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Commons Chamber

Volume 305: debated on Wednesday 4 February 1998

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 4 February 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Rural Poverty

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

9.34 am

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to have this debate this morning. I raised the debate at the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who, like many others in the House, share an interest in this issue.

Poverty is not just concerned with money—or, rather, the lack of it—but that remains central to the issue. The most relevant definition of poverty that I could find was provided by Action with Communities in Rural Areas, which said:
"Poverty is going short materially, socially and emotionally. It means coping with the stress of managing on very little money. Above all, poverty takes away the tools to create the building blocks for the future. It stops people being able to take control of their own lives."
It is about being unable to participate fully in society, about being isolated and excluded.

Poverty, urban or rural, is undoubtedly debilitating. It limits people in every aspect of their lives. Urban poverty is blatant. We all see it, in high-rise flats, rough sleepers in cardboard boxes, dereliction, graffiti and litter. It is acknowledged by decision makers, and is politically recognised.

However, rural poverty is hidden. It is masked in its isolation. It is scattered in small pockets of deprivation that often sit cheek by jowl with great wealth. It is obscured by the landscape. It sits uncomfortably with our national perception of the rural idyll. We visit, or even live in, the countryside, yet we do not see it. However glorious the scenery, it does not deliver employment, housing or education. However beautiful the Peak district, the Yorkshire dales or the Wye valley, one cannot eat the scenery.

The problem has gone unrecognised for many years. The previous Administration overwhelmingly ignored national research presented by organisations and academics that highlighted the true plight of the poor in this country. The Breadline report, by Mack and Lansey, in 1985, showed that 22 per cent. of the British population were in poverty or were on the margins of it.

The previous Administration ignored the evidence that Britain was becoming a two-nation state: the rich and the poor. That was exemplified in rural areas of England, where earnings were known to be below the national average. The earnings gap between rural counties and the English mean widened between 1980 and 1995. Indeed, Cloke et al identified in their study of 12 rural areas that 44 per cent. of households in rural counties received a gross annual salary of less than £8,000.

The indicators used for identifying areas of deprivation have an unfair bias towards urban areas. The census enumeration districts, used for collecting the data, are too large. They obscure the small pockets of rural deprivation that are hidden among the swathes of more wealthy rural residents.

The aggregation of the earning statistics only conceals isolated poverty by raising incomes to above the average, especially in villages and market towns. The ownership of a car, for instance, is taken as an affluence indicator, while in rural areas it is a necessity, because there is no integrated public transport. Seventy-five per cent. of all English parishes do not have a daily bus service. Many people in rural areas sacrifice much to keep the car on the road.

Children living in high-rise flats are a good indicator of poverty, but not in the country. Detached houses are seen as a sign of wealth, which, more often than not, is true in a town or city, but in the country, isolated detached cottages can hide behind their doors elderly couples struggling on meagre incomes.

There are other ways of mapping an area. The indicators used are not the only ones available. Other statistical information throws up a different picture of the areas of deprivation. In 1997, Oxford university mapped four rural counties—Wiltshire, Dorset, Shropshire and Oxfordshire—using local authority information on housing benefit claimants and council tax rebates. The map exposed rural deprivation that had previously been hidden.

In Gloucestershire, a bid to the single regeneration challenge fund, led by the county council in partnership with other agencies, especially Gloucestershire rural community council, proposed a project to regenerate the most deprived market towns in the county. A matrix of criteria was used to identify them, including unemployment, absence of car ownership, children in low-income households, overcrowding and general lack of amenities.

Seven market towns in the county were shown to have areas of real poverty not previously revealed by other surveys. The project showed high unemployment, lack of job opportunities, drug and alcohol abuse problems among the young, and people distanced by isolation, poor access and, most notably, inadequate transport services.

Data are only as good as the information that they examine. There should be a review of indicators. They should be able to locate small, scattered, isolated areas of poverty and sensitive to the needs of all areas, urban and rural. Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies face the problems of rural poverty in our surgeries. However, it is vital not only that we are personally aware of deprivation but that it is recognised politically and in the Government statistics that are collected and acknowledged by decision makers.

Rural communities are often tightly knit. It can be like living in a goldfish bowl. That has its advantages, but it can often lead to people hiding their poverty from their neighbours. Pride and self-esteem prevent people from revealing their desperate plight. In towns and cities where large communities face similar problems, less stigma attaches to declaring disadvantage. That is not true of villages and hamlets. The elderly in particular see shame in not being able to cope, and do not seek help. At present, we have no method of identifying such people.

There are self-help groups in urban areas, such as the Matson neighbourhood community project. It is an innovative scheme on a large council estate in Gloucester that has created a network of self-help activities ranging from advice centres to training opportunities, activities for the young and programmes to combat crime and vandalism. It is a wonderful example of a community taking control and trying to raise standards of living for everyone on the estate. That model would be difficult to replicate in a rural environment. The deprived communities in rural areas are small and scattered. It is difficult to give such communities self-help programmes. A new approach needs to be considered.

One is doubly disadvantaged when one is poor and lives in the countryside, because of the lack of good public transport. No transport means that one lives in a no-go area: no-go to advice centres, doctors, jobs or interviews.

Last week, a group of students from the Royal Forest of Dean college visited me in the House of Commons. I had invited them because they had completed a survey of transport issues concerning young people in the area. Ironically, they arrived back at Gloucester railway station only to discover that the last bus had departed and that there were no rail connections that night stopping at Lydney, the only railway station in my constituency. One lad had to beg a lift. Was it 11 pm or midnight? No, it was 6.50 pm—hardly late.

The deregulation of bus services in 1985 led to the demise of rural bus services and has given rise to absolute rural isolation. I welcome the Government's commitment to an integrated transport system and investment in public transport with the recent announcement allowing local authorities to use a hypothecated tax to help establish better public transport systems.

There are, however, other options that can be developed and extended to improve rural transport, such as dial-a-ride schemes that offer a bus service to the elderly. They are liberating for such people in remote areas but could be extended to parents at home with children, who are often unable even to get to the shops. Cornwall has piloted a scheme whereby post office vans run regular routes and are adapted to carry passengers and provide an extra service in remote areas. We must re-think and take initiatives to implement innovative options to increase the mobility of all in rural areas.

For many people, isolation means real deprivation. However, access is about not only mobility but information and services. If people cannot access information, how can they know what is available, or that they are receiving the services and benefits to which they are entitled? The move taken by many local authorities to open one-stop shops offering a range of advice on local authority issues has been successful, but they are often absent in rural areas. Advice centres spring up ad hoc from the voluntary sector but they can be disjointed and their services inconsistent if they cover large areas. They often lack a co-ordinated focus.

Rural areas must have equality of provision of services with urban areas. They should not be discriminated against just because such provision is more difficult or expensive. We must ensure that resources from central Government recognise the cost of providing rural services.

In 1996–97 in shire counties, local authorities were expected to spend £417 on social service provision for each elderly person. The national average was £485. The amount spent in inner-city London boroughs was double: £878. Such disparity must not be sustained. It is recognised that virtually all rural services inevitably cost more because of the dispersed population and lack of economies of scale. The money provided by central Government has not reflected that. Rural communities are asking not for special treatment but for equity of provision.

To solve the problems of rural poverty, we must have what the rural community councils call the three-legged stool approach, which tackles all aspects of rural poverty. The three legs are economic, social and environmental regeneration. This Government have been the first not only to acknowledge social exclusion nationally but to tackle it. They have set up a social exclusion unit. To be truly successful nationally, it must have a rural dimension.

The Labour Government have put in place new policies that will help to lift people out of poverty. The welfare-to-work programme, with the minimum wage, will start to address the regeneration of rural areas and provide real job opportunities at a decent wage. Too often, rural employment is seasonal and low wage. The decision that there will be regional deviations from the minimum wage will help, but the welfare-to-work programme must recognise the added cost of providing for a scattered, isolated clientele and the difficulties of travelling to work and to training venues. Many training programmes will have to be individually delivered, so economies of scale will not come into play.

Imaginative schemes already exist to help to overcome such difficulties. The jump start programme has been successfully piloted in the Cotswolds. It employs a transport broker to co-ordinate information and encourage car sharing but also manages a fleet of mopeds available at minimum cost to young people so that they can attend interviews and training. Forty per cent. of new deal applicants needed help with transport in rural areas such as the Cotswolds. The scheme should be duplicated as good practice in all rural new deal initiatives.

The Government are putting into place regional development agencies that will have a strategic regional remit to ensure economic regeneration across the whole of regions. They must have the three-legged stool approach. Sustainable economic regeneration is possible only if social and community regeneration goes hand in hand with economic development. The previous Administration created a cycle of decline in rural communities. Their relaxation of planning led to great influxes of commuters invading small villages, which radically altered the make-up of communities.

Wealthy commuters often looked for their services elsewhere. They shopped and worked in the towns, and used urban post offices close to where they worked. The viability of local village shops was undermined. Post offices were closed. Services such as garages and other shops vital to a living, breathing community diminished. That is devastating for the less well-off in the community. The shops that remained open often had prices up to 15 per cent. higher to cope with increased overheads and take advantage of the tourist trade.

The lack of services is shown by the fact that 42 per cent. of parishes have no permanent shop; 43 per cent. have no post office; 49 per cent. have no school; and 83 per cent. have no general practitioner based in the parish. I welcome the dial-a-nurse initiative in the health White Paper; it will be useful for rural areas to have some contact with such nurses.

There is much debate about projected housing provision in rural areas. Rural villages and market towns need to grow to continue to be sustainable, so that services such as garages, schools and post offices can be maintained.

We must not preserve an Arcadia in aspic. We must have thriving rural communities that grow and change according to the needs of all their inhabitants. Small communities should be allowed to assess their own housing needs, so that affordable, sensitive, social and private-sector developments can be well incorporated in those communities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the praise that she has heaped on the neighbourhood community project at Matson in my constituency. Does she agree that the problem of affordable housing pushes young people in particular from rural into urban areas to find homes and work? That is a drain on the resources of urban areas such as Gloucester, because young people have to be provided with night shelters.

Gloucester has been allocated money as one of the 16 local authority areas under the rough sleepers initiative. Many people come to Gloucester from my hon. Friend's constituency and from other parts of the Cotswolds to find work and homes. Does she agree that it is in the interests of urban as well as rural areas to ensure that people have affordable housing and jobs, so that they can stay in their own rural communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Homelessness exists in rural as well as in urban areas. Young people often leave their villages and end up homeless on the streets of our towns and cities. There is not enough social housing in our villages to keep our young people in their communities, so villages lose the next generation and cease to grow organically.

Is the hon. Lady aware that statistics show that homelessness in the countryside is now increasing at a higher rate than in the city?

It is true that homelessness in rural areas is increasing, but many local authorities in rural areas do not even carry out an audit of homelessness in their area. Two thirds of local authorities in rural areas did not bother to submit statistics on homelessness: they do not realise the extent of the problem.

We should adopt the Belgian model, whereby each village carries out a voluntary assessment of its need for social and public housing. That is then incorporated into the statutory system, and is part of the planning process at district and regional level. Locally, we have gone a long way towards that with our village appraisals, but those voluntary assessments should be fed into the statutory process.

Once the independent Food Safety Agency has been established, it may be possible to reform the Ministry of Agriculture. I want a Department of rural affairs, so that there would be a rural advocate at the heart of Government. That would, for the first time, give rural communities a powerful voice at the centre of decision making, and would ensure that sustainable policies were developed for the countryside.

Not only must we deal with the problems that we have inherited from the previous Administration, who chose to ignore rural poverty: we face a time of change, with the reform of the common agricultural policy and the adoption of Agenda 2000. All parties agree that the common agricultural policy should be transformed into an integrated rural policy. National and European resources should be provided for rural regeneration.

On 1 May 1997, 170 new Labour Members were returned to the House from rural and semi-rural constituencies, because the previous Administration failed to address the problems in rural areas, and because they had created a two-nation state in our countryside. The Labour Government will stop the decay, and will create a new cycle of renewal for the forgotten and unrecognised poor.

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about the need to reform the common agricultural policy. It would be wrong for her to end her speech without referring to the present crisis in the countryside that threatens to undermine any future efforts to establish a new rural viability.

I have a letter from a trader in my constituency, who is trying to build up his business so that his son can be included. He tells me that the basis of rural life is in question because of the agricultural crisis. He begs me to bring his letter to the attention of the House and the Government, and to make the point that the problem must be treated as the grave crisis it is. Does she agree with that, and will she press her colleagues on the Government Front Bench to take action in the near future?

It is true that some farmers face a crisis. Not all farmers are poor, and we must discriminate between those who have a substantial income and are doing very well and those who are poor. Farming underpins the rural economy up and down the chain. Farmers need help, which is why we need to reform the common agricultural policy and to put the resources into a wider, integrated rural policy.

What is unique about the present agricultural crisis is that it has an impact on all sectors: sheep, milk, cattle, corn—the lot. That is what makes it so severe. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Ceredigion: I hope that the hon. Lady will bring this matter to the attention of her Front-Bench colleagues, because it is so important.

Farmers, particularly in less-favoured areas, are having an extremely difficult time; that is why, on 22 December, the Government provided an extra £82 million-worth of aid for those farmers. We have recognised their plight, and we are tackling the problem.

The Labour Government will provide new opportunities for rural areas to help poor farmers and the many other rural poor, who have been ignored until now.

9.57 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on bringing this topic to the fore in our debates. I was interested in her extended, philosophical definition of poverty. I do not wish to criticise the way in which she presented her case, but, if I may say so, it was a little short on detailed, constructive proposals. The two most interesting suggestions were drawn out after interventions.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) raised the issue of the neglect of the agricultural scene. An enormous cash flow of taxpayers' money right across the Community is being misapplied. It is a most interesting concept. Were the common agricultural policy to be properly reformed, some of the money could be devoted to an agricultural revival.

Surely it should be diverted into—Conservative Members are perhaps no longer allowed to use the word "subsidy", but I am not frightened of it—subsidising the revival of organic farming. If true organic farming were re-implanted in the countryside, there would be an enormous increase in employment opportunities in all rural areas. That is surely better than building up mountains of unwanted produce, or repetitiously funding sectors that have already been greatly enriched by that process.

In relating rural poverty to the abuses of the common agricultural policy, the hon. Lady has blazed a trail in our debates that will flavour many of our questions in the weeks to come.

I referred to the hon. Member for Ceredigion, and I was glad to see a member of his party in the Chamber. I am a little disappointed that so few of my hon. Friends have attended.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is an exception.

I am particularly surprised that no one from the Scottish National party has attended. There is a good case to be made for the way in which the problem of rural poverty is handled in Scotland. The community atmosphere, to which the hon. Lady rightly drew attention, is much more vital and alive in the highlands of Scotland than it is in the south. I can give examples of the many detailed provisions.

The post bus sometimes picks up children from their homes and takes them to school. My son lives in the very far north, and was supplied with baby food by the gritting lorries that were clearing the roads, because nothing else could get through. Mutual dependence of that kind within a community is one of the key solutions to poverty—not just poverty in the financial sense, which the hon. Lady rightly described as only one component of poverty in general. I am talking about the feeling of belonging, and the ability of people to help one another when the need arises.

Let me return to the subject of Scotland, and to a point related to the intervention of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham). The impact of the council tax in Scotland has led to a scandalous practice: landlords and proprietors are removing the roofs from their crofts and cottages, or at any rate allowing them to deteriorate to such an extent that they are no longer liable for the tax.

If the properties were refurbished—which would cost much less than building new dwelling units—they would be of very little value, and there would be scope for fulfilling many of the requirements for affordable housing. The same thing was happening in the 19th century. It is amazing to see the Scottish countryside returning to a condition that was prevalent in the early part of this century.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean gave statistics relating to parishes, but did not mention the Church. In Scotland, priests and ministers play a marked and welcome role. The churches are all open, and the part they play in the community is very different from the part that, alas, they seem to play in parts of the south. Churches in the south are often locked, and priests and curates sometimes have a rather idiosyncratic view of their role in the community—but I do not wish to criticise them.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean spoke interestingly and discursively, and the House's time has been well spent.

10.2 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on raising such an important matter. She dealt ably with the depressing statistics relating to life in the countryside, and rightly pointed out that those of us with rural constituencies hear such stories every day.

The loss of services in country districts has a disproportionate effect in comparison with the loss of services in towns. It is a particular problem for the less well-off. The better-off can drive to the nearest town or city to take advantage of services, but a third of country householders do not have cars, and those who have them but are not well off will find it very difficult to maintain them. If their cars break down, it is not a simple question of telephoning the AA or the RAC. The cars may be off the road for several weeks.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in the speech. 1 hope that he and his hon. Friends who represent rural constituencies will exert pressure on their right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is rumoured to be considering raising the price of petrol by as much as 20p a gallon—or is it 20p a litre? In any event, he is apparently going to raise it by a draconian amount, and that will have a tremendous impact on people in rural areas. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean rightly said, in rural areas a car is not a status symbol or a sign of wealth and privilege; it is an essential accessory.

Like other rural Members, I am aware that the price of petrol is an integral ingredient of the domestic budget in many households.

A notable aspect of rural deprivation is the closure of country schools, which has continued apace for several decades. Parents are increasingly having to travel to different towns and villages to take their children to primary and secondary schools. That has had a number of consequences, for parents and for society as a whole. County councils are increasingly strapped for cash, and are examining their budgets minutely to see what savings can be made. In my county of Essex, the council has been trying to save money on home-to-school transport, which is an essential service for people living in villages and country areas.

The principle of home-to-school transport, which was laid down as long ago as the mid-1940s, is that a child who lives two and a half miles or more from a primary school, or three miles from a secondary school, is entitled to free transport. That is a geographer's delight. Those in county hall can examine maps, measure distances and devise alternative routes in an attempt to save money.

Let me give an example from my constituency in north Essex. The village of Silver End is some miles from the town of Witham, and for many years the children have travelled on a bus provided by the county. An astute official at county hall ascertained that it was possible to travel from Silver End to Witham by a back route, the distance being fractionally less than three miles. It involved negotiating a dark footpath between high hedges, and open fields, overhanging woods and deep ditches.

I am not exaggerating. The county sub-committee inspected the new route, which was intended to save costs. Its members managed to cross the ploughed field, which, fortunately, was dry at that time of year; but, as they approached the six-foot ditch, two of the older members decided that they had seen enough, and concluded that free school transport should continue—although one of the more economically minded members said, "When I was a boy, we took delight in jumping ditches." Parents living in villages greatly fear the loss of free school transport.

Liberal-controlled Devon county council is now thinking of getting rid of free transport to many schools, particularly denominational schools. Catholic schools in my constituency have been told that the children cannot have free transport. Does the hon. Gentleman applaud or deplore that?

I must confess that I am not aware of the intricacies of Devon affairs. Others may be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question more fully than I. I would prefer to steer the debate as far away as possible from party politics.

One of the problems is that, in rural areas particularly, the age of the coaches puts children at risk. In my constituency, a number of vehicles have been tested and have then had to be taken off the road immediately. I am pleased to hear that the Government intend to improve seat belt safety. Vehicles need to be checked repeatedly to ensure that children are not put at risk.

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. Rural school transport is threatened as a result of local government economies, but the problem is wider than that. The principles of free school transport were devised in, I believe, 1944—

I do not wish to be ungracious, but I have been generous in giving way, and I now want to finish my speech.

That world was different from the one in which we now live. At that time, most children lived in households with probably two parents. One would almost certainly have worked locally, and the mother would probably have been at home and able to take the children to school. The lanes along which they walked were almost free from traffic, crime was much lower, and fear of crime was a notion that had not been devised. When the measurements were set, conditions were a world away from what they are now.

I am concerned about the burdens being placed on poor families by the withdrawal of free school transport. A parent who takes a child to and from secondary school four times a day has a round trip of almost 12 miles. That is about 60 miles a week. The whole day is dominated by taking the child to and from school in dangerous circumstances. Part of the journey will be undertaken in the dark, and the mother—it is usually the mother—will return home alone or with a young child during dangerous times of the day.

Country roads are not the peaceful havens that they once were. They are frequently used as rat runs by people on the way to work, and the hazards are especially great at the time of day between darkness and light when a pedestrian caught between oncoming cars can be dazzled by their headlights. Parents will have to face such hazards if free school transport is withdrawn.

On Friday, I attended the House for a debate on a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) about a reduction in road usage. That aim will hardly be helped if we force parents to use their cars to take children to and from school as a consequence of saving small sums by denying them school transport.

I have concentrated on one aspect of rural life, but it is an important aspect. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean presented a broad view of the many problems that face people in rural areas. Some relate to the closure of community hospitals, the pressures on rural library service, the failure to build affordable houses in villages, and the decimation of jobs in agriculture. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) for mentioning schemes that may stimulate employment in agriculture.

This is an important debate, and it is disappointing that more hon. Members are not here. I hope that we can make progress, with all-party support, to assist those in country areas, so that they become part of living, working communities.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that this debate, although important, is short. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I appeal for brief contributions.

10.13 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on securing this important debate, and on her speech, which I endorse. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) on his speech. I agree with his comments about organic agriculture.

The debate has more than just a hint of deja vu, because, before I was elected to the House last year, I was in rural community development work for 15 years in England and Cornwall. I worked to promote rural social housing, community transport, credit unions, community facilities, village surveys and economic development. I was born and brought up in deepest rural Cornwall as one of a large family. Although I did not appreciate it at the time, I experienced rural poverty.

Why do we need to emphasise rural poverty rather than urban poverty? Are they the same? They are not, although for some people poverty is the important matter. However, opportunities in rural areas are restricted, and are often accompanied by a lack of confidence within rural populations. A sense of being grateful and not demanding is part of the rural demeanour. We keep coming back to the subject. Why do we have to repeat that, behind the chocolate box images and the picture postcards, lie the manifold problems of low wages, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, poor services, poor access to facilities that suburban and urban communities often take for granted?

People in rural areas rightly feel that they must constantly ask others to look behind the scenes, because the deprivation is almost invisible. The same does not apply in urban areas. In some ways, it would be an achievement for rural areas if urban communities felt that they needed to redress the balance by mounting a campaign to draw attention to urban poverty.

Some rural areas are currently competing with some of the most deprived urban areas to be the poorest in the land. The Conservative party seeks to wear the superficial disguise of self-appointed guardians of the countryside and rural areas. Not only are Conservative Members largely absent for the debate, but their party had a remarkable record in government of presiding over a period of rapidly increasing rural poverty. Not surprisingly, one area which experienced that is Cornwall. It easily occupies bottom place in the GB earnings table, and in recent years the gap has tended to widen.

Male earnings in Cornwall were 16 per cent. below the GB average in 1981, but 23 per cent. below that average by last year. Not only are earnings low, but there are fewer incomes because of high unemployment and inactivity. Unemployment, especially in west Cornwall, is generally at least double the rate in the south-west, of which Cornwall is supposed to be a part.

I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate, although I watched it on television and listened to the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ).

My hon. Friend is speaking about Cornwall. Is he aware that it is a pilot area for the Government's new deal project? Are the people of Cornwall worried about the compulsion element of the new deal, which means that people are told to take up training or education or lose benefit? In deeply rural areas such as Cornwall and my constituency, there are no such options, and people will be penalised by losing benefit.

As my hon. Friend says, Cornwall is a pilot area, and we shall give the scheme a fair wind. I share his concern about compulsion.

Although per capita GDP in Cornwall is 71 per cent. of the UK average, it is lower than the level anywhere in England except for the Isle of Wight. It was never protected by the Conservative Government from rampant and inappropriate housing developments throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Under the Conservatives, Cornwall was one of the fastest growing areas in the UK, although that merely contributed to its economic problems. In terms of a comparison with urban poverty, both Cornwall and the Isle of Wight have GDPs per head that are significantly lower than traditionally deprived areas such as Merseyside, with which Cornwall is often compared.

Cornwall's GDP is among the lowest in Europe, and is on a par with the poorest parts of Greece and Spain. However, that is not always how Cornwall is perceived. Many such rural areas have to overcome assumptions that have been generated by the images about the place. The Cornish people become quaint appendages to the landscape, and people talk about discovering the place almost as if it had never existed until their arrival. In reality, the Cornish live in ghettos and what are often described as windswept council house reservations, not in pretty cottages in the cove.

We shall always have to return to these matters, not only because of poverty among rural people but because of a poverty of understanding of what it is like to be poor and living in a rural area. Behind those images there are even deeper problems, such as the high cost of living in rural areas. Cornwall has the highest water and electricity charges in the country, and the biggest mismatch between earnings and house prices. Hundreds of Cornish council homes have been sold off and not replaced, but some better properties have been bought as second and holiday homes, and lost to the local community.

As if Cornwall had not experienced enough, it also lost a further 1,500 jobs in 1997, including the largest factory in my constituency. Most of Cornwall's farm holdings now fail to generate enough income to support even one person, and the bovine spongiform encephalopathy and bovine tuberculosis crises are affecting Cornwall more severely than most other agricultural regions. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) knows, Cornwall is bracing itself for the possible closure of Europe's last remaining tin mine after 2,000 years of proud history.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the closure of factories—indeed a factory in my constituency, Machynlleth Design in Machynlleth, is in the same position—has a far more devastating effect in the countryside. where the geographical mobility of the work force is impaired due simply to their circumstances?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problems of grabbing new work opportunities are extremely restricted by the fact that one has ties to the local community, and the opportunities for further employment are simply not there in many rural areas.

What have the so-called new guardians of the countryside on the Conservative Benches done to help over the past 18 years? They have sold off council houses, and given second homes a 50 per cent. council tax rebate. They have given Cornwall the highest water and electricity bills and privatised aspects of our health service, including the dental service and sight tests. They have reduced funding for essential local authority services and failed to heed the case, not for special treatment, but for a fair deal for places such as Cornwall and many other rural areas. They have given our livestock farmers the BSE problem, and they have placed Cornwall in perpetual recession. I have to concede, however, that they did give us the cones hotline.

If the Conservatives were behaving as the guardians of rural areas and the countryside, 1 do not know whose countryside they were guarding. It certainly was not the countryside of the poor. It was therefore no wonder that, in the Celtic regions and countries of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the Conservatives were completely wiped out.

In all those years, at least the Tories did not abolish the great invention of the last Liberal in this House by the name of George, Lloyd George: the creation of the Development Commission, now the Rural Development Commission, which is widely accepted as one outstanding Government agency that has worked. It has been widely acclaimed for its contribution to the understanding of rural poverty and to actions to reduce it.

That is why there is strong opposition to the Government's decision to draw their resources largely into what will be urban-biased regional development agencies. RDAs, by the way, will be about not unifying communities of interest in the English regions, but replacing the bland uniformity of a centralised state with the bland uniformity of regions, which I believe do not exist. RDAs will be based on administrative convenience.

As defined from above, RDAs will contain, in regions such as the so-called south-west, more internal conflict than shared agendas and will therefore hold the seeds of their own destruction. As they will be about focusing on bringing up the average for the region as a whole, RDAs will prove largely irrelevant for remoter rural areas.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what Cornwall needs is a devastating voice in Europe to make our case on rural poverty and to attack the problems? If we have a strong development agency that is well staffed, equipped and supported by Government, are we not going to be in a stronger position than we would be with an agency purely for Cornwall?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, with which I strongly disagree, because Cornwall's voice will be lost in this so-called regional development agency.

The political reality that the Government must face up to is that rural poverty has now been proven to be a serious problem which, away from the prosperous suburbs, is set to get worse. Action needs to be taken. I and my colleagues strongly recommend that rural poverty should receive proper recognition in Government policies and programmes; that the proposed social exclusion unit should have a clear rural dimension; that official indicators of poverty must show a greater account of rural circumstances; that the problems of providing services in scattered rural areas are properly recognised in a rural sparsity factor in all local government departments; and that the extra cost of meeting rural housing needs is acknowledged by the Government and the Housing Corporation.

I also support the proposal of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean for a department of rural affairs. The problems that are being experienced by our farmers, especially livestock farmers, should be recognised as a crisis, and not part of long-term restructuring problems in agriculture.

10.25 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) not only on securing the debate, but on covering it so thoroughly in her opening speech—so thoroughly, in fact, that I can throw away about two thirds of what I intended to say.

For about six years, I have represented a rural part of Lancashire. I am aware that, in this part of the world, there is a mind fix that Lancashire is full of cotton mills, with docks at one end and Blackpool tower at the other. In fact, it is largely a rural shire. On a small map, my constituency appears to be sandwiched between Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Preston, but if people live in it—as I have done for 30 years—they realise that it is a huge area of tiny hamlets, larger villages and lousy transport systems.

I want to talk about the problems faced by people who live in that area, and who depend on other people to get about. In particular, I want to concentrate on the plight of many elderly people. A main factor in rural poverty—not just financial, but psychological poverty—is isolation.

When the Conservative Government deregulated bus services in Britain, they dealt many people in the rural population a severe blow. Before deregulation, bus services were skeletal, but they did exist, making it just about possible for people on low incomes to commute to shops, schools, hospitals, leisure facilities or, perhaps most important, work.

After deregulation, many, if not most, of those rural bus services vanished completely, and those that remained became much more expensive. The burden of keeping any of those arteries open was put on local authorities: in my case, Lancashire county council, which struggled valiantly—I was on the relevant committee during that period—to keep some subsidised bus routes running. However, precisely as it was trying to do that, the Conservative Government were busy squeezing the council's budgets harder and harder and making it more and more impossible for it to keep the routes running.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) has said, people became totally dependent on private cars, making multiple journeys every day, and on taxis—rural taxis are something else—which the poorest people in the community cannot afford. They do not have cars, and they cannot afford taxis.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the diversion from public to private transport is exacerbating rural poverty? People who most need to get to their perhaps poorly paid jobs are having to depend on cars, which they can ill afford.

That is true. Elderly people in particular, who are unable to walk easily, cannot get even to what facilities there are in rural communities. It is an important point, which the Government have to address.

My local council, under both Tory and Labour control, has a wonderful record of building sheltered accommodation in small rural communities, so that elderly people, when they retire, can stay in the communities where they have lived and worked all their life, but the collapse of the rural transport system has effectively isolated many of those people, many of them retired farm workers on pitiful pensions, who cannot afford to run cars. I know more than a few who, as a result, have moved from the communities and tiny villages where they have lived all their lives to market towns such as Ormskirk, simply to escape the isolation of those rural communities. They then find themselves isolated in an urban community, but at least the clinic and their general practitioner are around the corner.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although some people cannot afford cars, they often have to run one because it is essential to do so, even though it can be to the detriment of other aspects of their lives because they then have less to spend on clothing or food? In some ways, the tax system is also prejudiced against those people. They can afford to tax their cars for only six months at a time, but that method costs £15 more a year than taxing it for the full 12 months in one go. Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer could consider that matter, as life for some people in rural communities would be difficult, if not impossible, without a car.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. When one sees some of the cars that are miraculously kept on the road in rural areas, one has to wonder about their safety. However, it is true that many people make incredible sacrifices simply to keep themselves mobile.

As village shops, sub-post offices and even rural pubs began to close in my area, it became clear that people who live in rural areas and who are poor pay more for everything, from groceries to furnishings, than those who are not poor. They pay more because they cannot get to the supermarket in the town. Just as important, their choice is cruelly circumscribed when compared to that available to people on the same income who happen to live in even a modest-sized town.

My constituency is served, and used to be well served, by two cross-country rail lines with 10 rural stations. One might think that that was a good network but, during the Tory years, it was steadily run down. The services became less frequent—dramatically so in some cases. It was decided that many of the services would omit every other station or miss out two stations, thus making them less useful. The unreliability of the rail service has come to have serious consequences for workers. People who have jobs in Wigan, Southport, Preston or Liverpool find that their service is late perhaps three times a week, and they are sacked. That happens regularly.

Two stations in my constituency are wholly inaccessible to anyone who is not fully fit. Burscough Bridge station, for example, has a platform so low that an elderly person could not get onto the train.

When the jobseeker's allowance was introduced by the previous Administration, it highlighted the problem caused by the lack of public transport. People in Gloucestershire who had to sign on in person found it very difficult to do so, because they had trouble getting to a particular place at a particular time. The county council's public transport unit had some heart-rending calls from people who had to sign on at 10 am on Wednesday but who were told that the first bus was on Thursday. How were they supposed to sign on? That is the sort of problem facing people in rural areas.

That is absolutely true. To add insult to injury, the person going to sign on could be paying £3 out of his dole just to get to the office to be able to sign on. Virtually everything that the previous Government did in the past few years hit the rural poor harder than it hit anyone else. I would like to think that they did not quite understand what they were doing. In my view, it was a serious social crime for an effective, if sparse, public transport system to have been sabotaged by the previous Government in recent decades. Fundamentally, the Government did not believe in or understand public transport.

In my area, it is two Labour authorities—Lancashire county council and West Lancashire district council—which have struggled to patch up the mess, with an expanding system of dial-a-ride and community car schemes and some subsidised bus services. Although I admire those services and the work that goes into them, and they are useful, it is a hotch-potch of a system. It certainly cannot cover the area satisfactorily, and does not replace the full public transport system that we had.

I do not want to talk only about the problems facing the elderly in rural communities. The lack of public transport is also a problem for schoolchildren. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean has already dealt with that point, so I will not go over it again.

Teenagers who do not come from well-to-do families and who do not have the money to hire taxis or own cars have difficulty getting into town for even basic leisure facilities. This is leading, certainly in my area, to the problems that we usually associate with teenagers on urban estates. In one case, a community that comprises only 40 people has still managed to manufacture its own little gang.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the first victims of the shortage of local government finance is all too often the youth service? Does he further agree that, in many county areas, we desperately need a proper comprehensive review of the standard spending assessment system, so that we can deliver essential services to people in rural communities, not least to the young people on whom we depend for our future?

We do indeed need a comprehensive review of the SSA system with that in mind. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, all the indicators of poverty need revision, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), will have something to say about that.

We said at the time that the right-to-buy housing policy introduced by the Conservatives would have a catastrophic effect in rural areas, and it did. By the time that the former Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), woke up to that fact, it was too late—the council properties in rural areas had all gone. Most of them were attractive properties; some were extended, and were then sold on to second owners.

The integration of the transport system, which the Government are proposing and on which they are consulting, is absolutely crucial, but we must not forget that we are talking about two countrysides. The first is populated by affluent people, often off-comers and people who escaped, in my case from Merseyside. Sometimes, these people managed to dodge the planning system and build a nice house, or had the money to buy one.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that an integrated transport policy should include an increase of 20p on a gallon of petrol?

Personally, I think that the tax on petrol is probably where it should be. I should prefer the car tax to be removed and put on petrol, but a lot of thought is going into how we can protect people in rural areas who need cars from an increase in the price of petrol. So far, every suggested solution, such as special registration, is too easy to dodge and fiddle. I do not know what the answer is.

As I was saying, there is the countryside of the affluent but, alongside that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, there is the countryside where people are living in the direst poverty. The contrast between the two is just as stark as it is in the cities.

I always compare poverty in rural areas with the gulag archipelago—poverty is scattered throughout the communities, and, because hundreds of people are not clustered together, it is not noticed. However, when one canvasses in rural areas, as we do all the time, it is noticeable. Every 10th or 15th house suffers poverty as dire as one might find on estates in Manchester or anywhere else.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean on one point. She said that we must ensure equity of provision of services for the countryside. I do not think that that is ever going to be possible. We could never provide for the rural areas all the facilities that are available to people in large concentrations in the urban areas. People in reasonably well-off households swap that inconvenience for the great benefits of clean air, quiet, a pleasant landscape and so on. They do a deal.

My concern is that the poor households often enjoy neither the benefits of rural life, because they are cramped by isolation and poverty, nor any of the conveniences of urban life which, at least from time to time, make the urban poor's life worth living. Rural poverty is a serious problem, to which there are no easy answers—its solution requires a holistic approach across every Government Department.

10.39 am

As the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) spoke for 15 minutes and time is short, I hope that hon. Members will understand if I do not give way or comment on the speeches that have been made—or even the excellent choice of debate of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ).

As a social worker and former youth leader, and during the nine years that I represented Liverpool, Wavertree, I dealt with grinding poverty and widespread social deprivation. Those problems—represented by decaying tower blocks, graffiti and boarded-up shops—are often viewed as belonging exclusively to the inner city. However, there are many similar problems in the constituency that I now represent, which is 301 miles away in rural south Devon. Certainly there are no tower blocks in the area's idyllic setting, but single mothers, the handicapped and those unable to find work face the same problems as their counterparts in the city.

The principal difference between poverty in the inner cities and in the rural communities is a matter not so much of intensity as of concentration. In many inner-city streets, the majority of people have no job, poor housing and are dependent on benefits. In rural areas, poverty may not be so concentrated, and the beauty of the landscape may mask the problems, but the problems exist none the less.

In cities, a variety of employers offer a diversity of opportunities for people with different skills, whereas, in the countryside, employment is principally agriculture-related. There are many threats to the rural way of life and standard of living, but none is more acute than the crisis in British farming. The proposed enlargement of the European Union to include the agriculturally dependent economies of central Europe will inevitably reduce EU support to British farmers, and the UK will probably be flooded with cheap imported food, which will put further pressures on British agriculture.

The Government's attitude to the rural economy seems at best unsympathetic, and at worst indifferent. That view is illustrated by the recent rate support grant settlements, in which rural England is disadvantaged in comparison with urban areas.

I shall not give way.

The Government's attitude can perhaps be explained by the fact that the majority of their support comes from predominantly urban areas. [Interruption.] Their support also comes from a few rural areas.

I accept that a few Conservative Members are missing today.

Farmers are at the epicentre of everything that happens in the countryside; they are the custodians of the landscape, the major employers, contractors and customers for rural businesses. Without agriculture, the countryside does not work. We must consider the Government's policy on agriculture against that background, and the wider goal of reducing poverty in rural England.

Although the Government have offered farmers £85 million compensation from European funds, they have taken away £129 million in cuts to the much-needed over-30-months scheme, in extra charges for cattle passports and in payments for the Meat Hygiene Service. They have refused to use the underspend on sheep premium and set-aside to aid the lowland beef producer, the dairy farmer or the hill farmer, who are all being squeezed by the strength of the pound.

Those policies are having a detrimental effect on agriculture, which is why so many farmers have been driven to protest outside Parliament and elsewhere—I have joined them on the docks and ports. Farmers do not ask for Government or European handouts; they want the proverbial level playing field and adequate Government support to enable British agriculture to overcome its current difficulties.

The effect of the Government's lack of interest is serious enough in relation to agriculture, but it goes much wider than that. If a farmer goes bankrupt, the effect on the rural community will be dramatic. It is important that clearing banks are mindful of the difficulties that farmers from all sectors face, and that they provide them with sufficient support to weather the current situation.

Dozens of farmers in my constituency have been forced to lay off temporary milkers or cancel contracts with local builders. The builders are then forced to lay off staff, who in turn spend less on fuel and at the village shop.

In south Devon, tourism plays a major role in the local economy. Indeed, many farmers can make both ends meet only by offering bed and breakfast—if they did not, they would not survive. Farming is not about bed and breakfast, however. If the farming community can no longer afford to look after the fields, the hedgerows and the trees, there will be no bed and breakfast, as there will be much less to attract tourists. Without farmers, tourism could go into serious decline, and another major source of rural employment would dry up.

Many people think that poverty is an inner-city phenomenon; they do not believe that it can exist among green fields and countryside. If people are prisoners in their council houses because they cannot afford private transport and public transport is infrequent and expensive, they are locked into a situation every bit as bad as that facing people in the inner city. It makes little difference whether one is in Toxteth or Lee Moor when one is suffering from loneliness, depression and poor housing.

Throughout the world, when people cannot find work—or when available employment does not pay—they flock to the towns from the countryside. In many developing countries, that has resulted in massive overpopulation in the cities and a neglect of the land. Global institutions are constantly trying to persuade people to move back to the countryside, to repopulate rural areas and work in agriculture. In Europe, the migration to the cities mainly stopped after the war. In Britain, farmers have traditionally preserved the countryside, where they have created employment and sustained and improved the rural way of life.

People living in the countryside are now at a watershed. It is up to the Government to prevent a new underclass of the rural poor drifting into the cities and causing untold problems for the authorities, in housing and employment; they must prevent the rapid decline of the countryside through lack of investment and people. A modest commitment now will ensure the survival of British agriculture and the vitality of the rural economy.

10.46 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for his contribution. I shall attempt to keep my comments as brief as possible, as there was an agreement on the duration of speeches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on choosing this important subject for debate, which is of great concern to many people, especially in the countryside.

Conservative Members recognise the importance of what the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, but, like other Labour Members, she should look not just to the past, but to the future. She should try to find solutions and consider whether the Government's proposals for the countryside would improve the situation that she so eloquently described.

The previous Conservative Government introduced a number of measures to help the countryside—unfortunately, I do not have time to list them now.

I really cannot, with all due respect.

The most important measure introduced by the Conservative Government was the introduction of discretionary rate relief for rural shops and businesses, including pubs, which are still very much at the heart of village life. Other measures included the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995, which simplified the legal framework for rented land.

In the couple of minutes left to me, I want to stress our concern about the Government's proposal to create regional development agencies. Obviously, Labour Members whole-heartedly support the proposal, but the Opposition fundamentally disagree with it—we especially deplore the abolition of the Rural Development Commission, to which the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) referred. The fact that the commission's chairman resigned solely because he believed that the abolition of that body and the establishment of RDAs was a threat to the countryside says everything about the Government's proposal.

If Labour Members are not concerned about the abolition of the Rural Development Commission, they ought to consider the solutions that the Government are proposing for the countryside. The Government have said that the social exclusion unit should have a rural strand to its work, but, at the moment, the unit is concentrating almost exclusively on urban areas. They have said that official indicators of deprivation and resource allocation systems such as the index of local conditions should be improved to take more account of rural conditions. I could list many such points that favour the countryside—but they will all go when the commission is abolished. Regional development agencies cannot provide the same functions.

Cornwall and Devon have been mentioned in the debate. We talk about the south-west as a region. One would think that the south-west was an identifiable region more than most, yet there is immense rivalry between Devon and Cornwall, and perceived distinct and definite needs. A single regional development agency for both counties will not be able to provide for their needs. It will lead to conflict between one urban area and another, and between urban areas and the countryside. That is not the answer for the countryside.

I wish that I had more time to make more points, but I want to be fair to the Minister.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Angela Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on raising this important issue. The subject should concern us all. I was pleased to hear the range of views expressed, especially by my hon. Friends, who prove that Labour is now the party of the countryside. They bring insight and passion to their advocacy for the countryside, as well as great experience of the particular difficulties suffered by those living in rural poverty.

The Government firmly believe in opportunity, fairness and prosperity for all. That applies equally to all our citizens, whether they live in the city or the country. Rural areas, where many live and work, are a key part of the national economy. Our countryside must be a living one. We are committed to addressing its problems as much as we are those anywhere else. At the same time, we recognise the distinctive needs of all people in rural areas.

Today's debate has been particularly illustrative. We heard three speeches by Conservative Members. The first was by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who, sadly, is not in his place. He talked about farming. The second was by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who also talked about farming, and said that Labour Members mainly come from urban areas. Anyone who had listened to today's debate would know that that is not true. If the hon. Gentleman considers who initiated the debate and who has contributed to it, he will have to admit that my hon. Friends are from rural areas, and do a good job representing them.

I was attracted to the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea about organic farming. The Government are looking very closely at that. I am a particular fan of farmers' markets. We need far more of them. I know that my colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture are considering what they can do to encourage such markets.

When we consider rural poverty, we must recognise the legacy left by the previous Administration. I am always ready to give them credit where credit is due, as Opposition Members know.

Well, occasionally.

The legacy has had a particular impact on rural areas. Hon. Members were right to emphasise transport issues. Poverty was bequeathed to us by the previous Government. We have inherited a situation in which one in four pensioners and one in four children are in families dependent on income support. The percentage of the population with household incomes below half the average more than doubled between 1979 and 1994–5. The number of children living in households with below average income increased from 1 million in 1979 to 2.6 million—before housing costs are taken into account.

Distribution of employment is also important. One in five households with adults of working age are without work. That is a terrible waste of one of our most important resources. We are determined to tackle this legacy by helping young people, lone parents, long-term unemployed people and sick and disabled people—where that is appropriate—back into work, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas. We have set up the social exclusion unit specifically to co-ordinate activity in that area across government.

I do not want to give way, because I have a very short time in which to respond to the debate.

Inaccessibility and sparsity play a major part in exacerbating problems of the rural poor, such as unemployment and lack of services. Many rural areas are poorly served by major transport routes—a problem in attracting and retaining businesses and services. Many rural settlements are scattered and remote, making the provision of services more difficult and expensive. The scattered nature of rural communities can add to a sense of isolation, especially among the poorest members of society.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, it is a sad fact that much of the deprivation in rural areas goes unnoticed. We need to challenge the perception that rural areas are universally prosperous. Relatively wealthy rural areas can mask small pockets of deprivation—in some cases, just one or two families or a few poor elderly people. Problems of unemployment and lack of services in rural areas lead to younger people moving away, resulting in a larger percentage of elderly people in some rural communities compared with non-rural areas. Many such older people are alone and living on the margins of poverty.

In recognition of the hidden nature of rural poverty, work has been commissioned from a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge to review potential indicators of rural disadvantage, which can be helpful in the development of rural policy. One idea that the team has come up with is that key indicators are bundled together to identify specific aspects of rural poverty and deprivation. We shall be considering how its findings can be used when the final report is available. We want to tackle the issue of deprivation indicators so that they reveal more of what is going on in our rural communities.

Many of the initiatives that we are developing are being specifically tailored to meet the needs of rural areas. Welfare to work is an essential element of our integrated approach. Our new deal for young unemployed people emphasises high-quality options, all including education or training designed to reach accredited qualifications. The new deal for 18 to 24-year-olds began in 12 pathfinder areas in Britain on 5 January, and will be introduced nationally in April. The pathfinder areas have been selected to reflect a range of social and economic areas, including rural areas.

We intend to design and deliver the new deal in a way that is sensitive to rural circumstances, the needs of rural businesses and communities and unemployed young people living in rural areas. I thank the Rural Development Commission and local authorities that have made an important contribution to the debate and enhanced our understanding of how we can deliver the new deal in rural areas.

Low pay continues to be a particular problem in rural areas. A central plank of our plans to alleviate poverty is the introduction of the national minimum wage. It will aim to make work worth while for people who are stuck on benefits. The United Kingdom is the only modern industrialised country without some form of minimum-wage-fixing machinery. The minimum wage will provide a statutory level below which pay should not fall, and help to remove the worst excesses of low pay and exploitation of those at work. It will be a single national rate, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean pointed out, will be of particular assistance in some rural areas.

Regional rates raise a number of serious difficulties, such as effects at the boundaries of regions, and where those boundaries are. Regional concerns were taken into account during the independent Low Pay Commission's regional visits. The commission is consulting widely with employers, employees and other interested organisations and individuals, and will make its recommendations to the Government by May 1998.

In the short time left to me, I want to say something about rural transport. As I have said, many of the problems of rural areas are exacerbated by inaccessibility and remoteness. Many people in rural areas are unable to drive, either because they cannot afford to do so or because of age or disability. They are likely to find their access to services and employment opportunities severely limited as a result. Better public transport services are vital, so that people can have real choice over how they travel, and need not be so dependent on the private car.

The rural dimension of transport and accessibility issues is being addressed in our continuing review of transport policy. The Government are considering the action necessary to deliver integrated transport systems to meet the differing needs of all parts of the country.

The Tory legacy has been especially damaging in that respect—the deregulation of buses and the total disappearance of services in many rural areas, as well as the decimation of rail services. We must tackle those issues if we are to tackle rural poverty through its causes, and that will give people access to services and the ability to travel to and from work.

Middle East Peace Process

10.59 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important matter—a debate that takes place at a time and against a backdrop about as sombre as it would be possible to imagine. It is clear that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction remain a quantifiable and lethal threat to the stability and security of the region, and it is essential that Saddam Hussein be made to meet the obligations of unconditional and unrestricted access demanded by the United Nations resolutions. Her Majesty's Government are rightly determined, as were their predecessors, to secure his full compliance—it is to be hoped, by diplomatic rather than by military means.

However, it seems to many of us that the virtual stalling of the middle east peace process represents a thoroughly unhappy and potentially dangerous state of affairs, which also has profound consequences for British strategic and other interests.

The Foreign Secretary is leaving today for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. He, like the American Secretary of State, will find his dialogue with both the Saudis and the Kuwaitis to be courteous and correct, but wholly unenthusiastic. It is a matter for shame and regret that the Foreign Secretary, now eight months into his office, should be so late in visiting our Arab friends. That shows, again, his remarkable lack of judgment about priorities, as Britain's interests in the middle east should, without question, remain at the forefront of any Foreign Secretary's business.

As we approach, in May, the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the state of Israel, I welcome the chance at such an opportune moment—as the middle east approaches what could possibly be a profound climacteric—to re-focus on the outstanding and unresolved questions of Palestinian self-determination and Israeli-occupied Arab land, which are at the heart of the middle east conflict.

I hope that during the debate, we shall remind ourselves of the original principles and aims of the middle east peace process started in Madrid in 1991, and that we shall examine both why so many people in the middle east, both Arabs and Israelis, have lost faith in it, and what must be done to restore confidence and progress.

In this anniversary year of the state of Israel, it is right and proper that we in the British Parliament should remember what the events of 1948 meant to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled, who were forced into permanent exile from their homes in the newly established Jewish state and who, to this day, are unable to return to the places of their birth. The Arabic word for what happened in 1948 is "al-Nakba"—the catastrophe.

The results of that today are that three quarters of the Palestinian population is forced to live outside the country, with no right of return, and the Palestinian people who live in the west bank and Gaza are deprived of many of their most fundamental civil and political rights. They still have not achieved their goal of self-determination, which is enshrined in the United Nations charter of 1945. We should remember that the events of 1948 meant that the Palestinian people became the largest refugee population in the world, with the most horrendous and tragic consequences for them.

I should remind the House of the principles on which the peace process in Madrid in 1991, and then the agreement in Oslo in 1993, were based. In the lengthy and complicated diplomatic negotiations that led to the convening of the Madrid conference, the more reluctant Arab countries were persuaded to participate only when they had received cast-iron assurances from the co-sponsors that the negotiations would be based on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338—that is to say, land for peace.

In the letter of assurance from the United States Administration to the Palestinian deputation in October 1991, it was set down that
"the US continues to believe firmly that a comprehensive peace must be grounded in UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. Such an outcome must also provide security and recognition for all states in the region, including Israel, and for the legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people."
The same is true of the Oslo agreement of 1993, which despite widespread concern about the way in which the settlement was to be reached, was broadly accepted in the middle east because it was based on the relevant Security Council resolutions. The preamble to the declaration of principles of September 1993 reads:
"The aim of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations within the current Middle East peace process is … to establish a Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority … Leading to a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338."
In other words, people were willing to be patient in the belief that trust could, incrementally over a period, be built up—so long as the process worked towards the return of occupied Arab land, including southern Lebanon and the Golan heights, an end to military occupation of the west bank and Gaza, and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people.

The result of that process, and the reality at the beginning of 1998, is very different. Five years on from the 1993 Oslo agreement, Israeli troops have fully redeployed from only 3 to 4 per cent. of the west bank and from 60 per cent. of the Gaza strip. East Jerusalem has been fully encircled by wholly illegal settlements, and movement within the occupied territories is more restricted than it ever was before the peace process began. Palestinian living standards have plummeted, and plans to increase the settler population in the west bank continue to flow from the Israeli Ministry of Housing.

Since the election of the Likud Government and the adoption of anti-Oslo policies, relations with neighbouring states have again soured, to the great detriment of peace and stability in the middle east. War continues in southern Lebanon, and the Israeli Prime Minister shows no interest in pursuing negotiations with Syria—and, if the truth were told, no interest in seriously pursuing the middle east peace process at all.

According to the Oslo timetable, full redeployment of Israeli troops from the occupied territories was supposed to have been completed by mid-1998. Yet in meetings with Netanyahu last week, the Administration seemed unable—indeed, unwilling—to try to persuade the Israeli Prime Minister away from his hard-line refusal even to contemplate a second redeployment plan on a scale that might restore some confidence in the peace process. In truth, the Americans simply bottled out yet again.

When we remember that the Palestine National Authority had envisaged a second redeployment which would leave it with 60 per cent. control of the west bank and Gaza, the 9.5 per cent. offered by Israel is seen, rightly, as derisory. President Clinton seemed to water down the Oslo formula still further by suggesting that a way out of the impasse would be to break down the 9.5 per cent. into three separate phases of redeployment, and even then only after the PNA had taken unspecified security measures as a prerequisite.

Through sheer fecklessness—and, in the case of America, a total lack of will to take on the Zionist lobby—the middle east peace process has been allowed to drift away from its firm moorings in international law and from the principles of the Oslo agreement. That situation is once again being thrown into sharp relief as the Secretary of State rallies support for the implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 687, on Iraq.

It is not lost on Arab public opinion—our friends in the middle east—that, under the same United States Administration, the Americans have vetoed three of the eight resolutions that have come before the Security Council criticising Israeli breaches of international humanitarian law.

The comparisons that are being drawn between the response of powerful western members of the Security Council to Iraq's flouting of the UN authority and UNSCOM, and to Israel's long-standing occupation of the occupied territories and gross breach of UN resolutions, have, not surprisingly, gravely damaged the credibility of United States and European policy both towards the peace process and in the middle east more generally.

The hon. Gentleman is implying that there is some equivalence between the Israeli and Iraqi Governments. Can he tell me when Saddam Hussein was last elected?

I am drawing no such comparison. The Israeli Government are democratically elected, whereas Saddam Hussein is the 1998 equivalent of Hitler. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that UN Security Council resolutions, passed in good faith, signed up to by world opinion and valid under international law, are treated totally differently in the two countries.

It is clear from Prime Minister Netanyahu's defiant resistance to calls for the fulfilment of commitments made under the Oslo accords that the only strong message coming through is that Israel will not incur any penalties for acting outside the law. This selective application of the standards of international law continues to provoke considerable anti-western feeling in the Arab world, and has done a very great deal to devalue the authority of the UN in the middle east.

One of the most glaring examples in respect of the middle east peace process is Israel's persistent, wilful and illegal defiance of international humanitarian law in respect of settlement building. The basis of the Oslo accord was land for peace yet, in a complete negation of the peace process, the Netanyahu Government continue to steal more Palestinian land. Their behaviour is monstrous and amounts to a high political crime. No other country would have been allowed to behave in such a manner. Israel needs to be far more vigorously and robustly reminded of its legal and, as yet, unfulfilled obligations.

Immediately after his election in 1996, Netanyahu published his Government guidelines, which made it clear that the new Government would continue—and, indeed, accelerate—settlement building in all parts of the occupied territories, and particularly east Jerusalem. Despite repeated US calls for a time out on settlement building, it has continued.

In recent weeks, there have been reports that the Israeli Ministry of Housing plans to sell 138,000 housing units to the occupied territories in 1998–99, 11,000 of which are to be built in east Jerusalem. The reports suggest that all the infrastructure work has been completed at the settlement at Har Homa which, it will be remembered, was the project that provoked the crisis that led to the past 12 months of stagnation in the peace negotiations.

There has, in truth, never been a settlement freeze or slow-down. It is to be assumed, not just by local Palestinians, that at some point—in the interests of the peace process—settlement building will have to stop. There is no sign of that happening. That is a catastrophic and wholly unacceptable state of affairs.

I was one of the official observers of the Palestinian elections two years ago—a period of great hope—and I saw some of the settlements. Does the hon. Gentleman agree not only that they are illegal and provocative, but that they are being built on the tops of hills, destroying some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in a long time? They are also awful architecturally.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The settlements represent not only a moral and political crime, but a high aesthetic crime, and are therefore trebly to be condemned.

It seems that the middle east peace process is in grave danger of losing its way. Certainly, those who are working for a genuine and just peace in the region are not being given the support they deserve by the international community. What better time for us to re-evaluate the European role in the middle east peace process than now, when Britain holds the presidency?

In 1980, the Venice declaration settled the basis for a European approach to a settlement in the middle east by recognising the Palestinian right to self-determination, and the right to existence and security of the state of Israel. The Venice declaration based itself on Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and EU policy on the middle east has remained consistent—but wholly ineffective—on those positions of high principle.

During the years of the middle east peace process, it has been argued that the situation where the United States is seen to represent Israeli interests and the EU is seen to be overly sympathetic to Arab concerns will provide yet another obstacle to the achievement of a peace settlement. I believe that the problem lies elsewhere. In the year since the signing of the Oslo peace accord, the prevailing notion has been that peace must be negotiated between the parties.

Israel, supported by the US, has sought to move any peace formula away from the restrictions of international law. The argument goes that the restraints placed on the negotiating parties by the standards of international law on issues such as the status of the city of Jerusalem would put unacceptable limits on negotiations in the final status talks. It seems, rather, that the factor currently preventing negotiations at all is the relentless Israeli colonisation of east Jerusalem, and the systematic depopulation of the eastern part of the city of its Arab inhabitants. This role of international law in conflict resolution is to apply legitimate restraints on the power of the occupying nation and to protect the rights of the occupied civilian population, pending a full settlement.

In a recent excellent interview with the Arab newspaper Al Hayat, the Prime Minister reaffirmed the British and European position on settlement building. He said:
"The continued building of new settlements is illegal, and in direct conflict with the principle of land for peace on which the whole peace process is built. It damages the confidence of ordinary Palestinians in the process and undermines Israel's credibility as a negotiating partner."
He went on to confirm the British belief in the principle of land for peace. He said:
"We support a negotiating process based on the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions and the principles laid down at Madrid and Oslo. We believe this process offers the best chance of delivering a just exchange of land for peace and the secure and prosperous future for which the peoples of the region have waited for so long."
I unreservedly welcome those remarks, and I regard them as extremely helpful at a time when the central concept of land for peace and the respect for the rule of law seem to have become lost in a climate of mutual recrimination and political instability.

I also welcome the Prime Minister's remarks later in the interview, when he drew a distinction between the views of the United States and those of Europe on the middle east. One of the central criticisms levelled against European Governments by Arab commentators, rightly, is that European policies in the middle east seem to be so strongly identified with what are—thoroughly correctly—seen as flawed US objectives. I believe that a much more distinct role for the EU in the peace process is what should concern us today.

In recent years—in line with its new and ambitious policy in the Mediterranean region—Europe has looked again at how it might become more actively involved in the politics of the peace settlement. Since the signing of the Oslo agreement, the EU has been the single largest investor in the peace process, pledging a total of 1.68 billion ecu. Europe has also played a leading role in the regional economic development working group in the multilateral negotiations. Disappointingly and worryingly, however, Europe has, yet again, been unable—through a lack of will and leadership—to find a political role commensurate with the financial investment it is making in the peace process. It is therefore in a losing position.

In a report entitled "The role of the European Union in the peace process and its future assistance to the Middle East"—compiled in mid-January by Commissioner Marin, who is responsible for the Mediterranean region—the Commission set out to review EU policy towards the peace process. It states, for instance, that Israeli policies in the occupied territories are responsible for the serious decline in Palestinian living standards.

Between 1993 and 1996, the west bank and Gaza were under military closures for one fifth of all working days. Clearly, this is an issue of grave concern to European Governments, whose aim of boosting the economy to give the Palestinians some stake in the peace process is being thwarted again by these illegal military closures. During the periods of protracted crisis that hit the peace process, the PNA turned to the EU to give emergency assistance to alleviate the budgetary deficit caused by the economic stagnation in the west bank and Gaza. That effectively means that Europe has been subsidising Israeli policies that it regards as illegal and which are clearly preventing any economic progress. That is clearly nonsense.

The report concludes:
"if this situation continues, the European Union should still not evade its responsibilities to keep the peace process alive through its political and economic efforts.
"The EU has reaffirmed its readiness to put all its political weight to the service of safeguarding the security of Israel. The security of the State of Israel and of its citizens is a central piece in the solution of the Middle East conflict. This is one of the reasons for the European support to Palestinian economic development. Contrary to claims that Israel's security demands stiff restrictions on the Palestinian economy, Palestinian economic development will be Israel's best security guarantee, both in the short and the long term.
"The Palestinians must be allowed to exercise their right to economic development. Obstacles to trade and economic activity must be removed."
The EU's current aid programme to the peace process is due to end in 1998. That seems to be an appropriate time to consider a more politically active role for Europe in the peace process, and I welcome the comments in the report confirming the EU's responsibility toward the peace process. However, I believe that the report does not go far enough, because there is no reference to the role of international law, or to the protection of human rights that is an essential element of EU policy toward the middle east.

It was reported last week that, just before Prime Minister Netanyahu's departure for Washington, the Israel Cabinet endorsed maps that identified vital Israeli interests in the west bank, ahead of final status negotiations. It was said that those interests amounted to claims to more than 60 per cent. of the land on the west bank. If that is what is being envisaged by Israel as a formula for a permanent settlement, it is clear that there will be nothing left for us to negotiate. Despair, danger and political and military instability will, once again, overwhelm and drown all the vital efforts for peace.

The right of Israel and its citizens to live within secure borders is a principle that is accepted by all who are genuinely working to promote the peace process. However, all the issues that are proving so damaging to the peace process—settlements, military closures, discriminatory policies against Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem, the repeated closures of the west bank and Gaza and the siege of the Palestinian economy—are fundamental issues of human rights, which are protected under international humanitarian law. The highly regrettable instances of political violence, aimed at derailing the peace negotiations, are, in large part, the result of the despair and loss of hope generated by the lack of political progress. The European Union cannot afford to formulate policy toward the peace process that does not include the essential element—the profound and fundamental element—of respect for human rights.

When he replies, the Minister will have an elegant and beautifully written Foreign Office brief, which will tell us that the Government continue to make robust approaches to Israel in respect of settlements and all other matters. They are not robust enough and, in the period when we hold the EU presidency, we look to the Government to try to reinvigorate the middle east peace process by galvanising support in Europe for a more proactive, energetic, realistic and honourable policy. Quite apart from the terrible events that may be about to unfold in Iraq, there will be no peace in the middle east without a proper, decent and honourable resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The current Government must do what the previous Government should have done but failed to do: they must stop hiding behind the Americans' coat tails and produce a more vigorous and robust European policy. I urge the Government to stop wringing their hands, and to do something about this appalling and wholly unacceptable situation.

11.23 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing this debate. I did not fully recognise his description at the beginning of his speech of the actions of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in respect of the middle east; but, that said, he made some telling and timely comments about a tragedy that has gone on too long and needs to be dealt with.

This year sees the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel, which was the realisation of a dream held by the Zionist movement since the latter years of the 19th century—indeed, its spiritual significance goes back much further. Set against the appalling suffering during the Nazi holocaust, the quest for a Jewish national home acquired far greater significance, but, although 1948 saw the birth of a state looking to the future, it also witnessed the start of yet another tragedy—the tragedy of the Palestinian people, which was rightly emphasised by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex. As one people gained a homeland, another people lost one. That tragedy has not been adequately addressed to this day.

In a real sense, those 50th anniversary celebrations could be made far more celebratory if they marked the bringing to an end of the middle east, conflict and the tackling of issues that have been left unattended for so long. It is not long—only two or three years—since that seemed possible. The Oslo framework and the declaration of principles in 1993 were a breakthrough in terms of the political situation in the middle east, and they were founded on the principle of land for peace. Israel was offered the opportunity to have security and to live within secure and recognised borders and the Palestinians were offered recognition, at long last, of their right to nationhood. Both sides were to engage in confidence-building measures that would allow progress towards addressing the more difficult issues, such as Jerusalem.

We could be optimistic in 1993, but we have to be more pessimistic today. As the Prime Minister of Israel constantly reminds us, terrorism has not been removed from the agenda. Israel is right to seek security, but we have to address to it the question it will have to face up to sooner or later: where does security come from? In a speech in Washington on 28 November, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) quoted words that say far more than any of us in this Chamber can say. The words were spoken by the mother of an Israeli teenager who was killed by a terrorist bomb last July. She said:
"When you put people under a border closure, when you humiliate, starve and suppress them, when you raze their villages and demolish houses, when they grow up in garbage and holding pens, that's what happens."
Those words were spoken not by a politician, but by someone who has experienced the reality of violence and terrorism in the middle east. It is by removing those causes of violence that we will find real peace in the middle east.

Instead, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex graphically described, illegal settlement building continues and Palestinians who have lived all their lives in east Jerusalem have to prove, on the most spurious of grounds, their right to remain in the city of their birth. Despite the aid given to the Palestine National Authority—including nearly 2 billion ecu of European aid—the living standards of Palestinians in Gaza have dropped by 30 per cent.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Marin memorandum, because that memorandum, which was published in January, points out significant ways in which European policy in the middle east can go forward. It also makes telling comments about the limits to what can be achieved by European aid and international aid in general to Palestine and the National Authority unless the crucial questions surrounding the peace process and issues of human rights are tackled.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex referred to the effect of closures in the west bank and the Gaza strip. The Marin memorandum has the following to say on the subject:
"Each terrorist attack has automatically been followed by tight and prolonged closures of the West Bank and Gaza Strip which are described by Israel as security measures but perceived as collective punishment by the Palestinian population. For the period 1993–1996, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under closure over one fifth (21 per cent.) of the effective working days: 233 effective closure days of the 1,108 potential working days. The situation has caused a severe Palestinian economic decline. So severe that it has far more than invalidated the international donors' efforts."
That puts the point well: we must remove the causes of the problems and break through the impasse in the peace process. International aid cannot be a substitute for the peace process; it can only complement it.

The Marin memorandum illustrates that, while the United States' policy will inevitably remain pivotal in brokering a settlement in the middle east, the European Union can and should play a much more dynamic role than it has in the past. We discussed in the House last year the association agreement between Israel and the EU; that agreement and various other relevant documents contain human rights clauses. We have a right to ask how far they are being monitored and being put into effect.

I welcome the clear statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that settlement building is illegal. Many statements have been made, both by the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, to the effect that the interim agreements need to be implemented. The Oslo framework, although vague in many areas, was not vague on timetables or on the interim talks and interim agreements. Those timetables have not been followed.

It is right that the international community should make it fairly clear to the Netanyahu Government that we expect the interim agreements to be followed, we expect the redeployment of Israeli troops to take place and we expect that redeployment to be meaningful, real and substantial. Talking about the figure of 9 per cent. does nothing to advance the peace process. Those redeployments have to be substantial if they are to contribute to peace.

This is the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. It is a time when people will inevitably look back, but it is important that when we look back, and when the Israelis and Palestinians look back, it is not in a spirit of blame, but in a spirit of understanding—understanding that can guide us where we go from here. As Israel does that, it should understand the need for Palestinian national rights to be recognised today. It should understand the importance of bringing an end to settlement building and collective punishment.

Israel must understand that, for Palestinians, whether they live in the occupied territories or outside, the memories and realities of Deir Yassin, Tel-al'Zataar, Sabra and Shatilla are as graphic and as strongly felt as Israeli memories of Mahalot, Kiriat Shimona and the Jerusalem bombings. When Israel and the Israeli Government understand that, the inevitable conclusion will be that the Oslo process, which was started so bravely not so many years ago, needs to be given added emphasis. The ball is firmly in the court of the Israeli Government. They could implement the interim agreements, move to final status talks as soon as they can and tackle the problem that has been, and will remain, the cornerstone of the middle east problem until it is sorted out: Palestinian rights.

11.33 am

I join in the congratulations of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing this timely debate on an important subject. I congratulate him on taking us on an authoritative gallop through the relevant parts of international law and international history.

I know that my hon. Friend, who is a fair-minded person, knows that I could equally well select other aspects of international law or international history. Those aspects could include the hostility of the Arab states to Israel, the acts of terrorism against Israel and the attempts to partition Palestine and divide it between the Palestinians and the Israelis, going back not just to the beginning of the founding of the state of Israel, but to the inter-war period and the Balfour declaration. However, there is not much point in doing that.

Although my hon. Friend's sympathies have a different starting point from mine, I think that we arrive at the same conclusion: the need for firm, robust and unflinching support for the peace process. In today's world, that is the only way forward and the only way that peace will be achieved. I accept that these are difficult times for the peace process, for a number of reasons.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned Israel's democratic credentials. We would all do well to remember—including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden), when he speaks about the Israeli Government and what they should do—that Israel is a democracy. However controversial its leadership or its policies may be, we must face the fact that its leadership is elected by the people of Israel. We must keep that fact at the forefront of our minds as we consider this subject.

In his opening speech, my hon. Friend dwelt extensively on one aspect of the peace process formula: justice for the Palestinian people. It was entirely fair of him to do so, and that issue must also be kept at the forefront of our minds. It is understandable that my hon. Friend did not touch as much on the other part of the peace formula, which is supported by this Government as it was by the previous Government: security for the people of Israel. We must address that subject.

I am under no illusions: there is huge support for peace in Israel, but there is also an understandable demand for security. When the security considerations have been properly addressed, the prospects for peace will be that much better, but the people of Israel want security. It would be deeply unrealistic of us not to expect Israeli public opinion to be affected by bombs on buses, bombs in crowded shopping centres and incidents such as that at Kiriat Shemona, which the hon. Member for Northfield mentioned. When Israel embarks on a peace process, extends the hand of friendship and shows a willingness to make concessions, it would be deeply unrealistic not to expect Israeli public opinion to be affected when the bombs continue.

I respectfully disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex when he says that the political violence, as he described it, was born out of frustration at the lack of progress. I do not think that it was born out of frustration at the lack of progress; I think that the intention was to derail the progress that was being made. The violence was carried out by deluded people with wicked masters and their objective was to derail the peace process. The purpose of our diplomacy and of the European Union and the United States is to seek to overcome the obstacles that those people are putting in the way of the peace process through their violence.

My hon. Friend made certain requests of the Minister of State; I shall make some others. I want the Government to consider the security component of the peace process formula. When the Minister of State speaks to the Palestinians and other Arab leaders—I know that he already has—will he emphasise the need to address the subject of Israel's legitimate security concerns? Will he ensure that a firm and consistent message of support for peace and the right of Israel to exist comes from the Palestinian leadership—Chairman Arafat and the Palestine National Authority?

I know that the Minister of State has been discussing certain articles of the Palestinian national covenant with the Palestinian leadership and has sought clarification about what has been repealed. I know that the Minister has been asking for a list; it would be helpful if he could tell us a bit about it and give us definite information that certain articles have been repealed.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are limitations, as the Government have found in Northern Ireland, to any state's ability to stop the determined terrorist? Does he further accept that to some extent the Israeli Government are demanding of the Palestine National Authority that they follow what has been called the Algerian route? The route that the Algerian Government have taken to try to deal with terrorism has proved counter-productive, yet the Israeli Government are suggesting that the Palestine National Authority take precisely such extreme measures, although they have proved ineffective in other places and have simply stoked up a violent situation. The Israeli Government must recognise that security comes from—

Order. This is a very brief debate and that is a very long intervention.

I am not sure that I would recommend anyone to go down the Algerian route, but credit where credit is due—the Palestine National Authority have taken some actions recently that are consistent with taking on the forces of terrorism. I should like them to do far more, and to do it conspicuously, with a background of a consistent message in favour of peace, in favour of the right of Israel to exist and against terrorism. The overall answer to the hon. Lady is that we need to build up the confidence of the Israeli people about their security and the good faith of those with whom they are negotiating.

May I ask the Minister to take up one other small point, which I know he has taken up—to his credit? He knows that Israeli public opinion takes a close interest in the fate of missing Israeli service men. So do many people in this country, including some of my constituents, who have written to me. I was grateful for the reply that the Minister gave to a letter from one of my young constituents from Borehamwood, saying that he had not forgotten the Israeli service men, that he was continuing to take up their case, and that he had recently met the families of Ron Arad and Zachary Baumel. I congratulate the Minister on taking that interest and I hope that he will take it further, as it is another factor that will help to build up the confidence of the Israeli people.

What about the role of Europe, which my hon. Friend mentioned? I disagree with him slightly on that. I think that the role of Europe should complement that of the United States. Any objective observer would have to agree that the United States is making vigorous efforts to procure peace in the middle east, against a difficult background. It should be the role of Europe to support those efforts. I hope, that in our presidency of the EU, we will focus on making the efforts of Europe complement those of the US.

I strongly support European economic assistance to the region, particularly to the Palestinians. My hon. Friend made an entirely fair point about the need to improve the standard of living of the Palestinians and to give them a greater interest in the success of the peace process. That is a legitimate objective, and I am happy with Europe pursuing it. I am slightly less happy with a more advanced foreign policy on the part of Europe, given current European political structures. I have reservations on various grounds about Europe pursuing that role. Notwithstanding those hesitations, I urge the Minister to give consideration to what Europe can do to get the multilateral track of the peace process going. I know that that is a difficult issue.

These are difficult times. We have different sympathies and different interpretations of the history of the region. Everyone present in the Chamber may have a different interpretation of recent middle eastern history, but perhaps we can all join in giving support on a bipartisan basis to the peace process, being realistic about it, not expecting dramatic progress—far from it—but maintaining consistent and unflinching support for that process, however difficult it may be, and trying to understand the problems and concerns of both sides and to build their confidence in the peace process. It is well worth making European support for the peace process at this difficult time one of the main objectives of our EU presidency.

11.43 am

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). His comments will be warmly welcomed by many people in this country and abroad.

The middle east is, of course, much wider than the focus of our debate. It is important to put the issue in context. There is an Israel-Syria track to the negotiations and there are the unresolved problems of the internal politics of Lebanon. Recent events there could signify the beginnings of a resumption of the tragic civil war that caused so many problems to the people of Lebanon.

Apart from Israel and the Palestine National Authority, no states in the region conduct democratic elections in the sense that they would be understood in western Europe, the United States or many other parts of the world. There are swathes of the middle east where women have virtually no rights, where they are not allowed to drive cars and where they are not allowed to vote.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to the baleful influence of the Zionist lobby. Perhaps we should also point out the baleful influence of what might be called an Arab lobby among those who do not comment on those issues and simply dismiss them. If we have universal standards of human rights and support for democracy, they should apply also in Saudi Arabia and throughout the middle east.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is proper for us to expect even higher standards of democracies and particularly for us to expect democracies not to flout international law?

I am grateful for that intervention, as it brings me to my next point. The loudest, most vocal and strongest critics of the Netanyahu Government are Israelis. If one speaks to people in Peace Now, in Meretz and throughout Israeli society, one hears what high hopes they had when Yitzhak Rabin took that brave step to meet Arafat, to engage in discussion and ultimately to sign the Oslo process agreement, culminating in the handshake in Washington. That was incredibly controversial in Israeli society and, tragically, Rabin paid for his bravery with his life, killed by a fellow Israeli.

As has been said, it is the extremists who are determined to destroy the process. There are extremists on both sides: the people responsible for the massacre in the mosque in Hebron—I have been there and seen that place—and the people responsible for the bombings in Tel Aviv. They have an agenda, which is to destroy the efforts of moderates and people with vision to go forward in the peace process. To some extent, they have been successful.

I was with my hon. Friend the Minister in Israel, Gaza, Hebron and Bethlehem in December 1995. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) was also on the trip. It was a joint Labour friends of Israel and Labour middle east council delegation. During our visit, we met Shimon Peres—one month after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. We also met Yasser Arafat. At that time there was real hope of progress. The Palestinian election was due to be held in January 1996. There was a genuine possibility that the process would go forward.

Unfortunately, Mr. Peres lost the Israeli election. That is what happens in democracies. Democracies do not always give the solution that those outside want. The Israeli people chose to elect a Government who said that they would give greater emphasis to security. Despite all the difficulties, that Government have said that they remain committed to the Oslo process. They signed agreements for the withdrawal from Hebron and there was an important meeting in January 1997 between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat at which they agreed a protocol.

Many criticisms have been made of Israel, but it is important to note for the record that the difficulties do not lie entirely on the Israeli side. The Arafat-Netanyahu document was associated with a note for the record prepared by the United States ambassador in the region, Dennis Ross. The note lists various obligations that the two leaders undertook to fulfil as part of the process. They included: Israeli compliance with the terms of the agreement for the first stage of redeployment from the west bank, the release of Palestinian women prisoners and the resumption of negotiations. Israel may be criticised for some of its actions, but the fact is that Palestinian women prisoners have been released and there has been a limited withdrawal through the Hebron process. The Oslo agreement is still supported formally by the Israeli Government.

The Palestinians also agreed to fulfil several obligations. They included: amending the covenant, taking steps to combat terrorism, reducing the size of the Palestinian police force and—a very controversial issue—agreeing what would happen to the Palestinian institutions that operate outside the Palestinian area of authority. An examination of the progress made by the Palestinians subsequent to that agreement could lead to strong criticisms of that quarter. Mr. Arafat sent letters to President Clinton and to our Prime Minister, but the Palestine National Authority have not yet amended the covenant, which comprises many clauses and phrases that I suspect would be offensive to every hon. Member—and they are certainly regarded as such by Israeli public opinion.

The problems that we face today pose very serious questions about how we can influence events in areas of conflict from outside. We know from our own experience that it is not possible to impose solutions to any conflict from outside a state. Conflict resolution necessitates an internal process—although actors from outside may assist in reaching that resolution.

The European Union already makes large financial contributions to Gaza and for other aspects of development in Palestinian areas in an attempt to facilitate further middle east dialogue. I am sure that the European Union will continue to make those constructive contributions under the British presidency. However, ultimately, Britain and the other European Union states will not be able to impose any solutions in the middle east—especially in light of the fact that the Israeli Government are elected democratically. Israeli public opinion will determine the outcome of the next Israeli elections, which we hope will lead to an acceleration of the peace process.

The conflict in the middle east has other, wider aspects. There are two synagogues, two mosques and several other places of worship, including gurdwaras and Hindu temples, in my constituency. I am concerned about attempts by extremist groups from either community to bring extremist politics into this country. All communities in the United Kingdom, regardless of religion, must live together in harmony. They must respect our laws, all aspects of which apply equally. I hope that that approach will act as a model for tolerance and understanding throughout the middle east.

11.54 am

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on his fine and instructive speech. I have no Arab or Jewish connections and I have no particular axe to grind, but I have both Arab and Israeli friends who feel very much as I do about the middle east peace process. Therefore, I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate.

My friends and I care so much about this subject that, in 1993, in France, we opened a bottle of champagne and planted an olive tree to celebrate the Oslo accord.

Did the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex provide the champagne?

No, he did not. He was not with me at the time.

The Oslo accord enshrined the principles that should have led to the creation of a Palestinian state. It acknowledged
"the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"
and recognised that Israel's armed forces must withdraw from occupied territories.

My olive tree survives and thrives, but the Oslo accord fell on stony ground—a product of the international community's turning a blind eye to the plight of the Palestinian peoples and a ringing endorsement of Israel's capacity to mock international law and agreements. How long can we stand by and watch Israel do that? New settlements have been built in east Jerusalem and, more recently, Israel's housing ministry spokesman, Mosh Eilat, announced that a further 30,000 new homes would be built in those settlements by 2020.

As the hon. Lady is talking about experiences, will she detail the times that she has travelled to Israel—as I have—and to Palestine to explore the issues at first hand?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I said at the beginning of my speech that I have no particular axe to grind. I am not a member of friends of Israel or friends of Palestine. I have—and will always have—a totally neutral point of view, but I believe that my views are entitled to be heard.

Those initiatives are contrary to the spirit of the Oslo accord.

I shall not give way again.

The initiatives are also contrary to the principle of land for peace. They are, in essence, a reflection of an Israeli Government who are opposed to peace and who are determined to make a Palestinian state a pipe dream. We must ask how long we can allow them to continue.

The Palestinians are not the only ones to see their agreements broken. Israel recently broke its trade agreement with the European Union by exporting orange juice to Europe—it may sound quite amusing—labelled "Product of Israel" that was not an Israeli product. Israel also stands accused of exporting as products of Israel goods that are made in the settlements. Israel has violated an international agreement, the purpose of which was to strengthen economic development in order to underpin the peace process through economic growth and stability.

How long must Palestinians, Europeans, Americans, Israelis and all who are committed to the peace process endure the flagrant violation of international law by this and previous Israeli Governments? I agree with the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) who said that we expect more of a democratically elected Government than we do of a dictator such as Saddam Hussein.

The latest United-States-bolstered piecemeal agreement regarding the further redeployment of Israeli troops from the occupied territories is bound to fail because it allows Israel to withdraw troops only once the Palestine National Authority have met all their security demands. That is another open invitation to Israel to place more and more exacting conditions on the PLA and, consequently, what is left of the peace process will continue to flounder. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, it is difficult for political organisations to keep control of all their members and terrorists.

No, I am about to finish, and then the hon. Gentleman can speak.

With the 50th anniversary of the creation of Israel and the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Union, we must ask how much longer we should tolerate Israel's violation of international law and the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland. Surely Jewish people in Israel, more than any other people in the world, can understand the Palestinian predicament.

12 noon

I add my thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for the debate. I am sorry that this is not the longer debate that the issue justifies, but I hope that we shall be able to have such a debate before too long.

As the hon. Gentleman said, this year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel; but for the Palestinian people it has been 50 years without human, political and civil rights, which all agree they should have.

There are huge implications if the peace process fails, not just for the region but for the relationships of the international community with the Arab world. That is true not least because of our historical involvement in the region and because of the role of the international community in relation to the Oslo accords, which were underwritten by the West. They should not be regarded as the possession of Israel, from which Netanyahu can pick and choose. They were internationally underwritten agreements in the context of UN Security Council resolutions, especially resolutions 242 and 338, but also a long list of previous resolutions which, time and again, have emphasised the need for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and for the political rights of the Palestinian people.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the parallels with Iraq. I do not want to compare the Iraqi and Israeli regimes, but it is important to recognise that people do see parallels. Sanctions against Iraq are justified on the ground that it does not comply with Security Council resolutions.

No, I only have a little time and I want to use the opportunity to say something.

Sanctions against Iraq are justified on the ground of its possession of weapons of mass destruction. Is it surprising that people draw parallels when Israel has a nuclear weapons programme and when Mordecai Vanunu, who exposed it, is entering his 12th year in solitary confinement in Ashkelon prison, and when Israel continues not to comply with Security Council resolutions?

I do not want to dwell on the question of settlements, about which the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and others talked at some length, or on what has happened in Jerusalem, whose status was supposed to be part of the final stages of the negotiations. Not only have Palestinians in occupied territories been affected, but the southern part of Lebanon is still occupied, and I cannot remember the last time there was any reference in the House to any sort of progress in negotiations between Israel and Syria. Within Israel, 70,000 Arabs live in 176 unrecognised villages with no basic services, water, sanitation or electricity. They are supposed to be Israeli citizens, yet they are denied basic services, with the clear intention of forcing them from their lands.

Before Netanyahu's recent visit to the United States, he visited an Israeli air force base to take delivery of the first two F151 fighter bombers to arrive. Hours before he left, the US announced a $1.4 billion loan for Israel, and that was before a visit that was billed as the US putting pressure on Israel. The clear message was that President Clinton did not have the stomach for a fight with Netanyahu and his allies in the American Congress.

I perfectly understand the points made by some hon. Members about the other side of the equation and the need for security. However, at a recent meeting, Yasser Arafat gave President Clinton a letter clearly detailing the specific articles of the Palestinian covenant that have been changed. It was read by James Rubin at a press briefing, and stated:
"The Palestinian National Council's resolution … in accordance with Article 33 of the Covenant, is a comprehensive amendment of the Covenant. All of the provisions of the Covenant which are inconsistent with the PLO commitment to recognise and live in peace side by side with Israel are no longer in effect … These changes will be reflected in any official publication of the charter".
US policy is paralysed in terms of any real influence on Israeli policy, yet it is crystal clear that, without changes in Israeli policy, the peace process will fail.

At the moment, there are some extremely worrying signs. I read in a recent press report of a clash in Bethlehem when Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at Palestinian boys who were throwing stones. When the Palestinian police arrived, they aimed rifles at Israeli troops pursuing the stone throwers. The same thing had happened the day before in the same spot, and the same thing has happened in Gaza. With between 35,000 and 40,000 armed Palestinian police, we must be concerned about what is happening and the consequences of such clashes.

The peace process is clearly in serious trouble. When that process started, everyone emphasised the risks and the need for the inhabitants of the west bank and Gaza to see some change and some economic improvement in their conditions. That is not happening and mass disillusionment is setting in. We need greater pressure and a pro-active policy from the EU. As the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said, we simply cannot rely on the US having any sort of influence to bring about the changes in policy that are needed. If we do not continue to apply such pressure and to support the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people, we shall be guilty of contributing to the failure of the peace process.

12.8 pm

I do not want to dwell on the points that have been made more than adequately by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and others. I simply want to focus on Britain's historic obligation, which is keenly felt in the Arab world. In a sense, it has remained unchanged since the Balfour declaration in 1917, which included these words:

"it being understood that nothing be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
In 1922, the mandate that we accepted from the League of Nations stated:
"The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up permanent residence in Palestine."
The White Paper presented to the House in 1922 contained His Majesty's Government's view that at no time had they contemplated
"as appears to be feared by the Arab Delegation, the disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language or culture in Palestine."
In 1930, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald said that nothing should prejudice the civil rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That was repeated in 1939 and 1947 by the then Foreign Secretary.

We have had an obligation to both communities. With the injustices that are happening now to the Palestinian community, it is time for the British Government to speak up for the underdogs, the Palestinian community, to ensure that they achieve their aims of statehood and can deal with the Israeli population in equality, and that both communities can have security.

12.10 pm

We have had an all too short but interesting and well-informed debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on securing it at such an opportune moment, and on the typically robust and eloquent manner in which he introduced it.

As was pointed out by every hon. Member who spoke, we are at a critical moment in the middle east peace process, when, sadly, the wider region faces possible further conflict. Britain has a long and deep involvement in the middle east, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) just said. We are inextricably bound with the region through history, responsibility and a shared interest in trade and, of course, security in the region.

The previous Government always made it clear that our aim was a lasting peace, accepted by all and founded on the principle of respect for international law, peace with security for Israel, and prosperity, justice and self-determination for the Palestinians. Therefore, we on the Conservative Benches warmly welcome the Government's stated continuing commitment to those principles and to the means by which the ultimate goal of a lasting peace can be achieved.

In May 1996, the former Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said:
"Britain has no blueprint for how a durable peace should be established. We are fighting no-one's corner. We are proud to call ourselves friends of all the people of the region."
That realisation and that commitment hold good today just as they did then, but we must be realistic and look at the situation that confronts us. As we heard today from hon. Members on both sides of the House, the process is in crisis and is in desperate need of impetus.

The recent visits to Washington by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat were at best disappointing and at worst retrograde, given that the Israeli Cabinet chose the eve of the Prime Minister's visit to issue their communiqué listing eight new areas of the west bank whose retention they now consider vital for their national interest.

Subsequently, Mrs. Albright, in her recent visit to the region, was rebuffed in her request for a "certificate of good progress" from the Palestinians—a document which presumably she hoped would provide helpful supporting evidence during her tour of the Gulf seeking support for action against Iraq. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex rightly referred to the detrimental effect that the lack of progress in the middle east peace process has had on Arab opinion with regard to action against Iraq.

On 17 December last year, the Minister told me in a written answer:
"Seeking to re-inject momentum into the Middle East peace process will be a high priority during our Presidency."
We welcome that commitment and his recent visit to the region.

I echo my hon. Friend's disappointment that the Foreign Secretary—some nine months after becoming Foreign Secretary—having twice cancelled a visit to the region, has still not managed to get there himself. It would have been better had he visited before the start of the presidency. He would have had an opportunity to see and to hear from people on the ground. We look forward to his anticipated visit in the spring, and to the ministerial meeting that will be held in London in April.

At a time when the United States has failed to inject further momentum into the process, there is clearly a crucial role for Britain to play during our presidency. We must recognise that expectations in the region concerning our own involvement are high. We have a well-earned reputation for even-handedness, and the quality of our contacts in the region are second to none. The period of our presidency is thus an ideal time to throw our weight behind the process, and to encourage the EU to do likewise.

Will the Minister tell us just a little about the so-called Marin memorandum, which we heard about this morning, which clearly calls for a far more active EU role throughout all levels of the process? His noble Friend has described it as "an internal working document". What is its current status? While we hold the presidency of the EU, do we support the memorandum's proposals? How is it suggested that they should be put into effect?

In 1996, the previous Government warmly welcomed the decision of the Palestinian National Council to amend the Palestinian covenant, which honoured a commitment made in the Oslo letters of recognition, and was welcomed at the time by both the United States Government and Mr. Perez. Will the Minister therefore tell us a little more about the letter, of which we heard this morning, that Mr. Arafat sent last month to the Prime Minister, and which was subsequently passed on to President Clinton? The Israeli Government consider the move to be "insufficient", but it would be helpful to have the Minister's views of its significance in the overall peace process.

In the written answer to which I referred, the Minister also said:
"We are anxious to see existing agreements implemented in full."
The House will know that, under the Oslo accords and the subsequent Hebron agreement, the territory of the west bank is, as my hon. Friend described, divided into three zones. Zone A, under complete Palestinian civilian and military control, currently represents just 3 per cent. of the territory—the urban centres. Zone B, under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli security control, now accounts for 27 per cent. The remaining 70 per cent., zone C, remains under full Israeli civilian and military control.

At Oslo, the Palestinians accepted that Jerusalem and the settlements, representing some 9 per cent. of land, would be left to final status talks, but that still leaves some 91 per cent. of land in the west bank to come under Palestinian control during the interim period. Under the Hebron agreement, there were to be three instalments of further withdrawals: the first by 7 March last year, the second by 7 September, and the third by the middle of this year, but, as the House well knows, none of those further withdrawals has taken place.

On 7 March last year, the Israeli Government made a renewed offer, which was turned down by the Palestinians, and we have heard this morning that the current Israeli proposal is for a single redeployment of some 6 to 8 per cent. to make up for the two that have been missed, prior to an immediate jump to final status talks.

The United States has now made a further suggestion that some 10 to 14 per cent. be moved from zone C to zone B, and a further 10 per cent. from zone B to zone A. However, even that proposal is still subject to renegotiation and would be phased over three to five instalments. The so-called Sharon map to which my hon. Friend referred, which now appears to be the Israeli Government's blueprint, allows for an absolute maximum of 35 per cent. of the west bank to have been redeployed, even after final status talks.

The Minister's recent visit of the region sadly coincided with the Israeli Cabinet's declaration that large sections of the west bank were vital to Israel's national interest.

That was not my fault.

It was not the Minister's fault, as he rightly says. What discussions did he have about the announcement at the time? Did he seek or receive assurances on future redeployment during his visit?

The Israeli Cabinet's declaration effectively adds large sections of the west bank to the growing list of issues that the Israeli Government claim are not open to renegotiation, even in final status talks, and all the time, as we heard this morning, the stalemate over redeployment and other issues continues to be exacerbated and soured by the current status of, and future plans for, Israeli settlements.

Israel's unrelenting programme of enlarging its settlements proceeds unabated, in spite of worldwide criticism and condemnation. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) mentioned the Israeli Housing Ministry's confirmation that it plans to double the current settler population by 2020 by building 30,000 new homes, half of them in the vicinity of Jerusalem.

As the House will know, the Conservative Government always regarded the settlements as illegal, and therefore we naturally welcome the strong words of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and, indeed, the Minister himself in condemning settlement building. What progress, if any, has he made in talks with the Israeli Government on this matter?

Among other priorities that the Minister highlighted was
"a mechanism to institutionalise security co-operation and handle crises … and engaging Israel in a dialogue on ways of removing obstacles to Palestinian economic development."—[Official Report, 17 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 182.]
What progress has he made in those regards?

We all recognise why Israel is so preoccupied with security. The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) quite rightly told us of the problems, and the appalling scenes that we saw on television last year serve as a reminder that the battle against terrorism is far from won.

Peace can flourish only in a climate of trust and confidence. We need to strike a balance. The closure policy has caused widespread resentment and economic suffering. It has come to be perceived as a collective punishment against 2 million Palestinians living in the west bank and Gaza, and has had an appalling effect on the Palestinian way of life. A report on 1996 by the United Nations special co-ordinator's office noted as direct results of the policy a 57.8 per cent. increase in unemployment in the west bank and Gaza; a 23 per cent. drop in aggregate income; and a fall in real wages of 20 per cent. since 1995. Most worrying of all, it highlighted an increase in child labour in the region.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency estimates that there has been a 40 per cent. decline in overall living standards since the Oslo accords. Access to health care has been reduced, students have been unable to get to their universities, and Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, no longer have freedom of access to their holy sites.

We have had a short but informative debate. There were other issues that I had hoped to raise. The Minister has mentioned previously his efforts in respect of the Gaza air and sea ports, transit arrangements between the west bank and Gaza and the permanent security committee he mentioned in a speech in Washington last year. We have also heard about the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. We would be interested to know about reported comments that the Israelis may accept, albeit conditionally, resolution 425. We warmly welcome the priority that the Government are giving to reinvigorating the middle east peace process during their presidency. They may be sure that, during their brief tenure, they will have our support in doing that.

12.20 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on raising this issue and thank him for the way in which he made his comments about Iraq, the nature of its regime and the need for it to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

One constant theme ran through the debate. Whatever the perspective—or, indeed, prejudice—of hon. Members, it is clear that they are all keen to see progress in the peace process. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex talked about the principles of land for peace, and was right to say that that is the underpinning notion that will enable us to make progress. Every hon. Member who spoke mentioned the intimate link between political, social and economic progress and security. It is self-evident that progress along all those lines is in the interests of the people of Israel, of Palestine and of the whole region. There should be no question but that there is a joint agenda and a set of common interests. Our political task is to ensure that we put some life back into the peace process and make progress.

Perhaps I can answer some of the points that were raised. We hold the view—which was held, as the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber) said, by the previous Government—that to make progress, there needs to be a balance of action in terms of the land for peace principle. That means further redeployment in line with previous agreements, confidence-building measures and a commitment to security.

Let me take security first. It is axiomatic that we cannot have peace without security. Whether one is an Israeli or a Palestinian, that is self-evident. One of the encouraging aspects of my recent visit to Israel and the occupied territories was the extent to which Palestinians recognised that their political progress depends on the security of the people of Israel. We have taken action to help with security.

The hon. Member for Westbury mentioned our security proposals. We have asked special envoy Ambassador Moratinos to meet Dr. Erekat of the Palestine National Authority over the next few days to discuss what further measures we can take to help the Palestinians to deliver their security promises. I have two more points on security. First, to reinforce my earlier point, we believe that the Palestinians are making a genuine effort on security. That should be put on record. That view is currently also held by the American Administration. Secondly, if we can assist in the process, it is a meaningful contribution that Europe can make the peace process. We will do all that we can to help on security issues.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and others mentioned the Palestinian charter. I raised that in my recent meetings with President Arafat. As a result, he wrote to the Prime Minister setting out the action taken by the Palestine National Council. It is important to put it on record that we believe that that was a significant letter. He set out the clauses of the charter that had been repealed and amended and made it clear that the charter is now seen as in line with the commitments and principles of the Oslo accord. We welcome the fact that Secretary of State Albright has also welcomed those assurances and believes that the charter is no longer a stumbling block to the peace process. We see that as a significant step forward and welcome it.

On further redeployments, I heard the strong words of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex about how the map of the west bank is still distorted in a way that does not reflect the wishes that were around at the time of the Oslo accord. We have been very clear that there must be further meaningful redeployments. We are in line with the Hebron agreements. Such further meaningful redeployments must be of a size that can give the Palestinians confidence in the process and show them that progress is being made.

We have also taken every opportunity to condemn the expansion of settlements. As the hon. Member for Westbury noted, the previous Administration rightly said that the settlements were in breach of international law. We have said that not only on behalf of the UK Government but on behalf of the EU presidency. If I can personally take some credit, I think that I am still the only European Minister to have visited Har Homa and to have made the point there that the Government disagree strongly with settlement building.

As hon. Members have said, that settlement shows the extent to which the character of Jerusalem and the surrounding area are being significantly changed. That is why we have supported the notion of time out: that neither side should take steps that pre-empt the final status discussions. A strong criticism of settlements is that they distort the final status discussions and make it difficult for real negotiations to take place in line with the Oslo accords.

We are concerned about the way in which the character and nature of east Jerusalem is being changed. It should not be changed prior to the final status negotiations. It is an area in which Palestinian life and the Palestinian community are being badly affected by decisions taken by the Israeli Government.

The hon. Member for Westbury asked about economic and confidence-building measures. During my recent visit to Israel, I chaired the EU-Israel dialogue on economic matters. We gave strong priority to certain economic measures that have to be taken on Gaza airport and port, on its industrial estate and on safe passage, which is crucial for economic development. As several hon. Members said, the Palestinians must feel an economic commitment to the process of peace. Since Oslo, there has been a decline of more than 30 per cent. in Palestinian living standards. It is impossible to sell peace if people are suffering such reductions in living standards.

The key theme of the debate has been to ask us in our presidency to take an active role in the middle east peace process. The action that we have taken so far on economic measures and security, our close liaison with Washington, the messages that we have delivered and the positions that we have taken show the extent to which under our presidency the European Union will play a strong and active role. We are determined to do that during the short six months of our European Union presidency.

Our role during our presidency will not be to compete with the United States. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex knows Arab countries and their leaders extremely well. They do not want the European Union to play a competitive role. They want Europe to help the process, to play a complementary role and to support the objectives of land for peace and the Oslo accords. We are determined to play that role effectively. I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we will be active during our six-months presidency of the European Union.

We all have an interest in peace. We shall work for peace. Peace in the middle east is in the interests of the Israelis, the Palestinians and all the people living in the region.

Nuclear Test Veterans

12.30 pm

This debate is about a sad saga, of which successive Governments cannot be proud. The lives of thousands of British service men and medical auxiliaries have been ruined because politicians wanted to satisfy their egos by building atomic bombs that they claimed were part of our national defence. They were tested thousands of miles away in Australia, Nevada and small Pacific islands without the permission of the indigenous people. Successive Governments have seen fit to use other people's backyards to test nuclear weapons. That surely cannot be right.

I have provided the Minister with a list of questions, and I have enough confidence in him to know that he will answer them in detail. In 1957, the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, told the House:
"The present and foreseeable hazards, including genetic effects, from external radiation due to fall-out from the test explosions of nuclear weapons, fired at the present rate and in the present proportion of the different kinds, are considered to be negligible."—[Official Report, 5 March 1957; Vol. 566, c. 178.]
That was, to say the least, a false statement.

I have raised this matter because of the concerns of the British nuclear test veterans, who were victims of the tests that were conducted on Christmas Island in 1958–59. They believe, as I do, that their ill health was caused by radiation and the toxic pesticide DDT that was used 40 years ago. I am sure that the Minister will accept that those service men did not go to those Pacific islands for a holiday in the sun. They went as loyal British soldiers and as medical auxiliaries, and they deserve better than to be fobbed off for all these years.

Ministerial denials of responsibility were not believed by the European Commission of Human Rights, to which the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association took its case on behalf of some of the 22,000 veterans who witnessed atomic tests in the Pacific in 1958. On 27 January 1997, the British Government were found guilty: the commission found that they had violated article 6(i) and article 8 of the European convention on human rights, and that the atomic veterans had established a reasonable basis for their anxiety and concern that they had been subjected to radiation experimentation by their own Government. It further found that the Government's contention that inanimate dummies, not live service men, had been exposed to radiation was unconvincing.

Deplorably, the Conservative Government refused to honour the commission's recommendations. I trust that this Government, under new Labour, will reverse that decision.

One of the first parliamentary questions that I asked when I entered the House in 1992 was what information the Government had received from the American Government about the public hearings held in Vegas, which is near the Nevada site where Britain tested its nuclear bombs from the early 1960s to just a few years ago. The hearings dealt with the environmental and radioactive contamination at the site from British bombs. The reply to my question was, "None."

If Britain were forced to pay the proper clean-up costs for testing Polaris and Trident warheads in the desert lands of the Navajo indians, it would run to hundreds of millions of pounds. I suspect that the Government have not allowed for that in their nuclear defence budget.

Many journalists, such as Rob Edwards in the New Scientist and Alan Rimmer, Dean Rousewell and David Brown in the Sunday People, should be congratulated on their investigative work, which has been reported extensively in the press recently.

There is still considerable toxic contamination on Christmas Island. I am totally unconvinced by the Minister's written replies to me on this issue. He asserts:
"there is no radioactive contamination which would present a hazard to the inhabitants of Christmas Island."—[0fficial Report, 17 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 64.]
The specific questions that I want the Minister to answer have been provided by the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association. First, do the Government agree that they owe a duty of care to nuclear veterans and their families? Secondly, does the review of the veterans' pension scheme, as proposed by the Defence Minister, include a review of the new evidence of radiogenic injury to veterans of the United Kingdom nuclear weapons test programme that is emerging from the Dundee database study? Thirdly, are the Government aware of the Dundee study? If so, will the Minister comment on that study, and on the peer support of Dr. David Hole, director of the west of Scotland cancer surveillance project?

Fourthly, is the Minister aware of the undertakings of the National Radiological Protection Board's spokesperson on the "Frontline Scotland" programme that the Dundee university medical school researcher should have access to the updated database held by the NRPB for her secondary analysis? What action will the Minister take to ensure that such access is provided?

Fifthly, does the Minister agree that more than 22,000 men who were sent to the nuclear weapons test, and their families, unfortunately constitute a most important study group for cancer research, and that appropriate funds should be made available for that research?

Sixthly, an agreement reached in 1962 between the United Kingdom and United States Governments allowed the US Government to carry out nuclear weapons testing no more than 25 miles and no less than five miles from Christmas Island between April and July 1962. During that period, 28 nuclear explosions took place, in which 300 British service men participated. The US Government stated that they would indemnify Her Majesty's Government as a result of claims for compensation by British service men arising out of those tests. Do the Government agree that UK participants qualify for US compensation under that agreement?

Seventhly, the Government rely on the final NRPB report adopted in November 1993, which found that, statistically, UK veterans were not harmed by their participation in the Australian or Pacific nuclear tests. However, in December 1993, the UK Government signed an agreement with Australia for payment of £20 million sterling to the Australian Government for the settlement of all claims that arise out of the death or injury of any person, excluding UK veterans, as a result of the United Kingdom's experimental nuclear test programme in Australia.

Will the Government explain the rationale for handing over £20 million of taxpayers' money to fund compensation for Australian victims of nuclear tests, including Australian veterans, while maintaining that there is no evidence that the UK service men who participated in the same Australian tests were harmed? That does not make sense to me.

Let me now comment on research conducted by Sue Roff of the Dundee centre for medical study. I shall deal first with her research relating to death certificates. A total of 22,000 service men and medical auxiliaries could now be regarded as test veterans, of whom 10 per cent.—2,200—were members of the association. Of those 2,200, 600 have died, and approximately 455 death certificates have been sent to the association. Two thirds of those 455 veterans had died of cancer, compared to between a quarter and a third of the general population.

Some may suggest that those people joined the association because they wanted pensions or compensation, but that is not so. Only two thirds of the widows of the victims supplied the association with death certificates, which does not seem to imply that, when their loved ones died, they were preoccupied with the question of compensation.

The cancers that caused the deaths were on the list of 15 cancers that American legislation stipulates as eligible for compensation. Medical science recognises those 15 cancers as potentially radiogenic. The conclusion tentatively reached in the study is that veterans have at least a double chance of dying of a radiogenic cancer. The average age of those who died was 55, compared with a figure of between 65 and 70 for the general population. There seems to be strong evidence of radiation-induced cancer deaths, because they all fall into those 15 categories.

If we took a sample of 2,200 former Members of the House of Commons and found that 600 were dead, it is very unlikely that the patterns of death would be the same as that of this group of nuclear veterans. The pattern of coal-mining deaths would be different again. Each of the three groups is subject to specific occupational hazards. The nuclear veterans suffered radiation hazards; coal miners suffer bronchial hazards. I would not dare to suggest what Members of Parliament are likely to die of.

The other aspect of Dr. Roff's study concerned the veterans who were still alive. The conclusions reached so far are, to say the least, alarming, not just for the immediate families of the veterans who died, but for their children and grandchildren. The results of the study of the health of the surviving veterans and their children and grandchildren will be reported before Easter, but the preliminary analysis shows a clear pattern of radiation injury in the veterans, their children and their grandchildren. Their deaths and injuries were highlighted vividly in The People some weeks ago.

I was disappointed by the Minister's dismissive reply to questions about Dr. Roff's research. He said:
"There is no substantial evidence in her work which would undermine in any way our total confidence in the conclusions of the report published by the National Radiological Protection Board in 1993."—[Official Report, 22 January 1998; Vol. 304, c. 625.]
I would have expected such a response from a Conservative Minister, but not from a Minister who obviously epitomises all that is good about new Labour.

I find this difficult to understand. When people wrote to the Ministry a few years ago, the Ministry denied that dosimeters had been issued. When photographic evidence was provided, the Ministry said that the reason was not related to any risk that might be incurred; it said that the intention had been to make a film for training purposes, to show people what the meters looked like. This has been a catalogue of misinformation and deceit from day one. The trouble is that the small number of veterans who went down the dirty path were used as a control group.

My hon. Friend is right. The same has happened on other occasions and in other instances. I tabled dozens of questions about problems relating to Gulf war syndrome and organophosphates, but was told by the then Government that there had been no problem, and that organophosphates had not been used. Some months later, however, the Government had to make a statement saying that I had been misled.

The Minister should bear in mind the fact that Roff is using the methodology that has frequently been used in other studies conducted by the same people who undertook the MOD studies. Her methodology is perfectly legitimate, but it calls into question the validity of the findings of major studies using another methodology. That is a common experience in medical and scientific research; what is less common is the refusal of major Government agencies to accept the implications of the findings. That is why today's debate is taking place.

Let me remind the Minister what was written in a confidential document—declassified by his own Department on 26 January 1985—by the rear admiral who was in charge of Britain's first atomic bomb in 1951. In a memorandum to Vice-Admiral Brooking, he wrote:
"radiological safety must be one of the chief concerns of the naval commander … I believe that all Government servants are in fact entitled to compensation for injury on duty".
I agree, and I trust that the Minister agrees.

In March 1991, the then Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent, South ended his Adjournment debate on nuclear test veterans with the words
"What the men need is justice. "—[Official Report, 20 March 1991; Vol.188, c. 377.]
That is just as true today. It is unforgivable that those men have had to wait seven long years, when so many have died painful deaths. The people—and, indeed, Parliament—deserve much better.

12.48 pm

The debate gives me two opportunities. First, it gives me the opportunity to record our appreciation of the work of service personnel—many doing their national service—who took part in our nuclear testing programme in Australia and the south Pacific. The atmospheric tests carried out in the 1950s were a major contribution to British development of our independent nuclear deterrent—not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) unfortunately claimed, for the sake of Ministers' egos, but as part of our national security effort.

Secondly, the debate gives me an opportunity to make clear to the House, and to those who will read the record, the facts of the matter with regard to the nuclear tests. I hope to answer most of my hon. Friend's questions in the time left to me, but I shall write to him about those that I cannot answer now.

Between 1952 and 1958, the United Kingdom conducted 21 nuclear tests in Australia and the Pacific. Those tests, which all took place in the atmosphere, ranged in yield from 1 kilotonne to 3 megatonnes. The purpose of the tests was to develop the United Kingdom's independent nuclear deterrent—an aim which was achieved with distinction by the personnel who were involved.

In 1962, the United States conducted nuclear tests off Christmas Island, at which some United Kingdom service personnel were also present. It would be quite wrong to assert, as some have asserted, that the health of service men and other personnel who were attending the atmospheric tests was not an absolute priority. Formal and well documented procedures were in place to ensure the safety of personnel in Australia and at Christmas Island. A standard safety drill at all UK atmospheric tests was for personnel to be mustered at a safe distance and to be ordered to face away from the blast while covering their eyes with their hands. Those measures eliminated the risk of being blinded by the flash, and minimised the risk of injury from flying debris.

The vast majority of personnel who were present during tests were mustered in areas that were known to be safe from the effects of blast, heat and any prompt or residual radiation. At Christmas Island, for example, the muster points were in the areas of the main camp and the port, each of which was some 25 miles from the detonations.

The mass of evidence shows that the health and safety of the trial participants were regarded very seriously, and that a great deal of trouble was taken over radiological protection. In nuclear tests, the distance from the explosions was a major safety feature. The Monte Bello islands, Maralinga, and Christmas Island were all chosen as test sites because there was a great deal of space. I was slightly surprised by my hon. Friend's comments about choosing those locations. Because of that space, it was not necessary to provide universal personal monitoring for all participants. These safety judgments were borne out by real-time environmental monitoring.

While the vast majority of personnel were mustered well outside the range of the radiation effects, a small number of specialist staff who were required to be closer to monitor the test, could have been at risk. Those people, most of whom were technical staff from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, and who were very much closer to the detonations, were sheltered. Any exposure was monitored, and, if necessary, decontamination took place. The same monitoring and decontamination regime applied to some aircrew who were involved in the tests.

Measures were taken in two ways to protect the civil population in Australia and Christmas Island from radiation hazards. First, they were kept out of the danger areas and, secondly, it was ensured that fall-out did not harm them outside those areas. Residual radiation at Maralinga in Australia, where certain trials took place until 1963, has been dealt with by a programme of site rehabilitation. As my hon. Friend rightly said, there was an agreement between the United Kingdom and Australia to deal with that. The agreement on personnel was a typical one between two countries, and most of the money was for cleaning up the site.

Separate and independent studies by Washington university in 1975 and by the New Zealand Department of Health in 1981 confirmed the findings of a 1964 atomic weapons research establishment study that, radiologically, the tests at Christmas Island had no impact on the islanders' environment, and had not contributed to any current or past health problems among the local population. I am slightly surprised that my hon. Friend was unconvinced by the evidence on that, and especially by the evidence from the New Zealand Government.

My comments about Australia were not intended as a criticism of the payment of compensation. They were about the failure to recognise that the compensation should be applicable not only to Australians who were affected but to British service personnel and medical auxiliaries.

As I have said, most of the money was to be used to clean up the site. Inevitably, the Australian Government rightly asked us for indemnity to cover them for any compensation claims against them, because they are responsible for aborigines who might have been in the territory and for Australian personnel. We were responsible for British personnel. That is the standard procedure, and any proven connections between presence at the tests and the induction of radiologically determined cancers would bring people within the scope of the United Kingdom's war pensions scheme. We are working on facts rather than on assertions. I shall shortly deal with that.

The subsequent position of the nuclear test veterans, which was outlined by my hon. Friend, has been the subject of detailed studies by the National Radiological Protection Board, which produced its initial report in 1988 and a follow-up one in 1993. The studies involved the medical records of no fewer than 21,000 veterans—some 85 per cent. of the total. The health of those veterans was compared with that of a similar control group of 22,000 personnel.

The 1993 NRPB report clearly concluded:
"participation in the test programme has not had a detectable effect on the participants' expectation of life, nor on their risk of developing cancer or other fatal diseases".
Not only is the NRPB an independent advisory body to the Government, but the nuclear test veterans study group included representatives of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, an independent charity of unimpeachable credentials.

It is significant that the NRPB report was peer reviewed prior to publication in the British Medical Journal. Those conducting the studies included Professor Sir Richard Doll, a most eminent and respected epidemiologist, who is a world authority in his field and who was responsible for the pioneering work that established the clear connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent stressed the report by Sue Rabbit-Roff. There have been other studies, some of them of questionable statistical or scientific significance. My hon. Friend has tabled parliamentary questions about the Rabbit-Roff report. We think that it is unsatisfactory in a number of respects. As he said, it involves only a small proportion of veterans, about 2,000, who are members of the veterans association and are, by definition, a self-selected sample.

As far as I am aware, the work of Dr. Rabbit-Roff has not been peer reviewed or published in a reputable scientific journal. I urged that to be done when the report was published, and I still urge it. The statistical significance of Dr. Rabbit-Roff's work when compared with the vastly more comprehensive NRPB studies must be seriously questioned.

The Minister said that the sample of about 2,000 people was small and self-selected. I do not think that it was self-selected. Those people are members of the veterans association, and many of them have since died. If the Minister views that as a small sample, surely the Department should fund research on a bigger sample. If the Government were willing to do that, I am sure that medical researchers would take part. That issue was raised in one of my questions.

I fail to understand my hon. Friend's point. There have been two full studies of the full sample of test veterans by the National Radiological Protection Board. Both studies have been peer-reviewed and published, and have not been scientifically invalidated. My hon. Friend should bear that in mind.

I shall now turn to the two nuclear test veteran cases that were heard by the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. One case concerned two former service men—Mr. McGinley and Mr. Egan, who were present at the atmospheric test. The other case concerned the daughter of a test veteran, who was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia when she was four years old. The cases were referred to the court by the European Commission of Human Rights, which had concluded, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that there had been a violation of articles 6.1 and 8 in the McGinley and Egan case.

The finding of a violation of both articles related to the same issue. It was a narrow, technical point about access to records, which, it was claimed, were needed for the veterans to get a fair hearing in an appeal for war pensions. The commission inferred from the evidence that was placed before it by the applicants' representative that there were yield and radiation level records from the atmospheric tests that had not been released publicly. It considered those records to be relevant to the veterans' case, because, without them, they could not usefully challenge the NRPB report on the veterans' health or an Atomic Weapons Establishment report on radiation levels.

From that, the commission concluded that there had been a violation of article 6.1 because the lack of those records placed
"a disproportionate limitation on their right of access to the Pensions Appeal Tribunal."
Therefore, let us be clear: the issue before the court relates to process, not to the substance of the claim that the veterans' experience at the tests led to cancer.

The Department's position is clear. We have consistently advised veterans of their individual radiation doses, based on the yields of the test devices and the distance of the individual from the device at the time of detonation. I will have to write to my hon. Friend on some of his detailed points, particularly as I took interventions during the debate.

New Ministers came to the Ministry of Defence determined to resolve matters on the basis of fact, not prejudgment. Whether dealing with industrial relations in the civil service, equipment purchases or the welfare of our troops, our guiding principles have been to be open to argument and to seek the truth and the facts. That is why the Minister for the Armed Forces has instigated a full investigation into Gulf war syndrome, and why I have taken measures with regard to those military personnel civilians who were—

Order. We now come to the next Adjournment debate.

Anne Bullen

1 pm

I am delighted to see so many Members on the Treasury Benches, which somewhat belies the spin—[Interruption.]

Order. I must have silence in the Chamber, with the exception of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin).

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The presence of so many Labour Members somewhat belies the spin that has been placed on the matter by Labour spin doctors that the issue is of no concern.

The background to the debate is the long tradition of the British public service, whereby the consistent practice has been that individuals should be appointed to their post—as the civil service management code makes clear—if they are most fitted to that office and that, if an official who is involved in an appointment is shown to have a close relationship of any sort with a potential appointee, that is declared and the official in question then resiles from the appointment.

We have on record in Hansard—there is no question of misinterpretation—a series of answers to questions that were posed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Those answers make perfectly clear a certain pattern of events.

To remind the House, on 21 May, the Foreign Secretary told the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that he intended to dismiss Ms Bullen and to appoint Ms Regan as his diary secretary. Nine days later on 30 May, he informed officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that he wished to change that pattern of events and to have an internal appointment instead.

At some point in those nine days, an official—

I am afraid that I shall not give way as I have only six minutes. [Interruption.]

At some point in that period, an official told Ms Bullen that she was to be dismissed and to be replaced by Ms Regan.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Does not the failure of the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) to give way show that he has a very weak case?

That is not a matter for the occupant of the Chair. This is an Adjournment debate and the hon. Member for West Dorset has a right to refuse to give way. It appears that he is not going to give way. The House must come to order.

When Labour Members have heard the whole story, they can decide for themselves whether the case is indeed so weak.

On another day in that nine-day period, an official telephoned Ms Regan to discuss her appointment. We are also told on the record by the Foreign Secretary that, during those nine days, he never informed officials about his relationship with Ms Regan; indeed, they were not so informed until August. We are also told on the record that Ms Bullen was induced by officials to agree that

"the terms of her departure"—

Order. The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) must be silent and behave properly.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that defence.

Ms Bullen was forced to agree that
"the terms of her departure and the circumstances giving rise to it should not be disclosed to third parties."—[Official Report, 29 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 387.]

I will not.

The pattern that that reveals is clear. We have a Foreign Secretary, the holder of one of the great offices of state, who, for a period of at least—

This is not about that.

The Foreign Secretary, for at least nine days, intended to appoint a person closely related to himself, while deceiving officials about that through failing to declare that connection.

The position is worse than that. Some months later, when it came to light that these events had transpired, the Foreign Secretary found himself in the presence of a Foreign Minister and high officials from a foreign Government in a foreign land. He did not take the opportunity to defend himself, as was his right. He took the opportunity, like some Labour Members from a sedentary position, to abuse the diary secretary whom he had displaced. [Interruption.]

Order. Hon. Members may not like the subject of the debate, but it is a Back Bencher's right to speak during an Adjournment debate, and he must be given that opportunity.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Should not the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) begin at the starting point of the whole issue: how Ms Bullen got the appointment in the first place?

The hon. Member for West Dorset has been in good order. Other hon. Members have been in bad order. I shall soon tell the hon. Gentleman if he is out of order.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This pattern reveals three qualities on the part of the Foreign Secretary: first, a significant failure of judgment during nine important days; secondly, a tenuous grip on public ethics, to the point where—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I have some guidance? Is not the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) misinforming the House by implying that this person was a civil service appointment, rather than a political appointment?

Order. The House must come to order. The hon. Gentleman is in order. I assure the House that, if he is out of order, I shall be the first to say so.

The appointment of Ms Regan was a public service appointment, or would have been, had it occurred. In seeking to make it happen while deceiving officials, the Foreign Secretary acted in a way that would have led to the dismissal of a senior official, had he behaved in the same way.

Thirdly, in behaving as he did in Albania, the Foreign Secretary demeaned himself, his office and this country.

Order. Did the hon. Gentleman say that the Foreign Secretary was deceiving the House? [Interruption.] Order. I must hear the hon. Gentleman, and the House is not giving me that opportunity. How can I chair these proceedings if there is too much noise? Did the hon. Gentleman mention the word "deceiving"?

I did not mention the term "deceit" in the context of this House. [Interruption.]

Order. Let me chair the debate. There are too many chairmen. The hon. Member for West Dorset should not accuse another hon. Member of deception of any kind. Will he withdraw that remark?

I apologise.

The Foreign Secretary failed to disclose to officials an item that it was essential to disclose. He demeaned himself and his office and, under those circumstances, our case is straightforward. There is a great question mark over the tenability of the Foreign Secretary's position in his current office.

1.8 pm

I understand that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the permission of the Minister and the promoter of the Adjournment debate to speak.

That is so. I make it clear from the outset, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I speak from the Back Benches in deference to your specific ruling on this point, that I do not intend to accept any interventions so that the Minister may have the maximum amount of time to respond to this important if brief debate, and that the world will draw its own conclusions from the ludicrous attempts by Labour Members to disrupt this debate, and will ask what they have to hide.

Let me make it clear at the outset—[Interruption.]

Order. The House is far too noisy. The House must come to order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is speaking from the Back Benches because of my ruling.

This is not a debate about the private life of the Foreign Secretary. The criticisms that we make are not about his private life. When the Foreign Secretary made his decision last August, apparently at the behest of the Prime Minister's press secretary, to leave his wife, I made no comment. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that he was not going to use it against him in any way, as it was a personal and private matter. When the Foreign Secretary's wife entered the lists last month with comments that gave us a remarkable insight into the Foreign Secretary's character, I again made no criticism.

What we are concerned about today is the way in which the Foreign Secretary discharges his public duties and his public responsibilities. That is properly a matter for this House. Indeed, it is the very essence of our system—

Order. I have appealed to those on the Government Benches and I do so again. Hon. Members must keep in good order.

It is the very essence of our system of parliamentary democracy that the way in which Ministers carry out their public duties and responsibilities should be subject to scrutiny in Parliament. That is what Parliament is here to do, and if Parliament neglected its obligation to protect defenceless citizens and to hold Ministers to account, it would be a dereliction of its duty to those who send us to this place.

The allegation made against the Foreign Secretary is that he sacked a civil servant, sought to replace her with his mistress, did not tell officials in the Foreign Office that she was his mistress, and left the public to pick up the bill for compensating that sacked civil servant. If true, that conduct would amount to a scandalous abuse of ministerial power. It would render the Foreign Secretary unfit for public office. Indeed, I doubt whether the seriousness of such conduct is a matter for controversy.

A week ago, the Prime Minister himself agreed that such conduct would be wrong. Last Friday, the Foreign Secretary agreed that such conduct would be wrong. He said that on 30 May he recognised that what he had spent many days—indeed, perhaps weeks—trying to do was wrong. We now know—

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is not going to give way. He made that clear at the beginning of his speech.

Order. That term should not be used in the House. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw it—please withdraw it.

We now know, after days of written answers, dragged bit by bit out of the Foreign Secretary—

As a new Member, I would welcome your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many hon. Members would like to know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has some form of interest to declare, because many of us on Labour Benches are incensed to hear that cheque-book journalism is afoot and that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's friends are involved in it. Have we not a right—

We now know, after written answers dragged bit by bit, day by day, out of the Foreign Secretary that in every material respect the allegation against him has been proved. It is admitted that he sacked a civil servant.

I hope that it is a proper point of order, as there have been none so far.

I believe that I have a point of order. I am a new Member too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I seek some clarification from you. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making unsubstantiated allegations and is not willing to answer one question—

Nothing I say is unsubstantiated.

It is admitted that the Foreign Secretary caused a civil servant to be sacked. It is admitted that he sought to replace her with Mrs. Gaynor Regan. It is admitted that he did not tell officials in the Foreign Office that she was his mistress. It is admitted that the taxpayer picked up the bill for the sacked civil servant's compensation.

It is a measure of the lack of any moral sense among Labour Members that they behave as they do this afternoon. In every respect, the charge against the Foreign Secretary has been proved—[Interruption.]

Order. I must appeal again to the House to behave itself. The House is behaving very badly.

I will not weary the House with all the answers that we have had from the Foreign Secretary, interesting though they are. But there is one which perhaps more than any other—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to continue to refer to the lady in question as a public servant and civil servant, even though she was not at the time of her appointment by a previous Foreign Secretary?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for his own speech.

The lady in question was a civil servant; she was not a political appointee. Apart from special advisers, there are no political appointments in our civil service.

I will not weary the House with all the answers that we have had from the Foreign Secretary, but there is one which perhaps more than any other illustrates how remote the Foreign Secretary has become from the real world.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I really do seek clarification. I am trying to make up my own mind about this debate. Is it not the case that had the person in question been a civil servant, she would have been moved sideways? It is the fact that she was a political appointee—

There is one answer that illustrates more than any other how remote the Foreign Secretary has become from the real world and how distant he has become from any consideration of ethics or, indeed, common sense.

One of the key elements in this saga is whether the Foreign Secretary told officials in the Foreign Office the true nature of his relationship with Gaynor Regan at the time he was seeking to have her appointed as a civil servant in his private office. This is his reply:
"I do not discuss my private life with officials, nor do they seek to discuss it with me."—[Official Report, 29 January 1998; Vol. 305, c. 388.]
and this in relation to a woman whom he was seeking to appoint as a civil servant in his private office.

We have had a series of different answers on these points at different times from Labour party sources, from sources close to the Foreign Secretary and from the Foreign Secretary himself. What we have on the admissions of the Foreign Secretary himself is a scandalous abuse of ministerial power. We know from his admissions that he has done what the Prime Minister told this House last Wednesday was wrong. We know from his own admissions that he has done what he himself now admits was wrong. To answer this charge, he should have come to the House today. The fact that he has not done so is in itself disreputable, apart from being a gross discourtesy to the House. I hope that we shall have answers to that central allegation from the Minister today.

1.18 pm

I reply to the debate as the Foreign Office Minister responsible for administration matters.

Two points have struck me during the debate. First, the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will probably be a Member of this House for a long time, but I suspect that he will not have a worse moment than he has just had. Secondly, even though the hon. Gentleman did not live up to our expectations, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) certainly did. I should have thought it impossible that someone who had held senior office in a previous Administration could be as base as the right hon. and learned Gentleman was.

I shall answer some of the detailed points, but I shall deal first with one particular question. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe asked where my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was—indeed, the question was asked by other hon. Members from a sedentary position. Today, my right hon. Friend has been making a major speech about the overseas British dependent territories—an issue sorely neglected over the past 18 years by the previous Conservative Government. He will also meet the Romanian and German Foreign Ministers to discuss European Union matters and European Union enlargement. Tonight, he will travel to the Gulf to meet the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The contrast could not be clearer between the Foreign Secretary on the world stage, successfully pursuing British interests, and a shadow Foreign Secretary consumed by trivia and irrelevance. One of the most interesting and telling points of theta debate is that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe now speaks from the Back Benches, which is where he belongs.

I shall answer the two points that have been raised.

I shall give way in a few minutes.

The first point, which I know has given rise to some concern, relates to the appointment of Anne Bullen. In 1993, Ms Bullen was appointed diary secretary to the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd. She moved from a job as personal assistant to the Earl of Limerick, a former junior Conservative Minister and a lifelong friend and contemporary at Eton college of Lord Hurd.

The appointment was unique for the Foreign Office in that it was made under schedule 2, paragraph (2)(i) of the Diplomatic Service Order in Council 1991. That chosen procedure meant that Ms Bullen's appointment had three essential characteristics: first, the usual competitive civil servant recruitment procedures were bypassed; secondly, the appointment could be for a maximum of only five years; thirdly—some of my hon. Friends made this point in their interventions—Ms Bullen was not a career civil servant.

As one might expect, the appointment caused controversy among staff at the Foreign Office, and I have no doubt that there were suggestions of personal and political influence. Feelings ran so high that the chairman of the diplomatic service trade union, Ric Girdlestone, was asked by his members to write to the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd. He said:
"We are at a loss to understand why a suitably qualified DS9"—
that is the staff rating—
"should not have been given the job. Does this mean that the Administration is not producing the right calibre of DS9s to do the work asked of them?"
The then Foreign Secretary replied:
"The Diary Secretary position in my Private Office has always been a difficult one to fill. The job requires a mix of skills, including experience as a personal assistant and considerable maturity … As you know, the Diary Secretary was initially replaced in the summer. I regret to say that, even though I selected the person I thought best qualified, the appointment did not work out."
Let me sum up: Anne Bullen's appointment was made through a special procedure for a fixed term; it did not grant her career civil service status; and it was closely and personally associated with the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Hurd.

I shall give way in a few minutes, but I think that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe would like me to answer some of his questions first—I am very happy to do so.

As the House will know, Ms Bullen ceased to work as diary secretary on 27 June last year, for reasons that were set out in a parliamentary answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman on 29 January. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been extremely active in his pursuit of these issues—he has tabled many questions. Nevertheless, like the hon. Member for West Dorset, he raised no new issues today, so it might be worth my telling the House the key facts about the appointment of the new diary secretary, Lynne Rossiter, and the consequences of that decision.

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a few minutes.

We should remember first that, in contrast with the previous appointment, the new diary secretary was appointed through usual civil service procedures. Secondly, the post is once again occupied by a career civil servant. Thirdly, because no special procedures were used and no additional contractual expenditure was involved, there will in subsequent financial years be a saving to the taxpayer and the Exchequer.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, showing all his base characteristics, asked about the consideration of Gaynor Regan for the post of diary secretary. There was absolutely nothing new in the points that he raised. Along with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), he has detailed answers to his questions; they were issued on 29 January. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has got the timing of his debate and questions wrong. Each of his questions has already been answered. I suggest that he finds a good research assistant to look at the material.

My hon. Friend the Minister has heard the shadow Foreign Secretary in this debate and no doubt on the "Today" programme this morning. Does not he find it surprising that the right hon. and learned Gentleman seems to have nothing to say about the severe crisis that we face in the Gulf and the possibility of military action against Iraq?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Before replying to this debate, I took the opportunity to look at all the written questions tabled by the right hon. and learned Gentleman at a time of international crisis. Since 1 January, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tabled no written questions on the EU presidency—an issue dear to his heart—the middle east peace process, the crisis with Iraq, the dependent territories, or China. I shall not bore the House further; I shall say only that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tabled no question on foreign policy during the past three weeks.

One final point on the right hon. and learned Gentleman's performance is that he seems to regard the position of shadow Foreign Secretary as a sabbatical between his period in the Home Office and his rumoured high-paid job in the City.

I have been happy to answer today's debate because in it we have seen the clear difference between this Government and the Opposition. We are a Government who have been elected to do things, and we are getting on with doing things—making our schools better, improving our hospitals, tackling crime, strengthening the economy. The Opposition have no policy on any of those issues. We are a Government, a Prime Minister and a Foreign Secretary facing up to vital issues such as Iraq, Bosnia and the middle east. We have an Opposition who are playing games, obsessed with trivia, and chasing the gossip-column agenda. Their only message is: "The Tories were sleazy, so let us see that Labour is sleazy as well." But the public can tell the difference; they can tell the difference between the arms to Iraq—

Order. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who has secured the next debate, remain seated for a moment? I appeal to hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly.

Children In Care

1.30 pm

It is a shame that, rather than remaining in the Chamber for a significant and important debate, so many hon. Members feel the urgent need for lunch. I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this subject. Many issues raised are important—unlike the subject of the previous debate—but this issue goes beyond that. How we look after children in care defines what sort of people we are. I have applied for this debate many times. It raises issues with which I have been concerned for many years. It carries the hopes of people whom I am privileged to call friends: young people in care—and those who have left care—excellent residential social workers, fine foster carers.

I shall not spend too much of the brief time available detailing the problems of local authority care. They are well set out in Sir William Utting's recent report, "People Like Us"; in recent submissions to the Select Committee on Health; and in notable publications from bodies such as the Who Cares? Trust, the National Foster Care Association.

We are all aware of investigations into scandalous sexual abuse. Many of us are learning about other issues: of the significant shortages of foster carers; of the 75 per cent. of children in care who leave formal education with no qualifications; of the 23 per cent. of the adult prison population who were brought up in care; of the 30 per cent. of homeless 16 to 17-year-olds who have care backgrounds; of the sheer lack of placements; and of children who experience placement breakdowns and heart-wrenching moves time and again. No honest person who asks the simple yet searching question, "Would this be good enough for my child?" could possibly answer in the affirmative. Is there any decent person who is not affronted by such facts?

Many good people work in local authority care. Brave and resilient young people have benefited from it. Some progress has been made. The Warner recommendations of recent years have improved staff selection and slightly raised qualification levels. There is hope from a ministerial task force that will give the Utting report its utmost serious consideration. "People Like Us" calls for urgent action to raise standards, a national strategy for residential care and an inspection of the recruitment and support of foster carers, followed by a Government code of practice.

We have a Minister—it is good to see him in his place—who palpably listens to young people and people working in residential and foster care. It is the 50th anniversary of the Children Act 1948, which established children's officers. The deep irony is that the Act was in the wake of an inquiry following the death of a child in foster care. This year, the United Kingdom must prepare a report on its implementation of the United Nations convention on children's rights.

I suggest that we need to do three big things. They will not solve every problem, but they would set us on the right track and could form the basis of a properly valued and intensely valuable care system. First, we should put children's rights at the forefront of our agenda. Secondly, we should develop the training and career structure of residential workers. Thirdly, we should instigate a significant element of professional fostering in every local authority.

To justify the latter two suggestions, the House should consider the tasks that we ask of largely unqualified residential workers and inadequately supported foster carers. They do not simply play a parental role, which is familiar to many of us, or merely undertake the hugely complex and stressful task of keeping children warm, safe, fed and open to play and education. Moreover, they do not just negotiate boundaries and deal with growing pains and all the horrors of adolescence. They do much more than that.

Residential workers and foster carers comfort and help children to come to terms with abuse and overwhelming rejection; handle the manifold issues and tremendous inconsistencies surrounding parental contacts; undertake the acutely sensitive work of settling someone in and offering trust; make all the complex preparation for possible moves to permanent family placements or to independence; assist children to make relationships with all the strangers with whom they did not choose to live; try to maintain consistency and make the needs of children paramount; understand anger and deal with sometimes appalling behaviour without rejecting the person behind it; undergo advocacy on behalf of the child with the plethora of institutions, professionals and agencies who come in and out of the child's life; listen and communicate, often at those times of acute distress which just happen to be late at night when they are just off to bed, no one else is around and they are left to deal with the problem; understand law and social policy and—crucially—how to make bureaucratic systems work; manage carefully the competing demands of needy children who vie for one's attention immediately; keep going when their best efforts are rejected, are able to have a laugh, and at the end of the day, still actually like children.

I have observed and managed residential and foster care. It seems that such activities are grounded in the everyday task of parenting—but they go way beyond that. The tasks are professional, yet at the heart of this most distressing problem, we expect that the complex, deeply sensitive, emotionally and physically exhausting task of looking after the most needy children can be done on the cheap by low-paid and unqualified workers; by people with other jobs and families who work in their spare time; by people whose esteem is lowered by the lack of credibility afforded them; by people whose career opportunities largely rest on getting out in order to get on.

We shall never really offer a better future for children in care until that is changed, and we recognise the ludicrously simple reality that all residential workers need to be professionally qualified, with a proper career structure, and that we need at least a good proportion of foster carers to be people who are paid a living wage and properly trained and supported for doing what is more than a full-time job.

We shall never get things right until then; we shall never give the more than 40,000 children in care their basic right to the best childhood that they can have. If we really want to stress children's rights, perhaps we should heed the words of Sir William Utting:
"We should make direct use of the experience of young people in developing policy, planning and training for services for children who live away from home … looking after them would be easier and much more effective if we really heard and understood what they have to tell us."
Listening to a new national organisation for young people in care would be a good task for the Government. Listening to children in care could be the basis of a new system of local authority care. Putting residential care and foster care on a proper footing could help us all to be proud of who we are.

1.40 pm

The whole House will welcome the opportunity to address this important issue. Our children and young people are our future and we as a society must be a better parent than we have been to a crucial group of children—children who are looked after, those for whom we have a responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) brings to the debate, and to the topic in general, a body of knowledge and experience in the care of children in institutional settings that is especially valuable. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought to my Department just such a group of young people, thus enabling them to share with my officials and me their valuable insights into the experience of care.

There is much that we need to do. When describing the Government's approach to Sir William Utting's report, the Secretary of State made it clear that we attach special importance to the subject. A ministerial task force under the leadership of my right hon. Friend has been established, and it will operate across government to ensure that the various Departments with an interest in the area are well represented.

It is not without significance that we see a special role for education. It is a vital task when it comes to moving young people from care into the world of adulthood and work in a seamless way that is supportive of them. Sadly, that is far from characteristic of the current situation, in which young people leaving care all too often find themselves adrift in a hostile uncaring world. Unlike so many other children, they do not have parents and a wider family there for them.

We as a society have a duty to ensure that we do not allow that group of vulnerable young people leaving care—after perhaps spending their whole lives there—with all the problems that my hon. Friend has described. We cannot have them launched out into the world in a leaky vessel, likely to add to the statistics of failure and criminality that are too often the sad consequences of neglect at that vital time. The Government are determined to put an end to that situation.

What are we doing about the problem? First, we see a role for good practice and training. Her Majesty's chief inspector of social services has carried out an important assessment of local authorities' compliance with essential management and staffing safeguards, to ensure that what is already supposed to be in place is there. That body of work continues, and is giving us valuable indicators of what we have to do. We shall continue to act on the messages brought to us.

We also see a role for a change in the way in which we focus social care, and in the context in which such care is delivered. That is why, in the late spring or early summer, we shall publish a White Paper on social services that will set out our detailed proposals for the improvements in the regulation of social services that we believe are long overdue.

That will mean a transparent, tough, accountable but independent regulatory and inspection system, which will drive up standards in residential settings for young people. It will also mean closer co-operation between health and social care services, so that we can deal with some of the health problems, not least those involving mental health, that affect young people in care.

The Government are committed to the establishment of a general social care council, and the statutory regulation and discipline, where appropriate, of professional workers in the field. We believe that such a body, which will also have a responsibility for training, will make a real difference where, as my hon. Friend knows too well, a difference needs to be made.

I shall now address some of the specific points that my hon. Friend raised. He mentioned the vital role of training and qualifications in the delivery of services to that group of under-privileged and vulnerable young people. We recognise that there has been some progress in the training of heads and deputy heads of homes. Less progress, however, has been made in the support of other staff in gaining relevant national vocational qualifications.

That, I know, is an area of concern for the Select Committee, to which I had the pleasure of giving evidence last week. What I said to the Committee, and what I now repeat to the House, is that, in view of the importance that we attach to ensuring that residential child care staff are qualified to do the difficult and challenging task expected of them, we have ring-fenced about £2 million for 1998–99 to fuel the demand for level 3 NVQs for residential child care staff.

That will have a significant impact in ensuring that those young people receive care from people who can draw on the qualifications that equip them better to do the job, and on a body of knowledge and learning that gives them as residential workers a greater sense of status and self-esteem. One of the problems that my hon. Friend recognises is that, for too long, residential care work has been regarded in some circles as an inferior form of social work. That is not acceptable. For the Government, it is a vital branch of social work, and we want it to be given the recognition and status that are its due.

My hon. Friend mentioned fostering. In stark contrast to my predecessor at the Department of Health under the departed Conservative regime, we recognise that there is a problem with the recruitment and retention of foster carers. They are required to carry out some difficult and complex tasks in relation to the upbringing of some difficult and vulnerable children, some of whom have complex needs. Other children whose problems are not so severe or complex do not necessarily require the same degree of attention, but they do require the love, care and support that every child needs.

The recruitment problems go across the board. The Department is determined to encourage support for local initiatives to recruit foster carers which are rooted in an assessment of local needs. We want the measures necessary to encourage a particular group of people to come forward to deliver this valuable service. Those will vary from area to area. For instance, where there is a particular problem with recruiting foster carers from the ethnic minority communities, the evidence shows that it is a good idea to put advertisements in newspapers and publications that are read within those communities. The evidence also shows that, whatever the ethnic background of a community, locally based campaigns, using local media, institutions and person-to-person contact, are the best way to recruit foster carers.

We want to encourage local authorities to learn from one another, and to learn good practice. We also want to make sure that, once foster carers are recruited, they are retained. That means ensuring that they have appropriate training and flexible levels of remuneration to recognise the differing degrees of complexity and the differing demands required of foster carers according to the needs of children and young people. We are not saying that all carers should be paid the same; we recognise that some will need to be paid more than others. Some do not see their role as essentially professional at all but as a voluntary contribution to the welfare of the community, and they want it to be recognised as such. The system needs to be sufficiently flexible to recognise that, and work must be done in relation to the residential staff of children's homes and other institutions and foster carers.

My hon. Friend called for a greater recognition of the importance of children's rights. Following the start that the Government have made in this area, I hope that he feels that we have shown that we regard children's rights as important. We set that approach within the broader framework of the rights and responsibilities that parents, children and society have as well. Rights need to be balanced with responsibilities. It is central to the approach of the Government to ensure that that is applied to children just as much as to parents.

My hon. Friend was present at a conference at the beginning of this week at which we began, as a United Kingdom, to prepare our response to the United Nations in terms of our fulfilment of our treaty obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child. It will be our second report, and we are determined that it will be characterised by a child-centred approach that recognises that children and young people must be given a voice.

We started the process on Monday. My hon. Friend was present, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding), who has done so much inside and outside the House for children and children's rights. Also present, I am glad to say, were many distinguished representatives of the voluntary sector and the president of the family division of the High Court. We are drawing on all those strands, with children and young people at the heart. I hope that we will see the fruition of that work in a report that will, of itself, provide an agenda for change.

We must make sure that the issue is taken forward across Government. That is why the lead given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in terms of the establishment and operation of the social exclusion unit is so important. In launching the unit at Stockwell Manor school, my right hon. Friend put the rights and interests of children and young people in care—particularly at the vulnerable time when they leave care—at the heart of Government policy. Within the Department, we shall ensure that the work of the unit is co-ordinated with policy to focus on the needs and interests of children and young people.

In terms of the new deal and welfare to work, we have seen the process begin. We must make sure that care leavers claiming jobseeker's allowance are able to enter the new deal programme early if they choose so to do. That is one example of the way in which we have adapted policy to make sure that we deliver to that most vulnerable group of young people. The new start strategy—part of our investment in young people—is a national strategy based on partnership projects, which co-ordinates local action to tackle poor motivation and non-participation in learning, with a focus on 14 to 17-year-olds who have dropped out of learning or are at risk of doing so. That strategy also ought to focus on care leavers, and that is why a number of new start projects focus specifically on that particular group.

The voluntary sector is working with us in partnership. My hon. Friend knows of First Key and the vital work—supported by the Department—that it does in seeing how the Government ought to meet the challenge of giving children and young people in care a voice and a role to play in the development, formulation, monitoring and implementation of policy. We are studying the results of that research carefully. The ministerial task force will consider the matter as it responds to Sir William Utting's report and, in due course, we shall make announcements.

I also want to mention the Who Cares? Trust and the valuable work that it does in this area. The Prince's Trust recently launched a three-year programme, specifically addressing the provision of mentors for care leavers. The aim is to ensure that, by the year 2000, all young people leaving care will have access to someone to help, support and advise them. My hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for Newcastle-under-Lyme have taken up this issue, and it was a matter of concern for the Health Select Committee.

The notion of mentoring is that we bring someone on board in the life of that child. We can call that person a mentor, a befriender, a counsellor, a supporter or a champion; the important thing is that they are there for the child in care. Being there: that is what it is all about. The House has to be there for the child and young person and it is as a result of debates such as this, and the interest and concern that they generate, that we shall be there for children and young people in care. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling the debate to take place. I must tell him, and all my right hon. and hon. Friends interested in this matter, that, for children and young people in care, the best is yet to come. We shall be there for them.

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

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

Oral Answers To Questions

Duchy Of Lancaster

The Chancellor was asked

Millennium Compliance


What progress is being made in tackling the millennium computer problem within Government Departments. [25355]


If he will make a statement on the progress being made by Government Departments to address the millennium computer compliance problem. [25359]

Following my statement to the House on 27 November 1997, I made note of the comments raised by hon. Members, and wrote to the Departments and agencies responsible for further information on skills shortages, embedded systems and contingency plans, which were hon. Members' key worries. Those responses have now been received, and they have been placed in the Library of the House and published on the internet. So far, I have published more than 1,600 pages on the internet and that is in line with the open process of public scrutiny which I began in November. In addition, last week my ministerial group on the millennium date change problem relating to central Government held its first, very positive, meeting and further action will arise from that.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that full reply. He probably knows that early-day motion 661 congratulates the Government on the open way in which they are tackling the millennium problem, but I am somewhat sad to have to say that I am thinking of removing my name from that early-day motion because of the lack of clarity. We keep being told that more and more committees are being set up—first, it is the Prime Minister, then it is the President of the Board of Trade and then it is the right hon. Gentleman himself—but we do not really know what is going on. Will he start to put some oomph behind this issue and, instead of dismantling what was there previously, get on with the job, get it done and try to make people feel that both the Government and business will be ready on time?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not withdraw his name, because he does pay tribute to the Government's openness in their approach to the problem. No one should be complacent, but equally, we must not be alarmist. We must work towards meeting the millennium deadline and that is the Government's objective. We will work in an open way across central Government, which is my responsibility, across Government Departments, which have responsibility for various other organisations, and across private industry. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is no use central Government getting it right if private industry has not got it right.

Is it not the case that the current Government are being far more decisive on this issue than were the previous Government? It is right and proper that the information is publicised in the way it has been. Does not the fact that the documents are published every three months show the Government's commitment to open government?

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. Clearly, the year 2000 problem needs constant monitoring. I am determined to make sure that the Government keep a good grip on the issues and that we report fully to the House of Commons. By publishing the detailed departmental estimates, we are being as open as possible so that everyone can see the state of play. As I promised, I have written to my ministerial colleagues asking for their three-monthly update and, as soon as I have received that information and my officials have looked at it, we shall report it to the House.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that computer systems in the public sector—crucially, in some hospitals—failed to recognise the date of 29 February 1996, a leap year, which caused problems? Has he taken account of that experience in his strategy towards the millennium compliance of computer systems in the public sector to ensure that in the year 2000, which is also a leap year, we do not experience similar problems?

We are aware of the manifold problems arising from the millennium 2000. The date of 29 February 1996 was not the only one to cause problems; the date of 9 September 1999 will be another. I am writing to my ministerial colleagues with responsibility for public services asking them if they will write to their relevant local authorities, national health service organisations and other public bodies to try to ensure that they carry out an inventory and audit of their progress similar to the one that we are conducting at central Government level.

Whether or not the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) withdraws his name from early-day motion 661, when my right hon. Friend receives the report from his Cabinet colleagues, will he ask them to look carefully at the spirit of the motion, which was tabled with all-party support, as they prepare the next batch of reports? Departments could make some serious progress if they followed the spirit of that motion.

I thank my hon. Friend for tabling the early-day motion and I thank the hon. Members who signed it. It pays tribute to the open way in which the Government have approached the subject. I have drawn it to the attention of my colleagues; it is important because it raises awareness of the millennium 2000 problem, which applies not only to central Government, but to other public bodies and private industry.

Notwithstanding the new-found letter-writing skills of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Government can hardly be proud of their slothful and inadequate progress on the millennium problem, as the right hon. Gentleman has made only one statement in nine months and the ministerial committee only bothered to hold its first meeting the week before last. More alarming is the fact that it is now evident that businesses and industry are revising their costings upwards daily and that the Government still have no idea of the final costs of finding a solution to the millennium problem. With fewer than 90 working weeks until the millennium, can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he can solve the problem in time? How much will it cost? On what basis has he made his costings? Where is the money coming from?

That question comes a bit rich from a representative of the Conservative party, which left this Government with no plans whatsoever to deal with the millennium 2000 problem. When I took over my portfolio in May, one of the first things I did was to ask about the problem; I found that nothing had been prepared.

To respond to the question, we have published 1,600 pages of the detailed report on how central Government Departments are tackling the problem. I challenged the information technology industry in this country to trawl through those documents, to make an analysis and to try to identify any shortcomings in central Government plans. Not a single response has been received from private industry or from the hon. Lady on where we are going wrong. We are being open with the House; the figures are available and will be updated. They may vary as time goes on, but the key issue is not to try to score points, but to ensure that we meet the millennium deadline in the year 2000.

Public Service Delivery


What consultations he has carried out with the general public on issues relating to the delivery of public services. [25356]

We have carried out a number of consultations on public services with a wide variety of interested bodies, as well as with individual members of the public. The consultations have covered the new charter programme, due to be launched as part of the better government initiative later this year; improving the effectiveness and accountability of quangos; proposals on freedom of information; and most recently, a consultative paper on improving means of disseminating official information to the public. In addition, as we announced last week, we are establishing a people's panel of some 5,000 members of the public who will be consulted regularly on public service issues.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I welcome the better government initiative, which is bound to make public services much more effective. Some sections of the community, particularly the elderly, rely on public services far more than others. What steps are the Government taking to improve access to public services for the elderly, in contrast to the disdain and contempt for the elderly shown by the previous lot?

We are attempting to make public services more accessible for everybody. Last year, I hosted a forum for the elderly to ascertain their needs and whether IT was applicable to satisfying those needs. More immediately, to ensure that we get it right, we have set up a project with the Warwick university local authority consortium, Age Concern, the Anchor housing trust and the Carnegie UK trust under the directorship of Martin Shreeve, late of the social services department in Wolverhampton. We intend, around June, in partnership with the Citizenship Foundation and Age Concern, with sponsorship from Guardian Royal Exchange and Saga Holidays, to publish a passport for the over-50s.

Freedom Of Information


What representations he has received from other Governments on his proposals for a freedom of information Act. [25358]

I have received letters from the Australian Solicitor-General, as well as from the Information Commissioners for Canada and British Columbia, and the Chief Ombudsman of New Zealand. These variously describe our proposals as "exhilarating", "cutting edge" and including the "best of best practice".

I am glad that my right hon. Friend's proposals for a radical freedom of information Act have been so well received abroad. More information will change the culture of government in this country. Can he assure the House that, as he builds on the White Paper, the Act itself, as it goes through the House, will be progressive and open?

The consultation period is still progressing and closes at the end of this month. I am very pleased with the response so far. It is important to make it clear that "Your Right to Know" is a statement of the Government's intention, agreed by the Cabinet Committee and endorsed by the full Cabinet. Although there are several areas that we indicated had green edges, I do not envisage any major changes to the spirit or the substance of the White Paper. I am confident that the Bill will be a radical, progressive and landmark piece of legislation, and that it will, as my hon. Friend says, change the political culture of Britain.

At a time when other countries are opening up their cold war files to public inspection and to inspection by historians, what does the right hon. Gentleman think of the fact that in this country, the Security Service is apparently about to engage in the mass destruction of cold war files, in part at the behest of the Minister without Portfolio, who is worried about his own?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have progressively been releasing documents from our security services over recent years. We have already done so in relation to world war one, and later this year, we will do so in relation to world war two. We have already released some information about the current situation. It is the Government's intention to release as many documents as possible, although we will not do anything that threatens the security of this country.

Better Government Programme


Which Government Departments are involved in his better government programme. [25360]