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Commons Chamber

Volume 328: debated on Wednesday 24 March 1999

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 24 March 1999

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Transport (Eastern Region)

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

9.33 am

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in the House the substantial subject of transport in the eastern region. I have lived in the eastern region of England for the past 30 years, and have travelled its length and breadth many times by a variety of transport modes. I have also been a rail commuter for all those 30 years. Moreover, I have a long-standing interest in transport policy.

Between 1973 and 1977, I was employed in the Trades Union Congress's economic department, working primarily on transport policy. My immediate predecessor in that post was my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), and my immediate successor in the post was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). My immediate superior at that time is now a Member of the other place and the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, with whom I now meet and correspond to discuss transport and specifically roads policies. It was pleasing to renew old acquaintances on entering the House.

After the TUC, I was employed by the National and Local Government Officers Association and Unison as a policy research officer working on transport policy, among other things. I wrote a number of papers on transport policy and the unions' response to the previous Government's deregulation of bus services. I opposed deregulation then and still believe that it was a profoundly misguided policy. I am pleased with the publication this week of the Deputy Prime Minister's bus statement.

A few weeks ago, I was one of a number of Labour Members from eastern region constituencies who undertook an experiment to test public transport services in the region. We all travelled from our constituencies by public transport, meeting up at Stevenage on a Friday afternoon. Some of my hon. Friends may refer to their experiences later in the debate. The experiment demonstrated both the possibilities and the difficulties of using public transport. Some journeys were relatively simple; others were time consuming and tortuous.

North-south journeys on routes radiating from London are relatively straightforward, whereas east-west, cross-country routes are difficult. Indeed, the coherence of the eastern region is weakened by poor east-west transport links, and by a sense of relative isolation between the eastern coastal counties and Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in the west of the region. With the increasing importance of regionalism in our constitution, good transport links across the region are essential to the development of a sense of unity and a strong identity.

More important still is the need to ensure that transport links are sufficient for the regional economy to develop and prosper. The eastern region as a whole is one of the more prosperous in the country, but within the region, there are areas of deprivation and unemployment, notably in the coastal towns of East Anglia and parts of my town, Luton. Both areas require improved transport communications to assist their economic development. The region as a whole must keep improving its communications network if it is to develop its full economic potential.

A recent Confederation of British Industry survey in the region recorded a high proportion of local economic development officers stating that transport links of all kinds needed to be improved. In particular, almost 100 per cent. of them thought that rail provision needed to be upgraded.

The eastern region is well served by mainline and commuter services fanning out from London, with Euston, St. Pancras, King's Cross, Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street all serving parts of the region, but all those services require new investment and upgrading to enable them to carry more passengers and take pressure off the roads.

In that context, I shall raise the more parochial matter of Thameslink 2000. I travel to and from Luton by rail every day, and during my two years in the House, have never yet driven to Westminster. I am fortunate that Thameslink is one of the better commuter services, at least on the north side of the Thames. I know that, on the south side, overcrowding is horrendous. I recently had a long meeting with Euan Cameron, the managing director of Thameslink. There is clear concern that even Thameslink's relatively good performance has begun to deteriorate, and investment in track and in new additional train sets is urgent.

The multi-million pound Thameslink 2000 investment programme has been badly delayed. The original intention was to complete the project by 2000. It then slipped to a start date in the year 2000. Now the project will not start until some time after 2000–2006 seems to be the earliest likely start date. Cash has been allocated—Railtrack has the cash to do the work—but no start date has yet been agreed.

Thameslink wishes to purchase a considerable number of new train sets to increase the length and frequency of its trains, and to take many more passengers to and from London each day. I ask Ministers to do everything they can to ensure that the Thameslink modernisation programme goes ahead at the earliest opportunity, and that steps are taken to ensure that Thameslink is upgraded before 2006. That could perhaps be a first task for Alastair Morton and the new Strategic Rail Authority.

I shall touch on roads, specifically the M1 motorway, which passes through the heart of my constituency. Last July, I welcomed the roads review and the decision by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport to abandon plans to widen the M1 north of junction 10 through Luton. However, that decision made the need to upgrade commuter rail services, especially Thameslink, still more crucial. Car commuters cannot be expected to abandon their cars and travel by train if they cannot find a seat in peak hours, if services are not reliable, and if fares are too high.

May I say in passing that the privatisation and fragmentation of the railway system inflicted on the country by the previous Government have done nothing to help. I welcome the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority, which I am confident will restore some coherence and rationality to the development of rail services.

Another matter of great local concern in my constituency is the environmental impact of the Ml motorway. Between London and the north, my constituency contains the only stretch of the motorway that passes within feet of homes and schools. The noise and airborne pollution, together with the recently lifted threat of motorway widening, have caused considerable blight in the area.

I have raised the matter with my noble Friend the Minister for Roads and Road Safety, and have had meetings with the Highways Agency and the local authority. I am hopeful that noise reduction measures, including barriers along stretches of the M1 through my constituency, are a real prospect. I have also asked the Highways Agency to investigate whether noise reduction barriers combined with appropriate foliage can help to reduce airborne pollution in the immediate vicinity of the Ml, and the agency is looking into the matter.

During the debate on the roads review, which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport announced in July, I was much encouraged by his positive answer to my question about possible measures to counter the environmental problems caused by the M1 in my constituency. I shall continue to pursue that matter and will not let it go.

Luton needs other transport infrastructure improvements if economic development and the number of jobs in the conurbation are to be maximised. On the positive side, Luton airport is expanding with large investment in new terminal buildings and aircraft handling capacity. The new Luton Parkway station will soon open, and airport passengers will be able to check in for their flights directly off the rail platform.

The translink corridor project could provide an important new passenger traffic route between Dunstable and Luton, on the route of the old railway line. That would require money, and people at every level of government must ensure that such investment opportunities are not let slip. In the best of all worlds, the venture would be a matter for public enterprise and Government investment. I cannot imagine such a project in France being delayed for years by shortage of funds.

Finally, I must refer to the motor car. The car is a boon to modern living and, for most of us, essential for certain journeys, but inappropriate car usage, not car ownership, has been the problem. I recently spoke to shop stewards at the Vauxhall Motors plant in Luton and drew attention to the situation on the continent of Europe, where motor car ownership is generally higher than in Britain, but motor car usage is lower.

However, exhorting motorists not to use their cars for inappropriate journeys must go hand in hand with the provision of first-class public transport services. We must accept, too, that public transport, in economists' terms, can never be a perfect substitute for the motor car. Each has a role to play, but there is a crucial balance to be struck between public transport and driving one's car. The car remains vital for most people who travel around the eastern region. I am sure that other hon. Members will raise matters of concern for their own areas and I hope that the House will forgive the parochial elements of my contribution.

I have taken to heart one of the messages from my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I have rediscovered walking as a mode of transport and it is not only cheap and non-polluting, but beneficial to my health. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the points that I have made and do what she can to promote improvements in transport in the eastern region as a whole and in my constituency in particular.

9.42 am

I shall address the House on the A47 Thorney bypass, which was one of the casualties of the Government's decision to slash their road building programme from 160 schemes to about 37. The White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" proposed massive changes to the road building programme. That proposal certainly did not make things better for my constituents in Thorney and the community is extremely angry.

I attended a public meeting last November, which was packed to the gunwales. There are about 2,000 souls in the village and I should think that every one was present. They are determined that the long-promised bypass will go ahead in the near future—and as soon as possible. The villagers set up the Bypass Thorney campaign and, such has been the strength of feeling, they have already held two rallies on the A47 in the village in which traffic was held up for a considerable time. They of course have the full co-operation of the police and the local authority.

The campaign for a Thorney bypass has a long and chequered history. The villagers have been campaigning for their bypass for 67 years. A campaign started in 1932, and a great Isle of Ely route was proposed to improve the A47 across the fens from Peterborough to King's Lynn, and on to Norwich. Plans were resurrected in the 1960s and published in 1962. A start date was confirmed in 1968. In the 1980s, a public consultation determined that a single carriageway should be routed north of the village and a start was planned for 1986.

In June 1987, the bypass was again confirmed, on environmental grounds, by the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport with a planned start date of 1989–91. The plan for a bypass was changed to one for a dual carriageway in 1990 and a start date of within two years was confirmed. In 1994, the Department inexplicably decided to test Thorney for trunk road traffic calming measures. I think that Thorney was one of three projects on which the Government decided at that stage, and I shall discuss traffic calming a little later.

The fear at that time, which I shared, was that traffic calming measures in the village were a way round going ahead with the bypass, and an attempt to alleviate some of the problems of delay and the high accident rate. In 1996, the programme was changed and the bypass was put into the second phase, but the real body blow came in 1998, when the present Government dropped the Thorney bypass from the road development programme.

Thorney is a heritage village. Its centre is a conservation area with 167 listed buildings, 116 of which front on to the A47. The road bisects the village, which is linear, right the way through. Most residents are affected by the heavy traffic. The village is built on fenland soil, which is part peat and part silt, and the vibrations from the increasing traffic cause significant problems for buildings.

The village's terrific tourist potential is not in any way realised because of the problems of pollution and traffic. The traffic problem is essentially that 16,000-plus vehicles a day go through this small fenland village, and 19 per cent. of those are heavy goods vehicles. They cause severance to the village, because the road bisects the built-up area, and create noise and pollution. Even though traffic calming measures have been taken, delays are caused.

Traffic does not go through the village only during the day. The campaign team recently carried out a survey which found that a massive number of HGVs go through all night and, between midnight and 6 am, the HGV count was much higher, at 57 per cent. The village also suffers from traffic going through its centre seven days a week. There is additional holiday traffic at weekends as people go from the midlands to the north Norfolk coast.

The village is bisected by the road. There are two zebra crossings—one at each end of the village—but, during peak times, no one in his right mind would risk crossing that road. It is so dangerous that parents invariably take their children to the school, which is on the road by one of the zebra crossings. However, they take their children to school by car, because there have been accidents involving children, particularly those on bicycles, over the past 10 years or so.

Traffic calming measures are causing more problems for residents. The clatter of HGVs going over the humps and bumps and round the chicanes has exacerbated the noise and pollution problem that they were designed to solve. Those measures have caused delays, which add to the problems of the environment and cost.

Even the Government office of the east, which is based in Cambridge, has concluded that there are great merits in the 1996 scheme for a dual carriageway of 4.3 km, which would have cost about £15 million at that time. The Government office has also concluded that the accident rates in Thorney are higher than average, with clusters on bends in the road and at minor junctions, and that the traffic calming measures, which were installed in 1994 at a cost of almost £500,000, have not overcome the basic problems. Thorney's rural location means that public transport is not only unlikely to be provided, but would not in any way provide a solution to the problems.

The figure obtained by the cost benefit analysis is comparatively low at 2.3, but that is for a dual carriageway. The figure would probably double if the Government pursued their proposals for a single carriageway. Along with the villagers, I shall press for the road to become a single carriageway, in which event the figure would probably be nearer 5.

The villagers of Thorney would want me to put another point to the Government. I believe that every other village on the A47 has been bypassed, all the way from the midlands around Peterborough, across the fens and around Wisbech, King's Lynn and the stretch leading to Norfolk. Why, after all this time, is Thorney the only community that has to suffer such heavy traffic at its heart?

The GOE believes that an improvement in the road—even a bypass for Thorney—would help to regenerate the northern fens area. Wisbech currently enjoys assisted area status, as it has since 1993—although that is being reviewed—and is at the heart of an objective 5b area, while much of the northern fens region has rural development status.

What is the way forward? The Bypass Thorney campaign submitted its proposals to the panel at the public examination of the draft regional planning guidance for East Anglia earlier this year. I am told by Lord Whitty, the Minister responsible for trunk roads, that the panel's report is due in mid-May. At that point, the Secretary of State will have the power either to accept the report or to modify its conclusions, but, in any event, he will have to consult those involved.

My constituents and I want the go-ahead to be given for the reintroduction of this much-needed bypass into the programme as a single carriageway. For all the reasons that I have given, we believe that the community needs and deserves the bypass. Other communities may not want improved roads—although I suspect that they are far fewer that the Government would have us believe—but this community does. The campaign will not go away: these people are serious, and they will continue to blockade the A47 for as long as it takes to make the Government see reason.

9.53 am

In any transport debate, our first task is to strip away the ideology. Nowadays, too much of the argument is taken up by certain groups. There are those who see transport only in environmental terms, as an inconvenience or an obstacle to the pious business of saving the planet, having no regard for our economic and industrial needs. Some of those "interest groups" have no realistic economic policy; they are at heart anti-car, indeed anti-motor vehicle. Then there are those who ignore the issues of pollution and climate change. They are typified by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Redwood), whom I heard speaking to the annual dinner of the Institute of Petroleum. His rallying call to an audience whom he expected to be friendly was, "What we need are lower taxes and more motoring". He did not impress the institute, however, because most of the companies involved have signed up to the Kyoto agreement.

Then there are those who rage on with arguments about public versus private. There is the champion of public transport, who refuses on principle to own a car and who, witnessing a traffic jam, repeats in a sort of Orwellian duck-speak his long-cherished belief that Soviet-style buses always were better than the decadent private motor car. On the other hand, there is the car-lover who prides himself on the fact that he would never deign to ride in a lowly bus or train. Sometimes those hollow, stale arguments are dressed up, but we hear too much of them.

An oft-used maxim of the present Government is, "What counts is what works", and I think that that maxim should be applied to transport. A practical approach is needed, and I hope that such an approach will be reflected in the composition of the new integrated transport commission. I hope that it will consist of practical people with real interests, rather than experts with ideological interests. We need a bold approach, but an approach that is, above all, practical.

It follows that there should not be just one approach to transport throughout the United Kingdom and in every type of community. We cannot have a one-stroke policy to be applied everywhere. We need to get that message across. My rural constituents write to me expressing the fear that they may have to pay a congestion charge to drive into the local small market town. Of course such policies have to be considered in the case of cities, but there is no prospect of their being introduced in small market towns.

Let me make three general observations. First, I do not think that people will accept less mobility than they have grown accustomed to. Secondly, whatever we do about transport, it must continue to operate for the benefit of our industry as well as our environment. It is an engine of the economy, and, in the context of costs and journey times, it is important to maintaining our competitive position in Europe.

The overwhelming picture of our transport system, however, is of a poor-quality infrastructure suffering from chronic underinvestment in all modes of transport. As we near the end of the century and look back, we see that the Labour party has been in government for only 23 years of this century. It is fairly clear which party we can pin the blame on. Our railways have been decimated and, unlike cities elsewhere in Europe, we have seen our trams being wiped out. Buses have disappeared from rural communities, and a sporadic convoy system has been introduced in towns. We have the fourth lowest number of miles of motorway per 1,000 sq km in the European Union: only Portugal, the Irish Republic and Greece have fewer.

That brings me conveniently to the subject of East Anglia. I am afraid that I do not know enough about the more western parts of the eastern region to talk about them.

Thorney will do; I can follow Thorney.

We have a poorer transport infrastructure than any other English region, and transport is now the dominant issue in our part of the country. Most visitors comment on the lack of modern roads in East Anglia. The traveller has history before his eyes as he travels. Footpaths between fields were widened and became bridleways, the bridleways were widened into lanes and the lanes were widened into roads, but, unfortunately, our roads still wind between the fields of East Anglia, through—and here we come to Thorney—ancient villages and historic market towns. That is even true of trunk roads. It is possible to travel up the A12 and to see tiny cottages below the road level, looking up at the huge trucks that rumble past. The further north and east one ventures into East Anglia, the worse the road links become, until eventually one reaches Lowestoft, Britain's most easterly point, which is in my constituency.

Our rail links are no better. Train services are infrequent, expensive and slow, and the lines are few and far between.

I firmly believe that we need an integrated transport policy. Lowestoft is simply not integrated into the national transport network. It is a port, whose function is to integrate land and sea, but it is difficult for it to perform that function when there are such poor links on the landward side. Lowestoft is further from the continuous dual network system of roads than anywhere else in the country. Ministers past and present have often arrived late in my constituency, and have always been surprised by the journey time.

It is not so much that our roads in East Anglia are congested by traffic; it is just that the pace is so slow. The winding single carriageway is clogged with tractors, lorries and, in the summer, caravans. It is not only an inconvenience for the leisure-time motorist; it is taking its economic toll. Lowestoft has lost its traditional industries and it finds it difficult to attract new ones. What company will locate at the end of such poor links? They also make it tough for existing businesses—it is hard for them to expand. All the businesses in my constituency are unanimous in their view that we must have better road links. Poor transport links cost time and are key factors in business competitiveness and inward investment.

Some people sometimes question whether the link between transport and economic prosperity is proven. I mention just the figures for East Anglia. Along the A14 corridor, unemployment is currently 2.4 per cent. in Huntingdon, 2.2 per cent. in Cambridge, 2.1 per cent. in Bury St. Edmunds and 3.6 per cent. in Ipswich, but, further north and east, it is 9 per cent. in Lowestoft, and 10 per cent. in Great Yarmouth. There has to be a link. People know that there is a link.

My constituents are frustrated and angry about that point. However, they are delighted at yesterday's announcement that work is to start soon on studies of the trunk road between Norwich and Great Yarmouth, the A47. We are convinced that they will show it has to be improved and dualled, which is what we have been after.

Should we look for improvements not to the roads, but to the railways? I hope that the railways can be improved. Again, we have to look at practice, rather than theory. Unfortunately, towns in my constituency are linked by single track lines, with lots of small lanes and farm tracks crossing them. A slow speed limit has to be invoked for safety reasons. The only way in which those lines can be improved is by grade separation of all crossings—road bridges over or under the railway. That would be very expensive and time consuming, and I doubt whether it is viable. I hope that we can improve rail to a degree, but it cannot be a substitute for road improvement.

I mentioned the problem of heavy lorries rumbling through the narrow streets of ancient villages and market towns. I raised the matter because I am not clear where we were with village bypasses. Of course, we must examine all the alternatives before we approve plans for a village bypass, but, in Bungay in my constituency, a study has been done. There is no alternative, yet there are no plans for a north-south bypass. It has not even been put on the list by the county council, even though the company that is the main source of the lorries is willing to contribute to the construction of such a road. People in Bungay are asking whether the lorries are to rumble through Bungay for ever more. Again, we need a practical solution, not an ideological one.

In the most general sense, what should be the transport policy for the rural part of East Anglia? We definitely need rural buses because there are people living in villages who do not have access to a car at all. Therefore, we welcome the rural bus fund, over £1 million of which has already come Suffolk's way in the first year of its operation. That is welcomed by people who live in the villages, but will more buses encourage a modal shift to buses by those who have a car? Let us examine the practicality of that.

People will not shift unless there is a regular service. If there are only a couple of buses a day, they will not wait three hours to avoid their car journey. Let us suppose that they would wait half an hour. What would it take to institute a half-hour bus service to shuttle around all the villages in East Anglia? The cost would be phenomenal. Existing services are disappearing or under threat, propped up by the county council. Therefore, although I welcome more buses, I do not envisage that buses will be an alternative to the car in rural areas and produce any real modal shift.

That leads me to the fuel duty escalator. People in my constituency, particularly those in the rural part, find it hard to grasp the measure. It is a blunt instrument in that respect. It is not a progressive tax; there is not much social equity in it. People question whether it can have the desired environmental effect in rural areas, where there is no practical alternative. Therefore, I hope that we will look at where we are going with the fuel duty escalator and its effect on rural areas.

No, because I am winding up my speech. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make his contribution later and I want to allow other hon. Members to get into the debate.

I hope that the Government will take measures to reduce congestion, and that they will focus on the parts of the country where congestion and pollution are serious problems. I hope that they will manage to avoid any suspicion of a broad one-stroke policy, which would seriously worry those in my constituency and in rural parts of East Anglia.

10.5 am

I shall be brief as I am conscious that there are local Members who want to speak in the debate.

From my knowledge of the region and from the representations that I have received, it seems that some of the problems in the region are common to the rest of the country, whether they be congestion, pollution, overdependence on the road network or the reduction in rail lines. Unfortunately, many lines were closed under Beeching. In many towns with which I am familiar, such as in Hadleigh in Suffolk, the rail network seems to have been taken away. Sadly, sizeable communities now depend on road transport.

Of course, for the rail transport that is there, rail fares increased by 74.8 per cent. above inflation between 1974 and 1996, whereas road transport costs have decreased by 3.5 per cent. Those who complain about the fuel duty escalator should bear those figures in mind.

The Government accept that the region is less well served by east-west rail connections; the point was made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Hopkins). All roads seem to lead to London, as do rail lines. If we are to regionalise our country, as we should, we need to deal with that fundamental point.

I want to suggest one or two areas that the Minister might pursue. I should be grateful for an indication on whether the channel tunnel will benefit the eastern region in any way. Will there be connections to the eastern region from the channel tunnel?

Yes, but, to take the point of the hon. Gentleman, who has rudely interrupted me, we want connections to the eastern region north of Stratford. We also want to ensure that rail connections to Felixstowe are maximised to ensure maximum movement of freight transport by rail.

It has also been drawn to my attention that there is a problem with public transport links north of Stansted to Stansted airport. From London, the links to the airport are quite good, but north of Stansted, the links are a problem.

I draw to the Minister's attention one or two excellent examples of transport in the eastern region, particularly cycling schemes, which are an important part of the Government's strategy. Many towns in the region contain the highest levels of cycling. They include Cambridge, Peterborough and King's Lynn, although not, to my knowledge, Luton.

Or Colchester.

I draw to the Minister's attention Kesgrave high school near Ipswich. I understand that nearly 60 per cent. of journeys to the school are by bicycle, compared with the national average of 2 per cent. That success has been achieved by developers incorporating cycle routes into their town planning. Routes to the school from the entire catchment area were built. The result is that more than half the students cycle to school. Some people say that we can never shift transport away from the private motor car, but there are examples in the region and elsewhere to demonstrate that that can happen.

I regularly ask about road traffic reduction measures and the Minister gives me slightly different answers on each occasion. I do not wish to be churlish. I am happy with the direction in which the Government are going, but I should like some clarification.

The Minister has said in written answers to me that, in certain parts of the country, an actual reduction in road traffic will be achieved. Can she tell us whether any part of the eastern region will be one of the areas where there will be a real reduction—as opposed to a reduction in growth—in road traffic? Can she quantify when that might be achieved? When will road traffic levels throughout the country be less than in the previous year for the first time?

10.9 am

As it is very easy to misunderstand the issues, I should like to offer a perspective from the southern part of the eastern region, particularly Hertfordshire, which contains my constituency, and to sketch some of the characteristics of Hertfordshire. I also agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on the need, in debating and considering transport needs, to consider the needs of individual areas—which vary considerably, even across the eastern region.

Hertfordshire is the United Kingdom's third most densely populated county, with a million people and 19 urban areas. It therefore has very high car usage. Nationally, Hertfordshire has the third highest level of car ownership. Sadly, it also has the United Kingdom's second highest road casualty rate per head of population. Last year, it had 6,826 road injuries and 58 road deaths.

One of Hertfordshire's main characteristics is that primarily radial routes pass through it, from London, up to the north and east. However, there are few links in Hertfordshire between east and west. I should like to return to that theme later in my speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) mentioned Luton and Stansted airports. Over the next four years, Stansted expects a rise of more than 3 million passengers. We are looking forward to airport forums improving passenger transport in and out of the airport.

The A1(M) provides an important link through Hertfordshire, which also has a substantial road maintenance backlog.

I have raised these issues because they are important in considering transport in my part of the eastern region. The issues were very different 20 years ago. In the past 20 years, we have lost time in which we could have done much to address issues both of infrastructure and of people increasingly using private, rather than public, transport. It has been a missed opportunity, which the current Government must now try to salvage.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the most recent occasion on which a debate on transport in the eastern region was held was in 1977—when, in an all-night sitting, some of the problems that she is dealing with were mentioned? After that debate, an Opposition Member—who is not in the Chamber—emerged bleary-eyed, asking for dual carriageways and for all the issues that my hon. Friend has raised to be addressed. He became a Minister and did some work on the issues, but not enough. I agree with my hon. Friend that not enough has been done in the past 20 years. Why does she think that is?

I can only put it down to the policies of the previous Government. I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on the lack of debate since 1977. What a tragic waste of all those years, in which—with investment and public transport—we could have dealt with the growth in transport need and population growth in counties in the eastern region, such as Hertfordshire. Until the current Government started to address the issues of bus deregulation and rail privatisation, those policies, too, were the source of more problems than answers.

Rail transport is a substantial concern to people in my constituency, many of whom commute to work in London and expect to be able to use rail services to get about. I receive in my office many complaints about trains that are too frequently over-crowded, and about the lack of services and punctuality. Often, commuters suffer the most, as they travel at times of day when trains are likely to be crowded. I therefore particularly welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister's comments on the subject, when he said that he was "switching the points" on the privatised rail industry and clamping down on issues such as standing, train schedules and punctuality, which are all crucial to people in Hertfordshire.

Billions of pounds could have been invested in rail transport had the British Rail sell-off been done at a more realistic market price. It is very disappointing that that opportunity was lost. That lost opportunity is a shocking public scandal, from which people in my constituency trying to travel by rail to London or elsewhere suffer daily.

There are serious issues of accountability and competition in rail service. We need exactly the type of action now being taken by Ministers at the rail summit. We have to be persistent, and to support investment in rail.

There is some scepticism about some of the action being taken to deal with matters such as train overcrowding. The action proposed on overcrowding seems to be based on very old standards of what constitutes overcrowding. People who live in areas in which journey times to destinations are perhaps only 13 minutes are concerned about how lateness is measured, as trains must be at least 30 minutes late before compensation is paid. The relative lateness of trains is crucial to such travellers.

I particularly welcome the Government's initiative on the Strategic Rail Authority, which will make a substantial difference in addressing many of the issues that I have raised.

Rail issues are connected to the future of the east-west transport link that Hertfordshire requires. The central Herts passenger transport scheme is expected to create a transportation link between Watford—through St. Albans—and Hatfield, in my constituency. Establishing an east-west link is the No. 1 priority for the southern part of the region, as it would help to integrate public transport and provide modal links—which Conservative Members seemed to find so amusing when mentioned earlier in the debate. Modal links are one of the ways in which we shall tackle the crucial difficulties of transport.

An east-west link would provide integrated and sustainable transport, and the necessary links for regeneration in my constituency—particularly after closure of the massive British Aerospace site at Hatfield. The site may now be developed for housing and for use by the university of Hertfordshire, and by retail and other business. However, that opportunity will be fully realised only if action such as the central Herts passenger transport scheme is implemented. The scheme would reduce traffic reduction, and links with the university would help both local education and the local economy.

Those are long-term issues. Even if agreement is given soon to start planning the central Herts passenger transport scheme, it will not operate until 2006. It is another example of the long-term work that the previous Government neglected to do on behalf of passengers in the eastern region. If the scheme is agreed, by 2015, 9 million passengers will be using it. I therefore hope that, in October, Ministers will approve the scheme when the outline case is submitted to them.

As my hon. Friend the Minister has visited us on at least twice since the general election and seen what Hertfordshire county council is doing, she will be well aware that the county council is in the vanguard of addressing transport issues. The council has pioneered Travelwise to develop sustainable transport; gained European Union support for a business Travelwise scheme; increased its partnerships to reduce child casualties and to increase journeys to school by means other than car, which is the source of much traffic congestion on roads—the issue of car transport to private schools should perhaps also be examined; and developed safer routes to schools and the Walking Bus project.

Hertfordshire has taken all those actions to tackle the transport issues facing us. I believe that, with the setting provided by the Government, we now have the mechanisms necessary to drive forward transport—by rail, bus and road—and thereby to ensure that the economic future of the southern part of the region is secured.

10.19 am

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to this important debate on transport in the eastern region. I do not have to remind the House that transport is a crucial issue in the region, particularly for Norfolk and my constituency. I welcome the speech of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), although it is a pity that no other Liberal Democrat Member is able to contribute to the debate.

Traditionally, Norfolk has felt geographically isolated. It is somewhere that people travel to rather than pass through. Indeed, our national hero, Horatio Nelson, used to write about going into and coming out of Norfolk as though it were some strange foreign country. Malcolm Bradbury, the distinguished professor at the University of East Anglia described Norfolk as being cut off on three sides. He said some 20 years ago that it was cut off on two sides by the sea and on the third side by British Rail. Unfortunately, very little has changed since then.

I wish to raise two specific points. The first, the dualling of the A47, was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). It is a crucial issue for everyone in Norfolk, but particularly for people in my constituency where two large stretches remain to be dualled. The Brundall-Lingwood stretch, east of Norwich is a death trap for many local people and for visitors.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, under the previous Administration, no fewer than 23 Ministers with a roads portfolio visited the area and agreed that urgent work was necessary on the A47 east of Norwich, including the Acle straight linking Norwich and Great Yarmouth? In 1996, the then roads Minister took the project out of the scheme, but the present Government have put it back and are conducting a study. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the study will produce a way forward for that stretch of road?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that unpartisan point as he has enabled me to comment in an unpartisan way that, before the general election, he and his hon. Friends promised the people of Norfolk the earth and told them that the A47 would be dualled. In fact, it has not been dualled. The Government have failed to keep their promises, and he and his hon. Friends now have to answer difficult questions in their constituencies.

I am sorry, but I want to allow other hon. Members to speak.

The A47 has not been dualled. It is a killing zone on the eastern side of Norwich. There are also two dangerous stretches in the Dereham area.

The A47 is vital for two reasons. First, at the strategic level, it provides communications that are vital to all people in Norfolk, whatever their political views. Secondly, there is the matter of safety. My constituents of all political parties are disappointed by the Government's decision, after many promises in opposition that they would carry out yet more studies on the A47. Indeed, the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) referred to that.

Under the previous Government—and under the present Administration—the A47 has been studied to death. We want action and the A47 to be dualled. There can be no more excuses.

My second point has been touched on several times, mainly by Labour Members who consider it an embarrassment. The continued increase in fuel costs penalises motorists in rural areas, particularly in my constituency of Mid-Norfolk where a car is not a luxury; it is a necessity for many of the poorest families who are penalised time and again. The proposed cut in road licence tax for cars with smaller engines is irrelevant to poor families with large cars. Are they expected to sell their cars and buy new ones?

Transport should be about offering people a choice. In most of Mid-Norfolk the geography of the area creates a major problem in respect of providing an integrated public transport system. Cars are vital in Norfolk, and it must be the Government's duty to provide every opportunity to support people's ability to use their cars. So let us keep the fuel costs down and make certain that our main trunk road—the A47—is dualled. Let us deliver on the promises that Labour made in opposition and has so far failed to deliver.

10.24 am

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on securing today's debate on an important issue which affects us all. I also welcome yesterday's announcement by the Government on the multi-modal studies, particularly that relating to the A14, which runs from Cambridge to Huntingdon, and which is designated to start in 1999–2000. It is most welcome. The Cambridge Evening News conducted a great campaign and collected 10,000 signatures. The Government's approach looks at the whole area around the A14. It involves not simply building a four-lane highway through the middle of Cambridgeshire, but looking at other modes of transport—including public transport and the Cambridge-St Ives railway line, for which many of us have campaigned for many years—and provides an opportunity to get those issues onto the agenda and consider them in a sensible way, with land use planning, public transport and road transport all playing a role in the economic development of Cambridgeshire.

I know that the present Government, unlike the previous Administration, will produce not simply an empty, unfunded wish list, but proposals that will have a real chance of being implemented. The previous Administration did a real disservice to the people of Cambridgeshire by misleading them about what was in the roads programme and funded. Their wishes were extremely misleading.

Further to the point that the hon. Lady is making, I hope that the Minister will be able to say not only that the study will take place sooner, which is welcome, but that if it concludes that the A 14 should be upgraded, that should happen quickly and, if necessary, be included in the Government's targeted programme of road improvements, even though it is within the seven-year limit that was set last July.

I acknowledge the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the point that he has raised. I certainly hope that the work on the road will be completed as quickly as possible.

Let me spend a little time talking about my constituency in Cambridge, which is not rural but has a great problem that affects many people. I receive constant complaints from a variety of people—mainly school children—about the difficulty of walking to school because of the enormous amount of road traffic that affects my constituency more severely than most. Some 40,000 people commute into Cambridge every day—an excessive number given that only about 100,000 live in the city.

People in Cambridge have tried to solve the problem in their own way. The city has one of the highest proportions of people who travel to work by bicycle. The figure is around 20 per cent. in Cambridge—a higher percentage than for any other city in the UK, and which rivals some cities in Denmark and Scandinavia. I have to praise West Anglia Great Northern railways for making it easier for people to use bicycles as part of an integrated transport strategy. WAGN has provided extra parking space at Cambridge railway station and railway carriages that can carry bicycles without inconveniencing other passengers. It has provided secure cycle parking at Cambridge railway station. If one buys a season ticket to commute into Cambridge, it is possible to borrow a bicycle free of charge. Those facilities could be emulated elsewhere and are an extremely welcome development. Real efforts are being made to attract cyclists.

There are problems with taxis that need to be addressed. I understand that WAGN proposes to lease part of the station forecourt to an operator of O-licensed public service vehicles. I understand that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) also has an O-licensed taxi problem in his constituency. The vehicles often appear to be identical to taxis. Some operators have been using O-licensed vehicles in the same way as taxis, but they are not subject to the regulation imposed on regular taxi cabs. Not unnaturally, taxi drivers in my constituency are outraged at the intrusion.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is taking the issue seriously and will introduce regulations so that the drivers of such vehicles have to undergo the same safety and criminal record checks as conventional taxi drivers. I welcome that. I hope that she will also consider the effect on taxi drivers, many of whom have paid many thousands of pounds for their licence plate and are worried that they will lose that investment and be driven out of business by the unregulated taxis.

I want to know what the Government have to say, but I also stress the importance of making the unregulated O-licensed vehicles stick within the strict confines of the law. I understand that there has been some laxity in its application in Chelmsford. Taxi drivers in my constituency are concerned about what has happened there. I hope that any infringement of the rules will be taken seriously and dealt with promptly.

The success of the Government's exhortations to people to use public transport has created problems. Many commuters are finding rail services unsatisfactory. The Cambridge to King's Cross commuter line has been subject to various delays in recent weeks, causing inconvenience and making people lose valuable time and resources.

Stagecoach Cambus took over the bus services in Cambridge some time ago. We have had several months of complete disaster with the bus services. I feel strongly about the issue, because it affects the most vulnerable people in my constituency—those who cannot afford a car and have to rely on public transport to get around. I have had letters from elderly people who wanted to go to hospital or into town to do some shopping and had to wait an hour or an hour and a half for a bus, when they should come at 10-minute intervals.

I have had several meetings with the directors of Stagecoach. They are taking the problem seriously now and are effecting some improvements, but there is still some way to go. Anything that my hon. Friend the Minister can do to encourage quality partnerships between county councils and local bus operators would be welcome.

The park-and-ride bus service works very well. Unfortunately, it does not help my constituents, although it may help the constituents of some Conservative Members. However, it reduces the amount of traffic coming into the city, because people are encouraged to leave their cars in the park-and-ride car parks, knowing that they can get a regular and reliable bus service into the city.

I congratulate the Government on the long-overdue measures that they have taken to encourage public transport. I hope that they will lead to traffic reduction in Cambridge city. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take every possible means to encourage public transport, the increased use of bicycles and better facilities for pedestrians, which will all help to achieve the reduction in traffic on our roads that she and I want.

10.34 am

I shall be brief, because time is pressing. I should like to talk about the issue that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) referred to—the definition of regulations as they affect authorised taxi drivers. I wrote to the Minister earlier in the week, because a delegation including my constituents and, I am sure, the hon. Lady's, came to lobby us on the issue.

The problem has arisen out of confusion in the drafting of the Transport Act 1985. We urgently need clarification of the legal meaning of the Act so that we can see whether it addresses the problem properly and can be enforced. If the law is so badly drafted that it is meaningless, I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the House of what the Government are prepared to do. The hon. Member for Cambridge said that the Government were committed to regulations. I was interested to hear that. I should like to hear more from the Minister about the background to that and whether she feels that we can move forward on that basis.

No one wants to restrict competition for customers and price competition that results in better value for customers, but it is important that everyone who provides a taxi-type service should operate on a level playing field. They should have the same safety checks for the protection of the public and of themselves. The same applies to pricing policy. In Chelmsford, prices for licensed taxi drivers are determined by the local council. Those who do not come within the ambit of the council can set prices off their own bat. When two groups of people provide the same service, it is unfair that one group is hamstrung by having to abide by rules and regulations—with implicit financial costs—and the other group is not. I urge the Minister to clarify the situation as far as she can and sort out an unintended muddle in the law so that we can ensure that our taxi services are efficient, first-rate, price-competitive and, above all, safe for passengers and for drivers.

10.37 am

I shall try to be very brief. I thank the Government for changing their plans and announcing yesterday that the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon road would be brought into the first tranche of multi-modal studies, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said, although she might have admitted that if the Labour Government had not taken the improvement out of the programme originally, the issue might have been more straightforward.

The stretch of the A14 from Girton, on the edge of Cambridge, to the Suffolk border is all in my constituency. Although the problems of traffic volume on that stretch are not as severe as those on the Cambridge to Huntingdon stretch, they are considerable and are causing significant problems of noise impact for those who live nearby.

The public inquiry 26 or 27 years ago proposed the building of noise barriers alongside the villages of Histon and Impington. They are still not built. I hope that the Minister will examine the Highways Agency's argument that the requirement for noise attenuation measures applies only to new roads. Many existing roads now carry far more traffic than they were designed for and it should be possible to put in noise barriers in such cases.

The Government have proposed to detrunk the A10, but we do not know what that means, when it will happen and whether there will be any dowry to maintain or improve the road. That critical link from Cambridge to Ely and the fens could be used to push the development pressures further north, but that will not happen until the road is improved. I hope that the Minister will soon give Cambridgeshire county council the details of the detrunking plan so that the county council can give it the priority that local people attach to it.

The A142 connects the fens and Ely to the A 14 further east, and goes through to Felixstowe port, which is obviously important. There is only one village on the A142 that is not bypassed: the village of Fordham. I declare that that happens to be where I live, but the bypass is No. 1 on Cambridgeshire county council's list of road improvements.

Last year, I took a delegation, representing all tiers and all parties in government in the county, to see the Minister. She listened courteously, but was unable to put the money into Cambridgeshire. I hope that she will look again at what is a major requirement. A lot of industrial development is taking place in the area, and such improvements would make the world of difference to the community.

In the whole of the East Cambridgeshire district, atmospheric pollution levels are highest on the stretch of road where the A142 runs through Fordham. That is not what anyone would have expected, but all the tests demonstrate that that is the case. We are only talking about a £12 million bypass—not a large sum. However, the county cannot even begin the design or go through the necessary procedures until it has an undertaking that the money will be forthcoming.

I hope that the Minister will take on board those points, but particularly the need for clarification on the A10 and the need to look again at the Fordham bypass on the A142.

10.41 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) on obtaining this debate. It is notable that debates on regional and local transport seem to be more common—perhaps reflecting frustration and disappointment with the delivery of the Government's much-vaunted integrated transport policy.

The hon. Member for Luton, North launched an attack on bus deregulation. Unfortunately, the Government broadly accepted the privatised framework of the bus industry in the recent White Paper. We welcome any measures to improve bus services, but the White Paper has a sting in the tail. The UK has some of the safest buses in the world, but the Deputy Prime Minister thinks that we need those corrupt EU officials to tell us to make them safer. The White Paper says that the bus industry will be brought under the EU working time directive, which will force up bus operators' costs and reduce the number of viable routes—another great triumph for the Deputy Prime Minister.

Otherwise, the White Paper is a glossy brochure with a requirement for yet more consultation, underlining that it is more publicity puff that lacks policy. The Government are still fumbling for something positive to do. The White Paper does not radically change Conservative bus policy, but builds on privatisation and competition. Local authorities will need to put aside outdated anti-privatisation attitudes, and will have to work more positively with commercial operators than many have in the past.

The hon. Member for Luton, North talked about delayed investment in Thameslink 2000. That is regrettable, but at least there is an investment programme—including new train sets. That is a big contrast to the much-vaunted public-private partnership on the tube, where nothing is happening because the Government are hidebound in their ideology about who should own the tube.

The hon. Member for Luton, North said that there was a great task for the Strategic Rail Authority—but where is it? We are two years into the life of a Government who promised immediate benefits to the travelling public, yet the Deputy Prime Minister has been unable to secure any transport legislation. We are still waiting for the SRA.

The hon. Member welcomed the roads review, and—extraordinarily—welcomed the abandonment of the widening of the MI. Does he honestly believe that it is a viable long-term option not to widen the MI? He said that he wanted to improve rail links, and certainly there has been improvement. Despite his opposition to privatisation, the privatised railways will announce tomorrow that they are increasing investment by another £10 billion.

That means that the Government have inherited a £30 billion investment programme in the railways. Where would that money have come from if the service had not been privatised? It would have been stuck in the same groove as the tube, with no investment at all. Who seriously believes that the railways can be built to take sufficient capacity to avoid the need for widening schemes such as the M1?

The hon. Member complained about the lack of money for investment in local transport infrastructure, yet Luton airport is owned by Luton council. There is a source of funds. If the council were not dedicated to the 100 per cent. ownership of the airport, it could get involved in a public-private partnership to raise capital for investment in the airport.

Luton airport is a public-private partnership, and money is coming in from the private sector. However, the long-term ownership remains with the local authority.

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, by sticking to the outdated socialist ideology of public ownership and ultimate public control, he is cutting off his nose to spite his face. The council could raise far more money if it transferred the business to the private sector, as the Government are doing with National Air Traffic Services.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) referred to old chestnut of the A47 Thorney bypass. I regret that the previous Government did not deal with that problem.

The delay and dithering of which the hon. Gentleman is accusing us has been mimicked successfully by his own Government. We must move on. It is odd that Labour Members pick on policy failures of ours to justify policy failures of their own. The Government promised an integrated transport policy, and they are failing to deliver.

The way forward is not another study, and the real reason for a study is that the budget is being cut. There is no alternative to a bypass at Thorney. Friends of the Earth support bypasses in such circumstances because they are good for the environment. The only reason that it has been delayed again is because the budget has been cut.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made a sensible speech, and asked us to strip away the ideology—and he did so. However, the road improvements that he wants for his constituency to deal with unemployment are not within Government policy. Unless they change their attitude to the importance of roads to economic development, the hon. Gentleman will be a long way from getting those roads. Again, the studies on the A47 are just another excuse for inaction.

The hon. Member, rightly, said that rail in all circumstances cannot be a substitute for road improvement, and there is no substitute for the bypass round Bungay.

The hon. Member's comment on the fuel duty escalator was apposite. He said that it was a blunt instrument which lacked social equity, and road hauliers in his constituency are suffering badly because of it. We think that the point of an escalator is that when you get to the top, you get off. It is time that the Government reviewed the policy.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the outcome of the roads review, which showed that the routes to my part of the region, the All and the A47, were deemed to be justified on the grounds of economy and integration? That was clearly marked on the map that encapsulated all the policies. What we have for the A47 is a step forward from the complete deletion of the scheme by the previous Government.

On road haulage, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the KPMG report yesterday that showed that this country has the second-lowest road freight costs of all of the G7 countries?

The hon. Gentleman should try telling that to his road hauliers—I would be interested to know what happens to him.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) talked about the importance of cycling, and I agree. However, I wonder where the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) is, because Colchester borough council has been criticised by cyclists for not providing sufficient cycling facilities.

The hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) complained about the roads maintenance backlog—which, I should point out, is getting worse under this Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) talked about the dualling of the A47—another broken promises, and another study as an excuse for a lack of money. He is right to say that the Government should be delivering choice, but that they have failed.

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) also wants a new road. It is interesting how many participants in this debate want new roads, contrary to the Government's policy. The outcome of the study, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said, is bound to be the widening of the A14, and the Government are simply using that as an excuse.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) picked up on the need to clarify the Transport Act 1985. The official Opposition share that objective and will provide the Government any assistance for primary legislation on that score.

Transport taxation is rocketing, while spending on transport is falling under the comprehensive spending review. Vital investment programmes are being cut or are hidebound by ideology. The Government promised an integrated transport policy, but they delivered a standstill Britain, which is why more and more hon. Members are queueing to take part in these debates. They promised immediate benefits for the travelling public but they have failed to deliver.

The Government should put the environment first, put choice second and come up with real new ideas and fresh thinking to deal with our transport challenges.

10.51 am

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

Every single contribution, other than that of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), has highlighted the vital importance of integrated transport infrastructures for the eastern region. Member after Member, both Conservative and Labour, underlined the total failure of the previous Administration to begin to address the issues of integrated transport and its impact on a sustainable economy. Member after Member highlighted the failure of previous Administrations to tackle the serious issues concerning rural communities and the peripherality of the region.

In a debate as short as this, the contribution of the hon. Member for North Essex was contemptible. He used it exclusively for empty party political purposes. It was as ill-informed as it was ill-structured. His total failure to acknowledge the Conservative Government's responsibilities with regard to the issues in the eastern region was lamentable.

The Labour Government have transformed the direction of transport in this country. We have put massive funding into the eastern region, via the local transport plans and investment in rural bus companies. Every single contribution, other than that of the hon. Member for North Essex, underlined the fact that our actions will bring the co-ordinated benefits that will begin to tackle the serious problems that have existed in the eastern region for far too long.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I genuinely seek your advice. The Minister seems to be including me in that blanket approval of Government policy, but, as you know, I expressed no such sentiment.

That is a matter of debate, not a point of order.

Conservative Members may have approached in a somewhat more oblique way the lamentable failures of the previous Administration, but that is a problem more for their consciences than for this debate.

Themes have recurred in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), whom I congratulate on securing this debate, and my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) all spoke of the serious problems of east-west routes in the region. The difficulties concern both the strategic road corridors and the railways. Without exception, my hon. Friends welcomed the steps that the Government have taken in introducing a Strategic Rail Authority and the benefits that will stem from the rail summit.

We are delivering on the strategic routes, which hon. Members have identified as the All, A 14 and A47. Let me remind the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that it was the previous Government who withdrew the then roads programme. There will be some disappointment that not all schemes and studies can be completed straight away, but we have to be realistic.

I regret the fact that the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) is not present. He left me a note explaining why he could not be here. I am sure that he will be aware that future investment priorities are to be considered by the regional planning bodies as part of their regional transport strategies.

Most of the issues that have been touched on concern how we can begin to offer genuine choice for the transport of both individuals and freight in the eastern region. Clearly, integrated transport is the way in which that can be achieved. We have already begun the process by asking local authorities to produce integrated transport plans. Perhaps even more important are the responsibilities for regional transport forums and regional development agencies. Transport is a major player in issues such as reintegration, regeneration and breaking down the barriers of social injustice: burdens left to us by the previous Administration which we are tackling with great speed and concentration.

My hon. Friends highlighted the need to use, for example, pedestrian and cycling facilities, not only to offer us greater choice as individuals but, very importantly, to begin to reduce the need for children to be taken to school by car. My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield spoke of the extremely good work being done in her part of the region. I had the privilege of joining the Walking Bus when I last visited her part of the world, and a delight it was. Ensuring that routes are safe and reducing the need for children to be taken to school by car can make a contribution not only to reducing congestion and pollution but to our children's health.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) spoke about O-licences. As my hon. Friend said, we are examining regulations, especially in relation to safety. I was aware of the lobby that took place, and I have given a commitment that I will meet representatives from the Transport and General Workers Union's taxi section to discuss the issue.

It is entirely appropriate to touch lightly on the issue of quality partnerships, as, only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister launched yet another daughter document to our White Paper, dealing with buses and the way in which we can ensure that local authorities and bus providers, working together, deliver buses that will transform that form of transport from the old workhorse to a steed of great parentage and blood.

Huge improvements can be made to people's lives by, for example, the introduction of accessible buses. We want the process to expand. There has been massive funding in the eastern region from our rural bus fund and the rural bus challenge. We look to local and regional authorities to build on those innovations to ensure that we can begin to break down the social isolation suffered in far too many parts of the eastern region.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned detrunking and noise on roads. I am sure that he is aware of the announcement by my noble Friend the Minister for Roads and Road Safety on the criteria and funding that the Government will introduce to consider noise on roads that are currently outside the structures for additional noise barriers. On detrunking, negotiations are continuing between local authorities and the Department. It does not mean any loss of status for the roads concerned and we want to transfer a fair amount to local authorities to ensure the whole-life maintenance of such roads.

The hon. Member for—

Metropolitan Police Budget

11 am

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of the Metropolitan police budget for the next financial year. It is right to start this debate with a few words of heartfelt praise for the work and efforts of the Metropolitan police across the capital, especially as the force has faced a tough few years. The cuts imposed by the previous Conservative Government, coupled with controversial internal reforms such as the introduction of tenure, have meant that the morale of the capital's police force has been sorely tested. After the tragedy of Stephen Lawrence's murder and the revelations and publicity surrounding the Macpherson inquiry, that test has been truly tough. However, Metropolitan police officers, day in and day out, have put those pressures and frustrations aside and got on with the job. We should be grateful to them and pay tribute to the excellent work they do for all who live in, work in, and visit this great city.

It is because the Metropolitan police have played such an integral and vital role in London that I wish to raise my concerns about the budget allocation made by the Government for the force next year. It is not enough. That is not only because the budget has gone up by only 2.7 per cent., when the Met themselves say they need 6.1 per cent. just to stand still. It is not only because the number of officers is falling by 75 next year, following a fall of 230 this year. The budget is not enough because, in the daily experience of my constituents, the police are increasingly overstretched and unable to do the job that the community wants them to do.

I am indebted for information about the key elements of the Metropolitan police budget for next year to the Receiver of the Metropolitan police and the Minister. I owe a particular debt to the receiver, because—as a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Bill—I helped to abolish him, or rather his post. However, the receiver reassures me that he is happy to be abolished. I am not so sure that the Minister will feel that this speech is recompense for her kindness in ensuring that I received yesterday personal copies of the Met's new policing and efficiency plans for next year, but I thank her none the less.

The budget figures are stark. The small cash increases awarded to the Met for next year represent a real cut of 0.8 per cent., following a fall this year of 0.9 per cent. Nor do those cuts follow years of growth. The Audit Commission's report, published in January, reveals that between 1994–95 and 1997–98, the Metropolitan police were one of only three police authorities in the country to see real-term budget cuts. It has not been boom and bust for the Metropolitan police, but bust and bust. There will be no relief even after next year. In years two and three of the comprehensive spending review—the two years after the next financial year—there is little sign of a turnaround.

In practice, the budget situation is even worse that I have described, because of various other factors including, in particular, the mushrooming pension bill of the Met. which is largely paid for out of revenue. Other factors include cost pressures due to increasing demands on and duties for the Metropolitan police, such as those arising from the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the new laws regulating minicabs.

The coming financial year will also see specific one-off cost increases for the Met, including the capital city costs for policing the millennium, the costs arising from the change in the Metropolitan police district and the need to support moves to borough-based policing. I hope that the Minister will address those one-off costs in her reply. Will she reflect on whether the Government should use cash from the contingency reserves to supplement the 1999–2000 Met budget? That would at least recognise that the Met face some extraordinary expenditure items next year—expenditures that the budget allocation we are discussing this morning has not yet specifically covered.

Over the longer term, the increasing pension bill adds 1 per cent. a year to the direct costs of the Metropolitan police. That means that inflation for the police is already 1 per cent. higher than general inflation before anything else, such as pay, is considered. The pension pressure by itself implies that inflation-adjusted cuts to the Met's budget next year, as in the previous years I have already mentioned, present too rosy a view of the underlying position.

Considerable cost pressures arise from the issue of pay, because of the significant problems that the Met have with recruitment. Partly as a result of the abolition of the London housing allowance after the Sheehy report, the numbers coming forward to join the Met have been falling. If the Met are to recruit more officers from ethnic minorities, for example, they will have to ensure that pay remains competitive. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) will try to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to say more about the Met's recruitment problems, but, for my purposes, they illustrate the financial challenges that the Met face.

The Minister and I may disagree about many issues today, but I hope that we can agree that the Met's budget has been, and continues to be, cut in real terms. Part of the reason for the negative trend in the Met were the changes in the early 1990s to the formula dividing the national police budget between different police forces. That deliberately introduced an anti-London bias. Chief constables from outside London convinced Home Secretaries that London was being featherbedded. As a result, the Met have seen their share of the national police budget shrink from 29 per cent. before the changes in the formula to some 22 per cent. today.

We must now seriously question whether that squeeze on the Met can be sustained for much longer. I understand that the Government are trying to bypass the worst effect of the formula for London by increasing specific grants to compensate for the distinct national and capital city functions that the Met undertake, in protecting royalty and diplomats and policing major events. However, formulae that have served their useful life should be changed, and I urge the Minister to revisit the formula and tackle the anti-London bias.

The comparison that makes London's case well is how London's police officer establishment compares with that in other capital cities of equivalent size and population. While London has some 26,000 officers, New York scrapes by with 40,000—not including Federal Bureau of Investigation and anti-drugs officers—and Paris has a mere 50,000 officers.

London's police precept, compared to other parts of the country, is low and there appears to be a clear intention, which started with the previous Government and looks set to continue, that this precept gap should be closed, and London's council tax payers will be asked to fork out more. It is possible that Londoners will readily accept that, but only if they feel that the extra money they are paying is being used to increase London's police.

The political problem that the Government have is simultaneously cutting London's police budget and demanding higher and higher precepts. How can such a perverse combination be explained to the voters? A member of the Kingston police and community consultative group, Mrs. Alison McWhinnie, put the point well in a letter about the situation in Kingston:
"Local feeling is very strongly against the police cuts, particularly against the backdrop of what is perceived to be a totally unjustified rise in council taxes. Local people feel that they are having to pay more—to get less in return."
I hear that complaint increasingly frequently and I completely agree. It is verging on the undemocratic to ask voters for more money for the police and then, because of the complexities of the police funding arrangements, to proceed to cut the total budget.

The Government have only one major argument against that analysis of the Met's budget, and that is efficiency savings. The Government's view is that all the real-terms budget cuts and all the dire short and long-term budget pressures on the Met can be absorbed through efficiency savings. They have assumed, for example, that next year the Met will save 3.5 per cent. through efficiencies, of which 1.8 per cent. can be cashed in for redirection. Indeed, the central budgetary role of efficiency savings has become a pet theme of the Home Secretary. He seems to be convinced that the police are so riddled with inefficiencies that their performance will be unaffected if budgets are slashed.

In my constituency, efficiency savings have meant the closure of a sub-police station in Ham. Local volunteers kept going until recently, but sadly that will not continue. The main police station in Richmond town centre, an area which is widely regarded by the Metropolitan police as the drinking centre of London, is manned in the evenings only during the summer. For the rest of the time, the residents have to be content with a telephone on the wall. How does my hon. Friend feel about that as an efficiency saving?

I share my hon. Friend's concern about that type of efficiency saving. New Malden has also lost a police station, and my constituents tell me that they do not wish to see efficiency savings such as that. The Home Secretary goes on about efficiency savings. Last Thursday, warming to his theme, he quoted the former Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury—the quote was taken in turn from the memoirs of Lord Baker—as saying of the police:

"We have thrown money at them and we have the highest level of crime in our history."

The Home Secretary quoted that remark with apparent approval, implying that Labour agrees with the Conservatives. Home Office Ministers appear to have done a complete volte face since they were in opposition, positively revelling in the self-evident and all too convenient statement that it is not police numbers or budgets that count, but whether or not crime is going down. It is not inputs that matter, but outputs, they say.

Who could disagree with a search for efficiency savings or with the notion that the police, like all public services, should focus far more on outputs? We do not disagree with that analysis, but we do not share the Government's logic that basic budgets can therefore be cut.

As a member of the Liberal Democrat Treasury team, I studied last year New Zealand's experiment in budget setting by output. Output budgeting drives greater efficiency and enhances accountability because Ministers, Parliament and the public can see more easily how taxes are being spent. The estimates that Parliament receives become thick tomes rather than a few pages. They mean something, and debate can flourish about what is wanted from the police.

We agree with a focus on outputs, but I enter one note of caution. There can be perverse outcomes when budgets for public services are set in terms of outputs, with purchased amounts of services measured and targeted. Towards the end of one financial year, Wellington traffic police had carried out nowhere near the number of breathalyser tests that it was contracted to perform, and to meet its contractual obligation, the police brought Wellington to a standstill, breathalysing almost everyone in a motor vehicle.

Despite such occasional absurdities, output budgeting has largely worked in New Zealand. Directly relevant to this debate is the fact that when a public service analysed what it was trying to achieve, the result was not cuts. Indeed, in many areas, the police realised that more spending was needed.

That is the crucial lesson which I wish to share with Ministers. Focusing fully on outputs, such as reducing fear of crime, might make it clear that more resources are needed. To reduce the fear of crime, we need high-visibility policing, including, at least in some areas, more bobbies on the beat.

I have read the Metropolitan police's policing and efficiency plans for 1999–2000, which were published yesterday, and I saw how Government and the police plans are evolving towards output budgeting. A start has certainly been made. Building on inherited performance targets and indicators, the plans attempt to set out what the Government are trying to achieve with the police and to set out intermediate targets to measure and attain those objectives.

However, detailed consideration of the efficiency plan makes it clear that the Government's approach remains input budgeting. They have set out the outputs that they want, but those outputs are not driving efficiency plans. Instead, those plans are clearly driven by the desperate need to plug the gap in the Met's budget left by Government underfunding rather than by a more strategic analysis of roles, responsibilities and processes.

That is not to say that the efficiency plan is not excellent and might not achieve results similar to those of pure output budgeting: it is, and it might. It is right, for example, to tackle absenteeism and sickness rates, and to reduce them. If that is done, the police officers lost to budget cuts may, at least partially, be offset by the fact that at any one time, fewer officers will be off sick.

It is right to reduce the cost of buildings, to be more efficient in procurement and to use technology to cut costs. However, because the efficiency plan has had to come up with very large figures for savings, over a short period, setting very ambitious targets, one is left with the concern not only that the targets will not be met, but that something is being lost under this approach. What is being lost might be services or features of the Met police that ought to be retained, such as the police stations mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge).

Let me illustrate the problems with examples from my constituency. Kingston division has been hit hard in recent times. We lost more than 40 officers under the Tories in just the two years before the election. Last year, we were threatened by another round of major cuts, and only by hard lobbying of New Scotland Yard did the police community and consultative group and I manage to bring about a rethink.

A few of them were in senior ranks, but many others were ordinary beat officers who have been lost to the Metropolitan police or transferred to inner London. They are certainly not on the streets of Kingston.

Instead of our losing officers, New Malden police station was closed. This year, the Metropolitan police commissioners are back with proposed cuts of 14 officers next year, and eight more from April 2000. All the cuts are the direct result of Government cuts to the Metropolitan police budget.

Kingston is doing its bit towards efficiency drives. In February 1998, Kingston division lost 702 police staff days to sickness. A year later, that had been cut in half to just 328 days, which is excellent. Also excellent is the fact that, with intelligent policing, the burglary rate in Kingston fell last year by 33 per cent.—the fastest fall in any London division. That is brilliant work by the police officers of Kingston division, and I thank and praise them for it.

These efficiency savings and good performances have not prevented the budget shortfall creating other real problems. To start with, New Malden police station remains closed, which is very bad news for an area in which the police presence was appreciated and had a deterrence value. People must go into Kingston to report crime, which may even have distorted crime figures. There is no doubt that closure represents a significant worsening in the police service to New Malden. The sooner the station is reopened, the better.

A second major issue is response times, particularly to areas on the perimeter of the division. The Metropolitan police's policing plan acknowledges how budget cuts are affecting performance:
"In recognition of the increasing demands for police services, and the resource constraints on the Service, the MPS Charter target for responding to emergency calls within 12 minutes has been adjusted from an 85 per cent target to an 80 per cent target".
That is an admission that services are being downgraded.

In Kingston, we have felt the reality of that. Constituents tell me that when there are problems in Chessington, say from a gang of youths on Hook parade, or problems in Worcester park around the station with vandals and graffiti, the police response time has dropped. That is borne out by figures supplied to me by our excellent new chief superintendent, Alan Given, showing that Kingston police arrived at emergency calls within the 12 minutes target more than 90 per cent. of the time last year, but performance has dropped this year to 85 per cent.

A third issue is concern about recent upsurges in youth crime and petty crime in general. Local people see a direct link between this upsurge and the reduction in the number of permanent beat officers in the division. Gerald Lambert, a local neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, told me this week:
"More and more I hear neighbours and colleagues telling me that they do not bother to report petty crimes because they are so common, and they know the police do not have the resources to deal with them."
The reality of the cuts is a loss of officers, and no amount of efficiency savings can hide that. It is all very well for the Government to talk about community policing, zero tolerance and tackling persistent youth offenders, but in Kingston, despite superb and improving efforts by the local police, such talk is treated with derision.

In Kingston, and probably elsewhere in the Metropolitan police area, there is a feeling that when the local police do well, they are punished. There are perverse incentives in the police formula for London. If that formula were fully applied to Kingston, we would lose many, many more police officers. Why? Because crime statistics suggest that we have relatively little crime by comparison with central London, and that there has been a great deal of success in recent years.

Where would such reductions take us? As Roland Kerr, of Kingston Vale neighbourhood watch puts it:
"I am appalled not just by the reductions but by the continued reductions, year after year. At the "nth" degree we will have no police".
We must recognise that places such as Kingston are not over-staffed, whatever the formula says. I urge Ministers to revisit the London police resourcing formula to make sure that success in reducing crime in areas such as Kingston is not punished.

Other places in London are being hit by the cuts. That is why the main focus of this debate is the Londonwide budget. Indeed, my constituents want the whole of London's police to be better resourced. Higson of the Cambridge Road estate residents association in Kingston put it very well when he wrote:
"We feel at times government concentrates too much on the cost of fighting crime to the extent they ignore the cost of crime to the citizen."

That brings me back to what are probably the core issues for this debate: whether efficiency savings can make up for real-terms budget cuts facing the Metropolitan police, and whether, when crime is reduced, we should cut back on resources. Efficiency savings ought to be a bonus to a local police force, so that it can develop services, not a continual requirement that must be met if wholesale redundancies are to be avoided. Efficiency savings are difficult to make when total budgets are pared back so much. When will anyone judge that the scale of year-on-year efficiency savings has become impossible to meet? Surely Ministers do not think that that model can continue in perpetuity.

Nor should Ministers be complacent when crime is falling. Falls can surely be explained by a number of factors, from under-reporting of crime to the relatively low level of unemployment. I am sure that the falls are also to do with improved policing, but they are not simply a result of that. Even if crime is falling, surely we do not accept the levels with which we are left. Crime is still far too high. If the police are more successful at reducing crime, we should invest in them and their efforts.

I hope that the Minister will at least acknowledge that the Metropolitan police budget is creating difficulties across London. Officers are being lost and communities feel that they are losing their beat officers. I hope that she will take this opportunity not simply to defend the Government's policy but to show that Ministers are ready to think again.

11.21 am

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has raised this topic this morning. It is undoubtedly important, and I am sad that so few hon. Members are in the Chamber to hear what he said. It was worth listening to. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying some nice things about the Met. I believe that they have been traduced recently. They do an excellent job in Bromley. Their record in reducing crime there is good, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, that is not an excuse for reducing the number of police. The fact is that crime is too high and always need to be fought.

The position in Bromley is serious. It is no doubt brought about by the underfunding of the Metropolitan police in London as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has been a reduction in real terms in the funding for the Met and the consequences are spread around the whole Metropolitan area. It is apparent that the underfunding will be spread over the next three years. That is the problem. The comprehensive spending review locks in funding for three years so there is no likelihood of any change in the present position, which is extremely unsatisfactory.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, the problem is compounded by early retirement, the pensions problem and the exceptional problems of the millennium. We face a bleak future of inadequate funding. What underfunding means in an area such as Bromley is simple. At present, we have seven police stations in the borough, which as the House will know is large in London terms. Two of the stations—Biggin Hill in my constituency and Chislehurst in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—will certainly close this summer. The alarming thing is that it is rumoured that the station in Chislehurst will be turned into a large themed pub. Hon. Members will be able to imagine the concerns of local residents that a police station, which they look to as a source of security and quietness, may become a large themed pub, with all that goes on inside and outside such places. However, that is merely a rumour.

So two police stations out of seven will certainly go. There are also rumours about two other police stations. The one in St. Mary Cray opened only in 1992 under the Conservative Administration. It was campaigned for long and hard by me, by local councillors of all parties and by local residents. We got it built only after a great deal of trouble. It is necessary because the area is a crime hotspot. It has done a good job since it opened. Crime has been reduced in the area. It has had a wholly good effect.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton agrees that the existence of a police station in an area has a beneficial effect and reduces crime in an area. That has been proved year in and year out by the evidence from St. Mary Cray since 1992. Now, it, too, is under threat.

I am told by the local police that the latest position is that they intend to keep the police station at St. Mary Cray. I am very glad to hear it. They also intend for the moment to keep the station in Penge, which is also under threat, but it is likely that, eventually, those two stations will go. Then we will be left with only three police stations.

It can be argued that we should not put too much money into bricks and mortar; that it does not necessarily produce better policing and that it is better to spend the available money on front-line policemen. That argument has been advanced by the Labour party since the general election. However, that is not how the policing works out in reality. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a perverse incentive. If police stations are closed in Bromley, the area will not be able to keep the money in Bromley and put it into extra policemen. The money will disappear into a pot somewhere in London and will be dealt out to some other area. So Bromley suffers a double whammy. It loses two police stations and also loses front-line policemen. That is the problem on the ground.

In the current financial year, the number of policemen went down by 10 in the Bromley division and it will fall by an unknown number—the figures have not yet been worked out—in the next financial year, but the local chief superintendent tells me that it will not be by fewer than 10. So numbers are declining and police stations are closing. Not only that, but, with the new system for rotating police officers, home beat officers are disappearing after two or three years on the beat. The new people know little about what is going on in important crime hotspots. That is a further dilution of the professionalism and effort put into local policing. It is a great tragedy.

The three things that I have mentioned—reduction in the number of police stations, reductions in front-line police numbers and the increased turnround of police officers as a result of the new system—are leading to serious consequences for the further reduction of crime in a typical London borough such as Bromley.

I have more examples of the strains that reductions are causing for the local police. One constituent wrote to me the other day that her partner's tools had been stolen from his car when it was parked outside the house. There were fingerprints and mess everywhere. When she telephoned the local police, they said that they could not send an officer to take fingerprints because no one was available. So, although obvious evidence was there which could help secure a conviction, it was not possible to collect it because the resources were not available.

In my part of London there is a great deal of what another constituent has referred to as youth vandalism and terrorism. Other hon. Members will be familiar with the problem. Areas are troubled by youths who have had too much to drink and have too much time on their hands and the result is bricks through windows, graffiti on walls, cars sprayed and frightening behaviour. That has occurred in a number of areas, and in one particular area recently.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that youth vandalism is increasing because of a lack of bobbies on the beat? I know that the police are keen to respond when a crime occurs, although he has given us an example of when they did not, but the visibility of police on our streets is surely a big factor in prevention—

Order. The hon. Lady should not make a little speech on an intervention.

She may be making a speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Lady is right. Although the police at Biggin Hill station responded rapidly to the problem of youth vandalism and were able to clear it up, there was huge concern. There was a meeting of ratepayers in the local church hall to which 200 people turned out because they were so concerned about the general atmosphere, the mindless vandalism and the fear that had been generated in one area. The police were able to cope and sent a force along and the problem has been cleared up temporarily—but it may well recur. A grateful constituent wrote to me:

"However, we are sorry to learn that the resources of the police are being further reduced and that the Biggin Hill Police Station is most likely to close. This, surely, will only make the local problems worse and it will be only a matter of time before the perpetrators of this vandalism realise that they can resume their reign of terror."
Exactly my point. The closure of a police station will lead local youths to realise that they can get away with things once again and another reign of terror will be promulgated in the area.

Surely the hon. Gentleman highlights the anomaly between foot patrols and mobile patrols in cars. In a car, officers can attend two or three incidents in a short space of time, whereas on foot they can attend only one. Visibility is one thing, but we need to make sure that officers in cars have a rota to make sure that down time is spent not sitting in side streets but attending the very hotspots that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but policing cannot be satisfactory if there are not enough policemen. I am complaining about the reduction in the number of front-line policemen, whether they patrol on foot or in cars. That reduction is the problem; fewer and fewer policemen cannot do more.

A further consequence of the funding cuts is the effect on the confidence of local institutions. In Bromley, as in other areas, there is a police-community consultative group, which has been extremely effective. It is well attended—I go to its meetings whenever my parliamentary duties permit—and is a useful source of information to the police, the local authority and residents; it offers opportunities for people to ventilate their complaints. One of my constituents—a man in whom have great trust—wrote to me about a recent meeting of the consultative group:
"The chairman allowed me to read out a paper which I had prepared prior to the meeting and members of the public present agreed with my views."
His views were:
"Overall the members of the public are not happy with the way the Group runs. While the police listen to what is said, there is seldom any sort of positive response which we like …It seems that all we can look forward to is a continually diminishing police force even less able to enforce all the laws and discharge matters which they, and no one else, currently have responsibility for."
That is the problem. He told me privately that people were attending the consultative group less, because they did not see the point of going to meetings at which the police said sensible things and appeared to be trying to do their best, but simply did not have the resources to deliver what the local community wanted. That is worrying.

As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, the Government's only answer to these problems is efficiency savings. That imposes far too great a burden from one possible course of action, and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it should be a bonus and an incentive for the police to be more efficient, not a necessary criterion of their keeping even their current resources. Indeed, resources in areas such as Bromley are actually diminishing.

We face a bleak future, if we continue down the path on which the Government are set; it is totally at variance with the promises Labour made on the crime front at the general election.

11.32 am

I am grateful to be able to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). I apologise to the House because I shall have to leave shortly after my speech. I have to speak in my constituency on the Government's new deal; I think that that is a sufficiently worthwhile reason for making a rapid exit.

My motives in speaking are similar to those of my hon. Friend. We can all see that cuts are taking place. I campaigned against the cuts in police funding that took place under the previous Government. Since 1997, that process has not merely continued but accelerated; in the Twickenham-Richmond area, we have lost 29 officers—more than 10 per cent. of the establishment—and the effects are felt every day. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam): although the police have received some bad publicity recently, they are an extremely popular and respected public service. The message is simple: people want more police officers, not fewer.

There are two essential levels at which we must analyse the economic problems of the police budget. The first relates to overall public financing and the familiar debates, which we do not need to go into, on such matters as Government public allocation and the role of taxation. In that context, the police service has seen a real reduction in expenditure. Although we have touched on those matters, they are not the essence of this debate.

My hon. Friend has already mentioned the one-off requirements, but he did not mention others; for example, if the Lawrence report is implemented in full, considerable additional costs will be required of the police service for training, additional effort in recruiting and compliance procedures. That will require additional budgets of millions of pounds, for which there is currently no provision.

In respect of national funding, I reinforce the points made about pensions. The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) is in the Chamber; he is the leading authority on public service pensions, especially in the fire service where there is an analogous problem. I appeal to the Minister to consider that matter carefully. The fire service and the police have a uniquely difficult problem with unfunded pensions; pension obligations are now eating up well over 10 per cent. of their budgets, and that percentage increases every year. They have to make a trade-off every year between service provision and pension obligations. In the fire service, that has already led to a virtual breakdown in the service; in three to five years' time, the police service will be in a similar position. That needs to be anticipated and a radical solution found that does not merely start new pension arrangements, but deals with the outstanding stock of pension obligations. The Government have the opportunity and the obligation fundamentally to address that problem.

There is a process by which national funding is allocated between different police authorities. I confess that I do not fully understand it, but I hope that the Minister and others can help me to achieve a better understanding of how the funding formula works. Who sets the weighting between different police forces? As I understand it, the weighting is established by a committee of chief police officers who are not properly representative of the weighting of different forces, in that small police forces have equal weight with the Metropolitan police. That is wholly inappropriate.

I hope that the Government will consider carefully not so much the sums of money as the structure within which the formula is set, because it seems to be inequitable and unsatisfactory. It does not fully capture London's genuinely distinct problems. Some of those problems are acknowledged—for example, the obligation of the Metropolitan police to deal with the problems of terrorism or to cover the royal palaces. Some of those problems are more subtle: the fact that London is a centre for organised crime and is at the centre of the big end of the drug business. I am not sure how much those problems are reflected in the formula, either.

An even more subtle problem, but one that totally disrupts the funding of the Metropolitan police, is the labour market that prevails in London. It is exceptionally difficult to recruit high-quality police officers on current pay and conditions. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has made it clear that he is exceedingly disturbed by the way in which current pay and conditions affect the influx of new police officers. He has to recruit people with extremely low educational qualifications, or even no qualifications at all. He cannot recruit from those people who would be available if pay and conditions were substantially improved; he cannot recruit enough women, or enough people to achieve the correct ethnic mix. That is partly because the formula, set nationally by the committee of chief constables, does not fully recognise the distinctive problems. I hope that that factor will be taken into account.

There are some other relevant issues. The first is priorities; most of us want to talk about our own areas and the way in which they have been affected by the cuts, but broader service sectors in the Metropolitan police have been especially badly hit. The traffic police are severely affected; they have a relatively low priority within Metropolitan police objectives. Many traffic police officers have been redeployed and their posts are no longer filled. The traffic police admit freely that enforcement of serious traffic offences is no longer being carried out with the necessary thoroughness. The dog service is another relatively low-profile police service which has just, rather precariously, been saved from extinction. Such low-priority areas tend to suffer in a tough budgetary environment.

We shall always argue for more money; given the pressures on public services, that is inevitable. But there are ways in which the Government could encourage the Metropolitan police and other police forces to be more imaginative in raising funding. There are two particular methods of doing so. The traffic police could become almost self-financing if they were allowed to retain revenues from funds; hypothecation might be productive in that instance.

A matter more parochial to Twickenham, and one that I have raised with the Home Secretary, is the completely inexplicable practice of large commercial organisations, such as the Rugby Football Union, that organise public events charging the costs of policing the event outside the ground to the public through the Metropolitan police. A major rugby international costs the Metropolitan police about £40,000 in overtime for extra police officers to police traffic and pedestrian movements outside the ground; those costs add up to about £500,000 a year. The number of events organised by such large commercial organisations is growing.

With other events and activities taken into account, each year several million pounds that should properly accrue as revenue to the public sector are being spent on providing services free. The Home Secretary should consider that matter. I realise that there may be technical difficulties: ring-fencing the problem areas; deciding whether to charge in respect of, for example, Chelsea flower show or only big sporting events; and drawing the dividing line between a big event and a small one. However, the issue remains important.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton for raising these issues, and I regret that more hon. Members are not here to participate in the debate.

11.41 am

I shall be brief, as I am conscious that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) speaking for the Conservatives and the Minister should have the opportunity to respond fully to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey).

I hope that I betray no secrets in saying that my hon. Friends and I tried to organise an opportunity for this debate, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton struck lucky. We wanted to have it before the end of this month and before the beginning of the financial year to which the debate is addressed. Like the Minister, I am conscious that this is the third policing debate that we have had within about a week. We had a sometimes fairly aggressive and heated debate in the Standing Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill, which was attended by the Minister in her capacity both as a Home Office Minister and a London Member of Parliament. Also present were the hon. Members for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton.

In that debate, we considered the whole range of policing issues as they stand and how they will be affected by the new arrangements for London. We are aware that the enactment of that Bill—which we strongly support on the question of police arrangements and in other respects—will mean that, from next year, the London police will have their own police authority, independent of the Home Office, which in years to come will allow the force to speak more boldly to the Home Office as the responsible Department.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is appropriate to acknowledge the establishment of the all-party group on police, and the role of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who chairs the group, as a measure of how much more attention police matters now receive in the House?

I certainly do. I am grateful for the acknowledgement of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who, as a member of our London team of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, has led for us on police and fire services matters since the general election, in establishing that all-party group. It is important that the police should know that parliamentarians support them, want to work with them and are well informed about some of the difficult issues affecting them.

Let me reinforce and add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton about the need for the Home Office not to be governed in its formula for allocating resources by the European Union-style, non-weighted voting system, whereby each police force has one vote, which results in the Met, because of that voting system and because of the common perception of the Met as a big, well-funded force, not being able to win the votes required to get them the money that they need. Of course the Met is a big force—it polices the biggest area and the largest number of people. Of course that force is numerically large, with 26,000 officers, which is more police officers than almost everywhere else; but no one has ever argued that capital cities do not need that intensity of policing. There should not be a simple formulaic response which states that police forces throughout the country must have the same ratio of police officers to population, and that is the end of the argument.

We must take into consideration the intensity of effort and work that London requires. I hope that the formula and its workings will properly reflect the fact that, like other London services such as fire, education and social services, London's police services have to cater for the demands of a highly complex and diverse community in terms of ethnicity, language, and so on. London police have to deal with people who speak no English and so have to call in interpreters far more often than police in other parts of the country. In the interests of solidarity and understanding, the London police need officers who come from the various communities. The issues are extremely complex, so to say that we must have the same ratio of police officers to people in London as in, say, Herefordshire—an area I know well—simply does not work. Each case must be judged on its merits.

As a capital city, London, by definition, has an intensity of demand for complex policing that requires a particular concentration of resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton argued that the number of personnel should not be cut. London, sadly but inevitably, has more serious crimes than places elsewhere in the country; there are more murders, homicides, manslaughters and killings. As I told the Standing Committee, I have been involved, to a greater extent than I would have liked, in working with the police to tackle such crimes in my area over the past few years. I can testify to the time and effort, the plain hours of work, required to discover who has committed such a crime.

It is no good saying that police must seek greater efficiency savings. Police officers trying to discover who killed Jamie Robe on the streets of Rotherhithe nearly two years ago have spent days tracing all the possible witnesses, talking to them, trying to persuade them to give evidence, dealing with their concern that if they give evidence they will be at risk themselves, protecting witnesses, and negotiating to ensure that people will be moved if they give evidence. Such an effort cannot produce efficiency savings in simple mathematical or formulaic terms, because the job must be done and more than one officer is needed to do it. A murder inquiry requires many officers, or a few officers dedicated to the task for the vast majority of their time.

Many of those officers work overtime and weekends, or come back from their holidays, to get the job done; they are willing to serve far beyond the hours for which they are paid, and far beyond the pay that they receive. Anyone who thinks that the police are slack and that officers often have idle time in which they sit and do nothing should realise that many officers work many hours more than the time for which they are paid and that they are never recompensed for that. There is very little slack in the service as a whole, and in some areas there is none.

In all the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, no Londoner or constituent has ever said to me that he or she wants the precept for the Metropolitan police to be reduced because it is too high. That has never once happened. Londoners say funding should be reduced for some public services, but not for the police. They know that the force may not be entirely brilliant, that not every police officer is wonderful, and that sometimes things go wrong. Londoners know that there may be some rotten eggs in the basket, but we need a decent police service and we are willing to pay for it.

I am extremely interested in the hon. Gentleman's speech; my remarks will be in a similar vein. However, does he agree that people want to be told the truth about why they are having to pay such a large increase in the police precept?

I agree. That is why I told the Standing Committee that reports such as those of the Audit Commission are extremely valuable, because they force comparisons between police services and make police services face up to which of their traditional, often conservative, practices need reform. In Committee, I gave the example of the nonsense that, for years—even until recently—police officers had to do clerical jobs, such as typing charge sheets, that took them hours to complete, which was frustrating for them and a waste of their time, because a competent audio-typist could have done the job in five minutes.

I know of estates off the Old Kent road that have experienced a lot of youth crime, violence and vandalism, where the presence of regular police patrols makes a difference. Initially they may only displace the crime, but, at the end of the day, such policing does make a difference. If gangs of kids hang around and no one stops them or says anything and the residents are afraid, it is sometimes only the police who can effectively intervene. Only they have the authority, the back-up and security in intervening. Residents cannot do it. Sometimes they will not do it because they are intimidated.

Even though the front-line police officers on the beat are extremely important, we must not think that they are the only important people. There is also a need for back-up officers. We need police officers and those in the youth and community services to work with disturbed families and delinquent kids and to go into the schools. These are not front-line services, but if they do, not do the job, much of the other work will not be done effectively, with the result that we shall be fighting the fire rather than preventing the fire in the first place.

We need to ensure that there are efficiencies made to reduce the time that the police spend in court or waiting to go into court. The situation is better than it was, and the Crown Prosecution Service is a great advance, but the police still spend a lot of time hanging around in seeing the process through. The police do not want to do that any more than anyone else.

My hon. Friends and I have been briefed very clearly by senior Met officers about the recruitment crisis, and there is also the wastage of those recruited who fall away. That is a bad use of resources. We need to ensure that the police are valued.

We also need to ensure that we increase the number of specials, which is a linked issue. The specials do not cost nothing, but they are relatively cheap. Many police officers have been nervous about specials, but they can do jobs that complement the regular police service.

Lastly, in the context of the valid points of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, we must ask Ministers, to consider the issue of pensions nationally but particularly as it applies to the Met. My hon. Friends and I know that that cannot be done for the coming financial year which starts in a week's time. If as my hon. Friend says, we are to continue funding 1 per cent. more every year for the pensions of an ever-increasing number of retired officers—we are told that a quarter of the Met's officers are likely to retire in the next five years, which means that there will be a hugely escalating and continuing bill—money will not be available for front-line policing or for any other police services.

In common with all our constituents, we all value the police hugely. We are willing to work with them to ensure that they deliver their service more efficiently. However, there comes a time when the choice between having a service or not depends on whether there is sufficient cash in the budget. Our case is that however efficient we are and however much crime is reduced if we continue cutting the Met's budget in real terms, we shall cross the threshold between a city where policing is able to contain crime and disorder and a city where it is not. Once we have crossed that threshold, we shall be in severe trouble.

11.53 am

We always welcome the opportunity to debate police issues. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on his success in securing the debate. I am always particularly pleased to debate Metropolitan police issues because the House will know that, like the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick), I have some experience of active service, albeit a long time ago between 1965 and 1969. It is from that prospective that I join those who have again paid tribute to the excellent job done by the vast majority of serving police officers in London. As we are debating the Metropolitan police budget, we should not forget the policing that the force's officers undertake round and about this Palace.

The subject of the debate is very narrow. As hon. Members have said, the Metropolitan police budget is a cause for concern. However, many other forces face similar problems. Indeed, the situation is worse in some forces than in the Met. That is why the Conservative party used part of a Supply day last Thursday to debate the problems of police funding throughout the country. It was extraordinary, especially given what we have heard during the past 50 minutes or so, that by my count at least 16 Liberal Democrat Members voted with the Government against the Conservative motion, which criticised the very cuts in police manpower and in police services that Liberal Democrat Members have complained about today.

Last Tuesday, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made air excellent speech in the Committee that is considering the Greater London Authority Bill. I pay tribute to the excellent overview that he presented. I read his speech with great interest, particularly in preparation for the Bill's imminent return to the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the problems that London police are facing because of Labour policies. It is astonishing that he voted with the Government against the Conservative motion only two days later.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Conservative motion praised the previous Government's record of investment in the police? Liberal Democrats were unable to support the Conservative party and voted with Labour in the Lobby because we could not endorse the Conservative party's record in government.

That is an extraordinary admission, given that the motion merely referred to 15,000 extra police officers being recruited during the 18 years of Conservative rule, which is a matter of record. Today, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have referred to what they consider was the situation between 1992 and 1997. However, I suggest that they revisit the issue of resources and get some of their facts right. Metropolitan police statistics show that from 1979–80 to 1996–97—the 18 years of the previous Conservative Government—expenditure on policing in London grew every year except in 1980–81 to an accumulated 70 per cent. The hon. Gentleman can check the figures.

The statistics of the personnel department of the Metropolitan police show that in the five years after July 1992 the number of constables in the Metropolitan police increased from 20,999 to 21,541. Of course, the total number of officers fell slightly. If the hon. Gentleman wants to find out why that happened—this is partly why I intervened on him—he should consult the Metropolitan police committee's annual reports. The report for 1995–96 shows that throughout the whole country, in the three years from 1994 to 1996, the number of chief inspectors and those in higher ranks reduced by 255. Liberal Democrat Members should examine carefully where things stood when the Conservative party left office. It may have been a useful device at the general election to criticise the Conservative Government's record—it must be acknowledged that it was employed with some success in London seats—but this debate is about criticising the present Government's record. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) has said, over the next three years the situation will become progressively worse as a result of the Government's comprehensive spending review. That will apply not only in London but throughout the country and particularly in rural areas, including those represented by Liberal Democrat Members. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends want to succeed in making contrasts, they should be a little more accurate in what they say about the position that the present Government inherited.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and if last week's motion about policing in the country had concerned what has happened since the election, we would have voted with him and his colleagues. However, the figures—which are the Audit Commission's, not mine—demonstrate that, for the last three years of the Conservative Administration, from 1994–95 to 1997–98, the Met experienced a real-terms budget reduction of about 2.5 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman said, the numbers of police were also considerably reduced in the last years of the Tory Administration.

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Audit Commission's reports and my remarks in the debate last Thursday, he will find that the Audit Commission refers to year-on-year real increases in expenditure. [Interruption.] I shall come on to the Met in a moment. In December 1997, when the Home Secretary announced the first Labour police grant settlement, for 1998–99, he said in his press release that the police were the only part of local government or public services to have had real increases in expenditure in each of the previous four years.

Any meaningful and accurate study of the past two or three years will demonstrate that there is a debate, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, about how the national cake should be divided up and what proportion should be allocated to the Met. We must sympathise with Ministers on that point, whichever party is in government. For several years, rural forces campaigned for redistribution of money from the Met to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Association of Police Authorities, which is served by several Liberal Democrat councilors—including its vice chairman, Angela Harris, who is chair of the North Yorkshire police authority—has pressed for, and welcomed, the move towards a needs-based formula, which worked against the Metropolitan police in 1997–98. That is the reason for the budget reduction mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

It is right that hon. Members should be able to come to the House and argue their constituency corner, and I make no criticism of Liberal Democrat London Members for using this debate to argue for the Metropolitan police. However, the House must take a more considered and comprehensive view of the situation throughout the country. The Association of Police Authorities continues to campaign for further reform and has criticised the level of the Metropolitan police special payment, which increased by 16 per cent. this year. We have to accept that Ministers of whatever party have difficulty in apportioning the overall cake to different parts of the country, whichever public service they are dealing with.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who initiated the debate, and his colleagues might have done better to concentrate on the fact that the overall cake for the country is being reduced, not only London's share. The country is experiencing the problem of reduced resources. For all those reasons, Conservative Members will keep up the pressure for a policy change.

Several hon. Members referred to the problem of police pensions. The age profile of the Metropolitan police shows that 25 per cent. of officers have more than 25 years' service. I elicited that fact from a written answer to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred in the Standing Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill, and to which he has referred in this debate. When the Bill returns to the Floor of the House, we hope to tackle the issue of the cost of funding pensions in the Metropolitan police. It would be entirely wrong for the Government to shift on to a newly created Metropolitan police authority a serious burden that is entirely within the Home Secretary's purview.

I must, however, point out to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the problem in London is by no means the worst. Staffordshire spends about 18 per cent. of its budget on pension costs, and in my force, North Yorkshire, that figure is 16 per cent.

Other hon. Members referred to the implementation of the Macpherson report, which the House is due to debate on Monday. There are huge resource implications for implementing Sir William Macpherson's recommendations, and the Home Secretary has embraced those in his response to the report which was published and laid before the House yesterday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred to the closure of police stations and the problems that that creates for policing in their areas. Other hon. Members referred to the problems of recruitment. That growing problem will be made worse if the Government implement their proposed changes to police pension entitlements for new recruits. That is an extensive subject to which we need to return on another day.

The central issue that the House ought to be concerned about in this debate is the effect on council tax payers of the Government's policy on the allocation of police grant to the Metropolitan police this year. The Government grant has increased by 1.7 per cent. The Metropolitan police budget and precept report, published in February, directly refers to the fact that the Home Secretary has informed the Commissioner and the receiver that he considers it reasonable for the service to raise additional funds from the precept to fund an increase in our spending limit of about 2.7 per cent. compared with last year.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey because it would have been better if there had been a little more honesty about the fact that the Met police can spend 2.7 per cent. more, but 1 per cent. of it—almost half of the money—is to come from council tax payers through a 9.5 per cent. increase in their precept. London is already the highest precepting area for police budgets. The figure is about 50 per cent. higher than the national average, and it will now be higher still.

The simple political message is that in the year ahead, Londoners will pay more for less in their police service. They will pay higher precepts for fewer police officers and for police stations that, such as the one in Orpington, are due to close. That is a scandalous state of affairs. It is typical of the Government's approach of increasing taxes by stealth, instead of being open and honest with the people.

There is also concern that about £20 million has come from reserves to provide the 2.7 per cent. increase. One or two hon. Members referred to the likelihood of unforeseen demands on what is already a £2 billion budget. There is a need for adequate reserves, but they are being depleted.

Throughout the debate, hon. Members have spoken about the effect of all that on falling police numbers. There are severe consequences for operational duties. Liberal Democrat Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington referred to the problems of vandalism and rowdy behaviour. All that contributes to the fear of crime and lawlessness within our communities, which, whatever arguments one has about the most effective deployment of officers, can be tackled only by the public seeing the police on their streets.

There is no better illustration of the problems facing the Metropolitan police than the policing of the forthcoming millennium celebrations, which will impose vast demands on the police service, particularly in London, where a large part of the celebrations will be concentrated. Can the Minister tell us where there is provision for all that in the budget? Where is the resource to ensure that, towards the end of the financial year, there will be adequate money to pay for adequate policing?

Overall, we can conclude from the debate that Londoners are getting a good deal from the Metropolitan police service, but not from the Government. In our debate on Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) referred to what the Police Federation said when the budget for policing in the year ahead was first announced. Let me share with the House one or two other comments by the federation, which sum up what we feel about the budget for policing in this country.

The Police Federation's press notice, under the signature of its chairman, Fred Broughton, stated:
"The public deserve a police service which is properly maintained but, with this budget, they are being short changed."
It continued:
"Maintaining proper levels of police cover is not a luxury, it is a necessity, and the public have a right to be served better".

We agree. Although that was said about the police service across the country, it is especially true of policing in London. Londoners will rightly feel let down. They will gleefully take the opportunity to show how they feel when the Greater London Assembly elections are held in just over a year.

12.12 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) not just on winning the chance to hold the debate, but on winning it this week, which is an important week for the Metropolitan police.

I am sure that the House will join me in sending our best wishes to the Commissioner who, as hon. Members probably know, is in hospital. We hope that he is recovering well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton on the measured way in which he opened the debate. The subject sometimes raises emotions, but I hope that we can deal with it in a constructive and sensible way. We share the desire for our police service in London to operate effectively and to meet the needs of Londoners.

Expenditure on the Metropolitan police is substantial public expenditure. It is important to all of us who live and work in London, because the money spent represents a huge investment in the safety of us all. As hon. Members have mentioned, London has unique capital city requirements which place special policing demands on the Met, who also have national functions that make them a special police service.

It is worth reminding ourselves, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) did, of the size of the area for which the Metropolitan police are responsible, and their numbers: 20 per cent. of police officers in the whole of England and Wales are in London. The force is unique in the country, which brings further demands in terms of resources and the nature of policing.

Yesterday, the Commissioner's annual policing plan was published, together with the efficiency plan. This is the first time that an efficiency plan has been produced. Ambitious targets are set out. It is important that the two plans are seen together, because efficiency gains will contribute to more effective policing.

The Government are committed to providing the right level of financial support to ensure that the Metropolitan police can deliver their policing objectives. The House will recall that, in December 1998, the Home Secretary announced a £28.8 million cash boost for the force. That increase means that the funding available to the police for tackling crime and disorder across the capital will rise by 1.7 per cent, from £1.715 billion in 1998–99 to £1.744 billion in 1999–2000. I therefore do not accept that there is a budget shortfall.

The Minister is, of course, right about the figures, but a 1.7 per cent. increase is clearly below the rate of inflation. To avoid further debate on matters of fact, can she put it on the record, first, that in the coming year there will be a real-terms cut in the budget of the Met, and secondly, as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) correctly pointed out, that the proportion of the budget coming from the precepted London ratepayers is going up, at the same time as, in real terms, the subsidy from the Government is going down?

I shall go on to deal with the precept, as hon. Members need some accurate information. I do not accept that there is a budget shortfall. As I said, the 1.7 per cent. increase for this year brings the total to £1.744 billion. In addition to that, there is the money from the precept. If we deal with that, hon. Members will see that the overall increase for the Met is larger than for forces in some other parts of the country. There is not a cut, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey suggests. I shall develop the point further, and he can respond later.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton spoke about the problems associated with the millennium. We recognise the special needs of London, and we allocate the special grant each year. As the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said—he is, I think, the only Member present who is from outside London—some people outside London do not like that. The special payment was raised last year, and this year it has been raised again from £151 million to £176 million, specifically to deal with the Met's national and Londonwide functions.

We must retain public confidence in policing. Even with the special payment, the overall spending increase for the Met is in line with the rest of the country. They have not received preferential treatment, but they have not been penalised, taking into account their extra tasks. The special payment is 100 per cent. Home Office grant. It is not charged to London taxpayers or the taxpayers of Kingston.

The council tax payer in London is not paying for the extra services that the Metropolitan police must provide, such as anti-terrorist duties, protection for royalty, VIPs, and the policing of special events such as lobbies of Parliament, pickets and rallies. Within the special grant this year, there should be sufficient funding for the millennium celebrations to be adequately policed.

The new funding that we have given the Met is the first instalment of the extra £1.24 billion pledged to the police over the next three years in the comprehensive spending review. It takes into account a 2 per cent. year-on-year efficiency improvement target, which we set as part of the CSR settlement.

As has been said, funding for the Met is not just a matter of central Government funding. The receiver for the Metropolitan police has estimated that net revenue expenditure, which includes the precepted amount for 1999–2000, will be £1.88 billion. That produces an increase of about 3 per cent. in the Met's budget over 1998–99, and brings it broadly in line with the national increase. The budget balances the Commissioner's need for increased resources with the interests of council tax payers in containing their contributions.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned the precept. It is important to consider what London council tax payers will pay for policing next year. For band D properties, the cost will be £77.44 for the year, which is an increase of less than 60p a month over 1998–99, and the total annual charge is less than the cost of a television licence or a road fund licence for a car.

I appreciate that Opposition Members in particular usually point out figures to make things look disadvantageous to the Government, but the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey should ask people whether they are prepared to pay that extra 60p a month. He said that people never tell him that they want local police stations to close and police numbers to be reduced. I am absolutely certain that, when those figures were spelt out, they would say that they would pay the extra money.

As I said in my speech, I am sure that the people of London are happy to make a contribution; I have never heard a protest.

The Minister has helpfully given the figures. First, if she can, will she tell us how the 1.7 per cent. increase from the Government to the Met for the coming year compares with the percentages for other police services? Is the Met at the bottom of the league table, in the middle or at the top? Secondly, what percentage increase in the precept can Londoners expect and how does it compare with increases for other police service precept payers around England?

I shall try to give those figures before the end of my speech, but I should add that, in the Metropolitan police district, the proportion of policing spending raised from estimated council tax in 1998–99 is 12.5 per cent. That is the ninth lowest proportion across all police authorities in England and well below the English average of 14.5 per cent. We are not being unreasonable by asking London council tax payers to contribute a little more for policing next year.

To look at the Metropolitan police in a different context, according to the latest figures from the Audit Commission, expenditure on policing per head of population in the Met area is £218.30, which is double the national average of slightly more than £114. Clearly a great deal of money is going into the police per head of population. We have to be sure that it is being spent in the best possible way on reducing crime and the fear of crime, which is what the police are for and which makes people feel much safer.

I want to answer a couple of points before I go on to discuss efficiency. The hon. Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam) and for Kingston and Surbiton raised the potential closure of police stations, which arouses great emotions, especially in the immediate vicinity of such stations. Police stations are a visible form of reassurance for the public, but last week's Audit Commission report on the police estate found that changes in crime patterns and the increasing use of problem-solving and intelligence-led policing methods, rather than random policing, mean that some police stations are unsuitable for policing in the 1990s. We must accept that. Police forces must review their estate, because, ultimately, better estate management can serve the public better.

When police stations are being threatened with closure, it is essential that the reasons why such a step might be taken are discussed fully, not only with community policing consultative groups, but with the local people. The police must be able to justify a closure, not only for operational reasons, but for reasons that will reassure people that taking such a step will help to make policing better. I know that it is extremely difficult to make those arguments because I have had such cases in my constituency, but Members of Parliament sometimes have to face the fact that difficult steps must be taken in their own constituency and that it is right, although not easy, to argue for them to be taken.

The hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned the national police funding formula. The hon. Member for Twickenham, who has had to leave—to support the new deal in his constituency, I hope—said that he was not sure whether he understood the formula. It would be very dishonest of me to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that I understand it completely, but one or two people in the Home Office truly understand this difficult and complicated way of working out how much money police forces throughout the country receive.

We inherited the formula from the previous Government. We have refined it, as did the previous Government, but it is not perfect. We have commissioned some independent research to examine whether there are additional costs in policing inner-city urban areas that are not reflected in the formula. All hon. Members who represent inner-city areas well know the particular difficulties with policing those areas. We hope that the research will come up with conclusions that we can use constructively. Although there will never be a formula that satisfies everyone, we have to try continually to make improvements.

Recruitment and retention are clearly important because the Met are an ageing force—we must attract new, younger people. In 1998, for the first time in five years, the Met advertised nationally for recruits and Hendon is being used to capacity. I urge all London Members of Parliament to visit Hendon to see the enormous changes that are taking place in police training; a lot of what came out of the Macpherson report is being worked on at Hendon and such a visit would be useful.

We are trying to do more about retention. We want to retain officers, because it is a pity to train them up only for them to leave the force early. Retention has a lot to do with morale and the police feeling that they have the support of the community, and we have to work on that quickly.

Pensions are a problem which faced the previous Government and face this Government. No Government would want to face up to the huge long-term costs of the pensions shortfall, but a consultation document was published last March and firm proposals will be introduced soon. We are considering the costs and benefits of introducing a funded pensions scheme for new entrants, but that will not be a panacea. We need to get this right and look ahead, although Governments always tend to look at the present rather than the future. This year, however, we recognised the increased burden of police pensions and increased to 14.5 per cent. the proportion of police revenue funding allocated on the basis of police pension commitments.

Setting budgets is not about consistently looking for increases in cash; it is also about achieving more and better with available resources, and 1999–2000 is the first year in which we have required forces to produce efficiency plans. I recommend that all hon. Members read the Met's efficiency plan. Hon. Members may have pressed for more cash to be injected into policing, but we have taken positive action to make sure that everything we invest in our police delivers more efficient and effective police services.

Perhaps it is time to treat our police as a public service. In common with any other public service, policing is about service delivery. We are asking no more of the police than the previous Administration sought from other public services, such as the health service. We intend to introduce best value and to ensure that everything that the Met do—

Order. I must tell the Minister that time is up.

Noise Levels (Work)

12.30 pm

I am pleased to have secured the debate because, although this may not be the sexiest of subjects, tens of thousands of workers are exposed to excessive noise levels every day. I am also pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield(Mr. Meale), is to respond. I know that before becoming a Member of Parliament he worked in industry, and that at one point he was a workers safety representative. He would have been appointed under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977, which were introduced by a Labour Government. In the ensuing years, the safety of British workers improved, but evidence suggests that in the late 1980s and 1990s the working environment deteriorated in many establishments.

According to the current Health and Safety Executive estimates, 1.3 million workers are exposed to noise levels in excess of 85 decibels. That is the threshold—any increase will affect hearing. The connection between noise and hearing loss is well documented. According to an earlier HSE study of self-reported working conditions, 170,000 workers suffered from some form of deafness, such as dullness of hearing or tinnitus—ringing in the ears.

I think that anyone would find those figures alarming, and they prompted the Royal National Institute for Deaf people and the Trades Union Congress to act. They concluded that there had been insufficient compliance with the regulations, and that the regulations had not been applied properly, perhaps because of a lack of awareness among employers. The guidance accompanying the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 makes it clear that all hearing loss caused by exposure to noise is preventable.

When the all-party parliamentary occupational safety and health group, which I chair, met on 16 March, it heard evidence from manufacturers of personal protective equipment, and some interesting statistics were given. For instance, 300 million earplugs are used each year in the European Union. In Germany, the figure is 85 million, and in the UK it is 65 million. Interestingly, although Sweden has a much smaller population, it uses 2.5 times as many earplugs as the UK. The man who made the presentation said that he thought that that was due to an increasing awareness resulting from teaching in Swedish schools, which motivated young people to protect their hearing with earplugs and similar equipment rather than merely complying with the law.

The RNID and the TUC decided to join forces and conduct a survey of UK industry. They issued 6,000 questionnaires, and the replies resulted in a report entitled "Indecent Exposure". The findings confirmed the worst fears of both bodies. Nearly a quarter of respondents reported listening to uncomfortably loud sounds for more than four hours a day. Nearly one in five construction workers, more than one in 10 manufacturing workers, and a number of oil rig workers said that they were exposed to such sounds for more than eight hours a day. A third of respondents said that their tasks left them with dull hearing, and 16 per cent. of those said that the dullness of hearing continued after work. Twenty per cent. of respondents reported that their tasks left them with ringing or rushing noises in their ears or heads for at least five minutes. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take those findings seriously.

The survey also found that new workers, as well as those in the traditional industries, risked hearing loss. That confirmed earlier research—which my hon. Friend may well have seen—by the Labour Research Department, which found that workers in call centres, couriers and workers in restaurants were at risk. The police are also at risk, as they now use phonac devices that fit into the ear canal and pipe noise directly into the ear. The noise to which those newer workers are exposed comes from a different source: it is not the ambient noise with which the 1989 regulations were intended to deal.

Alarmingly, the RNID and the TUC found that people working in call centres were given no advice about the risk to their hearing, and that none had been given any hearing tests—although, as things stand, tens of thousands of people are likely to become deaf in their 20s.

"Indecent Exposure" is not just about statistics. Its aim was to show the impact that deafness has on people's lives, and, to that end, a number of case studies were conducted. I shall refer to a couple of those, but the Minister and his officials can examine them at their leisure. One is the case of a young woman working in a call centre. Most names are published in the studies, but this person wanted to remain anonymous. She does a 40-hour week at a centre, working eight hours per day.

Every aspect of that lady's job was monitored, from her toilet breaks to the time it was taking to deal with calls coming in. The one thing that was not monitored was her hearing. She talked of being subjected to a high-pitched bleep through her headphones whenever new calls came in; it told her that someone was in the stack waiting to be put through. There was much background noise: 80 to 100 people were working in the call centre. Consequently, the sound coming through the headphones needed to be turned up, so that she could understand the message.

After a while, that lady began to notice that she had hearing loss. She went for a hearing test and it was diagnosed that she had a 10 decibel hearing loss. She went back to work and, within five years, she found that her hearing was deteriorating further and that she was having trouble understanding some of the messages, so she went to her medical adviser for further diagnosis and was found to have a 20 decibel hearing loss. That young lady is 29 years old and has been told that she will have to wear a hearing aid.

The name of the person involved in the other case is in the study "Indecent Exposure". She is a 48-year-old retired police officer. She had to retire because of hearing loss that was later ascertained to have been caused by the phonac device that she used in her ear. Although it was agreed that she was incapacitated to work in the police force, she had to fight in the courts to establish that her incapacity was the result of an injury at work. When the phonac device was tested for the court case, it was found to emit noise levels of 100 decibels.

One theme runs throughout all the case studies: people were afraid to raise the matter with their employer. That says a lot about the need for robust fairness at work legislation. People were afraid for their jobs and afraid to raise the fact that they were working in conditions that were endangering their hearing.

What can be done? I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind five points. First, the 1989 regulations, which deal with ambient noise, but are nevertheless important, need to be enforced. We need to ensure that the Health and Safety Executive takes on board the need to enforce them. Secondly, will my hon. Friend request that the Health and Safety Executive provides guidance on the use of earphones and other devices that pipe noise directly into the ear?

Thirdly, will the Minister call for more research to find out the ways in which noise that is piped directly into the ear affects hearing loss? I think that if noise is piped directly into the ear, hearing loss occurs more quickly. Fourthly, such research could uncover an engineering solution to the problem. It is an issue which needs to be looked at. If he asks the Health and Safety Executive to undertake research, will he ask it to look particularly for an engineering solution to the problem?

Finally, the disease is prescribed, but the prescription is not wide enough to cover new industries. It needs widening. We need to involve the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. I realise that that is not within the Minister's remit, but I hope that he will bring the matter to the attention of his colleagues in the Department of Social Security because there is a need to look at that aspect.

Although much of traditional industry has disappeared or radically changed, as was shown by the figures that were produced by the Health and Safety Executive, and particularly by the findings of the report "Indecent Exposure", noise at work is still a big problem. Thousands of call centre workers in their 20s could lose their hearing, as could many police officers and couriers, another group of workers who use earphones. They were also referred to in the report.

The message that needs to go from the debate is that employers should comply with their duties to protect their staff, that the Health and Safety Executive needs to enforce the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 and that it needs to undertake more research into the matter.

12.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Alan Meale)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on securing the debate, which is aimed at raising awareness of the risks associated with exposure to loud noise at work. He has campaigned on health and safety matters since the first day he was in this place. It is always a pleasure to listen to him. Before coming here, he spent most of his working life doing exactly the same. His is a voice worth listening to in every respect.

It is timely to discuss health and safety issues such as noise at work, particularly as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Health and Safety Executive, which was established following the Robens report. I am familiar with the RNID-TUC report entitled "Indecent Exposure". It contains much with which I agree, so I add my support to the report and to the RNID campaign on noise at work. I am sure that many other hon. Members will support the report, including my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), who is also deeply involved in investigating noise issues. I apologise sincerely for not being able to attend a recent event—I think that it was last week—to highlight all the problems concerning deafness and to launch the report. That was because of a prior engagement.

Hearing loss is a terrible thing. Deafness or partial hearing has a major effect on the quality of life of those affected by it. Some people lose their hearing as they grow older, but the hearing of far too many people becomes impaired due to a working environment that is plainly too noisy.

Many people do not understand how big the problem is, but last night, yet again, I experienced the problems that are caused by deafness. Not many people in this place know that my hearing is below 50 per cent. in both ears. I go through life with people around me becoming slightly amused because I do not seem to have heard, or noted something that they have said. That is a dilemma. It is a problem which many people experience. Having said that, in my profession such an ailment can sometimes be an advantage. It is probably the only profession where that is so.

Noise-induced hearing loss that is caused at work is a serious and significant occupational health problem. Although many cases result from exposure before current legal controls were in place, too many people at work are still potentially at risk. Exposure levels for many workers remain considerable. Research by the Health and Safety Executive in "Self-reported work-related illness in 1995: results of a household survey", which was published in 1998, suggests that as many as 170,000 people in Great Britain consider that they suffer from a hearing or ear problem that is caused or made worse by their work.

The Health and Safety Executive estimates that about 1.3 million people, in 88,000 workplaces, continue to be exposed to damaging noise levels. The "2 m rule" is simple—if people less than 2 m away find it difficult to hear one speaking, there may be a noise problem. Exposure to loud noise at work is covered by legal controls and guidance. I believe that there is no excuse for anyone's hearing to be impaired because of loud noise at work. A range of legislation deals with noise at work and with making noisy machinery quieter.

As my hon. Friend said, the Noise at Work Regulations 1989 are the mainstay in tackling noise problems at work. The regulations implement a European Union directive, so that legal controls on noise are common across the European Union. The regulations require employers to reduce noise risk to the lowest reasonable and practical level, and to take specific actions at certain noise levels. The actions include reducing noise, conducting noise assessments, providing information and training for employees, and providing personal ear protection when appropriate. The action levels have been determined on the basis of dealing with practical risk and cost.

The regulations apply also to all people at work in Great Britain who are exposed to loud noise, except on ships at sea and on aircraft that are taxiing or in flight. Last year, the regulations were extended to cover the offshore industry. Therefore, the regulations cover all the industries that we associate with noise, such as foundries or engineering businesses. Unfortunately, as yet they do not cover this place or places like it, although such places are covered by other protection.

The regulations also cover the noisiest workplaces, such as call centres and those in the leisure industry. All employees in those industries are protected by the legislation, and it is the job of employers in those industries to ensure that the legislation is properly applied. There are legal duties also on manufacturers and suppliers of noisy equipment to reduce noise levels and to provide the information to buyers.

The Supply of Machinery (Safety) Regulations 1992 specifically require manufacturers to reduce noise from new machinery and to provide noise data. Such action is important, as one of the main ways—undoubtedly the best way—of reducing exposure to noise is to reduce the noise at source. As one might expect, design safety is good safety. I note my hon. Friend's point that engineering solutions to noise are the best way forward. I shall inquire into whether work should be done on the matters that he mentioned.

Rest breaks from noisy areas are, as my hon. Friend said, an important part of dealing with noise. The Health and Safety Executive recommends rest breaks, which can be good in helping employees to recuperate and in providing a rest from wearing ear protection.

Noise levels have to be averaged over an eight-hour period. The longer people have to work, the lower are the levels of noise to which they are allowed to be exposed. The legal requirements, if followed, would substantially reduce the risk of hearing loss. I reiterate that it is for employers to apply the regulations, and that the Health and Safety Executive will take appropriate action to ensure that they do just that.

We all, however, have a responsibility to recognise noisy workplaces and to work together to protect people's hearing. We have to be aware particularly of people with hearing difficulties, who may be more vulnerable in the workplace and have to be managed with additional care.

My hon. Friend will know that, shortly after the Government took office, we asked the Health and Safety Commission to re-examine the issue of occupational deafness and to devise new ways of minimising the incidence of hearing loss. I tell my hon. Friend that the Health and Safety Executive will continue to target noise at work as one of its priorities, and that it has developed a long-term strategy to tackle the problem. The Government support that strategy—which is to increase awareness of the risks to health; to ensure compliance with current requirements, and to prosecute when appropriate; to offer practical advice on ways of reducing noise levels; and to control exposure at the place of work.

The Health and Safety Executive has been pursuing that strategy since 1995, as part of its "Good Health is Good Business" campaign. The campaign now has renewed impetus, aided by the significant new resources that the Government have invested in the Health and Safety Executive. I assure my hon. Friend that noise will continue to be highlighted in the planned next phase of the campaign.

My hon. Friend also mentioned health and safety guidance. HSE guidance on noise includes revised guidance on legislation, entitled "Reducing Noise at Work", which was published last year. A Health and Safety Executive book, entitled "Sound Solutions", includes 60 case studies of real examples from industry of how successful noise-reduction methods have been introduced. A range of free leaflets on noise, for both employers and employees, is available.

Securing compliance with the law is crucial. The HSE's long-term strategy aims to improve the quality of risk assessment of noise by employers. Risk assessment will be stressed by inspectors. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have made more resources available to the Health and Safety Executive—so that there will be more inspectors to enforce health and safety law, such as that on noise, and so that inspectors promote more effective control of exposure to noise by encouraging the introduction of quieter machines or processes and by improving compliance with the supply-side legislation. Inspectors will also promote the effective use of purchasing policies and application of control measures. The correct use of ear protection is vital. Employees, too, have responsibilities to protect themselves by complying with notices and wearing ear protectors.

The aim of my reply to the debate has been to reassure the House of the Government's commitment to tackle noise at work. I hope that I have given my hon. Friend some comfort on the concerns that he expressed. Three specific matters seemed to trouble him—in what he has described as the new sectors of the economy—and I should like to say a little about each of them.

First, the "Indecent Exposure" report, which my hon. Friend mentioned, rightly emphasises the worries of those who are employed in call centres about the risk to their hearing. A study is in hand to identify the health and safety aspects, including noise hazards, of working in call centres. The results of the study will inform decisions by the Health and Safety Executive on what action has to be taken.

Secondly, the problems encountered by motorcycle couriers are similar to those of people working in call centres, as both jobs involve using communication headsets or ear pieces. Previous Health and Safety Executive research has drawn attention to the problem, and, in its "Reducing Noise at Work" guidance, there is general advice on measuring noise exposure to workers wearing headsets or ear pieces. There is also the prospect of a new international standard on such exposure.

My hon. Friend's third concern was the effect of excessive noise on employees working in pubs and clubs. He will be aware that I take a personal interest in the issue, particularly as it affects those working in areas in which large numbers of people gather. The Health and Safety Executive has completed some research on the matter, and plans are well advanced for a study of the leisure industry to discover more about real noise levels for those working in pubs and clubs. That research, too, will inform the HSE on what action has to be taken to combat the problem. Such initiatives are important.

I make it clear that the Government are not complacent about noisy workplaces. There is legislation to tackle the problem of noise at work, and there will be more inspectors to enforce health and safety law. The Government and the Health and Safety Executive will do all that we can to reduce noise-induced hearing loss, and we intend to work closely with the RNID and the TUC to that end.

I give my hon. Friend the assurance that he asked for on the three or four matters on which he asked for further information and research. I should like again to pay tribute to him. His history of dealing with an important subject should be a lesson to us all—and one which hon. Members, both old and new, should follow if they can.

Teenage Pregnancy

1 pm

I want to address a problem that I consider to be a national scandal—teenage pregnancy. Many hon. Members will have heard on Radio 4 this morning about the Childline report which states that more 14 and 15-year-old girls call in about pregnancy and the fear of pregnancy than about any other issue. I am well aware that the Government have promised a review on the subject. It was promised last October, but it has not yet been produced. I am sure that we shall now be told that it will be published very soon, but I applied for today's debate none the less because I am sick of promises. I want some firm commitments. Twelve or 18 months is long enough to wait. How much longer will it be?

In 1997—the last year for which I have figures—95,000 teenagers became pregnant. Of those, 8,300 were under 16. A total of 33,381 of those girls had abortions. It is a huge tragedy that 95,000 young lives were ruined in some way and 62,000 babies were born to mothers most of whom were still at school and unable to support them.

It is even more shaming that the United Kingdom is top of the league in Europe for teenage pregnancies. In the most recent population trends published by the Office for National Statistics, the United Kingdom was top in respect of births per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 19. Our current rate is 30 per 1,000 girls. In Denmark, the figure is only eight per 1,000 girls and in the Netherlands only four girls in 1,000 become pregnant.

Thirty years ago, there were 50 pregnancies per 1,000 girls, so the figure has fallen. But in Denmark 30 years ago the figure was also 50 per 1,000, and that country has managed to reduce teenage pregnancies to eight per 1,000 girls. As I said, the incidence of teenage pregnancy is a national scandal and I am ashamed that it is happening in my country.

Let us look at the reasons. There is no doubt that we live in a society that flaunts sex at every available opportunity. Cars, chocolate bars, deodorants—you name it—are frequently sold using sexual images. Newspapers, magazines and television programmes are full of the antics of Presidents, royalty, pop stars and, dare I say it, some hon. Members. Films, plays and television shows all contain sexual activity. It is everywhere. Even Cardinal Hume has noticed. At the weekend he declared that
"society is obsessed with sex and falling apart because of it."
I am inclined to agree with him, but there is no turning the clock back. We are approaching the 21st century. Society has changed. The genie is out of the bottle and cannot be put back.

Is it any wonder that, surrounded by sexual images, young people join in? They do not want to be left out of the excitement. Nobody on television is worried about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS, so why should they worry? When they add to the brew copious amounts of alcohol on Friday and Saturday nights, they are away.

All that is common to other European countries. So why do so many more teenagers get pregnant in the United Kingdom? Are parental attitudes or education to blame? Unless we provide proper sex education and services that give teenagers a balanced message and counteract the excitement factor, things will never change.

Let us get rid of one myth before we progress any further. I have heard it said so often—it was said again on the radio this morning—that young girls get pregnant so that they can claim benefit and get council flats. In fact, the majority of teenage mothers have no idea about housing or benefits before they get pregnant. There is no need to take my word for it; the Policy Studies Institute has conducted several studies on the subject. Once a teenage mother has a baby or two, however, we have to do something about her housing, looking after her babies and giving her benefit.

Let us dispel another myth—that teenagers get pregnant because of sex education, contraception and abortion advice. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who I hoped would be here today said during last Sunday's "On the Record" that
"the rise in teenage pregnancies in this country has gone hand-in-hand with increased sex education and family planning advice."
I respect the right hon. Lady. She is honest and resolute in her views, but she is wrong on this issue.

Despite the best efforts of me and my colleagues in the national health service, the Conservatives cut family planning clinics by half countrywide. We all know that general practitioners became overburdened and the number of school nurses was severely reduced. I cannot find the national figure, but in Cambridge, for example, not only are there no school nurses, but there are no health visitors either. What does the Minister intend to do about Cambridge?

According to Childline, the majority of the 7,000 youngsters who had rung in about pregnancy-related issues said that they were not aware of having received any sex education at school.

Sex education still remains at the whim of school governors. Some education authorities and schools do their best, but, countrywide, sex education is scanty, rarely repeated and hardly ever linked to the essential advice to teenagers about where to go for advice on sexual matters, contraception, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. The link between education and advice on where to find services has been highlighted in many studies on the issue.

I agree with the hon. Lady that family planning units are a vital part of our services to the community and I deplore the fact that they were run down. Does she agree that the Government should encourage initiatives such as that between Boots the chemist and the local health authority in Glasgow, whereby youngsters can go into Boots and get advice?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I entirely agree. In fact, I was about to mention the experiment that Boots conducted in Glasgow. Incidentally, it has been very successful and many young people have used the service. We need more such projects.

Other European countries provide more than adequate family planning and sexual health services and take a refreshingly frank and objective approach to the issue. Rates of teenage pregnancy in the Netherlands and Denmark are a fraction of ours. Proper sex education and services are provided free of charge and advertised. People discuss matters more frankly.

In the United Kingdom, we are still bound by Victorian values such as, "Do as I say, not as I do" and, "These things must not be discussed with young people." We must educate ourselves to talk to children and encourage peer group speak-easy projects—a concept of which the Minister is aware—for children and for parents who find it difficult to talk to their children about such matters.

Today, I am calling on the Government to include several measures in their review, whenever it is published. First, there should be a compulsion on schools to deliver sex education from the beginning of primary school to school leaving age as part of the national curriculum. Sex education needs to be repeated. It is no good having a one-off lesson from the shy biology mistress or the local doctor; the message must be repeated and changed appropriately as children get older. It must be regularly assessed by the Department of Health or the Department for Education and Employment. That must be linked with proper provision of family planning, abortion and STD services for young people, via local family planning services and perhaps school nurses.

The irony is that when we need those services the most, they have been cut. Responsibility for them will lie with primary care groups. That is another concern. Who will ensure the provision of adequate family planning and youth counselling services if the primary care groups are to be so overstretched? In the absence of such services, trained pharmacists and the high street outlets that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) mentioned need to come into the equation.

To improve accessibility, we must deregulate some methods of contraception. Emergency contraception, which I spoke about in the House some months ago, must be made available when it is needed. It is needed in emergencies and should be as readily available as condoms. It should not be necessary to make an appointment to see a general practitioner to get emergency contraception.

Will the Minister assure us that she will support people such as Viv Crouch, the school nurse in Bath who has set up an advisory service in her school and directs young people to the right provision of services? The Minister should also support the Boots clinic in Glasgow. Those are examples of people and businesses taking the initiative. That must become more widespread. Such initiatives are needed in every city.

Young people need readily available, confidential, anonymous and non-judgmental advice from the time of their first sexual experiences. Let us stop pretending that young people do not or should not have sex. They do. As I have said, times have changed. I am sorry about that in many ways, but that is the way it is. People do not have to start so young, however. In the Netherlands, the average age at which young people start having sex is much older than in the United Kingdom and the provision of services there is much better. From 30 years' experience, I know that the more education—general and sexual—and the more advice and medical help teenagers can get, the more likely they are to delay their first sexual intercourse and the less likely they are to become pregnant.

Education is probably the main reason why the UK compares so badly with its European counterparts. We have a higher proportion of badly educated young people from unstable backgrounds. That situation is repeated from generation to generation. Putting teenage mothers into hostels and preaching at them will not help, but if we give them opportunities to return to education by providing creche facilities—incidentally, when are we going to get creche facilities for all the mothers in the House of Commons?—and proper support for their babies, we may prevent those babies from making the same mistakes when they grow up and stop them repeating the cycle.

Let us use the media to sell the messages that we want young people to hear. We see and hear about sex every day on our televisions, but when did any of us last see an advertisement on the box for emergency contraception, condoms or an abortion service? They never appear. It happens elsewhere in Europe; why not here?

Finally, will the Government tackle the anti lobby head-on, for the sake of our young people? Will they refuse to let uninformed media headlines and organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and Life, preach, dictate and utter their hypocrisies? Will the Government spin for the benefit of young people?

Is the hon. Lady aware that SPUC campaigns outside Boots in Glasgow every week, giving out grossly misleading leaflets that accuse Boots of breaking the law? That is true neither of Boots nor of the community and mental health service, which has been co-operating with it.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am well aware of what is happening at Boots in Glasgow. I hope to go there in April to see for myself. Organisations such as SPUC are disgraceful. They produce inaccurate and misleading information, and I have been the target of some of their campaigns.

The Government must tackle that lobby head-on and spin on behalf of our young people. Better, more honest sex education and contraception provision will bring down the teenage pregnancy rate, as it has in other European countries. While the Government have been thinking about the issue, tens of thousands of teenagers have had unwanted pregnancies. About 100,000 pregnancies have occurred, with perhaps 60,000 or 70,000 babies being born as a result. That represents a huge number of broken lives and an awful lot of misery, unhappiness and potential trouble for the future.

When will we have the review? Can the Minister assure us that it will contain the action for which so many agencies are calling? We have heard in recent months from the Family Planning Association, the Brooke Advisory Centre, the Health Education Authority and the Sex Education Forum. This morning, Childline produced a report that has aptly highlighted the issue for us. Those organisations have the experience. Have the Government listened? They know what must be done.

1.16 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) on securing the debate, on her speech and on her record as a campaigner for what is right on this issue.

We do not do well by our teenage parents. As the hon. Lady has said, our rates are four times higher than in France, twice as high as in Germany and seven times as high as in the Netherlands. More teenagers become pregnant in this country than anywhere else in western Europe. That is why the Prime Minister asked the social exclusion unit to report to him on ways to reduce teenage conceptions and support vulnerable teenage parents to break the cycle of exclusion that the situation almost inevitably brings for them and their babies.

I assure the hon. Lady that the report of the social exclusion unit will be submitted to the Prime Minister shortly and will be published within the next two months or so. The exercise has been exhaustive, involving wide consultation, with the clear purpose of seeking practical solutions and building a consensus for the action that the Government must lead. Action must be guided not by myth or prejudice, but by fact and the best available evidence of what works.

Let us look briefly at what happens to young women who become teenage mothers. Half the under-16s who become pregnant will have an abortion. Teenage mothers are more likely to suffer trouble with their pregnancy and birth and are much more likely to experience post-natal depression than older mothers. The infant mortality rate for babies of teenage mothers is more than 50 per cent. higher than the national average. The prospects in later life are poor, too. Teenage mothers and their children are more likely to live on benefits and to live on them for longer than their peers. As the hon. Lady made clear, there is no evidence beyond anecdote—which is easily deployed—that the benefit system acts as a direct incentive to any young woman to become pregnant.

The social exclusion unit's forthcoming report will look at the prevention of teenage pregnancy and the support necessary for teenage parents and their children. We already have a good idea of which young women are most at risk of becoming pregnant too early. Often, they have low educational attainment; their families have had financial problems; they have had emotional problems; their mothers were probably teenage mothers; and they wanted to be a young mother. Young women with those characteristics are 19 times more likely to become teenage mothers than young women with none of them.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the city of Hull has the highest rate of pregnancies among 13 to 15-year-olds in the country, and one of the highest rates in western Europe. However, we managed to get a multi-agency approach to the problem only when we were allocated a health action zone. Will she ensure that the lessons learned in Hull are looked at closely and spread to other areas?

We will be delighted to learn from my hon. Friend's experience of tackling the problem in Hull. I hope that the implementing action following the social exclusion unit report will build on best practice and will make sure that that is spread as widely as possible.

So far, the Minister has dealt with teenage mothers and their babies, and with what the Government plan to do in future. I respect that, but will she refer to the measures that are necessary to prevent teenagers from getting pregnant in the first place?

I will deal with those points in the short time remaining.

Social exclusion is not only associated with teenage parenthood for young women: like teenage mothers, teenage fathers are likely to share characteristics such as low educational achievement, lack of qualifications and a family background of financial problems. Teenage boys and girls who have been in trouble with the police are more likely than their peers to become teenage parents. It was recently estimated that 25 per cent. of young offenders were also fathers.

Teenage pregnancy is a problem simply because teenage parents have to look after a baby when they are little more than children themselves. They are expected to cope with one of the most difficult things that any adult is asked to do—to raise and nurture a child—without the emotional and financial stability that come as part of adulthood. In many cases, teenage mothers are also lone mothers. That puts extra pressure on them in terms of child care, returning to education and future employment prospects—all issues which I hope that the social exclusion unit report will address.

Is the Minister aware that the Childline report said that more than half of the 7,800 young girls who called over the past two years were worried and wanted emergency help? Is she aware that it is difficult for them to find that help, and that many accident and emergency units refuse to give emergency contraception? Does she agree that the Government should do more to examine the opportunities so that young, terrified girls can get a friendly helping hand and emergency contraception?

Clearly, in an ideal world, young girls who are little more than children would not be having sexual relations. They have sexual relations for some of the reasons that I have outlined. Given that about one in five girls under 16 are sexually active, it is important that they have access to advice and information. Where that does not come from their parents at home, it is important to have accessible agencies for young people to turn to for help—often in the kind of crisis identified by the Childline research.

Teenage pregnancy is both a cause and a consequence of social exclusion. Many teenage mothers are care leavers, or have been excluded from school. For them, life was never going to be easy, and having a child too young makes it all the more difficult.

To have a long-term answer to the problem—and long-term success in reducing our rates of teenage pregnancy—we have to understand why the rates are so high in the first place. The short answer is that too many teenagers are having sex too young, and too many are having sex that is unprotected. That is one of the key reasons for our much higher rate of teenage pregnancy, and that marks us out from many European countries where the rate is lower.

Contraception rates for young people here are half the rates in the United States or in a number of European countries. The Childline research may shed some light on precisely the kind of problems that we must address.

No, I will not. If I do, I will not have a chance to finish dealing with the points that have been raised.

We know that young people believe that they are immortal, and that is why there is such a clear link between the risks that young people take in terms of unprotected sex, smoking, alcohol, drugs and even dangerous driving. More than 90,000 teenagers become pregnant every year, and nearly 500,000 sexually transmitted infections in teenagers are diagnosed every year.

The bottom line for our approach to teenage sex must be to ensure that teenagers are more aware of the risks attached to sex too early, and that they have the tools necessary to wait until they are adult and ready. It is important that those who do have sex have access to reliable contraception and advice to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection.

The Childline survey clearly revealed the pitiful ignorance among young people. No young person ever got pregnant just by knowing about sex, but young people are calling for the opportunity to be told not just about the biology of sex, but about relationships, responsibility and feelings. Young people have sex because of peer-group pressure; because they cannot think of a reason not to; because the future seems irrelevant. These are the real reasons that young people give for having under-age sex, with pregnancy as a consequence.

That is why looking at personal, social and health education in schools is important. School nurses have an important part to play, and we have seen a substantial increase in school nursing over the past three years.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Are not these debates designed so that Back Benchers can put their points of view across? Is it right for the Minister to take up so much time—

Order. I understand the hon. Lady's point, but these are half-hour Adjournment debates, initiated by one hon. Member exclusively for the benefit of that Member to gain a ministerial reply. It is only by convention that anyone else can intervene in them. These debates are quite different from the one-and-a-half hour debates.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I have sought to answer the points raised in the debate, and I am trying to convey some of the complexity of tackling the problem so as to reduce not only rates of teenage pregnancy but the accompanying social exclusion. We are determined to put in place a practical programme, based on the evidence of what works, to build a consensus of support. We will lead that support from the House, engaging parents, teachers and young people up and down the country. That is where the solution lies.

Al Shifa Factory

1.29 pm

On 20 August 1998, the United States launched a cruise missile attack on the Al Shifa plant in Khartoum. If what the factory made was so awful, why were there no air-locked doors, no guards and no night watchman? Why not accept the Sudanese request for an inspection team? After all, we are bombing Iraq in the cause of establishing inspection teams. Why no inspection for Sudan, which has asked for it?

The Americans, endorsed by Britain, made a serious error when they bombed and destroyed the factory. Chemical and Engineering News of 15 February said:
"No trace of nerve gas precursor found at bombed Sudan plant".
The International Herald Tribune of 10 February gives details of negative tests by American scientists on soil and effluent at the factory site, and the Boston university soil analysis, under the direction of Thomas Tullius, one of the most distinguished men in the field, found nothing.

The New Yorker of October 1998 revealed that the Defence Intelligence Agency, the American joint chiefs of staff and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation were kept out of the picture by the Clinton White House on what was essentially a political decision to bomb Sudan.

As soon as I secured this debate, I drew the attention of the Foreign Office to the report of the Monterey institute of international studies. It says:
"On August 14, CIA Director George Tenet reported that there was conclusive evidence justifying retaliatory attack against bin Laden. Cohen and Shelton briefed Clinton on a general plan for attacks and the President reportedly approved their plans that same day, including the strike on al Shifa. The four chiefs of staff of the armed forces, Attorney General Janet Reno and Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis J. Freeh were not informed of the plan until one day prior to the scheduled attack."

Crucially, the report continues:
"Reno reportedly urged delay to enable the FBI to compile more convincing evidence linking bin Laden both to the embassy bombings and to the facilities targeted for attack. Reno was apparently concerned that the available evidence was insufficient to meet standards of international law, but she was overruled."
To overrule one's own Attorney-General is a serious matter. The report continues:
"Neither the Defence Intelligence Agency nor the FBI was involved in evaluating the data that led US officials to attack Shifa."

Sir Harold Kroto of the Royal Society of Chemistry, who has been rightly lauded by the Prime Minister, said to me that Bob Williams knows more about Empta—o-ethyl-methyl phosphoric acid—than anyone else in Europe, and Professor R. J. P. Williams, of Oxford university, has been my friend in this matter from the very beginning.

Professor Williams said:
"In view of the fact that there is to be a debate in the House of Commons next Wednesday I wish to impress upon all Members of the House that there is now an opportunity for them to make sure that the government is open with us all concerning the attack on the pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan by U. S. missiles. While it was excusable for the Prime Minister to respond last August by supporting U. S. officials, accepting claims from them which have never been made public, all subsequent and very detailed investigations of these claims have shown that none of them stand up to inspection."
I quoted earlier from the serious American press and from an American institute.

Professor Williams continued:
"No chemicals of any kind which can be linked to nerve gas production have been found by new analyses of the soil around the factory. The factory was incapable of producing any such chemicals. The factory is owned by an innocent man, a Mr Idris. There are no links between the factory and ' any terrorist activities. All this evidence is readily available to Members of the House in leading American and British publications. While we all regret the deaths of over one hundred people in terrorist attacks on U. S. property in Africa it is not for the U. S. or us to take revenge by bombing a source of medical supplies for the sick in the Sudan. How many Sudanese have died as a consequence? Every time questions are asked in Parliament on these points the Prime Minister has replied evasively by reference to the early remarks of U. S. officials which everyone I know believes to have been mistaken. Now he is aware of the facts can not the Prime Minister apologise and attempt to persuade the U. S. government to do the same? Surely even politicians must be wise enough to realise that repeated dodging at Question Time in Parliament only reduces their stature while an apology for a mistake will be greeted as an act of statesmanship. Would it not be even better to send to the Sudan replacement medical supplies?"
I, too, believe that people should apologise for mistakes when they know that they are mistakes.

Tom Carnaffin, the British engineer involved, wrote to the Prime Minister. He said:
"I was the Technical Manager for Baaboud Trading and Shipping the main funders and builders of the … factory.
I am very distressed and angry at the persistent untruths and innuendoes levelled at the past and present owners of the factory and the true function and purpose of the said facility.
At my age and with my background as an engineer having worked in many countries throughout the world, I only believe what I can see with my own eyes, touch, measure or do the calculations for myself. Having worked on the Al Shifa factory from the digging of the foundations to the commissioning, living with the Baaboud family and being very closely associated with them even till now, I can say with my hand on my heart you do not know what you are talking about when you speak about this factory."

The capability of Sudan to provide simple medicines for its people has been damaged by this act of war. It is not sufficient for me to say please apologise. We must be constructive, and the Government should consider all the following moves.

The Government should apologise to the Government and people of Sudan for their endorsement of the destruction of a factory so vital to humanitarian development in Sudan. They should provide the affected communities in Sudan with emergency humanitarian relief in the form of drugs and medicines until the factory is rebuilt and recommences the manufacture of affordable pharmaceuticals.

The Government should support a United Nations weapons inspection of the Al Shifa factory and must take a prominent role in pushing for it at the United Nations Security Council. Should the United States Government continue to block international calls for a UN inspection of the site, the British Government should send a team from the Porton Down chemical and biological weapons establishment to conduct British tests.

The Government must rethink and reassess their attitude towards Sudan in the light of this and other American intelligence failures regarding Sudan. If the most powerful country in the world, with all the intelligence assets and technology at its disposal, cannot get it right on this vital issue, how many other American claims, similarly echoed and supported, I fear, by the British Government, are flawed if not totally inaccurate?

The Government must bring pressure to bear on President Clinton to compensate the families of the dead and injured workers, to rebuild the factory and, in the meantime, to provide Sudan with humanitarian relief by replacing the vital drugs and medicines that were destroyed in the attack or whose supply has been interrupted by it. The Government should press the Clinton Administration to adopt a more constructive and less confrontational role in Sudan.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister is here to reply to this debate, because he has a record of being deeply concerned about and doing good work towards improving relations with Sudan. I hope that those relations can be mended.

1.39 pm

I know of the long interest that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has in this matter, and I also appreciate his final comments and the way in which he has addressed the issues. The context of the attack on Al Shifa is important to the House and it is right that we are reminded of it. It is important that we take every opportunity in the House unanimously to express our strong opposition to all acts of terrorism, wherever they occur. While my hon. Friend did not do that in his speech, I take it as read that he is a keen and active opponent of all terrorism and all sources of terrorism.

It is worth while reminding ourselves of the newspaper reports on the day after the attack on the Nairobi office block, which was the act of terrorism that led to the Al Shifa reaction. Those reports remind us of the horror of terrorism and the way in which it picks out wholly innocent individuals. More than 250 people were killed in Kenya on that occasion and not one of them had a political manifesto or grievance. They were innocent individuals, going about their business, leaving their homes in the morning and expecting to return in the evening. They were victims of a senseless, evil terrorist attack.

The Daily Telegraph, for example, carried a report on the office block next door to the building in which the bomb exploded. It said that it
"took the brunt of the blast. It was reduced to rubble."
It continues by describing the victims:
"Most of the victims were Kenyan office workers or passers-by, including the passengers of a bus, some of whom were decapitated by flying debris."
That was the nature of the attack, which was designed to injure, maim and kill innocent people. That was its sole purpose. The victims were people going about their everyday business, and there can be no possible political explanation to support such an attack. I know that every hon. Member would wish to condemn that act of terrorism, as is the case with every other act of terrorism. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow makes a particular point about Al Shifa, but it is important to see that event in the context of our condemnation of terrorism, of bin Laden and all such activities.

I agree with the condemnation of terrorism that my right hon. Friend the Minister makes, but did Al Shifa have anything to do with the attack?

I am delighted that I took that intervention. I agree with my hon. Friend's condemnation of terrorism and I shall come on to his other point. He has a very good record on human rights and of opposition to terrorism, and it is right that should go on record. In the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, we know about the evil of terrorism and it is right that the House should take every opportunity to remind others throughout the world that we condemn terrorism, and will take action to ensure that we can stand up against terrorists and those who organise and finance terrorism.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has raised questions about Al Shifa on many occasions. He had an exchange with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister only a week or so ago. I shall take this opportunity to remind my hon. Friend what the Prime Minister said on that occasion, because he repeated answers that he has given since August last year. He said:
"Last August, I gave my support to the United States action. It was action against international terrorists. The US told us at the time of the strike on Al Shifa that it had compelling evidence that the plant was being used for the production of chemical weapons materials."
My hon. Friend then asked the Prime Minister whether there was any hard evidence that VX precursors or any other chemical weapons-related compounds were manufactured at the Al Shifa plant. I shall remind the House of my right hon. Friend's reply:
"The US was quite clear: it had compelling evidence that Al Shifa was involved in chemical weapons production. Terrorist organisations operating out of those places caused the death of more than 100 totally innocent people by acts of terrorism in Africa. The assault on Al Shifa was retaliation for that; no one was killed in it, but we gave a very clear signal—and I think the right one—to those who engage in international terrorism that we are prepared if necessary to take action in retaliation."—[Official Report, 10 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 364–5.]

If the Americans said that they had compelling evidence, why did their Attorney-General, Janet Reno, ask for a delay because she was not convinced? A country whose Attorney-General is not convinced would not appear to have compelling evidence. The truth is that there was deception by the Americans.

My hon. Friend's final accusation is a very strong one. The point he made about the Attorney-General comes, of course, from newspaper stories that are not founded on any evidence. The American Administration's position is that there was compelling evidence. If my hon. Friend reads the newspapers assiduously, he will recognise that the reporting is not always wholly accurate, especially in contexts in which it might be useful to establish differences between individual personalities within a Government. The American Administration's view is that they had compelling evidence.

That point did not come from newspaper reports. It is contained in the detailed report by the Monterey institute of international studies, to which I referred the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the very moment that I knew that I had secured this Adjournment debate. That report is a serious document.

I will, almost on cue, refer to my hon. Friend's remarks about that document. It makes a number of telling comments that point in the contrary direction to those that my hon. Friend has used as evidence. For example, the document concludes that the eye witnesses are not chemical weapons specialists and

"it is possible that their knowledge is incomplete."
My hon. Friend relied on a number of eye witnesses, including the British engineer who was involved in the construction of the plant, but that balanced report states that we cannot rely on the eye witnesses for evidence on technical details, because they are not chemical weapons specialists. The engineer has knowledge of engineering, but he does not necessarily have any knowledge of chemical weapons systems.

The report also mentions EMPTA and states:
"There are several possible reasons why such a soil sample might test positive for EMPTA."
We should not forget that a positive test result was obtained. The Monterey report offers three possible reasons for that, although my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow did not refer to them during his comments. The report states:
"U. S. officials may be correct in their allegation that the VX precursor was produced at Shifa."

My hon. Friend has said that it is incumbent on the American Government to produce evidence for its conclusions, but he should be careful in putting his evidence together, because the report accepts that it is possible that US officials were right in thinking that the allegations that the VX precursor was produced at Al Shifa were well based. That could be one of the scientific conclusions from the soil samples and—although one has to be careful when reading a balanced report to recognise that it puts arguments in both directions—that is a telling counter allegation to the one that my hon. Friend makes.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should know by now that no reference can be made to anyone who is not in the Chamber.

Would my hon. Friend or the science advisers to the Foreign Office be prepared to see the engineer, who set up the factory, in order to gain some idea of its capability, chemical or otherwise?

We should be happy to meet that individual. However, I return to the document's remarks on eyewitnesses to which I have just referred. With the best will in the world, I do not expect that the engineer would set himself up as a chemical weapons expert. However, we should be willing to talk to him about the engineering involved in the factory.

I refer my hon. Friend to the report's conclusion, on page 26, which says:
"It remains possible that Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory may have been involved in some way in producing or storing the chemical compound EMPTA, which can be used in the production of VX nerve gas."
The evidence produced by my hon. Friend is, at best, chequered. It is certainly partial, and it is worth pausing to think about the conclusion drawn by the eminent people who wrote the report.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the matter before the House, but the three crucial conclusions that I have outlined—the nature of eyewitness expertise, the fact that EMPTA was found there, meaning the American evidence and conclusions could be correct, and the fact that the report cannot conclude that Al Shifa was not used for storing or producing chemical weapons—seem to undermine his allegations.

The Minister has outlined several qualifications from academic papers with which we are familiar. However, the essence of the question is a single soil sample that the Americans claim to have analysed, although some people have cast doubt on both the chemical analysis and the origin of the sample. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked whether the British Government were satisfied that sample was genuine, and that the work done on it was properly conducted. Are the British Government simply taking the word of the American Administration? The Opposition believe that the action was almost certainly right, but that the factory was almost certainly the wrong one. It would be shameful if the Government have been led down a cul-de-sac by the American Government.

I am intrigued by the line that the hon. Gentleman is taking. The shadow Foreign Secretary supported the action taken by the United States. Does the hon. Gentleman dissociate himself from the position taken by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)? If he is announcing a new departure in Conservative policy, he would be wiser not to do so during an Adjournment debate, and it would have been sensible of him to tell his right hon. and learned Friend. I know that the shadow Foreign Secretary is shortly to leave the Conservative Front Bench, and that the hon. Gentleman may be making a bid for the job, but he would be wiser not to announce his candidacy this way.

Rather than continuing the badinage, I shall repeat my important question. Are the British Government satisfied that the chemical analysis of the soil sample—the only bit of genuine evidence that justifies the bombing—adds up?

We are satisfied that the United States had conclusive evidence, and we have said so many times. I need to know whether the hon. Gentleman is dissociating the Conservative party from an attack on the causes of terrorism. Our debate is telling us a great deal about the Conservative party, whose spokesman is showing himself to be soft on terrorism. I am sure that the shadow Foreign Secretary will read the debate with great interest. It is about time that the Conservative party offered support rather than reneging on its traditional position. I should be happy to give the hon. Gentleman another opportunity to clarify his position if he wishes one.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but I wanted to remind the House that this is his Adjournment debate. Interventions by Front-Bench Members are not customary in such a debate.

The obvious next step would be for the engineer to meet the Minister's advisers. On the question of what will be done about the Sudan, I meant what I said about the Minister's good record in trying to improve relations with that country. Whatever the arguments about Al Shifa, is there any way in which to give help to the Sudan, which has the most appalling malnutrition problems?

My points about the Monterey institute report have been fully made. I shall go on to the two further points that my hon. Friend has raised.

The next step is for Sudan to sign up to the chemical weapons convention, the verification regime of which would allow us to find out what is going on in Sudan and whether there is any truth in the allegation that there has been, and continues to be, production of chemical weapons. If Sudan has nothing to hide, it should sign in its own interests, in the interests of its neighbours and in the interests of the international community. We should all urge Sudan to take that step.

My hon. Friend referred kindly to my role in Sudan. During 1998, the UK Government was the second largest contributor to Sudan, with more than $40 million. There is absolutely no evidence that the attack on the Al Shifa factory or the fact that it is no longer able to produce have made any difference to the supply of medicines and pharmaceuticals. On the contrary, we can say with confidence that our work through the United Nations and through bilateral aid has had a substantial impact on the well-being of people in Sudan.

I had better not give way again.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is more to be done. I have tried to move the peace process forward and have engaged with the partners of the intergovernmental authority on development to see whether we can give greater momentum to that process. The United States is very much signed up to a new approach that will help us to move the process forward.

I was closely involved in a UK initiative that allowed us to negotiate, with both the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, corridors of tranquillity in Bahr el Ghazal that have enabled international aid relief to go to poor people in that area. The UK's record in helping the people of Sudan both with resources and politically is substantial, and I am proud of it.

We have also sought ways in which to rebuild and restore our relations with Sudan. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was keen to meet the Sudanese Foreign Minister last September. I hope that issues relating to restoration of our ambassador to Khartoum may be resolved in the near future. That is in our interest, and in Sudan's interest. We are keen that it should happen.

My hon. Friend produced evidence that was not the soundest that I have heard him use. The report used as his main piece of evidence contains contradictory evidence. The Government will continue to rely on the statements of the United States Administration that they had compelling evidence for their action. We are united in the fight against terrorism—at least I thought we were before the debate. Labour Members speak with one voice against terrorism. We shall continue to act against it, and we shall stand up against it every time we can. That is the only way in which the voices of democracy and free will can continue to be heard in the world.

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

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Enterprise Support

1.

What measures she is taking to support enterprise in Northern Ireland. [76679]

Government support for promoting enterprise in Northern Ireland was enhanced by the innovative measures worth £100 million announced in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's initiative of last May. The Budget provided a further boost for enterprise, with a reduction in corporation tax for small businesses, tax credit for research and development, and new corporate venturing measures. All that is good news for Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the opportunities provided for business in Northern Ireland by the Chancellor's Budget can be built upon so that we build not only peace in Northern Ireland but lasting prosperity for that community, and so that we get the correct frameworks across the community in which everyone can prosper?

I agree wholeheartedly with those sentiments. Yesterday, I launched a major economic strategy review document entitled "Strategy 2010", which was part of the Good Friday agreement requirements placed on the Government. It is a comprehensive study on how we can ensure that peace and prosperity can go hand in hand into the new millennium.

Why have no Northern Ireland Ministers or any relevant Treasury Ministers been prepared to see the Petrol Retailers Association to discuss the widely acknowledged fuel smuggling across the border with the Republic?

I cannot answer for Treasury Ministers. I do not know what applications have been made to them. The matter falls within my remit in one sense, but excise duties are a matter for the Treasury, not for the Northern Ireland Office. My understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met representatives on the issue, and we continue to meet at official level. It is not that we are unconcerned about what has happened, but we want to ensure that any measures that we take to stop the illegal activity have maximum impact. We also want to examine the disparities between the pricing structures north and south of the border.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his efforts to promote business and employment opportunities in Northern Ireland? Can he give any figures on the number of young people in Northern Ireland who are taking advantage of Labour's new deal?

That responsibility does not rest directly with me. It rests with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. I understand that about 10,000 young people have taken advantage of the new deal initiative. It is an important initiative in Northern Ireland, as it is for the rest of the country. It has given an opportunity to young people, and it has now been extended into other age groups. It ensures that everyone can make a valuable contribution to the economic health and wealth of their community.

The Minister will be aware of the problems facing the road haulage industry in Northern Ireland, and of the importance of that industry to our economy. Is he aware that a number of Northern Ireland road haulage companies have relocated their headquarters in the Republic of Ireland? One company calculates that it could save more than £250,000 a year by doing so. What measures does the Minister intend to take to assist the Northern Ireland road haulage industry which faces very high costs indeed?

I have not received any direct representations on the issue, although I have asked my officials to keep a watching brief over the direct impact in view of recent comments made by road hauliers. I ask the hon. Gentleman to suggest to those with whom he is in contact to write to me. I will pass on their concerns to the Minister responsible, who has already taken initiatives to deal with some of the concerns that have been raised.

Equality Commission

2.

When the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland will be established. [76680]

The Northern Ireland Equality Commission will be established as early in April as possible. The posts have been advertised and at present we are considering applications.

My right hon. Friend's answer will be most welcome in Northern Ireland. Will she join me in welcoming the commitment expressed earlier this month by both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to the equality agenda in Northern Ireland, especially in relation to jobs? Does she share my hope that the commission will get off to the best possible start?

I join my hon. Friend in wishing the Equality Commission the best of luck during the process of devolution when that takes place. I am sure that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are as committed as anyone to making it work.

When those in the Northern Ireland community look at the composition and membership of public bodies in Northern Ireland, they find it almost impossible to identify a Unionist, or someone who at least has an acceptable Unionist pedigree. Does the Secretary of State agree that all future appointments to public bodies in Northern Ireland should enjoy the confidence of the whole community? Will she ensure that, when the Equality Commission is established, Unionists will at least have equal preferment on that body, given the perceived evidence in the past of preferential treatment being given to nationalists and to the do-gooder brigade?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in terms of the make-up of bodies such as the commission and others, the Peach criteria for public appointments are applied rigorously by the Government. Such appointments are all advertised in the newspapers, on the internet and in Braille. That was done for the Equality Commission and, where needed, there is an independent element in the interviewing process. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, in my view, the representation of communities required by the legislation has taken place.

Will the Equality Commission also deal with such matters as equality before the law? Given the report by the Independent Commission for Police Complaints for Northern Ireland on harassment of the late Rosemary Nelson by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, can we have confidence in the RUC continuing the investigation into the causes of her death? In the first place, the Metropolitan police had to be brought in, to achieve a degree of impartiality. How can we be certain that that will be the case in the inquiry into her death, when there is only one outside officer and only one with any sort of supervisory duty?

In terms of the role of the Equality Commission, I assure my hon. Friend that there is an equality of opportunity duty, which I hope will be in force as a statutory duty by the summer. That equality of opportunity obligation on the public sector will be an important element in the working of the Equality Commission.

In relation to the sad death of Rosemary Nelson, the ICPC has just received back from the independent Metropolitan police commander, Commander Mulvihill, the accusations raised by Rosemary Nelson that it had passed to him. I understand that those matters will be passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. I can assure my hon. Friend that all efforts are being made on that front and when the evidence comes back to me, I shall examine it very carefully and in detail. I assure him of my on-going attention to the outcome of the Mulvihill investigation.

In respect of my hon. Friend's final point about the murder of Rosemary Nelson, the Chief Constable reacted speedily by calling in outside supervision of the investigation, as well as external assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I believe that that will give us a solid investigation, but I shall keep the matter under review.

Accident And Emergency Services

3.

If each hospital providing accident and emergency services in Northern Ireland will receive accident and emergency targeted funding as announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his budget; and if she will make a statement. [76681]

All accident and emergency departments will be eligible to benefit from the funding announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Details of how that additional money will be used are still being finalised. I would expect developments to be consistent with the Government's vision for the future development of Northern Ireland's hospital service set out in the document, "Putting it Right", which I published in November last year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but there is fear in Northern Ireland that the benefits of the additional funding will be somewhat selectively applied and that some A and E departments might be closed. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that the extra pressures on the ambulance service resulting from the changes will be met by additional resources, so that the new swish A and E departments will be accessible from all parts of the Province?

My hon. Friend can be assured that the £3 million available next year for upgrading A and E departments will be channelled to those who put a good case for upgrading. He makes an important point about the ambulance services; in "Putting it Right", I stated that an extra £15 million would be invested in the ambulance service to ensure that there is coverage throughout Northern Ireland and that people living in rural areas are not disadvantaged. It is important that there is a good ambulance service—one that is ready and fit for the 21st century—and the Government have addressed that in "Putting it Right".

The Minister will agree that there have been some decided improvements in the ambulance service, which we welcome. However, do his plans envisage the retention of the casualty and emergency department at Belfast City hospital, bearing in mind the fact that the golden mile and the student population in the area pose a tremendous challenge these days? Will Shaftesbury Square hospital continue regularly to be retained for weekend use for emergency purposes?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the document I published a month ago, "Fit for the Future", in which I set out the position on acute services provision by hospitals in Belfast, including Belfast City hospital. I recognise the need for good-quality and efficient services in Belfast. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the £4 million I gave for the fractures unit only a few months ago. We recognise the current deficiencies, but, together, we are building a modern accident and emergency service that is fit for the population of Belfast and its environs.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the concern about accident and emergency provision; indeed, there is fear in many of the outlying areas of Northern Ireland—especially in my own constituency about Downe hospital, Downpatrick—as the district hospitals fear a downturn in the emergency services that they can provide. What progress is being made on the implementation of the new accident and emergency regime required by the royal colleges in places such as Downed hospital? The £15 million the Minister mentioned will not be spent until April 2000, so will he tell me what progress has been made in respect of the provision in Down of a new hospital that can offer an appropriate level of services to the entire community of Down and Mourne?

The hon. Gentleman and I have been in regular communication and often hold opposing views, but I acknowledge the fight that he has put up on behalf of his constituency, especially in respect of Downe hospital. He and I are as one on that issue, because we recognise the need to get services provided in the right place, at the right time, by the right person, irrespective of where people live. He knows that a business case for a new hospital in Down is currently being devised; it should arrive on my desk shortly. If the case is soundly made and the proposals have broad community support, I shall be willing to give the plan consideration in the near future.

Regarding accident and emergency services, I pointed out in one of the documents that I published that 75 per cent. of people referred to accident and emergency departments should not be there. That means that three out of four people admitted are blocking the best treatment being given in the quickest possible time to the one in four people who should be there. That needs to change. We need to upgrade accident and emergency units' diagnostic equipment, ensure that they have telemedicine facilities and consider the best way of linking ambulances and A and E units to serve people in rural areas such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Peace Process

6.

What progress is being made with the Northern Ireland political parties to implement the Good Friday agreement. [76684]

We have come a long way in implementing the Good Friday agreement. We must now move quickly to overcome the remaining difficulties if the transfer of powers is to happen next week. All of us have a collective responsibility to do all that we can to achieve this. Intensive discussions with the political parties have been taking place and will continue. In fact, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland is in discussions at this very moment.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Can she give the House an assurance that this Government will not become like the previous Government, who were transfixed and immobilised, on the question of decommissioning in the peace process? Surely the deaths of Rosemary Nelson and Frank Curry underline the fact that 1,000 silent guns and 1 tonne of Semtex buried and not used are not a problem when there are people who are willing to use one gunshot and 1 lb of explosive, which can derail us unless we face the issue.

Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that, having missed the deadline of 10 March, she will call a meeting of the Assembly on 29 March and will set up the Executive in Northern Ireland?

The deaths of Rosemary Nelson and Mr. Curry are sad and difficult occasions for their families but a stark reminder to everybody else involved in this process of what can happen if we do not make progress and instead go back down the road to the violence of the past.

On decommissioning and the formation of the Executive, I have made it clear on many occasions, as has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that we expect both things to happen. Both are crucial for the Good Friday agreement to work.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about the deadline of 29 March. I have said on numerous occasions that we missed the target of 10 March. We set that as a goal because that is when we would have got all the necessary legislation through the House to make it possible for the transfer or devolution of powers to take place. I think that we are now looking at next week for the simple reason that it is a natural target a year after the agreement. I have said that I will call a meeting of the Assembly, which will automatically trigger the d'Hondt process. It is essential that that happens if progress is to be made.

I have made it clear that I will do that. Therefore, it is up to all the parties collectively, including us and the Irish Government, to do everything that we can to ensure that differences are resolved in the next week.

As the Secretary of State knows, we have now done all that we can in terms of the implementation of the agreement and that the obstacle to further progress now remains the sort of intransigence that I encountered yesterday afternoon when I met the gentlemen who should be serving as Members for Belfast, West and Mid-Ulster but refuse to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree, dealing with the decommissioning issue, that the loyalist who planted the hand grenade in Castlewellan that went off yesterday, the loyalist responsible for the death of Rosemary Nelson and the loyalist who earlier this week declared that he would never decommission are all, objectively speaking, supporting the IRA in its refusal to decommission, and that the best thing that all three of those gentlemen could do to ensure that we have progress and achieve the success of peace would be to follow the example given by the leadership of the Loyalist Volunteer Force when it began the process of decommissioning?

I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that decommissioning—[Interruption.] I have to agree with the right hon. Gentleman that decommissioning is a crucial part of the agreement. Like me, he would like to see the weapons discovered, taken care of and out of politics. We agree with that and the position that he has just set out.

As everybody knows, however, all parts of the agreement have to be implemented. We must find a way of getting the Executive in place so that other parts of the agreement can be implemented in full. We have both those things to focus on in the next week. The important aspect of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said is that which everybody in the process needs to do, which is to focus on the big picture and make sure that progress is made.

My right hon. Friend says that decommissioning is a crucial part of the agreement. If that is so, why cannot the Government purchase arms held by the paramilitary groups as part of an attempt to oil the wheels of the decommissioning process? I remind her that I have asked that question before, and I did not get a knock back, so I understand that the option remains open.

Every option is open to make progress and every one will be considered. To reassure my hon. Friend that his point has been heard, I can tell him that the decommissioning body, under General de Chastelain, will be well aware of my hon. Friend's suggestion by teatime today, and I am sure that the General, whose duty it is to consider decommissioning schemes, will take it into account.

If progress is not made on setting up the Executive by Good Friday, what will happen next?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, the position is that some time during the week beginning 29 March—the earlier, the better—I shall ensure that I call a meeting of the Assembly so that the d'Hondt process will operate. Everybody knows that an inexorable course will then be followed. I want to ensure that the parties understand that if d'Hondt operates and an Executive of only one party is formed, rather than a cross-community Executive, powers cannot be devolved or transferred. Without those communities being included, the Executive would be dysfunctional and could not make decisions.

I make it clear, as I have done on other occasions, that we are meeting the Irish, the parties are talking and everybody is doing their best to make progress in a difficult, serious situation.

May I take the Secretary of State back to last Friday and the disgraceful scenes in a Belfast courtroom when Bernard Maginn, the evil IRA murderer of Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick, who was sentenced to more than 400 years in prison for his evil murders, laughed at the judge and said, "I'll be out in 16 months." Will the right hon. Lady take this opportunity to state clearly to the House that, if the IRA has not completed all its decommissioning of illegally held arms and explosives by next July, that evil man and his colleagues will not be released back on to the streets?

I have communicated with Mrs. Restorick on numerous occasions, and I want to put on record yet again my sympathy and understanding for the pain that she and many others have gone through. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I shall answer the question, but I have the right to put on record my concern, which I am sure is shared by the Conservative Members who are shouting at me.

I say to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) that all parts of the Good Friday agreement have to operate if it is to succeed. One cannot cherry-pick or start rewriting part of the agreement because it suits at a particular time. We shall implement the agreement along with the parties as far as that is possible. It is up to us, as a Government, to implement the agreement that the parties and the people voted on.

That is what we are doing and that is what 29 March is about. If anything needs to be changed after that, it will be done in consultation with the parties.

I do not wish the Secretary of State to cherry-pick parts of the Belfast agreement. She will be aware, as the House is aware, that, under the agreement, decommissioning must be completed by next May and she must release all terrorist prisoners by next July. At that time, three months will have passed since the date when all decommissioning should have taken place. I am asking the right hon. Lady a simple, straightforward question, to which Mrs. Restorick and everybody else would like an answer: will she promise me and the House that if there is not complete decommissioning by the IRA of illegally held arms and explosives by the due date in May, those evil murderers will not be released back on to the streets in July?

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, I have the power to vary that end date. However, I have made it clear to him on many occasions that speaking as he does and answering such questions now, when we are desperately trying to make progress in the last week that we have, does not help anybody. We have made it clear that decommissioning must happen. That is a crucial part of the agreement. To use the language of defeat and to ask for statements now about events a year down the road is not helpful. Of course those questions must be answered in the future, but, for goodness' sake, in a week such as this, when we are building up to 29 March, cannot the Opposition try to look on the positive side, rather than create problems?

Crime

What measures she is taking to tackle crime in Northern Ireland. [76685]

Apart from doing everything possible to tackle and deter terrorist and paramilitary-related criminal acts, the Government are promoting a range of crime prevention measures in conjunction with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and other statutory and voluntary agencies. Those measures include funding for the community safety centre, promoting public awareness campaigns and supporting projects to help reduce the incidence and fear of crime. A contribution from the modernisation fund will be used to boost crime prevention initiatives in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today laid in Parliament the policing objectives for the RUC in Northern Ireland for the year ahead.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We are all aware that the police in Northern Ireland have been in the front line in dealing with terrorism and the appalling atrocities that have occurred. What steps are being taken to ensure that the RUC is prepared and able to cope effectively with the rest of its policing role and activities—what we might call a more usual policing role, serving the community in Northern Ireland?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments about the role performed by the RUC on behalf of everyone in defending our freedoms in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. On the RUC's role in relation to other types of criminal activity, I pointed out in my earlier response some of the initiatives that have been taken. The allocation from the modernisation fund will be used for the introduction of closed circuit television schemes throughout Northern Ireland. I announced an early CCTV initiative for Portadown. It is hoped that that will assist the RUC to tackle the difficult problems that it faces in Portadown and elsewhere.

Does the Minister recognise that, although we welcome the measures that have been taken to combat ordinary crime in Northern Ireland, the main concern of the people of Northern Ireland is still the large hoard of illegal weapons held by terrorist organisations? Does the Minister therefore recall that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) has consistently said that terrorist hoards of weapons should be given up? Does he welcome the statement that the hon. Gentleman made yesterday, to the effect that semtex should be dumped for General de Chastelain to pick up?

Does the Minister accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) has made endless concessions in an effort to get the IRA to live up to the obligations that it took upon itself last year, and that the Unionist people have nothing left to give? Does he agree that it is long past time for the IRA to live up to its obligations to surrender the weapons? When the Government consider the matter of crime, will they ensure that the punishment fits the crime?

Of course I recognise the contribution made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume). He has made a significant contribution to efforts to move the process forward, as indeed has the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). That is why they were recognised internationally and awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts. In her earlier comments, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt with the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question about the need for decommissioning. All our attention is on that and on ensuring that all parts of the Good Friday agreement are implemented in full. That is the only way in which we can achieve genuine peace in Northern Ireland.

After the Home Secretary's embarrassing, incompetent and bungled intervention earlier this week over the release of prisoners under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998, will the Minister tell the House whether the Secretary of State knew about that intervention beforehand? If she did, was she in full agreement?

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to accuse the Government of bungling. I remind the House that he was a Northern Ireland Minister before the election and we inherited a blank sheet in whole range of areas over which he had responsibility, such as victims and economic development.

Of course there were discussions on that particular issue within the Government, and a detailed answer has been given in relation to the way in which it has been handled by the Home Office and the way in which the Northern Ireland Office deals with matters of law relating to the release of prisoners.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [76709]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 March.

I have been asked to reply. As the House knows, the Prime Minister is in Berlin today, attending the special European Council. I have spoken to him this morning about the situation in Kosovo. We agreed that we should take this military action with total resolve. This is a difficult decision and we have to see it through all the way.

Constituents are anxious that the Prime Minister should be successful in securing objective 1 status for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in Berlin this week. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that if the Prime Minister returns victorious, that will also be a personal triumph for Cornwall's MEP, Robin Teverson, who has fought so long and hard for such an outcome? Does he also accept that local partners in Cornwall should be given every encouragement to get on with the important tasks in hand, without unnecessary European or United Kingdom Government interference?

The actions of everyone involved will bring about the achievement of objective 1 status and recognition of the special problems of Cornwall, and my right hon. Friend is dealing with those matters in Berlin. The establishment of development agencies, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), has also played an important part. We all look forward to developments in Cornwall and to the improvement of prosperity there, brought about by a Labour Government.

Q2. [76710]

As you know, Madam Speaker, many hon. Members, not least those from the north-east of England, give a high priority to regional issues, but this morning our Prime Minister asked the British people to be ready to make sacrifices so that the Albanian Muslims of Kosovo can take their proper and rightful place in our common European home. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, at the first indication that the Government of the Yugoslav Federation are willing to accept the deal accepted by the representatives of the Albanian Muslim majority in Kosovo, the hostilities that are about to commence will be instantly terminated?

My right hon. Friend made it absolutely clear yesterday that NATO is united and stands ready to take military action if Milosevic does not change his position and the repression continues. If, in those circumstances, he does not stop creating terror among the people in Kosovo—whole villages continue to be burnt no fewer than 25,000 people have been displaced in the four days since the peace talks broke down—President Milosevic should be in no doubt that we will take whatever action is necessary to avert a humanitarian tragedy. He has his part to play.

The Deputy Prime Minister will know from our joint visit to Omagh after the tragic bombing there that I recognise his abhorrence of terrorism and share his determination to make the Good Friday agreement work. I know that he will share my disgust at the sight of the murderer of Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick laughing in court after he received three life sentences and boasting to his friends that he would be out in 16 months. Will the Deputy Prime Minister convey to the Prime Minister the strong feeling registered earlier in this House that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should give an assurance that that evil man will not be released until Sinn Fein/IRA have given in their arsenal of weapons?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made clear a few moments ago, we will observe the Good Friday agreement. The exchange of prisoners, and the freeing of prisoners, is in line—[HON. MEMBERS: "Exchange?"] I withdraw the word "exchange". I apologise; I made a slip.

The freeing of prisoners is part of the Good Friday agreement, and we will observe it. Notwithstanding all the difficulties, and all the disgust that may be felt at the time, that is what we agreed to and what we intend to implement.

I had hoped that the Government would be clearer than they have been about the obligation of Sinn Fein/IRA to hand in weapons. This week, the Home Secretary has sent unclear and confused signals about the Government's willingness to delay the release of prisoners. Is it not time that the Government sent the clear signal that the Good Friday agreement must be implemented in full? That means not releasing any more murderers while the terrorists on both sides refuse to give up their guns and bombs. Why do the terrorists want to keep their weapons, other than to use them or threaten to use them?

I find it difficult to accept that the right hon. Gentleman's aim is to secure agreement in Northern Ireland, given the language that he uses. We all know that the next few days will be critical to establishing a settlement on the Good Friday agreement. Assent to certain actions will have to be secured, and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are very much involved in that.

The whole House has made it clear that we want agreement in Northern Ireland, and we are nearer to achieving that agreement than we have ever been. There are fewer murders, and there is more eagerness to secure agreement. We should place more emphasis on the words that encourage people to come together in agreement and dialogue, rather than using the language used by the right hon. Gentleman.

Q3. [76711]

I agree very much with what my right hon. Friend has said, but may I change the subject? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the introduction of a national minimum wage next week will be supported around kitchen tables throughout the United Kingdom—not least in the magnificent and historic city of Kingston upon Hull?

As a former commis chef who once spent most of his time around a kitchen table, let me say that I was protected by the wages councils that the previous Administration abolished, driving millions into poverty pay. I am particularly proud to be a member of a Labour Government who are introducing a statutory minimum wage from which millions will benefit from next week.

Let me be helpful to the Opposition. We intend to advertise to the people of this country, informing them of their rights in relation to the statutory minimum wage. In the interests of impartial advertising, I invite Opposition Members to suggest a form of words making it clear that the Tories fought the minimum wage tooth and nail, and would still abolish it if they ever got the chance to do so.

As the Deputy Prime Minister well knows, there is widespread support on all sides for the action that, regrettably, now appears to be imminent in Kosovo. Does he agree that, precisely because British troops are going to be committed, it is necessary to have a clear, definable, achievable political end that will show what we are trying to secure, and will tell us when we should stop? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to define explicitly the aims that we seek to achieve through the actions that we shall take in Kosovo during the next hours and days?

The Prime Minister told the House yesterday that the minimum objective of NATO action would be to curb continued Serbian repression in Kosovo, in order to avert a continuation of the humanitarian disaster that we all agree is taking place. NATO action would therefore target the military capability of the Serb dictatorship.

With great respect to the Deputy Prime Minister, what he has told us is the legal justification, not the political aim. A political aim gives an outcome which is stable and durable. While it might be desirable that we reduce President Milosevic's capacity to kill Albanians, that will not produce a stable Kosovo. May I suggest that the aims of the action should be these: in the first instance, to persuade President Milosevic to sign up to the Rambouillet agreement; and if, as I anticipate, that fails, to ensure that this is seen as the first step in the establishment of an international protectorate in Kosovo?

With the greatest respect, if the right hon. Gentleman had been here yesterday, he would have heard the Prime Minister address himself to that matter. As he made clear yesterday, Milosevic must do what he promised to do last October, and these are the objectives of the action: end the repression, as the House has been calling for; withdraw his troops to barracks; get them down to the levels that he agreed in that agreement; and withdraw from Kosovo the tanks, the heavy artillery and other weapons that he brought to Kosovo last January. That is the minimum condition to end the repression in Kosovo.

Will my right hon. Friend please urgently inquire into the disastrous developments in Vaux Breweries, which has its headquarters in Sunderland, my home town? Is he aware that some of the shareholders have pulled the plug on a management buy-out, against the wishes of the chairman, Sir Paul Nicholson? Is he aware that those shareholders are Mercury Asset Management Ltd., led by Carol Galley, who was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Bankers Trust and Hermes Pensions Management Ltd., which was the former Post Office pension fund and is led by Alastair Ross Goobey? Will he call those shareholders in to explain why they are prepared to sacrifice 700 jobs in Sunderland and Sheffield for the sake of only £2.5 million of extra shareholder value?

I am aware of that concern. It has also been expressed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins). I believe that Members have made it clear to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We are concerned about the matter. The Secretary of State and his Ministers are prepared to discuss the issue and will make the necessary arrangements.

Q4. [76712]

If NATO air strikes indirectly cause the situation of innocent people in Kosovo to get worse, rather than better, what then?

We are confident, of course, that the strategy that we are embarked on now will have the effect of reducing the Serbians' capability of continuing to repress the people in Kosovo. I believe that that will happen and that the strategy will achieve the ends that we have set out.

Q5. [76713]

Many of us find it very difficult to understand the mentality of those who abuse and inflict cruelty on children. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has estimated that one child a week dies from cruelty. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give his support, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House already have, to the NSPCC's full stop campaign to end cruelty to children within a generation? Will he give his personal support to the pledge, sign it and do what he can to stop such cruelty?

The Government welcome the NSPCC's initiative of this week. Indeed, many of the plans that the NSPCC is proposing are in line with the Government's strategy to help more children to be protected from harm and to be given the best possible start in life. I am sure that every hon. Member feels exactly the same about that and that there is common agreement between us.

As for my personal support, I am pleased to say that, at the end of January, I helped to launch the NSPCC's vision for children campaign and signed the petition that my hon. Friend talked of. I did it with the director of the society. I am sure that all hon. Members would like to express full support for all the society does.

This week saw a mass demonstration by lorry drivers who face ruin after the Budget. The Confederation of British Industry, the chambers of commerce and road transport unions all say that 50,000 jobs will go. Was the Deputy Prime Minister consulted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the job-destroying fuel tax increases; if so, did he argue against them?

Yes, I did hold discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We are agreed that we desire to achieve a better environment in the United Kingdom, with increasing economic prosperity. In our debates on the lorry industry, it has become clear that—although there is much talk of travelling and transferring abroad—operating costs for the United Kingdom industry are about £600,000 less than in places such as France, Germany or Belgium. Costs for UK operators are therefore considerably different from those of their competitors abroad. That has been confirmed by an international consultant's report stating that costs for UK operators are two thirds those of some of their major competitors.

If there is concern about jobs, I should say that the boom-and-bust cycle under the previous Administration—of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, helping to develop the Treasury's boom-and-bust policy—directly caused hundreds of thousands of hauliers to go to the wall. So we have no reason whatsoever to be apologetic for ensuring that the road industry has a proper part to play—and that the haulage industry has an essential part to play—in an integrated transport policy, which we are now developing.

So the right hon. Gentleman was consulted, he did agree—and he apparently believes that all those truckers came to London to thank him for the benign regime that he has put in place for them! Is he aware of the case of Shaun Neal, of Harwich, who says in today's newspapers:

"We were struggling before the Budget … Now we haven't got a chance. … Every corner we turn we have been hit by another"—
Government—"tax"?

The bogus figures that the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned will not convince Shaun Neal or hauliers in Labour Members' constituencies. Since the Government have now been forced into crisis talks with the road haulage industry, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether he is prepared to discuss withdrawing the Budget fuel tax rise?

I think it is a bit much when someone from the previous Administration, who introduced the fuel tax escalator—which has created much of the cost that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about—asks us to remove it. We will not. The Budget is set. We believe that it is a fair Budget, and that it deals with the type of economic problems that we inherited from the previous Administration. All the signs show that it is successful: lower interest rates, increasing growth—those facts show a successful economy.

Perhaps I should give the right hon. Gentleman a quote from the previous Chancellor, who—when talking of those who are critical of the fuel escalator—said:
"Any critic of the Government's"—
the previous Government's—
"tax plans who claims also to support the international agreement to curb carbon dioxide emissions will be sailing dangerously near to hypocrisy".—[Official Report, 30 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 939.]
That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman is doing.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that his refusal to give a clear promise to discuss the withdrawal or reduction of those tax rises will come as a bitter blow to the Road Haulage Association—which has said that without those issues on the table, the talks are worthless? Is it not typical of the Government that they offer no real help? Is it not shameful that he, as Secretary of State for Transport, was off playing Jacques Cousteau when the Government decided to introduce the measures? Is not his refusal today the final proof that they are a tax-raising Government who do not care about British truckers, British business and British jobs?

It is quite clear from what the right hon. Gentleman says that he does not concern himself with the British environment. Ours is a balanced judgment between economic prosperity and the best environmental solution. We think that we have achieved that balance in the Budget. I tell him that, yes, we are holding discussions with the industry—more than were held by the previous Administration—in a forum that my right hon. Friend has convened. Of course we shall discuss in that forum the concerns of the road haulage industry.

As for the cheap jibe on diving, the people of the United Kingdom can make a judgment on whether—[Interruption.] They can. Whether it is on saving the tiger or on diving among the reefs, we have to make a judgment. I shall, as Secretary of State for the Environment, try to do that. I can however tell the right hon. Gentleman that although I dived to 80 ft, I did not dive deep enough to reach the low Tory poll rating.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating most warmly those Brits who received magnificent awards at the Oscars this year? Does he accept that, from day one, the Government were determined to build the foundations for even greater success in future? When the film action report is published next month, will it ensure that at least 20 per cent. of the films projected in British cinemas will be British, thereby illuminating the British genius to which Richard Attenborough frequently refers?

The whole House would want to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the British film industry on its tremendous achievements. However, it was sad that some of them were based on American rather than British money. We feel that that could be improved and the proposals by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget are a step towards making it a totally British operation.

Q6. [76714]

On the subject of stealth taxes, who does the Deputy Prime Minister think is to blame for the fact that the Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors who run Worcestershire county council have raised the council tax by more than four times the rate of inflation? Is it them, is it him or is it all of them?

It has become clear since various authorities have announced their proposed council taxes that the average council tax increase under Tory councils is something like 9.8 per cent. whereas under Labour councils it is something like 6.7 per cent. So we are witnessing better value under Labour councils than under Tory councils.

May I tell the Deputy Prime Minister of the concern of a large number of car component manufacturers in my constituency and in the rest of Birmingham and the west midlands about the time that the Government are taking to decide how much investment they want to make in the future success of Rover? Will he contact his ministerial colleagues today and ask them to reach a quick decision, to allow Rover to build on the success that its management and work force have achieved over the past few years?