase the number of women on the boards of executive NDPBs. [15093]

All Departments encourage women to apply for public appointments and are committed to fair selection procedures. As part of that process, Departments are currently drawing up individual plans for the increased representation of women on public bodies. Those plans will include specific targets for each Department and will cover the period 1998 to 2001.

The Minister will be aware that, of those women who currently hold public appointments, the vast

majority are in unpaid, not paid, appointments. When drawing up his targets, will the Minister ensure that there is a target for equal representation of women in paid as well as unpaid appointments?

It is certainly the Government's policy to encourage women to participate at every level within what is commonly known as the quangocracy. The commissioner for appointments has set out a code of practice in which equal opportunity is a central element. In addition, the public appointments unit is actively seeking more women nominations to its list—it currently stands at 31 per cent. of its total—so that Departments have a ready reservoir of willing and-[HON. MEMBERS: Able."] That is not my word. I am talking about willing and well qualified women who are available for appointment to both paid and unpaid non-departmental public body jobs.

Will the hon. Gentleman consider looking at the staffing of foster homes, which are often privately run, many of which have been in the news lately for severe abuses of children? Does he agree that, if more older women were used to head those institutions, there would be less of the abuse that we keep reading about in our newspapers and which is such a disgrace? Older women would not have the wool pulled over their eyes in these matters.

I do not know if the hon. Lady is suggesting that the Government should nationalise private foster homes—I doubt whether she is. What the hon. Lady is suggesting is not within our remit, but I will pass on her comments to the appropriate Ministers.

Charter Objectives

5.

If Her Majesty's Government plan to provide for penalties or sanctions for non—compliance with charter objectives; and if he will make a statement. [15094]

We are committed to relaunching the charter programme so that it meets the needs and wishes of people who use public services on a daily basis. That is why we are currently consulting on how best to do this, including looking at issues of compliance. Details of the new programme will be published as part of the better government initiative.

Are Ministers aware that the patients charter, to which the Government are committed, says:

"From April 1995 the NHS is broadening the 18-month guarantee"—
that last word is in bold print—
"of admission into hospital to cover all admissions into hospital."
When the Government took office, there were 155 people for whom there was no treatment in 18 months and, yesterday, we learned that there were 818 people for whom there was no treatment in 18 months. As a result of the guarantee being broken, will there be compensation for the individuals affected, will they be admitted to hospital, or is the guarantee—it is much more important than a pledge—worthless in terms of guarantees about NHS treatment under this Government?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in which he likened turning round the situation on waiting lists to turning round a super-tanker. The previous Government left a dreadful legacy, and that is why my right hon. Friend and the Government have taken immediate action, including the provision of £269 million this year. They have appointed a waiting list action team, led by Stephen Day, with task groups in each of the eight regions to ensure that by next March we have looked at that 18-month limit and are turning round the huge lists that were bequeathed to us by the last Government.

Quangos

6.

What representations he has received about changes in the working practices of quangos. [15095]

Over the past few years quangos have been roundly criticised for being too secretive, unaccountable and unrepresentative. Last week I published the "Opening Up Quangos" Green Paper, which addresses those criticisms and sets out our plans to make quangos more open, accountable and effective.

This is open to widespread consultation and I look forward to receiving the views of people from throughout the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I welcome the Green Paper, which I am sure will shine light on the secretiveness and unaccountability of the quangos set up by the Conservative Government. Given my right hon. Friend's commitment to freedom of information, may I ask him whether quangos will be covered by a freedom of information Act?

We shall introduce a number of measures to open up quangos, including open annual meetings, publishing the minutes and annual reports. We are also, keen to encourage a wide cross-section of the community to become involved. The freedom of information legislation, as I said, will have wide coverage, right across Government. I cannot anticipate what the White Paper will contain, but I am pretty sure that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the effectiveness of quangos essentially depends on who is selected to serve on them? When they consider that matter, will quangos refrain from selecting people purely on the basis of political correctness?

I am delighted that at long last the hon. Gentleman, and I hope his colleagues, have seen the light. We live in a pluralistic society, and it is important that quangos and other bodies that help to advise the Government represent a cross-section of our society. I believe that one of the reasons why quangos got such a bad name over the past 18 years was the manner in which the previous Government stuffed them with their own appointees.

Does the Minister recognise that most citizens are not interested in changing the working practices of quangos, but rather in bringing them under direct democratic control, especially at local level?

Nowhere do people feel more strongly about that than in Northern Ireland. What steps do the Government intend to take to restore democracy to the Province?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The document that I produced last week referred to the 1,000 or so quangos that are national, but in addition to those, there are thousands that have regional, provincial or local application. I hope that out of the consultation and the on-going debate on democracy and about our devolution proposals, we will find it possible for some of the local and regional quangos to be subsumed by local government.

Open Government

7.

What action he plans to take to increase openness in government; and if he will make a statement. [15097]

The White Papers on freedom of information and better government which I am preparing will both increase openness in government.

I believe that in a modern society, open government is good government. Our proposals will change radically the culture of government in Britain and the way in which public information is handled.

I am grateful for that reply, but who will decide what is to remain secret and what will not remain secret? Will it be the same civil servants who, as we saw during the Scott inquiry, are rather unenthusiastic about the concept of open government, or will there be an independent element in the appeals process?

It is important that any legislation on freedom of information includes a strong, fair and easy-to-use appeals system, and does not leave the individual helpless in his or her attempt to get information. There are various ways in which that can be achieved, but the Government are studying the model of an independent information commissioner.

The Government make much play about open government. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he considers that holding a referendum before publishing the Bill to which the referendum refers is no more than a crude opinion poll, not a referendum?

We had referendums in Scotland and Wales before powers were devolved, and we have made it clear that we will use the same instrument before we introduce regional government into England.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies

8.

How he intends to ensure the accountability of non-departmental public bodies. [15099]

The Government are determined to make quangos more open and more accountable.

In our "Opening up Quangos" Green Paper we set out ways to improve the accountability of quangos. I am inviting Select Committees to have greater oversight of quangos, by looking at annual reports and by being involved in the new five-yearly reviews. I also plan to introduce codes of practice and registers of interest to quango boards wherever possible.

I believe that these and many other proposals that we put forward will ensure that quangos become much more accountable to the people they serve.

I know that my right hon. Friend appreciates that the quango state that was created by the previous Government removed huge areas of public expenditure from democratic scrutiny, with boards meeting in private with members who were unknown to the general public. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of his proposals for openness, the name of every member of every quango will be made publicly available, as will their register of interests, in a form that will be easily accessible to the average member of the public?

My answer is yes. At the same time that we published the Green Paper last week, we ensured that it was available on the internet. I intend to ensure that the internet includes the names of all quangos, their aims and objectives, and overall financial information. In addition, it is my intention to ensure that the names of all individuals on quangos appear on the internet, with the odd exception where one or two specialist committees deal with security or with the security of the individual, which might be at risk from publication.

Is the Minister able to give an assurance that it is his policy that henceforth all quangos will be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee? Will he concur that the best way to deal with quangos is to abolish many of them and return their powers to democratically elected local councils? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, when he is replacing clapped-out Tory placemen, he will not simply introduce Labour placemen?

The hon. Gentleman raises some serious points. First, we are trying to examine the raison d'etre of every quango to ensure that there is a reason for that body continuing to exist. Secondly, I have already said that we see a future, when considering regional and local quangos, for discussion to ascertain whether these bodies could be incorporated into the local government structure. That is the sort of issue that will be raised when we introduce our central-local government initiative. We have already discussed that.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise that we live in a pluralistic society. It is right and proper that people from all sections and strands of the community are represented on quangos.

Freedom Of Information

9.

If he will make a statement on progress towards legislation on freedom of information. [15100]

I intend to publish a White Paper on freedom of information shortly, and after a period of consultation this will be followed by a draft Bill.

Will it be seen that no excessive charges are made for accessing freedom of information, so that the information will begin to be readily available? As the process will take a while, with the publication of a White Paper and ensuing legislation, can things be done in the meantime to open up the secrecy of the state?

It is essential that costs should not be a deterrent when use is sought of the eventual Act. As my hon. Friend says, some time will pass before that Act is on the statute book. It is important that we continue our efforts as a Government to be more open. We shall be encouraging the flexible use of the code. I am encouraging my colleagues to be more proactive about the release of information. Right hon. and hon. Members may have noticed that yesterday we took an opportunity to show our commitment to openness by releasing MI5 documents from the Public Record Office.

Does the Minister accept that freedom of information itself is necessarily no panacea for better government? What arrangements does he intend to make for the advice that is given by officials to Ministers? Will that advice be subject to the same rules, or is he intending to alter them and thus make it likely that officials will restrain themselves in giving full and frank advice?

It is quite clear to us that open government is part of modern government and good government. I have already made the point that, at some time, one has to make a balanced judgment between openness, which informs our citizens, and confidentiality, which is essential to the workings of government. We feel that our responsibility is to provide good government, and we certainly intend to ensure that we get that balance right.

Special Advisers

10.

What are the principal provisions of the contracts of special advisers; and what steps he is taking to ensure that they do not undermine the integrity and impartiality of the civil service. [15101]

The model contract for special advisers sets out the terms and conditions under which they are employed. For the first time under this Government a copy was placed in the Library of the House in June. It distinguishes clearly the role and responsibilities of special advisers and reinforces the integrity and impartiality of the permanent civil service.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. What action is he taking to ensure that, where statements by special advisers are dishonest, misleading and inaccurate, disciplinary action is taken? I refer in particular to matters relating to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Is it not important that the traditional professionalism of the civil service is in no way undermined by the activities of special advisers?

It is absolutely essential that the political neutrality and integrity of the civil service is maintained. The draft contracts make that quite clear. They also lay out quite specifically the terms and conditions under which the special advisers operate, and make it quite clear that they can be more free in speaking to the press on political matters.

Prime Minister

Engagements

The Prime Minister was asked

Q1.

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 November. [15120]

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister spare the time to enlighten the House about the statement that he made last week, with what he described as enthusiasm and relish, on payments to the Labour party, when his enthusiasm and relish miraculously dried up so that he did not reveal the issue of the second payment? When he answers that question, could he do so with uncharacteristic frankness and humility, and without giving his usual impression of a Cheshire cat?

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I take points of order after statements.

There was no further payment, as I have said. I would just point out to the hon. Lady that we returned the donation. We refused more donations. We consulted Sir Patrick Neill. We followed his advice. We published that advice. I do not believe that the Conservative party would ever have done the same in our position.

Q2.

In view of the £10 million to £14 million that Ecclestone gave to the Tories previously, as well as the £1 million given to us before the election, is there not a case for changing the law to limit the amount of money that any private individual can give to political parties? Does my right hon. Friend agree that all political parties represented in the House should be forced to declare to the last penny where their money comes from and to return all stolen money? Does he recognise that, if we are to reform party financing, we should do so soon and do so thoroughly? That is what the public want, and it is what Labour Members of Parliament want.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is precisely why the terms of reference for Sir Patrick Neill should be as broad as possible. I also believe, to take up the point that my hon. Friend made, that it is important—and I have proposed this—that Sir Patrick Neill is able to look at all the donations that have been made, the names of the donors and the amounts, going back to 1992— [Interruption.] I am perfectly prepared, for myself, to have it go back 10 years.

I am delighted to say that, since I wrote to the leaders of the two other main parties, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed to that proposition. I hope that the leader of the Conservative party will now agree to that proposition as well.

We have said that we will give the money back. [Interruption.] We have already made arrangements to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] We have already made arrangements to do so, and it will be done in the next few days.

The Prime Minister just told my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the money had been returned. Are we to understand, five minutes into Question Time, that his first answer was not correct?

As we have made clear, we sought the advice of Sir Patrick Neill. We have followed that advice: we have followed it to the letter. I now think that the right hon. Gentleman should say whether he is prepared to accede to what both the leader of the Liberal Democrats and I have already agreed to.

I would have thought that, in this week of all weeks, even this Prime Minister would not be on his high horse—[Interruption.]

Order. Just a moment, Mr. Hague. I will have silence in this House when Members are asking questions. They must be heard.

I would have thought that, in this week of all weeks, even this Prime Minister would not be on his high horse in the Chamber. I will make my recommendations and proposals to the Neill committee; I will not prejudge its conclusions as the Prime Minister seems to.

Now we know that, when the Prime Minister told the House last week that he had already followed Sir Patrick Neill's advice to the letter, he had not actually done so, and he has still not actually done so. But, given that the Prime Minister has said that he ruled out further donations from Mr. Ecclestone on 5 November, why has the Minister without Portfolio said that he knew about such donations and ruled them out in October? Who is telling the truth, the Prime Minister or his sidekick?

I have made it clear, as I did in my television interview, that the decision was taken on 5 November—before, I may say, any press inquiry was made at all.