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Commons Chamber

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 26 November 1997

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 26 November 1997

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Coastguard Services

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

9.34 am

I am, indeed, fortunate—and grateful—to have a chance this morning to raise in the House the issue of the future of the coastguard service. The coastguard service is the fourth of the main emergency services, along with the fire brigade, the ambulance service and the police. The service is osf a significant size, with 430 full-time officers and 3,100 volunteers grouped in 370 rescue companies, specialising in search techniques and cliff rescue.

Many constituencies have cause to be grateful to the coastguard service, not least my constituency of Gosport. I have a range of interests in the coastguard service. I have a coastguard station at Lee-on-the-Solent and a coastguard helicopter similarly located. I am a member of the management committee of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In my constituency, we have a rescue service called GAFIRS, which is an acronym for the Gosport and Fareham inshore rescue service, and I maintain contact, as disclosed in the Register of Members' Interests, with Bristow Helicopters, which operates the helicopter service in Lee-on-the-Solent.

The coastguard service is international. From Aberdeen, the coastguard service monitors the northern North sea oil and gasfields, with all the problems and difficulties that occasionally occur there. At Yarmouth, the service has a station that monitors the southern North sea oil and gasfields. At Dover, a station operates the channel navigation information service and at Falmouth, the service has a worldwide liaison centre with an international search and rescue station, which maintains contact around the world. It may not be generally known that when the Achille Lauro caught fire off Somalia in east Africa, the rescue of those on board was co-ordinated from Falmouth and Stavanger in Norway. The coastguard service is a major international business.

Those who are engaged in the coastguard service tend to be modest; they may be under-recognised. That is emphasised by the tragic case of the Green Lily, which was lost off the east coast of Shetland last week. A journalist who observed the scene told of the rescue from a helicopter, when a winchman was lowered to rescue the crew. He said that the winchman was, indeed, a hero who had rescued the crew in terrifying conditions. He wrote:
"The wind was so strong it was hard to stand up. Sheets of blinding salt spray constantly burst over the cliffs … the helicopter wobbled noticeably just as the ship did a violent roll from side to side. I thought the rotors were going to hit the masts … The winchman was a hero. The conditions were terrifying, particularly after the ship hit the rocks. But he stayed on board until he'd made sure everyone else were safe. He really did give his life for those crewmen."

The winchman was William Deacon. His son, Alan Deacon, later commented:
"People need to understand what job my Dad and others like him do. It is not fully appreciated or rewarded. They go to rescues irrespective of adverse weather conditions and their own personal safety. There may be 14 or so men risking their lives to save just one person.
He went on to complain about press intrusion. I hope that the family will not feel that it is an intrusion when I say that the House and the country stand in awe of such courage and dedication. We thank the coastguard service for providing 24-hour cover regardless of risk, discomfort and inconvenience. That 24-hour cover means that the service is ready now, it will be ready on Christmas day and it will be ready in filthy weather on February nights off the rocky coasts of Scotland, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight.

The service cannot stand still. Communications have improved. The coastguard service is moving from an analogue to a digital communications system. I recognise that change is inevitable in a dynamic service. We must also acknowledge the situation in other countries Canada has three coastguard stations, in Halifax, Victoria and Trenton; there are only three coastguard stations on the east coast of the United States of America; Norway manages its service with two coastguard stations; Germany has one and France has six. We have 21. Change may be appropriate, but the question is what change should be made and how it should be controlled and managed.

The five-year strategy put forward by the Government on 17 November was badly mishandled from start to finish. I have tabled parliamentary questions and ascertained the facts and the chronology of what happened. On 7 October, a Coastguard information pack—a black and gold publication containing loose-leaf sheets—went to the printers minus two question and answer sheets on station closures. On 15 October, the information pack order was complete. On 20 October it was released to the press. Not surprisingly, at about that time speculation began about the future of the Coastguard and possible changes to be made by the Government.

On 3 November, I tabled priority questions about coastguard provision in the Solent spithead area. At about that time, hon. Members representing Scottish seats sought a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), to ask about the future of the service. It is a matter of record in Hansard that the Minister said:
"It is not within my knowledge that meetings have been requested."—[Official Report, 17 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 80.]
I do not know how a request from hon. Members can fail to be received by a Minister, but that is not my concern.

On 6 November, the Minister replied to my question, saying that the chief executive of the Coastguard would write to me. That detailed letter, dated 5 November, simply listed the current coastguard provision on the south coast. It gave no hint of any change. I wrote back on 8 November, asking the chief executive of the Coastguard for an assurance that there was no current intention to make changes. I did not receive a reply until 20 November, after the changes had been announced.

Even more dramatically, on Wednesday 12 November my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) asked the Minister a question in the Standing Committee considering the Draft General Lighthouse Authorities (Beacons: Maritime Differential Correction Systems) Order 1997. He said:
"Can she tell us, therefore, why her Department is considering turning the two coastguard stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent into one?"
The Minister replied:
"I am bemused by the question. … The question that he has just posed is, however, empty speculation. … There is no foundation for what he said and he must be aware that speculation in the press has raised justifiable concern. His question merely fans the flames of scaremongering."—[Official Report, Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 12 November 1997; c. 8–10.]

I have ascertained from parliamentary questions that on Friday 14 November—two days later—the two-page supplement to the five-year strategy document was printed by the Department and added to the information packs. On 12 November, we were told that there was no foundation for any allegation that the Department might be considering merging or collocating the two stations. Hon. Members always tell the truth in the House—and Ministers certainly do—so what the Minister said is obviously true. It means that she had not even considered putting the two stations together on 12 November. By 14 November, not only had Ministers decided to do that; they had printed the document saying that the stations would be collocated. What an exciting day 13 November was in Whitehall. Not only did Humphrey the cat go missing from 10 Downing street, but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which had never considered putting the two coastguard stations together, suddenly decided to do so and printed the announcement the following day.

The Minister has told the world on television that the words that we all complain of do not mean what we all know they mean. When a Minister gets it so wrong, the first thing that she or he should do is say sorry to the House. Then perhaps we can move on to the substantive issues.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that that word will be included in the Minister's speech. We are dealing with an appalling saga, in which the facts speak for themselves.

However, that is not the most important point in the debate. The coastguard service is more important than Government bungling. We must consider what change is appropriate. The Select Committee on Transport considered the service in 1994–95. It came to the conclusion that coastguard facilities and services were thinly stretched. The report pointed out that between 1986 and 1993, the number of responses undertaken by the Coastguard had risen 80 per cent., from 5,300 to 9,610, and that the number of rescues in that period had gone up 91 per cent., from 8,960 to 17,110. That stretching of facilities was thought to be mainly due to the increase in pleasure boat use—yachting and motor boats. That is not diminishing, and may well be increasing, so the stretching of facilities will also increase.

Will there be more or fewer coastguards as a result of the five-year strategic review? The Minister's letter of 17 November, when the statement on the future of the service was eventually dragged out of her, says that there will be more coastguards than there were a decade ago. That is a selective use of facts. The truth is that the number of coastguard officers will be reduced by 78. That is recognised by the Chief Coastguard, Mr. Astbury. On 17 November, he said:
"We hope the staff reductions will bring savings which will contribute to—or even completely offset—the cost of this new investment in communication systems."
The Chief Coastguard states that there will be reductions in personnel expenditure, which may pay for equipment.

What will be the effects of putting the two stations of Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent on the same site? The justification is stated to be that the Portland station is in a grade 2 listed building, making it difficult to carry out the necessary changes to ensure that the station has the facilities that are now required, and that the Lee-on-the-Solent station is in a former large house on the sea, in what was formerly HMS Daedalus. It is suggested that collocating the two stations in new premises will result in greater efficiency.

The Government are riding two horses. They are saying that there will be collocation, not merger, but also that there will be some possibility of using staff from one station in the other. In other words, there will be a brick wall in the middle of the large building, with the Portland station on one side and the Lee-on-the-Solent station on the other, but there will be an opportunity for staff to go from one side to the other.

I am absolutely certain that it is not intended to continue the present staffing level in the longer term. At Lee-on-the-Solent, there is one district controller, one deputy district controller, one operations manager, four watch managers, 12 watch officers and eight coastguard watch assistants. At Portland, there is one district controller, one deputy district controller, four watch managers, 10 watch officers and eight coastguard watch assistants.

One does not have to be a partner of McKinsey management consultants to know that, if the two stations are collocated, there is no intention of having in the longer term two district controllers, two deputy district controllers, and so on. One does not need to be an expert to know that collocating is obviously intended to save money by reducing staff. That is self-evident.

As to where the collocation should be, Poole has been mentioned—although that may just be because the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is based there. Southampton has also been mentioned. The coastguards to whom I have talked say that it is most important that the coastguard stations are located where those working can see and sense the elements. They feel that, if they are in a tower block, they cannot have the same feel for rescue services.

It will be very difficult to maintain the proper age profile in the coastguard service if there are no redundancies and the reduction of 78 posts is achieved entirely by natural wastage. Maintaining a good age profile at a time of redundancy is a major problem for any firm, any of the armed forces or for the coastguard service. The Government should be looking at the salary structure and pay and conditions of coastguards. I wonder how many hon. Members would believe that a watch assistant, who works a 42-hour week gross—a 35-hour week net with rest periods—is paid £6,984 a year. It is not surprising that one coastguard station has had a staff turnover at that grade of 50 per cent. in one year. I very much hope that the Government will comment on the pay and conditions of the coastguards and give an assurance that their service will be properly recognised by their pay and conditions.

I should like to put some questions to the Minister, who I am pleased is in her place. Why did not she make a statement in the House on the future of the coastguard service? It is a fine and important service, and I should have thought that it merited a statement at the Dispatch Box. That would have reflected the importance that the Government place on the Coastguard and given hon. Members an opportunity to ask Ministers questions— instead of having to drag one Minister here this morning or table written questions.

Is the five-year strategy a genuine five-year plan for the Coastguard, or is it merely the bit that has been pulled out of the Minister and the Government so far? It is, I am afraid, an open secret that the National Audit Office has carried out a study of the coastguard service, which has not so far been published. The study apparently says that the cost of maintaining multiple coastguard stations is rather high. Therefore, the Government may well be very shortly faced with an NAO report that recommends further changes to the coastguard service. How confident can anyone be that the five-year strategy as announced so far is in fact the true five-year strategy? Is there a hidden agenda of further changes?

What will the Minister do about pay and conditions of coastguards, to ensure better staff retention? What consultation procedures are proposed? The Chief Coastguard said in his press conference that the four stations—two in Scotland, and Tyne Tees and Liverpool—will definitely close "no matter what". What is the point of having a consultation procedure? Is there to be one at all? We are told that the consultation procedure that preceded the five-year strategy was an internal matter only. Is there to be any external discussion? Will the coastguard service, the Government or the Minister take any notice of anything that anybody says?

Will the Minister reconfirm that the helicopters at Lee-on-the-Solent and Portland will remain there despite the fact that the coastguard stations are to be collocated? If she reconfirms that, will she also reconfirm that, this being Wednesday, she will not on Friday publish a statement that says that the Government are to change their mind again?

I take considerable pride in having attracted the coastguard station to Lee-on-the-Solent in my constituency. I suggested to the Chief Coastguard some years ago that the location of HMS Daedalus, as it then was, should be examined as appropriate for coastguard services. It is perfectly located in the centre of the south coast; it is at the centre of the busiest shipping and yachting area in the United Kingdom. If a rebuild of the Lee-on-the-Solent and Portland coastguard stations is required, there is land available at Lee-on-the-Solent which would be perfect for collocated premises if the Government wished to proceed in such a manner.

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I know that a number of hon. Members want to speak, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

The hon. Member is correct; a number of hon. Members wish to speak. I therefore remind hon. Members to restrict their speeches, so that everyone may contribute to the debate. I call Mrs. Ray Michie. She chaired a Standing Committee on behalf of the House from yesterday until almost 5 o'clock this morning, and I think that she deserves to be called now.

9.55 am

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this most important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on having secured it. He has spelt out his concerns about the Government's proposals on the future of the coastguard services. I am sure that, if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will highlight the consequences of the closure of the station in his constituency and describe the dangerous waters surrounding it.

I, too, pay my tribute and that of my constituents— who greatly value their coastguards—to the emergency services that were involved in the rescue of the crew of the Green Lily. It was with a deep sense of shock that we heard of the tragic loss of life of Winchman Bill Deacon after he had helped to save the lives of the 10 crew. He displayed the most incredible bravery, and our deepest sympathy goes out to his grieving family and friends.

The Government's proposal to close the Oban coastguard station in my constituency has come as a great blow to the town of Oban and the whole of Argyll. It plays a key role in maritime safety on an extensive coast and its many islands, and is pivotal in its co-ordinating role in search and rescue, which can involve lifeboats—it covers seven lifeboat stations—the police and mountain rescue. It has built up a wealth of local knowledge, expertise and skills, overseeing an area that is well known for treacherous tides, stormy conditions and sudden changes in weather. The rescue services know each other, trust each other, work as a team and have confidence in and depend on the coastguards in many a dangerous situation at sea.

There has been a huge increase in maritime traffic in recent years, with a large number of pleasure craft encouraged to the area by the local enterprise company and the marketing group, Sail Scotland, as such traffic contributes considerably to the local economy. There has been an expansion in inshore fishing. Large numbers of divers visit the area all year round, and ferries constantly ply between islands and the mainland.

At the same time, three of the four customs offices in the Argyll-Lochaber area are being closed, with a reduction of 22 to 26 staff. Although the coastguards are not involved in anti-smuggling activities, we know that they can be called on for help by customs officers when they are chasing drug dealers on the high seas, where safety is paramount. The Minister will no doubt tell us that significant investment will be made in communications, but all the sophisticated technology in the world cannot take the place of local knowledge. I will believe that when I see it. The area in which I live has many black spots and is unable to get television channels. Mobile phones do not work, and even my pager does not work when I am on the islands.

The hon. Lady has put her finger on the real issue, which is local knowledge and the loss of it, if staff are cut. Does she remember, as I do, the last time that the banner, "Don't sink the coastguard", was unfurled outside the House of Commons some eight years ago? Exactly the same argument was made about technology versus staff and local knowledge. The person most vociferous was the then Labour spokesman, now the Deputy Prime Minister. Does the hon. Lady share my regret that his attitudes and, no doubt, those of his junior Minister, have undergone such a transformation in the past eight years?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes a pertinent point. I remember that time, and I am only sorry that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here for the debate today.

At the Oban coastguard station, 23 jobs will go. The Minister probably thinks that that is not many, but it is a serious loss to a town such as Oban. We shall be told that the coastguards will be offered early retirement, redundancy packages and relocation. However, many of the coastguards in Oban do not want to relocate, especially those with children at school and husbands and wives at work.

I have received many telephone calls, petitions and letters on the subject, and I shall give the House a flavour of them. One of the great worries is the confusion about place names. Many Gaelic names up the west coast of Scotland are replicated in several areas and on the islands. I have known confusion to occur when fire brigades have been called out. On one occasion, the fire brigade thought that it had to go to the Isle of Jura when it was needed at a place called Duror on mainland.

I received a letter from the Caledonian Boat Owners Association, which stated:
"Many of our members regularly sail the waters around Oban and find the service provided as being very reassuring and extremely efficient … It is very comforting to know that our leisure activities are being so effectively monitored"—
by the Oban coastguard station. Another letter reads:
"I am horrified at the idea of closing Oban C. G. as I know from long personal experience how vital it is that the coastguards involved in any incident have detailed local knowledge."

If the last coastguard station in Argyll goes, local people will feel a loss of confidence, that their defences are down and that they are left vulnerable. Can the Minister confirm that the coastguards face a funding crisis and that, in order to fund new technology—in which we still have little faith—stations have to be closed and real people lost to the area? I know that Argyll and Bute council has invited her to visit and see for herself. She would be very welcome, and I hope that she will accept that offer and rethink the closure. We need our coastguard station in Oban.

10.3 am

I grateful to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for raising the subject this morning, because it is very important. When the Transport Select Committee in the previous Parliament chose to investigate the coastguard service, it was because we regarded it as an urgent and important subject. My hon. Friend the Minister may feel that there are not many coastguards in Crewe; nevertheless, we are aware of the need for such an emergency service.

I am a little irritated that Opposition Members seem to have chosen to suggest that decisions on the coastguard service were taken only by the present Government. If I have a criticism of the present Government and the Minister, it is that the decisions were taken in 1996 and, apparently, we felt that the reorganisation was so advanced that we could do little to change it. Indeed, when we chased the matter with Ministers in the previous Government, we received astonishingly little support from hon. Members from other parties. I am delighted that they have now changed their attitude.

I do not wish to get into an argument with the hon. Lady about who supported whom, but David Harris and I did much work on the issue. I am sure that she will agree that the increase of 200 people who we are told have been added to the coastguard stations is, in fact, a decrease in the number of people doing the same job. People are being taken from the coast watch stations to the control stations, and we are now told that that justifies another cut of nearly 100 people.

I long ago learned to be suspicious of agencies that gave me assurances that the changes that they were introducing would not necessarily damage the personnel. Things have a nasty habit of turning out very differently.

I believe the Chief Coastguard, Mr. Astbury, the head of the coastguard service, when he writes in his five-year strategy:
"I should also like to emphasise … that the strategy announced is my vision … for the Service into the 21st century based upon sound operational principles".
The difficulty is that someone has to create a balance between good back-up services, high-quality equipment and the use of individual people. Coastguards are people. The fundamental issue this morning is that the coastguard service can have the best information in the world, provided by the best equipment, but it will not do its job unless it has people to interpret the information and to go out and change the situation at sea.

The four stations listed for closure are a case in point. Every one is near an exceptionally dangerous stretch of water or one that has other added problems. For example, the fishing fleet in Peterhead will be affected by the closure. Liverpool has to deal with Morecambe bay, the gasfield, and some of the most dangerous mudflats in the world. All those factors impinge on the safety of ordinary people. For example, the enormous growth in leisure sailing in my lifetime has created something new. Many more people now put their lives at risk, some with astonishing irresponsibility, for which the coastguards cannot be held responsible. However, unless we intend to stand by and let people drown themselves, we must be capable of saving them.

If I have a criticism of my hon. Friend the Minister this morning, it is minute but real. Faced with the difficulties caused by underfunding—the coastguard service is underfunded—the Government should have been a little more brutal and made it clear that what happened arose because the previous Government created a free-standing agency but did not give it the money and back-up to do an efficient job. That should have been said more loudly at the same time as the Government said that they intended to change the situation. The reality is that, whatever the words used, the five-year strategy will mean that many people at the sharp end will go. We shall lose coastguards, and although the auxiliaries do a sterling job, many of them are carrying responsibilities that some of us would like transferred back to people at a different level.

There is a worry about whether the reliance on high-quality equipment may occasionally overcome the commonsense need for straightforward, ordinary traditional equipment. I have a letter from a gentleman at Lochinver Transport, who himself served as an auxiliary coastguard for many years, setting out in considerable detail what happened when he reported to Stornoway
"a boat with a single occupant setting off a distress Orange Smoke Flare near Scourie village in North West Sutherland …very close to rocks, and with only minutes to go before darkness".
The letter sets out a series of circumstances that, happily, turned out reasonably. Obviously, the boat got away. The point that that letter raises is that reliance on the helicopter was such that apparently there were considerable gaps between the original report, the arrival of the helicopter and the calling out of the local lifeboat.

Those are all worrying circumstances. I do not expect the Minister to answer all the questions today, but that example shows an increasing reliance on high-tech equipment to do a job that is sometimes better done by individual coastguards using much more traditional equipment.

I have considerable reservations about the combination of some of the stations and the reliance on high-tech equipment in that process. One operator listening to several channels may have a problem if a boat has high-powered equipment capable of drowning out lower-level signals. That is not a comfortable position, and could put enormous pressure on the operator, who might feel that he or she was missing individual calls. All those problems inevitably arise when fewer people do the job at a much greater stretch.

I do not want to take too much time, because I know many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall finish by stressing my belief that the provision of emergency services is, in the final analysis, a responsibility not only of the House of Commons and of Parliament in general but of every one of us.

Emergency service personnel put their lives on the line daily, many for miserable rates of pay. Some are prepared to go on doing that, provided that they see a clear statement of a future in which their service is properly funded, they are properly appreciated and there is not so much reliance on re-equipment and changing the numbers.

Auxiliaries do not replace full-time coastguards. Full timers work very long shifts in a particular way, three at a time, and if any pressure is put on the arrangements by sickness, holidays or any movement, the station will be tightly stretched. When we talk about the number of people involved in the service, we must be aware of that.

We must know that those people work under constant pressure hour after hour. They may have long periods of boredom, but when they are required to take decisions they are required to take them immediately, and people's lives depend on those decisions. They must not make mistakes. That means that we must give them the back-up to do the job, in the form not only of high-quality equipment—although certainly that is essential—but of people. Coastguards must know that they have enough colleagues, enough equipment and enough money to run the service properly.

The previous Government were not prepared to provide that. They set up the independent agency because they thought that they could then cut the coastguard service without anybody noticing, and say, "We are just modernising the whole thing." We were not taken in by that then, and we shall not be taken in by it now.

I know that we do not need to drag my hon. Friend the Minister to the House of Commons. She comes skipping in here like a 21-year-old, which might be unlovable if she were not such a fantastically good Minister. None the less, I must tell her one thing we inherited a mess and we must sort it out. That may not be possible today, or even tomorrow, but we need the hope that we shall not go along with all the batty ideas that were left to us—all the incompetence, the corner-cutting and the idiocies which were left behind. I know what she has to deal with, and I rely on her to deal with it.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House again that we have little time and that several hon. Members want to speak. Unless contributions are very brief, many will be disappointed.

10.14 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on obtaining this important debate, and I join him and other hon. Members who have spoken in paying tribute to the crew of the helicopter that rescued men from the Green Lily last week off my constituency— in particular to the winchman, William Deacon, who sacrificed his own life in saving the lives of others.

I do not want to concentrate too much on the general strategy underlying the proposals that have been made; I shall concentrate instead on the issue as it affects my constituency. As has already been explained, Pentland coastguard station is to close by the end of 1999 if the strategy goes through.

The hon. Member for Gosport talked about the way in which the issue has been handled. I happened to know, because of a report in The Herald on 29 October, that there were suspicions that the Pentland and Oban stations were to close, so I telephoned the chief executive of the agency, who said that he could not comment because a report was already with Ministers awaiting a decision. If the decision was made on 13 October, the report must have been lying on desks for some time.

I accept what the Minister says about not having been aware of the letter sent to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie)— although I wish that, when my secretary telephoned to arrange a meeting, her officials had said that they could not find the letter. Only at the fourth time of asking for a meeting was it requested that a copy be faxed through. However, that is water under the bridge and we are now dealing with the real situation.

Far more important is the letter that the chief executive of the Coastguard agency sent me on 8 April. I had written to him because of press speculation that Pentland coastguard station was under threat, and he replied:
"The Focus for Change review made a number of recommendations for the restructuring of the service, but closure of stations was not one of the options considered …
Therefore, I am able to confirm therefore that there are no proposals to close Pentland coastguard station, neither is the station being downgraded, but will continue to function in its present form.
I hope I have been able to reassure regarding the future of the Pentland station".

That letter begged a series of questions, and I hope that the Minister can answer them today. What has happened since 8 April? There has been no major breakthrough in telecommunications. We are told that the strategy is underpinned by investment in telecommunications, but there have been no new developments capable of changing things.

The Minister sent a letter to Members affected, saying:
"The strategy … builds upon the concepts introduced over the past 18 months following the Focus for Change review".
Yet we know, because the chief executive of the Coastguard agency told me, that that review did not involve station closures. So why does the strategy involve station closures?

When was the decision made that at least some stations would close? When did that idea first enter the agenda? When, specifically, was it decided that Pentland should be one of the stations to close? That is important, because the staff at Pentland, after suffering years of speculation and uncertainty about their future, saw a copy the letter sent to me on 8 April and were reassured. They took the reassurance that Mr. Harris offered, but it has now been proved that that reassurance was worthless.

When a public servant offers such reassurance in April and overturns it in October, the public—not least those employed in the coastguard service—require a full and detailed explanation, and I hope the Minister can give us part of one today.

When there was some restructuring in senior management, watch managers were appointed at all but the four stations now due for closure—Pentland, Oban, Tyne Tees and Liverpool. There was a suspicion even then that there was an agenda for closure, and that has now been proved right.

Another problem is the lack of any consultation with those employed in the service— at the cliff-top, as it were. It seems to have been a desk job. Certainly, the police in my constituency were dismayed that there was no consultation with them, because they have formed valued links with the coastguard. They value the fact that they can go into the coastguard station. This is an erosion of the protective services around our coasts, which cannot give us any confidence.

At Pentland, there are 11 mobile grade officers and six coastguard watch assistants. The hon. Member for Gosport gave the annual earnings. I am told that a coastguard watch assistant is paid £3.11 an hour. I shall be interested to know what happens to the budget of the agency when the national minimum wage is introduced. That is a ridiculously low amount for a responsible job. The six assistants at the Pentland station were recruited locally earlier this year. I think that most, or even all six, are local people, who will not be disposed to uprooting their families and moving. On Monday—one week after the Minister made her announcement—some of them were sitting the final part of their exams to become qualified coastguard watch assistants. They were sitting the exams, knowing that their jobs were about to be axed.

The important point is that we will lose a lot of local knowledge. The Coastguard agency says that local knowledge is important and that it will not be lost. The deputy regional controller of the Coastguard for the north-east of Scotland, talking to my local newspaper The Orcadian said:
"Local knowledge is a very important part of coastguard work, but to say it is lost would not be true. That local knowledge is being maintained by Shetland and Aberdeen. Aberdeen has regional responsibility for the whole area anyway and their level of knowledge is pretty good anyway. It would be a case of enhancing local knowledge. That is not a concern".
Local knowledge comes about only by being there.

Yes, by being local. We are talking about an area with lots of islands, headlands and exceptional tidal conditions. If people move from Pentland to Aberdeen or Shetland, they will carry that local knowledge with them, but it will be a diminishing asset because there will be no one there to renew it in years to come.

If I do not give way, I can finish my speech more quickly and the hon. Gentleman may have a chance to speak.

Local knowledge will be lost, which is serious. On 18 October 1994, the Select Committee on Transport, to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, took evidence from the previous Chief Coastguard, Commander Ancona. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), he said:
"local knowledge should not be under-estimated; hence my comment that I feel the number of rescue centres we have at the moment meets the requirement, and any reduction might well have an effect on the service we provide."
The former Chief Coastguard, with all his experience, thought that a reduction in the then number of coastguard stations, which included Pentland, Oban, Tyne Tees, Liverpool, Portland and Solent,
"might well have an effect on the service we provide."
That is the concern that other hon. Members and I are expressing.

Inshore fishermen regularly telephone the coastguard to tell them where they are going and to ask for weather forecasts. I do not believe that they will telephone a stranger in Lerwick or Aberdeen when, for many years, they have had that close connection with the local coastguard station.

I have never yet been given any explanation of why Pentland has been singled out. What are the criteria? I tabled a question to the Minister last week and received a fairly lengthy answer, but it did not say why Pentkland had been chosen. Is it the number of incidents? I accept that we do not have the same number of incidents involving people lying on lilos and floating out to sea. The coastguard does an important job in rescuing them. However, last week alone a Faroese fishing vessel, the Saeborg, got into distress off Orkney and required the attention of the Pentland coastguard, as did the Minoan Bay, with 24 crew, for about 40 hours when it was in distress in the waters off Orkney. Those will go down as two incidents, but they were very demanding incidents. Had Pentland been closed and the Lerwick station been dealing with those incidents, it would have been doing so when the Green Lily got into difficulty.

For all the telecommunications in the world, one still needs people to operate telecommunications systems. We are saying that the people must have local knowledge and must not be overstretched. It is clear from the Minister's letter that the Government are looking for job savings and I do not believe that we can adequately substitute telecommunications for people. Of course, telecommunications are important and we want the best, but they are only as good as the people operating them and that is our concern about the proposals. I hope that they are not non-negotiable, as the Chief Coastguard said, because a serious mistake will be made if those stations close.

10.24 am

I want to be constructive and I shall raise three points. I thank the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for enabling this debate to take place. Portsmouth is the major conurbation next to Gosport and it is a centre of maritime activity.

The first of my three points concerns what is already happening and raising the profile of the coastguard service. All hon. Members who have spoken have done that constructively, so the profile of the job is being raised. Secondly, I must flag up the danger of any loss of coastguard service, particularly helicopter search and rescue, in the Gosport-Portsmouth area. Thirdly, I want to ensure that the trade unions who represent the staff—a large number of staff in the service are in unions—are fully consulted about the procedures necessary for redundancy, as the strategy for the five-year development plan evolves. It is no good merely consulting them afterwards. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that that will be done.

As everyone who has spoken has already raised the profile of the service and I want to cut my speech short, I shall go straight to my second point, which concerns raising the Portsmouth profile. There are 25 deaths from drowning in the Solent each year, which is 10 per cent. of all deaths through drowning around our coasts. Although the Solent appears to be placid—it is in the south and people use lilos—it is a dangerous place. Our helicopter services are scrambled 1,000 times a year and are extremely busy. The helicopters can get to people in distress in the Solent in about two minutes from Lee-on-the-Solent. If the service is moved anywhere else, the distance and time will be critical for life saving.

Portsmouth, as most hon. Members know—my hon. Friend the Minister was there recently—is a very busy place and it will get busier. As far as we are concerned, it is the centre of the Navy—I apologise to people in other areas, but it is the heart of the Navy. We also have a major international ferry port and an enormous number of yachting activities, with Cowes and all the rest. Our millennium scheme will increase the number, because it concentrates on maritime activity. Whenever anything happens on the sea, whether it is Britannia coming back or ships leaving to go to war, an enormous number of people go on the water to see the activities and to participate, increasing the potential for and the danger of accidents.

The debate in 1996 was rather stunted. Portsmouth city council raised the ogre of losing the services. We had a battle on our hands, but we eventually won, only to realise that that ogre might be raised once more because of this strategy. We have to raise the flag against it. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that those points will be taken into consideration when decisions on the strategy are eventually taken.

I am still trying to live down my past of being an eternal opposition person, a great shop steward in Parliament, and of attacking the Front Benchers— my usual tactic of attacking management. I have grown up since then and I am trying to be constructive. I hope that the urgency of getting the agency and the people who are drawing up the strategy to amend and change it will be realised. We must modify it in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Now we are in government, we must have a different attitude. We must get our Ministers to modify what the agency would have done under the previous Administration, which was much harder and tougher. Moving to agency status was one way of sorting things out—in a way we did not want them sorted out. I hope that, with an intelligent and sympathetic Minister, we will now get a better response.

Thirdly, I was impressed when I met trade union representatives today. I have been outside before with people waving banners and expressing anger, perhaps even wanting to kill people in here, but this morning people showed serious concern rather than anger. They are responsible and want to participate constructively.

The unions do not appear to have been drawn into the strategy so far; they should be, because they are the people on the ground with the knowledge, and they represent the people to whom Scottish Members referred today. Redundancies can be achieved, with proper consultation, without too much pain, by going through the proper channels. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will regard those as constructive points.

10.30 am

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) mistakes his role he is a constituency Member and must fight whomever is in government. The previous Government wanted to take away my helicopter at Portland; I fought them every step of the way and we now have a five-year commitment to that helicopter. We can fight for our beliefs, regardless of party.

Untruths have been told in press releases, suggesting that the change is not a cut in manpower. The previous Government decided to close coast watch stations, and in my constituency volunteers have replaced the guards whom they removed. People are being paid £3 an hour to do the work in control centres. That was the previous strategy, and we are now told that 200 people are to replace the 90-odd in the four stations that are to close. We are not being told the truth about what is happening with the two stations that are to be collocated.

The Minister said in Committee that she was baffled by my question about merging the two coastguard stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. Her press statement two days later said:
"The two stations to be combined are Solent and Portland".
She should apologise for misleading me, because I spent the weekend telling the press that they were wrong, because she had assured me that the merger was not going ahead.

We tend to hear about the glamorous side of the Coastguard—rescues and so on—but I have been amazed by the volume of paper that I have received from trade unionists and people working in the system. In response to a survey, someone wrote:
"Anyone who works for an organisation that is on the whole poorly paid, under equipped, understaffed and undermined through a combination of short term savings measures, crisis management, withholding and massaging statistics"—
that is certainly what is going on here—
"liberal interpretation of policy and guidelines at Regional level and lack of public awareness. Is lets face it, always going to be the subject of stress and a deterioration of general health."
The response goes on to get even worse, but I will not delay the House.

Let us consider directly what is happening at the stations at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent. It would be madness for the Government to collocate them on a single site if there were not some savings to be made in staff. Is it right to reduce the number of staff? There are about 600 coastguards and towards 100 people are to be removed. That sounds like a lot of people, but a 24-hour watch, seven days a week, comes to 168 hours. Dividing that by the 42 hours means four people for every post, and there has to be another person to cover holidays and sickness, and probably another for training. That means about 100 people on duty at any one time, and those people have to monitor all the channels.

There are more and more ways for people to communicate with the Coastguard in a much better way. In the Navy, radio watch is kept with one person to one circuit; in the Coastguard in the past, it was one person to two circuits; now we are moving towards one person monitoring seven or eight circuits. That, frankly, cannot be right.

I am astounded by Ministers saying that it is all to do with bad buildings at Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent; that is absolute nonsense. A whole naval air station is to close in the next couple of years. If the Government want the coastguards to move into a fully equipped and perfect new purpose-built building from their wonderful listed building by Weymouth harbour, that is fine; but it is nonsense for the Minister to go on television, as she did this weekend, and say that there are no job implications in merging two 25-man or 26-man stations.

People have complete disbelief in what their managers are saying and doing. We need to have meetings with Ministers and with the heads of the Coastguard. It was very nice of them to send us colour photographs of themselves— we can put them up on banners and decry what they are doing— but we need assurances that they will hold consultations and change their mind. There is no money to be saved in those moves, but there are certainly lives to be lost.

10.35 am

I speak on behalf of the many Merseyside Members and, more importantly, the staff employed at the coastguard station at Crosby, Liverpool, as well as the concerned general public on Merseyside.

I could not agree more with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the new technology, which has not yet been put into practice. I do not intend what I say to be a criticism of the Minister or of former Ministers.

As recently as last Friday, at the request of the staff at the Crosby station, I went to discuss the problem with them. On the instruction of senior management, I was not allowed on the premises, which rather upset me. The background seems to be shrouded in mystery and secrecy; it is not open enough.

I spoke to people with genuine knowledge of the maritime situation in Merseyside, in the port of Liverpool, who have been skilled for many years in rescue and safety operations, which they have carried out with great success. They cannot understand why a station at the gateway to the Atlantic and the western world is to be closed, when all the indications are that there will be increased maritime traffic over the next few years. They are completely puzzled by the decision to transfer the station to Holyhead.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, by closing the Liverpool station and assigning to Holyhead an additional 700 miles of coastal waters, covering increasing traffic and complex waters in Liverpool, we may be leaving users of the sea and coast in increased danger?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. That is the view that has been expressed from all maritime quarters on Merseyside.

I referred to the secrecy, or alleged secrecy, because there is no doubt that the experts on the ground have been complaining for a long time—even when the Isle of Man station was closed, putting an additional burden on the Crosby coastal station—about the complete lack of consultation.

I think that there is a genuine case for reconsidering the situation, and perhaps the entire service. I am making an appeal for a serious look at the situation that may prevail on Merseyside.

I do not want to be a voice of doom; I am certainly not a Luddite. I predict, however, that the voice of unease which is registering itself will swell in volume between now and 2000.I beg the Minister, on behalf of Merseyside Members of Parliament and of all the maritime interests on Merseyside, to think again. If she does, we shall co-operate with her.

10.39 am

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) on securing the debate and raising a subject of great concern to Members of all parties. It is a most important subject, on which my hon. Friend spoke knowledgeably and powerfully. It is of concern not just to his constituents but to the nation at large.

I am glad to begin by joining in the tributes that have been paid this morning to the courage and commitment of the Coastguard. Especially in our thoughts at the moment are and his family.

Several speakers have made clear the depth and breadth of the anxieties felt about the Government's proposals. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) made an eloquent contribution; the very fact that she is still here is a fine example of her stamina after that all-night sitting in Committee. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) began rather dangerously by claiming that it was Conservative Members who had switched their views on the matter. She made no reference to the much more dramatic switch in roles by the Deputy Prime Minister, who used to be a campaigner for, and defender of, the Coastguard but who appears in those roles no longer.

The hon. Lady went on to ask a number of questions about policy which I hope that the Minister will answer. So, too, did the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who asked some very disturbing questions. That made it all the more regrettable that, apparently owing to some mishap in the Minister's office, the hon. and learned Gentleman was unable to meet the Minister to discuss the issue. That seems dangerously close to a breach of the usual courtesies extended by Ministers to hon. Members—

Well, I hope at least that the private office will take note of what appears to have been a breakdown in communications.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has raised understandable anxieties. He referred to the Minister's response to him in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation on 12 November, when the Minister accused him of scaremongering. It was only a matter of days before the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend turned out to be rather well founded. Indeed, it looks as though my hon. Friend's comments were a good deal nearer the truth than were the Minister's. I therefore hope that the Minister will have the grace and honesty to admit that she was mistaken when accusing my hon. Friend of scaremongering; and that she will take this opportunity to withdraw her accusation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that no Scottish Office Minister is present at this debate, which is of major importance to Scotland? Under the Conservative Government, a Scottish Office Minister would at least have attended as a sign of courtesy and of Scotland's interest.

That is an important point. I have no doubt that the previous Government would have ensured that a Scottish Office Minister was present to hear the views of the House—but this Government's lack of interest in the views of the House is a point to which I shall return.

The hon. Members for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Rapson) and for Bootle (Mr. Benton) also expressed their concerns. It is clear that the Minister has not persuaded her Back Benchers of the merits of this proposal. Not a single Member in the House this morning has spoken or even intervened in support of what the Government propose to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport rightly identified two key aspects: first, the substance of the proposed changes to the Coastguard; secondly, the manner in which those changes have been announced to Parliament. As to the changes, the Opposition's view remains the same as it was when we were in government—that safety should be the paramount consideration at all times, and that nothing must be done that could conceivably jeopardise it. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is also the Government's view.

If changes are to be made, they must be made with the aim of strengthening the Coastguard. Nothing should be done that puts the current coastguard cover for emergencies at risk. The Minister must realise that the way that the Government's policy has been dragged out into public view has understandably raised anxieties that she must now allay. Many people fear that the proposed changes may indeed put lives at risk.

Conservative Members of course recognise that changes must take place. The Coastguard cannot and should not stand still. It is only right that the latest technology should be used. The Coastguard will inevitably be different in the 21st century from what it has been in the 20th, but that difference must be in how it operates, not in its effectiveness. Of course we welcome the prospect of new investment, but the decision must not be a smokescreen behind which operations are quietly cut, staff are sacked, experience and training are wasted and effectiveness is reduced.

The House will need to be convinced that the Government's proposals guarantee the necessary protection in the future, and that safety is not being compromised in a hasty bid to cut costs for some other purpose.

The sad truth is that we are learning week after week that this is a Government who cannot be trusted to keep their word. We heard it in the July Budget, with the introduction of the £5 billion smash-and-grab raid on pension funds. We heard it earlier in the summer with the introduction of tuition fees, and with their broken promises on waiting lists and class sizes. The list of broken promises grows week by week but—even by the standards of this untrustworthy Government, whose contempt for Parliament is their most notable characteristic—the manner in which this decision has been announced was absolutely disgraceful.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport set out the day-by-day sequence of events which amounts to nothing more than a sequence of evasions. Will the Minister explain this morning her role at each stage of this sorry saga, from 7 October, when the incomplete Coastguard information pack was sent to the printers, to 14 November, when the truth finally emerged? If she does not have time to set out the detail in this debate, will she write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of her letter in the Library? Above all, will she explain why she made no statement to the House of Commons at any stage in the process? Was that because she was afraid, because she did not know what was going on or because she— like so many other Ministers—simply does not care about the House of Commons?

On the day we have learned that the amount of taxpayers' money being swallowed up by the salaries of political advisers to Ministers has risen by 44 per cent. since 1 May, we might ask Ministers whether they are getting value for money from all those advisers.

Perhaps the Minister simply hoped to hide behind the Chief Coastguard in this matter. The use of the Chief Coastguard to make a politically sensitive and controversial announcement of policy is extremely dubious. Did the Minister authorise that procedure herself, or was the decision taken by the Secretary of State? Why was this method of announcement chosen? I believe that Madam Speaker herself has expressed concern about how the House has been treated over this issue.

The picture that emerges suggests that here is a Minister who is not on top of the policy for which she is responsible, who is fearful of engaging in debate, who knows that she has something to hide. This morning's debate is an opportunity for her to dispel that impression.

For a Government who boast of their willingness to make hard choices, this fumbling over a vital national service smacks of both incompetence and weakness. Will the Minister now—very belatedly—give the House a full, honest and clear account of her actions and of the Government's policy?

10.49 am

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

In common with the whole House, I wish to associate myself with the tributes paid to Mr. Deacon, the helicopter winchman who gave his life in saving 10 lives from the Green Lily, and to the coxswain and crew of the Lerwick lifeboat, who, without hesitation—as is general throughout that great search and rescue service—risked their own lives to save those in danger on the sea.

I say to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) that, far from being dragged to the House this morning, I welcome the opportunity offered by his Adjournment debate to reiterate the facts inherent in the five-year strategy that was announced and to lay the misinformation, disinformation, rumour and speculation that have been fuelled, in my opinion, from both within the Chamber and without. To all hon. Members who have participated in this important debate, I say that, if I do not answer all their individual questions this morning, I shall most certainly respond by letter.

The contribution from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) does not, in my view, warrant any sort of detailed response. That he, as a member of a former Government who subjected the Coastguard agency to a biannual roundabout of confusion and to constant pressure to maintain services, while reducing the levels of Government funding, should speak as he did is little short of disgraceful.

To touch briefly on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton), who was denied access to his local coastguard station, I say to him and all hon. Members that that was a gross mistake and it will not occur again—indeed, we would encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to visit their local coastguard stations.

What has emerged from the debate is that there is genuine confusion among many hon. Members as to what the five-year strategy contains. As we have stated, it is a multi-million pound investment in new digital technology: it is not in any way a method of reducing the human element, which is as vital as technology to the Coastguard service.


The Coastguard's communication service is currently based on analogue technology. That equipment is extremely difficult to maintain and is outliving its usefulness. It will inevitably have to be replaced and it will be replaced by new digital technology.

Another point raised by all hon. Members who have spoken is that they fear a lack of local knowledge. That point was especially highlighted by my hon. Friends in respect of the proposed closure of the co-ordination centre at Liverpool. I would point out to all hon. Members that the Coastguard is responsible for 10,000 miles of the United Kingdom's coastline and 1.25 million square miles of sea. Local knowledge is furnished to the co-ordination sub-centres by auxiliaries on our coasts—3,000 in all. There will be no reduction in the number of auxiliary coastguards, in watch commanders and helicopter services or in co-ordination and facilitation between our Coastguard and other search and rescue services such as the lifeboats.

No— I regret that I do not have time to give way.

Let us return to the example of the coastline that is monitored by the Liverpool sub-centre. It stretches from Queensferry in north Wales to the Mull of Galloway. It is clearly absurd to presuppose that officers within the co-ordination sub-centre could have intimate knowledge of every mile of that coastline, or of the seas that break upon it. There will be no reduction in any local knowledge: the front-line coastline services will remain the same.

On the issue of staff reduction, there has again been much misinformation. It has been estimated that, during the process of the five-year strategy, there will be staff reductions of 78 in number—I repeat, 78. After consultation with all those involved, we believe that that number will be achieved by natural wastage, early retirement and early severance. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made the valid point that the best technological equipment in the world is useless if the staff who use and maintain it are not highly trained and professional. Part of the five-year strategy is to ensure that Coastguard staff maintain and improve on their already extremely high rates of professional competence.

It is my interpretation that they do not believe it because there has been a campaign, from both inside and outside the House, of misinformation and disinformation.

No, I shall not give way. I do not make that allegation in respect of all hon. Members.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The campaign to which the Minister refers is led by those self-same staff. The Minister is not permitted to mislead the House in such a grotesque manner.

I made no allegations whatsoever about Coastguard staff and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) yet again shows that, whatever the subject of the debate, he is more concerned with making empty party political points than with concentrating on the important issues being discussed.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister said that there had been misinformation from inside the House and that is a serious allegation with which to take a scattergun approach. Which hon. Members does she accuse of misinforming the House?

I shall come to the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) later in my speech and I shall be precise in making my allegations.

The other important aspect of the five-year strategy is that it will allow highly trained professional staff greater job satisfaction. There will also be greater opportunities to expand on accident prevention activities—a point raised by hon. Members on both sides. The issue of consultation was raised by several hon. Members and I assure the House that a process of consultation will be undertaken. The coastguard service is dependent on teamwork. The element of trust is vital to speed and efficiency, both in receiving information from vessels and individuals in distress and in disseminating that information from co-ordination centres to the front-line services on our coastline which undertake rescue attempts.

The hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland said that I had opted for a scattergun approach in my allegations that there has been misinformation. The most precise example of that misinformation is previous statements and the speech made today by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) on the issue of the co-ordination centres in Solent. There is a major difference between merging—which implies reducing— and collocation of the two centres.

I admit that the word "merging", was used not by the hon. Member for South Dorset but by the hon. Member for Gosport. The central issue is that the two sub-centres will need to be relocated. The buildings that they inhabit are not suitable, either for the personnel who work within them or for the new technology that is to be introduced.

The hon. Member for South Dorset averred that that relocation was a cost-cutting exercise and that costs would be cut by reducing the staff currently engaged at the two busiest sub-centres in the whole of our search and rescue service. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is money to be saved, it will be saved on the bills of maintaining two buildings which, I repeat, do not provide an adequate environment for staff or for the equipment that will be housed in them. It makes good sense to rehouse the two sub-centres; I repeat that they will remain two sub-centres in one building.

The relocation has yet to be decided on. That issue will be part of the consultation process. There is already close co-operation—and integration—between the two sub-centres. They are responsible for co-ordinating rescues for 20 per cent. of United Kingdom search and rescue operations.

I apologise to all hon. Members for the fact that I have not had time to answer all their questions this morning. That so many hon. Members wished to participate in the debate emphasises the importance—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think the Minister has read the words that are already on the record of the House, of the debate in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and we have given the hon. Lady the opportunity to withdraw what was a very serious misleading of the House. I have just been accused, as a Member of the House, of misleading the House in drawing attention to the inconsistencies—the incorrect information that is there. The hon. Lady has accused me of—

The hon. Lady has accused me of giving misinformation to the House. I am astounded. How can one call a Minister of the Crown—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is continuing the debate. The Chair is not responsible for ministerial replies.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you can give us some guidance. When the Government seek to make major changes to funding for the police or the fire or ambulance services, it is customary for the Minister to make a statement in the House and yet on this occasion it has taken an Adjournment debate to drag the Minister, kicking and screaming, to the House to demonstrate her incompetence. I wonder what the guidelines are for making statements on the emergency services.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Here we have another example of wilful misinformation emanating from the Opposition. No one had to drag me into the Chamber. I neither kicked nor screamed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich pointed out, I skipped into the Chamber—

Order. This is a continuation of the debate. The way in which ministerial statements are made is not a matter for the Chair, and I suggest that we move on to the next debate, out of which we are taking valuable time.

Coal Industry

Before I call the first speaker on the coal industry, I remind the House that even more hon. Members want to take part in this debate than the previous one, so it will be helpful if those who do are as brief as possible, to let other hon. Members have their opportunity.

11.2 am

The coal industry faces a challenging time, as the contracts inherited at privatisation expire on 31 March 1998.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this timely debate, and I am pleased to see Labour colleagues from throughout the United Kingdom in the Chamber to support the coal industry. There are hon. Members from Wales and Scotland, but the crucial issue that we are considering this morning is the problem in the English coalfield, so the majority of hon. Members present are from the central coalfield, from Yorkshire, from Nottinghamshire and from the rest of the midlands.

We want to argue the case for coal, which will be extremely difficult to argue in the short term. In 1996, the main English coal supplier, RJB Mining, provided 30 million tonnes of coal to the generators. I do not know what it hopes to achieve in its negotiations next year; I expect that it will struggle to provide 15 million tonnes of coal. I note that RJB has agreed a contract of 4 million tonnes with Eastern, and I understand that this morning RJB and National Power have announced a contract of 16 million tonnes, but spread over four years. A big gap must be filled if RJB is to reach the 15 million tonnes that it talks about.

There is a problem on volume and a problem on price. If RJB achieves 15 million tonnes, that will be less than half what it supplied last year, and I expect that in the short term there will be major restructuring and redundancies in the industry.

It is important to recognise that RJB was privatised by the previous Government. We need to acknowledge that the generating industry was privatised by the previous Government. In the short term, the Minister of State's scope for intervention is very limited. I am surprised that people expect a new Labour Government to offer subsidies to the private sector. I am not convinced that there is a strong argument for rolling existing contracts forward for another year or two years—some of my colleagues may wish to comment on that—but I believe that the Minister has a role to play in the short term, and I know that he has been fulfilling that role.

The Minister's role is to get people around a table, to ensure that the generators and contractors talk to one another. He has a responsibility to take stock of what the industry might look like in a year's time. I hear the stories from RJB. I hear management say, "We might close eight to 10 pits in the short term." That would have enormous consequences for the people we represent—the people we know as hard-working, committed miners, who have done everything asked of them and more, the most productive miners in Europe. Many of them are confronted with another Christmas and new year of insecurity.

I ask the Minister to do what he can to convene meetings between the parties, to ensure that contracts are found and that decisions are taken early. One of the ticking time bombs is that people who work in the industry have redundancy terms agreed from privatisation to 31 March, and I am extremely worried that the company appears to be reluctant to talk about extending those terms. I say this very simply to RJB, "If you want trouble and difficulties in your mines, the way to do so is not to talk to the men about redundancy payments in 1998."

There are things that the Minister can do to help the industry in the medium to long term. Coal generation is growing worldwide, so we must maintain a secure and prosperous coal industry in the UK. There are business opportunities internationally, and British mining suppliers and engineering suppliers should benefit.

I know that the Minister is taking steps. I wish that he would say more clearly and loudly what he is doing. His voice is not being heard in coalfield communities. Let me talk about some of the things that he has agreed to do. He is backing coal companies fighting European subsidies in Germany and Spain. He is giving coal an extra chance against nuclear, as a result of the unwinding of the nuclear levy. Those are important things to do.

It is important to examine how the electricity pool works and to take early decisions. Astonishingly, major power stations such as Drax and Radcliffe, which have flue gas desulphurisation, do not run. I should like the Minister's review of the pool to result in cleaner plant being run in preference to dirtier plant. That does not happen now, and I hope that we shall take steps, through that review and the regulation review that the President of the Board of Trade is conducting, to ensure that coal gets a fair deal in the electricity pool.

By themselves, those steps will not be enough. I hope that the Minister will try to help coal in the medium to long term, because decisions that he takes and announcements that he makes now will influence the short-term position. People will not invest, either in coal or in generation, unless they know what the Government's policy is, and there is confusion about that at present. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will state his position clearly. I hope that he will give us a commitment that when he chairs the Council of Ministers energy meeting— which is not far away and will take place in the new year— he will work to ensure that there is a real market, a free market, for electricity.

I hope that one early step that my hon. Friend will take will be to look at the interconnector with France. It is ludicrous that electricity should be bought and subsidised to come into this country. We want a free market in Europe, a market where British-generated electricity can compete on the continent; the stranglehold that some companies have on the continent needs to be broken, and I hope that my hon. Friend will look closely at that.

I hope that within Europe and elsewhere my hon. Friend will consider the issues surrounding climate change. It is only a few days until the Kyoto summit, in which Britain is a prime and important player. We need to be clear about the consequences of our pledges. Our pledge to reduce further CO2 emissions by 20 per cent. by the year 2010 will create pain— that is perceived in the United States and in Japan. We need to make the reality clear here. The reality in the United Kingdom is that carbon dioxide emissions from coal generation have been reduced by 50 per cent. since 1970, and coalfield communities have felt the pain. Collieries have closed, men have lost jobs, and all over England, Scotland and Wales there are mining communities that cannot see the way forward clearly.

We need to be careful what we say at Kyoto, and we need to use new technology. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is an enthusiast for new technology, and I hope that in the run-up to Kyoto he will make some announcements about clean-coal technology. There has been a lot of research into the subject over a number of years and now is the time to reap the dividends, and to bring the players together to try to ensure that early in the next century we replace existing dirty plant with clean-burn coal. If we can do it here in the United Kingdom, we can export that technology across the rest of the world. There are enormous opportunities for us if we take that policy forward.

The initiative in clean-coal technology must be private sector led, but the Minister and the Government have a role to play in providing security and giving a commitment to that approach. If the Minister makes early announcements on clean-coal technology, I can assure him that he will be cheered all over the coalfield communities in the United Kingdom. What would cheer coalfield communities even more is if the policy on gas generation was spelt out clearly.

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's position. As I understand it, when he took up his desk at the Department of Trade and Industry, 25 consents were already agreed for gas-powered stations. If all of them were built— I hope that they will not all be built— we should see the demise of the British coal industry in the short term. Since he took office, my hon. Friend the Minister has agreed five new gas-powered stations, displacing 6 million tonnes of coal. As I understand it, those stations have been mainly plant connected, with combined heat and power, to give greater efficiency, but they are not all like that. Perhaps the Minister will tell the House today what criteria he is using to judge and approve new gas stations. We have a right to know, as does the market.

Will my hon. Friend also tell the Minister that nothing has been said so far about why the European Community wants to import gas from Russia and north Africa at rock bottom prices throughout the continent? What steps could be taken on that? Now or in the near future, is that policy to become part of a big negotiating package affecting such issues as fish quotas, beef exports, wine lakes, trade discussions and disagreements? Will my hon. Friend say a few words about that?

I shall say one or two words about that and come to the substantive point in a minute. I hope that the coalfield communities of the United Kingdom will not be sold out at some bargaining table in Brussels. I know that the people who live in Bassetlaw and Worksop, the area that my hon. Friend represents, are conscious of that and do not want to be pawns in the game.

To return to the gas industry, I know that the Minister has faced challenges and been told that he should put a moratorium on gas. I believe that he may have taken advice suggesting that were he to do so, he would face a legal challenge. I understand the argument, but the soundings that many of my colleagues and I have taken in the industry show that if the Minister were minded to declare a short-term moratorium for perhaps three years in order to see how the rapidly changing energy market settled, there would be concern in the industry, but no serious challenge.

Ultimately, gas generation is pushing coal off the agenda and off the face of the United Kingdom. I mildly say to the Minister that now is the time to step off the gas. If a crash is inevitable, if the closure of the British mining industry is inevitable, now is the time to touch the brake and look closely at gas.

There is a bigger and longer-term issue. In the next few weeks, we shall see some slimming down of the British coal industry; if we are not careful and do not take the steps that I am advocating today, we could see the final demise of the coal industry. We shall be entirely dependent on nuclear renewables and gas. The nuclear industry is now in the private sector, and when replacement is needed, the market will not take the risk of replacement because of factors such as disposal and decommissioning costs.

We need to encourage renewables. As the Minister knows, our target is 10 per cent. by 2010, which will be difficult to achieve. In the longer term, beyond the North sea supplies, we shall be totally dependent on gas from places such as Algeria, Iran and Russia. Perhaps the Minister will look at the discussions that have taken place between the Iran oil ministry and Gasprom in Russia about technical co-operation. What they are talking about is rigging the market and increasing the cost of gas. Some 20 to 30 years from now, we could be dependent on sources of supply that are outside our control and that are now rapidly diminishing. The Minister needs only to look at his own statistics to see that gas exploration is not expanding. For the first time, the amount of gas available is on a plateau and there are signs that availability is declining; moreover, the demand for gas is increasing all the time. We shall see a rapid decline of that gas supply, and we shall be left isolated and totally dependent on gas from elsewhere.

If my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues can look forward 50 years and take action on climate change, they should do so. They need to establish the baseline now for a balanced energy policy that still has coal as its cornerstone. I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in the matter and that, despite criticism, he has been enthusiastic and has worked hard. I know that he has met miners and will meet others this week; I know that he hears their voice. Put simply, he should hear their cries of despair.

This Christmas and this new year will be yet another time of insecurity and worry. The people who work in the coal industry have done everything that has been asked of them, and more. They are the most productive miners in Europe. They are young, well educated and skilled for the future. We must stick with them. We need to invest in coal, the coal industry, coalfield communities and the future.

Unlike the Opposition, I do not want us to turn our back on coal and to leave the industry to the whims of the market. I want the Government to act now and to do what they can, not in the short term, but in the medium to long term, to ensure that the coal that has for years been in the blood of many of us remains there, and that the coal industry survives and prospers, in the UK and internationally, into the next millennium.

11.20 am

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) must be thanked for initiating the debate, which provides the whole House with an opportunity of hearing what the Government intend to do or not to do in relation to the coal industry.

I had considerable sympathy for the hon. Gentleman as he spoke, as it cannot be easy as a parliamentary private secretary to initiate a debate on a matter as contentious and difficult as the coal industry, and to stay within the bounds of collective responsibility. The House will have understood the constraints within which he was working, and I make no criticism of that. One understands the shorthand.

Those who voted Labour on 1 May in Nottingham and elsewhere would have done so in part because, I suspect, they accepted what the Labour party had promised in relation to coal and other matters. Although it is easy for Labour Members to make comments about the Conservative party, that is not the issue today. The issue is what the Government intend to do, and what the Labour party intends to do in respect of the pledges that it made to the country— the basis on which it was elected on 1 May.

In December 1992, at the time of the previous coal debacle, the then shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is the present Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and the then shadow Minister for Energy, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), issued a joint press release presenting a six-point plan, which stated:
"Labour's six steps would put Britain's coal industry on the road to a secure future by giving it the chance to compete on level terms instead of being squeezed out of a rigged market."
The press release continued:
"Britain's coal reserves are a rich national asset. Our gas reserves will only last into the start of the next century, but our coal reserves could supply Britain's energy needs beyond the end of the next century. Letting the pits close now in a dispute over a one-year contract with the electricity companies would be short-termism on a criminal scale."
The six steps in Labour's plan would
"end the rigged market for gas—no more licences should be issued for gas-fired power stations; open up nuclear power to competition; halt imports of French electricity"—
the hon. Member for Sherwood referred to the interconnector—
"stop unfair dumping of coal imports; provide stability for the future— the reduction in the franchise sector of the distribution companies should be postponed; and invest in clean coal technology."

All those points are as relevant now as they were then. The House and the mining communities are entitled to hear from the Labour Front Bench the Labour party's policy for coal. One sees headlines in The Independent on Sunday stating, "Labour prepares to spin away 5,000 miners' jobs".

It is interesting that the Minister without Portfolio has spun into the Chamber at this moment— an unusual visitor to Wednesday morning debates, or ever.

The Independent on Sunday reports that the mining communities— not surprisingly and quite rightly— say:
"Down the generations, we have given far more to the Labour party than Bernie Ecclestone … Why won't they listen to us now?"

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry knows that I like him and have a great deal of respect for him, but I cannot understand why he has not yet been prepared to see the Union of Democratic Mineworkers and other unions. That is one of the disconcerting features of recent weeks, although he may now have met the unions.

There is a general constitutional convention in the House— and if there is not, there should be— that Ministers will always see groups with an interest in the policy area that they represent. That was the case among most Conservative Ministers when I was a Minister.

I saw representatives of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers yesterday.

The Minister says that he met the UDM yesterday. That is rather belated. The UDM's concern was that on several occasions the Minister had arranged meetings, which were subsequently cancelled. As of a few days ago, I understood that the Minister had failed to see the UDM. If that is unfair, I am sure that the Minister will tell the House when he last saw the UDM.

I have met members of the different trade unions on many occasions, not least in the middle of the summer, when the debate started. I met a group of representatives from Asfordby to start with, and we went on meeting. There is one member of the UDM who said that I had not met him personally; that is true.

Let me make it plain that I have met with Members of Parliament, and I have written to all hon. Members with a mining interest, inviting them to come and meet me with representatives of the industry at any time. That invitation stands. The only meeting that was postponed was one at which we wanted to discuss the environmental issues with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, but unfortunately he had to attend talks in America at the time for which the meeting was arranged, so we postponed it; we did not cancel it.

The Minister does himself a disservice. The explanation that he gives the House conceals the fact that the one member of the UDM whom he has failed to see is the president of the UDM. The Minister can hardly be surprised if the UDM. as a major union in the east midlands, expresses concern.

Indeed, if the president or members of the National Union of Mineworkers wish to see him, the Minister would be wise to see them as well. Then it would not be necessary to have Wednesday morning debates such as this. The Minister does himself a disservice if he is unwilling to see leading members of the coal mining communities.

My hon. Friend may know that I have taken a slight interest in coal. I had many meetings with Ministers when the Conservative party was in government, to try to get them to listen to some of the arguments that we must now present in opposition. Does he agree that it is the Prime Minister who is in the frame on this? Of course I would not expect the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) to point that out, given the sensitivity of his position as a parliamentary private secretary.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend said about that, but the Prime Minister has committed the country, much to the fury of the Trades Unions Congress, to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide. The Kyoto conference is coming up, but that commitment is being driven by a policy for which the Prime Minister is personally responsible. The other day he was arguing for—

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is also significant that in his maiden speech to the House, the Prime Minister made a plea against pit closures in his Sedgefield constituency. At that time, those pits were producing high-cost coal. If the Prime Minister thought at that stage that it was wrong to close the pits, we are entitled to know what the Government think today.

Mining communities are worried when they read that the Government's intended strategy over the debacle is to blame RJB Mining for failing to negotiate contracts with the generators, when
"other 'major producers' have been able to do so",
according to The Independent on Sunday. In fact, there are no other major producers. There are no other major UK mining companies, because RJB Mining has 90 per cent. of domestic coal production.

The House is entitled to hear today from the Government what they intend to do in relation to the coal industry. The hon. Member for Sherwood was constrained from saying this in terms, but it is clear that if secure coal contracts are not negotiated over the next few months, a considerable number of jobs will be lost in the coal industry.

I put to the Minister a point that was difficult for the hon. Member for Sherwood to make. Those in the coal mining communities—many of whom are represented by Labour Members—would like the Government to consider extending the current contracts for a further two years until Professor Littlechild's review of the electricity market is concluded. Those communities are understandably concerned that, although productivity in coal has improved enormously and the cost of coal has decreased considerably, the benefit has not been passed on to the consumer. Coal miners believe that their jobs are at risk and that Professor Littlechild's review might provide some useful information and conclusions. It would be sensible to allow existing contracts to run while the review continues and to impose a moratorium on mine closures in the interim.

Such action may involve a cost. The hon. Member for Sherwood said that no one expects a Labour Government to subsidise a privatised industry. I suspect that many miners in his constituency and elsewhere are not interested in ideological niceties of that kind. [Interruption.] They are concerned about their jobs. They want to hear what the Government intend to do to help them— and we look forward to hearing the Minister's response today. The Labour Government will not provide much consolation if they simply say, "We are terribly sorry, but we are going to wash our hands of the matter. We don't think that we can intervene, so we shall simply blame the Conservative party, Budge or anyone else we can think of. We shall not take any action."

The hon. Gentleman says that miners are not concerned about "ideological niceties", but they are concerned about fair treatment from the new owners of Britain's mining industry, RJB Mining. For example, the closure of Asfordby colliery was announced to the stock exchange before it was announced to the work force. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that RJB has treated its employees fairly? Many people believe that handing over the British mining industry to RJB is akin to asking Imelda Marcos to mind one's shoe shop: one should not be surprised if it is totally stripped before it is returned.

I hold no brief for RJB. I do not know the facts of the case— apart from the details that the hon. Gentleman has provided. It is beholden on any good employer to notify and brief his employees: that is good personnel-management relations. That is what we expect of any employer, including RJB. The pit to which the hon. Gentleman refers is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who I suspect hopes to speak later in the debate.

My point is that the House and the mining communities want to know today whether there is a possibility of the Government's intervening to extend the current coal contracts and impose a moratorium on further pit closures. After all, that is what the then Labour Opposition said when there was a similar situation in 1992.

As to where the money might come from, the coal unions have pointed out that the mineworkers' pension scheme has generated an actuarial surplus of £1.5 billion and that the Government, as guarantor of the scheme, are entitled to £750 million of that surplus. With accrued interest, the Government could take £110 million of the surplus every year for the next 10 years. Therefore, enough money would be available without the Government's having to raise additional funds. What do the Government think of that suggestion by the mining unions? Do they believe that it has any merit and, if so, are they prepared to act on it?

On a previous occasion, Labour Members made a lot of noise and many pledges. The miners and the communities of the east midlands and of the entire country want to know which pledges and manifesto commitments the Labour Government will honour—or perhaps, as The Independent on Sunday suggests, they will simply prepare for 5,000 job losses by spin-doctoring between now and Christmas.

11.35 am

The charge levelled against the Minister by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) is wrong. I have been involved in the coal mining debate for many years—indeed, since I came to this place—and the Minister met coal miners in my constituency before 1 May to talk about the problems that we knew would result from events over the past decade.

The hon. Gentleman claims that people in coal mining communities want to know what is going on. I suspect that they want to know why the hon. Gentleman and most of his right hon. and hon. Friends set the scene for the present problems in the coal industry. They voted against us in the Division, with one or two honourable exceptions—the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is in the Chamber today. I have had some unhealthy bedfellows in television studios in the past few days. Someone commented that the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), was a strange bedfellow for me, and I nearly replied that I would be sleeping with one eye open. The hon. Member for Banbury is fundamentally wrong— especially in his attack on my hon. Friend the Minister.

I came to the House in 1983, fresh from Maltby colliery. Two weeks ago, that colliery announced 600 job losses from a work force of 850. Maltby colliery is not a Victorian coal mine: its technology is as good as that of, dare I say, formula one racing. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in that mine, and I was there when the major round of investments began under a Labour Government in the 1970s. More than £200 million was invested at that time when the last Labour Government got caught not because they managed the economy badly, but because they had to import energy into this country—which was also the policy of the previous Administration. The price suddenly increased from $2 or $3 a barrel to $20 a barrel, which created enormous economic problems for the nation. It was not the fault of people in the Treasury: there was an attack on the British economy from outside, and the nation invested in the industry to ensure that that would never happen again.

My hon. Friend is correct. Hundreds of millions of pounds were invested in those collieries that are still open today. Many people cannot understand why we now face job losses in light of that massive investment. As far as the nation is concerned, the issue of ownership of the coal industry—now and then—is immaterial. Funding for the industry was an investment for the nation so that we would not return to the dark days of the 1970s. The economic attack on this country at that time hurt not just the miners but everyone—indeed, miners received decent wages and there was decent investment in the industry in the 1970s for the first time.

The Government have inherited the current problem, and my sympathies lie with them. For more than a decade, there was a strategy to get rid of coal mining in this country. That may have been a consequence of the 1974 general election result—I was a working coal miner at that time. No matter where the seeds were sown, that policy was enacted for more than a decade in this country. It was the strategy of the previous Administration.

The decline in the coal markets over the past decade inevitably meant that we would end up with the mess that is on our hands at the moment. It is very difficult to see how we can get over it in the short term, but we must find a way. It would be crazy to throw away the investment that we as a nation put into coal mining. Fifty per cent. of European coal reserves are in this country. Are we going to cut off access to those reserves and thus deny Europe, in years to come, the ability to use them and our ability to sell to Europe? I hope not.

The Government are in a very difficult situation, as are my 600 miners and their families, who have a bad Christmas to look forward to. This comes on the back of the thousands of coal miners' jobs that have been lost in my constituency. We need to act in the medium and long term. I accept that we are looking at the electricity markets, where the seeds of the mining industry's downfall are, and where people have not been operating a market system at all, preferring one fuel against another as a base fuel into our power stations. We must look there, certainly in the short term, if we are to get over the likely loss of the coal market from March next year.

I agree that we said in opposition that we should not license new gas-fired power stations. It is right to say that the ones that have been licensed since 1 May will not come on stream for two or three years, but that sends negative attitudes to the marketplace about where we as a Government believe that coal will be in a few years' time. That must be recognised every time a speech or a decision is made. At the moment, coal is on the defensive—it has been for 10 years—and it has been put more on the defensive.

I should admit that I am vice-president of the Combined Heat and Power Association. I agree that we should have CHP gas, but the heat loads of the power stations with CHP are very low. Their intention is to get electricity that is generated by gas into the marketplace, because that is what suits the market. I do not think that we can sustain that. We should look more critically at new gas stations. I know that it causes legal problems and so on, but we should do what we said we would five years ago.

I do not say that just because of the coal lobby. My hon. Friend the Minister received a letter from the Utility Buyers Forum, dated 13 November, which criticises the use of gas for electricity generation. It says that it creates problems not only for our indigenous coal industry but for the people who have been buying gas for many years, who are finding it difficult to keep a supply of gas coming in. The letter says:
"They are also very concerned that the significant increase in the interruptions to the supply of gas, because of transmission constraints, is a direct outcome of gas being diverted to electricity generation to the detriment of existing gas users."
There is a body of opinion—it is not just the pro-coal lobby—that says that we are throwing away a very important fuel in terms of gas. I do not want to throw it away, as it is very important, but it is likely to last a maximum of 15 to 20 years on current use. On that basis, we should look more critically at the situation.

In the short term there are problems for everybody, including coal miners, but if we have plans in the medium to long term that could sustain the deep mines that we have, it would be crazy not to make that plain while the negotiations are taking place. As was said yesterday, the negotiations may be over—who knows? However, it is very important that we pass positive messages that there is a long-term future for deep-mined coal in this country. That is what many of my hon. Friends and many thousands of coal miners and I want to hear from the Government.

11.43 am

I listened to what the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) had to say with some surprise, because the coal industry in this country has been destroyed largely by the Conservative Government during the past 18 years. What he had to say about a moratorium was rather facing both ways, which is a polite way of putting it in view of the Conservative Government's failure to protect the coal industry when they had the opportunity.

That said, I have much sympathy with what the Minister is trying to do. On the one hand he is trying to square a circle and ensure that the Government can comply with the carbon dioxide reduction targets that they have set themselves; on the other, he is trying to protect jobs and a very important British industry. That is a difficult job to do.

We on the Liberal Democrat Benches are quite clear that the most important factor is to achieve the reduction targets and protect the atmosphere and the world climate, and hence the environment of all of us, including those who currently work in the mining industry. However, that does not mean that we have to throw away the mining industry completely.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) mentioned clean coal. It is very clear that, whatever the future energy prospects in this country and western Europe—it seems likely that they will be based on gas and renewables, as economic and generally carbon-free fuels of the future—in other parts of the world, particularly India and China, there will be a continued and expanding market for coal well into the next century. Indeed, it is extremely likely that, in the next 40 to 50 years, the growth in coal consumption in China will substantially exceed any reduction in coal output in the United Kingdom in the past 40 or 50 years.

Perhaps understandably, the associated industries—the mining engineering and the technology and machinery sectors—have not featured highly in the debate so far. There are very clear opportunities for British expertise to be used in the developing markets for coal overseas. I hope that the Minister will pick up that issue and give some consolation, support and help to that part of the mining industry, which is involved not in extraction but in the supply and support of the industry. A significant export market is available to Britain provided that the right investment and support are given to its continuation in this country. For years, Britain led the world in mining engineering and technology. It would be a great shame if the current difficulties in extraction resulted in the destruction of our technological lead and led to a failure to exploit it on the world export markets.

Although there is no doubt that if we pursue the targets for carbon reduction in this country, it will have an adverse effect on the mining industry, we should also remember that, taken as a whole, it can very positive for jobs and employment in this country. That may not be much consolation to some hon. Members who rightly speak very spiritedly on behalf of their constituents and the mining industry, but it would be a mistake for the House to conclude the debate without understanding that the changes that are coming can be positive for this country, not just in environmental terms but in employment and export terms.

11.49 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) on initiating this debate and I declare an interest as an adviser to Scottish Coal. I want to put the record straight about the Minister. I want to thank him and the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), publicly for their efforts to try to keep Monktonhall open. They were not successful, but access to Ministers was second to none for the trade unions, the local authority and myself.

I should like to appeal to the Minister. The current threat of redundancy means that we are in a critical period. I heard the statement made in another place yesterday, but I hope that the Minister and his Department will adjudicate during discussions with those involved in getting contracts for the generating units and with the company concerned. I believe that they could do that behind the scenes and that his Department could bring common sense to bear so that the people involved can have a happy Christmas, a happy new year and a future. The problem facing the coal industry now is the immediate future. It is difficult for the Minister to get involved with private companies and so on, but I hope that he will do so.

As an ex-miner, an ex-miners' leader and now as a Member of Parliament for an ex-mining area I have spoken on many occasions and in many places about a genuine integrated fuel policy for the United Kingdom. We have been arguing about that for a long time. We have the finest deep mines in the world. They are the best technically, productively and in terms of safety. We are second to none. We have people who are the envy of other countries. Japan would give its right arm for an indigenous coal industry such as ours. I believe that we may be suffering from an abundance of indigenous fuel. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood that we shall be at the mercy of foreign imports in the future. Our children and our children's children will not thank us if we do not deal with the problems now.

It is not possible to switch a colliery on and off. It cannot be mothballed and returned to later—a colliery is not like a tap—because it deteriorates. Public money was spent at Asfordby, but its potential closure is criminal for this country's assets.

It was said that there would be a crawl for gas, but we have a dash for gas and something should be done about that. A moratorium must be set up. We must think about the strategic future and potential of gas. A gas-fired station eats up millions of therms of gas whereas, domestically, the same amount would last for months or even years.

There is an application for a gas-fired station in Scotland, but Scotland already has an overcapacity of generating units. We want to export electricity, not set up another competitor which is not really needed. The knock-on effect would be the closure of coal-fired stations. We have made our representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland through the trade unions and so on, but common sense must prevail. We should stop this before it starts.

We cannot help repeating ourselves in debates such as this and I make no apology for doing so. Renewables such as wave power, thermal energy and wind power are important. It is a new and important idea. However, we would like the same amount of grant to be given to clean-coal technology. We should not apologise for giving grants because private industry receives many grants, particularly farmers and others. Fossil fuel subsidy savings could be part and parcel of the money used for grants to upgrade the coal-fired generating units. If we do not deal with the levels of CO2 and SO2, there will be premature closure of coal-fired stations. We do not want that to happen because it will have a knock-on effect on the coal industry.

I make no apology for saying that the coal industry pays into the Exchequer millions of pounds each year in taxes, PAYE, VAT and a host of other ways. More than that, there is a massive saving on the balance of payments. Every time we buy fuel from abroad, no matter what type of fuel, it is paid for in yankee dollars which have to be bought in the marketplace or earned through exports. The coal industry is the most efficient and competent industry that ever was. If British industry had been as efficient as the coal miners, we would be leading the world in productivity and economics.

I am emotional about this because I am talking about my colleagues, including those in other coalfields. There is no barrier between miners, geographical or otherwise. We must think about what is good for UK incorporated. I am appealing to my hon. Friend the Minister to do that.

We must protect our indigenous supplies. Competition between inert mixtures is nil. Competition is a man-made philosophy. According to the diktats of some Opposition Members, it is the be-all and end-all, but it is not always what is best for the United Kingdom. It is not always good for the future. It may be short-termism and may lead to us doing something that we regret later.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to sit down with everyone involved in the energy industry to talk about an integrated fuel policy. I would then be happy to see the future of those in the coal industry alongside the future of those in other industries. We do not want closures in other industries—there must be life for all. Our decisions must be based on common sense and what is best for the people of this country.

11.57 am

A few moments ago an ill-informed Government Whip shouted across the Chamber asking me what I know about energy. He should do some reading. I have spent 15 years trading oil and, given that energy is interdependent, one begins to learn about coal as well.

My interest began 10 years ago when I stood, unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in Barnsley, West and Penistone just after the miners' strike, where I gloriously increased the Labour majority from 10,000 to 14,000. Little did I expect that, when I was selected for a rather more satisfactory part of the country, I would have in my part of rural Britain one of the largest deep mines in Britain. That mine is—or sadly was—Asfordby. Over £400 million had been invested in that mine and there were high hopes for the production of high-quality deep-mined coal. The investment was made entirely under a Conservative Government. Sadly, severe geological faults have been encountered and the mine has had to close.

That is causing local economic problems and 400 men have been laid off during the past year. Melton borough council and those who help in the area are doing all that they can to ensure that the community does not suffer as much as it might. Contrary to the jibes of Government Whips, I am interested in coal and have taken as deep an interest as I can.

I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman is interested in coal. Can he tell us why, when the campaign to save Asfordby wrote to him, he said that he was unable to help in any way and told those involved to direct their concerns to the Minister?

In replying to my constituents, I pointed out what I believed to be the truth—which is that the Minister is prepared to do nothing. That intervention and the entire debate has illustrated that the Government will do nothing and have always intended to do nothing. They are trying to live a double life. They say that they are not in favour of subsidies but are now in favour of the real world of free markets. At the same time, they pretend to interest groups that they are defending and helping those groups in ways that the Conservative Government could not. I want to dwell on the Government's hypocrisy.

I may be less generous than my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry). I recognise that the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) has consistently defended coal mining interests cogently, fairly, reasonably and without hypocrisy or double standards, but I fear that the same cannot be said of the Minister. The hon. Member for Sherwood is a parliamentary private secretary and I am sure that even he would admit, as he smiles at me across the Chamber, that the debate has an element of window dressing. He knows that he cannot push this issue too far or it would be inconsistent with his remaining a PPS. He also knows that the Minister will do nothing about the matter. Securing this debate is good for headlines and for his reputation as an hon. Member who defends mining interests, but nothing will be done as a consequence.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's generous remarks, although I am sorry that he gave them with one hand and took them away with the other. I have high expectations. It is not window dressing: I have a shopping list of things that I expect my hon. Friend the Minister to do for the coal mining industry.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has a shopping list, but I am not sure whether, even as Christmas comes, he will get any of the things on it. Calls have been made for something to be done about conserving coal reserves, but no specific suggestions have been made about how that can be achieved. I think that something most definitely has to be done about overseas subsidies, but no progress whatever is being made.

The Labour party in government is unable to reconcile its campaigning and its claims to be able to help people, with its espousal of the free market and its intention to work within it. The debate should primarily dwell on the Minister's conduct. Before 1 May, when he usually sat at the back of the Opposition Benches, he would lambast the Conservative Government in his charming way and call on them to do something about the coal industry. Now that he sits on the Government Front Bench with his Red Box and his ministerial car, he is prepared to do absolutely nothing. What he said when in opposition in no way marries with what he is pretending or, in my view, failing to do as a Minister of the Crown.

We can look in Hansard, which will show that the hon. Gentleman called for much to be done. Will he write into the record what specific action he proposes to take, what money he intends to spend, whom he has seen, what he has promised them, and what the Minister without Portfolio has told him to do to prevent what would otherwise happen to Britain's coal mining industry, given the forces of the free market? The Minister did nothing for the miners in Asfordby. He says that he wrote me a letter, but I did not see it. His private office has just been phoned, but it seems that it does not know when the letter was sent.

Spokesmen from the Maltby colliery do not think that the Minister for nothing is doing anything. They say in today's Yorkshire Post:
"The feeling was that the Government are trying to get rid of the lot of us."
The Minister should have the courtesy to look at me when I address him across the Chamber to point out how little he is doing to help coal miners. He is still chatting to the Minister without Portfolio, who masterminded so many of the campaigns before the election, which perhaps explains why he is a little more barefaced than the Minister.

The representative from Maltby said:
"We have had discussions with the Labour Party, and they have been promising us for months: You'll be all right, we'll sort it."
He added:
"They have lied to us—what they promised to do was set the market straight."
They have not.
"That's all we ask for, we're not asking for money or subsidies. We are just getting stuffed out of the window and we don't know why."
Is the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), who used to work in the Maltby colliery, proud of the Government?

I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's position. Before 1 May, he said the opposite of what he is now saying. You are one of the people who voted in 1992 to put the industry under pressure.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address the Chair.

I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman's taunt. The Conservative Government did what they said they would do. The Labour Government said one thing when they were in opposition, and are now doing the opposite. I despise their hypocrisy: it labels the Minister as the Minister for nothing rather than the Minister for energy. What does he intend to do? Absolutely nothing. At last, he is meeting the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, but he is merely going through the motions and is still doing nothing.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was away when we debated the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill, which stopped the subsidy for imported French nuclear energy, and levelled the playing field on nuclear subsidies in Britain to give coal a fairer crack of the whip. If that is doing nothing, where was the hon. Gentleman when it was done?

That is the area on which I now want to dwell. I agree that, if there is to be a proper free market, there should not be unfair subsidies for one country, which enable it to export its coal to Britain and undermine our freely working market. I shall ask the Minister one more time to explain in great detail how German and Spanish subsidies are to be removed. What are he and the Prime Minister doing with their chums in Brussels to ensure that those subsidies are removed?

Unlike the Conservative Government, who did absolutely nothing, we protested and raised the matter with the European Commission within weeks of coming into government to try to stop German and Spanish subsidies. That is why the German Minister will be in my office tomorrow asking me why we took that action. The Conservative Government did nothing.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When a Minister of the Crown comes to the Chamber and says something that is untrue, what action can a former Minister take to rebut such damaging allegations?

The hon. Member knows that what is said in the House is not a matter for the Chair.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southwest Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) was the Minister responsible for energy before 1 May. It is clear that something was done. Will the Minister tell us when German and Spanish subsidies will end? Yippee, hallelujah, the Minister has made a protest, but how will he ensure that there is fair play between the coal that is produced and exported by Germany and Spain, and coal that is produced in and exported by Britain? We want to know the specific detail. Until we do, the hon. Gentleman will be labelled the Minister for nothing—or worse, as the Minister for the betrayal of the coal mines that he pretended to defend.

12.7 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) and other hon. Members who have spoken out in this debate. Those of us who were in the House before and during the miners' strike recall the passion and eloquence with which the miners' cause was championed. It is the Labour Government, not Labour Members, who are on trial today. These Ministers have been in charge for the past six months. The plain fact is that the Government do not have a coal policy; they do not even have an energy policy. They have an environment policy and are undertaking a series of energy reviews. They have asked the regulator to review the electricity pool, the Department is reviewing the utilities, the Minister is supposed to be reviewing renewables and clean-coal technology, the Deputy Prime Minister is reviewing combined heat and power and the Chancellor has been reviewing the impact of the reduction of VAT on energy-saving materials. The Minister has reviews; he does not have a policy.

Far from helping the coal industry since he took up his post six months ago, the Minister has made the situation very much worse. Just when the coal contracts have come up for review, he has licensed more and more gas. He has licensed a huge gas-fired station for his friends in British Petroleum.

I will not because time is short.

The Government have adopted a series of emission targets and will do so again at Kyoto, all of which will make the position of the coal industry more difficult. The Minister's actions could be described as
"driving the nails in the coal industry's coffin".
Those are not my words or the words of the press. They are the words of the Minister's own press office in the spin doctors' memorandum that his officials have prepared. The memorandum uses the phrase:
"Since the Government could be portrayed as driving the nails in the coal industry's coffin".

The only thing that the Minister seems concerned about is public relations. All he is bothered about is the spin doctoring that will cover the closure of the collieries. Indeed, he is happy to see 5,000 jobs disappear before the end of the financial year provided that it is done in an orderly way. His own document says that it is
"important now that RJB makes the necessary adjustments to their capacity in an orderly way."
The Minister is presiding over the rundown of the collieries. I must tell the Minister that it is not a question of 5,000 jobs being at stake. The miners' leaders have made it clear to us that more than 50,000 jobs are at stake in the industry. It is high time that the Minister stopped blaming everyone else and stopped saying that there is nothing that he can do. I shall tell the Minister what to do.

First, the Minister can talk to the miners' leaders; he has not yet met them. In the debate on the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill, we were challenged to talk to the miners' leaders in Nottinghamshire. We have done that; the miners' leaders came to see us because they could not get to see the Minister. They told us that they had not agreed with the policy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), but that they had respected him because he had the guts to meet them and to explain his policy face to face. Why has the Minister not met the miners' leaders? Why has he not talked to Mr. Budge?

Mr. Budge is the single most important figure in the industry. I would have thought that, with 50,000 jobs at stake, the Minister would have given some time to Mr. Budge. Of course, Mr. Budge has not given £1 million to the Labour party. If he had, he would not be bothered with this feather of a junior Minister. He would see the Prime Minister and the matter would be sorted out at No. 10. The Minister should meet the miners' leaders and Mr. Budge.

Secondly, the Minister should get to grips with what is happening in the coal industry. It is no use him saying, as he has said so often, that the industry is in private hands. The electricity companies were in private hands in 1992, but that did not prevent the Conservative Government from intervening. That did not prevent us from imposing a moratorium on pit closures or from leaning on the electricity companies to burn more coal. If the Minister does not believe that, he should talk to Yorkshire Electricity, which will tell him exactly what pressure was put on the company in 1992 by Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry.

I will not.

It is nonsense to say that, because the industry is private, nothing can be done. Conservative Ministers intervened; this Minister can intervene.

Thirdly, given the state of the negotiations, the Minister was extremely unwise to accentuate the dash for gas. He said twice in my hearing yesterday that he had implemented all of the six-point plan for coal which Labour produced in 1992. That is not true. The six-point plan for coal was issued by the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) in December 1992. The first point was:
"No more licences should be issued for gas-fired power stations."
That was Labour's promise in 1992 and the Government have broken it. They have licensed gas-fired power stations and they have made the situation more difficult for the coal industry.

Fourthly, and perhaps most important of all given that the Minister has asked the regulator to review the pool arrangements and to review the true costs of baseload electricity—that review, which has not even started yet, will take most of next year—there is certainly a good case for extending the rest of the current contracts. I remind the Minister, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) reminded him, of what the right hon. Member for Livingston said:
"Letting the pits close now in a dispute over a one-year contract with the electricity companies would be short-termism on a criminal scale.
If that was true in 1992, it is true today.

If the Minister really cared about the coal industry, those are the four simple steps he would be taking now. If he does not take those steps, he and the President of the Board of Trade will stand condemned as the coal industry's silent butchers. They say nothing, they do nothing and they care nothing.

I looked back to see what the Minister had done for coal over the past few weeks; I may have done him an injustice. I found a press notice issued by him on 13 November which says:
"Lifeline for national mining museum".
The Minister announced that there would be talks and that £100,000 would be given to keep the national mining museum going. He is happy to get involved with the national mining museum. He will be dealing with a genuinely national mining museum if he does not get cracking and start caring for coal. Perhaps he is happy to turn our entire coal industry into a branch of the heritage industry.

It is now late in the day. There are four months left before the remaining coal contracts expire. There is still time for the Government to wake up to what is happening in the coalfields. There is still time for the Government to keep their promises to the coalfield communities and to the miners' unions. If, however, we do not get some action soon, today's debate will be the first in a series on closure after closure.

The Minister may want to spread out the closures "in an orderly way"; Conservative Members do not. We want to see a competitive coal industry—a coal industry with a future. We want to see an energy policy that relies on diversity. We are not prepared to see our coal industry closed down "in an orderly way" in the first half of this Parliament so that it is off the Minister's desk and so that another problem has been sorted before the next election.

If the Minister has any credibility left, it is time for him to announce to the House that he does have a coal policy. It is time for him to send out a signal to the coalfield communities and to the collieries that he does care about their future.

12.18 pm

I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping). My biggest regret is the shortness of time. I know that many other. hon. Members want to take part in the debate and I would have welcomed an airing of all the issues. It is vital to have a proper discussion on the matter in the House. I am accused of not saying anything; I would not mind a bit of time in which to say something in response because I believe that the Government are doing something. In the short time left to me in the debate, I shall try to get across again what the Government have been doing in the past few weeks.

I have listened closely to what has been said this morning. No one can now be unaware of the intensity of feeling about the future of the United Kingdom coal industry and about jobs in the deep mining industry. I share the concern about pending unemployment and job losses that has been spelt out by—

May I add to what my hon. Friend the Minister has said on the concern about the loss of jobs in the mining industry? I live in the shadow of the Ferrybridge power station, with the Eggborough power station down the road. If the mines close, those power stations will also close. Jobs will be lost not just in the mining industry but in the electricity generating industry.

My hon. Friend has made a good point. There will be an impact throughout the energy sector.

Today's sense of crisis is informed by the current negotiations between RJB Mining and the electricity generators on their coal contracts for after April 1998. We have all agreed in the debate that the negotiations are a matter for the companies. I am not party to them. I understand that an agreement has been reached with Eastern Electricity and that an announcement was made this morning of an agreement with National Power. I do not know what stage conversations with PowerGen have reached because the company does not know and neither does PowerGen. It is up to the parties to those contracts to negotiate. No doubt, we shall be informed of the deal when they reach one.

We opposed the ravaging of the coal industry under the Conservatives. That happened when the pits, the power generators and the grid system were in the public sector, and the energy buying system now known as the pool— now also in the private sector—did not exist. That is the difference between now and 1992. We resisted that Tory privatisation when they were out to kill the coal industry. No one claimed that the situation was easy. We picked up that horrendous legacy, which, I accept, is not easy to deal with.

There is no quick fix that will solve the problems simply. Hon. Members have repeated the comments of those throughout the industry, including trade union leaders, whom I have met regularly, that they want fairness, not favours. Our objective is to deliver that fairness. One or two siren voices—not least RJB—have called for subsidy, but I noticed my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood ruling it out and expressing surprise that anyone should ask for it. RJB has written to me demanding a subsidy. I find it hard to give a direct cash subsidy to a company that made profits before interest and tax of £207 million in 1996.

I visited Rossington colliery in my constituency recently. The managers and miners of that colliery, which is owned by RJB Mining, said that they did not want subsidy. They wanted a level playing field. They have worked hard to make the pit competitive. Whatever is being said at a senior level, they want a decent chance to continue to work.

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says on behalf of her constituents, but I have a letter from RJB, signed by the man himself, with the word, "Subsidy" at the head. The message of what the company is asking for may not have been communicated to all the coalfields. I accept that difference.

I do not believe that a subsidy is the way forward. It would be incompatible with arguing for a level playing field for the industry and making fair space in the market for the deep coal industry. We should not give a cash subsidy to a profitable private company, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said in the Chamber a few weeks ago.

At the end of last month, I explained to the House in detail the actions that we had taken against subsidies paid by the Spanish and German Governments to their coal industries. We have lodged a formal complaint against that state aid. I do not remember the Conservatives laying a formal complaint about state aid to overseas coal industries in all their years in office. We made that complaint within six months of coming into office. We are working hard to ensure a fair market, so that British coal can win markets in Europe, where subsidies have been keeping it out.

I am glad that hon. Members have recognised that we have set up a review of the pool. That was one of our six points. We said that we would examine the ways in which the mechanism for buying and selling electricity worked to ensure that it was not stacked against the coal industry.

Two or three of my hon. Friends have focused particularly on gas contracts and ending the rigged market for gas. I accept that we must take immediate action on that important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) referred to the utility buyers' letter and the body of opinion that is forming to challenge what are called the contracts for differences. Those contracts for differences will be considered in the review of the electricity pool system, but we have already asked the regulator to examine long-term take-or-pay gas contracts for the supply of gas to the early gas-fired power stations to prevent those high costs being passed on in full to domestic consumers.

That will not prevent gas-fired power stations being forced to run under the terms of their contracts. A key part of the coal industry's complaint to the European Commission was that at least some contracts may have prohibited gas-fired power stations from re-selling gas to the gas market even when it was uneconomic to run it through power stations. That may have forced the generators to use gas in power stations when they might have preferred to sell it to other gas customers and have bought coal-fired electricity in from the pool instead. We want to ensure that there is coal-fired, not all gas-fired, electricity in the pool.

There is an argument that our competition authorities should immediately consider, without prejudice to any investigation that the Commission may mount, whether the prohibition on the re-sale of gas is anti-competitive and, if so, what remedies and amendments are appropriate. If there is a distortion of competition to price out coal, I want it put right now. The Director General of Gas Supply will consider the matter urgently. A press notice about that new action will be available from the Vote Office after the debate. We shall take action on that now.

We have approved some gas-fired power stations and I understand that there are 27 more applications waiting. However, those that have already been approved could take three to four years to get into commission. A moratorium on new gas-fired stations now would not benefit the coal industry until well after 2000. It would slow down the move towards combined heat and power. The damage of the dash to gas has already been done, creating the short-term problems that the industry faces.

No, I cannot. I have only two minutes left.

We have no intention of waving through new applications for gas-fired power stations. We shall consider them on a case-by-case basis, looking in particular at combined heat and power proposals.

We are backing clean-coal technology. We are investing money in investigating the possibilities of it. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that we need to consider its potential internationally, so that the ancillary industries in mining also have a future.

We are told that we are doing nothing, but we have taken action to challenge subsidies in Europe, we have set up a review of the pool to ensure that coal is not priced out, we have challenged the gas contracts to ensure that the markets are not weighted against coal and we have put the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill through the House to challenge the energy coming through the interconnector from France, so that French nuclear power does not have an advantage. We have also challenged the advantage given to the nuclear industry in Britain to ensure that the playing field is level, not tilted against the coal industry. We are backing clean-coal technology as well because, without that, the coal industry will remain under pressure from environmental concerns in the next century.

Yes, our primary aim is to ensure that the mining industry and coal can play an important part in our energy supplies as we move into the next century. It can contribute to UK and European fuel and energy security. Our job is to create a level playing field for coal. We are working hard to ensure that the market is not stacked against coal either in Europe or here at home.

I do not believe that it is time to write off the coal industry. There is a still a long-term future for the deep mining industry in Britain. Our positive actions to that effect will go some way to assisting it. Rather than mongering a crisis, it is up to others to get on with negotiating contracts and access to markets for the coal that is mined, ensuring that pits that do not need to be shut are not shut.

Nhs (Cornwall)

12.30 pm

As the Minister and his colleagues are aware, health provision in Cornwall is facing huge cuts. Local hospitals in particular face the axe—although we must not forget that Treliske hospital and other central patient care services are being forced to make savings too. That has led to a tidal wave of local concern and protest. For every local closure there is a local protest group. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) is on his way now to support one in advance of tonight's consultation meeting. One group is not pitted against another; they support each other, one and all, as people in Cornwall have always done. They want a fairer deal for the county's NHS. I shall explain why they believe that it is not getting one.

To take a local example, the Penrice maternity unit in St. Austell faces the axe. It is the only place where women in Cornwall can have their child outside the high-tech and expensive facilities of Treliske. By comparison, Devon has nine delivery units. The Exeter area alone has four— mostly used less than Penrice, although we are told that the use of Penrice is too low to support its continuation. Government policy favours such units, and just months ago plans were agreed for new buildings for Penrice maternity unit. Now it faces the axe.

I shall read some comments that have been written in the visitors' book since the closure was announced. One says:
"I am expecting my third child and after having my second child here, I was impressed with the care and time given to me."
Such comments are made repeatedly about Penrice. Another reads:
"The care and attention given to my wife when Alexander was born 3 years ago was first class and the principal reason for her choosing Penrice again. Residents in North Cornwall have enormous distances to travel for hospital care—keep Penrice open."
The most recent comment in the book says:
"Having just had my first baby daughter here at Penrice, I feel very strongly about keeping this maternity unit open. From the first minute I arrived and was taken into the delivery room I was made to feel relaxed and at home. With the help and advice of all the staff, I stayed calm and was able to deliver our baby naturally. It would have been very stressful to travel to Truro to deliver her. After the birth I was given all the care, attention and advice I could have wished for, from everybody. After my five day stay, I felt ready to go home and start my new life as a mother, because of all the care I received here. Truro is a much needed unit, but it would be a terrible mistake to close it. Please keep Penrice open. We need it."
Those comments speak for themselves. I could have read any number from the visitors' book to illustrate the level of local support.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I placed in context NHS services in Cornwall. Cornwall is Britain's lowest-wage economy, and is for the most part badly served by public transport. Our communities are dispersed across a relatively large area. In recognition of that, most public services, including local government, the police, and, more recently, the fire service, have long benefited from substantial allowances for the extra costs arising from the need to serve a scattered population. That is only right. The local provision of services for people living in such rural areas necessarily entails a higher cost. Yet traditionally, the Government have made no such allowance for the NHS.

The costs are exacerbated by the fact that Cornwall is surrounded on all sides by water. Most of the county simply cannot rely in an emergency on other hospitals just across the border to the north, west, or south. Yet NHS funding in Cornwall has traditionally been very low in comparison with the rest of the country.

In Scotland, each person benefits to the tune of £514 each year, and in Wales the figure is £546 per person. Both Scotland and Wales exhibit similar features to Cornwall, with areas that are remote, surrounded by water and served by poor transport infrastructure. Yet inhabitants in Cornwall enjoy just £441 per person for our NHS—around a fifth less.

To make a comparison closer to home, Somerset, with the same population, has two district general hospitals, but Cornwall has one. With only twice our population, Devon has four. I hope that the Minister agrees that there is a discrepancy in the figures. No wonder our local NHS is overstretched. The prospect of another £5 million-worth of budget savings is making Cornish people angry. That is the context in which the health authority must act.

Neither the trusts nor the health authority have a deficit. There has been a shortfall of funds of up to £5 million a year in recent years—but it has been plugged by using non-recurring funds and money held in reserve. The £5 million shortfall was reported publicly a year ago, and a shortfall of between £3 million and £4 million before that was reported publicly as long ago as the end of the 1995–96 financial year. The problem is not new, although it has grown as demands on our hospitals have increased. It is one of which the Government have been very much aware, although I accept that it is a legacy of the previous Conservative Government, which Labour Ministers have had only six months to address. Now, however, our local NHS has been told to close the gap—a £5 million saving every year.

Against that financial backdrop, admissions of all types have risen by a quarter in Cornwall in just five years, from 85,000 to more than 115,000. That puts tremendous pressure on overstretched doctors and nurses, and, as I am sure we can all imagine, the effects are even more marked given the extra costs of maintaining local hospitals in rural areas such as those in Cornwall. A further stark indication of the pressures on the services in Cornwall is that emergency admissions have increased at an even faster rate—by 16 per cent. in just three years, which is substantially faster than in surrounding health authority areas.

As may be expected, waiting lists have increased as a result of that pressure. In Cornwall, the increase has been by more than 3,000, leaving us with more than 13,000 people on waiting lists in October this year. The number of those waiting more than 12 months has increased by more than 6,000 per cent.—a rise from just seven people in October last year to 447 people this year. That is a huge increase by anybody's standards. For example, I have been trying to help people blinded by cataracts who, with a simple operation, could see again but who face a sightless wait of 12 to 18 months for treatment, which may come too late. That is happening even without the proposed financial cuts.

Demand has risen and waiting lists have grown longer—and grow longer daily. I hope that most people would recognise a clear need to expand capacity to meet the demand on services and reduce waiting lists. The Government's announcement that they are transferring funds from other Departments this winter to help across the NHS—including Cornwall—is welcome. We argued for that and it will help to make a difference this winter, but it will not resolve the long-term plans that are affected by the proposed cuts.

As waiting lists have gone up, bed availability has gone down. In 1991, average bed availability was nearly 2,000 beds. By this year, that figure had already fallen below 1,700. Although the number of acute beds has been increased by a couple of hundred, we still have an average of fewer than 1,000 daily acute beds serving the entire population of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The number of daily geriatric beds has already fallen from almost 400 to just over 300—in a county with an above-average and rapidly increasing elderly population. Some of the most distressing letters that I have received on this issue have been from those who care for patients with Alzheimer's disease, who are extremely concerned about the loss of provision, especially local provision that would allow them to visit patients and stay in contact. The average number of daily beds for mental illness has already been cut by more than 200—from more than 550 to just 341.

The problem is compounded by the lack of provision of alternatives that are desired by the health authority, but which it cannot afford to fund. Of course, all those pressures are compounded by the march of medical technology and the increased demand generated by improvements in medical treatment afforded by new drugs and treatment. The county also expects to face cuts to its social services provision that will affect its ability to provide residential and nursing care beds to take people out of hospitals. That in turn places more pressure on hospitals.

My hon. Friend will know that, on behalf of my North Cornwall constituents, I warmly support all the points that he has made. He referred to the county council. Can he confirm that, at the council's meeting yesterday, it agreed to make representations to the Secretary of State for Health to reverse the shortfall in funding for the NHS? The vote was unanimous, with the exception of the Labour group. It is important to make it clear that it is not only my constituents and I who support my hon. Friend's points but—to all intents and purposes—the people of Cornwall.

It is a shame that the Labour group did not support the motion, but one understands the constraints it felt because the party is now in government. At local level, many Labour party members have campaigned to save local services and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) has supported the services in her constituency. The vote may not have been unanimous at the county council, but the Minister of State should be under no illusions about the views of his supporters.

That is the situation faced by inhabitants of Cornwall, before we even consider the latest round of threatened cuts. The service strategy on which we are being consulted proposes the closure of four community hospitals and the maternity unit at Penrice, as well as the axing of a further 129 beds. That is not the end of the story. Other services such as rheumatology are to be restricted.

The health authority has been a dealt a dead man's hand. It must choose between the provision of acute and non-acute services; between emergency treatment and preventive treatment; and between one vital local hospital and another. Clearly, that is unacceptable, so it is a relief to discover that, for the first time in a long time—as we try to pick a way through this mire of bed cuts, budget cuts and increasing waiting lists—we in Cornwall have a sympathetic ear at the Department of Health. It is a relief because it is vital that we develop a clear strategy for dealing with the crisis that is swamping health services in Cornwall.

The Minister may say that the reaction is not just sympathy and that things have changed. Well, they have changed a bit. It is true that, for the first time, next year's NHS funding will make an allowance for our scattered geography. An element of allowance has been allowed for our extra ambulance service mileage. That is a significant step forward and more than was achieved under the previous Administration. Naturally, having argued for it, I welcome it.

However, I hope that the Minister agrees with me that the increase is in no way enough. Other formula changes have actually cut our allocation. Overall, the effect on the provision of cash for the NHS in Cornwall was to raise the formula allocation by just 0.01 per cent. In other words, for every £100 Cornwall previously received for our NHS, we have gained just lp next year. Even taking that increase together with the extra national NHS funding announced for next year—in which we will share—we are only £400,000 better off than previously expected. That money is welcome, but against the prospect of £5 million cuts it will do no more than help save perhaps a few threatened services. It will not come close to sorting out the major part of the cuts, let alone the general underfunding of the NHS in Cornwall, which the community health council put at £10 million even before the cuts.

I suggest that we must focus on three key areas. The first priority must be to make clear, in the public's mind and our own, the lines of responsibility for the closing of the community hospitals in Cornwall. It has been widely reported that the chairman of the health authority would close the hospitals regardless. That has been an unfortunate misrepresentation of what was said and has served to muddle the debate. The health authority has made it quite clear, while making no guarantees about the security of individual services, that, if extra money was on offer, it would revisit and change the proposals in its consultation document.

I welcome the debate, because it addresses an important issue for the people of Cornwall. There has been a debate about exactly what the chief executive and the chairman of the health authority have said. Both the hon. Gentleman and I remember a meeting with those two gentlemen at which I explicitly asked, "If there was no financial problem for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, would you propose to close the four hospitals?" My office has a complete note of the meeting and both the chairman and the chief executive replied, categorically, "Yes." I hope that other hon. Members will confirm that. The chief executive and chairman subsequently appeared on Westcountry Television and made similar points. Now they appear to be changing their tune, and that is typical.

My understanding is that the chairman and chief executive have always said that they believe changes are needed. That is not the same as saying that they would close everything that it has been proposed should close. Indeed, they would look to open other services to replace some of those that might have closed.

I cannot give way, because I am running out of time. I do not want to cut the Minister's reply too short.

To make the position clear, I shall quote the chief executive's letter of 18 November, which states:
"I am purported to have said that if the Health Authority had limitless funds, we would still look to close all 4 hospitals which our consultation document proposes should be closed—I have never made such a statement."
However, the biggest element of confusion in the whole sorry mess is the assertion that the health authority could somehow take that decision unilaterally. As the Minister is fully aware, the final decision to close hospitals will be taken nationally, irrespective of the wishes of the chief executive. It is for the Secretary of State to decide the ultimate fate of Cornish hospitals. Indeed, the Secretary of State accepted that when Cornish Members of Parliament met him two weeks ago. There should be no confusion on the point.

Our second priority must be to make up the short-term funds that the health authority is so desperately lacking. John Banham has today proposed a 12-month moratorium. It is no good being told that the Government hope to help in the long run, if hospitals are closed this spring. Once shut, everybody knows that they will not open again. The voters of Cornwall resoundingly rejected the party of health cuts at the general election. They expect, and deserve, the NHS locally to be saved, just as the Prime Minister promised it would be before election day.

Given the Chancellor's announcement yesterday that there are funds to accommodate a cut to a 10p starting rate of income tax from April, resources are obviously available. The Chancellor also said that he has funds to cut business taxes to the lowest in Europe, so there must be even more resources available. The right hon. Gentleman has the option of using just a fraction of those funds to stop the closures. Lack of funds is not now— if it ever was—an excuse. Even if the funding were not permanent, it would give the health service the chance to find other solutions and win long-term extra funding.

Our third priority must be to establish a fairer way of distributing resources for the long term, so that such a crisis never returns. It is not just a question of Cornwall's rurality. Cornwall's services also suffer, as has already been indicated, by reason of its large coastline. Given the nature of that coastline, a journey to a place 10 minutes away as the crow flies can take four times that long once the streams, creeks and rivers that interrupt road and rail links are circumnavigated. Our people are a long way from district general hospitals—as much as 70 miles in some cases.

Cornwall provides a real example of the crucial need for fundamental reform of the needs assessment of our heath authorities. It cannot be right that the net effect of the formula changes is that Cornwall should get just lp in every £100 to address those geographical problems. By introducing any help at all, it is true that the Government have made a step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. I believe that Ministers recognise that and I hope that that recognition will be backed by real resources.

The local medical committee sums the situation up in its press statement of 20 November:
"The LMC on behalf of GPs throughout Cornwall and the Isles of Stilly believes that it is not possible to take £5 million funding out of local health services provision without causing severe and enduring damage.
GPs are unhappy with the Health Authority's current proposals to achieve these savings. We remain convinced that reducing the total number of hospital beds in the county can only increase the existing bed crisis in the District General Hospitals at Treliske, Derriford and Barnstaple. However, we believe any alternative scheme to make the same savings may have an equal or even more damaging effect upon patient care."

In other words, Ministers will have to choose in the spring, for the decision will be theirs: cut our NHS in Cornwall in one way or another, or find us extra resources—in the short term to keep the hospitals open, and in the long term to create a fair funding system.

I know that that is not easy, given the Chancellor's spending rules, but it is a simple hard truth that sometimes the only way to save a service that has been cut to the bone is to provide an injection of real cash. I realise that that will not be an easy choice for Ministers but, as I know that they will have to fight for it, I hope that they will agree that it is an option worth fighting for.

12.49 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) on securing the debate. This is an important subject, and I know the strength of feeling shared not only by Members on both sides of the House but in the local community, about the situation facing the health authority in Cornwall.

I am also aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern, which he has made crystal clear today, that the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority is underfunded. He will recall that I met him and some of his colleagues some months ago to discuss those issues, and I know that they have had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State. They will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), too, has had the opportunity to discuss the issues with the Secretary of State and me, and to express her own strong feelings about the concerns in the local community.

It may be helpful if I deal with the issues raised in two parts—first the funding issues and then the health authority's proposals. I must say at the outset that the Government believe that health need should be the driving force in determining where national health service cash goes. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to the fundamental principle of fairness, and to tackling inequalities in health.

I think that the hon. Gentleman would share my view that over recent years that approach has been sadly lacking in our national health service. We are determined to deal with that problem. I hope that he will also share my belief that there are no instant cures, no magic wands and no pots of gold. None the less, the Government will make determined progress year on year to achieve a better health service in all parts of the country.

That is why we have made the changes to the formula for allocating money to health authorities for next year. From 1 April resources will be allocated on the basis of health, social and economic need. The needs weighting has been increased to cover 100 per cent. of spending. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes those changes as a step in the right direction.

I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome two other changes that we have made to the formula. He dealt with one of those; may I briefly talk about both? The issue that he did not raise is the market forces factor, although he has expressed concern about it in the past, and raised it with me when we met some months ago.

The hon. Gentleman is not alone in expressing doubts about the operation of that element in the current formula. We have listened carefully to what trusts, health authorities and community health councils throughout the country have said about the distortions that the MFF brings.

As an interim step we have reduced the number of pay zones for 1998–99, smoothing out the starker variations created by the MFF. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, that will make a considerable difference—£1.8 million—to the funding target for Cornwall. I can offer him some assurance about further changes, too, because we have asked the new advisory committee on resource allocation, which the Government have established, to undertake a thorough review of the operation of the market forces factor. Indeed, that will be its work priority for the next year or so.

Secondly, we have taken into account the rural concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised, involving the extra cost of providing health care. As a result of research findings, the formula for next year will be adjusted to take into account the additional costs of providing emergency ambulance services. That will make a difference of £1 million to the funding target for Cornwall and Isles of Scilly.

That will not be the end of the story. We shall also ask the advisory committee to investigate over the next year the impact of rurality on resource allocation. I know that there is impatience, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman shares my view that we must get such things right. The formula has been fiddled with too much the past, with too many tweakings at the margins. We must bring greater stability to the health service not only in Cornwall but throughout the country, so that the people understand, and health authorities and trusts can plan on the basis of the resources that will be made available to them.

Because so many of those important changes will take a little time to introduce, will the Minister seriously consider Sir John Banham's suggestion of a moratorium on the existing cuts and closure plans?

As I understand it, when the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues met the Secretary of State they agreed with him that as the consultations had begun, it was sensible for them to continue. I shall return to the subject of consultation and how it will be handled at the end of my speech, if I get time—but I understood that that was the common agreement reached, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not seek to undo it at this stage.

We shall examine the formula in detail. I cannot promise the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell that the review of the formula will produce benefits for Cornwall specifically, but I can say that the outcome will be fairer than the present state of affairs.

Over the next year we shall try to ensure that the formula takes proper account of real population levels and the extra cost of providing services for ethnic minority communities. As I said, we are determined that NHS resources should be allocated fairly. I know that the hon. Gentleman will support that approach.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the target set by the formula is only part of the story. The distribution of growth money is just as important in determining what health authorities get to spend on local health services. For 1998–99 we used 60 per cent. of the available growth money to bring below-target health authorities nearer to their needs-based target, which reflects our desire for greater equity.

That all means that in the next financial year Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority will receive £277.5 million—marginally more than its needs-based target. I know that Opposition Members are fixated by real-terms increases, so I can tell them that that is a real-terms increase of £4.1 million—the highest such increase for five years and the highest percentage increase in the whole south-west region. It is substantially higher than the average percentage increase for Cornwall over the preceding five years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will really welcome that. We are making a difference and we shall continue to make a difference.

That is not all. Cornwall and Isles of Scilly health authority will get £1.85 million extra to cope with pressures this year, as part of the winter boost for the NHS. Much, or at least part, of that money will be used to break down the Berlin walls that have developed over recent years between health and social care institutions.

There will be more money for home care packages, and more for additional beds and for tackling delays in discharge from hospital.

Cornwall county council has been mentioned, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will take back a firm message to members of the Liberal Democrat party who serve on that council: it takes two to tango. When relationships break down and the health service and social services do not co-operate as fully as they should—that is what has happened in Cornwall under the hon. Gentleman's party's tutelage—it is vulnerable patients, elderly patients, disabled patients and patients with mental illness who suffer and pay the price.

Will Liberal Democrat Members take that message back and make it clear to their local councillors that the onus is now on them to co-operate rather than to compete? I hope that the message will be taken seriously. We shall increase resources year on year for the health service.

As for the consultation, I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne and others have said, but they will understand that as the proposals may come to Ministers for decision, it is not appropriate for me to comment in detail now.

What I will say is that it is the health authority's duty to ensure that it has the best possible services to meet the challenges that lie ahead. That means living within the resources available.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell mentioned the chief executive's comments on television. I have had the pleasure of reading the transcript. I have read it two or three times during these proceedings and what he said is clear. Three times, he said that even if he had the money those proposals would still come forward. So, let us be clear. There is a difference between the proposals and the funding situation, which is clearly difficult for the health authority. It would be wrong and politically negligent to try to conflate two issues as some have sought to do. When the results of the consultation come back to Ministers, we will bear in mind the strong feelings that have been expressed in this place and, perhaps more importantly, by the local community.

We must now move on to the debate on the future of county council smallholdings.

County Council Smallholdings

1 pm

Hon. Members will be aware of the major contribution played by the agricultural tenanted sector to farm production, rural development and our rural environment. Indeed, our landlord-tenant system is largely unique within Europe. No other member state of the European Union has a landlord-tenant system like ours. For centuries, landlords have let land, and tenants have taken land and formed useful and binding agreements through tenancy agreements for the effective and profitable farming of large parts of our agricultural landscape.

In the past, Members of this House and of another place have taken it upon themselves to regulate the way in which farm tenancies operate, most recently by the introduction of the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995. Although the area of land covered by tenancy agreements is now only around 30 per cent. of the total agricultural area of this country, agricultural tenancies still provide a stable framework beneficial to both landlords and tenants within which farming activity can progress profitably.

Many new entrants into industry find it difficult to get a foothold in their chosen business sector. However, the capital requirement of agriculture makes it one of the most difficult industries to start up in. Tenancy agreements offer a useful and effective way of bringing in new entrants, since the capital requirement at risk is shared jointly between landlord and tenant in long-term binding partnerships. Thus, the farm tenancy environment is advantageous to new entrants, and ensures that farming remains open to those without enormous family resources at their disposal. Therefore, it is a system that should be supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

It may be helpful to set the context for this debate if I briefly outline the history of smallholdings. I am sure in starting this that hon. Members will be somewhat surprised to learn that their history dates back to the Small Holdings Act 1892, when local authority agricultural estates were first initiated. They received a tremendous boost after the end of world war one, when smallholdings were seen as one of the tangible parts of the policy that emphasised a land fit for heroes. It was then that county councils were first given responsibility for their provision and organisation. Their incorporation into local government remained somewhat ad hoc until the Agriculture Act 1970. That consolidated local authorities' responsibility by giving them a discretionary power, which constituted a major recognition of their value.

For instance, smallholdings authorities were formally given the power to provide land for the purposes of smallholdings for persons who are, or will shortly become, qualified by reason of their agricultural experience to farm a holding on their own account. Authorities also have the power to provide, improve, maintain and repair fixed equipment on land held for the purpose of smallholdings.

The 1970 Act requires that the general aim of smallholdings authorities—having regard to the general interests of agriculture and of good estate management— shall be to provide opportunities for persons, who would not otherwise have the opportunity, to be farmers on their own account, by letting holdings to them. Thus was established the so-called gateway principle.

The 1970 Act required authorities to prepare long-term plans for the management of smallholdings estates, to provide larger holdings by reorganisation and amalgamation. That created the so-called ladder principle, whereby tenants could move upwards and onwards, either within the county council holdings or elsewhere. Such plans for reorganisation and any subsequent revisions had to be submitted for approval to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Regulations made under the 1970 Act lay down that applicants for smallholdings must have a specified minimum period of practical experience and/or formal training, and that holdings must be let at open market value. Following the 1970 Act, there was a considerable improvement in revenue yield for the next 10 years. Rental income yields increased primarily as a result of increased productivity in the farming industry and because of the Act's requirement for open market value rents.

The Agricultural Holdings Act 1984 withdrew the right of succession on new tenancies in the private sector— such rights have never applied to county farms—and gave power to grant licences, subject to the approval of the Minister, of between two and five years. The Act also introduced retirement of tenants on council holdings at the age of 65, which had not previously been possible, in an attempt to increase tenant turnover, subject to provision by the landlord of suitable alternative residential accommodation. It should be noted, however, that that legislation did not apply retrospectively, and, as a consequence, local authorities have no powers to force the retirement of individuals possessing pre-1984 tenancy agreements, irrespective of their age.

In response to the significant decline in land made available for agricultural tenancies in the past decade, central Government introduced the 1995 Act, which has led to farm business tenancies. That fixes the lease of a holding, for the first time, for a specified period. The idea is to free up existing restrictive practices in respect of landlord-tenant contracts. The reform was welcomed across the industry, but it is still too early to be able to evaluate its repercussions, although clearly it should have a major impact on county farm estates.

Against that background, I must draw the attention of the House to concerns being expressed about the future of county council smallholdings—in particular, the threatened sell-off of those estates by cash-strapped county councils. In doing so, I remind hon. Members of Section 39 of the 1970 Act, which required that county councils,
"having regard to the general interests of agriculture and of good estate management, shall make it their general aim to provide opportunities for persons to be farmers on their own account by letting holdings to them".

With around 5,500 tenants on 130,000 hectares of land, more than £23 million in rents every year and an accumulated level of capital receipts from the sale of land of £277 million, county council tenancies have formed a vital part of the backbone of the let sector of this country. In terms of size, that far outstrips the industrial farms of the Co-operative Wholesale Society, Velcourt and Sentry, even if it is divided up many times.

I have some understanding and experience of the importance of county council estates, as, when I was previously a Gloucestershire county councillor, I chaired a major review into the future of that estate.

Gloucestershire's estate is the 13th largest in area, comprising some 3,500 hectares, spread through a total of 150 holdings, 93 per cent. of which are principal holdings.

The review marked an important stage in the estate's development. Although at first its future was very much in doubt because of evidence that had accrued, the final report completely dismissed that approach, and ended up as a ringing endorsement of the value of keeping the estate within the local authority family. I shall use that experience to exemplify what I believe to be right about county council smallholdings, and to explain why it is essential that they are kept in being.

Of course, not all county councils are considering selling their estates. Indeed, some are still involved in purchasing new holdings for let. In that respect, I commend Devon county council, which has a forward-thinking policy on its statutory smallholdings estate. However, some authorities have already disposed of their estates, and others are seriously contemplating the possibility of selling all, or a significant proportion of their farms.

For example, Wiltshire county council is considering selling all its 40 or so holdings, and, most notably, North Yorkshire county council has been looking to sell its full estate of 4,400 hectares. That will mark a worrying precedent, for it is the first of the very big estates to come into the sell-off frame.

The Tenant Farmers Association—the representative organisation for tenant farmers in England and Wales— has been fighting to promote the retention of county farm estates. Indeed, the TFA's chief executive, Mr. George Dunn, tells me that he has been in correspondence with both the Minister of Agriculture and the Deputy Prime Minister, on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The Minister of Agriculture has now replied to him, and I hope that the Government, through the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), might be able to add to his comments during this debate.

It was unfortunate that the 1995 rural White Paper, produced by the last Government, gave such little regard to county farm estates, with less than a page of coverage and then only to propose that county councils could use a greater proportion of the funds gained through the sale of county farms than they had previously been allowed to do.

Although the provision runs out in March next year, and few county councils have taken advantage of it for other than tidying-up operations, it has focused the attention of some authorities on the value that they could realise from their estate assets.

The drive towards sales under the private finance initiative has led to its own problems. I understand that North Yorkshire has severely overestimated the value of its estate, suggesting that it is worth about £65 million. The concern is that such uninformed figures can result in decisions being taken on misleading valuations, and create the wrong result, but I am pleased to inform the House that North Yorkshire county council is now conducting an independent valuation of its estate.

Although smallholdings are meant to provide opportunities for new entrants, they are often criticised because tenants, at least under the old legislation, had security for life. The introduction of the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995 provided a real opportunity for county councils to consider restructuring their holdings to create starter units on shorter-term agreements, progressive units on medium-term agreements, and full units on longer-term agreements. Some authorities are taking that opportunity, but others are interested only in the opportunities for sale.

At the very time when farm business tenancies should be encouraging greater movement of tenants, the threat of sales will stultify that movement, as tenants are tempted to sit tight. Sales can be achieved only on the basis of vacant possession, so only when the existing tenancy is at an end can the new owner get possession of the land. There is little incentive for a tenant to go elsewhere, as the new terms could be far worse than the existing ones.

There is undoubtedly an enormous temptation for councils to cast an accountant's eye over their smallholdings, when their financial circumstances are increasingly harsh. Some may even have a potential conflict of interest, when fulfilling their role as strategic planning authorities and making provision for their area's share of the 4.4 million homes tempts them to increase the land value of their holdings.

There is a clear need to restate the benefits of local authority smallholdings and to defend the belief that there is a coherent policy that links opportunities for young farmers, the rural economy and the environment. For that I am reliant on the rationale of the counties themselves; they have produced an excellent sheet of criteria that predicate the continuing existence of their farm estates.

To support for the farmers through the gateway and progression principles, one could add the opportunity to enter into enhanced arrangements on larger farms, perhaps moving to owner-occupation. The 1995 Act will reinvigorate such activities. The estates are also a valuable source of employment in rural areas, either directly through farming or via exciting new business and community opportunities on estate land. They remain a key catalyst for the wider economic development of the countryside.

If handled carefully, farms can retain their asset value as part of a effective bank of land that can be used when and where appropriate, especially for initiatives such as social housing, which is desperately needed in our rural areas. They are still a cash cow for local authorities, providing revenue streams from operational trading accounts managed along commercially viable lines.

A primary factor for the farms' retention is the strategic control that they offer county councils in rural areas, allowing them to influence development and the maintenance of the countryside. They allow a stake in environmental, conservation and countryside management, retaining the best in terms of the maintenance of hedgerows, ditches, watercourses, and even the built environment, through the occupation of farm buildings that might otherwise be declared redundant. Of course, only tenants can be compelled, without Government involvement, through their tenancy agreements, to care for the landscape.

Smallholdings provide the best interface with the general public by the encouragement of proper access, the opportunity to provide excellent educational resources and the knowledge that wider communities can share in the enhancement of rural areas through the democratic process.

There are, besides the immediate pressing issue of the threat of sales, other problems caused by the ad hoccery in the system. For instance, with rents rising generally in the industry, while incomes have been far less buoyant, rents on county smallholdings have started to increase more quickly.

A key reason for that is the rate of return recommended by the Audit Commission, of 6 per cent. on net asset values. Experts agree that that is high for a return on property, and it is ratcheting rents upwards. There is a variation in how different authorities approach the rate of return. I am especially interested in the Minister's views on that, as tenants are worried that they face an unfair burden, given the mess left by his Conservative predecessors.

Other performance indicators are being implemented in widely different ways. That may add to the industry's competitive edge but it is sometimes neither fair nor reasonable. It also determines where the line between full-time and part-time tenancies may be drawn.

Tenant selection remains one of the most important factors behind success but, given the limited number of opportunities available, new entrants are tempted to bid up key rents, not only damaging their own prospects but suggesting to landlords that they can expect even higher rents from their existing tenants. There is also a strong feeling among tenants that farm business tenancies are being offered for too short a period.

Allied to higher rents, that is causing uncertainty and resentment. The legacy of the local government review has yet to bed down completely in the sector, and smaller estates are much more vulnerable to sale. We have yet to anticipate how the operation of compulsory competitive tendering, or best value, will translate to the sector.

The county council smallholdings are a vital national asset, but they are in the hands of county councils, albeit under a statutory duty, and there is a lack of consistency of treatment across the country. That is why I tend to support the proposal of the Tenant Farmers Association that there should be a national review of the strategic importance of the county farms sector to agriculture and the rural economy and environment.

Before that review takes place and produces its report, there should be a moratorium on all sales of county farms. I know that the Government may not be willing or able to enforce that, but if, via my hon. Friend, a clear position of support for the smallholdings' continuation is set out, I am sure that local government will respond positively to the prompting.

I am not saying that I believe that county farms should never be sold. There will be instances when, for good estate management, development, or other purposes, individual farms or groups of farms may need to be sold, but a general evaluation of their benefits to the agricultural sector must be undertaken before we allow any large-scale sale of holdings.

I urge my hon. Friend to encourage such a review and moratorium. Otherwise, we will be faced with another example of selling the silver for coppers, when keeping it would produce far greater rewards in the long run.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on the way in which he has put his case. I know that the issue is of particular interest to the farming community and farming organisations. His case has great support, for the reasons that he has outlined, and especially as smallholdings are seen as the first step on the ladder for those who want to go into agriculture as a career.

I want to give a broad outline of the background, and put the issue in context. I should say, for the record, that the Government recognise the important role of county council smallholdings, and we endorse what my hon. Friend said. I certainly hope that our endorsement will influence county councils' decisions.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has main responsibility for county farms, but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has an interest through the provisions of Local Government Act 1972, which my hon. Friend mentioned. Local government finance considerations govern councils' powers to dispose of land and other capital assets.

MAFF has statutory agricultural obligations: principally, approving estate reorganisation plans, but also submitting an annual report to Parliament on smallholdings. I stress that neither MAFF nor DETR Ministers have any statutory powers to prevent the disposal of smallholdings if councils are so inclined. The Agriculture Act 1970 makes it a general aim for local councils to encourage smallholdings and provide opportunities for persons with sufficient experience to be farmers on their own account, but I stress that there is no specific obligation on local authorities.

The previous Government were concerned about the low turnover of tenancies. In the 1995 rural White Paper, however, they did announce that local authorities would be encouraged to make a balanced assessment of the future role, management and ownership of their farms. That was to be achieved through a special scheme in which the amount of set-aside on receipts from any sales of farms fell from 50 per cent. to 10 per cent., if the receipts were received between 1 April 1996 and 31 March 1998. Under the scheme, authorities are required to give sitting tenants the opportunity to purchase before farms are offered for sale to third parties. That is only right and proper.

When the announcement was made—we were in opposition at the time—we criticised it because we thought it a clear signal from the Conservative Government that they did not think smallholdings very important. It was clearly a green light to local authorities to dispose of smallholdings in an unwarranted fashion.

Subject to part III of the Agriculture Act 1970, smallholdings authorities are free to manage their estates as they see fit. They are obviously in a good position to do so in the light of local circumstances. Councils have no obligation to seek ministerial approval of any proposed estates disposals, but, as my hon. Friend said, many local authorities have pursued positive policies of retention, and are to be congratulated on encouraging the development of smallholdings.

Concern has been expressed in farming circles to the effect that in recent years county farms have not been very effective in helping new entrants to agriculture. At a conference held by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in January 1994, county council representatives showed that there were differing views as to the retention of county farms and their future management. There was, however, a consensus on the need to continue to take decisions at local, not national level—a general principle that we would endorse.

There was also concern about the size of smallholdings with respect to the viability of certain units in modern agriculture, in view of the pressures and changes to which it is subject.

The Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995 may help to deal with some of these problems. We are conducting a policy evaluation of the Act, and I can assure my hon. Friend that that review will include a consideration of the role of county farms. It may also be possible to examine the issue of rent calculations, depending on the terms of reference. I should point out in fairness that the recommendation has come from the district auditor, so it falls within local government legislation governing best practice for councils.

We may also have to consider the wider question of new entrants to the agriculture sector in a further study—depending on the outcome of the review of the 1995 Act. When that Act was introduced, we expressed some anxieties about it, but we made it clear that we would give it time to settle in, to see whether it would achieve its objectives of releasing more land for rent. That in turn would allow greater opportunities to new entrants, and would help those already in the sector to expand. The review is a useful chance to discover whether the Act is meeting those objectives.

I am also aware of the views of the Tenant Farmers Association about county council smallholdings. I have met the association a number of times on my regional visits. Its members have put their arguments rationally and reasonably to me, locally and nationally, and we have listened carefully to those representations.

Neither the DETR nor MAFF has the powers to impose a moratorium on sales. Besides, some sales have already taken place, and negotiations have been entered into. It will therefore be difficult, legally speaking, to impose a moratorium until the situation changes on 31 March. So much was made clear to Mr. Dunn of the TFA, in a letter from the Minister of Agriculture.

We also face the practical problem that it would take legislation to bring in a moratorium. It is not realistically possible to find time for such legislation before 31 March 1998, when the scheme ends. But I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government have no plans to continue with the scheme once it has ended.

I repeat our desire for a continuation of county farms, and I should like to outline some of what the Government are doing to help. We provide funding for ATB-Landbase, the industry training organisation for agriculture and commercial horticulture, helping to ensure that young people have the right skills to work in the industry. The money supports the ATB-Landbase training helpline, as well as local training infrastructure, the development of recognised qualifications and careers advice. It is clearly important to train young people wanting to go into agriculture, horticulture or livestock.

We have also provided funding arrangements as part of the sector challenge. Over the next three years, this funding will complement MAFF funding in this area. I am pleased to say that some of it will go towards measures designed to attract young people to farming. We shall also underpin the development of a comprehensive training company audit scheme.

We are also looking into the problem of quotas which faces new entrants. Certain sectors are quota controlled— the dairy and sheep sectors, for instance. That poses a major problem; we are arguing strongly for reform of the quota system within the Agenda 2000 proposals which were recently published by Commissioner Fischler. I am pleased to say that many new sheep and suckler cow farmers already receive free quota. At the same time, the UK continues to press for the replacement of sheep and suckler cow quotas in the long term by a more flexible system such as regional reference ceilings.

The milk sector presents rather more difficulties. Here, new entrants must inherit, buy or lease quota. Providing sufficient milk quota to maintain viable farms is one reason why some county councils restructure their estates from time to time. There is a difficult balance to be struck between the needs of current tenants to make a living— or even to expand—and the demands of people looking to make a start in farming. Should any proposals emerge, we are prepared to consider suggestions for an industry-run new entrants scheme.

We have discussed the issue with farming representatives, and we have raised it in Europe. A report produced by the European Commission last year on "Young Farmers and the Problem of Succession in European Agriculture" will play an important role in stimulating debate in the Community on the measures needed to encourage more young people to take up farming. The average age of farmers in the EU is 55, and rising. We must tackle that if we are to ensure the continued efficiency and prosperity of the industry. We look forward to continuing discussions in Europe.

There is every reason why county farms should once again play an important part in helping new entrants to farming, but we do not underestimate the difficulties—not least of which are size, and the small number of such farms that become available for succession. Unlike certain occasions in the past, councils must respond to the demands of would-be farmers and local taxpayers.

Sound estate management may permit the release of capital for badly needed local initiatives and create genuine opportunities for new entrants. My hon. Friend clearly does not want to fossilise the structure of county council smallholdings; but they must be reorganised so as to provide better opportunities for new entrants. I am quite sure that that is the right approach.

We will, as a Ministry, encourage local authorities to look constructively at ways of addressing the issues. We also believe that the energies and ideas of new entrants need no longer be confined to traditional agriculture on smallholding estates. There could be far greater use of the flexibility in farm business tenancies to offer genuine benefits to new starters and to explore the potential of niche markets, such as the organic sector.

We want to ensure that local councils look at all possible alternatives before considering selling any of their estate. They should listen to the views of bodies such as the Tenant Farmers Association and the Ministry; and they should take into account the case made so ably today by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud for the retention of this important part of agriculture.

Penninghame Open Prison

1.29 pm

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise matters that are of great importance, not only to my constituents, but to the wider public. I am also grateful to the Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office, for attending to respond to my points.

I shall highlight two general issues relating specifically to open prisons in Scotland and arising from incidents that occurred at Her Majesty's prison at Penninghame, which is located in my constituency. Penninghame is set in attractive countryside about four miles north of the market town of Newton Stewart. Its main building is the mansion house of the formerly private estate that now provides the prison with its grounds.

Penninghame was first established as an open prison in 1954, amid some controversy that necessitated the attendance of the Minister's distant predecessor at a public meeting in Newton Stewart to explain the arrangements. Since then, Penninghame has housed prisoners—many of them long term—in open conditions. Its capacity is for about 85 prisoners, but it is currently operating well below full capacity.

The prisoners fall within the Scottish Prison Service's category D, defined as prisoners who are considered not to be a danger to the public, who can be given the opportunity to serve their sentence in open conditions. Penninghame offers a rehabilitative regime to prisoners who are working towards their release. From the original controversy surrounding its opening, the prison has been well integrated into the local community.

A proportion of prisoners take advantage of outplacements in the community—some travel as far as Stranraer, which is about 25 miles from Newton Stewart. It is fair to say that new opportunities for work are constantly sought in activities such as forestry work or work in social projects, helping the elderly or infirm. The prison contains a large amount of woodland and farm, and includes a large garden with an associated garden centre, which is open to public and staff for the sale of local produce. That garden and garden centre constitute the main source of employment for prisoners and are an important point of contact between the prisoners and prison and the local community. Such contacts are highly valued within Newton Stewart and the surrounding area.

Much of the prisoners' work goes to help voluntary organisations that might not otherwise be able to carry out their role within their own slender funds, so the arrangements with the prison enable them to achieve more than they could otherwise do. Recently, a constituent of mine who is involved in running a day centre told me that the centre would certainly have shut down some time ago had he not had the daily assistance of four or five prisoners from Penninghame open prison.

A recent incident occurred at a local gala day near Penninghame, when some prisoners involved in the preparation for the gala day gained access to alcohol and subsequently—not surprisingly—had to be taken back to the prison. The consequences for the prisoners were extremely serious: they lost their open status, and were transferred back to a closed prison establishment.

The incident gained more media publicity than it deserved, because of some other events that had occurred at the prison, but one of the most remarkable aspects of the case was how the gala day committee insisted that it was an isolated and exaggerated incident, and stated how much it valued and would continue to value the involvement of Penninghame prisoners in the gala day preparations.

I have made a point of visiting the prison since the general election. I was impressed by the work being done there and by the staff's commitment to the success of the various programmes. Over the years, the prison has clearly established a positive relationship with the local community, benefiting the community as well as substantially assisting the rehabilitation of inmates, which is the primary purpose of an open prison. I do not want anything to happen that might sour that excellent relationship, which is why I wish to address the aftermath of certain recent escape episodes, which have caused some local concern.

Despite the fact that security measures are in place, by definition it is easier for an inmate to abscond from an open prison than from a closed one. The prison authorities take great pains to ensure that category D prisoners chosen for open conditions are those who are likely to benefit from that classification; that they are unlikely to take advantage of open conditions to effect an escape; and that they are not likely to pose a danger to the public should they actually escape.

However, we have to recognise that assessment of the human personality and prediction of human behaviour is an inexact science, and occasionally the assessment of a prisoner's suitability for an open prison will prove incorrect. That does not invalidate the idea behind open prisons or necessarily imply that the SPS has been legally negligent when things go wrong; equally, however, it is not right that the public should suffer when the SPS assessment proves inaccurate, as is inevitable from time to time.

The first incident I wish to highlight took place earlier this year on 16 March, when Joseph McGarry—who was serving a 10-year sentence for various offences, including assault and robbery—absconded from the prison. Around the same time, a motor vehicle belonging to one of my constituents was stolen from Newton Stewart and was subsequently recovered from a location in Glasgow, near to where McGarry had previously resided. Its condition was such that it was a total write-off in insurance terms.

Although McGarry was subsequently charged under road traffic legislation with the offence of allowing himself to be carried in a motor vehicle without having lawful authority—a strange offence—the procurator fiscal decided not to proceed with the charge, and McGarry had two years added to his sentence for the escape attempt.

The amount my constituent received from the insurance company, while no doubt reflecting the car's market value, in no way allowed her to buy a replacement or reflected the value of the car to her. Possession of a motor car in rural Scotland—especially the south-west, which does not enjoy the best public transport services—is a necessity, and my constituent required a car to transport her mother to hospital in Edinburgh for treatment.

My constituent attempted to reclaim her uninsured losses from the SPS, but the service responded that there was no evidence that the escaped prisoner had stolen the car; and, even if there had been such evidence, there was none that the SPS had been negligent. My attempts to achieve some progress did not prove any more successful.

Subsequently, there has been what the intermediate report of the prisons inspectorate described as a
"car theft and hostage taking incident"
at the nearby hamlet of Challoch. On each occasion, a car belonging to one of my constituents has been damaged and written off by insurers. It is clear that Penninghame's relative remoteness results in motor vehicles being a prime target for potential escapees wishing to make good their escape.

After the second incident, my constituents again sought redress from the SPS, in particular compensation for uninsured financial losses, alleging that the SPS was negligent in allowing a prisoner to escape. The SPS responded:
"As in many areas of human endeavour, a judgment has to be made on the evidence available, and from time to time the judgment that an individual can now be trusted to prepare for release in open conditions will not be borne out."
It concluded:
"we consider this was an unfortunate incident which the prison authorities could not reasonably have foreseen and consequently your constituents' claim for compensation is repudiated".

I subsequently wrote to Mr. Frizzell, chief executive of SPS, saying:
"It would appear that the general public has no redress once a faulty classification decision has been made and the prisoner transferred to a low security regime".
Mr. Frizzell replied to the effect that that was not true, and said:
"any person who considers he has a legitimate claim may seek reparation from the Secretary of State—but for this claim to succeed he would first need to show negligence".

Given the cost of a legal case in the civil court and the difficulty of obtaining legal aid in civil cases, the suggestion that my constituents should sue the Secretary of State is a bit of a joke, and it does not appear to my constituents to be an especially inviting or realistic option, despite their confidence in the justice of their case.

Quite apart from the problems of financing legal proceedings, it is likely to be very difficult to prove negligence on the part of the SPS, which makes it almost impossible for those suffering the depredations of escaped prisoners to seek redress with confidence. Given that Penninghame is an open prison, and that prisoners are intended to leave the prison regularly in any event to go to work and other activities, an escape is hardly likely to have resulted from negligence.

The other main area where the prison authorities would be regarded by a layman as potentially at fault is that surely the authorities, almost by definition, have wrongly classified a prisoner as suitable for open conditions if that prisoner subsequently chooses to escape. It is clear that the system has, regrettably, failed in that instance, and that those making the prison classification obviously got it wrong if the prisoner escaped, albeit that is an after-the-fact judgment.

Trying to prove that such a failure constituted legal negligence is a different matter, so my constituents find that it is game, set and match to the SPS. The authorities' position, which allows them to say that prisoners can escape, threaten my constituents, damage property and steal and destroy cars but the injured parties are very unlikely to get any redress unless they can prove negligence, is a non-starter. It is not good enough.

The community of Newton Stewart has been very supportive to Penninghame prison throughout its existence, and I think it behoves the SPS to be supportive to individual members of the community on the rare occasions when things go wrong.

I ask the Minister to consider establishing a mechanism whereby constituents whose specific cases I have mentioned, and members of the wider public with similar cases, could get compensation for losses without the necessity for the SPS to be proved at fault—although, in cases where there really was negligence, the public interest would, I believe, demand that that be identified.

I started by emphasising the good work of the prison at Penninghame and the healthy relationship that it has enjoyed with the local community, to the advantage of both. No one wishes that relationship, built up over many years, to be placed at risk. However, the prisons inspectorate report I mentioned said:
"the incident has generated much adverse media coverage and renewed agitation from a local pressure group … this is now casting a very large and disproportionate shadow over the establishment and its prisoners".
That is no exaggeration. The sheriff at the sheriff court in Stranraer, sentencing the escapee McGarry, said:
"Locals are beginning to question why people like you should be in an open prison in the first place".

I would like the shadow I mentioned to be dispelled. I have had assurances from the governor of Penninghame, and from the Minister by letter, that public safety will be foremost in decisions taken by the SPS in relation to prisoner placement. However, beyond that, given the impossibility of giving absolute guarantees of prison behaviour, the position where innocent people can suffer losses—and cannot obtain recompense—simply because they happen to live close to an open prison threatens to deepen the shadow that the prisons inspectorate mentioned in its report. I hope that the Minister can suggest a way to resolve that dilemma.

My second concern is about the proportions of the various types of prisoner who are resident at Penninghame. As I understand it, until recently the policy of the SPS, although not rigid, was that prisoners who were sentenced to more than eight years were sent to Penninghame, that those who were qualified for open conditions, with sentences of from two to eight years, went to Noranside in Tayside, and that those with less than two years went to Castle Huntly, also in Tayside. That policy is under review, and a decision is expected imminently.

I appreciate that the issues concerning whether prisoners with dissimilar sentences should be mixed in the same establishment are complex, but I suggest that, from the point of view of the local community, it would be much more acceptable if prisoners at Penninghame constituted a cross-section of those in open conditions, not those with largely longer-term sentences. I hope that the Minister will say that the SPS is planning to move in that direction.

1.44 pm

I am very pleased that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) has taken such a constructive tone in relation to the contribution that Penninghame prison makes to the local community. He has also been very robust in the defence of his constituents over recent circumstances.

I want to respond in equally constructive terms in relation to the points that have been raised. The hon. Gentleman spoke with passion and insisted that the matter be taken seriously. His correspondence with the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service and myself shows the same qualities.

I understand the anxiety, distress and anger that the hon. Gentleman's constituents must feel in the light of this year's events. One need only pause for a moment to put oneself in their place. It was in acknowledgment of the concerns expressed by the local community that the Scottish Prison Service imposed a moratorium on the transfer to Penninghame of prisoners with any history of violence.

Not unnaturally, last March's incident attracted significant media interest. Against that background, considerable support was expressed by local people for the work done by Penninghame prisoners in the community. The hon. Gentleman alluded to that.

I know that prison managers are keen to build on that support and to develop the good links that exist. As part of that process, I shall now ask the Scottish Prison Service to examine again the allocation criteria for Penninghame, to ensure that those prisoners who go there are those—and only those—who can use the opportunities that it affords constructively. I hope that that addresses part of the concern that the hon. Gentleman expressed. The SPS attaches a high priority to good relations and co-operation with the local community. It is important that decisions taken about the allocation of prisoners do not put that in jeopardy.

I emphasise that people living in the constituency must have confidence in the prison; that is vital. As has been said, historically the establishment has maintained a good relationship with the local community, and I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that we do not want to do anything in future that jeopardises that concern. I would not wish to lose sight of the important role that open prisons play in aiding the successful integration of prisoners into society at the end of their sentence.

The Scottish Prison Service makes strenuous efforts to ensure that no prisoner who is thought to be a danger to the public goes to Penninghame. Prisoners are transferred only when they have been allocated security category D, defined as
"a prisoner who is considered not to be a danger to the public and who can be given the opportunity to serve his sentence in open conditions".
Before transfer to Penninghame, assessments are made of the risk to the general public if the prisoner were to abscond and the likelihood of his absconding.

Allocation of security category D to indeterminate sentence prisoners requires the Secretary of State's approval. Very careful consideration is given to each application for transfer and the following factors, among others, are taken into account. We must consider response and conduct since imprisonment, and willingness to address offending behaviour. We must consider preparation for release. We must anticipate the likely response of victims or the general public. We must assess the stability of the social and domestic relationships. Finally, the person must be drug-free. That process is given a great deal of attention, to try to avoid any of the difficulties and problems that the hon. Gentleman outlined today.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that it may have been a mistake to assign category D to the prisoner who absconded on 24 March. He has suggested that subsequent events proved that that was a misjudgment. However, he will accept, I am sure, that a judgment can be made only on the evidence available at the time. Category D is awarded after a rigorous assessment procedure, which tests the prisoner on escorted leaves as well as in conditions of greater freedom within the prison.

Occasionally, no matter how good that process, a prisoner will go on to abuse the trust placed in him. That is not a fact about prisoners' behaviour specifically; it is a fact of human nature. Sometimes people let one down. In the more philosophical part of his speech, the hon. Gentleman confirmed that.

The prisoner in question had created no trouble for anyone in the five years preceding the incidents of 24 March. The staff who had been responsible for his management while he was in Edinburgh prison, and who had observed his behaviour closely throughout that period, advocated his reclassification. His cause was championed by the independent Scottish prisons complaints commissioner, who thought that he was not being reclassified quickly enough.

There was no logic to the events of 24 March; they rapidly escalated out of control. It was if the prisoner had embarked on a roller-coaster ride that he could not get off. Such events are very unusual. In its 43-year history, Penninghame has had only one incident of this seriousness. Of course, that is no consolation to those who were affected that day. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's desire to help them—any Minister who is a constituency Member of Parliament would want to do so. I share that desire, because it is clear that a wrong was committed.

I fully understand the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. As he knows, a full investigation was carried out after the incident. The prisoner involved has yet to come to trial. I cannot say whether the trial will shed any light on the incident. However, on the strength of the hon. Gentleman's concerns, I shall ask the chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, after the trial, to look further into all the issues raised this afternoon.

We never live in a perfect society, but I should like to think that the confidence and trust of the constituents in the prison can always be reinforced by the common sense exercised on both sides of the House. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made an excellent, concise presentation of the concerns that exist. It is important for Ministers to listen and do as much as they can to ensure the continuation of that confidence and trust. I hope that the assurance that I have given will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

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

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Integrated Schools


How many integrated schools in Northern Ireland (a) at present exist, (b) existed in 1992 and (c) are at the planning stage. [16231]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Tony Worthington)

At present, there are 33 grant-aided and four independent integrated schools in Northern Ireland. In addition, four schools have been granted conditional approval for transformation to integrated status from September 1998, and proposals from a further six schools are under active consideration. In September 1992, there were 16 grant-aided schools.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that, although integrated schooling is not a solution to the deep divisions in Northern Ireland society, it plays a crucial role in heightening understanding and tolerance of different cultures and religions? Will he say whether the Northern Ireland Office is taking any steps to encourage existing schools to transform themselves into integrated schools?

I agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. We are encouraging existing schools to transform themselves into integrated schools, and an unprecedented number—five schools— have done so this year. Creating new schools causes real capital expenditure problems. Some £28 million will be spent on integrated schools in the next three years, which is a large proportion of the expenditure on major school works. We want to encourage schools to submit genuine, active proposals for transformation. That is a major step forward.

Does the Minister agree that there is a considerable and significant level of voluntary integration in addition to existing designated integrated schools? Does he agree also that the education for mutual understanding programme is improving links between state-controlled schools and Roman Catholic maintained schools and is helping to improve respect for different traditions? Will the Minister monitor closely all applications for new integrated schools that might threaten the viability of existing secondary schools in Northern Ireland?

On the hon. Gentleman's first point about voluntary integration, school transformation proposals must involve a significant amount of integration. The general point is that most schools in Northern Ireland have become extremely segregated, and therefore find it difficult to move quickly to integration. We accept happily that it is our duty under statute to stimulate school integration, but we must achieve a balance between that duty and being fair to the other schools and other children in the system.

Northern Ireland Forum


What responses her Department has given to reports published by the Northern Ireland Forum. [16232]

The forum has produced 17 reports since its inception, of which 13 have been submitted to the Government.

One report, on electoral abuse, has not yet been formally received. Two reports, on long-term unemployment and on integrated transport policy, are under consideration. All the other reports submitted have been carefully considered, and Ministers have responded in writing or met a delegation from the forum.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. When he receives the report of Standing Committee A of the Northern Ireland Forum on electoral abuse, will he examine it closely, bearing in mind the fact that its findings and recommendations demonstrate the urgent need for electoral reform, both in the preparation of the register and lists and in the use of the register in relation to proxy voting and postal voting? Hon. Members of all parties are concerned about the integrity of electoral arrangements in Northern Ireland, and their concerns are buttressed by an important BBC "Spotlight" programme a few months ago, prepared by Stephen Walker. All that requires the Department to recognise the need for a root-and-branch look at the electoral arrangements.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We take allegations of electoral abuse extremely seriously. All parties in Northern Ireland have been asked to make submissions to the Government, and we have our own internal review of the matter in the Northern Ireland Office. In addition, my hon. Friend will know that the House's Northern Ireland Select Committee is examining that important problem. We take it extremely seriously, and we look forward to receiving both reports in the new year.

Is the Minister not concerned that, when the matter was investigated by Standing Committee A of the forum, the committee produced more than 20 recommendations or suggestions for improving the electoral system in Northern Ireland? Surely we must be concerned that, after all these years, there are so many problems with the electoral system in Northern Ireland, and nothing appears to have been done about them. The matter must be looked at closely, and something must be done as soon as possible.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He must bear with us, as we have been in office only since May, but all parties share his view that there are extremely serious problems. Every party in Northern Ireland, without exception, has written to me about the difficulties that they have encountered in respect of electoral abuse. I look forward to meeting the chairman of the standing committee of the forum and other members on the matter which, as I said in my previous reply, is extremely serious.

Peace Process


What plans she has to meet the Irish President to discuss the peace process. [16233]


What plans she has to meet the Irish President to discuss the peace process. [16234]

I hope to meet President McAleese when she visits Northern Ireland in the future. President McAleese has taken "Building Bridges" as the theme for her presidency. I warmly welcome this, and I look forward to hearing the President's views on a variety of topics in the near future.

I note that my right hon. Friend joins me in congratulating President McAleese on her election. Does she agree that the excellent work in all parts of the community carried out by Mary Robinson, the former President, has provided a positive foundation on which President McAleese can build?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The legacy that Mary Robinson left is a positive one. Now she has left to continue the work on human rights elsewhere, but I am sure that she has left a good base which President McAleese will study carefully, because it consists of listening to and encouraging people towards an accommodation, just as, in parallel, we in the north will continue to build bridges and work for progress and accommodation in the talks.

Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the President the work of the Great Famine Commemoration Committee in my constituency? The work of that committee involves recognising the tragedy of the lives lost in the great famine, but the committee also thanks those who gave support to the people who arrived on the shores of Liverpool and elsewhere, and commemorates the achievements of Irish people in Britain.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The famine and its after-effects are part of our history, as they are part of Ireland's. The famine's consequences, which my hon. Friend described for her constituency in Liverpool, continue to affect the lives of many people in Britain and Ireland. As I am sure she is aware, in a statement in May my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister expressed his regret for the famine, and paid tribute to those who have settled in this country, many in Liverpool. A memorial proposed for Liverpool will focus on the famine, commemorating the victims who passed through Merseyside and the help that many people in Liverpool gave.

As the Secretary of State knows, the talks process in respect of the Irish Republic involves important constitutional issues, and, indeed, issues of international law. Does she realise our surprise when we were told recently by officials in the Northern Ireland Office that there exist understandings with the Irish Republic of a constitutional nature beyond those disclosed in public documents? Does she realise our shock when we were told later, in response to a question from me, that the Northern Ireland Office has never bothered formally to consult the Government's experts in international law in the Foreign Office? Will it now seek advice on these important matters of constitutional and international law and will it publish that advice?

I do not know the specific reference that the hon. Gentleman is making to a Northern Ireland civil servant, and the information that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I assure him that we will certainly take advice from international lawyers and that we take advice at the moment from our own lawyers, and those in the Home Office where relevant. I guarantee that—as we have done elsewhere in Northern Ireland— where it is relevant, viable and possible, we will put the information in the public domain.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the greatest contribution that any of us can make to building bridges is to get a political settlement that can be supported by the vast majority of people in the north of Ireland? What deliberations has she had with the Irish Government and the parties within the talks to ensure that the review plenary sessions on Monday and Tuesday next week will be so positive that, in effect, we can focus on clearly defined objectives to reach a settlement?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mat question. I agree whole-heartedly with the first part of his statement: a political settlement reached by accommodation, based on consent, is the only way in which we will have a different future from the violent history that we have had.

In terms of where we go from here, as hon. Members from the parties in Northern Ireland will know, discussions are taking place now, in bilateral and other formats, to begin to try to move the process forward, so that we have specific recommendations to make at the review plenary on 1 to 3 December. We are working very hard to progress that; I am sure that others are as well. On Monday, we will discuss what form it will take. I hope that it gives us something concrete with which to move to Christmas.

When the Secretary of State speaks with the President of the Irish Republic, will she raise the matter of the President's announcement that she would make frequent visits to Northern Ireland? Will those visits be controlled under the proper protocol arrangements, or will the President be at liberty just to come and go as she pleases?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I presume that it will be normal protocol, just because of the advice that will be needed for somebody in the President's position moving around. When we hold the EU presidency in the next six months, I hope that we can, with the minimum of protocol, invite people from across Europe to see the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland in terms of the talks, the economy, investment and economic and social stability, so that people in Northern Ireland realise that, although they want peace in the months and years ahead, many people in Europe and elsewhere wish it too.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that a central requirement of the settlement that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) mentioned is a cross-border body with executive powers, and that the overwhelming majority of the pro-Union community reject that as any basis for settlement?

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his question. Different parties have different parts that they consider to be essential to some sort of final accommodation—these include devolution in terms of an assembly, cross-border co-operation and the nature of the powers of that body. Surely, the point of negotiation and discussion is to consider the basic tenets that each party brings with it, whether it be cross-border co-operation, a devolved assembly or a change in east-west relations. That is what discussion, debate and negotiation should be about. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman finds it within himself to join those talks in the future, because his contribution would be welcome.

How would the Minister view visits by various representatives from Northern Irish parties to Dublin in the interests of reciprocating the important and urgent need to build bridges in the negotiations?

I would welcome participation, debate and discussion among all the different players and parties. I should like them to be fully engaged in the process. I hope to see others who are currently outside the talks or are not fully part of them come into the talks and play a fuller role, because that would help the process considerably.

Are we not at a decidedly premature stage of the political talks for the Prime Minister to be inviting Mr. Adams to Downing street? Does the Secretary of State not appreciate the public outrage when, only last week, a Sinn Fein council said that, if it did not get its own way, it would go back to what it knows it does best? Let me assure the right hon. Lady that, if we were still in office, we would not be inviting Mr. Adams to Downing street.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, if he were still in office, he would not be inviting Mr. Adams in the same way as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—openly, above board and straightforwardly. When the Conservative Government did it in the past, they did it behind closed doors and without acknowledging it. At least we are doing it in a straightforward and open way. The Prime Minister has made it patently clear that, if groups and parties sign up to the ceasefire and accept the Mitchell principles of a democratic and constitutional way forward, we will treat them as normal. The Prime Minister is in a cycle of talks with all the parties and he will treat them all the same. Let us do it openly, not in a hidden way.

European Funding


If she will make a statement on the amount of European funding that has been secured for Northern Ireland over the last five years. [16235]

European structural funds support secured during the past five years comes to 1,632 million ecu, which is about £1,200 million. All the programmes negotiated with the European Commission have been funded for the period 1994 to 1999, with the exception of the special support programme for peace and reconciliation, which, so far, has had funding approved for 1995 to 1997. That reflects Northern Ireland's objective 1 status. The structural funds allocation has made a significant contribution to addressing the region's needs and circumstances.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of the district partnerships set up to distribute European peace and reconciliation money? Does my hon. Friend agree that that important work has been further enhanced by the bold decision of the House's Standing Committee A in the early hours of the morning to end, once and for all, the appalling practice of internment without trial?

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks, in all directions. Recently, I visited two partnerships, in Ards and in Newry. I have been impressed by the work done by those bodies. All parties and those outside political parties such as trade unions, business and commerce, engage with each other in the interests of everybody in the community. They are very encouraging in terms of what they want to do to improve the situation in Northern Ireland with funding and in helping the peace process. It is a complete innovation in the way that funds are distributed and I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue.

The European Union's financial support is very much welcomed by the people in Northern Ireland and we thank the Government for the effort that they are making to attract more European Union funding to the Province. However, I want to get the figures into context and avoid any misunderstanding. The Minister referred to £260 million a year that comes from the European Union. What is the comparable figure coming from Her Majesty's Government to Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman has experience of European matters as a former Member of the European Parliament. Structural funds and other money that we receive from the European Union are important for peace and reconciliation. He is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the £8 billion that comes from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who know how important it is for Northern Ireland to be properly funded. The right hon. Gentleman's point is important, because health, education, transport and security are funded by the British taxpayer.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. I share his admiration for the grants that are channelled into Northern Ireland: I fully support that. However, will he have regard to the fact that some of those grants could have a devastating effect on other parts of the United Kingdom? The recent announcement of a grant to develop glass manufacture in Northern Ireland could affect the industries in my area, particularly in Knottingley where my constituents work.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I assure him that full account was taken of the points that he made about the glass industry in his area. I also thank him for referring to the fact that Northern Ireland is a special case. Peace and reconciliation money does not have an impact on the way in which funds are allocated in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Hospital Waiting Lists


If she will make a statement on the pattern of hospital waiting in Northern Ireland, indicating the three trusts and specialties where the lists are greatest. [16236]

The largest in-patient waiting lists at 30 September 1997 were at the Royal Group of Hospitals and Dental Hospitals health and social services trust, the Belfast City Hospital health and social services trust and the Ulster, North Down and Ards Hospitals health and social services trust. By specialty, the largest waiting lists were in general surgery, ear, nose and throat and trauma and orthopaedics.

I appreciate that answer. Does the Minister accept that the Ards and Ulster hospitals have not been properly funded over the years? Can he give an assurance that the boards will complete contracts much earlier, so that those dealing with specialties can plan their operational procedures better?

The Minister—I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon; I mean, the minister of religion has given an example of the collapse of the internal market. When we came to office, it seemed impossible for the trusts and boards to come to an agreement. We insisted that they did so as soon as possible. The major cause of the problem this year has been the budget cuts imposed by the previous Government, which have caused waiting lists to soar after a period of decline. We take this matter extremely seriously. We have identified an extra £12 million for this year's budget. I hope to be able to identify more money shortly. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that an extra £31 million would go into the health service budget from April next year.

I thank the Minister for his recent. well-received visit to the Downe hospital in Downpatrick. When he was there, he no doubt saw that an attack is being made on the waiting list by a high-quality, cost-effective team in conditions that are 200 years old. That trust has gone through the private finance initiative. Will he put completion of the third phase of a modest hospital on the public capital programme list?

I very much appreciated my visit to Downe hospital as part of the consultations that I have had in that area recently. We were disturbed and disappointed by the collapse of the private finance initiative. I am awaiting the economic analysis and appraisal, so that I can decide on the priority to be given to the Downe hospital.

Following the Minister's recent decision to amalgamate the Royal maternity and the Jubilee maternity at the Royal site, will he confirm that sick babies will continue to be transported by ambulance to the Royal hospital for sick children? Will he confirm that the construction of the proposed Royal maternity unit will be put off for many years? Does he agree that the closure of the Jubilee unit at the City hospital, without consultation, is without precedent?

To deal with the last point first, this morning I received a letter from the affected parties in the case, giving me their undertaking that they would work together to make a success of the new proposals. We inherited a problem from the hon. Gentleman, who is a former Northern Ireland Minister. The most important issue was the clinically best way to deal with small, vulnerable babies and their mothers. We looked at the matter and we brought in independent outside analysts. The clear decision we received was that we should go ahead with our proposals, which we have done. That has been generally welcomed in Northern Ireland.

In addition to the Minister's existing proposals, when will he introduce a comprehensive health promotion strategy?

On 10 December, we shall make an announcement on priorities in the health service in Northern Ireland so that we can remedy defects in the illness patterns not only through the health service, but by involving every Department and agency in Northern Ireland. We shall announce our proposals then.

Health Budget


If she will make a statement on the projected growth in real terms in the health budget for Northern Ireland between 1997–98 and 1998–99. [16237]

It is not possible to anticipate the 1998–99 final allocations announcement which will be made to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in early December, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the extra £31 million, announced in the July Budget, will be added to the health spending totals for 1998–99 set by the previous Government.

Given that, during the whole of the last Parliament, the House was told by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the money needed for the health service in Northern Ireland—for capital building and general services and to reduce waiting lists—and given that health inflation is about 2 per cent. above real inflation, will the Minister either give an undertaking today or use his best endeavours to ensure that the money going to the health service in Northern Ireland is at least 2 per cent. in real terms above inflation and that additional money is put in to cut waiting lists, rather than allowing them to go on rising?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are committed to a comprehensive spending review so that we can impose the Labour Government's priorities. We have already started that in terms of the reallocation of money in the current year, and we hope to make a further announcement shortly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient until the Northern Ireland Grand Committee sitting, when all will be revealed to him.

Will the Minister confirm that the sums available to him will be sufficient to complete, equip and open the new Causeway hospital at Coleraine, and will it be equipped to provide cancer services and paediatrics?

I regret that I could not hear all that the hon. Gentleman said. He will know that one of the first actions we took was to end the indecision about the Causeway hospital. I was delighted to meet the chair of the trust this morning and to hear that the project is going ahead well. I look forward to discussing health matters with him in the not-too-distant future.

Equal Opportunities


If she will make a statement on her Department's policies for creating equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland. [16238]

The Government are whole-heartedly committed to equality of opportunity in all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. We are actively considering a number of measures on fair employment, sex discrimination, race relations and disability discrimination that will benefit all who live there. In addition, the Government are giving full consideration to the comprehensive report, produced by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, on employment equality and related matters. We intend to publish a response early in the new year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Given the importance of ensuring equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland, particularly in employment, in which the Catholic population is at a severe disadvantage, will he tell the House what further steps he intends to take to increase employment opportunities for all in the Province?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Good progress is being made in considering the SACHR recommendations. Many of the new Government's proposals on tackling unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment under the new deal initiative, echo the SACHR proposals. The new deal will help members of both communities. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that Catholics are disproportionately represented among the long-term unemployed, so they should benefit in particular.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Social Security Fraud

Q1. [16260]

What additional action will be taken by Her Majesty's Government to reduce social security and housing benefit fraud.

We are committed to taking tough action on social security and housing benefit fraud. We are endeavouring to make the social security system more secure, to modernise it and, of course, to punish those who abuse it.

I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. Will he join me in congratulating those vigilant officials throughout the United Kingdom who uncovered £68 million of housing benefit fraud last year? Will he condemn the inefficiency of those officials who do not act promptly when information is provided, as outlined by Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard earlier this month? Will he encourage the public to blow the whistle on benefit cheats so that those most in need can have better benefits in future?

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I congratulate those local authority investigators who are doing their job well, but more can and should be done. That is one reason for setting up the benefit fraud inspectorate, which will raise and maintain standards in counter-fraud activity. We are implementing two further measures from next month, which will make a beneficial difference. First, we are introducing powers to ensure that only people with national insurance numbers can get benefits. That will be of some help in cutting down on fraud. Secondly, we are demonstrating our commitment to crack down, particularly on housing benefit fraud, by giving local authorities valuable new powers, which will allow them to prevent unscrupulous landlords and tenants from reaching an agreement to fiddle the system together. That is happening on too great a basis at the moment. We want to crack down on it as soon as we can.


Q2. [16261]

This morning, I attended a meeting of the national executive committee of the Labour party. I also visited Ted and Joyce Hawkes, an elderly pensioner couple who have benefited greatly from the measures announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I shall have further meetings later today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing better demonstrates the difference between our Government and the Conservatives than the fact that, last winter, the Conservatives put VAT on fuel for millions of pensioners, whereas yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a cut and millions of pounds extra for pensioners this winter? Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assure the House that speedy action will be taken to ensure that millions of pensioners benefit from that as soon as possible?

Yes, I certainly will. I should point out that the measures announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend mean that all pensioners will get £20 help with their fuel bill, and there will be £50 help for the 1.7 million pensioners on income support. Taking into account the cut in VAT on fuel, the abolition of the gas levy and the reduction in VAT on energy efficiency materials, pensioners will have £100 a year extra help. That is the difference between a Labour Government who keep their promises and a Tory Government who broke them.

May I ask the Prime Minister a question which need not be a matter of party controversy, but which the Chancellor declined to answer yesterday? I welcome the provision made to help disabled people into work, even though it seems foolish to pay for it through a one-off tax. Can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that his pre-election promise not to raise taxes covers disabled people on benefit?

As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has already said, we shall conduct a comprehensive spending review properly, but we shall do so on a basis that keeps our election pledges.

This is an important point. Many disabled people who are watching our exchanges will be anxious to know the answers. It has been reported in newspapers that the Government are considering taxing disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Will the Prime Minister rule out taxing those benefits for disabled people?

I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman that we made all our pledges at the election. We shall keep to those pledges. If there are any changes to disability benefit or anything else, they will be announced here.

Those are pretty weasel words. Any changes will be announced here—but no assurances about what those changes would be.

I ask the Prime Minister for another assurance. Can he at least give an assurance that disability living allowance will continue to be paid directly to disabled people and will not be paid to town halls to distribute or spend on their behalf?

I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman that the comprehensive spending review will continue as it should. It is an absurd game to get into ruling this in, ruling this out. He should not go on the basis of newspaper reports. Any changes will be announced in the proper way.

With this Government's willingness to speak to Parliament, one has to go on the basis of newspaper reports. Can the Prime Minister be serious that such a proposal is under consideration? Does he believe that Islington council knows better how to spend the money of disabled people than they know themselves? It should not need a review to answer that one.

Since the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on reviews, will he look again—if he would listen to the question instead of to the Chancellor—at the Lord Chancellor's plans for legal aid, which could prevent people who are seriously disabled in accidents from pursuing personal injury claims? Is not removing their entitlement the wrong way to reform legal aid?